The University of Noesis
It has been a while since my last blog on education. Being back in the classroom after a three month hiatus on sabbatical has refreshed my sense of mourning for the loss of education with a human purpose, as opposed to training for getting a job. In that vein I can only dream of a future, after the bottleneck, when more sapient humans have reorganized a social structure based on true understanding.
Back in June 2009, I mused about the possibility of a sapient society which would be organized according to my notions of hierarchical management (you can find a whole series about sapient governance here). At the core of this sapient society would be an institution resembling today's university, called The University of Noesis (for a review of the noetic - knowledge - hierarchy, take a look at: "What Is Knowledge - The Noetic Hierarchy). I put knowledge at the epitome of what a society should be, and hence, a university — a place of learning and discovery — at the center of such a society.
I'd like to flesh out this idea a bit more. How might a university actually take the place of what we think of now as a government, at least the highest offices, and how would it be structured to serve a sapient society. Remember, this is all premised on the notion that humans will have evolved to be much more sapient than is the current case. I have no illusions that what I envision here could ever take hold in societies comprised of the current species. For the moment then, consider it an exercise in futuristic science fiction.
Knowledge and the power to do good
Even among us Homo pseudosapiens (my binomial nomenclature version for the current extant species) we recognize that knowledge is power. Where we tend to go wrong is in conceptualizing that power as an ability to work our wills on other. We think of using that power for our own individual betterment or aggrandizement rather than how it can be used for the maintenance and possible betterment of our societies. Oh, yes, there have been leaders who have gained power with the intent to do good. But there is also tremendous truth in the saying that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Even a man like Lincoln, who in my opinion may have been the last 'wise' American President (OK, Franklin Roosevelt might have had a smattering) might have gone bad had he not been assassinated. Same for John Kennedy. These presidents were popular (and also hated in some corners - obviously) and after their deaths we have elevated them to fairly high stature. But my own suspicions are that men like these would have eventually succumbed to tendencies toward autocratism. Popularity and power seem to give men in office a license to rule with more of an iron fist. Look at the Bush/Cheney duo (if they had gone to a costume party dressed as a horse, guess which one would have been the head!)
Knowledge has always had this two-edged sword aspect. We learned how to split atoms and proceeded to build a bomb; actually quite a few bombs as it turned out. We learned how to produce fertilizers from natural gas and oil and proceeded to revolutionize agriculture enabling the doubling of population in less than a human lifetime. We invented this really promising communications technology called television and proceeded to dumb down our minds with it. Same comment about this medium I'm currently using — the Internet! Adam was reported to have taken a bite of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. I think he must have gotten his bite from the evil side.
Wisdom surely must be in how one uses knowledge for the good of all. And today there are simply few to no wise leaders to guide our governments in the constructive use of knowledge. We don't elect wise people to office because they are not valued in our modern societies the way they were in more ancient times (and I mean before the rise of civilizations). Wisdom isn't an easy thing to spot if you aren't just a little wise yourself. If you are wise enough you will recognize really powerful wisdom in someone else just as now we can recognize intelligence and creativity in others who posses more of those capacities than we do ourselves1. Alas, most of the electorate do not possess even a smattering of wisdom so that they can recognize it in others and recognize the value of it for society. Instead they recognize charisma and identify with candidates who they imagine to be somewhat like themselves. The rednecks could imagine having a beer with Bush while watching a NASCAR race of TV. Many folks, revolted by the heartlessness that became apparent in Bush turned to Obama as someone who really cared and represented change. Of course, no one knew exactly what kind of change to expect, but as long as it was different from Bush! We could even tolerate the fact that Obama seemed to be smarter than the average bear.
The last example of a wise leader that I can remember was Nelson Mandela. When he took office it must have been tempting to him to want to exact revenge on the apartheid-believing whites in South Africa. They had certainly abused him over the years. But he resisted any such temptation and sought reconciliation instead, helping that nation transition from the former cruel exclusive white rule to one in which peoples of all colors could participate. And then he retired without taking advantage of his power.
Unfortunately this indictment of government applies equally well to universities and education in general. One might think that the university environment would attract wise individuals, or those with the potential to acquire wisdom over their lives. Indeed, I have met many more people in academia who seemed to me to be excellent candidates for being considered wise, certainly more wise than the general populace. However, these are rarely the ones who end up as academic administrators. The latter positions seemed to be peopled by individuals who follow the same pattern as politicians, and more recently, business executives. They are definitely smart or clever. But they make many foolish decisions. Want proof? Just take a look at the conditions of the modern university (both public and private). Universities are being corporatized. University presidents are commanding increasingly substantial salaries, many more times greater than that of full professors or even deans. The current culture of education is that students are kinds of customers and faculty are held accountable for performance standards. The latter is a societal response (or knee jerk) to perceived declines in universities being able to crank out more cogs for the economic wheels. In general the public wants their sons and daughters to go to college so that they can get good, high paying jobs. Well, when wisdom is missing from the social milieu, I guess this makes sense.
So the modern university is not actually a model for a noetic core. But the original conceptualization of what a university could be remains viable. We just need wise sages to be the directors.
Colleges and schools are operational units that provide an important perspective on knowledge. Today they seem to act more like silos for specialization, particularly the so-called professional schools. Nearly everyone accepts, today, the dictum that we all have to specialize in something, that no one can know everything needed to be a successful generalist. Hardly anyone questions this dictum. It would seem to be self-evident and therefore beyond questioning, like an axiom in mathematics. Well I question it. It isn't that someone can be a master of any specialization. You still need to focus in on particulars to achieve expertise. What I question is the way in which this is accomplished to the exclusion of a broad generalist education. In my series on the science of systems I have tried to argue that there is a fundamental and universal set of principles that can be applied to all other areas of knowledge. If students were to learn these principles as principles early in their lives they would be in a much better position to pursue essentially anything they found of interest. Learning systems science necessarily involves exposure to many different fields of study for examples to show the universality of the language of systems. This gives students a Rosetta Stone, a common language that allows translations across specific fields of study. At my campus we are perennially agonizing over the desire to have real interdisciplinary research and curriculum. I just participated in another such 'conversation' the other day. I didn't say anything. I just listened to what others were saying. Sadly the same old voices complained about the same old problems (barriers to implementation - lack of financial resources) and never once raised the possibility that the whole issue was improperly framed. I maintain a simple position on this. If you are naturally inclined to think of knowledge as integrated and practice interdisciplinarity as a matter of course, the rest will follow. If you can only imagine interdisciplinarity as being achieved by team teaching a course (very expensive to do) with the hope that each of the professors will bring their disciplinary perspective and the mashup will somehow convey this sense of integrated understanding to students, then you are guaranteed to fail. Every professor should first achieve interdisciplinary thinking in his or her own head before trying to teach multiple subjects. There used to be several terms for people who had mastered several disciplines. We called them Renaissance men (back then there were no references to Renaissance women, but such did exist!) or, more recently, polymaths2.
A sapient college would be an academy of polymathic sages, seers, and philosophers (a PhD literally means a doctorate of philosophy; guess how many required philosophy courses are taken by modern doctoral students!) who have agreed to look at the wealth of knowledge from a general perspective. I can think of three in particular:
- College of Science
- College of Esthetics
- College of Practical Arts
As I would envision it every student would learn systems science in their pre-college years (K-12 under our current system). They would do this by exploring their interests under the guidance of coaches and tutors (the word teacher is no longer descriptive of the kind of mentor-like personage I have in mind). Then they would begin their in-earnest and in-depth exploration of life, knowledge, and understanding by attending sessions from all three colleges. By iterating over the years through these three perspectives students should become more polymathic. And with the predominant role model being the wise persons professing, students should be on their way to realizing their potential as sapient beings.
The Rings of Noesis
The University of Noesis would be organized in a set of concentric rings, similar to the societal architecture suggested in A Sapient Society. I imagine there would be at least three rings, probably more. The outermost ring would be essentially what we today would recognize as the baccalaureate level. This is the ring through which most of the populace would go. It is sometimes hard to remember that level of sapience and level of intelligence and creativity, while correlated to some degree, are definitely not the same thing. Some of our wisest examples in history have been simple people with basic intelligence. One does not need to be a genius to be wise. I expect this will continue to be the case in that distant imagined future sapient society. Not everyone will need to attain higher levels of formal education. If I am right about the nature of sapience, people will learn how to become lifelong self-learners through this outer ring level. They will continue to seek intellectual and aesthetic satisfactions in learning new things and new skills throughout their lives. They will be the citizens contributing to the work being done in the outer ring of the societal architecture. With the kind of education envisioned here every person should be able to learn any number of jobs and not be stuck in a mind-numbing one.
The next inner ring, equivalent to the Master's degree in today's universities, would be for people who have higher levels of both sapience and cleverness that will be needed for them to perform duties in the second ring of the societal architecture, the tactical and logistical governance, arts and letters, science and technology, etc.
The inner ring is where those very special people with the highest levels of sapience would essentially go into an extended apprenticeship for the strategic level of governance in society. This would include people who will spend their time in later life being the guides and teachers in the other rings. Unlike a PhD today, this education is to prepare people to be the leaders and societal trustees in the future. The best and brightest, most sapient, would eventually become the wise council of elders. There need be no particular time limit on this education (or on the other rings either). The important thing is to build a lifetime of tacit knowledge that will contribute to their abilities to guide society.
Duties Not Classes
The segregation of people into levels of education based on different competencies need not imply a class-based social milieu. The very nature of sapience precludes pseudusapiens' ambitions, competitions for prestige, and most certainly aggregated wealth from coming into play in the social dynamic. Once a certain level of wisdom obtains, it will become clear to all (except possible throwbacks if they exist!) that self aggrandizement helps no one in the end. Rather a sapient being sees their education and the work they do as duties to mankind. Today's humans cannot live in a truly socialistic system so this image of a functioning society is impossible. Those who rail against socialism recognize this even if they are not able to see beyond our current biological limitations and imagine a world in which life could be lived in this kind of harmony. They intuitively know that we are not prone to socialism because of our limbic drives that are still more powerful than our judgment and moral sentiments (sapience). They are, essentially, just being realists in this regard.
The Objective of Education
In the end there is only one real objective to education. And that is to allow all of the members of society live in harmony while each individual reaches a self-actualized state, essentially enlightenment.
This should be true even for us poor pseudosapiens but unfortunately we aren't wise enough to see it or do it. As a result our impulses to produce something called an education system come up short of the ideal objective. But we are doing the best we can under the circumstances. No one is to blame for the state of affairs. We are evolving culturally and biologically and have started from ignorance. We humans haven't actually done such a bad job considering how evolution works. So I don't want to sound like I am beating up my colleagues or society in general. The problem is that we just haven't yet reached a stage where we can get beyond what now seems like petty human foibles. We've always had a sense that we are sinners, imperfect beings striving for something more perfect. Most of our major religions teach something along these lines. But we didn't have the depth of knowledge of evolution, biology, neruopsychology, etc. to see that our imperfections are inherent for now. My great hope is that there are more than a small number of people out there who can grasp this limitation for what it is and also recognize that transcending it will require more evolution. Our species must give rise to something new and more along the lines of a sapient being.
Additionally it would be nice if we pseudosapiens could use our intellects (which are quite developed) to see this and take action to help the process along. It would be like an investment in the future of humanity. Sometimes investments require sacrifice in the present (bankers are apparently excluded from this generalization). It also requires appreciating that the payoff of the investment will more than compensate our genus as a whole. And the best investment I can imagine is one in a noetic university precursor.
Knowledge and the Guidance of Society
It might not be obvious but the guidance (governance) of society emerges quite naturally from a system in which citizens are educated in the manner I'm describing and from the fact that they are all truer sapients than we currently have in our species.
Unlike our current views of a government as an authoritarian entity able to tax and enforce rules, a sapient society's governance flows from the knowledge shared among all citizens and the sense of duty toward fellow humans. Thus, unlike a traditional bureaucratic hierarchy with top-down command and control the sapient governance emerges naturally from education.
I once received a very bit of sage advice from Buckminster Fuller when I was still a young man. I asked him how one gets to be a generalist and he told me this. "Look for something that needs doing that no one else seems to be taking care of, and take care of it yourself." He then added, "And never compete with anyone."
That last bit isn't always easy to do. But I have found that this advice was a key to what successes I've enjoyed in life. I always suspected Bucky was a eusapient being.
1 Both intelligence and creativity usually surface early in the life of an individual and are easily recognized by the behavior and successful works accomplished by these individuals. Wisdom is much harder to detect in younger people because it depends greatly on the accumulation of tacit knowledge acquired over the better part of a lifetime. There are a few traits that begin to emerge in early life that could be used as signs of potential wisdom, such as moral competence, early tendencies to think strategically, and so on (see the sapience series).
2 In the submarine Navy sailors are expected to learn the workings of all of the various systems that comprise the submarine! In certain cases this involves not only knowing how the systems work but also some of the basic principles upon which they are based. The reason is very practical. A submarine is essentially a long, skinny can with limited access between compartments. In their daily lives sailors have to perform duties in many if not all compartments forward, amidships, and aft. Should an emergency occur the compartment doors are shut immediately to prevent flooding or fires from spreading. That means a sailor may find himself stuck in a compartment he would not ordinarily spend a lot of time in. And every sailor has to be able to do whatever is necessary to fight the emergency. Thus every sailor has to know what to do to shut down valves or switches or know where emergency gear is stowed no matter where they find themselves. To achieve this level of knowledge requires every sailor to go through rigorous study and on-the-job training until they can prove to a panel of previously qualified personnel that they are equally qualified. Upon qualification they receive their badge of achievement, highly regarded by every other submariner, their dolphins.