The nature of Kaos Pilots and the question of pragmatism

Kaos Pilots is described on Wikipedia as a ‘School of New Business Design and Social Innovation.’ On its own website, Kaos Pilots describes itself as ‘a hybrid business and design school, a multi-sided education in leadership and entrepreneurship.’ But I’m not sure that it is a business school or a design school or a social innovation school or some hybrid. If it were, then it would have no business inviting a philosopher to teach there three years in a row. Nor could it easily explain the presence of other guest lecturers, many of whom do not have backgrounds in business, design, or leadership.

These descriptions simply do not fit the varia of phenomena. If I don’t believe that it is, strictly speaking, a business, design, art, or leadership school, or else some combination thereof, then what do I think it is and what could the school become? The school is rooted, I think, in the folk high school tradition which emerged in Scandinavia in the nineteenth century. Wikipedia nicely, if inelegantly, puts the thought that such schools, meant to be a form of popular, lifelong learning, ‘should educate [its students] for life. They should shed light on [the] basic questions surrounding [the] life of people both as individuals and as members of society.’

The above thought is too broad, though it provides the right coordinates to begin inquiring into what this school is: Kaos Pilots is a school devoted to educating its students in life. Yet life cannot be divorced from its time, from its particular historical moment, and so, given that our time is post-industrial, the question then becomes how to educate its students in order to live by their wits in a post-industrial age–by their cleverness, their ingenuity, their knack, their honed talents.

I believe there are three ways of doing so, all of which would provide unity and coherence to the curriculum, shaping what the school could offer and illuminating what sort place it could ultimately become. The first is the cultivation of character. The shift I have in mind is away from skills and competencies discourse and toward the teaching of excellences, virtues, and their integration into a well-rounded character. Few modern schools explicitly teach character education (see my ‘Whither Moral Education?,’ World and I, November 2011) but resort instead to supplying their students with a set of skills or to trumpeting a formalized, vague notion of ‘critical thinking.’ This is a failure in conception if, as I think, we want to become outstanding human beings.

The second is a clear statement of a finite set of final aims. For only when a school can say what it is for can a student discover a definite path, one upon which he can walk. Thereby, the school and student can proceed in tandem. And the third is a comprehensive picture of seemingly incompatible vocabularies. Left largely unbroached has been the question of how to help students come to a synoptic view of the various opinions, arguments, and worldviews held by guest lecturers giving talks and workshops week after week.

One immediate obstacle to the project I envision is the school’s background commitment to a certain pragmatism. This would have it that one can always speak of ideas as if they were tools and instruments, of the usefulness of certain idea-tools and instruments, and of the application of these idea-tools or instruments to certain projects. The idea is that all discourses, however incommensurable and heterogenous, can be reduced to tools used for different things or applied to different tasks in order to do or produce something (of value). Thinking in these terms, students can ask, ‘How might the ideas of guest lecturer X be used or applied to Y?’ And they can go on to think, ‘All of these ideas, whose origins are doubtless remote, are simply different parts to be added to my Swiss Army knife.’

But this can’t be right for not all thinking can be reduced to tool usage since not all thinking involves a practical engagement with the world. Not all ideas are such as to make things happen. Moreover, ideas coming from different people and different sources are not so easily put on the same tool belt, as it were. Conflicts are bound to arise, inconsistencies to present themselves, sometimes painfully in one’s thinking. One can feel the torsion when one tries to wrench everything into this pragmatist picture.

This pragmatism founders when it comes to (a) thinking about the number of ways we can and do think about things (we size up, we measure, we take stock, we compare, we conclude, we get stumped, we experiment, we inquire, etc.), (b) the artistic and philosophical stances we can take toward things (puzzling through, appreciating, wondering, etc.), (c) the tensions, pressure points, and clashes that reveal themselves in our thinking and in our lives, and (d) the utter uselessness of certain things which does not entail their lack of value (e.g., love is useless yet arguably of infinite value). Most important of all, pragmatism doesn’t allow one to think through any proposal with a view to doubting it, modifying it, accepting it up to a point, or rejecting it wholesale.

So, pragmatism would have to go before it would be possible to rethink what Kaos Pilots could become. In the following post, I begin to elaborate upon the cultivation of character, the need for a finite set of higher final aims, and the intellectual demand to ascend to a synoptic view of things.