Re-Reversing the River

Michael Metzger

In 1887, Chicago sent their waste westward. For years, the city dumped its refuse into the Chicago River, which ran east, soiling Lake Michigan beaches. Engineers “solved” the problem by reversing the river, sending the sewage to St. Louis. Irresponsible engineers are the product of an irresponsible educational culture. It also explains economists’ “solutions” to our economic crisis—and why re-reversing the river is overdue.

Industrial refuse is a byproduct of industrial revolutions. The Chicago River was a convenient sewer. This caused a cholera epidemic in the 1850s and a rise in typhoid fever deaths throughout the second half of the 19th century, killing over 80,000 Chicagoans. Engineers solved the problem by cutting a canal to western waterways and reversing the Chicago River. Chicago’s shoreline was spared. St. Louis’ wasn’t.

Fast forward to September of 2008. Merrill Lynch was trying to dump it’s subprime sewage. In a weekend merger deal with Bank of America, BofA allegedly concealed billions in losses and as much as $5.8 billion more paid to Merrill Lynch executives in year-end bonuses. After the merger, BofA obtained a commitment from the Fed for $138 billion in bailout money. Then, on January 16th of 2009, BofA announced that Merrill Lynch had more than $21 billion in losses in the last quarter of 2008. Stinky.

If the story is true, it’s partly the product of our Western educational culture. Over the last few years, 40% of graduates of America’s best B-schools ended up on Wall Street, including John Thain at Merrill Lynch and Dick Fuld at Lehman. Today, our brightest are trained in a culture that long ago reversed the direction of education that characterized the Ancient Near East. Back then, knowledge was an interwoven, three-cord sequential strand: experience-imagination-reason. The result was responsible knowledge.

For example, in Genesis 4:1 we read: “Now Adam knew Eve his wife and she conceived…” This wasn’t a course in lovemaking. It was caressing. They touched and tried, responding to one another. This isn’t titillating. It’s truth. Humans are uniquely response-able. In the ancient East, true knowledge was hands-on. Personal knowledge yielded personal responsibility—personally experiencing the effects of your actions.

This is why God commanded Adam: “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Gen. 2:16-17). As a finite being, Adam could not personally experience infinite knowledge of good and evil. It was too much responsibility.

“It is by having hands that man is the most intelligent of animals,” the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras wrote. This is why, unlike today, “philosophers in the age of Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum practiced their craft; they did not merely study it,” Benjamin Blunt writes. “These inner calibrations in turn demanded… self-awareness, self-mastery, and examination of conscience.”1 Conscience is what ultimately causes people to act responsibly. In ancient education, the sequence was hands-heart-head, simultaneously touching all three. Knowledge was experience-imagination-reason.

Many centuries later, the Western Enlightenment reversed the sequence. It was no longer a three-cord strand but three separate steps: observation, interpretation, and application—head-heart-hands. You could “know” in your head, even if your hands did nothing. It was concepts without conscience. Today, for example, most B-school students say honesty is the best policy. Yet 56 percent of them routinely cheat (as opposed to 47 percent of all other students). Western education has become a passport to privilege rather than cultivating a conscience. It’s irradiated by irresponsibility.

“Whenever I have encountered any kind of deep problem with civilization anywhere in the world,” Czech playwright Vaclav Havel writes, “somewhere at the end of the long chain of events that gave rise to the problem at issue I have always found one and the same cause: a lack of accountability to and responsibility for the world.” Does head-heart-hands explain why illustrious B-school graduates such as Hank Paulson continue to collect huge bonuses while sending the financial flotsam of Merrill Lynch downstream to taxpayers? If so, its time to re-reverse the sequence of education.

When Bobby Kennedy saw firsthand the abject poverty of the South in the 1960s, he came back a changed man. A real-life experience simultaneously altered his imagination and changed his mind—hands-heart-head. To restore responsibility at Harvard Business School, students don’t necessarily have to take a trip south. They can instead enroll in a course at the Kennedy School of Government under Harvard professor Michael Sandel.

Sandel teaches one of the most popular courses on campus. His introductory course on justice at Harvard and his lectures are a hot ticket on campus. It’s not hard to see why. He puts students in real-life experiences, confronting the consequences of decisions. For example, students wrestle with price gouging in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, affirmative action programs in universities, or large bank bonuses paid with public money. By placing students downstream from decisions made by higher-ups, they have to smell the sewage dumped from the likes of Enron, Worldcom, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch and hundreds of other predatory institutions. It’s as close to hands-on, responsible learning as students can get in a classroom. It’s re-reversing education.

Re-reversing can be done. Today, downstream communities such as St. Louis are demanding that Chicago take responsibility for its refuse. Chicago engineers are saying they can re-reverse the Chicago River. Re-reversing educational institutions can be done but will require a lot of work. Until then, expect our financial wunderkinds to continue to rake in irresponsible bonuses and send the financial flotsam downstream.

1 Benjamin Blunt, “What is Ancient Philosophy?” First Things, December 2002, Number 128.


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  1. “Re-reversing educational institutions can be done but will require a lot of work.”

    In a story attributed to Will Rogers when asked how to solve the problem of the German U-Boats in WW1, he responded, “It’s obvious, drain the Atlantic Ocean”

    Both solutions are the tip of the same iceberg, and require a transformation in human nature. And now we are back to the mutation that took place at the foot of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, resulting in a morally flawed human nature.

  2. Mike,
    Spot on diagnosis. It is very evident(in general) in the attitudes of young folks,especially young men,who lack responsibility and selflessness. I think you are doing the right thing from where you are. Touching whom you can with correct thinking, which hopefully leads to different behavior. I note the efforts of the professor at Harvard, but what is the grass roots corrections,save comprehensive spiritual rebirth, that can be applied to the general populous?

  3. Mike,

    Thanks for this great essay. Again, great stuff!

    I have blogged more than once at my book review site about a book by Gordon Conwell President Dennis Hollinger entitled Head, Heart, Hands, and I’d hate for anyone to think he is playing into the Enlightenment [disconnected] approach you describe with the phrase “head, heart, hands” here. Dennis goes out of his way to show that in a Biblical worldview, these three aspects of discipleship (which he calls thinking, feeling, doing) are always interconnected in ways similar to what you’ve so nicely called for here.

    Anyway, ironically, Hollinger’s “Head, Hearts, Hands” (InterVarsity Press) might be a resource to help us re-verse the river from what you’ve called head, heart, hands. You’ve named that model well, it seems, but his book by the same title is pretty great.

  4. You touched a nerve talking about the “Chicago sewage” going to St Louis instead of Lake Michigan as I’m an environmental engineer that deals with Chicago sewage. Generally speaking large rivers have a much better capacity to treat waste loads than lakes, so the poor old engineers back in the 1890’s took a reasonable approach back then to move the waste load to something that’s more capable of handling it. Dial forward 100 years and you’ll find that the “Chicago sewage” is actually treated and purified water that’s probably cleaner than the river! Just wanted to clarify that and didn’t want folks thinking that Chicago still sends it’s raw sewage to St Louis. Partial information can cause misunderstandings. And I don’t think wastewater treatment was the focus of your blog anyway.

  5. Walter:

    I suggest re-reading the seven part series we posted last month: “Why Institutions Matter.” Changing a culture is rarely grass-roots and correct thinking. It’s changing central institutions and habits – with products and process and items and images that are shaped by an ancient definition of reality.


    Thanks for continually connecting readers to good books. My columns are certainly not the first and last word on these matters. Better minds have said it better in other places. Thanks buddy.

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