October 23, 2017

Mediocrity and the study of history

The English Disease, which we hear so much about, is mediocrity, and in the last thirty years it has spread like a cancer throughout the fabric of our society.

What makes the disease particularly serious is that we have grown to like it, so much so that we have come to regard anything that is not mediocre as suspicious if not immoral.

Thus the few remaining beautiful buildings in our cities are increasingly regarded as offensive. They stand impudently among the grey cement blocks that so faithfully reflect the grey mediocrity of our industrial society with an intolerable air of pre-industrial superiority.

Some young men in a bar in Walsall, during the recent by-election, told us that they were ashamed of their city—a truly tragic admission—but what other sentiment could they have for a wilderness of cement blocks, polluted motorways, and shabby soulless housing estates? Can they feel nostalgia for it? Pride in belonging to it? A desire to serve and perpetuate it? No, shame is the only sentiment if can induce—shame for being a member of a society that can consider such a place as a suitable habitat for man—an illusion, what is more, that it is not prepared to shed, judging by the fact that the few remaining buildings of quality in Walsall all appear to have been struck with demolition orders issued by the grey faceless mediocrities at the Town Hall.

The mediocrity of our society is also well reflected in the food we eat. How people can survive on a diet of fish-fingers, potato chips fried in cheap oil and white bread spread with margarine and chemical jam, is truly amazing. The fact that only thirty per cent of our citizens are entirely toothless, that only twenty five per cent of them will die of cancer and that only forty per cent of them will succumb to heart-disease simply bears testimony to the extraordinary resilience of the human organism.

It is perhaps in the field of gastronomy, that any departure from the greyest mediocrity is most resented. I remember seeing an outraged article in some daily paper accusing the late Mr. Anthony Crosland of having eaten an entrecote steak and a ‘poire Helene’ in a Bournmouth Hotel before addressing a political meeting. To those who regard it as immoral to eat a good meal, let me point out that the ‘rubbish food’ we eat is the product of our industrial mass society. In pre-industrial times, particularly among tribal societies, people on the whole, ate high-quality fresh and nutritious food. I doubt if, even today, we could persuade an Italian peasant, let alone an African tribesman, to eat the shoe-leather entrecote steak and the tinned pear doused with synthetic cream which Mr. Crosland had the audacity to indulge himself in.

However, it is to the perpetuation of human mediocrity that our society appears most totally committed. By interning our children for a considerable proportion of their lives in vast grey anonymous factory-like compounds in which they are systematically imbued with the values of our mass society and bombarded with increasing quantities of unrelated and largely irrelevant data, we are doing little more than mass-produce human-mediocrity.

Not surprisingly, a gifted child, rather than being rejoiced in, is today regarded as a problem. He does not constitute suitable raw material for the educational production-process. He might prevent the smooth-running of the conveyor belt, or impede the workings of the assembly line. Worse still, he might grow up with some talent, and what then would we do with him?

Our resentment of any sort of intellectual excellence could not be better illustrated than by the Sunday Times’s recent poll to determine who are the most overrated writers of the last decades. Predictably, the critics conceded the place of honour to Arnold Toynbee, whose Study of History was described by A.J.P. Taylor as ‘neither a Study nor History.’ In this trite little aphorism he thus dismissed one of the most fascinating historical masterpieces ever written.

Why? The answer must surely be obvious. Just as fine eighteenth century buildings show up the mediocrity of the cement blocks that today surround them, just as a properly cooked meal shows up the mediocrity of industrially-produced food, so does A Study of History show up the shattering mediocrity of the social and political thinking of A.J.P. Taylor and others of his like, which serves but to provide a wishy-washy apologia for the destructive trends of the latter part of the Industrial Age which are leading us ever closer to social, economic and ecological disaster. Thus, instead of rejoicing in the fact that Britain should have produced an intellectual giant in the person of Arnold Toynbee, whose Study of History is rightly regarded as a great classic throughout the world, we must, by all means, reduce him, Procrustean-like to the stature of the intellectual dwarfs, who, in the mediocre society in which we live, are alone tolerated.

It is not just as a social and political commentator, however, that A.J.P. Taylor objects to the Study of History, but as a professional historian. His objections, I feel sure, are largely of a methodological nature. This great work is too wide ranging; Toynbee dares look at world history as a single human experience and tries to interpret it in terms of a discernible pattern—that of the rise, the decay and the fall of civilizations.

Such a magnificent enterprise is regarded with both suspicion and resentment by historians who have devoted their professional careers to studying such intellectually stimulating and socially important subjects as ‘Hittite footwear of the 14th Century BC’ or ‘The changing role of the court jester in mediaeval Bohemia.’

This suspicion and resentment against anything that is of high quality is to be found in other fields as well. Thus one of the reasons why we have allowed the global environment to become as degraded as it is today, is, as Barry Commoner has pointed out, because it is no-one’s job to study it. The study of the global environment is not, even today, regarded as a legitimate field of academic enterprise.

There is, to my knowledge, no course at any university in this country for teaching people to understand the workings of the biosphere as a whole and what man is doing to it. Significantly at Heffers, the main bookshop in Cambridge, I found exactly one book dealing with the Environmental crisis, and it was classified under ‘Geography’. The subject is too big for the mediocrities who run our seats of learning. Only unconnected little bits of the biosphere are regarded as legitimate fields of study.

To illustrate this, let us look at a copy of the ‘Journal of Applied Ecology’—which I shall take at random. The first two articles are entitled ‘The colonization of isolated patches of nettles by insects’, the second, ‘The effects of the lime aphid on the growth of the lime’. Patches of nettles and isolated lime trees are indeed nice cosy little subjects for study by amiable non-thinking people. It can be done without offending anyone, without, for instance, violating the canons of Empiricist Epistemology, or the absurd laws of Scientific Method, and without stepping on to the territory of other researchers who may have devoted their lives to the study of brambles or beech trees, and above all, without threatening in any way, the maintenance of the present status quo.

Today’s academics do not seem to understand that the accumulation of data is of academic use only. If we are to understand the world we live in, this data must be organized into information, which means using it to construct a model of the world, and its constituent parts. This is precisely what Toynbee attempted to do in A Study of History. He tried to build a model of our historical experience.

It will be objected by most historians including A.J.P. Taylor, that historical data cannot be organized to form a model, because they are essentially unrelated. However, if this were so, there would be no difference between the work of today’s historians and that of the chroniclers of ancient and mediaeval times. Yet clearly, they are as different as chalk is (or rather was) from cheese. The fact too, that such general concepts as Feudalism, Imperialism, the city-state, revolution etc. are in general use, implies that historians have noticed that there is something in common between feudal periods in different countries, the Empires established by different conquerors, the city-states that often preceded them, and the revolutions that even more often brought them to an end.

It means, in fact, that relationships between the data included in the same linguistic classifications have been, implicitly at least, established by them. It is also often argued that each historical event is unique, in that History does not repeat itself. This is also an absurd argument. Heraclitus pointed out that one cannot step into the same river twice. The same can be said for all behavioural processes and does not prevent behaviour from being a valid field of study. They cannot repeat themselves, because the natural systems involved must be affected by each successive experience, and their responses correspondingly modified. That is what is meant by ‘learning’.

In any case, on purely cybernetic grounds, History Cannot conceivably be a random process, for whenever there is the slightest departure from informational entropy in the Biosphere, i.e. as soon as information begins to build up within a natural system, its behaviour comes to display a corresponding measure of order, i.e. it ceases to be random.

An experiment reported some years ago in the British Journal of Psychology, showed that people are simply not capable of acting in a random manner. Those used in the experiment could not, for instance, choose random numbers. Those they chose inevitably reflected their particular personality and worldview.

The mechanism controlling the behaviour of societies and individuals, as has been pointed out in numerous articles in this journal, is functionally the same. The former cannot behave in a random manner, any more than can the latter. That this is so is confirmed by anthropological literature. The most striking thing about stable human societies, which are essentially tribal ones, is that though superficially they may differ from each other in all sorts of obvious ways, they are fundamentally very similar.

In practically all of them, for instance, we find the extended family, the lineage group, the differentiation of functions on the basis of age and sex, the respect for the elders, the role of the ancestral spirits, who are the ultimate custodians of the traditional culture, and the ability to govern themselves without the aid of institutions external to the social system, i.e. of functioning as self-regulating systems, and hence of remaining stable.

These cultural traits can all be shown to be adaptive, as can those in terms of which such societies differ from societies are very orderly and can largely be predicted in accordance with the requirements of maintaining a stable relationship with a changing environment, though the situation is seriously complicated once the traditional culture is disrupted and self-regulating mechanisms break down.

Indeed, the historian’s notion that social changes are random appears to be based partly at least, on the fact that history is largely concerned with occurrences in unstable and hence disintegrating societies. The squalid succession of wars, invasions, massacres, murders and intrigues which makes up the bulk of our history could not conceivably have occurred in stable societies—since ‘stability’ is defined as the ability to avoid discontinuities—in a social context of this kind.

As I have said, History is not a subject on its own. It is but a description, and at best an analysis of a certain set of changes, and it is meaningless when taken separately from whatever is undergoing the changes. When the term is used by itself, it presumably refers to the History of Human society.

The subject that historians are studying is, in fact, the same as that studied by anthropologists and sociologists. Historians are merely looking at a particular cross-section of the relevant material—one that is arranged in some sort of temporal order, while anthropologists are looking at a different cross-section and in terms of a different methodology. What is certain is that without a knowledge of the laws governing the organization and structure of human societies, our historians can never really make much sense of history.

But to understand it, they must also know something of human psychology, for societies are made up of families, which in their turn are made up of individuals each other. In fact, changes occurring in stable whose behavioural tendencies, especially in a disintegrating society in which they are no longer subjected to appropriate social constraints, are clearly a key factor in determining social change.

They must also understand the functioning of the non-human societies out of which human ones evolved on an evolutionary time-scale, and must be able to view societies, human and non-human, in their environmental context, so as to determine, by the unfashionable teleological or teleonomic approach, in what way their particular behaviour pattern is, in fact, adaptive. They need also to understand General Systems or cybernetics (which are or should be the same) so as to understand the very basic principles governing the behaviour of all systems of which human and non-human societies, individual people and eco-systems are but specialized instances.

In other words, if Toynbee’s A Study of History is to be faulted, it is not that it is too wide-ranging, but that on the contrary, it is nothing like wide-ranging enough. The history of human society cannot be understood by examining historical material alone, but must include the study of material (at present falling within the scope of many other separate disciplines) that casts some light on the structure and behaviour of human societies as they have evolved, biologically and culturally from simpler forms as long-term adaptive responses to their changing environment; and how they have progressively disintegrated and correspondingly degraded the environment they have become ever less capable of adapting to. This, among other things, has given rise to the all-pervading mediocrity of our mass-industrial society.


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