Beyond Employability: Why Students' Need for Meaning Matters

Note: The following passages are taken and adapted from my book, Education and Well-Being: An Ontological Inquiry (2016) https://www.amazon.com/Education-Well-Being-Ontological-Matthew-Dewar/dp/1137602759

The ominous drone of a low-flying helicopter reverberated throughout my classroom. I walked to the window and watched its flight pattern follow the railroad tracks across the street from the school. The sight of the helicopter turned my stomach, and my hunch was confirmed a few moments later when the student with whom I was conferring joined me at the window and asked: “Do you think another one did it?”

“It” referred to a few weeks before when a student, on his way to school, placed his backpack on the ground, walked under a railroad-crossing gate, and sat down on the tracks in front of a commuter train. A car full of his peers, waiting at the gate, watched the scene unfold in disbelief.

“I don’t know,” I said. We stood silently at the window for a few moments. When another helicopter emerged on the horizon, I turned from the window and broke the silence: “Let’s get back to work.”

A few hours later, I was informed by an email that, indeed, another student had taken his own life. He had walked out of the front doors of school, crossed the street, and laid down on the railroad tracks in front of another commuter train.

As I entered class later that afternoon, sobs and cries filled the room. Some students stood in groups embracing each other, while others sat or stood alone on the periphery of the classroom with thousand-yard stares. Some of these students had been with their friend only minutes before his fateful walk across the school’s front lawn. Never in my personal or professional life had I felt so unprepared and inadequate. Never before had I so acutely felt that contemporary education – with its fixation on standardized testing and job preparation – had lost sight of, in the words of Tillich (2009), an “ultimate concern.”

Before the wave of grief could subside, a third student, a few weeks later, also found himself on the tracks. This cluster of eerily similar deaths was not without precedent. In the two years leading up to these events, and within the three years since, current and former students have attempted to take, and continue to take, their own lives—and not just at my school, but across the country (see Sullivan, et al, 2015).

Camus (1991) writes, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy” (p. 3). I too believe that judging whether life is or is not worth living still amounts to answering the fundamental question of not only philosophy but also of education. Gelven (1989) writes, “Any philosophical inquiry can be understood in terms of the primary danger or fear which the thinker seeks to avoid at all costs” (p. 10). I seek to avoid at all costs a conception of education that impoverishes the meaning of a student’s being. I have seen firsthand, and hope to never see again, the consequences of education failing to help uncover and affirm the meaning of a student’s existence. It does not matter if our students are “college and career ready” if the absence of purpose and meaning in their lives drives them towards self-alienation and annihilation. If we are to safeguard our students from the depths of despair, we, as educators, must assert, as Camus does, “that the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions” (p. 4). 

Unfortunately, and too often, well-intentioned educators reinforce the reduction of students’ value to a market value, to the marketability of their lives as products to be sold and purchased. But when we superimpose market values on students, like a marketable set of “college and career ready skills,” we imply their value as human beings is economically conditional. And when students do not conform to their prepackaged and ready-made identities, adults too often hijack their decision-making process to prevent the student’s “failure,” which is implicitly understood as a lack of marketability, a life resume without the socially expected and accepted accomplishments. Though at times well-intentioned, such actions communicate a powerful message without saying a word. When parents and educators prevent teens from failing, as too many do, Levine (2006) contends, they deprivethem of the trial and error process necessary for becoming healthy, autonomous human beings. When taken to an extreme, a life lived outside of one’s control becomes oppressive. When agency, the empowering force central to personhood, is stolen, teens find no meaning in living lives they have not chosen. Consequently, a longing for annihilation, though absent in an emotionally sound teen, begins to represent the possibility of emphatically reclaiming agency in one’s life by, paradoxically, choosing to end it.

Given the extent to which young adults will go to reclaim agency in their lives, why do we steal it from them in the first place? Again, too often well-intentioned parents and educators operate with a view of being that is reducible to economic standing, which leads to the false conclusion that unless adults micromanage the lives of teens, these teens will fail in school, fail to get a good job, fail to secure the financial resources needed to have more life choices, and will ultimately fail to be a person, fated to live a life bereft of meaning and significance.But when we take over young people’s decision-making process to prevent them from failing, we risk affronting and interrupting the ontologically significant questions they are learning to ask and explore: What does my life mean? What kind of human being do I want to become? These are questions that matter and that define, according to Heidegger (1962), the meaning of our distinctly human way of being. Furthermore, these questions do not come with prepackaged answers, which means that young people need to explore and struggle with who they are becoming (as we all did and continue to do), and that education should support this process, not oppose it.

In an educational world dominated by an impoverished view of the human being that is reducible to an economic commodity, educators need to more deliberately reflect on and reconsider education’s philosophical commitments. To conduct such a reflection requires that we challenge, Slouka (2009) writes, “the increasing dominance—scratch that, the unqualified triumph—of a certain way of seeing, of reckoning value” that drives “the quiet retooling of […] education into an adjunct of business, an instrument of production” (p. 32). Are we supporting our children and students in their struggle to cultivate meaningful lives when we reduce and assess their value according to marketplace standards? Are we truly educating when we funnel students into conformity and stamp on them prepackaged identities, diminishing the meaning of their being in the process? The untenability of employability as the primary reason for one’s education, and ultimately for one’s life, reveals the need for a reconsideration of contemporary education’s philosophical commitments. In the world of institutional education, and in the greater world beyond educational institutions, there is increasingly the expectation that everything (e.g., learning, teaching, being itself) be “readily convertible to product” (p. 32). We need to challenge this expectation, and its accompanying notion that “wisdom,” because of its immunity to measurement, “has no place” in education (p. 32-33). It is precisely wisdom’s immunity to measurement that expresses its importance and the necessity of its inclusion in educational aims. 

Philosophy comes from the Ancient Greek word, philosophia, which means “love of wisdom.” Wisdom, in the sense of illuminating and affirming the irreducible value of the human being, is too often absent from discourses on contemporary education. It is my intent to change this. Smith (2015) writes about the need for “wisdom” in education and argues that “as educational philosophers, we must live up to our calling as ‘lovers of wisdom’ and not just live as passive enablers of a decaying worldview,” of which nihilism is symptomatic (p. 47). Loving wisdom, Smith adds, points to “a way of seeing the world more comprehensively, more wholly, indeed as holy, in a way of caring that is not naïve but wiser and more attuned to a deeper truth of things” (p. 46). How would we as educators grasp this holiness, wisdom, and attunement to truth? I think fewer students inflicting violence on themselves would be a worthwhile place to start.

If there is any universal feature to human experience, it is the need for a meaningful existence. We need meaning before we need employment in the global marketplace. I am not suggesting that preparing students for participation in economic life has no place in contemporary education. Such a claim would be naïve and irresponsible. But preparation for future employment should not be privileged above the need for a meaningful existence. “Without meaning,” Postman (1991) writes, “learning has no purpose. Without a purpose, schools are houses of detention, not attention” (p. 7). Education must be more than an institution of detention. Education must be more than the means by which the corporatization of our culture stamps on students’ prepackaged identities. Education must be more than the dangerous belief that we are nothing unless we have things and that every “thing,” including our most fundamental and enduring values, like our own self-value, is for sale (Kuttner, 1999). Ultimately, education should help cultivate the meaning of students’ being, specifically their well-being, and not destroy it. We must not forget the extent to which students will go – or any human being, for that matter – when forced to confront a meaningless life.

 “In considering how to conduct the schooling of our young,” Postman (1995) writes, “adults have two problems to solve” (p. 3): the first problem is “technical,” one of engineering the most effective instructional methodology; the other problem is “metaphysical,” one of equipping students with a fundamental sense of meaning without which, “schooling” and more importantly their lives, “do not work” (p.3). We must realize, Postman continues, that the “truth is that school cannot exist without some reason for its being,” [my emphasis], and I argue, neither can we (p.3). Consequently, this essay is driven by the desire to reopen a reflective space where questioning the philosophical commitments driving contemporary education is “a search for understanding, a meditative thinking […] an attempt to deal with unity rather than bits and parts additively” (Macdonald, 1995, p. 176). We will do a better job understanding how to educate once we have more fully reflected on why we educate in the first place. When we are empowered by a why, by a fundamental sense that we matter, we are less likely to find ourselves on the tracks and more likely to find ourselves in the midst of creating possibilities that add value to our lives and the lives of others.

© 2018 Matthew D. Dewar