The West is a vast testimony to childhood botched to serve its own purposes, where history, masquerading as myth, authorizes men of action and men of thought to alter the world to match their regressive moods of omnipotence and insecurity. (Paul Shepard, Nature and Madness,126)
The rapid globalization of commerce, communication, and community forces us now to question many of the assumptions underlying our social and cultural institutions, including entrenched pedagogical presuppositions and educational institutions. We are urgently required to address the challenge of education in an increasingly resource-constrained world characterized by escalating anomie and rising levels of violence, random as well as systemic and institutional. The task for educators and educational institutions at all levels is to reassess their missions in light of such global trends – political, social, economic, and cultural. The world of our great-great grandfathers is not our world; and the task before us is to understand the impinging realities of a rapidly unfolding crisis. Unfortunately, that may require overturning some of our most sacred assumptions about educating children and young adults. Today, I wish to begin a dialogue concerning our assumptions and their impact on human maturation as well as our current cultural trajectory. We begin then with a critique of the nearly hegemonic control exercised globally by what has been called the “Curriculum of the West.”
What are the primary practices and tools used to educate the youth of today across the modern world? In America we had a phrase for what transpired in primary school when I was just a child growing-up in New York State. It was called learning the “three R’s” – “Reading, (w)Riting and (a)Rithmetic.” In short, we learned to draw distinctions through the effective manipulation of numbers and words on a page – literacy. An educated person was one who could read and write, and confidently do longhand multiplication tables, of course.
The earliest stirrings of this pedagogical strategy may be traced back almost 6,000 years, to the implementation of plow agriculture, the emergence of the first cities, and the storage of food surpluses in the garrisons of the ancient Near East. After all, the first signs of literacy emerged then, with written lists to account for stores of grain and other supplies made by scribes for the kings of the earliest empires and nation states (Jack Goody, The Domestication of the Savage Mind, Cambridge U. Press). Specialization and domestication were symptomatic of, and intimately conjoined with, these changes in communication technologies. Somewhat later in this nascent history, more analytical tools provided impetus to the forward march of civilization, finding critical refinement in Aristotle’s syllogistic and the rudimentary founding of the sciences. Again, I will refer to this nascent trajectory as the ‘Curriculum of the West,’ a trajectory that only achieved full self-consciousness during the period of European Enlightenment, with the birth of rationalism and elaboration of modern scientific method, eventually leading to industrialization, hyper-specialization, and rapid technological innovation, along with increasing objectification, commodification, anomie, and yes, violence.
With Europe, and most especially America, leading the way, the path charted and engineered by this Curriculum spawned a dominion-seeking hegemony that has overtaken the globe, socially, economically, and culturally. This ascendancy has unleashed a hierarchy of values that is lightning fast, wide ranging, virtually unchallenged, and spreading insidiously; artfully enabled by those very technologies to which it has given rise.
Not long ago, the West was convinced that this trajectory would lead to the apex of an historical legacy, the best in scientific, technological and cultural advancement, as well as political and economic leadership. What America had achieved, so it was imagined, was a dream come true. It was this ‘American Dream’ that has been held out to (or perhaps thrust upon) the rest of the world as the meaning of the ‘good life’ – the proper end of an educated citizenry. Moreover, while cheap energy, in the form of fossil fuels, dutifully served as the lubricant of this apparent cultural ascendancy, recent recognition that world oil extraction has peaked surely signals the prospective collapse of this dream, and with it, the potential dissolution of its core institutions including, if not especially its educational institutions. The trajectory of the Western Curriculum, characterized now by increasing violence, accelerating energy decline, and global climate change – a trajectory that was set in motion with those first city walls – is possibly nearing an apocalyptic conclusion.
Unpacking ‘The Curriculum of the West’
In his work over the past forty years, Professor of History, Marvin Bram, sought to demystify the unraveling of that ‘subtle knot’ constituting the human condition prior to the emergence of civilization in the Middle East approximately six millennia ago. I would like to unpack his discussion in some depth.
The expression, “Curriculum of the West,” suggests modern humanity’s adherence to a specific linguistic and epistemological framework exemplified by the defining tool of civilized consciousness – the syllogism. According to Bram, a univocal semantic (A = A), together with a unidirectional three-part logistic (Universal –> Particular –> Consequent), lay at the basis of a mode of reasoning that would form the backbone of an entire worldview. The syllogistic form would become the “foundation-layer of both the internal and external life of the West.” The syllogism informs every type of engagement with our world – moral and religious codes, social or legal codes, and material or scientific laws. It epitomizes a mode of thinking that elevates the practice of distinction-making or analysis above all else, over the equally human capacity for distinction-dissolving, participation, or fusion. The worldview informed by the syllogism’s influence has become global, affecting perception, speech, action, as well as one’s overall relations to the environment and to other people. Yet, as Bram notes, these two capacities – originally complementary modalities of our internal life – found a primal and natural equilibrium in totemic consciousness and its pre-civilized social unit, the kinship-based tribe and clan.
Totemism is that internal and external state of human affairs that is vertically unisubstantial [of-one-substance] and horizontally plurisubstantial. It binds persons to other persons so as to multiply substance and maintain amity, and it binds communities to nature to the same ends. It is the world-picture of what we will be calling equilibrium kinship. Perhaps no human arrangement has worked so well, for so long, over so much of the planet. (Recovery of the West, 30)
As Bram continues:
Due to this primal equilibrium and humankind’s natural capacity for participation – becoming the Other in a distinction-dissolving apperception – totemic (tribal) decision-making was never simply a matter of casting votes or negotiating a strained consensus, but rather, and more significantly, it was an exercise in being of one mind, in short, of fusion. Nor was such participation restricted to the human community… Fusion permitted persons to become other animate, and inanimate, beings… So the web of obligation and privilege would finally involve every human member of the society and much of the natural environment within which the society made its home. (Recovery, 38)
However, in all post- or non-totemic communities, i.e., modern civilized societies, where both the sciences (natural or human) and law (religious or social) reign supreme, distinction-making has already gained ascendancy over distinction-dissolving capabilities; differentiation, supremacy over fusion or participation. Certainly, we still find some symbolic modes of participation today (religious), and some remnants of fusion are still visible in vestigial form (empathy). Yet, in terms of daily commerce, the reality of fusion is a nonstarter in modern culture.
This propensity for drawing distinctions or making “cuts” in the plenum has become like a malignant cancer spawning a hyper-rationality, driven by the deductive and predictive capacity of the syllogism, dominating and manipulating the environment, invading all other ‘tissues and organs,’ spreading itself globally.
The origin of civilization in the Middle East about fifty-five hundred years ago is probably the decisive moment in human history. The significance of that origin-moment for internal life is that distinction-making and distinction-dissolving competencies, which had been mixed and proximate for about thirty-five thousand years, were now being forcibly sorted and distanced from each other, the distinction-making competencies ascending in importance, the distinction-dissolving competencies descending in importance.
The significance of the origin of civilization for external life is that social relationships that had been controlled by equilibrium-kinship conventions for about thirty-five thousand years were now being forcibly re-ordered into anti-kinship, bureaucratic and hierarchical conventions.
Equilibrium kinship would everywhere on earth be replaced by civilization. The history of the last fifty-five hundred years has been the story of that replacement, of what has been lost and what has been gained in this or that place, at this or that time. (Recovery, 32-33)
“Most modern societies know, or believe they know, why they cultivate making distinctions” in their citizenry (29). Yet, they willingly ignore what is lost in that process, along with the vast but emptied hierarchies to which it gives rise. The mental and verbal habits that emerged with the birth of literacy, the exclusive cultivation of the syllogism above all else, and establishment of the first social and scientific laws, created deep fissures leading to increasing levels of abstraction, alienation, and disequilibrium – personally and socially. As these hierarchies became more articulated vertically, and horizontally more plurisubstantial, the parts of the hierarchies became emptier in both content and meaning (46). Concomitantly, the life of the increasingly isolated person shrank, being reduced, specialized, and abstracted; the individual learned to live a divided life of anomie, as an emptying part in an empty institutional hierarchy (48). This signaled the end of kinship as the basis for amity and for social relations.
As Bram concludes:
‘Equilibrium’ in ‘equilibrium kinship’ establishes the balance of distinction-making and distinction-dissolving. ‘Kinship’ in ‘equilibrium kinship’ establishes the social conventions that such balance brings about. Kinship means that most of the people you know or will ever know are related to you. They will be the only people who will affect your life, and whose lives you will affect… Kinship will be your over-riding social reality, subsuming to itself everything disequilibrium-civilized persons regard as political and economic activities, professional and educational activities. (Recovery, 36)
However, with the emergence of big agriculture, the birth of cities, the rise of standing armies, the establishment of political, religious, legal, and economic hierarchies, the exigencies of institutional education, and the grand dominion of the syllogism, came an end to equilibrium kinship, the tribes and clans, as a sustainable socio-economic model.
Kinship, Hierarchy and Education
With Bram, we will characterize the 35,000-year-long pre-urban era, often called the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods after their technologies, the kinship era, after its form of social organization. He writes:
‘Kinship’ means that what urban peoples call political, social, economic, and cultural arrangements are made not by specialists or professionals, usually strangers to most persons, but by the elders of clans. Authority rests in elders who are known to you, not, say, in elected or appointed persons who are not known to you. Genetically modern humanity had little or no need for political institutions like states, social institutions like cities or schools, economic institutions like markets, and cultural institutions like museums or orchestras for most of the time human beings have occupied the planet. There is no reason to believe that these absences represent deprivations, or that their later presences in the forms we have them were inescapable.
The post-kinship era, characterized exactly by presences like cities, schools, and markets, was inaugurated between five and six thousand years ago in present-day Iraq. Alexis de Tocqueville remarked of nineteenth-century America that the nuclear family by itself cannot resist the impingements of modern political and economic institutions: the father, mother, and their children must be surrounded by some intermediate, protective body of persons in order to be safe from unacceptable levels of control. In fact, those modern political and economic institutions could not have been created in the first place unless the original protective body of persons, the clan, was broken into its constituent and susceptible parts, its nuclear families. The first civilization, in the Middle East, and all subsequent civilizations elsewhere, were constructed on the break-up of their pre-urban clans. “Kinship” means the clan and the village; “post-kinship” means the nuclear family and the city.
In the kinship era, children were raised by the clan and they were further enculturated by the clan. Uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents, granduncles, grandaunts, all joined parents and siblings in raising a child. Break the clan, and the parents alone raise the child, and further enculturation is given to the school and teachers – in the first civilization, that of Sumer in Southern Iraq, called “school-parents” – who are strangers to the child. There can be no deeper difference in how human beings grow up.
Let us look at one deeply problematical additional aim, one that lies beneath virtually all school curricula… The aim is competence in analysis – analysis in reading non-fiction and fiction texts, analysis in the social and natural sciences, and analysis in mathematics. The basis of the analytical procedures common to the humanities and the sciences is the syllogism; we have this from Aristotle more than two millennia ago, and it has remained the case to the present day. Reasoning syllogistically is commendable unless it drives out other uses of the mind. Unhappily, inside the schools and largely out of them, reasoning syllogistically has indeed driven out other uses of the mind. What of imagining richly rather than syllogizing? I doubt that any primary- or secondary-school teacher would say that he or she actively discourages imagining richly, but, after all, syllogistic reasoning is testable, and imagining is not. And since tests are proliferating and classroom time is short…
We recommend the following action:
…regarding elementary and secondary schools, curricula [should] be revised to put the cultivation of imagination in balance with the cultivation of analysis. This is not to say that strengthening art and music programs will do the trick. They should be strengthened. But whole courses of study in fundamental practices of imagination must be installed at every level. Just as the kinship world provides insights into the imagination and violence, it speaks to curricular balance. Let strong new programs call for the practice of imagining that one is both oneself and another – an animal, a practice children take to in an instant, or another person, the practice that lay at the heart of the kinship world, and deserves to ground any fully human community. To feel one’s own inner life and the inner life of another person may be the apex of that use of the mind we’re calling the imagination. It is not at all difficult to construct exercises that strengthen this faculty. At the same time, the analytic faculty can be strengthened more efficiently – efficiency being a hallmark of analytic success – such that the school day can actually be shortened. The lengthening of school days and school years, along with the current testing craze, are signs of the adult world’s failures of imagination. A shorter school day can mean more student involvement in the community, in particular with public libraries. Teachers can then spend time freed for them in afternoons to tailor the next day to each individual student; one-size-fits-all curricula insult children and only confirm again an adult-world failure. Finally, the imaginative and analytic faculties will stand to each other in a relationship better than simple balance. Because of the grounding status of the imagination that permits identification with others, we will have a “curriculum of kindness,” children achieving analytic competence that is always in the context of their deeply understanding and helping each other.
A Philosophical Interlude
We “first-worlders” tend to believe that our institutions, along with the analytical skills that built them, represent the best of human intellect, that they demonstrate our unquestionable historical advancement and justify our global supremacy. As a correlate we therefore believe that education in distinction-making and analysis should be the overriding, if not, our sole pedagogical concern; to segregate, separate, and dissect everything until we can clearly define all the moving parts. In this respect, we feel that we have overcome the more primitive, undeveloped aspects of the origins of our species; a position we believe is clearly demonstrated through our evident dominion over a purely objectified nature. In his Introduction to Metaphysics, Martin Heidegger challenges this assumption of the modern temperament.
The fundamental error that underlies [modern sciences, natural and human] is the opinion that the inception…is primitive and backward, clumsy and weak. The opposite is true. The inception is what is most uncanny and mightiest. What follows is not a development but flattening down as mere widening out… a perversion of what is great, into greatness and extension purely in the sense of number and mass. The uncanniest is what it is because it harbors such an inception in which, from over-abundance, everything breaks out at once into what is overwhelming…. (165)
Here Heidegger overturns the commonly accepted view. This world of ours, the product of modern scientific analysis and technological acumen, rather than representing a development may really betray a sort of regression – a truncation, abbreviation, or reduction of the original richness and fullness of existence to mere numerical coefficients, mere extensions in space-time. The world has become emptied out by modern consciousness, reduced in simplest terms to a set of mathematical equations or legalistic codes.
In his later work, Heidegger was prepossessed with this state of affairs and with the curious relationship obtaining between thinking, being, and truth. He came to believe that the original condition of human dwelling was obscured by the analytical habits of modern consciousness, and that truth lay somewhere hidden in a collective forgetfulness. In fact, he came to rely increasingly upon a concept of truth as “unconcealment” or “disclosedness,” seeking thereby to articulate the original intertwining of thinking and dwelling – a condition of openness that he termed Gelassenheit. He recovered our concept of truth from its ancient roots in Greek myth, deriving rather circuitously from the word lethe, the river of forgetfulness, one of the five rivers of the underworld in Greek mythology. The term lethe in classical Greek literally meant “oblivion,” “forgetfulness,” or “concealment.” The word for “truth” on the other hand, from whence Heidegger rescues the concept, is aletheia (ἀλήθεια), meaning un-forgetfulness, un-concealment, or disclosedness. The event of truth would be exposing that which had been essentially concealed or hidden and letting it again shine-forth.
It is this condition of forgetfulness that Heidegger wants so desperately to reverse in his final writings; he wants to disclose what was previously forgotten and covered-over at the origins of modern thought even prior to Aristotle. It is for this reason that he looks to Greek mythology and to the pre-Socratics to help excavate the ground of this forgetfulness, and begin to uncover the rich origins of human dwelling, of participation and fusion, of that primal openness (Gelassenheit) to the mystery of our own embodiment.
In his work, Nature and Madness, Paul Shepard writes:
Learning… does not mean preparation by logical operations with dialectical and ideological ends, by art appreciation or creativity, nor by overviews of history and cultures. It means a highly timed openness in which the attention of the child is pre-directed by an intrinsic schedule… It is a pulse, presenting the mind with wider wholes, from womb to mother and body, to earth, to cosmos… (110)
The more we require our educational institutions to develop only a child’s capacity to draw distinctions, the more we create the conditions for our ultimate collapse. Clearly, this world-made-by-syllogism remains committed to capital, commerce, and consumption. It is a world encouraging competition and breeding systemic violence. But, we must recognize that these are the results of a path taken not so long ago, and that it may not be in our best interests to continue on this road. Distinction-making leads to separation, alienation, and conflict. It leads to a mindset of me against you, buyer against seller, us against them; it leads to fear, abuse, and war. It concludes with conquest, with domination. It requires the objectification of the ‘Other’ as much as the objectification of ‘Nature’ – resources, natural or human – to be used, spent and discarded. It leads to commodification and subjugation of one’s fellow man. And it will lead finally to our own demise.
So how do we educate our children today? Do we continue to encourage, indeed demand distinction-making and analysis above all else? Do we focus only on the skills required to generate capital and sell products, conquer an enemy or beat the competition? Or do we focus on educating the whole person, with a careful eye to cultivating imagination and the possibilities of fusion or participation, to our pre-histories and the diverse legacies of human embodiment? Do we move to expand control without restraint, or do we first think about the world we want to inhabit and the world we want to leave to our children’s children?
I close, as I began, with a final quote from Paul Shepard.
White, European-American, Western peoples are separated by many generations from decisions by councils of the whole, small-group nomadic life with few possessions, highly developed initiation ceremonies, natural history as every man’s vocation, a total surround of non—man-made (or ‘wild’) otherness with spiritual significance, and the ‘natural’ way of mother and infant. All of these are strange to us because we are no longer competent to live them—although that competence is potentially in each of us. (120)