What Can Be Learned at University?

“… a very distinct component of truth remains ungrasped by the non-participant in the action.” (Ezra Pound)

Consider the difference between earning a bachelor’s degree in political science or finance, on the one hand, and spending four years as a consultant for a political party or working on Wall Street, on the other. In both cases, you are working in an environment that is full of knowledge and in both cases you are bound to learn a great deal. Also, in both cases what you learn can be rightly called knowledge of “politics” and “finance” respectively; that is, whether you are at school or at work, the object of your knowledge is the same. This is one of the things that must be true in order for a university education to make sense as a “preparation” for a career in, say, politics or finance. School must be “relevant” for life.

And yet there must be differences between the sorts of the things you learn at school and the sorts of things you learn in life. I think a great way to think about these differences is to look at the central “experience” in each context. At university, it is (or at least should be) “textual”. That is, at university we learn mainly through our reading and our writing. Our writing is largely about our reading and it is, in turn, read by others, who give us feedback on it. This is true for both faculty and students.

At work, in business or politics, the central experience is, well, “experiential”. I’m trying to find a good word to distinguish it from the “textual” focus of the university. We might call it “vital experience” or “lived experience” (the standard translation of the German Erlebnis.) Or we could call it “actual” experience, if this didn’t make academic experience seem somehow fake. Then again, we could perhaps distinguish the university’s “factual” kind of experience, i.e., the world experienced as the representation of facts, “everything that is the case,” as Wittgenstein famously put it, from the “actual experience” of life outside of school, where the world is experienced as a “field of action” (William Carlos Williams’ famous characterization of poetry.)

In life, we learn by success and failure in action. In school, we learn by passing and failing, largely in writing, i.e., in our examinations and our term papers. This simple distinction is worth observing and, sometimes,  honoring in the breach. I sometimes get the sense that we’re expecting things of universities (and criticizing them for not accomplishing them) that they were never intended to accomplish. It seems perfectly in order to me that there is a place in society (and a time in one’s life) that is devoted to the transmission (and reception) of the sort of knowledge you can acquire by reading a book and discussing it with others. There is also some wisdom to demanding that students struggle with this kind of knowledge before “going into action”, before being let slip like dogs of war upon the world we all inhabit, and of which there is only one.

Let people imagine the world in theory, as students, before they ravage it in practice as professionals. Some good might yet come of that.

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