history: older than it looks

If you’re reading this blog, you probably have already seen Rick Perlstein’s posts on Box 722. If you haven’t, they’re fascinating and you should go read them. I was struck by this statement in the second post:

One thing to observe: over and over again, the Chicago Southwest Siders protesting open housing repeat a variant of the resident on 71st Street who averred that Congress “cannot legislate morals or love.” The reason this is fascinating was that this was one of Barry Goldwater’s constant refrains on the campaign trail in 1964 for why he didn’t vote for the civil rghts act. Like most everywhere else, not many people on the Southwest Side of Chicago voted for Barry Goldwater. But clearly they heard what they had to say, and took it to heart, and repeated it verbatim two years later. It’s a fascinating lesson in the mysterious ways political messages take hold.

But while the letter-writers might have been influenced by Goldwater, the message itself has a longer history. My guess is that the general claim that it’s not possible to legislate morality could be traced to some dead political theorist; in the context of segregation it shows up in the majority opinion in Plessy vs. Ferguson:

The argument also assumes that social prejudices may be overcome by legislation, and that equal rights cannot be secured to the negro except by an enforced commingling of the two races. We cannot accept this proposition. If the two races are to meet upon terms of social equality, it must be the result of natural affinities, a mutual appreciation of each other’s merits and a voluntary consent of individuals…. Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish distinctions based upon physical differences, and the attempt to do so can only result in accentuating the difficulties of the present situation.

[Quoted in Charles Payne, “”The Whole United States Is Southern!”: Brown v. Board and the Mystification of Race”, which is worth reading, here.]

the Atlantis mythly

Let’s not get carried away. The scientists discovered no traces of human habitation in the Lost City, let alone a Patrick-Duffy-lookalike sub-species of homo sapiens, but it must be more than a coincidence that they discovered something deep under the Atlantic that looked to them like a ‘lost city’ in a place known as ‘Atlantis’. Perhaps some time from the ninth to the seventh century BC, some ancient Phoenicians had got blown adrift as they tried to circumnavigate Africa and someone had fallen overboard and been sucked down to the deepest depths by a freak current during a freak tsunami, and had briefly seen the white chimneys and imagined it was a lost city, his imagination somewhat disorientated by the intravenous bubbles of the bends.

Perhaps with his last gasp, this hypothetical Phoenician deep-sea-diver-despite-himself had described what he had seen to his shipmates, and they had passed the information on to the Egyptians, who wrote it up in hieroglyphs. And perhaps the Egyptians had passed it on to Solon of Athens (flourished c.600 BC), and perhaps Solon had passed it on to Critias the Elder, who passed it on to his grandson Critias the Tyrant, just as Critias’ cousin Plato insisted. After all, have scientists not discovered just such grains of truth in the stories of the Flood (the creation of the Black Sea) or of Exodus (a reddish algal bloom that might, had it occurred, have been misinterpreted as blood, and have driven out the frogs to produce a salientian plague and an explosion in the fly population; volcanic activity leading to an opportune parting of the Red Sea or of a similar-sounding stretch of water)?

Well, haven’t they?

I expected the linked piece to be mostly about the search for Atlantis, but it’s more a reflection on the task of the historian in general, and on the work of Pierre Vidal-Naquet, in particular:

In his little history of Plato’s myth therefore the two sides of his historical activism come together: on the one hand, the analysis of the myth qua myth, a work of imagination, produced for a specific purpose in a specific historical context by an ingenious enemy of historians; on the other, the narrative of failures to recognise Plato’s hoax for what it was. Here history appears above all as work to be done and truth as something to be fought for, in need of constant subsidy over years, decades and centuries.

But perceived parallels between Atlantis and the Dreyfus Affair mean that Vidal-Naquet perhaps overemphasises the role of raison d’état in the success of Atlantomania and they provoke him to set up a binary opposition between total truth and total lies, between purely imaginative works of construction and historical events, an opposition that is neither plausible nor necessary. It is not, after all, completely impossible that the Egyptians did notice and record the submersion of Santorini, that Plato noticed the submersion of Helike or indeed of other cities, that there were traditions about a lost city or a lost continent, that information was garbled in time and translation. I would be surprised if that were so, but even if I were surprised I don’t see how that would make the slightest bit of difference to Vidal-Naquet’s argument. What could be more effective for a writer interested in reality-effects than a touch of reality itself? The most dangerously seductive myths are the ones that are sprinkled with the little-seeming grains of seeming truth.

to speak a better English

Kevin Drum writes:

This is one of the reasons I don’t blog much about education policy even though it’s an interesting subject. For all the sturm and drang, in the end nothing really seems to matter. After a hundred years of more-or-less rigorous pedagogical research, we still don’t know how to teach kids any better than we used to.

It may be that we’re not teaching kids any better but – especially when you look beyond the introductory levels – it’s clear that there has been quite a bit of progress in most of the subjects we teach kids. Arithmetic is still arithmetic, but mathematics has moved beyond where it was in the late 19th century (though I’d have to do a lot of learning to actually understand those developments). The same could be said of the sciences; there was a great quotation I saw online some time ago (but have never been able to track down since) from someone in the sciences that went something like: “It is sobering to think of how many students we’ve failed for not knowing things that later turned out to be incorrect.” And the social sciences may not, despite some claims to the contrary, be sciences in the way the life and physical sciences are sciences, but they’ve certainly progressed as well.

Even the humanities, where progress is harder to measure or even to define, are generally understood to have made advances. I confess that I’m not familiar enough with fields like English or Philosophy to be able to describe what counts as progress and what progress has been made, but if you look at history, at least, you’ll see that while interpretations have risen and fallen and sometimes risen again, and few have been overturned once and for all, history is also a cumulative endeavor and it’s kept on accumulating over the years with new sources, new types of sources, and new ways of looking at sources. We know more about the past in a lot of ways than we used to, even as we often disagree about what to make of that knowledge.

If there’s an exception to this trend it’s language – not, I should say, the study of language, which falls under the social sciences as linguistics, but language itself: a first language, second language, foreign language, whatever. (Note that the program that prompted Drum’s post was a reading program for kids: that is, a program teaching the English language.) Is the English I’m using right now meaningfully better than the English used in the late 19th century? Better than 18th century English? Is someone fluent in contemporary English more fluent in English than someone who lived in the 19th century and was fluent in the English of that era? (Let’s leave aside the entertaining possibility of being fluent in 19th century English while living in today’s world, something I hear can happen, to an extent, to people who’ve learned a language mostly from reading, or rather certain kinds of reading.)

It would be hard to say yes: English has changed, but those changes can’t really be understood as progress in the sense used above. The same could be said for just about any language, with the possible exception of ones made up from scratch. What one needs to know to be fluent – grammar, vocabulary, syntax – may change, but fluency remains the highest level of expertise (so to speak; “competence” might be a better word) one can acquire in a language.

I don’t really have anything to say about education policy or K-12 pedagogy, where language teaching is certainly not the only subject that hasn’t seen significant progress; I just think the way language differs from other subjects is interesting and Drum’s post happened to remind me of it.