Life Worth Living in the Cultural Conversation

The Life Worth Living project is hardly the only effort to place the big questions back at the center of university education and, indeed, in the cultural conversation at large. Below are just a few things we’ve heard that have challenged and shaped our approach.

Religion and the Good Life

(February 29, 2016)

In an article in the Huffington post, Rev. Peter E. Bauer reviewed a recent Life Worth Living event

“Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam and others are repositories of the good life. Faith focuses upon not only your life but also upon the lives of others. Living in faith means that we live in covenant and commitment to one another.
“Our faith can generate a life that is productive, alive, meaningful and with purpose.”

(October 28, 2015)
Matthew Croasmun was interviewed by the Huffington Post’s Senior Religion Reporter Jaweed Kaleem about the Life Worth Living and Christ and the Good Life courses. Dr. Croasmun describes the courses’ shared goal to take a “second-person” approach to studying philosophies and religions, rather than a more typically “third-person,” descriptive approach: “they address you as a living being.” Read the full interview here.

How Emory University Is Getting Students To Ask The Big Questions (October 23, 2015) by Jaweed Kaleem

Jawed Kaleem has identified what he calls “a trend at American universities” to promote dialogue among students on the big questions of life’s meaning and the definitions of joy, happiness, and success. In this article, Kaleem interviews Gary Laderman, chair of the Department of Religion at Emory University, about his experience getting the student body to engage with these questions. Laderman describes courses he teaches, such as “Death and Dying” and “Religion and Sexuality,” in which students are confronted with questions of life’s meaning. 

The Big University (October 6, 2015) by David Brooks

“Many American universities were founded as religious institutions, explicitly designed to cultivate their students’ spiritual and moral natures. But over the course of the 20th century they became officially or effectively secular.” In an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, David Brooks discusses the University and its mission to cultivate “students’ spiritual and moral natures.”

The Moral Bucket List (April 11, 2015) by David Brooks

Through observing the outstanding goodness of certain people he has met, Brooks has come to identify two sets of virtues, résumé virtues and eulogy virtues. Résumé virtues are skills for the marketplace, while eulogy virtues are the sort of qualities remembered at funerals—kindness, bravery, honesty, and so on. The former focus on outer success, but the latter emphasize inner character. It is the presence of these cultivated inner virtues that Brooks says distinguishes “deeply good people.” He believes these inner virtues must be intentionally developed through a process of determined effort, and he identifies several areas in which this can be accomplished, including personal humility and energizing love. 

In his TED talk, Brooks identifies these categories of virtue as two inner selves that inhabit each of us, and calls his listeners to develop the eulogy virtues by fighting inner weakness and sin.

In Defense of a Liberal Education (2015) by Fareed Zakaria

A 1987 alumnus of Yale College, Fareed Zakaria argues for a renewed commitment to the world’s most valuable educational tradition. He expounds on the virtues of a liberal arts education – how to write clearly, how to express yourself convincingly, and how to think analytically. He turns our leaders’ vocational arguments on its head. American routine manufacturing jobs continue to get automated or outsourced, and specific vocational knowledge is often outdated within a few years. Engineering is a great profession, but key value-added skills you will also need are creativity, lateral thinking, design, communication, storytelling, and more than anything, the ability to continually learn and enjoy learning – precisely the gifts of a liberal education. 


The Ambition Explosion (November 27, 2014)
Can capitalism define a life worth living? David Brooks expresses his concern that capitalism fosters enormous personal ambition, which often is directed toward pursuing economic affluence and career with the result that it neglects the need for spiritual enrichment. Brooks examines the struggle between the quest for spirituality and the new capitalist ethos in China.

“The Educated Sheep of the Ivy League” On Point with host Jane Clayson (September 24, 2014)

Deresiewicz talks about his new book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite” with Jane Clayson.

“College should be addressed to the student as a whole person, it should help them to begin to answer for themselves the questions that we all ask as human beings…. What it means to live a good life? What do I think a good society should look like? These questions, believe it or not, never come up or rarely come up in the education process anymore.”

“Becoming a Real Person,” New York Times (September 8, 2014) by David Brooks

Brooks responds to the claims made by Deresiewicz on the failure of Ivy League schools to provide students with purpose.

“Deresiewicz offers a vision of what it takes to move from adolescence to adulthood. Everyone is born with a mind, he writes, but it is only through introspection, observation, connecting the head and the heart, making meaning of experience and finding an organizing purpose that you build a unique individual self.”

“The Trouble With Harvard: The Ivy League is Broken and Only Standardized Tests Can Fix It,” New Republic (September 4, 2014) by Steven Pinker

In responding to Deresiewicz’s charge that high-pressure Ivy League schools force students to ignore the questions of what makes life worth living, Steven Pinker highlights one of the constant cry of those in higher educator:

“Perhaps I am emblematic of everything that is wrong with elite American education, but I have no idea how to get my students to build a self or become a soul. It isn’t taught in graduate school, and in the hundreds of faculty appointments and promotions I have participated in, we’ve never evaluated a candidate on how well he or she could accomplish it. I submit that if “building a self” is the goal of a university education, you’re going to be reading anguished articles about how the universities are failing at it for a long, long time.”

Excellent Sheep (2014) by William Deresiewicz

Excellent Sheep takes a sharp look at the high-pressure conveyor belt that begins with parents and counselors who demand perfect grades and culminates in the skewed applications Deresiewicz saw firsthand as a member of Yale’s admissions committee. As schools shift focus from the humanities to “practical” subjects like economics and computer science, students are losing the ability to think in innovative ways. Deresiewicz explains how college should be a time for self-discovery, when students can establish their own values and measures of success, so they can forge their own path. He addresses parents, students, educators, and anyone who’s interested in the direction of American society, featuring quotes from real students and graduates he has corresponded with over the years, candidly exposing where the system is broken and clearly presenting solutions.

“Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League,” New Republic (July 21, 2014) by William Deresiewicz

William Deresiewicz chides the American education system and, particularly, Ivy League schools for fostering an “ultra-high-achieving” mentality void of more critical understanding of a life worth living:

“Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.”

“A Curriculum for the Selfie Generation,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (June 2, 2014) by Dan Berrett

Berrett writes about the rising number of courses being offered at the undergraduate level that engages students in the question of self and a worthwhile life.

“The National Endowment for the Humanities is awarding grants to faculty members to develop courses organized around what it calls “enduring questions” that have “long held interest for young people.””

“Life Worth Living: Christian Faith and the Crisis of the Universities,” ABC Religion and Ethics (April 30, 2014) by Miroslav Volf

Professor Volf, engaging with Kronman’s Education’s End, discusses the need for universities to provide for students an opportunity to reflect on a life that is worth living. Volf proposes that the Christian faith can add to the flourishing of universities by helping to build robust humanities program which features the question of a life worth living. 

“When universities give up reflecting and teaching on the meaning of life, they fail their students because they withhold from them the noblest of all enquiries.”

“Life Worth Living: A Conversation with Anthony Kronman about the Christian Faith and the Crisis of the Humanities,” Flourishing of Universities Conference (May 24, 2012)

[Text available as a pdf.]

Professor Volf, speaking at the 2012 Flourishing of Universities Conference hosted at Oxford University, argues that Christian faith can help universities to flourish by focusing on the question of a life that is worth living.

“Reflecting on the life worth living requires viewing life as a whole and that in turn requires viewing the Christian faith as a whole.”

Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (2008) by Anthony T. Kronman

Sterling Professor of Law at Yale Law School, Anthony Kronman explores the big question of a life worth living. Kronman critiques the demise of the “most important question” in schools and outlines why the question should regain primacy.

“A college or university is not just a place for the transmission of knowledge but a forum for the exploration of life’s mystery and meaning through the careful and critical reading of the great works of literary and philosophical imagination that we have inherited from the past.”