Saturday, February 25, 2017

Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform by Diane Ravitch

In my never-ending endeavor to be a good teacher, I am reading as many recommended education books as I can. One of these was Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform by Diane Ravitch. It was fascinating to read of the history of education in America. I think I marked up the entire book. 

As with any study of history, one of the major benefits is to know where we came from to better understand where we are going. Ravitch states, "The aim of this book is to trace the origins of America's seemingly permanent debate about school standards, curricula, and methods. In particular, it recounts the story of unrelenting attacks on the academic mission of the schools." (p. 14-15). She gives her biases away in the introduction. Unlike other historians, she argues that the progressive philosophy that took over education had an inescapable anti-intellectualism at its core. She gives credence and voice to the movements critics. The reasons these controversies matter is because once the door was opened away from a classical, liberal education, anything was possible. There was no defensible reason to say, "No" to whatever educational fad held the day. The students suffered. 

In today's environment, Ravitch asserts, "The schools must reassert their primary responsibility for the development of young people's intelligence and character. Schools must do far more than teach children 'how to learn' and 'how to look things up'; they must teach them what knowledge has the most value, how to use that knowledge, how to organize what they know, how to understand the relationship between past and present, how to tell the difference between accurate information and propaganda, and how to turn information into understanding." (p. 17)

The big changes and reforms came to education once it was decided that all children should be required to attend school. Prior to the 20th dentury, most children received some education, but few continued all the way through high school. "The aim of the [new] common school was clear: to promote sufficient learning and self-discipline so that people in a democratic society could be good citizens, read the newspapers, get a job, make their way in an individualistic and competitive society, and contribute to their community's well-being." (p. 25) No longer was education about creating a "well-souled man." 

As a higher percentage of students poured into high schools, the debate grew over what was the purpose of secondary schools. As the century dawned, the emphasis became on training for manual jobs. The schools began to try to make education useful and attractive to students. It appeared to be just the right preparation for the new Industrial Age. 

A group of educators, known as the Committee of Ten was convened to lay out the groundwork for what education should look like going forward. "The report of the Ten was a reform document. It urged colleges to admit students who had not studied the classical languages. It supported new subjects such as history, the sciences, and modern foreign language as coequal with Latin, Greek, and mathematics. It recommended active teaching methods instead of rote memorization. It endorsed the democratic idea that all students should receive a liberal education." (p. 43) 

So, the 20th century began with a commitment to a broad liberal education for every student as a democratic right. The idea was that all children would access what had only been available to the elite up to that point. But opponents soon began to attack the idea that the children of workers and farmers even needed this kind of an education. It quickly became clear that education would proceed on one of two paths. Either a broad liberal education would be offered to all or education would become differentiated based on the likely future occupations of the students. 

Progressive schools of education came into being, with the mission "to refute the assumptions of traditional education, demonstrate the inutility of teaching academic subjects, and encourage schools to replace traditional subjects with practical studies." (p. 53) "In education, the progressive movement had numerous, related aims: It sought to make the schools more practical and realistic. It sought to introduce humane methods of teaching, recognition that students learn in different ways, and attention to the health of children. It sought to commit the schools more to social welfare than to academic studies." (P. 54) In addition the educational establishment began trying to make teaching as a profession only open to highly-trained educators. Towards this end, centralized school bureaucracies and civil service systems in urban districts began. 

The movement encompassed 4 significant ideas, which together questioned why anyone should receive a solid academic education.
1. Education was a science and could be measured = standardized testing
2. The methods and ends of education could be derived from the child = child-centered education
3. The methods and ends of education should fit the needs of society = social efficiency movement
4. Schools  had a duty to reform society, changing the social order = social reconstruction movement

The latest scientific research seemed to suggest that what a student studied was irrelevant. Any subject could produce a "good thinker." Education's role was to produce an improved society and any subject studied could produce the kind of people that would reform society. It was believed that "transfer" did not occur. That is learning in one area would give students skills and knowledge to be used elsewhere. What was needed was solid vocational skills. Later this thinking would be called a "misuse of experimental evidence" and "a major scandal in the history of educational thought." (p. 69) Even so, progressives continued to attack traditional education for being "repressive," "monarchical,' "barren and repellant," and out of touch with America, producing “automatons”. 

"The various reform movements springing up had three things in common. They all discredited the ideal of a liberal and general education for all. In addition, they sought to move education into the realm of experts and away from parents and teachers. Third they all advanced the claim that "a democratic education was synonymous with a differentiated curriculum." (p. 88) Education needed to be utilitarian and testable. This new way of thinking meant that a banker's child would get a very different education than the coal miner's child, being "fitted to occupy the status of their parents." (p. 90) This led to different tracks for different children. In practice this meant that children of immigrants and the poor got put into more vocational tracks. Critics defended the desire of working people to have a full education for their children, but the experts won out. Without any examples, they claimed the "common man" was clamoring for an "efficient" education for their children.  Progressives made clear that the previous focus of education on the individual was misguided and pedagogy should be left to the experts who would work for "social harmony, social efficiency and social survival." (p. 90) 

To the educational establishment’s horror, when given a choice, students would continue to take the college preparatory, academic classes. The experts decided this could not stand. Student would be directed at the discretion of the professionals. The drop-out rates were attributed to "the absurd emphasis on ancient history, composition and algebra." (p. 103) This, despite the evidence that students tended to drop out for economic reasons. Ironically, progressives suffered from a lack of imagination at to what economic progress would actually look like. Their highly regimented educational systems assumed an unchanging society. Boxing students into a particular track highly impacted the most vulnerable - the black students. The progressives were horrified that anyone would try to teach Latin to "negro" students. 

While the Classicists recognized the threat, they did not unify to combat the new developments. They were attacked as "conservative" and against progress. Despite their claims that a true democratic outlook necessitated a liberal education for all, since one never knew where talent would manifest itself, they were shouted down. In the push to make education more democratic, education became increasingly dumbed down. Unspoken was the idea that the students were simply too stupid to benefit from a liberal, classical education. Therefore, academic subjects were adjusted and changed. "History" became "Social Studies" and the goal shifted from educating the child, satisfying his curiosity and imagination, teaching him to become a more fully realized human being, to providing relevant and useful activities designed to produce good citizens. 

Early in the century, "progressive reformers believed that the scientific movement in education had 'exploded' the theory of mental discipline and demolished the rationale for the academic curriculum. They agreed that the academic curriculum was archaic, but they did not agree on what should replace it." (p. 162) While Dewey is often credited with this movement, his "child-centered" school actually did promote particular academic subjects. His innovation was to try to make learning more fun and interactive. Yet he tolerated progressives who had a similar desire to make education child-centered, but abhorred subject matter. This new way "would unleash creativity, self-expression, and originality." (p. 194) Educators took advantage of the chaos of the Great Depression to try to reconstruct society, using children as guinea pigs. 

"In the 1920s, well before the Great Depression began, intellectuals were highly critical of American society. They looked with contempt at a society that seemed self-absorbed, narrow-minded, puritanical, repressed, materialistic, indifferent to poverty, and easily swayed by religious evangelists." (p. 202) These were the same intellectuals that sought to change our educational system. They opposed the "rugged individualism" to which most Americans held. Their real goal was to change society and education was the key. “At this point in the evolution of the progressive ideology, an important shift occurred: the radical, free-spirited individualism associated with the child-centered schools of the 1920s disappeared, replaced by calls to ‘adjust’ the individual to the requirements of collective society.” (p. 261) They watched as the Communists in Russia put their dream into reality. They loved the central planning and the devotion to experts. “The key to this shift from individualism to cooperative group living was clear: it required a de-emphasis of the academic curriculum, which stood in opposition to child-centered schools, social reconstructionism, and social conformism.” (p. 261)

Ravitch comments that, "It was odd that the Russian Revolution inspired educators to want to build new social order through the schools, because the schools in Russia had not created the Russian Revolution; nor did any of the progressive educators wonder how their own social ideals had been forged, since all of them were products of a subject-centered, traditional education." This is what I believe is the fatal flaw of progressivism. It depends on the capital of the traditions that came before it, while working to destroy those very foundations. They have no appreciation for the forces that gave them the institutions they take for granted. The irony that they supported collectivism, focused on the society over the individual, desired centrally planned economies and centrally planned education, all the while decrying the lack individuality in traditional education did not occur to them. While critics were not able to convince the educational establishment to abandon its love affair with Marxism, the results of Marxism finally did. The failures of Russia's new school system, resulting in intellectual purges in the Soviet Union, could no longer be ignored. 

Taking advantage of the disruptions caused by the Great Depression, public schools set about to revise their curriculum. With almost no pushback, "every curriculum revision project of the era echoed the rhetoric of progressive educators, declaring its intention to 'meet the needs of the whole child' and achieve 'democracy in education.' Educators agreed that the curriculum must be dynamic; that education was a continuous reconstruction of experience; that education had to embrace the total life experience of the child; that the goal of education was effective living for all; that instruction had to shift from subject matter to the child's experience; that college preparatory studies were narrow and aristocratic; that promotion and failure were anachronistic concepts; that marks and other extrinsic rewards were undemocratic." (p. 241) No one spent any time studying whether or not these good-sounding ideas actually worked. Engaging activities became the means and the ends. 

The public school system decided that elementary schools would be centers of activity, while secondary schools would emphasize lifestyle-focused curriculum. In high immigrant areas, these changes were easier to foist upon unsuspecting and unsophisticated parents with little grasp of English. “These changes…imposed on uncomprehending students and parents, were described by the principal as ‘a living object lesson in democracy,’ but in retrospect they seem more like a class-biased, racist effort to restrict educational and social opportunities.” (p. 269) Educational leaders expressed surprise at the desire of black parents to give their children a traditional academic experience. It was believed that black youth should be raised to support the status quo and not be taught to challenge it. They were to have a vocational education which would more properly “fit them for society.” “The high schools that adopted these progressive reforms became…’an enormous, complicated machine for sorting and ticketing and routing children through life,’…Because this sorting process was linked closely to race and social class…it had the effect of ‘sharpening rather than eliminating divisions along class and racial lines.’” (p. 282-283) 

After World War II, a new educational tool provided the progressives and racist alike with a "scientific" way to segregate students - the IQ test. "Mental testing was the linchpin of the scientific movement in education." (p. 130) Many devotees of intelligence testing were also supporters of eugenics. Intelligence testing gave educators a number which "could then be used to group students, define what they would learn, and determine their future vocation." (p. 139) These tests held the promise of enormous power over people's lives. It was no surprise that since immigrants and the poor were being given inferior educations, they scored lower on the tests... Therefore the progressives had justification to further block immigrants and the poor from academic educations. "The intelligence testers promoted fatalism, a rueful acceptance that achievement in school is the result of innate ability, not sustained efforts by teachers and students." (p. 161) 

It wasn’t that the critics of progressive education failed to speak up. It was simply that they were unsuccessful at pushing back on the modern orthodoxy. The times were so uncertain, that the public had little time to notice what was going on in education, and the voices for a traditional, liberal education were not heard. William Bagley, a prominent dissident, “believed that the common school in a democratic society should not decide whom to educate. And he believed that the knowledge built up by the human race over many centuries was a precious heritage that must be taught to each succeeding generation in order for progress to continue.” (p. 286) He spoke out very early against vocational education. He decried the idea of each district creating its own curriculum. “People need a fund of common knowledge so they can discuss common problems in terms that are widely understood.” (p. 287) Besides, Americas were so mobil, it made no sense to try to educate a child differently from one district to another. 

Other critics pointed out what the classicists had always known. A democratic society demands an educated population. Only despots would restrict the knowledge given to children. Russian immigrant, Michael J. Demiashkevich, “wanted the schools to ‘introduce students to the highest standards of accurate and fertile thinking, through direct or indirect contacts with the best minds of humanity, and in that way to put them on solid ground for the critical judgment of their own thinking and that of others.’ Students must be able to capitalize on accumulated human experience, to learn efficiently what others have learned slowly and painfully. It was antidemocratic, he wrote, to allow students to remain ignorant of accumulated human experience and knowledge.” (p. 292-293)

In 1930, University of Chicago President, Robert Hutchins, teamed up with Mortimer Adler to establish a “Great Books” curriculum to combat progressives insistence on abandoning academic subject matter. They ridiculed the notion that the purpose of a school was to provide real life experience. “Only the school and college could supply intellectual discipline, and if they abandoned this responsibility, no other agency would do it.” (p. 302) They were attacked by no less a progressive light than John Dewey. Hutchins attracted an extreme amount of vitriol simply for calling for the reading of Great Books. Ironically, it was the conservative critics that recognized that without a thorough understanding of the best that humanity had achieved, actual progress was not possible. “To study every problem with ‘an open and empty mind, without preconception, without knowing what has already been learned about it, must condemn men to a chronic childishness.’ … Society could be progressive only by conserving its traditions.” (p. 312)

Bagley’s colleague, Isaac Kandel, was a particularly insightful critic. “He charged that progressive education had become a hollow doctrine, empty of any intellectual vitality or moral purpose. Progressivism, wrote Kandel, celebrated change for its own sake, blithely tossing away trident and experience, leaving only a legacy of ‘nihilism and anti-intellectualism.’” (p. 319) He railed against progressive education’s “failure to confront alarming deficiencies in American education.” (p. 319) The results of their experiment were abysmal, by any metric. 

“By the end of World War II, progressivism was the reigning ideology of American education. Educators at every level of public education spoke the same pedagogical language and claimed to be implementing the very programs that progressive educators had been advocating for decades.” (p. 322) “By the end of the war… progressive education had become calcified, the property of professors of education who spoke and wrote in an obscure jargon understood only by their colleagues and students. Having set aside the earlier ideal of child-centered schooling that liberated individualism and creativity as well as  the ideal of leading a socialist revolution through the schools, all that remained was the belief the schools should adjust children to fit into their society.” (p. 326-327) Schools began to focus on life issues - dating, socialization, consumer math, home budgeting, and home economics. Students would be educated for the society as it existed and were considered unable to master the hard, academic subjects. 

“By midcentury, the public schools had become agencies dedicated to socializing students, teaching them proper attitudes and behaviors, and encouraging conformity to the norms of social life and the workplace. Educators at the national, state, and local levels who subscribed to life adjustment education thought that the schools were meeting the needs of their students and of democratic society admirably.” (p. 343) Therefore they were totally unprepared for the overwhelming backlash. “Rudolf Fleisch’s Why Johnny Can’t Read reached the national best-seller lists, where it remained for more than thirty weeks.” (p. 353) He gave voice to what society was beginning to notice. The schools were failing to actually educate students. Progressive education suddenly became a joke, progressive ideas were old and stale, and parents clamored for a return to traditional education. Then the Russians launched Sputnik and the nation’s failing educational system was fully revealed. American education simply had to return to actually educating students. 

But, along came the 60s. After decades of the schools doing what the parents should have done, and no one actually educating the children, teenagers began “living in their own society, seeking approval from one another rather than from adults, and participating in a subculture with its own language, symbols, and values… What were the values of the adolescent society?… Anti-intellectual and materialistic.” (p. 369) Decades of putting black students on certain tracks that reinforced the status quo lead to a stifled and subjugated people desperate for the liberties enjoyed by other Americans. After bruising civil rights battles, black students were finally given access previously withheld from them. “Ready or not, American schools were confronted with the necessity of educating black children from a wide variety of backgrounds, many of whom's parents had been denied a decent education.” (p. 383) 

“The upheavals of the era changed the public schools in important ways. Confronted with violence, disciplinary problems, and litigation, school officials backed away from acting in loco parentis. In an effort to reduce conflict, academic demands were minimized. Students were increasingly left to fend for themselves, without adult guidance. The withdrawal of adults from their responsibility for instructing their students had implications both for students’ behavior and for the academic coherence of the schools.” (p. 386) Faced with overwhelming problems, the educational bureaucracy turned to old ideas, dressed up as a fresh and radical. Back was the child-centered learning, experience and experimentation, gone was the idea of tests and an academic curriculum. The child should learn what the child wanted to learn. 

“The radical critics of the 1960s were legitimately angry at the appalling condition of urban schools for black children, but their rage turned into a rejection of virtually all manifestations of formal education: textbooks and tests, marks and grading, curricula and lesson plans, and knowledge itself.” (p. 391) “Freedom” was the mantra. “The progressive educators of the 1960s seemed unaware that these issues had been debated a generation earlier and asserted their quasi-religious belief that unfettered student freedom must necessarily produce a better society…. The critics expected that children left free to choose would always make wise choices and that in time the world would be a far, far better place, where racism, war, and hatred no longer existed.” (p. 393) 

Once again, parents were well aware that the schools were failing their children. In the mid to late 1970s, they pushed for more traditional schooling and accountability. The experiments on children had to end. “Donald A. Myers, part of a team that evaluated open classrooms in New York State, wrote in 1974 that ‘open education appears all but dead in America.’ It had died, he said, not only because it had not improved student achievement, because it had been oversold by yellow journalists and irresponsible evangelists. ‘The time has come in American education,’ he declared, ‘when teachers should stage a walkout when education evangelists propose innovations that have not been validated by careful research over a long period of time. Instead of being paid and applauded, these hucksters should be set packing and ‘should be thankful they are not jailed as would representatives of a pharmaceutical house for dispensing a drug before it had been tested.’ “ (p. 401)

By 1980, academic scores had plummeted, yet self-esteem had gone up. “Changes in the curriculum in pursuit of relevance accentuated narcissistic themes. Social studies courses focused on immediate personal and social issues; chronological history and civic knowledge, which required students to think about worlds larger than their own acquaintance, were relegate to minor roles in social studies departments. ‘Values clarification’ courses, which encouraged students to make their own decision about whether to use drugs or engage in other dangerous behaviors, proliferated. English became ‘English language arts,’ with more attention to self-expression and social issues than to classic literature. The study of heroes, once popular among students in search of models to emulate, fell into disfavor. In an effort to promote self-esteem and group identity, schools reduced their once-customary attention to the values of self-restraint, self-discipline, and humility.” (p. 406-407)

"By the early 1980s, there was growing concern about the quality of the nation's schools. The sustained assault on the academic curriculum in the late 1960s and early 1970s had taken its toll." (p. 408) Ronald Reagan's secretary of education produced a report titled, A Nation at Risk. "Written in stirring language that the general public could understand, the report warned that the schools had not kept pace with the changes in society and the economy and that the nation would suffer if education was not dramatically improved for all children. It also asserted that lax academic standards were correlated with lax behavioral standards and that neither should be ignored." (p. 411) Unlike earlier national commissions, this one did not find in favor of differentiated instruction, but rather held to the premise that all children can learn and are entitled to the tools necessary to develop their individuals strengths. 

Into this time of actual academic improvement came the multicultural and self-esteem movements. Both had the effect of sowing discord and possibly derailing much needed reforms. Fortunately, by the end of the 1980s, another, more beneficial movement came on the scene, standards. Initially conceived as six national goals for the year 2000, states began to construct their own goals for academic content. It started in History, long neglected under the Social Studies rubric, and then moved to English. However, it was not smooth sailing as different groups fought over what should be included. Math teachers weighed in as well, creating a set of standards with the likeliest chance to succeed. After "new math" and the reactionary "back-to-basics," the math departments needed serious reform.  The "Whole Language" versus Phonics also threatened a pursuit for unified standards in the instruction of reading. 

Eventually, "the powerful middle ground" won out. "In history, children need big thematic concepts, but they also need a solid grounding in factual knowledge, a secure scaffolding of dates, names, and events on which to build the big concepts... In mathematics, children need to engage in active problem solving , and they also need to master the basic skills of adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing in order to become successful problem solvers. In English, children need to learn the skills of correct language usage as well as have opportunities to read excellent classic and contemporary literary works and write their own compositions." (p. 450) Finally, it was acknowledged that teachers need to actually teach, not "facilitate." It appeared that after a century of "reform," education had finally found a common sense approach that might actually work. 

"If there is a lesson to be learned from the river of ink that was spilled in the education disputes of the twentieth century, it is that anything in education that is labeled a 'movement' should be avoided like the plague. What American education most needs is not more nostrums and enthusiasms but more attention to fundamental, time-tested truths. It is a fundamental truth that children need well-educated teachers who are eclectic in their methods and willing to use different strategies depending on what works best for which children. It is another fundamental truth that adults must take responsibility for  children and help them develop as good persons with worthy ideals." (p. 453) 

The three great errors demonstrated in these pages are, first, the belief that schools should be expected to solve all of society's problems; second, the belief that only a portion of children need access to a high-quality academic education; and third, the belief that schools should emphasize students' immediate experiences and minimize (or even ignore) the transmission of knowledge. 

Why did it take a century to discover the aforementioned"fundamental truths"? Ultimately, schools lost their way when they lost sight of their purpose. In 1897, John Dewey "proclaimed that the school was the primary means of social reform and the teacher was 'the prophet of the true God and the usherer in of the true kingdom of God.' " (p. 459) Once again, it appears that rejection of the actual, true God led to disaster. 



Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Having previously enjoyed reading The Devil in White City by Erik Larson, (which I read because I'm a sucker for cool covers/titles) I figured I would enjoy another book by him, Dead Wake. It's about the sinking of the Lusitania. We all know how this story ends, so it doesn't seem like it would make a compelling tale. However, he does a great job sucking the reader into his account, making the passengers and crew real people. By the time the fatal torpedo is fired, one can be forgiven for hoping it misses.

Larson looks closely into the stories of Captain Turner, many of the passengers, as well as the history and background of the German submariner who fired the blow and the counterintelligence agency monitoring his movement. All around, Larson paints the tragedy as a failure on many levels, as well as a lucky shot on the part of the Germans. So many things had to come together to kill the large bulk of the passengers, that it can be rightly described as a Perfect Storm. Some give it a darker patina, with hints that the British government wanted an attack on a passenger liner to succeed, thereby drawing America into the war. 

While he provides no details of a nefarious plot, it is clear that the ship was not protected like it should have been. It was also given no notice of a submarine in the area. Plus, the weather and instrument failure caused it to zig and zag (like it would have had it known of a sub in the area), but unfortunately, it "zagged" right into the path of the sub, setting up the perfect kill shot. 

While the sinking of the Titanic a couple of years earlier meant that the boat was equipped with enough lifeboats, many were collapsable canvas boats. The torpedo caused so much immediate damage, the ship listed dramatically to one side, thereby making efforts to launch all the lifeboats on one side impossible. 

This tragedy did not immediately lead to the entry of the United States into war. But it definitely set the stage a couple of years later. Americans remembered their dead. The rejoicing of the German's at the death of so many innocents still rankled. 

While most of us are familiar with the rough outline of this story, Larson fills it out in a fascinating way. By the end of the story your heart breaks for the dead and rejoices with the survivors. Larson definitely makes the case that the sinking was not foreordained. Many events contributed to the tragedy. Some are incompetence, some are luck, and some may have darker intentions. No matter what, the tale is harrowing.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Climbing Parnassus

I put a bunch of books on my Amazon gift list that looked interesting based on their similarity to other books. For Christmas, Tim purchase a few of the books for me. One was Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin by Tracy Lee Simmons. With a name like that and a foreword by William F. Buckley Jr., I had high hopes. Fortunately the book delivered. It really changed my thinking in some ways, which is saying a lot. Usually books simply reinforce my views. This one actually made a convincing argument to which I was previously unconvinced.

I'm beginning to learn Latin.

That's kind of big, because, seriously, who learns Latin at my age? What even is the point? Right? Well that's the power of the argument made by Simmons.

The book was written in 2000, so the ideas, while not exactly promulgated yesterday, are still current and modern concerns. He begins the introduction with an indictment of modern education. "Education, that vague and official word for what goes on in our schools, has also been a trinket on the shelves of snake oil salesmen and a plaything for social planners in America for well over a century. They too have been driven by the spirit of ceaseless innovation. And we have paid a high price. The peddlers have shrouded the higher and subtler goals of learning which former generations accepted and promoted. These bringers of the New have traded in the ancient ideal of wisdom for a spurious "adjustment" of mind, settling for fitting us with the most menial of skills needful for the world of the interchangeable part. They have decided we are less, not more, than wiser people have hoped humanity might become. We are masses to be housed and fed, not minds and souls seeking something beyond ourselves." (p. 3-4)

Quite an indictment. "Masses to be housed and fed, not minds and souls seeking something beyond ourselves." Whoa. I have often said, that to the Left, people are pets. Masses to be housed and fed - not individuals with hopes and dreams every bit as important as those of the elites who want to be in charge. Then along comes Simmons to reinforce my point. 

His solution? Classical education. This he defines as "a curriculum grounded upon — if not strictly limited to — Greek, Latin, and the study of the civilizations from which they arose." (p. 15) It is not just a study of ancient wisdom, but also the languages which these cultures employed. This is where I began to think, "Well it's good enough just to study the cultures and their writings, but obviously the languages themselves are not critical. That's why we have translations." I was fully prepared to accept most of his argument, but the actual learning of the languages was another story.

The title comes from an Ancient Greek concept of scaling the highest mountain in Greece. "Climbing Parnassus once helped to form the unformed mind. The arduous ascent fostered intellectual and aesthetic culture within those who had endured the strain." (p. 20) It's hard, but ultimately satisfying. This he compares to Classical education. By studying the ancient languages as well, the student is immersed in the aesthetic and intellectual culture.

Simmons raises the bar for the purpose of education to a very high level. "Liberal education ought to aim not just at furnishing the mind with serviceable knowledge and information, nor even at habituating the mind to rational methods, but at leading it to wisdom, to a quality of knowledge tempered by experienced and imbued with understanding. It should, in a word, humanize... Liberal education civilizes. It transforms us. We are better for having run its course." (p. 30) To be truly educated, learning must speak to both the mind and the soul. "The Western mind elevated this mighty philosophical aim into an ideal. The inner takes precedence over the outer, the mind and soul compose an inseparable whole, and both are fed or starved together. No option exists to train the mind alone without producing soul-deep consequences." (p. 50-51) 

"What was to be the result of all this strenuous philosophical effort? The wise citizen fit to govern first himself and then — and only then — to govern others. Precisely in this way does one become free through liberal learning: first, by acquiring the right habits; second, by intellectual strain, by learning to apprehend the Beautiful and the Good with the mind. And the mind then confirms what the soul has already learned. One can become intellectually powerful, of course, without those right habits, but what good is that? The object of the ancients was not a programmable raticinative machine. It was the cultured man or woman." (p. 59) This is the only kind of education that leads to free people. 

Modern education has given up on transmitting the values of Western Civilization. While "education" is held as a high value, no one can define what that means. Once a standard has been tossed, it's open season on what will replace it. And every opinion is just as valid as another. Modern education has created a well-fed, well-clothed, well-housed mob. The society is not longer convinced that its culture is worthy of survival. He quotes Robert Hutchins, who writes that a "system that denies the existence of values denies the possibility of education. Relativism, scientism, skepticism, and anti-intellectualism, the four horsemen of the philosophical apocalypse, have produced that chaos in education which will end in the disintegration of the West." (p. 42)

But why Greek and Latin? Why do those languages and eras have such an impact on education? "Whereas the Greeks had learned only Greek, the Romans went on to learn both Latin and Greek — and the pattern was set: to be fully educated, enculturated man in the Greco-Roman world on had to know both tongues." (p. 62) He goes on to argue, "Together Greek and Latin constituted a lingua franca for the educated, one that endured for well over a millennium that witnessed colossal turns in the life of the Western world. Indeed they survived the very nations to which they had once given voice. The classical language stood as a sign — and, some thought, a guarantor — of permanence." (p. 72) In 1834, when educators began to make a case for the removal of the classical languages, English headmaster Thomas Arnold stated, "Expel Greek and Latin from your schools, and you confine the views of the existing generations to themselves and their immediate predecessors; you will cut off many centuries of the world's experience, and ... place us in the same state as if the human race had come into existence in the year 1500." (p. 72) Today, it is worse. Today we are confined to an existence that began yesterday. 

Simmons goes on to describe the educational system of the early Greeks and Romans. Education began at home. Here they learned the language, their "letters," and the poets. At around age 7 they went off to Grammar school to gain a more formal knowledge of the grammar of the language through "constant, pulverizing drill and numbing recitation," (p. 74) where no adult cared about stifling the child's inner creativity. Next came the study of literature, specifically poetry. No one cared about "appreciation." It was the student's job to know the material, not to criticize it. "Here was brass tacks schooling, no-frills and rigorous, where the student was set to acquiring a body of knowledge — in this case, literary and cultural knowledge. No one bothered about what we call skills of 'critical thinking,' which came naturally to anyone successfully navigating this course of study. Critical thinking was a result, not a target, of classical education." (p. 75) "So the teaching was strict, the learning hard. But waiting at the far end of the journey would be civilized human beings, citizens who had learned what their culture was about and what it needed to conserve." (p. 80)

This form of education continued from the classical times throughout the middle ages and into the modern era. During that time, Christianity became fused with it, marrying its theology to the eternal search for the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. But widespread, mandatory education made it increasingly difficult to maintain the rigor required. And when the "War to end all Wars" erupted, idealism became a casualty. "Heroism was dead, at least for the time being, as was the ideal of the gentleman. So was 'useless' knowledge. A new world waited to be built. Time had run out for the niceties of learning the words of the dead. The prism of classics sharpened the colors of the world no longer. Tags of classical quotation began to fall on deaf, uninstructed ears." (p. 147)

In the 1930s Albert Nock began to call for a return the classical style and aims of education. But the teaching of something previously abandoned required an argument for it implementation. It was no longer taken for granted that educated people knew their Latin and Greek. The argument took two forms. The first was a cultural literacy premise. A Classical education was necessary to interact with all of Western Civilization that had come before. Others, however, took the position that a Classical education was necessary to the formation of a human soul. This second notion is the harder argument to make. It feels undemocratic to "form" human beings. It's hard to measure, and it can fall victim to the philosophy of the one who does the forming. Yet it is this argument Simmons believes is the stronger. We no longer form humans. Our society is the poorer for it.

In making the contemporary case for the study of the classics and classical languages, Simmons states, "The glorious struggle is all a part — and an indispensable part — of climbing Parnassus. Thus do we learn both to freshen and strengthen our minds so as to be worthy conduits of high thought, eloquence, and, at the very least, clarity: not bad for one minute's, one hour's, or even one lifetime's, work. We are changed by it." (p. 179) 

To point out the need to study classic languages in order to better communicate in our native tongue, Simmons references a particularly bad piece of modern writing. He points out how far we have fallen from our Classical roots. He calls today's writing "the murky, self-important lingo emanating from the lit. crit. seminar in English departments. It doesn't exist to communicate anything to the cultivated mind. It exists to confuse and impress the easily bamboozled, uneducated, fee-paying sycophants. It pretends to profundity, but it's tripe. Language like this is not hatched for civilized people." (p. 184) What an indictment!


To make the point even more clear, he quotes C.S. Lewis at length concerning the education achieved without knowledge of the classical languages. Lewis calls the dichotomy the Optative and the Parthenon. One focuses on the construction of Greek, they other on subject matter content. "When the first fails it has, at the very least, taught the boy what knowledge is like. He may decide that he doesn't care for knowledge; but he knows he doesn't care for it, and he knows he hasn't got it. But the other fails most disastrously when it most succeeds. It teaches a man to feel vaguely cultured while he remains in fact a dunce. It makes him think he is enjoying poems he can't construe. It qualifies him to review books he does not understand, and to be intellectual without intellect." (p. 188)

As the rigor and logical rules of math form the mind to think rationally and clearly, Latin and Greek "give us codes of clarity and fluency." (p. 164) Simmons goes on to argue that Latin and Greek are the best way to learn our native tongue. "Greek and Latin were so taught for so many centuries because they were not native. Their very strangeness and dissimilarity to modern languages made them a unique, irreplaceable tool of teaching for those who would comprehend the workings of language en tout. The object was to gain an understanding of words from the inside, affording the learner an intimate familiarity with their separate and diverse natures." (p. 164-165) "Any student who has invested strenuous years with Latin, both reading and writing it, will own an obvious edge with English over those who haven't. Not only has that student learned what the words mean, he has learned what they have meant; he has seen them jostling and lounging in their original habitat. They've gamboled at his feet." (p. 168) Such a fluency of language could help avoid the meaningless quarrels arising from misunderstood and misused words.

In America, we rightly revere our Founding Fathers, "when people in power did what needed to be done about as well as you can imagine its being possible." (p. 199) We cannot separate them from their Classical education. These men knew their Latin and Greek and the civilizations that produced them. "Never have so many of the wise and well-read come together to do great things; never have book learning and practical experience combined to show the ignorant and cynical forevermore what the human mind and spirit can do when properly formed. Such wisdom cannot be manufactured for the moment — nor can it be aped. It must be cultivated. And it has to come from somewhere." (p. 200) John Adams relates a time when he decided to give up his classical studies. His dad told him that he could dig ditches instead. After a few days of arduous labor, he went back to school. Later in life, he concluded that he owed all he became to that ditch. "If we wish to understand the Founding Fathers from within, we should heed one simple axiom. Don't merely read about them; read what they read — as they read it." (p. 210)

When we look at great sentences, like "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that in order to secure these rights governments are instituted among men deriving their just power from the consent of the governed..." that we can really see the majesty of their classical education. These few words contain so many large ideas, concentrated into the most melodic language, encapsulated in a single sentence. Who writes like that today? Who thinks like that? Who can boil down eternal truths, connect them together, and make the case for them like that? Today we are incapable of coming up with a similarly powerful sentiment simply because we do not have the education they had. We do not have the teachers they had. We do not have teachers with the teachers they had. Those men were able to stand on the shoulders of intellectual giants and see farther because they had been bequeathed a magnificent heritage, stretching back to and encompassing the best that humanity had to offer from the previous eons. At best, we can at least start the process. But, at best we are 100 years or more from producing anything like our Founding Fathers. 

The Classics deserve a standing "beyond use." We cannot know what a child will become. "We cannot know early on what kinds of minds and souls are waiting to develop amongst the young we teach. Not all of them may be fit as lawyers, surgeons, or software salesmen; greatness of other kinds may lie ahead for some — if only they be given the climbing gear early enough so as to help them make their own way. The impact of knowledge is impossible to predict. But this we can know: Ignorance is no asset, and the empty, formless mind is surely a positive liability. Few qualities can be more useful whatever one's future may hold, than the fortified mind." (p. 213-214)

In making the final argument for the Classics, Simmons points to classically educated authors Eliot, Auden, and Lewis. " 'To lose what I owe to Plato and Aristotle would be like the amputation of a limb,' Lewis said. 'Hardly any lawful price would seem to me too high for what I have gained by being made to learn Latin and Greek.' " (p. 223)  To compare the loss of anything to losing a limb strikes me as the ultimate endorsement. That simply cannot be said for anything in education today.

"English essayist William Hazlitt wrote that it is hard to find within people formed intellectually by means other than a classical education 'either a real love of excellence, or a belief that any excellence exists superior to their own. Everything is brought down to the vulgar level of their own ideas and pursuits.' ... An education saturating anyone in these great works of the classical past cannot help but enhance the minds and hearts of those enduring it. Our horizons broaden. We not only learn of principles discovered two or three millennia ago, we begin to grasp them. We become bigger, more tolerant, more generous. We grow up." (p. 228)

He continues to make a very strong case until the end of the book.

He convinced me. 

But the most persuasive argument was simply writing this summary. I found it better to quote him time and again because what he wrote was so succinct and perfectly encapsulated his thought. The clarity of his writing became even more clear in trying to summarize it. In short, I really couldn't. I could have quoted the entire book and just about did. 

I want to be that kind of writer.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The First Hostage by Joel Rosenberg

I enjoy Joel Rosenberg's books. I've read just about all of his fiction, as well as most of his non-fiction.  He came to my attention when he was noted for writing fiction seemingly "ripped from the headlines." He explained that the secret to his success was simply Scipture. He was following the prophecies and giving them a modern "what if?..."

While his books are interesting, they are not particularly examples of classical literature. They are fast food. This particular book, The First Hostage, is the second in a series of J.B. Collins novels. J.B. Is a hard-boiled reporter on assignment covering a peace conference in the Middle East. When the president disappears at the end of the last book, The Third Target, J.B. is right in the thick of the action.

He is with the King of Jordan, providing a witness as history unfolds. Eventually it becomes clear that the President has been taken hostage by ISIS. The forces of peace have only a couple of days to find him and save his life.

The book is exciting, but predictable. All ends well. J.B. is moving closer to giving his life to the Lord at the urging of his brother. J.B. looks to be getting the girl. Of course it doesn't really end. Like most serialized stories, this one awaits a sequel.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Lord of the Flies by William Golding begins in media res with an unnamed, insecure, overweight and bespectacled boy finding another, older, confident peer, Ralph, as they stumble on the shore of the deserted island upon which they find themselves. Eventually our anonymous child lets slip that others have mocked him with the name of “Piggy.” Of course, in the manner of cruel boys, Ralph proceeds to call him the hated nickname. Eventually they find other boys, similarly abandoned to their fate. It is not made explicitly clear, but they seem to be the survivors of a plane crash. Jack arrives on the scene leading a band of choir boys who sing angelically as they approach the group. A small pissing contest ensues as Ralph and Jack determine the pecking order. Eventually an exploration of the island commences, and the boys discover they are truly alone.

With Ralph the recognized leader, he begins to organize the fledgling society. They find a large conch shell. Piggy suggest that possession of the conch will confer the power to speak at the rowdy meetings. It is determined that a large fire will be needed to send up constant smoke signals to lead rescuers to their location. Piggy’s glasses are used to start the fire. But the budding civilization is marred by rumors of a snake in the camp and potentially missing young boys. 

As can be predicted, progress on creating a civilized society proceeds in starts and stops. Ralph and Piggy work to get the structures built. Jack takes some of his boys off to hunt the feral pigs roaming the island. He becomes increasingly frustrated at his lack of success. The fire is neglected, and in the chaos, a young boy named Simon wanders off on his own.

Eventually a ship is spotted off the horizon. Yet in his lust for the kill, Jack has let the fire go out. In order to start another one, he viciously attacks Piggy, breaking one lens of the treasured glasses in the process. For complaining about his treatment, Piggy is denied the meat that Jack has finally procured and is sharing with the group. Ralph’s attempts to reinstate order and restart the fire-tending duties falter as the group becomes obsessed with rumors of a beast roaming the island.

Ralph and Jack try to determine once and for all if a beast is actually stalking them and turn up nothing. Meanwhile, Simon, in his wanderings has started to slowly lose touch with reality. This is becoming a common malady. Jack, with his obsession for killing pigs, has implemented a tribal mentality within his followers, complete with war paint and nakedness. In a bloody ceremony, they take a newly slaughtered pig’s head and post it on a stick, all paying homage to the “Lord of the Flies.”

Simon discovers the “beast” is actually a long-dead parachuter. Half-mad from his time spent alone in the jungle with the Lord of the Flies, he rushes to tell the others of his discovery. In the middle of their own power play, Jack has his tribe violently dancing, chanting, “Kill the beast.” While Ralph and Piggy helplessly look on, the group pounces on the unrecognizable, advancing Simon, slaughtering him like a pig.

The power quickly shifts to Jack as his groups seeks to rout out any others they feel are insufficiently devoted to their cause. Ralph and Piggy make up an increasingly small group as Jack’s triumphant boasts about his ability to feed them siphons even the most loyal away. Needing Piggy’s glasses to start a fire to cook their meat, they beat him up and go after Ralph as well. Eventually the barbarian tribe throws Piggy from a cliff and hunts down Ralph, wounding him. They take the twins, Samaneric, hostage, and lose all resemblance to a civilized group. 

In their zeal, they set the island on fire, trying to smoke out Ralph. The large conflagration attracts the attention of a nearby British cruiser. As the captain alights upon the shore he sees Ralph running towards him, being chased by Jack and his tribe. After remarking that the boys seem to be having a bit of fun, Ralph collapses before him into a sobbing mess. 

Golding, in a later interview, states that the purpose of the novel “is an attempt to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature. The moral is that the shape of a society must depend on the ethical nature of the individual and not on any political system however apparently logical or respectable.” (p. 204) As such, he tries to present a realistic scenario of human nature left alone to its own devices. He uses children and boys to negate the effects of a lifetime of civilizing and the tension that would exist between the sexes. He is trying to show civilization stripped of all of its supporting structures. 

He contrasts Ralph and Jack to show us two competing visions of society. On the one hand is Ralph, trying valiantly to preserve the vestiges of civilization. Opposing him is Jack. Jack is introduced to us a literal choir boy. But in his quest for power, he quickly devolves into a barbarian. 

We see the struggle in an exchange the boys engage in over whose turn it is to speak, since Piggy has the conch and Jack is interrupting. “‘The rules!’ shouted Ralph. ‘You're breaking the rules!’
‘Who cares?’
Ralph summoned his wits.
‘Because the rules are the only thing we’ve got!’
But Jack was shouting against him.
‘Bollocks to the rules! We’re strong —we hunt!’”

Ralph tries to implement order through the use of the conch and modesty through the maintaining of a shirt when most others have stripped down. Ralph’s is ultimately a losing battle. He barely escapes with his life. Piggy represents the voice of reason that is rejected and destroyed because it comes in an unattractive package. 

The story is told by an omniscient narrator, in long winded, descriptive sentences, punctuated by short bursts of dialogue. This contrasts the island as a “character” in the story, unrelenting, disinterested, beautiful, yet deadly, and existing long before the boys arrive, existing long after they leave, to the immature and childish boys. In short, they never had a chance. Nature and human nature conspire against civilization. Even the civilized forces that pick the boys up at the end are part of a military that is traveling around the world to annihilate the enemy. They are grown up Jacks. In this way, the story doesn’t so much end as shift to another setting. 

I sympathize with Ralph throughout most of the story. Although he starts off a bratty boy, taunting Piggy and doing his best to make Piggy feel insignificant, in his quest to maintain order, he comes to value Piggy and his opinions. Jack scares me. He scares me because he is us. He is so terrifying because Golding is exactly right that the forces of the barbarian will dominate the forces of civilization if left to their own devices. 

As to the question of the human condition, Golding definitely makes the argument that human nature is violent and tribalistic, but we have managed to dress it up in “civilized” institutions. I disagree somewhat. While our nature remains violent and tribal, those maligned institutions help channel it in a more productive manner. They keep us from becoming wholly Jack. They may cover up the real nature, but getting that real nature under some sort of control is a worthy goal. I believe that writing, as he did, after World War II definitely colored his thesis. He brooks no argument in clearly making the case that mankind is, at its core, barbaric. Reason cannot exist long in this world.