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.




History Lessons

After Athens and Sparta led the Greeks in battle against the mammoth forces of Persia and won the battle of Marathon — where Herodotus estimates that they were outnumbered as much as 10 to 1, the Greeks formed the Delian league which exacted tribute from the various Greek City-States too help build Greek forces against possible future attacks. The funds were kept at Delos, home of the Delphic Oracle and a place sacred to the Greeks.

Eventually, Athens transferred the money to Athens and used it to help them build their navy and arm their forces (and the Parthenon), while assuming control of many of the City-Sates that were weaker than they. Indeed, the Athenians thought it only natural that the stronger should take control of the weaker. And, oddly enough, the rest of the Greeks seem to have adopted that view as well — even the weak ones! But eventually Sparta realized that the growing power of Athens was a direct threat to them and to those City-States that looked to them for protection, such as Corinth. Soon began the Peloponnesian War that lasted 27 years and ended with Sparta taking control of the country and occupying Athens. The war is chronicled by Thucydides who lived thorough it and who gave us what many regard as the first truly factual historical account of what was happening in the dark and distant past. It should be noted that Thucydides was intent to dismiss the poetical “fancies” of such people as Homer who didn’t tell is “like it was.” The new history was to be factual and the historian seeking above all else to be objective.

Well, it is a fascinating question whether a historian can be objective and many now think that all history is poetry — or fiction at the very least. But the lessons that Thucydides sought to teach the future he was convinced were lessons that could help us all understand the forces that operate on us all and assist us in dealing with an unknown future. He regarded history as cyclical, major trends repeating themselves while the personages and specific challenges changed with the times. What happened in Greece in the fifth century B.C.E. can teach us how to prepare for what is happening to us right now. The decision of the Athenians to send a majority of their troops to Sicily late in the war (resulting in 40,000 Athenian deaths) parallels almost exactly Hitler’s decision to attack Russia during the Second World War — with almost identical results. And George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq following the huge success of his father’s adventure in The Gulf War may be yet another parallel.

The key elements in this repetition are the greed and ambition of human beings coupled with their aggressive instincts — according to Thucydides. Those elements are still very much with us, as noted above. And it should also be noted also that toward the end of the Peloponnesian War Athens became arrogant and in its excessive pride took a step too far and brought about its own ruin. There are lessons here for us all.

In our eagerness to “make America great again,” we must recall the lessons that the fifth century historian sought to teach: pride and arrogance coupled with fear and our aggressive impulses often, if not always, lead to tragic consequences. I have noted in the past that the greatness of this country lies not in its military power — such things as increasing the already obscenely huge nuclear arsenal and a “defense” budget that dwarfs all others on this planet — but in its espousal of values such as honor, nobility, and generosity. These were values that the Athenians paid lip service to, but which were displaced in their frenzy to build their empire and amass land and wealth — which brought about their demise. We, too, have paid lip-service to values such as these while we play the game of power politics. And we have a leader recently elected whose avowed purpose is to disconnect with the rest of the civilized world, build walls, and increase our military strength in pursuit of what he regards as “greatness.”

Those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it, according to the philosopher Santayana. And Americans are notoriously ignorant not only of world history but of their own history as well. It is not a formula for success, and we would be wise to pause and reflect along the way toward “greatness” and ask repeatedly whether we really want to go where we seem to be headed. We must cling to such values as integrity, nobility, true heroism, sacrifice, and charity toward those who rely on us if we are to approach greatness, which does not wear armor but wears, rather, the cloak of generosity and selflessness.

Revolutionary Theory

It is well known that Thomas Jefferson held fast throughout his life to the conviction that nations should experience a revolution every generation. While he was not averse to a violent revolution, if necessary, he preferred (as did all Enlightenment thinkers) that these revolutions be guided by reason and whatever changes came about, however radical, should come about slowly and peacefully. Late in his life he wrote a strange essay in which he developed his theory of continual revolutions that were, in his view, the only guarantee of individual liberty against the relentless encroachment of the power of the political state. The essay was called “The Earth Belongs To The Living,” and it spells out the conditions Jefferson, as an avid reader of history, perceived to be the conditions of despotism that always precede violent revolutions. The essay was read and commented on by Jefferson’s close friend James Madison but in general it has been dismissed by many historians as “the dream of a theorist” and not taken seriously.

One of the few historians to take the essay seriously — and to take Jefferson at his word about the need for continual revolutions — was Daniel Sisson, who, in his book The American Revolution of 1800, provides us with a careful, if overly favorable, study of Jefferson’s attitudes toward revolution and his commitment to the notion that his own election to the Presidency was itself a revolution in that it marked a radical change in the political life of America, which was tending toward Federalism and even the reestablishment of a monarchy — which is to say, the growing satisfaction on the part of the general population with an increase of central power. Jefferson saw his Presidency as an opportunity to return the nation to the people and place the sovereignty where it belonged, in the hands of the citizens, and lay to rest once and for all the desire that this nation should be governed by a monarch.

Sisson remarks at length about Jefferson’s “theoretical dream” and lists the conditions that Jefferson saw as precursors to every revolution:

Those conditions [Jefferson] enumerated at the end of his letter [to Madison] had been present in all despotisms throughout history and were particularly characteristic of the ancient regimes yet in power. Further, they could be summarized as those conditions that existed in America from 1760 to 1775: attempts by the government in power to maintain its authority were gradually undermined; laws became arbitrary; ‘obligations,’ once bearable, became ‘impositions’; traditional loyalties faded and new forms of attachment (outside the existing circle of government) became noticeable — the idea of community no longer held people’s attention to the interests of the nation; factions arose that exploited the frustrated classes in society; representatives no longer were representative, but spoke for the privileged few; accepted forms of wealth and income suddenly appeared corrupt or ‘ill-gained’; existing concepts of prestige changed; those people with talent, normally integrated into society, began to feel ‘left out.’ Indeed, this is the picture of an . . . emerging dialectic of two competing cultural systems warring against each other in the same society.

Santayana has told us that we need to read history or we will repeat its mistakes. Jefferson took that notion seriously and we should as well. The conditions Jefferson describes for us resemble in so many ways the conditions that persist in contemporary America. As Sisson points out, these are conditions that can lead to revolution or even to civil war. But there are mitigating factors at work in America today that may well prevent that from happening: schools that do not educate but simply train people to find mind-numbing jobs; news media that have degenerated to the level of mere entertainment, coupled with entertainment directed at a grammar-school mentality; electronic toys that mesmerize and lower I.Q.;  and wide-spread apathy brought on by complacency and ignorance. If Jefferson is right, then this translates into the loss of individual liberty — the very thing a republic was established to protect and preserve. But the majority of Americans seem unaware of this fact, or they just don’t care.

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.