Statement of Purpose: My application for the Transformative Studies program at CIIS

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David Benfell

September 26, 2008


What will I do with a PhD from California Institute for Integral Studies?

Allan Combs sees as a starting place that “the world needs saving,” citing “unsustainable growth, ecological depletion, rampant consumerism and market instability, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, diseases, water shortages, . . . [and] global terrorism.”1  Sociologists point to endemic social inequality and the terrible prices paid in so many ways by the poor.2  Political scientists question the value of the state, seeing it as an obstruction to world peace.3  At this writing, there are grave uncertainties affecting the world economy, some of which stem from environmental concerns such as global warming and the depletion of oil reserves, but many of which stem from a sheer greed in the financial sector that appear destined to drive countless homeowners into foreclosure and countless debtors into bankruptcy while the mainstream media has focuses largely on institutions that fail or are bailed out.

It seems almost trite to write that.  And it almost seems trite to point to what I have called a myth of unlimited opportunity, that anyone who works hard and has talent can succeed and prosper,4 and an idea of the United States is a “shining city on the hill,” entitled if not obligated to exercise hegemony over the entire world.5  And yet the fact of these myths, deeply ingrained in the thinking of U.S. citizens, deeply embedded in their upbringings, arguably leads to a multitude of catastrophes, and I think calls for something beyond preserving and “transforming [the social ship] into a compassionate and sustainable vehicle for carrying us into the future.”6

Rather, it calls for a wholesale shift in social attitudes.  Anarchists see hierarchy at the root of many social problems, but we contend with a dictionary definition of anarchy as “a state of lawlessness or political disorder due to the absence of governmental authority.”  Though the definition also recognizes an anarchist vision as “a utopian society of individuals who enjoy complete freedom without government,”7 the connotation of utopia is of a social structure that is impossible to realize.  Society presumes this utopia as impossible to realize because it has embedded biblical notions of “original sin,” that humans are inherently sinful and selfish, that they can only attain a “state of grace” through divine intervention.

The transformation I will seek thus has at least two parts.  First, to the extent that humans really are greedy, I will be looking for ways for humanity to evolve.  Second, to the extent that humans believe they are inherently greedy, I will be seeking ways for humanity to move beyond the experience that they are.  I doubt it is possible to overestimate the scope of this transformation.  But for as long as we expect humans to be greedy, we create a self-fulfilling prophesy that they will be.  And I expect this to be the focus of my research.

1Combs, Allan, “Integral Conversations for a Better World,” (accessed September 11, 2008).

2Sernau, Scott, Worlds Apart: Social Inequalities in a Global Economy, 2nd Ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 2006); Shapiro, Thomas M., Ed., Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, 3rd Ed. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2005).

3Barash, David P. and Charles P. Webel, Peace and Conflict Studies (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2002), 204-205.

4Sernau, Worlds Apart, 23, 62.

5Gregory S. Paul, “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Social Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies,” Journal of Religion and Society 7 (2005), 2005-11.html (accessed 9 March 2008); You-me Park and Henry Schwarz, “Extending American Hegemony: Beyond empire,” Interventions 7, no. 2 (2005): 153-161, (accessed 9 March 2008).

6Combs, “Integral Conversations”

7“anarchy,” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, (accessed September 26, 2008).

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