Existentialism is the philosophical position that “existence precedes essence,” i.e. that a thing exists and only afterwards determines what it is. Mostly they only apply this to human beings, and basically it’s a fancy way of saying that human beings are not given a human nature, they create a human nature for themselves. It doesn’t withstand scrutiny if you think about it for even a few seconds, but it is none the less quite popular, especially in somewhat limited forms that are selectively applied.
One interesting consequence of existentialism is that, to be a good existentialist, a person must be a bad parent. The actual job of parents is to raise children, i.e. to teach them how to be adult human beings. This presupposes that the child has a nature which they can grow into. The existentialist believes that the child can be absolutely anything it wants to be. The existentialist, therefore, can only help the child if the child happens to choose to be the sort of thing that the existentialist knows how to be. Of course, what are the odds of that? Worse, the existentialist parent can only answer questions about how to achieve specific goals, and those only very conditionally because all goals actually entail a multitude of sub-goals which no one has time to specify. Worse still, it often takes a fair amount of experience to even know what these possible sub-goals are. If a kid wants to paint a picture of a dragon, does he want to do it in pastels or crayons or colored pencils or oil paints? How is the kid even supposed to know?
Existentialism does not, in reality, work for anyone, but to the degree that it works, it works much better for adults than for children, like pretty much everything else that came out of the Enlightenment.
I think I’ll end with a G.K. Chesterton quote from What’s Wrong With the World:
I know that certain crazy pedants have attempted to counter this difficulty by maintaining that education is not instruction at all, does not teach by authority at all. They present the process as coming, not from the outside, from the teacher, but entirely from inside the boy. Education, they say, is the Latin for leading out or drawing out the dormant faculties of each person. Somewhere far down in the dim boyish soul is a primordial yearning to learn Greek accents or to wear clean collars; and the schoolmaster only gently and tenderly liberates this imprisoned purpose. Sealed up in the newborn babe are the intrinsic secrets of how to eat asparagus and what was the date of Bannockburn. The educator only draws out the child’s own unapparent love of long division; only leads out the child’s slightly veiled preference for milk pudding to tarts. I am not sure that I believe in the derivation; I have heard the disgraceful suggestion that “educator,” if applied to a Roman schoolmaster, did not mean leading our young functions into freedom; but only meant taking out little boys for a walk. But I am much more certain that I do not agree with the doctrine; I think it would be about as sane to say that the baby’s milk comes from the baby as to say that the baby’s educational merits do. There is, indeed, in each living creature a collection of forces and functions; but education means producing these in particular shapes and training them to particular purposes, or it means nothing at all. Speaking is the most practical instance of the whole situation. You may indeed “draw out” squeals and grunts from the child by simply poking him and pulling him about, a pleasant but cruel pastime to which many psychologists are addicted. But you will wait and watch very patiently indeed before you draw the English language out of him. That you have got to put into him; and there is an end of the matter.
But the important point here is only that you cannot anyhow get rid of authority in education; it is not so much (as poor Conservatives say) that parental authority ought to be preserved, as that it cannot be destroyed. Mr. Bernard Shaw once said that he hated the idea of forming a child’s mind. In that case Mr. Bernard Shaw had better hang himself; for he hates something inseparable from human life. I only mentioned educere and the drawing out of the faculties in order to point out that even this mental trick does not avoid the inevitable idea of parental or scholastic authority. The educator drawing out is just as arbitrary and coercive as the instructor pouring in; for he draws out what he chooses. He decides what in the child shall be developed and what shall not be developed. He does not (I suppose) draw out the neglected faculty of forgery. He does not (so far at least) lead out, with timid steps, a shy talent for torture. The only result of all this pompous and precise distinction between the educator and the instructor is that the instructor pokes where he likes and the educator pulls where he likes. Exactly the same intellectual violence is done to the creature who is poked and pulled. Now we must all accept the responsibility of this intellectual violence. Education is violent; because it is creative. It is creative because it is human. It is as reckless as playing on the fiddle; as dogmatic as drawing a picture; as brutal as building a house. In short, it is what all human action is; it is an interference with life and growth. After that it is a trifling and even a jocular question whether we say of this tremendous tormentor, the artist Man, that he puts things into us like an apothecary, or draws things out of us, like a dentist.