What are we doing here at college? Or, more specifically, what is the purpose of college?
Is it to graduate with a degree? Have fun? Make friends? Sure, these potential answers capture important experiences. But they seem inadequate—they fail to identify the fundamental purpose of college.
One might suggest another answer: Find yourself.
This trite suggestion—which is usually found splattered across dubious self-help websites and plastered in front of background pictures of outer space—formulates an important consideration improperly.
Rather than use college to find “yourself,” perhaps the purpose of college is to find the good life and develop skills to realize it.
The search for the good life, and the cultivation of virtue to attain it, was central to the moral beliefs of ancient and medieval philosophers. These philosophers viewed life as a quest, involving a determinate understanding of the good and a realization that the good is not a material resource, but akin to a well-formed character.
As such, the quest is inherently difficult. And the eternal questions it raises have puzzled the most intellectually powerful philosophers for millennia.
But how exactly does college fit in? It provides four important years to understand the quest of life and begin to cultivate virtue to attain the good life. College is something of a training period to begin a lifelong journey toward goodness and happiness.
So, if the purpose of college is to find the good life and develop skills to attain it, then college ought to include a component of moral teaching.
This noble purpose was once a principal objective imposed by colleges on students. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 proclaimed, “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” The University of Texas at Austin’s motto translates to “A cultivated mind is the guardian genius of democracy.”
But now, most colleges do little to cultivate virtue. Indeed, collegiate administrations reject any duty to formulate moral confidence. Moral learning is not especially encouraged, the in loco parentis function previously exercised by colleges has been abandoned, and students are encouraged by online sources to pursue dubious activities.
In other words, young adults in our society are often afforded freedom that they do not deserve.
It seems unlikely that colleges will impose duties on students to cultivate virtue. Bureaucratic collegiate administrations are not in a position to reconsider their universities’ relationships with moral teaching (and, often, they can find reasons to avoid doing so). And students raised in a culture that subordinates cultivated freedom to unregulated freedom of choice seem unlikely to reconsider their free choices.
But ultimately, this failure must be remedied by individuals who decide to take seriously their duties beyond utilitarian hedonism. If not, the negative consequences will continue unabated and the potential for creative virtue will vanish unrealized.
Those who explore virtue and the good are likely to find innumerable benefits. As Plato says in his Laws, “The life of physical fitness, and spiritual virtue too, is not only pleasanter than the life of depravity but superior in other ways as well: it makes for beauty, an upright posture, efficiency, and a good reputation, so that if a man lives a life like that it will make his whole existence infinitely happier than his opposite number’s.”
So, as you return back to school, consider beginning a quest. You might stumble into beauty, good posture, a good reputation and happiness along the way!
Zach Gluckow is a junior majoring in philosophy and political science.