Every now and then, you read something that challenges your assumptions and makes you rethink your beliefs. This article was one case in point: http://www.context.org/iclib/ic27/orr/ .
What struck me about this article, which dates back to 1991, was that it lays bare some myths about education, which we have come to believe as fact. I know I accepted these myths without question at face value, too, but there are some good refutations in the article against them.
It got me thinking about the relationship between art education, creativity and what it might mean for our ultimate survival.
What are these myths about education?
1. Ignorance is a solvable problem – That this was a myth was a startling assertion, to me. I had always thought that ignorance was a temporary problem, easily solved by a little more willingness to learn and a bit more teaching. In fact, that view implies that there are those that are ignorant and those that are not. Unfortunately, this facile world view is wholly wrong. To quote David Orr, “Ignorance is not a solvable problem, but rather an inescapable part of the human condition. The advance of knowledge always carries with it the advance of some form of ignorance.”
The example he gives is of Thomas Midgely Jr., who in the 1930s discovered the seemingly stable, inert, refrigerant properties of CFSs. What had previously been a piece of trivial ignorance about an obscure, esoteric chemical compound and its effect on the upper atmosphere, about which precious little was actually known anyway, became a critical, life-threatening gap in humanity’s understanding of the biosphere. No one had thought to question what this substance might do, or to what, until the 1970s. By the 1990s, CFCs had so depleted the ozone layer worldwide, that our survival was threatened by it. The discovery and application of CFCs were the result of increased knowledge, but this increase in knowledge, like an expanding tsunami wave front, had increased human ignorance as well. We have to face the unarguable, if uncomfortable, fact that ignorance is ambient, universal and commonplace.
Even when it is the default condition and can be partially overcome by knowledge and learning, we create more ignorance as a consequence of our new knowledge. To exacerbate the problem (if that is the right way to frame ignorance), we too often actively choose wilful ignorance, over deeper understanding, because that is easier. It takes less work. Even the most enlightened can be, and often are, the most ignorant, when off their specialist topic. Ignorance cannot be eradicated, because we cannot learn enough in a lifetime. There is just too big a challenge here.
Is that an argument against technology and knowing more? Not so! The problem with our ignorance is our agency and that’s why it threatens our survival. We already know enough to cause our own extinction. In fact, there is no global population figure small enough to guarantee the survival of the species. Any one of us has the means of destroying us all, as proven by Thomas Midgely Jr. For this reason, those that argue for population reduction as the ultimate protection against extinction are wasting their time.
Our best and only hope is to press all six billion brains into action, accept the limits of our knowledge and hence, rather than arrogantly seeking to act as self-satisfied experts, we evaluate everything we know or do and create/invent/discover much more carefully. We need to be much more aware of the fact that, at any given moment, on any given subject, we don’t know what we’re talking about, in reality.
The examples are legion. We know nothing of our magneto-sensory abilities, yet these are just now being unlocked in other mammals. (http://www.naturalnews.com/036440_magnetosensory_cells_electro-smog_EMF.html ). What are the consequences of our widespread use of radio communications, microwave ovens, cell phones and other sources of electromagnetic smog? Nobody currently knows.
We barely understand the clearly intimate link between the processes of digestion and obesity, or the role of sugar in liver damage and vascular disease. We didn’t suspect DDT, CFCs or lead in paints and petrol for years. We’ve only recently begun questioning the assured safety of mercury fillings, the heavy metal preservatives and adjuvants used in vaccines, fluoride in the water, crust unloading due to open cast mining, endocrine disruption due to the widespread use of chemicals that mimic oestrogen, such as plasticisers, the virus that causes cervical cancer – all of these are only now being studied and understood (and denied, by vested interests, who choose wilful ignorance for profit). Changes in medicine, toxicology, economics, development, government, law, politics, foreign policies, food production, pollution, chemical industries, GM food, mining, water supply and the products we buy and use must surely result, but such change comes slowly. We tend toward conservatism, despite the urgency.
Conspiracy theories are often dismissed out of hand on the grounds that “so many people couldn’t keep such a monumental thing a secret”. It isn’t kept a secret. Kennedy’s killers have identified their co-conspirators and confessed on their death beds. Building seven couldn’t come down like it did, by itself, especially considering no plane ever hit it. We all know it. It’s not reproducible by experiment. Anti-terror drone aircraft do indiscriminately kill innocent civilians and we all know it. It is a matter of public record that the US knowingly incarcerated one hundred and fifty people known to be innocent in Guantanamo Bay, where they languish still, without hope of due process. All of this information is available and “hiding in plain sight”. It’s not secret. But we refuse to believe it. We don’t want to believe what we are seeing. It damages our precious belief systems. It invalidates our faith. We prefer to choose ignorance over taking the courage to face the obvious truths placed before our very eyes.
I submit to you that wasting human creativity is absolutely a crime against humanity. The only source of hope, given the increasing ignorance we create, is to apply all of our collective intelligence to the problem of at least keeping ignorance sufficiently at bay to permit continued existence of life on the planet. We cannot afford to exclude a single person. Bear that in mind the next time you dismiss somebody as having no worth to society at all, next time you regard the unemployed, or underemployed people, or when you press your fellow man into menial jobs that do not unlock their creative talents. Consider it when you seek to obliterate your brain’s capacity for effective, applied creativity (not the wasteful, self-indulgent kind of “mind expansion” that never results in a single new thing being created, made and given to others) through drugs or other means. Think about this when you waste human potential in wars, treating sentient, thinking, creative beings as mere cannon fodder or collateral damage. Think about this when you starve a child or force him to spend his time on earth scrambling for food or water, full time. All of this neglect threatens our own survival.
2. With enough knowledge and technology we can manage planet Earth – This is another less obvious fallacy. There cannot be enough knowledge, wisdom or technology to manage the planet. We’re too small and insignificant, in the scheme of things. Universal forces are indifferent to our existence. The Earth and the forces of nature are so massive that it is pure folly and vanity to imagine that we can manage the planet. We barely understand what we’re dealing with. It was in living memory that we learned about (and initially dismissed) the theory of plate tectonics. In our management deliberations, we don’t even consider our far distant progeny and successors. Markets don’t give them a voice at all. We’re all about us.
To quote Orr once again, “The ecology of the top inch of topsoil is still largely unknown, as is its relationship to the larger systems of the biosphere. What might be managed is us: human desires, economies, politics, and communities. But our attention is caught by those things that avoid the hard choices implied by politics, morality, ethics, and common sense. It makes far better sense to reshape ourselves to fit a finite planet than to attempt to reshape the planet to fit our infinite wants.”
Creativity and art education (in the broadest, most inclusive sense, embracing writers, musicians, visual artists, story tellers, film makers, inventors and philosophers) have a contribution to make in exploring and proposing alternative economic systems, examining the root of our human desires, laying bare our ethics and morality. Art and creativity, as a tool of understanding, may help us manage ourselves.
3. Knowledge is increasing and by implication human goodness – Again, not true, sadly. Every scientific discovery is accompanied by myriad profiteers and self-righteous control freaks proposing new, dreadful and terrifying weapons using that new technology. The atomic age didn’t, as it turns out, usher in safe, plentiful energy, too cheap to meter. It predominantly produced formidable atomic weapons and intractable nuclear waste and containment problems. It imperilled us, rather than assured our energy security.
It doesn’t matter what the technology discovery or development is. Even the Internet, one of mankind’s greatest opportunities for knowledge sharing, self realisation and universal communication, is increasingly used for control and surveillance. We have tasers and the electric chair, used as instruments of state torture and violence, as well as electric motors and electric light.
Orr’s commentary on the matter is worth repeating here. “There is an information explosion going on, by which I mean a rapid increase of data, words, and paper. But this explosion should not be taken for an increase in knowledge and wisdom, which cannot so easily by measured. What can be said truthfully is that some knowledge is increasing while other kinds of knowledge are being lost. David Ehrenfeld has pointed out that biology departments no longer hire faculty in such areas as systematics, taxonomy, or ornithology. In other words, important knowledge is being lost because of the recent overemphasis on molecular biology and genetic engineering, which are more lucrative, but not more important, areas of inquiry. We still lack the science of land health that Aldo Leopold called for half a century ago.”
Knowledge, it turns out, is not the counterfoil to human wickedness. Understanding, mercy, compassion and kindness are. Love is more important than knowledge. Individual, personal ethics did not stop the creation and dropping of the atom bomb, a weapon so indiscriminate and unjust as ever was created. Every single person involved suspended their humanity just long enough to commit the atrocity.
Again, creativity and a focus on teaching people to create is a way to connect individuals to their capacity for love, compassion and kindness. It is an antidote to years of indoctrination to fear, hate, suspect, avenge, conquer, dominate and act violently to those we deem to be different to ourselves, however slight the distinction. Those indulgences can no longer be afforded.
4. We can adequately restore that which we have dismantled – This myth is wrong, too. Some things are irrevocably and permanently altered. Some acts are irreversible. You can’t reinstate a destroyed habitat or environment simply by commanding that it be so, with paper money. We don’t even know how. We cannot bring back extinct creatures. We don’t even have a record of the DNA of the creatures already lost to us. We don’t know, to any level of precision, what’s in our soil, why things grow in it and how to recreate it, from dust. It is said that 80% of the extinctions are yet to come, as an inevitable result of habitat destruction that has already taken place.
David Orr’s words are, once again, resonant on the matter: “In the modern curriculum we have fragmented the world into bits and pieces called disciplines and sub-disciplines. As a result, after 12 or 16 or 20 years of education, most students graduate without any broad integrated sense of the unity of things. The consequences for their personhood and for the planet are large. For example, we routinely produce economists who lack the most rudimentary knowledge of ecology. This explains why our national accounting systems do not subtract the costs of biotic impoverishment, soil erosion, poisons in the air or water, and resource depletion from gross national product. We add the price of the sale of a bushel of wheat to GNP while forgetting to subtract the three bushels of topsoil lost in its production. As a result of incomplete education, we’ve fooled ourselves into thinking that we are much richer than we are.”
Polymaths are needed more than specialists. A wider cross fertilization of ideas from different fields is where the innovations are and where our best hope of survival might be. Creativity, with its emphasis on unity of thinking, innovations from spotting previously unrecognised connections and freeing the mind to think in novel and agile ways, has an essential part to play in the process of re-introducing polymaths.
One of the things elites and specialists attempt to dismantle first is their connection to the rest of humanity. They believe themselves to be above it and superior, as if they had a different planet on which to live, which will sustain them alone. But they are not separate. We are all on the same planet. Our fate and destiny is in common. When we wreak havoc and violence on any section of humanity, it is our own pool that we are peeing in. We shall reap what we sow. What goes around will come around.
Have the wealthy funded those creative minds and inventors that take personal risks to come up with improvements for humanity? No. They’ve tended, instead, to devote their wealth to the consumption of indulgent, personal luxuries. They’ve chosen opulence, pouring money into their own homes and other money pits that advance the bulk of humanity not one jot.
Inventors and innovators have been left high and dry. Their projects, involving risk, are thought to be anachronistic and quaint investment opportunities, compared to commodities, hedge funds, property or other forms of speculative activity. The real opportunity costs and risks are never actually exposed, in those markets, let alone considered. It’s why we have austerity. As a consequence, creativity that could improve the human condition and our wider environment withers impotently on the vine. Our culture rots, as despair infects hope.
5. The purpose of education is that of giving you the means for upward mobility and success – No it isn’t. Success is not the goal. David Orr says, “The plain fact is that the planet does not need more “successful” people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every shape and form. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these needs have little to do with success, as our culture has defined it.”
Peacemakers are often what artists are. They, through music, acting, images and movies, tell stories about how to live peacefully. Other creative minds come up with knowledge for its own sake, because we are curious creatures that love to learn. We rarely know what our knowledge is even for, or what it is worth, at the point of discovery. It takes years and centuries of further thinking to apply these fundamental discoveries.
Creativity has a pivotal role to play in becoming better healers. Our current medical practices, that seek to cut it out, poison it, burn it or kill it with antibiotics, fail to regard the human organism as a life force, which can be healed by more holistic and gentler, less violent means. We seldom understand or eradicate the root causes. We tend to treat the symptoms in largely cosmetic ways, rather than actually curing people and making them well again, unsupported by repeat prescriptions, endless procedures and eternal treatments. There’s no money in it.
Restorers seek to repair what was damaged. It has already been noted that some things can never be made whole again, but lots of things can, or at least brought back to a similar, acceptable, perhaps even improved state. People that can restore are engaged in fundamentally creative acts of deep practicality, on a daily basis. If your talents are for restoration, this should be your vocation. Why not? Just because it doesn’t attract enough paper trading tokens? Fix the problem with the paper token distribution system, if that is the case.
Acts of love and the creation of beauty is the route toward making our world habitable. Art and artists have a crucial role to play in bringing about this way of acting and thinking.
6. Our culture represents the pinnacle of human achievement – If this is it, then we’re in trouble. War is incessant. The 99% live in austerity. We both create and fail to solve poverty through our insistence on playing a particular kind of monetary and wealth distribution game of our own invention, commonly called “Capitalism” or “Free Markets”.
The truth is that we’ve barely started to create enough beauty, or beautiful lives and standards of living. Most people are enslaved to the needs of finance, on treadmills of one kind or another, just to exist, so that their lives remain viable. The unspoken rule, in our game, is that if you have no money, you must go away and quietly, conveniently die. That’s a callous, heartless, ruthless and ultimately arbitrary rule.
Two in five people have no shoes. Most people are controlled, herded, farmed, terrified, brainwashed and oppressed by their wealthier brethren, like some form of cattle. A small section of the human race utterly preys upon the rest of it.
Culture is a created artefact. We can create any culture we desire. The prevailing culture, predominantly protective as it is of the needs of the elite, is only one of many possible cultures. Creative people are the solution. Creative people can profoundly influence and forge a new culture. It’s what artists do.
Everybody is creative, if their creativity is unlocked. Why shouldn’t we all be pressed into the service of creating a culture whose primary concern is the unlocking of all human creativity? Aqueducts and advanced road system engineering didn’t save the culture of ancient Rome. Bank bailouts and austerity have little better chance of perpetuating the present culture of protecting the elites.
Toward a Solution
Education is no guarantee of decency, prudence, or wisdom, but it is a pre-requisite. Education can be made effective, provided that it is inclusive of all, sincere in its aims and free from subversion for the benefit of elites. It can be the answer, as long as it provides for creative thinking, it permits freedom of thought and expression and it has an ethical dimension. Much present day education is obsessed with the high fidelity regurgitation of received orthodoxies, sufficient to obtain good grades, and insufficiently concerned with vernacular knowledge, by which is meant the knowledge that people have of their places of living and how to live well within them.
Quoting Orr once again, “In the confusion of data with knowledge is a deeper mistake that learning will make us better people. But learning, as Loren Eiseley once said, is endless and “In itself it will never make us ethical [people].” Ultimately, it may be the knowledge of the good that is most threatened by all of our other advances. All things considered, it is possible that we are becoming more ignorant of the things we must know to live well and sustainably on the Earth.”
I believe there is a need for a world renaissance. Creativity and liberty are indivisible. Fund it, foster it and nurture it. Release all our minds to live it. Stop oppressing creative, sentient beings for short-term personal gain. Think about the wider consequences of the elite trying to do all the thinking for a compliant, obedient and pliable mass of unthinking, ignorant people. It just isn’t going to work, is it?
As my wise friend reminded me, even though the 1% (the elites) perpetually attempt to place themselves apart from the great unwashed mass of humanity, the fact is that they are an indivisible part of humanity and the more the rest of us embrace, rather than isolate them, in an attempt to give them the idea that they actually are part of our common destiny, the better all our chances are. We shouldn’t make war on them or seek to exclude them. We have to bring them back into the fold, teach them kindness and mercy and make them part of the solution, not the problem.
The same works for judgemental, intolerant, illiberal terrorists too, actually.
The answer is not, as the fundamentalists of all flavours and stripes hold, to restrict and constrain human creativity, freedom, expression, ideas and innovations. Too much modernity is not the problem; too little is. We haven’t considered our new technologies carefully enough or designed our industrial societies to be benign enough.
Authoritarians seek to limit the agency of large populations in the interests of stability and order, in the mistaken belief that they alone possess sufficient insight and wisdom to maintain human affairs within proscribed bounds and thus manage the planet. As we can see from the above discussion, this philosophy has vanity and deliberate ignorance at its heart. Nobody has a monopoly on knowledge.
Do the mathematics. If you learn ten new things a day for 80 years, that’s only 292,000 things. Not enough. But multiply that by 6 billion, even allowing for a 90% overlap in shared knowledge, and you get 29,200 things known uniquely by each person. This equates to 1.75 times 10 to the 14th unique pieces of knowledge. This is my argument against tyrannical totalitarian authoritarianism. Even if each human only learns 292 unique things each, or even 2, that’s still 1.75 x 10 to the 10th unique things. Imagine what can be solved with 12 billion unique ideas and insights.
It’s why the 1% ought not to seek to run everything. They lack the wisdom, the insight, the technology, the ideas and the agency, by several orders of magnitude, even if we generously ignore their reputed tendency toward indolence, in the pursuit of learning ten new things a day, as a group.
Creativity is what can save us, but first we need to recognise its potency and to change our culture, our institutions and our assumptions, so that we unleash as much creativity as is possible, using those alive today that can think and create and every piece of wisdom our forebears wrote down for us to read. Here’s to the awakening of enlightenment.