Why “Man’s Search for Meaning” and Viktor Frankl

I recommend Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning to a fair number of people in a wide array of contexts, and one of my students asked why I included him in a short list of books at the back of the syllabus. Though I’ve mentioned him on blog a number of times (see here for one example), I hadn’t really considered why I admire his book and so wanted to take a shot at doing so.

As Frankl says, we’re suffering from a bizarre dearth of meaning in our everyday lives. One can see this in the emptiness that a lot of people report feeling and, more seriously, in suicide rates. In material terms, people in Western societies have never been as well off as we are today—and most of Asia and Latin America, along with much of Africa, are catching up with surprising speed. Yet in “spiritual” terms (I hate that much-abused word but can think of no better one—metaphysical, perhaps?) many of us aren’t doing so well, which is odd, given the cornucopia of goods and opportunities around us. I think Frankl tries to teach us how to better actualize our lives—we truly don’t live by bread alone—and I think he has a keen sense of the malaise many of us feel. I’ve struggled with these issues too and think Frankl’s treatment of them is a good one.

One can see another version or statement of this general problem in Louis CK’s much-linked bit “Everything is amazing right now and nobody is happy.” It has 7 million views, and while YouTube views are hardly a good metric for importance or content, I think CK’s bit has gone viral because he’s touching a profound problem that many people feel, even if they don’t articulate it, or usually won’t articulate to themselves or others.

Many people also seem to feel isolated (see Putnam’s possibly flawed Bowling Alone for one account). Yet because they feel isolated, they have no one to talk to about feeling isolated! The paradox worsens isolation, and there isn’t an obvious outlet for these kinds of feelings or problems. Plus, technology seems to enable crappier and more tenuous relationships, when many of us really want the opposite. That’s partly a problem of the person using the technology—we can talk to anyone, anywhere despite many of us having nothing to say—but technology also pushes use to use it in particular ways, which is one of my points about how Facebook is bad for relationships.

And people are mostly on their own in dealing with this. Schools, as they’re widely conceived of right now, are largely seen as job-training centers, rather than as places to figure out how you should live your life. So they’re not very helpful. Religion or religious feeling is one answer for some people, but religious thinking or feeling isn’t very satisfying for me and a growing number of people.

I don’t know what is helpful—problems are often easier to see than solutions—but Frankl offers a framework for thinking about leading a meaningful existence through attempting to do the best with what you’ve got and choosing an aim for your life, however small or absurd (Hence: “Nietzsche’s words, ‘He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,’ could be the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic efforts regarding prisoners. Whenever there was an opportunity for it, one had to give them a why—an aim—for their lives, in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible how of their existence”).

Frankl and Louis CK are hardly the only people to notice this—All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age is a contemporary example of a book tackling similar basic concepts from a different angle. Stumbling on Happiness and The Happiness Hypothesis are others. The fact that this problem persists across decades and arguably becomes more urgent means that I don’t think these books will be the last. As Frankl says in a preface:

I do not at all see in the bestseller status of my book so much an achievement and accomplishment on my part as an expression of the misery of our time: if hundreds of thousands of people reach out for a book whose very title promises to deal with the question of a meaning to life, it must be a question that burns under the fingernails.

The kind of e-mail you like getting from a student:

What I wanted to tell you was that as I walked to my car triumphantly, I was taken aback by a distinct but powerful desire to explain my new decision to you. Why? I felt so good about my choice that I think I wanted to be interrogated by you and your often-obnoxiously probing questions (that’s a compliment). I imagined how the conversation would go and the way you might challenge my choice to provoke critical thinking. Then I thought about how well I’d be able to handle the scrutiny and cackled. So thank you for unwittingly validating my big decisions.

Although I like getting this kind of e-mail, I wonder what it says about me that I can be characterized, accurately—or so friends tell me—as asking “often-obnoxiously probing questions.” Furthermore, I wonder what it says that I’ve caused that habit to be internalized in others, too.

Discuss in the comments section. Bonus points to answers that include obnoxious, probing questions.

(I asked the student in question if she minded me posting this excerpt, and she wrote back: “please DO use my comments in a blog post. I’m actually kind of regretting that I didn’t send you the first draft. I waited a good half hour or so and then tuned the language down before sending it because I didn’t want to risk offending you. :P The theme was the same (and still intended as complimentary).” Fortunately, I’m notably hard to offend.)

Instant feedback in the classroom, and in life

You never really know if you’re teaching the right thing. The best way to get closer that ideal is instant feedback.

When I’m teaching, I often ask simple, binary questions (“How many of you think you’d leave the body?” of Raymond Carver’s “So Much Water So Close to Home;” “How many of you checked Facebook at least once while you were writing your essays? More than once?” of Paul Graham’s “Disconnecting Distraction“) to gauge the classroom’s temperature. I also ask a lot of questions and ask students to write their answers in two to five minutes, so they have some kind of coherent response. The writing serves a second purpose: I can walk around, look over students’ shoulders or ask to see their answers, and get five to ten responses in less than a minute and change plans accordingly based on those responses.

A few days ago, for example, I asked open-ended questions about “Disconnecting Distraction” and found that about five of twenty students had read it. So a discussion about “Disconnecting Distraction” made no sense. Talking about what it meant that so few people had read “Disconnecting Distraction” made a lot of sense. So we did that instead.

I never know what’s going to happen when I walk in. I have some things planned if no one wants to start a discussion, as well as some ways of steering conversations toward close reading and ideas if the conversation meanders too much. But making hard-and-fast plans, then executing them regardless of the conditions on the ground, leads to sub-optimal class time.

I’ve been in plenty of classrooms like that, and my experiences have been every bit as dull and tedious as yours. Instead, I incorporate immediate feedback and establish the tightest loop I can between me and and students. If class doesn’t go as planned, I’m not going to take it personally: I’m going to ask “why?” and figure something out. Anything less can be done online, through a broadcast lecture (I’ve actually thought about getting a friend to record my classes, then putting the recordings on YouTube, but it’s a project that would take a fair amount of effort and deliver little immediate return to me. I might do it anyway).

These ideas didn’t come out of nowhere, and they’re linked to the larger intellectual climate. For example, innumerable Hacker News posts discuss how business plans don’t survive first contact with customers and how you have to listen to customers and iterate rapidly if you’re going to run a successful business—especially a successful startup. The “survive first contact” reference in the first sentence is adapted from the military’s idea that no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy. It’s easy to see how those ideas can be adapted for the classroom. See also this Atlantic article on great teachers:

Great teachers, he concluded, constantly reevaluate what they are doing. . . .

For example, one way that great teachers ensure that kids are learning is to frequently check for understanding . . .

The kids have to do the math in their heads. All of them write their answers on their cards and thrust them up in the air. With a quick scan, Mr. Taylor can see if every child has written the right answer.

The article focuses on K – 12 teachers, but the same principles apply across the age spectrum: does the person you’re trying to reach understand what’s going on? Can they think on their feet (or, since they’re sitting, on their ass)? A week later, can you ask follow-up questions and see if students retain what they were doing? How about a month later?

These are questions I should be able to answer, and I should be able to get data on them quickly, without disrupting what else is happening. Granted, there’s near-zero institutional incentive at universities for grad students or even professors to think about this when they teach, but I do it anyway because I think teaching well is important and because I’ve sat through so many hours of idiotic, half-baked instruction and would like to avoid inflicting the same on my own students. To me, rapid measurement and change is part of “teaching with authenticity and authority.”

A couple other notes:

1) In some ways, teaching is a microcosm of what’s happening in the larger economy and what’s being rewarded right now: innovation, rapid responses to changing circumstances, attention to detail, and a willingness to do whatever is needed at a particular time, without resorting to tradition or past ideas that might have no authority in the present.

2) I’ve have witnessed numerous teachers and other quasi authority figures demanding “respect” or some equally dubious homage for their “position,” rather than because they’ve earned it. That sort of thing is bogus, has always been bogus, and always will be bogus, yet it continues anyway, and it’s the sort of thing I want to avoid.

3) Life decides whether what you’re doing is effective or not. So I’m not as worried about catching cheaters and so forth; their real judge is the market, and the market is infinitely harsher and infinitely more demanding than I am. If they can pass market tests without learning how to read and write, then that’s their affair. But by choosing to avoid, to the extent they can, knowledge, they’re going to make the market tests that much harder when those tests arrive, as they do for virtually everyone save those who are cosseted by such mammoth wealth they can lead lives of shocking indolence and, to my mind, tedium, which sounds like much greater punishment than I could possibly mete out, even were I inclined to do so. Sometimes I explicitly connect classes to the larger world. I’m not sure those connections are successful, but they are present.

Why these assignment sheets: The world isn't going to be a routine place, and writing projects shouldn't be either

Phil Bowermaster writes:

Increasingly, perhaps, a job is something that we each have to create. We can’t count on someone else to create one for us. That model is disappearing. We have to carve something out for ourselves, something that the machines won’t immediately grab.

Bowermaster is describing on a macro scale what I try to do a micro scale with the papers I assign to students. The important part of my assignment sheets for freshman composition papers are only two paragraphs long, and students sometimes find them frustrating, but I do them this way because the world is headed in a direction that offers less direction and more power to do the right or wrong thing. Here’s an example of an assignment sheet:

Purpose: To explain and interpret a possible message or messages suggested by a) a text or texts we have read for class, b) a text or texts in Writing as Revision, or c) a book of your own choosing. If you write on a book of your own, you must clear your selection with me first. Your goal should be persuade readers of your interpretation using the texts studied and outside reading material.

You should construct a thesis that is specific and defensible and then explicate it through points, illustrations, and explanation. See Chapters 8 and 9 of A Student’s Guide To First-Year Writing for more information on the nature of textual analysis.

That’s it. Students can read more about the assignment if they want to, and they have a lot of freedom in picking a topic. Students often want more direction, which I give to some extent, but I don’t give step-by-step instructions because a) step-by-step instructions yield boring papers and b) in their real-life writing, the real challenge isn’t the writing. It’s the deciding what to write about and how to write once you’ve decided to start. The writing assignment often isn’t given; the writing assignment is made.

It’s a big leap to go from “write-a-good-paper” assignment sheets to conceptualizing “a job [as] something that we each have to create.” Maybe too big a leap. But the thinking and rationale behind my decision is clear: jobs that can be easily codified and described as a series of steps—jobs that are easily explained, in other words—are increasingly going away, either to off-shoring or automation. The ones that persist will be the ones that don’t exist now because no one has thought to do them. But a lot of school still appears to consists of a person in front of the room saying, “Follow these steps,” having the students follow the steps, and then moving on.

That model isn’t totally wrong—you can’t create something from nothing—but maybe we should more often be saying, “Here’s the kind of thing you should be doing. What steps should you take? How should you take them? Do something and then come talk to me about it.” That kind of model might be more time consuming and less easily planned, and I wouldn’t want to use it in every hour of every day. Many basic skills still need to be taught along the lines or “This is how you use a comma,” or “this is how an array works.” But we should be collectively moving towards saying, “Here are some constraints. Show me you can think. Show me you can make something from this.” And class isn’t totally devoid of support: unlike the real world, class has mandatory drafts due, lots of discussion about what makes strong writing strong, and the chance to see other people’s work. The imposed, artificial deadlines are particularly important. It’s not like I hand out assignment sheets and shove students out to sea, to flounder or float completely on their own.

Still, from what I can see, the world is increasingly rewarding adaptability and flexibility. I don’t see that trend changing; if anything, it seems likely to accelerate. If schools are going to (collectively) do a better job, they probably need to work on learning how to teach adaptability in the process of teaching subject-specific material. Offering the kinds of assignments I do is a microscopically small step in that direct, but big changes usually consist of a series of small steps. The assignments are one such step. This post is another.

In “A Welcome Call to Greatness,” John Hagel discusses That Used to Be Us, a book by Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum that discusses what Hagel calls “creative creators” – “people who do their nonroutine work in distinctively nonroutine ways.” And that’s what I’m trying to do above: train students into being able to do nonroutine writing of a sort that will be distinctive, interesting, and well-done, but without a great deal of obvious managerial oversight from someone else. Great writing seldom springs from someone micromanaging: it springs from discussions, ideas, unexpected metaphors, connections, seeing old things in new ways, and form a plenitude of other places that can’t be easily described.

In “The Age of the Essay,” Paul Graham says:

Anyone can publish an essay on the Web, and it gets judged, as any writing should, by what it says, not who wrote it. Who are you to write about x? You are whatever you wrote.

Popular magazines made the period between the spread of literacy and the arrival of TV the golden age of the short story. The Web may well make this the golden age of the essay. And that’s certainly not something I realized when I started writing this.

He’s right. The most challenging writing most of my students will do isn’t even going to have the opportunity for someone else to micromanage it. The writing will increasingly be online. It will increasingly be their own decision to write or not write. As Penelope Trunk says, it will increasingly be essential for a good career. It won’t be routine. As I said above, routine work that can be codified and described in a series of steps will be exported to the lowest bidder. Valuable work will be the work nobody has dreamt up. Jobs will be “something that we each have to create.” I’m sure a lot of people will be unhappy with the change, but the secular forces moving in this direction look too great to be overcome by any individual. You surf the waves life and society throws at you, or you fall off the board and struggle. The worst cases never get back on the board and drown. I want students to have the best possible shot at staying on the board, and that means learning they can’t assume someone else is going to create a job—or an assignment—for them. They have to learn to do it themselves. They need to be creative. As Hagel quotes Mandelbaum and Friedman as saying, “Continuous innovation is not a luxury anymore – it is becoming a necessity.” I worry that too few students are getting the message.

I think of some of my friends who are unemployed, and when I ask them what they do all day, they say they spend time searching for a job, hanging out, watching TV. To me, this is crazy. If I were unemployed, I’d be writing, or learning Python, or posting on Craigslist with offers to work doing whatever I can imagine doing. The last thing I’d be doing is watching TV. In other words, I’d be doing something similar to what I’m doing now, even when I am employed: building skills, trying new things, and not merely sitting around waiting for good things to come to me. They won’t. Good things are the things one makes. Most of my employed friends seem to get this on some level, or have found their way into protected niches like teaching or nursing. I wonder if my unemployed friends had teachers and professors who forced them to think for themselves, or if they had teachers and professors who were content to hand them well-defined assignments that didn’t require much thinking about the “how” instead of the “what.”

Laptops, students, distraction: hardly a surprise

This post grew out of a comment responding to the question, “What Restrictions Should Student Laptops Have?” I’m a graduate student who teaches English 101/102 and takes classes at the University of Arizona. This post also dovetails nicely with “Desktops versus laptops.”

The short version: leave restrictions or lack thereof to the teachers or instructors.

For background, read “Why I ban laptops in my classroom,” “I Don’t Multitask,” “professor vs laptop,” Paul Graham’s “Disconnecting Distraction“and finally “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” This is not a new issue. If Paul Graham and other writers and hackers find the Internet ceaselessly distracting, what hope do freshmen have? I hear friends and other grad students say they feel like they can’t go more than a half hour without poking around the Internet, which hurts their writing time. Laptops in general and Internet connectivity in particular might cause greater problems than those they’re designed to solve.*

While I sympathize with some pro-laptop comments, I will point out that paternalism is not always bad; sometimes it’s a necessary component of developing discipline, fortitude, or tenacity. Banning laptops could help students develop the ability to focus for a sustained period of time and not get lost in class, particularly during discussions about complex material. In classrooms I’ve been in—including graduate classrooms—where virtually everyone had laptops, they were used for taking notes, yes. But they were also used for Facebook, and checking out happy hour, messaging, and messaging about the incompetence of the person speaking, checking the score, and a variety of other things that promote continuous partial attention.

The jokes are coming: you must’ve been a dumb student, gone to a bad school, had bad professors, be weak minded, etc. Maybe: but I think the bigger problem is that letting one’s attention temporarily wander is made so much easier by having a laptop and Internet connection is almost overwhelming. Sure, you can stay on a diet with a chocolate cake in your kitchen. Sure, you’d never lie on that mortgage application about your income—but, you know, you really want that McMansion, and no one is going to check it, and you just have to inflate it a little… The problem is that laptops made distraction so easy. They make it harder to separate the bad professor from the difficult material. And so on.

Students in universities succumb to the Beer and Circus mentality, and if they do, what luck will middle- and high-school students have? I teach freshmen English now at the University of Arizona and ban laptops. I’m aware of the counter-arguments and alluded to them above: if you’re not a compelling enough teacher to keep their attention, they deserve to use laptops to get around you. But what if you can’t get their attention in the first place? What if you’re trying to impart something important but that doesn’t have the immediacy of Perez Hilton? Then give them the Cs they deserve when they write bad papers. And then they whine to you about the grades they got. The Slashdot commenter would be such a strong writer or coder or mathematician that he could get by anyway: congratulations. But the other 24 people in the classroom probably can’t.

All this is to say that laptops can very easily and quickly become more a burden than benefit. For some classes they may be necessary or helpful, like programming classes. Still, not every lesson will call for them and not every teacher will want to use them.

“Here’s the dilemma — how much freedom do you give to students?” you ask. The answer depends too much on the instructor to give a firm answer, but I give the answer above in part because so many of the initial responses tend towards “let them do whatever they want.” Sure: and throw someone into an ocean a mile from shore and see what happens. If the teacher wants them to conduct a textual analysis of a Facebook profile, let them. If the teacher doesn’t want them to have Internet access, let the teacher have a kill switch for the room’s wireless router. That way, you’ll be allowing as much flexibility as the situation calls for.

Outside the school, students’ autonomy should be complete, and schools shouldn’t impinge on students’ rights to conduct themselves how they will. Many students will use computers in ways that seem wasteful, but a few will also hack them, use them for self-expression, and let the computers become assistants rather than crutches for thought.

Did you see what Randy Pausch calls the headfake in this essay? It’s partially about students, yes, but it’s really about how to create and learn. Computers can help those processes, but too often they seem to hinder. And when they hinder, they should be discarded. The real scarce resource in modern life is sustained attention.

EDIT 2015: Vox reports on a study that says “you should take notes by hand — not on a laptop.” The study claims that participants who wrote by hand had better recall, especially of complex concepts. Don’t take one study as definitive but in this case anecdote and research match.

In addition, Cal Newport’s book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World discusses similar topics. I think distraction and defeating it will be an ongoing saga for many decades.

* I haven’t gone as far as Paul Graham, who describes his solution:

I now leave wifi turned off on my main computer except when I need to transfer a file or edit a web page, and I have a separate laptop on the other side of the room that I use to check mail or browse the web. (Irony of ironies, it’s the computer Steve Huffman wrote Reddit on. When Steve and Alexis auctioned off their old laptops for charity, I bought them for the Y Combinator museum.)

My rule is that I can spend as much time online as I want, as long as I do it on that computer. And this turns out to be enough. When I have to sit on the other side of the room to check email or browse the web, I become much more aware of it. Sufficiently aware, in my case at least, that it’s hard to spend more than about an hour a day online.

And my main computer is now freed for work. If you try this trick, you’ll probably be struck by how different it feels when your computer is disconnected from the Internet. It was alarming to me how foreign it felt to sit in front of a computer that could only be used for work, because that showed how much time I must have been wasting.

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