"The Biggest Problem Facing Modern Society Is How To Come To Terms With Technology"

Marie-Claire Grima - 27th December 2018

Powerhouse philosopher Prof Kenneth Wain shares why he thinks history is safer than philosophy, his views on the sweeping wave of populism, and why lifelong learning is so crucial to survival.

It should come as no surprise that Prof Kenneth Wain, one of Malta’s most eminent philosophers, as well as one of its leading educators and public thinkers, is a firm believer in the idea that philosophy should serve a social purpose. “When I talk about being a philosopher, the assumption is you’re all about theory, and that the practical world just goes past you. People think that you live somewhere in the clouds. I think that’s a mistaken view of what philosophy is. It needs to be brought into the public sphere,” he says.

“I don’t think you can dichotomise yourself and distinguish between your public engagement, and yourself as a philosopher. My philosophy is always going to influence my behaviour as an intellectual – one who takes public stances – and vice-versa. My philosophical interests, besides education, are very much practical matters, such as ethics and politics.”

A quick glance through Prof Wain’s lectures at the University of Malta brings up a list of philosophical topics enmeshed with societal concerns – issues such as ‘Becoming a Responsible Citizen’, and ‘Understanding the Self and Others’. But he sees strands of philosophy everywhere he goes, infiltrating the public discourse through the most unexpected vessels.

“Philosophy enters public thought through different conduits. Whether you like it or not, everything is conditioned by what you think, and what you think is conditioned by what you learn. Our legislation is made by Parliament, but it’s drafted by lawyers. Lawyers attend a Philosophy of Law course at University. If you look at the kind of law we have and the kind of arguments that are presented in its favour, it’s conditioned by that philosophy, which is based on natural rights theory – a very continental Catholic approach.”

Prof Kenneth Wain. Photos - Alan Carville

"History is safe. Philosophy takes risks."

While the underlying foundations of philosophy in Maltese public life are visible to an eye as experienced as Prof Wain’s, he believes that locally, there’s a lack of interest in the subject, which stems from fear of looking at the unknown – which is why he believes that many more people are amateur historians, rather than amateur philosophers. “I think it’s because we are so upset with our colonial past, and our post-colonial identity, that perhaps where we’re coming from and what we are seems to be more important. History is safe. You trace out a story, and a narrative of some kind – it’s the past. Philosophy takes risks. Very often, you go against the grain. You may find your own beliefs undermined, and you may find yourself constrained to change your beliefs. If they are beliefs you hold very dear, it may be very difficult to do so.”

Has this happened to him? “Of course. I have changed my mind a lot over the years, a great deal. I am a committed Democrat, liberal, pro-choice, with an open mind, and so on. That commitment may be expressed in a particular way at one point in your life, but it may be expressed in a different way with learning, with experience, after hearing what other people have to say. If you don’t grow in that way, you grow stagnant and you die.”

But processing change can be challenging, especially if those changes are happening all too rapidly, with no feasible direction, nor an end in sight. “The biggest problem facing modern society is how to come to terms with technology,” Professor Wain says. “So far, we’ve been thinking of technology in a materialist way, solely as equipment; but technology is a way of life, with a very deep impact on society, thought, and human relations,” he says. “This is something that even the Greeks realised – even Heidegger warned about it. Technology is the new religion.”

“Like every other important revolution, it will take a good deal of time before it’s absorbed and it finds its own equilibrium. I think we are living through a particularly difficult time because I don’t think that equilibrium has been found yet, and we tend to take things to extremes. Artificial intelligence and robots raise a whole deal of philosophical questions – about being, about existence, about ethics, about our relations with each other. It’s all very interesting.”

"I really believe that without liberal values the world would not be a good place."

Another issue that concerns him greatly is the new wave of populism sweeping through the US and Europe. He singles out Hungary’s far-right Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, and says that Europe is currently divided into two camps – the Western European camp, which embraces liberal values, and the Eastern European camp, which spent so many years behind the walls built by Communism. “One thing which we don’t realise about Communism is that for a very long time, the people of Eastern Europe were hived off from the rest of the world. The walls that Communism built, with all those restrictions and censorship created a bubble, where there was no exposure to liberal values. That’s why nowadays liberal values are foreign and strange to them, and why so many old Communist countries are arguing and refusing to embrace them.”

Prof Kenneth Wain. Photos - Alan Carville

“I really believe that without liberal values the world would not be a good place. Even people who don’t describe themselves as liberals want to claim liberal freedoms – the freedom of association, of lifestyle, of speech and thought. Anti-liberals and those who are against democracy are attacking the system with its own weapons – they use the same kind of discourse in order to justify policies and views which are anti-liberal. Both democracy and our liberal values need to be defended or else they will be lost. And history has shown us that they can be easily lost. In fact, even though the scapegoats nowadays may be different, the discourse is the same as it was before the Second World War.”

While Malta may never have become a fully-fledged Communist nation, it was certainly secluded and cut-off for many years following independence, and Prof Wain – who was a leading ‘Yes’ voice in the run-up to the 2004 EU referendum – believes that joining the bloc provided Malta with benefits in nearly all possible spheres. “At the time, I argued that in a world that was becoming increasingly globalised, being isolated is not a good thing. I think that with Brexit, the British are going to find that out soon enough. Although I do worry about the EU, the benefits we have enjoyed from joining it have been plenty – economically, culturally, socially. After we joined the EU, a lot of the old values that were taken for granted in the past started being challenged. Nowadays, we have a more pluralistic society. People are more prepared to ask questions.”

"Education should be mainly about opening up the horizons and minds of students."

Over the years, Prof Wain has played a critical role in Malta’s national educational policy development, and in the establishment of the national curriculum. Looking at the education system in 2018, he worries that the ‘philosophy of management’ has taken over education. “In our post-modern society, what Lyotard described as ‘master narratives’ such as justice, equality and religion have been replaced by a different kind of ethos – performativity. Performativity calculates everything and values it in terms of its efficiency and effectiveness, its ability to give good outcomes. That’s the philosophy of management – managing knowledge, managing change, managing this and managing that. This kind of jargon has infiltrated everything. It’s at home in the world of business, but now it’s found its way into the world of education too.”

He laments the fact that schools are now run by ‘management teams’ instead of headteachers or assistant heads, and that educators are being trained to become ‘school managers’ rather than teachers. “Everything is assessed according to outcomes. It’s too instrumentalist. I’m not saying ‘delivering the product’ to children efficiently is not commendable; indeed, back in 1995, when I chaired a committee to report to the Minister of Education on how we see the future of schooling in Malta, it was one of the four values that we mentioned – but there are other values, such as equity. The language of education has become too skill-based, as if skills are the only kind of knowledge that exists. That’s a very impoverished view of knowledge.”

Prof Kenneth Wain. Photos - Alan Carville

This leads to the question of what is education, really, and what purpose should it fulfil – a subject that could consume aeons of discussion, endless theses, and never arrive at a satisfying conclusion. “What education is, is quite a controversial subject,” Prof Wain says, understatedly. “We tend to confuse education with other things. My belief is that education should be mainly about opening up the horizons and minds of students, so that they can learn how to think critically and creatively. This is important in education and in business. If it’s not learned in school, it becomes difficult to do so when you’re older.”

“I’ve written a lot about lifelong learning and I think that perhaps for me, the major task of the school is preparing lifelong learners. It’s a central plank of educational policy in the EU, right next to employability. Lifelong learning is something which has been forced on us because of the accelerated change brought about by technology. People today change jobs and occupations all the time, sometimes radically. I’ve met past students who are doing all kinds of jobs, who are not working in something that they were trained in. In a rapidly changing world, there’s uncertainty and risk in employment, and lifelong learning is what you need to be able to do in order to be employable. It implies flexibility. It’s very important. But in Malta, ‘lifelong learning’ is only identified with evening courses, so we make mistakes like early specialisation, which runs counter to the idea of employability. Specialisation should only start at post-secondary stage. You should keep students’ horizons open for as long as possible.”

Besides all his other commitments, Prof Wain is currently engrossed in revisiting the ethics curriculum for secondary school-age students who opt out of religion classes – an option which was introduced a few years ago – and preparing teachers to be able to teach this subject, which is still quite novel in Malta. “The teaching of ethics has grown. Since we’ve designed the curriculum, which was a very new and interesting experience, I’ve had time to look back on what we did, and I found myself asking again, ‘What are we trying to do? What’s ethics about?’ I’m examining it in a critical way,” he says. Having secured a contract with a major British educational publisher, he is also preparing to publish a book on ethics and ethics education – “hopefully, next year.”

But that’s not the only thing he intends to publish. “I’m determined to get back into literature,” he says. “It’s never really left me, it’s what I am at heart. My intention was never to teach philosophy. I only wanted to learn more about it so it could help me with my literature – I had become interested in existentialism, and the only way I figured out I could deepen my literary writing was by studying philosophy, so I decided to study it.” It ended up becoming a lifelong career, but the love of writing never waned. “I am a poet, who’s also a philosopher. It’s a difficult combination,” he says, with a typical half-smile. He says he has finished the first draft of a historical novel about Franz Kafka, one of the very same existentialists who pulled him into philosophy – “dramatising and fictionalising his life.” It all seems to have come full-circle, somehow.

With such a lengthy list of accomplishments to his name, I ask what he would like to be remembered for most. “The most important thing for me is that I leave a positive mark behind. I want people to remember me as someone who made a positive contribution to things. I need to leave the world better for my children, and grandchildren, and anyone who survives me, better than I found it. One of the things that gives me most pleasure in life is when former students come up to me and tell me I used to teach them. And visiting the two independent schools which I helped found, 25 years later, and seeing students that I’ll never teach, laughing and having fun – that gives me a lot of satisfaction. It’s something enduring. I’m pretty Nietzschean in my contentment. These are the things that make it all worthwhile.”

This interview originally appeared in Business Agenda


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