Case study

I. Introduction

The purpose of this module is threefold.  First, we will inquire into the educational implications of existentialism.  Second, we will evaluate the strengths and weakness of S. Neill’s educational theory and practice.  Third, we will apply existentialist perspective to analyze the aims and methods of service leering.

II.  An Overview of Existentialism

Existentialism focuses on promoting reflective examination of human existence.  The word “exist” derives from the Greek and Latin words meaning to “stand out from.”  Very often, we have taken our existence for granted.  More specifically, it is not uncommon for us to perform our daily routine activities without exploring the meaning of our daily activities.  To raise our awareness of our existence, it is essential to “stand out from” our daily routine activities in order to critically examine our existence.

Although existentialism emerged as a popular cultural and philosophical movement in Europe in the 1940s and 1950s, existentialism can be traced back to the thoughts of ancient Athenian philosophers such as Heraclitus & Cratylus, who attended to human existence in flux.  Below is an often-quoted dialogue between Heraclitus and Cratylus:

Heraclitus: “You cannot step twice into the same river.”

Cratylus: “It was not possible to step into the same river even once.”

Here, I invite you to ponder your interpretation of the above dialogue in relation to your life experiences.

Existentialism in Modern Era

In the West, the school of existentialism emerging in 1940s in Europe emphasizes the “individual” as an autonomous moral agent who is entitled to radical freedom in making choices and fulfilling his/her responsibilities. Soren Kierkegaard, Martin Buber, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Albert Camus are the influential existentialist philosophers.  Sartre’s slogan “existence precedes essence” especially popularized existentialism.  To inquire into Sartre’s thoughts, we will need to inquire about “What is existence?” and “What is essence?”  To Sartre, an individual as a moral agent “exists” first, then he/she make choices to constitute what is essential about him or her.  In other words, an individual’s “free will” determines his/her personality, character, life style,….

Let’s pause and think about whether you agree with this viewpoint.  Why?  Why not?

Because existentialism emphasizes the individual as an autonomous moral agent, critics of existentialism such as S. Ramond question:

If ethics is about community, how can a philosophy which elevates the individual above the group have an ethic?

If ethics requires consistence and predictability, does existentialism’s insistence on the changeability of concrete experience and its rejection of rules preclude an ethical system?
Can we be ethical and be absolutely free?
How can we speak of “right” and “wrong” action in a world that is fundamentally subjective?
How can we prescribe for ourselves, or for others?

In response to Ramond’s questions, please think over your own ethical decision making process.  Then, please complete the following task:

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Task

After carefully the above notes, please answer the questions:

1.    Existentialism focuses on raising our awareness of human existence by attending to our daily routine activities rather than non-routine events (e.g., birth, death, graduation, marriage, divorce) in our lives.  Based on your personal experiences, explain why it is critical for us (from youth to adulthood) to attend to our daily routine activities.

2.    Sartre’s slogan “existence precedes essence” popularized existentialism.  To inquire into Sartre’s thoughts, we will need to inquire about “What is existence?” and “What is essence?”  To Sartre, an individual as a moral agent “exists” first, then he/she makes choices to constitute what is essential about him or her.  In other words, an individual’s “free will” determines his/her personality, character, life style, and so on.  Based on your personal experiences and critical reasoning, first offer arguments to support then refute Sartre’s assumption that existence precedes essence.

3.    Existentialism, to a large extent, is grounded in an assumption that an individual is an autonomous moral agent.  Based on your experiences, offer a concrete case to support or debunk the above assumption.

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