Written by Steve Minett, PhD
A brief review of Steve Minett’s novella ‘Gazing at the stars’.
by Professor Michael Langford
Steve Minett has recently written a novella that introduces an interesting set of philosophical/political/sociological ideas. [We might remember that Jean-Paul Sartre, and many other philosophers, have used fiction as a way of introducing serious philosophical themes.] The ideas relate, in the first instance, to how children should be raised in the contemporary world, and more generally, the book raises serious questions about the nature of contemporary society and politics, and what Steve sees as the malaise in which contemporary society finds itself. At the heart of the philosophy that lies behind the book is the notion of a ‘Prima’ (a primal rearing institution and mutual association) in which young children would be brought up, in contrast with the nuclear family – named in the book as the ‘Isonuc’ – that (in theory at least) dominates the contemporary world. Typical Primas would contain around 150 people, parents and children who would live in communities in which everyone shared the duties of upbringing. To quote: “Prima would not involve any change to the macro politico-economic systems of society. Prima can be implemented in a voluntary, ‘bottom-up’, piece-meal way. It could spread throughout the population by excellence of example – children from Prima would be superior in every way to children raised in the traditional, isolated, nuclear family (‘Isonuc’ for short) – healthier, better-adjusted and more successful. Parents today are willing to move house to get their child into a better school. In the future, many will be prepared to give up the Isonuc for five years in order to guarantee a better life-history for their child.”
In this notion of a Prima there is a vague analogy to the system of kibbutzim, especially in the early days of the Israeli state. Among defences of Primas is the claim that they could mirror the kind of hunter-gatherer communities that characterized homo sapiens for most of its existence, and therefore enshrined certain values, learned through long experience. Certainly, the number, up to 150, is not drawn at random. There is considerable evidence in recent anthropology and sociology, that for typical human beings, this is the size of community that can foster the strongest bonds, based on the number of people one can be truly familiar with and work with.
The novella is divided into eight chapters, each of which is subdivided into three sections. In the first – throughout the eight chapters – we follow the boyhood and early manhood of a certain Jimmy, brought up in a dysfunctional (but, arguably, not unrealistic) isonuc. Starting in 1954 we follow him until 1970 in successive episodes (all problematic and basically unhappy) from an early attempt to run away from home, his first day at school, his first encounters with girls and his entry and exit from first year university. In each case the episode in Jimmy’s life is followed by a section that is basically reflective and philosophical, commenting on the implications of the episode in the light of the theory of Prima as an antidote to many of society’s ills. A third section follows, in which an alternative ‘Jimmy’, brought up in a well run Prima (up to the end of primary school), has episodes that – in a way parallel those of the first Jimmy – but all with positive and creative outcomes, rooted – in each case – within the consequences of have having been raised in a Prima.
On the positive side, there is certainly a lot wrong with contemporary society, and creative suggestions for how to change it are to be welcomed. Moreover, the idea that groups of people might decide to form Primas, at least during the period in which they have young children, is certainly well worth exploring, although I suspect that in order to get the first one off the ground one would either need a wealthy patron, or – better still – a small group of highly motivated and efficient men and women with entrepreneurial and management skills, who shared a common vision.
I also have some more critical comments. The novella succeeds in making a striking contrast because a very dysfunctional isonuc in opposition to a very well run Prima – and one has to suspect that in actual practice the differences would be less marked. There are also a number of somewhat extreme judgments. For example, in chapter eight’s middle section we are referred to “social class and religion – the two great curses of human society”. He adds the comment: “the very fact [is] that religious beliefs are imposed in infancy, without critical discourse and before the child has developed their own rational judgment”. I agree that our system of social class is a curse, but probably less so than the curse of war and – arguably at least – the kind of capitalism that indirectly encourages it. I also think that ‘bad religion’ is a curse, but – even if we reject theism – if we take the likes of Durkheim on board ‘religion’ is a more complex phenomena than this quotation suggests, and can be a force for good or ill. Further, by no means all believers have been led into some version of it by indoctrination. Moreover, if either traditional parents, or those rearing children within a Prima, are not to bring up children in a vacuum, then in addition to primary moral values (and even these raise some controversial issues), they also need some introduction to great literature, poetry, music, etc. and I doubt whether any of these can avoid issues regarding fundamental world views and beliefs, including religious ones. Indoctrination, we all agree is bad – but this is really a kind of truism, and hides the way in which some ‘liberals’ don’t recognize the dogmatic assumptions latent in (for example) their own versions of secular reductionism. There is a case for encouraging parents, or some kind of ‘prima’, rearing children within certain rich traditions of culture and religion, provided that critical thinking – including that of these cultures and traditions – is included. (Manifestly, at present this is often not the case.) This is the kind of argument that would allow aboriginal people to maintain their cultures, and if we can argue this in their case I cannot see why we cannot also defend, say, a Jewish family maintaining its ancient and rich traditions.
[Michael Langford is Professor of Philosophy, emeritus, The Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada’. Best wishes, Michael]