Does our education system have the tools to stall the looming disaster?
Michel Foucault’s philosophy is based on the premise that human knowledge and existence are profoundly historical. He argues that what is most human about man is his history. He has discussed the notions of history, change and historical method at some length at various points in his career.
Foucault caused concern among his readers in controverting an idea of history understood as a progressive and linear accumulation of moments that tend to be summarised in a final telos of meaning. Rather, he described it as traversed by leaps that make any causal or continuous explanation of events impossible.
Such discontinuity prevented any sense from conferring the historical course. In The Order of Things (1970), the succession of one episteme by another (from the Classical Age to the Renaissance, and thus to modernity) is not progressive (linear/ connected). Instead it involves abrupt breaks in deep layers that make the emergence of discourses on truth possible.
When Foucault articulated this rather obfuscated interpretation of the course of history, it was regarded as a figment of his philosophical imagination that hardly made sense to many engaged with the discipline of history. Today his assertion does not seem unreasonably farfetched. Fast paced change may well transform the basic structure of life, making discontinuity its most salient feature.
For many centuries, human life has been divided into two complementary phases: a phase of learning and a phase of putting the lessons learnt to practice. In the first phase of life an individual tends to accumulate information, learn skills, construct a worldview and form a stable identity. In the next phase of life, he/ she puts these accumulated skills to use, earn a living and contribute to the welfare of his/ her family and the improvement of the society.
In the second phase of life, the learning does not stop but it amounts mostly to a refinement of earlier learning. Now that the first quarter of the 21st Century is on the verge of conclusion, accelerating change coupled with longer lifespans will consign this model to obsolescence. “Life will come apart at the seams” and the continuity between different parts of life will cease to exist.
Fast paced change is likely to create greater stress. As we can observe in our daily lives, change is immensely irksome and after a certain age people just don’t like to change. At an advanced stage in one’s life, stability is what one hankers for. After having invested heavily in acquiring and then refining one’s skills, building a career, identity, and a worldview, one would hardly like to start all over again. The harder one has worked on building something, the more daunting it is to let go of it and make room for something new.
Having said that, in the third decade of the 21st Century, stability will likely go out of vogue. Holding on to a stable job, identity or worldview will be rendered superfluous. To stay relevant, economically as well as socially, people will need the ability to constantly learn and to reinvent themselves even if they are at an advanced age. This will be a continuous process.
Strangeness will be the new normal. The past experiences of an individual and of humanity will not be reliable guides for the future. Humans already have to deal with things like super-intelligent machines, engineered bodies, algorithms capable of manipulating human emotions, climate cataclysms, etc. The question that stares humanity in the face is what is the right thing to do while facing an entirely unprecedented situation?
A lot of mental flexibility and great reserves of emotional balance are required to sustain and survive in such a world. Humans will repeatedly have to let go of some of what they know best and feel at home with the unknown. Instructing children to embrace the unknown and to keep their mental balance is far more difficult than teaching them a law of physics.
One does not learn resilience by reading books or listening to a lecture. Most teachers themselves lack mental flexibility that the contemporary era demands simply because they themselves are the products of a worn-out system of education. Even 4 Cs don’t have the answers to the challenges posed to humans by the new phenomena conjured up by technological advancement.
The fear is that humans will lose control over super-intelligent machines. If that happens, the human progress will have been nothing but the way to hell paved with good intentions. Does our education system have the tools to stall such a disaster that the fast paced progress is so likely to beset us with? More importantly, what will be the future of history as a discipline in an unprecedented scenario?
Ever since the industrial revolution, history along with literature and philosophy, has played a vital role of balancing instruments. I may be audacious to claim that it is because of these disciplines that humans managed to respond to new situations created by scientific discoveries and technological advancement. These have been the sources of adaptability the human societies needed to derive emotional balance.
But the challenges warranted by the 21st Century call for new solutions. What if human societies come to be run and managed by machines? The disciplines of humanities will then apparently cease to be of any use. I hope and wish that these apprehensions are no more than delusions and that human societies continue to be managed by humans themselves. I also pray that the cherished values of empathy, kindness and camaraderie among fellow humans are not only sustained but also continue to grow.
The author is a professor of history and a writer. He can be reached at tahir.kamranbnu.edu.pk