Stephen W. Browne | Rants and Raves

CAT | Education

Mar/16

14

What we learn from history

I have just finished a long conversation with some of the greatest figures in the history of Western Civilization.

Over the past month I listened with rapt attention to tales of battles on land and sea, of political intrigues, the rise and fall of great states, and the decisive victory that shaped our world.

For 27 years, 431–404 BC, Athens and Sparta vied for control of the Greek world, which then extended from Greece proper west to Sicily and southern Italy and east to the Aegean shore of modern-day Turkey.

My entry into this world was via 36 DVD lectures from The Great Courses by Professor Kenneth W. Harl, professor of Classical and Byzantine History at Tulane University.

The lecture course is called The Peloponnesian War. The war the historian and eye witness Thudydides called, “a war like no other.”

I had previously enjoyed the 24 lecture course by Professor John Hale, University of Louisville on The Greek and Persian Wars which gave me a tremendous hunger to know more about the history of Greece.

That civilization we call Western is comprised of the speakers of European languages spoken in Europe west of the Ural Mountains, and in the last five centuries spread to the Western Hemisphere, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

The twin roots of that civilization lie among the ancient Greeks and the ancient Hebrews. If you are Western then no matter where your ancestors came from you are part Greek and part Hebrew.

Only a few generations ago this was universally acknowledged. Everyone knew the Bible and high school students on the American frontier studied ancient languages and history. President Harry Truman never went to college, and Gen. George Patton had the reputation of a rough profane soldier, but both could read Thucydides account of the war that led to the downfall of Greece in the original Greek.

And what did they learn from it, soldier and statesman?

They learned that as Lord Palmerston, Prime Minister of England said, that a country has no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.

The Athenians and Spartans led a coalition of Greek cities to defeat the invading Persians in a sea battle at Salamis and a land battle at Platea. A generation later they fought each other for 27 years.

Later still the Spartan allies of Boeotia marched into Sparta and destroyed forever the myth of Spartan invincibility.

They learned that to survive and prevail a nation must be adaptable.

Sparta was the premier land power in Greece, but learned to become a sea power to defeat Athens.

They learned to beware of demagogues. Democratic Athens was periodically swept by enthusiasm that led them to confuse their hopes with their abilities as Thucydides said about the disastrous invasion of Sicily.

They learned there are no certain outcomes. After the disaster at Syracuse that cost Athens hundreds of ships and thousands of men, they recovered with breathtaking rapidity. Then on what seemed to be the eve of victory, lost all.

They learned that everything has costs.

Athens funded their war by levying tribute upon the city states of their maritime empire, which their allies came to resent enough to rebel against. Rebellions that were often brutally put down.

They learned about the interdependence of nations.

Athens was forced to surrender when they could no longer feed themselves from their own lands and their route to the grain lands of the Black Sea was cut off.

They learned that civilizations like men, can die. Exhausted by the war, Greece was conquered by Phillip of Macedon and became a province of various empires for the next two thousand years.

And they learned that while many things change, some things never change. And they learned to tell the difference.

We have forgotten these things, but we will re-learn them, perhaps at great cost.

(These and other courses are available from The Great Courses.)

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Apr/13

30

I adore Lenore

Note: Cross-posted on my professional blog at the Marshall Independent.

Lenore Skenazy is a columnist who usually writes from a light humorous perspective.

Not surprising, she used to write for MAD Magazine back when it was still good, and is the author of “The Dysfunctional Family Christmas Songbook.”

She’s also “the worst mother in the world” according to quite a few people a few years back after she let her 9-year-old son go home alone from midtown Manhattan on the subway.

Aside from her column, which you can find over at creators.com under “liberal opinion” she has a blog “Free Range Kids.”

And Skenazy authored a book for parents, “Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry).”

Skenazy explained the origin of the Free Range Kids movement on her blog:

“Somehow, a whole lot of parents are just convinced that nothing outside the home is safe. At the same time, they’re also convinced that their children are helpless to fend for themselves. While most of these parents walked to school as kids, or hiked the woods — or even took public transportation — they can’t imagine their own offspring doing the same thing.

They have lost confidence in everything: Their neighborhood. Their kids. And their own ability to teach their children how to get by in the world. As a result, they batten down the hatches.”

I have to confess, I’ve shared these fears. I’m a single dad raising two kids. My son is eleven and a moose so I don’t worry two much about him. But my daughter is six and just entirely too bold for my peace of mind sometimes. She insists her brother does not need to walk her home from school (all of three blocks).

OK, I’m good with that. But the other day she went and crossed a busy street by herself…

I have to remind myself when I was six I walked to and from school every day in Castro Valley, California. There were two ways. I could either go down the street, round a corner and walk up the street, a distance that was probably at least a half-mile.

Or I could take a short cut up a hill and across a cow pasture.

I try to remind myself of that every time my heart starts pounding and my breathing gets rapid.

There’s a term for parents with unrealistic fears and uncontrollable anxiety about their children, “helicopter parent.” It goes waaaaay beyond a healthy concern for our kids’ welfare to the land of Phobia. And unfortunately it’s institutionalized in our schools due to our lawsuit culture, and yes a lot of sensationalist journalism.

Lenore has the cure, and one could do worse than have a look at her blog.

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When I came back to the States, I’d been working as a teacher (among other things) for 13 years in four countries – not counting stints as a guest lecturer in a couple others.

I taught English at all levels: high school (fun but exhausting), college (better), adult education (best of all!) and a few times at the primary school level (my second favorite thing – right after rolling naked in broken glass.)

From time to time I’d heard about various lunacies in American primary and secondary schools, and more sinister stuff like totally unfounded accusations of sexual abuse, prosecuted by authorities with the help of “experts,” who had to subject children to real abuse to get “evidence” of phony abuse.

Anyone remember that before Janet Reno incinerated 50-odd children in Waco, Texas, she warmed-up by sending a number of almost certainly innocent people to prison for terms up to and including life, on the most bogus charges you could imagine?

See here: http://www.opinionjournal.com/medialog/?id=105001974

and here, for example: http://blog.neo-libertarian.com/posts/1130795746.shtml

I wondered of course, if these cases were typical, even common, or just statistically rare extremes. But I nonetheless decided that I’d never under any circumstances get involved in primary or secondary education in America.

Now look here: http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=MTIwMWJmMjEzYzk5ZDYxNzEwNDViMmI0MjgzOWM1ZDQ=

at John Derbyshire’s article, ‘Short-changing the Gifted,’ about the cancellation of more of the College Board’s Advanced Placement exams.

Da Derb knows something about secondary education, if you follow another link provided, here: http://www.johnderbyshire.com/Opinions/Straggler/073.html

you’ll see that some years back he taught at a special school for “Educationally Sub-Normal” boys in a Liverpool slum.

These were teen boys who, “Without their having any known physical, mental, or emotional abnormality, they had finished their primary schooling still unable to read or do basic arithmetic.”

It’s an interesting, and depressing article.

“It was depressing work, with little to show for months of effort. Perhaps the most depressing thing of all was that none of the boys was very capable at anything. To play soccer, for example, needs a modicum of thought as well as some minimal physical fitness. Our boys could not rise to it. The masters-boys soccer match was a rout of them, strapping 15- and 16-year-olds, by us, wheezy desk-wallahs with a median age around 40. Up to that point I had assumed that even seriously un-intellectual people must have some ability at something. That this is not necessarily the case, is one of the saddest true things I ever learned.”

But to my mind what’s really depressing is the quote from supposedly “normal,” or even brighter-than average New York Times reporter Deborah Solomon, when interviewing Charles Murray, author of ‘The Bell Curve’ and ‘Real Education.’

DS: “Europeans have historically defined themselves through inherited traits and titles, but isn’t America a country where we are supposed to define ourselves through acts of will?”

CM: “I wonder if there is a single, solitary, real-live public-school teacher who agrees with the proposition that it’s all a matter of will. To me, the fact that ability varies — and varies in ways that are impossible to change — is a fact that we learn in first grade.”

DS: “I believe that given the opportunity, most people could do most anything.”

CM: “You’re out of touch with reality in that regard.”

Note that comment in bold.

John Derbyshire’s poor boys, for whatever reason, nature or nurture, could not help being what they were.

What’s this woman’s excuse? It takes a willful disregard of the evidence of everyday reality to come up with an assinine statement like that.

There’s a word for people who do that habitually. The word is, “stupid.” Dumb is forgivable, stupidity is not.

First of all, an observation. At a journalism seminar I attended a while back, the lecturer pointed out one of the principles of good journalism vis-a-vis interviews.

He said, “There is one star in the interview – and it isn’t you.”

An interview is a time to ask tough questions, not for a debate. There’s a difference. Your own opinions might inform the questions, but it’s the interview subject’s opinions you’re reporting on. Yours belong on the op-ed page.

Now for something totally different. A question that has bugged me for years, stemming from my background in anthropology.

Homo Erectus, thought to be our direct ancestor, appears from the skeletal remains to have been a small man from the neck down, and about half a man from the neck up.

Meaning, he had a cranial capacity about half the modern norm.

(Of course, Neanderthal man evidently had a cranial capacity about 300 CCs more than the modern norm, and everybody in the field really wonders what that means.)

Yet, he survived and thrived in environments as diverse as the African veldt to Java. And, he was less “strapping” than the Derb’s students at that Liverpool school.

What is the difference, if any, between a modern retarded person and an archaic Homo Erectus, in terms of basic capability and ability to cope with life?

Next: I’m going to take on the other end of the spectrum, and reflect on the stupidity of the educated inteligentsia.

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Note: Either before of after you read this post, try this one by Victor Davis Hanson on the subject of elitism: http://www.victorhanson.com/articles/hanson092808.html
I like to think one will enrich the other.

Some years back, a young friend of mine, the son of one of my oldest friends, asked me to coffee for some advice.

Seems he had this decision to make, he’d just graduated from Oklahoma University with a degree in business and had two offers. One was to go to work in the oil industry for a man who’d been his mentor during college. The other was to go to Harvard for an MBA.

The first thing I said was, “Why the hell are you asking me? You know I’m not a business person.”

“Well yes, but I value your opinion.”

So I took a deep breath and said, “OK, but if you screw up your mother’s going to kill me. My opinion is, beyond a certain minimum you have to have to establish credibility, more experience is almost always better than more formal education.”

He took my advice. My mother was horrified.

“You didn’t tell him to go to Harvard?” she practically screamed.

So he went to work for his mentor. In time (very short time at that,) dissatisfied with American business culture, he founded his own natural gas distribution company, known for being very innovative as I understand. Since then he’s been in lots of different things, founded several companies, made lots of money and gained a reputation as a bold, risk-taking entrepreneur.

Not long ago I visited him and reminded him of our conversation.

He replied, “Hell yes! I don’t even let anybody with an MBA east of the Mississippi in my office. I tell them, ‘Get our of here! You’re losing me money just standing there.'”

Digress for a joke. This is one they tell at MIT, I’m told.

Q: “What does a graduate of the Harvard School of Business do?”

A: “He goes home, inherits his father’s business, and hires someone from the MIT School of Business to run it for him.”

It’s no secret we’ve got a lot of Ivy Leaguers in the top echelons of government, and they tend to lean Left, to say the least.

“But how can that be?” I hear someone ask. “Ivy Leaguers tend to be snobby and aristocratic, and the Left is the enemy of privilege and aristocracy, and for the little guy.”

Yes, no, and no. More later.

There’s been a lot of talk on the Left lately, much of concerning the appeal of Sarah Palin, decrying an atmosphere of “anti-intellectualism” on the Right and in middle-America in general, largely based on expressions of scorn for “Ivy League populism.”

After all, aren’t the Ivy League the best schools in the country?

Well aren’t they?

Not having been priviledged to go to one, I don’t know from personal experience. Having known a fair number of Ivy League graduates, I have to say, maybe but…

I am somewhat more familiar with the support system of the Ivy League, though my experience is way old. I refer to the network of prep schools, the Ivy League of high schools that are the feeder schools for the university-level IL.

Some observations:

-Though generally a very rigorous education, there have always been provisions for legacies, the not-especially-bright sons of the wealthy, to graduate from these schools with either a “gentleman’s C” or a curriculum of “gut” courses.

Note that Brooke Shields (not just a pretty model/actress, but daughter of socialites connected with Italian nobility at not too great remove) graduated from Princeton, evidently without ever taking a course in history, science or math.

You can’t gut your way through the two American schools that really are for Real Genius* only: MIT and CalTech.

-The Ivy League has taken up affirmative action with a vengeance. Of course, this means they’ve had their pick of minorities from among the schools vying for them and can afford to maintain standards to some degree. But there is evidence that they have done their share of lowering admission standards and watered down courses for the sake of “diversity.”

Why should we be surprised they do it on a large scale for diversity’s sake when they’ve been doing it on a smaller scale for snobbery’s sake for generations?

Look up Michelle Obama’s Princeton senior thesis on the web. No it hasn’t been “surpressed,” no such luck. I’ve downloaded it myself.

What it is, is a collection of rambling incoherencies, atrocious syntax and occasional gramatical lapses worthy of a cow college freshman.

I’m truly sorry if that seems harsh, but it actually helps understand why this woman could be so pissed-off at America. Princeton wasn’t helping her be the best she could be – it was patronizing her.

I’d be pissed-off too.

-But they can hire the best minds in academia, and you can study with them!

Can you? How often?

Thomas Sowell pointed out that the Ivy League may hire the biggest guns in academia – but you might never see them as an undergrad.

The big guys are expected to enrich the reputation of the institution with research and publishing. You’ll see their grad students in class.

-The intangibles: the ethos of the Ivy League schools was modeled on the English university system, designed for the education of a ruling class. It was anti-democratic to be sure, but the notion was that with privilege comes duties and responsibilities.

Elder sons of the English aristocracy were expected to conserve and protect family fortunes. And though we mostly hear of their excesses and failures, by and large they did a fairly good job for a fairly long time.

Younger sons with smaller competences were expected to man the ranks of the officer corps, ministry and civil service, paying for their privilege by doing the low-paid but essential work of holding a civilization together.

How many Ivy Leaguers enter the military these days? John Kerry publicly proclaimed military service was for losers. Nowadays an Ivy League education is all about “social justice.”

So here’s my theory and the point of all this: what passes for the aristocracy of America has hollowed out, the state of the Ivy League is both a symptom and a major contributor.

An aristocracy can last as long as it’s willing to do it’s own fighting and enough of its own work to understand the connection between work, wealth and what protects that wealth.

Now look at the disconnect between the IL and the military.

Look at the disconnect between the degree curricula of an immense number of higher education majors, and anything having to with production of wealth.

Look at the Leftward slant of the IL, and let me pose a question.

Who is the Left really rebelling against? Is it the upper class?

They are the freakin’ upper class!

They’re rebelling against the middle class, from whose ranks historically came those who’ve risen to replace upper classes that grow rotten at the center.

But what about types like Obama and the Ivy League minority recruits?

So how does a rotten upper class rebel against a large and vigorous middle class?

By going to the disaffected minorities for recruits. The bright among them are invited into the upper class, bypassing the traditional route through the middle, so they don’t pick up annoying middle-class egalitarian values along the way.

Those left behind, and those who have dropped into the lower class**, the “lumpen” elements, are a large potential army of foot soldiers. (See the BBC documentary on soccer hooligans in Britain, more later.)

We’ll return to this later, I’d like to hear from some of you.

*”Real Genius” is an early Val Kilmer vehicle, a wonderful movie about a school obviously modeled on CalTech.

**See Eric Hoffer’s “The True Believer.” One of the crucial sources of recruits for a mass movement is the newly poor, the memory of whose former status “is a fire in the blood.”

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CORRECTION: The quotes below are from The Peace Racket by Bruce Bawer http://www.brucebawer.com/ I followed the link provided and assumed it was another article of Dr. Hanson’s, in spite of the fact that Mr. Bawer’s name was at the top. I apologize for my carelessness – and it’s still a great article.

Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”

Georges Santayana

“It’s not that history repeats itself, it that sometimes she screams “Won’t you ever listen to what I’m trying to tell you?” – and lets fly with a club.”

John W. Campbell

I hope by now that y’all have some trust in my recommendations of thinkers and writers worth listening to, because I have another one I consider very important.

Victor Davis Hanson is a military historian, and oddly enough a grape farmer in California. He publishes in a lot of places, but if you go to his personal website here http://www.victorhanson.com/ most of his stuff gets posted there eventually.

If you are a history buff, his books are both informative and readable. His latest is A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponesian War. I personally recommend Carnage and Culture to begin with.

If you go here http://www.city-journal.org/html/17_3_military_history.html you’ll find his latest article Why Study War? a justification for military history studies, now almost vanished from American academics, to what may be our lasting regret in the future.

If you like it, you’ll want to follow the link to The Peace Racket (by Bruce Bawer.)

Dr. Hanson is a supporter of the Iraq war and President Bush – and a registered Democrat. Now semi-retired from teaching, he’s managing his family farm and writing.

Unlike many academics who consider unreadable prose a sign of sophistication, Hanson writes with directness and clarity.

“For the cold war’s real lesson is the same one that Sun Tzu and Vegetius taught: conflict happens; power matters. It’s better to be strong than to be weak; you’re safer if others know that you’re ready to stand up for yourself than if you’re proudly outspoken about your defenselessness or your unwillingness to fight. There’s nothing mysterious about this truth. Yet it’s denied not only by the (Oslo Nobel) Peace Center film but also by the fast-growing, troubling movement that the center symbolizes and promotes.”
Bruce Bawer

To those of us who have worked with our hands running the gritty infrastructure of civilization*, this seems to be a self-evident truth of human nature. Yet we are daily confronted with the obvious fact that to many of the most affluent and well-educated members of our civilization it is not evident at all.

George Orwell would have understood the attraction of privileged young people to the Peace Racket. “Turn-the-other-cheek pacifism,” he observed in 1941, “only flourishes among the more prosperous classes, or among workers who have in some way escaped from their own class. The real working class . . . are never really pacifist, because their life teaches them something different. To abjure violence it is necessary to have no experience of it.”
Bruce Bawer http://www.brucebawer.com/

Like other philosophical farmers such as Hesiod or Robert Burns, his works may outlast his civilization. And if enough of our people read, discuss and debate what he has to say, we may get to keep our civilization a while longer.

* I spent a total of six years working as a garbageman, another half-dozen as a sewage treatment plant worker. I’ve also bucked hay in harvest season and worked in construction (semi-skilled jobs). And though it’s a common stereotype it’s a valid one, if you really want insights into people try being a bartender.

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