In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle has many positive things to say about the life of the mind. When I’ve taught this work, or any other philosophical work that that gives an argument for the virtues of study and contemplation, there is often some resistance to the idea that the flourishing human life is deeply connected to the life of the mind. I suspect that this is because we have habitually trained ourselves to view education only as a means to success. We have lost a sense of the intrinsic joys that are associated with learning and the ways in which learning helps us understand and worship God.
It is not surprising that we have developed this habit. Many of my academic memories are ones regarding accomplishments or failures with regards to acceptances, money and prestige. For example, I clearly remember the phone calls that brought the good news of both acceptance and funding to both my undergraduate institution and then later to various PhD programs in philosophy. I also remember, perhaps more vividly, the rejection letters and the academic prizes not won. Later, like many philosophers, the number of jobs that I didn’t get in philosophy vastly outnumbered the jobs that I was offered. Even today, happy and thriving at HBU, seeing a school name run across the ticker on ESPN can stir up emotions of familiarity, friendship and disappointment as I recall the on campus interview that was great but where I didn’t get the job. For my students, they haven’t had the experiences I’ve had in either graduate school or professional academia but their high school experience is enough to encourage this way of looking at education. Enough is at stake in the process of applying for college in terms of money and their hopes (and their parents hopes) that education quickly becomes tied up with something else—a future career, lifetime happiness, a positive view of oneself, whatever.
One part of the American tradition of higher education is that college should prepare you for a job. I’m not opposed to that being part of the mix and it is something that needs to be taken seriously by students and institutions. Rather, my concern is that students increasingly identify the life of the mind with their educational experiences and then their educational experiences with a fairly stressful obstacle course that they must succeed in to win the approval of their parents, their peers, and their selves. No wonder they don’t resonate with Aristotle and his love of the life of study. Further, when education not only holds promise but significant peril, it is hard to be joyful in study. It is hard to worship God with our minds if the life of the mind is too connected to the pursuit of other goods. Yes, academics don’t make much money, but earthly goods come in many packages including the admiration of your peers.
I try to remind my students of an important truth as they approach finals and begin to look haggard from the burdens they bear. We are not our transcripts. Our academic success and failure do not define who we are or exhaust the ways in which we have value. Rather, we are created for relationship with God and made in His image. We are so loved by Him that He sent His Son to die for us so that we might have life eternal and become children of God. Sometimes, I suspect my students think I see their transcript whenever I see them; that I can discern with a glance their A-ness or C-ness and then respond accordingly. The truth is, when I think about how my colleagues and I think of our students, the opposite is the case. The professors I labor with here at HBU are here because they love the student and want to see them flourish. So, if you are a student who is approaching finals, take heart! Do your very best, but remember that you are loved. Do not confuse the process of education and evaluation with the intellectual life itself, and the ways in which our mind can bring us closer to God. For myself I will try to remember that, regardless of the circumstance, when I encounter a student I’m working with someone of infinite value. It is an opportunity for us to take our next steps towards Christ and avoid reducing our academic experience into a mere exchange or gate keeping ritual.