More Short Stories and Mid-year Roundup.

Where did the time go? It’s the first day of the third quarter of 2019. I have a birthday coming up very soon, even though it feels as if I just celebrated one. Preparation for the upcoming school year is well underway, and even though we’re still 16 months away from our country’s next major election, we received a political call at our a few nights ago. The mother’s encouragement trusim about long days and short years rings quite true today as I consider how quickly time  seems to be flying by.

Short stories worth a look:

In preparation for the new school year when our kids will be studying British literature (last year was American literature), I had the great pleasure of meeting with several women much smarter than me for a time of literature appreciation. We read short stories by British authors.

One of the best things about short stories (I’m certain I’m repeating something I’ve said before), is that they can be read quickly. Because of that, even those  who have limited amounts of time for leisure reading can read great literature which transmits time tested values of what is True, Good, and Beautiful. Others, such as the first one I will highlight, are just a light and fun good time, and there ain’t nothing wrong with that either.

  • Jeeves Takes Charge, by P.G. Wodehouse (read at link), is a story published in 1916 by the renowned British humorist. Wodehouse is one of my go-to writers when I want to read something that is not only funny, but intelligently so. This story is the one in which we meet the indomitable valet Jeeves for the first time. As the story suggests, he takes charge from the moment Bertie Wooster, the young heir, hires him into his employ.
  • The Red-Headed League, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (read at link) first appeared in a magazine in 1891, and is one of many Sherlock Holmes short stories. A red-headed client appears with a fantastically bizarre and mysterious tale which has left him confused. Holmes, using his masterfully astute gift of deduction, figures out that what appears on the surface to be nothing more than a curious story is actually the beginnings of an elaborate criminal heist.
  • The Blue Cross, by G.K. Chesterton is the first of Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries. Of the three stories I read this weekend, this was by far my favorite. Up until this point, I hadn’t read any of the Father Brown stories, but that is about to change. This story, filled with equal bits of mystery, humor, and profound -without being preachy- insights into the nature of man and nature itself, enveloped me from the first. I am very glad to be entering the world Chesterton’s fictional works, albeit a little late.

Mid-year roundup:

  • I took a minute to tally up the book reviews I’ve posted to date this year and I’ve written a grand total of 20. That isn’t many, especially when you consider that four of those were chapter installments of the Feminine Mystique throughout January.
  • In what counts as a pretty big departure from how I’ve handled this blog over the preceding three years, I’ve also written 21 discussion posts, covering everything from education to book trends,  genres and characters, and even a couple on current cultural trends. As I expected, when I began to add more of those kinds of posts, the conversations here were more animated and robust. I appreciated hearing all of your thoughts on the various topics. So thank you.

My favorite books of the year so far:

  • My favorite book that I’ve read so far this year is one that I haven’t reviewed here yet. I haven’t reviewed it for two reasons. The first is that I’ve picked it up and put it down so many times that it took what seemed like forever to read it. I often needed to set it aside and let the ideas marinate for a few days. Now, I want to re-read it and I have a friend reading it along with me so I hope to have a review up in August. At that point, I’ll divulge the title. I do have other favorites which I’ll break down by fiction and nonfiction.
  • My favorite fiction book for the first half of this year was A Girl of the Liberlost. The beauty, language, and deep relational insights of this book have stayed with me.
  • My favorite nonfiction books of the year tied for first place. The first is Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. I find that I am still challenged by everything about this book. It is a magnum opus for the digital age. My second favorite nonfiction book to date at mid-year is Beauty Destroys the Beast, by my friend Amy Fleming. Yes, it’s a favorite because she’s my friend. More than that however, it’s a favorite because it speaks to a subject that I actually care about, and I agree with what she has to say about it.

Looking ahead to the second half of this year:

  • I am currently reading a few books, including a novel by the British humorist P.G. Wodehouse whose short story I reviewed above. In addition, I have three non fiction books in queue. However:
  • School starts around the middle to end of August, and we still have a lot of prepping to do for that.  At that time, my entire reading queue may be overtaken by British literature, so don’t be surprised if all the book reviews here are books by British authors -except for books I’ve already read but not yet reviewed.
  • What we refer to as “birthday season” in our family has meant we’ve been partying like it’s 1999 since May, partying overtime in June, and won’t really let up until the beginning September when all the of seven birthdays in our immediate family are wrapped up. I’ve eaten too much cake. Speaking of which, here’s one I made for one of my girls upon special request:

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This dark chocolate cake, with peanut butter frosting, chocolate ganache drizzle and Reese’s peanut butter cups on top was very good! It was also so rich that no one (guests and family alike) could finish an entire slice. I think that’s the sign of a good dessert; you only need a little of it to be sated. We’re on a sugar moratorium around here to recover, making exceptions for, and only for, each of our respective birthdays.

Summer in Florida is oppressively hot, but we’re still managing to have great fun because, why not? I still can’t believe that we’re half way through 2019!

How’s your year been so far? Read any good books lately?

 

 

Rabbit Trail: Sometime in the distant future…

In his recent installment, Wave of the Future, More Screens in the Classroom?, Joshua Gibbs envisions a future where employers weed out prospective employees based on a test which measures their screen dependency. Theoretically, they do it the same way testing currently detects recreational drug use.  Am I the only one who finds that terminology, recreational drug use, sadly humorous? Such damaging things described as recreational. But I digress.

Using a fictional dialogue between a teenage part-time job seeker and the grocery store manager he petitions for employment, Gibbs lays out a scene. The confused job applicant wonders how this “old” dude could be so clueless about the wonders and advantages of technology.

Food Country Manager: Sorry, but based on the way your tests came back, I cannot offer you a job.

Kid: Why not? I couldn’t have failed the drug test.

FCM: Your drug test was fine, but your light scan came back hot.

Kid: My light scan?

FCM: The retina scan they did after you peed in the cup.

Kid: Yeah, what was that about?

FCM: A light scan measures screen exposure. Yours came back at a 73 and Food Country has a policy of not hiring anyone with a light scan reading over a 35.

Kid: What’s a 73? 73 what?

FCM: A 73 suggests that you view screens between 7 and 8 hours a day. That kind of screen dependency makes you a significant liability as an employee.

Kid: (confused) So, I “view screens”? What does that mean? Everyone views screens.

FCM: We’ve found that employees with significant screen dependencies simply get far less work done than employees with lower light scans. Four years ago, before Food Country instituted light scan tests for potential employees, analysts estimated the company lost between 240 and 280 million dollars a year in labor value to employees viewing screens on the clock. Of course, the higher your light scan number, the more likely you are to look at your phone on the clock.

This kicks off a hearty dialogue between them in which the store manager updates the clueless teen that people -and parents- in the know have largely abandoned technology in the same way the majority of the public abandoned cigarettes a generation ago. In fact, that only the poor and uneducated view technology as something to embrace:

Kid: Where am I supposed to work?

FCM: I don’t know. Try to get a screen-related job. Although even that could be tough. Nobody fears the power of screen addiction quite like the purveyors of screen addiction. Did you never hear all those stories from the early 20s about how the CEOs of tech companies wouldn’t let their kids have phones?

Kid: What?

FCM: Tim Cook, Bill Gates, all the billionaires at Facebook… none of them let their kids use social media.

Kid: I doubt that’s true. Why wouldn’t big tech CEOs let their kids have phones? You’ve got to stay connected.

FCM: The same reason why drug dealers don’t do drugs. They see what happens to people who do.

Kid: How long has the general public known that big tech CEOs don’t let their kids have phones?

FCM: The last twenty years.

Kid: Why didn’t that stop people from giving their kids phones?

FCM: Back in the day, having a tech-savvy kid was a point of pride. It was often viewed as a sign of maturity. It was thought very urbane and modern.

Kid: Why?

FCM: Because it was new and because it was just a little uncommon.

Kid: Is it not still considered urbane?

FCM: (laughing) Heavens, no. You don’t read parenting blogs, do you? Why would you? Today, handing a child a tablet or a phone is considered no less vulgar than giving a child a cigarette— that is, among the same kind of people who thought it fashionable thirty years ago.

Kid: So, it’s just a matter of fashion? Perhaps giving kids screens will become a fad again. Maybe in being addicted to screens, I’m actually ahead of my time.

FCM: Perhaps, although giving a child a cigarette has been considered abuse for quite some time now. I don’t think that’s going away. So far as wealth and privilege are concerned, the trend is so strongly away from tech, I don’t know that tech will ever recover a luxury image. High tech has become a symbol of slavery and oppression over the last twenty years— this is the way adults with money see the matter, anyway. High tech is a sign you’re being monitored, conditioned, manipulated, like some kind of little child or animal. Cash has made a huge comeback. The number of discount stores has decreased, but the number of stores aimed at the upper middle class has skyrocketed. After a long drought, cash is making a comeback. Real libraries— the kind with books— are reopening in affluent neighborhoods. But you’re seventeen and don’t have any money, so you don’t see any of this happening.

Kid: This is starting to sound like classism.

FCM: (shrugging) Yeah, maybe. I don’t know. How are they defining “classism” this week?

Kid: It’s when one class of people keeps another class down. It sounds to me like people who can afford screenless lives are oppressing people who can’t afford screenless lives.

FCM: You can’t afford a screenless life? Given that your screen addiction just cost you a lousy job, it seems more like you can’t afford anything except a screenless life.

I’m not convinced the future looks the way Gibbs is painting it here. Frankly, there are too many people who have too much to lose should the current mass technological dependency wanes.

Secondly, from what I have read, there are powerful forces at work trying to push us toward a cashless society. I’m doing my part to resist, being something of a cash girl myself, but still. I do however, foresee greater and greater numbers of people making an earnest attempt to circumvent the all-seeing, all-tracking capabilities being employed by the likes of Google, Amazon, and Facebook. The “right” to privacy as a nonexistent reality will eventually be too much for people to take. Or at least it will be when the recognition of thoroughly we’ve all been compromised becomes common knowledge.

Will a day come when only expensive private schools employ physically present teachers? When public schools will be little more than shells of their former selves, reserved to meet the minimum legal education requirements for the children unfortunate enough to born into families who can employ no other options? It all sounds rather dystopian to me, but I appreciated the opportunity Gibbs offers to contemplate what our future might look like if we continue on our current trajectory.

Currently, our family’s livelihood and standard of living has been funded completely through the expansion of the use of technology. And yet, we have reservations about most social media platforms and are routinely taking stock of the role of technology in our lives. We are far from perfect in this regard, but it is something we take time to consider and tweak. We haven’t yet abandoned it wholesale, in case that isn’t glaringly obvious.

I find the predictions about education particularly intriguing. It is the reason why the article inspired this post, in fact.

So tell me, what do you all think? Are we looking at a technological futre where teachers are obsolete and students obtain all their education, such as it is, via screens? And what about the possibility of determining a job applicants suitability for employment based on an analysis of their screen time usage? Personally, I think the former question is more likely answered in the affirmative than the latter, but if we live ling enough, we’ll see.

 

Continuing Education Adjustments- Writer’s Edition

Juggling the student ball with wife and motherhood balls is a delicate balancing act. I assumed that enrolling in Local U. via online classes would significantly reduce the need to carefully schedule my life. I was mistaken. I thought having done this before, I knew what it would be like, but my life is much different now than it was the first time I went back to college.

Back then, I had three children rather than five, and those kids were in school from 8AM-3PM, freeing up many hours to take care of everything that needed to be taken care of, without much interruption. Even when I accounted for my school volunteer time, I had at least 20 solo hours a week to dedicate to studying, housework, and self-care without missing very many beats.

This time, I have two children with me all day, every day, and I am responsible for their education as well as my own. It’s summer, so the demand is significantly less, which is why chose a summer session, but there are still demands to be met alongside the time I spend doing class work and participating on class discussion boards. My husband, the driving force behind me finally taking the plunge and hitting the books again, has been extremely helpful, as have our older children, but at the end of the day, I’m still the mistress of this little domain. As such, I always feel the pressure to make sure that I get done what needs to get done. Overall, it’s going quite well.

As an aspiring writer, I decided that current knowledge of industry information was paramount to accomplishing my goal. I’m not particularly interested in typing out my random thoughts, checking the grammar, and then self-publishing. There are millions upon millions of books out there which meet minimum standards of readability, but I desire to do more than that. And while I have heartfelt appreciation for the many people who have encouraged me over the years that I write well, and have something worth saying, even the roughest diamond needs a lot of polishing. When I write what is in my heart, I want it to shine.

One area of knowledge I believe is important is a thorough, working knowledge of current copy editing standards. The first round of classes I am taking will leave me with the certifications I need to be proficient as a professional copy editor. Anyone who has read my blog for any length of time has noticed that my writing is often riddled with typos. Training my eye to see mistakes quickly, to notice deficiencies in syntax, and to make the most of my writing style can only help me as I combine my thoughts into something worthwhile.

The surprising thing about this new excursion has been discovering that I know much more than I realized. There have been moments, even in the scant three weeks since I started the first class, when I have felt woefully over prepared. I did well on my pre-assessment, when I expected to do much worse considering the years I’ve been out of the classroom- as a student. I haven’t run into any major difficulties yet. The temptation is rising in me to coast and not put in the effort to excel. I’m not sure if any real effort will even be required for me to excel. The area which has required the most mental diligence is the study of specific publishing indutry standards, of which I am woefully ignorant. This experience is teaching me something valuable.

My years out of the classroom (as a student) and at home, haven’t been void of learning, growth, or intellectual stimulation. Homeschooling my cildren, as well as teaching the children of other homeschooling families, has kept me sharp and up to speed on a lot of things I may have otherwise lost along the way.

Investing the time and treasure to pursue this continuing education is worth the shuffle. Whether I succeed at writing an inspiring tome, or simply make a few bucks as a freelance editor, this will, I pray, prove to be a rewarding encounter for years to come.

A Logophile’s Educational Musings

I really enjoy word games. Whether Words with Friends, Word Cookies, or Word Cross, they can keep me entangled and unproductive for longer than I care to admit. I love words in general, and my children have inherited many of my logophile ways. Grammar, turns of phrases, and puns are regular sources of conversation for us; as well as the origins of many idioms and axioms. Words fascinate me. More than fun or even useful, words are also powerful.

We throw them around far too carelessly, forgetting that words can be agents of uncommon inspiration or destructive demoralization. I am among the aforementioned we.  I’m not always careful with my words either. I’d like to think that as a lover of words, I’m more careful than most, but a subjective analysis isn’t worth much.

In a culture where nearly everything is dumbed down to its base level, is it any wonder that great ideas, expressed in beautiful prose, are lacking? Where does the ability to express ourselves and encourage others come from, whether verbally or in written form? If “intellectual stimulation” is gathered mostly through Twitter, television, YA fiction and Facebook blurbs, it doesn’t offer much to draw on for discussing big ideas.

Lindsay Brigham Knott examines what this means for helping students to develop as writers in her recent offering at Circe Institute’s Apiary blog.

Amongst the greatest gifts a classical school can bestow upon its students is the opportunity to become skilled in the use of words.

“Opportunity,” not “ability,” for no institution nor teacher nor curriculum can make good writers any more than one man can convert another: the student himself must labor to train his hands for the task, and pray for the Muse to animate them. But it is incumbent upon classical schools—which aim to make students more human, tend all their natural capacities into full blossom, unshackle their desires and discipline their wills towards the wise use of leisure time, and enable them to know and live “the good life,” all by nurturing them in wisdom and virtue—to commit a large portion of their and their students’ energies to word-training.

In other words, words and their usage are vitally important. A cursory glance or slightly perked ear easily reveals how words can be used to manipulate everything from our spending habit to political policies to social and cultural mores. She adds:

It’s in attempt to communicate this vision that I often begin writing classes by asking students to consider all the parts of their lives that involve words. By words we commune with family and friends who give our days meaning; by words we decree the rules and call the plays of sports that delight our bodies and imaginations; by words we advertise the commodities that flood the markets and saturate our desires; by words we scribble out daily lists of chores, assignments, groceries, goals, dreams that form us down the years; by words we struggle to illumine the murky impulses of our own mysterious souls; by words we receive God’s scriptural self-revelation and respond in prayer and praise.

The question this author poses is whether or not those of us committed to classical education are seeing the fruits of our labor as graduates from classical schools and programs are launched into the world. Do the students reflect a level of thoughtfulness in their use of language which reflects years of studying St. Augustine, Homer, or Spenser? She determines that the answer is negative, but that most of us barely notice or see this as a problem. After all:

…they made good grades in their classical schools. Their college professors compliment their uncommon ability to express individual opinions and formulate intriguing thesis statements. Their essays ruin the curve for the rest of the class. They do in fact use words well . . . in the supremely limited context of academic writing and speaking.

This dichotomy suggests that classical school students are, in fact, mastering what their schools give them opportunity to learn about using words—but that schools themselves may not be shaping those opportunities as holistically as they could. Consider: most classical schools do prioritize training in language. Indeed, many schools of the Classical Renewal so emphasize the subjects and sequence of the Trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) that some onlookers may equate “classical education” with “linguistic and literary education,” consisting of lots of Latin, lots of old books, and lots of essays. But by and large, curricula and classroom instruction suggests that skill with words means merely correct grammar, proper essay structure, varied diction and syntax, and a tasteful sprinkling of rhetorical flourishes, for that is what they teach and assess.

In other words:

I wonder whether classical schools, in their laudable zeal to train students to write well, have unconsciously adopted a model of writing instruction that does not in fact cohere with their larger aims for students—humanness, rightly-formed desires, the good life, wisdom and virtue. Too often they have taken the best of the writing instruction that non-classical schools use, focusing exclusively on academic writing like persuasive essays, literary analysis, or research papers, and married it to classically-influenced content of old books and rhetorical terminology. The fruit of the union is a program that is more college preparatory than classical, and graduates whose skill with words differs from that of their peers only in the classroom.

You should read the whole thing.

What Mrs. Knott describes is the perpetual challenge homeschoolers of every stripe must overcome. For those of us who were traditionally educated, the tendency to transfer the strategies, pace and benchmarks to our kitchen tables –while using better literature- is a constant temptation. Old habits die hard and all that.

These habits, coupled with unhealthy media consumption and reading habit, don’t only create writers with less appreciation for using words well, they also fail to inoculate emerging adults with the foundational ideals necessary to counter the onslaught of propaganda and clever use of words they’ll encounter throughout their lives.

Words, read, spoken, and written, are powerful. We forget this to our peril.

The Ever-Evolving Summer Break

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When I was a kid in school, the sound of the last school bell on the last day of school was a clear and crisp break from all things school related. Alice Cooper’s screechy anthem about school being out for summer is an apt description of how we felt.

One of the things I’ve noticed as we move away from homeschooling at the elementary grade level is that summer breaks are not the same as summer breaks when I was a kid. I was of course, educated in government schools, which played a large part in the way I experienced summer breaks. After spending time this week with other homeschool mothers, I realized that there are several differences contributing to the way our kids experience summer break today, regardless of how they are being educated.

Summer is often when we catch up on subjects that we didn’t finish during the school year while managing life. Dealing with the plumber, caring for aging parents, or even simple things like making dinner early in preparation for mid-week church activities cuts into time that might have been spent doing more school work. This is not an issue when kids are in school all day, leaving Mom the margin to tackle all those tasks without worrying that education is being diminished. Someone else is doing the heavy lifting of setting the pace and disseminating the instruction.

Even when we’re taking breaks for fun activities and summer vacations, preparation for the upcoming school year is always on our minds. Courses at the most popular tutoring and private schools which offer classes in partnership with homeschoolers fill up fast in the spring. There’s also the push to shop for the best curriculums at the best prices.

Another reason summer breaks of yesteryear were a lot freer is that for most of us, both parents were at work, so unless a kid was naturally an avid reader, summer could be pretty void of intellectual pursuits. In our house, there were more chores to do, such as yard work, cleaning house, and hanging laundry on the clothesline, and there is a lot of value in those things. Our culture underestimates the dimension it adds to a young person’s life when they contribute to the life of the family.  Additionally, we usually had activities in our immediate area to participate in; sports and camps at local schools which we could walk to rather than being stuck in the house because we couldn’t go anywhere without a ride from our parents.

The memory of walking to local activities reminds me of yet another difference between summer break then and now. We walked to these activities with other kids from the neighborhood. Friends were always nearby. We had time outside, exercise and a healthier overall environment than kids today. Our kids are spending a lot of time with their friends this summer. But they are only able to do it becuase their mothers, acting as social secretaries, carve out the time to make sure they get to one another. My closest playmates, however, lived on my street. None of this includes consideration of how many kids are more content staying inside playing on computers, video games, and smart phones than going outside.

Our kids have a lot of fun times to look forward to this summer. They’ll be learning new things in a fun environment, swimming with friends, and taking a few short trips; when they aren’t catching up on mathematics.

If this sounds like a lament that our homeschooled kids are not enjoying the identical flavor of summer break that I did, it isn’t. While things are unquestionably less idyllic than my summer breaks, there are many things that are much better.

First of all, they get to learn in a safe envirnonment.  I get to know them, for better or worse, in ways I wouldn’t if they were gone 7 hours a day. They have opportunities to develop life skills beyond things you can learn in a book. They also engage a wide variety of people -including kids across a wide age range- which is much more preferable to spending the entirety of their days sitting cheek to jowl with kids who are the exact same age as they are, a situation which offers very little opportunity to learn deep truths about love, life, and faith.

So while I’m noting that summer break is not as unstructured, school free, and carefree for my kids as it was for me, it’s still a great time of relaxation and fun. It’s not just a tme of relaxation and fun. Truthfully, continuing math and setting reading goals throughout the summer costs a little time while paying huge dividends. Things just aren’t as simple as they used to be, and you hardly see any suburban kids out and about, regardless of school type.

Maybe the unencumbered summer break is going the way of so many other relics of times past.

Is what it is.

 

 

 

 

Current Kid Read: The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Our 12-year-old is the only one of our five offspring who is not an avid reader. She reads the books she is assigned for school, with mixed reactions. Every now and again, she’s assigned a book she really enjoys, but most of the time, she grits her way through it. It is a source of angst to me at times, but I’ve learned to accept that there are people born into the world, even born of me, who don’t enjoy reading.

This week, however, she has been more engrossed in and talkative about a book than I have witnessed since she read Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, which she truly loves. This extraordinary book -in the sense that my kids is captivated by it- is Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Young Readers Edition, which her sister picked up for her as a spontaneous gift.

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I’m not sure how she knew 12-year-old would like the book, or if she even knew the book would be such a hit with her, but it has really piqued her interest in myriad ways.

Sitting next to me as I try to recapture my inner student (I recently started taking online classes via Local University.) was this child informing me that we are all basically composed of corn. The first sections of the book assess the expansion of the corn industry and how it affects nearly every food we put into our bodies. Unless of course, we avoid processed foods and make as much as we can from scratch.

Before encountering the book, this child was the least likely of all our children to show much interest in what was in her food so long as it tasted good. This kis has always had trouble dealing with my propensity to have cabinets and a fridge with nothing but healthy fare. Now, she takes the phrase “USDA Organic” with a heaping grain of salt, and is infinitely more curious about where and what kinds of meats I buy when I shop.

Behold the power of books.

The Mysterious Case of the Vanishing School Library

A quiet trend is emerging in many schools as our culture has shifted almost completely towards technology as the main source of information: the demise of the school library.

Our youngest children have never attended a traditional school. They have been exclusively home educated, with additional supplemental instructions provided through enrollment in educational programs and cooperatives which we pay tuition and fees for them to attend.

Our oldest children, however, attended traditional school from Kindergarten through 12th grade, and the school library as well as its librarian, was a large part of the life of their schools. Because we have been disconnected from the happenings at our local schools for most of the past 7 years, I was quite surprised to read this by Krysta at Pages Unbound:

Years ago, my school library closed. The administration declared that no one was using the library and that it had become “obsolete” with the age of the Internet. The room that was once a library is now a computer lab. And the administration probably still feels proud that they are being “innovative” and keeping up with modern technology. The irony, however, is that the school library was only ever as obsolete as the administration and faculty made it. And, if they had wanted to, they could have saved the school library within a few months.

My school library closed because no students ever used it. No students used the library because it was primarily open during school hours and briefly after–and no teacher ever seemed to think about bringing their classes to the library. Students were not allowed out of class for essentially any reason (except, of course, sports), so could not go to the library by themselves. In short, the school itself prevented students from using the library because they blocked access to it.

I was completely incredulous of this as a trend. I usually am when I read about the disdain supposedly smart people have for libraries. Leaving aside for the moment fiscal issues or drag queen story times, a library is useful for all kinds of things and to all kinds of people no matter what our particular ideological bent might be. Our local library branches nearly always have brisk traffic and our family’s use of its services is so frequent, the fiscal argument is lost on me anyway. My tax dollars may be wasted with regard to the public school system, but I more than make up for it with our use of the local library.

After reading the Pages Unbound post, my incredulity remained, so I decided to do a bit of clicking to find out if it was really true: Are school libraries becoming obsolete even as school districts clamor for greater and greater tax increases and gambling legislations to pump more money into education? Have we really decided, as we simultaneously learn how damaging excessive screen time is at young ages, that access to books is unimportant and the printed word is obsolete?

Unfortunately, it seems Krysta was not being Chicken Little here. (I never really thought she was!) This is a real and troubling trend. One of the most enlightening articles I found was a piece at Architecture and Education’s Disappearing School Libraries-Why?

An interesting question posed by an Australian researcher, Terry Byers, on Twitter got me thinking. He asked, “Why do architects and school leaders see them [libraries] as redundant spaces?”

Is part of the redundant libraries issue a bigger problem with teaching spaces winning ground (quite literally) from more social, perhaps less official learning spaces then?

My guess is yes. In this logic, it’s not just that space is redundant but that if that space can’t be directly and demonstrably linked to pre-established assessment-oriented learning activities it is now seen as an opportunity cost – get rid of it, use the space elsewhere.

The moral injunction that schools do all they can to improve learning when learning is tied to increasingly narrow definitional pressures and measures, and teachers’ and principals’ own careers being pegged to the visibility of student progression puts pressure on how physical space is seen. It changes what kinds of space are efficient in this logic. As Lyotard put it, “be operational (that is, commensurable) or disappear” (1984:xxiv also online here). If your library or staff space cannot be shown to contribute to the performance of the system and so its efficiency or value (within the terms of the system) remains an unknown, it loses out. This is the “terror” of which Lyotard writes. To be unvalued is to be anyway devalued. To be value-able means changing what you are.

Architecture and Education is a UK website. Interestingly enough, most of the articles I found initially were from English publications. Apparently, we’re not the only ones closing school libraries. However, this author’s point about pre-established assessment oriented activities rings true here. If there isn’t a clear connection between the use and presence of a library and the scores produced on the standardized tests, then the library occupies a space that would be much more efficient if put to use in a way that shores up the bottom line. Everything today, including education, is all about the bottom line. All the talk about doing things “for the children” is just that; cheap talk.

This cognitive dissonance is deafening to anyone who bothers to hear it.  The people who are most likely to clamor for more money to boost student achievement are also among the people to pretend to champion the plight of the poor and downtrodden: the families of children who are least able to afford to buy their children books. I’ll go back and pick up those ideological concerns that I initially laid aside because there actually is a direct link between academic achievement and library access.

The data shows that children with access to school libraries and librarians do better in school, so one has to wonder how the educational powers that be (who also primarily inhabit the political class which pretends to defend the poor) arbitrarily destroy school libraries rather than trying to revitalize them for the sake of the students. The data as present by Kappanonline:

Data from more than 34 statewide studies suggest that students tend to earn better standardized test scores in schools that have strong library programs. Further, when administrators, teachers, and librarians themselves rated the importance and frequency of various library practices associated with student learning, their ratings correlated with student test scores, further substantiating claims of libraries’ benefits. In addition, newer studies, conducted over the last several years, show that strong school libraries are also linked to other important indicators of student success, including graduation rates and mastery of academic standards.

Skeptics might assume that these benefits are associated mainly with wealthier schools, where well-resourced libraries serve affluent students. However, researchers have been careful to control for school and community socioeconomic factors, and they have found that these correlations cannot be explained away by student demographics, school funding levels, teacher-pupil ratios, or teacher qualifications. In fact, they have often found that the benefits associated with good library programs are strongest for the most vulnerable and at-risk learners, including students of color, low-income students, and students with disabilities.

Funny that I, with my conservative values and money to buy my homeschooled kids a book whenever I feel like it, care more about student access to libraries than the people whose job it is to serve those students’ interests.

No Time for Reading Books?

More inspiration from the excellent classical educators at Circe Institute.

John Ehrett describes a recent phenomena of high school education that wasn’t common back during the dark ages when I was a high school student. Namely, that literature and language arts teachers are increasingly refraining from assigning classic works of literature as part of their curriculum.

Why you ask? Because of a growing belief that in the absence of the necessary time required to read the books, students are SparkNoting their way through the related assignments. Using the magic of the Internet, it is entirely possible to produce papers and test results which seem to indicate a thorough understanding of the literature even when they haven’t read it:

In my experience and that of many others, this precise problem is virtually ubiquitous across modern education. When it’s scheduling crunch time, “doing the assigned readings” is usually the first thing to go. And why wouldn’t it be? The savvy student motivated predominantly by grades has a whole range of resources at his disposal: Armed with readily available summaries and model answers, he can muddle through papers and exams with half-baked “analysis” that engages the work at the level of its most overt plot points. Viewed through this lens, a book like Anna Karenina becomes a story of infidelity interrupted by annoying digressions about farming rather than the comprehensive meditation on “the good life” that Tolstoy actually penned. Nobody learns anything in this scenario, but A-grades are awarded in due course and everyone moves on.

When grades are the holy grail on which everything of importance rests, the means becomes irrelevant. The ends are all that matter, and the deeper understanding of humanity, life, and nature that one acquires through reading great books is lost. It is not unlike those who are excellent at proof-texting their way through sacred texts to achieve whatever moral or psychological end they brought to the book before they ever picked it up. Winning the argument, the grade, or whatever we need to succeed becomes the goal. Whether that be a good job or peace with ourselves, we’ve learned how to get there. And clearly, we’ve taught our young people how to get there as well. This is not without cost, however:

Of course, eventually this habit catches up to a culture. Whenever I read about top-flight university departments jettisoning the classical canon in favor of more “relevant” offerings, I’ve comforted myself with the thought that most students at elite colleges have already read the Western core: Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the rest. If my teacher friend’s experience is representative, though, the situation is graver than that: We now have an educational culture producing students—ostensibly trained in the “liberal arts”—who have no connection whatsoever to the great works of the past, or even the reading habits necessary to engage those works.

This is one of the reasons we have chosen a classical approach to homeschooling our children, although we do so with a veritable mountain of educational support. I could never do it on my own. There are things of far more value than ticking off of the appropriate boxes required to be an efficient cog in the economic wheel:

That is the paradigm that classical education affirms—and by juxtaposing a commitment to moral formation alongside the conveyance of information and data, classical education strikes at the root causes of academic acedia. Surely in the end what matters isn’t an admission letter to a prestigious college—a letter that appears, all too often, to denote compliance with certain procedural norms rather than real intellectual curiosity—but the capacity to live a contented and virtuous life. Speaking as the product of a classically inspired home education, I can attest that such an approach is far more likely to produce students willing to tune out the frenetic clamor of the college-prep-industrial complex and love learning for its own sake.

Click over and read the whole thing. It’s worth the 5 minutes, particularly if you are still educating children. As a slow reader with a very full schedule, I appreciate the pressures of life than encroach on one’s ability to find time to read, savor, and integrate the ideas of deeper works of literature. This pressure is even more pronounced among young people who are facing deadlines in various subjects to numerous teachers. But somehow, we have to find a way to strike a balance for the sake of the lives they have to live when schooling is done.

 

In Praise of Frog and Toad

FrogandToad1

Once again, Joshua Gibbs offers us plenty of encouragement and food for thought. In his recent article, Why We Need Frog and Toad More Than Ever, he extols the virtues of children’s books which offer opportunities for growth rather than banal celebrations for existing.

If I were not a Christian, Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books would be my holy scripture. When I meet a sane adult, I assume his sanity comes largely from having heard Frog and Toad stories in his youth. Yesterday, I read my sophomore humanities students four stories from a Frog and Toad anthology. It would be impolite to assume you, noble reader, are not intimately familiar with all the Frog and Toad stories, but, in case too many years have elapsed between today and your last reading, I will briefly describe the four stories I read to my sophomores.

After offering synopses of the Frog and Toad stories entitled, “Cookies”, “The Lost Button”, “Tomorrow”, and “A Swim”, each as funny as they are profound, Mr. Gibbs points out the clear yet deftly presented lesson from each story:

Like many children’s books from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, Frog and Toad stories involve the two titular characters overcoming common problems which arise from vice. “Cookies” is about gluttony, “The Lost Button” is about anger, “Tomorrow” is about sloth,” and “A Swim” is about pride. In each story, the only way to beat vice is through some form of suffering. Good things do not happen in Frog and Toad stories apart from suffering, self-denial, or self-control.

As an avid library patron as well as a teacher and homeschool parent, I can attest to Gibbs’ follow-up point. Namely, that most contemporary children’s stories fall far short of Frog and Toad when it comes to teaching relevant life lessons. It’s almost as if they fear children can’t handle real life opportunities to suffer -even on a small scale- and grow as a result:

However, children’s books have become increasingly squeamish when it comes to addressing genuine human problems, let alone the idea that vice must be painfully overcome through virtue. In the 1970s, a girl named Tina in a children’s book might be afraid to learn to ride a bike, then slowly learn with the help of her mother and friends. Today, the same book does not involve Tina learning anything, but is simply 1) a celebration of the fact Tina can already ride a bike or 2) a celebration of the fact Tina could learn to ride a bike if she so chose or 3) a celebration of the fact that while Tina cannot ride a bike, she can do 50 other interesting things. Granted, not all contemporary kids books are this banal, but one should not pick up a lately published children’s book and expect to find a character like Frog, who recognizes that he and his friend are gluttons and properly concludes, “We need will power.”

Now there’s a novel thought; that children benefit from learning self-control at an early age. Instead, and this not true of all contemporary children’s books, but I have seen this dynamic more than once:

Contemporary children’s books are big on celebrations. Were Frog and Toad stories rewritten today, Frog and Toad would feel no need to stop eating cookies but finish the bowl and celebrate their new curvaceous amphibian bodies. Toad would feel no need to clean his house but celebrate the fact that some people are simply messy and others are just neat. I also sense that Toad is— to us, at least— a lost button survivor, and that regardless of how unvirtuously he handled losing his button, he deserves a medal just for having something mildly unfortunate happen to him.

Gibbs makes an excellent point here, and all of this: the refusal to teach delayed gratification, suffering, and overcoming problems through strength of character, have lead us to the situation that many of us,old-fashioned as we are, lament today:

This current tendency (in children’s books and the world beyond) to sidestep problems and suffering and instead focus on praise and celebration has not made our lives more enjoyable, more satisfying, or more peaceable. While lately published articles suggest Americans are among the most stressed out people in the world, I am not content that “most stressed out” distinguishes handling a lot of stress well from handling a little stress very poorly. As opposed to teaching our children that their problems can be overcome, we have lately begun telling them, “You are good. Your problems are part of who you are. Your problems do not need to be overcome, because you do not actually have any problems. The problem is with the world. The world has not properly understood you or celebrated you.” In this, the secular world has largely followed the late Christian tendency to rob people of their right to struggle against sin. “Not perfect, just forgiven” and “God accepts me as I am” are nothing more than half-pious ways of saying, “I was born this way.” No wonder we are such a stressed-out people. We speak as though fighting sin were treason against the self.

I think I’ll end right there and invite you to click over and read the whole thing.

I know this much: I’ll never think of Frog and Toad quite the same way again.

Edifying and Educational Meditations

As is my custom, I am currently reading two books of vastly different genres and topics. Despite knowing that it makes for a much longer reading time on both, I continue to to do it anyway.Thankfully, that is not all I am currently reading.

It is commonly known by regular readers here that I am great admirer of both Joshua Gibbs of Circe Institute and Cal Newport’s blog, Study Hacks. Both have offered mentally stimulating food for thought in recent posts, so I thought I would share portions of them here in the optimistic belief that you will be intrigued enough to click over and read the articles in their entirety.

Joshua Gibbs discusses the question of whether Rousseau and St. Augustine should be taught in the classroom alongside, or perhaps replaced by, the works of contemporary theologians such as John Piper. In this partial dialogue, he explains why such a move is not appropriate in a classical educational setting:

Parent: I wanted to tell you that I read this really amazing book by John Piper recently and it blessed me so much that I thought I should tell you about it. I think it would be a great fit in the school’s theology curriculum.

Dean: I am sure the book is quite good, but given that John Piper is still alive, the book does not meet the basic criteria which this school uses for admitting new titles into the curriculum.

Parent: What criteria would that be?

Dean: For starters, curriculum books ought to be old.

Parent: How old?

Dean: It is best if the author has been dead for a hundred years.

Parent: Why a hundred years?

Dean: After a hundred years, it is safe to assume no living person ever met the author. If the author is still considered worth reading after he has been dead for a hundred years, it means he speaks from the grave. It means there is something immortal about his wisdom, something divine.

Parent: I know the book I am recommending was written recently, but it is good and true. Don’t classicists care about truth, beauty, and goodness? If so, does it really matter how old a good thing is?

Dean: Yes. Classicists do not simply care about the truth, beauty, and goodness of a book, they also care about who is claiming the book is true, beautiful, and good. Classicists are not content to trust their own judgments, but act in harmony with the judgments of their ancestors. We might judge a recently published work of theology to be good, but that judgment could not be made in harmony with our ancestors, because our ancestors never read the book.

You can see how the conversation unfolds by reading the entire post here.

In Must We Treat Every Bad Idea With Respect and Patience?, a discussion of whether a general consensus on modern art is enough to consider said art worthy of being taught in a classical setting:

McLaren: Some students told me that you were not covering Jackson Pollock, de Kooning, Franz Kline, or any of the great 20th century abstract expressionists in your art history class. Why is this?

Gibbs: This is a classical school, and I don’t take that kind of art seriously.

McLaren: The larger art world takes them seriously, though.

Gibbs: I don’t really take the “larger art world” seriously, either.

McLaren: You style yourself a conservative, though. Is it not strange for a self-professed conservative to reject the majority opinion on significant, well-respected artists?

Gibbs: Respect for Pollock and Kline is not really a majority opinion, though it is certainly a fashionable opinion over the last several decades. I can’t imagine someone like Caravaggio or Rembrandt having any respect for Pollock, and I try to align my tastes in art with the tastes of artists like Caravaggio and Rembrandt.

McLaren: Have you ever read an essay which unpacked Pollock’s art?

Gibbs: Yes, and I thought it far more brilliant than Pollock’s art.

McLaren: But you did not ultimately trust the essay?

Gibbs: No. One does not need a PhD to recognize that Pollock’s art is no good. I have showed Pollock’s art to my little daughters, who are 7 and 9 years old respectively, and they simply laughed at it.

McLaren: You’re not suggesting that little children are competent to judge art?

Gibbs: Children have common sense and knowing that Jackson Pollock’s art is no good is simply a matter of common sense. It’s just a lot of painted scribbles. The same kind of common sense informs little children that two women cannot marry each other and that eating an entire birthday cake will lead to a stomach ache. On the other hand, children have terrible taste, which means they think Thomas Kinkade and Bratz dolls are interesting. You have got to train them out of that kind of delusion by showing them things of real beauty, and a thing of real beauty can be appreciated by bishop and child alike. If I want to tell my children that Bratz dolls are ugly, I cannot, in good faith, tell them that Jackson Pollock is good.

Lastly, in Sam Harris and Stephen Fry’s Meditation Debate, Cal Newport discusses the supposed benefits of meditation, and why our unnatural way of life makes it a necessity for so many people:

What sparked the diversion in the first place is when, early in the conversation, Fry expressed skepticism about meditation. Roughly speaking, his argument was the following:

  • Typically when we find ourselves in a chronic state of ill health it’s because we’ve moved away from something natural that our bodies have evolved to expect.
  • Paleolithic man didn’t need gyms and diets because he naturally exercised and didn’t have access to an overabundance of bad food.
  • Mindfulness mediation, by contrast, doesn’t seem to be replicating something natural that we’ve lost, but is instead itself a relatively contrived and complicated activity.

Harris’s response was to compare meditation to reading. They’re both complicated (read: unnatural) activities, to be sure, but they’re both really important in helping our species thrive.

Fry, who is currently using and enjoying Harris’s meditation app, conceded, and the discussion shifted toward a new direction.

I wonder, however, whether Fry should have persisted. Rousseauian romanticism aside, there’s an important application of evolutionary psychology undergirding his instinctual concern.

He rounds out this article with some interesting insights:

Fry was instead correctly noting that meditation is an unnatural solution to a modern problem. Meditation helps, but it doesn’t solve the underlying issues .

What, Fry seems to be asking, is the cognitive equivalent of the natural behaviors like exercising and healthy eating that our species used to enjoy but are now missing in modern life?

I’m not the first to ask this question, and many people have proposed compelling answers (see, for example, Mark Sisson and John J. Ratey).

But something that became increasingly clear to me as I was researching Digital Minimalismand the reason why I’m bringing up this topic in the first place, is that in recent years, our relationship with our screens has almost certainly exasperated this modern separation from a more natural way of living .

I hope you all find these as intellectually provoking as I did.

More book reviews are coming soon!