My Monday mornings followed a strict routine last spring. I woke up with the sun, scarfed an energy bar, and took the Broad Street Line to North Philadelphia. My destination was an uncomfortably small room on a university campus. Crammed next to a dozen other students, I sat for three hours and listened to a short, tan man with tall, white hair lecture on the works of Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Hegel. His class was titled “On the Sublime.”
A college campus surrounded by urban blight seemed like an unlikely, even irreverent, location to rehearse theories of sublimity. After all, what good are treatises on elevated experience and beauty when the immediate world is full of dread and decay? I felt uneasy parsing the difference between ‘agreeable’ and ‘good’ when neither word seemed applicable to my friends and family living under the shadow of ever-increasing debt. I was beginning to feel the anxiety that comes from entering an academic discipline detached from real-world concerns.
Fortunately, my graduate student responsibilities included teaching a writing course immediately following my early morning class. The existential angst I experienced while discussing dead white men was attenuated by young people who were alive in every sense of the word. They spoke in tones that conveyed both enthusiasm and conviction. Their ideas were fluid enough that they could cover highbrow theory and popular culture within the same breath.
My students made a habit of speaking words that were on the tip of my tongue and our trains of thought often ran parallel. But class conversation occasionally took intellectual detours that I could not anticipate. My students offered electrifying ideas that never occurred to me during my lesson preparation. These moments were, if my former professor can excuse my loose use of the word, sublime.
The clearest example I have of this student-directed learning came at the height of my academic distress. Our class discussion began as a critique of films that portray teachers as zealous missionaries, but quickly dovetailed into an inquiry about the nature of education itself. I asked my students the question that had been at the forefront of my mind for several months: what is the purpose of education?
The expected responses came first. One student asserted that the primary goal of education is to “help students get jobs.” Another seemed to complete that thought by explaining how college leads to professional connections. One after another, student comments confirmed my fear that the educational system merely churns out young workers as a Detroit factory produces cars. To them, learning was a means to a material end. I was starting to become disheartened by our conversation until a young man in the back of the class raised his hand:
“Education is determining what’s important.”
I was stunned by this pithy reply. The 18-year old sage explained that daily life offers so many perspectives and so much information that the ultimate goal of education is to separate the meaningful nuggets of data from the detritus. He described education as a growth process.
This sentiment was familiar to me. Like many of my students, my original goal was to pursue a job that brought fame and fortune. Exposure to literature and philosophy changed these priorities. I decided that questions about love and aesthetics matter, especially during times of economic and social upheaval. I reasoned that even if humanity finds a cure for every known illness and develops an economic system that satisfies everyone, the big questions about life, love, and happiness will remain unresolved. My education became focused on the value of the humanities.
My student set off a maelstrom in my head. Yes, contemporary culture is full of howls and headlines heralding economic and ecological disaster. But the best way to combat these crises is to cultivate diverse disciplines where people are free to define and pursue meaning. The world’s woes are as complicated as its people. We need mindfulness from David Foster Wallace as much as we need macroeconomics from John Maynard Keynes.
Meaning is determined by careful consideration and reflection, not public consensus. A young man reminded me of this lesson. With his insight in mind, I tell my students to be fearless and to embrace the diversity of human experience. I encourage them to take classes outside of their intended academic path and discover where their true passions lie. I remind my students that the world and its problems are miniscule compared to the power of human reason and imagination. Kant may have popularized that last claim, but my students are the ones that convinced me it is true.