Should Educational Experiences Be “Satisfying”?

Should Educational Experiences Be “Satisfying”?
Zachary Fruhling October 25, 2019

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Nineteenth-century British moral philosopher John Stuart Mill famously said,

“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” — John Stuart Mill

As instructional designers, we are often tasked with creating “satisfying” educational and learning experiences. We take for granted that education should be satisfying and enjoyable, that it should be fun and pleasurable and enjoyable to learn, and that making education fun promotes learning and retention. This view of educational experiences, however, namely that they should be satisfying, seems to contradict what John Stuart Mill is saying in the quote above about the nature of higher-level educational experiences and intellectual pleasure.

Mill seems to be saying that there is something inherently dissatisfying about education, and perhaps about knowledge in general. The reference to Socrates undoubtedly refers to Socratic wisdom, being wise insofar as you know the limits of your own knowledge, knowing what you do not yet know. As you get deeper and deeper into a particular field of study, it’s usually false that more of your questions are answered; instead, it becomes clear just how many of our questions are as yet unanswered, how much theoretical work yet remains to be done in that field of study.

This fact of higher education, that there are more unanswered questions the deeper or more advanced you get within a discipline, is simultaneously both satisfying and unsatisfying, depending on your point of view, and perhaps depending on your own expectations about the nature of knowledge. If you are fundamentally a problem-solver who delights in the unknown and in solving a theoretical problem, this aspect of higher education may in fact be satisfying and enjoyable to you. In contrast, however, if you are a person who expects knowledge to be neat and tidy or even cumulative in nature, or if you are a person who finds uncertainty frustrating and dissatisfying, then you are likely to be frustrated and dissatisfied by this aspect of higher education.

All too often we in higher education give the mistaken impression that learning in general, and the progress within any particular discipline, is neat and tidy and cumulative and well-understood. We minimize the inherent challenges of learning and progress and taming the theoretical unknowns, all while doing an injustice to the true Socratic nature of learning, that learning always and inherently involves a realization of how much theoretical work is yet to be done within a particular discipline, and how many unknowns still remain, the exact opposite of the well-packaged “satisfying” learning experiences that we instructional designers try to distill and create.

Real education and genuine intellectual honesty usually involve being satisfied with being dissatisfied, to realize that adequate answers to the deepest questions in your chosen field of study may not come in your own lifetime, if ever, that at best you are doing your small part in solving a much larger puzzle that transcends you or your own work in scope and meaningfulness. In rare cases come along the Copernicuses, the Newtons, the Einsteins, or the Socrateses, Platos, René Descarteses, and Immanuel Kants, those rare individuals—whether scientists or philosophers or technologists or artists or poets—who, against all intellectual odds, somehow manage the feat of shifting the paradigm of an entire discipline, achieving what might have seemed like an impossible degree of intellectual or academic progress for those workaday thinkers toiling away on their own minor intellectual or theoretical problems.

These individuals, however important they are for human and intellectual progress, are rare; the average student, educator, academic, intellectual, or professional will never lay claim to the title of “genius” or “paradigm-shifter.” This is another reason for thinking that workaday education and intellectual activities are fundamentally dissatisfying. We long to be geniuses solving the theoretical problems inherent to our chosen disciplines, but we find that we are not Newtons or Einsteins or Kants; we normal students and educators are more like pedestrian intellectuals en masse, a fundamentally dissatisfying state of being for those who dream of intellectual greatness, in our lines of sight but perpetually out of our grasps.

As educators and instructional designers, we spend much of our time trying to disguise and cover up this inherently dissatisfying nature of education and learning in general, and of higher education in particular. We emphasize the easily-grasped, easily-systematized, easily-presented, easily-visualized concepts and aspects of a particular field, in a simplified and introductory way, all while deemphasizing the theoretical unknowns, ambiguities, and uncertainties inherent to any area of study (perhaps so as not to frustrate our students, causing them to abandon their educational careers, and to maintain enrollment numbers at all costs!).

We do our students—of any age—an intellectual and educational disservice when we cultivate a desire in them for “satisfying” educational experiences. Instead we should be teaching them the Socratic satisfaction of being satisfied with the dissatisfaction of learning, knowledge, education, and academic inquiry in their chosen fields. When viewed in this light, perhaps all of higher education can be seen as a form of healthy intellectual masochism. Instead of healthy and honest intellectual masochism, however, we instructional designers, all too often, peddle overly simplistic intellectual hedonism —which, like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, sells rather better.

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