My Theory of the Purpose of Education

This is not a provable theory. Well, maybe it is and maybe someone has already written about it. But I'm not going to try to prove it.

My theory is that academic approaches have coincided with scientific approaches (with a twenty to fifty year lag since academics are a trifle stuffy and backwards).

Once Upon a Time you had a Newtonian Universe. Nice, basic, rational laws. And the academic world developed nice, basic, rational ideologies to go along with it: Marxism, Freudism, theories which emphasized how cool and fun it is to package up society and human beings and stick labels on them. It's fine stuff to a point, but it gets a little wearisome after awhile.

Then followed Einstein, really the last great gasp of the Newtonian Universe, and the quantum mechanics. The Universe is now built on chaos, a world where probability is the only constant and cats in boxes hire replacements and escape to Las Vegas. It's a fun place, until the academics got all serious and moribund about it and decided that nothing is real and everything must be deconstructed and once it is deconstructed, voila, it means nothing. The problem with deconstructionalism isn't that it gets wearisome, it is that eventually you figure, "Who cares?" and go back to believing in something just to get an interesting life.

Now there is String Theory. I love String Theory. I feel about String Theory the way I feel about the more bizarre elements of Mormon theology; it makes my skin tingle. I believed in String Theory long before I heard about it; I was raised to believe in String Theory. I sincerely trust it will be proved within ten years.

And then, oh, boy. Because with String Theory, you get one "elegant" (to quote Brian Greene) equation binding all the physical laws together but instead of that equation reducing the Universe to something drab and unimaginative and label-like, you get a larger, expansive Universe filled with multi-dimensions (up to eleven, possibly more). You enter a place where, in fact, multiple dominant narratives can operate at the same time (see my post: "My View of the Universe").

In a String Theory Universe, your best tool of understanding is magnaminity, greatness of heart, love, charity (to use the old-fashioned word). And that brings us to the purpose of education. Because I think the purpose of education is not to "read between the lines" or inform people how naïve they've been or fix the world or get all freaked out over the supposed obtuseness of the masses. The purpose of education is love, to revel in the multi-dimensionality of any occurrence.

Now education doesn't teach magnanimity. Many people have it without opening one text book. But education could, could, become a place where those who are willing to use magnanimity would revel in the Universe's complexity. To put it bluntly and religiously, they would rejoice. It wouldn't be about gaining the ability to revel in the universe. Lots of people already have that and don't need to spend $1,000/semester to learn it. Those who are interested in education would have already acknowledged that the Universe is out there, complicated and grand and multi-dimensional; they would want to know more about what makes it that way.

In a C.J. Cherryh book, a dead Hatshepsut is speaking to a dead, teenage Brutus (it's complicated). She is comparing herself to Julius Caesar "who made everywhere Rome." She is trying to explain to Brutus that what you gain in the world of the dead is exactly how much you can believe in, that Julius Caesar could believe in everything up to the landing on the moon, but Hatshepsut can believe beyond that. She is remembering her days as Pharaoh and the ache she felt when the soldiers came to tell her about places they had explored. She remembers her desire: I want to go. And she tries to communicate this and fails.

It's the most heart-rending part of the book, and I feel a little pompous making claim to it, but I believe that is the true purpose of education: I want to go. I want to know. Just to know. Just for that. And I really don't give a crap who is president.



Henry said...

I'd be cautious about using String theory too aggressively as a metaphor. Just as the uncertainty principle doesn't make everything uncertain, string theory doesn't let human beings operate in 11 (?) dimensions. In our ungainly macroscopic form, all the probabilities and multiple dimensions cancel out into three-dimensional fists and noses.

I agree with you that the idea of a single dominant narrative is annoying, and I am probably annoyed for the same reason: I don't like self-appointed experts dumbing down the world. But that's a gripe about human nature, not physics.

Kate Woodbury said...

Ah, but it's a figurative metaphor, not a literal metaphor. That is, just like quantum mechanics and deconstructionalism are all about the randomness of life (although quantum mechanics is a good deal more interesting than deconstructionalism), a string theory model of the universe would promote a literary theory that tries to grasp several different viewpoints at once without descending into the banality of relativity: that is the different viewpoints would be reflections of one whole reality rather than being chaotically and pointlessly unconnected ("everyone is an island"). My idea is that the humanities always mirror the view of the universe as modeled by scientists; instead of the humanities leading the way with their brave, new world ideologies, the sciences make the real breakthroughs and then the humanities rush to catch up with an appropriate theory.

Joe said...

"the banality of relativity"

That's got to be the title of something.