Wednesday, August 5, 2020

INFORMATION, KNOWLEDGE, & WISDOM

The policymaker undertakes multiple tasks, many of them shaped by his society’s history and culture. He must first of all make an analysis of where his society finds itself. This is inherently where the past meets the future; therefore such a judgment cannot be made without an instinct for both of these elements. He must then try to understand where that trajectory will take him and his society. He must resist the temptation to identify policymaking with projecting the familiar into the future, for on that road lies stagnation and then decline. Increasingly in a time of technological and political upheaval, wisdom counsels that a different path must be chosen. By definition, in leading a society from where it is to where it has never been, a new course presents advantages and disadvantages that will always seem closely balanced. To undertake a journey on a road never before traveled requires character and courage: character because the choice is not obvious; courage because the road will be lonely at first. And the statesman must then inspire his people to persist in the endeavor. Great statesmen (Churchill, both Roosevelts, de Gaulle, and Adenauer) had these qualities of vision and determination; in today’s society, it is increasingly difficult to develop them.

For all the great and indispensable achievements the Internet has brought to our era, its emphasis is on the actual more than the contingent, on the factual rather than the conceptual, on values shaped by consensus rather than by introspection. Knowledge of history and geography is not essential for those who can evoke their data with the touch of a button. The mindset for walking lonely political paths may not be self-evident to those who seek confirmation by hundreds, sometimes thousands of friends on Facebook.

In the Internet age, world order has often been equated with the proposition that if people have the ability to freely know and exchange the world’s information, the natural human drive toward freedom will take root and fulfill itself, and history will run on autopilot, as it were. But philosophers and poets have long separated the mind’s purview into three components: information, knowledge, and wisdom. The Internet focuses on the realm of information, whose spread it facilitates exponentially. Ever-more-complex functions are devised, particularly capable of responding to questions of fact, which are not themselves altered by the passage of time. Search engines are able to handle increasingly complex questions with increasing speed. Yet a surfeit of information may paradoxically inhibit the acquisition of knowledge and push wisdom even further away than it was before.

The poet T. S. Eliot captured this in his “Choruses from ‘The Rock’”: “Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

Facts are rarely self-explanatory; their significance, analysis, and interpretation—at least in the foreign policy world—depend on context and relevance. As ever more issues are treated as if of a factual nature, the premise becomes established that for every question there must be a researchable answer, that problems and solutions are not so much to be thought through as to be “looked up.” But in the relations between states—and in many other fields—information, to be truly useful, must be placed within a broader context of history and experience to emerge as actual knowledge. And a society is fortunate if its leaders can occasionally rise to the level of wisdom.

Henry Kissinger, (2014). World Order (348-350). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Monday, August 3, 2020

MUSEUM

THE GREAT LIBRARY of Alexandria, founded around 300 BC by the Egyptian king Ptolemy I, has always been the ultimate symbol of scholarly endeavour. It was here that the idea of encompassing knowledge in one place by collecting a copy of every single text was born. This “dream of universality” has haunted book collectors and librarians ever since, and lies at the heart of modern copyright libraries, which are entitled to one copy of each book published in their own country. Like all the most successful bibliophiles, the kings of Egypt and their librarians were doggedly unscrupulous in the pursuit of this dream: stealing, borrowing, begging—anything to increase the collections. They ordered that all ships passing through Alexandria should be searched and any scrolls found on board confiscated. These were then labelled “from the ships” and shelved in the Library. When the Athenians lent valuable scrolls for copying, the Egyptians refused to return them, choosing instead to keep the originals and send back copies, forfeiting the huge sum of money they had paid as surety. This aggressive acquisition policy paid off and within a couple of decades the Library contained thousands on every subject from cookery to Jewish theology—a collection unequalled, both in size and subject matter, anywhere on the planet. But the Ptolemaic kings did not just collect books, they collected minds as well. They established a community of scholars in the shrine they had built to glorify the Muses—the nine Greek goddesses who inspired the arts and sciences. It became known as the Museum (Mouseion) and was closely linked with the Library; scholars from across the Mediterranean world were invited to come and work there. As time went on, a daughter library was created in the Temple of Serapis (the Serapeum) to house the ever-increasing collections.

Violet Moller, The Map of Knowledge (19). Knopf Doubleday [2019] Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

TCR SERVICES

TCR SERVICES

High School students planning to go to college should know that they will face reading lists of nonfiction books and be asked to write research papers. The vast majority of American public high school students are not asked to read a single complete nonfiction book or to write a term paper before graduation. But they suspect that the safe spaces of fiction readings and personal writing will not prepare them well enough for college. In many cases their teachers have neither the inclination nor the time to help them with History research papers, and while some students, such as many of those published in The Concord Review since 1987, have set up Independent Study programs on their own which let them write such papers, others may want to make use of the services we offer to serious secondary students of History:

One: The National Writing Board [1998] provides a unique independent assessment service for the History research papers of high school students. Our reports by two Senior Readers now average five pages and may be sent to college admissions officers. Inquire at tcr.org/nwb.

Two: The TCR History Camp [2014] offered a two-week course on the writing of serious History papers by secondary students, with three online sessions in 2020. Contact: steven.lee@tcr.org (Manager of the TCR Summer Program). tcr.org/summer.

Three: The TCR Academic Coaching Service [2014] matches high school students working on a History research paper online with TCR Authors now at or recently graduated from Chicago, Columbia, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford and Yale. Personal advice and guidance from a successful older peer (many are Emerson Prize winners) can be inspiring and productive for secondary students struggling with serious term papers. Contact Jessica Li:  jessica.feiya.li@gmail.com (Manager of the TCR Academic Coaches). tcr.org/coaches.

Four: The Concord Review [1987] can provide students with a fine variety of examples from the History research papers published by >1,300 high school students from 46 states and 41 other countries in 125 issues since 1987. This journal remains the only quarterly in the world for the academic History research papers of secondary students. These papers have served many students as useful models of research and writing to inspire and guide them in their own reading, research and writing. Find many examples at tcr.org/bookstore.


Will Fitzhugh, Founder
The Concord Review [1987]
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776 USA
fitzhugh@tcr.org; tcr.org/subscribe


Thursday, July 30, 2020

JEFF BEZOS

The Wall Street Journal
Jeff Bezos and America
Congressional testimony brings a welcome surprise.
July 29, 2020 5:44 pm ET

There’s so much anti-American vitriol in current news coverage that it’s especially refreshing to find an unexpected argument for liberty floating along in the flood of contemporary events. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos shared an inspiring message about this great land and its infinite possibilities as he appeared remotely before a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. It’s no exaggeration to say that it was easily the most powerful and compelling testimony offered in the halls of Congress since Tuesday. 


Mr. Bezos was appearing along with other tech CEOs before Judiciary‘s Antitrust Subcommittee to discuss competition in digital markets. But he decided to set the table by pointing out that while he may be the richest man on the planet, he didn’t exactly start out that way. Here’s an excerpt from his opening statement to the subcommittee:


My mom, Jackie, had me when she was a 17-year-old high school student in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Being pregnant in high school was not popular in Albuquerque in 1964. It was difficult for her. When they tried to kick her out of school, my grandfather went to bat for her. After some negotiation, the principal said, “OK, she can stay and finish high school, but she can’t do any extracurricular activities, and she can’t have a locker.” My grandfather took the deal, and my mother finished high school, though she wasn’t allowed to walk across the stage with her classmates to get her diploma. Determined to keep up with her education, she enrolled in night school, picking classes led by professors who would let her bring an infant to class. She would show up with two duffel bags—one full of textbooks, and one packed with diapers, bottles, and anything that would keep me interested and quiet for a few minutes.

My dad’s name is Miguel. He adopted me when I was four years old. He was 16 when he came to the United States from Cuba as part of Operation Pedro Pan, shortly after Castro took over. My dad arrived in America alone. His parents felt he’d be safer here. His mom imagined America would be cold, so she made him a jacket sewn entirely out of cleaning cloths, the only material they had on hand. We still have that jacket; it hangs in my parents’ dining room. My dad spent two weeks at Camp Matecumbe, a refugee center in Florida, before being moved to a Catholic mission in Wilmington, Delaware. He was lucky to get to the mission, but even so, he didn’t speak English and didn’t have an easy path. What he did have was a lot of grit and determination. He received a scholarship to college in Albuquerque, which is where he met my mom. You get different gifts in life, and one of my great gifts is my mom and dad. They have been incredible role models for me and my siblings our entire lives.


Whatever one thinks of Amazon’s business tactics, it’s hard not to stand up and cheer for the people who made it possible. Explained Mr. Bezos:


The initial start-up capital for Amazon.com came primarily from my parents, who invested a large fraction of their life savings in something they didn’t understand. They weren’t making a bet on Amazon or the concept of a bookstore on the internet. They were making a bet on their son. I told them that I thought there was a 70% chance they would lose their investment, and they did it anyway.

Gratitude has perhaps been in short supply lately in our public discourse, and who would have guessed it could be found at the House Judiciary Committee? The Bezos testimony explained his entrepreneurial success and the risk-taking American culture that encourages such ventures. It seems unlikely that Mr. Bezos would describe himself as a supply-sider, but he also explained how such an environment allows companies to create amazing inventions that consumers never demanded but quickly embrace. 


Later in his remarks, Mr. Bezos also expressed standard media-boss liberalism on climate change and income inequality, so perhaps one could say there was something for everyone in Wednesday’s testimony. One could say the same about this big, flawed amazing country we share. Said Mr. Bezos:


... the rest of the world would love even the tiniest sip of the elixir we have here in the U.S. Immigrants like my dad see what a treasure this country is—they have perspective and can often see it even more clearly than those of us who were lucky enough to be born here...even in the face of today’s humbling challenges, I have never been more optimistic about our future.

There are millions of non-billionaires who feel the same way.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

HAMILTON

   

To the People of the State of New York: AFTER an unequivocal experience of the inefficacy of the subsisting federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America. The subject speaks its own importance; comprehending in its consequences nothing less than the existence of the UNION, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world. It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.

This idea will add the inducements of philanthropy to those of patriotism, to heighten the solicitude which all considerate and good men must feel for the event. Happy will it be if our choice should be directed by a judicious estimate of our true interests, unperplexed and unbiased by considerations not connected with the public good. But this is a thing more ardently to be wished than seriously to be expected. The plan offered to our deliberations affects too many particular interests, innovates upon too many local institutions, not to involve in its discussion a variety of objects foreign to its merits, and of views, passions and prejudices little favorable to the discovery of truth.

Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist Papers,
October 27, 1787, Number One (p. 1). Kindle Edition. 


 

Sunday, July 19, 2020

SHELLING

To be under a barrage of prolonged shelling simply magnified all the terrible physical and emotional effects of one shell. To me, artillery was an invention of hell. The onrushing whistle and scream of the big steel package of destruction was the pinnacle of violent fury and the embodiment of pent-up evil. It was the essence of violence and of man’s inhumanity to man. I developed a passionate hatred for shells. To be killed by a bullet seemed so clean and surgical. But shells would not only tear and rip the body, they tortured one’s mind almost beyond the brink of sanity. After each shell I was wrung out, limp and exhausted.

During prolonged shelling, I often had to restrain myself and fight back a wild, inexorable urge to scream, to sob, and to cry. As Peleliu dragged on, I feared that if I ever lost control of myself under shell fire my mind would be shattered. I hated shells as much for their damage to the mind as to the body. To be under heavy shell fire was to me by far the most terrifying of combat experiences. Each time it left me feeling more forlorn and helpless, more fatalistic, and with less confidence that I could escape the dreadful law of averages that inexorably reduced our numbers. Fear is many-faceted and has many subtle nuances, but the terror and desperation endured under heavy shelling are by far the most unbearable.

E.B. Sledge, With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa (74). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

NEW MANTRA

Op-Ed  by Rick Hess
KIPP’s new mantra: ‘Slack off. Be mean.’
July 6, 2020

Last week, just before the Fourth of July, the influential KIPP charter school network announced it had decided to abandon its longtime mantra “Work Hard. Be Nice.” KIPP’s leaders explained that the affable slogan had to go because it hinders efforts to “dismantle systemic racism,” “places value on being compliant and submissive,” “supports the illusion of meritocracy,” and doesn’t “align” with KIPP’s “vision of students being free to create the future they want.”
What to make of all this? Well, KIPP has pledged its 240-odd schools to the cause of anti-racism. Generally speaking, that’s certainly admirable. But anti-racist education today can mean many things. What KIPP has embraced is a fairly radical vision that retreats from defending even time-tested, broadly supported, foundational virtues if someone hints that they’re freighted with wrongthink.
I’ll get into the larger issue of anti-racist education some other time. Today, I just want to offer a few thoughts on KIPP abandoning its hope-filled, successful, quarter-century-old motto. This is a decision that’s puzzling, disheartening, and short-sighted.
It’s puzzling. This move is so focused on placating the wild demands of the woke cadres that it suggests KIPP has lost its bearings. In 30 years in and around schools as an educator and scholar, I’ve yet to meet the parent—of any race or background—who doesn’t want their child to be nice and to work hard. I’ve yet to meet the responsible teacher who doesn’t want the same. As a parent, I certainly want my kids to work hard and be nice. I think that’s pretty typical. And I haven’t met many people who are seeking lazy, nasty neighbors or colleagues. It will be telling to see how KIPP’s new posture is received by parents, longtime supporters, and public officials who believe in hard work and kindness.
It’s disheartening. Of all the virtues, hard work and kindness have got to be among the most appealing and universal. The fact that KIPP’s leaders won’t stand by these shows a stunning lack of civilizational confidence. After all, anti-racist activists have suggested that a subculture of online, alt-right weirdos was able to poison the settled meaning of the 250-year-old Betsy Ross flag. Even if one accepts the dubious notion that “Work Hard. Be Nice.” has somehow been tainted by systemic racism, educators with any confidence in their cause should relish the opportunity to remove that taint from a relatively baby-faced slogan. 
Now, perhaps “nice” is too mild for our superheated times. Okay. Perhaps KIPP needed a more ambitious-sounding mission. Fair enough. With confidence, its leadership might have built on what they had. They could’ve gone with “Work Hard. Be Kind. Change the World.” Or “Work Hard. Be Good. Show Courage. Fight Oppression.” Instead, they retreated. 
It’s short-sighted. Universal, aspirational values offer a moral language for rallying support. In retreating from these, one is left without a way to win new allies and bring them along. Indeed, when you declare that those who value hard work or kindness are part of the problem, you’ve kind of painted yourself into the corner. And, for what? I’ve known a number of KIPP leaders over many years, and I find it hard to believe that they don’t want their kids to live in a world that values kindness and hard work. 
One has to wonder whether the KIPP cognoscenti have really thought this through. Do they honestly think that working hard and being nice is in tension with the “future” that KIPP’s students want to be “free to create”? If so, exactly what kinds of students does KIPP’s brain trust think it has and what kind of future does it imagine they want to create? In the meantime, KIPP slouches towards its new mantra: “Slack Off. Be Mean.”