The principal intellectual contribution of this essay is to overturn the conceptualization of history of Arnold Joseph Toynbee’s “A Study of History” which sees the historical process as the rise and fall of civilizations. This paper argues that the civilizations that Toynbee describes are but sub-categories of the larger civilizational continuum and examines the role of education in the spread of civilization.
Education has been a pillar in the cross fertilization of ideas and the spread of Civilization since the beginning of recorded history, either through migration, travels, trade, the travails of war and conquest, or simply the formal exchange of students, scholars and intellectuals. Note that I have capitalized the word “civilization” to espouse my view that civilization is a continuum in the historical process and used the phrase ‘cross fertilization of ideas’ to explicitly imply, at a minimum the bidirectional, and at a maximum, the n-directional nature of education where the roles of providers and acquirers are neither rigid nor unidirectional. I think such a linguistic exposition of concepts, amply supported by historical evidence, facilitates a bias-free analysis without falling into the trap of “Clash of Civilizations,” where the primary causes of the “clash” are the value judgments associated with civilizations (note the plural), which in my framework are but sub-categories with property variations of the larger Civilization, as it applies to the sociological evolution of homo sapiens sapiens in general, as a biological species.
The practice of democracy in its various adaptations around the world as we see today is but a point in this continuum-a developing and maturing consensus, particularly since the end of World War II and more so, since the end of the Cold War, about the form of political and economic organization that is believed to be adaptable to any given sociological and historical context. Simply put, the principles contained in the frameworks for the practice of modern democracy as invented in 1776 by the United States and rooted in ideas beginning with The Renaissance and through The Enlightenment (which in themselves were a revival of Greek philosophical thought founded by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle), are best suited to Our (capitalized to imply all of humanity) common human nature. This sound philosophical foundation of the Greco-Roman tradition, which has its own basis in the earliest Enlightenment known to humanity around 776 B.C.E, begs the question of convergence at a fundamental level (though full manifestations could be different) among all sociological contexts across the world (I am including religion as a sociological construct). If we ascertain as a matter of scientific inquiry that such a convergence exists, then should not that be an explicit part of education everywhere around the world to bring about democratic societies?
Then as one important element of a long term yet imminent strategy to the confront problem of radical religious fundamentalism in general in various parts of the world, and particularly the recent bouts with the Islamic variety, along the lines of Mbeki vision of “African Renaissance”, an “Islamic Renaissance” seems to be much desired. By “Islamic Renaissance” I mean a vigorous dialog within Islam (particularly as Islam is but an Abrahamic strand) akin to that the West had during The Reformation that not only birthed Protestantism but also sowed the seeds of change in the Roman Catholic Church. Without these two seminal events in western history, perhaps the West today would be no different from orthodox Islamic societies. Events similar to The Reformation can also be found in other religions such as Hinduism, where periods of dogmatic and ritualistic orthodoxy were challenged, resulting in Buddhism, for example, besides a return to moderation in the practice of the tenets of the parent religion. In fact, Christianity itself is a product of such a rebellion within Judaism.
Educational content typically has the tendency to reinforce the prevalent political ideology or orthodoxy as can be seen in Islamic madrassas and the former Soviet Marxist-Leninist educational content. Though it has and is being said that educational content in the West also has similar characteristics in the sense that it tends to promote ‘democratic fundamentalism’, I think such a claim can quickly be invalidated because the content of modern western education is rooted in the process of the Socratic dialog of truth discovery whether it applies to matters of physical scientific empiricism or issues of the polis and the oeikos (this includes the rigorous examination of religious belief and faith itself, without which religious reformation is not possible); therefore, in their very DNA, deviation from truth seeking is not tolerated by democratic societies, and hence they are self-cleansing of fundamentalist impulses-political, economic or social. Simply put, citizens of democracies do not take matters on faith, including matters of faith. The founding documents of the United States are a seminal example of this built-in characteristic of democracies though this behavior of democracies is being currently put to test to check the validity of the capacity of the now powerful western educational establishments to enlighten rather than dominate.
This process of Socratic interaction is built into the content of education in democracies. This is how education in a democracy is attained (I have used the word ‘attained’ because the process of education in democracies implicitly implies that both the teacher and the pupil are educated at the same time). Therefore, a catalyzing elite educated in the scientific method, who believe that it is in their self-interest to develop the institutions of democracy within the sociological context of their countries, whether influencing from abroad or from within their home countries, becomes essential to the formation of successful democracies, as historical evidence amply supports.
In a world where a radical fundamentalist has access to the same communications technology as people in advanced democracies, this leads to, as a matter of policy, the imminent need for investment in pervasive educational technology and infrastructure, including the news media as a mutually educational tool, to support the ‘catalyzing elite’ I mentioned above.
When talking about the modes of the education process, it is also essential to ask the question, for example, is a Taliban better off at Yale University in the United States, or as a matter of public diplomacy, is Yale University better off in Afghanistan, where not one but many ex-Taliban could perhaps obtain a college education (though it still leaves me wondering about their “graduation” from madrassas before getting to Yale!)? American University in Beirut is a case in point.
Education as suggested above, to build new democratic societies as well as to revive existing democracies such as the United States, is necessary to resolve problem of poverty and globalization, because hopelessness and helplessness were and are as much fertile grounds for humaneness as they are for inhumanity.