Bones, Buildings and Books

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

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

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

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

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

Multiple Winner, fix or tear down competition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday Flotsam, Including Science!

A. Stray thought: there is evidence that we’re in a Golden Age in at least some fields, and not just the obvious technological ones. Besides, we’re so close to the birth of technical fields such as computer and material sciences that calling this a Golden Age in that respect seems too premature to mean much. No, I mean areas old enough to have gone through a few boom/bust cycles.  There seem to be an awful lot of people, many  young or youngish masters, doing very impressive work across a number of fields.

Further, while Golden a Ages seem to feature a disproportionate number of true masters, I would think that the true measure isn’t the individual genius (who can pop up anywhere at any time, it seems) but rather the number of competent to great practitioners beneath them. For example, the 16th and early 17th centuries were the Golden Age of polyphony. Everybody who knows anything about that era can name Palestrina, de Lasso, Victoria, Byrd. But what’s astounding is that the few times I’ve gotten to perform stuff written by the supposed 2nd tier guys, I’ve been blown away. There seems to have been a lot of great music written back then, for which Palestrina in particular has been chosen as the poster boy, with everybody else getting at most a ‘oh, yea, him too’ reference. (1)

Years ago, listened to an interview with some pianists involved in competitions. Turns out there’s a general consensus that there are more fabulous piano players alive now than at any time in history. Used to be that, for example, Rachmaninov’s piano concertos used to be the peak of the virtuoso mountain, attempted by only the best of the best. Today, there are thousands of 15 year olds around the world knocking them off. It’s gotten to the point where, in competitions, as single mistake will disqualify you; as one young pianist said: it’s like they’re judging your soul. Technical perfection is simply the price of admission.

Sticking with music, Rick Beato, an accomplished musician with a Youtube channel I follow, mentions in one of his videos the growing number of utterly excellent guitar players out there today. He tells a story familiar to any of us older, say, over 50, guys: when we were young, a new song would come out and you’d throw the vinyl record on the turntable and wear it out while you figured out how to play it. A noble, useful exercise, but time-intensive and often frustrating.

Today? On Youtube, you can likely find a dozen videos of people, occasionally, even the original performers, showing you how to play the song. Technical issues such as fingerings and voicings that are often difficult picking up from the recording become clear. You still have to do the work, but it is so much faster and less frustrating to see it worked through, especially when you’re a relative beginner.

Same general principle holds for woodworking, blacksmithing and boat building, and no doubt a thousand other crafts and arts. There’s some normalish guy out there building a Bombay chest, a classic rapier or a cedar strip canoe right this minute, and his work will stand comparison the the best that’s out there.

But the real value is more subtle: you get to see normal people doing extraordinary things. Teenage girls will shred their way through Eruption or arrangements of Beethoven sonatas; you can watch her hands and see how she’s doing it. Dude will show you how to do epic, Japanese-flavored woodworking projects in his home shop. A guy will build a 45′ steel boat in his front yard; a young couple will build a ketch from scratch with the intention of sailing the world. A 20 year year old kid will make swords that should be hanging in museums. And on and on.

There’s even a sort of Art Tatum of this crafty world, a guy whose patient perfectionism and awesome skills might intimidate you even he wasn’t so matter of fact and charming: on his Clickspring channel he’s building a replica of the Antikythera Mechanism out of sheets of brass, often using tools he makes for the purpose. It must be seen to be believed.

Is it just that social media makes all this cool stuff easily seen, when in the past it was hidden from all but the hardest hardcore hobbyists? I don’t think that’s the whole story. Rather, I think there’s a general spreading of inspiration, that people everywhere are seeing that people just like them can do these incredible projects, and that some of those people then start incredible projects of their own.

I think this a very good thing, if true. People with a sense of accomplishment are much less likely to get blown about in the winds of political and social fashion, seems to me. They’re not looking, or looking less, for that practical sense of meaning in their daily lives that mastery of a craft gives you. People who finally master that instrument, build that boat, or finish that home addition are more likely to be stable, solid citizens.

Maybe. I could be delusionally optimistic. Wouldn’t be the first time.

B. In comments to  this article from the Medical Press, a nuclear physicist points out that even elite scientists often screw up their statistical analyses. In the initial paper, data was collected from a carefully selected representative sample of people who use statistics. Just kidding! I slay me! Using an ‘instrument’ of some kind, some college students were asked to solve questions where the solution required following 3 or more logical steps OR really knowing stat so that you could plug some numbers into standard stat formulas. There is an example in the initial paper.

Now, knowing quite a few people, including myself, I’d say the likelihood a high percentage of any group of people who aren’t professional statisticians or logicians to solve such problems is slim to none. It would fall well below half. I’d expect single digits among, say, pedicurists, long haul truckers and journalists – you know, fields were being able to follow 2 or more steps of logic isn’t a job requirement.  No knock – if we don’t use it, our minds are pretty good at freeing up space for something else.

The purpose of the study was no doubt to obtain a stick with a patina of science on it with which to beat some target or other. Since the reason suggested – I hope you’re sitting down – is that statistics is taught very badly in schools, it looks like the target is people whose money the state wants for funding reliable statist voters, such as ‘educators’ and teachers. The state of eternal school reform must be maintained, while at the same time all who question why we would pay for something that has failed to work for 200+ years are automatically excommunicated.

I don’t think teaching will help much, unless lots of us peons somehow reach the conclusion that following logic very carefully is something we can’t live without. Until then, even ignoring any possible issues with native intelligence, people aren’t going to learn this. For those who might want to know how to think a little but for whom the schools have  succeeded in their stated goal of preventing just such thought, well, they could start with Dr. Briggs’ book.  In it, he shows convincingly that probability and statistics are branches of philosophy (and thus necessarily, of logic) with a little math attached. In other words, knowing what you are doing and what is possible comes first. Do that, and the math is either completely unnecessary or firmly secondary.

Statistics properly understood is both a powerful tool and a cautionary tale. As Briggs explains in his book, there are more interesting questions in this world about which statistics can tell us nothing than there are ones where statistics can give us great insight. I’d guess exactly 98.83% of all statistical analyses you’ll ever hear about are out and out nonsense, at least as presented. How the data is gathered, what the data even is, whether the subject matter even admits of numerical analysis – these are philosophical questions that get booted even before the perp gets a chance to screw up the math.

  1. And it’s even worse than that, in that about a half dozen works by Palestrina are well known among the tiny subset of people who care about this stuff. Palestrina and de Lasso were very prolific, writing hundreds of pieces over their careers. Palestrina also maintained legendarily high standards – all his work is good to epically great. It’s too much! So we get to hear the same small set of pieces repeatedly, and just take the experts word for it being representative. And that’s not even counting any of the other masters who you’ve never heard of and whose names I promptly forget.

The State of the News

Not anything in particular except by way of illustration.

When did the news become The News? I don’t know and don’t have time at the moment to research it, but it’s good to remember that, somehow, for centuries, people made do with gossip and hearsay about almost everything we consider news today, delivered by word of mouth. So things haven’t really changed much, except at some point the gossip mongers and rumor mills got professionalized. The also added some research capabilities, and have greatly taken advantage of technological advances. However, based on personal experience, on what a look at the news has revealed over the past 5 decades during which I’ve looked at it, the content only marginally and occasionally reflects supposed improvements in research (“investigative reporting”) – it’s still mostly of the quality of what I’d imagine the women discussed around the fountain in the village square.

Image result for dirty laundryInstead, professional and technological improvements have mostly merely expanded the scope of what is to be gossiped about, without much improving the quality. Our poor benighted ancestors would only gossip about the foibles of the people they knew, maybe encompassing a few neighboring villages. Maybe the local aristocracy might come come in for a few whispers. Now, we can hear gossip about ‘celebrities’ and politicians  (insofar as those differ) round the clock and around the world. Based on what’s in the news and who and how many are paying attention to it, the research from the Moscow Bureau or whatever serves a tiny audience – at least, until the “investigative reporting” by “senior correspondants” is reduced to gossip, in cases where such a reduction is necessary. Thus, what exactly is going on in, say, Venezuela or Palestine is unlikely to see the light of day in the Press, and will be simplified beyond legitimate meaning before it sticks in anybody’s brain. The facts as revealed in conversations with just about anybody in almost any media sadly seem to bear this out.

We did go through a period in my lifetime where certain news anchors were canonized if not deified. Walter Cronkite springs to mind. They were trusted dispensers of the Truth. So was, I suppose, Walter Duranty a few generations earlier. But a harder look shows that such news anchors and senior correspondents had only augmented their rumor mongering with a bit of propaganda. The assumption that they were any smarter or better informed, let alone more moral and truthful, than your average garage mechanic or numbers racketeer is hard to maintain in the light of objective evidence.

But we trusted them. And, frankly, adored them. Modern reporters are now faced with an increasingly hostile environment in which only the Home Team even listens to them, and only if they say what the fans want to hear (not that there seems to be much of a risk of anything else happening). It has got to be hard when your idols are attacked, and even harder when what you, the cub reporter, had aspired to goes up in smoke: if you do a great job and get a few breaks, you still won’t be respected and loved like Uncle Walter. People will probably do worse than hate you – they will dismiss you without a thought.

Maybe. Some reporters still seem to think News Media are the secular clergy, and that those who oppose them are thus heretics in need of a good burning at the stake.

I wish I were kidding.

A couple years ago, I wrote a blog post which included a discussion of one Zach Carter, a “Senior political economy reporter” at the Huffington Post. Over the course of an interview with a wizened political economist, Mr. Carter, it seems, was revealed to be both utterly uniformed on the topic of his supposed expertise – political economy – and, more worrisome, utterly unconcerned with his ignorance. In his defence, I’ll point out that the problem is really the Huffington Post’s, who gave him the job and title, and the University of Virginia, which gave him a degree supposedly in evidence he knew some stuff. Also, he can’t be much older than 35, and his pictures on his bios would make Zuckerberg appear an ancient sage by comparison. He’s still getting carded, I’d bet.

I take this as evidence of a general trend, that of inflating titles far beyond the demonstrable qualifications of the position-holder, merely because a) the company needs that position filled, and b) the person filling it must appear to have a certain gravitas that it is hoped a ponderous title might give him. Moreover, as prestige and money in the news media continues to evaporate, papers are forced to recruit among people who will take reduced compensation in exchange for perceived prestige – that’s how you get Senior Vice Presidents and Senior Associate Directors.

Next, I’ve lost track of some item I thought I’d saved somewhere, wherein it was claimed that journalism is more and more becoming a profession for those who don’t need a job. Googled around, and what I could find: journalism in general pays a solid middle-class wage, in the neighborhood of $50k a year on average. Put another way, your average journalist makes around $25/hr, which is a bit more than an auto union member makes, and indeed, considerably less than what your plumber likely makes.

Yet another source (not going to provide links here – these items were on the 1st page of a Google search on journalist salaries, if you’re interested) mentions that journalist tend to be highly educated, and that the name publications, such as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, have high representation of people with degrees from elite schools, like 40-50% among editors and reporters.

Now, putting two and two together: if I get a degree from Harvard or Yale, I’m not looking at taking a few years to work up to a $50k salary. We can safely assume the NYT and WSJ, prestigious and located in New York, pay way more. But even twice the average – $100K – is not providing the kind of life a Manhattan sophisticate is expected to live.  I’m not paying off any of the couple hundred grand of school debt I may have incurred by going Ivy League on $100k/yr if I’m also paying Manhattan level living expenses. Further, if this is true, that cub reporter in Des Moines is going to be lucky to make $25K, or about $12.50 an hour, if the averages are going to work out.

So, the allegation that people who don’t need the money are overrepresented among journalists is at least not contradicted by the tiny amount of data I was willing to dig up for a blog post. Speculating a little more broadly, it would not be surprising if the wanna be Zach Carters of the world, with sterling degrees, no significant school debt, and delusions or at least aspirations of relevancy, might end up in journalism, while people with school debt to repay and objectively valuable knowledge and skills would have less of that tendency. Who knows? But in the immortal words of Don Henley:

You don’t really need to find out what’s going on
You don’t really want to know just how far it’s gone
Just leave well enough alone
Eat your dirty laundry

Finally, year before last, when the Oroville Dam was having some serious issues due to a rainy season with near 200% of average precipitation, I wanted to keep up on the goings-on. Evacuations, the risks, if any, to the dam itself, mitigation and repair steps taken, that sort of thing. If you consume any mainstream news, you will not be surprised to learn that I found the information on offer from these sources sorely lacking.

So I surfed around. I discovered a YouTube channel run by Juan Brown, a gentleman who lives in the general area of the dam, flies his own airplane, and likes to make videos. Turns out that a number of people put together videos on the failure of the main and emergency spillways and on the California DWR’s efforts to manage the situation. (The CA-DWR is the manager of our reservoir system). The DWR P.R. department even hired some people with drones to put out dramatic videos every week or so of the damage and, later, the repair efforts. Very pretty stuff. But Mr. Brown was the only source that stayed on top of it and, most importantly, seemed to actually understand what was going on. When something crazy was said on the news – and, shocking, I know, but any scary-sounding thing got immediately picked up by all the news ‘sources’ – Juan would address it in his videos. No, he would patiently explain, cracks or leaks in the underlying roller compacted concrete are not an issue, as Phase II entails installation of drainage and placing of a hardened concrete cap on top, for example. Cost overruns were not due (this one time, at least) to bureaucratic incompetence, but to the inability to get a good estimate due to the need to do a lot of work to understand the underlying geology before being able to size the project. And so on.

He attended the DWR news briefings, and seemed to be the only guy there asking intelligent questions or, indeed, understanding the answers. As you can imagine, the PR people with the DWR and Kiewit, the project management firm, started to get to know and appreciate Brown. Last week, he published part II of a guided tour of the site, not something the general public is getting, lead by a DWR and a Kiewit P.R. person.

At one point, off-camera, the lady from the DWR asked him a question: why are you doing this? Why are you so interested in this project? He gave the obvious answers: it’s in his backyard, it’s the biggest engineering project going on at the moment in the entire US, and he finds it fascinating.

Now, I have no way to independently verify the accuracy of Brown’s understanding and analysis of the Oroville Dam spillway projects, but I have a lot more confidence in him than I do any of the young, pretty people I’ve seen report on this in the ‘real’ media. Why? He asks the questions I would ask, and explains the answers in a way that makes sense.

Juan Brown is in some sense exactly the reporter who doesn’t need the money. He just doesn’t work for the media.

The appearance that needs to be saved here is the readily-observable ignorance and clear lack of worry over such ignorance by just about any news reporter or writer. The theory on the table is that careers in journalism appeal to a certain type of person: one who doesn’t need to make a lot of money, and who is attracted to an inner circle of sorts. The sort who can be paid in prestige, and who is not worried by, or perhaps fails to notice, their own manifest incompetence in the face of confusing facts.

In other words, the reason journalists are in general not any more reliable or informative than the women gossiping while drawing water in the village square is that, for many people involved, it’s not a passion for accuracy or truth that drives them, but in fact something much more akin to that feeling a gossip gets when she has something particularly juicy to share.

Maybe? Hey, it’s a theory, I’m sure there are others.

Perhaps next I should think about what news even is, really, and how much, if at all, we need it. I suspect not very much.

Histories of Catholic Education, a Note

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

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

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

Site of First Louisiana School Marker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Education Reading: 9/25 Update

Still working my way through Parish School by Timothy Walch (1997) and The Catholic School System in the United States,  by James A. Burns, C.S.C. (1908), with an equal or greater amount of effort spent tracking down references and googling background information. Very enlightening.

Because it is a much shorter work, I’m up to rereading sections covering the late 1800s/early 1900s in Walch while still back in colonial times with Burns. Walch covers the controversies and appeals to the Pope over disagreements in the Catholic hierarchy in America. Archbishop John Ireland, classified by Walch as a liberal, dreams of a day when Catholics can just send their kids to public schools and be done with it. After all, Ireland says, (here reflecting late Brownson) Americanism is fully compatible with Catholicism in its respect for the individual and freedom. Catholics should not fear immersion in Americanism just so long as the overt anti-Catholicism is purged. He seemed confident that it had been purged by 1890, when he was writing. Other archbishops threw their arms up in despair – Ireland was throwing the entire Parish School movement under the bus in order to make nice to non-Catholic Americans. If the public schools were acceptable, what was the point of having had thousands of parishes and millions of immigrants sacrifice to build and send their kids to parish schools?

A couple of issues are touched upon lightly that seem to need further expansion, and one critical point is ignored.  Walch repeats throughout the text the idea that Catholics in general were envious of the comparatively well-funded and appointed public schools, with their trained and certified teachers, and that everybody knew attending a public school gave kids a leg up on getting ahead. Haven’t tracked down or even read through all his notes – there are many – but the quotations in the text that might support these views have so far invariably been from partisans in the disagreement, or at least clerics. We don’t hear from Paddy the cop or Hanz the baker or Gianni the line worker in the shoe factory on their views of pubic versus parish schools. They were probably too busy. But based on their works, the churches and schools they did build with their own money and sweat, one might imagine they would beg to differ.

We do know that certain *clerics* envied the public schools. Fr. Pace, Fr. Shields, Fr. Burns, Archbishop Ireland and other priests and bishops thought ‘modern’ ‘scientific’ schooling embodying the latest advances in ‘scientific’ psychology and ‘scientific’ pedagogy were marvels, and that the dedicated but untrained and uncertified sisters doing most of the teaching in Catholic schools were a bit of an embarassment.

Walch also asserts that non-Catolic Americans were consistently baffled by the Church’s resistance to public schools. Hadn’t the schools (eventually, after some bloodshed) removed the Protestant King James Bible from the curriculum? Sure, there was some dispute over history, where the influence of the likes of Francis Parkman made the Catholics in the New World buffoons on a good day and evil, conniving anti-Americans on most days. But hey, the morality presented in the readers and copybooks was almost identical! So, come on, Catholics, we’ve met you more than half way!

In other words, there was nothing but acceptance, nay, affection among Protestants for American Catholics, who wouldn’t dream of ramming their views down the throats of Catholic kids via the public schools. Too bad Al Smith was not able to tap into all this good will.

I think there might be more to it than that.

A far greater and less excusable omission is Walch’s total failure to include any *reasons* why Catholics in 1890 might be suspicious of the good intentions of those then in charge of public education. It is implied that their fears were largely anachronistic, based on an earlier time. But as readers of this blog are aware, such contemporary luminaries in education as William Torey Harris were pushing Hegelianism as the official view of the US Office of Education – you know, that Modernism stuff the popes kept going on about. Harris, who was in office as US Commissioner of Education at the time Ireland address the (secular) National Education Association with his pro-public schooling remarks, said:

“Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual.”

Anything there a Catholic might object to, in principle? Harris also sought to make schools sensory deprivation tanks (“The great purpose of school can be realized better in dark, airless, ugly places … It is to master the physical self, to transcend the beauty of nature. School should develop the power to withdraw from the external world.”). Maybe somebody attending Mass in any one of the thousands of beautiful churches built by immigrants might object to this approach as being fairly explicitly anti-Catholic? No catechism in stone, just abstract thought?

So while the public schools were being lead by people dedicated to turning them into factories producing docile robots immune to beauty, the ‘liberal’ leaders of the Catholic Church were desperate to send Catholic kids to those schools, in the name of Progress and being Good Americans, and to the obviation of parish schools. In Walch’s telling, the opposition of the bishops he calls ‘conservatives’ is just this mystery, or at most them being fuddy-duddies stuck in the past.

Trying to stop getting sidelined and just finish these two books. Instead, I pulled down a short biography of Barnard, a contemporary and co-conspirator with Mann, because something Walch or Burns said made me think of Barnard…

Next up:

IMG_5216

Seaton is an obvious choice. Thoroughly expect the book on the right is another cheerleading job, but true believers tend to slip up and say what they really mean from time to time. I’ve read and briefly reviewed the Holy See’s Teachings on Catholic Schoolsbut want to reread it now, as I suspect there was more than a little judicious cherry picking going on. I remember nothing in these writings that Archbishop Ireland wouldn’t be completely down with. (He wanted the State’s role in education to be on a par with the parents and the Church. No, really, he thought that was a good idea.)

I really need to get that Educational Resources page going here…

An Interesting Educational Tidbit

I’m working on a longer post, but here’s a fascinating bit from my parallel reading of Parish School by Timothy Walch (1997) and The Catholic School System in the United States,  by James A. Burns, C.S.C. (1908). Walch, who is still working and seems to be at least the go-to guy for American Catholic School history at the moment, summarily dismisses the efforts of the Spanish missionaries as not amounting to anything. Walch even quotes with some approval the words of the American historian Parkman, who, based on a quick perusal of his other well-known quotations. would have qualified as an anti-Catholic bigot even according to the standards of the time (his career spanned the 19th century). By which I mean, other anti-Catholic bigots would find his words gratifying, while anyone with any sympathy toward the Church and any broader (non-English speaking world) hint of history would find them libelous.

That a modern academic, even a Catholic one, would take a dim view of the Church’s work in the New World except insofar as it can be seen as ‘progressing’ toward the far, far better now, is not surprising. Any other view will get you banished from the cool kids’ table.

What is surprising is the contrast between Burns’ work and views and Walch’s. The latter can hardly spare enough words to describe the California Missions before lumping them in with the Texas, New Mexico, Florida  and Arizona missions to be dismissed as fruitless. Burns, on the other hand, spend a short chapter on each one, noting on-going educational efforts, lessons learned even in failure, and reasons for their ultimate demise. In the of case  Florida, New Mexico and California, political forces played a large role in frustrating and even exterminating the educational efforts of the missionaries and colonists. Florida, for example, was attacked at one point by English colonists from Georgia, who may have destroyed the seminary school in St. Augustine. New Mexico, by a combination of excessive brutality by both Church and State, fomented the Indian revolt that resulted in the loss of all schools in the territory. In Texas, even the highly critical  Cox (he’s clearly of the Parkman school) notes that it was difficult to justify schools when Indian raids and the harshness of the environment made life itself tenuous.

In California, the missions were a resounding, remarkable success, with thousands of Indian converts living and working with the Spanish friars, who shared their lives with them. Only when the Mexican government (you know, the people who eventually brought their country the Cristero War) dissolved the mission system in the 1830s did the the native population assume its trajectory towards extinction.

Burns quotes the following:

“If we ask where are now the thirty thousand Christianized Indians who once enjoyed the beneficence and created the wealth of the twenty-one Catholic missions of California, and then contemplate the most wretched of all want of system which has surrounded them under our own Government, we shall not withhold our admiration from those good and devoted men who, with such wisdom, sagacity, and self-sacrifice, reared these wonderful institutions in the wilderness of California. They at least would have preserved these Indian races if they had been left to pursue unmolested their work of pious beneficence.”‘

Dwinelle, op. cit.. p. 63. ‘Blackmar. op. cit., p. 48. Cf. also Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1905.

The ‘failure’ of these early Spanish schools seems mostly to be a failure to fit the narrative. The concept that government involvement in Catholic education, at least to the extent of establishing methods and curriculum if not exercising (as in modern Germany) near total control, is to be seen as an unmitigated good, once the rough spots of the 19th century were worked out. The idea that people working outside much direct government control might do good that is then destroyed by their government – well, we’re not to dwell on that, or the mean girls will pick on us.

Needed to vent a little there. Getting back into a more scholarly mode: Superficially at least, Burns seems to support the direction of the Catholic schools, already evident in his time, away from the care of devout sisters and priest toward more professional teachers and administrators, after the fashion of the public schools. He and Walch seem to see eye-to-eye on this. The difference is that Burns, after Shields and Pace, is confident enough to allow consideration of other goals and models without knee-jerk condemnation. I suspect that’s because the Catholic schools of his day could still be appreciated as a triumph of the Church, a shining beacon of Catholicism in a country that hated us.

Walch, on the other hand, is writing at a time when large numbers of Catholics consider the Catholic schools tragic failures, from the grade schools to the universities.  Those most dedicated to the concept of a recognizably Catholic education are founding schools and colleges outside the parochial system and in the face of existing Catholic universities. The big, happy Catholic families that were sending 6 or 8 kids to parish schools in the 50s and 60s, hoping their kids could get into Notre Dame, are now homeschooling or sending them to the likes of St. Monica Academy hoping they can get into Thomas Aquinas College.  Supporters of the current Catholic school models have been betrayed by Progress. While Burns could merely dream of how great things would become if only his progressive ideas were realized, Walch must deal with the less-than-happy sight of those ideas embodied in reality.

I am reminded of the bishop C. S. Lewis puts in Hell in the Great Divorce, who is reduced to arguing that while where he finds himself does not much match his previous visions, it must be Heaven nonetheless.

 

Catholic Schooling in America: Sources 2 – San Antonio

It’s gratifying to find, so far, the source document referenced in the two books I’m currently working on – Burn’s The Catholic School System in the United States and Parish School by Timothy Walch – are more often than not readily available online. There are a couple of books so far that I’m going to need a good library to find for me, as they are either unavailable or expensive on line. But I’ve got plenty of reading material.

On the downside, that means that I get a few pages into Walch or Burns before I find something I’ve just got to look up, aaaaand, hours later, I’m neck deep in some obscure document or other. Come to think of it, that’s how I came to read Burns’ epic in the first place…

Today’s rabbit hole is being provided by the Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association, Volume 6, July 1902 – April, 1903, made available online by the noble people at The Portal to Texas History website. In his chapters on the Spanish, French and English Catholic efforts at schooling in America, Burns has a footnote linking to this document:

Burns p48

Well, can’t pass up a chance to read up on the schools under the Spanish and Mexicans in San Antonio in the early 1800s, especially their ‘curriculum, and curious disciplinary rules.’

It seems one Mr. Cox has obtained and translated from the Spanish a number of documents related to the founding, funding and structuring of the Public Free School of San Antonio, including a government document from 1828 laying out the details.

The curriculum is what one would expect: reading, writing, Spanish grammar, basic math and above all Catholic catechesis.

Cox 2 p58

Not sure that’s a very cogent translation, but the gist seems pretty clear: each day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon, the children were to memorize questions and answers from a standard catechism. Also, the Teacher was charged with teaching the children proper behavior at school, in the home, in church and on the street.

The school was designed for 70 students, and was to run 4 years, starting around age 12. The school’s structure is a military riff on the basic one-room school. Kids are divided up into groups – called Romans and Carthaginians! – in three ranks: Officers, who have mastered the bulk of what is being taught; Captains, who can at least read and write; and the remainder, who can at least read. It seems to be assumed that the kids all learned to read before going to school. The officers, in conjunction with the Teacher, would assign lessons, assign kids to deliver the lessons, and maintain order. Age is nowhere mentioned as a consideration – groupings were based on what you knew or needed to learn, and a kid could move up or down in rank based on his performance.

The Teacher’s role was one of management. He (it is simply presumed to be a man, and was in San Antonio) had at most 2 hours a day during which he, himself, might deliver lessons. He would be unlikely to use all of that time for that purpose, since he was also supposed to ‘hear lessons’ then as well.

Hearing lessons, or recitation, was the main tool used in one room schools to see how each child was doing. In the American one-room schools, the teacher, after having assigned kids as teachers and learners as needed, would then spend the day having each child come up and recite what they’d learned. Based on these recitations, future lessons would be assigned. Age didn’t figure into it. Learning what you needed to learn was the criterion. The San Antonio school seems to have been designed to operate in a similar way.

70 students is twice or more the enrollment of a typical American one-room school. It’s interesting that the Spanish in San Antonio would think 70 students needed to be divided into 2 groups, each of which would then be near the maximum of an American one room school. I wonder if they had any contact with the American rural schools?

The Teacher, then, must first manage the kids put in charge:

Cox 1a p58

Cox is very dismissive of the efforts of the Spanish in Texas, pointing out the problems they had in getting these schools up and running and how obviously they fell short of their goals. Graft and theft are assumed at every turn, as is the indolence of the Spanish. When Walch reviews the efforts of the Spanish, he seems to agree with Cox and not so much with Burns, who has at least a few kinder words to say. Walch even repeats with qualified approval a quip by Francis Parkman:

Spanish civilization crushed the Indian, English civilization scorned and neglected him, and French civilization embraced and cherished him.

Hmmm. One might point out an inconvenient truth here: today, in the Americas where the Spanish once ruled, the populations are almost always made up of a large minority or even majority of people with Indian blood, including many purebred Indians; where the English ruled, Indians were all but exterminated. It would be hard to reconcile Parkman’s words with this reality. Perhaps he was not the impartial observer one would hope for in an historian? Here’s another Parkman quotation:

The monk, the inquisitor, and the Jesuit were lords of Spain,— sovereigns of her sovereign, for they had formed the dark and narrow mind of that tyrannical recluse. They had formed the minds of her people, quenched in blood every spark of rising heresy, and given over a noble nation to a bigotry blind and inexorable as the doom of fate. Linked with pride, ambition, avarice, every passion of a rich, strong nature, potent for good and ill, it made the Spaniard of that day a scourge as dire as ever fell on man.

You be the judge.

I’ll get to the California Missions and the French and English Catholic education efforts in America soon.