What Now?

Widely predicted for years, the power to wreak catastrophic damage on large segments of society has now diffused from a few nations to relatively small outlaw groups and even to individuals. A demonstration of this power on September 11, modest compared to what is potentially possible, provoked a devastating response in Afghanistan. But our military success does not effectively deal with the underlying reality. An aggrieved few can imperil an entire society and the power to do so is growing, not diminishing.

Unfortunately, there is no quick solution to this horrendous dilemma. We may reduce the threat but there is little likelihood of finding a short-term, universal solution that will spare our society further attacks. We must now assume that military power and political coalitions can at best buy us time to produce effective, long-term solutions. We shall probably need a generation or more, which means that these solutions will be subject to the beliefs and actions of people who are currently unborn or are very young.

What should be done now to improve society’s prospects for the future?

Answers to this question vary with our definition of the root causes of the threat. It is often said that the problem is due to the economic gap between the haves and have-nots. It is an important issue but is more symptomatic than basic. Closer to the root is the fierce discontent in many people of substance, with intellectual and material means, who were reared in an unchanging, rigid culture and who seem unable or unwilling to construct satisfying lives in an increasingly Westernized world.

For such people and for those who live in truly deprived and miserable conditions, a sense of irrelevance contributes to the appeal of promised rewards in a glorious paradise elsewhere. Unfortunately, their leaders and teachers habitually protect rigidity and their own power by diligently nurturing hatred of external enemies, real or imagined. The habit of hatred, once acquired, is likely to remain a lifelong addiction. Although we tend to focus on radical Islamic fundamentalism as the current source of this phenomenon, history provides many similar examples in many societies and in many faiths. What has happened in our generation that has transformed this age-old problem into an intolerable menace is that relatively small numbers of people who have been steeped in hate are acquiring the means to destroy the entire social fabric.

The immediate response is to find such people and eliminate or contain them. The process can continue indefinitely if others, equally addicted, replace them. But their numbers will grow as long as teaching children to hate, from infancy on, continues. An obvious remedy is to remove such teachings from the early schooling environment. Since it is so difficult to change the current system, truly secular public schooling should be introduced and made universal. We have learned from long and often contentious history that this kind of schooling promotes healthy tolerance. Preaching hatred at worship should be outlawed. The educational system should nurture the child’s desire and skills to find significance and to prosper in a peaceful society.

Clearly, implementing such changes will be enormously challenging. Success is not assured and will require, in any case, a generation or more. Chances of a constructive result will be improved if we better understand the nature of early learning and the teaching processes that shape the eventual behavior of adults in Islamic countries, other rigid societies, and in society in general. Training of mothers and other primary caretakers must be included in an effective educational program. It will be essential to minimize prevailing sexual biases.

We have an obvious immediate opportunity to find solutions to these problems as we undertake the rebuilding of the infrastructure in Afghanistan. Because the need there is so great, we must try to establish an effective system for early care and education, beginning with babies and toddlers. An encouraging prospect is that, if we take on this problem, we shall have to better understand learning processes in children in all cultures and societies. Effective changes will require wisdom, not edicts.

Our ability to achieve deeper understandings of how the young learn is increasing very rapidly. Research in this field now includes not only educators and psychologists but neuroscientists who study the essential relationships between neurophysiological functions in the brain and cognitive, social, and emotional development. Brain development and behavior in animals is strongly coupled to the richness of the very early environment. Although similar experiments with human babies do not exist, it is clear that the developmental history of the young brain is affected by a variety of cultural inputs whose relative importance can now be more clearly defined and assessed. This expanding field of study will inevitably affect the ways in which we teach our children. It should also suggest ways in which we can help all children construct rewarding lives in a variety of social, political, economic, and family environments.

The prospect that improvements of this sort at home might, with appropriate modifications, be introduced elsewhere adds to the importance of a field of research that some psychologists and educators, believing that existing teaching systems should not be challenged, have chosen to disparage. I propose the organization of a meeting of a number of qualified scholars, including psychologists, educators, and neuroscientists, to examine what is presently known in this field and to begin to provide a guide for the design of an innovative, universal educational system for the very young in Afghanistan.

The immediate need to contain terrorism must, of course, be addressed with whatever resources are required. Successful containment will provide time to promote basic changes in motivation and behavior, changes that must start with the rearing of the young and that are unlikely to occur if our efforts focus on mature adults. I suggest that a good beginning is to design an early education initiative that will help demonstrate the possibility of effecting lasting change not only in Afghanistan but more generally.

George Cowan
Distinguished Fellow, Santa Fe Institute, Santa Fe, NM

September 23, 2001 — revised February 9, 2002

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

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