The Cave of Despair c.1835 by J. M. W. Turner
Categories Essays

The New Dark Age

Hope is above all ‘a state of mind … it is a dimension of the soul … It is an orientation of the spirit’ 

Vaclav Havel

As the United Kingdom prepares to vote (December 2019), perhaps we might see this election as one act in a broader and continuing cultural revolution affecting many states—hereafter abbreviated to ‘the city’—which continue to practise reason and democracy as the basis of communal life. This revolution is ushering in a new dark age, in which we are all being encouraged to return to a cave above whose entrance is written ‘abandon education and hope, all ye who enter’. 

Even though education has a long association with caves—Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Dante—surely, one might say, such talk of a new cave of darkness and hopelessness is just hyperbole, just exaggeration? After all, more young people than ever are going to University. This must therefore be an age of ever-increasing enlightenment? But attendance at University masks a dramatic shift in the nature of higher education that is on offer. In the past, when going to University was often a sport played by an elite, it afforded the luxury of  a higher education as one of life’s great formative adventures. Who you met, how you lived, and what you came to believe, shaped who you were for the rest of your life. It could afford to be such an adventure because University education secured the privilege which had got one there in the first place. 

Even as little as 30 years ago, university education was supported by grants. This meant that there was the security to let university education be an adventure in personal, social, and spiritual formation as well as intellectual and technical understanding. It could be an experience of self-development in a universe of previously unheard ideas, of a bewildering variety of people and opinion and character, and it could be an adventure which, through play and study, enabled a formative existential odyssey of learning, about self, about other and about their shared world. 

Things are a bit different now. Universities, explicitly at least, are no longer places solely reserved for the elite. But the security given by grants has been replaced by the precariousness that accompanies loans. As more young people go to university, perhaps fewer experience the odyssey into ideas and questions that will open up their world, and perhaps even fewer hope for that sort of experience. Perhaps few go because there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of and hoped for any longer from formal higher education. 

And there is the often-repeated explanation for this, that University education, like other forms of education, becomes more like a business and a training than an adventure for the mind and a project for the improvement of all lives. This is not really new. Education as training, and payment by results have a long history and, through the seemingly irresistible power of the markets, have now gripped universities once again. Nevertheless, it is the case that, even though more people then ever are gaining access to University, the kind of opportunities and intellectual freedoms that used to accompany higher education when it was reserved for the few, the few are now denying to the many.  

But the new dark age of higher education is also a continuation of a tradition of cave education. Since its inception, the city has been ruled by philosopher kings who rejected Plato’s strict demand for self-sacrifice and a denial of excess, choosing instead the privileges and entitlements that education is made to serve. The result, unsurprisingly, continues to be the inequalities between the powerful and the powerless, and between the decadent and the wretched; or between those who can control the preservation of their privilege largely beyond the cave and those within the cave who have no privilege to control in the first place. 

And for most of its history, the social and political function of education in the city has been fundamentally ambivalent. On the one hand, cave education was the tool used by the powerful both to achieve and then to maintain privilege. In particular, education was the currency that justified their privilege as entitlement. It was the vocabulary of their worthiness, their virtue, and in many cases of their being born into and bred by the natural governing class. Education was the coinage of their aristocracy. This applied in most cases to a benevolent elite who tried to embrace service as much as it did to a more malevolent elite who sought to exploit the tradition of virtue for their own ends. 

On the other hand, the city trusted education to be the instrument that would reform the city. To do so, it would also have to attend to its—education’s—own complicity in the reproduction of elites and their power.  So, while the elite used education to attain, maintain, and to justify their power, the powerless set their hope in education to resist that power and to reform the city in the interest of everyone and not just the few.

Clearly, any such light, or general enlightenment, that appears in the cave is a danger to the privileged. Here, again, is the ambivalence of education. It is both the currency of virtue used by the masters to achieve and then to justify and maintain privilege, and it is the instrument that would reform the city. However, the cultural revolution against education has a weapon at its disposal which it wields against any such enlightenment. It accuses those who would use education for social change as being an unrepresentative, educated elite, telling those they have left behind what they should be doing and thinking. 

Thus, education in the history of the cave is caught in the vicious circle of being both the solution to the problem and the problem of its being the solution. When it is the solution to the problem—enlightenment regarding social and political forces of power and privilege—it is again the problem—enlightenment of the few about what is right for the many. And when enlightenment is the problem, enlightenment is again required as the solution. This is just a new manifestation of the dialectic of enlightenment: solution is already problem, and problem returns to solution… and so on, round and round. If proof were needed that education is not the answer, its inability to get itself out of this self-contradiction is evidence enough. And thus, as education falls into disrepute, with it go the institutions that it has long struggled to establish to ameliorate the worst excess of inequality.

The cultural revolution currently attending the city in which the powerful, through a masterful intrigue, manufacture a new age of darkness, effectively use this ambivalence of education against education. Their strategy is simple. They seek to recruit the powerless against education, by so debasing hope in education that it ceases to be seen by the powerless as a credible agent for social change. The voice of the new dark age speaks to the powerless thus:  ‘Look at the hopeless mess you are in. It’s all the fault of that educated elite who thought they could run your world for you, on your behalf, according to values and principles that you never agreed to and which you don’t agree with. They never asked you, the ordinary people, did they! They just went on and let into the city huge swathes of people of other nationalities; they sold your national sovereignty out to foreigners; and they continue to give your money away to other countries who should be looking after themselves. They are to blame for all the things that are wrong with your lives, the lack of opportunities you have, the lack of money you have, the foreign languages you are forced to hear, the waiting times for Drs’ and hospital appointments, the competition for school places, the shops all closing down, the kids that terrorise your local areas … all these have been caused by the same elite and their so-called enlightened, globalist, cosmopolitan policies. You can’t trust your so-called educated leaders. But you can trust us who are not part of the elite, and who are standing up against them on your behalf. We are your new champions. We represent you. Trust us. We are on your side.’ 

And so the new dark age wages war on, and erodes confidence and belief in, education as a way of life. It derides learning when it says it has had enough of experts—and then, of course, employs experts systematically to distribute targeted lies and misinformation. The tune played by these pied pipers only leads back to the cave. They enfeeble the idea of facts, so that global warming, corrupt businesses, villainous political parties, manipulation of elections and referenda, market manoeuvring, exploitation, and corporate illegality are fake news. And everything that looks like learning, or like the possibility of learning, is cut off at the pass, so that this artful intrigue is never exposed or made accountable. 

And, horribile dictu, or terrible to relate, it is a historical fact that the undermining of confidence in anything resembling an educated view of the world has been one of the most fruitful ways in which fascisms of intolerance and bullying in social life take root. Fake news, if it is successful in undermining everything, including things that are true, leads to the idea that everything is fake. Truth is then replaced by scepticism and cynicism. And cynicism, carefully manipulated, opens the door to intolerance, often against minority cultures, and often expressed in vehement misogyny.

And they have a Trump card. Whatever kind of opposition is mounted against this populism the voice of the new dark age says ‘this is just another educated view, just more moaning by those who think they know better than you do, more people telling you what you ought to think and how you ought to live, and with whom. Just laugh at their arrogance of being educated and therefore correct, and see through the lies that they tell you. More than that, don’t trust experts, don’t trust education at all, it is always another world, their world, never your world.’ And so, cleverly, every time education is offered as a solution to the dark age, the dark age again makes education the problem.

Thus, the slogans of the new dark age become: Education lies. Education is hopeless. Uneducation is true. Trust the darkness. 

What, then, of hope? Education is still the only peaceful and rational route to a just city. And it is this hope in education, at what education can achieve when allowed to flourish, that is being hidden from people in the entrapment of the new dark age. The last thing the intriguers want more of for everyone is education. They prefer people to vote for a return to the cave, to run headlong back into the chains that await them, to occupy those seats at the back of the cave, once again satisfied with the shadows that are cast in front of them, and by the most sophisticated techniques that have perhaps yet been devised by which to manipulate the minds that see them. 

So, what can education do when it is reduced to being the enemy of the people, except have its statesmen and women restate education’s and their own implied superiority? But let’s be clear. The educated and benevolent elite have watched this situation play itself out while they, willingly or carelessly, distilled for themselves the personal power of privilege from what ought to be the social privilege of power. They failed to care enough about those who were not part of the city’s progressive development. They were too removed from the realities of those who were always left behind. And they left the door open for these resentments to be exploited by those who resisted the same progressive movements, but from prejudices long fuelled by a power and privilege that was threatened by the march of progressive history. And now they have allowed to decompose the one weapon that drives the city forwards rather than backwards—education. 

Such benevolent elitism had its own educational philosophy. It was called liberal arts. It promised paideia, the education of culture and character, for the leaders of the city. They were to be virtuous gentlemen, practising self-sacrifice, displaying humility with power, and restraining their own rewards in order to serve the needs of others. As Plato put it, these were educated people who understood that it was wrong to leave people in a worse condition when a better one could be made, and would be achieved by taking less for themselves so that others might have more. But the virtuous gentleman never relieved himself of his entitlement to privilege. As such, he enjoyed the juxtaposition, and legitimacy, of education and power. 

The entitlement that this education and power brought him was grounded in wealth and property and influence. As such, education never really did much better than to be an instrument for protecting the power that comes with inequalities of property. But more than that, education in the city took on the shape of these inequalities of property in its practices and its goals. Education, like property, is a relation of masters and slaves, haves and have-nots. As Rousseau showed so clearly, even when all are made masters and given property rights, the majority run headlong into these chains believing that this will be an end to slavery, instead of which it is just another, less opaque form of slavery. Education and the privilege of unequal property ownership remain synonymous. The present cultural revolution plays on this when it trashes the (benevolent) elites, and hides as best it can the privileges of its own players which lie in exactly the same property and wealth.

What of education, then, in the teeth of this anti-educational cultural movement? What is it called on to do? Above all, and openly facing and admitting its own contradictions  and complicities, it can retain faith in education, it can keep learning. Most urgent of all, it can start to re-learn about itself. 

Perhaps the city has never really asked enough of education. After all, the city began as the idea of questions in the examined life. But that quickly turned into the culture of answers in the politics of mastery. As such, education lost its heart and soul. It lost itself to everything else that claimed to be education. Liberal arts tried to hang on the notion of education as an end in itself. But its problem was that the idea of an ‘end in itself’ already belonged the discipline of philosophy, and to its culture of abstract logic. The one thing that could never be allowed to have an identity of its own within this logic of abstract mastery was ‘the question’, or education. The question was dismissed as merely infinite regression; it just undermined everything and resolved nothing, and for a logic in which truth was resolution, such an education could never be its own answer. And so the question, the examined life, fell into disrepute, into the category of the useless and the decadent, and education became servant to the academic disciplines. They ‘did’ education. And so, education never did itself.

But in the new dark age, education still asks questions. And, in retrieving questioning, there can be a renaissance of education within and against the new dark age; an education that re-learns trust and faith in itself to be able to build a better, fairer, just world; an education that resists mastery for some and slavery for others; an education that struggles against the poverty of ignorance and those who use such ignorance for their own advantage; an education that challenges and resists prejudice and persecution with reason and compassion; an education that stands up for the rights of all against the will of the strongest and the most powerful; an education that takes every opportunity to defend itself, to fight for its vision, and its creativity, and its imagination, and its adventure, and its hope, and its truth. 

What, then, of hope in the darkness? Hope in education is not something that has to be grafted onto it. Hope is endemic or innate to education, when properly understood. We may be at the portals of the new dark age, we may have even have passed through such portals. But education is a remarkable thing. It is never over. Darkness is only an illusion. It pretends to be absence. But at best, darkness is only shadow, and shadows are cast by light, and enclosed by light. Even when education is in the darkness, it is still present. The darkness is only an effect of light. When education finds itself in the darkness, then the darkness can be exposed for what it is; simply a blockage of the light. And to see the blockage is to shine the light of learning upon it. 

Even where the darkness is cultural and institutional, education is state of mind, not a state of the world. As Vaclav Havel said, ‘All power is power over someone, and it always somehow responds, usually unwittingly rather than deliberately, to the state of mind and the behaviour of those it rules over …The exercise of power is determined by thousands of interactions between the world of the powerful and that of the powerless, all the more so because these worlds are never divided by a sharp line: Everyone has a small part of himself in both.’

Education is not blinded by cultural, institutional and political darkness, it is inspired by it. It says to the dark age, the taller you build your barriers, the higher education becomes—because hope is in education, and education is in us, something inside, so strong