Wednesday, 20 March 2013

The Importance of Teaching Optimism

                The most difficult part of teaching World Issues is steering students away from the cynicism and apathy that often infect discussions of the world’s problems.  If television is a good indicator of social mood, then this cynicism seems to be intensifying.  Recently, a variety of documentary-style television shows such as Aftermath and Life After People have entertained a wide range of apocalyptic scenarios.  Life After People is particularly bleak in regards to the future of our species.  The show, which is currently in its second season on The History Channel, callously quantifies how quickly human accomplishments will vanish after we are gone.  There are even some groups that are keen to see this future realized.  Founded in 1991, the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT – pronounced “vehement”) is based around the motto: “May we live long and die out”.  Although this is certainly a fringe movement, its core ideas have been picked up in mainstream culture.  Most notably, the 1999 box office juggernaut The Matrix sounds remarkably similar to VHMET ideology when its main antagonist compares humanity to a virus which has infected the world.  
                Feeling that the world is too big and complex to fix and that humanity is only capable of destructive behaviour is very tempting because it is so easy.  It is the misplaced idea that nothing can change that frees us from the responsibility of trying.  Such a defeatist attitude, however, poses the danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.  It is therefore the duty of both teachers and parents to endow our students with a feeling of optimism and a sense of control over their future.  To my mind, the best way of doing this is to shine a light on the primary sources of the cynicism which seems so deeply embedded in our society.  As with all problems, pessimism can be fully overcome only if it is completely understood.                             
                The possibility that humans may have lost control of the world became a widely discussed theme during the Industrial Revolution.  Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (1818) is the most famous example of the era’s growing fear that humans could become victims of their own technology.  However, it is not the technology itself that is the primary object of fear in this story; it is how it came into being.  What is monstrous about Frankenstein’s creation is the fact that it was assembled rather than born.  The source of the monster’s murderous rage is its alienation from humanity as a result of its unnatural origin.  A little over a century later, Aldous Huxley gave Shelly’s critique of industrialized society a futuristic makeover in Brave New World (1932).  Like the monster in Frankenstein, people in Huxley’s futuristic dystopia are essentially industrial products.  Each person is engineered on an assembly line to fulfill a specialized social task.  Unlike Shelly’s monster, these assembly line citizens appear quite content with their lives.  However, this is only because human inefficiencies like curiosity have been meticulously removed.  They are happy only because they are too apathetic to be dissatisfied. 
                Literary allegories about the disempowering nature of the industrial world are mirrored by one of the most influential publications of the 19th century.  In certain passages of The Communist Manifesto (1848), Karl Marx sounds as if he is giving a description of the Frankenstein monster.  Most notably, he describes the “alienation” felt by modern workers as a result of their fragmented existence as industrial drones.  And like the monster described by Shelly three decades earlier, alienated workers will eventually turn violent.       
                Two centuries of academic literature, and a handful of communist revolutions is pretty conclusive: when people are treated like industrial products, they become blissfully apathetic at best, and chaotically violent at worst.  Even the most cursory glance at history shows that neither approach is particularly good at changing the world.  Knowing this, the value of an integrated, liberal arts education becomes all the more apparent.  Since the Industrial Revolution, education has unfortunately been based on an assembly-line model.  To maximize efficiency, students were educated in a series of specialized subjects, and forced to pass through a number of quality control check points to ensure their readiness for the industrial work force.  It should be no surprise then, that students coming out of this anachronistic approach to education felt alienated and powerless when confronted with a seemingly fragmented array of global issues.       
                Today’s students must be taught how to transcend artificial distinctions in order to regain a sense of overarching understanding and personal agency that was forfeited in the name of specialization.  As students stop seeing their world through the antiquated divisions left over from the industrial age, they realize that many problems share common solutions, and that one seemingly small action can have wide reaching implications.  Education itself is one such solution.  Higher rates of education have been repeatedly proven to eliminate many of the problems that plague the contemporary world, including gender inequality, economic disparity, and unsustainable population growth. 
                Postindustrial, interdisciplinary education can change the world.  It is the job of teachers today to share this optimistic fact with the next generation. 


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