On Faith and Value in Education
On a regular basis I meet with prospective students (and their parents) in the attempt to recruit them to come to the institution where I teach, Furman University. On the one hand, I am always happy to do this because I figure that anything philosophers can do to let students know what philosophy is all about is a good idea. On the other hand, however, I am similarly happy to do it because it gives me a chance to change the narrative that is so dominant in contemporary culture regarding the “point” of college itself. Many people have begun to ask: “Is college worth it?”1 However, usually when that question gets raised it is articulated relative to a narrow conception of “cost” rather than what we might term an expansive conception of “value.” When I meet with those students (and their parents), I often ask them what they hope to get from college. Far and away the most common answer is “I hope to get a job.” Jobs are important for the material stuff of existence, so that this is the first thing that the young student thinks about is entirely understandable within a cultural framework that so dominantly stipulates one’s existential significance in monetary terms (just ask a car company how much a life is worth when it comes to calculating whether to issue a recall, etc.).
However, then I think about my own son, Atticus, who is six years old. Currently, he says that he wants to be a “geologist baseball player,” but last year he wanted to be a “scientist-painter,” and before that he was gunning for that hot new field of “drummer who is also a superhero.” Here’s the thing, I never worry about what Atticus will do for a job; I worry about who he will be as a person. What keeps me up more than a few nights is the concern that in my own drive to be “successful” in monetary terms, I will fail to demonstrate a life well lived as “faithful” to what matters (or at least what I have decided matters). Or, said a bit more philosophically, I frequently ask myself what he will eventually say if asked about the “object of his father’s faith.” Will he say that I lived a life oriented toward serving others, or serving my own ego? Will he say that I was guided by a commitment to a word of welcome, or a word of warning? I do not know what he will say, but I continue to try to remain faithful to enacting the narrative that I hope will be true for him about me. When I look at my son, I am thrown back on myself—but the self I find in these moments of humbling reflective self-interrogation is not a self that is defined by an annual salary, but instead someone else, someone defined by something deeper and harder to explain. I am not sure I have the right language to express “who” this self is, but I do believe that it is the self that is “worth” cultivating as the task of higher education. In this sense, education might best be understood as the inverse of Plato’s conception of philosophy: it is preparation for living. But, how much is the cultivation of selfhood worth? Here, again, we run into the question of whether “worth” is a matter of cost or value.
At only twenty-two years old (a fact that continues to intimidate me!), Søren Kierkegaard wrote a long journal entry in which he reflected on his prior aims of obtaining a successful career through the attainment of objective knowledge relative to some specific field of human activity—in other words, his drive to get a job.2 Therein, the young Kierkegaard admits that he needs something more, something that he describes as being “bound up with the deepest roots of [his] existence.” As he explains, he seeks that which has such great value that it far outstrips any calculation of its worth in terms of cost, because it ultimately costs everything. As he explains:
This you see, is what I need, and this is what I strive for. So it is with joy and inner invigoration that I contemplate the great men who have found that precious stone for which they sell everything, even their lives, whether I see them intervening forcefully in life, with firm step and following unwaveringly their chosen paths, or run into them off the beaten track, self-absorbed and working for their lofty goals. I even look with respect upon those false paths that also lie there so close by. It is this inward action of man, this God-side of man, that matters, not a mass of information.3
Here Kierkegaard calls into question not only the general aim of human existence, but more specifically the point of higher education. His frustration with his university endeavors stem from the fact that he gained information, but not an identity. He was prepared for the so-called real world of employment, but not for life. He was able to be successful, but at the cost of becoming faithless.
Perhaps I have just read too much Kierkegaard. Perhaps I should spend more time with professors of business and political science, rather than professors of classics and literature, but regardless, I have grown weary of the dominant narrative of higher education that ultimately abandons the task of self-making as of little “value” in the “real-world” of calculating “costs” relative to monetary success. For my part, I think that those humanities professors, disciplines, and departments end up being their own worst enemy when they attempt to reassert their social relevance by demonstrating their worth in the very economic terms that have brought about the existential crisis facing the humanities in the first place. Only in the attempt to offer defeaters to the claim that the humanities are bad financial investments should such evidence be offered. The point, though, is not to beat back the critics on their own terms, but to re-cast the terms of the debate itself. The primary goal should not be to interrogate the data that might suggest that a major in philosophy or religion leads to unemployment, but to interrogate the logic by which employability is the exclusive criteria for assessing the “worth” of a specific field of study, or college more generally.
How much is my son’s life worth? Even to try to answer this question is to miss the point of the question itself. I am not suggesting that college should be expensive (the “cost” of college is a serious issue and one that needs addressed), but simply that the point of college is not something that can be understood according to the economic logic by which it is so often conceived. Higher education cannot do everything. What we expect from college is largely due to our subjectivity having already been conditioned as oriented toward certain expectations. My son is currently in kindergarten and I am amazed at how quickly he has taken as normative a whole host of very contingent commitments. Simply put, if we want to rethink college relative to the task of self-making, then we need to rethink education, as such, all the way down.
It is here that Claire Elise Katz’s book, Levinas and the Crisis of Humanism, begins to press. Although properly understood as a contribution to Levinas studies, this book will necessarily be undervalued if it is viewed as only of relevance to scholars working in Continental philosophy. This book offers a call for a reevaluation of the task of education by interrogating the current educational structure in relation to the alternative framework provided by Levinas’s understanding of Jewish education. As with Kierkegaard, Levinas offers a model of education that focuses on the creation of ethical subjectivity, rather than employable units of marketable consumption. Katz’s careful argument in favor of this Levinasian alternative is not merely a matter of speculative theorizing, but instead finds support in empirical examples already operative in some educational systems. The proposal that Katz and Levinas jointly offer is that education should be interruptive of the default norms and expectations so often motivated by well-meaning teachers whose pedagogy is driven more by testable outcomes than by the faces of their students. Katz’s Levinasian account embraces the messiness of human existence and, hence, opens students up to the “real-world” of decision, disorientation, and difficulty, but also of joy, desire, contentment, and hospitality.
The contributors to this symposium are all distinguished Levinas scholars and most of them are also widely published in Jewish philosophy more broadly. The symposium essays will unfold in the following order: Oona Eisenstadt, Martin Kavka, Deborah Achtenberg, James Hatley, and Dennis Beach. Then, Claire Katz will offer a unified response to all of these readings of her book.
As evidenced by the wide-ranging discussions that occur in these commentaries, Levinas and the Crisis of Humanism will likely continue to generate significant philosophical and pedagogical debate for a long time, but this is a debate well worth having. If not for the sake of the philosophy of education, then for the sake of my son, and the daughters and sons of so many others, who will largely be formed by the pedagogy that is in place in the schools where they will spend so much of their early lives deciding who it is that they will become and to what they want to remain faithful. The value of thinking well on this issue is incalculable because far more than the fate of the humanities hangs in the balance—our very subjectivity does. I hope that we are up to the task because it is a task that is worth it.
May all who come behind us find us faithful.4
See, for example: William J. Bennett with David Wilezol, Is College Worth It? (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013); Brooke Metz, “Is College Worth It?: Goldman Sachs Says Not So Much,” USA Today (December 10, 2015), available online at: http://college.usatoday.com/2015/12/10/is-college-worth-it-goldman-sachs-says-not-so-much/ (accessed April 8, 2016); Liz Weston, “Why College is Worth It Even Though It Costs Too Much,” Time (October 5, 2015), available online at: http://time.com/money/4061150/college-degree-worth-it/ (accessed April 8, 2016); “Is College Worth It?” The Economist (April 5, 2014), available online at: http://home/163979.cloudwaysapps.com/esbfrbwtsm/public_html.economist.com/news/united-states/21600131-too-many-degrees-are-waste-money-return-higher-education-would-be-much-better (accessed April 8, 2016).↩
Journal entry from Gillelege dated August 1, 1835 (I A 75), as included in Søren Kierkegaard, Papers and Journals: A Selection, trans. Alastair Hannay (London: Penguin Books, 1996), pp. 32-8.↩
Kierkegaard, Papers and Journals, pp.33-4.↩
Here I am borrowing this phrase from Steve Green’s song, “Find us Faithful,” off of the album of the same name (Sparrow Records, 1988).↩