In defence of nonsense

Can "learning for its own sake" mean anything?

Jeff Rybak calls me out for my offhanded use of the phrase “learning for its own sake” in a comment on one of his posts. He is kind enough to assume I could explain what I mean by such a phrase, though not so kind as to refrain from calling it nonsense: “the phrase has zero content at all. It means absolutely nothing.” I think it can mean something. Let me explain.

On one level, of course, Jeff is right. No one does anything purely for its own sake. There is, for instance, no such thing as real altruism. I might give money to a hospital, but only because it gives me a warm feeling inside. I might help a stranger in need, but only because I would feel terrible if I didn’t. I might obey the law, but only to avoid a painful sense of guilt. All of these have some benefit to me (even if it’s just a good feeling), and so, in a sense, everything I do is selfish. But a moment’s thought shows us that there is a big difference between jumping into the water to save a drowning child and bulldozing a food bank so you can build a Starbucks. Both are selfish in the strictest sense, but if either deserves to be called selfish, it’s not jumping into the water.

Similarly, while no one learns purely for its own sake, we can distinguish between learning that is done for a particular, quantifiable, utilitarian goal, and learning that is done for more noble reasons. Yes, I said it. Noble.

As Jeff has argued, mine is only one view, and one that is tied to a long tradition of academic debates that need not detain us here. But in my view, studying literature only because one wants to become an English teacher and thus get summers off is a bad reason to do it. What are the good reasons? Because it’s exciting, because it allows you to appreciate other forms of art, because it raises profound questions about how we live and how we ought to live, because it fires the imagination, and because it provides a way to better understand others and thus makes us more broad-minded and compassionate. These are all reasons for learning, but they are reasons intrinsic to learning, and thus, are, in a way that makes the term useful, learning for its own sake.

Such an approach need not only apply to English majors. If you are studying law, study it because the law is at the core of what a civilized society is and you find it fascinating, not because you want a Lexus as soon as humanly possible. If you study economics, study it because economics sheds light on how humanity struggles and has always struggled to come to terms with its scarce resources, not because you want a corner office.

This is just my view, but in an effort to get you to make it yours, I ask you to consider the following. First, and ironically enough, approaching learning for its own sake (as I have defined it) may well make you more practically successful in the long run. I have no doubt that the best teachers of English are the ones who really love literature, not the ones who really love July and August. I have a feeling, too, that the best lawyers are those who really love to think and talk about law. Second, even if you land that high-paying job you so covet, what happens when you retire? You will have long days in which to sit and think, and have nothing to sit and think about. Finally, short of your retirement years, when will you have this much intellectual freedom again? Seriously, while you are in university, you can spend your time thinking about whatever big issues you want when you take history, philosophy, sociology and so on. But once that’s over, do you really think your boss will want you to spend the afternoon debating ethics or discussing the moral context of The Merchant of Venice?

There will be plenty of time do what is expected and practical and profitable after you graduate. Don’t start early.