We live in the lake community where my husband spent summers as a boy. He and his boyhood friends built forts, acted out The Hobbit with homemade swords, and tested many brave and boyish notions. Once, after reading about regalia wings, the boys hoped to fly winged bicycles by launching them off a big wooden ramp by the lake. Day after day, like woodsy Wright brothers, they worked, securing handcrafted wings, doing test runs across the grass, and repairing broken efforts.
One afternoon one of the boys climbed atop his bicycle seat and, before anyone had time to cheer, promptly landed in the murky lake. (Today as grown men they still marvel over their own ingenuity and claim firmly, “If only the wings had been bigger…”)
Undaunted, these young boys challenged themselves in new ways. Next they decided to try and swim the full miles across the lake. Wearing the life jackets their parents insisted upon, the boys splashed and sputtered, gulping as much water as air, and finally circled back to the shore in defeat. After several unsuccessful attempts that year the boys contented themselves with fishing, catching crawdads, and climbing trees.
Still, the distant shore beckoned. The boys grew stronger. The next summer they set out for the long swim and, despite the resistant pull of their flotation devices, paddled their arms through whitecap waters until they reached the other side. With surprisingly little fanfare they swam back immediately. They knew the real dream was to swim across without life jackets. They would have to wait. And grow.
Two physically active summers later, as if by magic, the boys had muscles. Eyeing the distant shore they set off with powerful and effective strokes, their flotation devices cast aside. Forward, onward, faster, harder. Arm over arm, breathing and kicking in a splashing rhythm, they pushed. At the middle of the lake where the water reached dark, mysterious depths, they felt themselves grow fearful, but they steeled themselves to press on. As they swam, cognizant of the waters below, they became all the more aware of the shore ahead.
Panting, smiling, marveling, they pulled themselves onto the wooded hill. Turning, they looked across, still catching their collective breaths. No one spoke. Now a full mile away, their boyhood homes looked small and surprisingly different. More than merely attaining a measurable “goal,” the boys had shared something they would never forget. Over the years that followed they continued to swim together for the sheer joy of it. They became stronger and more agile and turned into teens. Each learned quickly to drive a boat and to water-ski with ease. They spent all their spare change on boat fuel to try new feats along the lake’s perimeter.
On Saturdays in high school, after midnight when ice time was least expensive, the longtime friends played together in a scrappy indoor ice hockey league. They had started by skating in jeans and tennis shoes on the same frozen lake where they swam. Now they had jobs and hockey equipment. They gathered in the absurdly early hours for the love of the sport and the satisfaction of playing together. They played throughout college. When they all became married men, eventually they taught their own children to swim, ski, and be active. Even when the band of friends watched their own teens surpass them in skating ability, the now admiring (and a little envious) fathers found pleasure in the persistent physicality of their shared lives.
Approaching the Shore
When a child begins his education, he is like those little boys on safe shores near home. He may have a distant goal, but it is one that cannot be rushed or easily attained. He must build strength, gain wisdom, and retain focus. When he finishes, he may or may not set his sights on new shores or greater distances, but he will have gained something of worth and pleasure that cannot be taken from him. If he shares this with others it will be an experience they will remember for a lifetime.
In the realm of education, the worth and pleasure is in coming to understand mathematics, literature, science, Latin, history, art, or music more fully than we ever could have understood on our own. The worth and pleasure is in contemplating ideas and grappling with complex problems such as we all encounter in our daily lives. The worth and pleasure is in conversations with other educated persons, whether these sometimes feel scrappy or become far more elevated.
The worth and pleasure of an education is in reading, writing, and thinking more deeply than we could at the start. A true education adds ratification and interest to our lives. We delight in meeting those who are more educated than we are; this gives us a renewed glimpse of the distant shore.
Abigail Adams wrote, “Learning is not attained by chance; it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence.” Abigail, considered one of the most scholarly first ladies in history, was educated entirely at home. She read widely in her father’s library full of English and French literature. She listened with interest as intelligent persons came to visit the family. As wife of the second president of the United States and mother of the sixth, she advocated for a strong education for both boys and girls and was a prolific, eloquent letter writer. She seemed to love writing.
What are the pleasures of a true education? How shall we give our children what they need to traverse the waters with sufficient courage to arrive at the distant shore? We set our sights clearly, surround ourselves with those who also strive for what we seek, and pursue learning with steadfastness. Perhaps our vision ought to be shaped by the words of Edith Hamilton, another classically educated person and author of The Greek Way. She said:
It has always seemed strange to me that in our endless discussions about education so little stress is laid on the pleasure of becoming an educated person, the enormous interest it adds to life. To be able to be caught up into the world of thought—that is to be educated.