Thursday, February 19, 2015

Revisionist History: How the Past Can Be Altered

If a US high school student opened a textbook and read:
87 years ago our ancestors arrived here to make a new country
as the beginning of Lincoln's famous Gettysburg Address, instead of the actual words:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation
and was told that these were the words Abraham Lincoln spoke, what student would question this?

But of course this would never happen -- right? Well, wrong.

When I was in high school I was given the standard poetry textbook, an anthology entitled MODERN AMERICAN & MODERN BRITISH Poetry. The book opened with this verse by Emily Dickinson:

I never saw a moor,
I never saw the sea;
Yet know I how the heather looks,
And what a wave must be.

It turns out, this is not what she wrote. Instead here is her wording:

I never saw a
Moor —
I never saw
the Sea —
Yet know I
how the
Heather looks
And what a
Billow be.

Emily Dickinson's editor Higginson "had attempted wherever possible to smooth rhymes, regularize the meter, delete localisms, and substitute sensible metaphors. It was carefully designed to spare the reader's sensibilities by producing a maximum of decorum."
http://archive.emilydickinson.org/classroom/spring99/edition/johnson/j-poems.htm

Editing and publishing most of her poems after her death, Higginson rewrote poem after poem -- turning Dickinson's entire body of work, her wonderful original verses, into sing-song rhythms and rhymes. And still today these edited poems are what you will find on the Internet if you Google her writing -- as these rewritten poems have become the accepted versions of her poetry.


More than 70 years after Emily's death in 1886, my authoritative poetry high school textbook presented students with altered versions of her work. (photo:commons.wikimedia.org)  "A complete and mostly unaltered collection of her poetry became available for the first time in 1955 when scholar Thomas H. Johnson published The Poems of Emily Dickinson." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emily_Dickinson
Today Emily Dickinson is considered one of the greatest poets of all time and one of the first modern poets in the English language, but the full power of her work has been kept from us.



REWRITING HISTORY

History is often rewritten by those in power. As modern historians have pointed out, we now realize it was/is written by the victors, the wealthy, the authorities and the educated. Very little is known about the lives of the working classes in the past, for example, because they were not considered important and they often did not have the means to record their own history.

History can be distorted in a number of way: by omission -- i.e., simply ignoring an important event, by downplaying the importance of an event, by interpreting the past to fit with a particular nation's or culture's assumptions, or by simply not telling the truth.

Yet the two examples I have cited might seem fairly harmless. But these are just the tip of the iceberg.



SOVIET REVISIONISM 
REWRITING THE FACTS OF THE PAST

Soviet Russia was well known for rewriting history when it suited the purposes of the regime. Stalin, for example, often erased the records of people who were executed. These two photographs below show how good the Soviet retouchers were at removing someone once they had fallen out of favor.


 "Kliment VoroshilovVyacheslav MolotovStalin and Nikolai Yezhov at the shore of the Moscow-Volga canal." (text and image from wikimedia.org)  Yezhov, standing to the right of Stalin, was executed in 1940.  (photo:commons.wikimedia.org) "By the beginning of World War II, his status within the Soviet Union became that of a political unperson. Among art historians, he has the nickname 'The Vanishing Commissar' because after his execution, his likeness was retouched out of an official press photo; he is among the best known examples of the Soviet press making someone who had fallen out of favor 'disappear'."  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikolai_Yezhov


It is enough that the people know there was an election.
The people who cast the votes decide nothing.
The people who count the votes decide everything.
Joseph Stalin

But even these examples of the Stalin era do not go far enough. Until 1989 the Soviets did not acknowledge a secret protocol that was part of the non-aggression pact they had made with Nazi Germany in 1939. Eight days after it was signed, Germany invaded Poland and World War II began. Two weeks after that the Soviets began the takeover of parts of Poland, Finland, Romania and all of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania -- as agreed in the secret agreement.
Certain regions and periods of history [ED: for Soviet historians] were made unreliable for political reasons. Entire historical events could be erased, if they did not fit the party line. For example, until 1989 the Soviet leadership and historians, unlike their Western colleagues, had denied the existence of a secret protocol to the Soviet-German Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, and as a result the Soviet approach to the study of the Soviet-German relations before 1941 and the origins of World War II were remarkably flawed. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historiography_in_the_Soviet_Unionhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molotov%E2%80%93Ribbentrop_Pact


HOW THE WEST REWROTE HISTORY

Yet many countries in the West rewrote history as well.

When I was growing up in the 1950s in the United States, we were told the Soviets and communists were so inept at inventing and manufacturing, they needed to conquer and keep conquering adjacent countries to provide for their economies. This led to the idea that later became known as the domino theory -- meaning that communist countries must enslave other countries since they had no principles and were incapable of managing a practical economic system.

But while the 'Iron Curtain' countries in Europe were cruelly conquered and dominated after WW II by the Soviet Union, there was much more to this story. In 1945 after being attacked three times in less than 30 years (five times in 150 years), the Soviets wanted a buffer zone to protect themselves. The Eastern Bloc satellite countries became that buffer zone from the Soviet point of view -- rightly or wrongly -- but they were not part of a wide-ranging domino master plan.

Moreover, although not widely reported in Western history books, "The United Kingdom, France, Japan, Canada, the United States and many other countries had backed the White Russians against the Bolsheviks during the 1918–1920 Russian Civil War, and the fact hadn't been forgotten by the Soviets." These mostly western countries sent tens of thousands of troops to land on Russian soil and to fight the Russian government. These military forces stayed there seven years from 1918 until 1925.
http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Iron_curtain
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allied_intervention_in_the_Russian_Civil_War

Today this Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War is barely mentioned, if at all, in western college history courses. For example, in my Modern Civilization course at a major university, it was only refered to in a minor footnote. However, for those in Russia this intervention was quite important and some say still is important. 
"It was this victory [ED: over Allied forces in Russia] that helped forge post-tsarist Russia's self-image as a strong country that had stood up to the bullying of the west, and that lay at the root of the Cold War."  http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwone/eastern_front_01.shtml


 US so called 'Wolfhounds' in Siberia, Russia 1918 (photo:commons.wikimedia.org) 

As for the ineptness of the Soviets when it came to design and manufacturing -- this was simply a lie. The Soviets designed, built large numbers, and constantly improved the best tank of World War II, the legendary T34. This tank was a key factor in the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Nazi Field Marshal Paul Ludwig Ewald von Kleist, called it 
"The finest tank in the world" 
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T-34

 

SOVIET T34 TANK ASSEMBLY LINE 

From conception, to design, to manufacture, to use on the battle field, to constant improvements, the T34 tank was a remarkable Soviet success. This fact was well known to the US military but never shared with 'us boys' who were only told about the ineptness of the Soviet system. (photo:commons.wikimedia.org) 




THE SOVIET KATYUSHA MULTIPLE ROCKET LAUNCHERS
These rockets were devastatingly effective militarily and psychologically -- striking terror in Nazi solders when they heard it's telltale sound known as Stalin's organ. The inexpensive, flexible and mobile Soviet multiple launchers could fire dozens of rockets within seconds which demoralized the Nazi troops. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katyusha_rocket_launcher 
(photo:commons.wikimedia.org) These Soviet rockets turned the tables psychologically on the Nazis whose Stuka dive bomber had been designed to produce a terrifying whine known as the "Jericho-Trompete ("Jericho Trumpet") wailing sirens"  and which had become "the propaganda symbol of German air power." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Junkers_Ju_87

Their numerous aircraft  designs were also remarkable.

The Tupolev Tu-104 (NATO reporting name: Camel) was a twin-engined medium-range narrow-body turbojet-powered Soviet airliner and the world's first successful jet airliner. 
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tupolev_Tu-104

Soviet aircraft designer, Andrei Nikolayevich Tupolev, "designed and oversaw the design of more than 100 types of aircraft, some of which set 78 world records." 
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrei_Tupolev

Also as young American boys we were told that the Soviets were not capable of original thought and could only copy our designs. It was a fact that they were very good at copying but again there is much more to this story.
Tupolev headed the major project of reverse engineering the American Boeing B-29 strategic bomber, which was the world's first nuclear delivery platform. The USSR had repeatedly asked unsuccessfully for lend-lease B-29s. Using three machines which landed in Siberia after bombing Japan in 1945, Tupolev succeeded in replicating them down to trivial detail. Moreover, he got it into volume production, with crews fully trained in time for the 1947 May Day parade. The copy was designated Tu-4, with many subsequent Tu aircraft having the number 4 in their designations. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrei_Tupolev

Even the defeat of Nazi Germany by the Soviets was downplayed in the US. We were told that the Soviets won because of the severe Russian winter and not their military expertise. While the winter was a major factor in the Nazi defeat, it was because the Soviets knew how to use their winter to their best advantage. In fact it was called "General Winter" by the Soviet military as though the winter itself were a member of the armed forces. In the pivotal battle of Stalingrad, which many consider the turning point of the war, the Soviet's waited until winter to launch a counter attack which encircled the Nazi army and led to their surrender.
http://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/battle-of-stalingrad
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Uranus

And there were many more examples. But, of course, as young boys we were only told the western view of history. And for good reason. With the peace time draft in place, there was a possibility we might be called to fight -- and we had been conditioned to protect our country against the communist menace and to fight an enemy that we had been taught not to respect. 
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conscription_in_the_United_States

NOTE: I am not defending the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe after World War II or Soviet expansionist policies. I am saying that the West's point of view was based on assumptions and not on facts. American relations with the Soviets might have been quite different if the American view of history had been more realistic.



THE VIETNAM WAR AND WESTERN ASSUMPTIONS

Yet time and history have an odd way of taking people and countries in directions they never expected. After China became communist, authorities in the west assumed that adjacent countries would fall under China's influence -- as countries had in Europe under the Soviets. So the domino theory and disrespect for the communist system clouded military thinking in the US and led to an unnecessary war in Vietnam. 



John Wayne signing a soldier's helmet during the Vietnam War. (photo:commons.wikimedia.org) Like many Americans, John Wayne accepted the US assumptions and made the film, The Green Berets (1968), in support of the Vietnam war -- yet he did not serve in the military as many high profile actors did. He co-directed this film, "requested and obtained full military co-operation and materiel from President Johnson," (wikipedia.org).
...movie critic Roger Ebert gave it [ED: The Green Berets] zero stars and cited extensive use of cliches, depicting the war in terms of "cowboys and indians."  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Green_Berets_(film)
Wayne's failure to serve in the military was the most painful experience of his life. His widow later suggested that his patriotism in later decades sprang from guilt, writing: "He would become a 'superpatriot' for the rest of his life trying to atone for staying home."  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Wayne


2 years before the major commitment of US troops to the conflict in Vietnam, I was a student in college and could see the writing on the wall.   

When I researched the history of Vietnam, a number of facts stood out: Although the reasoning for the war was an Asian domino theory, it did not apply because the Vietnamese disliked the Chinese, so the Vietnamese brand of communism was not a spreading of Chinese influence.
"The last time the Chinese came, they stayed a thousand years...But if the Chinese stay now, they will never go." — Ho Chi Minh, 1946
In addition Vietnam was not an independent country that was being invaded, it was instead a French colony that had been badly treated by the French who at one point had exported rice from Vietnam while Vietnamese were starving.
http://www.san.beck.org/20-10-VietnamandFrench.html  

Because the Vietnamese were trying to overthrow a colonial power, early on Ho Chi Minh sent a clear signal that he wanted to work with the United States. Around 1915 he had memorized much of Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. In a speech in North Vietnam in 1945, he quoted it at length -- hoping that the USA would realize he was fighting for Vietnamese independence and freedom from a colonial power just as the Americans had done in the Revolutionary War. (I did not this know at the time but found out later. However, the people in Washington should have known this.)
http://www.thehistoryreader.com/modern-history/ho-chi-minh-thomas-jefferson/
Was it a civil war or an invasion by a foreign power? After the division of Vietnam into a North and South Vietnam in 1954, the United States supported a referendum about possible unification and said "that peoples are entitled to determine their own future and that it [ED: the USA] will not join in any arrangement which would hinder this." However, this vote was never held in part because it became clear that the people of Vietnam would have voted to unify with the North under Ho Chi Minh. President Eisenhower wrote in 1954 that "I have never talked or corresponded with a person knowledgeable in Indochinese affairs who did not agree that had elections been held...possibly eighty percent of the population would have voted for the Communist Ho Chi Minh as their leader..."  
Dwight D. EisenhowerMandate for Change. Garden City, New Jersey. Doubleday & Company, 1963, p. 372 
Lastly there was a model the USA could have followed, that of making an alliance with a communist country that was independent -- as we had done in Europe with communist Yugoslavia that had declared its independence from the Soviet Bloc.
http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/united-states-gives-military-and-economic-aid-to-communist-yugoslavia 

In short the domino theory did not apply to the conflict in Vietnam; instead it was a civil war in which we could have had considerable influence if we had chosen to work with the North.

Now, if a 19 year old college sophomore in North Carolina could figure this out, someone in the halls of power in Washington DC should have figured this out too. But instead they believed their own revised history about the weakness and flaws of a communist system and the domino theory. So the US went to war. As a result tens of thousands of my generation were killed or wounded or permanently scarred by PTSD, many more Vietnamese soldiers and civilians were killed and wounded and the US lost.


Demonstration at Raleigh-Durham Airport, 2 years before the massive deployment of US troops in the the Vietnam War 
https://d.lib.ncsu.edu/ocr/technician-v48n16-1963-10-21/technician-v48n16-1963-10-21.pdf
From the NC State University Student Newspaper The Technician, October 21, 1963


 2 years before the start of the war I was one of many students who picketed Madame Nhu, considered the First Lady of South Vietnam, in the Raleigh-Durham airport October 21, 1963 -- as I did not want the United States to get involved and could see no reason why we should. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madame_Nhu

After the war was over, the principle architect of the war, Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defense, said that the war had been a mistake and that it was a civil war and that we should not have gotten involved. In a documentary film he expressed the following opinion:
The conflict in Vietnam was a civil war in the eyes of the people [ED: of Vietnam], not a Cold War battle that the U.S. thought it was.
http://handofreason.com/2011/media/the-fog-of-war-eleven-lessons-from-the-life-of-robert-s-mcnamara
 In 1995, he took a stand against his own conduct of the war, confessing in a memoir that it was 'wrong, terribly wrong.'
Quote from New York Times obituary 
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_McNamara

Today most historians have come to agree with my view of the conflict in 1963 -- when I and many others picketed Madame Nhu.

The "dominant interpretation of the Vietnam War" today is that the
"Vietnam conflict was a tragic misadventure that could have been avoided had American leaders only been wiser, more prudent, and less wedded to the assumptions of the past."
The Oxford Companion to American Military History 

http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/vietnam/interpretations.htm


POSTSCRIPT

As I write this, the current Oscar nominated movie, The Imitation Game, has included a major factual error. In the movie Turing does not reveal the identity of a Soviet spy because the spy threatens to reveal Turing's homosexuality. This was simply not true. However, this fictional episode plays to people's prejudices about gay people in security positions -- and is likely to be believed. 
http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/nov/20/the-imitation-game-invents-new-slander-to-insult-alan-turing-reel-history

We might hope that the days of rewriting history are behind us. With the wealth of information on the Internet and also the speed of communication, fact checking can now be done in ways only imagined just a few years ago. It is up to each of us to keep historians honest and to not let preconceived ideas, assumptions and prejudices determine our view of the past which, in turn, will determine our actions in the future.

NOTE ABOUT THE KOREAN WAR: I am sure someone is going to rightfully say -- what about the Korean War -- wasn't that the 2nd domino to fall in Asia after China? And this is a legitimate question. But here are the facts: the Soviets were in Korea at the end of WWII because they were fighting the Japanese there, so that explains how the USSR ended up on Korean soil. Most importantly the soldiers defending South Korea in the war were fighting under the flag of the United Nations -- as this was not an American war, although this fact has been largely forgotten. And lastly, Korea is in a very different part of Asia than Vietnam -- so the falling domino metaphor, of countries next to each other falling into communist hands, is quite a stretch.




Friday, January 30, 2015

Your Personal Past: Regaining a Sense of Belonging by Understanding Your Personal History


 The only thing new in the world is the history you do not know.
 Harry S. Truman
Every generation tends to discount the past -- until they "get knocked in the head by experience" and then they look to history for examples and lessons.

Harry Truman, who had to make numerous unprecedented decisions at the end of World War II, looked to history for guidance.


President Truman who faced some of the most difficult decisions.  
(commons.wikimedia.org)
Truman said:"The next generation never learns anything from the previous one until it’s brought home with a hammer."
"I’ve wondered why the next generation can’t profit from the generation before but they never do until they get knocked in the head by experience." 

Handed-down wisdom was not accepted until a crisis proved its wisdom. This meant that each generation, in its hubris, had to learn this painful lesson because it did not think that the past had anything useful to teach it. 
http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2009/spring/truman-history.html

However, history has a number of stories to tell -- and to those who will listen the stories are priceless.


Military strategists today still study the tactics of Alexander the Great who fought more than 2300 years ago and who always faced a much larger army. This is a Roman picture of Alexander's Battle at Issus in Persia in 334 BCE.  (commons.wikimedia.org)

If you are interested in helping the environment, there are a number of examples of past ecological collapses. Such as:
Study traces ecological collapse over 6,000 years of Egyptian history
http://news.ucsc.edu/2014/09/egyptian-mammals.html


A Texas dust storm in 1935 approaching a town  (commons.wikimedia.org)

And the tragedy of the Dust Bowl in the US in the 1930s

Today, however, it seems that even recent history -- anything more than 10 or 20 years ago -- is often considered 'old school', 'out of date' and not really relevant.

Now, to be fair, there has been a definite break in the last 20 years -- computers and computer technology such as the Internet are distinctly different from typewriters and telegrams. And each generation must carve out a new path that is different from their parents. In addition cell phones have changed the way people communicate and relate to each other -- which is quite different from the recent past when all phones were connected to landlines and were anchored to a fixed location.

However, today there is often a kind of joyous ignorance as a friend of mine has pointed out, an attitude of "I don't know and I don't want to know."

Yet to be mired in the present is to never gain an overview of life -- the limitations of the brief present will not give you enough of a perspective. Understanding the past is like standing on a high hill where you can view a broad sweep of what life has to offer.


WHY THE PAST IS NEVER DEAD

But even more importantly you would not exist without the past. The threads of life from your great-great-great-etc-grandparents have lead directly to you being alive today. And without those unbroken threads you would not exist.

And the past can reappear in surprising ways. Many children find that they take after their grandparents, more than their parents, for example. And psychologists have found that children who know their family history are better able to cope with crises in their lives -- because they can look to experiences in their family when relatives had to overcome similar problems.

Yet I hear over and over that the past does not matter, it is dead, and what's done is done.

So for a minute come along with me and participate in the following 'mind experiment'.

If you have always assumed that your parents were your birth parents, imagine how you would feel if later in life you discovered something different. For example, the singer Bobby Darin found out at the age of 32 that his family was entirely different from what he had thought.
...he discovered that he had been brought up by his grandparents, not his parents, and that the girl he had thought to be his sister was actually his mother. These events deeply affected Darin and sent him into a long period of seclusion. 
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bobby_Darin


Bobby Darin (commons.wikimedia.org)

This is a particularly good example, because in a sense nothing had changed -- his family was still alive and well -- but events in the past had suddenly come alive and completely changed his relationships. So the past was not dead.

When you cut yourself off from the past, you have in a sense cut yourself off from who you are. You have made yourself into an orphan, who has landed on an island but who does not know how they got there and where they came from.


HOW TO FIND OUT ABOUT YOUR PAST:
DISCOVER YOUR OWN LIVING HISTORY

To understand the history that is important to you, you need to do the following:

  • Ask parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts about their past. You might do this at Christmas or on a birthday. But be in charge; don't let them ramble or focus on conflicts. If this starts to happen, ask another question.
  • Learn about the history of your town, your county, your state, your region -- this is easy now with the Internet. Wikipedia, for example, has a separate page for just about any town of any size. In any case just Google the name of your town and you may be surprised at what comes up. Read about the industries, famous people, geography, natural disasters, etc.
  • Learn about the history of your country: You should know the presidents (or prime ministers) during the last 50-100 years and the major events that occurred while they were in charge.
  • Learn about the world: When a major conflict or issue erupts learn the history of the conflict -- and read opinions from both sides about what led to that conflict.
  • Learn about your culture: Customs and holidays are often steeped in tradition -- learn about those traditions and how they were viewed at different times in the past.



Rock group picture from commons.wikimedia.org

Learn about people you admire: If you like a certain music group, for example, read about their influences and the history of the type of music that they play.


PUTTING MY IDEAS TO THE TEST

To test my own advice, I went online to learn more about my first home town of Sharon, Connecticut, the place where I was born but left more than 50 years ago. Being a writer and photographer today, I have always been interested in the arts and literature but was not aware that Sharon, in particular, was the home of so many actors and writers. For example, way back in 1781, Noah Webster author of the famous Webster's Dictionary taught in Sharon. When I did some online research I also found that a good friend of my mother's, Judson Phillips, was an important mystery writer and he also founded the summer theater, the Sharon Playhouse. This theater has made the town a magnet for actors, so today people such as Kevin Bacon have a home here.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sharon,_Connecticut


Sharon Library
This unusual looking library was built in 1893. It was funded privately by Maria Bissell Hotchkiss. I have to believe that this remarkable library which has been part of Sharon for over 100 years has attracted writers to the town and also helped create an appreciative audience. It is still open everyday along with an annual book signing that features a number of famous authors. http://www.hotchkisslibrary.org/


Most things you learn about your personal past will add to your enjoyment and also to a feeling of being connected. Even when you discover stories of extreme pain and conflict, you may feel a sense of pride that those who came before you suffered and survived.

Knowing about your past will help you feel more comfortable in your own skin and also give you a sense of belonging and a sense that you are part of a long family tree.


Town of Sharon, Connecticut (Google Earth)



Thursday, December 18, 2014

Time & Consciousness

Some scientists have said that human consciousness is perhaps the biggest unsolved scientific mystery of today. I would not disagree. 

While I do not pretend to understand the latest findings from brain studies, I do believe human consciousness must involve language plus a sense of time. The combination of these two things allows humans to create a virtual world in their minds, a virtual world of meta-time and meta-space -- which I have written about before. See my blog on Virtual Human Meta-Time.

To test this idea, it would be helpful to find a person who had not been conscious but who then suddenly became conscious. If we could find such a person, we could examine their experience and the transition they went through. Like the studies of left brain and right brain activity that looked at people whose brains had been damaged and the effects this had on language, could we find a person whose affliction would highlight aspects of consciousness?

It turns out there was such a person -- and she was thoughtful, intelligent and articulate. I am speaking of the famous deafblind Helen Keller who went from not knowing any words to mastering a complex vocabulary. After her breakthrough she became the first deafblind person to obtain a college degree graduating from Radcliffe with honors. She was also the first deafblind person to write a book and she went on to write 14 books.


Helen with her teacher, Anne Sullivan, and her doll. (commons.wikimedia.org)
Anne Sullivan ... began to teach Helen [ED: at age 6] to communicate by spelling words into her hand, beginning with "d-o-l-l" for the doll that she had brought Keller as a present. Keller was frustrated, at first, because she did not understand that every object had a word uniquely identifying it....Keller became so frustrated she broke the doll.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_Keller
The following is what Helen Keller herself had to say about her discovery of language. NOTE: I have taken a number of sentences from Helen Keller's various works and arranged them to focus on the aspect of her sudden consciousness of time. http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Helen_Keller 



Once I knew only darkness and stillness.

My inner life, then, was a blank without past, present, or future [ED: my emphasis] 

It was not night—it was not day. .      .      .      .      . 
But vacancy absorbing space, 
And fixedness, without a place; 
There were no stars—no earth—no time— [ED: my emphasis] 

Since I had no power of thought, I did not compare one mental state with another. So I was not conscious of any change or process going on [ED: another aspect of time]

But a little word from the fingers of another fell into my hand that clutched at emptiness, and my heart leaped to the rapture of living. Night fled before the day of thought,

With the first word I used intelligently, I learned to live, to think, to hope. Darkness cannot shut me in again. 

When I learned the meaning of "I" and "me" and found that I was something, I began to think. Then consciousness first existed for me.


The famous moment when she became conscious is well known and depicted in the play/movie The Miracle Worker. Here is Helen's description of that pivotal moment:
Some one was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness...and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that "w-a-t-e-r" meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!
The Story of My Life by Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan
We can assume from her earlier comments that this awakening of her soul now included a sense of past, present and future -- which she did not have before that moment.


Helen 'feeling' the words from the mouth 
of Mrs. Calvin Coolidge, wife of the president. (commons.wikimedia.org)

I find it quite significant she emphasized time did not exist before language. Once she had grasped the meaning of words as symbols -- that they represented things and concepts -- her world opened up and an understanding of time was a direct result. 


Helen in her graduation outfit. (commons.wikimedia.org)
Thought made me conscious of love, joy, and all the emotions. I was eager to know, then to understand, afterward to reflect on what I knew and understood, and the blind impetus, which had before driven me hither and thither at the dictates of my sensations, vanished forever.
The World I Live In by Helen Keller
(this book goes into a detailed description of her transition)
NOTE: You can get a free copy of this book on Gutenberg.org in a variety of formats: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/27683 


Helen's signature after she learned to write. (commons.wikimedia.org)
As I have written, I believe humans have a unique sense of time -- we are the only animal who understands and can place moments in time on a timeline and who can communicate the concept of 'when' in the past, present and in the future. And we can do this because of language. See my blog: Animal Senses Compared to the Human Sense of Time .

 As reported next in an article from the American Association For The Advancement Of Science,  recent studies have shown that other animals may actually be quicker and more skilled at momentary tasks. Yet as the following quote suggests this may because of "a tradeoff between memory and language" in the human brain.
It would be extremely rare to find a human with the “extraordinary working memory” of a chimpanzee...but the reasons for this may stem from a tradeoff between memory and language. Human language makes memory portable over time and space, making it less essential for us to hold items in mind at a precise moment.“Chimps are living in the world of here and now,” Matsuzawa said. “We [ED: humans] are living in the world, thinking about the past, thinking about the future, trying to understand the meaning of what we see, and bringing the information back to friends and families and colleagues to share the experience.” http://www.aaas.org/news/releases/2013/0214_primate_cognition.shtml  
So this scientist is making the point that a sense of time -- past and future -- is an essential part of the human psyche and that this sense is intertwined with language. This unique sense of time combined with language creates its own virtual world, the world of human meta-time and the world of human consciousness.


 (commons.wikimedia.org)


Saturday, November 29, 2014

School's Most Important Subject: Time

What did you learn in school today? 
Most of us believe in the words of the old song:

School days, school days
Dear old Golden Rule days
'Reading and 'riting and 'rithmetic
"School Days"
by Gus Edwards and Will D. Cobb (1907)


While the subjects taught in school such as reading and writing are essential for functioning in the modern world,  education from the first grade teaches an even more critical subject -- the subject of time.

Who does not jump -- even years after graduation -- when they hear a school's clanging bell? Who does not feel a bit of anxiety when they hear a sound like a buzzer that signaled the beginning of a class period?

The bell tower that chimes the hours can be seen throughout 
the campus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill -- my alma mater. (commons.wikimedia.org)

And what young person does not chaff under the yoke of the relentless time demands required by the society?

My eyes are burning, bells are ringing in my ears
Alarm clocks wailing, class bells screaming, I can't hear
A text book mad-house, twelve years I'm here in a rage
A juveniles jail, And I'm here locked up in their cage
...School Daze, school daze, I'm here doin' time
"School Daze"
by W.A.S.P.


The fact that students must spend a minimum of 12 years in school emphasizes how much is required to instill a civilized sense of time. This does not come naturally but must be drilled in day after day, year after year over more than a decade -- starting at a very early age.

As students progress from one grade to another, the demands of time and time management increase. Be slightly late and you may be penalized. In some schools being seconds late three times is the same as missing an entire class.

Give me a minute, ohhhhh I can't be tardy
My class is already started, they told my mom I'm retarded
"14,400 Minutes"
Chance The Rapper


Being on time is only one aspect. Homework, for example, does not have to be done at a certain time. You can do your homework on your own schedule, BUT it needs to be completed before the class meets.


A typical homework schedule, that does not need to list specific times 
like a class schedule, but indicates when homework must be completed. (commons.wikimedia.org)



While the school will have a variety of clocks, each student is expected to own an accurate watch and to keep a close eye on his/her personal time.



In addition students are taught a number of things about the nature of time: organize your time, don't waste time, time is money, time flies, make the best use of your time. Time management is often taught as the key to success in school. In the west this constant message from teachers, parents, businesses and institutions instills the idea that time is a commodity -- a resource -- that you can use or squander.  See my blog about time as a commodity.


Time flies. (commons.wikimedia.org)

With each higher grade there is more homework, more preparation, more deadlines, more planning. In high school and college there will be papers due that become increasingly long and require more research and that must be submitted by specific deadlines. The more advanced your studies, the more demands will be made on your time.

And there are other aspects of time as well. From the moment a student walks into school he/she is taught to conceptualize and visualize time. For example, classes are divided into blocks -- there is even the expression "a block of time." A school day is often pictured in schedules as actual blocks on a day calendar. Blocks are a useful metaphor and symbol since most children have played with blocks early in childhood.

A high school class schedule that divides time into blocks. (commons.wikimedia.org)


And school, of course, tests your memory -- a major component of understanding time. Learning is basically knowing how to store information along with the ability to reproduce it and put it to use. But, as most of us know, few can remember many of the subjects we learned in school. What we did learn was how to memorize for a short period and then to take tests. After that what we had remembered could be forgotten.



What does a flush course teach?
Certainly not the subject matter.
When I was teaching at a community college, students said that many of their courses were 'flush courses'. I had never heard that term so I asked them what it meant. It meant they did the work, read the books, passed the tests, and then promptly forgot the subject matter covered in the course. They just flushed the knowledge down the toilet. So they did not really learn a subject but they did learn to do their work on time and to memorize as required to meet the demands of the school.


The constant repetition over a decade or more of class periods, deadlines, assignments, tests and long term projects plus a universal message from a variety of teachers and authorities leads to an acceptance of how time is handled within a culture. It also establishes time habits that become second nature and ingrained when a student graduates and goes into the workforce.

After attending school, graduates have learned 'job time' and 'corporate time' -- a principal skill when they enter the workforce. So when a company hires a worker, it is assumed that he/she knows about time and will be 'on time' for job requirements.


A sophisticated business chart with target dates on the left and the work 
that must be completed on the right. This was used in a construction project. (commons.wikimedia.org)


Please Note: I am not against these notions of time. However, I think it is important we are aware that school does not just teach subjects, but a cultural understanding of time itself. Yet this is only one way to think about time. To be healthy human beings, we need to know how to function when 'on the clock' and how to relax and enjoy life when 'off the clock'. See one of my blogs about this aspect of time: A Revolution in Time.

These pressure cooker time requirements are a heavy burden. Young people chafe under the shackles of time constraints -- as this does not come naturally and has to be learned in each culture. This teen-angst is expressed in Chuck Berry's song, School Days. The rigid logical time requirements of school need to be shaken off at the end of the day, with a different kind of time -- the natural rhythms of human beings.

Up in the mornin' and out to school...
Ring ring goes the bell...
Soon as three o'clock rolls around
You finally lay your burden down
Drop the coin right into the slot
You gotta hear something that's really hot
Long live rock'n'roll
The beat of the drum is loud and bold
Rock rock rock'n'roll
The feelin' is there body and soul

"School Days" Chuck Berry




Time is initially presented to children in a friendly almost playful manner. (commons.wikimedia.org)



Later the ever present clock becomes a major presence in children's lives. 
(commons.wikimedia.org)


 As they grow up, children are taught the more severe and unforgiving aspects of time. (commons.wikimedia.org)



By adulthood workers are expected to have a sophisticated sense of time. 
This not only involves the hours of the day 
but also an understanding of how their work each day 
relates to their weekly and monthly schedules. 
(commons.wikimedia.org)