It’s All Relative

An Era of Consideration
January 22, 2009, 8:13 pm
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Stanley Fish’s January 18th New York Times blog post suggests that higher education is best described as study for study’s sake. That is to say: the classic tradition of liberal education is one that teaches thought process without regard to an instrumentalized application of such practices. Fish’s concurs with a former student’s new book in saying that the virtues of such education are being inevitably squeezed out of the educational market by the forces of efficiency and profit. If a thing can’t be directly and immediately used to make a buck, then it will disappear. Essentially, he suggests that the era of non-trade focused education is over because we are too short sighted to maintain it.


His conclusions are sadly pessimistic and short sighted and neglect the sea change in priorities that crisis both creates and demonstrates. The current crisis in our economy and ideological shift in our politics that Barack Obama is both carried by and leading onward are clear evidence that the pendulum has reached the outer limit of its swing and prepares now to return to an era of deliberate reflection and critical thought.


The current crisis and this generation’s religious awakening to politics is the high end of a necessary historical cycle. The regard for critical thinking as a general skill and education as a deep and non-measurable public good has always risen and fallen in regard to the current economic climate. The virtues of straight-forward knowledge-application will forever take a higher place when their rewards are easy and immediate. They drop in status as we find that the promises they made – of happiness, goodness, and optimistic future – fall flat. The greed and short sightedness of the last decade may well make it seem that liberal education and the virtue of a balanced and considering mind has fallen by the way side, but the crisis itself is the herald of a changing tide.


The inspiration that this nation has found in the voice and ideas of educated men and women is proof that the triumph of instrumentalized education has been falsely observed. Obama’s election forces us to examine any judgment that we are too short sighted and sadly materialistic to change our point of view. As Obama said in his inauguration speech, cynics are unaware that the ground has already shifted beneath them.


This kind of myopic predicting follows the same logic of those who could see no horizon for housing prices, no end to the stock boom. Each movement down a continuum is viewed as evidence of a final trajectory and the predictions made from the measurement of such angles inevitably become fantasy as the moderating present softens and rebuffs the blows of perceived social direction. Like the images of flying cars and personal rocket packs that floated in the public imagination of a 1950’s fixated on a functionally political and decidedly symbolic space race, the idea that a cultured and enlightened mind has outlived it’s usefulness is a reading based on an untenable trajectory, one that has already proven false.


Action without consideration – confidence without vulnerability – will always reveal itself as hollow. The comfort and certainty of the present that allows confidence to build to hubristic levels is always built on forgotten achievements of the past. The struggles that those before us have made to find what is right, to choose what is just, to create a system that reflects our own belief in individual consciousness and the respect such parallel awareness demands, have always shaped who and how we are.


The progress of human society is one toward increasing equality, choice and mutual respect. History attests to the truth of this fact. We fall short and decry the moral bankruptcy of each ‘modern’ age, but our children and our children’s children continually find themselves just a little further down the road towards an embrace of common humanity.


The fundamental daily tasks of human life are moral ones. They imply and inevitably include consideration and reflection. We are able to conceive of ourselves as separate from our perspective because we can imagine the perspectives of others. Our ability to imagine ourselves as an object in a world of other perceiving minds is the most fundamental base of our moral systems. It forces us to question and test our internal emotions and judgments and fundamentally informs our conduct in the world. This process is one of critical thinking in the most general sense because the individual circumstances, examples and settings we must attempt to include in our calculations are endless.


The consideration that is involved in each tiny choice, from opening the door for another person, to refusing to interrupt despite our own enthusiasm, from smiling at a child whose open stare greets us in public space to the most basic conventions of polite conversation, each and every tiny part of how we relate to one another has to do with our own ability to consider ourselves as objects in the world and to attempt to extrapolate from that a way to act that quiets the voice of the outside that we have created or imagined or simply connected to within our own mind.


This is the most basic and continuous task of human existence.


It may well be that it is only in times of crisis that we truly consider and examine critically the voice that justifies and explains our own behavior to us, even as we enact it in the world. And it may well be that the idea of ourselves as a perspective mediating itself with the imagined perspectives of others is so complex that we will never truly and completely understand it. Regardless, times like this force us to try and such efforts demand the kind of consideration and critical thinking that liberal education provides.


Booms like the one that has crashed down so completely help us to forget that our perspective more than reports our world, it constructs it.


And in some ways we need to forget. The analysis and over-examination of our own presence as perceived by others in the world can paralyze us. It is the fluidity of our perspective and its ability to prioritize and ignore details that allows us rapid and instinctual movement when it is required.


The forgetting of how potentially non-real our reality is can allow us to travel so far into ourselves that we are enacting a fantasy of our own mind. It is at this point that crisis inevitably and dramatically contradicts us and we remember once again that we must trust our own perspective of the world, but not too much. We must buy in and commit to our own faiths, but not at the price of our conscience. We must live through the eyes that filter our reality, but we must never cease to imagine that there are eyes different than our own and realities that show different truths.


We can never entirely ascend beyond our own construction of ourselves in the world, but we can learn habits of thought and standards of proof that tether that construction to something heavier than ourselves. It is for this reason that I believe the value and the future of liberal education – of the virtue of consideration – has been sadly and drastically underestimated by Mr. Fish and his student.


The movement between consideration and action is the most fundamental of humanity. Each provides the other their value and demonstrates the truth of the unspoken compact that binds them.


We enter now, I hope, I believe, a great period of consideration. A time of scarcity and fear and crisis that pulls us back again from the natural acceptance of what we perceive. And in this space we will find once again that the knives we had formerly used to dissect our experience of the world have dulled. In their place we have – for an unsustainable period – used divisors that relied on perceived power and shouted sharpness instead of honest and qualitative meaning.


The division between government and the unseen hand of markets. The price of public health and the social calculus that decides whose burden must be greater and whose should be lifted. The simple idea of what composes a good and decent life. What we owe each person by virtue of their birth. What we owe each other by virtue of our shared existence. What we – as a people, as a species, as a force – mean to this world. How much we are a part of it, how much of us dies with its’ disregard.


These are deep and abiding questions. They are complex and forceful and will demand more of us than we have given in recent years. This crisis is the turning of the tide; the consideration that will yield action; the torturous thinking that will allow us future good fortune and continued moral progress.


And even this will only enable another period of hubristic excess. Having considered and struggled and overcome we will fully and faithfully follow the trajectory we have sketched. And we will, inevitably, find ourselves off course once again.


But in the meantime, the most demanding and honest of tasks has been appointed to us. To the people of this time, to the minds and hearts and bodies of this moment, ours is a tremendous opportunity, an enormous weight and a joyous exploration.


To choose this path – despite the inevitability of its eventual miscalculation – is a tremendous honor and a powerful responsibility. It is one we should be honored and humbled to accept, and one that we must undertake with the most serious intention.