Education and the Problem of a Runaway World

There’s an educationally fertile footnote in the masterful history classic by Halévy, “Victorian Years” (Élie Halévy, History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century, Volume 4, Ernest Benn Ltd., London, 1970):

“…[people are] forgetting what all history is constantly proclaiming, that nothing human is fixed; that crowns, sceptres, dominions, institutions, establishments, and monopolies are ever changing, ever departing from their old seats, springing up anew in other places and leaving deserts where they formerly flourished. Tyre, Sidon, Carthage, Greece, Rome! all the departed nations of the world warn us of this, and still we remain unconscious that our time comes, it is coming, nay, is almost at the threshold.”

(“Victorian Years,” footnote for page 40)

The classic on change, Thomas Carlyle’s Past and Present (1843) was influenced by this “overview” of ephemerality in the long run.

A student should ponder these words and see “past and present” and oneself more clearly and more sagaciously.

Education must put this on the “intellectual plate” in front of each freshman everywhere.

The highlighted phrase above, “leaving deserts where they formerly flourished” is an eerie premonition of sorts, of global climate change in our time, and the insouciant attitude of the White House and the absolutely destructive “head in the sand” reactions by the “haves,” especially Washington.

The phrase “that nothing human is fixed” above reminds us of the Nietzsche/Foucault intuition on things.

Essay 87: Knowledge and Self-Knowledge

The educational remedy or fulfillment or reform being proposed here does not want to “suppress the person” acquiring some knowledge at a university. Every student is also a person.

Every person has the problem outlined by Nietzsche (died 1900):

“What have we really experienced?”—or rather, “who are we, really?”

The sad truth is that we remain necessarily strangers to ourselves, we don’t understand our own substance, we must mistake ourselves; the axiom, “Each man is farthest from himself, will hold for us to all eternity. Of ourselves we are not ‘knowers’…”

(The Birth of Tragedy and The Genealogy of Morals, Doubleday Anchor Books, 1956, Francis Golffing, translator, page 149, “Preface” to The Genealogy of Morals, 1887)

The problem of self-knowledge and its relationship to academic knowledge—whether specialized or more general—should be embraced and not dodged or suppressed since every student is also a person and the person-student continuum cannot be avoided or repressed.

Essay 62: Nietzsche’s Insights Used for Educational Improvement

Nietzsche (died in 1900) said things that are strangely relevant for our educational quest:


“Everything that is of my kind, in nature and in history, speaks to me, praises me, spurs me on, comforts me—everything else I don’t hear or forget right away.  We are always only in our own company.”

(The Gay Science, Number 166, page 135)

Nietzsche sensed the tendency towards solipsism in people. This reminds us of William James in his classic essay, “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings.”

One immediately senses then the need for a many-sided cosmopolitan education to combat this “we are always only in our own company.”


“Those who know they are deep strive for clarity.

“Those who would like to seem deep to the crowd strive for obscurity. For the crowd takes everything whose ground it cannot see to be deep:

it is so timid and so reluctant to get into the water.”

(The Gay Science, Number 172, page 136)


“He is a thinker: that means he knows how to make things simpler than they are.”

(The Gay Science, Number 189, page 139)

There is a way to make things simpler than they are without distortion and oversimplifying (i.e., the skill for “essentializing”).  Thinking means partly:  finding the right way to simplify, as suggested here by Nietzsche.

(The Gay Science, [originally 1882/1887], Cambridge University Press, Bernard Williams, editor, 2001)

Essay 41: Then and Now Thinking

Historical thinking is a lifelong attempt to link something called “then” to something called “now.”  History as an academic field of study has a deep cleavage within it in that people like Foucault and Nietzsche think the links between then and now are often illusionary since history is mostly noise (i.e., disconnected chaos) and not “signal” (i.e., “cause and effect” chains of linear progress uncovered by “historian-detectives.”)

We explore this in this mini-essay by looking at the rise of what we call a service economy.

The great Russian thinker Alexander Herzen is traveling around Europe in the 1840s with Marx’s Manifesto appearing in 1848.  Herzen is amazed at the service sector in Paris:

“He was enchanted by the conveniences of Paris, especially the numbers of quick efficient services, from catering to house-cleaning, which made it unnecessary to employ private servants.”

(quoted in Revolutions of 1848:  A Social History. Priscilla Robertson, Princeton 1967, page 110 footnote)

In our own day, the leading economic historian, R.M. Hartwell, in his classic essay, “The Service Revolution:  The Growth of Services in Modern Economy 1700-1914” outlines a worldwide rise of services, and concludes his essay thus:  “The lesson of history is undoubtedly, that was has already happened in the United States, will happen elsewhere, and that the trend in employment towards the services in all developed and developing economies will result finally in a world-wide service revolution.”

(The Fontana Economic History of Europe: The Industrial Revolution, Fontana/Collins, 1980, page 394)

Shall we then “fold Herzen/Paris 1848” into this larger picture, Hartwell’s 1700-1914 or is that a false linkage?

This is an example of then and now analysis which is key to education.

Let us continue the past two essays:

We then use this kind of interesting “home-made puzzle” (one we made-up ourselves and did not read anywhere) and follow it up by entering the academic subject:

  1. Read the classic Manias, Panics and Crashes, the Prof. Kindleberger (MIT) classic.
  2. Discover that the Prof. Niall Ferguson miniseries on PBS, The Ascent of Money, doesn’t elucidate our particular query.
  3. Read Kevin Phillips’s Bad Money to get an introduction to the dangers of “over financialization.” (“hyper financialization”).

The “New York Times” in a piece The New York Times, 12 November 1910, describes the bank run in England including the Westminster Bank.   The movie is set in 1910.

We then begin to think that the collapse of Barings Bank in recent years (Nick Leeson scandal) radiating out from Hong Kong office, is not disconnected from the Barings Bank scandals of 1890. Historical thinking wants to see an arc or trajectory or larger and wider process, and not as disconnected, episodic and completely random.

The Anglo-American financialization process has led to many anomalies.

You might legitimately date the modern beginnings of this mega-process from the 1873 classic by Walter Bagehot of The Economist in his book, Lombard Street, where London is described as the money machine that governs the world and its fluctuations.

Hank Paulson, U.S. Treasury Secretary and Ben Bernanke of the Fed, warned Congressmen in Washington, in September 2008, that the global financial system was on the brink of collapse and needed “infinite” bailout money by that Monday morning, after the weekend.

These problems have yet to be seriously addressed and we might be in a new “bubble” at the intersection of real estate and financial system pathologies (i.e., where the world economy tends to become a kind of “betting parlor”).

Essay 34: Arguments Without End: Are They Good or Bad?

The Dutch historian Pieter Geyl (died in 1966) coined the phrase “argument without end” to get at the constant reappearance of old arguments or viewpoints. One gets the impression that arguments are either persistent or perhaps permanent. One simplistic example could be argument about socialism: Sweden is “good,” but Venezuela (or Cuba) is bad. This book takes the view that “arguments without end” are not the end of knowledge but rather a potential beginning: it could be that some issues cannot be captured by one school of thought: the awarding of the 1974 Nobel Prize to both Hayek (“the right”) and Myrdal (“the left”) is an example of this need for hybridity. Both Hayek and Myrdal are each seeing something valid and it’s a “fool’s errand” to decide who is “eternally” correct.

Let’s apply this thinking to a deep “argument without end” within and about history.

Michel Foucault (died in 1984) following Nietzsche, argues that history seems “linear” but is more random and non-linear than the “linear” historians see or admit.

There’s an aphorism in Nietzsche, (from his The Dawn) which Foucault uses…history is made by the “iron-hand of necessity shaking the dice-box of chance.”

In other words the world we know, traveling somehow from the assassination of Kennedy (November 2, 1963) to the impeachment hearings of Trump in October 2019, must be thought of as a kind of “random walk” behind which are trends, cycles, so that one gets a fusion of structure and surprise. If you emphasize surprise you’re closer to Foucault than to those narrative historians who think they can show you the exact threads which connect “then and now.”

Here’s an example of such a historian, the celebrated G.R. Elton of England, whose classic The Tudor Revolution in Government is a masterpiece of orthodox analysis. The book centers on the administrative revolution in the 1530s in England which implied, says Elton, “As regards political and social structure, the sixteenth century produced something quite new in England—the self-contained sovereign state in which no power on earth could challenge the supremacy of statute made by the crown in parliament.”

“In this revolution, in this making of a new kind of state productive of a new kind of society, administrative reforms played their part. It is against this background of controlled upheaval that they must be seen and understood.”

(Elton, The Tudor Revolution in Government, Cambridge University press, 1966, page 426/427)

Orthodox historians see history as a “nail-down-able” system of storylines and the controlled upheavals have a direction (teleology) which allows you to use—in this case the 1530s in England—as a beginning, an origin, a “datum line,” and once you have this clear starting point you can follow the story to now and include comparative developments in France or Germany or China.

The orthodox “explain strategy” starts with an origin, a “starting gate” like a horse-race.

The FoucaultNietzsche view is that these starting points are not entirely useless but in the end don’t help you because history is in the end governed by “the dice-box of chance” even if it is held by “the iron-hand of necessity.” History is more “upheaval” than “control” more surprise than structure. “Determinism” such as perhaps based by pinning down a starting point from which one can “build out,” is a wish-dream since history is nonlinear and nondeterministic. Even Elton’s phrase “controlled upheaval” is full of questions and problems.

Modern “complexity theory” in mathematics tries to get at these differences analytically. A “meta-intelligent” student would go from this historians’ “argument without end” to the analysis of complexity in math as a way of rounding out the exploration.

An “argument without end” can thus be useful if the student does not insist on some final “apodictic” or certain-forever answer.