Another School Year: Why? By John Ciardi

Another School Year: Why?

Although John Ciardi was an accomplished poet in his own right, most people know him only through his translation of Dante’s Inferno.  I discovered him quite by accident, as you will see.

In 1988 or 1989, when I was working at the University of Dallas, I came across an old, mustard yellow pamphlet while cleaning out some  files.  The title intrigued me, and I spent a few minutes reading it.  I soon found myself immersed in the ideas and the literary style: This is not only poignant, but a good read, to boot.

Time passed (as it tends to do).  I left UD for Grinnell College, Communicorp in Atlanta, and then St. Bonaventure.  In late 1997, while searching for some words of welcome for the entering freshman class, I found myself ripping apart my old files, which had been moved several times in the previous eight years.  Alas, the pamphlet was no where to be found.

I sent messages to two list-serv groups, hoping someone could supply a copy for me.  No one could, but several people remembered the essay, and asked me to send it along if I found it.  Others were just intrigued by my description, and eagerly awaited my success.  One person connected me with an archivist at Rutgers University, but she could not find the speech either.

I went to the Internet, searching on Ciardi, and words I remembered from the title.  Again, nothing.  But in the Library of Congress I found several references to Ciardi’s biographer, Edward M. Cifelli, who published at the University of Arkansas Press.  Off to the University of Arkansas press, where I was fortunate enough to find Cifelli’s bio, indicating he was a professor at the County College of Morris in New Jersey.  Hitting their web site, I found other e-mail names, guessed at the protocol, and sent him a message.  He knew the essay, and although he had just returned papers to the Ciardi estate, told me that what I was looking for was published in the Rutgers Alumni Monthly, November, 1954.

From there, David Pickens at Rutgers tracked it down, gave me permission to use it here,  and sent me the copy, which I have reproduced here. Believe me, this copy is much more legible than anything you’ll get from Rutgers, so please don’t bother him with more requests. I believe I have typed it correctly, but send me any typos you might find so I can correct them (there is no word missing after downright, by the way).  And remember, this was presented to the College of Men at Rutgers in 1954, which explains the non gender inclusive language.

I hope you agree that my electronic sleuthery was worth it.  Without further ado, I present, in its entirety, the full text of the speech as it was excerpted in the magazine, and later the pamphlet.

Presented to the high school students of New Jersey by their State University with the belief that those who read and think about the enclosed message will find a real inspiration and a challenge.

John A. Ciardi, associate professor of English at Rutgers University presented a most inspiring address at the opening convocation at the Colleges for Men.

Feeling that this address carries a real message to the prospective college student, your State University is pleased to bring it to you in this pamphlet.

Mr. Ciardi, one of the foremost American poets, came to Rutgers University from Harvard where he had served as an assistant professor. He is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, author of several well known volumes of poetry and has just published a translation of Dante’s Inferno. This translation has been well received by the critics and Professor Ciardi is now at work on translations of the second and third parts of the Divine Comedy.

John Ciardi, associate professor of English, has condensed for the Alumni Monthly his address at the convocation opening the academic year.

Another School Year: Why?
There was a time when even the faculty knew what made a college. From the time the university tradition took form in the Renaissance, until the time the faculty committees were first heard to discuss “Education for Modern Living,” a professor could afford to be downright about the classics, philosophy, history, theology, mathematics, the sciences, and language study. Whether the student meant to be a teacher, preacher, doctor, lawyer, or scientist, the core of his training was essentially the same.

Within the last fifty years, however, colleges have been adding new courses at a fantastic rate. Consult a college’s catalog for the academic year 1900-1901 and then consult one for 1950-1951. You will find that where fifty courses were offered in the earlier catalogue, two hundred and fifty are offered in the later one. This increase in specialization is, of course, implicit in the nature of the twentieth century technology. Much of it is absolutely necessary if the wheels of modern living are to be kept turning. Nevertheless, we on the faculty have had many occasions for head scratching as we read of new developments in education. We have seen the process one of my former colleagues described as “making Harvard the second-best engineering school in Cambridge,” and we have seen MIT working to make itself the New Athens of the Humanities. John Mason Brown once described the MIT process as “humanizing the scientist.” The Harvard process he described as “simonizing the humanist.”

Nevertheless even a man as dull and insensitive as a professor has something in mind as he ponders this exploding curriculum and as he faces each new school year. What is a college for?

Let me tell you one of the earliest disasters in my career as a teacher. It was January of 1940 and I was fresh out of graduate school starting my first semester at the University of Kansas City. Part of the reading for the freshman English course was Hamlet. Part of the student body was a beanpole with hair on top who came into my class, sat down, folded his arms, and looked at me as if to say: “All right, damn you, teach me something.” Two weeks later we started Hamlet. Three weeks later he came into my office with his hands on his hips. It is easy to put your hands on your hips if you are not carrying books, and this one was an unburdened soul. “Look,” he said, “I came here to be a pharmacist. Why do I have to read this stuff?” And not having a book of his own to point to, he pointed at mine which was lying on the desk.

New as I was to the faculty, I could have told this specimen a number of things. I could have pointed out that he had enrolled, not in a drugstore-mechanics school, but in a college, and that at the end of this course, he meant to reach for a scroll that read Bachelor of Science. It would not read: Qualified Pill-Grinding Technician. It would certify that he had specialized in pharmacy and had attained a certain minimum qualification, but it would further certify that he had been exposed to some of the ideas mankind has generated within its history. That is to say, he had not entered a technical training school, but a university, and that in universities students enroll for both training and education.

I could have told him all this, but it was fairly obvious he wasn’t going to be around long enough for it to matter: at the rate he was going, the first marking period might reasonably be expected to blow him toward the employment agency.

Nevertheless, I was young and I had a high sense of duty and I tried to put it this way: “For the rest of your life,” I said, “your days are going to average out to about twenty-four hours. They will be a little shorter when you are in love, and a little longer when you are out of love, but the average will tend to hold. For eight of those hours, more or less, you will be asleep, and I assume you need neither education nor training to manage to get through that third of your life.

“Then for about eight hours of each working day, you will, I hope, be usefully employed. Assume you have gone through pharmacy school—or engineering, or aggie, or law school, or whatever—during those eight hours you will be using your professional skills. You will see to it during this third of your life that the cyanide stays out of the aspirin, that the bull doesn’t jump the fence, or that your client doesn’t go to the electric chair as a result of your incompetence. These are all useful pursuits, they involve skills every man must respect, and they can all bring you good basic satisfactions. Along with everything else, they will probably be what sets your table, supports your wife, and rears your children. They will be your income, and may it always suffice.

“But having finished the day’s work what do you do with those other eight hours—the other third of your life? Let’s say you go home to your family. What sort of family are you raising? Will the children ever be exposed to a reasonably penetrating idea at home? We all think of ourselves as citizens of a great democracy. Democracies can exist, however, only as long as they remain intellectually alive. Will you be presiding over a family that maintains some basic contact with the great continuity of democratic intellect? Or is your family going to be strictly penny-ante and beer on ice? Will there be a book in the house? Will there be a painting a reasonably sensitive man can look at without shuddering? Will your family be able to speak English and to talk about an idea? Will the kids ever get to hear Bach?”

That is about what I said, but this particular pest was not interested. “Look,” he said, “you professors raise your kids your way; I’ll take care of my own. Me, I’m out to make money.”

“I hope you make a lot of it,” I told him, “because you’re going to be badly stuck for something to do when you’re not signing checks.”

Fourteen years later, I am still teaching, and I am here to tell you that the business of the college is not only to train you, but to put you in touch with what the best human minds have thought. If you have no time for Shakespeare, for a basic look at philosophy, for the community of the fine arts, for that lesson of man’s development we call history—then you have no business being in college. You are on your way to being that new species of mechanized savage, the Push-button Neanderthal. Our colleges inevitably graduate a number of such life forms, but it cannot be said that they went to college; rather, the college went through them—without making contact.

No one gets to be a human being unaided. There is not enough time in a single lifetime to invent for oneself everything one needs to know in order to be a civilized human.

Assume, for example, that you want to be a physicist. You pass the great stone halls, of say, MIT, and there cut into stone are the names of the master scientists. The chances are that few of you will leave your names to be cut into those stones. Yet any one of you who managed to stay awake through part of a high school course in physics, knows more about physics than did many of those great makers of the past. You know more because they left you what they knew. The first course in any science is essentially a history course. You have to begin by learning what the past learned for you. Except as a man has entered the past of the race he has no function in civilization.

And as this is true of the techniques of mankind, so is it true of mankind’s spiritual resources. Most of these resources, both technical and spiritual, are stored in books. Books, the arts, and the techniques of science, are man’s peculiar accomplishment.

When you have read a book, you have added to your human experience. Read Homer and your mind includes a piece of Homer’s mind. Through books you can acquire at least fragments of the mind and experience of Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare—the list is endless. For a great book is necessarily a gift: it offers you a life you have not time to live yourself, and it takes you into a world you have not time to travel in literal time. A civilized human mind is, in essence, one that contains many such lives and many such worlds. If you are too much in a hurry, or too arrogantly proud of your own limitations, to accept as a gift to your humanity some pieces of the minds of Sophocles, of Aristotle, of Chaucer—and right down the scale and down the ages to Yeats, Einstein, E.B. White, and Ogden Nash—then you may be protected by the laws governing manslaughter, and you may be a voting entity, but you are neither a developed human being nor a useful citizen of a democracy.

I think it was La Rochefoucauld who said that most people would never fall in love if they hadn’t read about it. He might have said that no one would ever manage to become a human if he hadn’t read about it.

I speak, I am sure, for the faculty of the liberal arts colleges and for the faculties of the specialized schools as well, when I say that a university has no real existence and no real purpose except as it succeeds in putting you in touch, both as specialists and as humans, with those human minds your human mind needs to include. The faculty, by its very existence, says implicitly: “We have been aided by many people, and by many books, and by the arts, in our attempt to make ourselves some sort of storehouse of human experience. We are here to make available to you, as best we can, that experience.”

I hope you will want to enter those minds and those worlds that books can give you. That is essentially what we have to offer. On the letterheads and on the banners, this is Rutgers University. It is a great university and our pride in it is part of its truest existence. Yet, once inside the letterhead and the banner, what we really are, is the Rutgers Reading and Discussion Society.

I hope you will enjoy the meetings. I hope we won’t have to cancel too many memberships. Good luck, and good learning.

16 thoughts on “Another School Year: Why? By John Ciardi

  1. Jon,
    Thank you so much for reprinting this! My, my– 1954! I first encountered Ciardi through his Dante, like you, and then I enountered this essay in the early 1980s when it was reprinted in a common reader used in one of the first composition classes I ever taught, and it has stayed with me ever since. I can’t count the number of times I’ve tried to recreate it orally, just telling students about it. It inspired me then, and I hope it inspires more and more generations to come.


  2. We met a while back at one of the NACAC conferences…was then and still am now a fan…. As a dad working with two sons navigating their way through college…one a junior in college selecting a “major”, the second beginning senior year and just starting his search…I know both will enjoy this. I hope they continue to use it as a guide as they think about course choices in college and after college. Hope you are well. Thanks


  3. Required reading for all those (including our elected officials) who wish to reduce colleges and universities to mere manufacturers of employable widgets with a shelf life of “six months after graduation.”


  4. Jon, you have done it again. Your research is well worth it, and this timeless response to the purpose of a university education will be quoted by me, among your other colleagues.
    I like to use the “uni” definition, too, to bring many differing people and ideas together there.
    All the best,


  5. Inspiring and so true. Thank you Jon for sharing and know you just delivered the message that John Ciardi wanted only not in the 50s but in 2014! It also made me proud to have written a book not nearly as profound but I believe educational, spiritual and thought provoking. It’s called, “My Child Would Never Do That”! As an Assistant Professor, I’m also trying to make a difference within the space of education. Thanks again for sharing, it gives me hope that one day someone will be looking for my work!

    Pam Manning
    McKendree University, Lebanon IL


  6. Thank you, Jon, for bringing this back to the foreground. I quoted Ciardi’s talk regularly during my earlier days at Pomona, and it was a good frame for conversations with advisees about breadth in their liberal education. Now, put in front of me again, I’ll use it to fight the good fight against premature specialization, narrow STEM and finance obsessions for people who don’t even fully grasp what is involved in those fields. Philistines!!!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s