The dirty little secret of so-called “higher education” is that a substantial part of a typical course of instruction in American colleges is almost or nearly worthless.
The demands of the marketplace are such that the college must hurry their customers (a more apt term than “students”) through with a degree that hints of marketable skills. So, traditional enrichment of the cultivated mind (art, music, literature, the humanities, etc.) is neglected so that an engineer, programmer, or MBA can be presented in a “job fair,” be hired and become a contributor to the college’s endowment fund.
Therefore, the non-core portion of the course of study becomes some triviality de jour that requires little of the customer without distracting him from the pressing business of laboratory or major course. At best, these become time-wasting diversions; at their worst, they foster narcissistic and destructive mental myopia manifested in self-pitying and dead-end pursuits. (Ethnic and gender studies, take a bow.)
Society suffers from our vocational and professional obsessions in several areas, most markedly in our historical illiteracy. “No man is fit to be entrusted with control of the present who is ignorant of the past, and no people who are indifferent to their past need hope to make their future great.” I cannot ascertain the source of this oft-quoted apothegm, but its veracity I doubt not.
The most cursory review of popular journalism will convince any discerning reader that not only are our school pupils ignorant of history, but so are many journalists. We reap the bitter fruits of this ignorance as generations of politicians continue to advocate ideas and policies repeatedly discredited by the experience of previous generations.
Granted, modern historiography can be tedious business.
The professionals write mostly for each other and they ruthlessly critique each other’s work. This is good and necessary, but a review of non-fiction best-seller lists will demonstrate that literate and well written historical works can find readers.
There are some students of history whose value lies not in their contributions to the field, but in their ability to narrate summaries of historical scholarship in such fashion as to make history understandable and entertaining to the general reader. Daniel Boorstin on (North) America, Winston Churchill on Great Britain, and Shelby Foote on the War Between the States come readily to mind as examples.
Those of us of a certain age owe much of our knowledge of civilization to a couple who made a career of the study and writing of history, but who arguably were not historians in the strictest sense: Will Durant, and his research assistant/co-author/wife, Ariel.
What their contemporary Issac Asimov did for science, the Durants did for history and philosophy. They explained and narrated “The Story of Civilization” for non-specialists.
Those of us who care about the past but lack the time and training to do the leg work to produce original work ourselves are forever indebted to this cultured and literate pair. Young readers who are desirous of divesting themselves of the insularity and ignorance that is the birthright of the post-World War II generations would do well to haunt used bookstores, flea markets, Amazon, and e-bay. So ubiquitous is the Durants’ multi-volume “Story of Civilization” that complete sets are easily available at reasonable prices.
Some of their conclusions may be dated, but as a whole the work stands the test of time and is a delight to read.
Recently I was browsing a discount book service’s catalog and my eye fell on a previously unpublished book whose manuscript had been found among Will Durant’s effects a quarter of a century after his death. Published as “Fallen Leaves: Last Words on Life, Love, War, and God,” it is worth the read.
Quotable passages appear on almost every page; e.g.: “A wise man can learn from other men’s experience; a fool cannot learn even from his own.” Also: “…human nature is…the same in ancient and modern civilizations, in the poor as in the rich, in radicals as in conservatives, in underprivileged as in affluent…successful revolutionists soon behave like those they have overthrown…(Revolutions are) understandable…but unprofitable and transient; (giving) vent to just resentment, (but producing) only surface change…” And so it goes.
It is a great time to be alive. Edward R. Hamilton, Daedalus, et al make excellent reading materials affordable to those of modest means.
If we die ignorant, it is our own fault.
Sonny Scott is a Chickasaw County resident and a community columnist for the Chickasaw Journal. Contact him at email@example.com.