Sunday, June 29, 2014

Is History, history?

With all that is in the headlines today (together with what is not); scandals at the IRS, VA, NSA and happening abroad in Ukraine and Iraq, it's hard not to get a sense that you are living through History here and now. And since we're in the subject, did you ever ask yourself this question, at least once, while you were in school?:
Polemarchus: "But can you persuade us, if we refuse to listen to you? he said.
Certainly not, replied Glaucon.
Then we are not going to listen; of that you may be assured. "

----------Plato, The Republic, Book 1

"What do I need to study History for?!"
What did you think of the answers you were given? As an adult, with kids in school, you might want to pursue that question a little further with something more like this:
Is what it is that our kids are studying, still History? - or has History itself been relegated to the ash heap of history?
Of course to even be able ask these questions, you have to consult History... so to avoid going 'round and 'round in circles, we'd better first ask the question which very few people ever bother to raise:
What is "History" and what do we hope to learn from it?
If you search for a definition of the word 'History', with the exception of Wiki, believe it or not, you have to look far and wide for any site that gives the original meaning of the Greek word 'History'
"from Greek  historia, meaning "inquiry, knowledge acquired by investigation"
That understanding of the term was clearly the sense with which it was still defined in Webster's 1828 Dictionary which gave:
"HIS'TORY, n. [L. historia; Gr. knowing, learned, and to inquire, to explore, to learn by inspection or inquiry.]
1. An account of facts, particularly of facts respecting nations or states; a narration of events in the order in which they happened,with their causes and effects. History differs from annals. Annals relate simply the facts and events of each year, in strict chronological order, without any observations of the annalist. History regards less strictly the arrangement of events under each year, and admits the observations of the writer. This distinction however is not always regarded with strictness. "
Note the phrases I've underlined, the first being that facts & events alone are not History, and second, History includes the observations of the writer. Why? Hold that thought a moment. That understanding still substantially persisted in how Webster's 1913 Dictionary, defined History, although it had slipped down to second place:
"1. A learning or knowing by inquiry; the knowledge of facts and events, so obtained; hence, a formal statement of such information; a narrative; a description; a written record; as, the history of a patient's case; the history of a legislative bill.
2. A systematic, written account of events, particularly of those affecting a nation, institution, science, or art, and usually connected with a philosophical explanation of their causes;"
But that sense of History is pretty much gone from the modern Webster's definition:
": the study of past events
: events of the past
: past events that relate to a particular subject, place, organization, etc."
This newer definition essentially relegates History to being what the 1828 definition emphasized that History was not: Annals. Up through a century ago, History was still largely seen as knowledge and understanding obtained through inquiries into events "...usually connected with a philosophical explanation of their causes..."; and now to return to the thought I asked you to hold onto above: for what reason? The historic reason, was that it was in order to obtain Wisdom; to provide a means to a better understanding of ourselves and our culture; to provide an aid in developing an awareness of the pitfalls which our desire to make progress often leads us into, with hopes of it helping us to avoid repeating those errors ourselves; and a means of helping us to better understand the reality of where we are now, in order to help find our way more surely into the future.

One wag summed up the alternative modern approach to history, as being one where,
'Americans treat history like a cookbook. Whenever they are uncertain what to do next, they turn to history and look up the proper recipe, invariably designated  "The lesson of history"'
Which is a recipe for bad history.



Cooking the History Books
Looking to 'History' as simply 'the study of past events' in order to provide us with useful responses to situations, is an ahistorical view, downgrading History from a means to wisdom, to that of a useful skill. This new view historically had its proto-Utilitarian beginnings with Helvetius's 'Of the Spirit' (1758), a view which Isiah Berlin summarized in his 'Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty', as
"...history is nothing but the tale of the crimes and the follies of mankind..."
, to be used, as Helvetius conveyed in a dialog by having God declare to Man that:
"...Over thee I set pleasure and pain; the one and the other will watch over thy thoughts and acts, excite thy aversions... set on fire thy desires"
This view sees history's only use as being a record of events & changes to be studied, like strata of geologic rock, in order to be utilized by 'those who know' as a means of making (and justifying) changes and improvements to what they regard as the plastic material of man. Helvetius was actually shocked on reading his friend Montesquieu's "Spirit of the Laws" (a book that was one of the most referenced by the Framers of our Constitution during its creation), he was alarmed that he'd publish such wisdom for the masses to see, where what they really needed was to be told what to do. Helvetius wrote to Montesquieu
"...You bid us behold the world, how it has been governed, and how it is still ruled: but you too often give the world credit for reason and wisdom, which are in fact your own, and of which it will be much surprised at receiving the honors.

...But have you not flattered them too much? Such a course may propitiate the priests; and in dividing the spoil with those Cerberus's of the church, you silence them with respect to your religion:.... as to the rest, they will not be able to comprehend you. Our lawyers are not able either to read or understand you. As to the aristocrats, and our petty despots of all grades, if they understand you, they cannot praise you too much, and this is the fault I have ever found with the principles of your work. You may recollect, that in our discussions at Brede, I admitted that they might apply to the actual state of things; but I concluded that a writer, anxious to serve mankind, ought rather to lay down just maxims for an improved order of things yet to arise, than to give force or consequence to those which are dangerous, at the moment when prejudice is striving to preserve and perpetuate human ignorance and subjection...."

That is what most of us have in mind when we're asked about what 'Elitist' thinking is: the belief that the mass of people are too dull and stupid to be trusted with their own lives. And in this new modern sense of 'history', our elites, such as Cass Sunstein, view history as being little better than a cookbook of recipes to serve up the most useful actions to be taken, nudging and shoving us as needed in any given situation with maxims of Pleasure and Pain, not as a means of bringing about greater understanding & wisdom, but to order other people's lives as Elites determine as being best for them. So my question, my inquiry, is: If History originally had one purpose, and that has been changed into another, is that change an example of making Progress or Regress? Is it still History? How are you able to know? And how are you able to know, except by inquiring into what men have thought, said and done, and by carefully considering what has resulted from those actions before?

Funny how the answer you receive, even if you try sticking with the modern answer, still finds yourself being returned to the original one, isn't it? Mightn't it be a good idea to give that original answer some further consideration? Not to mention looking very carefully at why you've been led to think that it wasn't enough.

A Textbook Case
Back in January a friend sent me a link to the new AP History standards, asking my opinion of it. I didn't get to get too far into it before realizing that there was only one opinion that could be formed from it: If these standards succeed in becoming The Standard, then the once standard view of history will itself become history; The History as means to Wisdom, such as Montesquieu sought, will be replaced by 'history' as maxims and skills, as Helvetius sought.

The opening paragraph of the Introduction, sets the tone for the tome:
"...The resulting program of study contains clear learning objectives for the AP U.S. History course and exam, emphasizing the development of thinking skills used by historians and aligning with contemporary scholarly perspectives on major issues in U.S. history. The course is designed to encourage students to become apprentice historians who are able to use historical facts and evidence in the service of creating deeper conceptual understandings of critical developments in U.S. history... "
This is the view of History as being nothing more than a means of manipulating the past, in order to build something new upon it. In particular, focusing upon the "development of thinking skills" screams out that it will inhibit any actual thinking, consideration and reflection. Instead it will promote useful skills in using references and citations for a purpose - that of delivering one recipe or another; and "aligning with contemporary scholarly perspectives", confirming that this Standard, has and intends to have, an agenda; to "encourage students to become apprentice historians who are able" to see History as but a useful skill, with apprentice historians being the most useful tools, for employing them.

Actual History might suggest a couple questions that would be useful for us to ask: useful to who and for what? To be employed to further...what? The answers, if you've any of the original spirit of history left in you, is given to us to be read right there between the AP's words: Serving up scholar's accepted and politically correct perspectives, is what they are to be employed in service of. And in that view, history can become little more than data to be quantified; studied, not as a means to a deeper understanding of self and society, but in order to further pre-determined ideological aims, serving up useful nudges to those studying it. How men actually act under the influence of ideas, passions, and adverse or favorable events and circumstances, can and will be given no more consideration than a laundry list for training others in using those references to effectively spin the approved position.

One of the principals behind the abhorrent 'Common Core Standards' is a fellow named David Coleman, unsurprisingly he is also the fellow behind the new AP History standards. One of the 'favorite' make-work terms of CCS is 'compare and contrast' (See Terrence O. Moore's "The Story-Killers: A Common-Sense Case Against the Common Core" for an I-opening look at the dereliction of intellectual duty which their use of that phrase conveys, and what else is being standardized through the Common Core Standards), well, here's a chance to do just that; compare and contrast the AP intro, to the course blurb for History at Hillsdale College"

"...The History program at Hillsdale College strives to develop the minds and improve the hearts of students by engaging them in reflection upon the ideas, events, cultural patterns, and leaders responsible for shaping our Western Heritage, of which the American tradition is a part; to support the classical liberal arts education of our students through the development of critical and free inquiry, through the exposure to a breadth of knowledge about the human past, and through the refinement of oral and written communication skills; and to lead students into a dialogue with the inhabitants of the living past and thereby foster the historical perspective by which the present might be understood as an extension of the past. ..."
"Story-Killers: How the Common Core Destroys Minds and Souls"
Although this is not free of gobbledy-gook ('the development of critical and free inquiry', 'and thereby foster the'), its aim is true: the development of the individuals understanding of self, and society.

More to the original point, is this from Thomas Aquinas College, which teaches 'History' not as a subject itself, but as an understanding which emerges from teaching significant works from history in chronological context with that period's philosophy, literature, political development and so forth (which IMHO is how it should be):
"...No college can claim to complete a student's education, nor should it claim to teach all things. It ought to assert that it will teach him what is first and fundamental. Histories by such writers as Herodotus, Thucydides, Plutarch, Gibbon, and Tocqueville are read. However, the discussions they provoke are not limited merely to an interest in historical fact. These discussions, for example, may involve an analysis of the assumptions used by the writer in establishing and evaluating historical events. The value of reading history will always depend upon the quality of the reader's general understanding of reality. History itself will not make a well-ordered mind, but the cultivated intellect will profit greatly from the study of history...."[emphasis mine]
Are you seeing some contrast there? In the later view, Reality is seen as the root of all of the studies, and in the AP's, changing people's perception of what reality is, is their point. The language of the AP introduction, is not only tortured, inflated, self flattering and rife with pointless elaboration of terms ("Chronological Reasoning"), it screams out that this is unserious in its regard for History, and is instead intended to manipulate and sell not just a point of view, but a way of developing a point of view which excludes the real value of History - self knowledge. This is not designed to further the aims of anything worthy of the name of Education, but only for the development of useful, meaning 'Politically Correct', skills in furtherance of political ideology.

That is what it means to develop thinking skills to be employed for a purpose, a purpose having little or no relation to Reality.

The AP's Standards would have you "use historical facts and evidence in the service of creating deeper conceptual understandings" - that is a dangerous standard to keep. Yes, it is by considering historical facts and evidence, that you may develop a deeper conceptual understanding, but that is not the same as using facts and evidence in order to construct an understanding. Do you see the difference there? It's a small difference that has huge implications, as the later has a pre-conceived answer in mind which the facts and evidence are to be used to rationalize. If you use facts and evidence in service to developing deeper conceptual understanding, that entails cherry picking facts and evidence in order to elaborate a pre-determined conclusion. On the other hand, if you consider the facts and evidence, not simply as material which occurs as striations in the 'fact pattern' of time, but which follow from people's thoughts and actions, you may develop a deeper conceptual understanding... which can dangerous to approved views, as you just might be surprised through such an understanding the suggestion that what you thought you understood, was only a partial truth, shallow or even in error. That is not what standards such as the AP's want students to learn from History.

An actual consideration of the narrative of history goes far beyond mere facts and events, it's hardly a mechanistic 'insert fact 'A' here, attach event 'B' there, then turn knob 'C' for a deeper conceptual understanding' process. How deep that conceptual understanding can be developed will depend upon the purpose given for doing so - if it's understood that the purpose for studying History is to gain a greater understanding of yourself and human nature, then the depths you might discover are limitless. On the other hand, if the purpose for studying history is "aligning with contemporary scholarly perspectives on major issues", then those perspectives have already defined your limits, confining you to the conceptual wading pool of history.

This modern view of history means that those who've 'learned the lessons of history', will be advising people to take actions without either understanding their situation, or what a worthwhile solution to it would be. Consequently Mark Twain's 'history may not repeat, but it does rhyme', will do so at an ever increasing rhythm (and blues), rhyming and repeating the same mistakes in an ever increasing tempo.

Illusory Lessons Learned
If you don't value what is highest, you will foster and encourage what is lowest, and that goes double for human nature and the unfolding of it in time, which is what we should know of as History. When we talk of History, too often we are talking about what has changed over time, rather than those issues we need to pay attention to because they are timeless. Forgetting that the reason why we inquire into the past is to gain a better understanding, not of the illustrious dead, but of ourselves, we begin speaking of historic events and people of 20 years, 200 or 2,000 years ago, as if they have as little to do with us today as aliens from another world (which they will have become).

We repeat the error so easily by presuming that the trivial differences in appearance between one historical period and another are somehow what separate us from them; as if wearing a toga or a suit, or a grass skirt, for that matter, define a person or make us immune from the choices they made, or failed to make, on a daily basis. Why focus upon the dress and styles of those in the past? As Polemarchus asked in the opening of the Republic, can you persuade someone who will not listen? If you supplied a different view of history, to those fed the new AP view, could they be persuaded if they will not listen? If a person is led to believe that the dated appearances of the period, the dress and style of those in it, have more significance, or somehow determine what was said & done, than what was actually said & done... then, like Polemarchus, they won't listen to that which they'd actually said and done, has to say to them now.

I recently had an exchange with a fellow which illustrates just that. In a thread that had begun on the 2nd Amendment, he'd worked himself up to full leftist righteous superiority mode, demanding that I produce statistics to prove how the Free Market would benefit kids and seniors more than Social Security & Medicaid, which, if you've read any of my posts on how not to argue with leftists (such as here and here), you know that that's a lead I'm not going to follow. Don't follow the squirrel of statistics, that's simply a means of not discussing the Principle they're dying to avoid. He was infuriated when I returned to asking him to first explain how the Constitution, let alone Justice and Decency, justified stealing for their good intentions.

Still in full superiority mode, he said "The constitution also once claimed that African Americans were 3/5 of a person". I replied that he was wrong again, that it referred only to "three fifths of all other Persons", which had infuriated the pro-slavery members by refusing to introduce either race or slavery into the law of the land. I gave him a link to what Frederick Douglass had to say on how mistaken such a view of the Constitution was, but he had no comment to that.

Instead, he followed that up with how my 'precious constitution' (meaning it's neither his Constitution, nor precious to him?) denied women the right to vote. I told him, no, wrong yet again, it leaves voting up to the states. He followed that up, still in full leftie mocking mode, with an
"So the original Constitution allowed women and people of African descent to vote? Can you link me to something that will make me unlearn all the history that I have known to this point?"
Which I of course did (here and here). He of course didn't want to acknowledge that either, instead he replied about how 'your social darwinist views' would end life as we know it in America. When I explained that Herbert Spencer's Social Darwinism (he's the one who coined the phrase "Survival of the fittest") was not only opposed to everything I'd been explaining to him, but actually underlay nearly every view the he had been prattling on in support of, the irony was lost on him.

Not only did he not know who Herbert Spencer was, but he did not want to know. He did not want to know what the meaning of Social Darwinism was, or that it actually supported what he 'believed', and was in opposition to what I believed. When I pointed out that Spencer was a driver of using statistical Quantities to justify philosophic Qualities, ex: "Capitalism is the greater contributor to the greater good!", which, in conceding and discarding principles in favor of statistics, abandons what makes a Free Market justifiable, he was unimpressed. When I pointed out that Spencer was a driver of discarding an Education centered around knowledge of the best of literature, history, philosophy, virtues, in favor of one that concerned itself only with teaching useful skills, calculative abilities and a slate of memorized places and dates; that Spencer and Social Darwinism itself is in favor of exactly how this fellow was justifying his passion for imposing Social Security & Medicaid programs upon us all; was for his own reasoning for discarding the 2nd Amdt; was for keeping actual History and a regard for our Founder's Era out of our schools, in favor of useful skills for the '21st Century' economy - it made no impression upon him at all. How could it? He wasn't listening.

instead, he doubled down on that view by saying that it doesn't matter what happened a century ago (except with slavery and women's suffrage?), or what Social Darwinism Actually meant (except to accuse me of it?), only with what people like him 'knew' it meant today(without knowing even the first thing about what they claim to know!).

For the Pro-Regressive, the past, because it is past, and does not appear as 'up to date' as we do here and now today, it has no relevance to us. In that view, historical references and assorted facts are only fun to play with as long as they don't blow up in your face, and when they do, you simply deny them and refuse to listen to them. The Pro-Regressives today, approach the situation pretty much the same way as Polemarchus did, 2,500 years ago:
"But can you persuade us, if we refuse to listen to you?"
The answer to that question, then and now, is of course is: No. They will not listen to you, History, or anything else that might thwart those actions they're trying to force others to take - for their own good (as determined by them). They are not seeking after understanding or solutions, but only to change their approach so as to overwhelm your position. When that is the purpose of 'the lessons of history', then the 'educated' not only act without understanding, but boldly reject the need to; and then they rinse and repeat.

And when that lesson is thoroughly learned, History will have truly become history.

8 comments:

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Well said, Van!
The proregressives think so highly of their own, self-limited and caged thinking they disregard as worthless the timeless wisdom just waiting to be learned from history.

Instead they wanna deconstruct history and rewrite it in their own image and then force their enslaved thinking on everyone else.

To them, power is better than wisdom.
of course, without the wisdom power becomes destructive, corrupt, and tyrannizes those who love truth and liberty.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

"But can you persuade us, if we refuse to listen to you?"

To quote Alfred (Michael Caine) from The Dark Knight:

"Some people just wanna see the world burn."

Obviously they would prefer that to admitting they are wrong (or not EVEN wrong).

Steve Ogden ssogden@aol.com said...

Thank you so much for this essay. Although I never "formalized" my knowledge of History with a college degree, I have been a life-long, self-educated student and raised my children with the old admonition, "If you wish to understand what is happening Today and want to predict what will happen Tomorrow then you must study the Past!" (It must have worked as my son graduated Cum Laude with double majors in Poli Sci and History and currently serves as a USMC 1st Lt JAG Officer!)

While I have long admired Hillsdale College's teaching philosophies I was appreciative of the Aquinas concept of emphasizing the understanding history by not only reading the original authors but also studying the "context" in which their lessons were recorded and thereby obtain a greater understanding of what "really happened and why".

This is one of my frequent debating points when dealing with a Revisionist and one of my favorite examples is the use of the atom bombs on Hiroshima & Nagasaki to end the war with Japan. To our modern sensitivities, such horrible destruction is easy to condemn but taken in the context of the "spirit of the times" it was justifiable as the only way to bring the bloodshed to a close in light of the fact that Japan made it clear that they were willing to fight literally to the last man, woman and child. I also hasten to add my personal thanks for the decision as my father, having just participated in the defeat of Germany, would very likely been one of the estimated 500-750,000 Allied casualties had a conventional invasion of the Home Islands been necessary and I wouldn't be here now!

Thank you for your efforts to keep the study of true "history" alive and well. It is more important today than it has ever been.

Van Harvey said...

Thanks Ben. And while there are certainly some radicals who really do want to see the world burn, I don't think that the vast majority of them do (it'd be so much easier for me if they did!) - it's just that so much of what they've accepted as being so, isn't. And part of that acceptance means either not questioning what they assume to be true, or questioning them only from within their given framework. And unfortunately, within that pragmatic framework, Truth, as opposed to what is functionally useful at the moment, never has a shot.

They repeat Polemarchus' comment "But can you persuade us, if we refuse to listen to you?" in the same manner in which he made it: so sure that they are mathematically correct, it is issued as a taunt to those so foolish as to believe that 2=2=3, or even that the total they're sure they have in their hands is in any way dependent upon how it got there, that their opponents deserve their added sneer, more than actual consideration.

The fact that they are themselves attempting to divide by zero, never has a chance to enter their minds.

Van Harvey said...

Steve said "...emphasizing the understanding history by not only reading the original authors but also studying the "context"..."

Indeed. And truly, if that is not done, then what you are filling your head with is not History, but only someone else's answers, answers which have deprived you of the means of evaluating them - or even seeing the need to.

I found myself in that same situation, first from what I'd learned at school (which never quite jibbed with what I'd learned out of school), and then again with what I'd learned afterwards from those who said "Here's the history they are keeping from you!", which turned out to be just as selectively edited as the original bunk sold to me as history. That's when I went back to Homer & Gilgamesh & started working my way forward on my own, and that has had a huge effect in how I understand my own life, here and now.

"It must have worked as my son graduated Cum Laude with double majors in Poli Sci and History and currently serves as a USMC 1st Lt JAG Officer!"

Congratulations to you both!

ZZMike said...

I've been trying to pin down Common Core. Between supporters and opponents, there seem to be few.

Standards seem to be helpful (as engineers say, standards are great - that's why there are so many of them). But there seem to be two sides to this latest plan to improve the world: the standard, and the implementation.

Most of the implementations I've seen (math, reading) border on the bizarre. The assume that everything we've learned about teaching and learning over the centuries is old-fashioned poppycock, best thrown out and a new start made - from scratch.

Do the standards really drive the drivel of implementation? Or are the writers of these new texts and texts utterly clueless?

As to history, and the learning of it, I too would like to start with Homer, Gilgamesh, the Ramayana, &c, and work up, but I have somewhat less than 1000 years to devote to that effort.

The history we can read is mainly that written by the victors. We need some guides, some guidelines, to help us through the minefields. In military history, I can rely on Victor Davis Hanson; in other areas, I can safely ignore Howard Zinn. But that's hardly enough.

Van Harvey said...

ZZMike said "Most of the implementations I've seen (math, reading) border on the bizarre. The assume that everything we've learned about teaching and learning over the centuries is old-fashioned poppycock, best thrown out and a new start made - from scratch."

Which is pretty much the case, and has been the driving attitude of 'those who know best' for well over a century.

Leaving aside the problem of actually setting standards over issues that do vary with tastes, even among experts (Literature, History, Music, stand out), some of the problems with the Common Core Standards, is that their standards weren't written by people with the knowledge and experience in the subject to write them.

Math is the stand out on that, the one math teacher who was on the committee, refused to approve the standards, and now works against them. But 'English lit' as well. What you find when you look into them, is that few if any actual teachers were involved in setting the standards for what will be taught in the classroom, more often than not, it was test writers and programmers.

And that's just from the point of standards themselves, without getting into the issues of having standards, there are even worse problems for our style of governing, that these thoroughly and completely violate, or contrive to get around in order to do what they are otherwise forbidden to do.

The fellow in the video clip on this post has an excellent, short, book on the Common Core Standards, which thoroughly exposes the massive problems with them, from every level, "The Story-Killers: A Common-Sense Case Against the Common Core", by Terrence O. Moore, which I highly recommend.

Van Harvey said...

ZZMike said "As to history, and the learning of it, I too would like to start with Homer, Gilgamesh, the Ramayana, &c, and work up, but I have somewhat less than 1000 years to devote to that effort"

;-) I feel your pain. One problem with History, is... History. It wasn't ever 'a subject' itself, until the 1800's, and really Hegel. There are people who write on history who I really enjoy, Victor Davis Hanson for me as well, but the problem with reading only what others have to say about history... is it's kind of like reading a review of a concert. No matter how well written it might be, it is written by that person's point of view, and though it tells you about the music, you can't hear the music!

To really get it, I think you've got to read the material of history, what, where possible, those who lived it, say while living it. You get a much better sense of Ancient Greece, by reading what the ancient Greeks wrote. And you can get a real sense of how times changed for them too, as they did for us, from, say, WWI, to WWII to Vietnam, by reading how playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles & Euripides wrote about the same subject with the Agamemnon plays. I think I touched on that a bit in this post, Where is Justice to be found. It also has a list and links of some online basic works that need to be read to figure out who we are.

Yes it can take more years than we have to take it in, but there's another side to the 'concert review' I mentioned, and that is, just as whistling a tune, hearing the same tune on an AM Transistor radio, hearing it on a quality sound system, and hearing it performed in person, each give progressively greater depth and experience of the song... the song heard live, is recognizably the same song as the one being whistled. Read a piece or two and a review from each period, and then once you've passed through it all, go back and add another from each period. Maybe start with a play, saga, poem from each, then go back and add more, fill in with political commentary of the time, etc.

Like Soylent Green, History... is people!

;-)