The meaning of education

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Watching the events unfolding over the last several months in a remote mine in the Chilean desert, one cannot but feel inspired by the very unique and profound human capacity to turn a tragedy into a triumph.

The rescue of the 33 miners exemplified how human achievement and cooperation transcend national boundaries. It was a truly collaborative international undertaking - including a drill provided by an Irish company, Mincon, Shannon - that returned each miner safely to the surface.

The events brought to mind the writings and ideas of the Austrian psychologist, Viktor Emil Frankl. Frankl was born in Vienna in 1905, and trained as a psychiatrist. He was a student of both Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler, and while his thinking was based on their ideas, he developed his own unique theory of human development and education.

Freud and Adler wrote respectively about the ‘Will to Pleasure’ and the ‘Will to Power’; that the pursuit of pleasure and empowerment are of central importance in human life. Frankl however was concerned with what he called the ‘Will to Meaning’, emphasising that while pleasure and power play a role, the principal goal of education and life is actually to find a meaning and purpose in life.

Frankl’s magnum opus was his book, Man’s Search for Meaning (1946). The first half of the book recounts his experiences in death camps during World War Two. During his imprisonment in several of the worst concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Theresienstadt, Frankl suffered greatly, losing several family members, including his wife. However, he survived and found meaning in trying to understand his experience, specifically why certain people in the camps were able to live purposefully, even when faced with a seemingly hopeless fate, in the most depraved and horrific of circumstances.

The second half of the book is based on his analysis of his experiences during imprisonment in the death camps and his research and practice as a clinician, and outlines his educational and psychotherapeutic framework and methodology, which he calls Logotherapy.

According to Frankl, our central concern in life is to find meaning and purpose; and existential crisis results when our ‘will to meaning’ is frustrated. He furthermore outlines how the meaning of life is predominantly subjective – only the individual can uncover their own life’s true meaningfulness and significance. The purpose of education is to help provide the person with the concepts, skills and confidence to find the very personal, special and unique meaning of their life.

Frankl outlines three ways in which we can find meaning and purpose in life:

  • through accomplishment/achievement – by completing a task or doing a deed; 
  • through love – recognising another person’s or other people’s unique potential and helping them to realise that potential;
  • through the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.

According to Frankl, life inevitably will have its painful and disappointing moments. However, our unique gift is to choose our attitude to unavoidable loss or pain; and to realise that even when times are tough, there is meaning to be found in life.

The recent events in Chile illustrate Frankl’s philosophy of education and psychology. Even though the miners and rescuers were faced with a potentially hopeless situation, they showed incredible resolve and resilience. They refused to yield, working together with international support to bring a successful outcome to a potentially tragic situation.

The miners and rescuers did not give up hope and could see clearly the meaning of what they were doing, both the immediate significance and the transcendent meaning of people working together toward a greater cause. The rescue became a challenge for national identity and international community, as well as personal safety.

Frankl’s work has contributed significantly to Humanistic Psychology/Psychotherapy, particularly “existential analysis” – addressing specifically the crises people face in finding a meaning and purpose in their lives.

Frankl asserts that meaning is always there, even when such crises arise – meaning is omnipresent in our lives; a key part of the challenge is to see it and appreciate its significance.

He furthermore describes the important role that ‘super-meaning’ – faith, religion, spirituality – can play in meaningful and purposeful living.

A key tenet of his framework is what he calls the ‘paradox of self-actualisation’: self-fulfilment is actually achieved through helping others – through self-transcendence.

Frankl concludes Man’s Search for Meaning by stating how a sense of humour helps us to live a meaningful and purposeful life. He makes the case eloquently for tragic optimism and the importance of humour, even when we are faced with the most difficult and intractable of challenges.

One of Frankl’s elegant similes is that education is like flying a plane in a cross-wind. In order to arrive at the destination point, the pilot must overestimate the landing spot.

Educators, teachers, parents, and students themselves must be idealistic, and have high expectations, particularly younger people who are at a formative stage in their lives. For then, by aiming high, we are more likely to realise our talents and become who we are supposed to become. If we underestimate our potential and talents, we are more likely to underachieve and land short of our destination.

The enduring power of Frankl’s work is that it provides a framework that helps to elucidate what education and life are fundamentally about: how important it is for educators and learners to have high expectations, and that students learn the subject content of the curriculum in context.

Innovations which explicate the importance of subjects, and why it is we study them, e.g. Project Maths, which endeavours to place mathematics in context, will hopefully help to achieve this important aim. 

Following from the words of Goethe, as Frankl himself has paraphrased, when we know the why of something we can bear with almost any how – sagacious words in these challenging and complex times for education.

Recent events in Chile have reminded us of the achievements possible when we aim high – even against the odds – and work, and learn together meaningfully and purposefully.

Dr. Tony Hall is Head of the School of Education and Vice-Dean for Learning and Assessment, College of Arts, Social Sciences and Celtic Studies, NUI Galway. He is involved in a European research project on meaning-oriented pedagogy and the ideas of Viktor Frankl in education; a collaboration with the University College of Teacher Education/Viktor Frankl Hochschule, Klagenfurt, Austria.

Frankl, V.E. (1946/2006) Man’s Search for Meaning. UK: Beacon Press