Education Without Substance and Without a Soul

“If you don’t pursue what you think will be most meaningful, you will regret it,” President Drew Gilpin Faust warned the Class of 2008 in her Baccalaureate address last year. Speaking before a class of graduates, 38 percent of whom had elected careers in finance and consulting, Faust nevertheless sensed an anxiety that seniors had found their chosen professional paths somewhat “troubling.” As she anatomized the problem, “You are not sure if a generous starting salary at a prestigious brand name organization together with the promise of future wealth will feed your soul.”

As Harvard gathers once again to solemnize the rites of Commencement for yet another graduating class, another such round of soul-searching does not seem out of place. While the percentage of our classmates destined for corporate cubicles certainly may have dwindled in these depressed economic times, the concern that Faust articulated last year retains its currency. In fact, without the plentiful powerful and high-paying positions Harvard students had begun to presume as their birthright awaiting them upon graduation, these once merely academic and existential concerns have assumed a new urgency.

What should I do with my life after graduation? Or, to put it more broadly: How should I live? What kind of life is most choice-worthy? These are fundamental questions of a first order. Ignore or dismiss them as we may, our daily actions, choices, and beliefs imply some sort of answer—not always coherent and consistent, and indeed often arbitrary and unreflective.

President Faust rightfully exhorted her first class of graduates carefully to consider such questions. Yet over the past four years, Harvard has done woefully little for its students, failing not only to prepare them for the challenges of our peculiar economic predicament, but more importantly to instill in them an aspiration and savor for the life worth living.

The “meaningful” life, in Faust’s context, naturally is used in a relatively restricted sense. Tellingly, she contrasted the toilsome life of the financier with the apparently richer and more rewarding lives of the actor, artist, public servant, and journalist. Harvard’s abundant extracurricular interest in those putatively more meaningful pursuits may justify Faust’s presumption that, were money not an obstacle, students would prefer them to the arduous,  although handsomely remunerated, tasks of Wall Street.

But why Harvard students—or anyone, for that matter—should choose, among innumerable other options, drama or poetry or non-profit work is a question seldom answered or even posed. The contemporary academy long has denied the relevance, importance, or solubility of such questions. Even to inquire about the most choice-worthy life implies a hierarchy of values, a notion that the ascendant progressive prejudices cannot compass.

You have your values and preferences and I have mine—we have no objective, external standard against which to measure them and ultimately disprove one and confirm the other. According to this regime, for example, sexual mores, no matter how perverse, are matters of indifference: to think otherwise is intolerant and judgmental. This principle extends to matters academic also, as Harvard does not dare distinguish with regard to intrinsic worth the study of the Classics from that of Women, Gender, and Sexuality.

Such distinctions, however, are precisely those which ought to be made. A proper liberal-arts education, the kind which Harvard still prides itself on offering, should cultivate in its students an appreciation for and dedication to the life of the mind. Traditionally understood, this implies not a ravenous appetite for promiscuous knowledge regarding all sorts of curiosities and trivialities, but rather the pursuit of truth and the contemplation of beauty. The liberal arts were those studies befitting the liber, a free man—one free not only from physical enslavement but also the more debilitating and servile subjection to irrational passions.

In that same speech, President Faust defined the liberal arts as those that “empower you with the possibility of exercising agency, of discovering meaning, of making choices” because “the meaning of your life is for you to make.” In other words, liberal education is an essentially self-contained and self-serving project.

Not recognizing an objective standard—such as the “Veritas” ironically still emblazoned upon the University arms—the sagest counsel that Harvard can permit itself to offer its wards is: do what makes you feel good. “Meaning” in life cannot arise from anywhere but from within, from “being true to yourself,” i.e., to whichever prejudices you acquired before you arrived at Harvard or those you have absorbed in the four years since.

The goal of your elite education has not been, as Plato famously conceived it, to ascend above the unilluminated ignorance of the cave. Instead, afraid to cause offense by privileging one view over others, Harvard has aspired simply to make us feel more comfortable in our darkness.

Too many Harvard students today, as Faust correctly seemed to indicate, cannot be bothered thinking seriously about the good or “meaningful” life. To have succeeded in gaining admission in the first place required an intense drive and prodigious ambition. As such, concerned almost exclusively with the even loftier rewards and honors to which their degrees will entitle them, most do not want to waste intellectual energy on matters that do not have a clear, tangible benefit.

Despite President Faust’s plaints—delivered, on the eve of Commencement, perhaps too tardily—her institution deserves the bulk of the blame. Students, untutored and undirected, cannot be too harshly indicted for wanting to cash in their many talents for fortune, prestige, and power. The liberal arts should educate those passions, inspiring at the very least an awareness that the greatest goods in life are not simply creature comforts or those simple and low pleasures of the herd. And certainly, true happiness and “meaning” do not reside in satisfying the inclinations of the passions or unexamined prejudices.

The goal of a Harvard education should be something truly noble: not only to make men wiser, but to make them freer as well. Yet on almost all accounts, she has failed to live up to this charge. In advocating a life attentive only to the standards or values that the individual arbitrarily has chosen himself, fair Harvard—while believing that she is broadening her students’ minds—rather subjects them to the vilest and most dehumanizing slavery.

Christopher B. Lacaria ’09, a Crimson editorial writer, is a history concentrator in Kirkland House