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Katrina and American Education

By Garda Ghista

(September 5, 2005) - This past week saw a Category 5 hurricane called Katrina hit the shores of Biloxi and
New Orleans and completely submerge these two cities. The information is now available that very likely
thousands are dead in New Orleans, as 60,000 people, according to New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, are
unaccounted for. Tens of thousands more have been forcibly evacuated and rendered instantly homeless,
with in many cases no possessions except the clothes on their back. Countless news articles have decried
the fact that: (1) for five days no help came from the federal government, despite desperate pleas from
Mayor Nagin and Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu; (2) when federal help came, the soldiers came armed
with rifles ready to combat the insurgents; (3) black people stealing was labeled by the media as ‘looting,’
while white people stealing was labeled by the media as ‘finding.’ (4) The Red Cross tried to bring supplies
to the thousands of helpless, famished victims in the New Orleans Superdome, only to be turned away by
the military. (5) Chicago Mayor Daley offered to send food and supplies to the victims but, to his
astonishment, the federal government via FEMA refused his help; (6) The US Coast Guard brought
plentiful supplies by boat only to be stopped by FEMA and turned away; but not without first cutting their
emergency communication lines! (7) Cuban President Fidel Castro sent a letter to Mr. Bush offering food,
medical supplies, and doctors to care for the sick and injured, and his letter was ignored; (8) Venezuelan
President Hugo Chavez on Day Two (while Bush was golfing in California) offered to send food, cheap
fuel, and medical supplies directly to the poor people stranded in New Orleans. His offer was likewise
ignored; (9) On the ground reports told of grateful victims who declared that if it hadn’t been for the
‘looters,’ they would have died of dehydration or drowning. (9) Just one month earlier Hurricane Dennis
hit Cuba full-force. The government was completely prepared and had already evacuated 660,000 people.
In that evacuation process people remained with their own communities and with their own doctors so that
doctors could continue to take care of their patients – hence there was minimal trauma and suffering and
only ten lives lost.

How is it possible to separate the actions of the United States government leaders from the education they
received at universities in this country? What kind of higher education did they receive that taught them to
give orders to turn away food and medical supplies? The US ranks right now as the only country in the
world with its leadership giving orders NOT to help the victims! Only the military was allowed to do this,
and much too late! Or maybe the question should be, what kind of education did they NOT receive, that
they felt it was okay to simply ignore for five days what went on down in the Gulf. In fact, we could
assume that rising public outrage and pressure, scathing articles from certain news outlets (the BBC had
footage of black people shouting into the camera, why is nobody helping us?!) and fear of backlash was
the only driving force to finally send military troops carrying water and food to victims and then buses to
ship them God knows where – as no previous plan appeared to exist for this situation. Cuba and Venezuela
are so-called third world, economically backward countries. But what do these two countries have in their
educational systems that American schools and universities do not have, that led American leaders to show
unbounded indifference to this major environmental catastrophe, which in 24 hours created tens of
thousands of refugees and left tens of thousands dead? It shows a complete lack of philosophical or
ideological knowledge, and complete ignorance of what constitutes a good life. This can be attributed to
either woeful ignorance or defective teaching in our universities.

Let us put forward the supposition that philosophy is a core necessity of a sound, wholesome university
education. While definitions of philosophy abound, we will use here the simple, straightforward definition,
which states that philosophy is a system of values by which one lives. It is also the love and pursuit of
wisdom through intellectual means and using moral self-discipline. (www.dictionary.com) Philosophy
is also the critical analysis of these values and beliefs.

Author Allan Bloom declares in his book, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has
Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, that philosophy must be restored to its
rightful place as the leading and guiding force in universities. To this end, he says that core curricula
should be based on the Great Books, which incorporate the works of primarily Greek and British
classicists. He believes that the widespread relativism, wherein professors tell their students that all values
and concepts are acceptable and may or may not be correct depending upon any one individual’s
perception, is the cause of the present decadence and way of living. Bloom says that if young students
return to studying the Great Books and make it the core of the curriculum, the problem of relativism and
resulting moral confusion, amorality and decadence will be resolved.

We need to analyze whether returning to studies of the Great Books will provide the requisite moral
guidance that will create greater, more benevolent political leaders of America. The problem is that if we
examine those Great Books, they are rife with leading characters who exhibit gross immorality. The Greek
gods were constantly having affairs! Hence, how are students going to learn how to be great and noble
leaders from the Great Books? Law professor Martha Nussbaum says that Bloom has preconceived values
and selects only those philosophers from amongst the Great Books that ‘fit’ his preconceived values. One
of his preconceived values, for example, is that women are not worth much, and certainly not worthy
enough to study philosophy!

Another of Bloom’s preconceived values is that only the most elite, the most aristocratic members of
society should study philosophy. He believes that the general masses are incapable of understanding
philosophical complexities. The common people do not have the right ‘natures’ to take on this subject.
Clearly, Bloom is not a fan of democracy. Nussbaum counters this by pointing out that even in those
ancient days, many writers had to work while writing on the side. Today perhaps 70 percent of American
students need to work while studying in university. Bloom further claims that democracy leads to
mediocrity. A correct counter to this would be that his beloved aristocracy leads to degeneracy and moral
degradation!

Bloom may be very much correct in saying that philosophy should return to being a leading force in
universities. But then, using only the Great Books as textbooks means students will not get the requisite
understandings of morality – what is good and bad, right and wrong. Furthermore, the Great Books are
entirely limited to Anglo-Greek civilizations and hence the philosophical understandings therein may be
considered quite limited or embryonic from the perception of other cultures. There are no Chinese or Indian
philosophers in the Great Books. Yet their contribution is immense. We need to consider the possibility that
their contribution and depth of understanding of the purpose of life, their traditional wisdom regarding how
to lead a good life, may be far greater than any Western philosopher represented in the Great Books. We
can give as an example the moral tradition of Neo-Confucian philosophy. Confucius was not interested in
‘being,’ ‘self,’ and other similar terms. He focused on one thought alone, which is: how do you lead a moral
life? How do you create a moral character and a moral society? While Bloom’s hero, Plato, was abstract,
Confucius was down to earth. While it is not clear to what extent Plato’s ideas were adopted as part of
people’s lives in Western civilization, the ideas of Confucius were used as a means of governing the entire
Asian society. They had real practical value and became part of mainstream thinking. His teachings, his
deep wisdom, were used by both the Japanese and the Chinese for millennia after he died. Clearly, he had a
substantially more practical and beneficial effect on human beings than Plato did.

Another example from China would be Taoism, which teaches non-egotistical leadership of communities
and societies and control of oneself. Is this perhaps not badly required today in America?

India is another country that has much to offer to the Great Books. It has its yogic and devotional traditions,
reflecting a God-centered society as opposed to the matter-centered society of America. Shiva, Krishna,
Patanjali, Tagore and Yogananda were all great philosophers and practitioners of yoga who are revered to
this day by the common citizens of India – even though centuries have passed since Shiva and Krishna
lived on this earth. Kabir, Guru Nanak, Jnanadeva and more recently the Indian philosopher Shrii Prabhat
Ranjan Sarkar have made inestimable contributions to India’s devotional tradition. These traditions are for
the most part completely unknown and hence not even valued in Western countries.
It is not essential to read the Great Books of the West. It is also not entirely necessarily essential to read the
Great Books of the world. Human beings do not learn only from books. They can also learn from life
styles. For example, the Spartans did not create great intellectual classics, but they created a lifestyle that
inspired Western civilization. African societies have many noble traditions and ways of living that, if
studied and observed, can inspire people to lead similarly dignified lives. Shrii Sarkar once said that the
United States was ‘uncivilized’ for dropping the atomic bomb, and that if the US wants to know what
civilization is, then let them sit at the feet of the Adivasis - the original tribal people of India, living
primarily in the forests and living even today, to all appearances, a very primitive life! Shrii Sarkar said
that both the Adivasis as well as Africans are socially developed in higher aspects of civilization, even
though their material culture is still very primitive. On the other hand, in Western countries the material
culture is very sophisticated but their civilization is very primitive.

What do greater civilizations have in their educational system, in their way of life that is lacking in the
American system? Shrii Sarkar proposes that all human life is to be governed by what he refers to as
cardinal human values, which include liberty, equality, fraternity and the divinity of man. Their resulting
expressions are sympathy, compassion, love for the lives of others, fundamental respect for the inherent
divinity of all created beings – humans, animals and plants – and a universal outlook. Nussbaum also
understood this Stoic desideratum of becoming citizens of the entire universe, which means that we will not
be bound to live in small boxes categorized by race, creed, economics, language or geographical
boundaries. When once asked which languages he spoke, Shrii Sarkar replied, I speak only one language,
and it is the language of the heart. This summarizes in a nutshell his cardinal human values. We need to
incorporate the teaching of these cardinal human values into our philosophy courses and into the entire
educational curriculum. If we can achieve this, then there will be no more Katrinas! Material devastation
is bound to come due to global warming. But if our future leaders and the vast majority of the American
population learn to imbibe Sarkar’s cardinal human values, then thousands of lives will be saved.
Nussbaum understands the need for the studying of morality and justice in our core curriculum. Morality
and justice, imbibed by students in the form of cardinal human values, is the crying need of the day.

Copyright The author 2005