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A Search for Meaning

Author(s): Arthur G. Wirth

Source: Improving College and University Teaching, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Autumn, 1961), pp. 155-
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
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Accessed: 05-03-2019 21:06 UTC

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Improving College and University Teaching

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A Search for Meaning
i^^^^^MMg||M| Of all human endeavor, edu the strains that accompany tremendous popula
|hQ|^^IHI cation as an intellectual process tion and community changes?compounded by
HHBp;:: lip ought to be based on clear the social neglect of the schools. Most of these
'" H&l-?^! cut> weM determined purpose. are familiar and need not detain us at length.
W^^M^I 'M Yet professors and institutions They include: overcrowded classrooms with a
i ^HP?rSf^^ a^e are found confused and lack of essential materials; unruly, hostile, or
i^K???^^^ ?if aimless, students even more bored behavior of students, often reflecting the
WKk^l?f?i?LJ? so- I* ^s "a manifestation of disorganization and violence in neighborhood and
a similar situation in our larger family life; low morale of senior colleagues?
life as a people," according to a professor (A.B., sometimes merging into cynicism. At the personal
M.A., Ph.D., Ohio State) who was a history and level: financial problems and the pressures of
philosophy major, teaches philosophy of educa assuming heavy professional responsibilities while
tion and interdepartmental social science, was a taking on the intricate demands of marriage and
member of the unesco Technical Assistance pro family relationships.
gram in Ecuador, and is chairman of the John The positive resources to which beginning
Dewey Society Commission on Publications in teachers may turn often are not inconsiderable.
Educational Theory. He reports for us "a modest These include the existence here and there of
effort to help thirty young teachers in the search sensitive and helpful administrators, and the
for a sense of purpose." launching of imaginative programs by the Board
of Education even though these founder all too
By ARTHUR G. WIRTH often as good intentions permit over-extension
of efforts in terms of resources available.
"Men will happily tolerate great discomfort, The point here, however, is that the life of
discontinuity and frustration if?and only if?they the beginning teacher contains a full share of
are working for some purpose, toward some end, "discomforts, discontinuities, and frustrations"
which they consider wise, true, exciting and mean and, if there is truth in the contention of the
opening quotation, these could be borne adequately
only if accompanied by a sense of working for
This thirty
is a report of aengage
young teachers modest
in theeffort
search to help truly meaningful ends or purposes.
The sober truth is that the relation of these
for a sense of purpose for their lives and work?
and of one promising lead encountered in the teachers to a clear and high sense of purpose
quest. is in a parlous condition. When they are con
The author was teaching a graduate course fronted with the questions of ends or purposes,
at Brooklyn College entitled "Education and Cul they may react with embarrassment, or several
ture in the United States." The students con might come forward somewhat feebly with a few
sisted of thirty teachers from the New York area. banal comments about "democracy" or "freedom."
For the most part they were in the first three They subside quickly, however, when confronted
years of their professional careers. The nature by quizzical eyebrows or snorts of derision by
of their teaching situations spanned the incredible their colleagues. I am not prepared to say, nor
spectrum of life experiences of the metropolitan do I believe, that there is a real absence of values
area?the polyglot populations of Manhattan's and guiding ideals but it is true that there is a
lower east side, the chaos of the newer Negro disturbing inarticulateness in giving expression
"community" of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, to any.
middle class Jewish sections of Flatbush, and the We would do well to recognize that the condi
suburban melting pot of third generation Ameri tion of teachers in this respect is merely a mani
cans in Long Island's Nassau County. festation of a similar situation in our larger life
These beginning teachers clearly had their as a people. As a matter of fact "the lack of
problems. In the main, the problems derived from purpose" subject has been getting plenty of at
1 Keniston, Kenneth, "Alienation and the Decline of Utopia," tention by social commentators and important
The American Scholar, Spring 1960, p. 181. publications. Dr. Harold Taylor, for example,

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upon returning from five months abroad declared the realities in their own lives would be to make
recently, "I have returned to find my country in a mockery both of the causes and of themselves.
a state of aimlessness and confusion rare in his
Their skepticism should not be so surprising.
tory, a confusion of aims which comes close to After all they have lived their lives in the culture
anarchy."2 Or Kenneth Keniston, in a remarkably of the big sell. To survive with some sense of
perceptive article, maintains that the vocabulary personal integrity it has been necessary that they
of social commentary is dominated by terms like : acquire skepticism similar to the villagers who had
alienation, estrangement, withdrawal, indifference, heard the cry "wolf" too often. When every tooth
disaffection, noninvolvement, neutralism, and that
paste is hawked as being the scientifically effi
"the direction of cultural change is from commit cacious one, who will believe it when one comes
ment and enthusiasm to alienation and apathy."3 along with valid evidence to support its claims?
Such august publications as the New York Times For whatever reasons, the hallowed slogans of
and Life magazine cofeatured recently a major the culture?"free enterprise," "free way of life,"
series on national purpose or lack of it. "social justice," "the democratic way"?have
While the present author is skeptical of the taken on a jaded quality and fail to move our
efficacy of such an approach of trying to breathe young people. We may lament it, because it is
a hot sense of purpose into us by broadcasting true that genuine value obtains in many of the
impressive pronouncement by eye-catching na slogans, but the lament itself is ineffectual.
tional figures, his experience with thirty young All this does not mean that these young teach
American adults this summer convinced him that
ers are without fight and courage, even though
the problem is real enough. It needs attention by they have sinking feelings at the sight of older
all of us?for our own sakes even more than for
colleagues who seem to have lost these qualities.
"the nation's purposes." It probably can be man They are willing still to give of themselves. It
aged with some success only by painful, candid is interesting to note the concern they show about
searching with a few fellow-seekers?and beyond the commitment that appears to be present in
that in the quiet persistent questing of one's own Russian students and teachers. They reject the
inner life. Communist goals, but envy the condition where
The present condition of skeptical noncommit the individual?teacher or otherwise, presumably
ment is by no means, however, an unmixed evil. is made to feel that he is needed urgently for the
It may contain the seeds of sound health. This accomplishment of important ends. They wish
resides in the fact that today's young people that they honestly could say they had such feelings.
really care enough and are stubbornly honest In the absence of these, the sobering question
enough not to permit themselves to be taken in remains how long can such young people work
by spurious or irrelevant sloganeering. Besides, with professional skill and verve, in the face of
the last several generations have seen idealistic problems of discouraging magnitude?
visions too often and too brutally shattered before If one wishes to work with them in this area
their eyes to be eager customers for others. So, what approach is possible? To what sources may
where values are concerned, they make clear one turn? The truth is that probably none of us
enough that their attitude is "Let the seller be clearly knows the way in our troubled condition.
ware." In fact, "the sell" is out with them. For The effort here will be confined to reporting on
this, we owe them respect. one source which seemed to offer some promise.
They do know, though, that something is We did not find the philosopher's stone but we
lacking. They are bothered by it. They have a good were engaged in the right quest.
sense of what they don't need : the ad man's The first principle, and a good one, is that
exhortations, or the earnest but no longer relevant today's students will become involved in a genuine
slogans forged in bygone circumstances. They discussion of values and meaning only if it has
may become slightly uneasy under the efforts of an authentic ring for them. It was exactly this
hurt oldtimers to make them feel guilty for not quality which led to the deep hold Camus had
rallying behind ancient, battle scarred banners. on this generation?for he refused to engage in
Their refusal to join is rooted perhaps in the mere learned chatter; he insisted on raising re
feeling that to do so when these no longer fit lentlessly the really pressing questions, no matter
2 Quoted in The Unitarian Register, Midsummer 1960, p. 38.
how far they intruded on forbidden ground.
8 Keniston, op. cit., p. 162. The writer whom we now wish to consider

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is one who seems to have a similar kind of appeal.calls existential frustration.

He is Dr. Viktor E. Frankl, the Viennese psychia Frankl holds, however, that the wrong way
trist, who since World War II has become the to seek a resolution of the problem of meaning
leading spokesman for the school of therapyis to ask directly. "What is the meaning of life?"
known as logotherapy. His two main works trans I have said that man should not ask what he
lated into English are: The Doctor and the Soul may expect from life, but should rather understand
and From Death Camp to Existentialism. Dr. that life expects something from him. It may also
be put this way: in the last resort, man should not
Frankl spent the years of World War II in ask "What is the meaning of my life?" but should
Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps realize that he himself is on trial. Life is putting
under the most trying conditions that modern its problems to him, and it is up to him to face
man has had to endure. So far as civilization is these problems by shouldering his responsibility
concerned the whole tradition of Western values thus answering for his life.6
was smashed and reversed in these camps. As for One may well ask then, "What is Life ex
the individual, the only thing he could look for pecting of me?" The answer begins with the
ward to with confidence was almost certain death.premise that "Life is not anything; it is only the
It was under these conditions that Frankl deopportunity for something."7
veloped his values to live by. And what is man's special, unique opportunity?
In these extreme situations the ultimate question It is the opportunity for creating and realizing
was to find a meaning to life and to account for value, and in so doing, the individual finds his
the meaning of death. Man was compelled by his
own will to render this account so that he could own life acquiring meaning.
stand upright and die in a manner somewhat worthy
Frankl suggests three general categories of
of a human being.4 values :
^ First, men can give meaning to their lives by realizing
Tested under these circumstances there is no creative values, by acting, working, building, planning,
possibility of sham. Frankl has won a right to a and executing. We might call this the Goethian mode.
hearing. This, in part, may account for his appeal^ Next, Man can gain meaning by values realized in ex
perience?experimental values. These are realized by
to the students. receptivity toward the world, for example, in surrender
to the beauty of nature or art: the mode of appreciation
An account of his basic theory in the space and contemplation.
available must remain primarily suggestive. The Finally there are attitudinal values. Life can be basi
interested reader must have recourse to the writ cally meaningful even when it is neither fruitful in
creation nor rich in experience?even when one finds
ing of Frankl where his theory is elaborated at himself in such distress that neither significant action
nor "experiencing" is available, such as when one is
length. confronted with an incurable illness or the entrapment
Frankl's own life experience and his work as by extremely discouraging life circumstances not subject
to change.
a psychiatrist have led him to hold that a funda
mental problem of contemporary Western man is What is significant is the person's attitude to
his struggle for a meaning to his existence. The ward an unalterable fate. The opportunity to realize
attitudinal values is always present whenever a
theory of logotherapy which Frankl helped to person finds himself confronted by a destiny toward
establish is offered as a supplement (not a sub which he can act only by acceptance. The way in
stitute) for psychotherapy and is concerned with which he accepts, the way in which he bears his
helping patients to find such a meaning. cross, what courage he manifests in suffering, what
We want to teach our patients what Albert dignity he displays in doom and disaster, is the
measure of his human fulfillment.8
Schweitzer has called reverence for life. But our
Thus, life has a meaning to the last breath.
patients can only be persuaded that life has uncondi
tional value if we can manage to give them some For the possibility of realizing values by the very
attitude with which we face our destined suffering
content for their lives, if we can help them find an
aim and a purpose in their existence?in other ?this possibility exists to the very last moment.
. . . The right kind of suffering?facing your fate
words, if they can be shown the task before them.
without flinching?is the highest achievement that
"Whoever has a reason for living endures almost
has been granted to man.9
any mode of life," says Nietzsche. . . . "Having
such a task makes the person irreplaceable and The basic contention is that man, who is a
gives his life the value of uniqueness."5
recipient of life, is basically responsible for bring
It is held that a frustration of man's will-to 6 Ibid., p. xiv.
meaning may lead to neurotic illness which Frankl 7 Ibid., p. 130.
8 Ibid., p. 50.
4 Frankl, Viktor E., Front Death Camp to Existentialism, p. 104. 9 Ibid., p. xii. One may recall Tolstoy's powerful treatment of
5 Frankl, Viktor, The Doctor and the Soul, pp. 61-2. this point in The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

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ing to it that which he is especially equipped to to account for this phenomenon. A factor that
create: values. The question as "to what" a per clearly did seem to be involved was that Frankl
son should feel responsible is left open?whether gave them a keen sense of their own unique
to his God or his conscience or his society or capacity for creating value and gaining meaning.
whatever higher power. Each teacher, without exception, within this
Space prohibits here an elaboration of the framework is capable of attaining significant
treatment of the question as to how each indi meaning in the acts of his daily life?and he is
vidual is to discover what his unique task is to be. responsible for being and doing what he can be
I am simply reporting that the reactions to and do. So, too, is each of his pupils.
Frankl by the young teachers in my class was All of this provides a locale for the seeking
strong and genuine. He seemed to strike a chord of meaning and purpose different from public
to which they could respond?in a way markedly pronouncements or hallowed documents. It places
different from their reactions to literature on the problem and the possibilities inside the heart
educational goals and purposes. of each of us?which is perhaps the most critical
It is perhaps better to leave it to the reader "new" frontier of our present moment.

"The reason zvhy we feel one man's presence, and do not feel
another's is as simple as gravity. Truth is the summit of being: jus
tice is the application of it to affairs. All individual natures stand in a
scale, according to the purity of this element in them. The will of the
pure runs down from them into other natures, as water runs down
from a higher to a lower vessel. This natural force is no more to be
withstood, than any other natural force. We can drive a stone upward
for a moment into the air, but it is yet true that all stones will forever
fall; and whatever instances can be quoted of unpunished theft, or of
a lie which somebody credited, justice must prevail, and it is the priv
ilege of truth to make itself believed. Character is this moral order
seen through the medium of an individual nature. An individual is
an encloser."

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