the usefulness of uselessness





By T. Kaori Kitao,
William R. Kenan, Jr.,
Professor of Art History

1 If I may, I would like to start with one of Aesop’s fables. It’s a familiar one. A hungry dog finds a large juicy bone, carries it off in his mouth, and comes to a bridge. He sees his own reflection in the water, which he takes for another dog with an even bigger bone. He snarls at it and gives a bark. But, at that moment, the bone falls into the water and vanishes, and the dog goes off hungrier than before. Then, there is the moral: When you grasp at the shadow, you lose the substance.

In Aesop’s fables, there are always the story and the moral. This raises an interesting question. We ponder which is the substance, the story or the moral, and which is the shadow.

It may be tempting to think that the moral is the substance because it is the point of the story, after all. It’s the message. It may seem to matter more because it is a lesson, and it is good for you. The story is just an embellishment that makes the moral more palatable. A fable is, perhaps, a moral with frills.

The moral, however, doesn’t have a story. The story, on the other hand, contains the moral for those who find it. The moral need not be stated; the fable implies it. The fable is complete without spelling it out. So, the story is the substance after all, and the moral its shadow. The story is what makes reading the fables worth the trouble. A story well told is always interesting. A collection of morals does not make good reading.

A fable, in short, is a metaphor. We delight in the animals acting out human foibles. We like the insight into their characters and their misadventures. It is the story that engages our imagination and feeds our creative mind.

This, I claim, is how college education also works. College courses are of value less for their nominal subject–physics, Latin, economics, or art history–but more for the process of reading we experience while studying those subjects. The substance lies more in the studying done than in the lessons the courses teach.

2 In recent decades, it has become easy to forget this simple but important fact. Pragmatism prevails today in our notion of college education. It is often repeated that you need a college education to get a decent job. No one denies it. But it is not true that the central mission of the college is, therefore, to prepare young people for a career. In their anxiety, students and parents alike sometimes expect nothing else of the college education.

This bias comes to the fore when it is time for students in their sophomore year to declare their major. When they go home for Christmas preceding that, a domestic tremor often starts around the student’s declared major. Here are some examples:

“Philosophy, eh? You gonna be a philosopher?”

“If you are interested in history, why don’t you major in political science instead?”

“You want to major in Greek? Well, if you want to be a professor.”

“Why don’t you major in something else and do music on the side?”

Subjects in the humanities, in general, cause the most anxiety. Sciences strike the parents as being somehow more serious and more useful, and they elicit less suspicion. Economics sounds useful enough, though not much more so than physics, in fact. Dance and theater are risky business. But art is the worst of all; it is almost threatening.

Art is a crowning achievement in any civilization. No one denies that art is a noble aspiration, no less than religion and philosophy and statesmanship. Yet parents are often dismayed, if not horrified, when they discover that their child is going to study art seriously. Understandably, parents are concerned that the stupendous amount of money spent on a college education leads to a promise of success in the future of the child.

Now, success is like cleanliness; everyone has a different idea. For some, it means getting rich and famous, or preferably both. This is a comforting idea, and it is privately shared even by those who publicly renounce it. For others, success is an accomplishment or mastery. To succeed is to “attain a desired end,” as Webster put it. It is doing a good job of what you set out to do as a lawyer, pilot, detective, statesman, artist, astrophysicist, or whatever.

Then there is still another kind of success, success of the third kind. That is the sense of fulfillment. But it is an internal satisfaction rather than an actual accomplishment. You just love doing something intensely, unconditionally: a deep satisfaction–call it happiness, if you will. Ideally, of course, we all want to have, especially for our children, all three successes in one package: feeling good about being accomplished and thereby acquiring wealth and fame. But if you can’t have all, fulfillment counts the most in the long run because it rewards our life rather than just providing us with a career and a status.

3 College education, in the humanities and sciences alike, does well in preparing students for their chosen careers. The roster of alumni is our evidence. They go into a wide variety of fields. Many are accomplished. Some of them are even rich and famous and happy, too. But there is something very interesting in their preparations. Contrary to the prevalent assumption that students who major in a particular subject go into that field well prepared, a good number of them don’t. A philosophy major doesn’t necessarily become a philosopher; she may end up being a great circus clown. An art major becomes an investment banker–successfully. A linguistics major becomes a film producer. There are, in fact, as many who go into fields they didn’t major in as there are those who go into the fields of their major.

One explanation for this is perhaps that the major consists, normally, of only 8 out of 32 courses a student needs to graduate. Students spend most of their college education completing courses outside their major. This is a paradox. It is as though college education successfully prepares students for their chosen careers despite the majors they select, not because of them.

So it makes us wonder. Those elective courses that populate the curriculum have a lot to contribute, even humanities courses, like those in art, literatures, music, dance, classics, and religion, which seem to have little value in career preparation. Diversification, obviously, is doing a lot of good for students. The question, then, is what is it that students learn in these supposedly non-career-oriented courses?

We can argue, of course, that reading Shakespeare is good in itself. Everybody should know Shakespeare. Everybody should know something about Nietzsche–more than just to be able to spell such a name right. But how about Hesiod and Dante, the Upanishads, Chaucer in Middle English, and Borges in Spanish? What do students learn in a course in which they study 100 paintings by 30 painters from 17th-century Holland? What is the value of stretching their limbs and jumping up and down in the dance studio?

This is education in culture, some would say. It is good to be culturally educated. But why? If I may generalize, what students learn in these courses–and in any college course, in fact–is to some extent the subject in itself. But, much more important, they learn how to think through the specialized subject.

It is a truism, for example, that art cannot be taught. Only technique can be taught. The teacher may demonstrate and offer correctives. But she cannot instill creativity in the student. For example, a piano teacher can show you how to play but cannot make you play the way a piece should or might be played. She might say: “No, not that way, this way. Try again.” And you try and try, and, it is hoped, the teacher at some point says: “That’s it. That’s beautiful.”

That art cannot be taught is not a very promising proposition. But in the process of trial and error, something is passed on from the teacher to the student, and that is a particular way of thinking–thinking with the eye in the case of art, the way of thinking unique to each discipline. In this process of teaching, there is a meeting of the minds. The student assimilates–almost unconsciously–the way the mind of the teacher works. All students, talented or untalented, learn the way the teacher’s mind works, and when they internalize it, they make it their own; when it becomes their own, they curiously forget that it had to be learned. A philosophy teacher was asked what is the value of taking a philosophy course, and the student was told he’ll know it later when he talks with someone who hadn’t taken it.

This is true not only of the courses in art, music, theater, and dance. It holds true of the courses in literatures, history, religion, and even the sciences.

Years after graduation, students may forget the subject–the facts and details they studied so hard for their exams–unless they continue refreshing them by having gone into that field. But the way of thinking they assimilated stays. It is not surprising, therefore, that astute students often take a course venturing into a subject unfamiliar to them only because of the reputation of the professor who teaches it. They discover, to their own surprise, that they have come to love a subject in which they previously had little interest. When students have successfully assimilated a certain way of thinking, they also discover that they have learned how to learn, and suddenly learning more becomes much less taxing, much easier, even very satisfying.

The knowledge you learn about the subject of the course is its nominal benefit. It is like the stated moral at the end of a fable. The real substance of learning is something more subtle and complex and profound, which cannot be easily summarized–like the story itself. It has to be experienced, and it is as an experience that it becomes an integral part of the person.

4 Learning how to learn by learning how to think makes a well-educated person. If that is all it does, it still is of value. But learning how to learn not only expands the mind. It also gives you a lifelong asset. Once you have it, like it or not, it stays with you for the rest of your life. That’s the true value and reward that college courses have to offer, even though sometimes, perhaps most of the time, they may appear to be lacking in usefulness.

The humanities are in crisis today, however. It is the economic pressure that makes colleges sensitive to competition among themselves to draw potential applicants. With more students anxious about their careers, colleges are succumbing to marketing pressure too easily. Sensitive to class enrollment figures, professors and administrators alike are constantly tempted to neglect courses in the periphery of student interests in favor of either more fashionably relevant courses or more seemingly useful courses.

Swarthmore is a liberal arts college. By definition, however, liberal arts education is impractical. The notion was developed in the Middle Ages, which had trivium and quadrivium that constituted artes liberales. These were the subjects of learning for free men, and they were opposed to artes mechanicae, which had to do with vocation in trades and crafts. The trivium were grammar, logic, and rhetoric–all serving the thinking mind, and the quadrivium, pursued after completing the trivium, were arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music, all concerned with numbers and abstract thinking.

Liberal arts had to do with the general discipline of the mind and had no immediate useful application. Colleges that specialize in training for a career are vocational colleges and technical schools, where courses focus on the proficiency in the particular work you are trained for, whatever that may be: carpentry, nursing, accounting, design, or karate. At the other end of the spectrum, graduate schools are also career directed–those in medicine, law, architecture, engineering, journalism, social work, business, and criminology.

It is, then, not only the subjects in the humanities but also those in the sciences that are nonutilitarian in character in these liberal arts colleges. Students who major in physics don’t necessarily become physicists; only some do. Only some who major in sociology become sociologists. Those who go into economics are told that they are not going to be trained to be economists here but to learn to think like economists.

As our students near graduation and start being interviewed for jobs after four years of college, many discover, in dismay, that they have no skill to sell. After all, the major consists of only eight courses. Eight courses in English literature only scratch the surface of the field. Eight courses in chemistry hardly make a chemist; eight courses in a foreign language are far from adequate to make you an interpreter, unless you were brought up bilingually.

But graduating students are often unaware, until much later, of the valuable skill they made their own, a thinking mind. They have developed an inexhaustible capacity to think on their own feet–to invent ideas, organize them, draw deductions, and make articulate proposals–in short, to engage their imagination and feed their creativity. In this way, they are more resourceful than rivals without a liberal arts education. It gives them an edge, and that edge is the ability to think well. So they advance more quickly in their chosen career, whatever it is; they succeed better.

And, believe it or not, all this comes from having learned to learn well in those courses that may have seemed and probably were rather useless. Professionalism in graduate education is achieved by channeling efforts into one special field to the exclusion of others, by which high proficiency is assured, and it makes sense that this takes place only after one has learned to think well.

Liberal arts education forces students to diversify their efforts and inculcates in them a feeling for a broad horizon and a panoramic view. For this reason they not only learn to think well, but they also gain confidence that they can learn whatever there is to learn whenever a need arises. So they can quickly adapt to changing situations, learn to adopt new jobs, and maneuver through life inventively.

Professionalism may prepare us for a career, but a liberal arts education prepares us for a resourceful life. In short, liberal arts education liberates us.

I don’t just mean that it makes a knowledgeable person–a person who can recite a Shakespeare sonnet; a person who, watching a ballet, can recognize a grand jeté pas de chat; or a person who can debate theologies of Boethius vs. Anselm. I mean a certain predisposition that urges a person to be inquisitive, widely interested in a variety of subjects, old and new, those in fashion and out of fashion, those of different cultures, including your own. I mean developing a multilayered personality, a person who is infinitely interesting.

You can still worry about a career if you must. But, ultimately, the most profound reward of liberal arts education is four years of free inquiry, the privilege and joy of learning by being expansive, venturesome, inquisitive, and inventive, and even a little irresponsible in a positive way, without worrying about a career.

And the experience of learning joyfully becomes ingrained in the person so that learning becomes a habit that not only continues but deepens through life, whatever career we choose to be in. With each learning, our life becomes richer and more fulfilled. Thus, we achieve success of the third kind. That’s the true gift of a good humanistic college education.

But if you chase the shadow, you lose sight of the substance.

This is an edited version of a keynote address given by T. Kaori Kitao, the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Art History, to an audience of 8th to 10th graders and their parents at the 1999 Youth Odyssey Series sponsored by the Institute for the Academic Advancement of Youth. The daylong event was brought to Swarthmore by Dean of Admissions Robin Mamlet and organized by Mamlet and Sharon Friedler, professor of dance, director of the dance program, and chair of the humanities division. Professor Kitao has announced her retirement at the end of the next academic year. ©1999 by T. Kaori Kitao.


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All rights reserved. Swarthmore College March 2000

4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Philip Remillard on December 8, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    A must read for all parents who want their children to go to college


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  3. Posted by Stephen Herschel on September 7, 2014 at 6:09 am

    I have been offline over a year, as a result, have had my Hotmail acct frozen.MY mother was former employee under John Williams,Headly Reese and was great friends with then Timothey later Kaori my grandmother taught Tokiko how to weave.please forward my E-mail to Kaori and tell her I’ve have been trying very hard to reach her.Thank you,Steve


  4. Posted by Stephen Herschel on September 7, 2014 at 6:13 am

    If you have any slides of Moorish arches or Roman arches from Spain from 60’s its a good bet my mom took them


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