Build Your Expectations of Higher Education, Have Them Obliterated, Be Happy


It might seem contrary to what we should expect (which will be exactly the point), but, if you are anything like me, you’ll find that more often than not that your expectations are rarely met, and you’re usually, and surprisingly, better off for it. Another way of putting this is that the surer I am about my plans, the likelier they are going to change. The less I want them to change, the more they are going to. It’s a rather positive spin on Murphy’s law: anything that can get better, will get better; anything that can derail your expectations, will, etc. Only, it requires a certain positioning of the spirit; not the spirit in the religious sense, although that certainly can be a component of it, but, no, rather a spirit of your time, a spirit of your experiences, the spirit of your hopes and dreams and desires: indeed, it is the quintessential human spirit. To enjoy the benefits of a ‘happy meandering’, the mind, the spirit, the soul, whatever you prefer to call it, should be well-ordered to receive those benefits. What is that well ordering like?

By well ordering, I don’t imply that beliefs and desires should be necessarily enumerated in some arbitrary and haphazard way, but rather, that since we are mere humans, and since we cannot avoid those beliefs and desires which are more common and considered baser than others, we should ‘turn the psyche,’ to borrow from Plato, toward better things. We cannot help but feel jealousy, anger, disappointment, depression, sloth, what have you, at some point in time; and so, doesn’t it seem only that much more reasonable that we should place ahead of these less enjoyable desires those desires instead that tend to be more in tune to the types of activities which promote and instigate those desires that do not seem base, but instead point to and aim at something much different, and, indeed, something higher? Seems like a tall order, no?

I’m still very much in the infancy of my philosophy career, only just recently having set out on my very first research assistantship in my undergrad. But, I have been affiliated, very loosely, with philosophy for a few years, always reading it, and discussing it: but it was not until now, later in my adulthood, that I have come to appreciate a particular topic that is really very central to the the Ancient Greeks, and is undergoing something of a renaissance in our contemporary analytic philosophy (fancy-smancy term for the type of philosophy that’s being conducted these days): that idea is ‘eudaimonia’ or flourishing.

Aristotle was the big philosopher behind the idea, but recently, while reading a great translation of the Meno and Protagoras dialogues, penned by Plato, I happened across Socrates stating “… everything the soul endeavours or endures under the guidance of wisdom ends in happiness” (88c). If you ever get the pleasure of studying philosophy, which you ought attempt (Jerry Newell’s introductory and ethics classes, as well as Norm Gayford’s logic classes are great places to start out on your very own pursuit of the ‘love of wisdom’ at GCC), you will, undoubtedly, come across dozens and dozens of different philosopher’s attempts at trying to explain what this happiness is. If you don’t mind dozens and dozens plus one, I have, through Socrates’ statement, found something of my own.

I began by thinking about what is the type of thing under which ‘the soul’ would ‘endeavour or endure under the guidance of wisdom;’ or, more specifically, where do I find my wisdom being guided? It was something of a light bulb moment for me to have an intuition that such a thing is precisely the nature of a higher education, not the kind of education that just gets us to count, and add, and subtract, and read, the kind that allows us to survive and scrape a living, but no, the kind of education that is aimed at a craft, an art, knowledge for it’s sake, for the betterment of ourselves: for our own flourishing. It is the kind of education that allows us to inquire of ourselves, and to inquire of others, about everything and anything; the kind of mind expanding, beautiful and powerful knowing; the kind that touches the mind as a spark, and sets off a relentless combustion.

And how many of us, including myself, thought education was just some means to get to an end? To get a job, to get more money, to get more degrees, and initials after my name? These are all well and good things, I think, but is it really why we ‘endeavour and endure’, why we stay up late, swallowed up by books and work and writing? No, I think, really, for those whom desire such happiness, we see and feel how we expand, how we flourish in it, how we come about to ourselves, and, in so doing, come about to others.

My initial thoughts about what education really, really is were absolutely destroyed by this; in fact, this suspicion has been building in me for about a year and a half now; and it came as one of those unexpected moments in a coffee shop, on the first floor of a library, of a major research university – in the middle of some entirely unrelated subject. It occurred to me how beautiful and imperative of a thing that is that is going on at GCC, and at all places of true, reasoned, higher education everywhere.

Some Buddhist monks might, at some point during their tenure on Earth, build a mandala, a bright, usually symmetric, picture made out of specs of colored sand laboriously laid down, at points, a grain at a time. It’s breathtaking to see, and has, in fact, been demonstrated at GCC once, although regrettably before my time. After spending hours meditatively constructing this picture, which is supposed to be an analogy for the universe as a whole, the monks will sweep it away, and it is gone. A central tenet of their beliefs is that suffering is essentially caused by a deep attachment to the things and definitions of this world, that we place too much emphasis on what we might expect of the world only to find, to our dismay, such assumptions swept away again and again and again. The key to happiness is, then, loose yourself in the flux, in the ebb and flow of reality.

I look forward to having my expectations obliterated again at some time in the near future. Its a surprisingly pleasant experience. And it seems that education is the best (but by no means the sole) venue  in which to smash apart all of our assumptions and our beliefs; it’s painful and distressing at times, but we piece them back together, if possible, with the ‘guidance of wisdom’ from professors, peers, and our own scholastic research and exploration. Our formation, as students, is truly a flourishing of the mind and body with the expectation that our expectations might not be there tomorrow: and so we aim our lives towards being open to everything the cosmos has for us to uncover, so long as we place ourselves in the position and places to do so, and it ends in happiness.


– John Mulhall

Former GCC Student

Undergraduate Philosophy Student at the University of Rochester

Research Assistant in Neuroethics





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