In Other’s Words: A Referendum on American Education

It’s been a long while since I featured anything from the prolific and insightful Joshua Gibbs, so we’re overdue for some of his wit.

He recently posted “If Children Answered Questions Like Adults Being Interviewed on NPR“. Because NPR is the self-styled radio station for the cultured, more educated intelligensia, I have re-interpreted his post as a referendum on American education. A few of the examples he gives:

Mrs. Grady: Class, what is 9 divided by 3? Lucas?

Lucas (7): Absolutely. Yeah. So, 3?

Dad: Did you call your sister a ‘puke sandwhich’ and hit her in the face with the Happy Pumper?

Elijah (5): Sure. So, no.

Mr. Ogleby: Alright, my little biologists. First review question from yesterday’s lesson: Is the nucleus “the powerhouse of the cell”?

Harper (9): So, I love that you asked this question. I feel like I want to say, ‘No.’

He has a couple more examples over at his original post, but you get the point. We are a culture saying more than we have ever said, while simulataneously saying nothing. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that we say very little with clarity of meaning or courage of conviction. Either way, what you end up with is a lot of noise.

At the same time, we are supposedly the most educated people to have ever walked the face of the earth.

In case you haven’t noticed, something has gone terribly wrong.

Word Nerd Wednesday: Sanguinary

I am currently reading a book which is much more scholarly than entertaining. It’s titled Exiles in Florida, and was written in 1858.

In it, I ran across the word sanguinary, which I was able to define on my own using context clues. However, it was the first time I can remember encountering it. So here goes.

Sanguinary:

1: bloodthirsty, murderous sanguinary hatred

2 : attended by bloodshed : bloody this bitter and sanguinary war

3 : consisting of blood

It’s been a while since I did one of these so I hope it was educational to someone!

Until next time…

Quotable Literary Quotes: P.G. Wodehouse

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P.G. Wodehouse is one of my favorite humorist authors; always sure to make me chuckle when I can really use good laugh. This is one of those seasons. His quotes are equal parts insightful and funny. Here are just a few:

~”Woman is the unfathomable, incalculable mystery, the problem that we men can never hope to solve.”

~“And she’s got brains enough for two, which is the exact quantity the girl who marries you will need.”

~“The voice of Love seemed to call to me, but it was a wrong number.”

~“He had just about enough intelligence to open his mouth when he wanted to eat, but certainly no more.”

That last one gets me every time! Happy Tuesday.

Word Nerd Wednesday: Culture War

Our entire culture has been upended using ambiguous language and sleight of hand. Sadly, most of us have fallen for the ruse in one way or another. Rather than list all of the lies that have been re-framed as truth to great effect, I want to focus on one particular phrase and how our misunderstanding of it has been used to exploit us in a bid for power.

There is a tendency in our country among media, academic, and politically elite institutions to rail against conservatives engaging in an endless “culture war” while ignoring the greater threats of climate change, economic inequality, and lack of affordable health care.

These are straw man arguments, designed to keep Americans from thinking about the reality of what it means to wage war, what it means to wage a culture war, and who is really waging the war. I’ll start with an example.

Let’s assume I have a next door neighbor named Larry, whom I dislike. Larry has never actually done anything to me personally. He lives a different lifestyle from me. He believes different things than me, and his likes and dislikes differ from mine. In fact, he disagrees with much of what I hold dear. He’s never mean, though. He always waves hello, and he even picks up the newspaper off my driveway every morning when my family is on vacation so that it’s not obvious that our home is unoccupied for the week. We’re never going to be besties; that much is clear, but overall, we coexist well enough.

One day, I decide that I can’t stand Larry’s smug politeness nor his disagreement with my beliefs. So…I take a brick and throw it through his windshield. I want him to pay attention to me, engage with my beliefs and ideas. I know that if I throw a brick though his windshield, we can no longer play this game of polite coexistence. He has to confront me, because I broke his windshield!

When Larry comes out of his house to confront me about the brick in his driver’s seat and broken windshield, imagine if I said to him, “Why are you so upset about a broken windshield when I just heard that the guy in the house on the corner is selling marijuana out of his garage? Isn’t shielding your kids from a potential drug dealer more important than a stupid broken piece of glass that your insurance company can take care of before the day is out?”

My response to Larry sounds ridiculous on its face, and most people would readily say as much. However, many of these same people will screech and howl that conservatives are waging a culture war, simply by noticing something absurdly inappropriate, and noting that said thing is absurdly inappropriate. The issue of course, is that we have a large swath of people who are offended by the very idea of appropriateness. We have reached a place in our culture where standards, which all societies have, are considered evil. Hegemony, they say (ooh! there’s another good word), must be resisted at all costs. I just decided to take a detour to discuss hegemony in its purest form, rather than get stuck with Antonio Gramsci’s interpretation of it:

noun: hegemony; plural noun: hegemonies

  1. leadership or dominance, especially by one country or social group over others.”Germany was united under Prussian hegemony after 1871
  2. Opposite:self-government

Origin

mid 16th century: from Greek hēgemonia, from hēgemōn ‘leader’, from hēgeisthai ‘to lead’.

I have a minor quibble with this definition, because it indicates that a dominant cultural standard, even one that flows from the top down, necessarily undermines self-government. Any Christian can tell you that isn’t true. Any wife in a traditional marriage can tell you that. Any child can tell you that having family rules doesn’t negate the role of self-government.

For what it’s worth, I’m not particularly enthralled with top down control any more than the next American. Free markets are good, the ability to move up in socioeconomic status is good. This of course, makes our current wholesale embrace of Gramsci and his understanding of hegemony even more ironic. But that’s a topic for another day. We’re trying to decide what a culture war is and how we have come to misunderstand who is waging one in our current cultural moment.

I have a question: Who started the war between me and my hypothetical neighbor, Larry? Was it him, or was it me? The answer should be obvious. Now who started the culture war? Is it the people who push boundaries and rebel against everything that mankind has known (and largely agreed) to be good, true and beautiful since God created the heavens and earth? Or is the people throwing the bricks through the window of created order and natural law for the sake of destroying cultural cohesiveness?

Someone suggests, “Disregarding the necessity sexual self-control in favor of unchecked desire is the road to freedom“, handing men and (mostly) women all manner of options to sever the tether between sexual behavior and reproduction, including killing babies in the womb. “Larry” objects that this diminishes the value of both mothers and children, and the retort is always some version of, “You just want to infringe on women’s freedom!” Which person threw the brick?

Someone suggests, “Marriage should be available to anyone who wants to marry no matter their sex“, and not based on the natural law that under girded it since the beginning of mankind. “Larry” objects, “Once we do that, we shatter the foundation which has proven to provide the best outcomes for children”. The retort is, “Love is love, you bigot. Nothing about this is going to lead to worse outcomes for children.” Did Larry throw the brick?

Someone asserts, “Men and women are interchangeable; so much so we can simply do away with the concepts, and let people choose their sex.” “Larry” objects, “But wait. We’re supposed to be living in the age of science. Biology is clear. Male and female are concrete, biological reality. Doing this will create utter chaos. Especially for children.” The retort is more ranting about bigotry and marginalization, along with the idea that the slippery slope thing is just a fallacy. Larry, with his wheelbarrow of bricks!

Time for the next frontier. “In order to acclimate children to this new, more tolerant and loving reality, they need to be taught from an early age that two mommies are natural, two daddies are natural, men as women are natural, and women turning into men is natural. The best way to do that is through exposing children to these sexual realities from a very young age; in school, at the library, even via television programming for preschoolers“. Larry, growing increasingly concerned, objects more strenuously. He is treated to invective and ridicule from all corners of the media, academia, and on social media. He is called a bigot. He is threatened with the loss of his job. He is told to shut up or else.

Instead of choosing to start a culture war based in bigotry, discrimination and cultural hegemony, Larry would have been better off trying to save the planet, which is about to be destroyed by climate change.

He hasn’t even figured out yet that the teacher at school has been teaching his son Justin that he is an evil oppressor, and that his son’s best friend from church, Michael, is being taught that he is the victim of Justin’s evil oppression. When he objects, he’ll be accused of selfishness for complaining that I set his house on fire when people in Guatemala are suffering under a corrupt and oppressive regime.

Larry needs to get his priorities straight instead of being distracted by stupid culture wars.

The Case for Classical Education, pt. 2

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After hitting a creative block in my quest to resume the discussion contrasting classical education with the trajectory of modern education, Brandeis University offered a spark of inspiration. While I would love to say that there are exciting, educationally beneficial things happening at Brandeis and I want to share them, the exact opposite is the case. The college has displayed a striking and inexcusable level of ignorance and indifference to the truth in their quest for diversity, inclusion, and equity (DIE for short). From the New York Post’s Brandeis warns students not to use “picnic”, “rule of thumb”, calls words “oppressive”:

A compendium of “potentially oppressive language” posted on the school’s website by its Prevention, Advocacy and Resource Center also lists loads of examples of “gender exclusive,” “ableist,” and “culturally appropriative” terminology that “can get in the way of meaningful dialogue.”

Anyone who has been paying attention for the past few years is well aware of the ongoing assault on language as a way of reshaping reality. We’ve discussed it here at least once before. This isn’t a new development. To call George Orwell’s 1984 prophetic is no exaggeration.

The most striking point of interest to me in this piece was the supposed racist origins of the word “picnic”. Long ago, since first learning the word’s etymology, I thought I knew that “picnic” was derived from the French term “piqué-nique” which refers to eating a small, informal meal , mostly consisting of hors d’oeuvres, outdoors. It turns out, according to the sensitivity and diversity police at Brandeis, that the word picnic was all about picking [negroes] to lynch for entertainment while having a nice meal outside in the park. Imagine my surprise!

According to the Oppressive Language List, the word picnic “has been associated with lynching of Black people in the United States, during which white spectators were said to have watched while eating.” A suggested alternative is “outdoor eating”.

It was the stunning level of historical ignorance and deception combined with educational malpractice, which reminded me of what I wanted to say here. This is why our family has decided that a classical education, one built on the great literature and ideas of the Western canon is far superior to this ever evolving language of nothingness, increasingly decoupled from any sense of reality.

While our current education system builds curriculum and constructs ideas on the shifting sands of postmodern ideology, the great books, literature of those who have gone before, tell a human story. While the great books are written off as relics of white supremacy penned by old white men, the reality is that some of the greatest black thinkers and activists in American history drew on these classics as a foundation for their ideas. Dr. Anika Prather, whose work I am only beginning to explore, makes an excellent case for why the great books of the western canon are for everyone:

Great Books, Prather said, “tell the human story.” She spoke with passion about how many famous people of color throughout history used the Great Books to further their goals and ideas. Activist Huey P. Newton, she pointed out, taught himself to read using Plato’s Republic—a text paid special attention to during freshman year at St. John’s—and as a result, Newton’s way of thinking was highly influenced by the thoughts and ideas of Plato. Studying the Great Books, Prather says, shouldn’t—and can’t—be only for a select few.

One author who particularly inspires Prather is Frederick Douglass. Douglass taught himself to read while still a slave, an action expressly forbidden. Once he learned to read, however, literacy became his “polaris.” His first book was The Columbian Orator, an anthology of excerpts from many of the Great Books. “By using the literature of the master,” said Prather, “he allowed these books to somehow unchain his mind well before he unchained his body from the bonds of slavery.”

In other words, even the lowliest and most genuinely oppressed people in past societies recognized the truths of liberation and human excellence. If we want to see our children educated in a way which extols the good, the true, and the beautiful, it will not happen in the context of the current governmental education model. The current model is increasingly about division, discontent, and discordant thinking masquerading as enlightenment.

Great literature doesn’t have to tell my story to be great or worthy of reading. Although it sometimes does tell my story, I need not see myself personified to gain a better understanding of the universal human experience. In fact, one might argue that seeing the similarity of the struggle and questions of life in those different from us expands our innate compassion and sense of humanity. One of my cardinal saying is (as far as I know, I can self-attribute the verbiage if not the sentiment): Humanity is a shared experience. If I have experienced it, it for sure and certain that someone else has too.

I am finally going to finish The Brothers Karamazov this summer. A 19th century Russian novelist had the ability to reach across time and space to connect with me in the 21st century. What does Dostoevsky have to say to an American woman of African descent? What principles, insights of human nature and matters of the heart could he possibly have to share with me? Plenty, it turns out:

The world says: “You have needs — satisfy them. You have as much right as the rich and the mighty. Don’t hesitate to satisfy your needs; indeed, expand your needs and demand more.” This is the worldly doctrine of today. And they believe that this is freedom. The result for the rich is isolation and suicide, for the poor, envy and murder.”

How timely a quote from a book published in 1879! Ideas grounded in truth do not change with the times, which is why the work of Dostoevsky, Jane Austen, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas still resonate with us centuries after their authors put ink to paper.

We dismiss these great and enduring works of human connection at our peril.

I hope, next week, to continue this exploration of classical education, its importance, and how we can revive it for the sake of the next generation.