REMER: Education and the public good

Before we are inundated by schoolwork and extracurricular activities, we should take these last few golden days to consider an important question. It’s one of those questions you hear bandied about at high school graduation ceremonies or freshman assemblies, but the answers given are usually superficial. Namely, what is the purpose of an education?

This is an especially timely question. The recent furor over grading reform at Yale (when students protested the proposed implementation of a 100-point grading scale) brought the purpose of our intellectual training to the forefront of campus conversation.

Some believe our education is nothing more than a glorified vocational program intended to churn out the next generation of elites. Others describe it as a method of learning how to think clearly. Others see it as ethical training — a preparation for a lifetime of sacrifice to the common good, and a tool to impart humanity’s collective wisdom about the good life.

I’m a sophomore, and undecided about a major. Some people I’ve sought advice from believe education’s prime directive is to equip us with “marketable” skills so that we can be slotted, sheep-like, into the prevailing neoliberal order. It would seem that many Yalies think this way: annually, large numbers of recent graduates flock to Wall Street to channel their intellectual energies and quantitative creativity into designing the esoteric instruments that spawned the Great Recession and will hatch the next economic calamity.

I’m no angel, and I cannot claim to be morally unblemished. Nor can I truly blame Wall Street-bound grads for obeying the societal imperative they’ve imbibed: to go out there and make money.

But surely it is a tremendous waste of talent to shunt hundreds of intelligent men and women into a financial system that has proven to be corrosive to our democracy and antithetical to the principle of humanity. So many of our fellow students have succumbed to Mammon’s siren call despite the accumulated philosophical wisdom of the past three millennia and psychological evidence that suggests that the selfish pursuit of money cannot buy happiness.

Why, then, is our educational system, believed by many to have virtue as its guide, failing to combat our era’s vitiated values?

As the old phrase goes, “knowledge is power,” and though this is undoubtedly the case, knowledge has no inherent morality. It can be used to create H-bombs and napalm, but it can also create vaccines and design irrigation systems. Reasoning well is essential for politics and the world of work, but even scholarship does not constitute a true education when it becomes distanced from moral norms.

In our pluralist liberal democracy, inculcating morality in schools is a touchy subject. That is just as it should be. But the fact remains that none of us would be at Yale without a culture of moral investment. We would not be here without the concerted effort of countless community members, parents and teachers. Society has lavished money and opportunities on us, and deserves a return on its investment. We have an obligation to give back to those who languish in poverty and those who might have joined us here if equality were a reality.

Currently, we receive a value-neutral education. But a true education should show us what is worth striving for and how it may be achieved. Almost every philosophy (with the possible exception of today’s Republicans’ virulent libertarianism) recognizes the existence of the public good — a common interest that transcends self-interest, and is larger and more enduring than the individual.

Why not recognize this public good in the classroom? We face a catastrophic environmental crisis, a global recession, Gilded Age levels of socioeconomic stratification and festering threats of pandemics and nuclear attacks. Our generation does not lack problems to solve. A true education would reflect the urgency of these needs.

It would also reflect our recent advances in psychology and neuroscience. Too many in our age flounder in search of a guiding philosophy, but by synthesizing ancient philosophers’ wisdom and the insights of modern science and social science, we are getting to the bottom of the question of what creates happiness. The truths we have discovered should be taught to every student prior to graduation. A true education would foster both self-cultivation and societal flourishing.

No one should be forced to jettison his own religious or philosophical beliefs. But knowledge without humanity is sterile, even dangerous. A world in which the few prosper while the many suffer is a world where education, however you define it, is in grave peril.

Scott Remer is a sophomore in Pierson College. Contact him at scott.remer@yale.edu .

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