Book Review: Quantum Philosophy and the End of Education

March 11, 2019 § 1 Comment

Quantum Philosophy and the End of Education, by Roo Pavan (self-published)

April 1st, 2019

This self-published book by a retired physicist turned tech millionaire has taken the education establishment by storm — and not in a good way. Few people had even heard of this book or its author, Roo Pavan, until President Trump mentioned it approvingly in a tweet. It is doubtful whether our Esteemed Leader actually read the book, but that didn’t stop him from claiming he would use it as the blueprint for education policy in his second term. Like most of the book’s critics, he probably only read the sensationalist claims in the final chapter rather than the surprisingly thoughtful analysis that preceded it.

Which is a shame, because that would have been a conversation worth having. The author’s main thesis is contrarian but hardly new: that Western philosophy in general — and higher education in particular — are more about perpetuating a cultural elite than actually pursuing truth and serving society, though he concedes that those have often been a useful byproduct.

His main innovation is cloaking this critique in a veneer of scientific respectability. Pavan’s basic premise is that Aristotle and the early Greeks started with a flawed view of nature (especially human nature) as composed of essential substances rather than complicated relationships. This unsurprisingly led aristocratic citizen-philosophers to assume they were intrinsically made of nobler substance than the women, children and slaves they ruled over. They justified this claim on the basis of their superior ability to engage in rational debate and reflective decision making.

To his credit, Pavan concedes this claim is party true, but still argues it is fundamentally flawed. He compares it to Newtonian physics, whose controversial claim of “instantaneous action at a distance” eventually turned out to be false, but was still close enough to be useful in many contexts.

That is the basis of his call for a “quantum philosophy” that reinterprets and challenges classical philosophy the way quantum physics challenged Newtonian mechanics a century ago. His thesis is that we need to start from the view that nature — especially human nature — is fundamentally relational and contextual, and leverage this insight to rethink all our cultural assumptions and the institutions built upon them.

If he had stopped there, he probably would have been on safe ground. His provides a plausible (albeit selective) reading of cultural history, and one worthy of intellectual debate. Then again, context-free intellectual debate is precisely the sin he accuses classical philosophy of condoning, so it is not surprising he chooses to go on the attack. And to be fair, that is probably the only reason anyone is paying attention to him at all.

He argues that Aristotle’s original hierarchy of city > village > family was precisely backwards. He makes a surprisingly persuasive case that personal and social well-being is driven far more by healthy families rather than economic or academic achievement. From there, echoing The Case Against Education, he claims the main benefit of schooling for underprivileged individuals is providing them a surrogate family that redefines their relationships and value.

What is shocking (and the direct cause of the present controversy) is that he then proceeds to attack this benefit as a bad outcome. He claims that this is actually a tool of the elite for recruiting and subverting the brightest members of oppressed populations, by impressing upon them the “innate superiority and worthiness” of the dominant culture. His most savage attacks are directed against humanities departments, which he claims teach learned helplessness under the guise of self-actualization. He is not much kinder towards technical or professional disciplines, though, claiming they also condition people to focus on narrow mastery of received wisdom rather than larger questions of social good.

Contrary to what many critics claim, he does not actually call for abolishing universities altogether. His actual proposal, though, is even more radical. He wants to convert universities into “muni-versities” that function as miniature cities that structurally embody (rather than just talk about) the values they are trying to promote. These bear a striking resemblance to the self-contained medieval monasteries that preceded universities, with two key differences.

First, membership is primarily composed of families rather than individuals. He believes the “end of education” (an evocative, but probably unfortunate phrase) should actually be to elevate whole communities, and that the best (and only) way to do that is by reinforcing existing relationships rather than extracting people away from them.

Second, he appears to substitute worship of Data for worship of God. Each muni-versity is monitored by a secular priesthood he dubs the “metricians,” who have no power other than to collect and publish data about the precise goals of each Service (a cross between a municipal function and an academic department) and how effectively and efficiently they are being fulfilled.

Critics have had a field day listing all the ways this utopian vision could go horribly, horribly wrong; and their concerns are well-founded. On the other hand, the author deserves credit for at least trying to design a solution to the very real problems he has identified. Public trust in our institutions is at an all-time low. We spend far more on education than we ever did, yet our society is more fragmented and unequal than when we started.

Doing more of what we’ve always done seems unlikely to improve the situation. Maybe it is time to at least consider doing something different…

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