A Pedagogy for Troubled Times

In Search of the Good Life: A Pedagogy for Troubled Times

Presentation of the Russian Edition of the book In Search of the Good Life: A Pedagogy for Troubled Times by Fred Dallmayr, which took place at the Educational panel of the seventh Rhodes Forum held October 8 – 12, 2009.

This is a happy occasion. It is with great pleasure that I introduce here the Russian edition of my book In Search of the Good Life: A Pedagogy for Troubled Times. The edition was commissioned by the “World Public Forum — Dialogue of Civilizations.” I thank the Forum and especially the translators and editors of my book. The work is meant as a contribution to education and also to the dialogue of civilizations, to the dawn of a new era in international politics — an era replacing the old “Cold War” between East and West with an international regime based on mutual recognition and respect. The Cold War was founded on hostility, on mutual deterrence, that is, the constant threat of mutual annihilation and destruction. The new regime, by contrast, seeks to promote amity, good will, and continued life — not death. A life among people devoted to amity, good will, and the pursuit of justice is called the “good life.” This is reflected in the title of my book.

In large measure, the old Cold War was a contest between two superpowers: the United States and the Soviet Union. After 1989, the Soviet Union was transformed into the Russian Federation. Still today, the effort to banish the specter of the Cold War requires, first of all, a reconciliation betweenAmericaandRussia, that is, the attempt to build bridges of good will between these two countries. I view the Russian edition of my book as one (admittedly small) pillar on such a bridge. For this reason, I sincerely welcome the translation. Here today, on this panel devoted to “Education,” I want to do three things: first, I want to say something about the translation of the book; secondly, I want to address more generally the issue of education or pedagogy; and lastly I want to comment on the relevance of the book in the context of our globalizing world.


(1) The Russian edition actually translates only part of my book: the part focusing on practical applications of the search for the good life. What kind of applications? In my book I discuss several ways in which good will among countries and societies can be promoted. One concerns the spreading of democracy around the world. Can this be done through military force, with one country imposing its model of democracy on others? In my view, democracy is indeed a good and desirable thing; but its dissemination in the world cannot happen by force, but only through moral persuasive and especially through the presentation of a good example to others. This surely is a kind of “pedagogy in troubled times.”

Another issue concerns the political use of moral or religiously charged rhetoric, such as the employment of such slogans as “evil empire” or “axis of evil.” As it seems to me, through such rhetoric opponents are demonized and the possibility of mutual good will is undercut. Again, there may be (and surely is) “evil” in this world; but the use of such rhetoric is not a proper means of education or pedagogy. A final, though related issue concerns the role of religion or religious faith in public or political life. Should religion assert itself as a direct political force? Should it aspire to be an established state religion, perhaps a type of theocracy? In this case, religion inevitably turns into a worldly or secular power. In this manner, however, it loses its educational potential: its ability to elevate people and to contribute to the needed moral pedagogy in our troubled time.

(2) Let me say something more general about education. My book was written in agony: agony over the loss of direction, the disregard of the search for the “good life” (in favor of unilateralism, militarism, and imperial power ambitions). Agony also ever the widespread lack in contemporary education of concern with the cultivation of ethical and civic virtues. In our “information age,” we are largely uninformed, untutored about virtues and the search for the good life. So let me say a few things about the relation between education and that search.

Education for me does not just mean the accumulation of information or factual knowledge. It does not mean the mere transfer of information from one mind to another mind; nor does advancement in education mean that this transfer occurs most speedily, most efficiently, most competently. Basically, education seeks to foster thoughtfulness, reflectiveness, thinking. In our high-speed society, this means that we should not proceed in “fast-forward,” but actually slow down. In this manner, education can encourage thinking — thinking about what? Thinking about the basic questions: Who am I? What is the point of life, the point of my own life, the point of my life together with fellow-beings? What am I doing? What should I be doing? What is the good and proper way for me to behave? And here we are already at the crux of education: what would it mean for me and others to pursue the “good life”?

The term “good life” comes to us from the Greeks, especially from Aristotle (who used the term “eu zen”). Good life here does not mean an affluent life, a luxurious life, a life of ease and comfort. It means a life oriented toward “goodness,” a life oriented toward the great Platonic ideas of goodness, truth, and beauty. It means a life guided by “virtue,” especially by the so-called “cardinal virtues” (temperance, courage, justice, and wisdom).

Is there such goodness? We have a lot of skepticism in our time about this question — often a well-founded skepticism. It is well-founded when goodness is politically manipulated, for the benefit of political (or clerical) elites. Note that my book is not called “The Theory or Doctrine of the Good Life,” but the “search” for it. A doctrine becomes too quickly an ideology, a totalitarian blueprint, an instrument to dominate and coerce others (especially dissenters). But should we therefore despair and stifle the longing in our heart for goodness and justice? This seems to me excessively debilitating. We may not have a full grasp of goodness, but we have certain clues, hunches, or guideposts.

In searching for goodness we are actually searching for the “way” (what Asian thinkers call the “tao”), for the right way to be on the way; and our search is (or can be) aided by some exemplary teachers, tutors, or educators. The first part of my book (not translated into Russian) is entirely devoted to such guides called “exemplary searchers in the past.” They range from St. Bonaventure, Nicolaus of Cusa, and the Indian post-saint J?anadev to Leibniz, Montesquieu, and Schiller (especially his “Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Humankind”). In other places I have paid tribute to such mentors as Erasmus, al-Farabi, and Mahatma Gandhi — all helpful guides along the way.

(3) But should these guideposts not be expanded in our age of globalization? How is the search for the good life related to the so-called “dialogue among civilizations”? In a nutshell: for me they are intimately related. Searching for the good life in our time means precisely engaging in such a dialogue among civilizations. Note that the mentors in my book were incipiently engaged in such dialogue: Nicolaus of Cusa with the Turks, Leibniz with Chinese Confucianism, and Montesquieu with the Persians (in his Persian Letters). Of course, one needs to go beyond these examples today. I myself have tried to do that in several ways. Earlier (in 2002) I published a book titled Dialogue Among Civilizations where you find references to such thinkers, intellectuals, and poets like Ibn Rushd, Hafiz, Raimon Panikkar, Abdolkarim Soroush, D. P. Chattopadhyaya, and Enrique Dussel. Over the past ten or fifteen years I have also been strongly involved in the East-West dialogues sponsored by the East-West Center in Hawaii. I have actively participated in, and even served as president of, the Society for Asian and Comparative Philosophy (SACP). In addition, I have tried to promote comparative or cross-cultural political philosophy, both by teaching classes in this area for many years at my university and by serving as general editor of a book series called “Global Encounters: Studies in Comparative Political Theory.” (Starting in 1999, the series has published some 18 volumes by 2009.)

But I want to return to my book. In the Introduction I pay tribute to a great scholar, a sociologist of education by the name of Elise Boulding who, some fifteen years ago, published a book titled Building a Global Civic Culture: Education for an Interdependent World. There Boulding writes, in a passage that captures the gist of my “search for the good life”: “How will we go about extending the concept of civic culture to the planet itself and developing a sense of a world public interest (or a global common good)? Can we stay rooted in our own communities, retain the best of our own ways, and still develop cooperative strategies for human needs everywhere, in a linked system of mutual aid that respects the integrity of other ways of life?” As she adds: “The learning task is a large one — but it is not out of reach.”