Cultural history and the evolution of consciousness

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A Curriculum Design Proposal for The Ross School

for Kindergarten through Grade Twelve
(July 14, 1995

Revised, December 23, 1996,

March 19, 1999

August 1, 1999

March 24, 2000)

Copyright, 2000

by William Irwin Thompson

and the Ross Institute
Part One

Introduction: Curriculum and Consciousness

A curriculum is a miniaturization of one civilization and a transition to the next. The Irish monks of the Dark Ages of Western Europe miniaturized Graeco-Roman civilization into the curriculum of the classics and thus established the foundation for what would become the high civilization of medieval Western Europe. And so now is it necessary for us to miniaturize the civilization we are leaving in preparation for the civilization we are about to enter.

To prepare the young for the future, adults have to know where they are in the present. Our historical situation is that we are shifting from the era of a global industrial economy of territorial nation-states to a planetary cultural-ecology of noetic polities. This shift involves three disorienting melt-downs or disintegrations that can confuse both teacher and student alike. The first melt-down is the disintegrationor properly speaking the evolutionary and catastrophic restructuringof the biosphere. A new relationship between the global economy and the global ecology is forcing us to understand the intimate relationship between culture and nature in ways that were not obvious for Industrial Man. As the currents of the biosphere interact with the national currencies of the economy, the heating up of the atmosphere through the Greenhouse Effect affects global weather patterns and hundred-year floods become annual events that begin to cluster with hurricanes, continental forest-fires, and other disasters to exhaust the reserves of insurance companies and the emergency funds of territorial nation-states. The planetary dynamics of this globally turbulent system cannot be modeled or contained by national governments, and the shadow cast by this catastrophe is actually a carciatured form of the newly emerging planetary cultural-ecology. So the melt-down of the traditionally taken-for-granted biosphere is inseparable from the secondary meltdown of the territorial nation-state.

The third melt-down or restructuring is the meltdown of the human body. John Maynard Smith has shown that in evolution when a new and more complex level of evolution emerges, the older constituent units lose their ability to reproduce as reproduction passes to the higher and more complex levels of organization. Today human sperm counts are declining and we do not see evolution introducing new versions of Homo sapientissima but rather complex noetic polities in which humans are clustering in global electronic networks of consciousness. Machines which were once external to us are now becoming intimate architectures of our involvement with other minds, other cultures, other heavenly bodies. The shadow-form that is prefiguring our transition from one biological state of being to another is disease. The disruption of the biosphere in the destruction of the rain forests is kicking viruses up into the global atmosphere where they serve as disrupters of the immune systems that have served as traditional definers of the fence between self and other, nurture and nature. This supersaturated solution of viruses, chemical pollution, and electromagnetic fields of noise and radiation that we now call home is accelerating evolutionary change through evolutionary pollution. As some scientists now claim, the plague of AIDS is not a viral disease, but a DNA disease. Since DNA is the language of inheritance and mutation, this evolutionary drama is not occurring at the 28 frames per second of the movies made for the human eye. This historical phenomenon is not an event like the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima, it is a transformation. It is much more like the hominization of the primates than the industrial revolution.

By now I hope that I have suggested to you that the textbooks in schools are not educating the young for the world they will inhabit, and that the news on TV is not informing us about what is really happening on the evolutionary news. Education has always been about what teachers see in the rearview mirror. So a patriarchal culture will write a heroic history as if the story was only about great men and great battlesfrom Alexander to Caesar to Wellington and Napoleon, Montgomery and Rommel. And when these historians stop to think about science and art, they simply duplicate their heroic narratives and give us Newton and Beethoven as geniuses fighting against the titanic forces of darkness and ignorance. Then along comes a revolutionary class that mocks the narratives of the ruling elite and claims that history is not about individuals but large and impersonal economic forces. This battle between Carlyle and Marx, like the battle between dead white males and women of color of today, is the noisy rocking back and forth of scholarly hobby horses in academic ruts that loudly creak but get us nowhere. Unfortunately, public school systems are the battlefield in which the dying ethnicities of the past fight for three dimensional space in a scientific world that has already moved beyond into ten dimensional string theory.

The public school system was a response to the elimination of the child labor that had been fine for the farm but was not fine for the factory; it was also a response to the waves of immigration from the Old World to the New, a response to the democritization of information in print that allowed institutions to do what once only the family did. The American public school was intended to take the child away from the foreign-accented parent and make it American through textbook standardizations of culture. But now, thanks to electronic systems of communication and community, the public age of the public school is over. The institution of education for the present is the noetic lattice. This type of school is more like an electron than a nucleus: it has an orbit but not a simple location; it travels through the third dimension of extensive space, the fourth dimension of time, the fifth dimension of the intensification of consciousness in the infinitesimal as well as the infinite, and the sixth dimension of transhuman clusters that bring people together in synchronous associations that form connectionist architectures that Western Civilization first experienced in the seizure of sacred consciousness that established the networks of cathedrals across Europe. Think of it as being inspired or touched by an angel of time, a Zeitgeist.

The curriculum I propose is just such an expression of a reverence for the intercessionary touch of angels of time. It is a curriculum about the evolution of consciousness that is itself a performance of the evolution of consciousness. It is not simply a professional educational bureaucracys organization of textbooks and cultural information but an individual expression of the transformation of culture.

A curriculum cannot simply be a list of facts, anymore than a language can be a list of the words used in that tongue. A curriculum expresses the syntax of a language in a poetic way that both instructs and delights. The story of the human evolution of consciousness should itself unfold that evolution of consciousness in a form of Haekelian ontogony recapitulating phylogeny.

So let us jump up into the eye of a satellite to look down on the immensity of human history to see its organization as transformations embodied in various cultural-ecologies.

1. Hominization = 4,000,000 to 200,000 B.C.E.

2. Symbolization = 200,000 to 10,000 B.C.E.

3. Agriculturalization = 10,000 B.C.E. to 1500 C.E.

4. Industrialization = 1500 to 1945.

5. Planetization = 1945 to present.
These large scale transformations of culture can be seen to express evolutionary bifurcations. At each fork in the road, the old adaptive behavior does not disappear, but the new chreod of development does open up into a whole new adaptive landscape of possibilities, and as some organisms cross the threshold into this landscape, the whole relationship of organism and environment changes. This relationship between organism and environment is not a simple one in which the environment determines everything. From photosynthesizing anaerobic bacteria in the Hadean epoch to women gatherers in the early Neolithic period, the relationship is a dynamical one in which the organisms change the environment and the environment channels their natural drift in new directions with new effects. What may have been an unplanned and unconscious or random act of making do with what is at hand becomes an event with consequences. As this event contributes to a cascade of accumulating differences, primates and humans, or savages and scientists, can find themselves living in different worlds.

This curriculum is not an ideological paean to industrial progress, but it does attend to the cultural moment in which the bifurcation emerges. Each of the bifurcations, or transformations of culture, noted above is not simply a change in technology, from stone tools to computers, because a technological innovation is itself deeply embedded in various forms of human symbolic systems as well as various forms of human polity. Cultural history, as opposed to the more linear history of technology, is concerned with the complex dynamical system in which biological natural drift, ecological constraints, and systems of communication and social organization all interact in a process of dependent co-origination.Thus, these five bifurcations or transformations of culture can be understood to involve five forms of social organization.
1. The Primate Band

2. The Tribe expanding to Clans

3. The City-State expanding to Empires.

4. The Industrial Nation-State expanding to a world economy.

5. Global Noetic Polities.
Each of these polities, as Marshall McLuhan noticed, can be seen to be expressive of forms of communication.
1. Oral

2. Script

3. Alphabetic

4. Print

5. Electronic
The German philosopher of the evolution of consciousness, Jean Gebser, looked at this same historical progression but saw it in terms of various mutations of the structures of consciousness that proceeded through the following transformations.
1. Archaic

2. Magical

3. Mythical

4. Mental

5. Integral
In collaboration with the mathematician Ralph Abraham, I proposed in 1985 that Western Civilization could be redescribed as a development through four cultural-ecologies, the Riverine, the Mediterranean, the Oceanic, and the Biospheric, and that each of these cultural-ecologies was characterized by a mathematical and literary mentality which brought forth a new world view. The Riverine cultural-ecology is what we conventionally know as the Ancient Civilizations. The Mediterranean cultural-ecology is what we know as the Classical Civilizations. The Atlantic cultural ecology was the global projection of European civilization in the time of the shift from medievalism to modernism. And the fourth cultural ecology is our contemporary world civilization in which a global economy is struggling to come to terms with a global ecology in some new form of scientific-spiritual noetic polity, a polity that for lack of a better word I call an ecumene. The Ross School and the Ross Institute are focused on the implications for the education of the young of this shift from a global collection of warring industrial nation-states to a new planetary ecumene.

The curriculum I designed for the Ross School was worked out in collaboration with Ralph Abraham, so the mentality fundamental to a cultural ecology was understood to be at once a literary and mathematical mentality. Our intent with the curriculum was to attend to the cultural bifurcations in which a new mathematical-literary mentality emerged. These mentalities are:
1. Arithmetic.

2. Geometric

3. Algebraic

4. Galilean Dynamical

5. Complex Dynamical
The Arithmetic Mentality is that of prehistory and the Ancient Civilizations; it is a generative mentality concerned with the problem of how the One becomes many, i.e., how the Great Mother gives birth to her offspring and generates difference and time in the form of the male. The architecture for this mentality is the human body and the ancient statues of the Great Mother are an iconic expression of this world view.

The Geometric Mentality is the mentality of the Classical Civilizations, and its architecture is architecture itself.

The Algebraic Mentality is the mentality of the medieval civilizations; its architecture is a celestial code, that is, a shift from the concrete object to an empowering description registered in a numinous script. This mentality is also expressed in calligraphy, both Celtic and Arabic, and is a form of expression in which a visionary script is seen to be an angelic epiphany of neoplatonic celestial intelligences.

The Galilean Dynamical Mentality has as its architecture bodies in motion, whether they be planets, canon balls, or monetary systems of currency.

The Complex Dynamical Mentality has only recently emerged and is not yet understood by the culture as a whole but is more the focus of attention for institutes of advanced study, such as the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. The architecture for this mentality is the system of systems, an emergent metasystem that is concerned with the architecture of all possible architectures, real or virtual. One result that we can anticipate with the emergence of this new mentality is an etherealization of architecture, the emergence of a new technology in which structures will be turned on and off in manifestation, much in the way we enter the dark and turn on the lights.

Now each of these mathematical mentalities and each of McLuhans forms of communication or Gebsers structures of consciousness can also be seen to be constitutive of various forms of human societal associations.
1. Culture.

2. Society.

3. Civilization.

4. Industrialization

5. Planetization.
And each of these societal forms can be seen to embody a characteristic mode of human relationship.
1. Dominance

2. Authority

3. Justice

4. Representation

5. Participation.
In the hominid Band the system of association is based on Dominance. This form of association has returned as a nativistic reaction to the cultural entropy of the megalopolis and has become the teenage gang. In Society the form of human association is based on Authority, matristic or patriarchal. This form of association also has its nativistic return in the figure of the guru or prophet at the head of a cult or sect. Civilization is an effort through writing, written laws, and literature and philosophy to achieve a balance between the conflicting powers of military dominance and religious authority in the form of a system of justice. Platos Republic and Sophocless Antigone are cultural documents that capture the conflict of this cultural shift from a warrior society to a literate civilization. The nativistic return of Civilization is expressed in the miniaturized city-state of the university surrounded by the cultural entropic zone of the ghetto. Think of Columbia and the University of Chicago. Within these fortresses of higher learning, academics like Allan Bloom speak out as nativistic Platos. In national politics the system of association is based on representation, but in the informational overload of the electronic media, this system breaks down and can no longer be based on pamphleteering, philosophical books, and reasoned discourse. It becomes a crossing of entertainment, televized sports, and celebrity management in cultures of the shared consensual delusion we know of as an American presidential campaign. The citizen who is morphing into the loyal subject of the media demands participation in the pageantry. He or she too wishes to become a celebrity and go on television. People will do anything or say anything to go on afternoon talk shows. Good taste and decorum are expressions of the vanished civilization. Television becomes, in fact, a new kind of human sacrifice. Rather than an Aztec ripping out of the heart and a tumbling down the pyramid steps of the bloody corpse before the awe-inspired multitude, we have a form of evisceration in which the heart of the individuals life is ripped out. Lonely stalkers haunt their favorite celebrities and so anyone who becomes famous through TV has need of a private Secret Service security force. This system of celebritous association contributes to the generalized state of cultural entropy as each spectator of the pageantry of the media tries to become his or her own spectacle. Fast-fame take-outs litter the information superhighway strips of the new electronic America. The media accolyte seeks to attack the White House to gain attention, verbally expose himself sexually on afternoon talks shows, or form a congregation around his personal obsessions. Think of Lyndon Larouche or David Korech.

The new departure expressed by the AUM Shinrikyu movement in Japan or the Right Wing militias in America is that the nativistic movement has now moved up from level III to level IV. Cult is trying to become culture. Terrorism is amateur government. Sometimes in the cases of the Mafia in Sicily, the Medelin cartel in Columbia, the IRA in Ireland or the PLO in Israel, terrorism can successfully challenge the nation-states claim to a monopoly of legitimized violence. As the nation-state melts down in the global economy of GATT and NAFTA, the cult is actually declaring war on the nation-state and declaring its own statehood. Ulster, Palestine, Quebec, Chiapas, Bosnia, Kurdistan, and Kosovo are not the only versions of this shift; religious groups such as AUM Shinrikyu and Aryan Nation can also seek territorial sanctification of their mental state of being. Not surprisingly, the United Nations is hated as a new catholic church with a new Inquisition fighting the forces of this new protestant reformation. As once local wildcat oil developers hated John D. Rockefeller and the worlds first multinational corporation, so now their grandchildren hate the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations, the United Nations, the Rockefellers, and the New World Order. Just as the United Nations makes its move to become a global police force and usurp from the nation-state the right to legitimacy in the application of military violence, so does the subnational group in a disunited nation make its move to regional militias that demand their rights to have weapons as good as the national soldiers they intend to fight.

As the politics of representational government is transformed by electronic media into made-for-television celebrity management, civilization melts down into academic subcultures of unpopular philosophy, religious movements and cults of authority, and gangs of primate dominance. Violence becomes the new mode of discourse, and terrorism becomes street-theatre in a literal from of Artauds theatre of cruelty. As McLuhan said, the sloughed-off environment becomes a work of art in the new and invisible environment. The new and invisible environment is the shift from Natural Selection through the vehicle of the human animal body to evolution by cultural intrusion. As sperm counts begin to drop from industrial pollution, reproduction shifts from the family to medibusiness. Just as once agribusiness appropriated the family farm, so now medibusiness is appropriating the family body. Small wonder that the radical right shout in the streets for family values. In suburban culture, with rifles and family values, we have the Ghost Dance of the Rednecks. In urban and postmodern culture, however, the body is the sloughed-off environment, so it is being painted, sculpted, pierced, lifted, and tucked. This is what tatooing and body piercing are all about in our retribalized global village in which sex as a reproductive way of life has been replaced by sexuality as a life-style: straight, gay, bi, or kinky. Since sex is no longer the agency of natural selection, sexual language becomes punctuation marks in the new discourse of violence in gangsta rap. Fuck, Mother-fuck and Bitch are not tropes in the traditional sense of poetic discourse; they are epigamic cries and part of the males sociobiological dance of display.

For the epoch of biological evolution the human body had its own forms of signaling when to start and when to stop violent conflict. As Conrad Lorenz demonstrated in his classic study On Aggression, when the wolf bares its throats to the fangs of its opponent wolf, it is a signal to the winner that he has achieved dominance and can now back off. Similarly, the great rack of antlers for the moose is not so much a weapon for stabbing and slicing, but a display meant only for those Twyla Tharp times when push comes to shove. Inevitably, one of the male bulls retreats and run-away violence and death are unnecessary. But because of what McLuhan termed the media extensions of man, the system of inhibition expressed in the body and its body-language with its millions of years of evolution is short-circuited. Consider that if we bodily bump into someone around the corner, we back off and courteously excuse ourselves. But if someone cuts in front of us on the highway in an automobile, we shout out our obscenities in a steel encasÝd rage. We lose the system of checks and balances expressed in the physical body with its biological systems for dealing with and containing aggression. Consider again how people on talk-radio will become enraged over the days news, or how people who live in the cyberspace of electronic bulletin boards will flame one another. There are no bodies in these modes of communication, so as we shift to out-of-the body forms of projection into cyberspace networks it is not surprising that the astral plane takes us over as we become possessed by those noetic parasites that older cultures liked to call demons. Cyberspace is a technological externalization of the astral plane, so, not surprisingly, it has its pornographic domains and terrorist bulletin boards for bomb-building. Much of the imagery of the electronic world of computer games and cyberpunk fiction is devoted to demons and dragons, voodoo and heavy metal comic book cartoons of beasts, monsters, and great-breasted amazon warriors. William Gibsons cyberpunk fiction is not about electronics and data, for his data-processing is far too grossly corporeal and materialistic for the true world of fibre optics and satellites. Gibson is a literary artist, the dharma-heir of Raymond Chandler and the thirties, and his books were about the disintegration of the body in the electronic world of that emerged with cyberspace in the 1980s.

The wonderful thing about Marshall McLuhan was that not only did he have an aphoristic gift for capturing complex transformations in a catchy phrase like The medium is the message, but he also had a more enduring general theory of the evolution of consciousness that he enlivened by pointing to fads and fetishes that only he could explain. When I was a young instructor at MIT in the sixties, McLuhan spoke to a small faculty meeting. His manner of speech incensed the engineers. McLuhan said The bomb is information. And the engineers went up in smoke. No doubt, because they had probably worked on building the cursed thing. But McLuhan was right. The bomb as information was the whole foundation for the Cold War world. McLuhan not only commented on fads and trends, he also made a prophesy on the future evolution of humanity. Ironically, good Catholic that he was, in his Playboy Interview in the sixties, McLuhan went back to Dante and prophesized about a time when the broken fragments of a retribalized humanity would be gathered up into the Mystical Body of Christ.

What McLuhan recognized, but did not explicitly state, was that our new highly advanced electronic media if used by evolutionarily unadvanced mortals will lead to cultural annihilation. These new media that work with the speed of light require a new spiritual consciousness of Light . They are so fantastically efficient that they cannot work to the good unless we are good; they only can be safely used if we tell the truth and live in the Truth. If we try to check and control them for lesser purposes of power, gain, misrepresentation, and the accumulation of wealth for private property in cyberspace, then blockages in the flow will generate distortions, noise, cyberterrorism, and a generalized cultural entropy in which no human relationships are possible. We end up in caricatures of religion in the form of demonic states of possession or William Gibsons dystopian nightmares of corporate disincarnation. Only now, thanks to cyberspace, these states of possession are not simply psychic states, they have become virtual states that are not restricted to Virtual Reality. Nothing less than Truth, Goodness, and a Buddhist universal compassion are going to get us through this transition from a global economy to a planetary ecumene. Our level of consciousness has now become our biggest obstruction to the continuity of human existence. We have made normalcy non-viable, so we have opted for an Up or Out scenario in cultural evolution. We either shift upward to a new culture of a higher spirituality to turn our electronic technologies into angelic cathedrals of light, or we slide downward to darkness and entropy in a war of all against all. As H. G. Wells warned us during the beginning of the period of Planetization: The future is a race between catastrophe and education.

If education is to respond to the challenge of ecological catastrophe, which H. G. Wells identified as the challenge of our era, educators need to appreciate that catastrophe bifurcations are part of the dynamic of the unfoldment of the evolution of consciousness. When the weather changes and the forests experience dessication, the primates are forced out into the open of the savannah. So another way of looking at this structural development of human culture is to see it as a movement through the various cultural-ecologies.
1. Silvan (The prehominid evolution of Ramapithecus )

2. Savannahan (from Australopithecus to Homo erectus )

3. Glacial (from archaic Homo sapiens to modern Homo sapiens )

4. Riverine (ancient civilizations)

5. Transcontinental (classical civilizations)

6. Oceanic (modern industrial nation-state societies)

7. Biospheric. (planetary noetic polities)
Now that I have placed the education of the young in the context of our contemporary evolution of consciousness, I think it is clear why training people for jobs in postindustrial society, or producing good patriotic citizens for America, is hopelessly naive if not outrightly ignorant of where we are in space and time. To found a new school for the new millennium, one has to have an appreciation of the planetary culture that is emerging along with our new global economy, and an understanding of just how deeply cultures are embedded in the ecologies that sustain their development.

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