Wednesday, April 8, 2009

'Self Knowledge' Review Part 1

Some time ago, I picked up a pile of fascinating old books at a yard sale.  The yard sale was the possessions of an old woman who had died, and it included many books and textbooks, some of them over a hundred years old.  The book I will be discussing now and for several future blog posts is called 'Self Knowledge and Guide to Sex Instruction: Vital Facts of Life for All Ages'.  It was written by Professor T.W. Shannon in 1913.  The picture on the front cover is a woman in Greco-Roman dress waving a flag that says, 'Purity'.

As you would expect, the book is a fascinating look at a bygone culture.  I had only glanced through it at the first.  The only thing that I really paid attention to was the section on eugenics, and what I saw there caused me to summarily classify the book and its author as 'pure evil'.  I'll be covering that topic in more detail later.

Now I am reading through the whole thing with the eye of a historian or anthropologist.  I am learning a lot about the culture of the time and the beliefs of the author.  I have not finished reading the book yet.  There are so many topics to discuss that it will take several blog posts.

The book starts as a guide for parents on how to teach their kids the facts of life.  The it starts giving advice directly to young people, and then for married people.

The things the author says in the book are divided roughly as follows:  One half of it is good science, good morals, and good advice.  It is, even by the standards of our current society, enlightened and progressive.  One third is mysticism, ignorance, superstition, bad science, and the unquestioned cultural assumptions of the time.  One sixth is brain-bendingly alien, things that nobody today or in traditional cultures would ever say.

This blog post will focus on the positive.  I'll talk about the author's mistakes and flawed logic later.  But I will say right now that I think this book was, at the time it was printed, a very good thing.  It was perhaps the best thing that could have been produced for a popular audience, given the limitations of science and culture at the time.

The author is, even by modern standards, a feminist.  He spends much of the book ranting against the double standard of morals that allow men to be sexually free while demanding sexual purity from women.  He says that men should follow the same standards of alcohol and tobacco consumption that they expect of women.  He believes that women should always decide when to have sex, even when married.  He believes that young women should always have the ability to get a good job and support themselves financially.  He says that the man is always the one at fault whenever a woman gets pregnant outside of marriage.  He explicitly blames the moral failure of men for almost all of society's problems. 

But unlike many feminists, the overall tone of his message is not one of condemnation.  It is one of progress and potential.  A tone of optimism, of building a better society with scientific knowledge and improved morality, permeates the book.  He believes that all men can and should improve their behavior.  The corollary to believing that men are the cause of social problems is that social problems would end if men changed their behavior. 

But he does not believe that women are helpless.  The book has plenty of advice on how women can stay out of trouble and improve their lives.  The advice is almost identical to the advice given to men.  The author wants all people to follow the same standards of moral conduct.  But reaching this ideal state will require a much greater behavior change from men than from women.

It is clear that the author wants to be a good person, that he has made a heroic effort to escape the cognitive chains of his society and culture.  He is guided both by his understanding of 'modern science' and a deep Christian faith that looks directly at the moral teachings of the Bible rather than the prevailing beliefs.

He specifically and repeatedly attacks the religiously inspired hypocritical prudery of the time.  He says that all parents should be willing and able to tell their children the truth about sex, using the proper medical terms.  He blames many of the moral problems of society on the failure of parents to communicate with their children.

This is one of the many times when I learned about the culture of the period by reading his complaints about it.  Many people of the time had a false religious belief that sex and reproduction were inherently evil and should not be talked about.  I already knew this.  But apparently, it was often the case that when a child would ask the question 'Where did I come from?' the child would be punished and told that the question was evil.

The author talks at length about how much damage this punishment will do to the psyche of the child.  He correctly says that any parent who punishes a child for asking an innocent question has wronged the child.  The relationship with the parent will be damaged, and the child will look elsewhere for knowledge.  Given that the only people in that society willing to talk about sex were the low-lifes, the child would learn all the wrong things from the wrong people.

Overall, the author had a surprisingly good understanding of social factors, psychology, and human behavior.  His discussion of how society affects and shapes people is first-rate.  Even as he exhorts people to improve their behavior, he talks about how the conditions of society creates conditions that lead to success or failure in its members.  His discussion of how the society and home environment affects the future of children reminds me of the most cutting-edge research I see in science blogs.

However, his true beliefs about social causality are tied in with false Lamarckian beliefs about inheritance of acquired characteristics.  More on that later.

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