You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

A new kind of course has recently appeared at a number of this country’s most elite campuses—classes that purport to tell students how to create a life that is meaningful, purposeful, happy and fulfilling.

At Yale, there’s Life Worth Living. At Stanford, there’s Designing Your Life.

Now, you, too, can purchase book-length versions of those classes.

Given my interest in promoting students’ well-rounded development and in helping them clarify their values and aspirations and become more mindful, patient, empathetic and self-aware, I should, I suppose, enthusiastically applaud these efforts. Don’t these classes prompt self-examination and self-reflection?

And yet, after reading the books that have grown out of those courses, my reaction is mixed at best.

Stanford’s Bill Burnett and Dave Evans claim to show readers “how to build—design—a life you can thrive in, at any age or stage,” “regardless of who or where we are, what we do or have done for a living or how young or old we are.” The key lies in adopting five mind-sets that emphasize “curiosity, bias to action, reframing, awareness and radical collaboration.” You’ll learn how to immunize yourself to failure, build a supportive team, get unstuck and create a road map to the future you seek.

Somewhat similarly, Yale’s Miroslav Volf, Matthew Croasmun and Ryan McAnnally-Linz argue that “the search for meaning … is at the crux of a crisis that is facing Western culture, a crisis that,” they propose, “can be ameliorated by searching … for the underlying truth that can be found” in “all schools of philosophy and religion.”

Both books come highly recommended. Laurie Santos of Yale’s happiness course fame, for example, calls Life Worth Living an “accessible crash course we all need to explore the big questions that lead to a happier, more morally satisfying life.” Marilynne Robinson describes the book as chock “full of the wisdom of many minds and cultures on essential questions about selfhood, notably, how the self is to be understood, disciplined and enjoyed and how it can discover an integrity that will be expressed in a good life.”

The New York Times review of Designing Your Life is similarly enthusiastic: “Learn how to find a fulfilling career … learn how to better navigate life’s big moment decisions and kill your ‘wicked problems dead.’”

So what’s the advice?

  • Conduct a life inventory.
  • Don’t live your life by default or habit.
  • Recognize trivialities for what they are.
  • Shed dysfunctional and flawed beliefs.
  • Be willing to recast yourself into someone new.
  • Fail forward.

I came away from reading these books with the same ambivalence and the same qualms that I felt reading the columnist David Brooks’s many books—like How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen, On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense, The Road to Character, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life and The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement.

In those books, Brooks (a University of Chicago graduate) makes several provocative arguments that have attracted a broad readership:

  • That a new elite class has emerged that has synthesized bourgeois capitalist affluence and bohemian and countercultural values and that exercises power and influence by promoting their cultural values rather than through traditional institutions.
  • That a hyperindividualistic American society overemphasizes the pursuit of accomplishment, fame, money, status and power and that has resulted in four crises: crises of loneliness, distrust, meaning and tribalism.
  • That success and achievement are heavily influenced by noncognitive skills such as emotional intelligence, patience, persistence and an ability to connect to diverse people.
  • That in today’s “self-centered world,” individuals need to distinguish between “résumé virtues”—the accomplishments that contribute to career success—and “eulogy virtues”—the character traits like kindness, generosity, selflessness and integrity that matter most in leading a meaningful life.
  • That four commitments define a meaningful, purposeful and remembered life: commitment to a spouse and family, to a vocation, to a philosophy or faith, and to a community.

Brooks’s advice strikes me too pat, too facile, too simplistic and too formulaic. The lessons, too mechanical and clichéd. “Bubblegum” or “dime-store” are words that come to mind.

In Brooks’s account, the solutions to today’s crisis of meaning and connection are ultimately personal. The answers have little to do with government or collective action. Issues of power, privilege and economic inequality are noticeably absent from his account.

As one reader noted, Brooks’s emphasis on “individual responsibility, personal initiative and the centrality of private activities” sounds a bit like Margaret Thatcher’s phrase “There is no such thing as society, only individuals and families.”

Telling this nation’s most privileged young people (whatever their background) that the key to self-fulfillment lies in having a mission that goes beyond the self—that they should “live for a cause bigger than themselves”—strikes me as pablum, as excessively general and vague.

This, I fear, can become an exercise in self-congratulation, reinforcing the narcissism, extreme individualism and cultural division that Brooks nominally decries.

Worse yet, the advice offered isn’t original: it’s a mishmash of ideas, paraphrases and inspirational quotations and anecdotes, not a critical analysis of those perspectives and claims.

It’s all of a piece with contemporary ideas about leadership training propounded in a growing number of elite universities: not leadership rooted in experience and professional expertise and a lifetime of trench work, but overly theoretical training in how to manage or direct other people that says little about creating committed, collaborative and motivated institutional cultures or a vision resting on a solid research and practical experience. It’s advice for those who already feel entitled to guide, direct, manage and govern others.

Contrast the advice in the Life Worth Living and Designing Your Life books with a recent Wall Street Journal essay by Andrew Delbanco. Entitled “Great Books Can Heal Our Divided Campuses,” the leading light of American studies scholars argues that colleges need more great books “programs where students of different backgrounds can wrestle together with the big questions posed by the humanities.” It’s a way to truly leverage colleges’ diversity as classmates bring perspectives rooted in their very different backgrounds, identities and values to bear as they collectively read those texts analytically and critically.

Some of the issues raised by those texts are timeless, including the problem of evil; the nature of justice; the question of whether life has a purpose, meaning or direction; and whether it makes sense to speak about human nature, innate behaviors and dispositions that all humans possess and that exist independently of culture.

Other issues raised in these masterworks of literature, theology and moral and political philosophy relate to everyday life, including those involving connection and disconnection, such as friendship, grieving, intimacy, loss and love.

Still others reflect the most pressing issues of our own time, involving:

  • Identity: the construction and nature of racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, regional, religious and national identities and the political, religious and social debates over identity-related rights.
  • Indigeneity: the nature of Indigenous belief systems and social practices, their adaptation in the face of the disruptions resulting from colonialism and other interventions and the impact of Indigeneity on the development of social theory, art and culture.
  • Power: the ways that domination and subordination are embedded in structures, systems and institutions, embodied in language, ideology and logics and internalized through instruments of socialization and hegemony. 
  • Rights: the development notions of rights and the social movements and mobilizations that expanded the concepts of rights.
  • Agency: the capacity of individuals to act independently and make their own free choices versus the factors and forces that restrict free will, choices and opportunities.
  • Inequality: differences and disparities in access to opportunities, resources, prestige and rewards that result from various hierarchies of race, ethnicity, gender and other variables. 
  • Inclusion and exclusion: the dynamics of assimilation and the othering of various social groups.
  • Normality and abnormality: the labeling, categorization, medicalization, pathologizing, psychologizing and stigmatization of difference.
  • Hybridity: the cultural borrowings, mixings, syncretisms and appropriations that are a product of cultural contacts and interactions.
  • The burden of the past: the ongoing impact of the past on the present and how best to make restitution, redress and reparations for historical injustices.

You and I can vehemently disagree about the content of a great books curriculum—though I suspect that we’d agree that it ought to include more texts by non-Western authors and more written since World War II. But I think there’s something else on which we should be able to agree wholeheartedly—and that Delbanco spells out in his essay: the value of a common intellectual experience; intense engagement with masterworks of literature, art, music and moral and political philosophy; and, above all, the importance of exploring those works “with peers whose origins, interests and ambitions differ from their own.”

There is, in my view, no better way for students to develop the skills that a rich humanities education ought to offer:

  • Aesthetic sensitivity: the ability to respond deeply and thoughtfully not only to works of art but to the natural and man-made environment and other aspects of life. It involves attention to detail, an awareness and appreciation of aesthetics and an ability to articulate one’s emotional responses and render judgments in a sophisticated manner. The goal is to produce a rich interior life that draws upon a fluency with the arts, history, literature and philosophy.
  • Contextualization: the ability to place an event, a person, an argument, a practice or a custom in its cultural, historical and sociological setting.
  •  Interpretation: the ability to explicate, elucidate and explain in detail the meanings of anything, whether this is a creative work, a decision, an object or something else.
  • Critical thinking: the ability to question assumptions, recognize ambiguity, consider alternatives, uncover inaccuracies, fallacies and gaps in logic, reason logically, and form judgments based on analysis and critique, not the passive acceptance of other people’s ideas.

As Delbanco makes clear, we mustn’t treat the great books as a compendium of rather simplistic lessons or guidebooks but as provocations—as arguments and complex narratives that readers must wrestle with, critique and debate. Don’t look to those texts for advice or counsel; instead, treat them as stimulants to new ways of thinking.

For my students, the high point in Columbia’s great books curriculum was Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals—an astonishing, eye-opening, mind-altering critique of the entirety of the Western philosophic and Christian tradition.

Nietzsche, you may recall, assails Christian morality as a “slave morality,” which praises meekness, humility and poverty at the expense of strength, nobility and the affirmation of life. He challenges the notion of universal, objective truth or a single reality, suggesting instead that truth and reality are constructed and interpreted through human perspectives. Then, too, he argues that the rise of science and modernity had undermined the credibility of religious belief, resulting in a kind of nihilism—and that the loss of meaning and purpose in life needed to be overcome by a new kind of human being, the Übermensch, a person who, instead of relying on external, divine or societal dictates, can fashion her or his own values and meaning.

It seems to me that the playwright and composer Jonathan Larson, who died at the age of 35 the evening before his musical Rent premiered, understood the meaning of life as well as anyone. How, he asked, do we measure a life? “In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee. / In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife”—in the times we cry, the bridges we burn and in love, sex, friendship, parenthood, tragedy, loss, self-reflection, work, striving and sacrifice. Life, after all, is what we make it—so do your best to make yours a good one.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

Next Story

Written By

More from Higher Ed Gamma