Archive for October, 2014

The World

We don’t understand the world because there are so many parts to it that it is impossible. Even by chopping it up into smaller pieces we simply run off in different directions. And, that in itself is interesting. It is part of our intellectual culture that if you break something like a scientific problem down into smaller pieces, they can be studied, understood and be put back together as a whole concept or process and connected to other scientific knowledge. Unfortunately, this process often does not work.

Anthropology, as a science, is constantly having its explanations of how living species were created and developed trashed by the discovery of new bones, cave drawings, etc. The best way to build highways lasts only until it is found that actually it has problems and there is a better way. On the other hand, there are powerful forces in social institutions to keep going with what has been and what is.

Education seen as schooling is one of our worst problems. The newest and absolute best way to induce learning in a particular subject almost always has been used before, sometimes as far back as the turn of the last century (perhaps even further back), but no one knows about it. After all, that was yesterday and we have moved on. What is even worse is that particular practices are trumpeted in a school system as the newest and best when the same thing has been advertised in another school system in slightly different form and the two institutions never get together. Unfortunately, the superintendent moves on or the the sponsoring group runs out of money and the “innovation” dies. States, the Federal Government and private groups have funded many projects that die when the money runs out. Over the years public television has televised many innovative programs in public schools, yet there has been little acceptance.

Many years ago I was a small part of a project by the State Department of Education in Virginia to delay the certification of beginning teachers for three years until they had been evaluated on the job and, if necessary, provided assistance in improving. Colleges of education in state institutions did not like this because it put their quality of professional preparation on display. Never the less, the Department persevered and the program was implemented. One of my daughters went through the three year process of being observed and counseled by a team of former teachers. While no one enjoys being judged, she found the process to have been helpful.

However, the superintendent who implemented the program retired and colleges of education managed to kill the program on the grounds that it cost more than the old way of simply certifying any state graduate who got a job. That way, colleges of education did not have to worry about having their work being scrutinized.

It’s hard to make a case that change in social institutions is really change. Human beings make decisions on what they think/feel is best for them and that often is not what is best for an institution or the people that the institution serves.


World War I

I have recently noticed a considerable increase in the number of books dealing with World War I. When I was in school beginning in the 1930s through the 1940s very little time was spent on this war. The Civil War took up quite a bit of time and when we got through that it was a rush to get through the rest of our history. College was not much better.

The first book I read on WW I was The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman written in 1962. It was recently released again in paperback, so I bought one and reread it. Aside from refreshing my limited knowledge of the German invasion of Belgium (whose neutrality they had guaranteed with France and Belgium) to enter France north of their defense line, what jumped out to me were the German atrocities against Belgian and French citizens in their line of march. They shot, stabbed, beat and burned alive in buildings people to make the rest submissive. I had previously attributed this kind of activity to Nazis in WW II, but it was army policy in WW I.

The need to crank the violence into our minds is shown by the casualties of the various armies in dead, wounded and missing. For Germany the number was about 5,592,000 killed and wounded (52% of those involved), for Austria Hungary, 4,820,000 (74%), French Empire, 5,651,000, (75%) British Empire approximately 3,000,000, and Russia 6,650,000 (55%).

I recently read Dreadnaught, by Robert Massie (1000 pp) which was an excellent discussion of the mostly German and British men who managed the naval run for supremacy. Most recently I read To Conquer Hell, by Edward Lengel, the story of the American attack on the Meuse Argonne front beginning in September,1918 and lasting until the Armistice in November. It goes in great detail about each aspect of the attack (I don’t think he missed a death). Between Tuchman and Lengel, I have both beginning and end and I don’t want to go into any more deaths and military stupidity in the war in France.

One other recent example is The Ring of Steel, by Alexander Watson (832 pages) which covers the Austria-Hungarian and German armies in their war on the eastern front. These are just some of the books, mostly by British scholars, that have been released on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of WW I.

The number of deaths laid out in his descriptions of stupid tactics (up and out of the trenches into the barbed wire and machine guns) by Lengel has probably put me off from reading any more about WW I. However, for those who can stomp through hunger, pain and gore, there are a number of scholarly studies of more aspects of this demonstration of human stupidity.

There is no question that this struggle set the stage for the next one which can be said to be continuing. The question is how do we teach our history which gets more complex as we delve into it. My guess is that a majority of Americans have no idea of WW I and that majority grows larger every year.

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You and Me

Me and You This morning has brought a series of reminders about the interrelationship between economic institutions, government and me (you too). The op ed page of the NYTimes carries an article by Roger Cohen about defining human communities and expelling those who do not fit in the definition. In the Middle East this is becoming painfully obvious with the fleeing of Christian and Muslim communities from their 2000 year old historical homes.

Another by Jim Estes is about the fees state governments collect from the sale of tobacco products. The author says that very little of this money has gone into tobacco prevention as intended and most into public projects. In the process, the funds pass through financial institutions that manage innovative ways of sticking their own fees on this money.

Finally, for our purposes, there is Joe Nocera on California’s effort to help poor families save for their children’s education . If parents decide to participate, the state will establish bank accounts with $50 in them for their children in kindergarten. Parents are shown how they can contribute through these accounts. In this story, one single mother has contributed over $700.

Here we are individuals in communities. In the Middle East, the situation has changed very little throughout its human history with groups organizing into states and moving to include or exclude other groups. The article about tobacco shows private financiers arranging to have my group money stick to their hands. Finally, states are shown trying to help parents with few financial resources think about how they can further their children’s education toward a better life. And, Nocera points out that this is one among several state efforts to promote education.

So, here am I, wrapped in my self identity as one in control of his life, forced to see myself as I really am, a member of a community moving in a direction over which I essentially have little to no control. Fortunately, in the United States, we have all been born into a community of inclusion that has access to physical resources that allow most of us to think we do have control over our lives if we contribute to the good of the community.

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Change-once again

Of the things that bother me as “I move along in years” is yesterday. I can trace my yesterdays back to the 1930’s to a culture that is gone and not only unlamented, but forgotten. It was also a culture that with few changes, went back to beyond the beginning of the 20th C. World War I and the Great Depression had to have generated changes of which I was not aware as I was living through them. It is not possible to kill 5 million young men in five years and not have some effect. Great stretches of Northern France and Belgium were stripped of people and buildings. The Depression that followed reduced economic activity and jobs. Following World War II, while much of Europe was again destroyed as were substantial parts of Asia, the United States suffered no damage and was booming. In WWII deaths were somewhere around 415,000. After that war medical care continued to be provided to the wounded, and about 7.8 million out of 16 million veterans had participated in some form of sponsored education. This was everything from registering for courses and degrees at George Washington University to taking workshops in agriculture at a local high school. For me, the Korean War provided the same benefits with which I acquired an education that I otherwise might never have gotten. The change from these events has been massive. I knew they were happening, but I didn’t realize how different my life was becoming.

As I work out it the gym in the morning I am subjected to the discordant screeching of instruments and vocal moaning and wailing. Fortunately, I can turn off my hearing aids. Where are the people who dominated popular music through the 1950’s; Benny Goodman, Bing Crosby, Doris Day, Duke Ellington, the Andrews Sisters, Nat King Cole? Obviously they are gone, but their music isn’t. It’s still around on the occasional station, but when my crowd is gone it will be too. Classical music stretching back to the 1600’s is likewise disappearing. Beethoven, Mozart, Handel, Bach are heard on one radio station, if at all, and on one channel of XM radio.

This is just one example. Others are the way we dress, the way we address each other, the way work is changing, increasing social isolation. This last has particular resonance with me. My wife and I had four children beginning in the late 1950’s. As soon as the weather was agreeable, we got out the baby carriage and walked around the neighborhood. In warm weather people were sitting on their porches and we exchanged bits of conversation. I came to feel that I knew these people. When the fourth child arrived, no one was porch sitting; they were inside in air conditioning. We still had “next door” neighbors who were available to tell me why the storm window I had just hung was crooked and how they dealt with a child who didn’t want to wear the dress her mother had bought for her. Today, most social interaction is with people in the work place and with family. And, there is still the bar for some.

What happens to cultures through the passage of time? Whatever it is, we gain and we lose. As I sit here writing, I don’t have to leave my chair to pull up any information I want from this computer. A typewriter didn’t do that. If I want to have someone to review this article, I go to email, send it off and expect a reply within a day. There is no getting an envelope, putting on a stamp, walking to the mailbox and then waiting for as much as a week for a reply. Technology creates convenience, but what does it cost? Or, can we judge change as cost and benefit?