The Meaning of Doing the Right Thing

This morning’s random reading over coffee brought together two articles under one theme.  The first was Maria Popova’s “The Day Dostoyevsky Discovered the Meaning of Life in a Dream.”  Immediately upon absorbing that piece I opened “The Right Right Thing to Do” by Irene McMullin.

The Meaning of Life

Dostoevsky didn’t allege that he personally discovered the meaning of life in a dream.  He wrote a story in which the protagonist did, however: “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man.”  (Translations from Russian lead to some peculiar word combinations.  The title was originally rendered as “The Dream of a Queer Fellow.”)

The man in the story, regarding himself worthy of ridicule, was given to dark brooding — an undercurrent that runs through most of Dostoevsky’s work.  But, from my experience with the author, his stories and novels regularly lead to some resolution, sometimes an Aha! moment for the leading character, sometimes even a joyful discovery.

I’ll let Maria Popova describe both the story and the redemption that it offers, as you read her article in detail.  In his gloom, the man realizes in a dream that life means being kind and looking out for others, for someone in need, especially a complete stranger in dire distress — (in the story he did not respond to an eight-year-old girl’s entreaty for urgent assistance) — and his duty in general is to improve the one human unit over which he has control: himself.

In this story, Dostoevsky omits endorsing a spiritual connection with God, although in his other works that too is an acknowledged virtue.

Doing The Right Right Thing

Irene McMullin, from her position as a professor of philosophy at Essex University in the United Kingdom, explains why it sometimes seems as though you can’t decide between two or more right things to do.

We often think that we are choosing between right and wrong and that choosing a more selfish, if completely moral, action — a self-indulgent action — is somehow automatically wrong.

Prof. McMullin points out that the many things which tug at us align with the first, second, and third person perspectives in our language: I, you, and they.  I can do something for myself or something for you (an individual I’m personally acquainted with), or I can do something for the benefit of everyone in general (they), which includes you and me.

“They,” however, can be thought of as a crowd of individuals each with the right of free choice and expression or as a single body for which I might sacrifice under the fuzzy concept of “the greater good.”

With limited time each day, we continually choose to do things according to the requests or demands that each of these three “groups” make on us.  And how we choose risks disappointing one or the other.  I disappoint myself when, at the end of the day, I am still yearning to do something for me but didn’t have the time because I was doing something for you or for the world.

In her article, Irene McMullin also acknowledges that we are tempted at times to do something morally wrong.  She doesn’t go into detail with it.  And she omits the situation that arises when I come face to face with a threat, the temptation to resist a challenge or attack, the discovery of a theft or affront that angers me, and other circumstances that divert my attention from doing the right right thing.

This article also omits mention of doing the right thing not just because it’s morally desirable but because, for some of us, there is a higher calling.  Some of us regard ourselves as agents of God, and it is that calling that motivates our choice of the right right thing from moment to moment.

So this is how my day began.

=David A. Woodbury=

Eric Hoffer and Mass Movements

I encountered Eric Hoffer’s work at the same time and in the same circumstances that brought me to Nock. I was about 20 years old and exploring used-book stores in San Francisco. It was there where I espied a book titled Memoirs of a Superfluous Man. Attracted to the nondescript black book by the title, I pulled it from the shelf.

Closely in time and place I also purchased a gray-covered hardbound copy of The True Believer. There is no reason to believe that Hoffer, who succeeded Nock by three or so decades, ever paid much attention to the older man. But Hoffer’s works, especially the 1951 masterpiece, The True Believer, complement Nock’s ideas.

In the summer of 1971, while I still lived in Monterey, California, as a student at the Defense Language Institute, I obtained an address for Eric Hoffer and, on a trip into San Francisco ostensibly to prowl more bookstores, I spent the day finding the humble apartment building bearing the address I’d been provided. It was late on a Saturday when I finally stood before the façade in the evening shadows and contemplated knocking or ringing a doorbell.

I couldn’t make myself do it. What would I say? What, indeed, did I really know? I realized that, even if Eric Hoffer came to the door or if someone admitted me to meet him, I would appear a fool, a fan of his books, a gadfly, a mere youth. But I came that close.

Amazon.com still sells a paperback edition of The True Believer for an exorbitant price. (Is it so long out of print that copies have become scarce?) An excellent summary of its main points can be found at the Farnam Street blog. I recommend spending a few minutes there if not curled up with the slim volume itself.

=David A. Woodbury=

The Disadvantages of Being Educated

As he explained that the State is a different beast from government, so also Albert Jay Nock argued that education and job training are pursued by following different paths of learning with different compass headings; that, what’s more, an educated person may be entirely unemployable, incapable of self-sufficiency, and of no practical use to society while a well-trained person may evince no signs of being educated. Someone who wants to be both educated and self-supporting may do best to pursue, by turns, both knowledge for the sake of enlightenment and training for the sake of employment. An educated person, moreover, understands that learning is lifelong and encompasses no end of diverse subjects.

An educated person is one who pursues a college degree, for instance, chiefly for edification, to study the world, to better appreciate why life is worth living. Nock himself was a college student in a period when colleges concentrated on offering a classical education in the arts and sciences, leaving job training to the job creators. In the Twentieth Century, as employers came to require college degrees in more and more job positions, to the point, as we know, where it came to matter not what course of study the degree represents but merely that the job candidate has one, colleges hurried to tailor their programs around job training instead of erudition. Now a person studying at the college level for his own edification is an anachronism. That, in fact, is exactly the word that my academic adisor at the University of Maine used to describe me, right around 1975, when I told him I was studying wildlife ecology (the science, not the politics of ecology) for my own edification and not just to meet the job requirements to become a game warden or wildlife biologist.

I had started college in the 1960s as a music performance major (piano) and had switched to languages after interrupting college to serve in the Army, but had come around to the fundamental sciences in the end. My University of Maine advisor told me that I should not have been taking up space in the wildlife and forestry program if I didn’t intend to seek employment in the field, because there were people who wanted to work in those careers who had been turned away from the program.

As it turned out, when I graduated, there were six or seven job openings across New England and, of those earning degrees when I did, six or seven were women. They were offered the jobs, and I had to pursue a career in something else — which was fine with me; that had been my intent from the start.

With more of a classical education in the arts and sciences than was common even in the mid-Twentieth Century, spanning several languages, the best of the world’s literature, music composition and performance, mechanical engineering and mathematics, and the sciences related to biology, I do sometimes find myself starved for intellectual company in a remote enclave where almost no one has any concept of those subjects.

Nock laid out his thesis in the essay, “The Disadvantages of Being Educated,” which is included in a book of that title (containing 16 other essays), arranged and introduced by Robert M. Thornton. The book is available at Amazon.

=David A. Woodbury=

Marcus Goncalves, in an archived article at Benzinga.com, has written a splendid reprise of Nock’s essay as well.

In case of difficulties with the direct link above, here is the text of Marcus Goncalves’s article.


The Disadvantages of Being Educated

6 December 2011, Marcus Goncalves for Benzinga

Never had it occurred to me, as Nock would put it, that there might be disadvantages to being educated. I had always looked at it from an educator’s point of view, where education provided so much gain, rather than from the standpoint of today’s typical college student, eager to enter the workplace. At some point there must have been a cultural shift in many of our colleges and universities, causing what Bloom called the “closing of the American minds.”

Since the 1960s, there has been a decay of the study of humanities that has turned into a refugee camp of sorts, where intellects that are driven out of their jobs, or into retirements, tend to idle. Learning has been made much of, while forgetting has been deprecated, causing pedantry to become well established throughout the civilized world at the expense of culture. What has changed?

Historically, the goal of education was to prepare individuals for life, shaping intellect and character, and instilling ethical and moral values. Today’s version appears more focused on proficiency, and has transformed into training. It incorrectly assumes that training and education are synonymous. The distinction between the two has practically been eradicated. Nowadays, students take a very vocational approach to their studies, with the attitude that if the subject matter cannot be directly applied to their jobs or to revenue stream, then it is not worth studying.

But can proficient individuals, successful in their fields, be regarded as educated? Well-trained professionals welcome the accolades for possessing proficiency in their field. Their education, however, if they had any, is another matter, as it lies behind their proficiency, and should not be confused with it. This proficiency is a result of excellent training, enabling them to do and get what they want, while the education does not help with either, as it determines who and what they can become and be.

Stacked against such vocational, training-oriented programs, a true education does have its disadvantages. First, education deprives students of one of the most precious possessions: a sense of cooperation with one another. In this fast-paced world of compressed degrees, online learning, and expensive tuitions, students can only afford to be trained and are focusing their energies on a single narrow discipline. They have set their sights in one direction: to become a professional… Education discourages against such precise actions, while training embodies it.

Second, training tends to put students in step with their peers, while education causes them to reflect, disclosing other channels of interest, making many look inviting. Education may give rise to views that the interests students have in a multitude of disciplines may not be worth the time spent laboring on them, when they could rather spend it becoming proficient in something.

Third, education inevitably shows students what types of people their peers eventually become as they focus all their energy on one interest or “concentration,” making it harder to reconcile the thought of becoming like them, the “trained ones.” Conversely, training does not cause such disturbances of thought, allowing students to continue with one focused study, without any uncertainty or loss of confidence. They are part of a crowd.

Fourth, education is divisive and separatist. Training, to the contrary, induces an exhilarating sense of a cohort; one is doing with others what others do, and thinking the thoughts that others think. Training promotes cohesive thought, to the point of discerning from which school a student hails.

Education leads people to ask a great deal more from life than just life in its current form. This begets dissatisfaction with the rewards that life in a trained world offers. Training, however, tends to satisfy people with very moderate and simple returns, such as a salary, and the usual run of comforts and conveniences. Training not only allows people to acquire these rewards quickly, but also provides for an inert and comfortable contentment. After all, these are all that a trained society can offer. Politicians understand this concept well, wielding the dream of food on the table and two cars in the garage as symbols of aspiring social ideals and accomplishment.

Reading skills? For what if you are a mathematician? Math skills? For what if you are a writer? Science skills? For what if all you need is on Wikipedia? Not surprisingly, among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, the U.S. now scores 14th in reading, 25th in math, and 17th in science, losing by a wide margin from the top five ranking countries; South Korea, Finland, Canada, New Zealand, and Japan respectively.

In time, things may improve. Some schools are already making progress, upping their game. The joy and satisfaction of an education for education’s sake should still be what commencement speakers say it is. Something must be done to mature the national resources of intellect and character, as well as proficiency. Respect for education needs to be rehabilitated as a social asset; otherwise, we will become a country unable to compete in the global marketplace. Worse, we may become a society that truly, and mistakenly, believes in the disadvantages of being educated.

Marcus Goncalves, Ed.D., Ph.D., Boston UniversityAdministrative Studies, Faculty Member
Nichols College, International Business, Faculty Member

Benzinga adds: The preceding article is from one of our external contributors. It does not represent the opinion of Benzinga and has not been edited.