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Whatever Happened to the Former Love of Ideas? – Positivism vs. the Humanities in the 21st Century: Brain vs. Mind – one should ask…

When I was still in college in the mid-sixties books and ideas were considered very serious things, something to be passionate about; a sort of higher form of existence residing in the Platonic world of the intelligible. Dialogues and debates on ideas were considered a sine qua non of an education worth its salt. And this was true not only for philosophy majors, such as myself, but also for those liberal arts students  who majored in  history or the arts, or literature. Hermeneutics, or the interpretation of fiction, poetry, history and philosophy was not a mere tool useful for analytical procedures but, more importantly, it testified to one’s moral view of the world. Which is to say, ideas mattered. They mattered a lot. They had power over one’s life. They determined one’s intellectual and spiritual destiny. In some strange way one became the books one read.
Those ideas were found not only in the canon of philosophy from Plato to Heidegger, but in great novelists such as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Lawrence, Mann, Kafka, Gide, Camus, Orwell, or the poetry of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Coleridge, Eliot. Philosophy and Literature was in fact understood to underpin all great historical epochs.

This leads to the question: which are the great philosophical ideas that still exert great influence and inspire the current artists? I for one would be hard put to answer the question. Obviously there has been a decline in the appreciation for the grand philosophical and aesthetic credos of the past. It began with the unmooring of metaphysics from philosophy by language philosophers. Then came the Annales’ school of historical thinking (Bloch and Febvre come to mind) which asserted that it was not world-historical individuals who shaped events (as Hegel and Emerson believed), but merely economic, social, geographical factors. They, and only they determined events and the fate of nations and people. This was positivism applied to history. There were more subtle forces at work within history, beyond the wars and revolutions instigated by emperors and generals. They could be extrapolated from the available historical data. This led to deconstruction which elevates the social-semiotic conditions of language over the authors who transformed them into literary art. Enter Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva who insisted that one had to pay attention to what was previously beyond our notice. One did that by phenomenology which looks at what is in front of our noses.

Warhol brought the Campbell soup, or the obvious, to our attention. The banal, the ordinary, the popular became the focus of aesthetic expression. The interest was not so much in art but in the conceit that anything at all could be art. With this went the expulsion of all those ideas that were formerly part of the humanistic canon to create meaning in verbal, plastic and aural mediums. The task now was to unmask Western civilization’s hidden agenda and its doctrinal attitudes and assumptions about art, sex and race as embedded in linguistic and social codes. For those critics, the Enlightenment has generated ideas about the world that were simply naive about their own implications. Enter Barth with his “Death of the Author” and Foucault with his idea that man is nothing but the invention of the Enlightenment, while Paul de Man at Yale university argued that there is no such thing as the human. All this made for some unruly times in the humanities and produced eventually the end of ideas as still alive in mid twentieth century. There are presently no schools of thought in the humanities. One can indeed still study the tenets of the Frankfurt school and the Prague school and study the works of the neo-Marxists (such as Althusser, Lacan, Deleuze, Lyotard, Marcuse) or the deconstructionist writings of Derrida and de Man but the enthusiasm for ideas and the intellectual energy it generated is gone. It only exists as historical memory. This debunking movement went by the name of post-modern and it was essentially an anti-humanistic stance, even if it arose from within the humanities.

Literature nowadays is often taught without any longer drawing attention to form, imagery, character, metaphor, genre and the relationship between books and society. What has happened is that post-modernism has opened the humanities to the sciences, particularly neuroscience which pretends to explain how we think and express ourselves and affirms that the stuff of consciousness is nothing but a byproduct of the brain’s activity. To understand anything, and indeed everything, all that one needs to do is to map the electrochemical impulses that shoot between our neurons. Reduced to those terms, every academic discipline becomes a neuro-discipline. We are back to phrenology which we thought had been superseded. This includes ethics, aesthetics, theology, literature, you name it. All this leads to the crucial question: if all behavior has an electrochemical component, then in what sense—psychological, legal, moral–is an individual responsible for his actions? If the structures of the brain structures the person, in what sense we can say that there is such a thing as free will? In other words, is a person reducible to his or her physiological components? Is this not sheer reductionism or worse, a literally “mind-less” neuroscience?

What those not trained in philosophy or the humanities fail to perceive is that the focus has subtly changed from the meaning and the interpretation of ideas to the means (the MRI and the brain scan) by which they’re produced. Hence the classical questions that have always intrigued us: What is justice? What is the good life? What is morally valid? What is free will,” have taken a back seat to the biases embedded in our neural circuitry.
Many misguided academic humanists believe that there is no better way for the humanities and liberal arts to save themselves from oblivion than to borrow liberally from the sciences. They claim that the more “scientific” the approach to the arts, the more seriously they are regarded. Several universities now have so called neuroscience centers with specialties in humanities hybrids. The message is this: cognition is literally the tissue that connects all sorts of humanistic endeavors.

And yet there are dissenting voices such as that of Thomas Nagel’s controversial book Mind and Cosmos wherein Nagel has the courage to question the neo-Darwinian belief that consciousness, like any aspect of adaptability, is evolutionary in nature. To the contrary, Nagel affirms that it is highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection. Rather, he believes in a teleological universe with nature predisposed to give rise to consciousness, given that no mechanistic explanation seems commensurate with the miracle of subjective experience and the ability to reason. Bit his, alas, is the voice crying in the desert.
To be sure, other scientists have hypothesized that human life is inevitable and that biochemistry is wired into the universe. Stuart Kauffman, for one, believes that all molecules must sooner or later catalyze themselves in self-sustaining reactions or “autocatalytic networks,” crossing the boundary between inanimate and animate. But the more common view among academic scientists is that evolution has no direction, no goals, no set outcomes; our preferences and bias are due to our oversized brains. There are precious few professors who today continue to defend objective values. The zeal for ideas is fast declining. What deeply concerned intellectuals two or three decades ago is now considered anachronistic. Where are today’s Paul de Man, Edward Said, Harold Bloom, Hilton Kramer, Isahia Berlin, Susan Sontag, Annah Arendt? Nowhere to be found I am afraid. The liberal arts is no longer where the action is. In 2010 only 7.6 of bachelor’s degrees were in the humanities. The ideas that engage us and seem essential today are primarily scientific.

The passionate issues that galvanized intellectuals thirty or forty years ago seem now far removed from our daily lives. Those ideas engendered by the Enlightenment as regards epistemology, government, aesthetics, alas, no longer engage our best minds, except when we speak of the brain or the meaning of consciousness. We seem to have lost the appetite for locating hidden modalities in art and literature as metaphysics too continues to decline in academic worth and estimation. Will somebody arrive on the scene with the transformative power of a Descartes, Vico, Newton, Darwin, Marx, Freud, Kant, Wittengestein, Kuhn or Derrida? As the song goes “the answer my friend is blowing in the wind.”
 
There seems to be at work in the humanities nowadays a troubling skepticism, almost a desperation of not being on the right track, of not being able to go anywhere. That in turn leads many humanists to rely on the old-fashioned methods of hard data and the empirical certainty of scientific research. Yet the questions of art, beauty, ethics, our innate capacity for wonder at existence, persist. The question “why is there something rather than nothing” still fascinates a few traditional philosophers. Perhaps it lies in our very genes and will never be suppressed. But overall, for the moment we have yielded those philosophical questions to biological and cognitive science and we have thereby achieved a certain amount of peace. Intellectuals no longer indignantly reach for their pens to debunk materialism and positivism, but it is a pseudo-peace, it is the peace of the cemetery and quite desperation. It is a peace which has put too much trust (or faith if you will) in the human brain, and in doing so it may have given up on the idea that only the mind, and not the brain, will some day be able to fathom the human condition.
How do I know that the neo-positivists of the 21st century are on the wrong track and just as misguided as those of the 19th and 20th century? It is actually quite simple: whenever I inquire of a neurosurgeon if he believes that ideas exist and cannot be denied as existing, the answer is always a resounding yes. But whenever I follow-up and ask if he has ever seen ideas floating around some place in the brain when he operates on it, or reflected in his brain scanner, a perplexed look seems to appear and there is usually no answer to the question. At best one gets an ambiguous: “give us some more time and eventually we’ll find them.” My reply to that statement is: good luck!

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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New Social Compact

Remote Learning during the pandemic: Lessons from today, principles for tomorrow 

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Education systems around the world reacted to COVID-19 by closing schools and rolling out remote learning options for their students as an emergency response.  New World Bank analysis of early evidence reveals that while remote learning has not been equally effective everywhere, hybrid learning is here to stay.

Going forward, for remote learning to deliver on its potential, the analysis shows the need to ensure strong alignment between three complementary components: effective teaching, suitable technology, and engaged learners.

“Hybrid learning – which combines in-person and remote learning – is here to stay. The challenge will be the art of combining technology and the human factor to make hybrid learning a tool to expand access to quality education for all,” emphasized Jaime Saavedra, World Bank Global Director for Education.  “Information technology is only a complement, not a substitute, for the conventional teaching process – particularly among preschool and elementary school students. The importance of teachers, and the recognition of education as essentially a human interaction endeavor, is now even clearer.”

The twin reports, Remote Learning During the Global School Lockdown: Multi-Country Lessons and Remote Learning During COVID-19: Lessons from Today, Principles for Tomorrow, stress that three components are critical for remote learning to be effective:

  • Prioritizing effective teachers: a teacher with high subject content knowledge, skills to use technology, and appropriate pedagogical tools and support is more likely to be effective at remote instruction.
  • Adopting suitable technology: availability of technology is a necessary but not sufficient condition for effective remote learning.
  • Ensuring learners are engaged: for students to be engaged, contextual factors such as the home environment, family support, and motivation for learning must be well aligned.

The reports found that many countries struggled to ensure take-up and some even found themselves in a remote learning paradox: choosing a distance learning approach unsuited to the access and capabilities of a majority of their teachers and students.

“Emerging evidence on the effectiveness of remote learning during COVID-19 is mixed at best,” said Cristóbal Cobo, World Bank Senior Education and Technology Specialist, and co-author of the two reports. “Some countries provided online digital learning solutions, although a majority of students lacked digital devices or connectivity, thus resulting in uneven participation, which further exacerbated existing inequalities. Other factors leading to low student take-up are unconducive home environments; challenges in maintaining children’s engagement, especially that of younger children; and low digital literacy of students, teachers, and/or parents.”

“While pre-pandemic access to technology and capabilities to use it differed widely within and across countries, limited parental engagement and support for children from poor families has generally hindered their ability to benefit from remote learning,” stressed Saavedra.

Despite these challenges with remote learning, this can be an unprecedented opportunity to leverage its potential to reimagine learning and to build back more effective and equitable education systems. Hybrid learning is part of the solution for the future to make the education process more effective and resilient. 

The reports offer the following five principles to guide country efforts going forward:

Ensure remote learning is fit-for-purpose. Countries should choose modes of remote learning that are suitable to the access and utilization of technology among both teachers and students, including digital skills, and that teachers have opportunities to develop the technical and pedagogical competencies needed for effective remote teaching. 

Use technology to enhance the effectiveness of teachers. Teacher professional development should develop the skills and support needed to be an effective teacher in a remote setting.

Establish meaningful two-way interactions. Using the most appropriate technology for the local context, it is imperative to enable opportunities for students and teachers to interact with each other with suitable adaptations to the delivery of the curriculum.

Engage and support parents as partners in the teaching and learning process. It is imperative that parents (families) are engaged and supported to help students access remote learning and to ensure both continuity of learning and protect children’s socioemotional well-being.

Rally all actors to cooperate around learning. Cooperation across all levels of government; as well as partnerships between the public and private sector, and between groups of teachers and school principals; is vital to the effectiveness of remote learning and to ensure that the system continues to adapt, learn, and improve in an ever-changing remote learning landscape.

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Youth embody ‘spirit’ of 21st century more than parents

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Even in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and other global challenges, children and youth are nearly 50 per cent more likely than older people to believe that the world is becoming a better place, according to the results of a landmark intergenerational poll published on Thursday. 

The international survey was conducted by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and Gallup, the global analytics and advice firm, and has been released ahead of World Children’s Day on 20 November. 

The Changing Childhood Project is the first poll of its kind to ask multiple generations for their views on the world and what it is like to be a child today.  

Part of the solution 

Henrietta Fore, the UNICEF Executive Director, said that despite numerous reasons to be pessimistic, children and young people refuse to see the world through the bleak lens of adults. 

“Compared to older generations, the world’s young people remain hopeful, much more globally minded, and determined to make the world a better place,” she added.  

“Today’s young people have concerns for the future but see themselves as part of the solution”. 

More than 21,000 people in 21 countries participated in the survey, which was conducted across two age cohorts – 15-24 years old, and age 40 and up – and during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Hopeful, not naïve 

Nationally representative surveys were undertaken in countries across all regions – Africa, Asia, Europe, and North and South America – and income levels.  

 The findings revealed young people are also more likely to believe childhood has improved, and that healthcare, education and physical safety are better today when compared with their parents’ generation. 

However, despite their optimism, youth are far from naïve.  The poll showed they want to see action to address the climate emergency.  At the same time, they are skeptical about the information they consume on social media, and struggle with feelings of depression and anxiety.  

This generation is also more likely to see themselves as global citizens, and they are more willing to embrace international cooperation to combat threats such as the pandemic. 

Aware of risks 

The survey also found children and young people are generally more trusting of national governments, scientists and international news media as sources of accurate information.  

They are also aware of the problems the world is facing, with nearly 80 per cent seeing serious risks for children online, such as exposure to violent or sexually explicit content, or being bullied. 

Young people want faster progress in the fight against discrimination, more cooperation among countries, and for decision-makers to listen to them. 

Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed who are aware of climate change believe Governments should take significant action to address it.  The share rises to 83 per cent in low- and lower-middle countries, where climate impacts are set to be greatest. 

21st century citizens 

In practically every country, large majorities of youth said their countries would be safer from COVID-19 and other threats if Governments would work together, rather than on their own. 

They have also demonstrated stronger support for LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) rights, with young women at the forefront for equality. 

The survey also revealed a strong alignment between the two generations, including on the issues of climate, education, global collaboration, though some of the deepest divides occurred around optimism, global mindedness and recognition of historical progress.   

“While this research paints a nuanced view of the generational divide, a clear picture emerges: Children and young people embody the spirit of the 21st century far more readily than their parents,” said Ms. Fore.  

“As UNICEF prepares to mark its 75th anniversary next month, and ahead of World Children’s Day, it is critical we listen to young people directly about their well-being and how their lives are changing”.

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Seva, a book that is here to heal the world

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It was early in February this year that I visited the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Walking outside the beautiful golden studded Gurudwara, I couldn’t help but feel awe at the langar that was being served. Prepared for lakhs of devotees everyday. Imagine a kitchen that is equipped to feed around one lakh people everyday, what goes on in the minds of people working at the Golden Temple tirelessly to feed one lakh devotees? There is really only one value behind their actions – Seva. Seva literally translates to helping others and seems simple at the outset. But to understand it deeply, you need to read Jasreen Mayal Khanna’s Seva published earlier this year.

Seva – Sikh secrets on how to be good in the real world by Jasreen Mayal Khanna is a book that is here to heal the world. It is a much needed book during the current times and promotes the values of helping others while outlining basic things that we often forget to do – say thank you daily, embrace joy, work harder than you pray, practice equality at home, help someone everyday, be brave, learn to laugh at yourself and live in Chardi Kala. While other points might seem easy and direct, the last one, Chardi Kala might not be obviously understandable to many outside the Sikh Community. What is Chardi Kala? It is the mental state of eternal optimism and joy. The Sikh Community is popularly known across the world for helping others and Jasreen Mayal Khanna explains more about the Sikh practice of Seva, serving others.

For a few, doing Seva comes naturally because it has been taught to them since childhood. This is especially valid for people from the Sikh Community who, as Khanna tells us in her book, are taught to contribute towards community service from a very young age. For some, they need to ingrain Seva in their life to lead a more balanced and happy life. We often forget that the individual and the community are woven into a beautifully intricate fabric that relies on each other. We are only reminded of how interconnected we are to each other during times of crisis. The COVID 19 pandemic has been a great reminder about how we need each other to survive. Friends, family and complete strangers helping out each other during times of the pandemic has been revolutionarily eye opening. The truth is that we should not need a pandemic to make us realise how interconnected we are. Books like Seva are an ode to that fabric of interconnectedness that is often forgotten in the world today. With ancient Sikh secrets and promoted values of happiness, the book heals readers in ways more than one. You quite literally need to read this book to lead a more balanced life.

While many Indians have been reading books like Ikigai talking about Japanese secrets to life, books like Seva hit far closer to home for Indians. Reading the book is also a testament to secularism since you can understand more about a community that you possibly interact with daily. Moreover, the book also gives you the opportunity to understand more about the values of the community that you can easily pick things from. Seva is not just a read for Indians, but deserves to be popularised across the world. The book will hit the UK market in May 2022.

“I had my first baby in the first wave of Covid. Through the pandemic, I kept seeing examples of Sikhs who were risking their own lives to help absolute strangers. And while I was very proud, I was not overly surprised because doing seva is second nature to Sikhs. I knew that this is a story that the world needs to hear, that my son Azad needs to hear. I wrote Seva because it is, in a way, the solution to the problems of modern life. Read it to believe it. “, Khanna says rightly. She is quite right about this, you need to read it to believe it.

I hope you can enjoy the book with some traditional Sikh Panjiri, the most delicious sweet made from wheat flour and dried nuts.

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