Sunday, August 14, 2011

Ideas...They're, Like, Sooo 1990s

I came across an interesting editorial in the August 14th New York Times Sunday Review, entitled, "The Elusive Big Idea." The gist is that there are no more big theories, big ideas, or big visions, because we are living in a "post idea" world. In the age of Twitter and Facebook -- the so-called "Information Age" -- people are looking for small bits of titillating information, not nasty, messy, complex, abstract ideas. In short, the enlightenment is dead and buried, and with it the appreciation for man's ability to use reason to make sense of his world.

This may not mean very much to some people -- no-nothing Presidential candidates, for example -- but it should trouble those of us who care about the future of the planet. Rarely before in human history has our species been confronted by so many interconnected global problems that threaten our continued existence on Mother Earth: climate change, peak oil, a global economic meltdown, species extinction, political and religious extremism, and the prospect of Michelle Bachman as a presidential candidate, to name but a few. These issues are difficult to solve precisely because they are the result of our human and planetary interconnectedness--something that is a relatively new phenomenon in human history. The global nature of these problems also means that we either solve them together or we go down in flames together.

But to solve problems like these, you need people trained to think critically, rationally, and conceptually. We need people, in other words, who know how to do THE BIG IDEA thing. And that's something we don't have any longer. Sure, we all know everything about Lady Gaga's latest fashion escapades, but that sort of information is not going to prevent sea levels from rising and swamping countries like Bangladesh.

Now higher education has failed completely to help train a future generation of big thinkers. During the past thirty years, we've abandoned the liberal arts in favor of vocational and technical educational models that do little more than reinforce student's fixation on information over ideas. The marginalization -- or wholesale elimination -- of philosophy from most many college's requirements, in particular, means that the next generation of movers and shakers won't be provided with the intellectual tools they need to engage in the sort of rational thinking that can help solve some of our most pressing global problems.

Do I have hopes that this situation will change any time soon? Probably not. The Information Age is here to stay and with it social networking programs that are rewiring our brains for the worse. And, given the sort of people who are in charge of our education system in this country, it seems unlikely that solutions will be coming out of higher education. The only solution that I can conceive -- if, indeed, there even is a solution at this point -- is for individual human beings, alone or in small groups with other like-minded individuals, to commit themselves to lives of intellectual engagement. Here are my recommendations for those who are interested in maintaining their capacity for rational thought at a time when most human beings seem to be losing theirs:

1) Delete your Facebook and Twitter accounts and limit your cellphone use.
2) Learn how to be lazy. Spend a minimum of 1 hour a day engaged in idle day-dreaming. It sure worked like a charm for Einstein and Edison!
3) Read great works all the time (start with Homer and work your way to a Confederacy of Dunces)
3) Write something every day. Keep a journal, maintain a blog like this one, or write your own book. It doesn't matter about the quality of what you write or who appreciates it or not. Just keep writing.
4) Major in philosophy, or at least dual major in it, or at least take some classes in the subject.

If you do all this,
when the Long Emergency that James Howard Kunstler prophesizes about happens, you will be in a position to offer the kind of visionary leadership that the world will sorely need. And, even if we don't have a kind of nasty planetary cataclysm, you will certainly be much better off than those sorry individuals who think that the quality of a person's life is measured by the number of their tweets.

1 comment:

  1. I don't know why you are always harping about facebook. I actually think that it's a useful tool for sharing those big ideas that you think are so important.

    But I do agree with you that higher ed has all but abandoned the task of training the next generation of thinkers. Colleges like yours have become glorified degree mills for our zombie-like youth.