Higher Education in a Wider Context – part 1

A close up shot of Arnaldo Pomodoro’s Grande Disco sculpture at the University of Chicago
“Brave New World”- photo by Chris Smith. [A close up shot of Arnaldo Pomodoro’s Grande Disco sculpture at the University of Chicago.]

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.

On the Importance of getting over yourself

Looking out at ivy covering windows on a campus building

Sometimes aspects of human life, development, and experience that seem like they ought to go together fail to coincide. Good adults—people who work to be honest and fair, to establish loving and supportive homes and strong communities, to achieve important goals through their work or their engagement with various projects—can feel dramatically undernourished by these efforts. Highly successful adults (who may or may not be especially good people) can find their that their own achievements seem empty. Adults who work hard and successfully to make things better for other people can experience flattening burnout. Those who are exquisitely good at producing and safeguarding their own comfort and security—sometimes by working to build a solid network of support with friends or family members—find themselves bored or stifled by their very success at making things safe for themselves. They can feel isolated in the midst of their apparently strong social world. And, as has been noticed in many different ways and many different cultural contexts for many, many years, adults who try to pursue their own pleasure or happiness directly normally fail.


One of the central goals of our research project is to take notice of these and other ways that people can find themselves at odds with themselves, even when they appear to be, in many respects, highly functional, strongly self-directed, and significantly well-socialized. In spite of clear self-actualization, in spite of personal achievement on their own account or for the sake of others, in spite of their efforts to conform to many of the standards governing success in their private and professional lives, these people are neither enjoying themselves nor finding their lives fulfilling.


One traditional way of handling these cases of finding oneself at odds with oneself is to suppose that, e.g., those apparently good people are not really virtuous people, since truly virtuous people find joy and meaning in the results of their efforts to be good; that individual achievement, status, and power are at best incomplete goals; that, however important comfort and security are, they are not enough to make a life that feels like a life worth living; and that trying to go for pleasure or happiness directly represents a misunderstanding of the nature of real pleasure and true happiness. There is something to be said for all of these ways of addressing the kinds of conflict that begin to appear when people have worked very hard to build lives for themselves and then find themselves ill at ease in the lives that they have worked hard to build. Our project is working to go at this situation from a slightly different angle.


We are treating cases in which adults are ill at ease with the apparently good lives they have struggled to build as cases in which somehow virtue (broadly construed), happiness (at least in the guise of subjective satisfaction with oneself and one’s life), and a sense of meaning or purpose have come apart. A key question that we are asking ourselves, in and through our very different research modalities, is whether the missing ingredient in these busy, unfulfilling lives might be what some psychologists, sociologists, and medical practitioners call “self-transcendence.”


It is hard to find a single meaning of the term “self-transcendence” in the scientific literatures on the topic. One of the things we hope to do in our work is develop a better understanding of self-transcendence. The term seems to have come into some prominence in motivational psychology—psychology focused on human needs and goals—when Abraham Maslow added a new and higher level to his hierarchy of needs in the early 1960s. In the 1940s, Maslow had thought that there were five sorts of human needs basic to human life, and treated these as arranged hierarchically—at the base were biological needs, at the next level up, needs for safety and security, then social needs, then needs for self-esteem, and finally needs for self-actualization. A good human life was a life in which all of these needs were met.


Maslow tended to think of these needs as coinciding (more or less) with stages of psychological development, such that different stages were focused on meeting different needs, although he recognized that there were problems with this way of thinking about the hierarchy. Late in his career, he began to notice that it looked like there was a still higher level of basic human need—one that went beyond self-actualization. He named this level “self-transcendence.” As Mark Kolto-Rivera put it:


[Maslow’s] earlier model positions the highest form of motivational development at the level of the well- adjusted, differentiated, and fulfilled individual self or ego. The later model places the highest form of human development at a transpersonal level, where the self/ego and its needs are transcended. This represents a monumental shift in the conceptualization of human personality and its development. At the level of self-actualization, the individual works to actualize the individual’s own potential; there is thus, at least potentially, a certain self-aggrandizing aspect to this motivational stage, as there is with all the stages below it in Maslow’s hierarchy. At the level of self-transcendence, the individual’s own needs are put aside, to a great extent, in favor of service to others and to some higher force or cause conceived as being outside the personal self [“Rediscovering the Later Version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs,” in Review of General Psychology (2006), Vol. 10, No. 4: 306-307].


Some aspects of Maslow’s understanding of self-transcendence continue to inform the empirical psychological literature on the topic in unfortunate ways, however. For example, Maslow thought that self-transcendence was marked by what he called “peak experiences.” Peak experiences were experiences in which one seemed to be outside oneself, often merging with something beyond oneself. It is true that some forms of mystical religious experience, some profound experiences of nature, and so on, can feel like they dissolve the boundaries of the self. But so can delusional experiences and the kinds of experiences that come of taking hallucinogenic drugs. The difficulties with attempts to study self-transcendence as crucially involving peak experiences is that such studies can’t reliably distinguish an experience of the sacred in nature from the experience of acid trip or a psychotic delusion.


Accounts of self-transcendence as a feature of mature human development involving integrated awareness of one’s own values and aspirations (intrapersonal development), increased capacity to be aware of and relate to others and one’s environment (interpersonal development), an increased ability to integrate one’s understanding of the past and expectations for the future in ways that have meaning for the present, and broadened perspectives about one’s own life in its social and historical context (transpersonal development) have begun to shape literatures on nursing. Nurses working with geriatric patients and patients with serious cancer diagnoses have made important strides in developing accounts of entirely grounded, non-delusional self-transcendence. Nurses have a stake in thinking about aspects of human development that tend to give people strong attachments to their own lives and to equip people to make appropriate decisions about their own care. Not only do nurses fare better themselves if they understand their work in a self-transcendent context, they find that their patients who have developed strongly self-transcendent orientations have better health outcomes.


One hope of our work is to build from prior work on self-transcendence in ways that allow us to think about self-transcendence as pointing to a context in which efforts at moral self improvement—for example, ongoing cultivation of virtue—are situated in a way that goes beyond plain enlightened self-interest. We are asking ourselves (among other things) whether a self-transcendent orientation might be the missing link between work at living an ethically good life, a sense of purpose in life, and the kind of deep happiness that comes of a life oriented to goods that go well beyond self-actualization.

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.