January 07, 2020

Existentialism and Instagram

Teenagers reflect on technology and being human, with the help of Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Pascal, and Sartre.
by Kristin Bair O'Keeffe

Like most educators today, Andrew Housiaux is forced to reckon with the presence and pull of cell phones and social media in his students' lives. As an instructor of philosophy and religious studies at Phillips Academy, and the Currie Family Director of the Tang Institute, Housiaux regularly challenges students in his existential philosophy class to surrender their phones, confront existential anxieties head-on, use the time gained for personal reflection, and consider what they learn about anxiety and despair.

The following is an excerpt from Housiaux’s recently published article, “Existentialism and Instagram,” in which he shares more about this experiment and the lessons learned. Click here to read the full article at the Phi Delta Kappan, the professional journal for educators.

“You might wonder what a group of American teenagers have in common with existentialist philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre. Three words in particular come to mind: dread, anxiety, and despair. Existentialist thinkers, and many of their philosophical predecessors, saw these moods as central to the human predicament. And these are feelings that many students today can relate to just as strongly.

“The existentialists argued for facing, reflecting on, and understanding these feelings to live a free and authentic life. This led me to wonder what I and my high school philosophy students could learn about anxiety and despair if the students decided to confront these existential anxieties head-on by giving up their cell phones and using the time they gained for personal reflection. Further, what might this experience reveal about how best to educate students today?

“Phillips Academy is a boarding school in Andover, Massachusetts. With an average class size of 13, the school is able to have students regularly engage in seminar-style discussions. Some of these particulars about small class sizes or a residential environment may not be shared in all school contexts, but there are lessons from our experience to be learned and shared with educators everywhere.”

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