Killer App is a bad metaphor for historical trends, good for pseudoteaching

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Niall Ferguson wrote in The Guardian some time ago about how awful history education has become with these “new-fangled” 40-year-old methods like focusing on “history skills” that leads to kids leaving school knowing “unconnected fragments of Western history: Henry VIII and Hitler, with a small dose of Martin Luther King, Jr.” but not who was the reigning English monarch at the time of the Armada. Instead, he wants history to be taught his way: deep trends leading to the understanding why the “West” rules and why Fergusson is the cleverest of all the historians that ever lived. He even provided (and how cute is this) a lesson plan!

Now, personally, I’m convinced that the history of historical education teaches us mostly that historical education is irrelevant to the success of current policy. Not that we cannot learn from history. But it’s such a complex source domain for analogies that even very knowledgeable and reasonable people can and do learn the exact opposites from the same events. And even if they learn the “right” things it still doesn’t stop them from being convinced that they can do it better this time (kind of like people in love who think their marriage will be different). So Ferguson’s bellyaching is pretty much an empty exercise. But that doesn’t mean we cannot learn from it.

Ferguson, who is a serious historian of financial markets, didn’t just write a whiney column for the Guardian, he wrote a book called Civilization (I’m writing a review of it and a few others under the joint title “Western Historiographical Eschatology” but here I’ll only focus on some aspects of it) and is working on a computer game and teaching materials. To show how seriously he takes his pedagogic mission and possibly also how hip and with it he is, Ferguson decided to not call his historical trends trends but rather “killer apps”. I know! This is so laugh out loud funny I can’t express my mirth in mere words:))). And it gets even funnier as one reads his book. As a pedagogical instrument this has all the practical value of putting a spoiler on a Fiat. He uses the term about 10 times (it’s not in the index!) throughout the book including one or two mentions of “downloading” when he talks about the adoption of an innovation.

Unfortunately for Ferguson, he wrote his book before the terms “pseudocontext” and “pseudoteaching” made an appearance in the edublogosphere. And his “killer apps” and the lesson plan based on them are a perfect example of both. Ferguson wrote a perfectly servicable and an eminently readable historical book (even though it’s a bit of a tendentious mishmash). But it is still a historical book written by a historian. It’s not particularly stodgy or boring but it’s no different from myriad other currently popular historical books that the “youth of today” don’t give a hoot about. He thinks (bless him) that using the language of today will have the youth flocking to his thesis like German princes to Luther. Because calling historical trends “killer apps” will bring everything into clear context and make all the convoluted syntax of even the most readable history book just disappear! This is just as misguided as thinking that talking about men digging holes at different speeds will make kids want to do math.

What makes it even more precious is that the “killer app” metaphor is wrong. For all his extensive research, Ferguson failed to look up “killer app” on Wikipedia or in a dictionary. There he would have found out that it doesn’t mean “a cool app” but rather an application that confirms the viability of an existing platform whose potential may have been questioned. There have only been a handful of killer apps. The one undisputed killer app was Visicalc which all of a sudden showed how an expensive computer could simplify the process of financial management through electronic spreadsheets and therefore pay for itself. All of a sudden, personal computers made sense to the most important people of all, the money counters. And thus the personal computer revolution could begin. A killer app proved that a personal computer is useful. But the personal computer had already existed as a platform when Visicalc appeared.

None of Ferguson’s “killer apps” of “competition, science, property rights, medicine, consumer society, work ethic” are this sort of a beast. They weren’t something “installed” in the “West” which then proved its viability. They were something that, according to Ferguson anyway, made the West what it was. In that they are more equivalent to the integrated circuit than Visicalc. They are the “hardware” that makes up the “West” (as Ferguson sees it), not the software that can run on it. The only possible exception is “medicine” or more accurately “modern Western medicine” which could be the West’s one true “killer app” showing the viability of its platform for something useful and worth emulating. Also, “killer apps” required a conscious intervention, whereas all of Ferguson’s “apps” were something that happened on its own in a myrriad disparate processes – we can only see them as one thing now.

But this doesn’t really matter at all. Because Ferguson, as so many people who want to speak the language of the “young people”, neglected to pay any attention whatsoever to how “young people” actually speak. The only people who actually use the term “killer app” are technology journalists or occasionally other journalists who’ve read about it. I did a quick Google search for “killer app” and did not find a single non-news reference where somebody “young” would discuss “killer apps” on a forum somewhere. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen but it doesn’t happen enough to make Ferguson’s work any more accessible.

This overall confusion is indicative of Ferguson’s book as a whole which is definitely less than the sum of its parts. It is full of individual insight and a fair amount of wit but it flounders in its synthetic attempts. Not all his “killer apps” are of the same type, some follow from the others and some don’t appear to be anything at all than Ferguson’s wishful thinking. They certainly didn’t happen on one “platform” – some seem the outcome rather than the cause of “Western” ascendancy. Ferguson’s just all too happy to believe his own press. At the beginning he talks about early hints around 1500AD that the West might achieve ascendancy but at the end he takes a half millenium of undisputed Western rule for granted. But in 1500, “the West” had still 250 years to go before the start of the industrial revolution, 400 years before modern medicine, 50 years before Protestantism took serious hold and at least another 100 before the Protestant work ethic kicked in (if there really is such a thing). It’s all over the place.

Of course, there’s not much innovative about any of these “apps”. It’s nothing a reader of the Wall Street Journal editorial page couldn’t come up with. Ferguson does a good job of providing interesting anecdotes to support his thesis but each of his chapters meanders around the topic at hand with a smattering of unsystematic evidence here and there. Sometimes the West is contrasted with China, sometimes the Ottomans, sometimes Africa! It is hard to see how his book can help anybody’s “chronological understanding” of history that he’s so keen on.

But most troublingly it seems in places that he mostly wrote the book for as a carrier for ultra-conservative views that would make his writing more suitable for The Daily Mail rather than the Manchester Pravda: “the biggest threat to Western civilization is posed not by other civilizations, but by our own pusilanimity” unless of course it is the fact that “private property rights are repeatedly violated by governments that seem to have an insatiable appetite for taxing out incomes and our wealth and wasting a large portion of the proceeds”.

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It’s almost as if the “civilized” historical discourse was just a veneer that peels off in places and reveals the real Ferguson, a comrade of Pat Buchanan whose “The Death of the West” (the Czech translation of which screed I was once unfortunate enough to review) came from the same dissatisfaction with the lack of our confidence in the West. Buchanan also recommends teaching history – or more specifically, lies about history – to show us what a glorious bunch of chaps the leaders of the West were. Ferguson is too good a historian to ignore the inconsistencies in this message and a careful reading of his book reveals enough subtlety not to want to reconstitute the British Empire (although the yearning is there). But the Buchananian reading is available and in places it almost seems as if that’s the one Ferguson wants readers to go away with.

From metaphor to fact, Ferguson is an unreliable thinker flitting between insight, mental shortcut and unreflected cliche with ease. Which doesn’t mean that his book is not worth reading. Or that his self-serving pseudo-lesson plan is not worth teaching (with caution). But remember I can only recommend it because I subscribe to that awful “culture of relativism” that says that “any theory or opinion, no matter how outlandish, is just as good as whatever it was we used to believe in.”

Update 1: I should perhaps point out, that I think Ferguson’s lesson plan is pretty good, as such things go. It gives students an activity that engages a number of cognitive and affective faculties rather than just rely on telling. Even if it is completely unrealistic in terms the amount of time allocated and the objectives set. “Students will then learn how to construct a causal explanation for Western ascendancy” is an aspiration, not a learning objective. Also, it and the other objectives really rely on the “historical skills” he derides elsewhere.

The lesson plan comes apart at about point 5 where the really cringeworthy part kicks in. Like in his book, Ferguson immediately assumes that his view is the only valid one – so instead of asking the students to compare two different perspectives on why the world looked like it did in 1913 as opposed to 1500 (or even compare maps at strategic moments) he simply asks them to come up with reasons why his “killer apps” are right (and use evidence while they’re doing it!) .

I also love his aside: “The groups need to be balanced so that each one has an A student to provide some kind of leadership.” Of course, there are shelf-fuls of literature on group work – and pretty much all of them come from the same sort of people who’re likely to practice “new history” – Ferguson’s nemesis.

I don’ think using Ferguson’s book and materials would do any more damage than using any other history book. Not what I would recommend but who cares. I recently spent some time at Waterstone’s browsing through modern history textbooks and I think they’re excellent. They provide far more background to events and present them in a much more coherent picture than Ferguson. They perhaps don’t encourage the sort of broad synthesis that has been the undoing of so many historians over the centuries (including Ferguson) but they demonstrate working with evidence in a way he does not.

The reason most people leave school not knowing facts and chronologies is because they don’t care, not because they don’t have an opportunity to learn. And this level of ignorance has remained constant over decades. At the end of the day, history is just a bunch of stories not that different from what you see on a soap opera or in a celebrity magazine, just not as relevant to a peer group. No amount of “killer applification” is going to change this. What remains at the end of historical education is a bunch of disconnected images, stories and conversation pieces (as many of them about the tedium of learning as about its content). But there’s nothing wrong with that. Let’s not underestimate the ability of disinterested people to become interested and start making the connections and filling in the gaps when they need to. That’s why all these “after-market” history books like Ferguson’s are so popular (even though for most people they are little more than tour guides to the exotic past).

Update 2: By a fortuitous coincidence, an announcement of the release of George L. Mosse‘s lectures on European cultural history: http://history.wisc.edu/mosse/george_mosse/audio_lectures.htm came across my news feeds. I think it is important to listen to these side by side with Ferguson’s seductively unifying approach to fully realize the cultural discontinuity in so many key aspects between us and the creators of the West. Mosse’s view of culture, as his Wikipedia entry reads, was as “a state or habit of mind which is apt to become a way of life”. The practice of history after all is a culture of its own, with its own habits of mind. In a way, Ferguson is asking us to adopt his habits of mind as our way of life. But history is much more interesting and relevant when it is, Mosse’s colleague Harvey Goldberg put it on this recording, a quest after a “usable past” spurred by our sense of the “present crisis” or “present struggle”. So maybe my biggest beef with Ferguson is that I don’t share his justificationist struggle.

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Language learning in literature as a source domain for generative metaphors about anything

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In my thinking about things human, I often like to draw on the domain of second language learning as the source of analogies. The problem is that relatively few people in the English speaking world have experience with language learning to such an extent that they can actually map things onto it. In fact, in my experience, even people who have a lot of experience with language learning are actually not aware of all the things that were happening while they were learning. And of course awareness of research or language learning theories is not to be expected. This is not helped by the language teaching profession’s propaganda that language learning is “fun” and “rewarding” (whatever that is). In fact my mantra of language learning (I learned from my friend Bill Perry) is that “language learning is hard and takes time” – at least if you expect to achieve a level of competence above that of “impressing the natives” with your “please” and “thank you”. In that, language learning is like any other human endeavor but because of its relatively bounded nature — when compared to, for instance, culture — it can be particularly illuminating.

But how can not just the fact of language learning but also its visceral experience be communicated to those who don’t have that kind of experience? I would suggest engrossing literature.

For my money, one of the most “realistic” depictions of language learning with all its emotional and cognitive peaks and troughs can be found in James Clavell‘s “Shogun“. There we follow the Englishman Blackthorne as he goes from learning how to say “yes” to conversing in halting Japanese. Clavell makes the frustrating experience of not knowing what’s going on and not being able to express even one’s simplest needs real for the reader who identifies with Blackthorne’s plight. He demonstrates how language and cultural learning go hand in hand and how easy it is to cause a real life problem through a little linguistic misstep.

Shogun stands in stark contrast to most other literature where knowledge of language and its acquisition is viewed as mostly a binary thing: you either know it or you don’t. One of the worst offenders here is Karl May (virtually unknown in the English speaking world) whose main hero Old Shatterhand/Kara Ben Nemsi acquires effortlessly not only languages but dialects and local accents which allow him to impersonate locals in May’s favorite plot twists. Language acquisition in May just happens. There’s never any struggle or miscommunication by the main protagonist. But similar linguistic effortlessness in the face of plot requirements is common in literature and film. Far more than magic or the existence of Vampires, the thing that used to stretch my credulity the most in Buffy the Vampire Slayer was ease with which linguistic facility was disposed of.

To be fair, even in Clavell’s book, there are characters whose linguistic competence is largely binary. Samurai either speak Portugese or Latin or they don’t – and if the plot demands, they can catch even whispered colloquial conversation. Blackthorne’s own knowledge of Dutch, Spanish, Portugese and Latin is treated equally as if identical competence would be expected in all four (which would be completely unrealistic given his background and which resembles May’s Kara Ben Nemsi in many respects).

Nevertheless, when it comes to Japanese, even a superficially empathetic reader will feel they are learning Japanese along with the main character. Largely through Clavell’s clever use of limited translation.

This is all the more remarkable given that Clavell obviously did not speak Japanese and relied on informants. This, as the “Learning from Shogun” book pointed out, led to many inaccuracies in the actual Japanese, advising readers not to rely on the language of Shogun too much.

Clavell (in all his books – not just Shogun) is even more illuminating in his depiction of intercultural learning and communication – the novelist often getting closer to the human truth of the process than the specialist researcher. But that is a blog post for another time.

Another novel I remember being an accurate representation of language learning is John Grisham‘s “The Broker” in which the main character Joel Backman is landed in a foreign country by the CIA and is expected to pick up Italian in 6 months. Unlike Shogun, language and culture do not permeate the entire plot but language learning is a part of about 40% of the book. “The Broker” underscores another dimension which is also present in the Shogun namely teaching, teachers and teaching methods.

Blackthorne in Shogun orders an entire village (literally on the pain of death) to correct him every time he makes a mistake. And then he’s excited by a dictionary and a grammarbook. Backman spends a lot of time with a teacher who makes him repeat every sentence multiple times until he knows it “perfectly”. These are today recognized as bad strategies. Insisting on perfection in language learning is often a recipe for forming mental blocks (Krashen’s cognitive and affective filters). But on the other hand, it is quite likely that in totally immersive situations like Blackthorne’s or even partly immersive situations like Backman’s (who has English speakers around him to help), pretty much any approach to learning will lead to success.

Another common misconception reflected in both works is the demand language learning places on rote memory. Both Blackthorne and Backman are described as having exceptional memories to make their progress more plausible but the sort of learning successes and travails described in the books would accurately reflect the experiences of anybody learning a foreign language even without a memory. As both books show without explicit reference, it is their strategies in the face of incomprehension that help their learning rather than a straight memorization of words (although that is by no means unnecessary).

So what are the things that knowing about the experience of second language learning can help us ellucidate? I think that any progress from incompetence to competence can be compared to learning a second language. Particularly when we can enhance the purely cognitive view of learning with an affective component. Strategies as well as simple brain changes are important in any learning which is why none of the brain-based approaches have produced unadulterated success. In fact, linguists studying language as such would do well to pay attention to the process of second language learning to more fully realize the deep interdependence between language and our being.

But I suspect we can be more successful at learning anything (from history or maths to computers or double entery book keeping) if we approach it as a foreign language. Acknowledge the emotional difficulties alongside cognitive ones.

Also, if we looked at expertise more as linguistic fluency than a collection of knowledge and skills, we could devise a program of learning that would take better into account not only the humanity of the learner but also the humanity of the whole community of experts which he or she is joining.

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