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‘Specialization is for Insects’: The Purpose of Education

April 6, 2016

Music-bRobert A. Heinlein, an influential and popular science fiction writer, once wrote, “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” I’m going to take some creative license and add one thing to this list: A human being should be able to identify a German augmented sixth chord in a musical score.

Whitehead-class-bFortunately for me, an English major, I took Professor Launa Whitehead’s notoriously difficult Music History course this semester, and can now cross this off. In fact, Professor Whitehead’s course has taught me to do many things that I can now add to — and cross off of — my version of Heinlein’s list. This course, though the most challenging one of my entire college career, has been invaluable in stretching my capabilities as a student and as a human being. It has also prompted some serious reflection on my part on the purpose of education and how that education influences life.

The world is an easy place to become one-sided, static and stagnant. From an impossibly young age, most of us are expected to choose what we want to do or to be when we reach adulthood; and then we are forced to spend our education in pursuit of that choice — and in the meantime we paint ourselves into corners in the hopes that one day those corners will turn into tidy professions with decent salaries and a nice level of stability.

But here at Southern Virginia University, we have a different method. We use education to expand our opportunities, not diminish them. Our curriculum encourages business students to study astronomy. It motivates philosophy majors to learn computer programming. It gives English majors the opportunity to know how to analyze some of music’s greatest compositions. Instead of painting ourselves into corners, we’re knocking down walls.

One day when we all graduate, we will, unavoidably, enter some kind of profession. But thanks to Southern Virginia, we will do so with the kind of intellectual freedom that changes the world, rather than allowing it to continue on in the same way as before. We will know how to think creatively, how to think energetically, how to think differently.

How to think less like an insect and more like a human being.

(Post by Braxton Boyer ’16. Photos by Russ Dixon.)

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  1. Delaney says:

    This is a fabulous blog post – and that course IS one of the most challenging and rewarding of my time at SVU.

  2. Nathanael says:

    A great post, I’ve taken some classes and learned things I never would have had a chance to explore at a larger school or in a more specialized program. As an interesting side note, however, decision making in groups of social insects, like bees, is actually remarkably similar to the way the neurons in our own brains arrive at a consensus without a “central planner.”

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/you-have-a-hive-mind/

  3. Doug Himes says:

    This is thoughtful, inspiring, and artistic. Thank you, Braxton!