life-long learning

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”
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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.

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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.

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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.