An Outline of The History of History

That this is a preposterous title for any essay I, a lightly-read non historian who would have to crawl to the starting line to even begin serious study of the subject, would write is part of the point. Spoiler: the promulgation of what now passes for history has fallen to anti-historians. It won’t do to call them non-historians, less to call them amateurs, a word that means at it root ‘lovers.’ Here’s what they hate:

History is the telling of tales. I don’t mean this in any derogatory sense. Among the most basic and characteristic activities of people is telling stories. ‘True’ stories, in the modern sense, are those where the ‘facts’ check out. Our more sophisticated ancestors would not have been as interested in those facts. In past eras and in all other cultures, stories were ‘true’ were those that conveyed something real about people. An infinite number of things happen. Few make good stories. Among those few, we love and retell those that reveal to us something about ourselves. In this sense, those who know no history have forgotten who they are.

The modern distinction between history and myth would, I think, have been a bit baffling to most people in times past. I don’t know what the reaction the children of the original Hawaiians had to the stories of Maui and his fishhook, but it is true that the Hawaiian Islands are surprising and a gift from the gods, and that it is delightful that people get to live there. That some demigod would play tricks on his brothers and yank them up from the deep is hilarious – and just about right.

Just like the ubiquitous genealogies, myths tell us who we are. More important, they tell us how we know who we are: by our relationships to particular people, places, and nature. In stories from every culture I’ve ever heard of, every so-and-so is introduced as the offspring of a string of forefathers, often pointing back to an ancestral hero or demigod. A place and social setting get named: Abram is introduced as descended from Terah, Nahor and Serug, and ultimately Adam. He is from Ur. The importance of parentage and place are illustrated by Oedipus, who doesn’t know who his parents are nor where his home lies, and is the most cursed of men, and as a direct result of his foundational ignorance, commits the greatest sins of patricide and incest.

Since there will be an infinite number of potential stories to choose from, the ‘historian’ in the sense I’m using here is the one who chooses the stories. Each generation will inherit some stories that are just too good to forget, and generate more potential stories in their own time. The good ‘historians’ will tell their stories in memorable, exciting form, and emphasize what is most telling in the stories. A little or a lot of embellishment is to be expected. Some stories survive from generation to generation, and become defining to the point where not knowing that story is a sign you are not of the tribe. Greeks memorized Homer; Jews memorized the Bible.

A famous incident (that a few minutes of web searching failed to turn up, so we’re working without a net here) concerned some anthropologist who was studying some tribe in New Mexico (I think) shortly after the kind of incident that generates History had come to pass: a party of this tribe had gone to do some official business and had strayed into the territory of an unfriendly tribe. A fight broke out, and one tribesman was killed. The factual story was relayed to the anthropologist. A couple generations later, after the participants in the event had all died, another anthropologist followed up. The story he heard was recognizable, but different: it concerned how the tribes had had to work out that territorial dispute, had retconned the dispute into a central place in the original purpose of the trip, and made the man who had died into a sort of martyr for intertribal peace.

Was this wrong, or a lie, or primitive propaganda? No. What had made the story memorable once it had passed from living memory was the resolution of the tribal territorial dispute. The myth now contained important information: at great cost – the death of a tribal leader – peace had been established and borders set with a neighboring tribe which had earlier been antagonistic. I don’t know, but I would be surprised if the actual ‘treaty’ was not included in the story, so that future generations would know the territory and the rules agreed to.

In the West, starting with Herodotus, we start to have a different set of standards. Drenched in myth from every direction, Herodotus wants to know what’s true in a typically Greek abstract sense, not merely what are the stories each people tell themselves. He finds himself in Tevye’s position: He might be able to acknowledge that the stories of People A are true, and that the stories of People B are also true, but when it is pointed out that they can’t both be true, the old Greek isn’t quite magnanimous enough to allow that they can remain true even if contradictory.

Nope – Herodotus wants to settle the differences. He turns to the blunt instrument of facts. This appeal to facts, perhaps most celebrated in the discovery of the ruins of Troy in the late 19th century, tends to obscure the truth that the stories that make up history, even or perhaps especially in our enlightened postmodern age, remain selected and embellished.

While Herodotus wanders a bit and clearly delights in the odd tall tale at the expense of more focused storytelling, Thucydides is recognizable as an historian at all points. He’s followed by Livy and Tacitus (and a bunch of guys I’ve not read – poser, remember?) who also read as history. But while these men were at least trying to tell us What Happened, the usual filters were in place. Thucydides was an exiled Athenian, writing about a war Athens ultimately lost due to horrible political stupidity. I find him very circumspect and even-handed, under the circumstances. It’s not all ragging gleefully about the fall of the people who exiled him – that doesn’t come across at all, at least to me. He seems to think the truth, and as full a record as he can manage, is important. We should all do so well.

Thus, a standard for historical storytelling was established, against which other historians might be judged and to which they might aspire. Yet, other than scholars, people still got their stories by word of mouth, and remembered, embellished and repeated those that they found interesting. The lives of the saints, especially the dimly-remembered but much loved early martyrs, are classics. Butler dutifully repeats the general lore, while always noting when there’s nothing but legend to back them up. He assumes, prudently and piously, that there’s most likely something to a story when centuries of storytellers have passed it on, even if the name and naked fact of martyrdom are about all we can be confident in. This is the way History works, more often than not. We have stories. They are almost always filtered by the preferences of the ancestors who passed them on. When available, the luxury of the written record supplies us not only with facts we may not have had, but perhaps more important, with what the more thoughtful, or at least more literate, people at the time thought worth remembering.

Before the written, then recorded, then broadcast, then videoed, word displaced the spoken as the conveyor of stories, it would have been difficult, I suppose, to tamper with history as the term is used here. Things might have changed in the telling over time, but not too much, when the hearers were as familiar with the stories as the tellers. Long after the invention of writing, it would still be the case that most people in just about any culture would learn the stories from hearing them.

Theological issues in the West are inseparably entangled with history, since any Christian theology must deal with real, named people in real, known physical and historical places. The stories about Jesus and His companions and Apostles were literally sacred, written down and copied and told with great care; the writings of the early Fathers and the hagiographies of early saints were also nearly as sacred. To dispute a dogma all but requires, at minimum, a repackaging of history; to refute the Church calls for a major rewrite.

The serious, conscious rewriting of history in the West seems (for I am not an historian) to have begun with, maybe, Wycliffe? Certainly, he didn’t like the history/stories he’d received, and proposed a hermeneutic of Bad Clergy, Monks, and Pope! Bad! as the filter to use on his revisionism. Not sure if he adopted a Great Apostasy theory, but such a moment of presumed fracture is required, as was recognized within a century or so.

The Protestant Reformation represents the first major attempt at rewriting history, both in the formal sense of drafting new texts that tell a different story according to new selection and embellishment criteria, and in spreading new stories among the people. Ever since 1517, a second set of stories parallel to the existing set have been developed and told, with written histories revised accordingly. The old set, dating back to at least Ignatius of Antioch if not the Apostle Paul, tells of Jesus founding a Church and commissioning very fallible Apostles to spread and maintain it, so that the history of the West consists of stories about very human men taking boneheaded if not out and out evil actions over and over again AND of a Church nonetheless effecting the conversion of the known world from India to Ireland and Russia to Ethiopia within a couple centuries of the Founder’s birth, despite 300 years of secular persecution and zero political power. The newer second set tells of Jesus founding a church which quickly all but vanished, to be replaced by evil men enforcing vile lies as dogma, only for a 16th century German Augustinian monk and a couple of other firebrands, building on Wycliffe and Hus, to reestablish the original Church, bring it out of (presumed) hiding and fight the Antichrist, which is the Pope, and his horrible church.

“To be deep in History is to cease to be a Protestant.” Newman may be overstating it a little. To have any grasp of history at all is to cease to be a Protestant, because the essential claims, such as the Great Apostasy and Sola Scriptura are historically unsupportable: no one ever imagined them, until Protestantism required them. I have great sympathy with people raised as Protestant intellectuals, who have inherited and personally invested in the second set of stories with the hope that they might thus be saved. That’s powerful stuff, and not to be denigrated. But on a simple, logical level, I have to fight off the ‘Oh, come on!’ response to patently nonsensical historical positions.

This theological division not only lead to the historical division described above, but to a corresponding philosophical division. The mundane, work-a-day, logical process described by Aristotle and greatly enhanced and developed by Aquinas and that crowd, was hopelessly tainted by its association with the Antichrist. Therefore, and, evidently, because of something like boredom (Descartes, I’m thinking of you!), new or at least recycled philosophies were developed.

These philosophies, like Protestantism itself, quickly metastasized. As I’ve mentioned before, the difference in Philosophy results from or at least reflects the theological division: Sola versus Scola. Catholicism and the Perennial Philosophy are team efforts, with the archetype of St. Thomas leading students through the Questions Method, where different views are expressed and refined before being being challenged, and the result is almost always a ‘given what we know now’ conditional truth. Protestantism’s end point is a man, a plow boy even, alone with his Bible, enlightened without the mediation of church or priest. The final authority is the Good Book itself, trumping anything a priest or scholar or anyone else might say. Similarly, Descartes, Hume, and Kant speculate not in a classroom with their fellow man, but in their own private rooms, alone, with the shades drawn. TRVTH must be found looking inward; the rough and tumble of the Schools is not for them.

A function of their protests against the Church, the one thing that unites our Protestant brethren no matter how fragmented their theologies, is a dismissal of the Church’s history. But as Belloc points out, the history of Europe IS the history of the Church. Awkward.

A little timeline:

  • 1781 – Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason
  • 1800 – Age of Enlightenment ends (more or less)
  • 1822 – Hegel begins delivering his lectures the Philosophy of History at the University of Berlin

Busy time. Kant pushes reason, in the sense of reasoning alone within one’s own head, to its extreme. He famously states that “I had to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.” What could go wrong with that? Note that Catholic doctrine, the Scholastics, as well as pretty much every Catholic thinker back to St. Paul and back on into the Old Testament writers, states that, while God is beyond our mind’s grasp, we can know His existence by very straightforward use of reason. Kant denies this. After him, the non-perennial philosophers seem to have had enough with reason. Today, such lines of thought are labeled metaphysics and largely shoved under the rug.

Hegel changed the way people talk about history. The emphasis is taken away from recounting What Happened as honestly as possible, and even away from telling a good story, to deciphering what the Spirit is unfolding ™. History is seen as having a direction and goals; the historian’s job is to get himself aligned with the Spirit such that he knows that direction and those goals.

Hegel considered himself a good Lutheran. Luther was an Augustinian. Augustine developed the idea of Salvation History as the hermeneutic for understanding Scripture. So the God of History, in the sense of history as the stories that tell us about ourselves, informs our lives and aides our salvation through the story of salvation as told by Him in Scripture.

One catch: the God Who Is becomes, under Hegel, the God Who Becomes. Being, far from the ultimate reality, is illusion. What is real is Becoming. Since logic depends on statements of being, and the Law of Noncontradiction upon which all logic hangs is a statement about being, logic in the form everyone had understood it up to that point must be jettisoned.

Again, what could go wrong? The filters used from the beginning of mankind to select what stories would be told are now replaced by a filter that selects stories, and how they re to be told, for how they best illustrate the historian’s idea of what man is Becoming, to best show Progress.

In the hands of a really humble and honest historian, this might not be too bad; in the hands of a Marx, it becomes a blunt object with which to beat people. In the hands of his even less stable followers, it was used to beat 100 million innocent women, children, and men to death.

The switch from the primacy of Being to the primacy of Becoming leads, with an irresistible logical gravity, to a dismissal of the past. This switch is clear in the now-fashionable formulation of Marxist dogma: everything is a social construct. Under this rubric, nothing *IS*. Everything is no more than an evanescence of some mystical social consciousness, as real as a dream and in any event merely a meaningless and mutable moment along the way toward Progress.

While Protestants had practiced historical revisionism to move the Church from a white hat to a black, they all still very much wanted Jesus at the center of the story. The philosophical giants – Kant and Hegel – certainly wanted not just God, but a recognizably Christian God, playing the central role, and remaining in some sense the eschaton. When Marx came along and set Hegel upright, God Himself was cast into the dustbin of history into which the Protestants had long cast the Church.

The sheep must be lead gently at first. When the Fabian communist H. G. Wells wrote his Outline of History in 1919, all he did (so I am told – not an historian) was remove Christianity from the center of the story, where it had appropriately been since the time of Christ. The story remained recognizable in outline, naturally, it just now made different points and punchlines.

Wells was not an historian, but that hardly mattered. To write this work, he needn’t do any beyond reading what historians had written, and then apply his Marxist hermeneutic to it: History is unfolding itself, leaving behind outdated concepts such as God and personal responsibility and the individual as more than a bee in a hive. We are where we are as the result of huge, irresistible forces. History will lead us inevitably into the future, where outdated ideas (and the people who hold them) will be excised. The eternal God and the poor saps who worshipped him didn’t really do anything, they were just along for the ride, at best an expedient used and now discarded by History.

Belloc, a real historian, promptly wrote a long essay in rebuttal. He traces how the West is the Church and the Church is the West, in that it was in the Church that all the good new ideas were developed, the good old ideas were preserved, and both old and new were promulgated and physically expressed. The story of the West – of Christendom – is the story of martyrs and missionaries, monasteries and monks, who, inheriting a Roman social order, spread order and rational hierarchy and learning with the Good News. Bloodthirsty tribal cultures, admiring the Romans and drinking deep of the Christian ideals, became feudal societies where rights and duties bound peasant, priest, and prince to each other and to God. These Europeans built the great cathedrals, the first universities and hospitals, invented modern science, saved ancient learning, and slowly and imperfectly turned barbarians into civilized peoples. The Church forbade divorce and the bartering off of daughters into marriages against their wills: she condemned the endless cycles of revenge murders; she placed the mother and father in the center of the home, with rights and duties no king could justly violate.

Likewise, Chesterton wrote The Everlasting Man, in which he, tongue firmly in cheek, thanks Wells for have removed the barrier to non-historians writing history. (1) Thus justified, Chesterton lays waste to Well’s underlying and unspoken assumptions, destroying the idea that we know the history of prehistory, for example, or that cosmic generalizations somehow reduce individual men to dust grains in a breeze, or that ‘comparative religions’ is comparing like things.

In a broader sense, Belloc and Chesterton were assuming their customary good cop/bad cop roles, each taking Wells to the woodshed. Much of educated society, however, was on the side of Wells, including specifically the Fabians, who saw no need to play fair (what is ‘fair’ anyway, in a world of becoming?) when working for something as noble and desirable as the Worker’s Paradise.

Thus, Well’s approach of setting Religion, by which he meant Christianity and most especially Catholicism, aside, and teaching history as if it were a string of inevitable developments under the guiding hand of (the totally not a god!) Progress, has won the day. That’s the history taught K-18 to this day. Any attempt to acknowledge the role of the Church in history in a positive way is shot down before it can arise. By now, with our education system in the unchallenged hands of Marxists for at least 30 years, there will be very few with credentials able to even raise the issue. It would be career suicide.

Since before Wells, but evidently much accelerated since, the rewriting of history, of the stories that tell us who we are, where we belong, and what is important in life, have been a major academic endeavor. As time has gone on, as academia has been more and more taken over by Marxists and their Useful Idiots, history as taught is a slate upon which to expound Marxist dogmas. No longer is history an art meant to convey important information about what has happened, what the people involved did and thought, what lead up to events and what followed. History as the stories that help us see who we are has been denied to almost everyone. The individual is nothing, the collective everything. What is truth?

History is today taught in America to convince our children that they are victims of vast forces of oppression who can only be overthrown by a revolution. Nothing they do matters for good or ill: the only cause of unhappiness is oppression. Therefore, the only valid academic exercise is to search out the oppression that causes any particular unhappiness and oppose it with activism designed to bring about the revolution. The Useful Idiots may not know this – dear God, I hope not! – but the true believers do.

As Chesterton say about dragons: children don’t need to be told they exist. Kids already know that. Children need to be told that dragons can be defeated. A history in which personal action is pointless, in which all victories and defeats are inevitable or meaningless, and in which the only goal is destroying a ‘system’ without the faintest understanding of what that system is: such a history leaves the heart terrified and the body petrified. Here be dragons, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

  1. Belloc and Wells were at the time engaged in a rather heated public exchange over Well’s playing fast and loose with the facts. Chesterton enters with: “As I have more than once differed from Mr. H. G. Wells in his view of history, it is the more right that I should here congratulate him on the courage and constructive imagination which carried through his vast and varied and intensely interesting work; but still more on having asserted the reasonable right of the amateur to do what he can with the facts which the specialists provide. ” – intro to the Everlasting Man
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109th Anniversary: Oath Against Modernism

Yesterday, in 1910, Pope St. Pius X commanded “all clergy, pastors, confessors, preachers, religious superiors, and professors in philosophical-theological seminaries” to swear an oath against modernism.

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I’m getting to be more and more a Pope St. Pius X fanboy the more I read about him. Not the society that took his name – they’re something else entirely – but the man, the pope, the saint.

Ah, the good old days. Give me that old time religion. If it was good enough for Pope St. Pius X, it’s good enough for me. (1)

The Catholic Encyclopedia, published between 1907 and 1913, doesn’t have an entry on this Oath, but does have an entry on Modernism, discussed here. One of these days, when I’m flush with spare time, I need to track down the fascinating connections between the authors and editors of this encyclopedia and Catholic University and the American hierarchy. Catholic University, from its founding in 1887, seems to have some pretty pronounced Modernist tendencies, mostly lurking in the often desperate desire of American Catholics, especially Irish American Catholics, to fit in in their new country, to join, as I generally put it here, the Cool Kids Club. Problem: the intellectual life of this new country, as modeled and lead by the Ivy League schools, was most definitely Modernist, with Hegel, Darwin and Marx being then, as they are today, the darlings of our self-appointed betters.

The Oracle Wikipedia says:

The writing of the encyclopedia began on January 11, 1905, under the supervision of five editors:

Charles G. Herbermann, Professor of Latin and librarian of the College of the City of New York
– Edward A. Pace, Professor of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
Condé B. Pallen, editor
– The Rev. Thomas J. Shahan, Professor of Church History at The Catholic University
– The Rev. John J. Wynne, S.J., editor of Messenger of the Sacred Heart

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catholic_Encyclopedia#History

Note the presence of Fr. Edward A Pace, who has been discussed in connection with the history of American education on this blog. Here he is listed as a Professor of Philosophy at CUA, but elsewhere is noted as the first psychologist on the CUA faculty. In 1892 he became one of the first five psychologists elected to the American Psychological Association by its charter members. In the smatterings of his writings I’ve read so far, he, as is typical of the era, refers to his field as ‘scientific’ psychology, which causes my eyes to go full gimlet: that word ‘science’ they keep using? I don’t think it means what they think it means.

Pace and his star pupil Edward Shields are two key players in trying to make Catholic parish schools more professional, scientific and modern. They thought the untrained generally foreign teaching sisters who learned their craft by, essentially, apprenticing to more experienced sisters were an embarrassment in an age where public school teachers went to teaching colleges and got certified by the state. (2) Instead of the proven method of learning to teach from people who know how, Pace & co were ashamed that these dedicated women weren’t ‘scientifically’ trained and state approved. I am reminded of the concurrent fad of preferring mass-produced goods over hand made items, because some piece of crap furniture from a factory was cool and modern, while something made by an actual craftsman was pooh-poohed as out of date. (3)

So I have my doubts about just how dedicated to defeating Modernism American Catholic scholars and leaders were, back in 1910, let alone today. That the sainted pope thought it necessary to command an oath seems to say he wasn’t too convinced, either.

In the previous light discussions of Modernism here, I quoted the Catholic Encyclopedia article, written before or at least with no regard for the pope’s oath, on modernism:

A full definition of modernism would be rather difficult. First it stands for certain tendencies, and secondly for a body of doctrine which, if it has not given birth to these tendencies (practice often precedes theory), serves at any rate as their explanation and support.

The Oath removes a bit of the haziness expressed in the Catholic Encyclopedia article. A summarized by Catholic Answers, which bullet-points the sections of the Oath, Modernism is the assertion that:

  1. God cannot be known and proved to exist by natural reason;
  2. External signs of revelation, such as miracles and prophecies, do not prove the divine origin of the Christian religion and are not suited to the intellect of the modern man;
  3. Christ did not found a Church;
  4. The essential structure of the Church can change;
  5. The Church’s dogmas continually evolve over time so that they can change from meaning one thing to meaning another;
  6. Faith is a blind religious feeling that wells up from the subconscious under the impulse of a heart and a will trained to morality, not a real assent of the intellect to divine truth learned by hearing it from an external source.

Gee, sound like anything you hear today?

I don’t know from a practical perspective whether an oath is a good or functional way of correcting a purposely muddled world, but it is sad to see the clarity it provided so utterly ignored today. That the message the Oath was trying to send has been utterly defeated (see, e.g., all large ‘Catholic’ universities) I hold to be self-evident.

Chesterton reminds us that the Church has died, been murdered and committed suicide several times over the last 2,000 years, only, like her Founder, to rise again. Here’s hoping and praying. Pope St. Pius X – pray for us!

  1. I’ve long thought that old Bible-thumper song was good, in and of itself, it just needed the right set of patriarchs and matriarchs to whose authority we should appeal for direction to the true religion: if it’s good enough for Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus of Lyon, Catherine of Siena, and Teresa of Avila, darn straight it’s good enough for me!
  2. Bella Dodd on her experiences in education school (School of Darkness, p 135): “I, myself, had given educational policy scant attention . Little that was controversial had been included in my education courses at Hunter College, and in my graduate work I had steered clear of such courses, feeling that my main emphasis must be on subject matter. I held to an old-fashioned theory that if a teacher knew her subject, and had a few courses in psychology and liked young people, she should be able to teach. I had been horrified to see teachers, who were going to teach mathematics or history or English, spend all the time of their graduate work in courses on methods of teaching.”
  3. The Arts & Crafts movement was a reaction to this fad by people somewhat immune to herd psychology..

‘Remedial’ College Classes

I took about 2 years of remedial college classes, although that’s not what they were called. I came to St. John’s College in 1976 from a self-identified college prep high school, St. Paul’s in Santa Fe Springs, CA, with a mediocre GPA but killer SAT scores. The reality is that, at that time, St. John’s was in a down cycle, so that anyone who submitted all the essays required to apply (in something like English, I imagine, but maybe that was too high a bar?) got in. That was about the most writing I ever did up to that point, the petulant whining of a kid who was convinced that k-12 had been a total waste of time and had heard the siren’s call of all those wonderful books.

I was about as ready for college, especially the 22-25 units per semester, no ‘easy A’ classes that St. John’s demands, as I was to perform brain surgery.

Almost bombed out. The subject that almost killed my college career was Greek, which also happens to be the ‘remedial’ class. If only I were enlightened enough to be ashamed of myself. Reading education history, I come across random stuff like this, regarding Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science, describing her course of study. Starting from before she was 10, and despite (?) being kept out of school:

My favorite studies were natural philosophy, logic, and moral science. From my brother Albert, I received lessons in the ancient tongues, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.

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Mary Baker Eddy, a very well educated yet very loopy person. Education isn’t everything, but it beats the alternatives.

She was farm girl, the last of 6 kids, surreptitiously taught by her older brother, since her father thought her brain was too big for her. She evidently mastered them all. This was in the early 1800s.

Eddy’s case might be extreme, but the fact is that a nation of farmers and shopkeepers produced a steady stream of kids who knew Latin, Greek, and even sometimes Hebrew from a young age. Later, when the wedding of math and science had been successfully consumated, an educated kid also knew a bit of calculus, needed, for example, to understand Newton – who wrote in Latin.

Thus, the floor, the baseline, for someone wanting a college education was knowledge of Latin, Greek and calculus – because no self-respecting college was going to waste time getting kids up to speed with what farm girls and boys with any intellectual aspirations already knew.

But that changed. Ancient languages have been disparaged for some time now. In the topsy-turvy world of modern education, knowing ancient languages, far from being seen as the door to a wider intellectual and cultural world, is seen as sign you’re a narrow, musty specialist.

Thus, upon reaching St. John’s, I, like about 99.9% of modern Americans would, needed remedial Greek.(1) Having had no experience studying anything really hard, as in, you simply MUST memorize a boatload of rules and forms before you can make any real progress, I just about bombed out. I buckled down after being vaguely threatened with expulsion after my freshman year (“Mr. Moore knows no Greek,” I still hear my prof saying during don rags, the annual terrifying meeting where all your ‘tutors’ meet and talk about you as if you aren’t there. But you are.)

The happy ending, after a fashion: I really didn’t want to get thrown out of St. John – hey, reading all those books is really fun! – so I spent much of my sophomore year pulling late-nights with Liddell & Scott, a well thumbed tutti i verbi greci, and Sophocles, eventually writing a paper on Oedipus Rex tracing and commenting on every usage of verbs of sight throughout the text – it was good. Didn’t actually learn much Greek, but the paper won the day.

I’m still a terrible student, still know little Greek and less Latin, and could never have gained admittance to a real American college from 100 years ago. My respect for those who did graduate from real colleges is profound.

Back to today. One of my favorite education tidbits, often referred to here, is that about 50% of incoming UC Berkeley students must take remedial English, math, or both. Let that sink in: these are kids with 4.X GPAs, who took all the AP classes – and aced them – who had good SAT scores, who are the best of the best of best – but they can’t write or do math at a college level, as Berkeley imagines it. These kids are bright, so it should come as no surprise that the majority of them ace the remedial classes and go on to ‘succeed’ in their chosen fields.

I expect this percentage to go way down, not because students will suddenly start learning more math and better English before applying to Cal, but rather because Cal will move the goalposts and simply relabel what would have been remedial classes as something else, or eliminate or dumb down the requirements. It’s happened before – Latin, Greek and calculus, anyone?

The sad part, tragic, even, is not that so many need remedial training (however labeled), but that so many get degrees, including Masters and PhDs, without ever having their shortcomings remedied. Mine have not been remedied, alas, but I did get a peek into that larger world. It’s not all accessible to me, but I at least know it’s there.

To get college applicants to know Greek, Latin and math, all that needs to be done is to demand it -if kids 150 years ago could learn this stuff, so can kids today. We’re not born stupider today, we’ve been very intentionally and systematically made stupider. It starts with expectations.

Of course, that would result in many fewer people, under 10% I’d imagine, doing college. As giant, evil corporations, our fine colleges can’t have THAT. Why, if we gave the people what they needed and even in our better moments, wanted, we’d end up with a small population of college educated people and lots and lots of glorified trade schools. Which, in itself, would not be a bad thing.

I’d be in favor of trying to really educate everybody, starting at a young age, and then seeing how it comes out. Man’s gotta dream. Any real education starts with the utter destruction of pre-K – 12 schooling, the instrument by which we are made and kept stupid.

  1. Originally, when the Great Books Program was started, students took one year each of Greek, Latin, German and French. By the time I’d got there, they’d already throttled it back to 2 years of Greek and 2 years of French. To get into your Senior year, you had to pass a French reading exam, which I passed after the manner of St. Joseph of Cupertino: the text for the test was de Tocqueville, from a section I happened to be very familiar with. Lucky me? Still only know a little church Latin. Sigh.

College and the Big Evil Corporation Model

Here’s an idea to keep in mind when thinking about our wonderful universities and colleges: these ivy-infested institutions are, when you get right down to it, rich, evil corporations.

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Super rich titan of industry, or major university president? Why not both?

Now, this notion, like most things this simple, doesn’t explain everything about ‘higher education,’ but, if judiciously applied, should serve to weed-whack some really stupid ideas and clear the ground for some actual thought. Plus, it’s factually true, at least about the name-brand institutions. Harvard, the big dog, has a $38.3 billion endowment, $44.6B in net assets, and an annual operating budget of $4.5B. For comparison, General Motors has net assets of $55.2B.

So, here goes:

Giant heartless corporations try to convince everyone they simply must have their products. You’ll never get ahead if you don’t have a college degree. You want to be a failure, like George Washington, Lincoln, or heck, Harry Truman? You want to live like that poor trade-school educated welder down the street, who owns his home, is debt-free and can get another job in about 15 minutes if he needs to? That’s what will happen to you if you don’t get a degree! Even though it’s patently nonsensical, doesn’t just about everyone you know think a college degree is all but essential to the good life?

To keep costs down and control high, evil corporations sow uncertainty and insecurity among their workers, You’ve all heard the stories about how evil corporations use the threat of replacing workers with a fresh-off-the-boat immigrants, to keep them in line and keep them from demanding more pay and better working conditions? Talk to a college professor lately? They all know that there are hundreds of people willing and able to take their job if anyone on campus finds anything at all lacking in them. Colleges used to offer tenure; now, it’s rare, as most classes are taught by adjuncts and grad students in most colleges in most fields. Not only are those non-tenure track people cheaper, they send a message to the tenured profs as well: we got backup plans if you screw up.

Giant, evil corporations willingly sell cheap, inferior products whenever they can, to maximize profits. To be admitted to Harvard 150 years ago, back when profs got tenure and under 10% of people went to college, you needed to pass a Greek and a Latin exam – and a calculus test. A college education *started* from a baseline that far exceeds the intellectual achievement of most PhDs today. (FYI: Most PhDs today are in education and social sciences.) Since only a tiny fraction of any population is likely to have the inclination and talent to learn Latin, Greek and calculus merely to get in to a good college, for the last century or so, colleges have been dumbing down their offerings to make sure they sell as much product as possible.

The first step was education schools, which generally date back to the second half of the 1800’s. For the last 150 years, inferior students (of course, there are exceptions. I assume.) who could not make it in a traditional college (think: Liberal Arts/Great Books + math, science, music, art, where that Latin, Greek and Calc would be put to use) could major in education, even get a PhD by doing ‘original’ research, and then get faculty positions teaching the next round of unqualified students. Over time – I’m estimating the other shoe fell around 1990 – the unqualified/dumb people with PhDs in participation trophy fields outnumber professors who might have a real education in something, and begin to call the shots and simply quash any opposition. You get stuff like this, for example (H/T to Rotten Chestnuts).

As a business strategy, as a way to maximize profits, this ‘create majors unqualified/dumb people can do’ has been a big winner! All studies fields, plus the non-RAD fields like English, History, Sociology, Psychology and so on, exist primarily to take the money from people who would not otherwise be able to hack college. Comparing such degrees to what a university degree used to be (and still is, in a few Great Books schools and the more RAD disciplines in some major schools) is like comparing finger painting to a Raphael portrait. Which is why the super-well-educated college grad is likely to say the finger paining is just as artistic as the Raphael…

Evil, rich corporations use their political influence to get the government to act in their best interests, despite what is good for or desired by people in general. It would be just like an evil corporation to get the government to all but require their product, create an elaborate tax-payer subsidized finance scheme to put people into debt to buy their product, and then try to get the government/tax-payers to take the bullet when the product doesn’t perform as advertised.

Student loans, anyone?

Enough. I’ve got an Academic VORP follow-up essay I’m working on, but it required real thought. Plus, there were some very good comments I didn’t answer because I wanted to expand on them. Sorry about that. Anyway, it’s now 3 days since I’ve written about bricks. Count your blessings! I mean, um, thanks for reading this humble blog.

Subtle Poison

Yes, we’re talking about schooling.

The late John Taylor Gatto said that the greatest achievement of modern schooling is that people can’t even imagine doing it any other way. That state controlled age-segregated graded compulsory schooling is poison is a major point of this blog. But it’s not enough to make sure your kids never see the inside of a state school classroom by homeschooling them or otherwise keeping them out of the clutches of state education machine. We – including myself, here – must comes to grips with the damage, the subtle ways being immersed in a state-schooled culture has poisoned us. That this damage often shows itself particularly in those who actively reject state schooling, and even those who have themselves been spared from the age-segregated classroom. shows how deep the poison runs.

Consider:

To recap: Pestalozzi, back at the end of the 18th century, set up the first in a series of his experimental schools in Switzerland. He came up with the idea that the proper way to educate a child was to have experts (e.g., Pestalozzi) predigest subjects, reduce them to well-defined tactile steps, and to insist the child master step 1 before being allowed to attempt step 2. He had this fear that a child left to learn anything on his own or in some way not shaped by a teacher would be end up morally and intellectually crippled, prematurely proud of his achievements and dismissive of things he could not learn readily on his own, and, in general, unmanageable.

His method required a detailed curriculum with very specific goals. But most importantly, Pestalozzian education requires frequent and intimate guidance of the student by his teacher. (1) Fichte, when he delivered himself of a series of lectures on how the German Nation could resume its manifest destiny to become the ruler of planet (for our own unenlightened good, of course), latched on to the Pestalozzian method as THE key step. (no, really.) Not because it was particularly suited to teaching the child math or reading or other such trivia, but because by it the loyalty of the child could be removed from family, village and church and be fixed entirely on the teacher – a teacher trained and certified by the state!

See how that works? A child is only praised, only succeeds in school, when he does exactly what the teacher demands. The teacher is a certified product of a state education bureaucracy, expected to follow carefully prescribed paths and deliver kids ‘performing to grade level’. What the teacher then necessarily demands of the student is compliance with a detailed curriculum, with an arbitrary set of goals and timelines. A ‘good student’ – and what parent doesn’t want his child identified as a good student? – is thus one who does exactly what the teacher says. Nothing the kid does outside the classroom matters; success is defined as pleasing the teacher by passing tests and not making a fuss.(2)

A family might want its children to be nice to grandma, help out around the house, feed the chickens, learn the viola, make dinner, help dad plow the south 40, sing in the Sunday choir or a million other things. A kid in such an environment, as Fichte well knew, might not put the state’s interests first! School is meant to remedy that situation.

Yet you hear even homeschoolers talk about grade level, as if it is some sort of objective standard. What’s really happening: all those years of training in school, during which the parents learned that complying was the only measure of success, has lead them to seek the approval of the state even when rejecting state schooling! See? Our kids are performing to grade level! We are good parents! Just say no.

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Nice standardized kids in nice neat rows.
  • Age segregation is an unnatural horror. At no other time or place in our lives are we limited to interaction with only people of our own age, not a work, not in our families, not in church, not when just hanging out in public. At home, we share a life with people older and often younger than ourselves. The real, fundamental relationships we do not choose give meaning to our lives. Enforced arbitrary relationships do not.

Extra curricular activities – and notice how we call normal activities healthy people do ‘extra curricular’ – such as kiddie sports leagues and even musical and dance activities are almost always arranged by grade or age. Why? If you’re worried the older kids will make life harder on the little kids, remember that athletic and musical talents, just like academic talents, are not distributed fairly by age. Example: When I was in 8th grade, I was a mediocre basketball player; my two little brothers, in 6th and 4th grade, were comparative athletic freaks. When we played on the playground before or after school, all three Moore brothers played with the other 8th graders, because that was roughly their competence levels. During school, however, and on formal teams, they generally played with kids their own ages, and, from a competitive standpoint, dominated them. Point: in our free time, we did something fair, so that games were competitive and fun; in school, we competed with kids our age, which worked out fine for me, but not so good with the kids playing with my little brothers.

The same dynamics go on in the classroom, except the more precocious kids (and this classification changes from subject to subject and grade to grade!) get shipped out or ignored, or learn to make trouble to get some attention.

Yet, even outside school, parents tend to invest actual energy in getting their kids together with others their age, not recognizing that kids LEARN to play only with kids their own ages, both in informal and more formal settings. The stickball and touch football games in the street outside the house did not follow those rules. Great lessons in socializing are learned when older kids tone it down and little kids step it up in order to play together. Anybody with a big (happy) family sees this all the time.

  • You are not incompetent to teach your children. As Socrates said, anyone who charges money to teach children what any competent adult knows is committing fraud. Yet, somehow, we imagine some magic happens in educations schools, whereby the bottom 10% (generally) of college students get some superpower needed to teach our 6 year old that the ‘A’ in ‘ate’ says its name, or 3 times 7 is 21, or that June is abbreviated ‘Jun’.

Or do you think you need special training to understand what’s going on in Huckleberry Fin, oops, can’t read that racist stuff, um, Anne of Green Gables, no, too sexist, um, Chronicles of Narnia, nope, that whole God thing, um – well, what do you think they’re reading? Do you think they’re learning to think by regurgitating the one right answer found at the back of the teacher’s edition of whatever passes for reading materials these days?

Does the magic of state certification make a teacher better? How? It’s all part of the mythology of grade level: your kid, my kid, everybody’s kid needs to be in a group of 6 year olds when they’re 6 years old, and needs to have a state certified teacher to make sure they understand that only state certified teachers can teach them, to make sure that they perform at grade level like all the other 6 year olds. Because….

  • The management tricks of the classroom are not how we learn. OK, class, who can tell me what we discussed last week? How does the word micromanagement make you feel? OK, anybody else? I’m looking for another word. Don’t forget to raise your hand! Don’t speak out of turn. Wait to be called on. There will be a test.

Does it occur to you that nobody outside a classroom ever acts like this? If somebody were to come up to me and ask me what we talked about last week, and expected me to guess until I said what they wanted to hear – I’d put up with that?

Here’s another St. John’s College story: right off the bat, day one, we went to our first class, and found out that 20 people can sit around a table and talk about something without raising hands, with interruptions as long as they’re polite about it (you can be polite about interruptions, just check out the dinner table conversations in any happy family), that people will generally listen and take turns without any policing by the teacher.

Speaking for myself, I was not a particularly mature 18 year old, far from it, and neither were most of the other kids in my classes – and it took about 90 seconds to get the hang of it. You get better at it as you go along, but just wanting to hear what others think about something you’ve all studied, wanting to get your say said, and not wanting to be seen as a bore or a fool – these things go a long way toward cultivating civil discussion. Every Johnny I’ve ever talked about this with agrees that these civil, engaged conversations were what we all missed most about St. John’s.

Every time I go to a talk or participate in some sort of educational endeavor, I see people falling back into what are, essentially, crowd control techniques masquerading as teaching. Other lame schooling tricks no self-respecting adult should put up with include small group discussions on specified questions, on the assumption we can’t all just talk it over and need guidance to know what to think about; constant shifts from one thing to another, like changing topics or speaker or medium, on the assumption no one can pay attention for more than 5 minutes; attempts to take whole topics and predigest them down to itty bitty bits or just generally dumbing topics down in the dread fear that somebody might not get it, or, worse, get it in some non-approved way.

Without years of classroom training, no adult would put up with this treatment. Many, if not most, of us have been completely crippled by the whole participation trophy approach, where the class serves to create a group to which attendance is the only real achievement. But anyone who can actually do anything real will more or less consciously tune out these management tricks, just as they tuned them out for however much school they did.

These four things – there are others – are the poisonous residue of graded classroom education. They are tools of control, not tools of learning or teaching. If no competent adult would put up with it, no child should have to put up with it either. Yet, we really can’t imagine doing it any other way.

  1. Pestalozzi’s approach was seen by many – Einstein, for example, who attended a Pestalozzian school for part of his education – as a vast improvement over the rigidity, intimidation and physical discipline common in other schools. And who knows? Maybe young Albert lucked into great teachers. The point I’m making is, failing an outstanding and profoundly sympathetic teacher, this micromanagement of the child’s life will quickly become a bureaucratic nightmare – and such it has become.
  2. Fichte wanted all children physically removed from their families as soon as practical for the duration of their educations. Since this power grab by the state was too much even for obedient Prussians and Americans, or maybe too expensive, we’ve since settled on merely tying up virtually all of a child’s life with school, school activities, and homework, and reducing parents to mere enforcers of the school’s goals – you do help your kid with his homework every single night for as many hours as it takes, right?

Orwellian Euphemisms, pt 3: Modern Education, etc.

Modern Scientific Education is not modern – the basic ideas trace back at least to the late 18th century – has no basis in science, and is most certainly not education. Old-school ideological indoctrination would be a better name for it. As readers of this blog know, good old Fichte kicked off the current compulsory state schooling craze back in 1811. He took ideas from Pestalozzi, most importantly that the child needs to be lead step by step through a pre-digested curriculum by a trained teacher, never allowed to proceed to the next step unless and until his teacher approves, never allowed to study what he found interesting. He blended those ideas with what would be startling notions of the superiority of the German race – startling, that is, if we’d never heard of the Third Reich. But as mentioned here often, the particular goal, whether it’s a Puritan utopia, rule by the Master Race, training up useful idiots for the glorious people’s revolution or some other End Time fantasy, is something that can be changed with relative ease, once the mechanism of control is in place.

Thus, you get graded classroom run by state-certified teachers with state-approved curricula. Kids are thrust into grades based on age, not on what they know or are interested in – what could be less important, or, indeed more harmful than allowing the kid any say? Then, you make sure only state-certified teachers can teach them, very specifically keeping the parents out (1) of the picture, except as enforcers (homework, anyone?) of what they, the teachers, teach. What the teachers teach, what education schools filter for, is doing what you’re told. Ever notice that among the most common complaints teachers make is that they have to spend so much time on discipline that they have little time to teach anything else? The poor dears! They haven’t figured out that the discipline IS the lesson. Conforming, just as the teachers themselves did to get certified, IS the goal.

Curriculum warrants its own section of euphemisms:

No Child Left Behind: All children forced to the same low level of mediocrity.

Common Core: Elite fringe. Seriously, in what sense is Bill Gates, whose foundation funded this mess, shooting for ‘common’? In what sense are painful explications of one way among many to solve basic math problems ‘core’? (2)

Side note: once you start getting into the history of public education in America, one pattern stands out: how much of the public education project is carried out out of sight by unelected people. Just as Common Core was foisted off on people who had never heard of it until it was enacted, the war against parental control as manifested in one-room schools tended to be waged by nameless bureaucrats enacting regulations far from the public eye. Throughout the second half of the 19th century up through the early 20th, state level education departments were set up with minimal public involvement. Only people who’d gotten degrees from Prussian universities, or, later, only grads from the education schools those Prussian (Fichte-style) educators had set up, got appointed or hired. A homogeneity of thought completely at odds with the then-current American educational practices dominated. For example. This played well into a time-tested propaganda technique: make a change, or merely assert a change has been made, and answer all objections with the equivalent of stare decisis: this is settled policy! The time for discussion has passed!

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“What do you mean you’ve never been to Alpha Centauri? For heaven’s sake mankind, it’s only four light years away you know. I’m sorry, but if you can’t be bothered to take an interest in local affairs that’s your own lookout.”
  1. I’ve spoken to parents who volunteered to help in the classroom, and even some who did – I’ve not yet heard of an experience that wasn’t frustrating and trivializing to the parent, and uncomfortable for the teacher. This gets tried because simply baldly stated the truth – hand over your kids and get out of our way – is, as yet, a tough sell to a lot of parents. Progress on this front is being made.
  2. I get it that she’s explaining a method, but that’s one of a bunch of methods people with some feel for math might use, each rather idiosyncratic. Once you get the hang of math, you’ll come up with ways to solve the simple problems like this one in your head – but probably not that one. The mechanical version is straightforward – why not start there? What, if anything, is gained doing it this way?

Orwellian Euphemisms, pt 1 Academic Freedom

Newspeak was the official language of Oceania and had been devised to meet the ideological needs of Ingsoc, or English Socialism.

Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought…

George Orwell, 1984, Appendix 1949

The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’. The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another…

…Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification… 

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better. 

George Orwell, Politics and the English Language, 1946

Academic Freedom. This lovely phrase is supposed to mean that academics are free to pursue whatever line of thinking they want without having to worry about being attacked. Only their peers are qualified to criticize them, as everyone else is assumed to lack the necessary expertise to understand them. Think of it this way: you hire a plumber or an auto mechanic, but are forbidden to judge their work. Instead, only other plumbers and auto mechanics can say if the drain drains or car runs well. Even though you paid for the work, you are in fact prohibited from raising any issues, lest you infringe on the sacred freedom of the plumbers and mechanics, whose arts and mysteries are outside your ken, you commoner, you.

That’s academic freedom. (1) What could possibly go wrong?

In the mean old days, before we had academic freedom enshrined as a foundational principle of our universities, without which certain unspecified evils were sure to beset us, people like provosts and parents and financial backers assumed they had a say in who taught and what they taught. They could get professors fired for being immoral or teaching treasonous or merely insane things.

In addition to the merely pedestrian libertines among the professorial class, Marxists, Freudians, and other frauds didn’t like this state of affairs. So, by the 1930s, anytime anyone attacked academics for being frauds or traitors or simply lunatics, all the good people would circle the wagons and declare: academic freedom! All criticisms, no matter how reasonable, are summarily dismissed as lacking standing. All sorts of idiocy and evil are thus immunized from attack.

This use of “academic freedom“ has proven indispensable to Marxists and their useful idiots as they took over the schools. Insiders were subject to political power plays; outsiders were excluded from the discussion.

Thus, 18 year olds are subject to a homogenous intellectual environment, where they’ll never hear any professor say, for example, that the idea that everything is a social construct is self refuting and moronically stupid. Nope, all they’ll see are heads nodding in agreement. This complete homogeneity of thought, this utter enslavement of academics to a single school of ‘thought,’ in fact, enslavement to a single political idea, is the necessary and intended result of academic freedom.

  1. Yes, college professors are glorified plumbers and mechanics, only much less useful. I went there.