I will tell us two stories—the first is about a group of highly successful people in their early 30s—doctors, business people, and a few junior partners at good corporate law firms. One is a former student. I began meeting the others in planes several years ago. (I travel a lot on the same airline; the miles make it possible for me to provide plane tickets for people who can’t afford to fly; they also get me a lot of free upgrades.) All of the professionals I met had impressive undergraduate records at good secular four-year colleges or universities. The doctors and lawyers had very respectable advanced degrees. Unlike some high-achievers, the ones I met were more likely than not to have children and several even belonged to churches. And, one-on-one, individually, each one talked to me about how things were going. My former student was about to flee a wildly successful job at Goldman Sachs in New York. The others just wanted to talk to someone, and even though telling people that you teach philosophy does not inspire quite the revelations that one of my colleagues gets when he tells people that he’s a psychoanalyst, when people hear “philosophy” they sometimes get thoughtful. And confidential.
To the extent that I could tell from brief acquaintance with the strangers (and long, if sporadic, association with my former student) these shining people had done everything they thought they were supposed to do to lead full lives. They were educated. The doctors had not done much with anything in the humanities because they had to get through so many requirements to get their pre-med out of the way and because there is really no time for that when you are in med school and doing your residency, but they listened to music or saw art occasionally when they could. To the extent you can tell by looking, my acquaintances were healthy. Most were still paying back some student loans, but they were doing well—many were buying homes of one kind or another. They had friends. They had some sort of family. As I say, a few belonged to churches. A few had some other sort of community, if only at work. And they were, to all appearances, pretty good human beings.
Here is what I learned about these young men and women, who were everything that parents concerned about the soaring costs of higher education could see as evidence that the investment was worth it: they were lost people.
A few were angry about that. A few felt guilty about that. And all of them expected that a philosopher ought to understand what was wrong. So I asked a lot of questions—you can ask a lot of questions on a long airplane flight and these poster children for our culture were accustomed to talking about themselves. They were high-achievers. They had made their parents proud. They were popular. I like to listen. And what I wanted to hear was how the machinery of very good institutions of higher education that were, as we say, secular—we are in the U.S. where the term was invented to mark the separation of church and state as in ‘no state religion; many sects,’ by which lights my university used to be secular and has become merely unaffiliated. Anyway, I was trying to understand how institutions of higher learning with no religious or faith affiliation had failed these people. The strangers had attended brick-and-mortar institutions. They had had teachers in classrooms with them. They had been in communities. Learning communities. And their lives were hollow.
Instead of something like happiness they had scattered moments of excitement or pleasure. Instead of challenging and nurturing intimacy they had phones with lots of photographs of pets or children to document the moments when things felt more or less okay. As Karl Marx put it in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, I was meeting human beings who lived like birds—they had nests or, at least, large loans at low interest rates attached to what would be their nests. They flew here and there gathering things to bring back to the nests to feed and shelter and amuse themselves and any nestlings. They woke each morning with a huge to-do list hitting them in the face. And then flew off again. At least they were busy. Very, very busy. But there was no sense of meaning. There was no sense of purpose. There was, instead, the creeping realization that a busy life is not a full life, and that they had managed to get through a lot of higher education without ever developing the inner orientation or wider attachments that make all of the knowledges they had acquired and skills they had learned have a point.
One could object that their universities had not failed them. After all, the whole culture directs them to do what they did, and to focus their energies in the way that they had focused them. But Institutions of higher learning have tremendous influence on young people, and my strangers had all gone straight from secondary schooling to universities or four-year colleges.
Faced with my unhappy thirty-somethings I tried to think about the difference between people whose lives are hollow and people whose lives are full. I am a philosopher. We don’t have data. We have anecdotes. And in stories and writings we look for patterns, and we tend to look for patterns in an abstract sort of way with an eye toward catching sight of a problem.
It did not take much work to sense the problem that had hollowed out the lives of these beautiful young people. They had been fed a steady diet of the need to perform, to actualize themselves, to get an increasingly articulate sense of who they were and what they cared about, to find themselves, to express themselves, to meet the standards of their professions, to get ahead, and to use all of that effort to put together a secure life for themselves and any children who might come their way. Hollow people running to and fro in the shells of very busy lives punctuated by highs having to do with additional achievement spikes at work, fancy holidays in exotic places, and the undeniably wonderful things that the children said and did now and then, or genuinely heartwarming exchanges with the dogs or the cats. Higher education in the United States had prepared them for nothing better than this.
Frankly, it’s not worth it if that’s all we have to offer.
We are meant to guide and help them make a transition from home to the world in a way that equips them to act well. At their ages, with their tasks, and with our resources, moral formation will take place on campuses whether we like it or not. Higher education failed my thirty-somethings either by failing to attend to this obvious point, or else by attending to it and having whole modes of formation built right into the design and conduct of every class that cannot but churn out highly successful hollow people who are, of course, more likely than many to pay back their student loans.
I have been working with a grant from the John Templeton Foundation called “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.” We are a network project, bringing together an extraordinary group of empirical psychologists of many stripes, philosophers, theologians, and religious thinkers to read each other’s disciplinary works-in-progress with a shared set of foci. We want to understand the connections between virtue, happiness, and a sense of meaning or purpose in life. We want to use that shared focus to intervene in our separate disciplines. It is an unusual grant. So far, it is going very well.
It looked to me like happiness and virtue came apart in the lives of the thirty-somethings, and that senses of meaning or purpose were at best temporary, local, episodic, goal-based, and not quite the things that add up to any overall sense that life is worth living.
Now, there are scholars of Aristotle who will insist that these people are not really virtuous, because if you really are virtuous, then you will be a good human being who enjoys the special kind of happiness that comes of living a good human life. I have never known what to make of this view, even though I know one genuinely happy Aristotelian virtue ethicist who think just this, and two very serious Aristotle scholars who likewise seem to believe it, and to be both good human beings and pretty happy.
They are interested in the happiness that is sometimes called “flourishing,” which is the spiritually muted English translation of the Greek term eudaimonia. The daimon-bit in eudaimonia suggests some sort of traffic with divinity—a topic that is difficult and strange in Aristotle. So one can think of “flourishing” as the acceptable English translation that highlights what humans have in common with every other living thing.
These thinkers are very comfortable with the thought that the thing that people most want is happiness, and even my preferred neo-Aristotelian, Thomas Aquinas, takes some such view on board, although the desired happiness is not properly identified with good feeling or satisfaction or contentment in temporal life—the thing that my restless thirty-somethings found inexplicably absent both at work and at home.
It might be the case that there are no necessary connections between happiness and virtue, or between either of these and having a sense of meaning or purpose in life. Perhaps stubborn insistence that these things ought to connect up has more to do with a philosophical fantasy than with the business of leading a good life. I don’t think so, although I confess that I have never thought about happiness as a thing to go after, or unhappiness as a sign that I must have gone off the rails in some way. Still, partly in deference to a long tradition of thinkers much greater than I, I got very interested in the difference between hollow lives and full lives, and I had the hunch that full lives were lives lived with a keen sense of participating in, and working for, a good that was larger than just my own welfare, achievements, success, and self-actualization alongside the well being of those in my intimate circle. What was missing from the lives of those accomplished young professionals was, I suspected, a way of living that was fundamentally attuned to common good. Sadly, at this level of description, I think that there really is a place to ask questions about virtue and character and formation from a Thomistic neo-Aristotelian position.
As I read Aquinas, there is no such thing as genuine virtue that is entirely self-serving, even when I expand my sense of my self to include, say, members of my immediate family and my friends. The term that our research project uses to mark this point is self-transcendence—initially introduced in motivational psychology by Abraham Maslow to mark an orientation to life that was superior to an emphasis on self-actualization.
What, you may be asking yourself at this point, does all this talk of hollow lives, happy lives, self-transcendence, and good character have to do with higher education?
To answer this question, it helps to ask other questions:
What is the point of seeking higher education in the United States these days?
What are we meant to be providing for our students?
What should they have when they compete their degrees that they did not have when they first matriculated?
In the next post [scheduled for Friday, November 18], I will consider these questions and tell a couple of stories about moral education and everyday life.
Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and Director and Principal Investigator for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.