The underlying purpose of this blog is to facilitate the completion of a book I started over 30 years ago while I was teaching in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My regularly taught classes were “Schools and Society” and “School Reform” plus a number of seminars the topics of which varied with the interests of students. My teaching afforded me a rare time to think and write about a question I had been fascinated with for quite a long time, that being the interplay between what people believed, or claimed they believed, and how they behaved. The fact if not the idea of a social contract has been around for a long long time. So also have beliefs a long tenure in human existence. The earliest bands of humans had to have had a social contract of some kind in order to survive. Hunting, as a group, large enough animals to feed a band is not something that can be accomplished without cooperation, which is a social contract, and a common belief in the methods and the outcome.
It isn’t known exactly how long humans inhabited the African savannahs as bands but we do know they eventually migrated out of that region and onto the European and Asian continents. The evolution of bands into villages, cities, kingdoms, states and countries followed a long progression of increasing complexity. Along with this social evolution came questions as a result, in no small measure, of having time to think about more than mere survival. One can imagine such questions as why is there rain or no rain. Why are there thunder and lightning, why are there eclipses – what are these phenomena and who/what causes them? If your only experiences with causation are your own actions and those of others like you it is not hard to imagine a “super- you” causing all of these other things to happen. From that anthropomorphism arose beliefs in “super- natural” causation and “super- natural” beings Of course there are many other kinds of beliefs large and small and I will explore some of those as I progress.
The Cuban Missile Crisis of the early 1960s when the world was at the brink of all-out nuclear war provides an example of how commitment to the social contract and personal beliefs can conflict. At that time I was a launch control officer in the U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Air Command, a 24 year old Lieutenant with the responsibility of dispatching a very large hydrogen weapon to the Soviet Union. I witnessed and I experienced the conflicts of heart and mind that accompanied the knowledge that one’s actions would destroy the world as we knew it.
The ultimate destruction that would have been wreaked had we launched our weapons was beyond anyone’s imagination. Yes, we were exquisitely trained and sworn to duty yet we remained men with minds and souls and with families we knew would not survive and every individual crewman had to handle this in his own way. Never before in the history of the human race had opposing forces been armed with global destructive power, it was terrifying, the responsibility was overwhelming. How could civilized people have come to this? Given a particular target the casualties would have been in the millions! Those of us charged with that responsibility to act were carrying out our beliefs and our commitment to what we perceived as our social contract – our sworn duty to defend our country. My friends, squadron mates from that time, and I still struggle after 50 years with the question. Such is the power of social contracts founded on beliefs.
The social contract is an enormous phenomenon and it affects everyone’s life even if one is completely unaware of it. And, whether or not people understand it as such they have no choice but to live it. Beliefs drive individuals and individuals drive society hence my belief that social contracts cannot be discussed in the absence of the belief systems that fuel them – they are the motive force, the fundamental energy that moves society. They are the “juice”. that drives us and because of this understanding I will explore here the relationships between beliefs and social contracts. That will be the purpose and objective of my book and of this blog. There will be no proposals for easy answers to the questions raised simply because ( I believe) there are none.
We live in a time when passing in a no passing zone is commonplace, when wealthy people and corporations manipulate legislators to lower their taxes at the expense of wage earners, when legislators on national and local levels think nothing of accepting gifts of money given to their PACs in return for taking positions favorable to the gift-givers, when lawyers lie before the court and before judges to whom they have given public endorsement for election, when judges pay under the table for their appointments in the form of campaign contributions, when financiers manipulate markets and destroy the financial lives of their fellow citizens and the economy of their own country. What kind of social contract is this? What kind of belief systems produce these behaviors? What kind of society looks the other way or shrugs its shoulders in resignation? These are the questions of our times and the questions I will address.
As often as possible I will illustrate the narrative with real life examples and generally from my own experiences. Drawing principles from real life, from stories is a very old tradition that I respect and value. The essays will not necessarily proceed in any specific order or sequence; I’ll address ideas according to their interest and appropriateness as things develop. As a matter of general practice, your comments for or against will be welcomed. I will not, however, engage in personal arguments. If you feel so strongly about your views and feelings I suggest you start your own blog.
I hope you will find the essays here as interesting and provocative as I intend them to be. Upwards and onwards!