November 6, 2011

Finding Purpose in Education

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These may be the words of a privileged elitist, but I don’t think they’re untrue: For many of us, the decision wasn’t whether to go to college, it was simply where to go to college. In fact, in our very first contact with the University we were asked to explain why we wanted to go to our chosen college at Cornell, not why we had chosen to go to college at all. And so, perhaps too few of us have given long enough thought to why we’re actually here.In a cursory sense it’s easy to identify. College seems important to advancing our career prospects, and perhaps — if we’re lucky — it can help us grow intellectually as well as personally. Plus, everyone else is doing it. Beyond that, I don’t think many of us have endeavored to find a deeper and more exacting understanding of why we’re here. But doing so is critical. In fact, almost nothing could be more important in our own personal development. Whatever purpose we assign to our time here will dictate what we do in these crucial years spent teetering on the precipice of adulthood and may very well have a profound impact on the course we take with the rest of our adult lives.The prevailing public attitude and certainly the attitude of many of our parents is that the primary purpose of college is to increase our chances of gaining fruitful career and financial opportunities. Imbuing students with a sense of purpose, on the other hand, is increasingly viewed as outside the purview of a school’s function. From 1970 to the years just after 2000, the proportion of freshmen who ranked “being well off financially” as “essential” or “very important” climbed from 36.2 percent to 73.6 percent, while those ascribing the same importance to “acquiring a meaningful philosophy of life” dropped from 79 to 39.6 percent (according to Derek Bok’s Our Underachieving Colleges).A large reason for this shift in focus from purpose and meaning to careers and finance may be that the ever-rising price tag assigned to attending college (even after adjusting for inflation) makes any non-monetary incentive for going seem like a waste of money. William Deresiewicz put it best: “An elite education gives you the chance to be rich … but it takes away the chance not to be … Wouldn’t I be squandering the opportunities my parents worked so hard to provide?”It’s worthwhile to note that things weren’t always like this — or even close. Before the Civil War, colleges were arranged not to maximize the financial success of their graduates but rather “to pursue two important objectives: training the intellect and building the character.” The “culminating experience” in the college experience of those days was a mandatory senior course on moral philosophy that grappled with pressing policy questions of the day. After the Civil War, several factors led requirements to become more lax and curricula to become more “practical.” But, it was really the passage of the G.I. Bill in the middle of the 20th century that ushered in a major movement towards careerism. The bill gave many more people from many more backgrounds the opportunity to start attending college. This new broader populace of students, no longer solely constituting the ranks of the society’s elite, was much more determined to use their time in college as a vocational launching pad. The increased demand for this type of study was met with an increase in its supply. Specialization and career-related majors increased.While career preparation is important, it would be a mistake for us to view it as the one paramount goal of our time here.Derek Bok, a former President of Harvard, identifies eight purposes of college and only one of them is preparing for work. The other seven are refining our ability to communicate, improving our critical thinking skills, enhancing our moral reasoning, preparing for citizenship, learning to live with diversity, readying ourselves to exist in a more global society and developing a breadth of interests. William Keeton House Assistant Dean Ethan Stephenson (who, by the way, was not just kind enough to sit down with me but willing to speak with endless patience and enthusiasm on the subject) outlined his own five purposes of college: (1) developing cultural literacy, (2) providing an opportunity to remove yourself from society and ask the “big” questions about yourself and the world around you, (3) yes — preparing for a career, but also (4) learning how to become an active citizen and (5) sorting people according to their displayed ability and merit.Bok and Stephenson’s models offer us a richer perspective on why we’re here. And Stephenson’s third point — asking the “big” questions — really gets at something. College isn’t just a means to advancing our preconceived ends. It’s a chance to reconsider and refine those ends. An important purpose of college then should be to help us find a larger purpose in life, something to motivate us, something we can give ourselves over to.On this matter, our University doesn’t seem to have much to say. Purpose is an icky, confusing and controversial matter that we relegate to a domain beyond the proverbial schoolhouse gate. Our schools are here to help us move closer to fulfilling whatever grand purpose we’ve assigned ourselves, but it is to our friends and family that we must turn in deciding what that grand purpose should be. There is no reason that this needs to be the case — and good reason to believe it shouldn’t.William Damon, a world-renowned human development scholar and professor at Stanford’s School of Education, argues that the single largest problem in education today is student disengagement, resulting from precisely this absence of a grander purpose. Only about one in five students from ages 12-22 can “see the link between what goes on in their schools and their aspirations for their lives.” This inability to link our schooling to some purpose beyond just getting good grades to get a good job can have damaging consequences that don’t just affect us in the short-term, but that can last a lifetime. Damon lists them as including a “pervasive sense of emptiness, boredom or apathy … debilitating anxiety … and an ensnarement in the lures of hedonism and cynicism.” So, what am I saying? It’s hard to find a purpose to college if we can’t find a grand purpose to our lives. Our University should play a more active and deliberate role in helping us do so.

Sebastian Deri is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at sderi@cornellsun.com. Thought Crimes appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Sebastian Deri