An unworthy Deacon, named for the brother of God: James, striving to "work out his salvation with fear and trembling" within the Tradition (paradosis) of the Eastern Orthodox Faith. It is a strange and marvelous journey, and I am accompanied by the fourfold fruit of my fecundity. My wife, the Matushka or Diaconissa Sophia, is my beloved partner in the pursuit of Theosis, and she ranks me in every way.
I have been enjoying teaching ancient history, and though we may have any number of reasons for homeschooling, one I had not really considered was simply the joy and privilege of formally educating my own children. It has really become a special time for them with Dad and they all seem to be engaged and interested in the topic – to varying degrees.
I teach them all at the same time and I do not dilute my points and questions for the sake of the younger ones. I have been surprised by how much they retain and how well they are able to work their heads around more complex questions. Our oldest usually gets additional work in order to explore further, though.
Last session we were discussing the shift from the nomad (hunter-gatherer) life to the more settled existence to be found in farming. We began to discuss what is to become a recurring theme in our historical studies: technology. Farming was a massive technological advancement for humankind and really is the foundation upon which all other future technologies would arise. Settling down was key to all of this. One thing we noted was that some groups of people never gave up a nomadic “hunter-gatherer” lifestyle and that such cultures rarely saw any grand technological advancement in the thousands of years that they have been in existence.
The nomadic life is one strictly concerned with survival. Precious little time is allotted to anything but hunting, gathering, and moving. Here is where I get a little theoretical: amidst such a lifestyle there is precious little time to think and thus develop new technologies or flush out vast arrays of ideas. And while farming may keep one very busy, you are able to eliminate the additional efforts of chasing Mammoth herds with your family in tow. You have time to think about better ways of doing things and indeed, specific advances in farming began to arise very quickly (i.e. irrigation methods.)
Now, one thing that I make as an over-arching theme in my history is the idea of tradition. Tradition, as I define it here, is a collective memory. Tradition and history are intimately linked, but whereas history USUALLY is about facts and dates; tradition is an expression of the hearts and minds of a people – expressed and developed within the context of their history. It expresses WHO a culture is, in the deepest sense of the word “who.” But make no mistake about it, tradition has many practical applications: a farmer teaching his son what his grandfather taught him about farming is as much a demonstration and engagement of history as it is tradition. It was essential to life, success, and future development.
Now indeed all cultures have tradition and those traditions are communicated in different ways, but technological development has also played an active role in assisting to communicate history and tradition. The most significant of which just happens to be the next big leap we are making in our class: written language.
It is not surprising that the majority (perhaps all?) of cultures that retained a nomadic lifestyle never developed a written language. For them, history and tradition is communicated through oral records: stories, songs, even dances. Of course I suppose there may be some cultures that got to farming, but proceeded not much further...but for certain I think farming was a necessary step in moving much more forward. One typically doesn’t see hunter-gatherer cultures using helicopters to hunt down their prey and combines to harvest wild wheat.
Naturally this caused me to consider the uniqueness of our society today; A society that is everyday pushing the technological envelop to some wild extremes. And, I may suggest that a huge proportion of our most advanced technological endeavors today are devoted to entertainment or perhaps war. War we have always had, but the advance of entertainment has done something significant to us: it has filled our time. It has usurped our free time (which has grown over the centuries) and that used to be filled with thinking, writing, planning, educating, passing on traditions, considering the grand scheme of things - all those things that truly advanced our civilization in the past. It begs the question: Have we stagnated ourselves? Have we dumbed ourselves down? In looking at the quality of television programming and commercials and ad campaigns (and even political campaigns) I’d have to suggest that we most certainly have. Look at the political debates of the 18-19th century as compared to today? We are supposed to be a far more highly educated society today and yet a hundred years ago the people running for office flushed out serious political and philosophical issues. Last night (as is our custom) we were treated to an hour and a half of fluffy accusatory political TV commercials and the one deemed more polished and akin to an iPOD ad is considered the “winner.” It's like watching the superbowl for the ads...who really cares about the game? Just an example...let’s not delve into the politics anymore.
Consider how dumbed down we have become with this example: The year is 1870 and Virgil needs to buy a new milk cow for his family. He heads across town to look at a cow that a larger farmer is trying to sell. He gets there and sees that the cow looks rather anemic. Her udder has a few sores on it. He is about to begin a more thorough investigation when the selling farmer whistles and his wife comes out wearing a bikini. She begins to dance around the cow...suggestively and saying how wonderful the cow is and that buying such a cow would surely make the buyer a REAL man. Naturally, the farmer, buys the cow without further inspection and without any haggling.
At some point in history, we started buying things because they were "cool"...I suspect that was the beginning of the end for us.
Yes, this IS how we are marketed to...even for things we truly NEED! Is it too much to suggest that all of our leisure time being chewed up by mind-numbing (and sometimes propaganda bearing) entertainment is rendering us intellectually sterile?
We’ve even gone so far as to largely hold notions of tradition in DISDAIN! We scoff at it and we ignore our elders, considering them of little use to us. All their knowledge and potential advice is going with them to the grave, and more and more we are growing willing to help them to get there more swiftly. What need do we have of age, experience, wisdom, face to face tradition when we have wikipedia and factcheck.org? Both of which I expect 11 year olds are currently using to demonstrate that Grandpa has no idea what he is talking about. After all, what do those who fought it have to say about WWII? Revisionist historians recently graduated from Berkley know FAR more.
I also read of the decreasing amount of history courses being required in colleges and high schools today. It’s sad, but it rather fits our general context today in which we burn our incense before the icon of the iPHONE.
If you have the time, you might check out "Guns, Germs, and Steel," by Jared Diamond. Some have issues with a few of his arguments, but the broad strokes are thought provoking, particulary warnings about mixing animal/human genes.
I HAVE been meaning to read this actually, though I know right off that I will disagree on some significant points. I agree with VDH in that cultural-political aspects probably played a larger role than environment...at least later when dominance became so much more overt.