Nothing Beyond the Current Moment

From Harvard:

Young people are very, very concerned about the ethics of representation, of cultural interaction—all these kinds of things that, actually, we think about a lot!” Amanda Claybaugh, Harvard’s dean of undergraduate education and an English professor, told me last fall. She was one of several teachers who described an orientation toward the present, to the extent that many students lost their bearings in the past. “The last time I taught ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ I discovered that my students were really struggling to understand the sentences as sentences—like, having trouble identifying the subject and the verb,” she said. “Their capacities are different, and the nineteenth century is a long time ago.”

Reading the above, the first thing that struck me was that a university dean, especially one who is an English professor, should not view the 19th century as ‘a very long time ago’…most likely, though, she herself probably does not have such a foreshortened view of time,  rather, she’s probably describing what she observes as the perspective of her students (though it’s hard to tell from the quote).  It does seem very likely that the K-12 experiences of the students have been high on presentism, resulting in students arriving at college  “with a sense that the unenlightened past had nothing left to teach,” as a junior professor who joined the faulty in 2021 put it.  One would hope, though, that to the extent Harvard admits a large number of such students, it would focus very seriously on challenging that worldview.  I do not get the impression that it actually does so.

In a discussion of the above passage at Twitter, Paul Graham @PaulG said:

One of the reasons they have such a strong “orientation toward the present” is that the past has been rewritten for a lot of them.

to which someone responded: 

that’s always been true! it’s not like the us didn’t rewrite the history of the civil war to preserve southern feelings for 100 years. what’s different is that high schools are no longer providing the technical skills necessary for students to read literature!

 …a fair point that there’s always been some rewriting of history going on, or at least adjusting the emphasis & deemphasis of certain points, but seems to me that what is going on today is a lot more systematic and pervasive than what’s happened in the past, at least in the US.  Changing the narratives on heroes and villains,  selecting particular facts to emphasize (or even to make up out of whole cloth) is not the same thing as inculcating a belief that “the unenlightened past has nothing left to teach.”

I don’t think most people inherently view the past as uninteresting; many stores, after all, have traditionally begun with the phrase “Once upon a time.”

I get the impression that a lot of ‘educators’, at all levels, have not much interest in knowledge, but are rather driven by some mix of (a) careerism, and (b) ideology.  For more on this,  see my post Classics and the Public Sphere.

And it’s also true that many schools are not providing students with the skills necessary to read literature–although there are certainly some schools that are much better than others in this area, and one would have hoped that graduates of such schools would be highly represented among those selected to become Harvard students.  Maybe not.   And technologies that encourage a short attention span–social media, in particular–surely also play a part in the decline of interest and ability to read and understand even somewhat-complex literature.

Although I suspect some of these students are perfectly capable of concentrating their attention when they really want to.  Some of them are probably computer science majors–hard to write or even understand a program without really concentrating on it. Some may be drama majors–I imagine that learning one’s lines and acting them requires a pretty significant level of focused attention.  And there are surely many other examples.  But the intrinsic motivation which is there in those cases doesn’t seem to be there in the case of reading literature.
Or am I kidding myself, and has the  short attention span phenomenon now become so pervasive that a lot of these students–and and even higher proportion of the people who didn’t go to Harvard…are going to come into adulthood lacking in sufficient attention span to be able to write code, do engineering design, analyze financial statements, fly airplanes or conduct air traffic control, perform surgical operations, etc?
Your thoughts?

60 thoughts on “Nothing Beyond the Current Moment”

  1. I spent some time about ten years ago, reading and trying to correct my youngest daughter’s essays in college. Her writing skills were atrocious. Kids don’t read anymore. My middle daughter was much better and learned Arabic to study the Spanish Muslim period. She lived a Spain for a year and spent a month in Morocco to work on her Arabic. My grandkids don’t read and I wonder what they will do. The oldest is now at U of Alabama and plans a career in sports marketing. She is a very smart kid and charming. She will probably be OK. Her mother has run a very successful marketing business from home for 20 years.

  2. “… lacking in sufficient attention span to be able to write code, do engineering design, analyze financial statements, fly airplanes or conduct air traffic control, perform surgical operations, etc?”

    It does not matter. If Biden* fails to start a global thermonuclear war, all that will be left for any of those unfortunate young people will be digging ditches for their Chinese bosses. And if Biden* (for once in his life) succeeds in starting that global war, they won’t even have jobs as ditch-diggers.

    It is time we were honest with ourselves. The current situation is unsustainable. It is over.

  3. “my students were really struggling to understand the sentences as sentences”

    She should have the kids read Proust. They’ll love the sentences that go on for pages. lol

  4. Lucky me – grew up on a farm, and I was old enough to remember getting our first TV set. Before that, after winter chores were completed reading was the main pastime. I even spent time reading encyclopedias. I had an English teacher in Middle School who, even though it was considered to be obsolete, taught the class how to diagram sentences.
    Fast forward – we did not have a TV in the house until all the boys were already in school. The teachers always commented on their great attention span and ability to concentrate.
    As for early reading, besides the children’s bible story books, I read out loud from The Hobbit, a book that (to me) was written in the oral storyteller tradition. It, and stories like it, gave the boys an appetite for reading.

  5. I concur, The Hobbit is a book most likely intended to be read aloud to kids. My Mom did that for us, in the late 1960’s. I still like to listen the the Audible version, when wood working.

  6. “The last time I taught ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ I discovered that my students were really struggling to understand the sentences as sentences—like, having trouble identifying the subject and the verb,”

    Like, maybe Harvard students are just lazy and ignorant, and aren’t willing to do anything that requires real effort. Perhaps they are stupid as well, if they can’t manage to grasp 19th century English without a great struggle. I’m also reminded of the story from a few years ago about Harvard students who reportedly thought Winter was caused by the Earth moving closer to the Sun.

    This is our best and brightest, the cream of the crop, the folks who have made it through the educational gauntlet of High School to win admission to the blessed Ivy Leagues.

    That last was sarcasm, btw. Eventually, these people are going to be the worthies sending other Americans off to die in pointless wars, transferring endless wealth to foreigners who hate us, and crafting policies that make the US into an even worse crime-infested bizarro land. And of course they’ll be metaphorically patting themselves on the back all the while, preening about how enlightened they are.

    I’m not a fan of these people, to be clear.

  7. I’m old school engineer, slide rule old, today’s engineers are just programmers and program users. Most never touched an engine or other real thing to see how it worked. Ask mechanics what they think of the engineers.who design car engine compartments.

  8. Dale S…”Ask mechanics what they think of the engineers.who design car engine compartments”…hasn’t that always been true to some extent, though?…easy maintainability as an afterthought, if even that?

  9. Diagramming sentences was daily exercise for us in Catholic schools from about 4th grade on. I began college as an engineering major and worked as a junior engineer at Douglas Aircraft. During that time, everybody was getting out of engineering and I decided to switch to premed. I went back to college in January 1960 and majored in English to get a student loan. I really enjoyed the English classes but was accepted to medical school after one year. I was a reader from age 10 and read to my kids. I read all the Lord of the Rings series plus “Watership Down.” When they were teens, I was able to show them the real Watership Down in England.

    In “Just Lucky, I Guess,” Gerhard Neumann writes that all German Engineering students had to spend a year as an apprentice in a mechanic’s shop. That was pre-war and I don’t know if that continues.

  10. Mike K…”Gerhard Neumann writes that all German Engineering students had to spend a year as an apprentice in a mechanic’s shop. That was pre-war and I don’t know if that continues.”

    It was interesting that this applied only to *German* students…foreign students attending German colleges were exempt. I guess they wanted to maximize the number of tuition-payers.

  11. Neumann was a pioneer in jet engine development, and played a large role in creating GE’s very successful jet engine business. The memoir is outstanding, see my review here:

    …and you have to like someone who takes his title (“just luck, I guess”) from the remark made by a famous courtesan when someone asked her, no doubt in a mournfully disapproving tone, how she wound up in such a role.

  12. Ease of maintenance for cars – I remember one car my dad had. There was so much room between the engine block and the sidewall that you could just about camp there. Everything was easy to get to, and easy to replace.

  13. Scarlet effing Letter? Geez, I was a precocious reader but bluffed my way through the requirement in (?th) grade–to inflict that on 21st C kids verges on the perverse IMO.

    It may be indicative though, that what I was avoiding in the late 60s in high school has trickled up to college and university. No doubt the good professor was going to run it through the Raceclassgenderizer, so the students may be more canny than we credit them for.

    My wife and I read a lot (me more than her, and better) but we didn’t read a lot to our son.
    Once he learned how he pretty much selected his own reading; like most 36 year olds he is thoroughly social-mediaized and probably reads few books but spends a lot of time

    He did a few years pretending to be a college student in the early 00’s, and has found his way into working in a high-end woodshop. So far he has stayed focused enough to retain all his fingers.

  14. I could do about 2000 words a minute when I used to read. I was tested at my school and was considerably faster than President Kennedy who was supposed to be a very fast reader. Its a thing I picked up when I realized that words had shapes, then I realized sentences have shapes as well. Hell, a small paragraph has a shape. ;) So one can with practice and concentration, just run your eyes down the centre of the page and actually pick up nearly all the meaning on it, in a very short time.

    I read everything within reach, and sailed through Science Fiction with my list I memorized and used at the Library. It started out: Asimov, Clarke, Conklin, Derleth and went on through the alphabet.

    I read a lot of the classics, pretty well all of Kipling, and thrived on all this beautifully crafted work. A classical education if you will.

    Then I discovered computers and fell in love. I had my first one built and played with it for a bit then built my first one. A Pentium Pro, where the present Core stuff first began. Then I discovered the internet and it was game on. So after getting tired of the limitations of NT 3.51, which did its job, but the Intel Windows way, I DL’d my first Linux system. That it was Slackware and actively user hostile, was just gravy, and I learned to use a *nix, after much fooling around. I have this talent for making a lot mistakes quickly and it has served me very well though all my learning processes.

    Then I built a web server. Apache was an absolute bitch in the beginning. You had to build all the modules, the right ones, in the right order, and roll that all together in the compile. My talent for making mistakes was tested. ;) Still I had a web server, and then discovered I could utilize any of the programs running on my Slackware install, as backends to the server. Then I built a youtube for friend who wanted to serve up video postcards online. This is when the fast modems were 56.6K. I built a massive kludge using Perl and PHP and it worked. I was very happy and could glue any damn thing, to any other damn thing, and just played for many years.

    If its not fun no one will participate, and these days its not fun anymore. No one works from the metal anymore, its all apps running the show now. Boring really. So short attention span is normal now and I guess we’ll see where that takes us. At least you don’t have drunken hippies bringing each other’s servers down, so there is that. ;)

  15. “Scarlet effing Letter?” Isn’t that the question that underlies the whole idea of Liberal Arts education. Why read a book published 173 years ago? Why did Hawthorne write a book set 200 years before that? Why don’t we all just learn HVAC or plumbing? Why are all those books sitting in all those libraries, if no one will ever have a good reason to read them again?

    The rational behind all those English majors at all the Ivys and the sisters and all the lesser institutions was that all those Great books they read and critiqued over those years would make them uniquely capable of recognizing “good” literature. The proper selectors of the next best sellers, the arbiters of “worthwhile” entertainment, Truth, Justice and the American Way. Apparently the “Harvard Classics” are to be replaced with a selection of tweets accompanied by commentary dictating how each is to be interpreted.

  16. Speaking of Harvard Classics, my immigrant Opa had a set–impressive looking but made with cheap paper and binding to adorn a room rather than educate or cultivate minds.

    OTOH, except for size, his selection of the 11th ed. E. B. (1911, and post-bloodbath supplements) was inspired and I still cherish and consult them.

    Nobody in the family used the H.C. at all; my father and/or his sister unfolded some of the beautiful maps in the E.B. volumes, but apparently not very often.

  17. It seems hardly sporting to blame books for the quality of their paper and binding. We had a set as well, acquired as a package with the 1959 edition of Collier’s Encyclopedia. I ended up anchored off the coast of California, loading green hides partway through “Two Years Before the Mast”.

    For those seeking to make up for lost time, two of many choices, one free and one for less than $2.

    For those wishing to display the dead tree version, I’m sure EBay will help, shipping probably extra.

    Wikipedia includes a list, the first section of the first volume was Benjamin Franklin’s “Autobiography”. You could do worse.

  18. Seriously, a Harvard dean is complaining about how poorly her undergraduate students are prepped regarding grammar and reading? Harvard is a market-maker with about 25 applications per spot, if the university wanted to let it be known that it would value such skills highly when evaluating applications then schools and parents would move heaven and earth to make sure their kids were so prepared. Parents pay $40,000+ tuition for private schools and/or thousands for prep programs to get into places like Harvard. The ironic thing is that Harvard has extended its suspension of mandatory ACT/SAT testing for applicants to 2026 (and my guess it that it will be permanent) which means writing samples will play a larger role in admissions. What an opportunity! But… we all know Dean Claybaugh is full of it.

    As far as “presentism”, in one sense this is not new int hat we Americans, being children of revolution, have felt a certain reflexive distaste for the past; however, I think we are dealing with something different. There have two forces at work. The first is a inclination to favor the new given the rapid pace of technology in our consumer; there is the almost instinctual association of new and improved because today’s iPhone is certainly better than yesterday’s. This developed consumer instinct has provided fertile ground for those are politically guided to upset the current order, from the Wilson’s Progressives to today’s postmodernists, who can portray their shiny new political ideologies with the latest fashion as a major upgrade over that 1776 model created by slaveholders. After all if you don’t believe in a discovered eternal truth (and many Gen-Zers and Millennials don’t) why won’t you think that the ideas of the Republic are outdated simply because they’re p;d.

    This disparagement of the past has had a very immediate impact on the Gen-Zers I work with. If the past has been discredited then many of the younger people logically conclude that the should view with contempt the people in that past and the difficulty of the decisions they have had to make. While younger people have always tend to see the world in a more simplistic manner, I work with university-trained people in their late 20s, 30s (and therefore should know better) who based on false notions of progress believe their decisions and opinions since they are made today are ipso facto better than anything that came before it. These are the very people who will start entering senior executive roles within the next 10 years.

    A classical education isn’t so much about sitting around and reading Homer in ancient Greek as developing your ability to think; reading, writing, and a appreciation of human nature through the study of history is key to that. For a variety of reasons our K-12 public school districts are ill-suited for that type of curriculum. There are charter schools, I know of some in the Phoenix-area, who do provide such an education. Susan Wise Bauer has written a number of books and developed other materials that are used by homeschoolers. One of her earlier books was where I first encountered the idea of the “Trivium” where a student proceeds within each subject or skill area through the 3 levels of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. We found it to be an excellent framework for measuring the intellectual growth of our kids. Also, stripped of its classical terminology, I have found it to be a great framework for those I professionally mentor as well.

    Btw…. an interesting article from N.S. Lyons that touches on this and other themes we have discussed

  19. One more thing….

    I couldn’t but notice the juxtaposition of what our Harvard Dean said regarding thinking a lot about “ethics of representation” lamenting students in the building to comprehensive sentences from a 19th century novel m

    A classical education it’s really about developing the intellectual depth cultural knowledge in the tools for one to fully engage the world and one’s civilization as a complete human being. Our educational establishment, both public and higher, has been expending great energy in not only alienating our younger folk from their culture and history but also depriving them of the intellectual tools that they need to think critically.

    If the devil’s greatest trick was to convince the world that he did not exist then our elites have promulgated hey similar trick in convincing people to think for themselves while depriving them of the ability to do so in a meaningful manner

    We are developing whole cohorts of graduates who have been told that they are the spear point of History but are unable to think beyond slogans, buzzwords, and more than 240 characters at a time

    This is a reality that we all have to deal with for a very long time to come

  20. Don’t mistake my criticism of the HC set–it was simply a shoddy product with poor binding and acidic paper, not fit for long usage or heirloom status. For all I know it was a cheap pirated knockoff. By the time I was interested, any handling was damaging.

    The EB on the other hand, a genuine quality item.

    We never had old Mortimer Adler’s “Great Books,” but they were de rigueur for a lot of my friends’ parents–usually not too well used.

    In my estimation we’re at the end of an age (maybe more than one) and us Boomers (I’ll be 70 soon) and our concerns and concepts are being swept away and replaced by . . . let me say, delusional young semi-humans, encouraged by people who should know better.

  21. “If the devil’s greatest trick was to convince the world that he did not exist”

    No humans invented both god and the devil, in their attempts to control their populations. I tell people that my new car has no soul, its just electric motors, so its perfect for a Buddhist. ;)

  22. “The EB on the other hand, a genuine quality item.” And well it should be. I remember pricing a set around 1990 at about $3,000, probably not cheaper in 1911. It represented a serious investment and an impulse toward improvement.

    So too, the Harvard Classics, although lesser, I believe they were sold on installment, one volume at a time. The 50th volume was a study guide that outlined programs that were supposed to be the equivalent of a BA in the end. Where the balance between aspiration and pretension fell and how many were ever even opened before they were eventually thrown out, I don’t know. It’s all in line with turn of the century Progressivisim and the democratization of knowledge. Not that different than numerous Internet courses that cover everything from DIY electrical work to Quantum Mechanics today.

  23. In my estimation we’re at the end of an age (maybe more than one) and us Boomers (I’ll be 70 soon) and our concerns and concepts are being swept away and replaced by . . . let me say, delusional young semi-humans, encouraged by people who should know better.

    Half of me thinks it’s the end of an age. The other half reckons that older people have always thought this way about younger people. Another half thinks we’re approaching a blow-off top in the market for fantastical beliefs. The fourth half thinks that even irrational trends in fantasy beliefs can continue for much longer than anyone expects, if enough people believe in them strongly enough.

  24. Well, no, they didn’t “rewrite the history of the civil war for 100 years”, they merely perpetuated the consensus that was accepted right after the war by the predominant majority of those who had actually fought in it, North and South alike, and then nevertheless continued to write voluminous books and myriad articles exploring every possible aspect of it to the point little of value remained to be learned or even reinterpreted. So it was professionally advantageous for some, and politically advantageous to others, to upend the table and pretend nothing was known before. Even James McPherson, whose Battle Cry of Freedom seemed to well encompass everything that was understood by the 80s, seemed to decide his own work was not, sorry to use the term, “woke” enough.
    The consensus I learned at that time was fully aware of the existence of slavery, its foundational role in the divisions between North and South, especially after the south-westward expansion and the cotton boom [and not only the moral and ideological questions but also the role the plantation economy played in exacerbating and radicalizing pre-existing north-south divisions on political and social structures]. It was aware of how slavery shaped the plantation society and the backcountry society in service to and in opposition to the planter caste, though an opposition that was never much about the morality of slavery so much as ancient class and ethnic distinctions. It was aware of how the desire to justify slavery shaped the ideologies of secessionism [several strands of them] prior to the civil war. It was aware of the abolitionist movement internationally and in the North of the US. It was also aware that slavery had an effect as well as causal relationship- the geographic and environmental conditions of the South, especially the Deep South, and especially as one moved westward, militating certain kinds of economy in the low and the highlands, and the settlement of both by types of people accustomed to ways of living that matched those environments and seeking to perpetuate them, and the requirements of needing a large subject labor force for the lowland kind of agrarian economy that could not be provided by immigrants from Britain, who were not numerous enough for the scale required and who had a few better options in the colonies anyway. It was aware of the complexities of ideology, politics and race in the North, and exactly what compromises its people and leaders were willing to make even late in the day, and why.
    All in all, it was pretty complex and subtle, not the sort of OCD CRT chanting one hears today, and which is telling a false story about how things stood circa 1990. I am reminded of the Simpsons episode in which Apu, an illegal immigrant, is trying to get his citizenship. [This episode is full of surprisingly counter-narrative material, but subtly.] When he gets to the civil war, he begins:
    Proctor: All right, here’s your last question. What was the cause of
    the Civil War?
    Apu: Actually, there were numerous causes. Aside from the obvious
    schism between the abolitionists and the anti-abolitionists,
    there were economic factors, both domestic and inter–
    Proctor: Wait, wait… just say slavery.
    Apu: Slavery it is, sir.”

    That exchange was funnier back then than it is now.

  25. That episode also contained the immortal response from Marge when Apu explained how he overstayed his visa and just started to fit in to American life:

    After nine years, Apu completed his thesis, a series of punch cards
    comprising the world’s first tic-tac-toe program. To pay off his
    loans, he worked in the Kwik-E-Mart and decided to stay once his visa
    had expired.

    What you’re saying is so understandable. And really, your only crime
    was violating U.S. law.
    — Marge to Apu, “Much Apu About Nothing”

    Just like the civil war thing, can be interpreted at least two ways, but was funny then as now.

  26. “Apu: Actually, there were numerous causes. Aside from the obvious schism between the abolitionists and the anti-abolitionists, there were economic factors, both domestic and inter–
    Proctor: Wait, wait… just say slavery.”

    As it happens, I have been reading “The American Republic”, by O. A. Brownson, written in 1865 — the current moment, as far as the Civil War is concerned. Brownson was in New Jersey, and most of the book is his explanation of why the South did not have the right to secede from the Union. Even so, he included this admission:

    “There were greater issues in the late war than negro slavery or negro freedom. That was only an incidental issue, as the really great men of the Confederacy felt, who to save their cause were willing themselves at last to free and arm their own negroes, and perhaps were willing to do it even at first. This fact alone proves that they had, or believed they had, a far more important cause then the preservation of negro slavery. They fought for personal democracy, under the form of State sovereignty, against social democracy; for personal freedom and independence against social or humanitarian despotism; …”

    That’s a great phrase from about 160 years ago — “social or humanitarian despotism”. Look around ourselves today, and we are suffering from the triumph of what the ordinary Southerners were fighting against.

  27. ” That was only an incidental issue” Just proves that nonsense was being written in 1865 as well as today.

    To get back to David’s original point, A hundred odd years ago, it was thought plausible that any literate person could profit by reading some fairly challenging books. Apparently, these are now beyond the comprehension of the top graduates of the elite high schools of America.

  28. Yes, the WSJ piece was interesting & worth reading for those who have access. The ‘trying to land a 747 on a rural airstrip’ reference referred to something said by Prof James Shapiro of Columbia: “teaching “Middlemarch” to today’s college students is like landing a 747 on a rural airstrip.”

    However, I’d be willing to be that most of the prisoners grew up in environments not exactly conducive to developing long attention spans…which implies that maybe those who grew up with cell phones, etc, should also be able to overcome that deficiency.

  29. I agree with MCS that calling slavery an incidental issue is over-egging the pudding, and not by any small degree, and I hope my own comment is not to be read that way. Similarly, I think Brownson overstates the significance of the South at last arming black men, though they did so. At moments of extremis like that, people do what they must and hope to repair the damage later. I’m sure those black men had various takes on it too- some because the home they knew was the home they knew, others because, hey, free guns we could use later.
    Still, there’s over stating a case and then there’s the case for complexity itself. The latter is what is being ground under.
    It remains curious that Brownson, as liberal, progressive and abolitionist a figure as there was to be had, would make that argument even in passing.
    It’s possible, even normal, for historians of a later time to know more about all sorts of aspects of a past era, but rare for them to have better understanding of the motives of the participants.

  30. ” to preserve southern feelings for 100 years”

    They misspelled “to justify northern greed”

  31. Complaints by University profs about student capabilities are more than a little disingenuous, when university education departments have been dumbing down that education of teachers for the last 90 years or more. The University persists over the last 935 years as a social institution because it spends time boosting those things that help its finances. Their interest in expanding the number of students is obvious, and for that, they have boosted the “causes” that will require more of their graduates in their original market, … government clerks.

    What we are now seeing is the end game for universities. They have expanded so much that, long since, they have excluded those skills that would let people challenge the existence of the University itself. University is no longer a place for knowledge, but a place for certification as someone loyal to those who already “gotadegreeanydegree”, rather than to those horrid plumbers, and electricians, carpenters, steelworkers, and all the people who work with their hands.

    Instead, we are seeing progress being built where the valued people are “I’m everyman who ever fashioned cold refined steel, into the dreams of spaceflight, I’m the one who made them real”. Indeed, the Starship/SuperHeavy that will launch this month is built out of just that, … cold refined steel. Steel that Harvard graduates would not know what to do with.

  32. To some degree, presentism has always been with us. I doubt the average medieval peasant or 19th century farmer’s son had much serious engagement with the past, literary or otherwise, with so much to do in his present. And his resources and access to information would have been poor. His understanding of his past would in many ways have assumed it was like his present- in many ways he would be right, as far as work and lifeways were concerned. He would also have been wrong, as far as mores, culture, appearances, kit, fashion- consider the habit of scholars and artists, the most educated and aware of their time and events, of always portraying the classical world as if it looked like their contemporary medieval or renaissance world. And largely projecting values, customs, habits, and ideas backward as well.
    And even the wealthy’s access to information and literature was limited compared to what, in theory, anyone can access now.
    In principle, with the information we have, we ought to be the most past-aware and least-presentist civilization in human history.
    And yet this is not so. It seemed like there was a moment in the 19th and 20th centuries when the idea of historical change became a commonplace, and filtered down into an increasingly literate and at least basically educated populace, but before that same populace lost its sense of connection and continuity to that same past, the one thing those peasants and farmers DID have.
    I don’t quite know how to articulate it. It seems as though we were briefly the least presentist people who ever lived, before wilfully choosing to become the most presentist, deliberately excluding the vast reams of knowledge to which we have access, disparaging continuity even, and thus becoming less aware than our ancestors even were.
    Even in matters of moral judgment. It’s nice to say, “geez people used to be such violent greedheads and it’s good we’ve tried in some ways to move past that” [I guess, and within limits], another to lose proportion and forget how common certain behaviors were, might be again, and all sense of motivation and circumstances, and start thinking of yourself as either a monster yourself, to be shamed, or as an angel who looks down on those monsters of the past and then, in a generation or less, has developed amnesia and can no longer even read past literature without trauma.

  33. Their capacities are different, and the nineteenth century is a long time ago.
    No, their capacities are the same. The problem is that capacity has been filled up with themselves.

    See, history is learning outside yourself, the present is learning about yourself. Ironically, good history study* actually centers you in the world. The key is it doesn’t make you the center of it.
    (* “history study” as I intend it there includes literature and such. Learning about the past as it was, as it was perceived, and as it was recorded.)

    most likely, though, she herself probably does not have such a foreshortened view of time
    I guarantee she does have that foreshortened view of time, herself. She is a product of college schooling probably in the 90s, and I know it was bad then.

    it would focus very seriously on challenging that worldview
    Why would it do THAT, David? “Presentism” is a tool (arguably a doctrine) of the Progressive church and has been in play since the mid-20th century, at least. Why would they counter that in their disciples? Harvard has been one of the leading Progressive tributaries into our gov’t and the top of our “intellectual” class for a very long time.

    what is going on today is a lot more systematic and pervasive than what’s happened in the past
    You forgot to list active “memoryholing” where parts of the past (often recent) are simply intentionally forgotten, never to be remembered.

    many stores [sic], after all, have traditionally begun with the phrase “Once upon a time.”
    A vast number of them no longer do. They’ve all been updated to the present age. And “stories” is something that has been almost wholly captured by the Progressive church now, and they will be read in accordance with the doctrines of said church.

    Or am I kidding myself, and has the short attention span phenomenon now become…
    I’m sorry. What were we talking about, again?

  34. MCS
    March 4, 2023 at 6:45 pm

    Apparently the “Harvard Classics” are to be replaced with a selection of tweets accompanied by commentary dictating how each is to be interpreted.

    I wonder if anyone has ever had the tenacity to do “Shakespeare by Tweet”, where everything is done in 280 character bites? It might actually be fun to read. Don’t look at me to produce it, though. I don’t tweet.

  35. Some of this sounds like, “Oh, these kids today!” I think Sam Cooke beat you to the punch with “Don’t Know Much About History”.

  36. My youngest kids are preteen and barely -teen aged. We’re reading a nineteenth century novel about a big, pale, murderous sperm whale, or so they thought. Tonight, after finishing chapter 127, one of them asked, “When do they catch the whale?” I said, ” Guys, I don’t wanna ruin the story for you, but the craziest thing about this unbelievably crazy story is, they never catch this white whale, there ISN’T any white whale at all. ” They rioted. OMG, did they freak.

    Because, you see, they CAN comprehend this language, and they dig these stories. They’re not extraordinary kids, but they’ve been exposed to a lot of extraordinary literature. And they really get it. All credit to their mom, who runs the school they attend at our house.

  37. All of the authors from the 19th century we now consider “Classics” were widely often wildly popular. Their new books were much anticipated and widely serialized in news papers. They were also much stolen, copyrights not being much respected or easily enforced. Libraries were very popular and usually subscription rather than free as most are today.

    It makes you wonder what contemporary books will have legs to last more than a century, or if any will, at all. It’s not as if a huge number of new books aren’t being published, it’s just no longer thought necessary for college graduates to be able to read them.

  38. rewrite the history of the civil war for 100 years

    Apparently they’re starting on the next hundred: “slaves built this country.”

  39. MCS
    March 8, 2023 at 7:29 am

    All of the authors from the 19th century we now consider “Classics” were widely often wildly popular.
    Some of them. A great many were snoozers. They were later made “Classics” because of their content: anti-war, anti-morality, etc.

  40. GWB says. ” A great many [19th C. Classics] were snoozers. They were later made into “Classics” because of their content: anti-war, anti-morality, etc.”

    Name one of each, and an account of who made them Classics, and how.

  41. David,

    That WSJ/Instapundit article I linked to jogged my memory a bit now I remembered something similar from a long time ago. Back in 1988 there was a movie called Stand and Deliver about a high school math teacher in East LA who taught and mentored a group of inner city teenagers to become proficient in calculus

    The movie got a lot of publicity at the time and the teacher in question, Jaime Escalate, was considered a hero. I think it’s a mark of the times and how far we have come and not too much of an exaggeration to say that today a heroic teacher would be one who would help transition a student behind the back of his parents.

    Not to mention that there seems to be a growing movement among school districts to treat traditional mathematics as something colonial and part of white supremacy

    So it’s tempting to draw systemic conclusions from limited anecdotal evidence and left us so very dishonestly. However there is something to the examples of escalante and prisoners studying Voltaire. Perhaps something along the lines of inspiration in the context of “1000 point of lights” (it’s been more than 30 years we can reclaim that one from Bush) These stories even in isolation have a value

  42. Yes I remember that film, it came out the year I graduated, unknowledge is the name of the game now,

  43. “Not to mention that there seems to be a growing movement among school districts to treat traditional mathematics as something colonial and part of white supremacy”
    Math is hard, they’ve already devalued English, much easier to teach social justice chants.

    Even the classics pass in and out of fashion. Could a revival of Ivanhoe be worse than another stupid comic book movie?

  44. “rewrite the history of the civil war to preserve southern feelings for 100 years.”

    This is total BS. Go back and read what Union officers had to say about Robert E Lee and the confederates they fought. Lots of respect. Can’t remember the Union general who went on to be a professor at Harvard, but his praise of Lee was profuse.

    The current woke idiots would benefit from reading some history. Instead, they believe that the point of the war was to end slavery. Lincoln specifically said otherwise. In fact, said he did not have that power under the constitution.

    So today, anyone who fought to defend his home state is considered by the woke fascists to be blatantly and obviously evil. I realize lefties are relentlessly driven by hatred and will re-write everything in such a way as to provide more opportunities to hate. This is just ridiculous.

  45. J L Chamberlain of the 20th Maine–no connection to Harvard IIRC (and not to exclude someone else who fought against Lee and became a professor at Harvard).

    For all that, it’s not relevant. A lot of soldiers have admired and respected their foes, even when the foes have fought for very dark ends or causes.

    Slavery was at the heart of the ACWABAWS because slavery was at the heart of the Southern way of life at the time.

  46. Or am I kidding myself, and has the short attention span phenomenon now become so pervasive that a lot of these students–and and even higher proportion of the people who didn’t go to Harvard…are going to come into adulthood lacking in sufficient attention span to be able to write code, do engineering design, analyze financial statements, fly airplanes or conduct air traffic control, perform surgical operations, etc?

    The “Fermi paradox” (formulated by the great physicist) is this: If the appearance of life, its evolution to tool-using intelligence, and the progress of technology through the development of interstellar travel are normal, then travelers from other civilizations should have spread everywhere, but we don’t see any.

    “Fermi filters” have been proposed which stop the process in most cases. E.g. when a species achieves high technology, they invent nuclear weapons and blow themselves up.

    My fear is that the sociocultural and neurological side effects of “the Web” are a “Fermi filter”. When a species achieves high technology, they invent “the Web” because it is so useful. Then they wreck their culture and their minds. And that is what is happening to humanity.

  47. MCS
    March 8, 2023 at 9:28 pm

    The Confederates seceded to preserve slavery, the Union fought to preserve the Union.

    The Confederate politicians seceded to preserve slavery. Most Confederate soldiers did not own slaves and most fought for their states. Robert E Lee owned a few slaves but most Confederate generals did not. The “Daily Mail” found 10 who did own slaves or their families owned slaves.

    They were objecting to Trump’s decision to not rename army bases. The army bases named for Confederate generals are all in southern states.

  48. Historical reality is that the overwhelming number of Southerners who fought & died for the independence of their States did not own slaves — and most of them were disadvantaged by the institution of slavery. Historical reality is that most of the Northerners who fought & died to prevent the independence of the Southern States had little interest in stopping slavery.

    But Wokesters are not interested in historical realities. They want to change the past to make themselves feel less inadequate today.

  49. A lot of shadow-boxing here–as usually happens with discussions of slavery.

    The South seceded to protect its peculiar institution, which most White Southrons saw as right, proper, and Biblically sanctioned whether they owned or craved slaves or not.

    Fortunately for us, many of the Secessionists also thought it right and proper to set out for the judgement of world their reasons for leaving the Union. They only started weaseling about it later, after they’d been drubbed for their arrogance.

  50. Oh well this is so far from the OP I feel I can comment on current events.

    The Saudis outlawed American Phones, only Chinese ones like my Hauwei are allowed. The Saudis and Iran are getting together right away, and are thanking the Chinese for making it happen. This should end a few more conflicts that depend on that one, Yemen springs to mind.

    The Taiwanese recently elected local governments and the Kuomintang, who are for rapprochement with China won overwhelmingly. Its probable the DPP, the guys in the CIA’s pocket, will lose control in of the country in 2024.

    The petro dollar is dead, only the vassel states in Europe will use it and the Yaun is becoming the currency China uses to pay for almost everything.

    American banks are crashing … it may be late but its pretty well here. Oh and the CIA/NATO cabal is losing the war in Ukraine.

  51. It had to come apart sometime. I was not sure if I would live long enough to watch the dominoes drop, but I think I may get to watch the first part of this great change in the world, maybe more.

    I did expect that no one would say anything. You are quite predictable, and this stuff is not fun for the sons of Milton Friedman, as his shtick proves to be not sustainable. ;)

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