Like a vast, fluttering migration of birds, college students at this time of year are homing in on college campuses across the nation. But what do they see as their purpose in going there?
Many seem to view college life as an obstacle course. Is this all that college is — a race down a bureaucratic obstacle course in pursuit of higher-paying jobs? Or in blindly accepting this prevalent, but purely materialistic view, are students cheating themselves out of an exhilarating and transformative adventure?
The philosophical tradition offers us a very different vision: Higher education is not so much about making a living as about making a life. It is really about beginning the long philosophical journey of the soul in search of itself. “Know thyself” was for Socrates the most sacred and essential of missions, so essential in becoming an authentic human being that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Why?
For Socrates and subsequent philosophers, “knowing” is the highest and most joyful of all human activities, the mysterious process whereby we discover the wonder of the world. Aristotle rightly said that all knowing begins in amazement, in awe at the absolute wonder of the universe. Some interpret this to mean that the college experience is a process of “finding yourself.” But is the self “found” or “created” — or some of both? What seems clear, however, is that we neither find nor create the self by going “inward” into the isolated ego. Rather we must first lose ourselves in something larger than ourselves — art, science, literature, music, community service. In struggling toward this empowering vision — and the journey does require struggle — we become aware of ourselves as somehow more than merely material and biological beings. We are souls on an oceanic, spiritual quest, like Ulysses, as Tennyson imagined him: “to follow knowledge, like a sinking star … .”
I remember my own college experience, for example, not in terms of the hurdles leapt or even courses taken, but rather in terms of the electrifying discovery of the Platonic dialogues, the tortured novels of Dostoevsky, the music of Mahler, the poetry of Yeats and the grandeur of evolutionary theory.
Some will object that only career preparation is being realistic. But is it realistic to feed the body while starving the soul? Is it realistic to deny the deep human need for meaning and purpose that goes beyond money and cars and status? Is it realistic to assume that a society can survive without ethical visions and transcendent values?
Therefore, when teachers and students walk back into our college classrooms on these crisp autumn days, let them consider the possibility that these are sacred spaces, mythic arenas where the human soul struggles out of the cave of ignorance and toward the radiant light of truth and meaning. Everything else is justified only to the extent that it aids in that epic struggle: “to follow knowledge, like a sinking star, beyond the utmost bound of human thought.”
Vincent Kavaloski, Ph.D., lived for 37 years in these Uplands in an intentional, eco-community devoted to peace and harmony with people and the land. He is currently concluding a long academic calling at Edgewood College and looking forward to being a freelance philosopher. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.