Part I & Part II
Part III re-imagines current educational institutes to serve more comprehensive goals.
It is instructive here to consider the Castalia of Greek mythology. Castalia was a nymph whose ultimate fate was to be turned into a water fountain. But fountains must flow – that’s how they maintain their shape. Knecht resigns his office because he recognizes that the pedantic arrogance of the Province and the growing divide between it and the outside world threaten its sustainability. His observations and concerns allow for a critical reflection on current reasons for schooling and serve as an invitation for all to reexamine the purposes of education and reevaluate its priorities.
Before addressing what the particular values scholarly institutes are to society or which values they should primarily pursue, it is important to discuss ways in which such institutions can be practically sustained. The answer is obvious. To maintain and grow societies’ educational institutes and their capacity to school a population of assertive, critical thinkers, it must promote teaching excellence in its students – the ability to teach each other and future generations. Societal education into the distant future can only continue if students become teachers in cyclical fashion.
Knecht fears that Castalia is becoming the aristocratic class of its time, doomed to corrupt itself if it forgets its privileged position and will share the fate of many similar societies that preceded it. Knecht criticizes the average Castalian for being self-absorbed in study:
The purpose of his life seems to him to be cultivation of the scholarly disciplines for their own sake,… Castalian culture… is for most of those associated with it not an instrument they play on like a great organ, not active and directed toward goals, not consciously serving something greater or profounder than itself. Rather, it tends somewhat toward smugness and self-praise, toward the cultivation and elaboration of intellectual specialism (349).
The Castalians who leave as teachers to serve in the surrounding country Knecht recognizes as “men of integrity and worth, who really desire only to serve.” Their work is described as “incalculably important” to “the pleasant climate and the intellectual luxuries of [the] Province.” Knecht explains to the Board of Educators, “These fine teachers out there are, strictly speaking, the only ones among us who are really carrying out the purpose of Castalia. Through their work alone we are repaying the nation for the many benefits we receive from it” (351).
Teaching is clearly important in Hesse’s view. But it’s critical to realize its limits. Knecht’s biographers make an interesting distinction between teaching and educating. Teaching relies on pedagogical skill and involves the transference of information; it’s the joy of seeing students rearrange materials into original configurations (238). Teaching is about skills, knowledge, talent, and experience. Education relies on the teacher’s personality; it relies on the ability to win students over and lead them by ones’ inspirational example (238). Educating is about transmitting values, wisdom, character and meaning.
As Kohn warns, we should be wary regarding education and skeptical of our ability to pass on transcendent truth. It is the same counsel that the Music Master gives Knecht during a correspondence about the meaning of the Glass Bead Game. Knecht claims to be on the path to
The real mystery of the Game and its ultimate meaning…, down into the One and All, into those depths where the eternal Atman eternally breathes in and out, sufficient unto itself. One who had experienced the ultimate meaning of the Game within himself would by that fact no longer a player; he would no longer dwell in the world of multiplicity and would no longer be able to delight in invention, construction, and combination, since he would know altogether different joys and raptures” (121-122).
The benevolent Music Master responds,
A Game Master or teacher who was primarily concerned with being close enough to the ‘innermost meaning’ would be a very bad teacher. To be candid, I myself, for example, have never in my life said a word to my pupils about the ‘meaning’ of music; if there is one, it does not need my explanation. On the other I have always made a great point of having my pupils count their eighths and sixteenths nicely. Whatever you become, teacher, scholar, or musician, have respect for the ‘meaning,’ but do not imagine that it can be taught. Once upon a time the philosophers of history ruined half of world history with their efforts to teach such ‘meaning,’… The task of the teacher and scholar is to study means, cultivate tradition, and preserve the purity of methods, not to deal in incommunicable experiences which are reserved to the [students]. (122)
Hesse teaches the same message about the limits to which the lessons from ones’ experiences may be clearly taught to others in such a way as to impart wisdom as well as knowledge through the title hero of Siddhartha. Siddhartha explains his reasons to not study the Buddha’s teachings,
You have [reached the highest goal] by your own seeking, in your own way, through thought, through meditation, through knowledge, through enlightenment. You have learned nothing through teachings, and so I think, O Illustrious One, that nobody finds salvation through teachings… That is why I am going on my way – not to seek another and better doctrine, for I know there is none, but to leave all doctrines and all teachers and to reach my goal alone. (27-28)
This echoes the lessons Knecht gave to the elite Glass Bead Game players about the dangers of disciplines and specialties. Hesses’ novels make a coherent argument for the ‘highest goal’ of an education. As Knecht explains to Designori, it is to become like the Music Master – one of Hesses’ “Immortals”:
Whose serenity is not playful shallowness, but earnest depth… this man possessed the virtue of serenity to such a degree that it radiated from him like the light from a star; so much that it was transmitted to all in the form of benevolence, enjoyment of life, good humor, trust, and confidence…To achieve this cheerful serenity is to me, and to many others, the finest and highest of goals… Such cheerfulness is neither frivolity nor complacency; it is supreme insight and love, affirmation of all reality. (315)
Teaching and educating find a unity in Joseph Knecht. While professors and instructors should strive to achieve both, only the most exceptional among teachers will have the ability to educate. Students mostly have to educate themselves – they’re the only ones who can attached personal value to their skills, derive meaning from their experiences, express their character through the force of their talents, and learn to apply knowledge wisely. It is a challenging course, but “only the weak are sent out on paths without perils” (81). Joseph experiences a kind of schizophrenic tension in his personality as a youth when he first begins to grasp that no way of thinking or being can be correct or perfect. In desperation, he exclaims,
Oh, if only it were possible to find understanding… If only there were a dogma to believe in. Everything is contradictory, everything tangential; there are no certainties anywhere. Everything can be interpreted one way and then again interpreted in the opposite sense. The whole of world history can be explained as development and progress and can also be seen as nothing but decadence and meaninglessness. Isn’t there any truth? Is there no real and valid doctrine? (83)
His devotedly cheerful tutor, the Music Master, consoles young Knecht,
There is truth, my boy. But the doctrine you desire, absolute perfect dogma that alone provides wisdom, does not exist. Nor should you long for a perfect doctrine, my friend. Rather, you should long for the perfection of yourself. The deity is within you, not in ideas and books. Truth is lived, not taught. Be prepared for conflicts, Joseph Knecht – I can see they have already begun. (83)
With these considerations in mind, it is interesting to compare Knecht’s evaluation of Castalia to Chris Hedges’ critique of American higher education in his Empire of Illusions: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. Hedges argues that American culture has degraded to the point of consumerism, fetishized competition, celebrity worship, and banal conversation while the American people – who mostly rely on corrupt or at least pitifully substantive media for their news – ignorantly or uncaringly allow corporations to externalize the costs of their actions regarding environmental restoration and maintenance of social justice to the public. The fountain of ideas to update our economic and social structure has stopped flowing. Hedges lays many of these problems at the feet of institutes of higher education, especially Ivy Leagues, for producing a citizenry that perpetuates the status quo without questioning or critically assessing the power dynamics in their culture or society.
Culture, to use the words from Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, is a people enacting a story. It is the collective narratives we tell ourselves and each other about our origins, purpose, history, future, and priorities. As much as we feel like rational, self-interested, and intelligent beings, overwhelming evidence suggests we are creatures of little understanding prone to acting automatically; who fool ourselves by subtlety replacing difficult questions with easier ones and comprehend the world largely by constructing narratives of questionable accuracy or legitimacy to provide coherency to our experiences – these narratives more or less allow us to assign significance to our actions and meaning to our lives (Kahneman).
Institutional attempts at education have to settle for teaching, even if individual instructors are exemplary, because students are more likely to – naturally, one might add – discover and accept the dominate wisdom presented throughout the rest of their culture’s narratives. We have to be aware of that and make it clear to our students: a teacher’s job – like a parent’s – is to put themselves out of business. If at no point is the student able to teach themselves i.e. learn independently through synthesizing skeptical questions and critically evaluating the reliability of information as well as their most basic assumptions, then there is something wrong with the course structure or pedagogical approach.
Idolatrous scholarship is exactly the kind Knecht would gaily admonish. The idea of service is emphasized throughout The Glass Bead Game. In addition to creating teachers to sustain their institutes and spread knowledge, universities have a paramount responsibility to serve by illuminating the intellectual path that most serves society’s needs. Schools are the primary lens through which young people will learn to critically evaluate their culture and environment; they must be instructed to question skeptically and taught to identify significant information if they are to operate self-sufficiently.
The roles schools serve then should be to identify and evaluate the narratives presented by the surrounding culture while teaching students the tools to refine their perception and analysis of themselves and the world. Schools should also do what they can to promote reasons for continued learning and criticize narratives which threaten civilization. Neil Postman identifies several narratives present in public schools in his The End of Education that he feels fail to provide students with transcendent reasons for learning. For instance, Postman and Hedges both criticize the emphasis placed on economic utility of future workers as the primary purpose of school. Postman further proposes alternative narratives that do serve to make learning a meaningful experience to students.
It is unfair to hold schools totally accountable for cultural decline however. They do not exist in a vacuum; cultural degradation neither originates totally in schools nor affects educational institutions exclusively. There are signs of degradation in American politics, its economy, and its environment which mutually influence each other. Likewise, a solution to cultural degradation will require restructuring other realms of society as well as schools.
Richard Wolff argues in Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism, that public schools should primarily be conceptualized as tools to maintain democratic society and as sources of fresh ideas that expand and reinvigorate democratic ideals. He primarily frames his arguments politically as they relate to a need for restructuring the economy to achieve social justice. Paul Hawken, author of The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability, provides complementary economic arguments that are framed ecologically and primarily address environmental concerns. Both ideas are centered on increased participation and autonomy of people, either in government or commerce, and an enhanced sense of community. Each makes the argument that the new economy would ask different demands of schools. Hawken also offers a more tempered and optimistic view about ethical governance and the potential for corporations to lead the way in solving ecological and social problems created by industry than either Wolff’s or Hedges’ skeptical cynicism.
Two of the narratives Postman promotes in his book involve conceptualizing Earth as a spaceship to encourage globally communal thinking in students, and emphasizing America as a nation founded on seeking truth through continuous argument about which questions are important and experimentation in developing more refined answers. Postman suggests the study of archaeology and anthropology to help students grasp the narrative of Earth as a spaceship on which all humans and life are ecologically interdependent. ‘Spaceship Earth’ can serve as the narrative that reinforces Hawken’s vision. Postman’s narrative of the American Argument could conceivably serve the needs identified by Hedges and Wolff for creating a more engaged public.
Both types of these commitments – to each other as in Wolff’s democratic Worker Self-Directed Enterprises and to their environment as in Hawken’s ecologically conscientious economy – will require practice. The modern world is demanding new types of thinking that are more nuanced and dynamic than narratives of the past. Schools are a natural place to plant new seeds of thought and habit. Future citizens will be best prepared to solve their problems if classrooms are restructured to give students more authority and independence in collectively directing their education.
Empowering students to teach each other is very compatible with the sort of economic and societal systems proposed in Democracy at Work & The Ecology of Commerce. Classroom structures that rely on students to develop content and educate each other through peer-reviews while under an instructor’s supervision would build the necessary habits of participation, engagement, and social commitment that future communities will require. It would also be a sustainable way to maintain increasing levels of education in the population by training everyone to be a teacher.
To be educated means to have an awareness of the biases that color one’s perception of the world, the limits’ to one’s knowledge, and to one’s capacity for understanding – in short, to be educated means to know ones’ self; however, an education should make students aware of their ability to grow, and of the potential to experience learning as a transcendent act of consciousness with the power to shape their lives.
Joseph Knecht and the Music Master represent the pinnacle of education: the state of perpetual understanding and awe and child-like peace characterized and evidenced by their radiating, infectious optimism in all situations. But Hesse warns that people cannot be taught to be this way; they must find their own path to such a place. While their example should be pursued by individual teachers and students, educational institutions have to set different goals for schooling the pubic.
Schools and teachers should emphasize the art of questions and tools of inquiry; their efforts ought to direct societies’ intellectual endeavors towards being critically self-aware and reflective. Communities of the future will necessarily be more socially and ecologically integrated than they are today. Students can be prepared to create such economies by gaining experience in democratically run classrooms engaged in community service. This is old wisdom. Henry Thoreau presents a similar argument in Walden:
[Students] should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end. How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living?
In addition to restructuring for more collaboration between students and teachers, schools can reevaluate the subjects emphasized in school and the ultimate purpose of education. As in the Glass Bead Game, all subjects are valid, intimately connected, and capable of leading to genuine enlightenment as well as false, empty virtue. Students should seek the perfected happiness achieved by the Immortals. Schools can facilitate this goal by emphasizing the study of anthropology and ecology to understand the deep connections we share with our ancestors, neighbors, and environment. They can also highlight the importance of narratives to the human psyche and social behavior. Students should also be encouraged to investigate the interplay of power and morality. Study of the scientific method – with increased attention to language and rhetoric – will equip students with the tools necessary to skeptically evaluate the narratives of their time and maintain their intellectual autonomy without diminishing their capacity for collaboration.
Hesse’s novel offers many other insights for students, teachers, administrators, and politicians. It hope my essay serves as an argument for investigating it for yourself.
Hesse, Hermann. Das Glasperlenspiel (The Glass Bead Game/Magister Ludi): A tentative sketch of the life of Magister Ludi Joseph Knecht together with Knecht’s posthumous writings. Henry Holt and Company. 1990.
Hesse, Hermann. Siddhartha. NJF Books. New York, NY. 1951.
Hedges, Chris. Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and Triumph of Spectacle.
Postman, Neil. The End of Education.
Kohn, Alfie. What does it mean to be well educated?
Quinn, Daniel. Ishmael
Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow.