I never would have imagined that I would call myself an existentialist. I was first introduced to the philosophy in high school through both AP French and Advanced Drama. In french class, we read Sartre’s “No Exit” and Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” In drama, I was a part of the production that my high school put on of “Waiting for Godot”. I felt a bit distant from my ideas of existentialism back then. It seemed so amorphous and bleak, and I was a “yellow dog” optimist. I have come to a new definition of existential philosophy, and I feel a connection with it at this point in my life. I have spent many hours thinking about people, perceptions, and thinking itself, and I find in the words of existentialist thinkers a keen focus on perception and meaning as relates to individual experience. To me, this approach to understanding relationship, and even reality, is quite helpful for anyone who works with people, and especially students and children.
We need to put our perceptions into perspective. We must know the limitations of our own knowledge and be sure to maintain awareness when what we “know” or “don’t know” is clouding our perceptions of present experience. These ideas are existential in that we must take a deep personal involvement in our conviction to realize that all people perceive and create from their own limited perceptions and knowledge. As the late banjo player and riverboat captain, John Hartford, so aptly puts it, “Our style is a product of our limitations.” This phrase is obviously about musical technique, but it corresponds to any activity where thinking is involved. Existentialism requires one to understand the deeply personal nature of thought and experience. Once this understanding about perception and thought is in place, it is only natural to question the nature of “truth”.
This idea uproots all our traditional foundations of knowledge and thinking. It shows us we can never really capture truth, especially in words. It places truth and knowledge in the realm of subjectivity, which allows us to change our relationship to our own ideas and ideas about people and things. This thinking is difficult for many people because there is no certainty or fixity in it. This is especially challenging for education. It seems obvious, one teacher’s interpretation of the truth in a kernel of knowledge will naturally be different from another’s, and, consequently, will affect the symbols and modes of transmission which are employed in the learning transaction. Truth cannot be taught. What can be taught is only a subjective interpretation based on the background and experiences of the teacher. That is why a constant watchfulness and awareness of the limiting factors of thought and the influence of background is necessary for any true educator.
Teachers must ignite a spirit of inquiry and discontent in their students so they can begin to engage in the sort of questioning that will lead them to self-discovery. Teachers need to create an environment that enables students to use imagination freely and go beyond themselves. This reaching beyond opens the capacity of empathy and encourages us to think about and question what we are doing with our lives.
This sort of perspective cannot be taught through words. It can only be modeled in action by the individual teacher. This idea makes for the old adage, “practice what you preach”. If we model our awareness of behavior and reaction, than we must partake in the practice of “wide awakeness” ourselves, to use a term from Maxine Greene. If we attempt a practice in this way, regardless of our ideas of success or failure in this endeavor, our teaching will never become a dull routine, and children will learn the ways of actual experience as opposed to the imposition of a process for an expected product or result.
Can this subjective, interpersonal, and self-reflective philosophy be put into practice in modern education? I believe that an existentialist approach is possible within the constraints of our current system. While the subject matter within public schools is fairly fixed, the existential philosophy can be implemented in many ways. The teacher must always be on guard against falling into mechanized routines in thought or behavior, thereby, alienating the students’ reactions and input. The teacher must make great effort to understand the preferences and interests of each student. Through the watchful awareness of the class, a teacher will be able to craft lessons that allow the students to explore, empathize, and go beyond themselves. Regardless of the subject to be taught, teachers can model the sort of self-awareness, wide awakeness, and consideration that existentialism seeks to nourish. Teachers should not compel or coerce the students into action. The participation in learning must be voluntary, and the teacher should tell this to the students. Teachers must cultivate true dialogue between themselves and the students, and encourage the students to do the same amongst themselves. This can only be done by offering the students respect, patience, and understanding. Again, regardless of the subject being taught, the teacher is there for the student, not the other way around.
To me, the existentialist tradition exemplifies thoughtfulness, love, and intelligence. The highly awakened mind knows its own limitations. Part of existentialist thought encourages us to reflect on our own reactions in order to go beyond them and understand the world more deeply. We have used logic, categorized, and scientifically ordered so much of our world without taking the time to understand what is closest to us, our own thoughts and their relationship to truth. It is time to awaken ourselves to our own inner relationships in order to show the students how to relate to and interact with ideas and their interpretations of them. With increased empathy, consideration, and compassion, our society can take the next steps, in unison with science and technology, towards breaking through our current social barriers and problems. I never would have imagined I would call myself an existentialist.