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Category Archives: Worries

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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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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“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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You Animal, You!

I read an interesting article this weekend in The Wall Street Journal by Frans de Waal, primatologist at Emory

The Elephant Fiasco

The Elephant Fiasco (Photo credit: locket479)

University in Atlanta. Titled “The Brains of the Animal Kingdom,” it offered many interesting examples of the intelligence of such animals as chimps, elephants and octopuses, some of them pretty amazing. The point? Nothing new really. As de Waal puts it, “science keeps chipping away at the wall that separates us from the other animals.” The implication being that humans are nothing special, just another animal.

Sigh.

This just gets so tiring, but it offers an example of why it is good to read books and not just the newspapers. I take you back to 1967 and a book written by the late, great Mortimer J. Adler. “The Difference of Man and the Difference it Makes” (Holt, Rinehart & Winston) explores the many areas in which humans are not “just another animal.” Adler even quotes evolutionists such as George Gaylord Simpson, Theodosius Dobzhansky and Julian Huxley as referring to man’s uniqueness. As Dobzhansky put it, ” Human intellectual abilities seem to be not only quantitatively but also qualitatively different from those of animals other than men.”

In one of his Frankenstein novels, author Dean Koontz has a character state that “to fight bad ideas is a life’s work.” Well, the idea that humans are nothing but animals needs a good butt-kicking.

 
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Posted by on March 27, 2013 in Ideas, Quotations, Worries

 

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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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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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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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Scary!

National Inquirer

National Inquirer (Photo credit: turkeychik)

So I’m standing in line at the local grocery waiting to check out, and I look at the magazines crowding the racks there: “Us,” “Star,” People,” “National Enquirer,” Brad, Angie, Ashton, Demi, Kim, Gaga, weight, fat, sex, health, recipes, abs, belly, yada, yada, yada. Nary an interesting thought or idea in sight. And lots of people are actually reading this. For some, this is the extent of their reading.

Does anyone else find this scary?

 
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Posted by on June 9, 2012 in Worries

 

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