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Education and the Paradox of Choice: What’s the Point?

We live in a world of endless choice. This seemingly infinite array of choices, extended to every fabric of our lives, has not made our lives any easier or streamlined, but has in fact increased the stress, anxiety, and paralysis we feel in light of these possibilities. In fact, this predicament is only exacerbated when we realize it is not just that we have a gauntlet of choices before us, but that we feel quite immediately and deeply that we must make the right choice amidst all of them. The philosopher Kierkegaard pointed out that the angst and despair this situation causes cannot be escaped, for even to not make a choice, is, in the end, to have chosen something. We are, so to speak, doomed to our choices and their consequences, and there is no avoiding it (for even avoidance is a choice!).

This “paradox of choice,” as it has sometimes been called, is surely one of the culprits for why parents are often on edge in the process of discerning their child’s education. After all, most parents recognize that an education is necessary for their child to have the opportunities that make possible a happy and successful life. Though this begs the question: what is a happy and successful life? And what does it mean to get an education that would be conducive to it? Moreover, the irony, of course, is that parents are often inculcating their children in the same predicament as themselves. Even how I phrased it a moment ago is telling: education is often aimed at opening “opportunities” and training kids how to, essentially, be good ‘choice-makers’ and successful ‘consumers,’ where by consumer I simply mean they are ‘empowered’ to pursue whatever desire happens to grip and guide them. A child is a choosing thing on its way to choosing things.

When I used to give talks about our humanities curriculum to parents, I would always quip that we made a considerable mistake in saying that we should not talk about religion and politics at the dinner table. Religion and politics engage the most important questions in our lives and the ones with the greatest existential import. They address questions from the meaning of life to how we ought to live in community. These are precisely the kinds of things we should discuss at the dinner table! In fact, because we have so recklessly said otherwise, we are now in the situation where just about everyone has forgotten how to talk about them, especially in a civil and charitable way.

But this is not just the musings of a modern person on modern failures; this was entirely obvious to our ancestors. In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, he concludes that the best lives a human being can live are either that of political statesmanship or of philosophical contemplation. Both are as close to divine and immortal activity as we can get—the stateman, so to speak, providentially orders all that is under him and guides the state to what is best, and the one engaging in contemplation is thinking about eternal ideas, a mirror into God’s life.

Unsurprisingly, by the end of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle turns to questions of childhood education—how are you going to inculcate the best habits to make those highest lives possible?—which sets up his next work, the Politics. Hopefully you get the picture. From Plato, to St. Augustine of Hippo, through the Western Medieval period, and even to the fall of the Byzantine Empire, education had a clear direction and set of guiding principles. Our anxiety about education is often because modern education is simply the habituation of the paradox of choice into every fiber of our being, whereas we have forgotten what classical education is and what it is for.

Ancient education, despite its diversity of contexts and application, is referred to as a liberal arts education. In this case, “liberal” does not mean you vote democrat or enjoy hippy drum circles, nor does its connection to the word “arts” entail the opportunity to try on a bunch of professional hats, act in a play, or paint, and see what fits (i.e. choices!). Instead, liberal has its roots in the word for freedom, and art here means something closer to a skill or discipline. We might loosely translate the meaning as ‘disciplines for free people.’ By freedom here we distinguish between those who have to make a living with their hands, that is, are tethered to the needs and necessities of survival, versus those who have the privilege of leisure and thus the time and energy to devote to study.

Mules can carry materials further and cheetahs outrun us with ease. What distinguishes the human being is that we are rational animals, and that rationality entails we are free. Freedom here, however, does not mean endless choice, and our reactions to our modern circumstances bears this out. Freedom means the capacity for cultivating and exercising our highest powers (i.e. reason) toward the highest ends. Let’s be honest, dolphins are great, but they do not know what it means to be a dolphin nor do they contemplate set theory.

Education needs a goal, a purpose for being educated, if you will. For the Liberal Arts tradition, all of the various disciplines (poetry, geometry, rhetoric, and so forth) had as their goal acquiring the tools necessary to ask the most fundamental questions of reality: what does it mean to exist? How do I acquire certainty about something? What is human nature? Is there a God? The idea was that well-ordered leisure (otium) was the purpose for business or work (negotium), and not the other way around.

It is time we understood the point of education again, and did our children the true service of giving them what was denied of us: an education that gives them the chance to become truly human and to dispense with the paradox of choice. This is why the Pacifica Center for Philosophy + Theology exists, and we hope we can count on your support.

Rev. Dn. Alexander Earl is the director of the Pacifica Center for Philosophy + Theology.

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