Note: this contribution is written by Jenna Storey, an accomplished scholar and a friend to the Institute. She is an Assistant Professor in Politics and International Affairs at Furman University and also Executive Director of the Tocqueville Program at Furman. She has written for many publications, including The Boston Globe, The New Atlantis, The Weekly Standard, and The Claremont Review of Books. Most recently, she co-authored a book with Benjamin Storey titled Why We are Restless: The Modern Quest for Contentment.
At the university where I work, one enters campus by driving down a long mall lined with oak trees, planted seventy years ago and now in towering, splendid maturity. I remember driving down this mall the first time I came on campus, full of trepidation about the prospect of building a life in a region of the country in which I had never before set foot. But when I saw the oak trees, I thought: this could be home.
Many students have this same experience—they come here for the oak trees. But what sense is there in making such a momentous decision on the basis of the adornments of a campus, however majestic? In choosing the college you fall in love with at first sight?
Falling in love at first sight is something we tend to be deeply skeptical about. It seems imprudent, rash, the kind of thing that will tie you down forever to a high-school hunk. It’s much more mature, we believe, to take the time to figure out who you are, and what exactly you want from life, and then approach the array of eligible bachelors like a rich banquet from which you can select the dish you desire. We even devise systems to make this more convenient, dating services that allow you to preselect for compatible jobs, matching hobbies, wished-for height and weight. College-selection sites, like these dating services, present us with an astonishing number of potential matches, encouraging us to imagine a grand variety of possible lives before zeroing in on just the right one.
Sometimes this process works. But often it leaves one stunned by the spreadsheet, unable to choose one option and forego the others. Maybe it’s best to proceed as some of the happiest students I know here have done, and let yourself fall in love with something you don’t fully understand.
Such an approach might develop from an appreciation of the Socratic understanding of reason. For while Socrates sees calculation and deliberation as essential elements of rationality, he ultimately thinks that reason is a kind of desire, a longing to grasp something that transcends oneself. Properly understood, reason is erotic, reaching out to intertwine with something it perceives to be beautiful. As such, it can see things that calculation passes by.
The beauty of the oak trees, for example, is a real indication of the confident generosity of those who established this campus, who planted saplings knowing that they would never enjoy their shade. The trees suggest that students should come here wishing to be formed to achieve the kind of broad-minded, elegant stability that is indeed characteristic of our best graduates.
To be sure, a lovely line of foliage does not make an educational institution. As one consents to become part of such a place, one learns by experience how it shapes character both in accordance with and against the grain of its promise. Mortal beings, though, have to make judgments without perfect knowledge, using reason as a reliable but not infallible guide. Recognizing that, we might cultivate the capacity for discerning what Pascal called “reasons of the heart” by attending more gently to the impressions that awaken our intellectual longings.