Fighting the Burnout Culture: How Personalist Philosophers and Benedictine Monks Can Help Stressed-Out College Students

Margarita A. Mooney
August 28, 2018
Reproduced with Permission
Public Discourse

What are the ends of education? How do various conceptions of the human person influence our understanding of education? What does a liberal arts education look like in an educational system dominated by specialized fields of study and focused on credentials and skills? How do friendship and community relate to education?

As I wrote recently in Public Discourse, my experience as a student and professor has helped me understand how important philosophical anthropology - our understanding of the nature of the human person - is to developing a pedagogical approach to learning, especially in our current moment of cultural and political fragmentation. Faulty anthropologies will lead us astray. But a sound philosophical anthropology - understanding our essence as humans made to know, love, and serve others and God - can help us get person-centered education right.

In addition to my work as a professor, I also live out my vision of person-centered education through my involvement in the Scala Foundation. The Scala Foundation is an academic initiative with a mission to renew classical liberal arts education and generate communities of friendship that support the integration of learning and vocational development. In July 2018, for the second year in a row, fourteen students from ten universities across the United States gathered with me for a Scala seminar hosted at Oxford University and Ampleforth Abbey, a men's Benedictine monastery near York. For twelve days, we read twenty-six authors and hundreds of pages of text on topics such as liberal arts education, faith and reason, and integrated communities of learning.

Within the philosophy of education, there is an important and ongoing debate between those who hold a liberal approach to learning (seeing learning as an end in and of itself) and a pragmatic approach (seeing learning as a means to some other end, such as earning money or making useful scientific discoveries). American culture is strongly pragmatic, so it's no surprise that we tend to think of education in such ways: what skills do I learn? How is this related to my experience? Modern advocates of the liberal model of education - many of whom we read in our seminar - are aware of these pragmatic concerns. But pragmatic concerns simply cannot replace the pursuit of truth and the good of gaining knowledge for the sake of knowing.

Writing in 1943, in part as a critique of Soviet and Nazi forms of education that sought to maximize industrial power while suppressing individual freedom, philosopher and educator Jacques Maritain described the aim of education:

to guide man in the evolving dynamism through which he shapes himself as a human person - armed with knowledge, strength of judgment, and moral virtues - while at the same time conveying to him the spiritual heritage of the nation and the civilization in which he is involved, and preserving in this way the century-old achievements of generations.

By no means would Maritain disregard the utilitarian, pragmatic ends of education. Nor would I. Nor would other proponents of liberal education, such as John Henry Newman and Leo Strauss (whose work was also discussed in our seminar.) But Maritain's warning was as timely then as it is now: if we focus on education as a way to acquire skills or credentials, we can lose sight of the dignity and value of every human person - the source of the creativity and diversity that are part of the dynamism of education.

A Pragmatic Approach to Education and Why it is Insufficient

Jacques Maritain was a friendly critic of the pragmatist view of education. He argued that problem-solving, the crux of John Dewey's or Paulo Freire's approach to education, can't be the end of education. Learning often occurs in response to an intuition or an insight that prompts us to pursue a new avenue of knowledge. Problem-solving is, indeed, important, but not all discoveries are practical. That is because Maritain agreed with one key idea of personalism: humans are not just material. We also have an inner depth.

As much as Maritain praised efforts to develop new pedagogical techniques and test the acquisition of knowledge, he warned against the temptation to turn our tools and tests into idols. Humans are not pure instruments applying other instruments. The value of persons is not how much they produce for the economy nor how they score on a test.

While Maritain was a devout Catholic who strongly valued moral character, he argued that the end of the university is not character education per se. For democracy to flourish, Maritain argued that it is not sufficient to discipline the will to accord with the moral code of a particular religion or culture. Democracy is a form of self-government, and for self-government to triumph over tyranny, universities need to form our intelligence and reason so that we can freely choose the good. Thus, universities need to form reason in order to guide our conscience toward the use of practical reason in service of the common good.

The utilitarian, pragmatist, and moral ends of education, Maritain argued, are best pursued when our educational systems are built on a full picture of the human person; that is, a being endowed with uniqueness, freedom and creativity, and service for the common good.

Maritain's views on education are still relevant today. As David Brooks warned, our culture dehumanizes us in so many ways. In a recent New York Times column, Brooks observed that

our culture does a pretty good job of ignoring the uniqueness and depth of each person. Pollsters see in terms of broad demographic groups. Big data counts people as if it were counting apples. At the extreme, evolutionary psychology reduces people to biological drives, capitalism reduces people to economic self-interest, modern Marxism to their class position and multiculturalism to their racial one. Consumerism treats people as mere selves - as shallow creatures concerned merely with the experience of pleasure and the acquisition of stuff.

In contrast with these reductive understandings of human nature, Maritain argued that

man is a person, who holds himself in his hand by his intelligence and his will. He does not merely exist as a physical being. There is in him a richer and nobler existence; he has spirited superexistence through knowledge and love. He is thus, in some way, a whole, not merely a part; he is a universe unto himself, a microcosm in which the great universe in its entirety can be encompassed through knowledge. And through love he can give himself freely to beings who are to him, as it were, other selves; and for this relationship no equivalent can be found in the physical world.

A Change is Needed in Higher Education

To counter the fragmented understanding of the person that is poisoning our culture, institutions of higher education need to uphold the formation of the whole human person as their end.

To understand the cultural, economic, political, and educational crises through which we are living, we have to understand an important shift in philosophical anthropology. Personalist philosopher Max Scheler described how we have shifted from a theistic understanding of man as created by a personal God - marked by sinfulness but ultimately created for good - to a rejection of dependence on God and the exaltation of man as primarily constituted to satisfy natural desires for power, sex, or money.

The deadening of our spiritual nature in philosophy has contributed to the crisis of fragmentation so many students feel. They may not comprehend how deeply rooted the rejection of our spiritual nature is in so much modern philosophy, but they do long for a break from competing to be successful in the modern, technocratic society we live in. They long to take a break from self-promotion and spend time growing in self-awareness by contemplating nature or a work of art.

A Step Forward

The goal of the Scala summer seminar was to offer such a break to students. During the seminar, our goal was not only to study important ideas that have been left out of most curricula but also to create an experience of our total humanity in a world that feels so fragmented. We engaged in a close reading and open, civil discussion of texts by renowned authors such as John Henry Newman, Jacques Maritain, George Marsden, Leo Strauss, Paulo Freire, and Luigi Giussani, all of whom lived the model of education they promoted. Other readings focused on contemporary debates about higher education in the United States, including charges that students are emotionally fragile, hyper-teched, and credentials-obsessed.

The seminar offered a microcosm of liberal arts education, exalting the life of the mind as a good in and of itself. We were challenged to sharpen our thinking and see questions from a variety of perspectives; to share community life in a way that intentionally supports our own personal vocations to use our knowledge in a way that serves humanity; and, finally, to take our insights and apply them to our daily lives after the seminar concluded.

The Benedictine way of life offers particular insights into how to help students who work hard to get ahead but sacrifice emotional health along the way. On a personal level, studying and participating in Benedictine monasticism have influenced my approach to higher education. I have learned that forming relationships with students and building a community enable the trust and openness required for true education, making it possible for what we learn to transform us - and the world. Every single human being has infinite depth and complexity. But doing interior work to resist burnout culture and to awaken our own desires and sense of freedom is not something we can do in isolation. Going deep into our interior selves works best when we are supported by a community. One does not have to join a cloistered community to experience such support, but in the modern world one must be very intentional even to have a community at all.

Such intentional communicates can take the form of Christian Studies Centers, organizations that create intentional communities among university students on more than 20 campuses, such as the University of Virginia, Yale University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. These centers serve the university and students in integrating faith and learning, such as by hosting freshman "move-in day" socials for new students and their parents and inviting Christian faculty to introduce themselves. These communities also host reading groups and drop-in social activities.

As described by Leah Libresco in her new book Building the Benedict Option, one need not have a large house or big budget to practice small acts of hospitality done out of love - simply opening up your doors for a movie night or ice-cream social goes a long way towards building community. This fall, Libresco will lead a Scala seminar on Princeton's campus to help students begin thinking now about the kinds of virtues and practices they can live while they are students that will help them launch into the world as leaders in their professions and a faithful presence to everyone they meet.