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Roy NiblettEmeritus Professor Roy Niblett, CBE, was formerly a Professor of Education at Hull and Leeds and later Dean of the Institute of Education, University of London, London, UK
Keywords Western Europe, Society, Post-industrial society
Isn't it astonishing that one of the most fundamental of all the insights which came to twentieth century thinkers was published in a very obscure place as early as 1916? It was in a journal with a tiny circulation called The New Age in February of that year that these words from T.E. Hulme's Notebook first appeared: "In order to understand a period", he says, "it is necessary not so much to be acquainted with its more defined options as with the doctrines which are thought of not as doctrines but as facts. (The moderns, for example, do not look for their belief in progress as an opinion, but merely as a recognition of fact.) There are certain doctrines which for a particular period seem not doctrines but inevitable categories of the human mind. Men do not look on them much as correct opinions, for they have become so much a part of the mind, and lie so far back, that they are never really conscious of them at all. They do not see them, but other things through them" (Hulme and McGuiness, 1998).
A recognition of the influence on us all the time of presuppositions we have imbibed, without in the least knowing it, underlies much of what I want to say. Our debt to what we take for granted is immense – not only in regard to our physical existence (for example, that we have two legs, not four; that night inevitably follows day; winter, summer) – but to the mental and spiritual climate whose air, as it were, we have no choice but to breathe. The period we are alive in today has many secret influences over us, some of them hard for us to recognise however hard we try, some of them it is quite impossible to recognise.
This paper will be divided into four parts: first, a short historical recap of where we in the West have come from doctrinally and ideologically in the last few hundred years. Second, thoughts on some of the background influences which, mostly without our awareness of the debt we owe to them, have come to affect the education we can give to those now largely regarded as consumers of it: children, adolescents, but particularly, to the many now going on into higher education. Third, reflections upon the consumer ideology which energises and impels the globalisation movement of which we hear so much. Is escape from this even possible? What hope is given for such an escape by the arrival of post-modernism and the presuppositions it brings with it? Fourth, I want to outline where I think the frontier now lies, both for society and the individual, between what may roughly be called belief in the human spirit and loss of such belief.
First, then, the background question. Where in the last few centuries has our society come from? For, as Nicholas Boyle (1998) suggests in his penetrating book Who Are We Now?, we can be helped in answering it by looking back at our past with as much understanding as possible. It may be harder for us in the west today than perhaps it still is for the inhabitants of Islam to imagine ourselves back in a medieval world where individualism mattered such a lot less, in which the community exerted so much control over what one believed, in which the existence and influence of God were almost taken completely for granted – with Church more powerful than State. A Catholic-type of religion, Christian or not, Muslim or whatever, seeks to sanctify all aspects of the life both of the individual and the community – eating, drinking, religious observances, sex, the passage of the seasons (Lent or Ramadan), welfare and war (Sacks, 1991). The Renaissance brought with it a new emphasis on the individual; and the Reformation, which it made possible, brought to many a conviction that one could have a direct relation to God. A personal faith indeed was essential to salvation: the church and the community no longer had final authority; individuals, guided by scripture, could and should stand on their own feet. The Enlightenment movement of the eighteenth century in Europe, inheriting the mental climate which such trust in independence brought with it, vastly encouraged individuals to explore, to analyse the world they lived in, to question without fear whether God existed at all, and if He did or didn't whether belief in Him mattered all that much. One was free to eat and drink even (if one wanted) to be merry – and what a relief! But too much merriment was frowned on. For the legacy left by the seriousness and conscientiousness for which both Catholic and Protestant traditions had stood found a new home in the widespreading assumption that progress was what was called for – a progress in welfare, for instance, would bring with it better health, longer life, more comfort. But it had to be earned – earned by concentration of mind, by courage, hard work, initiative and enterprise – maybe to the near exclusion of a life of feeling. These were all qualities which, in Britain, the Victorian age, and to a considerable extent its immediate successor, exemplified. People largely believed in morality whether they had or had not much use for religion.
It was not until comparatively recently that this mental climate has begun slowly to give way to another. Social climates do not change rapidly. The one at any time currently predominant goes on being interpenetrated by its predecessor. No past period indeed has ceased altogether to exert an influence, however small and diminishing, on all its successors. The postmodern age which we may be coming to live in has lost a lot of the conviction its predecessor had in the Victorian virtues; it is not so sure that material progress, though likely to continue on a large scale, is going to bring great happiness to humanity; it is not so certain that knowledge or conviction or even belief in oneself are unmitigated goods. We must learn to live in a world full of uncertainties with questions which can never be answered, hopes that can never be realised. Is post-modernism a sort of sun-lit cloud which the winds will quite soon blow away? Maybe it is; but the effect of the sunshine and the rain it has already brought with it seem likely to have fertilising effects which are going to be felt for some time ahead.
The content, kind and quality of the education we shall find possible to give our children in any period must be influenced by the presuppositions affecting the outlook and climate of that period. We do not see these, we see things through them. The formal institutions we provide and look on as responsible for training the young are of course only some of the sources from which they will be receiving an education. That will have begun long before they enter any school – which particular language they learn to speak, the range of their vocabulary within it, the accent in which they speak it, are intimately part of the education they will be receiving, long before the age of three, from home, TV and their friends. But their presuppositions, the selection of their prejudices, their standards of morals and behaviour will also be in daily process of being acquired with nobody very conscious that this is so. Which of the following will they have come to take for granted today by the age of five and which of them not? – electric light, mobile telephones, pop music, cars, travel by plane, The Sun or The Times as a daily paper, the inside of a church? One could go on with the list almost indefinitely. And though the school can use the material which this environment and a collectivity of attitudes provide, its actual control over such material is quite limited. Literacy and numeracy can of course be vastly improved by deliberate manoeuvres perseveringly employed. It is far more difficult to eliminate racial prejudice, to suggest in what ways Sunday could be, or even used to be, a different sort of day feeling-wise from Saturday. And it is quite impossible not to be carried along with the stream of technical advance on which we all float. To foster expectation is among the most potent of educational tools. But we have largely to fit in with the kind of expectations alive within our period. The other day I saw a little girl of seven or so busily tapping the keys of the computer in the local library to find the information she wanted. We've no choice but to accustom children to live with the computers and the Internet, to absorb the idea that success in competitive examinations matters, whether or not they can pass in them, that in due course earning big enough money to buy not merely healthy food is OK but hopefully a bike, a motorbike, a Fiesta.
Throughout large parts of the world, from the far west to the far east, the enormous influence of ideals of material success is not to be doubted. Prosperity matters: attaining the level of wealth required to service our consumption of products. And if to secure this state of affairs we need many people of enterprise, inventiveness, trained technical expertise, we must see to it that our educational system provides them for us. The managers, the professionals, the technicians, those who can repair the complex aircraft engines, hi-fi sets, computers, when they go wrong – these are indispensable and needed not merely in greater numbers from our technically equipped young but from a fast increasing proportion of the total. Not to produce them will mean a rapid descent in the league table for any country – but, more importantly, a rapid descent in the power it can exercise. Maybe that doesn't matter – but at least self respect, national and personal confidence, ability to hold the head up, suggest that it may.
There is little doubt that the most powerful nation in the world, at any rate for the time being, is America. And the one which has in the past half century been most effective in lighting within the western mind presuppositions regarding the immense importance of material success, of wealth and of a forward-looking technology. There is a constellation of reasons to account for the current dominance of the USA. One of them is a temper of mind owing something to the mental attitudes of the Pilgrim Fathers centuries ago and to the Calvinist streaks within Puritanism. For Calvinism was by and large pro-wealth and anti-luxury. Hard work leading to achievement and increased prosperity was much approved by those early settlers – and it is a combination still thought rather well of by big business in the USA.
The debt owed to the USA by our formal system of education at all stages has increased by leaps and bounds in the last 30 years: its example has influenced both the direction and pace of the development in our school and higher education systems. Defining one's short-term ends, practicality, bringing the analytic mind to bear on problems – these are among the necessities which pragmatic America emphasises.
It is the influence of the USA example and mentality, particularly on the development of higher education over here since 1980 or so to which I want now to draw attention. Among the people who affected more than most a quickening of the change in the direction in which higher education in the USA was already very definitely going was a man named Clark Kerr. His seminal little book The Uses of the University was published in 1972 (Kerr, 1972). Clark, who is still alive, was perhaps the greatest leader which the enormous University of California has had. Today it is a rival to Harvard in a way it certainly was not 40 years ago. In the mid-twentieth century, both Harvard and the enterprising University of Chicago under Robert Hutchins had stood for a less utilitarian more human concept of what a university was for. But it is what I might call the Clark, not the Hutchins, tradition which is triumphing.
The study of higher education – with philosophic, historical, sociological and political contributions of quality made to it – has involved over the past 25 years a number of very able American scholars – including Martin Trow, Sheldon Rothblatt, Burton Clark, to name three of the most distinguished and even, it may be, influential. But it is of course the places of higher education themselves (often consciously or unconsciously shaped by and incorporating the ideas which such authors have examined and about which they have written) that have been determining the suppositions their students come to take for granted. The immensely wealthy Business Schools of American Universities – with their close links to advanced, technically sophisticated, industries – and the highly resourced American University Institutes for research into the applications of science have a potent and increasing influence world-wide. Is it not with MIT (founded 1861) that Cambridge University (founded in the thirteenth century) established in 1999 an intimate, degree-awarding, relationship?
In the UK, the example the USA has set is one of the factors that has affected not merely the enormous expansion of our higher education provision, but to an unexamined extent the intellectual and social climate of the universities, new and less new, in which a large majority of our students are now studying. The thinkers who continue to energise the policies these universities have adopted and to encourage the extension in the range of subjects they offer are often people who have been, or still are, very much within our university system themselves but with many American and international contacts. To mention three only: Baroness Blackstone, Anthony Giddens and Peter Scott, now vice-chancellor of Kingston University, but earlier for a long period editor of the THES. Both our present government and its predecessors – with their civil servants – have relied not merely on such people from academia but many others direct from the business world to give them advice on policy. Jarrett, Dearing and company, however, have all been well apprised of the USA, its industries and its higher education provision. Their recommendations in almost every case show that to be so.
It is of course the USA and those who have graduated from its universities who are among those most responsible for the rapid and relentless evolution now taking place in most parts of the world in commerce and industry involving a vast enlargement of their technical capacities. This globalisation movement is on a massive scale. And it affects not merely the still growing dominance of the wealthy west and far east but, more subtly, the mental attitudes of the majority of their young inhabitants. The doctrines involved "become so much a part of the mind", as Hulme said, "and lie so far back, that they are never really conscious of them at all. They do not see them, but other things through them" (Hulme and McGuiness, 1998).
The higher education we are providing in the UK, for nearly one-third already of the 18-21 age group, is more and more being adapted to fit in with this orientation, the cost to universities and colleges for not following the trend being penal. Most however are following it readily, especially if they are ambitious. Their applied departments in many fields flourish – their newly developed business schools being immensely popular and expanding fast. Their theology and philosophy departments are today minor parts in most of those universities which still have them. Many of our new universities have neither.
Finance has started to pour in for the creation of regional centres of enterprise in our country, with universities encouraged to play a vital part in their development. (Bristol University, for example, has recently been granted an extra £2,600,000 to forward the work of such a centre.)
Much of all this is of course to the national and our personal benefit. But the inbuilt emphasis on material prosperity, including the concentration on research which promises to yield a relatively early "pay off", has far reaching consequences.
The globalisation movement to which I have referred essentially belongs to an age of confidence, of one which firmly believes in progress. Without the sheer self-confidence of the entrepreneurs behind the inventiveness and marketing skills of Microsoft, Ford, Kelloggs, CocaCola, McDonalds and a score of other firms, it would have got nowhere. They rejoice in being modern, practical, people who face facts, hazards and problems objectively.
But increasingly, from the mid-1970s onwards, a post-modernist and post-structuralist frame of mind has been coming into the picture. Those to whose thought and writing it owes so much are typically from Europe not the USA. Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, are all Frenchmen. The presuppositions they voice (not entirely absent from the student demonstrations in Paris of the late 1960s) are ones of disillusionment with authority, of the need to suspect mere objectivity, and too much planning at the expense of personal freedom. They want people to have the maximum degree of freedom that is possible. They have given up hope that a detached objectivity will provide us with answers to many of the questions that matter and have given up belief in most kinds of certainty. There are no absolutes. We should not look to "grand narratives" – objective systems of thought – as means of escape from the inexplicability which is inherent in life. Metaphysical explanations ("metanarratives") are to be shunned, as are pretensions of every kind. Informality in dress and in manners is to be welcomed.
We are free to believe in what we find personally satisfying, to reject creeds we don't find credible and to live as happily as we can, surrounded as we must be by uncertainties. We can take pleasure in personal relationships, in closeness rather than standoffishness, calling others by their Christian names at as early a stage as possible. We can take pleasure too as consumers rejoicing in the astonishing variety of commodities from which to choose in supermarkets and in the variety of experiences from which to choose in the greater supermarket which life itself offers. Such pleasures will help us to escape, to cope and to survive, even with the uncertainties that are on every side.
Such an outlook – exemplified in enthusiasm for charismatic renewal, for abolishing as many hierarchies as possible – has little confidence in the finality and so-called objectivity of science. We must learn to live in a world full of uncertainties, not pretending that we know the real and final truth about much at all, taking pleasure in being able to feel, and not only to think.
One of our foremost writers on higher education, Ronald Barnett, argues that the most important aim of the university today is teaching its students how, in a world of complexity, growing almost daily more complex, to live with uncertainty (Barnett, 1999). To live effectively like this calls for many virtues: courage, resilience, risk-taking, persistence, self-irony among them; but doing so is the only way in our time to retain professional competence on the one hand and personal integrity on the other.
We may have to put up with globalisation, with the spread throughout the world of a consumer ideology – with ourselves among those adopting it – but at least on occasion we can trade out personally from some of its presuppositions and consequences if we submit to a postmodernist philosophy of non-committal.
I would agree that there is much to be said in favour of a philosophy which gives scope again to the subjective, legitimises emotion, queries the goals of an endless quest for more and yet more knowledge. The degree of dependence on uncertainties which seems to be advocated however, is, I should have thought, unlikely to satisfy for long more than part of our nature. In any case, the assumption of post-modernism that we must do without appeals to authority, do without all certainties, is not really something it quite believes itself. Are not Lyotard, Derrida and company being looked to as teachers whose words carry a lot more authority with them than those who suspect their gospel? Moreover, if people have to learn to live with uncertainties at least a desire to go on living is implied – a belief in life itself as quite certainly worthwhile. And concealed in the very quest for freedom – freedom from imprisonment in an objective world alone, freedom from being confined to formal dress and formal manners, freedom to be informal in speech and behaviour, freedom even from having to have definable, unchanging beliefs – is not there somewhere concealed in this shining quest a conviction that genuineness matters, that pretentiousness is out? Such conviction is in itself, in a subtle way, a kind of certainty.
As Brenda Watson (2000) has pointed out it is certainty that provides the dynamic for action. "Without some kind of certainty", she says, "it is difficult if not impossible to react responsibly, or to take initiative. Doubt operating at a basic level is debilitating".
In fact, we just cannot do without some certainties – even if, in this twenty-first century, we must also live quite unavoidably with many uncertainties too. Humanity is not soon, perhaps ever, going to find answers to many of its problems. But at least the climate post-modernism brings with it frees us from taking it for granted that the scientific and research routes to knowledge are the only ones worth treading.
My basic doubt about the sufficiency of the assumptions of post-modernism is whether among all those uncertainties and informalities it also faces with any adequacy the existence of the realisation which may come to us at times that there are dimensions, or levels, in our experience of life. We live not only in a world of clocks, computers, events by the hundred, sleep and awakeness, but of birth, death, suffering, joy – that is of experiences which can bring us moments of depth, confronting us with certainties which are at a different level. Watching or reading King Lear for example may be more important to us somehow than a novel by Doris Lessing; listening to Mozart's Requiem more important than to The Mikado, unfailingly entertaining though it is.
Quite a lot of poetry, a small part of it in use in schools, has dealings with this deeper level, whether it was written by those with a religious faith or not. Was Shakespeare a believer? No one knows. Hardy certainly was not. Perhaps Paul Celan, obsessed with death, hardest to understand perhaps of all the difficult twentieth century poets, retained remnants of a Jewish faith, but if so it was no orthodox one. Seamus Heaney, yes, but he remains a very secular sort of Catholic.
All these however were, at least occasionally, on the side of the frontier which divides them from those who find living a life without much meaning enough for them. George Steiner in the last pages of his autobiography, written in his formidably articulate style, adumbrates his defence of his belief in the transcendental. Agnostic though he is, he is sure that a non-empirical dimension to reality exists. Evidence for what he calls a "God presence" is profoundly there in the work not merely of Augustine or Dante but of Plato, Pascal, Kant, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. The level at which logic and argument are carried on is therefore not the only level with which education or life should be concerned. "The often unexamined arrogance of reason", Steiner says, "notably in the sciences, seems to cut off ascertainable experience from what may be essential. It is to know everything but to know nothing else" (Steiner, 1997). If there were no Bach, no Beethoven, no Michelangelo, the deprivation would leave "the greater part of our civilisation vacant" (Steiner, 1997, pp. 9, 163) So there is little doubt on which side of what I have called the frontier Steiner would put himself.
I do not think that the boundary of such a frontier runs today between churchgoers and non-churchgoers, those who repeat a creed and those who would hesitate – but rather between those who have inklings at times that there is some sort of meaning to human life and those not concerned with such matters. This is not to say that I regard having a religious faith, with doctrines which are basic to it, as unimportant, holiness and worship as dispensable items for very many who are on the Steiner side of the frontier. Today, perhaps because of the very spread of consumerism and the secularisation which tends to go with it, there has been a revival in many countries of religious adherence in opposition to those advancing threats. The passion and the strength of an ardent fundamentalism, whether in Christian, Muslim, Jewish or Hindu territories are obvious. But the use of appeals to unreason, to the miraculous, to support for campaigns semi-military or military in nature, only too often, too soon, activates anti-spiritual, primitive, low level states of mind in those fundamentalists involved, whether they started from a higher level or not.
The state of Christianity and the churches in this country today pretty clearly shows that the presuppositions of post-modernism are exerting their influence. There is plenty of evidence that both the uncertainties and the certainties still depended upon underneath them are powerful. Take such examples as these:
The success of the campaign, fought chiefly in the 1970s and 1980s, to secure the ordination of women in the C of E. This owed much to the quest for more freedom – for the breakup of boundaries – so much a part of the post-modernist temper: freedom, on the protestant side, from too literal an obedience to scripture; freedom, on the catholic side, from too literal an obedience to past tradition.
The belief that boundaries should be broken down is evidenced too by the naturalness now with which people from different denominations can and do worship together; by acceptance of the pluralism of faiths; by the growth of the Inter-Faith Movement, with branches in many of our cities. Tolerance is becoming manifest as an active very much approved virtue these days. It is The Tablet now which is the leading religious weekly among the thoughtful, not because it is Roman Catholic but because it is so intelligently aware of wider concerns – interdenominational, international – and among the non weeklies the lively Third Way (significant title) not because it is evangelical but because it has broadened its scope and tolerance so greatly.
The idea that feelings and the non-cognitive should be expressed more freely by believers is shown by the widespread use of services charismatic or semi-charismatic in character within churches of many denominations. And for the more intellectual the possession of spirituality now meets with a greater degree of approval than the possession of membership of a church.
It is significant, I think, that one of our newest universities has recently established a chair, if only a part time one, in "implicit religion", and has appointed to it the man, Edward Bailey, whose post-modernist interest in this area has stimulated so many to start to become interested too.
In these days, we all, whether post-modernists or not, agnostic or not, tend to look with reverence at holiness if it is combined with a breadth of social concern. So that, for example, Cardinal Hume and Mother Theresa were far more than just respected figures and as, increasingly today, is Rowan Williams, now Archbishop of Wales.
Though post-modernists are mostly antipathetic in their attitude to authority or to creeds, whether political or religious, they still, as has been said, like there being churches not to go to. One of the most successful of all the works of non-fiction published in Britain in 1999 was Simon Jenkins's book (Jenkins, 1999) on the outstanding churches in our country. It is a highly appreciative and perceptive survey by an agnostic of their excellence. I am told that recently a waiting guide, just inside the entrance to Salisbury Cathedral, was asked by a wondering American as he gazed upwards, "What do they use this place for now?" He was one of the millions of visitors to our cathedrals every year, few of whom can go away unmoved not only by their beauty but by the sense of something permanent within the universe, something sacred too, which they impart.
It may be that in coming centuries Christianity may not find itself best conveyed through the credal statements regularly repeated in many places of worship, though by no means all, today. But the faith in God and in humanity which is so intimately a part of Christianity is more than a matter of external interest, more than an evanescent, subjectively felt, affection of the heart.
I have already said something about the differences of level at which we have to live our lives. Our deepest insights, if they should come, may be followed immediately by the need to attend to some quite minor matters. Living at one level is no substitute for doing so at several.
One of the greatest passages in literature comes, as you will know, towards the end of Shakespeare's Lear, where the King enters with Cordelia – the incarnation of all goodness, all virginity, the feminine itself – dead in his arms. The "never", five times repeated, which he utters is a lament for the mortality of us all, and also for the removal of all meaning from life, all that makes it worth living or enduring.
But those "nevers" are followed by "Pray you undo this button" – most mundane of requests for a tiny technical deed. All our modern technology, compared with our high moments, is in a way an undoing of buttons – though now it is usually a matter of pressing, rather than undoing, them. But the level at which men and women tap the keys of their computers or attend to the firing of a rocket into space from Cape Canaveral makes no spiritual demand on them, as does Lear's admission of the reality of death. And death is a matter which curiously the post-modernists barely mention.
We may have to wait, or hope, for a different set of presuppositions through which to see the universe we live in from those which post-modernism grants us. For the assumptions that subjective experiences, however deeply penetrating, are the most we can ask for, that there is no philosophy which can hold them together, no resurrection of body or spirit, no tradition of fundamental beliefs we can draw upon with trust, are in the long run questionable, less than satisfying, assumptions.
Barnett, R. (1999), Realizing the University, Open University Press, Buckingham.
Boyle, N. (1998), Who Are We Now?, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IL, Ch. 2,3,4.
Hulme, T.E. and McGuiness, P. (Eds) (1998), Selected Writings, FyField Books, UK, pp. 210-11.
Jenkins, S. (1999), England's Thousand Best Churches, Allen Lane The Penguin Press, Harmondsworth.
Kerr, C. (1972), The Uses of the University, Harvard University Press, Boston, MA.
Sacks, J. (l991), The Persistence of Faith, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, p. 4.
Watson, B. (2000), Theology, 2000, p. 189.