Remembering Elie Wiesel’s teaching

Paraphrasing the last paragraph from a recent USA Today story on a new book about Elie Wiesel (linked in below):

“Language does more than just provide a means of sharing ideas and memories. Language embodies the human desire for meaning, for the infinite, for surpassing limits, for community and the communication of transcendent experiences of beauty.”

But language cuts two ways. It provides a medium for transcending limits while it nonetheless has its own limits. Wiesel says language can be corrupted and contaminated by human cruelty. I think this allows human will more latitude and agency than it actually has. I think broad scale corruption and cruelty are artifacts or by-products of the limits of language.

Corruption and cruelty scale up when human experience encounters new challenges for which the available language is inadequate and new conceptual frameworks are slow to emerge. Dark fears and destructive hate go on a rampage when ignorance rules and understanding is scarce. Seeing these times in human history as products of individual will is a point of view that is itself situated within the overly narrow limits of a language that has long outlived its usefulness.

Our challenge is how to find our way to new languages better able to inspire confident cooperation and communication across our diverse differences. On the face of it, this may seem to be an insurmountable barrier demanding we look elsewhere for creative opportunities. I beg to differ.

Root metaphors captivate the imaginations of millions, as with the ‘Love is a rose’ metaphor of romance, the Christian ‘God is Love’ metaphor, or the ‘clockwork universe’ metaphor of Newtonian physics. But in today’s age of global humanity, a new poetics capable of making general sense of individual experience seems perpetually out of reach.

The complexity of the problem is truly staggering. In fact, the way we define the problem is the crux of the matter. As I’ve tried to explain before, the problem is the problem.

That is, today we face a meta-problem asking, what is the metaphor for metaphor? How do we transform implicit background assumptions about the limits of language into explicit objects of operations on language? How do we attain that complex level of understanding where we do not look upon corruption and cruelty simply as matters of individual human will but as the logical consequence of our failure to create institutions modeled on language’s complex combination of navigable continuity and local improvisation?

Can we go beyond the often impossibly out of reach but still inadequate compassion for those who commit atrocities, who are twisted into grotesque forms by hate? Can we actually come to understand the multilevel complexity, limits, and processes of language and metaphor well enough to intentionally cultivate new organic social and cognitive ecosystems? Can we see language as a collectively projected knowledge technology? Can we learn how to foster meaningful conceptual determinations embodied in words that stand for real things in the world? Can we apply language itself as a model for transforming our educational, health care, market, social service, and government institutions?

I say not only that yes, we can; I say yes, we have. This new level of complexity in approaching language has been taking shape for decades, and in some respects for centuries. It is emerging now on multiple fronts across a wide range of fields. This is the focus of my recent work on the multilevel complexity of sociocognitive ecosystems, and on the developmental, horizontal, and vertical coherence of integrated assessment and instruction. It’s a huge challenge, but having seen clearly that the biggest problem is how we define the problem, I am cautiously optimistic humanity will find a way.

Meyer, Zlati. 2018. New book shares Elie Wiesel’s powerful classroom lessons from the Holocaust. USA Today, 14 November.

Print version appeared in Life section, pp. 1D, 6D. Tuesday, 20 November, titled Elie Wiesel’s classroom lessons resonate.

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