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Enlightenment Now? – Knowledge

The world is getting cleverer. But is humanity getting wiser?

In this latest blog post looking at Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now, we’re going to look at Knowledge. Over the past 250 years, literacy and basic education have spread across the globe. But, the benefits of higher education are largely outweighed by both the inequality it creates and its promotion of a cold, overly-abstracted view of the world. To achieve genuine progress in the field of human wisdom, we must focus on creating inclusive, non-zero sum forms of higher education, which include the kinds of practical understanding that give life depth and meaning.

Clever New World

It’s hard to disagree with the value of education. For instance, according to this recent study, it’s the amount of schooling children receive, not a nation’s wealth, that’s the ultimate driver of people’s average health and longevity. Educated people also tend to be less racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, and authoritarian. They place a higher value on imagination, independence, and free speech. They are more likely to vote, volunteer, express political views, and belong to civic associations such as unions, political parties, and religious and community organisations. They are also more likely to trust their fellow citizens.

What is the global story of progress when it comes to education? Pinker tells what by now should be a fairly familiar 3-step narrative: 1) until the Enlightenment, almost everyone was abject; 2) then, a few countries started to pull away from the pack; 3) recently, the rest of the world has been catching up; soon, the bounty will be near-universal.

In 1820, more than 80% of the world was unschooled. By 1900, a large majority of Western Europe and the Anglosphere has the benefit of an education; today, that’s true of more than 80% of the world. According to current projections, by the end of the century, everyone, in every country in the world, will have the luxury of schooling. Since educated people tend to have fewer children, the growth of education has been cited as a major reason that, later in this century, world population is expected to peak (around 9-10 billion) and then decline.

Beyond basic education, the number of years of schooling, extending into tertiary and postgraduate education in colleges and universities, continues to grow in every country. In 1920, just 28% of American teenagers from ages 14-17 were in high school; by 1930, the proportion had grown to almost half, and by 2011, 80% graduated, of whom almost 70% went on to college. In 1940, less than 5% of Americans held a bachelors degree; by 2015, almost a third did. Another major achievement: in 2015, the United Nations announced that it had met its Millennium Development Goal of achieving gender parity in primary, secondary and tertiary education. Other disparities in education are also shrinking, partly due to deliberate policies such as free preschool programs, but also as a result of greater access to books, Wikipedia, MOOCs and other forms of distance learning.

This is all good news. Or it is? Education might not be the ultimate driver of health and longevity. It might also be one of the key drivers of inequality.

Zero-Sum Education and Inequality

In the UK, over 50% of people aged 18-30 now go to university. This is an incredible achievement. But, the push to get more people into higher education has also been on the main drivers of inequality over the past few decades. People with higher levels of educational attainment earn more. We now see a much larger gap between individuals who are affluent and well-educated and those who are suffering the financial consequences of not having a university degree.

On the face of it, this is only a temporary problem. In theory, educated people earn more because they have highly valued skills. Over time, therefore, nations can push to get the vast majority of their citizens into higher education, learn valuable skills and reap the rewards. In practice, however, this might not be how things work. According to some theorists, such as Bryan Caplan in his book The Case Against Education, higher education is more of a positional good than a source of human capital. That is, instead of students learning useful skills at university, their education merely signals they have valuable traits for the job market, such as commitment, conformity and self-control.

The result is that higher education might be more like an arms race than a training ground for productivity and innovation. As the economist Robert Frank argues, in his book The Darwin Economy, getting a degree is useful for individuals because they gain a positional good – a hard-earned piece of paper – that puts them above others in the labour market. But this doesn’t benefit society as a whole. In fact, the amount of social spending on higher education creates a negative externality, and increases the level of inequality between the educated and uneducated.

As I’ve highlighted in previous blog posts in this series, modern developed societies are now divided into two major groups: one that is predominantly urban, better-educated, affluent, liberal and culturally diverse; and one that’s more rural, less-educated, poorer, conservative and culturally homogeneous. Of all these factors, higher education may be the most important wedge driven between these two groups and driving the increasing levels of inequality in modern societies.

Making Education Inclusive and Non-Zero Sum

I have nothing negative to say about Pinker’s story of basic education spreading across the world. But, when it comes to higher education, the picture seems much more complicated than “things are getting better”. As usual there’s the question of whether things are getting better quickly enough. In the US, for instance, leading colleges regularly admit more students from the top 1% of households by income than they do from the bottom 60%. This is not just the fault of universities. Greater levels of inclusivity require high-quality state schooling for all, from the crucial early years up, better vocational education and, amid a digital revolution, lifelong learning.

But inclusivity wont solve the problem on its own. Higher education needs to provide people with genuinely valued skills, not just signal favourable traits for a highly competitive labour market. This is a much more difficult problem. It requires a complete rethink of the higher education system, including opening up learning opportunities to professionals throughout their lives. Governments need to invest in universities as highly integrated innovation hubs – the kind of institutions Mariana Mazzucato calls for in her books The Value of Everything and Mission Economy.

With these shifts, higher education has the potential to liberate people from low-skilled, low-paid, and unsafe work, without creating further separation and polarisation on a national level. There is, however, another major shift that needs to take place to create an educational system that genuinely benefits society – one that might not happen in universities at all.

Knowledge vs Wisdom

Pinker’s chapter on education focuses on knowledge, not wisdom. Knowledge is often a matter of developing a comprehensive, abstract, rational system of beliefs – facts about the world. The more knowledge, the better – more books, more education, more theories, more ideas, more progress. In contrast, wisdom often has less to do with abstract beliefs and more to do with a kind of practical understanding – unconscious and intuitive skills that help people navigate the world. More is not always better. Sometimes there’s more wisdom to be grained from one book than from the entirety of knowledge accumulated in a university library.

Pinker briefly looks at the Flynn effect, which shows that IQ, over the past few generations, has increased around the world in-step with increases in educational attainment. He concludes that, in a similar way that people have become taller due to better nutrition and less disease, people have also got smarter as a result of better education. But, IQ is a very narrow type of intelligence. As Pinker notes, it taps into an analytic mindset: putting concepts into abstract categories, mentally dissecting objects into their parts and relationships rather than absorbing them as wholes, and placing oneself in a hypothetical world defined by certain rules and exploring its logical implications while setting aside everyday experience. What the analytic mindset ignores is the particularity of objects (what makes “me” different to “you”, or “me yesterday” different to “me today”) and their contexts (how “myself” is largely determined by my relationships with others and the external world).

Iain McGilchrist, in this book The Master and His Emissary, argues that, although an analytic mindset may be useful for solving abstract problems, it tends to lacks depth and meaning. It encourages a kind of detached, utilitarian, autistic view of the world that reduces people and other living beings to objects that can be used and manipulated for various ends. The problem with this way of viewing the world is that people are people, not things. That is why “the death of one is a tragedy, the death of a million is a statistic.” We attach meaning to narratives and relationships. The death of one person is a tragedy, because every living being matters. To say that, in the grand scheme of things, one person’s death doesn’t really matter is a cold and overly-abstracted way of looking at the world. You might says its a mindset dominated by knowledge, not wisdom.

A world where everyone has access to education and knowledge is certainly a better world. But, we must also remember that there are many different kinds of things we can education for: knowledge, understanding, wisdom, rationality, reason, general intelligence, emotional intelligence, intuition. All of these different ways of understanding the world matter. If we want to understand how to live, we need the arts and spiritual practices as much as scientific knowledge. I think Pinker would ultimately agree with this. But, he – and his fellow Enlightenment thinkers – make the mistake of prioritising abstract knowledge over the kind of practical wisdom that gives life depth and meaning.

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