Thanksgiving and Temporal Bigotry

(Basically a run of an earlier post)

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. Indeed, Thanksgiving is a good time to resist temporal bigotry by reflecting on the contributions of earlier generations and on what we can learn from their experiences.

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?

19 thoughts on “Thanksgiving and Temporal Bigotry”

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

    It’s been done thoroughly, too. Can today’s HS grads read the ancient texts that use the word “man” without being angered by its sexism? Be horrified by the “homophobia” and “racism” in books by dead white males?

    And every step of the way, the severing of every limb of the past has been approved by the American voter. It’s what the people want: to obliterate the past and lived the glorious permanent present of Socialist Justice.

    (Note: the question here isn’t whether or not the books are offensive by today’s hilariously corrupt standards, but whether students can take the care to closely read what they’ve been taught to hate and fear and to learn from it none-the-less.)

    Who would have guessed the solution to the riddle of the burning of the Library of Alexandria would have been “no one.” One day the people awoke and no longer read what was in the books they no longer cared for. It’s the boredom theory of history: we’re tired of freedom and prosperity, let’s try that exciting authoritarianism again.

  2. I like this post, even rerun.

    You gave your wonderful example of a merchant marine, I give you the farmer.

    Owning a hobby farm has been an immense eye opener as to what previous generations had to know and wonderfully educational. I was never involved in farming until this year. I have learned about how to raise hay, when you can cut, when you can’t (how did they tell the weather back then?), I have learned about when cattle are ready to be impregnated, and so on and so on.

    Most of it I have had to learn the hard way. I had no idea that 15 acres of land yields 932 square bales of hay. Holy crap was that a long day.

    The local farmers have been very nice in teaching my wife and I things about raising cattle, chickens and other animals. Things they do naturally have to be learned over and over by us.

    I admire farmers of old who did it by hand and feel wrt the weather, etc. I would never think them stupid.

  3. Tehag…”the boredom theory of history: we’re tired of freedom and prosperity, let’s try that exciting authoritarianism again.” Reminds me of this passage:

    “The closer men came to perfecting for themselves a paradise, the more impatient they seemed to become with it, and with themselves as well. They made a garden of pleasure, and became progressively more miserable with it as it grew in richness and power and beauty; for then, perhaps, it was easier for them to see that something was missing in the garden, some tree or shrub that would not grow. When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle’s eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn. Well, they were going to destroy it again, were they – this garden Earth, civilized and knowing, to be torn apart again that man might hope again in wretched darkness.”

    –Walter Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz

  4. Young people of today do learn a tremendous amount of fluff and trivia, and are taught a mind-numbing array of politically correct and multi-culti “stances” which take the place of coherent ideas.

    The same kids who cannot read, write a clear sentence, or do minimal math can tell you the plot lines of dozens of tv shows and movies, recite the lyrics of hundreds of pop songs and raps, revel in the exploits or agonize over the missteps of dozens of sports heroes, hollywood celebrities, and recent flash “stars” like American Idol contestants or reality show participants.

    Add in the countless hours playing sports or surfing the web or texting back and forth about nothing, which is the definition of “tweeting”, by the way, and its not that today’s youth can’t learn, but that they know so little of value.

    People in the past had enormous amounts of practical knowledge which has been lost in our current culture because most people now don’t have to do the many tasks each day that were taken for granted by our grandparents and their ancestors.

    The unfortunate fact is that, as life has gotten easier in a high-tech society in which so many things are done for us, the vast majority of time and energy saved seems to be wasted on nonsense and trivia.

    Certainly, our disastrously failing educational system isn’t doing much to energize the millions of young people in its care to actually learn about and innovate based on the tremendous body of knowledge stored up for them by the thinkers and inventors of the last several centuries.

    I fear that future generations will be amazed that a few decades of ease and prosperity so ennervated our culture that it couldn’t even maintain any enthusiasm for the empirical processes that produced such previously unheard of wealth and health.

  5. Spend any time at all with memoirs of earlier times and it is obvious that we have automated so much of our lives that most people know very little. They know how to press the power switch, or turn a car key.

    To pick one example out of a literally limitless supply, I recently read Walter Chrysler’s autobiography, which is a terrific book. He was a machinist. He made all his own tools, and acid etched them with his initials. He travelled hobo style with other workmen all over the West from job to job. He could disassemble a railroad engine, and he would start to loosen bolts before it had come to a complete stop in the shed. He bought his first car, brought it home, and took it apart in his barn, then put it back together again. He built an auto company from scratch. His great success was unusual, but his extraordinary competency in many skills that few if anyone today possesses was not unusual. That was all valuable knowledge.

    As far as “book smarts” go, spend any time at all reading the popular literature of the late Victorian era, and decide if the average literate person was more educated than a typical TV-watching American of today. It is no contest at all. It is embarrassing. One favorite of mine is Molly Hughes, A London Family, 1870-1900, which our blog compatrioat Helen Szamuely reviewed here. Mrs. Hughes, with no sentimentality at all, depicts a world of literate, competent people which is, in my view, admirable and even superior to our own in most ways. The worst thing about her world is that people get sick and die very frequently, from things that would be trivial to cure today.

    One more: The diaries and letters of Civil War soldiers, many of whom had educations that stopped in their early teens, are far more literate and grammatical than most typical adults of today could hope to match. It is almost embarrassing.

    There is much to like about the modern world. Most of it due to science, technology and medicine having advanced. Some poeple today do possess extraordinary skills, such as software engineers, which did not exist then. But our minutely divided labor has not us, on average, or in general, smarter or more skillful than our forebears.

  6. Obama friend and advisor Valerie Jarrett says that Obama has “been bored to death his whole life.” link

    Perhaps if he had spent more time in learning about history, and about technology, and business, and various other fields of knowledge, and if he had also spent more time getting to know a wider cross-section of people. he would be less bored as well as wiser.

  7. My father’s parents lived on five acres out in the country in Pennsylvania. They didn’t farm anything, but kept chickens and for a time a cow, and had big gardens. I spent quite a bit of time there as a kid. I was always amazed at how they could take so many things that grew on the five acres, wild or sown, and make useful or edible things from them. I noticed that they hardly ever bought any finished product from a store; they bought sacks of flour, containers of lard, bolts of cloth, and feet of lumber, and made them into finished products themselves. They would always be looking at the price on finished products in stores and remarked scornfully at how wasteful people were to buy such things rather than make them themselves. The amount of skills they had collectively would have been amazing to add up. And this doesn’t even begin to touch my grandfather’s professional knowledge as a foundryman.

    It was interesting to read the motivation Baden-Powell had in starting the Scouting movement. Some of the British regiments raised for the Boer War were city regiments, and for the first time the British Army had units which had no country boys among them at all. The old officers and their native trackers were astounded to find soldiers separated from their units who were starving and lost while carrying good rifles and ammunition in country abounding with game, and who could get lost and travel in circles under a cloudless sky. Baden-Powell realized that the army had always taken for granted a huge body of knowledge about how to live in and off of the countryside, and were now getting the majority of their soldiers who had no such skills at all. He realized they would now have to be deliberately taught, and founded Scouting to do so in a manner that kids would find fun and adventuresome. I’m sure it’s even more needed now.

  8. I once had (and probably still do) a set of McGuffey Readers – a reprint of the original edition, a single volume for each grade level. What twelfth-graders then were expected to know was just astounding, compared with what they are expected to know now…
    And a yea, verily for Lexington Green as regards general literacy in the 19th century. In researching my own books, I have plowed gamely through an enormous number of original sources from the 19th century, and I am always amazed by how well-written and literate – and what a vocabulary the ordinary and average 19th century writer possessed!

  9. Dan, it occurs to me that you should keep a journal about your experience on the farm. It could be turned into a book.

  10. Um, I know how to repair a modern computer-controlled automobile engine!

    Basically it starts with a little yellow light on the dash coming on. Then you have some manner of appliance that plugs in to the Government-mandated OBD-II terminal right under the steering wheel. I have a device called the Scan Gauge — it has payed for itself several times over in repairs and I also use it to monitor the gas mileage I get in my driving.

    After that you get a code, and with the code you start pounding on the Internet, first to find out what the code means, and then to surf various car-nut forumns to find out what the code really means. Then you find out that there is this gizmo that you simply need to unbolt from the motor, throw it way, purchase a new gizmo from the auto-parts store, bolt that new gizmo on, and then use the Scan Gauge to “clear the code.”

    I had this happen with a ’97 Camry 2.2L. The offending device was a “vacuum solenoid controlling the EGR valve.” The consensus on the Web is that if you took it to the Toyota dealer, you would go down this long, multi-hundred-dollar Odyssey of trying A, trying B, on down the list until you finally got to the EGR valve. The dudes and dudettes on the Web were certain, however, that it was this one gizmo, and you could take this gizmo out and do a bench-top test on it and it would pass, but owing to the engine heat and the aging of the device, this gizmo was the bad guy.

    OK, the gizmo has two vacuum hoses attached to it and one clip-to-snap electrical connector, and it is attached to the motor with two bolts. Where it is located is on the back side of the motor under the intake manifold where you can’t get to it.

    What the man from Toyota would do is put the car up on a lift and remove a wheel and get at the gizmo from underneath, but even so, it is an expensive labor charge owing to the tight quarters to get at it.

    I was not to be deterred. I did not want to go the home-mechanic jackstands route (ramps are no good if a wheel needs to come off), so I worked on changing out this part by feel by threading my hands from on top. I eventually pulled this off, but I was like Ahab after the Great White Whale, and it took me three days with my wife finding me in a sour mood for much of the time. I think I took the bus to work during the time that was not on a weekend.

    Don’t know what kind of engines Walter Chrysler worked on. How to fix the Camry was not a mystery to anyone Web savvy, something ol’ Walter didn’t have but didn’t have to deal with (computer engine diagnostics). But the real problem is that things are so crammed together, you either need to be Harry Houdini or you need to be Walter Chrysler and take the whole throttle body and intake manifold apart to work on anything on the motor. I am thinking of starting an auto-repair garage where I would hire women mechanics with really slender hands and arms, to do engine repairs with much less disassembly than anyone else and save on labor costs that way.

    By the way, has anyone here changed the back sparkplugs on a Toyota Sienna 1999 V-6? I can see the plugs with an inspection mirror, and I can even reach around and feel all of them, but I don’t see how I can pull the sparkplug wire boot off the last one let along get a wrench in there without having to take to intake manifold off. Does this mean I am one of those lazy TV-watching city-kids who is utterly unresourceful?

  11. Paul, you are fighting a brave rearguard action against a world that is determined to make you pay for a mechanic.

  12. I have had similar experiences as Paul. The urge to do it myself is often self-correcting via suffering. That’s with modern cars. Every time I look under the hood of an old car I marvel at the abundant work space. OTOH, older cars needed much more maintenance than modern ones do. On really old cars the hoods allow almost complete access to the engine — you needed it — and there are manual controls for functions that are handled automatically now. It’s good to understand how things work and how to do things, but new technologies free a lot of human energy for productive activities that weren’t available back in the day. The trick is to know the difference between high tech and high productivity. Your phone is high tech; playing with your phone is low productivity; writing apps for your phone may be high productivity. If you write enough apps you can buy a farm and learn how to use hand tools.

  13. Lex – we have journaled a lot already, it is a real hoot.

    The thread has stumbled upon something interesting, car engines. I recently had my beloved H3 come under attack from mice. They built a nest in there and ate a bunch of wires. There was literally no way I could fix it. As I was waiting for my wife to pick me up from the dealership I strolled into the new Caddy showroom to see what was what. I popped the hood on a new car and looked at the engine and said – holy crap.

    I have always admired auto mechanics. If you apply yourself and continue your schooling you would almost certainly have a job for life if you are good and dedicated. By the way, $198 to get the wires fixed on my Hummer, I was amazed at the low cost. I assumed a half a thousand was gone right off the bat.

  14. Dan, that is good. I hope that writing eventually sees the light of day.

    The point I was making about Walter Chrysler was not that having old cars that needed a lot of hand repair was somehow better. It wasn’t.

    The point was that people in the old days had much more knowledge and skill in many different things because they had to.

    This rebuts the original assertion this post responded to, the absurd claim that people today know more than people in the past.

    As a society we have vastly more knowledge than people had in the past, and we have technical and institutional means to put that knowledge to work, mainly a market economy. A good examplar is Milton Friedman’s discussion of how no one in earth knows how to make a pencil, rather thousands or millions people working through market coordination can do it.

    While we can communally do more, on a person by person basis, we are generally masters of one small set if skills, it is unambiguously clear that we generally know how to do fewer things than our forebears did individually.

  15. Valerie Jarrett says that Obama has “been bored to death his whole life.”

    It’s funny she should say that, because I sometimes feel I’ve been bored to death with Obama my whole life.

  16. Statements like the one by the teacher that generated this thread should caution anyone who believes that our education system can somehow be “reformed.” This teacher’s view is probably not uncommon, since many, if not most teachers in American public schools today are woefully ignorant of any standard discipline.

    It’s not that there are no great teachers today – there are – but they are a distinct minority. Sad.

  17. When I was going to college, I took a cultural geography class. It was fun, taught during summer session by a TA. We went over a lot of stuff, touched on the various “ages” — stone, bronze, etc. And it struck me that although we were living in the most advanced “age,” we were actually, not up to even stone-age man’s technical savvy. If you had dumped me in the woods with nothing but my wits, I don’t think I could’ve gotten a point on a rock to lash to a sapling to make a spear. I could lash, I could do other outdoorsey-woodsey type things, having been in the Cub and Boy Scouts then putting in four years in the Army. But darned if I could figure how to chip a piece of stone down. And don’t EVEN ask me to figure out what flint looked like. Or how to recognize copper in the ground. Or iron. Advanced as a people, perhaps, but not on an individual basis.

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