Thursday, June 10, 2021

Preferring a liberal to a technical education


On page 62 of Civilization, Clive Bell writes, "A sense of values, as I understand the term, is possessed only by those who are capable of sacrificing obvious and immediate goods to the more subtle and remote.  People who deliberately sacrificed comfort to beauty -- with no practical or superstitious end in view -- would appear to me to possess a sense of values.  To prefer a liberal to a technical education, an education that teaches how to live rather than one that teaches how to gain, is another manifestation of this highly civilized sense."

This is on Bell's list as an attribute of a civilized person, and beyond that as a value that will be "enthroned" in any Civilized Society.  He doesn't insist that every member of such a society think in this way, but it must be enthroned. 

In my own case I enrolled in college on the G.I. Bill but didn't at first know what to major in.  I was predisposed because of my grandmother's teachings to study "the classics," which weren't taught as such, but eventually declared "English" as my major.  It was as close as I could get to my grandmother's ideal.  However, I don't recall any professor ever suggesting that if one majored in English he would learn "how to live", nor did I graduate with the understanding that I then knew how to live. 

But even if I were to understand my education in the Clive Bell sense, this understanding was not "enthroned" in my college or society.  I met Bell's requirement of not choosing a major that would teach me "how to gain," but I didn't feel good about it.  My stepfather had urged me to major in Engineering because "that's where the good-paying jobs are."  But I had unwisely gotten married, was supplementing my G.I. Bill by loading and unloading trucks, and doing my studying in the Teamster's hiring hall.  If on top of that I had to major in a subject I didn't like, I was fairly sure, I would never have graduated.  I majored in English because its course of study was what I liked best and not because the value of a Liberal Education was "enthroned" in my society or in my family.  Engineering was.

When I was sent by the Bliss and Sons Employment Agency to Douglas Aircraft Company to work in Engineering, I wasn't sure I was going to be able to succeed there; so I kept my Teamster's membership active.  Also, I enrolled in graduate school and worked on my Master's degree, first at California State University at Long Beach State, but later at California State University at Dominquez Hills.  I got half way through the Master's program before figuring out that I was probably going to stay in Engineering, and the vague idea that teaching at perhaps a Junior College might be preferable to loading trucks on the docks went a glimmering. 

I learned that Douglas preferred loyalty in its workers.  If someone employed at Douglas was clearly working on a degree that would enable him to work at something more to his liking, then such a person became vulnerable when a layoff was required.  I enjoyed studying English literature, but I was far enough along to know I could study it (or merely enjoy it) on my own.  Also, I couldn't risk being seen to be studying in order to leave Douglas for something else.   The idea of a Liberal Education as something to be valued for itself and not as a means "for gain" was not enthroned at Douglas Aircraft Company.

As to the popularity of Clive Bell's ideas, I just checked Bell's Civilization on Amazon's "Best Sellers Rank."  It is 9,505,896 in Books.  But Bell, if he were able to come back to life and observe this fact, would say it is what he would expect.  "Civilization" is rare and difficult to achieve.

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