Saturday, August 23, 2014

Education: An Existential Crisis

© Charles D. Hayes

I’ve always thought that America’s Founding Fathers made a mistake by focusing on the pursuit of happiness. If, instead, they had prized the pursuit of wisdom, we would likely have many more reasons to be happy.

Just about everything we create comes with an owner’s manual. Everything, that is, except us humans. For nearly four decades, I have been in pursuit of self-education with a goal of learning, to the best of my ability, the value of having been afforded the life of a human being. The older I get, the more I think I understand what is wrong with our educational system.

The core of the problem lies in our belief that it’s okay to leave the study of human behavior to professionals. The specialization of knowledge has resulted in what cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker called “a general imbecility.”

Deep down in the primeval recesses of our brains is a condition analogous to a software program containing malware. This innate disorder exists because we human beings are unique in the animal world. We alone become aware early on in our lives that we are going to die, and this sets us up for a subconscious emotional roller coaster ride. The reality of our mortality stalks us throughout our lives, making shadowy appearances in all manner of disguises like change, uncertainty, and especially otherness—metaphorical cousins of death that are subtle reminders of our inevitable nonexistence.

The essence of what I characterize as an existential education is achieving a level of knowledge equilibrium that offers us maximum coping capability with the emotional angst that comes with the human condition, an intellectual ability for anxiety dissipation that enables us to live without the need for distractions from our mortality by scapegoating those whose very existence reminds us that we are going to die.

One has only to examine the condition of planetary human relations to understand that the core educational components missing in our species worldwide are Human Behavior 101, a course of humanities representing the acquired wisdom of our global culture, and enough knowledge of anthropology to put one’s tribe in meaningful perspective with the rest of the planet’s occupants.

Addressing this civilizational short circuit was supposed to be the goal of a liberal education, but its advocates never seemed able to get enough people to agree on the value of liberal arts or how incredibly important it is to be able to cope with uncertainty and not feel threated by the existence of people whose beliefs and customs appear strange or foreign.

To accept the premise that the known fundamentals about our species form a body of specialized knowledge suitable only for experts undermines the long-term sustainability of civilization. We have achieved the technological capability of wizards, while the nature of our social and political relations ranges from narcissistic adolescence to Stone Age tribalism. 
The history of human conflict is steeped in ignorant assumptions and misunderstandings based on superficial observations, uninformed gossip, and conspiratorial paranoia about other people, whose differences are perceived as threatening because they serve as reminders of our mortality.

Pointing out differences and making fun of unfamiliar customs is a bonding ritual in which in-groups alienate out-groups. The process of bonding through the alienation of others offers a false curtain of security in which genuine knowledge of the other becomes verboten in order to keep the curtain closed and to maintain one’s sense of patriotism.

Our educational deficit is readily observable by focusing on those whose lives are sheltered by a narrow sense of identity, a regional, local, or tribal view simplified by relating to all of those outside their group in terms of us and them. All that should be required of a thinking person who views a tribe or clannish group with a restricted worldview is to ask if one’s own outlook is thus similarly constructed and constrained.

Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses the metaphor of rider and elephant to describe our reasoning ability, with reason being the former and our emotional subconscious the latter. I am not suggesting that an existential education will enable our rider to boss its elephant around. But if we are to have any chance of taming the elephant, we have to be able to dispel the fears born of ignorance that naturally occurs at the borders and dividing lines where the differences of our respective national and tribal associations are celebrated, exaggerated, and reviled. A better understanding of human behavior doesn’t trump our fears about mortality, but it can help dissipate the angst associated with otherness which so often serves as a preferable distraction to reality. 

The essence of an existential education is a learned predisposition for getting beyond ignorant assumptions and for refusing to go along with the vitriol of tribalistic small-mindedness. When we are young, we are totally dependent upon family and local culture in developing our sense of reality. As we grow older and mature, our exposure to other cultures is bound to grow as well, unless our respective cultures restrict our access or discourages our pursuit of knowledge outside our borders, real or imaginary.

There is a fork in the road on the path to adulthood: One path leads to one’s local culture and the shelter of identifying oneself as a member of the association that offers a form of protection that will trump all threats. In other words, the truths or arguments of enemies do not really count in closed associations because one’s culture is assumed to be ideologically correct by nature of its identity. Moreover, clinging to group identification reduces the need for critical analysis and self-reflection about the problems one’s society faces. All one has to do is choose sides, go about one’s business, and substitute loyalty for thinking.    

The other path is respective of group identity but it’s also a posture of being open to experience, the pursuit of knowledge, affection for ideas and for achieving a critical mass of education in which learning becomes its own reward with the knowledge that the world is not made worse by getter closer to truths previously perceived as being inconvenient. To the contrary, life gets better as we get closer to an objective reality because our existential fears are diminished and we can make room for those who view the world differently without feeling threatened.

If we do not pursue a vigorous existential education for the pleasure of learning that follows and for an increased ability to deal with one’s own inevitable creature anxiety, we wind up as a species identifiable by the alarming fact that if the neural patterns in our heads don’t match, we will turn on one another. So far, this kind of learning has not been our priority. To see how well the alternative has worked for us, observe the news of the day.

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