Death is around us all the time, but, like sunlight and oxygenated air, it is easily ignored. Moreover, etiquette and prudence both frown on its appearance in polite conversation. Fortunately, though, a philosophy class isn’t a polite conversation.
A recent course of mine at a small US liberal arts college took on the topic of death from many angles – old age, mourning, the afterlife, suicide, euthanasia. But my students were young: mostly standard 18- to 22-year-olds. While many had experienced a grandparent’s death during their college years, their own deaths, like their student loan balances, were part of the way-off and thus not-real future.
I did what I could to remind them that death is an actual part of their lives. On the first day, for example, before we’d really got to know one another, I stood before them and, in a bouncy tone, remarked, “You’re all gonna die”. And they laughed. So I said it again. This time they squirmed. And then we talked about the laugh and the squirm until I felt satisfied that they had a sense of the reality of this unfamiliar thought.
And so the semester went on, with me constantly working to remind the youthfully immortal of their mortality. With each new week, I tried to “meet the students where they were”, challenging the assumptions that they unthinkingly brought to class.
My students thought that death was bad for the one who dies. So I argued against them: Epicurus teaches that death is neither good nor bad for the one who dies, because that person no longer exists, and nothing is good or bad for the non-existent. They believed that immortality would be great, so I insisted, with the help of Bernard Williams, that eternal life would eventually get boring. Like many other Americans, they felt that suicide was unacceptable: an unreasonable act of cowardice. So I argued that it’s not only understandable but a generally justified act: a freely chosen and rational response to an irrational world.
And then a student killed himself.
Few occurrences rock a small campus quite like a suicide. My college prides itself on the fact that “community” is more than just a recruitment slogan here. The president is on first-name terms with almost everyone. Students occasionally bring along friends for informal meetings with their professors. The woman who swipes meal cards in the dining hall is a beloved figure, as is the bookstore lady. We all strive to be friendly, to greet one another by name, to know each other. But we didn’t know that one of us was struggling – deeply. We held a candlelit vigil, sang Amazing Grace and silently pledged to be more attentive and responsive.
Although the student who killed himself wasn’t in any of my courses, I’d seen him around campus between classes. He seemed like many of my own students: miraculously avoiding collisions while his eyes were glued to his cellphone. In subsequent days, through tear-filled conversations and searching classroom discussions, I learned that he was like other students in another important way: many of them, it turned out, also struggle with thoughts of meaninglessness, hopelessness and, in more than a handful of cases, suicide.
These revelations shocked me, but they shouldn’t have. After all, I intimately knew one person who had struggled with depression, and all that separated him from his students was a decade and a PhD. That person – myself, of course – thought that his musings on suicide were a product of graduate school isolation, reading too much Camus and Schopenhauer, and an ongoing inability to find permanent, tenure-track employment. But perhaps my problems, in reality, have a deeper source that goes beyond just me.
As the fall term continued, the suicide continued to reverberate and, over the winter break, about 15 per cent of our first-year class dropped out: a figure that’s historically high (although colleagues at other schools report similar figures). The reasons students gave for leaving varied, but a significant number referenced emotional turmoil. From those who stayed, I continue to hear the same themes: disappointment, loneliness and uncertainty. Many of these students, who we say we are preparing for the rest of their lives, look out at the future with more fear than hope.
They’re feeling more isolated and less steady than previous generations, which is a sad irony in this “connected” world. Their student loans are so large that paying them off seems fantastical. Artificial intelligence is coming to take their jobs. It’s not clear that they’ll ever have a stable life with a job and home ownership: the markers many of them have learned to identify as signs of success – and even of competent adulthood. They feel burdened, despondent and disposable.
These students, it turns out, don’t need to be reminded of their impending deaths. For many, they’re feeling dead already. Maybe that’s what we’ve got in common.
Steven A. Miller is a visiting assistant professor at Ripon College, Wisconsin.