Cognitive Flexibility

Calculus textbooks contain problems of varying difficulty. Students can work on relatively simple ones first and then tackle the more challenging. This is not true in history, and especially not true of survey courses, which deal almost exclusively in very complex events and developments. Every attempt on our part to simplify the past distorts it. Students cannot “explain” the Enlightenment. And we do them no favors by pretending that they can. What they can do is explore some dimensions of it. Exploring leaves them with more questions than answers along with an appreciation for just how partial their grasp of it actually is. This is a healthy outcome. How can we reach it? My approach in my survey of  “Modern Europe and the U.S. I” is in the section of detailed examples.

Very likely the first thing you will notice is how long it is. As noted above, students need help in reading documents, listening to music, and looking at paintings. They need structure, particularly when we are seeking to encourage flexibility. If, that is, we want students to appreciate the various kinds of sources historians use and, as a consequence, ask them to plunge into challenging and diverse materials, we have to provide a scaffolding for them. Structure makes flexibility feasible.

The “Age of Reason” segment begins with a question: How did the thinker become a hero? We look at several portraits and identify common elements such as the visionary gaze. Students especially like to play with the portrait of Lavoisier. The discovery that in eighteenth-century France it was the men who were vain about their legs delights them. So too the discovery that people then associated beauty with age. I provide a simple initial answer to the question of the philosopher as hero: Newton. Students then read and comment on an essay on Newton by Voltaire. They also read an excerpt from Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography about his own foray into philosophy. Then they compare Voltaire’s ideas about natural religion with Mandeville’s sardonic views on the same subject. Mandeville is usually a minor figure in survey courses, if he is mentioned at all. But his scandalous argument that selfish conduct leads to the common good lies at the core of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. And Smith’s working out of economic equivalents of the laws of motion, in which self-interest plays the role gravity does in Newtonian mechanics, nicely demonstrates Newton’s pervasive and lasting influence. Then, to make matters even more complex, we take a look at the First Great Awakening in the American colonies with Benjamin Franklin as one of our guides. Can introductory level students actually make some sort of sense out of all this? Yes, they can make some sense of it.  Below is Melissa’s take.

Melissa’s Notes

  • Mandeville says that men are selfish. An example of this can be seen when Smith describes the landlord. He says that as soon as land becomes private property, the landlord demands a large share of the produce raised or collected from it. Rent for the land is not enough, the landlord also needs the produce.
  • Smith shows that people work for a profit motive. They want to make money, and that is what keeps them going. A farmer would not hire someone to have them work for him if the farmer was not going to enjoy the products of the labor. If he was not going to get anything from the labor, he could at least sell his stock and make a profit. A farmer’s profit may be produce, or it may be the gains from the produce. Either way, the farmer is only looking out for his advantage and his own profit. He is not looking to employ the laborers so they will have a job; he is employing them so he makes a profit off their labor. As Mandeville says, men are selfish and are concerned with their own welfare.
  • Mandeville says that men can be divided into 2 groups:  the 1st is that of low-minded people who were always looking for immediate enjoyment; they were incapable of self-denial, and they wanted only what was best for them. The 2nd group consisted of high-spirited men who were not selfish, they were only concerned with the public welfare, not their own. Smith would probably somewhat agree with this. However, it would probably be more that men as individuals are in the 1st group where those that are selfish and only want what is best for them, but when men are put together in the economy, they are unknowingly becoming part of the 2nd group because their selfish contributions to the market are really boosting the economy and the public’s welfare. Their hard work and labor, which for themselves will make them a profit, is really the cause of the greatest public prosperity. This can also relate to the improvement and advancement of products. The men will put in labor to make a profit for themselves, but by putting in all this work over the years on a certain product, they are really improving the product for the good of the society.
  • Another example of Mandeville’s thoughts on pursuing only what is best for the individual can be seen in Smith’s works in this quote: “What are the common wages of labour, depends every where upon the contract usually made between those two parties, whose interests are by no means the same. The workmen desire to get as much, the masters to give as little as possible.” The masters want what is best for them and only them, and the workers want what is only in their best interests.
  • Smith comments that “The liberal reward of labour, therefore, as it is the necessary effect, so it is the natural symptom of increasing national wealth. The scanty maintenance of the labouring poor, on the other hand, is the natural symptom that things are at a stand, and their starving condition that they are going fast backwards.” Mandeville mentions vices and virtues. Vices are actions that are done for the individual and could be injurious to the society, and virtues are actions that benefit others. These two ideas from these men can be tied together by thinking of the work of the laborers as vices. They work for themselves, they try to take advantage of the system so they make the most money, and they don’t care about anything other than making a profit. This vice then leads to the virtue of increasing national wealth. National wealth is good because it benefits the nation as a whole. However, national wealth can also been seen as a vice because although the nation “as a whole” is benefiting, the poor laborers in the nation are poor and starving. It seems here that vices can result in virtues, and virtues can result in vices.

I have bolded the two statements we used in class. The first is a flawed reading of Mandeville’s essay on the origins of morals. Mandeville was much more of a cynic than Melissa allows. He argued that it was “lawgivers and other wise men that have laboured for the establishment of society” who divided society into these two groups, not because the division accurately reflected reality but because it would “induce several, especially the fiercest, most resolute, and best among them, to endure a thousand inconveniences and undergo as many hardships, that they may have the pleasure of counting themselves men of the second class, and consequently appropriating to themselves all the excellences they have heard of it.” That a first- or second-year student, even a very strong one, did not grasp the full force of Mandeville’s argument is unsurprising. But what is interesting is how she moves on to Smith and succinctly states several of his major ideas. And she ends with a challenging assertion of her own. Students, I explained to Melissa before class, are not going to understand everything they read the first time they encounter it. Would it be OK if we started class with her misunderstanding of Mandeville? We would then go on to all the things she did so beautifully. But I wanted to start with how Mandeville explained the fact of virtue and ask students to compare his argument to Machiavelli’s distinction between the reality and the mere appearance of virtue. By this point in the semester, I had built up a sufficient measure of trust with students for her to agree.

What is worth emphasizing is that Melissa wrote this before class.

Central to the historian’s enterprise is getting sources to shed light upon each other. Helping students to do this is complicated by several factors. One is their intellectual development. Many have yet to appreciate ambiguities as inevitable accompaniments to human life. Most lack a nuanced sense of irony. One semester is not long enough for some to grow into mature thinkers. All we can do is push. Another obstacle is that students have learned to cope by putting texts and other materials into airtight containers. They have learned to pigeonhole. And it has worked for them. It is a way to play safe in courses in which the student does not expect to excel but does wish to get a decent grade. Treating each item that comes along in isolation keeps them from making big mistakes. It is a formula for getting a B-. As with all practices that succeed, it is very difficult to stop.

I try by emphasizing the notion that we are engaged in a conversation about the meaning of the past and that historical figures themselves are parties to this conversation. The assignment on World War I in my “Modern Europe and U.S. II”  illustrates what this means.

One voice students encounter is Rupert Brooke’s. They read his “The Soldier,” and I read “Peace” to them in class:

Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!

Oh! we, who have known shame,
we have found release there,
Where there’s no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending,
Naught broken save this body, lost but breath;
Nothing to shake the laughing heart’s long peace there
But only agony, and that has ending;
And the worst friend and enemy is but Death

I remind them that Brooke wrote in the earliest days of the war. Wilfred Owen, whose “Dulce et Decorum Est” they also read, wrote in its last days. Owen could only have smiled sadly at the line, “To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,” as a description of going to war. We then talk about Brooke’s disdain for prewar life. Students are shocked when confronted with the line about “all the little emptiness of love!” We discuss the notion of war as purification, as bringing out the noblest in human nature. Then we read Winston Churchill’s obituary of Brooke. Next come other voices. One is Owen, who very likely read the obituary, and another is Sigmund Freud, whose Civilization and its Discontents offers a very different explanation of war’s appeal. Students have a choice. They can write about how Owen or Freud would react to the obituary. Or they can use an online exhibition of war paintings to illustrate Owen’s poem.

Otto Dix One student found a self portrait as a soldier by the German Otto Dix. She suggested we should use it to illustrate the Freud excerpts rather than Owen’s poem. She suggested this passage:

Men are not gentle, friendly creatures wishing for love, who simply defend themselves if they are attacked, but that a powerful measure of desire for aggression has to be reckoned as part of their instinctual endowment. The result is that their neighbour is to them not only a possible helper or sexual object, but also a temptation to them to gratify their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without recompense, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus; who has the courage to dispute it in the face of all the evidence in his own life and in history? This aggressive cruelty usually lies in wait for some provocation, or else it steps into the service of some other purpose, the aim of which might as well have been achieved by milder measures. In circumstances that favour it, when those forces in the mind which ordinarily inhibit it cease to operate, it also manifests itself spontaneously and reveals men as savage beasts to whom the thought of sparing their own kind is alien. Anyone who calls to mind the atrocities of the early migrations, of the invasion by the Huns or by the so-called Mongols under Jenghiz Khan and Tamurlane, of the sack of Jerusalem by the pious Crusaders, even indeed the horrors of the last world-war, will have to bow his head humbly before the truth of this view of man.

Dix had painted the date prominently into his portrait, 1914. This was when Rupert Brooke was beginning his War Sonnets. We talked about the dissonance between the way the two young men thought about going to war. We went back to a line in the Churchill obituary: “he advanced towards the brink in perfect serenity, with absolute conviction of the rightness of his country's cause and a heart devoid of hate for fellow-men.” We could never use the Dix portrait to illustrate that statement. We then turned back to the last stanza of Owen’s poem about a gas attack and the horrible death of a fellow soldier.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Had Brooke been “ardent for some desperate glory”? Was Churchill one of those who told “with such high zest” the “old Lie”? I had earlier translated the Latin and identified the quotation as from Horace. Owen used the Latin because he wanted to stress it was an old lie, a student pointed out. And its use identified his intended audience, the graduates of England’s “public schools,” all of whom had studied Horace and who became the officer class and Britain’s civil servants and policy makers, I contributed.

This discussion happened because one student was “haunted” by the Dix portrait. It made Freud’s discussion of human aggression come alive for her. As she read Freud, she said, she kept seeing the picture. In this class our semester-long use of the conversation metaphor finally clicked for several students. Owen really was talking to Brooke and to Brooke’s many readers, and to Churchill, and even to Horace. Freud’s theory of an aggression instinct was, they could grasp, a reply to those who glorified the sacrifices of war. And their ability to connect Otto Dix’s art with Freud’s psychological theory was their contribution to the conversation.