David Foster reposts a classic post that ties together the Thanksgiving holiday, some thoughts about what people knew in the past and what they know now, and reflections on the state of modern education.
It’s tempting to assume that people know more now than they did in the past. In one sense this assumption is true, since the state of knowledge in many fields advances over time. However, it is not necessarily true for knowledge held by individuals. In the past, many activities, from farming to driving a car to trading shares to doing scientific experiments, required a great deal of specialized knowledge that is no longer necessary. Automobiles, for example, are more complex than they used to be but are also much easier to operate. The automobile designer knows more but the driver needs to know less. This is a good situation because the driver now has more time to spend on activities where he is more productive.
However, “activities where he is more productive” is the crucial point. If many people are not well educated — educated in the sense of understanding and knowing how to do things, not in the sense of formal schooling — they will not be very productive despite the availability of efficient, easy to use, time-saving modern technologies. That is why effective education is so important, and why our intellectually decrepit system of primary and secondary education is a national scandal. It’s also why the hubris of people who think we moderns know better is destructive.
We don’t know better. Human nature hasn’t changed. We know some things that our ancestors did not know. However, the converse is also true, and if we forget it we will keep reinventing the wheel. Knowing history is an important part of being educated, not only because it’s good to honor the people who came before us, and who built the world that we take for granted, but also because if we don’t know what people did in the past we will needlessly repeat many of their mistakes. This is as true on an individual level as it is in geopolitics. We forget it at our peril, and too many people have forgotten it.