I make no pretense of originality with this claim. Our culture is increasingly focused on immediate gratification at the expense of long-term goals and satisfaction. Students are hardly immune to this. And now voices advocating shortening the college experience and speeding time to degree are becoming louder.
Many psychologists believe that a child’s capacity to delay gratification is an indicator that the child might someday grow to be a reasonably well-adjusted, content, and mature adult. What is it about the ability to delay gratification that makes it vital? It is the necessary precursor to innovation, development, change, and sagacity. The ability to wait for a reward is at the basis of hard work, scientific inquiry, artistic creation, and intellectual achievement. Because we as a society seem in danger of forgetting this fact, many of our young people are not learning to wait: rather, they have come to expect instant results. And that we are abetting their impulse is nowhere more evident than in our ongoing attempts to reform our educational system.
Plans to reform the American system of education have been largely ineffectual for several reasons. Perhaps most important is that the conversation regarding what education ought to be in this country has shifted radically, substantively, and, we believe, wrong-mindedly, from a concern about what our young citizens ought to be learning to how quickly we can rifle them through. Book after book, study after study, monograph after monograph bemoans the fact that not enough students graduate and those that do don’t graduate quickly enough.
As they note, our higher education culture now values product over process, efficiency over depth, credentials over understanding.
Instructors in every discipline must confront (and I would argue, contest) this cultural change. But I suspect that this challenge is especially urgent and daunting for us philosophers. Our discipline does not offer quick rewards. Its insights and wisdom can only be gained and appreciated slowly. Plato thought a few decades was sufficient for philosophical education. He exaggerates, but his views are closer to the truth than we might think. And time and again, I encounter bright, motivated, intellectually capable students who, because of this pervasive impatience, give up on philosophy prematurely.
I hope we will not surrender to what Rosenbach and Katopes call "a youthful notion of impetuosity." Indeed, they are right to note that doing so would mean failing in our "moral responsibility to help [students] grow into people capable of making rational decisions about the world they — and we — inhabit."
But as is often the case, diagnosis is easy and treatment is hard. What can we do in and outside the classroom to rejuvenate patience as an intellectual virtue? To borrow a typical Socratic question: Can we teach patience?