Thursday, November 26, 2009

Three Stages of Understanding

Most people believe that knowledge and understanding are linear phenomena. As our knowledge of any given social or economic phenomena increases we move further in one direction. For example, in the Masters in Education program at Loyola, there was an underlying belief that the more educated and enlightened we became, the more we would come to see that all cultures were equal. Also we were fed implicit messages that we would come to understand the injustice of capitalism and the need for an interventionist state that pursued "social justice."

But, the more I explored issues, I came to see that often the acquisition of knowledge and understanding is more circular. For example, when questioned about Islam, an American without a university education is likely to inelegantly state "dem der Moslems are purty violent!" This of course would invoke shock and horror in a college freshman who learned in his diversity seminar that "Islam is a religion of peace." If they studied a little more they would probably add "Islam is tolerant religion; the Moors in Spain and the Ottoman Turks were extremely tolerant to Jews and Christians..." But, if that college freshman were to further study Islamic history they would learn about the violent history of Muhammad, the massacres, expulsions and forced conversions of Jews and Christians in Almohad Spain and that Islamic law imposed humiliating restrictions on Dhimmis (non-Moslems) in the Ottoman Empire and other lands ruled by Shariah. And if they compared the Koran to the New Testament they would learn that in spite of extended periods of fanaticism and intolerance, within Christianity there exists a textual foundation for tolerance and the gradual separation of church and state. In other words, a little bit of knowledge allowed the student to formulate noble, but deeply flawed narratives of social phenomena and ultimately greater knowledge brought them closer to their original, "unsophisticated" position. I believe that the circular path of knowledge applies to quite a few other phenomena; from welfare, to warfare, from education to immigration and beyond.

If you spoke with an uneducated American in the 1960's about international politics, you would be likely hear something along the lines of "those blood thirsty reds must be stopped. The American way has made this the greatest country on earth..." After receiving a liberal arts education in Berkley his son would probably respond "Oh father, you are so backwards and bourgeois! The works of Marx and Mao speak about equality and an end to poverty, whereas capitalism is oppressive..." If this young man would have taken the time to study the history of Communist regimes he would have learned that more people were murdered in the Soviet Union and Red China than even in Nazi Germany. And if he embarked upon a serious study of history and economics he would see that there was much truth to what his father said: America's traditions of limited government and (comparatively) free markets led to prosperity and freedom unparalleled in the history of mankind.

The point is not to glorify the uneducated or discourage individuals from pursuing a higher education, but to demonstrate that too often a liberal arts education endows one with the rhetorical skills to embrace and argue for ideals that are not always grounded in reality. Before one arrives at exalted principles and eloquent theories, they must travel down an empirical path founded in data and experience. To argue about how businesses and industries should be regulated, restructured and run without ever having worked in a productive enterprise is an absurd undertaking that may land you a job as a Czar in the Obama Administration.

No comments:

Post a Comment