Human Interaction

A former colleague of mine has written a book of science fiction suggesting what our great-grandchildren might look forward to in 2092. It promises to be the first in a series about the world far into the future after the world war has destroyed pretty much all of what we call “civilization.” All that is left, besides vast wasteland, is a few communities, cantonments, and the remnants of some of the major  cities along with a wealth of technology which has allowed for regular trips to the moon and even a Mars colony. The major player in the game in the Mars Corporation which pretty much runs the world after the nations spent themselves and were left powerless.

The book is a clever indictment and brilliant satire of the corporate world, its depersonalization and relentless thirst for power and wealth — the only real values left besides the urge to simply maintain one’s own life and try to ascend up the corporate ladder and gain a bit more power for oneself. It raises, among other things, the question of whether the world would indeed be better off with one central power, even a corrupt power, keeping all other powers at bay — if the price is human freedom? After all, where has that freedom brought us?

I have only begun the first volume and cannot comment on the whole book (much less the entire Saga) but an insight that I found most thought-provoking was the author’s claim that the disintegration of civilization that led to the world war and the terrible aftermath began with the dehumanization resulting from the technical world: the replacement of human relationships by electronic toys and social media.

The dissident Miller lives outside of the cities (such as they are) and spends his days, among other things, tending to his garden. He tries to explain what happened to the world to his daughter who is loyal to Marsco:

“‘I don’t know how to explain it, Tess, except that the techworld that evolved, that world seemed to make this world unnecessary.’ He placed his bare hand gently on her forearm. . . .’Human touch became unnecessary for some — to enough. Cyberspace became authenticity for far too many.'”

Such is happening all around us at present, people find themselves ignoring one another more and more as human relationships degenerate and the electronic toys and the desire to be “liked” on social media replace such things as genuine contact with other human beings; disappearing are such things as feelings of love and respect, fear and embarrassment — you know, those things that make us human, for better or worse.

I think this is a profound insight on my colleague’s part as I have for years shouted warnings myself (on these pages) about the dangers of those electronic toys. The evidence is overwhelming that they leave parts of the human brain undeveloped (the thinking parts) and they are addictive. Those shouts fall on deaf ears, of course, because, in fact, the toys are addictive and it is not clear that even if they wanted to folks could not put them down even for a day or two, look around them, and interact with others and with the world itself which offers us so much joy and delight. Our author is convinced that we are paying a severe price: the loss of our basic humanity.

Novels have a way of making a point so much more effectively than the sort of prose I write, but this novel has been self-published and lacks the promotional punch that could be provided by a major book company, leading perhaps to one one hellova movie series. This is too bad because the book is insightful, well written and remarkably imaginative. It opens us to the possibility of what the world might be like after we have encountered the near-fatal catastrophe that will finally get our attention, make us realize what a self-involved people we are, the kinds of damage we are doing to our planet, and force us once again to reach out and treat one another with the respect and love we both crave and deserve. Those who survive, that is.

The book is titled The Marsco Dissident and is written by James Zarzana. It is available on Amazon and promises to be a good read. And, no, I will not receive a kickback! Jim doesn’t even know I have written this and will almost certainly not read it. Take  care and have a Happy New Year, one and all.

Educate For Freedom

I have blogged a number of times (some would say “endlessly”) about the shortcomings of our educational system. It is a topic close to my heart, given that I spent all of my adult life in schools and colleges. I have even written a book about the nature of education, focusing mostly on higher education (so-called) but also mentioning in passing what seems to be going wrong in the lower grades.

In any event, I have been consistent in my defense of a liberal education at the collegiate level — though as Robert Hutchins said many years ago there is no reason why we couldn’t pursue a liberal education at the lower grades. And there are some schools that have actually returned to the fundamental notion of the seven liberal arts to form the core of their grade-school curriculum for kids. But, by and large, the liberal arts, which many confuse with the Humanities, are an intellectual challenge and seem to a great many students and their parents to be irrelevant to their real-world needs after college, not practical, not the kind of thing that will lead to a job and success in later life. I would challenge that.

I recently chatted with a professor of cardiology at the Mayo Clinic who majored in philosophy as an undergraduate. When I mentioned that most of today’s students avoid such subjects as impractical he said that philosophy was the most practical course of study he had ever taken and he found himself every day drawing on his undergraduate major at Vanderbilt University. I have also known liberal arts graduates who have been successful in the world of investment banking, business, the ministry, and law. It provides a broad base of study that allows the student to take different directions as times change.

We have known for years that young people growing up in the work force change their jobs many times before they are 40. Nowadays the “millenialists” change jobs even more — perhaps because they don’t like being told what to do! This is a spoiled generation, to be sure, used to getting what they want when they want it. If it requires real work, many are simply not interested. And the liberal arts require real work.

Let’s be clear at the outset, however, that the liberal arts include not only the Humanities but also the sciences. Originally they formed the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric and the quadrivium of geometry, music, astronomy, and arithmetic. Note the heavy emphasis on mathematics and science (music being regarded as a mathematical science, carefully ordered as it is and reflecting as it does the harmony of the universe!) These subjects seem esoteric these days and those seven original liberal arts — “liberal” because they free the mind held captive by bias, immaturity and shrunken perspective — have given birth to hundreds of college courses all of which claim to free the mind. But, as we know, most of those subjects are really job-training in disguise; they cater to the students’ current whims while putting blinders on them thereby forcing them into a narrow track from which they find it very difficult to escape later on.

But the original liberal arts were designed to free the minds of the young and open to them new horizons to explore. As I like to say, they put the young in possession of their own minds. This seems especially appropriate today, given the changes in career paths mentioned above. The liberal arts prepare the student for a world of change, and change is the only thing we can be certain about in this world of ours. If we ask (demand?) of the young that they take subjects that require that they use their minds, deepen their understanding, gain the ability to manipulate the symbols of mathematics and language, and learn about their past we can expect that they will be best prepared for this changing world.

The claim is often heard that those who follow such a course of study will not be able to find work after graduation; there is growing evidence that this is untrue. In addition, for those students who want to advance in the work place, it has become increasingly clear that a liberal education is extremely beneficial. As a recent study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities tells us:

The majority of employers agree that having both field-specific knowledge and skills and a broad range of skills and knowledge is most important for recent college graduates to achieve long-term career success. Few think that having field-specific knowledge and skills alone is what is most needed for individuals’ career success.
80 percent of employers agree that, regardless of their major, all college students should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences. . . .
When read a description of a 21st-century liberal education, a large majority of employers recognize its importance; 74 percent would recommend this kind of education to a young person they know as the best way to prepare for success in today’s global economy.

Moreover, students who study the liberal arts will be able to adapt should they want to change jobs or if they should happen to be “let go” by an unfeeling company that feels the need to “downsize.” The best possible education for now and the future is a liberal education. The evidence is out there.

Future Generations

When the United States was celebrating its bicentennial, the American historian Henry Steele Commager was asked to point out what was, in his mind, the single greatest difference between the country in 1976 and in 1776. Without hesitation, he said it was our current lack of concern for posterity. “Washington, Adams, and Jefferson couldn’t give a speech or write a letter without invoking posterity. . . [this] is a word that has disappeared from our vocabulary. . . ”

I agree with Commager (I bow to his superior knowledge of American history!) and would suggest a possible cause. I think our lack of forethought is a result of what I would call our business mentality. Alexis de Tocqueville noted this about us as early as 1831 when he said, in a letter to a friend, “…one sees that [the Americans] have sought the value of everything in the world only in answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?” To be sure, our culture is saturated by the preoccupation with the present, whether it be profits or pleasure. It permeates not only the business world, where it may be appropriate to focus attention on the bottom line, but also government and, worse yet, education where results now must be quantified and accompanied by a pie-chart. We don’t notice our mind-set in these contexts because we are so used to something that permeates our world-view at all ages from crib to coffin. We carry it with us all the time: it’s like a pair of glasses we see through and aren’t conscious of. As a culture we not only ignore the past, but we don’t think about the future either. It’s all about the here and now. This may be a good rule in business where today’s Dow-Jones is all-important, but it’s not healthy thinking for full, meaningful  lives, when it comes to determining our place on this planet and the kind of world we are leaving to our grandchildren.

The first step in altering our mind-set, of course, is to become aware of it. But this simply is not happening as we blithely go about the business of living in the moment with no thought of what the future might bring. To alter this way of living in the world, it would be wise to place much greater stress on history than we do at present in the schools. After all, history does tend to repeat itself and Americans are notoriously ignorant of their own history, much less world history. In addition, we should also introduce into school curricula a time for “brain-storming,” sitting around and asking the question “what if?” This might enable young people as they grow older to imagine future consequences of present actions and learn also to cast their minds beyond the immediate present. Computer models may fail to project, and humans may not do much better because predictions are always subject to doubt. But failure to consider the future of our children and their children will most assuredly have grave consequences. Of that we can be fairly certain.