OPINION: Existential dread is an essential aspect of the liberal arts experience

A large round blue figure looms over a smaller yellow square with a scared expression.
(Seohyeon Lee • The Student Life)

Before entering college, many of us harbor a romanticized conviction that our undergraduate years will offer the most liberating experience of our lives. This applies especially to the idealistic aspirants of liberal arts education, for whom intellectual autonomy often matters just as much as a college’s prestige or even knowledge itself.

On this front, we won’t be disappointed. With their commitment to fostering “intellectual curiosity that reaches across disciplines” and their characteristically diverse academic offerings, liberal arts colleges (LACs) such as the 5Cs provide their students with a wide array of opportunities to forge a path of their own. We are encouraged to explore our passions and take our academic development into our own hands, even if this means breaching personal comfort zones or defying societal conventions to do so. 

In both imagination and actuality, the liberal arts experience does endow students with a great degree of agency in deciding who we wish to become. Various alumni stories can attest to this.

Nevertheless, the boundless optimism we attach to liberal arts education remains a fiction because it overlooks one critical factor — accompanying the liberating potential of LACs is the inextinguishable presence of existential dread. Where there is freedom, there is anxiety; the anxiety to be free. LACs are not exempt from this dilemma. For students, embarking on the path of the liberal arts means forsaking the regimented academic routine that characterizes most secondary schools. With it, we must also discard the sense of security and certainty that such externally-imposed order brings.

InPedagogy of the Oppressed,” philosopher and educational theorist Paulo Freire describes the modus operandi of secondary institutions as “the banking model,” whereby teachers deposit chunks of readily processed and compartmentalized information into their students’ brains. Coerced by examinations and other miscellaneous evaluations, the students have no choice but to accept what is given to them. Freire critiques the banking model as authoritarian — unlike their LAC counterparts, students in the “banking” institutions lack the autonomy to create knowledge on their own. 

Everything they learn, they receive from external sources. Hence, their purpose within the commonplace secondary education system derives not from individual agency, but from the oppressive and homogenizing environment constructed by the authority figures. For example, when parents and teachers equate admission into a reputable university with success, scoring highly on standardized exams by extension becomes valuable and meaningful to the student, despite their lack of interest in spending hundreds of hours studying for those exams. The students’ personal preferences are irrelevant to the value system to which they are subjected.

Freire’s depiction of “banking” institutions borders on the dystopian, but when we leave the authoritarian secondary schools behind and embrace the freedom afforded by the LACs, another form of anxiety takes hold — we no longer have a readily available source of value and meaning. Since the “banking model” provides very tangible benchmarks for success, such as a high SAT score or an impeccable GPA, all we have to do to attain purpose and validation is follow these predetermined paths. We are marionettes dancing by the threads of ignorant contentment, unaware of our suppressed individuality and yet utterly happy about our lack of autonomy. 

We feel gratified, because we don’t have to interrogate ourselves about where our true passion lies or what our life trajectories should look like. The banking model has shown us a way — an oppressive and homogenizing one, but a palpable course of action nonetheless. Like those human batteries newly liberated from the deceptive but blissful illusions of the Matrix, consumed by angst as they rediscover their individual agency in a ruthless world, we must also come to terms with our newly found intellectual autonomy. 

Liberal arts education offers us freedom and encourages us to achieve personal growth using that freedom, but it doesn’t define the goals towards which we should strive. Unlike in the banking model, we must find the answer to that question ourselves. This is the source of the existential dread within the liberal arts setting — in exchange for freedom, we relinquish the stable source of meaning that is secondary school, and we must face the consequences. We might even say that existential crises are inseparable from the liberal arts experience. 

Though we cannot avoid the occasional episodes of existential dread during our undergraduate years, we need not despair. Such crises, if addressed in a proactive manner, can facilitate growth and allow us to possess greater mastery over our intellectual freedom. We should behave more like the positive nihilists, who endeavor to construct value and meaning for themselves despite the lack of a universal meaning in the world. 

Instead of avoiding self-interrogation because of how challenging it is, we must ask ourselves the hard questions in our moments of doubt. What field of study aligns best with my passion? What makes life fulfilling and worth living for me? Without interference from societal standards, what essential qualities do I want to see in myself? 

Only by asking these questions can we find the objective for which our autonomy can be put to use. Only then can liberal arts education truly be liberating. Of course, we need not struggle alone, or restrict our quest for self-discovery to pure philosophizing. Our peers and the colleges are great resources for resolving existential dread. From chatting with friends that are going through similar processes of self-doubt to meeting a professor whose field of study interests us, there are many ways to discover personal meaning that we can easily strive for at the 5Cs. Once we overcome this existential challenge, our growth will be immeasurable.

Yifei Cheng PO ’24 is from Nanjing, China. He enjoys hiking, reading (especially fantasy literature), and playing Starcraft 2.

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