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Keep Plausible Men At A Distance

Nov 22, 2008

This past September I returned to University to pursue an undergraduate degree in History, Political Science, and Philosophy (I haven't decided which to focus on as yet -- and, if possible, I'd like to fit in some sociology, psychology, and anthropology), and the problem I'm finding in the Humanities and Social Sciences is the same as that in the Physical and Mathematical Sciences; that of attempting to transmit some maximal amount of information to the student within a tightly limited time frame, thus pre-empting the possibility of extra-curricular study, and consequently disabling the student from further exploration of subjects that naturally interest them, precisely at the moment when that interest prevails. It's not that I expected the Humanities or Social Sciences to be administered differently than the Physical Sciences, but I hoped they might be more sensitive to this issue. Though I may at times be free to define a particular essay topic, by no means am I free to define timelines, or the manner in which I undertake my studies. I cannot, for example, take the time to read, re-read, and thoroughly examine Mill's On Liberty as befits my inclination and intellect, and my writing finds itself limited by the reality that well-written works care little for deadlines or bibliographies that must be defined before writing even begins. Regardless of academic administrative imperatives, I need to follow my questions where they lead me, not where people with a vested interest (in maintaining the necessity of consulting people in positions such as theirs) tell me my questions should lead me.

"Just as high-level training requires time, so too does the broader process of liberal education. In addition, it requires unallocated time; time for reflection and re-evalation, for raising questions instead of seeking answers, for shopping around intellectually." This is not to say that students should explore subjects in an unstructured or ad hoc manner. We must establish broad disciplinary foundations, proceeding logically and cumulatively, and building towards a higher understanding. A first year Political Science student should not be permitted to jump into a fourth year Psychology course, because they would be at a conceptual disadvantage and could not appreciate the content, and thus their overall comprehension and productivity would suffer. However, when a student connects with material, the connection should not be forcibly severed by railroading the student into studying the next topic in the bureaucratically administered sequence of their primary discipline. It may indeed be the case that the best course path for the student to follow is the path they are on, however this should be discussed on a case by case basis, as initiated by the student. Here we have the basic quandary of group education; different people learn in different ways and at different rates, and compelling all students to submit to a single monolithic framework teaches those who do not grow or function optimally that they are sub-optimal or inadequate. Of course there are trade-offs when generalizing or universalizing education, but "[w]hen someone doesn't 'fit in,' we must always remember to consider the possibility that there is something wrong with what he is being asked to fit into."

That a common foundation is required, and that the current system fosters progress can not be denied, but not all education is of equal merit, and not all progression is of human value. The effect of contemporary modes of forced instruction is adjustment to externally imposed regimentation, the progressive decay of creativity, and an amorphous graduating class. "The lesson the child learns, from father to teacher to boss to god, is to obey the great anonymous voice of Authority. To graduate from childhood to adulthood is to become a full-fledged automaton, incapable of questioning or even of thinking clearly." Such full-fledged automatons become "predisposed to treat bureaucratic accounts as factual because" their entire educational experience is predicated upon participation "in upholding a normative order of authorized knowers in the society." They "operate with the attitude that officials ought to know what it is their job to know ... In particular, " they "will recognize an official's claim to knowledge not merely as a claim, but as a credible, competent piece of knowledge. This amounts to a moral division of labor; officials have and give the facts;" and successful automatons "merely get them."

Returning to the previous example: the first year Political Science student should be permitted to study Psychology as befits the material at hand, and when complete, continue forth in the Political Science curriculum, if they so choose. How would such a curriculum be organized? What is to protect the student against aimlessness and apathy? At what point do we require that the student return to the primary curriculum? The standard set of answers I've met with when discussing this issue with self-described professionals is self-justifying, and supports the commodification of labour through the scientismic application of efficiency metrics. A better response might be to ask: what is the nature of these questions? Such questions are at risk of presuming that our particular socioeconomic arrangements are the infallible result of self-perfecting historical processes, and that humans are intellectually bankrupt to begin with, and must be coerced into all things at all times. Procrastination is not so much a character deficit as it is a search for meaning.

"My own feeling is that we ought to take the present university structure ... and just let it fall apart into its simple communities of professors, etc., who know something and are interested in teaching it, and students, who want to find out something. Or if the students don't know what they want, let them be allowed to shop around, with no sanctions, no penalties. Just let the whole fall apart and be reconstituted into its proper communities according to immediate functioning, and intrinsic motivation for all the people involved."

Belief in the unfailing primacy of bureaucratized wisdom betrays fear of the unknown, fear of interdisciplinary synthesis, and the fear of challenges to entrenched interests. Some students will adhere to the standard course path, and some will deviate. Perhaps the student may never return to their initial program. Having (informally, but personally) surveyed hundreds of working professionals over the last few years, my suspicion is that a significant proportion of students would deviate, and discover not only new connections but the absence of previously perceived divisions -- and this is a gain that goes well beyond individual benefit. Prior to contributing one of the most important discoveries of all time, Darwin was a student of theology, and poised to become an Anglican parson. His later interest in entomology was linked in no small way to his affection for natural theology. An uncommon example to be sure, but what better way to explicate the problem than by examining the extreme potentialities; "Today I wear these chains, and am here! Tomorrow I shall be fetterless! -- but where?"

One can not understand how to live until they understand how humanity developed, how society developed, and why civilization exists as it does; and to investigate why civilization exists as it does is to investigate the themes that undercut all branches of knowledge -- the laws of nature. But instead of this, instead of fusing knowledge, our educational system divides it. That the principles of scholarly disciplines naturally arrange themselves hierarchically is not to be doubted, but to circumscribe one's personal program of academic development according to natural separations is to ignore the natural patterns of existence. Biology is not independent of chemistry, it is the natural consequent of chemical interactions. Evolution does not occur in isolation from its environment; it is the reflection and result of its environment. To ignore such relationships is to confine inquiry and destroy imagination, and thus to submit to the destructive institution of the expert.

Experts, by definition, possess the definitive and unquestionable answer for any subject falling within their domain of expertise. This is intellectual isolationism. Isolation of the expert from interdisciplinarity thought, and isolation of the questioner from any thought at all. Again; "This amounts to a moral division of labor; officials have and give the facts;" and successful automatons "merely get them." But, what would we do if such and such expert did not exist? What would be the fate of that particular expertise and production? Does the existence of expertise and production imply necessity or even utility? I do not say that all branches of knowledge are worthless, but that their worth must be proven. In response to what needs has the field of missile expertise developed? The maturity of weapons technology can in no reasonable way be construed as necessary or utile; it is a comment on human nature, and an explosive challenge to our capacity for rationality and self-improvement.

The pursuit of expertise is not in itself inherently deficient, but becomes deficient when knowledge eschews wisdom. "The point is not that we should never defer to experts, but that giving unchecked powers to experts is to invite catastrophe." First world educational institutions confer an expertise that is commensurate with acquisition; an acquisition that does not concern itself with morality or justice, but with aggrandizement; the accumulation -- but not combination -- of highly technical skills and answers, with an eye towards material accretion; technological advancement and data collection veiled as scholarship.

"There is a pathos in our technological advancement, well exemplified by programmed instruction. A large part of it consists in erroneously reducing the concept of animals and human beings in order to make them machine-operable." Technological advancement on its own does not imply progress, and expertise on its own does not imply enlightenment. In forms that are dominant in the first world, expertise is disconnection from reality -- an organized and formally induced psychosis. This is not education. Education is unification. To educate is to empower with an inexhaustible ability to ask intelligent questions. See how few students venture boldly to ask a topical question of their professor -- any question at all! Content be damned, see how many students ask how they might advance their academic image and avoid pedantic punishment: "Will this affect my mark?"

The professed intent of our schooling system is to develop a comprehensive theoretical and functional understanding of our operational environment, but the design of the system largely ignores the former and emphasizes the latter. Non-functional consociation is discounted, and neurosis is heaped upon neurosis, confusing students, and completely negating the opportunity for -- and even the possibility of -- introspective thought. Consider the creativity of modern-day university graduates when concocting and defending their own ideas and belief systems, and their obstinacy when presented with powerful claims that challenge those systems. "Some people -- particularly clever people -- can misunderstand anything."

In considering the battle of cleverness versus introspection, and when reflecting on our own daily activities, what is it that we find we spend the most time thinking about? Are we able to consider what we like, when we like? Do we choose the content of our thoughts? What do we think about on the way to school or work? Do we think, or are the signals of our brain replaced by the signals of our iPod? Upon arriving at work, to what important and meaningful subjects do our thoughts turn? Client satisfaction perhaps? The day labourer spends so much time attending to administrative problems that little time is left for personal and interpersonal -- let alone international -- problems. "I must expand market capitalization; I must meet this deadline; I've had a hard week at work, and I must be entertained; I not only deserve to, but simply must redecorate." It's not that entertainment or aesthetic considerations should be held in contempt, but that they must exist in balance. How is it that an entire industry has developed in response to the problem of effecting the perfect wedding, when the problem of providing clean water for all persists? That the two can coexist is no small footnote on human nature.

Modern North-American political movements have focused on "freeing" the individual from government interference and external restraint, but overlooked the fact that wealth inequality trumps civil status. Free action in a predatory and deregulated state-capitalist society has been conflated with free action in the wild, opportunity has been conflated with resources, and circumstance has been conflated with choice. The consideration of others is a factor only in so far as favouring those we know and not causing immediate physical harm to those we do not know. "[C]itizens tend to assume that the common good is transparently clear, so that inclusive deliberation is unnecessary to discern its requirements." Of course we must work to maintain the order of our own house, but where is the line that divides order from disorder? Clean water? Enough food to eat? Heat? Job security? Health benefits? What happens once we are safely past the line? One car? Two cars? A three bedroom house? A four bedroom house? A summer cottage? A boat? Utilitarianism is too demanding; Liberalism is not demanding enough. "'Look out for number one' is a prescription for demoralization, corruption, and ultimately general catastrophe."

Though education must militate against productive instability, it must also militate against intellectual attrition. To do this, we must recognize that the two goals are not mutually exclusive. The purpose of education should be to teach how to think, rather than what to think. Once someone has learned how to think, the discovery of what to think will follow. Education in first world nations is more aptly described as training, and the character of thought that results is largely unconscious, and thus unsafe.

"[W]e're very fortunate to enjoy unusual, probably unique, freedom and privilege, and these benefits offer opportunity, and opportunity confers responsibility. Responsibility to use the opportunities that one enjoys wisely, honestly, and humanely."

"What the students must do is ask themselves with regard to these beautiful professions and arts and sciences that are around: What is the world I want to live in? What kind of community do I want? What is life about? What does this profession which I think I'm interested in add to that? What can it give to society, and to a good society? What skills and knowledge do I need to learn in order to play my part in that profession for that purpose?"

At the most basic level, my objection and position boils down to this: "[w]e do not need any of your titles ... We want none of them. What we do want is knowledge and education and liberty."

Part of the series: Narcissa