Meaning is Not a Luxury

I feel silly even pointing out that one of the major debates in higher education is the employment skills vs. liberal studies question. But it is best to introduce your topic clearly, so let us be clear: this is what I’m referring to when I say that meaning is not a luxury. As I have said in other chapters (posts), human beings are obligate meaning-makers. We will attribute significance to anything… the socks we were wearing the day we won the Big Game, a bird flying overhead, the music that comes on the radio the morning after our lover leaves us… it is involuntary, as natural as breathing. In fact, this tendency to narrate our experience (to turn each moment into a story with causes, interpretations, characters and narrative structures) is what is usually meant when people talk about consciousness. (This is by no means an adequate definition of consciousness, but it is the aspect of experience I want to talk about in this particular exploration.)

Let us posit that the purpose of education is to bring the next generation into a view of reality that is more sophisticated (validated?) than that which can be found by simply staggering through the world making sense all willy-nilly. (I’m very fond of that phrase.) In this case, the fact that we *have* found many valid ways of working in the world is important. The goal of professional education is to replicate practitioners, ideally with just enough variation that the entire field covered  by the profession is maintained, and the boundaries at the edges are expanded. There needs to be some core body of knowledge that is shared so that people holding a professional identity are able to say whether or not some other person who claims that identity does, in fact, have a credible claim to it. Still, it’s not that a doctor is a doctor is a doctor. It is certainly not true that all social historians are interchangeable. Learning how to think like a (insert your field here) is not a process of learning the core body and repeating. We (the creative and/or professional classes) are not machines into which knowledge can be poured for preservation. We involuntarily process whatever we are given through the filters of our preconceptions, the field of our conditioned minds.

Here is the tension: the meaning arises, whether we (as educators) intend it or not. By allowing the conversation to lean so heavily towards the idea that meaning is a luxury, by accepting that we can indulge our search for a meaningful life only after we have learned to replicate some practical skill that will be compensated by our culture, we are, in fact, communicating the meaning we have made.

We absolve ourselves of moral agency in exchange for the practical contingencies of feeding and sheltering ourselves. We accept the goal of status, because without it, we lack access to the basic necessities of life. We maintain unjust structures because we continue to benefit from them, we see no alternatives, and we have no time to question, rebuild and change the world.

This is meaning. It’s just not intentional.