Home » Uncategorized » The psychology of happiness, higher education, and the Mount St. Mary’s fiasco

The psychology of happiness, higher education, and the Mount St. Mary’s fiasco

In this (very long!) piece I will reflect on the purposes of higher education, the saga at Mount St. Mary’s, some of the topics our Psychology of Happiness class has been considering, and some phenomena described by psychology that we have not considered. This provides an opportunity to reflect on a concrete application of some of that which we have been taken up thus far this term. I will break this up into four parts:
1) Background on the Mount St. Mary’s case
2) Reflections on the case in light of having read Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness
3) How we know, from my perspective as a social psychologist
4) What this means for my understanding of the role of higher education in the pursuit of happiness
1) Background
For background, in recent weeks it has been reported that the President of Mount St. Mary’s [which I will often refer to as “The Mount”] proposed a retention plan designed to identify those freshmen who might leave after the first year and instead encourage them to leave in the first six weeks. At least two justifications have been given by the President for this plan. One was that these students would not be counted in the calculation of retention rate at such places as US News, and so if the students exited this would improve the appearance of the Mount. A second is that college is expensive and students leaving early would receive a full tuition refund, so it would be better for the student to save this money.
Some faculty voiced opposition to this plan. Among other things students took a survey and were not informed that this survey might be used to encourage them to leave. As a psychology professor I would note that the chances that one could design such a survey without a large number of false alarms (encouraging students to leave who would have thrived) and misses (students who would have done well to leave but are missed by the survey) to be remote. And I can find no evidence that there was testing of this survey to see if it could in fact discriminate between those who would do well to leave and those who would do well to say. This struck me as psychological malpractice, though that aspect has not received wide discussion.
The president subsequently fired two of the faculty who had raised concerns, one of whom had tenure, for “disloyalty.” This ignited a conflagration that has drawn nationwide attention. Details of the saga are below.
The fired tenured faculty member, Thane Naberhaus, was offered reinstatement. He has opted to return to teaching and has written the following.
“For my 8:00 a.m. lecture class I will be teaching on the scheduled topic, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, in which Plato presents his radical notion that education is not a matter of filling the mind with knowledge, but of turning the soul toward Truth.
…My aim in returning is the same as my aim in teaching generally: to deepen the hunger for truth in my students.
I invite my colleagues at the Mount and other universities to join me in solidarity by exploring, in whatever way they deem appropriate, similar themes in their classes this week.”
I write this piece in part in response to the call for solidarity.
With that I should engage in full disclosure. First, I am a psychologist, not a philosopher. My thoughts will be offered from this vantage. Second, I am a practicing Catholic and my Catholicism is very central to my life. Mount St. Mary’s is a Catholic institution and I believe that the President has undermined Catholicism by his actions. (Indeed, he has been highly criticized in Catholic media by people from across the spectrum of Catholicism.) I understand that many of you are not Catholic, much less theists. I am attempting to write this piece drawing solely on my background as a psychologist, but I understand that my Catholicism will likely shape my arguments in ways of which I am unaware. [If anyone reads this is intrigued by the Catholic/psychologist combination, I will be delivering one of the Tuohy lectures at John Carroll University in Cleveland on April 6. My topic will be “Contemplating contemplation: A psychological perspective on mindfulness, gratitude, and Ignatian spiritual practices.”]
OK. Enough throat clearing. On to the topic at hand.
2) In light of Gilbert’s book.
Gilbert suggests that we make choices for a future self we do not understand. We choose to live in Seattle focused on the good coffee and scenery and do not understand that our future self will have wanted more sun. We choose to use cocaine not understanding that our future self will fall into despair about stepping away from cocaine. And so on.
We do not understand our future selves and so we encumber them with our bad choices.
I think this is obvious enough from inspection of our own bad choices, those times when we wish that we could reach back to our earlier selves and force a different choice. But here is one easy illustration. In one study subjects were told that they would be asked some trivia questions. At the end they could have the answers or candy. Their choice. People given the choice before they knew the questions chose the candy. Those given the choice after knowing the questions chose the answers. People asked before the questions didn’t understand their future selves and the curiosity those future selves would find so compelling. And so they chose badly, leaving themselves later stuck with a candy bar when their desire was for answers.
Part of the difficulty of imagining a direction for higher education (including at the Mount) is that we have difficulty understanding the needs of our future selves. Which do we pick, in Dr. Naberhaus’ framing—knowledge or turning toward truth? Which will our future self need more? If we understand our future self we will choose wisely.
So how do we know what our future self will want? Gilbert argues that in part we assume our future self will want what our current self wants. If I like disco music now surely I will in the future. If I dislike broccoli now surely I will in the future. Beyond that in part we understand our future self via our theories of how we operate. I’ve never been a retired person but I invest in retirement funds because I expect that someday I will be. And when I am I expect I will need a stream of revenue different from what I have now. Perhaps I am wrong about my future. We will see. Going back to the trivia problem–a person might have a self theory that says that they will think candy is great and that trivia answers will be boring. But they misunderstand themselves.
So will our future selves want knowledge or an orientation toward the truth? Gilbert’s work suggests that if we want knowledge now we will want knowledge in the future. And if we have a theory that the point of education is to get a job and that knowledge is the path to a job we will want knowledge. Regardless of what our future self will actually desire.
But…knowledge fades. What I know as a psychologist now is quite different from when I started teaching in 1987.
Or take one Mount alum’s view on this:
“All of this was possible because what I learned at the Mount could never be boiled down to “job skills” or merely a discipline designed to prepare me for a job. Those things are valuable and important, but learning how to think and what people are for is more important. A person who knows how to think can be taught to do just about anything, and to do it well.”
What I Want You to Know About The Mount
And so a question arises…are current societal pressure shifting people to have theories of how they operate that tell them “choose knowledge over the orientation to the truth”? (This can create a super-replicator, in Gilbert’s terms, a theory that is not true but that carries its own means of transmission.)
I suspect there are such pressures, though I do not have data. But now it’s time to talk about how we come to know things.
3) The social psychology of knowing.
The world is large. Our minds are small. As a result we have to simplify the vast world. Rather than getting to know someone as an individual we might just figure out their group membership and conclude that’s enough. Rather than figuring out a philosophy of life we might concentrate on getting through the day. We don’t have time or energy for doing more.
Perhaps this simplifying would not be so bad if the information we extracted were unbiased.
But what we know is biased both by the information to which we are exposed and by our desires.
Consider exposure to information…My earliest exposure to Chinese food was my mom’s cooking. And as much as I love my mother and think she has many fine qualities her Chinese cooking was chop suey out of a can. It was senior year of college before I actually went to a Chinese restaurant because I thought I already knew what Chinese food was like and I wanted none of that. My information had been biased.
Consider desire and what we know….I want to believe that I am competent and morally good. And so it is natural for me to cook the books to believe myself competent and morally good. Indeed, I’ve done so far too often! I am tempted to bias my information.
How does this apply to the Mount and to the theory about which of knowledge vs. orientation toward truth is more important?
To what information regarding this have you been exposed? Have you heard time and again something like “you need to go to college to get a job!” Or “you need to do internships so you can learn the skills needed in particular jobs!” Or have you needed to take standardized tests that get at knowledge and understood these tests to be key to your future?
And what happens when you are with friends? How many conversations have you had about fears about landing jobs? About strategies to land jobs?
How much does all of this focus our attention on the need for skills and jobs and fade into the background the importance of the orientation toward truth?
And then imagine that you start to entertain the possibility that the orientation toward truth is more important than skills and jobs? Does the thought make you queasy? How many years have you invested in a particular plan to land a particular job, thinking this is the key to happiness? To cast off that monarch is not easy.
Do we live in a culture in which messages can emphasize knowledge acquisition over the orientation toward truth. Absolutely.
I want to emphasize that this applies to well-intentioned highly intelligent people. One does not need to be nefarious or stupid to reach an erroneous belief. One needs only be surrounded by the like-minded and removed from information without awareness of being removed.
One of my favorite psychological phenomena is the Dunning-Kruger effect. The incompetent sometimes lack the ability to understand their own incompetence. Imagine I am at a party and have food on my face. I am being incompetent. But I am unaware of it. The only way I could be aware of my incompetence would be to see the food, at which point I would remove it and be competent.
We are too often unaware of how much we are unaware of.
How might this apply to the Mount?
The Board of Trustees at the Mount is likely grappling with what to do with the fiasco. I served on American’s Board and am proud of my time there and of the people who gave themselves to service on the Board. These are well-intentioned people who want to do well by the school. They put in a lot of effort with no compensation except seeing a job well done. But they are also human. We went through a governance crisis about a decade ago. One of the conscious decisions the Board subsequently made (and we the faculty had a long conversation with them about this) was to add diverse voices to the Board. The Board prior to the changes was largely composed of people with backgrounds in real estate and finance. They cared for the university but did not have deep knowledge of higher education. Imagine a board for Ford Motors in which no one knew anything about making cars. So we added a couple people with backgrounds in higher education and another who knew nonprofits (as a former head of the Peace Corps). We also added two faculty and a student as non-voting members just to add diverse voices. The point was that this diversity of backgrounds would shed light on some areas that formerly had been opaque. To raise awareness of some things that people had been unaware of. And the university to my biased eye has had a good decade. Does the Mount’s Board know what they do not know? Are they choosing vocational training for students, a focus on knowledge over orientation toward truth, because they do not understand the importance of orientation toward truth and the way that orientation is (hopefully!) shaped in higher ed?
And just so with all of us. Do we think higher education is about getting jobs? Are we exposed to those who think differently about the goals of higher education? If we are not exposed how can we be aware of what we are unaware of?
4) My understanding.
Which does your future self want? I cannot tell you. I am a psychologist and while I can tell you what people think of as the good life, my disciplinary skills do not equip me to tell you what is the good life.
But I can offer my own perspective. Many bits of knowledge that I have gained have subsequently proved unimportant. But the orientation toward the truth remains important long after it was drilled into my head. It is the focus of my work with graduate students who too often already know the answers and need to be taught to understand why their answers might be wrong. Time and again I have meetings with students whose research projects have not provided the results the student wanted. My task is to teach the student than any truth learned is important, to let go of the small world of their imagination to embrace the larger world that exceeds that imagination. The orientation toward truth is something I always need in my own research. I have to constantly ask myself of what I am unaware, in what ways I might be wrong, else find out when a reviewer finds the flaws in my reasoning. Outside of psychology I have also found that orienting myself toward truth is important for building relationships.
How much is the common sense that our future selves will want jobs over all else a function of a culture that asserts that money will make us happy? Yet the data we considered last week suggested that once past some threshold in which we have food, shelter and such money doesn’t do that much to increase happiness. And we learned about the opportunity costs of materialistic goals—that if we prioritize money we might forget to prioritize relationship. Yet relationship, too, seems quite important for happiness. And we discussed the intriguing data that wealthy countries have lower senses of purpose and increased suicide rates.
My belief is that learning an orientation toward truth will make you happier in the long run than will mere knowledge acquisition, at least if you know enough to keep food on your table and a roof over your head. My further belief is that higher education is one of the places in which this orientation can best be developed. I know how important college was for me in this regard. I can remember almost nothing of the facts I learned then. But I do remember that shift in orientation.
Our memories are imperfect, so the spiel I just gave could be wrong. And I have no crystal ball. Perhaps some piece of knowledge will be of utmost importance at some point. But it is what I think. Here’s a question for you—how would we know whether or not I am right?
We are at a moment in higher education in which it is quite possible that there will be a sudden crowd phenomenon leading to a complete reshaping of higher education with only the appearance, not the actuality, of careful consideration. Those with backgrounds in corporations have made a lot of money and so are in a position to spread the messages about how to make money. The language of the market is one with which we are familiar. The language of orientation toward truth not so much. Will a shallow version of market thinking win out leading to episodes like that being experienced at the Mount?
How will you assess the assertions you will hear about the value of higher education, about whether more skills should be taught with less emphasis on, say, philosophy? Will you assume the assertions are correct? Will you tune out the discussion because there is not enough time to think about everything? Or will you question whether they misunderstand happiness or the needs of their future selves?
Higher education is a precious gift. How can we best be good stewards of it? How are we to know if we are?


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