Wednesday, August 11, 2010

But I Want to Save the World Now

I am extremely lucky to have wonderful students, not just in the sense that they are diligent and eager, but also in the sense that like many students at my school they are intrinsically interested in the welfare of others. This post is also a bit of a preview to our reading group on Nussbaum because students like these have found a use, and indeed, perhaps the primary use, of a liberal education. But...they see it as impeding their efforts...what do I do with a particular student of mine who is a good example?

Many students at my institution arrive with a general sense that they ought to be, or are, devoted to the welfare of others. Now, there are many things that can be said of this, some positive and some negative. However, what I'd like to focus on are the challenges of teaching a student like this, who is earnest and ardent. So allow me to use the pretense of a particular student, though my story is not of a particular student.

Jane is a bright, diligent student who comes from a middle class background and who has such an overriding interest in helping others that she speaks in specifics rather than abstractions - she does not speak of "helping others," but wonders whether helping others is more effective when dealing with individuals or with structures. So Jane is thoughtful and on her own has discovered one of the great controversies of our age.

So where is the problem? Well, Jane has a hard time seeing how doing the work of college 1) doesn't immediately take away from her ability to do work for others and 2) actually leads her to the goal of doing work for others.

Here is my response, and I am curious as to how my fellow colleagues - most of them ethicists - would deal with this situation.

My response was that the people who make a difference, on average, on a wide scale, are people who are highly educated, usually in a specialized field. You can't major in good intentions. Biologists, economists, engineers, historians, writers, etc. make an enormous difference. And so while Jane's intentions are so good, and as good as to be kept, hopefully, her best bet for changing the world is just to do the work. It's a hard lesson to learn and a hard lesson to teach - what we do does not always, in fact rarely, make sense in the larger scheme of things. But there is nothing we can merely "say" to make it make sense. The making sense is done by what we do, not a precondition of what we do.

Or, to be more political, we should be accountable, but the fact of the value of U.S. higher education is testified by its actual success.

To bring it back down to teaching, many of my students spend an enormous amount of genuine and earnest energy thinking about how they can make the world right by their lights (again, much can be said about this, but on that later). I have nothing but admiration and awe for this. But at least in Jane's case, it distracts and prevents her from getting the very education that could make her dream possible.

At least on the teaching, how do you focus your students on the very thing that it takes to realize their goals when their goals make college look like a dentist's waiting room? To put it lightly...


  1. In part, this becomes a question of what the value of an education is. A college education can be a ticket to (or a ratification of) middle class status. I take it this is not a value that would impress Jane. An education can also provide students with critical thinking skills and a more or less cosmopolitan moral outlook. It sounds like she already has the cosmopolitan outlook and wants to just get on with providing aid to people.

    One possibility is that college is not necessary for her to achieve her ends. I suppose it comes down to what her ends are, to what "helping others" consists in. For example, if she wants to volunteer her spare time to assist at a local homeless shelter, a college education is not necessary. That said, her ends may change over time. To continue with the example, she may come to see that she would be more effective at helping others by getting an MSW; however, if she had dropped out of college, that goal would then be more elusive than if she had completed the degree. Furthermore, that college degree might help her (via critical thinking skills and greater cultural literacy) discern how she might go about helping others in a more effective way.

    Anyhow, this is a good problem to have as an instructor. Good luck!

  2. It seems to me that the "we" (especially in philosophy) need to find ways of showing how philosophical work enriches and better prepares one to "save the world."

    Ideally, we should help a student like this find an avenue for these desires and then engage in serious and deep philosophical reflection on what her actions mean and how to understand them.

    For example, I had a student who worked one summer for a citizens advocacy group trying to fight the building of more coal power plants in an area that already is ringed by them. This was very engaged work,providing research and analysis as well as organizing for the community.

    After her summer working on this project, we did an independent study focused on what environmental consideration do to our concepts of justice. (How far are standard theories able to adapt to aspects of environmental justice?).

    I believe that this sort of hybrid project was the best for her given her interests.

    Although some might dismiss this sort of thing as a dilution of philosophy (she should have read more Rawls rather than working in the community!). I think creating spaces for these sort "interdisciplinary-experiential" work is important for philosophy's continued relevance on campus. It's a way of making the point that philosophy must inform a good life.

  3. Perhaps I misunderstand the situation, but it sounds to me like a student like this suspects that she or he would do more good now by dropping out of school and doing something else more tangibly beneficent for others. Is this correct?

    If so, and you want to dissuade her from this route, it seems like you should do just what you are doing, but perhaps by way of asking her questions: what exactly would she do now, if she dropped out of school? What exactly might she want to do in the long term? What sort of backgrounds or qualifications do people who do these things typically have? Do they typically have a degree and a broad formal-educational background or not?

    Perhaps by asking her these questions and having her answer them she can better see that, probably, staying in school and doing some things that she sees as not immediately valuable in the short term will have long term benefits for her meeting her goals.

  4. This is a difficult problem, partly because I agree with Jane.

    My problems are these:

    (1) I look at many people in college, and many graduates, and I'm not sure their college education is doing/has done them much good. (A problem of how meaningful an education is while it's being pursued and afterwards.)

    (2) A college degree doesn't necessarily lead to more jobs, especially in the down-turned economy. Many who recently graduated with degrees are working menial jobs and just hoping that things get better. Many are in jobs that they hate that have nothing to do with any specialization they had in college (sales floor at corporation x). (A challenge about the utility of a degree)

    (3) American society seems to require a college education superficially. Perhaps this is unavoidable, but employers (unless it's a gig in engineering, a hard science, or medicine) don't discriminate between majors, schools, and success at college. Further, they are (legally?) justified in paying fully qualified employees with only a high school diploma less than an employee with a college degree. So it seems that having a college degree is just a superficial credential. (A challenge about the superficiality of job requirements)

    Now, these problems aren't necessarily directly related to Jane's concerns, but combined with her concerns (and I feel like I can hear her thoughts), they add to her justification for not considering her college degree as important.

    Frankly, I answer students that have these concerns in the following ways:

    (1) Education, particularly in the humanities, does widen your intellectual and social horizon (even if you think you're relatively cosmopolitan and educated already). You learn about cultures, structures, and problems. And you learn skills like lucid thinking, clear exposition, and analytic reasoning. (All reasons I chose to study value theory and certain periods of the history of philosophy.) So the degree does transform you, and it makes you into a better person. And a better person can better change the world, similar to your response.

    (2) An education also helps you to make connections. Typically, the clubs at your school and the institutions itself have more connections than Jane. So I tell Jane to use the clubs and the school to help her change the world. There's no reason the University and her dreams need to be conflictually held. In fact, with the right maneuvering, the school can be used to help her out, be it providing funds, people, or raised awareness.

    (3) Perhaps a bit brutal, I say that Jane won't be able to change the system over night to care for the right qualities in a person, or to reevaluate hiring and labor practices across the U.S. wholesale. So she should get a credential from the education process that will allow her to be more flexible in the future, and it will be harder for employers to exploit her. I tell her that she can always try to dialogue with whatever work place she's in to help change it. Moreover, I tell her this is why she should study what she wants and not necessarily something that will get her a job.

    Hopefully I didn't go too far off course for your topic. But I've had similar conversations, even with friends while I was a student, and I think that these reasons helped keep some people in college, and some people in the majors that they loved, as opposed to the ones their parents loved, or the ones that would get them employed (even though there's no such guarantee).

    So while Jane is concerned about helping people, she can better herself and become more economically and politically powerful through education. I try to tell her to see education as an ally more than an adversary in her quest to change the world. In fact, it's often the case that it's easier to be politically engaged and politically aware in college than outside of it, and it's definitely easier to find people who are interested in such concerns in college than it is to find the same people in the work place.

  5. Interesting challenge! Like some above I think one should get the student to consider her long term large-scale goals and the capacities likely needed for reaching them.

    It can however also be useful to point out the many ways you can make a small-scale difference that are compatible with continuing higher education. Take animal ethics as an example. Guiding your own food choices and purchases by an ethical stance takes some practical work, has real world effects and meshes your theoretical values in your everyday actions and habit formations in a meaningful way. Getting involved in student organizations covering social justice issues is another example.

    The above is especially important if, as I suspect, some students in the cases in question aren't primarly unsure about the effectiveness of two alternative (drop the studies and work for some cause vs continue ). Rather they struggle with motivation and experience a gap between their theoretical stances in class and their actions that threaten to make their studies feel meaningless.


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