These patterns of academic thinking soon seep into their personal lives. When you are asked to justify your personal decisions, it means to assume that such reasons exist. Thomas Aquinas, another author of our program, calls the reason that guides all your other reasons your “ultimate goal.” Those who discover that they have such ultimate goals and learn to value them see a way out of the funhouse of arbitrary decisions that so often ensnare young people.

After all, the number of final ends is not infinite. Aquinas usefully suggests that the ultimate objects of human desire can be divided into only eight durable categories. If we want to understand where we are headed, we must ask ourselves the following questions: Am I interested in this opportunity because it leads to wealth? Or am I aiming for praise and admiration? Do I want eternal glory? Or power — to “influence”? Is my goal to have the most fun? Am I looking for health? Am I seeking some “good for the soul,” such as knowledge or virtue? Or is it my ultimate desire to come face to face with the divine?

Most students, to their surprise, find that they can find their desires on this old map. This does not leave the students with a feeling of stiffness, as they often fell into fear. It leaves them feeling empowered, like travelers who suddenly recognize the orienting features of the landscape.

Like any good map, Aquinas’s sound analysis of the human goods can tell us something about where we’re going before we get there. We start the path to wealth, for example, because it is a versatile means to almost any goal. But wealth cannot be the ultimate goal of life, because it gives satisfaction only when it is traded for something else. Admiration means that people think we are doing something well. But it often comes from the wrong judgment of others and can lead you astray.

Most students gratefully discover this art of choice. Learning to think about happiness awakens “the power that dwells in the soul,” as Socrates said, which is as wonderful as discovering that the voice can be made to sing. Why is it rarely taught in humanitarian institutions? In some cases, teachers are encouraged to emphasize special studies rather than thinking about the good life. In others, they share the belief that reason is merely an extension of the drive to dominate, or Rousseau’s belief that feeling is a better guide to happiness than reason.

Most significantly, however, the prevailing model of liberal education—opening doors without helping us think about what lies beyond—prevails because it replicates a successful modern formula. Agnosticism about human ends, combined with an endless increase in means and possibilities, has proved a powerful organizing principle in our political and economic life. It helped create the extraordinary peace, prosperity, and freedom we have enjoyed for most of the modern era.

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