Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Don't Know Much About History

I've read and thoroughly enjoyed several books written by historian David McCullough, so when I saw that he was interviewed in the Wall Street Journal on the subject of teaching history to our children, I wanted to see what he had to say. To summarize his view succinctly, he's not pleased.

Here's the lede:
'We're raising young people who are, by and large, historically illiterate," David McCullough tells me on a recent afternoon in a quiet meeting room at the Boston Public Library. Having lectured at more than 100 colleges and universities over the past 25 years, he says, "I know how much these young people—even at the most esteemed institutions of higher learning—don't know." Slowly, he shakes his head in dismay. "It's shocking."

He's right. This week, the Department of Education released the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress, which found that only 12% of high-school seniors have a firm grasp of our nation's history. And consider: Just 2% of those students understand the significance of Brown v. Board of Education.

Mr. McCullough began worrying about the history gap some 20 years ago, when a college sophomore approached him after an appearance at "a very good university in the Midwest." She thanked him for coming and admitted, "Until I heard your talk this morning, I never realized the original 13 colonies were all on the East Coast." Remembering the incident, Mr. McCullough's snow-white eyebrows curl in pain. "I thought, 'What have we been doing so wrong that this obviously bright young woman could get this far and not know that?'"

Answer: We've been teaching history poorly. And Mr. McCullough wants us to amend our ways.
So what's wrong with the way history is taught today? McCullough focuses on three things, teacher education, method, and political correctness:
One problem is personnel. "People who come out of college with a degree in education and not a degree in a subject are severely handicapped in their capacity to teach effectively," Mr. McCullough argues. "Because they're often assigned to teach subjects about which they know little or nothing." The great teachers love what they're teaching, he says, and "you can't love something you don't know anymore than you can love someone you don't know."

Another problem is method. "History is often taught in categories—women's history, African American history, environmental history—so that many of the students have no sense of chronology. They have no idea what followed what."

What's more, many textbooks have become "so politically correct as to be comic. Very minor characters that are currently fashionable are given considerable space, whereas people of major consequence farther back"—such as, say, Thomas Edison—"are given very little space or none at all."
This is, of course, what happens when the left takes over an institution, as they've taken over American education. History is not taught for the sake of helping students understand and appreciate their heritage, but rather as a means to indoctrinate them with a political or social agenda.

The same thing is happening to some extent in the sciences. Students in many schools are taught about various environmental problems, often inculcated with left-wing political views in the process, and often at the expense of learning basic science. They're also often indoctrinated in Darwinian materialism regardless of the offense this might cause to the students', or their parents', deepest beliefs.

Literature classes are likewise often politicized. In many schools the classics are eschewed in favor of works which have a liberal socio-political message. Students in many cases are required to read novels that emphasize race, class, gender, or sexual orientation, but are never exposed, except superficially, to Shakespeare.

Perhaps as time goes on the pendulum will swing back to the side of common sense, assuming that we have time. Perhaps in time people will realize that the left has the Midas touch in reverse, pretty much vitiating everything it handles. Perhaps in time people will have had enough.

Jacoby on Free Will and the Mind

It's important to understand at the outset here that Susan Jacoby is an atheistic materialist. Materialists, if consistent, should be skeptical of free will given that in a purely material world everything is governed by the laws of physics, including the chemical processes in our brains that give rise to our choices. Jacoby is indeed such a skeptic so to that degree she's consistent, but that's pretty much where the consistency ends.

She composes a somewhat rambling essay in the Washington Post in which she voices her doubts about whether human beings make genuinely free choices. Here's a part:
Even if our ostensibly free choices are ultimately bound by genetic and environmental factors stretching back over millennia, that does not mean that our choices, in the here and now, are inconsequential. Free will may or may not exist in an ultimate sense, but proximate decisions must be, and are, made as if free will does exist.
She seems to be saying here that we have to live as if we are free even if we aren't. In other words, a materialist worldview does not permit us to live consistently with the truth. We can't live consistently with the knowledge that our behavior is the product of genes, environment, and physical laws. It's strange, I think, that a process, natural selection, that's supposed to adapt us to the world as it is would create in us an illusory belief, the belief that we're in fact free to choose when in fact we are not.

Jacoby adds this:
There is clearly a deep human need—yes, encoded in our DNA as a species—to believe that we are in some way set apart from and superior to the rest of nature.
But why should this be? Why hasn't evolution molded us to conform to reality, to accept our lot as just another mammal, a cog in the machine of existence? And if we are just another animal in the world of nature then our morality is just another illusion because there's no morality in nature.

As a materialist Ms Jacoby is also unwilling to posit any immaterial substances as part of the make-up of reality:
I don’t believe any of this [i.e. God, soul, consciousness, mind] and consider the idea of a “mind” independent of our physical brain as just another attempt to inflate humans above nature. Call it what you will, but consciousness is the literally marvelous result of what the brain makes of various stimuli over a lifetime. Nothing more, but also nothing less.
I don't know how familiar Ms Jacoby is with the problems posed by sensation, intentionality, incorrigibility, memory, etc. for her view of consciousness, but I commend to her this fine piece on the subject by Raymond Tallis in The New Atlantis. Perhaps reading it will help her to realize the utter inadequacy of materialist explanations of consciousness.

Ms Jacoby concludes her column with this perplexing thought:
Insofar as real evil is concerned, I think that the philosophical question of whether ultimate free will exists is as irrelevant as it is in more ordinary matters. If there are, as I believe, significant limitations on free will as defined in either religious or secular terms, that does not negate the existence of good and evil any more than it does the consequential nature of the lesser choices we make.
This is simply confused. There can be no good and no evil if there's no genuine choice nor if we're not somehow "inflated" above nature. We don't consider animals to be moral creatures because their behavior is genetically determined. A cat torments a mouse, presumably causing it much pain, but we don't call this behavior evil because the cat is simply obeying imperatives which it's simply not free to override. If we're not free to do other than what we do then human cruelty is no different than what the cat does. It's neither good nor evil, it just is.

It may be that there really is no free will. A free choice is a difficult thing to conceptualize in any event, but if we're not in some sense free then no one ever deserves punishment or reward, there's no such thing as moral obligation, and our notions of human dignity and human rights are absurd. It's no wonder that atheistic materialists find it so hard to live by the implications of their worldview. Indeed, one wonders how Ms Jacoby might answer the question whether she has actually chosen not to believe that her choices are free.

If someone believes in the existence of free will, moral duties, moral accountability, human dignity, human rights and a conscious immaterial mind distinct from the brain they almost have to be a theist if they aspire to be logically consistent. If they're an atheist they have almost no grounds for believing that any of these exist.

Another essay by Raymond Tallis at The New Atlantis addresses the question of free will and determinism that Ms Jacoby raises. You can find it here. Both of his essays are a bit lengthy but well worth the time it takes to read them.