We obviously become happier and more peaceful as we grow in wisdom and moral sensibility. How is the educational system helping people to do this? Some of the smartest educators say that they don’t know how to do it, even as a growing percentage of students show signs of deteriorating mental health.
The self-knowledge of depth psychology is our best insurance against self-sabotaging conduct that threatens our personal aspirations and degrades the quality of human life. Yet the most prestigious educational institutions in the United States have no particular training or learning processes in place to facilitate such evolvement.
William Deresiewicz, a Yale professor from 1998 to 2008, is quoted in an article in The New Republic saying that, “Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.”
Deresiewicz has published a new book, Excellent Sheep: The Misdirection of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, in which he argues that elite colleges, along with private and affluent high schools, have come under the influence of a commercial and technologically accentuated ethos that cultivates narcissism and personal aggrandizement.
These institutions, he says, ought to have programs in place that help individuals to develop an authentic, integrated sense of self. He writes, “Look beneath the façade of seamless well-adjustment, and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation. A large-scale survey of college freshmen recently found that self-reports of emotional well-being have fallen to their lowest level in the study’s 25-year history.”
Many academics say the main purpose of a university education is cognitive, not moral, development. That means students acquire specific knowledge while learning how to write clearly, reason logically, and think statistically. Stephen Pinker, noted Harvard psychologist and author, recently wrote, “I have no idea how to get my students to build a self or become a soul.” In the hundreds of faculty promotions and appointments in which Pinker has participated, a candidate was never evaluated according to such a skill-set. He believes the exclusive purpose of higher education is to develop rational and cognitive abilities.
But our rational or cognitive abilities are not playing with a full deck when crucial dynamics of the unconscious mind remain hidden from awareness. To function at our best, the operating procedures of the unconscious mind have to be brought to the surface of awareness.
Sound ideas, based on secular knowledge, are available to help students “build a self.” This knowledge from depth psychology is quite distinct from what’s taught and produced by academic psychology, which largely deals with studies, testing, and statistics, and which avoids any encounters or interventions with the personal longings, malaise, and suffering of individual students.
The educational system must understand and teach knowledge through which each student can see himself or herself more objectively. Young people have to learn about the inner dynamics through which they unwittingly maintain self-alienation. No knowledge is more important. The primary obstacle to becoming an authentic, moral person is the failure to learn about one’s negative emotions and how they’re produced and maintained by inner conflict.
We are conflicted creatures and all the discord, unrest, chaos, self-sabotage, and violence in the world, to say nothing of our everyday ups and downs, is solid evidence of that. Hundreds of psychological studies confirm what’s called a “negativity bias” in human emotions, thoughts, and actions. Almost two-thirds of English words convey the negative point of view. The figure rises to 74 percent in the vocabulary that’s used to describe people. Yet the core of our being is not negative—it is good, amazing, and awesome.
Yet we resonate and identify with negative impressions of self and others. This negativity is often unconscious, yet it contaminates our experience of self. The negativity—and its consequential suffering—are byproducts of inner conflict. What then is the nature of this inner conflict? What exactly needs to be made conscious?
Our psyche is, in a sense, like a young solar system, still crashing and smashing its way from disorder into order. It’s difficult for us to acknowledge this primitive aspect of our nature because our emotionally biased self-image and our ego-governed mental operating system are seduced by illusions of our superiority and exceptionalism. We also need to understand that through denial, resistance, and unconscious inner fear, many people don’t want to know, as it applies to them personally, the insights of depth psychology.
Inner conflict has many variations and dynamics, yet ultimately, in its essence, it can be reduced to the understanding that, while consciously we want to be strong, powerful and prosperous, we are still inclined if not driven, at a deep unconscious level, to experience ourselves through conflict, weakness, and negativity. Lacking self-knowledge, we’re apt to be helpless bystanders to these inner dynamics. We do, of course, possess some degree of free will, common sense, and instinct for self-protection. Still, many of us feel we’re fighting a hopeless or losing battle in the struggle for self-acceptance and inner harmony. Vital self-knowledge can tip the balance in our favor.
Our consciousness isn’t penetrating to the core of our being. We may know intuitively that a noble Self abides somewhere upon our inner horizon, but our mind can’t find the correct bearing. We’re filled with self-doubt and haunted by self-criticism. We may even be harboring self-rejection, self-condemnation, and self-hate. Our authentic self—through which we can access our goodness and value—is buried under negativity and conflict.
Much of the time, inner conflict consists of a clash between self-aggression, emanating from our inner critic or superego, and our inner passivity, rooted in our unconscious, subordinate ego. Eastern philosophy talks about Yin as the passive principle, Yang the active principle. The yin-yang duality is a polarity of the natural world that can function either in a complementary or in an oppositional manner. The challenge for our consciousness is to reconcile and harmonize these forces, starting from within. When we fail to recognize and reconcile inner conflict, it becomes a large component of self-identification, meaning this inner disharmony produces a false sense of who and what we are, thereby producing suffering, dysfunction, and self-defeat.
The weakness and lack of self-regulation we experience much of the time is related to this inner passivity, while the negativity that floods our emotional life comes largely from inner aggression. Inner passivity is often experienced, as well, in a negative, painful manner.
People who lack a sense of purpose or direction, or who are failing to access moral and compassionate sensibilities, are usually entangled in this conflict. Our core of being, as we then experience it, is contaminated by the conflict. Resolution of the conflict—or at least progress in this direction—is required for us to feel our integrity, goodness, purpose, and resolve. People can liberate themselves from this conflict by reading and assimilating the knowledge provided in my books and in the posts at this website.
Connecting with our core, we shake off the feeling of being passive recipients of random forces acting upon us. We acquire the ability to transcend the moment and stand as a compassionate observer to our daily drama. A growing pleasure develops in the sense of fulfillment, even triumph, in the hard-won discovery, at a deep emotional level, of our essential value. We awaken to the richness of our existence.