Zachary Stein on Education in a Time Between Worlds

Perspectiva is developing a new project called The Transformative Education Alliance, or TEA. A major inspiration for it is Education in a Time Between Worlds, a book by the philosopher of education Zachary Stein. Zachary is now helping Perspectiva to develop TEA. Here he talks to Caspar Henderson about major themes in the book.

Caspar Henderson: Let’s start with what you call “the central importance of education as an aspect of the global meta crisis.” Tell me something about what that means.

Zachary Stein: We’re in a situation where it seems like in order to have a viable future for humanity the challenge is one of technical and scientific problems to be solved such as the future of computing and ways to tackle environmental problems such as carbon emissions. There is some truth to this. But it’s also the case that none of those problems will be solved without the right educational systems in place. There’s a prior challenge before the technical problems, which is the problem of human capacity, human capability, human understanding. And that is a factor of education. 

How are the educational systems working to prepare people to solve those technical problems? That is one kind of educational issue. OK. But then imagine they are solved? The science and technology actually work. Then after that, what are we living for? That is a cultural or meaning making problem, which is another kind of educational task. This also a factor in the metacrisis. So while the crisis appears to be a scientific technical problem or an economic problem, in actuality it’s an educational problem. It’s a problem with the way humans makes sense of the world, the way humans make meaning. It is a problem of human capability. And that means that although we need to worry about the technical problems, like we really do, way more than we are now, we need to worry first about the educational configurations that humans are in.

Early in the book you quote John Dewey: “all the problems of philosophy are encapsulated in the problem of education.” 

That’s the crux of it. And I would say most of the issues that form part of the planetary crisis are encapsulated in this deeper, broader, more intimate problem of education — who we are? Where we going to? How we can become something else? How we can be differently and more appropriately capacitated? 

We need to be more reflective. The term ‘21st century skills’ gets used a lot, but that’s not actually the right frame. Because the idea that we actually know the skill sets we need, and that those skills can be provided for within current institutional frames of schooling — I question those assumptions. I’m saying we actually need to find a new way to do education.

This brings us on to another theme, which is what you describe as “the inadequacies of approaches to education based on reductive human capital theory.” What’s wrong with education to get a job?

Nothing. In fact, there is something is profoundly correct about human capital theory, in so far as social system need people who can fill the jobs that need to be done. If you are a society that builds ships you need to educate ship builders, or you will no longer be a ship building society, within a single generation.

But reductive human capital theory says that education is only about that. And that is particularly about wage labor employment in a capitalist society. This is very different from the broader and more correct idea that educational systems need to create the humans that in turn create the next society. 

If we reduce schooling to merely a matter of job preparation, then we diffuse the real potency of what education can do in recreating society.

Many of the things we need to prepare people for are the parts of their lives that are not occupied by wage labor. And if we anticipate something like a basic income guarantee, or other things that change the nature of employment, we can actually imagine preparing people for lives where a larger amount of their time is spent doing something which does not involve renumeration.

If we reduce schooling to merely a matter of job preparation, then we diffuse the real potency of what education can do in recreating society. It’s a failure of imagination as to what schools could do and be about. 

In the book you argue that the people who were largely responsible for the financial crisis of 2008 were the products of the best schools, and this points to dysfunction at the heart of the best educational institutions.

Yes. That’s one of the ironies. If you only focus on human capital theory in a reductive sense, you will fail to produce good human capital. If you push too hard towards ‘efficiency’, you become inefficient. Similarly, if you push too hard towards reducing everything to being about your job, when you finally get on the job you won’t be able to do it well, because doing a job well requires context. So when you take someone from an institution, train them very specifically to do a very specific thing, and then they do that specific thing in society, they will do so while ignoring a huge amount everything else.

If you only focus on human capital theory in a reductive sense, you will fail to produce good human capital.

Roy Bhaskar or other ontologists  would say, ‘let’s look at the absence!’  That is, let’s look not so much at the skills you have acquired in education as at what is missing. We need education that provides a sense of context — of what lies beyond specific skills, and what complimentary qualities are needed. Otherwise you end up with a hyper-focus that ultimately backfires. I call this in my first book ‘the inefficiencies of injustice’— which is to say that if you push too far in the direction of efficiency at the expense of justice, you end up undermining efficiency itself.

This brings us to a third theme, which is the interdependence between education organizations, teacherly practice, and the rest of the society and culture.

When done poorly, education isolates the student from the rest of what’s going on in the world. Kids stepping into a school often feel like they’re going back in time. They’re experiencing ways of using technology and forms of interaction which are one or two decades behind life outside the school. 

For centuries there has been a complex relationship between how the schools work and how the culture at large works. When the main mode of economic production was factory labor the school became factory-like. So there’s the fun-house mirroring of the school culture in terms of the outside culture, just as there’s a kind of disconnect between the school culture and the outside culture. This makes schools, at least the way we run them now, particularly unfit to handle the challenges that are actually facing us as a culture in terms of education. School cultures are too confusing, too incoherent. 

What could change that? You write of “the potentially revolutionary impact of computer technologies on educational practice.” What do you have in mind?

I’m saying that we broke the Internet — that we’re misusing technologies that could, potentially, be radically educational. There’s been a sense that computers will change the nature of schooling profoundly. But what they have actually done so far is to make it worse!

I’m arguing that if you have an educational technology that positions students in front of screens and doesn’t direct students away from screens, then you have failed as an educator. 

I’m saying that if you have an educational technology that isolates students from one another and gets them focusing on abstract poorly contextualized keyboarding intensive tasks, then while you may be preparing them for the white collar and gig economy, you have failed as an educator. 

The computer should become a tool for the teacher to better arrange interpersonal interactions rather than being a tool that stops the teacher from actually having interpersonal interactions.

I’m saying that if you have an educational technology that uses what are essentially broadcast methodologies, such as YouTube, and didactic methodology, such as the lecture format, then you fail. Most of the real affordances of digital educational technology have not been made good. 

The affordances I have in mind have to do with facilitating communication, distributed real-world network creation, and customized curation of in person experience for individuals and groups — basically fostering sovereignty of student choice and collaboration outside of a life spent in front of a screen.

So I welcome the idea of time- and skill- sharing networks, the idea of open source GitHub like standards and curricula that empower students to create their own real world experiences and actual engagements with one another facilitated by technology but not dependent upon more screen time, but rather dependent upon the sophisticated use of digital technology to improve actual in-person conversation. 

The computer should become a tool for the teacher to better arrange interpersonal interactions rather than being a tool that stops the teacher from actually having interpersonal interactions. By interpersonal I mean in person, not text-based exchanges involving screens.

So yeah, while I’m a huge champion of the potentials for educational technology, when I look around at what people think of as educational technology, I’m mostly seeing its misuse. 

Educational technology could be wise; and thus, much more potent and powerful. But then we’d have to change the nature of schooling. Right? And we’d have to change the nature of the way educational technologies are brought to market and the profit incentives and other things that are actually driving it.

Another major theme for you identify is “the re-theorising authority in contemporary educational configurations.” Here we come to questions as to the role of teachers, and the nature of their authority. 

This connects to the question of how we use digital technologies, because where’s the teacherly authority upon which something like Wikipedia or Facebook intervenes in the life of a student? Teacherly authority has to do with the epistemic right, or the epistemic duty of a person who knows more, or has more capacity, to shape a person who has less. And so this is relationship between two people  — between me and you — not between me and an abstract world of algorithmically curated ideas that I interact with alone in front of the screen. 

The credence given to the Internet, its pseudo-authority, profoundly disrupts the relationship between teacher and student. This is a really deep issue. It has led to a disruption of intergenerational transmission. And it goes both ways. It’s not just that the kids would rather learn from YouTube than learn from a teacher in person. It is also that the teachers themselves feel they don’t have as much to give as the Internet offers. And so there’s the children who don’t want to learn from the elders, but the there’s also the elders who feel in a way they failed and don’t have anything to teach. 

This is not a good situation because it means that instead of transmitting skills and disposition intergenerationally, they are coming from a medium that is digitally curated in ways that we don’t actually understand.  Why does a young person navigate through one sequence of videos on YouTube, rather than another sequence of videos on YouTube? It’s not the judicious discretion of a wise elder who has your best interests in mind as an educator. It is an algorithm that customized the content to increase engagement. It’s not an educational technology. It is a predatory business model in which kids are used to generate advertising revenue, pretending to be an educational resource. 

That sucks! And so I’d like to see a return to the embodied forms of an actual teacher with authority, which means engaging in real communication and discourse across generational and capacity differences

As an aside, doesn’t something like Wikipedia has a positive side?  The ideal, at least, is there’s a transparency in the creation and editing of an article which — again, ideally — brings together material in an up-to-date and useful way. It’s not for profit and so not driven by commercial gain.  If you want the best that’s available on a given topic like I don’t know, pencil sharpeners, it’s pretty good. My point, in as far as I have one, is there can be virtue in some of the approaches that are out there already?

That’s absolutely true. The idea of what Wikipedia could be is a wonderful idea. But what Wikipedia is, is not that.  For an entry on something like pencil sharpeners it is probably pretty awesome. But for anything that’s controversial it’s actually quite a mess. It is deeply, deeply politicized, and basically corrupt.

 If you work for any major organization or any major [public] figure, you will be aware that there are Wikipedia consultants who charge hundreds of dollars an hour in order to assure the curation of particular Wikipedia pages. So there’s an asymmetric force projection available through the medium of Wikipedia, which is masked by the fact that people think it’s democratically created. 

The ideology surrounding Wikipedia, Google, and Facebook is quite alarming as an educator. When you talk to young people about what’s true, you end up having conversations about what shows up were in Google searches. Now if you know anything about how Google works, that’s an epistemological error of profound proportions in which the capitalist world system is basically running interference between humans and reality in a more basic way than it ever has before, with an ideology that says it’s doing the opposite of that. 

This is about the kids, man. We are allowing an entire generation to be preyed upon by profit seeking technology companies and bankers peddling student loans. 

Another theme in your book is the need to revise the role of religiosity and spirituality in contemporary educational configurations. What do you have in mind here?

If you look at the history of civilizations, you end up seeing that modernity is basically a blip on the radar: a brief period when we believed we could organize a human society without addressing “issues of ultimate concern,” which is Paul Tillich’s phrase for the content matter of religious reflection — the ultimate meanings and significances of human life. And for most of human history, one of the main functions of education has been precisely to address those issues so that young people come to understand the most significant questions regarding human existence in a similar way to how their parents did.

The separation of church and state was an extremely important step forward. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have done that. I’m not saying that Enlightenment-based critiques of religion were wrong. I’m actually saying such critique was, and is, hugely important. But there is a risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and jeopardising the ways humans have long made sense of the universe and created social bonds between generations. Once the baby has been thrown out then the way science says we are officially allowed to make sense of the universe has become untenable. The truth of process has been reduced to the dogma of a set of truths, again, but this time as scientism

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we have kids praying in schools as well as reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. I’m not suggesting a return to the time before the separation of church and state. But I am saying  — following Charles Taylor, Habermas and others —  that we’re entering a post-secular age, and that most of the main concerns that are going to confront us as a species during the near term crisis have a religious aspect.

Why does the mass migration of vulnerable refugees have a religious dimension?

Because where are the resources we have as a culture to approach a stranger on the road as a good Samaritan? Where do we have the cultural resources to provide for another’s care without expectation of reciprocity or return? Where do we have resources of culture to love people who we might otherwise see as needy and dangerous free riders? There is no solution to the refugee crisis that does not involve some overcoming certain basic kinds of selfishness, fear, and aversion. 

In the gated West, the going has not been tough for a while. We’ve been lucky enough to not have to worry about ourselves being vulnerable on the road as refugees. But as we in the West are put in positions where we become the ones who are vulnerable and in need of help, the question of how we can return to the kinds of ethical frameworks that will allow us to give it and receive it without any animosity and without force becomes important. 

The picture is similar with the environmental crisis, which involves a lot of grief, potential loss of life, and grappling with death. These are also religious questions. When you think about the nature of existential risk itself, which is to say the cascading of the environmental and refugee crises into let’s say, nuclear war, then you’re looking at a situation of thinking about the end of the species.

If we don’t end up having a very reasonable response to extremely profound questions, then people will take unreasonable responses to those same deeply profound questions.

These are some of the big questions that we as a species need to grapple with. I’m seeing a widespread return to religion, whether we like it or not. If we, in the most sophisticated [philosophical] echelons don’t end up having a very reasonable response to extremely profound questions, then people will take unreasonable responses to those same deeply profound questions. So I think it’s our responsibility as educators to provide sophisticated alternatives to fundamentalist religious answers, because that’s what is going to be happening in the time between worlds. 

People are talking about the need to create a new religion. I don’t think we need to create one because we already have plenty, and most of those that already exist are great if you take them at their best. They are capable of renewal and adaptation. 

Let’s turn to what you call “concrete utopian theorising in a time of planetary transformation,”  and “social miracles.” You write that “What stops humanity from living in a world of justice and abundance is not a lack of necessary technology and science [but] the stories we tell about ourselves, the rules we have made up [and] that now govern our cooperation, and the legacies of illusion and dishonesty that continue to blind us to our actual situation as a species.” What is concrete utopian thinking, and what are some examples of it?

So this relates to religion, because the classic critique of religions is that they are “opiates of the people”:  utopian distractions from the hard realities of life.  There’s a lot of truth in this — except that humans run on ideals! We need to strive and create preferable futures for ourselves and those around us. 

The phrase ‘concrete utopian theorising’ was coined by the great philosopher Roy Bhaskar. He was picking up on a long tradition of critical theorists who always knew that if you’re doing critical theory, you need to have a diagnostic moment where you look at society and say, here are the ways that it’s wrong. But you also need the ideal or utopian moment where you say, okay, the current situation is unacceptable precisely because there other preferable ways of being that are possible. 

Unless we do this this kind of thinking we collapse the space of possible futures by reducing our discourse about ourselves to, for example, reductive human capital theory or the ideas of scientism. If as scientism says, we’re just ‘meat machines’ without free will, who evolved in a meaningless universe and are solely designed to compete with one another, then how good could the future be? I mean, maybe it could be good for me for a little while if I build a wall around my house, but that’s about as far as that view goes in terms of ideal behaviors. If we hold a different view of human nature, one that takes the tens of thousands of years of cultural history before science emerged into account, then we see there’s always been a much more profound potential within humanity, a much deeper sense of our humanity that we could use to think about the future. 

Without ‘concrete utopian theorising’ we collapse the space of possible futures by reducing our discourse about ourselves to, for example, reductive human capital theory or the ideas of scientism.

So instead of dystopian projections about the future we can have what I would call robust, concrete utopian theorizing. This doesn’t mean thinking of futures that are thousands of years away, like some science fiction novel. It is about a nearby, just-adjacent reality —  a future that’s just slightly different from the one we usually imagine.

My goal is to do a controlled thought experiment with certain moving pieces, specifically the thirteen examples of ‘social miracles’ that I offer. The question is not so much “how do we make these happen?” as it is: “can we even imagine a coherent future?” How do we create a gestalt, or higher order manner of perceiving social possibilities? I hope my work will spark the social imagination, so that when people look at a political proposal there is some coherent overarching context in which to determine if it is even a small move in the right direction.  Evaluating the value of “next steps” is actually only possible if you have a vision of the future that’s integrative, coherent, and fits with everything known about how humans work. 

Technological change is not the issue.  Social miracles are not a matter of amazing medical cures or other astonishing breakthroughs in so-called “artificial intelligence.” What will be miraculous, rather, is if we would choose to reorganize ourselves in such a way that we would, for example, distribute wealth in a very different way. Or think about how healthcare itself works, not technologically, but socially and culturally.

So, for example, universal healthcare cannot work right now simply because of the way the bureaucracies are structured. It’s economically not feasible given the way we understand what medicine is and how medicine is to be distributed. I’m suggesting something very different: a radically horizontal and distributed health care system in which individuals learn to take care of themselves, and the exclusivity of the expertise of doctors — and in particular the power of pharmaceutical companies — is greatly reduced. It’s not that the doctors become less expert, or that drug development doesn’t go on, but that the social power relations change.   This requires something other than putting more money into the healthcare system as it currently functions, which is actually making it worse. It requires thinking differently about what health really is and about what each individual should be able to know about their own body, the nature of medicine, and the way healing works.  It is about exposing the profit motive and power dynamics at the heart of the current medical system for what they are: exploitive of the most vulnerable.  

What I’m saying is that we actually need to think this out more, in a concrete utopian vein.  More basic work needs doing in the realms of social science and civilizational design, before we move with an action bias towards creating institutions without seeing the whole set of consequences of how they work. So, for example, a basic income guarantee could be a nightmare.  

It hasn’t escaped notice that Peter Thiel is a fan of Universal Basic Income. The economist Diane Coyle calls it a classic neoliberal policy. 

Yes, it could become a tool of neo-feudalism. But there are ways that, with the right complimentary reforms and infrastructures, such as my proposed Education Hub Network, a basic income guarantee could actually save whole swaths of humanity from despair.

The final two chapters of Education in a Time Between Worlds concern spiritual teachers. 

What I’m arguing for here is not the adoption of a particular view of religion or particular view of spirituality. I am especially not saying people should become readers of particular texts and thinkers, although I’m not discouraging that either!  What I am saying is that we can’t coherently run a culture or an educational system without thinking about these topics in much more serious ways.

The dynamics of teacherly authority are complicated enough. When you consider teacherly authority in religious contexts, they become extremely potent and charged. So to my prior point —  about the fact that as the planetary meta-crisis becomes more complicated, people will be looking towards religion — we need to understand how that works. Because that’s where the education will be happening and, whether we like it or not, we are already seeing some power dynamics with certain pop-cultural figures and public intellectuals who take on a guru-like status. People are turning to religion for meaning, as we always have, only now there is a complex polycentric spiritual marketplace.  

These two chapters are laying out how I think about it. They’re also saying, please think about it too, because if we don’t have anything profoundly reasonable to say about deeply profound things, there will be people who step in to answer such deeply profound questions in completely unreasonable ways.  

Say a bit more about as to what “reasonable ways of answering profound questions” means to you.

So: death. What happens when you die? Or what happens when you sleep? Or dream? These are the questions that the mind is always asking. When you have to talk to a kid about death, or have to really think about your own death, you start to ask a profound question that humans have asked since they’ve been humans. 

So that’s an example. And if I were to say, well, you shouldn’t be afraid of death, because you will go to heaven afterwards and you’ll be rewarded with a dozen virgins and so on. And, in fact, you should be so unafraid, you should strap this bomb on and go forth into battle.  This is very unreasonable, but in the absence of more reasonable narratives this answer will stick. 

Scientism, mind you, simply dismisses the question itself as being unreasonable: “Of course, nothing happens when you die! The universe is meaningless matter in motion, that is all!” We need to be able to talk to someone who is looking at a society that’s not working, who doesn’t see a place for themselves in that society. We need to be able to help explain their life to them and give them some meaning to their death, and give them the option to choose a death that’s meaningful, specifically one that is not based on ideologically motivated suicide. 

Consider the mental health crisis. Something like three quarters of young people believe their lives have no meaning.  That’s a situation that calls for new answers to age-old and profound questions. 

Existentialist theologians point out that questions concerning death and suffering are central to what humans have always struggled to make meaning about. The things our culture is going to say about them, like the scientific and humanistic explanations, are obviously not working. People aren’t buying them. What’s next? 

Zak Stein is philosopher of education working at the interface of psychology, metaphysics, and politics. He has published two books, including Education in Time Between Worlds, along with dozens of articles. This writing was done as he worked co-founding a non-profit and think tank, as well as teaching graduate students at Harvard, and consulting with technology start-ups. Zak is a long time meditator, musician and caregiver, which has shaped him more than any professional engagements. You can learn more about him at

Perspectiva’s Transformative Educational Alliance also draws on The Nordic Secret by Lene Rachel Andersen and Tomas Björkman, and Bildung in the 21st Century by Jonathan Rowson. For more see this post.

Images via Bastyr University, Zachary Stein

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