Thanksgiving and Temporal Bigotry

(rerun, with updates)

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?

11/27/2014: In the Hawaiian traditional religion, there is apparently a saying that goes something like this–

A monster cannot survive in an environment of gratitude.

It seems likely that the decline in the emotion of gratitude in our society is indeed correlated with the rise of monsters.

Previous CB discussion threads here and here. See also related posts by Jonathan and Ginny.

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

9 thoughts on “Thanksgiving and Temporal Bigotry”

  1. Well, we know how Jon Gruber is spending his Thanksgiving.

    Shenk’s (no doubt a pseudonym) lawyer said he is a student studying economics at Harvard Extension School and has no history of mental illness.

    I would like to see a typical high school senior read an 1860 newspaper.

    When I was in 8th grade, I found my cousin’s high school (1938 graduate) World History textbook. It began with the Doric invasion of Greece and included all the Punic Wars. I read it through several times and wish I still had it. It read like a novel.

  2. I found Hawaii using sun lines, a few star shots and a log. Joshua Slocum used Lunar navigation to sail around the world alone. I cannot imagine doing those calculations. He made it without much difficulty and his book is a treasure of clear and even elegant prose.

    The old navigators used to sail Latitude lines which was known after 1500. Latitude is not a difficult calculation as it requires only sun sights at noon and a table of predicted elevation for days of the year. That is why Columbus discovered America as he was sailing the latitude of China and his estimate of longitude was off by about 40%. The myth that sailors thought the earth was flat has been dismissed by navigators since Ptolemy. The navigation tools of the Romans were accurate enough for Latitude but their ships were not suited for voyages across oceans.

    His discovery of America was unknown to him until he died. The myths about ignorance of the ancients are just that; myths.

    Hero of Alexandria invented a working steam engine in the first century AD. Why the Industrial Revolution did not occur earlier is the subject of interesting books by Joel Mokyr who speculates that the development of patents, property rights and enforceable laws were necessary as the technology was available to begin the revolution at the time of the Romans.

  3. 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?

    Which may help explain why our POTUS has informed us of such things like 1)them in Austria speak Austrian, 2) Texas has always been Republican, 3)the construction of the INTERcontinental railroad in the 1860s was a great accomplishment, 4)drilling which in recent years resulted in increased petroleum production was totally unnecessary, as we could have achieved the same via the energy saved by tuning up our cars.

    Is our POTUS the knowledgeable grandson or the ignorant soon-to-be grandparent?

    Soon after their retirement, family friends sailed a small boat to Europe, navigating the old way. They had been sailing for years, but this was the longest trip they took.

    I am reminded of my grandmother, who lived to 95. She had only an 8th grade education, but had no trouble holding her own in conversations with younger people who had graduate degrees. She was the best judge of character I have known. Within several hours of meeting my sister’s boyfriend/fiance, she decided that he was not worthy of my sister- a decision which took my sister seven years. My sister’s MS in engineering didn’t assist her in that decision.

    Re that inane comment, I am reminded of some claiming that we use only one half or less of our mental capacity.

  4. A monster cannot survive in an environment of gratitude.
    It seems likely that the decline in the emotion of gratitude in our society is indeed correlated with the rise of monsters.

    I love that. I suspect it’s quite true.

  5. Michael H….as an example, George Orwell (both a socialist and an asthmatic) wrote the following about the coal miner:

    “He is a sort of grimy caryatid upon whose shoulders nearly everything that is not grimy is supported.”

    Can you imagine any of our current “progressives” saying that about coal miners, or offshore oil field workers? More likely, their attitude would be that the miner/oil worker is either an exploiter (if manager/owner) or a victim and dupe (if ordinary workers.)

  6. “Sailors used spherical trigonometry to navigate.”

    I ordered that book. I don’t know if clicking that link was enough to credit ChicagoBoyz with the purchase.

  7. I think you need to click on the Amazon banner up at the top of the page.

    It’s an entertaining book. It has a lot of math, but you can skim over most of it and still grasp the essence of the subject. The original navigation methods relied on tables, but the author goes into more detail about the computations and derivations. However, he even says to skip over those parts of you don’t feel like knowing proofs.

    He does cover ways to take measurements from both the north star and the sun. Not being a mariner, it was all good new information to me. I actually came to this subject from computer graphics, which believe it or not, also has applications for spherical trigonometry.

    The interesting thing about it all is that people felt the subject matter intuitively after honing practical applications for thousands of years before mathematical proof theorerically defined it. It makes you rethink what math really is.

  8. Fogel’s Escape from Hunger makes me grateful. That one for the scientific revolution, even if I don’t understand his tables and charts, I’m pretty sure I got the picture. I expected – and lived to see – my children reach maturity. My parents could less surely but with real certainty count on the same thing. Few authors I teach or of my ancestors could do so.

    But as I grow older, I also find I’m grateful for the great and powerful narratives of our culture. Moses’ perseverance in the desert – a narrative that reappears again and again in our literature. The belief that what we do has significance – whether the Puritans or Lincoln at Gettysburg. The great narrative of sacrifice for love, of redemption. That love, central to the thread in a literature which often seems dark, but in its design reweaves the old thread of beliefs these writers questioned but still sustained them.

    Most of all – probably because I’m essentially a secularist that venerates those old Puritans and Founders – I’m thankful they thought of us, wanting the best. Their system saw man’s potential but, clear-eyed, knew our wills & passions always affected our reason.

    But this year, sitting in a jury which listened to lie following lie, the crime itself lost in the blur of mixed motives and impulses unleashed, I wondered how much this old system, built on reason and honor and duty, can survive. I guess I remain thankful for the jury system – its better than nothing. In the end, I think the truth came out in our trial and it did in Ferguson. The system may work, but it seems, at times, holding on by its fingernails. And so it must seem in Washington, as well.

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