Friday, September 04, 2015

On the dying idealism--among the youth, and in higher education

The beginning of a new academic year is marked by essays on what we want from higher education.  It is a rare privilege that we have in this profession unlike with others--as in the movie Groundhog Day, it is almost as if we get to redo things year after year hoping that this time it will be different and better.

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 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.
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.
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.

Edmundson adds:
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?  

I do not suffer from any illusion that this year is when higher education will get it right in its Groundhog Day enactment.  But, I am delighted that we get such a new beginning every September.


Ramesh said...

The fading away of "idealism" has been a big surprise to me. My hypothesis was always that as we go through different stages in life, we change. In our youth, idealism is an inevitable trait, I thought, until life's knocks and the cauldron of experience somewhat destroys that innocence.

In our college days, we were wild eyed idealists. Your country has had that idealism at the campuses the most. Yes, People's Republic it was. Isn't it now ??

This dying of idealism was brought home to me starkly when I took a class on Business Ethics at a reputed institution of learning in India a couple of years ago. I was tackling the issue of bribery and was hoping to show how there were so many shades of grey that even an idealist would be in difficulty to judge what was right and what was wrong. I started by saying that it would be obvious that paying an outright cash bribe to get anything done was obviously wrong - easy peesy. I was interrupted by the class. Was I some sort of idealist messiah ?? In their view, it was of course OK to pay a bribe to get things done and simply move on. Which world was I living on ?

It felt like I had taken a Mike Tyson punch in the solar plexus.

Anne in Salem said...

Are the youth less idealistic than previous generations, or do we have such omnipresent access to data and news that it only seems that way because we hear more stories about it than ever before?

Perhaps our youth see liars and cheaters and criminals elected to Congress or earning a gazillion dollars playing sports/acting/singing and determine that ideals are for powerless, broke chumps. Saints and heroes aren't to be worshipped if they don't have power or money.

Perhaps we have become a pragmatic people, money-based rather than ideals-based, because that has been the mantra for decades. The American dream is money-based: do better than your parents, with "better" defined by bigger house, bigger car, more vacations. The entire economy is based on spend, spend, spend not on fiscal responsibility. The Kardashians certainly aren't in the spotlight for their ideals, and we are encouraged to keep up with them. Excess is glorified. These are hard forces to fight, no matter one's age.

Parents are doing homework for their kids, arguing with teachers when grades are poor, bending rules in sports. When children see such poor examples, how with they learn to love responsibility, hard work, courage, conviction, etc.?

Ramesh, when bribes are so commonplace as to be expected, how are children to learn they are wrong? Their own parents participate in the corrupt system. It is SOP; how can it be wrong?

Sriram Khé said...

What the WHAT? You both agree with me?
Hold on ...
Ok, I am back--I checked the skies. Yes, pigs are flying above ;)

If there is very little idealism among the youth, we are doomed :(

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