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July 15, 2010

Collected Wisdom: Aiming Nowhere at All

For the October 5, 1982, edition of the Maroon, David Brooks (A.B. '83) reproduced an Aims of Education he delivered, unsolicited, in line at Harold's Chicken Shack. It includes, among other things, a message of hope for a fellow student in need, plus a hint at Brooks' preferences in fried chicken. Enjoy.

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Striking Out, a column by David Brooks

The Aimless Education Address

Remarkably, another year has gone by during which I was not asked to give the Aims of Education Address. This year, that honor went to Jonathan Z. Smith. His address was, well, interesting. So interesting, in fact, that he completely ruined a long standing and highly respected tradition entitled Freshman Snooze.

Better that those same students should have heard my own Aims of Education Address, delivered last Saturday night at Harold's while waiting for my half-white with extra hot sauce. Fortunately for those who missed it, a member of the audience, recognizing the historic import of the moment, grabbed a pen and scribbled it all down:

"Ladies, gentlemen and chickens. While meditating on this topic, the Aims of Education, which the selection committee has not asked me to think about, I find myself stuck upon a single question: Education as opposed to what?

Seeking an answer, I spent an entire afternoon in Walgreens the other day asking this question to customers as they stood in line for the cashier. Finally, a college student came by with many boxes of Tylenol.

"Education as opposed to what?" I asked him.

"Yes! Exactly!" he gasped, grabbing my arm frantically.

Here was a kindred spirit.

"You saw the Aims of Education Address?" I asked. He nodded.

"And now you're on the brink of despair?" He nodded again.

"I have no aim!" he declared.

The cashier butted in: "Aisle three. Right underneath the Crest."

"At age three," he continued, "my parents sent me to nursery school where we had a kid who stood on tables and gave the teacher the finger. Now, 18 years later, I attend a university where I saw the former Dean of the College give the entire freshman class the finger. For all those years I've been getting educated, and now I find out I was supposed to have an aim all along."

"And you don't think you have one," I asked.

"Right. I don't want to go to law school or med school and I don't need to learn so I can be a teacher. I don't need to be bright to impress my friends. They're all dumb as hell."

"So what kept you going all these years?"

"I don't know. Every year I got older and every year I found myself in a higher grade. I guess I noticed that in higher grades the girls had more maturely developed bodies but I don't think that's what kept me going."

"So what have you decided to do?"

"Well I thought I would try to stop getting educated at least until I can think up an aim. I sat down and watched TV but every show has something to teach me. Even the "Love Boat," and "That's Incredible" is loaded with more meanings and interpretations than all of Kafka."

"I had to stop reading the newspaper or books or even looking at advertisements. Everybody was teaching me something! I called up my friend to say hello and she says, 'Hey Morton, guess what I learned today...' I screamed and hung up! You ever hear that expression, Learn something new every day? Well, I figure the average person learns at least 6000 things every day! And I've been learning all those things aimlessly! And I'm not just talking about trivia. The average person learns on the average of 3.5 profound truths a week. More if he gets drunk often enough."

"So if you wanted to stop learning, why didn't you move to Southern California? You would have been safe there."

"I know. I wanted to go to California a few years ago but I think I grew out of it."

"So now you're going to end it all with aspirin substitute?"

"Yea. I wandered around my apartment asking myself why educate, why educate? and finally I said to myself why live? and faced with all this aimlessness I couldn't think of an answer for that, either. I figured I'd do it with Tylenol so I wouldn't upset my stomach."

The cashier, who'd been listening to all this, butted in again. "I'll tell you why you couldn't think of an answer, honey. It's because they answer each other. Whenever I'm standing here at the register and a customer comes up to me and says, 'What is education?' I fix him with a steely-eyed stare and I say, 'Education is life, baby.' You can bet that clams them up in a hurry.

"You see, sweetiepie, everyday you do a little living and everyday you do a little learning. You know the phrase, Live and learn? You live because it's good all by itself. You learn for the same reason. Everyday I get on the No. 6 bus and show the driver my CTA pass and he says to me, 'Education: for whose sake?' and I say to him, 'Education for its own sake.' That way he can keep his eyes off books by Dewey and on the road.

"So don't let no Anglo-Saxon-work-ethic-son-of-a-bitch make you feel guilty because you got no aim for education. Don't let no Robert Maynard Hutchins or Jonathan Z. Smith get you down because they say you need an aim to educate. You just go on learning for your own self."

"You sure do acquire a lot of wisdom here at Walgreens don't you Miss?" I asked her.

"Well, it came to me like this:" she said, "I was having sex with my Harry, who's no great stud, and I realized I wasn't going to be having me no orgasm. But I said to myself, 'You know, this sex stuff is kind of nice even without the orgasms.' And then I naturally thought about education. It's still nice even though there's no orgasm to it."

So, ladies, gentlemen and chickens, there you have it. Morton left Walgreens happy and content. I left with a story to tell for this address. And in closing, I'd like to challenge you with the words of an ancient teacher:

If not by us, then by whom? If not now, then when? If not what, then how come? If not maybe, then perhaps? If not possibly, then soon? If not my place, then yours?

——

More Collected Wisdom: Welcome to Chicago - An Argument for Understanding

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