Technically, my education ended with my Ph.D. nearly 30 years ago. Yet spending the past three weeks at Oxford University with George Mason University students reminds me that education continues all our lives as we make sense of the world.
Most students think in pragmatic terms: An education is a ticket to a better job and a better life. Even on this basic level, education gives life some shape. But seeing education as a more complex marriage of thought and history, the coherent shape that emerges reveals necessary connections among science, the arts, language, history and politics. Each subject is part of the world's shape, just as the continents, though separate, form the shape of a sphere.
If this sounds overly abstract, it reflects a perspective Oxford encourages in its students and faculty: Knowledge is not composed of discrete parts, but of interlocking pieces. It is deeply satisfying to walk away from a lecture with wise words floating around in your head that, as you continue to think, begin to fall into a recognizable pattern. I wish that happened every day in our educational system.
What kids are reading This weekly column will look at lists of books kids are reading in various categories. Information on the books below came from the New York Times list of children's best-sellers. New York Times best-selling children's picture books 1. The Very Fairy Princess by Julie Andrews (ages 4 to 8) 2. Lego Star Wars: The Visual Dictionary by Simon Beecroft (ages 8 to 12) 3. Fancy Nancy: Ooh La La! It's Beauty Day by Jane O'Connor (ages 4 to 8) 4. Ladybug Girl at the Beach by David Soman (ages 4 to 8) 5. City Dog, Country Frog by Jon J. Muth (ages 4 to 8)
At Oxford, giving a shape to the knowledge offered is exactly what papers and classes are all about. In recent lectures, open to the entire International Summer School at Exeter College, professors have spoken of modern literature as a reflection of the disintegrating political and social situation early in the 20th century. Many countries experienced divisions, and literature also took on fragmented approaches to time -- such as the stream-of-consciousness narrative technique. Einstein's and Freud's theories were part of this fragmentation, as were the seemingly disjointed works of the Cubist painters Picasso and Braque. The whole seemed fractured at all levels -- including, of course, the political, as Europe felt increasing unrest.
What happened to the coherent view of the world that students hoped to obtain in their studies? It never really was lost; the world simply became more inclusive in its scope, and welcomed disintegration as well as integration in its fabric. (Any scientist will tell you disintegration and fragmentation are as necessary to nature as new growth and life.)
Decades after my education has "ended," I have learned to think of the modern world in a new and different way -- one less simple, perhaps, but one that makes far more sense as I look at divisions and paradoxes all around me.
Is this worldview a harmonious entity? Far from it. But this summer I've learned to see literature and politics as part of a spherical whole -- hanging together, against all odds, with a type of gravity holding all parts together.
Are our children encouraged to make sense of the world in the classes they take daily in high school? Most of them aren't, and teachers should encourage students to form theories on what gives the world coherence.
It is no accident that the shapes of perfection are circles and spheres. What the GMU students and I have learned at Oxford is that "perfection" must be redefined to reflect what we see, even when the whole contains disparate parts. And that redefinition is just what a good education should lead us to do.
Erica Jacobs, whose column appears Wednesday, teaches at George Mason University. E-mail her at ">firstname.lastname@example.org.