The Well-Being Trap

There's a pattern of thought I keep seeing. It goes like this.  You reason that X isn't really so important to pursue, because it doesn't necessarily improve our well-being.  Or you reason that Y isn't really so important to avoid, because it doesn't necessarily reduce our well-being.

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 thereThe 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!


Faust said...

Any thoughts on how would test the hypothesis that people "learn more and develop better skills" at Harvard? I don't see any reason to believe that without evidence.

Jean Kazez said...

When I wrote this it happens I was thinking about Robert Sapolsky, the primatologist at Stanford. He's at the top of his field, so presumably knows more about primates than someone at Local State. It stands to reason that people who study with Saplosky will come to know more about primates than people who study with the lesser lights at Local State. Of course, this is just on average and will have to do with teaching abilities and learning abilities in any particular case. I think if I were interested in primatology, I could say it was better to go to Stanford, in a certain clear sense, regardless of whether my well-being was going to be improved. Ditto if the issue is skills. If the super-skilled architects teach at X, then students will get more skill in architecture if they go to X rather than Y. How could it not be true that students will acquire more knowledge and skills if they attend schools where teachers have greater knowledge and skills...unless there's some profound problem with transmission from teacher to student?

Faust said...

"How could it not be true that students will acquire more knowledge and skills if they attend schools where teachers have greater knowledge and skills...unless there's some profound problem with transmission from teacher to student?"

I guess that's my immediate reaction - why assume that someone who is at the top of their field is actually a good TEACHER - there is a difference between being "the best primatologist" and being "the best person at teaching primatology."

I don't think your point has no merit at all, but I see top universities as primarily being about the following:

- Establishing a position in a social pecking order - goes to legacy students, ability to pay for elite institutions
- Developing social contacts with other elites (goes to first bullet)

I see top universities cultivating top talent and top students as part of the effort to maintain elite positioning.

Now of course this is a cynical view - and it only goes so far. But I'm not satisfied with a simple view of "best universities produce the best work" - I think a lot of that stuff is self-fulfilling prophecy - they also decide what the best work is.