Liberal education is often about individual development and personal growth. In the wonderful, well-researched, short but stout book In Defense of a Liberal Education, noted columnist and historian Fareed Zakaria laments that the humanities are no longer as popular as they were in America’s more prosperous decades. As manufacturing is under severe threat and jobs are increasingly lost to foreign countries or automation, Zakaria maintains that “to succeed today, you need creativity, lateral thinking, communication skills, and, more than anything, the ability to keep learning – precisely the gifts of a liberal education.” In chapter five, entitled “Knowledge and Power”, the author looks at humanity’s progress and connects it to some of the skills that liberal arts education can inculcate in the young. In addition to my summary of the highlights, many quotations relevant to knowledge and progress will be presented. What follows is a summary and review of chapter five of this engaging book.
Here is the summary of chapter one, if you wish to start there.
As well, it is recommended you buy the book, and this summary is only meant to whet your appetite for the real thing.
“There is no doubt that we are making rapid and ongoing progress in the areas of scientific knowledge and technological skill. However, reflection on another aspect of our contemporary situation makes it evident that no corresponding progress has been achieved in practical wisdom.” ~ P. Don Premasiri
Zakaria begins his paean to knowledge and progress on page 135 with: “If ignorance is bliss, why do people want knowledge? This is a question with a long pedigree in Western culture.” He goes on to refer to Prometheus bringing fire down from Mount Olympus to benighted humanity, and what important symbolism that is. As well, Zeus, as you may know, was very angry Prometheus would enlighten his fellow man. Apparently, knowledge and progress was not something the ancient Greeks imagined their gods were particularly fond of humans pursuing. Pandora and her box of ugly things was also offered as relevant. Prometheus’s gift was greater than I knew:
“Prometheus’s fire may have been a metaphor for knowledge. In Aeschylus’s version of the legend, in addition to the burning branch, Prometheus introduced humans to the arts, including writing, mathematics, astronomy, architecture, and medicine. In other words, Prometheus decided to bring a liberal arts curriculum down from the heavens….” It was noted that in doing so, he and humans would “pay a dreadful price for it.”
Adam and Eve are mentioned as well. Though he comes off as a little dramatic, it is true that humanity’s evolution-based development and the growing quest for knowledge and progress is so very different than the other animals that one would believe that it had a divine spark (if one thought along those lines). He goes on in the chapter to chart the history of mankind’s path; the ups and downs; the joys and the sorrows resultant from opening our eyes and coming down from the trees.
“Do you remember how electrical currents and “unseen waves” were laughed at? The knowledge about man is still in its infancy.” ~ Albert Einstein
The idea that knowledge is a two-edged sword, or dangerous, or uncontrollable, is an interesting take on knowledge and progress, which can of course be viewed in a much more positive light. He notes that “…non-Western cultures do not have equivalent myths about the perils of learning. There are some similar stories in other civilizations, but nothing with the import of the tale of Prometheus or the biblical fall of man.” He conjectures it might be due to the West’s overweening curiosity and quest for improvement, thus creating a sense of dread for what we might have wrought. You know, hubris and such. Clearly, the myth of Icarus is about as straightforward a warning against going too far and seeking what one should not be seeking as can be found.
The idea of “ignorance is bliss” is traced to the poet who penned the line, and he indicates that though there is risk, and the possibility for sorrow and failure, “we keep asking questions and searching for answers.” Yes, we do. “Ignorance is not bliss; it is oblivion” ~ Philip Wylie.
“Real progress and real reform won’t happen without an understanding of the real truth.” ~ Bob Herbert
Zakaria points out the Cicero “believed it was in our nature to be ‘drawn to the pursuit of knowledge.'” John Stuart Mill conjectured that “It is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig, satisfied,” pointing to how simple pleasures can seem boring, vacuous, and inglorious. He also shows that Richard Dawkins sees “the big brain [humans developed] as the single largest point of differentiation between human beings and other animals.” Jacob Bronowski is alluded to, noting in The Ascent of Man that man is “a singular creature…not a figure in the landscape; a shaper of the landscape.” Bertrand Russell is used to point out that “science is what we know, and philosophy is what we don’t know.”
Humankind’s progress through stages of hunting/gathering, farming, war, and civilization-creation are mentioned. Naturally, when it comes to knowledge and progress, few were as remarkable as the ancient Athenians and their virtual invention of the idea of philosophy (philos + Sophos = love of wisdom). Socrates is absolutely emblematic of the rise and fall that the quest for truth, wisdom, and development can bring. It’s a tragedy, really. Glorious, but considering humankind’s dark side, tragic.
“Plato originated the idea that the search for knowledge is the highest value, so that a meaningful life is the life of knowledge – particularly philosophical knowledge, because this was of the highest things, what he called the Forms. Ignorance, for Plato, was something we must strive to overcome. We must seek to understand reality as it is, avoiding comforting myths and narrow perspectives.”
“The Greeks posited all kinds of causes for natural phenomena, often attributing them to gods and goddesses, but also to physical and biological factors.” As I mentioned, philosophers such as Socrates, and his student Plato, thought that though there was “a god” and “forms” – somewhere out there in the ether – humans are a proper subject of study, and, as Protagoras said, “Man is the measure of all things.” Zakaria adds: “Over the course of the centuries, scientific inquiry – theorizing, experimentation, observation – rejected, corrected, and amended many of these theories. We no longer think that there are spirits in the trees, that the Sun God rides his chariot across the skies….” William R. Inge wrote: “The fruit of the tree of knowledge always drives man from some paradise or other.”
“Progress in technology and medicine certainly has dark side effects,” Zakaria asserts. Absolutely. “The chief obstacle to the progress of the human race is the human race” pointed out Don Marquis. Cloning, fake news, nuclear war, environmental degradation due to the rapacious aspects of industrial and commercial capitalism, and moral dilemmas of all kinds plague us. The author remains sanguine, noting that Steven Pinker, in The Better Angels of Our Nature, posits that modern times are the most peaceful ever. It is true, I think, that hunger is at an all-time low if one takes the long view.
Indeed, I suppose the evidence does show, on the whole, that “over the last five hundred years, however, the consequences of knowledge have been positive, and over the last two hundred, staggeringly positive.” This does exclude the fact that sex slavery is a big problem in America – what, 150 years after we outlawed slavery in this country? Or the threats of artificial intelligence, Facebook being intended to be addictive, and capitalism wringing every last drop of sanctity out of nature. Physicist David Bohm goes further than I would, but it’s still worth considering: “Every instrument that man has invented, discovered, or developed has been turned toward destruction.”
“Science has made extraordinary progress in solving what Nicholas Maxwell calls the first great problem of learning — how to acquire reliable knowledge of the world — but has made little or no progress in helping us to solve the second — how to achieve global wisdom and civilization.” ~ Mathew Iredale
We have undoubtedly advanced in both knowledge and progress. On page 142, Zakaria points to the macabre example of 17th-century English monarch, Charles II. Obviously, this man would receive the best medical care in all the shire. He had a mild stroke, and his 14 physicians, if you want to call them that, “bled” him, taking a pint and a half of blood. Enemas were required, and vomiting was prescribed. Over a five-day period, more of this ensued. “He was given sneezing powder, forced to drink various potions, and his feet were smeared with pigeon dung.” Needless to say, he died. Life expectancy was 30 years at the
Life expectancy was 30 years at the time, and now is 70 for much of the world, and about 80 here (though, our opioid crisis has lowered it!). “The average Chinese person today is forty times richer and lives thirty years longer than he or she did fifty years ago.” Much of this is indeed based on knowledge and progress is undeniable. I just think we haven’t come far enough. Cuba still has a lower infant mortality rate than we do, and we abandoned NASA. But that we aren’t exactly living like the Vulcans is plain to see when the president of the United States lies many times a day, gets his information mostly from Fox News, and accuses anyone, including news organizations, of putting out “fake news” when it does not suit his demagogic purposes.
Here is where it takes an interesting turn. Yes, he says, “it’s self-evident that medicine, vaccines, and hygiene have all contributed mightily to improvements. But the softer science and humanities have also yielded powerful benefits.” Indeed, scholar Daniel N. Robinson believes that “The period of 1700-1776 was graced by probably the most philosophically inclined generation in U.S. history. The period was marked by little formal schooling and a highly educated population. As Edmund Burke noted, the colonists were avid readers, particularly on the subject of law.” Yes, we have grown into an almost unrecognizable behemoth, complete with Internet and space travel, since then but we are also the same people in a way.
Zakaria proposes that “human beings have organized themselves in more productive ways, economically, politically, and socially.” We now have agribusiness, sociology, and almost-daily polling during presidential elections. Indeed, I think it is not that we haven’t advanced much since 1700, but we might have advanced too far. Think of the improvements in medicine and pharmacology since Charles II’s charlatans accidentally killed him. Billions flow in and out of modern-day corporate juggernauts, leading to the moniker “Big Pharma.” Wall Street, “Big Tobacco” and automobile companies seem to be tarnishing the gleam America once had.
“Knowledge is limited, very limited, and it is only because you are in the preliminary stages of knowing that you think men, certain men, know so much more than you do. They may know a little more, but not the great amount that you imagine.” ~ William Carlos Williams
This is a common theme for me, because it smarts to see our state of affairs, our decay, our unfulfilled potential. I question whether humankind’s knowledge and progress are really something to be sanguine about. So when Zakaria writes: “These changes in organization and behavior have been the result of better ideas, sometimes arrived at through speculation and insight, mostly through trial and error….” I see what he is purporting, but it rings a bit hollow. He writes of Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist on page 143. I might call Ridley a Panglossian optimist! When critics such as Voltaire and I reflect on Leibniz’s “best of all possible worlds,” we shake our heads in skepticism. See Voltaire’s character of buoyant optimism, Dr. Pangloss, in Candide.
What is wrong with our priorities? The military funding in this country is not too far from 3/4th of a trillion dollars a year, year after year. This greatly outpaces all the other major industrialized countries combined. We also sell more arms and weaponry to other countries than any other does. As Omar Bradley famously and poignantly put it, “We’ve learned how to destroy, but not to create; how to waste, but not to build; how to kill men, but not how to save them; how to die, but seldom how to live.” He also, equally strongly, said: “We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living. We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount.” Martin Luther King, Jr. struck a similar chord with his famous barb, “Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.”
At the risk of running afoul of the fair use guideline of copyright law, I want to show as much of a remarkable song by the rock group Rush as I can to make my point. It is a critical look at America since the momentous days of old. The lyrics are worth reading in their entirety here, but here is about half of it:
“Beneath the noble bird
Between the proudest words
Behind the beauty, cracks appear.
Once with heads held high
They sang out to the sky
Why do their shadows bow in fear?
The guns replace the plow, façades are tarnished now
The principles have been betrayed.
The dream’s gone stale, but still, let hope prevail
History’s debt won’t be repaid.”
“Your imagination, your initiative, your indignation will determine whether we build a society where progress is the servant of our needs, or society where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth. For in your time we have the opportunity to move not only towards the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society.” ~ Lyndon B. Johnson
Here Zakaria invokes the well-regarded scientist Steven Pinker (the claim that we are living in the most peaceful time in human history). “He argues that the rise of certain ideas has had a powerful, beneficial impact on the world. The Enlightenment concepts of individual liberty, autonomy, and dignity, for instance, and the beginning of a ‘humanitarian revolution’ transformed the world by ending practices like slavery.” The reason I think this attitude is a bit vacuous is due to the fact that there are more slaves now in the world than at any time in the past, including the Antebellum South. Here is a citation. I suppose I do think that things are on an upward trajectory, but seriously, climate change? Diseases outmaneuvering antibiotics? The free speech issues on college campuses? The “War on Christmas?” The vast income inequality? The loss of “net neutrality”? We are a mess, really.
“I put my faith in the prospect that our techniques of wisdom are growing ever more powerful, and that our various social experiments will discover more enlightened systems of economy, ecology, and governance, as well as better methods of education and human development,” professor If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must man be of learning from experience” We hang the petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office” We lectured countries all around the world about how to run their economy, about good institutions, about democracy, about fiscal rectitude and balanced budgets. We even lectured them about their excessive inequality and rent seeking. Now our creditability is gone: we are seen to have a political system in which one party tries to disenfranchise the poor, in which money buys politicians and policies that reinforce the inequalities.” Though I have my reservations, I do think that a case can be made for the power of knowledge and the promise of progressivism.
I can definitely see his point with: “Today, most people live in democracies, and whatever their flaws, they are usually better than the rapacious dictatorships of the past.” The main point Zakaria makes in this vein is probably this: “Practices like slavery, serfdom, dueling and the abuse of women and children have dwindled over the last few centuries – as a consequence of broad, humanistic ideas, the bedrock of a liberal education.” I credit the man with some elegant and persuasive writing. Or is it rhetoric? It’s definitely inspiring. I suppose I would note that George Carlin is ever-ready to provide a retort to too much sunshiney optimism: “The paradox of our time in history is that we have taller buildings but shorter tempers, wider freeways, but narrower viewpoints. We spend more, but have less, we buy more, but enjoy less. We have bigger houses and smaller families, more conveniences, but less time. We have more degrees but less sense, more knowledge, but less judgment, more experts, yet more problems, more medicine, but less wellness.” I think Carlin can definitely lambaste the idea that knowledge and progress are evident, positive, and inspiring.
“Where is all the knowledge we lost with information?”
“Our science is a drop, our ignorance a sea. Whatever else be certain, this at least is certain, -that the world of our present natural knowledge is enveloped in a larger world of some sort of whose residual properties we at present can frame no positive idea.” ~ William James
Part of me thinks that my issue with knowledge and progress as given to us by Prometheus, our noble benefactor, is that it seems like we are wallowing in the curse the gods laid upon us for our insolence. I’m not sure if progress is fought against by conservative elements in society because they fear and resent it, such as this: “I heard South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond impatiently exclaim, ‘No one’s made more progress in this country than the Nigra people.’ He was not really praising African Americans for the way they had struggled upward against all odds. If anything, he was voicing his annoyance at their not being grateful for all the improvements they already enjoyed. His message was: count your blessings, you’ve come a long way, stop being ingrates and stop griping”For a list of all the ways technology has failed to improve the quality of life, please press three”
Zakaria points to Africa’s improvement, and notes that “those at the helm of economic policy are almost invariably graduates of programs in economics from Western universities.” But consider this diametrically opposed position: “Our earlier, technologically and socially less-advanced partnership societies were more evolved than the high-technology societies of the present world, where millions of children are condemned to die of hunger each year while billions of dollars are poured into ever more sophisticated ways to kill”Let’s just leave it with this terse statement I clipped from Zakaria’s fairly balanced summarization: “But that cannot negate the reality that knowledge has led to human advances in tangible ways.”
“We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.” ~ C.S. Lewis
Zakaria ends by citing influential New York Times columnist and humanitarian Nicholas D. Kristof’s column where he identifies “three ideas associated with the humanities that have positively shaped the world.” It’s called “Don’t Dismiss the Humanities” and it is a wonderful look at knowledge and progress from this decent man’s perspective. On page 149, Zakaria presciently asks the question he explores in the next (and last) chapter: “Of course, most people read books, understand science, and experience art not to change the world, but to change themselves. Is our current system of liberal education changing young people for the better?” Or, as George W. Bush memorably put it (causing a whole book to be written on this topic): “Is our children learning?”
Tune in next week, same bat time, same bat channel! Now I present a few more quotes on knowledge and progress.
“Knowledge and timber shouldn’t be much used till they are seasoned.” ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes
“If we want to see technological progress and a higher standard of living in the future — with the gradual reduction of disease, poverty, and ignorance — we really have no choice but freedom.” ~ David Boaz
“Had there been no difficulties and no thorns in the way, man would be in his primitive state, and no progress made in civilization and mental culture.” ~ Anandabai Joshee
“We’re drowning in information and starving for knowledge.” ~ Rutherford D. Rogers
“As a species, we may by all means think ruefully about the waste and horror produced by war and other forms of rivalry and jealousy. However, this can’t alter the fact that in life we make progress by conflict and in mental life by argument and disputation. …There must be confrontation and opposition, in order that sparks may be kindled.” ~ Christopher Hitchens
“There is a profound gap in our culture between technical reason, the knowledge with which we design computers or analyze the structure of DNA, and practical or moral reason, the ways we understand how we should live.” ~ Robert N. Bellah et. al, Habits of the Heart
“Whatever possibilities business once represented, whatever dreams and glories corporate success once offered, the time has come to acknowledge that business as we know it is over.” ~ Paul Hawken
“Change is certain, progress is not.” ~ E. H. Carr
“It may be unwise to reject the sources of wisdom that have been traditionally found in history, philosophy, and the arts. These disciplines do not give us mathematical knowledge or knowledge acquired in the laboratory, but to say that for these reasons what they give us is not knowledge and progress in any sense is to disregard the facts and to put the world of knowable things in a dogmatic straitjacket.” ~ Robert Maynard Hutchins
“Educators believe it is up to them to teach critical thinking and drum into students certain habits that will offer some protection against being scammed by fake news themselves. They were alarmed by a 2016 study by Stanford University that found even bright, well-educated, tech-savvy students had great difficulty separating news from advertising or figuring out where a piece of information came from.” ~ Bruce Bartlett
keywords: knowledge and progress