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History Table of Contents
1993 Summer Conference
 
Summer Conference 1993
The Challenge of Lifelong Learning in an Era of Global Change

Special Seminar: The Dictatorship of Reason

JOHN RALSTON SAUL,
Author, essayist

I believe this civilization is in very deep trouble; in a great crisis, that we are very far into that crisis. It is a crisis that can be looked at in terms of a 400 year evolution; it can be looked at in terms of what has happened in this century, and it can be looked at in terms of the last 20 years.

In 1973, we fell into a depression, a very serious depression, which we are now probably at the bottom of without any sign of coming out of.

In those 20 years, there isn't a single person in a position of responsibility who has actually addressed us in an honest and civilized manner and indicated that they knew we were in a depression, which indicates either that they are dangerously incompetent, or almost refreshingly liars.

The depression of these last 20 years – I'm not certain about this – may be a key element at the end of the long crisis, at the end of civilization that is now almost 500 years old, or it may be a preface to it. I do feel that we are near a kind of series of major events in terms of the civilization that in my mind started in the early 1500's and have been building on ever since.

What I mean by civilization, essentially, is language.

One of the ways you can tell a civilization is in deep trouble is that the language is no longer used for communication, it is used for obscurantism, for control, for hiding things and for secrecy.

And I think that pretty well describes modern serious language, intellectual language; the language which is produced out of our universities and is used by our elites, whether they are in public service, in industry, or for that matter in a large part of the arts.

A healthy civilization is one in which the language is strangely crystal clear. Let me give you a couple of examples of what I'm talking about.

About six years ago, the Toronto Reference Library reorganized the books so that one whole floor is a section called business and social sciences. It is not simply alphabetical that business comes first, it is actually what the floor is profoundly about, and if you go through it you will find itegrated political history, law, foreign aid, foreign policy, legislatures, political parties, religion, philosophy, etc.

All of these things have been, through a kind of assumption of this civilization, subsumed under business, which is astonishing because, of course, we need business, we need to make money, put bread on the table, compete, etc. But, I don't think there is a single example of a civilization, an important civilization; a civilization that has gone somewhere in the history of the world – that was led by business.

It simply doesn't exist. The Roman Empre was not principally a business venture. The British Empire had business in it, but it was not driven by business.

And yet here we are acting as if our civilization can fly – that philosophy, that religion, that metaphyscis, that creativity – can fly under the leadership of business. If that is true, we have indeed made a breakthrough for mankind.

On the other hand, we seem to be sinking through a black hole. So, it doesn't seem to be true, unless somebody can indicate that in the near future it is going to change; that we are going to rise out of the black hole and that business is going to lead us towards creativity, metaphysics, philosophy, thinking, ethics, etc.

Another example has to do with professors acting as academic advisors.

The modern university is 1,000 years old, more or less. It was a battle almost the whole way to create the modern university. The idea was to create a place of learning that was going to be independent from whatever powers might be, so that human beings could think about what they were going to do with themselves and their civilization; find language to make their civilization work.

After the revolutions in the 17th and 18th centuries the university took on a more independent form. And certainly when you get into the 20th century, you get the impression that not only are the universities reasonably independent, but as the churches have declined and the kings have declined, that these ethical and moral training and responsible powers were floating free and they fell into the hands of the university or university professors, who took on the job, in many ways, from the aristocracy, the church, of training us, training our elites, giving our society a direction.

After the Second World War, a lot of professors felt they could do public service...not for money, but to help governments find a way.

Then, you found businesses saying, well, we're going to fight back, because they wanted to fight back against the kind of reform taking place since the Depression. They had to create for themselves their own intellectual truth. And, of course, they had the money to do it.

So, they went out and created foundations – independent foundations – which they funded. And these foundations hired professors, who would write things that would be more or less pleasing to the people who funded them.

This worked so well, they started hiring the professors themselves. And today Canada is a prime example – our major public debates, take the trade debate – take place with tenured professors speaking out in a neutral manner as a result of their thinking on this question. In addition, they are often doubling or tripling their income through contracts with business.

The question that of course raises is: do we really need tenure any more?

Should university professors be allowed to make money on the side to do something that they aren't really in the primary job to do? Should they be able to take that money and keep the honour of being professor X or Y, speaking out as a neutral voice from his seat within the university?

I think to start they should have to declare their X-University incomes. If their incomes go beyond a certain percentage of the income they get from the university, it should be taxed away from them by the university. Or, they should give up their tenure or leave the university, particularly if many of them, not all of them, are going to use that job protection to work for other interests, who are within their rights to hire them.

I am not criticizing business for doing it, I am simply saying, there is a dishonest transaction from the point of view of the public.

These examples indicate a society which is somewhat confused; a society which doesn't seem to really have a very great grasp of the direction it is going in, or what words really mean, or what obligations of citizens really are and to whom; to the citizenry, to their employer, to society, to the government.

I think that the underlying assumptions of these errors, of this confusion, is that we have fallen into a worship of reason, which began in the 16th century and with profound misunderstanding has become worse over the years.

The misunderstanding is this: there were people in the beginning who used reason, who really introduced reason in its modern form, people like Machevelli, Richelieu, Loyola, Bacon, who in a way are the early forms of the kind of people we have in power today.

But there were other people, like the enlightenment philosophers, who believed that reason was the mechanism with which they could fight against the church and bring reform to society. I don't think anybody among the reform philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries imagined that the result of all their work would be that civilization would take reason and put it on top as if it were the great moral truth.

Reason had no moral truth within it. It had nothing to offer society, except mechanisms and the creation of elites, who are principally mechanistic and void of content.

The kind of elites that I am talking about, really first took their form, under Loyola, who single handily stalked the Reformation just with rational methodology.

One of the most fascinating things of the modern elites, and I first noticed this with the Harvard MBA's, is that they will always – within 10 minutes of any conversation – start talking about Socrates from whom they are descended.

What we really have ended up with are plutonic elites, who think they have a Socratic attitude. In other words, they are basically authoritarian and they think that because they answer a lot of questions, they have asked them.

Out of these elites has come the idea that this is the most individualistic society that has ever lived. That we can cut off our noses, we can have muscle implants, that we can get married, divorced; that I don't have to wear a tie, etc.

The important thing, the important sign of individualism, is to say the citizens' obligation is to play a role in making his or her society work by being a ferocious and difficult person within that society; that is the principal sign of individualism, it is the one thing that has been taken away. And it hasn't been taken away by strong governments, it has been taken away essentially by this rational elite structure which puts all of us in a position where we are very limited in what we can say and do.

The result is that we have ended up with an incredibly conformist society, not an individualistic society.

What elites are essentially saying to the citizenry is that, "you are too stupid to understand what I am talking about." They are giving value to themselves and in giving value to themselves, they are creating the anti-intellectual movement. And what you are seeing throughout Western society today is a perfectly justified reaction to the unacceptable actions of ruling elites.

From the very beginning these elites have had a very great interest in their own education, but their idea about the citizenry has always been the same:

"Yes, yes, let's get them to school so they can learn to read and write, so they can learn to follow instructions. Let's make sure they wash once a week so they don't smell. Let's do all sorts of things and, if they go to church, they will be a little more moral and follow instructions."

But, public education was never a primary objective of the rational elites. And what we have seen over the last 50 years – the crisis that we are in – is that there is an enormous failure at the top in the elite education and an even greater crisis in the general education, because elites simply are not interested in it. You hear people talking about the fact that they can't send their children to public schools, because public schools aren't good enough.

Our elites have decided that our public school system isn't good enough for their children, it isn't elite enough for their children and so they have decided, in Canada, as they decided in England long ago, and in the United States increasingly over the past 30 years, that they are giving up on the democratic process, because they are giving up on citizens' right to be educated properly.

They are sending their children to private schools.

And what that really means is that slowly in Canada you will see, with the removal of their children, the removal of any push to raise taxes for the public schooling, the removal of interest in the quality of public schooling, the decline of public schooling, much as you have seen in the United States.

They have become the enemy of public schooling by removing their children from it.

The Canadian elites for a long time used to send their children to post-graduate education to Oxbridge. Over the last 20 years they have stopped doing that; wrong Colonial mentality. They started sending their children increasingly to the United States; Harvard if possible, fall back, Princeton. They have been increasingly sending their children to undergraduate not post-graduate, meaning that they get their primary understanding of how a society works in the United States.

So, you bring these people back to Canada and they look around and they say what is this dinky little place. The way you want to run this country doesn't work, you have to knock down these barriers in a big way. You have to be big, like the Americans; courageous. But of course we are not. It is stupid to act that way, and that is the way we are acting.

We should be sending our children for post- secondary eduction in places like Bangkok, Japan, France and Germany. These are places that are sort of our size and have sort of our kinds of problems and are dealing with them. We can get models out of them; we can learn things.

But the United States is absolutely the wrong model to form ourselves on, if we want to continue to exist in any way, shape or form.

Questions

You suggest, because of the reference library, that this society is governed by business. You must have some idea as to what a good society is? What is a good life? What is it that can be done?

Clearly, I am not against business, since I spent a good part of my life in business and society can't exist without it; that is the way the world works. What I am talking about is a society which is so confused that it is trying to put in the drivers seat one after the other, groups that are not designed to be in the drivers seat, certainly not in that guise, not as businessmen, anymore than Deputy Ministers should be in the drivers seat, any more than technocrats of any sort deserve to be in the drivers seat. They are experts in power, not experts in civilizations or experts in society. In our desire to find leadership in a crisis we are forgetting what leadership is really about. Leadership is really about not leadership at all, leadership is about the people that are going to be lead. Not the leaders. Just as answers are really about understanding the question, not the answers, the answers are easy. You can pay $50,000 to any fool and he will give you answers. The important thing is to understand what the problem is. And this is the thing that our civilization is terrified to do. So that the answer really to your questions is, having decided as I think we have that we don't want a dictatorship in the old style and we don't want to be led by God in the old style, we want to be led by ourselves and that means essentially we want democracy; what democracy really is, is the citizenry.

Who do you think is going to facilitate this change that has to happen?

I don't think we can really plan how we are going to get out of this. What has to happen, and this is what has always happened in the past in great crisis, is that more and more noise is made by the people who don't agree. And gradually that noise begins to take form and that form becomes the way out. And so in a sense what we have seen over the last decade is a lot of people complaining. People know what is wrong and they are looking for ways to say it. I really believe that once people can say their frustrations, say what they feel is wrong, they will find a way through it. I really don't think we are looking for facilitators, although it is not a bad word.

I am wondering if you can see ahead a kind of evolution where the public system is going to just disintegrate and that anyone who cannot afford private school is going to be left to fend for themselves.

What I think is happening, if it continues, is that Canada is going the way of the United States which is going the way of England. And other countries are going in the same direction, but the English-speaking world seems to be the worst. We are moving towards what the elites consider to be serious and worthwhile education, versus education which is sort of maintenance to sort of keep people clean and functioning. And what is interesting about that is, of course, it is self defeating on the part of the elites. What they don't seem to understand is that a society cannot function, not a modern technological complex society with simply the elites.

How do we actually invigorate society to move in the direction of more humanism?

One of the ways you invigorate it is by standing up on stage and being a troublesome person and the more people that do that the better, the more people who say, why? or say how? or refuse, or don't fall for things; who say we have 24 hours to decide how to do this, or we are going to go down the black hole. Let's wait 24 hours and see if we go down the black hole. There is this whole kind of conscious implication of the individual reality which is the way that we move towards not stopping change, but having control over what we can do with change.