Higher Education in a Wider Context – part 2

“Ida Noyes Cloister” – photo by Chris Smith

In my last post, I ended with several questions about the purpose of higher education, and the relationship of higher education to human flourishing:

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?

The most obvious answers to these questions are not, I think, especially helpful to us. For example, reasonably stable statistics suggest that for most—but not all—people earning a four-year college degree will increase income-earning potential. The degree is a requirement for a better-paying job than one can get with a high school diploma (or its equivalent).


Notice that it is not obvious why this is the case. Some people think that the degree demonstrates to potential employers that the student can succeed in sticking to a course of study, has some experience with whatever level of self-discipline is required to show up for classes often enough, and, if her transcript is strong, has met some serious standards of assessment for work along the way. In addition, the person who completes her degree program and emerges with a strong transcript will have undergone important socialization outside the confines of her family. The university is a sheltered sort of larger world, but a larger world nonetheless, and, in the course of learning to live and work in the little larger world, the successful undergraduate will have developed at least some new interests and become involved in some sorts of groups or community activities that help to prepare her to take part in a larger sort of larger world.


If that’s all that we are doing for our students, if that’s all that they take away from our work with them, then we are failing them and failing to understand the kind of opportunity we have in higher education. Who are these people—our prospective and actual students? Many of them are young adults, sometimes away from home for the first time, often anxious, often hopeful, and almost inevitably at a crucial point in their lives where they are beginning to make the decisions and take the actions that will open or close the doors on how they will live after they leave us. They sometimes are full of questions about ethics or politics. If they think that all those questions have been answered for them long ago, they may be moving around in a perilous place with brittle conviction in an environment that, at its best, will at least ask that they have something to say on behalf of what they have come to take for granted. Some are entering our institutions or returning to such institutions after having been at work or at war.


Whether they are new to us or familiar with higher education, they may have very little experience with genuine educational moments. Genuine educational moments are necessarily alarming and destabilizing. In a genuine educational experience, one finds that a thing one has simply accepted or taken for granted wobbles. Educational experience disrupts one’s sense of mastery.


This is obviously true when one is learning higher mathematics or formal logic or a new language. By definition, advancing in a new language or learning a new formal system requires learning—usually through the wretched process of making mistake after mistake until the thing becomes more habitual, and it is possible to innovate a little—make a new sentence; figure out the sort of equation one needs in order to cope with the engineering problem; locate what’s broken in the program and fix it. In these fields the subject matter itself provides some of the standards one has to meet in order to do well. But a question ought to haunt students who are busily acquiring technical competence or linguistic ability. That question ought to be: to what end? Why should I go through the torture of learning German or Latin or organic chemistry or real analysis? Why should anyone subject herself to such discipline at all when you’d have to be mad to be incapable of imagining a more pleasant way of spending an hour or two this afternoon?


If the answer is something like ‘because I need to do well in organic chemistry in order to get into medical school,’ or ‘I have to know German in order to take the kind of position I want with a multi-national firm based in Hamburg, or else to do doctoral work in art history, say, or some area of history or philosophy,’ then, I think, the ‘Why?’-question ought to re-appear. And why go on with those things?


My disappointed, restless, demoralized and self-actualized thirty-somethings did not ask that second set of ‘Why?’ questions. All of them hold good degrees. Nothing in their academic careers demonstrated to them, or even asked of them, very much about the point of what they were learning. None of them were in an educational setting where it was as natural as reading or breathing or completing a homework assignment to attend to the way in which their academic work was meant to suit them to participate in a larger common good. Not just to give them new things to be interested in or to puzzle about. Not just to get them over a hurdle that they had to cross in order to try to clear the next hurdle. Rather, to give them something that could make it possible for them to be a source of good in the lives of people they will never invite over to dinner and will never meet at the interval at the opera.


In my line of work, people are often made very anxious by the suggestion that there needs to be a special point to our teaching and our research. We sometimes think that any suggestion that we ought to have something to say on this score threatens to reduce the grandeur of the life of the mind—an especially high and serious sort of calling for our sort of animal; the sort of thing that makes a human being more important than a really wonderful dog (even when the dog’s company is more pleasant)—to reduce the value of what we do to some grubby instrumental sort of affair belonging to the shabby business of getting and spending rather than the higher calling of truth and beauty and goodness.


I am all in favor of truth and beauty and goodness. I tend to think that genuine attachments to truth and beauty and goodness are attachments to common human good. These attachments are inexhaustible.   My attachments to these can never exclude yours. Yours can never damage mine. When all goes well, mine instead enrich yours, and yours mine. And provided that we are honest and fair, and have the sort of humility that belongs to such matters properly understood, we can all seek a share in truth and beauty and goodness. I don’t think that such an aspiration is the kind of thing that allows for the cultivation of a big ego, actually. Again, properly governed, the self shrinks in the face of such things.


For all that, I tend to be pretty flat-footed about the daily business of higher education. Whatever subject I am teaching, my aim is to understand my classroom as a community gathered together for the sake of having and sharing an important educational experience—focused on the books or passages or films or images that we confront, and entering these things as human cultural materials produced in the face of genuine questions about what it is to be human, and how one ought to live. The silent partner in most of my classrooms is Aquinas. He taught me to understand that every student I have is there because they want to pursue something good, or avoid something bad. He taught me that they all have a basic grasp of what is good or bad in human life, even if almost none of them can articulate it. He taught me that we are all of us intellectual animals, and that, for us, it takes work to develop harmonious thought and feeling, desire and action, in order to pursue good reasonably and avoid bad appropriately. And he taught me that, even when one has a measure of wisdom in these matters, the ethical remains challenging. To put it bluntly, by the lights of this Catholic thinker, having a full measure of acquired wisdom—a good character, properly virtuous dispositions, and so on—will not obviate the need to go to confession. There still will be things that we do and fail to do, say and fail to say, think and fail to think, that we will have good reason to regret on reflection. And, for all of that, our bits are made to work together reasonably and harmoniously, even if almost none of us ever quite manages to live an entirely well-ordered life.


In higher education we are charged with helping our students learn to prepare for productive futures as creatures oriented to participation in larger common good—whether that is the good of the neighborhood, the good of the firm, the good of one’s patients or clients. In a culture that seems overwhelmingly directed to self-enhancement, self-expression, self-actualization, affluence, power, winning, and success, we have to help them to see what they do from a higher vantage point. We have to help them be alert to the people around them, even if only those people in the classroom. We have to help them see themselves as charged not just with getting whatever they might be able to get from us that could give them a clear path gainful employment after they leave us, but to recognize the larger goods and potential pitfalls at issue in any path to gainful employment they might pursue.


In this sense, I think, the height of higher education is better measured by the wider context in which we work. And, since, as near as I can tell, human beings are made for orientation to common good—again, on however small or grand a scale—I think that this is not nearly as abstract or difficult as it might seem from my words about truth and goodness and beauty. We can count on this in one another, whether or not we know it. And those of us who have faith in God can rely on Him for some help.


I promised to tall you two stories. The second is an extracurricular story about a garden.


My husband and I live on the south side of Chicago in a mixed income neighborhood not far from the Lake where many children live in poverty and many adults struggle to make ends meet. My husband and I have colonized the large vacant lot next to our building and made of it a park-like community garden. I have a big flower border, because flowers feed everybody. We have a community herb bed, and a vegetable garden that provides a lot of neighborhood folks with greens and cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers, carrots and beets all summer long. There is a stand of mulberry trees at one spot, and my husband built a low, very solid, very good treehouse in the largest of them with steps leading up to the big deck. The kids play on that lot all summer, and we made the treehouse for them. But, partly because the garden is the nicest place to be anywhere in the immediate vicinity, shortly after the treehouse was up, older kids started hanging out in the treehouse after dark on the weekends. Many belonged to what we call “street organizations,” but what you most likely know as “gangs.” The neighbors across the alley were in an uproar over this. They insisted that the treehouse had to come down. Of course, taking it down would have meant getting rid of the best and safest place to play during the day for scores of children.


So my husband started praying about it. We went back over basic Aquinas on human nature—how everyone has natural reason; how everyone wants to be toward good and away from bad…those things. And one night, when the treehouse has more than the usual crowd of armed folks using drugs and hanging out, my husband baked a big batch of chocolate chip cookies and headed out to the treehouse with two plates of cookies and a mission.


“We have to talk,” he said, offering them cookies.


And they talked. He explained that he understood that there were no jobs for them in our neighborhood and that they were in the underground economy for good reasons. But, he pointed out, their work put them at big risks of being victims of drive-by-shootings. “It would break my heart,” he said, “to find myself out here cleaning your blood off this treehouse.”


They have to make a living. No question there. But the garden is not the place for that activity. It is not even a place to use drugs.


They talked a long time. He explained that he was under pressure to dismantle to treehouse, and what that would cost the kids who played there all day. That it would cost the older kids a place to hang out in the early evening as well.


And they agreed.


Then they talked about cussing. My husband explained that he was, himself, a writer, and had very high regard for verbal artistry. He praised their impromptu, virtuoso skill with language. And allowed as how there had to be places to do their art. But, again, the garden was not that place. There were children. There were old people. It was important to make this very good place a special place where what passed between people was gentle and kind.


And they agreed.


That was three years ago. No one sells drugs from the garden. No one uses drugs in the garden. No one cusses loudly and at length in the garden. (Of course a bad word or two will leak out if someone, say, hits his thumb with a hammer or something.) Everyone recognizes the garden as a safe, beautiful place made to for anyone who wants to visit. We still have kids who throw tomatoes. We still have little ones who get in tussles and accidentally run over new beds sometimes. The youngest of this season’s local children still are children. But no one has any problem with the treehouse.


The local leaders of what we call “street organizations” are fully capable of hearing a call to preserve and protect a garden, and of changing course for the sake of common good.


If we can do this with a small band of armed drug dealers on the south side of Chicago, what does it say about us if we are unwilling to teach our students to locate their studies in a developing awareness of the good at stake in what we teach them? How are we seeing these beings if we do not think that they arrive hungry for ways of directing themselves to a larger good than a future paycheck?


Of course we have to attend to the future paycheck. I grew up in a scrappy world where future paychecks were tremendously important, and I had tenure before I finished paying off my student loans. But I was in the process of finding a vocation in addition to getting a degree with no expectation that it would turn into a job. And that eye toward the higher thing is what made it all worthwhile.


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.