My wife and I live on a little hill on a country lane in Kentucky. From my front porch, which is surrounded by trees and flowers, I can see farmland for twenty miles or so. It is my favorite place to be. And my favorite thing to do is to sit there in my oak rocking chair and read on a summer afternoon.
I do it for no other reason than just to do it. I can sit there, listening to the birds, and ponder whatever book I happen to be in the middle of, which, right now, is William Faulkner’s Light In August.
Of course, a good book is about more than what it’s about. It points to realities larger than it describes. It makes you think about your life, or the lives of others, or the world around you. It can also make you think about God.
What Faulkner made me think about was time. He uses it in his stories in a very interesting way, and the other day, I just had to close the book and ponder how we modern people think about the future.
The first problem with the way we think about the future is that, basically, that’s all we think about.
We are always thinking about what we are going to do. We are always preparing for something that has not yet happened and is not yet happening. Everything we do seems to be for the sake of something else. We never do anything for its own sake.
Now there is nothing wrong with being prepared, but it would be kind of nice if what we were always preparing for would actually come to be so that we could enjoy it. We seem to spend our whole lives this way, always looking forward, sometimes looking back (usually to help us look forward better), but we never exist in the present.
When does now come?
I was reminded of this little existential reflection recently when listening to a friend talk about whether schools should be wasting their time with things like literature and philosophy. He didn’t mention it in his little diatribe, but he could easily have included the fine arts in his indictment.
In fact, it is interesting that the term “fine arts” refers to things done for their own sake. The word “fine” comes from the Latin finis, which means “end,” as opposed to “means.” Fine arts—for example, dancing, painting, architecture, music, poetry—means, literally, things done for their own sake. They are things we do, not in order to produce or bring about anything else; They are their own end.
We don’t place the humanities—literature, history, and philosophy—under the fine arts, but they are similar in this regard: They too serve, to a great extent, as ends in themselves.
Why are we so tempted to think that school should be about means only, and not ends? We think that studying, say, business is worthwhile because it can help us make money. Or computer science because it will help us get a job.
In fact, we have our priorities upside down. The things that are really worth something—those for which we do everything else—are the very things we think are less valuable.
But what’s wrong with spending some time in a curriculum studying the things that are worthwhile in themselves—those we would do once we had worked for years and had enough money?
Well, that’s enough pondering. I’ve got to get back to Faulkner. Now.
Originally published in The Classical Teacher Winter 2015-16 edition.