Personal, Social, Material: The Three Domains of Education

Current conventional models of education place heavy emphasis on the material and intellectual aspects of our world: the realm of facts and figures, action and reaction, of the basic functioning of our external, physical reality.  Even our country’s politicians can agree that this system is in grave peril and needs serious reform, but while reformers debate how best to fix its intellectual shortcomings (which certainly do exist), no one seems to be concerned with the far more serious deficits in our system’s personal and social aspects.

In order to be whole and self-sufficient, an individual must master the three distinct yet interdependent aspects of self-awareness: the personal, the social, and the material.  Each of these three domains is related to different aspects of American culture: the personal domain is associated with philosophy and ethics, the social domain is associated with politics and trade, and the material domain is associated with intellectualism, appearance, and power.  The importance of the social and personal domains, and the aspects of culture associated with them, is trivialized in American society.  We esteem the material virtues such as money, physical attractiveness, and popularity above all others–believing, perhaps, that virtues such as compassion, understanding, and wealth will follow naturally from these.  We shun personal fulfillment and self-reflection as pretentious luxuries, and social interaction as at best a harmless indulgence, and at worst an unnecessary evil.[1]  Science, the flagship of the intellectual realm, has been elevated from its proper status as useful and fascinating tool to a national philosophy bordering on religion.  The pursuit of knowledge, in this sense, is a special case of the pursuit of the material world more broadly–whether in the form of the physical pleasures of drugs, sex, and entertainment, or in the pursuit of material wealth or worldly power.  Unfortunately, these pursuits are ultimately dead-ends.  Money is not wealth, attractiveness is not beauty, popularity is not fame, and pleasure is not happiness.   Material pursuits are not necessarily evil or destructive, but when their attainment is the only goal–when the personal and social domains are abandoned in favor of the sole pursuit of material virtues–then frustration, misery, and destruction are inevitable.[2]

In older times, religion provided the foundation of all three domains: it gave us a spirituality that provided meaning and personal stability, it gave us the cultural and moral norms that governed our interactions with others, and it gave us mythologies that provided intellectual (though not strictly scientific) explanations of the workings of the material world.  In other words, it gave us a why for our actions (personal meaning), it gave us a how for our actions (social interaction), and it explained to us what the consequences of our actions would be (material understanding).  To be sure, these three domains were not solely the purview of religion; family education and day-to-day life were significant contributors as well.  But religion provided the foundations upon which these more mundane factors built.

Today in American culture (and across the globe, as Westernization assimilates its neighbors and the internet makes neighbors of us all), we have lost this foundation.  Many of us feel adrift, helpless, and confused in a world where our actions increasingly seem to have no meaningful consequence.  Existential angst, that peculiar affliction specific to societies that have nothing else to worry about, but nothing to strive for either, has given rise to an entire generation described by its obsession with distraction, materialism, and escapism.  Our very identities now seem determined less by the contributions we make to the world and more by which stage of angst we can claim to be going through: from the short-sighted frustrations of childhood, to the rebellion and self-pity of adolescence, to the ennui and stress of adulthood, to the desperation and helplessness of old age.  At every age and in every profession, Americans seem to be undergoing a crisis of meaninglessness and dispassion, while at the same time actively rejecting those aspects of ourselves that could provide these missing elements.

If we are to interact meaningfully with one another, if we are to solve the world’s problems and facilitate joy and understanding in ourselves and others, we must provide a cultural and educational foundation that rests on all three of the human domains: the Personal, Social, and Material.  We cannot function properly without all three, and denying our dependence on any one of these pillars can only lead to frustration and misery.  Without personal understanding, we have no reason to act.  Without social understanding, we have no structure by which to govern our actions.  And without intellectual understanding, we are blind to the effects our actions have on others and on our environment.  When we value ourselves and others as well as the wider world, then and only then can we be fulfilled, whole, and happy.


[1] Consider popular attitudes towards those who work in politics or law, two professions concerned solely with the social domain.

[2] Those of you who’ve read my essay on Objectivism may be surprised to see me apparently backpedaling here.  Objectivism places a heavy emphasis on logic and reason, which seems to correlate with science, intellect, and the material world, whereas in this essay I am criticizing our emphasis on the material world and advocating for a balance of all three domains.  In fact, the conflict is an illusion born of the confusion between wealth, the production of value, and approximations of wealth such as money, power, or popularity.  The reason I like Objectivism is that it makes clear that the production of wealth and the exercise of reason are not solely the domain of the material world.  In fact, the three domains I describe here happen to map rather neatly to the three ethical axioms described in my other essay: Individualism maps to the Personal domain (“why are you acting?”), Justice maps to the Social domain (“how should you act?”), and Rationality maps to the Material domain (“what actions will fulfill your desires?”).  Without all three, there can be no real value created–not for yourself, and not for anyone else.


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