Essay 35: Education and the Need for Enchantment

Max Weber (1864-1920) and Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) are considered the two fathers of modern sociology at the highest level.

Weber sees the modern world as the zone of “Ent-zauber-ung:” where ent means removal of, Zauber means magic or enchantment and ung means the process of.

He sees our world as “dis-enchanted.” Everything is scientific or profitable or unwelcome. This makes modern life a productive engine of sorts but extremely desiccated and arid and leads to what Durkheim calls “anomie” (the sense of being adrift, directionless).

We argue in this book that education should be seen as the “last exit” to enchantment before the “grind of life” comes down on the student after the “moratorium” of college.

What is enchantment? Enchantment is that special feeling about something, some topic, field, math problem, painting exhibit, novel, movie, debate, that there’s something there that “makes it all worthwhile” and like a great piece of music, “gets to you” and flies under all cynical radar. The best kind of enchantment can last from age 19-95, if you live that long.

Think of a math or physics problem or novel or painting that gives the student “permanent uplift.”

The pedagogical dimension of enchantment works like this: the student encounters a puzzle or conjecture or story or depiction that constitutes a “healthy obsession.”

After interaction with this phenomenon, he or she can “walk backwards” to the 900-page textbook and go to those pages that are relevant, this making the textbook more like a dictionary that serves as a handy reference book and not as a daunting, exhausting endless “Mt. Everest” of names and equations or faces or dates. The student can “conquer” textbooks by enchantment and only enchantment. Without that engine or motor for the mind and will, one is weighed down and demoralized in advance.

Let’s do two quick examples:

Heraclitus is supposed to have said, “you can’t step into the same river twice.” Zeno says you can’t really cross the street because first you have to reach the midpoint, then the next midnight, and so on forever. You never complete your crossing (see Joseph Mazur’s book, Zeno’s Paradox, from 2008).

Such ancient paradoxes are still perplexing. Great thinkers like Bertrand Russell, Whitehead, Frege, et al wrestled with them many decades.

It’s also puzzling that certain math or logic questions open up “oceans” of analysis. Why might that be? Is that enchanting or depressing?

The last chapter of Tolstoy’s War and Peace masterpiece is a set of reflections on history itself. It’s very enchanting as he wrestles with this “caprice machine” called history.

Enchantment gives you the first steps towards what we call “pre-understanding,” a prerequisite for all deep study.

Essay 2: Connectivity and the Need for Meta Intelligence

Arguments without end and our attitude to them:

A reader of this book might ask:

How far does this quest for more holism go?  Are there limits on this type of inquiry?

This is a very good question.  In order to answer this, we quote something from the famous French historian, Michelet, who died in 1874:

“Woe be to him who tries to isolate one department of knowledge from the rest….all science [i.e., knowledge] is one:  language, literature and history, physics, mathematics and philosophy; subjects which seem the most remote from one another are in reality connected, or rather all form a single system.”

(quoted in To the Finland Station, Edmund Wilson, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1940, page 8)

Our attitude to such radical system building is non-committal. Rather we say, you the student should pursue flexible forms of increased connection and holism while you acquire knowledge and extend it and not worry about some once-and-for-all system underneath or beyond everything. We propose exercises in holism and all exercises are replaceable with new ones or better ones and there’s no “final layer” or hidden “mind of God” to use Stephen Hawking language. The existence of some underlying or final system is something like an “argument without end” (to use Pieter Geyl language).

This argument is captured by the classic “fight” between Hegel (the person that Marx and Kierkegaard rebelled against and who died in 1831) and Adorno in the twentieth century.

Hegel says: The whole is the true. Adorno (who died in 1969) says: The whole is the false.

We skip all such fights.

Thinking about University Knowledge Again:

One cannot major in every field. One cannot make everything a university offers your specialty or concentration.

“Sartor Resartus:”  The great British critic Thomas Carlyle (who died in 1881), close friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote a famous satire called “Sartor Resartus or The Tailor Retailored” where he lampoons a certain Professor Devil’s-crud who teaches at Don’t-Know-Where University and is Professor of Everything.

Obviously, we are not proposing the creation of professors-of-everything and propose nothing more than the heightened ability to “zoom out” of academic fields, topics, lectures, topics, campuses.

A person who has similar intuitions is Alfred North Whitehead of Harvard (died 1947) who says in his essays on education that the real purpose of university education is to enable the learner to generalize better using that person’s field as a help or aid.  The purpose of a university cannot be fields and monographs within fields alone.