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 29: Overview Strengthening: Using Meta-Intelligence to Orient Oneself

Let’s do an exercise in “overview building,” one of the key purposes of an education that is meaningful and not just an obstacle course or a maze governed by exams.

Think of the PBS miniseries of a few years ago: Guns, Germs, and Steel. It was a decent overview of history based on Jared Diamond’s famous book by the same name. Guns presumably encapsulates coercion, whether by armies, police or criminals. Germs stand for illness and disease in a germ-based view of sicknesses. Steel is the modern building material that allows skyscrapers, etc.

The viewer of the series might have felt a bit uncomfortable since humans with their “rage to belong, and rage to believe” (to paraphrase William James) make ideas into beliefs and doctrines and are not reducible to material factors like the Jared Diamond trio of guns, germs and steel.

The brilliant 20th century sociologist Ernest Gellner had a more inclusive encapsulation of human experience or world history when he entitled his own book of this type, Plough, Book, and Sword.

Plough” gives you settled agriculture (farming, roughly speaking) (i.e., food production not based on hunting). Gellner’s “Book” gives you ideas, doctrines, bibles, epics, stories, collections of documents and speeches, record-keeping beyond clay tablets, and so on. “Sword” gives you coercion à la Jared Diamond’s “guns.”

While Diamond omits “books.” Gellner omits “germs.” Books implies some level of reading and writing.

Ask yourself if you have an improved trio of mega-dimensions to explain human historical pathways or perhaps a quartet. Another trio might be: “Gods, Flags and Families.”

Tolstoy emphasizes the capriciousness of world history and accidents or “random walks” might then well be a plausible candidate for inclusion in our own version of a Diamond/Gellner-type title, as accident or accidentality or randomness.