I recently finished the outstanding book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life by former Yale English Professor, William Deresiewicz. The book is his manifesto against the culture of (over)achievement that elite schools have developed over the past several decades.
He rails against the production of future investment bankers and consultants (and even Teach for America volunteers) and the lack of true introspection at our most elite universities. He wants higher education to be less about test scores and low admissions rate and more about learning how to live and learning who we truly are.
Deresiewicz wants, effectively, for the university to play the role that religion and philosophy have comfortably adopted for thousands of years, and he admits as much.
I’ve been using the word soul, and though I’m not religious, I find that only a religious language has sufficient gravity to do these questions justice. For we are speaking of the most important thing: no less a thing than how to live. We might propose, then, that you should arrive at college as at the beginning of a pilgrimage— a movement toward the truth and toward the self. That you should come to seek conversion, though you know not yet to what belief or way. That you should approach ideas as instruments of salvation, driven by a need to work things through for yourself, so that you won’t be damned to go through life at second hand, thinking other people’s thoughts and dreaming other people’s dreams. It’s been said that people go to monasteries to find out why they have come , and college ought to be the same. We are born once, not only into nature but also into a culture that quickly becomes a second nature. But then, if we are granted such grace, we are born again. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his mortal soul?
Now consider this passage from the Chandogya Upanishad, which attempts to describe the Self.
The Self desires only what is real, thinks nothing but what is true. Here people do what they are told, becoming dependent on their country, or their piece of land, or the desires of another, so their desires are not fulfilled and their works come to nothing, both in this world and in the next. Those who depart from this world without knowing who they are or what they truly desire have no freedom here or hereafter.
A “self” has been constructed for us since the day we’re born. Elite universities are only one part of that process. Our friends and family, our work, the cities we live in, all have a claim on what we call the self. But these are often distractions from the true Self. And if we don’t understand the Self, we can’t now what the Self truly desires.
Here our selfless desires are hidden by selfish ones. They are real, but they are covered by what is false…Like strangers in an unfamiliar country walking over a hidden treasure, day by day we enter the world of Brahman while in deep sleep but never find it, carried away by what is false.
Diresiewicz makes the case that self-knowledge is the most important type of knowledge, particularly, because it helps you find your vocation.
Vocation is Latin for calling: it means the thing you’re called to do. It isn’t something that you choose, in other words; it chooses you. It is the thing you can’t not do. It makes more sense to you than you do—makes more sense of you. But the summons doesn’t happen by itself. You have to do the work to make yourself receptive to it. To find yourself, you first must free yourself. You won’t be able to recognize the things you really care about until you have released your grip on all the things that you’ve been taught to care about.
What Diresiwicz and the Upanishads are getting at is that to be free, we need to dive deeper, we need to learn to ruthlessly examine and discard what is “false,” and understand the true self. It goes beyond simple likes and dislikes, and even beyond your personality. If you dive deep enough, you’ll get a glimpse of what it means to be human, what it means to human in relations to others, and what it means to be human in relation to the universe.
Only once you’re willing to perform that level of self-examination can you begin to make life decisions with confidence, courage, and compassion.