The Enlightenment Is Working

Steven Pinker had an interesting essay in this past weekend’s Wall Street Journal:

The Enlightenment Is Working

Dr. Pinker is a professor of psychology at Harvard University. The essay is adapted from his new book out today: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. Steven Pinker was referenced indirectly in my previous blog post: Holocaust Scholarship. He was the subject of the New York Times op-ed that I mentioned in that post: Social Media Is Making Us Dumber. Here’s Exhibit A. (Subscriptions probably required to access the NYT and WSJ links. Sorry.)

I’ve only read Dr. Pinker’s WSJ essay, not his book. The first paragraph of the essay:

For all their disagreements, the left and the right concur on one thing: The world is getting worse. Whether the decline is visible in inequality, racism and pollution, or in terrorism, crime and moral decay, both sides see profound failings in modernity and a deepening crisis in the West. They look back to various golden ages when America was great, blue-collar workers thrived in unionized jobs, and people found meaning in religion, family, community and nature.

Dr. Pinker says both the left and the right are wrong. He says that in every material respect our country and the world are vastly better than even 30 years ago, and that the comparison to 200 years ago is so overwhelmingly in favor of today as to be almost two different worlds. He cites many impressive statistics. He suggests that we would do well to recognize and appreciate the progress that has been made and continues to be made, and to let go of our pessimism.

I agree with Dr. Pinker, who goes on to say that the source of our good fortune is:

a continuation of a process set in motion by the Enlightenment in the late 18th century that has brought improvements in every measure of human flourishing.

This prompts a question. My education was in engineering and business, not liberal arts and certainly not history. Just what was the Enlightenment, anyway?

In my own mind, I used to confuse the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, but they were two different periods of history. Following is a brief overview.

The Renaissance (French for “rebirth”) occurred mostly from the 1400s to the early 1600s. It was prominent in Italy, especially Florence. The Renaissance featured humanist themes in art, literature and philosophy. Two individuals especially come to mind:

The Renaissance may have been, in part, a rebirth from the Black Death, which hit all of Europe and especially Florence in 1348-1350. Another major event was the fall of Constantinople (current day Istanbul) in 1453. The Byzantine Empire (Christian) fell to the Ottoman Empire (Muslim). “The fall of Constantinople generated a wave of emigre Greek scholars bringing precious manuscripts in ancient Greek, many of which had fallen into obscurity in the West.” The humanist themes of the Renaissance were consistent with “the rediscovery of classical Greek philosophy, such as that of Protagoras, who said that ‘Man is the measure of all things.’” (quotes from Wikipedia)

Going back further in European history for additional perspective, the Roman Empire split in 395 AD into the Western Roman Empire headquartered in Rome and the Eastern Roman Empire headquartered in Constantinople. Rome was sacked in 410 and 455, and the Western Roman Empire is considered to have fallen by 476-480. The Eastern Roman Empire became known as the Byzantine Empire and continued for another millennium until the fall of Constantinople in 1453 noted above.

The religion of the Roman Empire is relevant to understanding this history. Ancient Rome had many gods, substantially adapted from ancient Greece. Zeus became Jupiter (or Jove), Athena became Minerva, Ares became Mars, Aphrodite became Venus, and so on. While the Romans persecuted the early Christians, the Roman Empire began to look favorably upon Christianity during the reign of Emperor Constantine (306-337 AD), and it became the state religion of the Roman Empire in 380.

The period between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the Renaissance is sometimes called the Dark Ages or Middle Ages or Medieval Period of Western Europe. The Renaissance was a “rebirth” after that period.

The Enlightenment (also known as the “Age of Reason”) occurred later in Europe – in the 1700s. It was especially prominent in France and Great Britain, and also included Germany and the United States. Major themes of the Enlightenment included increasing reliance on science and reason, and increasing questioning of the authority of church and crown. The Enlightenment led to the American and French Revolutions. The painting at the top of this post is the Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States in 1787 by Howard Chandler Christy.

A few of the many individuals who contributed to the Enlightenment:

Major revolutions in science and religion occurred in the period leading up to the Enlightenment, and laid the groundwork for the Enlightenment. A few of the many people who contributed to the scientific revolution in this period:

Copernicus changed our conceptualization of the heavens from geocentric to heliocentric. Galileo, Descartes and Newton increased our mathematical understanding of nature.

The revolution in religion in the period leading up to the Enlightenment was known as the Reformation and it split Christianity into Catholics and Protestants. The Reformation is considered to have begun with the publication of the Ninety-five Theses by Martin Luther in 1517 and ended in 1648 with the conclusion of the Thirty Years War (the Peace of Westphalia).

Many people of the Enlightenment did not consider themselves either Catholic or Protestant, but embraced a belief system called Deism. As with any philosophy or religion, there were many variations, but common themes included: belief in a deity greater than ourselves; belief that we cannot know much about this deity other than by observing nature and exercising our ability to reason; and skepticism of any organized religion that claims privileged knowledge of this deity.

In his Wall Street Journal essay, Steven Pinker wrote:

The Enlightenment is working. Our ancestors replaced dogma, tradition and authority with reason, debate and institutions of truth-seeking. They replaced superstition and magic with science. And they shifted their values from the glory of the tribe, nation, race, class or faith toward universal human flourishing.

The Enlightenment is working. Let us strive to keep it working.

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Holocaust Scholarship

The following recent news release is about Holocaust scholarship at the University of Vermont (UVM):

Two UVM scholars earn fellowships at U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

This is good news. Congratulations to UVM, Associate Professor Susanna Schrafstetter, and Professor Alan Steinweis.

Today, as much as ever, we need to understand how a civilized people can commit such a horrible atrocity as the Holocaust. The amount of anger, intolerance and hate in today’s world is alarming. Here is a recent example from Cornell University, a small example but one of many, especially on today’s college campuses. We need to control our emotions so that they don’t escalate into violence. It was small acts of violence that escalated into the Holocaust. And unfortunately social media makes the problem of controlling our emotions even harder today than it was 75-80 years ago during the Holocaust and World War II: Social Media Is Making Us Dumber. Here’s Exhibit A. (New York Times op-ed, subscription may be required, sorry)

It is perhaps not widely known that UVM was the long-time home of one of the world’s preeminent Holocaust scholars. He is not mentioned in the news release above. Dr. Raul Hilberg was a professor of political science at UVM from 1955 to 1991. From Wikipedia:

He was widely considered to be the world’s preeminent scholar of the Holocaust, and his three-volume, 1,273-page magnum opus, The Destruction of the European Jews, is regarded as a seminal study of the Nazi Final Solution.

In addition to scholars, sometimes novelists can help us understand our world. Two excellent novels of historical fiction about World War II are The Winds of War and War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk. The books were published in the 1970s. Two TV miniseries based on the books were produced in the 1980s.

Wouk, a Jew, wondered how a good and gracious God could allow such evil as the Holocaust. He answered that question in War and Remembrance, in a sermon by his character Aaron Jastrow in the Theresienstadt ghetto. The title of the sermon is “Heroes of the Iliad,” but Jastrow (and Wouk) did not find the answer in the Iliad. The title of the sermon was intentionally misleading, to avoid the attention of the German authorities.

Jastrow (and Wouk) found the answer in the Book of Job in the Old Testament. Wouk reprinted that sermon and further explained it in his non-fiction book The Language God Talks: On Science and Religion, published in 2010 (image above).

Wouk consulted with Hilberg at UVM when he (Wouk) was writing his WWII novels. Wouk attended and spoke at Hilberg’s retirement party in 1991. Raul Hilberg died in 2007 at age 81. Herman Wouk is still alive at age 102.

(This post draws on material from this earlier post.)

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Backcountry Recreation, Part 2

Over on my other blog, The Switchel Traveler, I wrote about the growing popularity of backcountry recreation in northern New England, especially in Vermont, and including in my home town of Cambridge. See Backcountry Recreation, Part 1.

This growing interest in backcountry recreation is exciting! It is exciting for Cambridge. And I am part of Cambridge town government. What are the implications for government?

My hope is: not much.

In Backcountry Recreation, Part 1, I linked to many organizations involved in backcountry recreation. In fact, I was surprised at how many organizations there are. None of the organizations mentioned in that blog post are part of government. They are all either for-profit or not-for-profit organizations, although some of them receive a portion of their revenue from government.

My vision of community is people doing things for themselves as much as possible, and asking their government to do things for them only when absolutely necessary. That is how the Long Trail was started. That is how most of the organizations mentioned in Backcountry Recreation, Part 1 were started. When people do as much for themselves as possible, not necessarily individually but in groups, it builds strong communities. When people ask government to do too much for them, it weakens communities. That is one answer to the question in the header: “What is a proper relationship between a free people and their government?”

Most of the organizations mentioned in Backcountry Recreation, Part 1 are not-for-profit organizations, and we certainly need them. But we also need for-profit enterprises. Without profits, there is no money for people to donate to not-for-profit organizations. Nor is there any money for people to pay taxes to run government. Government should encourage for-profit enterprises.

Consider the founding of the Green Mountain Club and the creation of the Long Trail. As a result of hiking several sections of the Long Trail with Nancy last year (details here), I became interested in the Proctor family. The Proctors were wealthy from profits earned in for-profit enterprises, and they were early benefactors of the Green Mountain Club. Without the Proctor family, the Green Mountain Club and Long Trail as we know them today may not have been created.

Here’s an interesting twist on that story. I blogged about the Proctor family and the Green Mountain Club here, here and here. In those posts, I referenced several books about the history of hiking and the Green Mountain Club. But there is one significant book that I did not mention: Forest and Crag: A History of Hiking, Trail Blazing, and Adventure in the Northeast Mountains, by Laura and Guy Waterman, an 888 page book published in 1989 with a second edition in 2003. This is truly a classic reference, and indeed Mark Bushnell referred to Forest and Crag in his article about hiking pioneer Alden Partridge. (See Backcountry Recreation, Part 1 for a link to Mark Bushnell’s article.) Why didn’t I mention Forest and Crag in my several posts about the Proctor family and the Green Mountain Club? Because there is not a single reference in that book to anyone named Proctor, even though there is a long chapter about the Long Trail and the Green Mountain Club.

Yes, I know there are bad actors in the for-profit sector, and some level of government regulation is needed. But in my experience, the overwhelming majority of people in the for-profit sector are good people and they deserve our appreciation. There are bad actors, as well as many good people, in the not-for-profit and government sectors, too.

And yes, I also know that not all not-for-profit organizations will thrive. Some will fail. There will be rivalries. That’s life. It’s best if they work those things out themselves, with as little government involvement as possible.

And finally, yes I know that government does have a role to play in some circumstances. We wouldn’t have many roads or parks without government involvement. But I prefer to let the private sector do as much as possible, and involve the government only when absolutely necessary. Not everything needs to be a road or a park.

The photo at the top of this post was taken yesterday at the West Farm in Cambridge.

Like many people, I enjoy and appreciate backcountry recreation. I do not wish for it to become government country.

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The Switchel Traveler

Introducing my new blog:

The Switchel Traveler

OK, it’s really an old blog that I am renaming today. Henceforth my two blogs are:

  • The Switchel Philosopher – this blog
  • The Switchel Traveler

“The Switchel Philosopher” is for adventures in the world of ideas. The tag line is:

What is a proper relationship between a free people and their government?

“The Switchel Traveler” is for travel adventures in the physical world. The tag line is:

There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

The tag line for “The Switchel Philosopher” is meant to serve as a muse for the blog, where a frequent topic is government and citizenship. The tag line for “The Switchel Traveler” is Hamlet’s reminder that we can never know everything. Philosophy alone is not enough; we also need to explore the world.

Why switchel? Because I like it! Also because switchel has a yin and yang aspect to it, and much of life is like that. Even my two blogs have a yin and yang aspect, with one about the physical world and the other about the world of ideas.

Switchel is a non-alcoholic beverage dating back to Colonial times. My mother made switchel for our family when I was growing up on the farm, and we drank a lot of it in the hayfield.

The main ingredients in switchel are sugar, vinegar, ginger and water. The sweet and sour of sugar and vinegar are the yin and yang of switchel. In my part of the world (Vermont), the sugar is usually maple syrup and the vinegar is almost always apple cider vinegar. But variations are allowed. Honey and pomegranate vinegar are also good. Sometimes additional ingredients are added such as lemon juice (or even rum!). Today, commercial versions of switchel are available, for example Vermont Switchel and Up Mountain Switchel.

Oh, another thing about switchel. The ginger tends to settle out, so you have to shake it before drinking. Sometimes life is like that, too.

My blogging history

“The Switchel Philosopher” – this blog – is my most recent blog. I started it in February 2017, after retiring in December 2016. It has always been about adventures in the world of ideas, including government and citizenship. Being elected to the town selectboard in March 2017 has contributed to some of the themes on this blog.

“The Switchel Traveler” is an older blog and has had two previous names. I started that blog in 2007 as “George’s Home Blog” to distinguish it from my “work blog” which I also started in 2007. After retiring, the work/home distinction was not applicable any more, and I renamed it to “George’s Other Blog” to distinguish it from “The Switchel Philosopher.” Today I am renaming it again, this time to “The Switchel Traveler” to more clearly indicate how my two personal blogs complement each other.

Post retirement, my two personal blogs have different and distinctive themes:

  • The Switchel Philosopher – adventures in the world of ideas
  • The Switchel Traveler – travel adventures in the physical world

Prior to retirement, I blogged about both themes on both my “work blog” and my “home blog.” Examples of both themes on my “work blog” included Trip to China and Values. My “home blog” has always included travel adventures. Prior to retirement it also included adventures in the world of ideas, some of which are captured by the labels culture, money, reality and slow.

There are also some earlier adventures in the world of ideas on “George’s VAFPDB Blog.” I published ten posts there in 2012-13 before resigning from the Vermont Agricultural and Forest Products Development Board.

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Blog Recap 2017

I started this blog in February 2017 after retiring in December 2016. Below is a summary of my 2017 posts here.

Posts to introduce the blog:

Early in the year I visited the Vermont Legislature and blogged about a few things:

My first post on this blog (“Welcome to the Switchel Philosopher”) was on 2/08/17. I was approached on 2/13/17 about running for selectboard in my town of Cambridge, Vermont. I had not previously considered that. I thought about it, decided on 2/21/17 to run, and was elected at town meeting on 3/07/17:

Being involved in local government has given me a few things to blog about! These two posts set the stage:

As a result of lively discussions at town meeting, the selectboard created a Community Engagement Team which I wrote several posts about:

I blogged about a few of the many subjects that I encountered in local government:

I discussed how I think about the categories of public life:

My sister Beth and I did presentations for the Cambridge and Westford Historical Societies about the Cloverdale neighborhood, based on a book that our father and a cousin had written. This was a fascinating exercise:

Another presentation I did was for Leadership Lamoille about nonprofit organizations:

A couple of posts attempted humor:

And finally I wrote miscellaneous posts on various topics that I found interesting, including thoughts about my career in the Farm Credit System:

I write on two blogs. This blog, The Switchel Philosopher, is for adventures in the world of ideas. My other blog, The Switchel Traveler, is for travel adventures in the physical world. See my About page for more information about switchel, me, my two blogs, and my blogging history.

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CET Recommendations – Town Administrator

This is the fourth post in a series of four posts about the report of the Community Engagement Team (CET) to the selectboard on November 20. A list of the posts in this series is at the bottom of this post. Please read the first post in this series for context and a link to the CET’s full report.

This post is about a town administrator.

The selectboard has been discussing the need for a town administrator as an addition to the town office staff. On October 24, there was a special selectboard meeting to discuss this idea, with representatives attending from Johnson and Underhill – both of which have town administrators. Several members of the public attended that meeting. The minutes of that meeting are here.

The CET concurs with the concept of adding a town administrator to town government. The CET believes that many of the issues raised by voters at town meeting and in the survey would be ameliorated by adding a town administrator.

A town administrator would be a full time person in the town office, and a second point of contact for citizens to approach with questions, suggestions or problems. A town administrator would be a resource for the selectboard, which is part time and generally not in the town office. A town administrator would be a point of coordination between the various town boards, commissions and committees. A town administrator could help with the education and communication suggestions in the previous post.

A town administrator would clearly have to work well with Town Clerk/Treasurer Mark Schilling, who is currently the main point of contact for citizens. All towns have town clerks and treasurers, who have duties defined in state law. Many towns, such as Johnson and Underhill, also have town administrators whose duties are defined by the selectboard. In Cambridge, as in most towns, the town clerk/treasurer is an elected official and does not report to the selectboard. A town administrator would be a hired employee who would report to the selectboard.

The administrative duties imposed on towns are continually increasing. For example, a considerable amount of funding is through grants, which require increasing amounts of paperwork both in applying for the grants and in administering them once received. For another example, Act 64 in 2015 (regarding water quality) requires municipalities to apply for and comply with a Municipal Roads General Permit starting in 2018. This will require considerable administrative work that did not exist before.

The following recent articles in the News & Citizen may be of interest:

Cambridge, swamped, talks about hiring help – 11/22/17

Wolcott board to consider adding town administrator – 9/28/17

In the second article, the following is attributed to the Wolcott town clerk, who is retiring soon after 30 years:

[I]t’s time to wean the [select]board off the “idea that the town clerk is their secretary.”

The CET recommends that an article be placed in the warning for town meeting regarding the addition of a town administrator. Adding a town administrator does not require voter approval, other than the usual voter approval of the budget, but the CET believes this is a major change for the town and warrants voter discussion and consideration. The CET hopes that the article will be approved.

The CET was unanimous in supporting the idea of a town administrator, but it was not unanimous in recommending a separate article in the warning. A minority of the CET felt that including the cost of a town administrator in the budget was sufficient.

I am a strong supporter of the idea of a town administrator, for all of the reasons stated above, and I support including a separate article in the warning. I welcome your views. Please feel free to post comments here. (Unless you are a member of the selectboard, in which case–per Vermont’s open meeting law–we can discuss town affairs only in properly warned public meetings.)

This is part of a series of four related blog posts:

1. Community Engagement Team Report

2. CET Recommendations – Assigned Questions

3. CET Recommendations – Town Meeting

4. CET Recommendations – Town Administrator (this post)

Please read the first post in this series for context and a link to the CET’s full report. My posts are my own views, and do not necessarily represent the views of either the CET or the selectboard.

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CET Recommendations – Town Meeting

This is the third post in a series of four posts about the report of the Community Engagement Team (CET) to the selectboard on November 20. A list of the posts in this series is at the bottom of this post. Please read the first post in this series for context and a link to the CET’s full report.

This post is about town meeting. Other posts in this series also include recommendations that pertain to town meeting. This post is about additional recommendations pertaining to town meeting. It is the longest post in my series of four posts about the CET’s report. Even so, my comments below are only a summary; please see the CET’s full report for details. The CET had a lot to say about town meeting.


The CET recommends that childcare be provided at town meeting. This was a significant finding from the survey. Johnson recently began providing childcare at their town meeting, with good results, and could serve as a model. The CET’s report provides several options for consideration.

Food and music

The CET recommends providing food and music before the beginning of town meeting, to make the event more inviting and to encourage citizens to come early and mingle. Again, Johnson recently started this, and could serve as a model.

Audio and video

The CET recommends more microphones, a total of five: one for the moderator; an additional microphone on the stage to be shared by other town officials; two roving microphones on the floor; and a fixed microphone on a stand in the center of the floor. There were only two microphones at the 2017 town meeting, one for the stage and one roving microphone for the floor. This was not adequate. The CET recommends that the two roving microphones be carried by both Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, not just Boy Scouts. Town Moderator Jerry Cole suggested adding a fixed microphone, and the CET concurs. Citizens who feel they aren’t being recognized by the moderator or the carriers of the roving microphones would have the option to line up at the fixed microphone where they would be readily seen by the moderator.

The CET recommends that town meeting be videoed for later playback, and livestreamed if possible.


In 2017 for the first time, town meeting was broken into two portions: town meeting and town school district meeting. This is appropriate, and will continue. The CET recommends two separate warnings. The CET recommends that town meeting come first, followed by the town school district meeting. The articles that will likely generate the most discussion are in town meeting.

The CET recognizes the importance of well-constructed warnings. The CET appreciates the input of Town Moderator Jerry Cole in the discussions about the warnings. Note that the CET’s recommendations about the warning for town meeting are submitted to the selectboard for consideration, while recommendations about the warning for the town school district meeting are submitted to the school board for Cambridge Elementary School for consideration.

The CET recognizes that what brings people to town meeting are substantive issues to decide. There will be a number of substantive issues at the 2018 town meeting. The selectboard will likely put several money issues in the warning: the commuter bus (again); the sidewalks (again, the amount approved last year was not sufficient); and the Bartlett Hill/Pumpkin Harbor Road project (with cost estimates from the engineer). The CET is recommending two substantive additions to the warning: increasing the size of the selectboard from three to five (see previous post); and adding a town administrator (see next post). There will be plenty to talk about.

The CET has other minor recommendations for changes to the warnings that are detailed in its report to the selectboard.

In Vermont there is a process for citizens to petition for articles to be added to the warning. The petition must be signed by at least 5% of the voters in the town, and it must be filed with the town clerk not less than 47 days before town meeting. The deadline for the 2018 town meeting is Thursday, January 18, 2018. See 17 V.S.A. § 2642(a)(3) and the “Local Petitions” page on the Secretary of State’s website for more information.

Education and Communication

The CET survey showed that Front Porch Forum is the leading source of information for citizens about town issues. Especially since town meeting, Town Clerk/Treasurer Mark Schilling has made good use of Front Porch Forum to communicate to citizens about town government. This is an excellent improvement.

Even so, the CET recommends that more be done to communicate to voters how town meeting and town government work. Following is a summary of the CET’s ideas; see the report for details.

The summary of parliamentary procedures in the town report could be improved.

The CET recommends that this 2-page document about town meeting, from the Vermont Institute for Government, be included in the town report.

The CET recommends a Front Porch Forum series in the days/weeks before town meeting: “Ten Things to Know about Town Meeting.”

The CET recommends education about town meeting for school children.

The town’s website has much useful information, but it is dated and not easy to use. Mark Schilling plans to include funds in the town’s 2018 budget to upgrade the website, and the CET concurs. My personal hope is that when the town’s website is upgraded, it can be moved from the “.org” domain to the “.gov” domain as I discussed here and here.

The CET recommends that the town create a “policy and service guide” similar to the Middlesex Operator’s Manual that Susan Clark shared with us. A copy of the Middlesex Operator’s Manual is in the town office if you wish to look at it. Regretfully, it does not exist as a single PDF document that I can link to. Pieces of it are in various places on the Town of Middlesex website. There is, however, a similar document, inspired by the Middlesex Operator’s Manual, available online as a single PDF file: the Tinmouth Operator’s Manual.

Some of these recommendations concerning education and communication would benefit from additional resources. See the next post about a town administrator.

This is part of a series of four related blog posts:

1. Community Engagement Team Report

2. CET Recommendations – Assigned Questions

3. CET Recommendations – Town Meeting (this post)

4. CET Recommendations – Town Administrator

Please read the first post in this series for context and a link to the CET’s full report. My posts are my own views, and do not necessarily represent the views of either the CET or the selectboard.

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