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“American Higher Education, the De-Worlding of World, and the Lessons of Situated Finitude”


This essay offers a critique of the culture of specio-vocationalism in American higher education by first drawing on Edmund Husserl’s conception of “world” and connecting this notion to education conceived as a “world-disclosing” activity. The essay will then give an account of how the trends of vocationalization and specialization manifest themselves in contemporary university culture, and how they work together to “de-world” the lives of our students and deprive them of possibilities that are part of what it means to be human. After showing how this impoverishment undermines the world-disclosing function of higher education, the essay will then suggest one way to counter this “de-worlding of world”: the teaching of the situated finitude of the human condition by reminding our students that our knowledge or sense of the world is always only partial. It is this realization that has the potential of placing our students once again before the vastness of the world in wonder and curiosity. In this realization they will gain a better sense of the world as a distant horizon still to be explored in all of its inexhaustible complexity and meaning. At the same time, coming to grips with their own ignorance will imbue them with an intellectual humility that will shield them not only from their own finitude, but the finitude of others as well.

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  1. Often, but not always. It has been pointed out that cultural canons can be presented in a way that reveals their implicit myopia and internal structures of oppression (Williams 2021, 864–877).

  2. For instance, during the 1930s National Socialist ideologues employed the term Weltanschauung to celebrate the worldview of the Germanic peoples (Moran and Cohen 2012, 345).

  3. This point has also been informed by the author’s involvement in the revision of the core curriculum at their home institution, a bruising affair that lasted ten years.

  4. This calls to mind Jacques Ellul’s definition of technique as “the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency in every field of human activity” (Ellul 1964, xxv).

  5. Here it might also be useful to recall a distinction first made by Aristotle in the Politics between zoê, or mere biological life, and bios, a life of action beyond mere biological production (Aristotle 1985, 1254a7). Hannah Arendt helpfully characterizes bios as a life “always full of events which ultimately can be told as a story, establish a biography. . to be distinguished from mere zoê” (Arendt 1958, 97). What emerges from this understanding of bios is called in phenomenological terms a life-world [lebenswelt], a field of actual and potential meanings. Though it is true that a specio-vocationalistic education does not reduce the lives of students to mere zoê, it could be argued that there is still a reduction once removed from zoê, insofar as it grounds human meaning as primarily emerging from a focus on material sustenance.

  6. This line of reasoning may call to mind the thinking of Paolo Friere in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Friere’s argument is famously based on a detailed Marxist class analysis, though there are passages in the text where he alludes to the ontological through passing references to Husserl, Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Fromm (Freire 2003, 59–83). The present essay may be considered a fuller ontological grounding of Freire’s analysis. It might also be read fruitfully to better understand how Friedrich Engels’ notion of false consciousness (Engels 1978, 766) is structured in experience, grounded in a distorted sense of “world.”

  7. John Stuart Mill captures a sense of this structure when in On Liberty he notes that in terms of our knowledge we are fallible but corrigible (Mill 2001, 21–23).

  8. The Stanford historian of science and technology Robert Proctor coined the term “agnotology” to denote the study of this kind of culturally-induced ignorance or doubt (Proctor 1995, 8). The present essay could be read as a call for an agnotology, albeit in a broader, ontological sense.


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This paper was presented virtually to the Society for Existential and Phenomenological Theory and Culture on April 30, 2021. The author is grateful for the many fruitful comments made by those in attendance, as well as those made by two anonymous EPTC reviewers of the paper, and two more from SPE. Any remaining flaws in the essay are the exclusive property of the author.

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Koukal, D.R. “American Higher Education, the De-Worlding of World, and the Lessons of Situated Finitude”. Stud Philos Educ 41, 567–578 (2022).

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