College fails to teach most vital life lessons

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., (U-WIRE) — I have no great affection for Texas Gov. George W. Bush. In fact, I must confess that I don’t know much about him, aside from the fact that he is relatively handsome and has an uncanny knack for raising millions of dollars. With the presidential election still far away on the horizon, I have yet to give much serious thought to who I will support.
But earlier this week Bush gave a speech outlining his education policy, and the address has garnered much attention. It did not convert me into a placard-toting supporter, but I must confess that it struck a deep personal chord.
Regardless of one’s partisan leanings, we at Harvard ought to take special note of Bush’s argument for moral education: “Yes, we want our children to be smart and successful, but even more, we want them to be good and kind and decent. Yes, our children must learn how to make a living. But even more, they must learn how to live and what to love.”
As a soon-to-be-graduating senior, the articulation of this pedantic ideal resonates with what I can only describe as a tragic timbre. As I explore that dark abyss known euphemistically as “The Real World,” I cannot help but feel dangerously ill-prepared. Sure, ostensibly I have an ample cache of bankable practical skills. I can put together a mean PowerPoint presentation and can do basic arithmetic with the best of them. But when it comes to answering the really important questions — how to live and what to love — I’m afraid that my performance would fall in the bottom percentiles.
This is not to say that I find myself incapable of distinguishing right from wrong or cannot identify any moral code worthy of my adherence. I have my own reasonably consistent system of values that govern my beliefs. In the ethical realm, I pretty much know what I should and shouldn’t do. For the comfort of that certainty, I have my parents to thank. For my more significant discomfort at the prospect of life’s deeper choices, I cannot help but feel that, at least partially, I have Harvard to blame.
Under our current social arrangement, college is the bridge to adulthood. The purpose of a liberal arts education is purportedly to broaden the mind and expose students to the wealth of collected human wisdom. Harvard has certainly exposed me to much of that wisdom, but only as the object of analytic inquiry. In pursuing my degree in social studies, I have read many great works of philosophy. I have been taught how to critique their internal consistency, historically contextualize them and turn them inside out in countless other ways.
Along the way, the few things that I have learned about life have had nothing to do with these great thinkers. Much more of my time has been spent tweaking my essays to satisfy the idiosyncratic demands of my teachers than has been devoted to contemplating how the thought of some extraordinary thinker might be applied to my own life.
This might, admittedly, be my own fault. I have, until this point, subscribed wholeheartedly to Harvard’s scholastic model. I have bought into the prevailing system of incentives, sought the celebrated rewards, tried to avoid the relevant punishments. In so doing, I have, for over three years now, conditioned myself to answer the questions posed by Gov. Bush in a fundamentally unsatisfying way. How should I live? I should live a life of ambition, intensity and striving. What should I love? I should love reason, excellence and achievement. Indeed, these prescriptions are not without their payoff. They illuminate the path to the Upper East Side or Westchester County with impressive accuracy.
My education has prepared me better than most to “make a living.” But once I have that living, I haven’t the faintest idea what to do with it. Besides, why should financial security loom so large in the first place? What if the pursuit of that security conflicts with the pursuit of some other ideal, like romance? Many of us will derive our deepest fulfillment from our future families. How do we choose between a relationship and a job, between a guaranteed salary and the risks of potentially fickle passion?
Granted these questions might possess no answers. My inability to resolve them may be a perennial symptom of youth or maybe even the human condition and no reflection on the merits of my education. However, my refined ability to argue a thesis in five to seven pages, double-spaced, does me no good at all in even attempting to broach them. If anything my swollen rational capacities make it more difficult for me to find anything to believe in, any source of beautiful illogical inspiration.
My current discontent may be an entirely personal failing, and Gov. Bush’s call for moral education might have been merely a tactical ploy to court soccer moms. Yet I cannot help but regret that my path through the American educational system has armed me with so much cynicism and has not afforded more opportunity to contemplate what I truly want out of life.

Noah D. Oppenheim’s column originally appeared in Friday’s Harvard University paper, the Harvard Crimson.