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Category Archives: Ideas

Coming Soon to a Kindergarten Near You?

One of my weekly pleasures is reading the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal. It’s an excellent paper and one of the few left in the country that has a conservative opinion section. (There, I’ve outed myself.) But while the Journal may be a conservative publication, it is most definitely a secular one as well. Witness Alison Gopnik’s Mind & Matter column from this past weekend.

It seems that some scientists think that evolution, particularly the natural selection component, is too difficult for young children to understand. I’ve provided a link to the article above so I won’t go into all their reasoning for this seemingly obvious insight, however the upshot is that they recommend that children should be exposed to picture books that help them understand natural selection. As early as kindergarten. They’re afraid that these young minds may actually come to think that our earth and the life on it was created somehow by, gasp!, some transcendent, intelligent being.

These proposed natural selection “story books” are characterized in the article as “powerful intellectual tools.” I think it’s just a blatant attempt at indoctrination dressed-up in lab coats, clip boards and plastic pocket protectors.

What do you think?

 
 

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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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An Open Letter to Meghan Cox Gurdon

Dear Ms. Gurdon,

Every Saturday I cruise down to the local market to get the weekend Wall Street Journal. It is one of my weekly pleasures to come home from church Sunday morning, enjoy a nice brunch and open the pages of a good newspaper. In particular I enjoy the Review section, mainly for the books. I have to say I’m surprised, but extremely happy, that you have a regular column on children’s books in the Wall Street Journal. After reading reviews of books about the history of mahogany and a travelogue based on the origins of noodles (really, WSJ?) your weekly exploration of children’s and young adult books is a welcome oasis.

Last week I received the July/August issue of Imprimis (a bit late) and was pleased to see your picture and byline on the front. Your topic, “The Case for Good Taste in Children’s Books,” was immediately appealing, with the added bonus of referring me to an article you wrote for WSJ in 2011 titled “Darkness Too Visible.” I knew that the young adult category was growing increasingly dark, but I was thinking of all the titles with vampires and zombies and such. I didn’t realize you were writing about human monsters. They’re even worse.

What I don’t understand is how books with such things as abductions, rape, self-mutilation, parental molestation, and oral sex can be labeled as “young adult.” Even less understandable is how writers, librarians and others see your reasoned and intelligent critiques as a threat to freedom of expression. Encouraging taste and discrimination in choosing and producing juvenile literature is a bad thing? Who knew?

While we’re on the subject of darkness in today’s books, have you seen the novels your colleague, Sam Sacks, has been reviewing in his “Fiction Chronicle” column? Granted that these are for adults, but the books he reviews contain debilitating grief, depression, misery, addiction, isolation, loneliness, breakdowns and family tensions. His words. From this weekend’s column. I can’t wait to walk past those books at Border’s. Does Mr. Sacks actively seek these novels? Are they sent to him? Does he see his therapist once or twice a week?

But wait, there’s more! Forget the books. There’s another kind of darkness lurking around the Review pages, the kind that sneaks into people’s subconscious, burrows in and sends roots all through their world view. In the “Mind & Matter” column, written by Robert Sapolsky and Alison Gopnik, human life is observed through the lens of materialist science. Biology, neurology, anthropology, psychology, chemistry and, of course, evolution, pretty much explain all our behaviors. Which basically means we are merely meat machines marching to orders we have no control over. Puts a smile on my face.

OK. I know. This wasn’t much of a letter. More of a rant, actually. But I really did mean what I said about your “Children’s Books” column. And your piece in Imprimis gives me hope that there are people still fighting to let some light into this ever darkening world. Keep up the good fight, Ms. Gurdon, and know there are lots of us out here cheering you on.

I’ll do what I can in my small corner, too.

All the Best,

Rob

P.S. –  Could you slip Mr. Sacks a copy of “The Wind in the Willows” or “The Hobbit” maybe? Thanks.

 
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Posted by on September 10, 2013 in Children's Books, Ideas

 

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The Theology of Friendship

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...

Stained glass at St John the Baptist’s Anglican Church http://www.stjohnsashfield.org.au, Ashfield, New South Wales. Illustrates Jesus’ description of himself “I am the Good Shepherd” (from the Gospel of John, chapter 10, verse 11). This version of the image shows the detail of his face. The memorial window is also captioned: “To the Glory of God and in Loving Memory of William Wright. Died 6th November, 1932. Aged 70 Yrs.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My last post was on the theological virtues as expounded in Louis Markos’ book, “On the Shoulders of Hobbits.” Of course he covered the familiar trio of faith, hope and love, but then he threw in a fourth one: friendship. That one had me scratching my head a bit. I can agree that friendship is a virtue, but a theological virtue? Then I started thinking about it.

Darn, I hate when that happens!

A little research, a little scripture reading and it started to make sense. In fact, friendship fits in perfectly with faith, hope and love. Before I go into how this all works together, let’s take a look at friendship in general, and in the eyes of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien in particular.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of Lewis or Tolkien not only knows the two were close friends, but they were also members of a group of friends who called themselves the Inklings. This group, which also included Charles Williams and Lewis’ brother Warren, would regularly gather to discuss various topics and to read some of their works in progress. Lewis thought so highly of friendship that he once wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves that “friendship is the greatest of worldly goods. Certainly to me it is the chief happiness of life. If I had a piece of advice to a young man about a place to live, I think I shd. say, ‘sacrifice almost everything to live where you can be near your friends.’ ” ( I got that quote from a marvelous book titled “The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life,” by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr., a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. If you are a Lewis fan you have to read this book.)

As for Tolkien, I don’t know if he ever wrote directly about friendship but its place in his heart is obvious by its place in his masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings. Truly the central, driving force of this epic is a series of friendships, anchored by Frodo and Sam. Of course Merry and Pippin’s bond is practically as strong and their adventures when separated from the Fellowship provide wonderful examples of why friendship can rightly be called a virtue. Then there’s the relationship between Gimli and Legolas, proving that even seeming enemies can develop strong friendships.

So what is this thing called friendship? Markos quotes Lewis describing it as “that luminous, tranquil, rational world of relationships freely chosen.” Further, many ancient people looked upon friendship as the most human of all relationships, in some cases more important than family. I’ve heard it said that friends are the family you choose. A friend is not just someone you hang out with at the mall or go to the movies with. A friend is a person you willingly cast your lot with, extend loyalty to, and stand behind with a steadfast spirit. There is a type of affection that goes with it, but it isn’t of the overtly emotional variety. Friendship is as common as an ordinary day, and as wondrous as the night sky.

Friendship is also a key theme in the Bible, though often overlooked. Many times God related to His chosen ones as friends. God refers to Abraham as “my friend” (Isaiah 41: 8). Exodus 33:11 tells us that ” the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” And Psalm 25:14 states that “The friendship of the LORD is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant.” When you stop to think about it, it’s rather amazing that God, the creator of heaven and earth, would willingly relate to humans as friends. But how can this work?

First off, we have to define what friendship means, especially in relation to God and Jesus. I hear a lot about having a “personal relationship” with Jesus these days, but exactly what do people mean by this? I have a hunch that it means different things to different people since “personal relationship” is such a vague expression. People these days like “vague” because it gives them the wiggle room to define things any way they want at their convenience. But I think Jesus had something a bit more specific in mind. As a matter of fact, he tells us exactly what kind of relationship he expects in John’s gospel: “You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15: 14,15, ESV).

Friendship is the model Jesus would have us follow. This makes perfect sense since friendship is an excellent channel for the practice of the agape type of love that is referenced so often in the New Testament. This is the love of willing sacrifice and self-giving. It involves steadfast loyalty and support even during the hard times. Especially during the hard times. And while there may be an emotional component that goes along with it, it isn’t of the butterflies-in-the-stomach variety that can vanish so quickly. Together friendship and agape love form bonds that are meant to last a long time. Maybe into eternity.

Put all this together and it seems almost obvious that friendship is truly a theological virtue. Further, it is one that is familiar to all of us. Can we use our existing friendships as models of relating to God? In many cases, yes. We can also learn by reading about great friendships, like the ones in The Lord of the Rings and other great works of literature. Examples abound all around us. We just need to look, pay attention, and practice being God’s friends.

 
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Posted by on August 25, 2013 in Book Review, Favorite Books, Ideas

 

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Do You Read “Young?”

Pan depicted on the cover of The Wind in the W...

Pan depicted on the cover of The Wind in the Willows (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Several weeks back I read an article in the Reading Matters section of one of my favorite websites, MercatorNet. Titled “Books of Innocence and Experience,” it was about how more adults these days seem to be reading books intended for the young adult market, books like the “Harry Potter” series, or “Hunger Games.” I would go so far as to say that some adults are even reading what might be classified as children’s books. I know that within the past year I’ve read both. From “The Wind in the Willows” to “The Hobbit” to “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” I find these “young” books to be more engaging, interesting and with more intriguing ideas than a large number of so-called “adult contemporary” fiction.

The author of the article, Clare Cannon, points out that “contemporary adults’ novels offer weird and wonderful stories that try to make up for a lack of hope and ideals with bizarre twists and extreme experiences, or with the smashing of taboos and guilt which they blame for killing the happiness that their ‘liberal’ experiences should have given them.

“That is why so much of it is just plain depressing, even if many people find it addictive.”

I found evidence of this in last weekend’s book review section of the Wall Street Journal, which reviewed two new novels which “ponder the courtship habits of neurotic millenials in Brooklyn and Silicon Valley.” No thrill going up my leg over those. According to Ms Cannon there are many books on the market today that are “just plain depressing.”

So why are people reading these kinds of books? If anyone out there has any ideas, I’d love to hear them. Personally, I have no clue. But if they’re leading more people to read young adult and children’s books, maybe they’re serving a purpose after all.
 
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Posted by on July 19, 2013 in Children's Books, Ideas, 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 History of the American Character

I have always loved American folklore. Thank goodness for Disney’s animated renderings of Johnny Appleseed, Pecos Bill IllustrationPecos Bill, the Uncle Remus stories and others. These tales, and my father’s guidance, led me further into my love of books and words. But there’s something else these wonderful “tall tales” did for me; they helped me to better understand, and to love, this country and its people.

These thoughts surfaced again in my mind last week after I came across a copy of “Pecos Bill: The Greatest Cowboy of All Time,” by James Cloyd Bowman (The New York Review Children’s Collection). Originally published in 1937, this book is a compilation of tales about the mythical, larger-than-life cowboy arranged to form an episodic novel. The bold, eye-catching illustrations by Laura Bannon, many in bright, primary colors, add much to the overall feel of the stories.

As Bowman writes in his introduction:

These adventures of Pecos Bill constitute a part of the Saga of the Cowboy. They are collected from the annals of the campfire and the roundup. They preserve the glory of the days when men were men, and when imagination and wonder rode hand in hand to conquest and to undying fame.

These tales are vital examples of the broad humor of America that has been long in the making. The bigness of the virgin frontier expanded the imagination of the first settlers, and the hardness of the life developed their self-reliance.

It makes me think that in these times when so few of America’s youth understand what being an American is about, maybe the best thing to do is re-introduce our “tall tales” to a new generation.

It should couldn’t hurt!

 
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Posted by on June 9, 2013 in Book Hunting, Ideas, Old Books

 

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