05 August 2011

Just for the record…

Matt Damon is awesome. If you haven’t seen the video, you should. Mr Damon is, in spite of his use of colourful metaphors - quite voluble and articulate on the subject and gets at the very heart of the Christian idea of vocation. Teaching is a profession which, by its very nature (and particularly in our anti-intellectual society, which tends to treat them like dirt) attracts those driven by caritas - even though they do enjoy living and must, like the rest of humankind, eat, they aren’t teaching just to collect their next paycheck.

Matt Damon is right here in more ways than one. The education problem in the United States is a lot more systemic than just bad teachers. Part of it - a large and substantial part of it - is the cultural expectation (on teachers and on students!) underlying the viewpoint both the Reason.tv reporter and cameraman express here. This expectation demands that education prepare students for ‘the real world’ - meaning a highly bureaucratised, technocratic and impersonal system which looks for a certain set of commercially applicable skills, among which is not creative, broad or moral thinking. Modern American society doesn’t want creative students or creative teachers; it wants cogs in a capitalist machine. Our society overvalues the knowledge-ideal of τεχνή (tekhne, from which comes our word ‘technical’) as a model of education and undervalues παιδεία (paideía, from which comes the English ‘encyclopaedia’) - learning for its own sake, particularly in the liberal arts. I tend to think of the scorn that is regularly heaped upon college English majors, or (in the United States, not so much in China) the awkward silences, looks of puzzlement and comments of ‘so what do you plan to do with that?’ that accompany my pronouncement that I studied philosophy in college.

A paideia ideal of education for its own sake won’t fix everything, naturally. What I hope it can do - as with many other believers in a liberal education - is open up people’s minds and hearts to the idea of vocation: of not just a skills-focussed ‘job’ interchangeable with any other, whose only end is making money. Vocation is a committed labour one undertakes to the greater glory of humanity and - ultimately - of God; though most teachers in American public schools are likely alien to such language, I argue that they are on a similar path. It is not a job, as Mr Damon notes, to which people flock because they envy the pay or the benefits. And, with a few notable exceptions, the teachers I had the good fortune of working with as part of my Peace Corps and AmeriCorps service in both American and Qazaqstani public schools did have the best interests of their students at heart. (The administrators, on the other hand, were a notably mixed lot.)

Here is the original video of Matt Damon cussing out the cameraman:

And some Holy Moses for good measure! \m/


  1. Great post. The arts and humanities have been taking a serious beating because of the recession. Some people are blaming high youth unemployment on students deciding to major in “easy” arts and humanities subjects instead of more practical fields.

    However, as a proportion of graduates, the number of arts and humanities majors has been declining since the 1970s as the declining economy has pushed more students to look at college from the standpoint of careerism.

    The funny thing, though, is that some of the more “practical” majors, such as business, are probably the least rigorous. Careerism actually makes people lazier by moving the emphasis of study from mastery of a subject to things like learning how to game standardized tests, pad GPAs and resumes, and successfully selling yourself in a job interview.

    Personally, I could not stand the shallowness that I encountered in the business classes that I took in college, so that is why (much to the bewilderment and horror of many family members and friends) I switched my major to history, which I found to be much more intellectually challenging.

    Don’t get me wrong, plenty of smart people go into business fields, especially the more mathematically challenging ones, but even here, the more interesting work is in the more esoteric subjects.

    Maybe it is just the way my brain works, but I don’t understand why higher education should be devoted to teaching skills that people could learn on the job with only a high school diploma. That is what a lot of the business curriculum looked like to me.

  2. I think I was a bit arrogant in my last comment. Instead of "intellectually challenging," I should have written "spiritually challenging."

    Trust me, practically everything is an intellectual challenge for me!

  3. Welcome, John!

    I likewise share your view of business education, and I don’t think you expressed it particularly arrogantly - but all the same I think the language of ‘spiritual’ needs is appropriate. My dad’s a professor at Brown; he often speaks of the spiritual needs of his students, but when speaking to his fellow professors he needs to translate such language into ‘intellectual and emotional’ needs.