Tuesday, April 4, 2017
© Charles D. Hayes
The 2016 presidential election made it clear that America is suffering an egregious vacuum of goodwill. Too many of our citizens are ill-equipped to cope with life in the twenty-first century. Simply put, they lack the knowledge to deal with the angst that comes with being mortal.
For decades, I have been trying to articulate the benefits of a liberal education. I have fully experienced the rewards myself, having gone from growing up as a hard-right conservative to becoming politically liberal. Years of study helped unravel my animosity toward progressive points of view. For me, the learning I experienced dispelled the angst that used to fester in my mind toward people I considered “others.” Lately the angst has resurfaced as a growing intolerance for intolerance.
So, like a moth to a flame, I’m drawn to read every book and essay I can find about meaningful education because, even though I understand the profound value of broad, liberal learning, I have difficulty explaining how others might relieve themselves of the contempt that comes with a narrow worldview. Nor can I name what the tipping point might be to bring it about.
Although being open to experience is a hallmark of liberalism, it’s not yet known for sure how much our political disposition is genetically predisposed and how much it is because of learning. We do know, however, that even some who hold rigid views can be persuaded to change their minds if presented with a better argument.
One of the hardest things to do is to try to recall what it is like not to know something once you have learned it. It’s almost impossible. But having been raised without the benefit of a liberal education, I still have some sense of the void and smoldering anxiety that such an upbringing provides. Today, much as I want to share the benefits of an existential education, I’m confounded by the amount of social resistance to something that’s so life-changing and so beneficial to society at large. Even so, I do understand the animosity. Anti-intellectualism runs deep.
There are lots of good books on the value of a liberal education, but most come up short because they miss an adequate description of its most important advantage. Finally, after many years of pondering, I think I’m close to identifying what’s so often been left out. A big part of the answer is so glaringly obvious that we don’t see it.
When it works as it should, a liberal education becomes an existential education. By this I mean an education of enough quality and depth to enable one to release some of the anxiety that comes part and parcel with the human condition—that of being mortal. Mortality is a condition from which there is no escape. Willful illusion is one’s only protection, but it cannot last. Smoldering anxiety festers when other people recognize this and no longer share the cultural illusions one has adopted for escape. Contempt follows because the very existence of nonbelievers poses a deep existential threat.
In essence, an existential education makes it possible to find one’s own meaning in life without the need to find fault with others. It provides one enough confidence to be worry free and unconcerned when the views of others conflict with one’s own. An existential education enables us to forgive others for their otherness, most notably because it reminds us that we are soon to be food for worms.
To learn about many diverse subjects in the humanities is like creating a mental mansion with lavish rooms, each with enough accumulated substance that any new additions are subject to wonder by their contrast. So, instead of being allowed to inspire fear and contempt from a lack of understanding, new information is subject to relative reflection and often creates new corridors between rooms.
When a person embraces a multitude of ideas about the world, narrow viewpoints begin to appear immature. More ideas lead to more possibilities, and more options occur to consider, all of which assist in quelling anxiety before it congeals into despair, scorn, and derision. Thus, an existential education is liberating in its capacity to help dissipate social angst. The effect is the same as taking the lid off a pot of water about to boil, allowing steam to escape instead of blowing the lid off.
John Adams was right when he said, “Education makes a greater difference between man and man than nature has made between man and brute.” In my view, an existential education can effectively still the brute in man.
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