The Means and the Ends of an Education

When it comes to thinking about university study in the United States, the challenge seems simply to be getting in.

As admission rates get ever closer to zero percent and the process becomes ever more stressful, it’s really no wonder we begin to think the challenge of university ends once we are in. From there, just make sure you pass, develop a niche, get a prestigious internship, and all will be fine, the thinking goes.

We focus so much on the admission that we forget all about the point of it all, which is what we do once we are in. Education, then, starts to seem like something that happens to us during these four years, rather than something we grab hold of and shape.

One’s approach to university from the very first day shapes not only the four years there, but one’s entire life. That’s because education in the liberal arts tradition is, at its core, about learning how to live. It’s about learning what good and bad means to you, not the person next to you. I’ve only learned that recently, late in my time at university. And yet learning it has changed everything.

But because the admissions process has conditioned us to think of university as a competitive machine that will give us a path to a higher-paying job, we ignore what it is that university truly offers us.

Universities have all the tools necessary to learn about life and its mysteries as one wants to learn about them. But because we think the difficulty of our education has happened in the admissions process, we ignore the real effort required of us. That effort lies not in essays or assignments, but in deciding what it is that we actually want out of our time here—and then going and getting it, however tiring and difficult it at times may seem.

Admission to university is the means of an education, not its end. What a simple idea that is so incredibly difficult to keep sight of—even once one is “in”.

Pre-Distraction Distraction

But of course, when I’m at home, if ever I’m tempted to read a book, a part of me is braced for the phone to ring or the chime of “you’ve got mail” in the next room. So I interrupt myself even if it doesn’t interrupt me. And if ever I’m tempted to look at the stars, I think, oh no, there are a thousand things I have to do around the house or around the town. Or if I’m involved in a deep conversation, I think, oh, the Lakers game is on T.V. I should do that. And so one way or another, I always cut into my own clarity and concentration when I’m at home. And it reminded me why sometimes people like me have to take conscious measures to step into the stillness and silence and be reminded of how it washes us clean, really.

— Pico Iyer in his On Being conversation with Krista Tippett.

Pico puts perfectly and beautifully, as he always does, a phenomenon I’ve thought about as pre-distraction distraction. 

Pre-distraction distraction means that the activities I’m willing to put my mind to are always small, and are always far down on the list of importance, because we expect the interruption that is to come. And when we expect that interruption, we are never willing to engross ourselves in the Dostoevsky we have always intended to read, or to write that polemic about the state of concentration in the modern world, because we know we will only last five minutes before the distraction comes.

Instead we scroll through Twitter or Instagram, perhaps reply to a few brief emails (ignoring the meaningful ones that require one’s full attention), or we browse through a picture-filled magazine until, inevitably, comes the vibration in the pocket or the chime from the laptop.

Without distraction-free places our minds come to take on the the tasks that we anticipate can be completed before the distraction comes. And who ever learned or accomplished anything great in five minutes?

The Levelling of Ideas Towards the Pretty But Inane

It’s easy to know these days whether we are liked.

I can see how many people click on my link to this article on Twitter, how many people have liked my latest post on Instagram, how many people express support for something I write on Facebook. It feels good to be liked, especially when that liking is so visible.

It’s also easy to know these days whether we are disliked.

A mere five likes on an Instagram photo is as much a signal of disapproval as of approval. Comments on one’s blog or article can be vitriolic in their disagreement, frequently descending into arguments ad hominem. And Twitter can make visible not just to you but to the world the sheer number of people who disagree with what you are saying. It feels bad to be disliked, especially when that disliking is so visible.

Before the Internet we might have received a letter of support for something we wrote in the newspaper, but never heard or seen the number of people who inevitably disagreed. The difficulty in receiving feedback of any kind was certainly a disadvantage, but simultaneously gave freedom to pursue one’s own train of thought without concern for approval.

The visibility of liking and disliking today makes us double down on seeking the former and avoiding the latter. We become trained by the stings of public disapproval to avoid whatever it was that led to that, and we are trained by the dopamine of the “like” to pursue more of the same. There is from there a marked shift away from originality and ingenuity and toward popularity.

I believe there is an eventual tyranny to be found in seeking popularity without originality.

Revel in the jolts in the stomach that come from disagreement. Without them, we are doing nothing new, and are instead merely contributing to the levelling of ideas towards the pretty but inane.

 

 

The Liberal Arts and Two Visions of the Future

There are two separate and entirely incompatible strands of thought about liberal education passing through public discourse at present.

The first argues that liberal education is a solution to increasing mechanisation of the work force, an antidote for the feeling of alienation and a loss of meaning, and the way to produce broad-minded, deep-hearted leaders. As Asia invests in the liberal arts, and as a new public narrative along these lines becomes more common in the United States, the liberal arts appear on the one hand to be experiencing a resurgence.

The second narrative argues that the liberal arts, and more specifically the humanities that make up their centrepiece, are worthless in a world where value is created digitally. This view is summarised succinctly by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, who writes in one of his polemics that “Little of the material taught in Liberal Arts programs today is relevant to the future.” Instead, science and technology are the paths to progressing humanity and improving the world.

The inability of these two strands of thought to connect or engage with one another points to the central issue: they each have incompatible visions of the future.

One imagines a world where morals, character, public service and living well are the purpose of education. The other imagines a world where humanity is advanced by technology, and education must focus on preparing the minds necessary for this advancement.

Recognising which vision for the future we hold dear is the start of knowing what education means to us individually. And by acknowledging that those who disagree with us about the value of liberal education do so not out of ignorance but from a different vision of a noble future, perhaps for the first time these narratives may engage with one another.

Chopping Off Their Heads

In New Zealand we call it the Tall Poppy Syndrome. Leslie Lipson, an American political scientist who came to New Zealand to do a Tocquevillian study of our democracy, described it like this:

“Democray itself can imitate the policy of Periander the Greek and remove the heads that stand above the crowd. There is a tendency for the idolaters of equality to sacrifice talent on the altar of their God.”

And Ray Bradbury wrote of the phenomenon like this:

“Not everyone born free and equal, as the constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against.”

It is the mocking of those students who dare to take an interest in their classes, the disdain for the politician who attempts to inspire with their voice, the half-hearted congratulations to an employee who wins an award for hard work. It is not a public policy nor a conscious act, and the most well-meaning are often among the most guilty.

I’ve thought a lot about why this seems to be a circumstance in small democracies like ours and not in all. It seems to me that it is the peculiar combination of a love for equality and the fact of proximity. Because most New Zealanders have only two degrees of separation from the prime minister, they demand similarity. In a larger country like the United States there may be a similar love for equality, but without proximity there is no expectation of similarity.

If The Grass Were Greener

Idioms often express truths so fundamental that we ignore their real intent.

We say “the grass is always greener on the other side” when really what we mean is, it never actually is.

Things won’t be better by getting into that college, by getting that promotion, or by moving into that nicer house. They will all have their downsides. Yet we ignore the now and live for that future, and then say to ourselves, with a sheepish grin: well, the grass really is always greener on the other side.

Next time, say what you really mean. “The grass is never greener on the other side.”

The world becomes a different place when you know you have what’s greenest.

 

Meaning

“Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account.

— John Gardner, “The Road to Self-Renewal“, March 1994

“One of the enemies of sound, lifelong motivation is a rather childish conception we have of the kind of concrete, describable goal toward which all of our efforts drive us. We want to believe that there is a point at which we can feel that we have arrived. We want a scoring system that tells us when we’ve piled up enough points to count ourselves successful.
So you scramble and sweat and climb to reach what you thought was the goal. And when you get there, you stand up and look around and chances are you feel a little empty. Maybe more than a little empty.
You wonder whether you climbed the wrong mountain.
But the metaphor is all wrong. Life isn’t a mountain that has a summit. Nor is it—as some suppose—a riddle that has an answer. Nor a game that has a final score.
Life is an endless unfolding and—if we wish it to be—an endless process of self-discovery, an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our own potentialities and the life situations in which we find ourselves. By potentialities I mean not just intellectual gifts but the full range of one’s capacities for learning, sensing, wondering, understanding, loving and aspiring.”

— John Gardner, Stanford Commencement Address, June 1991

As a counterpoint to Gardner’s advice, it’s worth reading David Brooks’ New York Times column, “The Problem With Meaning.” David also quotes Gardner, yet disagrees with the use of the term “meaning” by cutting through much of its vacuousness:

“Because it’s based solely on emotion, it’s fleeting. When the sensations of meaningful go away then the cause that once aroused them gets dropped, too. Ennui floods in. Personal crisis follows. There’s no reliable ground.

The philosophy of meaningfulness emerges in a culture in which there is no common moral vocabulary or framework. It emerges amid radical pluralism, when people don’t want to judge each other. Meaningfulness emerges when the fundamental question is, do we feel good?

Real moral systems are based on a balance of intellectual rigor and aroused moral sentiments. Meaningfulness is pure and self-regarding feeling, the NutraSweet of the inner life.”

I’m not sure I feel wholly the same as David about meaning. It might be a vacuous term, but that vacuousness stems from the fact that the term encompasses different things for each of us. We do not all find meaning in the same place, and I take that as fact. What I think Gardner manages to capture so well is the sense that though meaning might be different for all of us, it’s crucial that we first break out of the limits on our own minds in how we think about it. If we come to think outside the places we normally look for meaning—a 9-5 job, a weekend hobby, occasional service work—then we are far more likely to make meaning mean something for us.