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Monday, June 16, 2014

Samuel Johnson on the Value of Education

A statue of Samuel Johnson,
in his hometown of Lichfield, England

In The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, Samuel Johnson introduces us to Imlac, the son of a successful merchant. Although his father desires for him to follow the family trade, Imlac yearns to increase his knowledge and understanding of the world. When his school years end, his father gives him ten thousand gold pieces and charges him to travel, to buy and sell, and to return within four years, having doubled his original investment. Imlac travels with a caravan, but soon discovers that his fellow merchants, for no better reason than that they envy his greater wealth, conspire to cheat him. Disgusted with the world of commerce, Imlac discards all serious intentions of being a trader, and travels with the aim of increasing his knowledge of the world.

Imlac realizes that the education his father provided him was of great value. In Agra, the emperor grants him an interview, and afterwards welcomes him into the royal court. In Persia, he discovers people with drastically different lifestyles and social customs, and their openness gives him more insights into the diversity of human nature. In time, he realizes that humans prize one ability above all others: despite different languages, cultures, and outlooks, people regard poetry as the greatest achievement of mankind.

As Imlac tells his student Prince Rasselas, this inspires him to become a poet.

“I read all the poets of Persia and Arabia, and was able to repeat by memory the volumes that are suspended in the mosque of Mecca. I saw everything with a new purpose; my sphere of attention was suddenly magnified; no kind of knowledge was to be overlooked. I ranged mountains and deserts for images and resemblances, and pictured upon my mind every tree of the forest and flower of the valley.” 

The calling of a poet dovetailed nicely with Imlac's interest in traveling. Surely the poet needed the extensive understanding of human nature that he craved! So he made it his goal to assess how and why people were happy or miserable with their lives, at each rung on the social ladder. He determined to understand their motivations, and how their outlook changed as they aged, regardless of their social position. Along the way, he strived to discard the prejudices associated with his childhood and homeland, study the sciences, and observe how people conducted themselves in the various strata of each society.

Imlac's travels took him to Syria and Palestine, where he interacted with the locals and travelers from all over Europe. He ranged throughout Asia, sometimes as a trader, and other times as a pilgrim. He spent time in Egypt, and finally returned to Goiama. There he learned that his father had been dead for fourteen years, and his brothers had all split the family money and moved away. Most of the friends he had grown up with had died, or barely remembered him. The rest thought him corrupted, rather than benefitted, from having spent so much time in different cultures and countries. 

Still, Goiama was his homeland. If he no longer had an actual home to return to, Imlac determined to make a new one for himself there. "I forgot, after a time, my disappointment, and endeavoured to recommend myself to the nobles of the kingdom; they admitted me to their tables, heard my story, and dismissed me. I opened a school, and was prohibited to teach. I then resolved to sit down in the quiet of domestic life, and addressed a lady that was fond of my conversation, but rejected my suit because my father was a merchant."

If Imlac ever actually got around to writing poetry, he never gained much money from selling it, nor did it afford him an entry into society. Certainly all his other attempts to reenter Goiaman society were repulsed. So he applied for entrance to the Happy Valley. The king of Abyssinia recognized his worth, and selected him to help train, teach, and prepare his sons and daughters for the most important task of all: to rule the kingdom in his stead. So Imlac received a pension of sorts: admittance to the Happy Valley, fine clothes and food, good company, and a position of esteem. He might have started off as a merchant's son, but he became an advisor to the son of a king. Thus Samuel Johnson reminds us that education is never wasted, and a life devoted to continual learning will often pay rich dividends, if not in the way we initially expected.

Dragon Dave

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