Iain McGilchrist is a psychiatrist, doctor, writer, and former Oxford literary scholar. McGilchrist came to prominence after the publication of his book The Master and His Emissary, subtitled The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.
Below is an abridged extract from an interview with Iain McGilchrist conducted in July 2016. In this short excerpt Iain McGilchrist explains the importance of his question, and why a good education should be ‘maximally irrelevant’.
KP: Given the time you have spent researching and theorising about how humans interact with the world, would you be able to distil your main concerns into a question that you think it is particularly important for people to be asking themselves?
IM: The question that I think we should be asking ourselves is, what is it that my culture is preventing me from seeing? Not, what is it that my culture is banging on about – let me see if I can jump on that bandwagon, but let me see how disruptive and controversial I can be. What I mean is standing a lot of that stuff up on its head. Accepting that there is no truth, however good, that is always true in all circumstances. Or that can be taken so far that it doesn’t become a danger or a problem. Built into every truth is a hidden untruth, and it’s our job to uncover those. So, adopting that attitude to received wisdom – inverting it – and asking what is it that is hidden from me, is terribly important…
KP: Might you be able to offer an example?
IM: A very obvious one in the UK would of course be religious belief. A lot of people now think that religious beliefs are not beliefs that anyone very intelligent or well educated could possibly hold. This is patently untrue. I suppose another is the absolutely rigid view of the life sciences that the model that reveals truth about living things, is the mechanical one. It is just taken for granted by many in the biological sciences that everything is treated as a mechanism – though physics has long discovered that everything cannot be treated as a mechanism. That is an example of a dogma that cannot be questioned in the mainstream academy. If you do, you are branded as a bit odd or eccentric.
KP: Would Rupert Sheldrake be a good example of this, his TED talk was initially banned for questioning scientific orthodoxy?
IM: Yes exactly. One would have thought that the whole purpose of science was to look at things from a different point of view, and be able to see what it is that one is not seeing. It is no secret that science is an establishment that rewards people who toe the line.
KP: Where then should we look for the answer the question you pose?
IM: There are a number of ways. It seems to me that education has become more and more about exam passing. And exam passing is more and more about saying certain things that people find important. It seems that education is more about filling brains, than teaching people to think.
Education ought to be about drawing something out, not putting something in. One of the things that people should be taught at school, is to think critically about the things that they consider most indisputably correct. So all the things that people assume are right, try and argue and find reasons why it might not be right. To be trained in school to argue passionately for something that you believe in, and then to argue just as passionately against it. I think teachers should be subversive, they should be constantly subversive. Why are children bored? Because they are not being made to think. We are boring children, which is a sin. And we’re creating not very good citizens for the future, because they need to be able to think in the round. To think flexibly. And not to be so sure of their opinions that they can shout down people at universities because they don’t like their opinions. Education shouldn’t be confirming what children are already believing – in that sense the worst possible philosophy is that education should be relevant. It should be maximally irrelevant. It should not aim to tell them all the things they are hearing outside school all over again, but it should be making them think about all the things that people in other times, in other places, believed. Not in the sense of ‘well, they were stupid and didn’t know what we know’, but in a respectful way. One of the things that impresses me is how fantastically insightful people living 2000 years ago were. How in their relatively short lifespans, they were able to accomplish so much. To find people like that nowadays, would be very, very difficult. So to benefit from the all-round wisdom of ancient scholars, because if we don’t understand the history of ideas, we don’t understand our own ideas. There is no context from which to gain perspective on our views. If you’re too close to them, you can’t see them. If you’re too close to them, you don’t see the background against which to set them, which would automatically begin to mould them, to temper them, and to bring up contraries to them.
So as far as I am concerned, the absolutely key thing is to look for what it is that we may be missing, not for all the things that people are saying. It’s not until you consider other people’s truths that you begin to see how complex truth is, and you begin to doubt your immediate reactions – and that is the beginning of wisdom, when you start doubting the truths that you held.