Personalism and human pursuits

Margarita Mooney writes on personalism and the pursuits we choose in life—whether narrowly material and transitory, or also spiritual and transcendent:

Jacques Maritain was a friendly critic of the pragmatist view of education. He argued that problem-solving, the crux of John Dewey’s or Paulo Freire’s approach to education, can’t be the end of education. Learning often occurs in response to an intuition or an insight that prompts us to pursue a new avenue of knowledge. Problem-solving is, indeed, important, but not all discoveries are practical. That is because Maritain agreed with one key idea of personalism: humans are not just material. We also have an inner depth.

As much as Maritain praised efforts to develop new pedagogical techniques and test the acquisition of knowledge, he warned against the temptation to turn our tools and tests into idols. Humans are not pure instruments applying other instruments. The value of a person is not how much they produce for the economy nor how they score on a test.

While Maritain was a devout Catholic who strongly valued moral character, he argued that the end of the university is not character education per se. For democracy to flourish, Maritain argued that it is not sufficient to discipline the will to accord with the moral code of a particular religion or culture. Democracy is a form of self-government, and for self-government to triumph over tyranny, universities need to form our intelligence and reason so that we can freely choose the good. Thus, universities need to form reason in order to guide our conscience towards the use of practical reason in service of the common good.

The utilitarian, pragmatist, and moral ends of education, Maritain argued, are best pursued when our educational systems are built on a full picture of the human person; that is, a being endowed with uniqueness, freedom and creativity, and service for the common good. …

To understand the cultural, economic, political, and educational crises through which we are living, we have to understand an important shift in philosophical anthropology. Personalist philosopher Max Scheler described how we have shifted from a theistic understanding of man as created by a personal God—marked by sinfulness but ultimately created for good—to a rejection of dependence on God and the exaltation of man as primarily constituted to satisfy natural desires for power, sex, or money.

The deadening of our spiritual nature in philosophy has contributed to the crisis of fragmentation so many students feel. They may not comprehend how deeply rooted the rejection of our spiritual nature is in so much modern philosophy, but they do long for a break from competing to be successful in the modern, technocratic society we live in. They long to take a break from self-promotion and spend time growing in self-awareness by contemplating nature or a work of art.

Penn State’s fascinating motto has been “Making Life Better” for some number of years. As an undergrad, I remember thinking how simultaneously perfect and absurd such a thing is as a motto. It can be read in the charitable way possible as holistically concerned with the ultimate good of the human person. But it can also be read as basically an economic promise for attaining some marginal material or professional advancement.