Sunday, January 22, 2012

Existentialism

Teaching is the absolute best way to learn something really, really well.  Especially if you teach a topic repeatedly to audiences of different sorts of learners.  This is why collaboration, think-pair-share, and any of those other gee-whiz strategies work so well. They move students into the role of teacher.  You can't explain something very well, and in varying ways, if you don't understand it.  Probably the chief challenge in teaching is to remember that your audience does not understand something as well as you do.  Teaching is the ultimate mind-matching exercise.

I managed to avoid teaching existentialism for years just by teaching in the lower grades.  But when the works of senior year pushed us into the realm of philosophy, I had to get a handle on this one--a philosophy that runs through most modern works and that initially appeared to me to be depressing: life has no meaning, do what you want.  Turns out there was so much more--and paradoxically--less.

My journey started with my colleagues: "Explain this philosophy to me in a way that helps me explain this to my students."  They complied.  We had a discussion over lunch.

As with any inquiry, once the question is asked the answers begin to appear everywhere (so says I - and Socrates) and I was on a collecting spree, always looking for works to flesh out my simplistic view of a modern dilemma:  What is the meaning and purpose of life?

My favorite was Jean Paul Sartre's defense.  Sartre's view is hopeful.  If life is purposeless then humans are free to determine their own purpose. But in defining ourselves as human, we must first define our purpose and then taking action becomes obvious since it will result from that stated purpose.  Those who face down their 'existential crisis' and come out on the other side become the opposite of Eliot's hollow men.

Next, on a snow day, I read Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning.  It's a little book that can be read in a sitting.  Frankl, a concentration camp survivor, reformed his psychiatric practice after the war to help depressives find their way out of their mental prison camps by defining their own purpose - and then taking action which conforms to the belief.

Simple, really.  Pick a reason.  Act accordingly.

Now on to the kids.

Existential movies abound in the popular culture and this provides access for youngsters who are yet to face the crisis most humans endure at one time or another.

Through the plot of a popular movie, most students can grasp the notion of feeling lost or rudderless and then finding something to live for. (In most movies, the characters choose to live for each other.  Christians call that charity-or the greatest of these: love).  In a list of movies (Up in the Air, Little Miss Sunshine, Garden State) the class can usually find one most have seen and then explore how the philosophy is expressed.  After "getting it" they can transfer their new understanding to more difficult works. (Hamlet, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead)

And then there's this little gem from The Onion that lightens the mood after we've delved into some heavy material.

After spending all this time in my own search for a clearer understanding, I see the philosophy everywhere.

Apparently, that's the reason behind all these Mission Statement workshops. Too bad most of the time these are a hollow exercise rather the opportunity to wrestle with a collective view of the purpose of a public schooling system--or our particular school--or the ideal school.

And how about this?  If the purpose of a nation is to make money ("The business of America is business.") then what kind of actions would naturally stem from that as a purpose?

Discuss this amongst yourselves.