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Att förändras i takt med världen

Bild: Wikimedia Commons

Ett av de starkaste argumenten för att skolan, och vår kunskapssyn, behöver förändras läggs här indirekt fram av Carl Sagan. Han pekar på behovet av förnyelse och att tänka i nya banor i tider av stor förändring, och att vi inte kan kosta på oss för mycket av traditioner, dogma och generationsöverförda kunskaper, som även om de ibland fyller viktiga funktioner, inte kan göra samma nytta i tider av snabba omställningar och paradigmskiften. Året är 1985 – drygt tio år innan Internet slog igenom på allvar.

Tradition is a precious thing, a kind of distillation of tens or hundreds of thousands of generations of humans. It is a gift from our ancestors. But it is essential to remember that tradition is invented by human beings and for perfectly pragmatic purposes. If instead you believe that the traditions are from an exhortatory god and hold that the traditional wisdom is handed down directly from a deity, then we are much scandalized at the idea of challenging the conventions. But when the world is changing very fast, I suggest survival may depend precisely on our ability to change rapidly in the face of changing conditions. We live in precisely such a time.

Consider our past circumstances. Imagine our ancestors, a small, itinerant, nomadic group of hunter-gatherer people. Surely there was change in their lives. The last ice age must have been quite a challenge some ten to twenty thousand years ago. There must have been droughts and new animals suddenly migrating into their area. Of course there is change. But by and large the change is extraordinarily slow. The same traditions for chipping stone to make spears and arrowheads, for example, continues in the East African paleoanthropological sites for tens or hundreds of thousands of years.

In such a society, the external change was slow compared to the human generation time. Back then traditional wisdom, parental prescriptions, were perfectly valid and appropriate for generations. Children growing up of course paid the closest attention to these traditions, because they represented a kind of elixir of the wisdom of previous generations; it was constantly tested, and it constantly worked. It is not for nothing that ancestors were venerated. They were heroes to subsequent generations, because they passed on wisdom that could preserve lives and save them.

Now compare that with another reality, one in which the external changes, social or biological or climatic or whatever we wish, are rapid compared to a human generation time. Then parental wisdom may not be relevant to present circumstances. Then what we ourselves were taught and learned as youngsters may have dubious relevance to the circumstances of the day. Then there is a kind of intergenerational conflict, and that conflict is not restricted to intergenerational but is also intragenerational, internally, because the part of us that was trained twenty years ago, let’s say, must be in some conflict with the part of us that is trying to deal with the difficulties of today. So I claim that there are very different ways of thinking for these two circumstances: when change is slow compared to a generation time and when change is fast compared to a generation time. There are different survival strategies. And I would also like to suggest that there has never been a moment in the history of the human species in which so much change has happened as in our time. In fact, it can be argued that in many respects there never will be a time when the change can be so rapid as it has been in our generation.

For example, consider transportation and communication. Just a couple of centuries ago, the fastest practicable means of transportation was horseback. Well, now it is essentially the intercontinental ballistic missile. That is an improvement from tens of miles per hour to tens of miles per second in velocity. It’s a very substantial increment. In communication a few centuries ago, except for rarely used semaphore and smoke-signaling systems, the speed of communication was again the speed of the horse. Today the speed of communication is the speed of light, faster than which nothing can go. And that represents a change from tens of miles per hour to 186,000 miles per second. And never will there be any improvement on that velocity.

Now, it’s a very different world if the fastest that a message can get to us goes from the speed of a horse or a caravel to the speed of light. The speed of light means that we can talk—in essentially real time—to anybody on the Earth or even on the Moon. Or consider medicine. A few centuries ago, most of the children born to the great houses of Europe died in childhood. And they had the exemplary medical care of the age. Today even quite poor people in some nations at least have infant mortality astonishingly less than the crowned heads of state in the seventeenth century. Or consider the availability of safe and inexpensive means of birth control. It immediately implies a revolution in human relations and especially in the status of women. These are all things that have happened very recently, and you can think of many, many others, all of which involve not just a change in the technical details of our lives but changes in how we think about ourselves in the world. Very major changes, and therefore not a circumstance where the wisdom of, say, the sixth century B.C. is necessarily relevant. It might be, but it might not be. And therefore, for this reason as well—for this reason especially—wisdom may lie not in simply the blind adherence to ancient tenets but in the vigorous and skeptical and creative investigation of a wide variety of alternatives.

Carl Sagan

The Varieties of Scientific Experience (2006, 1985) s 191-194

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