A publication of Sacred Heart University. All opinions are solely those of the authors.
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The Tyranny of Usefulness and Social Poetry

In the Catholic intellectual tradition seminars at Sacred Heart, students read a small section of John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University on the uses of knowledge. Students inevitably struggle with the excerpt, not only because of Newman’s Victorian prose, but also because the Lockean vision of education that he critiques is so often the vision that they have been raised with. When we arrive at Newman’s quotation of Locke, we read it aloud to hear the scorn lacing the philosopher’s words as he disparages the teaching of Latin to a young man bound for a trade and recounts the terrible fate that might befall the student who learns verse-making:

“I know not what reason a father can have to wish his son a poet, who does not desire him to bid defiance to all other callings and business; which is not yet the worst of the case; for, if he proves a successful rhymer, and gets once the reputation of a wit, I desire it to be considered, what company and places he is likely to spend his time in, nay, and estate too; for it is very seldom seen that any one discovers mines of gold or silver in Parnassus.

What living is there to be earned as a poet? Locke asks, insisting that it is far better to learn the practical skills of a trade. The “use” of education in this vision is primarily economic—the preparation of individuals to participate in the labor force and contribute to a growth in capital.

Nearing two centuries on from Newman’s book, this economic understanding of what is “useful” has become all-pervasive. As my colleague Brian Stiltner described in his final column for this blog, higher education is no exception, often operating in vocabularies and logics taken more from corporate boardrooms than from classrooms. Recently, I listened to a lecture from the economist Ha-Joon Chang, who put it succinctly, “In a capitalist society, especially the kind of market-oriented one that we are living in now … everything has to justify its existence in terms of money—so, literary festivals, teaching about ancient languages in universities, preservation of our cultural heritage.”

Usefulness, in this economic sense, has become a tyrannical interpretative framework, impressing itself upon us all. Even as I aim to invite students into Newman’s perspective, that there might be a “use” to poetry and to education beyond this economic one, I feel the weight of the Lockean scorn echoing through our society: Who would want their child to be a poet?

And yet, Pope Francis has claimed that the role of the university is just that—to form “social poets.”  This phrase is one that Francis first introduced in his address to the World Meeting of Popular Movements, an initiative begun under his papacy that gathers grassroots organizations from across the globe to creatively address the needs of land, labor and lodging. In his 2021 address, he explained that he chose this phrase because “poetry means creativity, and you create hope.” By refusing to conform to the tyranny of economic usefulness and its “throwaway” logic, these grassroots organizations creatively work towards a world where all have access to housing and dignified work and where the land is cared for as integral to the community of creation rather than treated as a resource to be exploited. Out of communities that appear “useless” to the gaze of the market, these poets craft practices of hope.

By expanding this role of the social poet to universities, Francis invites those of us in higher education to understand our work as the formation of individual and collective creativity towards the “poetry” of a new society—one not governed solely by economic profit. He calls for the mission of the university to be the training of social poets who “upon learning the grammar and vocabulary of humanity, have a spark, a brilliance that allows them to imagine the unknown.” The grammar of humanity must go beyond market-driven usefulness to uncover the intrinsic value in human reflection, artistry and community. As Francis stated earlier this year in an address to the International Federation of Catholic Universities, education must “awaken and cherish in each person the desire to ‘be’.” Being, not earning, is the basis of worth.

In the same talk on economics and democracy, Chang (speaking to a British audience), describes how the need to justify all things through the market leads to a reduction in meaning, such as arguing for the British monarchy on the basis that it brings in tourist revenue. Whether one is a monarchist or a not, Chang points out that this is a “demeaning, ridiculous” way to argue for an institution as foundational to society. With this example, he invites us to look at the tyranny of market usefulness from the outside, if only momentarily, in order to see that we might interpret the world otherwise.

The brilliance of poetry, I would submit, lies in the ability to see things at a “slant,” to borrow a term from Emily Dickinson. Forming our students as social poets means forming them to be able to see the world from a new angle. From this perspective, they might reimagine what it means for something to be useful—and indeed, ask whether that category is sufficient to the dignity and wonder of creation. If, as Francis encourages us to, Catholic universities are able to live this mission, we will not only be continuing a legacy of education extending far beyond Newman into the past, but also moving into the future with creativity and hope.

Callie Tabor is a lecturer in the Department of Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University.