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The power of studying humanities

I like the following comments by Adrian Wooldridge, the journalist, writing in Bloomberg ($ paywall) a week ago:

The humanities at their best are also perfectly equipped to provide an education in something that has been sadly lacking in recent business history: human judgment. The notion of judgment might sound a bit vague — certainly compared with the profit and loss of the business balance sheet or the ones and zeros of the digital economy — but the difference between a successful leader and a mediocre one does not lie in the amount of information they possess. It lies in the very human ability to process a vast mass of ambiguous information — sales patterns, technological innovations, political threats — and then make a rapid decision under pressure. The importance of judgment is growing as the world becomes more uncertain and trade-offs become more pressing. Who knows? Perhaps this week’s financial turmoil could have been avoided if Greg Becker, the CEO of the just-shuttered Silicon Valley Bank, had studied the humanities at Indiana University instead of majoring in business.

A preference for deceptive certainties over fuzzy truths has arguably been the biggest problem for business in recent years. Businesspeople have grown incomparably rich since the 1980s by embracing the deceptive certainties of business theory while forgetting the great truths of political theory. They have embraced the cult of shareholder value (paying themselves like owners rather than employees) while also providing themselves with golden parachutes and exploiting every accounting trick in the book. But in so doing they have whipped up popular fury that is threatening to overturn business civilization (and will not be placated by a few bromides about diversity and sustainability).

They would have been wiser if they had studied classical political theory along with contemporary economics and business theory. Aristotle argued vigorously for the “golden mean” on the grounds that a prosperous middle class is necessary to long-term stability. Plato insisted that elites inevitably collapse if they give way to their own appetites rather than restraining themselves in the interest of the public good. Surely Plato+Aristotle is a better formula for understanding the state of modern America than any number of business theorists?

I’d like to quote the whole article but there is a copyright/subscription issue, and I am a free marketeer and respecter of property, after all.

26 comments to The power of studying humanities

  • Steven R

    The flip side of that argument is that the people at the top of the pyramid, be they political, economic, social, or business, don’t want a public that thinks for itself. They want technical innovation, but only insofar as it leads to new things to sell. They want cogs for their machine. It’s why they have developed an educational system that is one size fits all and no longer pushes the classics.

    I’m an educated man with degrees and all of that, but my counterpart from a hundred and fifty years ago would have been schooled in Latin and read Cicero and Caesar in the original language, would have been very well versed in mythology and religion and the literature of the day and mathematics and the sciences from an early age because education was still valued. Now college is just about checking the boxes and getting through it as one more thing kids have have to do to get a job. Ignorance is seen as a virtue. Think of the number of people who almost proudly say they only speak one language or can’t do math or never read Shakespeare. And our system of education encourages that by telling kids that stuff is nice to know, but not necessary. So go to work, do your job, get married, have kids, watch tv at night, consume products, and do the same thing tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that. Thinking is not required.

    Once upon a time I went to pick my brother up from his job at McDonald’s. I was reading a book in the dining area while waiting for him and some kid he was working with asked me “what are you reading for?” That question has stuck with me all these years. Not “what are you reading” but “what are you reading for?”

    We are watching night fall on civilization itself.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Steven R, yours is a counsel of despair.

    I think there’s a growing understanding that much of our education system is rotten to the core. In the US, homeschooling is, so I understand, booming. There’s a demand for alternatives.

  • bobby b

    “The humanities at their best are also perfectly equipped to provide an education in something that has been sadly lacking in recent business history: human judgment.”

    But we don’t see “the humanities at their best” anymore in most places. What we see is the humanities captured by one political outlook and personality.

    I would counsel kids into the humanities if the humanities’ personnel had balance and neutrality and wisdom. I see none of that anymore.

    A rejection of a supposed humanities-based education isn’t driven by a rejection of the life-usefulness and value of that education. It’s driven by the knowledge that a humanities-based education is no longer available. “The public good” used to be a valuable concept, until it was highjacked into “my group’s good.”

  • bobby b

    Here’s an article concerning the attempt by the trustees of UNC to introduce a semblance of learning about civic processes back into the college:


    (Hint: huge pushback by the woke college staff. The UNC’s “humanities” offerings will remain as they have become – ideological persuasion.)

  • Steven R

    It isn’t just that politics has taken hold of every College of Liberal Arts department.* It’s that the things that made the West the powerhouse it was are no longer being taught. Universities across the US have eliminated their Classics Departments. Students are told that the Greeks and Romans are no longer worth studying, what with their patriarchy and colonialism and slavery and whatever. So no one studies them. And there isn’t a push from on high to get people into those fields because the people in charge of all this don’t want thinkers; they want drones who will work and buy and have a few creature comforts and raise their kids to do the same.

    I am always astounded that in my parents’ lifetimes they saw children facing dogs and fire hoses and the Bull Connors of the world so they could have the education as whites, then demand busing so their kids could go to better schools (which just proved it wasn’t the money coming into the school or the area the school was in but the students and teachers, so that was done away with), to a situation now where so many black parents don’t care if their kids are educated and the kids are discouraged from excelling because they have to “keep it real” and getting an education is “acting white”. Meanwhile, in places in Africa and Asia, the parents are struggling and sacrificing so their children can have the chance to be educated. It comes down to education is the key to success and in the West we’ve had it too good for too long so education is now just a given so it isn’t valued. Plus our masters don’t want us thinking for ourselves lest we decide they need to go.

    *History departments in the US are full of screaming leftists, but in my experience even the most left leaning of professors will allow right wing arguments in classes and in papers so long as the student can back it up with sources and can make a logical argument. They may still have posters of Che in their offices and departmental hallways, but they’ll still let you write papers that say Che was a monster.

  • Fraser Orr

    The humanities at their best are also perfectly equipped to provide an education in something that has been sadly lacking in recent business history: human judgment.

    Being, as I am, one of those grubby numbers oriented engineering types who eschew such things, I’d ask to see the supporting data for this claim.

    My experience is that people who focused on the humanities as a general rule show spectacularly bad judgment. It is from that matrix that we get such “useful” people as politicians, diversity people, pronoun demanders, and pearl clutching “think of the children” types. I’m afraid Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, both deeply flawed men, did far more for the world than any bunch of Dostoevsky quoting self important blowhards ever did.

    And although it is trendy to do so, more to make people think one is smart because one can quote them, are we really to look to Greek Philosophers as our source of wisdom? Have you read Plato’s Republic? Can you think of a more horrible society? One can certainly forgive their flaws since they did not have the benefits of 2000 years of thought and science to improve our views, but even though we might be happy that our child can count to 10 and recite the alphabet, we must surely expect more of them as an adult. Which is to say that the Greek Philosophers are admirable but not particularly useful.

  • Fraser Orr

    They have embraced the cult of shareholder value … But in so doing they have whipped up popular fury that is threatening to overturn business civilization

    One more comment on this — this seems a very misleading statement. The claim that “shareholder value” is a cult I find jaw droppingly shocking. The purpose of corporations as is stated in their articles of incorporation is shareholder value. That is what they are there for, that is why they employ people and produce things. That is why the founders started them. That is why investors put in capital. In what possible respect is that a cult?

    And as to whipping up popular fury… who exactly has done this? Not business owners but rather the very humanities type people of whom this article is a hagiography. Their selfish, vapid philosophizing, their demand to be the popular kid, has had them shit all over everything that made the country rich enough to support their mindless wailing. They are the Prince Harrys of society. They are the manifestation of what the Soviets used to call “Western Decadence”. To blame this on the business leaders is the core tactic they use: redirection — accuse your enemies of your own sins with such poker faced effrontery and chutzpah that people actually believe you.

  • Paul Marks

    Teaching the humanities, what used to be called a “liberal education”, is (or, rather, was) a good thing – however (and readers will know what is coming next) the teaching of the humanities has been taken over by leftists, turning what should be good into evil.

    As for whether a “liberal education” is a good thing for a person in business – I am not sure. I do know that a university degree (in any subject) was not considered necessary for a management job till quite recently – indeed before World War II a degree in the humanities was actually looked down on by many American business enterprises (such as the banks and railroad companies) – as they preferred, for senior positions, people with practical experience – rather than people who were “filled with theories” and unwilling to start at the bottom.

  • Paul Marks

    There are still a few universities, such as Hillsdale or the new university that Jordan Peterson is helping set up, where if someone truthfully said they had a degree from one of these universities – then a business should sit up and take good notice, as just choosing to go to one of these few “right wing” universities shows independence of mind.

    And someone having a “business degree” is no guarantee that they are pro business – even Wharton (the oldest business school in the United States – Donald Trump went there back in the 1960s) started to teach “Social Responsibility” (i.e. leftist ideology) from the 1970s onwards

    “I have an MBA” – oh from where? “Harvard” – do not let the door hit you on the way out.

  • bobby b

    PM: The problem with a degree from Hillsdale is that so many places can’t afford to rile the woke folk – employees or public – by taking you on. It narrows your choices considerably (at least in the US.)

    The benefit, though, is that this means you’re going to eventually be grabbed by a company that contains sufficient similar-thinkers-to-yourself that you will have a much more rewarding and comfortable employment.

    And you’ll have an education.

  • Fraser Orr

    @bobby b
    PM: The problem with a degree from Hillsdale is that so many places can’t afford to rile the woke folk – employees or public – by taking you on.

    I wonder if the day will come when having a degree from Harvard or Wesleyan will have a similar effect. I for one would much prefer a person from a technical college than those places because I know the baggage I’m going to get with it. Of course I have to keep such “wrong-thought” in my head rather than let it come out of my mouth.

    Plus I might actually get someone who can DO things. In my field there are WAY too many college graduates in Comp Sci who come out able to explain in great detail what the P-NP problem is, or who can tell you the big O notation performance of a graph partitioning algorithm, or explain the translation of a regular expression to a DFA in Haskell, or explain the socio-economic impact of internet access of minority communities. However, they have never actually written a real, substantial computer program. And are a little offended that you might expect them to do so during the interview.

  • Paul Marks

    bobby b and Frasor Orr.

    That, an economy where a degree from Hillsdale is a problem – not an advantage, is not a free market economy – it is a Federal Reserve economy (a Credit Money economy – Cantillon Effect, plus Corporatism pushed by government regulations).

    This accursed system is coming to an end – the end will be terrible, but at least it will be the end.

    Then it will be a matter of rebuilding – rebuilding a free society, not the “build back better” of the international collectivists.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Fraser Orr: My experience is that people who focused on the humanities as a general rule show spectacularly bad judgment.

    Well I suppose my experience, and that of Adrian Wooldridge, is different. And it is not as if our supposedly “experts” and policymakers in Washington DC, or the UK, or Berlin and Paris, have been much better. We handed over governance on issues such as Covid to committees of scientists, and we got months of lockdowns. In fact, the covid episode shows that men and women with a science background who have little appreciation of human nature, of history, and the lessons of said, make horrendous mistakes. Look at socialist central planning, once championed by certain people as “scientific”. A competent historian would have pointed out the folly. Consider Churchill, or Thatcher, for example. They admired science (Mrs T. studied chemistry) but were wide readers and whould have imbibed “Western Civ.” in school and later life. And we were the better for it. Even the astronaut Mike Collins, when giving a talk at MIT once, said all the science and engineering smarts in the world are lost if one cannot write and speak in clear, powerful language.

    I put this set of quotes up not to smear or dismiss science, or the teaching of STEM subjects, but because Wooldridge made an important point. It has become fashionable on parts of the Right to sneer at the humanities, or at least to dismiss them because of the crap going on in education. But if anything, recent times have shown that humanities are important, and all the more reason to want to restore good practice and resist the nonsense.

    The older I get, the more I think I can learn by reading classics of literature and history.

  • bobby b

    PM, as has been stated, there’s a great deal of ruin in a system. I suspect that even this one can limp along for decades.

  • Kirk

    I would like to submit that it’s not the “humanities”, whatever the hell they are at this point, nor is it the “sciences” that are at fault in all of this.

    At the root of things is this entire issue of just what the hell education is supposed to be, what it is supposed to do.

    Time was, it was a way for the excess stock of the aristocracy to pass their time and become qualified to fill roles in the church hierarchy or somewhere in academia. We did not use “education” as a proxy for virtue; we did not use it as a discriminatory tool.

    Hell, for a long damn time there, we didn’t even require people doing engineering to be educated, at all. They usually apprenticed themselves to someone who was doing things, and learned that way.

    Our use of the academic system has created two parallel problems: One, the sad fact that academia itself has become corrupted, and two, there’s no feedback loop from reality into the education system that says “Hey, that guy? The one you tested, selected, trained, and then certified with credentials? He’s actually an idiot that can’t do anything right. Everything he touches turns to sh*t…”

    Education confers no real virtue, I’m afraid. It is essentially meaningless in the face of the real world; you can have the most exquisite education imaginable, and if you’ve not got the wit or wisdom to duck when the beam comes swinging your way, that expensively acquired exquisitely refined classroom education won’t do you a lick of good. Hell, it’ll likely actually prove to be detrimental as hell to your survival as you try to fit what is going on around you into the entirely inadequate matrix you were taught at all those “good schools”.

    Don’t get me wrong: I think education is a good thing, just like I think intelligence is a good thing. Where I propose that we’ve gone wrong is that we’ve fundamentally screwed up with the way we’ve implemented the whole of education, and I would further offer that our definition of “intelligence” is woefully lacking.

    I mean, think about it: When was the last time you encountered a “new hire”, fresh from the halls of academia, who was prepared for the workplace? Or, even… Real life? As an actual adult, with agency?

    How often do you hear “Forget everything they taught you in school… We do things differently, here…”

    You hear that often enough, and you really begin to question the basic premise of why we’re even bothering to do education at all, given that we’re effectively ignoring it and doing On-the-Job-Training anyway.

    I’ve been watching the efforts and works of my supposed “betters” since I was a young man. There’s an essential fraud at the root of a lot of these things, one that I identified in my gut early on. When you encounter a supposedly “educated” person, with credentials galore, and they blithely inform you that they’ve not read a book since leaving college? When you visit their homes or offices, and find nothing in the way of reading material? When you note that they’ve not had an original thought in their lives, apparently, and that they’re still locked into whatever set of shibboleths were popular when they were at school?

    The whole of their “education” becomes highly suspect. The value, as well; if this is what “education” does to a human mind, I want none of it.

    I’ve also noted, with many of these supposed members of the meritocracy, that their works are usually highly flawed and entirely stupid. I’ve had to sit there and observe the utter failure of policies that I knew from the outset weren’t going to work, ever, but because they were conceived of and ordered by the “educated”, we went ahead and did them anyway.

    Smart is as smart does. If what you’re doing only appears to be smart on outside observation, yet does not actually, y’know… Work? You’re not smart. Your ideas aren’t smart. Your efforts are a waste. You are, in fact, a major leading cause of the fall of civilizations and the destruction of nations.

  • DiscoveredJoys

    Tony Blair now wants 70% of school leavers to go to university/tertiary education. Ha! How can you expect such a bulk process to produce worthwhile education (whether humanities or sciences).

  • Fraser Orr

    @Kirk, I think you need to clarify that you are referring to tertiary education here. Presumably you agree that literacy, numeracy, a basic grounding in science, history and civics, are not only valuable but essential to success in a western civilization?

    As to whether tertiary education produces value — it plainly does. Of course in some of the areas of study it is pretty fluffy and often counterproductive (primarily in the aforementioned humanities), but surely you agree that doctors, lawyers, civil engineers, architects and statisticians (to give a few examples) greatly benefit from their tertiary (and often quaternary) education?

    One point you make, which I think is great and needs re-emphasized is the education does lack a feedback loop. This is certainly true of the field I work in — Computer Science — where students desperately need an education but aren’t getting a particularly good one, outside of some excellent technical colleges. I think this actually illustrates what is the core problem — which is there is a difference between what the students are looking for and what that academics think they are providing. When it comes to Computer Science academics are focused on the “science” part — they want to be respected, white coated scientists who discuss high falutin’ ideas and theories preferably in lots of complicated math equations, when the kids entering the school are really looking for an engineering degree — how to build things well.And where the suppliers and demanders have a difference like this it is because there is no feedback loop.

    And part of that is that there actually IS a feedback loop — just a really toxic one — in terms of academic grants. A lot of the discretionary money college professors use (especially in the sciences) is doled out by government agencies. Harvard is getting your student’s fees irrespective of what they do, but those big grants require them to genuflect to the government authorities. And what does that produce? It produces things like Anthony Fauci, Covid Lockdowns and the “Climate Change Crisis”, where the government buys the authority of science to push their power plays.

  • Kirk

    Fraser, I refer to all education. I think that the vast majority of my time as a student was wasted, from day one to the day I achieved any of my (very) minor diplomas.

    Tertiary education, as you refer to it, is the culmination point of a system that produces dolts and drives anyone with any real intelligence or ability to think independently quite mad and far away from what we’ve turned academy-land into. It’s boring; it’s rigid; it’s set up to produce lock-step mindless drones more than actual educated adults. They spend rather more time on things like “paper-cutting activities” than on anything actually educational.

    Good God, if you think that the colleges are where the problems are, then take a look at how few actually literate men and women we produce these days. In the 19th Century, it was not uncommon to find the frontier here in the US West filled with cattle hands that knew how to read and write, whose numbers included men that carried copies of Blackstone in their saddlebags for “light recreational reading”. We used to achieve much better results with far fewer “resources”. Somewhere in my family papers and books from that era are things that they carried westwards on wagon trains with them, and they weren’t books written by and for barely literate morons like Stephen King.

    The standards we used to achieve in the primary grades and high schools were ones that today’s college students would be hard-pressed to meet, let alone exceed. That speaks volumes as to what value modern schooling has at any level. If you doubt me, go take a trip through used book stores for old textbooks, and then compare those to the ones we use today. It’s not a pretty trip.

    We’ve basically all been betrayed by the academy, relying on it to impart vital cultural information and inculcate the values of civilization. Too many parents subcontract those duties; too few pay actual attention to what their children are taught.

    So… Yeah. I’m indicting the entire system from primary grades up to graduate levels. We don’t produce people that can function as actual adults, capable of taking on any job they encounter. Good God, if you ran into some of the poor benighted bastards we run into trying to be construction workers or carpenters, you’d be left aghast. They’re not stupid; the sad fact is that they were taken in by fraudsters purporting to offer them educations, who then conferred upon them high school diplomas that weren’t worth the paper they were printed on. They’ve no education in any real sense; they were mostly just indoctrinated with the usual social themes of the day, and then passed on. Basic math and literacy are beyond a lot of them, and they don’t even know it. Schooling is supposed to equip one with the basic tools to function in life; whatever it has been doing for most of these people’s lives is anything but.

    The entire system is in dire need of reform, not just the universities. Many of the problems those institutions demonstrate may be laid at the door of the schools feeding into them; the children showing up at college are woefully ill-equipped to function at that level, which leads to everything being dumbed down.

    If you go and look deeply into it all, the entire curriculum at about every level has been undergoing a continual process of dumbing-down since around the turn of the 19th Century. History has been replaced with a nebulous concept of “social studies”; the “new math” of today doesn’t teach basic calculation or number facts, at all. The “drill-and-kill” things we oldsters did in school are no more; children have to pull out their calculators on their ubiquitous smart phones to do basic math, and they’re not even able to catch results that make no damn sense whatsoever; they accept the pronouncements of their tools as what I used to term “voodoo math”, with no questions. If the phone says something, then that must be true, no matter how egregiously wrong it might be on the face of things.

  • Steven R

    I remember seeing a high school final exam from the 1880s. I couldn’t get half of the questions right and I’m a moderately intelligent and educated man 21st century man. I managed to get a BA in History with most of my MA program behind me (my concentration was in American History with only my Master’s thesis to do to finish my MA) and minors in Political Science and Military Science. I have no background in philosophy, art, Latin, French, literature, mathematics, or science. How is it some 18 year old in 1883 had to have at least some level of knowledge of those fields to be a high school graduate, but college graduates today can get through their programs with not even a dusting of those things? Simply put, because we’ve dumbed down standards and converted university level work to just another box for most of us to check on our way to a corporate job and that was by design.

    That one shot in the Pink Floyd The Wall video with the kids marching into a giant meat grinder is so apropos. The education system we have today is not about education but entirely about making cogs for a giant machine because our betters don’t want us to be educated. Education leads to thinking and no one at the top wants that.

    I did manage to fill in some of those gaps in my education as an adult, but only because I wanted to learn about those things later in life.

  • Kirk

    If anyone doubts what Steven R and I are saying, go look up one of those handy mid-century books like this one: High School Subjects Self Taught.

    Compare the summary of what they expected a high-school graduate to know to today’s sadly diminished standards; look at the depth and complexity of the subject matter and the included reading lists.

    Raw unpleasant truth? There’s a damn reason the IQ test scores are dropping. It’s because the kids aren’t being educated, and they don’t have exposure to any of this stuff. It’s all fluff and gender studies, all the way down.

    And, what’s worse? We’re putting these people in charge of everything. Everywhere. Because they have the credentials.

    The big-A Academy has a lot to answer for. Since Wilson’s time, they’ve been diligently digging out the foundations, and it won’t be too much longer before the whole sorry edifice collapses. They think they’ll be able to rebuild their utopian paradise on top of the wreckage, but I suspect that’s a delusional thought.

  • Paul Marks

    bobby b – I respectfully disagree, I believe this accursed system is close to its death agony.

    However, I hate this Credit Bubble Corporate State system with all my heart – and my hatred of it may distort my judgment on how long the accused system can last.

  • Fraser Orr

    @Steven and @Kirk, if you have read any of my comments over the past few years you will know that I am not a great fan of the educational establishment, in fact I think it’s problems are the root cause of most of today’s ills and its reform, unlikely as it is, is the only hope of salvation.

    But I want to push back on your overwhelming criticism of education here. For example to say that the 1880s high school exam was hard omits an important point — that the large majority of people in 1880 didn’t go to high school, so it is a very narrow, select group. I think it would be fairer to compare it to, for example, an AP Calculus exam, or the brutally challenging AP World History.

    And I think it is also important to say that one of the biggest problems with education in the USA (and to a much lesser extent in the UK) is the variable quality. My kids went to high school in a nice neighborhood and nearly all of the problems you observed just were not there at all. Free thinking was strongly encouraged and supported, often under the educational buzz word of “risk taking”, high standards were set and enforced, yet multiple levels were offered to ensure kids of all ability levels were appropriately served. For example, depending on ability, some kids graduated with math at Algebra 1 level, whereas others graduated at PDE levels of calculus. Bullying was hardly present at all, and kids were offered education in various “blue collar” work, like auto repair, culinary skills and so forth. They had competitions for entrepreneurship, debate societies where all viewpoints were allowed, and although there are plenty of leftie types there were many conservatives, libertarians and Greens. Debate was robust, but certainly not censored. For sure there is a creeping DEI thing going on, but it certainly wasn’t too impactful on my kiddos.

    I’m about as libertarian as they come, but I have to concede that my neighborhood’s public high school was truly excellent.

    Of course my kids were lucky, and there are many schools thirty miles from here that I consider it almost child abuse to send them there. And maybe that is the sort of school you guys experienced.

    So the bottom line is that it depends a lot on the school. The real problem is the education mafia who want to lock kids into schools based on neighborhoods rather than performance, and the fact that they make it VERY hard to fire bad teachers, though there are certainly other issues too. If we are to fund public education then the way to ensure all kids have the same kind of experience as my kids is to let the public money follow the kids at the parent’s discretion. This would be an utterly transformative event in American education. And it is something that parents are overwhelmingly in favor of. However, it robs powerful people of their power and budgets so the forces against it are extremely formidable.

  • Kirk

    Fraser, I think you’re whistling past the graveyard.

    I’ll grant you that the aggregate high school student of the early 20th Century was probably an exceptional individual getting an exceptional education for the times. I’ll also point out to you that there are damn few of today’s students who can get such an education, today.

    My maternal grandmother’s high school transcript tells the tale, of what she could get in terms of an actual education back around the end of WWI in Portland, Oregon. It wasn’t the sort of thing I could even find, were I have to dropped out of high school and gone to the local community college. The level of instruction wasn’t the same, the curriculum wasn’t the same, and the work she was expected to produce wasn’t the same. At. All.

    My maternal great-uncle went to Stanford and got a degree in petroleum engineering, back in the 1920s. He did pretty damn well, with Standard Oil, and the few times I got to interact with the man, it was clearly apparent that he’d be considered some sort of freak Renaissance Man these days, because his conversation was sprinkled with allusions to things from the Western canon that they just don’t even bother to teach, these days. I can’t think of too many times where I didn’t have to go look things up, after talking to him; he was that sort of conversationalist, even with kids.

    I’ve worked with people that Stanford conferred the exact same degree upon, in the early 1990s. He was a well-trained seal, able to regurgitate whatever politically-correct things were au courant, but other than that? He was a narrowly-trained idiot savant. After you’ve had to explain to someone what the hell you’re talking about when you make an allusion to Sisyphus, you resign yourself to having to really dumb-down a lot of what you’re saying to him. Same. Damn. Degree. One, from seventy years earlier? Someone who kept reading and improving himself intellectually all of his life. The other? An educated barking seal, one who was proud to have never read anything other than a textbook required by his teachers. Kid really wasn’t all that bright; my troops use to run circles around him if there weren’t senior NCOs around to put an end to any shenanigans.

    I think it’s not the people, it’s the educational system that’s failed. Utterly. They don’t demand much of anyone, to be quite honest. I never once experienced a high school class that ever got to the end of the textbook by the end of the year; you could look in the teacher’s edition and study guides, and easily see that even those dumbed-down curricular activities and standards weren’t being met.

    By contrast, my grandmother happened to have conserved some of her high school textbooks, as references. Just for grins and giggles, I went out and acquired a couple of the teacher’s handbooks that went with them, and it was brutally apparent that the expectation was that students would finish the book with their school year, and that that was precisely what my grandmother and her peers had done.

    Some of the crap in her calculus textbook was the sort of thing you didn’t see until late in most modern college syllabi. We’ve fallen that far.

  • bobby b

    “I think it’s not the people, it’s the educational system that’s failed. Utterly. They don’t demand much of anyone, to be quite honest.”

    You must only demand of any person what the worst of that group can deliver. That’s equity. We’ve chosen to dumb it all down so no one feels inferior.

    Problem is, many are inferior.

    The schools are only a symptom. That “equity” effort exists all through society. It’s just most easily seen in the education context.

  • Kirk

    bobby b,

    I think that there’s an additional component to it all.

    Nobody wants to be the bad guy. Ever. Nobody wants to be that “judgmental” sort of person typified by Gordon Ramsey in the kitchen, or Simon Cowell as on his various TV shows. You see their success, and you have to realize that one component of it is that there aren’t any other people calling other people on their bullshit, elsewhere in society. It’s so rare that it’s now entertainment, and nobody really takes these guys seriously outside their context.

    Time was, you got that sort of honest critical assessment everywhere. People held you accountable for the effects of your actions, your performance. It was a general thing; nobody felt the least little bit sorry for you.

    Now? The prevailing attitude is “F*ck up, move up…” Nobody wants the hard job of being a hardass, and doing the right thing when it’s painful. Everybody wants to be nice; the friendly guy, the positive one. Failing to recognize that there are a lot of people out there who won’t respond to anything other than the spur…

    I used to see this all the time with low-level disciplinary actions taken in the Army. We’d have some malefactor dead to rights, talk things over with the commander, agree to a course of action, and then when we hauled said malefactor before “the Man”, “the Manlet” would manifest, and the commander would do something far removed from what we had discussed and agreed upon. With the usual effect on the state of discipline in the unit. I can only think of a few commanders I had who demonstrated the courage of their convictions and the testicular fortitude to do that which they’d agreed was necessary.

    You see the same thing in schools. Kids misbehave; teachers recommend; administration lets the kid off, ‘cos they’re ball-less bastards who are more concerned about their personal appearance than anything else.

    This is all of a piece with falling standards across society and the general drift towards zero accountability. You look upon these creatures, and wonder how they happened? They happened because of how they were brought up, by lazy parents and unconcerned oblivious educational systems.

    There’s a complex set of interlocking cultural shifts that have taken place. Parents don’t let anyone else discipline their little darling delinquents; teachers don’t demand high standards and zero cheating; administrators don’t back up the teachers, and here we are. The results flow out into society, like some sewage effluent of the soul. I don’t care for a lot of the old-school things that bordered on child abuse, but I can also see where the failure to uphold even lax standards is taking us. You can’t maintain a civilization based on touchy-feely inabilities to call spades spade-like, or provide accountability to sub-par behavior and performance.

    You have to wonder where it’s all going. No place good, I fear.

    We’ve all become “special”, which means that nobody is. In all senses of the meaning.

  • SkippyTony

    Ha ha. Thats some seriously funny shit.

    It used to be called the ability to discriminate.

    Lost art in these days of moral equivalence I’m afraid.