Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Producing Democracy

Last week's post here on The Archdruid Report attempted to raise a question that, as I see it, deserves much more discussion than it gets these days.  Most currently popular ways of trying to put pressure on the American political system presuppose that the politicians will pay attention if the people, or the activists who claim to speak in their name, simply make enough noise. The difficulty is that the activists, or for that matter the people, aren’t actually giving the politicians any reason to pay attention; they’re simply making noise, and the politicians have gotten increasingly confident that the noise can be ignored with impunity.

That’s what’s implied by saying that protest marches, petitions, letter-writing campaigns, and the like consume democracy.  These standard modes of activism only work if the officials who make decisions have some reason to think that the activists can follow through with some more effective action, such as a serious challenge in the next election, if they’re ignored.  It’s those other actions that produce democracy or, in less metaphoric terms, convince elected officials that ignoring the activists could put their careers at risk.

What sets democracy apart from most other systems of government is that it gives citizens a peaceful way to make good on such threats.  This is a huge advantage, for the most pragmatic of reasons.  In autocratic societies, where the populace has no way to get rid of inept officials short of revolution, a vast amount of administrative idiocy and incompetence goes unpunished. The notion that autocracies are by definition more competent than democracies is quite simply untrue; the annals of autocratic states such as ancien régime France and Communist Russia are packed with examples of the most egregious incompetence—and no, despite the slogans, Mussolini didn’t make the trains run on time, either.  It’s simply easier to cover up governmental stupidity in an autocracy, since there aren’t media independent of government control to spread the word and embarrass the powers that be.

Yet that advantage, again, depends on the ability of citizens to vote the rascals out when they deserve it. In today’s America, that ability is little more than theoretical these days.  I’ve discussed in a number of posts already how what was once one of the world’s liveliest and most robust democratic systems has lapsed into a sham democracy uncomfortably reminiscent of the old Eastern Bloc states, where everyone had the right to vote for a preselected list of candidates who all support the same things. The reasons for that decay are complex, and again, I’ve talked about them in detail already. What I want to address this week is what might be done about it—and that requires a second look at the countervailing forces that were once hardwired into the grassroots level of the American system.

A thought experiment might help clarify the issues here.  Imagine, dear reader, that early next year you hear that a couple of legislators and popular media figures in your state are talking about forming a new political party that will offer a meaningful alternative to the stalemate in Washington DC.  The two major parties ignore them, but by early 2014 the new party is more or less in existence, and candidates under its banner are running for Congress and a range of state offices.  The morning after the 2014 election, Republicans and Democrats across the nation wake up to discover that they are going to have to deal with a significant third-party presence in Congress and a handful of state governments controlled lock, stock and barrel by the new party.

The two years leading up to the 2016 election pass by in a flurry of political activity as the old parties struggle to regain their joint monopoly over the political process and the new party scrambles to build a national presence.  In 2016, the new party nominates its first presidential candidate, a longtime activist and public figure.  The campaign faces an uphill fight, and loses heavily; some of the new party’s people in Congress and state governments are ousted as well. Pundits insist that it was all a flash in the pan, but they’re discomfited in the midterm elections in 2018 when the new party scores a major upset, winning a majority in the House of Representatives and nearly doubling its Senate presence.

The new party’s gains strain the existing structure of American partisan politics to the breaking point. As the 2020 election nears, the Democratic Party, outflanked and marginalized by the rising new party, disintegrates in internecine feuding and fails to field a presidential candidate at all.  The Republican Party breaks in two, with Tea Party and country-club Republicans holding competing conventions and nominating separate presidential tickets.  Yet another new party springs up, composed mostly of old guard politicians from what used to be the middle of the road, and nominates its own candidate. Under US law, whatever party gets the most votes in any state wins that state’s votes in the electoral college—and so the new party, by winning a plurality of the popular vote in just enough states to matter, sees its candidate raising his hand on January 20, 2021 to take the oath of office as the nation’s next president.

Suggest a scenario of that kind to most Americans today and they’ll dismiss it as impossible. That’s all the more curious, in that every detail of the thought experiment I’ve just sketched out is drawn from an earlier period in American history.  The years in question ran from 1854 to 1860, and the new party was the Republican Party; the Whigs were the party that imploded, the Democrats the party that split in two, the short-lived fourth party was the Constitutional Union Party and, of course, the tall figure standing up there taking the oath of office in 1861 was Abraham Lincoln.

Yet it’s true that an upset of the same kind would be much more difficult to pull off today.  Several different factors combine to make that the case, but to my mind, the most important of them is the simple and awkward fact that the skills that would be needed to make it happen are no longer to be found among activists or, for that matter, American citizens in general.  Organizing a new political party, building up a constituency on a national level, and making the machinery of democracy turn over in response, requires the pragmatic application of certain learned and learnable skill sets, which most people in America today do not know and are by and large uninterested in learning.  There are, broadly speaking, three such skill sets, and we’ll take them one at a time

The first can’t be discussed without opening an industrial sized can of worms, one that will take the rest of this post and still leave ends wriggling in all directions, but that can’t be helped. I’d like to start the can opener going with one of the odder conversations that spun off from last week’s post.   My regular readers will remember that one of the core themes of that post was the suggestion that, though democratic systems are routinely corrupt and suffer from a galaxy of other pervasive problems, they generally provide more civil rights and more consistent access to due process to their citizens than do autocratic systems, and that this is true even in a nonindustrial setting.

One of my readers took heated exception to this claim, and insisted that preindustrial America was no better than any other country of the time. It’s the debate that followed, though, that brought out the detail I want to emphasize.  To defend his counterclaim, my reader talked about the current US prison system, the evils of intellectual property rights, and a flurry of other issues irrelevant to the point at hand, ending up with a claim that since Adolf Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany in 1933, Nazi Germany was a democracy and democracy was therefore bad.  None of his arguments had any bearing on whether citizens of the United States in its preindustrial days—not, please note, all its residents, much less people outside its borders; democracies abuse noncitizens more or less as often as other forms of government do, which is why I specified citizens in my distinctly lukewarm words of praise—had more civil rights and more reliable access to due process than citizens of autocratic countries during the same period.

It’s a matter of historical record that in 1800, say, when the United States was still almost wholly agrarian, an American citizen could stand up in a public meeting anywhere in the country, say that President Adams was a liar, a thief, and a scoundrel who should be hounded out of office at the first opportunity, and suffer no civil or criminal penalty whatever for that utterance—and could go on with equal impunity to make good on his words by doing his best to hound Adams out of office and put Tom Jefferson in his place.  It’s equally a matter of historical record that making a similar comment in the same year about First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte, Tsar Pavel I, Sultan Selim III, the Jiaqing Emperor, or Shogun Tokugawa Ienari in the respective domains of these autocrats would have resulted in a painful death, or at best a long stay in prison under ghastly conditions, and let’s not even talk about what happened to people who showed any sign of trying to replace these heads of state with some other candidate. That’s a significant difference in civil rights, and it’s what I was talking about, but my attempts to suggest to my reader that he was not addressing my point got answered by increasingly irritable comments insisting that yes, he was.

It finally dawned on me that from his perspective, he was, because the point he thought I was making was something like “democracy is good,” or more exactly that the verbal noise “democracy” ought to be linked with warm fuzzy feelings.  He was insisting in response, more or less, that the verbal noise “democracy” ought to be linked to cold prickly feelings, and his rhetorical strategy—a very common one on the internet these days, as it happens—was simply to attempt to associate various cold prickly feelings with the verbal noise in question, in the hope that enough of the cold prickly feelings would stick to the verbal noise to make his point.  The fact that I might be trying to do something other than linking a verbal noise to an emotional state seemingly did not occur to him.

It’s only fair to point out that he was far from the only person whose response to that post amounted to some equally simplistic emotional linkage. On the other side of the political spectrum, for instance, was a reader who insisted that the United States was not an empire, because empires are bad and the United States is good.  To him, the verbal noise “empire” was linked to cold prickly feelings, and those clashed unbearably with the warm fuzzy feelings he linked to the word “America.” It’s a fine example of the lumpen-Aristotelianism against which Alfred Korzybski contended in vain: A is A and therefore A cannot be not-A, even if A is a poorly chosen hypergeneralization that relates primarily to an emotional state and embraces an assortment of vaguely defined abstractions with no connection between them other than a nearly arbitrary assignment to the same verbal noise.

I don’t bring up these examples because they’re in any way unusual; they’re not. I bring them up because they quite adequately represent most of what passes for political discussion in America today. Examples abound; for one, think of the way the right uses the word “socialist” to mean exactly what the left means by the word “fascist.”  In plain English, either one translates out as “I hate you,” but both can be far more adequately represented by the snarl a baboon makes when it’s baring its teeth in threat. Now of course both words, like “democracy” and “empire,” actually mean something specific, but you won’t find that out by watching their usage these days.

For another—well, I wonder how many of my readers have had, as I have, the experience of attempting to talk about the policies and behavior of a politician when the other person in the conversation insists on reducing everything to personalities. I think of an email exchange I endured a while back, in which my correspondent was trying to convince me that I was wrong to criticize Barack Obama, since he was a nice man, a man of integrity, and so on.  Every issue got dragged back to the man’s personality—or, more precisely, to my correspondent’s impressions of his personality, garnered at third hand from the media. When I brought up the extent to which the Obama administration’s policies copied those of his predecessor, for example, I got a frosty response about how wrong it was to equate Obama and Bush, since they were such different people.  One was, after all, linked with warm fuzzy feelings in my correspondent’s mind, while the other was linked with cold prickly feelings, and A cannot equal not-A.

One way to talk about the point I’m trying to make here is that the great majority of Americans have never learned how to think.  I stress the word “learned” here; thinking is a learned skill, not an innate ability.  The sort of mental activity that’s natural to human beings is exactly the sort of linkage of verbal noises to emotional states and vague abstractions I’ve outlined above. To get beyond that—to figure out whether the verbal noises mean anything, to recognize that an emotional state is not an objective description of the thing that triggers it, and to replace the vague abstractions with clearly defined concepts that illuminate more than they obscure—takes education.

Now of course we have an educational system in the United States. More precisely, we have two of them, a public school system that reliably provides some of the worst education in the industrial world, and a higher education industry that provides little more than job training—and these days, by and large, it’s training for jobs that don’t exist.  You can quite easily pass through both systems with good grades, and never learn how to work through an argument to see if it makes sense or check the credentials of a purported fact. That’s a problem for a galaxy of reasons, but one of them bears directly on the theme of this post, for it’s a matter of historical record, again, that democratic politics work only when the people who have the right to vote—however large or small that class happens to be—also get an education in the basic skills of thinking.

That’s why the first-draft versions of Western democracy emerged in the ancient Mediterranean world, especially but not only in the city-states of Greece, at a time when the replacement of hieroglyphs with alphabets had made literacy a common skill among urban citizens and one of history’s great intellectual revolutions was inventing logic and formal mathematics.  It’s why democratic ideas began to spread explosively through western Europe once education stopped being a monopoly of religious institutions and refocused on the same logical and mathematical principles that sparked an equivalent shift in the ancient Mediterranean, courtesy of the Renaissance and its aftermath.  It’s why the extension of democracy to previously excluded groups in the United States followed, after varying lag times, the extension of public education to these same groups—and it’s also why the collapse of American education in recent decades has been promptly followed by the collapse of American democracy.

It’s common enough to hear claims that American voters of previous generations must have been as poorly equipped in the skills of thinking as their equivalents today.  I would encourage any of my readers who want to make such a claim, or who like to think that the inhabitants of our self-styled information society must inevitably be better at thinking than people of an earlier age, to take the time to read the Lincoln-Douglas debates in their entirety, and then compare them to this year’s presidential debates.  Lincoln and Douglas, remember, were not speaking to a roomful of Ph.D.s; they were in a hotly contested Congressional election, in front of audiences of farmers, millworkers, shopkeepers, and craftsmen, the ordinary voters of 1858 Illinois, few of whom had more than an eighth grade education and many of whom had much less.  It does not speak well for the pretensions of today’s America that its presidential candidates this year pursued their debates on a level that a crowd of Chicago feedlot workers in 1858 would have found embarrassingly simplistic.

That’s among the many reasons why devising a framework for adult education outside the grip of the current American education industry is one of the most pressing needs of the decade or two right ahead of us.  That huge topic, though, is going to require a series of posts all to itself. What I want to stress here is that teaching the electorate to think is not the only challenge here; those of my readers who may be involved in trying to change the direction of contemporary American society on any scale, and for any reason, might find it useful to turn a cold and beady eye upon their own mental processes, and on those of the movements they happen to support.

As extraordinary amount of what passes for argument in today’s activist scene, after all, is exactly the sort of linking of verbal noises with simple emotional reactions, warm and fuzzy or cold and prickly as needed.  Some of this may be coldly cynical manipulation on the part of canny operators pushing the emotional buttons of their intended targets, to be sure, but a cold and cynical manipulator who sees his manipulations failing normally changes tack, and tries to find something that will work better.  That isn’t what we see among activists, though.  Consider the way that the climate change movement went from an apparently unstoppable juggernaut a decade ago to nearly total failure today.  The strategy chosen by the great majority of climate change activists could be adequately described as the mass production of cold pricklies; when the other side in the debate figured out how to counteract that, the activists’ sole response was to shout "Cold prickly! Cold prickly! COLD PRICKLY!!!" as loud as they could, and then wonder why people weren’t listening.

You can’t craft an effective strategy if your mental processes are limited to linking up verbal noises, simple emotional reactions, and vague abstractions.  It really is as simple as that. Until those who hope to have an influence on any level recognize this, they’re not going to have the influence they seek, and America is going to continue stumbling on autopilot toward a wretched end. Once that hurdle is past, the remaining steps are a good deal easier; we’ll get to them next week.

End of the World of the Week #52

Does it make an apocalyptic prophecy more likely to come true if several different visionaries, from different traditions and times, agree on it?  Well, the last months of 1999 were targeted for the end of the world by a flurry of predictions from a diverse cast of would-be prophets.  Hal Lindsey, who admittedly predicted the end of the world every ten years or so all through the latter 20th century, insisted in one of his books that the Second Coming would arrive before the year 2000; so did preacher James Gordon Lindsay (no relation); so did conspiracy theorist Texe Marrs; so did literature released by the Seventh Day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses; and so, curiously enough, did Timothy Dwight IV, the distinguished Revolutionary War era educator and theologian.

My regular readers will already know the outcome of the story:  Jesus pulled another no-show.  All of the prophets in question except for Dwight, who had the good common sense to die in 1817, did the usual thing and found new dates on which to anchor their fantasies.

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not


niklinna said...

I almost hate to bring up the name, but your description of this fuzzy emotional "thinking" strongly resembles Ayn Rand's characterization in her fiction, and her analysis of "anti-concepts" in later writing. She certainly had her flaws, but her insights into this sort of thing were pretty darn sharp. It's sadly amusing to see the sorts of people who have adopted her as their mascot; she'd surely be rolling in her grave!

(And that is essentially because to most people, fanatics and detractors alike, her name is just verbal noise evoking either warm-fuzzy or cold-prickly. I've basically given up on having a rational, critical discussion about her body of work with anybody.)

Leo said...

'reasoned discourse is the lifeblood of republics' Democracies as well.

Also if you haven't seen this:

Always wondered why I ignored most activists and politicans, most of them don't really talked in reasoned terms, just emotional.

Jeffrey Kotyk said...

What do you think of Polybius' ideas on a mixed constitution? Quote:

"Lycurgus, then, foreseeing this, did not make his constitution simple and uniform, but united in it all the good and distinctive features of the best governments, so that none of the principles should grow unduly and be perverted into its allied evil,..."*.html

He's referring to having kingship, aristocracy and democracy combined. He goes on to praise the Roman constitution as well. This would prevent, for example, democracy from descending into mob rule, but at the same time prevent the king from becoming a tyrant. Historically most human societies tend to produce kings and perhaps this naturally entails stability and long-term planning. It is just a matter of keeping the king in check (and check mate him if need be!).

marxmarv said...

This seems as good a place as any to reprise the Texas GOP platform's opposition to the teaching of critical thinking skills, on account of that they may "challenge students' fixed beliefs and undermine parental authority". Not that the other party's doing much to improve them, mind.

I wonder how many other people might be tempted to run for a seat on their local school board based on this week's article, even though we may never live to see the fruits. And I don't even particularly like kids!

steve said...

Actually, that man standing on the stump criticizing President Adams could well have been arrested, prosecuted, and jailed under the Alien and Sedition Acts in effect at that time.

Lincoln abolished habeas corpus.

Wilson jailed

Roosevelt threw Japanese-Americans in detention camps without recourse to due process.

Obama has assumed the right to execute and imprison (and Bush 1 approved imprisonment as well) American citizens with no right of judicial review.

I wouldn't overly idealize America's past nor its present.

John Michael Greer said...

Niklinna, I bet! It's been a long time since I read any of Rand's work, and I wasn't greatly impressed by her work at the time, but I've noticed the tendency to turn her into one more vague abstraction onto which warm fuzzies or cold pricklies can be projected.

Leo, funny!

Jeffrey, I suppose they're one option. My core interest in constitutions, though, is as organic phenomena that evolve and transform over time, in response to local conditions and history; since we've got one, I tend to focus on ways it can be restored to working order.

John Michael Greer said...

Marxmarv, I'd stay off the school boards, and concentrate on building the alternative.

Steve, now compare that record to the situation in any of the autocratic societies I named, in which the worst examples you cited were par for the course. Pointing at America and shouting "Cold pricklies!" isn't a useful response to this post's point, you know.

jph said...

"It does not speak well for the pretensions of today’s America that its presidential candidates this year pursued their debates on a level that a crowd of Chicago feedlot workers in 1858 would have found embarrassingly simplistic." Nailed it for me this week JMG.

Sandra Cass said...

Most interesting. "linking of verbal noises with simple emotional reactions".

That is a great description of what passes for thinking today. Your thoughts remind me of the teaching of that rascal Gurdgieff. He constantly made the point that the normal reaction of people was usually an instant negative emotional reaction to anything they heard. Thinking never happened. He taught a system of self-observing to get people to learn that they never in fact thought but only reacted. And he believed that until they learned that they would always react as "Machines" rather than thinking humans.

Working on that is not easy - but it is extremey important.

Draft said...

JMG, I always look to your wisdom each week, but one thing has grated on me a little for about a year now and I figure it's time to mention it. The broad brush you paint with makes great sense when discussing big ideas or the arc of history, but fails when discussing modern politics. My one guilty habit is to spend a great deal of time studying not just the American political system, but the fighting that goes on in Washington on a day to day basis, the deals that are struck in congress, the actions by the executive both big and small, and so on. So I can say with a fair bit of confidence that one of your refrains on this -- that there's no basically difference between Obama and Romney/Bush or Democrats and Republicans -- is false. Here's what I will agree is true: neither party is responding to the issues of imperial decline or energy descent and of the progress myth. However what I think is also true is that since they aren't different on the issues that matter to you in particular, you describe them as not different at all. I would say that there is a very clear difference on issues that might not matter as much to you (and I do not mean to presume here), such as gay rights or womens rights, and in basic competence in running various basic services of the government like FEMA -- not just in words but deeds.

Again these are small potatoes in the scope of the Long Descent we face, but they matter to many in the here and now and some of these differences can mean the difference between putting food on the table or a roof over one's head or not during this bad economy for people I know. I agree these differences between party are small (too small) and that their policies won't do a thing for the bigger issues we face. But when one looks at the particulars, they can matter to real people on a day to day basis, and I never forget that when I go to vote.

(I hope you don't think this is too blunt.)

Mister Roboto said...

In autocratic societies, where the populace has no way to get rid of inept officials short of revolution, a vast amount of administrative idiocy and incompetence goes unpunished. The notion that autocracies are by definition more competent than democracies is quite simply untrue;

It's my understanding that this had something to do with why Hitler's Third Reich was unable to field the V2 rocket until the very end of the war, when that was pretty much too late for it to be of very much effect.

Robert Mathiesen said...

Excellent! "Devising a framework for adult education outside the grip of the current American education industry" is one of the very most important tasks we face, right up there with gardening, conservation and weaning ourselves from all our high-tech entertainment.

I taught at one of the elite universities in New England for about 40 years, and watched all this develop. Back in the '50s I got an excellent education in the public schools in California. When I began teaching in '67, most students came to my university already knowing how to think clearly, logically and with quasi-mathematical precision, not just to emote, to moralize, and to play games of clever verbal tennis. By the '80s there were noticeably fewer of these students, and by the '90s they had become so rare as to stand out sharply from the mass of students in general.

For a variety of historical reasons, universities have transformed themselves within my own lifetime into a sort of minor wealth pump in their own right, and they abjectly feed into the greater wealth pumps of the nation for their own profit. Too much money is at stake for any reform in the near future, and in the more distant future our current institutions of higher education will inevitably starve to death as economic growth ceases forever and the flow of wealth dries up.

It would be a distraction to argue about the historical reasons for this change. The change itself is a fact, and needs to be reckoned with.

So how might one develop such a framework? Perhaps in much the same way as JMG has developed a framework for green wizardry one could develop one for a genuine education. I'll have to think about this more . . .

As a starter, perhaps I could make or find PDFs of a *very* few of the most demanding and clearest high-school textbooks that were published in the 19th and early 20th centuries: G. A. Wentworth's texts on algebra, plain and solid geometry and trigonometry, S. S. Greene's advanced textbook of English grammar, and so forth. Suggestions of other authors and titles would be welcomed!

I am a medievalist and a humanist, not a scientist, though I have a taste for mathematics. So I tend to think in terms of the medieval list of school subjects: grammar, rhetoric, logic, mathematics, and the mathematical treatment of such things as astronomy, celestial navigation, music theory, etc. (And I would add magic to the list, but YMMV.) This particular model may not be the best one to follow for the coming hard times. But whatever the model, it should not be a practical curriculum that teaches one how to do things. It should be a curriculum that teaches how to use the mind.

Thoughts, anyone?

John Michael Greer said...

Jph, glad to be of service.

Sandra, I'm familiar with Fourth Way work and have some friends who practice it. True enough; the rascal in question had some very good points, and that was one of them.

Draft, not too blunt at all. That's how dissensus operates: you've assessed my proposals, decided that one of them doesn't work for you, and gone and done something else. Good. I also pay close attention to who gets my vote, but I vote for individuals rather than for parties.

Mister R., I don't happen to know about the V-2, but the ME-262 jet fighter, which could potentially have changed the course of the war, wasn't deployed until far too late as a fighter because Hitler thought he knew more about air warfare than the professionals did. Thus your point stands.

Robert Mathiesen said...

@ Steve

Lincoln abolished habeas corpus for the duration of the war, but -- admirably! -- he also said he was willing to be judged by the nation about this after the war was over.

This, for me, stands in sharp contrast to current efforts to granting the executive complete immunity from any prosecution for similar acts in the future.

CGP said...

The intellectual degradation of society tracks quite closely to its moral degradation. When I say moral degradation I do not mean religious, I mean in terms of discipline, restraint and empathy. Industrial society has become soft, weak and selfish as a result of abundance and extravagance. This has led to intellectual laziness for a number of reasons which hinge on the fact that there are fewer incentives to actually think critically and originally. After all when the status quo provides not only food and security but also pleasures and adventures why go to all the trouble of actually straining your brain with critical thought? Moreover, why think critically if you are going to be condemned and shunned? Better to stay stupid and keep receiving invitations to the parties.

Another issue that needs to be considered is that this intellectual and moral degradation has been going on for generations now meaning parents have internalized the stupidity and decadence and are now passing that onto their children. Therefore, many children do not have a positive intellectual and moral influence at home, at school or in their social circles so what chance do they have? An example of bad parenting is the obsession in instilling self-esteem in the absence of any actual achievement. Studies have shown this leads to bad outcomes. For example, instilling self-esteem in low achievers does not make them achieve higher grades but it does make them feel better about their poor performance. I think this self-esteem movement is just a way of giving credence to lazy parenting because it is an excuse not to get tough, impose rules and boundaries and then enforce them which all require active and engaged parenting. It is just easier to ignore problems and then say "well if I was to lecture Johnny for his recalcitrance that might impair his self-esteem" before returning to some reality TV show about some pornographic cretin of a “celebrity”.

Kevin said...

I especially look forward to hearing more about "devising a framework for adult education outside the grip of the current American education industry." It sounds like it might be worth being involved in.

Joel Caris said...


I must say, I've been enjoying these last couple posts on democracy. One thing I've wondered in regard to our political system is how much industrialism and globalization necessarily distorts the ability to have a functioning democracy in comparison to smaller, more localized economies and communities. Much as a small business is often more accountable to the community it serves than a large corporation, surely democracy is more accountable at small, local levels--not to mention within less complex circumstances?

What you write here about the failure of critical thinking skills leading to a failure of democracy makes sense to me. But I've also wondered if, as we slide down the curve of descent, we find that democracy might become more accountable and functional (potentially, that is, with a lot of work and engagement on the part of local populations) as our societies and economy necessarily become more localized and more rooted in reality rather than in abstraction. How much does that play into what you write here? If we were a well-informed citizenry widely capable of critical thinking, might we still be suffering--though probably to a lesser degree--a non- or poorly-functioning democracy due to the distortions of our industrial and globalized way of living?

Or perhaps I'm just viewing non-industrialization with a certain undeserved romanticism. I have to admit that industrialism produces the cold pricklies in me (despite the many benefits I accrue from it and my constant utilization of it) while other modes of living, such as agrarianism, produces the warm fuzzies--both to undeserved degrees, no doubt. I also must admit that one of the reasons I love your writing so much is the way you utilize history, which is a subject I'm far too unfamiliar with. So there's an excellent chance here that I'm projecting my warm fuzzies onto a past that I simply don't understand well enough and thus romanticize and escape into.

(I'm working on all that. Picked up a big, eight dollar, used hardback abridgement of Toynbee's Study of History at Powell's the other day. Looking forward to diving in.)

Cherokee Organics said...


Is it me or does the whole warm fuzzy / cold prickly emotive text smell of the indoctrination of the mainstream religious institutions?

Dunno, could be wrong.

By the way it feeds nicely into binary thinking too.



Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Interesting that you mention the Lincoln-Douglas debates. One may now listen to them, unabridged, on an audiobook that just came out. They are voiced by David Strathairn as Lincoln and Richard Dreyfus as Douglas. David Frum on The Daily Beast website gave the audiobook a rave review yesterday. It's selling for about $18 on the Audiobook website.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Robert Mathiesen--possibly you could interest Dover Books in reprinting a line of such textbooks to be marketed to autodidacts, homeschoolers (who would consider the date of origin a point in their favor), village teachers in developing nations, and so forth. A set selected by an educated eye would be better than random reprinting of public domain textbooks.

Chris said...

Goodness, that last remark about the climate change movement hit very close to home. In Australia that "cold prickly" argument has been used to push climate change into politics. It's changing our infrastructure and our economy, so that soon we will be trading in carbon credits as well as money.

I find it quite difficult to have a discussion with people about what the movement is really achieving which is any different from the status quo, because you get labelled a denier who doesn't really care about the future.

The reality however is the climate change movement is doubling their efforts to consume resources in the name of saving the future. It's promoted if we all get solar panels on our roofs tomorrow, and connect to the national electricity grid, it will reduce resource depletion. This is in spite of the fact, they need to double their efforts to use resources, because they're acting in tandem with old industrial technology.

Really, how is that different from the status quo - I guess only in that it's worse? When you bring this up however, they deny it and then finally admit no-one said it was going to be perfect. But apparently it's necessary because the climate change movement is all about saving the future - everything else is not.

I've often thought to myself, why don't people question these things more earnestly? Why can't they follow through with a full evaluation, rather than being caught in the competition about who really cares most about the planet? I came to the same conclusion you did though - people don't want to understand because they fear thinking.

People take a great deal of comfort from believing they are in the know and when in doubt, go with the warm and fuzzies. Because what human would ever purposefully lead us into destruction?

Leo said...

I got through Gregory Bateson's Mind and Nature. What other system theory books do you reccomend?

Also, what do you think of Dimitry Orlov's project to make a new written english?

Farka said...

Sadly, your assessment of the state of Americans' critical thinking skills seems about right. But, while I'm sure the schools play their part in this, I wonder whether there might be another relevant factor: a sort of self-defence. If you're not very good at telling a good argument from a spurious one, and you're being bombarded with thaumaturgy daily from all sides, then at some point, in order to retain any shred of independence at all, you have to decide to stop listening to anything that goes against what you've decided to believe. Or, as the saying goes, "My mind's made up, don't confuse me with the facts." Once it gets to that point, it must be quite hard to cure...

Juhana said...

This was one of those writings that makes you look out from your tiny sandbox games and feel embarrassed about your own narrow-mindedness. At least it did that trick with me. It is so true that our system is driven by raw emotions and equally raw propaganda. Cool thinking and willingness to compromise have left spectrum of politics long ago. I wonder if true conservatives died as species with downfall of classical education styled after Roman examples? We truly need them now, when they are not around any more. As a person caught between two classes (working class and middle class) and two cultures (Eastern European and Western European), I have this deep feeling of sorrow and desperation when I think about future. There is so little understanding and dialogue between different interest groups, and so much cheap shots and hate brewing under closed lid. We have already entered an era when there are less and less to distribute among more and more people. At the same time politicians have become very idealistic, and that is very scary and bad thing to happen. Idealistic persons are not seeing real world with real problems and people; they they look into the world of Grand Ideas. And when politicians think big and shiny thoughts, little people get hurt. The label does not matter; Free Markets, International Communism, Green Paradise, Globalism No Borders, Liberalism etc. are all equally bloodthirsty gods. They all thirst after blood sacrifice of human blood. But you know what; I have seen those altars of sacrifice of one Utopian project, that of Russian origins. And suffering of people indeed is very real, but paradise is still lacking. So do you see any realistic strategy to defuse this situation of political idealism combined wit crumbling economy into least harmful political solution? You have to remember, if problems escalate far enough, you just have to stand with your own kin, even if you personally prefer peace. There is no room for individualistic mental masturbation of High Morals in trenches or tribal wars a la Ulster; meaningful moral moves must be done BEFORE things escalate too far. And there must be willingness to compromise; shouting hateful slogans just leads to actual shooting, given enough time. You have given some practical instructions about composting and gardening before; practical instructions would be nice in this subject too.

Yossi said...

I wonder whether you have come across the trivium which means "the three ways" or "the three roads" and formed the foundation of a medieval liberal arts education.
It comprised the three subjects that were taught first: grammar, logic, and rhetoric and which were a prerequisite for more advance subjects such as maths and sciences.
Dorothy Sayers wrote a great essay on the subject which can be found at

Avery said...

The Internet has provided us with the opportunity to skim more literature than ever before looking for words that jump out at us with good and evil possibilities. I've certainly embarrassed myself several times recently, on this blog and others, making huge reading errors. This is a good warning for me to slow down and take in the meaning of what I read.

Odin's Raven said...

'Civil rights' and 'due process' surely owe more to English Common Law, dating back to Saxon times, than to any practice of abusing rulers.

russell1200 said...

I think you have addressed this before (the word Thaumaturgy comes to mind), but I think the major input that would need to be included is the development of mass media that tends to drowned out individual discourse over time. With the main media outlets being so much a part of the current system, they reinforce the message of our "democratic" society in a rather non-reflected fashion. This message is primarily pushed through non-political speech (advertising, entertainment, etc.), but the political commentary in a noisy sort of way mirrors that same emersion.

Thus you have Draft speaking about the real difference between the parties, but having difficulty seeing that these are differences within a fairly narrow paradigm.

Cherokee Organics said...


Years ago I read a book that opened my eyes to the world of marketing. It was called, “Affluenza” and was written by the Australian, Dr Clive Hamilton. I'd never before understood how easily we were all manipulated by emotive content until that point.

There was even a throw-away line in the book about the development of a 5 blade razor for shaving (at that time 4 blades was the maximum in the marketplace). Sure enough, it turned up in the market about a year later. Scary stuff.

I didn't need further convincing, we live in a society founded on magic. Unfortunately, after this point I saw the world differently and started asking hard questions which on the positive side led me from the top end of the corporate bad-lands to where I am today. It’s been an interesting journey and I haven't even told half of it.

Please don't get a big head, ego or anything like that, but I truly respect you. It was very wise to let commenters vent their collective spleens and show their mental processes last week as comments this week have been most civil and courteous (well so far, anyway). You are teaching us all (well most of us anyway!).

Years back I ran a graduate program with a large corporate (in addition to hands on work) and I used to love challenging the graduates to get their mental processes working. Occasionally, if they were stubborn enough, I let them fail as there are lessons in that too for them.

Had to cut short my previous comment as there was a bit of rain today, but for the next two days I may get an inch per day. With such summer rain predicted, it’s time to transplant self-seeded herbs about the place. It has been a dry Spring and Summer so far here, but when it rains it has an almost tropical feel about it. As the surface waters of Indian ocean to the north west and the Pacific ocean to the north east are heating up they are spreading tropical conditions further south. My memory unfortunately is not reliable enough to recall whether this was always the case. Still the level meter on the water tanks don’t lie and I’m now down to 70% with a further 20% capacity in reserve in another tank. It is early summer here.

I’m not sure whether anyone is aware, but the El Nino cycle did a strange unprecedented flip this year (well in recorded history anyway). It was heading into El Nino (drier cycle) conditions which were clearly observable on the ground here and suddenly flipped to neutral conditions because of the surface temperatures of the two oceans previously mentioned apparently increased evaporation and atmospheric humidity. Strange times.



Ric said...

Robert Mathiesen: ... I could make or find PDFs of a *very* few of the most demanding and clearest high-school textbooks that were published in the 19th and early 20th centuries...

Some of the work has already been done at Project Gutenberg:

G. A. Wentworth

I didn't find S. S. Greene at Gutenberg and finding anything on Google Books seems impossible (searching on "Greene, S. S." returns nearly a million results). It's probably out there.

In any case, this is a project I'd be much interested in. Maybe a new circle at

Marxmarv: I wonder how many other people might be tempted to run for a seat on their local school board...

Anyone so tempted would quickly learn that the local school board has little to nothing to do with what goes on in the local school. All significant decisions are made at the state and federal level by a mostly-unelected bureaucracy. Better to focus on something new, local and homegrown. Get to know your local homeschoolers instead. Their theology may not be to your liking, but the end results will range from no worse than your local public school to astounding.

JMG, you are one brave soul. First Israel, then the US-Mexican border issue, and now education? Given the comments you have allowed through the last few weeks, I imagine the ones you've deleted have singed several inches of your beard. Based on my experience trying to talk about education, I don't expect this week to improve much. Thanks again for all you do.

Alvin Leong said...

On the lines of old textbooks that deserve to be put in continuous use, I'd like to recommend the Lingua Latina series by Hans Orberg. It is a series of books for learning Latin through the Direct Method -- everything from the preface to the index is in Latin except for the copyright paragraphy by the publisher. It's very suitable for autodidactic use with or without the answer key.

In general, a lot of language learning material from around the 1960s is superior to courses from the 80s and 90s regardless of the methodology employed. You might find Alexander Arguelles's Youtube videos on the change in content in language textbooks interesting.

I'd also like to recommend Karl Sandberg's books which focus on reading knowledge of various Western European languages as well as T.K. Ann's Cracking the Chinese Puzzles series.

Whatever other purposes the Internet may serve though, it is still a very useful tool for learning so many different things. More and more courses, especially on electronics and higher mathematics, from top universities are now available for study for everyone with an internet connection, a huge range of out-of-copyright books is now available for free download and there are online communities dedicated to learning specific topics that can be very useful for autodidacts.

For language learning, I think the availability of high-quality free podcasts at all levels as well as a variety of other materials has shaken the publishers up a bit and recent courses are an improvement over the glorified phrasebooks of the 80s and 90s (c.f. the Teach Yourself series).

@Robert Mathiesen, while a noble sentiment, I don't think it would be feasible for the vast majority of the population to maintain knowledge of things that can't be put to practical use in a time of economic contraction. JMG has noted elsewhere on this blog that the mediaeval monks who preserved (a selection of) the knowledge of the classical world in Western Europe made very extreme sacrifices in personal comfort, even for that era.

Jason said...

I love the warm fuzzy/cold prickly stuff, and would have you know that Korzybski and van Vogt still have fans! Interesting too that some of your stuff here on alphabets forming societies goes towards McLuhan, of whom I seem to remember you aren’t too fond.

Have you considered that (in addition to the natural dumbing-down media performs -- after all, fuzzly/prickly rhetoric is that of commercial advertising) there is simply and always a loss of ability with a culture’s symbolising mechanisms once that culture is truly on the way out?

John David Ebert points out:

"If we just blame electronic technology, then our thesis isn't broad enough to account for the gradual erosion of literacy in ancient civilizations like Egypt, China, and Rome... Lucan is not as good as Ovid, and Seneca's plays were written not to be performed but to be read aloud because the gladiatorial shows had put theatre out of business... Seneca's plays, consequently, are crudely violent because he had to compete with the arenas. In the next, and last generation of Roman literature, with Martial, Juvenal, Suetonius and Valerius Flaccus, there is a further falling away... But the curious thing is that by the time of Marcus Aurelius... Roman literature is finished. After that generation, from about 150 CE on, there are no Roman writers whatsoever. What happened to them?

Were the factors the same in that case -- a downslide of education? Are there some other hard-to-pinpoint factors that link cultural decomplexification with intellectual and psychological decomplexification? It seems to me for example that at “peak complexity” you have a literature on almost any subject that no one human being can keep up with, and a lot of snarl-words exist so that lazier people needn’t bother to read outside the box.

(“Vitalism” is one such word and gets good confirmations now and then -- relevant since we qigong players know warm/fuzzy and cold/prickly aren't just metaphors ^_^.)

And that laziness in turn exists because the reading only leads to little things like truth and knowledge, rather than the important stuff -- remuneration, which is now on the downslide no matter how much anyone knows. In fact the more you know in some quarters, the less likely you are to make a living.

John Michael Greer said...

Robert, all in good time! As I mentioned, there's going to be an entire series of posts on that subject, and I'll very much want your input on the project.

CGP, that's why the answer has to begin with individuals.

Kevin, stay tuned. It's going to be a major theme of this blog down the road a ways.

Joel, the twilight of the current mass media might help -- anything that cuts down on the torrent of noise blaring through people's sensoria will increase the chance that actual thought will take place. As for the Toynbee, was it the illustrated abridgement? A nice edition; I have one.

Cherokee, I think it goes back a good deal further. The distinction between "feels good" and "feels bad" appears in paramecia.

Unknown Deborah, good to hear. Me, I prefer reading, but I know people who like audiobooks.

Chris, you get this morning's gold star. One of the reasons that nobody outside the climate change movement takes it seriously is that it's so obviously an attempt to pursue middle class lifestyles by other means -- the way that so many climate change people end up pimping for the nuclear industry is par for the course.

plotinus said...

Adolf Hitler was not elected to office. He was appointed chancellor by President von Hindenberg.

CSAFarmer said...

hi Mr. Greer

I recall during my kids' high school years (1997-2004) spending an average of 1-2 hours a night helping with homework. Or more accurately, trying to fill in the apparent gaps left by their instructors.

I know most of the gaps seemed to derive from a failure to communicate the principles and underlying rationale of the course under study. This was most noticeable in math and physics; instruction appeared to focus on rote learning - the WHAT - rather than the WHY of these topics.

I occasionally got the sense their teachers were just 'a few pages ahead' in the course of instruction (so to speak).

I grew up and attended high school in a 'backward' little out-port community in Newfoundland in the 70's; no computers, no fancy lab equipment, just fundamental instruction and demonstration by teachers who actually understood their fields of knowledge.

We received and became proficient in our studies in a remarkably short period of time; high school in Nfld at the time finished at grade 11. You were then prepared to enter university in any field of your choosing, including engineering or medicine. We had learned how to think.

My experience is that the province of Ontario 25 years later was doing a poorer job of instruction, even with classes extended to grade 13.

I was a math and science 'geek' long before it became cool,(probably because I received above-average instruction) and my parents taught me to read before I started school. To this day I am a voracious reader and have even authored a couple of books. And I had the 'foresight' ;-) to marry a native French-speaking young lady from Montreal, so between us we had the curriculum covered pretty well.

I often wondered how kids were faring that didn't have that backup at home; I think the sorry state of what passes for critical thinking and informed debate these days answers that question.

hawlkeye said...

Reforming adult education by joining the local School District Board is about as useless as reforming agriculture by joining your local Farm Bureau. As already mentioned, their scope of influence is severely constrained by State mandates, yet they still manage to muck things up with wretched regularity.

Over a year-and-a-half ago, our school board closed down our local elementary school (a beautiful 85-year-old building) as a cost-saving measure, requiring us to bus the little ones 8 miles into town to a now over-crowded and even shoddier building.

In response, many local parents formed an educational cooperative (led by a freshly retired school board member who quit due to the shenanigans), enrolled our kids in a “charter school for home-schoolers” (so they can still get State-provided materials) and proceeded to rent a big house where we could all meet, fund-raise, and play Education Reform.

Meanwhile, we set our sights on getting that empty building returned to the community, mainly by convincing the School Board that, without a plan for its use, it was a clear liability to them and not as big an asset as they had dreamed (less than zero). Because the building is so locally beloved, we were also able to form a wider community group to rally around its rescue, and this week, success: a big bag of keys and all the paperwork signed!

Now comes the real work of re-hosting the school (er, I mean educational cooperative), re-planting the gardens, and forming a true community center with senior stuff, computer access and seed library (my little pet). And of course, fixing the badly leaking roof, vandalized windows, and other damage incurred in the time it was abandoned by the ignorant fools and waiting to be loved again by its true people, the neighbors who all passed through its halls.

Of course, everyone’s still thaumatized into sending the kiddos to college, and very few have even the remotest idea how richly important this revitalized building will become in the de-industrialized future. But this vignette is symbolic to me of how to bleed the T. Rex without letting too much meat go to waste.

Twilight said...

Wouldn't it be grand to be able to have reasoned discussions about the issues we face rather than emotional shouting matches between opposing teams? How many times I've heard people say something along the lines of “I never talk about in public because it only leads to arguments and people get angry and nasty”. I know I've said it too. Sometimes it's because neither side knows how to discuss ideas on their merits, but to have a conversation requires both parties to be able to think, listen and consider. That's turned out to be too high of a threshold these days so we just don't talk to each other.

I have to go back to my perennial whipping boy, the prevalent forms of mass media. Audio and video media make it too easy to manipulate emotions – tone of voice, body language, constant repetition of hot-button phrasing, etc. Of course there are whole industries devoted to doing just that. While it is certainly possible to make emotional appeals in the written word, the simple fact that it is not a real-time medium allows the careful reader more opportunity to see and filter that out.

It will be interesting to see what you propose that might help break the log jamb. To some extent I think it will take more pain, to the point where there is a large enough percentage of the population who desperately want to communicate that they accept the obligation to actually listen too, but if they simply lack the ability then this cannot happen.

B-man said...

I’m liking this series of posts. The hard work of maintaining a democracy and a community that contributes to that maintenance has slipped away. I think of my dad’s generation, WW2 vet, he and all of his peers belonged to service organizations. They experienced and practiced small scale democracy on a daily basis as well as focused on ways to improve their community. We think when we click on the instant survey button on Google that we have “spoken”.
Have you read Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place? A wonderful work on how societies with relatively open and low commerce oriented places managed to create vibrant democracies: think taverns and pubs.

Sue W said...

Worthwhile post, lots of food for thought. A couple of disconnected things spring to mind.

As you say democracy is merely the way that a populace can change a government, doesn't mean that people can just sit back and do nothing about the running of their society. Quite the contrary it means their job is to participate.

Concentrated money can be used to buy a bully pulpit, hire PR and manipulate the both populace and opponents. For example, this is what has been done to make the word "liberal" incandescently untouchable these days (except as a term of abuse, comparable to "socialist" of "fascist"). There appears to be little defence against this propaganda.

We are trying to take human animals and drag them, kicking and snarling, to the well of knowledge? When they'd much rather use their time consuming real or mind candy (TV, intoxicants, computer games...)? Add this to the tendency of people to be authoritarian followers and it's going to be a struggle.

Tom King, a native American comedian summed up my feelings to all of this, "Stay Calm, Be Brave, Wait for the Signs!"

Don Plummer said...

Your comments about warm fuzzies, cold pricklies, verbal noises, vaguely defined abstractions, and emotional states as elements of a "rhetorical" strategy (if such strategy even deserves be so distinguished) seems to apply on a personal level as well. I can't tell how many times my comments or writings have been used by others to judge my political views, religious view, or whatever else about me that someone wants to tag me with, without ever trying to learn anything about me as a person, who I am, and what in my background might have suggested the comment being judged. (This even comes from folks who, I would have thought, knew me fairly well.)

It's helpful to know that the apparent fact that my comment most likely produced a cold prickly that the other party associated with a particular vague abstraction. So attacking the person who provoked the cold prickly feeling must be perfectly justifiable in their view.

Ing said...

This is wonderful, truly. It very frustrating to know that I'm caught, not necessarily in a feeling or emotional response, although that does happen, but in the throes of a conversation that has nowhere else to go because I or others don't have the skill to move it beyond that sort of emotional bog that hasn't been tempered with reason. That's an ability I'd like to be able to take more regularly into conversations on topics that seem too big and politics...but probably not religion. Perhaps what's really big and overwhelming isn't necessarily the topic but the baggage, personal to each of us. Always a joy to see where you go next.

Alex Boland said...

I can't say that I know electoral history well enough, but the argument simply doesn't come off to me as anything more than "people are stupid these days." While I'm not going to say that you're outrageously wrong, it's a claim that I find a bit suspect on its own.

My problem is not the argument itself so much as the anecdotes you're using to illustrate it (I know you're not using anecdotes as evidence, but even so the narrative matters.) I could be wrong (I wasn't alive ~150 years ago), but I'd assume that people have always had to put up with people's idiotic and irrational arguments. More importantly, I'd assume that a person's normal MO is "warm and fuzzy" vs. "cold and prickly"--after all, the "rhetoric" in politics comes from the fact that we're emotional creatures, not data-processing robots.

Now, there may be an argument that eerily fits into your framework:

Wealth --> Complexity --> Specialization --> Loss of individual capabilities (see the connection?)

And our education system would be a good example of that: our education seems to be largely based on making people good assembly line workers, not unconditionally "smarter" people. Perhaps we've been going more in this direction in the past 100 years.

Or who knows, maybe it's the dissemination of increasingly noisy media (e.g. the internet). Many avenues to think about.

What I will say is that the "education" statistics a la Waiting for Superman don't hold much ground for me. How "good" students are at math exams are another avenue of specialization that goes away from the style of "thinking" that you speak of--and so with regards to that I don't worry for America. Engineering seems to be a skill similar to Olympic weightlifting--both use a very small subset of our nervous systems and don't have as much ecological relevance as people assume, even in a modern society.

For now though, I'm going to have to say that this is one of the few times where I simply don't buy it. But your historical knowledge runs very deep, so my mind is 100% open to elaboration.

Mike Cifone said...

Dear Mr. Greer:

You want to link level of education, it seems, to a well-functioning democracy. In particular, the claim seems to be that the more well-educated political body (however large or small that happens to be), the more well-functioning it is. Your examples are ancient Greek democracy and (it seems) Renaissance Europe.

But I don't think you can simply take the contemporary US to be analogous to either ancient Greece or Renaissance Europe. At least two factors make them importantly different: size, and the difference in the nature of thinking & education (which, I argue, cannot be understood apart from the historical epoch itself). Your Toynbee-style, synchronous comparison of historically remote societies is highly questionable here, in short.

Greek Democracies had one thing going for them: they were relatively small, concentrated city-states (as you point out), and as such, their Democracies were direct ("true"). A democracy of a hundred-thousand or less is both quantitatively and qualitatively different than one of three-hundred + millions. You may be right abt the correlation b/w ed levels and functioning of a demos, but our demos is simply another thing entirely. In fact, that qualitative difference means that the nature of thinking in the one does not compare to the other. They are different, ontologically speaking.

As a result of this ontological difference, the form of education is also different. Just look at the univ. curriculum c. 1400 to see: the trivium and quadrivium were both under the unifying ambit of a theological-philosophical system, that is, a coordinating frame of reference. Mutatis mutandis for ancient Greece. Indus. Capitalism changed that; in fact, it's a non-system in this sense. Our world is one that, relative to these worlds, is fragmented and diffuse, and one that is losing its moorings to a historical past (post-Ind. Cap. tends to annihilate time/history & even space).

Second, those societies were run by relatively small groups, and, in addition to being supported by massive slave populations, had the time for wide learning. And, they could function well because the power was so narrowly confined and highly concentrated, as was its geography, culture and its history.

Lastly, as for US c. 1860: how do we know what to conclude from the intellectual level of the debates? Do we know that the populace to whom they were addressing themselves could actually follow in fair detail what was being said? But I don't want to quibble -- perhaps they could. My point is that, since we are no longer an early Industrial society, and that we are transitioning (and have been for 50+ yrs) into a new civilizational config, this inaugurates ontological and, therefore, epistemological changes.
Given that, c. 1860, the US was in the early-to-middle stages of Industrialization, I'd say that more people had more of a common frame of reference then, and far fewer independent bits of information to contend with, than we do now; today, knowledge and therefore education is diffuse and specialized (an ontological consequence of Industrialization, I'd say). What we see happening in the "debates" today is merely the necessary consequence of this epistemological diffusion and specialization. In fact, you don't have debates: you have a spectacle, a media-event -- something ontologically remote from Lincoln-Douglas.

Nevertheless, I think the US does have a poor ed system, lacks the ability or knowledge to think (or doesn't even know what it is), and doesn't have a functioning democracy. I just question the link between these things, and the Toynbee methodological & philosophical presuppositions.

lw said...

JMG, you should read David Mayhew's work on Congress

and Charles Tilly on Repertoires of Contention,
as your opening paragraphs would fit in nicely with their work.

I write this with the proviso that my eyes are too tired to read the entirety of your post

The presupposition that politicians will pay attention to people who make noise is true. The problem is that the people making the most noise are the lobbying firms, corporations, and special interests who want to keep the status quo, or worse, that has led to the downfall of the American Empire you have so astutely observed.

Third parties tend not to work in the American system because in the stages they would be gaining power they allow for irrational outcomes where a majority of votes could be on the liberal side but the conservative side would win in a first past the post system, fake example: Jeb Bush 45%, Hillary Clinton 40%, Gary Johnson 15% .

Third parties in the US have usually embedded themselves in either of the two main parties and then changed that party from the inside.

There are several excellent posts written by political scientists at

Jamie McMillin said...

This is such an important topic, and I'm really looking forward to your thoughts on this in the weeks ahead.

Trying to tease apart the many possible reasons for the demise of thinking skills will be quite a task, but I think one of the problems is haste.

Thinking takes time and attention. Over the last 50 years, the pace of living and access to information/media/entertainment and other distractions has soared. In response, we've learned to multi-task, speed read, skip ahead, and find shortcuts to get through it all.

This is especially true of kids, and one of the reasons we chose to homeschool ours. Homeschooling takes far less time than regular school, and with no TV, there is more time for reading, conversation, playing outside and daydreaming.

Even without a "Classical Education" curriculum (which we didn't use), I believe thinking is a habit more easily developed in a less hectic atmosphere.

Now that homeschooling is growing so popular, maybe more kids will have the chance to slow down, do less, and learn more.

blue sun said...

Amazing! In some posts you really just pull everything together. A breath of fresh air.

Whether intentional or not, you have already initiated the adult education. For those of us taking notes, ahem, professor, can you recap? What are the three skill sets? I think I've got them, but the first does not appear to be a skill set. Are they.....?
1. Civil right of free discourse
2. Capability to distinguish emotion from idea
3. The (learnable) critical thinking skill set

(P.S. I don't gather that you are alluding to the Trivium, but maybe you are. I already see comments popping up about it. I expect many more will pop up. Two Beers with Steve had an episode or two about it. The only concern I have is that some proponents portray it as a panacea for all of life's ills. Grandiose claims aside, it sounds like it is very worthwhile to study.)

Keith said...

JMG - I'm a fairly new reader to your blog, and after two months I can't wait for Thursdays!

I've been on a bit of a logic campaign at work (I'm a bureaucrat, or public servant as we call them here, so do a lot of writing and editing). Actually more a battle against sophistry.

I came across this wonderful poster - put it on the wall and gave a copy to staff.

I think you might enjoy it.

Keep up the stimulating work.


Robert said...

As far as having warm fuzzy feelings for Obama is concerned the reality is that apparently Bush has praised Obama as doing a good job and a very similar one to what he would be doing were he still in power. Obama was a product of the Chicago machine and the idea that he'd be much more than business as usual was delusional. To be fair to Obama he didn't promise very much change at all except on the issue of civil liberties where he's totally failed to deliver. Guantanamo is still in business. I suspect if a Republican had given himself the power to assasinate US citizens and had escalated the drone attacks in Afghanistan to the level Obama has there'd be much more resistance.

The most vocal critic of the Empire is a Repubican, Ron Paul, but he seems pretty much marginalised.

SLClaire said...

Speaking to your hypothetical example of the start of several new political parties, my husband was involved in the attempt to establish a Labor Party in the 1990s and early 2000s ( He was at the time a member of a local of the Utility Workers Union of America which affiliated with the Labor Party, and he was one of their delegates to either the 1998 or 1999 National Convention (I don't remember exactly which year he was there). The Labor Party was pursuing the sort of organizational strategy you outlined. It didn't work out; the website offers some explanations from party supporters.

Speaking to adult education - a personal interest of mine, so I'm very glad you are embarking on this series - existing institutions that might be amenable to some work along these lines are community colleges. Our local such college, the St. Louis County Community College, for instance, offers noncredit continuing education courses on a wide variety of topics. More to the point of your post, they always include a blurb in their catalog of offerings suggesting that anyone with an idea for a course to teach submit the idea for consideration. I've been mulling over potential courses I'd like to offer for quite a few years. I don't know if community colleges in other areas offer something along the lines of continuing education for adults, but if they do, I could envision using them an an opportunity to begin offering the kind of education you are suggesting.

Steve Morgan said...

"Devising a framework for adult education outside the grip of the current American education industry"

Just three weeks ago I stumbled upon a magnificent thrift store find: a complete (save one volume) collection of the 1952 Britannica Great Books series for less than a day's wages. The first volume, of course, sets the editors' intention that all citizens of a democracy need such an education to develop and hone the ability to think clearly and critically, and I found it convincing enough to commit to the reading plan set out in it. Granted, I'm only three weeks into what they deem a 10 year plan, but it's a start for a working adult. Between the readings and the online lectures I've been watching about each piece so far, it's been very intriguing and has prompted some good discussions with my wife.

I am pleased with the direction that this discussion is going, as I have my own notions of what producing democracy in your metaphor implies. I'm curious to see where you take the next few posts.

P.s. When was the last time the earth was 2-3 C warmer, and do you have a good source to recommend for finding out more info about the oft-repeated claim that at that time the US west of the Mississippi sported rolling sand dunes? I'm really interested to find out more about that. Thanks.

Andrew said...

Well, there is the Sudbury Vallee School (1) and similar ones (2), (3) that try to teach Democracy as well as education in other subjects (4). Unfortunally, the tuition is too high for low incomes, but still, they make an effort and set an example.

Kieran O'Neill said...

On the topic of education, I learned some time ago that in France (and several other continental European nations), philosophy is a compulsory subject at high school level.

French politics can get messy, but you'll have a hard time finding a French citizen who can't give you an informed, well-argued opinion about it.

And on the topic of "cold prickly!" I recently linked to your post on the "Myth of the Machine" in a thread on cycle commuting (on another discussion forum), and got some very similar responses to the ones you describe in your post today. One gem was the rejection of your argument (and of my calling it "deep, thoughtful analysis") on the grounds that it supposedly had none of the qualities of "academic, journalistic or any other empirical work". The cognitive dissonance involved in conflating those three terms can only make sense if the poster's conception of their meanings is almost entirely emotional.

f-baro said...

Dear JMG,

here in Italy we are recently seeing a new party flourishing out of disgust of traditional politics and "professional" politicians.

One of the core tenets of the party is that anyone should be in politics for at most two mandates, no matter the level (e.g. two mandates as a small town major and you're out of the party).

Do you think this can achieve the goal of avoiding people getting too much corrupt? Or removing the check of reelection will make them think they have nothing to lose, so they'd better squeeze as much money as possible from the situation?

ando said...

Another great essay. Thanks, JMG.

"those of my readers who may be involved in trying to change the direction of contemporary American society on any scale, and for any reason, might find it useful to turn a cold and beady eye upon their own mental processes, and on those of the movements they happen to support."

Or as Gandhi said, "Be the change you wish to see in the world."


The Cloudwalking Owl said...

While I'd be the first to agree that people have a hard time with reason, I'd offer a more complex explanation for what Greer is talking about.

The psychologist Bob Altemeyer has spent his life studying people who vote for crazy things. His book, _The Authoritarians_, argues that fundamentalist churches train people to follow authority blindly instead of reasoning things out. Even worse, he argues that this makes them extremely vulnerable to manipulation by what he calls "dominants". These are people who have no qualms about lying, etc, to get these trained seals to support them.

My understanding of religious history is that fundamentalism----as an organized movement---is that it dates to the late 19th century. And the marriage of rightwing opportunists and religious robots stems to the time of Ronald Reagan.

So the Lincoln Douglas debates were too early to be affected.

As for solutions, I've often thought that after I retire I'd like to offer free classes in critical thinking. (I have a Master's in philosophy and tutored logic in grad school.) I think that at least some parents would like to see their children get something like this to augment the public system. It might be too expensive to send your kid to a private school, but giving them a good "BS detector" has got to be of some value. ;)

Stu from Rutherford said...

I would not say that the scenario you paint is "impossible", only that it's more likely to succeed if begun at local levels.
Outside the national political scene, most money entering the political system enters in the form of contributions (usually corporate) to local committees of GOP and Dems. (At least in NJ.) This is due to political contribution limits, and the fact that there are 560 municipalities, 21 counties and only 1 state.
The majors are vulnerable at the local level because towns and boroughs are constantly being placed in the "wealth pump" which goes up to the state and national level, and this is done by the same major parties. Therefore, it gets little criticism at the local level because back-stabbing is punished by a cutoff of party spending on one's next campaign. (Candidates don't raise much money at the local level, and the close races are decided by huge influxes of party money.)
Communities could probably look out for themselves better by forming parties that have no ties to parties at the state or national level and have no reason to keep their mouths shut about the wealth extraction going on. They would also have no reason to "toe" some "line" for the benefit of a state-wide organization.
If these local parties start winning, the corporate contributions to the local committees of the majors would dry up because they would no longer be able to create a return on investment via public spending. If this happened in enough towns, it would have the effect of kicking the feet out from under the major parties.
I've run as a third party candidate on two occasions. I did not win, but in one campaign I had the majors flummoxed because they had no idea how to run without using negative campaign literature (which does not work as well with more than two candidates). If I had done this in a non-presidential election year, I think I would have received a high enough percentage to encourage others to follow up. (Presidential elections bring out the most ignorant voters, who tend to vote straight column because they have no idea what else to do.) If there's a next time for me, I'll know better, but hopefully I can get someone younger to be the actual candidate.
Note to readers: 2013 is not a presidential election year. As JMG pointed out - you don't need a majority of the vote, you only need more than the other candidates.

FernWise said...

The homeschool community has a lot of different approaches to education, making it similar to the Greenwizardry approach to descent. Some go for classical education, some re-create our own educations, some resemble Amish education (practical stuff only), etc.

My husband and I, children of the 40's and 50's, chose the 'recreate the education we received' approach, with some twists.

For high school (close enough to adult education for this discussion) the math and science was pre-engineering and pre-med in practice - in fact, the homeschool labs offered at the local community college were the same lab classes they used for their regular students.

Civics brought in the theoretical, studying the US Constitution, required daily reading of at least the front page stories of at least one newspaper source (Washington Post, Wall Street Journal - here the editorial page as well, Al Jezeerah, all of the weekly local paper) PLUS writing one letter to the editor each week, etc.

Our Satire and Dystopia class may have been as much political theory as it was literature.

Robert Mathiesen - oddly enough, our copy of Wentworth-Smith's "Plane and Solid Geometry" is on the shelf right next to the hard back copy of "Versalog Slide Rule Instructions". A homeschooling household that contains the libraries of one physicist/electrical engineer and one Druid naturallys end up with an interesting library.

wiseman said...

How would you classify something like Singapore or maybe Bhutan ? I think you are going overboard with democracies as well.

Well worth remembering that in the democracies of yore only a small fraction of the population voted while large sections of people were disenfranchised. There was slavery as well as all kinds of cruelty and human rights violations.

Actually I know a couple of examples in my own backyard (India) where the kings turned out to be far better than elected leaders. In fact people in those areas yearn for those kings. I think democracies like dictatorships come in all shapes and sizes.

There is no one size fits all approach. In fact democracies and republics developed in the East in parallel with west but their character was significantly different compared to western parliamentary democracies.

Justin Patrick Moore said...

I think its interesting that you are doing this series on Democracy -consuming it and producing it- while Dmitry Orlov is running a series of posts on Applied Anarchism. Is this coincidence, intentional on one of your parts, or just an interesting example of dissensus in action?

I'm enjoying both series of articles by-the-way.

BoysMom said...

Brother Greer, is there any particular alternative you would recommend working on in primary education, if not the school board? My state's State Board of Education got its hands slapped by the voters last month by a more than two-thirds majority--the people want educational change but not the millions of dollars of laptops and mandatory online courses kind of change. (The state universities are their own special mess--the local one is on the verge of loosing accreditation.)
I'm not worried about my own kids' education, as I homeschool. And I think I know a thing or three about education, since I have a few years of hands-on experience. I just wonder where best to apply my time.
Not sure how Google's going to tag me, but I used to post here as BoysMom.

ganv said...

This is too close to the heart of the matter for most people to cope with rationally. I hope you are right that in the past humans were able to fruitfully engage in higher levels of discourse on public issues. Maybe we will be able to recover from our current fracas of emotional button pushing with no thinking allowed. But I fear that we are the kind of animal whose brains are not really adequate for the complexity of the environment we inhabit, and so we have developed a set of emotional responses to cope with reality. 'COLD PRICKLY' and 'Warm Fuzzy :) " are about as good a summary of the human situation as I have heard.

Jen said...

Now politicians tell you they're both green and left or right/
They can see the problem clearly they can understand our plight/
But if greed's the only motive a chance for all to fill their purse/
You know things can't expand forever you know that bubble's got to burst/

Lyrics from Make It Mend It (Coope Boyes & Simpson)

Kevin said...

Since the Thirteenth Baktun is almost upon us, I thought you might be interested in learning how some folks as far from Tikal as China are preparing for the coming apocalypse:

This seems like some fairly serious prepping, on a par with stocking your concrete bunker against nuclear fallout.

Glenn said...

Robert said...

{Snip!} "suspect if a Republican had given himself the power to assasinate US citizens and had escalated the drone attacks in Afghanistan to the level Obama has there'd be much more resistance."

You might recall that a highly partisan Republican House of Representatives wrote and passed the legislation in question for a president they had vowed to destroy as their most important goal. Now, this indicates to me that maybe the two parties are really playing good cop/bad cop with us, or that they were pretty confident he wouldn't hit the Capitol Building with a Predator Drone strike and perhaps the next guy would be a nice, white Republican...

My point is, the president can't sign legislation granting himself any powers unless the House and Senate first write it, then vote to pass it.

Marrowstone Island

phil harris said...

Robert & others looking for S.S. Greene, A Grammar of the English Language.
Plenty of used copies around in the USA at moderate prices. Well they would be; they were published 1867 - 1873!
I use bookfinder a lot in the UK and avoid Amazon.(The latter reason because Amazon has grown huge and pays no UK taxes.)

Nano said...

Time to bring back the Chautauqua! or at least a movement based on it; and use the Allan Watts entertainment approach.

About one of the ways I can think of MAYBE reaching out into the mainstream some.

The trickster comedians like Carlin, Hicks and many others are a great inspiration too.


phil harris said...

If you could delete my previous version of this comment and just publish this, I would be grateful. Got my pliocene in a twist! Thanks.

Questions are asked about past world temperatures. Best discussion I know is Hansen & Sato, 2011, available online as a pdf file

The previous interglacial (the Eemian) was about 1°C more than we are now. Back in the early Pliocene more than 5M years ago, the peak temperature roughly calculated was probably yet again another 1°C warmer. So,”2-3°C warmer” looks like being well over 5M years.
Hansen & Sato say, quote: We conclude that Pliocene temperatures probably were no more than 1-2°C warmer on global average than peak Holocene temperature. And regardless of the precise temperatures in the Pliocene, the extreme polar warmth and diminished ice sheets are consistent with the picture we painted above. Earth today, with global temperature having returned to at least the Holocene maximum, is poised to experience strong amplifying polar feedbacks in response to even modest additional global mean warming.

mallow said...

Ugh yes this is so common in my activist community. Our most heated debates are usually internal and boil down to 'X gave me the cold pricklies'. Sometimes I respond lawyer-style which I think at least comes closer to proper thinking, but it doesn't go down well. The usually unsaid response is something like 'Well lawyery arguing gives me the cold pricklies too so you're obviously on X's side, and clearly a big meanie to boot...'. Suggesting a group hug would probably go down much better. I despair.

That said I also despair about my own thinking abilities. Feel like I hit my intellectual peak at about 13 and it's been downhill ever since. I like to write but since reading your blog I've realized I don't actually think well enough to have something worth saying. I'm tempted to blame my non-sleeping baby but the brain fog definitely predates her grand arrival by some years.

But where does a sleep deprived person find the time and energy to work on thinking more clearly while getting on with the practical peak oil preparations, working and keeping aforementioned sleep-depriver entertained? I don't do TV or any other time-wasters (mostly, honestly). I can't let myself off the hook because surely people in the 19th century had even busier and much harder lives than mine and they managed it. Plus
clearing the mental cobwebs away would help me get better organized and more efficient about the practical stuff. But where to start?

Richard Clyde said...

Mike Cifone above alluded to this issue, I think: thinking, like artistic production, is generally best done on sure foundations and (mostly) within commonly-held limits. It's impossible to think everything at once, that is. The foundations and limits are likely to have vital irrational components, laid down by geographical vitality (Athens, Rome) or a coherent universal tradition (High Middle Ages Catholicism).

To take a simple illustration, a Protestant and a Catholic in 1600 are going to have a much harder time thinking together about anything that touches on implicit limits than two Catholics or two Protestants, because they will have foundational disagreements that have an irrational (or magical!) component. This can't be argued or thought out of the picture, really, it can only be accommodated (which is the point of Hobbesian liberalism) or suppressed forcibly (difficult in a democracy) or magicked (e.g. Shakespeare).

In groups of people, the effort to think clearly and the effort to imagine differently run, often, at cross-purposes. Thinking clearly always means, to some extent, *thinking clearly within agreed limits*, and imagining differently means changing the limits. Find an intellectual person well-trained in Catholic tradition and try to explain druidry to them, if you want an immediate lesson in what this means.

So, while thinking is a goal to be ardently pursued and its loss lamented, it may be at a cultural weak point partly because re-imagining is the more important task. Necessary strife-and-love, in other words. It's not thinking that accomplished civil rights for black Americans or made paganism a somewhat acceptable belief or made some Westerners engage seriously with the concerns of indigenous people, after all, though of course thinking helped in the process.

(The acid of capitalism and its hostility to limits is also relevant, but I can't think of an upside to this.)

Dwig said...

JMG, This post is very timely for me. I've been mulling over ideas of what education should consist of, but almost entirely in my mind. Now you've triggered me to put down some of my thinking. (Much of it is too sketchy to inflict on people at this point.)

For me, the driving question, with regards to democracy, is "what are the requirements for a citizen of a democracy to be an effective participant in a government of the people, by the people, and for the people?" Currently, two things stand out: information and the knowledge of what to do with it.

I think a citizen requires (at least) the following characteristics of information about a subject concerning which he/she needs to make a decision: timeliness, comprehensiveness, and accuracy. Information that isn't available when it's needed isn't useful; incomplete information can be only marginally useful, or even misleading; inaccurate information may well be worse than no information. This needs considerable exposition, clarification, etc., but I'll leave it for now.

As to knowledge, this gets into the topic of your post. Governments, like societies and economies, are always evolving; a well-functioning democracy more than most. Thus, the citizens will necessarily be engaged in continuous learning. Any system of learning will need to be inherently designed for this. Another characteristic, I think, is that the system will need to be driven and directed by the learners. There will be teachers for some subject matters, but they'll need to be able to adapt their material to the emerging and changing needs of their students. (And if A teaches B in one subject, B may be A's teacher in another.)


Dwig said...

(Continued from my previous comment.)

I'll list a few areas (not exhaustive!) that I think will need to be at the core of the "curriculum". (By the way, I don't distinguish between childhood and adult education; some of these topics will be subjects of learning throughout life.)
- Personal competence (my own term, maybe there's a better one): basically, learning to understand and master oneself. This gets into the kind of magic that JMG discussed earlier, and of course some Eastern disciplines as well. It also includes our increasing science-base understanding of the way our bodyminds work, and how to make them work increasingly well.
- A sense of time: understanding oneself and all one's environments as parts of an process. Learning what it means to "create the future". Tradeoffs between energy and time. Pacing one's endeavors, including one's learning. Learning from history.
- How to do community (including family): communal life is an important aspect of everyone's existence (except for hermits). As with personal competence, we need to understand it better, and learn how to heal and prevent dysfunctions and "diseases".
- Creative thinking: putting imagination to useful work, scenario thinking, systems thinking, the use and limits of models, ...
- Understanding language: "linguistic competence". This spans personal and community competence.

In addition, I think there are some topics that should be addressed early on, since they're badly needed just now:
- Critical thinking, of the sort JMG has brought up. An important subtopic will be learning to understand the nature of advertising and propoganda, and how to "immunize" oneself to it (I'd start that learning pretty young, even pre-teen).
- The distance between actions and consequences. Two kinds of distance: temporal (delayed consequences) and spatial (consequences occurring away from the action).
Demographics and the dynamics of population growth and decline.
- The nature of money and economies. (Richard Douthwaite has used the term "the ecology of money", which I find very evocative.)
- Cycles of growth and decline, of increasing and decreasing complexity, at all scales.

This is somewhat a brain dump. I hope to organize it and expand it over time, probably with many useful inputs from our gracious host.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Greetings to JMG and All;

I agree with JMG about the necessity for a democracy, and a democratic republic, to have an educated citizenry capable of thinking critically. Before I took on my present work of helping others learn and practice various aspects of sustainability, I spent years teaching critical thinking skills and democratic process to my students. And even just the other night, as a guest lecturer in a sustainable landscape practices class, part of the class was devoted to participation in local government as a way to help get sustainable land use practice into local governance.

However, I think it is too easy to simply say something like American Education is --insert something negative here. America is a big place. There are many educations to be had. My children went to a public high school with excellent history teachers, and my husband and I made sure they took those classes, and, also important, made sure they did their homework. Equally as important, however, we consciously discussed,critiqued and analyzed a wide range of topics at the dinner table and in general conversation.

Thus, to me one issue is not only a lack of serious teaching of critical thinking skills, but also that among many people there is a kind of learned helplessness, so that students wait to be told what to do, how to think, etc. This could be from life long immersion in a thaumaturgic culture full of controlling messages (packed with fuzzy/prickly meta-content and emotional massage) whose purpose is precisely to dull critical thinking -- a form of conditioning which it is very difficult for mere teachers to break through, especially if students lack other, countervailing forces in their lives.

Teaching adults is, in my experience, a very different proposition -- lots of folks more set in their ways, minds perhaps a little less nimble -- but also, often, possessing enough life lived to value new knowledge,to know they don't know it all and that presumed certainties are often wrong. It's important for the teacher to honor what these learners already know and to go in softly, as a fellow traveler.

This is my experience, at least, and why sweeping general statements about what American Education does or does not do make me somewhat uncomfortable.

Dwig said...

Leo wrote "I got through Gregory Bateson's Mind and Nature. What other system theory books do you reccomend?"

Anything by Dennis or Donella Meadows. ("Thinking in Systems" is a good intro to System Dynamics.)
Some others I've seen recommended:
- "The Systems Bible" (aka "Systemantics") by John Gall
- "The Systems Thinking Playbook: Exercises to Stretch and Build Learning and Systems Thinking Capabilities" Linda Booth Sweeney, Dennis Meadows
- "The Change Handbook: The Definitive Resource on Today's Best Methods for Engaging Whole Systems" by Tom Devane, Steven Cady, and Peggy Holman
- "Scenarios: The Art of Strategic Conversation" by Kees van der Heijden

Dwig said...

I forgot to mention what I consider to be a very relevant resource in this area: Mary Parker Follett, a Progressive Era writer with unusual insights. She writes like an academic, but grounded in considerable practical experience in many levels of society.

You can see some of her published work at Follett Writings. I'm just finishing up "The New State", in which she addresses the relations between individual and group, the role of education, the nature of democracy, etc.

Bob Smith said...


Great column this week. I believe you answered part of your previous question on why the environmental movement failed, too emotional and not enough reason.

Its not a recent thing unfortunately, my own mother (mid 60s)boils everything down to her emotional response, reason doesn't affect her at all. I blame it on too many distractions, ie TV and not enough quiet time.

BTW, alot of people completely agree with you on the lack of real choice in the last election. Obama is Bush III with more of everything. Hopefully, we'll collapse before turning into a complete police state.

I feel for my nephews who are teenagers and can barely think for themselves, they are completely unprepared for what's coming.

sealander said...

Since I'll have some downtime over Christmas, I've signed up for some free online courses from Coursera: they're offering 'Think Again: How to Reason and Argue', and starting at the end of January 'Critical Thinking in Global Challenges' ( Might be a good place to start.
On another tangent, there was an article in my weekend paper about the number of US universities offering courses in apocalyptic studies this year. Apparently Penn State has set the course finals for Dec 21, so the students are fully expected to work right up to the end of the world :)

SpanktorTheGreat said...

JMG, I wish you were my uncle who lived next door.

Robert Mathiesen said...

Deborah Bender wrote:

"possibly you could interest Dover Books in reprinting a line of such textbooks to be marketed to autodidacts, homeschoolers (who would consider the date of origin a point in their favor), village teachers in developing nations, and so forth."

Maybe. But first we have to come up with a well-chosen list of these books. I just started thinking about that list today, thanks to the Archdruid, so it's early days for a publication plan.

Robert Mathiesen said...

Alvin Leong wrote:

"while a noble sentiment, I don't think it would be feasible for the vast majority of the population to maintain knowledge of things that can't be put to practical use in a time of economic contraction."

Of course not. The majority, to paraphrase H. L. Mencken, hates to think and will go to almost any lengths to avoid having to do so.

But keeping the skills of thinking and reasoning alive and preserving intellectual treasures like the methods of Euclidean geometry requires only that a dedicated minority of the population work hard to do so. There will always be people ready to join in that work, if they know it is available. For some of us, intellectual activity is far more addictive than anything else, whether alcohol, tobacco, or even food and sex. We few will go to almost any length, sacrifice almost anything else, to indulge that odd addiction of ours.

mtngirl said...

I remember, in the late 60's, having completed the public school system's educational program, crying out for an old fashioned education, the kind that taught critical thinking. I knew that what I had gotten wasn't worth the paper it was printed on. I was unable to find that classical education, so I paddled around and did my best, which has been better than nothing, but still lacking.
I am VERY interested in what you'll be proposing in your forthcoming blogs re: adult re-education. I'm curious what the carrot will be that will hook the happily ignorant who fully believe they are knowledgable (please forgive the mixed metaphors).

Robert Mathiesen said...

FemWise wrote:

"oddly enough, our copy of Wentworth-Smith's "Plane and Solid Geometry" is on the shelf right next to the hard back copy of "Versalog Slide Rule Instructions". A homeschooling household that contains the libraries of one physicist/electrical engineer and one Druid naturallys end up with an interesting library."

Wonderful! I am so glad that someone else appreciates Wentworth. FWIMBW, I still have the slide-rule that I used back in the '50s -- and the manual that came with it.

As for old textbooks, one of the most wonderful events of my high-school years happened in a Berkeley bookstore near the University, back in the days when there was a commercial street where Sproul Plaza now lies. I discovered an upper floor with great bins of old school textbooks from the time of my parents and grandparents. You could buy as many as you liked for maybe 25 cents each. I got a whole series of Wentworth's books (and the teacher's keys for them!), thick reference grammars of Latin, Greek and German, histories of the Greeks and Romans and of the Middle Ages, and so forth. They were wonderful, meaty volumes -- far clearer and better written than the volumes on the same subjects in my university's textbook store when I started teaching there in the late '60s. Most of them textbooks were published by Ginn & Co.

And they made no concessions to human weakness or distraction: you had to read carefully and understand every sentence, every paragraph, every page as you went through such a textbook if you wanted to be ready for what came next. There were no pretty colored pictures, no fillers, no superfluous words in them. One could almost call them austere. Working through them taught you to concentrate and focus your thoughts for hours on end without a break -- if you couldn't do that, you might as well not have the books at all for all you'd get out of them.

And no one had a TV at college back then. When JFK was assassinated, I didn't happen to hear about it until about 36 hours later. I had been reading all that time in my rented room off campus, with small breaks for pilot crackers and peanut butter (grains and legumes) and water, and longer breaks for sleep. College life could be pretty monastic in the early '60s in Berkeley, if you took your studies seriously.

Sorry! I am a garulous old man ...

Robert Mathiesen said...

Leo asked about:
"Dimitry Orlov's project to make a new written english"

I took a look at it, and Orlov is simply reinventing the wheel here. The late George Bernard Shaw in his will established a fund to devise and promulgate such an alphabet. The will was contested, but even so the alphabet was devised and one book was actually published in it. And that was all. For all the genuine excellence of the alphabet's design, it didn't catch on except as a sort of short-lived cult among die-hard Shavians.

One can raise a serious objection against any such project as Shaw's or Orlov's. If it ever caught on and became the first writing taught in the schools, given our current economic conditions, it would effectively slam shut the doors to the past in the faces of most young people. They would find it too hard at first to read books published in our current spelling, and then not bother to read them at all.

In a prosperous world, one might avoid this by transcribing older books in the new alphabet. But it is not now a prosperous world, and it is going to become much less so. Most books would never be transcribed, and would eventually become lost.

Jonathan Byron said...

Is the lack of traction on the part of those concerned with climate change simply due to the fact that they are shrill? I suggest that the fundamental problem is quite different, and one that goes deeper. Challenging the fossil fuel ur-commodities challenges Almost Everything about the way the average person thinks and lives. It demands profound changes now and does not promise that anything will get better, only that things might not get quite so bad. It tilts against the most powerful economic interests on the planet (and the economy itself, as it is currently understood) ... in short, the deck is heavily stacked against any notion that we should not blow through fossil fuels as fast as possible.

Progress and Conserve said...

So many interesting ideas this week that I hardly know where to begin, JMG. OK - education.

Basic logic can not be that hard to teach. Earlier, someone posted a link to the 20 most common logical fallacies. Despite multiple college degrees and a wide-ranging resume, I had never once seen all 20 of those fallacies listed in one place before today. This, despite the fact that much of what passes for political discourse in the United States these days depends on endlessly MANIPULATING one or more of those 20 logical fallacies. Which might explain why they are not generally or systematically taught in schools, I suppose.

That sort of easy manipulation of the public is also probably why the dangers of consumer credit, compound interest, and personal bankruptcy are not generally addressed anywhere in the educational system, either.

Several posters suggest that home schooling instills logical thinking skills in a way that public school does not. I'm not sure about that. At least in my corner of the country "home schooling" is often seen as a good way to avoid exposure to dangerous ideas like "evolution," and "geologic history." As with anything else, superior inputs produce better outputs, I suppose.

A populace lacking the skillset to defend against logical fallacy also explains what is wrong with today's "activist scene," on climate change - at least partly.

But here, we may find an example in the US firearms and ammunition industries backing of a successful NRA - which deceased equine received a merciless flogging in last week's thread.

"Global Warming" was a popular and easily understood term - but "skeptics" poked holes in it.

Those same "skeptics" forced the popular press to go from using the term "Global Warming," to using the term "Climate Change," to using the term "Anthropogenic Global Warming," - - - at which point the general public, being generally science-phobic, completely lost interest in the whole situation.

What the "activist community" lacked in this case was a commercial rational for which to SELL Global Warming, as a concept by which to make someone some money. Lacking that, they lacked the organized focus to pick a simple marketing strategy and stick with it.

And the logical facts concerning CO2 production and climate change have since been countered at every turn by Exxon Mobil, Peabody Coal, and monopoly power companies in almost every State of the Union.

SCOTUS declared that corporations are people. We should not be surprised, then, to see those corporations fight to the death against ideas that might cause them harm.

latheChuck said...

Every book club, garden club, church, and ham radio net is an opportunity to spin webs of community. We can know our neighbors, and be known by them as thoughtful and concerned about local solutions to local problems (which is not to rule out local problems with global roots). Create a social ecosystem within which democratic processes can grow, instead of the isolating activities of mass entertainment.

Jeff Z said...

You mentioned that you wished that JMG would cover topics such as composting or gardening again as he has in the past. I'd suggest checking out his green wizard forum at
or checking in at some of the other blogs that try to answer the questions of how to prepare for and live in the long descent. There are quite a few good ones out there. Mine is at I cover topics such as the hows of organic gardening, building with salvaged things and composting, and have links on the side to others that have similar content.

I view JMG's blog as a starting point. I think he provides an intellectual platform for all of us to start from and build upon. I don't try to answer the 'why' so much as the 'how', since Mr. Greer is much better at the 'why' part of it all anyway.

BTW- great post as usual, Mr. Greer. I too look forward to every Wednesday night or Thursday morning to see what you have to say. I'm amazed that you are able to keep turning out original thought every week, and in a way that a regular person can understand and enjoy. You are truly the Hari Seldon on the latter day Encyclopedia Foundation.

Mark said...

JMG, I agree with you completely about the lack of critical thinking and rational argument. However, I don't think that the problem is primarily one of inadequate education, even though our educational system is woefully poor. Fundamentally, I think that we have a deep cultural problem. A large majority of Amerians are not interested in critical thinking and are actively antagonistic toward any kind of intellectual pursuit. No amount of educational reform can overcome such profound anti-intellectualism. How can you educate people who are determined not be educated?

Loch Wade said...

Lots to think about!

The civil liberties of America past are gone forever. We now live in a 24 hr control and surveillance grid. You haven't been "come for" yet because they don't need to- yet.

I endured a conventional substandard public education overseen by a great many incompetent, if (sometimes) well-meaning people called "teachers".

I educated myself because my mother did two things right- she encouraged me to read and refused to have a television in the house.

Despite the many holes present in self-learning, I am always amazed at how much more I know than many of my college educated peers. More than that, I am not afraid to teach myself anything new I might want to learn. i am further amazed at how many people are afraid to do something because they haven't been "taught" how by someone else.

One key element that is not and cannot be taught by any form of pedagogy is how to develop a conscientious strength. This is the heart of critical thinking- to develop a moral conscience that cannot be swayed by any threat or promise of co-option. A moral conscience runs counter to all forms of power and is the one thing that renders all worldly powers impotent. The moral conscience is the one thing feared therefore, by all those who exercise power, and this must be suppressed at all costs.

John Michael Greer said...

Leo, I'm away from home right now so don't have access to my systems library -- will try to respond when I get back. As for Dmitry's project, been there, done that -- it's an old idea, has been done several times, to zero effect.

Farka, that's possible -- in which case we have an even harder row to hoe.

Juhana, before we can think about moral issues, we have to be able to think at all. More on this as we proceed.

Yossi, good. Yes, I'm quite familiar with the trivium and quadrivium; we'll be talking about them at length down the road.

Avery, excellent! Reading slowly and closely is a nearly forgotten skill these days.

Raven, that's like saying that your body consists of the food your mother ate while she was pregnant. There's a historical connection, of course, but...

Russell, good -- you're paying attention. Those of my readers who remember the posts on thaumaturgy will recognize one of the core causes of the rigid mental linkages we're discussing.

Cherokee, oh, they're venting their spleens this week, too. My favorite rant so far accused me of being sadly deficient in cynicism.

Ric, my beard is utterly flameproof -- which is a good thing, all things considered.

Alvin, I'm a great fan of Wheelock's Latin myself -- the older editions are better than the newer ones, to be sure. Still, dissensus rules here as elsewhere.

John Michael Greer said...

Jason, of course! There's a whole series of factors feeding into the dumbing-down effect, and yes, the normal decline of a civilization is one of them. All the more reason to get busy and preserve what can be preserved, in subcultures or even monasteries if it comes to that.

Plotinus, I'm quite aware of that; I'm not sure my commenter was, though.

Farmer, that parallels my experiences closely.

Hawlkeye, excellent! That's exactly the sort of step that can give rise to the educational systems of the future.

Twilight, one of the things I've learned in the course of hosting this blog's comment pages is that it's possible to create a space for reasoned discourse, but only if there's a way of excluding those who aren't willing to abide by fairly basic rules of courtesy and relevance. I suspect along these lines that what's needed is a social framework that fosters discussion but has firm and enforceable boundaries to keep the trolls at bay. More on this as we proceed.

B-Man, I haven't -- thanks for the tip!

Sue, the principle here is that of herding cats. That can be done quite easily; all you have to do is take a #10 tin of tuna to the place you want the cats to go. I'm less interested in dragging people to the wells of knowledge than of seeing if there's anyone interested in joining me on the trip there.

Don, that's a useful point. What we're discussing is in large part a mental habit of emotionally driven overgeneralization.

Ing, excellent! You get tonight's gold star. That's exactly the point: it's the emotional baggage, from a variety of sources, that makes issues seem impossible to discuss. Recognize the difference between a fact and a value, and between a value and a feeling, and you're halfway home.

Alex, did you read the Lincoln-Douglas debates I posted? Do so, and then try telling me that the level of analytical ability common 150 years ago was equivalent to what it is today. There are, by the way, hundreds of other examples of the same contrast.

John Michael Greer said...

Mike, as evidence that people were able to follow the Lincoln-Douglas debates perfectly well, I'd encourage you to look up contemporary newspaper accounts of the debates -- they're readily available these days with a bit of looking. There are other contemporary sources of equal value about these and similar debates. More generally, it's easy to claim that because A is different ("ontologically" or otherwise) from B, no part of A can be understood by comparing it with B. Claiming an ontological difference between contexts does not by itself invalidate the value of such comparisons, since every comparison is by definition a comparison between two different things.

LW, one of the requirements for a successful third party is the willingness to stop caring about which of the other parties wins. In your example, Gary Johnson's solid third-place finish, if it's combined with a successful push to get candidates into Congress and state governments, could put his party in position to take the White House next time around. Since the Dems and the GOP are going to pursue the same policies anyway, does it matter whether Bush III or Clinton II gets in? Not to a third party that matters.

Jamie, excellent. I don't usually give out two gold stars at a sitting, but your point is crucial enough to earn one.

Blue Sun, nah, we spent this week's post talking about the first of the three skill sets. The second and third will be discussed next week.

Keith, thank you! This is great. I'd like to encourage every reader of this post to print out a copy and pin it on the wall somewhere.

Robert, exactly. It doesn't matter to the left that Obama is doing all the same things they denounced Bush for doing because the verbal noise "Obama" is linked to warm fuzzy feelings, and that's all that matters.

SLClaire, I'll check out the website. It'll be interesting to see the reasons they suggest.

Steve, excellent! I have a set of those, and of the Harvard Classics, a similar collection. As I'm away from home I don't have access to my library, but you might try this Nrew York Times article for starters.

Andrew, thanks, but anything with high tuition is a nonstarter.

Kieran, reminds me of the famous Wiccan author who denounced her critics as "mean, cruel, and academic." I wonder what she thought the last word meant...

John Michael Greer said...

F-baro, been tried over here. It doesn't seem to help much.

Ando, exactly.

Owl, yes, I've seen the various psychological attempts to blame assorted social evils on the right. Did it occur to you that this is simply another way of associating cold prickly feelings with a group of people that, by and large, liberals despise anyway?

Stu, of course it would have to involve a heavy grassroots push, from the very beginning, and continuing from there. We'll be getting to that.

Fern, any Druid with a slide rule is a Druid after my own heart! I'd like to see slide rules become part of the standard Druidical kit -- I know, it's a reach, but as Wowbagger the Indefinitely Prolonged said, "A being can dream."

Wiseman, if you reread my post you'll notice that I was talking specifically about America. That was deliberate; it's not my job, or for that matter my place, to try to affect the governmental systems of countries other than my own.

Justin, as far as I know it's sheer accident. This part of the end of empire series was envisioned from the very beginning, around the first of the year.

BoysMom, I'd encourage you to network with other homeschooling parents, and see whether it's helpful to assist each other in various ways, up to and including the sort of thing Hawlkeye talked about earlier in the comment string. To my mind, that's where you can make a real difference.

Ganv, I think our brains can handle it if we take the time to learn how to do so. Again, I'd encourage you to read the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and think about the educational level of the people who took those in.

Jen, works for me.

John Michael Greer said...

Kevin, that's sad. China has its own very rich apocalyptic tradition; the Chinese have no need to borrow our shoddy equivalents! ;-)

Phil, thank you!

Nano, excellent. I see you're using your crystal ball tonight. We wil indeed talk about Chautauquas, when the time comes.

Mallow, you need to get more sleep. You can't think clearly with an exhausted nervous system. This is one of the reasons why extended families or the equivalent are a good idea...

Dwig, interesting. I'm not going to comment at length, because this looks like a work in progress, and will doubtless tauten up as you proceed; still, it looks worth exploring.

Adrian, there are always outliers, and I'm glad to hear that your family was fortunate to encounter one. We will talk statistics, facts and figures when the time comes for the series of posts on education; they're pretty brutal, you know.

Bob, as I think I mentioned, the sort of thinking I criticized in the post is normal and natural to human beings. It's possible to get past it, given education, but there's never a guarantee; you can lead a horse to water...

Sealander, good. It's certainly a step in the right direction.

Spanktor, that's high praise. Thank you.

Mtngirl, but a carrot on a hook makes such a fetching visual image! ;-)

Jonathan, no, and I didn't say that, either. To my mind, it's because the activists were too caught up in the emotional charge from their own propaganda to notice that their opponents were running rings around them, or, when they noticed, to change their strategy and do something that works better.

John Michael Greer said...

Kevin, that's sad. China has its own very rich apocalyptic tradition; the Chinese have no need to borrow our shoddy equivalents! ;-)

Phil, thank you!

Nano, excellent. I see you're using your crystal ball tonight. We wil indeed talk about Chautauquas, when the time comes.

Mallow, you need to get more sleep. You can't think clearly with an exhausted nervous system. This is one of the reasons why extended families or the equivalent are a good idea...

Dwig, interesting. I'm not going to comment at length, because this looks like a work in progress, and will doubtless tauten up as you proceed; still, it looks worth exploring.

Adrian, there are always outliers, and I'm glad to hear that your family was fortunate to encounter one. We will talk statistics, facts and figures when the time comes for the series of posts on education; they're pretty brutal, you know.

Bob, as I think I mentioned, the sort of thinking I criticized in the post is normal and natural to human beings. It's possible to get past it, given education, but there's never a guarantee; you can lead a horse to water...

Sealander, good. It's certainly a step in the right direction.

Spanktor, that's high praise. Thank you.

Mtngirl, but a carrot on a hook makes such a fetching visual image! ;-)

Jonathan, no, and I didn't say that, either. To my mind, it's because the activists were too caught up in the emotional charge from their own propaganda to notice that their opponents were running rings around them, or, when they noticed, to change their strategy and do something that works better.

John Michael Greer said...

Progress, good. You've just identified one of the things that an independent adult education project could take as a core skill -- learning and applying a solid knowledge of logical fallacies.

Chuck, excellent! More on this soon.

Mark, now apply some history to the question. Not that long ago, all things considered, Americans were passionate about getting an education, and ensuring that their children got one. What changed? Don't just guess -- read up on it, and draw a conclusion from that.

Loch Wade, it's not just that they don't need to; as the rulers of a lot of eastern bloc nations found out, the problem with limitless surveillance is that data is not information, and information is not meaning. How much good did all those secret policemen do East Germany when it came down to it?

As for the moral conscience, of course it can be taught. It's taught primarily by example, which is why so many people these days can't teach it!

John Michael Greer said...

Torturedsoul(etc.) (offlist), sorry, but an obscenity in your online handle is as much of a problem as an obscenity in your text. Still, thank you for the encouragement.

Cathy McGuire said...

Ah, JMG, you’ve hit on a topic I’ve been obsessing about for a while! After realizing how futile it is to have decent discussions about these big topics, even with people who I consider intelligent, I have thought long and hard about why, and what might help. I have a strong urge to create a local “forum” where people would agree to meet weekly, to learn how to discuss and then to discuss the topics of importance to them. The way I see it, there is one obstacle to such a discussion that I haven’t seen this mentioned yet (except for Jaimie) in comments: people need to have the time to talk about it – we’ve lost the community that allowed us to meet up with the same people often enough to explain our reasoning, do research (if needed) and prepare “come-backs”, and dig beneath the surface of a topic. People may be brainwashed by hour-long tv talk shows, but nothing much is accomplished by these “mini-debates” (I can’t even watch them anymore).

The way I see it working is that a group of maybe 12 (not much more) agree to come weekly for a two-hour meeting, for at least a couple months (and make a commitment – that alone is hard these days). Start with learning how to define fact and opinion, how to determine a valid source of information, how to build an argument based on facts – and this wouldn’t be pedantic; it would be the group agreeing through discussion (well, with some texts or lectures if they’d never done logic), what sources would count for fact-finding (and why) and what “arguments” were valid, which were ad-hominem, etc. And I could see using high schoolers to 1) write on white boards or type into laptops w/projector, so we could see where we were in discussion and 2) look things up on internet and report – and meanwhile they’d be learning how to discuss! It would be tough at first, but I think it could work, depending on who was in the group (there are some who simply want to shout their opinions – they would have to be directed out in the same way you don’t allow trolls online). There would have to be a neutral facilitator, to keep the discussion on track, to tally what the group has agreed on, and to point out where someone might be tangled up in emoting or circular thinking. But it might be that the group, over time, could rotate through the facilitator role. Having the white board/ laptop might help with another common obstacle – the over-abundance of data and the need to figure out if it’s worth reading! Establishing a group of reliable sources would eventually (hopefully) streamline the discussions w/o hobbling them. And just as important, learning how to judge the worthiness of a source.

I want to believe that there would be enough people even in a small town who would be capable and interested in having real discussions. In fact, I’m deeply disappointed that I’ve been so disabled recently that I simply don’t have the physical energy to try to start a group like this (have had to give up volunteering with the local food group due to disability)… I will still keep my eye out for some energetic younger person who might have the skills. Anyway, thanks for bringing up the topic, and I’ll look forward to seeing your ideas!

team10tim said...

Hey hey JMG,

I know that you are going to address education in a future post(s). And I have heard many times, from many places that American educational standards have fallen. I'm eager to hear your thoughts on the matter and the historical context and possibly the the driving forces behind the change(s).

I can wait for the full story. But I am young and I don't know what education used to look like. I don't know what I'm missing and I would like to. Can you please give us young, unlearned hooligans a place to start looking?

I hear that time is short and there is a lot of work to be done. I'm willing to do the work but I don't know where to start because I received a modern education. Give me something to cut my teeth on, a reference, an essay, a standard to compare against. Point me in the right direction and I will start working on it.

Thanks in advance,

Leo said...

No rush, enjoy your trip.

Yeh, changing a wide spread skill like that, i guess its theoritically possible, but thats a long way from being actually possible.

Renaissance Man said...

This column touches a subject I've been pondering for quite a while now.
I don't know if it was Ben Franklin who actually said it, but he certainly believed, given his support for public and socially valuble projects such as libraries, that an educated populace is vital for an effective democracy. However what passes for education in North America has been failing to teach critical thinking for two generations now. I believe that there are rather many confluent causes for this, viz.:
For one, the introduction of all sorts of modern hypthetical ideas about education in the late 1960s that fell away from hard "reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic" that was the backbone of education for over a hundred years and instead explored emotion-based learning, and the primacy of self-esteem, most of which failed. Apparently forcing children to learn grammar and spelling was akin to putting a straitjacket on creativity and indivituality; objective measures of ability were crushing to the budding spirits who couldn't cut the mustard. So for years, children have not been taught to read properly, to write properly, or to think properly, but to feel good about themselves anyway. (This does not work: real self-esteem derives from achievement.) I had the benefit of an education in Europe, where we spent hours in class, disecting sentence structure and exploring verbal conjugation. I don't think I was emotionally crushed and intellectually crippled; at least not by that.
I think another cause would be one I mentioned in passing a couple of weeks back, based on Wendell Barry’s writing about the industrialization of farming. What I realized is we've applied industrialization to education. Schools have become 12-year assembly-lines to process (valueless) raw material (young children) and produce sufficiently literate & functional (value-added) workers and consumers (N.B. NOT citizens) ready to take their place in the economy. Any attempt to include civic virtues or instill ecological values or social awareness is derided as "social engineering" by people who were socially engineered to worship the great God Hy-Tek and his Holy Writ of Free-Market Industrial Economics that will make everyone infinitely wealthy forever. (ah, men!)
Yet another cause seems to me to be what Terry O'Reilly has explored over 5 years in his CBC radio program "The Age of Persuasion". At this end of the 20th Century, the art of persuading people through emotional manipulation has been so spectacularly effective at commerce that it has been applied everywhere, however inappropriate. But what works for inducing people to buy cars, sugar-pop, and i-thingys is definitely wrong for politics or activism. Emotional appeals create intense, intrasigent divisions. I suspect that is why fewer people bother to vote and why activists have been sidelined so effectively. Greenies do not -- cannot -- argue cogently, and industrialists are much, much better at manipulating fears.
Pop culture, i.e. TV and movies, is all about passive emotion and distraction. The Point of View changes about every 3 - 4 seconds. Everything wraps up neatly in an hour or so. The viewer must mentally jump from a show to disconnected ads and back and so on. People sleepwalk with their "smart" phones, continuously reading ‘tweets’ and emails and SMS and watching YouTube shorts.... all of which is inducing an ADHD-like mental state that directly militates against the concentration required to read and absorb a Lincoln and Douglas debate.
This list is not exhasutive, but I am exhausted, so I’ll leave other causes for your other readers to explore.

Jason said...

JMG: All the more reason to get busy and preserve what can be preserved, in subcultures or even monasteries if it comes to that.

Indeed, I'm getting onto thinking how that could work around my way... I've thought about it before but things have changed...

Did you ever meet William Irwin Thompson? He's another guy who has been talking about preserving culture through a dark age since the 70s. You have a mutual friend in David Spangler I believe.

His book Transforming History is a syllabus for teaching world history to kids. Combine it with Spengler and an encyclopedia, and you have history I would actually have paid attention to in school, on the edge of my seat.

Cherokee Organics said...


Ahh, I spoke too early. You, a deficiency in cynicism!!!! Oh my...

The reason I sacrificed 8 years part time at night pursuing an under graduate degree and then a further 2 1/2 years (now requires 3 years by the way) pursuing a post graduate degree was because even at the youthful age of 17, I realised intuitively that education was used as a barrier to entry.

Not two decades before, the same under graduate degree status was obtained by an apprenticeship. Oh yeah, the post graduate status was obtained in those days by paying the lump sum of AU$50.

I do have a minor smoldering sense of resentment at the sacrifice. Barriers to entry are setup purely to increase salaries, although few will state this. The barriers are set a little bit higher every year too. It will be their undoing in the long term.



Alvin Leong said...

@Robert Mathiesen:

I don't think Euclidean geometry will be in much danger for the forseeable future since there are many practical applications for it. All the mathematics and science up to probably the 19th century with Maxwell's equations should be quite safe.

The humanities on the other hand are already being neglected.

Johan said...

Robert Mathiesen,

In my engineering studies (around the year 2000), we used to groan and grumble in every course where the main textbook was American. We always suspected that US textbook authors got paid by word, since those books were always heavy, expensive and very long-winded.

In contrast, the Swedish textbooks and the few British ones were usually more austere.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Dear JMG,

Yes, my family was fortunate. My husband and I were lucky to have good educations in the sense you are describing -- particularly mine, a great books curriculum -- so we fostered a certain type of family culture, and kept a lookout for good teachers, which I'm not sure is exactly an outlier, but is not in the broad middle swath of the bell-curve, either.

As a former rhetoric instructor in a community college, who taught logical fallacies in class, along with how to evaluate the messages we receive from the media--and there are tens of thousands like me, in other disciplines, too, working this way-- I am very aware of the dismal facts and statistics!

At my school, rhetoric is a required course. I dealt with the results of poor schooling every day; but it also felt at times like we instructors were trying to battle an entire media-cized, mass-market-driven, anti-intellectual culture, not just bad prior education. Yet in every class there were a few students who demonstrated a genuine love of learning and critical enquiry.

I believe that one purpose of education is to broaden horizons --intellectual, cultural-- and help free students from the habit of assessing information and their own habits of life from narrow, unconscious assumptions and pre-conceptions (cf the Socratic principle that inquiry can only really proceed fruitfully after first principles are examined). Many colleagues and I had to keep faith that the experience of our classes would have some kind of (minor) catalytic effect -- that was a guiding purpose, anyway. In a sense, I'm still doing the same thing, only in another field, and outside the classroom.

So I guess I am partly proving your point about the American system of education, but want to make sure the baby is not thrown out, too -- hoping readers understand that many teachers, departments, and even whole schools, in the system are frequently not of that system -- they are working to provide a real education in the face of daunting cultural headwinds.

I do look forward to your future posts on the subject.


javogh said...

many years ago, i taught sunday school, and used a methodology of telling sacred stories from many religious traditions and then asking 'wonder questions', to get the kids thinking, critically, about what the story was advocating. teaching people to think was my primary goal, and watching the kids grow up has convinced me that even a sunday school teacher can have a positive impact in this regard. i wonder if the same technique would work with adults, and would venture a guess that it would be less successful. adults i know tend to have a very hard time getting past preconceptions, and almost no motivation to try. i will be very interested in seeing what you propose for the teaching adults to think critically.
btw, thank you for tagging lack of thinking skills as a serious political problem. i think the ancillary damage done to creative thinking is also very important, and in the context of your discussion, negatively impacts our ability to act/react - to form workable solutions (though this is secondary as we have to analyze first).

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...


To educate people who don't want to be educated, you have to be really devious, even sneaky. : ) Starting young (before they "know" they don't want to be educated), helps too.

@CSA Farmer, I agree! (We used to make our children revise their essays before submission). Family, or some caring adult who really believes in education, is crucial. That adult doesn't have to be particularly well educated, though -- I've taught plenty of students whose poorly educated parents pushed them to get an education and do well in school. Any pretty good teacher will respond with enthusiasm and extra help to a student who demonstrates a real desire to learn.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

@teve Morgan

Your comment about Britannica Great Books reminded me that when I was a kid my folks had an old Encyclopedia Britannica bought used which I often read.

Things like that make a difference in a person's life.

LewisLucanBooks said...

I just noticed a couple of years ago that the word "activist" started to be used in such a way that it was pretty clear that it was supposed to give us the "cold pricklies."

Interesting how the emotional charge of some words, shift. I think it's important to be aware of such shifts and question where the shift comes from.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...


PS to my last to you:

your idea of

"Devising a framework for adult education outside the grip of the current American education industry"

might very well attract the support and participation of some who are at present within said grip and employed by said industry. : )

There are beginnings. For example, in New York, some Phd candidates have started their own evening school for adults, the humanities-based Brooklyn School for Social Research. That might not be what you have in mind -- there are other examples, as well, of other types of non-school schooling.

What do you think about MOOCs? (As long as the internet carries on.)


I send the following comments. I hope that these, and your discrepancies about, would give helpful for all of us:

1º) Democracy can be obsolete in the future: We don´t must forget that the concept of Democracy is based in the principle of Individual Freedom. Principle that is based in the supposition of inexistence of material limits for the activity of the individuals, supposition that will be not true in “The Long Descend” world.

2º) Socrates was illiterate: In accordance with my information Socrates, the Father of the Philosophy, didn´t knew to read. And, in those times, the books wrote by hand over parchment, was very expensive. Practically all the information that managed the Greek philosophers there would were been spoken.

3º) The Democracy crisis is caused for the crisis of the Education: The Democracy is a institution created for a industrial society (second wave civilization), and can´t work very well in a society based in the knowledge (third wave civilization ; Toffler). This is the cause of the actual crisis of the Democracy.
The same can be said of the actual educative institutions.

4) The stupefying of a part the American people is caused for the crisis of the educational system.
The stupefying of a part of the western population is consequence of the high level of specialization in the work, that provides the system with very efficient workers doing his specific job, but totally stupid in the rest of things of the life, different to consuming. The educational system has been adapted for this purpose, and the mass media cooperates in the increasing of this problem.

In various seasons of the TV series “Lost in the Tribe” you´ll can see stupid and emotionally infantilized white men living with clever and emotionally equilibrated natives, with a Paleolithic economy or Neolithic economy, depending of the season. Any of these natives never has gone to a school, and they are illiterate.

6) Respect the now called “global climate change” and before “global warming”, I think that is totally unfunded to speak over a global warming caused for the humankind. During “Medieval Climatic Optimum” the temperature was higher than now and there was no industry. An important part of the climate variations are caused for the variation of sun activity, that depends of the relative position of the big planets of the sun system. In accordance with this, in 2014 will start a small ice age (Khalibulo Abdusamatov).

Christos T. said...

‘Mister R., I don't happen to know about the V-2, but the ME-262 jet fighter, which could potentially have changed the course of the war, wasn't deployed until far too late as a fighter because Hitler thought he knew more about air warfare than the professionals did. Thus your point stands.’

I’m sorry but as a WWII nut I couldn’t let this pass! From ‘Last year of the Luftwaffe’ by Alfred Price:

It has become part of the accepted wisdom about the Luftwaffe that Hitler's decision was instrumental in preventing the large-scale deployment of the Me 262 in the fighter force. In fact his edict was not the main reason, or even a major reason, for the failure to deploy the fighter in the hoped for numbers. Not until August 1944 was the average running life of the 004 jet engine raised to 25hr; that was still a very low figure, but it meant that the design could be frozen and mass production could begin. In September Hitler rescinded his order that all new Me 262s be delivered as fighter-bombers. By then more than a hundred fighter airframes were sitting around without engines, and as soon as 004s became available these aircraft were completed and delivered to the Luftwaffe. In fact Hitler's order delayed the introduction of the Me 262 into service in the fighter role by only about three weeks. For the real reason for the failure to deploy the fighter in large numbers, we must look elsewhere.

Zach said...

John Michael,

Bravo! This week and last week's posts on democracy are excellent work (that I can agree wholeheartedly with). Thank you, and I look forward to the discussion of ideas for adult education.

I find myself continually frustrated that words which are supposed to have specific, particular meanings have degenerated into association-labels for cold pricklies or warm fuzzies and into mere tribal markers. It brings to mind the Curse of Babel.

An interesting "tell" I watch for is the use of "I think" vs. "I feel" language in discussion. It's startling, once you pay attention, how common it is. "Well, I feel that [insert position statement here]" "How would you feel if [insert hard case objection here(*)]" etc.


(*) My mental response is generally "Well, that would make me feel bad, but what does that have to do with what is right and wrong or true and false?" This thought pattern seems to be at least as alien to most Americans as Spock and Sarek.

Mark said...

In an earlier comment, I asked how a plan to inculcate critical thinking could succeed in a profoundly anti-intellectual America, and JMG challenged me to research the historical roots of that anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism. In fact, it has deep roots. In 1642, Puritan minister John Cotton wrote "the more learned and witty you bee, the more fit to act for Satan will you bee." The roots are partly religious, partly due to Americans' suspicion of any kind of elitism, partly based on a narrow pragmatism. I question, by the way, whether the Lincoln-Douglas debates really were understood or intended for the mass of farmers and workers in Illinois or whether they were aimed instead at the educated legal and political community of Springfield, the state capital.

However, most commentators agree that anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism have grown in the United States since the mid-20th century. The consensus is, as I would have guessed, that this is due to the displacement of text (and especially printed text) by video. Television, dominated as it is by advertising and entertainment meant for passive consumption, numbs critical-thinking skills to the point of atrophy. Celebrity culture, another by-product of TV, encourages the idea that success and value are a function of one's looks and style rather than one's mental abilities.

How can Americans be convinced to cultivate critical thinking skills as long as they are glued to their TVs?

exiledbear said...

You forgot to mention that the crappy water, the HFCS, the prozac, the processed food and the television have all contributed to the dulling of the average 'Murican mind to the point where all it is capable of processing is "cold prickly" and "warm fuzzy".

This is of course, by design.

You might also mention something about dualistic thinking too, even if you are thinking.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Well, I can't speak to the excellence of Wheelock's Latin textbook (JMG refers to it in this weeks' comments). The edition I once briefly glanced at in the public library here in Richmond Hill, Ontario did, however, look thorough.

And I WOULD like to put in a small plug for the deceptively thin and deceptively compact book "Teach Yourself Latin", by my former teacher Prof. Gavin Betts in Melbourne.

When I had Betts, in connection with the first- and also the second-year course (I was at Monash University in the early Eighties, and this was a good chance to do some Latin on the side), Betts was using the OLD "Teach Yourself Latin", in the same series. We all marvelled at that ancient book's perhaps-1930s ineptitude. (First sentence, pretty much: "Puer capram amabat", illustrating the imperfect, I presume in its progressive rather than in its habitual meaning - "The boy was loving the goat."

Some time after I left Monash, Betts REWROTE the ancient book, and now it is available, surely in all big bookstores in Canada, under Betts's name. Having worked through the new, Betts-authored, "Teach Yourself Latin" a few years ago, I can report that despite its moderate pagecount it fully addresses everything needed in Latin 101, including oratio obliqua and sequence of tenses and scansion. With that book finished, one can with full confidence tackle texts, and I indeed found it useful to plod forward on the normal path, reading one full book of Caesar's "de Bello Gallico" (the one that starts by telling you Gallia is divided into three parts; in Monash second year we had had, rather, Sallust, Catullus, and one book of the Aeneid). I also found it helpful to get the big fat new Betts-and-Franklin book of 555 fully conjugated Latin verbs.

Latin is exciting in EXACTLY the same way as Morse code is: you struggle, with much crashing of static and much cursing of your own ineptitude, to get important messages from weird and distant writers. Admittedly, with Morse the transmitting desks are remote in space, whereas with Latin they are remote in time.


Tom = Toomas Karmo
www dot metascientia dot com

Matt and Jess said...

Hi JMG, thanks for the interesting brain food. I highly recommend "Dumbing Us Down" by John Taylor Gatto as a resource for anyone interested in learning more about the flaws of modern education. James Loewen's "Lies My Teacher Told Me" is great for learning more about the abysmal quality of modern history textbooks.

And as an alternative to both public schools and high-tuition private schools (even the great ones like Sudbury and Waldorf), homeschooling cooperatives are a great example of parents coming together and working outside of the system. And a great many these days aren't religious.

lw said...

JMG, two things:
It doesn't matter if the party is concerned with who wins - the voters will be. And the upshot of a third party candidate is that the worse of the two parties will be put into office for at least 8 years.

And yes, it matters greatly whether the GOP or the Democrats win since their policies are totally different, (you think they're the same?) seriously? I seem to remember lots of people talking about how Bush and Gore were the same. How did that work out?

Robert Mathiesen said...

@ Johan:

Yes, indeed. The same could be said of Russian school textbooks versus American ones. The last time I looked into them, most of them were as compact as can be, austere, unadorned books, much shorter than the American ones, but on the whole much clearer and better organized.

I'm sure it has to do with the profit publishers make off them. Similarly, the perpetual revising of college textbooks every few years, with emphasis on revising the problem sets and the pagination, means that every student has to buy the newest edition, not a much cheaper used copy of an earlier edition.

Jason said...

@Toomas, your man Betts wrote a solid book on Greek too. Must've been a good teacher to have.

My favourite book on Greek is:

Learning Greek with Plato

It's thorough and you translate half the Meno as you go, ending ready to take on the second half (with an apparatus). I've built up a library of Plato in the original, quite easy to do over the years.

Robert Mathiesen said...

@Alvin Leong:

Aren't the practical applications (of which you speak) mostly for the *results* of Euclidean geometry, not the *reasoning* by which those results were achieved in the first place?

In the textbooks by Wentworth and others of that generation, the results were not just presented, but worked out step by (tiny) step for the student to see, to be sure. Also, they were designed so that you had to have a perfect command of the methods and reasoning to complete the problem sets.

How to calculate the volume of a sphere, for instance, is a useful skill, but it hardly expands the mind. How to *prove logically* that one or another of the standard formulae is correct is quite another matter, and far more significant for all that makes us fully human.

One of the more profound mystical experiences of my life happened in my senior year of high school, at the moment I had finished working through and understanding one of those proofs of the volume of a sphere, as given in our textbook.

This particular proof showed that the volume of a sphere of radius R was exactly the same as: the volume of an upright cylinder of height 2R and radius R, minus the volume of two upright cones, each of height R and radius R. Any cross-section of a sphere, of course, is circular, whereas any right cross-section of a cone through its vertex is a triangle, and a similar cross-section of a cylinder is a rectangle, with straight lines for all its sides. Yet the careful combination of those triangles and rectangles comes out the same as a circle.

I still remember the awe and wonder that such a thing not only *could* be true, but *must* be true.

The poet Lew Welch pegged such an experience when he wrote of "all the wonder of all the planets striking all your only mind"!

Robert Mathiesen said...

Renaissance Man cited the spectacular effectiveness of "the art of persuading people through emotional manipulation" as one of the causes of the decline of education in the US.

I agree. The "art of persuasion" could develop in new and far more powerful ways in the '50s, once television became a fixture in nearly every household. At the time, when I was in junior high school, lots of us were reading a book by one Vance Packard, titled _The Hidden Persusaders_, predicting such a development.

But Packard's book was focused on the contents and techniques of various advertising campaigns, whether on TV or in some other medium. Hardly anyone, back in the '50s, foresaw any of the following:

(a) just how superior TV was over print or speech as a means of persuasion,

(b) how easy it would be to vary the amplitudes of light and sound ("loudness" and "brightness") rhythmically on TV so as to produce a light and somewhat addictive trance state in the viewers,

(c) that this trance state would, as a side effect, render TV viewers more suggestible than they would otherwise have been, or

(d) that this induced suggestibility lasts quite a while after the TV has been turned off, though it does eventually weaken if not reinforced.

Now, of course, these things are much better understood not only in advertising, but by many people in the on-line gaming industry. The latter industry has -- or so I have been told by one or two of my former students who now work in it -- even held a few invitational conferences to develop greater expertise along those lines.

Note that this side effect has nothing whatever to do with the particular content of any TV show or the particular scene and story of any game. The only way to avoid it, IMHO, is to do as JMG has done and refuse to have a TV set at all, no matter what shows one might watch. One can't avoid the trance-inducing effect by watching only high-toned shows on public channels.

Betsys_Backyard said...

It seems to me that some reason for less critical thinking, logic and analysis in typical modern Americans has something to do with lack of connection with the natural world. Abundant availability to unsupervised play in nature fosters a natural curiosity, hones observation skills, allows chances for building things, destroying things (safely, I mean, like building little steam dams and breaking them down), cooperative play, a sense of special space in a big universe, becoming vested in something bigger than oneself..- a world view that is so thoroughly stimulating ( even empowering) that the mind wants to figure out more about how it works... that is a mind ripe to learn logic, critical thinking and analysis, in my opinion.
I am tested to find this in much of "modern ' living
Today,, what is there filling that place for the child?

I don't think the 3-5 organized sports and 'enrichment" classes a week do it.. ditto to animal planet and farmville ;)
I am also certain that today's massive advert and media deluge serves to distract, or even neuter the discerning mind of adult and child alike.
Is the film triology "The Matrix" really that far from our modern society? How many Americans go for years without their skin touching soil, procuring their own food, cooking a meal, entertaining oneself.. How many of the US privelege class have a life beyond : dress, drive, drive-thru breakfast, cubicle, car, drive through dinner,, highway, driveway, tv, computor, bed, rinse , repeat......( OK, I am guessing most of the posters here do have more of a life..., but you get my drift.... )
Well, My little bit of thought out there... I am an educator, so i really feel the changes in thought being discussed in this Post. I think there are ways to bring critical thinking back , most easily of course is teaching the child.. Mentoring can be a great gift to future generations.. I would also like to see a renaissance of "trade schools" that allow low cost, or even work-study (free) hands on practical-skills education with classical topics required as discussed. Ahhhh,, it is a dream....

John Michael Greer said...

Cathy, I think that would be a very worthwhile experiment.

Tim, I'll certainly include that in the upcoming series of posts about education. Thanks for suggesting it -- I might not have thought about that!

Leo, exactly. There are plenty of bright ideas that will never result in actual changes, for lack of any way to convince people to adopt them.

Renaissance, all those are issues. All I can do is start somewhere!

Jason, now there's a name I haven't heard in a while! No, I never met him, though I read quite a few of his books very closely indeed in the late 1970s and 1980s. The book you cite wasn't one of them, though; I'll have to check it out.

Cherokee, good. Very good. Those constantly rising barriers will inded turn into a major choke point, with significant costs in the not too distant future.

Adrian, that's one of the reasons I won't be focusing primarily on the education of children; since I didn't have children, it's also something about which I have little practical to say. Adults are another matter, and to my mind that's a place where individual action can accomplish a great deal in the near future.

Javogh, I don't know that it would work well with adults, though the reasons that occur to me are more complex. More on this later.

Adrian, er, what's a MOOC?

Anselmo, once again, democracies existed before industrialism; that strongly suggests that they can exist after industrialism as well. Freedom does not equal the right to consume as much as you want!

Christos, fascinating. The histories I read -- a while ago, admittedly -- followed what Price describes as the accepted wisdom.

John Michael Greer said...

Zach, that's a most interesting point. I'll have to watch and see if I encounter the same thing; if so, it suggests some viable ways of pursuing the issue.

Mark, fair enough. Thanks for doing the research! As for TVs, you're preaching to the choir -- I won't have one in the house -- and I don't have an easy answer, other than to talk to the minority that can grasp that sitting on the couch being pumped full of ads is what keeps Americans nowadays from having a life.

Bear, never blame on conspiracy what can be adequately explained by greed and stupidity.

Toomas, thanks for the tip! I'll keep an eye out for it.

Jess, thanks for the suggestions!

LW, the fact remains that a third party would be foolish to put a single election ahead of its own future as a party. I'd point out also that you have no idea what kind of president Gore would be; if Obama had lost in 2008, no doubt Dems would still be going on about all the wonderful reforms he would have enacted.

Betsy, that's an interesting hypothesis and is worth exploring.

Alvin Leong said...

Toomas, many of the older Teach Yourself books were very comprehensive for their price range. Some time around the 80s or 90s the new editions became little more than phrasebooks. I think the Classical languages (Greek, Latin and Sanskrit) have been immune to this trend but you can compare the old edition of TY Icelandic and the modern one to see the decline in quality.

TY Sanskrit on the other hand pulls no punches and is quite difficult to use as an autodidact without any existing background in Sanskrit or some mastery of another classical Indo-European language.

For Greek, I personally have been swayed by arguments for beginning wih Homer. Clyde Pharr's textbook is in the public domain and can be found on, Google Books and Another book called A Reading Course in Homeric Greek is more beginner friendly and also very comprehensive.

lw said...

JMG, a party without voters isn't much of a party.
Any party running to the left of the Democratic party will either result in a Republican win or the Dems running further to the right to chase votes.
In 2000 the narrative was the Bush and Gore were the same; Bush was a harmless moderate and Gore was conservative enough that it wouldn't matter either way. Don't we know now that was incredibly wrong? No one can definitively know what Gore would have dont but we can be pretty damn sure it wouldn't have been that.

Your thought experiment came about because of slavery. Is there an issue comparable to slavery that might similarly fracture the party structures?

Justin G said...

While I heartily agree that the math and science knowledge of the average american high school graduate ranks near the bottom of the industrialized world, I don't think it is quite accurate to describe the results of the american education system as "among the worst in the industrialized world" in a post that is primarily focused on critical thinking.

Don't get me wrong, I don't think the American education system does much of anything to develop critical thinking capacity. On the other hand, the countries of East Asia are often used to as a basis for unfavorable comparison of American math and scholastic achievement, and from long experience -easily verified by cursory research- I can tell you that the education systems in these countries actively tamp down on any signs of nascent critical thinking. These countries take "teaching to the test" to a whole new level, as the entirety of high school is basically prepping for a multiple choice college entrance test. The entire curriculum in memorization, and authority is always to be taken at face value.

Obviously these are generalizations, but I simply wish to point out that the issues you speak of in this article are likely not restricted to America, though the historical background is entirely different in East Asia. I also must confess to a complete ignorance to the state of public education in Europe or ANZAC countries, so if these were what you had in mind by "the industrialized world" feel free to ignore my comment.

Pitchfork and Crow said...

I recently listened to a Librivox recording of William James' "The Moral Equivalent of War." ( In it, James praises some of the human virtues that are cultivated in militarism, and argues that a lasting peace cannot come unless these virtues are cultivated in a different way. His suggestion is to send young adults into the fields, into the mines, into the factories, etc... waging the war of "progress." I think he hit on something there with adult education. My wife benefited greatly from her stint with Americorps. I think that a future program could include an organized manual labor force for organic agriculture, when modern factory farming declines. Working intimately with a group of people planting, tending and harvesting crops cultivates virtues as well as military discipline does, and is probably more sustainable.

Cherokee Organics said...



There are some environmental considerations affecting peoples requirements to exercise analytical and decision making skills.

A consumer society requires people to act, but not necessarily to exercise analytical and/or decision making skills.

Perhaps the reason for the more in-depth historical debate that you cited was because the US at that historical time was a society of producers. Even the domestic economy of those times would have required considerable thought which is not required today.

As an example to illustrate the point, if I want to eat pasta, I have to make it (seriously, I make this stuff from scratch - 100% too easy).

As a consumer, I would go and buy the pasta and possibly a pre-made sauce, perhaps they'd even be in the same packaging produced in a factory somewhere?

The thought processes here however, go along the lines of:
- At which meal do you want to eat pasta?
- How far ahead of time do you need to prepare the pasta?
- Do I have the raw materials (basically eggs and flour)?
- Would I have to have grown the wheat previously, milled it, stored it and harvested the eggs? (you could just keep going on this line)
- How do you mix the ingredients?
- How long does it need to sit and why?
- Do you cut the pasta into spaghetti or sheets and how do you do this?
- What vegetables are in season to put into the topping?

It just goes on and on... A producer has to think differently than a consumer and the above example was kept simple.

The consumer has to worry about how to obtain the ready to consume product and then how to handle that product in such a way as to make it an acceptable consumption.

The education system really reflects society and as with the government, we get the system that we expect.

The more self sufficient I become here, the more I have to setup systems and then observe how they interact with myself and the world and then at that point I can maintain them, modify them, alter them, scrap them etc.

Dunno, but I reckon hungry people might get to exercise those critical thinking skills in short order? Maybe?


Angus Wallace said...

I'd love to hear some reasons for learning Latin or Greek versus, say, a modern language, or philosophy, etc. I just feel that my time could be better spent...

Jason said...

JMG: I read quite a few of his books very closely indeed in the late 1970s and 1980s. The book you cite wasn't one of them, though; I'll have to check it out.

It's much more recent -- 2009. He's very much still around, and I'm sure if you two triple-monickered celts were to meet a grand conversation would result!

One of the ones you did probably read carefully back in the day is Passages About Earth which has some stuff in it ringing very true to this week's 'Report:

Utterly engrossed in the details of committee work, these specialists could pluck hairs from the face of terror and never have to look it in the eye... The contemporary university with its socialized education is... a large public corporation... Its purpose is, therefore, to teach people how to live in a large public corporation, and this can be done as well in a committee as a classroom...

The problem as a whole is that our institutions are no longer in sync with the pattern of human growth through time. We think that time is a line that moves from bad to better, from poverty to progress, from ignorance to knowledge, from grades 1 to 20... Because history is in the humanities it has no place in "value-free" social science; and so what is missing in the grand imperial vision is a historical memory and a tragic sense that a society which seeks to live like an empire will die like one.

For 1973 or so that's pretty on the money.

BTW, on my blog I now have a countdown running to 11:11 am on the 21st; I've called it "Nothing Happened Day" in your honour. :)

Robert said...

A party attacking the Dems from the left might make it harder for them to ignore the left. As it is they can get away with ignoring them because they feel they have nowhere else to go.

Gore 2000 is an isolated example. We don't know what Bush would have been like without the national trauma of 9/11. Bush also deserves credit for his AIDS initiative in Africa which had a significant effect. He's quite popular there apparently. Bush wasn't all bad.

Take 1992 and William Jefferson Clinton. About this individual not enough negative can ever be said. He was responsible for NAFTA which destroyed American jobs and even more in Mexico. One of the chief causes of mass illegal immigration into the US is because of what NAFTA did to the Mexican economy. He repealed Glass Steagal which played a huge role in contributing to the 2008 meltdown. I won't mention welfare reform.

Once Obama appointed Clintonites like Geithner and Summers it was clear that nothing serious would be done to clean up Wall Street.

I actually think there might have been more chance of direct action against Goldman Sachs had McCain been elected in 2008. His political hero was Teddy Roosevelt who busted the trusts back in the day. I also believe that McCain as a war hero who'd been tortured in Vietnam would have been more likely to end Guantanom and as a Republican military figure he would have found it politically easier to do so.

phil harris said...

Logic (‘logical thinking’?) is necessary but not sufficient for scientific enquiry. It can however be sufficient for some technology if we look very hard at that bit of the real world while changing it. I can think of a few examples of the latter; the early breeding of corn, tomato and potato in the Americas; or the ancient development of throwing-blades on the near-glacial tundra before 20K years BP, requiring exquisite optimisation and replication. We can note also over time and in different places several of the metallurgies and ceramics and textiles. Abstraction however of logic for example to geometry did not of itself solve basic understanding of motion under the influence of gravity (Aristotle was a block on the path). Similarly, advanced logical disputation if I understand it, gave Christianity a rather odd set of dogmas historically; apparently capable of contradiction but not resolution. The Christian dogmatic cosmology, or its underlying assumptions, emerged it seems as another stumbling block.

Perhaps USA, like most places, suffers from the hangover of earlier unresolved assumptions and dogmas, whether connected by newspapers or TV or electronic pulpits? We are not actually individuals – we live according to group norms. How these norms are perceived or imagined is highly variable, and can be idiosyncratic for an individual of course, but I found this a very enjoyable canter Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism by Benedict Anderson. Then there are the amazing results of group think on our ‘fuzzies’; on our hopes and fears: our semi-conscious reactions to ‘prophecy’, ‘foretelling’ (not just apocalypse revealed to the very odd ego), ‘destiny’ and to other notions of who or what we might be. Whether these come via TV or through the newspaper, or ‘round the water-cooler’, we do as others do, or take sides, collectively shifting with the flock.

Education in England, (Scotland a little different) was very poor in my day and poorer in my parents’ day. It was predicated on producing an elite privileged class above a barely literate class of ‘hewers of wood and carriers of water’. The latter existence was deemed a necessary acknowledgement of the unequal distribution of faculties according to ‘nature’. Compulsory educational provision erected serious hurdles to schooling and aimed to restrict access to higher levels of knowledge (and provided for either privileged or competitive access to ‘British’ versions of ‘classical’ thinking and ‘excellence’) and saw itself much as a way to manage an empire, or an army, or an industry, or whatever; or to lend virtue to a privileged life. It was arranged that if you could jump the hurdles or show prowess of certain kinds, you would get some recognition and reward in our highly stratified society. The ‘elite’ had some strange assumptions about intelligence and ‘breeding’ and sought justification in undigested ‘bad’ science for their grouping of privilege according to ‘caste’. If this sounds a bit like a ‘leftie’ rant, I suppose it could be, but I actually lived this system and apparently survived within its rules.

I prefer to look back to the British ‘Corresponding Societies’ of the 19thC and the mutual self-help and education groups that informed our British working class in all our provincial centres. I am reminded recently of the great autodidact English writer William Cobbett in the early 19thC writing for early versions of this ‘reform-minded’ constituency. As a child and occasionally since I have caught a glimpse of the same agrarian past he described, in particular in one of his Rural Rides; the Valley of the Avon. It was very beautiful despite the plight of the labouring poor just before the ‘Labourer’s Revolt’ of 1830 during the painful transition to industrialisation.


Chris Travers said...

I am going to raise a viewpoint that may be even more challenging than the one you respond to. Simply put: As you define it "democracy" is a characteristic that all governments have some quantity of and so it is a question of democracy is a quantitative rather than a qualitative inquiry, and secondly that too much democracy can be a bad thing, that there is an ideal portion where going beyond neither preserves civil liberties nor good governance.

As I understand you defining democracy from previous posts, you aren't talking so much about a form of government so much as the ability of individuals to participate in the formation of policy. The question then becomes not whether individuals have an opportunity but how much of one there is. There is less of an opportunity in North Korea than in the US for example, and we like to think there is more opportunity in the US than in Iran (but I am not convinced).

Now I should also say I have lived in a few places in the world, and so some of the news stories I can mention are ones where I know people who have been directly impacted. I have essentially lived in Ecuador for a few months, and in Indonesia for a couple of years.

One thing I have noticed is that while countries with very little democracy are very bad at doing some things, very democratic countries tend to be very bad at doing other things. More autocratic governments can more easily invest in infrastructure, because they face less backlash from raising the taxes required. This isn't to say they always do, but they often do. Compare Malaysia to Indonesia for example there. More democratic governments tend to be better at civil liberties as you say. So the biggest question is where the best ratio is, autocratic enough that things that need to get done get done, while democratic enough that the government doesn't run roughshod over everybody.

Bill Pulliam said...

lw re: Gore --"No one can definitively know what Gore would have dont but we can be pretty damn sure it wouldn't have been that. "

No we can't be sure of that at all. Gore was a total pragmatist who never hesitated to ditch a principle for a political expediency. He watched his father lose his senate seat for supporting the Civil Rights Act, and was determined never to make that "mistake" (!!!!!!!!!) himself. The American people wanted Muslim blood, he would have given it to them. Obama "the-left-wing-socialist" has enthusiastically embraced most of the Bush/Cheney/Rice foreign policy. Guantanamo? Patriot Act? Extra-judicial Killings of U.S. Citizens? Expanding the "Security State?" You betcha, no problem. Why on earth would we think that Gore might not have done likewise?

Mainline Dems romanticizing how great the Gore presidency would have been remind me of southerners romanticizing how great the Confederacy would have been.

Robert Mathiesen said...

Angus Wallace wrote:

"I'd love to hear some reasons for learning Latin or Greek versus, say, a modern language, or philosophy, etc. I just feel that my time could be better spent..."

In the spirit of dissensus, I'd like to suggest that no single course of study, no curriculum for either children or adults, can be designed that will suit the needs of everyone. It all depends on what sort of self and what sort of life you are going to craft for yourself. As Theodore Szasz once wrote, "the self is not something one finds, it is something one creates."

In addition to the taste for mathematics that I mentioned in an earlier posting, I happen to have a taste for anything that has been dismissed and forgotten by our modern world, or which our modern world hates to think about -- obsolete crafts, or ancient manuscripts, or obscure languages (or magic!). So for me, it made sense to learn Latin and Greek as well as various modern languages. You may not share that antiquarian taste of mine, so modern languages may suit you far better than Greek or Latin.

However, developing a really high-level competence in a foreign language (whether living or dead) does do something important for any person that even philosophy cannot bring home to a student. The process of truly mastering any foreign language teaches one just how much the language one uses shapes the habitual contours and patterns of one's thoughts. The multilingual speaker has a somewhat different personality from one of his languages to another. In Szasz's terms, your native language constrains the sort of self you are able to craft for yourself. Of course, one can become aware of these constraints and set out to break them deliberately. And that is where a deep philosophical awareness of oneself and one's place in the universe begins. If you learn a living foreign language really well, you have not only a tool for communicating and communing with others, but also a very powerful tool for carrying out the wise old command given long ago at Delphi: "Know yourself!"

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

JM: Just been re-reading 'How It Could Happen', at one sitting this time.

This is off topic for the current post, but I know you moderate comments, and I couldn't find any other channel to reach you, so -- this is it!

Just wanted to say how much I appreciate the story-telling craftmanship shown in your narratives -- the others which I've seen, as well as this one -- which I find very satisfying; but also I wanted to say how much I appreciate also the deep erudition, not just in the history field -- though that seems to me particularly impressive -- but also in a whole bunch of other fields of expertise. And all of this allied to a steadiness and level-headedness of sheer judgement which I find always pretty thin on the ground in any forum of public discourse anywhere.

These ever-present qualities are what keep me coming back faithfully to your posts every week, with constant anticipation. It may have surprised you initially to see the way TAR has taken off and become something of an internet phenomenon, but you know: this level of quality is really quite rare, and lots of people love it and cleave to it when they find it.

Sorry if all this is a bit fulsome-seeming. But I know how toil in cyberspace can often feel like talking hopefully into what sometimes seems like a hard vacuum, and how handy it is when a few voices answer back, to argue sometimes, but particularly to say: "Liked that; appreciate it; thanks man!" Shows that there is actually an audience out there, and that the feedback is probably the tip of a useful-sized iceberg.

Of the steady flow of small, nice points which sprang up to be noticed in my re-reading of 'HICH', one in particular demanded a query: Despite being set sometime in the next two decades, you speak in passing of seven billion people giving thanks that there isn't going to be a nuclear war.

Seven billion? Do you suspect, as I do, that human numbers aren't going to go much higher than where they are now, before the overall global death rate steals silently, undramatically ahead of the overall global birth rate (may actually have done so already, in fact), and some time after that unnoticed reversal, we begin to notice officially that our numbers seem to have started down again -- under pressure of geophysical events and processes over which we have no real control at all?

LLongyfarchiadau a diolch yn fawr am y straeon da iawn! Hwyl fawr JM.

Robert Mathiesen said...

Oops! I see that I wrote "Theodore Szasz." He was actually Thomas Szasz.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Phil Harris,

I may be wrong, but it appears you are referring to the under-utilised skill of observation.

It is interesting and I'm not having a go, but the hewers of wood and fetchers of water that you refer to were actually required by their day to day existence to have a different set of skills to us. For example, the number of plants that they were required to be able to identify and understand the properties of for food/medicinal/other purposes would be mind boggling to ourselves. Different environments, leads to different skill requirements.

Hi everyone,

I'll put this out there because I've seen a theme repeated over the past week or two that should be punctured.

Many people have commented that the family group / kin are a valid and sustainable tribal group. Using observation of nature and of history, this is clearly not the case and I base this viewpoint upon two observations:

- In-breeding is not a sustainable practice and most, if not all cultures treat this practice as a taboo for good reason. A tribe must be made up of a diverse genetic stock in order to be sustainable; and

- Family units promote practices such as nepotism which tends towards poorer outcomes over successive generations. The Chinese have a saying that the first generation makes the money, the second spend the money and the third lament its loss.

Might be something for people to think about when they state that family units are a sustainable and survivable social unit (or tribe). Dunno, but a villages historically were rarely made up from just a single family.



Richard Clyde said...

I've thought some more about what I said above. To make it more concrete, I suspect that one cause of emotional speech invading where reason and thought ought to prevail may be that emotional speech has been dislodged from its own territory. People have a need for emotional exchange and development, and if it's not being met, it will force its way into other sorts of exchange where it doesn't belong-- political reasoning, systems thinking, the classroom, etc. Spiritual needs likewise. Someone who has secure access to venues for talking in the emotional mode will be more likely to calm down and become receptive to critical thinking techniques.

It suggests to me the need for something along the lines of Steiner's threefolding concept. Making space for people to talk about their emotions and be heard intelligently would help ease the pressure on discussion that should be reasoned. It's arguably a necessary correlate to teaching critical thinking skills. This to me is the third factor and way out of the thinking vs. feeling binary.

Thomas Daulton said...

To "lw", I have to echo what Bill Pulliam and 'Robert' have said. It's impossible to prove a hypothetical like that, but the theoretical "Gore-wouldn't-have-done-that" Presidency is one of the weakest, least supportable hypotheticals I have ever heard. First of all, remember who was Gore's VP candidate -- Joe Lieberman, one of the most hawkish politicians of the Empire, who in the time since 2000 has sided with the Republicans on violence issues (as well as corporate/deregulation issues) more times than most people care to count. Doesn't _that_ tell us anything about what a Gore Adminstration would have been like? Also, as explained in this article from the left-leaning American Prospect, which I recommend highly, Al Gore on Wednesday Sept. 12th (like any Democrat in that position) would have faced tremendous pressure from the Republicans to prove he was not soft on defense -- and Al has a history of caving in to such provocations. Al was often one of the most hawkish politicians supporting Clinton's "low-level bombing" and starvation campaign against Iraq anyway. If you imagine this alternate history with both the Republicans and his own VP baying like dogs for Iraqi blood, it seems ludicrous to believe Al would have picked a much different course than George. In fact, the real danger is that Al would have articulated and defended the wars much more eloquently and persuasively than Georgie did, pushing mainstream Dems further and faster down the road to becoming the "me-too-War-party" where we find them today.

To Angus Wallace -- my parents sent me to a Jesuit high school where I chose Latin as my language requirement. Not only did that result in a facility with languages where I can get the gist of what people say in four different modern Romance languages, but it also is a huge help in deciphering scientific and technical terms. It broadens my English vocabulary immensely because I can understand and remember a huge number of obscure or scholarly English words that have their roots in Latin. It's one of the things about high school that I least regret...

Richard Larson said...

And here I was thinking you were running low on buttons to push! After you get done with the electorate, how about putting a whipping on government employees? What would the electorate of Lincoln's age thought/done about them?

Unknown said...

Aren't all claims to reasoned argument just linkages of verbal noise to brute emotion, mediated by varying degrees of abstraction?

Joseph Nemeth said...

JMG -- I think one danger is looking to the past to analyze the present is the tendency to try to go backwards. For instance, to argue that the millworkers of 1860 were better informed critical thinkers than the college-educated of 2012 is possibly true -- to my mind, almost certainly true -- but it makes the implicit argument that we need to somehow "go back" to having educated millworkers (or receptionists or WalMart greeters or whatever equivalence you want to draw.)

The problem is that an overwhelming historical process took us from being smart to being dumb. It didn't happen quickly, and it didn't happen in isolation from other social changes that reinforce and reward dumb over smart. Consequently, you can't wave a "charter school" stick at it and make it go away.

My wife recently went through some medical procedures that brought the whole system into focus for me. Let me digress briefly and come back.

The only real reason for doing business at all is the "intangibles" -- the overall improvement in individual and community quality of life. As a civilization, however, we've become obsessed with the "tangibles," specifically the money, which is the single least-important aspect of business. All business success is now measured strictly in terms of money.

That means that the best business is one which provides cheapened products at high prices; ideally no product at all yet produces large amounts of income. Hence, the financialization of the US economy.

Businesses that have been unable to transform themselves into financial scams and still must deal in hard goods have discovered that mass markets are more profitable than quirky local markets. Marketing to the masses is a bit different from marketing to the quirky locals. The mass market is almost entirely emotional, is driven by price rather than quality, thrives on misinformation, and quickly becomes unshakably brand-loyal.

This is precisely what you are describing in politics.

I don't know if you followed any of the "back-room politics" behind this last presidential campaign, but the people in the back rooms were quants, working with computer models of likely voters and how to entice them to show up for the Fire Sale they were hosting on their candidates on November 6. The 2012 election was strictly a marketing event. Coke beat out Pepsi.

The state-sponsored educational system exists to support the civilization. The primary/secondary system is itself measured in monetary costs versus test scores. The universities are profit-centers. Bothcater to the mass market rather than the quirky local market of what my father used to call "college-educated eggheads," offering cheapened product at the highest prices the market will bear..

I see this as a natural consequence of the success of our imperial aspirations. We have too much, and it all comes too easily, so there is no real need for effort -- only the need to jump through arbitrary social hoops that maintain the difference between the rich and the poor, all of which have nothing to do with critical thinking and everything to do with acquiring patronage.

If that's so, then probably the only solution is to move forward into the inevitable collapse of the imperial system that supports dumb over smart, and returns some natural advantage to those who can think clearly.

Is there any other course forward that doesn't involve collapse? That's my question.

Spirited Raven said...

Dear JMG, I'm not writing you in direct response to your latest blog but, rather, in the modest hope that you'll find the time and in libation to respond to my question. The question is simply this: what difference does any of our efforts make in light of what seem to be increasingly an increasingly foreboding concensus by climate scientists that we are heading to a near term future that spells out extinction for us and much of life on Earth?

NOTE: this comment editor is being particularly uncooperative; not allowing me to go back and change auto-corrected nonsense (libation? Really??) or duplicated words, etc...

Recent talks aired by Kevin Anderson and Guy McPherson on Radio Ecoshock ring some pretty loud alarm bells. I try to digest this in the context of the constructive adaptive strategies you and others promote and none of it jives. Naomi Klien speaks of the small organic farm in the NYC area that was doing all the right things adaptively speaking only to have their place inundated by Sandy's flood waters and realize their soils are now contaminated by the toxic soup's remnants. It seems a parable for the much larger reality that looms. Please give your insight. I trust your point of view. Sincerely, Peter Arena

Robert Mathiesen said...

Unknown wrote"

"Aren't all claims to reasoned argument just linkages of verbal noise to brute emotion, mediated by varying degrees of abstraction?"

No, not at all.

But many people are so wrapped up in their emotions that they can't get beyond feelings.

Also, many people are so addicted to talk and so befuddled by the endless stream of verbiage that they can't get behind the words to look at the non-verbal realities that underlie them. What is real is ineffable; it lies beyond language.

Words get in the way. Feelings get in the way, too.

There is enormous freedom to be had by cultivating silence and stillness.

"Those who speak, know not;
Those who know, speak not."
-- Lao Tze

You can't hear whispers when you're shouting.

Unknown said...

I think it is important to remember that humans are wired to learn. Our body minds are always learning. If we choose to not guide or pay attention to what we learn we learn what someone else wants us to learn. It really does come down to what are you learning today and how will it sever you tomorrow.


I fear that in the world of scarcity that is coming to us, our concept of Democracy will be not applicable because in that world our concept of Individual Freedom will be impossible of maintain.
Example: ¿ Would be possible a democratic society in the Easter Island?
Answer: No because our concept of individual freedom is based in the principle of nonexistence of material limits for the material expansion of the individual. In the Eastern Island, the actions of each person there would been regulated for to avoid the excesive explotation of the natural resources. Equally, the concept of private property too there will be been not affordable.

The concept of Individual Freedom, is a concept that belongs to the past times, Time in wich there wasn´t limits for the grew.

The same happens with the concept of private property, democracy,

ganv said...

It is a very interesting question about how political discourse has changed over time. A recent book documented the "The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush". A key question is whether the more erudite rhetoric of years past was actually effective. It may have been that the function of the erudition of times past was mostly posing...that simpler language would have communicated information and attitudes better, but the people at that time voted for people who impressed them as smart. In our age being smart (or posing as smart) seems to be a'll get labelled an elite who does not understand the people.

If you focus only on whether language is effective for communication, it may well be that Lincoln would have done better with language closer to modern political usage. But it would have amplified the perception that he as a country bumpkin and he would have lost by even more.

Jason said...

This post triggers memories of a couple of years ago when I did a lot of conversing online, heaven help me. I treated fuzzyprickle interlocutors as if they were able to consider rationally with predictably awful results.

One in particular stuck with me. The conversation title: "Has religion done anything good in the world?"

I chimed in to say much charity is organised by religions here in the UK. I was told, "That doesn't make religions a good thing." I pointed out that the subject was whether religion had done anything good, so one good thing it had done yielded the answer yes.

I'll never forget the reply. "According to your thinking," it ran, "Jeffrey Dahmer was a good guy because he was baptised".


Joseph Nemeth said...

Robert - your post got beat up from several angles, and I'm sorry to have to take my own swipe at it, but it's an important point.

Clinton did not "repeal Glass-Steagall." That was done by the 105th congress in 1999, controlled by Republicans after the 1994 "Republican Revolution" that recaptured both the Senate and the House, the House for the first time since 1952. Clinton's only involvement was his failure to veto the Gramm-Leach-Biley Act that repealed Glass-Steagall.

Since we're talking about critical thinking here, there IS a difference between Congress and the Presidency: and critical thinking involves (among other things) making distinctions where there is a difference.

For instance, everyone was worried about whether Romney would or wouldn't raise taxes on the rich. Newsflash: he would do neither. Congress sets the tax rates, not the President. Elect a tax-the-rich President and a tax-the-poor Congress, and the poor will get taxed.

I often see broad-brush diatribes against Republicans or Democrats based on particular events that occur under presidential administrations, that have nothing whatsoever to do with the President, and everything to do with Congress. You cannot blame legislative failures of a Democratic Congress on a Republican President. You cannot blame administrative failures of a Republican President on a Democratic Congress. At least not if you want to pretend to be engaged in critical thinking.

William Clinton had two years of honeymoon with a Democrat-controlled congress, and fought bitterly with a Republican-controlled Congress for the next six years -- which included a full impeachment trial over having engaged in (gasp) sex.

George Bush inherited a Republican-controlled Congress and sailed through six years of rubber-stamping before he faced the Democrat Overthrow in 2006, at which point his administration basically fell apart.

Barack Obama inherited a Democrat-controlled Congress and then tripped over another "Republican Revolution" two years later that gave him the Party of No, and which set as its top national priority preventing Obama from taking a second term.

Robert said...

@Joseph Fair point that was a sloppy use of language on my part. However Glass Steagal was such a vital matter that Clinton's failure to veto it was a gross deriliction of duty.

A Republican President and Democrat Congress might well be better than vice versa.

But part of the reason for the Republican Congress of 2010 was that many people were disillusioned and didn't vote. That's what gave the GOP their majority rather than a huge surge in the GOP vote.

Why were they so disillusioned? Because of Obama's failure to deliver. Obama could have used his campaign mailing list to motivate people to campaign for reforms and lobby their congresscrittur. He could have called for demonstrations down the Mall to counter the Tea Pary. Instead he caved in to the blue dog Dems rather than confront them. There was no equivalent of FDR's fireside chats.

It's a great pity that all the Federal elections don't take place at the same time once every four years. That way you would be less likely to get one party controlling Congress and the other the White House leading to gridlock. Administrations are often unpopular in midterm making it more likely that Congress will change hands.

Anyway the main point stands which is that it is by no means certain that a GOP president will always be so much worse than a blue dog Dem as to make a third party counterproductive. As long as progressives give in to Democratic blackmail and allow the Dems a monopoly of the anti GOP vote I believe it will be much harder to make significant progress.

Marc said...

"Not that long ago, all things considered, Americans were passionate about getting an education, and ensuring that their children got one. What changed?" (JMG)

It seems that, beginning in the 60s, "warm fuzzy" ideologies and ephemeral fashions completely took over the institutions that train the people that educate our children. As this writer notes, there is a pervasive ideology that emotional, spontaneous individualism is more "authentic" and "correct" than the digestion of ideas originating from any other person:

"In 1850 those deficient in schooling knew their deficiencies, and wanted to learn. Today there is an actual preference for ignorance, which is regarded as authentic or democratic and morally superior to knowing anything, which would be elitist."

Why should a functionally-illiterate delinquent aspire to education and self-improvement if every rotting, former standard-bearing institution in society says there is no need for education because the starting condition of ignorance is "authentic" and superior? (For example, observe the ideological preoccupation among educators in the inner city to "connect to their world" or "embrace street smarts" and contrast this with the rigorous highbrow acculturation and education in urban immigrant schools before WWII.)

Note how frequently the term "elitist" is used to deem any careful intellect as highly suspicious, as well as to dismiss any highbrow practice/behavior as evil. I.e.: vulgar people are implicitly told that they are already 'perfect' and that education that would corrupt this "ideal' or "authentic" condition would be quite wrong. Note also the contemporary obsession with emotional "creativity" and impulsive "originality" in favor of the traditional practice of studying precedent, structure, logic, and order.)

Basically our children aren't learning anything because they're not actually being taught anything! They're simply trained to rely on spur-of-the-moment emotion because this is supposedly "authentic." A previous commenter protested that humans are not robots and will always have an emotional element: Absolutely, but reining in emotions (acknowledging when they might begin to distort behavior and responding in kind) is something that everyone still should do (this is the old highbrow lesson of impulse control, basically, now utterly politically incorrect).

geovermont said...

I mistakenly sent the following comment to JMG's essay from December 5 entitled "Consuming Democracy" (I'm new at blog posting). I meant to send the comments here.

In Vermont we may still have some of the skills needed for effective local democracy, although they are certainly atrophying a bit. Most towns in Vermont still hold an annual meeting each March. The voters of the town assemble and spend a few hours working through an agenda, approving a series of articles that center mostly on the town budget, Town officers are also elected at that time (this is done by an all-day balloting rather than by a floor vote). The Town Meetings here are still somewhat functional, although the level of discourse does sometimes descend to the level of internet blogs and unfortunately most of the big decisions that effect us get made in Montpelier or Washington or a corporate headquarters. It does, however, give us some practice at group decision-making. From these meetings I know what it's like to rise from my seat and face my neighbors and try to make a cogent argument in a short amount of time. I get practice at listening to people I disagree with. I've also learned what it's like to have my great idea voted down and yet to still work hard to be civil to my opponents, who may well support me at another time. This ancient system actually does still work and I hope we here in Vermont can find it within ourselves to keep the old system functioning.

JMG, the adult education idea sounds like a very important one and I'm looking forward to seeing what you have to say. The suggestion made in the comments to find a way to distribute the best of the old texts is a good one. Dover Books has indeed served for many decades as the prime source for many old classics in science, math, technology, and many other fields.

I'll toss out one example of a fine, not very old book that is useful for self-instruction. My vote for the best calculus is not, however a Dover Book; Sylvanus P. Thompson and Martin Gardner's Calculus Made Easy (St. Martins Press, 1998) is a revision of Thompson's old classic from 1910. Very clearly written and quite a comprehensive treatment of elementary calculus.

I would encourage those interested in this sort of revival of the texts to use, but do not depend on, the electronic media and the internet. If things go seriously awry, we're not going to be surfing any web and actual books would be incredibly valuable.

John Michael Greer said...

LW, nah, any viable third party would have to argue that there isn't two cents worth of difference between the existing parties, and build its own following on that basis. I think it could be done. As for Gore, no, we don't know that he would have been any better than Dubya. I know that's heresy to utter, but that's my call.

Justin, whatever the deficits of East Asian educational systems, they don't graduate people from high school who are functionally illiterate, more than functionally innumerate, completely ignorant of history, never exposed to any of the significant literature and art of their own culture, and unable to find their hometowns on a map. The US system does this quite routinely. That was the point I was trying to make; critical thinking only flourishes on the foundation of an adequate general education.

Pitchfork, an interesting speculation.

Cherokee, it'll be interesting to see whether they exercise their atrophied thinking skills, or just sit there whining until they starve. I'd give even odds.

Angus, dissensus rules here as always. If you don't find an ancient language useful, learn something else.

Jason, I did indeed read Passages About Earth back in the day. I should revisit that when time permits.

Phil, remember that I'm writing about America here. That being said, we had close equivalents of the corresponding societies and working class self-help projects, and I'm also looking at them as potential models.

Chris, nah, you've misread my terms. What defines democracy is indeed one of a narrow range of specific systems, in which the people have the right to choose and dispose of specific officials. It's not a system that works in every situation, nor in every culture, but I was explicitly discussing the US, you know.

Rhisiart, I expect collapsing public health and an assortment of other factors to cut into population growth with increasing force in the years ahead of us, making seven or eight billion a plausible top figure. I could be off by a billion or so, but we're already seeing a flattening of the growth curve, and I'd guess that this will accelerate in the years immediately ahead.

Richard, that's a fascinating suggestion, and deserves more study and exploration.

Andrew H said...

Nonsense. Democracy is not about unfettered individual freedom. It is all about government (ie setting the rules and regulations individuals operate under) by the people themselves or at least by their elected representatives.
If limits on individual actions or freedom are imposed, then as long as those limits were decided by a majority of the population then it is still Democracy as we understand and define it today, no matter how severe those limits are.

John Michael Greer said...

Richard, they're a popular whipping boy just now, but I don't have anything significant to say about them, so no.

Unknown, no, they're not. It's possible to come to a reasoned conclusion you don't like and wish you didn't have to accept, and that shows that there's something going on in reasoning that isn't simply a matter of warm fuzzies and cold pricklies.

Joseph, we can't avoid collapse because it's already happening. This is what collapse looks like. Thus my answer to your question is no -- and of course we can't "go back" in a simplistic sense, nor was I suggesting we should.

Spirited, the apocalyptic end of climate change predictions aren't a consensus; they're from one end of a highly politicized scientific field. That anthropogenic climate change is happening is not in question, but the scare-stories remind me all too much of the heavily marketed "nuclear winter" scenario, another highly political claim, which has since been discredited.

We don't know what the climate is going to do. Since we don't, doesn't it make sense to take whatever steps you can here and now, instead of sitting around waiting for a grand political movement to fix things? The fact that one organic farm was in the wrong place at the wrong time doesn't make the whole organic project fit for the scrapheap -- though it's exactly the sort of anecdote that feeds those who want to insist that following their political crusade is more important than changing your own life.

Unknown, I think you probably meant to write "how it will serve you tomorrow," but it was an inspired typo. Other than that, agreed.

Anselmo, did you read my response to your earlier comment? "Freedom" does not necessarily equal "freedom to consume," you know.

Ganv, the supposition that audiences in the 19th century were simply being wowed by big words seems remarkably arrogant to me. I'd encourage you to read textbooks from the period, and see what level of diction ordinary schoolchildren were expected to master as a matter of course.

Jason, that's priceless.

Marc, that matches my analysis of the situation, for whatever that's worth.

John Michael Greer said...

Geovermont, of course you're quite right: the surviving town meetings are a vestige of democracy worth studying and learning from.

Spirited Raven said...

What you thought was a conversation was, in fact, you interrupting someone having an argument with themselves! :)

Jeannette Sage said...

After lurking for a long time, I finally feel I can contribute something sensible to the discussion.
I used to be a teacher of French, before we came to the United States for my husband's work (2007, yes, I am one of those "legal immigrants", spoken of in last week's comments).
French is basically a different language than English, because it is built on a system, derived from Latin. This system contains grammar and logic. Therefore, to truly be able to speak and understand French, one has to learn grammar. To truly understand French culture, one also has to study grammar, because the logic of grammar is the logic of the culture. French is punctual. French is intellectual. French is philosophical. France is maybe the only country where you can say with pride, if people ask you what you do for a living: "Je suis un intellectuel", whereupon many doors will open for you!
I used to teach French and English to young students in a Waldorf school, when we still lived in Europe (Netherlands). It was remarkable to see how dyslectic children were either fond of English (auditive) or French (logical), but hardly of the two together, because the languages required different learning skills. (And of course, some dyslectic children were not fond of languages at all, but spread out talents in math, entrepreneurship, art or architecture.)
In the US, I was at first impressed by the French textbook my eldest daughter needed for class. But soon, I realised it was not properly used, if used at all. I started to doubt the quality of the lessons. My daughter did French at AP-level on one of the, presumably, best high schools in Massachusetts. She brought home the final AP-exam, so that I could see what it was like. There were more than sixty mistakes in the questions formulated by the teacher, all grammatical or spelling mistakes. That is when we had proof that American top education was mythical. We also investigated universities for her, in this country, in Canada, and in Europe. We looked at internet ranking lists (biased towards American universities) and visited several, among them Berkeley in California ("Here, we will teach you everything about competitiveness and leadership"), McGill in Montréal, Dalhousie in Halifax, the University of Edinburgh, and the one my daughter would choose: the University of York, England. The level of the Environmental Science department in this modest university is remarkably high, but no big fuss is made of it. The professor stated it as follows: "At this department, we mainly potter about", which was a very British understatement for the best labs one could wish for, the highest amount of international connections and a great international student body, mainly from Europe and Asia. My daughter is specialising in soils, which must give great joy to some of the commentators here - I am thinking of Cherokee Organics in particular -.

Both my husband and I have enjoyed our education at universities in the Netherlands. After six years of old-style French lessons in secondary school, I studied the language at university, which added three more years of profound education. We had grammar three times a week, spelling twice, and got lots of homework. Looking back on those years, it was blood, sweat and tears. But I loved it. And the result is that I am free to build whatever discourse I wish, on whichever topic, be it in writing or speech, and use the correct verb conjugations. I understand French thought and reasoning, and can even quarrel in French!
In this country, I have refused to teach, because I felt I had to compromise too much. I miss it, but a time will come when I can pick it up again, dust it off and do what I always loved to do, for students who appreciate it.

Joseph Nemeth said...

JMG -- Okay, I'm not following something pretty basic in this conversation. Maybe you can clarify.

I'll confess that I often read your post, then the comments, and the result is sometimes a muddle of what you and what other people have said. Let's go back to a direct quote from your post:

"That’s among the many reasons why devising a framework for adult education outside the grip of the current American education industry is one of the most pressing needs of the decade or two right ahead of us."

This is a pressing need? Why? I don't understand.

I think we're in full agreement that "this is what collapse looks like." It isn't that the educational system tripped over a rock and brought everything down. The educational system doesn't teach critical thinking because critical thinking isn't valued: there is no reward within the empire for learning this skill, and no punishment for failing to do so. If anything, the rewards and punishments are reversed. [ref: see Donald Trump.]

I don't see that changing in the next decade or two, and I don't think you've implied that it will. We're at Hubbert's Peak right now, meaning oil is plentiful. Fracking is going to happen -- combined with government subsidies overt and covert, it will keep the price of oil low for at least another decade. There will be no place within the empire to exercise critical thinking in the next decade or two: no more so than there is now, and probably much less.

So what is this preparing for? At what point in the collapse does critical thinking suddenly come back into vogue, and why is the next decade or two so important?

We could found Schools of Critical Thinking right now. I don't see where the students would come from.

William Rae said...

An introductory course in Philosophy should give a student a working knowledge of standard and logical forms of arugment. It should also teach the basic criteria to judge arguments with; validty; soundness; strength; cogency and so on. It is the art of reducing rhetoric down to it's simplest form in pursuit of fact. It's the reason third year Philosophy and Mathmatics university courses share text books on logic, at least in Australia.

Search for Standard and Logical forms. A is A is an example of such logic.

Yvonne Rowse said...

Marc & JMG
I think that the problem goes somewhat deeper than our children not experiencing classical education. In my experience very young children learn easily. You have to work hard to stop them, but we generally do stop them. Primary education that is effectively childcare and crowd control will do the job nicely.
My children learned at home for their first ten and eight years. We spent a lot of time not doing formal schoolwork. They asked a lot of questions and I tried to help them find the answers. It wasn't easy and I can't see how you could do this effectively with a class of thirty. We read a lot of books and did a lot of things together.
They went to (a Steiner) school later so that they could meet other children and make friends as rural Worcestershire was not full of homeschooling families. Both are now at university and working hard to achieve what they want to. Neither demonstrates any cynicism about learning, so popular in school-taught children for the reasons noted in the John Taylor Gatto book mentioned earlier.
Of course there is no easy answer for bulk education. I had enough money available to be able to spend time with my children. I spent a lot of time reading and researching myself, which provided a model for them. Education by conversation is very time consuming and resource intensive but I would contend that if you want adults to be life-long learners, assisting them in self-directed learning as children works very well.

phil harris said...

@Cherokee Organics
Hi Chris
Thanks for your observation!
I am very struck by our ability to learn and retain a working slice of reality in mental form – such as specific knowledge & practised skill derived from observation, with insight and mental and motor skills handed on from skilled others.

The examples I gave were all ancient ones, but a modern one might be the Wright brothers building their air-frames and control surfaces. I think of them lying on the structure, head-on to the steady laminar airflow over the salt-flats, learning to warp the wing.

Outstandingly, these examples contained no 'illogic'. If they had then they would not have worked!

The ‘logic’ though of large highly interactive systems or ecologies of course, is something else.
best regards

Cherokee Organics said...


You are undoubtedly correct.

The responses of people to natural disasters here, is as good a litmus test as any and it sadly correlates with your opinion.

We're getting closer to the summer solstice and the sun is only just now starting to set at about 9.05pm here. The bats are flying through the trees chasing the insects / moths and you only get the chance to see them because they're silhouetted against the orange/yellow/cobalt setting sun. You can hear the bats and owls calling at night when the air is still and the moon is out, but they are really hard to spot.

For all this talk about democracy, I've been thinking about co-operation and a group accepting predefined limits, but perhaps it is easier to just let nature set those as an independent arbiter? Dunno, really. Your suggestion many moons ago of reading up on ecology has changed my worldview and gives me far less places to hide and/or prevaricate.

PS: We received about an inch of rain over the past week which was gratefully accepted and the place is looking greener and the tanks refilled a bit too (about 7,500 litres collected).

PPS: I opened the garden here for the first time ever this evening and it was lovely connecting with all of the people that turned up to have a look. It is amazing how much knowledge is spread around the community. The wallaby even turned up for a special guest appearance too!



Richard Larson said...

Well, my brain went wild there for a bit. I went from the electorate to the politicians to government employees - with the line of reasoning you postulated in the essay. Just for the sake of being more aware of the current crop of US government employees. They have salaries and authority very high on the historical scale. People in government positions need to get jacked up. Heck, the EPA can't even stop a the USS Badger from dumping coal ash into a precious fresh water lake. And I can tell you some personal stories about doing solar assessments at their big McMansions in the countryside, but they still would rather buy new cars and go on vacation, than reduce their standards.. Yes, its a given these positions will slowly erode over the Long Descent, but my opinion is this part of the population needs your attention too!

As I think more deeply about this, government employees in general have side-stepped the prickly fuzzies altogether. Think about it for a year or two...

Jason said...

I think what Marc is saying deserves a lot of thought, and Richard Clyde as well.

It seems that, beginning in the 60s, "warm fuzzy" ideologies and ephemeral fashions completely took over the institutions that train the people that educate our children.

It happened here too, and it ruined us. In Europe ideologies weren't all warm/fuzzy either -- you can use "cold prickly" just as well for this. Simply tar whatever "holds back natural humanity" with the cold prickly brush.

The extreme left wing of May '68 in France set up a Rousseauish rhetoric about the repression of the natural. Nothing good could happen without dynamite to blow away the bad dead structures. It went beyond taking a good idea too far -- it became an ideocratic orthodoxy. Anything a dead white male had invented, such as thinking, and history, was seen as something shovelled on top of minds to stop them working properly.

The irony is that if you use such ideas the right way, they are excellent ideas. So much modern psychology confirms what JMG put forward in his series on magic -- to bring out a real person you need to bring out an identity separate from the social one.

That got warped into an attempt to inaugurate the perfect groupmind that cultivates an actualised human being automatically. A millennium. We didn't vote for communism but we felt the wind. If you were against it, you weren't committed enough. You were the problem. There's still plenty of this around here, I see it in many of the student protests about higher education ironically. Nothing like thinking you're right to halt the process of thinking.

There was real desperation in it. And it was often driven by environmental considerations -- we've screwed the world up, therefore whatever got us here was bad. Even thinking itself could be bad.

I think of Carl Rogers, who did everything right when it comes to bringing humans out of their shells and making them think about who they are in an atmosphere of trust. He was quite correct that this is a "natural" process, if it's encouraged to take place, and that such encouragement is never automatically forthcoming in a society -- you need to set aside time to develop the human.

And his ideas are extremely helpful for the kinds of thing Richard Clyde is mentioning too, the ability to have a real arena for feeling which helps thought. Somehow all that got warped into, everything we've used to built all we have was just an attempt to repress.

It never got quite as bad as the Chinese cultural revolution, but on a deep level I often was really distressed at this stuff without ever being able to put my finger on it. So many teachers just accepted it. Deep down it was driven by a sense that the culture had already failed, I think, and these men and women who were supposed to tell us how to live were actually washing their hands of that business and saying, you ignorant kids know more than us in your pristineness.

druidgarden said...

I think that some of us within the system of higher education (namely, those teaching rhetoric and logic courses, among others) are still doing so from the standpoint of civic participation. In fact, civic engagement and democratic participation remains, at its core, the reason that most universities keep a general education curriculum (despite substantial pressure from vocationally-oriented students to change it). The problem with higher ed, though, is that few of these classes exist, and even fewer are sought by students willingly (I know, I teach some of them). I don't blame this entirely on higher ed, but rather the larger system that places monetary gain as sacred over all else. How am I, in a short 15 week semester, supposed to shift students' thinking about rhetoric and democracy in ways that have been ingrained in them since they were old enough to speak? Its a tough order, to say the least.

You are right about developing alternative means to educate our citizenry (especially as access to higher education becomes more and more restricted).

Stu from Rutherford said...

Rhisiart and JMG,
In case you did not see this article, a recent study claims a significant drop in life expectancy for white high school dropouts in the U.S. over the last generation:

So it's begun. Not much shakes my equilibrium these days but this one did.

Zach said...

Completely off-topic for the week, but feel free to put this through if it helps you flog another one of your books. :)

I see that certain Chivalry Bookshelf authors have received product and republishing rights back in a recent settlement. Does that mean there is any good news about your Thibault translation? It's on my short list of fencing works I'd like to purchase, but I've been holding off as I don't really want to be dealing in stolen property.




I´m sorry, I have not explained well in my message. I´m trying to say that the reinforcing of ecological limits will reduce the freedom of the individuals for to create richness.

The rules for to respect the ecological limits will be established for experts in sustainability, and no for democratic decision.

ganv said...

Arrogant is a strong charge...and it is hard to see how it applies to the case in question. One could just as well say it is arrogant for a historian to claim that previous generations had greater capacity for serious arguments than the present one. The question is simply to interpret a fact...that political rhetoric has declined in sophistication over time. Any my hypothesis seems almost certain to be part of the answer... that people came away with a less comprehensive understanding of what was said in the past than the speakers hoped. It is definitely a fact that erudite rhetoric in a modern college lecture hall leads to students impressed by the professor who nevertheless can't use most of the ideas for themselves.

Robert Mathiesen said...

@ Joseph Nemeth:

JMG chooses his words carefully. He wrote about "devising a framework for adult education outside the grip of the current American education industry." Of course, he will correct me if I have misunderstood him, but I did not read this as a careless way of urging us to develop an alternate *system* of adult education within the next decade or so, or even to set up alternate schools. A "framework" is not yet a system, much less is it actual institutions. It is not too soon to start working on a "framework," I think.

Before we start devising alternate schools for adult learners, or even establishing any kind of system for such schools, in our age of ever greater deindustrialization, we should have a serious, deeply thoughtful conversation about such things as the following (in no particular order):

(1) which adults will these schools try to serve, and which adults will reject their offerings, and why?

(2) since it is impossible to serve all the varied needs and desires of would-be adult learners with finite resources, which learners should be the focus of a given school's service, and why these particular would-be learners rather than some other learners?

(3) what things should these schools teach, and what things should they refuse to teach even if there should be a strong adult demand for them, and why?

(5) is there a clear order and progression to some or all of the courses that such schools should offer (in which case the courses will form a coherent curriculum), and why or why not?

and so forth.

Who wants to start this conversation now?

Joseph Nemeth said...

Robert -- I'm stuck a step before having that discussion.

I'm asking: of what possible use is "critical thinking" during an imperial decline of the sort we are discussing here? I'm not insisting there isn't one: I'm saying that if there is, I don't understand what it is.

I personally value critical thinking. I prefer it to warm fuzzy/cold prickly rhetoric. I understand its utility in the sciences, and any kind of honest search for truth. I understand and appreciate its role in sustaining a democracy or a democratic republic.

I'm asking what relevance it will have in the US during the process of decline. Meaning right now.

What we have now, politically, cannot rightly be called a democracy or a republic. It's more like a mass of muscle tissue without a brain or nervous system, manipulated with electric shocks administered by competing marketing consultants through television.

You cannot apply critical thinking to subjects on which you have no information. A case in point that has come up several times: GITMO. Obama was elected to close it. He reneged. Why? We don't know. We will likely never know. So is Obama a traitorous weasel, or is he protecting our interests as a nation? We don't know. We can make either case, depending on what facts we are willing to make up.

This is what decline looks like. It isn't going to turn around. It's going to worsen.

So why put a priority on teaching critical thinking skills? It seems to me more valuable to create superstitious religious enclaves dedicated to conserving information that future generations will rediscover during the building phase of some future civilization. Sort of like what the Irish monasteries and the Islamic world did for the ancient Pagan writings. There's no need for the monks and clerics to understand any of the stuff they're copying, so long as they copy it faithfully.

JMG is in fact a careful writer, so I'm assuming I've missed something basic. I'm asking what it is.

morenewyorknews said...

I think i am forced to comment on this post because subject is very close to my heart.I work in field of education and I know what is happening.
Since i work in engineering sciences,my grasp of western philosophy is nil.I just started reading Plato,Socrates and found them very useful in day to day life.And i didn't even study my home grown philosophers from Vedanta but they have a different aim than western philosophy.
The only contribution i can make here is:The spirit has gone out of education systems of east.Take it from me.
Our schools never never teach critical thinking and it is forbidden to ask tough questions to teachers.The school system is so focused on grades/percentages that student score 95-100% but usually lack all skills(verbal,analytical,communication).Most of the students pass out without firm grasp of any subject except maths and science.And nobody knows civics,democracy because we already know democracy practiced here is just continuation of Mughal empire + English empire.
Most of my students give up their lucrative jobs here and go to US to study for their masters degree.I usually tell them don't leave your jobs but who listens to teacher?

Johan said...


Last week, I said I think modern media and IT tools make it harder to build democracy than older tools did, and you replied that they certainly make it easier to make a lot of noise. Of course they do - remember that information in the technical sense has nothing to do with meaning and that the maximum amount of information is actually to be found in pure noise. It's therefore just natural that the Information Age looks indistinguishably like the Age of Random Noise!

It seems clear enough that these tools affect our ability to think. One factor is the impact on attention. TV and computers easily entice the attention away from present reality and all its messiness, and building real democracy means dealing with messiness. There's also the thaumaturgy-friendly effects of multitasking.

Still, I've come to think that the modern IT tools influence not just how (or how well) we think but what we think, or can think, as well. As Owen Barfield wrote, depth and accuracy of expression are polar opposites, and by focusing exclusively on the one pole we inevitably weaken both until we end up with fuzzy thinking about nothing much. TV and computers force us to focus on accuracy (or structure) - they accept any meaning as long as it's formatted in the right way.

None of this is inevitable, of course, but countering it does require a sustained effort to engage with meaning. Something along the lines of the mystery schools' introductory work.

Being of the ironic generation, I suppose it's fitting that I'm not at all sure that I managed to express myself accurately in the above...

By the way, I'm hoping for a comeback in your upcoming series of the themes in "Salvaging Learning". I think you touched on very fundamental issues there.

The Watchman? said...


Obviously you're wrong ;-)

Robert Mathiesen said...

Joseph Nemeth wrote:

"I'm asking: of what possible use is 'critical thinking' during an imperial decline of the sort we are discussing here? I'm not insisting there isn't one: I'm saying that if there is, I don't understand what it is."

When the process is over and the population of North America has shrunk down to 20-30 million, most of us will have no living direct descendents. The game will be over for us and for our personal DNA. Nothing we can ever do, no system of anything we can ever devise, will change that grim truth.

So the only "stake" we will have in that future is an immaterial one: what heritage can we leave to those who will come after us, but who are not of our flesh and blood except insofar as we and they are human?

My own answer is to pass on the parts I most value of our present intellectual heritage, to insure as best I can that it can be preserved through the very dark intervening centuries. The best way, I think, is an underground, secretive network of wise men and women, inclined always to subvert whatever paradigm is dominant at the moment and weaken whatever coercive institutions of consensus that our species will have built. It is within that framework of long-term subversion that critical thinking comes into its own.

Robert Mathiesen said...

@Joseph Nemeth again:

I was pressed for time when I wrote my previous post, and probably was not as clear as I like to be. So here's more of the answer you asked for, as I see things -- put a little more bluntly than I usually like to do.

(1) When the going gets rough (and it's mostly been rough throughout human history) our species' instinct seems to be to band together, form a hierarchy, and obey whoever climbs to the top of the hierarchy. It's been an extremely successful instinctive strategy, as our current multi-billion population count shows. It feels safe and yields a lot of group security.

But it has its major downside, too, namely the population growth that comes from its very success -- which is what we're experiencing now. So a top priority, as I see things, is to challenge that instinct whenever it kicks in, to subvert it at its root. That kind of fundamental subversion is pretty much always a job for a network of otherwise unconnected individuals or small groups of individuals, working in secret, with stealth and subtlety. One of the most effective weapons of this sort of subversion have the ability to nurture critical thinking in others. Another is to make all kinds of non-conformity look sexy and powerful. A taste for dissensus helps a lot also.

(2) The point isn't to keep as many people alive as possible. (Neither is it to kill people.) The point is something entirely different, namely, to insist on certain things that go beyond the lives and deaths of individual people AND also thwart our natural instinct that says, "Increase and multiply" at any cost. Instead, we should be able to think hard about what we are doing whenever that instinct kicks in.

(3) As for lack of information, what we do know -- to build on your example -- is that Obama is nothing more than a human being like the rest of us, which means he is no better and no worse than most of us. (No leader ever is.)

That is enough information to think critically about (a) what Obama is up to, treason or statesmanship, and (b) what sense there is, if any, of asking whether his decision to keep GITMO open is right or wrong, wise or foolish. Questions of that sort are relatively short-range ones, and they assume (perhaps unconsciously) it will be business as usual in the US a hundred years from now, so that GITMO might somehow ultimately matter to us and our descendents. It won't, not when 95% of us and our descendants are dead without further issue, and gardening has become far more important than politicking.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Jeanette,

Pottering about is a favourite past-time here too! hehe! Thanks.

Hi Phil,

Thanks. Ecologies are mind-bogglingly complex with a lot of randomness thrown in for good measure.

Hi Joseph,

Quote: "It's more like a mass of muscle tissue without a brain or nervous system, manipulated with electric shocks administered by competing marketing consultants through television."

This perspective is true only if you consider yourself to be a victim of the machinations of the system.

It would be far more productive to ask yourself, "What do you personally benefit from the system?" Before you jump up and down and froth at the mouth, consider whether you are better off in your current system than as a civilian in the Northern part of the Republic of Mali.

If you still feel strongly about television then I suggest some quiet time - perhaps in a natural environment?

Quote: "So why put a priority on teaching critical thinking skills?"

Well, you also claim that it is impossible to exercise critical thinking skills without further information. Perhaps it may be wise to provide our host the courtesy of giving us more information before leaping to conclusions?



SophieGale said...

I know we are at the end of the week and a lot of people won't see this, so I will put it on Green Wizards, too. Chelsea Green publishes Donnella Meadows' Limits to Growth and Thinking in Systems. Right now you can get 35% off with the magic code: CGFL12

"Keep in mind that the last day for you to get holiday orders in is Thursday December 20th, as we will be closed for inventory from December 21st to January 2nd."

Joseph Nemeth said...


Perhaps it's just the time-scale that's confusing me.

JMG outlined one fictional scenario that could bring about the dissolution of the US fairly quickly -- blind hubris resulting in a resounding military beating -- and that could put us on an accelerated program.

My own sense of this is a much slower decline. I don't think I'll live to see the end of the Age of Oil. My children might, and my grandchildren very likely will. So long as oil reigns, our inflated standard of living will persist -- again, barring a catastrophic fold in our destiny. That will almost certainly cover the next two decades that are the subject of my question.

Anyone who actually wants an education in critical thinking right now can easily obtain one. There are plenty of excellent books, and reprints of all the classics, from Aristotle to pick-your-contemporary-logician. Go to any university and take two years of physics. Take a course in formal logic. It's all out there.

The problem is that the general culture does not value critical thinking, and the powers-that-be benefit from its absence. There are no social forces available to push people to get such an education, on their own initiative or through state compulsion.

I don't see that reversing in the next twenty years. In particular, I see no possibility of applying critical thinking to the “democracy” of the next twenty years. The vast majority of US Americans think they are currently engaged in democracy by watching one of the presidential debates and voting. They don't need no stinkin' thinkin'. The few who try to think about candidates and issues are faced with misinformation, disinformation, no information, and their numbers aren't even big enough to be called “negligible.”

Even on the local level -- especially on the local level -- a huge number of people think that “democracy” means getting involved so that you can look out for your own interests, and screw everyone else.

Once we get down the peak to where we can no longer hide the rising costs, we move into a more practical kind of living, where practical thinking takes the place of both critical and emotional thinking. It doesn't take a lot of thinking to relearn survival skills. You watch the guy next to you get blown up trying to make black powder, and you say, "Don't do that." You watch him get trampled by a horse and you say, "Don't do that either." Enough people survive this hard-knocks education to create a body of lore that is simply learned from childhood, passed right along with mythology and superstition. Again, I don't see a lot of need (or more importantly, desire) for "critical thought" in this phase.

As oil shuts down, it's going to be very hard on the US. We visited northern Spain a few years ago, and they still have all the Medieval layout and infrastructure. The towns are small, and within walking distance of each other. Outside the towns, population densities are low, with lots of land for growing and raising food. The entire landscape is littered with horrios which were at one time used to keep stored food from the rats. They've been retasked to store bicycles and old dressers, but they could be easily turned back into food storage. Houses provide shelter from the elements using local, renewable resources for heat, and are built do last generations. People wear wool as a matter of course, and are accustomed to walk several miles down the mountain to church on Sunday.

Here, we're facing a much more radical retooling. I don't think that's going to be as horrible as some think -- in some ways, it will be a lot of fun, though also terribly hard work, and accompanied by a lot of death -- but it will certainly absorb a huge amount of our efforts for at least a couple of generations.

No cabal of critical thinkers is going to outlive that. Better to preserve the books?

Jeannette Sage said...

Hi Cherokee,

Thank you for the videos you have put on the internet, showing the world what you are doing. I am quite impressed with your work.

Hi Keith,

Thank you for the link to the logical fallacies poster. I have ordered one for the school of my youngest.

Robert Mathiesen said...

@ Joseph Nemeth:

Well, we'll just have to disagree then, and time will tell which parts of your viewpoint hold up, which parts of mine.

I certainly agree that we're talking about different time-scales, many centuries versus many decades. I also agree that we have to preserve the books. But we also have to preserve the training that goes into learning how to read such books, and that's not a simple thing at all.

As for "cabals of critical thinkers" and how long they might survive to propagate their doctrines, consider how the Freemasons have lasted for more than 400 years, likewise the Rosicrucians (for only slightly less long) and the Odd Fellows. Each followed a rather different strategy for survival, but each has lasted long enough (so far) for my purposes.

phil harris said...

Thanks for ‘phatic’ bubbles!

Has there been a rise of the bullying sub-structure in American schooling? I think you are right to put early experience of bullying as a seminal influence in social behaviour. Bullying was automatic in my father's elementary school circa 1910 in England: inaugural words; “What’s your name? Can you fight Harris-ee?” wallop! Some argue that behavioural or educational failure in our British schools, or even street-tribalism for children especially in our mega-cities, can be put down to the removal or abnegation of 'authority' and/or a lack of a proper understanding of 'original sin'; though I do not buy those explanations. Top-down brutal beatings by staff were the rule in 1910, and ‘public’ physical intimidation and punishment of 7 - 11 year olds was common enough even in my day circa 1950. I read just the other day that bullying, especially of and among women, is reported still to be widespread in our British armed forces.

Many areas of our British society do better than that, though, and a decline of fear of educational disadvantage (e.g. of making spelling mistakes, or of revealing our ‘improper’ dialect speech patterns and accents) and fewer 'cap doffing' requirements, have enabled many to overcome their diffidence. (Some of us used to look to Americans for examples of free and confident speaking out! I can remember agreeing with a Dutch colleague what a revelation it had been to hear American visiting scientists deliver extempore scientific papers, where we had been crippled by our lack of what in essence was appropriate social confidence.) What is still lacking for many of us though is the confidence to look for knowledge and truer versions of our predicaments. (The ‘British Empire’ was and still remains for some, a serious impediment to any relevant historical narrative. Many of us by now it seems have no narrative at all.)

We are every bit as subject to the same manipulative advertisement, public relations, moral panics and 'opinions' I guess as you in the USA; and probably just as isolated in our minimal 'phatic' bubbles as we float between school and shopping and our suburban nuclei. Even work, when we have it, where everything can be glibly justified by 'bottom-line' imperatives, seems for many to leave little room for joint thought and revision; - no ‘polis’ - and fosters more often perhaps an ill-tempered fatalism or a spell-bound consensus. (I was lucky in my work to be mentored at a critical time and in turn to be able to foster autonomous skill and knowledge-seeking in colleagues. It was that kind of work.)

Occasionally we get a break. Recently in Britain, the wonders of young athletes, including our own spectacular mixed-race woman as well as a son of an ‘asylum-seeker’ and one large and painfully modest red-haired young man, despite all the hype, in a two week break in the rotten weather this summer when the mass-transit systems worked effectively for an expanded ordinary London; these gave our British sentimentality a chance to live again and recover in our imaginations some British identity, and to discover for us perhaps something of more universal relevance. I even felt it up here in my often grumpy and dystopian old-age.

Singing in choirs, outbursts of flower-giving for dead children; sometimes the pent emotions overflow or find a new and more affirmative channel, and true innocence in the faces of elementary school children shame our rationalisations.