Let me tell you one of the earliest in my career as a teacher. It was January of 1940 and I was fresh out of graduate school starting my first at the University of Kansas City. Part of the student body was a beanpole with hair on top who came into my class, sat down, folded his arms, and looked at me as if to say "All right, teach me something." Two weeks later we started Hamlet. Three weeks later he came into my office with his hands on his hips. "Look," he said, "I came here to be a pharmacist. Why do I have to read this stuff" And not having a book of his own to point to, he pointed to mine which was lying on the desk.
New as I was to the faculty, I could have told this specimen a number of things. I could have pointed out that he had enrolled, not in a drugstore-mechanics school, but in a college and that at the end of his course meant to reach for a scroll that read Bachelor of Science. It would not read: Qualified Pill-Grinding Technician. It would certify that he had specialized in pharmacy, but it would further certify that he had been exposed to some of the ideas mankind has generated within its history. That is to say, he had not entered a technical training school but a university and in universities students enroll for both training and education.
I could have told him all this, but it was fairly obvious he wasn't going to be around long enough for it to matter.
Nevertheless, I was young and I had a high sense of duty and I tried to put it this way: "For the rest of your life," I said, "your days are going to average out to about twenty-four hours. They will be a little shorter when you are in love, and a little longer when you are out of love, but the average will tend to hold. For eight of these hours, more or less, you will be asleep."
"Then for about eight hours of each working day you will, I hope, be usefully employed. Assume you have gone through pharmacy school — or engineering, or law school, or whatever — during those eight hours you will be using your professional skills. You will see to it that the cyanide stays out of the aspirin, that the bull doesn't jump the fence, or that your client doesn't go to the electric chair as a result of your incompetence. These are all useful pursuits. They involve skills every man must respect, and they can all bring you basic satisfactions. Along with everything else, they will probably be what puts food on your table, supports your wife, and rears your children. They will be your income, and may it always suffice."
"But having finished the day's work, what do you do with those other eight hours Let's say you go home to your family. What sort of family are you raising Will the children ever be exposed to a reasonably penetrating idea at home Will you be presiding over a family that maintains some contact with the great democratic intellect Will there be a book in the house Will there be a painting a reasonably sensitive man can look at without shuddering Will the kids ever get to hear Bach"
That is about what I said, but this particular pest was not interested. "Look," he said, "you professors raise your kids your way; I'll take care of my own. Me, I'm out to make money."
"I hope you make a lot of it," I told him, "because you're going to be badly stuck for something to do when you're not signing checks."
Fourteen years later I am still teaching, and I am here to tell you that the business of the college is not only to train you, but to put you in touch with what the best human minds have thought. If you have no time for Shakespeare, for a basic look at philosophy, for the continuity of the fine arts, for that lesson of man's development we call history — then you have no business being in college. You are on your way to being that new species of mechanized savage, the push-button Neanderthal. Our colleges inevitably graduate a number of such life forms, but it cannot be said that they went to college; rather the college went through them — without making contact.
No one gets to be a human being unaided. There is not time enough in a single lifetime to invent for oneself everything one needs to know in order to be a civilized human.
Assume, for example, that you want to be a physicist. You pass the great stone halls of, say, M. I. T., and there cut into the stone are the names of the scientists. The chances are that few, if any, of you will leave your names to be cut into those stones. Yet any of you who managed to stay awake through part of a high school course in physics, knows more about physics than did many of those great scholars of the past. You know more because they left you what they knew, because you can start from what the past learned for you.
And as this is true of the techniques of mankind, so it is true of mankind's spiritual resources. Most of these resources, both technical and spiritual, are stored in books. Books are man's peculiar accomplishment. When you have read a book, you have added to your human experience. Read Homer and your mind includes a piece of Homer's mind. Through books you can acquire at least fragments of the mind and experience of Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare — the list is endless. For a great book is necessarily a gift; it offers you a life you have not the time to live yourself, and it takes you into a world you have not the time to travel in literal time. A civilized mind is, in essence, one that contains many such lives and many such worlds. If you are too much in a hurry, or too arrogantly proud of your own limitations, to accept as a gift to your humanity some pieces of the minds of Aristotle, or Chaucer, or Einstein, you are neither a developed human nor a useful citizen of a democracy.
I think it was La Rochefoucauld who said that most people would never fall in love if they hadn't read about it. He might have said that no one would ever manage to become human if they hadn't read about it.
I speak, I'm sure, for the faculty of the liberal arts college and for the faculties of the specialized schools as well, when I say that a university has no real existence and no real purpose except as it succeeds in putting you in touch, both as specialists and as humans, with those human minds your human mind needs to include. The faculty, by its very existence, says implicitly: "We have been aided by many people, and by many books, in our attempt to make ourselves some sort of storehouse of human experience. We are here to make available to you, as best we can, that expertise."