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What is Life For?

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2000-almost-famousWhat is the purpose of college – and life itself – after all?

In William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (2014) and Mark Edmundson’s Why Teach?: In Defense of a Real Education (2013), both reflect on higher education in the 21st century and the search for meaning and purpose that it can and should inspire.

Edmundson laments how the standard undergraduate education is now all about obtaining a degree and acquiring marketable skills to find a job after graduation; in short, to prepare students for a career. He has a different, more idealized goal for students and professors:

The function of a liberal arts education, as I see it, is to rejuvenate, reaffirm, replenish, revise, overwhelm, replace, reorder, or maybe just slightly retouch the web of words that Rorty calls the final vocabulary. A language, Wittgenstein thought, is a way of life. A new language, whether we learn it from a historian, a poet, a painter, or a composer of music, is potentially also a new way to live.

Rejuvenate, reaffirm, replenish. The essence, for Edmundson, the telos of education, is to inspire. He wants students to cultivate the skills of close reading, critical analysis, and reflection that great works of literature (history, philosophy, science) spur. Literature, at its best, can teach us how to live. When great writers are read contemplatively, they becomes catalysts, a kind of portal to the sublime:

The best reason to read them is to see if they know you better than you know yourself. . . . Reading the great writers, you may have the experience Longinus associated with the sublime: You feel that you have actually created the text yourself. For somehow your predecessors are more yourself than you are.

Deresiewicz aptly summarizes his own grievances in one word: technocratic. Universities today are fragmented, over-specialized, and myopically insistent on math and science. Deresiewicz champions the humanities, wary of how Ivy League students are motivated by careers, and, worst of all, risk averse. These HYPSters – Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford students – are too prim, too afraid. His advice is simple: “People say find your passion, but they don’t say be prepared to suffer.”

He exhorts students to break from their manic dash for credits and to take time off and travel. He persists, and insists – there is more to life than credentials:

Life is more than a job; jobs are more than a paycheck; and a country is more than its wealth. Education is more than the acquisition of marketable skills, and you are more than your ability to contribute to your employer’s bottom line or the nation’s GDP, no matter what the rhetoric of politicians or executives would have you think. To ask what college is for is to ask what life is for, what society is for—what people are for. Do students ever hear this?

Edmundson expresses a similar anxiety about today’s typical college student, whom he describes as “considerate, easy to please, and a touch depressed.” His most salient piece of advice, to me, came from his 2005 convocation address “Glorious Failure,” whose message is: Do not fear failure. He mentions a ghost resume: “all the things that went awry, the essays that didn’t work, the book projects that fell apart, the writing that seemed like it was coming from the pen of Samuel Johnson on Tuesday and turned out on Friday not to make much sense at all.”

No one, no matter how intelligent or talented, ever reaches the point where he or she reaches complete development as a human being. We are always in a state of flux. And this is a good thing. Edmundson, with a touch of humility, expresses as much:

When I was a young man I had a myth of my own. It’s the myth of arrival, and what that myth said was that at a certain point you get to a place in your career and everything goes well. Everything you do works, because you’re a success and that’s that. I’m here to tell you that that point does not exist.

Each day one must rise and slay the dragon. There is a stigma in American society attached to failure. But all the great minds failed. Failure requires courage. As uncool and unsexy as failure may feel, it demands our full attention. Edmundson quotes Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) from Almost Famous: “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.”


Apart from Edmundson’s concern that universities across the nation are developing into “corporate cities” and his worries about the coming generations, he still has hope. True education, Edmundson concludes, is a Keatsian soul-makinga life-long endeavor that just begins in college.

Echoing Edmundson, Deresiewicz summons Odysseus, that classic mythic hero who embodies “the life-changing, soul-making journey.” He gracefully concludes:

The only grade is this: how well you’ve lived your life.

Expect suffering, anticipate failure – because they are our best teachers.



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