Of Passion and Education

by Lane Wallace on October 1, 2014

There has been a lot of press, recently, arguing what the point of a college education is supposed to be. The debate seems to have been sparked by the publication of a book titled Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, by a former English professor named William Deresiewicz.

While education per se is not really something I talk about on this site, and I haven’t read Deresiewicz’s book, the concepts of passion and of crafting a meaningful life are topics very germane to the idea of No Map. No Guide. No Limits. But first, a little background on the debate:

Deresiewicz, it appears, believes that a higher education is too focused on achievement and performance, at the cost of “smothering students’ souls,” as a New Yorker article put it. Deresiewicz believes that college should be a time when students “stand outside the world for a few years,” and engage in the job of “soul-making.”

Standing in opposition to that idea is the counter-idea that the point of college is some combination of two goals. The first is “teaching knowledge” (a viewpoint, The New Yorker said, espoused by UC Vice-Chancellor Robert Nisbet in a 1971 book titled The Degradation of the Academic Dogma). The second, according to a New York Times column by David Brooks, is teaching students how to think, and think critically, a viewpoint articulated by Harvard Professor Stephen Pinker, in response to Deresiewicz’s book.

David Brooks summarized the different viewpoints as “three distinct purposes for a university: the commercial purpose (starting a career), Pinker’s cognitive purpose (acquiring information and learning how to think) and Deresiewicz’s moral purpose (building an integrated self).” And The New Yorker article criticized Deresiewicz’s position for being “distinctly middle class”:

“Deresiewicz suggests that someone who grew up poor should be at least as eager to turn down the lucrative consulting job and take a risky road as anybody else. ‘If you grow up with less, you are much better able to deal with having less,’ he counsels. ‘That is itself a kind of freedom.’ The advice seems cheap. When an impoverished student at Stanford, the first in his family to go to college, opts for a six-figure salary in finance after graduation, a very different but equally compelling kind of ‘moral imagination’ may be at play.”

Ah. Now we are in No Map. No Guide. No Limits. territory. After all, I spend an inordinate amount of time pondering questions of where voice, passion, and fulfillment come from, how to find them, how important they are, and how and when anyone should make the call to leave a more predictable or secure path and try something riskier but potentially more “fulfilling.”

So where do I stand on this debate? Strangely enough, the question of what a college education is for is one I’ve given a lot of thought to, and we’ve talked about in our household a lot, recently, because I have two stepsons currently trying to decide whether or not a college education is worth it. [click to continue…]

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In my last post, about the lessons and accomplishments of Maya Angelou’s life, I said she was “a reminder of the power of simply being yourself.”  And while flipping through some back issues of the New York Times this past weekend (part of why I still get a print paper– it’s easier to browse issues you didn’t get to read in real-time), I came across some interesting scientific support for that idea.

The article was titled, “So You’re Not Desirable,” and it discussed the results of a study by University of Texas researchers published in the May 2014 issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The study looked at what people found most appealing in a potential partner or mate. As might be expected, the study confirmed that when it came to first impressions, people had the same basic ideals in terms of what constituted qualities like physical attractiveness, charisma and potential for success, and rated the same types of individuals high or low in terms of how appealing they seemed as a potential mate. (The study called this “high mate value,” versus “low mate value.”)

However, the researchers also looked at how people rated potential mates on those same qualities (physical attractiveness, vitality, warmth, potential for success, and “even the ability to provide a satisfying romantic relationship”) over time, as people in the study got to know each other. And after three months, the “uniqueness” of any given person trumped those initial “consensus” evaluations in all categories. In other words, the people who were more conventionally attractive physically–those most likely to appear in fashion ads or movies–were rated more appealing initially. But over time, the people who were considered the most attractive were the ones who stood out as unique, authentic individuals. And those results were backed up by a second study that asked 350 heterosexual individuals to evaluate people in their well-known circle of friends and lovers for those same “appealing” characteristics.

We are loved, in other words, not for how close to the ideal we hit, but for those unique imperfections and traits that nobody else in the world has; those things that set us apart from the cookie-cutter, movie-image, Madison-Avenue ideal.

While this is encouraging news for anyone who doesn’t fit the Madison-Avenue ideal, the significance of these results goes far beyond love life encouragement. [click to continue…]

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