John Perry
John Perry

This morning I was listening to the introductory lecture to a course taught at Stanford University titled “The Art of Living”. It is Humanities 101, joint taught by several professors, aimed to help students of the humanities begin well so that their time as students can be used wisely. Joshua Landry ends the first lecture with a quote from fellow Stanford University professor John Perry (of Philosophy Talk fame) wherein Perry gives the following advice:

“Take one-third of your units to do something that will give you a salary for the rest of your life. Then take one-third of your units to fulfill your requirements. Then, finally, take at least one-third for yourself to find out who you are, and what you really care about. It will be much more expensive to have nervous break down in your fifties than to find out who you are in college. So if you’d like you can consider this course preventative medicine for the mid-life crisis. If nothing else we’d like to help prevent you from ending up on Dr. Phil.”

To use a cliche: we teach people to be human-doings more than human-beings. Function matters more than ontology. Production matters more than character.

In the United States we are wrestling with how to reform our educational system. The costs are inflated, and expensive education demands that people think more about the pragmatics of future employment than the education itself. R. Lanier Anderson began the lecture with a discussion on how the “liberal arts” or a “liberal education” is aimed at teaching students to think first and foremost about the important things of life, not the pragmatic things. One of the things that unnerves me about the rising cost of education is that it is the liberal arts–philosophy, religious studies, , ethics, literature, languages–that are seen as expendable. Yet we live in a culture where people in finance were playing fast-and-loose with the lives and possessions of people, causing a housing crisis and near economic ruin. I think an ethics class, or some philosophy, may have done us wonders.We cannot teach people that what is of utmost importance is making money. If we do not teach them to be good citizens, good people, thoughtful, ethical, it will come back to bite us.

Perry’s words are important for today’s student. We need people to think about their values, what matters, what has meaning. If they do not do this when they are younger then their habits–whether virtues or vices–will causes them to act subconsciously on the basis of values they possess but may not understand. If the unreflective life is not worth living for the individual then it is that much truer of society as a whole.