You are not a Vulcan.

Star Trek (2009) DVD 240 In his college days, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (he of The Happiness Hypothesis, perhaps the worst-titled and best-written book I’ve read) majored in philosophy. In his youthful zeal, his goal was to “discover the meaning of life.”

As you might expect, if you’re, say, over 20, he was in for something of a letdown. But curiously his disappointment was less that he didn’t find an answer and more because philosophers weren’t raising the question:

Modern philosophers specialize in analyzing the meaning of words, but, aside from the existentialists (who caused the problem for me in the first place), they had little to say about the meaning of life. (Happiness Hypothesis, p. 215)

Why? Haidt suggests that the field of philosophy, which had been birthed in such grand human questions, had taken an unprofitable turn when it parted ways with psychology:

It was only after I entered graduate school in psychology that I realized why modern philosophy seemed sterile: It lacked a deep understanding of human nature. (ibid)

Instead of paying close attention to the complex weirdos populating the world around them, contemporary philosophers retreated into abstractions. Alas:

The ancient philosophers were often good psychologists, as I have shown in this book, but when modern philosophy began to devote itself to the study of logic and rationality, it gradually lost interest in psychology and lost touch with the passionate, contextualized nature of human life. (ibid, emphasis mine)

Why is this a problem? Because:

It is impossible to analyze “the meaning of life” in the abstract, or in general, or for some mythical and perfectly rational being. Only by knowing the kinds of beings that we actually are, with the complex mental and emotional architecture that we happen to possess, can anyone even begin to ask about what would count as a meaningful life. (ibid, emphasis mine)

Ahh…

I’m wondering if the same illness might beset educational thinking, both academic and popular. As soon as we lose track of humans as ridiculously complex critters — shaped all at once by evolution and culture, social norms and individual eccentricities, emotion and logic, family and personal whims — as soon as we lose track of humans as all of that, we craft our schooling to fit simplistic people who don’t really exist.

Which is all to say: We need schools for humans, not for Vulcans.

I’m on something of a “let’s talk about complex cognition!” kick, so I hope you’ll excuse my foray into this. On Monday (if I get back from our weekend camp-out in the San Juans in time), I’d like to post on the opposite of all this — a case study in Getting Humans Wrong.

Brandon Hendrickson

Seattle, WA