Hildegarde

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Boomerang

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We started out, back there somewhere, talking about decadance and decline, and whether Western Civilization in general, and American society in particular, were about to go the way of the Rome of Nero and the Greece of Alexander the Great.

And, believe it or not, I’ve actually been thinking about that, although I’ve been coming at it sideways, sort of.  At least, I’ve been thinking of it when I haven’t been overreacting to problems with my cell phone (which turned out to be fine) or putting ice packs on my foot. 

My foot is now purple, which is something else altogether.

That said, I want to provide a link that somebody sent me in an e-mail:

http://www.victorhanson.com/articles/hanson112608.html 

The link is to an article by Victor Davis Hanson, one of my favorite writers now working, and the author of the best book I’ve ever read in defense of a classical curriculum.

Hanson is a professor of classics, so when he defends a “classical curriculum,”  he means classical.  He wants to teach everybody Latin and Greek.  The book is called Wno Killed Homer?  and it’s worth reading for a single very long chapter on the “usefulness” (as Thomas  Jefferson would have put it) of classical study.

That said, it seems to me that the content of Hanson’s article above linked to and the evolution of his web site over the last several years point to a problem in this whole issue that make doom and gloom more likely rather than less, and not for the reasons they think.

Hanson belongs to a group of intellectuals who became “conservatives” because they rejected the anti-intellectualism and anti-Americans of the Sixties American left.  They include people like Allan Bloom (The Closing of the  American Mind) and the people we now call “neocons,” like Gertrude Himmelfarb and John Podheretz.

Some of these people actually became conservatives in the modern American sense, but most of them did not.  Himmelfarb and company, for instance,  support the idea of a welfare state long after their move to the “right, ” which was in actuality not a move to the right at all.  “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party,” one of them famously said.  “The Democratic Party left me.” 

And that made sense.  They were New Deal-John F. Kennedy liberals in a party that had departed for other shores. 

I don’t know where Hanson was on issues like these.  I’ve never read anything by him about economics or welfare, and even if I had I’m not sure I’d be able to pin him down.  One of my other favorite writers of the moment is the pseudonymous Theodore Dalrymple (Live at the Bottom,  Our  Culture, or What’s  Left of It), a British doctor with active socialists for parents whose spent his entire career working in third world countries and English inner cities, and although  I can figure out that he thinks the welfare state has done a lot of damange to the kinds of people he’s served,  I can’t quite pin down what he wants to do about it.

So I don’t know if Victor Davis Hanson is in favor of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, but I do know that he’s landed in a very odd place in his defense of the virtues of intelligence.  Maybe Allan Bloom would have ended there as well if he hadn’t died some time ago.   I don’t know.   Let’s just look at Victor  Davis Hanson for a moment.

First, as a quick perusal of the article will show, about a third of what he says here is relevant mostly to California.   I don’t know enough about California to know if his number 5 is true, for instance.   I know that his points about infrastructure, for i nstance, would not apply to Connecticut, where we tend to be very careful about fixing things and to go into hyperbolic fits when something falls down when it’s not supposed to.

I also suspect that number six–his point about young men now sounding so much like young women, he can’t tell the difference on the phone–is not only more true of California than of other places, but more true of some social classes than others.   I don’t usually have much trouble distinguishing male from female voices on the phone, but then I don’t usually talk on the phone to prep school boys who have spent their lives in the kind of schools that promise they will be introduced to a very narrow range of acquaintances.

Number ten, on the other hand, seems to me to be both wrong and right in different ways, and I’m going to quote it here so that it’s easy to access for those of you who don’t want to jump back and forth between web sites:

>>>10. The K-12 public education system is essentially wrecked. No longer can any professor expect an incoming college freshman to know what Okinawa, John Quincy Adams, Shiloh, the Parthenon, the Reformation, John Locke, the Second Amendment, or the Pythagorean Theorem is. An entire American culture, the West itself, its ideas and experiences, have simply vanished on the altar of therapy. This upcoming generation knows instead not to judge anyone by absolute standards (but not why so); to remember to say that its own Western culture is no different from, or indeed far worse than, the alternatives; that race, class, and gender are, well, important in some vague sense; that global warming is manmade and very soon will kill us all; that we must have hope and change of some undefined sort; that AIDs is no more a homosexual- than a heterosexual-prone disease; and that the following things and people for some reason must be bad, or at least must in public company be said to be bad (in no particular order): Wal-Mart, cowboys, the Vietnam War, oil companies, coal plants, nuclear power, George Bush, chemicals, leather, guns, states like Utah and Kansas, Sarah Palin, vans and SUVs.
<<<

To begin with, I’d agree with him about most of the programs in most of the high schools, to the extent that they produce graduates with little if any common knowledge.

The thing is, I would disagree with his assertion that these graduates come out knowing “…10. The K-12 public education system is essentially wrecked. No longer can any professor expect an incoming college freshman to know what Okinawa, John Quincy Adams, Shiloh, the Parthenon, the Reformation, John Locke, the Second Amendment, or the Pythagorean Theorem is. An entire American culture, the West itself, its ideas and experiences, have simply vanished on the altar of therapy. This upcoming generation knows instead not to judge anyone by absolute standards (but not why so); to remember to say that its own Western culture is no different from, or indeed far worse than, the alternatives; that race, class, and gender are, well, important in some vague sense; that global warming is manmade and very soon will kill us all; that we must have hope and change of some undefined sort; that AIDs is no more a homosexual- than a heterosexual-prone disease; and that the following things and people for some reason must be bad, or at least must in public company be said to be bad (in no particular order): Wal-Mart, cowboys, the Vietnam War, oil companies, coal plants, nuclear power, George Bush, chemicals, leather, guns, states like Utah and Kansas, Sarah Palin, vans and SUVs.”

The students I meet know none of that–they don’t know that those things are “bad,” and they don’t know that they’re good.  They’ve heard of Wal-Mart and SUVs because they’ve been there or owned one or nobody somebody who has, but they couldn’t find  Utah or  Kansas on a map, never mind come up with whether such states were good or evil.   As for AIDS and guns, if anybody ever told them that AIDS is “no more a homosexual- than a heterosexual-prone disease,” they’ve forgotten all about it, and they’ll tell you quite straightforwardly that AIDS is “gay.”  And they truly love guns.  The second amendment often is the only one they know for sure, and they’re all in support of it.

Much earlier on in this blog, we got into a discussion of what people were learning in high school, and somebody,  I don’t remember who, said that this was “victims studies” rather than traditional knowledge.  But the truth is that, at least in the state I live in, students are learning neither  victims studies nor traditional knowledge.

This is the whole point of “skills based” education–you don’t teach content, you teach “how to learn.”  And “how to learn” is defined very narrowly.  Reading is assumed to be about sounding out words by phonics and decoding standard forms of sentences, with the sentences used to teach carefully denuded of any cultural content at all, because cultural content might confuse the issue. 

My students come to me with so little cultural content that most of them would be unable to understand one of  Dr. Hanson’s own essays–they know the Vietnam War happened, for instance, but they’re not sure when and they’re not sure why; they don’t watch the news, so when asked to identify “Sarah Palin and Joe Biden,” they came up with “Sarah Palin is the daughter os somebody who has something to do with John McCain and Joe  Biden is her baby daddy.”

I am not making this stuff up.  If my students had been fed a diet of victims studeis, they’d be far better off than they are now, because they would at least have had to know the terms that victims studies deal with.  Instead, my students do indeed know who Martin Luther  King is, but they’re left astounded by the idea of segregation and they’ve never heard the term “Jim Crow.”  Hell, most of them have never heard the term “affirmative action,” and when I explain it to them they often simply refuse to believe it exists.

Somebody once asked W.H. Auden what students should study in school, and he said “it doesn’t matter as long as they all study the same thing.”  At the moment, they’re not all studying the same thing.  They’re in the hands of a profession that believes that “skills” can be taught irrespective of content, and the inevitable is happening.

But.

And here’s my point here for the day.

Victor  Davis Hanson is among a group of people now–all of them public defenders of traditional learning, of the canon, of classics–who have started to lend their names to defenses of “intelligent design,” as if that was an actual scientific point of view.

I’m not saying that Hanson supports “creationism,” because I don’t know that.  I am saying that his web site presents at least one article “critical” of evolution in the  ID tradition–by which I mean that it makes points that are only convincing (or even interesting) to people who know nothing at all about what evolution actually says.  If it’s intellectual rigor you’re supposed to be upholding, then  presenting such arguments as if they were respectable is something worse than shooting yourself in the foot.

When William  F. Buckley set out to reform the conservative movement, his first big project was to get rid of the nutcases, among whom were the creationist loons of a  Bible belt trying to pretend that not only biology, but geology, physics, chemistry and immunology didn’t really exist.  It worked, because Buckley himself stood for an compromising intellectual elitism–if you didn’t understand the words, you could look them up–that proved to be a beacon for disaffected liberals in the midst of the Sixties anti-intellectual orgy.

Now the magazine Buckley founded serves up ID as well, and almost every one of the liberal intellectuals who moved right after the McGovernite takeover of the Democratic Party pays lip service to the “seriousness” of the “challenge” to evolution that does not exist.

It’s like I said when I started that.  There’s no way to go in for know-nothing anti-intellectualism on just one subject or just one field of study.  Once you start, you can’t stop.

Written by janeh

November 28th, 2008 at 11:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Boomerang'

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  1. “Hanson belongs to a group of intellectuals who became “conservatives” because they rejected the anti-intellectualism and anti-Americans of the Sixties American left. ”

    I don’t consider myself an intellectual but that describes what happened to me!

    I do have some thoughts on ID and Darwin but I’m not sure they belong here. I’ll write Jane and ask her if I should post.

    jd

    28 Nov 08 at 1:48 pm

  2. OK, Jane said to post this and then she can yell at me! Life will get interesting!

    I was trained in Physics and know very little of biology. I do accept Darwin and do not believe in Intelligent Design but I have a problem with
    the public attacks on ID. I say public as meaning the mass media since I don’t know what is happening in the Biology departments or the professional journals.

    Physics students are taught about the “old Quantum Mechanics.” Back in the 1890s, theorists were having problems with what is called “Black body
    radiation”. Max Planck came up with the idea of energy being quantized rather than continuous and had a very nice fit between his theory and
    experiment. BUT his theory was intellectual garbage. He took equations from Classical Physics which were derived on the basis of continuous energy, made the ad hoc assumption of discontinuous energy (quantized) and stuck the quantums into the equations. The whole thing makes no mathematical sense but the result was correct.

    A mathematically consistent form of Quantum Mechanics was not developed until about 1925. The present theory of black body radiation is completely different from Planck’s but gives the same equation. He got the right answer for the wrong reason!

    Looking at biology, I recall reading a popular science book by an expert in Evolution (Ernst Meyer?) who commented that the discovery of DNA was a
    complete surprise. Everyone was expecting that proteins would be the basic materials of genetics.

    My impression is that every major advance in science has been made by people looking for problems in the accepted theory and proposing radical
    revisions. Thomas Kuhn calls them “paradigm shifts.”

    I think the ID people are wrong but the public reaction of “How dare they question Darwin” horrifies me! The so called defense of science strikes me as drastically anti-scientific. The claim that it should be illegal to even mention the words “intelligent design” in high school makes me want to vomit.

    jd

    28 Nov 08 at 3:39 pm

  3. Ah, people who don’t fit neatly into little boxes! (‘liberal’ views on some things, ‘conservative’ on others. I like that – mostly because I never seem to fit comfortably into categories either. Every time I think I might, some issue comes up that I and everyone else is said category end up at loggerheads over!

    It doesn’t usually bother me particularly if someone I generally agree with holds an opinion I entirely disagree with. I think I’m generally with John on the astonishing reaction to ID – it’s just another theory, put it out in the public arena (or school, although here I think John might disagree) and let it take its chances. I’ve been told often enough by Americans that I really don’t understand that ID is an attempt by the religious right to subvert the entire American way of life and pervert the education of American youth (or something to that effect), but I still don’t agree. It’s proposed as a theory of the origin of life? Fine, treat it as such. I think it’s a very silly theory with little or nothing to recommend it, but I don’t have any problem with having it out there, and its supporters, er, supporting it.

    And I think that the near-hysteria of the attempts to have it declared non-science and a non-theory and a non-idea do a grave disservice to science.

    cperkins

    29 Nov 08 at 9:22 am

  4. Cheryl,

    I’m in full agree,emt = put it out on schools and let it take its chances. Do a comparison. Take some data, show how evolution treats it, then show how ID treats it and let students draw their own conclusions.

    Now I’ll change topic!

    The link by VDH has a lot about California. (He lives and teaches there.) One of my e-mail friends grew up in California. She now teaches History in a orivate school in Mobile, Alabama. I asked her about the VDH article and here is her reply.
    >
    CA has been stymied by its own laws protecting the environment and people’s feelings to the point that they can’t sustain themselves in regards to power, food, or anything else. There is a unique attitude of entitlement the citizens of the state seem to have — it’s like they think if they just spend all their time worrying about political
    correctness and peace, the necessities of life will come to them naturally. So instead of working hard, they sue each other over breaches of etiquette, and they pass laws that continue to do away with CA’s
    ability to sustain itself. Case in point? Recent initiative to — I kid you not — provide illegal immigrants with driver’s licenses because it was “unfair” not to, and alter Engish education to have “relative” spelling rules (i.e. it is culturally insensitive to inner-city youths
    to insist that the word “ask” because spelled that way instead of “axe”).
    >
    > I was raised in CA from the time I was 6 until I was 15. During that time, I was called into a parent conference for “insulting” my teacher by insisting on calling her ma’am as I was taught at home. My parents also had to opt me out of a program in school designed to teach that there was no actual right and wrong — just relative values depending on
    the situation. Who the hell thinks that’s a good thing to teach to 5th graders? “Cheating isn’t wrong unless you fail to justify it?”
    >
    Given what Jane has said about her students and given the situation this woman describes, I think its a waste of time and effort to worry about ID. There are problems with the US schools that are much more important and more serious.

    jd

    29 Nov 08 at 10:21 am

  5. I’ve thought the present way of living in most of the US southwest was environmentally unsustainable before some Americans (and some Canadians) thought it would be a good idea to sell them lot and lots and lots of our water so that they could keep on living in the manner to which they have become accustomed. But until we start losing the water our ecosystems need, that’s mostly the Californian’s worry and your correspondent probably knows better than I how bad things are there.

    The spelling thing goes back a long way, before Ebonics (remember that)? The underlying idea is that many children are turned off reading and writing by having their creativity stifled by being constantly brought up short by an arbitrary spelling system. I don’t agree, but I’m not designing English curricula and my education in education (ha) didn’t include methods of teaching English.

    Gotta run, we’re leaving for the airport a bit earlier than I expected.

    cperkins

    29 Nov 08 at 2:39 pm

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