The Soil of History: Will & Ariel Durant's Old Case for New Education
History is the decomposed soil of human lives. Our heritage accumulates beneath our feet, enriched by each successive life, like cycles of growth and decay fertilizing the soil of human experience.
In Will and Ariel Durant’s The Lessons of History, a small book distilling an 11-volume study of civilization, they define progress as the degree to which our lives are enriched by the cycles of human experience that precede us:
Progress is here divided into two elements: the rising heritage, and our ability to ‘receive’ that heritage. Our rising heritage is the soil, the rising “ground and support of our being” enriched by the billions of human lives that came before us. We’re lifted higher and higher, as if history is a mountain emerging from the ground and each human is born upon this ascending mass to new heights. But just passively standing upon the objective cultural knowledge underfoot will not deliver us to healthier, better, and wiser futures. This ignores the second, subjective element of progress, in which each individual must ‘receive’ the lessons of that rising heritage.
To improve our overall condition, the Durants ask us to complement our upward motion atop the rising ground of knowledge by spreading roots deep into the fertile soil of history, so that we may find better footing amidst our dizzying ascent.
The degree to which we receive the lessons of our heritage is a matter of education, defined by the Durants:
Education is a vital element to the subjective facet of progress. The Durants ask us not to consider education as a system for rote memorization, or marketable skills (and this critique of today’s standardized education is abundant). Rather, they conceive of education as a social institution circumambulating that perennial human question of how to live. Education can teach us what we’ve learned enriches, and what we’ve learned detracts, from the human experience.
But the structure of education today favors the objective. It focuses less on our subjective enjoyment of life — and far less on the practices that might enhance that experience — and more on our theoretical knowledge, our objective assimilation into an antiquated system. Increasingly, it teaches us what we can otherwise learn with a few clicks on Google, should we be interested. It prepares us to ‘earn our keep’ in a system that is failing to address the subjective nature of teaching lessons for “the enlargement of [hu]man’s understanding, control, embellishment, and enjoyment of life.”
A 2013 PEW survey found that 66% of Americans feel the education system needs serious remodeling.
How might we reimagine education to re-saturate that dried husk of creativity and curiosity? To encourage progress in subjective domains alongside the rising objective ones?
For now, I’m more interested in this divergence between objective and subjective progress than specifics of overhauling a faltering education system (something I’m unqualified for, but I remain optimistic about the conversations now taking place).
An inconvenient lesson the past century of American culture teaches is that after a certain threshold of basic financial stability, improving objective conditions does little to improve subjective ones.
So when considering how to reconceive of education and reconnect our rising heritage with our ability to receive, and enrich our lives through that heritage, I wonder if practice is the bridge between objective knowledge and subjective well-being. In other words, what we know matters only insofar as it informs what we do.
The Practice of Language
Practice is usually thought of as an explicit act, training or repetition we consciously undertake to improve. But practice, more broadly viewed, is any set of repetitions; anything we do consistently will impress habits into our neural pathways.
Language, for example is a universal practice that’s rarely considered as such. But the grammatical contours of a language condition how we make sense of the chaotic stimuli our brains receive. On a conscious level, we rarely experience stimuli as raw sensations, but as a stream of narration, the stories we tell ourselves about what’s happening to, or in, us. Thus, the grammatical structure of our native language conditions how we describe the unfolding world to ourselves. It’s in this vein that linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf wrote:
Applying this to education, imagine if English curriculums did more than teach us grammatical nuances, and taught us the implicit biases of our native tongue. What if language curriculums included a comparative study of how world languages condition the minds that practice them?
A Balance of Progress
Seen through this lens, history is a deep record of trial and error, an inventory of practices and experiments in living well. Diets, languages, hobbies, political systems, and economic systems are all ran through the mill of human experience, yielding various data on things that might work for us now, and others that might not.
To neglect this data leaves us to live the same uninformed lives our ancestors did. Not necessarily to repeat their mistakes, so much as to live on the same plane of subjective development as humans of antiquity, while finding ourselves atop a mountain of objective, material development so far advanced that the national conversation is whether, or in how long, our technologies will overtake us.
Are our lives any better, subjectively, than the Ancient Greeks? It’s an open question. But the adjacent one, whether our lives are objectively better, is a definite yes, as Steven Pinker tirelessly reminds us. The imbalance could drive meaningful education reform, predicated upon enriching our lives with the compound interest of thoughtfully designed practices over the course of a lifetime. Or, we could continue our material, objective ascent without planting deep roots for subjective progress, in which case we’ll continue our dizzying, unstable climb until we lose our balance and fall off our pedestal of knowledge, crashing somewhere below.
Above all, I wonder if Will & Ariel Durant concluded their study of civilization with the same enduring spirit I closed their condensed book with: It’s a fascinating time in human history to be alive. As Jack Kerouac concludes his San Francisco Scene spoken word performance: “What will happen?”