I’m struck, when I reflect back on my education — years in grade school, high school, college, law school — by the things I remember. From all those years of study, what do I retain? Not much. But at odd moments, a random fact or snatch of poetry or phrase will float into my mind.
For instance, I can never see a daffodil without thinking of a line from Milton’s “Lycidas”: “And Daffadillies fill their cups with tears.” Now, why do I remember that? I don’t even remember reading “Lycidas,” but that one line I remember.
This morning, I caught myself thinking about something I read in Erasmus’s The Praise of Folly. I read this passage many years ago, and have never looked back at it, until just five minutes ago, but I’ve never forgotten it.
I’m quite impressed myself that I remembered where I’d read this idea; in fact, it isn’t even in The Praise of Folly itself, it’s in a footnote that explains a reference in the text to “the argument of the growing heap.”
According to the footnote, the argument of the growing heap is:
If ten coins are not enough to make a man rich, what if you add one coin? What if you add another?
Finally, you will have to say that no one can be rich unless one coin can make him so.
In my memory, I recalled this argument as: “Will one coin make a man rich?”
I think the “argument of the growing heap” has stuck with me because it captures a paradox that I grapple with in my own life, and which is very significant to happiness: Often, when we consider our actions, it’s clear that any one instance of an action is almost meaningless, yet at the same time, a sum of those actions is very meaningful. Whether we focus on the single coin, or the growing heap, will shape our behavior.
Take going to the gym. You don’t feel like going to the gym, and you say to yourself, “What difference does one day make? It doesn’t matter if I skip today.”
True, any one visit to the gym is inconsequential, but the habit of going to the gym is invaluable. Does one visit to the gym make a person healthy? Ten visits? Eleven? Finally, you have to say that no one can be healthy unless one visit to the gym can make him or her so.
When we’re trying to find excuses for ourselves, it’s easier to point out the low value of the one coin. By reminding ourselves that the golden heap grows one coin at a time, we can help keep ourselves on track.
What about you? Do you ever make the one-coin excuse to yourself? How do you stay focused on the growing heap?
It’s a bit unnerving to consider how much learning I’ve forgotten, but education is more than an accumulation of facts that may or may not be remembered. As William Lyons Phelps observed, “Herein lies the real value of education. Advanced education may or may not make men and women more efficient; but it enriches personality, increases the wealth of the mind, and hence brings happiness.”