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Thursday, 15 November 2018

The Forest and the Trees

How much have you thought about the common expression, "Can't see the Forest for the Trees?" You get what it means, right? Ignoring the big picture or the key detail (the Forest) because of a fixation on the trivial, but true details that are all around (the Trees). That to truly get to grips with something it's necessary to take a step back and zoom out.

Now, you might be thinking that it might just be me who thinks that's what the phrase means, but it's not.
(idiomatic, in the negative, by extension) To be overwhelmed by detail to the point where it obscures the overall situation. [Wikitionary]
or
 When you are too close to a situation you need to step back and get a little perspective. When you do you will notice there was a whole forest you couldn't see before because you were too close, and focusing on the trees.
Simply that you have focused on the many details and have failed to see the overall view, impression or key point. [Urban Dictionary]
or

 : to not understand or appreciate a larger situation, problem, etc., because one is considering only a few parts of it [Merriam-Webster, with an American formulation]

All are as I say. But it's also a really easy metaphor to grasp, right? Look at this photo of a forest from in among the trees. I've got no idea what's going on here.

From Here
Now look at this version of a forest. We can see an actual forest, right? It's not just trees.

From Here
So why does this matter? What value does this idiom have today?

Well, it's actually very relevant.

Consider, for instance, the question of prison reform. There are lots of different ways of looking at criminal justice. That's true of a lot of things. But with prisons many people have quite different views of not only the goals but the actual logic... why there is imprisonment at all is disputed. It's not even clear to me that people want the same outcomes. But it is universally agreed that groups like Maori or African-Americans in NZ or the US respectively are disproportionately arrested, jailed and sentenced. Which begs the question: why?

How should we go about answering this question? A very natural approach would be to go out there and talk to Maori or African-Americans (especially men). But they might be stuck in their own experiences confronted with inescapable little truths and don't hold the forest. So, don't talk to them? Maybe let's go talk to some... I don't know.. criminologists?

So we're talking to a bunch of criminologists who are giving us an appropriately zoomed out view. We presupposed that they'd tell us about the Forest and what we're getting matches those beliefs. But all the ones we're talking to are suggesting, just for sake of argument, that the reason we're looking for is that Maori men are violent thugs and African-American men are terrifying brutes. This... sounds wrong. Are we talking to the right criminologists? How can we tell? Who do we ask?

We have decided to approach a statistician, let's call them Jordan. We learn that what we should do is draw up a list of different criminologists and talk to a random sample of criminologists. Jordan tells us that such a list probably doesn't exist but it'd be easy enough to grab a bunch of universities and ask all the criminologists in a random subset of those (if there are any). That would, Jordan assures us, probably work. But Jordan also tells us that we were wrong to not talk to the Maori and African-American men. Just because they might tell us about trees doesn't mean (a) they will or (b) that the trees are important too.

I make Jordan the hero of this contrived example because I control every aspect of it and therefore can. But it's a real point. It truly is, and not just with prison reform, unclear who talk to or how to talk to them. Often consultations are conducted for policy or law changes but who gets in touch is not treated as being problematic (when it so often is). And the reasons we'd talk to people can be in conflict. Like, in this example, I massively profiled Maori and African-Americans... I am sure there are a great many who are criminologists... but the people who will only talk about trees do have something to say. We need to synthesise it. At the same time, if we were to fixate too much on the zoomed in experiences we'd miss other details. I have an example of this.

So, obviously America's a pretty screwed up place. It's got a very militarised approach to policing which is very decentralised... not like here where the idea that police aren't "civilians" is absurd or where there is only one police force for the entire country. And, as a result, we do need to exercise caution but it's plausible that the reason so many black Americans are shot and killed by the people who are meant to help them is a training issue. That is, once you're in a situation with police officers you, as an American, face a disturbingly high probability of being shot and killed by public servants. And when you, as an American, are an ethnic minority (especially if you're black) you are vastly more likely to end up talking to the police in the first place. Which is to say, American cops are trigger happy and the American public is racist enough that more black Americans are shot and killed by cops than would be expected based on population size.

It's really important to develop some kind of appreciation for the expectations and beliefs that members of the black American community have about police and criminal justice more generally. These expectations and beliefs shape how they live their entire lives. But if this is theory is correct, we'd miss that American cops shoot (to kill?) too much full stop in favour of seeing a racialised component in the decision to shoot were we to not zoom out. And this hypothesis is potentially an explanation for a finding in a paper I have not read and do not know how much serious attention it got (predatory journals are a thing, for instance). Or it might not at all for obvious reasons you'll notice when you read it. But the kind of finding that this paper reached is only possible by zooming out. Yet, notice in its last paragraph:
If, for instance, blacks use their lived experience with police as evidence that the world is discriminatory, then it is easy to understand why black youth invest less in human capital or black adults are more likely to believe discrimination is an important determinant of economic outcomes. 
We've got to obsess about trees and forests.

It seems to me that the standard approach is to let the forests dominate the serious conversations by the policy wonks. This is actually a good idea as far as it makes people complain about neglecting, and hence putting front and centre, the trees. (This is a clumsy metaphor at this point.) It'd probably be more useful to bite the bullet and spend about half the time on each because public outrage probably doesn't affect the conversations the wonks had the day before too much. But the reverse order is much less useful because no-one's signing up to fight for zoomed out academic discourse, it's not sexy and is actively trying not to be.

Frankly, it might be best to let these kinds of conversations be organised by two people. One a philosopher. The other a statistician. Remove is useful. And sometimes the tree is simply that you're in the field yourself.

History in the Education System

Why learn history? What is the point of the subject?

Well, why learn anything at all? What is the point of school subjects?

I'm pretty sure I've answered that second question on this blog before. Normally I'd check but I want to bash this out quickly and research slows you down (especially if you're a narcissist like me/all bloggers and what you're researching is stuff you wrote) so I'm just going to blurt out an answer and hope it's consistent. We learn and teach stuff to make pupils as good as possible. That's what Plato or Aristotle or someone like that thought and it's what I think. The difference is that this Ancient felt there was a moral air to education. I don't.

We're a social species and our societies are designed for social interaction. It seems logical to me that the first point explains the second but it might not. And it is being good at social interactions that occupies a lot of that good. We want to churn out people who can hold conversations and who can think... so that they make their own lives easier and so that they don't irritate others.


 We want people who will find themselves in a situation and have tools to do something in that situation. It doesn't matter if they're trying to build a pen for sheep, fly an aeroplane or decide to kill the fat man or the group of people. It doesn't matter if you're being asked to sign a contract, have sex or the way to Queen Street. We want people who can do something in any situation.

So, what's the contribution of history to that?

Well, what is history?

History is a way of thinking as much as anything else. Most subjects are when it comes down to it. I mean, I'm probably more likely to ridicule accounting than your average person but even something as vocational as accounting or plumbing offers a framework for thinking about things. Maybe not everyone can see it and it's not necessarily going to be that useful trying to solve nuclear war or gerrymandering as accounting or plumbing problems but I assure you, it's possible. But this isn't about transferable skills... not research or writing or argument or imagination or empathy, which are the most obvious transferable skills in history. Don't get me wrong. They could help in the sense I mean. But what I am talking about is essential elements of the subject. No matter how distant the context at hand might seem (where to stand at a concert versus accounting or doing your taxes versus plumbing) the subject can be applied. So, what does that mean with history?

An historian thinks about the past. More particularly, they think about humanity in the past. History is stuff that happened in the past involving people. The historical lens on the world, in other words, magnifies two things: people and the past. This is a subject about inter-temporal causality and flow ons. About emotions and change. It's big. Accounting, we might say, is about information and representing it in a certain structure. Plumbing is... well, honestly, all I can tell you about plumbing is that it's fixing pipes. But that does mean seeing causal pathways (in this case related to water). The point is, given any problem, the historian should be able to say, "Okay, where are the people here? How is the past here?" It's a system, right? The research, the empathy, the imagination, the argument and the writing that all comes after you have the question... it's what you put in to get something out of the system.

So, there's a reason to learn history. That's how History, as a subject, can give people something to do in any arbitrary situation. But why should we value that particular contribution? Why not, say, have everyone learn accounting from the age of five?

The truth is, in New Zealand, you don't learn history from the age of five. I mean, sure, you might get some names and some dates but that's not a system. That's a system in the same way a bunch of bricks is a wall. Where's the mortar? Where's the positioning? Where's everything that makes a brick wall other than the bricks? No where because a bunch of bricks doesn't make a wall. But should history be taught that young? Isn't this paragraph a pedantic clarification?

Education isn't just about what to know. It's also about when to know it. There's no point teaching scarcity to five year olds. There just isn't. Five year olds need to learn how to read and write and work with numbers so much more than they need to know about scarcity. The uses of scarcity in their lives is unclear. The (arbitrary) situations they could find themselves skew very strongly towards valuing something the traditional Three R's a lot more. Hell, five year olds need fine motor control a lot more than they need to know the fundamental economic problem. But what about a fifteen year old? A ten year old? What's a generalisable lesson here? How soon something becomes valuable?

History becomes valuable to people faster than accounting does for one simple reason: history is immediately obvious everywhere. Why people go to school here rather than there. Why they get to school that way versus these other ways. Why you learn in such and such language, why.... Past dependency (and path dependency) is everywhere. The canonical problems in accounting? Well, they're not. As I said, you can use accounting to explain nuclear war or why we'd name teams at school "the Teletubbies" but these situations don't really help make what accounting is clear. They do with history.

I'm one of those people who thinks that knowledge for knowledge's sake is a good enough reason. That informs my answers here. As does my belief that "But miiissss what do you use this for?" is beside the point. It's just that we've got to be real here. Concrete examples help. Interesting examples help (although, with history, if you approach the subject right... not boring worksheets... the things people like about history are going to be there). And practical immediacy can definitely help decide when to talk about [subject]. History just so happens to immediate far sooner than a lot of other subjects. It also happens to control the situations people can end up in for a lot of reasons.

We don't learn history to avoid making the same mistakes other people already did. We don't learn it because we're worried about propaganda. We learn history because it gives us a way to understand the world we inhabit. And, yeah, it'd be nice if you could pick up a comprehensive book like this person did and go, "Hey, I knew all that"* but knowing what happened isn't as important as being able to frame historical questions... teaching people to see history is just made easier by showing them history. 

* Technically they were continually amazed at how many new things they were learning. What they want is a world where already knowing it was the response. This blog is kind of a counter-point.