It should not come as news, but today’s college students are being seriously misled. Beyond the obvious fact that too many universities have become indoctrination mills—in the humanities and the social sciences—and that the fight for social justice seems more important than learning anything, it appears that students are being told that the purpose of a liberal arts education is to find themselves.
Having been nurtured with a steady diet of unearned praise, they all seem to know what that means. In truth, it suggests that the college experience should be therapeutic, not educational, that it should promote a specious notion of mental health and not the skills needed to succeed in the real world. No wonder, as Camille Paglia says, their minds are like Jello.
Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh tell us that we can find the antidote if we go East and look to Chinese thinking for an alternative. They have written a synopsis in the Wall Street Journal.
Of course, Tiger Mom Amy Chua has already suggested as much in her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and yours truly has said as much in his book: Saving Face: America and the Politics of Shame.
But, what does it mean to find yourself? The authors explain:
When students arrive at college these days, they hear a familiar mantra about the purpose of higher education: Find yourself. Use these four years to discover who you are. Learn flamenco dancing or ceramics, start a composting project, write for the student newspaper or delve into 19th-century English poetry. Self-discovery, they are told, is the road to adulthood.
So why is it that so many students feel such anxiety? On campus, we hear the same complaint again and again: “I’ve done lots of extracurriculars. I’ve taken a variety of courses. Why can’t I figure out who I am and what I want to do?”
One would love to see these students read more Chinese philosophy, but, truth be told, these children have been turned into professional dilettantes. They have done so many different things that they cannot have put enough focus and concentration into one activity.
Having also been burdened with the notion that they must actualize all of their potential, they seem not to have learned that in order to excel you must concentrate. If you spend your time studying a multitude of subjects and spreading yourself thin in a multitude of activities, you will never excel at any of them. These children should be learning that you cannot have it all, and that if you work hard at one thing you will have to give up other things. You cannot be in the library and at the party at the same time.
Life is about trade-offs. Perhaps you can learn it in Confucius. But the idea is not alien to Western civilization.
What do the authors find in Confucius? Glad you asked:
According to Confucius and other Chinese philosophers, we shouldn’t be looking for our essential self, let alone seeking to embrace it, because there is no true, unified self to begin with. As Confucius understood, human beings are messy, multidimensional creatures, a jumble of conflicting emotions and capabilities living in a messy, ever-changing world. We are who we are by constantly reacting to one another. Looking within is dangerous.
So, they have discovered that introspection is bad for you. Since a goodly amount of therapy is based on the notion of introspection, of finding yourself, of getting in touch with your feelings, of learning what you really, really want… the authors have correctly identified a basic flaw in the therapy culture.
And yet, one would be remiss if one did not note that British philosophy has long known all about this. Ever since the time when David Hume, in the mid eighteenth century decided to search for his Self introspectively, only to find nothing but bundles of sensations, thinkers in the Anglo world have known better than to try to find something that does not exist. Many continental philosophers and certainly many in the psycho world have continued the fruitless search, but the ideas are readily available in Anglo philosophy.
For those of you who have a fairly sophisticated knowledge of philosophy, Saul Kripke tells this story in his book: Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language.
The authors also argue against authenticity, which means, generally speaking, that you ought to be expressing what you have deep inside, with passion, with gusto, with vigor… even if it is offensive and obnoxious. Express your feelings, your instincts, your impulses, your heart, the stirrings of your loins… it is a good thing because the value of what you say resides in the feeling that gave rise to it.
Obviously, other people have a slightly different conception of authenticity, but time and space do not allow me to elaborate here. In place of authenticity the authors offer a plastic view of Self:
Instead of struggling to be authentic, Confucius proposed another approach: “as if” rituals, that is, rituals meant to break us out of our own reality for a moment. These rituals are the very opposite of authenticity—and that’s what makes them work. We break from who we are when we note the unproductive patterns we’ve fallen into and actively work to shift them—“as if” we were different people in that moment.
When you hear your girlfriend at the door and make yourself go to greet her instead of sitting there absorbed in your iPhone, you are creating a break. When you make a point of ignoring your mother’s harping and solicit her guidance, you are recognizing that both of you are constantly shifting and changing and capable of bringing out other parts of each other. Instead of being stuck in the roles of nagging mother and put-upon child, you have behaved “as if” you were someone else. It turns out that being insincere, being untrue to ourselves, helps us to grow.
There is good and bad in this notion. If you do the right thing even though you do not feel like doing the right thing, you will acting ethically. Your ethical being might feel slightly alien, but it is the real You. Somehow or other the authors do not seem to bring in the ethical dimension. Unless I miss my guess it was central for Confucius.
Chinese thinking is not about introspection because it is about FACE. It is about how you look to other people, not how you feel about yourself. Perhaps the authors mention this in their book, but the important point is how one learns how to become an ethical individual. And one does so, Confucius said, by performing the correct rituals regardless of whether we understand them or not. And he introduced the notion of sincerity, whereby he meant that if you act correctly over and over again, even if it felt false when you started it will feel true in time.
It is misleading to suggest that you are becoming a whole series of different people, as though you were putting on one mask or another, to see which one fits and to see which one pleases other people.
The notion that we are constantly changing, that we are Protean was explored by Robert Jay Lifton, someone who has done work with Chinese philosophy.
And yet, having face, saving face cannot really be encompassed by the notion of ever shifting personae. One sees how this works when the authors address a college student’s question: what career path should he follow?
“But if there’s no true self and I’m always changing,” more than one student has asked, “how can I decide on the career that’s right for me?” Today’s students want a plan for their future, which makes sense. Their high-school activities—AP classes, varsity soccer, the service trip to Haiti—were aimed at the goal of college admission, and they believe that a clear road map will help them to take the next step toward a fulfilling and profitable career.
From here they take us on an extended excursion through the experience of a student who finds his love for medicine after getting sick and being treated in a hospital. He had at first thought he wanted to be a diplomat, but fortune or fate or God tapped him on the shoulder, got him very sick and told him to become a physician.
OK, the authors do not say it was divine intervention, but it does sound as though this student found his calling by getting sick. Yet, getting sick and being hospitalized is a random event. What would have happened if he had gone to Spain and had gotten fascinated by bull fights? Might he have then chosen to become a butcher? Besides, isn’t this argument roughly equivalent to the dilettantism promoted by those who want you to go out and to find yourself?
In both cases you undertake a series of different experiences in order to find which one fits you best.
Truth be told, if the young man who discovers medicine in his sick bed has no real talent for science, what good has his discovery really done him? How does anyone know what psychological factors led him to discard his plans to be a diplomat, field in which he might excel, and become a physician, field which seems to be his passion but in which he might be no more than a mediocre practitioner.
Here the authors indulge in some less than coherent thinking. It is one thing to critique the pathlessness and purposelessness of today’s college students. It is quite another to say that they are too focused on a path and purpose in which they are known to have superior natural talent.
The authors write:
Consider how many of today’s students were raised: Their talents were identified early. They were “athletic,” “good at math,” “a natural at the violin.” Soon enough, they were winnowed into a stream that would allow those talents to flourish. They learned to stick with what they were good at. Over the years, it became instinctive to sideline the interests for which they didn’t show a natural aptitude.
Obviously, to me at least, working hard to become a great violinist will not allow you to participate in the variety of activities that would lead you to find yourself. Once your talent is identified the question is: how well you develop it, how hard you work at it, how focused you are in learning it?What matters in choosing a career path is discovering where your talent lies. As Peter Drucker once said, it is better to work to excel at something you are good at than to work to become good at something you have little talent for.
In order to excel at a task or at an occupation or in a career is perseverance, industry, hard work, integrity and other aspects of good character.
And it does require some coherent thought. The authors of this new work might think that they are fighting the good fight against self-esteem and authenticity and dilettantism, but they are effectively arguing for it. Without having read their book I suspect that their grasp of Chinese thinking, to say nothing of the Anglo thinkers who have covered the same ground, is somewhat skewed.