Kosslyn: Toward the Big Answers

Senior year is full of lasts. Last first day of fall classes, last freshman bazaar, last round of employment applications. But senior year won’t last long. Nine months from now we’ll be born into the world, theoretically educated but practically as innocent as babes when it comes to the real questions: What is important in life, and how can my life fit into that? So the other day I asked a friend, “What is important?” She stared, twitched, began to speak, cut herself off, studied the floor and at last replied, “You know, I really should have an answer to that.”

Yikes. How can an Ethics, Politics and Economics major at Yale University be two semesters away from graduation without a meaningful response to that question? Then again, whom do we expect to provide answers? Politicians have no moral credibility, religious congregations are frequently either inoffensive to the point of inanity or morally stubborn to the point of insanity and parents are often too busy for their children.

In the absence of signposts, we still need to pick where to go.

So into this direction-less void comes our crass hedonistic materialistic consumerist status-oriented culture. As a friend who goes to Tufts tells me, “You can’t be cool if you don’t own an iPod.” When nobody else is telling us what has value, small wonder that we often believe TV’s implicit claim: What matters is wearing the right brands, buying the right gizmos, and getting the right job with the right pay grade — in short, status.

Is that really the point of it all?

No. Exalting something meaningful makes people flourish; exalting status makes people empty. The more I orient my life around status, the hollower I end up feeling.

School is a place we go for answers. As a truly excellent school, Yale ought to teach us how to live meaningful lives. Doing so would hardly represent an institutional change of values — liberal arts educations intend to instill a sense of context and holistic understanding — but rather an institutional awareness of the reality at work on our generation, and a response to it. More specifically, Yale could require that all undergraduates take, at some point in their Yale careers, a semester-long Credit/D/Fail course on Responses to the Big Questions.

This course should not be dogmatic or doctrinairian. It should not propagate the One True Answer, because it is hardly clear what that is. Rather, it should show students a range of ways to live meaningful and fulfilling lives.

People are wired differently, and one student’s inspiration is another’s humdrum. Present a broad collection of flourishing lives, though, and most students will find something compelling. So each week, a different charismatic person living a meaningful life would explain his or her answers to “What is important? How does my life fit into that?”

Guests and topics could include a Buddhist monk on compassion for all living things, a biologist on the species, two parents on raising a family, a poet on aesthetics, a historian on the grand historical narrative, a Catholic priest on forgiveness, a physical trainer on the body, a marketing executive on branding, and a week of talks by a few student volunteers on what is fundamental to their understanding of what matters.

There are fair grounds for skepticism. As the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink. Would students’ lives really be changed by a required classroom experience? Is how to live a meaningful life even teachable? Yes. But there’s a catch.

Many of us yearn for meaning in our lives but are held back by fear. We would rather escape our direction-less drifting by binge drinking and other distractions than take a cold look at just how lost we are. But if we saw that there are answers, saw that there are fulfilling ways to lead our lives, then we would pay avid attention.

A new program, with new blood and a new budget, would have a shot at helping us find something to work for beyond status symbols and something to live for beyond hollow success. Finding that sense of direction, I am certain, is important.

Comments

  • George Singer

    Good article.

    Your "solution," however, loads the dice against actually finding long-term meaning.

    One of the reasons why many of us feel so empty is our lack of ability to be *certain* that our course in life has objective purpose.

    In a forum where one day a priest talks about forgiveness, and the next day a Buddhist talks about self-awareness, the overall tone can be nothing but inherently agnostic.

  • Justin Kosslyn

    Reasonable objection, but I'm not convinced -- in my (admittedly limited) experience, people and ideas seem to "click" sometimes, and a particular role model cuts through the noise very compellingly. Different people are tuned to different frequencies, though, so it'd take a broad range of examples for most people to find something that resonates with them.