29th March 2021

Book in Focus: The Third Enlightenment (or Globalizing Meritocracies)

Learning to Evolve (or, why did I write The Third Enlightenment?)

Sławomir Magala

Asked to write a poem about God, Gregory Corso, a beatnik poet, came up with, “God? She’s black”, in the mid-twentieth century. The evolution of human societies caught up with him at the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century. Was it a wild guess or a learned prediction? If bloody revolutionaries asked yet another expert about to be executed on the altar of the deliberative knowledge democracy what they thought about the evolution of mankind, the might have quoted a chapter from my book entitled “Eco-Evo-Devo-Robotevo.” Evolution is not understood as an act of God anymore. Nor is it imagined as a random outcome of choices made by a blind watchmaker behind our backs. If you show me your genes, I will still have trouble telling you who you are. Social media will promise to tell you who you might be, but there is no reason that you should believe merchants of attention, even if they compete with NASA for the domestication of Mars, Saturn or the Stanford University campus. What I wanted to understand, when writing The Third Enlightenment (or Globalizing Meritocracies), was what happened to our most important merit, our successful learning? What happened to our quest to become knowledgeable knowers among the wild seas of unknown unknowns? ‘Our’? Well, yes, as in ‘us’, the overeducated professionals of the academic meritocracy. I wanted to understand how we produce knowledge, because I think we should share it much more equally with everybody else. I wanted to understand how we sell it to the rest of our species because I think we should inform potential users about all its ingredients and side effects. Aware of the post-truths and fakes manufactured on an industrial scale by professional troll farms, I wanted to know what could be done to limit the black markets of fake knowledge, this opium of happy users of social media.

Why was I interested in separating trustworthy knowledge from the fake? Making sense of history calls for distinguishing between various experiences of events. Events happen and follow one another, filling spaces and time, calling for our attention and asking for a place in games we play and a slot in stories we tell. Why did a novel by a patient of a psychiatric ward, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, sell over five million copies? Because it promises a credible report on distinguishing between accessible reality and mere fakes. Events and games end up in strange places, at strange times, with even stranger bedfellows, but it is our moral duty to check them out, judge them, and stand (or walk, or ride) by them.

Let us take an instance of a pandemic: the ‘Spanish flu’ disaster which happened at the end of the First World War. Why was it called ‘Spanish’? Not because it came from Spain. However, if you followed the world’s media at the end of World War I, you would be unable to learn much about a dangerous new threat to global health. Remember, the World War was going on, and all governments, good, bad and indifferent, were keen on censoring all news before sending it to print. Spain was not involved in the war, and its press was less closely watched by the nation’s military headquarters. Spanish journalists were able to write about the thousands of victims of the flu strain, giving rise to its nickname. It was referred to as ‘Spanish flu’ because Spaniards were the only ones able to report its victims. What does this tell us about reality and media blackouts or the media faking a non-pandemic reality? I wanted to understand what prompts someone at a certain point to stand up and say, “forget the adjective ‘Spanish’ and focus on the noun ‘flu’”. I wanted to know how reality checks are cashed. Who merits praise, and who doesn’t. Unpleasant questions, unexpected findings, but unavoidable steps. Now think about how many more adjectives have to be rejected in order to understand this current pandemic, whose spread paralyzed the world in 2020 and 2021.

Meanwhile, mankind does not wait patiently like schoolchildren in a classroom for our fellow teachers to come up with the story. Individuals started a spontaneous school of better life without waiting for teachers and preachers. Digital tam-tams started moving the hearts and minds of citizens of an increasingly global village long before the first boat people went to sea. Social media, satellites and cell phones have proliferated across continents. No wonder millions of citizens of less fortunate states south and east of the United States and the European Union started voting with their feet, with the prospect of a better life through immigration to a richer country. In my book, I wanted to understand migrations as evolutionary shortcuts, accelerated courses of social evolution and change.  

It is not only individuals who learn: so too do organizations, parties and states. After finishing the book, I started regretting that I failed to include arguments which occurred to me later. Bismarck wanted to defuse socialist agitators and offered a safety net for the poor. The Chinese communists copied his reforms. New Deal think tanks thought about the best practices to move farmers towards creative competition, and the Chinese communists copied them, too. Were Bismarck and Roosevelt patron saints of Mao’s children? Did social-democratic safety net and the capitalist competitive race serve as road maps of communist party cadres? Well, why not?

So for whom did I write The Third Enlightenment (or Globalizing Meritocracies) after all? It is for all readers, who want to be informed, especially if they suspect that there is no such thing as a free information lunch, because we pay with our attention. It is for all citizens, who are concerned about disinformation campaigns subjecting them to one shell shock after another. It is also for my fellow teachers, researchers and managers of our multifacial, multifaceted and multi-cultural educational enterprise. Let us go for the democracy of knowledge as John Lennon used to say: a learning class (s)hero is something to be!

Sławomir Magala taught cross-cultural management from 1985 to 2015 at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Magala wrote “Class Struggle in Classless Poland” (under the penname of Stanislaw Starski), when the Polish “Solidarność” started closing the communist experiment down in 1980 and published it in Boston’s South End Press in 1982. He is the author of Cross-Cultural Competence (2005) and The Management of Meaning in Organizations (2009).

The Third Enlightenment (or Globalizing Meritocracies) is available now at a special 25% discount. Enter the code PROMO25 at the checkout to redeem. The first 30-pages can be downloaded free of charge by clicking here.