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.

Failing To Deliver

I have from time to time bemoaned the fact in these blogs that our schools are failing to educate students. I have also noted that the American Council of Trustees and Alumni in Washington, D. C. has decided to do something about the failure of the colleges and universities, in particular. I would argue that the lower grades are failing their students as well, but the approach of the ACTA is to embarrass higher education into cleaning up its house in the expectation that this will require that the lower grades do so as well. If, for example, colleges and universities required two years of a foreign language upon entrance (as they once did), then high schools would have to provide such courses for those students who plan to attend college (as they once did). And this is true even for such basic things as English grammar which is now being taught in remedial courses in a majority of the colleges across this great land of ours — and a few professional schools as well — if you can imagine.

In any event, the ACTA recently sent out a mailing to help raise monies to further their cause. In that material they sent along some disturbing facts that help them make the case for a solid core requirement in all American undergraduate colleges to provide their graduates with the basic tools they will need in order to be productive citizens in a democracy and better able to advance in whatever profession they chose to follow after college. They identify seven areas from composition and literature to mathematics and science which all colleges need to cover; moreover, they have found after an exhaustive survey over several years that the vast majority of American colleges get failing grades. My undergraduate college received an “A” grade, but my graduate school received a grade of “D” because their undergraduate core includes only foreign language and science. If you want to know more you might check out their web page (info@goacta.org). The only question that is not raised in their material is why the high schools aren’t teaching these basic courses. One does wonder. In any event, here are some of the facts that they bring forward to make their case against so many of our colleges today:

Even after the highly publicized television series on the Roosevelts, “recent college graduates showed, in large numbers, that they simply don’t know or understand what the Roosevelts did or even the difference between Teddy and Franklyn.” Further, one of the ACTA’s recent surveys showed that “More than half of college graduates didn’t know that Franklyn D. Roosevelt served four terms in office; A third of college graduates couldn’t pick FDR out from a multiple list of the presidents who spearheaded the New Deal; Barely half of the college graduates could identify Teddy Roosevelt as leading the construction of the Panama Canal.” The problem extends much further than failure to know about the Roosevelts. In general terms, quoting from an editorial in the Wall Street Journal,

“A majority of U.S. college graduates don’t know the length of a congressional term, what the Emancipation Proclamation was, or which Revolutionary War general led the American troops at Yorktown. . . .The reason for such failures, according to a recent study: Few schools mandate courses in core subjects like U.S. government, history, or economics. The sixth annual analysis of core curricula at 1,098 four-year colleges and universities by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that just 18% of schools require American history to graduate, 13% require a foreign language, and 3% require economics.”

The truly astonishing (and distressing) thing is that an increasing number of American colleges and universities allow “Mickey Mouse” courses to count as core courses: the University of Colorado offers “Horror Films and American Culture.” UNC-Greensboro considers “Survey of Historic Costumes” a core course, and Richard Stockton College of New jersey lets students satisfy the core history requirement with “Vampires: History of the Undead.” I kid you not. These are examples picked at random from a list that continues to grow as college faculty seek to draw students to their classes (and thereby guarantee their jobs) without any consideration whatever of the benefits of such courses — or lack thereof — to the student. Believe me, I know whereof I speak. As former Harvard President Larry Summers wrote recently:

“The threat today is less from overreaching administrators and trustees than it is from prevailing faculty orthodoxies that make it very difficult for scholars holding certain views to advance in certain fields.”

What Summers is speaking about is the determination of a great many faculty members at our colleges and universities to teach courses they want to teach simply to increase enrollments or, perhaps, to remedy what they perceive as past injustices; most are unwilling to teach courses that draw on Western tradition, the subject matter that has informed generations, because they firmly believe the works of “dead, white European males” are at the core of what is wrong with the world today. Worse yet, they discourage their students from taking such courses and disparage their colleagues who want to teach them. In my experience, many of these same people reveal their own ignorance of the very tradition they turn their backs upon and deny to their students. And they certainly don’t care whether the courses they teach instead will benefit their students in the long run — which would appear to be the central question.

The ACTA seeks to publicly embarrass trustees and alumni at American colleges and universities into putting pressure on the administrations and governing boards to remedy this situation. And it is working. The organization has attracted a great deal of attention to the problem and keeps a list of the colleges and universities that have modified their core requirements; they annually gives grades to all in an attempt to draw attention to the fact that in so many cases parents and students are simply not getting their money’s worth — especially given the escalating costs of college tuition these days.

The Now Generation

The psychiatrists who studied the American prisoners of war released after the Korean conflict were amazed at the success of the “brainwashing” techniques that were used on those men. Captured documents revealed that one of the secrets to that success was the claim of the North Koreans that Americans were generally ignorant of history, even their own. These young men could be told pretty much anything bad about their country and they tended to believe it because they had no frame of reference. For example, they could be told that in America children were forced to work in the coal mines and a couple of the men vaguely remembered hearing of this and were willing to embrace the half-truth and share it with their fellow prisoners. True, there were children working in the coal mines at one time, but no longer. It was precisely those half-truths that enabled the North Koreans to convince the ignorant young men of blatant falsehoods. Couple that treatment with censored mail that the prisoners received from wives and sweethearts complaining about how bad things were back home, not to mention the seeds of suspicion that were planted among the men that broke down their trust in one another, and you have a formula for success. There was not a single attempt by an American soldier to escape imprisonment during the entire conflict!

Today’s young people are equally ignorant of their history, perhaps even more so. We make excuses for these kids by moaning about how much “pressure” they are under. Nonsense! I would argue they under less pressure than those young men who were fighting in Korea, or even the generation that followed them. Today’s young people need not fear the draft. Moreover, they are the beneficiaries of the sexual revolution and are therefore free from the restraint experienced by prior generations who were told to wait for sex until they were married. In fact, they don’t seem to show much restraint about much of anything, truth to tell. And there is considerably less expected of them in school these days than was expected of their fathers and mothers. They are told they are wonderful: they feel entitled. So let’s hear no more about how much pressure they are under.

Now, social scientists — who would rank below even the geologists on Sheldon Cooper’s hierarchy of sciences, I suspect — love to label the generations. We have read about the “me” generation and the “millenialists,” the “X” generation, and the “Y” generation. While I hesitate to lump myself together with the social scientists, I would nonetheless suggest that we call today’s young people the “Now Generation.” They, like their parents before them, don’t know diddly about their own history, much less world history. In fact, studies of recent college graduates have shown an alarming number of these folks who cannot name the first five presidents of the United States, cannot recognize the Gettysburg Address, don’t know who were our allies during the Second World War, or when the First World War was fought — or what countries it involved. Much ink has been spilled along with weeping and gnashing of teeth over these sad revelations, but very little of substance has resulted from all the angst. History is still not considered important in our schools or in this culture. As Henry Ford would have it: “History is bunk!”

Santayana famously said that those who are ignorant of their history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. This presupposes a cyclical view of history and is predicated on the notion that human beings don’t really change that much. Because events tend to repeat themselves — we seem to be constantly at war, for example — and humans have become increasingly locked in the present moment, ignorant of their own past, they will tend to fall into the same traps as their predecessors. On a smaller scale, every parent laments the fact that their kids don’t listen to them and seem determined to make the same mistakes their parents made twenty years before. History is a great teacher. But we have to read it, assimilate it, and take it to heart. We tend not to do that. History is not bunk, Mr. Ford, and we are certain to repeat the mistakes of previous generations if we continue to remain locked in the present moment, ignoring not only the past (from which we have so much to learn) but also ignoring our obligations to the future as well.

So, I recommend that a more appropriate label for the present younger generation is the one suggested above. It is certainly true, as psychological and sociological studies have revealed, that today’s youth are addicted to electronic toys, immersed in themselves, uncaring, and seemingly unaware of the world outside themselves; the label “Me Generation” does seem to fit. But my suggestion is designed to expand the domain of the label to include not only the young, but their parents as well. We all need to read and study the past in order to avoid the traps and pitfalls that most assuredly lie ahead.

Forgetting The Past

The student protests in this country during the turbulent 1960s led by well-intentioned, idealistic young people, seem to have marked the death-throes of the American spirit. Directed as it was, unsuccessfully, against the “establishment” of materialistic, commercial and militaristic power that increasingly controlled this country, the effort sought in its blind way to breathe life into the spirit that had made this country remarkable. But blind it was, led by uneducated zealots who lacked a coherent plan of action, confused freedom with license, and targeted education which they barely understood and were convinced was turning into simply another face of the corporate corruption that was suffocating their country. In their reckless enthusiasm they decided that the core academic requirements at several of America’s leading universities were “irrelevant” and they bullied bewildered, frightened, and impotent professors and administrators into cutting and slashing those requirements. Other institutions were soon to follow. One of the first casualties was history, which was regarded by militant students as the least relevant of subjects for a new age they were convinced they could bring about by force of will and intimidation.

Had they been inclined to read at all, they might have done well to heed the words of Aldous Huxley when, in Brave New World, he pointed out that the way the Directors of that bizarre world controlled their minions was by erasing history. One of Huxley’s slogans, lifted from Henry Ford, was “history is bunk.” By erasing and re-writing history those in power could control the minds of the population and redirect the nation and determine its future. In the end, of course, the students who led the protests in this country and who thought history irrelevant were themselves (inevitably?) co-opted by the corporations and eventually became narrow, ignorant Yuppies, running up huge credit card debt and worried more about making the payments on their Volvos and their condos than about the expiring soul of a nation they once claimed to love. Or they became politicians tied to corporate apron-strings thereby rendering them incapable of compromise and wise leadership.

In 1979 Christopher Lasch wrote one of the most profound and informative  analyses of the cultural malaise that resulted in large part from the failure of the protests in this country in the 1960s. In his remarkable book The Culture of Narcissism: American Life In An Age of Diminishing Expectations, which I have referred to in previous blogs he warned us about this attempt to turn our backs on history:

“. . .the devaluation of the past has become one of the most important symptoms of the cultural crisis to which this book addresses itself, often drawing on historical experience to explain what is wrong with our present arrangements. A denial of the past, specifically progressive and optimistic, proves on closer analysis to embody the despair of a society that cannot face the future. . . . After the political turmoil of the sixties, Americans have retreated to purely personal preoccupations. Having no hope of improving their lives in any of the ways that matter, people have convinced themselves that what matters is psychic self-improvement: getting in touch with their feelings, eating health food, taking lessons in ballet or belly dancing, immersing themselves in the wisdom of the East, jogging, learning how to ‘relate,’ overcoming the ‘fear of pleasure.’ Harmless in themselves, these pursuits, elevated to a program and wrapped in the rhetoric of authenticity and awareness, signify a retreat from politics and a repudiation of the recent past. Indeed, Americans seem to wish to forget not only the sixties, the riots, the new left, the disruptions on college campuses, Vietnam, Watergate, and the Nixon presidency, but their entire collective past, even in the antiseptic form in which it was celebrated during the Bicentennial. Woody Allen’s movie Sleeper, issued in 1973, accurately caught the mood of the seventies. Appropriately cast in the form of a parody of futuristic science fiction, the film finds a great many ways to convey the message that ‘political solutions don’t work,’ as Allen flatly announces at one point. When asked what he believes in, Allen, having ruled out politics, religion, and science, declares: ‘I believe in sex and death — two experiences that come once in a lifetime.’ . . . To live for the moment is the prevailing passion — to live for yourself, not for your predecessors or posterity.”

If there were any questions about the spiritual health of this country, the loss of hope, the rejection of religion, history, and science, and the abandoned expectations of viable political solutions provide clear answers.  We do seem to be a vapid people, collecting our toys and worrying about how to pay for them, wandering lost in a maze of our own making, ignoring the serious problems around us as we follow our own personal agendas — and remaining ignorant of the history lessons that might well show us the way to a more promising future.

History Lessons

The American philosopher/novelist George Santayana famously said that those who refuse to read history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. In one of his recent blogs my friend BTG expanded on Santayana’s comment by noting the exemplary behavior of Paul O’Neill, C.E.O. of Alcoa who apparently was one of the few who listened to Santayana: he insisted that his employees at Alcoa own up to and learn from their mistakes so they would not repeat them. In doing so, he improved communication within the company and managed to turn around a struggling company and make of it a success.

My comment in response to BTG was that we seem to be like young kids who prefer to make our own mistakes. I had referred in my blog to the fact that during the turbulent 60s of the last century when the college kids were asking about the “relevance” of such courses as history, those in charge of higher education had no answer and ended up throwing out the baby with the bath water [they didn’t ask me!]. What the kids were asking, in their own inarticulate way, was why they should have to take college courses that didn’t translate into immediate cash value in the marketplace. I used history as an example, but it could apply to most of the courses in the liberal arts which at that time formed the core of most college curricula. In any event, the result of the inability of college professors to respond to their critics at the time was that the colleges and universities started throwing out liberal arts courses that had for generations been regarded as essential to the makeup of an educated person and shifting the focus to the “useful” arts. In other words, we traded job training for education. It didn’t happen overnight, but it has happened gradually and as a society we are the worse for it.

As I say, we are like kids and we want to make our own mistakes. We don’t think the things that happen to other people will happen to us because we are different. Statistics show that seat belts save lives, but we won’t wear ours because we don’t think we could possibly have an accident. We lack that historical, literary, and psychological perspective that deepens and broadens our awareness of what is going on around us. The colleges and universities that have eliminated core requirements have simply exacerbated a cultural situation that breeds widespread ignorance posing as insight and perception. We think because there is an unlimited amount of information out there accessible to anyone with a computer we are wiser than those who went before us. But we are really not all that bright and we habitually refuse to learn from the mistakes our predecessors made.  This is the best possible answer to those militant students who 50 years ago challenged the college faculties to explain why they needed an education: wisdom has been lost in the information glut.

There is a movement which I have alluded to in previous blogs that seeks to right the ship. It is fostered by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which is housed in Washington, D.C. In a nationwide project they call “What Will They Learn?” this group has scrutinized the core requirements of every college and university in this country under a microscope and found virtually all of them wanting. Colleges really don’t require much of anything outside the major requirement; they seem perfectly content to have narrow, ignorant adults going forth with degrees they can hang on their walls that aren’t worth the paper they are printed on. I don’t blame the students. They don’t know any better. But college professors who do in fact live in ivory towers should realize that their job is not to protect their territory and turn out replicas of themselves. Rather, their job is to help young people come to a deeper, more critical perspective of their world that makes life worth living — learn to use their minds, acquire good communication skills, understand history, have at least a nodding acquaintance with poetry and literature, learn to calculate and become scientifically literate. Such people make better citizens and more valuable employees. In the end the liberal arts are the most useful because they liberate the minds of those who come into contact with them.

Career Choices

A recent article on Yahoo News stuck in my craw. Vicki Lynn, the Vice President of Universum, a “global talent recruiting company that works with many Fortune 500 companies,” lists five academic majors she insists are “useless” and will lead invariably to unemployment. The list includes philosophy, of course, so I am deeply invested in this argument as you might guess!

Philosophy is linked with Religious Studies by Ms Lynn and the list also includes Architecture, Anthropology or Archeology, Ethnic Studies, and Information Studies. In each case Lynn recommends alternative fields that she is convinced are more marketable. I cannot speak about the rest of the disciplines in the list except to make the general point that education is not about career choices, it’s about enabling one’s mind and doing what you love to do the rest of your life. How many people “out there” are in deadly dull jobs because they majored in a narrow field where there were job openings at the time and are now stuck in a dead-end with no real chance of any significant change? The data suggest the numbers are very high indeed. In fact, by the time most people have reached their mid-forties they have changed jobs five times. The only thing we know for certain is that things will change: education must prepare young people for change, not for a job.

My advice to my students was always take a variety of courses in their first couple of years in college and find something they really like and major in that — then minor in something useful like business or computer science and the jobs will be out there when they graduate. More importantly they will be happy. My younger son majored in history (not on Lynn’s list, but I daresay she would be happy to include it) and is now a District Sales Manager for a large company. My older son majored in Creative Writing (again not on her list, but I expect she would he happy to add it as well) and he works for a medical insurer as the editor of their in-house publications. They both seem successful and happy. And I have heard from a number of former students who followed my advice, graduated, and are doing very well, thank you very much.

But when it comes to philosophy or religious studies (which Lynn links together for some reason) there are good reasons to major in these fields. For one thing, philosophy majors score high, on average, on the LSAT tests and make successful attorneys. They can also teach or go to Seminary — as can those who major in religious studies. Or they can do any number of jobs that require an active and analytical mind. When I was a tennis pro at a country club West of Chicago I met a very successful investment broker who majored in philosophy and insisted that his college major was invaluable to him in his work. Garry Trudeau, creator of “Doonesbury,” reportedly majored in philosophy as did Steve Martin. I wrote a blog not long ago about Phyllis Billington who graduated with a major in philosophy from Northwestern University. She brags about her “useless” major and attests to the fact that it stood her in good stead in what was a remarkably varied and successful career. As she said in an interview: “I never could have gotten through life without it. Philosophy taught me to analyze, to see what was important, to keep my mind open but not to be afraid of convictions.”

But I do realize the data support Lynn’s claims. She doesn’t work with anecdotal evidence and her field of vision is much broader than mine. There may indeed be many a philosophy major out there serving hamburgers at McDonald’s [WHY do you want fries with that?]. But that’s only how they make a living. What about their quality of life? What do they do in their leisure time? I know of a creative writing major who works as a janitor at a local hospital so he can earn enough money to get by as he writes, which is what he loves to do. And that’s what this is all about: finding something you love to do and being happy. It’s not about jobs.

Over-Specialization

I am reading a history of early Rome that is well done but painstakingly detailed and slow reading. It’s title is Through The Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 A.D. Yes, that’s just the title. The book is by Peter Brown an Emeritus Professor of History at Princeton. Not long ago I was wading through another history book, The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787 by Gordon Wood. I never made it through Wood’s book though I am downrightt compulsive about finishing books I have decided to read. The book is ponderous, provides much more detail than I require, and is not well written. So I gave up on it. The Peter Brown book, on the other hand, exhibits better writing and was recommended by a friend, so I will probably work my way through the 530 pages (with 200 pages of notes and index, which I will skip). It reminds me of the fact that we suffer from over-specialization in this country.

The phenomenon results in books written by professionals in the field for other professionals — I dare say historians would appreciate the details and copious notes in both of these books. I speak here of history, but the same thing can be said of books in other disciplines (reading philosophy is like swimming through glue). Even novels are now written by writers who seem to be writing for other writers, not for the average reader who just wants a good read. The novel has to be clever and in the latest postmodern fashion.

Music is composed that can only be appreciated by professional musicians. For the rest of us it sounds like a cat with its tail caught in the car door. Art has become specialized as well as artists experiment with their media and try to discover new ways to say the same old things. This is not such a bad thing in the plastic arts, since they are more readily appreciated by the unsophisticated viewer and new ways of seeing things can be exciting. The plastic arts may survive the trend toward overspecialization, though there is always the lunatic fringe who create works that can be appreciated only by others on the lunatic fringe. But in so many of the arts sophistication has become the key to appreciation.

In any event, the phenomenon of overspecialization has infiltrated our colleges and universities where there are now specializations within specializations. As Michael Polanyi said 50 years ago, “. . .it is a rare mathematician, we are told, who fully understands more than half a dozen out of fifty papers presented at a mathematical congress.”  And that was then! This has resulted in a hodge-podge undergraduate “education” where students take bits and pieces of this and that until something strikes their fancy (or they have decided going in that they will become physicians or CPAs and they stay on track for their undergraduate years and get trained but not educated). Neither of these alternatives amounts to a coherent education that broadens as well as deepens perspective. But that’s what we seem to be stuck with as the specialists, separated as they are from one another by discipline — and often by geographical location on campus — don’t (can’t?) talk to one another and cannot come to any sort of agreement about what kinds of things make for a defensible undergraduate education. The student is victim though she doesn’t know it.

And the rest of suffer as well when we want to know a bit about the history of humankind and we are faced with ponderous books that are deep in detail and shallow in writing skill and readability. The curious layman (and student) has been forgotten in this age of specialization where walls between schools of thought cannot be conquered even by the most determined climber.

Lessons Learned?

The latest word from Afghanistan is disturbing.

KABUL (Reuters) – The U.S. military said in a secret report that the Taliban, backed by Pakistan, are set to retake control of Afghanistan after NATO-led forces withdraw, raising the prospect of a major failure of Western policy after a costly war.

This, of course, should not surprise us, though it will surprise some for all the wrong reasons. George McGovern wrote an open letter to President Obama upon his assuming the Presidency of this country warning him not to get further involved in that part of the world. History has shown that such a step is ill-advised. McGovern pointed out that the Russians and the English, in recent history, learned tough lessons and went home with their tails between their legs. He even went so far as to suggest that Britain’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan brought about the final days of the British Empire. The NATO forces now engaged in that war are finding out how frustrating it can be — not only because of the elusive Taliban who are the known target, but also because of native security forces who have turned on them in significant numbers, according to recent reports.

Now whether or not we want to agree with McGovern — who has a PhD in history from Northwestern and has also had considerable “real-world” experience — we should have learned enough by this time to realize that (as Santayana said long ago) those who ignore history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. So here we are.

We are told that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” in that the human embryo seems to repeat the stages of evolution the human race has gone through, complete with a vestigial tail and gills. It has occurred to me that humans after they are born exhibit the same sort of “recapitulation.” The children refuse to learn from their elders just as their elders, for centuries past, have refused to learn from the collective wisdom of the human race. We prefer to make our own mistakes, even if those mistakes are costly in both lives and money. Einstein defined “stupid” as the determination to repeat an act that is known not to work.  We claim to be the most evolved species on earth. I think not!

As one who has become convinced that we can not only learn from history but also from great literature, I watch with amazement as seemingly intelligent people like our President listen to the wrong kind of advice and make the wrong choices. We were mistaken to get involved in Afghanistan in the first place, though chasing down Osama Bin Laden was a viable excuse in the minds of many. But we know Pakistan is not a worthy ally and we also know that the tribes in Afghanistan have been at one another’s throats for centuries. And we also know, or should know, that McGovern’s analysis was based on weighty historical evidence.  But all that is cast aside in the frenzy to impose our will on another culture and eliminate a man whose cause would certainly not die with him.

In the end, we have made our own bed and we must now lie in it. But we should have known enough not to make the bed in the first place. The refusal to learn from others’ mistakes may turn out to be our fatal flaw.