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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 33 No. 11. 22 July 1970

revolt in vacuum

page 10

revolt in vacuum

Hoping to discover at long last what the verb "to educate" means, I turned the other day to the Concise Oxford and was amused to find this definition: "Give intellectual and moral training to". And further down, to drive the nail home: 'Train (person) . . . train (animals)". 1 would not be surprised to see, when the next rioting season starts, a bonfire of C.O.D.s; and that definition, with its Pavlovian echoes, certainly deserves no better. But I am doubtful whether much would be gained by replacing the offensive term "training" by "guidance". That sounds nice and smarmy, but it begs the question. Guiding, by whatever discreet methods, always implies asserting one's mental powers over another person's mind-in the present context, a younger person's. And the ethics of this procedure, which not so long ago we took for granted, is becoming more and more problematical.

My own preference is for defining the purpose of education as "catalysing the mind". To influence is to intrude; a catalyst, on the other hand, is defined as an agent that triggers or speeds up a chemical reaction without being involved in the product. If I may utter a truism, the ideal educator acts as a catalyst, not as a conditioning influence. Conditioning or, to use Skinner's term, social engineering through the control of behaviour, is an excellent method for training Samurais, but applied on the campus it has two opposite dangers. It may lead to a kind of experimental neurosis in the subjects, expressed by violent rejection of any control or influence by authority. On the other hand, it can be too successful, and create the phenomena of conformism, with a broad spectrum ranging from a society of placid yes-men manipulated by the mass media to the totalitarian state controlled by the Thoughts of Chairman Mao.

The alternative to conditioning is catalysing the mind's development. I can best explain what is meant by quoting a passage from a book I wrote some years ago on creativity in science and art.

"To enable the student to derive pleasure from the art of scientific discovery, as from other forms of art, he should be made to re-live, to some extent, the creative process. In other words, he must be induced, with proper aid and guidance, to make some of the fundamental discoveries of science by himself, to experience in his own mind some of those flashes of insight which have lightened its path. This means that the history of science ought to be made an essential part of the curriculum, that science should be represented in its evolutionary context-not as a Minerva born fully armed. It further means that the paradoxes, the 'blocked problems' which confronted Archimedes. Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Harvey, Darwin, should be reconstructed in their historical setting and presented in the form of riddles—with appropriate hints—to eager young minds. The most productive form of learning is problem-solving. The traditional method of confronting the student, not with the problem but with the finished solution, means to deprive him of all excitement, to shut off the creative impulse, to reduce the adventure of mankind to a dusty heap of theorems.

"Art is a form of communication which aims at eliciting a re-creative echo. Education should be regarded as an art, and use the appropriate techniques to call forth that echo—the 'recreation '. The novice, who has gone through some of the main stages in the evolution of the species during his embryonic development, and through the evolution from savage to civilised society by the time he reaches adolescence, should then be made to continue his curriculum by recapitulating some of the decisive episodes, impasses, and turning points on the road to the conquest of knowledge. Much in our textbooks and methods of teaching reflects a static, pre-evolutionary concept of the world. For man cannot inherit the past; he has to re-create it."

This is what I meant by education as a catalytic process. But now comes the rub. Assuming we agree that the ideal method of teaching science is to enable the student to rediscover Newton's Laws of Motion more or less by himself—can the same method be applied to the teaching of ethics, of moral values? The first answer that comes to mind is that ethics is not a discipline in the normal curriculum, except if you specialise in philosophy or theology. But that is a rash answer, because implicitly, if not explicitly, we impart ethical principles and value-judgments in whatever we teach or write on whatever subject. The greatest superstition of our time is the belief in the ethical neutrality of science. Even the slogan of ethical neutrality itself implies a programme and a credo.

Implicit Assumptions

No writer or teacher or artist can escape the responsibility of influencing others, whether he intends to or not, whether he is conscious of it or not. And this influence is not confined to his explicit message; it is the more powerful and the more insidious because much of it is transmitted implicitly, as a hidden persuader, and the recipient absorbs it unawares. Surely physics is an ethically neutral science? Yet Einstein rejected the trend in modern physics to replace causality by statistics with his famous dictum: "I refuse to believe that God plays dice with the world". He was more honest than other physicists in admitting his metaphysical bias; and it is precisely this metaphysical bias, implied in a scientific hypothesis, which exerts its unconscious influence on others. The Roman Church was ill advised when she opposed Galileo and Darwin, and from a rational point of view was lagging behind the times; but intuitively she was ahead of the times in realising the impact which the new cosmology and the theory of evolution was to have on man's image of himself and his place in the universe.

Wolfgang Kohler, one of the greatest psychologists of our time, searched all his life for "the place of value in a world of facts" the title of the book in which he summed up his personal philosophy. But there is no need to search for such a place because the values are diffused through all the strata of the various sciences, as the invisible bubbles of air are diffused in the waters of a lake, and we are the fish who breathe them in all the time through the gills of intuition. Our education establishment, from the departments of physics through biology and genetics, up to the behavioural and social sciences, willy nilly imparts to the students a Weltanschauung, a system of values wrapped up in a package of facts. But the choice and shape of the package is determined by its invisible content; or, to change the metaphor, our implicit values provide the non-Euclidian curvature, the subtle distortions of the world of facts.

Now when I use the term "our educational establishment", you may object that there is no such thing. I very country, every university and even facult) therein has of course its individual character, its personal face or facelessness. Nevertheless, taking diversity for granted, and exceptions for granted, there exist certain common deonominators which determine the cultural climate and the metaphysical bias imparted to hopeful students practically everywhere in the non-totalitarian sector of the world, from California to the East Coast, from London to Berlin, Bombay and Tokyo. That climate is impossible to define without oversimplification, so I shall oversimplify deliberately and say that it is dominated by three Rs.


The first R stands for Reductionism. Its philosophy may be epitomised by a quotation from a recent book in which man is defined, in all seriousness, as "nothing but a complex biochemical mechanism, powered by a combustion system which energises computers with prodigious storage facilities for retaining encoded information". This is certainly an extreme formulation, but it conveys the essence of that philosophy.

It is, of course, perfectly legitimate to draw analogies between the central nervous system and a telephone exchange, or a computer, or a holograph. The reductionist heresy is contained in the words "nothing but". If you replace in the sentence I have just quoted the words "nothing but" by "to some extent" or "from a certain angle" or "on a certain level of his many-levelled structure", then everything is all right. The reductionist proclaims his part-truth to be the whole truth, a certain specific aspect of a phenomenon to be the whole phenomenon. To the behaviourist, the activities of man are nothing but a chain of conditioned responses; to the more rigid variety of Freudian, artistic creation is nothing but a substitute for goal-inhibited sexuality; to the mechanically oriented biologist the pheomena of consciousness are nothing but electro-chemical reactions. And the ultimate reductionist heresy is to consider the whole as nothing but the sum of its parts—a hangover from the crude atomistic concepts of nineteenth-century physics, which the physicist himself abandoned long ago.

Man as Rat

The second of the three Rs is what I have called elsewhere the philosophy of ratomorphism. At the turn of the century, Lloyd Morgan's famous canon warned biologists against the fallacy of projecting human thoughts and feelings into animals; since then, the pendulum has moved in the opposite direction, so that today, instead of an anthropomorphic view of the rat, we have a ratomorphic view of man. According to this view, our skyscrapers are nothing but huge Skinner boxes in which, instead of pressing a pedal to obtain a food-pellet, we emit operant responses which are more complicated, but governed by the same laws as the behaviour of the rat. Again, if you erase the "nothing but", there is an ugly grain of truth in this. But if the life of man is becoming a rat-race, it is because he has become impregnated with a ratomorphic philosophy. One is reminded of that old quip: "Psycho-analysis is the disease which it pretends to cure". Keep telling a man that he is nothing but an oversized rat, and he will start growing whiskers and bite your finger.

Some fifty years ago, in the heyday of the conditioned reflex, the paradigm of human behaviour was Pavlov's dog salivating in its restraining harness on the laboratory table. After that came the rat in the box. And after the rat came the geese. In his recent book On Aggression, Konrad Lorenz advances the theory that affection between social animals is phylogenetically derived from aggression. The bond which holds the partners together (regardless whether it has a sexual component or not) is "neither more nor less than the conversion of aggression into its opposite". Whether one agrees or disagrees with this theory is irrelevant; the reason why I mention it is that Lorenz' arguments are almost exclusively based on his observations of the so-called triumph ceremony of the greylag goose, which, in his own words, prompted him to write his book. Once more we are offered a Weltanschauung derived from an exceedingly specialised type of observations, a part-truth which claims to be the whole truth. To quote the Austrian psychiatrist, Victor Frankl: "The trouble is not that scientists are specialising, but rather that specialists are generalising".

A last example for the second R. About a year ago, a popular book on anthropology was heading the bestseller lists in Europe and America: The Naked Ape-A Zoologist's Study of the Human Animal by Dr. Desmond Morris. It opens with the statement that man is a hairless ape "self-named homo sapiens . . . I am a zoologist and the naked ape is an animal. He is therefore fair game for my pen". To what extremes this zoomorphic approach may lead is illustrated by the following quotation:

"The insides of houses or flats can be decorated and filled with ornaments, bric-a-brac and personal belongings in profusion. This is usually explained as being done to make the place 'look nice'. In fact, it is the exact equivalent to another territorial species depositing its personal scent on a landmark near its den. When you put a name on a door, or hang a painting on a wall, you are, in dog or wolf terms, for example, simply cocking your leg on them and leaving your personal mark there."

To avoid misunderstandings, let me emphasise once more that it is both legitimate and necessary for scientific research to investigate conditioned reflexes in dogs, operant responses in rats, and the ritual dances of geese-so long as they are not forced [unclear: upon] man's condition. But [unclear: this] been happening for [unclear: the] middle-aged century.

Random Mutations

My third R is [unclear: randomness.] is considered to be [unclear: no] mutations preserved by [unclear: rati] evolution nothing but [unclear: rando] reinforcement. To quote [unclear: fr] leading evolutionist: "It [unclear: i] problem of evolution is [unclear: ess] turns out to be basically [unclear: t] sign of purpose. . . . [unclear: Ma] purposeless and [unclear: materialist] paraphrase Einstein, a [unclear: non-] blind dice with the [unclear: univ] casuality, the solid rock [unclear: on] was built, has been [unclear: repla] of statistics. We all seem [unclear: to] which the [unclear: physicist] movement"—the erratic [unclear: z] particle of smoke [unclear: buffe] molecules of the [unclear: surroundin]

Some schools of modern [unclear: an] the cult of randomness. [unclear: A] at random fistfuls of [unclear: pai] French sulptor achieved [unclear: in] bashing old motor-[unclear: cars] machine into random [unclear: shap] bits of scrap iron into [unclear: absti] bits of fluff and tinsel composers of electronic [unclear: mi] machines for their [unclear: effect] novelist boasts of cutting [unclear: u] a pair of scissors, and stick in random fashion.

These schools of [unclear: contemp] derive their inspiration [unclear: from] in the sciences of life-[unclear: a] infection. Randomness, [unclear: we] fact of life. We live in [unclear: a] with hard facts, and [unclear: there] purpose, values or [unclear: meaning] and meaning is considered [unclear: a] be for an astronomer [unclear: to] telescope for Dante's [unclear: heave] would be equally [unclear: absurd] microscope for that [unclear: ghost] conscious mind, with its [unclear: g] free choice and moral [unclear: respo]

Let us remind ourselves [unclear: o] essence of teaching is not [unclear: is] which it conveys, but in [unclear: the] it transmits in explicit [unclear: or] terms of modern [unclear: commun] bulk of the [unclear: informal] interpretations. That is the [unclear: o] the data provide only [unclear: the] recurrent, embittered [unclear: co] history of science prove [unclear: o] that the same data [unclear: can] different ways and [unclear: reshuf] patterns. A minute ago, I [unclear: qu] biologist of the orthodox [unclear: ne] Let me now quote [unclear: anothe] C.H. Waddington, who, [unclear: bas] page 11 same available data, arrives at the opposite view: "To suppose that the evolution of the wonderfully adapted biological mechanisms has depended only on a selection out of a haphazard set of variations, each produced by blind chance, is like suggesting that if we went on throwing bricks into heaps, we should eventually be able to choose ourselves the most desirable house".

Interpretation and Meaning

One could go on quoting such diametrically opposed conclusions drawn by different scientists from the same body of data. For example, one could hardly expect neurophysiologists to belittle the important of brain mechanisms in mental life, and many of them do indeed hold that mental life is nothing but brain mechanism. And yet Sherrington was an unashamed dualist; he wrote: "That our being should consist of two fundamental elements offers, I suppose, no greater inherent improbability than that it should rest on one only". And the great Canadian brain surgeon. Wilder Penfield, said at an interdisciplinary symposium on "Control of the Mind" at which we both participated "To declare that these two things [brain and mind] are one does not make them so, but it does block the progress of research".

I quote this, not because I am a Cartesian dualist-which I am not-but to emphasise that the neurophysiologist's precise data can be interpreted in diverse ways. In other words, it is not true that the data which science provides must automatically lead to the conclusion that life is meaningless, nothing but Brownian motion imparted by the random drift of cosmic weather. We should rather say that the Zeitgeist has a tendency towards the devaluation of values and the elimination of meaning from the world around us and the world inside us. The result is an existential vacuum.

At this point I would like to quote again Viktor Frankl, founder of what has become known as the Third Viennese School of Psychiatry. He postulates that besides Freud's Pleasure Principle and Adler's Will to Power, there exists a "Will to Meaning" as an equally fundamental human drive:

"It is an inherent tendency in man to reach out for meanings to fulfil and for values to actualise. In contrast to animals, man is not told by his instincts what he must do. And in contrast to man in former times, he is no longer told by his traditions and values what he ought to do . . . Thousands and thousands of young students are exposed to an indoctrination along the lines of a reductionist concept of life which denies the existence of values. The result is a world-wide phenomenon-more and more patients are crowding our clinics with the complaint of an inner emptiness, the sense of a total and ultimate meaninglessness of life."

He calls this type of neurosis "noogenic", as distinct from sexual and other types of neuroses, and he claims that about 20 per cent. of all cases at the Vienna Psychiatry Clinic (of which he is the head) are of noogenic origin. He further claims that this figure is doubled among student patients of Central Furopean origin; and that it soars to 80 per cent. among students in the United States.

I should mention that I know next to nothing about the therapeutic methods of this school—it is called Logotherapy—and that 1 have no means of judging its efficacity. But there exists a considerable literature on the subject, and I brought it up because the philosophy behind it seems to me relevant to our theme. However that may be, the term "existential vacuum", caused by the frustration of the will to meaning, seems to be a fitting description of the world-wide mood of infectious restlessness, particularly among the young and among intellectuals.

It may be of some interest to compare this mood with that of the Pink Decade, the 1930s, when the Western world was convulsed by economic depression, unemployment and hunger marches and the so-called Great Socialist Experiment initiated by the Russian Revolution seemed to be the only hopeful ideal to a great mass of youthful idealists, including the present writer. In The God That Failed, I wrote about that period:

"Devotion to pure Utopia and rebellion against a polluted society are the two poles which provide the tension of all militant creeds. To ask which of the two makes the current flow-attraction by the ideal or repulsion by the social environment—is to ask the old question whether the hen was first, or the egg".

Compare this with the present mood. Today the repellent forces are more powerful than ever, but the attraction of the ideal is missing, since what we thought to be Utopia turned out to be a cynical fraud. The egg is there, but no hen to hatch it. Rebellion is freewheeling in a vacuum.

Another comparison comes to mind-another historic situation, in which the traditional values of a culture were destroyed, without new values taking their place. I mean the fatal impact of the European conquerors on the native civilisations of American Indians and Pacific Islanders. In our case, the shattering impact was not caused by the greed, rapacity and missionary zeal of foreign invaders. The invasion has come from within, in the guise of an ideology which claims to be scientific and is in fact a new version of Nihilism in its denial of values, purpose and meaning. But the results in both cases are comparable: like the natives who were left without traditions and beliefs in a spiritual vacuum, we, too, seem to wander about in a bemused trance.

The Crisis in Education

It is, of course, true that similar negative moods car: be found in past periods of our history, variously described as mal de siecle, romantic despair, Russian Nihilism, apocalyptic expectations. And there have been Ranters, Messianic sects and Tarantula dancers, all of whom have their striking contemporary parallels. But the present has a unique and unprecedented urgency because the rate of change is now moving along an ever steeper exponential curve, and history is accelerating like the molecules in a liquid coming to the boil. There is no need to evoke the population explosion, urban explosion and explosion of explosive power; we live in their midst, in the eye of the hurricane.

This brings me back to my starting point. The ideal of the educator as a catalysing agent is for the time being unattainable. Exceptions always granted, he has been a conditioning influence, and the conditions he created amount to an explosive vacuum.

I do not believe that the crisis in education can be solved by the educators. They are themselves products of that Zeitgeist which brought on the crisis. All our laudable efforts to reform the universities can at best produce paliatives and symptom-therapy. I think that in a confused way the rebellious students are aware of this, and that this is why they are so helpless when asked for constructive proposals, and why no proposed reform can satisfy their ravenous appetites. They are, simply, hungry for meaning, which their teachers cannot provide. They feel that all their teachers can do is to produce rabbits out of empty hats. Up to a point the rebels have succeeded in imparting this awareness to society at large; and that, regardless of the grotesque methods employed, seems to me a wholesome achievement.

Drawing of a protest