|“The Education of Jupiter” Jacob Jordaens|
As students, many of us struggle to realize the true gifts of a college education. We might learn and education ourselves for other purposes such as preparing for future careers, earning good grades, developing professional “skills”, and other reasons, but none of them come close to what really matters when we learn about things. In reality, a career-focused education might not even be the best way to prepare for a career, good grades might not teach you everything you should understand from a course, and professional skills might just be a way to replace important skills with marketability. For these reasons, it’s clear we need a better understanding of what it means to learn and what’s really important from our education. As students, it’s our duty to emphasize the “purpose,” whatever it may be, and meditate on these values as a 21st-century philosophical inquiry.
Before I continue, I must clarify what I mean by a “purpose” of college. If we take the “purpose” of college to be some sort of “personal fulfillment,” then the question of “what is the purpose of education” is very trivial and becomes some sort of search for a “feeling.” But we can explore a non-personal version of “meaning” that explains our actions as students with an ethical dimension (such as in regards to moral or rational norms). We can talk about what a student “should” or “shouldn’t” in line with what’s important in college. For example, if one may suggest, we could explore a utilitarian approach based off deontological (moral rules) reasons for action that maximize our benefit from education (ie., if these purposes that students have give the greatest benefit, then those purposes are the “moral rules” that students “should” adhere to.) This way, we would fulfill the purpose of an education in the most “efficient” way possible, if such efficiency is defined this way. In other words, we can lay down different frameworks for decision-making based off our “purpose” of an education.
In addition, when speaking about these issues, it’s important have to be as diplomatic and courteous as possible in our discourse. Inevitably, there are problems students face and attitudes/behaviors that are harmful that we wish to fight, but we do not want students to approach these issues in way that they are attacked, condemned, or hurt in any way to their dignity. Unfortunately, everyone interprets things differently. But I do think that if we are as diplomatic as possible (ie., constructive criticism, qualifying viewpoints, acknowledging alternative opinions, etc.), then we can make the best impression.
But what’s wrong with our purpose?
If we don’t explore the true reasons why we are learning, we subject ourselves to an atmosphere that lacks humanism, curiosity, aesthetics, ethics, empathy, other values necessary for education or the workforce. Classrooms become stripped of values and reduced to places of “handing out a grade”As students and citizens, we separate into distinct academic cultures, and we become hostile to new ideas and thoughts that we’re not familiar with.
Similarly, training students solely for future careers doesn’t seem possible nor effective (at least, prima facie). We don’t know what problems the future will hold or what skills will make us successful in the future. And, when only searching for things that will help us in the future, we are myopically cutting off value from things we cannot immediately observe and determine. For example, a student may choose to major in computer science because he or she believes it will offer immediately lucrative technical skills for a career, but he or she might not realize other skills from fields in which benefits are not as easily noticeable. The humanities (and other liberal arts areas) suffer the most, since our utilitarian purposes may not account for those areas enough. And, in the short four years of a college career, there’s no way we can ever learn all the things necessary to address the problems of the future.
On the most personal level, we suffer from increased burnout, negative mental health effects, and a loss of purpose in our lives. Oh, and also, we become very boring people. No one likes boring people.
Well, how do we approach this issue?
The best way to approach the issue is to talk about it. We can promote discussion, writing, ethical questions, critiquing of ourselves through our activities and organizations. We should think about what’s most important and why those things are important to us, as opposed to other things. For example, we say we want to get good grades while we’re in college, but what makes “good grades” something that is more praiseworthy than, say, knowledge of things beyond the course syllabus (such as the philosophy of physics that is not covered in a physics course). And, if those reasons why those things are more praiseworthy lead you into arguments that are not in line with your purpose of college, then why? Does that have any effects on you or others? If all you’re getting from a physics course is understanding how to solve equations, then maybe you need something more, such as knowing how to think like a physicist or what value science has.
|“You must never let schooling interfere with education” – Grant Allen, science writer. (‘Eye versus Ear,’ in ‘Post-Prandial Philosophy,’ p 129) The quote is often mistakenly attributed to Mark Twain.|
We can always emphasizing General Education requirements and the Humanities for what value they should have, but as long as the value from those things extends beyond simple “requirements.” If your required ethics course doesn’t teach you the important values and virtues of free thought necessary for growth, then it might as well be another item on the checklist. But if it’s something you’re willing to ponder and reflect upon, then it might have some value to you.
Also, writing exercises have been shown to promote positive effects, especially among subjugated groups.
What should we ask ourselves?
There are questions we can ask ourselves to guide our introspection and reflection of ourselves. (I know some of these are big questions but we can start with smaller, simpler ones)
-What is well-roundedness?
-What is the purpose of volunteering?
-What are your intentions or motives when you volunteer?
-What is professionalism?
-How does what you do prepare you for the future?
-What skills do you obtain from your education/experience?
-What is important to you?
-Why are those things important to you? Is there anything in common among them?
-How are you going to achieve it?
-Why is it that you can do that?
-What type of experience do you want to gain from your classes?
-What type of introspection can you do?
-What larger meaning is there? How do the things that you learn fit into a bigger picture?
-What is the purpose of your education?
What can I read to learn more?
Here are some readings I’ve personally enjoyed.
Terry Eagleton “The Slow Death of the University”
Paulo Freire “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”
Charles Weingartner and Neil Postman “Teaching as a Subversive Activity“
William Deresiewicz “Excellent Sheep”
Jackson Lears “Liberal Arts vs. Neoliberalism”
Martha Nussbaum “Not for Profit”
Terry Eagleton “The Illusions of Postmodernism”
Wendy Brown “Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution”
Bernard Williams “Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline”
And, until next time, keep fighting the good battle.