Thanksgiving and Temporal Bigotry

Stuart Buck encountered a teacher who said “Kids learn so much these days. Did you know that today a schoolchild learns more between the freshman and senior years of high school than our grandparents learned in their entire lives?” (“She said this as if she had read it in some authoritative source”, Stuart comments.)

She probably had read it in some supposedly-authoritative source, but it’s an idiotic statement nevertheless. What, precisely, is this wonderful knowledge that high-school seniors have today and which the 40-year-olds of 1840 or 1900 were lacking?

The example of knowledge that people usually throw out is “computers.” But the truth is, to be a casual user of computers (I’m not talking about programming and systems design), you don’t need much knowledge. You need “keyboarding skills”–once called “typing.” And you need to know some simple conventions as to how the operating system expects you to interact with it. That’s about it. Not much informational or conceptual depth there.

Consider the knowledge possessed by by the Captain of a sailing merchant ship, circa 1840. He had to understand celestial navigation: this meant he had to understand trigonometry and logarithms. He had to possess the knowledge–mostly “tacit knowledge,” rather than book-learning–of how to handle his ship in various winds and weathers. He might well be responsible for making deals concerning cargo in various ports, and hence had to have a reasonable understanding of business and of trade conditions. He had to have some knowledge of maritime law.

Outside of the strictly professional sphere, his knowedge probably depended on his family background. If he came from a family that was reasonably well-off, he probably knew several of Shakespeare’s plays. He probably had a smattering of Latin and even Greek. Of how many high-school (or college) seniors can these statements be made today?

(In his post, Stuart compares knowledge levels using his grandfather–a farmer–as an example.)

Today’s “progressives,” particularly those in the educational field, seem to have a deep desire to put down previous generations, and to assume we have nothing to learn from them. It’s a form of temporal bigotry, and is the direct opposite of the spirit of appreciation upon which we should be focusing particularly at Thanksgiving.

As C S Lewis said: If you want to destroy an infantry unit, you cut it off from its neighboring units. If you want to destroy a generation, you cut it off from previous generations. (Approximate quote.)

How better to conduct such destruction than to tell people that previous generations were ignorant and that we have nothing to learn from them?

(previously posted at Photon Courier and at Chicago Boyz)

15 thoughts on “Thanksgiving and Temporal Bigotry”

  1. Interesting post. I never, ever look down on tradesmen, mechanics or anyone else that does what we now call “manual” labor. A run of the mill sheet metal worker does very advanced mathematical equations in their head, on the fly, over and over and over every day as they cut and size the sheet metal pieces to fit together properly. Same goes for pipe fitters and others.

    I am getting into farming a bit (a few head of beef and some haying), and it has been VERY interesting to learn how things are done. Not coming from that world I am amazed at how much knowledge that my neighbor farmers have in their heads.

    As far as computers go, my five and nine year old kids navigate those quickly and easily – which shows you how much “experience” and “knowledge” you need for that activity.

  2. If you read letters, diaries or memoirs from earlier generations, the strong impression is that people had much more skill in many areas than the typical person does today.

    Nothing was automated. Everything was done by hand and by eye. No electricity, no power tools, no motor vehicles, no computers, no GPS, no radio or wireless phones, no Google … .

    One old book I like is called Before the Mast and After:The Autobiography of a Sailor and Shipowner by Sir Walter Runciman (Hardcover – 1924). Runciman was a Scot who grew up in the era of merchant sailing ships and lived through the transition to steam shipping. The skills these sailors and skippers and engineers possessed was far beyond what most people today will ever have to learn — and their lives and fortunes depended on those skills, with little margin for error.

    Furthermore, as to “book learning”, a high percentage of ordinary people in the 19th Century were much more literate and well-read, at least in Britain and the USA, than is common today. The diaries and letters of ordinary soldiers from the American Civil War, or from World War I, are often strikingly well-written and sophisticated. I have some very good junior high school civics books from circa 1900. They would be college level today. Of course, fewer people went to high school, but it is still remarkable to see what was expected from more or less ordinary 12 year olds. There was true mass literacy in those days.

    The modern world has minutely subdivided labor, and used power derived from fossil fuels, to render much of the old way of life obsolete. This has taken away the necessity for mental and physical discipline, craft skills, and even to a degree, literacy. While we are, as a society, richer, safer and healthier, many other human qualities that were widespread in earlier generations, that were both utilitarian and valuable in their own right, are largely gone.

    There is zero basis to consider this generation to be the moral, intellectual or practical superior — on a person-by-person basis — than our grandparents or their grandparents.

  3. “If you want to destroy a generation, you cut it off from previous generations.”

    This is partially correct. The Left will advocate learning from earlier generations as long as they’re non-Western. The Left will advocate “learning” from the Indians, or Incas, or Australian Aborigines but not under any circumstances, is there anything positive to learn from Westerners. The only thing we should know is their so called “crimes” against non-Westerners.

    Next, you make a good point about temporal bigotry or temporal provincialism. Liberals are no different than the Catholic church a thousand years ago when it comes to this subject. No doubt the Catholic Church would say things like “this is 1000AD, how can anyone not believe that the earth is the center of the universe?” Today the Liberal will say “this is 2009, how can anyone not believe that diversity is strength?”

    You see, this is basic religious thinking.

  4. Seerov, everybody believed the Earth was the center in 1000, both Muslims and Christians. That was not especially Catholic, it was part of the classical inheritance. Ptolemy’s model worked, it had good predictive power, and it was not superseded for a long time for that very reason. So, it was not a sign of ignorance to believe that at the time.

    Nor is it particularly Catholic to think the current generation is somehow superior to the previous one. Certainly, in the year 1000 everybody lived in the shadow of Roman ruins and knew that civilization had regressed in many aspects. And it is fairly common to see Christian writers decrying the current generation as somehow in a state of moral decay from an earier, better time.

    Modern liberal bigotry against earlier times is based on a fallacy of “progress” — which is a reality in terms of technology and science, but is not particularly apparent in other areas of life. I do not see many Catholics falling for that fallacy today.

    While you often have good insights, on this one you seem to showing some anti-Catholic bigotry, without any sound basis for your assertions.

  5. Specialization and division of labor has rendered each individual less competent over a broad range of skills, less confident of their ability to survive without the support and assistance of various cultural institutions, more and more concentrated in the hands of government. Can you imagine 100 English Christians getting on the Mayflower to sail across a largely unknown ocean and surviving when they landed in Massachusetts instead of the New Jersey?

  6. Another thoughtful post; much appreciated.

    Being a natural contrarian, I am of course regularly drawn to the commentary here. But being a natural contrarian, I sometimes end up wanting to take the opposite position, just because.

    It’s easy to romanticize the past. But if there’s any continuity to the human experience, then we ought to be suspicious. If there are dumb and annoying people around today, isn’t it reasonable to think there have been dumb and annoying people around forever?

    Thoreau was a vegetarian, and he tells a famous anecdote about one of those skilled workers of Olden Times:

    “One farmer says to me, ‘You cannot live on vegetable food solely, for it furnishes nothing to make the bones with.’ And so he religiously devotes a part of his day to supplying himself with the raw material of bones; walking all the while he talks behind his oxen, which, with vegetable-made bones, jerk him and his lumbering plow along in spite of every obstacle.”

    The modern teacher’s claim “You learn more in one year today than people used to learn in a lifetime” strikes me as about the same as the old farmer’s claim “vegetables furnish nothing with which to make bones.”

    In every profession in every age the majority of the people are unreflective practitioners, repeating what they themselves had been taught and told. Reflective practitioners are always uncommon. But they are the ones that drive things forward, and they are the ones that deserve to be respected, whenever and wherever they happen to have lived.

  7. My favorite example remains Life on the Mississippi:

    ‘My boy, you must get a little memorandum book, and every time I tell you a thing, put it down right away. There’s only one way to be a pilot, and that is to get this entire river by heart. You have to know it just like A B C.’

    That was a dismal revelation to me; for my memory was never loaded with anything but blank cartridges. However, I did not feel discouraged long. I judged that it was best to make some allowances, for doubtless Mr. Bixby was ‘stretching.’ Presently he pulled a rope and struck a few strokes on the big bell. The stars were all gone now, and the night was as black as ink. I could hear the wheels churn along the bank, but I was not entirely certain that I could see the shore. The voice of the invisible watchman called up from the hurricane deck–

    ‘What’s this, sir?’

    ‘Jones’s plantation.’

    I said to myself, I wish I might venture to offer a small bet that it isn’t. But I did not chirp. I only waited to see. Mr. Bixby handled the engine bells, and in due time the boat’s nose came to the land, a torch glowed from the forecastle, a man skipped ashore, a darky’s voice on the bank said, ‘Gimme de k’yarpet-bag, Mars’ Jones,’ and the next moment we were standing up the river again, all serene. I reflected deeply awhile, and then said–but not aloud–‘Well, the finding of that plantation was the luckiest accident that ever happened; but it couldn’t happen again in a hundred years.’ And I fully believed it was an accident, too.

    All those ignorant 19th-century pilots had to do was memorize the entire Mississippi River under every condition of illumination, including cloudy moonless nights. And keep on memorizing it, because it regularly changed shape in the days before flood control.

  8. “While you often have good insights, on this one you seem to showing some anti-Catholic bigotry, without any sound basis for your assertions.” (LG)

    If I sounded anti-Catholic it surely wasn’t my intent. I was just trying to point out the religious nature of liberal thought. For many years in Europe the Catholic church was the supreme authority. Questioning the Catholic church resulted in losses of freedom and losses of life. During the Inquisition, church authorities felt justified in their actions. Today, the liberal authorities feel justified in their actions, which in the US can result in losses of reputation, while in Europe can result in losses of freedom. Just like the Catholic Church of old, the modern liberal faith feels that it has the truth above all others. Also like the Catholic church of old, any sort of challenge to the Church’s authority was met with extreme measures. Of course these measures were justified becuase “after all, its ________fill-in-the-year.”

  9. This is pretty much a continuation of the discussion on the Foster post below. Two points worth reinforcing — again, the amount of specific, detail knowledge needed in many of the skilled occupations in the pre-industrial and early industrial eras was enormous, and it took many years of apprenticeship skills to learn it. The flip side of this was that occupational mobility was low — you couldn’t just change occupations without a big downtime to learn the new skills. In pre-industrial times many of the skills required acquiring motor memory, which meant long stretches of rote practice. Occupations which still require these specific motor skills, like being a professional musician or athlete at a high level, still have some of the work-structure characteristics of pre-industrial labor. Skilled workers had quite a it of market bargaining power for this reason — replacements were rather hard to find, and expensive. One of the things that caused the decline in industrial-union membership has ben the reduction of this extensive training requirement.

    Going back to Moby Dick — because it is such a well-observed, richly-described picture of a pre-industrial workplace — one is struck by how the Pequod resembles an NFL team in its work structure and income distribution, with the mates like QBs, and the harpooners like skill positions. Even the ethnic distributions are similar — Queequeg and Daggoo might as well play for the Steelers.

    The second point is that students in the past did have to learn a great deal of material, and study subjects that are less common today. A high-school education was about equivalent to a college BA today. But a much smaller percentage of the population went to high school.

  10. My grandfather was born in 1896 and died in 1981. I often marvelled at the idea that he had been born on a farm with some steam engines and trains as the height of technology, and lived to see men walk on the moon. He was not highly educated, but valued education, worked many diffeent jobs throuout his life to support his family, sent my mother to college in “the big city”, and ended as a prosperous income property owner who could retire to part-time work while still in his 50’s.

    Then I look at my own children. Although they are all different in interests and academic accomplishments, I can state with some degree of confidence that they do know every bit as much about the world as my grandfather, and maybe more, but in very different areas, and acquired in very different ways.

    I agree that the current educational system is very poorly designed, shallow and ahistorical, and driven by a pathetically skewed ideology that ignores vast swaths of the cultural and historical achievements of our civilization in favor of an emaciated “relevance” that is, in fact, only relevant to the prejudices of its advocates.

    But the breadth and width of a person’s knowledge is not only gained in a formal school setting, as has been pointed out by other comments, but is also acquired by one’s interaction with the myriad facets of life as it swirls around and connects with individuals in different ways.

    Young people now are handicapped by a faulty, poorly structured educational system, while at the same time they are “plugged in” to a world wide network of knowledge, and able to gain a great deal more personal kinowledge, by travel and private study, than anyone could normally acquire in an earlier period. Of course there are exceptions and caveats to such a general statement, but the vast array of knowledge that is available to anyone wishing to make the effort to acquire it today certainly outstrips that of a century ago.

    My grandparents knew quite a bit about farming, as it was done in the early 20th century, and baking from scratch, and a million other things that were applicable to their era, but would have been helpless in a modern office, surrounded by computers and various other devices, or even a modern farm or bakery.

    Each generation, as it ages, despairs for the future, and shakes its collective head over the seeming inadequacies of the youth who will inherit the mess they have left behind.

    As an aging boomer, I cringe at the enormity of the mess we are leaving, but I do not feel despair, but rather hope, that the younger people will learn a few, or many, hard lessons from our mistakes, and muddle through to their old age, when the wheel will have come full circle, and they can complain about the next generation and its inadequacies.

    And they will.

  11. SO this teacher por one of her students knows how and what fertilizers to use for different crops, when to plant, can butcher hogs and chose wood for smoking them, knows how to handle a breech birth of a calf and all the thousands of things her grand-father-a farmer knew? I would be surprised if even one of her students knows simple things like how to milk a cow. This is not a new phenomena, I recall reading a description of this from the 18th century where it was know as the conceit of the moderns.

  12. About twenty years ago, I bought a set of the reprinted McGuffey’s readers (they’re available all over the place) with an idea to using them in tutoring at home, and giving my daughter a bit of a head start with regard to her basic education. Oh, my – what an eye-opener the 11th and 12th grade readers were!
    Of course, not a whole heck of a lot of people in the 19th century went to the twelfth grade – but even those who only got as far as the seventh or eighth grade had such a grounding in the classics, in the core knowledge of western civ.
    If some of the websites that I scanned over, in refreshing my memory of the spelling of “McGuffrey” are any indication, they are still being used by home-schoolers. And what a sad reflection on the state of public education, and of general cultural knowledge that is! (Never mind the state of knowledge about technical and practical ‘how-to’ stuff is! OTO – my Gran could name all the ‘stans, off the top of her head. I can look all that up on google in about the same amount of time it took her.)

  13. I cannot provide any data to demonstrate this thought, but suggest that, broadly speaking, in different eras people who have the same RELATIVE amount of education &/or experience have similar levels of knowledge.

    To oversimplify, if the 90th perentile of the population in 1900 were high school graduates and in 2009 the 90th percentile hold Master’s degrees, a 2009 Master degree holder would have knowledge and experience roughly comparable to a 1900 high school graduate, in terms of its usefulness in dealing with the world.

    Because, human nature being what it is, and the world being what it is, roughly equal relative attainment would represent a kind of equilibrium or equivalence state in terms of the proportion of the population being able to understand and deal with the world at a particular level.

    I don’t think I’m conveying this very well, but would welcome comment.

  14. I think the difference between knowledge one or two hundred years ago vs knowledge today is more in terms of qualitative vs quantitative. Where as several decades ago an public accountant had to make lots of calculations and equations manually, including lists and sums and subtractions and multiplications and divisions, etc. , today, the same accountant “overviews” the results of automated calculations coming from a computer software, the accountant now can play with the factors and variables and recreate scenarios, run queries to drill into the information even deeper, for example, which product had the lowest sales, which product is giving the company the highest earnings, which worker is more productive, etc.
    I think that must have been very difficult years ago, you needed 10 accountants only to arrive at the results that very common administrative software handles in an automated way nowadays.
    A child grows to become an engineer that will be trained to manage, overview, supervise, check data or products coming from a computerized and automated machine.
    I think we can see some of that today when we see workers at manufacturing plants checking their pension fund or savings fund data in a report or in a computer software, and they know how much they have saved and how much they have earned, and they can actually know whether other banks or financial institutions will offer them a higher return of their investments or pension funds and quickly take decisions.
    My thought here is that education systems around the world, not only in the USA, but all over the world have to take a look at the impact and implications of technology in our society.

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