On the Merits of Still Deciding

At a campus event a couple years ago, I spoke with prospective students and parents about studying the humanities. I was struck by one father’s question. He understood why we would insist on connecting the liberal arts with career success but, he said, it also worried him. He was thinking of his daughter growing into a young adult, for whom he wanted excellent career preparation but also much more.

His question was: Could I assure him we offer more?

In line with so many other colleges like ours, we at Maryville College have turned to outcomes assessment and, perhaps especially, employment outcomes as a measure of our educational effectiveness. We want to make the decision to come here easy, and so we have Powerpoints and data points and talking points at the ready to answer the questions we hear people asking, like, what jobs can you get with a degree in the liberal arts? Once those questions are settled, we move on—we say to ourselves—to the deeper values that we truly treasure.

But this father was concerned. I think he worried that, even if we are clear about our mission as a liberal arts college, perhaps our way of communicating it subtly restricts the freedom we allow students to explore the problems and capabilities of their own lives. In prioritizing the “practical” questions, do we risk repressing the free spirit of liberal inquiry?

To be sure, questions about outcomes are not unreasonable ones. And, as NetVUE members well know, studies suggest that dedicated liberal arts students develop a multi-faceted resourcefulness that continues to open doors for them over the span of their career. Maryville College Works is supposed to foster this, by requiring students to pursue a “significant practical experience” that will enrich connections between their endeavors here at the college and life beyond campus, both now and in the future. This is a good thing to be doing, it seems to me, true to the spirit of liberal education.

Andrew Irvine talks with students

We do well, though, to consider what freedoms we may compromise when in the course of connecting college and career we redirect the attention we give students onto, say, deciding a major early, and embarking on a program of study that we presume, by the uncertain light of an anticipated post-college career, makes evident what counts as a “significant practical experience.”

I worry that we might neglect the special freedom it takes to be a student “still deciding.”

Sometimes “still deciding” can be a euphemism for “indecisive.” Yet, one of the highest aims of a liberal education is to learn how to doubt well in the face of dogmatism, to become, at least in some core part of our selves, always capable of still deciding.

How will a student make informed and worthwhile decisions if they cannot be still deciding, confident in their freedom from external and internal forces of their lives that pressure a rush to judgment? We want them to be open to new ideas and new evidence. We want them to discover new knowledge, and to dissolve attachments to ignorance. We want them to be critical and creative participants in private and common life. That is why we are—or need to be—ready to stand up for the invaluable worth of “still deciding.”

Why not just go ahead, though? Make up your mind, and act! Why risk indecision? Why not just get on with it, imposing our will on circumstances and making our mark on the world? Life is short, so isn’t that a preferable life strategy?

I’m sympathetic to that impulse, but I also doubt it. For one thing, life is short. It can also be sweet. But stifling our curiosity about it is because it is brief is a quick way to make life nasty and brutish. Many are the pressures to decide which of our interests to pursue and which to leave behind on a narrow track from cradle to grave and call it our “career.”

But I suppose that the fantastic range of human experience and the fascinating ways of studying it are on their own enough to convince us that we’ll be better for allowing ourselves to wander undisciplined in the world a bit, free to explore—at least during our college years, if not our whole life long.

Beyond such free-wheeling curiosity, I imagine that a compelling reason to be always still deciding arises in real confrontation with the great challenges of life, when who and what we are comes into question: partnering, for instance, and parenting; shaping laws and customs that guide our different communities; working for good purposes; dying a good death.

No mere major can answer challenges like these for us. Only we can answer for who we are and might become. Yet, many different ways of knowing might help us address the challenges. Perhaps, concerning the great challenges, we can only hope to approximate informed and worthwhile decisions. But if we have kept ourselves able to be still deciding about the possibilities, not always already decided, then maybe we can make better decisions than otherwise.

An earlier version of this essay appeared in the Highland Echo (Maryville College newspaper) in October 2015.

For the second part of this reflection, see “The virtue of still deciding.” For other posts by Andrew Irvine, click here.

Andrew Irvine is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Maryville College. He co-edited the volume Postcolonial Philosophy of Religion (Springer, 2009) and blogs from time to time at https://aioz.wordpress.com/. He is currently in rehearsals for a community theatre production of The Great Gatsby, playing Nick Carraway.

Leave a Reply