Isn’t there more to it than this?

by Mr. Sheehy

Hargreaves has me far from convinced. He makes his pitch for the influence of the knowledge society, but he seems to have a type of tunnel vision for the causes of strife and change in society. His basic formula is simple – knowledge society has changed our world and fundamentalists are reacting against it, and in order to overcome the shallowness of the knowledge society’s side effects and the reactionism of the fundamentalists, we must take on the cosmopolitan attitude that champions respect for all and democracy. That can sound nice, I suppose, if I were at all convinced of its accuracy. Not that I react negatively to all Hargreaves says, but I do take serious umbrage with his simplified explanations and stereotypes, and I question the power of his remedy for the problem.

First, looking at what Hargreaves says that I could nod for if I were sitting behind him at a State of the Union address.

On the knowledge society’s endless thirst for innovation and its current bubble state:

  • “Optimistic bias is the typical accompaniment to technological innovation” (36).
  • “The knowledge society increasingly threatens to move us into a world that offers neither solitude nor community” (38).
  • Quoting Benjamin Barber: “The untrammeled pursuit of self-interest does not necessarily serve the common interest” (44).

And regarding a way the teaching community should act against the knowledge economy:

“Teaching beyond the knowledge economy also calls for teachers to work in long-term collaborative groups together; committing to and challenging one another as a caring and professional community that is secure enough to withstand the discomfort that disagreement creates” (63).

But these little tidbits do not satisfy me. Yes, I agree the state of our world is concerning, and I agree that the knowledge economy works as a fair explanation for a great deal of the current rough waters, but can we explain everything in light of it? In analyzing the September 11th attacks, Hargreaves pulls especially from one source, Benjamin Barber’s Jihad vs. McWorld, and while I do not doubt Mr. Barber’s thesis contains truth, as I read Hargreaves’s retelling of it, I wonder about the total lack of religious analysis in it.

The paradox of globalization, as I have called it, is that economic globalization and homogenization lead many of those who cannot share in its benefits to turn inward to culture, religion, and ethnicity as alternative sources of meaning and identity (45).

I am not a scholar of the conflict between Islamic Jihadists and the Western world, but I am well aware of the raging anti-semitism present in it, and that anti-semitism cannot be explained in terms of globalization and the knowledge economy. Another problem I have with a statement like the one above is that it marginalizes religious and cultural identity as some sort of consolation for those who don’t have what the knowledge society offers. It has a faint reek of “opiate of the people” (a theory that is built off a misreading of the history of ancient Greece). Maybe I overreact, but a page later Hargreaves quotes Manuel Castells’s warning about fundamentalists, and he nonchalantly paints with a clapboard style paintbrush:

There is, however, an explosion of fundamentalist movements that take up the Qu’ran, the Bible, or any holy text, to interpret it and use it as a banner of their despair and a weapon of their rage. Fundamentalisms of different kinds and from different sources will represent the most daring, uncompromising challenge to one-sided domination of informational, global capitalism. Their potential access to weapons of mass extermination casts a giant shadow on the optimistic prospects of the information age (46).

Such a passage may seem innocent enough, but I seriously question the lightness of throwing the Bible into the list of holy texts that people are using as a weapon of rage, and I hadn’t realized such Bible toting fundamentalists were trying to access weapons of mass extermination. Besides, a handful of pages later, Hargreaves himself decries the lack of values perpetuated by the knowledge society, and that is in many ways what these “despairing” fundamentalists are preaching.

This light change to the inclusive term fundamentalism is what bothers me the most. What is a fundamentalist? In my experience with colleagues and observations of the modern press, fundamentalists seem to be anyone who believes what their holy text says without discrediting or cutting out large portions in a Jefferson-like edit. That would mean most evangelical Christians, devout Catholics, Orthodox Jews, etc. etc. They are fundamentalists, it seems, because they believe their faith claims truth at the exclusion of other explanations of truth. Such a claim, which is usually accompanied by sincere proselytizing, is often labeled intolerance. In the cosmopolitan identity that Hargreaves champions, this seems to be about the highest sin possible. He quotes Anthony Giddens:

The battleground of the twenty-first century will pit fundamentalism against cosmopolitan tolerance. In a globalizing world, . . . we are all regularly in contact with others who think differently, and live differently from ourselves. Cosmopolitans welcome and embrace this cultural complexity. Fundamentalists find it disturbing and dangerous. Whether in the areas of religion, ethnic identity, or nationalism, they take refuge in a renewed and purified tradition – and, quite often, violence (47).

Again, my complaint is not that the analysis has no grain of truth in it, but that the widening and inclusive definitions simplify issues and stereotype religious believers. In our country in the last presidential election and in my state in a senate election four years ago, politicians tossed out comments that equated Christian conservatives with Jihadist fundamentalists. In other words, knowing that the equation has been tried publicly before, I will not accept the idea that Hargreaves and the writers he quotes are not including in the term fundamentalists the religiously devoted Christians in our country who believe that faith is something that guides their decisions, including public decisions. And in statements like the ones I’ve quoted, these writers make a neat logical leap from religious conviction to violence. I find that to lack academic integrity. Additionally, such an attitude off-handedly rejects religious voices from the conversation about checking the knowledge society’s vices, a conversation Hargreaves obviously cherishes.

Allow me to return to Hargreaves’s analysis of how we got where we are. He spends a bit of time talking about the erosion of community and character as the knowledge society expands. Here he quotes Robert Reich:

The deepest anxieties of this prosperous age concern the erosion of our families, the fragmenting of our communities and the challenge of keeping our own integrity intact.’ The rewards of the new economy, he warns, ‘are coming at the price of lives that are more frenzied, less secure, more economically divergent, more socially stratified” (49).

I do not so much disagree with anything Hargreave presents here, but I wonder at the simplicity of it. I have heard many explanations in my day about how and why we got where we are today, and most of them are not simply because we’re so prosperous. Why does this matter? Because leaving out other explanations is a habit of Hargreaves, and it becomes glaring when he presents solutions.

His solution to this heartless knowledge economy that perpetuates a society without character are the schools.

[Teachers] are . . . essential counterpoints to [the knowledge economy], building and preserving the public, communal democracy that parallels the knowledge society and is also imperiled by it. . . .

If teachers, schools, and communities do not cultivate social capital, students generate their own in inverted and perverted ways – in the subcultures of the smoking pit, the washrooms, and other dark corners of the peer group where friendship consolidates failure and economic opportunity is denied (54).

I read such a passage and I wonder, what about the families? I do not mean to pin the responsibility on families in an attempt to deflect it from teachers, but I have read too much about the importance of families and parents in their influence on children to believe they are not the essential piece of the puzzle. For example, in a thorough study of teenager’s religious lives, Christian Smith found that the single most influential factor in a teenager’s spiritual life is his parents. Where is the family in Hargreaves’s list of counterpoints and necessary cultivators? I realize his book is about teaching and teachers, but it seems to miss an important point in not analyzing or explaining the issue more fully.

And in placing such a large burden on the schools and teachers, Hargreaves leaves a long list of virtues to be taught, but noticeably absent are any reasons why students should learn such virtues. Yes, I may be nit-picking, but if a teacher is to stand before his students and take time in the curriculum to teach students to trust, to sympathize, and to understand one another emotionally (64), why should the students listen? Why shouldn’t they respond like The Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find:

It’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.

Hargreaves suggests that teachers need to trust because “teachers who are personally supported by their leaders and their colleagues are less likely to have suspicious minds” (65), and while he’s right, his answer is not enough to motivate individuals to cast off the knowledge society’s vices. He wants to make “schools into moral communities” and have professional development reach people’s souls (63), but he expresses no moral anchor or set of values beyond the shared experience of democracy and the cosmopolitan identity, and, as stated earlier, he has written off those with solid anchors of “fundamentalist” faith as reactionaries instead of helpers. Getting along with everyone is not a moral center, it’s a virtue that develops out of a moral center. A teacher may teach beyond the knowledge society, but my hope for that teacher is that she has an answer when her students ask her, “Why should I?”