Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Doomed to Repeat It

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So, a couple of things–first, as an aside, I want to point out that I’ve never suggested that we go about education as an exercise in making people memorize books.  I just want them to have read them.

And second, I don’t think you’re going to do much to change the incentive structure until you can get past that thing where a kid with first class skills in math can go to work for an investment bank and be drawing down six figures the day he walks through the entry level door, and seven by the time he’s forty.

Engineering pays…what?

But that isn’t what this post is about.  So let me get to it.

First, if I had to put a relative value on the subjects you study outside science, I’d put literature first, history second, and the history of ideas third.

I’d put literature first because people are in fact people.  Most of us think in narratives, automatically.  It’s the way we’re built.

Most people will never read Nietzsche or Freud, but they will imbibe and assimilate the ideas those men put into the world by reading narratives that assume them.  And that has plenty of real consequences in the real world–people now serve in the US Congress who would not have if Ayn Rand had never written Atlas Shrugged or Victor Hugo Le Miserables.

They way we understand ourselves as a people and as individuals is given to us almost entirely through narratives, and most of the ideas we have of morality come from narratives, too.  There’s a reason Jesus spoke in parables.  There’s a reason Plato contested, not the ethical ideas of earlier philosophers but the ethical ideas of the Iliad..

Dance doesn’t make the cut for me because it doesn’t seem to me to have had that kind of impact on the way we all live.  Music is somewhere in the middle–especially in the last fifty years, when it has become the vehicle for poetry, while standard poetry has fallen off the map as a literary form.

As for philosophy–you teach poisonous philosophy for the same reason you teach poisoning history, because it did in fact happen, and in happening it did in fact effect the way the world evolved. 

I am watching ideas culled from Nietzsche and the eugenicists being recycled under the guise of “bioethics,” and the reason that came happen is that nobody has read Nietzsche and the eugenicists and nobody knows how those ideas played out in the real world the last time. 

You won’t avoid another holocaust by writing history books that omit any mention of it, and you won’t avoid another holocaust by writing philosophy books where no mention is made of the ideas that led to it.

In fact, what you’ll get is replay after replay, because nobody will know what they should be looking out for, or why some ideas which sound sensible on the surface always seem to end badly.

The study of philosophy isn’t catechism or Sunday school.  It isn’t designed to teach people how to be good people or how to make a good government.  It’s supposed to show how ideas arose and played out over time, how one idea led to another, what ideas underlie what realities in the everyday world. 

We could really use people who knew this stuff.  We could especially use scientists and engineers who knew this stuff, and then we could use a lot of politicians who knew it.  Peter Singer has a chair in bioethics because even people who call themselves educated these days don’t know it. 

The history of this civilization is what it is.  There has been the good and the bad and the ugly.  The history of ideas is a history, and it needs to be taught as a history. 

Forming the moral character of people is the job for churches or ethical institutions.  It is not the point of an education.

Written by janeh

April 9th, 2010 at 11:07 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Doomed to Repeat It'

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  1. “a kid with first class skills in math can go to work for an investment bank and be drawing down six figures the day he walks through the entry level door”

    Well, the math always pays, but note the stated salaries below for engineers – at least of the right kind, in Silicon Valley:

    “The focus on math aces like Mr. de Lucca shows how Silicon Valley tech companies, which have long been data-minded, are now becoming obsessively so. Cloud computing, the process of storing data remotely rather than on a company’s own equipment, is allowing firms to keep more data than ever by lowering the costs of handling it. Companies can then use the data they gather to refine services, especially online, as soon as they detect a pattern.

    Now as local high-tech companies step up hiring, many are targeting data-expert specialists to gain a leg up over competitors. Michael Morell, managing partner at Riviera Partners in San Francisco, says the recruiting firm has seen more companies seeking to build data-analysis and data-warehousing teams. “They’re putting a massive emphasis on it,” he says.

    Riviera is working to find quantitative experts for a gaming company and an online software company that want to build “internal centers of excellence” around data, Mr. Morell says. He says those with strong statistics backgrounds will earn up to 20% more than generalist engineers, who typically start with salaries in the low six figures.”


    AND don’t forget — unlike Doctors and Lawyers and a few other professionals, there’s no government enforced job protection for engineers. A firm who ‘just’ needs engineering work done can outsource to India, or China and get equally qualified engineers who’ll work for a fraction of U.S. wages. Or a firm can open a Canadian branch and avoid U.S. health care costs – that’s become quite common, and that depresses wages also.

    But like my younger son, who is majoring in math said, “You have to be glad that so many people hate math.”


    9 Apr 10 at 3:15 pm

  2. My books–in particular novels and the odd short story–are things I value above almost any other earthly things. They’ve been my constant companions, and many of the characters have shown me how to behave–or how not to. But let’s not forget that authors (and producers) are miniature gods, and they can make anything true in their own cosmos. Which is why I reserve particular venom for those who tell me that, say, THE PATHS OF GLORY “shows” that soldiers are sent to battle by the incompetent and uncaring. It no more does so than TRIUMPH OF THE WILL shows that the Nazis were doing a great job of running Germany. Plausible narrative or a well told story are just that, and the student who decides what’s plausible by how well it agrees with the other fiction he knows richly deserves his fate. I see no reason why an able student can’t absorb History and Literature–but of the two I know where my priority would be. And I am not going back over what books ought to be read. Not today.

    As for intellectual history–you know, I really wasn’t pushing for censorship yesterday. If the schools taught the history of ideas to include their consequences, I would be more than content. This is not current practice. Instructors are far more likely to be advocates for ideas whose consequences they deny or refuse to discuss. I find the notion that Singer thrives on the ignorance of the professorate about the consequences of notions of expendable people touchingly innocent. Given the percentage of Humanities professors still finding excuses for Lenin, Marx and Mao, it seems much more plausible that they understand Singer’s consequences–and approve.

    (Mind you, if you accused the Professorate of being ignorant of economics, I’d go along. A 10 year old with a stack of trading cards understands more economics than the typical American teacher or minister. But economics didn’t make the cut.)

    Dance. I mentioned dance because some of the earlier versions of What All Those Able Should Know did include it. What Roman said “no sober man dances, unless he happens to be mad?”


    9 Apr 10 at 5:44 pm

  3. First, of course economics made the cut–I explicitly m mentioned, as part of what would be entailed in the history of ideas, Adam Smith, among others.

    Second, I don’t think that philosophy should teach the “consequences” in the sense I think you used the term (may be wrong here) or that professors are unaware of the “consequences” either.

    What professors are unaware of–because they don’t ever have to take a complete sequence in the history of ideas–is how Philosophy A led to Philosophy B led to Philosophy C, with the philosopgy meaning everything from ethics to politics to, yes, economics.

    Third, I don’t want students going, “I know how soldiers behave because I saw Patton.” I want students to say, “Ah, that’s what the American people thought it meant to be an American in 1840–you can see that in the books they read.”

    Uncle Tom’s Cabin didn’t teach facts about slavery. But it did teach an attitude to and an approach to slavery, and even the historians I read as a student gave it credit for greatly ginning up anti-slavery feeling and being a big part of the shift in national atmosphere that made the Civil War damned near inevitable.

    Literature is more likely than history OR philosophy to have an effect on the actual events in the actual world, for the simple reason that literature is where most people get their ideas.


    9 Apr 10 at 5:55 pm

  4. Ahem. If “we could really use people who knew this stuff” the line between that and teaching them to be good people and how make a good government is pretty thin. At the least, it’s there to make them good citizens.

    Fictional narrative is indeed powerful, but there’s a step or so in the logical progression between “Narratives can affect behavior” and “the top 10 or 15% of the population should be given the following required reading list.” I read everything thrown at me in school, and I’ve been greatly influenced by some of what I’ve read–but not by ANYTHING I read from the RRL.

    But as for economics, it is, at its best, a discipline and not a code of ethics, nor yet a plan for reshaping society. You’d be suitably outraged if someone proposed teaching evolution and creationism side by side in the biology department. If you seriously want people to learn economics the way you want them to learn physics and biology, it’s time to sort out supply and demand and Gresham’s Law from the unprovable “labor theory of value” and all the various notions of how people ought to behave.


    9 Apr 10 at 9:17 pm

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