Friday, April 30, 2010

Published in France, by the Jesuits

I have posted before about George Washington's Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation. I came across a text by Francis Hawkins printed in England in the 1640's which was in turn his translation from a text in France printed in 1595. The strong similarities to Washington's practice piece led me searching and found this piece by Charles Moore in 1926 that provides the background. The nub of the logo-genealogy is:
Here, then, is the conclusion of the whole matter as it now stands: The Rules of Civility were composed originally, or compiled, and published in France, by the Jesuits, about 1595; they were translated into English by Francis Hawkins about 1640, and passed through no fewer than eleven editions down to 1672. From the Hawkins book the one hundred and ten Rules written by Washington were selected, simplified and arranged by some person at present unknown. One copy came into the hands of George Washington, who from it wrote out the manuscript that is among the Washington Papers purchased: from the family by Congress in 1834 and 1849, and held in the Department of State until 1903, when they were transferred to the Library of Congress.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The road to education lay through great books

Here is a site with a wealth of quotations from Robert M. Hutchins' seminal essay that served as the introduction to the great University of Chicago venture, Great Books of the Western World. Here also is an essay, Learning for Everyone, by Robert M. Landers prviding some context for the origin of the Great Books project.

I am not much of a fan of the chicken little, the sky is falling, form of alarmism. It is also worth noting that Hutchins's essay was written in 1952, fifty-eight years ago, and I think it would be hard to argue that the US and US culture plays a significantly less pivotal global role today or that we are materially less financially privileged than we were in 1952. Indeed, perhaps the reverse. Directly and indirectly, the world looks more shaped in the mold of western traditional enlightenment ideas today than it did in 1952. While I think that the degree of alarm expressed in the essay is wrong, I instinctively feel there is some merit to Hutchins' underlying argument - that the ideas of the enlightenment in particular and Western civilization in general are constantly under assault and we are remiss if we underestimate just how critical they are to our continued progress and development.

Here are a few of the juicier snippets from Hutchins' essay, The Great Conversation: The Substance of a Liberal Education.

"Until lately the West has regarded it as self-evident that the road to education lay through great books." p. xi

" in the West has been steadily deteriorating; the rising generation has been deprived of its birthright; the mess of pottage it has received in exchange [for the great books] has not been nutritious; adults have come to lead lives comparatively rich in material comforts and very poor in moral, intellectual, and spiritual tone." p. xiii

"The reiteration of slogans, the distortion of the news, the great storm of propaganda that beats upon the citizen twenty-four hours a day all his life long mean either that democracy must fall a prey to the loudest and most persistent propagandists or that the people must save themselves by strengthening their minds so that they can appraise the issues for themselves." p. xiii

"...the idea that liberal education is the education that everybody ought to have, and that the best way to a liberal education in the West is through the greatest works the West has produced, is still, in our view, the best educational idea there is." p. xiv

"...we believe that the obligation rests on all of us, uneducated, miseducated, and educated alike, to [go on educating ourselves all our lives]." p. xv

Quoting Sir Richard Livingstone: "We are tied down, all our days and for the greater part of our days, to the commonplace. That is where contact with great thinkers, great literature helps. In their company we are still in the ordinary world, but it is the ordinary world transfigured and seen through the eyes of wisdom and genius. And some of their vision becomes our own." p. 2-3

"...the task of the future is the creation of a community. Community seems to depend on communication.... The effectiveness of modern communication in promoting a community depends on whether there is something intelligible and human to communicate. This, in turn, depends on a common language, a common stock of ideas, and common human standards. These the Great Conversation affords." p. 30

"[the great books] afford us the best examples of man's efforts to seek the truth, both about the nature of things and about human conduct, by methods other than those of experimental science; and because these examples are presented in the context of equally striking examples of man's efforts to learn by experiment or the method of empirical science, the great books provide us with the best materials for judging whether the experimental method is or is not the only acceptable method of inquiry into all things." p. 37-38

"What is here proposed is interminable liberal education. Even if the individual has the best possible liberal education in youth, interminable education through great books and the liberal arts remains his obligation; he cannot expect to store up an education in childhood that will last all his life. What he can do in youth is to acquire the disciplines and habits that will make it possible for him to continue to educate himself all his life. One must agree with John Dewey in this: that continued growth is essential to intellectual life.

"The twin aims that have animated mankind since the dawn of history are the conquest of nature and the conquest of drudgery. Now they seem in a fair way to be achieved. And the achievement seems destined, at the same time, to end in the trivialization of life. It is impossible to believe that men can long be satisfied with the kind of recreations that now occupy the bulk of their free time. After all, they are men. Man, though an animal, is not all animal. He is rational, and he cannot live by animal gratifications alone; still less by amusements that animals have too much sense to indulge in. A man must use his mind; he must feel that he is doing something that will develop his highest powers and contribute to the development of his fellow men, or he will cease to be a man.

"The trials of the citizen now surpass anything that previous generations ever knew. Private and public propaganda beats upon him from morning till night all his life long. If independent judgment is the sine qua non of effective citizenship in a democracy, then it must be admitted that such judgment is harder to maintain now than it ever has been before. It is too much to hope that a strong dose of education in childhood and youth can inoculate a man to withstand the onslaughts of his independent judgment that society conducts, or allows to be conducted, against him every day. For this, constant mental alertness and mental growth are required." p. 52-53

"The only civilization in which a free man would be willing to live is one that conceives of history as one long conversation leading to clarification and understanding." p. 58

"Yet there will not be much argument against the proposition that, on the whole, reasonable and intelligent people, even if they confront aggressively unreasonable or stupid people, have a better chance of attaining their end, which in this case is peace, than if they are themselves unreasonable and stupid. They may even be able by their example to help their opponents to become more reasonable and less stupid." p. 59

"The Great Conversation symbolizes that Civilization of the Dialogue which is the only civilization in which a free man would care to live. It promotes the realization of that civilization here and now. This set of books is organized on the principle of attaining clarification and understanding of the most important issues, as stated by the greatest writers of the West, through continuous discussion. Its object is to project the Great Conversation into the future and to have everybody participate in it. The community toward which it is hoped that these books may contribute is the community of free minds." p. 60

"The question for you is only whether you can ever understand these books well enough to participate in the Great Conversation, not whether you can understand them well enough to end it. And the answer is that you can never know until you try. We have built up around the 'classics' such an atmosphere of pedantry, we have left them so long to the scholarly dissectors, that we think of them as incomprehensible to the ordinary man to whom they were originally addressed. At the same time our education has undergone so drastic a process of dilution that we are ill-equipped, even after graduation from a respectable college, to tackle anything much above the level of the comic book.

"The decay of education in the West, which is felt most profoundly in America, undoubtedly makes the task of understanding these books more difficult than it was for earlier generations. In fact my observation leads me to the horrid suspicion that these books are easier for people who have had no formal education than they are for those who have acquired that combination of misinformation, unphilosophy, and slipshod habits that is the usual result of the most elaborate and expensive institutional education in America." p. 77

"Do you need a liberal education? We say that it is unpatriotic not to read these books. You may reply that you are patriotic enough without them. We say that you are gravely cramping your human possibilities if you do not read these books. You may answer that you have troubles enough already.

"This answer is the one that Ortega attacks in The Revolt of the Masses. It assumes that we can leave all intellectual activity, and all political responsibility, to somebody else and live our lives as vegetable beneficiaries of the moral and intellectual virtue of other men. The trouble with this assumption is that, whereas it was once possible, and even compulsory, for the bulk of mankind, such indulgence now, on the part of anybody, endangers the whole community. It is now necessary for everybody to try to live, as Ortega says, 'at the height of his times.' The democratic enterprise is imperiled if any one of us says, 'I do not have to try to think for myself, or make the most of myself, or become a citizen of the world republic of learning.' The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment." p. 80

Quoting Thomas Jefferson: "I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education." p. 81-82

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The usual transmogrification

From The Murder Room by P.D. James.

Mrs. Faraday's house was the eighth in a mid-nineteenth century terrace on the south side of an Islington square. The houses, no doubt built originally for the superior working class, must have gone through the usual transmogrification of rising rents, neglect, war damage and multi-occupancy, but had long been taken over by those of the middle class who valued proximity to the City, the nearness of good restaurants and the Almeida Theatre, and the satisfaction of proclaiming that they lived in an interesting, socially and ethnically diverse community. From the number of window grilles and burglar alarm systems, it was apparent that the occupants had protected themselves against any unwelcome manifestation of this rich diversity.

Auld lang syne

I have never been a particular fan of Robert Burns; but never say never. I think one of the lessons any enthusiastic reader soon picks up on is that there is a time and season for just about everything and just because you haven't taken to a particular work or author doesn't mean you never will.

The one piece of Burnsiana that has stuck with me is his poem Auld Lang Syne, sung at the changing of the year and other occasions of passing. Of course my fondness for it is in part that rich bank of associations which it evokes; friends and family and parties of years past. There was also, and frankly still is, a fascination with the almost otherworldliness of the language. Phrases you feel you ought to know and understand but don't quite.

I came across this passage in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods which captures a little bit of that other-wordliness frontier of the poem, the boundary between the here-and-now and the tapestry of the past. A little bit of that feeling as a small child when you stayed up with your parents as they visited with friends, drifting softly into that half-world of eyes closed but ears open, ebbing into sleep with the sound of laughter occassionally intruding.
When the fiddle had stopped singing Laura called out softly, "What are days of auld lang syne, Pa?"

"They are the days of a long time ago, Laura," Pa said. "Go to sleep, now."

But Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa's fiddle softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods. She looked at Pa sitting on the bench by the hearth, the firelight gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle. She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting.

She thought to herself, "This is now."

She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Children's books as present in libraries

The Online Computer Library Center is an organization helping link libraries and members together and to the vast repository of knowledge sitting on shelves. They did a study in 2005, identifying the 1,000 most commonly held titles in all their member organizations. I have identified all those on that list of 1,000 which are either explicitly children's books (such as Goodnight Moon) as well as those that are frequently read by children before they graduate high school even if they might nominally be adult books (Catcher in the Rye or Slaughterhouse Five for example). I have also included adult books which are frequently abridged and read by children such as the Odyssey, Iliad, some of the more popular Shakespeare plays, Pilgrim's Progress and the like.

Of the 1,000 most commonly held titles, the Bible is, not unexpectedly, the most commonly held book amongst all libraries, with more than twice as many libraries holding it over the next most commonly held book which is, intriguingly, the US Census. Mother Goose is the third most commonly held book.

This is an interesting list because it reflects both what librarians think ought to be in a library as well as, presumably, what is being demanded. It would be interesting to see the circulation numbers for these titles. I assume that in any given year the top of the charts would be dominated by whatever was being promoted by publishers that year, or had become a fad or was in the process of being made into a movie. Over a decade though, I suspect that the cumulative circs would generate a list very close to what follows.

Another observation; children's books represent 29% of the total titles on the list. However, when you look at the number of copies held by the libraries, children's books come in at 52% of all the books cited (59% if you exclude the Bible from the base).

Following are the twenty-five top children's books:
Mother Goose
Odyssey by Homer
Iliad by Homer
Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore

Garfield by Jim Davis
Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

Aesop's Fables by Aesop

Arabian Nights

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
King Lear by William Shakespeare
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Other members on the list include Wizard of Oz (#54), Little Women (#62), Peanuts (#69), and Goodnight Moon (#363). Let me know if you are interested in seeing the whole list.

The more things change, the more they stay the same

When Good Guys Lie: Misleading the public is no way to make the world a better place - baseless, alarmist statistics in publicizing social concerns in the Washington Monthly, February 1997 by Glenn Hodges. An evergreen article if ever there were one. Look at the date - 1997.

Hodges's thesis is that one's argument for any issue is undermined to the extent that that argument is based on false data or falsely presented data and that too many advocates, in their enthusiasm for their cause, seize on exciting or startling statistics which on subsequent investigation turn our to be false or misleading. I couldn't agree more with his argument. We too often make arguments based on enthusiasms and feelings rather than on the facts. If the data are not there or are not reliable, then it becomes clear that the argument is one of belief and faith and not of demonstrable fact. That clarity has value.

This relates to reading because we have so little clarity as to the true nature of the challenges we face. We have many enthused reading advocates who seize on the thinnest of straws to make arguments that fly in the face of reality and thereby undermine addressing the real issues. In our report, Growing a Reading Culture, we have attempted to bring some clarity regarding what are the real facts about reading and what parents can do to create an effective reading environment.

Glenn Hodges illuminates a series of statistically fallacious fads and frenzies from the past thirty years ranging from the 1980's paranoia about kidnapping to the 1990's alarms about banned books in schools (an alarmism that persists to this day independent of the actual numbers). It is not that that these aren't serious issues requiring vigilance, but if we are not to lose all focus, we must accurately understand the relative prevalence of the issue.

Of particular note is Hodges's comment, now so prescient, of some of the early global alarmism. Despite being written thirteen years ago, the revelations from the East Anglia University Climate group and the errors riddling the IPCC report now look almost inevitable given Hodges's description of the dynamics of the debate.
Crusaders who withhold the whole truth, mislead, lead exaggerate often unwittingly strengthen their opposition and weaken their own cause, especially when they're claiming the moral high ground. No one seems more prone to this than environmentalists, and it's on the biggest and most contentious issues that the problem is most pronounced. The worst-case scenarios for global warming and overpopulation, for instance, foretell changes so catastrophic that most other concerns would be rendered virtually moot. Some people, looking at those high stakes, throw caution to the wind and use everything in their arsenal, no matter how loosely tethered to scientific data, to get people's attention and force action.

On a 99-degree day in June 1988, as the nation sweltered through the latest hot, dry summer in a decade of record high-temperature years, climatologist James Hansen appeared before Congress and proclaimed that he was 99 percent certain the earth was in the midst of man-induced global warming. "It's time to stop waffling so much and say that the greenhouse effect is here and is affecting our climate now," Hansen told reporters that day. Newspapers had a field day, and Hansen's colleagues had conniptions. After all, concern over global warming was barely a decade in the making, and 10 years of high temperatures do not a climate change make. "The variability of climate from decade to decade is monstrous," oceanographer Tim Barnett told Science in 1989. "To say that we've seen the greenhouse signal is ridiculous "

Most climatologists believed there just wasn't enough data to make a conclusive judgment. Only a decade earlier, after 30 years of relatively cool temperatures, climatologists feared we might be entering a new ice age. Though there was certainly reason to believe in 1988 that global warming was a real possibility, even a probability - atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, had increased 25 percent since the 19th century - there was no way of knowing yet whether the higher temperatures of the '80s were a trend or a statistical blip.

Even Stephen Schneider, a Stanford climatologist who has been at the forefront of the push for action against global warming, thought Hansen made a mistake by overstating the case. While Hansen's assertions got the attention of the public and Congress, "there was a risk of severe credibility loss for climatology if nature rolled a cold, wet summer or two soon, and this was quite possible," Schneider wrote in his 1990 book, Global Warming. Meanwhile, the '90s have seen some record-hot years (notably 1990,1991 and 1995), but it's also had some cooler ones. 1992 and 1993 were cooled by sunlight-reflecting particles from the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines, and 1996 is looking to go down as a relatively cool year too. None of this is inconsistent with global warming models, but in bringing scrutiny to individual years instead of a longer-term pattern, Hansen risked confusing the public over the issue; he also "gave ammunition to his detractors," as Schneider wrote, a take that is shared by many, including MIT atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel.

In another section, Hodges tackles the issue of how efforts to suppress books is represented in the press. This continues to be an issue of huge misconception (as highlighted in this blog post from last year, Burying the Lede).

Every fall People for the American Way releases a report called "Attacks on the Freedom to Learn," which purports to highlight the growing problem of censorship in America's public schools. In tandem with the American Library Association's "Banned Books Week," PFAW is the source of scores of news stories on how closed-minded parents and religious zealots are targeting our best literature - Of Mice and Men, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Catcher in the Rye - for elimination from public school libraries and reading lists. PFAW's press release this fall exclaimed that "Public education weathered a recordbreaking 475 attacks on curricula, library and textbooks, student expression, and other components of public education in the 1995-96 school year."

But what PFAW classifies as an incident of "attempted censorship" is a single complaint, usually from a parent, who in many cases thinks a certain book is inappropriate for his or her child's age group. Most of the books PFAW describes as threatened have had no more than a half-dozen complaints nationwide, and it's not necessarily the classics that are drawing the most ire.

In the 1994-1995 school year, according to PFAW's 1995 report, the two most frequently challenged books in US. schools were Alvin Schwam's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark Scary and More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, which include tales like "Wonderful Sausage," about a butcher who gets such culinary raves for his ground-up wife that he embarks on a town-wide sausage-making rampage, collecting children and, for good measure, "their kittens and puppies." But the report's 30-page introduction, which winds up being the main source for news stories, makes no mention of Schwartzs books. Meanwhile, Of Mice and Men and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings get four mentions each. It's a classic bait-and-switch. When you think of censorship, you don't imagine a university professor complaining that his first-grader is too young to read stories about murder and dismemberment.

Distorting the debate over what is or isn't suitable reading material for children certainly has its repercussions repercussions, but the most tangible consequence is probably extra checks from direct mail solicitations (PFAW's annual "censorship" report is a fundraising centerpiece). When social science research uses the same tactics, however, the consequences can be much more serious.

So - interesting article, interesting how prescient some of Hodges's comments are and interesting that, for all that Alvin Schwartz's stories (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and Scary Stories 3) might have drawn a few harsh complaints, they have stood the test of time well and are frequently mentioned as favorite books among young boys today.

Monday, April 26, 2010

History as defined by Ambrose Bierce

HISTORY, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.
Of Roman history, great Niebuhr's shown
'Tis nine-tenths lying. Faith, I wish 'twere known,
Ere we accept great Niebuhr as a guide,
Wherein he blundered and how much he lied.

Salder Bupp

From The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

This Is Just To Say

I keep coming across this in the past three months, having never seen or heard of it before.
This Is Just To Say
by William Carlos Williams

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Meaningfulness and Mortality

An essay by Max More, Meaningfulness and Mortality.
There is no guarantee of being engaged with life, but ennui has to do with laziness rather than the availability of too much time.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Mysterious and unfamiliar

From The Murder Room by P.D. James.
For her the museum after five became mysterious and unfamiliar, as public places often do when everyone human has departed and silence, like an ominous and alien spirit, steals in to take possession of the night hours.

To wryte and to rede well

From "A booke in Englysh metre, of the great Marchaunt man called Diues Pragmaticus, very preaty for children to rede" published in 1563.
Honest myrth in measure, is a pleasaunt thyng,
To wryte and to rede well, be gyftes of learnyng:
Remember this well, all you that be young,
Exercise vertue, and rule well your toung.

The Neglected Books Page

A wonderful site to visit and browse in. Not children's books but, as the name suggests, a wonderful compilation of books unjustly neglected. The Neglected Books Page.

If wishes were horses . . .

April 15, 2010 in the New York Times, an article by Carol Pogash, Charter Extension Denied to Low-Scoring Stanford School paired with a slightly more critical article, April 24, 2010 in Pajamas Media by Joanne Jacobs, A Model School Flops.

Clearly this is in part news because of an element of intellectual schadenfreude and because it plays to a not uncommon cultural stereotype: Those unworldly academics just don't know how the real world works. Still, kudos to Stanford for making the effort to trial their ideas. I believe that one of the enormous strengths of the US is its federal system of governance which enables such enormous latitude to experiment. Had this worked, the kids would be advantaged and the basis for broader improvements would have been laid. Given that it did not work, the kids are somewhat more disadvantaged than they were (even in the wretched schools they were in they would have made better progress), but there are lessons to be learned (or in some cases confirmed once again).

What I take away from these articles is the confirmation of what seems to be continually being proved but which we seem to refuse to acknowledge - poor performance is primarily a function of culture. In this case, a school with plenty of money and investments in state of the art facilities, enthusiastic and committed teachers (though it is not clear that they were experienced teachers which might be a contributor to the poor outcomes), extensive environmental support (foundations, Stanford University, etc.), and progressive pedagogical thinking was not only not able to materially improve results but actually produced worse results in terms of measurable academic achievements than had the children remained in the sub-performing schools they had been in.

As the articles make clear, the conclusion is not that the students are incapable of being helped - other charter schools drawing from the same population pool and focused on objective academic achievements actually did achieve improvements. But none of them were achieving the sorts of absolute outcomes necessary for success in a modern society. Clearly the resources thrown at the problem and the approaches taken can either make the problem somewhat better or worse but neither resources or approaches (at least with these evidence points) are either necessary or sufficient to achieve the desired outcomes.

The bullet I believe we have to bite, if we are to achieve the absolute goals of specific academic outcomes, is that schools cannot solve the achievement level deficits unless the issue of the culture from which children come is also addressed. This is an extremely delicate and potentially contentious issue, and one that is easily manipulated and abused, but, I suspect, the thorn we will have to eventually grasp if we are to really open up opportunity to all our children. (Oh dear, a metaphor attack.)

It is easy to mock Stanford and the East Palo Alto Academy's goals for making their children "global citizens" when they can't even teach them to read or do mathematics at grade level. It is also easy to read into some of the statements a misplaced set of priorities:
"It's a risky business," Dr. Stipek, said before the meeting. "We rolled up our sleeves and opened a school in a financially and socially-challenged environment so that we could prepare teachers and leaders for the real challenges they will face."

It is not unfair to ask, was the goal to teach children or prepare teachers?

It is also easy to see some of the sponsors as dissociated from reality:
Ms. Darling-Hammond - who told the board that the school "takes all kids" and changes their "trajectory" - was angered by the state's categorization of the charter as a persistently worst-performing school. "It is not the most accurate measure of student achievement," she said, "particularly if you have new English language learners."

If the school is in the persistently worst-performing category, you better have a clear argument that the measures that put you there are not related to real-world outcomes. There is no such argument reported in the articles. This smacks of Daniel Patrick Moynihan's adage "You are entitled to your own opinion, you are not entitled to your own facts."

At least one participant gets part way to the right conclusion:
"Maybe this demonstrates that schools alone cannot solve the very deep problems kids bring to school," said Diane Ravitch, the education scholar and historian. "You cannot assume that schools alone can raise achievement scores without addressing the issues of poverty, of homelessness and shattered families."

I think the part about not expecting schools alone to raise achievement scores is right. The still questionable part is whether you have to address the underlying poverty, homelessness and shattered families. Clearly there is an element of truth but it is not the complete truth or even sufficient truth. We have too many instances of impoverished emigres from Africa and Asia coming to our public schools and achieving astonishing results to accept that impoverishment and homelessness alone are the causative agents for poor performance. From the article it is apparent that the school was undertaking efforts to mitigate some of these issues:
High school students have one teacher/adviser who checks that homework is done, and when it is not, the teacher calls home. Teachers know students' families and help with issues as varied as buying a bagel before an exam to helping an evicted family find a home.

And still they could not move out of the bottom 20% of schools in terms of performance. Actually, most recently, the bottom 5% of schools.

So what do we learn? I think that among the lessons are:
1) Good intentions alone are insufficient.
2) Money and resources alone are insufficient.
3) Numbers can deceive but they do not lie. If you are making incremental improvements but after nine years are still in the bottom 5%, something is not working.
4) Focusing on objective results that are at least marginally predictive of later success is better than focusing on subjective results that have no correlation to success.

A noble experiment that reminds one of the old, old adage: If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. As King Canute knew and his court unsuccessfully denied, the world has its own reality that we would be best to address rather than wishing it were different.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Define: yestreen

From Jeeves in the Morning (Audio)by P.G. Wodehouse.
It has been well said of Bertram Wooster by those who enjoy his close acquaintance that if there is one quality more than another that distinguishes him, it is his ability to keep the lip stiff and upper and make the best of things. Though crushed to earth, as the expression is, he rises again - not absolutely in mid-season form, perhaps, but perkier than you would expect and with an eye alert for silver linings.

Waking next morning to another day and thumbing the bell for the cup of tea, I found myself, though still viewing the future with concern, considerably less down among the wines and spirits than I had been yestreen.

From the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

Main Entry: yes·treen
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English (Scots) yistrevin, from yisterday + evin evening, alteration of Middle English even
Date: 1773
chiefly Scottish : last evening or night
- yestreen adverb

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Define: Accidie

From The Murder Room by P.D. James.
Wasn't accidie, that lethargy of the spirit, one of the deadly sins?

From Merriam-Webster Dictionary:
Main Entry: ac·cid·ie
Function: noun
Date: 13th century

Main Entry: ace·dia
Function: noun
Etymology: Late Latin, from Greek akedeia, from a- + kedos care, grief - more at hate
Date: 1607

That George Orwell

Sometimes a writer just keeps popping up. I seem to have encountered old George a lot lately. Most recently I have come across this little essay of his, Books vs. Cigarettes, in which he compares his expenditure on books in a year against what he spends on other, optional, past times and indulgences, specifically drinking and smoking.

The government now does this for us. The Bureau of Labor Statistics or some such department gathers all sorts of interesting information including where we spend our money. My recollection is that the last time I looked the average US household spent something on the order of $35 a year on books. Given that half the adult population reads no books (electively) in a given year we could double that to represent what the reading population spends on books. Double again and round to cover magazines, newspapers, etc. and I am pretty sure that you would be very safe in saying that the average US household spends less than $150 per year on reading materials.

Given that the average household income is on the order of $45-55,000 per year, that is an astonishingly small expenditure line item and would support Orwell's conclusion that the complaint that people don't buy books because they are too expensive is without merit.
And if our book consumption remains as low as it has been, at least let us admit that it is because reading is a less exciting pastime than going to the dogs, the pictures or the pub, and not because books, whether bought or borrowed, are too expensive.
These pitifully low numbers will only improve when books are actually valued by people at a greater premium than they do today.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

With his father's sword in his red right hand

The Sword
by Miss Landon

'T was on the battle-field; and the cold pale moon
Looked down on the dead and dying;
And the wind passed o'er with a dirge and a wail,
Where the young and brave were lying.

With his father's sword in his red right hand,
And the hostile dead around him,
Lay a youthful chief; but his bed was the ground,
And the grave's icy sleep had bound him.

A reckless rover, 'mid death and doom,
Passed a soldier, his plunder seeking;
Careless he stepped where friend and foe
Lay alike in their life-blood reeking.

Drawn by the shine of the warrior's sword,
The soldier paused beside it;
He wrenched the hand with a giant's strength,
But the grasp of the dead defied it.

He loosed his hold, and his noble heart
Took part with the dead before him;
And he honored the brave who died sword in hand,
As with softened brow he leaned o'er him.

"A soldier's death thou hast boldly died,
A soldier's grave won by it:
Before I would take that sword from thine hand,
My own life's blood should dye it.

"Thou shalt not be left for the carrion crow,
Or the wolf to batten o'er thee;
Or the coward insult the gallant dead,
Who in life had trembled before thee."

Then dug he a grave in the crimson earth,
Where his warrior foe was sleeping;
And he laid him there, in honor and rest,
With his sword in his own brave keeping.

Babies can be rational without being goal-oriented

Alison Gopnik sharing some of the latest research on the neurological development of babies in Your Baby is Smarter Than You Think in the August 16, 2009 New York Times. Read the whole thing.
A couple of key observations:
But babies' intelligence, the research shows, is very different from that of adults and from the kind of intelligence we usually cultivate in school. Schoolwork revolves around focus and planning. We set objectives and goals for children, with an emphasis on skills they should acquire or information they should know. Children take tests to prove that they have absorbed a specific set of skills and facts and have not been distracted by other possibilities.

This approach may work for children over the age of 5 or so. But babies and very young children are terrible at planning and aiming for precise goals. When we say that preschoolers can’t pay attention, we really mean that they can't not pay attention: they have trouble focusing on just one event and shutting out all the rest. This has led us to underestimate babies in the past. But the new research tells us that babies can be rational without being goal-oriented.

Adults focus on objects that will be most useful to them. But as the lever study demonstrated, children play with the objects that will teach them the most. In our study, 4-year-olds imagined new possibilities based on just a little data. Adults rely more on what they already know. Babies aren’t trying to learn one particular skill or set of facts; instead, they are drawn to anything new, unexpected or informative.

Part of the explanation for these differing approaches can be found in the brain. The young brain is remarkably plastic and flexible. Brains work because neurons are connected to one another, allowing them to communicate. Baby brains have many more neural connections than adult brains. But they are much less efficient. Over time, we prune away the connections we don't use, and the remaining ones become faster and more automatic. Moreover, the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls the directed, planned, focused kind of intelligence, is exceptionally late to mature, and may not take its final shape until our early 20s.

In fact, our mature brain seems to be programmed by our childhood experiences - we plan based on what we've learned as children. Very young children imagine and explore a vast array of possibilities. As they grow older and absorb more evidence, certain possibilities become much more likely and more useful. They then make decisions based on this selective information and become increasingly reluctant to give those ideas up and try something new. Computer scientists talk about the difference between exploring and exploiting - a system will learn more if it explores many possibilities, but it will be more effective if it simply acts on the most likely one. Babies explore; adults exploit.

These observations tie together several strands of research - E.D Hirsch's emphasis on the importance of a framework of knowledge, James Heckman's revealing research on non-cognitive skills, Hart and Risley's discovery about the importance of early word volumes, Gerald Weinberg's Used Car Law (from General Systems Thinking) - as well as the importance of variety and balance between volume and quality, imagination and facts, action and description, etc.

As with so many things to do with reading, the name of the game is balance and nuance. What is right for this child at this moment may be more imaginative works than concrete; two months from now it might be the reverse. Just as in life there is always the effort to harmonize the trade-offs between efficiency and effectiveness.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

There is a pressing need for clarity about our educational priorities

From E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy.
The failure of our schools to create a literate society is sometimes excused on the grounds that the schools have been asked to do too much. They are asked, for example, to pay due regard to the demands of both local and national acculturation. They are asked to teach not only American history but also state and city history, driving, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, consumerism, carpentry, cooking, and other special subjects. They are given the task of teaching information that is sometimes too rudimentary and sometimes too specialized. If the schools did not undertake this instruction, much of the information so provided would no doubt go unlearned. In some of our national moods we would like the schools to teach everything, but they cannot. There is a pressing need for clarity about our educational priorities.

Where are you creeping with your lame paws?

Herman Wouk is the author of The Caine Mutiny, a magnificent tale of decision making and personal responsibility set in the South Pacific in World War II and in part inspired by the author's own service in destroyers in that war. It is a great book, particularly for young boys and young men, say 12 years old and older.

Wouk is still alive and well and writing great prose. He has a new book out The Language God Talks: On Science and Religion. I have not read it yet but it looks good based in this excerpt of his via New Scientist, Is God a Mathematician. It has been years since I have read anything by Wouk but he seems to have lost none of his style. Some lines from the essay:
. . . Like many novelists I have spun my books out of my experiences when I could, but in attempting work far outside my own relatively jog-trot existence I have had to pick other men's brains. My World War II service, three years on destroyer-minesweepers in the Pacific, gave me the substance of The Caine Mutiny, but taught me nothing at all about the world storm that swept me from Manhattan to the south Pacific like a driven leaf. When the bomb fell on Hiroshima my ship was a bobbing speck on picket duty in the rough waters off Okinawa, and we had just survived a kamikaze attack unscathed; so I joined heartily in the merriment aboard ship, very glad that I had survived the war and would soon go back to my free civilian life and marry my sweetheart. As to the larger issues of dropping a whacking new bomb made of uranium on a Japanese city, I was innocent and indifferent. The radio said that our scientists had "harnessed the power of the sun", and that was quite enough for me and for all of us aboard that old four-piper, halfway around the world from home.

As a Columbia undergraduate, imbibing the Greek philosophy, comparative religion and general humanism of the noted core curriculum, I rode the subway to the Bronx once a week to study the Talmud with my grandfather. The Talmud is a hard grind in Aramaic, and to lighten up things I would now and then venture an agnostic prod at some tender point of our faith - say, Joshua's stopping the sun and moon. Grandpa would respond with good-natured scorn, stroking his full beard, "Where are you creeping with your lame paws?" It was more pungent in Yiddish, but you get the idea.

And would never be again

From William Manchester's The Last Lion.
When his flag-draped coffin moved slowly across the old capital, drawn by naval ratings, and bare-headed Londoners stood trembling in the cold, they mourned, not only him and all he had meant, but all they had been and no longer were, and would never be again.

There is constant squabble

From Aidan Chambers' Booktalk: Occasional Writing on Literature and Children.
There is constant squabble about whether particular books are children's books or not. Indeed, some people argue that there is no such thing as books for children but only books which children happen to read. And unless one wants to be partisan and dogmatic - which I do not, having had my fill of both - one has to agree that there is some truth on both sides and the whole truth in neither.

The fact is that some books are clearly written for children in a specific sense - they were written by their authors deliberately for children - and some books, never specifically intended for children, have qualities which attract children to them.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Minds are never to be sold

From The American Union Speaker, by John D. Philbrick
The Negro's Complaint
by William Cowper

Forced from home and all its pleasures,
Afric's coast I left forlorn;
To increase a stranger's treasures,
O'er the raging billows borne.
Men from England bought and sold me,
Paid my price in paltry gold;
But though slave they have enrolled me,
Minds are never to be sold.
Still in thought as free as ever,
What are England's rights, I ask,
Me from my delights to sever,
Me to torture, me to task?
Fleecy locks and black complexion
Cannot forfeit Nature's claim;
Skins may differ, but affection
Dwells in white and black the same.

Why did all-creating Nature
Make the plant for which we toil?
Sighs must fan it, tears must water,
Sweat of ours must dress the soil.
Think, ye masters, iron-hearted,
Lolling at your jovial boards;
Think how many backs have smarted
For the sweets your cane affords.

Is there, as ye sometimes tell us,
Is there One who reigns on high?
Has He bid you buy and sell us,
Speaking from His throne, the sky?
Ask Him, if your knotted scourges,
Matches, blood-extorting screws,
Are the means that duty urges
Agents of His will to use?

Hark! He answers,--wild tornadoes,
Strewing yonder sea with wrecks,
Wasting towns, plantations, meadows,
Are the voice with which He speaks.
He, foreseeing what vexations
Afric's sons should undergo,
Fixed their tyrants' habitation
Where his whirlwinds answer--No.

By our blood in Afric wasted,
Ere our necks received the chain;
By the miseries that we tasted,
Crossing in your barks the main;
By our suffering since ye brought us
To the man-degrading mart;
All, sustained by patience, taught us
Only by a broken heart.

Deem our nation brutes no longer,
Till some reason ye shall find
Worthier of regard, and stronger
Than the color of our kind.
Slaves of gold! whose sordid dealings
Tarnish all your boasted powers,
Prove that you have human feelings,
Ere you proudly question ours.

An update from the front lines of misery writing

I am not a keen enthusiast for the general prevelance of dark writing for children, particularly problem novels for Young Adults (YA). I strongly feel that there is a much more positive spin that can be put on life without being too Pollyannish and that there is benefit to "always look on the bright side of life." Much of this misery writing is done under the banner of being real, reflecting the world in which children are growing up. This is at best a fictional flag of convenience. While there are many challenges facing children, the world is incomparably better for almost all children than it was even only twenty-five or fifty years ago. Finally I cannot escape the perhaps too judgmental sense that a disproportionate number of these authors are not really writing for the entertainment or edification of children but are seeking in some ways to draw attention to their own self-perceived struggles - that they have never escaped self-regarding teendom into resonsible adulthood and are forever miserable YA wannabees.

Was that too harsh?

Anyway, here is Julie Just's essay in the April 4, 2010 New York Times, reporting on the latest developments in misery writing; The Parent Problem in Young Adult Lit.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Why Gen-Y Johnny Can't Read Nonverbal Cues

An interesting essay by Mark Bauerlein of Emory University in the September 9th, 2009 edition of the Wall Street Journal, Why Gen-Y Johnny Can't Read Nonverbal Cues.

His observations on the importance of context in communication ties to the earlier post quoting E.D. Hirsch. Bauerlein focuses on the physical context of communication whereas Hirsch addresses the knowledge context of communication but they amount to the same issue - how do we effectively and efficiently communicate? and the conclusion that there is a lot more context there than simply decoding the words.
Back in 1959, anthropologist Edward T. Hall labeled these expressive human attributes "the Silent Language." Hall passed away last month in Santa Fe at age 95, but his writings on nonverbal communication deserve continued attention. He argued that body language, facial expressions and stock mannerisms function "in juxtaposition to words," imparting feelings, attitudes, reactions and judgments in a different register.

This is why, Hall explained, U.S. diplomats could enter a foreign country fully competent in the native language and yet still flounder from one miscommunication to another, having failed to decode the manners, gestures and subtle protocols that go along with words. And how could they, for the "silent language" is acquired through acculturation, not schooling. Not only is it unspoken; it is largely unconscious. The meanings that pass through it remain implicit, more felt than understood.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

None are undeservedly remembered

via "Reading: An essay" by W.H. Auden
Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Explaining science fiction to women

Megan McArdle is one of my favorite bloggers/essayists and I make a point of visiting her blog at least weekly. Partly it is that, while generally writing about economics and policy, she not infrequently veers onto other topics completely, but ones that are still amusing or intriguing. Another reason that I like her site is that the quality of her commenters and their comments tends to be distinctly a cut above average.

In 2008, McArdle had this post about Explaining science fiction to women which was entertaining anyway but the comments were almost equally so.

As every book reader knows, there is no accounting for taste and some of our closest friends just will never grasp our love for a particular book, author or genre. As one of her commenters puts it, "Vive la difference requires difference, no?"

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Babees Book

As was mentioned in an earlier post, the concept of children, as distinct from infants and adults was only a relatively recent development, at least in the West. Before the Enlightenment and certainly before the Renaissance, there were only two stages of human development; infants who were wholly dependent on adults, and adults with a child being judged to have graduated from infancy to adulthood around seven years of age. Consequently, the concept of children's books as we think of them is also a relatively recent development.

It is intriguing though, to go back to that period of time when concepts were changing. I came across The Babees Book, written sometime in the 1300s in Britain and later translated from Latin. Intended to be a useful instrument "for youre lernynge" to be used by children of the aristocracy serving as pages at court, it might conceivably be considered to be among the first children's books as it is clearly intended to be used by and for what we would now call children.

I am fascinated by the pragmatism it represents in terms of manners and the basics for interacting with the rest of the social group as well as by the longevity and similarity to other instructionals such as George Washington's The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, or even more recently such as Priscilla Napier's recollection of her childhood instructions (see post An exo-genetic path of evolution). There is a very recognizable continuity over some eight hundred years both in tone and substance. Here are some of the early lines in The Babees Book
If any speak to you at your coming, look straight at them with a steady eye, and give good ear to their words while they be speaking ; and see to it with all your might that ye jangle not, nor let your eyes wander about the house, but pay heed to what is said, with blithe visage and diligent spirit. When ye answer, ye shall be ready with what ye shall say, and speak "things fructuous," and give your reasons smoothly, in words that are gentle but compendious, for many words are right tedious to the wise man who listens ; therefore eschew them with diligence.

Take no seat, but be ready to stand until you are bidden to sit down. Keep your hands and feet at rest ; do not claw your flesh or lean against a post, in the presence of your lord, or handle anything belonging to the house.

Given the research of James Heckman highlighting the critical role of non-cognitive skills (manners, behavior, values) in terms of life and academic success, I can't help but consider just how far our educational achievements might soar were most children to enter school with some modicum of the manners and wisdom packed into these early "children's books".

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

He has to pretend that he enjoys olives or War and Peace a little more than he actually does

via "Reading: An essay" by W.H. Auden

A child's reading is guided by pleasure, but his pleasure is undifferentiated; he cannot distinguish, for example, between aesthetic pleasure and the pleasures of learning or daydreaming. In adolescence we realize that there are different kinds of pleasure, some of which cannot be enjoyed simultaneously, but we need help from others in defining them. Whether it be a matter of taste in food or taste in literature, the adolescent looks for a mentor in whose authority he can believe. He eats or reads what his mentor recommends and, inevitably, there are occasions when he has to deceive himself a little; he has to pretend that he enjoys olives or War and Peace a little more than he actually does. Between the ages of twenty and forty we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitation which it is our duty to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature beyond which we cannot trespass with impunity. Few of us can learn this without making mistakes, without trying to become a little more of a universal man than we are permitted to be. It is during this period that a writer can most easily be led astray by another writer or by some ideology. When someone between twenty and forty says, apropos of a work of art, "I know what I like," he is really saying "I have no taste of my own but accept the taste of my cultural milieu," because, between twenty and forty, the surest sign that a man has a genuine taste of his own is that he is uncertain of it. After forty, if we have not lost our authentic selves altogether, pleasure can again become what it was when we were children, the proper guide to what we should read.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

E.D. Hirsch and Cultural Literacy

I finished reading E.D. Hirsch's seminal Cultural Literacy a couple of weeks ago and have been mulling. I like that kind of book - the kind that you either have to read in short chunks because it is full of interesting ideas, information or perspectives and/or which take a while to digest.

Published originally back in 1988, it is a book with a particular agenda (improving opportunities for all children) and a particular thesis (there is a broad cloud of half known information that any member of a culture needs to have an awareness of in order to be fully functional in a particular society) and upon which Hirsch has built a literary and foundational infrastructure (Core Knowledge Foundation).

I instinctively agree with Hirsch's central thesis - For any group of people, there is an array of often unidentified knowledge which represents a common core which allows members of that group to communicate efficiently and effectively with one another and which core differentiates and sets them apart from others. The corollary is that those individuals who are not privileged with that core knowledge suffer in their ability to interpret what others are communicating and in turn have difficulty making themselves understood with the result that the greater their knowledge deficit the greater their marginalization.

My personal belief is that that great cloud of folk tales, fairy tales, fables, aphorisms, folk sayings, etc. is a foundational part of such core knowledge.

Hirsch has done yeoman's work in trying to identify what is that core of unstated knowledge which is critical for all young Americans to acquire in order to fully participate in our society and in order to take advantage of the fullest range of opportunities that present themselves. He has attempted (with others) to construct a portfolio of this knowledge. He is not trying to create a curriculum per se. He is very clear that much of this core knowledge necessary for cultural literacy is in fact often only half known or understood. It is really a portfolio of concepts and allusions, not a portfolio of facts. An American History class would require some very specific factual knowledge about the American Revolution and George Washington. Cultural literacy would require that most Americans ought to comprehend an allusion to George Washington and the cherry tree.

Hirsch also recognizes that the portfolio of core knowledge, the elements of cultural literacy, is subject to on-going evolution and there are some elements that are to some degree time-bounded. References to Gilligan or Spock might convey much to one generation but not to another.

Hirsch focuses most of his effort on determining how the portfolio of core knowledge can be incorporated into schools and lesson plans. To some degree, I don't think he is wrong but I do not think that is the route of greatest probable success given just how localized our educational system is. I think the better answer is that it is up to parents to ensure that their children are absorbing this type of soft knowledge at home through much conversation and reading. Hirsch has written a series of books that support just such an effort starting with What Your Preschooler Needs to Know through to What Your Fifth Grader Needs to Know.

I am full of admiration for the effort this must have taken and Hirsch's perseverance. I think, though, that this may be a little bit off-putting and a mis-direction. There is a whiff of this becoming another chore, another task, another critique of schools and teachers, etc. The most committed parents and those with lots of resources can take this on as a project to be worked. But for most it would be a challenge. I think there is an easier, much easier way. That is to mesh the core concepts which Hirsch has identified with good children's story books. As an example, per Hirsch, children in Kindergarten ought to know about seasons and weather - Read Ezra Jack Keats' The Snowy Day with your child or Tasha Tudor's Around the Year. These are fun reads and the latent knowledge, the cultural literacy, is an incidental useful artifact transmitted while enjoying a read-together. The more I think about it, I am inclined to create such a list - for every topic area that Hirsch identifies, identify the existing children's stories which convey the core knowledge.

Hirsch writes well and has many nuggets of information and insight which I will be posting on over the next couple of months. I would recommend E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy as a book well worth reading and mulling over.

What's that? "Rem acu tetigisti."

Rem acu tetigisti. From Jeeves in the Morning by P.G. Wodehouse. Conversation between Jeeves and Bertram Wooster.
"Precisely, sir. Rem acu tetigisti."

"Rem ------?"

"Acu tetigisti, sir. A Latin expression. Literally it means 'You have touched the matter with a needle,' but a more idiomatic rendering would be - "

"Put my finger on the nub?"

"Exactly, sir."

"Yes, I get it now. You have clarified the situation. Getting right down to it, these two old buzzards have got to foregather in secret and require a hideout."

Saturday, April 10, 2010

And he who lies late . . .

illustration by Blanche Fisher Wright

Mother Goose

Cocks crow in the morn
To tell us to rise,
And he who lies late
Will never be wise;
For early to bed
And early to rise,
Is the way to be healthy
And wealthy and wise.

Friday, April 9, 2010

High-Aptitude Minds

High-Aptitude Minds: The Neurological Roots of Genius by Christian Hoppe and Jelena Stojanovic in the September 4th, 2008 Scientific American magazine.

Several interesting findings.
"Studies show that practice and perseverance contribute more to accomplishment than being smart does."

"The researchers determined that scholarly success was more than twice as dependent on assessments of self-discipline as on IQ. What is more, they reported in 2005, students with more discipline - a willingness to sacrifice short-term pleasure for long-term gain - were more likely than those lacking the skill to improve their grades during the school year. A high IQ, on the other hand, did not predict a climb in grades."

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The thing that chiefly struck me was the rarity of really bookish people

George Orwell the bookseller. Here is his 1936 essay, Bookshop Memories.

Many things remain the same, some seventy years later, though his prediction that "The combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman" was sadly off the mark (though he was closer to the truth with regard to used bookshops).
Modern books for children are rather horrible things, especially when you see them in the mass. Personally I would sooner give a child a copy of Petrenius Arbiter than Peter Pan, but even Barrie seems manly and wholesome compared with some of his later imitators.
Then there is this.
It is therefore worth noting that of all the authors in our library the one who 'went out' the best was - Priestley? Hemingway? Walpole? Wodehouse? No, Ethel M. Dell, with Warwick Deeping a good second and Jeffrey Farnol, I should say, third. Dell's novels, of course, are read solely by women, but by women of all kinds and ages and not, as one might expect, merely by wistful spinsters and the fat wives of tobacconists. It is not true that men don't read novels, but it is true that there are whole branches of fiction that they avoid. Roughly speaking, what one might call the average novel - the ordinary, good-bad, Galsworthy-and-water stuff which is the norm of the English novel - seems to exist only for women. Men read either the novels it is possible to respect, or detective stories. But their consumption of detective stories is terrific.
Here is the background on these now forgotten best sellers via links to Wikipedia. Ethel M. Dell, Warwick Deeping, and Jeffrey Farnol. Romance writers all. The dynamics of who is remembered and who forgotten are fascinating.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Define: Odd's boddikins

Wodehouse is a great logo coach (word coach?). I never realized quite how much he probably contributed to the development of my youthful vocabulary until I recently reread Jeeves in the Morning and was struck by how many allusions he made to things that ought to be known but that I probably did not really know enough about or used words that I have always just interpreted from the context of his use.
"Odd's boddikins, Jeeves," I said, "I am in rare fettle this a.m. Talk about exulting in youth! I feel up and doing, with a heart for any fate, as Tennyson says."

"Longfellow, sir."

"Or, if you prefer it, Longfellow. I am in no mood to split hairs. . . ."

Odds bod i kins 
-interjection Archaic.
(a euphemistic form of God's body, used as a mild oath.)
Also, Oddsbodikins, Odsbodikins, Odsbodkins.

1670 - 80; Gad + 's + bodikin (body + -kin) + -s

The poem to which Bertie Wooster is referring is Longfellow's A Psalm of Life. A poem chockablock full of great lines. "Footprints on the sands of time", "Be not like dumb, driven cattle!, Be a hero in the strife!", and "But to act, that each to-morrow, Find us further than to-day".
A Psalm of Life
by H.W. Longfellow

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
"Life is but an empty dream!"
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
"Dust thou art, to dust returnest,"
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us further than to-day.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting;
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world's broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe'er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,--act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o'erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time; -

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o'er life's solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.

Monday, April 5, 2010

He brought the coffin home to substantiate this tale

From Priscilla Napier's A Late Beginner, available directly from Slightly Foxed. "Priscilla Napier grew up in Egypt during the last golden years of the Edwardian Age - a time when, for her parents' generation, it seemed the sun would never set upon 'the regimental band playing selections from HMS Pinafore under the banyan tree.'"

Her tale is full of marvellously improbable family stories that are distinctly a product of England and its empire.
Arthur, the next eldest, was grey-eyed and rather more dashing; a magnificently well-made man, with a long-jawed throwaway charm; though certainly brave he was not conspicuously affectionate and only intermittently mild. He had just come back with his regiment from the West Indies, where, beset by yellow fever, they had died in great numbers. He himself was so desperately ill that his companions, not knowing about the Slessor constitution, had made his coffin and engraved his name on it and marched some miles in the hot sun to dig his grave. He brought the coffin home to substantiate this tale, and because it is one of those few things that cannot fail to come in useful. In fact he had no need of it for another sixty years. It hung about in the stables, getting underfoot, until someone hit on the notion of making it into a toboggan.

"Now, it may not have come under his observation . . ."

Fresh from our Easter weekend with a solemn then joyous sunrise service observing death and resurrection, I came across this reference to a site, Neglected Voices created and maintained by Professor Peggy Cooper Davis of the New York University School of Law, that has collected the biographies and some of the speeches of sixteen African Americans serving in Congress during Reconstruction. I draw attention to this site for a couple of reasons. There is of course just the seasonality - we are at the start of spring, the time of renewal and resurrection. Faulty as it was and as many missteps as were taken, that decade after the Civil War was similarly an era in which we as a country attempted to restart our national effort to hold ourselves true to the fundamental principles gifted to us from the Age of Enlightenment.

More pertinently, while our focus at Through the Magic Door is on creating an environment where children will develop the love of and habit of enthusiastic reading, we also seek to bring attention to overlooked stories and tales from years gone by that are likely to grab children's attention. While these speeches were not intended as speeches to children, they are fresh and accessible to them and touch on issues that are very real in a way that sometimes seems to get lost in text books.

Another reason for drawing attention to these gentlemen and their speeches is continuity of issues over the years and generations. Seven score years and six generations along, Richard Cain's (Republican Representative from South Carolina 1873-75 and 1877-79) words are eerily contemporary.

Spare us our liberties; give us peace; give us a chance to live; give us an honest chance in the race of life; place no obstruction in our way; oppress us not; give us an equal chance; and we ask no more of the American people.

Representative Cain sounds as if he would be right at home at any Tea Party rally.

Yet a further reason is the articulateness of the speeches, at least those that I have read - there are many available at the site. The clarity of thought, logic, and argument would put the overwhelming majority of the members of the current Congress to shame.

Then there are the nitty-gritty realities that so often and easily get air-brushed from history. Here is Richard Cain again, this time in a speech in support of the Civil Rights Bill of 1875 contesting a point raised by one of the other legislators:
Sir, the gentleman states that in the State of North Carolina the colored people enjoy all their rights as far as the highways are concerned; that in the hotels, and in the railroad cars, and in the various public places of resort, they have all the rights and all the immunities accorded to any other class of citizens of the United States. Now, it may not have come under his observation, but it has under mine, that such really is not the case; and the reason why I know and feel it more than he does is because my face is painted black and his is painted white. We who have the color--I may say the objectionable color--know and feel all this. A few days ago, in passing from South Carolina to this city, I entered a place of public resort where hungry men are fed, but I did no dare--I could not without trouble--sit down to the table. I could not sit down at Wilmington or at Weldon without entering into a contest, which I did not desire to do. My colleague, the gentleman who so eloquently spoke on this subject the other day, [Mr. ELLIOTT,] a few months ago entered a restaurant at Wilmington and sat down to be served, and while there a gentleman stepped up to him and said, "You cannot eat here." All the other gentlemen upon the railroad as passengers were eating there; he had only twenty minutes, and was compelled to leave the restaurant or have a fight for it. He showed fight, however, and got his dinner; but he has never been back there since. Coming here last week I felt we did not desire to draw revolvers and present the bold front of warriors, and therefore we ordered our dinners to be brought into the cars, but even there we found the existence of this feeling; for, although we had paid a dollar a piece for our meals, to be brought by the servants into the cars, still there was objection on the part of the railroad people to our eating our meals in the cars, because they said we were putting on airs. They refused us in the restaurant, and then did not desire that we should eat our meals in the cars, although we paid for them. Yet this was in the noble State of North Carolina.

And then there are the complexities. We want out history to be clean and clear and it is not. The entry for Robert C. DeLarge describes him as "Born in Aiken, South Carolina, the son of a slave-holding free black tailor and a mother of Haitian ancestry." It is so easy to overlook how different the world was.

Finally, there is the simple power of their words. They told stories and made arguments that still ring clear and true today. There is a concreteness to their experiences and the tales they tell that too easily goes missing in dry history texts. These speeches, and the issues they raise and seek to address, are easily accessible to a middle schooler.

These men lived in momentous times, sometimes did momentous things and sometimes were all too frail and human in their weaknesses. But looking at their brief biographies and reading their words, it is hard not to connect with them these many years later.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Authorities, however heavily furred and gowned . . .

From Virginia Woolf's essay, How Should One Read a Book?
The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions. If this is agreed between us, then I feel at liberty to put forward a few ideas and suggestions because you will not allow them to fetter that independence which is the most important quality that a reader can possess. After all, what laws can be laid down about books? The battle of Waterloo was certainly fought on a certain day; but is Hamlet a better play than Lear? Nobody can say. Each must decide that question for himself. To admit authorities, however heavily furred and gowned, into our libraries and let them tell us how to read, what to read, what value to place upon what we read, is to destroy the spirit of freedom which is the breath of those sanctuaries. Everywhere else we may be bound by laws and conventions - there we have none.

Thinking requires raw material

From Aidan Chambers' Booktalk: Occasional Writing on Literature and Children. I think he is right. Reflection and consideration are intensely individual in nature but the broader process of thinking is an unconciously collaborative one. We all stand on the shoulders of those that have gone before; our thoughts both advantaged from the prospect but also hostage as well.
Like every other creative activity, thinking requires raw material. I don't know about you, but I find I can never get enough raw material of my own. I take most of what I need from other people. On my own I am just not enough - in experience or knowledge or imaginative capacity or language. To put it another way round: thinking isn't really a self-contained, individual activity at all. It is a shared process. We are all members of the human think-tank.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Someone hit on the notion of making it into a toboggan

From Priscilla Napier's A Late Beginner, available directly from Slightly Foxed. "Priscilla Napier grew up in Egypt during the last golden years of the Edwardian Age - a time when, for her parents' generation, it seemed the sun would never set upon 'the regimental band playing selections from HMS Pinafore under the banyan tree.'"

Her tale is full of marvellously improbable family stories that are distinctly a product of England and its empire.
Arthur, the next eldest, was grey-eyed and rather more dashing; a magnificently well-made man, with a long-jawed throwaway charm; though certainly brave he was not conspicuously affectionate and only intermittently mild. He had just come back with his regiment from the West Indies, where, beset by yellow fever, they had died in great numbers. He himself was so desperately ill that his companions, not knowing about the Slessor constitution, had made his coffin and engraved his name on it and marched some miles in the hot sun to dig his grave. He brought the coffin home to substantiate this tale, and because it is one of those few things that cannot fail to come in useful. In fact he had no need of it for another sixty years. It hung about in the stables, getting underfoot, until someone hit on the notion of making it into a toboggan.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Snail soup

From Priscilla Napier's A Late Beginner, available directly from Slightly Foxed. "Priscilla Napier grew up in Egypt during the last golden years of the Edwardian Age - a time when, for her parents' generation, it seemed the sun would never set upon 'the regimental band playing selections from HMS Pinafore under the banyan tree.'"

Napier offers an interesting observation on her Victorian forebears. Her tolerance is a welcome tonic to the censoriousness that often overtakes contemporary commentators, swathed in the luxury of overwhelming opportunity and abundance, when looking back on times where everyone, rich and poor, were never more than a few days or weeks away from hunger and abandonment.
Looked back upon from a more humane and less rigorous age, the well-to-do Victorians leave an impression of a strange acquiescence in the miseries about them. John Henry took in the works of Charles Dickens in monthly parts, as they came out, and delighted in them; he cannot therefore have been ignorant of the appalling conditions in which most of his countrymen lived. Although country people were never so neglected, underfed, or ill-treated as in the towns, there must have been plenty of misery and poverty around him. There was in fact a widow in Abbotsworthy who brought up a family of nine children entirely upon vegetables and snail soup. That he denied himself to help poor people was as true of him as of many another sincere country parson. But rich and poor had existed throughout recorded time; and to believe that things which seemed as much a part of the natural order as night and day could ever be radically altered, required a leap of the imagination for which very few people who were not themselves poor had the necessary spiritual agility. He did what he could for his immediate neighbors and prayed for the rest; living as most people do, within the ethic of his day, which was sterner and more self-disciplined than ours but less awakened and less imaginative.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

All the perils of a jungle at night

From Priscilla Napier's A Late Beginner, available directly from Slightly Foxed. "Priscilla Napier grew up in Egypt during the last golden years of the Edwardian Age - a time when, for her parents' generation, it seemed the sun would never set upon 'the regimental band playing selections from HMS Pinafore under the banyan tree.'"

This is a wonderful passage capturing a child's perspective of things as well as a recollection of a world now virtually vanished. Living as a young child in England in the mid-1960's, I was priviliged to see some of the last vestiges of these types of homes.
The love-hate relationship between the English and the animal world was never more passionately displayed than in Edwardian houses. One could hardly cross a drawing-room floor without falling over the snarling head of a lion's skin, or a polar bearskin stretched out upon it. The hideous archaic profiles of rhinoceroses leant out of walls, over the Zanzibar chests in the outer halls. Hollowed-out feet of elephants containing potted palms were dotted about halls where the garishness of Turkey carpets alternated with the smoother surfaces of Persian rugs. Inkstands were made from the hooves of favorite hunters or chargers, doors were kept open by the stuffed feet of eland. Behind the shut doors of smokingrooms, whence the smell of cigar smoke drifted richly out, would be stags' heads, wild buffalo horns jutting out of hollow skulls, the heads of black panthers with gleaming yellow glass eyes. Tiger skins hung on landings; their huge teeth menaced one on one's way to bed. No billiard room was innocent of stuffed white owls, stuffed badgers, plaster salmon; even sometimes a stuffed albatross, enormous and yellowing, regarded one malignly out of its beady eye. Horrendous recreated pike lurked in the pantry passages; in the dusk they seemed as big as sharks. In the hall of my grandmother's house near Barnstaple there was a stuffed bear, upright, holding in his paws a brass tray for the reception of visiting cards. By daytime he was friendly, almost cosy, could be nearly thought of as a pet. At twilight he became menacing, in the dark he threatened terrifyingly. To cross a hall on one's way to bed was to encounter, close to, all the perils of a jungle at night.

Knowing They Know That You Know

Next Big Thing in English: Knowing They Know That You Know by Patricia Cohen in the March 31, 2010 New York Times. A summary of discussions that have been going on in science journals for the past few years but accentuating the interest on the part of English professors in putting the field of literature onto something of a more objective basis. What is the basis for our success as a cooperative and collaborative species? What are the aspects of communication that allow us to be effective? What is the balance between memory and imagination? All interesting questions that this article touches on lightly.