A couple of days ago, I read one of those essays that was timed for yet another new beginning. If only I had stopped after reading the essay; instead, I scrolled to read the comments. My tweet was about the comments!
It is so disappointing that even at a forum like the Chronicle of Higher Education the comments and discussion are as awful as the ones at Faux News and the Rough Limbaugh show. What prevents people from debating the merits of the argument?The comments/discussion in response ... a tragedy and a farce :( http://t.co/X4BW1b4fQz via @chronicle #Faculty pic.twitter.com/z7UM2bW6gM— sriram khe (@congoboy) August 31, 2015
The essay is by Mark Edmundson, whose essays I have shared with students in order to make them think about what they want from higher education, He writes there:
We’re more and more a worldly, money-based culture geared to the life of getting and spending, trying and succeeding, reaching for more and more. We are a pragmatic people. We do not seek perfection in thought or art, war or faith. The profound stories about heroes and saints are passing from our minds. We are anything but idealists. From the halls of academe, where a debunking realism is the order of the day, to the floor of the stock market, nothing is in worse repute than the ideal.Students go to Harvard these days not driven by ideals but to join the world of high finance. Even at the "People's Republic" that Berkeley was in the 1960s, there is very little of idealism anymore. It is the young that we expect to be driven by their ideal visions of the world. As we grow older, we become less and less idealistic, dulled by the years of experience in the real world.
The passing away of our commitment to ideals should not happen without second thoughts. Young people, who have traditionally been the ones most receptive to ideals, should be able to choose. Do they want to live a wholly practical life in a practical culture? Do they want to seek safety and security and never risk being made fools of? Or do they perhaps want something else? Every generation should be able to hold its own plebiscite on the issue of ideals.
Maybe we are best off without ideals. Perhaps there can be something bleakly noble in affirming ourselves as fundamentally Darwinian creatures who live to sustain our existences with as little pain and as much pleasure as possible. But is that all there is to life?Some of us who contemplate about what this life is all about--atheists and true believers alike--would like higher education to have in its structure a place where students will learn to think about that. Ideal versions of the world are related to what we think about life. It requires contemplation. Instead, higher education is increasingly only about information--not about knowledge and wisdom--that will be of practical value to students as they start living their own individual lives in the real world.
We seem to have come to an agreement that life is every man for himself, and every woman, too. The compassionate ideal is so dangerous to the self that it is not safe to put it into even displaced or sublimated form. Pressed to the wall, we affirm faith in individualism, and that is that.That essay was an excerpt from Edmundson's latest book, which David Brooks refers to in his NY Times column. Brooks, like many of us, has been going through a midlife crisis and has been all the more driven into understanding aspects of life. With his own rich liberal education background, Brooks opens his column with:
Just once I’d like to have a college student come up to me and say, “I really wanted to major in accounting, but my parents forced me to major in medieval art.” That probably won’t happen. It always seems to be the parents who are pushing their children in the “practical” or mercenary direction.
These parents are part of the vast apparatus — college résumés, standardized tests, the decline of humanities majors — that has arisen to make our culture more professional and less poetic.
A less poetic world is, of course, not merely about the diminished status of poetry; instead, it is about the loss of idealism and food for the soul that typically are the realms of poetry. The soul, for us who are secular and atheistic, is not about the soul that might be condemned in purgatory or about the soul that mingles in heaven with a god. Referring to the soul is nothing but another way, a shorthand reference of sorts, to one of my favorite quests: what is this life all about?