Two Essentials for Learning

LEAVE it to Woody Allen to give course descriptions the pasting they often deserve. Thus, "Economic Theory" turns out to be a "systematic application and critical evaluation of the basic analytic concepts of economic theory, with an emphasis on money and why it's good."

Professors laugh at Mr. Allen's parodies (how could they not?), even as they set about the task of penning next year's turgid catalog entries. It speaks to the widening gap between how undergraduates spend their time and what they badly need to learn. I am referring to the life's work involved in learning how to laugh, and how to pray.

For some, the payoff of an undergraduate education comes by way of even higher education. For others, it is measured in the dollar amounts of a job. But the only result that really matters is calculated on a simpler scale: Will one's experience of liberal learning last a lifetime and, in the process, help to create a fully human life? Answering "yes" is becoming increasingly difficult as colleges become more notable for the pinched face than for the playful.

Do I have courses on the order of "Laughter 101" or "Intermediate Prayer" in mind? Hardly. But laughter and prayer can be incorporated into learning. It is important to understand the gap between noble ideals and everyday life. And the laughter that speaks to what might otherwise crack the heart is both therapeutic and redemptive. It places the local in a larger perspective.

This kind of laughter can be found not on MTV's "Beavis and Butthead," but rather among the best that has been known and said: the richness of Don Quixote's battle against windmills, Huck Finn's account of life among the Grangerfords, Emily Dickinson's sharp, often acerbic wit, the sheer dailiness of Leopold Bloom's comic adventures on 16 June 1904, and perhaps most of all, the writings of Dante and Shakespeare.

Learning how to laugh is a powerful tool in the increasingly complicated business of psychic survival. Those who lack a comic perspective cannot laugh at themselves, much less at the world; they remain gloomy outsiders at life's party. Even if students eventually get the high-paying jobs they hanker for, a sense of humor is likely to be as important an ingredient for success as any skill acquired in a class on management strategy or chemistry lab.

Much the same thing can be said of learning how to pray. If it is important to know those things that can be known, it is equally important to recognize those things which speak exclusively to the soul. Prayer is a way of celebrating the wonder and mystery of the world. It is the peace that passeth understanding.

While they can certainly be found among religious communities and occasionally in theology courses, the "prayers" I have in mind are expressed even more richly by the Psalmist who lifts a voice to the hills, and by those poets who followed, however differently, in his path: George Herbert, John Donne, John Milton, John Keats, Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, and once again, Emily Dickinson.

Secular knowledge, especially in the sciences, has led to impressive discoveries, but I worry that these have often come at the cost of intellectual arrogance. Others - principally in the humanities - now argue that reality is entirely a matter of social construction.

Laughter and prayer are being crowded out. But our students need large reservoirs of both, because discovering how a good person should live has always been the work of a lifetime, and it is likely to become even more complicated during the next century.

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