Dostoyevsky: Atheism–> Socialism–>The Tower of Babel

I am savoring my journey through Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It’s not a story to rush through. Even if I wasn’t a slow reader to begin with, this is a thoughtful book that deserves a measure of contemplation as you go through it. The story is rich, compelling, and complex and I’m only through the first one-third of it. For this week’s Friday Fave I decided to share a quote from the beginning of the book. Despite having read it a week ago, it repeatedly floats back to the top of my consciousness at regular intervals. I’d love it if any of you find it intriguing enough to weigh in and share your perceptions. Here, the author introduces the beliefs and lifestyle of Aloysha, the youngest of the Karamazov brothers:
As soon as he reflected seriously he was convinced of the existence of God and immortality, and at once he instinctively said to himself: “I want to live for immortality and I will accept no compromise.” In the same way, if he had decided that God and immortality did not exist, he would at once have become an atheist and a socialist. For socialism is not merely the labour question, it is before all things the atheistic question, the question of the form taken by atheism to-day, the question of the tower of Babel built without God, not to mount to heaven from earth but to set up heaven on earth. Aloysha would have found it strange and impossible to go on living as before.
The question occurs to me again and again: how often do we, having ostensibly reached some profound conclusion about the nature of life, continue to go on living as before?This beautiful quote about the trajectory of Aloysha’s resolve resonates with me. I am reminded of a much less eloquent quote that is, as far as I am aware, unattributed:
We live what we believe. Everything else is just talk.

The Highwaymen: Art Devoid of Affectations

We recently went to a museum to tour a limited run exhibit of art by the Florida Highwaymen. I’ve written a little about them before. They were unique, unconventional and successful for a time despite being uninterested in art for art’s sake. These men –and one woman- seemed to be void of any desire to make a name for themselves. They were in the thing to make rent. They even allowed their commissioned salesman, a fast talker from the neighborhood, to occasionally sign his name on their work if it would facilitate a sale or fetch a better price.

As we toured the exhibit I overheard two women discussing the fact that most of these men were not serious, studied artists. It wasn’t the first time I’d encountered this analysis of the Highway men; this implication they weren’t genuine artists. They painted and sold for volume, rather than for a deep love of their craft. This is undoubtedly true, but I view that as a testament to their accomplishment rather than a detraction from it.

Rather than pining for some imaginary life that they thought they deserved, they made hay while the sun shone. Are y’all familiar with that colloquialism? It’s equivalent to striking while the iron is hot, which perfectly encapsulates the trajectory of The Highwaymen. Most possessed natural artistic aptitude, but this was a time when it was particularly difficult for men of their ethnic and socioeconomic background to make a good living. Art school was not a priority for most of them, although a well-regarded local artist guided and heavily influenced their early work.

The cool thing about the these guys, besides the fact that they were able to make a decent living selling paintings that they churned out by firelight while drinking beer in Alfred Hair’s backyard, was their novel interpretation Florida’s natural beauty. They may not have been serious about art for art’s sake, but they captured Florida’s Poinciana trees, wild back country, and vibrant evening sunsets in vivid, Technicolor detail.

Most of the painting were produced on Upson board rather than canvas, because it was cheaper to buy in bulk and it got the job done. Their art sold because of its authenticity, quality, and lack of affectation. These men painted Florida as they saw it around them every day. What they lacked in artistic passion, they made up for with a passion for their subject matter.

Perhaps my roots are showing, but everything about the way this art was developed, presented, and marketed speaks to me. It’s the way I understand earthiness and authenticity. I love The David, The Mona Lisa and The Banjo Lesson as much as any other person who appreciates art and beauty. This art, which depicts my home, by artists who share the same roots and appreciation of the uniqueness that is this place, affects me in a more visceral way.

Their story magnifies rather than diminishes their legacy. At least, that’s the way I see it.

Friday Faves: Real Florida

Though far less dramatic for us than much of the country, the start to our school year has been a hectic one. I’d planned a philosophical education post in honor of the inauspicious national beginning to the 2020 school calendar, but life crowded out the time I’d planned to use for that.

I took it as a sign that now isn’t the time for my pontificating. We are awash in the opinions of every Tom, Dick, and Harry right now. That’s not even counting the random musings of every Mary, Jane, and Sue! Increased digital noise is the last thing we need. As a relief from it, I decided to treat my scant few readers to some extremely amateur photography of scenery so beautiful that the amateurish nature of the shots will be easily forgiven.

Our family is enjoying a revelation of sorts. Despite having lived in Florida my entire life, I’ve neglected to explore this place that has drawn people to its beauty from its earliest settlements. Lately, our family has been doing exactly that, and it has been a time of respite and joy.

The belief that Florida is most easily described as theme parks, shorelines and hurricanes neglects the unique character of this place. Embarrassingly, I labored under the same delusions for most of my younger years, making exceptions for St. Augustine. Most people are familiar with it as the oldest remaining European settlement in what was then the New World. However, there is no much more here, and every Sunday since the quarantine began, we’ve been exploring Florida off the beaten path.

Enjoy some the images of Florida that you may not be familiar with:

I’ll assault you with the digital noise of my philosophical pontificating sometime next week.

Until then, have a great weekend. And, if you can take the heat, go outside!

Word Nerd Wednesday: Metanoia

I was a part of an education training recently and one of the books we touched on was Plato’s Five Dialogues. I hope to have more to say about this book at a later date. Today, however, I want to explore a word we discussed as we contemplated our chief educational aim, which is to teach our students to pursue virtue. Today’s word is metanoia.

Anyone who has done a Greek word study of the Bible’s new testament is familiar with the word metanoia as the direct translation of the word repent. At its core, that’s what metanoia is; a turning away from one way of thinking and believing to another. It’s a perfect description of our religious conversion, but what does metanoia look like in a more general educational context? Or in any area of life?

The word metanoia speaks to me because there are a number of philosophical and political issues through which I went on a journey of metanoia, as described in the above definition. This journey, in the context of Socratic education philosophy, is taken together with one’s teacher through a series of questions and propositions crafted to make the student think. It can, however, be taken through personal research, contemplation, and prayer. We just have to be willing to interrogate ourselves.

Both of these, whether personal or with a teacher, indicate wrestling and grappling with ideas. To do this demands questioning our own presuppositions in search of  greater truth. That wrestling and any resulting change of heart is the journey of metanoia.

There isn’t much room for metanoia in our world today. We live in a world increasingly devoid of wrestling, meditation, enlightenment or repentance. To wrestle with what we believe is true, even in the face of mountains of evidence and thousands of years of documented human experience and understanding, is anathema to the post modern soul.

This lack of introspective meditation, this lack of metanoia, combined with tearing down fences without regard for the wisdom of those who went before us, is a primary characteristic of the postmodern era, and it’s becoming our undoing. Chesterton’s fence is an excellent touch-point reference:

As simple as Chesterton’s Fence is as a principle, it teaches us an important lesson. Many of the problems we face in life occur when we intervene with systems without an awareness of what the consequences could be. We can easily forget that this applies to subtraction as much as to addition. If a fence exists, there is likely a reason for it. It may be an illogical or inconsequential reason, but it is a reason nonetheless.

Chesterton also alluded to the all-too-common belief that previous generations were bumbling fools, stumbling around, constructing fences wherever they fancied. Should we fail to respect their judgement and not try to understand it, we run the risk of creating new, unexpected problems. By and large, people do not do things for no reason. We’re all lazy at heart. We don’t like to waste time and resources on useless fences. Not understanding something does not mean it must be pointless.

This is why it is vitally important that we educate our children on the pursuit of virtue. A surfeit of academic exposure without the corresponding ability to use those intellectual storehouses to the meaningful benefit of others renders our education little more than fool’s gold.

Of course, we are all basically lazy at heart, and metanoia requires something of a mental workout. Workouts that produce lasting transformation are hard. To quote my favorite video workout dude:

If was easy, everybody would be doing it.



Friday Faves: Southern Colloquialisms

Sometimes the darndest things take me back to my earliest years. Things like seeing a grasshopper.

Last week we went for a hike in a nature preserve area about 40 miles west of our house. A particular stretch of the trail was awash with grasshoppers. There were so many, we had to watch our step lest we crushed one as we walked. I snapped a picture of one before moving on:

After seeing the grasshoppers, I recalled an old saying of my late uncle. He’s certainly not the only person I’ve ever heard use it. It’s a fairly common expression in the south:

“I remember when you were just knee high to a grasshopper!”

This is one way of telling a teenager or young adult that you remember when they were just a toddler. As I thought about this, I was reminded of how many unique colloquial expressions we southerners use that are not often familiar to Americans who reside points north and west of us. So here’s your Southern idiom education edition of my Friday Faves.

Most of these I know well, but I went to Southern Living to have my memory jogged about some I may have forgotten or even never known. My parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles all hail from the deep south, but I’ve spent my entire life in the melting pot that is the Sunshine State, so there are a few I haven’t heard:

  • He ain’t hit a lick at a snake in years. (Translation: He’s lazy.)  I know this one well. My Texas-born step mom is fond of this one.
  • I’ve got a Champagne appetite on a Kool-Aid budget. ( Translation: I want more than I can afford.)
  • Well, butter my backside and call me a biscuit! ( Translation: Well, I’ll be dang!) There are many renditions of this one.
  • People in hell want ice water, but that don’t mean they get it. (Translation: You don’t always get what you want.)
  • Whatever cranks your tractor. (Translation: Whatever makes you happy.)
  • He/she really cranks my engine (Translation: A romantic interpretation of the aforementioned expression)
  • That girl ain’t wrapped tight! (Translation: she has a few screws loose, elevator doesn’t go to the top floor, is slightly unhinged)
  • Well, the lights are on, but ain’t nobody home. (Translation: see above)

I could go on for quite a while with these, some of which range from slightly comical to outrageously inappropriate. But we Southerners? We know how to turn a phrase, no?



Overcoming My Short Reading Attention Span

One of my favorite podcasts is Mike Rowe’s The Way I Heard It. In his opening, he describes it as “a series of mysteries for the curious mind with a short attention span”. That tag line always grabs me because I so strongly relate to it, but also because this wasn’t always the case. I used to be able to read long books, listen to long recordings, sit and stare at the world, and do many tasks which require sustained concentration.

In recent years, however, my mind seems prone to wander. I can stay engaged a little longer than it takes to get through one of Mike Rowe’s short mysteries, but nowhere nearly as long as I used to focus. I wonder how much screen life has affected my concentration, how much is increased responsibilities and competing mental demands, or if some of it is simply the passage of time.

One book I have picked up, loved, and yet never gone the distance to finish is Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. I usually have some reason I temporarily set it aside to pick up something more concise, and less demanding, but the truth is that my attention span is shot.

While my follow-through needs some exercise, my determination is still active, so I’m reading it again. This time, one of my daughters is going to read it with me, as we treat it as a book club of sorts. She really enjoyed Crime and Punishment, which I did not, so I figured she’d not have any trouble at all making her way through this book. It really is one of Dostoyevsky’s best. At least, that’s my opinion based on repeatedly reading the first quarter of it.

I’m still deciding whether I want to do a series of posts as characters in this book are so rich and multi-faceted. I’ll let y’all know how it goes. In other news…

It’s July 28th, which means the start of the 2020-2021 school year is right around the corner. For us, that means purchasing books, gathering curriculum, meeting with tutors and all the things that come along with educating one’s children outside the traditional paradigm.

It’s quite an undertaking, but once you’ve done it a few times, it becomes a little less daunting. This year there are lots of parents doing this for the first time against their wills. They would like nothing more than to be attending meet the teacher events and walking through Walmart or Target with the school-issued, grade-level supply list in hand. Instead, they have to figure out how to juggle part-time school with part-time homeschool with virtual school, depending on what individual districts have decided across the 50 states that make up the formerly United States.

Because I know how hard this can be when you’re starting out, I thought I’d offer a few tips. These work well, even if kids were going to school full-time as usual, but they are crucial now.

  • Communication: Keep the lines of communication open with teachers. Email frequently and call when you’re not sure the message is being properly conveyed in writing. Generally, the more engaged parents are with their teachers, the more teachers respond to the needs of the kids represented by that engagement. It’s not politically correct, but the squeaky wheel gets the grease in schools the same as everywhere else.
  • Schedule: When educating children at home, a schedule is indispensable. If kids are doing all of their classes via Zoom meetings, which is a horrendous option, then the schedule is probably already set beforehand. This can be good, but is mostly bad. A break between the screen meetings is essential. Push to get one if possible.
  • Sunlight: Don’t forget that being outdoors sometimes is healthy, especially so in Covidtide.

Those are the things that will be helpful if you stay plugged in to the public school matrix, but for those parents choosing the homeschool or micro school option, there is more freedom, but also more work involved. This is where those of us who have been homeschooling for years can give you a leg up.

  • Community: If you try to do this all on your own you’ll get burnt out, especially if you’re trying to hold down a full-time job while doing it. Find people on a similar journey. Even if it’s only to commiserate and bounce ideas, it’s invaluable.
  • Make a schedule and make it a sensible one. For instance, don’t cover every subject every day of the 5-day school week. Some things need to be tackled daily, such as reading, math, spelling, and writing. Others, such as history and science, can be handled twice a week; Tuesday and Thursday, for instance. Keep in mind that schools can graze a little on every topic every day because they have several teachers doing the work as they pass your child from person to person every 45 or 50 minutes. Take it from someone who has learned the hard way. You cannot replicate the traditional school experience at home. It won’t work long term.
  • Life as Education: My kids learned the basic, foundational fractions (1/8, 1/4, 1/3, 1/2, 2/3) in the kitchen. It wasn’t a replacement for doing the hard work of adding, subtracting and converting fractions the old-fashioned, but it was a start. Try not to miss out on opportunities to learn while doing the routine activities of life. Since you’re stuck at home anyway, make the best of it.
  • Read excellent books, since very few schools bother to do that anymore. Currently, one of our girls is reading Pride and Prejudice on her own. Another is reading Tom Sawyer. Together, we are reading a biography of George Washington Carver. I think Jane Austen is still held in high regard in schools, but I’m not sure about Twain, and despite going to an all black elementary school as a kid in the late 70s and early 80s, we rarely learned about any black historical figures besides MLK. All I recall about George Washington Carver was about his work with peanuts. He was to be credited with so much more!

Because we are in a part-time school, the curriculum is already chosen by the council, but it is in line with our educational values. I’m thankful not to have to pick it. What we’re doing now is gathering the materials (shopping for the best prices) and getting ready for the year, which begins in a few weeks.

How are you preparing for this unorthodox school year? What is different about where you are? What is the same?

Word Nerd Wednesday: Alacrity
picture credit

Tom gave up the brush with reluctance in his face, but alacrity in his heart.~ from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Alacrity is in short supply these days, I think. Perhaps it’s the general malaise of this year, 2020, but this word has lodged itself into my mind over the past couple of days.

Our youngest, very recently 12 years old, is re-reading Tom Sawyer. That’s the mark of a genuine bibliophile, I’m told; this propensity to re-read beloved books. This makes me happy. As she was reading, she inquired of me to confirm that her understanding of the word alacrity was correct: Does alacrity mean cheerfulness?”

I confirmed that it does, but I also knew that there was something more to the word than simple cheerfulness. So I went on an etymological dig, as any word sleuth would do! First, there was the basic definition to consider. From Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary:

Alacrity: promptness in response: cheerful readiness

The phrase cheerful readiness is interesting, because it evokes a zeal to do a thing. Zeal feels as if it is in short supply these days. Maybe it’s all the months of restricted activity? When do we see alacrity on display?

I suppose one would accept a party invitation with alacrity. One might open a gift with alacrity as well. Etymology online offers more insight into the origins and meaning of the word:

“liveliness, briskness,” mid-15c., from Latin alacritatem (nominative alacritas) “liveliness, ardor, eagerness,” from alacer (genitive alacris) “cheerful, brisk, lively;” a word of uncertain origin. Perhaps cognate with Gothic aljan “zeal,” Old English ellen “courage, zeal, strength,” Old High German ellian. But de Vaan suggests the root sense is “to wander, roam” and a possible connection with ambulare.

The implication is that alacrity is to move -the Latin ambulare– not only with cheerful readiness, which is the perfect description of Tom Sawyer as he relinquished his paintbrush. However, being an old school, “life is duty” type of soul, I wondered if it couldn’t mean something more. Its origins also seem to imply moving with zeal, liveliness, and courage.

I’ve written at length about the evolution of language in modern and postmodern times, so I’ll try not to read too much into the etymological roots of a word when its evolution clearly indicates a shift has taken place. Nevertheless, it is possible to apply alacrity in ways beyond eagerly moving towards pleasure or relief.

How often do we jump in with alacrity to assist someone with an arduous job? If not, why don’t we? Do we exhibit a “cheerful readiness” to sacrifice something of ourselves in service to others? What does that look like, and how rare (or common) is it?

Just a few random thoughts. Thank you for joining me partway through the maze of my gray matter in search of the meanings and implications of words.

Now more than ever, it is important that we know what words mean and the power they possess.

On the Verge of Educational Revolution.

There is a quiet storm brewing, and the rumble is going unnoticed by most Americans, mainly because we’re all distracted with larger, seemingly more pressing issues. Navigating the current insanity we’re all surrounded by leaves very little attention for noticing the shifting educational sands beneath us. This is especially true during the summer since most kids are out of school. August is swiftly approaching, however, and with the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to make headlines along with harrowing memories of many families attempting distance learning this spring, parents are exploring new and innovative approaches to educating their children.

I recently read the book Rethinking School, by Susan Wise Bauer. I skipped reviewing it since there was little untilled ground. We’ve talked a lot about education here at Reading in Between the Life, and as difficult as it is not to be redundant on the subject, I make every effort not to. The thing is, if you parent school-aged children, you already know everyone is rethinking school this year. What began as a necessity is opening our collective consciousness to fresh ways of thinking about education that will revolutionize schooling in America.

Many states are announcing their plans for the fall, and for some families, this means no return to the classrooms. It was one thing to gut it out temporarily through the spring. It’s quite another to contemplate juggling work and school from home as a new school year dawns. Distance learning was roundly unsuccessful, so parents are considering alternatives. Homeschooling is one of those alternatives.

Distance learning using Zoom, prescribed curriculums, and constantly emailing and scanning in assignments isn’t really homeschooling. Homeschooling is altogether different from replicating traditional school at home. Some families may decide that if they can’t send their children to school, they’ll keep them at home on their own terms, which makes sense. There is another, more appealing option emerging in several communities, and this is the one I believe will transform the educational landscape.

Micro-schools are not new. I first read about this back in 2015, when it was mostly the domain of a few niche communities:

Some experts predict micro schools have the potential to not only revive the one-room school house idea of yore, but also shake up the private school sector by offering parents a highly personalized education for their children at lower cost than traditional private schools.

What is a micro-school?

After trying to answer that question for a recent article I wrote for Education Week, I can tell you there is no hard and fast definition for this relatively new phenomenon. But, at least among the people I spoke with, there seems to be a consensus forming around a few core traits:

  • Micro schools have no more than 150 students, but are often smaller—from around 10 to a few dozen students;
  • Multiple ages learn together in a single classroom;
  • Teachers act more as guides than lecturers;
  • There’s a heavy emphasis on digital and project-based learning; and
  • Education is highly personalized.

But if you’re looking for a quick and conversational way to explain what micro schools are, I’ve been going with “a mix between a lab school and a home school co-op with an emphasis on blended learning.” There’s also nothing written that micro schools have to be private school, they just mostly seem to be. 

Traditional schooling, whether public or private, is still the primary choice for most families, but in their absence, necessity’s offspring are filling in the gaps. Micro-schools are gathering steam again as schools hesitate to reopen and parents fear reliving the strains of spring 2020. It’s the best of both worlds: small classes that ease social distancing efforts combined with the educational support that kids and parents both need. It also affords parents the freedom to earn a living, even if they’re earning that living from home. The schools featured in the original stories were expensive, but it would be easy for highly motivated families to pool their resources for more affordable execution of a similar quality of education:

“When the pandemic hit, it was craziness, while at the same time finding out we needed to be doing this distance learning,” said Darcy Alkus-Barrow, a mother of two who works full-time, as does her husband.

Now, the family of four is turning to a growing trend called microschooling, a home-based learning center for younger children that house four to 12 at a time, in a garage or spare room.

It is poised to change the face of education:

According to the Microschool Coalition, the microschool model is “determined to transform education, creating more and better learning environments for our children” and “redesign the learning experience.”

The way it works is that microschools can employ an accredited teacher, or parents can even rotate as a teacher in more of a co-op mode.

By staying with the social pod or COVID-19 cluster idea, it also minimizes exposure between families, creates social stimulation for kids and provides some relief for parents.

It occurs that our children attend what could easily be classified as a micro-school. Fancy that!






Dostoevsky asks: Is Such a Man Free?

An appropriately melancholy quotable literary quote from The Brothers Karamazov:

…Interpreting freedom as the multiplication and rapid satisfaction of desires, men distort their own nature, for many senseless and foolish desires and habits and ridiculous fancies are fostered in them. They live only for mutual envy, for luxury and ostentation. To have dinners, visits, carriages, rank and slaves to wait on one is looked upon as a necessity, for which life, honour and human feeling are sacrificed, and men even commit suicide if they are unable to satisfy it. We see the same thing among those who are not rich, while the poor drown their unsatisfied need and their envy in drunkness. But soon they will drink blood instead of wine, they are being led on to it. I ask you is such a man free?

Did this man really die 129 years ago? It’s almost as if he’s a fly on the wall of the 21st Century.

Or maybe it’s just that human nature is what it is…

Word Nerd Wednesday: Western Postmodernism’s Sexual Vocabulary

If my title sounds bizarrely intriguing, that wasn’t intentional. I just couldn’t think of a more interesting or appropriate title for this week’s word study.

Recently, via Sanne at Adventures in Keeping House, I had the occasion to read a 2012 article from The Atlantic which outlined the marital and family dynamics of two African tribes where homosexuality and masturbation do not exist. They -literally- have no words for the two concepts, don’t practice them at all, and had to be explained what possible purpose such activity could serve. Their approach to sexuality is contained totally within the framework of marriage and procreation.

It got me to thinking about the fact that the west has an entire–and relatively new- vocabulary dedicated to all things sexual and every possible variation and school of sexual thought.  We’ll take a look at a few of the words in our lexicon in a moment.

 I’m sure you know that I have thoughts and opinions about our sexual vocabulary compared to these tribes’ lack of the same, but this isn’t a morality discussion. This is about how this discovery made me think, as most postmodern discussion does, about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

It occurs to me that this is why the Aka and Ngandu people of Central Africa have no concept of sexuality outside of its natural use of reproduction in marriage. They’re about the business of family survival and carrying on their lineages, and we’ve abandoned those things as primary directives.

Our way of processing the world is relatively new; untested for longevity or fruitfulness. This new and untried system demands that we develop a vocabulary through which discussions can take place, so that’s what we’ve done. We’ve talked a lot here about linguistic evolution, but this is probably the area where the evolution has progressed most swiftly. So, let’s look at our novel vocabulary.

  • Cisgendered: of relating to, or being a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth. It’s a combination of the Latin “cis” meaning on the same side, combined with the word gender. In other words, you identify with what biology clearly reveals as true. It can be traced back to 2011, according to etymology online.
  • Heteronormative: of, relating to, or based on the attitude that heterosexuality is the only normal and natural expression of sexuality. Based on the understanding that being attracted to the opposite sex is the normal course for most people, yet infers that it shouldn’t be.
  • Nonbinary: There is, of course, a definition of nonbinary that is related to mathematics and numerical theory. However, there is a more prevalent, mainstream definition which is relating to or being a person who identifies with or expresses a gender identity that is neither entirely male nor entirely female.
  • Queer: This used to mean odd or eccentric, and still does according to Merriam-Webster’s first entry. I suspect that few people will refer to themselves or anyone else as queer anymore unless they are referring to the newly minted and commonly understood definition which is in Webster’s third entry: of, relating to, or characterized by sexual or romantic attraction that is not limited to people of a particular gender identity or sexual orientation.

I am intrigued by the difference between our understanding of this basic facet of life and the understanding of an isolated group of people whose understanding is more akin to my grandparent’s generation than ours. Make of what you will. I won’t offer an opinion here because to do so would be like trying to explaining wetness to a fish.