The Discipline and the Furniture of the Mind

Thomas Friedman has a well-known knack for distilling others’ thoughts into his columns in the Times. In today’s column, on what he learned on his recent book tour, he reports:

[T]ere’s a huge undertow of worry out in the country about how our kids are being educated and whether they’ll be able to find jobs in an increasingly flat world, where more Chinese, Indians and Russians than ever can connect, collaborate and compete with us. . . . . [M]y own research has taught me that the most important thing you can learn in this era of heightened global competition is how to learn. Being really good at “learning how to learn,” as President Bill Brody of Johns Hopkins put it, will be an enormous asset in an era of rapid change and innovation, when new jobs will be phased in and old ones phased out faster than ever.

There’s nothing new here, but it’s nice to be reminded of the point once in a while, especially on the op-ed page of the Times. Yale president Jeremiah Day made the same point, far more memorably, in the famous Yale Report of 1828 (pdf of the original), defending the idea of a liberal education:

The two great points to be gained in intellectual culture, are the discipline and the furniture of the mind; expanding its power, and storing it with knowledge. The former of these is, perhaps, the more important of the two. A commanding object, therefore, in a collegiate course, should be, to call into daily and vigorous exercise of the faculties of the student. Those branches of study should be prescribed, and those modes of instruction adopted, which are best calculated to teach the art of fixing the attention, directing the train of thought, analyzing a subject proposed for investigation; following, with accurate discrimination, the course of argument; balancing nicely the evidence presented to the judgment; awakening, elevating, and controlling the imagination; arranging, with skill, the treasures which memory gathers; rousing and guiding the powers of genius. All this is not to be effected by a light and hasty course of study; by reading a few books, hearing a few lectures, and spending some months at a literary institution. The habits of thinking are to be formed, by long continued and close application. The mines of science must be penetrated far below the surface, before they will disclose their treasures. If a dexterous performance of the manual operations, in many of the mechanical arts, requires an apprenticeship, with diligent attention for years; much more does the training of the powers of the mind demand vigorous, and steady, and systematic effort.