Friday Fave: A Quote Worth Considering

Joshua Gibbs of Circe Institute offers this kernel of wisdom which dovetails perfectly with my concluding thoughts on Neil Postman’s The Disappearance of Childhood. It’s always exciting when someone says what I tried to say, even if I wish I could have said it as well as they said it. From his recent post, Apart from Dogma, Inspiring Wonder is Reckless:

Children need room to play, but inspiring wonder without also teaching that some things aren’t up for debate is like loosing little children to explore, create, and discover on a busy interstate.

A rather astounding number of Christian high school graduates go on to abandon the faith in college. Is this for lack of wonder or lack of orthodoxy? Both, I suspect.

This quote is worth the price of admission, really, but click over and read the entire post. Those of us who have chosen the path of classical, religious education for our children need to give attention to what it is we’re ultimately trying to produce in our kids. Bonus quote from farther into the post:

Unhinged imaginations always work their way around to perversity.

I’m interested in your thoughts about the aims and methods of education. Share them!

 

 

 

Neil Postman’s Syllogistic Conundrum

The Disappearance of Childhood by Neil Postman, published in 1982. 177 pages.

It has taken me several weeks to read this relatively short book mainly because I got sidetracked, not only by the runaway cultural train that we’re all witnessing, but also by a sudden and overwhelming curiosity about the late Neil Postman; who he was and what he was all about. What I found is that he is a man who, like so many sane secular commentators, parked right outside of Truth’s house, but failed to finish the leg of the journey that would take him through the front door.

One thing Postman does extraordinarily well is lay out the historical development of childhood as we commonly understand it today. By today, I mean the image cultivated between the years 1850 and 1950 as exposited in The Disappearance of Childhood.

The period between 1850 and 1950 represents the high watermark of childhood. In America, to which we must now give our exclusive attention, successful attempts were made during these years to get all children into school and out of factories, into their own clothing, their own furniture, their own literature, their own games, and their own social world. In a hundred laws children were classified as qualitatively different from adults; in a hundred customs, assigned preferred status and offered protections from the vagaries of adult life. p.67″

Before this, Postman laid the groundwork for his argument that prior to the printing press and widespread literacy, children didn’t experience the shelter and protections from adult life that they enjoyed after those developments. Postman argues that children were not only were exposed to hard physical labor but also to ribaldry and all things adult-like. This was because childhood’s boundaries were not determined by literacy, but by verbal acuity which reaches maturity at a much earlier age than literacy education as we understand it today.

There’s room for a robust conversation about the happy medium, if you will, between childhood as we know it, complete with its own language and accouterments, and a healthy overlap between the lives of children and adults. Postman sees the overlapping of childhood and adulthood mostly through a negative lens, and when viewed from his vantage point, he’s right to see it that way. He frames most of these negative developments from a snapshot which has grown increasingly vivid with each technological advancement. Somehow the printing press is omitted from judgement, which only Postman could explain. I hope to find out if he did as I continue to read more of his work. While most scholars trace the disembodiment of communication back to the radio, Postman asks us to consider that it really began with the telegraph. A question attributed to Thoreau addressed the issue and was expounded on 120 years later:

“A hundred and twenty years later Marshall McLuhan tried to address the issue Thoreau raised. He wrote: ‘When a man lives in an electric environment, his nature is transformed and his private identity is merged with the corporate whole. He becomes “Mass Man”. Mass Man is a phenomenon of electric speed, not of physical quantity. Mass Man was first noticed as a phenomenon in the age of radio, but he had come into existence, unnoticed, with the electric telegraph’.

In my opinion, McLuhan, whose metier was hyperbole, is far from exaggerating the case here. The electric telegraph was the first communication medium to allow the speed of a message to exceed the speed of the human body.” P. 69-70.

I would argue that the printing press fits this bill, but as a man of literature, Postman is unable to appreciate the distinction.

My fascination with the overlapping phenomena of technological advancement and the destruction of geographical community (a phrase which would have been redundant 100 years ago), is causing me to omit the true thrust of Postman’s argument, which really hinges on the advent of television as a mass medium and the breathtaking speed at which it transformed the way we live and interact.

Postman’s thesis, and I agree, is that a picture may “be worth a thousand words, but it is in no sense the equivalent of a thousand words, or a hundred, or two.” He presents the argument that television has the potential to put our minds to sleep. This is where it differs from the printed word.  Though the printed word can also contribute to Mass Man as a phenomenon, it doesn’t put the mind to sleep.

As it relates to the disappearance of childhood, Postman offers a very interesting argument for why these moving pictures with targeted entertainment formulas contribute not only to the “adultifying” of children, but to the rise of the “childified” adult. His cultural references are outdated since the book was written in the 1980s, but no matter. In 2020, the references have leaped from the screen and are now a part of daily life. Who among us does not know these people, except they aren’t characters on a television show?

Laverne, Shirley, Archie, the crew if the Love Boat, the company of Tree, Fonzie, Barney Miller’s detectives, Rockford, Kojak, and the entire population of Fantasy Island can hardly be said to be adult characters, even after one has made allowances for the traditions of the formats in which they appear. With a few exceptions, adults on television do not take their work seriously (if they work at all), they do not nurture children, they have no politics, practice no religion, represent no tradition, have no foresight or serious plans, have no extended conversations, and in no circumstances allude to anything that is not familiar to an eight-year-old person.” p.126-127

To this, I have two responses. The first is welcome to the modern/postmodern era! The second is an indictment of Postman’s secular worldview. Much as a feminist is all for unbridled sexual autonomy until a 16 year-old boy competes and wins in a sporting event that should have merited her daughter a chance at a collegiate athletic scholarship, Postman cannot acknowledge that the practice of religion and extending of traditions across generations is tethered to accountability to God and man. It’s also inextricably linked to the understanding that for moral values to have substance, moral law must support them, and all laws have a Law Giver.

Childhood, as an intrinsically valuable stage of life, came of age with Christianity’s spread across the West much in the same way as female dignity was born at the Samarian well. Once we decided that every man should decide for himself what is right, there was nothing left but the destruction of all things good, true, and beautiful. Including the innocence of childhood.

The book itself, however, is excellent. It presents a powerful case and offers lots of opportunity to contemplate the fruits and limits of modern living.

4 out of 5 stars

Oh, yes! The syllogism:

If man determines his own values

Which are subjective rather than objective

This fluidity renders everything worthless ~me

Word Nerd Wednesday: Systemic

It is my earnest attempt to keep this as word nerdy and apolitical as possible, but given the way this word is being tossed around of late, I thought it warranted a closer look. So against my better judgment, I want to parse the word systemic, because I am fairly certain it doesn’t mean what most people think it means.

What can I say? Inigo Montoya looms large here at Reading in Between the Life. First, a definition, or more accurately, several definitions, from two etymological sources:

System (From Webster’s 1828 dictionary, where the word systemic isn’t listed):

1. An assemblage of things adjusted into a regular whole; or a whole plan or scheme consisting of many parts connected in such a manner as to create a chain of mutual dependencies; or a regular union of principles or parts forming one entire thing. Thus we say, a system of logic, a system of philosophy, a system of government, a system of principles, the solar system the Copernican system a system of divinity, a system of law, a system of morality, a system of husbandry, a system of botany or of chemistry.

2. Regular method or order.

Systemic (Merriam Webster online):

a: affecting the body generally systemic diseases

b: supplying those parts of the body that receive blood through the aorta rather than through the pulmonary artery

c: of, relating to, or being a pesticide that as used is harmless to the plant or higher animal but when absorbed into its sap or bloodstream makes the entire organism toxic to pests (such as an insect or fungus)

d: fundamental to a predominant social, economic, or political practice

So the word systemic shows a framework or “system” intentionally designed to produce a particular outcome, whether negative or positive, for particular citizens.

When you live in a system with layers upon layers of legal prohibitions and protections to ensure that certain positive outcomes are enhanced and other negative outcomes are reduced for all citizens (even when the positive outcomes aren’t merited and the negative outcomes are deserved), then it’s probably a good idea to think critically about whether the definition of the word, as it’s being espoused, is correct.

This is especially true when there is access to legal and historical information distinguishing a time when the system was one way, legally, and there is a clear and direct line of systemic reforms which show a pattern of moving from one system to another.

Lastly, “microaggressions” are interpersonal, one-on-one occurrences, and are therefore not acceptable examples or proof of systemic design. Humans gonna human, and we all suck sometimes in one way or another.

Now, go. Educate yourself. Most schools are not equipped to do it for you, at least not properly.

Word Nerd Wednesday: What does Grandma taste like?

You’ve no doubt heard the grammar lesson on commas which begins with the farcical one liner, “Let’s eat Grandma”.  It’s universal, and a hilarious way to teach the importance of proper comma usage.

One of my favorite types of books is a funny, readable grammar book which tackles common English language mistakes without the stodgy feel of a textbook. I recently picked up a copy of The Grammatically Correct Handbook at our local used bookstore and am enjoying it quite a lot. I am always surprised to run into rules I didn’t know that I didn’t know. This book, which I am still reading, inspired a recollection of how many other cute yet functional grammar books I’ve read over the years. Here are just a few:

  • Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English–Like every book on this list, this book is easy to read and entertaining. I’m operating from the assumption that someone other than I find grammar entertaining. Even if you don’t, this book shoots straight, which brings me to the next book on the list.
  • Eats, Shoots, & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation– Lynne Truss makes punctuation fun by giving you a page-side seat as she offers uproarious examples of commas gone wild. It’s an excellent way to teach punctuation to your kids. Even if they go to school, the grammar education isn’t very good, and punctuation knowledge is even worse, so grab this book and take the drudgery out of it.
  • Between You and Me– This one is more geared toward adult writing mistakes, given the references that the average millennial will not recognize, but it’s funny. Worth a read if you’re a blogger or writer of any kind. Yeah, I know we all have Grammarly now (I have a subscription to ProWritingAid on my computer), but what happens to your writing if the Internet goes ‘kaput!’ tomorrow? Huh?
  • Write Right: A Desktop Digest of Grammar, Punctuation, and Style– This book tackles all the steps of the writing process, while also tinged with lightness and humor. It’s not as entertaining as some aforementioned books, but it’s a darn sight better than your 7th grade English book.

Those are just a few of the books tackling grammar that I have enjoyed, and I have more still to explore.

Do you have any favorite books that you used to help you as you improve your use of the English language, in speech as well as writing?

My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir

thomas-memoir

I updated and reposted this September 2016 review. Considering current events and the surrounding din, a redirection towards the life and memoir of such an accomplished man as Justice Thomas seems appropriate.

My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir, by Justice Clarence Thomas. Originally published in 2007. 304 pages.

Bootstrapping is an unpopular concept today, and My Grandfather’s Son is certainly an engaging, bootstrapping book. However, it is worth reading because in reality, Clarence Thomas understands that his success is as much a testament to his grandfather’s dedicated investment in him as it is to his own hard work and intellect. From that perspective, it is less a story of pulling oneself up by his bootstraps and more about appreciating and capitalizing upon the opportunities that come our way.

While most Americans associate Justice Thomas with Anita Hill and the scandalous nature of his Senate confirmation hearings, there is much more to his life’s story than that brief, unfortunate saga. In fact, the story of his growing-up years was so interesting that I almost forgot about the Anita Hill fiasco that made him a household name to begin with.

The book’s titular reference is to Thomas’ maternal grandfather, who took him and his brother in when their divorced single mother couldn’t give them the life she knew they needed to be successful. Justice Thomas clarifies that in all the ways that matter, he is indeed his grandfather’s son. It was he who taught the boys about life, work, manhood, and rising above their circumstances growing up in the Jim Crow south.

I always found it odd to see Clarence Thomas painted by the media and the left as a man disconnected from and unconcerned with the plight of the people he “left behind” in the black community. I found this odd despite being a very young, idealistic, card-carrying Democrat at the time of his contentious and tawdry confirmation fight. I was interested in politics even at 20 years old, because my parents were interested in politics. I was aware of what was happening and I wondered: How could a man born and raised in Georgia in the 1950s be indifferent to the plight of the people who shaped him into the man he was?

I later learned, and his memoir confirmed, that he was far from indifferent. The problem was that as a thinking person rather than a blind follower he concluded that the politically correct, liberal state-centered solutions being offered were not in the best interest of anyone, least of all black people. That wasn’t a popular position to take and still isn’t. It’s even less tolerable coming from a black person, as Thomas found out the hard way.

He was still quite a young man when he noticed the propensity of the liberals in academia and government to use the policy of appease and agree in response to every demand made by black leaders, even if the demands were illogical and damaging over the long-term. Also, he realized that the soft, paternalistic racism of the left was just as bad, if not worse, than the overt, virulent racism he’d witnessed growing up. At one point he reiterates this by noting that the first time he was called “nigger” he was not in Georgia, but Massachusetts.

The parts of Thomas’ book where he describes his gradual awakening to the reality that liberal policies that purport to help the black community choked the life out of the community, destroyed the family, and discourage self-sufficiency resonated.

If there was one part of Thomas’ story that left me a bit saddened, it was his account of the ending of his failed first marriage. His leaving because he was disillusioned and unhappy signaled that he hadn’t been fully immune to the liberal line of thought which gained its foothold during his coming of age years. That he and his ex-wife to her credit, understood that raising their son and ushering him to manhood was best handled by Thomas himself rather than his ex-wife was the one redeeming element of that period of his life as retold in the book. Like Thomas’ mother understood, they understood that men learn manhood from men.

He and his current wife took on the mantle of his grandfather, who raised Thomas and his brother, by taking in his young nephew from a troubled home and raising him as their own. Thomas clearly understood the challenges facing the young men, and has put his time and money where his mouth is, unlike many of his liberal detractors.

By the time the book gets to the Anita Hill scandal, it is an afterthought. The most interesting parts of Thomas’ life story occurred long before his nomination to the Supreme Court. His version of those events are what many readers are looking for, so he told his side of the story. His retelling is fairly dispassionate, until he describes his return to the Christian faith, guided by Senator and ordained minister John Danforth, as the entire ordeal wore on him and his wife.

As Thomas once again declared his innocence, I recalled the media coverage of the confirmation hearings. When I watched them, I was staunchly opposed to Thomas political views.  At least I thought I was, as this was before I started thinking through the issues. Even then, I remember having a hard time believing Ms. Hill’s accounting of events. I told myself that truth is often stranger than fiction so it was probably true, but I never really believed it. Though his confirmation was successful,  Thomas claims he didn’t  care if he was confirmed. That he stuck it out to clear his name and for no other reason.

One of the standout passages in the book was Thomas’ recounting of a private interview he had with a particularly hostile senator. The only thing that mattered to anyone on the left and most people on the right was, “How’s he likely to vote on abortion cases?” He had no judicial paper trail, so the senators tried to gauge his positions through the way they posed their questions. Thomas’ retelling of one of these interviews was priceless:

Howard Metzenbaum was the other kind of senator, and I already knew how he felt about me. It would have been charitable to call him unlikable, though he went through the motions of civility during my visit. At one point he actually tried to lure me into a discussion of natural law, but I knew he was no philosopher, just another cynical politician looking for a chink in my armor, so all I did was ask him if he would consider having a human-being sandwich for lunch instead of say, a turkey sandwich. That’s Natural Law 101: all law is based on some sense of moral principles inherent in the nature of human beings, which explains why cannibalism, even without a written law to proscribe it, strikes every civilized person as naturally wrong. Any well-read college student would have gotten my point, but Senator Metzenbaum just stared at me awkwardly and changed the subject as fast as he could.

That was a superb response, and one of the things I most enjoyed about this book. It was written by a person who has taken the time to observe and think about the world around him, rather than allowing someone else to do it for him.

It’s a quick and engaging read and offers a lot of insight into the life and mind of one of the most controversial Supreme Court Justices in recent memory.

Grade: B

*This review is a re-post, which sprang to remembrance as election coverage heats up.

The Current Crisis Reinforces the Importance of Books

I recently disengaged myself from the small bit of social media that I was engaged in. The overwhelming barrage of keyboard battle waging wore me out. I couldn’t take anymore, and I have learned over the years the danger of publicly emoting over every cultural and political upheaval coming down the pike. Social media doesn’t really reward silence. You’re supposed to use your supposed platform to say something, and I cannot be bothered.

As a natural fact finder and researcher, I know that the vast majority of what we’re told is twisted and manipulated to produce maximum emotional reaction. The result is a further breakdown of civility and dialog, so I checked out. Measured, reserved voices have no place in such an environment.

As I took my leave and considered the way information is disseminated, eliminated, and policed across various platforms and it occurred to me how important it is to read books. Not just history books, although those top the list, but many books. Preferably, read books written at least 100 years ago. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read newer books. A quick perusal here reveals that I have reviewed books from every modern era. On the Internet, information can be manipulated and withheld on the whim and according to the political preferences of powerful people. That makes it a poor substitute for the wisdom that has gone before, preserved in hard copies.

We’ve explored the choice to be made between digital reading and hard copies of books. I recognize that the day is coming when digital reading will completely overtake bound paper books, and that many people will welcome the development. I understand why, but I disagree. The only thing I offer concerning the current crisis is a bit of advice:

Put down your phone, get to know your neighbors as human beings, and pick up a book.