Upcoming Dialogues

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

Monday, 2nd May 2022, 7:30-9:00pm

“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

It’s exam and deadline season here in Oxford, and we’re all exhausting ourselves in hopes of achieving good marks. But for what? As Walker Percy reminds us, ‘You can get all A’s [or Firsts] and still flunk life.’ What bearing (if any) does our academic success (or failure) have on our prospects of flourishing, of beatitude, of our enjoying a decent and worthwhile life? What is a worthwhile life, anyway? And what do our studies have to do with 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 Oxford, please join us on Monday, 2nd May 2022 at the Head of the River Pub for a friendly conversation about these all important questions.

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?



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