Educators, Take Note: Generation Z Cares About 'Big Questions'
Since the Great Recession, the perennial debate about the value of the liberal arts has taken on a certain urgency. While the economy has since improved, the sentiment that a liberal arts degree is simply not worth the time and money seems only to have intensified, doubtless exacerbated by crushing loans. For elite universities and colleges, whose enrollments and endowments are higher than ever, this means adapting to a new technocratic reality; less well-off institutions may simply not survive.
Now, as college campuses have become battlegrounds over free speech and identity politics, questions about the nature and purpose of the liberal arts have taken on renewed importance, albeit in a very different light. Should a liberal arts education promote the free exchange of ideas or foster a community in which allegedly hateful ideas are disallowed? Is the pursuit of philosophical, theological, literary, historical or scientific questions worthwhile in its own right—or only in relation to our current social and political circumstances?
In this context, I was surprised to learn that the largest share of readers of the magazine I help edit, Big Questions Online—which features essays by leading scholars on such “big” and overtly non-utilitarian topics as free will, virtue ethics, philosophy of perception, theoretical physics and theology—are members of my generation: the much-maligned Millennials. The second largest? Generation Z, readers in high school or college. Anecdotally, I can report that I most often hear from that particular cohort of readers. They defy the stereotype of the Millennial or post-Millennial glued to a smartphone, with a short attention span and oversensitivity to challenging ideas.
Why might this be? Generalizations are risky, but an obvious answer suggests itself. High schoolers and college students today may not be satisfied by the intellectual diet they are offered or feel compelled to ingest.
The utilitarian lurch in our institutions of higher learning has been well documented. Even the mathematical and scientific disciplines within the liberal arts—which aren’t really much more “useful” than Medieval French poetry or ancient philosophy—can only insulate themselves from these trends by emphasizing their “marketability” in a digital economy.
We’ve grown too accustomed to treating philosophical, theological, literary, historical and even scientific pursuits as if their only merit were to contribute to an impersonal body of knowledge — deracinated from culture and traditions. It’s no surprise that the best we can muster in their defense are appeals to thin utilitarian skill sets. And no surprise, such appeals rarely persuade. When I was teaching, students who expressed a desire to switch to—or, more often than not, add on—a philosophy or theology major (doubtless to the horror of their parents), treated their newfound interest almost as if were illicit, countercultural. Given the times, I suppose they’re right.
There is an overwhelming temptation for disciplines that ask “big questions” to justify themselves by appeal to utility. But while commonplace appeals to “critical thinking,” “formulating arguments” and “writing clearly”—erstwhile ingredients, not results, of a good liberal arts education—are correct as far as they go, they don’t go very far at all. Ultimately, students must exhibit old-fashioned interest, fascination or just plain curiosity about subjects like renaissance art, ancient literature, modern philosophy, astronomy and even higher mathematics if these disciplines are to be anything but afterthoughts to higher education. Perhaps such students are not as mythical as today’s educators assume.
Of course, it is neither realistic nor, frankly, desirable, to have all students, much less all citizens, spend time pursuing “big questions.” And at a moment when annual tuition at a private college comfortably exceeds that of a middle-class income, parents and students understandably demand something tangible, even quantifiable, in return.
So why should society defend or even encourage the pursuit of intellectual questions, if not for utilitarian or economic reasons? Well, maybe Generation Z points to the answer: Because that pursuit speaks to one of the deepest longings of the human spirit: the desire to know. In so doing, it also helps us to cultivate not just “critical thinking” and formulating arguments but intellectual virtues like discernment, insight and, ultimately, even wisdom. These are all “useful”—in particular, for the kind of rational debate that is vanishing from the public square and our campuses. But they ultimately matter because they contribute to flourishing lives and a flourishing society.
Aristotle famously said that philosophy—by which he meant the pursuit of wisdom, not the narrow academic field that bears that name today—begins in wonder. And such wonder is an expression of an inclination that he thought essential to being human. Philosophy in this broad sense is, therefore, the most praiseworthy of human pursuits.
That may sound quaint or unrealistic in our own day—perhaps the kind of thing only the young would be wise enough to believe.
M. Anthony Mills is executive editor of Big Questions Online and editor of Real Clear Policy.