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Category Archives: Education

Getting to the Core

One doesn’t need any special degree to be a book junkie, just a love of books that borders on the manic. Of course, that love has to include the stories those books tell. And there are oh, so many! Now, when I say “stories” I’m referring mainly to fiction, although I fully understand that non-fiction books also tell stories in their own way. But for now, the stories I’m concerned with are the fictional ones. Even narrower than that, the important ones. The tales, poems, and legends that define who we are as human beings in the Western world. Some may call these stories the “classics” or the “canon.” Whatever one calls them, they are critical to who we are as humans.

Unfortunately, it seems fewer people, especially our young, are reading these stories and the number is going to be even fewer now since the Common Core Standards are being implemented in many states. That’s the reason I wanted to share with you the following essay by professor Anthony Esolen of Providence College. It’s titled “How Common Core Devalues Great Literature,” and it appeared about a week ago in Crisis Magazine. It’s not that long and it’s not filled with technical terms and educational lingo. It’s just a straight forward, passionate case for all us to read the good stuff. Read it and let me know what you think.

 
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Posted by on February 15, 2014 in Education, Ideas, Worries

 

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“Our Evening Land”

Harold Bloom, "The Western Canon: The Boo...

Harold Bloom, “The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages.” (Photo credit: nikkorsnapper)

Unfortunately, nothing ever will be the same because the art and passion of reading well and deeply, which was the foundation of our enterprise, depended upon people who were fanatical readers when they were still small children. Even devoted and solitary readers are now necessarily beleaguered, because they cannot be certain that fresh generations will rise up to prefer Shakespeare and Dante to all other writers. The shadows lengthen in our evening land, and we approach the second millennium expecting further shadowing.

- Harold Bloom, from “The Western Canon: The Books and Schools of the Ages”

Published seven years after Allan Bloom’s monumental “The Closing of the American Mind,” Harold Bloom’s “The Western Canon” sounded yet another alarm about the state of education in our universities, specifically about what is being read and how reading is approached. His opening and closing essays, “An Elegy for the Canon” and “Elegiac Conclusion” are worth the price of the book themselves. Read them and see how the American university is becoming an “evening land.”

What is it about Blooms anyway?

 
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Posted by on July 16, 2013 in Authors, Education, Quotations, Reading, Worries

 

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We Need An American Canon

Philadelphians celebrating Independence Day. 1819.

Philadelphians celebrating Independence Day. 1819. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once again Independence Day (or “The Fourth  of July” as many still call it) is upon us. It’s that most American of national holidays, a time for picnics, parades, fireworks and patriotic songs. We go camping, take in a movie, take advantage of the special sales at the malls, get together with friends and family, and make sure we eat such “American” food as hamburgers, hot dogs and apple pie. And maybe, just maybe, we give a thought to what it all means while we watch the fireworks dancing in the night sky. Something to do with the birth of our nation, right?

This year there is a heavier feel to this usually festive holiday. There is a division among the people of this Union. A very deep one. On a day that is supposed to remind us of our identity as a nation, the weight of political ideologies and cultural differences rend that identity like an old flag. Can anything be done?

Perhaps.

Being the Old Book Junkie, I was going through some of my books on American folklore this morning. One that I particularly like, “American Folklore and Legend,” (The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., 1978), has an introductory article by Horace Beck, who was Professor of American Literature at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont. In his remarks, I think, we can find both a partial reason for the divide and a path to lead our nation back onto a common road again:

Americans, more than most other people, have always sought a sense of identity. Among nations whose origins go back thousands of years, the search for identity is not difficult, but to us it is, for we are a society composed of many national; backgrounds, many languages, many customs. . . Yet we all wish to be recognized as “Americans.”

In most countries tradition, based to a very large extent in folklore, history, and geography, has grown up over the centuries. Unfortunately, the U.S. is too young a country, and its inhabitants too diverse in character and too much on the move, for a folk tradition of the Old World type to have grown up.

Perhaps it’s time we started to re-tell America’s unique folktales and legends, both to ourselves and our children. Even more, maybe it’s time for our schools to require their students to read more of classic American writers such as Mark Twain, Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry W. Longfellow, Carl Sandburg, and Edgar Allen Poe, to name but a few.

I think it’s time for an American Canon of national literature. We need stories that can bring us together as a people rather than ideological narratives that divide us. Putting such a canon together could be a national project that itself might get us communicating and working together. Our country has a treasury of stories, poetry and essays hidden in libraries and schools, barely noticed or mentioned for years. It’s past time for them to see the light of our classrooms once more.

Horace Beck, in concluding his introduction, writes about “uncovering the foundation of our shared sense of national unity.” It’s 35 years since he wrote those words and we’re rapidly running out of time to find it.

 
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Posted by on July 4, 2013 in Education, History, Ideas, Uncategorized, Worries

 

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The Wisdom of Hobbits, Wizards and Lions

Over the past few months I’ve found myself becoming interested in the subject of wisdom. Biblical wisdom in

English: C.S. Lewis Plaque on the Unicorn Inn ...

English: C.S. Lewis Plaque on the Unicorn Inn C.S. Lewis author of the famous Narnia series of children’s books came to school in Malvern. He later returned for hill-walking holidays. The walks frequently ended at the Unicorn Inn. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

particular, but also the everyday wisdom of ordinary life. Some might call that “common sense.” Whatever you choose to call it, I think we can agree it’s in short supply these days.

I’ve been thumbing through some of my Bible commentaries and reading about the sources and types of wisdom literature. I’ve also been keeping my eyes open when I go book hunting for works dealing with virtues, values, morals and wisdom. But not ethics. I’ve tried reading books on Christian ethics and they work better than Melatonin on me.

Then just after Christmas I stumbled across a website and an author who had a new book coming out in February 2013. The author is Louis Markos and the book is “On the Shoulders of Hobbits: the Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis,” (Moody Publishers.) Needless to say, I ordered it.

I’m glad I did. This is one of the most enlightening books I’ve had the pleasure of reading. There was so much to learn in it and I enjoyed every bit. It was obviously written by a natural teacher, someone who knows his material and knows how to share it. Plus, Markos uses the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis to illustrate his points; indeed, he immerses us in Middle Earth and Narnia, granting insights into the moral thinking of these two great authors. My copy is proudly dog-eared and underlined. Yours will be too if you follow my advice and purchase this book.

As I wrote in my previous post, this book deserves more than a one-shot review. I believe I used the word “delve” to describe how I’d like to approach this. So let’s get started.

The obvious place to start is with the author, Louis Markos, PhD. I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that there are so many brilliant people out there that I’ve never heard of. I mean, who has time to keep up on everything being written today? But once in a while, I come across a writer that just floors me and I wonder, “Why haven’t I heard of this person sooner?” Dr. Markos is one of those. He’s an English professor and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, as well as an expert on C.S. Lewis (one of his heroes), and J.R.R. Tolkien. He’s also well versed in film criticism, which I found out by reading the bibliographical essays at the end of the book. The back cover says he’s also a highly requested speaker. How he found time to write this book, I can’t guess. I encourage you to go to his webpage and read some of his essays and biographical information.

But the main thing that hooked me right from the start is that this man “gets” the importance of Story, as evidenced by the title of the book’s introduction, “Stories to Steer By.” To Markos, “stories provide not only models of virtuous and vicious behavior but a sense of purpose – a sense that our lives and our choices are not arbitrary but that they are ‘going somewhere.’” As a theologian once put it, we humans live our lives swimming in a sea of story.

That’s all for now. Next time I’ll begin to explore the actual subject matter of On the Shoulders of Hobbits. I hope you’ll join me for the trip.

 
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Posted by on March 14, 2013 in Authors, Book Review, Education, Favorite Books

 

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More Educational Folly

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few days back I posted on a textbook I found. “The Garden in the Wilderness”  explored the themes found in the first few books of the Bible and how they have influenced the literature of Western civilization. It was from the 70s, and I wondered if schools would even use such a text today.

Well, it turns out our schools are going to be using even less literature now. If this article in The Telegraph is correct, our children will be exposed to fewer works of fiction. It seems such works as “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Catcher in the Rye” (which I am not a particular fan of, by the way) will be replaced by what are being called “informational texts.” These new texts could explore such things as proper insulation levels and invasive plant species. Wow.

The change will supposedly happen by the 2014 school year. The reason for the change is that schools want to better prepare students for the work force.

Is that what we as a culture view education as being about?. If so, we are in worse trouble than I thought.

Any thoughts out there?

 
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Posted by on December 8, 2012 in Education, Reading, Worries

 

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The Word in the Wilderness

The Garden and the WildernessI’ve had a very successful week or so as far as finding some great books at thrift stores and library sales. Fortunately I’ve had the means to purchase the ones I really wanted. Not that any of these were particularly expensive, but times are a bit tight, after all. I’ll be doing another post soon to share these finds, but I wanted to do this post on one book that really started me thinking.

Now, this book isn’t anything rare or expensive. Nothing like that at all. But it is somewhat unique in that I doubt you would find anything like it being published today. Or used, for that matter. The book is titled “The Garden and the Wilderness,” and it was published in 1973 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. It was a high school textbook in a series from HBJ called “Literature: Uses of the Imagination.”

What this textbook does is take excerpts from the biblical books of Genesis, Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy (from The New English Bible, one of my favorite translations) and arranges them with writings from such authors as Carl Sandburg, Edwin Muir, Dylan Thomas, Loren Eiseley and William Blake, among others. The selections include essays, poetry, plays, short stories and folk songs. As the book’s introduction explains:

The Bible has enormous importance historically and as a sacred book. but it is also literature, with a central place in any serious study of the works of the human imagination. We hope that in years to come you will be stimulated to move from this volume and its companions to the Bible itself, and that some of you will even study the ancient languages of Hebrew and Greek as paths to the rich absorbing writings found there.

Amazing.

Nearly 40 years ago, this textbook was used in some school, I can’t say for sure if it was a public or parochial school, though my hunch is that it was a public school. Here’s my question: Do you think such a book would find a place in any public school today? Would studying the rich themes of the “book of books” be considered too religious for our children? Despite the role these words played in the founding of our civilization?

In our increasingly secular American society, faith themes and ideas are increasingly marginalized, pushed aside, forgotten and ignored. The “war” isn’t on Christmas, but on religion in general.

The Word is, indeed, in the wilderness.

 
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Posted by on December 2, 2012 in Education, Ideas, Old Books

 

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Were You Educated By A Loose Canon?

The Great Books of the Western World is an att...

The Great Books of the Western World is an attempt to present the western canon in a single package of 60 volumes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A while back I asked “What kind of reader are you?” Now I want to know, “What books did you read when you were in school?” I’m not talking about elementary school here. More like middle or high school. What books did your teachers expose you to?

I’m curious about this because I’ve been perusing Harold Bloom’s wonderfully eye-opening book, “The Western Canon,” (Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994). Most of us these days think of the Bible when we hear the word canon, but it does have a broader application. A canon is basically an authoritative list. Thus Bloom:

Originally the Canon meant the choice of books in our teaching institutions, and despite the recent politics of multiculturalism, the Canon’s true question remains: What shall the individual who still desires to read attempt to read, this late in history?

What Bloom is getting at here is that there are far too many books for people to read, even in several lifetimes. Choices need to be made. There are certain books that are definitive of our Western culture, the core if you will. We’re talking about such authors as Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Dickens, Goethe, Milton and, Lord, I’m barely scratching the surface here. Are we, or our teachers, choosing the books we really need to truly understand our culture?

How many of these seminal writers were you exposed to during your high school years? Or even college? The odds of today’s students having the opportunity to read these great minds grows ever slimmer due to what Bloom describes as “the academic-journalistic network I have dubbed the School of Resentment, who wish to overthrow the Canon in order to advance their supposed (and nonexistent) programs for social change.”

I’ll attempt to grapple with more of the details later, but for now please ruminate on this: Can a person understand Western civilization, or even be a part of it, without some minimum knowledge of its greatest writers and thinkers? How would one choose the Canon?

 
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Posted by on October 11, 2012 in Authors, Education, History, Ideas, Old Books, Worries

 

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What Kind of Reader Are You?

What Kind of Reader Are You?

We book lovers and readers tend to take reading for granted. It is an activity we engage in everyday, for greater or lesser periods of time. Some of us read fiction, some of us prefer nonfiction and some of us enjoy mixing the two together. Some readers like to be challenged with complex plots, ideas or subjects. Others enjoy the escape of the paperback equivalent of a comic book. Reading is wonderfully diverse in its offerings to devotees.

No matter what type of reader you may be, you would benefit from exposure to “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. Adler was one of America’s leading public intellectuals during the middle of the last century and this book, originally published in 1940, is still considered by many to be a classic. To Adler and Van Doren reading was, and is, a complex activity involving much more than recognizing and mentally linking words on a page.

They have identified four levels of reading here. First is Elementary Level, basically what a person is capable of after graduating from elementary school. Next is Inspectional Reading, or the art of systematic skimming of a book to get the necessary information needed within a limited amount of time. Third there is Analytical Reading, which is a deep and thorough reading when one has as no time limits to worry about. Finally they identify Syntopical Reading, describing it as a kind of comparative reading. In their words, “It is the most complex and systematic type of reading of all.”

While the book explores and explains these levels of reading, it also goes into other areas, including how to read different types of books and how to use a dictionary properly. The key is that Adler and Van Doren take reading seriously. Adler was one of the driving forces behind the Great Books of the Western World, a 54- volume set published by Encyclopaedia Britannica. He helped set up a great books program at the University of Chicago. For Adler, effective reading was truly the key to learning, so important that advanced reading skills should be one of the teaching goals of high schools and colleges:

A good liberal arts high school, if it does nothing else, ought to produce graduates who are competent analytical readers. A good college, if it does nothing else, ought to produce competent syntopical readers.

So, what kind of reader are you? Are you a casual reader, or someone who really digs-in to a book to get at what the author offers there? Or does it depend on what type of book you’re reading? Do you feel your high school or college trained you to read effectively? And do you think e-readers will influence how people read in the future?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 
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Posted by on October 2, 2012 in Authors, Education, Old Books, Reading

 

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We Need a Good 2nd Grade Education

We Need a Good 2nd Grade Education

One of the most important books to come out in the 80s was “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know,” by E.D. Hirsch (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987).

Hirsch was an English professor who believed that cultural literacy, “the grasp of background information that writers and speakers assume their readers and listeners already have,” is a key factor in American education. To further quote from the front flap of the dust jacket:

The high school student who thinks that Leningrad is a city in Jamaica or that the Alamo is an epic poem attributed to Homer cannot really read. Nor can the college student who, on a general knowledge test, identifies Socrates as a Native American chief or the Great Gatsby as a magician.

You can laugh, but I’ll bet you these examples were taken from real life.

The book became a national bestseller and Hirsch went on to publish something called The Core Knowledge Series. The picture you see to the left is “What Your Second Grader Needs to Know: Fundamentals of a Good Second-Grade Education,” (Doubleday, 1991).

I picked up this nifty volume at one of my favorite thrift stores for a dime, which is a sad commentary on the value of such a book. I was amazed at the breadth of subject matter for the second grade. He covers language arts, geography, world and American civilization, fine arts, mathematics and natural sciences. This is second grade?

It should be.

This isn’t going to be a full review of the book or the series, though you can bet I’ll be coming back to this subject often. What I wanted to bring to your attention with this post, considering its proximity to Independence Day, was Hirsch’s introduction to the section on American Civilization. I wasn’t aware of this, but it seems that some schools don’t begin a serious study of American history until the fifth grade. Then he goes on to point out that “our best schools have always started earlier. They have proved that children in early grades are fascinated by stories of the American past.”

So why aren’t the public schools teaching our children about our country’s history earlier? Have you checked into your 7 year-old child’s or grandchild’s education? We take for granted that our public schools are teaching the kids what they need.

Maybe we shouldn’t.

 
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Posted by on July 11, 2012 in Education, Ideas, Worries

 

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Another Threat to Books

Computers and E-readers aren’t the only things threatening books. Check out this article from the Sun Sentinel. Is it even near acceptable that only 50 percent of ninth- and 10th-graders reached reading levels that were deemed “satisfactory?”

Granted, this is only one part of one state, but it’s scary anyway. Not good, folks.

 
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Posted by on May 21, 2012 in Education, Reading

 

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