Essay 18: What Is Education?

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was a Danish thinker at the highest level, a kind of Danish Pascal.

In his Fear and Trembling essay, he asks:

“What is education?  I should suppose that education was the curriculum one had to run through in order to catch up with oneself, and he who will not pass through this curriculum is helped very little by the fact that he was born in the most enlightened age.”

(Kierkegaard, “Fear and Trembling”, Problemata, Doubleday Anchor Books, 1954, page 57)

Education at its deepest level is understood here as a process of “catching up with oneself.”

Every student who ever lived and who will ever live is both a student (which is a social role) and a person (an existential task).

Education, if profound, would “put on the table” both modes of going through life and then assign the “homework” of “circumnavigating” a life and an education and hold them together in one’s mind. Catching up with oneself is the effort to fight off and climb out of “lostness.”

Lostness is depicted in such classic American films from 1999 as Magnolia and American Beauty.

One can be lost in a city, in life, or in the cosmos. (Walker Percy’s novel, Lost in the Cosmos, is an exploration of this.)

In the “brutal sociology” of American life and society, there are “winners and losers.” (Remember the scene in the American classic movie, The Hustler, where Paul Newman (“Fast Eddie”) calls George C. Scott (“Bert”) a “loser.”

Catching up with oneself involves the fending off of this brutal American cultural bullying and help the person/student hold on to one’s self and know how to use an education to help in this. Thus, catching up this way achieves and protects one’s self-possession.

The reader may remember the movie classic A Man for all Seasons, in which there’s a scene very relevant to this where “Thomas More” played by Paul Scofield, reminds “Richard Rich,” (the relentless amoral opportunist) that self-possession is the highest good and if one loses that, one loses everything of value. He, “Thomas More,” describes it as a bit of water in your hand that falls on the ground and can’t ever be recovered.

Catching up with yourself is education’s help in keeping a grip on this “water in your hand.”