Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Natural Causes” and the Education of Teens

How do we equip our students to grapple with the great questions? At my school, I notice two, maybe three, parallel but different tracks of daily conversation connecting students to the philosophic plane: there appears to be consensus around a therapeutic notion of an independent “self” seeking mind/body wellness as well as a public identity rooted in categories stemming from critical theory: race, class, gender, etc. There is also talk of genes, hormones, types of brains as the forces that determine who each one of us is, though I hear this more from the kids.

I wonder: are these sufficient, whether taken together or separately, to equip a person for an “examined life?” It seems sensible that how we talk about individuals determines how our students conceive of themselves, so this seems important.

I am getting thoughts down. Please let me know what you think.

When I was in high school in Oakland, Calif., a few of my teachers encouraged us to think philosophically. It was the early 1980s so many of them had gone to college in the 50s and 60s: they pointed us toward existentialism. On our own, we read some Camus, some Sartre, “Notes From Underground,” and Walter Kaufmann’s Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, plucked from parents’ bookshelves or picked up for pennies in Berkeley at Moe’s or Shakespeare & Co.

A friend read “The Allegory of the Cave” in English class and shared it with our group of friends. It blew our minds. One English teacher used Freudian readings of short stories–“Billy Budd” comes to mind–but it felt more like they were trying to shock us than anything else.

Dwayne Murphy, a fixture in my evolving world of the 1980s. 

And we read Baldwin and Angelou and Malcolm X and Langston Hughes and A Raisin in the Sun and so on. We read Huckleberry Finn and Catcher in the Rye and Catch-22 and Trout Fishing in America. I write out this partial list because these books propelled me to ask questions about myself, my society, and my place in the world. The philosophical books I read outside of class, though, allowed me to ask other questions: who am I? What are people? What are we supposed to do with our lives?

I am struck, looking back, by the lack of “self-help” reading we did. The world in Twain and Heller was crazy and dangerous, but also full of adventure. We read about war and racism and murder, but I don’t remember much talk about self-esteem.

I am certainly not arguing for a diet of mid-century philosophy and literature by white men. My concern is about giving young people a chance to conceive of existence, about the nature of reality, of knowledge, and so on.


51mvuxjvbul-_sx329_bo1204203200_I’m reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer. I have to admit, I didn’t understand at first that the last part of the subtitle has a double meaning: Ehrenreich ends the book by tracing the history of the notion of “the self”–from the Enlightenment to psychology and then self-help. She rebels against the idea of an “immutable kernel” of “I-ness,” instead reminding us that our consciousness is porous. And she advocates against endless service to the imaginary true self, which, like the body, often seems unfaithful to its own survival.

I get a kick out of Ehrenriech’s poker-faced pessimism. She has no time for religion, psychoanalysis, or anything else that will distract her from the reality of death. Given her claim that we can’t go home again to a pre-modern, animistic worldview, we have to settle for recognizing the “free will” in everything from atoms to the human immune system.

Ehrenreich reminds us that 55 million people die each year and this appears to have no impact on the universe or even things much closer to home. Yet we turn ever inward in response to our suffering and our trials, expert and chronic navel-gazers, caring for ourselves, managing our image on social media, and, in the sections of the book that will likely get the most attention, spending trillions a year to extend life a few months or, perhaps, years.

One problem: “No unifying theory–or, of course, cultural source–undergirds the hodgepodge of practices and interventions offered in the name of wellness.”

Her solution? Well, it’s a jeremiad so she doesn’t really need one. But the final chapter is entitled, “Killing the Self, Rejoicing in a Living World.” Ehrenreich encourages us not to be seduced by the notion that our bodies are morally good friends (think cancer) that we simply have to get to know better. Our bodies (which appear to exist: she is not so sure about “ourselves”) may or may not be on our side and there is little we can do beyond exercise and wait for the inevitable.

It’s a quirky book but it made me think about the two ways we talk about people at my school. The first is definitely from the pages of the self-help movement. Like everywhere else, my school has seen a steady rise in the number of students visiting the counselor’s office. Our language is about “self-esteem,” “depression,” “anxiety,” and so on.

Ehrenreich suggests that these are all terms, born of the secular, egocentric era that began with Rousseau and Descartes, focus on the care of this very modern “self.” The goal is to feel good about our selves, to tend and care for them. This is a very different pastime than that of our ancestors. They had souls and feared an imminent Hell. To say that these terms have a historical context doesn’t mean people don’t experience them as real, but we might ask if the idea of a “true self” is a healthy one.

In our own time, the language of self-regard has taken on a definite religious quality. We are instructed to ‘believe’ in ourselves, be true to ourselves, and above all, ‘love’ ourselves…. In today’s capitalist culture the self has been further objectified into a kind of commodity demanding continual effort to maintain–a “brand.”

And this is perhaps what we tell teens, implicitly and often explicitly. I wonder if when we say “self-esteem” we should talk to them about what we mean by “self.”

At my school, talk of “the self” in the classroom usually focuses on social identifiers. My students are adept at discussions of the fluidity of gender identity or the historical construction of race and its relation to imperialism. This is terrific, of course. Yet I wonder if it is confusing them. What are the connections between the modern (and arguably therapeutic) “self” and the “identity” discussed in class, at assemblies, and in many clubs and student groups?

Right now, the liberal convention seems to be that we identify ourselves through mutable and overlapping versions of many categories of social identity. We have a race, though most agree that this is at best a working fiction; we have a gender, though the working metaphor for it is currently up for debate as a binary has become a continuum and then a kind of cloud. What matters is the agency to determine one’s own gender identity so there might be consistency between interior experience and exterior signification. This is complicated stuff and, I fear “the interior ” (is there gender all the way down in there?) goes largely unexamined.

Finally, I hear students talking about “brain chemistry” and the genetic determinants that define us all. Race is a fiction because it isn’t rooted in biology, the parlance goes. This is true, but is “biology” the font of the self? What is the relationship, if any, between this worldview and the assumption that behavior or happiness is best (or at least most easily) regulated with pharmaceuticals? What is the philosophical upshot of all this? Do antidepressants change “me?” Do they allow me to be more like the “real me?”

I wonder if there is a connection between these formulations and the ever-growing levels of anxiety. As I have written elsewhere on this blog, I understand that there are many structural causes: the increased acceptability of discussion of mental health, changes in parenting, income inequality, the rising cost of college, social media. But perhaps a broader understanding of the meanings of the words “myself” and “me” might offer new perspective.

What is our shared conception of the self?; What is our relationship to Nature?; to one another?; Does my race determine who I am as well as my experience? In a community in which we speak “from the ‘I’ perspective,” what are the limits of objective truth? If we have healthy self-esteem, just what are we valuing? Is our goal in life to be happy? secure? wise? well-liked?

I am thinking about a course for secondary-school students. Not a philosophy course, per se, though maybe that is it. I would like to confront great philosophical questions with my students and give them free range to roam a bit. The final goal would be for students to argue for a particular conception of the self and for them to express philosophical responses and outlooks to the big questions they aren’t yet ready to entertain.

Perhaps the endless conversation about the college process could include a few minutes asking why we go college–from a philosophical perspective. What might we want to learn there? What is useful to know? What is knowledge anyway, especially in a world with Google? If we might be replaced by a machine at work some day, what is our purpose in the world?

What can young people read besides the original texts to get at these questions? I happened across the novel, Sophie’s World, the other day. It looks worth a read. What other texts would you recommend?



One thought on “Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Natural Causes” and the Education of Teens

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  1. I am jet-lagged so I won’t attempt a well-crafted, intellectual reply… but I do want to respond. I think a course on the concept of self throughout history – contrasting collectivist cultures to individualist ones would be great foundational work for our students.

    In reference to your questions about the increasing rate of cognizance around ‘identity,’ increasing anxiety / depression, increasing use of medication and so on… I wonder:

    1. How social media and ‘citizen-journalistic’ platforms of web-based publishing, youtube and so on have created more democratic opportunities to represent more nuanced perspectives which in turn generate audience-identification with those perspectives – in other words, it’s not just the philosophical perspectives of those with privileged access to the ivory tower that are being published. More access = more space to have a platform to have your voice heard, thus an increase in nuance in getting your individual perspective out there. #adiche

    2. In terms of the mental health issue…ibid the above. Experiences with mental health issues are no longer the single stories reflected by Plath, Kesey, or even Shakespeare. Stigma is decreasing among those who experience sx of MI to reach out and share their experiences in the hopes of finding community and acceptance and sometimes treatment. What seems to be lingering a few decades behind this advancement is society’s willingness to adapt practices suited to efficiency for the collective (ie. the academic calendar, deadlines for college admissions, even the basic timeframe given to understand a concept in a subject) for practices that are inclusive to those for whom living in the world with diverse brains, body chemistry, trauma and so on.

    I’d love to talk more about these issues and many other ides you raise here with you and others. Thanks for bringing this up.


    Liked by 1 person

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