The Challenge of Education for a New Generation: Converting Swords into Plowshares.
Slow Down, Slow Food, Slow Science.
“Where ignorance is your master, there is no possibility of peace.”–The XIV Dalai Lama.
The scientific contributions of Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman were fundamental for the construction of the atomic bomb. Today, their reflections on the subject are also fundamental for the survival and evolution of our species. Conversations with both scientists after the Manhattan Project indicate that both these great men felt remorse for their involvement. They both wished they had thought through more thoroughly their direct and indirect involvement with the project; and said that if they had known what their work would lead to they might have done differently.
These quotes from Albert Einstein are glimpses of his perspective:
“I made one great mistake in my life—when I signed the letter to President [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made.”1 “Had I known, that Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, I never would have lifted a finger.”2 “The unleashing of power of the atom bomb has changed everything except our mode of thinking…”3 “…Science has brought forth this danger, but the real problem is in the minds and hearts of men.”4 “We scientists must consider it our solemn and transcendent duty to do all in our power to prevent these weapons from being used for the brutal purpose for which they were invented.”5 “NONCOOPERATION in military matters should be an essential moral principle for all true scientists…”6 (my emphasis)
Richard Feynman joined the Manhattan Project as an enthusiastic and energetic 24 year-old. Later in his life—after recovering from a severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, similar to what soldiers experience after returning home “safely” from war—he said:
“One should reconsider perpetually one’s reasons for doing something, because it may be that the circumstances have changed… I don’t guarantee you as to what conclusion I would have come to if I had thought about it, but nevertheless the fact that I did not think about it was, of course, wrong.” 7
What I hear when I translate the spiritual languages of these two geniuses into my perspective is: we were going too fast. We are still going too fast. When we rush, we make decisions that lack information, lack proper reflection, and ultimately make the problems of humanity worse. In my opinion, the problem lies not in the contribution to human knowledge of talented minds like Einstein and Feynman, but the uses to which those contributions were put.
Now is the time to slow down, to take a pause, to rethink the purpose of science and education and to cultivate our critical thinking—and our critical feeling. It is time to combine science with the soul: science as the sustainable, collective and critical development of knowledge; soul as the individual (and collective) capacity to make wise use of that knowledge; ultimately, the ability to rejoice in the welfare of all living beings. Bertrand Russell echoed this postulation when he wrote: “The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.” 8
As a scientist, I am not against science. I am against the unethical applications of science. I represent a new generation that rescues the best of previous generations. Formed by millions of citizens of the World, this generation wants to be part of the mass that weighs on the positive side of the balance of the survival of our species. It’s a generation that cares about our Planet; a generation that cares about the future of humankind; a generation that sees the big picture and the interconnectedness of our magnificent cultural and biological diversity.
We, the new generation, believe that the purpose of education is to help students to become more fully developed human beings, to help students discover meaning and passion in life, to develop critical minds and sensitive hearts, and to become knowledgeable about the peoples, inherited wisdoms, and subject matters that will help them find their path in the creation of a more peaceful, just, sustainable, and diverse World.
For us, then, universities must be not centers of military recruitment, nor corporate indoctrination, nor obedience to totalitarianism and support of the (dis)order of the non-egalitarian status quo, but they must be epicenters of critical thinking, inspiration, creativity, imagination, justice, freedom and true democracy. The support of the development of weapons is an example of the contradiction between the purpose of education and the decisions some of the regents of the University of California (UC) have made in the history of this institution: since the Los Alamos Laboratory opened its doors in 1943, every single nuclear weapon built for the United States arsenal was designed at a UC managed weapons laboratory.9 It has lead us to ask, why is it that people can elect school board members but the regents of the University of California—persons who are taking dramatic decisions regarding the direction of higher education—are not elected but appointed?
A Nonviolent Generation With Many Perspectives
Paraphrasing Gandhi: to overcome the greatest destructive weapon humans have invented, one needs the greatest power humankind has been endowed with: nonviolence.10 Just as peace is more than the absence of war, nonviolence is more than the absence of violence. It is not simply the negation to cause harm, but it is something infinitely more: it is when one’s heart is so full of love, so full of courage, forgiveness, generosity, kindness and compassion, that there is no room for hatred, resentment and violence. It is not a double negative but a superlative positive. Nonviolence it is a call to disobey inhumane laws and treaties; it is a call to obey the law of love; it is a call to not control anger but to express it under discipline for maximum effects; it is a positive force; it is a way of life: the thoughts we have, the things we say, the food we eat, the cloths we wear, the things we do. The members of this new generation are pragmatic idealists who try to “walk their talk.” Their means are their ends. They are trying to body forth what Martin Luther King Jr. called “love in action.” 11
This young generation is formed by conservatives, liberals, moderates, anarchists, religious people, secular people… we all are catalysts who honor all perspectives to be closer to the truth. I am a progressive, a conservative, a liberal, an anarchist, in short: a perspectivist. In other words, our generation is formed by citizens of the World who promote dialogue, tolerance and rooted values. In most respects, I continue to align with what I grew up believing to be conservative values. Yet I find I have nothing in common with extremists of the far right who advance an agenda of class warfare, fiscal irresponsibility, government intrusions on personal liberty, and reckless international military adventurism as conservative causes. At the same time, I have nothing to approve of in extremists of the far left who advocate violence and a new way of totalitarianism which keeps attacking the human spirit. At the same time too, I’m not an anarchist as defined in the encyclopedias, dictionaries, etc. written by the hierarchies and their corporate media, I’m engaged and in love with the voluptuous authority of collective intelligence; with her hugs of education, respect and peace; and with her kisses of justice, true democracy and freedom.
One of my little contributions to be consistent with this new generation—I see it as a droplet of water in the ocean of our possibilities—is that I did not want to receive a title from an irresponsible institution that is putting at risk the survival of our species. Hence, this semester, after almost 4 years of interacting with the amazing and beautiful people of the Astronomy department as a graduate student and instructor—after 7 years of following the fascinating path of Astrobiology—I withdrew from the University of California at Berkeley and will have nothing to do with that institution until it stops being involved in the research, production and manufacture of nuclear weapons.
In evolutionary time scales, I believe that violence and science are mutually exclusive; the two cannot coexist in the long run. Vinoba Bhave was quite aware of this: “Violence must be done away with if science is to survive. If both are sought to be retained, mankind, along with its science also, would be destroyed.” This disastrous combination inhibits the development of critical inquiry, Vinoba explains: “our thinking becomes narrow and circumscribed if we are associated with any organization which will not be fully conductive for the quest of nonviolence.” 12
If we want to stop the proliferation of atomic bombs, it would be a good idea to stop producing them ourselves. If the government of the United States justifies nuclear weapons for its national security, why wouldn’t other countries construct atomic bombs for their own national security? This is not about “national security” but Global Security, Human Security—reconciliation and mutual respect between the peoples of the Earth is what really makes for peace and security in the long run, each country can be secure only when all are secure: the Earth is but one country and all living beings her citizens. 13 The political and intellectual prestige of the UC can be used not for justifying annihilatory purposes but for creating an artistic-scientific-spiritual-rational and humanitarian society. Just because we are students studying art, economics, engineering, peace and conflict studies, landscape architecture or astrophysics that doesn’t mean that we have to be part of an institution that develops new “safer weapons of mass destruction”. What if, rooted in the purpose of education as true seekers, the citizens of the World decide to noncooperate, according to their capabilities, with the UC until this institution stops being involved in the research, production and manufacture of nuclear weapons?
Slow Science to be the Dream
But this is not just about finding ways to abolish nuclear weapons and move on from this survival crisis. We are missing a great opportunity to convert swords into plowshares. We must divert their purpose into something constructive for humanity. What about protecting us from the impact of a large asteroid or comet to avoid a mass extinction of life on the Planet? We might be able to use nuclear explosives for a near asteroid burst to ablate surface material and nudge the body to a safer orbit, or a direct sub-surface burst to fragment the body.
In Chinese, the pictogram for the word crisis is “dangerous opportunity”. The purpose of a crisis is to point us in a direction, to show us the danger and to point us to an opportunity.14 In my experience, my times of personal crisis have brought to me immense internal growth. Can we, as a species, pass this tipping point and embrace the Great Turning described by Joanna Macy and David Korten?15 Can we even create an international-transparent-inclusive-collective laboratory to develop strategies and technologies that might save us from the fatal destiny of the dinosaurs?
That’s the difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing.
As a starting point we can slow down, pause, rethink and heal from the cancer of violence which starts to disappear from our minds. Eknath Easwaran, a disciple of Gandhi who brought many of his teachings to the West, said: “It is essential not to confuse slowness with sloth, which breeds procrastination and general inefficiency. In slowing down, we attend meticulously to details, giving the very best we are capable of even to the smallest undertaking.”16 That is exactly what we need to do.
About 30 years ago, many responsible scientists predicted the consequences of an irrational use of fossil fuels: Global Warming. Today, climate change is a reality which needs the cooperation of the entire World; also today, many responsible scientists are warning us about rushing into the use of agrofuels: more people starving, more damage to our magnificent biodiversity; chemical and biological weapons were brought about by the same lack of reflection and imagination. We have to slow down.
Fortunately, some of us are slowing down. The number of students boycotting irresponsible institutions—and joining organizations that are accountable for the Earth Community—is increasing. “The World is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.”17 This idea, possibly attributed to Albert Einstein, serves as an evolution catalyst and as reminder: in order to leave behind the proto-intelligent status—not fully developed intelligence—and to get rid of our apathy, we need to be love in action.
Imagine the UC and its affiliated laboratories dedicated completely to humanitarian purposes, to constructive scientific research and an understanding of the environmental and social implications of their work. If we are not ready yet, that is, if we are not spiritually developed for the endeavor of this progressive task, it is time for the UC to severe ties with the nuclear weapons laboratories. The important and successful non-weapons research projects conducted at the laboratories should be supported and expanded. The university would be sending a strong message of solidarity to the Earth Community. Some decades ago Vinoba Bhave put it this way:
To reach this elevated state of consciousness/partnership/cooperation (creation of the international-transparent-inclusive-collective laboratory) and to move into the next step of evolution, it is imperative to slow down, to nourish our bodies on slow food and our minds on slow science. Converting swords into plowshares will be part of the syllabus in the nonviolent education of evolved Homo Sapiens (Homo Cosmicus19). Our generation has been witnessing how hatred dissolves in the presence of love, as it did in th part of the Planet we call India—more than half the World has experienced a major social change without a violent revolution in the years since Gandhi’s pathbreaking liberation of India from colonial rule; ordinary people are starting to learn from one another’s successful nonviolent movements—the group of Serbian students named “Otpor”, for example, is going around the World teaching other people how they overthrew Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.20 We know this is the New Renaissance of Humanity.
In a sea of violence, Michael Nagler gave us many lighthouses to guide us in “the search for a nonviolent future”21… we found it, I can see it in the horizon. We are getting to the distant shore by the boats of patience. One grain of sand at a time will become the vast beach of this new paradigm; stars coming together to be the dazzling galaxy of Martin Luther King’s Dream. Mother Teresa, Einstein, Feynman, Gandhi… they are still shining. The collective intelligence of the Earth Community is within our grasp.
A unique glimpse of our species’ possibilities—life has learned over billions of years the advantages of cooperative, locally rooted self-organizing enterprise in which each individual organism is continually balancing individual and group interests—comes from a letter Albert Einstein wrote when he was seventy:
This perspective of oneness shows the slow fusion of science and the soul in a single human being, a process that releases enough energy to secure the survival of humanity for many generations to come.
Our motto for this slow (r)evolution could be: If you want to be a rebel, be kind. Human-kind, be both.
Francisco “Pancho” Ramos Stierle
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1 Einstein believed that the “cosmological constant” was his biggest blunder… today, in our expanding Universe, some cosmologists might say it is not an error at all. Now, with this quote, we found his biggest mistake for real. Ronald W. Clark. Einstein, The Life and Times. (New York: Avon Books, 1971), pp. 672
2 Quoted in Newsweek magazine, March 10, 1947.
3 Quoted in New York Times Magazine, August 2, 1964.
4 From “Atomic War or Peace,” Atlantic Monthly, November, 1945.
5 Quoted in the New York Times. August 29, 1948.
6 Albert Einstein, Otto Nathan and Heinz Norden, Einstein on Peace, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960), pp. 401.
7 Christopher Sykes. No Ordinary Genius, The Illustrated Richard Feynman. (New York: Norton, 1994), pp. 41-64.
8 Bertrand Russell. The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell. (London: Routledge, 1996), vol. 10 -At Fresh Look at Empirism (1927-142)-, pp. 177-193.
9 Coalition to Demilitarize the University of California. The Militarization of America’s Universities. (Santa Cruz: UC Santa Cruz Press Center, 2003), pp. 9. or at the Web page http://www.utwatch.org/archives/demil.html
10 I could have cited the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, CD-ROM (New Delhi: Government of India) but we want to share a guide made by radical nonviolent students, to show a broader perspective of the history and practices of the University of California. Free the UC. CalDisorientation 2008. (Berkeley: Bay Area Alternative Press, 2008), pp. 27 or at the Web page http://www.caldisorientation.org/Nonviolence
11 Now is the time to be The Dream, we are that Generation. Martin Luther King Jr. Strength to Love. (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), pp. 39-48.
12 I had to go to the “other side” of the planet, India, to find out—for the first time in my 33 laps around the Sun at one Astronomical Unit—the clear reasoning of this exemplar citizen of the World: Vinoba Bhave. Science and Self-knowledge. (Rajghat: Sarva Seva Sangh Prakashan), pp. 9.
13 This idea resonates with the preamble of the Earth Charter Initiative, the first attempt of the Constitution of Planet Earth: “We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise. To move forward we must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny. We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace. Towards this end, it is imperative that we, the peoples of Earth, declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations.” A detailed description of the Earth Charter is available at: http://www.earthcharterinaction.org/2000/10/the_earth_charter.html
14 When people cannot be controlled by others they are experiencing the ultimate power. When people come together on the basis of being completely powerful, completely fearless, they become unstoppable… and they write books like: The Power of One. Sharif M. Abdullah. The Power of One, Authentic Leadership in Turbulent Times. (Portland: The Forum for Community Transformation, 1991), pp. 11.
15 What is the Great Turning? “A revolution is underway because people are realizing that our needs can be met without destroying our world. We have the technical knowledge, the communication tools, and material resources to grow enough food, ensure clean air and water, and meet rational energy needs. Future generations, if there is a livable world for them, will look back at the epochal transition we are making [from the industrial growth] to a life-sustaining society. And they may well call this the time of the Great Turning. It is happening now.” Joanna Macy, The Shift to a Life-Sustaining Civilization. On the Web page The Great Turning. http://www.joannamacy.net/html/great.html
David Korten. The Great Turning, From Empire to Earth Community. (San Francisco: Berret-Koehler Publishers, Inc, 2006), pp. 251-312.
16 When Sri Easwaran saw Gandhi entering in a profound state of meditation at the Sevagram Ashram, he finally understood where was the power of this great man coming from: meditation. I am myself highly influenced by the Easwaran’s “slow down” perspective. Eknath Easwaran. Your Life Is Your Message, Finding Harmony with Yourself, Others & the Earth. (Tomales: Nilgiri Press, 1993), pp. 38.
17 This quote is possibly by Einstein. He said: “Many things which go under my name are badly translated from the German or are invented by other people.” An interesting book, Ralph Keyes, The Quote Verifier. (New York: St Martin’s Press, 2006), showed to me another precious piece of reality: because Einstein’s name is synonymous with brilliance and spiritual insight, any orphan quotation that sounds genius-like and/or enlightener-like is liable to end up in his mouth. Because he believed in the power of imagination, nonviolence, creativity, world peace, clear expression, human unity, anti-apathy, welfare for all, mystery, etc. Einstein’s comments along these lines are often quoted, along with a wide range of comments he never made. I had to change slightly the essay when I couldn’t find the original source of the quote “…I would have become a watchmaker”, which I had been using for many years. I’m very pleased to know that human memory remembers the essence of an appealing remark, the intention is preserved and that’s why misremembered quotations so often improve on real ones—they end up shorter, more graceful, and more melodious in the retelling. We can improve the “quotes” of these great earthlings! More potential for our species!
18 Vinoba Bhave. Science and Self-knowledge. (Rajghat: Sarva Seva Sangh Prakashan), pp. 27-28.
19 This is one of my favorite books in the entire SOULar System J David Grinspoon. Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life. (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), pp. 225.
20 A practical manual on how to bring down a dictator. Sardja Popovic, Andrej Milivojevic and Slobodan Djinovic. Nonviolent Struggle, 50 Crucial Points. (Belgrade: Center for Applied NonViolen Action and Strategies -CANVAS-, 2008).
21 The book that brought me into the Ahimsa Revolution: Michael Nagler. The Search for a Nonviolent Future, A Promise of Peace for Ourselves, Our Families, and Our World. (Makawao: Inner Ocean Publishing, 2004).
22 Reprinted in the New York Times. March 29, 1972. or Alice Calaprice. The Quotable Einstein. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000). pp. 314.