Thursday, October 15, 2020

Old books

.... We have produced two or three generations disturbingly lacking in historical understanding, not to mention appreciation for the benefits of a civilization they can blithely take for granted. Is it possible to be an educated human being without a modicum of intellectual and imaginative engagement with what came before us? The dilemma is especially pressing now, though, because the task of reclamation often doesn’t begin until young people have emerged from high school with practically no knowledge of their world but with, for many, an immensely generous estimate of their own knowing­ness. Jacobs understands the world today’s students inhabit. Apart from the emo­tional burdens typical of their age, they are assailed on all sides by addictively insidious forms of distraction and manipu­lation, electronic information overload, the cumulatively debilitating effects of thin reading, and an incapacity or disinclination to think rationally, a dire state of affairs darkened even further for some by unearned cynicism and a liberally administered dose of ideological self-righteousness. ....

This path [to tranquility] also involves, in one sense, giving the benefit of the doubt to the past, or at least learning about a period and its people judiciously before passing moral judgment. Jacobs is not uncritical of the people of the past (some of whom are exposed to his magnifying glass) and he doesn’t shy from judgments, but he does believe that those judgments are lent firmer founda­tion when advanced intelli­gently while recognizing the easily over­looked fact that we too inhabit a place along the timeline of history and that our de­scendants may not come to share our high opinion of ourselves. The danger of refusing to cultivate a history-tinted mind is that we come to live “thinly in our instant, and don’t know what we don’t know,” which is precisely our public predicament. If fortunate, after much reading and reflecting, we land with the virtue of humility, without which intelligence is simply a loaded gun in reckless hands. ....

.... “To open yourself to the past,” Jacobs writes, “is to make yourself less vulnerable to the cruelties of descending in tweeted wrath on a young woman whose clothing you disapprove of, or firing an employee because of a tweet you didn’t take time to understand, or responding to climate change either by ignoring it or by indulging in impotent rage. You realize that you need not obey the impulses of the moment — which, it is fair to say, never tend to produce a tranquil mind.” .... (more)

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