Posted by: theodorecosmosophia | February 6, 2011

Philosophy in Action: Cosmosophia, The Chicago Wisdom Project, and S.H.o.P.

“We stand at the edge of our world.  How many times have humans been at such a place?  We stood at the edge of our forest, peering out into the plain, dreaming of its vastness, of the possibilities, and gave birth to humanity.  When we nearly perished, due to an ecological crisis, we walked out into the world beyond Africa, and gave birth to the diversity of human culture, language, spirituality, and art.  Today, we face crises similar but different.  We are, as always, at the edge of our world, birthing….If we are to once again experience the cosmos as our womb, to participate meaningfully in the awesome event called the Universe, then we must simply walk outside, pause, and look at the shining stars, or see a child being born, or listen to a tree’s leaves rustling in the wind, and be amazed.  Until we regain this capacity, no set of ideas can save us from ourselves.”


American foreign policy has been based on the claim that democracy is best spread through commerce—that is, we have made the rather duplicitous claim that if we can get enough people at the mall, that if we can get them on Facebook or playing video games, then they will see how great America is and want democracy.  The problem is that all of those things are based not on being a creator of culture, but on being a passive consumer.  The Egyptian revolution is taking place today is, of course, partly about material needs—the cost of bread, for example—but if it is only about crass consumerism then there will surely be another Mubarek (or worse) waiting in the wings.  I am fairly certain it is not; the true danger, however, is not “Islamists”, but that the revolution will be co-opted by those who lack imagination.

Speaking of passivity and a lack of imagination, the response to the events in Egypt has been rather muted by the American youth.  This is not about something going on overseas—let the Egyptians determine their own fate—but about the policies of the US.  The tear gas canisters hurled at the protesters had “Made in the USA” written on them.  Egypt is among the top three recipients of US aid—and we are not sending toys and medicine; we are sending the weapons that have kept Mubarek in power for the last thirty years.

But for all the information our youth—and the rest of us—have access to, we are far less inclined to want to change anything than our parents.  It’s not as though today’s challenges are less significant than those of generations past.  Our planet and our species are in peril.  Global warming threatens to eradicate life on Earth; oil-based, industrial civilization is in decline.  And the interconnection of the industrial capitalist order, the events in Egypt, and the destruction of the biosphere must not be lost: the choices we have made as a civilization are based on the narratives, the metaphors, the assumptions we have made about the world and our place in it—that is, our cosmology.  This is notion is the basis for Cosmosophia (to be released on February 25th on Hiraeth Press).

But how does one change a cosmology? If it were merely a matter of having new information or ideas, we’d have already done it already; we could simply decide to change.  But a cosmology, while based in part on ideas and facts, is far more.  It requires a transformation in the way we relate to the world, a shift in our consciousness and our sense of self.  There is a lot to this, more than I can convey here, but for now, I would like to focus on the importance of myth.  We understand our place in the world based not on facts, but on narrative, on a story.  The story that tells us our primary identity is that of a consumer, that the universe is a machine with inert resources to be exploited (this metaphor is easily transferred to people as well as resources), cannot sustain us.

OK, you might say, that sounds great, but what are you doing?  If mere ideas cannot change things, what else do you have to offer?  The work of making our youth into mythmakers is central to the mission of the Chicago Wisdom Project.  We are challenging out kids to challenge the values of the dominant culture, to look at the narratives that have defined them and to create counter-narratives.  If you don’t tell your own story, I like to remind them, someone else will.

The work of the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci has informed my thinking a lot here.  For Gramsci, education was not merely about the acquisition of skills and knowledge.  In America today, my observation is that our kids have more information and perhaps even better academic skills than in generations past.  But Gramsci would say that the purpose of education is for everyone to be a philosopher, to have the capacity to critique the powers that be.  Without this, you simply don’t have democracy.  Voting alone doesn’t make democracy.  We must have the critical consciousness to critique our leaders.  Our schools have been co-opted by capitalist ideology to such a degree that they are based solely on competition and marketable jobs.  This means that many of our kids (the “losers”, known in some places as “the working class”) are supposed to be prepared for menial jobs, not to participate in the public discourse.  At The Chicago Wisdom Project, we are hoping to create a generation of philosophers.

The next step for the Chicago Wisdom Project is our joining forces with SHoP, a group of artists and community groups that is working to create a space in which our youth can begin the process of telling these new narratives.  We will give them an opportunity to express themselves through song and story, through visual as well as verbal media.  This is an important extension of the Gramscian ideal: we learn not only through the intellect, but also with the body, by using our hands, through our emotions, in nature, and express it all through creativity.

Look around.  You will not see many young people ready to take to the streets on behalf of their brothers and sisters in Egypt.  This is not, I would suggest, due to lack of courage.  Our youth largely don’t think of their fate and that of Egypt to be connected, even as they play video games with kids from all over the world.  Sitting in front of a screen won’t bring about the shift in consciousness that is required.  To change one’s relationship to the world, to begin to thing of oneself, for example, as a part of a living, interconnected planet, requires a deeper shift—a revolution of apocalyptic proportions.  In spite of the news reports, the blizzard outside our windows is nothing compared to the storm that comes when we shatter the cosmos by transforming our souls.


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