Friday, February 18, 2022

"The Age Of Reason"

The Age of Reason is another name for what we call The Enlightenment, a European historical period typically recognized as having taken place between the end of the 17th century into the beginning of the 18th. It is commonly associated with the elevation of science and rational thought. It was a time of European revolution and discovery.

The term "age of reason" is also commonly used, under certain codes of law, to refer to a child of seven, when it is said that they can assume moral responsibility for their behavior.

Many of us use the word reason as a synonym for logic, but in the real world reason seems to have little to do with logic. The great thinkers during the age of enlightenment, those individuals we still recognize by one name -- Descartes, Kant, Locke, Newton, and Voltaire -- applied what they called logic and reasoned their way to all kinds of bizarre, incorrect, even deadly, notions.

Enlightenment era reasoning held that the indigenous populations of the Americas, Oceana, and Africa, for instance, were either primitive savages to be exploited or children of nature . . . to be exploited. 

Enlightenment era reasoning was perhaps pro-logic, but looking back with the perspective of history, we can see that much what is wrong with today's world, such as competing nation-states, racism, capitalism, and imperialism, are the bitter fruit of the so-called Age of Reason.

Having worked with children under seven for my entire adult life, let me assure you that humans don't wait until they are seven to begin to exercise reason. 

One two-year-old pricked his finger on a pinecone, it hurt, so he reasoned, given the information available to him, that his best course of action was to avoid pinecones. As experienced adults, we tried to reason with him, but from his perspective we were ignorant, irrational savages, incapable of reason. When he later noticed that there were pinecones in the branches overhead, he decided to forever avoid that whole area of the playground.

Another two-year-old came to understand that there was a connection between hitting and crying. And so, when a child cried, she would, of course, race to their side and begin to compassionately pummel them about the face and head. Even as we adults pulled her away, she fought against us, determined to heal the hurt with her tiny fists. She would watch us gently attend to the crying child, clearly annoyed with, from her perspective, our irrational behavior.

From our perspective, we see the flaws in the children's reasoning, but they, in turn see flaws in ours. We might argue, that our adult perspective is more reasonable, more logical, perhaps even more moral, but since both reason and logic are always a product of perspective, the children are equally valid to view us as the unreasonable ones.

Enlightenment era poet, William Blake wrote in his poem Jerusalem:

The Spectre is the Reasoning Power in Man, & when separated
From Imagination and closing itself as in steel . . .
It thence frames Laws & Moralities
To destroy Imagination

Blake worried about reason and logic as destructive forces and we can see from history, that he wasn't wrong. But he worried most of all that the cult of reason would "destroy Imagination," which is, at the end of the day, at least as important to human thought as logic. Indeed, thinking is always the product of imagination. Imagination is a powerful way to understand because it allows us think beyond our "Laws & Moralities" in a way that logic cannot. Logic cannot, of its own accord, take us beyond the perspective of established "facts." Only imagination can do that.

There have been times and places in human history when we mere mortals didn't need to concern ourselves with such things. Our kings and queens, our priests and priestesses, handed truth down to us, but in today's world, we are all expected to be seekers of truth and because we all represent a unique perspective, our attempts at logic, with its false promise of objective truth, can only yield a small sliver, a piece of the puzzle. Imagination is how we come to discover the other puzzle pieces that we must have in order to make a complete picture.

Our schools tend to embrace the Spectre of Reasoning at the expense of Imagination and it goes beyond the unhealthy focus on literacy and mathematics at the expense of all else. It leads to a culture of right answers, of Laws & Moralities. It is the imperialism of reason and logic that is, in many ways, the most destructive legacy of the so-called Enlightenment. It destroys imagination with its insistence that there is, somehow, one truth. But experience tells us that truth arrived at by logic alone is fragile and incomplete, a mere piece in an infinitely larger puzzle.

All it takes is to shift one's perspective slightly and it vanishes like the Spectre it is.


"I recommend this book to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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