Existentialism is a philosophy whose popularity was greatest in the 20th century, particularly during and after World War II. Existentialist thought was introduced through literary works written by such masters as Sartre, Camus and Dostoevsky (Wingo, 1965). Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard insisted that one controls one's own life, that one has complete freedom "to choose and become what he wills himself to become" (p. 397). Jean-Paul Sartre stated that "the human project…is to create by free choice a life that is noble and beautiful self-construction" (Gutek, 2009, p. 109). The founders of existentialism made little reference to education and the role of the teacher, the learner, the environment or the curriculum. However, much can be gleaned from the original words of existentialist thinkers that can apply to the state of an existentialist education.
Keywords: Absurd Life; Anxiety; Authentic; Existential Moment; Existentialism; Kierkegaard; Knowledge; Pre-existential Period; Process of Learning
Existence Precedes Essence
Existence precedes essence. We make ourselves, we create our essence; this expression encompasses the major theory behind the existentialist philosophy. Its popularity was greatest in the 20th century, particularly during and after World War II. Existentialist thought was introduced through literary works written by such masters as Sartre, Camus and Dostoevsky (Wingo, 1965). Several existentialist philosophers have impacted the thinking that supports the tenets of this philosophy. Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard insisted that one controls one's own life, that one has complete freedom "to choose and become what he wills himself to become" (p. 397). Jean-Paul Sartre stated that "the human project…is to create by free choice a life that is noble and beautiful self-construction" (Gutek, 2009, p. 109).
There is some question as to whether existentialism can really be called a philosophy because it lacks the systematic school of thought that other philosophies such as Idealism, Realism, or Pragmatism possess. However, there are common traits that encompass what many great thinkers perceive to be a philosophy that emphasizes the freedom of human beings (Noddings, 1995). Its major principle is that existence precedes essence. Thus, one's existence comes first, and then one defines him or herself through the choices he or she makes and the actions that evolve out of these choices. One is born and THEN he or she develops into who he or she will become as a person (Noddings, 1995). To existentialists, the world is
… an indifferent phenomenon, which, while it may not be antagonistic to human purposes, is nonetheless devoid of personal meaning… in this world, each person is born, lives, chooses his or her course and creates the meaning of his or her own existence (Gutek, 2009, p. 101).
Connecting Elements of Existential Thought
Existentialism is best illustrated by the common elements of thought attributed to existentialist thinkers. One is the thought that we are free from all external elements. Although we have a past, this past does not factor into the present moment of our life. External elements are, or one's past life is, only important if one chooses to make them important (Noddings, 1995). Another connection is the concept of responsibility. While one is free to make one's own choices, each person is responsible for what choices he makes. As Noddings suggests, one cannot "give away [his or her] freedom" to outside agents such as "the state, to parents, to teachers, to weaknesses, to the past, and to environmental conditions" (p. 18).
Of importance to the existentialist is the common message that "every truth and every action implies a human setting and a human subjectivity" (Noddings, 1995, p. 18). While we know that there is a world full of reality, to the existentialist, this reality only becomes such when one is a basic part of it. Noddings states that "reality lies in [everyone's] experience and perception of the event rather than the isolated event" (p. 18). Noddings relates the example of the perception of two people listening to a speech:
… two men may hear the same speech, the same words, the same voice. One man's reality may be that the speaker is a political demagogue, for the other man the reality is that the speaker is an awaited political savior (p. 18).
According to existentialists, one must rely upon oneself and a relationship to those around him or her. One must possess a self-realization that one must relate to others, as he or she "lives out [his or her] life span in an adamant universe" (Nodding, 1995, p. 19). One is "thrown into the universe in which there is no fixed course of action, nor final structure of meaning" (McLemee, 2003, p. 1). Even though one is part of an adamant universe, one becomes the subject of his or her own life, a unique and idiosyncratic being. Nodding (1995) explains a basic concept of existentialism, that "people are not thrown into the world with a nature…only by planning, reflecting, choosing and acting, people can make themselves" (p. 59). To Greene (1973), a person only passes through life once and therefore must begin creating his or her own identity. In other words, people are born with no true identity or sense of self; they construct themselves over time. One can do this by taking "responsible action for the sake of wholeness, to correct lacks in concrete situations and thus alter themselves in the light of some projected ideal" (p. 261).
Knowledge is said "to be the way a [person] comes in touch with [his or her] world, puts questions to it, transforms its component parts into signs and tools, and translates [his or her] findings in words." This person uses this knowledge to make choices and determine future actions. Knowledge is used "to clarify and to open up a life" (Greene, 1973, p. 137). Through knowledge, one builds a life day to day.
Rather than illustrating their messages through argumentation and persuasion, as other philosophies have done, existentialists use the venue of stories to propagate their message. They do this because they believe that "life is not the unfolding of a logical plan; one cannot argue from trustworthy premises what a life should be like or how it should be lived…meaning is created as we live our lives reflectively." Stories personify the reflective experience and provide accounts of "the human struggle for meaning" (Nodding, 1995, p. 62). Characters generally face a life of "angst, anxiety and alienation in an absurd universe" (Gutek, 2009, p. 100).
The founders of existentialism made little reference to education and the role of the teacher, the learner, the environment or the curriculum. The mission of existentialism "analyzes the basic character of human existence and calls the attention of [people] to their freedom" (Wingo, 1965, p. 419). However, much can be gleaned from the original words of thinkers that apply to the state of an existentialist education, as education has come to be seen as "a foundation of human progress" (Park, 1968, p. 299). Furthermore, a "careful" understanding of existentialism reveals "strong qualitative ties which provide a framework for understanding the roles individuals play, and how they struggle with those roles in educational institutions" (Duemer, 2012). A few modern philosophers, including Van Cleve Morris and George Kneller, have written extensively, applying existential thought to education.
In an existentialist school, individualism must be "the center of educational endeavor" (Knight, 1998, p. 77). Van Cleve Morris (1968) sees education as a way "to awaken awareness in the learner," with the task of education falling chiefly on secondary schools at a time when schools provide "occasions and circumstances for the awakening and intensification of awareness" (Park, 1968, p. 300). He says that prior to puberty (a time called the Pre-Existential Period), children are not really aware of the human condition or yet conscious of their personal identity and should learn the basics of education. After puberty, young adolescents experience their Existential Moment, when they become more aware of themselves in relation to the world (Gutek, 2009). To Morris, school should be concerned with developing "that integrity in [students] necessary to the task of making personal choices of action, and taking personal responsibility for these choices, whether the culture smiles or frowns" (1968, p. 313).
School policy that supports the existentialist philosophy focuses on the individual student, as teachers enter the "private world" of the student. The here and now life experiences are more important than the messages from...
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