Month: March 2014

Author Quotes: C.S. Lewis and Common Core Logic, Part II


“These well-meaning educationalists are quite right in thinking that literary appreciation is a delicate thing. What they do not seem to see is that for this very reason elementary examinations on literary subjects ought to confine themselves to just those dry and factual questions which are so often ridiculed. The questions were never supposed to test appreciation; the idea was to find out whether the boy had read his books. It was the reading, not the being examined, which was expected to do him good. And this, so far from being a defect in such examinations is just what renders them useful or even tolerable.

. . .What obsequious boys, if encouraged, will try to manufacture, and clever ones can ape, and shy ones will conceal, what dies at the touch of venality, is called to come forward and perform, to exhibit itself, at that very age when its timid, half-conscious stirrings can least endure such self-consciousness.”

– C.S. Lewis, excerpt from the Essay “The Parthenon And The Optative”

________

In Part I of my comparison between C.S. Lewis critique of 1940’s British educational reformers and the modern Common Core logic, I discussed the areas in which we would possibly disagree. Now I strike on the overarch philosophy on which I believe we agree.

Lewis was fighting against a beast which is mostly foreign to us today. While some of his ideas sound more in favor of something like a Common Core standard, I would argue that his underlying assumptions were totally opposed to it and his expressed ideal circumstances were a call for a middle ground between a logical foundation and a passionate pursuit.

We should start by noting the four cultural ideals involved in our conversation. They are Lewis educational ideals, the reforming ideas of the 1940’s, the current ideas of the Common Core reform, and my own perspective.

1. Lewis is old school. While he highly values the emotions involved in enjoying literature, he starts (in all things) with logical undergirdings. From true understand appreciation can grow. He says that even when a student dislikes the material, we have “at the very least, taught the boy what knowledge is like. He may decide that he doesn’t care for knowledge; but he knows he doesn’t care for it, and he knows he hasn’t got it.”

2. The period reformers were attempting to shift to test students on their capability to appreciate rather than comprehend the materials at hand, and to do so by judging them on localized standards with educator peer reviews. Their goal was to give educators the freedom to make attempts revealing what the Norwood Report called the “sensitive and elusive thing” in appreciating literature instead of testing the “coarse fringe” that is testing for detailed comprehension. “The teacher’s success can be gauged by himself or by one of his immediate colleagues who knows him well.”

Lewis stands against both educating for appreciation and in-house assessments. He believes that students would be more hindered by trying to sound appreciative of the works for test performance than they would be by having to evaluate the actual materials for answers. He also questions whether anyone can learn the materials for their own merit if the testing is based on the professor’s interpretations of the material rather than its content. You have to agree with the professor’s preferences to do well.

3. “The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.” If you read this mission statement the wrong way it might sound like nationalist propaganda. We will tell the teachers and parents what to say. The students will be proud to make their nation great.

Common Core is based on a couple of nearly-standard American cultural premises. The first I would describe as a fast food standardization. You can get the exact same Big Mac at any McDonalds across the globe, and our industrial society sees this as a golden rule for progress, including within our education system. Leave a 5th grade class in small town Connecticut on Monday, pick up where your left the standard text in a classroom in San Francisco on Tuesday. Everyone should learn the exact same things at the same age, and this is automatically good for them. To personalize the system is to devote too many resources.

The second problematic idea behind modern education theory is that simple, blue collar work is less valuable than jobs requiring higher level expertise. Obviously, from a monetary perspective, many positions requiring an education pay better, but often a trade school education or specialized machinist skills can pay just as well with much less irrelevant education involved. We live in a culture that looks down on less intellectually charming roles. We have outsourced our manufacturing because we believe that we have transcended the lowly skills involved in creating our own things. Most people used to spend their time growing food, but now the idea of farming tends to conjure up images from The Grapes Of Wrath.

Common Core functions based upon the faulty cultural presuppositions that everyone needs to know everything equally and that higher education is automatically valuable to everyone. It is partially spurred on by similar hopes to those of the old educators who wanted people to really be engaged by and in love with what they were learning, but it also refuses to believe that a basically educated and simply enjoyed life is actually valid. “Ignorance is bliss” becomes not simply an unwise axiom, but a moral heresy.

4. Lastly, I come to my own ideas. I do not wish to lay a claim as an authority on education. I have had a handful of very illuminating conversations with educators and educational theorists, but those don’t hold much weight. What I have had is the pleasure of knowing and truly enjoy a lot individuals of all passions and education levels; the opportunity to see so many diverse people learning to explore their own giftings and interests makes the idea of an extreme and mechanical standardization of education a dystopian prospect. Education should pour out of relationships. Relationship most importantly of student to materials, and secondary of student to instructor.
_________

All four perspectives hold in common, as some level, some authentic desire for people to learn and to utilize and enjoy what they learn. There is no contradiction in that aspect of their goals, it is in execution where the distinctions become radical.

The old reformers push for a common modernist idea of focusing on interpretation almost to the exclusion of the source material. Their desire is overtly to pursue interest and response over basic understanding. The Common Core logic takes this idea and requires it of everyone. Every student must be equally interested in and capable of all things. Not only can we enforce interest, but we can standardize it.

Here we finally come to the points on which to take Lewis very seriously. Lewis proposes that we simply give the students the most basic materials and make sure that they are comprehending what they are given, then allow them to determine their own interest level beyond that point of understanding.
Revolutionary.

Lewis’ perspective on educating is like throwing seeds of knowledge and waiting to see what sprouts up when they find ample mental sustenance. Who are we to force things to grow were they are not wanted or sustained? Everyone benefits from being able to multiply, but is geometry valuable to all? I believe that passionate teachers (something Lewis seems to assume regardless) who can foster their interests should be the second goal.

The truth is that we should become as comfortable as Lewis seems to be with relequishing control and allowing a student to shun what we hold sacred. If the son of two Master’s degree parents wants to be a farmer, who should hold him back from it? If the daughter of a poor miner wants to become a neurosurgeon, who can hold her back?

Our system has made some great headway in making education available to all via public libraries and public schooling. We should continue to pursue greater excellence in these. But the innate desire to learn is often too valuable and fragile a thing to withstand years of training on arbitrary information. Great opportunities should always be available, but idealists shouldn’t be horrified when students don’t share their passions and industrialists shouldn’t be dismayed when students don’t desire their level of personal productivity.

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Viktor Frankl on How Love Survived the Nazi Death Camps


The Bully Pulpit

Auschwitz

“As we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth — that love is the…

View original post 1,198 more words

Wendell Berry, Family, and The Cold War


“There is no government so worthy as your son who fishes with
you in silence besides the forest pool.
There is no national glory so comely as your daughter whose
hands have learned a music and go their own way on the keys.
There is no national glory so comely as my daughter who
dances and sings and is the brightness of my house.
There is no government so worthy as my son who laughs, as he
comes up the path from the river in the evening, for joy.”

“To A Siberian Woodsman”
Wendell Berry
_______

The title and content of this poem take on greater meaning when it is noted that this was published in the earlier years of the Cold War.

Somehow, looking back at a previous generations Cold War and Vietnam makes the question of the current wars all the more greying to the beard and furrowing to the brow. I read this thought from of a young Wendell Berry, speaking of his laughing children at play, and I manage somehow to veiw joyful youth and grow very old, all at once.

Every line speaks a gift and a curse.

Author Quotes: C.S. Lewis and Common Core Logic, Part I


“These well-meaning educationalists are quite right in thinking that literary appreciation is a delicate thing. What they do not seem to see is that for this very reason elementary examinations on literary subjects ought to confine themselves to just those dry and factual questions which are so often ridiculed. The questions were never supposed to test appreciation; the idea was to find out whether the boy had read his books. It was the reading, not the being examined, which was expected to do him good. And this, so far from being a defect in such examinations is just what renders them useful or even tolerable.

. . .What obsequious boys, if encouraged, will try to manufacture, and clever ones can ape, and shy ones will conceal, what dies at the touch of venality, is called to come forward and perform, to exhibit itself, at that very age when its timid, half-conscious stirrings can least endure such self-consciousness.”

– C.S. Lewis, excerpt from the Essay “The Parthenon And The Optative”
_______

When we look at education from such changed standards as those 75 years later, it is almost difficult to follow Lewis’ line of reason because education philosophies have shifted around so greatly. Even still, I can’t help but find immense application of Lewis’ timeless theories to critique the Common Core standards and modern education paradigms. Some of the things he expresses also seem to contradict my own thoughts and experiences. Before I explain our overarching agreements and what I believe he would think of the Common Core, let me discuss our possibly disagreement.

Lewis goes on to end the article by saying “Of course we meet many people who explain to us that they would by now have been great readers of poetry if it had not been ‘spoiled for them’ at school by ‘doing’ it for examinations of the old kind. It is theoretically possible. Perhaps they would by now have been saints if no one had ever examined them in Scripture. . .It may be so: but why should we believe it is. We have only their word for it; and how do they know?”

I confess that I am one of these people. I am now as a man an eager omnivore of a critical and enthused reader, but I was long dormant in my desire to learn. I felt very dull toward learning throughout high school and for almost five years after college. I would not say that this has as much to do with being tested as it did with a lacking of inspired teachers.

I had some apathetic teachers and some great teachers who cared deeply for their student’s well-being, but none of which were inspired by their course subject matter. I can only think of three teachers I have ever sat under whose own inspirations on the subject matter were palpable in the classroom, and these have stuck with me. I can only imagine what my education would have been like if my teachers had all been hired based on their response to the question, “tell me what you love about (_subject_matter_)?” In my mind, education on all fronts should always be 3x as concerned about inspiring a desire to learn as it is with any other aspect of how to teach.

I think C.S. Lewis would have appreciate the fine distinction between a student turned off by being tested and a student turned off by a bored teacher, although I cannot assume that he would necessarily agree with the justification of the one if he ridiculed the other. I can say that he himself, the professors who taught him, and those whom he surrounded himself with seemed always to have a lust for critical and impassioned learning. I have yet to read anything by him distinguishing between those in education who are passionate and those who seem disingenuous. It seems that most whom he agreed and disagreed with were at least passionate about their ideas, and perhaps the problem rarely arose in his own circles.

He is right when he says that literary appreciation (and all kinds of deep appreciation) is a delicate thing. I once had a roommate who could only really enjoyed reading instruction manuals. I understand and love that different types of people learn differently and enjoy things differently. That’s why we should all be exposed to passionate car mechanics, starry-eyed scientists, and enthusiastic book worms. Our system should not be so heavy-handed as to disengage the teacher from his materials. Every student should have the opportunity to see a dictionary, instruction booklet, and novel used appropriately and passionately. Then perhaps we could all start getting out of our comfort zones and appreciating our own natural passions and foreign ones at the same time. I have met numerous educators who are being disrupted from engaging with student’s minds by the Common Core. Some have even quit teaching after 30 years of service.

I can’t imagine that Lewis would have been eager to see a teacher’s materials handed down to them from on high with a big brother figure in the classroom a couple times a month, but I can say that I would love to sit and chat with him about this circumstance more than almost any other subject.

Stay tuned for the ways I think we agree in Part II.

Author Quotes: Wendell Berry and Our Violent Heritage


“When I lived in other places I looked on their evils with the curious eye of a traveler; I was not responsible for them; it cost me nothing to be a critic, for I had not been there long, and I did not feel that I would stay. But here, now that I am both native and citizen, there is no immunity to what is wrong. It is impossible to escape the sense that I am involved in history. What I am has been to a considerable extent determined by what my forebears were, by how they chose to treat this place while they lived in it; the lives of most of them diminished it, and limited its possibilities, and narrowed its future. And every day I am confronted by the question of what inheritance I will leave. What do I have that I am using up? For it has been our history that each generation in this place has been less welcomed to it than the last. There has been less here for them. At each arrival there has been less fertility in the soil, and a larger inheritance of destructive precedent and shameful history.

I am forever being crept up on and newly startled by the revelation that my people established themselves here by killing or driving out the original possessors, by the awareness that people were once bought and sold here by my people, by the sense of violence they have done to their own kind and to each other and to the earth, by their persistent failure to serve either the place or their own community in it. I am forced, against all my hopes and inclinations, to regard the history of my people here as the progress of the doom of what I value most in the world: the life and health of the earth, the peacefulness of human communities and households.

And so here, in the place I love more than any other and where I have chosen among all other places to live my life, I am more painfully divided within myself than I could be in any other place.”

– Wendell Berry, Excerpt from the essay “A Native Hill”
_______

I rediscovered this essay a few days ago and it was a welcome comfort to read the same sentiments I have been wrestling with spoken of with the characteristically gentle articulation that Wendell Berry brings to all his writings.

I am a great lover of nature and physical spaces. While I have long been considering the tragedies we commit against nature agriculturally and ecologically, I have been realizing in a shocking new way that every physical place is stained with the blood of the innocent. Perhaps “realizing” isn’t the correct word. I’ve known it long, but it is beginning to violently discourage me.

My heart has been heavy with the immensity of human suffering in every corner of this beautiful planet. Not just human suffering, but oppression at the hands of other men. Human history is a series of violent oppressions, revolutions, exterminations, and slaveries. Men fight each other as tribes until they are stolen away to become generations of slaves in a foreign land, a land itself obtained by the routing and eradication of the native children by those who arrived there themselves under force of oppression. It’s almost too much to bear, and at this point the gravity of it makes me despair regardless of the beauty of the greatest landscapes.

Berry goes on to sight further historic references and propose that it is our disconnection from identifying with a multi-generational history and a detachment to our physical land that leads us to consume without question and thus builds over generations a willingness toward violence.

I can see the correlation.

Read A Native Hill here.

Author Quotes: C.S. Lewis and How Words Die


“A skillful doctor of words will pronounce the disease to be mortal at that moment when the word in question begins to harbour the adjective parasites real or true. As long as gentleman has a clear meaning, it is enough to say that So-and-so is a gentleman. When we begin saying that he is a ‘real gentleman’ or ‘a true gentleman’ or ‘a gentleman in the truest sense’ we may be sure that the word has not long to live.
. . .The vocabulary of flattery and insult is continually enlarged at the expense of the vocabulary of definition. As old horses go to the knacker’s yard, or old ships to the breakers, so words in their last decay go to swell the enormous list of synonyms for good and bad. And as long as most people are more anxious to express their likes and dislikes than to describe facts, this must remain a universal truth about language.

– C.S. Lewis, excerpt from the essay entitled The Death Of Words.

____________

A great example of this happened to me just a few days ago when I asked my wife a question which offended her. She was not offended by the question itself so much as the fact that I accused her of having a “scheme”. She, like many, automatically assumed a “scheme” to have negative connotations when, in fact, its original meaning is simply to have a coherent and consistent plan of action.

I have frequently seen commentary on the way that English language usage has evolved to use words like “love” so broadly as to describe both affections for a grandmother and desire for a cheeseburger, but rarely have I heard a discussion of what we do to allow the changes to take place. While I enjoy slang as much as the next person might, Lewis’ point is driven home for anyone who is familiar with buzzwords from various time periods. Often a word (or whole sets of words) that had specific meanings to generations before are effectively rendered general, then banal, then obsolete. I am constantly stumbling onto new antique words or phrases with fascinating origins that often provide unique clarity when they are properly understood.

Lewis goes on to say,

“It is important to notice that the danger to the word. . .comes not from its open enemies, but from its friends. It was not egalitarians, it was officious admirers of gentility, who killed the word gentleman. . .when, however reverently, you have killed a word you have also, as far as in you lay, blotted from the human mind the thing that word originally stood for. Men do not long continue to think what they have forgotten how to say.”

On this line of logic, perhaps we could save ourselves some history lessons if we spent more time preserving an understanding of our language.

Free Wandlung Children’s E-book Avaiable Now!


I have officially made the free e-version of my book Wandlung available through Noisetrade Books!

I’ve loved and followed Noisetrade for years now, so when they rolled out their book service shortly after I self-published Wanglung, I was ready to jump on board! Please do me the honor of giving it a read and even sharing it with others via social media. If you love it, rate and review it on Goodreads and anywhere else on the web. If you hate it, please do the same!

55 Classics Review #4 – “The Railway Children” by Edith Nesbit


I am especially eager that anyone who wanders into this review should become eager to read The Railway Children, so I will endeavor to give nothing away and also to refrain from over-selling it. But I found it quite rivals any other children’s book I have loved.

I’ve been meaning to start reading E. Nesbit for a couple of years now. I’m also really glad to have started among them with The Railway Children. Most of her popular works are fantasy stories of children discovering mythical creatures and magical objects. While I’m quite a proponent of these forms, this book somehow manages to propose nothing supernatural any still impress the reader with a fairie euphoria.

Put broadly, The Railway Children is a serial tale following three young siblings who suddenly find their father taken away from their family and their easy, middle-class city life mysteriously replaced by a poor country existence. The children bounce back and the story is a serialization if the extraordinary events of their new life near the railroad.

I don’t want to tell you too much more but I’m bursting with praises for this book. It is the story of brave, intimate parenting and young children who have been inspired to do good anywhere they go. Regardless of their own hardships, the children are constantly aware of and actively intervening in the midst of the sorrows or dangers present to their mother and literally every other person they meet. The unnamed narrator speaks with a smooth, whimsical style reminiscent of A.A. Milne and C.S. Lewis, as a rare adult who is completely understanding and taking seriously the thoughts and opinions of children. If you have a desire to influence children to act out of brave love toward others, this book will probably bring you close to crying many times over. (Warning – I had to fight back tears multiple times in public reading spaces. You might want to read this one at home.)

The book is not without its debatable flaws. One necessary and even relieving flaw is that the children still manage to fight amongst themselves often, although they usually end up forgiving one another well. I call this necessary because they wouldn’t be conceivable otherwise and it gives me hope for myself and my own kids to become more loving.

Another feasible flaw in the book is the extraordinary number of unique circumstances they find themselves in. Some of these are initiated by the children’s mischief and are easily plausible, but many are just events in which they are in the right place at the right time to save the day. The book was apparently originally written as a magazine serial, which makes more sense of its chapter-by-chapter, mini-adventure episodes. I personally don’t fault the book for the questionable number of unique scenarios, as their volume is really the only unnatural aspect of the entire book.

Ultimately, the book is tour de force train ride to see how much “loving-kindness” (as one character describes their activities) mischief a group of kids can pull off when their life is tragically upturned and they are left to explore a new countryside. An absolute must read for every parent, aspiring parent, and child. It truly inspires charity and excessive good-will.

Author Quotes: Neil Gaiman And The Value of Fiction and The Library


“. . .the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.

You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this:

The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.

I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed?

It’s simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.

And while we’re on the subject, I’d like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it’s a bad thing. As if “escapist” fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in.

If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with(and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.

As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.

Tolkien
 Tolkien’s illustration of Bilbo’s home, Bag End. Photograph: HarperCollins

Another way to destroy a child’s love of reading, of course, is to make sure there are no books of any kind around. And to give them nowhere to read those books. I was lucky. I had an excellent local library growing up. I had the kind of parents who could be persuaded to drop me off in the library on their way to work in summer holidays, and the kind of librarians who did not mind a small, unaccompanied boy heading back into the children’s library every morning and working his way through the card catalogue, looking for books with ghosts or magic or rockets in them, looking for vampires or detectives or witches or wonders. And when I had finished reading the children’s’ library I began on the adult books.

They were good librarians. They liked books and they liked the books being read. They taught me how to order books from other libraries on inter-library loans. They had no snobbery about anything I read. They just seemed to like that there was this wide-eyed little boy who loved to read, and would talk to me about the books I was reading, they would find me other books in a series, they would help. They treated me as another reader – nothing less or more – which meant they treated me with respect. I was not used to being treated with respect as an eight-year-old.

But libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.”

– Excerpt from the lecture “Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming” by Neil Gaiman, presented for the British Literacy group The Reading Agency. View the entire lecture here.

_________________________

I value reading similarly to Neil; I believe that intention fiction sows and breeds hope and relatability in us. By “intentional fiction” I mean something very different from allegory or moralist tales. I mean intentionally building imaginary things in our own minds. One can and often does accidentally imagine things, but engaging fiction makes us intentional subcreators. We find the value inherant in filling in the imaginative gaps and sticking with the story to its fulfillment.

We learn empathy and also become more capable of relationship. Stories are generally about relationships or the trouble of lacking relationships. Protagonists and even antagonists give us first understanding of other perspectives and experiences, even for those with strangely skewed points-of-view. We are able to comprehend without validating, a skill seemingly on the brink of extinction in modern cultures.