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!

American history, cookbooks, educational, nonfiction, politics

A Square Meal, pt. 1

a suare meal

A Square Meal: A culinary history of the Great Depression, by Jane Zeigleman and Andrew Coe. Originally published in 2016. Hardcover, 336 pages.

After dancing around the review of this information loaded book, I finally concluded I could only do it justice reviewed in two parts. This is because the book delves heavily into two subjects, showing how they overlapped during the Great Depression.

In some sections, mostly the beginning, A Square Meal heavily explores the economic and political climate as the soaring, roaring 20s gave way to the austere and lean 1930s. Beginning with the differences in culinary and lifestyle attitudes between rural America and urban America in the years following WWI, these authors take pains to cover every base that contributed to Americans’ approach to food at beginning of a long economic winter that stubbornly refused to loosen its grip.

They assumed, rightly I believe, that it wouldn’t be possible to adequately discuss the latter without giving the reader a thorough understanding of the former. Because of that, I am going to use this part of the review to highlight some of the cultural, political, and economic themes they explore before getting to the ways this informed meals and Depression era cooking in part 2.

As the mid-1920s unfolded, there was something of a tension between the young people who were leaving the rural farms of their youth (particularly the young men returning home from Europe after the war), and the families left behind on farms in rural America who were largely deemed as backwards and inefficient by modern urban standards. There were whole disciplines, both academic and vocational, dedicated to rural reforms and increasing the efficiency of work for farmwives. This disconnect was largely based on the fact that time and productivity in the two places was viewed quite differently:

“In the great urban centers, the pulse of the factory served as a kind of metronome for the city at large. In the urban workplace, where wages were paid by the hour, efficiency was a measure of success. Factory hands demonstrated their worth by completing the maximum number of standardized motions in a given period. After the factory whistle blew, their time was their own. But even at leisure, city dwellers saw time as a resource, like coal or copper. The fear that time might run out, as every resource will, left them with the dread of time wasted.

On the farm, meanwhile, time was not something you stockpiled like firewood. Farm chores took as long as they took—there was no rushing an ear of corn—and the workday stretched to accommodate the tasks at hand. Time was elastic. The minutes and hours that mattered so much to city folk were irrelevant to the drawn-out biological processes on which the farmer depended. In place of the clock, the farmer’s yardstick for measuring time was the progress of the seasons. As a result, his view of time was expansive, focused on the sweeping cycles of the natural world. For city people, time was fractured into finite segments like boxes on a conveyor belt. On the farm, time was continuous, like a string around a tree, one season flowing inevitably into the next.

It was this rural inefficiency that that urban “efficiency experts” tackled with a fierce determination to eliminate. Even when farm wives expressed great contentment with their lives and lot, their passionate letters in response to magazine articles portraying them as “The Woman God Forgot” were ignored. The people who knew better were dedicated to improving their lives whether they felt they needed it or not:

To quantify what they already knew, in the early 1920s researchers from the Department of Agriculture equipped rural homemakers with pedometers, devices pinned to the women’s aprons or strapped to their ankles which counted their steps as they went about their chores. Among their findings was that one Montana woman walked a quarter of a mile in the course of baking a lemon pie!

I’ll leave the irony of pedometers as a tool to measure steps for the purpose of decreasing them hanging there for you to consider. Efficiency apartments with their nonexistent kitchens, the proliferation of delicatessen, and the marked increase in working girls stood in stark contrast to the life of the farm wife.

Once the crash of 1929 took place, a slow equilibrium between rural and urban life began to gradually flow across the country. Initially the urban centers were the hardest hit, as the rural parts of the country were at least equipped to feed themselves with the fruits of their own labor. As the early 30’s began however, a severe drought overtook much of farm country. Hunger and subsistence living became a way of life in every part of the country.

It is at this juncture that the authors spend a fair amount of time discussing the political policies of the day. There was an outcry from many people for food relief, while the federal government balked at the very idea. Fear of creating a people dependent on the “the dole” was a paramount concern at the time. President Hoover was convinced that a combination of public charity and local government was the answer, not federal aid in the form of food relief.

The federal government’s abject refusal to offer aid in the form of anything other than seed for planting -not very useful during a drought- and copious literature with suggested ways to survive on less, cheaper food largely paved the way for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ascendancy to the presidency.

As governor of New York, Roosevelt embarked on what was at the time described as one of the greatest social experiments ever undertaken. Families in his state were given aid in the form of direct food relief, something that hadn’t yet been done beyond the local level and through the Red Cross, which was itself derelict in its distribution of relief to the starving.

Along with the distribution of coupons for a strictly chosen list of staple foods, the women who headed home economics departments throughout the country and in government agencies went to work producing menus meant to be a “living diet” rather than a ‘working diet”. These were complete with recipes for meal ideas meant to stretch the groceries as far as possible. Dishes for example, such as creamed spaghetti with carrots, just one casserole among many that was a popular way to deal with the monotony of ingredients that families were allotted through food relief programs.

That is but one among many culinary developments of the Great Depression with which I hope to share from the book in part 2. This book is a wealth of information and there’s no way I can possibly explore it all, so I do recommend you give it a read if the topic interests you.

I hope to be able to post the second half of this review by Friday.

Christian, educational, homeschool

Religious education handicaps.

Educating with a religious focus, while well-intentioned, often emphasizes the wrong things.

Just as I was considering the marriage of technology, reading, and education, it occurred to me how often in the early years of our homeschooling journey I wasted money on what is regarded by many Christians as excellent educational curriculum. Judging by the number of books these curriculum producers sell, a lot of people love them.

Over our past 7 years of home education, I’ve dabbled with Sonlight’s curriculum; rudimentary. A beka; hated it. Bob Jones; blech. Most I bought used, so we didn’t take a major monetary hit on them, but I didn’t really like them. For the longest time, it was hard for me to figure out why.

Until we enrolled in our current academic program, a classical one which relies heavily on The Well-Trained Mind and Circe Institute for its educational philosophy, I never found a comprehensive Christian curriculum that worked for us. The only one I like and continue to use is Apologia science.

Recently it occurred to me why I prefer The Well Trained Mind, and Circe in particular. It’s because they are not contrived. They don’t make up poorly written, “Christian friendly” books with the intent of cocooning students. Our kids read real literature, from real books. Books with competing world views and different religious traditions, books where the hero is often not the good Christian hero. Peter Pan is one example; Taro from The Samurai’s Tale another. Teachers converse with the students, walking through the ideas, allowing them to think, compare and contrast what they are reading with what we believe.

If there is one thing that Christian homeschool curriculum developers get wrong (we’ll start with just this one), it’s that in their zeal to impress a Christian “worldview” onto the student, they take away the very thing the kids need in order to bolster their faith: the chance to wrestle with it.

As if on cue, Joshua Gibbs, of whom I am quickly becoming an intellectual groupie, penned his thoughts on what classical educators can learn from stand-up comedians. His entire piece is well worth the few minutes it will take to read it, but about halfway through he explains why much of what is offered in the way of Christian comedy and satire falls woefully short:

When I bring up stand-up comedy, someone invariably says to me, “I love stand-up comedy. Have you seen Brian Regan? He’s good, and his stuff is clean, too.” I do not find Brian Regan funny. I am skeptical of anyone who thinks a comedian worthy of acclaim simply because his routine is not vulgar. While I have no special fondness for dirty jokes, I do believe that comedy is simply a kind of offense— a very controlled offense shared between friends. Brian Regan’s material might be clean, but it is also too friendly, too safe, and accordingly banal. Good comedy is an insult which a man longs to hear. There is an anarchy to good comedy which suggests the poor are being given bowling pin-sized turkey legs to eat and the rich are being sent away with fistfuls of Cheerios. Comedy marvels at the dual nature of man— immortal spirit, farting body— for comedy always involves the juxtaposition of high and low, friendship and shame, dignity and embarrassment. The punchline to the oldest joke in the book is a mockery of man’s desire to overthink and over-intellectualize everything. To get to the other side. Comedy employs laughter to fill the chasm between high and low. Laughter is a bridge.

For this reason, there is usually an element of danger in good comedy, for every joke the comedian tells has three potential victims: himself, his audience, and all mankind. The best comedians are metaphysicians, for in minutely observing their own words and deeds, they can determine which of their sins are universal. We laugh (in fear) at the audacity of a man who confesses the finest nuances of his selfishness, his ignorance, and his laziness, for, in laughing, we are admitting we have done the same, and that we have no defense for our actions. Good comedy is “high-wire truth-telling,” as Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen once put it. The laughter of the audience is a veil which both conceals and reveals they are complicit in everything the comedian confesses.

Clean comedians (at least the ones who market themselves that way) are rarely willing to genuinely insult anyone, and their audiences laugh as though they are being skewered when they are actually getting off scot-free. In the first several months The Babylon Bee was up and running, the satirical news site ran a dozen stories with headlines like, “Local Calvinist Drinks Dark Beer and Has Beard,” as though this was really sticking it to those bearded, dark beer-loving Calvinists out there. It did not take a rocket scientist to figure out the writers were Calvinists themselves, and somewhat squeamish at that. If The Bee had opened with stories about Presbyterians trading exclusive rights to the Epistle of St. James to Roman Catholics in exchange for Matt Walsh and half a dozen of the more savage Flannery O’Connor stories, it would have been a different story— but that’s someone else’s joke to make. To their credit, over the last year The Babylon Bee has proven willing to test the thickness of readers’ skin. Comedy proves human community is built on something other than flattery, but this means comedy is necessarily confrontational. When I am finished watching a stand-up special, I want the same feeling of self-awareness which attends an anxiety-inducing, no holds barred sermon. Brian Regan joking about the phonetic pronunciation of “phonics” just doesn’t cut it.

Read the whole thing.

We’ve discussed here before the limitations of explicitly Christian entertainment which I believe are rooted in the fact that Christians shouldn’t be about producing entertainment. Today however, I am considering something different. Namely, how the admirable desire to protect our students can shield them to the point of defenseless when taken too far, as it often is.

I am fully aware that a classical approach to education isn’t the right fit for every student, family, or school. But I do believe that an education which fails to offer its students the opportunity to question and think deeply fails the student.

For what it’s worth, secular government education doesn’t do any better job of helping  students think either. In fact, they are the worst offenders. There is far more to helping someone learn to think than repeatedly telling them that their parents’ views are wrong.

 

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)?

 

American history, coming from where I'm from, educational, Florida History

The Highwaymen Murals: Al Black’s Concrete Dreams

al black highwaymen book

The Highwaymen Murals: Al Black’s Concrete Dreams, by Gary Munroe. Published in 2009. Hardcover, 160 pages.

Despite being officially 160 pages, The Highwaymen Murals is only 27 pages of text, all the author needs to detail the turbulent life of unlikely artist Al Black. The remaining 133 pages are color photos of the murals Black painted throughout the two prisons where he served time in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s for drug possession and fraud. The particulars of this book must necessarily be preceded with a short introduction to the Florida Highwaymen. Gary Munroe’s book opens with this paragraph:

In 1960, in Ft. Pierce, Florida, a group of young African-American men virtually stumbled into lucrative careers as landscape painters. These men had no schooling, nor were they part of any art movement. At night, because they had no studios, they painted feverishly in their own backyards, often with barbecues flaming and beers flowing. By day they would peddle these scenic paintings up and down the Atlantic coast. Actually, they did not care that much about art, and they cared even less about the recognition that they might receive as artists. What did motivate them was basic to their very survival- financial gain.

That’s the short version of the story of the artists known as the Florida Highwaymen (the group did include one woman, however).  This book is the third of several books that author Gary Munroe has written about the artists. His first book, published in 2001, catapulted these men, their story, and their contribution to the arts into the spotlight when the New York Times devoted a lengthy piece to them in its Lively Arts section:

Wind-bent palm trees, sand, surf, billowing clouds and vivid sunsets were the essentials of Florida landscape painting that emerged following World War II. Occasionally moss-draped cypress trees in the still water of a marsh presented a more contemplative view, while a royal poinciana in full, flaming red bloom or a storm-tossed shore provided dramatic relief.

From the late 1950’s into the early 80’s these colorful landscapes were ubiquitous decorations in Florida homes, offices, restaurants and motel rooms. They shaped the state’s popular image as much as oranges and alligators.

Little known, however, is that such paintings were largely the creations of a loose-knit group of self-taught, African-American artists from what was called Blacktown in the little east coast city of Fort Pierce, about 55 miles north of Miami, said Gary Monroe, professor of visual arts at Daytona Beach Community College. (The writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston died in poverty in Fort Pierce in 1960.)

Munroe’s first books highlighted the classical, more artistically pure work of Alfred Hair and Harold Newton, the first highwaymen. During his research and travels he discovered the story and prison murals of Al Black, and couldn’t rest until he had written this book which tells Black’s story. He recounts his rise, fall and redemptive work painting murals on prison walls which injected a dose of hope into the life of his fellow inmates and brightness into the shifts of the correctional employees who spent their days and nights supervising their charges.

Al Black’s Concrete Dreams explains how Black, who initially didn’t paint at all, went from  the smooth talking, silver-tongued salesman for the Florida Highwaymen, to becoming a celebrated artist in his own right.

Because the Florida Highwaymen painted as much for volume as aesthetic value, Black often stacked his cars full of paintings that were not completely dry. He is actually quoted as saying he “never sold a painting that wasn’t wet”. When he arrived at office complexes, banks, hotels, medical facilities and other places to sell the paintings, he’d often find that the paintings had been smudged or damaged in transit. As a result, he learned to carry art supplies with him to fix the paintings while he was on the road.

He was never much interested in painting because he was making a handsome living selling the paintings of the Highwaymen. Over time however, he became quite skilled. He did paint on occasion, and on occasion passed off unsigned works by other artists as his own work.

Over time his fast-talking, risk-taking, high-life way of living  cost him everything, including his freedom. During the resurrected interest in the Highwaymen’s art, the warden of the Central Florida prison where he was incarcerated recognized his name, and that was the beginning of Black’s return to art and the celebrated prison murals which adorn the walls of two Florida state prisons.  Most are not available for public viewing except in this book, but a couple were published in Florida newspapers. This is one example (photo credit):

al black mural

Black’s ascendancy, free fall from grace, and re-emergence from the ashes is a fascinating tale. What I enjoyed more than the short biography however, was the art, so I am glad that this book was composed chiefly of Al Black’s artwork.

As for how the Highwaymen art lost its grip on the imagination of Floridians old and new, the answer is actually pretty simple. As the Florida landscape changed, bulldozed and covered with more concrete and overrun with more cars, the idyllic natural beauty that drew the likes Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone to the Sunshine State gave way to Mickey Mouse and mass marketed tourism efforts. The magic captured by the Highwaymen paintings was not within the imaginative reach of new generations of Florida residents and visitors. Their time had come and gone.

four out of five stars.

 

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.