Shattered Illusions

I will begin by plunging into what I believe to be the heart of the matter: Since the beginning of the so-called "Age of Reason" we have been taught, no, rather, trained, to suppress our reflective abilities, to suppress our capacity to imagine, our capacity to feel, in particular to love, to suppress the effects arising from the fact that we are, each and every one of us, a living subject, and instead have been encouraged to objectify everything as much as possible. Thus, we have learned to exclude experience from anything having to do with education. And even though the word "education" comes from the Latin "educare", meaning "to bring up", "to raise", which is etymologically related to "educere", meaning to "draw out", "to lead out", and thus means the process of leading out and developing what is already within us, we generally understand education to be the process of filling empty minds.

Moreover, in spite of the fact that quantum physics has shown us the incredible complexity that characterizes the microphysical realm interpenetrating our own macrophysical universe, all the institutions of this planet - political, economic, social, even religious, are based on an outmoded worldview, derived from Newtonian science and characterized by one-level, binary thinking. Women could perhaps have had a large part in softening the effects of this but that hasn't happened. To be sure, especially in the 20th century, numerous women escaped the confines of the house and entered business, industry, the professions and public office. Some made their way in careers involving alternative writing and teaching or the arts. However, many of those who entered the arenas of business, industry and politics have not only tacitly acquiesced to this gradual dulling of our humanity, but in some cases have even surpassed men in their ability to think like machines. For example, in a recent article appearing in "The Guardian", writer Arundhati Roy related the following: "In 1996, Madeleine Albright, then the US secretary of state, was asked on national television what she felt about the fact that 500,000 Iraqi children had died as a result of US economic sanctions. She replied that it was "a very hard choice", but that, all things considered, "we think the price is worth it" [1].

Ah, yes. Hard choices, hard facts, the bottom line - these are characteristic of the kind of thinking that helped the world get where it is today. Perhaps, deep inside, Madeleine Albright felt differently, but as a product of this way of thinking, it would have been difficult for her to say anything else. Along with these efforts to suppress our humanity, we have elevated and reified conceptual dualism to such a degree that it is no longer regarded merely as a philosophical position (thereby susceptible to attempts at refutation), but as an ontological truth. When something attains the status of being considered ontological truth we are hard put to call its veracity into question. Notwithstanding, a number of scholars and writers, including myself, have called it into question. For example, physicist Basarab Nicolescu"s stunning Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity sets forth a compelling, extremely well-reasoned alternative approach to thinking exclusively in terms of binary logic and as though the universe existed on only one level. If widely adopted, this approach, the "transdisciplinary approach", could propel us beyond the present conceptual framework, and could make possible what he calls the "re-enchantment of the world" [2].

Surely we are at this moment a long, long way from anything that looks like a re-enchantment of the world. One thing seems clear: while the destruction of the Twin Towers was undeniably horrific, it was perceived to be largely because it was done in practically full view of the media and because it happened in a country that had not experienced war on its own soil for almost 150 years. However, it was but one in a long line of atrocities. Consider what happened in Bosnia and in Lebanon, during the Kurdish conflict in Turkey, and the Gulf War in Iraq, etc., ad infinitum. Notwithstanding the fact that each of these events involved far greater numbers of deaths, all of them seemed more or less removed from us and thus lacked the compelling immediacy of the event that occurred on September 11. Besides death, the one thing that each of these events has in common is the fact that each occurred as the result of a deadly combination of one-level, binary thinking accompanied by the conviction that complete objectivity is not only possible but eminently desirable. This is, as I have already said, the basis of the worldview driving the political, economic, and social agendas of each and every country on this planet and this is the worldview within which all but so-called "alternative" education [3] takes place.

It is certainly beyond the scope of a short essay to attempt to trace the complex line of events that culminated in the horror of that day. What I can do is to focus on some of the most important implications.

To begin with, any number of illusions were shattered on September 11. Now, illusion being what it is, this can only be a good thing. Perhaps the most significantly affected was the sense of isolation, of being somehow removed and protected from the "Otherness" of the world "out there," that was characteristically American, but is, of course, one that is shared to a certain extent by all human beings. In my view, the fact that this illusion was shattered is one positive thing that came out of what happened. What has become apparent is that there are increasing signs that individuals and even governments are beginning to think more in terms of the world as a whole, of humanity as a whole, and are, to greater or lesser extent, distancing themselves from divisive language [4]. There is one other less obvious potential benefit from what has happened. In as much as the Other has become apparently less so, it may be that we are also on our way to being able to recognize the fact that just as "terrorism" is not only something that victimizes the Other, it is also not something that is only perpetrated by the Other. Each and every human being has the capacity to inflict terror. By the same token, each of us has the capacity to choose to do good. The present situation did not come from the sky - it is one that we all had a hand in creating [5]. Even if the "War on Terrorism" is successful it will not be enough - the current efforts can only wipe out the immediate cause, the symptom. The terrorists who perpetrated the atrocity of September 11 are certainly responsible for their actions on one level, but on another level, their actions were merely symptoms of a diseased world. Healing can only emerge from out of deep change, and everyone will have to change.

Moving on to the issue of the things we don't know about learning, I can say that one thing we don't seem to know about learning is that it does not merely entail the collection and memorization of objective data. Learning is round, not flat. That is to say, learning involves discerning and contemplating nuance, it involves hermeneutics - in other words, we must interpret rather than simply analyze. For the most part, though, we are taught to take things apart and examine disembodied pieces instead of embodied wholes. While we can certainly learn how a lawnmower operates by using that methodology, it simply doesn't work when we are dealing with human issues. We really don't seem to know how to learn about living things. Human issues are comprised of complex clusters of elements and both the clusters and the elements within them are related to each other in exceedingly complex ways. Analysis of the parts is not enough. We must delve into the whole and interpret the meaning that emerges from out of the connections between elements Another thing we don't seem to know about learning is that every encounter with the unknown involves us in something that results in ontological change. Rather than taking pride in the fact that we remain utterly objective (and hence, utterly unmoved) by the data we learn about, we must recognize the fact that the act of learning is a transformative act. Every act of learning is an act of becoming, of becoming more than we were before our encounter with what we have learned. Finally, we don't seem to know that to embark on the quest for learning is an ennobling act because at base, every act of learning involves an essentially heroic grappling with the unknown. Regardless of whether we consider ourselves to be deeply religious or atheistic we can no longer afford the luxury of denying that there is an ontological connection between ourselves, as finite beings, and the universe, which is infinite. Learning affirms our connection with the infinite.

Perhaps it isn't so much that there are things we don't know about learning, but rather, there are things we have forgotten. There are traditional models of learning as a sacred enterprise in every culture, but such models have been all but forgotten. Regrettably, introducing an idea like this into the context of, say, the social sciences as they are presently constituted, could appear ridiculous. Notwithstanding, the fact is that if humanity is to survive, individuals and countries must embark on a long-term process of reflection, deep spiritual and philosophical reflection, on those models of learning. Our only hope is to embark on the task of re-membering all that has been forgotten, not least of which is a sense of the sacred. Such a process is inherently transformative. It is a risk - all change necessitates risk - but if we take it we will discover that we are in a space beyond separate cultures, separate countries, separate religions - we will find ourselves in that space of infinite creativity, the space in which everything is possible [6].

Karen-Claire Voss
Adjunct Professor of Religious Studies, San Jose State University, San Jose,
Independent scholar, writer, ESL teacher, Istanbul, Turkey

November 17, 2001


[1] Arundhati Ray, The Algebra of Infinite Justice, The Guardian, Saturday, September 29, 2001.

[2] Basarab Nicolescu, Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity, State University of New York (SUNY) Press, New York, 2002, translated from the French by Karen-Claire Voss.

[3] For example, Waldorf, Montessori and Summerhill schools.

[4] I hoped there would be more focus on the underlying reasons for this event and on how to begin the long work of reconciling the things that divide us from one another. I was heartened to see Tony Blair apparently attempting to do the latter recently when he visited Syria. I have not yet heard anything like the same rhetoric coming from any of the other first world countries, and his may well be the first philosophical statements made in a political context that I have heard in a long time.

[5] While this is certainly metaphysically true, it is, unfortunately, literally true as well. For example, it is a documented fact that since 1946, the United States has funded an institute called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (Whisc, formerly called the School of the Americas) in Fort Benning, Georgia, that has undertaken the training of more than 60,000 Latin American policemen and soldiers. Among other things, their education consisted of learning advanced techniques of torture and interrogation. See George Monbiot, Backyard Terrorism. The US Has Been Training Terrorists At a Camp in Georgia for Years - And It"s Still At It, The Guardian Tuesday, October 30, 2001. I don't consider myself naive, but this shocked me so much that I did a little research. I discovered that such training is de rigeur in all so-called civilized countries. The only thing different about them are the names and the language of instruction.

[6] I am inclined to agree with George Cowan who raised doubts about the efficacy of short term projects like this one. Perhaps they may do some good, but I really have to say that at this moment I am not at all certain that anything I or anyone else could write can make the slightest difference, and this is perhaps worst of all. In any case, there was something about what happened on September 11 which has functioned to turn the whole world upside down. On September 10, I still felt that doing something especially well or saying something particulary apt mattered. That was no longer the case on September 12. This may well be a sign that the one thing now required of me, and of all of us, is to continue, in spite of everything, to trust that the universe is ultimately meaningful, and will continue, like a "rockshelf further forming underneath everything that grows." (quotation from Adrienne Rich, Transcendental Etude, The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977, New York, W.W. Norton, 1993, p. 77).

Bulletin Interactif du Centre International de Recherches et Études Transdisciplinaires n° 16 - Février 2002

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