Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Wisdom & Folly in Our Time

Originally posted on October 5, 2011

This blog was stimulated by my reading a recently published book by Howard Gardner titled, Truth, beauty and goodness reframed: educating for the virtues in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Basic Books / Perseus, 2011).  I have become increasingly aware of the responsibility each person has for integrating the reality of his or her individuality with general values about truth, beauty, and goodness. I’ve been reading this recently published book by Howard Gardner and appreciate his reflections. Here’s my own response: Yes, I agree that there is an ongoing tension today between the postmodern critique and the traditional affirmation of the verities, and that I also side with neither camp. My critique is as follows: Both rely on their own doctrine, while I recognize the necessity of forging one’s own synthesis, one that works to integrate personally relevant symbols, tastes, interpretations, evaluations, along with some degree of value.

Now here’s the catch: This process cannot be decided by anyone else. It is a process that combines something like a mixture of spiritual direction, personal coaching, psychotherapy, personal myth-building, autobiography, and the like. This struggle also must contend with a number of pitfalls:

The mind is lazy and wants pat answers. It wants to just believe some neat package that has been worked out by someone else. It may be willing to sacrifice a certain amount—maybe for some, a lot—of cognitive dissonance, denial, things not really fitting, conformity, and the like in order to have “something to believe in.” Just don’t make the individual have to come up with that creative synthesis—it’s too “hard.”  This regressive tendency must be recognized and confronted. Of course it’s hard. Life is hard, and meaning making is hard. But it must be done. There is a price that must be paid for giving in to whatever cult, sect, enthusiasm, leader, etc. who will do the thinking for you: the trouble with “mothers” is that they are “others.” To some degree, sooner or later, their agenda will not be yours.

The mind is lazy and wants to continue its own past answers. The responsibility to re-evaluate and change seems like too much. The mind is incredibly clever—this is the power of the amplifying unconscious, which is far more ingenious than the conscious, rational mind. It will think of entirely plausible reasons to cling to past preconceptions. This then is a second deep pattern of self-deception that you need to learn about and wrestle with.

The mind is lazy, wants to avoid responsibility. This is stronger than Freud’s sex drive. It is stronger than thanatos, the death drive, which wants to just get it over with already! The mind will resort to that if pushed, but would rather just veg out and watch the boob tube (TV). It has trained the amplifying unconscious to be a guard dog protective of its master’s inertia. If you don’t know it has this rather strong tendency, it will triumph over your own higher and more long-term ideals and ambitions.

Most of evil operates not from the outside, but from the inertia and secondary pettiness of the lower self. It’s not a violent struggle, but rather a process of resisting the seductive blandishments of a subtle and clever subconscious mind that seeks to preserve the illusion that what you know is sufficient. This illusion is the core of stupidity.

Mere ignorance is just not knowing; it in itself is entirely innocent, especially when combined with the interest in learning more, in correcting one’s previous models. This natural curiosity and self-correction proceeds rather well in the context of, say, a Montessori classroom. But if the process is artificially stifled, it may be diverted into stupidity: Okay, I’ve learned enough; that’s my story and I’m sticking to it! The lower mind’s capacity to feel no shame about this flagrant lack of “edge,” the “ego-syntonic” nature of complacency, is again a powerful opponent. It leads to the entirely innocent attitude of “What?” (As in “what is wrong? You seem annoyed or dissatisfied! I don’t see anything wrong here.”)

Back to a critique of the book. Gardner valiantly tries to make a responsible stance bridging between idealism and postmodernism, and for those who think and try to take responsibility, his effort shows that it can be done. The problem with the book, as I see it, is that 98% of the population not only won’t read it, but worse, they likely will not care. This all falls into the sub-category called intellectual common philosophy. I agree with Gardner’s desire to advocate for the conscious valuing of these, at least for considering what one takes as true, good, or beautiful. I think it might make for a good book as one element in a college course on “What’s It All About: Constructing a Personal Mythology.”

Were I to give such a class—and who knows, perhaps some day I will—I would start off by saying: “Please know that all conclusions you come to in this course should be provisional. You may change your mind, sharpen up or realign certain values, because these also shift with your preferences. Preferences in turn shift to some degree with who you marry, what your in-law family values, what churches or clubs you join, the vagaries of politics as they unfold in your lifetime, what it seems to be in your interest to prefer, and so forth.”

I further imagine saying for this class, “What’s really important is that you realize you are actively constructing your own belief system, your personal mythology, and your challenge is to do it responsibly. You should (I dare say) include ways of being not only most true to yourself, but also supportive of at least some others, and supportive in line with your ideals to how can you participate so as to help make this a better world overall.  This class simply aims at giving you some tools for undertaking what is really a life-long project with thoughtful intentionality.”

Is such a class possible?

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