American Enterprise Institute (AEI) scholars Ben Storey and Jenna Silber Storey delivered a lecture titled “Liberal Education and the Restless Soul” on March 30. The Storeys recently published Why We Are Restless: On the Quest for Modern Contentment, a book that wrestles with the modern condition of restlessness through the lens of French philosophy.
The Storeys are both senior fellows at AEI in the Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies department, where they concentrate on political philosophy, civil society, classical schools, and higher education. Their book was inspired by their teaching experiences at Furman University, where they both previously taught political science.
As professors, the Storeys noticed that it was difficult to discern which students were headed down the right path and which students could benefit from additional guidance. They realized that their assessments were not matching up with traditional markers of success. The Storeys noticed that seemingly successful students—the students who had entered college with high honors, detailed plans, and specific career goals—would often become less certain, more anxious, and more burnt out by their senior year.
“They had lives full of activity but devoid of purposive action,” Jenna Silber Storey said.
Something wasn’t lining up, so the Storeys looked for a better indicator of future success. And they found one: intellectual honesty. Intellectually honest students engaged openly in the classroom, expressing genuine skepticism or confusion and resisting the urge to say what they believed others wanted to hear.
Even after detecting this intellectual virtue, the Storeys still struggled to make sense of the pervasive trend they saw among their students. They realized that the root of the problem might extend beyond the individual students, and they realized that higher education offers students a contradictory vision of education.
Education makes recourse to two navigational devices—the checklist and the inner voice, Ben Storey said. Upon entering the university, students are prompted to fulfill a checklist of general education and major requirements. At the same time, they are encouraged to make recourse to their inner voice, which is often presented as a muse that can lead the student to her true inner self.
Ben Storey offered criticisms of these devices. The checklist, he explained, doesn’t actually measure what it claims to measure. The minds of Socrates and Martin Luther King, Jr., two giants of liberal education, were not educated through organized checklists and systems. Further, he feared that encouraging students to seek the inner voice often leaves them directionless.
Rather than pursuing education through these disparate means, the Storeys proposed an integrated liberal arts education that puts reason and desire in conversation with each other, rather than isolating them and placing them in opposition.
“The combination of reason reduced to a desiccated box-checker and desire as an inexorable summons prevents the kind of conversation that is unique to liberal education,” Ben Storey said. “Liberal education, rightly understood, might have something to offer that can ameliorate the restlessness of the modern soul.”
The Storeys presented the liberal arts as an integrating project that can address the questions of reason and the desires of the heart. Jenna Silber Storey offered two questions that can help students to discern their path in the liberal arts.
“Ask yourself, ‘What is it that I really want to know with my life?” and “Who is it that I long to become in my life?” she said.
Why We Are Restless is available from Princeton University Press.
A full recording of the lecture can be watched here.