Sow a Wind: What History Boys?

One of my students in Theory of Knowledge just qualified for entry to a highly regarded global business program, partly on the strength of his ToK Paper and Presentation and the marks they earned him. In a recent email to me he thanked me for the help he had pulling his work together, and added that he thought Theory of Knowledge would end up being the best preparation he got for that program.

The reason is, briefly, that the Paper requires students to examine a general claim about knowledge judiciously and fairly, using examples in the contemporary world to make a judgment about it. The Presentation takes a “real-life situation” facing the students (or our world) and asks them to abstract a “knowledge issue” from it, dealing with that issue in a balanced way before offering a judgment. Some of my students, including the one I mentioned above, went through three or four drafts to reach the impressive results they handed in.

But studying the humanities has always had a beneficial formative effect, and in fact Professor Barzun says that history’s chief effect “is formative. Its spectacle of continuity in chaos, of attainment in the heart of disorder, of purpose in the world is what nothing else provides: science denies it, art only invents it. One might suppose that an astute synthesis of the items in the daily paper would supply it, but the paper lacks charm and solidity; its formative effect is nil, as one can see from sampling public opinion…. History is a means of cultivation much more than of instruction.[1]

Barzun goes on to say that history properly studied is “an antidote against cultural poisoning”: “It heightens resistance to the superstitions of the day, the flood of conventional knowledge—all of it plausibly wrong—that the surrounding sources of information keep spreading like a sterile sort of manure over contemporary thought.”

It is an “antidote against credulity,” for “the most difficult choice is not simply what to believe but what mode of thought to trust that leads to belief.”  The failure to provide this antidote is shown in “so-called educational research, where the sense of evidence is at its feeblest and the knowledge of history apparently non-existent.” Raw credulity accounts for the acceptance of the Coleman Report in 1966, whose astonishing claim was that schools bring little to bear on students’ achievement.

It is an antidote against homogenizing, the intellectual tendency “to naturalize the disparate, to force discrepancies out of logic’s way,” and to be reductive, thereby allowing the production and acceptance of over-reductive and absurd “studies” like, for example, Max Nordau’s showing that artists are mental degenerates.

It is an antidote against overintellection, including pedantry and the replacement of feeling and vividness in mental endeavors by “processes” that give “abstract notations of phenomena and…new symbols for instinct.”

It is an antidote against self-centering, the placement of the self at the center of all knowledge.

If Barzun was right in ascribing to the study of history all these good effects, we should be teaching it. Instead, “humanities programs get a fraction of the funding that STEM programs do,” and public intellectual health is exposed to danger. What whirlwind will we reap by sowing this wind of ignorance?

[1] Clio and the Doctors, pp 123 – 124

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