THE RELEVANCY OF MODERN STOICISM FOR HIGHER EDUCATION

S. MacMillan

Mount Saint Vincent University (CANADA)
Today’s higher education students are struggling not only with educational and career choices, but also with the major existential questions of life - Who am I? What do I want? How should I live? Additionally, the transition from high school to higher education is challenging and many students experience high levels of anxiety and stress affecting their overall well-being (Conley, 2007; Hunter, 2006; Kantanis, 2000; Krause, 2005; Kuh, 2007, 2009; Kuh, Cruce, Shoup, Kinzie & Gonyea, 2008; Parker, Summerfeldt, Hogan & Majeski, 2004; Pritchard & Wilson, 2003; Wilcox, Winn & Fyvie‐Gauld, 2005). According to the 2017 National College Health Assessment, “in the last 12 months, 20.5% felt very lonely, 60.9% felt overwhelming anxiety, 21.6% diagnosed with anxiety, and 17.8% diagnosed with depression” (American College Health Association). Researchers indicate that there has been a significant increase in students’ mental health challenges over the past twenty years and counsellors at many universities are stretched thin for the demand for their services (Beiter, Nash, McCrady, Rhoades, Linscomb, Clarahan & Sammut, 2015; Munn, 2019).

To cope with these many challenges, students need various forms of assistance to help build a strong personal foundation. One form of support, I will argue, can be found in the principles of modern stoic philosophy. Stoicism is an applied philosophy which provides practical insights to deal with the dilemmas of everyday life, especially the problems of modern society. Pigliucci (2017, p. 12) describes it as a “path devised by humanity to develop a more coherent view of the world, of who we are, and of how we fit into the broader scheme of things.” Stoicism is traced back to the ancient Greek philosophers such as Zeno, Seneca, and Epictetus but came to be known through the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius’s classic “Meditations” (Baltzly, 2019; Pigliucci, 2017; Robertson, 2019). Modern stoicism emphasizes “philosophy as a way of life” and provides a core set of principles to cope with the trials and tribulations of daily living. The most important stoic principle is the “dichotomy of control,” which is being able to distinguish between what is within one’s control versus what is not within one’s control. In an unpredictable modern world this is a valuable practical concept as too often many people waste energy being anxious about events outside of their control. These practices are especially relevant for young people who are trying to choose a meaningful future in a world full of choices. Stoic principles also include the development of personal strength, resilience, wisdom, and having a moral compass. The values of stoicism can provide the means to help students deal with the challenges involved in their educational pursuits and those they will face post-graduation.

The full paper will discuss the varied challenges faced by students today, the relevancy of the philosophy of modern stoicism, and conclude with recommendations for teaching stoic principles.