One of the first things that one learns taking introductory university courses is to master the jargon specific to each subject engineered to alienate the uninitiated through language.  In philosophy I was first introduced to the word epistemology which at first glance one might have thought had to do with the study of the urinary tract but indeed simply meant the theory of knowledge.  In psychology one learned of narcissism which again at first glance might have been misunderstood as the a botanical study of flowers but indeed is a reference to Greek mythology.  Narcissus became fixated on viewing his own beauty in a reflection in the water and according to one account of the legend fell into the water and drowned.  His name has ever thereafter been associated with total self-absorption and tragic but self-inflicted consequences.   The inability to see the world as it is as a result of our imposition of ourselves upon it, is at the root of all issues of mental health.  In philosophy a corresponding term relative to the theory of knowledge is referred to as solipsism.  The history of science has laid bare that tendency in human philosophies and beliefs.  The belief that the earth was the centre of the universe was a comforting one with which Narcissus would have been at ease.  People died confronting the delusion with facts. 

Having attempted the teaching of senior history classes on a number of occasions, I was constantly struck by the general and singular lack of interest among most adolescents in history itself.  I was frequently told by students that they were not interested in anything that had happened prior to their birth.  It was, they believed, irrelevant.  Thus dating such a ‘before the Christian Era or B.C.E. was currently rendered as ‘Before Me’ or B.M..  What became apparent in the microcosm of the classroom became evident within the larger context of society for increasingly what was thought, said or believed by our ancestors has been relegated to the scrap heap as outdated, absurd or obviously stupid.  The lens of the present as being the ultimate judge of all things past has become the norm just as the lens of the self has served a similar role.

With respect to the generational gap, the corresponding attitude that views older technology as being outdated and simplistic prevails.  New cell phones are obviously superior to older models which in turn are rendered obsolete.  As with phones, so with people.  Parents have little credibility with their children but society in general has little regard for their forebears.  As such, key beliefs and values of the past rarely escape the critical scrutiny of present assumptions that are held as new gold standards through which all things are to be viewed.  Into this scrap heap have been thrown concepts such as the family, gender roles and identity, individual responsibility, morality, assumptions around the predatory aggressiveness of man and the inevitable nature of conflict and war as evidenced throughout the human chronicle.

Indeed, through the critical and comfortable vantage of present middle class North American existence,  all previous ages are viewed as sagas of injustice and stupidity only to be discussed in terms of advancing views of current moral superiority and identifying those to be condemned through association.    Ultimately however, Nations like individuals can rarely be adequately assessed in terms of morality as each tends to be better understood in terms of acting in accordance with what they were able to get away with within contingent circumstances.  Nations, tribes and clans preyed upon each other with the stronger overpowering the weaker as a matter of course.  Invariably, the victory of one over the other could be construed as a matter of religious or moral superiority. But whereas the victors were able to rewrite their version of history, ultimately the less flattering rendition would reveal the fact that systemically the strong prey upon the weak and the victors get to tell the tale.  

One can of course focus on religion as the source of a higher ideal of human behaviour on an aspirational level.  However, no sophisticated organized religion despite the high moral ideals of their founders has not succumbed to hideous acts of cruelty that bear no resemblance to their original principles carried out in their name.  The teachings of Christ justified the persecution of non believers as well as the torture and burning alive of Christian heretics.  The teachings of Mohammed justified the invasion of the lands of infidels and current suicide bombers.  The teachings of Buddha have been used to justify the persecution and murder of Muslims in modern day Myanmar,  Human sacrifices are still conducted in some Hindu temples in modern day India.  Ultimately, it could be argued that organized religions tend more to justify human behaviour than to curb or direct it.   The Pope blessed Mussolini’s tanks prior to their attack into North Africa and senior members of the Vatican actively helped Nazi war criminals escape justice by issuing passports enabling some such as Joesph Mengele and Aldoph Eichman to escape to South America.  Virtually every senior Nazi including Hitler himself was baptized and brought up as Catholics.  That upbringing had apparent little impact on their subsequent behaviour.

The infamous SS had a remarkably high number of members with advanced education including a high proportion of  Ph.Ds.  As such, neither religion nor education in themselves have proven to be effectives curbs on behaviour. Such contrasts between the doings of physical church as opposed to the spiritual church only go to underscore the divide between the aspirational nature of human beings and their practical reality.  The poet William Blake stated that man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for and succinctly stated in this the ongoing engine of human history.  To understand history just as to understand human behaviour, it is necessary to view both polarities for what they are.  The understanding of the past through the present is less illuminating than the understanding of the present through the past.  After all, there is a lot more of it.

What becomes increasingly clear is that human beings can be brought to accept and vigorously believe in things that others regard as absurd or down right evil.  Inevitably, such beliefs are fostered and encouraged within communal settings that reinforce and propagate these beliefs as both norms and conditions of acceptance within that group, political party, tribe or nation.  This process is perpetuated and advanced through education.  As such, I would argue that the aspirational nature of human morality could be seen as having its origins in the individual and not the collective.  Culturally sophisticated religions are founded by revolutionary individuals but seemingly neutralized by transition into politically acceptable institutions.  

It might be therefore argued that morality remains essentially an individual matter rather than a collective one.  The philosopher Bertrand Russell identified a good life as one that was supported by knowledge and guided by love.  In this apparently simplistic account there are layers of profundity.  The love of truth as independent of our wishes is equatable to the notion of love as caring more about the object of our love than ourselves.  Excessive focus upon ourselves negates love as it does truth.  One of the chief objectives of education should be to break down the walls of self and to let the world in while not being overwhelmed in the process.  The balance between a strong sense of self while avoiding solipsism is reducible  to a difference between individualism and selfishness.  In the modern age, this distinction is rarely encountered.  Much of modern Western educational theory and practice encourages the latter and ignores the former.  Just as individualism has been absorbed by selfishness, freedom has been absorbed by license whereby it has come to mean the right to act without regard to the impact on others.  The evolution of the use and meanings of these terms within contemporary society are therefore seemingly related and highly poignant in their implications.

The current focus in current educational theory and practice on learning outcomes measurable through rubrics would be better replaced by the cultivation of those abilities and tools required to reach independent conclusions.  It should be assumed that given access to the same facts and given the same skills consensus would largely be reached and where it was not the reasons specifically identified.  In theoretical physics light is defined both in terms of being made up of particles as well as being defined in terms of waves.  There is an apparent contraction in this definition but there are experiments to rationally demonstrate and support both interpretations.  It is not necessary to settle the dispute through force or human authority.  There is such to be gained in terms of understanding by holding both views. Some tolerance of apparent contradictory positions is a logical consequence of the fact that given an analysis of the same facts different conclusions can be reached.

The growth of individualism is fostered through knowledge and love. What is true knowledge other than an understanding of things as they are rather than what we would like to impose upon them?  What is love other than caring for others as others and not as mere extensions of our wishes and desires?   The education of the emotions is as important as the education of the intellect for the two though divisible in theory are inseparable in practice.

Among those devoted to physical fitness there are clear exercise programs dedicated to the development of particular sets of muscles in the interests of the body as a whole.  Within education, it is rarely acknowledged that specific areas of study have a similar effect.  History helps to place ourselves within the perspective of time while geography helps to place us in space.  The arts cultivate the abilities to refine and express emotions while literature develops the ability to record and transmit human experience.  The study of mathematics helps to develop the ability to engage in analysis and abstract reasoning.  Physical activities and fitness ground our minds within our bodies while social interaction with others enables an understanding of others just as it facilitates an understanding of ourselves.  

Education of the individual is a holistic project not an exercise in conformity or adherence to mediocracy.  Structure is required to provide a framework for growth and as a remedy for chaos.  Challenge is required as a stimulus for growth.  Socialization is necessary to establish our humanity.  We are, after all, not cell phones and our brains are not computers but rather computers are like our brains.  It is pure folly to reduce ourselves to our products and equally absurd to allow ourselves and our children to look at the water and see only ourselves.