Past Dialogues

Can I Get All A’s and Still Flunk Life?: A Conversation About School, Work, & What Really Matters

Wednesday, September 6th 2017, 5:30-7:00pm

The university is the place where, at one remove from the hurly-burly of the marketplace, so to speak, we mortals have the task and the luxury of addressing ourselves to knowledge and culture – to the arts and sciences, to all that constitutes human endeavor, and to all that presents itself to our gaze. Astrophysics, psycho-linguistics, economics, computer technology, sculpture, logic: no region of inquiry is excluded. The increase of knowledge, the pursuit of data, the preservation of tradition, the passing on of the deposit – all of this and more is what courses through the corridors of the university.
But does it make us better? More informed, yes. But better? More able to control our environment, yes. But better? More powerful, and more urbane, more discriminating, and more aware, and more literate. But better? It is an awkward question.
― Thomas Howard, “Newman, Lewis, and the University”

“As Frampton tells it, his life is one unbroken line of impressive grades, advanced degrees and innumerable citations of his work in cosmology and physics. There is certainly much truth to this. ‘He has always been very inventive in thinking of new ideas extending and going beyond the standard model of particle physics,’ says Prof. Edward Witten of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. But then there is Frampton’s tendency to transfer his professional accomplishments to his personal life….”
― Maxine Swann on Professor Paul Frampton, particle physicist and convicted drug smuggler


“You can get all A’s and still flunk life.”
― Walker Percy, The Second Coming

Yale Law professor Anthony Kronman argues that “our colleges and universities have given up on the meaning of life.” Because they lack unarguable and universally agreed upon answers to the Big Questions (e.g., What does it mean to live a worthwhile life?), our institutions of higher education have tried to content themselves with focusing on the small ones (e.g., How do I get a decently paying job?). Ernest Boyer observed that “what today’s college is teaching most successfully is competence—competence in meeting schedules, in gathering information, in responding well on tests, in mastering the details of a special field.” These are, no doubt, precisely the skills that make for “career success,” “employability,” and even “upward mobility” in today’s fast-paced world. “But technical skill, of whatever kind,” Boyer notes, “leaves open essential questions….” He asks:

Education for what purpose? Competence to what end? At a time in life when values should be shaped and personal priorities sharply probed, what a tragedy it would be if the most deeply felt issues, the most haunting questions, the most creative moments were pushed to the fringes of our institutional life.

Can any of us live—I mean really live—on competence alone? Questions about life, the universe, and everything can be dodged, ignored, and left unasked, of course, but at what cost, personally and politically?

Meanwhile, higher education is facing a mental health crisis. Numerous studies have underscored the high (and rising) rates of mental illness and depression among graduate students in particular (e.g., herehere, and here). According to a 2014 study by UC Berkeley’s Graduate Assembly, for instance, 47% of UC Berkeley’s PhD students suffer or have suffered from depression during their graduate studies. Why? Has the academic life become disconnected from the good life (whatever that is)? And, if so, what can be done about it?

The Socratic Happy Hour is a society dedicated to the proposition: Friends don’t let friends lead unexamined lives. If you’re a graduate student based here in New York City, please join us on Wednesday, September 6th for this important conversation, the first of our Fall series. For details on location email our admin.


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