A Crisis of Meaning and Education

Genrich L. Krasko

The International Forum for Logotherapy, 2007, 30, 92-95.

The following essay is based on the book by Genrich L. Krasko: This Unbearable Boredom of Being. A Crisis of Meaning in America, iUniverse, 2004 (Foreword by Viktor E. Frankl). An extended essay is to be found in the Viktor Frankl Anthology.


Over 50 years ago, Viktor Frankl diagnosed a societal sickness, which now has engulfed the whole world: the loss of meaning in people's lives. Symptoms of this sickness are easy to identify just by observing how deeply boredom, in its many forms and manifestations, affects people's lives. Sometimes it becomes unbearable, and its companions – addiction, depression, and aggression (the Mass Neurotic Triad) – become threats not only to the individual but also to society as a whole.[1]

Just a glimpse of the state of boredom among a significant segment of United States of America society leaves no doubt that the crisis of meaning has overwhelmed the nation. The most serious problems that haunt the nation are, in my view, direct consequences of that boredom triad:

• Addiction to illicit drugs is one of the most pressing problems in America today. America has spent and continues to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to stop the supply of illicit drugs. But it is the demand for drugs that makes the problem so serious.

• Depression has reached the proportion of an epidemic in America. The use of psychotropic drugs skyrockets. And few voices are heard even hinting at the possible existential causes of this epidemic.

• As for Aggression, it finds its realization in the proliferation of violence both in the media and real life. It is a general belief that violence is provoked by indiscriminate media coverage and sensational Hollywood films, but the supply of such images is directly related to the demand for them.

Unfortunately, most U. S. citizens have given no serious thought of the existential character of their country's problems. For many people, even mentioning the real causes of these problems would seem “un-American.”

At the same time, in my view, understanding the true causes of the existential crisis in the United States of America is impossible without understanding the causes of another serious crisis: the crisis of the American educational system.

This understanding is even more important because the decline and even degradation of American education has been, in my view, the factor most responsible for this crisis of meaning. This degradation of the education system has been an urgent problem for quite a while. As far back as 1983, the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk, stated:

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.[2]

When Americans speak of education, they almost inevitably use the word "training." Actually, the term trained rather than educated, when referring to what is taught and how it is taught in America, is often correct. Because much of what is called education here has, in fact, been training.

That confusion has come so far that people have simply forgotten the difference between these two concepts. However, one can see the difference clearly in any English-language dictionary. These definitions are from Webster's:

Train: to make proficient by instruction and practice, as in some art, profession or work, to develop or form the habits, thoughts or behavior; to give the discipline and instruction, drill, practice, etc., designed to impart proficiency; to teach so as to make fit, qualified, or proficient.

Educate: to develop and cultivate mentally, morally, or aesthetically; to expand, strengthen, and discipline, as the mind, a faculty, etc.

The difference between these two concepts is striking. Education brings understanding of the world we live in; it tells us who we are, where we have come from, and where we may be heading. It helps us to understand ourselves, and to identify our place as individuals among other people. Education makes us intellectually and morally strong. It fills our souls with meaning.

Education allows us to deal with novel and complicated situations. The educated person can range the universe and construct questions appropriate to the members of any civilized society. The educated person can and should “rock the boat” in a democratic society, and see that the society remains democratic.

As for training, it only helps us to acquire the necessary skills to find and do a job; it does not help us either to identify our place in the world’s great humanitarian culture, or to understand who we are personally; it may not even help us find the fortitude to do our job well in difficult times.

We tend to confuse information with knowledge. Training does provide one with new information; but knowledge can be obtained only through serious education. And yet, Americans strongly believe in training – not only professional training, but also all kinds of social-skill building training, including "self-esteem boosting skills," "relationship skills," and the like.

In order to find the roots of our pragmatic training-oriented education, one should look at the end of the nineteenth century.[3] At that time, educational problems were rarely if ever discussed in existential terms – still, thoughtful educators understood that strong general education (they called it “academic education”) develops a spiritual core that helps one mature into a thoughtful and responsible human being, regardless of one’s profession, walk of life, or social status.

Viktor Frankl had a fundamental understanding of why the development of a spiritual core is so important. According to Frankl, a human being lives simultaneously in three dimensions: bodily, mental (psychic), and spiritual.

It is easy to see that what in America is called education (but is actually just training) is directed only at developing our children's mental abilities. "Building skills" is perhaps the best way to describe the process of developing these abilities.

But our “education” does almost nothing to help our children develop a strong spiritual core. The importance of this development is stressed by Frankl in the following words:

The spiritual core, and only the spiritual core, warrants and constitutes oneness and wholeness in man. Wholeness in this context means the integration of somatic, psychic, and spiritual aspects. … Without the spiritual as its essential ground, this wholeness cannot exist.[4]

Thus, by denying our children a strong education, we actually deprive them of acquiring the wholeness that is so important to becoming a full-fledged human being. The high spiritual level of a human being may not necessarily correlate with his or her job, wealth, or social status, although it can make any endeavor more easily accomplished. But it is necessary! A healthy democracy is impossible unless people's intellect and spirit are at a level well above the level of their jobs.

At the end of the nineteenth century a fierce battle was raging between the advocates of pragmatic training-oriented education and their opponents. But by 1918, the Progressive Education Movement completely “reformed,” and “liberated” American public schools from any ideas and practices having to do with broad academic education.[4]

Progressive philosophers, educators, and their followers, insist that Progressive education has liberated America from elitism and the educational deprivation of the poor. The late Dr. Paul Gagnon wrote:

We used to say – and too many educators still say – that we cannot compare our schools with those in other countries, because they educate only an elite and we try to educate everybody. Untrue for thirty years, this is now the opposite of the truth. They educate the many and we the few. To our shame, a disadvantaged child has a better chance for an equal and rigorous education, and whatever advancement it may bring, in Paris or Copenhagen than in one of our big cities.[5]

Despite this shameful state of the academic aspects of present-day American education, to some it seems too "academic." A distinguished journalist, who I deeply respect, and whose thoughtful nonpartisan editorials are often a burst of fresh air against the background of Right-Left political bickering, wrote recently:

Students today are still taught trigonometry and algebra instead of, say, basic medicine; they are taught ancient history and English literature. They are not routinely taught basic business skills or human skills for parenting and marriage. Advanced mathematics and memorization of facts are at the core of our high school education and its test-oriented system.

Unfortunately it is not a joke, and many American educators are ready to "reform" our education in that direction.

Nobody can predict when and how the breakthrough in America’s stagnant educational system will happen. But those who feel responsible for the future of our children and grandchildren must realize that there is no time left for procrastination and wishful thinking. In the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries it was just a matter of wanting better education for Americans – but now it is a matter of the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual survival. What used to be just a headache is now a cancer slowly killing our society.



GENRICH KRASKO, Ph.D. is a retired Physics Professor. References to his book and essays can be found here.






[1] Frankl, V. E. (1962). Man’s Search for Meaning. An Introduction to Logotherapy. Boston: Beacon Press.

[2] Chancellor, J. (1991). Peril and Promise. A Commentary on America. NY: Harper Perennial.

[3]  Hofstadter, R. (1963). Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. NY: Vintage Books.

[4]  Frankl, V. E. (1997). Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning. Boston: Beacon Press.

[5] Gagnon, P. (1995, December). What Should Children Read? The Atlantic Monthly, pp. 65-78.


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