Transcendence & education

I am in the thick of midterm madness and have temporarily abandoned my post as speculative philosophical muser, gardening enthusiast and poet.

However, I maintain my efforts to stay in mindfulness whenever I can. In the car, on my way to work. In the phlebotomist’s chair, waiting for a blood test. At a staff meeting, or with a student–trying to be aware of what I say, and who the person in front of me is, rather than zone out and get anxious about the next thing I have to accomplish before bedtime. The practice, however badly I manage it, rewards me with moments of clarity and observation that help get me through a day and complement the practice of writing poetry.


Mindfulness does not come naturally to me; I am a daydreamer by temperament, a tuner-outer. It is far too easy for me to get carried out of the now by thoughts of “what if” or “what’s next,” and if I function in that way, I am not living my life in the present moment. Poets may start out as daydreamers, but if imagining never turns to the practice of writing and revising and reading the work–the daydreamer stays a dreamer, and does not mature into poetry-writing.


Among many other things, I am a teacher. I tell my students that English and Philosophy are “friends,” that they share many concepts, and that philosophy and English classes should educate people about The Big Picture. About life. I did not come to mindfulness or a consciousness of the value of the present moment in church or in school or on my own, though. People taught me. I came upon these concepts through philosophy–first, Western philosophy and later, Eastern philosophy.

Here are professors John Kaag and Clancy Martin presenting some of philosophy’s timeless questions (under the lens of Faust, for starters):

Faust knows everything worth knowing. And still, after all his careful bookwork, he arrives at the unsettling realization that none of it has really mattered. His scholarship has done pitifully little to unlock the mystery of human life.

Are we and our students in that same situation? Are we teaching them everything without teaching them anything regarding the big questions that matter most? Is there a curriculum that addresses why we are here? And why we live only to suffer and die?

Good questions.

In their article, Kaag and Martin take the question of life in the present, with its present meaning–if there is one–and propose an even deeper inquiry, one that I sometimes discuss with my colleagues in The Morbid Book Group. The authors write that

[w]hen dying finally delivers us to our inevitable end, we would like to think that we’ve endured this arduous trial for a reason. But that reason cannot, unfortunately, be articulated by many of the academic disciplines that have gained ascendance in our modern colleges. Why not? Why shouldn’t an undergraduate education prepare students not only for a rich life but for a meaningful death?

Then they compose a nice thumbnail sketch outlining some major definitions and explorations in Western thought and then suggest that higher education’s typical intellectual approach to The Big Questions has, to our students’ loss, lacked fullness of the lived experience as a part of its inquiries.

The need to have authentically lived and also to know what to do about dying are knotted together in a way that none of our usual intellectual approaches can adequately untangle. It is related to the strange way that experience is both wholly one’s own and never fully in one’s possession. Experience is, by its very nature, transcendent — it points beyond itself, and it is had and undergone with others.

The authors write, “Who needs transcendence? We suspect that human beings do.” I am certainly in agreement there; exactly how to convey transcendence to students is probably beyond the scope of most college professors, but we can encourage them toward inquisitiveness. We can be mindful about where they are now, and where we are now:

The meaning of life and death is not something we will ever know. They are rather places we are willing or unwilling to go. To feel them, moment by moment, to the end, authentically, thoughtfully, passionately — that is an answer in itself. And for us as educators, to show our students the importance of trying to go to those places — that may be one of the best things we can teach them.

What are we teaching our students about experience and the fullness of the present moment?

“…he not busy being born is busy dying” (“It’s Alright, Ma” Bob Dylan).


And even those being born are already dying. What have we got but the moment? I try to be mindful of that.


Read the article here.

7 comments on “Transcendence & education

  1. Thank you for this (and for linking again to your Morbid book list, which I have bookmarked this time). There is a lot to think about there, but my immediate thought is that there is a time for these questions. I am 50 and these questions are with me each day. But I am actually okay with the fact that they weren’t *really* while I was a student, and then when I had children crawling on the kitchen floor (when these concerns were intellectual, and uniformed by the context of broader life experience).

    Does this kind of contemplation really make us relish the moment more, or does it take us outside the moment and make us spectators of our own present? (Viewing the present through a projection of a future lens?) In some ways, isn’t this kind of contemplative attempt at transcendence the opposite of mindfulness? If preparing for a meaningful death has us chasing images of eudaimonia from a conceptual point of view, rather than a point of understanding gained through lived experience… isn’t that inauthentic? Aren’t we still like Faust?

    The authors write, “… but only recently, as we’ve grown older, have they come to haunt us.” I think that is a key admission. “Lived experience” can’t be conveyed. And it can’t be rushed (either in depth or length).

    I am going to have a little run and reread the article. Them maybe some Emerson. Thank you for this. I am feeling quite ignorant right now, and that is always a good thing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, thank you for reminding us that feeling ignorant is a good thing! It inspires inquisitiveness (we hope). And yes, I think you are correct–my 18-year-old students have not lived enough to know what lived experience is…in fact, many of them have spend much of their young lives trying to escape from lived experiences they have not integrated into their persons yet.

      I do think that philosophy paves the way for later conversations and reflections in this area, so I felt (on my reading of Kaag & Martin’s article) that they are making a plea to keep philosophy in the curriculum. That’s something I strongly agree with.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Turns out I have linked to a Nobel Prize winner’s song!


  3. Did you see this?

    I find it difficult to consider a school a university if it doesn’t teach philosophy. Seems that would make it a trade school. (I didn’t know this was happening).


    • Ren–that is terrible news about the restructuring at a major university–a restructuring that eliminates the Philosophy division, ugh!! Yes, it is happening. Citizens “don’t see the need” for philosophy as a practice or understand its application to their daily lives. And yes, without it we are nothing but very costly, highly specialized trade schools.

      Perhaps that’s what the world wants, or even what it needs. There’s a sorry thought.


      • Absolutely. Here they (EU commissions) have been predicting the shift in curriculum needs in secondary school over the next decade and “critical thinking” has moved from not in the top 10 to 3. I have read that they have philosophy in elementary schools in Brazil, they believe it is so essential to democracy.

        I hope the tide turns quickly in the US.


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