Why Study History?


‘The answer is because we virtually must, to gain access to the laboratory of human experience. When we study it reasonably well, and so acquire some usable habits of mind, as well as some basic data about the forces that affect our own lives, we emerge with relevant skills and an enhanced capacity for informed citizenship, critical thinking, and simple awareness. The uses of history are varied. Studying history can help us develop some literally “salable” skills, but its study must not be pinned down to the narrowest utilitarianism. Some history—that confined to personal recollections about changes and continuities in the immediate environment—is essential to function beyond childhood. Some history depends on personal taste, where one finds beauty, the joy of discovery, or intellectual challenge. Between the inescapable minimum and the pleasure of deep commitment comes the history that, through cumulative skill in interpreting the unfolding human record, provides a real grasp of how the world works.’

– Peter N. Stearns (1998) Why Study History? American Historical Association Continue reading

Ebbinghaus and Forgetting


When learning foreign language vocabulary, repeated practice is essential for success; as words get established in the long-term memory, learners can move on and focus on new skills.

Two effects are at play in this process: the spacing effect, the finding that short practices spaced out over time is better for learning than cramming; and its related finding, known as the lag effect, which states that learners improve if they gradually increase the spacing between practices.[1]

These ideas go back to 1885, when German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus pioneered the concept of the forgetting curve. He tested his ability to remember a string of words over different periods of time and found a consistent pattern to the decline of his ability to recall these words over time. Immediately after the learning experience, his recall was 100 percent, but memory dropped steeply the first few days. Further, he found that the memory loss was exponential, meaning it increased by the square of the previous number until finally flattening out at around 30 days post-learning.

According to Ebbinghaus’ findings, the way to counter the forgetting curve (i.e. learners are more successful) when they plan short practice sessions and gradually increase the amount of time between each session.


[1] ‘Repeating list items leads to better recall when the repetitions are separated by several unique item than when they are presented successively; the spacing effect refers to improved recall for spaced versus successive repetition (lag > 0 vs. lag = 0); the lag effect refers to improved recall for long lags versus short lags.’

– Kahana. M.J., Howard. M.W. (2005) Spacing and lag effects in free recall of pure lists Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 12 (1), p. 159-164

Hitchens’ Razor


Hitchens’ razor is an epistemological rule of thumb which asserts that any person who makes a claim about ‘the way the world is’ takes on the burden of proof for proving it is so.

The razor is usually formulated as follows:

What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

It is a translation of the Latin proverb Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur (What is freely asserted is freely deserted). Near the end of the 20th century, the razor was revived and popularised by the British-Amercian journalist and author Christopher Hitchens, hence its modern name.

Kansas Classrooms


I can’t teach you about safe sex because it might encourage you to become promiscuous.

I can’t tell you what airbags do. That information will make you think it’s okay to start crashing into things.

I’m sorry class. We can no longer study Mexico. As you’d all run away to Tijuana if I told you what was there.

If I teach you girls how to rescue a burnt casserole, how can I trust you to follow the teachings of Héloise?

I’m afraid I can’t tell you how Hannibal crossed the Alps. If I did, you crazy kids are likely to conquer the prom with elephants. Oops.

Trigonometry will no longer be taught. You could use that knowledge to calculate the trajectory of eggs thrown at my Geo Metro.

We won’t be using safety glasses this year in shop class. I believe anyone who gets a word chip in their eye have it coming.

Science has been cancelled because your parents prefer to believe in magic.

Big Fat Whale, Brian McFadden 2006

Why Facts do not Matter


Social scientists have some intriguing explanations for why people persist in misjudgements despite strong contrary evidence. In fact, studies conducted over the past 30 years show that attempts to refute false information often backfire and lead people to hold on to their misperceptions even more strongly.

A 2015 behavioural science article examined the puzzle of why nearly one-third of U.S. parents believe that childhood vaccines cause autism, despite overwhelming medical evidence that there’s no such link. In such cases, the study noted, “arguing the facts doesn’t help — in fact, it makes the situation worse.” The reason is that people tend to accept arguments that confirm their views and discount facts that challenge what they believe.[1] Continue reading

Conversations: The Preposterous


Helena
Clearly, it is time we all learned to meet our emotional needs without embracing the preposterous. We must find ways to invoke the power of ritual and to mark those transitions in every human life that demand profundity—birth, marriage, death—without lying to ourselves about the nature of reality.

Galene
What does that mean in practice?

Sappho
I feel we should recognise that, for instance, the practice of raising children to believe that they are Christian, Muslim, or Jewish should be recognised as the ludicrous obscenity that it is. And only then will we stand a chance of healing the deepest and most dangerous fractures in our world.

Galene
That’s all very well and good, but I have no doubt that the acceptance—so to speak—of Christ coincided with some very positive changes in some people’s lives. Perhaps they now love other people in a way that they never imagined possible. They may even experience feelings of bliss while praying—say. Continue reading

Conversations: Eradicating Religion


Helena
I would argue that one of the greatest challenges facing civilization in the twenty first century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns—about ethics, spiritual experience, and the inevitability of human suffering—in ways that are not flagrantly irrational.

Sappho
Absolutely. We desperately need a public discourse that encourages critical thinking and intellectual honesty! Unfortunately, it is probably true to say that nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord religious faith.

Zoe
Surely, you would be the first to admit that the prospects for eradicating religion in our time do not seem good? Continue reading