On Life and Letters

We take it for granted today that someone can write an essay on practically anything, but Michel de Montaigne was a true pioneer in showing the world that this was possible. Dr. Peter Shoemaker, former Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Studies at CUA, gives a stimulating discussion of yesterday’s reading by Montaigne in the video below.

Dr. Shoemaker mentions Montaigne’s comparison of life to the Olympic Games: that some people are like the athletes competing, some are like the vendors who sell things there, and some are like the spectators. Although we are used to hearing about the disadvantages of being a spectator, Montaigne means to show the value of being able to stand back, observe, and think about things as they happen. According to him, this is what a good education enables a person to do.

These days, we see the dangers of two opposite extremes regarding education: On the one hand, if a person chooses to depend on an expensive college education in order to be able to make a living later (perhaps going into great debt in the process), it is a mistake to approach that education with no thought for possible future employment. On the other hand, if a person sees a college education as nothing more than an economic investment with some social perks, that person is missing out on the additional opportunities that a college education can provide broaden and strengthen one’s mind.

With the right opportunities, a person can develop the advantageous ability to observe well and think well no matter what that person specializes in or does for a living, regardless of even whether or not that person goes to college.  College, however, can provide a unique opportunity in a person’s life to develop this ability. What do you think are the advantages of the ability to stand back, observe, and think about things? What are some ways to cultivate this ability in college?

(By the way, Dr. Shoemaker also mentions study abroad in his response. For more information about study abroad programs available at CUA, please visit this link to our CUAbroad office.)

Photo: “Roman Colosseum in my eye” by El Diario De Una Expatriada is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Jaesen Evangelista says:

    I love movies. I LOVE movies. It’s what I wrote my college application essays about and what I tell strangers if I had to tell them one thing about me. I love love love movies. And the reason I love movies so much is that all you have to do is watch. Just sit and watch. You have that experience of being engrossed in a story right in front of you and you have the opportunity to learn from what the story teaches, to critique whether or not it was told the best way, or to obsess over a new character. Either way, watching movies is a spectator activity and requires people to not only watch but to learn and think.

    Learning from a liberal arts education and going to college is a lot like watching movies. You are taken from an entirely new perspective from what you once had and urged to learn and think about things for yourself. The advantages to this are endless. Not only would you be more knowledgeable about the world around you, you’d feel utmost compassion to people who you may have misjudged or mistreated. You would make your own judgments and act in a way that you feel is right. In a similar way, a liberal arts education gives a sense of identity with yourself and with the world, probably even God. When students are taught the liberal arts, they see themselves as part of something bigger and they work to understand what that something is, whether that’s a divine being or just the vast universe. Their identity and their purpose are more clear to them and the world around them is more clear too.

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