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.