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Guest Thinkers

Liberal Education and Entrepreneurship

I have to admit I’ve been warming up a bit to the out-there techno-optimism of Ray Kurzweil displayed so prominently on BIG THINK.  He (like lots of people) has been called “The New Nostradamus,” and I have to admit that I take some of his predictions–like literal immortality for particular persons in this world–about as seriously as I take those of the original Nostradamus. 

But it  is good to know about Ray’s somewhat plausible confidence that solar energy, aided by nanotechnology, may soon meet all our energy needs. That means that our concerns over “peak oil” and nuclear meltdowns might only be a passing phase in the progressive development of technology.

Ray, I think, goes too far or displays his ignorance in calling techno-entrepreneurship liberal education.

It might be liberal education in this ironic sense:  The only real freedom is freedom from nature.  And the only real knowledge is power.  So those who liberate us from nature through the generation of power are the most free and rational among us.

That might mean that Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are the most liberally educated Americans.  That fact–if it is a fact–should chasten professors of philosophy and the humanities and such who mistakenly dismiss them as pretty clueless nerds.  Bill and Mark, our professor of liberal education claim,  don’t know spit about love and death or the beatiful and the good or true pride and genuine humility etc.  The Social Network should at least cause us to wonder about Bill and Mark’s wisdom and virtue–and the wisdom and virtue of our techno-meritocrats in general these days.

Yes, I know, Bill is–in quantitative terms–the most generous man in the world.  He would be the richest man in the world if he didn’t give a huge amount of money away to his good causes.  But trying to get by on $50 billion or so might not quite be heroic virtue.  Bill is a good man, but he’s no Socrates or Maimonides or St. Paul or Pascal or Shakespeare or Mozart or Mother Theresa etc. 

Yet, in Kurzweil’s telling, the great techno-entrepreneurs should be our “role models” or exemplars of human excellence. And so there’s no point in reading Socrates or Shakespeare closely and openly in the traditional spirit of liberal education, in order to learn who we are and what we’re supposed to do as particular persons.  Reading the great books and listening to Mozart etc. are, in Ray’s world, nothing more than hobbies. The immortals of the future are going to need lots of hobbies.

Kurzweil says, of course,  that we won’t have to live well with death for long.  All we have to do is stay alive long enough to be around when techno-immortality kicks in.

And love has gotta change.  It’ll be detached from birth, death, and embodiment in general.  It’ll become either somehow more intimate–pure consciousness hooking up with pure consciousness–or fade away.  Either way, I’d rather be a live machine or conscious software than a dead Romeo!

Here’s something I actually find challenging about Ray’s view of liberal education:  If he’s right, we don’t need brick-and-mortar colleges any more.  They only stick irresponsible kids in a kind of delayed adolescence earning meaningless credits and memorizing easily-googled information.  Entrepreneurs–like Bill and Mark–don’t care about degrees and often don’t bother to get them.

There’s something to admire about that anti-credentialist spiritedness.  It used to be that great poets and writers and such didn’t aim to graduate from college.  Now they get Ph.Ds in creative writing.  There’s no study that shows that novels and poems have gotten any better as a result.

And I agree professors have to make a better case that liberal education is about reading perennially relevant great books–written by minds and hearts even greater than Ray’s.  They have to explain patiently to Ray that self-knowledge–or being a truthful person–is about a lot more than information and power.

I haven’t said anything at all about Ray’s dissing of theoretical physics.


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