Genius!

I invoke a word which aptly describes those rare minds that have been the very source of our precious Western Civilization. I use it to describe such thinkers as Thomas Carlyle to whom I have referred from time to time; and I ask the reader to recall my plea, expressed many times, that we ask our young people to walk, albeit briefly, in the company of genius. It cannot but help them grow and develop perspective on the day’s comings and goings. In this case I will quote several passages from Carlyle’s French Revolution: A History — a book of some 775 pages —  in the expectation that few of my readers have time to read a book of this length. But these selections will give a taste of what they are missing. I will add only that the original manuscript of this monumental work was burned by mistake while in the possession of Carlyle’s friend John Stuart Mill. Carlyle than rewrote the entire thing from memory!

Carlyle, toward the end of the history, is reflecting on the terribly bloody revolution and its many horrors. Speaking of revolutions generally:

‘”This is the way of Revolutions, which spring up as the French one has done; when the social bonds of Society snap asunder; and all Laws that are not Laws of Nature become naught but empty Formulas.”

Of the possible source of wars:

“So, however, are men made. Creatures who live in confusion; who, once thrown together can readily fall into that confusion of confusions which quarrel is, simply because their confusions differ from one another; still more because they seem to differ! Men’s words are a poor exponent of their thought; nay, their thought itself is a poor exponent of the inward unnamed Mystery wherefrom both thought and action have their birth. No man can explain himself, can get himself explained; men see not one another, but distorted phantasms which they call one another; which they hate and go to battle with: for all battle is well said to be misunderstanding.”

And toward the end of this remarkable book, as Carlyle reflects on the carnage he has written about:

“Wherefore we will, at all events, call this Reign of Terror a very strange one. Dominant Sansculottism [power of the people] makes, as it were, a free arena; one of the strangest temporary states Humanity has ever been in. A nation of men, full of wants and void of habits! The old habits are gone to wreck because they were old: men, driven forward by Necessity and fierce Pythian Madness have, on the spur of the instant, to devise a way of satisfying it . . . . .”

And of the fanaticism that we see around us even today:

“For a man, once committed headlong to [a cause] and fighting and fanaticizing amid a Nation of his like, becomes as it were enveloped in an ambient atmosphere of  . . . Delirium: his individual self is lost in something that is not himself, but foreign though inseparable from him. Strange to think of, the man’s cloak still seems to hold the same man: and yet the man is not there, his volition is not there; nor the source of what he will do and devise; instead of the man and his volition there is a piece of Fanaticism incarnated in the shape of him. He, the hapless incarnated Fanaticism, goes his road; no man can help him, he himself least of all. It is a wonderful, tragical predicament — such as human language, unused to deal with such things, being contrived for the uses of common life, struggles to shadow out in figures. The ambient element of material fire is not wilder than is fanaticism; nor, though visible to the eye, is it more real. Volition bursts forth involuntary-voluntary; rapt along; the movement of free human minds becomes a raging tornado. . .”

Finally, drawing his study to a close he worries about what men will commit themselves to in the future:

“The Heavens cease not their bounty; they send us generous hearts into every generation. And now what generous heart can pretend to itself, or be hoodwinked into believing, that Loyalty to Moneybags is a noble Loyalty? Mammon, cries the generous heart out of all ages and countries, is the basest of the known Gods, even the known Devils. In him what glory is there that ye should worship him?”

Truly, a remarkable mind and one it is a privilege to visit from time to time.

 

 

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A Thin Veneer

 

“Alas then, is man’s civilization only a wrappage through which the savage nature of him can still burst, infernal as ever?”

Thomas Carlyle

In order to answer the question whether our civilization is weakening, threatening to crumble under the weight of indifference, self-interest, and greed, one might well reflect upon the condition of ordinary citizens during times of great stress. Beneath the shiny surface of civilization, our language, religion, laws, science, history, art, and manners, there burbles a cauldron of potential turmoil.  Freud was one of the few who could look into the abyss without flinching. But no one listens to him any more: he’s a “dead, white, European, male.”

Another dead, white, European male, Thucydides, wrote about the revolution in Corcyra during the lengthy Peloponnesian War many years ago. For the time, that revolution set the standard for kinds of atrocities and the cruelty that humans are capable of once the veneer of civilization is scraped off. As Thucydides tells us, revolutions and civil wars transform ordinary people into something quite extraordinary:

” In peace and prosperity states and individuals have better sentiments because they do not find themselves suddenly confronted with imperious necessities; but war takes away the easy supply of daily wants and proves to be a rough master that brings most men’s characters to a level with their fortunes. . . .[During that revolution] reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; the ability to see all sides of a question inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting a justifiable means of self-defense. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. . . . such [transformations] as occurred [will] always occur as long as nature of mankind remains the same.”

But it took a writer like Thomas Carlyle to fully describe the atrocities that men and women are capable of when the thin veneer of civilization is stripped away. In his monumental study of the French Revolution Carlyle tells us of the countless cruelties that human beings can inflict on one another.  As he has noted, “there are depths in man that go the length of lowest Hell as there are heights that reach highest Heaven.” He describes at length the depths. In a massacre at Nanci during that terrible war, for example, he tells of the slaughter of 130 men, women, and babes in arms by the “Patriots” in expressing their distrust and even hatred of the nobility. There followed the infamous “September Massacre” in Paris involving over a thousand men and women followed by countless hangings and decapitations, including Regicide. At Arras mothers were forced to stand and watch “while the Guillotine devours their children.”  Blood flowed in the streets, bodies were piled up everywhere and stank as the flies feasted. Carlyle describes the aftermath of the attack on the Tuileries early in the revolution:

“A hundred and eighty bodies of Swiss [ who sought to protect the royal family] lie piled there, naked, unremoved till the second day. Patriotism has torn their red coats into snips and marches with them at Pike’s point: the ghastly bare corpses lie there under the sun and under the stars; the curious of both sexes crowding to look.  . . . Above a hundred carts, heaped with the dead, fare toward the cemetery of Saint-Medeleine . . . . It is one of those carnage-fields, such as you read by the name of “Glorious Victory,” brought home in this case to one’s own door.”

Echoing the words of Thucydides, Carlyle describes what the chaos surrounding revolutions does to nations and individuals:

“Very frightful it is when a nation, rending asunder its Constitutions and Regulations . . . must now seek its wild way through the New Chaotic — where Force is not yet distinguished into Bidden and Unbidden, but Crime and Virtue welter unseparated — in that domain of what is called the Passions. . . . Horrible the hour when man’s soul, in its paroxysm, spurns asunder the barriers and rules, and shows what dens and depths are in it!”

The point of all this is to aid us in understanding the thin veneer of civilization that we take for granted and which is so easily peeled away during times of crisis, when law and order disappear and chaos is embraced in the name of liberty. We must pause as we look around today and see the gradual deterioration of respect for law (in many cases deserved), the call to arms brought about by the terror that has been turned loose in our churches and schools, the fear that seems to dictate action, and the tendency of each to claim the “right” to do whatever he or she wants to do without any regard for the “rights” of others to whom we once insisted we have responsibilities.

As Carlyle notes in passing, “without good morals Liberty is impossible.” And yet so many today insist that “good morals” are a fiction, that ethics and morality are simply a matter of personal opinion and gut feelings. The moral high ground disappeared with the death of Martin Luther King, some might say. So we arm ourselves and we demand the freedom to do whatever we want without restraint. And to assure us of this liberty we elect a clown whose only claim to the highest office in this country was his promise to provide his followers with unlimited liberty to do as they want, without the interference of governments and restraints of any kind.

Surely, as we face the prospect of all citizens, including teachers of the young, arming themselves out of the very real fear of sudden terror and total chaos, the handwriting is on the wall: we must consider the possibility that we are at present witnessing the birth of a new barbarism. Civilization which is above all else the will to live in common is all but withering away –unless we refuse to allow it to happen!

Carlyle worried that the revolutionary spirit would infect the English where there were thousands of disenfranchised people, downtrodden and poor, and a government that had lost the trust of the citizens. England avoided that revolution for a number of reasons, but it remains a possibility not only for that country but for any country that wallows in fear and hatred, insists that freedom viewed as the absence of restraint is a paramount value, and ignores the poor — where bloated politicians promise everyone that complete freedom and prosperity are theirs for the asking when, in fact, there cannot be any as long as those who hold the purse strings keep them tied tight and we hate and fear one another.

 

Silent Voices

Sad it is, indeed, that the most eloquent voice of Thomas Carlyle, one of the most influential thinkers of the Victorian era, falls now for the most part on deaf ears. His was a voice that was heard and responded to by such great minds as George Elliot, Charles Dickens, and John Stuart Mill. But it is seldom heard any more; it is becoming silent along with so many others as we hustle to grab the latest best-seller — if we read at all — or worry that we might miss the latest word from the author lately interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. The voices of the past are fast becoming silent as reading and the reading of great minds become lost in time. We live in a digital age, an age in which the printed word becomes increasingly difficult to read by those raised on moving pictures and interactive social media. Technology to Knight’s pawn: Checkmate!

But Carlyle at the top of his art could put words together like few others, at times echoing the sounds of William Shakespeare as he warned his world about the dangers of such things as laissez-faire capitalism, rapacious and never satisfied, or the dangers of a democracy that was sweeping over Europe following the grand experiment in the United States — an experiment that is yet to be judged. He echoed Plato’s concerns about the effectiveness of small-minded folks with no care whatever for the common good suddenly coming to power, and he worried about the unbridled greed of his fellow men; after a careful study of the documents surrounding the French Revolution he worried about folks with empty bellies and loaded weapons turned loose on their fellows without the restraints of law and order.

But we know better. We are satisfied, well fed, and not about to panic over the thought of what folks with small minds and automatic weapons might do to one another — or to the rest of us. We ignore history that might provide us with lessons to be learned because we pride ourselves on the fact that this is a new age and the rules have all been re-written. And yet, how much we might learn from a mind that could provide us with the following words to describe the sorts of men who rose to the top in the chaos surrounding the beginnings of the French Revolution, men who might become Prime Minister in the new government established by the rabble who came into power on waves of hunger and deep discontent:

“Loménie-Brienne, who had all his life ‘felt a kind of predestination for highest offices,’ has now obtained them. He presides over the finances; he shall have the title of Prime Minister itself, and the effort of his long life be realized. Unhappy only that it took such talent and industry to gain the place; that to qualify for it hardly any talent or industry was left disposable!”

Like so much of Carlyle’s writing, this sort of sudden understated, even sarcastic, insight strikes a responsive chord as we look around at today’s politicians and realize that they, too, have spent whatever little talent they may have on becoming elected and once in office are discovered to be totally inept and without the slightest aptitude for leadership and governance. And yet, like today, these are the voices that shout the loudest!

After the French King Louis XVI, weak and incompetent, is removed from Versailles and sent under guard to Paris where he can be watched carefully, Carlyle uses a simile to describe for us the general deterioration of the man and the mystique that surrounded royalty:

“The victim having once got his stroke-of-grace, the catastrophe can be considered as almost come. There is small interest now in watching his long low moans: notable only are his sharper agonies, and what convulsive struggles he may make to cast the torture off from him; and then finally the last departure of life itself, and how he lies extinct and ended, either wrapt like Caesar in decorous mantle-folds, or unseemly sunk together, like one that had not the force even to die. . . . .Was French Royalty, when wrenched forth from its tapestries in that fashion on the sixth of October, 1789, such a victim?”

The pathos and foreshadowing of what is to come for the King in this passage is deeply unsettling — as a story about that terrible event should be. So much is contained in this brief paragraph, suggesting the carnage that has already taken place and the carnage yet to come as the pathetic King now wanders aimlessly, under guard, in the confines of his Paris gardens. To be sure, Carlyle has sympathies for the fallen King as we may not, but he is also aware that a contagion has crept into the bowels of the people of France; they have paid a huge price to gain a slice of power that so few throughout history have been able to wield without succumbing to the temptations and mistakes it opens to them. Carlyle sees this as he does so much of what surrounds the events of that terrible revolution — so much more bloody and terrifying than the American Revolution that may have given it impetus. As he notes almost in passing, at the height of that Revolution those who speak the loudest

“. . .have wedded their delusions: fire nor steel, nor any sharpness of Experience, shall ever sever the bond; till death do us part! On such may the Heavens have mercy; for the Earth, with her rigorous Necessity, will have none.”

So it is with folks and their delusions. We know about them! In any event, all this is lost on those who ignore history and who also ignore words written by the great minds that have molded our own — whether we admit it or not. Great minds are great teachers and we close our eyes and ears to them at our own detriment. Sad it is. Almost as sad as seeing the King confined and pacing like a caged animal while the people of France, giddy with unfamiliar power, decide what to do with him next.

 

Forget About It!

I have blogged in the past about our country’s anti-intellectualism which is glaringly obvious and has been commented upon by numerous others. I refer to our increasing determination to deny the higher purpose of the human mind, its capacity to achieve order, inclusiveness, and coherence. Our country was founded by practical people who were busy building lives in a new country. Following those early years we seem to have attracted a great many people, with notable exceptions, who were convinced that such things as education were esoteric and not really worth the time or attention they received in Europe, for example. Following those early years, we have seen increasingly pragmatic people who have narrowed their focus on the here and now and such things as the making of profits. Today, as I have noted on numerous occasions, we have reduced everything to the business model, including religion and education. The human mind now simply calculates profit and loss — or checks out social media.

There were exceptions, as noted, and one of those exceptions was Thomas Jefferson who in his Notes on the State of Virginia proposed a system of public education for all (boys) that would be capped off by several years at his university where the very best and brightest would be given the best possible classical education then available.

Interestingly, even in the three primary grades of his proposed public education, Jefferson did not stress such things as reading, writing, and figuring. He thought those things were a given — all kids learned them at home. In the very early years he advocated more substantive subject matters, such as history. The memories of young children were to be

“. . .stored with the most useful facts of Greek, Roman, European, and American history. . . .History by apprising them of the past will enable them to judge the future; it will avail them of the experiences of other times and actions; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men.”

Jefferson was clearly in the minority, since history has never been the strong suit of American schools and by the time of the intellectual rebellion in the 1960s of the last century history was rejected by student radicals as “irrelevant.” It has now been removed from the basic core requirements of the majority of American colleges and universities and many high schools as well. Henry Ford thought it “bunk,” a sentiment taken up by Huxley in his Brave New World in which his citizens were nothing more than ignorant pleasure-seekers. Young American men captured in Korea during that “police action” were easily programmed to take anti-American half-truths as the whole truth because they were ignorant of their own history. Moreover, many of those who teach, even today, insist that the teaching of such things as “facts” is a waste of time when, indeed, facts are the building blocks of thought and like it or not they must be learned if thinking is to take place. Without those blocks thinking and speaking are merely gobble-de-gook — as we can tell by reading or listening to our Fearless Leader. And history is the subject best able to prepare the young to be “judges of the actions and designs of men.”

Santayana famously said that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat its mistakes, and we have seen how true that is. But in Jefferson’s program outlined above there are other elements that also deserve to be considered. For one thing, he is advocating what might be called a “natural aristocracy” in which the best and brightest rise, like cream, to the top. Borrowing from Plato, he thought the preservation of our Republic depended on this. Education was the key. The Republic, if it was to be successful must attract the best and brightest to the halls of power to make the important decisions regarding the correct path the country should follow. We have no idea how that might have worked because we have never really committed ourselves to the education of all citizens as Jefferson would have us do. Job training, yes. Education, no. And our anti-intellectual sentiments lead a great many people to regard a liberal education, for example, as “elitist,” a citadel of social privilege, if you will. In fact, a liberal education is one that would provide the very best possible foundation for anyone with a mind to make important decisions and be aware of the forces that operate around them — forces that threaten to imprison them in chains of bias and ignorance and overwhelm them with such things as “alternative facts.”

We pay a huge price for our ignorance, not only of the past which we blindly ignore, but also of such things as science and mathematics which enable us to better understand the world around us and make sense of things. Jefferson’s was a pipe-dream, many would say, though he rested his hopes for the future of his beloved Republic on that base. And my dream of a liberal education for all — which owes its origin to such thinkers as Jefferson and Plato, among others — is also a pipe dream. I have kicked this poor, dead horse so many times my foot is numb (and the damned horse simply will not budge). But we might do well to recall that one of the founders of this nation who had high hopes for a free country of free minds once outlined a program for maintaining freedom in the years to come. And in ignoring his admonition to educate (not train) all citizens we may well have made ourselves a bed of thorns upon which we now must sleep. If we can.

 

 

Decline of the West

 

This is a slightly modified and updated version of a previous post.

Oswald Spengler wrote a classic study of what he regarded as the rise and fall of various civilizations throughout the history of mankind. The key for Spengler was that these civilizations are natural organisms and like any other natural entity, they are born, grow, decay, and eventually die. The British historian, Arnold Toynbee, wrote his Study of History after Spengler and while he agreed with Spengler on many points, he regarded civilizations as artificial, not natural. There is no reason to expect that all civilizations will necessarily die out. But in his study, he noted that sixteen of the twenty-one fully developed civilizations he identified have, in fact, died out and four of the remaining five were in their death throes. The only relatively “healthy” civilization Western civilization.

But despite its relative healthy state, Western civilization is in the latter portion of its cycle — a series of stages that every civilization goes through — and while its roots grew strong in the rich soil provided by the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Toynbee could see the beginnings of a trend toward dissolution beginning in the Reformation with the failure of Christianity to withstand a variety of attacks from without and within. The most vital society in Western civilization was, as Toynbee saw it,  the new kid on the block, India — because of its

“vast literature, magnificent opulence, majestic sciences, soul touching music, awe-inspiring gods. It is already becoming clear that a chapter which has a western beginning will have to have an Indian ending if it is not to end in the self-destruction of the human race. At this supremely dangerous moment in history the only way of salvation for mankind is the Indian way.”

A healthy spirituality is essential to the well-being of any human civilization.

In general, Toynbee presented the history of each civilization in terms of challenge-and-response. Civilizations arose in response to some set of challenges of extreme difficulty, when “creative minorities” devised solutions that reoriented their entire society. Challenges and responses were physical, as when the Sumerians exploited the intractable swamps of southern Iraq by organizing the Neolithic inhabitants into a society capable of carrying out large-scale irrigation projects; or social, as when the Catholic Church resolved the chaos of post-Roman Europe by enrolling the new Germanic kingdoms in a single religious community. When a civilization responds to challenges, it grows. Civilizations declined when their leaders stopped responding creatively, and the civilizations then sank owing to loss of control over the environment, nationalism, militarism, and the tyranny of a despotic minority. Again, Toynbee believed that societies do not die from natural causes, but nearly always from self-inflicted wounds. And that death necessarily involves the death of the soul — the vital spirit that kept the civilization alive throughout the ages, though this sounds much like Spengler’s “organic” view of civilizations.

Whether or not we agree that India will dance on the charred remains of Western civilization (or whether we agree with Toynbee at all) we can certainly agree that the cycles that he insisted all civilizations repeat seem to be very much in evidence today — even if we simply focus on a small part of Western civilization, namely, the United States of America. Clearly, we have lost control over our environment, given global warming, which many of us continue to deny. Further, the growth of nationalism, militarism, and the “tyranny of a despotic minority” are very much in evidence as I write this brief blog. In particular, we can see the increase of militarism today as so many political decisions seem to be directed by the military which enjoys the lion’s share of our annual budget, just as we can see the immense influence the “despotic minority” of the wealthy have on the President and this Congress and their determined attempt to turn this democracy into an oligarchy.  But the growth of nationalism and especially militarism, along with the failure of a “creative minority” to maintain a foothold in this society, seem to have brought about what Toynbee called “an answering withdrawal of mimesis on the part of the majority” — i.e, apathy. This is especially disconcerting.

Looking at both the ancient Greek and Sumerian civilizations, Toynbee saw a movement through what the Greeks called “kouros, hubris, and haté.” These signify the growth of  especially the military in those societies from a surfeit of power through excessive pride, to disaster. If he were alive today he would doubtless note a similar pattern emerging in this country, if not in the West generally. And it all seems to be hidden under the cloak of “national security” born of the fear of terrorism.

New History?

I have been exploring two themes recently in my posts. On the one hand, I am concerned about the current state of civilization, that is, the delicate fiber that holds together diverse peoples out of respect for law, tradition, and for one another. On the other hand, I have explored many of the problems in higher education that seem to somehow have had an adverse effect on the world outside the ivory towers that once protected those inside from prying eyes. I have been especially concerned about the movement called “postmodernism” that has taken over in our universities and which rests on the central tenet that there is no such thing as truth, only “texts.”

A major movement within the academy since the late 1960s has been “New History,” one of the bastard offspring of postmodernism. It is based on the notion that history is simply another form of literature and historians are no longer to be held to the standards and rigor that ruled the discipline for generations, demands for evidence and the desire to approximate the truth about the past as much as possible. Footnotes and reliable references are no longer required. Again, since there is no such thing as truth, there cannot possibly be any accurate depiction of the past. The new historian, therefore, is free to wing it, make things up and tell it like he or she would like it to have been. New history is more about the historians than it is about history itself.

One of the most prominent historians to have defended Old History against the onslaught of the New Historians is Gertrude Himmelfarb, whom I have mentioned in past posts. She has done a remarkable job of seeking to defend truth against the attacks of the subjectivists and relativists, but one has the sense that she is spitting against the wind — and she knows it. In any event, she has written a number of books attempting to show the absurdity of rejecting standards of evidence and attempts to reconstruct the past as accurately as possible and one of those books, The New History and The Old addresses the topic directly. In that book, a collection of her papers, she recounts the following anecdote about a Conference she attended in 1969 when New History was aborning and was regarded by most historians as merely a passing fad, a novelty soon to be dismissed. As Himmelfarb tells us:

“. . .what the history profession needed was a “little anarchy.” This . . . was the great merit of the new history — its variety, openness, and pluralism. . . . .there is no meeting ground between [different ways of approaching history] and there need not be. All that was necessary was the tolerance to permit “different people doing different kinds of things in different ways.”

What we have here is the wheels of an academic discipline falling off. The notion that two or three or four historians are free to reconstruct events in accordance with any loose principles whatever, drawing on psychology, anthropology, science, or any other unrelated discipline and every one of those views is somehow legitimate and is to be respected by historians across the boards is on its face absurd. Tolerance is here carried out to the extreme of denial that there is anything we ought to agree about, anything beyond different ways of doing things. Anything goes. We are intolerant if we do not make room for the absurd and the outrageous. There is no truth available, only opinion.

Traditionally, the various academic disciplines each had its own distinctive manner of approaching problems that require reasonable solutions. There has always been disagreement about the best way to approach those problems and one never really expected any two thinkers in diverse academic disciplines to agree with one another about which is the better way. Hell, it was seldom the case that two academics within the same discipline agreed about much of anything! But that disagreement was the key to keeping lines of communication open and encouraging the exchange of diverse opinions and theories which were designed to eventually lead us all closer to the truth about the human condition. Dialogue requires open minds and a conviction that there is a goal to be achieved in the end, no matter how long it takes. Difference of opinion was a good thing because it made us careful about the way we conducted research and put together evidence and arguments. Difference was a means to an end, not the end in itself; but it was required in order to eventually reach some agreement about what is true and what is not. With New History, as Himmelfarb notes,

“Two historians working on the same subject are apt to produce books so disparate that they might be dealing with different events centuries and continents apart.”

What has occurred, not only in history but in all of the humanistic disciplines and the social sciences as well, is that they are all dangerously close to becoming as like one another as possible in their unanimous rejection of the notion that there is a truth worth pursuing, rejecting in one way or another the conviction that if one applied the techniques of the various disciplines one could at least hope to reach some degree of accord about what is and what is not the case. In a word, it used to be held that there is an answer to every question, but that answer must be sought by each thinker in accordance with the rules laid down within the discipline he or she has chosen to pursue, different ways to achieve a common goal, as it were. The current relativism, the rejection of the notion that there is any truth, blurs the distinctions among the various disciplines and tells us that it really doesn’t matter what anyone says about much of anything because there is no point in reasonable pursuit of truth since there is no such thing as reason or truth anyway. There is no point in searching for a common meeting ground on which we could all stand in search for something beyond personal opinion. The most persuasive or colorful writer or speaker wins.

Needless to say, this relativism has found its way into the world outside of the academy and we now find ourselves surrounded by such things as “alternative facts” and the notion that truth is a matter of who shouts loudest and is able to shut down opposing points of view. Might makes truth.

 

Popular Culture

I have written recently about how the movements that begin within the hallowed halls of academe tend to find their way outside those halls much like a scientific experiment that went wrong in a science-fiction movie. The most recent example of this is the notion of “alternative facts” that almost certainly is the bastard offspring of the postmodern movement born in Germany and France and now in ascendency in American Universities that stresses such things as the denial that there is such a thing as truth.

One of the heads of this movement that would reject all “modern” academic courses of study in history, literature, philosophy, and sociology is what is called “popular culture.” This is the study of such things as movies, television shows, comic books, and the like. This movement, in addition to rejecting the notion that history should be written without footnotes because it’s only a matter of subjective opinion anyway, has given birth to the following sorts of phenomena — as recently reported by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni:

• Rice university offers a first-year writing intensive course titled “Star Wars and the Writing of Popular Culture.”

• Appalachian State University requires its freshmen students to take a first-year seminar to help them develop “creative and critical thinking abilities.” Seminars this spring include “Death (and Rebirth?) of the Hippie.”

• The English department at the University of Pennsylvania — an Ivy League School — offers a course on “Wasting Time on The Internet.”

And this is just a tiny sample at a time when a recent poll of college graduates revealed that:

• 34% could not identify correctly when Election Day is held.

• 25% could not identify Tim Kaine as a candidate for vice president of the United States.

• 50% could not name Franklyn Roosevelt as the last president to win more than two elections to the presidency.

A number of colleges and universities now offer not only courses in Popular Culture, but also majors in that field as well as PhDs for those who want to go on to teach in that  academic “discipline.” And, A.C.T.A. concludes, “When many of our colleges and universities treat popular culture and entertainment as subjects worthy of serious study, it surely isn’t surprising that so many college graduates can’t identify key civic leaders, events, and their significance.” Indeed.

So what? you might ask. The answer is, of course, that this is coming at a time when we need young people who can think, and who can think critically. The recent election should have proven how vital that is and how far short we are falling as a nation. In this regard, there are two major problems that lie at the heart of this movement. To begin with, courses in Popular Culture emphasize information at the cost of thinking about information. I shall return to that notion in a moment. Secondly, the movement shoves aside other courses in the college curriculum that actually might help put young people in possession of their own minds, make them intelligent, critical thinking adults who can discriminate between a well-qualified candidate for president, say, and a complete fraud.

To return to the first point, it has been shown in tests conducted years ago that there are certain academic courses that help young people to think. This is reflected in tests such as the LSAT that students take in order to enter law school. Law requires critical thinking skills and the fields that do well, it has been shown, are mathematics, economics, philosophy, engineering, English, Foreign Language, Chemistry, Accounting, and History (in that order). The fields of study that score lowest in the LSAT are those that stress information and memorization. I shall not mention them out of respect to those who wasted their time and money earning degrees in those subject areas. But Popular Culture would certainly be at the top of that list if it had been offered at the time these studies were conducted.

The point is that the sorts of shenanigans that are going on behind the hallowed halls of academe have consequences for those who pay little or no attention to what is going on there. The graduates who have shown themselves to be badly informed about American history and government and also unable to think critically grow in number while those that cannot use minds filled with drivel increase accordingly, fostered by colleges and universities now being run as businesses, catering to the whims of their “customers.” And this at a time when our democracy desperately needs intelligent, well-informed, thoughtful citizens.  Courses in such non-fields as “Popular Culture” are the sort of things that guarantee that this will not happen.

 

News That Sells

I found the following remarks in an article about how we should take reports about the latest polling results with a grain of salt. I have always done so, but it was most interesting to read what the writer said about news reporting generally:

Our research suggests yet another reason not to overreact to news stories about the newest poll: Media outlets tend to cover the surveys with the most “newsworthy” results, which can distort the picture of where the race stands.

Why? Consider the incentives of the news business. News outlets cover polls because they fit the very definition of newsworthiness. They’re new, timely, often generate conflict and allow political reporters to appear objective by simply telling readers and viewers what the public thinks. Horse-race stories are also popular.

Given that readers are drawn to drama and uncertainty, polls that offer intrigue or new developments — such as a close race or signs that one candidate is surging — are more likely to be deemed newsworthy. In particular, polls with unusual results may be more likely to make the news.

Note, please, the “incentives” of the news business. To begin with, news is regarded as a business, not a public service. This is, of corse, true. The hooker is that as a business news sources must worry about who pays the piper. That is to say, news reporting should be about what we need to know to be an informed citizenry; rather, it’s about what sells newspapers or air time. “Newsworthiness” is nothing more or less than what sells.

But I was struck by the notion that reporters should “appear to be objective,” as though objectivity should not be their highest goal. Clearly, it is impossible to be completely objective — how could one be objective about a person such as Donald Trump, for example? One either hates or (apparently) loves the man. But the idea that a reporter, like an historian, should be objective should be the first order of business. I recall a friend once saying that he wished someone would write an objective history of the Civil War — from the Southern point of view! As I say, it can’t be done. None the less, it should always be the goal of any historian or reporter. But this writer says it is enough to “appear” to be objective. The polls do this by giving us numbers. But the selection of those polls can be very subjective and it appears as though that choice is based on what strikes the reporter as sensational (“drama and uncertainty”).

It’s a good idea to take what we hear and read with a grain of salt generally. It pays to be suspicious and question all sources of information. We cannot always do this, but it, too, is a goal we should all seek to achieve. This is the point of thinking critically — not to reject, but to accept on reasonable grounds, which requires that we have a good idea off what constitute reasonable grounds. This is especially difficult in an age like ours in which the reports we read and see on television are selected for all the wrong reasons.

I have noted in past blogs that reporting has become an arm of the entertainment industry. But it is interesting to have reinforcement of that idea by someone who seems to accept as a given the fact that reporting is all about getting through to an audience rather than about telling the world what is going on and letting the world decide what they want to read, see, or hear. Apparently TV is the worst culprit in this decline of reporting as news provider and this is because TV is a cut-throat business and as we all know business is what our world is all about these days: it’s all about the bottom line.

Making Widgets (Once More)

We are having a hot, tropical summer here in Minnesota and I decided to repost a previous entry rather than simply repeat what I have already said in order to avoid getting even more overheated. This post deals with my favorite topic, the failure of our education system (which I think is at the root of many of our current difficulties and helps us to understand why a moron could be seriously considered for the highest office in the land.) Please note that I have made some subtle changes to update the entry.

Some time ago I wrote a post about the need to make distinctions in order to be clear about the things we discuss. One of the distinctions I mentioned is that between “wants” and “needs.” We rarely make the distinction and that leads to major confusion, especially when raising our kids, forming policies, or selling goods. In the latter case, for example, we are told that people need the product they are buying when, in fact, they may simply want the product.m Or they may not even want it at all until an ad convinces them they do. One of the things marketing people are very good at doing is creating wants and they do this by insisting that those wants are needs. (Do we really need a 5 hour energy drink??)

Surprisingly, educators do the same thing. They talk about what the kids need when they are really talking about what the kids want. It’s easier to determine wants than needs, because we can simply ask the kids: “what do you want?” Or we can continue to dumb-down the curriculum and provide them with electronic toys until they stop complaining. When it comes to needs, the kids don’t have the slightest clue. Sad to say, neither do many of their teachers and professors. And this is a very important point, because it leads us to the central reason why education is in deep do-do: those who are in a position to determine what the kids really need are either unaware of what those needs are or fail to act on that knowledge and fall into the marketing trap of simply determining what the kids want and then attempting to meet those fickle wants by insisting that they are providing the things the kids really need. It’s the path of least resistance. The confusion is widespread and until it is cleared up there is little likelihood that those who teach will lead those who learn rather than the other way around. (Note the interesting parallel here with parenting.)

But there’s another distinction that we seldom make and that is the distinction between education and training. I have discussed this confusion in previous blogs but have never focused on the key difference — until now. Training involves teaching learners how to do something, say, make widgets. Education involves understanding why we might want to make widgets in the first place. This is a critical difference, and the fact that education has devolved into job training is a serious blunder, because we need folks now more than ever who ask the troubling questions — why DO we make widgets?

There is a growing number of company CEOs who insist that educators are failing because the people coming out of college lack the ability to communicate, read and write memos, and speak before an audience. These highly paid corporate bosses talk a great deal about the need for these young people to have a broader, “liberal education,” though what they mean is that the folks they hire should be more effective at their jobs. However, at the level at which people are hired the message to hire broadly educated employees has failed to filter down and the initial search is simply for college graduates who can do a particular job, who can make widgets. The computer apps these recruiters use tend to screen out applicants who have majored in, say, philosophy, because presumably those people cannot make widgets (even though they could be trained to do so in a matter of weeks [days?]). So the job market looks bleak for graduates in such subjects as philosophy, literature, and history, because those folks are weeded out by a process that is designed to assure companies that the people hired can do meaningless jobs without the companies themselves having to spend money training them: the colleges are now expected to turn out people to make widgets, not ask why those widgets are being made in the first place.

Thus the CEOs who speak about the need for liberally educated employees don’t really mean it. The last thing they want is employees who ask why they are making widgets. They want workers who are already trained and can effectively make and market the products. The irony is that those who stop to ask the troubling questions would make the best employees in the long run because it is those people who can not only learn how to make and market the products, but they can also figure out how to improve those products as the world changes and demands for new products arise — as they most assuredly will. Because the only certain thing about the future is that things will change. And this is why America needs educated citizens, not simply those trained to make widgets.

Hate Breeds Hate

We have read often about the terrible conditions undergone by the American rag-tag army as it endured the freezing cold Winter at Valley Forge prior to the attack on the Hessians at Trenton during the Revolution. But we don’t read as often about the many other such Winters both at Valley Forge and elsewhere, that had to be endured as the war dragged on for eight long years and the underfed and ill-clothed condition of the army remained virtually the same. Washington Irving in his biography of George Washington described one such Winter at Morristown in some detail:

“The dreary encampment at Valley Forge has become proverbial for its hardships, yet they were scarcely more severe than those suffered by Washington’s army during the present winter [1780] while hutted among the heights of Morristown. The winter set in early and was uncommonly rigorous. The transportation of supplies was obstructed, the magazines were exhausted, and the commissaries had neither money nor credit to enable them to replenish them. For weeks at a time the army was on half allowance, sometimes without meat, sometimes without bread, sometimes without both. There was a scarcity too of clothing and blankets so that the poor soldiers were suffering from cold as well as hunger. .  .  .  The severest trails of the Revolution in fact were not in the field, where there were shouts to excite and laurels to be won, but in the squalid wretchedness of ill-provided camps, where there was nothing to cheer and everything to be endured. To suffer was the lot of the revolutionary soldier.”

The details of the picture sketched here are graphically completed in a letter written by General Anthony Wayne, who was in charge of six regiments hutted near Morristown:

“Poorly clothed, badly fed, and worse paid. . . . some of them not having received a paper dollar for near twelve months, exposed to winter’s piercing cold, to drifting snows and chilling blasts, with no protection but old worn-out coats, tattered linen overalls and but one blanket between three men.”

Needless to say, there was widespread sickness and desertions were common, even mutiny. The wonder is that any of the soldiers stayed it out and that Washington had enough men to continue the fight when the war resumed after the long, cold Winters. But he did.

Much if this remarkable fact is attributed by many historians to Washington’s undeniable charisma, his devotion to his troops, and his willingness to endure the same conditions as they. But there is another factor that needs to be mentioned and that is the fact that the British and their allies were intent to demoralize the colonists by burning whole villages  and pillaging everything in sight. This activity had precisely the opposite effect. One famous incident involving the wife of the Rev. James Caldwell is recounted by Irving:

“When sacking of the village took place she retired with her children into a back room of the house. Her infant of eight months was in the arms of an attendant. She herself was seated on the side of a bed holding a child of three years of age by the hand, and was engaged in prayer. All was terror and confusion in the village when suddenly a musket was discharged in at the window. Two balls struck her in the breast and she fell dead on the floor. The parsonage and church were set on fire and it was with difficulty her body was rescued from the flames.”

The terrible incident became a rallying cry for the angry colonists who grew to hate the invaders and more determined than ever to drive them from their homeland. Their hatred helped keep them warm during the harsh winters.

There were a great many loyal British subjects as the war began and the colonies had a difficult time raising militia enough to engage in a war against one of the most powerful armies on earth, especially since many of those “loyal” British subjects joined with the invaders to fight against their former countrymen. But as the war went on and the atrocities multiplied, despite the harsh conditions of the Winters and the lack of pay accompanied by the diminishing value of printed currency, the number of loyal British subjects diminished and the intensity of the colonists grew and became fierce. And they became better soldiers.

In any number of ways throughout history the same story, or stories very much like this one, has been repeated in the innumerable wars that humans have waged against one another. And yet the lesson is never learned. It is determined by one side or the other to “escalate” the war and demoralize the enemy by dropping bigger bombs or sending drones — which is the modern version of pillaging — only to discover that such actions merely enrage the enemy and make them more determined than ever to retaliate.

We find this today with the rapid growth of terrorist groups that has resulted from the “war on terror” this nation has declared as a result of the attack on the Twin Towers. The number of terrorists doesn’t diminish, it expands. Hatred breeds hatred. This is one of the lessons that history has held before us and it is one of the many lessons that we continue to ignore.