I remember reading the The Myth of Sisyphus many years ago and not really getting it. Not until I got into education, that is. The semester, the quarter, indeed the school year, is a repetitive cycle, as is most of life. When we are young, it is not as readily apparent as when we get older and more experienced. In The Myth of Sisyphus, the titan Sisyphus is doomed to roll a large rock up a mountain only to have it roll back down once he gets to the top. The cycle starts over again and again for eternity. The last line, as I remember it, Camus states that in that activity, he imagines Sisyphus happy.
I wandered the library today, looking for current research, and it struck me that these books that I am rejecting as too old for my purposes—mid-eighties and nineties—were once current and even cutting edge. Sisyphus’ bolder has rolled down the mountain and others—perhaps us—are rolling it back up again. The anxiety that the existentialist feels, I think, is that realization that everything we do is at once singularly important and singularly absurd at the same time.
We are struggling with issues in education today that 20 years from now will be moot. We are dealing with students today that will no longer be our responsibility in a few months (or will they?) If we fool ourselves into thinking that life is like a story and there will be a result, an end, then we will be sorely mistaken and bitter when life continues on without us. The existential view, as I understand it, instead believes in no destination, no ultimate reward, but finds joy in the act—the struggle. We are on a journey, but we are doomed to never arrive—in fact, it is impossible to arrive. Life has a way of moving the end point endlessly before us like a rainbow or mirage. Instead of finding frustration, the existentialist is satisfied that they are part of the process and find contentment within the journey itself.
We fool ourselves if we think that a policy, a methodology, an ideology, a religion, is going to solve all of our issues. We fool ourselves if we think that one approach to education will be a magic pill that will make everything fall into place. The beauty of existentialism is that it gives a philosophical framework within education, indeed in life, to enjoy and focus on the process, independent of the end. Education is a practice, and, even if perfection is achieved, there's another class waiting for you in a few months and another generation of students to be taught, and another generation of educators waiting to try out other new ideas.
Image by Fouro