My friend Steve is not happy. There is a problem:
The secrets of science appear unable to address the most personal and complicated questions in life, which is sad news for the rest of us. We, the people, are trapped in a philosophical limbo, victims of our success. This truth is reflected in the reality that even while the world has made significant improvements in the psychological and other sciences, nevertheless, war, crime, classism, and corruption remain embedded phenomena, and we are resigned to ignore the mostly invisible social disruptions of common deception, passive aggression, abusiveness, petty partisanship, hatred, lack of civility, cheating, patent suppression, malicious gossip, loneliness, neuroticism, cliquishness, greed, raw ambition, economic manipulation, abuse of authority, destruction of habitat, and just bad faith generally, among our other problems. The world lacks accountability, which is mostly due to a general lack of awareness and at times integrity. While the innocent are nothing more than prey to such forces, the sophisticated are slow to help, constituting many of the perpetrators, making progress fleeting in the darkest regions of our collectives. Our demons appear to evolve even alongside our angels, and the appearance of civility is not always the reality. It is this new self-awareness that challenges our modern sensibilities.There is always an unfolding reality that surprises us, and although we may evolve, we do not necessarily become purer. Is evolution about becoming better at surviving, or becoming better?
How did we get to this place? How did we come to be so lost in the midst of so much advancement? According to Steve the fault is with our education. The shift which put us on this dismal trajectory happened in our not too distant past. Steve fingers out James L. Hughes The Toronto Superintendent of Public Schools in 1886 as one of the champions of wrong headed education:
You cannot kindle all children by literature . . . A very large proportion of the race were not meant to be deep lovers of book learning. You may kindle more by manual training. Why? Because God meant men and women to be productive.
Education took on a new design, one of utility. The goal was to help people become practical, efficient, and productive. Society became convinced that a liberal arts education was a worthless thing of past, to be replaced with sciences, math, and and a purely functional level of literacy all geared toward a productive end. Practical rather than cerebral was the new mantra.
“How to” and “How things work” should not be the goal of education according to Steve. Rather his vision has us learning about the consistent themes in history, alongside the different schools of thought and their takes on the causes of the big problems of life. It is exactly this that is at the heart of a significant education, as opposed to a utilitarian education that is meant to be accessible by the largest number of people while being effective at disseminating specific knowledge deemed valuable to the economy.
Steve assumes that his readers might label him as one who is “anti-science” He is not. However when teaching science, Steve warns us not to squander an opportunity to teach history. All scientific advancement’s have come to us in a historical context. Without the greater historical understanding of the sciences, The bigger picture, the deeper thought, the greater value is lost to pragmatics.
Among other things Steve laments the damaging effects of media to the problem of education. Neil Postman decades ago suggested that television makes us dependent on quickly changing images and shortens our attention spans, making us less capable learners; That concern finds the same arguments today about smartphones. We are a soundbite and highlight real culture now, which makes it increasingly difficult to even focus enough to learn holistically. We only seem to learn in bits and pieces now. This information is funnelled all towards the narrow end of our own selfish advancement. This path does not lead to human flourishing.
Steve summarizes his better way which will lead to a better world in the following way:
It is important to have a society of literacy and intellectualism above and beyond the technical, clinical, and utilitarian world of academia, reaching into the world of art, works, community, passion, emotional awareness, and spiritualism. A private society must exist that cares for the preservation of past and future, nurturing both hindsight and foresight (Epimetheus and Prometheus). Such a society aims to reduce mental illness, greed, misery, and aggression by promoting philosophical health and passion for the humanities.
Steve is very convincing, but his book does meander a fair bit, and at times I felt myself wondering where he was going. In some ways it felt a bit like a shot gun blast against all that is wrong in our world especially the later chapters. But the thread of hope remains as he takes us on his historical journey through all the schools of thought. He longs for a better world and is convinced that this world is possible if we would just take the time to learn about it, from all the various views and perspectives. I don’t believe that reading more broadly, avoiding the distractions of our media devices, and becoming less utilitarian about or educational systems will turn the world into a wonderful garden of love void of greed, misery, and aggression. However, I certainly believe these are good places to start! Steve is right that a correct belief or mindset is at the heart of lasting change, humans must do the hard work of the mind, and increasing numbers in the western world are simply not. We are to distracted, to amused, to disjointed and to self-focused to care. In a way this book attempts to call us back to caring about how we understand the world and organize our thoughts.