Education and the Problem of a Runaway World

There’s an educationally fertile footnote in the masterful history classic by Halévy, “Victorian Years” (Élie Halévy, History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century, Volume 4, Ernest Benn Ltd., London, 1970):

“…[people are] forgetting what all history is constantly proclaiming, that nothing human is fixed; that crowns, sceptres, dominions, institutions, establishments, and monopolies are ever changing, ever departing from their old seats, springing up anew in other places and leaving deserts where they formerly flourished. Tyre, Sidon, Carthage, Greece, Rome! all the departed nations of the world warn us of this, and still we remain unconscious that our time comes, it is coming, nay, is almost at the threshold.”

(“Victorian Years,” footnote for page 40)

The classic on change, Thomas Carlyle’s Past and Present (1843) was influenced by this “overview” of ephemerality in the long run.

A student should ponder these words and see “past and present” and oneself more clearly and more sagaciously.

Education must put this on the “intellectual plate” in front of each freshman everywhere.

The highlighted phrase above, “leaving deserts where they formerly flourished” is an eerie premonition of sorts, of global climate change in our time, and the insouciant attitude of the White House and the absolutely destructive “head in the sand” reactions by the “haves,” especially Washington.

The phrase “that nothing human is fixed” above reminds us of the Nietzsche/Foucault intuition on things.

Essay 41: Then and Now Thinking

Historical thinking is a lifelong attempt to link something called “then” to something called “now.”  History as an academic field of study has a deep cleavage within it in that people like Foucault and Nietzsche think the links between then and now are often illusionary since history is mostly noise (i.e., disconnected chaos) and not “signal” (i.e., “cause and effect” chains of linear progress uncovered by “historian-detectives.”)

We explore this in this mini-essay by looking at the rise of what we call a service economy.

The great Russian thinker Alexander Herzen is traveling around Europe in the 1840s with Marx’s Manifesto appearing in 1848.  Herzen is amazed at the service sector in Paris:

“He was enchanted by the conveniences of Paris, especially the numbers of quick efficient services, from catering to house-cleaning, which made it unnecessary to employ private servants.”

(quoted in Revolutions of 1848:  A Social History. Priscilla Robertson, Princeton 1967, page 110 footnote)

In our own day, the leading economic historian, R.M. Hartwell, in his classic essay, “The Service Revolution:  The Growth of Services in Modern Economy 1700-1914” outlines a worldwide rise of services, and concludes his essay thus:  “The lesson of history is undoubtedly, that was has already happened in the United States, will happen elsewhere, and that the trend in employment towards the services in all developed and developing economies will result finally in a world-wide service revolution.”

(The Fontana Economic History of Europe: The Industrial Revolution, Fontana/Collins, 1980, page 394)

Shall we then “fold Herzen/Paris 1848” into this larger picture, Hartwell’s 1700-1914 or is that a false linkage?

This is an example of then and now analysis which is key to education.

Let us continue the past two essays:

We then use this kind of interesting “home-made puzzle” (one we made-up ourselves and did not read anywhere) and follow it up by entering the academic subject:

  1. Read the classic Manias, Panics and Crashes, the Prof. Kindleberger (MIT) classic.
  2. Discover that the Prof. Niall Ferguson miniseries on PBS, The Ascent of Money, doesn’t elucidate our particular query.
  3. Read Kevin Phillips’s Bad Money to get an introduction to the dangers of “over financialization.” (“hyper financialization”).

The “New York Times” in a piece The New York Times, 12 November 1910, describes the bank run in England including the Westminster Bank.   The movie is set in 1910.

We then begin to think that the collapse of Barings Bank in recent years (Nick Leeson scandal) radiating out from Hong Kong office, is not disconnected from the Barings Bank scandals of 1890. Historical thinking wants to see an arc or trajectory or larger and wider process, and not as disconnected, episodic and completely random.

The Anglo-American financialization process has led to many anomalies.

You might legitimately date the modern beginnings of this mega-process from the 1873 classic by Walter Bagehot of The Economist in his book, Lombard Street, where London is described as the money machine that governs the world and its fluctuations.

Hank Paulson, U.S. Treasury Secretary and Ben Bernanke of the Fed, warned Congressmen in Washington, in September 2008, that the global financial system was on the brink of collapse and needed “infinite” bailout money by that Monday morning, after the weekend.

These problems have yet to be seriously addressed and we might be in a new “bubble” at the intersection of real estate and financial system pathologies (i.e., where the world economy tends to become a kind of “betting parlor”).

Essay 36: What We Mean by “Epochal Waters”

We sometimes use the phrase “epochal waters” to refer to the deepest layers of the past which we “swimmers” at the surface of the ocean don’t see or know. “Epochal waters” are latent, currents are closer to the surface.

There’s a similar idea from the French philosopher Michel Foucault who died in 1984. In his The Order of Things, classic from 1966, he talks about the “episteme” (as in epistemology) that frames everything from deep down. (The Greeks distinguished between “techne” (arts, crafts, practical skills and “episteme” (theory, overview).

“In essence, Les mots et les choses (Foucault’s The Order of Things) maintains that every period is characterized by an underground configuration that delineates its culture, a grid of knowledge making possible every scientific discourse, every production of statements. Foucault designates this historical a priori as an episteme, deeply basic to defining and limiting what any period can—or cannot—think.

Each science develops within the framework of an episteme, and therefore is linked in part with other sciences contemporary with it.

(Didier Eribon, Michel Foucault, Harvard University Press,  1991, page 158)

Take a simple example. A discussion comes up about what man is or does or thinks or knows. In today’s episteme or pre-definition, one thinks immediately not of man in terms of language or the invention of gods, but in terms of computational genomics, big data, bipedalism (walking upright on two legs). Its assumed in advance via an invisible episteme, that science and technology. physics, genetics, big data, chemistry and biology hold the answer and the rest is sort of outdated. This feeling is automatic and reflexive like breathing and might be called “mental breathing.”

One’s thoughts are immediately sent in certain directions or grooves, a process  that is automatic and more like a “mental reflex” than a freely chosen “analytical frame.” The thinker has been “trained” in advance and the episteme pre-decides what is thinkable and what is not.

There are deep episteme that underlie all analyses: for example, in the Anglo-American tradition of looking at things, the phrase “human nature” inevitably comes in as a deus ex machina (i.e., sudden way of clinching an argument, the “magic factor” that has been there all along). If you ask why are you suddenly “importing” the concept of “human nature,” the person who uses the phrase has no idea. It’s in the “epochal water” or Foucault’s episteme, and it suddenly swims up from below at the sea floor.

Another quick example: In the Anglo-American mind, there’s a belief from “way down and far away” that failure in life is mostly about individual behavior (laziness, alcoholism, etc.) and personal “stances” while “circum-stances” are an excuse. This way of sequencing acceptable explanations is deeply pre-established in a way that is itself hard to explain. It serves to “frame the picture” in advance. These are all “epochal water“ or episteme phenomena.

Essay 34: Arguments Without End: Are They Good or Bad?

The Dutch historian Pieter Geyl (died in 1966) coined the phrase “argument without end” to get at the constant reappearance of old arguments or viewpoints. One gets the impression that arguments are either persistent or perhaps permanent. One simplistic example could be argument about socialism: Sweden is “good,” but Venezuela (or Cuba) is bad. This book takes the view that “arguments without end” are not the end of knowledge but rather a potential beginning: it could be that some issues cannot be captured by one school of thought: the awarding of the 1974 Nobel Prize to both Hayek (“the right”) and Myrdal (“the left”) is an example of this need for hybridity. Both Hayek and Myrdal are each seeing something valid and it’s a “fool’s errand” to decide who is “eternally” correct.

Let’s apply this thinking to a deep “argument without end” within and about history.

Michel Foucault (died in 1984) following Nietzsche, argues that history seems “linear” but is more random and non-linear than the “linear” historians see or admit.

There’s an aphorism in Nietzsche, (from his The Dawn) which Foucault uses…history is made by the “iron-hand of necessity shaking the dice-box of chance.”

In other words the world we know, traveling somehow from the assassination of Kennedy (November 2, 1963) to the impeachment hearings of Trump in October 2019, must be thought of as a kind of “random walk” behind which are trends, cycles, so that one gets a fusion of structure and surprise. If you emphasize surprise you’re closer to Foucault than to those narrative historians who think they can show you the exact threads which connect “then and now.”

Here’s an example of such a historian, the celebrated G.R. Elton of England, whose classic The Tudor Revolution in Government is a masterpiece of orthodox analysis. The book centers on the administrative revolution in the 1530s in England which implied, says Elton, “As regards political and social structure, the sixteenth century produced something quite new in England—the self-contained sovereign state in which no power on earth could challenge the supremacy of statute made by the crown in parliament.”

“In this revolution, in this making of a new kind of state productive of a new kind of society, administrative reforms played their part. It is against this background of controlled upheaval that they must be seen and understood.”

(Elton, The Tudor Revolution in Government, Cambridge University press, 1966, page 426/427)

Orthodox historians see history as a “nail-down-able” system of storylines and the controlled upheavals have a direction (teleology) which allows you to use—in this case the 1530s in England—as a beginning, an origin, a “datum line,” and once you have this clear starting point you can follow the story to now and include comparative developments in France or Germany or China.

The orthodox “explain strategy” starts with an origin, a “starting gate” like a horse-race.

The FoucaultNietzsche view is that these starting points are not entirely useless but in the end don’t help you because history is in the end governed by “the dice-box of chance” even if it is held by “the iron-hand of necessity.” History is more “upheaval” than “control” more surprise than structure. “Determinism” such as perhaps based by pinning down a starting point from which one can “build out,” is a wish-dream since history is nonlinear and nondeterministic. Even Elton’s phrase “controlled upheaval” is full of questions and problems.

Modern “complexity theory” in mathematics tries to get at these differences analytically. A “meta-intelligent” student would go from this historians’ “argument without end” to the analysis of complexity in math as a way of rounding out the exploration.

An “argument without end” can thus be useful if the student does not insist on some final “apodictic” or certain-forever answer.

Essay 21: Learning to Process the University With Your Own Questions

You need to “subdue” or “master” a university by “imposing” or layering your own questions on theirs in quizzes and exams, finals and midterms.

Here’s an example: In the masterpiece, What I Saw: Reports from Berlin, 1920-1933Joseph Roth (died in 1939), the author writes about Berlin traffic and transport:

“After all, the passengers on a bus or streetcar make up a community of a kind.” (“Some Reflections on Traffic,” November 15, 1924.)

This idea of “small communities” including transitory ones, is developed by the French philosopher Michel Foucault.  He calls them “heterotopias” (different places) which are neither utopias or dystopias.

This notion reminds us of Edmund Burke’s (18th century conservative thinker), founder of concept of society’s “little platoons” like friends, families, clubs, congregations in churches, which Burke cherishes.

Heterotopia is a concept elaborated by the leading French philosopher Michel Foucault (died in 1984).

Heterotopias are worlds within worlds…micro-societies.

Foucault provides examples: ships, cemeteries, bars, brothels, prisons, gardens of antiquity, fairs, Turkish baths and many more.

If we take the ship as the utmost heterotopia, a society without ships is inherently a repressive one.

Foucault outlines the notion of heterotopia on three occasions between 1966-67.

Foucault explains the link between utopias and heterotopias using the metaphor of a mirror. A mirror is a utopia because the image reflected is a ‘placeless place’, an unreal virtual place that allows one to see one’s own visibility. However, the mirror is also a heterotopia, in that it is a real object. Hence a dual function.

The heterotopia of the mirror is at once absolutely real, relating with the real space surrounding it, and absolutely unreal, creating a virtual image. Foucault discusses several possible types of heterotopia:

  • A ‘crisis heterotopia’ is a separate space like a boarding school or a motel room where activities like coming of age or a honeymoon take place out of sight. Foucault describes the crisis heterotopia as “reserved for individuals who are, in relation to society and to the human environment in which they live, in a state of crisis.” He also points that crisis heterotopias are constantly disappearing from society and being replaced by the following heterotopia of deviation.
  • ‘Heterotopias of deviation’ are institutions where we place individuals whose behavior is outside the norm (hospitals, asylums, prisons, rest homes, cemetery).
  • Heterotopia can be a single real place that juxtaposes several spaces. A garden can be a heterotopia, if it is a real space meant to be a microcosm of different environments, with plants from around the world.
  • ‘Heterotopias of time’ such as museums enclose in one place objects from all times and styles. They exist in time but also exist outside of time because they are built and preserved to be physically insusceptible to time’s ravages.
  • ‘Heterotopias of ritual or purification’ are spaces that are isolated and penetrable yet not freely accessible like a public place. Either entry to the heterotopia is compulsory like in entering a prison, or entry requires special rituals or gestures, like in a sauna or a hammam.
  • Heterotopia has a function in relation to all of the remaining spaces. The two functions are: heterotopia of illusion creates a space of illusion that exposes every real space, and the heterotopia of compensation is to create a real space—a space that is other.

You could use this idea of “heterotopias”(little societies and worlds) and apply it to the various buildings on a campus, the little worlds or sub-worlds of fields and faculties, to the sub-cultures of fraternities and dormitories, to sports teams and clubs, to classes of students at a lecture.

Joseph Roth is a “radical devotee” of the charms of local groupings and small “truths and atmospheres” such as these heterotopias and states:

“It’s only the minutiae of life that are important.” (What I Saw: Berlin, 1920-1933, “Going for a Walk,” 1921)

Looking through such lenses, a student could layer one’s own visions and questions on a university and counterbalance” theirs and bring enchantment to the current “knowledge factory.”