By IHE Fellow Angela McKay Knobel, Ph.D.

For years, I have taught The Apology in my introductory philosophy class. Every year, some students hate Socrates. One year, one of my students found Socrates particularly annoying. As we were working through the text, she slammed her book down in frustration. “Why doesn’t this guy just get a job?” she exclaimed. The University of Tulsa apparently agrees with her. Just last month, the university announced the elimination of all traditional liberal arts majors. The rationale for these changes is made explicit in the introduction to the university’s strategic plan, entitled, “Jobs as Central to Life.” After stating in the first sentence that “higher education prepares people for a meaningful life,” the remainder of the document articulates a vision of just what preparation for a meaningful life amounts to. A university prepares its students for a meaningful life by giving them the skills they need to get a job when they graduate.

Socrates believed that a meaningful life is an examined life: that the unexamined life is not worth living. The administration of the University of Tulsa, by contrast, appears to believe that a meaningful life is an employed life. In this respect they seem to understand even less than that irritated college freshman.

Those of us who side with Socrates think that the value of a university education lies in its ability to stimulate the self-examination that makes life meaningful. We think that to engage in a sustained and serious study of subjects like history and philosophy and literature is invariably to come up against life’s most important questions, and we think meaning is found only in the process of grappling with those questions. Indeed, the hope is that the process that begins in the university will bleed into the rest of life: that students will emerge from university with a sense of seriousness and purpose and not least, humility.

Young people emerge from the university into a world that offers them more choices than ever before, choices that are as or more difficult than the choices any preceding generation will face. Should I accept a job that requires me to act dishonestly? Should I choose a higher salary if it requires me to spend more time away from my family? Do I have any obligations to an unplanned child or an ailing parent? The way they navigate these choices will determine the meaningfulness (or lack thereof) their lives have. If we merely give them jobs we will have given them nothing meaningful at all.

Angela McKay Knobel is an associate professor of philosophy. She has published extensively on medieval and contemporary ethics. Recently, Dr. Knobel was invited by the U.S. Naval Academy to participate in a review of the academy’s Leadership Education and Development (LEAD) Division curriculum, particularly of the area devoted to moral character. 

One thought on “A Meaningful Life

  1. Well said. I majored in Greek and Latin before going to medical school. It wasn’t the languages that made this major practical but rather the environment that allowed proper and needed reflection before the roller coaster of moral and ethical decision-making. In short, I would do it all over again.

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