Intro. [Recording date: October 6, 2021.]
Russ Roberts: Today is October 6, 2021, and my guest is philosopher Jennifer Frey of the University of South Carolina. Our topic for today is a recent essay she wrote for The Point. The title of the piece is "The Universe and the University." We're going to talk about education, happiness, philosophy, the university, and maybe even the universe. Jennifer, welcome to EconTalk.
Jennifer Frey: Thank you so much for having me. I'm excited to have this conversation.
Russ Roberts: Me, too.
Russ Roberts: Now, you open your piece with what I would call a critical appraisal of psychology's approach to happiness, relative to how philosophy approaches the question. What's the difference? Just forget which is better in your mind or--what's the difference there?
Jennifer Frey: Right. Well, I suppose, I would start off by saying that philosophers don't agree about anything. And, they also don't agree about how to conceive happiness. So, when I talk about--when I speak qua philosopher, you know, I'm not speaking for all members of my tribe. But, in psychology, you do see a fairly stable concept of happiness, and it is completely subjective.
Now, there are different ways that you can subjectively conceptualize or operationalize happiness. But, according to all three of them, it will come down to a set of psychological states.
So, you can have a really simple kind of hedonism, where happiness is just pleasure. Right? So, if happiness is just when you have an abundance of pleasure versus pain states, maybe across a period of time, there are slightly more sophisticated theories, where you don't just look at pleasure and pain but you also look at positive emotional affect. Maybe you also consider mood and things like that. But, at the end of the day, you just want to be able to say that someone has a net balance of positive as opposed to negative emotional affect.
And, then, the most sophisticated kind of theory that you get--these kind of life satisfaction views, where, if you look at the questions that they give to people, you know, all of these people get their data from self-reports. But, if you look at the life-satisfaction views, they're asking people to make a cognitive assessment about how they think their life is going on the whole, either like right now or over some period of time.
And, you know, that sounds objective, but it's not. Right? Because, all you have is the subjective cognitive assessment. And, we know that people under conditions of oppression, right?, can say that they're very happy. And, there is no objective third-personal measure against which we evaluate these cognitive assessments. We just say, 'Well, they feel satisfied with their lives. And, so, they're happy.'
So, all of these are forms of subjectivism. Right? They all come down to how you feel about--about how you feel in some sense, subjectively; and there's no objective component.
Now, the view of happiness that I--and by the way, a lot of philosophers like my colleague, Dan Haybron, will just accept one of these subjectivist conceptions of happiness, and then maybe talking about something else which they call well-being. So, Dan Haybron makes happiness a component of well-being, where well-being is something objective that you can measure: components of well-being would be, like, health, educational access, you know, maybe you put happiness as a part of that.
So, plenty of philosophers are happy to just take the psychological conception of happiness and run with it.
I am not, because I think there is a big difference between how you feel and how you ought to feel, given your objective circumstances and also given your character--right?--the kind of person that you are. And, I believe that someone with a bad character, someone who is--you know, lacks the virtues, like wisdom and justice and temperance, and fortitude--can feel really good doing bad things. An unjust person feels good in acting in an unjust way, because they're greedy. Right? So, they're getting what they want. But, the trouble is, that there's a gap between what they want and what they ought to want.
And, so, the view that I favor, you can find throughout what I'll just call the perennial philosophy, you know, starting from the ancient Greeks, and going all the way up into contemporary thought--and that is the idea that happiness is tied to virtue.
So, you can think of the Greek concept of eudaimonia. There is no perfect English translation of that. I think the most literal translation would be blessedness or godlike. But, I think the happier translation is flourishing. We talk about human flourishing. We're talking--
Russ Roberts: Mm-hmm. We talk about it all the time on this program. Yup.
Jennifer Frey: Yes. So, we're talking about something objective. We can look at a human life, and we can say that it is flourishing, or it's not; but that we can't just evaluate this in terms of discrete isolated components, like, 'Oh, are they well-educated? Do they have shelter? Do they have this subjective thing called happiness?' We have to look at the kind of person that they are.
And, so, we have to look at their character and how their character can be expressed in their objective circumstances.
And sometimes what happens is that your objective circumstances are so bad that you can't cultivate or express virtue. And so, then, of course, we don't attack you, or we don't only attack you or blame you--we have to look at your circumstances.
But, when I talk about happiness, I'm talking about reaching your potential as a human person through the cultivation and expression of virtues.
Russ Roberts: So, most people, I think, would say, 'That's not happiness. That's morality.' But, before we get to that, I want to--I'm going to ask you to defend it. But, first, a couple of things. First, Dan Haybron has been a guest on EconTalk, talking about happiness. Our listeners are encouraged to go listen to that episode. We'll put a link up to it in this one, and you can find it in our archives.
But I think--and I agree with you, of course, about the self-reporting problem--but I think the psychologist would respond and say, 'Well, so what? So, it's self-reported. So, I'm living an illusion.' Let's say, I'm a virtueless person. I only seek pleasure. I'm a hedonist, a pure hedonist. I like food, I like drinking, I like sensual pleasure of all kinds. I care not a whit about my fellow human beings. I don't give to charity. I don't develop myself--another key aspect to me and I think to you, of human flourishing. I don't aspire, I'm happy with how I am, leave me alone, and I'm a 5 out of 5. What's wrong with them?
And, why isn't that--and someone else, let's say for whatever reason, either because they don't have access to good scotch, or their incomes are really low, and they can't afford it, or they can't travel and lead the glamorous life of jet-setting to Monaco. Those people there were 2.5 or 3. Somebody has children and their children are really easy to raise, so therefore, 0.7[?point seven?]. Somebody else's, for whatever reason, nothing to do with their own circumstances, their own life, their own choices, they get children that are hard to raise. So, their subjective affect, their happiness, their moods are all low. They're like a 2.3.
What's wrong with that as a measure of some--isn't that something we should care about? And, isn't that what psychologists would say is what we mostly care about? And, therefore, it's a really important thing to measure.
Jennifer Frey: Right. So, I suppose that I want to acknowledge, very happily, that we should care about your subjective psychological condition. We just shouldn't divorce it from objective reality. And, the problem with pure subjectivism is that it does that. So, if you look at the trip[?]--
Russ Roberts: I want to--let me challenge that, Jennifer. Let's suppose I'm an idiot. I'm leading a life of illusion. I'm actually miserable. But, I feel happy. It's subjective. And, I give my score on this survey a 5. What's wrong with that? Why would my object--who cares that it's not objective? It's what I feel.
Jennifer Frey: Well, I suppose that I care because I care about human flourishing. And, we know that people under conditions of oppression can come to feel satisfied with those conditions. But, I think in response to that, we should help those people, and not just let them continue to live under conditions of oppression.
So, I mean, my interest is in helping people reach their potential as human beings and to flourish. And, I don't believe that this is adequately measured purely subjectively. So, the view that I favor has a subjective component.
So, if you are living eudaimon life or a flourishing life, it would be weird if that were just sheer torture all the time.
And, on the whole, it's not. However, I would also say that it's not all cheerfulness and singing around the campfire, either, right? Because, what it is to have fortitude, for example, isn't just to be cheerful or to feel good. Right? So, there is a kind of seriousness or gravitas about eudaimonia that also doesn't get captured in the purely subjective view. I mean, if you actually look at--and I have, because for years, I've worked with people in the social sciences, colleagues in the social sciences, and I've learned so much from them--but, if you look at some of the assessments that they're using, it's very crude. I mean, sometimes they just give you a range of emoticons to choose from. And, that is leaving out that complexity of human emotion and the complexity and depth of real human lives.
And, another reason that I care is, all of this gets tied to public policy. Right? And, so, it really matters.
When we are talking about crafting public policy around massive data sets that I don't think are quite measuring the right thing, then I think, you know, we're in some serious trouble.
And, I should also say that, while I have some criticisms of my colleagues in the Social Sciences, I really do think that there's a lot of good work, a lot of good interdisciplinary work.
And, ultimately, what my essay is gesturing towards is a different model of knowledge creation that is fundamentally interdisciplinary and rooted in philosophy.
And, if you look, for example, at the Human Flourishing project that's been going on at Harvard right now in the Med School, run by Matthew Lee and Tyler VanderWeele, they're doing amazing work. They are trying to take onboard philosophical and theological critiques of their own disciplines and trying to re-operationalize what they measure accordingly.
And, so, that's the kind of--we only do that when we have interdisciplinary discussions, and we can have a back-and-forth.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I'm all for that.
Russ Roberts: I want to talk about something that came up in the recent episode with Paul Bloom, at least I think it's the recent episode. It could be a future episode, but I've already recorded--
Russ Roberts: a guest, a couple of days ago.
Jennifer Frey: [inaudible 00:13:13]
Russ Roberts: It can be confusing, yup. But, we talked about an example that comes up in your essay as well. It's the experience machine of Nozick, where he imagines a world where you lay down on a table, you hook yourself up to the experience machine, you can program--I know that Paul had talked about this, but you could program it just to be whatever fulfills your fantasies, your desires, your imagination.
And, it will feel real while you're hooked up to the machine, except you're just lying there. So, you'll become President of the United States, you'll cure cancer, you'll win the Nobel Prize in literature, you'll win the NBA championship with a three pointer at the buzzer--all that stuff. And, you'll feel inside your brain, all the thrills that those achievements would cause--deep satisfaction, exhilaration, and so on.
But, in fact, you'll just be lying on the table. It'll feel like a normal life when you're on the machine. But, eventually, your life will end in and they will unplug you and that will be it and nothing will actually happen. It will just led a purely non-real existence.
And, Paul suggested that no one would hook themselves up to that machine--at least that was Nozick's original claim. Paul conceded that in modern times, after Nozick wrote it, maybe, some people actually would hook themselves up to the machine.
But, I think it gets to your point about objective and subjective reality in a different way than you were making it about, say, self-assessment. That, it seems to me, as human beings, we would care about what actually happens in the real world, not just what happens inside our brain. And, therefore, that life on the machine would be quite sterile.
But, you mention Laurie Santos of Yale, who, at least the way I read in your essay would say, 'No, that'd be great.' Then I'd be happy: all the--I'd have a lot of happiness, a lot of satisfaction relative to pain. You can even have some obstacles in the machine that you would overcome to get the Nobel Prize in Literature and so on.
Jennifer Frey: Mm-hmm. Mmm-hmm.
Russ Roberts: So, reflect on that.
Jennifer Frey: Yeah, so she did. She did the bullet. And, I was actually pretty surprised that she did, but I think that she saw correctly that her commitments kind of forced her to.
So, you know, because I was--so, I had gone to Yale to have a dialogue or debate with Laurie. I think it was called Virtues, or I think it was called Morality, like, virtues or life hacks.
Because Laurie has this--she has this very famous class called Psychology and the Good Life, in which she promises students, that she's going to teach them life hacks, that are going to help them hack themselves, which is basically like little techniques for manipulating yourself and to performing better across a range of life activities.
And, I was pushing back and saying, you know, 'Virtue can't be reduced to technique because virtue is a transformation of the whole person. It's a way of seeing the world and deliberating and feeling and thinking.'
And, so, we were having this exchange, and she was like, really hitting hard that, 'No, it is just about the brain.' I mean, she's a cognitive scientist.
Russ Roberts: It's understandable--
Jennifer Frey: She's like, 'No, it's, it's just about the brain. And, you really just need to get your brain in the right condition.'
And, so, that's when I brought up the Experience Machine. And, she was like, 'No, I wouldn't get in it.' She's like, 'Because, right, that would be happiness. If I could somehow get rid of all the world's problems and just be happy, like, obviously, I would.'
And, I wasn't--very surprised and kind of thrown back on my heels when she said that, because it was supposed to kind of be a reductio--a kind of reorient at the conversation, but it didn't turn out that way. And, you know, to me, that's a very dystopian move. And, I think--
Russ Roberts: It's not like--we're talking about the experience machine, of course, but we could talk about drugs. And, the experience machine doesn't exist. It's a thought experiment. But, certainly, Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley is about Soma, a drug that gives people, just I don't know--what would you call it? Bliss. Just the feeling of--
Jennifer Frey: Yeah, kind of--what it gives you is positive emotional affect.
Russ Roberts: Correct. Exactly. So, I find that repellent personally. I'm just being honest, right?
Russ Roberts: It's not a scientific assessment. And, I think--I don't want that for my children--
Russ Roberts: another issue that Paul raised in talking about this. I don't want my children to be, quote, "happy." I don't want to be unhappy. As you said, it's not the only incentive. It's not that it doesn't matter.
But, there are other things that matter, the virtues, meaning: purposefulness, devotion, self-improvement, etc., that I think do matter.
Russ Roberts: But, many psychologists don't, evidently. Or some psychologists don't.
Jennifer Frey: No. Well, I mean, it's just how they've operationalized this concept that they're studying. And, I think they've operationalized it in the wrong way, because it's out of joint with human nature.
And, human nature cannot be reduced to brain states. And, also, what gets lost on this view, is your connection to other people. And, this is a huge deficit.
And, so, one of the things that I talk about in my more academic work--I'm not sure that it came up in this essay--is that another problem with the subjectivist framework is that it only measures an individual's psychology. But, there's something very misleading about that, because what's going on with my individual psychology is very deeply connected to the people that I'm in social relationships with, right?
Russ Roberts: Correct.
Jennifer Frey: So, that includes my loving relationships, my family, and my friendships and my neighbors and my communal associations, but then also my political relationships.
And, so, now, we're in the realm of, you know, something like philia, according to the ancient tradition, and that all kind of drops out in some important sense. And, that is not an insignificant loss when we're talking about human flourishing. I mean, I think, right, that human flourishing is a common good. It's not something--right--so, it's not competitive. It's participatory. Right?
And, we bring it about and enjoy it together.
And, so, the fate of my happiness is in some important sense tied to yours. And, that drops off on this view, too. And, I do think it leads to this idea where you're just an isolated unit alone, just sort of being externally manipulated. And, the reason that really worries me is because we are at a position now, technologically speaking, where it's not so much fantasy anymore--
Russ Roberts: Correct--
Jennifer Frey: It's getting closer and closer to real life.
And, one of the problems that you see, especially with young people now, is that they are incredibly isolated. And, that is a political social problem.
And, one thing that I find really concerning is that we're trying to provide medical solutions. So, for example, at the University of Chicago right now they are working on a pill for loneliness. Loneliness is a political moral problem--
Russ Roberts: Ppppp [snorting/blowing sound]--
Jennifer Frey: It should not try to solve this problem through medicine--
Russ Roberts: It's not a pharmaceutical--not a pharmaceutical problem.
Jennifer Frey: That's right.
Russ Roberts: We've talked a lot--we've talked a few times on the program about grief. And, certainly, after a tragedy, a person can drug themselves. They can get drunk on alcohol and other types of drugs. My view is that grief is part of the human experience, and it's okay to experience grief. It's okay to be sad after someone you love dies.
In fact, I would argue it's important to be sad, after someone dies. And to pretend that that can be ameliorated or avoided, is, I think, a mistake.
Having said that, I don't think you should suffer in pain, and in surgery. And, it's not a question about everything is not--only natural things count. But, I do think that certain experiences of the humankind have a rich tapestry that is not just about feeling good.
And, I think that's--obviously, that's part of what you're talking about.
I think I'll just say one quick thing about economics. Obviously, economists have their own way of thinking about these issues, I think, also quite sterile in terms of, quote, "utility maximization." And, my advisor, Gary Becker, certainly tried to enrich that model. He tried to enrich it by talking about the family--that, my happiness would depend also on my wife's happiness or on my children's happiness.
But, it does that in a way--in Gary's hands, it wasn't so sterile, but in the narrow mathematics of it, it's pretty sterile, still. It does not capture the rich nuance of the complexity of banking sacrifices for the people around us. Possibly, even, quote, "lowering" my happiness, although I care about them. So, it's tricky, by doing something for them that when I'd rather do something for myself. And, the idea that sometimes that's the right thing to do, even though it makes me less happy.
Russ Roberts: And, I think, many of us as human beings aspire to doing the right thing for people we've made commitments to, even though sometimes that will lower our happiness. And, I think that's lost in these kinds of conversations.
Jennifer Frey: Yeah, I mean, I think the thing is, and I mean, I just think this is true. And, I hope at some point, we can come to some kind of agreement about this. There is an inelimanable[?], moral, spiritual dimension to human flourishing. And, so, you will never completely capture it by data. And, I think, that's fine.
Russ Roberts: You said illuminable, meaning invisible?--
Jennifer Frey: Ineliminable--like, you can't get rid of it.
Russ Roberts: Okay.
Jennifer Frey: I mean, there will always be a moral, spiritual dimension of this. And, that's good, that's fine. And, I mean, my own view about this is not that, 'Well, we must leave reflection on human flourishing to the philosophers.' That's not my view. However, I do feel that philosophers and even theologians--that's something else that I argue in my essay--
Russ Roberts: We're going to get to that--
Jennifer Frey: Yeah--they need to have a seat at the table, and they need to be part of the conversation. And, they do actually, need to be involved also in public policy discussions, because there is this moral, spiritual aspect of human flourishing, because we're talking about human beings, and you can't reduce human beings to something that can be understood in quantificational terms.
Now, that's not to say that we don't need data because we do need data. I think we need better data than we currently have. But, we just can't--we can't be satisfied just by looking and analyzing data in the way that we currently are.
Russ Roberts: So, let's talk a little bit about theology. I want to come later to your claims about theology and the role it might play in the university. And, we're going to get to university as well. But, let me just try to take a contrarian approach to these issues of spirituality that you're talking about.
Russ Roberts: You mention in your article, your essay, that you are a Roman Catholic. And, so, I'm a religious Jew. Let me play the contrarian. It says, 'That's a bunch of nonsense. It's a bunch of bunkum, hokum, whatever you want to call it. Those are just things that--those are superstitions that lower your happiness level. Someone like me who doesn't get in a car on the Sabbath, who won't go shopping on the Sabbath--you're just lowering your happiness level. If you have an urge to go shopping, you should just go.'
And then, the economists say, 'There's some other happiness produced by the lack of shopping because it creates a feeling of community,' and that may be true. I think it is somewhat true. But, a religious Jew would not shop, even if it makes them totally miserable and they don't get any thrill out of the community feeling that it raises, because they think it's the right thing to do.
So, what the secular psychologist would say is, 'You're just--you did some different settings on your real life experience machine. You could have had more happiness, you could be a more cheerful person; you could have more pleasure in your life, if you didn't follow these ridiculous strictures that come from a tradition that is not scientific, has no observable objective reality, which you Jennifer said you were in favor of, but in fact, it's just nonsense. And, you'd be a happier person without it.' How do you answer that? Kind of a tough question on one foot, I apologize.
Jennifer Frey: No, it's fine. It's a great question.
Russ Roberts: It's not a Twitter. At least, we're not on Twitter. You can give at least more than 280 characters, whatever Twitter is these days.
Jennifer Frey: Yeah, yeah. So, no, I think it's a great question. I will say that it's just the claim that you'd be happier if you weren't religious, it's not all borne out by the data that we have. Now, I don't want to solely rely on that data.
Russ Roberts: Just bad data.
Jennifer Frey: That's right. But, I mean, the data that we have says the opposite. Right? So, people who practice a religion, score way higher on measures of meaningfulness and purposefulness of life and also happiness. Right?
So, it's not borne out by the data. Maybe if we had better data it would be borne out; but that's obviously an empirical question. But, the truth is, that--I mean, I think that man is a religious animal. And, that means that even if they are not a member of an organized religion, they usually find some kind of substitute for it. There's a lot of interesting work being done right now in sociology about people who are secular sort of like on the books, but they're really into crystals. And, they do all this other stuff that looks like--
Russ Roberts: Or politics--
Jennifer Frey: it's fulfilling--it looks like it's fulfilling the need that organized religion used to fill in their life. So, I'm really interested in those studies and thinking more about it.
But, the idea that--I mean, now, we're veering off into some theological questions, like whether or not religion is superstition. Religion is traditionally conceived as a virtue. Right? It's a practice of rendering to God what is owed to him through worship, through divine worship, through tithing.
So, we're talking about--I mean, Aquinas, for example, puts religion as a proper part of justice--right?--because justice generally is giving to another what is owed to them. Why do we owe something to God? Because he's the source of all being. And, so, you wouldn't exist without God. So, it seems like you should be grateful.
Now, whether or not there needs to be a principal source of all being is both a philosophical and theological question. We could get into that. That was the traditional inquiry called 'metaphysics.' But that would take us too far afield. But, I don't believe that. I don't believe that religion per se is superstitious, obviously. I think crystal worship probably is deeply superstitious. But, we'd have to get into what superstition is versus what is true religion.
Russ Roberts: No, I don't want to get into that. And, I want to reiterate your point, which I agree with, that I think listeners have heard me say this before quoting David Foster Wallace: Everyone worships; it's just a question what they worship.
Russ Roberts: I think that's the shorthand way of saying what you're saying: that we have this inner nature, an urge to belong, to transcend our earthly limitations, and it could be evolution put that in us or God put it in. We're not going to go there.
But, I do think there is a fundamental question as a scholar, as a person in the academy, which both of us are in different ways right now, for me than maybe for you. But, whether once you're in a college or university, I think we have an obligation to take these questions seriously.
Russ Roberts: And, I think it's a legitimate viewpoint, even though I don't agree with it, that just says: What's pleasurable is all there is. That's a legitimate--I don't agree with it. But, I think that's a legitimate viewpoint. And, I can't really judge someone. I mean, I can tell someone, 'Oh, you might find more meaning in your life if you did some acts beyond your sense of self--if you were kinder, if you volunteered.' I have no problem with suggesting to people that charity or altruism of various kinds--and we can debate how whether it's really charity or not, we're not going to talk about that here.
But, I think it's okay to say to someone, 'You're missing out.' But, if they try it and they don't like it, I would be uneasy saying they're missing out. And, if they want to pursue a life of hedonism, and enjoying life to the limits within the law and not harming anyone, I kind of just want to say, 'Well, that's your choice.'
Where I agree with you is that, as we--I think very foolishly try to base public policy around increasing our scores a nation from 4.1 to a 4.3, like Finland--I think that is a fake science. I think it's scientism. I think it's dangerous.
And, I think it fundamentally misunderstands the human experience. But, mainly because, as you said, it's a nuanced experience. The idea that I can capture my lifetime, or the last week even, or even yesterday with a number is an illusion. I had some good moments and bad moments, some moments of anxiety, some moments of delight, some moments of contentment, some moments of fear.
The idea that I can add those all up--which was Bentham's intellectual enterprise--I think that was an utter failure as an intellectual enterprise. And, I think he understood that, at the end of his life, when he was trying to find a way to make these things comparable, and he couldn't. An economists just pretend that you can. They just say, 'Well, if you choose to spend your day at the beach instead of volunteering at the food shelter, obviously, that gave you a higher level of happiness. And, that's how we're going to define it.' And that's purely subjective.
And, that's all that matters--because that's what matters for your choice. And, that part, the economist had something right. Revealed preference--when you go out and make a choice, you're saying to the world, or to yourself, what you value. But to pretend that it has an objective value, because you chose this objectively, and therefore public policy should be based on maximizing it or something--that's where the lunacy occurs.
But, I have no problem with the subjective idea that whatever floats your boat, floats your boat; whatever floats, my boat floats mine. I might choose to become a triathlete even though it doesn't really do anything for the world, except makes me feel good about myself, or it's a challenge, I want to overcome it. That's part of the human flourishing, also.
I just think--I want to take a very open view of this. And--but it's where public policy comes in that I think it starts to matter, and to pretend that it's scientific, because it's 4.3 versus 4.1, is where I think it's dangerous. You can react to any of that you want.
Jennifer Frey: I mean, I guess I'm less comfortable with subjectivism than you are--
Russ Roberts: Very possible--
Jennifer Frey: Which is fine. I do believe that we should be encouraging people in a variety of ways to engage in practices and ways of being that contribute to the common good. And, I think that we can talk about that at a sufficiently general level, that we can reach a lot of agreement about what that might look like. And, that doesn't mean that we're banning things, or something like that.
And, with respect to the university in particular, because that's where I live and breathe for the most part, what I'm really arguing for at the end of the day is, you know, liberal learning. And, I think that what has happened is there has been a kind of illiberal pushing out of theology faculties from the university--
Russ Roberts: And, philosophy--
Jennifer Frey: which has meant that--that's right. And, that has meant that there has been a pushing out of a dimension of human life. Right? Because, the thing is, human beings do seek transcendence, self-transcendence. There's a ton of empirical work on this that is really fascinating. And, people--like, young people do want to understand how they relate to God. I think that you can have knowledge about that.
And, I think that insofar as the university is the institution that more than any other institution shapes our conception of worthwhile knowledge, we ought to have theology faculties in our universities.
And, I talk about my personal experience working on long-term multimillion dollar projects involving theologians, from all faith traditions, philosophers, and different social scientists. And, the thing is it, it does work. And, it's also something that they are doing at Harvard right now, as well.
And, so, I think that there are models for this that we can imitate that have shown themselves to be successful. And, I think that, we should be going for the most universal kinds of knowledge. And, so, theology should be a part of that because--
Russ Roberts: But, let's stay away from theology for a minute. We're going to come back to it. But, let's just talk about philosophy, because I think a lot of listeners are going say, 'Look, I don't believe in God. I don't think it's part of the human experience. I don't think it's important.' And, I'm not going to judge them. I'm going to leave that alone, at least for now, for our conversation. Let me just ask about philosophy.
So, Socrates said, 'The unexamined life is not worth living.' It was my high school yearbook quote, it turns out. I've always liked that quote. I'm at a college, Shalem College in Jerusalem, where the examined life is at the heart of what we do. We have a two-year core curriculum where they read Plato and Aristotle, and Homer, and--etc. And, we do a lot of examining here. And, I think it's glorious. And, it's a huge part of what it takes to lead a meaningful life, and a purposeful life, and human flourishing.
So, I'm a big fan of it. But, one of our faculty, Yuval Dolev--who is thoughtful--asked a question. He said, 'I know a lot of people who don't examine their life, and they're really happy, and they're nice people. And, also I know people who do examine their life all the time. Yeah; they're not so nice. And, they can be pretty glum.'
So, you know, would you say that the examined life is a necessary part of the human experience? How would you answer someone who says, 'Look, all this philosophy malarkey--come up with one more crazy, old-fashioned word for nonsense--I don't need all that. I'm just happy.' What am I missing? What have you got for me, Jennifer? Why do I a philosophy department at a college? I'm going to go be an accountant. I'm going to be a lawyer. I'm going to be a computer scientist. What do I need to know about this? There's a bunch of stuff that's never resolved anything. I don't need to take any of that. I'm just going to be happy. I'm going to make a lot of money. I'm going to get a good skill, good trade, and I'm going to make--have a good life.' What's wrong? Anything wrong with that?'
Jennifer Frey: Yeah, so I actually just addressed this topic to the Yale Political Union: I guess it was two weeks ago now. And, the idea is that--or at least the idea that I would favor--is that a university is a very special kind of institution. It's not a place where you simply receive vocational training. Universities are supposed to be higher education. And, 'higher' certainly shouldn't just mean more advanced in years. Right? So, now, it's 'higher education', because it's my 14th year, my 15th year. Like, that's not higher in any meaningful sense. Right?
It ought to mean higher in terms of its aspirations or its goals. Right? And, so, the goal of a university education, if it's truly higher education, ought to be liberal education, education that makes you free. Right? And, you know, we can debate about what it means to be free. But, I certainly believe that philosophical reflection is a part of that--a necessary part of that: that, in order to be free, we need to go into ourselves and look at the world from a somewhat critical perspective, and think about it. And that this is related to something like virtue and wisdom.
And, I think it's incredibly necessary now.
Here's where I'll say something even more controversial. I don't think that everybody needs to go to a university. I think for many people--I know, I know. That was the face of Michael Roth. He's the President of Wesleyan. He wants everyone in universities. No, I mean, look--I'm from--I mean, we haven't talked really about who I am, but I'm from a working class background in the Rust Belt in the United States. The majority of my family never went to university. My father never went to university. And, I don't look down on him. I don't think that I am so much better than him because I went to a university. I believe that in a perfectly flourishing human society--right?--we have room--we, in fact, need to make space for university education. And, those would be people who we would hope would aspire to something like wisdom. And we need wisdom and leadership.
We don't need mere expertise. We need wisdom and leadership. But, we also need people who are vocationally trained. I think one thing that you find in the contemporary university landscape--or at least you find it in some places, or you found it for a while--was some kind of compromise where we have all kinds of vocational degrees, but we want to have something like a liberal arts, a two-year liberal arts core curriculum.
So, you might get a degree in Hotel Management. But, you did read some Plato and some stuff; you learned some math; etc. However, I see that compromise kind of splitting apart, right? So, almost--
Russ Roberts: Outside of a handful of places, it's gone.
Jennifer Frey: That's right.
Russ Roberts: It's here at Shalem. But, it's pretty much--it's dead in the United States outside of a handful of places--
Jennifer Frey: That's right. And, so, what you have are universities where the vast majority of the undergraduates are getting degrees in sports marketing, or hotel tourism, or things like this. There are very few Math or Philosophy majors--
Russ Roberts: History, English. Not many of those, either.
Jennifer Frey: There is this--right. There are very few History majors. What you get are Journalism majors--don't get me started.
But, and you know, you pay the same amount of money for your degree, you get the same degree, but we're talking about very different kinds of education here. And, the core curriculum has been so bastardized over the years, that it's really just kind of a joke to call it a liberal arts education.
And, so, I think we really need to stop and think about what we're doing here. If you are getting a degree in Hotel Management, why does it need to cost so much money and take four years? This is, I mean--
Russ Roberts: Well, my corner baker here in Jerusalem got a degree in Hotel Management in the United States. And, she's a fantastic baker. And, I don't know how long it took her. But, God bless her, and she learned something. And, she worked at a number of resorts and learned how to make phenomenal things. And, I'm sure she could run a hotel. So, these things have value. Obviously, you are not saying they don't have value--
Jennifer Frey: They do. They absolutely have value.
Russ Roberts: But, I think that's a crucial question.
Jennifer Frey: But, it's not higher education. That's my point.
Russ Roberts: So, I agree with that. I agree with you that I think it's a horrible idea to think everyone should go to college--for a whole bunch of reasons we're not going to go into. But, I think the real question is the core curriculum that we're talking about. You said it's been bastardized; and I think it's dead. And, I think--the reason I think it's dead is there aren't enough people like you, and maybe like me. Again, I'm taking a different approach--but: They gave up the field. Right?
The other profession, the other discipline, said, 'What we do is important,'--whether it's Hotel Management, whether it's Marketing in a Business School, whether it's Accounting in a Business School, whether it's legal skills in a Law School--'Look, we give our students something of value, which is the ability to make a living.' Which is not unimportant. So, I don't want to ever be critical of that. Nothing wrong with that. It's great.
You're suggesting that there's a value to Philosophy. There's a value to answering--not answering, because many of these questions don't have answers, but asking deep questions and grappling with them. That's what I believe great education is about. It's learning how to think. It's not being told a set of skills, or how to acquire those skills, or to encourage expertise in a particular area.
It's about the growth of one's critical faculties--the ability to communicate, the ability to see connections, to synthesize a lot about different aspects of what I think great education is. And most American colleges have said, 'That's not what we do.'
And, the practitioners of the disciplines that you respect, and that I respect--the Philosophy Department, English Department, the History Department--it's not that they're lonely because nobody wanted their product. They stopped providing the product. They decided, for whatever reason--it's complicated: some of it's political, ideological, some of it's demand or supply and demand. They don't think that--they don't make the case anymore.
It's a handful of people. I guess--you're on EconTalk. People like Zena Hitz and Agnes Callard and Leon Kass might--the Dean of Faculty here at Shalem--when he talked about what's a good life. There's a small cadre of people who argue, 'Hey, hey, folks, there's some meaning here that you might value.' And, I think that's what we should provide in a great college, a great university.
And, for some reason, most people were uncomfortable making that claim: either they can't make it convincingly to themselves, or they can't make it out to the world at large, because the world at large doesn't care about those things anymore. They think they're, for whatever reason, not a value.
So, I think we have failed. Those of us who care about human flourishing, whether it's religiously based or Greek-philosophy based, which is not particularly religious. We haven't made the case so well lately. And, so, people don't come in. And, we don't provide the product that we're talking about anymore in those departments. So, people don't want it. They can't have it; they're not interested. They go do these other things.
I think there's a chance to revive these areas. Right? When people read the Iliad, the Odyssey, but though they're probably not literally true, the dialogue is probably created by the author, Homer. He didn't transcribe it or record it. He didn't take notes. We can't hold him accountable. But, there's deep truth in there. And, that's why we think it's the value. There's deep truth and philosophical examination.
And, I thinkthat's what's been lost in the universities today. We've given up on this idea that there is truth to be gathered from these examinations and explorations. They are more complicated and less satisfying in the short run than some of the sciences, engineering, math, STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] and so on. And, I think that's what--where we failed. React to that.
Jennifer Frey: Well, yeah. I mean--so, I agree. It's a mess. I think some of it's institutional. So, I think some of it is that if you're at an R1 research university, like I am, all of the institutional--
Russ Roberts: What do you mean by R1?
Jennifer Frey: R1 is just a research university designation. So, it is usually tied to how much research--
Russ Roberts: Publish and perish. Publish and perish.
Jennifer Frey: Yes. That's a good way to put it.
Russ Roberts: Okay.
Jennifer Frey: So, for example, for me to get tenure, my teaching means very little. Of course, it's a part of it. But, I mean, so long as I'm not a total disaster--
Russ Roberts: Kind of pretend. It's kind of pretend, it's not really a part of it.
Jennifer Frey: It is really a bit pretend. I'm not going to lie. And--
Russ Roberts: I'll say it. You don't have to say it. It's okay.
Jennifer Frey: Yeah, so it's my research. Right? And, it's a very quantitative measure of my output.
Russ Roberts: Yep.
Jennifer Frey: And, so, you are pressured from your second year of undergrad on, because if you want to go to grad school, you've got to start to specialize. Once you're in grad school, you have to hyper-specialize.
That is a very bad model. That might be great for the sciences. That's a horrible model for philosophy, since philosophy aspires to wisdom. The best philosophers were never specialists.
So, I think there are these institutional pressures. And, I talk about this in my essay.
But, there's also broader pressures. There are market pressures. Universities have taken on a financial model where they're extremely dependent on tuition dollars. A lot of that's political, because I'm at a public university; but we get 9% of our budget from our state. Nine percent. It's nothing. Like, we're functionally private.
Russ Roberts: That will shock people who don't realize that. I assume most people listening would assume that a public college like the University of South Carolina, 50% to 80% of their costs are covered by government--
Jennifer Frey: No. Nine--
Russ Roberts: revenue that we collect from taxpayers. Nine, low number.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, low number. The rest of it is coming from government grants, though there's some government in there just not the legislature's direct funneling[?] of--
Jennifer Frey: That's right: Federal grants, right.
Russ Roberts: Health, health[?] research, medicine.
Jennifer Frey: That's right. Then, I asked the NAS [National Academy of Sciences], the NIH [National Institutes of Health], stuff like this.
But, no, we have a very bad deal in this state. We have a lot of government control and very little government support. So, you know, there's that sort of thing.
But, I also think--and increasingly am devoting huge amounts of my time to--colleges can only do so much. The university can only do so much.
We have to look at K-12 [Kindergarten through 12th grade] education. We have to look at what has happened in K-12 education. And, K-12 education has been completely dominated by the skill model. And, so, we get these enormous classes of incoming students that have only ever been taught discrete skills. They have no sense of the intellectual life, the life of the mind. They think the whole thing is career-oriented.
And, we as a university, given our financial model are beholden to them as consumers. Like, we have to please them. So, every year at my university, we, like, brag, 'We have new majors. You can major in insurance, risk management at my university. You can major in that.' It's mind blowing. So, we have over 300 majors at this point.
Russ Roberts: So, again, I have to say, I think that's nuts for what--I don't think the citizens of South Carolina, the taxpaying citizens of South Carolina, should contribute 9% to that. I have nothing wrong with learning how to be an insurance person. It just shouldn't be done by the taxpayers' largesse in any way.
But, I think the question I want to push you back into a different corner. In your essay, you talk about, knowledge for its own sake. And, so, we can think about two extremes, knowledge for its own sake on the one hand, versus--Knowledge you can use, knowledge that make you money, knowledge that will help you get ahead.
And, by the way, a lot of the life hacks that you were alluding to earlier from psychology, and that's what they're really about, by the way. You can get more done, if you could just wake up at 7:00 a.m. every morning and get a habit of waking up at the same time. It's a whole bunch of these, I find them crazy. I find them offensive actually, I've talked about it before on the program about meditation. Do we really should meditate? It'll make you more productive at work, it will be great.
Jennifer Frey: Uh-huh (affirmative). I know.
Russ Roberts: Or do we really should keep the Sabbath? It'll recharge your batteries, and then you'll be more productive. It's like, 'Really? That's the reason?' I think that shows a really narrow, sterile, feeble vision of the human experience. So, but, but, if those two extremes, most people don't want to be on our extreme of knowledge for its own sake. Certainly, it doesn't justify federal or state wide expenditures. So, that's Number One.
But, Number Two, I don't think it's for everybody. I don't think everybody should be sitting around, not gazing at their navel, but wondering about why we're here and the nighttime sky and why there's 10-to-the-22nd stars in the nighttime sky. And, that seems kind of strange, whether you believe in evolution, or God, it just, it's mind boggling and thought provoking. And, most people go like, 'Who cares?' And, I get that.
So, I want you to make the case for why they should care. So, defend knowledge for its own sake. Mostly, we just say, that's not just impractical, which it is, by definition, and by construction, it's more than impractical. It's a waste. And, you, Jennifer, you go off and do your weird, little philosophical thinking and leave the rest of us alone, I'm going to go get my insurance degree and go make some money and raise my family and lead a good life.
Jennifer Frey: Yeah, thank you for this question. This is a very important question. So, one book, it's a small book that I highly recommend to anyone is a book by Josef Pieper called Leisure: the Basis of Culture.
Russ Roberts: It's a good book.
Jennifer Frey: And, I think he does. Yeah, it is a wonderful book. This book totally changed my life. It's one of those life changing books for me. And, Pieper talks about this kind of ideology, this all-consuming ideology of workism where work is this space of productivity and instrumental value.
Russ Roberts: Yup.
Jennifer Frey: And, he's like, 'Yeah, of course, we need to work. We need to reproduce ourselves and keep going and we need stuff.' He's like, 'But, if we don't leave space for leisure, for those things that our work is for, the things in which our life culminates in, then we ultimately are living a futile life. If I work to make money to rest, so that I can work more to make money to rest, so that I can work more, and then one day I die. What kind of life is that?'
And, I think people are not stuck. People are so consumed by workism. They don't stop to ask themselves this question. They work hard so they can escape from reality for a week, and rest so that they can go back to working hard. But, what are you working for? What things are really intrinsically valuable? What would you dive for?
And, there is no, unless we have liberal learning, unless we live in examined life. We don't have answers to these questions, we don't know. And, frankly, if you are consumed by workism, you're also not free. And, so, I do think we need to preserve a space for liberal education. We need to preserve a space for poetry, for philosophy. Right? For the things that--so, for music. For the things that we work for, right? The things that are valuable, in and of themselves.
And, I think that this kind of all-consuming utilitarian, consumerist, workist mindset that we really are imbued with in our K-12 education--and there really are a lot of problems there--we need to remind people about what we're living for. Right? What will our lives culminate in. And, I just think we need to fight for that space. We need to fight hard for it.
Russ Roberts: Well, I encourage anyone who wants to escape workism, one small aspect of it to move to Jerusalem, where we don't have Amazon Prime. And if you don't have Amazon Prime, it really changes a lot. You can't just sort of say, 'Ooh, I could have that tomorrow.'
So, I've spent a lot less time on Amazon--like, an enormously smaller amount of time. Which has freed me up to do other things. And, sometimes, it's playing chess on my phone, which I try not to do too much of--another somewhat empty addiction I have like workism or shopping, if I'm not careful.
And, I want to say, generally, I think we've established here for most listeners, that you're probably not the representative American. You're probably a little bit unusual.
And, even though I really enjoyed Josef Pieper's book Leisure, many people would find it difficult. So, as much as I like that book as well, I'm not sure all of our listeners will find it a riveting life-changer. So, I just want to say that first, as a warning. But, it's a fascinating book.
Jennifer Frey: I mm definitely weird. I am definitely weird.
Russ Roberts: But, it's a fascinating book.
Russ Roberts: I want to try a different approach.
Russ Roberts: I want to make a different case for learning for its own sake. And, maybe, this is circular--I don't know. I made this argument before that--that, say, being a parent is part of the human experience. So, you don't have a child because it's fun. And, you don't have a child because the net benefits outweigh the net costs. And, you don't have a child as a form of social insurance even in a poor country.
You have a child because it's part of being a human.
Not everybody's able to have a child; we understand that. There are many aspects of the human experience are not available to every one of us, either because of our--the way you were born biologically or because of our circumstances.
But, the reason I have a child is not to create happiness. To me. It's to be fully human. And, to me, that's what flourishing is.
So, for me, when you say, 'What's the value of learning for its own sake?' We are blessed for whatever reason. And, again, people from different theological backgrounds, or atheism will feel differently about this. But, we have a brain. We're not like a horse. We have this opportunity to dream. We have an opportunity to aspire. We have an opportunity to feel. We have an opportunity to empathize.
And, so, to me, you read great poetry, you listen to great music that breaks your heart, that makes you cry--not because it makes you happy, but because it's part of what it is to be a human being. And, I think that's glorious. And, I think it's wonderful.
And, I also concede, it's not for everybody. If some people are tone-deaf--and I don't mean that in a literal sense: some people can't enjoy great music because their ears just biologically are not able to do it.
And, some people can't have access to some of the transcendent things we're talking about--whether it's poetry, or for whatever reason, because it just, it doesn't speak to them because they can't hear it. And, you can teach them. You can try to get them to hear it. You can try to open that window for them to see what we're talking about. But, it doesn't work for them.
Jennifer Frey: Yes. So, I don't think that we really meaningfully disagree. I think, maybe, we are pitching it in a slightly different way.
But, you know, another way to say what I'm saying is that a university education is higher, insofar as its order to human flourishing. It's carving a space for a particular kind of human excellence. Right? Which is the life of the mind.
And, that is a part of human flourishing. And it does need to be preserved.
And, I think that people who really do flourish in the university have certain talents, certain dispositions. You know, I have been a bookworm since I was 4. And, I was very unlike--
Russ Roberts: I am shocked to hear that, Jennifer--
Jennifer Frey: I mean, and it was like, for a while, I mean, I really think it freaked my parents out, because they didn't know why I was, like, different from other kids and why I just wanted to be in the library all the time. Like, my favorite place on the planet as a kid was the library. That's where I was happy. That's where I was safe.
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Jennifer Frey: And, so, of course I loved university life. It was amazing.
But, not everybody is like that.
And, that's totally fine. My father's not like that at all. And, you know, there are a lot of opportunity costs for someone to spend these four years of higher education when they don't have the dispositions to excel at it. And, of course, we all know it's obscenely expensive. It gets more expensive every year.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. And, part of that cost is what you said, the foregone opportunities to do something else for the students who choose it.
Jennifer Frey: That's right.
Russ Roberts: It's not just the budgetary costs.
Jennifer Frey: That's right. And, for vocational training, should take a much shorter time. And really just be oriented to the practical ends that it's oriented towards.
And, just to pick up on another aspect of what you were saying: I come out of a tradition and intellectual tradition that sees the true, the good, and the beautiful as essentially connected. They're just different aspects of being.
And, so, yes--I mean, a math proof can be beautiful, and can be very moving. Right?
And, so, kind can a symphony.
And, so, I think that, again, we want to think about higher education, liberal learning, as created towards these things in which, you know, human life kind of culminates in various forms of human excellence.
And, to call human excellence 'wasteful,' is a dark moment. I mean, we should question that. How is it a waste of a life to attain human excellence? No, that's what you want. And--you know, but the university, it's not a one-size-fits-all. It's its own thing. It should be preserved. I think we agree about that.
Russ Roberts: And, I think--I think you would agree with me--maybe not--but, we should all develop our gifts as much as we can. Some people get different gifts. And some of them are emotional, some of them are intellectual, some of them are physical. We all have some intellectual gift, and we can develop that gift as much as we can. Not everybody can develop to the same extent. Can Andrew Weil who proved Fermat's Last Theorem?--he's--I'm not going to catch him. We're not all going to be NBA basketball players, either.
So, all these different aspects of our humanity.
And, of course, adding to that the fact that what we do for each other, both commercially and socially matters. Our interactions with other people, our communities, those are all another piece of this flourishing part. And, our ability to be a good spouse, a good friend, a good colleague. These are all parts to me of human flourishing that--not that the university is not going to work on all those, but in the intellectual part--and we haven't talked about, which is weird--the search for truth--
Russ Roberts: That's the part you should try to get better at.
And, if you want to be a fully realized human being.
Not all of us are going to end up being analytical philosophers, but we can all develop the part of our intellect that we have.
And, we develop it at our own rate, in our own way, and it's satisfying. We flourish. We feel our life has some richness to it when we struggle and achieve something.
Anyway, I think that's what it's about. I don't think it's about--and I wouldn't say, I don't think, more than that.
Jennifer Frey: Right. I mean, thank you for bringing up the search for truth. Right? Because, I think one of the things that I've struggled the most with, and having these conversations with people in various parts of higher ed--whether it's college presidents or other administrators, or even my colleagues--is that we are very hesitant--in the humanities, especially--to talk about the truth.
And, that really scares me, because, if we're not searching for truth, what are we doing? Right? Are we searching for power? Are we searching for the good? But, if we're searching for the good, are we searching for the true good or the merely apparent good? Like, where--and, this hesitancy or even refusal to talk about truth as the goal of the intellectual community that is the university--you know, the shared goal, the common end--I think we need to speak out forcefully in favor of the truth: that this is the essence of what we're doing. Right? And, all this other stuff is subsidiary. Right?
First and foremost, we are searching for the truth. We are searching for the highest forms of knowledge, the most universal forms of knowledge. I mean, that's my vision of the mission of the university.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Jennifer Frey. Jennifer, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Jennifer Frey: Thanks so much for having me.