What do the former NBA basketballer Dennis Rodman and recently published anti-intellectual Dale Stephens have in common? Both have recently gained popularity in the media. Rodman recently visited North Korea with several players from the Harlem Globetrotters. Resplendent in dark sunglasses and several metal rings hanging loosely from his nose and ears, Rodman proclaimed on a cable network which was beamed throughout the world that himself and ‘the dear leader’ Kim Jong Un were the best of friends. While Dale Stephens, claims he left school at 12 years of age and says that a University or College degree is irrelevant today.
Rodman qualified his new friendship with Kim Jung Un by saying he had put aside the bad things ‘the dear leader’ had done, and simply embraced him as a friend would – foibles and all – even if those eccentricities included a repressed desire to destroy South Korea and its main ally the United States of America, of which Rodman is a citizen. His visit and remarks took me back some forty years ago, when the American actress Jane Fonda went to North Vietnam at the height of the war her country was embroiled in with the North. Among her most regrettable moments she claimed was when she was “duped” into sitting on a North Vietnam anti-aircraft gun after having denounced her country’s political and military leaders as ‘war criminals’ and the soldiers fighting the war as “liars” who had never been subjected to torture. In fairness to Fonda, she has over the years expressed regret at her actions and comments. Will Rodman and Google CEO Eric Schmidt regret their visits to North Korea before or after ‘the dear leader’ provokes a nuclear conflagration on the Korean peninsula? It’s too soon to tell, but the burning question for both these citizens of the United States of America, whose country is technically still at war with North Korea – why go there? What did they gain from it? What did the people of North Korea and the United States of America gain from the visit? What did the world gain from it?
Both Rodman and Schmidt, along with ‘the dear leader’ gained media publicity and a degree more of the celebrity status to which they have become accustomed. Pictures of the tall Rodman in sunglasses toasting the short stature of ‘the dear leader’ over a sumptuous dinner, while more than three quarters of the North Korean population go hungry, suggested not a genuine friendship based on acceptance, trust, dignity, mutual love and respect, but one of usury, manipulation and opportunism. One, a fading NBA star out on the hustings to resurrect his dying celebrity status, and another of a vertically challenged person whose boyhood fantasy was either to play in the NBA or conquer the world-clearly neither of which he has or (Insha’Allah) ever will achieve.
Perhaps Dennis Rodman and Eric Schmidt meant well, but then so many others before them have meant well too- Rudolph Hess meant well when he flew to England at the height of WW ll to negotiate a peace with the allies. Stalin meant well when he exiled Trotsky and subsequently engineered the latter’s death. Chairman Mao meant well when he began the Cultural Revolution which in turn caused the deaths of more than 30 million of his Chinese comrades. George W. Bush and Tony Blair meant well when they unilaterally invaded the sovereign state of Iraq. And there are still those to this day – however misguided they may be -who believe Hitler meant well too. Intentionality is an essential part of any action. Good intentionality will only produce good results. It is difficult to identify in Rodman and Schmidt’s actions any intentionality in terms of alleviating human suffering, or contributing to a greater good in a country where potential basketball players and IT engineers suffer from rickets and other bones diseases caused through malnourishment, hunger and basic deprivation of even rudimentary health care. Both men had choices as high profile media personalities. Why not a trip to China’s restless Sichuan province or Lhasa in Tibet and highlight the genocidal atrocities being carried out daily by the army, secret police and gendarmes of the People’s Republic of China, or to Zimbabwe where the black and white people suffer ongoing political and social repression while Robert Mugabe in the late stages of senility bleeds all the riches from his country and spends tens of thousands of pounds on a sumptuous, extravagant birthday party for himself. But, as Rodman celebrates his new life-long friend, and Schmidt manages to get permission to turn a ‘Google’ satellite upon the impoverished and failed state of North Korea after they had recently launched their own satellite, and conducted a massive underground nuclear test, the western media revels in the achievements of two audacious self-serving individuals.
Dale J Stephens is also self-serving in his intentionality. He campaigns upon a belief that a College or University education is an outdated and unnecessary credential in an age of post-modern and advanced capitalism. Stephen’s carries a similar message to the great philosopher and intellectual Ivan Illich, that society needs less schooling rather than more schooling. Stephen’s online ‘UnCollege manifesto’, similar to the Marxist manifestos encourages subversion and undermining of the current institutionalised approach to education. However, unlike Illich who did benefit from an extensive education which included fluency in ten languages and degrees in Theology and Philosophy, Stephens offers a simple kind of fantasy path to consumer enlightenment where a beaming Bill Gates surrounded by a brilliant white light will welcome all college dropouts to entrepreneur nirvana. His mantra is disturbingly like the new age idea that one can think their way into a successful job, career and happy life. He writes “If you want educational freedom badly, and are willing to take a few leaps of faith, change is possible. You really can lead the life you want, learning along the way. You can have it all – the only things you’ll have to give up are the societal assumptions and expectations that serve as your comfort zone. Step outside that zone and you’ll be on your path to success” (Stephens, 2011). There’s no substance here except the great capitalist mantra that “you can learn from life and change the world” (Stephens, 2011) while someone else takes what little money you have from you. Unlike Stephens, Illich was a vociferous social critic and offered alternatives to the West’s institutionalised, material ridden consumerist culture. Stephen’s on the other hand is riding on the back of a corrupt entrepreneurial culture where success is gauged by how much money you can make with or without a formal education. Bill Gates delights in telling his audiences he was a college dropout. Stephens does the same. Moreover it is not entirely true that Stephens forfeited a formal education. He did attend Hendrix College in Arkansas for a while and was later granted a Thiel Fellowship in which the recipient forgoes College or University for two years to focus on “their passions” Furthermore, most internship and Fellowships are considered aspects or parts of formal education. What Stephens’ offers is a lie-that one can think their way to success, and that study, hard work and a well gained credential from a College or University is useless in the 21st century. He writes “no matter if you are a college student, high school student, unschooler, home schooler, and/or lifelong learner you can completely redefine higher education. You can learn from life and change the world” (Stephens, 2011). Stephens complains that a formal education “rewards conformity, rather than independence, competition rather than collaboration, regurgitation rather than learning, and theory rather than application” (Wikipedia, 2013). This is a misrepresentation and gross distortion of higher education from someone who never experienced it, and like Bill Gates dropped out and then attacked it for his own commercial gain. Higher education may well reward conformity through learning higher level thinking skills-such skills are necessary and essential to plough through the kind of sophistry being peddled by Stephens and his cabal of hackademics. A College/University education does encourage independence and competition; after all if one cannot hold their ground in a competitive and sophisticated legal argument they won’t make a good lawyer. Similarly, if an undergraduate doesn’t learn the art of rhetoric and critical thinking they won’t recognise the manipulation and usury in commercial competition and entrepreneurship, and if they don’t learn theory they’ll never be able to apply frameworks of thinking into their personal and professional lives. A College or University education does not guarantee a job, but it does guarantee a defensive logic against the propaganda being promoted by the ‘UnCollege manifesto’ and the stunts and antics of Rodman and Schmidt. Stephens is no Ivan Illich, Rodman is no Kofi Annan and Schmidt lacks the wisdom, knowledge and training of Dag Hammarskjold. A College or University education could be as T.S Eliot wrote:
“The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to GOD.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust” (Eliot, 1963)
Or depending on an enquirer’s intentionality there could be no limit to what may be discovered through a formal higher education. It could make the earth a more sustainable, just, habitable and harmonious planet in which to live.
Eliot, T. (1963). Collected Poems. London: Faber and Faber Ltd.
Stephens, D. (2011). the UnCollege manifesto: your guide to academic deviance replacing college with self-directed learning. USA: Creative Commons Attribution.
Wikipedia. (2013, February 10). Dale J Stephens. Retrieved March 4, 2013, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dale_J._Stephens