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Knowledge is the Wing Wherewith We Fly to Heaven (Wm. Shakespeare)

"Hildegard von Bingen" by Miniatur aus dem Rupertsberger Codex des Liber Scivias.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Hildegard von Bingen” by Miniatur aus dem Rupertsberger Codex des Liber Scivias.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

“Do you want fries with that?” runs the old saw, referring, of course, to what the Arts graduate said to the Business major when they happened to meet again soon after convocation.

And like all perpetual, proto-binary debates — Liberal vs. Conservative, Mac vs. PC, boxers vs. briefs — we choose sides, dig in, and are immediately locked into a sort of intellectual trench warfare where casualties on both sides continue to mount, but no real advances are ever actually possible given the constraints of the existing mindsets. Two solitudes et al.

Wendell Berry, in his book The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, puts it thus (and I quote at length as the sum of the parts is simply too vital to be taken out of context):

It could be said that a liberal education has the nature of a bequest, in that it looks upon the student as the potential heir of a cultural birthright, whereas a practical education has the nature of a commodity to be exchanged for position, status, wealth, etc., in the future. A liberal education rests on the assumption that nature and human nature do not change very much or very fast and that one therefore needs to understand the past. The practical educators assume that human society itself is the only significant context, that change is therefore fundamental, constant, and necessary, that the future will be wholly unlike the past, that the past is outmoded, irrelevant, and an encumbrance upon the future — the present being only a time for dividing past from future, for getting ready.

But these definitions, based on division and opposition, are too simple. It is easy, accepting the viewpoint of either side, to find fault with the other. But the wrong is on neither side; it is in their division…

Without the balance of historic value, practical education gives us that most absurd of standards: ‘relevance,’ based upon the suppositional needs of a theoretical future. But liberal education, divorced from practicality, gives something no less absurd: the specialist professor of one or another of the liberal arts, the custodian of an inheritance he has learned much about, but nothing from.

Kudos Mr. Berry! And though I couldn’t agree more, it still remains something of a guilty pleasure when one nonetheless manages to score a run for the “home” team.

Which brings me to a recent Saturday evening, when my wife and I had the great pleasure of attending an incredible live concert of Baroque music — harpsichord, violin, cello and lute — performed at a beloved, heritage church not far from where we live.

As part of their first set of the evening, the cellist gave the audience a brief summary of a contemporary cello score which she herself had had commissioned and then treated us to her solo performance of the piece. The selection, haunting and evocative throughout, began with a deep, bass rumble, and ended with the hand-trilling of strings and a number of almost imperceptible, plaintive bow strokes. It was enthralling.

During intermission, after my wife and I had managed to polish off a tasty serving of strawberry shortcake that was on offer in the venue’s new gathering pavilion, we wandered back to the entry vestibule of the church where the quartet had a couple of their CDs for sale.

While checking out the CDs, we were also fortunate enough to meet the cellist herself in person, and began chatting with her about how much we had enjoyed her solo. She explained how much she liked performing it as well, and how the complex musical composition that underpinned the work was actually based on the writing of Hildegard von Bingen.

At which point the proverbial light-bulb went off in my head — because I actually had some vague recollection of this von Bingen person to whom she was referring! And, in an instant, it was if I had suddenly been transported back through the decades to a sparsely-attended medieval literature seminar deep within the hallowed halls of my own alma mater. (An image that seems to fade to a deeper and deeper sepia with each passing year.)

And, thus armed, I stepped boldly up to the plate. “She was a ‘seer’. A religious mystic of some sort, right?”

“Yes, exactly,” responded the cellist, enthusiastically. “Hence the title of the piece I played: Visions.” At which point she was called away to prepare for the second set of the evening, and my wife and I proceeded to buy our CDs and return to our seats.

So let me ask you this: How many other avenues of higher learning could have sufficiently prepared a person to partake so fully in an impromptu conversation about a 12th century Benedictine abbess / Christian visionary, with a Baroque cellist, in an obscure, though acoustically-renowned, rural church in Atlantic Canada?

Try pulling that off with a Business degree, Mr. Trump! *thumbs his nose and blows a raspberry in a vaguely southerly direction* I dare you!

Who says an MA in English is worthless?

Oh, and sorry, but I seem to have forgotten your original order: “Did you want fries with that?”

P.S. For those of you who have somehow managed to stumble your way through a post-secondary education without obtaining an arts degree, don’t despair — all is not lost lost. As it was for Radar O’Riley, the naive, teddy bear-totting company clerk from the TV series M*A*S*H, the “Ah, Bach…” Gambit remains a viable option. No, really, Google it. It’s a thing!

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