Tuesday, May 31, 2005

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One thing that Newman mentioned is the old idea that Etymology was a necessary part of Grammar. This makes an interesting contrast to those who insist, today, that an affection for etymologies is sheer pedantry; that it scarcely matters how, exactly, we came to have a certain English word. All that matters, they say, is what it means today, so that if anyone finds it amusing that someone's usage of an English word is inconsistent with the usage of its Greek or Latin root, they are merely snobs.

Yet I do not believe this is so; let us compare our own situation with that of the Greeks and Romans themselves. They, like most people today, used very many whose origin was quite dark to them; we have the luxury of looking back to Latin or Greek, but they in turn had no luxury of looking back to the proto-Indo-European language, whatever that was, or the non-Indo-European tongue that supposedly supplied much of the Greek lexicon. Were they not, then, in the same boat as an etymologically-ignorant modern? No. They would be, indeed, if etymology were simply an interesting collection of trivia; if, for instance, it documented nothing but the corruption of pronounciation and semantic shifts of a "sideways" variety (more on this to come). No doubt it is interesting that "adder", which refers only to certain snakes, comes from the Old English "naddre" that simply meant "snake", via a false splitting (apparently it was something like "a neddris" in Middle English; this became "an adder"). But this is of little use to anyone but an Old or Middle English scholar.

The real meat of etymology is in breaking down the compound word, and also in semantic shifts towards greater abstraction or complexity. And whereas the vast majority of compound words in Latin or Greek were formed from Latin or Greek words that everybody understood at the time, and the vast majority of abstract terms had a humbler meaning that was well-known, and a guide to its figurative usage, the vast majority of such words in English are still formed from Latin or Greek words that hardly anybody understands now. And except for those persons whose English vocabulary is derived from dictionaries, a modern English-speaker only knows the meaning of these words from context - and since compound words often embody a more complex concept than simple ones, a knowledge from context alone is correspondingly more subject to vagueness. This is also true in cases of semantic shift, in which the shift has been to a more complex or abstract meaning. Thus "science", which originally meant "knowledge", now means something that I really don't know how to define at all, except that it has "findings", and gets endowments at Universities.

In other words, we find ourselves using all sorts of complicated words, of whose meaning we have only the vaguest inkling. What, after all, does "complicated" really mean? I have no idea, because I don't know Latin, and while I am fairly sure that my usage there was correct, that is not enough; one can know that a word's usage is correct, without knowing exactly what it means. Such are the dangers of learning words from context. Moreover, this corruption extends even to those words for which we know a written definition - for that definition may itself be derived, not from the meaning of the word's Latin or Greek elements, but from common usage, which is in turn derived from context, which is in turn derived from common usage, etc.

One could say that this statement, if true, would prove too much - for would this not mean that language, when unsupported by instruction in etymology (which it has usually been, of course, throughout human history), would become ever vaguer? Would this not mean that language itself would have broken down long ago, if this process of corruption really occurred? However, this does not take into account the matter of complexity, and also of abstractness. For words of simple or of concrete meaning, there is little difficulty in learning an exact definition from mere context. Therefore we can all learn, pretty easily, what "head" or "bad" means. We need not fear that our lexicon will be corrupted in such simple matters (except that even simple abstractions may deteriorate because of a moral corruption - "'bad' and 'good' depend on your point of view" and similar confusions.) It is in words like "complicated", "abstract" and so forth that the danger lies, and it is because of such words as these, that etymology is a necessary part of education. For with that restriction placed upon linguistic corruption, my statements do not at all prove too much, if accepted: the more intellectual and abstract part of our language has its origins in known history; its beginnings are visible to us in the literary records of ancient Greece and Rome. And for almost all of that history, those same languages were known to educated men. There has, in short, been only a short amount of time for wholesale corruption of the more sophisticated parts of English, when the teaching of etymology simply went by the wayside. Yet even in that short stretch of time, we lost a great deal, and it is not at all outrageous, to think that we will lose a good deal more.

And so, stung by the Ven. Newman's words, I've started to learn New Testament Greek, having on hand all the needed materials for doing so. It's only a start, but well worth making I think.
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More on "Spirit of the Liturgy"

Of course, in "discussing" "Spirit of the Liturgy" yesterday, I left out all the juicy stuff - like, what *does* our papa (in his pre-papal period) say about the liturgy?

Well, opinionated and hot-blooded rants are definitely foreign to his style, and to what opinions he does render, I can hardly do justice with a quick set of bullet points. Nevertheless I will give a "taste" of his liturgical opinions as far as I am able to do so.

He defends the ad oreintem stance of the priest, calling it evidence of clericalism that anybody actually cares about the priest "turning his back" on us; as he points out, there is something here more important than the priest, and in ages past (and for many, in ages present), the people were paying more attention to the body of Our Lord than that of the priest. He gives short shrift ("I find it hard to believe that the famous critic thought this was a serious argument...." is the beginning of his response) to the sophistical claim that "when the priest and faithful look at one another, they are looking at the image of God in man, and so facing one another is the right direction for prayer" (how's THAT for clericalism? Among other things, it wouldn't help ecumenical relations with Protestants if we started praying, not just to images, but to the parish priest...or would it be equally reverent to pray at anybody in the congregation? Such would be the logical consequence of all this talk about "emphasizing" Christ's presence in the congregation at the expense of His presence in the Eucharist. And to think that I try not to look at the pretty girls in the pews - just shows how liturgically backward I am!) Actually his defense of the ad orientem is very extensive and subtle; he does not treat this as a minor point.

He defends kneeling; in such a superficial treatment as my own, there is little more to say, for the attack on kneeling is really quite indefensible and all that remains are meditations on the nature of this posture, that are beyond the scope of this post.

He defends what are sometimes called "mumbled" prayers in the liturgy, saying among other things, "The number of these [silent] priestly prayers has been greatly reduced in the liturgy, but, thank God, they do exist" and "In 1978 , to the annoyance of many liturgists, I said that in no sense does the whole Canon always have to be said out loud."

I have yet to find a word about the Latin language as it is used (or not) in the Roman rite; there are many ways to interpret this. One is that I haven't gotten to it yet, though I have read all the sections that ought to be likely places for it. Another is that, being a series of meditations on the liturgy rather than a liturgical instruction book, this is passed over as unimportant - but that cannot withstand scrutiny, for he is completely opposed to treating the liturgy as a set of meaningless accretions over a two-thousand-year period (those who complain about Medieval "decadence" in the liturgy find little agreement with him); rather he sees the particular character of the Catholic religion to be enshrined in the liturgy, so that the "historical accidents" that formed its various rites, are not at all accidental but manifestations of Divine Providence. Furthermore, there is a section in his book on "Music and Liturgy", and since so much music for the Roman Rite was written for the Latin tongue, it is striking that he says nothing of this. I admit that I am uncertain for the reason behind his omission, except that he wished to avoid controversy (yet he defends many controversial things - again, I am quite uncertain. Is the use of Latin even more controversial than any of the things he takes on quite calmly?) I am quite certain, however, that he did not make this omission through oversight.

In any case, this book is only moderately useful to one in search of a bullet-point-friendly exposition of the then-Cardinal's liturgical opinions. But it is a very interesting set of meditations on the liturgy, and those who are interested in the way that Pope Benedict thinks, rather than just what he thinks on a narrow range of controversial subjects, will benefit from it also.

In passing, I was reminded of a problem that must vex the translator of German to English, namely capitalization - German academic prose often uses phrases that look as if capitalization would do them good (in English), but the original is no help since all the nouns are in capitals....

Oh, and as you may have noticed, it is now possible to email Blogimus. Why one would do such a thing is another matter entirely.

Monday, May 30, 2005

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Reality of a University....

The reading of Newman's book becomes, while ever more engaging, ever more depressing. I was quite surprised when, in his treatise on a University, he veered off into writing fiction; it is interesting, inasmuch he was not really bad at it, but had no idea of creating a literary monument. It was merely the sort of illustrative fiction that a resourceful writer will employ from time to time; the striking part is the zest with which he throws himself into something so purely didactic in aim. One can call to mind instances of a similar literary approach arising from the "opposite end" of things; if Newman (here as in his "Tale of the Third Century" and "Gain and Loss") fictionalized a series of lectures, there were famous characters like Shaw who "lecturized" their fiction...of the greatest interest, though, is that his illustrations would also take the form of rather-skillful psychological studies. In a purely didactic fiction-writer, this is unique in my experience.

This chapter, on Elementary Studies, I had expected to find a useful expansion of the ideas that he expressed in his preface on the same subject. Indeed it is, and if anyone consider the state of most young, educated men and women (easily enough done, right?), and ask if they are more in the mold of young Mr. Brown or young Mr. Black, they may agree with me in having a most unpleasant answer. The saddest part is that Cdl. Newman so constantly referred to young Mr. Brown as a "caricature"; a bit over a century later, he is the most subdued and unremarkable of portraits.
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Yesterday I purchased "The Spirit of the Liturgy", written by a Cardinal named Ratzinger, who some people might have heard of....

Yes, I'm jumping on the bandwagon; yes, if I were one of the cool people I would have bought all of Ratzinger's books long ago. Oh well.

The book shows how utterly outlandish is the fever-dream notion that Cdl. Ratzinger was some sort of hard-line enforcer, pounding his doctrinaire notions into the poor, oppressed faithful. Mildness and detachment are among the most pronounced qualities of this book, though occasionally he inserts a brief remark of exasperation: "There are groups, of no small influence, who are trying to talk us out of kneeling. 'It doesn't suit our culture', they say (which culture?)." (trans. John Saward). But this is about as heated as his rhetoric gets. I suppose there are some people to whom it is impossible to say "no" without being called a scold.

Also on the plate, via (with apologies to certain readers) Jeff Culbreath's new blog, is an online version of Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange's book "The Three Ways of the Spiritual Life". It is a short but very instructive read for any Catholic, and humbling for people like me, who are forced to confront the fact that 1. No, holiness is not just something for other people, and 2. We have a lot farther to go and are not getting there very fast at the moment.

This sort of reflective mood was forced on me by this blog post, which struck somewhat of a nerve. It's not something I can be certain about now, but it's a good thing to have in mind, and even if it turns out "not to apply" to me, it gave me a healthy reminder that all Catholics, lay or religious, are called to serve God as long as they live, without allowing anything else to take precedence.

Friday, May 27, 2005

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Indeed, it surely appeared that my researches into the opus of Newman were entirely unrelated to my earlier theme of public schooling. But like the weird subject of Beethoven's Grosse Fuge and the equally-weird counter-subject with the dotted rhythm, their great dissimilarity interferes not at all with their profound compatibility. Though it may be possible to overwork this comparison.

Obviously I refer to his Idea of a University, in which he addresses a topic that was much in the public mind at the time, or so I gather. If the inadequacy of our educational systems is widely admitted, the harmful effects of this are less so; apart from what I mentioned earlier, namely the active harm that is done to children by the public schools, let us consider merely what they are lacking, by lacking a sound education. The preface to his book gives an outline of what we may expect education at its best - including university instruction - to accomplish; if the education of his time, as well as ours, fell short of his ideal, yet it was not an ideal out of reach in Newman's day. How reachable is it in ours? Read this description of an "elementary" education, in which there are actually discernable elements to speak of:

"Suffice it, then, to say here, that I hold very strongly that the first step in intellectual training is to impress upon a boy's mind the idea of science, method, order, principle, and system; of rule and exception, of richness and harmony. This is commonly and excellently done by making him begin with Grammar; nor can too great accuracy, or minuteness and subtlety of teaching be used towards him, as his faculties expand, with this simple purpose. Hence it is that critical scholarship is so important a discipline for him when he is leaving school for the University. A second science is the Mathematics: this should follow Grammar, still with the same object, viz., to give him a conception of development and arrangement from and around a common centre. Hence it is that Chronology and Geography are so necessary for him, when he reads History, which is otherwise little better than a storybook. Hence, too, Metrical Composition, when he reads Poetry; in order to stimulate his powers into action in every practicable way, and to prevent a merely passive reception of images and ideas which in that case are likely to pass out of the mind as soon as they have entered it. Let him once gain this habit of method, of starting from fixed points, of making his ground good as he goes, of distinguishing what he knows from what he does not know, and I conceive he will be gradually initiated into the largest and truest philosophical {xx} views, and will feel nothing but impatience and disgust at the random theories and imposing sophistries and dashing paradoxes, which carry away half-formed and superficial intellects."

This is only one of many interesting - though not original (and not least interesting for their unoriginality, inasmuch as he witnesses to the common thought of his times) - passages in that preface. Measure yourself, as I reluctantly did, against the standard of an educated man that he holds forth in this preface, and then against his descriptions of the un- or ill-educated. Am I alone in acquiring a sudden sense of inadequacy? Or is just about everybody else in the same boat as I am, nowadays?

I'll finish this book in the next week, and I suspect that this preface will not be alone among the chapters, in holding interest for the modern reader. We will see.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

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During my trip to Notre Dame, I went to Mass at the Basilica there. As with the Mass that I attend weekly in Minneapolis, I said to myself "the music is not all that it might be - but this is not Carnegie Hall. It may be too populistic for my tastes, but Mass is not meant to cater to my tastes; the spirit of it is not quite right, as if we are having a genial social gathering rather than worshipping our God, but on the other hand, it is a Mass, so on the whole I shouldn't complain." After leaving, one of the grad students (cognisant of my somewhat conservative bent) asked me "was that High Church enough for you?" I made a vague grunting noise, too taken aback by the question to really answer it. Apparently, the Mass at the Basilica there is supposed to be very "High" - formal, traditional, what have you. Somehow I had come away with almost the reverse idea - have I become a liturgical traditionalist without having gone to a Tridentine Mass in my entire life? Did this just creep over me, or what? Odd.

I've been doing a bit more poking around the Newman page, profitably as always. What a remarkable mind, and how devoted! His distinctive quality, I think, is the breadth of view that his works afford; the greatness of his intellect lay not in anything that would excite the academics - he did not resolve any burning (i.e. fashionable) question; he did not contribute to some grand philosophical "project" or "dialogue". There are no impressive feats of scholarship, such as impress certain sorts of people. Indeed, he well understood the world of dispute, of which this "dialogue" is but another name - the very name that St. Paul used, indeed, in condemning it - and like St. Paul, he spurned it. To Newman, "controversy" was mainly a term of opprobrium, and rightly so.

This is why I find it amusing, whenever some devotee of these fruitless debates deigns to "obliterate" some statement or principle of Newman's, identifying him with some currently-unfashionable school of thought, or proving that he in fact adheres to contradictory schools of thought - that, horror of horrors, he doesn't even seem to realize what school he belongs to! Poor little lost Newman...I imagine him smiling in heaven, very glad that he no longer has any obligation to answer such people on any occasion. This sermon shows where that world of "intellectuals" truly stands in relation to Newman - as a dank, ignorant barrage of words, coming under the gaze of what it does not understand, and never will, though professing to have this state as its aim: a wise man. It is also an interesting exegesis.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

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Now that, indeed, was quite the experience. In case you were wondering, moving someone to a new house in the space of one day is not really a two-man job - or it shouldn't be. Not, at least, unless the two men involved are much more muscular than the actual parties involved here.

Though at the end of the moving day, I thought to myself "hey, this isn't really that bad." I didn't have any muscle cramps except the fingers, from gripping all the furniture, and I even felt a sort of obscure satisfaction from a job well done. I started musing to myself that perhaps my effete, decadent everyday existence, in which strenuous physical exertion played no part, was not really how a man was meant to live. Not to sentimentalize overmuch, I said to myself, but perhaps a routine of real, difficult labor would greatly improve my (sadly deficient) character.

Yes, exhaustion can induce all sorts of delusions. Needless to say, sanity was restored the next morning. Muscle cramps would have been a delight, compared to the flu-like symptoms that the previous day's work had brought about...my plan now is to have many children, slyly encourage them to regular exercise, and then make them lift things for me, so that this sort of business will not happen again. As for the interim decades - well I never said my plan was perfect.

I finally got around to updating my little links bar, to reflect actual Blogimus reading tendencies. There's the Scottish Blog (of which Boeciana is a member) ex laodicea, and Hilary's Fiat Mihi Torontonite (?) blog.

Ah, what bliss to be finished. Although it was not a dull experience, making such a long trip by van, going to Notre Dame and meeting some of the grad students in their history department, etc. And I suppose getting a piece of chicken lodged in your throat for over a day is not really "dull" either....

But it's definitely good to be back.

Friday, May 20, 2005

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Well, that's all finished; I should be back Tuesday.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

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Ah, nothing like Wednesdays for insomnia. Afraid that I won't be able to say much, other than that I enjoyed spectating. I just walked around looking over people's shoulders - because why not? Everybody else was doing it. Especially the people who were playing games - they only spent about two-thirds of their time actually sitting at the board. I learned that perhaps the Russians have a more "que sera, sera" attitude towards bodily collisions than Minnesotans - or that grandmasters are a bit lacking in physical coordination.

It was very interesting to see serious players actually playing the physical game, as opposed to all the computer stuff. Very different from what I'd expected.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

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Blogimus will be having an eventful week, starting with three days of spectation at this local event. If I'd known about it much earlier, I could have registered for the unrated section; only about 70 people ended up registering for that, and I think I could have at least recouped the registration fee by finishing in the top ten - I doubt anybody would travel in for a top prize of $2000, so it would just be local amateurs like me. Ah well, of all the words of tongue or pen, et cetera. If I play anything myself, it will be a crushing defeat in a simul against one of the GM's. It's true that being in a simultaneous game gives you an advantage, but being a GM gives you a much bigger one...it's said that Humphrey Bogart once drew in a simul against Grandmaster Reshevsky (probably the strongest player in the world for a time). But they also say Bogart was a bit of a chess hustler....

Then I go to South Bend, Indiana for the weekend, on a dark and mysterious project that involves moving things. Those who say that Blogimus does not have the build of a natural mover-of-heavy-objects are possibly correct, but neither is he entirely feeble, and things will doubtless go swimmingly. Any disasters will be reported on next Tuesday. In the meantime, blogging should go more or less normally for the remainder of the week, but we will see - you never know about that spectation.

Monday, May 16, 2005

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In one of Chesterton's Father Brown stories, he describes the fall of a noble family's fortunes with something to the effect of: "it was the sad, familiar story of the family lawyer."

From that alone, we know everything: the lawyer, not required as nowadays to specialize in some narrow little corner of an enormous code, was also something of an accountant and an investment broker, and took control of the family's money, eventually bankrupting them and lining his own pockets - and nobody would notice because his job was so thoroughly boring. One can imagine Lord Whatsisname getting a bit worried about his employee's bookkeeping every now and then, confronting him over it, and getting such an earful of dry calculations that he could not bring himself to look any further. Taking control of things that nobody else can be bothered to notice, is an old and effective strategy in many arenas.

I think that the schools - the public schools most notably, but the private schools can hardly be exempted from this - are very like the family lawyer. Actually investigating their activities is surprisingly difficult, largely because the investigator is swamped with vast reams of rather inconsequential information: mostly statistics with no easy way of telling what the statistics mean. I suppose it would help to be a parent, but remembering my own parents' attempts to find out "how was school today," and my remarkable success in stonewalling them from kindergarten to high school, I'm not sure just how helpful that would be. In any case, like the family lawyer, they are doing something very important in which almost no one takes interest, which means that they can do it more or less however they please.

I'm not that interested in it either, really. But are we supposed to let those who find it interesting, look into it and read about it? How many such people are there? Hardly any, and so if we refuse to look at this because it is dull, we can rest assured that almost everyone else will do the same.

The state of California has been kind enough to release some of the batteries with which it is assessing the skills of its students. "Captain, the enemy battery is about to assess our skills!"


More to follow.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

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I'd like to continue my uncovering-of-squiggly-things-under-rocks in our public education system, having only made the merest scratch upon the great surface of squiggly-covered rock available. Certainly it is shooting fish in the barrel, and probably preaching to the choir, and many other hackneyed metaphors, but it's good to have a reminder of just how sinister and incompetent is the design of our education programs, and it apparently takes a rather weird mindset to actually care enough about this minutiae to catalog it. Why I'm not sure; perhaps the people who know our public schools are worthless but don't really care, simply think that all this nonsense will just roll off the kids like water from a duck's back - and the smart ones always have the library if they want to actually learn something worthwhile, right?

I, however, have the superstitious opinion that if you put a child in a certain environment for about 10 percent of his entire childhood, this is actually going to have some effect on him, and if it is a rotten environment, this could easily result in a rotten child. That this does not invariably happen, or that it might have happened anyway, is heartening in the one case and saddening in the other, but in neither case is it an excuse for tolerating the schools. Perhaps the idea of a "worthless" school conjures up a notion of neutrality, as if, being of no worth, it is likewise devoid of substance and may be ignored in its influence on the child. But our schools are not merely reprehensible for what they fail to teach, but for what they do teach. Do you think that Wednesday's horror shop was nothing but an educationist's pipe dream, that children are not, for instance, really made to spout saccharine cant about "stereotypes" so that government functionaries may satisy themselves that they are stamping out bigotry? Or do you think that coercing children into speaking nonsense does not affect their minds? We may, indeed, take some degree of comfort in the fact that the functionaries are not the teachers, that the teachers, while often incompetent, usually speak and act like human beings. But examine that giant pdf to which I linked in my last post, and ask if you are comfortable in allowing these unabashed social engineers to design our schools' curricula?

Nor are these authors a lone group of weirdos; they are rather, as I said to Boeciana below, entirely par for the course, and I intend to prove this, and much else, in some of my following posts. But this will take googling, which takes time, which requires that I stay up past midnight instead of, well, going to bed in a few minutes as I very well ought to. Sleep deprivation begins to have unpleasant effects after awhile...however, my job ends tomorrow, so I'll be able to post more regularly and have time for the hours of investigation that this particular subject demands.

In other news, I am gratified to see that blogs with readerships higher than 4 have also made note of that gem of the comboxes, of which I made note here. I would like to think I started the PR campaign, but see above note on readership.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

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So, rather than just ask silly questions, the power of the Internet allows me to answer silly questions about our public schools. Let us descend upon the school websites!

Alas, they do not seem to be especially eager to advertise just what they are teaching children, but it is certainly possible to dredge a few things up. Shall we see what North Carolina, for instance, is offering her youngsters? There seems to be a fad, popular at least there, for something called a "balanced curriculum". This is no mere adjective-noun pairing, but a "term of art" (to put it generously) or "piece of ephmeral cant" to put it, well, accurately. Observe giant pdf(1.4mb):


First observe ominous quote from one Elliot Eisner, which they considered worthy of bold and gigantic font: "Decisions that are made about what will be accessible to children help shape the kinds of minds they will come to own."

Now I do not pass myself off as a master of English; in fact I am a metaphorical matricide in that regard, butchering our mother tongue with nary a qualm of conscience. But...my oh my. "Decisions that are made about what will be accessible"? "Help shape the kinds of minds they will come to own"?

Away from such horrors; let us forge ahead.

Later, after much boilerplate, we will find another quote lying around, like a skull half-buried in a blasted wasteland, warning the unwary traveler of what is to come: "Learning is change. It is change in ourselves because it is change in the brain. Thus the art of teaching must be the art of changing the brain." Gulp. Dare we go further? We must, dear reader. We are in a strange land of monstrous sentences whose "thuses" precede no syllogism, where practitioners of the dark art of brain-changing lie in wait for us...but we have resolved to uncover the mysterious Balanced Curriculum, and we must brave hardier things than this if our quest is to succeed.

Yet perhaps, in having fun at their expense, I am doing them an injustice. One may have a questionable ear for quotable quotes, yet still have quite a marvelous Balanced Curriculum, yes? Let us look at the top of page 17, to see something of the philosophy that governs this curriculum:

"Current brain research reflects the importance of an enriched environment as necessary to brain growth and development [current brain research does not explain how an importance can be reflected as necessary to something -- Maximus]

An enriched environment:

1. Includes a steady source of positive emotional support;
2. Provides a nutritious diet with enough proteins, vitamins, minerals and calories;
3. Stimulates all the senses (but not necessarily all at once);
4. Has an atmosphere free of pressure and stress but suffused with a degree of pleasurable intensity;"

I'm sorry, I can't go on. This is too much. Kids learn well if you are nice to them, and if you feed them, keep them alert and keep them in a good mood. Excellent. Moving on....

New skull - I mean quote: "Brain-compatible learning is here to stay [...]" Yes, Eric Jensen, all the fads and trends are "here to stay" until one day, they're gone, and something else is here to stay instead. Spooky, isn't it? Fortunately your job will remain; it always does. You'll just have to pick up some new lingo.

I can only give you a taste of the madness that actually constitutes the Balanced Curriculum, but that should be enough. On page 101:

"Fourth Grade - An Integrated Day [Integration is the magic key to the mysterious Balanced Curriculum]

As students arrive, they find their morning assignment on the board. It reads, "In the dictionary, find and write the definitions of stereo, stereotype and stereophonic. What do these definitions have in common?" After students have had time to find these definitions, the whole class discusses the meanings and the fact that a stereotype reduces the complex, multidimensional nature of human beings to a single statement, image, or attitude [...] The activities for today focus on helping students dispel many stereotypes of American Indians."

Nice little bit of brain-changing, eh? Those racist little twerps need to have their stereotypes dispelled, and the government is only too happy to do it for them. Nice.

The rest of the Integrated Day focuses on the American Indians (this sounds sorta like one of your projects, Boeciana), eventually working its way to the making of Navajo cornbread. I say "working its way" because the educationists seem to think that if you want to understand a culture, you needn't bother with silly stuff like learning the language; rather you should eat the food. So they were bound to get to that Navajo cornbread eventually. Then there is the sixth step of the day's brainwashing program, a true gem:

"Center 6: Guidance

Mrs. Schmidt, the school counselor, has collaborated with the classroom teacher to facilitate this center. She will be working with small groups of students on conflict resolution. This is integrated with the social studies unit because students have examined conflicts of American Indians and are relating this to conflicts they experience in their lives today[!!!]. Students having difficulty with the concept of conflict resolution are going to participate in small group conseling on Wednesdays for the next six weeks[!!!]. Mrs. Schmidt and the classroom teacher have worked together to find the best time for this group to meet."

Oh boy. I really can't make any smartass remarks about that one; I regard it with a sort of inverted reverence that words would only mar; my triple-exclamation-points are the only commentary I will dare.

It is very late. Perhaps tomorrow I will see what can be done in the investigation of "assessments" - that is, the sort of tests that I've been looking over during the last week.

Monday, May 09, 2005

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Well, the job continues this week, which is good for everything except sleep - long commutes do not mix well with an 8 am start time. In other news, I'm starting to get the hang of this "chess" thing, but as always it eats up too much time - time that could be spent doing useful things, like, say blogging (snort).

Yes, it's probably time for another chess hiatus. Better for all concerned.

Anyway, back to the subject of elementary school: I wonder what you would get, if you made a list of everything that an American child would learn between kindergarten and the fifth grade. I can think of this:

1. Reading and writing (possibly).
2. Arithmetic (yes, I know, it's going just like the song so far - except that the hickory stick has alas been phased out).
3. ???

I'm dredging the old memory well, all the way back to my school days, and trying to come up with a 3. Vast expertise in Oregon Trail? Well, the kindergarteners probably all play Quake III now or something, but something along the same lines might apply. I suppose some faint acquaintance with the structure of our government is possible...I'm not trying to be snarky by saying that I can't think of a 3 here. When I try to think of when we were taught something besides reading, writing and 'rithmetic, all that comes to mind is being told repeatedly that oil-drilling rainforest loggers and spotted-owl hunters were destroying the ozone layer by littering, or something to that effect. Really, save-the-earth crap is all that I've got here.

Lynn, can you give me a 3?

And if you can't give me a real one (that is, an actual subject, as opposed to propaganda)...are kids really so thick-headed that it takes 180 days a year for 6 years to teach them how to write a half-coherent sentence, how to read a slightly-more-coherent one, and how to add, subtract, multiply and possibly divide (I admit that I can't do long division to this day - I just guess, multiply and refine the guess til I get it)?

This is beyond "inadequate education". "Overpriced daycare" is a better description.

But I think the main problem goes beyond the corruption of a specific system, and beyond the plain fact that the state should not be responsible for educating children, since private schools can be as bad as public ones. The real reason we aren't teaching children anything is very simple: we don't want them to know any more than we do. I don't mean that in a conspiratorial sense (we can't let them know too much!), but simply that in our typical human arrogance, we don't want to believe that anything we don't know is that important. Sometimes "practical results", as with the natural sciences, will convince people that there is something worthwhile there, but as long as we "get along fine" without knowing such-and-such, why bother putting it in the classroom?

Thus, however it came about, ignorance becomes self-perpetuating. Nobody knows geography nowadays (I certainly don't) and we get along just fine without it, don't we, so there's no point in Junior knowing exactly where Belarus is. Certainly nobody knows Latin or Greek, even the few fragments of "schoolboy Greek" that an average, educated adult would retain in the old days - and hey, we're none the worse for it, right? So why bother the kids with it?

But on the other hand, we do need them to know about the hole in the ozone layer. It's important they know that, because the children are our future....

Thursday, May 05, 2005

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I'll be brief....

...because I have, alas, budgeted my time very ineffectively tonight, and it is now 11:15. By 11:30 I need to be in bed, and I fear that I will still be rather zombified when I get up at 6:30 tomorrow.

I'll just give an example of the kind of oddities I notice in the tests we give our youngsters:

One question had a drawing of a country home, at most a few hundred yards away. You were supposed to pick the adjective that best described it; two options were obviously wrong, and the other two were: "distant" and "nearby".

Now, the road leading up to this country house was a bit winding, and diminished as it drew towards the home, so I would bet any amount of money that the "correct" answer was "distant." Yet if I were walking down that country road, I would think of that house as "close". To my way of thinking, I would be practically there. What an utterly unanswerable question...and this sort of thing is how we determine how smart our kids are. I think the greatest display of intelligence was by the kid who left it blank....

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

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Just doin' my job

Blogimus is one happy blogger today, having just gotten a brief job. It's temporary in the extreme, alas, but even a few hundred dollars will significantly improve the summer finance situation in chez Maximus. Also I enjoy these little clerical things; it's a fascinating glimpse into the modern American bureacracy.

This time I learned something about that great question: what happens to those bubble sheets, anyway? Sure, a machine processes them, but doesn't some human person go through them and make sure everything's okay? Why some human person does, and for a week or so that human person will be me.

It made me wonder about our world of standardized testing. The thing that kind of disturbed me was looking at these tests filled out by 1st graders. For them, you could see the actual questions and not just the row of (a) (b) (c) (d) (e) stretching on for column after column. I was disturbed by how good these little children were. Not only did they answer a lot of questions correctly, but they mostly filled in their bubble sheets very neatly, one answer per question, with only 1 (!!) child in a batch of hundreds actually doodling on the paper. One!

What sort of a society is this, anyway? The more I think of it, the more their precise filling-in of one bubble per question with a no. 2 pencil, is an appalling thought. These are six-year-olds! The boys, certainly, should be defacing every other test sheet with crude drawings of airplanes or guns or something; anything else is simply unnatural. I gave a silent "bravo" for the little tyke who filled in all his bubbles with something between a check mark and a spiral, even if I had to spend awhile interpreting these cryptic marks to the computer - and I cheered for the many who pointedly insisted on giving two answers for certain multiple choice questions, though the guidelines were always for one answer apiece.

The interesting thing is that I often agreed with them - of course, I could see what answer the testers wanted the child to give, but frequently you could make an excellent case for another option. This sort of thing, naturally, is why they used to give me (back when I, too, was under their power) that rigamarole about "select the answer that best applies," knowing the deceitfulness and perfidy of the piffle that they purveyed to our innocent minds, but this is the merest sophistry; either an answer applies or it doesn't. Clearly these test-givers are peddling Hegelianism upon unsuspecting youth, telling us that all their statements are only better or worse approximations of some never-quite-stated truth. Bah!

It makes me wonder just how far the test-taking mentality has seeped into our national psyche; consider the perverse thinking that it encourages. In the "hard" questions, they will usually give one or more answers that look very plausible; in my opinion, they are often so plausible as to be, in fact, correct - though they are not the "right" answers. Adding to this element of trickery, I know from experience that I would often be thinking, "what, exactly, do they want me to put here?" So the idea is that you are supposed to prove your intellectual worth by learning how to tell the authorities what they want to hear, and avoid their constant attempts to trick you into screwing up. What a nice worldview that encourages. But does it actually seep in, and stay there?

Then I thought about the way a job interview is conducted, the basic procedure being that the interviewer asks some actually helpful questions, then throws out a bunch of silly crap like "tell us about a time you completely screwed up" - in other words, they ask a bunch of trick questions whose main purpose is to trip you up. And you try to convince them that you are worthy of employment by navigating the traps and figuring out what they want to hear. Is the resemblance pure coincidence? Could it be that the nameless monsters who developed the modern job interview, had some vague idea that if you wanted to learn what a person was worth, this was "the way it was done"?

I wonder. This isn't the only instance of adults treating other adults in a manner remarkably reminiscent of the United States public school system. I noticed something of this during RCIA, and in fact whenever people have tried to instruct me as an adult, I've noticed a striking similiarity to the way they instructed me as a child.

My dad told me that according to some study or other, the widespread hatred of kids for school was absorbed from their parents, who likewise hated school. So I said, "I guess I'm gonna raise a nice brood of school-haters, then." He objected for some reason; I think I have the right idea.

And maybe kids hate school because it's a lousy, inhuman system, of which our multiple-choice tests are probably among the most benign appendages.