lookChronological thinking relates to how we imagine that we all are products of the past.

A defense of History

US Foreign Policy chronology

Grand Canyon dates

Three graves on Cop's Hill Boston, one of the nation's oldest burial places for the dead.

California history

Geological Time

national conservation efforts

history is dualistic


The past is always present




Chronological thinking is one of the lessons of history not because of the importance of time, but because such thought reveals that people were very different from us, since in the pastthe relation among things was different from now. For example 1000 years ago the situation was different from today because the tools people used required them to behave differently from us and encouraged people to think differently from the way we depict the world and our surroundings. In that Medieval period, people in Europe, Asia and Africa used forests for sources of fuel, food, building, furnishings and implements. These people had their bodies and the recurrent patterns of the seasons to tell what time it was of the day or year. They had –if they were fortunate—horse to ride and to do the labor of plowing fields or moving food and fuel to markets.

Today that is different, because of changes in technical capabilities, we know the time by either a digital or analog device we call a
clock, the only horse we have are the 100s of horsepower –as a measure of engine capacity-- available to fortunate folks who drive automobiles. Forests are distant places that we may see pictures of or visit on occasion for recreational delight, not for work. Using chronological thinking, I may comprehend when things changed and how these combined alterations affect my life.

This very day, when I got into my car to come to work from my home that is three miles from here – I actually entered a time machine. The journey of 90 minutes on foot took less than a quarter of an hour. But in addition to the digital clock in the car that reveals to me the time of day, a “timing” belt was enlisted to control the destructive explosions in the vehicles engines propelling the drive shaft and flywheel that moves the wheels and differential gear that allowed me to turn in getting swiftly down the streets and around tight corners.

I call my car a time machine because without the mechanical device to “beat out the rhythm” to synchronize over 10,000 moving parts, I could not have shrunk the distance I travel to and from work. Chronological thinking allows me to recognize the necessity of a Chinese invention and its subsequent adaptation and exaptation by inventors,
Su Sung's Astronomical clock (1079) for my car to function properly today. The exquisitely mechanical motion of thousands of electrical and mechanical parts working in unison to propel me through space and time is due in no small part to a Chinese inventor who wanted to understand the “will of heaven” over 1000 years ago. Technically speaking that is because the drive shaft of your car is connected to the pistons that explode in the cylinders to move the vehicle by a device known as a "timing chain," which synchronizes the movement, firing and exhaust processes necessary for the fuel to propel any car. In more than one sense, the clock and the timing chain are similar artifacts produced by tool complexes that 100 years ago relied on mechanics to build, but today are automatically constructed by robots.

Such a mechanical world that affluent western professionals must rely on automatic devices, long-distance signals and split second timing to make our world more secure, reliable and productive. What we are now becoming socially is dependent on what came before us, just as personally we are what our parents and grandparents --biologically and economically--have given us. Su Sung’s clock, still “keeps time” through the machines all around us. Hidden in a watch is the meaning of the long, thin, ever intelligent line through history that binds us all to his dream of predicting heaven’s apparent movements.

In moving swiftly around the corner of the street, I am dragging the ideas of Newton, Maxwell, Evans and more with me as I lurch from my seat as the car swerves around an unexpectedly slow moving vehicle. Given the horsepower of my engine, split second attention to details was required for me to miss the other car and my body instead feels the forceful pulling on my mass generated by the abrupt change in the car’s motion. Chronological thinking may allow me to appreciate my time machine, but alertness and systemic thinking allows me to avert a costly collision. At the speed of sound I wonder how fast we must learn to respond if the unexpected gets in our way?

gnomonLesson: The past is always with us if only we realized how to sense its presence; that is to feel it, hear it, see it and in some places touch it we would know the depth of its omnipresence. Such an education of our senses might allow the past to inform our decisions. In doing so, we would not remain strangers to ourselves or our societies. The continuity we seek may remain removed from our grasp because we do not know how to make sense of experiences as outcomes of a chronological series of contingent events.

JVS (9-29-04)

History, a defense of

Geological Time

Arnold Pacey, Technology in World Civilization

The importance of history in any education.

"Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it."
George Santayana

Today as the accumulation of information grows exponentially and the pace of change quickens, history becomes even more important. That is because it is so easy to forget the precedents that have lead us to where we are today amidst the explosion of data.small gnomon


History is neither anecdotal case studies, nor is it thematic background to a current idea. History instead is the comparison of conflicting rates of adjustment and change wherein human populations and resources are brought to bear on momentous matters such as the ending of the Atlantic Slave Trade, the expansion and contraction of the Mongol Empire or the exhaustion of the Midwestern soil during the Dust Bowl.

Historical analysis is comparative and comprehensive.
  • Comparative in that history contrasts the long term with shorter term flow of events to distinguish the underlying from the immediate factors at play in important occurrences.
  • Comprehensive in that history describes the contingent ties among population, ethnicity, economics, social, and political conditions over time in specific places.


The Greeks believed the discipline was a story inspired by the muse Clio, while the Chinese knew that history was a critical dynastic charting out  of the will of heaven  in human affairs. So we today must teach historical methods to nourish the threads that bind our traditions.

Environmental history lays a basic foundation for understanding the antecedents, the origins and the development of our ongoing environmental crisis.

Ernst Mayr, Alexander Agassiz Chair at Harvard's Natural History Museum, has argued that the great contribution of the biological sciences to knowledge is that they add an historical dimension to physical and chemical processes (natural philosophy). This suggests that biological evidence, stemming from Darwin's theory of evolution by means of natural selection, introduces an historical component to physical science. The historical quality of biological science identifies correctly where the past confines the choices of the present due to chance events or stochastic patterns of development.

Without an historical grounding in natural history, geography and environmental policies, people are hampered in solving social and ecological problems because their solutions lack depth and connectivity  to the precedents that shape current events.

The tragic events of the last month, and September 11, 2001, reveal even more starkly the importance of teaching history today, or else we will ignore the lessons of our ancestors who faced equally imperative decisions.

Without history we are like a person with amnesia, worse a person doomed to short term memory loss at a time when all our identity -- and maybe even survival --  is riding on retaining our capacity for  long term memory.

Joseph Siry,

Tuesday, October 2, 2001

Two Cultures.

US Foreign Policy chronology | Grand Canyon dates | California history | National conservation efforts | History, a defense of

Geological Time

Mintz on Sugar | Pacey on Meaning | Pursell | Technology defined | Dimensions of Technology | Chronology | Crosby's Ecological Imperialism


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