A few days ago, I had the following Twitter exchange with Anya Kamenetz:
Anya: @mfeldstein67 as a system, probably not. Legacy assets/components? Yes. Roman Empire falls. Rome (city) thrives to this day.
Me: @anya1anya Easier to be blithe about the fall of the Roman Empire given that the Romans who suffered through it are all dead.
Me: @anya1anya Terrifying is the right word. The question we face is, what was Pandora’s moral obligation *after* she opened the box?
Me: @anya1anya Depends. Are we agents or witnesses? Maybe both. But I think it’s easier to be Cassandra than Pandora. No responsibility.
Anya: @mfeldstein67 Actually, I’m just the kid in The Emperor’s New Clothes.
Me: @anya1anya I don’t buy that. If you believe it, then why bother writing the book? You are only Cassandra if you choose to be.
I was surprised (but probably shouldn’t have been) to then see her reflect on this exchange thusly:
We just need to start being very creative about how we deal with the acceleration. I want to be a friend of change. I think there’s been a little bit of a debate already about the book coming out. I get asked, Are you a Pandora opening up Pandora’s Box, or are you a Cassandra, declaiming that things are doomed and that other things are coming up in their place? I kind of don’t want to take responsibility for either of these [viewpoints]. I think we are all imagining a different kind of future and I want to be on the side of the future and not on the side of the past.
It certainly wasn’t my intention to imply that Anya personally is releasing all the horrors from the box. Nor, I see now, was the idea I have in my head regarding Pandora (and Cassandra, for that matter) what came through in my tweets. Apparently, Twitter is not a good medium for midrash. I have also struggled to communicate the same feelings in conversations with folks like Jim Groom and Stephen Downes. So I’m going to try something a little different here and take an uncharacteristic flight of literary fancy. I hope you will indulge me.
The question I want to address is this: Should Pandora have opened the box?
There are many variants of the Pandora story. Most of them are somewhere between the mildly misogynistic and the wildly misogynistic. Let’s set that part aside. (Elision is part of the art of midrash.) In a number of different variants, Pandora has some relationship to Prometheus. Sometimes she is his wife. Other times she is Man’s punishment for accepting fire from Prometheus. Either way, she is associated with humankind gaining fire, i.e., practical knowledge. In most of the better known versions of the story, Pandora is motivated by curiosity, not spite. She just wants to know what’s in the damned box.
What comes out of the box are disease, despair, malice, greed, old age, hatred, death, violence, cruelty, war…and hope. Mostly pretty sucky stuff. But I want to make two points here. First, the gods, who are not exactly all sweetness and light in Greek mythology, trick Pandora by playing on the essential human thirst for knowledge—the thing that truly brought us fire. In Aeschylus’ version of the story, Prometheus also gave humans the arts of civilization, including writing, mathematics, agriculture, medicine and science. We want to know, and the spiteful gods use that against us. Second, would you go for a world without war, disease, death, etc., if it also had no hope? Would you make that trade? I don’t think humans are wired to make that trade. Even Jeremy Bentham, the father of hedonistic calculus, thought that is was “better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” The Pandora story, to me, is a variant of the Eve story. And for the record, I’m with Eve on this one. I’d pick that apple. In my book, Pandora and Eve are heroes. They have to do what they do. It is what humans were made to do. We inquire. To be Pandoran is to be Promethean.1
But knowledge has consequences. If you know, then you are responsible. That is the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. We now have to take responsibility for the consequences of what we learn. And that, really, has been my point. If we know the system is broken, we have a responsibility to fix it. If we know that changing the system will have the consequence of hurting people, then we have to take responsibility for addressing that harm. We must remember that the second half of Kierkegaard’s famous expression “a leap of faith” is “in fear and trembling.” We have to take that leap of faith. But we do so knowing that there could be terrible consequences. That we could be wrong. That people could get hurt. We are responsible for the consequences of what we learn.
As for Cassandra, she is a ghost. On the downside, she is impotent. On the upside, she is free of responsibility. I don’t want to be Cassandra. I don’t want to just wave my hands in alarm and end up with only the cold comfort of “I told you so.” The boy in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is slightly better—he gets other people to see what he sees—but in the end, the Emperor keeps walking, convincing himself that he is right.
No. I want to be Pandora. I want to do something. I want to open the box. But opening the box is only where the story starts. I see a lot of enthusiasm for changing the education system, and that is good. All I wanted to add is that we have to look squarely at the scope of the consequences and to own them. If we need to change our system of education, then let’s do it. Let’s take that leap of faith—but in fear and trembling.
- Please, no James Cameron jokes. I’m begging you. [↩]