In my two years of college, I have experienced firsthand the modern higher education system. One of the most common complaints about a college education can be summed up as, “why do I need to take Biology and American Literature? They don’t have anything to do with my major!” This complaint can be generalized to apply to any major. There always seems to be a class that is irrelevant.

C.S. Lewis spoke on the topic of education in an essay entitled “An English Syllabus.” In this essay, Lewis compares receiving an education to training for a vocation and comments on the differences between the two. The main goal of an education, Lewis says, is to create a good man–to teach a person not only how to work but also how to spend leisure time–how to enjoy reading literature or make informed voting decisions. Lewis continues by saying:

Vocational training, on the other hand, prepares the pupil not for leisure, but for work; it aims at making not a good man but a good banker, a good electrician, a good scavenger, or a good surgeon. You see at once that education is essentially for freemen and vocational training for slaves. That is how they were distributed in the old unequal societies; the poor man’s son was apprenticed to a trade, the rich man’s son went to Eton and Oxford and then made the grand tour. When societies became, in effort if not in achievement, egalitarian, we are presented with a difficulty. To give everyone education and to give no one vocational training is impossible, for electricians and surgeons we must have and they must be trained. Our ideal must be to find time for both education and training: our danger is that equality may mean training for all and education for none-that everyone will learn commercial French instead of Latin, book-keeping instead of geometry, and ‘knowledge of the world we live in’ instead of great literature.

The entire essay is not long and is worth reading in full here. What I find interesting is that Lewis’s attitude is at odds with the outlooks of many today–vocational training is all most students want anymore. This attitude is prevalent among engineering types especially, but I have encountered these ideas even in casual conversation with barbers, old friends, and hard working acquaintances. Can’t we just skip the social sciences and dive straight into our core classes? Maybe this is because social sciences aren’t taught well anymore. Maybe students don’t care. Maybe both. Regardless of the cause, our modern idea of education has become greatly diminished.

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