May 19, 2008

What Happened Matters From a speech Bill Moyers gave nineteen years ago yesterday: In his account of Vienna at the turn of the century, Carl Schorske wrote that "the modern mind has been growing indifferent to history because history, conceived as a continuous nourishing tradition, as become useless to it." Nathan Teitel describes as one of the most disquieting features of American life "the lack of historical continuity and communication between generations. What is happening today, this hour, this minute, seems to be our sole criterion for judgment and action." What a sad world it is that exists in the present, unaware of the long procession behind us. Sad, and dangerous, too. It is no accident that Big Brother, in the novel 1984, banishes history to the memory hole where inconvenient facts simply disappear. The power of despotism described by Orwell relies on the police for enforcement, but it rests on an obliteration of the past. O'Brien, the personification of Big Brother, says to Winston Smith, the protagonist: "We shall squeeze you empty, and then we shall fill you with ourselves." And they do. People are made to remember only what they are taught to remember and the content of their memory is changed overnight. The bureaucrats in the Ministry of Truth destroy the records of the past and publish new versions. These in turn are superseded by yet more revisions, until history becomes one long erasure for the convenience of the state. Why do those in charge go to such lengths to wipe out memory? Because they know the past is indispensable to freedom. People without memory are at the mercy of their rulers because there is nothing against which to measure what they are told today. Winston Smith says, "History has stopped." I think about our relationship with history whenever someone like Scalia barks "Get over it." Moreover, it's what I think about whenever I encounter someone who predicates an assessment of a way forward with, "However we may have gotten into Iraq…" or "Whatever mistakes were made in the past…" or "Regardless of what happened earlier…". The pundits are fond of ridiculing Obama's "Change" sloganeering by saying that "every election is about Change" or, more significantly, "every election is about the future, not about the past." While there's truth in this view, there's also truth in the view that the past matters. That's what came to mind today while I was watching this: It's not simply sour grapes or petulant frustration that fuel these kinds of rants; it's also a genuine yearning for Americans to acknowledge that it is a duty of citizenship to hold our government responsible for its own history – and to learn from it.
Little White Omissions 20 years ago I sat in a classroom and listened to my mythology teacher explain what kothornoi were. Her explanation was based entirely on what she believed, rather than on the existing body of scholarship and research available to her. It was, to my mind, an abuse of the sacred relationship that exists between a teacher and her pupil; an affront to the idea of truth itself. Her transgression wasn't that she transmitted bad information, or that she was a bad teacher (which she was) - it was that she knowingly and purposefully presented her own baseless speculation as historical fact. A few years later (during my freshman or sophomore year in college) I remember sitting in a geology classroom and listening to a brief, odd, and mildly apologetic introductory speech by the instructor on the subject of God and geological time. This was yet another hint that something was amiss with my education. Additionally, the subject of biological evolution was completely neglected in the course of my education; or, rather, I have no recollection of any teacher ever explaining it to me. I sailed through biology courses in both high school and college without ever encountering a explication of the theory of evolution by natural selection. (I was well into my thirties before I developed a basic knowledge of how evolution actually works - as a consequence of independent reading and study.) Here's a passage from Evolution and Creationism in America's Classrooms: A National Portrait (published on May 20, 2008):Community pressures place significant stress on teachers as they try to teach evolution, stresses that can lead them to de-emphasize, downplay, or ignore the topic. This is particularly true of the many teachers who lack a full understanding of evolution, or at least confidence in their knowledge of it. Such a lack of confidence can lead teachers to avoid confrontations with students, parents, and the wider community. They may, for example, not treat evolution as the class's organizing principle, or may avoid effective hands-on activity to teach it, or not ask students to apply natural selection to real life situations. There are many reasons to believe that scientists are winning in the courts, but losing in the classroom. This is partially due to the occasional explicit teaching of creationism and ID, but most especially because of inconsistent emphasis and minimal rigor in the teaching of evolution. I believe that this was the case in my own experience. However, it was the failings of my education that eventually came to inspire the curiosity that defines my intellectual life today. Being lied to can do that.

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