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Wednesday, December 6, 2017


In his classic eighteenth century work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon identified the end of the Roman Empire and the onset of the Dark Ages as 476 a.d., the year that Romulus, the emperor of the Western Empire, was defeated by Odoacer.  [It is easy to remember the year of publication of Gibbon’s vast tome because it was the year in which David Hume died – 1776.  – a little Philosophers’ joke.]  This periodization was pretty much accepted by European historians until the early years of the 20th century, when the great Belgian historian, Henri Pirenne, advanced a new and controversial thesis, namely that it was not the fall of Rome in the fifth century but the expansion of Islam in the late seventh and early eight century, allowing them to take control of Mediterranean shipping, that plunged Europe into the Dark Ages.

My first teaching job, in 1958, was an Instructorship at Harvard requiring me to co-teach a big General Education course devoted to European history from Caesar to Napoleon.  Since I knew absolutely nothing about European history [or American history, for that matter] I spent several frantic months reading 20,000 pages of European history to prepare.  Among the books I read was Pirenne’s 1937 work Mohammed and Charlemagne, in which he put forward what came to be known as the Pirenne thesis.

What struck me most powerfully about Pirenne’s bold thesis was how scanty his evidence was for it.  A scattering of sixth century references to Mediterranean trade sufficed to sustain his claim that European trade with North Africa continued well past 476 a.d.  That was coupled with a passage or two from Gregory of Tours’ sixth century pot boiler, A History of the Franks.  A complete rewriting of the history of Europe on the basis of a handful of data points!

All of which initiated what has been my lifelong fascination with the difference in explanatory models employed by historians with too much data [such as historians of the French Revolution] as contrasted with historians with too little data.

Many years after I had left Harvard, I began my deep study of the thought of Karl Marx, and this led me to the discovery of the bottomless ocean of facts and figures called The Statistical Abstract of the United States, published annually by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or BLS, a branch of the Department of Labor.  [Here is the official description from their website: “First published in 1878, the Statistical Abstract serves as the official federal summary of statistics and provides over 1,400 tables of benchmark measures on the demographic, housing, social, political, and economic condition of the United States.”]

I have often reflected that historians of medieval Europe would sell their souls for one page from one year of a Statistical Abstract of Burgundy or Provence or Tuscany or London from the eighth or tenth or thirteenth century.  By contrast, historians of the French Revolution or the First World War or the New Deal have so much information available to them that they are compelled to make choices in what documents they read, choices that inevitably embody theoretical presuppositions and ideological biases.

These reflections and recollections were prompted by the current discussions of the hideous tax bill now grinding its way through the Congress on its way, almost certainly, to passage before Christmas.  It is impossible, from anecdotal evidence alone, to form any accurate picture of the economic condition of Americans, just as it is impossible to learn much about the lives of ninth century Burgundian peasants from a handful of documents and some paintings and artifacts.  But the BLS gives us precise information on thousands of subjects.  Let me cite a few statistics I extracted from BLS spreadsheets in half an hour of Googling [in the old days, I would order the annual Statistical Abstract every year, but I long ago discontinued that practice.]

First of all, since I have spent my life in the Academy, some facts about educational attainment.  In 1950, the year I started my education as a Freshman at Harvard, only 6% of adult Americans 25 or older had a four year Bachelor’s degree.  So few people went to college that High Schools graduated kids twice a year, in January and in June.  Fifty-five years later, in 2015, that percentage had soared to 32.5%, which means that even after that rise, more than two-thirds of adult Americans do NOT have college degrees.  As I have observed on this blog in the past, that means that two out of every three adult Americans cannot even aspire to a job as a doctor, a lawyer, a management trainee at a large corporation, an FBI agent, a High School, Middle School, or Elementary School teacher, and in many cities, not as a police officer either.  I am not saying that two-thirds of Americans do not have those jobs; I am saying they cannot hope to have those jobs.

The data on median individual and household earnings are equally striking.  In 2014 [not much changes from year to year], median weekly earnings for workers employed full time were $668 for those with only a High School diploma or the equivalent, but $1193 for those with a B.A. or better.  As anyone knows who lives in this country and pays the bills, that is a world of difference.  Notice: these are median earnings.  That means that fully half of the just-HS workers make less than that.  The proportional gap for household income is even more striking.  Households in which the highest educational attainment of any of the workers in the household is a High School diploma had a median annual income last year of $43,331, while households in which the median income for households in which at least one person had a B.A. was $90,368!

The American people are, as a whole, considerably poorer than you might imagine from public discussions of tax code rewrites and such, and they have, as a whole, considerably less in the way of educational attainments.  The graduates of the least noteworthy among America’s two thousand BA-granting campuses are still, as a group, vastly better off than the two-thirds of Americans who have not graduated from a four year college or university at all.

Well, this is the sort of information that some idle Googling reveals, thanks to the BLS.  How Henri Pirenne, Fustel de Coulanges, Marc Bloch and their colleagues would have loved to have access to such information for the fabled Middle Ages!


s. wallerstein said...

20,000 pages about European history read in a few months!

You have an incredible capacity to digest information. 40 or 50 pages a day is all I can assimilate and that's if there are no problems going on in my life or close personal circle.

Of course you know the Woody Allen joke:

"I just took a speed reading course. I read War and Peace in half an hour. It's about Russia".

Jim Westrich said...

The general point that people do not understand the wide range of people's economic situations and their prospects is a very good one.

I want to note that over half of Americans over 25 have some educational attainment beyond high school. It is a small point admittedly but when you say that 2/3rds of the country do not have "college degrees" you mean completed BA degrees or better. I bring up the point because the amount of people with associates degrees is around 10% and the amount of people with some college (but no degree) is just under 17%.

This 27% is a rather huge group that often get missed in the HS vs College degree earnings discussions. I bring it up as it further makes your point I think. This 27% of the population are only a bit better off than those with just HS degree (10% better mean household earnings and I do not have median handy). Associates degrees and "going to college" are not increasing earning power very much and the gaps to people with BA degrees or better are quite large.

LFC said...

As I believe I've had occasion to remark in comments here before, the Statistical Abstract of the United States is no longer being published by the U.S. government. They stopped collecting data for it in 2011, though no doubt much of the relevant data is still being collected; it's simply no longer in one place any more. It's a bit confusing, b.c this page (link below), from which you've quoted the description of the Stat. Abstract, makes it sound as if it's a going concern (and has some ref. to a 'metadata updated 2016'), but I believe that is misleading and that if you emailed the Census Bureau official whose email is listed on this page, she would tell you that the Stat. Abstract as such no longer exists. I could be wrong, of course, in which case my preemptive apologies.

Jack said...

Two observations about this post:
1. Your ability to shift gears and acquire a good deal of knowledge on a topic you had hitherto not studied rigorously remains one of the most powerful arguments in favor of a liberal arts education. The liberal arts teach us how to learn, and the disintegration of the LA in our modern universities does not bode well for us.
2. On a more fun note, your observation on how Pierenne and Bloch would have loved to have the mountains of information available to historians of the French Rev reminds me of how certain literary theorists revel in the ability to draw out a great deal of information from a few lines. Auerbach's ability to reconstruct the world view of ancient scribes-- the way they thought of time and space for example, from a close reading of a few verses from Genesis (in "Mimesis") comes to mind.

Anonymous said...

The thing about your non- philosophical teaching that always strikes me is what a luxury of time you have always had to prepare. Imagine teaching many different courses without adequate preparation time, with inadequate pay. I bet you can't do it!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Anonymous, you are absolutely right that I have had a cushy career, with a two course a semester teaching load throughout [save for a visiting year at Wellesley, with 3 courses a semester and a year at Rutgers, the same.] On the other hand, I never had a fellowship during fifty years of teaching, I only had three one-semester sabbaticals, I moonlight-taught a dozen courses at eight different colleges and universities, and I taught Summer School six times. I also managed to squeeze in publishing twenty-one books, starting or helping to start two undergraduate programs and two graduate programs, while teaching History, Philosophy, Survey Social Sciences, Mathematics, Economics, Political Science, and Afro-American Studies.
So I was not entirely a man of leisure. :)

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

No, no, no.... 1776 is not important for the death of Hume, it is important for the publication of the The Wealth of Nations....