Saturday, 31 March 2018

Ancient Islamic and European Science: A lesson for Western education today

Why was the renaissance not Islamic? After all, the Greek scholarship passed through the Islamic world first. It was Islamic scholars who learnt Greek and translated the texts of Aristotle and Plato into Arabic. It was Cordoba not Oxford which was the home to the discovery of ancient philosophy. So how did this become a European story?

I've been thinking about this as I have been reflecting on the state of global Universities today. It is really a story about ideologies and cosmologies. One cosmology becomes so ideological that it cannot become intellectually creative or sufficiently open to debate new ways of thinking about the world. Another cosmology seems to have sufficient openness built into it that it can appropriate new ideas and develop them. In the end the torch passed to Europe because of an ideological battle about Aristotelianism in the Islamic world and the receptiveness of Christian theologians. The greatest muslim Aristotelians, Ibn-Sena [Avicenna] (980-1037) and  Ibn-Rushd [Averroes] (1126-1198), found themselves on the wrong side of an argument with more conservative muslim voices - most prominently that of Al-Ghazali.

Now I wonder if there is a similar situation, not about ideas, but about the practice and organisation of education. In Vladivostok, a video of Indian mystic Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev was shown to me by two different people on the same day. I enjoyed it and went searching for more, finding a  talk that he gave at the Oxford Union: 

The contrast between Sadhguru's message and the audience is striking: "I saw all these books on the shelves  coming here. You look like you carry them all on your heads!" Quite. They don't know what to make of him. But this is where we are in European Universities today.

Not that I think that Sadhguru is entirely right. After all, the amazing technologies of modernity which he cites, have been created by the culture that feeds the Universities: books, study, discourse, science, etc. But the real moments of genius which gave us the things which have transformed the world have not occurred in the ways that the modern university likes us to think. Bateson described how we believe:
"we shall know a little more by dint of rigour and imagination, the two great contraries of mental process, either of which by itself is lethal. Rigour alone is paralytic death, but imagination alone is insanity." ("Time is out of joint", Mind and Nature, appendix)
The modern university has become entirely geared for what it believes to be rigour. The space for imagination is being squeezed out in the University's pursuit of a modern ideology - the worst kind, the ideology of money.

Will the universities of Europe and the US be able to shift themselves to rebalance rigour and imagination? Will they be able to cast off the mantle of "marketisation" and become human (and humane) places once again? I wouldn't bet on it. The market ideology seems to have the same hold over the west that Al-Ghazali's philosophy had over the Islamic world. Most seriously, our faith in money has replaced our faith in science. The UK government's stated refusal to underwrite the USS pension scheme is basically saying that science is of no national significance (see Universities are merely businesses like any other, and deserve no special treatment. Although we talk a lot about science these days, nobody in in government believes it beyond it serving the capitalist machine with new products and the selling of qualifications.

Might it be western scientists thirsty for imaginative space, job security and receptivity, who take their dose of rigour to the East? Why not? 

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