Posted by: Dirk | September 17, 2012

The Open Society and Its Enemies (III): Learning

The subject of leaning is an important one. If society is to advance, learning is one of the necessary ingredients. Learning has two aspects as I see it. Firstly, there is learning of technical aspects in the sense of how to manipulate the physical world. The second aspect is perhaps even more important over time, which is learning about ourselves. I think this is what Popper meant when he interpreted Socrates (p. 137):

Those eager to learn may be helped to free themselves from their prejudice; thus they may learn self-criticism, and that truth is not easily attained. But they may also learn to make up their minds, and to rely, critically, on their decisions, and on their insight. In view of such teaching, it is clear how much the Socratic demand (if he ever raised that demand) that the best, i.e. the intellectually honest, should rule, differs from the authoritarian demand that the most learned, i.e. the most noble, should rule.

This issue has been with us for some years now. It is those that call for a technocrat government that are following the ideas of Plato, and those that are against it that follow Socrates. The most striking case has been the government of Mario Monti in Italy, where in Orwellian doublespeak technocrats, which are by definition not political, are now at the head of the highest political institutions of the country. Plato would certainly be delighted. However, many Italians of today are wondering why their political system has not produced those intellectually honest politicians that were supposed to rule them. Why Mario Monti is not one of them? He poses as a technocrat but actually the word is an oxymoron. How can a politician, who is supposed to make political decisions, not be political? Nevertheless this is what technocrat is supposed to mean.

So, the attainment of knowledge about the world and how it can be manipulated without knowledge about human nature and intellectual honesty produces bad leaders, according to Socrates. The crucial part of the system where this question is decided is, of course, the education system (p. 143):

We are led here, I believe, to a result of some importance, and to one which can be generalized. Institutions for the selection of the outstanding can hardly be devised. Institutional selection may work quite well for such purposes as Plato had in mind, namely for arresting change. But it will never work if we demand more than that, for it will always tend to eliminate initiative and originality, and, more generally, qualities which are unusual and unexpected. This is not a criticism of political institutionalism. It only re-affirms what has been said before, that we should always prepare for the worst leaders, although we should try, of course, to get the best. But it is a criticism of the tendency to burden institutions, especially educational institutions, with the impossible task of selecting the best. This should never be made their task. This tendency transforms our educational system into a race-course, and turns a course of studies into a hurdle-race. Instead of encouraging the student to devote himself to his studies for the sake of studying, instead of encouraging in him a real love for his subject and for inquiry, he is encouraged to study for the sake of his personal career; he is led to acquire only such knowledge as is serviceable in getting him over the hurdles which he must clear for the sake of his own advancement.

This is something which anybody who went to higher education in the last 20 years will understand. Recent reforms in the education system in Europe aimed at improving efficiency. Students were supposed to clear the hurdles faster, and when they did this was meant to mean that the quality of education has improved. Never mind the vast increase of access to books, articles and other media, never mind the increasing complexity of life, never mind the fact that we are only beginning to understand how interconnected the whole world is and how body and mind really function together and how we are able to think fast and think slow – students are supposed to memorize facts and ideas and then reproduce them with increasing efficiency in what clearly resembles a horse race.

Summing up, the way that learning is handled by society will drive that society’s development. The big clash of ideas is between the intellectually honest and those that are the most wise. Most of Europe at this moment seems to have embraced the latter, and so far the results have been dismal. It might be wise to discuss whether Europe’s future can be enhanced by handing leadership over to the intellectually honest.


  1. –The most learned; the most noble should rule — Popper

    A nice advice meaning that knowledge without honesty and nobility does not service its true purpose. In my opinion clash of ideas enhances power of ideation — capability to create new ideas. A nice article with good conclusions.

  2. […] Learning […]

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