When talking with prospective students who are thinking about attending college, I often engage in a bit of “bait and switch.” Many of them are interested in jobs that will come for them after college and so they look at what college is about in almost functional terms. “What job will I be able to get, and how much money will I be able to make?”
More than 45 years of teaching at the college and graduate school levels have taught me that they are really asking questions that are less important to them than questions they should be asking. Getting them jobs is not going to be the principal function of their college education. They need to obtain more than “training.” They need to secure an education. And the job they work at after graduation is less important than the things they will learn about life itself during their course of study.
At one point in time the distinction between the question they asked and the response I gave was well understood by those of us in the academy. The good life that the students were seeking had to have room in it for reflection and understanding about themselves. The liberal arts provided that framework for their study. Now during this so called “jobless” recovery, with jobs being lost at an accelerating pace, the prospect of failure confronts these graduates who have believed that their worth has to be measured in terms of their capacity to work and to earn a livelihood. Jobs are not unimportant things, but they are not the complete picture. They do not tell the story of what the college graduates need to be successful. And if the capacity to obtain work is critical to their sense of self, then we are going to see many unhappy people in the country during what will be a protracted period of massive unemployment.
The notion that work is the key to success – a critical underpinning of our post-industrial society – continues to represent prevailing wisdom. Most modern philosophers see the connection between work and worth as absolutely essential and very often the measure of one’s value to an enterprise is tied to the effectiveness and efficiency of individuals on the work site. One of the things that is often criticized is the lack of constant attention to the work assignments that one is given. It is almost as if men and machines are measured in the same way. Taking time to think about something is referred to as “down time.”
Classical philosophers saw things quite differently. They saw people not in terms of their work, but rather in terms of how they thought about the things they did. Thus, the highest form of activity was thinking, and the process of contemplation marked the activity of the civilized man. The concept of work could not possibly be at the heart of human activity. That concept, which puts work and contemplation together, is so critical for students to understand. When they study or go about their affairs as students they have to understand these liberal arts that are at the heart of all serious study. Time spent in discussing matters of importance are not instances of wasting time. Indeed, if one hopes to attain the highest form of humanity, it is impossible to do so without contemplation and self-reflection.
At one point in time these distinctions were quite well understood. But in the world of today, accumulation of wealth, and the acquisition of things – almost as mindless exercises – began to take hold of the values of our society. Ask any professionals about the condition of the profession and they will report that they are disturbed by this turn of events. The relationship between the profession and the client has been interrupted in virtually every way. The concept that “the clock is ticking” marks the way management looks upon the professional “worker.” And the pecking order in hospitals, law offices, accounting firms and so many other of the human service professions has been distorted by the need to be more “productive” The desire to be more accommodating to the patient or the client has become dictated to by the need to be “more commercial.”
More than anything else this erosion of the values that the professions once had is compensated for by the fact that there is more money to be made in the new system. And more than anything else – even with more money spread around — this has caused a tremendous amount of dissatisfaction among practitioners in the professions who have seen their traditional values assaulted by this new way of conducting of professional affairs. The result is a great deal of dissatisfaction – but more importantly – unhappiness. Thus, the situation is almost paradoxical. The person without a job is unhappy and the person with a job is also unhappy.
It seems to me that the solution to the dilemma of how to find real happiness in the modern world rests in a rejection of the “man as worker” model that has become so significant. It rests in the understanding, reflection and thought about life. And with it the knowledge that the meaning of life is more than important – it is essential. We must recover our souls and discover the things that are really important and that can assist us in finding our place in society.