Thursday, August 4, 2011

What is the point of education?

This morning in Paris I walked from Gare de Lyon to my office.

As I got off the train, I looked at the metal and glass roof covering the 19th century station, taking in the monumental design of the construction and giving a brief thought to the industrial revolution. In the main hall I glanced at the tiny Doric-style pilasters on the upper wall, thinking about the original builders' efforts to beautify the place in spite of its purely utilitarian purpose, and trying to decide whether they looked good or kitsch. As I walked over to the next indoor space, the ceiling suddenly became a dark, uneven mass of modern insulation material, whose ugliness immediately made it obvious that the pilasters had indeed been beautiful.

The Charles de Gaulle bridge was blocked to traffic by a police car. The policeman was outside his car, half laying on the hood -- and he was holding a gun pointed at some guy standing just a few feet from him! I parsed the scene quickly. No other policeman around him. Some people nearby were walking peacefully, unaware of what was going on. And what was the guy doing? -- ah. Holding a camera and talking a picture of the policeman!

Farther on, a truck was lying on its side, all blackened and smoking, and next to it was a filmcrew. I stopped and gaped for a while as they were shooting a scene. Next year I will look for a police movie taking place in Paris, and try to recognize it. Meanwhile everyone ignored me. When I was a student, I could never stop on a Paris street for more than a moment before being rudely propositioned by strange men. What has changed in the intervening 25 years? Surely the only possible explanation, as I decided, was that Paris men must have become more considerate.

By the bridge, there was an old barge marked "Armée du Salut" and covered with graffiti. The Salvation Army in Paris used to have a barge designed by Le Corbusier, to provide sleeping quarters for homeless people in the winter. I wondered if that was it.

Walking along Gare d'Austerlitz, I admired the sculptures on the building's facade, as well as the coats of arms of the cities served by the trains from that station. Too bad I don't know the interpretation of their symbolism!

I passed several signs about officers who died fighting for the liberation of Paris from the German Occupation in August 1944. I tried vaguely to picture what it must have been like then, but my imagination failed me.

A sober-looking middle-aged beggar was sitting on the sidewalk. In front of him, two yellow coins were shining against the bright red felt of his hat. I did not add anything to it, but nodded hello in acknowledgement of his existence.

At the entrance of Jardin des plantes I was greeted by a stern-looking statue of Lamarck, with a sign claiming that he founded the theory of evolution. For the first time I noticed a funny inscription engraved on the base: "La postérité vous admirera. Elle vous vengera, mon père." (Posterity will admire you. It will be your revenge, my father.)

There is so much to see, everywhere in Paris! It is a feast for the eyes. The past, the present and the future meet in an amazingly stimulating mix.

The book Factory girls raises a question: what is the point of education? Today I thought of one answer. When we look around us, what we see awakens echoes in our mind, memories of things read in books or learned in school. Old ruins "speak" to us, events take on deeper meaning through references to other events. That knowledge adds an invisible dimension to our experience. In that way, it makes our life richer. The more culture we have, the more vivid those experiences. Ultimately, education helps us live a fuller life.

That's the answer which I plan to propose to my group of freshman students when we meet in September.

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