RERUN–Thanksgiving and Temporal Bigotry

(Originally posted in 2003, and rerun several times since)

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?

11/22/2012: Previous CB discussion thread here. See also related posts by Jonathan and Ginny.

Thoughts on the lessons of the Plymouth Colony from Jerry Bowyer and Paul Rahe.

17 thoughts on “RERUN–Thanksgiving and Temporal Bigotry”

  1. My great grandfather, also named Michael, was a farmer although he had been a mule skinner on the Erie Canal as a young man. He came out to Illinois when the Illinois and Michigan canal opened in 1848. He was born in 1835 in New York. He worked as a constable in Peru-LaSalle and in a glass factory there. In the early 1860s, he went back to New York to marry my great grand mother, Ellen Brennan. When he quit his job, he made himself a glass cane. I have that cane. They had two sons in New York and then, after the war, came back to Illinois. They settled near a town named Odell. They had a total of 12 children, nine of them sons. AS each son came of age, his father gave him a farm, loaning him half of it and expecting to be repaid. With those payments, he bought more land. I don’t know if the first farm was under The Homestead Act. My grandmother’s father did get his farm under that act.

    As Michael and Ellen prospered, they contributed to the building of a Catholic Church in Odell, St Pauls. The stained glass windows in that church have the names of the sponsors in them at the bottom. The first on the left has Mr and Mrs Michael Kennedy. That on the right, Mr and Mrs John Ferguson. He dies of cancer of the stomach in 1905. Surgeons came from Chicago to operate on him but it was no use. They are buried in the church cemetery of that town. When I was researching his life, I met an old lady in Odell who remembered him. According to my father, he never learned to read or write.

  2. You certainly hit this one on the head, David. The speed with which the current administration and its supporters declare virtually everything to be the best, greatest, biggest, fastest, deepest and any other way you can conjure ‘-est’ at the end of a word demonstrates a breathtaking ignorance of and total disregard for history.

  3. Good quote from C.S. Lewis. Of historical knowledge about this country they are woefully inadequate.

    And I do believe the overwhelming knowledge that acknowledged today is “keyboarding skills” – but knowledge of the world – its past – what to emulate and what to discard? – virtually gone.

    But then I wonder if this is unique to the present times?

  4. Si Est Bellum, acadamaie et dicit Ignit.


    Because today on Thanksgiving someone had to make an Anti-American Joke about the sad fate of the Indians.

    Reason enough, although the reasons are legion.

  5. Thanks, David, for the reminder of where we truly owe gratitude (and the link). With 4 kids under 5 running around the house, I put on that Irish “Faith of Our Fathers” to calm them. It did – and it did me. I think we feel connections sometimes we don’t even understand.

    One of my colleagues – grown more and more cynical as she jumped he hoops of a grad degree in education and finally, abd, just gave up, knowing she could never live with herself if she completed the dissertation – defined critical thinking as it was defined in one of the “best” education departments in the country as making students reject everything that they found meaningful. But it is pride in our own history that helps us respect others. Haidt finds the ability to consider an opponent’s views diminishes with every year spent in academia; Lukianoff finds each year a larger percentage of students believe certain viewpoints should not be considered. Cynicism isn’t tolerance, it is nihilism. (Or at least if you want to call it tolerance don’t expect others to respect it.)

    Our forefathers learned and, really, proved that a country could assimilate a vast variety of immigrants if it believed in its values and expected a respect for them. We have seen a century prove in example after example that certain visions – political, cultural, economic – don’t work to the larger society’s, indeed, probably to anyone’s – long-term benefit. I’m not sure why we needed to see it again in North Korea or in Zimbabwe or in Venzuela – all well after what one would think history had stamped an “expired” stamp on such thinking. But it rises again in Chicago and Oakland and NPR. So, this week, an article widely reprinted said that Dickinson and Melville demonstrated that great artists couldn’t succeed in a capitalist and democratic society. Well, I guess we can now see socialist realism with a new eye and appreciate its beauty. Of course, that probably requires us to sever ourselves from previous generations of thought & art; therefore the material on which to practice true critical thinking would be so meager we, too, might come up with such a conclusion. (of course the article as by the NEH, justifying itself – but they clearly expect the rest of us to see them as above such petty choices as the public ones.)

  6. Thers, Bowyer’s piece is essentially the same as Rahe’s, and the majority of Rahe’s piece consists of quotes from William Bradford, the governor of the Plymouth Colony, who said exactly what Bowyer says he did. Your comment has no critique of Bowyer’s piece, just sneering contempt. You’d fail a junior high school debating class with that performance. If you think you have the capability to criticize anything Bowyer said – I think it’s beyond your capabilities – then try it. Otherwise, do shut up.

  7. Our grade schools and high schools are designed to turn out Obama supporters. Now that we are on the slippery slope to tyranny the best we can do is scream and bear it.

    I heard, probably not in school, that the defense of freedom requires eternal vigilance. And a licence plate says “live free or die”. Teachers says these are paranoid extremist statements, conditions that can be treated under Obamacare.

  8. As Joseph Heller noted:

    “Morale was deteriorating and it was all Yossarian’s fault. The country was in peril; he was jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them.

  9. Was discussing education with a lefty acquaintance of mine and he insisted that standardized testing was ‘old-fashioned’, not reliable, and of course racist. Later in the conversation, he lamented the standing of the US in the world in math and science, rattling off how we were 22nd in something or other…which was used to justify more spending on schools. I asked how could those rankings be made without standardized testing, which you just claimed was not worth having? That’s when the name calling started.

  10. There’s some commentary on this topic by Robert Heinlein in “Expanded Universe” (I think it was in the original Universe, as well). He talks about what curriculum a high school graduate of his grandfather’s time was expected to know, vs. his father’s time, vs. “now” (1960ish). The requirements were such that the high school graduate of his GF’s time knew as much or more than most college graduates of the 60s. It’s worth hunting up the list he produced, just to compare it to modern “edumacashin”. It’d put Buck’s arrogant teacher in her place.

  11. }}} That’s when the name calling started.

    Funny, that’s how most of my conversations with lefties end.

  12. It should also be noted that in Heinlein’s time, not graduating from high school was much more common than today, so the comparison between a system that benefitted the well-off and those who could afford school textbooks(Huey Long made such textbooks free to Louisiana school children some 80-something years ago) is comparing apples to oranges.

  13. David,

    Does the teacher’s comment imply we have nothing to learn from earlier generations? Meh. Your source extrapolates so, and even goes so far as to suggest the teacher slandered our grandfathers with her comment. And he clearly states he is paraphrasing the teacher’s quote from memory. Guess you had to be there.

    Also, too — do your commenters realize that this post is a rerun from 2003? I believe the current administration has been in office since Jan of 2009.

  14. I realize that the original story used highschoolers as the standard, but I’ve always used the engineering field as an example of the lack of a true education today.

    Send out any young engineer today to build a railroad bridge in India. Use only locally available materials, and no imported large pieces of equipment. GOOD LUCK

    Send out a Victorian era engineer with the same goals – bridge built AND still in use today in many instances.

    This same analogy works for many different projects

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