Culture, educational, homeschool, philosophy

Rabbit Trail: The Ways We Teach.

We often focus on what we’re teaching to the exclusion of why, and most importantly how, we’re teaching. As a result, there is a lot of instructional wheel-spinning. That’s my formally uneducated conclusion on the subject. I’ve considered this frequently of late; whether I am teaching my kids as well as other kids I teach, effectively.

Over the weekend I had occasion to be part of an encouraging and informative session facilitated by an intelligent young teacher on the subject of mimetic teaching. It added more blocks to the structure my mind is erecting around what it means to be educated, and what it means to teach to the appropriate ends.

The antithetical aims of education, as a pragmatic tool for potentially securing wealth on the one hand versus a vehicle through which we pass on virtues to produce well-formed human beings on the other, confound me on a regular basis. This is not because I am unclear on which is more important. I am also fully aware that is possible to do both, and that we must do both.

Rather, it leaves me scratching my head because the former aim -education as a tool for securing material comfort- is accomplished via a mapped path where the destination is reached through checking the appropriate boxes at designated checkpoints along the way. Check off the right boxes at the right time, then you reach your destination. Based on the checked boxes you are declared educated, thus fully formed; or at least formed enough to embark on a responsible adult life.

The latter and less pursued aim- education as the vehicle through which we pass on virtues to produce a well-formed human being- feels more like meandering a scenic route. It includes many of the checked boxes, but also other disciplines of higher value, which are not as easily quantified. This is the understanding of education defined much more aptly in Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language published in 1828:

The bringing up, as of a child, instruction; formation of manners. education comprehends all that series of instruction and discipline which is intended to enlighten the understanding, correct the temper, and form the manners and habits of youth, and fit them for usefulness in their future stations. To give children a good education in manners, arts and science, is important; to give them a religious education is indispensable; and an immense responsibility rests on parents and guardians who neglect these duties.

This is where I fear myself doing a less than stellar job educating my children. It isn’t the acquisition of the checked boxes as outlined by the current education model that is difficult. Further, if we view “usefulness in their future stations” solely in postmodern economic terms, I’d dare say I’m doing pretty well, and certainly no worse than most. I know plenty of parents who are doing an even better job than we are at box-checking, religious education, arts, and manners.

For reasons I couldn’t quite grasp until very recently, I still hadn’t been able to shake the notion that somewhere there is a huge gap in my kids’ education and it has absolutely nothing to do with academic achievement or economic readiness. I’ve no doubt I’ll leave some gaps there too, but the gap I fear we are leaving is the one we won’t see until it too late to fill except by letting our children learn the hard, painful way. It’s the gap of learning to make decisions and be at ease and secure apart from us, a skill we value far too little in our culture which insists we make our children the center of our worlds; the be all and end all of our existence, lest they be damaged. Or worst of all, have low self-esteem.

Ironically, the technology which makes our lives so much “easier” is the very thing that is creating a generation of young adults who are incapable of navigating simple decisions on their own. It was a conversation in a grocery checkout lane with random, strange women where the only apparent shared experience is the fact that we are all mothers, that crystallized for me many of the things we fail to teach. More than that, however, are the ways we teach. In this particular case, it was the fact that most of our kids could barely stand to allow us a simple quiet trip to the neighborhood grocery store to buy milk or eggs without numerous calls and myriad text messages.

I was raised by a generation of parents who wouldn’t even allow us to enter the living room to interrupt conversation among adults unless someone was “sick, dead, or dying”. While I am not advocating that level of extreme separation of spheres between parents and children, we did learn at least two things. The first was what was worthy of interrupting our parents for while they were busy. The second was how to decide for ourselves if it would be more appropriate to have an apple or a banana for snack. The number of young adults -and not so young adults- I have encountered who are incapable of living life and making relatively simple decisions without the consultation of experts via Google or approval via Facebook is a repudiation of the ways we as parents are teaching them.

The greater implications of refusing to cut the apron strings in the appropriate ways and times strikes at the heart of Webster’s definition:

series of instruction and discipline which is intended to enlighten the understanding, correct the temper, and form the manners and habits of youth, and fit them for usefulness in their future stations.

It encompasses a whole lot more than anything which can assessed via the SAT or ACT tests.

Advertisements
coming from where I'm from, Culture, educational, Els' Rabbit Trails, just for fun

In which I don’t contemplate the Rule of St. Benedict.

This post isn’t going to be nearly as deep as it starts. I figured I might divulge that lest anyone expects profound wisdom. However, you just might find it if you click on the references linked.

If you’ve read here any length of time, You know that I am quite a fan of Joshua Gibbs. Gibbs, a teacher who leads students through a tour of the great books at a Christian classical school, authors a blog called The Cedar Room at Circe Institute. He recently authored a book which I’ve yet to read although I plan to. When I do, I’ll review it here. Almost everything he offers regarding the intersection of education, faith, and creating an atmosphere conducive to learning resonates with me, and I always look forward to reading what he has to say because it inspires me both as a teacher and as an aspiring writer.

Tonight is a rare date night, so as I was soaking my feet in preparation for the  softest possible result, I decided to catch up on his most recent posts. I often read educational inspiration on Fridays, as this is when I self-flagellate while re-examining the week behind me; from my time with my students at home (my children), to the students I teach at school. I was working backwards from today’s post to the first of the week, as I often do. Between a welcome opportunity to contemplate the rule of St. Benedict  (seriously, go read that!) and the role of the “sage on the stage”,  Gibbs drops in this ditty which sends me off on a mental rabbit trail, which may or may not be of worth at some point. I’ll have to ponder. Note the bolded part, which is where I’m about to park:

Students made eyes at one another, mouthed little conversations to one another, flirted with each other, and studied the six dozen pencil pouches and other gear (why everyone must have a water bottle these days is beyond my reckoning— were children of my generation dying of dehydration in math class and I simply never heard about it?) which filled the table. I found myself constantly working around the additional distractions the table created, and neither did I find conversation richer around the table than inside a classroom wherein all were oriented to the front.

And with that simple, unimportant, yet astute and accurate observation, my contemplation of the deep things concerning education and life was derailed as I wondered: Why DO we all send our kids off to school and every where else, with a big, reusable, and often expensive water bottle in tow? I carry one as well but I know why, and the answer startlingly simple and vain: If I drink more water, I eat less food, and my fabulously caramel skin stays hydrated, staving off the wrinkles a wee bit longer. Surely, your average six-year-old spending his days shuffling between an air conditioned classroom and a covered playground harbors no such concerns.

Our 10-year-old has already lost one $19 water bottle this school year, and she almost lost a second except this time we had the presence of mind to write her name on it. When she left it on the playground a while back, I got a call from another mother to inform me that she had taken possession of the water bottle and would reunite it with us on Monday.

Mr. Gibbs asked the question concerning those of us who were students in years gone by: were we all suffering from the dehydration we all seem so intent on sparing our children? I doubt it highly, but it still leaves me wondering. Usually with a little thought, a book and a few clicks, I can connect the dots and ascertain some idea of how particular cultural and parenting tics gained a foothold in our daily lives. The water bottle obsession, however, eludes me.

Just maybe, when I figure that one out, I can revisit the sage on the stage and the rule of St. Benedict.

Y’all have a great weekend, now!

Christian, Culture, nonfiction, Uncategorized

The Benedict Option

benedict option

The Benedict Option, by Rod Dreher, originally published in 2017.

I originally posted this review in January of this year, and am presenting it again with  additional thoughts based on my expended perspective on the issues it explores.

This article,  which I only recently encountered, outlines some concerns about the prospect of Christians fervently embracing The Benedict Option. I think he makes some valid points worthy of consideration. It left me wondering where the perfect balance is between The Benedict Option and the status quo. I concluded that it isn’t so hard to find, at least in this instance.

One of the reasons I read non fiction books is because I hope to learn, discern, and implement things of value from with the pages. Because my life contained precious little extension towards building intentional Christian community outside of Sunday services, I have undertaken what it for me a valiant undertaking: Opening my home up to extend hospitality to my fellow believers at least once a month.

We shall see how that develops, but after the first official event yesterday, and with invitations extended for another, I was reminded of my review of this book and the evolution of my thoughts on the subject. it with this in mind that I am re-running my review of The Benedict Option:

I decided to read this book after about six months of regularly reading Mr. Dreher’s commentary over at his blog on The American Conservative. As such, I approached this entire discussion and exploration of his ideas from a novice perspective. I was unaware that he had been promoting this idea for some time or that it had undergone various iterations over the past few years.

I am quite partial to the virtues of seeing a thing through new eyes. It was after all, my husband’s novice, unchurched, untainted conversion to the Christian faith which invigorated my own and showed -embarrassingly so- how little I knew the Bible that I thought I knew so much about.

In the time since I have begun reading Mr. Dreher, I have come to learn that people whose opinions I hold in regard find the sum total Mr. Dreher’s prescription problematic. However, I am going to review this book the way I originally approached it; as a novice to Mr. Dreher’s ideas and solely on the merits of what he offered within its pages.

I begin this review with the same caveat I offered to my Protestant friend before she began it. Namely that Dreher is “big O” Orthodox, and Protestants should appreciate this distinction as they begin his book. There are points and assertions Dreher makes which spring from this base and no doubt would turn off many a Protestant who is unprepared for some of his points.

Overall, however, I think the book and its ideas is worth a look. I suspect many Christians are probably already living loose versions of his idea in their own lives if they haven’t trapped themselves in ideologically driven quarantines from other believers.

In sum, Dreher -in his book at least- proposes that Christians build intentional and separate communities from the larger culture as the cultural ethos grows increasingly hostile to Christian faith and values. It is always best for the reader to do his or her own homework. However, even with a few quibbles here and there, I agree with the general tone and proposal Dreher puts forth. After all the Bible does implore us to come out and be separate, calling us a peculiar people.

A quote:

Relearning the lost art of community is something Christians should do in obedience to the Apostle Paul, who counseled the faithful to do their parts to grow the Body of Christ “for the building up of itself in love” (Ephesians 4:15). But there are also practical reasons for doing so. Building communities of believers will be necessary as the number of Christians becomes thinner on the ground.

In the book I did not gather that Dreher was advocating total isolation from the larger culture, which was a good thing. On technological advances:

Benedict Option families and communities who remain apathetic toward technology inadvertently undermine nearly everything they are trying to achieve. Technology itself is a kind of liturgy that teaches us to frame our experiences in the world in certain ways and that, if we aren’t careful, profoundly distorts our relationship to God, to other people, and to the material world – and even our self-understanding.

When we abstain from practices that disorder our loves, and in that time of fasting redouble our contemplation of God and the good things of Creation, we re-center our minds on the inner stability we need to create a coherent, meaningful self. The Internet is a scattering phenomenon, one that encourages surrender to passionate impulses. If we fail to push back against the Internet as hard as it pushes against us, we cannot help but lose our footing. And if we lose our footing, we ultimately lose the straight path through life.

I liked the book. I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together (reviewed here) is infinitely better as Bonhoeffer is pretty incomparable. However, as he deals at length with the changes in the sexual culture and the inducement of technology into every phase of life, I think this book is worth the time it takes to give it a read.

Grade: B

RELATED: Review of Life Together, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Culture, educational, Els' Rabbit Trails

The devolution of reading.

A few days ago I read this piece by Cal Newport concerning the social media reform movement. In it, while exploring some of the damage we do to ourselves through pervasive social media use, he notes:

This argument focuses on the ways that heavy social media use can make users less happy, less healthy, and/or less successful. Most of my writing and speaking on this topic falls into this category. (My main point is that the benefits of these services are exaggerated, while we tend to underestimate their damage to our ability to do valuable things with our brains.)

This seed planted, about the diminished ability to employ concentrated thinking, was the beginning of my musing on how our current technologies affect not only the deep work which Cal Newport dissects in his area of expertise, but also things as simple and basic as our ability to read, comprehend, and apply the knowledge accessible to us through books.

As I pondered these things, I came across this article which more specifically targeted the direction in which my thoughts were flowing. What do current technological, reading, and information gathering trends mean for our ability to read classic literature, sacred Scripture, and other works that require the ability to meditate deeply on the words and internalize higher truths and complexities of life and being?

We know from research that the reading circuit is not given to human beings through a genetic blueprint like vision or language; it needs an environment to develop. Further, it will adapt to that environment’s requirements – from different writing systems to the characteristics of whatever medium is used. If the dominant medium advantages processes that are fast, multi-task oriented and well-suited for large volumes of information, like the current digital medium, so will the reading circuit. As UCLA psychologist Patricia Greenfield writes, the result is that less attention and time will be allocated to slower, time-demanding deep reading processes, like inference, critical analysis and empathy, all of which are indispensable to learning at any age.

The early returns on the results of screen reading as the dominant mode of reading are beginning to come in:

Increasing reports from educators and from researchers in psychology and the humanities bear this out. English literature scholar and teacher Mark Edmundson describes how many college students actively avoid the classic literature of the 19th and 20th centuries because they no longer have the patience to read longer, denser, more difficult texts.

Makes sense to me. It is easy to think that because young adult literature (YA) is a booming industry selling a huge number of books that real reading is on the rise. Indeed, there are many people, parents and educators alike who believe that youngsters reading anything is better than youngsters reading nothing at all. As the mother of two children (out of five  total) who struggled to read, there were periods when I succumbed to that level of thinking myself.

I don’t believe that anymore. I understand that what we read, and how we read it, is more important than reading for the sake of reading itself. Even armed with this knowledge, I have children whose habits and concentration show evidence of having been re-wired by overuse of screens for reading as well as amusement.

Now, I have the unfortunate and hard job of trying to re-orient them to a better brain and better habits from a strategically disadvantaged starting point. My children read classic books and quite frankly, are receiving a far better literary and  theological education than the average American public schooled student. Yes, of this I am absolutely certain.

If they have to be *fixed*, what does that then mean for the entire generation of kids in their cohort (ages 10-12)?

 

Culture, educational, Els' Rabbit Trails, philosophy, politics

Democracy untethered, according to Tocqueville.

I am still thoroughly engaged with the home school year preparation which has short circuited leisure reading opportunities. Of course, as my blog title indicates, there is life and activity superimposed over the joy of reading books. The current core focus of our life is education, and I am always desirous, welcoming, and in need of educational inspiration. There’s no better place to find it than Circe Institute.

This morning I was treated to an exposition on saving the democratic mind by D.C. Thomas. He draws most of the inspiration for his piece from the mind of Alex de Tocqueville, whose thoughts on Democracy in America, 183 years after being penned, still resonate with us today.

Among other impressive predictions like the Civil War and the Cold War, Tocqueville predicted the shift in modern education toward hostility for the Western tradition and agenda-driven pragmatism. He also argued for classical education as a corrective for our modern moment all the way back in 1840.

According to Tocqueville, democracy is not just a form of government but the total equality of conditions—material and spiritual. It “gains no less dominion over civil society than over government: it creates opinions, gives birth to sentiments, suggests usages, and modifies everything it does not produce.”

Democratic education is no exception. So what values should direct American teaching? Pragmatism, mass consensus, and pantheism are the most popular answers.

Pragmatism decides what is true based on what works. Therefore, most American educational theorists obsess over “objective learning outcomes” and “skills-based assessments.” It’s much easier to measure increased ACT scores than it is to measure “taste for the infinite” or “greatness of soul.” Tocqueville would observe that Americans’ obsession with STEM-focused education is mostly about applied science—useful science—not done for its own sake.

Mass consensus allows the American to melt into the cultural zeitgeist of popular opinions. Tocqueville writes,

When the man who lives in democratic countries compares himself individually to all those who surround him . . . he is immediately overwhelmed by his own insignificance and weakness. . . . [T]he majority takes charge of providing individuals with a host of ready-made opinions, and thus relieves them of the obligation to form for themselves opinions that are their own.

On the outworking of these traits with regards to how information is disseminated, Mr. Thomas adds:

Tocqueville also notes that while the brutal violence in the Iliad might disrupt public order in Viking society, it can be helpful in timid, commercial democracies. Since most American writing is geared toward a mass audience, it reinforces rather than challenges the prejudices of the day. On this point, Tocqueville agrees with C.S. Lewis who noted a century later in “On Reading Old Books” that “[e]very age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.”

But Tocqueville goes further than Lewis when he explains that democracy changes language itself. Americans change language because democracies love change and novelty rather than the tried and true. Americans create new words all the time. As the late Peter Lawler summarized this point,

If a thought isn’t useful for a free being who works, then it couldn’t possibly be true. That’s one reason Tocqueville explains why language and democratic times tend to become techno-standardized or flat and ironic; metaphysics and theology in particular lose ground.

To anyone interested in the intersection of freedom of thought un-tethered from a common understanding of foundational truths and how it affects the way we educate our children, it’s worth it to read the whole thing.

 

Culture, Els' Rabbit Trails, films, tales from the local library

Movies and Moral Helplessness: Reblog

While ostensibly working hard on a project that must be completed in no less than two weeks, I entertained a brief diversion which I rationalized because it took me to the very deep Circe Institute blog. There I found Joshua Gibbs interviewing his rationalizing alter ego on the subject of indulging in big budget films.

In this particular case, he is dissecting his decision to go to the theater and watch Jurassic World 2, which we also saw. I’ll post a portion of it here, but the whole thing is worth the short period required to read it.

In the lobby of a local cinema, I was approached by a journalist conducting interviews.

INTERVIEWER: Excuse me, sir, would you mind telling me what movie you’re going to see?

GIBBS: Uh, sure. I’m about to see Jurassic World 2.

INTERVIEWER: Very good. And why are you excited to see this motion picture?

GIBBS: Oh, I saw the trailers for it and I thought they looked pretty good.

INTERVIEWER: Would you say this looks like a life-changing movie?

GIBBS: (chuckling) Well, no. Of course, it’s a dinosaur movie. I’ve seen plenty of them, and they aren’t exactly life-changing.

INTERVIEWER: Perhaps you don’t think movies can be life-changing?

GIBBS: No, that’s not true. I’ve seen a few life-changing movies. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia changed my life back when I saw it in 1999. But there are scores of classics, too, which have changed me for the better. Ordinary People. Ace in the Hole. Babette’s Feast. I definitely think a good movie can make you more humane, more understanding. To understand all is to forgive all, as the French say, and God will forgive us the way we forgive others, so a good movie can certainly have great spiritual value.

INTERVIEWER: But not Jurassic World 2?

GIBBS: No. I’m only seeing this because—

INTERVIEWER: Well, perhaps Jurassic World 2 is going to be very memorable. It will not change your life, but you will dwell on it, ruminate on it, nonetheless. A film doesn’t have to be great in order to be of value. When you leave the theater this afternoon, how long do you think you will ponder Jurassic World 2?

GIBBS: Ponder it? Um, you know, probably not for very long. There’s really not much to ponder. To be honest, I’ll have probably forgotten I saw it by the time I wake up tomorrow.

INTERVIEWER: I see. Well, perhaps the really great movies that can make you a better person are hard to track down? Great things are rare, after all.

GIBBS: No, actually. There are plenty of really great movies I could check out for free at the library down the street. Great movies are easy to come by.

INTERVIEWER: Yes, well, I am sure you’re not seeing a great movie this afternoon because you’ve already seen them all, correct?

GIBBS: Well… No, that’s not the case. There are scores of great movies, or movies that I’ve heard are great, that I haven’t seen. I haven’t seen many Kurosawa movies. I haven’t seen Ran or Seven Samurai, but people rave about those pictures. I haven’t seen any Tarkovsky movies, though I’ve heard Stalker is amazing. I don’t know Ingmar Bergman’s catalog very well, though people always say Wild Strawberries is very beautiful. They say the same about Yasujirō Ozu’s movies, like Tokyo Story. My mother doesn’t like foreign films, but she says she always cries at the end of Tokyo Story because it’s so profound.

INTERVIEWER: Apologies, sir, did you say you could get these great movies for free at the local library?

GIBBS: Um, yep. Yes, I could.

INTERVIEWER: And how much did you just pay to see Jurassic World 2?

GIBBS: Eleven dollars.

INTERVIEWER: Sir, I don’t want to misrepresent you, so I would like to make sure that I have your story straight: You could easily and cheaply acquire beautiful films which you would remember for a long time, change your life for the better, and grant you a more human and forgiving spirit, but you have instead decided to pay eleven dollars to see a dinosaur movie that will not make you a better person and which you will entirely forget about in just a few hours?

GIBBS: (sense of moral helplessness intensifies)

Sigh. Squirm. Maybe that’s just me.

Like I said, read the whole thing.

And enjoy the rest of your weekend.

Culture, tales from the local library

Forbes pulls stupid article which suggested that Amazon could replace public libraries.

I never actually read the article in question, only learning of it as a result of the ever informed and prolific book blogging of Krysta @ Pages Unbound. She goes into detail why an Amazon bookstore could never replace a public library.

When the original Forbes link failed, I went looking for it and found out via Quartz that Forbes pulled it as a result of the outpouring of dissent from local libraries and the communities they serve.

On Saturday morning Forbes published an opinion piece by LIU Post economist Panos Mourdoukoutas with the headline “Amazon Should Replace Local Libraries to Save Taxpayers Money.” It quickly received enthusiastic backlash from actual American libraries and their communities.

As of around 10am US eastern time this morning, the story had nearly 200,000 views, according to a counter on the page. As of 11am, though, the story’s URL has been down.

“Forbes advocates spirited dialogue on a range of topics, including those that often take a contrarian view,” a Forbes spokesperson says in a statement. “Libraries play an important role in our society. This article was outside of this contributor’s specific area of expertise, and has since been removed.”

Spirited dissent is no reason for a respected media outlet to pull its article, but in this case I think Forbes did the right thing. I was also slightly amused by the fact that, on the heels of the preceding post here on public shaming via Twitter, the misinformed economist in question got a mild dose of Twitter induced shaming. I do not have a Twitter account and thus was spared the temptation to pile on. Y’all know I love me a public library. That was a joke.  I was never, ever tempted to pile on.

Better informed -and apparently better educated- economists have already done an excellent job of teasing out how much the original economist, Panos Mourdoukoutas, overstated the financial impact libraries have on individual homeowners who pay taxes to keep libraries funded. Moreover, the idea that local residents could ever pry “unused” dollars away from the coffers of local municipalities is a joke worthy of a good belly laugh.

Most of the dissent was offered on behalf of the indigent who are largely dependent on public libraries for access to everything from books and summer lunch programs, to foreign language classes, to Internet service. These are indeed worthy programs, the loss of which would further devastate residents of communities which are already struggling.

However, for those not indigent nor particularly moved by whether or not the less fortunate have access to services and amenities the middle and wealthier classes take for granted, it is worth noting that far more than indigent, urban dwellers would miss out if libraries suddenly closed. We live in a middle class community of well-kept, appreciating homes, a well stocked pantry and decent enough schools. Nevertheless, we too, would miss out on a great deal if Mr. Mourdoukoutas’ ideas were taken to heart. Here are just a few (off the top of my head) programs and/or services our family has utilized courtesy of our public library:

  • Book clubs and summer reading programs
  • Story times (all five of our kids have participated in these programs from age 18 months -5 years old.
  • Science classes including everything from learning circuitry to seeing reptiles up close
  • Art classes
  • Typing class
  • Graphic cartooning class
  • Kid concerts and shows

Those are just the few I can think of for the few minutes I have to currently devote the mental energy. Our library also offers classes in arts and skilled crafts such as sewing, knitting, and crochet. Libraries are one of the few areas besides roads and first response services which I am proud and happy to have my tax dollars funding.

That the author of the original Forbes article was either unaware or discounted the value of the myriad services and programs offered by libraries illuminates yet another area of American life where values are diverging more and more. Mothers at home with young children, suburban families in general, and those without the means to simply whip out their laptop as I am currently doing could never make up the gap a loss of libraries would create at a mega bookstore.

And you don’t have to buy a cup of coffee to study at a public library.