Within the boundaries of the education system people share a thousand purposes for its existence. Some insist on the purpose of schools being to create better citizens, while others think its more productive workers. Others want to promote values and culture, while some want to build a secure future. Some people mix it all together, insisting school does all of that and more.
Within that messy blur, there’s a lot that goes missing. Unfortunately for students, most of them are missing an understanding of the purpose of their education. They are literally schooled within a vacuum, being taught as if they’re blank slates without their own conceptions for learning, teaching, and leadership today. The reality is that adults who believe that are completely misinformed. Those who work in schools and force students to attend schools who actually believe otherwise but practice this way are totally disingenuous.
The Blank Slate
These same teachers, principals, school support staff, and parents who believe that students are merely tabula rasa generally miss the point of education altogether. They are the ones who aspire to have and keep the things that are prescribed in life. Their roles in life don’t hold meaning for them beyond a paycheck or position, and a place to spend their time during the day. When they do get home, time they could spend with their loved ones is spent in recovery from standardized abuse, or at least numbing the boredom of life. These people anesthetize the pain inherent in their lives with television and alcohol, video games and sex, the Internet and food. They live controlled lives. Their cycles of living without purposefulness makes them question the meaning of life, let alone the meaningfulness of schools.
For a decade, I’ve been urging schools to consider the meaninglessness of being a student in schools today. Forced to sit in rows, learn facts through rote memorization, exhibit their mastery through standardized tests, and behave according to adult standards under threat of expulsion or imprisonment, schools are routinely harangued for what they inadvertently teach learners. Compliance, obedience, and authoritarian submissiveness are often cited as silent assassins of creativity in young people today.
This treatment as blank slates makes students yearn to identify the meaning and purpose in their lives.
Realities Students Face
Leaving seven to nine hours in school settings every day in order to return home where their parents are beginning daily recuperation from their workaday lives, young people face the prospect that after thirteen years of their daily conditioning they get to face the same realities their parents do, day in and out. However, devoid adult role models who live in fully meaningful, purposeful ways, children and youth are left to the devices of popular culture, mainstream media, and socio-economic norms in order to find their way in the world.
This forms a vacuum in society, a void where young people and adults lose their bearing on what matters to them, what matters to their families, and what matters to the world community as a whole. Entire generations have been raised without the prospect that there is a better life for everyone beyond the shallow materialism and hollow sentimentalism propagated by television shows, pop music, and junk magazines. Brought up to love conformity and honor authority, entire social classes reject the notion of transformative living or revolutionary thought.
Restlessness & Urgency
The value of meaningfulness is that it harbors within it an inherent hope, a prospect that all things can be better in all ways. Finding meaning means naming purpose, finding belonging, or identifying pathways for living in any of its myriad forms. Meaningfulness is, by its nature, a restlessness and a particular urgency that insists that life isn’t merely what is right in front of us, but something more, something deeper—or more so, that life is what it is, and that there is meaning in that, too. That’s the awesome thing about meaningfulness: it’s entirely up to each and every individual to determine what the meaning is.
Schools should aspire to nothing less than helping students discern the meaning of learning for themselves. This lives up to American author Ralph Ellison’s assertion that, “Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat.” We can easily echo that sentiment and insist that learning is to be lived, not controlled; and education is won be continuing to play in the face of certain defeat.
And that’s the value of meaningfulness—the calling, the insistence, and the uplifting reality that everything means something. This stands directly opposed to the drab prospect that nothing means anything, and is the reason why I think we should teach meaningfulness today.