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Talks by John Last Updated: Sep 8th, 2009 - 08:07:52

You Shall Know the Truth and the Truth Shall Make You Laugh

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Talk by John Ohliger to Abraham Lincoln & Prairie Unitarian Fellowships, Northern Illinois University, & California State University questioning the value of continually pursuing knowledge quoting from Lao Tzu & others. 100 item bibliography not included.

If this were a sermon, to set the tone it might be preceded by a brief reading from the Bible. I have a reading; it's not from the Bible, but it's from a recent best-selling novel that draws heavily on Biblical themes. The book sold over two million copies and became the major motion picture The Name of the Rose. Here's our reading: "Perhaps the mission of those who love humankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for truth."

I'm going to contend that we need a fundamental change in our uncritically worshipful attitude toward truth, knowledge, and information as well as toward the education, schools, universities, teaching, and learning that support them.

There's no way that I can prove this contention to you scientifically. Science -- or scientism -- is part of the problem. But I can quote a prominent scientist, the quantum physicist David Bohm, who states, "Our civilization is collapsing because of too much knowledge."

Nor will I be able to convert you to my viewpoint from standard scholarly or educational sources. These sources are caught up in trying to keep up with what they call the "knowledge explosion" or the "information revolution." But I can quote the prominent educational scholar Brian Winston. Winston is the Dean of the School of Communication at Penn State University, who declares: "The information revolution is an illusion, an expression of profound ignorance. The hectic visions of the information revolutionaries have nothing to sustain them but the outpourings of industrial public relations officers or the jeremiads of discombobulated social observers." Quite a mouthful.

If you're more taken, as I am, with literature and the arts, I won't be able to convince you from a conventional aesthetic point of view either. The leading arts and humanities are firmly enmeshed in belief in the almighty value of knowledge and schooling. But I can quote the current Poet Laureate of the United States, Howard Nemerov, who says this in a poem addressed to his young son:

I don't know what you will do with the mean annual rainfall
Or Plato's REPUBLIC, or the calorie content
Of the Diet of Worms, such things are said to be
Good for you, and you will have to learn them
In order to become one of the grown-ups
Who sees invisible things neither steadily or whole,
But keeps gravely the grand confusion of the world
Under his hat, which is where it belongs,
And teaches small children to do this in their turn.

This short talk is a distillation of thoughts from the minds of a lot of people (including my own mind). It's a tapestry of views about the need for fundamental change in our approaches to knowledge and education. Some of the ideas from other minds I really don't claim to completely understand and some of the assertions that I'll make I can't completely account for. But these ideas and the assertions are put forward to encourage your exploration of some crucial questions. What are the crucial questions? In my view there are at least three of them:

First, how do we know and what do we do with that knowledge?
Second, how do we spend money for what is sometimes called knowledge production and transmission?
And third, what are our overall educational goals, our philosophy, purpose, ethics, morality?
Three little questions.

Albert Einstein said, "Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods."
We'll deal in more detail later with the laughter of the gods and with the laughter of human beings, but Einstein's view leads us right into question number one:
How do we know and what do we do with that knowledge?

As scarce as truth is, the supply is always in excess of the demand. That was said by the 19th century American humorist Josh Billings. But just take a look at this invaded land since Columbus and then the Puritans came to these shores. From Europe they brought with them the germs of the total belief in judging truth and knowledge on straightforward rationality, falsely narrowed to logic and science. And that remains our current way of judging knowledge, and the gods laugh. The many paths to truth are reduced to one. If you don't believe me, consider what a teacher's reaction would be if a student footnoted a paper saying "My mother told me that" or "I had a dream last night that revealed this truth to me." Descartes had a dream in 1619. And that led to much of the basis for today's high technology. But Descartes was very careful not to announce his dream-inspired revelation as a footnote on a term paper.

We have narrowed knowledge to facts. But a fact is like a cat. You look a strange cat straight in the eye and it turns away. And so facts elude our hard stare. But we use facts to build a learning society, proclaiming that "learning never ends." We climb the shaky ladder of "factual" statistics and polls. As more and more facts pile up we say they explode -- a knowledge explosion propelling us into the information age. Have we come through the knowledge explosion without a scratch? The very noise of the explosion during the past two centuries has deafened us to such basic questions as these:
Why all this technology? To what ends? Within what priorities? Under what controls? With what consequences? With what effects on human beings?

Instead of asking these basic questions, we have been taking so-called "technological progress" as a given, passively acquiescing in its demands and adjusting ourselves to it.

We decide that the cure for the inevitable problems of technology is more technology. But the problems keep mounting. There are -- for instance -- The Exxon Oil Spill, Chernobyl, Challenger, the greenhouse effect, the devastation of the forests, Bhopal, miscarriages from VDTs, and computer viruses. These are just a few examples of the underside of high-tech.

Joseph Weizenbaum at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was once called "The High Priest of Artificial Intelligence." But now he's labeled "The Turncoat of the Computer Revolution." He states: "We cannot recover [from technological intoxication] without the help of a miracle. By a miracle I don't mean bread falling out of the sky. I mean the sort of thing that happened when Rosa Parks refused to leave the front of the bus in Alabama and ignited the civil-rights movement."

That miracle should help us recover from the misguided notions of the "knowledge explosion" and the "information revolution"? They are misguided because the sheer quantity of data available has very little to do with our ability to think wisely or act effectively. I keep telling myself that's true as I read more and more books and gather more and more information.

The second question concerns how we spend our money for education and the scale we spend it on.

To put it bluntly, we are confronting a mass superstition. Since early in the 20th century we have been swept away on a flood-tide of public policy and popular sentiment into an expansion of schooling that is grossly wasteful of wealth and effort and does positive damage to those enmeshed in it.

Schooling of all types is rapidly emerging as the third reservoir for absorbing unemployment right after the military and the bureaucracy. The army of teachers and administrators increases daily. Time in school or training programs gets longer and longer as requirements grow for more qualifications and credentials in occupations and other aspects of social life. Thus, education hides massive unemployment and many other intractable social problems as well.

But schooling for youth is only a relatively small part of the problem. Over half the adult population is now required to go back to school to keep jobs or professional licenses, to get promoted, to stay out of jail, to stay on the welfare rolls, to stay in this country, or to remedy some other "defect." This forced adult schooling is what Ivan Illich calls "the final solution to learning opportunities."

Adult education -- and that's my field -- is the invisible sleeping giant of American society. More money and personnel are devoted to it than to all other areas of education combined -- elementary, secondary, and higher. One area alone, of the hundreds in adult education -- corporate training -- involves as many dollars -- well over 60 billion of them -- as are spent on all the instruction in America's colleges and universities every year. Besides the immense military training, there's the General Motors of adult education, the United States Agricultural Extension Service.

Even when attendance is not compulsory there's a frenzy about getting involved in adult education activities that is so well illustrated by the many conferences and workshops that elicit the complaint of "seminar stiffness" from characters in Lily Tomlin's wonderful comedy The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.

We're rapidly moving in the direction of forcing everyone to lead a life spent in the never-ending pursuit of learning. But if learning never ends, does living ever begin? When would there be time for doing, feeling, and just being?

What we're faced with today is a superstitious belief in education as the panacea for all our ills. But none -- none of these education programs are solving the social ills for which they've been prescribed. The tough question is: Why do we have this pervasive superstition? And the even tougher question: Can we find ways of getting beyond this harmful belief that will be equalitarian, democratic, and spiritually honorable? The great Lewis Mumford said: "If anything can arrest the total disintegration of world civilization today it will come through a miracle: the recovery of 'the human scale.'"

Now on to the third and last crucial question in education. It relates to our overall goals, our philosophy, our purpose, our ethics, our morality. Here we see the fundamental crisis: the lack of a coherent set of goals, the absence of an over-arching philosophy that would lead to ethics or morality worthy of being called ethics or morality. The appropriate note for the present was set in the past century and a half, and it converges from such disparate viewpoints as those of Carlyle, John Stuart Mill, Matthew Arnold, and the Marxist Antonio Gramsci. Arnold expressed their consensus when he declared: "[We are] wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born."

Though in this view there is a crisis in every field of human endeavor, our charge here is to focus on education and knowledge. The root meaning of "knowledge" is often misunderstood. "Knowledge" is generally accepted as the equivalent of enlightenment acquired in connection with reading. But the word, in its old form, "know-leche," was in common use long before books were accessible. "Know-leche" implies a grace received, the gift of knowing. The second syllable, "leche," is a form of the Anglo-Saxon "lac," a gift. It's also seen in the word "wed-lock."

If knowledge is a gift then -- like all such blessings -- there's a natural but immeasurable limit to the gifts each person or group appropriately receives. That it isn't always wise to pursue knowledge is touched on in a few places in Western literature. In the Bible, in Ecclesiastes for instance, it says, "He that increases knowledge increases sorrow." And in the Acts of the Apostles we find, "Much learning doth make thee mad." Shakespeare wrote in Love's Labour's Lost, "Too much to know is to know naught but fame." And our own President Teddy Roosevelt said, "A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car; but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad."

Questioning the value of continually pursuing knowledge is much more common in the East. Just one example: In the legendary ancient work of the 5th century BC Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu. His Tao Teh Ching has been translated more times than any other work except the Bible and is the second biggest seller in the world next to the Bible. This is one of Lao Tzu's passages: Happy the land that is ordered so That people understand more than they know.

In other words, "knowledge without being is dangerous." I believe we are in the dangerous position today of having too much knowledge but insufficient social being. And no educational program is going to solve that problem. The dilemma is to find a better approach, one that's more modest and more natural. But that better approach, I believe, can only be found within the context of a better overall path.


So now we're faced with what used to be called the sixty-four thousand dollar question, What is to be done? What should you do? It would be presumptuous, arrogant, and just plain stupid of me to suggest what I think you should do. Especially since I don't know. But I can conclude with a few thoughts about what I'm finding helpful these days. And I hope that these ideas will stimulate some good discussion.

First, is the problem of the constant and insistent demand that whatever suggestions are made, they must be instantly "practical" -- like instant coffee. I'm not suggesting a retreat into the ivory tower or the monastery, but the narrow emphasis on practicality is itself impractical. Just witness the current dire straits of this world locked in the rigid embrace of those who see little else but "nuts and bolts" practicality and the ideologies behind the construction and sale of those nuts and bolts.

Had we waited on the so-called "practical" person, who is a mechanic at best, human beings would still be plowing with crooked sticks and writing with split feathers. The exclusively "practical" person is ever a worshipper of "business as usual," disliking change, an enemy of prophets, but a pal of priests.

In addition, the current demand for practicality confuses feasibility with worth. In other words, when we are required to be practical these days we collapse the difference between what works and what is worth working. A lot of gadgets that are, at the very least, a hideous waste of time and money work. And they're sold as practical. For instance, nuclear power is certainly one of these useless gadgets.

The next time people interrupt your criticisms of the status quo by asking you what your practical solution is, try this. Ask them if they agree with your criticisms before going on. Usually you'll learn that they don't agree with your criticisms, or at the very least, your criticisms are making them uncomfortable so they want to change the subject.

The American streak of over-emphasis on practicality and over-respect for know-how has led to our being victimized by the anti-democratic idea of expertise. But there is another American streak, and it goes something like this: If you can't do something about it, do something with it. In other words: If life hands you a lemon, make lemonade.

Once you've started to make lemonade, you discover that the question "What should we do?" leads right back into the rigid insistence on practicality. The more fruitful questions are "How shall we be? How shall we be with each other?" Obviously all of life is a mixture of "doing" and "being." We can't have one without the other. Since we greatly overemphasize "doing" these days, why not bring "being" to the fore and ask how it can benefit our personal, social, and political relationships with each other. At least then we won't be running around helter-skelter all the time trying to justify our existence -- our "being" --by "doing." Remember, we call ourselves "human beings," not "human doings."

I believe we can move closer to balancing being and doing by telling ourselves: You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you laugh. Remember what I quoted from the novel The Name of the Rose at the beginning of this talk?: "Make people laugh at truth, make truth laugh, the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from the insane passion for truth."

In other words, we have a fiendishly sober view of what truth is and what it will do for us. That deathly serious view drags us down and we become, as this novelist says, "slaves of our ghosts." Here's where the laughter of humans -- and the laughter of the gods that Einstein spoke of -- comes to the rescue. We bless the blossoming of our sense of humor.

But humor is one of the hardest of all subjects to study. The extensive literature on it repeatedly emphasizes the impossibility of even defining it satisfactorily. And generally nothing is more deadly than a discussion of humor. I'm going to be very brief. Any attempt to isolate it trivializes it. It eludes mass production just as do knowledge and education. As the American humorist Ogden Nash said:

I wish hereby to scotch the rumor
That I'd attempt to write on humor,
For those who do, fall into groups
Of solemn pompous nincompoops
By whom a joke must be enjoyed
In terms of Bergson or of Freud.
Portentously they probe and test,
And in the jargon lose the jest.
True humor can't be taught in schools,
For wayward humor knows no rules.

Humor can be seen as the mood where we're conscious at the same time of our importance and of our insignificance. Another more fashionable way of putting it is that when you laugh at yourself you become aware that you never let your right brain know what your left brain is doing.

What surprised me in looking at the literature on humor was how frequently authors concur with the philosopher Schopenhauer who wrote, "A sense of humor is the only divine quality in human beings."
Those roughly agreeing include the psychologist Jung, the Sufi teacher Rumi, the feminist author Rita Mae Brown, the sociologist Peter Berger, and the prolific science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov.

Without humor we cannot experience the fresh breeze of friendly laughter that renews our strength to keep on working for fundamental change while giving our day-to-day work a sharp new focus. We will be liberated from the frenzied pursuit of knowledge and truth in spontaneous humor. We could start right now -- I could start right now -- with a little light laughter at myself and my pretension to know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. But it's important to recognize that the laughter coming from a spontaneous sense of humor must be connected to other qualities in our lives to be worthwhile.

Eduard Lindeman was a close friend and colleague of the philosopher John Dewey. An eminent social philosopher in his own right, he was also an Emerson scholar, a devoted social worker, and the most universally respected adult educator in American history. Here's what Eduard Lindeman said on this theme: "Sympathy and humor must somehow be blended in [people] of goodwill. If [you] cannot feel for those who suffer, for those who are exploited and debased, [you] will never enlist in the struggle for justice. But if [you] cannot see the foibles of those defended, [you] can never become a 'happy warrior.' And if [you are] incapable of admitting that [you yourself] may at times play the harlequin's role, [you] will remain forever a harsh partisan. 'Radiancy of humor is a basic ingredient of [people] of goodwill.'"

I've been involved in education for over 55 years, (almost 70 years if you go as far back as kindergarten, where despite what the author of the best seller, wrote, I doubt that I really learned all I need to know in kindergarten -- or in school at all).

I don't believe that education or learning is the be-all or the end-all of life. Those who see education as
almighty important seem to be tied to a narrow scientistic view of knowledge as illumination or enlightenment. And it's a lot more than that. Education is, however, one of life's fundamental energy domains. It needs conservation to survive, just as our fragile earth and its environment need conservation. As with most efforts, conventional learning requires the expenditure of unrecoverable energy. We need to find ways to balance the process with other activities, to reduce education to its appropriate share of community resources? Recognizing the ecological community in the world of nature helps us to work toward the holistic human community. Education in the best and more modest sense is a part of that community. The ecological community offers one example for the human community.

Learning is a delicate but durable plant. It should be nurtured respectfully, tenderly, and with a warm sense of humor. But today, sledge hammer approaches in our schools, universities, and adult programs are destroying the real but limited value of education, learning, knowledge, and truth itself.

Well, I've been weaving three themes -- or what some people call "dualities" -- into this talk: knowledge/understanding, doing/being, sober solemnity versus a sense of humor. I've been calling for more understanding and less knowledge, more being and less doing, more humor and less deadly seriousness.

I believe that these three themes are all basically elusive. Trying to characterize their relative value and their limits is like nailing jelly to the wall. But the process may be helpful to you as it has been to me in finding a way through the maze of too much knowledge and too much education in a world crying out for modesty and balance, I keep in mind what Lily Tomlin says: "At the point you can comprehend how incomprehensible it all is, you're about as smart as you need to be."

To listen to the audio "You shall know the truth" click on the links below

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© Copyright 2004 John

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You Shall Know the Truth and the Truth Shall Make You Laugh