BOOK REVIEW –Yuval Noah Harari ‘s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century


December 16, 2018

BOOK REVIEW –Yuval Noah Harari ‘s  21 Lessons for the 21st Century

The author of global bestseller Sapiens is back, with a self-help guide for a bewildering age – and its sweeping statements are peppered with truly mind-expanding observations

Evooutionary psychology … Yuval Noah Harari.
Evolutionary psychology … Yuval Noah Harari. Photograph: Olivier Middendorp

Yuval Noah Harari’s career is a publishing fairytale. An obscure Israeli academic writes a Hebrew-language history of humanity. Translated into English in 2014, the book sells more than a million copies. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg includes it in his book club in 2015. Ridley Scott wants to turn it into a TV series. Barack Obama says it gave him perspective on “the core things that have allowed us to build this extraordinary civilization that we take for granted”. Its sales spike when it is mentioned on Love Island.

That book was Sapiens, which is bold, breezy and engaging, romping its way from the discovery of fire to the creation of cyborgs in less than 500 pages. The future-gazing follow-up, Homo Deus, was also a global bestseller, and now Harari has turned his attention to the present with 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. It covers everything from war – Harari’s academic specialism – to meditation, his favourite leisure activity. (He does two hours a day, and a month-long retreat every year.) The collection of pieces aims to take stock of where humanity has reached, and where it might be going. Ultra-topical concerns such as “fake news” and the rise of authoritarians such as Donald Trump are set in the context of centuries of our biological and social evolution. As Obama said, this approach certainly gives the reader perspective. Ivan the Terrible was probably more, well, terrible than Trump. Cheer up! Until you remember climate change, at least – because, to his credit, Harari is one of the few futurists to factor ecological collapse into his predictions.

All the classic Harari themes are here. Life in 15th-century China was pretty slow, but now the pace of change feels unstoppable. Religion can be bad, but has its uses. Nationalism can be bad, but has its uses. Factory farming is very, very bad. Liberalism is good, but under threat. Hunter-gathering is a more exciting lifestyle choice than farming, or working in a factory. Technological advances bring Big Ethical Questions. And, of course, there is Harari’s main question, which is here spelled out in a chapter heading. “How do you live in an age of bewilderment, when the old stories have collapsed, and no new story has yet emerged to replace them?” He contends that collective myths, such as money and laws, have allowed us to build huge, complicated societies far beyond what our biological limitations might suggest is possible. But in the secular west, religion is fading from public life. And in our globalised world, the idea of a coherent nation-state is threatened. What do we have left to believe in?

One of the answers, although the author does not provide it, is gurus, of which we have created a new class, each individually tailored to our needs. Some anxious middle-class women have Gwyneth Paltrow, who promises enlightenment through yoni steaming and dietary restrictions. Angry, disaffected young men have Jordan Peterson, whose banal advice about tidying your room is camouflaged with Jungian blah and sulky oppositionalism. And people who shone at school and don’t understand why that hasn’t made them happy have Harari.

His books use evolutionary psychology as self-help: the world is a scary, fast-changing place, so it’s no surprise our savannah-trained ape brains struggle to navigate through it. We simply haven’t evolved to cope with automated checkouts and emailing after 7pm.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century is, as the title suggests, a loose collection of themed essays, many of which build on articles for the New York Times, Bloomberg and elsewhere. That has strange results. A chapter arguing that “Judaism played only a modest role in the annals of our species” seems random until you realise it started life as a piece for the liberal Israeli paper Haaretz. However, the format plays to Harari’s big selling point: the ambition and breadth of his work, smashing together unexpected ideas into dazzling observations. “Why do we fear terrorism more than sugar?” Harari asks at one point. (Answer: terrorism is not delicious on porridge.) “Property is a prerequisite for long-term inequality.” (Told you he was nostalgic for the era of berry collection.) “Homo Sapiens is a post-truth species, whose power depends on creating and believing fictions.” (OK, but you did this riff in Sapiens.) Microsoft “is an intricate legal fiction”. (And this one, except then it was Peugeot.)

The best reason not to throw this book out of the window is that, occasionally, Harari writes a paragraph that is genuinely mind-expanding. In the chapter on religion he notes: “Japan was the first power to develop and use precision-guided missiles.” Cue a hundred military historians dropping their marmalade. Say what? But it’s a feint: “We know these missiles as the kamikaze.” The willingness of Japanese pilots to die made their military hardware more effective, and “was the product of the death-defying spirit of sacrifice cultivated by State Shintō”. Humans are endlessly creative, goes the lesson, and sometimes we solve problems by changing the question rather than answering it. Beat that, AI.

Faces of the future … the 2015 film Ex Machina.

Pinterest
Faces of the future … the 2015 film Ex Machina. Photograph: REX

There are plenty of provocations – why climate change might benefit the Russian economy, how humans could evolve into different species – but the globetrotting, history-straddling scope of Harari’s approach has an obvious drawback, which is that some of the observations here feel recycled. His sweeping statements, breathtaking though they are, can also feel untethered from the intellectual traditions from which they come. References to previous thinkers and writers on the subjects he covers are largely tucked away in endnotes.

Here’s an example. In the chapter on work, Harari suggests that technology could reduce the availability of paid labour for humans, creating millions of “spare” people. In response, we could “widen the range of human activities that are considered to be ‘jobs’”, Harari writes. “Maybe we need to turn a switch in our minds and realise that taking care of a child is arguably the most important and challenging job in the world.” Unpaid caring labour is undervalued in capitalist systems? No one tell the feminist movement, it’ll blow their minds.

It’s an unkind comparison, but I am compelled to return to Jordan Peterson. The two men are almost mirror-images: Harari is a vegan, while Peterson says that a beef-only diet is the best treatment for his depression. Both can sound like prophets. Harari advises that if you want to “know the truth about the universe … the best place to start is by observing suffering and exploring what it is”, while Peterson tells readers: “Suffering is real, and the artful infliction of suffering on another, for its own sake, is wrong. That became the cornerstone of my belief.”

And both men are treated as general all-purpose Clever People, rather than as academics with a particular specialism. They inhabit the high-altitude world of speaking tours and TED talks, repackaging their books into bite-sized chunks. They also fuse high and low culture, to show they are brainy but also with it, sharing a surprising interest in the 1994 Disney classic The Lion King. Peterson once gave a lecture where he praised Mufasa’s dominant, manly posture: “He’s a very regal-looking person … lion,” he told students. Meanwhile, Harari sees the film as a retelling of the Hindu text the Bhagavad Gita, with its themes of revenge and the circle of life. This kind of pop-culture criticism often relies on implying that no one else (ie, people without PhDs) has contemplated the existence of subtext before. Harari is hardly the first person to spot that the 2015 film Ex Machina was about gender, not just AI. “Many movies about artificial intelligence are so divorced from scientific reality that one suspects they are just allegories of completely different concerns,” he writes.

Ultimately, the smudges and slips of Sapiens are forgivable, because it’s a rollicking good read and I suspect it acts as a gateway drug to more academic accounts of human history. However, this book sees Harari enter that class of gurus who are assumed to be experts on everything. The 22nd lesson of this book is obvious: no single member of the tribe Homo Sapiens can know everything. If this new age needs new stories, then we have to let more people tell them.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari (Jonathan Cape, £18.99) is the Guardian Bookshop’s Book of the Month. To order a copy for £13.99, saving £5, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.

ttps://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/aug/15/21-lessons-for-the-21st-century-by-yuval-noah-harari-review

 

Hermann Hesse’s Arrested Development


November 15, 2018

Hermann Hesse’s Arrested Development

The stories Hesse tells appeal to young people, because they keep faith with the powerful emotions of adolescence, which most adults forget or outgrow.

“It has to be said, there are no points to be won from liking Hesse nowadays.” This rueful assessment of the novelist Hermann Hesse, quoted in the opening pages of Gunnar Decker’s new biography, “Hesse: The Wanderer and His Shadow” (Harvard), appeared in an obituary in 1962; but it could just as well have been pronounced yesterday, or a hundred years ago. Ever since he published his first novel, in 1904, Hesse has been one of those odd writers who manage to be at the same time canonical—in 1946, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature—and almost perpetually unfashionable among critics. The great German modernists who were his contemporaries mostly disdained him: “A little man,” according to the poet Gottfried Benn; “He displays the foibles of a greater writer than he actually is,” the novelist Robert Musil said. In America today, Hesse is usually regarded by highbrows as a writer for adolescents. Liking him is a good sign at age fifteen, a bad one by age twenty.

For many readers, Hesse’s novels are among the first serious fiction they encounter—a literary gateway drug. This was particularly so during the international Hesse craze of the nineteen-sixties, when the books became passports to the counterculture and Timothy Leary advised, “Before your LSD session, read”‘ Siddhartha’’ and ‘Steppenwolf.’  But, long before then, adolescents were the core of Hesse’s readership, a fact that sometimes irritated him.

His first novel—“Peter Camenzind,” the tale of a moody, nature-loving young man who drops out of bourgeois society—was taken up as an inspiration by the Wandervogel, a back-to-nature youth movement that promoted what Hesse himself derided as “campfire Romanticism.” For Peter to inspire a mass of followers, Hesse complained, was a misunderstanding of the whole point of the character: “He does not want to follow the path trodden by many, but to resolutely plow his own furrow. . . . He is not made for the collective life.”That book was at least written by a young man about the problems of the young.

“Steppenwolf,” on the other hand, tells the story of an aging intellectual’s midlife crisis; you don’t need the clue offered by the initials of Harry Haller, the book’s unhappy hero, to make the identification with the author. It seems strange that such a book would become a bible of the sixties, inspiring the name of the band behind “Born to Be Wild.” Hesse didn’t live quite long enough to see what the sixties made of him, but he had seen similar cults before, and he didn’t trust them. “I often have cause to get a little annoyed at schoolboys reading and enthusing over ‘Steppenwolf,’ ” he wrote, in 1955. “After all, the fact is that I wrote this book shortly before my fiftieth birthday.”

Still, Hesse’s young readers, then and now, were not wrong to feel that he was speaking directly to them. The stories he tells appeal to young people because they keep faith with the powerful emotions of adolescence, which most adults forget or outgrow—the woundedness, the exaltation, the enormous demands on life. The young Emil Sinclair, the narrator of “Demian,” is a good example of Hesse’s totally unironic self-seriousness: “I have been and still am a seeker, but I have ceased to question stars and books. I have begun to listen to the teachings my blood whispers to me. My story is not a pleasant one; it is neither sweet nor harmonious, as invented stories are; it has the taste of nonsense and chaos, of madness and dreams—like the lives of all men who stop deceiving themselves.”

Many young men, in particular, see a glamorous reflection of themselves in the typical Hesse hero—a sensitive, brooding man who cannot find a place for himself in ordinary society. This figure might live in India in the age of the Buddha, like Siddhartha, or in Germany in the Jazz Age, like Harry Haller, or in the Middle Ages, like Goldmund in “Narcissus and Goldmund.” Whatever the setting, his path will generally feature the same landmarks. He will be plucked out of his childhood surroundings and sent to an élite school, where he will suffer deeply. He will rebel against conventional ideas of success and refuse to pursue any kind of career, combining downward mobility with spiritual striving. Often, like Peter Camenzind, he will turn to drink, regarding alcoholism as a kind of noble infirmity. “The god of wine loves me and tempts me to drink only when his spirit and mine enter into friendly dialogue,” Peter says.

Because the Hesse hero occupies a precarious position outside human society, he is at the same time extremely arrogant—Siddhartha refers to the normal human beings around him as “the child people”—and full of self-contempt. No wonder he is much given to thoughts of suicide, whether or not he actually commits it. For, as Hesse explains in “Steppenwolf,” “to call suicides only those who actually destroy themselves is false. . . . What is peculiar to the suicide is that his ego, rightly or wrongly, is felt to be an extremely dangerous, dubious, and doomed germ of nature; that he is always in his own eyes exposed to an extraordinary risk.”

The idea that one’s inner life is unusually dangerous and risky is one that most adults grow out of—partly because we get calmer with age, partly because we come to recognize the full reality of other people. But Hesse’s heroes are punk Peter Pans—they don’t grow up, and despise people who do, because they see maturation as a surrender to conformity and accommodation. Things that most people learn to put up with strike Harry Haller as the fetters of a living death:

Without really wanting to at all, they pay calls and carry on conversations, sit out their hours at desks and on office chairs; and it is all compulsory, mechanical and against the grain, and it could all be done or left undone just as well by machines; and indeed it is this never-ceasing machinery that prevents their being, like me, the critics of their own lives and recognizing the stupidity and shallowness, the hopeless tragedy and waste of the lives they lead.

Most people, in other words, are what Holden Caulfield, another favorite avatar of teen-age readers, called “phonies.” What torments Hesse is the difficulty of being authentic—of staying true to who you really are, despite the enormous pressures of alienation and conformity. “If I search retrospectively”—in his own writing—“for a common thread of meaning, then I can indeed find one,” Hesse wrote near the end of his life. “A defense of (sometimes even a desperate plea on behalf of) the human personality, the individual.”

 

Decker’s biography shows that Hesse’s life was an uneasy compromise between his spiritual absolutism, which pushed him in the direction of irascible isolation, and his human needs, which encumbered him with wives, children, and houses that he never quite wanted or accepted. Married three times, he was unhappy as a husband and as a father, and the characters in his books mostly shun both roles. His last novel, “The Glass Bead Game,” is a futuristic fantasy about an academy of scholars who are all male, and all single.

It is not surprising that Hesse would remain attuned to adolescence, since his teen-age years, in the eighteen-nineties, were the most dramatic and consequential period of his life. It was then that Hesse was first forced to confront the entire weight of the institutions ranged against him—family, church, school, society—and do battle with them in the name of defending his individuality. He won, but not without sustaining deep wounds; in a sense, his fiction is a series of reenactments of this primal struggle.

From a very young age, it was clear that there was a mismatch between Hesse and his family. He was born in 1877, in Calw, a small town in the Black Forest, in southwest Germany, where his father and grandfather worked together in a Christian publishing house. On both sides, he was descended from devout Pietists—members of a German Protestant sect that, like the Methodists in England, rejected the established church in favor of a fervently inward, evangelical striving for virtue. In Decker’s words, Pietism “regarded as the devil’s work everything that did not serve the ultimate purpose of preparing one for the kingdom of God in the hereafter.” When it came to child-rearing, this conviction translated, at least in the Hesse family, into a concerted effort to break the young Hermann’s will, to teach him the docility and submissiveness that God demanded.

Yet in Hermann this religious force met an immovable object. “I was the child of pious parents, whom I loved tenderly and would have done even more so had they not made me aware from a very early age of the Fourth Commandment. Unfortunately commandments have always had a catastrophic effect on me,” Hesse recalled in an autobiographical sketch. Compelled to honor his father and mother, he instinctively refused. In one incident recorded in his mother’s diary, the three-year-old Hesse put an iron nail in his mouth, and, when he was told he could die if he swallowed it, he stubbornly replied, “I don’t care! If I die and go to my grave, I’ll just take a couple of picture-books with me!” Some years later, his father contemplated sending him away “to an institution or to be raised by another family.” For his part, Hesse recalled that, as a child, he would dream of setting the family’s house on fire and of murdering his father.

These tensions boiled over in 1891, when the fourteen-year-old Hesse enrolled in Maulbronn Monastery, an élite state-run boarding school housed in a medieval abbey; its mission was to recruit the region’s brightest boys and turn them into Lutheran ministers. Getting into Maulbronn required passing a gruelling examination, an experience that marked Hesse so deeply that he returned to it in several novels. Indeed, many of his books are not just novels of education—the Bildungsroman that had been a classic genre in European literature since Goethe—but specifically novels of schooling. Each of the dormitories at Maulbronn, for instance, had a grandiose name; Hesse lived in Hellas, a tribute to the school’s conventional idolatry of ancient Greece. Fifteen years later, when he came to fictionalize his school days in the novel “Beneath the Wheel,” the main character goes to just such a school and lives in a dormitory called Hellas. And thirty-seven years after that, in “The Glass Bead Game,” Hesse told the story of Joseph Knecht, who once again lives in a dormitory called Hellas.

“Beneath the Wheel” assigns many of Hesse’s own experiences to Hans Giebenrath, a gifted boy who is emotionally destroyed by the pressure of studying to get into a Maulbronn-like school. He passes the examination, but only by cramming so intensively that his boyish love of life is extinguished. He is soon overcome by apathy and despair, and has to drop out; in the end he drowns in a river, possibly a suicide.

The conclusion of the book channels the self-pity that Hesse remembered so well: “All nausea, shame and suffering had passed from him; the cold bluish autumn night looked down on the dark shape of his drifting body and the dark water played with his hands and hair and bloodless lips.” (The very title of the book is an indictment, and “Beneath the Wheel” belongs with other German works of the period, such as Frank Wedekind’s “Spring Awakening” and Heinrich Mann’s “The Blue Angel,” as an exposé of a soul- and libido-crushing educational system.)

Hesse avoided Hans Giebenrath’s fate, but only barely. In March, 1892, he ran away from Maulbronn and was reported missing. He returned after just a day and, as Decker writes, truancy hardly sounds like an unprecedented crime for a fourteen-year-old. But the reaction from school and family was extreme. It speaks volumes about his parents’ religious sensibility, for instance, that his mother’s response to the news of his disappearance was to hope that he was dead: “I was very relieved when I finally got the feeling . . . that he was in God’s merciful hands,” she wrote in her diary.

Unfortunately, he returned alive, a bigger headache than ever. Hesse had to leave school, and his parents, unable to cope with him, resorted to having him committed to a mental asylum. Facing the prospect of indefinite, possibly lifelong incarceration, he bombarded his parents with heartbreaking letters: “I loathe everything here from the bottom of my heart. It is like it has been designed especially to show a young man how wretched life and all its aspects are.”

After several months, Hesse was released on a trial basis, and he was able to attend a local high school. But the damage to his relationship with his parents was permanent: when his mother died, in 1902, he refused to attend the funeral. And the damage to his career seemed equally irreparable. At Maulbronn, he was on a fast track to a prestigious and secure job as a minister or a teacher. Now college was out of the question, and Hesse became an apprentice to a bookseller. To his parents—often, surely, to himself—it must have looked as if he had failed for good.

But Hesse’s genius was to embrace this failure and make it his inspiration. “In the beginning was the myth” is the first sentence of “Peter Camenzind,” the book that rescued Hesse from poverty and obscurity; and many of his books are retellings of the same myth, one that Hesse devised to interpret his own unhappy existence. Indeed, Hesse’s novels are best understood as successive versions of a spiritual autobiography—a form that, ironically, was a staple of Pietist literature. “The only way I can conceive” of writing, Hesse once said, is “as an act of confession”—a statement that could have been endorsed by his paternal grandfather, a doctor who left behind a memoir in two volumes. Indeed, in rebelling against his Pietist upbringing, Hesse ended up recapitulating its central themes: he never lost the habit of rigorous self-examination or his feelings of unworthiness and his longing for an experience of the divine.

The difference was that he could not imagine finding that experience within Pietism. “If I had grown up in a respectable religious tradition, for example as a Catholic, I would probably have stuck to the faith throughout my life,” he explained wryly.

Instead, he was driven to look for spiritual wisdom in other traditions, always admiring figures who seemed to defy dogma and doctrine. Francis of Assisi was an early inspiration: Hesse wrote a short biography of the saint who preached to the animals and spoke of the sun and the moon as his brother and sister.

He soon found himself looking farther afield—especially to the East, to the religious traditions of India. This, too, was a kind of atavism—his maternal grandfather, a missionary, had spent many years in India, and his mother had partly grown up there. But, while they went to spread a Christian faith they knew was the true one, Hesse went as a seeker. In 1911, he made an impulsive journey to Ceylon and Singapore, which proved disappointing at the time—he could not get used to the climate—but laid the groundwork for his later book “Journey to the East,” which imagines a spiritual secret society that includes the great minds of Europe and Asia.

Image result for hermann hesse siddhartha quotes

 

The book that connects Hesse with India for most readers, of course, is “Siddhartha.” Published in 1922, in the wake of a world war that had destroyed and discredited European civilization, “Siddhartha” takes refuge in a distant place and time—India in the age of the Buddha, in the fifth century B.C. In this short book, Hesse boils down his archetypal story to its mythic core. Once again, we meet a sensitive, gifted young man—Siddhartha, the son of a Brahman priest—who rejects his family, its religion, and its aspirations, and sets out to discover the truth for himself.

Along the way, he experiences the extremes of deprivation, as an ascetic, wandering monk, and of satiety, as the wealthy lover of the beautiful courtesan Kamala. But he remains unhappy in every condition, until he finds that the only true wisdom is nonattachment, a resigned acceptance of everything that happens. Life cannot be fixed in place; it flows, like the river where Siddhartha receives his revelation:

And when Siddhartha listened attentively to this river, to this thousand-voiced song, when he listened neither for the sorrow nor for the laughter, when he did not attach his soul to any one voice and enter into it with his ego but rather heard all of them, heard the whole, the oneness—then the great song of the thousand voices consisted only of a single word: Om, perfection.

Image result for hermann hesse siddhartha

“Siddhartha” appears to be a kind of wisdom writing—a teaching. Yet the central message of the book is the impossibility of learning anything that matters from a guru or teacher. Siddhartha’s revelation sounds very Buddhist, and Hesse borrowed the character’s name from Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism. But, in the book’s most important scene, Siddhartha actually encounters the Buddha—and spurns him. While his more timid and conventional friend, Govinda, becomes a Buddhist monk, Siddhartha knows that any kind of religion—even a true and admirable one—is an obstacle to enlightenment. “No one will ever attain redemption through doctrine!” he exclaims. After all, the Buddha didn’t become the Buddha by following the Buddha; he forged his own unique path. Hesse’s moral is similar to that of a famous Zen koan: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

Hesse’s emphasis on self-reliance, with its echoes of Emerson—another writer fascinated by Eastern religions—helped to make him a trusted guide for a generation of readers whose faith in institutions was destroyed by the First World War. Indeed, Hesse’s reputation as a sage rests mainly on the books he wrote after the war—starting with “Demian,” in 1919, and continuing through “Siddhartha” and “Steppenwolf,” in the nineteen-twenties.

Although Hesse was a German subject, he was a resident of Switzerland—he lived there on and off during his early life, and permanently starting in 1912—and he viewed the war fever that infected Germany from an ironic distance. (He nonetheless volunteered for the German Army, but was rejected because of his weak vision, the result of a childhood fireworks accident.) Early in the war, Hesse published an essay in which, while he still expressed hope for a German victory, he insisted on the need to preserve humane values and communication between nations. “This disastrous world war should serve to drum into us more insistently than ever the realization that love is better than hate,” he wrote. Even so mild an avowal earned Hesse the permanent hostility of many Germans. For the rest of his life, he would be attacked by incensed nationalists, both in the press and in regular deliveries of hate mail.

By the same token, in the nineteen-thirties Hesse’s hostility to Hitler was automatic. Nazism, with its blood sacrifice of the individual to the state and the race, represented the opposite of everything he believed in. In March, 1933, seven weeks after Hitler took power, Hesse wrote to a correspondent in Germany, “It is the duty of spiritual types to stand alongside the spirit and not to sing along when the people start belting out the patriotic songs their leaders have ordered them to sing.” Still, while he hosted and helped many émigré writers—including Thomas Mann, a good friend—Hesse never threw himself into anti-Nazi politics. Decker points out that, in the nineteen-thirties, he made a quiet statement of resistance by reviewing and publicizing the work of banned Jewish authors, including Kafka. But, tellingly, his own books were not banned by the Nazis until 1943.

It was Thomas Mann who, at the end of the First World War, published a book called “Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man”; but the title would have applied much better to Hesse, for whom being nonpolitical was a first principle. After all, if the world and the self are illusions, it is delusive to believe that they can be redeemed. To those who wanted him to take a more public stand against Hitler, Hesse replied that anti-fascism was as much a betrayal of the self as fascism: “What’s it got to do with me?” he asked. “I can’t change a thing. What I can do, though, is offer a little succor to those who, like me, strive in everything that they think and do to undermine the whole filthy business of striving after power and political supremacy.”

This attitude to politics and history is characteristic of what Hegel called “the beautiful soul”—one who remains unstained by the world because he declines to engage with it. The phrase was invented by Goethe, who used it in his “Confessions of a Beautiful Soul,” a fictional memoir in which a Pietist noblewoman describes her spiritual life. Hesse, by analogy, might be called an ugly soul, one who is so occupied with his own spiritual distempers that the outside world barely makes an impression. This is also a key to Hesse’s appeal to young readers, who seldom see beyond the limits of the self. But the complete integrity of Hesse’s self-absorption is what guarantees the permanence of his work. As long as people struggle with the need to be themselves, and the difficulty of doing so, he will be a living presence—which is even better, perhaps, than being a great writer. ♦

This article appears in the print edition of the November 19, 2018, issue, with the headline “The Art of Failure.”

 

Malaysian Education System Reform: Time for Urgent Action


November 8, 2018

Malaysian Education System Reform: Time for Urgent Action–The cut-and-paste rhetoric about Malaysia’s education revamp has to stop. 

by Dr. Sharifah Munirah Alatas

http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com

 

Image result for dr maszlee

Malaysia’s Education Minister Dr. Maszlee  Malik: I would not trust my cat in his care, would you? –Din Merican

…three months ago, Maszlee was quoted in a daily newspaper as saying “in some countries, such as Finland for instance, it is a crime for teachers to even conduct exams from Primary to Form Three”.

Firstly, I have yet to find evidence of the “criminal” aspect of conducting exams in Finland.  Secondly, yes, there are no mandated standardised tests in Finland and no national assessment exams (like Singapore’s Primary School Leaving Examination or our UPSR); there is only one nation-wide exam when students are 16 years of age, to determine their entry into university. Testing is practised, but solely at the teacher’s prerogative.”–Dr. Sharifah Munirah Alatas.

Continue reading

Language, Civilisation, Politics, and Malay Chauvinists


November 1, 2018

Language, Civilisation, Politics, and Malay Chauvinists 

by Dr. Sharifah Munirah Alatas

http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com

Since 9/11, global scrutiny turned to contentious concepts such as terrorism, mono-polar, bipolar, superpower, economic and cultural imperialism, as well as linguistic colonialism.

It is the latter which is the subject of this commentary because it has stirred harsh, aggressive and sometimes, amusing reactions in the media (local, regional and global), as well as in Malaysia’s recent parliamentary sitting.

A few days ago, Parliament was entertained by the rantings of a particular opposition MP who claimed that English is not an intellectual language. Among the many incoherent sentences that were uttered, he cited examples of ancient civilisations and conquerors, attempting to rationalise that, “English is not an intellectual language that develops the mind and brain”. He also confidently pontificated that “modern economies like Japan, Taiwan and non-English speaking Europeans do not use English in their journey to become developed nations”.

I hope this issue commands the attention of most Malaysians because for a multi-cultural, multi-religious, economically-developing and relatively-peaceful nation, we need to separate the “wheat from the shaft”.

Image result for said orientalism

Linguistic colonialism or imperialism as a concept is a derivative of Edward Said’s conceptualisation of cultural imperialism (in his two famous books Culture and Imperialism, and Orientalism). I doubt, though, that the recent local uproar about the use of English as a medium of instruction of a few subjects in school is based on any knowledge of Edward Said’s work.

Nevertheless, anti-English language crusaders keep creeping out of the woodwork because it seems fashionable. It is glaring that all of these narratives to date have been devoid of historical context. And this makes for extremely wimpy analyses.

Image result for Hasan Arifin, BN’s MP for Rompin

UMNO Intellectuals

Hasan Arifin, BN’s MP for Rompin, is not alone. There are many in Malaysia, among the public, government and elite who feel that English is being “deified”. They also believe that English speakers never created great civilisations. Leaving aside that this notion is erroneous, it also begs the question, “what is a great civilisation?”

In my  understanding, a great civilisation is based on a network of cities (territories) comprising cultures that are defined by the economic, political, military, diplomatic, social and cultural interactions among them.

So, the Roman, Spanish, Arab, French, British and Chinese (with their various dynasties) were great civilisations. How did language then become the signature dish, so to speak, of that civilisation?

Through these empires, languages spread and shifted in dominance. In the past, empires spread their influence through their armies, and after the conquests, so began the social and linguistic assimilation. Between the 3 BC and 3 AD, the Roman Empire was bilingual — Latin and Greek. This was because the Romans knew that Greek was a language of prestige, philosophy and higher education — an “intellectual” language.

Spain succeeded in making over 20 sovereign states today, that speak Spanish, excluding millions of Spanish speakers in immigrant communities in other non-Spanish speaking nations such as the United States, Canada and the Philippines.

Castillian Spanish became the most important language of government and trade. It was the lingua franca of the Spanish empire, a derivative of Latin. Latin was still the “intellectual” language of the Spanish and of the Church.

The Chola Dynasty was one of the longest, most civilised empires in the history of southern India. Tamil and Sanskrit were the official languages.Tamil and Sanskrit are two distinct languages, the former being Dravidian and the latter being an Indo-Aryan language. As we can see, all three great civilisations were bi-lingual.

In 21st century Malaysia, however, we are faced with a backlash of a-historical pundits who reject the ebb and flow of civilisational change, yet advocate for national progress and development.

Let me educate them on the current position of English in the world today. First, it is an intellectual language. The British Empire, between the reigns of Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II (1588-1952), had about 250 million English language speakers. English achieved unique conditions of development. The large continents of North America, Africa and Asia were colonised with industrialisation and trade in mind.

Global conditions at the time facilitated the transition towards the flourishing of English in previously French and Spanish colonial territories of North America and Africa. Due to abundant natural resources and human capital in these regions, the wheels of commerce and trade helped to “deify” (not my word) the English language. English was “at the right place, at the right time”.

Today, all civilisations are enriched by the ideas, thoughts and knowledge disseminated world wide in English. Of course there are other languages that perform this function, but English is predominant.

Second, people like Hasan Arifin and his supporters cannot distinguish between modernisation, Westernisation and imperialism.

Modernisation is the development and application of current and innovative science in the development process of all sectors of society. Westernisation is a process subsumed under modernisation when specifically-Western notions of what it means to be modern are accepted as universal values of modernisation.

Many aspects of Westernisation should not be accepted as modernisation. Imperialism, on the other hsnsd, is the process of domination of policies and ideas with a specific agenda in mind. In history, imperial powers have imposed power and influence through diplomacy or military force.

I think the current discourses in France and India of a “linguistic imperialism” are far-fetched.  Like Westernisation, there is good and bad imperialism. It is also era-specific.

In the 21st century, military and economic powers like the US, China, Great Britain, Japan, Germany and Russia do not mirror the same imperialistic goals of the World War Two era.

Anintellectual, would realise that the need to master the English language is hardly the imposition of an imperialistic agenda.

The inadequacy of the historical-context approach is dangerous for nation building. A system oiled by pseudo-intellectuals who run the policy-making machinery will be suicidal for our “new” Malaysia.

My advice is to be firmly grounded in historical processes, be up-to-date with current economic and socio-political trends and subdue ethnocentric tendencies which are embarrassing and underdeveloped.

Critics of the English language quote China and Japan as being ignorant of the English language, yet they challenge the US and other great powers economically and militarily. It takes more, however, to become a global hegemon.

Anti-English crusaders in Malaysia believe religiously that China and Japan, despite their incapacity to speak and write in English, have reached a level of global economic hierarchy that threatens US and other major power positions. However, even this notion is skewed.

China, for example is known as “the factory of the world” and “the bridge-builder of the world”. But China’s global hegemonic status is in doubt because it lacks the capacity for economic reform, to minimise economic inefficiencies and it has proven inadequate at reforming the financial sector in order to provide investors with consistently profitable returns (the failure of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port construction is a case in point). Therefore, the issue of language does not figure in the equation.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

 

Daniel Kahneman on The Machinery of the Mind


October 18, 2018

Daniel Kahneman Explains The Machinery of Thought

https://fs.blog/2014/07/daniel-kahneman-the-two-systems/

Daniel Kahneman

Israeli-American psychologist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman is the founding father of modern behavioral economics. His work has influenced how we see thinking, decisions, risk, and even happiness.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, his “intellectual memoir,” he shows us in his own words some of his enormous body of work.

Part of that body includes a description of the “machinery of … thought,” which divides the brain into two agents, called System 1 and System 2, which “respectively produce fast and slow thinking.” For our purposes these can also be thought of as intuitive and deliberate thought.

The Two Systems

Psychologists have been intensely interested for several decades in the two modes of thinking evoked by the picture of the angry woman and by the multiplication problem, and have offered many labels for them. I adopt terms originally proposed by the psychologists Keith Stanovich and Richard West, and will refer to two systems in the mind, System 1 and System 2.

  • System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.
  • System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.

If asked to pick which thinker we are, we pick system 2. However, as Kahneman points out:

The automatic operations of System 1 generate surprisingly complex patterns of ideas, but only the slower System 2 can construct thoughts in an orderly series of steps . I also describe circumstances in which System 2 takes over, overruling the freewheeling impulses and associations of System 1. You will be invited to think of the two systems as agents with their individual abilities, limitations, and functions.

System One

These vary by individual and are often “innate skills that we share with other animals.”

We are born prepared to perceive the world around us, recognize objects, orient attention, avoid losses, and fear spiders. Other mental activities become fast and automatic through prolonged practice. System 1 has learned associations between ideas (the capital of France?); it has also learned skills such as reading and understanding nuances of social situations. Some skills, such as finding strong chess moves, are acquired only by specialized experts. Others are widely shared. Detecting the similarity of a personality sketch to an occupational stereotype requires broad knowledge of the language and the culture, which most of us possess. The knowledge is stored in memory and accessed without intention and without effort.

System Two

This is when we do something that does not come naturally and requires some sort of continuous exertion.

In all these situations you must pay attention, and you will perform less well, or not at all, if you are not ready or if your attention is directed inappropriately.

Paying attention is not really the answer as that is mentally expensive and can make people “effectively blind, even to stimuli that normally attract attention.” This is the point of Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons in their book The Invisible Gorilla. Not only are we blind to what is plainly obvious when someone points it out but we fail to see that we are blind in the first place.

The Division of Labour

Systems 1 and 2 are both active whenever we are awake. System 1 runs automatically and System 2 is normally in a comfortable low-effort mode, in which only a fraction of its capacity is engaged. System 1 continuously generates suggestions for System 2: impressions, intuitions, intentions, and feelings. If endorsed by System 2, impressions and intuitions turn into beliefs, and impulses turn into voluntary actions. When all goes smoothly, which is most of the time, System 2 adopts the suggestions of System 1 with little or no modification. You generally believe your impressions and act on your desires, and that is fine— usually.

When System 1 runs into difficulty, it calls on System 2 to support more detailed and specific processing that may solve the problem of the moment. System 2 is mobilized when a question arises for which System 1 does not offer an answer, as probably happened to you when you encountered the multiplication problem 17 × 24. You can also feel a surge of conscious attention whenever you are surprised. System 2 is activated when an event is detected that violates the model of the world that System 1 maintains. In that world, lamps do not jump, cats do not bark, and gorillas do not cross basketball courts. The gorilla experiment demonstrates that some attention is needed for the surprising stimulus to be detected. Surprise then activates and orients your attention: you will stare, and you will search your memory for a story that makes sense of the surprising event. System 2 is also credited with the continuous monitoring of your own behavior—the control that keeps you polite when you are angry, and alert when you are driving at night. System 2 is mobilized to increased effort when it detects an error about to be made. Remember a time when you almost blurted out an offensive remark and note how hard you worked to restore control. In summary, most of what you (your System 2) think and do originates in your System 1, but System 2 takes over when things get difficult, and it normally has the last word.

The division of labor between System 1 and System 2 is highly efficient: it minimizes effort and optimizes performance. The arrangement works well most of the time because System 1 is generally very good at what it does: its models of familiar situations are accurate, its short-term predictions are usually accurate as well, and its initial reactions to challenges are swift and generally appropriate. System 1 has biases, however, systematic errors that it is prone to make in specified circumstances. As we shall see, it sometimes answers easier questions than the one it was asked, and it has little understanding of logic and statistics. One further limitation of System 1 is that it cannot be turned off.

[…]

Conflict between an automatic reaction and an intention to control it is common in our lives. We are all familiar with the experience of trying not to stare at the oddly dressed couple at the neighboring table in a restaurant. We also know what it is like to force our attention on a boring book, when we constantly find ourselves returning to the point at which the reading lost its meaning. Where winters are hard, many drivers have memories of their car skidding out of control on the ice and of the struggle to follow well-rehearsed instructions that negate what they would naturally do: “Steer into the skid, and whatever you do, do not touch the brakes!” And every human being has had the experience of not telling someone to go to hell. One of the tasks of System 2 is to overcome the impulses of System 1. In other words, System 2 is in charge of self-control.

[…]

The question that is most often asked about cognitive illusions is whether they can be overcome. The message of these examples is not encouraging. Because System 1 operates automatically and cannot be turned off at will, errors of intuitive thought are often difficult to prevent. Biases cannot always be avoided, because System 2 may have no clue to the error. Even when cues to likely errors are available, errors can be prevented only by the enhanced monitoring and effortful activity of System 2. As a way to live your life, however, continuous vigilance is not necessarily good, and it is certainly impractical. Constantly questioning our own thinking would be impossibly tedious, and System 2 is much too slow and inefficient to serve as a substitute for System 1 in making routine decisions.

The best we can do is a compromise: learn to recognize situations in which mistakes are likely and try harder to avoid significant mistakes when the stakes are high. The premise of this book is that it is easier to recognize other people’s mistakes than our own.

Image result for daniel kahneman

Still Curious? Thinking, Fast and Slow is a tour-de-force when it comes to thinking.

 

ISTAC and The Closing of the Malay Mind (?)


September 6, 2018

ISTAC and The Closing of the Malay Mind (?)

 

Dr. Maszlee Malik was appointed Minister of Education to enhance Pakatan Harapan’s Malay-Islamic credentials

COMMENT | Any specialist on think tanks will tell you that 80 percent of the think tanks in the world were formed right after 1950. This was a period marked by the ascendance of the Cold War.

When Cold War ended in 1989, think tanks remained. Some tried to reinvent themselves by holding marquee events like the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos.

In Japan, the Nikkei Asia Review does not have a think tank but is nevertheless made more pronounced by the annual Nikkei Asia Conference which Dr Mahathir Mohamad never seems to miss.

In China, the Boao Forum for Asia in Hainan Island was formed with the goal to supplant and replace WEF while the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore seeks to gather all the defence ministers in one spot over a period of three days or less.

At last week’s Bumiputera Empowerment Congress, which in 1962 and 1965 spawned the creation of MARA and Bank Bumiputera (now absorb by CIMB Bank Group), there were a series of resolutions that read like a laundry list of motherhood statements.

This is usually the first sign that things are about to fail. When driven to the extreme, where ideas are sparse, just pull any proverbial rabbits out of the hats.

Among others, it affirmed the centrality of the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilisation (ISTAC) as the prime vehicle to transmit the right values to help Malays and bumiputeras become competitive again.

Yet, ISTAC has had a checkered history. When it was first created in 1987, its location was just a stone’s throw away from the old International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) campus in Petaling Jaya.

Image result for Istac's Syed Naquib Alatas

 

Professor Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas (pic above) was the leading founder of Istac.  His goal was to revive the salience of the philosophy of Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali. Anyone who failed to abide by this dictate was not considered his ‘murid’ (student).

Subsequently, it was moved to its own campus in Damansara Heights, adorned with its own Spanish Muslim or Andalusian motifs to give it a sense of crowning intellectual glory.

Before ISTAC could establish itself as a world-class institution, the politics of 1998 had thrown a curve ball at it.

ISTAC found itself embedded into IIUM’s new Gombak campus once more, and towards the end of the tenure of Najib Razak tenure as prime minister, most of the professors in Istac were either retired, or impelled to leave; some sadly were teaching three credit hours a year.

So much for respecting the intellectual authority and pre-eminence of the academics. It was Rais Yatim, as the IIUM President, who tried to add a dash of relevance by connecting ISTAC to the Malay world.

After all, rather than a singular focus on Imam al-Ghazali, the same intensity can be zeroed in on Hamzah Fansuri, a top spiritual thinker in Aceh, Indonesia, in the 16th century.

Malay, Islam, or both?

Image result for Istac's Syed Naquib Alatas

When the authorities resort to moving the goalpost once too often, what is originally a sound academic institution would be enveloped by a foreboding atmosphere of fear and intellectual intimidation. Should we focus on Islam or the Malay world or both? In other words, academics who signed on to teach in ISTAC would be immediately aware of its sketchy history.

Instead of challenging the students to think in a critical and creative manner, the academics themselves would be looking over their shoulder if any authorities are watching over them when they teach subjects that are seemingly politically or ethnographically incorrect.

Must they teach Islam alongside with Malay history when the two can be separate disciplines?

The sciences of Quran and Hadith, for example, have their strong and long pedigree. But so does Sufism of various strands. Would a scholar be punished for teaching Ibn Arabi, instead of Ibn Farabi? No one knows. Precisely because the prior failed experimentation with creative Islamic thought had sent Muslim thinkers careening into various directions.

Do they just stick to their jobs and teach run-of-the-mill courses dictated by the authorities above or do they take the risk of teaching thoughtful and challenging subjects?

When scholars themselves are enveloped in an atmosphere of uncertainties, the process of transmitting the right values to the students are usually facile, fake, and artificial.

Not surprisingly, IIUM produced two groups of students in the last 20 years. Some were committed to reforming Malaysia, others who worked alongside Najib, saw no wrong in the kleptocratic excesses of the regime.

How can IIUM students fail on such a simple moral issue? Stealing was wrong yet many went with it at the Prime Minister’s Office. When scholars cannot predict their own fate, how can they help students grapple with their own?

Way to move forward

Indeed, Neil Postman, a top critic and educator, affirmed that the classroom is a seat of “negotiation”. When students and staffs are trapped in the same classroom, they have to challenge and confront one another’s ideas, albeit differently.

What emerges from the austere setting of the classrooms are not just information and knowledge per se, but the appetite to ask even more questions in the following days or weeks.

Paul Freire, a Brazilian thinker, argued in ‘The Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ that if students and staff members do not resort to outright argument and counter-argument, they would be importing all the logic of domination – and hegemony – that are all too apparent out there into their own mental conditioning.

If Malays are deemed as an “uncompetitive race” and this notion is left unchallenged in the future classes of ISTAC, then the students and staff members would not be able to break the chain of such mind-numbing stereotypes that are transported into the academic setting.

Students and faculty members would be attempting a safe and septic way to put their views across, which for the lack of better word, is what the late Professor Allan Bloom pointed out in the American campuses at the start of his ‘The Closing of the American Mind’ – no one wants to ask hard questions.

Indeed, the Bumiputera Empowerment Congress can lead to the Closing of the “Malay mind” too.

At the one-day conference, where the leaders talk down to the audience, where the latter in turn pretends to listen out of the polite fiction to portray their sheer compliance to the new government of Pakatan Harapan, there is no “breakthrough” at all.

Indeed, even if Education Minister Maszlee Malik as the IIUM president wants to focus on transforming Istac, the latter is an institution that is distinguished by two mediums of instructions – Arabic and English.

Malays were at their phenomenal best in MARA, subsequently, Bank Rakyat and Bank Negara, when they could excel in Malay and English, only then Arabic. If it is the latter, a third language, one would have to spend a considerable time memorising the grammar, syntax and rich vocabularies.

While learning a third language is good, the issue at play is economic competitiveness of the bumiputeras and Malays now, which means they have to make their proficiency in Malay and English work first, only then a mastery of Arabic. Either way, they must compete in an Anglo-Saxon world.

Mahathir and Anwar Ibrahim are not masters of Arabic. Neither is Daim Zainuddin. In fact, none of our previous prime ministers or education ministers has had any command of the Arabic language, except perhaps Maszlee who did a language stint in Jordan. But one cannot expect a first-term minister to lionise the whole country at the first instance. He can’t. The struggle over black shoes versus white shoes was enough to reflect the difficulties that he may have found himself dragged into.

To be sure, the idea of using ISTAC to transfuse the right values into the bumiputeras is a lovely premise. But a wrong one.

Anyone who has been associated with ISTAC in any way and form will also know that the institution does not normally cater to large segment of students. They offer advanced graduate classes at Masters and PhD levels. How can bumiputeras and Malay graduates be transformed only at the top, when those howling for help and jobs are those at the heap of the bottom?

Somehow the proposition on Istac as the locomotive of ‘revolusi mental’, or mental revolution, seems like a return to the 1990s when the Malaysian and global economy both moved so far along to produce platform, honeycomb, sharing, and gig economy – all of which are driven by artificial intelligence, algorithm, big data analytics and automation.

How can ISTAC transform Malays and bumputeras to adopt Industrial Revolution 4.0 when the focus on ISTAC itself, both institutionally and otherwise, remain unclear?

The success of MARAa has proven that Malays are quite adept at learning the best technologies, sciences and communication media; without which Malaysia would not have produced a capable group of officers and captains of industries.

But ISTAC has to either be merged with MARA, or converted into an entity that can cater to the bumiputera and Malay masses.

When it does, ISTAC has to then cultivate an ethic to learn, unlearn, and relearn, without fail, as futuristic Alvin Toffler and Heidi Toffler warned. Without such a curiosity, it will be another project that is high on rhetoric and low on delivery.


PHAR KIM BENG was a multiple award-winning Head Teaching Fellow on China and Cultural Revolution in Harvard University.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.