Book Review: Burn’s “Catholic School System in the United States”, part 1: Introduction

Reviewing – really, putting out my notes to the text – on this book a bit at a time, as it and its companion volume are long. Fr. Burns wrote much of this as his PhD thesis at Catholic University in 1906, and expanded and published it as a book in 1908, and then a follow up volume in 1912. This first volume covers the history of American Catholic schooling from colonial times to 1840; the second from 1840 to the first years of the 20th century. This division is logical, as Catholic immigrants did not start arriving in great numbers until the 1840s, which really changed the game for Catholic schooling.

This was the first scholarly effort to document the American Catholic school movement, and remained the go-to work on the topic until very modern times. I’ve read pieces of this book and commented on them as part of following up on the references in Walch’s Parish School, but had not done yet a thorough cover to cover read.

The preliminary materials and introduction are very interesting. First, as noted in previous comments on this work, Burns is deeply indebted to Thomas Shields and Edward Pace, fellow priests and professors at Catholic University. They were founding faculty of the school of psychology at that institution, and mentored Burns. Shields ran a Catholic textbook publishing company for many years

Now, here I’ll own up to a strong prejudice: everything I’ve ever read of and about psychology in the decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century impressed upon me what preposterous frauds the key players were from its founding. Freud? C’mon. The dude set a standard for ad hominem responses to anyone who dared question him that has been followed by every poser since. You only disagree with Freud because you’re sexually repressed, don’t you see?

What is lacking in the early psychologists: that peculiar type of humility real scientists have, where they prefer to understate rather than overstate their claims. In a robust science, it is expected that any claims will be run through the gauntlet of critical appraisal by one’s peers. Thus, it is simply better style, if nothing else, to acknowledge uncertainties, note possible problems, and generally make claims with a bit of hesitancy, if only in the hopes that your peers will be more sympathetic.

Instead, what we ended up with is ‘academic freedom’: the dismissal of all questions by anyone who isn’t a credentialed psychologist on the sole basis of his not being a psychologist. Such a credential only available to those who get through the gate manned by – credentialed psychologists. See: ‘replication crisis‘ for details on how that works.

This dynamic – over-certainty of scope and claims, lack of interest in criticism from those not on the team – was already the reality in 1908, when Burns penned this book. And he simply can’t resist: the introduction is more about his Progressive, 19th century psychology-driven take on schooling than about what happened. It’s odd – one paragraph is a triumphant touting of the greatness of the parish schools and the Church that inspired them, the next is either speculating on how great things will be when further Progress is made, or gentle rebukes that more Progress hasn’t yet been made.

He states three principle that drive Catholic parish schooling:

FIRST PRINCIPLE — WILL-TRAINING

Here Burns means simply moral training. Can virtue be taught? Maybe, but his third principle is how it would be done. What can be done is to help create a habit of thinking of life’s endless decisions in moral terms. I’m good with this.

SECOND PRINCIPLE — RELIGIOUS KNOWLEDGE EDUCATIVE

He belabors it much, but what he seems to be after is that religious education is, at the same time, part of a coherent whole and conditions how that whole is understood. He’s worried that catechisis can be, and often is, done in a vacuum, without constant reference to the rest of knowledge. Burns wants – his example – the Incarnation understood in an historic, geographic, and cultural setting, and to inform the student’s understanding, in turn, of those subjects.

I’m down with that. A formal classroom setting using textbooks – Burns is totally down with textbooks – is likely the worst possible place to get it done, but in theory, that’s what we want.

He deplores question/answer drills, which, he assures us, the modern psychology of education has moved beyond. While he, himself, acknowledges the centrality of doctrine and even dogma, the outline of the seeds for singing kumbaya while sitting cross-legged on the floor and calling it religious ed are easily discernible.

THIRD PRINCIPLE — RELIGIOUS ATMOSPHERE

Catholic schools should be patently Catholic, all the time:

“There is the influence of the appointments and ornaments of the schoolroom itself, which may be made to speak lessons of order, neatness, virtue, and religion day by day, silently, but none the less effectively, through appeal to the eye and the esthetic sense.

“It is the aim of the Christian school to turn all such things to account for the attainment of its specific end. If the teaching of religion is a thing of supreme importance in the work of the school, then every influence that can be made use of to make the religious instruction more effective and fruitful ought to be employed. The selection of teachers with special reference to their moral and religious character ; the admission of only such pupils as belong to the religious faith which the school endeavors to foster and propagate; the placing of religious pictures and objects of piety in conspicuous places on the school walls ; the use of religious songs, as well as common oral prayers and devotions; the organization of religious societies — through these and kindred means the pupil is continually surrounded with an atmosphere of religion and piety in the schoolroom which supplements and reinforces the work of formal religious instruction.”

Here we agree. I would make this my first and only principle – do this, and the rest will follow.

Here are some illustrative quotations from the Introduction, with a few comments:

“METHODS OF TEACHING RELIGION

The interest of the Church in the schools has always centered about these fundamental principles. In the teaching of the purely secular branches she has had no direct interest. She took the curriculum of secular studies such as she found it, and left its development to the operation of the ordinary laws of educational growth. [Yikes. Hegel is peeking out from the nearby bushes- ed.] Outside of the matter of religion, there has been no attempt to differentiate Catholic parish schools from other denominational schools or from the public schools. [This is the problem: while we think in ‘why can’t we all just get along?’ terms, the public schools are playing a winner-takes-all cage match.] The tendency has been rather the other way.

“While Catholics, however, have clung faithfully to the historic ideals of the Christian school, it needs but a slight acquaintance with the history of Catholic schools in the United States to make one realize that the working out in practice of the principles outlined above is a matter which opens up grave difficulties and problems. If we compare, for instance, the teaching of religion in the parish schools to-day with the teaching of it a few generations ago, it will be seen that great changes have taken place. Religion had a larger place formerly in the curriculum than it has now. The catechetical drill was more thorough, and took up more time. More importance was attached to it. The value to the growing mind of a knowledge of the truths of faith, simply as knowledge, was better evidenced in practice formerly. Not that the principle itself, perhaps, that religious truth, when properly taught, has a high educative value, is any less accepted now. But conditions in the school have changed. Secular studies have been multiplied. To make room for them, the time given to religious instruction has been cut down. There are some compensations, of course, for this. Methods of teaching religion have improved. The ill- prepared teachers of the early days, often with little or no religious training themselves, have been replaced by teachers who are devoted to the service of religion by profession. The more distinctly religious atmosphere of the school is relied on to-day to do much of what was formerly done by direct instruction and drill. [Then, when the religious atmosphere has been dispensed with, there’s nothing left of religious education…]

“Not only have there been great changes in the extent and methods of religious teaching in our schools in the past, but great differences in both these respects exist to-day. Parish schools are sometimes found within a few blocks of each other in which the teaching of religion is about as different as it could be, the dogmatic content remaining the same. In some schools, the sum total of the religious influences at work hardly extends beyond the bare half hour of catechism-teaching. In others, religion is kept in the foreground all the time. In some instances, the desire to rival the rich and varied program of the neighboring public schools [!] has caused a paring down of the religious work of the school to such an extent that anything like a religious atmosphere is scarcely possible. [See above. This is the state to which gravity pulls a school that does not make the constant, express efforts needed to stay Catholic.] On the other hand, we see schools whose standard in secular studies is quite as broad and as high as that of the best public schools of their class, [To be fair, at this time William Torrey Harris was promoting an academic program for public schools that would put a modern Bachelor’s and most modern Masters degrees to shame. Whether any schools got there in practice is something I don’t know.] which are still able to include in their program various exercises of piety as well as classes in religious instruction.”

“It is evident, in fact, that, on the religious side, the parish school of to-day is very far from having reached the term of its complete development. [There’s that loathsome ‘one perfect way’ concept again, toward which all right-thinking schools must be progressing. Burns seems unable to imagine there might be a million good ways to do education, and that the perfect is the enemy of the good.] It is still in a partly embryonic condition. The adjustment of means to end and principles has to become much closer and to proceed much farther before anything approaching a satisfactory condition as regards religious training can be said to be attained. In point of religious teaching, the development of our schools is, on the whole, far behind their development in respect to secular studies. [? See the passages above – far behind?] This is a strange fact, and it would be a grave menace to the future of our schools, did not a consideration of the causes that have brought about this condition, in the light of the past history of the schools, warrant the hope of a fuller development in the future on the religious side. The need of greater unification, or at least simplification, [Dewey, anyone?] of the school curriculum, is now widely recognized, and the fuller realization of this need, together with the growing movement for more effective religious instruction in the school, will doubtless lead our educators and teachers in time to give to the teaching of religion the place of supreme importance it deserves.

Front Row Kids Revisited (Yep, the d*mn Virus)

Since I generally stay away from the popular press for sanity and utility reasons – tends to drive me crazy and be useless – I don’t know how that whole ‘front row kids’ thing from a few years ago went over. I suspect that Arnade’s division seemed obviously true to many people, and obvious balderdash to many others. I’d also imagine that, of those two groups, the first would be a lot more engaged in talking about and promoting this analysis, while the second would be more likely to role their eyes and find something better to do.

Chartiers Elementary School Classroom | Historic Pittsburgh

Accepting for the moment this front row/back row division of the world: for a front row kid, this idea that he is defined by his place in school is very appealing; I’d go so far as to suggest doing otherwise is almost unimaginable for him. Unfortunately, I’d say the same for most back row kids.

What’s lurking here: school is the primary formative experience of all front row and most back row kids. Coming from a rootless, cruel, and self-centered personal life, where mom and dad have divorced, moved, and remarried, often several times, school for such emotionally battered children is an oasis of order. Unlike their relationship with their parents, the rules in school are pretty clear: to be valued, to get approval, just do what the teacher says.

In the process of seeking personal fulfillment and career success, they have learned from their families, such as they are, to casually sever whatever non-work related relationships they may have otherwise formed. A child leaves a house full of emotional and sometimes physical insecurity, and spends most of his waking hours in a place where success is clearly defined for them.

To tell such a child, now grown into a physical adult and inescapably defining his success in terms of compliance, that something an authority figure has told them is wrong, is never going to be seen as a mere intellectual dispute. It is an attack on that which defines who he is. It is an assault on his entire world.

Here’s Arnade’s definitions, from a Forbes article (in which the writer seems to accept the distinction, and has moved on to worrying over what to do about it). This is a masterpiece of Orwellian newspeak. I’ll offer my corrections line by line:

Front row kids:

Mobile, global, and well educated (Rootless, disdainful of local loyalties, thoroughly indoctrinated)

Primary social network is via colleges and career (Social network is shallow, diffuse, and ephemeral)

Intellect is primary. (Compliance is primary) View world through framework of numbers and rational arguments (Has internalized the idea that compliance is rational, and that only the numbers and arguments presented by authority figures count regardless of their inherent soundness)

Meaning (and morality) comes from careers and intellectual pursuits (Has no concept of what meaning and morality are)

Faith is irrational. (Has internalized a strawman) They see themselves as beyond race and gender (They are obsessed with race and gender)

View their lives as better than their parents and their children’s lives will be better than their own (Contrary to what they see all around them, they accept the fantasy that success in school guarantees success in life)

Back row kids

Stay where they are born. (Are loyal and patriotic) Education beyond high school degree is via smaller state schools, community colleges, and trade schools (Recognize, however dimly, that college is a fraud)

Primary social network is via institutions beyond work. (Don’t think of family, etc., as ‘institutions.’ Love, and has a visceral loyalty to the people who love them and recognizes a duty to love and be loyal in return.) Such as family, geographic community, and Church (Finds fulfillment and meaning as part of a family, village or neighborhood, and church)

Faith is central. (They know what faith means. They reject the strawman) They find meaning (and morality) through the “Decency of hard work” (They work for reasons other than mere personal fulfillment – they find fulfillment in performing their duties to the family, village, and church they love)

They have “traditional” views of race and gender (They reject the authoritarian indoctrination of the schools)

They view their lives as worse than their parents and their children’s lives will be worse than their own (They have a toehold in economic reality – it will be a lot of work for them and their children to get as far as their parents.)

A front row kid’s sense of reality will always be tenuous, because it will always be contradicted by experience. The approval of teachers and schools, the gold stars, the pat on the head, the straight A’s, the diplomas, the advanced degrees – these are what stand between them and the abyss of abandonment they experienced in their family life. On this level, a front row kid really is triggered by simple, harmless words – any words that point out the contradiction. ‘Fake news’ points out the perfidy and incompetence of their peers. Those elite journalists went to the best schools, got the best degrees, and are front row kids to a degree to which most front row kids can only spire. That they are getting mocked for being such obvious frauds is unendurable! Those journalists are both front row kids like us, and stand in the role of teachers as the vanguard of the institutions that give meaning to their lives.

The key here for today: front row kids truly believe that parroting what they hear from whoever stands in authority IS science, logic, intelligence, and reasonableness itself. Agreeing with teacher IS morality. Opposing what the person in authority says IS anti-science, irrationality, and stupidity, and EVIL. They have been told that they are the best educated, most reasonable and most moral people the world has ever seen – and, as the price to be paid for acceptance and approval and something that almost feels like love, they believe it. This price, this membership in the kool kids klub, demands any who express doubts about any part of the program be treated as heretics.

As of today, I have had someone I know, who has an advanced degree, unload on me for calling the COVID panic a fraud, and, with complete disdain for any evidence, logic, math that might enter into the analysis, call me tool for stupid, evil politicians who want to get us all killed out of pure malice. I was accused of promoting conspiracy theories, which was backed up by a stream of conspiracy theories.

A stranger called me a monster and insane for pointing out something completely obvious from all the available data: that a child stands virtually no risk from the Kung Flu. Unlike the case above, this time I got a chance to point to the CDC data that backs this up; pointed to the IFR calculable from that CDC data. It simply was not possible to change her mind, because it’s not a question of thinking. It is a question of personal identity established over 16 or more years of schooling.

Simply raising questions about the government’s response to COVID, simply pushing back at all on the assertions of the talking heads, is enough to trigger a strong emotional reaction in front row kids. To take any pushback seriously would be to shake the very ground upon which they stand. To accept any view contrary to the front row kid group-think would be to cast oneself adrift, to sever social ties (such as they are) and force a reevaluation of the premises upon which your life has been built.

To say this is difficult is a wild understatement. If an authority figure comes along and says something diametrically opposed to what was said yesterday, front row kids will believe it without a moment of cognitive dissonance. COVID was not a problem – until it was. Masks didn’t help at all, until they might help some, until they are mandatory. And the front row will switch allegiance accordingly, and woe to him who points this out!

For change to happen, the easier route, which has happened many times, is simply to change the authority figure. Our current authority figures are fighting this with desperate fury. Or, I suppose, enough cognitive dissonance might eventually get through. Resistance to this level of fundamental, definitional change is strong, life and death strong.

I do not need to point out to regular readers that this transference of loyalty from family to state via a certified agent of the state – a teacher – and the replacement of thought with obedience is exactly what Fichte proposed way back in 1807.

Samuel Read Hall: Deep in the Warren

In yesterday’s post, mentioned that, via the Oracle Wikipedia, discovered a gentleman named Samuel Read Hall, an important figure in the American compulsory state-run school movement of the early 19th century. So, I poked around…

Turns out, he wrote a number of books and textbooks. And that the Internet Archives has several of them online for free. So, in my usual manner, I set aside the de la Salle I was reading to take a look. The tome titled The instructor’s manual: or, Lectures on school-keeping looked promising. I’m painfully aware of my lack of understanding and sources for exactly how schooling as we now know it took over America, and this, dating from the 1820s even though this edition is from 1852, seemed like a good place to look. It’s only a couple hundred pages…

The brief biographical information I could run down about Hall doesn’t provide many hints about how he came to be a champion of modern schooling, merely that he was such. He was the son of a clergyman, never went to college, and became a school teacher at age 19. He then devoted the rest of his life to education, campaigning for Massachusetts to establish a superintendent of common schools, at which he succeeded, and of which Horace Mann became the first office holder. At 27, he was a school principal; at 28, he founded and ran a teacher’s college and became a licensed minister. The rest of his long life was devoted to educating teachers and ministerial work.

Yet, somewhere, he absorbed the Pestalozzian approach to education, with a strong, if typically muddled, foundation in Rousseau. He’s a huge Prussian schooling fanboy.

When I entered the same field of labor, in 1816, there was scarcely a paragraph in the weekly newspaper, and not a single book or even tract within my knowledge, intended to aid the teacher, in knowing how to instruct and govern a school. Nor was there at that time a Teachers Institute or Normal School within the United States, or even Europe. The magnificent school system of Prussia, which has since awakened such deep interest in Christendom, was not then matured.

from the Introduction

Hall quotes with approval a contemporary reverend, as he presents a long list of all the ways a child’s education can shape him – a snippet from the end:

“…Carry him to the city of the Grand Sultan, and he will grow up a worshipper of Mohammed, and exhibit all the peculiarities of one of his most devoted sons.
Let him live where the gospel sheds its benign and enlightening rays, and he will embrace the doctrines and rejoice in the precepts of Jesus.

” Such is the controlling influence which external circumstances must and will have upon all other children. And these external circumstances are nothing more or less than the concentrated influence, the whole education, through which a person passes, and by which he will be benefited or injured, in proportion to the healthful or baneful nature of the sum of this influence. Of what unspeakable importance, then, must it be to this heir of life and immortality, that this influence should be enlightening, elevating, and moral ; that he be under the influence of virtuous associates, judicious parents, and truly intelligent, virtuous, and patriotic teachers.”

I’ve wondered if the blank slate/formless clay idea gained ground with the separation of people from farming. A farmer knows that, while care and luck certainly figure into it, plant a carrot, get a carrot, not a brussel sprout. In other words, things are what they are, and all we can do is plant them in the proper soil and take good care and pray. Mostly, that works; sometimes, it doesn’t. Here’s Hall quoting the same author:

” The rising generation, like clay in the hand of the potter, are readily moulded into almost any shape, and will certainly take the form, adopt the principles, and fall into the habits which the all- fashioning power of education comprehending under that term whatever in the world around operates on the mind or heart shall give them. …The whole future condition of the rising generations, in all their mental, social, and moral interests, their present and future joys and sorrows, is involved in it. “

To his credit, Hall is trying to educate kids to be good, under an understandable definition of good: Christian and patriotic virtues, 19th century New England style. And, even more so, he recognizes parents as key. Hall differs from Fichte here, as Fichte wants New German Men, virtuous according to standards only unclearly understood. And parents are the problem education aims to address. The Apostles and their virtues and zeal would possibly be considered acceptably educated by Hall; they would be throwbacks to an earlier, superseded age to Fichte, and thus an unacceptable step backwards.

Perhaps I give Hall too much credit here.

Only lightly skimmed so far, There are lots of examples in the form of dialogues between student and teacher. Some of Hall’s advice is sound, such as not explaining difficulties using words the kids don’t understand.

I’m going to try not to spend too much time on this work, but do want to read it. If it proves helpful, Hall has a bunch of other stuff out there on the web as well.

Further updates as events warrant.

De la Salle & Normal Schools

Am plowing through biographies and writings of the major players in Catholic schooling. Unfortunately, so far, have found nothing on Mother Seton’s teaching methods, which, given the timeframe of the early 19th century, would be interesting. Now looking over Jean Baptiste de la Salle, and creating a series of spreadsheets with timelines on them – since none of the stuff I’ve read so far correlates event s and lives in any sort of systematic fashion, guess I’ve got to do it.

De la Salle is credited with inventing the ‘Normal School’, viewed as the forerunner of all modern teachers colleges. The name comes from de la Salle’s observation that the impoverished boys he was trying to educate lacked even rudimentary social skills, and, further, so did the sort of men who would volunteer to teach them.

His first stab at addressing the issue was to simply invite the teachers over for dinner. In 1680, this caused great scandal among his relatives, since de la Salle was a nobleman with a mansion, and the teachers were all commoners. He found dinner wasn’t enough immersion in cultured life, so he had the commoner-teachers move in. His relatives managed, through legal wrangling, to get his house away from him, putting the kibosh on his uncouth fraternizing.

So he founded normal school, to instill in would-be teachers the norms of civilized life. The SJW have gotten to the Wikipedia page, and so we read:

In 1685, St. Jean-Baptiste de La Salle, founder of the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, founded what is generally considered the first normal school, the École Normale, in ReimsChampagneFrance. The term “normal” herein refers to the goal of these institutions to instill and reinforce particular norms within students. “Norms” included historical behavioral norms of the time, as well as norms that reinforced targeted societal values, ideologies and dominant narratives in the form of curriculum.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normal_school

Of course, there’s an implied judgement in there. It seems the writer doesn’t approve of the ‘ideologies and dominant narratives’ the likes of de la Salle would ‘instill.’ De la Salle made a timeless observation: You’ll get farther if you know how to act like a gentleman than if you always act like a thug. It’s along the lines of catching flies with sugar rather than vinegar.

I note here a reality: schools are an artifact and a conduit of culture. Either your schools teach and reinforce the culture, or they replace it. In de la Salle’s case, he wanted what he saw as a better culture taught to his charges, both students and teachers. In a sense, he was attempting to replace the culture, such as it was, of the impoverished boys and teachers in his charge; looked at another way, he was trying to take the best from the culture he shared with the poor, and make it more available to them. He certainly thought knowing how to act like a gentleman would improve the economic and social prospects of his students and teachers.

Our school cannot but serve the same purpose. They are not about the 3 Rs, and never were. The 3 Rs are just part of the culture the schools traditionally tried to pass on. All the great teachers of history knew they weren’t getting anywhere with students who did not know, for example, how to act toward a teacher. The great schools in Athens would not admit you unless you knew Euclid and Homer, as in: could do all of Euclid’s proofs, and recite the Iliad and the Odyssey. It was not so much that this proved you were a true Greek – although it did do that – as show that you knew how to study and learn. How to behave in school.

Fichte is therefore not breaking new ground in trying to use schools to impart a culture. His innovation is to teach that compulsory state-run Rousseauian/Pestalozzian schools could create a new and Utopian society in a generation or so – if only the influence of parents, family, religion, and village could be eliminated. This remains a (usually) tacit assumption of schools ever since.

Wikipedia continues:

The first public normal school in the United States was founded in Concord, Vermont, by Samuel Read Hall in 1823 to train teachers. In 1839, the first state-supported normal school was established by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on the northeast corner of the historic Lexington Battle Green; it evolved into Framingham State University. The first modern teacher training school in China was established by educator Sheng Xuanhuai in 1895 as the normal school of the Nanyang Public School (now Shanghai Jiao Tong University) in Shanghai during the Qing dynasty.[2]

Massachusetts – it’s the Balkans of education: producing more history than it can consume locally. My curiosity was piqued by Samuel Read Hall – don’t remember him. A contemporary of Mann, but beat him to the punch in founding a Normal School. So, I clicked the link:

Hall was a preacher, or at least, a trained minister. At a young age – mid 20s – he was already running and founding schools. Wonder if he’s yet another childless man pontificating on children? The Oracle does not say.

In 1829, he helped found an educational society,  American Institute of Instruction , whose purpose was – to get Massachusetts to create the office od superintendent of schools. The succeeded. Horace Mann got the gig…

It is shocking/not shocking how often education reform seeks not so much improved education as the establishment of offices with the power, it is more or less sincerely hoped, to improve education.

Here’s Hall’s major beefs:

In his Lectures on School Keeping, he points out significant obstacles to the instruction of children in the American schools of 1829:

Lack of simple display media such as a globe of the world. (He is credited with inventing the blackboard, and the blackboard eraser)

Political factions within the school district, at war with each other at the expense of educational progress.

Wealthy citizens sending their children to private schools.

Schools exact no moral influence, in turn becoming a school for bad behavior.

Poorly qualified teachers.

Poor remuneration of qualified teachers.

Poor quality of textbooks, or lack of fitness for learning capacity of student.

It’s tempting to pick this apart. In 1829, America was less than 50 years removed from the Federalist Papers – published in the popular press, which would suggest that, in general, the newspaper-buying public could read at a very high level. And there were a lot of newspapers back then, publishing a lot of editions, so that public must have been large. Again, reading can only be an important part of schooling if the culture the school is passing along thinks it’s important. At any rate, it doesn’t look like reading was considered a problem by Hall.

“Political factions” – he doesn’t mean “people who disagree with me,” does he? Then again: rich people sending their kids to private schools as a problem suggests he does. Don’t want to read too much into this, but it is interesting that he doesn’t seem to want to reform those private schools, but rather, wants rich people’s kids in public schools like his. Again, one wonders: is ‘wealthy’ defined here as ‘willing to spend money to keep them out of my schools’?

Rabbit hole. Important note: once one recognizes schools as tools to impart culture, it becomes very, very important to consider who is in charge, what culture is being imparted. The news suggests: not the one any sane people would want imparted.

New Page: Education History Sources (preliminary, work in progress)

This is a very preliminary and partial list of the sources that are key parts of my thinking about education history as reflected in the blog posts here.

I hope to update it regularly, as I work to outline/draft a book on what is wrong with, and how to fix, public education in general and Catholic schooling in particular. As it is, it’s not 10% of the stuff I’ve read/am reading. Sheesh.

For example, these are some I pulled to go through that aren’t on the list yet. Got to get more organized…

So, if you’re looking for reading materials, like, say, you’re an insomniac….

Monday Mish-Mash

A. This scrap of flash fiction seems somehow relevant.

Minchinhampton Common: where the cow is king but only just ...

B. At first glance, I thought Amazon was trying to sell me bulk shotgun shells:

“Your go-to Solution” seemed a little dark for corporate America.

C. Is that, is that – Caleb Jones?

D. On a less light note: the recent Supreme Court ruling giving those confused about their sex cover as a protected class is, ultimately, the final puzzle piece in the 200+ year effort to bring all schools completely under the control of the state. As usual, the stated goals are a smokescreen: the champions of this ruling were talking fairness, discrimination, and mean old bigots, not ‘we can now sue private schools out of existence and lock up homeschoolers and take away their kids.’ But that is what this is about.

More detailed post when I can stomach it.

Word Salad – a Systemic Problem

‘Systemic’ is a nice word, like ‘problematic’. I get a visceral negative reaction when I hear either of them, however. Too bad, at least for systemic – unlike problematic, which is always used where ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ or ‘stupid’ is intended but not impressive-sounding enough, systemic does have a good fine meaning. So, here’s a small attempt to salvage it.

First, I’d suggest that systemic be used only in regards to clear, preferably consciously designed, systems. Hidden, unexpressed rules absorbed unaware are better called ‘prejudices’. And, indeed, for years they were – in my youth, the world as reported was all about fighting prejudice.

Second, it matters if one acknowledges the existence of human nature. If people are people like any other creature from ants to angels, there are going to be more or less sympathetic and understandable behavioral quirks that just come with the territory. The prime example in today’s unpleasantness: as tribal/pack creatures, we naturally (human nature) are suspicious of outsiders, non-tribal members. This suspicion is overcome when the tribe is receptive and the outsider – identified as such by his clothing, behavior, speach, mannerisms, etc. – performs ritual actions designed to put the new tribe at ease. Dogs wag their tails; we smile and show our empty palms. And so on.

Interactions with strangers make up a huge part of literature and history. First contact stories are a subspecies. All such stories explore and play off of the possibility of misunderstanding. There can be happy endings or disasters or anything in between.

One party here is trying harder than the other to show they mean no harm; the heavy military back-up is merely prudent…

All such stories would make no sense if human nature didn’t exist. If every encounter was merely blank slate to blank slate, there could be no expectations, nothing to be surprised or horrified or amused by. The attempt to replace human prejudice with some sort of system problem just kicks the can down the road a bit: from what did this supposed system arise? Who built it? If no one, how is that different from the concept of human nature? (Calling it a social construct is just trying to kick the same can a little further.)

Tribal prejudices are not systemic in any useful sense of that term. But if one refuses to recognize human nature, what else could they be? Refusal to recognize human nature is the end, not the beginning, of any discussion of human behaviour.

Here’s a (predictable) example of real systemic problems: schools. A system was consciously put in place to achieve certain goals. Over the years, that system has become integrated to the point where it is largely invisible to most of the people charged with it execution – teachers and parents. The resulting behaviors cannot be addressed by simple appeals to personal effort, because by design these behaviors are habitual and therefore nearly ineradicable, and are reinforced at every turn in a society in which nearly everyone has been subjected to that system.

The system looks like this:

  • Divide kids into arbitrary groups by age. Kids are to see their tribal membership as something decided by others, by people in authority.
  • Divide their school time into arbitrary segments. Kids are judged by how well they comply with arbitrary bells and instructions
  • Divide learning into subjects, and reward staying on task regardless of the skill or interest of the child, enforcing the idea that their interests are secondary to the school’s interests.
  • Ignore or denigrate the child’s skills or interests that are not in lockstep with school programs. Only following directions and regurgitating on command are rewarded.
  • Enforce these divisions spatially and socially. Each grade has its specified classroom, recess time, lunch area, etc. School has the unquestioned authority to control your social interactions.
  • Exclude the outside world as much as possible. Unapproved adults – parents, say – are forbidden from the classroom except under highly controlled conditions.
  • Extend the school control outside of traditional school hours by homework, sports, extracurricular activities, pre- and after-school programs. School is more important and has more authority than family.
  • Put parents in the role of school enforcer by making the completion of homework their responsibility. School has authority in the outside world.
  • Measure success and personal worth solely by school approval. Smart people sit in the front row, pay attention and get good grades; dumb people focus on what interests them regardless of what the school wants.

And so on.

Schooling really is a systemic problem. The solution really is to defund the schools K-grad school. Unfortunately, this rhetoric has already been drafted for much less defensible goals.

Fichte Reread Wrap-up: We Are the Enemy

Rereading Fichte after having read many more modern compulsory state schooling advocates, one is struck by the constant echoes of him. When, for example, William Torrey Harris recommends dark, ugly schools buildings removed from the delights of nature, the better to train children to focus on their intellectual development, he is merely echoing Fichte’s dismissal of direct experience, of the very idea of objective reality, in favor of developing in children the ability to form and be guided by subjective conceptions. Or when that Harvard woman in the news bewails the ‘evils’ of homeschooling, she is but echoing Fichte, who blames all the evils of society on the family’s role in raising their own children, and insists education is something the state must OF COURSE exclusively perform, so that mankind can progress to the next level of enlightenment. More on this below.

It’s been almost 7 years since I first read Fichte’s Addresses to the German Nation, the founding work modern compulsory state education and a declaration of war by the state on the family. In the Addresses, Fichte declares that the state has every right and a sacred duty to simply seize all German children, remove them from all contact with their families for the duration of their education, for their own good, but especially for the good of the Nation. He is a fiery, fanatical believer in the perfectibility of Man and thus of the State, believes the enlightened among us have a sacred duty to lead the unenlightened to the state-mandated Promised Land by whatever means necessary, and has identified education – state controlled, mandatory education – as the key to this Heaven on Earth.

The major thing standing in the way of achieving these ends, ends that justify, evidently, extravagant and brutal means, is the family. Within their families all children (with, I suppose, the exception of Fichte himself?) have been raised to be sensual, weak-willed sheep who do not love the Fatherland, from which all their virtue flows. Properly raised, these New German Men will be virtuous, selfless lovers of Truth, and, incidentally, obviate the need for a standing army. If the Fatherland needs defending, this properly educated, Fatherland-loving, physically fit generation will of course simply form an unbeatable, selfless fighting force against which no unenlightened mortals could possibly stand. (1)

Fichte delivered these Addresses as a series of lecture over the winter of 1807/8. He was evidently a very good orator; certainly, much of the Addresses read like fiery evangelical preaching. His audience for these talks, the admission fees to which paid the the Fichte family’s bills, were the sort of people who would pay money to be alternately flattered and harangued on wintry Sunday evenings. These were professionals living in French-occupied Berlin, butt-hurt over having had that loathsome creature Napoleon crush the previously invincible Prussian army like a bug. Literal blocks away from the site of these lectures, the government of the occupation had its offices.

Just because it’s easy to forget: in the early 1800s, around 80% to 90% of the population of Prussia, and every other nation as well, lived in the country. Farmers could only consistently produce 10-20% more food than was required to keep themselves alive; this put a cap on how many people could be engaged in activities other than farming. I mention this because farmers supplied not only the food, but also armies of any size of any nation. The major target of Fichte’s reforms, therefore, had to be the children of country people.

I’ve long suspected that the myth of the country bumpkin is a result of solid farmers not buying into the fantasies of city slickers. They must be stooopid, those country rubes, because all the smart people agree that anyone who disagrees with them is, you know, stupid. That there might be species of stupid just for those living in cities detached from the work of providing sustenance is an idea that seems to not have occurred to too many urbanites.

Perhaps this attitude has some parallels today?

Fichte begins with and sprinkles liberally throughout his talks the claim that Germans are responsible for pretty much all progress and everything good in the world. He partly attributes this to the natural character of Germans, partly to his claim that Germans have a natural language. The two causes interact: because German Germans never learned a conqueror’s language, they understand the world and express themselves plainly, in words that come directly from common experience. The pointed reference here is to the French, ethnically Germanic for the most part, as the Franks were a German tribe, yet conquered by Rome more or less and speakers of a highly degenerate form of their conquerors language. When he speaks of the German Nation, he means all native German speakers.

Fichte considered states as passing fads, almost, and sees them as each in its own way an expression of fundamental Germaness. The existence of separate German states is no major hindrance to his theories, in other words. One might say: German states are downstream from the German nation to which these Addresses are addressed. The high destiny of the German nation overwhelms and vouchsafes the purity and success of any truly German state. This primacy of German manifest destiny to lead the world to the next phase of Fichte’s 5 stages of human development will keep the state honest, as it were. In any event, Fichte never for a moment entertains the idea that any state pursuing his grant plan might be fundamentally corrupt. Nope: nothing can possibly go wrong with the state exercising its police power to round up everyone’s children and enforce isolation on them, imprisoning them for years with no visitation rights. Fichte goes farther: it is as CERTAIN as day follows night his education system will produce selfless, obedient, patriotic adults who will lead the German Nation and then the world to Nirvana.

Another familiar theme:

Now, assuming that the pupil is to remain until education is finished, reading and writing can be of no use in the purely national education, so long as this education continues. But it can, indeed, be very harmful; because, as it has hitherto so often done, it may easily lead the pupil astray from direct perception to mere signs, and from attention, which knows that it grasps nothing if it does not grasp it now and here, to distraction, which consoles itself by writing things down and wants to learn some day from paper what it will probably never learn, and, in general, to the dreaming which so often accompanies dealings with the letters of the alphabet. Not until the very end of education, and as its last gift for the journey, should these arts be imparted and the pupil led by analysis of the language, of which he has been completely master for a long time, to discover and use the letters. After the rest of the training he has already acquired, this would be play.

Fichte, 9th Address, pp 136

To sum up: a kid is to spend, effectively, 24 x 7 X 365 in school for around 10 years, learning to be a good German, how to really focus on the task at hand (2) but doesn’t learn reading and writing (and, one assumes, arithmetic) until something like age 15 or 16. If you can read and write, you don’t have to pay attention to the teacher as much – you can take notes, and review later. This will not do, as the child is to accept the state trained and certified teacher in the place of his displaced father, and fulfill his need for approval and love by pleasing that teacher. The magical education works, according to Fichte’s understanding of Pestalozzi, by having the student utterly emotionally dependent on pleasing the teacher, doing what the teacher wants him to do in the way the teacher wants it done, always eager for approval. There is no fallback: by design, a child who fails to please his teacher has no recourse, not to family, not even to books. His family has abandoned him, as far as he knows, and he’s not allowed to explore the world through reading, where he might come across other ways in which people interact.

The scary part: it works great. Modern schooling attempts to achieve the same dynamic by telling the parents, who themselves were schooled in the same way, that they are bad parents if they don’t enforce homework on their child, effectively extending to the home and parents the duty to please the teacher. That the bulk of homework is busy work is the point: it’s not the work itself that is important, it’s the discipline that doing the work as commanded enforces.

Fichte is alive and well in modern schooling. ‘Educators’ are trained and filtered by their willingness to perform busy work and regurgitate nonsense on command, then certified. Teachers may and often do have goals and ideals of their own – these are at best irrelevant, as the structure of the schools is the message. You will sit in the class in which you are placed; you will do what the teacher tells you to do; you will ‘succeed’ by regurgitating what the teacher tells you. Anything else is at best superfluous.

You end up with well-schooled, ‘front row’ (3) people who are utterly convinced of their intellectual and moral superiority, functionally innumerate, scientifically and historically illiterate, convinced that regurgitating whatever the approved authority figure is saying at the moment is the apex of intelligence, and utterly terrified of examining the basis of their confidence. They react with anger to anyone who dares challenge them on any point of their received beliefs. They have received their identity through their schooling (as it was designed to do); any challenge to any idea is thus a personal attack, and proof the challenge is stupid and evil.

See, for example, the knee-jerk shutdown of criticisms of the current lockdown.

  1. I’ve read in a number of places that German soldier in the World Wars consistently inflicted 30% higher casualties than they received. Those soldiers were educated in schools founded by von Humboldt after the recommendations of Fichte, so maybe there’s something to this claim? But the Prussian state could never quite pull off the whole ‘seize all children from the cradle and prohibit all contact with their families’ thing – which is probably why they lost both those wars…
  2. The psychologist Alice Miller talks about how children are, of necessity, desperate for love and approval, which they get automatically in any even marginally healthy family. Parents and siblings who are not monsters hold and talk to the baby and interact with the child daily. She also mentions in a couple of her works the standards of German child-rearing manuals from the 19th century, how fathers were instructed to make sure their sons failed at certain tasks just so that they could be punished. Otherwise, if the child were to experience only love, acceptance, and patience, he may not learn to understand discipline and authority. All love is conditional, in other words. Somebody else will need to research what, if any, effect Fichte had on those manuals, or visa versa.
  3. From the linked article, proof, if any needed, that arrogance makes you stupid:

Front row kids:

Mobile, global, and well educated

Primary social network is via colleges and career

Intellect is primary. View world through framework of numbers and rational arguments

Meaning (and morality) comes from careers and intellectual puruits

Faith is irrational. They see themselves as beyond race and gender

View their lives as better than their parents and their children’s lives will be better than their own

Schooling as State Control: Some More Fichte

As mentioned earlier, I’ve been rereading Fichte’s Addresses to the German Nation, since I now have a lot more historical and philosophical context than I had when I first read them several years ago. What follows are a few quotations that, this time, grabbed my attention, and a little light discussion.

For anyone new here: Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) was the founder of modern compulsory state schooling – schooling of, by, and for the state. He inspired von Humboldt, who embraced his goals and implemented his program in Prussia starting in 1810. Horace Mann and the other founders of American state schooling traveled to Prussia in the first half of the 19th century to admire and learn from the Prussian Model of state-controlled schooling. Many got PhDs from Prussian universities – the PhD was invented at the University of Berlin, founded by von Humboldt, where Fichte was chair of philosophy and Rector. The U of Berlin was the first modern research university, intended to train the elites who would become the implementers of Prussian Schooling and to further train the products of such schooling, for the good of the state.

Harvard, always the leading University in America, became a research university over the last few decades of the 19th century under its president Charles Eliot. As Wikipedia puts it:

But Eliot’s goal went well beyond Emersonian self-actualization for its own sake. Framed by the higher purposes of a research university in the service of the nation, specialized expertise could be harnessed to public purposes.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_William_Eliot#Harvard_presidency

Eliot had spent 2 years in Europe studying schooling. The threads leading from Fichte to all modern state-controlled schooling are solid. We are to this day attempting to implement his program.

It’s key to understand Fichte to understand how we’ve gotten to where we are today: school versus parents for the souls of the children.

In his 9th Address, Fichte expands on the requirement that children be removed for all parental control and influence for the duration of their education, which will be supplied by state-certified Masters:

To put it more briefly. According to our supposition, those who need protection are deprived of the guardianship of their parents and relatives, whose place has been taken by masters. If they are not to become absolute slaves, they must be released from guardianship, and the first step in this direction is to educate them to manhood. German love of fatherland has lost its place; it shall get another, a wider and deeper one; there in peace and obscurity it shall establish itself and harden itself like steel, and at the right moment break forth in youthful strength and restore to the State its lost independence. Now, in regard to this restoration foreigners, and also those among us who have petty and narrow minds and despairing hearts, need not be alarmed; one can console them with the assurance that not one of them will live to see it, and that the age which will live to see it will think otherwise than they.

9th Address, pp 127.

See how that works? Petty, narrow-minded people with despairing hearts will be alarmed at having the state seize and physically remove their children from them for duration of their education, for the purpose of training them to restore the state to its proper independence. Such people – us! – are to be consoled with the assurance that none of us will live to see the state restored to its glory. We may miss our children, but we won’t have to endure the glorious future.

A little later, Fichte endorses the methods of his older contemporary Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi as key to his new national education. Problem is, Pestalozzi endorsed mothers as the key to education, assuming much valuable learning would be done in the home under their care. He even wrote the Mother’s Book, because, of course, mothers needed to be told how to do it right.

Fichte will have none of it:

His book for mothers contains the foundation of his development of all knowledge; for, among other things, he relies very much on home education. First of all, so far as this home education itself is concerned, we have certainly no desire to quarrel with him over the hopes that he forms of mothers. But, so far as our higher conception of a national education is concerned, we are firmly convinced that, especially among the working classes, it cannot be either begun, continued, or ended in the parents’ house, nor, indeed, without the complete separation of the children from them…. Not until a generation has passed through the new education can the question be considered, as to what part of the national education shall be entrusted to the home.

ibid, pp 138

A key part of Fichte’s love for Pestalozzi resides in the later’s emphasis on the child’s need for constant supervision and management, that education must be under the control of masters or terrible things will happen. Fichte wants to make sure the state is the one training and paying the right kind of masters.

Napoleon at Jena. The bad guys in Fichte’s world.

Fichte tosses out the family from any roll in educating their own children. What about that other great educational force, the church? In America, prior to Mann & Co., Americans believed that the education of children belong solely in the hands of families and their churches. By the end of the 18th century, the population in America was near 100% literate, as home, churches, and private schools educated almost everyone, apart from slaves who were purposely kept uneducated. As Orestes Brownson commented, in America, having the state educate our kids is making our servant into our master. It was a century-long battle to get Americans to accept the goodness and necessity of state-controlled schools.

The Prussian army. Also, after a fashion, the bad guys, as they lost to the French!

In Address 11: On whom will the Carrying-out of this Scheme of Education devolve? (answer: the State), Fichte recaps history, where, according to him, the state stayed out of education for pathetic reasons.

In modern Europe education actually originated, not with the State, but with that power from which States, too, for the most part obtained their power—from the heavenly spiritual kingdom of the Church. The Church considered itself not so much a part of the earthly community as a colony from heaven quite foreign to the earthly community and sent out to enrol citizens for that foreign State, wherever it could take root. [note: ‘foreign’ is about as strong a put-down as Fichte uses, the opposite of German, his highest praise.] Its education aimed at nothing else but that men should not be damned in the other world but saved. The Reformation merely united this ecclesiastical power, which otherwise continued to regard itself as before, to the temporal power, with which formerly it had very often been actually in conflict. [note: Luther sought to have the state seize monasteries and turn them into state schools; much of his correspondence was with secular leaders urging them to pursue various programs. Eventually, we reached the point today where German churches are state-supported institutions.] In that connection, this was the only difference that resulted from that event; there also remained, therefore, the old view of educational matters. … The sole public education, that of the people, however, was simply education for salvation in heaven; the essential feature was a little Christianity and reading, with writing if it could be managed—all for the sake of Christianity. All other development of man was left to the blind and casual influence of the society in which they grew up, and to actual life. Even the institutions for scholarly education were intended mainly for the training of ecclesiastics. Theology was the important faculty; the others were merely supplementary to it, and usually received only its leavings.

Address 11, pp 164

Finally, is there any role for the Church? (He’s talking Lutheran, or at least. Protestant, churches here. That the Catholic Church might have a role was of course beyond consideration.) Not really:

Now, if for the future, and from this very hour, we are to be able to hope better things in this matter from the State, it will have to exchange what seems to have been up to the present its fundamental conception of the aim of education for an entirely different one. It must see that it was quite right before to refuse to be anxious about the eternal salvation of its citizens, because no special training is required for such salvation, and that a nursery for heaven, like the Church, whose power has at last been handed over to the State, should not be permitted, for it only obstructs all good education, and must be dispensed with. On the other hand, the State must see that education for life on earth is very greatly needed; from such a thorough education, training for heaven follows as an easy supplement. The more enlightened the State thought it was before, the more firmly it seems to have believed that it could attain its true aim merely by means of coercive institutions, and without any religion and morality in its citizens, who might do as they liked in regard to such matters. May it have learnt this at least from recent experiences—that it cannot do so, and that it has got into its present condition just because of the want of religion and morality!

ibid, pp 166

There’s a lot going on in this paragraph:

  • Fichte asserts that the Church has at last surrendered its power to the State, and that this is a good thing;
  • The state has an entirely different aim for education than the Church
  • The state should not ‘permit’ the Church, which should be ‘dispensed with’
  • The state is concerned with education for life on earth. Earlier, Fichte described how this whole afterlife business interferes with men doing what men – German men, of course – need to do to bring about heaven on earth, that we obtain immortality through making the nation stronger and better, and need to embrace the goals of the nation (German, of course) and focus on that
  • The state has previously ignored religion and morality in education, but now must take it up. Earlier, he argues that state education IS simply education in religion and morality, that reading and academics can and should be delayed until the end of the educational period, if indulged in at all. The important thing is to teach children to love the fatherland and do what they are told by their masters.
  • “Recent experiences” include having their armies crushed and lands overrun by the loathsome French, who, even as Fichte was delivering these talks, were sitting in the seats of power just blocks away.

Upon a second reading, there is a ton more to Fichte than I initially picked up. He is the prophet for the Messianic State, a true believer in the German people’s natural superiority and leadership, and sees the Spirit unfolding in history as being the ultimate reality. He solves the noumena/phenomena issues by simply declaring our subjective experience of the world IS the world. Thus, he wants education to focus on developing in children the ability to construct in their minds conceptions independent of any reference to the outside world. These images would include first an idealized Fatherland, to which all love ad devotion would be directed.

Fichte was that kind of personality who is either your staunchest friend or worst enemy, a sort of super-high functioning Borderline Personality case. He was certainly heroic in certain respects, such as nursing his wife back to health, despite the risk he would catch her disease (he did – it killed him), and on the other hand get himself fired for being a self-righteous jerk.

More as time allows.

The Right Experts

This post is partly in response to a post by Malcolm the Cynic.

Don’t be cowed by experts. Rather, judge them on results. My auto mechanics are judged by their demonstrated ability to keep my cars running. They are experts. Somebody with a degree in something, but without the track record to back it up, is not meaningfully more an expert than you are.

Of course, we should be humble. We should make few claims; any claims we make should be as simple and transparent as possible, based on our own appreciation of our human limitations and fallibility. Humility does not, however, require us to swallow humbug. It is not at all inconsistent to acknowledge we don’t know something at the same time we’re pointing out we have no reason to believe some ‘expert’ knows anything, either.

We have been trained by 12, 16, or more years of schooling, to defer to ‘experts.’ A teacher, generally a state-certified ‘expert,’ gives us ‘information.’ We succeed – the ONLY way we succeed – is by accurately regurgitating what we are told. If you do so, you are patted on the head, recognized as a ‘smart’ kid, and given good grades.

The goal of the entire exercise of schooling is creating exactly this dynamic: an expert will tell you something; you are smart and, indeed, morally good, if you promptly and accurately regurgitate what you are told. It cannot be emphasized enough that real learning – the 3 R’s, for example – is completely superfluous, indeed, dangerous from the perspective of the schools. If you learned any math, for example, apart from rote application of formulas, you might become equipped to challenge some of the things being fed you. You might develop a standard of truth other than ‘whatever the authority figure is telling us today.’ Having an independent standard of truth and judgement will tend to make you unmanageable – and management is the goal, after all.

You know you can just buy one
of these at Amazon, right?

Thus, we see the spectacle of people unable to remember what the story was regarding COVID 19 last month, last week, or even 10 minutes ago, yet convinced anyone who doesn’t accept the current story is an idiot and eeevil. We have trained to only consider what the ‘experts’ are telling us NOW. What they told us yesterday is irrelevant, and one is a morally bad person – and stupid! – to bring it up. We have always been at war with Eastasia.

Used by the well-educated, phrases like ‘data-driven’ or ‘the science’ are merely Orwellian euphemisms, meaning the opposite of what the words say. These and similar phrases are used exclusively by people who are scientifically illiterate and functionally innumerate. They could not give you the least explanation of the data or the science, but instead, in accordance with their training, will get angry and think you stupid and morally evil for even bringing it up.

What is an intelligent layman to do? First off, as Chesterton pointed out,

Without education we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.

The sign that you have been truly educated: you don’t take educated people too seriously. The more importance people attach to their degrees and certifications, the less attention we should pay to what they say. A true authority, such as Richard Feynman, does not say: believe me because I’m a certified expert. Instead, they explain what it is they are claiming, and, where it requires special knowledge to appreciate, they point to the special knowledge and then switch to how we can know it’s true without the special knowledge. The A-bomb blew up, whether or not we understand the physics behind why it blew up.

Point 1: the right experts are often not who you might think they are. They might even be you.

Pertinent example: doctors making claims based on statistical analysis and models. The required expertise is not medical – it is expertise in numbers, data analysis, logic, and models. In some sense, doctors are the *last* people whose expertise should count for anything in this situation.

Suppose an astrologer had produced a statistical model that validated astrology, or, more likely, simply assumes astrology to be true. Well? Is the best judge of this model other astrologers? Or, perhaps, would it be people who understand how models are built and what they can and can’t tell you?

More generally, bring what YOU know about to the analysis. Example: someone who works with medical data should know it is really messy: lots of judgement calls, lots of errors, lots of reporting quirks. Therefore, even if you knew nothing else, you know that claims based on medical data need to be highly caveated.

Or suppose you are aware of Neil Ferguson’s extensive track record of making doomsday predictions that have failed to materialize – that would be pertinent to the analysis. Or that some hospitals regularly experience shortages and crunches. Or just that claims made in the name of medical science get changed like a pair of socks. Is fat bad for you, or good for you? Which kinds? At what levels? Is eating eggs bad for your cholesterol? Is restricting salt intake good for reducing blood pressure? And on and on – what medical science is certain of today can and does routinely change tomorrow.

Don’t just bow to claims of authority. You probably know or can easily find out information that allows you to judge on your own.

Point 2: an expert who makes a claim based on his authority, and does not immediately point to 1) what specialized knowledge and methods he used; and 2) how you can see it is true by events in the real world, is a fraud.

Neil Ferguson made claims based on a model his team built. He did not release the model itself, and last I checked, still had not. There is, evidently, a team at Microsoft refactoring the code; their work is all that is available. He very pointedly DID NOT PROVIDE the information – the specialized knowledge – required to understand his claims. Further, he offered no other way for anyone to judge the validity of his claims: he did not, for he could not, point to some real-world events that demonstrated the usefulness of his approach. It was 100% an appeal to authority.

A layman could not, therefore, properly judge his claims. Ferguson had failed to provide any explanation beyond ‘my friends and I are experts’ – experts who violated the foundational practices of science by not providing ALL the data and methods they used to reach their conclusions AT THE SAME TIME they made their claims.

Claims made in the name of Science which are not accompanied by a complete, concurrent release of the data and methods used to reach those claims ARE FRAUD. One does not need to be an expert to see this.

3. Do a little research. The web is a wonderful thing in this regard, at least, it is until Google, etc., perfect their management of wrongthink.

Pertinent example: I knew about the basic Darwinian principle of coevolution: that living things do not evolve in some vacuum, but rather evolve within one or more arms races, symbiotic relationships, and environments. Further, every adaptation by any part of the environment changes the environment, thereby exerting new or different selection pressures. The slightly more subtle point: everything alive today is the result of a billion years or more of changing selection pressures, and its (our) ancestors had to – absolutely had to! – be able to survive such changes. That they and we are here today is proof.

So: I knew that viruses and people had coevolved. People had evolved to survive in an environment chock full of viruses – chock full of constantly mutating viruses! Novel viruses, even! Viruses likewise have evolved for the last few million years in an environment featuring humans of one sort or another, and for many millions of years among our more distant ancestors.

Humans and viruses are very much adapted to life with each other.

What this means: viruses don’t generally kill us, or even make us very sick; our immune systems don’t kill off all viruses, but work quickly to crush any they find. Put together, we have the common observation that the most successful viruses that infect humans are necessarily very mild. Flus and colds, in other words. Any virus that did in fact promptly kill its hosts would face enormous selection pressure and be at an enormous evolutionary disadvantage to those viruses which make us very little sick – or not sick at all. Better lots of largely healthy hosts mingling with potential hosts than a few dead hosts whose corpses everyone flees or burns.

Once in a while, a virus more harmful that most comes along: the Spanish and Asian flus, SARS, AIDS. These viruses tend to either die out promptly (a year or two) or are ridiculously hard to transmit (think what one has to do to catch AIDS). While it certainly could happen that a really nasty bug appears that is highly fatal and easy to transmit, it’s not likely. Note how super-fatal bugs – Ebola, anthrax – are also very rare.

So, with nothing else to go on, I wanted to know: what’s so different about this particular virus? So I googled around. Answer: nothing much. Another typical mutation that overdid the usual respiratory viral feature of irritating lungs to make people cough in order to propagate itself. It mutated to a form that sometimes, for people already weakened, caused not just simple coughing, but real respiratory problems that could lead to pneumonia and death.

I looked to see if COVID 19 was somehow the exception – nope, no evidence. With very few exceptions, it kills, insofar as it can be said to kill, only very sick people. Those exceptions don’t seem to include very many, if any, people who caught the virus just hanging around in public. Rather, in general, those tragic cases seem to be healthcare workers or family members who got a super-heavy dose of the infection. Are there any exceptional exceptions? Healthy people who happened to pick up the virus through some casual contact, yet died? Probably. But we’re into hit by a falling tree limb levels of bad luck and rarity at this point.

Coronaviruses are as common as dirt, and, in general, just about as dangerous – provided one is not already sick.