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 26: Extracting Educational “Signals” from the “Noise” Around You

A student should train him or herself to extract “signals from noise” in the world all around oneself.

For example:

You see the British movie Carrington with Emma Thompson concerning the British painter Dora Carrington. In her “circle,” which overlaps the Bloomsbury Group of such luminaries as Keynes and Bertrand Russell, there’s a scholarly member called Gerald Brenan, who became a world-famous analyst of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939):

“Edward FitzGerald ‘Gerald’ Brenan, CBE, MC was a British writer and Hispanist who spent much of his life in Spain. Brenan is best known for The Spanish Labyrinth, a historical work on the background to the Spanish Civil War, and for South from Granada: Seven Years in an Andalusian Village.”

His basic information is:

Born: April 7, 1894, Sliema, Malta
Died: January 19, 1987, Alhaurín el Grande, Spain
Spouse: Gamel Woolsey (m. 1931–1968)
Movies: South from Granada

Think of Brenan’s book title, The Spanish Labyrinth. Ask yourself if the concept of a national labyrinth is not exceedingly eye-opening. Would it not be very educational to study the features and characteristics of the American, Chinese, or Russian “labyrinths?” Would not any country’s political economy overlaid with its labyrinthian realities be very instructive?

Think of the Trump labyrinth in October 2019, all the players, deceptions, overlapping functions, pressures. paymasters both hidden and overt and obviously it’s all a kind of “deception machine” which is its own labyrinth. Thus, without even having read the Gerald Brenan masterpiece on Spain, the very name of the book is eye-opening and informative in a “meta-intelligent” way (i.e., it tweaks your sense of overview right away).

Another example: you look at a syllabus for a history course on English history and notice a title: The Shaping of the Elizabethan Regime by Prof. Wallace T. MacCaffrey (1968/1971). The very title alerts you to the fact that the evening news right now is about “the shaping of the Trump regime.”

The word “regime” supplants the usual “the administration” and the power politics and musical chairs are constant. The Elizabethan regime had similar features on a smaller scale. The basic phenomena are comparable and apply to all regimes. Your sense of overview becomes stronger by ranging between then (Elizabethan times, Tudor England) and now (Trump regime juggling.)

Take an example from TV: PBS had a Nature program entitled The Queen of Trees which takes one single tree in Africa and shows you the complexity of the micro-ecosystem it lives by:

Nature reveals the importance of an unlikely partnership between a regal tree and a tiny wasp in The Queen of Trees.

“It may be one of nature’s oddest couples: a tiny wasp that can barely be seen, and a giant fig tree, the sycamore, which shelters a remarkable menagerie of wildlife among its limbs. The wasp and the fig depend on each other for survival. Without the wasp, the tree could not pollinate its flowers and produce seeds. Without the fig, the wasp would have nowhere to lay its eggs.

The Queen of Trees shows this delicate dance of survival in exquisite detail, including spectacular close-ups of the wasp’s remarkable life inside a ripening fig. To capture such incredible images, filmmakers Victoria Stone and Mark Deeble spent two years camped out near a giant sycamore fig in Kenya’s outback, documenting the tree’s pivotal role as a source of food and shelter for everything from gray hornbills, Africa’s largest bird, to swarms of invading insects searching for food. In a surprising turn, some insects come to the tree’s aid—sparking a battle.”

The intricacies of the tree give you a sense of the limits of knowledge: if we can hardly really understand the “life and times” of one tree in Africa, does the pretense of science that we will one day know everything about everything expressed in rigorous equations, no less (à la Stephen Hawking’s visions) seem suddenly very unlikely and quixotic? The tactics and alliances and “politics” of the tree are “infinitely” complicated by themselves and thus getting an overview of the multiverse seems supremely hubristic.

These three examples show you the process of extracting “signals” from the “university” all around you.