“Existence precedes Essence” said Sartre. Well, he would have said it in French of course, but you get the idea. You can read lots of books about what this means for life but I started to wonder what it means for education, and it does seem to question a lot of the current dogma and lead to a more open way of learning. It is amazing how often what you read confirms what you already thought to be true isn’t it? I guess Trump would say the same, if he does read that is.
Back to existential education.
The point is that unlike a crafted object that is created for a purpose we exist as humans first and our essence of who we are comes later. We have both the freedom and the responsibility to define that essence. We are, in Sartre’s memorable phrase “Condemned to be free”. His example is that a paper knife is created to cut paper. Its role, or its shape, or sharpness or any other properties come after the decision that it will be a paper knife. Indeed its very existence depends on someone deciding that they need to create a paper knife. The existence comes after the essence.
For existentialists we humans are the other way round. There is nothing in the creation of a human being that decides that we will take on a certain role or personality. We must use our terrible freedom to do that. For Sartre this was an atheist point of view because there was no God to predefine our essence. However, for the Christian Existentialists such as Gabriel Marcel, the freedom is still an obligation, but also one we must recognise in others. To classify someone by a perceived essence is objectification, and his example is of a father who is disappointed that his daughter does not live up to the image of a young girl that he expects. He considers her as object rather than subject of her existence.
Enough Philosophy, let’s look at education. And now I am going to sound like a cracked record repeating the same scratch. The freedom our philosophers describe is often called our subjectivity. We are the subject of our own creation. This is the very act of learning. It is the gradual creation of our essence. Humans are condemned to learn, the are the subjects of learning to be what their freedom condemns them to choose.
So, when we spend too much time and energy restricting the freedom that our students should have in their learning, we are guilty of objectification in the language of Marcel. We are turning our students from being subjects that must create their essence through their learning into objects that fulfil a role defined by others such as teachers. Sartre would call this “bad faith” (actually he would call it Mauvaise Foi, but I suspect the translation loses something). We are condemning students to be too like our vision of students. Bad faith leads to anxiety and angst.
An existential education allows students to be “authentic” and prevents us resorting to blaming others for our lack of freedom. There will be fewer goals and targets, certainly no rubrics and there won’t be a uniform in site!