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Philosophy: The case for contradicting motivations in college
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Philosophy: The case for contradicting motivations in college

College is a central part of the American, and perhaps now the world’s, coming-of-age narrative. Elite universities like Stanford epitomize this role, as Stanford’s marketing department make clear. However, universities have detached themselves from their origins as highly isolated centers of learning, once populated largely by monks and clergy and with the purpose of producing researchers.

Today, the function of college is decidedly more complex. Its most explicit mission, as stated by the institutions themselves, is to provide students with a specialized education in a chosen subject along with some general competency in other areas. This dovetails nicely with the generally accepted idea that the role of universities, beyond educating students, is to create and promote new knowledge. On the other hand, there is strong empirical evidence to suggest that the public also considers college as a form of social education. Not in the traditional sense of students learning manners, but of students learning how to situate their various identities in relation to others and to themselves.

The ethnographic work “My Freshman Year” by anthropologist Rebekah Nathan suggests that for some students, academic considerations are wholly tangential to their desire to attend and stay in college. This observation, along with other factors, might help explain the increase in average graduation time at many universities over the past few decades. Universities themselves have started recognizing their functions as not wholly academic, with many of them instituting wellness and recreation initiatives.

Both of these two major functions provided by a college education can plausibly be construed under a single heading: Colleges aim to provide an individual with the abilities that are required to flourish (where we can broadly define “flourish” as someone living an exemplary, admirable, and perhaps happy life).

Nothing of this seems wrong. In fact, it seems like rather a good thing. What would be troubling, however, would be if these major functions contradicted each other, like when these goals cannot be accomplished by the same person. There are numerous ways in which such a contradiction could exist. However, here I want to look at a particularly interesting case of contradiction.

This case of contradiction could be termed as motivational conflict, which is especially prominent here at Stanford as many students exhibit a variety of interests and struggle to reconcile distinct aspects of their identities. The concept itself is best illustrated by an example. Suppose you are motivated to do whatever it takes to maximize the happiness of your spouse. As it turns out, the best way to achieve this is to actually love your spouse. However, it is a fundamental part of the concept of romantic love that one cannot love instrumentally (for the sake of some further goal). Promoting maximum happiness is a further goal; therefore, if you possess this as an overriding motive, you cannot (coherently) possess a motive to love your wife. In our case for Stanford, suppose that one is overridingly motivated to be an exceptional academic student. Can one still gain the social education needed for flourishing? The question can be posed the other way round as well.

It seems to me that the answer is yes, you can have it all, and here is why. Imagine that you are that overridingly motivated student. You will do everything that possible to realize academic goals, which requires you to adopt certain motivations about studiousness, sleep, and more. You might think that the motivations required to perform socially (like the willingness to attend parties and stay up late talking to friends) are directly contrary to staying in your room to study and sleep early.

However, this is a mistake. If one devotes too much of oneself into academic work (as many Stanford students do, especially those in demanding technical programs), there are various negative consequences. For one, you are unlikely to be struck by the creative inspirations that the outside world can prompt (for a funny example, several chemicals have been discovered by scientists on LSD). The world is a social environment, even for academics. If you never learn those skills, the deficit will eventually catch up with you. You might just burn out. Thus, the motivations required for non-academic activities may mitigate burn-out in a way that maximizes flourishing. These activities need not be pure entertainment, although they can be. At the very least, these activities need to focus mostly on actual people, rather than on texts, problems, or abstract notions of people and communities.

What about the other extreme case, where the student is overridingly social? Well, first we ought to clear up a likely confusion. The student who spends all their nights drunk is not actually realizing any positive social benefits. Actual socializing consists of exercising practical wisdom in choosing what actions are appropriate for a given situation. It might be permissible (or potentially good) to go out drinking with friends, but it is rarely wise to drink alone every night. I personally suggest that the motivation required for academic work will be helpful in constraining an individual’s more extreme social impulses, so these two competing desires will moderate the other.

The upshot is that college offers an opportunity to learn a diverse array of skills that contribute to someone flourishing. Nonetheless, it is not necessarily easy to realize all of these skills at once, which something to keep in mind. But a key part of growing up is striking the right balance of competing motivations.

Contact Cam Hubbard at camh502 ‘at’ stanford.edu.