from the world's big
Philosopher Alan Watts on the meaning of life
He reminds us that meaning is wherever we choose to look.
- Alan Watts suggests there is no ultimate meaning of life, but that "the quality of our state of mind" defines meaning for us.
- This is in contradiction to the notion that an inner essence is waiting to be discovered.
- Paying attention to everyday, mundane objects can become highly significant, filling life with meaning.
During a conversation with Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly, Tim Ferriss mentions the metaphor of the ice sculpture. A longstanding idea: humans are like blocks of ice. "Discovering your destiny," as the phrasing goes, is akin to taking a pick to the block to reveal what's inside. The problem, Ferriss continues, is that's not how destiny works. Meaning is created, not found.
I've encounter this metaphor often. In the late '90s, employed as an entertainment reporter in Princeton, I interviewed numerous sculptors. (There are a lot of wonderful sculpture gardens throughout South Jersey.) Each artist repeated the other: I'm only revealing what's already inside this block of stone.
Years later, while I was working as a music critic, kirtan singer Krishna Das expressed a similar sentiment in regard to the human soul. Chanting wipes away impurities to expose what's been waiting inside the entire time. This idea dates back millennia — the inner serpent energy, kundalini, is "awoken" through yogic austerities, such as intense breathing exercises and chanting. The goal is to "find out who you really are."
The mindset assumes there's a particular "way" we are "meant" to be. Music and sculpture are noble endeavors, beautiful paths to follow. Yet it is more likely that the artist pursued them; "destiny" relies on hindsight. While those mentioned above were genuine in their expressions, not everyone is so generous.
The next step from believing in a predestined mini-me is fundamentalism. For vegans, humans are "not meant" to eat animals. For tolerant Christians, people practicing other religions are not evil, but they'll never reach the kingdom. (This is true of many religious.) For intolerant fundamentalists, the rest of the world is ruining it for them.
Alan Watts ~ The Meaning Of Life
When I was studying for my degree in religion, I felt fortunate I was not raised with one. I was not tainted with a notion that "this one is right." Sure, a few underlying principles apply to many faiths, but the conviction of rightness displayed by each is disturbing. It's also revealing: if thousands of different factions each believe they're stirring the secret sauce, then a belief in rightness must be the product of human imagination, not reality itself. Or, better put, their reality is produced by their imagination.
Indeed, as we're living through in America today — alongside many other nations experiencing populist fervor — we invest deeply in our personal story. We rebel against any contrary information, unless, of course, you've trained yourself to honestly weigh many sides. Unfortunately, this skillset is lacking. The "reality should be this way" paradigm persists.
I discovered Alan Watts while studying humanity's varied religious traditions. In the lecture above, the British philosopher mentions his church upbringing. (Watts became an Episcopalian priest for five years himself.) He recalls sermons about "God's purpose," yet felt uninspired by explanations of what exactly that implied. Meaning was ambiguous.
When discussing meaning in life, Watts continues, we're not reducing reality to a "collection of words, signifying something beyond themselves." What then would actually satisfy our quest for meaning? What could capture the ineffable if meaning was reduced to an unexplainable feeling?
"Our ideals are very often suggestions," he continues. Rarely do we pursue what our imagination puts forth. Yet still we demand that life have significance. Groups are perfect vehicles for this: shared meaning satisfies through consensus. Yet this explanation does not satisfy Watts. How would group consensus provide a context for ultimate meaning rather than simply be the manifestation of biological, tribal impulses?
Could the landscape of reality simply be the satisfaction of biological urges? This too seems insufficient, for those urges must point to something else — another beyond. The perpetuation of life is a futuristic endeavor. Does that imply we must reduce biological processes to "nothing but going on towards going on towards going on?"
Life is NOT a Journey - Alan Watts
Watts contemplates theism. If meaning is finally derived from the relationship between God and human, what is this love driving toward? Can it ultimately satisfy? I've often heard it claimed that love is everything. Yet what meaning does this love hold? If you can't explain it, but default to the usual response — you just have to feel it — that is a physiological explanation. While indeed physiology produces philosophy, it lacks in communication. If we want to point at something as meaningful, we can't rely on others will simply feeling what we feel.
Finally, Watts hits on an idea so simple, yet, as in the Zen traditions he so fervently studied, so profound. Perhaps the search for meaning is discovered by paying attention to the moment. Watts uses music as an example:
"It is significant not because it means something other than itself, but because it is so satisfying as it is."
When our "impetus seeking for fulfillment cools down," we allow space for the moment. By watching ordinary things "as if they were worth watching," we are struck by the significance of objects and ideas we never previously considered significant at all. And though Watts thought psychedelics amusing yet suspect — he was more a drinker — the experience while under their influence highlights this same point.
After one particularly potent dose of psilocybin, my friend and I stood on his deck watching dozens of caterpillars launch from the roof, sliding down self-created bungee cords. For a half-hour we were transfixed by this miraculous process of creation and mobility. It's easy to say, "well, drugs," but it's much harder to find the beauty of the every day when every day our faces gaze into screens instead of the world that produced them.
"Perhaps," Watts continues, "significance is the quality of a state of mind." Photographers shooting paint peeling from a door or mud and stone on the ground capture an essence, a moment in time, that is meaningful in and of itself. What does art mean? We stare at paintings as if a mirror, each brushstroke a moment from our biography. Hearing the artist share the meaning of their creation sometimes (but not always) ruins the experience. Art is a dialogue; meaning lies at the intersection.
Maybe, Watts concludes, "We're overlooking the significance of the world by our constant quest for it… later." Silicon Valley futurists enthralled with life extension are missing the point; death is no longer a concern when every moment is filled with meaning. There is no hidden sculpture waiting to be revealed. It is here. You just need to see it.
Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?
- Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
- It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
- COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
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