This hasn’t been a good year for colleges. Small private schools are dropping like flies, unable to find enough applicants to sustain themselves. Elite universities are thriving, with an applicant pool so deep that wealthy parents are paying millions for illicit life jackets to float their children safely to the top. In between are universities who have survived by transforming themselves into purveyors of mass-market online courses providing degrees to students who never once step foot on an actual campus or meet their professors or classmates face to face.
Underlying all this is the conviction that a college degree is a dependable means to a good life. If happiness is a function of lifetime earnings, this is an indisputable fact. Gainful employment has its benefits. But do those benefits constitute a genuinely good life? After all, in virtually every study published, Americans are nowhere to be found among the world’s happiest people.
What is a good life anyway? Can there be consensus on such a topic? The subject has been explored from the earliest roots of Western civilization. Let’s look to the philosophy department for an answer just before we consign it to the campus dumpster along with those Commodore computers and the history department.
In two of Plato’s most important dialogues, “The Apology” and “The Republic”, Socrates inquires into the nature of a good human life. In the first dialogue, he urges us to know what our nature actually is and to become masters of ourselves, for there is where happiness lies. Here, Socrates uttered one of the most profound truths of our civilization, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
In “The Republic”, Socrates describes human nature as a soul with three parts: reason, spirit, and passion (appetites). They are all good and necessary but are often in conflict. Bringing them into proper balance is the key to human well-being.
Reason is that part of the soul which seeks knowledge and truth. It is the most human part of our nature in that homo sapiens alone possess intellect (language). Its virtue is wisdom. The spirited part of the human soul seeks achievement and honor. It wants to succeed and be recognized. Its virtue is courage. Passion is that part closest to the rest of the animal world. It seeks the physical satisfaction of food, drink, and sex. Its virtue is temperance.
To live well, Socrates tells us, reason must always be in control. It must reign in spirit and passion when they become excessive. When spiritedness and appetites are in control, we lose our freedom. When the three parts are in proper proportion, the result is justice. Justice, Socrates points out, is not simply a political condition; it is the optimal state of a person’s soul as well. An excellent state is identical to an excellent human being. “The state is a man writ large against the sky.”
Many Americans sense that there’s something not quite right about the current state of our national soul. We’re not trapped in a moral abyss as deep as, say, human slavery; but there’s a level of discomfort and perhaps even danger in the apparent decline of trust, respect for the dignity and rights of others, personal responsibility toward the larger community, honesty, and adherence to the rule of law. Today’s evidence is wealthy, snowplow parents, driven by “spiritedness”, clearing a path through the college admission system for their children or their own need for reflected glory. Tomorrow’s evidence will arrive soon enough.
Perhaps this is an opportunity to reflect on the purpose of education, seeing it in the more traditional sense, as a means to a truly good life, rather than as a weapon in a hyper-competitive race for acquisition, power and status.