Monday, December 12, 2016

The case for an "examined life"

Ananth points me to an absolutely fascinating conversation involving Princeton Professors Robert George and Cornel West which explores the merits of a liberal arts education. This from Robert George,
The point of liberal arts education is an examined life… The examined life is a life in which you are constantly questioning yourself. You’re subjecting yourself to self-criticism. Intellectual humility is a central virtue because in order to carry out the enterprise of self-criticism, you have to actually deal with the possibility that you might be wrong, and that’s hard, especially if changing your view would result in your being stigmatized, ostracized, isolated on your campus or in your community, whether your community is right, left, center, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim — whatever your community is. Seeking the examined life can be a very dangerous thing if what you’re after in life is satisfaction and feeling good. It’s a probe. It’s a prod. It’s a disruptor.
And this from Cornel West,
And I think part of the problem with spiritual blackout these days in the United States, and it’s a kind of indictment in some ways of our educational system, is that we have not adequately prepared our fellow citizens, not just those who go to college. One reason why I’ve taught in prisons for 37 years is that the paideia that we’re talking about, this deep education that we’re talking about, has to be widely available. It can’t just be available to those that gain access to institutions of higher learning. About two-thirds of our fellow citizens never go to college. They’re going to get their education one way or the other. They turn on the television, not too high quality, listen to the music, and I listen to Stephen Sondheim. If they’d listen to Sondheim every day, it would be a different situation because that’s some serious paideia going on in his music. They listen to the flattened, narrow, parochial stuff for titillation and stimulation, not for self-examination.

And again from Prof George, this test of what is right or wrong,
If you want to figure out what you should be doing right now, imagine looking at your situation right now from the point of your death and look back on it. Will it look like this was worth your time and attention and effort from the perspective of your death? For many, many of our young people, especially our most gifted and advantaged young people, they care about what’s on their C.V. when they ought to be caring about what’s going to be on their tombstone. If you look at the question, what is going to be on my tombstone instead of what’s on my C.V., you might have a very different set of decisions. You might make very different decisions about what you’re going to do now and next week and next year and for the next five years.    
One of the problems with modern society is that prestige and desire for recognition (thymos), fundamental drivers of human nature, are intimately dependent on wealth and incomes. The individual’s access to any platform that helps satisfy these impulses are contingent on the outcome of the ovarian lottery. As a first order requirement, if somehow we could have a system where everyone has equal access to livelihood opportunities, then, maybe, the current tight relationship between money and prestige could be loosened. 

At a fundamental level, I think the elevation of the instrumental value of education, displacing its intrinsic value, is a reflection of the market’s incentive distorting features. In other words, it is a market failure. If we agree that the qualities imbibed with a liberal arts education (an examination of life that leads to an understanding of other people and different values) are valuable to society, a public good, and if we also agree that there is a market failure in its supply, then it is hard to deny that governments have to bear a share of the burden of higher education.

But as Prof West says, even this, if achieved, would cover only those who complete higher education. In a society where large numbers, even the vast majority, are unlikely to do higher education, the challenge of disseminating and internalising paideia is much greater. That would require a radical transformation from our present economic, political, and social equilibrium. 

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