Existential Teaching

Exploring “big questions” in the classroom


Psychiatrist Irvin Yalom won the 2000 Oscar Pfister Prize, awarded by the American Psychiatric Association for important contributions to religion and psychiatry. Although Yalom is an atheist, he explores the emotional and intellectual nourishment that belief in God gives people and tries to find other ways it might be obtained. He calls his psychiatric practice “existential”—which is to say that it involves an examination of the meaning of life for the patient in therapy.

What about existential teaching? This would connect the subjects being taught to larger questions, prompting students to think about their role in the world, consider why they are studying what they are studying, and inevitably lead them to the ultimate questions of life and death.

This sort of teaching might be a challenge in certain subjects—calculus, for example. Certainly, in the realm of physics and biology, big ideas are always lurking. The turn toward Creationism in schools in some parts of the country reflects the need to think of larger issues alongside the study of particulars. But to slap God on as an addendum or twist the facts of science to suit a fundamentalist reading of scripture undermines deeper thinking about existential questions.

Literature, my subject, also lends itself to larger questions. Why would someone choose to write a story, even a bad one? What is the creative impulse that fuels a poem? What do the best stories and poems tell us about the meaning of life? Students are hungry for this kind of conversation—not necessarily for answers but for the chance to ask the right questions. They want to connect with writers or with fictional characters struggling with the same issues. They want a connection in uncertainty to others readers. This allays their existential isolation, while also asserting its validity. If nothing more, it helps them feel less isolated in their own existential uncertainty.

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Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


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