Essay 78: Education and the Problem of Pessimism

Karl Jaspers was part of the great trio or triumvirate of German philosophers of the twentieth century, along with Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt.

Jaspers’s basics are (from Wikipedia):

Karl Theodor Jaspers was a German-Swiss psychiatrist and philosopher who had a strong influence on modern theology, psychiatry, and philosophy. After being trained in and practicing psychiatry, Jaspers turned to philosophical inquiry and attempted to discover an innovative philosophical system.

Born: February 23, 1883, Oldenburg, Germany
Died: February 26, 1969, Basel, Switzerland
Education: Heidelberg University
Spouse: Gertrud Mayer (m. 1910–1969)
Awards: Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels, Erasmus Prize, Goethe Prize

Our issue is not the interrelations of these three but the issue of Jaspers’s “pessimism,” given that we plan an education that completely “levels” with freshmen from day one and puts on their “plate” the whole truth without hiding or suppressing any dimensions of the life/knowledge fusion which is one of the backbone elements of this educational remedy. Jaspers argues that a unifying perspective of existence is impossible for man for the same reason that the goldfish is ultimately in the water which is in the goldfish bowl which is in the room none of which can be understood by leaving the water. Jaspers writes, “Existenz kennt keine Rundung als Bild…denn der Mensch muss in der Welt scheitern.”

(Philosophie Vol. II, German original, Heidelberg: Springer Verlag, 1948, page 647)

This means: “Existence cannot be completed or rounded off and formed into a clear and final picture…man is forced into a kind of shipwreck in this world.”

Jaspers sees existence or life as a kind of “task” or “drama” that one stumbles through and not an object that one studies like a copper salt in the chem lab. Life is always “on the run” and stronger than the runner. Every life, no matter how seemingly prestigious, is characterized by (to use Prof. Stanley Cavell’s words) “little did I know” and you might add, “even at the end.”

Orthodox educators argue that freshmen in college are not ready to be burdened by such bleak or lugubrious views but we disagree and argue, as the great Polish educator Janusz Korczak (died in the Holocaust, 1942) sensed, students rise to the challenge the teacher places before them. If you treat them as childish they will behave childishly and if you take them seriously, they will be serious.

Thus, Jaspers’s view on human life as always a confused and confusing shipwreck will not be hidden from view but studied unflinchingly.

Essay 8: “Aletheia:” Unhiding Dimensions of Life as Part of a Deep Education

Greek thinkers of antiquity had a deep concept of “unhiding or rescuing truths from oblivion” and this is captured in the Greek word “aletheia” which means reversing Lethe (i.e., forgetfulness).

We claim here that “aletheia” (i.e., “unforgetting”) is in fact a pillar of real education which has a commitment to every kind of holism. The basic truths of a life are indeed part of the whole education. The student needs to see “all of it” from the start.

The Danish thinker Kierkegaard (1813-1855) says in his essay “Repetition” that any person who never at some point “circumnavigates what life is will never really have a life.”

In other words, real education would mean a circumnavigation of what life is with a circumnavigation of what knowledge is in a kind of “double helix.”

Without confronting these circumnavigations from the beginning, one is simply stumbling along in a grades-driven fear-fog.

Hannah Arendt, the German-American thinker who died in 1975, warns us about living a life “like a leaf in the whirlwind of time.”

Henry David Thoreau tells us in Walden he wants to “front” (i.e., confront or face up to) life itself and not come to the end of his life and realize he had not lived.

In the classic American novel, John Marquand’s The Late George Apley, the protagonist realizes when it’s too late that he was brought up to become who he is and was and never really reflected on himself or his life and never really understood anything. He never “saw” anything.

We claim in this educational remediation book that a university education cannot just be a frantic stint in a modern “knowledge factory” with its conveyor belt of grades, semesters, course contents forgotten three days after the course.

Stanley Cavell, the recently deceased Harvard philosopher, in his masterful memoir, Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory, he gives us in its title a sense of what must happen (i.e., the insight that I knew little)—if students are not apprised of these deeper dimensions of life right from Day 1, in a process of “unhiding” the whole story and aletheia.