School of Life

Learning longer than life

Posted on June 25, 2016

School of Life


When readers accused James Joyce of being trivial, his standard response was – not really, I am actually quadrivial. This answer would make little sense to a reader of Twitter or SMS, unless he or she would know that in a school, in which Shakespeare could learn a little Latin and less Greek, the fourth class followed the third one. The metaphor of progress of mankind is frequently imagined in terms of a giant school, in which societies graduate from lower classes to higher ones and presumably end up one day with an ultimate diploma of membership in a truly knowledgeable and fair community of mature and humane mankind.

In the light of this metaphor, the decision of the majority of the British citizens to leave the European Union looks like a failure to pass an exam and a degradation to a lower, pre-unification class in the school of European life. But the metaphor itself is faulty, because it tacitly smuggles rather dubious assumptions about the nature of the European school, the courses in the curriculum and the grading principles.

The teacher, presumably Ms History, the Master of Life, does not have an immutable curriculum. In her European class she had originally taught about personal salvation. Learning meant decoding Divine revelation and taking care of one’s own immortal soul, graduation meant avoiding sins and embracing virtues. Cum laude meant reaching sainthood. At some point of all processes of social interactions and communications, sometimes called the history of the European societies and cultures, the hypothesis of God has been shelved by the teachers. From now on learning meant decoding the iron laws of history and showing the lower classes how to build a collective classless paradise on earth. Teachers and managers of the iron laws of history invented many new teaching devices, which accelerated mass learning and should have worked much better than they actually did. Ultimately they did not work even for those who “saw the future” and thought that “it worked” with the little help of impressive inventions like concentration camps and hidden persuasion.  

Leaving the agrarian and industrial societies behind, the new curriculum of Ms History seems to end up with the graduation to the utmost sustainability of democratic communities of vegetarian passengers of driverless Google cars. No Divine revelation, no iron laws of history, but an open project of mankind. How open can an open society be? Much more open than the current mandarins from Brussels, who drove the British out of the European Union, allow the Europeans to be. How fair and democratic can an open society be in redressing global inequalities? Much more fair than the current global institutions like World Bank or International Monetary Fund allow it to be. Closer to Porto Alegre than to Davos. How transparent and negotiable could the open society’s communications be?  More transparent and open than Google or the European Commission, closer to Wikileaks and citizens protesting against ACTA than to political and corporate PR. Media show does not have to go on.

Learning is a non-linear and self-reflective process. Societies learned that religions help us keep values in sight, and that religious faith is not a passing fashion. It should not be condemned to the dustbin of Ms History’s classes. Communities learned that leftist views help us keep our eye on the underdogs and should not be condemned as absolutely as political oligarchies which abuse them. Postcommunist power elites are still going to the dustbin of Ms History’s classes, but so do the neoliberals. 

Individuals learned that nobody graduates alone, that learning never stops and that there will be new, more demanding exams in Ms History’s class. When world economies turned from coal to oil, anticolonialism and full literacy, two world wars erupted while societies have been sorting things out. What challenging exams shall we face now, as world economies are turning from oil to sun and water, from ownership to sharemanship, from taxi corporations to Ubers and from hierarchies to networks? What will happen when, for instance, eating meat or owning a car becomes as weird as smoking cigarettes and owning slaves?


Rotterdam, June 25, 2016