Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Who controls the present ...

 An image shows a row of books, all in different colors, which say “History” on their spines. They decline in size as the image moves from left to right.

Soohee Cho

Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.
George Orwell/1984

Who controls the present, at this point in time, potentially means future generations will not even have a past to relate to as the study of history by us is being consigned to the dustbin, never to be seen again, something along the lines of the loss of reading and writing cursive and the inability to comprehend analog clocks, trends most disquieting, especially with the ongoing takeover of AI regarding all disciplines requiring thought. In a piece titled Open Ended ... yours truly discussed how we will become dependent on tech to interpret anything of value as we will no longer have the means to do so.

As I listened to the speaker celebrate this technical progress, my experience as a historian and occasional practicing statesman gave me pause. What would be the impact on history of self-learning machines — machines that acquired knowledge by processes particular to themselves, and applied that knowledge to ends for which there may be no category of human understanding? Would these machines learn to communicate with one another? How would choices be made among emerging options? Was it possible that human history might go the way of the Incas, faced with a Spanish culture incomprehensible and even awe-inspiring to them? Were we at the edge of a new phase of human history?

As for the decline of the humanities with an emphasis on history, the news is not good. 

To whit.

The report further notes that only 27 percent of those who received a Ph.D. in history in 2017 were employed as tenure track professors four years later. The work of historians has been “de-professionalized,” and people like myself, who have tenure track jobs, will be increasingly rare in coming years. This is true for all academic fields, not just history. As Adrianna Kezar, Tom DePaola and Daniel T. Scott note in their book “The Gig Academy,” about 70 percent of all college professors work off the tenure track. The majority of these professors make less than $3,500 per course, according to a 2020 report by the American Federation of Teachers. Jobs that used to allow professors to live middle-class lives now barely enable them to keep their heads above water.

What is to blame? In the past generation the American university has undergone a drastic transformation. To reduce costs, university administrators have dramatically reduced tenure. And as the protections of tenure have withered away, nonteaching university staff sizes have exploded. From 1976 to 2018, “full-time administrators and other professionals employed by those institutions increased by 164 percent and 452 percent,” according to a 2021 paper on the topic. Professors have been sacrificed on the altar of vice deans.

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