Delta of Missouri Chapter Initiation
April 25, 2004
President’s Remarks: The Candid Quack, the Pebble Hunters, and the Last Lady: What Liberal Education Is Like
Family members, friends, and initiates: Good afternoon! I have tried for quite a long time now to understand just what liberal education is really all about. Some years ago I attacked the problem rather literally in a little book entitled Valuing Useless Knowledge. In that book I suggested that the habit of valuing knowledge for its own sake is an intrinsic part of the struggle for survival in its human incarnation, and that the prestige attached to an education called “liberal” is, among other things, a means by which this habit is spreading. I have not changed my position about this, but I thought both you and I might enjoy approaching the whole subject in a less literal way. I therefore would like to tell three stories—parables, if you will—that I think illuminate the main aspects of liberal education.
The first story comes from a Walt Disney movie popular nearly three decades ago; the second story is my own creation, inspired by something Isaac Newton wrote some three centuriesago*; and the third is my revision of an ancient tale from India—a tale that may have an antiquity of three millennia or more.
PARABLE ONE: THE CANDID QUACK
The 1977 musical Pete’s Dragon centers on the friendship between a homeless little boy and his good-natured companion Elliot, who just happens to be an enormous, green, flying, firebreathing dragon—the genuine article in every respect. As the pair cautiously enter the little fishing town of Passamaquaddy, the town’s hard-drinking lighthouse keeper, known affectionately as “Lampie,” catches a glimpse of them. In the tavern the following day, Lampie runs into the operator of a traveling medicine show newly arrived in town, the great Dr. Terminus, who is of course entirely unscrupulous—a snake-oil salesman, a charlatan, an utter quack.
“You’re a man of science, ain’tcha?” asks Lampie excitedly, native gullibility made ardent by his having had, yet again, at least “one too many.”
“A man of science—yes, yes I am, with degrees from the Royal Medical College, London; the Gleineneinenpetzen in Vienna, the Moulin Rouge in Paris.”
“I tell you, I saw a real dragon yesterday afternoon” declares Lampie, much to the amusement of the “doctor.” But the simple townsman persists: “What if what I just told you is true?”
“In my scientific opinion,” Terminus declares magisterially, “the existence of a dragon would have an impact of gigantic proportions: Mythology and legend would become history and science!” Dare we hope that such a scoundrel actually cares deeply about such subjects and their interrelations—that he is, after all, a Phi Beta Kappan in spirit if not in fact? Having delivered this Olympian assessment, Terminus thinks of something else. His eyebrows go up, his volume goes down, and he murmurs a melodramatic aside: “One could really make a quick buck with it!”
Dr. Terminus seems to know very well that he has switched directions, motivationally, at a rather profound level; and where his heart really lies becomes all too clear as the plot unfolds. Liberal education’s true character is based on the same discrimination, though of course in the opposite direction, as is the true character of this candid quack.
PARABLE TWO: THE PEBBLE HUNTERS
A child plays alone on a beach, occasionally picking up an especially interesting or beautiful pebble and dropping it into a bucket. After awhile, a second child happens along and asks, “What’s in the bucket?”
“Just some nice stones I’ve spotted here on the beach.”
“Can I look at them?”
“Sure.” The second child peers into the bucket, carefully removes a pebble, and examines it closely for several seconds.
“Neat! Can I help you look?”
“Sure.” So the two children continue their search, exclaiming happily at each new discovery. After awhile a third child comes along and asks, “So what’s in the bucket?”
“Just some neat stones we’ve spotted here on the beach,” replies the second child.
“So, what are you going to do with them?” asks the third, glancing at the bucket.
The other two look at each other uncertainly; the question had not occurred to them.
“They’re really kind of neat,” the second child finally says. Want to take a look?”
“But are they good for anything?” persists the third. The first child squints for several seconds.
“Possibly… yeah, probably—some of them, anyway. Stones are good for throwing, for example…”
“Okay then, let’s see what you’ve got,” agrees the third child. So the first child dutifully empties the bucket onto the sand, and the third child quickly selects a few of the smoother, rounder pebbles. “Mind if I take these?”
“It’s okay with me I guess,” says the first child, glancing quizzically at the second.
“Sure” shrugs the second child, having noticed that most of the stones selected had been found by the first child, and in any case were not among the ones he considered most interesting.
“Hey, thanks” says the third child, who in fact had remembered an unused—indeed, unopened—slingshot, one of many birthday gifts received several weeks before.
As the third child hurries away, the two children silently return the unchosen pebbles to the bucket, then resume their search. “Hey!” the second child soon shouts triumphantly. “This looks just like that one you said’s a fossil!”
Liberal education, like these pebble hunters, indulges in the sheer joy of discovery, of teaching, and of learning.
PARABLE THREE: THE LAST LADY
Once upon a time, a wise old King ruled a peaceful and prosperous land. One of the great splendors of the Kingdom was a remarkable zoo, to which strange new creatures from faraway lands constantly were being added.
The great disappointment of the King’s life was that he was childless. Who can say why such things happen?
One day the old King was reflecting—as he often did—on the fact that there was nobody to inherit the Kingdom.
“Without a clearly identified and capable successor, my beloved Kingdom will be in danger of falling into chaos. Will it not then be easy prey for one of the strong kingdoms on our borders? What then am I to do?” he asked himself.
It so happened that the Royal Zoo recently had acquired a fine new specimen—a creature from very far away indeed, and therefore quite unknown to the people of the land. They would see it soon enough, since their enlightened sovereign gave his subjects free access to the Royal Zoo; but they had not seen it yet, as it had only just arrived.
The wise King suddenly thought of what seemed to him a very good plan. He summoned six of his best and brightest subjects—lords and ladies renowned, in their own parts of the Kingdom, for wisdom and grace. After these distinguished guests had rested a day from their journeys, they of course were officially and festively welcomed. These proceedings were much too splendid and extended for me to describe here; suffice it to say that they proved so stimulating as to call for a second day of rest before getting down to business—serious business indeed, since the Kingdom’s very future was at stake!
Five days had passed since the guests’ arrival, then, when the King finally assembled them and explained as follows:
“Concealed behind the great panel before us is a remarkable new thing, never before seen in our beloved Kingdom, called an Elephant. Each of you will be given just ten seconds with it. Based on that brief exposure you will describe it to me as best you can. The one providing the best description shall inherit the Kingdom upon my death, which I fear shall not be long in coming. One thing more I should like to tell you is that, according to Ancient Wisdom, the best way to learn about the Elephant is by touch alone, with your eyes tightly shut.”
The First Lord then was escorted behind the panel. With eyes tightly shut, he happened to grasp the Elephant by its tail. “Aha,” he thought. “The Elephant is like a rope—the very rope with which I shall hang all villains when I have ascended the throne to replace our permissive old King.”
The First Lady next was allowed her ten seconds with the creature. With eyes tightly shut she, being quite petite, happened to touch the Elephant’s leg. “Aha,” she thought, “the Elephant is like a tree—the trees among which I will take my ease when the Royal Forests are mine.”
The Second Lord then had his chance. Eyes tightly shut, he happened to press against the Elephant’s massive side. “Aha, he thought, “the Elephant is like nothing so much as a wall—but not as strong as the Castle’s walls when I have fortified them to make up for the old King’s neglect of them.”
The Second Lady took her turn. Eyes tightly closed, she happened to grasp the Elephant’s smooth, sharp tusk. “Aha,” thought she. “The Elephant is like a spear—but not as sharp as the spears of the Royal Army I shall soon command!”
The Third Lord, who was quite tall, closed his eyes and chanced to touch the Elephant’s ear. “Aha,” he said to himself. “The Elephant is like a fan—the fan with which I shall cool myself as I sit upon my throne.”
What the final contestant—the Last Lady—did, you will hear soon enough.
The King reassembled his six noble subjects and asked for their reports.
Said the First Lord: “It seems to me, Your Highness, that the Elephant is like nothing so much as a piece of rope.”
Said the First Lady, “I should suggest, Your Highness, that the Elephant is very like a tree.”
Said the Second Lord, “May I propose instead, Your Highness, that the Elephant is essentially like a great wall.”
Said the Second Lady, “I am perplexed by these reports, Your Highness, for I found the Elephant to be very like a spear.”
“No, no,” objected the Third Lord. “The Elephant surely is like a fan.”
As you might imagine, confusion prevailed as the five fell to arguing with one another about what the Elephant is really like. At length, the King called for the Last Lady’s report.
“The Elephant,” she said, “is a huge creature with a tail like a rope, legs like trees, sides like massive walls, tusks like spears, and ears like large fans. It also has a long trunk like an enormous snake.”
“Foul, Foul, I say!” shouted the First Lord. “She has stolen our descriptions and cobbled them together as if they were her own. This is an outrage!” As you can imagine, the proceedings were collapsing into chaos.
“Silence,” commanded the King. Turning to the Last Lady and looking at her quite severely, he asked, “How can you have learned so much about the Elephant in only ten seconds, and with your eyes tightly closed?”
“Well,” she replied, “at first I thought the Elephant was like a snake. But then I remembered that Your Highness had not really COMMANDED us to keep our eyes shut; you only had said that that was the approach recommended by Ancient Wisdom. Now, when Ancient Wisdom advises keeping ourselves in the dark, I do not think we are bound to abide by it. So in my last few seconds, I opened my eyes, stepped back, and saw the whole Elephant.” The Last Lady was not exactly ashamed, but under the circumstances she could not help feeling a little embarrassed. “I hope I have not offended Your Highness,” she concluded.
“This is an abomination!” thundered the First Lord. “To the gallows with her!”
“That is quite enough from you,” commanded the King. Again the group fell silent. The King looked at the Last Lady for several long moments. Nobody spoke; nobody moved. Then the King’s severe expression softened gradually into a wide, joyful grin. To the Last Lady he announced, in a loud voice so that all could hear and there would be no mistake about it later, “Surely you shall have the Kingdom; may your reign be long and happy.” And so she did; and so it was.
In conclusion, then, liberal education discriminates, it indulges, and it enlightens—not just for the few years of one’s undergraduate formal education, but for a lifetime of ongoing learning. I want to close, then, by congratulating the initiates not on a job well done, but on a joy well begun!
*Toward the end of his life, Newton (1642-1727) wrote:
I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a little boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me. (Bartlett’s, 16th ed., p. 282)
Robert B. Graber
President, Delta of Missouri