Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
14Apr/142

Hiatus, Discontinuity, and Change

Arendtquote

"The end of the old is not necessarily the beginning of the new."

Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind

This is a simple enough statement, and yet it masks a profound truth, one that we often overlook out of the very human tendency to seek consistency and connection, to make order out of the chaos of reality, and to ignore the anomalous nature of that which lies in between whatever phenomena we are attending to.

Perhaps the clearest example of this has been what proved to be the unfounded optimism that greeted the overthrow of autocratic regimes through American intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the native-born movements known collectively as the Arab Spring. It is one thing to disrupt the status quo, to overthrow an unpopular and undemocratic regime. But that end does not necessarily lead to the establishment of a new, beneficent and participatory political structure. We see this time and time again, now in Putin's Russia, a century ago with the Russian Revolution, and over two centuries ago with the French Revolution.

Of course, it has long been understood that oftentimes, to begin something new, we first have to put an end to something old. The popular saying that you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs reflects this understanding, although it is certainly not the case that breaking eggs will inevitably and automatically lead to the creation of an omelet. Breaking eggs is a necessary but not sufficient cause of omelets, and while this is not an example of the classic chicken and egg problem, I think we can imagine that the chicken might have something to say on the matter of breaking eggs. Certainly, the chicken would have a different view on what is signified or ought to be signified by the end of the old, meaning the end of the egg shell, insofar as you can't make a chicken without it first breaking out of the egg that it took form within.

eggs

So, whether you take the chicken's point of view, or adopt the perspective of the omelet, looking backwards, reverse engineering the current situation, it is only natural to view the beginning of the new as an effect brought into being by the end of the old, to assume or make an inference based on sequencing in time, to posit a causal relationship and commit the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc, if for no other reason that by force of narrative logic that compels us to create a coherent storyline.  In this respect, Arendt points to the foundation tales of ancient Israel and Rome:

We have the Biblical story of the exodus of Israeli tribes from Egypt, which preceded the Mosaic legislation constituting the Hebrew people, and Virgil's story of the wanderings of Aeneas, which led to the foundation of Rome—"dum conderet urbem," as Virgil defines the content of his great poem even in its first lines. Both legends begin with an act of liberation, the flight from oppression and slavery in Egypt and the flight from burning Troy (that is, from annihilation); and in both instances this act is told from the perspective of a new freedom, the conquest of a new "promised land" that offers more than Egypt's fleshpots and the foundation of a new City that is prepared for by a war destined to undo the Trojan war, so that the order of events as laid down by Homer could be reversed.

 Fast forward to the American Revolution, and we find that the founders of the republic, mindful of the uniqueness of their undertaking, searched for archetypes in the ancient world. And what they found in the narratives of Exodus and the Aeneid was that the act of liberation, and the establishment of a new freedom are two events, not one, and in effect subject to Alfred Korzybski's non-Aristotelian Principle of Non-Identity. The success of the formation of the American republic can be attributed to the awareness on their part of the chasm that exists between the closing of one era and the opening of a new age, of their separation in time and space:

No doubt if we read these legends as tales, there is a world of difference between the aimless desperate wanderings of the Israeli tribes in the desert after the Exodus and the marvelously colorful tales of the adventures of Aeneas and his fellow Trojans; but to the men of action of later generations who ransacked the archives of antiquity for paradigms to guide their own intentions, this was not decisive. What was decisive was that there was a hiatus between disaster and salvation, between liberation from the old order and the new freedom, embodied in a novus ordo saeclorum, a "new world order of the ages" with whose rise the world had structurally changed.

I find Arendt's use of the term hiatus interesting, given that in contemporary American culture it has largely been appropriated by the television industry to refer to a series that has been taken off the air for a period of time, but not cancelled. The typical phrase is on hiatus, meaning on a break or on vacation. But Arendt reminds us that such connotations only scratch the surface of the word's broader meanings. The Latin word hiatus refers to an opening or rupture, a physical break or missing part or link in a concrete material object. As such, it becomes a spatial metaphor when applied to an interruption or break in time, a usage introduced in the 17th century. Interestingly, this coincides with the period in English history known as the Interregnum, which began in 1649 with the execution of King Charles I, led to Oliver Cromwell's installation as Lord Protector, and ended after Cromwell's death with the Restoration of the monarchy under Charles II, son of Charles I. While in some ways anticipating the American Revolution, the English Civil War followed an older pattern, one that Mircea Eliade referred to as the myth of eternal return, a circular movement rather than the linear progression of history and cause-effect relations.

The idea of moving forward, of progress, requires a future-orientation that only comes into being in the modern age, by which I mean the era that followed the printing revolution associated with Johannes Gutenberg (I discuss this in my book, On the Binding Biases of Time and Other Essays on General Semantics and Media Ecology). But that same print culture also gave rise to modern science, and with it the monopoly granted to efficient causality, cause-effect relations, to the exclusion in particular of final and formal cause (see Marshall and Eric McLuhan's Media and Formal Cause). This is the basis of the Newtonian universe in which every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and every effect can be linked back in a causal chain to another event that preceded it and brought it into being. The view of time as continuous and connected can be traced back to the introduction of the mechanical clock in the 13th century, but was solidified through the printing of calendars and time lines, and the same effect was created in spatial terms by the reproduction of maps, and the use of spatial grids, e.g., the Mercator projection.

And while the invention of history, as a written narrative concerning the linear progression over time can be traced back to the ancient Israelites, and the story of the exodus, the story incorporates the idea of a hiatus in overlapping structures:

A1.  Joseph is the golden boy, the son favored by his father Jacob, earning him the enmity of his brothers

A2.  he is sold into slavery by them, winds up in Egypt as a slave and then is falsely accused and imprisoned

A3.  by virtue of his ability to interpret dreams he gains his freedom and rises to the position of Pharaoh's prime minister

 

B1.  Joseph welcomes his brothers and father, and the House of Israel goes down to Egypt to sojourn due to famine in the land of Canaan

B2.  their descendants are enslaved, oppressed, and persecuted

B3.  Moses is chosen to confront Pharaoh, liberate the Israelites, and lead them on their journey through the desert

 

C1.  the Israelites are freed from bondage and escape from Egypt

C2.  the revelation at Sinai fully establishes their covenant with God

C3.  after many trials, they return to the Promised Land

It can be clearly seen in these narrative structures that the role of the hiatus, in ritual terms, is that of the rite of passage, the initiation period that marks, in symbolic fashion, the change in status, the transformation from one social role or state of being to another (e.g., child to adult, outsider to member of the group). This is not to discount the role that actual trials, tests, and other hardships may play in the transition, as they serve to establish or reinforce, psychologically and sometimes physically, the value and reality of the transformation.

In mythic terms, this structure has become known as the hero's journey or hero's adventure, made famous by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and also known as the monomyth, because he claimed that the same basic structure is universal to all cultures. The basis structure he identified consists of three main elements: separation (e.g., the hero leaves home), initiation (e.g., the hero enters another realm, experiences tests and trials, leading to the bestowing of gifts, abilities, and/or a new status), and return (the hero returns to utilize what he has gained from the initiation and save the day, restoring the status quo or establishing a new status quo).

Understanding the mythic, non-rational element of initiation is the key to recognizing the role of the hiatus, and in the modern era this meant using rationality to realize the limits of rationality. With this in mind, let me return to the quote I began this essay with, but now provide the larger context of the entire paragraph:

The legendary hiatus between a no-more and a not-yet clearly indicated that freedom would not be the automatic result of liberation, that the end of the old is not necessarily the beginning of the new, that the notion of an all-powerful time continuum is an illusion. Tales of a transitory period—from bondage to freedom, from disaster to salvation—were all the more appealing because the legends chiefly concerned the deeds of great leaders, persons of world-historic significance who appeared on the stage of history precisely during such gaps of historical time. All those who pressed by exterior circumstances or motivated by radical utopian thought-trains, were not satisfied to change the world by the gradual reform of an old order (and this rejection of the gradual was precisely what transformed the men of action of the eighteenth century, the first century of a fully secularized intellectual elite, into the men of the revolutions) were almost logically forced to accept the possibility of a hiatus in the continuous flow of temporal sequence.

Note that concept of gaps in historical time, which brings to mind Eliade's distinction between the sacred and the profane. Historical time is a form of profane time, and sacred time represents a gap or break in that linear progression, one that takes us outside of history, connecting us instead in an eternal return to the time associated with a moment of creation or foundation. The revelation in Sinai is an example of such a time, and accordingly Deuteronomy states that all of the members of the House of Israel were present at that event, not just those alive at that time, but those not present, the generations of the future. This statement is included in the liturgy of the Passover Seder, which is a ritual reenactment of the exodus and revelation, which in turn becomes part of the reenactment of the Passion in Christianity, one of the primary examples of Campbell's monomyth.

Arendt's hiatus, then represents a rupture between two different states or stages, an interruption, a disruption linked to an eruption. In the parlance of chaos and complexity theory, it is a bifurcation point. Arendt's contemporary, Peter Drucker, a philosopher who pioneered the scholarly study of business and management, characterized the contemporary zeitgeist in the title of his 1969 book: The Age of Discontinuity. It is an age in which Newtonian physics was replaced by Einstein's relativity and Heisenberg's uncertainty, the phrase quantum leap becoming a metaphor drawn from subatomic physics for all forms of discontinuity. It is an age in which the fixed point of view that yielded perspective in art and the essay and novel in literature yielded to Cubism and subsequent forms of modern art, and stream of consciousness in writing.

cubism

Beginning in the 19th century, photography gave us the frozen, discontinuous moment, and the technique of montage in the motion picture gave us a series of shots and scenes whose connections have to be filled in by the audience. Telegraphy gave us the instantaneous transmission of messages that took them out of their natural context, the subject of the famous comment by Henry David Thoreau that connecting Maine and Texas to one another will not guarantee that they have anything sensible to share with each other. The wire services gave us the nonlinear, inverted pyramid style of newspaper reporting, which also was associated with the nonlinear look of the newspaper front page, a form that Marshall McLuhan referred to as a mosaic. Neil Postman criticized television's role in decontextualizing public discourse in Amusing Ourselves to Death, where he used the phrase, "in the context of no context," and I discuss this as well in my recently published follow-up to his work, Amazing Ourselves to Death.

The concept of the hiatus comes naturally to the premodern mind, schooled by myth and ritual within the context of oral culture. That same concept is repressed, in turn, by the modern mind, shaped by the linearity and rationality of literacy and typography. As the modern mind yields to a new, postmodern alternative, one that emerges out of the electronic media environment, we see the return of the repressed in the idea of the jump cut writ large.

There is psychological satisfaction in the deterministic view of history as the inevitable result of cause-effect relations in the Newtonian sense, as this provides a sense of closure and coherence consistent with the typographic mindset. And there is similar satisfaction in the view of history as entirely consisting of human decisions that are the product of free will, of human agency unfettered by outside constraints, which is also consistent with the individualism that emerges out of the literate mindset and print culture, and with a social rather that physical version of efficient causality. What we are only beginning to come to terms with is the understanding of formal causality, as discussed by Marshall and Eric McLuhan in Media and Formal Cause. What formal causality suggests is that history has a tendency to follow certain patterns, patterns that connect one state or stage to another, patterns that repeat again and again over time. This is the notion that history repeats itself, meaning that historical events tend to fall into certain patterns (repetition being the precondition for the existence of patterns), and that the goal, as McLuhan articulated in Understanding Media, is pattern recognition. This helps to clarify the famous remark by George Santayana, "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." In other words, those who are blind to patterns will find it difficult to break out of them.

Campbell engages in pattern recognition in his identification of the heroic monomyth, as Arendt does in her discussion of the historical hiatus.  Recognizing the patterns are the first step in escaping them, and may even allow for the possibility of taking control and influencing them. This also means understanding that the tendency for phenomena to fall into patterns is a powerful one. It is a force akin to entropy, and perhaps a result of that very statistical tendency that is expressed by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, as Terrence Deacon argues in Incomplete Nature. It follows that there are only certain points in history, certain moments, certain bifurcation points, when it is possible to make a difference, or to make a difference that makes a difference, to use Gregory Bateson's formulation, and change the course of history. The moment of transition, of initiation, the hiatus, represents such a moment.

McLuhan's concept of medium goes far beyond the ordinary sense of the word, as he relates it to the idea of gaps and intervals, the ground that surrounds the figure, and explains that his philosophy of media is not about transportation (of information), but transformation. The medium is the hiatus.

The particular pattern that has come to the fore in our time is that of the network, whether it's the decentralized computer network and the internet as the network of networks, or the highly centralized and hierarchical broadcast network, or the interpersonal network associated with Stanley Milgram's research (popularly known as six degrees of separation), or the neural networks that define brain structure and function, or social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, etc. And it is not the nodes, which may be considered the content of the network, that defines the network, but the links that connect them, which function as the network medium, and which, in the systems view favored by Bateson, provide the structure for the network system, the interaction or relationship between the nodes. What matters is not the nodes, it's the modes.

Hiatus and link may seem like polar opposites, the break and the bridge, but they are two sides of the same coin, the medium that goes between, simultaneously separating and connecting. The boundary divides the system from its environment, allowing the system to maintain its identity as separate and distinct from the environment, keeping it from being absorbed by the environment. But the membrane also serves as a filter, engaged in the process of abstracting, to use Korzybski's favored term, letting through or bringing material, energy, and information from the environment into the system so that the system can maintain itself and survive. The boundary keeps the system in touch with its situation, keeps it contextualized within its environment.

The systems view emphasizes space over time, as does ecology, but the concept of the hiatus as a temporal interruption suggests an association with evolution as well. Darwin's view of evolution as continuous was consistent with Newtonian physics. The more recent modification of evolutionary theory put forth by Stephen Jay Gould, known as punctuated equilibrium, suggests that evolution occurs in fits and starts, in relatively rare and isolated periods of major change, surrounded by long periods of relative stability and stasis. Not surprisingly, this particular conception of discontinuity was introduced during the television era, in the early 1970s, just a few years after the publication of Peter Drucker's The Age of Discontinuity.

When you consider the extraordinary changes that we are experiencing in our time, technologically and ecologically, the latter underlined by the recent news concerning the United Nations' latest report on global warming, what we need is an understanding of the concept of change, a way to study the patterns of change, patterns that exist and persist across different levels, the micro and the macro, the physical, chemical, biological, psychological, and social, what Bateson referred to as metapatterns, the subject of further elaboration by biologist Tyler Volk in his book on the subject. Paul Watzlawick argued for the need to study change in and of itself in a little book co-authored by John H. Weakland and Richard Fisch, entitled Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution, which considers the problem from the point of view of psychotherapy. Arendt gives us a philosophical entrée into the problem by introducing the pattern of the hiatus, the moment of discontinuity that leads to change, and possibly a moment in which we, as human agents, can have an influence on the direction of that change.

To have such an influence, we do need to have that break, to find a space and more importantly a time to pause and reflect, to evaluate and formulate. Arendt famously emphasizes the importance of thinking in and of itself, the importance not of the content of thought alone, but of the act of thinking, the medium of thinking, which requires an opening, a time out, a respite from the onslaught of 24/7/365. This underscores the value of sacred time, and it follows that it is no accident that during that period of initiation in the story of the exodus, there is the revelation at Sinai and the gift of divine law, the Torah or Law, and chief among them the Ten Commandments, which includes the fourth of the commandments, and the one presented in greatest detail, to observe the Sabbath day. This premodern ritual requires us to make the hiatus a regular part of our lives, to break the continuity of profane time on a weekly basis. From that foundation, other commandments establish the idea of the sabbatical year, and the sabbatical of sabbaticals, or jubilee year. Whether it's a Sabbath mandated by religious observance, or a new movement to engage in a Technology Sabbath, the hiatus functions as the response to the homogenization of time that was associated with efficient causality and literate linearity, and that continues to intensify in conjunction with the technological imperative of efficiency über alles.

hiatus

To return one last time to the quote that I began with, the end of the old is not necessarily the beginning of the new because there may not be a new beginning at all, there may not be anything new to take the place of the old. The end of the old may be just that, the end, period, the end of it all. The presence of a hiatus to follow the end of the old serves as a promise that something new will begin to take its place after the hiatus is over. And the presence of a hiatus in our lives, individually and collectively, may also serve as a promise that we will not inevitably rush towards an end of the old that will also be an end of it all, that we will be able to find the opening to begin something new, that we will be able to make the transition to something better, that both survival and progress are possible, through an understanding of the processes of continuity and change.

-Lance Strate

8Feb/130

MLK and the Purpose of Education

You know elite universities are in trouble when their professors say things like Edward Rock. Rock, Distinguished Professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and coordinator of Penn’s online education program, has this to say about the impending revolution in online education:

We’re in the business of creating and disseminating knowledge. And in 2012, the internet is an incredibly important place to be present if you’re in the knowledge dissemination business.

If elite colleges are in the knowledge dissemination business, then they will overtime be increasingly devalued and made less relevant. What colleges and universities need to offer is not simply knowledge, but education.

In 1947, at the age of 18, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a short essay in the The Maroon Tiger, the Morehouse College campus newspaper. The article was titled, “The Purpose of Education.” In short, it argued that we must not confuse education with knowledge.

King began with the personal. Too often, he wrote, “most college men have a misconception of the purpose of education. Most of the "brethren" think that education should equip them with the proper instruments of exploitation so that they can forever trample over the masses. Still others think that education should furnish them with noble ends rather than means to an end.” In other words, too many think that college is designed to teach either means or ends, offering the secrets that unlock the mysteries of our futures.

King takes aim at both these purposes. Beyond the need for education to make us more efficient, education also has a cultural function. In this sense, King writes, Education must inculcate the habit of thinking for oneself, what Hannah Arendt called Selbstdenken, or self-thinking.

“Education,” King writes, “must also train one for quick, resolute and effective thinking.” Quick and resolute thinking requires that one “think incisively” and  “think for one's self.” This “is very difficult.” The difficulty comes from the seduction of conformity and the power of prejudice. “We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half truths, prejudices, and propaganda.” We are all educated into prejudgments. They are human and it is inhuman to live free from prejudicial opinions and thoughts. On the one hand, education is the way we are led into and brought into a world as it exists, with its prejudices and values. And yet, education must also produce self-thinking persons, people who, once they are educated and enter the world as adults, are capable of judging the world into which they been born.

For King, one of the “chief aims of education” is to “save man from the morass of of propaganda.” “Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.”

To think for oneself is not the same as critical thinking. Against the common assumption that college should teach “critical reasoning,” King argues that critical thinking alone is insufficient and even dangerous: “Education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.” The example King offers is that of Eugene Talmadge, who had been governor of Georgia. Talmadge “possessed one of the better minds of Georgia, or even America.” He was Phi Beta Kappa. He excelled at critical thinking. And yet, Talmadge believed that King and all black people were inferior beings. For King, we cannot call such men well educated.

The lesson the young Martin Luther King Jr. draws is that intelligence and critical reasoning are not enough to make us educated. What is needed, also, is an educational development of character:

We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living.

Present debates about higher education focus on two concerns. The first is cost. The second is assessment. While the cost is high for many people, it is also the case the most students and their families understand that what colleges offer is priceless. But that is only true insofar as colleges understand their purpose, which is not simply to disseminate knowledge or teach critical thinking, but is, rather, to nurture character. How are we to assess such education? The demand for assessment, as well meaning as it is, drives education to focus on measurable skills and thus moves us away from the purposes of education as King rightly understands them.

The emerging debate about civic education is many things. Too often it is a tired argument over the “core” or the “canon.” And increasingly it is derailed by arguments about service learning or internships.  What really is at issue, however, is a long-overdue response to the misguided dominance of the research-university model of education.

Colleges in the United States were, up through the middle of the 20th century, not research-driven institutions. They were above all religiously affiliated institutions and they offered general education in the classics and the liberal arts. Professors taught the classics outside of their specific disciplines. And students wrestled with timeless questions. This has largely changed today where professors are taught to specialize and think within their disciplinary prejudices. Even distribution requirements fail to make a difference insofar as students forced to take a course outside their discipline learn simply another disciplinary approach. They learn useful knowledge and critical thinking. But what is missing is the kind of general education in the “accumulated experience of social living” that King championed.

I am not suggesting that all specialization is bad or that we should return to religious-affiliated schools. Not in the least. But many of us know that we are failing in our responsibilities to think about what is important and to teach students a curriculum designed to nurture self-thinking and citizenship. We avoid this conversation because it is hard, because people disagree today on whether we should read Plato or Confucius or study Einstein or immunology. Everyone has their discipline to defend and few faculty are willing or able to think about an education that is designed for students and citizens.

Let’s stop bad mouthing all colleges. Much good happens there. Yet let’s also recall King’s parting words in his essay:

If we are not careful, our colleges will produce a group of close-minded, unscientific, illogical propagandists, consumed with immoral acts. Be careful, "brethren!" Be careful, teachers!

King’s The Purpose of Education is your weekend read.

-RB

4Jan/130

The “E” Word, Part Two

This Weekend Read is Part Two in “The “E” Word,”  a continuing series on “elitism” in the United States educational system. Read Part One here.

Peter Thiel has made headlines offering fellowships to college students who drop out to start a business. One of those Thiel fellows is Dale Stephens, founder of Uncollege. Uncollege advertises itself as radical. At the top of their website, Uncollege cites a line from the movie "Good Will Hunting":

You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for a buck fifty in late charges at the public library.

The Uncollege website is filled with one-liners extolling life without college. It can be and often is sophomoric. And yet, there is something deeply important about what Uncollege is saying. And its message is resonating. Uncollege has been getting quite a bit of attention lately, part of a culture of  obsession with college dropouts that is increasingly skeptical of the value of college.

At its best, Uncollege does not simply dismiss college as an overpriced institution seeking to preserve worthless knowledge. Rather, Uncollege claims that college has become too anti-intellectual. College, as Uncollege sees it, has become conventional, bureaucratic, and not really dedicated to learning. In short, Uncollege criticizes college for not being enough like college should be. Hardly radical, Uncollege trades rather in revolutionary rhetoric in the sense that Hannah Arendt means the word revolution: a return to basic values. In this case, Uncollege is of course right that colleges have lost their way.

Or that is what I find interesting about Uncollege.

To actually read their website and the recent Uncollege Manifesto by Dale Stephens, is to encounter something different. The first proposition Uncollege highlights has little to do with education and everything to do with economics. It is the decreasing value of a college education. 

The argument that college has ever less value will seem counter intuitive to those captivated by all the paeans to the value of college and increased earning potential of college graduates. But Uncollege certainly has a point. Currently about 30% of the U.S. adult population has a degree. But among 20-24 year olds, nearly 40% have a college degree. And The Obama administration aims to raise that number to 60% by 2020. Uncollege calls this Academic Inflation. As more and more people have a college degree, the value of that degree will decrease. It is already the case that many good jobs require a Masters or a Ph.D. In short, the monetary value of the college degree is diminished and diminishing. This gives us a hint of where Uncollege is coming from.

The Uncollege response to the mainstreaming of college goes by a number of names. At times it is called unschooling. Unschooling is actually a movement began by the legendary educator John Holt. I recall reading John Holt’s How Children Learn while I was in High School—a teacher gave it to me. I was captivated by Holt’s claim that school can destroy the innate curiosity of children. I actually wrote my college application essay on Holt’s educational philosophy and announced to my future college that my motto was Mark Twain’s quip, “I never let school interfere with my education”—which is also a quotation prominently featured in the Uncollege Manifesto.

Unschooling—as opposed to Uncollege—calls for students to make the most of their courses, coupling those courses with independent studies, reading groups, and internships. I regularly advise my students to take fewer not more courses. I tell them to pick one course each semester that most interests them and pursue it intently. Ask the professor for extra reading. Do extra writing. Organize discussion groups about the class with other students. Go to the professor’s office hours weekly and talk about the ideas of the course. Learners must become drivers of their education, not passive consumers. Students should take their pursuit of knowledge out of the classroom, into the dining halls, and into their dorms.

Uncollege ads that unschooling or “hacking your education” can be done outside of schools and universities. With Google, public libraries, and free courses from Stanford, MIT and Harvard professors proliferating on the web, an enterprising student of any age can compose an educational path today that is more rigorous than anything offered “off-the-shelf” at a college or university. I have no problem with online courses. I hope to take  a few. But it is a mistake to think that systems of massive information delivery are the same thing as education.

What Uncollege offers is something more and something less wholesome than simply a call for educational seriousness. It packages that call with the message that college has become boring, conventional, expensive, and unnecessary. In the Uncollege world, only suckers pay for college. The Uncollege Manifesto promotes “Standing out from the other 6.7 billion”; it derides traditional paths pointing out that “5,000 janitors in the United States have Ph.Ds.”; and  cautions, “If you are content with life and education you should probably stop reading… You shall fit in just fine with society and no one will ever require you to be different. Conforming to societal standards is the easy and expected path. You are not alone!” 

At the core of the Uncollege message is that dirty and yet all-so-powerful little word again: “elitism.” Later in the Uncollege Manifesto we are told that young people have a choice between “real accomplishments” and the “easy path to mediocrity”:

To succeed without a college degree you will have to build your competency and reputation through real world accomplishments. I am warning now: this is not going to be easy. If you want to take the easy path to mediocrity, I encourage you to go to college and join the masses. If you want to stand out from the crowd and change the world, Uncollege is for you!

At one point, the Uncollege Manifesto lauds NPR’s “This I Believe” series and commends these short 500 word essays on personal credos. But Uncollege adds a twist: instead of writing what one believes, it advises its devotees to write an essay answering the question: “What do you believe about the world that most others reject?” It is not enough simply to believe in something. You must believe in something that sets you apart and makes you different.

Uncollege is at least suggesting that it might be cool to want, as it has not been for 50 years, to aim for excellence and to yearn to be different. In short, Uncollege is calling up students at elite institutions to boldly grab the ring of elitism and actively seek to stand outside and above the norm. And it is saying that education is no longer elite, but conventional.

It is hard not to see this embrace of elitism as refreshing although no doubt many will scream the “e” word. I have often lectured to students at elite institutions and confronted them with their fear of elitism. They or someone spends upwards of $200,000 on an education not to mention four years of their lives, and then they reject the entire premise of elitism: that they are different or special. By refusing to see themselves as members of an elite, these students too often refuse to accept the responsibility of elites, to mold and preserve societal values and to assume leadership roles in society.

Leading takes courage. In Arendtian terms, it requires living a public life where one takes risks, acts in surprising ways, and subjects oneself to public judgment. Leading can be uncomfortable and dangerous, and it is often more comfortable and fun to pursue one’s private economic, familial, and personal dreams. Our elite colleges have become too much about preparing students for private success rather than launching young people into lives of public engagement. And part of that failure is a result of a retreat from elitism and a false humility that includes an easy embrace of equality.

That Uncollege is selling its message of excellence and elitism to students at elite institutions of higher learning is simply one sign of how mainstream and conformist many of these elite institutions have become. But what is it that Uncollege offers these elite students who drop out and join Uncollege?

According to its website, Uncollege is selling “hackademic camps” and a “gap year program” that are designed to teach young people how to create their own learning plans. The programs come with living abroad programs and internships. Interestingly, these are all programs offered by most major universities and colleges. The difference is money and time. For $10,000 in just one year, you get access to mentors and pushed to write op-eds, and the “opportunity to work at hot Silicon Valley startups, some of them paid positions.” In the gap year program, participants will also “build your personal brand.  Speak at a conference, Write an op-ed for a major news outlet.  Build a personal website.”

None of this sounds radical, intellectual, or all-that elitist. On the contrary, it claims that young people have little to learn from educators. Teachers are unimportant, to be replaced by mentors in the world. The claim is that young people lack nothing but information and access in order to compete in the world.

What Uncollege preaches often has little to do with elitism or intellectual growth. It is a deeply practical product being sold as an alternative to the cost of college. In one year and for one-twentieth of what a four-year elite college education costs, a young person can get launched into the practical world of knowledge workers, hooked up with mentors, and set into the world of business, technology, and media. It is a vocational training program for wannabe elites, training people to leap into the creative and technology fields and compete with recent college graduates but without the four years of studying the classics, the debt, and the degree. The elitism that Uncollege is selling is an entrepreneurial elitism measurable by money. By appealing to young students’ sense of superiority, ambition, and risk-taking, Uncollege stands a real chance of attracting ambitious young people more interested in a good job and a hot career than in reading the classics or studying abstract math.

Let’s stipulate this is a good thing. Not everybody should be going to liberal arts colleges. People unmoved by Nietzsche, Einstein, or Titian who are then forced to sit through lectures, cram for exams, and pull all-nighters writing papers cribbed from the internet are wasting their time and money on an elite liberal arts education. What is more, they bring cynicism into an environment that should be fired by idealism and electrified by passion. For those who truly believe that it is important in the world to have people who are enraptured by Sebald and transformed by Arendt, it is deeply important that the liberal arts college remain a bastion apart, a place where youthful exuberance for the beautiful and the true can shine clearly.

We should remember, as well, that reading great books and studying Stravinsky is not an activity limited to the academy. We should welcome a movement like Uncollege that frees people from unwanted courses but nevertheless encourages them to pursue their education on their own. Yes, many of these self-educated strivers will acquire idiosyncratic readings of Heidegger or strange views about patriotism. But even when different, opinions are the essence of a human political system.

One question we desperately need to ask is whether having a self-chosen minority of people trained in the liberal arts is important in modern society. I teach in an avowedly liberal arts institution precisely because I fervently believe that such ideas matter and that having a class of intellectuals whose minds are fired by ideas is essential to any society, especially a democracy.

I sincerely hope that the liberal arts and the humanities persist. As I have written,

The humanities are that space in the university system where power does not have the last word, where truth and beauty as well as insight and eccentricity reign supreme and where young people come into contact with the great traditions, writing, and thinking that have made us whom we are today. The humanities introduce us to our ancestors and our forebears and acculturate students into their common heritage. It is in the humanities that we learn to judge the good from the bad and thus where we first encounter the basic moral facility for making judgments. It is because the humanities teach taste and judgment that they are absolutely essential to politics. It is even likely that the decline of politics today is profoundly connected to the corruption of the humanities.

Our problem, today, is that college is caught between incompatible demands, to spark imaginations and idealism and to prepare young people for employment and success. For a long while now colleges have been doing neither of these things well. Currently, the political pressure on colleges is to cut costs and become more efficient. The unspoken assumption is that colleges must more cheaply and more quickly prepare students for employment. For those of us who care about college as an intellectual endeavor, we should welcome new alternatives to college like internet courses, vocational education, and Uncollege that will pull away young people for whom college would have been the wrong choice. Maybe, under the pressure of Uncollege, colleges will return to their core mission of passionately educating young people and preparing them for lives of civic engagement.

I encourage you this weekend to read the Uncollege Manifesto. Let me know what you think.

-RB

7Dec/120

What is a Fact?

What is a fact? Few more thorny questions exist. Consider this, from Hannah Arendt’s essay, “Truth and Politics:”

But do facts, independent of opinion and interpretation, exist at all? Have not generations of historians and philosophers of history demonstrated the impossibility of ascertaining facts without interpretation, since they must first be picked out of a chaos of sheer happenings (and the principles of choice are surely not factual data) and then be fitted into a story that can be told only in certain perspective, which has nothing to do with the original occurrence?

Facts are constructed. They are not objective. And there is no clear test for what is a fact. Thus, when Albert Einstein was asked, how science can separate fact from fiction, brilliant hypotheses from nutty quackery, he answered:  ‘There is no objective test.” Unlike rational truths that are true outside of experience and absolute, all factual truths are contingent. They might have been otherwise. That is one reason it is so hard to pin them down.

Steve Shapin reminds us of these puzzles in an excellent essay in this weeks London Review of Books. Shapin is reviewing a new book on Immanuel Velikovsky by Michael Gordin. Velikovsky, for those born since the 1960s, caused an uproar in the 1960s and 70s with his scientific claims that Venus was the result of a dislodged piece of Jupiter, that comets led to the parting of the Red Sea, that it dislodged the orbit of Mars threatening Earth, and caused the relocation of the North Pole, not to mention the showering of plagues of vermin onto the earth that nourished the Israelites in the desert.

Gordin’s book is about how American scientists went ballistic over Velikovsky. They sought to censor his work and schemed to prevent the publication of his book, Worlds in Collision, at the prestigious Macmillan press. At the center of the controversy was Harvard, where establishment scientists worked assiduously to discredit Velikovsky and stop the circulation of his ideas. [I am sensitive to such issues because I was also the target of such a suppression campaign. When my book The Gift of Science was about to be published by Harvard University Press, I received a call from the editor. It turns out an established scholar had demanded that HUP not publish my book, threatening to no longer review books for the press let alone publish with them. Thankfully, HUP resisted that pressure, for which I will always be grateful.]

For these Harvard scientists, Velikovsky was a charlatan peddling a dangerous pseudo science. The danger in Velikovsky’s claims was more than simple misinformation. It led, above all, to an attack on the very essence of scientific authority. What Velikovsky claimed as science flew in the face of what the scientific community knew to be true. He set himself up as an outsider, a dissident. Which he was. In the wake of totalitarianism, he argued that democratic society must allow for alternative and heretical views. The establishment, Velikovsky insisted, had no monopoly on truth. Let all views out, and let the best one win.

Shapin beautifully sums up the real seduction and danger lurking in Velikovsky’s work.

The Velikovsky affair made clear that there were radically differing conceptions of the political and intellectual constitution of a legitimate scientific community, of what it was to make and evaluate scientific knowledge. One appealing notion was that science is and ought to be a democracy, willing to consider all factual and theoretical claims, regardless of who makes them and of how they stand with respect to canons of existing belief. Challenges to orthodoxy ought to be welcomed: after all, hadn’t science been born historically through such challenges and hadn’t it progressed by means of the continual creative destruction of dogma? This, of course, was Velikovsky’s view, and it was not an easy matter for scientists in the liberal West to deny the legitimacy of that picture of scientific life. (Wasn’t this the lesson that ought to be learned from the experience of science in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia?) Yet living according to such ideals was impossible – nothing could be accomplished if every apparently crazy idea were to be given careful consideration – and in 1962 Thomas Kuhn’s immensely influential Structure of Scientific Revolutions commended a general picture of science in which ‘dogma’ (daringly given that name) had an essential role in science and in which ‘normal science’ rightly proceeded not through its permeability to all sorts of ideas but through a socially enforced ‘narrowing of perception’. Scientists judged new ideas to be beyond the pale not because they didn’t conform to abstract ideas about scientific values or formal notions of scientific method, but because such claims, given what scientists securely knew about the world, were implausible. Planets just didn’t behave the way Velikovsky said they did; his celestial mechanics required electromagnetic forces which just didn’t exist; the tails of comets were just not the sorts of body that could dump oil and manna on Middle Eastern deserts. A Harvard astronomer blandly noted that ‘if Dr Velikovsky is right, the rest of us are crazy.'

Immanuel Velikovsky

It is hard not to read this account and not think about contemporary debates over global warming, Darwinism, and the fall of the World Trade Center. In all three cases, outsiders and even some dissident scientists have made arguments that have been loudly disavowed by mainstream scientists.

No one has done more to explore the claims of modern pseudo science than Naomi Oreskes. In her book Merchants of Doubt written with Erik Conway, Oreskes shows how “a small handful of men” could, for purely ideological reasons, sow doubt about the ‘facts’ regarding global warming and the health effects of cigarettes. In a similar vein, Jonathan Kay has chronicled the efforts of pseudo scientists to argue that there was no possible way that the World Trade Towers could have been brought down by jet fuel fires, thus suggesting and seeking to “prove” that the U.S. government was behind the destruction of 9/11.

Oreskes wants to show, at once, that it is too easy for politically motivated scientists to sow doubt about scientific fact, and also that there is a workable and effective way for the scientific community to patrol the border between science and pseudo science. What governs that boundary is, in Oreskes words, “the scientific consensus.” The argument that global warming is a fact rests on claims about the scientific method: value free studies, evaluated by a system of peer review, moving towards consensus. Peer review is, for Oreskes, “is a crucial part of science.” And yet, for those who engage in it know full well, peer review is also deeply political, subject to petty and also not so petty disputes, jealousies, and vendettas. For this and other reasons, consensus is, as Oreskes herself admits, not always accurate: “The scientific consensus might, of course, be wrong. If the history of science teaches anything, it is humility, and no one can be faulted for failing to act on what is not known.”

Just as Einstein said 50 years ago, in the matters of establishing scientific fact, there is no objective test. This is frustrating. Indeed, it can be dangerous, not only when pseudo scientists sow doubt about global warming thus preventing meaningful and necessary action. But also, the pervasive and persuasive claims of pseudo science sow cynicism that undermines the factual and truthful foundations of human life.

Arendt reminds us, with a clarity rarely equaled, that factual truth is always contingent. “Facts are beyond agreement and consent, and all talk about them—all exchanges of opinion based on correct information—will contribute nothing to their establishment.” Against the pseudo scientific claims of many, science is always a contingent and hypothetical endeavor, one that deals in hypotheses, agreement, and factual proof. Scientific truth is always empirical truth and the truths of science are, in the end, grounded in consensus.

The trouble here is that scientific truths must—as scientific—claim to be true and not simply an opinion. Science makes a claim to authority that is predicated not upon proof but on the value and meaningfulness of impartial inquiry. It is a value that is increasingly in question.

What the challenge of pseudo science shows is how tenuous scientific authority and the value placed on disinterested research really is. Such inquiry has not always been valued and there is no reason to expect it to be valued about partial inquiry in the future. Arendt suggests that the origin of the value in disinterested inquiry was Homer’s decision to praise the Trojans equally as he lauded the Achaeans. Never before, she writes, had one people been able to look “with equal eyes upon friend and foe.” It was this revolutionary Greek objectivity that became the source for modern science. For those who do value science and understand the incredible advantages it has bestowed upon modern civilization, it is important to recall that the Homeric disinterestedness is neither natural nor necessary. In the effort to fight pseudo science, we must be willing and able to defend just such a position and thus what Nietzsche calls the “pathos of distance” must be central to any defense of the modern scientific world.

When science loses its authority, pseudo science thrives. That is the situation we are increasingly in today. There are no objective tests and no clear lines demarcating good and bad science. And that leaves us with the challenge of the modern age: to pursue truth and establish facts without secure or stable foundations. For that, we need reliable guides whom we can trust. And for that reason, you should read Steven Shapin’s latest essay. It is your weekend read.

-RB

21Feb/120

Albert Einstein on Thinking

"We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them."

-Albert Einstein

20Oct/110

Five Perspectives on “The Conquest of Space & the Stature of Man”

Read Hannah Arendt's seminal 1963 essay, "The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man".

LIFE Magazine, January 17, 1949

Patrick Deenen, Rita Kogazon, Charles T. Rubin,  Stephen Bertman, and Peter Augustine Lawler provide five different perspectives on the essay and its continued relevance today.