The “Why” Behind the Valor Rhetoric Program

By Bob Dixon, Honors Humanities

I’d like to argue a case for uselessness. See, somewhere along the line, our culture started asking the highly pragmatic question, “Why do we need to know this?” Now this seems like a fair question, but usually, it’s not really meant as a question; it’s meant to imply “surely…surely we don’t really need to know this!” And little by little, this logic has taken root.

But think about it for a second. Can a 14-year-old, with so much life awaiting, really have any idea what he or she will actually need to know down the road? Balderdash! And even if there were some magical way in which we could see the future and determine exactly and only what we needed to know, can you see the problem here? How narrow that would be. What a gruesome reduction, what a forfeiting of so much of the rich and varied life God has given us. So much for beauty…not really useful. Classical Literature? Please! When will I ever use that? And so the “tyranny of the useful” slides its way into our lives and takes up residence without us giving it so much as a thought.

A Means to an End

But the Danish philosopher and writer, Svend Brinkmann, has thought about it and has even come up with a term for this phenomenon: “instrumentalism.” He argues that little by little people have lost their ability to see things in the present and for their intrinsic value, but instead, we now ascribe value based on whether or not something is a useful tool (instrument) for us to get what we want in the future.

I know we’ve all experienced this socially. Imagine I strike up a lively conversation with you at a social gathering and we quickly hit it off, discussing a variety of topics that seem to be making the moment delightful. Then think of how you might feel as I proceed to take out my business card and ask you if I can call you later to solicit your business. When I do this, I practice instrumentalism. I don’t really see you for you or enjoy the moment for its own sake at all. Rather, I reduce you to just a tool or instrument for me to get what I want in the future.

We all know how slimy this makes us feel, but we do the same thing with education when we fall into the “useful” trap. When we tell kids that we will teach them what they need to know and that what they do now is so they can get into a good college so they can get a good job so they can get what they want, we rob meaning from today and give it to the ever-retreating future. No longer an end in itself, learning becomes solely a means to an end (and a far less noble one at that).

People’s Intrinsic Value

But what if we said enough of all this usefulness, all this instrumentalism. What if we decided to see people for who they are and not what they can do for us? What if we did the equivalent for education?

This is our humble aim, and in any one of our classes, we might pull a thread through a piece of literature into a historical moment, then over to some scripture, culminating in something profound, life-changing, even, as the Holy Spirit melts our hearts of stone.

Will any of it ever show up in a job interview years from now? Highly unlikely, so yes, in that sense, it is useless, but in an eternal sense, it is of immense value, for it prepares us for our ultimate purpose, which we can only discover when we stop valuing everything based on its use to us and start to consider how we ourselves can be of use, of use to the King who made us to serve as His instruments, redeemed for His glory.

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