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.
5 thoughts on ““Temporal Bigotry””
Our county chose, last year, as the book to be read & then discussed in a series of panels & discussions The House on Mango Street. Contrast that with the discussions of that newspaper series The Federalist Papers about 220 years ago – or the vocabulary & power of Sullivan Ballou’s letter a hundred and forty-some years ago.
Instead, one of my husband’s friends, a firm post-modernist, said he’d heard (and believed) that any concepts could be conveyed in any language, no matter how limited the vocabulary. Later, my linguist daughter responded, in pain, that that was one of the most important reasons for treasuring & recording other (liable to extinction) languages – each has words for concepts we don’t, and understanding that word enlarges our understanding of not just grammars but also what words signify.
Of course, Orwell helps us understand this, both with the limited vocabulary of the official language of 1984, but in so much else that comes from believing a society is somehow outside history – gaining nothing from what went before.
Thanks for the link, Jonathan. I think the discounting of history probably has something to do with the increasing belief in methodology/technique: the idea that there exist abstract recipes which may be followed to obtain successful results, without benefit of experience or tacit knowledge. See
Management Education and the Role of Technique.
It may not be great poetry, but Kipling nailed it.
Back in the 70’s it was typical for Army officers to take management courses and graduate degrees in management helped and officer’s career. the thinking was that the technical skills one gaine in that kind of study was important in an organization so dependent on logistical support. Then in the early 80’s there was a cultural revolution and offcers started studying military history and then related subjects (just about everything) because history is where the core lessons of warfighting are found – management and number crunching are important but secondary. Nowadays most Army officers are pretty well-grounded in Sun Zi’s Art of War, and not because they have a taste for Classical Chinese philosophers.
Historical study is the basis for staff studies predicting the outcomes of various contingencies, such as all the sudies of Iraq that were ignored by we all know who. I suppose people are studying the history of civilian supervision/interference and all the disasters that has both prevented and caused. Operation Barbarossa comes to mind.
(I’m going to deliberately make some very broad generalizations in my first two paragraphs as a way of illustration, so please try and regard it in the spirit with which it is offered.)
The prevalent attitude during the so-called Dark Ages was that the Ancient Greeks had discovered everything there was to know about the Universe. The height of scholarship during that long, dim twilight of Western civilization was the preservation of works from antiquity instead of investigating the world around them.
And, of course, the Renaissance was so named because they saw their own remarkable accomplishments as little more than a rediscovery of forgotten lore by a degenerate and fallen people.
I will agree that those who ignore the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat them, but I am also firmly convinced that it is best to hold the belief that the future is where even greater heights of human achievement will become commonplace.
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