Saturday, March 05, 2016

On the Temporally Atomized Individual

Because he said I could share it, I am going to share this Facebook comment made by Mikhail Voloshin. I am sharing it because he nails so much of what is taking place in the world, especially the West, today and I didn't ever want to lose it:

The Western education system has become very bad at producing people *who feel themselves to be part of Western civilization*. Or of civilization of any kind, for that matter.

The point of being able to answer questions about Plato or Beckett or Chaucer, as the author uses as examples, has nothing to do with being able to show off esoteric knowledge and playing a game of I'm-smarter-than-you. It has to do with understanding the shared experience of countless generations, and being in a position to continue to build upon that edifice.

Humans are utterly unique in our ability to communicate life experiences from one generation to the next. In a sense, the advent of language has granted our species biological immortality.

So when you study Plato, and Chaucer, and Newton, and Erasmus, and Locke, and Schopenhauer, and Bach, and Turing, and Lewis... You're not merely accumulating facts. You are, in fact, retracing the steps of people who have lived full lives before you, and you are absorbing those lives into your own. You are, in essence, fast-forwarding through thousands of years of human life; discovering things that you yourself might discover eventually if you were biologically eternal, but it might take you literally millions of years to accumulate the sum total of the experience at your disposal right here and now.

And this accumulation of experience doesn't just confer knowledge, but also wisdom. The humans who have lived before you didn't *just* figure out why crops grow or how gravity works and what disease is. They also pondered questions like, "What is virtue?" "What sort of things are worth being upset about, and what can I let slide?" "When is it okay to intervene in the actions of other people?" "When is it *obligatory* to do so?" These are *extremely* difficult questions, and people throughout history have spent entire lifetimes working on solutions. You can try to discover them yourself, but you'd literally have to spend millennia catching up. The whole point of being a participant in a civilization is to download past minds into your own, internalize their train of thought, and pick up where they left off. And, of course, to speak literately with present people who are in likewise the same position, because all of you are trying to answer the same problems together -- in effect, you're each extensions of one great mind.

And different civilizations represent different collections of great individuals, having left off at different points and coming to different tentative conclusions.

This is most blatantly obvious when one looks at Muslim civilization. For all of Islam's faults, what gives it strength is its ability to unify three billion people with a common history, a common set of heroes and villains, and a common set of perspectives about how life should be lived. And while the state of literacy and education in the Muslim world is beyond miserable, every Muslim is able to answer questions like, "What do you believe? Why do you believe it? What templates do you use in deciding how to interact with people and the world?" (Part of the reason why Islam is so popular, especially among the poor and uneducated, and why it spreads so quickly, is that the answers it provides are exceedingly simple.)

Likewise, the Jews are able to answer this question very directly. While the Muslim answer for everything is, "What would Mohammed do?" (with some additional interpretation and extrapolation by various subsequent philosophers), the Jews have a much more complex system of both written and oral tradition that can take decades to internalize (there are books in Jewish mysticism that you're literally not allowed to read until you're at least 40 years old, on the premise that there's no way you can be ready for it until then and exposure to the knowledge would be wasted on you). It's a much more complicated answer, but it's one of the most complete examples of civilizational coherence in the modern world. Essentially this means that every Jew, to one extent or another, is a continuation of the consciousness of every Jew that came before us; and we can answer questions about meaning and virtue with precise citations of ancient philosophers almost as though these were answers that we ourselves came to. As I said before, that is why we remind ourselves every Passover, "*I* was a slave in Egypt, and God delivered *me* to salvation."

This is where the article, and Troy, come in. Schools today, in general, *do not teach* the intellectual and philosophical underpinnings of Western civilization. They teach the present tentative conclusions, but they fail to connect those conclusions with the process that produced them; which not only leaves these conclusions void and pointless, but also leaves the student in no position to expand upon them. Even in the rare instances where students today are able to talk about, say, the writings of Thomas Acquinas, they typically do so by reciting a few Cliff's Notes takeaways; they don't *put themselves inside the mind of Acquinas* to understand how he came to his beliefs; they don't imagine themselves to be dressed in thick wool robes in a monastery in medieval Europe, bent over a candlelit desk, reading encyclicals on parchment delivered by horseback pages from the Holy See. Same goes for the writings of the Founding Fathers, or the speeches of Cicero, or the drafting of the Magna Carta. At *best*, they are willing to project themselves into the personae of black protesters during the Civil Rights movement, but even then it's a distorted simplification of something that happened *within living memory*; after all, if you think you can understand the mind of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. without understanding the mind of Martin Luther, you're in for some unpleasant revalations.

My point is this: If you ask a Westerner today, "What templates do you use in determining how to act with regard to other people and the world?", most would literally have no answer; and the few who do, are likely to cite a cartoonish Manichean Marxist Foucault-ist template along the lines of, "Well, it's easy: In every interaction between human beings, there is always an oppressor and there is always someone being oppressed, and the former is bad and the latter is good, and they are both defined by superficial and plainly observable physical characteristics..." For many in the West today, it's as though all of Western civilization started only in the mid-1800s with the publication of "Das Kapital". Or in the 1960s with the Civil Rights Movement. Or, from the POV of Millennials, there was no Western philosophical tradition before Tumblr. Some of the *extremely* well-versed can trace their beliefs back to perhaps Robespierre, but you can probably fit in my apartment all the people in America who have actually read him.

And don't think I'm only attacking the Left here, either. Conservatives at least can solidly trace their beliefs back to figures like John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, but ask them to go older than that and things start to get fuzzy.

My point, and the article's point, and Troy's point, is that Millennials in general have a weaker connection to the origins of the contents of their heads than any previous generation in Western history; you'd have to look at pre-literate Germanic tribes before you find people who knew less about who they are or where they came from. The question is not whether or not they can program a computer; the question is whether or not they see themselves as heirs in the line of logical minds, from Aristotle to Occam to Russell to Turing to Hopper to Knuth, who led in sequence to the very program that the kid is writing right now. The question is not whether or not they can play a piano, but whether or not they feel themselves personally to be extensions of Pythagoras and Arezzo and Bach and Brahms. The question is not whether they can point to a case of people committing violence and say, "This is Bad," but whether they personally have the wisdom inherent from sharing in the collective memories of millions of people over thousands of years so that they can form a cogent and meaningful understanding of *why* it's bad.

And for the most part... No. No, they cannot.

This observation needs to be developed. And it needs to be read and understood by everyone. 
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