Reviews | After college, too many students don’t know where to go next

These academic thought patterns quickly permeate their personal lives. To be asked to give reasons for personal decisions is to consider the possibility that such reasons exist. Thomas Aquinas, another author of our program, calls the reason which is the point of orientation of all your other reasons your “final end.” Those who discover they have such ultimate ends, and learn to value them, find their way out of the fun house of arbitrary decisions in which young people so often find themselves trapped.

For the number of final ends is not infinite. Thomas Aquinas helpfully suggests that the ultimate objects of human desire can only be classified into eight enduring categories. If we want to understand where we are going, we need to ask ourselves these questions: Am I interested in this opportunity because it leads to wealth? Or am I aiming for praise and admiration? Do I want lasting fame? Or power — to “have an impact”? Is my goal to maximize my pleasures? Am I looking for health? Am I looking for some “good of the soul”, like knowledge or virtue? Or is it my ultimate desire to come face to face with the divine?

Most students find, to their surprise, that they can locate their desires on this old map. This does not leave the students feeling constrained, as they have often been made to feel afraid. It leaves them feeling empowered, like wanderers suddenly recognizing the orienting features of a landscape.

Like any good map, Aquinas’ reasoned analysis of human goods can tell us something about where we are going before we get there. We start on the road to wealth, for example, because it’s a universal means to almost any end. But wealth cannot be the end goal of life, because it gives satisfaction only when it is exchanged for something else. Admiration signals that people think we are doing something good. But it is conferred by the often errant judgment of others and can mislead you.

Most students are grateful to discover this art of choosing. Learning to reason about happiness awakens an “inner power in the soul”, as Socrates puts it, which is as delightful as discovering that one’s voice can be made to sing. Why, then, do liberal arts institutions rarely teach it? In some cases, faculty members are encouraged to focus on specialized research rather than thinking about the good life. In others, they share the belief that reason is just an extension of the quest for dominance, or the Rousseauist belief that feeling is a better guide to happiness than the mind.

More fundamentally, however, the dominant model of liberal education – opening doors without helping us think about what lies beyond – prevails because it takes a successful modern formula. Agnosticism with regard to human goals, combined with the endless increase of means and opportunities, has proven to be a powerful organizing principle of our political and economic life. He helped create the remarkable peace, prosperity and freedom that we have enjoyed for much of the modern era.