Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Thoughts on Homeschooling, Part I

Parents usually surprise me by approving of my wife's and my intent to educate our children ourselves. Older folks and people without kids are especially full of praise, as are fogies of all ages. All three groups have a sense that something is amiss these days, and that' it's best to handle some things yourself.

Parents, however, who are following or who recently have followed modern social and educational dogmas, however, extend a particular, rather predictable compliment, namely that my wife and I are intelligent. The thinking goes, I suppose, that since we are smart, the kids will become smart. I really do appreciate the confidence, but to reduce the choice of rejecting schools to a matter of smarts, needed by parents and desired for children, misses the point. Such a reduction is a wide misstep, sometimes deliberate, in understanding not only what motivates people to homeschool, but also in understanding oneself and one's own family.

More particularly, most everyone has by the time of parenthood come to his conclusion about his intelligence. Particularly, most everyone thinks that he is smart. I have known only two people ever in my life who claimed to be stupid. (One was right.) What people imply by praising homeschooling parents as intelligent, I suppose, is this: since intelligence is the only or at least the chief prerequisite for homeschooling and since they too are smart, they too could home-school, if they so chose. If they are among the few who don't believe themselves so smart, this simplification of the requirements exonerates them from trying and, conveniently, permits them to think that their dim wits are the only things stopping them.

In either case, by predicating homeschooling on one single virtue about which they have a foregone conclusion, people don't consider the actual requirements. My thesis is that if they considered homeschooling seriously, i.e. considered the actual requirements, they would benefit from the introspection even if they decided not to homeschool. I offer two examples of matters which homeschooling families must address which are often not considered by other families and which, left unconsidered, can hurt the family.

First, regardless of their opinions of themselves, most people are not quite so smart, at least insofar as smart implies being both broadly informed and keen-minded. We simply become trained at one or a few tasks that we repeat thousands, perhaps tens-of-thousands, of times. Eventually we confuse this habit and local expertise for universal intelligence, that is, until a few variables in our work are changed and we are thrown for a loop. Too I observe with regret that many people sharply lean, in both interest and expertise, toward either the sciences or the humanities. What is so wrong with this is not the direction of their focus but the conceit that accompanies it.

People in the sciences do not want to admit that they can scarcely string together a few competent sentences and would be hard pressed to explain basic grammar. (I pass over the implications of this on the clarity of their thought.) They think they are brilliant logicians, but they are often just prosaic literal-minded dullards, unmoved by subtlety, beauty, and anything which may not be computed but must be considered with taste or wisdom.

The humanities experts—I was going to write humanists but that's hardly appropriate these days—don't want to admit that they cannot perform long division or calculate percentages and that they have not the faintest understanding of or interest in the laws of nature, unless perhaps you post a short YouTube video explaining how to "hack your tofu with science," or "science the shit out of" your vinyl records.

The sad truth is that parents, perhaps just some but probably many, are hypocrites for forcing their children to slave over work that they themselves don't value and that they don't consider valuable in general. Kids eventually discern this, of course, whether by seeing their parents' ignorance of the knowledge itself or even their parents' abject denigration of the subject, ("You'll never really use this." "Just memorize it for the test.") Who wouldn't, then, resent the work and lose faith in academic institutions? Worse, though, is that when the kids catch on to the ruse the only recourse parents have (apart from learning, of course) is to tell the children to do as they are told. At that point learning devolves from an exploration of the principles to which we all, teacher and pupil and parent and child alike, are subject, into an authoritarian, utilitarian, regimen. "Get your work done. Get good grades." It is unsurprising then how often the few hours families spend together are spent in quarrels over homework no one really cares about.

Second, then, many parents really can't imagine being home with their kids all day anyway. Instead of learning together, parents grow frustrated and impatient with the tortuous course of learning they have long forgotten. The result is that they can't wait to be away from their kids and go back to their own business. You can see in their eyes that they just don't know what to do with their kids when they are together without some task to perform. They need jobs like homework and after-school activities because there is no purpose to modern life besides the work and consumptive entertainment that crowd out the leisure that, by building bonds, allows natural affection to flourish. Families need uninterrupted, purposeless, inefficient, time together. In contrast, imagine this common scenario:

A mother spends, let's be generous in our estimations, six months with her children from when they are born. They are then cared for by daycare workers or extended family for perhaps 10 hours a day, at least 250 days (i.e. weekdays) out of the year, for another 4.5 years. Then during the next 13 years, the kids spend at least 7 hours-per-day in school for 180 days of the year, out of which year their parents spend 50 weeks working 9am-5pm.

Now throw into into such a mix the fact that both parents are tired from working, the family's finances are overextended, the schedule is overbooked, and they have no one to turn to for wise advice, it's no wonder that the few hours families spend together are fraught with stress. This, I think, is the reason that digital devices have become such popular babysitters: parents welcome them.

I formerly thought that the saddest sight likely in a restaurant was that of a restaurant diner fiddling on her cell phone while her mortified date looked desperately around the room for a comforting nod of sympathy. How lonely such pained souls look, not only invited and ignored, but put on public display in their ongoing rejection. How much worse is the plight of the child, though, brought along and then given the device by which he is meant to occupy himself as he sits nibbling on his French fries and dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets. Such neglect—public and unabashed—of kids, with their little faces aglow in the blue light of a cell phone while their parents chat away, saddens me.

Parents of such unfortunate kids are suffering too, though not how they think. Part of me sympathizes with them, since their modern bourgeois lifestyle is so complex and contradictory in its requirements as to seem designed to immiserate. Still, flypaper attracts flies, fools gold attracts fools, and such people chasing middle class pipe dreams are typically so deluded that they think their terrible situation is not only acceptable, but good. (Or that it could be improved by means of money.) What is worse to me, though, is how this quagmire seems easily capable of swallowing generations of the family, depriving who knows how many of a true liberal education characterized by a peaceful love of learning, rich, broad, and deep, and full of curiosities and of interest unique to the family.

That seems to me a beautiful thing, though I'm not saying at all that homeschooling is best for everyone. I am saying feigning or assuming that sending their children to school is a conscious, informed choice, that they understand and value the work to which they sentence their children, and that they have close bonds in their family, masks their lack of a guiding vision of life.

To Be Continued in Part II

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Quote: On The Teaching of Benjamin Jowett

from, The Life and Letters of Benjamin Jowett: Master of Balliol College, Oxford. by Evelyn Abbott and Lewis Campbell. 1897. Vol I. p. 199-201.

He managed always to direct the study of language so as to promote literary culture. The pieces set by him for composition were choice specimens of classical English, which prompted higher efforts, and led to a closer intimacy with great writers. . .
His criticism in those days stimulated without discouraging. In setting before the mind a lofty idea he implied a belief in powers hereafter to be developed and the belief seemed to create the thing believed in. But the intellectual stimulus was not all. He seemed to divine one's spiritual needs, and by mere contact and the brightness of his presence, to supply them. If he was ready to repress conceit, he was no less ready to bestow encouragement on the diffident, and sympathy upon the depressed; not without timely warning, when he saw the danger or temptation was at hand. His intimate knowledge of his former pupils' lives was applied to heal the errors of their successors, and his own experience of early struggles also had its effect. He ignored trifles, but never let pass any critical point.
. . . If there was less of exact scholarship imparted by him. . . the whole subject was surrounded with an air of literary grace and charm which had a more educative effect.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Quote: Sallust on Self-Indulgence

Sallust. Bellum Catilinae. 13. (Trans. J. C. Rolfe. 1921)

. . .the passion which arose for lewdness, gluttony, and the other attendants of luxury was equally strong; men played the woman (muliebria pati), women offered their chastity for sale; to gratify their palates they scoured land and sea; they slept before they needed sleep; they did not await the coming of hunger or thirst, of cold or of weariness, but all these things their self-indulgence anticipated. Such were the vices that incited the young men to crime, as soon as they had run through their property. Their minds, habituated to evil practices, could not easily refrain from self-indulgence, and so they abandoned themselves the more recklessly to every means of gain as well as of extravagance.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Quote: Heidegger on The Poet and the Fugitive Gods

Martin Heidegger. Poetry, Language, Thought. "What Are Poets For?" Translated by Albert Hofstadter

Poets are the mortals who, singing earnestly of the wine-god, sense the trace of the fugitive gods, stay on the gods' tracks, and so trace for their kindred mortals the way toward the turning. the ether, however, in which alone the gods are gods, is their godhead. The element of this ether, that within which even the godhead itself is still present, is the holy. The element of the ether for the coming of the fugitive gods, the holy, is the track of the fugitive gods. But who has the power to sense, to trace such a track?  Traces are often inconspicuous, and are always the legacy of a directive that is barely divined. To be a poet in a destitute time means: to attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods. That is why the poet in the time of the world's night utters the holy.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Lessons for Teachers #9: Oops

Once upon a time when I was a was a wee lad of a teacher, a student needed to make up a test. Lo! The naughty boy did not do so when he should have, so the grade was not posted for his mother, Mrs. Periwinkle, to see when she was looking for it. So when dear Mrs. Periwinkle wrote me to inquire, I said it had then been entered.

Alas, the plot then thickened. Little did neophyte I know that when I entered a grade it wasn't automatically updated on the school database. So the boy's dear mama writes again, inquiring. I update it manually and reply. It's still not showing up so she can see it, so she writes me a third time. Little did I know again that the administrators don't check updates to the database, rather they reference a printout which is, obviously, not current. So I update it on paper in the office. She writes one last time requesting a signed confirmation from an administrator.

Now what I wanted to do was deliver a full-throated Ciceronian lambasting to the staff who made me look like a jackass by not explaining how the lousy software they were using worked and moreover how illogically it was employed.

Instead I replied graciously and took my lumps, opting not to throw anyone under the bus and not even complaining up the chain because I was new at  the job. A few lessons:

First, when you get an email that flusters or frustrates you, don't respond right away. Take time to cool off.

Second, don't be quick to get defensive and blame parents, especially when they're just trying to get information and especially when mistakes have, in fact, been made. Lack of communication is extremely frustrating, and many parents are already defensive because they know they are not as informed as they should be. Add to that low grades for their kid and fears about college, and you have a recipe for stress over what seems slight to you. They'll really appreciate it if, above all things, you are prompt, clear, and take responsibility.

Third, don't lightly throw people under the bus, but it is alright in most cases to let them know they put you in a tight spot.

Finally, take your lumps. I had no reason to expect the software and manner in which the school used it would be so convoluted, but ultimately knowing was my responsibility.

Some Choice Gilbert & Sullivan

The end of The Mikado has, for my money, the jauntiest rhythm and wittiest rhyming in Gilbert and Sullivan.

My favorite bit is the duet between Katisha and Ko-ko in which Sullivan's music has, in essence, re-punctuated the text. The unexpected pairings make you work just a bit harder to piece together the meaning and the result is that the text is splendidly vivid and lively.

If that is so,
Sing derry down derry!
It’s evident, very,
Our tastes are one!
Away we’ll go.
And merrily marry,
Nor tardily tarry
Till day is done!

The finale is such a bright, sprightly conclusion I think it would have made Mozart smile.

YUM. and NANK. The threatened cloud has passed away,
 And brightly shines the dawning day;
 What though the night may come too soon,
 We’ve years and years of afternoon!
ALL. Then let the throng
 Our joy advance,
 With laughing song
 And merry dance,
 With joyous shout and ringing cheer,
 Inaugurate our new career!
 Then let the throng, etc. 

Advice to Myself: On Anger at Those Absent

When you grow angry with someone absent, do not indulge your temper, your wit's ability to craft clever insults, or your imagination's tendency to imagine slights and injustice. Instead, call to mind the face of this person, this object of your anger, and call it to mind as vividly as you can. Then call to mind this person's other deeds, both good and bad, and set this newfound source of anger in its proper context.

If you are too irate or otherwise unable to do this, then find some task at once to distract you from the passion of the moment and revisit the matter later with a clear head.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Belated Thoughts on International Women's Day

I don't have much fondness for holidays, thinking as I do that what is worth commemorating by such a grand gesture is worth remembering more often than once per year. Too I think that celebrating something once a year has less the effect of drawing its value into focus so that we vividly see its meaning than it does of giving license to forget about that meaning through the rest of the year.

That said, I have more faith in some holidays than others. I prefer those steeped at least in tradition, if not religion. Easter reigns supreme, mostly unscathed by modern culture because its preparatory period of abstinence and the ineluctable element of suffering at its heart are unpalatable today. I'm most skeptical of modern, secular, international holidays, as they mostly seem cooked up for contemporary appetites, concocted out of whatever elements happen to be at hand.

It's probably so, though, that many holidays and festivals which today are solemn have an inglorious origin, sometimes pragmatic and others simply expedient. I am reminded of two accounts from Livy, one of my favorite Latin authors and one not remembered well enough as a masterful storyteller, that remind us of what gets lost in the years of retelling.

The first regards how the Lupercalia, a Roman festival of purifying and fertility that included a nude trot along the Palatine, was begun even before the founding of Rome when two youths ran around naked for "sport and wantonness" (per lusum atque lasciviam), in honor of Pan. The second tale concerns the passing of Romulus, who was either carried away on a cloud during a sudden storm on the Campus Martius or, some say, torn to pieces by the senators.

Much like being torn to pieces, International Women's day is hard to like, and not just because I don't have faith in it, a modern, secular, international holiday if there ever was one. Rather it is the spirit of antagonism that never seems to have dissipated from its socialist origins. The first march was organized by socialist-suffragist-activist Theresa Malkiel in 1909 and caught on among the communists until in 1977 that uncorrupted body of wisdom, The United Nations, enshrined the celebration in History for every March 8th thence until the breaking of the world.

Despite my reservations, though, I forestalled this mild condemnation because I saw some good women posting good things, which was enough to give me pause. In my further considerations of the day I was reminded of the reaction I had roughly a decade ago upon opening a philosophy book written by a professor of mine in college.

It is the book's inscription to which I refer. First, it was dedicated to her sister, sadly deceased before the age of thirty. Second, that dedication is to "all women who, being great of mind and heart, are denied the life of one in the pain of the other."

My first thought upon re-reading this today, as a stay-at-home dad, was, I confess, one of crudest obscenity. I may not be great of mind but I have a few marbles rolling around up in my head and I spend some days rolling around actual marbles with my daughter. Equally, I will miss these months at home with her terribly when the day comes that I daily leave for the working world. Why should anyone "of great mind and heart" in such a situation, not be regarded?

My first reaction to that line a decade ago, however, was a profound sense of exclusion. Even then, with so little experience, I could not understand why one would narrow one's embrace like that, especially in preface to a book on philosophy. What more could bind all minds and hearts together than the pursuit of wisdom? Did Goethe overreach, and Beethoven when he set to music, Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt! ?

But then, though, something pricked my conscience, or I maybe I pricked my own conscience. . . at any rate it occurred to me that women were indeed excluded from many things, in many places, for a long time. Surely many felt excluded, but many surely never even conceived of a life other than what was evident around them.

Still, many and various people were excluded from the many and various things, and continue to be, so I'm not sure just how moved to be by the plight of any one group in particular, more than the plight of unfortunates everywhere and at every time.

In the end, I don't begrudge my old professor her dedication, for all honest emotion starts not in universals but in relations, often suffering, with our loved ones. I do, though, doubt the wisdom of factionalizing sympathy, and wonder whether it might do more harm than good. Perhaps when such sympathy is shared, it is best expressed through that which speaks to all. I am more moved to be a good husband, father, and son, by Shakespeare, for example, than by leftwing ideology and pink-stained influencers, less by hashtagged bromides than by the Bard's plainest, most haunting words, "I might have saved her; now she's gone for ever!"

Still I don't begrudge women their day, but when I weigh the socialism and antagonism I see associated with and brought out on the day, it seems to me that like most recently concocted holidays it has done and continues to do more harm than good. To its organization's credit, though, the website for International Women's day urges us to "Make IWD your day! - everyday!" #Progress

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Quote: Bowra on The Greeks and Old Age

from The Greek Experience (1957), by C.M. Bowra, p. 112f

from Ch. 5, The Good Man and the Good Life:

The best solution was not to complain of the passing of youth and its opportunities, but to ask what advantages come with the advance of years, and the answer was that, though a man may lose the good things of life, he can still be a good man with increased power and confidence and experience. He may not be able to enjoy himself so much as before, but he can make more of himself and become a more controlled and more complete being. To each of the four traditional virtues experience brings its special enlargement. Courage becomes a form of patient endurance, as the old Oedipus, worn by blindness and suffering but still noble and majestic, says of himself:
     contentment have I learned from suffering, 
     and from long years and from nobility.*
. . . To each of the four cardinal virtues age brings a new distinction and a richer usefulness. The man who has left behind him youth and its good things, or can enjoy them only fitfully, attains a new dignity through his renewed opportunities of being a good man.

*Sophocles. Oedipus at Colonus lines 7f