By Alexandra Bradner
We spend a lot of time pursuing things we’ll never get and getting things we’re just about to lose. We’re delusional, solipsistic and self-cruel in that way. Our unrealistic goals come from our aspirational culture and our parents, who misinform us in order to cauterize their own losses. My parents told me I could be anything I wanted to be, as long as I worked hard and stayed away from crack.
I wanted to be a ballerina — secure enough to maintain her center in pirouette and strong enough to soar in grand jeté, but ultimately protected from injury by a series of men. Later, I wanted to be a truck driver so I could get paid for listening to music and thinking all day. Neither dream worked out. I ended up becoming a visiting philosophy professor.
My wonderful year as Kenyon’s faculty-in-residence is coming to a close. The seniors are leaving too, finishing up their last few assignments, visiting their favorite places and doting on their friends, some of whom they’ll see, from now on, only digitally. Many of the seniors have plans — plane tickets to China, graduate school acceptance letters, devoted romantic partners and high-paying jobs — but most have no idea what’s coming next. I was in that latter group when I graduated and have since floated through a succession of uncertain spaces. The first group might seem better off. But something will rock their world: they’ll lose their jobs, houses or money; their partners will leave them; or one of their organs will cease to function.
Studies of the Knobe Effect build upon Toulmin’s ideals of natural order to find that we in fact look for responsible parties — we call for explanations — only when something goes wrong. When things go right, we don’t point fingers. This now-famous asymmetry occurs because we believe things are supposed to go right for us; God or Nature has our back. It’s a self-medicating metaphysic that offers us comfort. But it has also left us unprepared for the alternative reality of contingency and its associated miseries. We simply can’t handle post-Humean, post-Darwinian precarity.
But Kenyon’s seniors have done something to secure themselves against the vicissitudes of fate. Seniors, you’re about to earn a meaningful credential in the liberal arts. You may lose your money, your health, your home and your lover, but you will always have your spectacular education, conveyed to you as a profound gift from your professors, whose skepticism about our collective future is contained only by their care for it. Thanks to them, you’re taking Kenyon with you.
What exactly did you get for your $235,560? A lot. In fact, I hope you’ll try to double that amount in alumni giving over the course of your adult life. You learned that the sciences require imagination, the arts require problem-solving, the social sciences require a deft hand and the humanities require data. You learned what’s wrong with the world, this country, your religion, your family and yourself and what was right all along. You learned how to make, keep and lose a friend. And you learned how to look complete strangers square in the eye … and smile. This isn’t propositional knowledge; it’s understanding. And you just can’t get it in a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC).
Look after John Stuart Mill’s “tender plant.” Help it grow and, most importantly, share its fruits with others who weren’t as lucky as you. Don’t worry too much about looking forward (one of our more irrational and personally destructive compulsions). Look backward instead. Admire what you’ve accomplished. Let your achievements sink in. Feel proud. You’re ready — for whatever is coming next.
Alexandra Bradner is a visiting assistant professor of philosophy from Lexington, Ky. She can be contacted at email@example.com.