Book Review: William Torrey Harris – The Philosophy of Education, Lecure III

LECTURE III. January 21st, 1893. OPPOSITION BETWEEN PESTALOZZI AND HERBART AS EDUCATIONAL LEADERS. (found here. Lecture I review here, Lecture II here.)

This lecture is one run-on paragraph. I will break it up for convenience of discussion:

Pestalozzi laid great stress on sense-perception as the foundation of all school education. Herbart lays stress on the elaboration of sense-perception or rather upon the mental reaction against the impressions made on our senses. Thought goes back of the object to understand and explain its origin, how it became to be what it is, what purpose it is to serve. Thought sees objects in the perspective of their history. It studies causes and purposes.

The Herbart Harris refers to here is one Johann Friedrich Herbart,
(1776 – 1841) a German philosopher, psychologist and founder of the academic field of pedagogy. His principles of education are roughly Platonic, as he sees the fulfillment of the individual as only possible as a member of a civilization. Man is a political animal, after all, so no argument there on a general level. The trick here is implied in the phrase ‘productive citizen’ which Wikipedia uses to describe Herbart’s meaningful relationship between a man and his civilization. Does man derive his meaning and value from being a productive citizen? Or does the whole idea of a productive citizen depend on people having value and meaning prior to any production? In the first case, it might be logical and even merciful to cull any people – can’t really call them members of society in this context – who are not productive, since they cannot have meaningful lives without such production. Not that such an idea would occur to any Germans of that time…

Herbart is also said to be a follower of Pestalozzi, which supports my suspicion that Pestalozzi is more a Rorschach test than an actual teacher. My forays into Pestalozzi’s writings left me thinking he is nearly completely incoherent; when Fichte, a proto-Nazi, and Einstein, who was a student at a Pestalozzian school, both praise his methods, one has got to wonder if they are talking about the same thing. Herbart is said to differ from Pestalozzi in that Pestalozzi believed everything is built on sense perceptions, while Herbart believes cogitation on sense perceptions is the source of understanding and knowledge.

If that sounds a bit gobbly-goopy, it may be because it is. You get these men who want desperately to control how children learn – Fichte, Mann, Dewey, heck, Plato and on and on – and they start fighting over stuff that normal people, eve normal philosophers, would roll their eyes at. Watch a kid, especially a really small kid, and you’ll see someone obsessed with sense perception to the point where they’ll stick crap they pick up off the ground into their mouths (this is a big learning experience, btw. We don’t stop doing this because we’re told to, but because we insisted on doing it). AND one will see little minds working overtime to figure out how stuff works. It’s not that sense perception or cogitation is more or less important, but rather that it’s absurd upon inspection to imagine that adults need to do anything to promote either. Adults just need to refrain from screwing it up, which seems beyond the reach of these gentlemen.

I’m not going any deeper into Herbart, who I first heard of from these lectures, for now – this is all from a skim of Wikipedia, for which I promise to feel bad about later. Onward:

Thus thought is not as the disciples of Pestalozzi hold, a continued and elevated sort of sense-perception, but rather a reaction against it. It is a discovery of the subordinate place held by objects in the world ; they are seen to be mere steps in a process of manifestation, the manifestation of causal energies. A new perception is received into the mind by adjusting it to our previous knowledge ; we explain it in terms of the old ; we classify it, identify it ; reconcile what is strange and unfamiliar in it with previous experience; we interpret the object and comprehend it ; we translate the unknown into the known.

People learn by experiencing the world, thinking about what they experienced and trying as best they can to fit it in with everything else they know. Got it.

Does Harris suppose we can do anything about it? Does Harris imagine the process he (following Kant, more or less) describes ought to be somehow promoted or encouraged, let alone managed? That would be hubris-ridden nonsense, like believing the sun will not rise unless the shaman performs the correct rituals. You might as well try to teach kids hearts how to beat. But maybe that’s not where he’s going.

This process of adjusting, explaining, classifying, identifying, reconciling, interpreting and translating, is called apperception.

Yep, Kant. Apperception is one of those terms of art in Philosophy, pretty much meaning what Harris described above.

We must not only perceive, but we must apperceive ; not only see and hear, but digest or assimilate what we hear and see. Herbart’s “apperception ” is far more important for education than Pestalozzi’s “perception.” At first the memory was the chief faculty cultivated in education; then Pestalozzi reformed it by making the culture of sense- perception the chief aim; now with Herbart the chief aim would be apperception or the mental digestion of what is received by perception or memory.

Hmmm. How far back is the phrase “at first” meant to go? Certainly not all the way back to the Greeks, who before Socrates’s time had come to understand education as a function of friendship. They didn’t even write about how kids learned reading, writing and basic math, any more than they wrote about how you went to the market or walked down the street. Instead, the wrote about ephebia – schools for young men entering adulthood, where they spent 2 or 3 years training to be fit soldiers and learning how to be good citizens – why they should love their city-state and Greek culture in general. Then, the most promising and noble youths were taken under the wings of men of achievement, who acted as mentors, as described peripherally in Plato’s Symposium. (The occasional sexual aspects of these relationships, while real, are generally overstated and misunderstood.) An educated Greek would memorize Homer, but even that feat had the primary goal of immersion into Greek culture, especially understanding arete, the excellence toward which every Greek aspired and the measure by which they would be judged.

Or there’s St. Jerome’s 5th century advice to the noblewoman Laeta how she should teach her daughter Paula to read. This is not memorization training, at least not essentially. The essential part is the sharpening of Paula’s wit.

More Enlightenment (sic) nonsense: Harris and his crowd thought they were the smart people, first people to understand these things, and had a right and duty to guide lesser individuals. They started with memorization, therefore, the whole project starts with memorization. That people have successfully educated their children for as long as there have been people if acknowledged at all is pooh-poohed: maybe, but not educating them correctly!

Illustrations of the power of apperception to strengthen perception: Cuvier could reconstruct the entire skeleton from a single bone ; Agassiz the entire fish from one of its scales ; Winckelman the entire statue from a fragment of the face; Lyell could see its history in a pebble; Asa Gray the history of a tree by a glance.

OK, I suppose, although I’d want a serious look at those reconstructions of Cuvier, Agassiz and Winckelman before conceding the point to quite that level. Be that as it may, I’m not sure such levels of expertise are the product of a particular kind of schooling. Not to give him too much credit, but Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink describes a similar if not identical result, except that the process by which an expert reaches his conclusion is mostly not conscious or even strictly rational. That level of expertise seems to be learned, but not taught, and to require some innate talent. Herbart, at least, is a blank slater – he doesn’t believe in innate talents. It the turtles of nurture all the way down.

Apperception adds to the perceived object its process of becoming. Noire has illustrated apperception by showing the two series of ideas called up by the perception of a piece of bread. First the regressive series dough, flour, rye ; and the processes baking, kneading, grinding, threshing, harvesting, planting, &c. Each one of these has collateral series, as for example, planting has plowing, plow, oxen, yoke, furrow, harrowing, sowing seeds, covering it, etc. The second series is progressive bread suggests its uses and functions; food, eating, digesting, organic tissue, life, nourishing strength, supply of heat, bodily labor, &c.

Ok, again. Yes, understanding something does mean putting it into a larger, more coherent, context.

The course of study in schools must be arranged so as to prepare the mind for quick apperception of what is studied. The Pestalozzian makes form, number, and language the elements of all knowledge. He unfortunately omits causal ideas, which are the chief factors of apperception ; we build our series on causally. Accidental association satisfies only the simpleminded and empty-headed.

Sure. Perhaps the course of study could be comparatively brief encounters with a mentor, who guides and reviews, and comparatively large amounts of time to experience and process the world?

I suspect that’s not where Harris is going with this.

Next up: Lecture IV.

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Update: The Education History Reading List

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Random licensed for reuse pic off the interwebs. I take better care of my books than that. Usually.

For at least 4 or 5 years, I’ve been thinking about/taking feeble stabs at putting together what I would call a real education history reading list. I have started putting this list together as a project for 2019. Such a list would be heavy on contemporary source documents (contemporary with the events being discussed, not contemporary with the reader) and light on latter-day analyses framing the past as merely the inevitable, and inevitably inferior, precursor to our current modern state of affairs. As C. S. Lewis put it in another context, don’t read about Plato, read Plato. As much as possible and practical, that’s the goal.

Nonetheless, I will include some overviews and summaries, such as Marrou’s A History of Education in Antiquity, because, in this case, I can’t touch his level of scholarship, and the reality is that, even if translations of all his sources were available in English (unlikely), I simply won’t live long enough to track them all down – a snippet here, an engraving there, sometimes a paragraph or two elsewhere, in 2000+ year old Greek or Latin, that only a true scholar such as Marrou could have tracked down over the course of a decade or two. And Walch’s Parish Schools, because he provides the overview and references without which it would be very difficult to even know where to look for source materials. Similarly, the late great John Taylor Gatto’s Underground History of American Education, which pointed me to Fichte, among many other sources. Perhaps a couple more.

Back to original sources. Many works leap out for inclusion: The Republic, Rousseau’s Emile and Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education, and so on, well known works of reasonable length with multiple translations and editions readily available. Others, such as Fichte’s Addresses to the German People or any of Pestalozzi’s inscrutable works, which are not as accessible, and are hardly intelligible without some historical context. Or Martin Luther’s letters, of which two (it seems – I won’t live long enough to read them all) address education specifically. A half hour of internet research suggests that Luther often touched on the topic of education, but mostly more or less in passing, in the many letters he wrote. (1)

Which brings me to providing some context. This is a tall order, as I acutely feel my own lack of proper historical education. Nonetheless, I’ve read a lot of books, and seem to have a minor intellectual gift for making connections (the plus side of having a brain that runs nonstop like hamsters on speed, I suppose). So I’ll take a stab, such as any regular reader of this blog has seen in many posts here. Seeing the amazing lack of context displayed in what passes for public discourse emboldens me to imagine even my feeble efforts might help a little. My experiences with Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed revealed to me something shocking that, I suppose, should not have been: that modern students at education schools will not understand what they read, even when, as is the case with Freire, it is patent communist propaganda. He says sympathetic sounding things about the plight of the poor and proposes education as the way to help them – and that’s about the limit of a modern ed school victim’s reading comprehension. They will miss all the commie buzzwords, and have no chance of grokking that the critical step to achieving Freire’s little utopia is dividing the people into sheep and goats based on the shibboleth of Marxist enlightenment, and, basically, robbing and killing the goats. He says as much, toward the end of the book, long after the eager ed student’s eyes have glazed over, but one would need to be familiar with the way Marxists talk to see it.

(It’s fascinating to see that the new president of Brazil has stated flatly that the indispensable first step in reforming Brazil’s schools is to purge them of Marxism and Marxists. Freire taught a generation of Brazilian ‘educators’ that the goal of education is to radicalize the students, that all that reading, writing and arithmetic stuff was merely a distraction when it wasn’t an out and out tool of oppression. Now imagine trying to unite your fellow citizens to build a first world country, when the schools have been cranking out practically illiterate and innumerate ‘radicals’ for the last 3-4 generations – and are proud of it! Or rather, don’t imagine it – just watch our own country over the next generation or two. We already have created a class of college grads who think pleasing an employer in order to get paid and thus pay back the money they borrowed to get that studies degree is to be a traitor to their class and ideals. There are only so many grievance professional and barista jobs out there…)

So the list may contain works that are there merely to provide context. This will be a tough call, and I’ll try not to bloat it too much. And the holes will be bigger by an order of magnitude or two than the areas covered no matter what I include. Better than nothing, I hope.

I’ll make the list a page on the blog. It will include some brief summaries and links back to blog posts that discuss the work. I’ll throw up a post when anything changes much. And as always, I’m open to suggestions and criticisms. Just play nice.

  1. It also suggests that Lutherans are very proud of the economic superiority of nations where Protestantism dominates, and of Luther’s role in promoting universal literacy so that people could read the Bible, the source of their beliefs. Here I am, wondering when economic achievement became a measure of Christian success, and when the Bible supplanted Jesus as the source of Christian beliefs. But hey, I’m one of those dense, irrational papists, so what do you expect? Oops, was supposed to play nice, sorry.

2018: Let Me ‘Splain…

Image result for inigo montoya let me sum up

Life is good. Having breakfast (Huevos Rancheros with both red and green New Mexico chile sauces – the only way to fly) with our kids and their grandmother on a cold, crisp Sunday morning after attending a lovely Mass together – what more is there to life in this world? I am indeed blessed.

Elder daughter is off being courted at the moment. Nice young man. Elder son is studying. He had a meeting yesterday with his thesis advisor – at our home! Seems he and his wife were up in the area to visit a brand-new grandchild, and so came over to visit. Charming an intelligent conversation ensued.

Younger daughter is having that experience I’ve warned them about: the reward for competence is getting more work. We are for the most part a competent family, and end up organizing, executing and cleaning up after a lot of things. It’s worth it, but can get exasperating at times. Beats the alternative. She (both daughters, actually) is an excellent seamstress. A young lady who teaches at our school and has been staying with us for the last 2 years is getting married, and younger daughter volunteered to make her wedding dress. She loves doing this sort of thing, but it’s a big job.

Wedding dresses tend strongly toward the ‘more involved’ end of the dressmaking spectrum. So, this being our daughter’s only real break between now and the wedding, as she will be writing her senior thesis during the 2nd semester of her senior year, she is trying to get it done this week. So, since she should be doing her seminar readings now, my beloved wife is reading aloud to her while she sews.

Younger son, the Caboose, is indulging in some video games. I need to take him Christmas shopping, since he’s the only one who can’t drive himself and we will be having our gift-giving on January 1. We had it on Epiphany for many years, but recently the kids have been drawn away to jobs and school, so we tend to have it on the last day everybody is here – New Years Day this year.

On Thursday, we met up with a young family visiting San Francisco. College friends of elder daughter. After lunch, we had only a couple hours to show them around, and chose the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. This is a 140 year old large wooden greenhouse stocked with rare tropical plants and flowers, the oldest public collection of its kind in America. They have dozens of different carnivorous plants, including some pitcher plants whose traps could hold a good size bird or rat. Funky looking.

I took a few pictures. They aren’t very good. If you want to see good pictures of flowers, check out Zoopraxiscope.

Wacky-looking yellow spirally flowers on a typically weird tropical plant. You know, I suppose I could have taken a picture of the little placard, and thus told you what this here thing is. I’ll try to remember that in the future…
Tiny yellow orchids. And plenty of ’em. They have lots of orchids, too, in the less sweaty/drippy rooms.

2018 was an interesting year:

  • Our middle two kids completed the first half of their senior years at Thomas Aquinas and Thomas More. Have two graduation to look forward to in 2019 – on opposite coasts one week apart. Of course. I’m a happy daddy.
  • Singing in a Sunday choir for the first time in over a decade. The relentless poor quality of the music and the lack of any aspirations to sing anything better drove me off. But a friend got a twice a month job doing the Saturday anticipatory mass, and she’s doing chant and Watershed stuff, so I’m now in. Didn’t realize how much I missed it.
  • Youngest son progresses with violin. He can fiddle up a storm. He also decided on his own to join Boy Scouts. The particular group he joined seems good, and has not yet completely fallen to PC nonsense. He needs 3-4 years to make Eagle, so if the troop can hold out that long… He loves the outdoor activities and getting to hang with some relatively sane kids his own age.
  • Home Improvement projects proceeded at a crawl. Got a few thousand more bricks to lay out front, and some wrought iron-style fencing and some rails and steps to put in. Did make the carcass for a king-size bed platform out of oak veneer plywood. Unfortunately, had to press it into service before I had time (and decent weather – have to work on projects this large outside) to finish it. Therefore added another threshold to overcome before finishing it: taking it back out of the bedroom. In my mind’s eye it’s very nice, sort of reminiscent of Mission style. As it is, it’s a big plywood box.
  • Didn’t read nearly as many books this year as the last couple. Plan to remedy that.
Collected in one pile the reading materials I’ve pulled off the shelves over the last few months to read or reread. Now located next to a comfy chair by a window. That helps.
  • Did get almost done (what is with me and getting near the end of books and not finishing? I’ve not always been this way…) with Polanyi – what a load! – and a couple education books (dreary for the most part). Did read – and even finished! – a half dozen SciFi books this year. But, man, gotta pick up the pace. I spend an unproductive amount of time reading materials on the internet. Some are critical, such as source materials on education. Others – not so much. Must remedy this as well.
  • Continuing with an hour or two of piano just about every day. Got Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique to the point where I can hack my way through it. Only took me about 12 months. Now, if I’d just put in another 6 months, I might get it to the point where I’d not be embarrassed to play it for somebody. Also worked up some rag time and a couple fugues from the Well Tempered Clavier. Tried a little Chopin, but – looks like a lot of work. So, maybe. Or maybe some more Beethoven or some Shubert. It’s fun
  • Over the last 6 months, made a miserable effort to get disciplined about writing. I could blame a series of minor injuries/illnesses, and there would be some truth to it, but many people have written through as bad or worse, so – no escaping it. I tried and failed.
  • On the other hand, did finish at least rough drafts of 3 stories, wrote several thousand words on the Eternal Novel of Infinite Enertia, and did a ton of blogging. There is that. But it’s not enough, not by a mile.
  • Lost my job June 30. I’m 60, 4-5 more years and I could have retired. Now? Got to come up with some way to get us through the next decade financially. No call for sympathy here, we’re doing way better that most people, it’s just I thought I had it licked, and – not so much.
  • Medically interesting year, which one does not want. Gone are the decades during which I never missed work and rarely had so much as a cold. Again, nothing worthy of sympathy – I’m just getting old and paying the price of letting myself go. I suspect regular exercise, eating like I’m sitting around all day instead of like I’m heading out to plow the south forty, and the related loss of, oh, 100 lbs, and I’d be a lot better off.

All in all, life is good. Good marriage, family I’m very happy to be a part of, no more than the usual amount of issues and problems. Can’t complain.

For 2019: We’ll see about writing some more. I could use a spiritual director. A job or some other income would be very good. Some discipline around food and exercise is required (hmmm – this sounds strangely familiar…) Reengaging a systematic prayer life would no doubt help. Pray, hope, and don’t worry, as St. Padre Pio put it. Yea, like that’s gonna happen. But nothing is impossible with God.

We wrap up 2018 tomorrow by finding an Adoration chapel to spend the last moments of the old year and the first of the new, then Mass, presents, breakfast and teary goodbyes to the older 2 kids. *sniff*.

Then we run it back for 2019! Interesting times. Good, but interesting.

Reading the Unwoke

Since I have it on good authority that I should be made to live up to my own rules in order that the Glorious Worker’s Revolution can take place, I got some reading to do. If I have one rule about reading/research, it’s go to the source first. Then, once you’ve taken a respectable crack at understanding what writers have to say for themselves, read commentaries and summaries if necessary or desirable.

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Antonio Gramsci. His father was a bureaucrat from a well-off family who did time for embezzlement, and his mother the daughter of landowners. Definitely not a prol – they were poor because daddy was an incompetent crook – and definitely had daddy issues – the classic Red profile. 

Thus, recognizing that I’ve never seriously read anything but summaries and excerpts from Gramsci and Alinsky, I cruised the ever-helpful if hegemonically managed internets, and downloaded some – stuff. Knuckle up. 

Also skimmed some Gramsci online. Based on a few of his many journalistic articles I looked over, my enthusiasm for the task of working through his prose is well contained. Starting with Kant, who in his defense can be said to be merely an innocent victim of the lack of writing talent (maybe), subsequent philosophers have discovered the value in being as verbose and obscure as possible. This puts the writer in the position of always being able to accuse critics of not understanding him, and allows him to stand figuratively with Newton and Einstein – geniuses whose thoughts are legitimately hard for almost everyone to understand. Newton and Einstein are hard to understand, see, yet have proven foundational to scientific understanding – just like me and philosophy! Woohoo!

That it’s perfectly possible, in fact more likely, that hard to understand writing is the product of muddled thinking and bad ideas, is a notion not allowed standing. Nope, when I say stuff like “Dasein’s experiential-bodying-forth as being-in-the-world with-Others” I’m showing, not an inability to use English or, more fundamentally, to think my way out of wet paper bag, (1) but that I’m *deep*. Right. 

Gramsci, based on the slight fairly random sample of his newspaper editorials I just read, can in fact form perfectly straight-forward sentences and even string a few together. (2) This is not nothing, far from it, and I am grateful. However, he will then turn around and write: \

Understanding and knowing how to accurately assess one’s enemy, means possessing a necessary condition for victory. Understanding and knowing how to assess one’s own forces, and their position on the battlefield, means possessing another very important condition for victory.

You mean, maybe, “To win, you must know your enemy and know yourself, and where you stand.” That whole “possessing necessary conditions” is the tag that says “I’ve read Marx! And Hegel!” but otherwise adds nothing, or, since I’ve read them, too, can be said to be empty of concrete reality. But, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I am much more enlightened than Gramsci. He is so unenlightened that he fails to see his stage of enlightenment as merely a stagnant backwater, a stage long subsumed and suspended in a synthesis itself long subsumed. History, to continue to speak a language he would find familiar, has unfolded yet further stages of enlightenment far past his, until, finally, it unfolded me! 

It’s how the rules of wokeness work: the less woke simply cannot understand the more woke. Until you get woke, the mechanics of which make the mysteries of human participation in redemptive grace seem trivial, you Just Don’t Get It. Therefore, my standing as a World Historic Individual (to continue to use language familiar to the tragically less woke) will simply be invisible and incomprehensible to poor Gramsci and his ilk. Just the way it is.    

Moving along: as evidenced by the increase in blog post frequency, I’m feeling better these days. I’m now antsy to finish the shameful backlog of half-read books I’ve started and petered out on over the last, well, year or two? So a book-review-alanche may be in the offing. 

The list includes, among many others: 

  • School of Darkness, Bella Dodd
  • The Great Transformation, Polanyi (almost done, darn it!)
  • Parish Schools, Timothy Walsh (actually a reread of sorts. But I never really reviewed the book as a whole.)
  • That goofy book on r/K selection theory (actually finished, but did not review)
  • The Man Who Was Thursday (only have about 70 pages to go! Why did I stop?) 
  • Philosophy of Spirit, Hegel (reread. Stalled out after the Preface 2 years ago. Sheesh.)

And so on and so forth. 

And then I’ve got to find a job or otherwise figure out how to get to a financial place where we can retire. Suggested to the wife this morning that we simply move to Costa Rica. We could live like minor nobility down there! The picture look good, and they have internet!  And we’d be a 1,000+ miles from all our friends and family! 

Right. So look for a job it is. Plus – I’m not even brave enough to face this yet – there’s this small boatload of stories and 15,000 words of a novel and that book on the history of Catholic education I’m pretending to write by reading other books and creating mountains of notes… Soon, and very soon? 

  1. It dawns on me – I’m slow, sometimes – that I’ve used this expression a couple times without explanation, which may not be fair. If it’s clear, pardon my pedantry, if not: It’s a play on a possibly obscure boxing insult: “He couldn’t punch his way out of a wet paper bag.” I’ve loved this since I first heard it, because it captures the failure of a presumed expert to execute that upon which their expertise is predicated. A boxer who can’t punch even through damp paper isn’t even a boxer. Thus so-called intellectuals who can’t think their way out of a wet paper bag. Well, it amuses me.
  2. Or maybe his translator. The translators of Hegel, for example, have been accused on occasion of reading more coherence into the text than is actually there.  But I think not in this case. 

Bones, Buildings and Books

Struck this morning by the discrepancy between what was, what has survived, and what is widely known. 

An obvious example is dinosaurs. We are most likely to find the remains of big, heavily boned creatures that lived somewhere where their bones could be preserved when they died. So swamp dwelling behemoths, and their predators and scavengers, whose bodies would be more likely to sink into anaerobic mud and be preserved rather than torn apart and scattered, are what we think of first when we think of the Age of the Dinosaurs. Which is why we call it that, after all. 

Meanwhile, looking at the current state of things, there would have had to have been as many or more ocean fish or inland grazers, and many, many more smaller and fragile creatures. The remains of those creatures were less likely to escape the scavengers and weather and bacteria and so on. Those  left comparatively fewer bones for us to find, or left tiny bones hard to see, and are thus little known or unknown.  

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It’s a miracle we find *any* 100 million year old remains, and a double miracle we find anything at all from plants and soft or tiny bodied creatures. 

It’s as likely as not that there were many times as many of those sorts of life than giant dinosaurs. But we don’t call it the Age of the Giant Cephalopods or the Age of Tiny Worms or the Age of Plants.  So what was is one thing, what has survived to be studied is another, and what we talk about when we consider it is yet a third thing. 

Multiple Winner, fix or tear down competition.

In a similar way, I suspect we’re not getting anything like a representative view of old architecture. Most any building more than a century old has had a lot of maintenance and repair done to it. Every once in a while, say maybe 40 or 50 years, those responsible for most non-monumental buildings face a decision: repair it or tear it down and start over. 

Given that people are often stupid, I imagine there have been innumerable times when very nice buildings that you or I would want saved got torn down and replaced with something not nearly as nice. Just look at the monstrosities built to replace the attractive old buildings in pretty much any American city. You want yet another grotesquely large glass box instead of something with a little character? Evidently, the answer is generally ‘yes’. (1)

But since people are not always stupid, and because ‘beautiful’ and ‘well-built’ tend to go together, I would expect that nicer old buildings are overrepresented in the sample that has survived to this day. 

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Quaint overdose! Yet, who wouldn’t want to live on a street like this? The charm is so smack you in the face that even city planners left it alone – for 4+ centuries and running. 

When ‘the past’ is represented by samples very possibly not representative, we need to be a little cautious of generalizing our ancestor’s sensibilities. I strongly suspect there were a lot more ugly or slapdash building in York that have not survived, compared with the Shambles pictured above that did survive. In other words, I suspect the human capacity for tastelessness and stupidity has not changed all that much over time. (2)

The counterargument for this might run: life was slower then, people were not always shooting for the next great thing, and so had more time to consider and less need to rush architectural decisions. These were people who built cathedrals that typically took more than a generation to complete. They have demonstrated that they could in fact take the log view. Based on the sample we do have, their everyday buildings incorporate the the local wisdom in a way no tract home ever will – built to be comfortable and enduring in the setting they occupy. So, on the contrary, ancient buildings that have survived are an accurate measure of the superior sensibilities of our ancestors. 

I’d like to believe that, sounds about right – but I’m not sure. I’m grateful that some of the good stuff made it through. Bones get filtered first by natural processes and then by the very human gee whiz factor that makes us thinks a 30 ton creature with 8″ teeth is way cooler than giant ferns or tiny insects and fish. Buildings start with man, and then get subjected to a combination of human and natural cullings as weather and time and the tender sensibilities of urban engineers take their tolls. In the end, in most cases, some human being decides to tear down or repair.

Then we come to Books – to History. Even books considered broadly undergo a somewhat similar process as buildings and bones: a combination of natural and human forces conspire to do some very serious culling. All paper – and vellum and papyrus and mud and even stone  – ‘books’ decay. The tear down or repair decision becomes a copy or not one. We do not have the Library of Alexandria (whatever that was in reality) or the Library of the Golden Age of Islam because Muslims in the first case and Mongols in the second burned them down. Cromwell burnt all sorts of fun stuff. French revolutionaries burnt the ancient library of Cluny, because Reason. Germans boobytrapped several French libraries and other buildings where books and record were stored as they retreated at the end of WWI.

And so on and so forth. Thus between nature’s decay, executive decisions to copy this and not that, and the wanton destruction of stuff we don’t like, we have only a couple of the many plays of Sophocles; we have Plato’s Dialogues but not his treatises and Aristotle’s treatises but not his dialogues. This does not include works we don’t even know we don’t have. Personally, I wonder if Archimedes made any shop notes – bet those would be interesting. Then there’s the Far East, with possibly much worse conditions, in general, for the survival of any cultural artifacts – conditions in  the dry and comparatively barren Middle East and Mediterranean would be easier, I suppose,  on just about any human made thing than the damp and luxuriant Orient. At the very least, if the East produced great works in wood and leather instead of the stone and clay of Egypt and Mesopotamia, those works would face a much tougher path to survival over millennia. 

So, it’s a miracle, in some sense, that we have much of any written documents from thousands of years ago. Different forces are at play now. Today, my shelves have a fairly large number of books marked for culling by librarians. A library at a small college in the southeast decided after a few decades in which no one checked it out that it could do without a biography of Henry Barnard. For example. Thus I, at least until I die, have made the ‘preserve’ decision for a few books on education history that were probably headed to the shredder or dumpster otherwise. The librarians, who use physical storage in an age of digital, are caught in a no-win situation: tying up shelf space for a dead tree edition of a book nobody had ever read, just in case, versus trusting someone somewhere has dedicated a square millimeter or two to digitally storing it. I’ve got even more education books in digital format than I do dead tree editions from some library. One supposes I’ll be one of very few people to read them in either format. 

Back to the point of all this blather: books, especially old books, are invaluable for giving us not just information, but in letting us into a different world of thought. 

But all this represents what might be called post publication censorship, using this admittedly loaded term to mean merely what is or is not available. What about pre-publication censorship? What about stuff doesn’t ever get published or even written up? At regular intervals in my Feasts & Faith group at our local parish, we talk about groups of martyrs, the Oxford University Martyrs or the Vietnamese Martyrs, for example. I remind the group that often the named people are explicitly intended as representatives of a larger group of people whose names we don’t know. The people doing the martyring – the Reformation English or Vietnamese government in these examples – have no interest in preserving the memories of the people they killed. Further, they created an environment in which it is very dangerous for other people to remember them. Thus, we happen to know about the Oxford University martyrs because each was at least a fairly prominent man or had people outside of England who knew of them – Jesuits, for example. But if you were a country priest or monastic monk, let alone just some layman or laywoman, and got murdered for your faith, who is going to write it all down, and risk being the next martyr? 

This is an extreme case. More difficult are things people don’t think are interesting at the time. The lives of kings and queens, their conquests and losses, their births and deaths – these seem important to their contemporaries. There are books, and legal and government documents,  and letters and so forth. The lives of less noble people must largely be reconstructed from peripheral documentation, or even from digging in the ground to see what they left. Dinosaur bones, mostly. 

In a sense, I’m running into this issue when I read up on education history. I’d like to know how classes where run, what the curriculum looked like, hours and days spent in class, discipline, enthusiasm or lack thereof on the part of parents, children, and teachers, when and how changes were made and how they went over with people. In the case of Catholic education in America, the few books written on the topic are all about kings and queens – the bishops, the pope, the  makers and shakers. Burns and Walsh mention the dearth of source materials, which becomes both a source and sign of the challenge: modern writers can’t give much detail, even when inclined to do so, when the people at the time didn’t record it. 

So one reads as many old books as one can, in order to fill in the blanks with a sentence here and a guess there. The goal is to get a general picture into a particular time and place in which individual pieces gleaned her and there might fit. Of course no old book – no new book, either – is truly representative of any sort of zeitgeist or culture-wide understanding of anything, insofar as any reality described by those concepts can be meaningfully said to exist. (3) But they do show us how the world at one point in time looked to a Jane Austin or an Orestes Brownson or a Fichte or a Mann, or just even how it looked to some obscure scholar or priest. The more widely we read such views, the better becomes our feel for how things were. We’ll never get it completely right, of course, but then again, we’ll never really know what it’s like to be our next door neighbor. We never really know what it’s like to be our own spouse or child or parent. 

  1. The skyline of San Francisco has only improved once in the 30+ years I’ve lived in or near it – when the Loma Prieta earthquake caused the downtown elevated freeway to be largely demolished. Addition by subtraction. The *additions*, however, starting with the Jukebox Marriott and culminating – for now – in the hulking, cancerous bulk the SalesForce building, have only overwhelmed much better buildings while adding a brutal air of domination to the city. I always enjoy walking down Michigan Avenue in Chicago, because of all the beautiful buildings combined with an air of openness. Chicago is much more charming than NYC in this respect. San Francisco, given the dramatic beauty of its setting, needed only not to screw it up. You can guess how that’s working out. 
  2. Read once that the iconic car of the 50s – the 57 Chevy Bel Aire Coup – got that way because of GM’s superior painting process. Seems Chevys (and Caddies, Olds and Buicks) rust out a lot more slowly than their competitors. Other makes and models were as or more popular at the time. Connoisseurs know this, but us commoners still think those huge chromed fins are the definitive statement of 1950s Detroit Iron. 
  3. I expect hardly at all. Even the idea of Culture is more than a little silly, as if there’s something independent of a bunch of ultimately individual decisions and unconscious reflexes by which certain things are valued and passed on and other things disparaged or ignored. Do ‘we’ have a culture? In what sense? Is it just a popularity contest? Our culture is some combination of what gets enjoyed or tolerated by enough people? Did American culture produce Star Wars, or did George Lucas? Did Italian culture produce La Traviata, or did Verde? The words culture and society seem useful, but when they get reified to the point where they are imagined to *do* anything, they’re more trouble than they’re worth. 

More Polanyi: Mysticism & Fantasy

Part II of my review of this book.

I’m well into the second half of Polanyi’s Great Transformation, and, while I’m getting a crash course in 18th & 19th English history through looking up all his references to events and people I’ve never heard of or that are just names to me, tedium is setting in. Late last night, while plowing through a few pages, I broke down and did something I almost never do and advise against doing until after you’ve read the book for yourself: looked at what other people say about this work. Read what the authors themselves say as much as possible, to avoid the inevitable biases and lacunas that predigested takes contain by their nature. In my frustration, curiosity about who, if anyone, takes Polanyi seriously got the better of me. Yes, I am weak.

Criticism fell into two distinct groups, with no one in the middle: Marxists critical theorists who love, love, love Great Transformation and consider it the seminal work on economics of the last 100 years, and non-Marxist economists – real economists, in other words – who would hurt themselves if they rolled their eyes any harder.

Image result for trobriand islands kula
Some kula in a museum. Subsistence farmers on remote islands make and trade these as part of a complex social ritual intended to reinforce social ties and thus avoid war. When all you got is yams, fish, palm fronds, and no realistic hope for anything more, the perennial human hobbies of sex and murder come to dominate your thoughts and rituals. Even more, I mean. 

The criticisms I laid down in my preliminary comments here and here were echoed and reinforced by his negative critics. For example, one critice makes a point Chesterton also made a couple of times in other contexts: primitive peoples alive today are not our ancestors. Rather, they are as much modern people as we are, except that for whatever reasons they have not made much technological or cultural progress. While our actual European ancestors were  inventing science and technology and cities and architecture and experimenting with complex social relationships, the Trobriand Islanders were cultivating yams and developing ritual trading designed to reinforce social relationships to keep the peace.

To point to tribal peoples living today as examples of man in nature is to ignore that our actual ancestors, who did develop what eventually became the modern world, were every bit as natural in the sense ‘natural’ is used here. Our actual ancestors, despite what Rousseau may think, were also natural men who did whatever they did by nature – they eventually developed the gold standard and international trade just as naturally as islanders grow yams and murder each other.  A ‘primitive’ Italian like Marco Polo, for example, clearly did engage in international truck and barter – around the time the Trobriand Islanders first arrived in their little paradise and started building grass huts. Polo is an ancestor to the West. The islanders are not.

Enough. Returning to my reading, here is a paragraph from the second half of the book I find quite revealing of how Polanyi thinks:

Let us return to what we have called the double movement. It can be personified as the action of two organizing principles in society, each of them setting itself specific institutional aims, having the support of definite social forces and using its own distinctive methods. The one was the principle of economic liberalism, aiming at the establishment of a self-regulating market, relying on the support of the trading classes, and using largely laissez-faire and free trade as its methods; the other was the principle of social protection aiming at the conservation of man and nature as well as productive organization, relying on the varying support of those most immediately affected by the deleterious action of the market—primarily, but not exclusively, the working and the landed classes—and using protective legislation,
restrictive associations, and other instruments of intervention as its methods.

Notice anything odd? How about the odd use of the word ‘personified’? Polanyi is here saying that two competing ‘organizing principles’ are – persons?

It would be easy to explain this away, a little goof in the midst of a long book, something a good editors maybe should have caught, but clearly I don’t think so. I think that this personification of abstract forces is exactly what this book is about. The individual is nothing, the masses everything, after all. And the masses is a seething, suffering – abstraction.

To Polanyi, great lumbering forces, abstractions that manifest themselves in Capital, or the Gold Standard, or the Labor Market are the persons of History, while people are just at best the raw material History acts upon. These persons, these gods-who-are-not-gods, correspond to Hegel’s Spirit, in that History is not made from a cumulation of millions of little decisions by millions of little people, but rather History acts upon the little people, with their decisions merely reflecting the gradual expression of Historical forces.

History, then, is always inevitable, even if we can’t see it until our illusory choices have slipped into the past. Marx’s claim to see the future is a claim that History is as deterministic as a wind-up clock. In 3 hours it will be 5:45; in the fullness of time it will be the Worker’s Paradise.

Hidden here is the perennial bait and switch, or perhaps motte and bailey: our sympathies are engaged by the very real suffering (usually) of the Little People, but the analysis and proposed solutions are always about presumed inevitable forces. The Polanyis of the world flip from one to the other with greater or lesser skill: questions about the framework are answered by implied or, increasingly, shrill accusations that you don’t care about the little people; focus on practical steps directed at the little people, get reminded that it’s the system, man.

I’ll try to get this finished off and post a final review soon.

Histories of Catholic Education, a Note

Setting aside Parish School by Timothy Walch (1997) and returning to The Catholic School System in the United States,  by James A. Burns, C.S.C. (1908) in order to catch up chronologically.  I read today about French efforts to establish schools in New Orleans.

Burns notes that from its founding, the leaders of New Orleans sought to bring teachers from France to found schools in the tiny colony, and were answered by the Capuchins, who set up a boys’ school in 1725, and the Ursulines, who set a girls’ school in 1727.

Image result for The Place d’Armes Hotel, located on St. Anne Street
Site of the Capuchin School in the French Quarter

Site of First Louisiana School Marker

The Capuchin school is no more, but a very New Orleans style hotel stands on the spot where it used to be. The Ursuline School is still in business.

So we have here physical evidence of not only French settlement in America, but of French concern for education. Burns describes the heroic efforts of the Capuchins and Ursulines in trying to educate children; he mentions the worry of the sisters when control of Louisiana passed to the Spanish and then back to the French and then to the US. Relations with the Spanish were of a culture class nature but things got worked out. Much more worrisome was post revolutionary and ferociously anti-Catholic France resuming control. Most of the Ursuline sisters fled to Havana, leaving only nine to work on the school.

Then America took over. The French experience with Republican government did not inspire confidence in the remaining sisters, who fired off a letter to President Jefferson, who assured them that the new government would not seize their property nor interfere in the school. Andrew Jackson’s wounded troops were cared for by the sisters after the Battle of New Orleans. He returned later as President to show gratitude.

I mention this merely to point out that that’s a lot of history for one little school in a city of a few thousand people. None of this is mentioned by Walch. It is not clear what selection criteria Walch is using here. A single missionary’s school in Arizona that died when he died warrants a paragraph or two; a couple of centuries of schools in New Orleans do not.

I mentioned Walch’s dismissal of the California Missions. Here is his conclusion:

For Spain and for the Church, the California Missions were an economic wonder. The use of native labor and the favorable climate allowed the missionaries to cultivate a vast quantity of land. The fruit, wine, and beef from California were among the best in the world, but the price was high. The hard labor killed off the the native population, and the decline of the mission system in California followed the demise of the native population.

I just skimmed through the notes of the chapter in which this above quotation occurs, and, unfortunately nearly all references are to modern historians and history books. Therefore, I’d need to dig through a library in order to find actual source materials instead of having them noted in the text, which is what Burns does.

It’s a huge question: what source materials justify the movement from the position of Burns, who calls Junipero Serra a saint and the California missions a miracle that only died, along with the more than 30,000 Indian Christians. as a result of the direct action of Mexican government – and quotes and otherwise references sources to support it – to Walch’s position above? Were there not 30,000+ Christin Indians in the missions when they were seized and destroyed by the Mexican government? If the missions were dying out because forced labor was killing off the Indians, how did the mission population grow to 30,000 in the first place? That might work over a short term or given a comparatively huge population of Indians to start with, but neither of those conditions prevailed.

Or did they? A source or two could clear this up. Instead – and I don’t know Walch is doing this, but he’s failed to provide any evidence he’s not – are we going to jump on the band wagon diparaging Fr, Serra and all things Catholic in California, that was all the rage when Serra was up for canonization? Are we just buying the Fabian program of rewriting history so that it matches ideology?

I don’t know. But I’ve read enough over a lifetime to know that a modern historian is not proved more reliable simply by virtue of being modern.