In defence of nonsense

Can “learning for its own sake” mean anything?


Jeff Rybak calls me out for my offhanded use of the phrase “learning for its own sake” in a comment on one of his posts. He is kind enough to assume I could explain what I mean by such a phrase, though not so kind as to refrain from calling it nonsense: “the phrase has zero content at all. It means absolutely nothing.” I think it can mean something. Let me explain.

On one level, of course, Jeff is right. No one does anything purely for its own sake. There is, for instance, no such thing as real altruism. I might give money to a hospital, but only because it gives me a warm feeling inside. I might help a stranger in need, but only because I would feel terrible if I didn’t. I might obey the law, but only to avoid a painful sense of guilt. All of these have some benefit to me (even if it’s just a good feeling), and so, in a sense, everything I do is selfish. But a moment’s thought shows us that there is a big difference between jumping into the water to save a drowning child and bulldozing a food bank so you can build a Starbucks. Both are selfish in the strictest sense, but if either deserves to be called selfish, it’s not jumping into the water.

Similarly, while no one learns purely for its own sake, we can distinguish between learning that is done for a particular, quantifiable, utilitarian goal, and learning that is done for more noble reasons. Yes, I said it. Noble.

As Jeff has argued, mine is only one view, and one that is tied to a long tradition of academic debates that need not detain us here. But in my view, studying literature only because one wants to become an English teacher and thus get summers off is a bad reason to do it. What are the good reasons? Because it’s exciting, because it allows you to appreciate other forms of art, because it raises profound questions about how we live and how we ought to live, because it fires the imagination, and because it provides a way to better understand others and thus makes us more broad-minded and compassionate. These are all reasons for learning, but they are reasons intrinsic to learning, and thus, are, in a way that makes the term useful, learning for its own sake.

Such an approach need not only apply to English majors. If you are studying law, study it because the law is at the core of what a civilized society is and you find it fascinating, not because you want a Lexus as soon as humanly possible. If you study economics, study it because economics sheds light on how humanity struggles and has always struggled to come to terms with its scarce resources, not because you want a corner office.

This is just my view, but in an effort to get you to make it yours, I ask you to consider the following. First, and ironically enough, approaching learning for its own sake (as I have defined it) may well make you more practically successful in the long run. I have no doubt that the best teachers of English are the ones who really love literature, not the ones who really love July and August. I have a feeling, too, that the best lawyers are those who really love to think and talk about law. Second, even if you land that high-paying job you so covet, what happens when you retire? You will have long days in which to sit and think, and have nothing to sit and think about. Finally, short of your retirement years, when will you have this much intellectual freedom again? Seriously, while you are in university, you can spend your time thinking about whatever big issues you want when you take history, philosophy, sociology and so on. But once that’s over, do you really think your boss will want you to spend the afternoon debating ethics or discussing the moral context of The Merchant of Venice?

There will be plenty of time do what is expected and practical and profitable after you graduate. Don’t start early.


In defence of nonsense

  1. Well, I knew you could explain what you meant. But my object wasn’t to contrast obviously “good” with obviously “bad” motives. Rather I wanted to force the admission, as I think even you’ve conceded, that there are in fact multiple valid and good motives to do most things. To say “do it for the sake of doing it” seems to avoid even declaring one or more motives and circumvents the dialogue entirely. It creates the illusion, rightly or wrongly, that there is only one good motive and everyone should immediately perceive it as such. And so I find it extremely dangerous.

    I may personally agree with some of your contrasts between “good” (which you would define as “for its own sake”) motives and “bad” (which I guess you would define as ulterior) motives. But there’s nothing self-evident in that division and folks can disagree in good conscience about what belongs where.

    I still believe it’s a problematic phrase. It denies even the plurality of views. It literally presupposes goodthink. But I appreciate, at least, we’re in dialogue on the topic.

  2. I agree with this post. Heading into my third semester I find myself wanting to get paid to sit and learn. It is not my goal to sit in an office for the next forty sum odd years of my life no matter the pay cheque. Nothing floats my boat more than discovery and nothing serves this better than a university . In the classrooms I have attended I have been surrounded by students working hard to qualify for the nursing program or the criminology major. Noone that I met was intrested in actually being in the classroom. They each had their own long term goals or things they were going to do that day. Maybe Im in the wrong uni but I kinda feel alone. So I agree but I think there is an increased possibility for this kind of learning to be socially unacceptable.

  3. One more thing. Rybak: Concerning the expression “Learning for the sake of learning” I would agree with you as well. One can psychoanalyze everyone and find all sorts of hidden agendas and personal vendetta’s but the phrase is not talking about university. There are students who have it in their heart, for good or bad, to learn and the most praised instution in our society for accomodating this need is the university. Yes the internet is getting up there but the university experience is still unique. Many students do want to learn because learning is what floats their boat. It might be that the information acquired gives them self affirmation or enables them to feel superior to other people. Then again, it could be because they haven’t found anything else in this world to possess the same value. For myself, I know that i am insecure and when I was growing up, the only way to cope with my deck of cards was to think. This process brought me to a place of love for learning. Do I want prestige and fame by writing books or haveing a few letters in front of my name? I honestly don’t know if my grades would allow me to venture that far, but I love to learn. So you do have a point Rybak but in the context of the expression being discussed, I would argue that it is not relevant.

  4. I think one place we agree, Jeff, is that students should examine their motives for seeking higher education — though we may think so for different reasons. I think so because the reasons influence choices and thus, to a large degree, the results.

    Many students go to university because their parents have pressured them to go, or because they are embarrassed to do otherwise, or for no real reason at all. Lacking focus and motivation, a great many of these students fail out after one or two years and are left with no higher education to speak of and thousands of dollars in debt. Similarly, many students muddle through a B.A. and a B.Ed. only to realize that they don’t want to teach — and that their mediocre transcript has already closed off many other options. I have known artists who chose a business degree over a fine arts degree, and regretted it in short order.

    Now, I certainly don’t think anyone should have to explain their reasons for going to university to their prospective universities before they are admitted (or their professors at any time). Their reasons are their own. And you may hesitate to call these motives “bad” ones, but they often lead to bad results, and I feel bad for the students whose lives may have been much happier if they had thought things through more fully.