The way I would generalize your critique: schools should be teaching skills, not facts.

As Caplan covered in The Case Against Education, all evidence points to the retention of information learned during schooling to be quite poor--perhaps even nonexistant. This makes sense considering what we now about how learning works. We retain pieces of information that we are exposed to repeatedly and forget information that is only encountered once. This is the principle of spaced repetition.

School is most useful for jumpstarting feedback loops: situations where once a student is exposed to a concept or skill, they will naturally practice it during the course of their life.

Reading is a good example of this. While the initial process of learning to read is painful for many students, once they learn how to read, they will get practice without having to actively nurture the skill. In a modern civilization, there is text everywhere. At the supermarket when you're reading ingredients off the back label. At the doctor's office when you're filling out a questionaire. That's not even accounting for the internet which is where the vast majority of children and teenagers get their daily reading experience.

So reading is useful to teach in school. What else is useful? Arithmetic. Similar to reading, arithmetic is painful to learn at first. But once you learn how to do it, it's a skill that is consistently reinforced--exactly what the literature on spaced repetition says is the key to retaining what was learned.

With this framework, it's clear why history is uniquely bad amongst school subjects: no basic skills are being taught. Nominally, it's supposed to teach "critical thinking" skills, but you can't teach that since "critical thinking" is mostly just another name for intellegence. So in practice, history is about memorizing dates and presidents. Useless.

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History is supposed to give you a general vibe about what is and isn't high status, what is and isn't taboo.

What most people are going to get from The Bill of Rights isn't when it was drafted or even what's in it. They are going to take away the concept that American citizens have inviolable rights, and that they are and the basis of our societal values.

Similarly, the whole corpus of history and civics will inculcate the idea that freedom and equality before the law are core animating principals of what it means to be American, and that this is an important part of what makes our nation great.

That animating principle is important to imbue in people.

I suggest that everyone is going to end up with something like a basic metaphysical vibe of who they are and what their society is about. It could be that old school civics, or it could be something else. I wouldn't want someones basic unconscious prior to be wokeism or marxism or whatever.

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I think you’re right that we should use history quantitively. Many people use historical events as evidence for their grand theory of social science, rather than making careful judgments based on historical data. Economic history is very underrated in that sense.

History is useful as a reference point for understanding how far weve come and where we are likely to go based on past trends. “The Rise and Fall of American Growth” is a very good example of that kind of data based history that’s still useful for extrapolation. It should be up there with “The Better Angels of Our Nature” as another main source of evidence for rational optimism.

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I sort of half agree and half disagree with you here. On the one hand, it's true that learning more about the Nazis does not necessarily better equip you to understand whether or not Trump is behaving like a Nazi. What you need to make that determination is the skill/ability that people roughly refer to as "critical thinking."

And "teach more critical thinking!" of course has become a meme demand of the public school system, but I'm not sure that "critical thinking" is really something that can be "taught." IMO it maps pretty closely to g or IQ or whatever you want to believe in, a person's innate ability to form connections, make conclusions, employ logic and reason to predict, etc.

I support teaching/learning about history simply because I find it interesting and fascinating. Of course, not everyone does. I oppose forcing people who are uninterested to learn it out of some sort of likely false logic that doing so will make them better equipped to be "well informed citizens" or whatever. Then again, I don't support teaching math or science or anything else to people who aren't particularly interested in those subjects either.

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I think we mostly agree

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So there's two articles kind of welded together here, one on education and one on reasoning by historical analogy.

The critique of reasoning by historical analogy, on rereading, really comes across as a call for better history, with a specific focus on less anecdotes and less analogizing on single historical events "ie, every war is the last war or WWII". But I need to reread it to get that and, beyond a specific critique I'll make below, I'm not confident your writing is conveying your intent as clearly as it could be.

I would critique this, on two levels, as being unfair to the practical realities of what we use history for, both for decision making and for education. On education, I agree that anecdotes and stories are not the most accurate ways to convey historical information and facts but people really, really like stories and anecdotes. Kids especially like stories and anecdotes. And, whether it's small children or hormone laden adolescents or overworked and exhausted adults, stories and anecdotes make it much, much easier to teach people who kinda don't want to learn. In fact, that's generous, I've heard most teachers describe it as "shoving education down their stupid little throats". Which is not, ya know, ideal, but it's also a reality that in the short term we're trapped in this educational situation and a little honey, or in this case anecdotal stories, makes the whole much easier. In a similar fashion, I don't know a single executive person who has the time to do a deep historical dive on all the relevant historical events before undertaking a course of action. Honestly, 6 hours of their day are spent just firefighting and ducttapping things that are actively falling apart and 5 hours are spent trying to keep key stakeholders in line. As an analyst, you're usually lucky to get 15 minutes of undivided attention and, while they're very receptive, it needs to be very quick and very concise. And, usually, the best and clearest historical example for them is the last thing like this that happened. Afghanistan wasn't the Gulf War, and wasn't exactly Vietnam, but it's hardly like we're going to do an exhaustive study of every single potential comparable conflict AND boil that down into a clear 15 minute presentation that persuades them.

So I think it's less that you're prescription is incorrect as it is...impractical within the constraints of the system we currently have. Yes, schools are bad, but within the constraints of those schools, anecdotes and stories are helpful to keep the attention of the students. Likewise, large bureaucracies and distracted executives are bad but that's most of the large, bureaucratic organizations we have and the more data we try to summarize into concise, persuasive summaries, the harder it is, which puts a pretty hard upper barrier.

As for education itself, yes, schools are absolutely terrible, I am all in on their abolishment. I am concerned about the decline of history and civic knowledge, however, and I think there's a real danger to, um, "just-in-time" civic education.

Stealing very heavily from Christopher Lasch.

#1 Democracy originated in fairly simple situations where the local citizen could legitimately know all the relevant factors. In short, their society was very small and did not change much.

#2 As societies get larger and more complex, it becomes harder for a citizen to know all the relevant information and make informed decisions.

#3 This leads to "rule by experts". If you get educated 15 minutes before voting, the voter is, at best, heavily influenced by whoever is educating them, and more likely just doing whatever the "educator" is telling them.

#4 This is basically the death of democracy. This isn't a matter of rights or respect, it's a matter of raw competence. Modern government is legitimately too complex for the citizens and so they are, in a real sense, powerless in politics.

And I feel like, reading this, you basically want to ditch civics and history from public education, and I agree the kids ain't learning, but I think it's worth noting that we're pretty clearly abandoning a core component of the democratic dream. If we can't teach the kids the core facts of what US history is and how many branches of government there are, they don't have the ability or competence to meaningfully vote or interact politically. It feels....worthy of note.

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Lots of solid thinking/reasoning here.

I'm an old history major, who occasionally writes historical novels for middle-grade children. I'm also Canadian--though that means less and less. But we don't have quite the level of brutal standardized-testing in our education system... at least, not yet.

It's the process of interrogating "history"--that's what should be in the class-room. I'm wrestling with this throughout the process of writing "fiction." The research piece leads me to wonderful places, and the more history I dive into (any era really), the more perspective it gives me on the current world. No, it doesn't provide answers. But the questions are good.

"History" is not about dates and pieces of information; it's about understanding what it is to be human in this place. History does not repeat itself; but it can be recursive.

I do think it's significant that children be given ways to absorb this type of knowledge--that is, the knowledge of how to read and understand our past and others' pasts, so that we can be thoughtful... and maybe even get to a place of wisdom. (My recently completed work is set in 1526--time of the Reformation and book burning.)

I've also done a Bachelor of Education degree in my mid-40s. And wasn't that a freaking nightmare!! The system puts the utmost value on corralling kids in hallways (make sure they don't touch the wall! Horrors!) and lassoing young minds--I realized, halfway through my first practicum!--then going full rodeo, tying them up and branding... as far as I could make out...

Forgive the metaphor. Oh my. I could not do the classroom thing.

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Knowledge of history, in particular of the field you are working in and of successful leaders in general, is very useful to leaders in general. I agree with your points on the diminishing returns of mass education and the misuse of historical analogy. But what you are pointing to are false analogies between NS and new technologies for genetic enhancement. The better analogy would be something like sperm banks for lesbians and single women: it's a borderline "unnatural" mode of reproduction in which the women typically choose sperm based on the father's traits, which would be beneficial for the child to inherit. These plainly eugenic practices, which have been practiced for some 60 years, have hardly led to a neo-NS revival as the moral panickers are wont to believe.

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The most useful approach to teaching history is to give kids a sense of of how life was in pre-modern societies as that's something very few people actually get. Historical analogies fail because very little about romans, for example, is actually relevant to our society.

As an alternative spend the middle school studying the Middle Ages but not with a focus on political events, but everyday life, arts and crafts, religion, traditions, social classes, military equipment, fashion, agriculture etc. Given the cultural cachet of medieval and high fantasy maybe kids would enjoy it more than the current approach.

Than dedicate high school to learning contemporary history, starting with WW1.

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I guess elite theory is the closest to the quantitative approach you outline

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deletedJan 9, 2023Liked by Ives Parr
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Yes, you’re right. Spaced repetition of a smaller amount of information spaced to reinforce efficiency would be a huge improvement. The current set up incentivizes cramming.

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