Lost Causes, Lost Effects

Jeremiah Wright was back in the pulpit Sunday, pontificating on the tragic December anniversary of the 1941 bombing of Hiroshima; this was shortly followed, he told his congregation, by the bombing of Nagasaki.  Wright himself was born in 1941.  Of course, as Leno’s untutored-man-in-the-street questions indicate, we are losing our understanding of events within our own lifetimes.

Losing dates, we lose our understanding of history for we are less likely to see that ideas have consequences and effects follow causes.  We also lose gratitude for those that went before – whether for Shakespeare’s words or the bravery of Washington’s troops or the beauty of ideas that impelled the Puritans or gave the founders their wisdom.  We don’t understand real courage nor how tolerance comes to us.  Most of all, we lose the sense we only reach the heights we can because we stand on other’s shoulders.  Such ignorance gives us a false pride.

Not irrelevantly, Instapundit links to “English, Redefined, at Harvard,” at Inside Higher Ed.  Harvard is “diminishing the role of chronology as the absolute, as the only organizing rubric … to combine it with genres and with geography as equally viable ways of thinking about literature and studying literature,” according to Daniel Donoghue, director of undergraduate studies in Harvard University’s English department.   Given modern approaches, I was surprised Harvard retained chronological courses.   Gerald Graff, current MLA president (from the University of Illinois at Chicago), describes “a movement away from the historical survey course, stemming from the 1960s.”

“I know that’s been greatly lamented by some traditionalists. What those who lament the demise of the survey never confront, I don’t think, is that the traditional survey was often very unsuccessful — students didn’t come away from the survey course often with a very sharp sense of history,” said Graff. “In principle, I agree with the people who say that a thematic focus actually gives you some advantages in teaching historical perspective because you can contrast, or compare and contrast, the way medieval writers versus modern writers teach the same theme. And you often lose that sense of comparison and contrast in a historical survey.”

Well, perhaps there was no “sharp sense” of history – but chronology is necessary for context; it also makes comparing and contrasting more intelligible.  Specialization works a great deal better if it derives organically from generalized knowledge.  “Studies” areas – women’s studies, American studies, etc. – can be fruitful if basic history and literature courses have provided a rich soil.  Aphra Behn may be interesting as an early woman writer, but to appreciate her as an artist and not an oddity, we need the context of Restoration Drama rather than Sylvia Plath and Mary Wollstonecraft. Elizabeth Bishop refused inclusion in women’s poetry anthologies because, I suspect, she wanted to be seen as a poet and in terms of her craft, not her sex.  Paradoxically, that refusal came from a more inclusive vision of her work and poetry in general – a proportionality resting on a longer tradition than that of gender driven approaches.

There is talk of getting rid of our state’s requirements for two American history courses as well as one in federal and another in state government.  I have sympathy for my colleagues; such courses seem basic to our responsibilities as citizens.  Of course, they want job security.  But English requirements were gutted years ago.  The implicit argument seems to be that students are so overprepared for their high school classes, college ones need to be substituted.  Then, they arrive in college so overprepared in lit and history that they need take no college course in either, ever.  If they want to, of course, they can take courses in the Jacksonian period or African-American women writers of the 1960’s.

As an undergraduate, I only took a couple of survey courses.  But, now, teaching at a junior college, I teach basic lit courses, structured chronologically.  Teaching them has taught me - given me a stronger sense of how each period builds on ones before.  This approach prevents us from such foolishness as Wright’s.  It reinforces our understanding that effects are derived from causes.  History and lit demonstrate that acts have consequences.  Ideas do, too.  Tracing movements and counter movements, each generation argues with the one before it, but also accepts its truths – overlapping patterns.  Over thousands of years, we connect with people who sighed at beauty and laughed at folly as we do now.  It teaches us humility, respect.

I assume ignorance is not the purpose but an accidental by-product of ahistorical thinking.  I’ve commented before on my irritation with Europeans who see our revolution as imitating the French; that idiocy, however, pales beside Wright’s – if for no other reason than neither France nor America are the countries of our visitors; theoretically America is Wright’s native land.  Ayers talks to educators in Venezuela; I try not to suspect his motives.  I am sure, however, that modern theories which ignore the consequences of certain ideas leave us more comfortable with them than we should be.  Believing in patterns, we were likely to see Chavez repeating one we’ve seen before.  But if our understanding of history is derived from a course in Utopian projects in the mid nineteenth century and another in, say, women’s “wrongs” in the early twentieth, we don’t have the context that helps us interpret Chavez and see him as, well, a predictable demagogue following a plot we’ve seen before – writ large and writ small.

Without an historical sense, we don’t understand how remarkable the anti-slavery movements in England and America were, how difficult moving from tribal allegiances to national ones can be, how much we owe to people who tried to establish flexible institutions that ordered our civil life.   These courses give proportion, teach us humility before the broad sweep of time and pride in our species.  These courses, like the philosophy of self-reliance, bring us happiness – in the knowledge itself, in how history works.  Most of all, though, comes gratitude.  At its simplest, this gratitude comes from realizing we can learn from the past, that we don’t have to keep rediscovering the wheel.

16 thoughts on “Lost Causes, Lost Effects”

  1. We should have a massive hundred billion dollar education bureaucracy establi……oh….wait……

    Never mind.

  2. “Without an historical sense, we don’t understand how remarkable the anti-slavery movements in England and America were”

    Which is precisely why so many leftists wish to eliminate the teaching of real history.

  3. I think this loss of chronology is an intentional one intended to make it easier to indoctrinate. I have had several conversations with college educated people who claim that they don’t need to know when events occurred they only need to know the “perspectives” of the people of the era. Upon closer examination, the “perspective” turns out to be a leftist stereotype of actors involved in a particular historical event.

    For example, one guy argued that he didn’t need to know when the conference at Yalta occurred or its chronological juxtaposition with the first atomic bomb test. He argued he merely needed to understand the perspective of FDR. The idea that you must have a basic understanding of a historical figures environment as well as the events leading up to event under study, was lost on him.

  4. > Which is precisely why so many leftists wish to eliminate the teaching of real history.

    Replacing it with crap, like Amistad… “Based on a true story” — Wherein the poor black slave, freed, goes back to Africa at the end.

    No, it’s not even vaguely relevant that he instead went to the West Indies and became a slave trader himself.

    “Black men sold slaves? NO! Only eeeeeeeeevil white men ever did that…”


    Not the only historically distorted ending to come from Spielberg. The end of Schindler’s List is similarly bowdlerized for liberal sensitivities, and his FX re-do of E.T. removed the guns the agents were carrying…

  5. You’re not alone, guys. It goes right through our state education. I recall my daughter being asked to imagine what it was like to be a sailor on one of the ships in the Spanish Armada. And no, they were not taught the date or any other factual detail about the Spanish Armada.

  6. “Losing history, losing dates, we loose our understanding ideas have consequences, effects follow causes, but also lose gratitude for those that went before”…C S Lewis remarked that “when you want to destroy an infantry unit, you cut it off from adjacent units–and when you want to destroy a generation, you cut it off from earlier generations.” (very approximate quote)

    Regarding gratitude, the inability to feel this emotion is a distinguishing mark of the present-day “progressive,” and a difference from the old Left. After spending time with coal miners, “The miner is a sort of grimy caryatid upon whose shoulders nearly everything that is not grimy is supported.” Although he was an asthmatic as well as a socialist, Orwell understood that energy is needed, and felt a sense of appreciation for those who made it possible. It’s hard to imagine the present-day “progressive” feeling any such emotion toward coal miners, or offshore platform workers, or even welders on wind-turbine towers.

  7. The loss of chronology or history is absolutely intentional, because history and chronology demonstrate the consequences of good versus bad ideas and actions, and when the actions or ideas most like your own are almost always shown to be wrong or damaging, the first instinct is not to reconsider your ideas but to deny the evidence.

  8. I honestly believe that CS Lewis was right – about cutting off a generation or generations off from their history as a means of cutting them adrift. Destroy the history of a people, destroy them, set them adrift without a rudder, without hope, without pride, without a sense of proportion, without the knowledge and the assurance that people before you faced just the same challenges, or even worse…

    Then a generation is truly adrift, empty-handed and alone… and ready to believe anything that someone wants to tell them, no matter how distorted, or counter-productive. They have nothing at hand to counter that indoctrination.

  9. I see I messed up the comment: in case it’s not clear, the line “The miner is a sort of grimy caryatid upon whose shoulders nearly everything that is not grimy is supported” is a quote from Orwell (Road to Wigan Pier)

  10. I tend to agree with much that you all are saying – but it is pretty depressing.

    I believe you are right because it happened to me – my move to the right coincided with my return to teaching and, especially, teaching American lit. Sure, you can teach it in all sorts of ways to make your students ashamed to be Americans, but you sure have to tweak the canon a hell of a lot and develop readings that are, well, strained. Anyway, my feelings, nurtured in flyover territory and on forties movies, just didn’t work that way. When Whitman says he writes for America, I tend to think, “right on, guy.”

    Sure, few writers are chauvinists and most are critical in some way of the society in which they write. But its hard to teach them without coming to love them and it is hard to love them without becoming more and more aware of the culture they represent. For centuries, boys loved the Greeks and Romans because their school years were immersed in those languages and histories. Arnold’s father made these live so that his son’s and his son’s friends, like Clough, pepper their works with allusions to those old wars.

    America’s affection for Masterpiece Theater and various Anglophilic affectations comes from reading Shakespeare and Austen and George Eliot. It is sad, sometimes, to see witty British series after series (often on PBS) reflect a dying culture, ashamed of itself and defeatist. And sadder still, we remain influenced – unconsciously, I suspect, feeling our connection to the living culture of its past and so feeling a connection, a strong tug, as it seems to move in its own spiral down. Perhaps, however, a more rational pride can come if we can just teach the next generation history.

  11. We study history so that we know who to hate. We study it so we know which mistakes to make.

    If there was no history known to anyone, then no one would know about American slavery. No one would believe in racism. No one would hate jews or catholics or moslems. There would be no war in the mideast. There would be no IRA. Putin would have no Russian empire to rebuild because it would be forgotten. The Chinese would have no empire of the Qin, or the Han etc, to rebuild.

    There would be no memory of injustice in American Slavery. Black people would be
    just another skin color.

    We should live for today. The past is dead. It can’t be changed. Hatred based on deeds done 700 years ago (plain of blackbirds, etc) or 1000 years ago (crusades) that results in millions of deaths is preserved only by teaching history. History should be banned from religious teaching, too.

  12. Sol Vason,

    We study history so that we know who to hate. We study it so we know which mistakes to make.

    Your arguing from a model of human behavior called the “nobel savage” i.e. the idea that humans behave more humanly without the influence of a complex, evolved culture.

    Unfortunately, that is simply not true. Hunter-gathers are far more violent and cruel than any civilized people. In most hunter-gather cultures, violence is the primary cause of premature death among adult males. People don’t need grand, sweeping historical justifications for bloodshed, they must merely desire things that others possess. As civilization has progressed it has grown less and less violent. Wars today are much less destructive and murderous than the wars of the past, especially in regard to their effects on non-combatants.

    Your looking at the few failures of historical memory and ignoring the vast sweep of historical information that teaches us the consequences of violence and oppression. As thought experiment, what if some aliens erased humanities memory of history? How long would it be before people wanted try out Communism and Fascism again?

    Just because does not prevent all evils that it is therefore evil itself. That is akin to observing that a school does produces a 100% literacy rate and then jumping to the conclusion that the school itself cause illiteracy.

  13. We study history so that we know who to hate. Serbs never forgave Muslims for the battle at the plain of blackbirds and used that as an excuse to murder Serbian Moslems – the source of the term “ethnic cleansing”. And Moslems are learning to hate us Westerners because of the Crusades and they are rewriting history to include new tales of attrocities performed by Christians and Jews on helpless Moslems.

    Moslems and Christians have developed reasons for distrusting or even hating Jews based on historical incidents and, in each century since the 8th century either Moslems or Christians have conducted pograms in order to exterminate the Jews.

    In Europe there have been many bloody attempts to rebuild the lost empire of the ancient Romans. It seems that European leaders read their history books in order to decide who to conquer. Today may be different. The European Union has recreated more of the Ancient Roman Empire than was ever achieved by war. But it is unclear if it is he Roman empire that is being reborn or the Caliphate.

    There can be no question that Putin will rebuild the Soviet Empire. Rulers look to history books for role models. The most admired historical figures are the conquerors.

    Recidivism cannot exist without history books. Nor can hatred like those that exist in Europe between uncountable ethnic pairs exist without historical memories of atrocities committed hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

    I agree with you that savages tend to be savage. I enjoy the works of Kathlene and Michael Gear. On the other hand I have no faith in oral history, even when it is written down. Savages may indeed be noble, but they do not share our viewpoint of what constitutes noblesse oblige or even “simple humanity”. After all, Pepin the Short tied his mother-in-law to the tail of a horse and watched her get kicked to death.
    His army approved and so did his clerics.

    The best cure for savagery is good manners, always having your weapons at hand, and never being outnumbered.

  14. Of course – Goliad puts a certain slant on history as does Grant & Lee looking across the table at one another at Appomattox. Needing some perspective on Goliad because of Whitman, I asked for its story from a guy who teaches Texas history here. What he chose to emphasize was the effect of Santa Ana’s bloodthirsty response on his officers – they saw his orders as dishonorable & immoral; therefore, the leader lost the respect, affection and even allegiance of many. That is apparently how he teaches the incident – what he wants his students to take from it. I don’t know this history, but do know such an interpretation is not tribal but rather emphasizes the universal nature of man. We are prone to being both vindictive and pragmatic – kill them all can be an easy answer. But we are also appalled by butchery. I suspect this guy, a pretty traditional historian who emphasizes narratives and character, takes a relatively modern perspective. The history of history is a useful tool to understanding our own time, as well.

    Tribalism, allegiance to our own, is deep in us – understandable and helpful. Civilization has slowly learned to counter it with other values. Good manners is a way of channeling that old and powerful passion so that we can meet, respect, join with, and learn from people outside our tribe. Passion, pride, desire to conquest – history can be used to inflame those. But it can also be used to tame them. Modern pedagogy seems to think that denigrating our own history makes us respect others. I suspect that the opposite is true – we only respect others when we respect ourselves (perhaps love others when we love ourselves – or at least accept ourselves – but that is another topic). And so I return (as so often) to Melville. (I should branch out on my reading but then, who is better than Melville and wiser than he in Billy Budd?):

    But Claggart’s conscience being but the lawyer to his will, made ogres of trifles, probably arguing that the motive imputed to Billy in spilling the soup just when he did, together with the epithets alleged, these, if nothing more, made a strong case against him; nay, justified animosity into a sort of retributive righteousness. The Pharisee is the Guy Fawkes prowling in the hid chambers underlying the Claggarts. And they can really form no conception of an unreciprocated malice. Probably, the Master-at-arms’ clandestine persecution of Billy was started to try the temper of the man; but it had not developed any quality in him that enmity could make official use of or even pervert into plausible self-justification; so that the occurrence at the mess, petty if it were, was a welcome one to that peculiar conscience assigned to be the private mentor of Claggart. And, for the rest, not improbably it put him upon new experiments.

    And projection like Claggart’s isn’t dead – the projection of dire motives and base emotions on others in politics during the last few years tells us that this understanding of human nature from a century ago remains acute. We ascribe to others our own baser motives, feeling in some way that that justifies ours. It doesn’t make us better parents because we find inadequate child raising in others, nor does it make us more tolerant people to assume that others are “haters.”

    What you are describing, Sol Vason, are often excuses for desires that are natural, biological – they are rationalizations for conquest. They use history for understandable ends; they see history not as informing a “conscience” – an argument for justice and the truths – but argue instead for the will to power.

    But there are other ends; how else do we understand ourselves if we don’t understand history? We may misuse it, but without it, we have no understanding at all. We wake each morning to put out the fires of today, never thinking of how or why those fires occurred. We are left at the mercy of those passions for revenge you describe. We need those passions for self-preservation; we aren’t going to root them out. But we can give them more understanding, we can civilize them.

  15. How else do we understand ourselves if we don’t understand history?

    Almost everyone believes that just because something happened in the past it can’t be changed. They believe history cannot be changed. Wrong. It is constantly being rewritten. Most recently, History was rewritten in the 20th century in order to show the importance of class struggle and the rise of the proletariat and the inevitability of socialism. This nonsense is still being written today. History has been rewritten to embody modern concepts of gender equality and sexual preference. It is rewritten to vilify certain races and create saints and heroes within other races.

    Historians are especially weak on economics. But, then, so are modern day economists. As a result there is very little accuracy in descriptions of the economies and economic decisions of the past. There will be very little we can learn from history until the historians manage to get it right.

    No matter the century, historians do not merely record facts. They are like newspaper reporters trying to decide what is important. Too often that decision is guided by present day values rather than the values that existed at the time the event occurred. Too often, historians select just those events which support a lesson they wish to teach in the present. And too often history is used to teach only politically correct lessons. The lesson rewrites history.

    The best example is Al Gore who has carefully selected temperature data from the past to prove that the earth is warming at an alarming rate. Yet there is overwhelming historical evidence, in the form of temperature data that he ignored, that no such warming is occurring, that we are in the midst of a cooling period, and that the co2 level has absolutely no impact on temperature.

    So, how else do we understand ourselves if we don’t understand history? I would suggest trying the tools developed by market researchers and by statisticians.

    Or one might join the religion in which conquest and subjugation is more important than self understanding.

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