The Cracker Barrel: Keep the 'L' in learning

We should encourage our young to explore as many aspects of human inquiry as possible, and to view education as more an adventure than an apprenticeship.

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A recent visit with my wife to our granddaughter, Grace, currently a student at the University of Wisconsin in River Falls, triggered a number of intriguing reactions.

First, and most delightful, was the impression the River Falls campus made on both of us as Grace guided us around. The beauty and placement of the many brick buildings engendered a feeling of calm and dignity often missing in places of higher learning. It took me a few minutes to realize the good vibes came, in part, from the absence of vehicular traffic in the center of campus, where the buildings were linked by sidewalks instead of streets, thus avoiding the sounds and odors of cars and trucks and buses.

Another contributor was the amazing variety and beauty of the trees and shrubs and flowers which so artfully decorate the place. Ranging in size from huge century-old pines and oaks down to recently planted shrubs and flowers, the presence of well-kept greenery doubled the sense of peace and dignity.

It probably helped that we were visiting on a Saturday, when many of the students were gone for the weekend, but Grace assured us that the place felt peaceful even when swarming with kids.

Experiencing such tranquility provoked memories of my own student years. Back then, unless you had a clear desire to pursue a specific professional degree in medicine or science or engineering, the idea was to achieve what was called a “liberal arts” education.


The “liberal” in liberal arts had little or nothing to do with political leanings. Its roots go back to the Latin word “liber,” meaning free or unrestricted. The idea was to get a broad education across the humanities, in the hope of learning to formulate effective arguments, to communicate well, to develop critical thinking, and to solve problems.

To achieve these goals, students undertook the study of literature, philosophy, mathematics, history, writing, sociology, psychology, creative arts and more. The emphasis was not on getting a job or eventually making lots of money. As might be expected, the main disadvantage of a liberal arts education was lack of preparation for employment.

But back in an era when students rarely came out of college carrying stupendous loads of debt, the absence of specific job training seemed more acceptable.

Now, of course, the emphasis is definitely on money. The undeniable fact is that getting an education is expensive. Unless a student’s family is rolling in riches, he or she obviously needs to give careful thought to what lies beyond graduation, and specifically to one’s earning power.

Like it or not, a college education has become more about making money than becoming a well-rounded and thoughtful citizen; more about earning than learning.

Sadly, we also seem to have lost our ability to disagree civilly, and seem to be suffering from what might be called a hardening of the attitudes instead of the arteries. In our moments of greatest clarity we must surely understand that such inflexibility does us far more harm than good.

How do we find our way back to health? I, for one, believe a good first step would be to encourage our young to explore as many aspects of human inquiry as possible, and to view education as more an adventure than an apprenticeship.

Unlike a rubber band, the mind, once stretched, never reverts to its former size. This fact alone should make clear the importance of keeping the “l” in “learning.”


Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at

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Craig Nagel, Columnist

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