The Real Cost of a Meaningless Education

Viktor Frankl was right. In 1965, the world-renowned psychiatrist and author of Man’s Search For Meaning described the U.S. system of education as ‘mechanistic’–a system that treated students like machines rather than human beings. He warned that ignoring the essence of their humanness would create feelings of meaninglessness and cause a void in them that would produce anxiety, depression, addiction, and even suicide. He called this void the ‘existential vacuum’. Frankl believed that each person’s motivation for life is to search for their unique meaning. It cannot be imposed upon them as it is deeply personal. By standardizing education and defining a singular goal for all students, we have created a plague of meaninglessness and an epidemic of mental illness.

Our current system of education is designed to prepare students for one outcome: college, not life or career. We strap them onto a conveyor belt based on their age and move them all through the same programming. Conformity is demanded and rewarded, while individual expression and challenge are discouraged. Personal achievement, required for the college admissions resume, has set up an environment of continuous competition and comparison among students, rather than a collaborative environment where socio-emotional learning can flourish.

Over the past few decades, access to college has expanded via loan programs, the Common App and global exposure through the internet. At the same time, vocational training and all other forms of workplace preparation fell out of favor and declined because making money in a professional career became the definitive status symbol. With a captive audience and demand on the rise, colleges began to prioritize applications based on quantifiable measurements like GPAs and test scores.

As a result, all students have been forced to use the same playbook to increase their grades and tests scores thereby increasing the pressure and competition. Regardless of their interests or personal circumstances, their worthiness–in our homes, schools, and communities–is narrowly defined by their academic standing and college admissions potential. But trying to distinguish themselves in this pool of sameness has been futile and exhausting. There are too many with the same resume.

Nearly half of American high school students–47%, to be exact–are graduating with grades ranging from A+ to A-, according to a 2017 study. The number of perfect ACT scores has doubled since 2015. There is no secret formula getting students into the college of their choice. With the exception of those few with special athletic abilities or artistic talents, the ones who get in are indistinguishable from the ones who don’t.

The system favors those in higher socio-economic groups who can pay for extensive tutoring and test preparation services. But it is coming at great personal cost to those students. Dr. Suniya Luthar has documented elevated rates of serious depression, anxiety and substance abuse among affluent teens; they exceed those living in poverty.

Frankl predicted that dealing with human beings as if they are a mere thing would take its toll. He wholeheartedly agreed with sociologist, William Irwin Thompson when he said “Humans are not objects that exist as tables and chairs. They live–and if they find that their lives are reduced to the mere existence of chairs or tables, then they commit suicide.

Suicide is now a leading cause of death among teenagers and it is on the rise. Frightening statistics are reported on a regular basis. Today, children ages 10-14 are more likely to die of suicide than a car accident.  We focus on the individual to find an explanation while we ignore the systemic issues contributed by our culture. Student boredom and apathy–the hallmarks of an existential vacuum–are everywhere. Yet, we view anything related to education as inherently good.

We are blind to the fact that our standardized system of education has become the master, not the servant. The lines between home and school life have blurred. Since academic accomplishments have become a cultural reflection of parenting success, many families are over-involved and hyper-focused on outcomes. With internet access to grades and test scores, homework and activities can be monitored around the clock to ensure the priority stays on school. In this way, we reinforce that our children’s value is tied to their academic performance, not to who they are as a person.

Without meaning in their lives, Frankl says that people will fill the void with hedonistic pleasures, power, materialism, hatred, or neurotic obsessions and compulsions. Today, social media is often the chosen villain but it is really a response to the vacuum. It has fueled the disconnection between ourselves and the world; it is not the cause.

Frankl began to develop his theory related to meaning, called logotherapy, around 1925 and his horrific experiences in the concentration camps years later provided him with the ultimate testing ground. As early as 1930, he organized a series of counseling centers in Vienna to help combat the rising rate of student suicide which occurred before and after report cards were issued. The town was so concerned about the epidemic that they provided the funding. In 1931, the number of student suicides dropped to zero.  

Our education system, with its machine-like approach to students, discourages the very things that would help them close the void of meaninglessness. According to Frankl, meaning could be found through:  

  • Making a difference in the world through our actions, our work or our creations.
  • Experiencing something (truth, beauty) or encountering someone (love).
  • Adopting a courageous and exemplary attitude in situations of unavoidable suffering.

We can no longer be carpenters working to shape and mold our children into our vision of success. We must be builders of environments in which our children can flourish in their unique individuality as they search to discover their meaning. Frankl believed that “success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Additionally, as he often advocated, we must instill a sense of responsibility–to themselves and others–so they can balance the tremendous freedom gained. viktor frankl

Driven by our dramatically transforming economy, the seeds of change are already being planted. New pathways are emerging and a movement is growing to recognize the personal and social-emotional aspects of students. As businesses are awakening to the disconnect between our educational silos and the real world, they are demanding or creating new types of workplace preparation. Lastly, the high cost of a college degree, coupled with its uncertain outcomes, is giving pause to the upcoming generation of students.

This disruption is creating an opportunity to redefine our value systems and reimagine the future. Working together, we must build a new educational and social infrastructure that responds to the needs of our children’s human qualities while preparing them for the evolving marketplace. Education should not leave our children with lifelong mental or financial burdens. We need a system comprised of multiple pathways that reflect the unique situations, interests, and goals of each child.

The inspiring work of Viktor Frankl is as relevant today as it was over 90 years ago. His call to honor every individual’s intrinsic motivation to search for meaning cannot be ignored. For the sake of our children, we would do well to heed his call.

Personal note: I would like to thank Alex Vesely, grandson of Viktor Frankl, for searching his family’s archives for content and helping me to formulate this blog. The Feeling of Meaninglessness by Viktor Frankl was a primary source of information.

7 Replies to “The Real Cost of a Meaningless Education”

  1. Brilliant. Thank you for sharing. There are so many parallels with our vocational education and training system, a system which tries to cram all that is needed into a narrow band of competencies required for a qualification. I read this and thought of Johan Hari’s book Lost Connections. Both should be read by every educator.

  2. Hi Pam,

    Wonderful job with this article! Your words are inspiring in thinking of ways we can take action to evolve the education system. I have a few thoughts/questions I would be interested in hearing your response:

    1. Would it be beneficial for students to have the option to take a class where they can actively pursue their intrinsic meaning, whether it be a class in English, Philosophy, Ethics, Positive Psychology, etc? Or is the search for intrinsic meaning something students need to find their way individually outside of the classroom?

    2. How can the school system become less standardized so students have room for exploration of their personal interests, especially in vocational fields?

    3. Have schools implemented student clinics similar to the one Frankl established in Vienna in 1930, and if so, what has their impact been on students?

    Thanks so much for sharing this article with me!


    1. Hi Jaden,

      Thank you so much for your insightful comments! These are the issues of your generation. I have attempted to address your questions with a brief response but the situation is much more complex.

      1. Meaning cannot be taught specifically as it is different for every person at any point in their life. I think the idea of the importance of meaning could certainly be introduced in a school setting. Unfortunately, our education system leaves little opportunity for exposure to the broader world and the freedom of students find meaning for themselves.

      2. There are personalized learning models out there where students direct their own learning and work on collaborative projects. They are growing in number. Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts is one example. High Tech High in San Diego is another. Charter schools are an attempt to broaden the school model. Vocational schools were disbanded with the college-for-all mandate, but they are making a comeback. CTE courses are now being offered in high schools and community colleges. The demands of our dramatically changing economy are forcing education to change as well.

      3. I was just having this conversation yesterday! These types of clinics aren’t around, but they need to be. We have emphasized academic advising over social-emotional support in our schools leaving students adrift.

      Again, I appreciate you taking the time to comment. Hopefully we will have the opportunity to discuss this further when you get back.

      Best regards,

  3. I love this. How can I as a lowly education assistant and parent enact change within our education system?

    1. You are the only way change will happen! It requires each of us to take responsibility in our homes and communities. Start with looking at how much time your children have invested in structured activities and homework assignments. In my house, we did not do club sports. I limited AP classes, tutoring and test prep time. We prioritized time for dinner together, relationships and volunteering. There is no formula as each home will be different. Start with just one thing and go from there. Thank you so much for commenting!

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