Is all social life schooling?

I’ve always read a lot of magazines.  Before we started this blog in June 2007, if I came up with an idea while reading one of them I would sometimes make a note of it in a word processing document.  More often I would just forget about it.  Now I post “Periodicals Notes” in which I make those ideas available here.

Among these old documents I recently found  some speculation triggered by this paragraph on page 23 of The Nation for 19 June 2006: “In his 1964 book Ma’alim fi al-Tariq (Milestones), [Sayyid] Qutb wrote that ‘if woman is freed from her basic responsibility of bringing up children’ and, whether on her own or by pressure from society, seeks to work in jobs such as ‘a hostess or a stewardess in a hotel or ship or air company,’ she will be ‘using her ability for material productivity rather than the training of human beings.’  This, he claimed, would make the entire civilization ‘backward.’”  What intrigued me about this précis was the idea that “the training of human beings” is the activity that separates healthy societies from backward ones.

Augustine of Hippo, in the City of God and the dialogue de Magistro, takes a similar view.  The City of God is a sort of cultural history of the Roman Empire, tracing how various religious ideas have influenced events from the legendary period of the seven kings of Rome up to Augustine’s own day.  Rather than simply dismissing the ideas he disagrees with, Augustine treats them as early stages in the process that would prepare the Mediterranean world for Christian doctrine.  This process of learning involved the whole of Greco-Roman society.  In the dialogue de Magistro, he asks what purposes speech serves, and concludes that every one of those purposes is a form, of teaching.  If all speech is teaching, then all social life must be educational.

Around the same time I read the issue of The Nation with that essay about Sayyid Qutb, I read the  Spring 2006 issue of Telos. That issue includes an article by Aryeh Botwinick called “A Monotheistic Ethics: Ben Zoma’s Mishnah” which finds such a view in the Babylonian Talmud, in Ben Zoma’s comments on the passage “Who is wise?  He who learns from everyone.”  I rather doubt that Sayyid Qutb read the Babylonian Talmud, or Augustine for that matter.  I suspect that Qutb, Augustine, and Ben Zoma came independently to the view that society is above all a place for teaching and learning.

If this was in fact a view that all three of these thinkers shared, and if it was a view at which they arrived independently of one another, is it a view which is implicit in monotheism?  Must a believer in a single God define the just society as one which is based on learning, presumably on learning divine truth?  Monotheism does indeed seem to require organized learning in a way that polytheism and other ideas about religion do not.  Cults of various gods and other spirits may grow up more or less spontaneously in various places, and people who pass their lives in those places may come to recognize or join in some of those cults.  Polytheists don’t seem to need sermons or seminaries to learn what the gods require of them, any more than they need classroom instruction to learn to speak their own native languages.  People seem to pick up polytheistic practices by living among those who keep them, often without realizing that they are learning anything at all.

Among monotheists, on the other hand, organized teaching and learning seems to be essential.  No monotheism is based on doctrines that people taken at random could be trusted to discover independently.  If Christian children are to grow up believing that a certain man named Jesus lived in Judaea in the time of Tiberius, that he was the Son of God, that he made a particular set of statements recorded in a particular set of documents, and that by his death he transformed the world, someone will have to tell them about these beliefs.   It may not be too much to say that if any particular monotheism is going to catch on and keep going for generations, it has to be taught in the same way to many people.  That means schooling.  If you believe that knowledge of a particular monotheism is the highest goal of human life, then it would seem to follow that the most important part of social life is schooling.

Augustine’s City of God is often cited as the first major work in the philosophy of history.   I wonder if the aspect of this philosophy that reduces social life to education is one that could gain assent from adherents of other religious traditions.  So a Muslim Brother like Qutb might be sympathetic to an argument that pre-modern societies were able exhibit such vitality as they had because most women were engaged in raising children, teaching them truths about love and discipline, while some men were able to teach as well, either by words or by setting morally upright examples.

This philosophy could also generate a set of ideas that could shape claims that societies have become decadent.  Societies might have decayed and fallen not only because their members have known too little of the truth to build the teaching of it into a whole life, but also because many women and most men have been silenced and obscured, so that neither their words nor their examples are able to convey any truth to anyone.  Modern societies would on this view be even less alive than pre-modern ones, not only because falsehood is more visible and truth less clear than before, but also because many women have abandoned their role in the formation of the young.

Those of us who have inherited cultures in which monotheism has played a major role might be expected to show the influence of the idea that all social life is educational and that societies should be evaluated by educational criteria.  For example, what brought this topic back to my mind was an email I recently received from a friend of mine, an academic Arabist who has spent a number of years studying the religious traditions of Islam.  The main point of his email was his exasperation with Sayyid Qutb and his occasional loss of patience with the whole tradition that is sometimes called “Wahhabism.”  He went so far as to write:

A couple more comments on “radical Islam,” if they should be of interest:
I call Wahhabi Islam “the everybody-dead version of Islam,”
since its principle goal appears to be to ensure the death of most
human beings.  It’s rather screwball how many Islamic promotional materials
you come across, e.g. pamphlets, will contain some
tremulous dosage of Wahhabi sentiment.
Hard to view the movement, which today has such currency, really,
all around the world, as much of anything except Islam’s failure as
a humanistic system.  The one thing which prevents me
from tumbling into total despair for the Muslim world is when I recall that
the bulk of the US public is at least as stupid as the Wahhabi legions.
It looks like an ideology of Arab cultural supremacy,
thinly papered over with pseudo-Islamic veneer.  Anyhow, I’m just going on
about this, because I’ve been interested in this stuff lately.

I don’t know whether it is reasonable to say that Islam has failed “as a humanistic system,” and I am not sure how seriously my friend means this paragraph.  I quote it because it shows that a highly educated person who has lived in several Muslim countries thinks that it is reasonable to suppose that Islam has been tried as a humanistic system, that is, as a particular form of education.

In another message in the same exchange, the same friend wrote:

I’ve been doing a bit of reading about Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab and about the roots of extremist trends in contemporary Islam.  In case anybody is extremely casually interested, here are some impressions from what I’ve read so far:

In recent times, the trend has been toward uniformity of belief & practice.  This phenomenon follows the collapse of the pre-modern scholarly edifice.

In the old days, the image was one of a latticework of diverse positions, through which the “light of Allah,” i.e. divine guidance – though incomplete and partially obscured – could nevertheless glimmer.

I don’t know much about the legal tradition, but it’s certainly very nuanced and sophisticated.  It just seems like Muslim-majority countries would need to undergo massive eduction, institutional, and social transformation, in order to resurrect and re-implement the old tradition … as well as to re-configure some of its aspects to meet contemporary needs.

Sayyid Qutb and people of that nature – who believe in the implementation of shari`ah as a sort of “cure-all” for society – don’t really grasp the complex nature of the legal edifice.  They see it as a compelling symbol … but seem not to realize it’s rather like rabbinical Judaism, typically containing a range of diverse positions on a given issue, without any definitive resolution of that issue.

Here I think we have a conflict between two ideals of what a school should be translated into two ideals of what a society should be. On the one hand, we have the traditions of open-ended debate that have characterized Islamic law, rabbinical Judaism, post-Socratic Western philosophy, and the “Progressive” schools that have been such a feature of American middle-class life since the 1920s.  In these traditions, disagreement is elevated to an art form and debate is of value in itself.  On the other, we have a model of a school as a place where the students receive the truth.  Under this model, disagreement is a sign of failure and debate is to be tolerated if and only if it culminates in the identification of the truth and the exposure of falsehood.  Like me, my friend prefers the first tradition, and he is tempted to dismiss the second.  While these inclinations of ours show our disagreement with Qutb’s idea of what a school is,  our mutual tendency to use that disagreement as a lens through which to view the differences between Islam and the West may show that we nonetheless agree with him on the deeper question of what society is.

The choice of the word “culture,” with its older meanings related to training and guided development, to mean “the sum total of a people’s way of life, especially as transmitted from one generation to the next,” may reflect this idea of society as a school, and may as such reflect the monotheistic heritage of the societies in which it was first introduced.  Of course this usage is not absurd.  Societies do develop over time, and one generation does influence another generation in this development.  Probably it is inevitable that any systematic study of how humans live together would note these facts.  What is not inevitable is that communities of humans would be assigned a label like “cultures,” which combines these facts with each other and with a suggestion of training.  That label shows the influence of the idea of society as a school.

If monotheism does imply that society is above all a place for learning and that the healthiest society would be one in which everyone is continually learning from everyone else, one might think of any number of further questions.  What non-theistic views imply the same thing?  Does this idea tend toward totalitarianism?  Is it compatible with religious humanism, or with humanism of any sort?  Does the nature of the truth which society is constituted to teach determine the degree of openness possible within that teaching society?  So that, for example, a conception of the ultimate truth as a triune God might allow one both to judge a society by the single criterion of its aptness as an environment for teaching and learning and at the same time to allow for an indefinite diversity of thought and experience within that society.

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