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Oliver’s potatos, my students and 18th century historiography….

Call it irrelevant serendipity, but over the past few days a number of “observations” have converged and connected that reinforces (for me at least) the notion that  we are in the midst of a basic generational shift in “perspective” (or “climate of opinion” or Weltanschauung or “world view”). The three observations run from the shockingly mundane to the personal to the scholarly….

1. First is an observation attributable to Jamie Oliver’s new show in which he attempts to promote a “food revolution” in the US (after his mixed success in the UK). Walking into a classroom of six year-olds in Huntington West Virginia, he holds up various common foods one finds in any produce isle and asks the kids to call out the name of the food. Nothing — nada – embarrassing silence that is magnified by the fact that it is TV where editing enhances all silences. Hold up a fast food item, however, and the response is immediate and loud. But most telling, hold up a potato (which they could not even identify by name) next to a bag fries, and they could not see the relationship.

2. The personal observation is related to my frustrations in the classroom. My teaching has fallen on bad times by any measure, and while there are lots of reasons for that, one clear one is that I tend to rely on historical cases — not historical in the sense of obscure events from a century or more ago, but rather events that are either relatively recent (in the life time of the students — even current events!) or the stuff in any basic history textbook the students might have read over the past few years. Each year, of course, the age gap between my students and me increases, and so I  am now prone to ask “how many of you are familiar with ______” (e.g., Watergate, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the impeachment of Bill Clinton, the Challenger or Columbia accidents, etc.)? The results are blank stares no different from those Jamie Oliver received when holding up the potato (or tomato, or eggplant, or head of lettuce, etc). I have come to expect that from my freshman/sophomore class, but I am now seeing it in graduate classes. (No child left behind, indeed!)

3. The scholarly point is drawn from my reading of Carl Becker’s 1932 lectures on The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers. As noted in the previous post, Becker effectively argues for a rethinking of the Enlightenment, and in the process he puts on historiographer’s hat to point out just how radically different the 18th century historian/philosophers — the Rousseaus, Montesquieus, Humes, Diderots, et al — viewed history from their 19th and 20th century counterparts. The central point is the key question highlighted by what he terms the “climate of opinion” of the times. While modern historians have tended to be preoccupied with questions about origins and the historical evolution (“continuity”)of society — how the past manifests itself in the present — the 18th century historians/philosophers focused on the past as a source of lessons about how the continuity of human development has been altered and diverted from its “natural” path by historical events. Theirs was a comparative approach, viewing the history of each civilization or era as another example of  how our “common humanity” was treated in different times and places.  From that historical “method” they hoped to derive insights into the “common” human nature that would be the foundation for changes to society more in line with our nature. This is more than a “paradigm” shift ; it is an alteration in what we see (or do not see) in our history.

Esoteric as Becker’s point might seem, I’ve somehow linked it to the Oliver’s potato episode and my teaching problem. For those six year olds — and perhaps for kids much older — where those fries (or any of their fast foods) come from is irrelevant. The fact that fries come from potatoes or ketchup from tomatoes (plus a lot of additive junk) is not necessary knowledge. For my students, the history of the Constitution or the events that have shaped it is irrelevant because they grow up with the view that the constitutional system is irrelevant. I might as well be talking to six year olds.

Oliver’s potato kids and my students: They may be part of the same problem — that is, we are (perhaps) in the midst of a shifting “climate of opinion” that has rendered irrelevant what we’ve regard in the very recent past as critical or important knowledge. If that is the case, we have our work cut out for us…..

Several years ago I turned my attention to the problems of civic education and felt that the lack of civic knowledge and awareness among students is nothing new, and that it is somehow related to McLuhanistic generational differences — generations nurtured by different media view the world differently and thus are not inclined to accept the pedagogy developed by the previous generation. My sense was that unless we got ahead of the generational curve — that is, unless we adopted a pedagogy more suitable to the then emerging net-geners — we are going to face problems. My sense is that I had that right, and there is a good deal more material in support of such a notion. But as the Oliver episode indicates, the depth and breadth of the problem is much greater than merely civic education.

It may be time to dust off that old paper…..

March 29th, 2010 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments

Smith, Sen and Becker — an aside

Taking a bit of a breather from writing projects to comment on some of the more esoteric stuff I am learning as I explore the world of Adam Smith for a paper I hope will be ready for presentation in a month. The problem I have when engaging in this kind of research is that I get distracted by the material I stumble on while seeking more background. I’ve never been one to avoid diving into a subject I know very little about, and as a result I am constantly finding it necessary to take ten steps back into the literature in order to move one or two steps forward.

In this case, working on Smith has been leading back to studies of 18th century thought, and especially that period we find in all our basic history books: the Enlightenment. It is not that I come at this without any knowledge at all — after all, any US political scientist, especially if they’ve studied or written about the Constitution, has developed at least a superficial sense of Enlightenment thought. But learning more about the political and intellectual atmospherics of the day is really eye-opening.

Two current reads that have me pleasantly distracted, one very recent and the other a work from the 1930s.

The newbie is Amartya Sen’s recently published “The Idea of Justice.” What attracted me to this was the fact that last year Sen wrote articles and gave speeches that celebrated or drew attention to the fact that 2009 was the 250th anniversary of the publication of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. (I actually got to attend Sen’s presentation in Glasgow last April, but my hearing was so bad by then that I could not really enjoy it; fortunately, his comments are about to be published in some online journal and the major points are in the book.) When the Idea of Justice came out late in 2009, I grabbed a copy — which then sat until a month ago when I found time to dig in. Well worth the read, especially for a distinction he makes between two approaches to justice that emerge from the Enlightenment. One approach, essentially rooted in Hobbesian social contract theory, he terms “transcendental” for its emphasis on perfecting justice through institutional arrangements, has been the more prominent perspective given its adoption by the likes of Rousseau, Kant and (today) Rawls. The alternative, for which he gives Smith significant credit, he terms the “comparative approach,” and he offers it as the perspective he favors for fostering justice through “realizations”.

As Sen points out, the distinction between the two threads of the Enlightenment has been there for all to see, but never really highlighted — a task he performs effectively in this book.

The older book throws a different light on the Enlightenment: Carl Becker’s 1932 Yale lectures published under the not so sexy title of “The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers.” I came across this book initially because of Becker’s concept of “magic words”, which was similar to the concept of “keywords” used by cultural studies folks — but when I started to read for context to see how he was using that phrase, I was hooked. What a brilliantly written book, and one that offers a distinctive view of the Enlightenment that challenges our textbook notions and throws an entirely different light on the writings of the period. Bottom line: the Enlightenment is best regarded as the last gasps of Medieval thought rather than as the first breaths of modern thought. What we have here, perhaps, is the beginning of the critical theory/postmodern perspective — coming from a scholar whose best known work has been on American intellectual history.

My task now is to somehow make a viable point of all this as it relates to Adam Smith…. Back to work. ?

March 27th, 2010 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments