Saturday, 14 April 2018

We need to study Western civilisation again

This month on the news we heard that a number of African athletes in Queensland come to compete in the Commonwealth Games had gone missing, presumably with an intent to seek asylum here. In Australia, the word “refugee” is a term as politically loaded as it is in Europe, where tens of thousands of people embark on the risky business of crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Africa in frail boats every year, landing on islands in Italy or Greece. Here, we patrol the seas between Australia and Indonesia, where refugees come by plane to buy passage on flimsy boats, and turn them back.

People just won’t stop coming unbidden to countries in the developed world, and you have to ask why. John Keane in his 2009 book on democracy goes some way toward explaining such notions as the idea of disinterested “office” pioneered by the Medieval church, in order to understand how government can be conducted in the interests of the community, rather than for reasons of private gain. And what is the meaning of “reputation”, and why is it so important to protect yours? Why will some people still not swear oaths in official contexts? Such issues are germane to any discussion about the teaching of Western civilisation in schools.

I was looking into the teaching of Western civilisation and came across an article published in the New York Post, a populist rag that caters to people living in that famously creative city. Apparently, the teaching of Western civilisation in universities in America was popular until the Civil Rights movement of the 60s and 70s resulted in many institutions dropping such courses from their curriculas in favour of courses on world history. But I think, along with some people in the Liberal Party in Australia, I am afraid to say, circumstances have changed and it is time to revisit the policy.

The reason is complex. Originally, everything came from the arts. Schools of applied sciences, such as medical and engineering departments in universities, didn’t start to appear until the late-19th or early-20th centuries. Before that, people who wanted to study “natural philosophy” or the mechanic arts would enrol in special schools set up in the regions in England, often run by people affiliated with radical Protestant churches, to learn what they needed to know to run the machines that animated the industrial revolution. But the sciences had flourished since the Renaissance because many minds had participated in scientific debate in the public sphere.

In the 18th century and continuing into the succeeding century, miscellaneous journals that people could subscribe to that contained articles about new scientific discoveries alongside reviews of popular works of poetry and fiction, were being published in England. The novel as we understand it today emerged in the same era and was finally perfected by Jane Austen in the early-19th century.

What is certain is that all scientific discovery, from the time of the earliest vernacular translation of the Bible out of its originary languages (Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic) around 1520, occurred through the process of nominalisation. You take a sentence or phrase or clause and your form a new word to mean that same phrase or sentence or clause. You think of a word like “implement” or “sect”. And then you allow it to be deployed in other sentences with qualifying adjectives in order to create meaning and to further an argument. Or else you coin a verb like “evolve” and you allow it to be used in sentences with qualifying adverbs where it can be used to do the same things. In such ways, the progress of knowledge occurred, fuelled by the new technology of moveable type (invented in Germany around 1440), which brought down the costs of books to affordable levels, allowing ordinary people to accumulate libraries and become active participants in the debate. All knowledge that we have today derives from this simple cultural mechanism. It was an accretive progress, that occurred across many generations and involved whole communities participating in various ways in the debate. But it was primarily a process of discussion of ideas.

In the last century, the author CP Snow talked about the “two cultures” and regretted that people versed in the arts had little knowledge of the sciences. Today, the problem is the reverse. People who understand the technological implementations of fundamental science lack the background they need in the fine and literary arts to allow them to meaningfully negotiate the future. How do we use the technologies that we are inventing? Can you divorce high technology from the democratic process? Do we need a bill of rights for robots? Such questions are immediately pressing but it’s not clear where the answers will come from.

Added to that the continuing decline in importance of religion in the lives of ordinary people in all developed countries, and you find that the fine and literary arts can be positively useful in filling in the gaps that appear in the framework of learning about ethics and morals.

We know that reading novels, for example, helps to bolster feelings of empathy in people who do it. Literary and fine arts education can help to form an important bridge in forming the mental infrastructure that ordinary people need in order to navigate the complexities of modern life. The novel itself is a relatively recent innovation, dating from the 17th century. But it would help us to understand how this dominant form of literature developed and prospered in our cultures, and how has it been viewed at different points in its progress from a novel (literally) form of entertainment, to the main game. And what happened in the meantime to poetry? When did popular culture separate from high culture, and why? Such questions and other similar ones could be covered in a course of study dedicated to Western civilisation, as well as courses designed to show how the process of nominalisation helped to foster scientific progress.

We see the importance of such study all the time. When we read a tweet lie “Suicide Is A Society-Wide Problem That Needs A Society-Wide Solution”, we can understand that what is needed is an educative process that helps people across the whole of the community to find a solution to a pressing social issue. Where do you start to teach such ideas? In secondary schools, because secondary school education is mandatory in all developed economies.

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