As an undergraduate student at New York University (NYU), I had the opportunity to take a class on the philosophy of the human person. The syllabus for that course provided a series of consecutive readings to answer one specific question: Who is the human person?—this course changed my life. Nobody before had asked me the question, and it wasn’t a question I realized needed urgent asking—and urgent answering.
My 3.5 years at NYU triggered an existential crisis: People have very different understandings of the person, and these concepts—when uncontested, or left unformed—can yield opposite lived experiences of the same human nature, one birthing true freedom and goodness, the other less so. Sometimes, diverging answers about the person can make it supremely difficult for one individual without the appropriate framework to filter through varied ideas about personal reality in all its dimensions, including sexuality, religious experience, marriage, identity, vocation, and more.
Only through rigorous philosophical immersion tested by experience did I begin to integrate two facts. The first fact is the beauty of the person as WYA understands him: a person with intrinsic dignity able to encounter others, and be changed by them, and depend on them, and grow to be himself in relationship with them. This is reality: love, understood in its fullest sense. The second fact is the value of the person as the objective foundation upon which everything else must be built—the basis of all our thinking, policy-making, and development. When approached without ideological bias, no other first principle makes sense.
When I came to the World Youth Alliance (WYA) and was privileged with the opportunity to work on WYA’s Human Dignity Curriculum (HDC), a K-12 character formation program that develops a foundation of these ideas for young students, the experience was one of major déjà vu. In writing lessons for elementary and middle school students, I realized that my own capacities had gone unformed at home—and this lack of formation explained the difficulty I had before NYU’s ideological mess.
The HDC is, on this note, a project of great importance—and revolutionary scope. Perhaps the feedback that strikes me most deeply in my teaching is students’ reflection that “no other class teaches us about human beings this way.” Students repeat this feedback in different forms, and little light bulbs turn on about the simplest things—which some of us may assume to be self-explanatory but aren’t: I have an intellect, and a will, and this special power to create art, and technology, and to contribute to culture. I have emotions, and they can be guided in an excellent way. Nothing can take away my freedom—because, even when all seems lost, I can choose the good. All these principles of the person underlie the saga of the human person that history remembers as truly heroic, from the beginning of time, and the resilience of the person through the grittiest, most haunting, and most twisted of circumstances.
I like to think of the HDC as providing the tools for living the human adventure. So often, human life is measured by its utility, economic or no—by what can be done, and achieved. A utilitarian mode of living like this one exhausts the person because he is not meant to do first, but to first be—to be himself and to leave his own footprint on the world. The only place to begin this journey lies in discovering our identity as persons. When students don’t receive tools to do this, they cannot be expected to prefer their own self-identity above their measurable outcome—their worth as defined by the society or culture in which they live, both entirely transitory and subject to arbitrary defining and redefining on behalf of the government. Or, equally dangerous, their output as measured by financial capital.
In sharing the HDC, WYA stands by the premise that there isn’t another curriculum in the world that takes on the challenge of answering the question, Who is the person?, as the foundation and pre-requisite for its character formation and sexual education. I’ve found that this is the key. When teachers delight students with the possibility of owning their own humanity and directing it to the excellent end for which they are meant, they delight students into freely electing the right path. This is true freedom: freedom to realize the truth in love, for one’s self, and for others.
Written by Weronika Janczuk, World Youth Alliance North America Regional Director.