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Allow Us to Conduct You to the World that You Desire

November 30, 2011 Leave a comment

They wanted to know my preferred future.  So I told them.  Let the chips fall where they may.

 

 

My preferred future, eh? This is a slightly daunting assignment, since, as we’ve already seen in this course, futurists have an extensive track record of being hilariously wrong. Even extremely clever ones, like Vannevar Bush and his building-sized, waterfall-cooled computers, or Count Zeppelin and his fleets of slow-moving, comically vulnerable airships plying the skies of a curiously German world. As I am neither extremely clever nor a proper futurist at all, this should be… interesting.

Here are a few developments in the next 50-100 years that I consider possible and desirable (although, contrary to the suggested framework, I don’t always consider the things I prefer to be terribly probable, human nature being what it is).

Maturation of Human Attitudes

This is the whole fulcrum of my vision of the future. Hutchins’s 22nd century is predicated on the probably-overly-optimistic idea that it’s about time the human species grew up and threw off its lifelong addiction to superstition. Crystal gazing, orgone energy, pyramid power, astrology, ghosts, alien abductors, astrology, dire predictions of the world-ending wrath of some unobservable god or gods, psychics, astrology, and I may have already mentioned astrology – none of it’s real, none of it helps us advance, and it all has to go into the dustbin of history, alongside werewolves, trial by ordeal, and eight-track tape cassettes. We in the Western world, particularly, have no call to shake our heads at the benighted savagery and quaint folkways of primitive desert tribesmen when we’re still printing horoscopes in our daily newspapers and stifling important biomedical research because we’d rather wring our hands about scientists Playing God.

I recognize that this may be a difficult thing to ask of humanity, but on the other hand, it’s probably an easier ask than global brotherhood; in fact, I suspect it’s a prerequisite of global brotherhood. Until we abandon our superstitions and approach the world from one universal, rational perspective, we’re never going to make useful progress toward the goal of worldwide common understanding.

Which brings us neatly to

Governance

The future of governance lies in the decline and fall of militant nationalism. Particularly fashionable since Napoleonic times, this popular human prejudice is responsible for war, obstruction of global progress, economic instability, enormous expenditure of resources on vast and useless "defense" systems, and the general persistence of needless divisions among the peoples of the world. It’s a dangerous waste of time and effort and it has to go. This is the century when humanity must finally pull itself together and recognize that – not so much in the eco-warrior or flower-generation sense but as a concrete, practical reality – there is one planet Earth and one human species living upon it, and there are too many of us going in too many different directions for this "competitive nation-states" business to be workable any longer. It was fine in ancient Mesopotamia, but one only has to look at the mess that is modern Mesopotamia to see how counterproductive the concept of the sovereign nation is in the 21st century.

Mind you, even with modern instantaneous telecommunications and the like, it’s an inconveniently big planet with a staggeringly impractical number of people upon it, so a single world government is a pipe dream on the same scale as universal love and brotherhood. In the short or even medium term, it’s likely that the best we can hope for is a slow erosion of the ideological differences that divide the existing nations so completely. This needs to start locally, with, e.g., the rendering unfashionable of such unhelpful, obstructionist philosophies as Not In My Back Yard and There Goes the Neighborhood. These things can happen within one generation. For precedent, we have only to look to earlier social advances, like the women’s suffrage movement of the early 20th century.

Education

If the maturation of human attitude is the fulcrum of this future, then education is the hinge pin. Without a comprehensive system of education, we’re never going to find our way out of the swamp humanity has managed to arrive in in these opening years of the 21st century. Rather than attempt massive reform to the aforemention systems from the start – systems which, in all their broken glory, many people today have a vested interest in maintaining – it’s my belief that a future generation, properly educated, will come to the conclusion that these changes are necessary without having to be led to it.

This is not the Communist dream of the New Soviet Man I’m talking about here, programmed from childhood in the Correct Thinking. I’m talking about a generation of young people equipped with the tools for critical thinking and rational understanding of the world that everyone should have – what Carl Sagan called the "baloney detection kit". Our schools should already be outfitting everyone who passes through them with these vital tools, but instead we find ourselves in a situation where an alarming percentage of high-school graduates have trouble with words longer than "rotfl". This will not do.

Fortunately, it’s also the simplest thing on the list to fix. Great schools require, when you pare everything back to first principles, one thing: a lot more funding than they’re getting now. Funding pays for facilities, it pays for equipment, and, most importantly, it pays for teachers. Right now a person has to be almost pathologically dedicated to the enrichment of the young, or completely out of options, to choose public school instruction as a career. Group A are great, and will continue to be great if we pay them a wage that isn’t an embarrassment to our entire civilization. Group B are not, and we wouldn’t need to retain them if we paid teachers enough to attract Group C, the really bright but slightly less crazy people who presently opt for jobs that pay better than fast-food management.

If schools had funding enough to attract and retain the right people, the rest of the problem would take care of itself. Get enough bright, dynamic, motivated people together and the endless wrangling about the finest points of the curriculum, the hidebound traditionalism, the lowest-required-effort assessment methods, and all the rest of the rigmarole that’s strangling education today will just go away, because people like that don’t have time for it. Does Simon Hauger look like he has time for student self-actualization index metrics? No, because he’s too busy getting great education done.

That’s it. That’s really, truly the key to the future right there. Pay teachers enough. If you build it they will come, and if they come, the next wave of graduates will be outfitted with everything they need to clean up what we can’t get to of the almighty mess our parents’ generation is leaving us. If you don’t build it, on the other hand, we’ll go down in 24th-century history as the people whose fault the new Dark Ages (ca. 2025-2350) were.

Military History So Far

September 15, 2011 Leave a comment

We spent the first week of HTY 279, European Military History, defining our terms.  We had to start with what military history is, then what “modern” is, we even spent a little while on what “European” means.  In the second week we started with some battles and personages who constitute the sort of cusp of what Prof. Miller, at least, holds to constitute modern European military history – figures like Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden (1594-1632) and the Battle of Lützen, in which he was killed.  None of that is likely to be all that interesting to readers who are not themselves studying military history, though, so we’ll skip over that.

Instead, I’m going to talk a little bit about the reading for this course.  The reading list for HTY 279 is pretty extensive; the class doesn’t have a textbook, as such, but there are a number of things we’re responsible for getting through in the course of the semester.  Some of them, like Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel, are war memoirs I’ve already read (though I think I’ve read the wrong translation of Jünger for this course).  Others, like Clausewitz’s On War, are standards works in the field that I haven’t actually read, but have seen mentioned often in things I have read.

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And then there’s What Is Military History?, the cover designers of which I don’t think were taking the task entirely seriously.

This is a slim volume that attempts to answer the question posed in its title, but does so in such a detached and scholarly manner that it’s almost impossible to engage with in any meaningful way.  It reminds me a little of John Clute’s introduction to the Old Earth Books reprints of E.E. Smith’s Lensman books, back in the late ‘90s.  Clute is a professional literary critic whose area of specialty is science fiction, and his introductions to the Lensman novels are essentially Learned Critiques of same, as if they’ve just been published and Clute is assessing their literary merit for the edification of other scholars, which means that what isn’t pretension is impenetrable jargon.  I distinctly remember the phrase “penis swamp” appearing at one point in his introduction to Galactic Patrol.

What Is Military History? isn’t quite that weird, because its subject matter isn’t quite so esoteric in its own right, but it does constitute a pretty dry bowl of kibble as intellectual sustenance goes.  Here’s an example:

In military history, many different crops are still springing from the soil of historical evidence fertilized by new theoretical and methodological approaches, and this rough guide to current controveries can be neither complete nor remain current.  Students exploring new work in these fields or work in other areas of military history can usually figure out where a book they are reading falls with respect to previous work by paying attention to the book’s preface or introduction.  Historians usually provide their own historiographical context in one of these places in order to point out how what they are doing is new, innovative, or otherwise noteworthy.  Careful reading of these historiographical introductions, informed by knowledge of the basic philosophical, methodological, and historiographical contours of military history that this book tries to provide, should allow students to explore new fields of military history more effectively.

All of that to say, “If you want to know what new angle the author of a book you’re reading thinks he’s coming from, read the introduction.”  It’s like this for 116 pages.  A long day at the office.

But I don’t mind.  The thing that bothers me is: Someone keeps moving my chair.

No, seriously.  This class is held in one of the big lecture halls in Little Hall, a building which was designed, as Pratchett and Gaiman speculated of Milton Keynes, to foster unconscious dread and hopelessness in the human mind.  Little is blessed with the most bizarre floorplan I’ve had the privilege of encountering, far outstripping the previous holder of this personal record (Fuller Labs at WPI).  It has half-floors.  Instructors have to provide directions to their offices on the syllabus, because if you just had the room number you would never find them.  The giant lecture halls have entrances at the back, on the ground floor, but the front of the room is in the basement.  Aha, you think, if you’re a student who’s just hurt his ankle, that must be where you enter the room if you need to use the elevator, but in the case of Little 140 you’d be wrong!  Those doors exit into a dark and gloomy hallway (turn off lights to save electricity!) which leads ultimately to… a stairwell.  There is a very similar gloomy hallway on the other end of the building that does involve the elevator, but if the two are connected in any way, I have yet to find it.  I suspect a student requiring level floor access would have to take the elevator to that other hallway, then cross through the back of the room in lecture halls 110, 120, and 130, before arriving at the first hallway and into 140.

And every time I arrive at 140 for class, my chair is out in that hallway.  This is annoying to me; on days when I’m running a tad bit late it’s also annoying to Prof. Miller, to the point where yesterday, when for various reasons I realized that I’d be arriving at 11:05, I decided to just punt rather than disrupt the class moving furniture around.  Fortunately, the big in-class discussion of What Is Military History? is tomorrow.

I wouldn’t want to miss that.