Tag Archives: education in America

Right-Brained Thinking

I am left-brained; there’s no two ways about it.  I think with words.  I think linearly.  I can only concentrate on one activity at a time if I am to do it justice.  I’m mathematically challenged.  I can’t hold a map in my head, and judging distances and sizes is an impossible task for me.  But I’m incredibly fortunate, because most Americans are also left-brained, and therefore our educational system is geared towards those who think like I do.  I had no trouble in school, because American schools were designed exactly for people like me.

My husband is right-brained.  He thinks in symbols, and must translate his thoughts into words before he can communicate them to others; but since he is not limited to thinking in words, he can think of things for which there are no words. He is not limited to thinking chronologically; he has no sense of the passage of time.  He can do twenty things at once and do them all well.  He’s not great at math, but he’s a lot better at it than I am.  He has an uncanny sense of direction and can measure objects and spaces at a glance.  He has a genius IQ.  But he struggled in school.  American schools are not equipped to teach right-brained kids.  Because they are unconventional thinkers and learn in ways other than rote memorization and reading, right-brained kids, no matter their superior mental abilities, are very likely to be labeled “learning-disabled”.   Although he never had trouble reading, my husband would be called “dyslexic” if he were in the school-system today.  He was fortunate–he grew up before the country’s educators invented this “disability”, and so never had to deal with this label.

I home-schooled my children.  The first three were left-brainers, like me.  It was easy to teach them, because they learned best the same ways I learn best.  We had loads of fun together.  By the time my fourth child was ready for school, I was a veteran home-school mom.  I had it down!  I could teach standing on my head with one hand tied behind my back.  My fourth child did not know this.  She is right-brained, like my husband.  She struggled with reading, and all the teaching techniques that I had learned in the past, all the things that had worked so well with my other children, did her no good.  Was this because there was something “wrong” with her?  Of course not!  I just had to let go of my entrenched teaching methods and re-learn how to teach in ways that would benefit her.

I spent months researching, and then I was ready to try again.  I’m not saying it was not difficult.  I was very often teaching in ways that seemed foreign to me, and it was hard to make myself think in such a different way.  My kid was unhappy, also.  She hated reading. She hated spelling. But we muddled through, learning together, and today as she finishes her second year of high school, I doubt anyone would ever guess that she is dyslexic.  She reads better than most kids her age, she has an intuitive grasp of math, and absorbs science like a pro.

Here’s the secret:  I never told her she had a learning disability.  Because honestly, she really doesn’t.  She thinks differently than the majority of Americans, but it is a strength and a gift, not a disability.  The fact is, most “dyslexics” are highly intelligent–most of the world’s true geniuses were right-brained and would have been called dyslexic if they had been subject to today’s educational system.  The disability is in the schools and the teachers, not in the children.  Just as I had to re-learn how to teach, schools should re-learn how to present material to students in a way that will benefit all of them, not just the left-brainers.

I guess what I would like to see is an acknowledgement of the facts by our educational system.  Right-brained thinkers are not problems–they are assets to our society.  Most of the creative and inventive  advances in our modern world are due to right-brainers, who can think outside of the box more quickly and creatively than we plodding left-brained folks can.  Rather than ostracizing these kids by negatively labeling them and separating them from the rest of the school body, we should be encouraging them and helping them learn to use their gifts, for their own sakes and for ours.  We should be teaching all of our kids to respect and understand differences in thought processes; not only to accept these differences, but to value them and embrace them.  Think what the world would be like today if the likes of Leonardo DaVinci, Alexander Graham Bell, Winston Churchill, or Thomas Edison had been told that they had an “incurable neurological disability” as one website puts it?  This site describes these famous people, among others, as “sufferers of dyslexia”.  Did they truly “suffer”?  I’m pretty sure they would take issue with such terms.  I do know for certain that my husband suffered from the lack of understanding of his teachers in the 1960’s; and if my daughter suffered from anything, it was from her mother’s lack of knowledge, not from her own mind’s make-up.

How about if we just stop labeling people altogether?  Maybe we could just all be individuals.  My linear, word-oriented left brain thinks this would work for the best.  So does my kid’s creative, symbol-oriented right one.


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These are our stories. . . .

I should hope that my readers are aware by now that I am a hopeless geek.  So it should come as no surprise that I should begin this blog entry with a Star Trek reference, especially in light of the newest Trek movie coming out.

In one of my favorite “Next Generation” episodes, Worf, the Klingon officer, discovers a prisoner-of-war planet where dozens of young Klingons have been held since they were small children.  None of these young people had any memory of their home and they knew nothing of their own people.  Worf, of course, must rescue them physically; but even more importantly, he must rescue them emotionally.  These lost young people, with no sense of belonging or of who they are as a culture, ask Worf to teach them what it means to be Klingon.  I suppose they expect him to begin by describing what their home planet looks like;  or their history; or their political system; or their religious customs or rituals. Worf could easily have started with any of these areas:  anyone familiar with the  Trek universe knows that the Klingon people have a rich and complex history and culture.  But Worf began teaching his new students about what it means to be Klingon by telling them the ancient myth of Kahless the Great and his evil brother.

An impertinent boy dares to interrupt Worf’s narrative. He doesn’t want bedtime stories–he wants facts.  Worf is indignant. “These are our stories,” he rumbles in his impressive bass voice; “they tell us who we are.”

Indeed.  That sentence has stuck with me for years, and I use it constantly in my literature classes.  Our stories both shape us and explain us.  Any story that has survived for decades or for centuries has stayed with us for a reason.  Good or bad, our stories, our myths, our legends, our novels, and our poetry tell us something about ourselves that we want to pass down to our progeny.

All ancient cultures told stories, but the ones which first shaped and spoke to Western Civilization are the Greek myths.  The Romans, whose own mythology was violent and fairly stark, were delighted to conquer Greece and assimilate the beautiful stories of their enemies.  That’s what we have inherited–beauty and violence; soaring ideals wed to pragmatism.  The gods of the Greeks and Romans were gods of nature, and therefore capricious, unpredictable, and self-absorbed.  It’s hard sometimes to tell the gods from the monsters; in fact, most of the monsters were children of gods and therefore under their protection. The heroes in these stories were men who could overcome, or at least survive, the intervention of the gods.  You can easily see the influence of such stories in our culture even today–our admiration of the solitary hero overcoming the odds to survive or of the impudent mortal flouting fate.  Our worship of individualism grew from these roots.  I’m not saying that individualism is a bad thing; but it can lead to bad things, including a resentment of authority and an unhealthy desire for independence from both God and each other.

What would Western culture be like if it were the myths of other people-groups that had been set down and studied, passed down as the wisdom of the ages?  The Norsemen, for example, for all their love of a good fight and their dubious regard for personal property, had gods who felt responsible for the good of mankind.  With the exception of Loki, they worked together for the common good and never exploited the weak.  They fought constantly, but with giants and monsters which threatened both themselves and mankind.  In the end, they are all doomed to die; but their moral compass points more truly north than the Greeks’.

But we are what we are; history has so arranged that we as Westerners be essentially Greco/Roman in our cultural outlook.  You can see it in our laws, in our belief systems, in our behavioral patterns, and in all of our stories.  It is impossible to read a book in the English language, for example, without finding numerous references to Greek and Roman mythology.  Our language is rife with it.  You need not have read any Homer whatsoever to know what I mean when I say I have an “Achilles’ heel” or that I am stuck “between a rock and a hard place.”  You may not know who Achilles is, or that the “rock”and the “hard place” are the monsters Scylla and Charybdis; but you certainly know how it feels to experience these things for yourself.

Down through the years, more and more stories have been added to those original myths; a people talking to themselves about themselves in order to explain themselves to themselves–if you follow me!  There are hundreds of individual stories, rich in meaning, that have entered our cultural consciousness and cut themselves a groove there.  Now our thoughts automatically run along those grooves–for better or worse.  The wisdom of Aesop; the chivalry of Malory and Tennyson; the eloquence of Shakespeare and Milton; the social conscience of Dickens and Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe; the elegance of Austen and the Brontes; the humor of Wilde and Wodehouse–you need not have actually read these works to have benefited from them or to recognize quotations from them.  For example, many of the social reforms that we enjoy in our modern civilization, policies that separate us as “first world” rather than “third world”, can trace their beginnings to stories that helped steer the minds of the people into those directions.  Our attitudes towards slavery, our work ethics, our treatment of laborers, children, and women, were all shaped by the stories men and women told and that the readers responded to and passed down to their children and to their children’s children in order to better their society.

This is why the study of literature is so important.  To know and understand our stories is to know and understand ourselves.  To learn the stories of our past is to benefit from the wisdom of the ages; or to realize where our erroneous beliefs have come from and why.  We can pick through our cultural mainstays and keep the good and discard the bad, if we realize that they ARE cultural, not Gospel.

In the end, since the only story that was truly inspired is Scripture, we must always compare our cultural stories to the Bible.  And then, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy. . . .” as Paul says in Philippians 4–read it!

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Literature as it Translates to Film

As I prepare for my literature classes for next year, searching out just the right novels, plays, and poems to present to each class, I find myself feeling more and more strongly that I should not limit myself to teaching the written word.  For the last one hundred years or so, the visual media have become more and more prominent in our society.  There are a great many people in America today who will never crack open a book, but will watch hours of television every day and see several movies each month.  While occasionally an original story is well-told on film, for the most part movies are remakes of popular or classical works of literature.  Many people in today’s society are exposed to the great stories of our culture exclusively through film rather than the written work. But sometimes,  the film intrigues its fans into actually reading the original work.

I will not say whether I feel this is a good or a bad thing.  It simply is.  Rather than wish the world were otherwise, it is time to face reality and deal with the visual media as an entity that is not only not going away but is taking over as our main source of cultural storytelling. As such, it demands scrutiny:  how well do movies and television translate the written word?

I believe that discerning the difference between a well-made film and a poorly-made one is a skill that must be taught.  It is, in fact, lamentable that it has not been made a priority in schools before now.  Americans are unfortunately content with the substandard fare offered to them and will even enthuse about the most banal and contemptible drivel, not knowing that there are truly sublime films available for them to enjoy if they would only look.  Many Americans, jaded by the constant bombardment of adreneline-producing violence and overly-excited sex, strobing through scene after scene at breakneck speed, can’t appreciate a truly well-made movie when they see one.  They simply don’t know how to process film intellectually, expecting a purely emotional experience.  Often, their attention-spans have been so severely compromised, people simply cannot sit through an entire film without explosions or other emotionally exploitive events to keep their minds from wandering.  I feel that this shows a serious lack in our educational system.

I believe that a natural start to teaching children how to appreciate visual media is to have them read books that have been made into film and help them compare the two media.  Showing them the same elements of story through both methods of storytelling can help them learn to be discerning in their viewing habits.  And fortunately, there have actually been some quite well-done films of many literary classics.

A part of this learning process, however, must include a basic understanding of how these two media necessarily differ.  I am not one of those “purists” who feel a film must be an exact copy of the book from which it is taken.  I am not even one of those people who insist that the book is always better than the movie.  Most of the time, the book IS better than the movie:  but in the interest of truth, it must be admitted that there are exceptions to this rule.  “The Princess Bride” is the one that springs immediately to mind.  While I enjoyed the book, with its facetious but interminably long introduction explaining “the  good parts” version, the movie incorporates the same sort of facetiousness without the initial tedium.

But, I digress!  The fact is, books can do things that film cannot; and film can do things that books cannot.  Taking advantage of the strengths of each medium is the job of the author and the filmmaker.  Understanding that some of the coolest parts of a book simply cannot translate well to the screen is part of the process of learning to appreciate film for its own strengths.  To give the most obvious example:  a film cannot get inside a character’s mind as intimately as a book can.  Other means must be found to allow the viewer access to the thought processes of the characters.  Another translation challenge is a lack of information.  At times in a written work, the author can state a complicated process quite simply and leave the details to the imagination.  “He quickly explained to his friends all that had happened to him in the previous few days.”  “A short scuffle ensued, ending with Mr. Smith head-down in the well.”  The film maker must make a decision as to how to convey these simple sentences visually.  Obviously the conversation must be shown to take place–but what do the characters say?  Or should the conversation simply be alluded to in a later scene so that the viewer knows that all the characters are now up to speed on the happenings of the story?  How should this “short scuffle” be choreographed?  How do we send Mr. Smith head-down into a well without killing the actor portraying him?  What can be a throw-off sentence to the author can become a major head-ache to a filmmaker.

Another problem is length.  A novel can be as long as the author wishes it to be.  A film usually cannot be longer than two or three hours at most.  A novel does not cost the author more the longer it gets.  A film’s costs multiply with each day it takes to shoot.  Therefore, it becomes necessary sometimes to condense a novel into a more manageable size.  Some scenes must be combined; some must be cut out altogether or perhaps only alluded to.  Some characters may even be combined to make the cast a more manageable size.

Here is a more complex example of changes in translation:  The Ghost of Christmas Past in “A Christmas Carol” is a highly symbolic creation, depicted masterfully by Charles Dickens as being perceived as “receding into the distance” and as made up of parts of all the people Ebenezer Scrooge had ever known.  As many times as this book has been made into a movie, no one has ever attempted to depict this character as it is described in the book.  Until recently, it would have been simply impossible to do; but even now, with CGI making so many wonderful things possible, I think it would be a mistake to translate this Ghost literally onto the screen.  Its appearance would simply be too distracting for meaningful dialogue to take place.  In the book, the reader is allowed to forget during conversation that the Ghost is strobing in and out of many different bodies.  On film, the viewer would be overwhelmed by the constant changes.

On the other hand, sometimes filmmakers make decisions in translation that are not defendable and are even deplorable.  Giving a character more lines because one is paying the actor an exorbitant  salary is using poor reasoning skills.  Changing the very meaning of the work by altering the ending (as in, for example, “Beowulf”–don’t get me started!)  is just plain evil.  Being able to tell the difference between good and bad choices would be an important part of the educative process.  Simply accepting any changes a filmmaker makes without questions would be as bad as automatically condemning the changes out-of-hand.  Teaching a student to think about the film and how it was made and giving the student tools to help him discern good filmmaking from poor filmmaking would be the goal.

Next year, I plan to incorporate some films into my literature curriculum and hold class discussions in hopes of helping my students gain viewing skills that will help them navigate through our cultural morass of visual media.  Wish me luck!

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Literacy as it Pertains to Popular Media

Since the beginning, education has consistently included certain elements which are considered imperative for the student to master in order to be functional in a civilized society:  the maths, science, history, literature, writing and rhetoric are the mainstays of a well-rounded education.  This has changed little over the centuries, although the teaching of rhetoric in public schools seems to have been curtailed considerably.  But I am coming to feel that literature, as an educational discipline, desperately needs to be expanded and modernized in order to equip the up-coming generation in discernment and understanding of the world around them.

The entire reason for the educative process is to transmit the knowledge and wisdom of all the previous generations of a society to the newest generation.  For thousands of years, this was done orally and then both orally and through the written word.  Why do we make our children study literature in school? Because novels are cool?  Well, yes, novels are totally cool.  But the stories from our past tell us where we came from, who we are as a people, and what our ancestors learned about themselves and the world that is worth knowing.  Rather than let each generation start from scratch and re-invent the wheel over and over again, why not just tell our children what we know so that they can build on our head start?  This is true in the sciences, in the maths, in our history (so that they aren’t doomed to repeat it!), and in our literature.  Our stories reveal the deepest truths about ourselves as humans in ways that science and history never can.  We are wired to learn through stories.  Our myths and legends, parables and analogies, mysteries and science fictions reach us on an emotional and spiritual level that, ironically, cannot be expressed in mere words.

For over one hundred years now, our story-telling has taken on a new dimension as movies and television have progressed and become more easily accessible and thus more and more popular.  I’m not writing this to express whether I believe this is a good thing or a bad thing–it simply is.  And since the visual media is not likely to go away, we should be dealing with it as a branch of “literature” and teaching our children how to appreciate it as an art form, just as we teach plays, short stories, novels, and poetry.  There are some quite amazingly well-made movie and television programs available, but unfortunately they are not generally the most popular.

I am not including documentaries in this discussion.  These programs are valuable and some of them are remarkably well-made.  As tools for teaching science and history, they are becoming increasingly important.  But they are not literature, any more than text books are literature. I am limiting my discussion to story-making.

When I teach literature, I naturally point out the elements of story, the character development, the symbology and meaning behind the story, and the importance of what it shows us about ourselves and the world around us. These elements are present in movies and television, as well;  or, at least, they should be.  It’s exciting to find a movie that not only weaves a ripping yarn but also teaches us something meaningful and shows us universal truths. It’s also exciting to find a television series that carries the story along from week to week and allows the characters to grow and change in a way that shows us something about the human condition.  If these stories are well told,  they can be as valuable to us as books and plays and poetry.

But there is more to great literature than story and character.  Literature is made up of words, and part of the joy of teaching about literature is pointing out the special use of the words to convey emotion and spiritual meaning.  The look of the words; they way they sound together; the flow of the narrative; the choice of active or passive voice; all these elements are as important to the story as the story itself.  Such tools as alliteration, anthropomorphism, metaphor, rhythm–these are important to prose as well as to poetry as the words paint pictures in the mind and spirit.  A good author can make you feel whatever he wants you to feel by choosing his words well.

With visual media, the methods are necessarily different, but the idea is the same.  By the careful use of lighting, sound effects, background music, camera angles, colors, and set dressing, the director can manipulate the emotions of the viewer however he pleases.  These things are subtle, but powerful, and can enhance the story or ruin it.  And, of course, there is the importance of the performance.  Even if all of the other elements are present and perfect, poor acting will destroy the entire work.  On the other hand, superb acting can lift an otherwise mediocre work into something enjoyable and meaningful.

These elements must be taught, though, in order to be appreciated.  Without this appreciation, people are all too often satisfied with banality and cliché.  If people will pay their hard-earned money to watch drivel, studios will continue to offer us drivel.  In the past, great literature has shaped the minds of the people and affected change for good in society.  Visual media has this potential as well, when it is used to good purpose rather than to merely titillate and amuse.  The BBC has been doing this well for years–I can only hope that America will catch up one day.

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American Attitudes

One day last year, I gave all of my tutorial students a grade of 100% for having marvelous attitudes. I had never graded for attitude before, but in this case I was pleased to do so. Here’s how it came about: I began the class by telling my students that I was giving them a pop-essay quiz to help prepare them for the essay section of the ACT. I explained why I felt this time of practice was important and proceeded to inform them as to the subject and form the essays were to take and how much time they had to complete them. I had fully expected frowns, sighs, even a groan or two. Instead, they were every one of them smiling at me with anticipation. “This is exciting!” one girl exclaimed. “Yeah, this’ll be fun!” another one agreed.

No, I promise, this really happened. I was not dreaming and I am not making this up.

Since that time, I’ve had the privilege of taking on several more tutorial classes, and I’ve run into the same positive attitudes time and time again. Last week I asked my Middle School Language Arts Class if they would like to diagram sentences on the board and had to jump back to avoid the stampede towards the front of the classroom. When I give them their reading assignments, they cry, “yay!” and can’t wait to get started. I can hardly get through all the material I prepare for my Literature classes because the kids don’t want to stop discussing their latest reading assignments. One of my College Prep Writing students greets me almost every week with an enthusiastic: “I love this class!”

When I was in school, it was considered the height of “uncool” to be enthusiastic about anything, least of all schoolwork. From what my kids tell me, this attitude has not changed much over the years. Learning is a chore, a drudgery, something to avoid if at all possible. Kids complain about their assignments, get them done late, try to get away with doing as little work as they can.

So have I somehow found the only kids in America who enjoy learning? I must be the luckiest teacher in the country! Actually, all of my students are talented, intelligent, and special. But any student can be a good student if he or she wants to be. It’s all in the attitude.

I don’t know where this American disdain for education started. Perhaps it’s the fault of the media, portraying kids as perpetually lazy, whiny, and ill-mannered and labelling this behavior as “cool”. Are the movie and television industries simply reflecting American reality, or are the kids of America watching the media and buying into the message?

Perhaps it started with the kids themselves, bullying those who excel in the classroom to cover for their own inadequacies. I do know that I was persecuted by my peers in school because I enjoyed my classes, made good grades and always completed my assignments on time. I was not a particularly brilliant student, but I did well because I worked hard; as a consequence, I was disliked by almost everyone. It is my understanding that this situation has not changed at all over the years in both public and private schools; if anything, it may have become much worse.

Could it be the fault of the educators? I’m not sure. I know that I had some terrific teachers in high school who were caring, innovative, and encouraging. They made learning exciting for me, but most of my fellow students would have disagreed with me. No matter what the teacher did to try to engage the class, only a few of us responded positively.

My opinion is that it’s the parents that make the difference. The parents of my own students are excited about learning. They not only teach their own children, they continue educating themselves. They discuss what they’ve been learning with their children and with other adults in the hearing of their children, modelling the kind of attitudes that I appreciate so much in the classroom. We should never stop the education process. Americans in particular have no excuse for not taking the time to learn something new everyday. We have access to the knowledge of the world from throughout all ages of history; but do take advantage of that? Or do we waste our time and resources on pointless games and videos of cats? Do we read the great literary offerings of the masters, or do we content ourselves with equivalent of literary junk-food? Do we go to museums and concerts with enthusiasm? What are we teaching our kids when we don’t take the time to improve our minds? Yes, it can be hard after a long days’ work to sit down and read a good book or watch an informative documentary. But our kids have had a long, hard day, too–and we still expect them to finish their homework, while we relax and watch mindless trivia.

Our attitudes as parents are contagious. If we value education for ourselves, our children will value it as well. If we get excited about learning new things, they will view learning as exciting. And enthusiastic students sure make my job a lot more exciting!

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Run From Dick and Jane

Look, look. Look and see! See my blog. See my blog rant. Rant, blog, rant!

There was a lot of controversy in the 1960’s and 1970’s about the efficacy of the “Dick and Jane” readers. Johnny, who was “taught” to read with these textbooks, couldn’t. In the 70’s, more and more students were graduating from high school without the rudiments of literacy. Reading was no longer a pleasant pastime for most Americans by the end of the 70’s. Today, it’s rare to find an avid reader amongst the general public. Ask any adult on the street the title of the last book he read, and I’ll wager it was a book he was forced to read in high school and he can’t remember a thing about it. Was it the “whole word”, “look and say” method that failed them? Was it the lack of phonics?

I have not done an official study on this subject; I haven’t done a lot of interviews or administered a battery of tests. But I have done a lot of research on ways to teach children to read, and I have drawn my own conclusions. Why did “Dick and Jane” fail to teach American children to read? “Dick and Jane” is boring.

The first sentence of this blog entry is mildly amusing for the short line that it takes up. Imagine forcing yourself to read page after page of such drivel! The repetition, the constant tone of command, the entire lack of imaginative or interesting content is mind-numbing. I remember as a six-year-old being forced to wade through this stuff in school with only the knowledge of an exciting “Bobbsey Twins” mystery waiting for me at home to keep me going. How did anyone expect children to learn to enjoy reading when they were forced to endure such boring (I use this word in its broadest possible sense) “stories”?

Yes, the pictures are cute. I admit to a nostalgic draw towards the colorful pictures of white, middle-class American suburbia. They’re pretty. But pictures are not words. Words are the most important part of any book. (Do I really need to point that out?) Not, admittedly, the most marketable part, but the most important. I have in my home a number of readers from pre-Great War times, and these contain few or no color pictures, but are filled with interesting, educational, and imaginative narrative. Were our Victorian-era forefathers better readers than modern Americans? You bet they were! What made the difference? Were they smarter than we are? Did they have access to better schools? Did they have more well-funded government programs? No, the real difference is simpler than that. They WANTED to read!

I was a lucky kid. I had access to a houseful of good books to choose from, and parents who took me to the library every week. Books were considered the best presents to give and receive for Christmas and birthdays. My parents read to me when I was too young to read, and they spent their spare time reading in front of me, showing by example that reading is fun for everyone. But what about kids who aren’t so lucky? What about kids who grow up in homes with few or no books, and whose parents do not have time for frivolous trips to the library and do not have the money to purchase books as gifts? What about kids whose parents don’t read and whose only exposure to books is in school? Shouldn’t we offer them books that are at least as exciting as the TV programs they watch every day? What draw is there to reading when books are presented as bland and boring?

There’s a resurgence of nostalgic interest in the old “Dick and Jane” books lately. I’ve seen copies in book stores, and they are just as pretty as I remembered them. And the earnest message they send to me is: “Run, kids, run! Go fast! Run to Dr. Seuss! Read, kids, read!”

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Pursuit of Freedom

Last Fourth of July, I posted a blog entitled “An American Tory”, which netted me a response unrivaled by anything I have written before or since! This tempted me to run a repeat, as I find the lack of dialog on my other blogs entries to be discouraging. Apparently one must be controversial in order to elicit interaction. But after much prayer, I feel led to go in another intellectual direction.

Freedom! This word always brings to mind the movie “Braveheart”, and William Wallace’s courageous, defiant, dying cry. The idea of freedom is a universal desire, one of the few things men and women are willing to give their lives to pursue. America is the land of the free, and I am sincerely grateful for the freedoms we enjoy in this country. I am able to write whatever I wish in this forum without fear of government officials breaking down the door and dragging me off to prison. I worship God as I choose with whomever I choose, openly. I can criticize the powers that be with impunity. But did America originate these ideals? Not really. Our forefathers brought these ideals with them from Europe, and most Westernized countries, (these we consider to be modern and civilized) also enjoy these freedoms. We were simply the first to create a brand-new country from scratch implementing these ideals from the beginning of our history. That is what makes us unique, and our contribution to the other countries of the world who have followed our example is important and should be recognized. But we must not arrogantly disregard the courage of those who came before us and upon whose shoulders our founding fathers stood: ordinary men and women who fought against tyranny and formed the radical idea of government by the people and for the people. Even to state that we succeeded where they did not is more than I dare to say. Democratic Athens was successful in its time; England had its fits and starts of successful rule by law long before we came along. Our political freedom did last over a hundred years before it began to go into decline, leading us into our present state of affairs. I suppose that’s a better track record than many countries have.

I desire political freedom for all the peoples of God’s earth. But the problem with political freedom is that it isn’t enough. We are free to speak and write and worship as we please, yes. We are free to pursue our own interests without government interference We are free from governmental tyranny (for the moment. . . .) But we are trapped by our own ideology. Government “by the people” means that the people rule, and the people as a whole are tyrants. They are worse than tyrants: they are ignorant, poorly educated, emotionally-driven tyrants who form opinions and vote according to what makes sense to them instead of seeking the truth of a given issue. Unfortunately, what makes sense to an uneducated populace doesn’t really make sense. Americans demand the right to be heard, but at the same time demand the right to be free from responsibility. If we are to rule (and that’s what a democracy is about) we are responsible to educate ourselves as fully as possible in order to be capable of making good decisions. Instead, Americans seem to desire to be free from education. How long has it been since sincere scholasticism was a desirable trait in our public schools? Those few students who still desire to learn are ridiculed and debased by their peers, by our media, even by many parents. Those who spend their time in study are said to “have no life.” American students are encouraged to be popular, to excel in sports or other useless pastimes, and to scrape by in their studies. “Get a life” to an American means “entertain yourself”, not “pursue useful goals.”

A poll taken this weekend found that 44% of Americans do not know what we are celebrating today. How is it possible that nearly half of the people who are running this country do not know the meaning of the Fourth of July? Thank God true freedom does not come from government, but from above! Only God can free us from our self-centered laziness, our ignorance, our sinfulness. May God help us and make us truly free!


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The Need to Read

“We all need literature that is above our measure–though we may not have sufficient energy for it all the time.  But the energy of youth is usually greater.  Youth needs, then, less than adulthood, what is down to its (supposed) measure. . . .Therefore do not write down to Children or to anybody.  Not even in language.  .  .  . An honest word is an honest word, and its acquaintance can only be made by meeting it in a right context.  A good vocabulary is not acquired by reading books written according to some notion of the vocabulary of one’s age-group.  It comes from reading books above one.”

The above quote is from a letter written by author J. R. R. Tolkien, a man known best for his fantasy novels.  His book The Lord of the Rings was voted by scholars as the most important book of the 20th century.  But Tolkien’s main calling in life and chief identity was as an educator and philologist.  As Professor of Anglo-Saxon and then as Professor of English Language at Oxford; as one of the writers of the Oxford English Dictionary; and as the author of a number of influential treatise on language and writing, he was one of the leading authorities in English language education in his day.  He also knew 26 other languages, not counting the ones he invented himself.  In other words, I believe he knew what he was talking about when it came to teaching children language.

It is estimated that there are nearly three quarters of a million words in the English language, and that number is growing all the time.  But studies show that even well educated people in America tend to know less than 20,000 of those words, and that the average American uses only about 2,000 words in everyday conversation.   Why is this?  English is one of the richest, most versatile languages currently in use, but we utilize only a fraction of its incredible vocabulary.  I submit two possible reasons, each related to the other.

First, we speak down to our children; and read down to them, too.  Instead of helping them to increase their vocabulary, we encourage them to use only small, “simple” words.  My question is, who decided which words would be considered “simple”?  When a child is born, he knows no words at all.  Every word is equally new to him.  And he is born hard-wired to absorb language at an incredible rate.  He can and will learn any word that is directed to him in context.  It doesn’t matter if the words have one or five syllables:  he can learn to recognize them and understand them.  I am not, of course, implying that a baby can speak complex words;  but that is a physical, not a cognitive problem, and one he will grow out of swiftly.  The child may not be able to pronounce the words, but that does not mean he cannot understand them.  The point is to use words in everyday interactions so as to introduce them in proper context.  As the child grows older, he can be encouraged to ask the meanings of the new words he encounters and can be taught to discern the meanings of unfamiliar words through the overall meaning of the sentence in which it is used.  This is equally true in verbal communication and in literature.  Reading books that stretch and exercise the child’s cognitive abilities will have the same effect on his mind that fresh air and physical activity will have on his growing body.  Unfortunately, Americans in general no longer encourage their children to read good books.  Looking through the stacks of the local library will reveal shelf-loads of drivel written for children’s consumption, all written with a certain age group in mind and an artificially curtailed vocabulary meant to suit that age group.  Americans do not speak to their children as if they were intelligent human beings.  They talk down to them as if they believe children to be subnormal or incapable of learning normal speech.

I offer an example from my own children’s lives.  I ask my friends’ indulgence, as anyone who knows me well has surely already heard this story a number of times.  But it is a perfect anecdote to illustrate my point.  When my daughter Freya was seven years old, our washing machine broke down.  We had to gather up our five or six baskets of laundry and head to nearest laundromat for what I knew would surely be an adventure encompassing the entire afternoon.  Accordingly, I brought some of Freya’s schoolwork with us so that we could pass the time in useful pursuits.  I set her up on a folding table with math problems to solve, and proceeded to fill five washing machines.  Just then, she discovered the vending machines and loudly requested a snack.  I called back to her, “Whether you get a treat is contingent upon how quickly you finish your schoolwork.”  Instantly, a middle-aged harridan swooped across the room at me and cried, “How dare you speak to that child that way?”  I was bewildered, and not a little angry!  Was this woman objecting to my withholding treats from my child?  She went on, “How do you expect the kid to understand you when you use words like ‘contingent’?  I don’t even know what that means!”  Apparently I was guilty of child abuse by using a word of more than one syllable.  Many retorts came to mind, including one that questioned her innate intelligence and another that questioned her right to insert herself into my business.  Instead, I turned to Freya and asked, “Did you understand what I meant by “contingent’?”  “Not exactly,” my seven-year-old replied, “but I figured it out from the context.”  My assaulting harridan turned red and slunk away.

Of course, my children are more intelligent than any others on earth.  But that’s besides the point.  Any child can learn to discern  the meanings of new words by placing them in context.  The best way to teach them to do this is to read good books to them.  Many Americans make the mistake of reading to their children only until they are able to read for themselves.  We must continue to read to our children until they are at least 10 or 11 years old.  And the books we read to them should be well-written and contain a vocabulary that will challenge them.  For example, I read The Lord of the Rings to my son when he was nine.  He devoured it, and before he turned ten, he was ready for The Silmarillion, a book many adults have a hard time wading through.   I believe every  eight- or nine-year-old should read, or have read to him, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, A Wrinkle in Time, and other books of the same caliber.

This brings me to the second reason I believe our working American vocabulary is so pitifully small.  Adults don’t read good books, either.  Many of the modern novels that seem to be popular have inferior vocabularies and simplified sentence structures.  Some are so badly written they are actually detrimental rather than otherwise.  Adults in America seem unable to rise to the challenge of “reading above their measure”, as Tolkien puts it.  Whether out of sheer laziness or from a shortened attention span, most Americans cannot bring themselves to read good books.  And so they impoverish themselves, satisfied with the crusts of cultural experience and deliberately avoiding the meat and potatoes, the nourishing fruits, and the rich delicacies that our amazing body of English literature freely offers anyone who desires the best.  Our children learn from this example and so grow up so starved and so ignorant of all that is available to them that they cannot see the abundance that they could possess if they would only reach out and take it.

Why is it important to increase one’s vocabulary?  Why does reading good books enrich us both mentally and spiritually?  The fact is, humans are virtually incapable of thinking about ideas for which they have no words.  A limited vocabulary means a limited ability to think and reason.  Limited reading material means limited access to ideas and experiences.  It also means having to make do with an inadequate vocabulary to try to express complex thoughts.  There is a reason there are so many synonyms in the English language; each individual word carried a slightly different shade of meaning.  To illustrate:  the other day I was sitting in on my daughter’s art lesson, and the teacher was showing them how to prepare a canvas using a wash of burnt sienna.  She objected to the use of burnt umber or raw umber, insisting on burnt sienna as the best color to use for this purpose.  Now, I would have looked at all three of these colors and called them “brown”.  However, even my unpracticed eye could detect the differences in these three shades of brown, although I could not have explained what made them different.  For an artist, however, the use of exact words to describe the exact shade of color desired helps to circumvent all manner of misunderstanding.  Can you imagine if we only had the word “brown” to describe every shade of brown?  “Now class, use your brown paint to make the wash for your canvas.  No, that brown is too orange.  It must be more yellowish.  No, that’s not quite it, either.  Less red and more black.  No, no, that was too much black.”  It could take years to rediscover the color called “burnt sienna”, with each student having to recreate it every time it was needed.  There are shades of meanings in every word we use, not just the words for colors.  If I said I had a “good” time this weekend, I would have conveyed no information whatsoever.  Did I have a pleasant time?  Or was it unpleasant but informative?  Interesting? Life-altering?  Or was it simply restful? Peaceful?  Or busy? Satisfying?  Useful?  The more words we have at our disposal, the more accurately we can convey information and the more productive our thinking will become.  We should be diligent to equip our children with a vocabulary they can use for a lifetime of thinking, speaking, and reading well.


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The State of Education in America

It seems that there was more going on this past Fourth of July than one nutty American Tory wearing a London T-shirt.  I’ve read the results of a poll taken that day of celebrants of all ages, races and genders: 26% of them did not know whom we were fighting in 1776.  Some guessed Mexico.  One guessed China! In addition, nearly 50% of those polled could not name the general who led the Continental Army in the Revolution.  One strange person thought it was Winston Churchill.  (Find this poll at http://www.mediaite.com)
Now, I don’t really put a whole lot of stock in polls.  The results can be skewed depending on the results desired.  But having had many frustrating conversations with appallingly ignorant people over the years, I’m afraid I believe this poll is near the truth.  I used to hope that the idiots interviewed for  “Jay Walk” on the Tonight Show were aberrations.  But I’m afraid they are more representative of America than one would like to believe.  Most Americans today are so poorly educated, I don’t know how we manage to function as a nation anymore.
It doesn’t seem to matter how much education a person has on paper.  My husband once had quite a time convincing a man who has a masters degree that Great Britain is part of the United Kingdom.  He had to use a map, a globe, and an on-line dictionary to get the guy to understand.  He once watched three FBI agents examine evidence taken from a suspected terrorist; they were studying a suspicious poster the girl had put in her luggage. Rich wondered what clues or codes they were looking for on it, so he stuck around to watch.  Pictured on the poster were Stalin, Lenin, Mao, and Che.  After spending a good ten minutes studying this important piece of evidence, one of the FBI agents said: “I think this one is Stalin.  I don’t know who the other guys are.”  I know a young man who is just about to graduate from college.  He not only could not name the date of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, or even the year–he was not even certain of the correct century! He has a good job all lined up for when he graduates–with the government!  I once tried, and failed, to convince another young man that the classical pianist he was listening to on his computer was not, in fact, Beethoven himself playing his own work.
Even more frightening is the attitude people take concerning their own ignorance.  They act as if it is unreasonable of anyone to expect them to know such trivia.  After all, they could always look such information up on-line if they really needed to know it.  And it’s true, they could, and they do.  And then they promptly forget the facts they gleaned as soon as they’ve made use of them.  And why not?  They could always google the information again if they needed to.  And yet, I’ll be willing to bet that these same people, who cannot list their own sitting congressmen,  could rattle off the names of “American Idol” winners without straining a bit.
They cannot seem to understand that a basic, working knowledge of history, science, math, and literature are essential to understanding our world today.  They are content to let the elite few who actually enjoy knowing things run the country and leave them free to enjoy. . . . whatever it is that they enjoy.  I can’t really guess what that might be.
But, however much this lack of factual knowledge makes one want to dig one’s hands into one’s hair and pull hard, it is not the most worrisome aspect of our dismal educational deficit in America.  Americans today do not know how to THINK.  They cannot think out a problem logically.  They cannot pursue a line of reasoning to its probable outcome.  They cannot construct a valid syllogism, or even understand what a syllogism is.  They cannot write well enough to make themselves understood. Americans today think with their emotions almost exclusively.  Read the comments on any online news item, or listen to people on talk radio or TV interview shows.  They will tell you what they feel, or they will react emotionally.  But they cannot respond with intelligent thought.  And so, here is my point: Americans are not being taught logic in schools anymore, and haven’t been for at least half a century. This has led the downward spiral in all education generally.  After all, only reasonable people can understand the importance of knowledge.
But there is hope, and I have seen it.  I have seen groups of young adults engaging in intelligent conversation, pursuing real knowledge, and enjoying such intellectual pursuits as reading, visiting museums,  going to symphonies, and browsing through book stores.  These young people can write well, crafting sentences and paragraphs with both proper grammar and proper reasoning skills.   Most of these young people were homeschooled.  Those who were not had parents who were passionately involved in their educations.  The antidote to poor education in America is parents taking responsibility for their own children’s upbringing.  It means sacrifice and lots of hard work.  It sometimes means organizing tutorials and volunteering one’s time to help one another.  It sometimes means throwing out all available curricula and writing one’s own.  But the end results are worth it: well-educated young people able to function intelligently in today’s world.


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