Skip to main content

Advertisement

Log in

Meaning in Life and the Vocation of Teaching

  • Published:
Studies in Philosophy and Education Aims and scope Submit manuscript

Abstract

What can one person teach another about living meaningfully? Recent discussions about the relationship between education and finding meaning in life have tended to focus on institutional and curricular matters and, as a consequence, have sidelined the importance of the vocation of teaching. Drawing on Raimond Gaita’s philosophy of education, I suggest that his view of the love of a subject embodied in and demonstrated by teachers illuminates both the nature of leading a meaningful life as well as an important role that education might play in helping students to live meaningfully. I argue that a significant way for teachers to aid students in leading meaningful lives is to show them what it is to love a subject or field of inquiry.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Similar content being viewed by others

Notes

  1. I will set aside broader questions of education’s relationship to human ‘flourishing’ and focus more specifically on the way in which education relates to attempts to lead a ‘meaningful’ life. For work that takes up the question of education’s relation to human flourishing see, for instance, de Ruyter (2004); White (2011); Higgins (2011); (Kristjánsson (2016, 2020); Schinkel et al. (2023); Wolbert et al. (2021). De Ruyter, Kristjánsson, Schinkel, and White all cast ‘flourishing’ as a broader concept that includes but goes beyond ‘meaning in life’.

  2. This distinction is commonplace in the field, although not universally accepted. Instances can be found in (e.g., Audi 2005; Wolf 2015; Seachris 2019).

  3. For replies see White (2016) and Kristjánsson (2016, p. 714).

  4. See also White (2009), who develops a theory that focuses more on the intelligibility dimension of meaning and providing students what he calls ‘frameworks’ for making sense of their lives.

  5. The Philosopher Iddo Landau (2017, pp. 112–3) relates the personal story of how it was a teacher that initially spurred his study of philosophy, which contributed much meaning to his life.

  6. On the relevance of exemplars for leading flourishing lives see also Kristjánsson (2020, ch. 7) in response to Zagzebski (2013).

  7. For instance, the idea of ‘vocation’, on Hansen’s (1994, 1995) conception, expresses three ideas, all of which would be reasons for thinking teaching is meaning-conferring based on commonly discussed criteria in recent moral philosophy: (1) contribution to the public good, (2) fulfilling a personal passion, and (3) identity formation. But this focus on vocation would be primarily relevant to how teaching is meaningful for the teacher.

  8. While Gaita’s work on the philosophy of education has generally been neglected, a noteworthy exception is Dunne (2020).

  9. Cf. Hubert Dreyfus’ (2002) comment: “Only by working closely with students in a shared situation in the real world, can teachers with strong identities who are ready to take risks to preserve their commitments pass on their passion and skill so that their students can turn information into knowledge and practical wisdom. In so far as we want to teach skill in particular-domains and practical wisdom in life, which we certainly do, we thus finally run up against the limits of the World Wide Web. As far as I can see, learning by apprenticeship can work only in the nearness of the classroom and laboratory never in cyberspace” (p. 377). Thanks to Lorraine Yeung for referring me to this essay.

  10. Their differences aside, this is a point of intersection between Gaita’s criticism of contemporary educational practices and Biesta’s criticism of the move from an emphasis on ‘education’ to that on ‘learning’ (2005, 2012, 2013, 2017).

  11. Gaita writes, ‘What is it to be a teacher or a student of philosophy, or of history, or of physics? This is a question whose answers may deepen without limit. And the obligations which partly define vocations cannot...be decided by committee. That is why we can say without absurdity (even if we say it falsely) that an entire age has lost an understanding of what it means to be a teacher, a doctor, or a nurse. But that means also that an entire age has lost an understanding of what it means to have a vocation to teach, or to heal’ (2000, p. 196, italics mine).

  12. For more on the distinction between ‘vocation’ and ‘profession’ see (Gaita 2000, pp. 196–197).

  13. Gaita’s discussion of teachers as exemplars of love shifts the focus away from the teacher as such toward how teachers reveal and thereby point toward the value of a subject. This emphasis stands in contrast to other discussions of exemplars as admirable role-models (Zagzebski 2013; also see Kristjánsson 2020, ch. 7).

  14. Elsewhere Gaita does discuss ‘meaning’ in an existentially freighted sense (2000, 2004) and what he calls ‘the realm of meaning’ (2002, 2004), but these are not connected with his remarks on the philosophy of education. One noteworthy exception to this is a remark where Gaita characterizes the importance of loving the truth as a 'need for lucidity' in understanding the meaning of a life (2000, p. 218). I will bracket a further discussion of these aspects of Gaita’s philosophy and focus on how I see his philosophy of education relating to the main trajectory of ‘meaning in life’ literature as it has developed in recent years.

  15. For a related discussion of the possibility of ‘neutrality’ in education see (Allen 1991).

  16. As Landau (2021) has pointed out, there is an ambiguity in recent debates between understanding ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ in terms roughly synonymous with ‘relative’ and ‘non-relative’ or in terms of ‘internal’ or ‘external’ to agency.

  17. As some recent writers have boldly stated, ‘a hybrid position is in our view the best defensible position for educators to take’ (Schinkel et al. 2016, p. 414; see also de Ruyter and Schinkel 2022, p. 495).

  18. For another theory that emphasizes the importance of agency, although not necessarily human agency, see (Purves and Delon 2018).

  19. Wolf, too, discusses love, including the Murdochian conception, in other essays (see 2015, pt III), although these are not directly linked to her theory of meaning. More saliently, Wolf sometimes frames her theory of meaning in life in terms of a conception of love sensitive to concerns of objective value (2010, pp. 4ff). Nevertheless, Gaita's conception of the revelatory power of embodied love that 'deepens' the lives of lovers counts, in my view, as a more sophisticated understanding of love worth exploring in relation to issues of meaning in life. Metz (2013) also discusses a love-oriented theory of meaning in life, which he derives from Eagleton’s (2007)’s writing. Yet Metz (2013) ultimately rejects this theory on the grounds that it doesn’t account for our relation to the True (pp. 201–202). That cannot be said of Gaita’s conception of love, by contrast, which binds love to both the True and the Good.

  20. For a discussion of the significance of Murdoch’s conception of ‘attention’ for education see Olsson (2018); also see Evans (2009) for a more general discussion of Murdoch’s relevance to education.

  21. In order to establish the relevance of Gaita’s view of the vocation of teaching for leading meaningful lives, my claim here needs only to be a weak one: attentive love is a meaning-conferring agential state but not necessarily that it is the only possible meaning-conferring agential state.

  22. As Calhoun remarks, 'the severity of the ad hoc-ness problem depends on how one construes the subjective component in agent-independent-plus accounts [roughly, ‘hybrid’]. An alternative would be to understand meaningful living on analogy with knowing and the subjective attitudes that contribute to meaningfulness on analogy with the beliefs that count toward knowing…Those attitudes must be appropriately responsive to, and involve appreciations of, agent-independent value.' (p. 22) Theorists such as Metz (2013) avoid this problem, she concedes (p. 22). However, it is also not clear that this is really a problem for Wolf, who builds in an internal connection between her subjective and objective components (2010, pp. 20ff). Indeed, Calhoun in a footnote in a slightly revised version of the essay that appeared in her book (2018, p. 29n19) acknowledges this criticism may not apply to Wolf’s position. Thanks to David Matheson and an anonymous reviewer for encouraging me to address this. Even if Wolf has a way to link the subjective and objective conditions of her account, the question might arise whether this is the most suitable conception of how the linking takes place. It is in this respect that Gaita’s conception of love is still instructive.

  23. Relevant criticisms of Frankfurt’s view include, notably, Wolf (2002), Lear (2002), and Cottingham (2010).

  24. For a further development of the idea of ‘depth’ see Brewer (2009).

  25. Indeed, this text resonates with core themes of Gaita’s (2012) view of teaching and love. Masschelein and Simons (2013) stress the importance of a teacher’s love for and embodied mastery of an academic subject (pp. 44–45, 67ff) as well as schools as a site of cultivating ‘attention’ towards a subject of study (p. 47).

  26. Masschelein and Simons (2013) go on to caution against still other debasements of love: 'The first is an absolutisation of the love of the world whereby the things of the world are made into her things and are no longer brought to the table and unhanded for all to use. Such a teacher blocks the new generation because she experiences it as a threat. She tolerates or (mis)uses the young generation for her own ends and rejects all forms of renewal. The second is the absolutisation of the love for children whereby children are made into her children and the task of teaching is relegated to the margin. Such a teacher does not take children seriously and deprives them of the opportunity of formation. A choking absolutisation' (p. 115).

  27. For further discussions of the Keating example see Kristjánsson (2010, pp. 219ff., 2020, p. 132).

  28. Edson’s commencement address is available at https://vimeo.com/1085942. Accessed on March 20, 2023. I’m grateful to Pam Hall  for this reference.

  29. While I have discussed, following Gaita, the importance of love, this is not the only thing that matters for sharing meaning in life with students. For instance, wonder, too, as Anders Schinkel (2019) has argued, may play an important role in helping students lead meaningful and flourishing lives, and this is something relevant to what teachers do: ‘a teacher or parent succeeds in evoking wonder in a bored, disengaged or even disillusioned child—in a particular subject domain, about their own place in society, or wonder at or about something else—has thereby succeeded, if only momentarily, in lighting a spark: that there is something that matters has been revived.’ (Schinkel et al. 2023, p. 158). Moreover, as Schinkel has argued elsewhere, (2017, 547–550; 2020, pp. 155–157), wonder itself involves attention to the world and is akin to love.

References

  • Allen, R.T. 1991. The Meaning of Life and Education. Journal of Philosophy of Education 25(1): 47–57.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Audi, R. 2005. Intrinsic Value and Meaningful Life. Philosophical Papers 34(3): 331–355.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Benatar, D. 2004. Life, Death, & Meaning: Key Philosophical Readings on the Big Questions. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

  • Biesta, G. 2005. Against Learning: Reclaiming a Language for Education in an Age of Learning. Nordisk Pedagogik 25: 54–66.

    Google Scholar 

  • Biesta, G. 2012. Giving Teaching Back to Education: Responding to the Disappearance of the Teacher. Phenomenology & Practice 6(2): 35–49.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Biesta, G. 2013. Receiving the Gift of Teaching: From ‘Learning From’ to ‘Being Taught By.’ Studies in Philosophy and Education 32: 449–461.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Biesta, G. 2017. The Rediscovery of Teaching. Routledge.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Bramble, B. 2015. Consequentialism About Meaning in Life. Utilitas 27(4): 445–459.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Brewer, T. 2009. The Retrieval of Ethics. Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Calhoun, C. 2015. Geographies of Meaningful Living. Journal of Applied Philosophy 32(1): 15–34.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Calhoun, C. 2018. Doing Valuable Time: The Present, the Future, and Meaningful Living. Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Callard, A. 2018. Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming. Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Cottingham, J. 2010. Integrity and Fragmentation. Journal of Applied Philosophy 27(1): 2–14.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • De Ruyter, D. 2002. The Right to Meaningful Education: The Roles of Values and Beliefs. Journal of Beliefs & Values 23(1): 33–42.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • De Ruyter, D. 2004. Pottering in the Garden? On Human Flourishing and Education. British Journal of Educational Studies 52(4): 377–389.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • De Ruyter, D., and A. Schinkel. 2022. Education and Meaning in Life. In The Oxford Handbook of Meaning in Life, ed. Iddo Landau. Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Dreyfus, H. 2002. Anonymity Versus Commitment: The Dangers of Education on the Internet. Educational Philosophy and Theory 34(4): 369–378.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Dunne, J. 2020. Learning from MacIntyre about Learning: Finding Room for a Second-Person Perspective? Journal of Philosophy of Education 54(5): 1147–1166.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Eagleton, T. 2007. The Meaning of Life. Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Egerstrom, K. 2018. Meaning Without Fulfilment. South African Journal of Philosophy 37(2): 193–206.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Evans, W. 2009. Iris Murdoch, Liberal Education and Human Flourishing. Journal of Philosophy of Education 43(1): 75–84.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Evers, D., and G.V. van Smeden. 2016. Meaning in Life: In Defense of the Hybrid View. The Southern Journal of Philosophy 54(3): 355–371.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Frankfurt, H. 2004. Reasons of Love. Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gaita, R. 2000. A Common Humanity: Thinking about Love and Truth and Justice, 2nd ed. Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gaita, R. 2002. The Philosopher’s Dog: Friendships with Animals. Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gaita, R. 2004. Good and Evil: An Absolute Conception, 2nd ed. Routledge.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Gaita, R. 2012. Love and Teaching: Renewing a Common World. Oxford Review of Education 38(6): 761–769.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hansen, D. 1994. Teaching and the Sense of Vocation. Educational Theory 44(3): 259–275.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hansen, D. 1995. The Call to Teach. Teachers College Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Higgins, C. 2011. The Good Life of Teaching: An Ethics of Professional Practice. Wiley-Blackwell.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Kauppinen, A. 2013. Meaning and Happiness. Philosophical Topics 41(1): 161–185.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kekes, J. 2000. Pluralism in Philosophy: Changing the Subject. Cornell University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Kristjánsson, K. 2010. The Self and Its Emotions. Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Kristjánsson, K. 2016. Flourishing as the Aim of Education: Towards an Extended, ‘Enchanted’ Aristotelian Account. Oxford Review of Education 42(6): 707–720.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kristjánsson, K. 2020. Flourishing as the Aim of Education: A Neo-Aristotelian View. Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Landau, I. 2017. Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World. Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Landau, I. 2021. Externalism, Internalism, and Meaningful Lives. Ratio 34: 137–146.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lear, J. 2002. Love’s Authority. In Contours of Agency: Essays on Themes from Harry Frankfurt, ed. Sara Buss and Lee Overton, 279–292. MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Malcolm, N. 2009. Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, 2nd ed. Clarendon Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Masschelein, J., and M. Simons. 2013. In Defense of the School: A Public Issue, trans. Jack McMartin. E-ducation, Culture & Society Publishers.

  • Mawson, T.J. 2016. God and the Meanings of Life. Bloomsbury.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mawson, T.J. 2019. Monotheism and the Meaning of Life. Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • May, T. 2015. A Fragile Life. University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mercier, P. 2004/2007. Night Train to Lisbon, trans. B. Harshaw. Atlantic Books.

  • Metz, T. 2013. Meaning in Life. Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Metz, T. 2019. God, Soul, and the Meaning of Life. Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Mintoff, J. 2008. Transcending Absurdity. Ratio (New Series) 21: 64–84.

    Google Scholar 

  • Murdoch, I. 1971. The Sovereignty of Good. Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Nozick, R. 1981. Philosophical Explanations. Belknap Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Olsson, A. 2018. A Moment of Letting Go: Iris Murdoch and the Morally Transformative Process of Unselfing. Journal of Philosophy of Education 52(1): 163–177.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Purves, D., and N. Delon. 2018. Meaning in the Lives of Humans and Other Animals. Philosophical Studies 175(2): 317–338.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Schinkel, A. 2015. Education and Ultimate Meaning. Oxford Review of Education 41(6): 711–729.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Schinkel, A. 2017. The Educational Importance of Deep Wonder. Journal of Philosophy of Education 51(2): 538–553.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Schinkel, A. 2019. Wonder, Mystery, and Meaning. Philosophical Papers 48: 293–319.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Schinkel, A. 2020. Wonder and Education: On the Educational Importance of Contemplative Wonder. Bloomsbury.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Schinkel, A., D.J. De Ruyter, and A. Aviram. 2016. Education and Life’s Meaning. Journal of Philosophy of Education 50(3): 398–418.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Schinkel, A., L. Wolbert, J. Pedersen, and D. de Ruyter. 2023. Human Flourishing, Wonder, and Education. Studies in Philosophy and Education 42: 143–162.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Seachris, J. 2019. From the Meaning Triad to Meaning Holism: Unifying Life’s Meaning. Human Affairs 29(4): 363–378.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Smith College. 2008. 2008 Smith College Commencement Margaret Edson [Video]. Vimeo. https://vimeo.com/1085942.

  • Smuts, A. 2013. The Good Cause Account of the Meaning of Life. The Southern Journal of Philosophy 51(4): 536–562.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Taylor, R. 1970. Good and Evil: A New Direction. Macmillan.

    Google Scholar 

  • Thomas, J.L. 2018. Can Only Human Lives Be Meaningful? Philosophical Papers 47(2): 265–297.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Weil, S. 2009. Waiting for God. Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • White, J. 2009. Education and a Meaningful Life. Oxford Review of Education 35(4): 423–435.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • White, J. 2011. Exploring Well-Being in Schools. Routledge.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • White, J. 2016. Reply to Anders Schinkel: On ‘Education and Ultimate Meaning.’ Oxford Review of Education 42(1): 123–128.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wolbert, L., D. de Ruyter, and A. Schinkel. 2021. The Flourishing Child. Journal of Philosophy of Education 55: 698–709.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wolf, S. 2002. The True, the Good, and the Lovable: Frankfurt’s Avoidance of Objectivity. In Contours of Agency: Essays on Themes from Harry Frankfurt, ed. Sara Buss and Lee Overton, 227–244. MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wolf, S. 2010. Meaning in Life and Why it Matters. Princeton University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Wolf, S. 2015. The Variety of Values: Essays on Morality, Meaning, and Love. Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Zagzebski, L. 2013. Moral Exemplars in Theory and Practice. Theory and Research in Education 11(2): 193–206.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgments

Thanks to Lorraine Yeung, David Matheson, and anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback on earlier versions of this paper.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Lucas Scripter.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Springer Nature or its licensor (e.g. a society or other partner) holds exclusive rights to this article under a publishing agreement with the author(s) or other rightsholder(s); author self-archiving of the accepted manuscript version of this article is solely governed by the terms of such publishing agreement and applicable law.

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Scripter, L. Meaning in Life and the Vocation of Teaching. Stud Philos Educ 42, 541–558 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11217-023-09889-1

Download citation

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11217-023-09889-1

Keywords

Navigation