Index notes—June 2

Index notes—June 2


Figure 2 is an effect of cultural-historical developmental processes, of which schooling itself is only one of several inputs affecting the cognitive and cultural development of situated organisms (not Cartesian selves).  Figure 1 is about the history and fate of the Enlightenment.  It is also about processes of production, not only of goods and services, but of human beings themselves.


The sharp decline in the scores of Korea, Finland, Netherlands, Belgium, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States suggests that the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries are where two lines of development--sociotechnical advance and cognitive regression--clash.  Capitalism--at least advanced capitalism--requires advanced minds. Narcissistic regression--the culture of consumption (see Hall et. al., Criminal Identities and Consumer Culture)--undermines the very possibility of advanced cognitive development.  (Steve Jobs article) 

The emergence of the intellectual cadre essential to our present civilization is neither normative nor inevitable.  Logical-scientific thinking (formal operational competence) on a mass scale is very recent (Flynn), unevenly distributed (Engeström), and now appears to be in decline.


Capitalism builds on two fundamentally opposed human processes: the discipline, deferred gratification, and sublimation that is the sine qua non of cognitive development, and an entropic drive emergent out of the proliferating appetites and desires of a population driven by increasingly complex psychological needs, stimulated and expressed in the marketplace.  These appetites and desires of postmodern capitalism gnaw away at the potential for self-discipline that is central to cognitive development. 


The media penetration of the nooks and crannies of everyday life, its orchestration of desire, its deployment of demons and heroes, its influence on reconfiguring the reference points for self-discipline, has yet to be appreciated, for it is not only as a theater of desire that the media functions.  The media also provides powerfully influential models of language use and cognitive processing for a large subset of the population.  (See Bronfenbrenner's bioecological model here.)

In Nietzsche two formulations of "nihilism": a literary-cultural formulation of despair at the loss of values; and a clinical formulation that might be called reverse Bildung: the unwinding of higher-level organizational structures and practices linked to cognitive development, self-discipline, and capacity for strategic planning: nihilism as entropy.  See Dupre for a concise expression of this.  Mass consumption, regressive narcissism (Hall) the highest stage of nihilism conceived of clinically.  This is the triumph of capitalism.  Organization at the level of capital; but entropy at the level of culture. 


It is too soon take make definitive statements--another two PISA evaluations in 2018 and 2021 would tell us a lot--but the picture so far is consistent with this concept of an inner decay of the very foundations of modern society.  The emergence of the intellectual cadre essential to our present civilization is neither normative nor inevitable.  Logical-scientific thinking (formal operational competence) on a mass scale is very recent (Flynn) and unevenly distributed (Engeström).  And now, with the election of Donald Trump (which itself is a symbol as well as an expression of that inner rot), we can expect a range of policies that will drive U.S. cognitive performance even lower, possibly beyond the point of no return--possibly we are already there (see Finnish Lessons).