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18 February 2008


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Jerry Thompson

I don't know if its still that way or not but -- I remember back in the early 90's "History" was dropped from the approved list of graduate programs to qualify Army officers as Foreign Area Officers. I've often thought how lucky I was to have "qualified" much earlier. I studied under Dr. Rose Greaves of Kansas University, a wonderful history professor who specialized in the history of oil and Persian Gulf security. Or, maybe I just don't/ can't know any better -- according to more current, and apparently more inspired philosophies.


Col. Lang:

Susan Jacoby (on Bill Moyers) also believes that the dumbing down of America is due to our not having elected political leaders willing to assume the role of Reader-in-Chief. She includes former President Clinton in that category as well as Bush 41 and 43. She suggests that FDR was the last president who actively took on that role.

She also argues rather vigorously that our current spate of attention deficit disorders and related educational difficulties may be due, in part, to the failure of parents to train the attention functions in the brains of their children. An interesting, and easily testable hypothesis and one that is far from counterintuitive.

As additional grist for the mill, someone noted recently that one of the striking characteristics of the young people who crowd the Obama rallies is their absence of ear phones. They also seem to be talking to one another. A Mark Penn microtrend?

Stanley Henning


Your piece, America the Illiterate, hit me like a thunder bolt because the same feeling has been welling up in me even as I feel fortunate to have had a few wonderful teachers, all in the humanities, who encouraged me to cherish the quest for knowledge, which has been the most envigarating and valuable asset in my life. My continuing quest for knowledge of various aspects of Chinese folk culture has kept me in contact with my fellow man long after "retiring" from the "system". It even saved me at one point while I was in the "system". I had studied Japanese while assigned to Taiwan. As a Reservist and "overage" Chinese linguist on active duty, I was about to be released during the Vietnam drawdown. I passed the Japanese test, became a "shortage" asset and survived to serve a full 28 years. I always advised those serving under me, and still tell young people, "don't wait for the system, continue to study on your own - it is fulfilling and might even save you in a pinch" - and it exponentially increases your interaction with, and understanding of your fellow man, a capacity ever more important as we Americans seek to maintain our place in a world that is gradually closing in on us - or have we even thought about this? Thanks for the wakeup call, Pat!



you are right -- God help us! i pity the future situation for our children/grand-children as a result.

João Carlos

I said it at other post, last year.

The best time at US history was when you put manking on the Moon. That was your apex as civilization.

Sadly, from there you get a slow decay.

Duncan Kinder

Consider using The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric (Paperback)

It is technical and dry, so also consider Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student by Edward P. J. Corbett.

Beyond that, mathematics and foreign languages also are necessary. The earlier students are taught foreign languages, the better. Kindergarten, really, would be optimal.


"You foreigners should not feel too good about this. Look around you. pl"

Yep - have been teaching again lately in Germany. The are better than the U.S. - certainly - but are worse than the those I had 15-20 years ago.

It is a neoliberal infection. The emphasis is personal monetary profit. Not to be, or do, good.


"Education" in the UK is no better. Until recently, I used to read manuscripts by university entrants who clearly had not the slightest idea of what a sentence should be. There were no capital letters at the start of their "sentences", and no full stops (period marks) at the end. Paragraphs - eh? what? Commas were randomly scattered through texts if used at all, semi-colons and colons - ha ha! -what? Apostrophes were invariably used for plurals - "plural's" - and never used for possessives (other than "it's") or in abbreviations such as "dont", "cant", "shant" etc. The eccentric mode of spelling used by too many students made a page of manuscript unintentionally read like a piece of Chaucer's English. The disease is spreading: recently, a journalist in a broadsheet newspaper no less, used the phrase "between you and I", just one example of deteriorating standards of English.

In UK school history, all that is learned seems to concentrate on Hitler, Nazism and the Second World War, important events in world history, indisputably. But there should be far more. Students thinking of doing history at university may know nothing of Greece, Rome, Mediaeval History, the Rennaissance, the Reformation , the English Civil War (of central importance to understanding our constitution and rule by Parliament), the Industrial Revolution, the American War of Independence or the French Revolution and Napoleonic War, India, China, Persia,the Muslim world, The American Civil War, the Russian Revolution, Mao, Gandhi, Mandela, Kennedy, Roosevelt, Bismark, Washington, Napoleon, Louis XIV, Luther, Charlemagne,Genghis Khan, Attila, Alexander the Great.........Fewer and fewer students learn another language than their own (which they use badly) or master the basic ideas of Science or maths or have any clear idea of the basic geography of the globe.

These characteristics are not confined to the UK and US: I get the impression that in France, Spain, Germany and other European nations, a generation is growing up less educated, less itellectually curious, less eager to acquire knowledge and wisdom for their own sake.

A nation's moral and spiritual strength depends ultimately, not on military power, economic development, population size or natural resources, but on its intellectual capital, its collective wisdom, its understanding of its own history and cultural development through the ages, and on the awareness and understanding that the mass of its population has of other cultures and nations and societies, and the workings of nature and the cosmos. Any country that squanders its intellectual capital and fails to nurture a new generation of well educated citizens is surely headed for moral decay and ultimately, economic and political oblivion.

Babak Makkinejad

Col. Lang:

I think that you are not looking at it the right way. The type of intellectual education that you have in mind will benefit only 10% of the human population; regardless of sex, race, religions, or class.

The vast majority of mankind cannot and will not benefit from living with ideas; one has to accept that and move forward from there. Basically, thinking is hard and most people would much prefer to put their minds on auto-pilot. Just go to Europe, it is not very different except that they pretend that they care about the Life of the Mind (the Intellect).

I think countries with egalitarian aspirations such as US, can never admit that their vast educational outlays has been a colossal failure; that the Life of Mind is not for everyone.

By the way, there is a graduation address by R.W. Emerson at Dartmouth College in which hr reminds the audience of their duty to Intellect and warns them of "the light of Intellect being extinguished" in them like thousands of others before them. This is not a new issue in America.

Charles I

In a sense, this IS "the end of history. The pull of the internet, that amazing, atomizing repository of fact and fancy, in many ways acts against the accumulation of a synthethized appreciation of historical reality in current contexts.

Similarly, there are many who feel that Wiki-like nature of the internet will shortly spell the end of truth, objective "fact", and reality in general as more and more people rely soley on the net for information of any kind. Recently it has come to light that corporations and other entities are editing their Wikipedia entries to rid them of unpleasant "facts". So not only are fewer people reading, those who do are likely exposed to far more discrete, uncheckable, flickering bits of gibberish(that may be subsequently altered or removed entirely, which the text in your hand cannot be) in a way that reading many longer books already synthesizing much underlying work, all hopefully accurately footnoted, may avoid.

Of course, one has to observe that the traditional non-net media largely eschews the fact reporting business in favour of bread, circuses, propaganda and jingoistic cheerleading.

Hence, the portal you have made available to us here affording wonderful synthesized consideration is all the more precious. In business parlance, through your site your posters offer us "leveraged" intellectual resources and horsepower obviously stemming from very intelligent broadly and deeply educated people.

I almost wrote something like this below in the Jeff Stein on continuing incompetence thread:

I have a poly sci BA and a law degree from the 80's, I'm a hopeless quidnunc who reads like a fiend but I'm a mile wide and an inch deep. Reading the very erudite posts from Clifford Kiracole, David Habbakkuk CWZ, Frank Durkee, FB Ali, and so many others, PL heading the list, is like being back at school before wonderful professors who take history and weave it into our intellectual fundament giving us current and historical contexts that cover broad swaths and infinitely expand my thin horizons.

What a treat. What a stimulating pleasure. What a privilege. I thank you all for sharing your accumulated knowledge and wisdom. You're making the world a better place, and providing us the means to do so in these fraught times as well.

And Pat, notwithstanding my streak of default Canadian "we're-not-Americans" sanctimony, none of your observations make me happy. Its a disaster, but here we are. I repeat my old international relations prof. Janice Gross Stein's cogent observation: "If the United States did not exist, we would have to invent it - it is the "operating system" of the world."

This page works on getting the bugs out of the "code" and we are all better off for it.

Babak Makkinejad

Duncan Kinder:

The Platonic Trivium is the core of the curriculum in the Islamic Schools of Qum, Najaf, Mash-had, Isphahan and elsewhere.


Re: [P]olitically driven depictions of reality even when the evidence of their eyes shows that reality sent down from above is nonsense.


Adam Smith, all the way back in 1776, in An Inquiry into the Nature And Causes of the Wealth of Nations, described the fun, entertainment and deep psychological fulfillment which Wars against Supremely Evil Enemies provide to many who don't have to fight them:

In great empires the people who live in the capital, and in the provinces remote from the scene of action, feel, many of them, scarce any inconveniency from the war; but enjoy, at their ease, the amusement of reading in the newspapers the exploits of their own fleets and armies . . . .

They are commonly dissatisfied with the return of peace, which puts an end to their amusement, and to a thousand visionary hopes of conquest and national glory from a longer continuance of the war.

One finds vivid illustrations of the twisted syndrome Smith identified in most of Steyn's war cheerleading comrades, especially its leaders. From Jeffrey Goldberg's New Yorker profile of Joe Lieberman:
Lieberman likes expressions of American power. A few years ago, I was in a movie theatre in Washington when I noticed Lieberman and his wife, Hadassah, a few seats down. The film was "Behind Enemy Lines," in which Owen Wilson plays a U.S. pilot shot down in Bosnia. Whenever the American military scored an onscreen hit, Lieberman pumped his fist and said, "Yeah!" and "All right!"

From: The Fun and Excitement of Civilization Wars (fought from afar). By Glenn Greenwald. http://www.salon.com/opinion/greenwald/2008/02/17/steyn/print.html

frank durkee

I concur both from my own teaching experience and from my professional group, episcopal Clergy. 50 years ago most of my seminary classmates would have had the kind of background the Col. touted. Today very few have that kind of backgroud in our tradition much less the general culture. Among other things the humanities provide 'context' for any issue that seems to emerge. In the absence of context depth, nuance, and contradictory possibilities fall out of consideration.

frank durkee

I concur both from my own teaching experience and from my professional group, episcopal Clergy. 50 years ago most of my seminary classmates would have had the kind of background the Col. touted. Today very few have that kind of backgroud in our tradition much less the general culture. Among other things the humanities provide 'context' for any issue that seems to emerge. In the absence of context depth, nuance, and contradictory possibilities fall out of consideration.


Dear Col. Lang,
Sadly, all too true.
I believe you addressed something similar over at the Athenaeum regarding
"Maj. General Jeff Hammond" Clearly LTC Yingling Was Right.
June 29, 2007

Here is an excerpt from LTC. Yingling's article:

Congress should also modify the officer promotion system in ways that reward intellectual achievement. The Senate should examine the education and professional writing of nominees for three- and four-star billets as part of the confirmation process. The Senate would never confirm to the Supreme Court a nominee who had neither been to law school nor written legal opinions. However, it routinely confirms four-star generals who possess neither graduate education in the social sciences or humanities nor the capability to speak a foreign language. Senior general officers must have a vision of what future conflicts will look like and what capabilities the U.S. requires to prevail in those conflicts. They must possess the capability to understand and interact with foreign cultures. A solid record of intellectual achievement and fluency in foreign languages are effective indicators of an officer’s potential for senior leadership.




I concur completely. I retired as early as a could from a good tenured teaching position in a Canadian university. I no longer felt I could say what I thought, either in the classroom or with colleagues. The students I saw and heard in the classroom knew less about their society and its literary and cultural origins than high school students would have 50 years ago. I got sick of biting my tongue and all the pandering I was seeing and hearing.


If you follow your dream and believe.....

If you just follow your star and have faith...

You will be beaten by people who work hard and study a lot.

As in the English-speaking world versus East Asia.

We have become a culture that prizes "entertainment" above all else.

Which is why the likes of (insert name of pop star\sports star\movie star here) is paid multi millions for a few hours work.

It wasn't always like this.

And it doesn't have to stay like this.

And it's not the fault of the younger generation, they didn't set up these conditions, we , and those who went before us, did.



If you wish to stretch your own mind as well as comprehend how bad the situation really is, read any of the works of Isiah Berlin on the history of ideas.

Kevin K

Since João Carlos brought it up, I would like to say my father helped design and ran the liquid fuel lines for the Saturn V rockets that took the Astronauts to the Moon. My father was not a "reader", in fact I think most of the books he read in his life are the ones I would give him at Christmas much later in life. He learned to be a great engineer by working in his dad's appliance store and by tearing apart T-birds and Buicks. The space program was mostly the work of "Practical Men". To me this is a source of American anti-intellectualism, not an example.

As a young person trying to make my way in the world, I would like to add that America, especially near its cities, is really ridiculously expensive to live in. Since most of the knowledge worker jobs are in those areas, don't be too hard on young people who just want good jobs. The jobs are hard to get, especially with all the foreign competition my father never had to deal with, and no one can support a family waiting tables into their thirties.

I haven't read this person's book. Does she describe any effort to limit uneducated people from immigrating here? Does she want to implement intense knowledge testing like they have in Europe? What happens when we push hard on education and working classes and minorities don't keep up? What solutions does she have? People have been asking these questions my whole life. Surely, the author must know this.


Good grief! Jacoby's rant and pl's plea is a challenge to aspire to not a conclusion that we've failed!

I taught graduate students for 15 years and all they really wanted was to have someone set the bar higher than they could imagine. With the exception of the few gifted students who just wanted me to get out of their way, the rest were fearful of success because it only led to more work and the possibility of more failure. When they discovered that limits were not imposed by me but by them real learning took place. And, it was exciting to watch.

The problem inevitably boiled down to the codification of all things educational by the people who ran the institution. Socrate's log disappeared.

Are we doomed to do more of the same? I'd answer that question if I could only figure out where we are in the cycle.


I grew up among dairy farmers. Their kids' whole life was dairy farming, and they expected nothing more from it. Every day they brought the odors of the cow barn to school with them. They had gotten up early, done the milking, and gone to school, tired, unmotivated, occupying classes for dummies.

Years later, I came back to find that some of those kids had gone to Cornell and earned PhDs. What had prompted the change? Sputnik. A little competition motivated everyone to learn more.

Now we've slid back to those pre-Sputnik days. History is not important, civics is not important. Being cool and hanging out seem to be all that matter.

Clifford Kiracofe

From culture to politics...so what has happened to our civic culture?

If the culture which created our Constitution is erased, the Republic -- such as it currently is with all its faults -- will indeed fall. From the ruins, a "modern" dictatorship will inexorably emerge, IMO. We already can detect indications of a parallel to the "cumulation of powers" of the old "principate" erected by Julius Caesar and Augustus...

Compare the current situation to our colonial era which brought forth the Constitution.

I can suggest:

Louis B. Wright, The Cultural Life of the American Colonies 1607-1763 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957).

Lawrence A. Cremin, American Education. The Colonial Experience 1607-1783 (New York: Harper & Row, 1970.)

There is an attempt to teach "World History" at the high school and college-university level.
see website of the World History Association of which I am a member.


As in any academic undertaking, there are problems and differences of opinion, perspective, methodology and all of that. But at least some attempt is being made in the US. I once observed to a leading figure in this "movement" (and I like him) that World History has some roots with the German philospher Schiller...don't think he caught it..."Die Weltgeschichte ist das Weltgerichte"...etc.

The historical approach in international relations is reflected to some degree in the "English School" of Hedley Bull, Adam Watson, Herbert Butterfield, etal.

The "English School" is actually like the pre-World War II "American School" if one might call it that. Both can trace their roots to the University of Goettingen, Hannover. At least that is the way I teach it.


I am an American finishing a PhD in International Relations at a UK university. The main thing I've learned is that IR is a fake discipline. Anything I say in my dissertation could be said better through the language of history, philosophy, or that great lost Enlightenment discipline, political-economy. But for all my frustrations, I feel like Thucydides when I talk to most of my US-university educated peers, especially those in DC.

Case in point: My university and George Washington U both offer a graduate class on 'conflict' in the international system. My exam consisted of one question: "What is conflict, and how is it addressed in today's world?" The GW students had to write a 1 page mock memo from the National Security Council to the President.

Personally, I felt I learned an enormous amount from simply being required to think deeply and write coherently about a difficult subject. But I guess I will be seriously screwed if I land that position on the NSC right out of college...


Ignorance is curable. Do people realize that there is more to learn? Or are they ignorant of the extent of their ignorance? Or do they know they are ignorant but simply do not care?

As to the use of knowledge in a hierarchical organization, my experience is that most people fall in line with the top of the hierarchy. Even when they know better, they justify keeping their heads down as a way to survive.

We may be able to survive general ignorance if our universities are sound:

E. Dijkstra:


"In the Western world, 66 institutions have enjoyed a continuously visible identity since 1530. Among those 66 are the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church and the Parliaments of Iceland and the Isle of Man. What makes these 66 so interesting —and I owe the knowledge of this fact to our President Dr. Berdahl— is that the remaining 62 are all universities!"

...the university has an essential role to play, viz. to explain to the world the foolishness of its ways...The question is: do we offer what society asks for, or do we offer what society needs?...[The University must provide what society needs because]

The first one is that a leading university has no choice: to be leading means in this context showing new and better ways and possibilities no one else has dreamt of; if you give society what it asks for, you are not leading but led, viz. led by the demands of society as it sees them.

The second reason is that what society overwhelmingly asks for is snake oil....


It seems to me that our current problems arise from an inappropriate reliance on intellectualism and literacy rather than a general ignorance as described.

Perhaps this is coupled with a general reliance by the elite in the facility of lying to the American people, in a paternalistic belief that regular people do not have the intellectual capacity or the literacy to understand the issues.

Many of our current problems have arisen because the intelligentsia have learned the art of marketing. That is coming to an end, the internet promises to change the way information is vetted.

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