Catching up on my reading after the holidays, I came across an article in The Economist on the idea of progress. After positing that governance, specifically “a democratic system of laws and social institutions,” is the “junior partner” in creating moral progress, the author turns to what he calls the “fundamental engine of progress—’moral sensibility’”:
“The very idea probably sounds quaint and old-fashioned, but it is the subject of a powerful recent book by Susan Neiman, an American philosopher living in Germany. People often shy away from a moral view of the world, if only because moral certitude reeks of intolerance and bigotry. As one sociologist has said “don’t be judgmental” has become the 11th commandment.
But Ms Neiman thinks that people yearn for a sense of moral purpose. In a world preoccupied with consumerism and petty self-interest, that gives life dignity. People want to determine how the world works, not always to be determined by it. It means that people’s behaviour should be shaped not by who is most powerful, or by who stands to lose and gain, but by what is right despite the costs. Moral sensibility is why people will suffer for their beliefs, and why acts of principled self-sacrifice are so powerful.”
The other article that caught my eye this week came from a special section on education in the Sunday, January 3 edition of the New York Times (followed shortly by a thoroughly depressing article on “Making College ‘Relevant,’” but whatever, you can’t win ‘em all). Anyway, in “How to Train the Aging Brain,” Barbara Strauch looks at current research on how to improve brain function in middle age. Here’s what she finds:
Educators say that, for adults, one way to nudge neurons in the right direction is to challenge the very assumptions they have worked so hard to accumulate while young. With a brain already full of well-connected pathways, adult learners should “jiggle their synapses a bit” by confronting thoughts that are contrary to their own, says Dr. [Kathleen] Taylor, who is 66.
Teaching new facts should not be the focus of adult education, she says. Instead, continued brain development and a richer form of learning may require that you “bump up against people and ideas” that are different. In a history class, that might mean reading multiple viewpoints, and then prying open brain networks by reflecting on how what was learned has changed your view of the world.
“There’s a place for information,” Dr. Taylor says. “We need to know stuff. But we need to move beyond that and challenge our perception of the world. If you always hang around with those you agree with and read things that agree with what you already know, you’re not going to wrestle with your established brain connections.”
I blame the fact that I was drawn to these two very different articles on the arrival of the new year. It is good to ask ourselves periodically whether and why we should keep doing what we do, and we are primed for such self-analysis at this time of year.
So, then, why? Why should I keep coming in to work at the Wyoming Humanities Council? As an organization, why should we keep supporting cultural institutions across the state as they work to present new ideas to their communities? Why should we keep running programs of our own that ask “the big questions”?
And, lo and behold, I was presented with these two answers! The Times article reminded me that new ideas — even ideas with which we violently disagree — force us to develop, whether they inspire us when we’re young or challenge us when we’re older. The tricky bit, of course, is that this can only happen when we’re not merely gritting our teeth and enduring other points of view but actively engaging them. At their best, the programs provided and supported by the Wyoming Humanities Council create a forum for exactly that kind of discourse. New ideas make us better, down to the neural pathways in our brains.
The article in The Economist takes an even broader view, claiming that a well-developed moral sense on an individual level is what drives social progress. Think about that for a minute. The parents described in “Making College ‘Relevant’” are obsessed with defining the jobs their children will have four years from now, but what about the world they’ll be working in? Literature moves us to empathy. Philosophy prepares us to think well in new circumstances. History gives our thought context. And so on. The humanities can help us develop the “moral sensibility” that guides social progress.
In short, yes, I’ll be coming in to work next week.