Time, Space, and Schools
John receives a phone call from his doctor.
“I have your test results,” says the physician, “and they contain good news and bad news. Which would you like to hear first?”
“Why don’t you give me the good news first,” says John.
“Well,” responds the physician, “the good news is that you have one day to live.”
Shocked, John fumbles for words. “Wait…how can that be? If that’s the good news, what on earth is the bad news?”
“The test results came in, yesterday,” says the doctor.
Hold onto that for a moment, and think back to last month’s solar eclipse. No matter one’s particular religious or philosophical orientation, it’s next to impossible for any reflective person to observe such a phenomenon without contemplating one’s place in the universe (or multiverse). And when one so reflects, one invariably feels…well, small. Really, really small.
I confess that it took me three attempts before I made it all the way through Stephen Hawking’s The Illustrated A Brief History of Time. Not because the book wasn’t utterly fascinating. (It was.) Nor because it was written for an audience of physicists. (It wasn’t.) At a certain point, the book simply gave me the creeps. About halfway through I’d experience a gnawing sense of angst that became insufferable. Between trying to wrap my head around the mind-numbing vastness of time and space, and coming to grips with the notion that the essence of it all is determined by the near-infinite smallness of particle physics, I invariably felt compelled to put the book down and do something in order to feel any sense of significance.
When we consider our relative place in the cosmos, it’s hard not to conclude that each of us is “John,” who no sooner realizes that he has but one day to live, than even that morsel of time is cruelly snatched from him. In the greater scheme of things, we amount to less than a mote of cosmic dust skirting the abyss of infinite nothingness.
Except that we won’t buy it. Defiantly, we refuse to succumb to the evidence of our own insignificance. As an existentialist might put it, we revolt against the absurd by choosing, and create (or appropriate) meaning through our choices. Our revolt against the possibility of a world devoid of meaning and purpose is fought not with weapons of destruction, but with human will, expressed in words and deeds informed by faith and belief, shaped by values and ideals, enabled by knowledge and skills. And the surest sign of our rebellion against the negating force of insignificance lies in our commitment to education.
When viewed in this context – when education is seen as a protest against the insinuation of existential insignificance – the advantages of the private school curriculum become apparent. For it is only in our private schools that responses to the questions “Who am I?” – “What is my purpose?” – “What is good?” – “What is beautiful?” – and “What is true?” form integral and integrative components of the curriculum. Responding to those questions define what, at their essence, our schools are about and what they seek to achieve.
Our students will never shirk from engagement with the stark and foreboding reality found in the realm of time, space, and matter, because they will have learned the most important of all life’s lessons. They will know that they matter.