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.

 

A Preview of Coming Attractions: The Two-Income Trap

Due to my haphazard style of reading several books at once, it often takes me longer to finish a book than it would if I’d just pick a book and stick through it already. My reading is much more targeted when I read fiction, and especially so if I am enjoying the characters and plot. With nonfiction, however, it may  take as long as two months to finish a book as I pivot from one volume to the next depending on the topic I’m in the mood to read about.

I’m currently moving -albeit glacially- through Elizabeth Warren’s The Two-Income Trap, which I’ve been reading for a few weeks. I should finish by May’s end, as I’m more than halfway through it at this point. However, in the interest of keeping my personal commitment to write more and post installments here with greater regularity, I decided to preview the forthcoming review with a rather profound insight from Mrs. Warren, found on page 67 of her book:

So how did families get sucked into the Two-Income Trap? The answer is unexpectedly simple: No one saw it coming.

The politics that surrounded women’s collective decision to integrate into the workforce are a study in misdirection. On the left, the women’s movement was battling for equal pay and equal opportunity, and any suggestion that the family might be better off with Mother at home was discounted as reactionary chauvinism. On the right, conservative commentators accused working mothers of everything from child abandonment to defying the laws of nature. The atmosphere was far too charged for any rational assessment of the financial consequences of sending both spouses into the workforce.

The massive miscalculation ensued because both sides of the political spectrum discounted the financial value of the stay-at-home mother. [emphasis mine]

Despite my feelings about Elizabeth Warren the politician, this is very insightful commentary from the Elizabeth Warren of 16 years ago, the professor.

I look forward to reviewing this work in a fuller context sometimes next week.

 

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.