There are, of course, whole books (and arguably academic disciplines) devoted to this question so I’ll try to keep it fairly brief here.
I think this is the fundamental question of our time. It’s particularly relevent to education. Rousseau’s postulation of the child as tabula rasa who only degrades as he comes into contact with civilization and its authority figures is pretty much the fundamental mental model of schools of education, and even lots of people who consider themselves radical reformers.
But you see this idea emerge in all sorts of areas of life. I was thinking about this as I was baking some sourdough boules the other day. It’s a skill I’m still trying to master, and I’m extra motivated right now by the approach of the holidays to be able to bake consistently good loaves for family and friends.
With deep respect to those who’ve chosen to avoid carbohydrates/gluten for both medical and personal reasons, I’m looking at you, bread-haters.
From an archaeological and anthropological perspective, it’s pretty dang clear that civilization and agriculture are completely intertwined phenomena. Whether you’re a “beer-firster” or “bread-firster,” the fact is that people figured out that they could get reliable food and drink by settling down and growing some grain.
Was this somehow a mistake that our ancestors made back in the mists of history? I ask that with only a little tongue in cheek. If you take seriously the myriad and multifarious modern assaults on civilization, you’d have to conclude that its critics are putting forward (at least implicitly) an argument that we’d all be better off in a state of nature.
The fashionable contempt for the work, ideas, and yes, innovations of millenia of fellow humans is just straight up ungrateful. I think Jonah Goldberg does a really good job of making the case for gratitude in his new book, Suicide of the West. But he tends to focus on “The Miracle,” a period of skyrocketing prosperity kicked off in either England or The Netherlands roughly 300 years ago.
I’m going to get meta-metaphorical here, so bear with me for a sec.
Most of the laborious bread-making process seems really boring and undramatic. You have to start out with a healthy starter or mother (which you can inherit from a friend – thanks Nova! – or a family member, but you can also capture spontaneously from the spores floating around in the air). You add it to a larger portion of flour and water and it spends some time eating and digesting sugars (that’s where the bubbles come from). Your bread is a living thing, and like all living things, it farts. This stage is called the levain. It looks kinda like this:
You take this levain and add even more flour and water. Now you’re at the autolyze stage, and for hours, it looks like absolutely nothing is happening. You fold the dough periodically. Still nothing.
“The Miracle” Goldberg describes reminds me of the final stage of bread-making. This is when you pop the blob of dough into the hot stove and presto, it undergoes something that bread people call “oven spring.” This is when the loaf poofs up and any surface damage that you’ve done becomes visible. The tears, or scoring, in the crust not only allow the loaf to rise upwards (producing better texture) but they also allow the beauty of the bread to shine through.
This is my way-too-periphrasitic way of saying that millenia of human history are getting no respect these days. We look at long epochs where it looks like nothing is happening. But just like the edible manifestation of agriculture, it’s exactly when things appear most idle that the biggest changes are occurring within complex systems.
Progress in all things worth doing is not linear. We all sort of know this from our own lives. Why shouldn’t we also take that view of civilization itself? Why should we heap contempt on the countless tiny innovations and refinements that put us in the position to pass judgement so flippantly on the past?
I’ll just wrap this by noting the central significance of agricultural products, like bread and wine, in many religions. If you’re from a Christian background, you know that Jesus called himself the bread of life.
Metaphors are centrally important to the way we experience, process, and make sense of the world, a concept that new insights from neuroscience is validating. I think that one of the dangers of contempt for history and cultural knowledge is that we are actually taking away from future generations crucial metaphors by which they can refine and improve their own lives and the lives of those around them.
When it comes to education, I think this is why I’m such a big fan of the idea of cultural literacy. That’s a blog for another day…