A C Grayling

From the Guardian Unlimited, December 19, 2007

Michael Foucault said that “anyone who thinks rationally is suspect”. It is quite possible that he first had this thought (for, despite everything, that is what it is) in a Parisian cafe lit by electricity, while drinking a cup of hot coffee and nibbling on a baguette, unconscious or (worse) dismissive of the contrast between these outcomes of human rationality – light, coffee, bread – and this bit of poseur philosophy. He was a supporter of the Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iranian revolution, almost exclusively because it was a revolution (what fun) and certainly because he had no conception of what the Ayatollah’s revolution was intended to effect: the medievalisation of Iran under the reactionary and oppressive thumb of clerics. (And the wrong medievalism: there was a quite different medieval Persia with irreverent poets and atheist philosophers, with science and music, with beautiful figurative art and exquisite porcelains).

Would the forgoing entitle someone to conclude that I think the shah’s regime was just dandy, and that Foucault had nothing interesting to say about the control of truth by power? If the dispiriting figures on literacy published by the US department of education are a guide, and if they more rather than less reflect the situation in the western world at large, the answer would be affirmative though wrong. A survey showed that “reading proficiency” as indicated, for instance, by the ability to “compare viewpoints in two editorials” is possessed by only 13% of the US adult population. By extension one might think that the ability to take things on their individual merits, which means being able, for example, to agree with some things and criticise other things in Foucault, is a minority skill.

The same applies to valuing the intellectual skills associated with literacy while also being able to value, as one should, the different and in many ways saner, more down to earth, more rational intellects of illiterate people, as exemplified by the Central Asian peasants to whom Aleksandr Luria talked in the 1930s. He showed them the kind of pictures used in IQ tests, of groups of objects one of which is an odd-one-out: in one, a hammer, saw, axe, and log of wood; in another, three adults and a boy. The peasants refused to see the log or the boy as odd ones out in the pictures. Anyone who rejected the log of wood, said one peasant, was either a fool or had plenty of firewood already. The boy was necessary because the three adults would require him to run and fetch things as they worked. Theirs, in short, was a more inclusive rationality. It reminds one that the word “sophisticated” started life as a pejorative.

But the fact is that illiteracy is a luxury that the contemporary world can no longer afford. The world is too complex and various for its residents to be ill-informed, and therefore more likely to be prejudiced and incapable of distinguishing differences and connecting comparables; and even worse if they are unable to concentrate long enough to grasp a cornerpoint or acquire all the data needed to make a sound judgment. Almost everyone is capable of all this if given the opportunity and the right encouragement; if the quoted statistics are right, it must be that most are not given enough of either. After the horrendous debacle of the first world war some of the best minds of the era concluded that education of the young was vital to save the future: all three of Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper became schoolteachers for a time in the 1920s in an effort to make that difference. Of course they soon realised that they could make better contributions by working to the grain of their real aptitudes, which turned out not to be (and, so to say, by a long chalk) primary school teaching. But the idea was right: education is the key: not only of children, but of everyone at all ages (come to Birkbeck!) all through life.

Education is the key, but not the panacea; Foucault was an educated man, if not indeed over-educated; and like most of the over-educated (no exceptions implied) capable of sometimes being a fool as a result. So there are no guarantees that education, and the literacy that lies at its core, will people the earth with angels. But it would make things better, because knowledge reduces fear, and the fear born of ignorance is a chief cause of conflict.