After 4 Years of College, Too Many Students Don’t Know Where to Go Next

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These patterns of academic thinking soon penetrate their personal lives. To be asked to give reasons for one’s personal decisions is to entertain the possibility that such reasons exist. Thomas Aquinas, another author on our syllabus, calls the reason that is the orienting point of all your other reasons your “final end.” Those who discover that they have such final ends, and learn to assess them, see their way to the exit from the fun house of arbitrary decisions in which the young so often find themselves trapped.

For the number of final ends is not infinite. Aquinas usefully suggests that the ultimate objects of human longing can be sorted into only eight enduring categories. If we want to understand where we’re headed, we should ask ourselves these questions: Am I interested in this opportunity because it leads to wealth? Or am I aiming at praise and admiration? Do I want enduring glory? Or power — to “make an impact”? Is my goal to maximize my pleasures? Do I seek health? Do I seek some “good of the soul,” such as knowledge or virtue? Or is my ultimate longing to come face-to-face with the divine?

Most students find, to their surprise, that they can locate their desires on this old map. This does not leave students feeling constrained, as they have often been led to fear. It leaves them feeling empowered, like wanderers suddenly recognizing the orienting features of a landscape.

Like any good map, Aquinas’s reasoned analysis of the human goods can tell us something about where we’re going before we get there. We start down the path to wealth, for example, because it is a universal means to almost any end. But wealth cannot be the final goal of life, for it gives satisfaction only when traded for something else. Admiration signals that people think we’re doing something well. But it is conferred by the often errant judgment of others and can lead you astray.

Most students are grateful to discover this art of choosing. Learning to reason about happiness awakens an “indwelling power in the soul,” as Socrates puts it, which is as delightful as discovering that one’s voice can be made to sing. Why, then, do liberal arts institutions rarely teach it? In some cases, faculty members are incentivized to emphasize specialized research rather than thinking about the good life. In others, they share the conviction that reason is merely an extension of the quest for dominance, or the Rousseauean belief that sentiment is a better guide to happiness than the mind.

Most fundamentally, though, the reigning model of liberal education — opening doors without helping us think about what lies beyond them — prevails because it reprises a successful modern formula. Agnosticism about human purposes, combined with the endless increase of means and opportunities, has proved to be a powerful organizing principle for our political and economic life. It has helped create the remarkable peace, prosperity and liberty we have enjoyed for much of the modern age.

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