Does Everyone Have Longing? (A Response to David Brooks)

Longing can be a good thing, but we should recognize that not everyone has it.

Posted May 10, 2016

In a recent column at The New York Times, David Brooks criticizes focus in schools on grades and the grade point average (GPA), arguing that it leads students to focus on measurable accomplishment and “grit,” and distracts them from discovering what they’re passionate about, or their “longing.”

He concludes the piece by imagining a new style of education that helps students to find what they care about:

Suppose you were designing a school to help students find their own clear end — as clear as that one. Say you were designing a school to elevate and intensify longings. Wouldn’t you want to provide examples of people who have intense longings? Wouldn’t you want to encourage students to be obsessive about worthy things? Wouldn’t you discuss which loves are higher than others and practices that habituate them toward those desires? Wouldn’t you be all about providing students with new subjects to love?

While I agree in general with his recommendations for education reform (even if the language is a bit overwrought), I want focus on his general claims about goals, wants, and longing in human motivation, especially the following passage:

The GPA mentality is based on the supposition that we are thinking creatures. Young minds have to be taught self-discipline so they can acquire knowledge. That’s partly true, but as James K. A. Smith notes in his own book You Are What You Love, human beings are primarily defined by what we desire, not what we know. Our wants are at the core of our identity, the wellspring whence our actions flow.

At the highest level, our lives are directed toward some telos, or vision of the good life. Whether we are aware of it or not, we’re all oriented around some set of goals. As David Foster Wallace put it in his Kenyon commencement address, “In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships.” Some worship money, or power or popularity or nursing or art, but everybody’s life is organized around some longing. The heart is both a driving engine and a compass.

I don’t know about you, but I’m really bad at being self-disciplined about things I don’t care about. For me, and I suspect for many, hard work and resilience can only happen when there is a strong desire. Grit is thus downstream from longing. People need a powerful why if they are going to be able to endure any how.

Mr. Brooks seems to making two claims here, a descriptive one (“we’re all oriented around some set of goals… everybody’s life is organized around some longing”) and an evaluative one (implied in the last paragraph when he argues that longing is necessary for hard work, resilience, and grit).

I agree with the latter: longing is generally a positive thing and certainly helps to promote feelings of meaning and purpose and, through them, to increase well-being. But I think the lack of it is a more serious problem than he seems to recognize (at least in this piece), which calls into question his more basic descriptive statement about the ubiquity of longing.

It’s wonderful if people have goals, desires, and longing along which to organize their lives, and I agree that schools (at every level) could focus more on helping people refine them. At the same time, however, some people—including those long out of school—lack goals, desires, and longing altogether. Such people are aimless and depressed precisely because they have no direction, purpose, or meaning to their lives. They may have never formed goals, reflected on desires past immediate drives and urges, or indulged in longing at all. They may never have felt they had reason to, opportunity to, or the right to. They may have never been encouraged to, or felt it was simply indulgent. Instead, they spend their lives just getting by and doing the best they can, largely drifting with the tide rather than having a strong impulse to swim in a direction of their own choosing.

I trust Mr. Brooks has these people in mind as well, and his proposals for enriching education may go a long way toward helping people avoid this fate if caught early enough. But at the same time, his assertion that “everybody’s life is organized around some longing” comes off as idealistic and rather dismissive of the large number of people who suffer from a lack of longing… unless you count the longing for longing itself.


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