Monday, November 28, 2011

As We Wade Through a Morass of Modernity

As is his wont, a friend once surprised me with a most mundane remark and not before long induced from it an intuitive and practical generalization, which he put forward in a reasonably eloquent manner.

Some of his work colleagues, he recently discovered, read books! Ergo, he continued, each human being has limited mental resources that are either squandered on frivolous acts, such as gossiping and the likes, or harnessed effectively to climb the career ladder at rapid rates. Regardless of the narrow and compartmentalizing context in which he decided to express his generalization, a thing I still find to be interesting in its own right, it is hard to fully disagree.
But not a one to miss out on any chance to conduct an irony, life, as if sentient, led both of us later through a chain of germane antecedents to contend over the value of a certain TED video. At one end, the talk was highly applauded, while on the other it was dismissed as a derivative oratory, based on unfounded claims and propped by weak arguments of the much more solid work of Jim Collins et al. When the latter position was adequately substantiated, my friend, trying to secure a draw, retorted that I still can't deny the educative value of TED Talks as a whole. To his dismay, I disagreed, but not in the categorical sense of the word.
TED’s philosophy of unfolding the principles underling a given technology in a simple and endearing way is entertaining at its climax, benign at worst. But substitute abstract ideas and success stories for technologies, and the platform starts pandering, more often than not, to the educative morality of oversimplification and entertaining; alas, ubiquitous in our days, when it should be loathed for the mental obtuseness it encourages. - I find this moment most appropriate to point out that the matter at hand is much more deeper and trickier than it might have sounded thus far, or at least this is how I feel. At any rate, I find it only behooving to approach the crux deviously, while keeping my fingers crossed that the path I chose will depict a sufficiently alarming portion of the real problem.
Historically, the notion of educating the masses can be traced back to the Enlightenment period, as intellectuals back then had unwavering faith in the emancipating capacities of logic and, by extension, thinking. But perhaps they simultaneously held that issuing from the arms of serfdom must be the concerned individual’s effort only. As such, access to all sorts of knowledge was made as easy as it could be, but it was regarded as solely the less privileged job to come to grips with tomes of inscrutable nature, on the premise that liberty is most appreciated when it is hard-earned. Alternatively, it could be that scholars of the time were still too overawed by their perceived sanctity of knowledge to have had "peddled it". Either way, the ideals were too quixotic to have yielded any fruits or any immediate general ones at least.
Humanity would have to wait until the first twenty years of the previous century had passed for the first successful movement of knowledge humanization to take place, starting in the Anglo-American world. – There might be similar successful movements anterior to this one, but the purpose here is not writing history proper, or drawing on its authority, rather the historical context is meant to serve the function of a backbone to the argument. – Professors would finally deign, or knuckle under the economic pressures of the period, to write in intelligible manner. Yet the readers were still expected to exert some mental effort and meet the writer somewhere along the way, even if it was the writer who covered the longest distance to this meeting point.
Thus a profusion of books that try to recapitulate vast branches of knowledge or systems of thought poured (e.g. the now classic H. G. Wells' "The Outline of History"). Professors were only too aware of the inevitability of errors in any account written in a synoptic vein, which led many of them to criticize the project from early on. But some maintained the arguably tenable argument that dividends were being repaid in whetting the average intellect of the public and in nurturing their faculty for criticism and discerning, viz., far from reinforcing parochial penchants with scholasticism, the purpose of education is to liberate people from such tendencies; hence the term "Liberal Education".
However, this form began falling out of fashion toward the end of the thirties, which might be a corollary of its very success, for after all a secular project’s ultimate achievement is attained in rendering itself obsolete. The respective trends from this point onward are harder to demarcate with precision, for any number of reasons, but generally speaking, knowledge was no longer the rarefied domain of experts, in more than just one way.
One aspect of this was most clearly exemplified in the counterculture of the 60s and the subsequent cultural wars, which at the educational level yielded a long list of concessions from the side of universities, the most triumphal of which was introducing studies that had been scandalously suppressed until those times (e.g. studies of gender, equity, environment, cultures... et cetera). That makes this period's enduring contribution to humanity, aside from evincing what kind of effects a liberal education can have on the masses, a new realization of the term humanization of knowledge.
In juxtaposition with this cursory historical tour, our time seems to be extremely dichotomous. Radical scrutinized educative initiatives and open access high quality knowledge dissemination projects are proliferating ceaselessly (e.g. the OpenCourseWare concept, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Cornell's CyberTower and if I am allowed to add something from outside the cyber realm, the extremely affordable Very Short Introduction series by Oxford, to name only a few), carrying through the trend of bridging the chasm between the academic and the public spheres. 
In parallel, education seems to be constantly degenerating in the minds of the public to nothing more than a set of trivially simplified formulas for success, which is reflected in how enamored they are becoming with quotes, and which is, the success that is, being narrowly associated with the amelioration of economic status. But if we suppose that “something” used to prick the conscience of people from time to time in the past, prodding them to grab a worthy book and read it, halting this degeneration as result, could it be that the contemporary unprecedented flow of information we are exposed to is masquerading as education, and in the process neutralizing this “something”?
If so, a litmus test might be needed then. Could this be that true education is never a thing done in passing, or as an activity of a primary entertaining value, but is rather hard and time consuming, albeit rewarding and elating in the end? Fogyish, if you'd like, but definitely on the right track.