“Education is a defense against culture,” said educator and critic Neil Postman. An education that doesn’t result in a lifelong desire for knowledge is an education that didn’t take. If one’s efforts cease, the battle is lost to those who use political anxiety to manipulate vulnerable people.
Consider John, the accountant, police officer, engineer, attorney, welder, electrician, or any other occupation that requires learning, skill, and talent. He sailed through school with ease, taking the hard subjects and shunning electives as a waste of time. At work, he stands out; most everything he does is judged to be quality work. John’s political views are fairly black and white. His worldview is heavily influenced by his occupation and the geographic region where he lives. He has little patience with people who do not seem to be doing what is expected of them.
As he ages, John is increasingly more comfortable in his work and less in his element at home. His wife has her own career, and over time their interests grow apart, leaving them fewer and fewer things to talk about. After a hard day’s work, John loses himself in televised sports and watches just enough biased political reporting to have developed a slow-burning level of contempt for all the people he believes are ruining the world.
Simply put, John is more of a human doing than a human being. All of his life, he has been told how to do things, mostly without asking why. He is like a satellite put into orbit and set to spinning with such velocity that he can’t stop or spin in a way that goes counter to his cultural indoctrination. Does this sound like anyone you know, male or female?
Most of us grow up constructing a worldview so heavily influenced by our geography and our social affiliation that we believe our personal outlook constitutes straight-up reality. Some of us are virtual prisoners of an internalized regional ideology, which means broadly that we’re certain who the out groups are—namely, the people we imagine are keeping us from living better lives.
The target may be immigrants, welfare recipients, or the ethnic outgroup of the moment. The list is long, and the irony is that many allow those in power to rig the system to their own advantage, often through the process of vicarious identification. They delude themselves into believing that they have more in common with the very rich than with those who are struggling to survive.
For decades I have been arguing that what is needed in today’s politically partisan and fast-changing world is an existential education. By this I mean a deep level of knowledge that’s based on immersion in the humanities and behavioral sciences. Such an education enables a person to fully appreciate the range of differences within our species and to recognize that, as mortal beings, we are subconsciously aware and upset that we are going to die. It teaches us to deal with these harsh aspects of the human condition without the need to find scapegoats to distract us from this mostly unconscious but smoldering anxiety.
In other words, an existential education enables a person to create one’s own meaning in life with some genuine independence from the conformist demands of one’s culture. It also fosters sufficient reasoning ability to dissipate the inevitable angst what comes with being mortal.
A fundamental goal of an existential education is the ability to burst rigid conformist worldview bubbles and to prevent new ones from forming. The idea is to increase one’s capacity to discern a more objective sense of reality, while remaining fully cognizant that we are locked in an inescapable mode of subjectivity, the only solution being nonexistence.
An existential education should enable a person to deconstruct the collective lies and cultural myths we grow up accepting as absolute truth and to see through the pretense of manipulative advertising and political ploys designed to have us act against our own interests. It teaches us to always be alert to the reality that, more often than not, things are not as they appear and to be autonomously impervious to the perception that human beings have value only in economic terms.
Curiosity lies at the heart of a successful existential education by cultivating a continuous thirst for knowledge and for a better appreciation of our subjective existence. Understanding that we will never nail reality to the wall, we know that if we quit trying, our perspective suffers and our anxiety festers.
Without the benefit of an existential education, we, like John, are apt to see the world exclusively in terms of our respective means of earning a living, and our local economic concerns will likely trump the interests of anyone we consider outsiders. If lumber is the primary industry, then those whose income depends on it don’t want to hear about the need to save trees. If it’s oil, they don’t want to hear about global warming.
If people are unfamiliar with the divergent customs of others the world over, they are less likely to empathize with those whose interests conflict with their own. They’ll be eager to believe everything negative that they hear about those they consider to be the opposition.
History makes it crystal clear that studying the humanities won’t humanize those whose attitudes and predispositions don’t allow it, but the inquiry most certainly helps those who strive to be better human beings. I know this to be true, not from theory, but from personal experience. Some people can alleviate existential angst through religious faith, but for others, such conviction has the opposite effect and leads to tribalism at its worst.
One thing we know for certain is that no ethnic group, no country, no nationality, no religious affiliation has a lock on morality and virtue. Even so, most everyone assumes their own culture is superior to all others.
Growing up with a narrow worldview and without the ability to expand one’s understanding is to be a prisoner of time and place. It sets one up to be easily manipulated by those with a political agenda, as evidenced by the current state of politics in a country where inequality is growing fast by lobbied design.
Clinging to a constricted or parochial worldview is a recipe for engendering the kind of contempt that offers relief only when it’s redirected as scorn toward others. Uncertainty fosters bigotry among ignorant people. Through collective contempt, people let their kind off the hook from bearing any accountability for their illiteracy. To place blame is to effortlessly escape responsibility.
When worldviews clash, an existential education offers alternative points of view for reflection, comparisons, other possibilities, and the knowledge that even cultures with very different customs share fundamental values and have similar needs. A deep resource of accumulated knowledge can diffuse pent-up anxiety by supplying something else to consider besides the usual arbitrary accusations that come with our tribalistic predispositions.
In a nutshell, an existential education can help human doings become better human beings. Our penchant for tribalism appears to be innate, and existential contempt remains the Achilles heel of our species. This needn’t be so if we seek the knowledge and the will to dissipate our own cultural angst.
Charles D. Hayes