If I ruled the world: Daniel Dennett

Bring on education - and peanut butter
February 20, 2014

Lord Acton famously said that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely, but he might just as truly have swallowed his “r”s and said “Power coopts.” I distinctly recall that many a wild-eyed student radical in the 60s was turned into a conscientious steward of the university simply by being given some of the power demanded. If I ruled the world, I don’t know which way I would go. I’m equally afraid of unleashing my inner Nero on the one hand and turning into an overcautious consensus-seeker on the other—if only out of fear that I’d make some well-intended blunder that brought calamity to the planet.

I am not known for my modesty, and some may be surprised to learn that I really don’t think I have all the answers. Here, for instance, is one of my favourite ideas, but I am truly baffled about how to put it into action even with all the powers in the world at my disposal. As we all know—but sometimes forget, in our panic— when the plumbing has burst, the first step to take is to turn off the water main. In that spirit, I would like my first step on ascending to the dictatorship to be decreeing high quality, non-ideological education for boys and girls in every community on the globe. If we could just liberate the world’s children from illiteracy, ignorance, and superstition, their curiosity would lead them to solutions that were both locally informed and sensitive while also tuned to a fairly realistic view of the global context into which these solutions must fit. Once accomplished, the result of this universal education would be the opposite of paternalism, giving people everywhere maximum freedom to make informed choices about how to live their lives.

But could we get there from here, without truly horrific imposition of our western culture on people whose traditions are often blindly opposed to it? The disastrous attempts to separate children from their families in the recent past in order to give them “proper” educations should convince us that there is simply no way of imposing an educational system on children in different cultures against their will and the will of their elders that isn’t both inhumane and ineffective. Notice that I did not say that knowledge should never be imposed on people. If it were effective, if it “took” readily enough, I would be as much in favour of imposing knowledge on children as I am of imposing vaccination on them. We’re all in this world together, and benighted attitudes don’t put only the benighted at risk. My reluctance to use my political power to educate the young is based on the begrudging opinion that resistance to such impositions is itself so intense that the effort is almost certain to be counterproductive.

If the stick is unlikely to work, what about the carrot? Suppose I command that some benefits are available only to those who reform their education systems. This is often an effective way of gaining compliance. In extreme cases, such withholding of benefits amounts to coercion and is hardly distinguishable from direct force. Perhaps a medley of approaches cannily modulated by my blue-ribbon teams of local experts will engender community support and involvement, tailoring the instruction to local needs and traditions, but some points must be non-negotiable in the end. We don’t own our children, and to put it bluntly, we have no right to misinform them. Billions of people in the world don’t see that yet, and would be bitterly and justifiably suspicious of any movement to teach their children new and troubling ideas, but if we can get over that shock, I think we can make some real progress.

My second move would be trying to devise ways of imposing higher costs on lying and other forms of misrepresentation. The arms race between purveyors and consumers of information currently favours the purveyors, who can undermine trust, destroy reputations, and in general bamboozle the public (“Teach the controversy!”) much more effectively than the public can defend itself. I don’t know how this might be done, but if I ruled the world, I’d invest heavily in research to discover a path.

With those two steps resolutely taken. I’d be ready to let the world rule itself, with people making informed choices as best they could. And I would proceed to enjoy my fabulous benefits, on my fleet of sailboats, puttering in my splendidly equipped workshop, and served by a team of chefs, nutritionists and personal trainers who would discreetly modulate my intake of lobster, wine, foie gras, peanut butter and ice cream to optimise my weight and health so I could go on and on and on.