On Wednesday morning, I was delayed getting to school as I had to replace a dead battery on our van. Having jumped our 2008 Honday Odyssey via our 1990 Volvo and exhausting my handyman abilities (it doesn’t take much), I drove the vehicle to our local AutoZone in search of someone who knew more about basic car maintenance than I did.
I was helped by a delightful gentleman in his late sixties named Frederick. In the midst of a surprisingly enlightening discussion of battery options, Frederick told me that he had been in the Navy before finishing his undergraduate and graduate degrees in music, writing his dissertation on a 15th century French composer in King Louis’ court, teaching as a professor at Denison University, a liberal arts college in Ohio, and singing opera in New York, New Jersey, and across Europe. He then retired to Montana five years ago with his wife (who retires in March from her payroll post at Montana State University) to be with friends, and continues singing with the Intermountain Opera Bozeman whenever he can.
This is the guy who changed my van battery this morning.
This is the guy who gave me an inspiring start to my day.
In April of 2014, The Atlantic published a piece titled, “Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers” by Scott Samuelson, a philosophy professor at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In the article, Samuelson wrote:
Once, when I told a guy on a plane that I taught philosophy at a community college, he responded, “So you teach Plato to plumbers?” Yes, indeed. But I also teach Plato to nurses’ aides, soldiers, ex-cons, preschool music teachers, janitors, Sudanese refugees, prospective wind-turbine technicians, and any number of other students who feel like they need a diploma as an entry ticket to our economic carnival.
So why, according to Samuelson, should plumbers study Plato?
My answer is that we should strive to be a society of free people, not simply one of well-compensated managers and employees. Henry David Thoreau is as relevant as ever when he writes, “We seem to have forgotten that the expression ‘a liberal education’ originally meant among the Romans one worthy of free men; while the learning of trades and professions by which to get your livelihood merely, was considered worthy of slaves only.”
I met a free man today in Frederick – humble, helpful, well-spoken, and not the least bit insecure that, after a career in academia, he is now in the business of getting his hands dirty installing van batteries (and doing a fine job of it, I might add). He retold the major twists and turns of his life’s story with humor, spoke of his joy singing opera, and relished the fact that he and his wife had no regrets leaving their hustle-and-bustle life across the Hudson River from New York City to come be with friends in little Bozeman, Montana.
From everything I gathered in our short time together, Frederick has made for himself a good life, but what does that mean, and is it the same for everyone? Charles Taylor, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Philosophy at McGill University, writes in A Secular Age:
Every person, and every society, lives with or by some conception(s) of what human flourishing is: What constitutes a fulfilled life? What makes life really worth living? What would we most admire people for?
At Petra Academy, these are the kinds of questions we ask students, because these are the kinds of questions students will spend the rest of their lives trying to answer. Ours is an education not just of information, but of formation; not just of the study of characters, but of character itself; not just of pursuing truth, but of knowing the One Who is and has the Word(s) of Truth (John 1:1; John 6:68-69). Fulfillment, worth, admiration – these all flourish as fruit from this quest.
Next week, I’m due for a haircut from my barber, who makes a good living cutting hair by day while joyfully – strangely – reading obscure European philosophers by night. He takes seriously what he does, runs a good shop, travels a bit with his family, and always has interesting ideas to discuss with those in his chair. It seems a good life, one that rewards him with more than a buck, for he – like Frederick – has gained a freedom afforded by the Humanities, and that is a good and glorious thing.