Education begins with the simple command, “know thyself.” We must learn who we are, what we might become, and what we should do to get there. These are the guiding questions of life. Science, art, history, and religion are different ways of knowing humanity. They help us discover where we stand, what we might hope for, and what we ought to do.
Education builds upon innate human capacities. But we are not born with self-knowledge or knowledge of the good. Aristotle said virtue was a kind of “second nature.” It is cultivated by training and discipline.
As we grow, we explore new ways of thinking and being. We learn to distinguish right from wrong, fact from fiction. This process of sifting and winnowing begins from innate curiosity. But it is honed by good role models and a lifetime of practice.
Life is a complex game of identities and ideas. To be civilized is to wear a mask. Social theorist Richard Sennett explained that “wearing a mask is the essence of civility.” Adults learn to conceal what is natural behind a façade of socially accepted behavior. Every profession consists of rituals and masks. The scientist’s lab coat is a kind of mask. So too is the musician’s tuxedo.
Americans have often rebelled against this. Some think that unschooled authenticity is charming, hip, and cool. Our culture celebrates cowboys, gangsters, and non-conformists. It encourages you to find your true self and express who you really are.
Uncouth individuals refuse to play the social game. They vent their feelings and say whatever is on their minds. But this creates outrageous and imbecilic behavior. At the end of the day cowboys and gangsters are sad. They end up alone and unloved.
Genuine authenticity is not merely doing whatever you want. Human beings are social. Our ideas and values are part of a larger story. Even the dream of authenticity is based on models we’ve learned from books, songs, and films. To be authentic is to develop integrity and responsibility within social circumstances. The rebel defines himself negatively. He wants to be what everyone else is not. But that means he is no one.
And here is where self-knowledge gets tricky. The deeper you look within to find your true self, the less you find. Behind the lab coat and tuxedo, the tattoos and cowboy boots, what are you, really? Without culture, would you know what you really value? Beyond the proverbs and fairy tales, what do you really believe?
Some traditions teach that there is no enduring self beneath the waves of transient desire and the pile of masks. That insight can be overwhelming. But it can liberate and empower us to wisely choose which desires we want to fulfill and which masks we want to wear.
Education helps us figure this out. Discipline and practice help us control desire. We learn that some desires are worthless and mean. We also discover that not all masks are created equal. Some are shameful or humiliating. But some masks facilitate social interaction. And some desires are noble and enlightening.
Authoritarian education shortcuts this process. It enforces conformity by clamping down on desire with taboos and prohibitions. But this risks rebellion. Free human beings resist coercion. Genuine education is free and self-motivated. We learn best when we are empowered to pursue ideas that enliven our souls.
Curiosity is the north star of self-motivated education. It kick-starts the process of discovery. This does not mean that anything goes. There are right and wrong answers in every field of study. But rather than shutting curiosity down with a dogmatism that stifles creativity and deadens the spirit, liberal education inspires wonder, stimulates intellectual energy, and helps us learn to love what is good, beautiful, just, and true.
Teachers have a crucial role to play in this process. But the responsibility is not only theirs. Students must embrace the quest that is their own education. They must rise to the challenge of learning who they are and what they stand for. A free education leaves you with more questions than answers. But it rests upon the idea that the process of self-examination is essential for a free and fully human life.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala