Education: The Process of Disillusionment

On Saturday, I had lunch at the Humanism at Work conference with Greta Christina and her brother and I mentioned my recent reunion with my old French teacher and that he had told me, when I went off to college, that “education is the process of disillusionment.”

When I brought that up, Greta made a really interesting comment that had never occurred to me, which is that we use the word “disillusionment” or “disillusioned” as a negative thing. When people use it, it’s usually in the context of terrible disappointment — “I was an activist on issue X, but then I just became so disillusioned.” But as skeptics and rationalists, shouldn’t disillusionment be a positive thing? Losing one’s illusions about the world is one of our primary goals, isn’t it?

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About Ed Brayton

After spending several years touring the country as a stand up comedian, Ed Brayton tired of explaining his jokes to small groups of dazed illiterates and turned to writing as the most common outlet for the voices in his head. He has appeared on the Rachel Maddow Show and the Thom Hartmann Show, and is almost certain that he is the only person ever to make fun of Chuck Norris on C-SPAN.

  • suttkus

    Losing your illusions may be a good thing, but it’s also painful and destabilizing. So the word “disillusionment” will always have negative connotations.

  • http://www.thomaswebb.net pinkboi

    It’s a good thing, but it’s a little unpleasant. Like discovery, it’s usually more about confusion than “a-ha!”

  • jonmoles

    I like being proven wrong. I’d rather know something is true (or false) rather than just believe it is.

  • wscott

    I hadn’t thought about it that way, but that’s a really interesting point. I think there’s a certain naive comfort in seeing the world the way you want it to be – everything lines up with your pre-conceptions, so all is good. And I think a lot of people, quite frankly, would prefer to stay there even if they’re wrong. Very few people will admit that out loud, but I’ve had more than one Christian tell me that even if there really was no God they would still prefer to believe there is because they don’t think they could face the universe without that belief. It goes back to the fundamental question: “How much does it matter to you if the things you believe are actually true or not?” If it doesn’t matter to you, okay, thanks for saving me the effort of trying to convince you.

  • kosk11348

    Losing your illusions may be a good thing, but it’s also painful and destabilizing.

    Well, it’s destabilizing, but that doesn’t necessarily need to be a painful thing. That depends on attitude, which is in our power to shape.

  • Mobius

    I think Ms. Christina makes a very good point.

  • Sastra

    There seems to be a distinction between becoming “disillusioned” and “disabused.” Saying ““I was an activist on issue X, but then I became disabused … and switched sides” doesn’t carry the same connotation.

    That’s one of the things that drives the critics of gnu atheism nuts. We’re supposed to act like we’ve become disillusioned. And then we’re supposed to give up. And hope it doesn’t get around.

    Instead, we think we’ve become disabused of our former illusions — and we act that way!

  • David C Brayton

    The definition Google uses is: “disappointed in someone or something that one discovers to be less good than one had believed.”

    Interesting that the definition focuses on the feeling of disappointment, not the actual state of misapprehending the true nature of something.

    My understanding of the word was just the opposite of Greta’s: If my understanding of things changes over time because I learned about the true nature of the thing, then I was disillusioned to start. I didn’t become disillusioned.

    On a related note….It would be really interesting to see if my understanding of what it meant to be a lawyer when I started law school is still the same thing as it is today. Too bad I didn’t keep a journal of my law school experience.

  • vereverum

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say positive, but perhaps beneficial.

    As suttkus#1 points out it can be very stressful and as wscott#4 says about illusions being comfortable, why wouldn’t it be better to allow them their illusions (as long as they don’t harm others such as the woman who let God driver her car and run over the motorcyclist)? This is similar to what the fundies do: you think you are happy and well adjusted, but you are really miserable, you just don’t know it, and their job is to show you how miserable you are and then save you from that misery. It actually works for some but not many people.

  • Synfandel

    Education is about losing one’s illusions? I thought it was about losing one’s virginity. I’ll grant there can be some overlap.

  • Scientismist

    I note that Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus lists “disenthrall” as a somewhat distant synonym of “disillusion”: “As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

  • vereverum

    @ Scientismist #11

    An excellent word.

    No one should be a slave to their opinions & beliefs.

  • Suido

    Brings to mind Twain: I’ve never let schooling interfere with my education.

    As long as schooling reinforces societal norms and customs, whether from the teachers or from peers, it will be a source of illusion and disillusion.

  • Crudely Wrott

    The spoken word frequently outruns the well thought turn of phrase. I assume that the word “disabused” would be much more appropriate than “disillusioned”. This even that both cases address error.

  • thebookofdave

    Synfandel wins the thread. Everyone else, out!


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