Some thoughts on education
(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)
|Image credit: TEDxBrainport 2011, Vincent van den Hoogen.|
Education is universally recognized as a key prerequisite for a healthy, vibrant, viable society. Hardly anyone would dispute that. Yet there doesn’t seem to be a clear, unanimous view on what one should be educated for. Although there certainly are many more nuances to this question, I will limit myself to contrasting only two of them, which I consider most relevant to our present time: I will call them utilitarian education and philosophical education.
A utilitarian education aims at equipping one for the performance of practical tasks that have a direct and relatively short-term utility in a society. Electricians fix power distribution networks; engineers build dams, computers, and all kinds of handy apparatuses; physicians fix our bodies; diplomats avoid wars by resolving conflicts. The value and importance of these practical tasks to our society is unquestionable: through them, we can live longer, more healthily, and perform our own tasks more effectively. But they ignore a bigger question: Why do we live in the first place? And what should we know and understand in order to live meaningful, fulfilling lives?
This is where a philosophical education comes in; an education that equips us to look critically and thoughtfully at the world around and inside us; an education that helps us understand nature, history, and the dynamics of the human mind; an education that helps us take the lead in driving our lives to a meaningful goal, as opposed to falling unconsciously into the role of mindless consumers who only come around to asking ‘What has this all been about anyway?’ in their deathbeds. A philosophical education equips us to choose and make something truly meaningful out of our lives.
We live in an age that – especially after the 1960s – turned so drastically towards pragmatism that we’ve nearly forgotten to ask why we live. Utilitarian advancements are important in that they extend and optimize our lives, but leaving it at that is akin to restoring and turbo-charging your car so you can leave it rotting in the garage. We’re so focused in extending our lives, optimizing the performance of necessary tasks, communicating faster and more frequently with one another, accumulating wealth and, most visibly, consuming and entertaining our way to depression, that we’ve almost entirely forgotten to ask what this is all about. Why do we live? What is love all about? What is art all about? What have philosophers and poets alike been trying to say for the past few thousand years? What is going on?
It’s legitimate to try and optimize our lives, but not at the cost of neglecting to ask what life is for in the first place. Failing to provide a philosophical education that foments the growth of thoughtful human beings attuned to their own place in nature is a recipe for long-term dysfunction. A society of depressed drones going blindly about their practical tasks and mindless entertainment is hardly a utopia. The way to avoid this nightmare is not the outrageous fad that depressed human beings are simply malfunctioning robots fixable through the popping of a few pills; only a form of education that we, worryingly, seem to have lost familiarity with can provide a human alternative for our future.