I’ve probably mentioned this before somewhere, but from about five years after I got out of college I’ve felt acutely my lack of education. I got four years of Catholic school (an important four years, too) but otherwise I went to public schools in California. As a result of my time in private school, I can diagram a sentence, conjugate verbs, and use commas, semicolons, and apostrophes correctly. To that school I also owe my ability to perform well on SAT-type tests. To my public school education, I owe my knowledge of the geography of North America and western Europe. So far as my history and geography teachers were concerned, it was of passing interest that there existed some cultures somewhere east of Germany, but I swear, I learned more world geography from playing Risk. I suspect that the cold war had something to do with that, but I don’t see how, “We do not like communists,” translates into, “Our schoolchildren should not be shown maps of any communist country.” How can you be expected to drop a bomb on a country you can’t even find?
Since then, I’ve been eager to fill the void. I’ve read histories of China, of Persia, and of various African regions. I’m a sucker for maps and love trying to wrap my head around the geography of whatever story I’m reading. When I read histories of Alexander, I followed along on Google Earth and on the maps on Wikipedia. Of course, whenever I do this, with whatever region, I wind up with a temporary wish to go there and walk around in the area. It’s not just books, either: in 2009 Junglemonkey and I saw the Afghan gold exhibit when it was in New York. After that, I had to spend hours looking at maps of Afghanistan and its neighbors.
I just finished listening to Edward Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume 1” but, instead of going for the maps, I’ve been digesting it in terms of economics and politics. (Okay, I confess, there was my short investigation of when we stopped calling it the “Euxine Sea” as Herodotus and Gibbon did.) For instance, there’s “Why Nations Fail“, as well as “23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism“. The parallels between the politics of the Roman Empire around the time of Diocletian and the politics of the United States today are pretty obvious. Even more chilling is the thought that prosperity in the U.S. is not predicated on making stuff but on taking stuff from others. No wonder poker is so popular: this culture seems to be in love with zero-sum games.
Oh, hey, you know that phrase, “blood and treasure,” our military leaders use when they talk about what we’re spending on these conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan? Yeah, that’s what Gibbon used to describe the expenses of Roman military expeditions on the borders of the empire (I bet he got it from the Romans). Since they’re likely going to be in charge of the country in a few decades, I’m glad that at least our military commanders have read some history. I just hope they have also read some economics.