Searching for a half-remembered vignette, I found a gem: a speech by Houghton College  President Daniel Chamberlain . Stuck in my memory banks for the past decade has been a fragment of an anecdote told by somebody (Isaac Asimov?) during an interview (with Bill Moyers?) on a PBS television series of some sort. As I (mis?)recalled it, a famous judge (Learned Hand?) was found on his deathbed studying a Latin grammar book. Why? When asked, he reputedly gave a wise answer.
The quest to find the source of that story was going nowhere until I discovered Chamberlain's presentation online. It relates:
When Franklin D. Roosevelt went to Washington for his inauguration in 1933, he decided to visit Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who was 92 years of age. Holmes was in his library reading Plato. President-elect Roosevelt asked, "What are you doing, Mr. Justice?" to which Holmes responded, "I am improving my mind."
Precisely! And the rest of Chamberlain's address is even richer. It discusses what real learning can and should aim to produce:
Liberal arts education focuses on the fundamental skills of life --- analysis, inquiry, understanding, and expression, as well as on the essential tasks of life which prepare us to use our knowledge and exercise our responsibilities in intelligent, ethical, thoughtful and flexible ways. The first goal of the liberating arts is to free individuals from the shackles of sloth, ignorance, and prejudice while cultivating a person's character: intelligent citizenship, social responsibility, personal integrity. The liberal arts are those that develop the whole person --- soul, body, mind, and spirit --- to serve the wide-ranging needs of society.
A pragmatic or professional education is targeted at developing expertise that will result in employment, and talent for the specific skill area is an essential prerequisite. But a liberal arts education develops not just the skills but the individual who possesses the skills, and it educates for character, emphasizing teamwork, achievement, modesty, good conduct. Quite frankly, in the game of life, character supersedes talent.
Moreover, as Chamberlain jokes, "The benefit of a classical education is that it teaches you to despise the wealth that it prevents you from accumulating."
And, most fascinating and important: the college where this talk was given is a profoundly religious institution --- a religion which, in this instance at least, is dedicated to freedom of thought ...