The Big Questions

by Jahnabi Barooah

questions or decision making concept

My friend and former colleague Jaweed Kaleem’s superbly-reported story at The Huffington Post on the American university system as an “oasis of sort” for keeping alive the tradition of asking Big Questions hit very close to home.

“This fall, as the latest crop of freshmen arrives on university campuses across the country, many students will find themselves debating similar questions [to “What am I doing in life at this point? What’s happiness?”], and not only in early-morning 101 courses. In dining halls and dorm rooms, as they come together with people of vastly different backgrounds and perspectives, they’ll continue the typical college traditions of late nights, long conversations and self-discovery. And when they graduate, they will face a challenge much steeper than any college exam or doctoral dissertation — carrying that spirit of inquiry with them into the real world.”

If my undergraduate education and (brief and necessarily limited) experience of life after college are any indication, Kaleem is right that “carrying that spirit of inquiry” about the meaning and purpose of life into the “real world” is indeed a steep challenge. Throughout my time in college where I started out in the engineering track (computer science, then operations research and financial engineering) and ended up in economics, I found the settings that fostered asking the Big Questions — a liberal arts education, dorms, student center(s) where the entire undergraduate body hung out and most importantly, time to think about the Big Questions, and like-minded friends to think these questions with.

After graduating from college, I was lucky to have one of the best jobs (for a recent graduate, at least) in one of the most glamorous cities in the world. The work I did was demanding, fulfilling, and even thought-provoking at times; my colleagues were hard-working, brilliant and friendly. But as much as I loved my job, and soaked in the irresistible charms of life in New York City — from Sunday brunch at Clinton St. Baking Company to kirtan (devotional chanting) festivals at the Bhakti Center — I found that something very important was missing from my life: companionship with like-minded seekers, or people who had the same questions as I did about how to lead a life of purpose. To be sure, I had quite a few close friends and I knew hundreds of people in the city. I also actively sought out (spiritual) communities but in spite of this, occasions of meaningful encounter and opportunities for deep conversations were few and far between.

As Kaleem notes, MIT clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle attributes this decline to the impact of technology on human relationships:

“We have stripped away so many of the conditions that make conversations like these flourish. And the condition that makes it flourish, in many cases, is the uninterrupted full attention to each other.”

I’m sure that for better or for worse, technology has (irreversibly?) changed the way human beings relate to one another, and that “uninterrupted full attention to each other” does sow the seed for many a deep conversation. But I disagree with Turkle that the explosion of technology in our lives is primarily to blame for either the decline of meaningful relationships or the dying down of the tradition of asking Big Questions. Rather, I think this is happening because we don’t have enough time for each other. This can be for several reasons: 1) because one is actually incredibly busy due to work, family or other commitments, 2) because one thinks that has no time, or 3) because one feels obligated, perhaps due to peer pressure, to be busy. Undoubtedly, technology and especially the ease of procrastination on social media, plays a significant role in creating our perception of being constantly busy.

If the American university system remains a setting for “late nights [with friends], long conversations and self-discovery,” that foster the tradition of asking Big Questions for college students, I’m not convinced that the experience is quite the same for graduate students. At the very least, I can say that one of the major reasons I returned to a university campus setting, in addition to pursuing my intellectual interests of course, was so that I could engage in the tradition of pondering on the Big Questions with my peers. Frankly speaking, I can’t say that I’ve quite found that here at Harvard Divinity School (HDS). To be fair, I had plenty of fascinating conversations during Orientation Week on topics ranging from feminism to vocation. But once classes started, the opportunities to engage in these conversations died down drastically. Admittedly, I’m only starting my second week of classes at HDS, and it’s possible that more opportunities to engage in deep conversation will mushroom (and I certainly hope they do!). [Of course, I’m to blame as well for taking on a heavier course load than many of my peers, but then one has only so much time in graduate school as a master’s student. But it does seem that between classes, homework, research, jobs and extra-curricular activities, everyone is busy with their own lives.]

Still, I believe I am not incorrect when I argue, based on my personal experience, that the university system is not quite the “oasis” for asking Big Questions for graduate students. The graduate experience tends to be different from the undergraduate experience for the following reasons: 1) graduate students tend to live off-campus instead of in dormitories on campus as all or most undergraduates do, 2) graduate students tend to hang out in their departments with their cohort and discuss their research; undergraduate students are more likely to hang out in student center(s) with a varied group of friends, 3) graduate students are more likely to be married or in a serious relationship than undergraduates, and it is possible (and certainly makes sense) that they would prefer to spend time with their significant others than with classmates, 4) graduate students have to spend a lot more time preparing for class and on research than do undergraduates, 5) graduate students are much less likely to take a course outside their specific research interest. (An undergraduate physics major is more likely, perhaps even required, to take a course in philosophy or literature, but the same is not true for a graduate student in physics. Whether or not coursework in the humanities specifically fosters the tradition of asking Big Questions, as argued by the likes of David Brooks, is another matter. I bring this up only because it’s mentioned in Kaleem’s story.) In my opinion, the first, third, fourth and fifth reasons are all directly related to, or a result of (the perception of) not having enough time (either for oneself or for one another).

So, deep friendships and the tradition of asking Big Questions are dying, and it’s likely because we don’t have enough time. Alas.

[Addition: This brings me to my concluding question: Given that most of us are (or, think that we are) under the intense pressure of academics, work and / or family life, and time is our most valuable possession, is asking Big Questions then the prerogative of only the privileged, or is asking these questions integral to flourishing as human beings as the ancient Greeks thought?]