Friday, July 18, 2014

Being schooled

I have started reading Adrian Goldsworthy's "How Rome Fell," and while I haven't gotten to Chapter 1 yet, his discursive and chatty introduction contains some statements so provocative, it seems worthwhile to stop and think about them.

Goldsworthy is an English classicist, but that makes him, to a degree, an internationalist, what was called "an Atlantic man" (spending a lot of time on planes between Europe and North America) a few decades ago.

Fifteen years ago, he was one of six historians on a panel sponsored by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment and paid for by the American taxpayer (through the Office of Net Assessment, which I had never heard of). They were to discuss grand strategies, apparently with a view to heading off the American empire (which Goldsworthy does not believe exists) from going the way of the older empires.

A few months later, some real imperialists drove planes into the World Trade Center, and ended the "hugely encouraging" feeling Goldsworthy had had that "a government agency (was) genuinely trying to learn lessons from history."

Incurious George and his handlers were among the least likely people in the entire world to care about learning lessons from history. They were out to teach history a thing or two.

It seems unlikely that even without the Muslim attack, and even if some different set of politicians had been in office, the taxpayers would have ever realized any benefit from this sort of confab, but that is not the provocative statement of Goldsworthy's I want to draw attention to.

No, what Goldsworthy, an Oxford man, said that startled me was, "In shaping the new country, the Founding Fathers consciously hoped to copy the strengths of the Roman Republic and avoid its eventual downfall. [And, no, despite lefty fantasies, they were not inspired by nor trying to copy the political structure of the Six Nations confederacy.] These days, it is also fair to say that the different university systems tend to make educated Americans broader in the range of their knowledge than the British. Plenty of engineers or medical doctors in America will at some point have taken a course or two in history or even the classics, something which is unimaginable on this side of the Atlantic."

This does not entirely surprise me, as in England engineering is still pursued in the old manner of industrial training; some of England's best-known engineers never went to college. And in the better American engineering schools, undergrads get a strong serving of humanities. Not so much in the average schools.

And, of course, in the liberal arts schools Americans learn nothing of science or engineering, which helps explain how SHAKA could gather 18,000 signatures for its crackpot petition.

Still, I was startled to be told that Americans have a "broad" view. This has never been my experience. Politically -- and that is the context of a study of how Rome fell -- the only segment of the active population that show any interest in history are the Tea Partiers, and they study the crazy imaginary history of the Bircher Cleon Skousen (reportedly, Mitt Romney's favorite college teacher).



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