Why study? The question seems incongruous when asked by Andrew Abbott, professor of sociology, in his welcome address to students at the University of Chicago in 2002. From the outset, Abbott dispels any illusions: what determines success is much more about getting into college than what you do or learn there. Very little of what one learns there is actually useful for a future profession, and non-academic skills, such as the ability to write or think clearly, are rarely the ones that determine professional success. As for the specific knowledge of a trade, apart from the very technical ones, it is most often acquired on the job. It wasn’t until I started running a business that I realized that very little of what I had learned during my MBA was directly useful.
The only thing that is certain is that a given job will evolve considerably during a professional life, even if you keep the same one all along, which has become very unlikely. To be able to transform, change and renew the ideas we work with, we will have to master something that allows us to see them from the outside; to take a step aside. That something is education. In other words, education is not something whose objectives can be predicted. It has no purpose other than itself. It is not a question of content. It is not even a matter of skills. It is a habit or a disposition. It’s not something you have; it is something you are.
By education, Abbott specifically means the ability to make the meanings we attach to the events we experience and the phenomena we observe more and more complex, deeper and broader. Education is what makes us understand that the sun does not revolve around the earth, despite what common sense teaches us, and despite fifty thousand years of observation to the contrary. In all fields, being educated is being able to give a meaning to what seems to have none, or to give a new meaning to what already had one. Education is not, therefore, a collection of paradigms, methods and disciplines; this is where it differs from training, which aims to transmit skills. You can teach paradigms and methods, but you cannot teach the willingness to play with them. That is something one must find within oneself. To paraphrase Spinoza, one cannot truly study without desire. The art of the teacher, or the parent, is to awaken that desire; but sometimes it is life that takes care of it after a painful surprise.
In concrete terms, the meaning we give to things is based on mental models, i.e. on deep-seated beliefs. We must learn to expose them to make them visible, then test and adjust them, and start again. This is what the great creators of meaning- artists, scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs, do. But you don’t have to be an artist, scientist or entrepreneur to do it; all you have to do is to be inspired by their posture of looking at the world from the side and be surprised by what doesn’t surprise others.
To give new meaning is to increase one’s experience, that is, to live more
But why is attaching new meanings to things a good thing? The answer is this: by doing so, by bringing more experience into our current range of meanings and expanding it to encompass more things in more complex, abstract, and ambiguous ways, we actually give ourselves the opportunity to experience more of life. An educated person has a richer experience than an uneducated person. Driven by this desire for new meaning, he perseveres and grows in his being. This effort, which Spinoza calls conatus, is a force that asserts itself and pursues its development because it is experienced as a joy.
The means by which this search for meaning is carried out is to ask questions. There is nothing new in this; this is what Socrates taught more than 2000 years ago, but it cost him dearly: it is dangerous to “corrupt the youth”, that is to say, to teach them not to take at face value the truths that are imposed on them. Indeed, getting into the habit of giving a new meaning to what we live and what we see allows us not to remain prisoners of our own mental models, i.e. being frozen in a representation of the world that has become obsolete or, worse, by adopting models imposed by others.
Education: the best plan for uncertainty
Education, defined as a relentless search for new meanings to situations, facts, and ideas, is a crucial resource. If we have learned anything from the Covid-19 crisis, it is that the future never looks like what we imagined. Future events are impossible to predict and plan for, but we can prepare ourselves to understand them by becoming able to make sense of them, that is, by becoming an educated person. An educated person will be able to fully experience these events for himself and for others. He will not only experience the future, but he will also live it and be able to create it. In this sense, being educated is the best plan for an uncertain, i.e. unpredictable future.
In conclusion, I would say that any field of study is suitable as long as the student approaches it with the right posture. One can study accounting idiotically, seeing it only as a technique, or one can see it as a mental model that allows the representation of an organization in a creative way. This is true of almost any subject. But beyond that, we need to advocate that the exposure, testing and adjustment of mental models become part of the core of education so that your kids can be corrupted, that is, become citizens rather than activists.
Andrew Abbott’s address is available here.