On Graduations, Universities, and What Is “Practically Useless”

We need trade, technology, and engineering schools. But universities are for something beyond trade, technology, and engineering.

“I think almost all serious people understand that about 90% of what goes on in schools is ‘practically useless.’” — Neil Postman, “My Graduation Speech”

“The scanty conceptions to which we can attain of celestial things give us, from their excellence, more pleasure than all our knowledge of the world in which we live; just as a half glimpse of a person that we love is more delightful than a leisurely view of other things, whatever their number and dimensions.” — Aristotle, Parts of Animals, 644b32-45a1.

I.

The late Neil Postman (1931-2003) was a distinguished professor of communications at New York University. Over the years, like many other faculty members, he attended numerous graduations and heard varied commencement addresses—most of which, he thought, were not particularly good. He understood the reasons for this “un-outstanding-ness” of typical graduation addresses. The most a speaker could expect of an audience’s attentive listening was perhaps fifteen minutes. The graduating students were anxious to move on to what Postman called the “revelries” to follow.

Often, graduation speakers were not chosen for their ability to reason or speak, but for their accomplishments in other areas of expertise. The ceremonies were long. So Postman could sympathize with the typical graduation speaker. But in the end, he did not think that the students heard much that was important in such addresses. In fact, like E. F. Schumacher, in his A Guide for the Perplexed, he did not find much worthwhile in college in general, ten percent at best. The really important things were seldom even broached.

In this light, Postman proposed a model “graduation speech” as it should be, even if it is never actually delivered. He wanted students, in the fading moments of their academic careers, to know finally what the university was for. In this context, as in the passage that I cited in the beginning, he referred to a common opinion that about ninety percent of what went on in colleges was “practically useless.” Now, the reason why I am writing this essay is because of that phrase “practically useless.”

The phrase “practically useless” strikes an Aristotelian cord in my mind. It also goes back to Josef Pieper’s notion of “leisure.” Could Postman really have meant that the university was supposed to be “useful”? That it was to orient itself to what was primarily “practical”? Aristotle had distinguished the theoretical and the practical intellect. The theoretical intellect was ordered to know what is. The practical intellect was ordained to make or do things. The latter was ordered to the former; both had their place.

Contrary to waves of opinion emphasizing the practical, we do not enter college in principle to learn about “useful” things. If we do, we are entering something closer to a trade school, a place where knowing “how” is more important than knowing “what”. We need trade, technology, and engineering schools. But this is not what universities are for. Nor are they primarily for “research,” though knowing what the universe is constitutes a proper function of the human mind.

In fact, in the university, we should be looking for what is, in fact, “practically useless”, or perhaps, better put, what is beyond use. The things that are “useful” are not the most important things, however worthy they are. Aristotle taught us to distinguish between things of use, of pleasure, and of things sought just “for their own sakes”. These latter were the “highest things”. Our delight was in the very knowing of them. To know them and their causes is what the mind is for. They were not “useful,” except in the sense that, if we do not know what the world is like, we really can “do” nothing in it. We cannot really act on something until we first know what it is. A doctor who does not know what a human being is or what his liver is cannot be trusted to operate on anyone.

As he says in both the Parts of Animals and the Ethics, Aristotle never thought that we could know much of the highest things. But he did not consider this fact a defect or a reason to neglect what we could know of them. Indeed, he thought that knowing what we could of them was worth more than all the other things we might know about more completely. We should spend our lives searching for them.

Plato had taught us that our whole lives were “unserious” compared to the highest things. He thought that God was the only “serious” thing in the universe compared to which all other things were “unserious.”* This view meant that the ordinary things were really only of use, but they were not beyond use unless we wanted to know why they existed in the first place. All really important things were “for their own sakes,” that is, they were beyond use. Ultimately, this contemplative status included the human being himself, though it was up to him freely to fashion himself into what he ought to be precisely as a human being.

II.

In Postman’s proposed Graduation Address, he explained to the students that two approaches to what went on in colleges can be identified. One was the “Athenian” approach. Here we learned of that extraordinary period that knew Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Demosthenes, Sophocles, Socrates, Aeschylus, Euripides, Democritus, Homer, Hesiod, and many other writers, politicians, artists, poets, and, yes, scientists. The Greeks seem even to have invented machines that moved. But they did not develop them because, it is said, they saw the dangers of technology in a way that we perhaps do not. The Greeks taught us language and philosophy, history and poetry. They still make more sense in ethics, rhetoric, and politics than most other things that we have learned since. And if we do know what they knew, it is likely that we can learn much else in a systematic fashion.

The other approach to education is what Postman calls that of the “Visigoths.” These invading barbarians represent the attitude of learning things only because of power and usefulness. We do not matriculate to learn the truth of things. We see the university as a place to attain and keep power. This approach is the legacy of Machiavelli, though this notion was already known to and criticized by Plato. Postman thought that the Visigothic view was prevalent, even among academics, perhaps especially among them. Thus, if we attend the university to learn what the Visigoths stood for, we really would learn little of real significance. We would not know what we are or what we are about.

Postman’s schema—the Athenians vs. the Visigoths—seems useful. It certainly highlights a contrasting attitude that can be seen in the history of what is called higher learning. What he seems to forget is the later history of the Goths themselves. We might say that he also forgets Rome, which prided itself on learning from the Greeks. The Romans were indeed a practical people who knew what power was and how to use it. But, at their best, they recognized, with Cicero, that the Greeks, whose moral lives might have been often wanting, were the masters of thought. The civilization of the Romans was the civilization that conquered Palestine and into which Christianity, with its Hebrew background, was born and developed. It was under the later Romans, as Christopher Dawson pointed out, that the four traditions—Athens, Rome, Jerusalem, and Christianity—began to meld together into a coherent whole.

What we know as western civilization grew out of this extended Greco-Roman world. If we ask today what the word “Gothic” means, we think of the great cathedrals of Europe. We think of the word “infinity” as reaching out to transcendence and not, as with the Greeks, as a sign of incoherence. That is, the barbarians were eventually civilized and became citizens in the broader culture of the Roman world that saw itself as universal, embracing all men. This was the culture that did not just include Greek thought and Roman law but also Old and New Testament revelation. The dynamism of philosophy, the love of wisdom, as we know it, is not just Greek, though that is its origin. Greek thought itself is addressed by the content and practice of revelation to inquire of their mutual compatibility.

The university, as we know it, arose not directly from Plato’s Academy or Aristotle’s Lyceum, but from the medieval universities at Paris, Salamanca, Bologna, Oxford, Pisa, Cambridge, and other centers. The problematic of these universities in their founding was rather centered in the relation of the content of revelation to what could be known by human reason as the Greek and Roman legacy, which legacy included places like Alexandria,, Antioch, and Carthage. Were the two traditions contradictory or were they compatible with each other? St. Augustine, though an African, was in the line of this broader tradition, even if he did not much like to study Greek, as he states his Confessions.

III.

We are now accustomed to begin university studies, not with the Greeks, Romans, Jews, or Christians, but with what is called “modern” thought, with what we now call “science,” as if science itself had no philosophic presuppositions that made it possible in the first place. Why was it, after all, that science did not appear in every culture, but only in that culture with a Greek-Roman-Christian background? It was because science depends on certain theological assumptions that alone make it possible to investigate the make-up of the world. The world had to exist. It was not just an idea. To know it, we had to investigate it to find what it had to teach us.

Further, the world was created in time from “nothing,” but with an intelligible order that is open to the human intellect. It also presupposes that “secondary causes” exist. Things had their own relative autonomy and stability. They really did act. They were not illusions. If behind the world was only a system of voluntarism, as was held in Islam or in later western nominalist thought, we could not be sure that the opposite of anything was not equally possible and present before us. We could not trust our senses or the stability of things. Without these assurances, the world was not worth investing. Everything could be other than it appeared.

Today, the dominant philosophy in the university is not western philosophy that claims to be universal, nor is it even science. Rather it is a relativism that professes to begin with the assumptions of multi-culturalism. No possibility can be found of finding a general truth or even inquiring about it. From this viewpoint, truth is the enemy of culture. Everything is relative to time and place. We are left with what is only the “practically useful” in our own environment. We can, however, as Aristotle told us, have only a scanty knowledge of the highest things.

This knowledge is worth more than all the other kinds of knowledge that we might have. But, in the university, we do not much consider the issues that revelation addresses to reason. Revelation is itself directed to reason as such. Its effect is to make reason more reasonable in figuring out how it is meant and how it relates to other truths. The coherence of a university is measured by the scope and source of information that it allows itself and its students to consider in dealing with those fundamental questions about human life and the coherent and incoherent answers to them.

These are the classical affirmations and questions. The first affirmation at the basis of any culture is the Socratic principle: “It is never right to do wrong.” The second is the Platonic affirmation: “Truth is to say of what is that it is, and of what is not, that it is not.” The third is that of Christ: “Truth alone that will make us free.”

These questions follow: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” “Why is this thing not that thing?” “What is my purpose in existence?” “What and why is evil?” “How do we know that God has spoken to us?” “Why is it that revelation answers questions that arise in philosophy but are not answered by it?” “What is friendship?” “What is death?” “Are we immortal?” Then Augustine’s question arises: “Why are our hearts ‘restless,’ even with the many things given to us?”

And finally Chesterton’s question must be asked: “Why am I homesick even at home?”

If we leave a university in which no such questions are seriously confronted in their philosophical and theological origins and depths, we can rest assured that what we attended was, perhaps, a fine “practical” place. But it was not really a university wherein we wondered about “things for their own sakes.” Or as I like to put it, there is no such thing as a university in which the constant reading of Plato, both by faculty and students, does not take place. He will guide us to all these other questions, including those of revelation. Postman was right. We need the “Athenians.” We need to put the barbarians, especially the intellectual ones, in place. But it does not hurt us to wonder, in addition, about those Goths whom the Romans civilized and who built those Cathedrals for no other reason than that their spires pointed to Beauty itself. Such places are not “practically useful.” That is why they exist. And to know this is why we exist.

*See James V. Schall, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs (Wilmington: ISI Books 2001).


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About James V. Schall, S.J. 177 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. One of his last books was On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018). He died at the age of 91 on April 17, 2019. Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.