Friday, January 16, 2009

Education, Humanity, Knowledge

This long article is my annotated commentary of David Orr's essay "What Education is For". The article covers issues of technology, the future of humanity, the role of education, and the contrast between information and values. The paragraphs from the original article will be prefixed with the ">" character (as in email annotations), my commentary is prefixed with the "#" character.

I will start this annotation with a quotation by Aldous Huxley:

"Ends are ape-chosen; only the means are man's."

> If today is a typical day on planet Earth, we will lose 116 square miles of rainforest, or about an acre a second. We will lose another 72 square miles to encroaching deserts, as a result of human mismanagement and overpopulation. We will lose 40 to 100 species, and no one knows whether the number is 40 or 100. Today the human population will increase by 250,000. And today we will add 2,700 tons of chlorofluorocarbons to the atmosphere and 15 million tons of carbon. Tonight the Earth will be a little hotter, its waters more acidic, and the fabric of life more threadbare.

> The truth is that many things on which your future health and prosperity depend are in dire jeopardy: climate stability, the resilience and productivity of natural systems, the beauty of the natural world, and biological diversity.

# The key word in the first paragraph is "mismanagement". The above-listed ongoing destruction of the planet's ecology is quite factual. But what are the fundamental causes of this destruction? If we misdiagnose the problem, our remedy will be ineffective.

> It is worth noting that this is not the work of ignorant people. It is, rather, largely the result of work by people with BAs, BSs, LLBs, MBAs, and PhDs.

# Education and training does nothing to our instincts. Highly educated people are driven by the same instincts as their less privileged cousins. Education and knowledge is peripheral to the functioning of our instinctual brains. In most parts of the world, education is imparting of useful skills and a way to propagate human knowledge. In essence, it is a transmission of information and and a training to use certain tools.

> Elie Wiesel made a similar point to the Global Forum in Moscow last winter when he said that the designers and perpetrators of the Holocaust were the heirs of Kant and Goethe. In most respects the Germans were the best educated people on Earth, but their education did not serve as an adequate barrier to barbarity. What was wrong with their education? In Wiesel's words: "It emphasized theories instead of values, concepts rather than human beings, abstraction rather than consciousness, answers instead of questions, ideology and efficiency rather than conscience."

# This is where the article starts to veer in the wrong direction. Theorizing, questioning, consciousness, conceptualization, abstraction, efficiency are the means. Values, answers, ideology, humanism, conscience focus on our ends. To question the means because we follow wrong ends is like blaming the hammer for hurting our finger. Technology is not the same as a world-view, even though it is fashionable to assert that it is. Technology is driven forward by mostly greed, and the forms of technology being actively developed say a lot about our priorities, but it is still an inanimate force. It is the hammer, the priority of striking the nail still lies with us.

> The same could be said of the way our education has prepared us to think about the natural world. It is a matter of no small consequence that the only people who have lived sustainably on the planet for any length of time could not read, or, like the Amish, do not make a fetish of reading.

# The absence of a book is not the absence of curiosity. The absence of a gun is not the absence of aggression. The absence of a certain tool is not the absence of the propensity which would propel a man to misuse it, or rather, use it for fulfilling his/her inborn drives.

> My point is simply that education is no guarantee of decency, prudence, or wisdom.

# This is a straw-man argument. Nobody claims that education is a guarantee of wisdom. Education, however, is what will enable a human to have the mental tools necessary to gain wisdom, to discriminate, to dissect and question, to research and find, to question a paradigm and to share one's knowledge with others, and so on. Education is the providing of hopefully factual information and training, and it equips a human being to seek wisdom. To have "value-based education" is to distort its function by giving it an agenda. To be sure, most education is already laden with the agenda of creating a conformist human being, but to challenge the values in present education (and to replace them with more humane or sustainable values) is a far cry from challenging the very act of providing values through education.

# Those days are long gone where teachers acted as moral authorities. Morality has failed to curb human instincts. Injunctions (e.g. in the Mennonite community) can provide a veneer of peace. But real peace is when injunctions are unnecessary. Morality has been tried, and found wanting. This is the 21st century. It is time to look elsewhere.

> More of the same kind of education will only compound our problems. This is not an argument for ignorance, but rather a statement that the worth of education must now be measured against the standards of decency and human survival - the issues now looming so large before us in the decade of the 1990s and beyond. It is not education that will save us, but education of a certain kind.

# This is an exhortation for cultivating decency and values in our education. But shouldn't one ask: what is the source of human indecency and lack of "values"? What is the source of human greed and aggression that education seeks to reform? Education at present amplifies those tendencies by providing tools to manipulate the environment. Sugar-coating those tendencies through the inculcation of decency and "conscience" has not worked, is not working, will not work. That is actually the "same kind of education". When push comes to shove, normal, decent human beings turn into beasts. And one doesn't have to look far for examples. To create a different earth, to create a different man, it is time to look elsewhere, at the socio-biological roots of human behavior. It is time to look inwards, at our propensity for violence and possession.

> What went wrong with contemporary culture and with education? There is some insight in literature: Christopher Marlowe's Faust, who trades his soul for knowledge and power; Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein, who refuses to take responsibility for his creation; Herman Melville's Captain Ahab, who says "All my means are sane, my motive and object mad." In these characters we encounter the essence of the modern drive to dominate nature.

# I will pass over Faust. As for the technologist Dr Frankenstein, is it really science and technology which is responsible for greed and irresponsibility? Or was it a fundamental (but peripheral to his training) aspect of the Doctor's nature? And as for Captain Ahab, the writer hits the nail on the head. So, how shall we reform the ends of man, and not his means (which he will twist anyway to suit his ends).

> Historically, Francis Bacon's proposed union between knowledge and power foreshadows the contemporary alliance between government, business, and knowledge that has wrought so much mischief. Galileo's separation of the intellect foreshadows the dominance of the analytical mind over that part given to creativity, humor, and wholeness. And in Descartes' epistemology, one finds the roots of the radical separation of self and object. Together these three laid the foundations for modern education, foundations now enshrined in myths we have come to accept without question.

# Regarding Francis Bacon, I profess not to know his full thesis. Knowledge is indeed power. The powerful will use technology to become even more powerful (as is evident in the use of media today). The powerful will fund selective research because it will provide better means for them to hold their power. But once again, the writer mistakes the aggression and greed in man (which a knowledge of means can amplify) with the knowledge of means themselves. What is the root cause? What is the root cause of the "will to power"? One must ask, repeatedly!

# Regarding Galileo, the intellect as well as the heart are in service of the master: one's ends. If anything, the heart (i.e. the affective limbic system) is the more primitive and animal. But while the intellect has the power to subject itself to scrutiny, the heart is more trusting and can be swayed easily by emotion and rhetoric. It is not difficult to see which of these tools is the gateway to evolution.

# Regarding Descartes, the self is already separated from the world. Are there no wars and rapes and suicides in primitive tribes, without Descartes having laid the foundation for them through his dualistic theories?

> Let me suggest six.

> First, there is the myth that ignorance is a solvable problem.

# This is a colossal misunderstanding of modern science. Knowledge is cumulative and asymptotic, and there is no such thing as complete knowledge. As we know more, more vistas are opened to us. That is not an increase in ignorance, but an increase in knowledge: our knowledge of the world, as well as our knowledge of our ignorance.

> Ignorance is not a solvable problem, but rather an inescapable part of the human condition. The advance of knowledge always carries with it the advance of some form of ignorance. In 1930, after Thomas Midgely Jr. discovered CFCs, what had previously been a piece of trivial ignorance became a critical, life-threatening gap in the human understanding of the biosphere. No one thought to ask "what does this substance do to what?" until the early 1970s, and by 1990 CFCs had created a general thinning of the ozone layer worldwide. With the discovery of CFCs knowledge increased; but like the circumference of an expanding circle, ignorance grew as well.

# We are now more aware than ever of the damage we do to our environment. And this awareness is due in no small part to the very tools of research that we have invented. It is a very hard problem to see the long-term consequences of a new technology. Instead of encouraging caution by way of peer-review, modeling, statistical analysis and research, the writer seems to be suggesting that an increase in knowledge should be suppressed because a use of that new knowledge can be disastrous.

# A better question to ask is: Is there a way for humans to not make catastrophic mistakes? To not try to make things better is obviously one way. But that is not going to happen. Take drugs for example. Drug research is not going to stop. Hence it is important not to decry drugs, but to focus on better understanding, better experimentation, better research on side-effects, better trials, longer trials, and so on.

> A second myth is that with enough knowledge and technology we can manage planet Earth.. "Managing the planet" has a nice a ring to it. It appeals to our fascination with digital readouts, computers, buttons and dials. But the complexity of Earth and its life systems can never be safely managed. The ecology of the top inch of topsoil is still largely unknown, as is its relationship to the larger systems of the biosphere.

# With more knowledge, we can manage it better. Once again, we cannot really go back to the hunter-gatherer way of life. We are already using technology in ways both good and bad. Like it or not, we are currently managing the planet. The better laws there are, the better technologies there are, the better our planet will be.

# It is wishful thinking that a few people can decide to lessen their ecological footprint and others will follow suit. We need to evolve collective means (read legislation and rules) of enforcing the highest understanding that we have. To give up the game is the give it up to the worst amongst us. It needs a great deal of dialogue, consensus and management to lessen the use of harmful technologies. Individual evolution, which is the only real solution, will take a long time. In the meanwhile, there is really no alternative but to work together and regulate and minimize our damage, and to punish the offenders. To say that the very idea of managing nature is bad doesn't lead us anywhere, because we are already doing it. Very few are going to stop doing it on their own. Most of us will have to be told to not do it, or risk punishment.

> What might be managed is us: human desires, economies, politics, and communities. But our attention is caught by those things that avoid the hard choices implied by politics, morality, ethics, and common sense. It makes far better sense to reshape ourselves to fit a finite planet than to attempt to reshape the planet to fit our infinite wants.

# Indeed!

> A third myth is that knowledge is increasing and by implication human goodness.

# Knowledge is indeed increasing. Human goodness is, by all indications, not increasing.

> There is an information explosion going on, by which I mean a rapid increase of data, words, and paper. But this explosion should not be taken for an increase in knowledge and wisdom, which cannot so easily by measured. What can be said truthfully is that some knowledge is increasing while other kinds of knowledge are being lost. David Ehrenfeld has pointed out that biology departments no longer hire faculty in such areas as systematics, taxonomy, or ornithology. In other words, important knowledge is being lost because of the recent overemphasis on molecular biology and genetic engineering, which are more lucrative, but not more important, areas of inquiry. We still lack the the science of land health that Aldo Leopold called for half a century ago.

# Some much-needed areas where knowledge needs to increase are lagging behind other areas. But is that the same as saying that knowledge is not increasing? Knowledge even in those lagging areas is increasing, maybe at a slower pace (because of vested interests).

> It is not just knowledge in certain areas that we're losing, but vernacular knowledge as well, by which I mean the knowledge that people have of their places. In the words of Barry Lopez:

> "[I am] forced to the realization that something strange, if not dangerous, is afoot. Year by year the number of people with firsthand experience in the land dwindles. Rural populations continue to shift to the cities.... In the wake of this loss of personal and local knowledge, the knowledge from which a real geography is derived, the knowledge on which a country must ultimately stand, has come something hard to define but I think sinister and unsettling."

# What are the reasons behind urbanization? What are the reasons behind giving up of traditional livelihood solutions in place of wage-labor and a globalized workplace? Those are important reasons, and once again, they cannot be wished away by a value-based education. They have to be understood, and addressed. You cannot force a poor man to stay in a village, but you can vote for a policy which will lead to healthier and more prosperous villages.

> In the confusion of data with knowledge is a deeper mistake that learning will make us better people. But learning, as Loren Eiseley once said, is endless and "In itself it will never make us ethical [people]." Ultimately, it may be the knowledge of the good that is most threatened by all of our other advances. All things considered, it is possible that we are becoming more ignorant of the things we must know to live well and sustainably on the Earth.

# Did we ever know those things? Were there not tribal wars before the industrial revolution, or gang warfare before agriculture itself? Is aggression and greed not there in animals?

> A fourth myth of higher education is that we can adequately restore that which we have dismantled.

# I am not sure if anyone says that. I, for one, fully agree that we have made many foolish mistakes (e.g. using fossil fuels too quickly) and there is no hope of correcting them now. We can only take remedial measures.

> In the modern curriculum we have fragmented the world into bits and pieces called disciplines and subdisciplines. As a result, after 12 or 16 or 20 years of education, most students graduate without any broad integrated sense of the unity of things. The consequences for their personhood and for the planet are large. For example, we routinely produce economists who lack the most rudimentary knowledge of ecology. This explains why our national accounting systems do not subtract the costs of biotic impoverishment, soil erosion, poisons in the air or water, and resource depletion from gross national product. We add the price of the sale of a bushel of wheat to GNP while forgetting to subtract the three bushels of topsoil lost in its production. As a result of incomplete education, we've fooled ourselves into thinking that we are much richer than we are.

# The very aspects of new understanding the writer is praising (ecology, sustainability, resource depletion) is because new disciplines have come up due to an increase in human understanding. Without this increase, there would not have been the worldwide awareness of the damage that humans are causing to their environment, and the development of cleaner fuels, alternative technologies, and so on. Knowledge can only be provided in a fragmented way. The linkages between various disciplines have led to inter-disciplinary subjects (e.g. socio-biology, evolutionary psychology, behavioral finance, etc.). One can emphasize the interconnectedness of phenomena in specific instances, and point out linkages, but in general it is not possible to teach information holistically. Holism is an attitude, not a datum or a teaching methodology. As a method, it is simply impractical. How can one holistically teach a student the roots of a quadratic equation except by teaching him algebra?

> Fifth, there is a myth that the purpose of education is that of giving you the means for upward mobility and success. Thomas Merton once identified this as the "mass production of people literally unfit for anything except to take part in an elaborate and completely artificial charade." When asked to write about his own success, Merton responded by saying that "if it so happened that I had once written a best seller, this was a pure accident, due to inattention and naiveté, and I would take very good care never to do the same again." His advice to students was to "be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success."

# Though Merton's exhortation is witty, it is hyperbolic. I would word it as: Do not chase success in terms which are silly (upward mobility, riches, reputation), but do chase success in terms which are sensible. Chase and pursue further milestones in becoming happier, in becoming more aware and evolved, in becoming more knowledgeable, in becoming more kind and benign, in creating better living conditions for all, and so on.

> The plain fact is that the planet does not need more "successful" people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every shape and form. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these needs have little to do with success as our culture has defined it.

# The keywords are, of course, "as our culture has defined it".

> Finally, there is a myth that our culture represents the pinnacle of human achievement: we alone are modern, technological, and developed.

# I don't want to say anything of our "culture" as that is an ill-defined word, and because we are still animals at heart. But as far as the state of human understanding is concerned, we are indeed better placed than ever before.

> This, of course, represents cultural arrogance of the worst sort, and a gross misreading of history and anthropology. Recently this view has taken the form that we won the cold war and that the triumph of capitalism over communism is complete. Communism failed because it produced too little at too high a cost. But capitalism has also failed because it produces too much, shares too little, also at too high a cost to our children and grandchildren. Communism failed as an ascetic morality. Capitalism failed because it destroys morality altogether. This is not the happy world that any number of feckless advertisers and politicians describe. We have built a world of sybaritic wealth for a few and Calcuttan poverty for a growing underclass. At its worst it is a world of crack on the streets, insensate violence, anomie, and the most desperate kind of poverty. The fact is that we live in a disintegrating culture. In the words of Ron Miller, editor of Holistic Review:

> "Our culture does not nourish that which is best or noblest in the human spirit. It does not cultivate vision, imagination, or aesthetic or spiritual sensitivity. It does not encourage gentleness, generosity, caring, or compassion. Increasingly in the late 20th Century, the economic-technocratic-statist worldview has become a monstrous destroyer of what is loving and life-affirming in the human soul."

# "Our culture", or any culture for that matter, has never nourished that, not now, not ever. All societies have been barbaric, all saints have had their dark side, all spirituality has had a deluded basis and its set of superstitions, all tribes have had their tribalism, all loves have had their aches and sorrows, ...

> WHAT EDUCATION MUST BE FOR

> Measured against the agenda of human survival, how might we rethink education? Let me suggest six principles.

> First, all education is environmental education. By what is included or excluded we teach students that they are part of or apart from the natural world. To teach economics, for example, without reference to the laws of thermodynamics or those of ecology is to teach a fundamentally important ecological lesson: that physics and ecology have nothing to do with the economy. That just happens to be dead wrong. The same is true throughout all of the curriculum.

# Wonderful suggestions, and this is actually becoming a reality.

> A second principle comes from the Greek concept of paideia. The goal of education is not mastery of subject matter, but of one's person. Subject matter is simply the tool. Much as one would use a hammer and chisel to carve a block of marble, one uses ideas and knowledge to forge one's own personhood. For the most part we labor under a confusion of ends and means, thinking that the goal of education is to stuff all kinds of facts, techniques, methods, and information into the student's mind, regardless of how and with what effect it will be used. The Greeks knew better.

# The ends can only be suggested and inspired by example and illustration. The disease of wrong ends is deeper than can be cured by education. It requires personal effort. As long as teachers are animals, the students can be no better. (the writer covers this below)

> Third, I would like to propose that knowledge carries with it the responsibility to see that it is well used in the world. The results of a great deal of contemporary research bear resemblance to those foreshadowed by Mary Shelley: monsters of technology and its byproducts for which no one takes responsibility or is even expected to take responsibility. Whose responsibility is Love Canal? Chernobyl? Ozone depletion? The Valdez oil spill? Each of these tragedies were possible because of knowledge created for which no one was ultimately responsible. This may finally come to be seen for what I think it is: a problem of scale. Knowledge of how to do vast and risky things has far outrun our ability to use it responsibly. Some of it cannot be used responsibly, which is to say safely and to consistently good purposes.

# This is also becoming more and more a reality in today's world. Organizations and nations are being held to task for the harm that they cause around the world. As laws become more stringent, and their enforcement becomes more effective and easy, and footprint-calculation technologies come into being, we will hopefully see a better earth.

> Fourth, we cannot say that we know something until we understand the effects of this knowledge on real people and their communities. I grew up near Youngstown, Ohio, which was largely destroyed by corporate decisions to "disinvest" in the economy of the region. In this case MBAs, educated in the tools of leveraged buyouts, tax breaks, and capital mobility have done what no invading army could do: they destroyed an American city with total impunity on behalf of something called the "bottom line." But the bottom line for society includes other costs, those of unemployment, crime, higher divorce rates, alcoholism, child abuse, lost savings, and wrecked lives. In this instance what was taught in the business schools and economics departments did not include the value of good communities or the human costs of a narrow destructive economic rationality that valued efficiency and economic abstractions above people and community.

# Most of the time, the effects are known but disregarded because of human greed. And how to address greed? Not morals, not delusions, not injunctions (all of which may work as stopgap arrangements), but: by working on oneself to be free, and telling others that that is the only way.

> My fifth principle follows and is drawn from William Blake. It has to do with the importance of "minute particulars" and the power of examples over words. Students hear about global responsibility while being educated in institutions that often invest their financial weight in the most irresponsible things. The lessons being taught are those of hypocrisy and ultimately despair. Students learn, without anyone ever saying it, that they are helpless to overcome the frightening gap between ideals and reality. What is desperately needed are faculty and administrators who provide role models of integrity, care, thoughtfulness, and institutions that are capable of embodying ideals wholly and completely in all of their operations.

# Indeed.

> Finally, I would like to propose that the way learning occurs is as important as the content of particular courses. Process is important for learning. Courses taught as lecture courses tend to induce passivity. Indoor classes create the illusion that learning only occurs inside four walls isolated from what students call without apparent irony the "real world." Dissecting frogs in biology classes teaches lessons about nature that no one would verbally profess. Campus architecture is crystallized pedagogy that often reinforces passivity, monologue, domination, and artificiality. My point is simply that students are being taught in various and subtle ways beyond the content of courses.

# I am all for interactive learning. However, I take the suggestion of outdoor classrooms with a pinch of salt. Projection and multimedia systems cannot easily be used outdoors. And there is more focus (and less distraction) in a room. As for dissecting frogs in biology classes, I think one has to outgrow one's revulsion if one is to ever become a surgeon or even a veterinarian. Even planting a flower does violence to the soil. Some violence is inevitable in certain processes. To teach computers one must use electrical power. To teach film-making one must use a projector whose bulb wears out. And similarly, to teach anatomy, one must use frogs and even human carcasses.

5 comments:

Pramod said...

Harmanjit it's really nice to know your views.Plz have alook at some of the essays of Ivan Illich(must read "Deschooling society", "Tools of convivality" and "Medical nemesis").I will also suggest "Machines as the Measure of Men" by Michael Adas, "The philosophy of Money" by George Simmel and "State theory of Money" by george friedrich Knapp.
The only reason I want you to have a look at these books is to make you aware the way the human mind is conditioned and how deep the conditioning runs.Although I don't agree with each and every single point expressed by the above authors, I do think the provide a genuine approach(I may be wrong, please let me know if you find this out).

srid said...

Methinks quoted text can be indented (<blockquote> for instance) to give a visual distinction between the passages.

Pramod said...

David Orr:First, there is the myth that ignorance is a solvable problem.

Harmanjit: This is a colossal misunderstanding of modern science. Knowledge is cumulative and asymptotic, and there is no such thing as complete knowledge. As we know more, more vistas are opened to us. That is not an increase in ignorance, but an increase in knowledge: our knowledge of the world, as well as our knowledge of our ignorance.
==> But judging us by our reactions it appears we have forgotten the our awareness of the increased ignorance.As Jerome Ravtez puts it "we have actually been misled; in its
emphasis on the great edifice of accomplished knowledge, our education has hampered our awareness of the important areas of ignorance that remain" Refer Jerome Ravetz essay "Dealing with uncertainity in numbers" at http://www.jerryravetz.co.uk/essays/e10uncertain.pdf

Pramod said...

"But once again, the writer mistakes the aggression and greed in man (which a knowledge of means can amplify) with the knowledge of means themselves. What is the root cause? What is the root cause of the "will to power"?
One must ask, repeatedly!"

==>Why do you believe that the desires(aggression and greed) themselves are the root cause?
Why isn't it possible that there's a healthy safe limit
to the desires and when these desires are amplified we end up on the wrong side?

Harmanjit Singh said...

"Why do you believe that the desires(aggression and greed) themselves are the root cause?
Why isn't it possible that there's a healthy safe limit
to the desires and when these desires are amplified we end up on the wrong side?"

# The instincts are the root cause. The precipitating event brings them out in the open. As for the healthy safe limit, yes, the normal civilized society/culture tries to achieve that. But doesn't work in the end, does it?

Why not primarily work on the root cause itself, and not on stop gap solutions (which may also be necessary to some extent)?