Shira Sebban

Shira Sebban

Monday, 24 June 2013

Two articles in one day! On educating our children and ourselves

ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debateFor the joy of it

By Shira Sebban - posted Monday, 24 June 2013

Whatever happened to learning for the sheer joy of it? To embark on a quest out of curiosity and to savour the journey, motivated by a deep love of learning?

As Christopher B Nelson, president of St John's College in Annapolis, Maryland, has said: "The reward of learning simply for the sake of learning itself is a kind of fulfilment we call happiness. And this happiness is something we should want for all … students" (

Yet, today, knowledge is becoming more "commodified". You can get a degree in almost anything, from professional nannying and auctioneering to clowning, paranormal studies and UFOs, and every institution seems to be at pains to tell you how useful your studies will be in helping you advance along a rewarding career path.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld would say. Obviously, we all need to earn a living, and it certainly helps if you can do so in a meaningful and enjoyable way, especially after paying considerable sums of money preparing for the privilege. Indeed, job fulfilment is ostensibly more important to Gen Y (aka Millenniums or Millennials) than it has been to any previous generation. Nevertheless, learning for learning's sake seems to have little to do with the whole process.

I recently attended a Year 10 subject selection night at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) with my teenage son, where we discovered more than 300 degrees on offer – students can nominate up to nine they would like to study – each accompanied by a list of associated career opportunities.

Amongst the myriad of documentation we collected was a Parent Information Guide, which told us in bold yellow print: "It's time for your child to leave high school behind and take their first steps towards a rewarding career". Studying at UNSW, it maintained, could "give them the best launchpad into the rest of their lives".

No mention of love of learning here. The closest we got was a paragraph in the parent guide, encouraging us to ask our children what subjects they "enjoy" as a way of helping them to discover "degrees that match their abilities". Meanwhile, we were bombarded with statistics about how UNSW graduates "are in high demand from employers" and "are in the top 5% for median starting salaries".

While career paths for the more practical degrees, such as actuarial studies or optometry, are quite evident, others are far more vague. Those interested in an Arts degree, for example, of which I myself am a proud holder, are told: "Students in the humanities and social sciences learn a wide range of skills that open up many career opportunities. No other course of study provides you with the same combination of broad intellectual growth, skills development in research and analysis, the ability to communicate effectively and the capacity to think critically about the global environment we live in."

Certainly all most valuable skills to acquire. Although not pointing to specific jobs, the desire to appear useful and therefore attractive to potential Arts students is obvious. And with good reason. In 2012, only about 76 per cent of new bachelor degree graduates from Australian institutions had found full-time employment within four months of completing their tertiary studies ( In other words, one-in-four students had not, and guess who they were most likely to be?

Nothing much seems to have changed in that regard since I graduated more than 20 years ago: Arts, and for that matter, Science graduates are often compelled to search long and hard for meaningful entry into the Australian work place, with many employers favouring more obvious and practical skills, such as those offered by a medical, accounting or engineering degree. There is even a Know Your Worth chart measured by how many burgers a young graduate can buy with their starting salary! Newly fledged dentists are in first place with more than 21,000 burgers, leaving those humanities graduates fortunate enough to find employment languishing in their wake on a paltry 12,000.

I can still recall the days when as a newly married, 20-something graduate, I moved from Melbourne to Brisbane. Armed with a French Honours degree with a major in philosophy, I was keen to find work, only to be met by the blank stares of my prospective Queensland employers. How I wished I lived in the more open-minded United Kingdom, where philosophy graduates were sought after banking employees! As it was, unless I wanted to be a teacher or agreed to leave my husband and move to Canberra to take up a job in the public service, there seemed little hope for me.

Today, philosophy at my alma mater, the University of Melbourne, is a shadow of what it used to be and has merged with history. Indeed, many subjects, particularly from the liberal arts, are disappearing precisely because they are no longer attracting students in large numbers, at least not the all-important, full-fee-paying international ones, and so are no longer seen as financially viable. Gender Studies, for example, is gradually being eliminated from many Australian universities, as are various history courses, religion, linguistics and foreign languages, the number of which being taught has more than halved over the past decade.

As renowned philosopher Raymond Gaita has said so eloquently, "Some essential disciplines of the humanities and the sciences – philosophy and (even) physics, for example – have become mendicants for a respected place in institutions that should honour them, but honour instead the study of hospitality and gaming" ("To Civilise the City?" Meanjin, May 2012).

Since ancient times, the liberal arts – traditionally encompassing grammar, rhetoric and logic, mathematics, geometry, astronomy and music – were seen as the very bastion of learning for learning's sake, providing a good grounding for life. The epitome of such a well-rounded education were "polymaths" or "Renaissance men or women" – those deeply knowledgeable, highly skilled and multi-talented, yet still modest, individuals, as personified by Leonardo da Vinci. As the accomplished Italian Leone Battista Alberti (1404-72) said, "a man can do all things if he will". He was speaking with a certain authority, having been a priest, author, architect, artist, linguist, poet, philosopher, scientist, mathematician, inventor, horseman and archer!

While certainly not in the same league, my grandfather was a kind of Renaissance man. Although he never had a formal secular education, and much to my envy, never even sat an exam, he was blessed with an inquiring and incisive mind, an insatiable desire for knowledge and a photographic memory. A laundryman by trade, he worked hard to become established before devoting the rest of his life to reading, thinking, discussing, writing, appreciating music and art, and travelling.

The patriarch of our family, my grandfather would preside over gatherings, regaling the table with such passions as the problems of justice and of individual freedom within the rule of law. Alternatively, he might have been keen to discuss what he had read that particular day which, given his eclectic interests, could range from a biography of the Italian Renaissance "father of science" Galileo Galilei or the writings of the 20th century philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell to biblical commentaries on Abraham, Moses or Samuel, various newspaper articles, which he would mark for others to read – our house was piled high with them – or even an account of the Shakers, a utopian Christian sect, some of whose former American settlements he visited and whose virtual demise fascinated him. Even while on an otherwise disappointing holiday in Tahiti, he derived enjoyment from reading daily doses from a volume of Albert Einstein's essays, which he had happened to pick up at Sydney airport!]

Careers were not as important to my grandfather as the sheer love of learning, although he certainly emphasised the need to work to secure financial independence and be responsible for oneself. Indeed, whenever his children or grandchildren would ask his advice on our future studies, he would steer us in the direction of a great body of thought such as science or philosophy and encourage us to be creative and aim for excellence in all our endeavours. He himself set an example by striving to learn university-level mathematics in his fifties.

When I was choosing my university subjects, I enrolled in a philosophy major as a matter of course. It was just what our family did. Without my grandfather's influence, I may never have even been exposed to Socrates and Plato or wrestled with the ideas of 18th century Scottish moral philosopher David Hume. That is not to say that they were always well taught. But at least I had the opportunity to encounter them.

Today it is certainly harder, albeit impossible, to be a Renaissance man or woman. Bombarded with data from all directions, many of us are suffering from "information overload". Socrates was ostensibly humble enough to admit more than 2000 years ago that he "knew nothing, except just the fact of his ignorance" (Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers 5: 32). How much more true is that today!

As knowledge increases, we tend to sub-specialise even more, with new experts springing up in a range of fields that were unknown just a few years ago, from windfarm or fuel cell engineers, app designers and social media managers to Zumba teachers and carbon credit traders. And yet Gen Y will be expected to retrain for up to five different careers in a lifetime.

One of the aims of the school my children attend is for them to develop the skills to become "life long learners". I hope they come to appreciate the value of a good education, one that encourages them always to keep their mind open, reading widely, constantly being exposed to new ideas and experiences and discovering joy through learning. Obviously to do so successfully, they will need that most precious commodity, time. Hopefully, however, they won't need to wait until retirement before getting to explore what they've always dreamed of doing. I'm encouraging them to discover and pursue their passions now and to keep on chasing them for the rest of their lives.

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