Beyond Google

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There is a lame joke about a man who was searching for the meaning of life. He consulted friends, old teachers, and people he considered wise. But none could help him. He scoured libraries in search of the answer. But still, no luck. Finally, someone told the man about a Buddhist monk living high in the Tibetan mountains. Obsessed by his quest, the man traveled and traveled, climbed and climbed, and finally he reached the old monk, sitting quietly in contemplation.

“Oh, wise one,” the man said, “I have traveled thousands of miles seeking the answer to one question: What is the meaning of life?”

The old monk thought for a moment and, then, finally looked the man in the eyes and said, “Try Google.”

But all kidding aside, the search for the true meaning of our lives is as old as humanity itself. Early man, having taken care of his basic needs for food, shelter and some degree of safety, must have sat back and looked into the fire and mused, “What’s going on? What is this existence all about?” The great parade of the Earth’s people has poked at and wrestled with these ultimate questions for millennia.

Historically, the very purpose of education has been to engage each person in this quest and to pass on accumulated knowledge about who we are, why we are here, and how we should live our lives. Our understanding has been enriched by a legion of philosophers, theologians, artists and thinkers of all stripes.

But now, it would appear that our state-run public school system is doing everything it can to keep students from addressing and grappling with ultimate questions of life’s meaning, such as, “What is the purpose of my life?” and “What is a worthy way to spend my time on Earth?”

Today, an education is viewed as the means to an end, a way to acquire the tools to rise in the eyes of the world. No longer is education about gaining the keys to the Kingdom or even about engaging students in a quest to understand what constitutes a worthy life. A teacher asking such questions would surely have a short career.

John Silber, the late president of Boston University and a distinguished philosopher, once said, “The most important thing we can teach a child is that he is going to die.” Tough, but without that realization, we can badly spend our existence.

Today, our schools promote the philosophy of enlightened self-interest. The closest our schools can offer a student as a serious reason to seek an education is to get into a good college or get a high-paying job. In the meantime, we have allowed the culture to infect the school, which overshadows any serious search for meaning.

Rather than promote a quest for higher meaning, our public schools today promote our basest desires, endorsing self-fulfillment as the highest of social values, and all the while tolerating pervasive vulgarity, fascination with celebrity and violence and (perhaps most concerning) a conception of human happiness keyed to material consumption. These are the values of a corrupt, pleasure-obsessed society, not the core values of the just and caring democracy the public schools claim to promote.

We, adults, too, are victims of our increasingly trivial and intrusive culture. The message to us from our popular culture is something on the order of “work hard so you can afford to retire early and veg-out.” The culture busily endeavors to keep our minds away from ultimate questions. Today’s “cultural products” (i.e., films, music, books) intended not to uplift our minds to consider first principles, but rather to entertain us, to keep us from any serious exploration of who we are and where we’re going.

Religion, on the other hand, is very much in “the meaning of life” business. It has time-tested answers to such ultimate questions as, “Who am I? Why am I here? How should I live my life?” Religion responds to those questions with a clarity and force well beyond that of our modern schools or free market capitalism.

But religion today has two great enemies that have worked hard to cast it out of the public square: the culture and the state.

The media-dominated culture alternately ridicules and attacks, painting religious individuals as either fools or knaves. It plays for profit upon our appetites for entertainment.

The modern state is more of a puzzle. It is built upon religious ideals of the sanctity of the individual and one’s responsibility to one’s neighbors. Nevertheless, the state is antagonistically encroaching on the individual free exercise of religion and threatening churches with more penalties and taxes.

Ancient philosophers and modern anthropologists claim that humans are unique in that we are meaning-seeking beings. A society that discourages that human drive for meaning does so at its peril.

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan are writers, former teachers, and the editors of Why I’m Still A Catholic. They write primarily on cultural, educational and religious topics. Read their other columns here.


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