Frank Bruni's column in the New York Times this past Sunday is part of his crusade against elitism in higher education. He wants college-age kids to know they can do quite well in all sorts of colleges, so they will stop the intense obsession with getting into the very best. I get this, up to a point, but is there really no reason to go to the best college you can get into and afford? That's basically what he says, based on a new report on the way different schools affect a student's later well-being. The Purdue index...
measures success not in dollars and lofty job titles but in graduates’ professed engagement in their employment and, separately, their assessments of their own well-being, as determined by their reported satisfaction with five dimensions of life: their relationships, their physical health, their community, their economic situation and their sense of purpose.As it turns out, among all graduates, 10% describe themselves as thriving in all five areas; among students who go to the top 50 schools (as measured by US News & World Report), only 11% describe themselves as thriving in all areas. No big difference! So there's no good reason to go to Harvard, Stanford, or whatever you were hoping for? That seems to be the idea.
Bruni apparently can't imagine someone reasoning that they want to go to Harvard or Stanford for the simple reason that they can learn more and develop better skills there. The great faculty at these schools don't have anything outstanding to offer prospective students, he seems to think, unless there's a later pay-off in terms of a student's own personal well-being. Knowledge, skill, creativity, and the like aren't goods worthy of pursuit unless they're well-being-enhancing.
My next example is going to involve disabilities, which Elizabeth Barnes regards as "mere differences" because a disability "doesn't by itself make you worse off." Like Bruni thinks the greater knowledge offered by Harvard can't be better for prospective students unless better for well-being, Barnes seems to think blindness can't be worse simpliciter, so to speak, but if bad at all, must be bad for well-being. And she thinks it can't be shown that disabilities by themselves make people worse off, apart from society's failure to be accommodating. We can't regard a disability as a bad difference because absence of an ability is intrinsically bad--it must be a well-being reducer to be bad.
I think Barnes and Bruni are both over-focused on well-being. It's not incoherent to value and pursue knowledge as an ultimate end, instead of as a means to greater well-being. It's not incoherent to disvalue and avoid having a disability, because you see ability as a better thing, regardless of how a disability may (or may not) reduce well-being. Well-being is not the measure of all things!