The Wizard   (2016Jun06)


Monday, June 06, 2016                                            6:13 PM

Walt Disney created the animated film “The Sword In The Stone”, based on part one of T. H. White’s classic, “The Once and Future King”—it is a well-known story of how young Arthur grew and learned from his tutor, Merlin. Aside from all the magic and wonder of the story, my young, book-worm self was jealous of the young king’s schooling. Not that I wished to study nature by being turned into a fish or a bird for an afternoon—though that was certainly cool—no, I wanted an old scholar to inundate me with arcane and disparate knowledge. I wanted to delve into gigantic, dusty tomes and perform burbling, sulfurous experiments with curlicued distillation-piping and whatnot. I wanted to learn the proverbial ‘everything’.

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There’s a reason why pre-digital civilization impressed on youth the value of a ‘liberal arts’ education. Metaphors, analogues, and cross-references form a large part of our intellectual development—learning about one thing teaches us about much more than that one thing. The reasoning went that a greatest possible multiplicity of things learned allowed the greatest possible number of avenues for reasoning and problem-solving. In modern terms, it created the most complex network within the brain.

Science of old, starting from way back, when it was still alchemy and ‘sorcery’, had an image problem—outright scientific study was a good way to get burnt at the stake or run out of town. Secrecy led to obscurity—and early scientists went to great lengths to complicate their elucidations, making them seem more impressive—and excluding those without the drive to wade through all the double-talk. You can still observe this behavior today, in the insider-speak of tech-geeks.

In addition, science could only cut across the Old World’s many cultural boundaries by using a lingua franca—or two, really—Latin and Ancient Greek. That is why the nomenclature for many scientific terms is derived from these dead languages—they were only ‘dead’ in the technical sense. The pope could issue a papal bull in Latin and send copies to every church in Western Europe and beyond.

Both the church and the early philosophers used these languages to provide a standard that crossed boundaries of local language—and originally, a Classical education was a literal term—students learned the classics, which meant learning the classic languages they were written in. You’ll tend to see a lot more Latin in the arts, and a lot more Greek in mathematics and the sciences—there are reasons for that which I won’t get into here.

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Digital enhancement of education techniques, job-market prep, and economic competition are all factors that tend to reduce the educational experience to a monaural playback, trimmed to its ‘essentials’. And that, of course, is when the educational system is functional to begin with. But education is the perfect example of something being more than the sum of its parts—and the more parts to an education, the greater the total sum.

Merlin wasn’t trying to teach Arthur to become a wizard—but he was trying his best to give the boy a wizard’s perspective—a knowledge of, if nothing else, the breadth of knowledge. He did this because he knew that a king could never be wise without some perspective. And if the history of technology has taught us anything, it is the importance of perspective—burning oil can be very useful, but burning too much oil is a problem; growing a lot of food can protect us from famine, but eating too much food can make us unhealthy.

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And now, as global warming re-shapes our coastlines and submerges islands, as low-earth orbit becomes a navigational hazard due to decades of space launches, and as YouTube makes it possible for terrorists to indoctrinate teens a half a world away, we need breadth of perspective like never before. STEM is a great initiative, but as our science progresses, we are more than ever dependent on our ability to extrapolate and explore the consequences of each new and changing aspect. Engineering new gadgets is just the starter pistol—what happens when the whole world gets a new ability, a new insight? Sometimes you get Angry Birds, sometimes you get ISIL online—sometimes both.

Narrowing our field of view to the mere engineering and manufacture of new tech, without the humanities, without history, without the insight of creative expression—that’s a recipe for disaster. Yes, keep STEM—it’s a great idea—but don’t stop there. The more advanced we get, the less we can afford the luxury of shortsightedness. People always want more tech, or more money, or more guns—but the smart people always want the same thing—we want more ‘More’ in our vision—because we know that that’s where all that other good stuff came from in the first place—and much more.

Balance is an unappreciated virtue—as an example, consider: we have made so much progress in digital programming that we are possibly on the cusp of creating a machine that can out-think us. Cool, right? But those with a broader perspective have pointed out that a machine that’s smarter than us just might be a risky proposition. Well, I don’t expect humanity will be overwhelmed with common sense overnight—so I guess we’re about to find out. Are you ready to meet the Wizard?

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