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History is written by the victors—for a time

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Sometimes a saying can come close to the truth and still miss the point.

A good example is “history is written by the victors”, where the truth is that “history is written by those in control” or, more generally, “the X is determined by those in control”. (Where “X” can be e.g. “historiography”,* “narrative”, “debate”; where “control” should be taken in a wide sense; and where the question “Control of what?” can have different answers. Cf. below. For simplicity of formulation and examples, I will focus on the original in this text—notwithstanding that a great many examples of e.g. control of narrative can be found in recent years.)

*See [1] for some remarks on the words “historiography” and “revisionis[tm]”.

Certainly, the victors are usually in control—but only for a time and often with other restrictions, e.g. in terms of geography, risk of subversion, inability to control the narrative, whatnot. Consider e.g. how the WWI victors tried to paint WWI as almost exclusively Germany’s fault, but the “Dolchstoßlegende” still thrived and helped Hitler gain power.*

*That the WWII historiography, even within Germany, went much more strictly down the Allied line is likely a mixture of the far greater control that the victors had over Germany and a greater realisation of the importance of propaganda and control of narrative. (The actual level of Germany culpability for the wars is, while not unimportant, secondary in this specific context.)

More generally, even victors of wars are rarely sufficiently dominantly victorious to have a long-term control over the historiography of the vanquished—and their control over the historiography of neutrals and allies might often only be indirect. At least in the past, the historiography of the same events in different countries could be radically different in light of local perspectives, what served the local regime, who was in local control, etc.*

*A significant upside of this was that those interested could always gain access to more than one take on a certain event or development, allowing them to form their own opinions, to expose fraudulent takes, and to synthesize different takes for a better approximation of the truth/a more complete picture. Today, this opportunity is lessened, especially as the local aspect is replaced by an ideological drive that supersedes the quest for truth and is too often the same in different works and in different countries.

Looking within a country, even victory in a war can be given a different spin over time, as e.g. a new ideological or social group grows dominant or as the perception of what historiography has the greatest pragmatical* benefit changes.** Consider e.g. various views of the U.S. Civil War over time, the apparent systematic campaign by the current U.S. Left to turn every single Southerner of old into an irredeemably evil racist and supporter of slavery; how the issue of secession, and who was in the right or the wrong regarding secession, is increasingly drowned out and ignored; and how the U.S. Democrats were, in that day, the pro-slavery party and, later, the “Jim Crow” party, while the current propaganda line appears to be “we Democrats are pro-Black and anti-slavery—we have always been pro-Black and anti-slavery” and “them Republicans are anti-Black and pro-slavery—they have always been anti-Black and pro-slavery”.***

*Usually, but not necessarily, in the sense of “how do we get the masses to do what we want them to do”.

**It might also change, of course, through a progress in research, but here the big picture tends to change only very slowly, changes are, I suspect, more likely for events further back in time, and this type of change is off topic. However, it seems quite likely that changes to historiography that arise through on-topic causes are presented as arising from a genuine change of scientific understanding—no matter the truth. In the case of e.g. the infamous “1619 Project” the intent appears to be not just to manipulate public opinion through revisionist historiography—but also to remodel the field of history…

***Something not just historically ridiculous, but something offensive even in the now: Firstly, Democrats largely seem to view Blacks as a source of votes and other types of political support—nothing more, nothing less. Secondly, Democrat politics appear to have been very bad for the Black population. (The “pro-slavery” part in the now is slightly hyperbolic, in that such accusations are rare, if, sadly, not unheard of. The inclusion is mostly for reasons of symmetry. However, both the past “pro-slavery” and the current “anti-black” are quite real.)

Consider the fictional abuse of history in “Nineteen Eighty-Four”: The constant revisionism was enabled by control, not victory. Indeed, if the apparent* situation is taken at face value, victory would not have been welcomed, as it would have lessened the excuses available to keep a strict control.

*My last reading is quite a few years back, but I suspect that no actual proof was ever given that external enemies existed. Theoretically, then, we could have had a continual stream of false-flag attacks to create the impression of an enemy. If someone has sufficient control over the available news reporting, narrative, whatnot, this would not have been that hard to pull off. (Which gives a good example of a non-historiographical control over something to a similar effect as historiographical control.)

Similarly, looking at the real and current world, whoever controls the propagation of historical knowledge or “knowledge”, e.g. through media, publishing, and schools can pretty much dictate what is considered the truth about history—even when the actual truth is something very different. Other takes on history might well be present in older works, especially printed ones, but how often will they be read relative newer works? Will not schools and colleges prioritize newer works over older? (And, in as far as older works are read, note how the modern Left follows an apparently systematic approach of condemning almost everything old as wrong, racist, whatnot, implying that the reader might be inoculated into discounting dissent without actually checking the facts.) Also see an excursion on digital books and censorship.

A good recent example is how the losers of the COVID-debacle proclaim themselves the victors—and, largely, get away with it because they are in control: We now know e.g. that the lockdowns were a horribly misguided mistake, which wrecked the economy for nothing and might well have cost more lives than the (very few) they might or might not have saved. The lockdown proponents have thoroughly lost—but they still make extremely contrafactual claims about the lockdowns saving millions of lives (and what a pity that we did not lock down earlier and harder!). Unfortunately, now as then, they control the narrative, if less completely than in the past, and too large portions of the uninformed masses actually believe them.

Also note how such distortions can affect comparatively small issues, but where the sum of many such small issues can be quite large. Consider e.g. the actual historical constellation of Charles Babbage as an important inventor and innovator, with Ada Lovelace as his assistant, vs. the sometime Feminist “Ada Lovelace! First programmer! Superstar! Women rule at STEM! (Well, yes, there was some Dead White Man helping her with the hardware, but he doesn’t really count.)”. Taken alone, this might be both anti-historical and highly unfair, but it has a comparatively small effect. Pull the same stunt a hundred times over in various* forms and the effect can be quite large.

*Consider simply giving mention to women, Blacks, and whatnot from the second string while being quiet on White men from the first string, giving the first woman to achieve a certain accomplishment more space in a text than the first human (who was typically a man), and similar. Note the old joke on Soviet propaganda about the noble Soviets finishing second and the lazy capitalist pigs of the U.S. second-but-last in a sports event—where the crucial detail that there were only two competitors is left out.

Excursion on digital books and censorship:
Fortunately, DRM and similar trickery around eBooks (and other digital works) seems to be on the retreat. However, this could change again and there have already been cases of e.g. Amazon unilaterally deleting books from the devices of its customers. A future is easily imaginable where, in addition to controlling initial distribution/publishing/whatnot, certain actors could retroactively control what already distributed works remain accessible. In a next step, dissenting voices could easily and retroactively be removed—and, truly horrifying, there might be some automatic rule that works are removed or rendered unreadable in a blanket manner, say, ten years after publishing, ensuring that the available writings on various topics are always compatible with a reasonable current (literal or metaphorical) party line. (Incidentally, this would also “solve” one of the problems of the publishing industry—that ever more quality works of old are available for free and reduce the potential market share for new and still copyrighted material.)

This could to some degree be combatted by e.g. printing hard copies, but, as time changes and as the world becomes more digitalized, the effect of that grows lesser. At the same time, the barriers against e.g. printing a PDF document (or its future equivalents) might grow preventively large.

Similarly, we might well find that some combination of manual and AI interventions cause old books to be automatically revised to fit a certain agenda or new “truth”. Note the already great prevalence of such manual intervention in re-publishing of older works (cf. e.g. [2]), let alone what might currently take place between authors and publisher during editing of new works.

Excursion on fiction and history:
An interesting twist is that the view of history that most modern Westerners hold consists more of fictional portrayals than of actual historiography. In a next step, many of these fictional portrayals are quite incorrect, e.g. through unwarranted speculation, political slanting, attempts to be more entertaining, whatnot—and they naturally underlie less scrutiny and are less vulnerable to criticism. Chances are that if we managed to rid ourselves of ideologically driven historical revisionism within the field of history, the broad masses would still fall for the same lies, as these lies would simply be moved into fiction (to an even higher degree than today).

As a counterpoint, older historiography often tried to combine a telling of history with entertainment or to use history as a vehicle to illustrate this-or-that lesson or to set some example, and might have been closer to modern “historical fiction” than to ideal historiography.

Excursion on manipulation of the educated:
Over the last few years, I have repeatedly heard claims amounting to some variation of “the educated are more easily led,* because they are more exposed to propaganda”, and I find the conclusion hard to avoid in light of the world that we live in. It simply seems to be the case that very few of the allegedly educated have both the ability and the willingness to think sufficiently critically about the information or “information” that they are exposed to. We might then have one in a hundred who arrives at the right conclusions for a good reason, nineteen in a hundred who reach the wrong conclusions for a bad reason (propaganda), and eighty in a hundred who are randomly divided between drawing the right conclusions for a bad reason (ignorance) and drawing the wrong conclusions for a bad reason (ignorance, again). Guess where we find the average new college graduate.

*The etymology of “educated” (“led out”) is interesting here, but this is likely a coincidence.

Excursion on Mencken:
I seem to recall that one or two of the claims mentioned in the previous excursion were by Mencken, but I could not in short order find an example. However, generally, there seems to be a Mencken quote for everything that is wrong with the world, humanity, politics, government, attitudes towards free speech, compliance, whatnot, as it is today, which shows how little true progress has taken place since his days (and, maybe, how pointless it is to discuss the problems of the world: the nineteen from above ignore or condemn-as-evil the one and the eighty do not know of him in the first place). While I do not agree with Mencken on all counts (his view of women appears too positive, e.g.), he shows an immense understanding and, I suspect, that he would have viewed the developments of the COVID-countermeasure era as predictable.


Written by michaeleriksson

January 18, 2023 at 11:55 pm

Turning the world upside down—or not / Follow-up: Trotsky

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Over the last two or three years, in the mixture of COVID-mania, various claims by or about the WEF, and my readings on various political topics, I have often been tempted by the idea of a remake of society in a drastic manner.* My recent watching of “Trotsky” (cf. [1]) brings this to mind again—and provides an excellent demonstration of why I have rejected such thoughts: Actual drastic remakes never seem to end well and always turn out differently than intended. Consider e.g. Cromwell, who was a space filler between Charles I and Charles II;** the French revolutionaries that proved that the revolution eats its children and saw a king replaced by an emperor; said emperor, who ended up exiled in the middle of the Atlantic; the Russian revolutionaries, who again were eaten, and saw decades of mediocrity before the Soviet Union collapsed; Hitler, who saw Germany destroyed and who committed suicide to avoid capture; or, on a lesser scale, the likes of Venezuela and Zimbabwe, where the remade societies descended into economic ruin. Then there are the costs that the changes incur, be it upon the changers or, more often, upon the rest of society. Going through the same set of examples, were the costs even remotely worth the result? Would they have been worth even the intended result?

*For obvious reasons, more on the level of theorizing on paper and propagandizing to followers than on the level of actual change, as getting into a sufficient position of power for a practical implementation would be easier said than done. Also obviously in the opposite direction of what someone like Klaus Schwab might suggest.

**It might be a bad omen for the British monarchy that they currently have Charles III…

More generally, paper constructs often land wide off the mark, and the wider the more complex the area is—and areas likes society, governance, and economics can be extremely complex.

Yes, I do want society to change in certain manners; no, I am not going to write a large tome detailing how my Utopia would look and how to create it, nor am I going to create and expound a Grand Unified Vision of history, society, or whatnot.

To work well (often: at all) deliberate societal change has to be sufficiently slow and controlled, moderating idealism with sufficient pragmatism, and adapting to reality as reality presents it self. Grand Unified Visions and large tomes are for the naive—or, on the outside, the power hungry who trust in the naivety of others. Then there are pesky issues like ethics and the consent of the governed—they might not matter much to the Left, but they do matter to me.

Excursion on “systems”:
Overlapping, I have the impression that whenever someone tries to force something into a system of thoughts or principles, the result is weaker than if the thing had been investigated more open-mindedly and more in it self. Note e.g. my criticisms of The Hero with a Thousand Faces and (with reservations for how much I left unread) Der Untergang des Abendlandes; how Marxism, Critical Theory, whatnot, are counterproductive dead-ends; and how fields like Gender Studies have delegitimized themselves and removed the possibility of any serious study of whatever might actually be worth studying around gender (or whatnot) by forcing preconceived ideas and perspectives onto observations.

Excursion on the American Revolution, etc.:
Does not the American Revolution, the later Constitution, and similar provide a counterexample? Well, they are the closest that I can think of, off the top of my head. However: (a) It was a rebellion, not a revolution; a smaller group breaking free from a larger group, not an overturning of the overall system. (b) The Constitution was based on the prior works and thoughts of many minds. It was preceded by the lesser Articles of Confederation, thereby being a second attempt. It still needed ten amendments to truly stand out; and it has seen a number of later amendments, some considered very valuable, e.g. 13/14, some less so, e.g. 18. (c) Even so, a great many problems were present in the young republic, culminating with the disastrous Civil War.* (d) There has been a continual drift away from the ideals of the early U.S. and the Constitution. The Constitution lost most of its teeth during the 20th century, and some Democrats have outright claimed that they want to get rid of it. Simultaneously, the U.S. has changed in a disastrous manner.

*Where the position of the North was radically different from the colonial position during the misnamed Revolution. Moreover, the existence of the Civil War might rhyme poorly with the argumentation of the “Federalist Papers”, which (a) strongly influenced the Constitution, (b) come closer to the “large tome” above than does the Constitution, be it in size or approach.

Written by michaeleriksson

September 13, 2022 at 3:55 pm

Rethinking education: School as a vehicle for history education

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I have previously made claims along the lines that what most pupils* need to learn is Reading, wRiting, aRithmetic, with the majority of the more “academic” parts of the curriculum being wasted on most pupils;** and that schools fail by ignoring*** the practical sides of life to a too high degree. (As well as a great many other criticisms.)

*Throughout, I will stick to “pupil” over “student” to indicate the comparatively low age and development, and over “children” to avoid a perceived exclusion of e.g. high-schoolers. (Generally, I tend to avoid words like “child” beginning with puberty, and often-but-inconsistently use a child–teen–adult division.) The intent is on primary and secondary education, with a gradual shift from history of a field to the field it self as the years pass. (And, often, with a shift from history in general to history of various fields. See excursion.)

**With the additional complication that those who actually benefit would typically be better able to learn on their own than in school. (Maybe, excepting the first few years of school.) I certainly was and, when time outside school allowed it, did.

***While the misguided practical education that took place during my own school years was largely wasted in, at least, my own case. I have had no practical use of either the mandatory wood-shop or textile-shop, and what I might have learned in “cooking class” (“home economics” would be too generous, but might match the official intent) came too early to (a) be of interest, (b) actually have remained with me when I began to live on my own.

As my knowledge of history has grown beyond the few hours a week provided by school, I have increasingly developed a different view, where more material (than in my old view; still less than today) is present, but with a strong emphasis on exactly history and where history is the usual entry point to the treatment of the actual subjects for those bright or old enough to benefit. Life-skills and the three Rs would remain, of course, but most* of the rest of school would deal with history—including national and world history, history of thought, history of science, history of economics, history of literature, history of this, and history of that, with a slow transition towards the this and that, per se, over time. I would recommend a particular focus on classics** studies, but do not see the focus*** as mandatory, and plenty of space must be left for the post-classical world, even should a focus be implemented.

*In some areas, even the three Rs aside, this might be too impractical. For instance, replacing physical education or a foreign language with the history of physical education, resp. the history of that language, would border on the idiotic. In other cases, some core-topic education might be necessary before its history, or the topic might need to be moved to a later year. For instance, during my own early years in school, some time was spent (wasted) on learning the names of various animals, trees, whatnot. The sensibility of this activity is disputable (cf. excursion), but replacing it with a, for that age, too specific history of biology would bring little benefit. Even in these cases, however, some degree of history of the topic might be sensible as a companion or complement.

**Assuming education in a Western context (also see excursion). In other contexts, e.g. in China, this might need modification to reflect the local equivalent. In others yet, e.g. large parts of Africa, there might be no usable local equivalent or only equivalents that are too close in time.

***However, some knowledge of ancient civilizations and works is mandatory or the entire program turns into a travesty. For instance, to deem some time frame the “modern era” and then ignore everything that came before is untenable. (Sheer lack of reliable information might force limits on non-trivial study before a certain time in a certain place, but that is a different matter entirely.)

This would naturally, to some degree, go hand in hand with knowledge of the underlying field. For instance, a discussion of the history of astronomy would naturally establish e.g. the rough structure of the heliocentric solar system and the non-heliocentric galaxy, some approximation of the age of the Earth, some understanding of the difference between the distance from London to New York and the distances from the Earth to the Moon and the Earth to the Sun, whatnot. This either because it follows directly from the natural knowledge of history or because supplementary information is provided to put the historical information into context. As the pupils grow older, history of X will fade into the background and be more of a springboard to engage with X proper—if the pupil has the brains for it.

A major intended benefit is that a pupil who is over-challenged by a core field might have a better chance at the history of the field, and less of his time will be wasted on an activity with little or no return value. (Although, as always, the duller or lazier* pupils might receive less benefit than the brighter and more industrious*.)

*I am torn between formulations like “lazier” vs. the likes of “less motivated” (ditto, m.m., the more positive phrases). The latter will often be closer to the truth , but have been used and abused by educationalists and politicians for so long that they border on being meaningless and/or on being generic and blanket terms for “does poorly in school” (no matter the reason).

A solid knowledge of history, or even the knowledge available to the weaker pupils, has many advantages, including:

  1. Inoculation against destructive ideologies and poor policies, like most variations of the Left. For instance, someone who has a solid understanding of 20th-century history and economic history is unlikely to vote for the Left (especially, the Old Left), while someone who understands the history of Europe vs. (sub-Saharan) Africa, of slavery,* of women, of civic rights, whatnot will be far less likely to fall for the propaganda of the New Left.

    *Including its historical extent (far larger and older than the “transatlantic slave trade”) and the massive inclusion of Whites and other non-Blacks, the strong Black (and other non-White) involvement in the Black slave trade, how Whites/Europeans/the U.S. North were the ones who eventually reduced and locally banned slavery, and how the South was hindered, not helped, by slavery in its economic development.

    This might to some degree extend to e.g. COVID, as someone with a knowledge of past medical practices, the effects and characteristics of past epidemics, whatnot, would be far more sceptical towards the effectiveness (let alone efficiency) of and the risk of side-effects from various counter-measures and reactions, and would have a far better understanding of how trivial COVID is relative some past epi-/pandemics.

  2. More generally, there is an aspect of learning from past errors and the mistakes of others, of not being “doomed to repeat”, etc. For instance, in politics, someone who has some understanding of the relative or absolute failures vs. successes of the economy of the Soviet Union vs. the U.S., Mao’s China vs. Deng Xiaoping’s, North- vs. South-Korea, East- vs. West-Germany, Socialist vs. pre-Socialist Venezuela, etc., is unlikely to repeat the mistakes that lead the failures to failure and likely to favor what made the successes successful.* (This includes an important general observation, with an eye at many current demands and plans: government intervention very often makes things worse—and often much worse.) For instance, in a business setting, a CEO might look at the decline of the U.S. auto industry and draw conclusions about how to and how not to handle his own business. For instance, on a more individual level, someone wise to history might note a continual clampdown on various civic rights, notably free speech, draw the right conclusions, and either begin a protest while there is still time or leave for another country.

    *To which we can add a few recent examples that are less wide in scope, e.g. the Sri Lankan crisis (mandatory “organic” farming), the U.S. lack of baby formula (a mixture of an artificial oligopoly and a forced reduction of capacity), the U.S. oil crisis (strong contributors include various Biden interventions, notably the termination of the extension of the Keystone pipeline), artificial inflation (e.g. monetary expansion), artificial lack of willing employees (the state pays people to stay at home), various energy crises (Keystone, embargoes, abolishment of nuclear power, state subventions of dubious “green” technologies, state money to offset (idiots!) rising gas prices, …), etc. (Note that this list is not limited to the U.S. and that, while Biden is often a major factor in this, even internationally, many other leaders of other countries have made similarly poor decisions—albeit rarely even half as many as Biden has.)

    Note that the first example is highly relevant even to the average citizen, which is what the average pupil will grow up to be, with the modification that he is unlikely to vote for someone who would repeat the mistakes. The same might to some degree apply to the second example too, e.g. in that a stock owner might move his investments elsewhere in time.

  3. Similarly, it can be highly beneficial to draw on the ideas of the past, especially as we do have a great problem with ideas disappearing from common consciousness or being gradually misunderstood over time. A splendid example is the early ideas on what the U.S. (qua political entity) should be, how it should be governed, etc., and why this was so. Precious little of the thoughts of, say, Thomas Jefferson still remain in the philosophy of the current political system—and what there is, many ignorants* want to abolish.

    *Note that I do not call them ignorants because they want to abolish something. I do so because they are ignorant of why this-and-that was originally introduced, do not understand the potential downsides, and generally have a simplistic and, well, ignorant view of related matters.

    A personal example is my changed understanding of the jury system. I long considered it idiotic, because it opened up the doors for decisions by those of disputable intelligence, insight into criminal science, knowledge of legal principles, whatnot—never mind the risk that the jury members might prove more vulnerable to emotional manipulation than a judge. Indeed, going by TV,* having the lawyer better at manipulating the jury was more important than having the better evidence. These problems remain, but there was something to the jury system that I was unaware of,** namely that the “jury of one’s peers” was aimed at being a counter-weight to governmental power and a means to give the peers a way to prevent unjust laws and prosecution from infringing on “true” justice.*** (With some similar ideas also applying, e.g. that a single judge might be statistically more likely to be partial or easier to bribe than twelve jurors.)

    *Unfortunately, this appears to be at least partially true in real life too, but not to the extreme degree seen on TV.

    **Maybe, because neither Sweden nor Germany uses juries.

    ***Of course, the main way that a jury can do that, “jury nullification”, is something that the government wants to see banned, and the mention of which towards a U.S. jury already is banned. (Note that I am, myself, in two minds about jury nullification, as it can be a tool for both justice and injustice; however, the point above is not whether it is good or bad, but that I was originally unaware of even the idea.)

    As a special case, historical knowledge can remove the need to reinvent the wheel. For instance, most of the “clever” thoughts and “wisdom” of today have an at least approximate correspondent in the past (often several). Take something like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy—at least the general idea was covered by the Stoics during classical times. (Also see excursion on the Ship of Theseus for a more personal example.)

    Generally, our ancestors might have trailed us in scientific understanding, but not necessarily in terms of e.g. insight into philosophy, human nature, how to live one’s life, whatnot. The accumulated wisdom of a few hundred or thousand years is almost bound to exceed the snapshot of today’s reinvented wheels.

  4. A better knowledge of past thought leads to a better understanding of various fields and aspects of the world, including how something might have come into being or how something currently weird or silly seeming* might not be so in the light of the past. Good examples are often found around wars and international conflicts, including the Russian–Ukraine situation since 2014 (or whatever years is used as the starting point).

    *Consider the Third Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which, without knowledge of the historical context, appears not just weirdly specific but outright weird.

    More generally it can lead to a more nuanced worldview, as every exposure to something different can, and to the insight that the norms of today are not absolutes or necessarily better than those of the past (ditto e.g. methods). (The reverse of the latter is a very common fallacy and one that I, myself, was not immune to in my youth.) Is this is or that change over time actually progress—or is it mere change? Maybe, even, change for the worse? Is A actually better than B, or does it merely have a different set of advantages and disadvantages? Is C actually better than D, or is it merely better for some special interest group, e.g. politicians? Etc.

  5. Chances are that history education will allow at least some “big picture” insights to remain, even if the details fade (and they usually do). For instance (cf. excursion), memorizing the names of animals will bring next to no value, as merely knowing the name allows no insight and as the name will too often be forgotten a few days or years later. In contrast, a pupil who forgets almost everything about the Romans is still likely to remember that they had big empire around the Mediterranean*, centered on Rome* in what is now Italy*, in the past. Someone who manages to forget even that, will still remember that the world was different in the past. (Unfortunately, an insight that some adults in the modern world seem to lack.) A memorizer of animal names might still remember that there are animals, but that insight actually (still…) is present with virtually everyone even without the help of formal education. If in doubt, even a one-year old might have seen a few dogs, pigeons, or flies.

    *Here we see a pleasant potential side-effect of history: there is some, often a considerable, knowledge effect on other areas, notably geography. Chances are that most of the early geography education can be replaced entirely with a side-effect from history education.

Excursion on school vs. education:
The above (and below) is often phrased in terms of “school”, including in the title. This reflects the realistic realities of the foreseeable future, as well as the historical situation for a good chunk of time,* but by no means the ideal. School is and remains disturbingly inefficient and, often, ineffective, and the true focus should by rights be on education—not school. School, at least in its modern incarnation, is not a good way to gain an education and the education is what matters.

*How good depends on the “where”, but often begins at some point in the 19th century on a near-mandatory level and can go back far further on non-mandatory level.

Excursion on more advanced pupils:
There is a minority of pupils who would be under-challenged by the above, and who would benefit from more direct contact with the subject matter at an early/-ier stage. These should be allowed and encouraged to have that direct contact. Indeed, giving the brighter pupils room, means, and encouragement to develop themselves at their own tempo is central to a successful school system. (Whether a successful school system currently exists, I leave unstated.)

Excursion on higher education:
As the level of education increases, the relative importance of “history of X” relative “X” decreases. (Unless, of course, X is a field of history to begin with, in which case “history of X” would amount to history-of-the-historiography and will usually be the far less important subject on all levels.) However, it is likely to be of some importance on all levels and should not be ignored. For instance, a mathematician is likely to benefit from knowledge of what approaches have been taken to a certain sub-field or problem in the past, or how to solve a certain type of problem with less “fancy” methods than the current. Exactly how to address this, I leave unstated, as off-topic, but possibilities include an extensive one-off survey course with a focus on history, the inclusion of a (sub-)module in the individual (regular) course, and just pointing to a certain treatment that the student can choose or not choose to study on his own terms. (The relevance of this material for a test decreases accordingly, from core for the survey course, to minor for the (sub-)module, to none for the “own terms” study.) Noteworthy is that the relevance of history might vary from field to field. For instance, a knowledge of the history of math for a mathematician is likely less valuable than knowledge of the history of economics to an economist.*

*The contents of the respective histories might also be different in character. For instance, the history of math will deal relatively more with what approaches the mathematicians took and what beliefs they held (“history of the field of math”), and the history of economics relatively more with actual developments of an economic nature, say, causes and consequences of the “Great Depression” and what might have happened with a more sensible POTUS than FDR (“history of economic developments” or “history of the economy”). To some degree, but not necessarily for educational purposes, a subdivision into several history fields relating to X might be beneficial, e.g. history of X as a field of study/science, history of thought on X, history of events relating to X, etc.

From a personal point of view, I have occasionally made the experience that I know less about mathematicians and scientists than someone with a weaker knowledge of the respective field. A good (and accessible to others) example is Murray’s “Human Accomplishment”, where I often had a different expectation of who was how important* and often had a “Who the hell is that?” moment when looking at the top-twenty science lists outside of math and physics. This is an interesting side-effect of my having studied primarily math (physics, whatnot), it self, the history of math only secondarily, and biographies of, anecdotes about, human-interest pieces focused on mathematicians hardly at all. (At least, at a somewhat adult age. Some autobiographical works by physicist Feynman are an exception.) The counterpart, on the other hand, might have gobbled down the human-interest pieces without actually touching the math.**

*But, as Murray stresses, the relative importance of some figures might change considerably with a change in methodology.

**In the specific case of Murray, we have to considered a systematic and prolonged busyness with various works of a who-is-who-in-X and history-of-X character for the specific purpose of writing his book. That I trailed even in the scientific lists (let alone Japanese literature) is unexpected.

(Whether this is a problem is debatable. I would certainly prioritize an understanding of the developments of the field of math, it self, over knowledge of who-was-who.)

Excursion on the Ship of Theseus:
In an older text, I dealt with (among other things) the grandfather’s axe (pseudo-)paradox. Finding it too simplistic, I dropped the two-piece axe in favor of a many-piece T-Ford, replaced piece by piece over decades. Some time later, I discovered the Ship of Theseus—a many-piece version of the same idea that preceded my T-Ford by some two millennia.*

*It was used by Plutarch, whose lifespan falls a little short of two millennia ago, but it might not have originated with him. (And any actual ship owned by Theseus, should he have a historical basis, would necessarily have been built long before that, as he was ancient history even to Plutarch.)

Indirectly, this might also point to a danger of school trying to stuff too much into the pupils or doing so too early, as I seemed to “post-remember” having encountered the Ship in school. However, this applies with any choice of topic—and I remain, even after the altered opinion discussed above, with my line that modern school tries to cover too much material and, often, too early.

Excursion on risks:
There are of course some risks and disadvantages with this history-focused scheme, which must be considered during implementation. The most important is that history education can easily be abused to give the pupils a flawed worldview by outright distortions of history, but also by undue focus on certain groups or angles, by agenda pushing, and by application of some pseudo-scientific framework. The infamous “1619 project” is a great example of how not to do it. Anything Feminist, Marxist, Post-Colonial, or Post-Modern is also to be avoided like the plague.*

*Among what is likely to be encountered today. The threats of tomorrow might be something different altogether. The point is to be truthful and scientifically minded—not ideological or agenda pushing.

(However, the same abuse risk is present even in today’s school, as with the aforementioned “1619 project”, and I suspect that a broader and deeper history knowledge would make it harder to keep the truth from at least the somewhat brighter pupils, even when abuse takes place. The more information is present, the likelier it is that an attempted distortion will miss something or be internally inconsistent.)

Another risk is an implicit over-focus on “thoughts of others”, as opposed to own thinking. This is, obviously, a staple of school, but I suspect that it could be worse in a history-centric school. Countermeasures like encouragement of own thought and critical engagement* with claims by e.g. old philosophers are recommended. Ditto a juxtaposition of thinkers who have held opposing ideas.

*By the pupil! Not the teacher or some Leftist destroy-the-past or everything-old-is-wrong fanatic.

Excursion on learning animal names:
The memorization of names of animals, trees, whatnot mentioned above is a good example of school failing. These pairings fell into roughly three categories: (a) Those that I already knew (yes, a kid in school will know what a bear is). (b) Those that I soon forgot again and later learned permanently from a more sensible source in a more sensible manner, e.g. by watching a nature show, where ten minutes were spent showing and discussing the whatnot (vs. the single still image and name presented in school). (c) Those that I soon forgot again and never relearned, because they never had any kind of relevance to me. (In all cases, we have the additional complication that the Swedish names have been less important to my adult life than the German and English.)

What then, apart from busywork or the ability to claim that the pupils were learning something, was the point of this nonsense? Would it not have been infinitely better to just show a few nature shows in class or, in lieu of class, give watching some nature show on TV as home work?

To boot, this mere association of name and image is fairly pointless. A good example is posed by a test where I just could not come up with “järv” (“wolverine”). I knew what the image depicted, I knew what a wolverine was, I had already learned the word outside of school, and had even read a book which featured a wolverine as the protagonist.* (But I had not yet encountered the superhero Wolverine.) I just could not come up with the right word in the heat of the moment. I tried to salvage the situation by giving “carcajou”, which the book had mentioned as a local-to-the-setting-of-the-story name for wolverines in general** (and which might have been the proper name of the protagonist too), but received 0 points. Someone else might well have received points merely for having memorized the right name for the right image and actually having a cooperative memory, without having any further clue about wolverines.

*The school library had a large number of books with animals-as-protagonists, which I had wolverin…, wolfed down.

**Checking for the exact name, which over the decades had faded, I see that this is indeed the case in French Canada. But knowing a French-Canadian term was of no help with a Swedish test. Other names that I learned on my own, over the decades since, include the English “wolverine”, the German “Vielfrass”, and the Latin “gulo” (resp. scientific “gulo gulo”). Today, the “French French” “glouton” was added. Now, how would my progress have been hampered by not having the mere name–image combination included in the curriculum? (Not at all.) What benefit might the other pupils have had, even had they managed to answer the question? (Likely, none.)

Excursion on various shifts:
As mentioned above, there will be shifts as time passes. Their exact nature and many other details are beyond the scope of this text, but a general idea, using the Swedish 4 x 3 years division of låg-/mellan-/högstadiet + gymnasiet,* might be that those on lågstadiet focus on (elementary) national and world history, those on mellanstadiet see this complemented with various histories of various fairly large fields (e.g. history of science), and those on högstadiet complement history with a study of the actual fields and see histories of somewhat smaller fields (e.g. history of physics**). Gymnasiet would then be mostly the fields proper and histories of new fields (exactly what fields go where is another implementation detail, but history of economics seems a good example for gymnasiet).

*Sweden has mandatory education divided into blocks (låg-/mellan-/högstadiet) of three years, for a total of nine years, followed by a voluntary (usually) three-year fourth block, gymnasiet. I have found this parcelling into equally long blocks of three years to be very practical when thinking about school.

**Which is not to say that no history of physics should be given earlier—it should, as part of history of science. However, with the specialization there would be more depth and breadth and more involvement of actual physics. To detail what goes where is beyond the scope of this text, but we might e.g. have mellanstadiet and history of science cover how the world was once viewed as geocentric, but is now known to be heliocentric; while högstadiet and history of physics might contrast Keplerian calculations of elliptical heliocentric planetary movements with older circular heliocentric movements and with the older still geocentric epicyclical calculations. (Not necessarily with much mathematical detail, however.)

Excursion on politics and other fields:
Generally, I have become more and more convinced of the importance of history over the years, and I would certainly see history as the single most important subject for a politician to study (be it during formal education or in private). Looking e.g. at the U.S., what do we typically get instead? A BA in pol-sci, or some other weak field,* followed by a JD.** In fact, I would consider both pol-sci and law studies to be of only secondary benefit to someone who wants to be a good politician. They might help with understanding the machinations of the branches of government and how to write new and understand existing laws, but they are less helpful when it comes to deciding what policies make sense, what laws should be made, etc. No, the clear top-one subject for a politician is history; the equally clear second placer is economics. After these two, we can look at topics like pol-sci,*** law, philosophy (including ethics and various works relating to governance), public administration, business administration, etc.****

*Not that history would be inherently harder. The point is that there are many fields where a brighter student might gain much more than a duller student, but where the dull student might still manage to gain the degree, maybe even with a strong GPA, because the minimum requirements on brightness are low. That someone has a bachelor in e.g. pol-sci simply does not tell us anything much about his intelligence level or how much he gained through his studies. Contrast this with the footnote on STEM fields below.

**Of the common “professional” post-bachelor degrees, I suspect that an MBA would be more beneficial than a JD. Chances are that an “academic” master/doctorate in e.g. history or economics would be far better than either.

***With the reservation that pol-sci often contains pieces of the other fields, which might, depending on point of view, either make it less valuable (due to shallowness of coverage of these fields) or more valuable (due to a width that makes a separate study of some other fields less urgent).

****I do not mention STEM fields here, because they are rarely immediately relevant. However, they can be extremely good filters for intelligence (unlike most of the above) and a good general scientific understanding can be very useful when it comes to specific topics. (And most of my own formal education was in STEM fields.)

This with the reservation that a position in a certain field could require a deeper knowledge of that field, which might change the priorities for the individual concerned. For instance, to become secretary of defense, a prior education and career in the military would be highly recommendable, while considerable knowledge of economics is secondary (but still advantageous), and while the history knowledge might be tilted in the direction of military and conflict history at the cost of, say, the histories of art, agriculture, and architecture. A legal requirement of some minimum level of qualifications might even be an option. Consider, as a negative example, the current Swedish “Försvarsminister”, Peter Hultqvist: As I understand Swedish and English Wikipedia, he has no (!) higher education and was a journalist (!*) before entering politics. The true reason behind his appointment? His career within the Social-Democrat movement, beginning in the 1970s.

*Not only is journalism a pointless qualification for a politician, but journalists are also one of the few groups that might rank lower in my mind than even specifically Leftist politicians.

Excursion on classics studies:
To expand a little on the benefit of classics studies for a Westerner, I would note (a) the additional value in understanding Western culture, gaining a cultural continuity, etc.;* (b) that the wide range of thoughts and interests, often at a level that post-Roman Europe only reached again during the late medieval times or the Renaissance, provide many natural entry points into other fields, including literature, language, art, mathematics, philosophy, and to some degree** natural philosophy/history/science.

*However, I stress that, unlike some other proponents, I do not necessarily see Western culture as a natural or unprecedented number one. (Although, it is legitimately one of the few most interesting.) I am, for instance, well aware of great Chinese and Indian accomplishments at comparable times in history. There is still an increased benefit through the connection over time: In order to understand later thoughts in the Western or European room, and many historical developments, some understanding of e.g. Plato and Aristotle can be quite helpful. (Vice versa, to understand Chinese thought without exposure to Confucius would be a challenge indeed.) The effects of the Romans are still visible in languages and borders, and the West-/East-Rome (and/or the older Rome/Greece) division is at least an indirect contributor to the Western/Eastern European differences of today. Etc.

**The hitch is that the shallowness of knowledge compared to today and the lack of modern scientific methods is troublesome here.

As a special case, Latin is an excellent first foreign language for a native* English speaker.** The drawback of being a dead language is countered by (a) its benefits on understanding English, which has been enormously influenced by Latin (be it directly or indirectly over e.g. French); (b) the great differences in grammar compared to English, which allow a better understanding of languages in general; (c) the great help that it gives if*** a (living) Romance language is attempted at a later stage.

*While English is the obvious choice for most other Westerners, e.g. Swedes.

**Unless special interests need to be considered. Notably, even among dead languages, someone aiming for study of Christian theology is better of with (classical) Greek and Hebrew, while someone aiming for an actual career in the “classics area” might be better of beginning with Greek and only adding Latin at a later stage.

***And the chances are considerable that a further foreign language will indeed be one of these, e.g. Spanish in the U.S. or French in the U.K.

(I am tempted to add a (d) of access to some important works in the original language, but that applies to virtually all languages major enough to be candidates for a first foreign language—and the point of strong reading skills can take frustratingly long to reach. However, this also reduces the disadvantage of learning a dead language—it will take a long time before mastery of a language is sufficiently progressed that a living language brings practical benefits over a dead one. For instance, many or most with only a school-level knowledge of a foreign language will be able neither to converse fluently with a native speaker of, nor to read a book in, that language.)

Excursion on me and history:
As with many school topics, at least pre-gymnasiet (cf. above), I likely learned as much or more history outside of school as I did in school, even back then. This through a mixture of own readings that to some degree dealt with history, what could be gleaned from novels/TV/movies playing in the past*, and various TV documentaries.

*Not necessarily “historical novels” and their screen equivalents, as many were written at or shortly after the time of the events, and had simply reached me at a date when the events had passed out of the “contemporary”. For a trivial and very early example, I very likely first heard of the WWII bombings of London and the evacuation of children to the countryside through the “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”, which was written roughly a decade after the events. In contrast, the portions of “The Magician’s Nephew” that play in “our” world would fall in the “historical novel” category. (I note that these “shortly after” books are less likely to contain inadvertent falsification and guesswork than “historical novels”, but also that both should be taken with a grain of salt.)

It was only far later that I began to gain a true appreciation for history, including spending a great many hours reading Wikipedia articles on historical topics in my late 20s. These readings were originally motivated by a general curiosity, but increasingly by the observation that there were more abstract things to be learned, e.g. about success in warfare,* by applying thought to the material—something which was not very clear from the too basic school history. This move from merely knowing facts** to seeing connections, understanding causes and consequences, drawing conclusions, whatnot lead me to a very different view of history than school had instilled. (Just like math and what school calls “math” have little to do with each other.)

*Examples include that a long war tends to be won by the party with the stronger industry (and/or ability to recuperate and keep production up), not the stronger military; that wars and battles are often won by making fewer mistakes than the other party; that better training can outweigh superior numbers; and that the technology or strategy that won the one war might be outdated by the time of the next war.

**Not restricted to who did what in what year, but also including e.g. that the Romans had a large Mediterranean empire.

Since then, I have added a very considerable amount* of historical knowledge and understanding—but still too little. There is so much to learn that I simply have not had the time for, and I truly wish that my early education had given me a better start. To this, bear in mind that I am not a professional historian and that I have a great many other interests/there are a great many other worthy fields, while the day is only so long. History, however, is a field were school might truly bring something—provided that a greater focus is put on understanding, which was not (cf. above) the case during my school years.**

*How much is hard to say, in part due to how spread out it has been, in part due to the different nature of my studies relative (what I would expect from) formal college studies. I would, however, take for granted that I am ahead of the average U.S. fresh-out-of-college history major.

**I deliberately do not go into details of how history should be taught above. This because (a) it would make this text twice as long, (b) would require considerable additional research or speculation on my behalf, (c) the problems with e.g. more facts than understanding and a too elementary level are ubiquitous in school, and reforming this is a separate issue from the shift towards more history.

Written by michaeleriksson

May 31, 2022 at 12:31 pm

Prose and “Der Untergang des Abendlandes”

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I find myself unexpectedly returning to prose and style of writing—after having intended to deepen my understanding of history and societal development: Yesterday, I started to read Oswald Spengler’s “Der Untergang des Abendlandes”, which, going by reputation, should have contained a fair amount of material of interest to me. After about a hundred pages, most of which consisted of a foreword, I gave up in frustration—the man simply could not write. (And the overall work is two volumes of more than six hundred pages each.)

Ideas, definitions, and arguments are drawn out ad eternam. What could have been stated in a single ordinary* sentence covers an entire paragraph—or more. The total contents of these hundred-or-so pages could be compressed to ten. (If the rest of the work is of a similar character, I could have been more than three-quarters through a compressed version with the same effort.)

*As opposed to the often very long sentences used by Spengler, which can be paragraph-sized in their own right. (Also see below.)

The flow of the individual sentence is often highly confused, reminding me of a compass needle in the presence of magnetic disturbances. Hypothetical* example: A horse is a four-footed, in other words quadruped, animal, excelling in speed, contrary to the cow, whose digestive system is of the utmost complexity, and ridden, i.e. used as a means of transport, by humans, or dogs in a circus, the cow hardly ever being ridden, …

*Considering his complicated style and issues of idiom, I am loath to actually attempt a translation of a real example. Besides, I would need to make a re-download to find such an example. Note that I have not attempted to duplicate his style in any detail—I just try to bring the general impression of the compass needle across.

As for sentence structure, sentence length, and choice of words, he makes me look like Hemingway. I do not like to throw the first stone here, both because of the hypocrisy involved and because many failures to understand a sentence can be put more on the reader than on the writer. However, I readily admit that there were sentences that I had to re-read even to just understand them as sentences (as opposed to understand the idea or arguments presented by them—and the ideas and arguments were usually not hard to understand once the sentence had been deciphered). In a few cases, a sentence was also so long that I had to go back to the beginning in order to replenish my memory and to be able to put the end of the sentence in context…

The “reasoning” often consists of nothing more than claiming that something would be obvious, often drowned in a barrage of words. Spengler appears to continually confuse “personal belief” with “logical conclusion” and/or attempt to hide a lack of actual arguments through a flow of words.

Excursion on the actual contents:
Because I covered so small a portion of the overall work, I cannot make that many statements about the actual contents (as opposed to how the contents were written). However: On the one hand, Spengler and I seem to share a conviction that there are many lessons and, possibly, predictions to be drawn from past civilizations and phases of individual periods and fields*. (Also note sayings like “history repeats it self” and “those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it”.) I also share the general fear that the “Abendland” could, conceivably be approaching its “Untergang”; and the general idea that progress might be replaced by stagnation as a civilization develops.** On the other, his “Morphologie”*** takes this to such an extreme that it lacks plausibility and would likely be considered pseudo-science today. Going by a few tables with comparisons between civilizations, I also suspect that he has bent the data to fit his theory on more than one occasion. (Something almost impossible to avoid with the great difference in the developments that are considered morphologically equivalent…)

*For instance, I suspect that there are great similarities in the rise, flowering, and fall of this-or-that style of painting or music—not just empires.

**I note factors like that a lesser need to work hard in order to survive could lead a “softer” and less industrious population, that entertainment could grew more important than accomplishment, the risks of dysgenic pressure, and similar.

***Roughly speaking, that the development of a civilization follows a certain fix pattern with (on a historical scale) synchronously repeating stages of even areas like math and art. Unless the unread parts of the work contains strong arguments and examples, I see this as much too far-going.

Excursion on predictions:
Future prediction based on history should always be taken with a grain of salt—Asimov’s psychohistory will likely remain more fiction than science. A good example is H. G. Wells’ “The Shape of Things to Come”, which gets almost everything wrong—and when it gets something partially right, the flaws render the prediction almost comical. For instance, he does manage to predict a German–Polish war with far-reaching consequences around 1940, half-a-dozen years past the time of writing, but has the Germans barely able to keep up with the Poles and, in my recollection, had the Poles as the original aggressors.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 8, 2018 at 12:10 pm

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Judging old civilizations

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In my impression, ancient civilizations*, cultures, and whatnots, are to a large degree judged positively by the masses because of an ability to work and move stones and/or erect large buildings, monuments, or similar, be it the ancient Egyptians, Olmecs, Toltecs, or any number of others.

*I will go with “civilization” as a catch-all below, even at the risk of being imprecise, and even when implying something normally considered pre-civilization. (I originally went with “culture” as the catch-all, but since I still found myself again and again using “civilization”, I revised the decision.)

However, the ability to merely move large stones has been shown so often in human history and pre-history, even by comparatively primitive groups, that it borders on uselessness as a criterion: Building Stonehenge was no small accomplishment, but it was more a matter of brute force than engineering. The “walking” moai on Easter Island used a very clever trick, but also relied more on brute force than engineering—and the trick might have required as little as one very clever guy with a bright idea.

Similarly, cutting stones, working stones, etc., requires* surprisingly little in terms of technology, and can be accomplished with hard work, primitive tools, and a few tricks.

*To do at all, even at a relatively large scale; however, better technology can obviously speed up the process enormously.

To boot, we have to keep in mind that many of these civilizations either were neolithic (“late stone-age”) or had a greater ability to draw on neolithic skills and knowledge than later civilizations, implying that they had a head-start relative, say, a random 21st-century engineer in the area of stone work. Specific new skills, techniques, whatnot developed by these civilizations are definitely laudable, but not very surprising: Spend a few hundred years building walls, temples, pyramids and relevant innovation is virtually unavoidable—the inborn faculties of humans were at least approximately the same as today even a few thousand years ago.

Stone-work, monumental or otherwise, alone proves very little. In many ways, it boils down to the observation that the 19th-century French could have built the worlds largest pyramid, had they really wanted to—but that the ancient Egyptians could never have built the Eiffel Tower. The level of engineering, materials science, precision of manufacture, …, necessary for the latter is on a very different level from the former. (Similarly, the 19th-century French could never have built the computer I am writing on right now.) Indeed, even building a tower of the Eiffel Tower’s height is only half the feat—the other half is doing it with so little material and so fast. More generally, I would view it as a greater sign of progress to be able to do more* with less** than to simply do more, and it is often more impressive to be able to do smaller things than larger: A modern micro-chip is a far greater accomplishment than either of the Eiffel Tower and Egypt’s pyramids. Similarly, doing things with a high precision and detail can be more impressive than doing them at a large scale. Compare a moai with a Greek (or even Egyptian) statue, a wind-mill with a mechanical watch, or a mechanical watch with (again) a micro-chip.

*A taller building, a more voluminous ship, a computer with more FLOPS, …

**Less material, man-power, time, money, …

Similarly, looking just at accomplishments in a narrow range of areas tells us comparatively little: Some degree of astronomical (or astrological…) observation and calculation is not that impressive, considering the importance of stars in the past. Broaden this to include a wide variety of mathematical calculations and results, an understanding of physics and cosmology, …, and I am far more impressed. Specifically artistic accomplishment is a tricky area: On the one hand, even comparatively primitive civilizations have produced works that can produce a “Wow!” effect in a modern viewer (and the Romans and ancient Greeks were superior to possibly even the late medieval Europe). On the other, their works are often in a very uniform tradition*, often show more craft skills than artistic skills, and specifically the “Wow!”-works often appear to have been outstanding in their own day: They were not everyday accomplishments but made for the king or another extreme VIP, by the best of the best, possibly over the course of several years. Arts could, by the previous paragraph, be a better measure of advancement than “building big”, at least up to a certain point, but, taken on its own, it is rarely a good measure.

*Not only implying accomplishment in a very narrow area, which is relatively easy, but also a lack of innovation and development in terms of style.

Correspondingly, I would see it as important to take a much more holistic view* and look at accomplishments in a greater number of areas—were they good at A, B, and C or where they good at A–Z?** Ditto, to look at how they accomplished what they accomplished: Did they use refined tools and engineering or brute force? A machine or dozens of rope-pulling workers? Etc.

*But beware that this can be hard to do without extensive preserved writings.

**Note that the fields to consider are not restricted to variations like “were they good at stones” vs. “were they good at stones and wood”, but also include scientific accomplishments, technology, literature, philosophy, medicine, road network, level of plumbing, … Being good at everything is not a prerequisite; however, neither a civilization of brilliant stone artists with no other skills, nor a civilization of mathematicians living as otherwise primitive hunter/gatherers, can be considered advanced. Within specific fields, questions arise like “did they build boats?”, “did they build boats that could survive the open sea?”, and “did they also have the navigational skills to reliably travel on the open sea?”.

This, obviously, is not necessarily to say that this-or-that civilization was not worthy of praise*—just that we should be careful what measures we apply, and that we are praise them for the right reasons and to the appropriate degree. Building a civilization is comparatively easy to do; building an advanced civilization, that is a very different matter.**

*For one thing, many of them did have more to offer than big stones and a little astrology; for another, in many contexts the main criterion for praiseworthiness is not how advanced a civilization actually was—but how much it advanced beyond its neighbors and predecessors.

**I lack the depth of knowledge to be specific about where all the discussed (let alone unmentioned) civilizations should be classified; using a vague “advanced” would be bound to cause disagreement based on different definitions; it is unlikely that a binary classification would make sense in the first place; and it would often be necessary to include a time frame (“ancient Egypt”, e.g., covers thousands of years and several highs and low). Correspondingly, I do not attempt to make such a classification here. However, as a rough guide-line, a reasonable and reasonably detailed classification would need to put e.g. the 19th-century French, the Roman Empire, pyramid-era Egypt, and the moai-sculptors of Easter Island in different classes, descending in that order, quite possibly with additional, intervening, classes.

Excursion on rate of progress:
Some of the above can be better understood when we consider that progress in any given area can be quite fast when enough resources are dedicated. For instance, sixty years before the first moon landing, airplanes were taking their baby steps. Similarly, compare the world of IT today with the world sixty years ago. Similarly, note how the standards for sky-scrapers has exploded over a few decades when rich East-Asians or Arabs wanted to set their marks (and how it did the same thing for a few decades last century with rich New Yorkers). Similarly, note how individual art movements have reached their heights in just decades or even years. Etc. That a more primitive civilization, even with a considerably smaller population, would manage to reach a relatively high level of accomplishment in one or several areas, if it focused sufficiently strongly on those areas, is entirely unremarkable. Accomplishment over a wide range of areas is far more impressive.

Excursion on alien visitors:
Speculation along the lines of “aliens built the pyramids” have occurred in the past, as has speculation that this-or-that culture only arose through the influence of a contemporary culture from another part of the word (e.g. that Chinese colonists had it made it to pre-Columbian Latin-America). From my point of view, in accordance with the above, I consider such influence entirely unnecessary to explain the archaeological record—even discounting the low probability of such contacts. (Notwithstanding that more geographically close civilizations have influenced each other, often strongly.)

Written by michaeleriksson

May 22, 2018 at 9:42 pm

The world is ending? Probably not!

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While we live in a time of great societal problems, including a failing democracy (e.g. [1]), a climate of censorship and intolerance of opinions (e.g. [2]), and the whims of the masses unduly influencing decision making (e.g. [3]), there is one very good reason to not give up hope: Great societal problems are historically the rule rather than the exception—and society has still managed to survive and move on.

If we look at the 20th* century we have such global or near** global issues like the sequence WWI, depression, WWII, cold war, which dominated most of the century. Specific countries have had additional “individual” problems on a similar scale, e.g. decades of dictatorships, genocides, civil wars or revolutions, … However, even the luckier countries have had a great number of problems. Consider e.g. the U.S. and the McCarthy era, which is an astonishing parallel*** to what happens today, or the “Monkey trials” era, which is another strong parallel****. Or consider the crime epidemics (be it organized crime or individual crime). Or the Vietnam War, as well as the political turmoil around it. Or the “Jim Crow” situation that covered a significant part of the century.

*The one I and, likely, almost all readers will know the best, barring the 21st. From what I know of other centuries, the 20th was by no means exceptional, although the set of problems has to some degree varied over time.

**Note that the effects of e.g. a war is not limited to those nominally involved: For instance, the non-combatant Sweden suffered far less from WWII than did Germany, Russia, and Britain, but it was still impacted severely—to the point that rationing was in place for most of the war. (For some products even for years after the war…)

***I suspect, however, that the worst “McCarthies” of today would be among the first to condemn what happened back then—without realizing that they are doing the same thing: Either you believe what I believe, or you have no right to speak, to work, to teach, … (Just like e.g. the Antifa has so much in common with the fascists they claim to fight against.)

****With the addition of the “let us ignore science—we know better what is correct” aspect that also permeates e.g. feminism and gender studies. I might even have larger sympathies for the creationists: They drew on a radically different source of knowledge and disagreed about which type of source was the better. Feminists and their ilk either have no source of knowledge, instead relying on wishful thinking and personal prejudice; or claim the authority of science while ignoring any contradictory science and opening their arms to pseudo-science that agrees—astrologers pretending to be astronomers.

Chances are that some of the problems we have now will eventually blow over, be looked upon by future generations like the current looks upon the McCarthy era, and, sadly, have been replaced by a new set of problems… The extreme political correctness of today is a prime candidate.

Others might see a turn-around, as public opinion sways back-and-forth, or as the back-lash grows enough to make politicians take heed, e.g. regarding privacy and the rights of the individual.

Others yet, regrettably, could prove quite problematic, and either lead us on to a dystopia (likely something Orwellian) or require some form of radical upheaval to be rid of. Even here, however, long-term events are likely to prove this a temporary state: It took decades for the communist dictatorships of eastern Europe* to fall, but fall they did. I am a little loath to give a specific modern example, because the border towards the prior paragraph can be hard to predict. For instance, it seems likely that government will continue to grow and try to become more and more involved in our lives—as has been the trend for a very long time. However, possibly a point will be reached where even a majority of the broad masses have had too much, and the long-term** trend is reversed.

*Others remain, but I can only think of North-Korea as a strong counter-example—and that too is likely just a matter of time. China, e.g., is still a very oppressive state, but has moved quite a long-way in the right direction on other counts and is not the religiously communist country it once was. Cuba, the last “poster country”, was never that bad, was likely artificially held down by the personal presence of Castro, and appears to be gradually changing after his recent death.

**As opposed to e.g. a brief fluctuation for the better; say, a single President, preceded and followed by more expansionist colleagues.

A particularly interesting example is the worsening of many school systems.* These negative trends has been countered by a positive trend towards home schooling in the U.S., taking several percent of the children out of a negative environment, and with numbers rising. This simultaneously shows how too large a deterioration eventually brings the populace up against it and demonstrates how fragile a counter-movement can be before it reaches a critical mass: With the still low numbers, it would be possible for home-schooling to be banned**, forcing the children back into regular school. The few percent are dwarfed by the majority that has no stake in the issue and are counter-weighed by groups that oppose home schooling (e.g. out of ignorance or a drive for “equity”, because they laud the indoctrination by normal schools, or because they see home schooling as removing resources from the school system).

*Notably through declining academic standards; and increasing dominance of politically correct (or leftist) thought and propaganda at various levels of the school systems, clearly noticeable during my own school years in Sweden (starting in 1982) and entirely out of control in today’s U.S. (And possibly other places, likely including Sweden. As a negative side-effect of reading mostly in English, I am not up-to-date with the details of Sweden in this regard. I do know, however, that problems are present like political pressure groups trying to re-write books on math and physics to remove “gender disparities”…)

**I note that the U.S. stance on home schooling is not shared world wide. In e.g. Germany and Sweden (since a ban a few years ago; it was very rare before that) it is not an option.

On the down-side, the repetition of certain problems is a cause for pessimism: One implication might be that society will not end this time either (as above), but another is that society will remain in a state of crisis and that these repetitions will continue. (Those who do not know history are bound to repeat it—and knowledge of history is not very impressive these days…) The underlying problem is human nature, with its irrationality, emotionality, lack of critical thinking, … Human nature changes only slowly over time, and quite possibly for the worse. Educational efforts can to some degree help, but, more often than not, school systems appear to have the opposite effect.

As an aside, there is an other category of problems that could give the impression that things are going to hell, namely misinterpretation of a difference over e.g. the human life-span as a difference over time. A notable example would be older generations viewing younger generations as immature, lazy, uneducated, rude, …, which is an age-old phenomenon. The explanation of the perceived difference is often that the older generations compare themselves as they are now with the younger generation, and/or that they have a too rosy recollection of their own behaviors. The fair comparison is, obviously, with the older generations as they were then, say grand-child at twenty with grand-parent at twenty—not grand-parent at seventy. (However, sometimes these complaints are justified, as may very well be the case at the moment, and then this paragraph does not apply.) These cases are deliberately left out above, because they do not fit the pattern of new, or even continual, problems that alter the threat situation; they are continuous problems that leave the threat situation unchanged.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 25, 2017 at 12:05 am

The 500th anniversary of Luther’s protests

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Today is a day of considerable importance in Germany—and, no, I am still not talking about Halloween…

It is the 500th anniversary* of the beginnings of Martin Luther’s official protests, and while October 31st is normally only a public holiday in parts of Germany (“Reformationstag”), on this occasion a one-time country-wide holiday has been called.

*At least officially: I very strongly suspect that intervening calendar changes makes the claim somewhat approximate, but have not actually investigated the issue.

Having already written a lengthy piece (on another topic) today, I will not go into details, but I will note that this was the beginning of a very long period* of upheaval, wars, and conflicts, in Europe arguably worse than in the 20th century, which resulted in a permanent split of the then Catholic Church (the Christian German population is still roughly 50% Catholic, 50% Lutheran), and (if largely for non-religious reasons) the creation of e.g. the Swedish and English (i.e. Anglican Church) State Churches. While it would be wrong to attribute this day too much of a cause-and-effect value**, its symbolic value as the delimiter between the pre-Reformation and Reformation eras is immense.

*Incidentally, a good example that it does not always pay to suppress dissenters with violence: All that suffering on both sides and the “heretics” still got a draw…

**Something very similar would very likely have happened anyway, be it without Luther’s action on this day or Luther himself (entirely), albeit possibly with some delay. In situations like these, the one man or the one event is typically just the trigger of the avalanche—not the avalanche it self.

As for the underlying religious issues, the question of who has the greater right to claim “true” Christianity (then or now), who is closer to the original teachings of Jesus, etc. that is still a matter of debate. (On which I have no strong feelings, but where I suspect that they are all off the mark to a considerable degree.) It seems quite clear, however, that the doings of the Catholic Church were often severely at odds with what they should have been, and that reforms of behavior (not necessarily religion) were direly needed.

In a bigger picture, it is quite possible that the departure from the Catholic Church had positive societal effects (post-conflict), e.g. in that non-conformant thinking was seen in a less negative light, that native-language Bibles help with increasing the proportions of the populace who could read, that secular government needed to pay less attention to religious matters, …

Written by michaeleriksson

October 31, 2017 at 3:36 pm

Blogroll update

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A few months ago, I encountered a twelve-part article series on the medieval witch hunts.e Being swamped with other things, I only read the first few parts at the time. Having now completed the reading, I would like to belatedly recommend it to others. Particular value is found in giving detailed information on the Catholic Church’s actual position on witches, who the typical perpetrators where, etc. Most of us have probably already learned in history class that the stereotypical image of a persecuting church is exaggerated and outdated (numbers of victims rivaling the Holocaust is certainly a fringe view), but the detailed treatment gives a noticeably deeper understanding. In other areas some more surprising pieces of information is found.

Obviously, reading about the witch hunts is also valuable with an eye on somewhat similar modern phenomena concerning e.g. child-porn or satanistic child abuse.

While recommending the series, I also raise a warning that the site (bibleapologetics.wordpress.come) is likely to be partial, which may or may not be reflected in some of the articles (e.g. when comparing Church and Science).

By the FIFO principle, Mansförtryck och kvinnovälde [pdf]e is removed. That entry was first discussed here.

Written by michaeleriksson

January 8, 2011 at 4:56 am

Avatar, box office, and the development of records

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Comparing box office numbers is a tricky thing: US domestic box officee has Avatar as the clearly highest grossing film in raw dollars, but it reaches only place 15 in an inflation adjusted viewe—behind all three original Star Wars movies and Gone with the Wind, the 71. y.o. queen of the box office. (Retrieved on 2010-02-25; in both cases beware that box-office figures change over time.)

Still, such comparisons provide an excellent illustration of a common phenomenon that applies much more generally:

Records tend to be smashed, with the new record standing out for a long time, while the rest of the world slowly closes up, possibly even surpasses the record—and then the record is smashed again.

This is by no means an infallible rule, but surprisingly often, it is correct. (In particular, when correcting for e.g. phases of rapid natural growth due to changing circumstance or a period of weak records, say because a new technique or material has dramatically changed the circumstances).

Consider the list of Highest-grossing films (US and Canada)w provided by Wikipedia, and note how the number one spot tends to reside with a clear all-time leader, with the occasional series of several breakings leading up to a new clear number one. (This is even more obvious if we compensate for the extreme inflatione between Star Wars and E.T.)

A similar principle appears in the world-wide box office, but less clearly (and with a lot more leg-work).

For other examples look at Wikipedia’s Timeline of world’s tallest freestanding structuresw or some of the world record progressions in athletics present at http://www.athletix.org/e (but beware that what is considered a smashing in athletics is very different from in the box office; also note some counter-examples like the men’s high jump until Sotomayor). Alternatively, try your hand at an arcade game and note how your high score develops over time.

Written by michaeleriksson

February 25, 2010 at 1:03 am

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