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Friday, March 28, 2014

Higher Education

I am at the moment working my way through the last half of Francis Parkman's famous series on France and England in North America in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries,  written over a long period during the 19th century.  I was introduced to Parkman as a Harvard freshman, and I bought a complete set of this work--about ten volumes--as a grad student.  The early volumes are rather slow, and I'm not sure I'll ever get through them, but I decided to read the last 7 (each volume is only about 350 moderately sized pages), which cover the period 1688-1770 or so, that is, the years in which the conflicts between the French and English were part of larger world wars, culminating in the Seven Years War. (The last two volumes are about the conspiracy of Pontiac, about which I know nothing at all.)  Perhaps it was this that got me thinking about my undergraduate education--so different from what students receive now--and a light suddenly went on in my head.

The bulk of my undergraduate courses, including most (but not all) of the best ones, were lecture courses devoted to broad topics--large swathes of history, great authors, or branches of economics.  (Because I did so well in Economics 1, I took much too much economics in subsequent years.)  The quality of the lecturing varied widely. Some lecturers were organized and always did what they set out to do; others could not manage that feat.  The average history or literature or government course, however, had an enormous amount of reading.  Just to give you a couple of highlights, in my sophomore year I took a very popular course by a visiting professor from Chicago on Dostoevsky, Camus, and Faulkner.  The list included three of the four major Dostoevsky novels; all Camus's major works; and three novels by Faulkner, plus some short stories. And. . .we read them.  The next term, that spring, I took a course on international politics from 1919 to 1945 taught by Ernest May, who became my dissertation adviser, and Sam Williamson, who is still a good friend.  It included entire, substantial books on Germany, Britain, France, the United States, the Soviet Union, and the Far East in that period, and a good deal more as well.

There were already complaints in those days that students were too cut off from senior faculty, but I see now that they were misplaced.  Most of my classmates--though not all--had demonstrated substantial intellectual ability to get into Harvard in the first place.  We were being treated, I now see, like adults.  It was up to us to engage with the reading, whether we kept up steadily (as a few people did)_ or crammed in the three week reading periods in January and May (which I never failed to put to good use.)  We had to be ready to discuss those works in a three-hour final.  Young people can always rise to challenges, and we did.  Meanwhile, we were learning the experience of deep immersion in a subject.   This wasn't very hard for me. Books had always been my refuge and my most reliable friends.  But it was also required of my classmates, as part of their ticket to wealth and power which their diploma would represent. That had been true for about a century then--but all that was about to change.

I did what I could to keep that tradition alive both at Harvard from 1976 to 1980, where I taught a lecture course myself.  It had quite a lot of reading--although not as much as I did for May and Williamson--and because of the structure of the final exam, there was no way to avoid doing it.  (I made sure students would become immersed by dividing most of the reading into about ten sections and requiring each student to do two of them, and write one-hour essays on the subject they covered on the final.)  At Carnegie Mellon I developed a course called War and Revolution in the Twentieth Century, in which students read Pasternak, Malraux, Silone, Orwell, and Solzehnitsyn.  I don't know if there's anyone reading these posts who took that course, but I know it has stayed with certain students for the whole of their lives.  That was the point.

The trend for many years has been against large lecture courses and in favor of small group discussions.  That, it seems to me, inevitably puts more of a premium on grasping the approach of the instructor, rather than making up one's own mind about a long, great book. Scholars in the humanities, moreover, have become increasingly narrow.  And thus, it seems to me, today's elite students graduate with the ability to assimilate arguments quickly and regurgitate them, but without much experience in diving into large amounts of data and coming out with a conclusion themselves.  That in turn makes them much more likely to accept the conventional wisdom of their profession in their careers.    It also makes it less likely that they will spend much of their spare time reading long books later in life.

The world today is changing very rapidly, and we are having trouble coping with it, it seems to me, precisely because of a lack of long-term historical sense.  As I mentioned last week, our foreign policy establishment is committed to a rather naive belief in the continuing, unstoppable spread of democracy.  A few sanctions, it seems, will get any dissenters--like Vladimir Putin--back on the straight and narrow.  But that is not so.  The period of the Cold War was parallel to the long peace that followed the Napoleonic wars, roughly from 1815 until the mid-1860s.  A series of wars in that decade created modern Italy and Germany, but, thanks largely to Bismarck's skillful diplomacy, things did not spin completely out of control until 1914.   Bismarck may be Putin's model as well:  he wanted to make Prussia supreme in most of Germany, just as Putin wants to restore some of Russia's position in the former Soviet Union, but even Bismarck did not want all German-speaking lands under his control.   The Middle East, meanwhile, has essentially abandoned western tutelage.  The future relationship of the West and the Far East is, I think, much more uncertain than many of us realize.

We need men and women at the head of our institutions who can think both historically and on behalf of our whole society.  We do not seem to be producing very many of them any more.

I shall take a moment now to touch on another current controversy: Israel's insistence, as part of the peace negotiations involving the Palestinians, that the Palestinians and other Arab states accept Israel as a specifically Jewish state.  This, to  me, is a sad commentary on the decline of classic western political values.  After the American and French Revolutions citizenship became increasingly divorced from religion and, in much of western Europe, from ethnicity as well.  The Enlightenment called for equal political rights for all.  The Balfour Declaration called for a "Jewish national home": in which Jews--and specifically the Jews of the Russian Empire, who enjoyed very few political rights--could enjoy those rights, although it also specifically promised to protect the rights of the Arab population.  Israel has never been a completely Jewish state, and indeed, its Arab minority is increasing.  No advanced nation has found a way to keep its birth rate high enough to do without immigration.  Yet Israel wants to give special status to its majority of Jewish citizens--and to treat the Arab citizens similarly to the way Jews were treated in Europe in earlier ages.  I do not think this was what the founders of Zionism had in mind, but they came from much earlier generations.


Unknown said...

Mass media is a major distraction. The invention of TV and particularly "low brow" sex, violence oriented mass audience TV with lots of ads has reduced interest in reading. "Pan et Circe", sound bites,etc. rule the day. History started yesterday and ends tonight. Tomorrow I make up whatever reality I want.

Karl Rove quote:


"The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore." He continued "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."



"Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

I think the lack of contemplative study(modern hectic-"the world is too much with us" )and the mass media expansion has led to perpetual infancy as exemplified by the Neocons, the Western Press and unfortunately our latest Commander in Chief in Foreign policy. My kid reads a lot and I have just mail ordered Toland's "Hitler" and "Rising Sun" about Japanese WWII, which I read as a young man. His interst in history is piqued by the recent events. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing however. You have to know Russian , Chinese, Arabic, Jewish, USA, European, Ottoman history, etc. and take the press statements as "Newspeak" from Orwell as the average anchormann is no better informed than a 6th grader typically and is paid by oil company and toothpaste ads and reads whatever thex stick in fornto hjim and Newspaper articles all quote the same AP, New York Times line made up by a few people who "invent reality" in a fashion consumable for the hoi poloi in Orwell's 1984. Not that Putin is much better in domestic propaganda but that in this case the facts on the ground correspond to their version of reality much better.

David Kaiser said...

Good comment. Your son might enjoy my new book! It's available for pre-order and will ship within another week.

Unknown said...

Your new book about US entry into WWII. I have read about some of your books on Amazon now. Well researched and interesting.

I have a tendency to buy older books online however at 1 cent and then only pay shipping or to go to the library and due to the economic crisis and the internet I am learning to research things on my own and question beliefs and see patterns. Internet is a good source but archives search is important apparently:

(Dept. of State very good online source)


Writing history is one thing but how to find the truth as it happens and to change it? Nowadays the people post mobile phone tapes on Youtube and force govt. resignations or change the whole conversation in Turkey, Ukraine, etc. by discrediting the actors in the historical drama. This is "live muckraking" and more exciting.

The Kennedy Khrushev meeting as described by Sorensen I read yesterday sounds a lot like current "cold War" discussion but now it is 50 years later, accusations, mistrust about similar issues. The more things change the more they stay the same. Khruschev says Kennedy working for Wall Street effectively and that revolutions (Cuba,etc.) come from the people and are not Russia's fault. Each side mistrusting and blaming the other. Personal contact of summits however deepening trust and avoiding miscaluclations being most important. People of good will on both side avoiding collision. This is happening now again to reduce tensions in Paris. Historical perspective is very important.

Lars said...

I came to this post from Naked Capitalism's links, and I have to say that while I'm a fan of long reads and much of what the author stresses in terms of educating individuals, I think it's pointless to lust for this long ago past where people read voluminous works of history and literature and formed their vision of the world on that. Past leaders who were no more informed than our current lot read substantially. Jefferson's library is famous. Woodrow Wilson came of an olden liberal arts tradition. John F. Kennedy came out of a Harvard of this authors nostalgia where he had to put in the work to punch his ticket to power and wealth. And what did any of that net us? Leaders who were no more responsive to the needs of the people and the world than we have today. I know a great deal of people who have more decency than our elites and are far less educated. Decency and intellect cannot be formed with a nose in a book. Empathy cannot be learned from Faulkner alone. I'm convinced that it's a combination of the ones upbringing and innate nature. There are those that see light in words and those that let the words flow past them like a summer breeze. I'm not trying to argue against reading, against serious study. I'm arguing that it is not a solution for solving the difficult political problems that face us in the United States today.

David Kaiser said...

I cannot agree that Jefferson, Wilson and Kennedy had no more understanding or empathy for the plight of the common man and woman than our leaders today. Better comparisons to today's leaders would be people like Grover Cleveland and William McKinley. In JFK's America the rich paid 91% in federal income taxes above a certain rate, and young men and women in much of the country had top-quality higher education virtually for free. We imprisoned a much smaller fraction of the population than we do today. Yes, I am aware of the status of minorities and women in those days, and that's what Boomers use to feel superior. But it's not all that clear to me that minorities and women in the lower half of the population are better off today than they were then--or that white people in the lower half are. These things didn't happen by accident. My contemporaries made them happen.

Eyal Bar said...

I also came from NC. I actually think you're kind of wrong but lso kind of right about zionism.

From wikipedia:

Around this time Herzl grew to believe that anti-Semitism could not be defeated or cured, only avoided, and that the only way to avoid it was the establishment of a Jewish state.

In Altneuland, Herzl outlined his vision for a new Jewish state in the Land of Israel. He summed up his vision of an open society:

"It is founded on the ideas which are a common product of all civilized nations. ... It would be immoral if we would exclude anyone, whatever his origin, his descent, or his religion, from participating in our achievements. For we stand on the shoulders of other civilized peoples. ... What we own we owe to the preparatory work of other peoples. Therefore, we have to repay our debt. There is only one way to do it, the highest tolerance. Our motto must therefore be, now and ever: 'Man, you are my brother.'" (Quoted in "Zion & the Jewish National Idea", in Zionism Reconsidered, Macmillan, 1970 PB, p. 185)

So... it's ambiguous. Why? I think because back in the day they couldn't envision a world of massive immigration and out-of-balance birth rates. So they wanted to include anyone but they thought it will clearly be a Jewish majority and dominance (dominance while respecting the communities, like in the Ottoman Empire). And this is what we israelis do today. We allow everyone to practice their religion and to open businesses, to supervise hospitals, to be a member of parliament etc etc..

musings said...

I think that in the day when Israel was first envisioned, the despair about the Enlightenment and religious propaganda against it had not set in. HItler's rise gave the excuse to scratch Europe off the list as a progressive environment, in spite of the fact that in about a decade the Nazis were defeated decisively by combined forces which actually did uphold the notions of social equality without respect to religion or race.

I am afraid one of today's worst problems is that of retreating behind walls because it is believed that this will deal with all the problems of life, such as uncontrolled immigration. But what about America in the late 1800's. Should it have excluded "unmeltable ethnics" like Jews and Italians based on the fear of loss of identity? Fortunately, it adhered to enlightenment values and did not.
The retrograde attitudes originating in the right wing of America and Israel are very destructive of future hopes for everyone, and they invite the sort of violence we see as equally panicked Middle Eastern tyrants court religious fanatics to do their dirty work.

David Kaiser said...

Dear Musings:

Interesting comments. I have read that there is now considerable immigration of liberal Israelis to Europe, including Germany. This is not, for obvious reasons, something the government of Israel is anxious to publicize, but it may get to the point (I'm not saying it's there yet) where Germany, France or the US is an easier place for a non-religious Jew to live than Israel.
Regarding US immigration, it's because of the late nineteenth-early twentieth century surge that this blog exists--it brought two of my grandparents to the US--but to be fair, it was all stopped from 1924 to 1945, and that may well have made it easier to cope with the Depression in the US although it was tragic for many Europeans.