08/08/2012 05:02 pm ET Updated Oct 08, 2012

Minds and Gardens


At a dinner the other evening I had a dispute about whether Mr. Rogers, creator and long-time host of the beloved PBS children's show, wore sweaters with zippers or buttons.

While looking into the question, I came across a Mr. Rogers remix in which he sings a refrain about the importance of curiosity:

Did you ever grow anything in the garden of your mind?

You can grow ideas in the garden of your mind.
It's good to be curious about many things.
You can think about things and make believe.
All you have to do is think -- and they'll grow.

I was struck by Mr. Rogers' metaphor of the mind as garden. For years I've been saying that the point of a college education is to nurture and enrich the mind, to populate it with ideas as well as information, and with the vocabulary and linguistic structures to do them justice. Sometimes I have put it differently: The point of education is to furnish the mind with new knowledge and old truths, with thoughts worth thinking and questions worth asking.

In short, I have compared the mind to a world to populate or a house to furnish. But I think now that Mr. Rogers had a better metaphor: It's a garden in which to grow ideas. Like any garden, it needs to be fertilized, watered and weeded. That is the point -- and the great virtue -- of education. Teachers and classmates encourage and focus the curiosity that students bring with them, while helping them separate flimsy thinking from solid reasoning. They also help students learn to practice the Enlightenment values of toleration, compassion, science and courage, and to value research, history, and facts -- in other words, to hone the ability to judge, to write and to speak.

Those who see the value of college in the amount of money a graduate earns miss a fundamental point: The purpose of an education is not simply to make a better living but, by enlivening the mind, to make a life worth living. They miss as well the fact that the physical, intellectual and emotional delight of things well learned is incomparable -- the kind of delight that can make work into pleasure and into one of life's greatest satisfactions. They fail to understand the nourishing, sustaining value of the things that we plant in the garden of our minds.

As for the question of buttons or zippers, Mr. Rogers was neither so consistent nor so predictable as one might think: he wore both.