A CASE STUDY: Bigger History, Education & Worldviews, Book Banning by Paul Von Ward (August 2012)
[This document is the letter I sent to an academic group of historians and scholars after they demonstrated fear of being associated with efforts that would test their conflicting worldviews on the basis of objective, but presently unexplained evidence. My invited presentation challenged their historical assumptions, and group's leaders were not psychologically able to engage in civil discourse about them. This incident demonstrates how academics behave as emotionally as religious fundamentalists.]
First, I want to belatedly congratulate everyone on a successful inaugural conference. It offered a variety of issues and disciplines. Audience and presenters had constructive exchanges. New ideas and suggestions for future dialogue and research were offered.
The great array of topics was an intellectual smorgasbord, stimulating many lively discussions. Some of them pointed to new pedagogical possibilities, while others suggested new research agendas. They ranged from ways to better teach a bigger view of history to issues about how to develop a new discipline. The process established a base of material for several initiatives to be taken in different directions.
Second, based on the presentations and discussions in which I participated, I talked about three strategic tensions i thought were evident throughout the four days. Since several people asked about my notes on them, I explicate below for possible use as the board and association members consider future priorities.
However, before that, I would like to comment on the incident I experienced on the last day of the conference:
In the Spring I responded to your group's call for papers, providing my CV and websites, etc. The Program Committee accepted my proposal describing my work. My talk on the conference’s Saturday evoked interest, good questions, and follow-up on my papers and books. But Sunday gave me an unexpected shock.
En route to the storeroom to return my books to a display table where they had been from the beginning of the conference. A member of the "your board" stopped me, brusquely saying “You can’t put your books back out. We’ve had complaints.” I replied with, “What kind of complaints. People have been positive. Some find the issues intriguing.” The response was something like “They’re not books appropriate for a scientific conference like this.” I replied “That’s very interesting, this raises questions we need to talk about.” The exchange was closed with “I’m busy. No time now.” Later in day the response to a subsequent query was approximately, “Still too many things to do.”
My first reflection was an image of angry members of various state school boards—frightened by ideas about evolution, climate change, slavery, civil rights, and sex education—who have forced publishers to censor their students textbooks. I then realized that I had just faced the mirror opposite; while the subject matter was different, the group's emotional, defensive reaction was rooted in a counterpart existential worldview to the state boards.
With my 30 years of official or citizen diplomacy, 100 countries of cross-cultural experience and years of research on worldviews and their impact on human behaviors, the episode was clearly a learning/teaching moment. Despite the personal disrespect, the event has ramifications beyond a need for reform of your group's internal procedures.
Worldviews Psychological energy involved in everyone’s teleological worldview is produced by different, but unprovable assumptions whether they claim to be grounded in supernatural revelation, rational thought, scientific models, or magical thinking. Internal coherence of the mind requires each one of us to have plausible (at least to ourself) answers to the the proverbial three existential questions. A perceived threat to them produces a similar, in varying levels of strength, emotional and defensive reactions regardless of the group.
People with more open-ended existential assumptions react less overtly, but with some level of a fight or flight action occurs when his or her worldview is challenged. In short, the Pfc loses out to the amgydala. The alleged complaint about my books was not based on their intellectual and research qualities. My writing takes a rational and documented approach that identifies anomalous data that do not fit current paradigms. They are designed to challenge three conventional belief systems: yesterday’s science, supernational religions, and New Age magical thinking. Intended to stimulate scholarly exchange, emotional reactions come from a reader's psyche.
They support the role of a bigger history that must replace the power of non-data-based belief systems that animate billions of humans on Earth today. I suggest ways for scholars to develop more broadly validated worldviews that address problematic aspects of out-dated storylines that currently retard human development.
In your group's book banning context, the threat appears to have been a few concepts like beings more advanced than humans (ABs), unexplained aerial objects, giving credence to ancient texts, questioning religious dogma, and tangible data excluded from the current canon. Regardless of my serious, evidence-based approach, these key words were perceived as threats to some teleological worldviews. Among less sophisticated circles, arbitrary dismissals of different worldviews—as on that Sunday—produce the emotional and physical clashes now dividing American and other cultures. Ironically, these global, emotionally-based conflicts are exactly what a bigger, universal history has the potential to mitigate. However, individuals do not change their worldviews unless they are part of the learning process. One’s existing logic must literally replace itself through seriously considered changes in deeply embedded neural circuits.
To achieve its most bold goals, your group must model how such a process — open-minded reassessments of commonly agreed-upon data but seen through varying worldviews — can work. Unless we can personally handle challenges to our own deeply embedded worldviews, it is not likely that we will be able to develop methods that help incorporate a bigger history into the many large, existentially closed segments of today's world culture.
Combining amazing new data with a personal understanding of the emotional obstacles to making big changes in our own amygdala-charged assumptions—the same process others experience when challenged by a different picture of reality—your group could have great potential. Practicing what we preach, we should provide a level of scholarship that enhances public education and a learning process that rearranges conflicting worldviews.
My hope is for the creation of a robust group that not only describes a still evolving, bigger history, but also helps develop it in concert with others who are not yet aware how the storyline they now grasp so tightly was created.
Strategic Tensions Visions for the future of the group described by an array of speakers—using varying terms—can be sorted into three levels: The most simple involved creation of a generic big history curriculum, training teachers, and developing supporting materials from existing research. The next proposal was a new (interdisciplinary) discipline in the academic hierarchy. The third involved active engagement with the larger society.
[Comments made were like these: “A new course for high school students —Teaching and researching big history; exploring a new scholarly field — Attempt to understand in a unified and interdisciplinary way, the history of the Cosmos, Earth, Life and Humanity.”]
The first may be seen as “big history” — limited to yesterday’s general academic consensus. While not pushing the envelope to encompass emerging insights across disciplines, it still brings select, generally accepted advances in human knowledge to high school and undergraduate courses. This foundation-funded initiative is an admirable step.
The second may be seen as “bigger history” — promoting development of synthetic hypotheses based on emerging trends in various academic disciplines. Well known to "your group", the long history of the catastrophist worldview overcoming academic obstacles has implications for many disciplines. Its corroboration of anomalous data in non-geophysical sciences provides evidence that leads to a re-writing of history.
The third may be seen as “biggest history”—an interdisciplinary and cross-cultural perspective that continually questions earlier assumptions used by science, religion, and history. It focuses on the historical underpinnings of major worldviews that shape today’s global culture. It seeks to understand why their human adherents are largely impermeable to discoveries conducive to development of a more self-aware species.
The recent history of science shows today’s theory is quickly modified or overturned by new developments. Genetic theories give way to epigenetic hypotheses which, in turn, are challenged by information theory and the quantum entanglement concept of particle physics. In such an unfolding of knowledge that can quickly send a previous belief to a dustbin, the “biggest historian” has two responsibilities: The first is elucidation of new theories (very likely—usually quickly—replaced by a new discovery) in its historical context. The second asks if and how its implications may effect one’s own and other disciplines’ views, i.e., corrections needed in existing Earth-history storylines.
A cross-cultural dialogue of “bigger historians” engaging in professional reassessments with defenders of contradictory worldviews could become co-creators of the biggest history. A collaborative approach to revising history would make it possible to unite humans in a more collective effort at global-wide problem solving.
Regardless of where your group settles itself on this spectrum, its planning requires decisions about its desired place in the academy, private research sector, pre-college educational institutions, general media, and the society at large. Its degree of self-sustaining versus institutional-linked support must be based on a future sense of self.
How will your group define its role? Weaving existing stories into one narrative. Synthesizing a new story that rationally encapsulates major worldviews. Promoting studies to improve understanding of the roots that produce conflicting human stories. Participating in interdisciplinary research that challenges views of the past.
This third option is the most needed and most promising, but it is also the most personally and intellectually demanding route. To be successful, your group in discussion with people outside their own field of confidence must be open to having their own worldviews challenged. As noted later, this is an existentially difficult task.
Membership In the wrap-up session, I also said we must give careful consideration to the mixture of professional experience, specific areas of knowledge or skills, and the fundamental worldviews that make up "your group's" membership. The mix should be congruent with the choices you make in resolving the above described tensions. The bigger the scope of history chosen by your group, the need for more diversity of disciplines, talents, and worldviews will increase.
However, if the “biggest history” option is chosen, it must then include all the arts, literature, philosophy, religion, and new, not-yet-jelled areas of research that impinge on all aspects of the Cosmos and humanity. While most of the presenters at the conference consisted of representatives of educational institutions, about two dozen were from outside academe. Depending on the option chosen, the mix of academic and independent scholars will vary.
Affecting the global big story requires the energies and ideas of a cross-section of scholars concerned about the viability of humanity and our planet’s ecosystems. Many minds, from all sectors, are needed to gain understanding of how we humans came to be self-observing creatures able to significantly shape their own future.
While every sector produces new knowledge and experiences that shape humanity's collective behavior, society has created certain institutions to insure that our students are exposed to the deepest and broadest insights about our individual self and how we fit into the biggest picture available. That task can be achieved only if the educators also intellectually and emotionally understand the zeitgeist that has produced each generation.