Building a Unique, Individual Self with Brooks and Deresiewicz

For the past two weeks, I’ve been busy with learning the minute intricacies of a new job, finalizing a few contract projects, and attending volunteer meetings. I’m feeling happier and more contented than I’ve been in a long time as a result.

Suddenly, I have a purpose. There are places I’m expected to be, people I talk to, and problems I overcome; after a single day of this, my personal time outside of the workplace feels richer and more deserved. I am giving something back to the world by participating as a responsible, thoughtful adult. It’s what I’ve wanted for months, if not years.

I never felt quite the same way when I was a student. Being a student feels like practice in every respect. You’re just one face among many – particularly at a larger university – and what you’ve done has probably been replicated in the past as a ‘learning experience’. Particularly in my field of study (tourism, environment, and more generally, the arts), there is a lot of thinking-for-the-sake-of-thinking. Using big words and elaborate concepts to describe the world. Add to this vacuous environment the constant guilt that you’re not ‘enough’ of a thinker – because who can really know if you’re thinking brilliant thoughts when it’s all relative, and completely intangible?

On September 8th, David Brooks wrote in a New York Times op-ed that elite universities are successfully delivering on their mission to prepare students for starting a career and training them how to think (read the full article here). What they’re failing to deliver is the essential link between adolescence and adulthood, that transformative moral education which creates a unique, individual self (Brooks, 2014).

David draws from an essay by William Deresiewicz in the New Republic, in which super-high-achieving young students are becoming mindless automatons, robots lacking both a soul and depth of character (read the full article here). William writes:

Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.” (Deresiewicz, 2014).

It’s not that educators or educational systems are failing at their jobs. It’s part of a larger issue that is endemic of our times – delayed adulthood plagues the current ‘failure to launch‘ generation of youths. Being a busy, credential-hungry students offers everyone a way to avoid the process of “introspection, observation, […] making meaning of experience and finding an organizing purpose” that allows for the creation of a unique, individual self (Brooks, 2014).

I agree with William James, renowned 1890’s author of The Principles of Psychology, that a morally significant life is one “organized around a self-imposed, heroic ideal and is pursued through endurance, courage, fidelity, and struggle” (Brooks, 2014). This is what our coming-of-age literature is all about. Is it because we’ve lost our oral cultures of storytelling and cultural systems of moral regulation that our young people are floating in a morass of values lacking any strong role models or ideals?

I don’t have the answers to this situation, but I appreciate the dialogue that Deresiewicz and Brooks bring to the table. My knee-jerk reaction is to suggest that we, as young people, throw ourselves to the wolves and build character outside the strictures of typical educational expectations. Take on a challenge that no one knows about and will never end up on your resume – be humble. Do something everyday to build the person you want to become, based on someone you deeply admire – be critical. It’s your personal responsibility and life-long challenge to find your own unique purpose and self.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. robertlfs says:

    Interesting post. Some thoughts –

    – I participated in a focus group as an employer of University graduates. The point of the group was to determine how the university could better prepare students for employment. Without hesitation, every single one of the 10 or so individuals in the group said “better communication skills” particularly writing.

    – I encourage students to post career queries about alternative educational trajectories to the professional listservs (e.g., Museum-L). If they ask their academic advisor, on educational options, often, there will be a strong bias toward the discipline of the advisor. (e.g., UG Anthropology advisors will push students to graduate work in that discipline). However, in my experience and without exception, the responses from listservs where the future employers respond will be something like “we are less concerned about your degree and more about what you will be able to do the first day on the job.

    – to that end, I teach and advise from a very applied perspective. How will the graduate’s resume/c.v. demonstrate that they are capable of doing more than getting good grades in school? What real life (internships, jobs, projects) experiences do they have and what have they demonstrated they can produce? Can they communicate all of these cool things they learned in class?

    Congrats on your job! Sounds fantastic and you sound like someone that any employer would be very lucky to have.

    Best wishes,

  2. marialegault says:

    Thanks for the good wishes, Robert! I am indeed very excited to be working in my new position.

    You raise many excellent points, as always, and I agree 100% with all of them. Communication and practical experience in the classroom and beyond are a definite must.

    When I was a graduate student at the Master’s level, the focus was almost entirely on developing my C.V. to pursue further studies; there was no pressure to go into a PhD program, but it often seemed like ‘the thing’ to do.

    I’m heartened to hear stories of faculty members like yourself encouraging students to explore a broad range of skills and experiences beyond academia.

    And of course, I think that students should be thinking critically and finding out what is right for them personally – this being the core message I am sharing with friends, family, and the public these days!

    Hope all is well with you! Take care 🙂

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