Widgets Magazine


Sense and Nonsense: Pathways for Angels

At a Faculty Senate meeting last November, the co-chairs of SUES (the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford) presented a draft document proposing three broad and overlapping aims of a Stanford education: first, the acquisition and creation of knowledge; second, developing intellectual and practical skills; and third, helping equip students to live creative, responsible and reflective lives.


In the Q-and-A from Faculty Senators, one professor posed an interesting question: “I don’t see why you need the third piece of this puzzle. If we have people acquiring knowledge and intellectual and practical skills, why do we think there’s some other thing out there about living a creative life which we haven’t provided them with the knowledge and tools to acquire or act on?” I can’t help thinking the professor might have felt as if, to paraphrase Albie Sachs (who was paraphrasing Shakespeare), some men are born politically correct, some achieve political correctness and he was having political correctness thrust upon him!


The professor’s question prompted a couple dozen faculty members to almost jump out of their chairs with protests, so it looks like the third goal of fostering creative, responsible and reflective lives is here to stay. But the professor, I think, had a point worth exploring: Is an institution of higher education about formal, engineered learning alone (embodied in knowledge and skills) or does it also have a job to play in a less formulaic arena? Should questions about a good or meaningful life be regarded as central to a liberal education? Can the University do anything to help students ask or answer those questions, and do they require more than formal knowledge and skills?


A look into history seems to shed some light on the question. In “Roads to Modernity,” Gertrude Himmelfarb draws an interesting contrast between what she suggests were distinct British and French Enlightenments. The French moral philosophers aimed to rigorously apply high-scale philosophical thinking to political communities and were much more adamantly opposed to religion than their British and American contemporaries. The British Enlightenment figures looked to social virtues more than the force of reason as the basis of a healthy and humane society. The question for both was: How can we create the good society? The French answer was by serious, sophisticated reasoning (the head). The British answer was by fostering a certain spiritual temperament (the heart).


When it comes to fostering a better society, I see the two philosophies as closely related. Knowledge and systematic reasoning can have major effects on the degree to which an individual leads a creative, responsible and reflective life. Take responsibility. Knowing more about the underlying causes of poverty and knowing how to engage with arguments about how best to help the world’s poorest will help us lead more responsible lives. In this sense, we see that knowledge and muscular thinking are strong tools with which to better guide our decisions.


But knowledge and muscular thinking are not at the heart of living a more creative, reflective or responsible life. They are merely tools that assume a prior foundation. For example, knowing more about poverty and knowing how to think critically about the arguments involved only helps me live a more responsible life if I care about poverty, and if I care in more than an intellectual sense. This is a question about whether desolate human conditions make me feel angry. It is a question about whether I feel entitled to what I have. It is a question about what kind of life I think will be meaningful, of whether I have even considered that question in a personal way.


These questions are not answered through knowledge transmission or inculcating skills. That is not even how they truly get asked. These are matters of the heart, of igniting personal queries in students, of responding to hungers for a college experience that involves growing in profound and transformational ways. Such growth requires spheres involving some mystery, spheres in which students will be affected in different ways and to different degrees. The people we connect with, the new places we venture into, the teachers and mentors who ignite fires within us, the movies and music and books and art that somehow manage to transform us. These pathways toward personal transformation make us more appreciative of the opportunity to learn, more deliberate in directing our education and more reflective about our lives beyond Stanford.


Dorm life, student clubs, studying abroad, public service, teachers and mentors, the arts, sports and hobbies, reflection—a liberal education must include pathways with unpredictable outcomes, unspecified ends. As Rabindranath Tagore describes in his “My Boyhood Days,” we venture down such pathways so that “some angel from a strange and unexpected quarter may cross our path, speaking the language of our own soul, and enlarging the boundaries of the heart’s possessions.” A Stanford education is, in part, about opening pathways for angels to enter.


This is Aysha’s last column for The Daily. She would like to say a big thanks to her great editors this volume, Wyndam and Ellie, and to everyone who has read her columns. She has loved writing them! Send her your comments at abagchi@stanford.edu.