Moral Courage

samshih_excellent_sheep

I’ve just finished reading Excellent Sheep about 2/3rds the way into my trip to Taiwan. Ever since starting my goal to read more, I feel Excellent Sheep is one of the first books that I’ve really connected with. I know many people have bashed Deresiewicz for hating on the elite institutions (the Ivy Leagues), and it does seem at times that he is resoundingly biased against them. Regarding this point, I feel like the book would’ve been more complete if he went more deeply into accounts of people who actually went through the liberal arts education reformation he fantasizes about. Deresiewicz himself was a part of the elite institutions he claims to be so bad, so Deresiewicz is talking about the liberal arts education from the other side of the fence. He might be celebrating the liberal arts education because he has experienced all the negatives he discusses about an elite education. The grass is always greener on the other side, right? Ok, but that’s beside my point. What hit me like a train was Deresiewicz’s undertone of what he believes a true education should be.

– The purpose of college is to enable you to live more alertly, more responsibly, more freely: more fully. I was talking with a couple of seniors during a visit to Bryn Mawr. One of them said, “The question I leave Bryn Mawr with is how to put my feminist ideals into practice as I go forward.” I liked “ideals,” but I loved the first part. A real education sends you into a world bearing questions, not resumes.

– The purpose of college is to make you a more interesting person – a nice formulation, as long as we stipulate that the person to whom it is most important to be interesting is yourself. What makes you interesting is reading, thinking, slowing down, having long conversations, and creating a rich inner life for yourself.

Ahh, this sounds familiar huh. It embodies the main reason I started this blog (it’s in the title!) – to become more interesting. He literally just told me how to become more interesting! LOL. I actually laughed after reading this, it’s like he just gave me the answer to my most important question. But the sad (or maybe the fun) part is that the answer isn’t that simple. I want to find out how this is true for myself, if even true at all. Deresiewicz talks about the humanities as a gluing experience that relates everything we learn with our realities. We ask of a scientific proposition, “Is it true?”, but of a proposition in the humanities, we ask, “Is it true for me?” What I do know is that I’ll only be satisfied if I find out how to become interesting in my own terms.

Another topic Deresiewicz talks about is moral imagination and moral courage, which I feel should go hand in hand. Moral imagination means the capacity to envision new alternatives for how to live. I’m not really quite sure (yet?) why he labels this as a moral imagination –– moral feels like such a heavy prefix to that phrase. His whole idea on moral imagination hits me so close to the feels because it’s essentially what I see myself doing right now. Kind of going yolo, into a new life. Not necessarily ditching the hardcore tech life behind, but more like embracing a a new type of liberal artsy life. What’s next is part B – moral courage – or putting what you imagine into action. I’m still thinking about this part of the equation, the courage to commit 100% to this imagination. Working in tech has been really fun, but maybe committing 100% to pursuing a true education won’t throw away that tech life, it might even make it stronger. So right now the challenge I have for myself is to commit 100% to something, and choosing Swat has brought me so much closer to this imagined path. I feel that the last part is seeing for myself the value of studying the humanities. I’ve read so much about it already, the feeling of life it can instill, the benefits of thinking about yourself and the world at the same time, thinking and feeling at the same time, instead of seeing things as separate parts see[ing] them as a whole. 

On that topic of moral courage though, it will probably get lonely, and that would suck. I know everybody says it doesn’t matter what other people think, what matters most is what you think. But it’s so much better to celebrate with other people. Not going to a popular and prestigious college, choosing a track of study for myself that others (parents, teachers, friends) might think is a waste of time, I know it will kinda start to suck. What I felt was kind of contradictory was when Deresiewicz quotes Aristotle that “man is by nature a social animal,” yet he continues on talking about how moral courage can lead to loneliness. Pursuing this new life I have imagined is fulfilling for myself, and I would be proud of myself. But I would also be happier to celebrate with others. Maybe I’m overthinking, maybe I’ll meet much more “morally courageous” (this term makes it sound really exclusive :/) people in college that I’ll be able to be happy with. Is it worth it to chase my moral imagination if I’m going to end up lonely? How can I find (if I will even want) a balance when I commit to a new life? Maybe what I’m lacking is that moral courage to fully commit. Maybe this dilemma is the growing pain of trying to pursue something I don’t know the answer to.
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Author: Sam Shih

Hi I'm Sam! I'm from San Francisco, California and am currently a sophomore at Swarthmore College interested in Computer Science, Philosophy, and Religion. On campus I sing in the choir, give massages to stressed students, and lift weights. You can catch me crawling the interwebs or writing about positive psychology, self improvement, and my college experience on my blog (samshih.me)

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