normative= What should be done?
operational= What can be done?
“How can I succeed in an increasingly complicated world?” This is the question modern educators seek to answer. The new question feels useful, fits the scientific method, and promises power. Since the Enlightenment, this question has done battle with the older, normative question: “What is man and what are his purposes?” The old has been gradually analyzed into oblivion, while the new has been strengthened by scientific breakthroughs. Ancient and feudal man understood he had the role of a servant. To seek anything higher was condemned as foolhardy. Modern man has broken through that caution and seeks to rule. This is the aim of modern education. Educators take things apart and list them for memorization until there is no room in a student's education to ask “What are the implications of this? How does this increase our understanding of our purposes?”
Nowadays, schools carry many technologies for finding out what can be done, but no imagination for determining what ought to be done. Students hitch a ride on a predictable, testable system rather than hiking up the steep mountain to the ideal. This is now seen in government policy as well as education. The idea of counterinsurgency during the war in Vietnam was the result of this operational, rather than normative, thinking. Just because something can be done does not mean it ought to be done. Another example is teaching communication using technique rather than constant reading, writing and orderly instruction. (What is the difference between technique and orderly instruction, I wonder?) Communication is viewed as a skill learned for success, rather than a way to discover man's purposes. Ironically, the author describes the actions of the US in Vietnam in terms that only readers of Plutarch would understand. I have read just enough Plutarch to recognize the references and grasp shades of meaning, but need to read more to truly understand. (I also need to research the decisions made by US leaders during that time. What exactly was the idea of counterinsurgency? I am sure this is a dumb question for a forty-something American to ask.)
Operational thinking (“What can be done?”) develops a life of its own and strives to exist after its usefulness is over. This reminds me of the tyrannical brain in A Wrinkle in Time, of government bureaucracies, of parasitic plants and animals in the natural world. Man, still a servant, serves the Frankenstein of his own making. Like it says in the Bible, “Choose this day whom you will serve.” Man will serve something or someone. Modern man's blindness and pride leads him away from the pursuit of the Ideal Man and toward the machine.
Technique makes man “a more efficient berry gatherer, a more discriminating shell collector, a more willing water carrier,” leaving out any consideration of the human spirit. Yet the goal of education ought to be the cultivation of the human spirit: “to teach the young to know what is good, to serve it above self, to reproduce it, and to recognize that in knowledge lies this responsibility.” Without this, students are left at the mercy of lust and ego.