That title is the motto of my university and the basis of a final exam question I asked the sophomores in my “Great Books” core course. The answers were interesting (in a disheartening way). The students “get” making a difference (a phrase added to our motto a little more than a decade ago, by a process that neither I nor—so far as I know—any other faculty were privy). Making a difference is celebrated in the popular culture, and “kids these days” have a relatively sophisticated understanding of what it means and how they can do it.

They also understand quite well making a living, something that is pounded into them on a variety of fronts.

But making a life?  A few could explain it, but most essentially assimilated it to making a living. If you love your job (and it’s “meaningful”), you’re making a life. Most, in other words, seemed unaware of the possibility of a rich and deep life outside the workplace. That’s the disheartening part of the experience for me, since the “liberal” part of a liberal education is supposed to be precisely about that. (If I could found my own college and money were no object, its motto would be: “Majors are for drones.” As my daughter would say, “just kidding.”)

So, as professors do when they’re in the throes of grading and want some sympathy, I took to Facebook and posed the question about the motto to the alumni who have condescended to friend me. The results were gratifying. To a person, they got it and could articulate the difference between making a life and making a living. It helps, I suppose, that they have some experience—not just book learning—with both, and have recognized that much of what gives their lives meaning doesn’t take place at the office or (dare I say it?) in the classroom.

But I’d like to think that discussing Aristotle’s conception of moral virtue, reading Plato’s Republic (not to mention other “Great Books”), and pondering life’s big questions with fellow students and with me—how shall I say it?— made a difference.

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