Posted by: Alexandre Borovik | May 28, 2008

What is left after everything is forgotten

My comrade-in-arms muriel sent me this quote on education by the early 20th-century Canadian humorist (and economics professor), Stephen Leacock from his book, “Literary Lapses“:

Educations are divided into splendid educations, thorough
classical educations, and average educations. All very old men have splendid educations; all men who apparently know nothing else have thorough classical educations; nobody has an average education.

An education, when it is all written out on foolscap, covers nearly ten sheets. It takes about six years of severe college training to acquire it.

muriel coniniues: On that assumption he proposes writing out an “education” for those who haven’t the time to acquire it the slow way…. But I’ve always been intrigued by his implicit question: what actually remains in one’s head from an “education”?

I think, it is a normative question; it is almost impossible to answer it factually, we can only formulate what should remain from education. I personally love a one word answer “criteria”; Leacock wrote, at length, about “culture”. But here, I would like to quote from The Aims of Education by Alfred North Whitehead about “style“:

The most austere of all mental qualities; I mean the sense for style. It is an aesthetic sense, based on admiration for the direct attainment of a foreseen end, simply and without waste. Style in art, style in literature, style in science, style in logic, style in practical execution have fundamentally the same aesthetic qualities, namely, attainment and restraint. The love of a subject in itself and for itself, where it is not the sleepy pleasure of pacing a mental quarter-deck, is the love of style as manifested in that study.

…Style, in its finest sense, is the last acquirement of the educated mind; it is also the most useful. It pervades the whole being. The administrator with a sense for style hates waste; the engineer with a sense for style economises his material; the artisan with a sense for style prefers good work. Style is the ultimate morality of mind.

…Style is the fashioning of power, the restraining of power… with style the end is attained without side issues, without raising undesirable inflammations. With style you attain your end and nothing but your end. With style the effect of your activity is calculable, and foresight is the last gift of gods to men. With style your power is increased, for your mind is not distracted with irrelevancies, and you are more likely to attain your object. Now style is the exclusive privilege of the expert. Whoever heard of the style of an amateur painter, of the style of an amateur poet? Style is always the product of specialist study, the peculiar contribution of specialism to culture.



  1. I would suggest three things that remain, all related to what has been said. (1) “taste” which is perhaps the same as Whitehead’s style, but extends to appreciation as well as production; (2) a sense for the contours of the intellectual landscape, e.g., the main questions and what counts as an answer to those questions; (3) awareness of the order of rank, i.e., what is serious, permanent, beautiful as distinct from what is trivial, transitory, and ugly or unfinished.

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