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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Francis Bacon: "The Advancement of Learning"

I delved into this text a while ago, and recently picked it back up. A little history about Bacon for those who are unfamiliar would be in order. Sir Francis Bacon lived in the late 16th and early 17th centuries in England where he held many important political positions. He helped develop the scientific method and examined and experimented on many natural phenomena. He was one of the major intellectual figures of his time, and much of what he discovered has served as the foundation for modern science. Last night I ran across this passage:

"The corrupter sort of mere politiques, that have not their thoughts established by learning in the love and apprehension of duty, nor never look abroad into universality, do refer all things to themselves, and thrust themselves into the centre of the world, as if all lines should met in them and their fortunes, never caring in all tempests what becomes of the ship of state, so they may save themselves in the cockboat of their own fortune; whereas men that feel the weight of duty and know the limits of self-love use to make good their places and duties, though with peril..."

I was struck by this description of the un-learned person as bringing everything back to him or herself, and how "in all tempests" this person cars only for his or her own fortune and not for the "ship of state" or the common good, trusting in his or how own fortune to save him or herself. How well this describes so many of our modern life-arrangers and persons of power today!! I was struck by the manifold examples of this attitude in recent news:

1) Joe Paterno and other PSU authorities: they were so concerned with the reputation of their football program and how much money it was making for them (i.e. their "fortune") that they were willing to let a serial child molester go unpunished and free to repeat his crimes to "save themselves in the cockboat of their own fortune".

2) Politicians who are so beholden to the gun-lobby that they won't even consider a bill that would limit gun users to ammunition clips of 10 bullets or less. Given the national tragedies involving guns in the United States of America, one would think that we could all agree that there's no legal need to have an ammunition clip that holds more than 10 bullets... And yet, these politicians are more interested in "saving themselves in the cockboat of their own fortune" (i.e. the campaign donations they receive from the gun lobby), than in caring for the "ship of state", because they "thrust themselves into the centre of the world".

3) Those involved in the LIBOR scandal: need I point out the degree to which these individuals tried to "save themselves in the cockboat of their own fortune" and to which they "thrust themselves into the centre of the world"?

4) Fourthly (I say, fourthly and not finally, because there is no "finally" to this list, it could go on and on...), there are those individual citizens of the United States and corporations who continually "save themselves in the cockboat of their own fortune": those who use off-shore bank accounts to shield themselves from paying the full weight of their taxes (What could be more "un-American" than a bank account that is literally not in the US?); those who ship jobs overseas, shutting down whole factories in the United States, destroying communities and the lives of individual workers to "save themselves in the cockboat of their own fortune" rather than make the ethical choice to make a narrower profit margin as a company, but continue to employ hard-working citizens; those who engage in dangerous financial practices that create these "bubbles" which we are suffering through (housing, banking, etc.), and those who lie, cheat, and steal from those who trusted them, like Bernie Madoff. Surely these men and women cared only for themselves and their fortunes, and never considered either the good of the country (in some cases the world) or their fellow citizens.

It is striking to imagine how things could be different if powerful decision makers in our country "felt the weight of duty" and knew "the limits of self-love". How much heart-ache could have been avoided if Joe Paterno had gone to the police instead of the president of his university? Or if politicians could pass sensible gun control laws that limit an individuals ability to commit acts of terrorism against his or her fellow citizens? Or if the financial masters of the world and the country considered what was best for the common good instead of what would line their own pockets?

It seems we have much to learn from Francis Bacon. As dismayed as I am by the rampant examples of this kind of behavior in the news (and it is striking how well Bacon's quote describes so much of what is in the news right now), I find some solace in the fact that apparently, this problem is a very old one, and that it has been plaguing humanity for some time. Virtue, it seems, has long been in short supply.

Perhaps it is time for a conversation about how authentic learning and education support the growth of virtue, and can help safeguard us as a country from this pernicious problem.

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