First, let me apologise for such a fancy title. Maybe I could just have called the article ‘new politics for new times’? But then, my real academic background – before I branched off to interdisciplinary development and social science studies – is education or pedagogy. There it is common to talk about linear and non-linear learning; the first being what schools have usually been doing with systematic curricula and syllabi, defining it in advance for what is good for the learners – and they have to eat and digest ‘dry porridge’ the teachers and experts have boiled, without the broad and juicy parts of the subjects. Yet, the world isn’t made up of subjects and disciplines; the world is interdisciplinary, where we build on what we already know, mix it with new knowledge and combine it in all kinds of ways that we find fun and exciting.
John Dewey (1859-1952) is one of America’s most prominent educational philosophers, psychologists, and educational reformers, tying education, civil society, and democracy together. He questioned the seemingly systematic and logical ways schools want us to learn. He wanted students to use their own curiosity and imagination, which we are all born with that, indeed, we are born with an interest to learn and know, to master things, and to invent and do things differently and better.
Also, the German thinker Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) belongs to that tradition, not only in education and learning for children and youth, but in overall human development and thinking throughout our lives. To him, art and the humanities are particularly important fields, perhaps more than natural sciences, yet, he attempted to find a synthesis between the two. In his life-philosophy of freedom, it seems more important that we ask existential, spiritual, religious and other deep questions, and that we never stop wondering about the world around us, without necessarily finding exact answers.
The Rudolf Steiner Schools, which we find in all Western countries today and mostly used by the liberal upper-middle classes, are seen as alternatives to the more rigid and standardised school systems – good as they may be, too, but based much more on a ‘top-down’ thinking, seeing children as empty bottles that need to be filled with knowledge which others have defined as good and necessary. Spirituality and religion is central to Steiner, but in a democratic and searching form.
Let us recall, too, that in the beginning of the last century and earlier, German thinkers were among the leading in the world, along with French and others. Today, we seem to have become ‘simplistic Americans’ in our heads, not liberal thinkers as they too were more before – although with clear exceptions, yet, the remain mostly hidden in the general public, staying in their liberal academic circles. Yes, America is in general quite anti-intellectual! And at no time, has the west wanted to adopt or borrow much from eastern thinking.
And now to the broader social, political and economic levels: Our civil service and politics have become linear, based on foundations laid over two hundred years ago, or more specifically, well over one hundred years ago, refined again some fifty to seventy years ago. They follow the same thinking as those I described about education – or rather, education has been made to serve the bureaucratic, industrial and post-industrial world. No need for too much questioning and creativity in efficient technocratic societies, where we measure success in inputs and outputs, not in people’s happiness and in good processes! True, even such societies – where the linear model reigns – we need a portion or two of art, philosophy and religion.
When we today experience populist rebels in many countries in the West, shattering the linear political thinking, I believe much of the reaction is caused by a reaction towards the cold and efficient societies, which also leave many people, maybe even the majority, powerless and marginalised, destined to stay at the bottom of the ladder in their lifetime, and that of their children. More and more power and wealth are gathered at the top. Social scientists talk about ‘20-60-20 societies’; twenty percent of the people are at the bottom, bound to fall outside good society; sixty percent are fairly alright, yet, living hand to mouth. At the top, we find twenty percent, or perhaps a smaller percentage, who reap the fruits, keep the profits, pay no tax and share little with the rest.
Politicians and thinkers today must find ways beyond and above linear politics – and education. In the party politics hitherto, people are expected to play by the rules, to analyse conflicts in society and make changes through agreed-upon parliamentary rules. The regular, quite orderly political parties, labour unions and other interest organisations, as we have seen time for a hundred years or so, seem not to have realised that their time is ending, that the time of traditional ‘isms’ may be out of fashion, at least for now. People want to think for themselves without following set groups of ideas. For example, a person who is basically socialist in background and thinking may mix his or her ideas with ideas from the traditional right, even far right.
It is these independent ways of thinking, highly intellectual in some cases, and indeed low-brow and folksy in other cases, that make our time so challenging to politicians and our standard ways of understanding democracy and people’s participation. We have become diverse and independent; we think for ourselves without set rules. We don’t bother if others cannot label us as belonging one or the other ‘ism”.
There is indeed a need for politicians, social scientists and others to re-thinking issues; we are already behind schedule; the selfish populists may win if we continue sticking to linear politics when people and the world is non-linear and diverse in unorthodox ways. We have said to people that they must think for themselves. Now people do that, but in ways that we had not expected.
John Dewey and Rudolf Steiner are just two of the thinkers that can help us, but we won’t take wholesale what they say either; we have had enough of technocrats, power point presentations and the rules of ‘Besserwisser’ experts. We want a world we can be part of even if we didn’t study all the books, background papers and reports. Yet, we also know that experts and serious politicians are needed; even populists know that, but they don’t want to say it. If Donald Trump does, I am not sure; the future will tell. But I am sure that Noam Chomsky knows this even better than me, Bernie Sanders, too, Michael Moore and many more good American thinkers – and Europeans like Jonas Gahr Støre. In this context, I hope he can begin to like that people sometimes say that he is an ‘emperor in the clouds’ – like I am! In today’s article, I have just begun studying issues, not given answers. Dear reader, I want you to search for the good answers, with your friends – and me.