By Tom O’Malley
In his essay, “Of Studies,” Francis Bacon points out that studies serve for “delight, ornament and ability.” Bacon was writing at the end in the 16th century, but this piece seems surprisingly up to date and should be read by students and teachers alike.
Back in Bacon’s day, most people had very little formal education. In fact, very few people could even read. But with the advent of the movable type printing press, more and more books were being printed and the literacy rates began to grow.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the availability of books helped create a new middle class that quickly saw the vocational gold that could be mined by reading and study. And even more, reading could put them on equal footing with the aristocracy in a society of unbalanced scales.
This new middle class knew intuitively what we now take for granted. Today, I find this work to be one of the best treatments on the long-standing value of a liberal education.
Too often, the idea of a good education is equated with money. It is an expensive proposition to earn a good education, and the result of a good education might mean more money for the person educated. There is nothing wrong with money. It is true that a well-educated person can expect to earn more than a poorly educated one. All this has little to do with test scores, or academic titles to be written after our names.
Bacon, the educational philosopher, was spot-on. He saw how studies had led his society to an explosion of innovation and invention. His world seemed a bigger place, an empire of ideas that quickly translated into a better quality of life. Consider his rubric.
Delight: Learning is a delightful pursuit in and of itself. The act of learning something new is one of the inherent joys of life. Let’s face it. We live in a tiny corner of the galaxy. Look up! Our little out-of-the-way place in the galaxy offers a lifetime – no – a thousand lifetimes of learning opportunities.
Bacon urged his readers to pay attention: The delight is in the details. It may be found in the complex environment of a tiny nameless stream that most folks just step over and ignore. And yet, this ribbon of water offers greater complexity than a novel by James Joyce.
Too much of school is about simple, one-dimensional ideas. Our students need to dig in and explore the complexity of the world. Teachers must allow the time and creativity for this.
Ornament: Think Christmas trees. Each blinking ornament is a reminder of the aesthetic power of light. We are enlightened by study. It doesn’t mean we have to have expensive clothes or fancy haircuts. It is something more: ideas ornamented by experience. Bacon suggested that men and women are adorned by the ideas of Shakespeare and Galileo.
Ability: Studies enable us in the truest sense. We are able to think. We are able to know. And most of all, we are able to create something unique. That is because each human being is able to process ideas in a unique way. A computer can process millions of bits of data in seconds. Humans operate more slowly, but the results are the rewards of time well spent.
At the end of his essay, Bacon affirms that studies “perfect nature and are perfected by experience.” That is why an excellent education requires the learner to put knowledge into practice in the wider schoolroom of the world. To spend your life in learning is to expand our limited horizons far beyond the shadowy mornings of sun-risen light.