Ever since I graduated with a degree in philosophy and meandered my way to an MBA, I’ve thought about my educational journey. Socrates’ claim that the unexamined life is not worth living is one that I took to heart and have sought to incorporate into my own life. I want to share some of the ideas I’ve discovered through this practice of self-examination.
Before coming to Babson, I was the dean of a small liberal arts college and had the opportunity to put into practice much of the ideas I’d discovered through self-examination. I thought that I had insights into what makes a good education and, being in an environment where I’m constantly exposed to people and ideas from several different continents, I find that some of those insights have universal applicability. The key idea for a successful education is to uncover the well of insatiable curiosity that many of us have somehow managed to put a lid on early in our lives. As Aristotle said:
For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize; they wondered originally at the obvious difficulties, then advanced little by little and stated difficulties about the greater matters, e.g. about the phenomena of the moon and those of the sun and of the stars, and about the genesis of the universe. And a man who is puzzled and wonders thinks himself ignorant […]; therefore since they philosophized order to escape from ignorance, evidently they were pursuing science in order to know, and not for any utilitarian end.Aristotle, Metaphysics
When we look into ourselves, we’ll realize that there’s an itch to get out and know things, just for the sake of knowing them. The first habit that a well-educated person cultivates, then, is wonder.
Achieving a constant state of wonder is impossible without self-examination. But what is this precisely? Initially, self-examination might start with wondering why we do certain things. A young adult might wonder why he doesn’t like doing homework or why he loves to go hiking so much. All self-examination begins this way, by asking why, but it doesn’t stay there. In fact, it can’t, or there’s the risk of forgetting how to do it.
In one of my favorite essays, Martin Heidegger reflects on the process of thinking: “Questions are paths toward an answer. If the answer could be given it would consist in a transformation of thinking […]” This is a lesson that anybody who has tried to reflect on the self will quickly learn. Knowing why we do something is important but then we quickly realize that there are more questions that we can ask about ourselves: how do we do things? When do we do them? What are the means we use to do them? Finally, this is the most important question: understanding the true reason for our motivation and being able to ask what is the ultimate purpose of our actions.
It is here that the person who engages in self-examination will reach the paths that lead to true education, the education that leads to freedom. The path that reveals itself at this point needs special skills to be followed. It demands that we learn about the inner workings of our mind and how we can interpret reality. And it also demands that we learn about how the world is constituted, its nature and the way it presents to ourselves. These demands need tools that are different, but that our ancestors have found in the past. It is the answer to the questions of self-examination that leads to this transformation in thinking and we realize that knowledge is irreversible: it forever changes who we are and there is no going back.