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A Thanksgiving Meditation
Thanksgiving, symbolized by a joyous feast in the company of friends and family, is a time to consider how, whatever life's frustrations, one is nevertheless in many ways well off.
For a college student contemplating the wide range of human variation and considering how the societies of our world evolved into what they are today, here are a few features of the modern world order for which, it seems to me, the giving of thanks may be especially appropriate. At the risk of being slightly maudlin, I suggest them here in case you might like to think about them over the holiday.
- We no longer condone slavery, despite its persistence.
(Most societies since the Neolithic have exhibited it.)
- We support monogamy and condemn harems and concubinage.
(This has not been true in most societies.)
- We support personal freedom as a general idea, and distinguish some specific freedoms such as the freedoms
(Political freedom was a rare idea until modern times. Religious tolerance was nearly unknown. In few societies did one pick one's own mate. In most, education —even simple literacy— was actively discouraged, especially for women. Reporting news is constrained over much of the world even today.)
- to assemble
- to choose a marriage partner
- to hold dissenting opinions
- to pursue political or economic goals
- to study and gain education
- to create, display, and perform works of art
- to report news
- Our approach to illness is not through magic.
(Most societies from the beginning of the human career have sought to heal illness largely through magic.)
- We support parliaments and condemn tyrants.
(Most states since the Bronze Age were run by tyrants and never heard of parliaments.)
- We endorse the idea of legal rights; we condemn torture; we do not accord legal status to the crime of sorcery.
(It has been a rare society that has defined any legal rights, or has not used torture, or has not executed sorcerers.)
- We rarely glorify war for the sake of war.
- We seek to ensure the health and physical well-being of all.
(Few societies have had the means or will to do so.)
- We experience outrage in the face of corruption, exploitation, and racism.
(Most societies assume these are inevitable.)
- We do not practice human sacrifice.
- We value literacy and seek to extend it to all.
(Throughout history, nearly all humans have been illiterate; literate ones have often sought to confine literacy to limited classes of people.)
- We endorse rather than suppress curiosity about how the world works, and we understand and follow ways to improve our actual knowledge about the world.
(Most societies have preferred a party line to an open mind.)
- We endorse curiosity about other societies and their cultures and condemn those who treat other societies with knee-jerk contempt.
- We have espresso, smart phones, plastic wrap, and indoor plumbing.
- We permit a very few of our most promising youths to go to Eleanor Roosevelt College and take "The Making of the Modern World" (MMW).
- We devote a holiday to reflecting on all the reasons why we should be thankful.
Much of this list was inspired by an editorial by Dr. Bernard Lewis, the Dodge Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton. His editorial appeared in The Wall Street Journal (May 2, 1988, the year MMW was first taught). In it Professor Lewis pointed out that nearly all of these features of the modern world come to us from "the Western" historical tradition, and he reasonably enough argued against popular attempts to cut Western history and philosophy from college curricula.
His editorial was clipped and circulated to some UCSD faculty (by a colleague no longer whinnying with us) as an example of the kind of outrageous, objectionable, value-laden ethnocentrism that right-thinking educators should aim to stamp out.
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It is unclear to me why anyone would bother to translate an isolated web page with a parochial reference to MMW in it, but several people have done so. (As far as I can tell, the usual reason is to fulfil a requirement in an English class, but in some cases the goal is to solicit translation business.) The links are removed as they become inoperative.
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