How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read – and think about things you haven’t thought about

reading, literature, knowledge, ignorance, global education, global competence

I never read a book I must review; it prejudices you so. (Oscar Wilde)

This seems to be one of the many great books that I haven’t read, and nonetheless want to talk or at least blog about …

Since truly comprehensive cultural and scientific literacy has always been a myth (and today more so than ever before), what has always been one of the main functions of culture – orientation – becomes all the more important (cf. Kant’s understanding of ‘orientation in thinking’ and Dirk Baecker’s understanding of culture as a form of second-order observation, in which we observe not phenomena but observations).

If we take the author, Pierre Bayard, professor of French literature at the University of Paris VIII and psychoanalyst, seriously, as Maria Popova does in her review in the spirit of her networked culture and combinatorial creativity, then the role of any given book in the context of our ‘collective library’ becomes more important than the detailed contents of the book itself.

In the broader and deeper context of the philosophy of relationalism and the pedagogy of  transformative learning, books, just like any other cultural product, can be understood as ways of sense- and meaning-making, ways of reading and hence relating to ourselves, others and the world. John Dewey defines knowledge as a way of interacting with and relating to the world, and sees action as intextricably intertwined with knowledge – which has obvious normative implications for our way of being and doing in the world.

Given our limited attention span and the complexity of the world, we have to reduce the complexity of the world in order to be able to operate in it. The tricky part of course is that by reducing complexity we always necessarily produce more complexity at the same time.  With everybody else doing exactly the same thing, it only ends up making the world ever more complex, and any operation within it necessarily even more selective. Existence, as Niklas Luhmann liked to say, is selective blindness.

Correspondingly, every reading not only ‘reinvents’ the text, it also non-reads other texts at the same time, and not just in the sense of an opportunity cost, but in the sense of re-describing descriptions of the world and thereby re-inscribing inscriptions into the world.

As the world thus becomes more pluralist and complex, and as global grand challenges mount, what should we read and how, what do we need to learn about, what should we pay attention to? What is most important? What calls for thinking? What calls us to think?

As Heidegger argues, the quality of our thinking vitally depends on what we are thinking about. If we believe Hannah Arendt, Heidegger always tried to avoid thinking about things, and instead always sought to think things. This resonates with David Foster Wallace’s insistence that the true purpose of an education is less about learning how to think, and much more about what to think about. In that sense, education hardly has anything to do with knowledge, and everything to do with awareness.

In 1952, Heidegger provocatively argued that

The most thought-provoking thing in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking.

Are we thinking more or better in 2013? And, most importantly, what should we be thinking about and why? The literature on global education strongly agrees that we urgently need to cultivate global competence to respond much more effectively to global grand challenges revolving around sustainability, resilience and technology. In that context, global education may most usefully be defined as the exploration of what connects us most vitally to the world, and global competence as the cultivation of the capacity and disposition to understand and act on issues of global significance. This kind of transformative global learning is exactly what the 21st century requires and what the emerging field of global studies seeks to achieve.

I agree with those who argue that in the 21st century, global education is redundant. If it is not global, it is not an education.

This entry was posted in Academics, Advising, Advocacy, Community, Honors Salon, Transdisciplinary, What We're Reading and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *