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I recently read a biography of Joshua Chamberlain that was truly interesting. He was quite an amazing fellow, old josh. Not the least of his accomplishments was his remarkable academic achievements, which, by modern standards, were beyond extraordinary. When he decided that he wanted to go to Bowdoin College and realized that acceptance depended upon his ability to be fluent in ancient Greek, he taught it to himself. In the end he was fully fluent in 10 languages, a fact that should be considered particularly admirable in modern times where most people you meet can barely speak one with anything that could be considered real proficiency and that's the one they were born into.
Chamberlain had what was considered a classic education, hence the necessity for Latin and Greek. That meant that every student had to be able to read Aristotle and Euclid and Caesar's Memoirs in their original language. It meant that you had to study mathematics, philosophy, music, art, history, and the sciences at an extremely high level and do it well. There are people who might argue that there is a whole lot more to know now than there was during the mid 19th century, and they would be right, but that argument is weakened by the fact that education has become so specialized that general knowledge has been abandoned and there is no depth to the diverse knowledge that is taught. In the modern world it is only required that you know one thing really well and it seems to be perfectly alright if you are numb as a stump in every other subject on earth.
Back in the day part of a classic education was rhetoric, the art of speaking and writing with clear knowledge and persuasively on any subject. Chamberlain taught rhetoric and Bowdoin along with modern languages – the 7 other ones he knew besides Greek and Latin. Verbal and written expression were more of an art form and any educated person was expected to be able to express themselves in a manner befitting a learned man or woman. It is a little sad that you can sit in a class or turn on your television now and listen to some very important and supposedly educated people who seem to struggle with forming a coherent sentence much less express themselves in a manner that is remotely eloquent. My brother and I were saying the other day that we have not heard a really good speech from any of our presidents or politicians since John F. Kennedy, which indicates that both the writers and the speakers leave something to be desired – like the ability to write or speak, for instance. These are the guys who are supposed to be good at these things so what does that tell you about the rest of us? I read somewhere that one of our current president gave a State of the Union address that worked out to being at an 8th grade level. Yikes.
My sister-in-law has a theory that I think holds a lot of merit. She maintains that people are getting dumber, not smarter. It is her contention that evolution works on the brain just like it does on everything else, and that as we move away from using certain functions of our brains ourselves, allow machines to do our thinking for us, and stop training our brains with constant education and exercise, those functions will simply stop operating for us, like our appendix and tonsils, and it will happen faster than we can imagine. I think she may be right on the money, after all, that's how evolution works and there is no reason to believe that the brain is immune to the process. Technology is thinking for us more and more and since we have so much time on our hands, mass media can fill the gap with all sorts of entertaining schlock that we can make our new reality.
Back in the day if we wanted to be educated people it was important that we were taught and learned how to think. Thinking, analyzing, and logic were things we had to learn how to do, and it was the great thinkers and philosophers like Socrates who taught us how to do it well. I fear that before too much time has passed no one will be able to read Socrates or even spell his name much less understand what he was talking about. It's a darn good thing that we have super smart machines on hand to save us. I'm sure they will be there to write for us and spell for us and speak for us in coherent sentences when we are no longer able to do so. Of course, we had better make them super smart while we still can because they will need to design and build the even better machines that we will need to survive when we no longer have the smarts to design and build them ourselves. I hope they remember to make on that can tie our shoes for us. We'll need them for when we can no longer walk and chew gum at the same time.
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