08/06/2012 10:27 am ET Updated Oct 06, 2012

Education and 'The Public Promotion of Moral Genius': An Interview with Peter Hershock

Peter Hershock is the author of Buddhism in the Public Sphere, which presents a set of Buddhist perspectives on a series of political and policy challenges. The final chapter, which serves as the jumping-off point for this interview, is a tour de force of wide-ranging theory and fresh insight about the purposes and practices of contemporary education.

Hershock is an education specialist at the East-West Center in Honolulu. In addition to Buddhism in the Public Sphere, he has written or co-edited many other books, including Educations and Their Purposes: A Conversation Among Cultures.

MB: In your view, much of contemporary education concerns itself with three goals: transmitting information and knowledge, imparting "circumstantially useful skills," and forming young people through "principle-structured character development and socialization." Many educational theorists would argue that this forms at least a partial list, if not a complete list, of appropriate educational goals. For you, however, this educational paradigm is deeply inappropriate and, in fact, in crisis. Why?

PH: Well, that's a big question, and we're going to need a lot of history to be able to respond. Here are some quick thoughts, and then we can do more background if need to.

One of the arguments that could be made about the contemporary world is that because of the kinds of complex interdependencies that have developed -- economically, politically, socially, technologically, and so on -- we no longer live in a world in which it's possible to export the negative consequences of the actions that we undertake to pursue our own interests. So with industrialization, it used to be that we could just send our pollutants downstream and nobody would be any the wiser or troubled by it. We could downstream all the negative consequences of our actions. We're now no longer able to export the negative effects of the kinds of industrial processes we have; we know that because of things like climate change. And we can't export the developmental inequalities that are associated with particular patterns of economic development that have become globalized in the corporate world.

Whether it's at the environmental or economic or political level, we know that we can't effectively export these negative consequences any longer. The patterns of recursion are too dense; we have to deal with them.

Unfortunately, dealing with these consequences (both the good and the bad side of things) and deciding what's worth working on and how to deal with negative consequences, is not something that we're doing just within a society. Within a society, you could at least have the pretension of a shared set of values and principles according to which to make decisions, and you could reduce what you're dealing with to problems.

MB: You argue that we're not just facing problems -- we're facing something more.

PH: A problem consists in the occurrence of an event that makes you realize that you're no longer going to be able to continue to pursue the aims and interests that you want to continue pursuing, based on current techniques and practices. You need some new techniques and new practices. You know where you want to end up; you're just not sure how to get there. So you innovate, you solve problems. Problem-solution is finding a response to something that allows you to continue to pursue the same complexion of values and interests that you've had until now and that you want to maintain.

Because of the recursions that we're experiencing that are affecting multiple communities, and affecting multiple levels within societies, we no longer have the unanimity of a single set of values according to which we can even decide what a solution to a so-called problem would be. If climate change was just a problem we should be able to deal with, we should be able to set the parameters for what would count as a solution; but that's precisely what eludes us. You go to somewhere like Copenhagen and all these countries get together at the meeting, and you ask every individual representative, "Do you want a good, clean environment for your people?" "Yes." Nobody says "no" in response to that question. When you start to ask, "Well, what do you mean by good, clean environment?" then the differences really start to come up. And if you say, "Well, what are you willing to pay for that? What are you willing to give up for that?" then you get an even wider range of views about what's appropriate.

We live in a world of predicaments, not problems. Predicaments occur when something happens that makes you aware of the fact that there's a conflict among your own aims and interests. You can't solve a predicament. You can only resolve it, and doing so requires greater clarity and commitment (both of which are connotations of the word "resolution"). And if you're doing that inter-culturally or between societies, if you're doing that in an international arena, you can't do that without an appreciation of cultural differences and uncommon assumptions about what a good life consists in. That takes a fairly sophisticated understanding and appreciation of others -- not just as an embrace of pluralism and saying everybody's got their own view, but saying, in fact, we need to somehow work through this to the point that we develop not just greater clarity about what we're facing in a given situation, but to the point that we develop certain shared commitments. We don't necessarily have to come to a single point of view on things, but we do need to get to the point that we can actually share in responding to the situation that we face together.

That requires a real shift from just knowledge about how things work and the skills that we're accustomed to using when we innovate. It involves developing a capacity for ethical improvisation, and that's something that's not been part of the curriculum thus far.

Note: the full interview is available at The Wheat and Chaff.