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.

 

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Els' Rabbit Trails, Links worth a look, style

El’s rabbit trails: On rooms without walls

Throughout this month, I have been reading, and only reading, books related to Florida history. Nothing else. While I find the subject endlessly fascinating and educational, I don’t expect that my readership is interested in endless reviews of books recounting various aspects of the native peoples, discovery and trajectory of all things Florida. There are exceptions of course, such as the story of Joseph Clark, which is well worth sharing regardless of geography.

Rather than allow this little spot to languish for another week or more, by which time I hope to have completed a non-Florida education book, I thought I’d share some thoughts on a recent article from the links worth a look page.

Citylab.com makes the case for rooms. Specifically, they delve into the trend of open floor plans which tend to be designed with the entry, kitchen and living room connected without walls. Because our home has an open floor plan  (and vaulted ceilings which I fell for before I considered having to paint them), this article piqued my curiosity.

If someone asked me five years ago whether or not I thought the open floor plan would still be popular, I would have said no. Domestic architecture seemed to be taking a turn toward the rustic. Today, “Farmhouse” and “Craftsman” modern designs, hearkening back to the American vernacular tradition (complete with shiplap walls), are a tour-de-force.

But I would have been wrong. Although these houses bring all the exterior trappings of beloved vernacular houses of the past, they do not extend that to the interior plans. In fact, the open concepts from the oversized houses of the pre-recession era have only gotten more open.

Much has been written about the open floor plan: how it came to be, why it is bad (or good), whether it should or shouldn’t be applied to existing housing. The open floor plan as we currently understand it—an entry-kitchen-dining-living combination that avoids any kind of structural separation between uses—is only a few decades old. Prior to the last 25 years, an “open floor plan” meant a living configuration without doors; now the term has come to mean a living configuration without walls. I will refer to the latter from now on as an “open concept,” in order to differentiate it from a traditional open floor plan.

There are times when I really enjoy our open floor plan. We entertain four to five times a year (birthday parties, holidays, and the occasional small dinner party). On those occasions, when every part of the house is tidy and spotless, and engaging with several guests and family members in different places from the central hub of the kitchen is easier, I thoroughly enjoy the open concept. It’s utilitarian for the purposes of entertaining.

There are other times, however, when having walls separating one or more of those rooms from another would be convenient. Our home is lived in all day, every day. There are meals prepared in the kitchen three times a day and kids educated at the kitchen table. Books, paper, pencils, experiments, and the paraphernalia of life dots the landscape of our home on a regular basis. No amount of anal obsession with keeping things clean is going to lead me to the nirvana of a perpetually company ready house. There are days when a mess kitchen might come in handy:

In a recent essay in The Atlantic, Ian Bogost described a new luxury concept called the “mess kitchen”—a second kitchen out of sight from the main kitchen and the rest of the open plan. He cited it to demonstrate why the open floor plan and its rhetoric around “entertaining” have reached new levels of absurdity. However, to me, the mess kitchen offers hope for a transitional period where open spaces may become closed again.

On normal days if someone drops by, the open concept feels inconvenient. It also means that I have to embrace the reality that very few people are judging my home as harshly as I am. In fact quite recently someone came over for an appointment I’d forgotten about and while I was having an internal crisis about the state of my house, they said, “You guys have a great house. Your family room looks like a great place to hang out and watch a movie.” Failing homemaker fire extinguished.

Our house is our home, for better or worse, and I do love it. If we ever decide to leave it, perhaps I can revisit the decision to choose an open floor plan. I do wonder however, if this trend will hold or if sometime in the near future, walls will make a comeback. After all, our house was built 25 years ago.

 

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.

Els' Rabbit Trails, Links worth a look, Uncategorized

Rabbit Trail: July’s links worth a look.

There is a page on this blog dedicated to links I’ve found here and there which I think are worth sharing, but are not related to books, reading, and education. They are categorized by month and I update them as I run across them, adding to the list as I go.

As a general rule, I have no desire to use this blog as a discussion point for things that people tend to get overly animated about, but since I made the links a part of the blog, I decided that at the end of every month I’d open a reminder thread so that my readers know the links are there.

So consider this El’s PSA that there are a lot of interesting, informative, and educational items on the Links Worth a Look page.

Els' Rabbit Trails, family, homeschool, humor

El’s rabbit trails: Kombucha science

I have a very engaging book review in draft. It may even get up later this evening. Meanwhile, it’s been some time since we’ve hopped off on a rabbit trail and my kids and husband produced an entertaining one for me this morning. I figured in the spirit of getting ready for back to school, we’d talk some kombucha science.

A little over a year and a half ago, a friend of mine brought me a SCOBY. I was just getting into the kombucha craze (you know how we chicks love a good bandwagon), so she figured I would enjoy brewing my own. And I did. At first.

However no one else in our house liked the stuff, and the sight of the SCOBY jar was, to quote my husband, “like a science experiment gone bad”. I kept brewing it and kept the SCOBY alive. I even gave one or two away to fellow bandwagon chicks so they could start brewing their own. We talked kombucha. We compared flavors. It was a kombucha paradise.

After a while, as I am prone to do, I grew weary of my growing SCOBY hotel, and my man was not under any circumstances going to allow his kitchen to be overrun with jars of multiple SCOBYs. It was more than enough asking him to look at one or two. Couple that with my tendency to be ever on the lookout for a new bandwagon, and it wasn’t long before my poor SCOBYs went longer and longer periods without fresh tea being added.

Somewhere along the way my man and our two youngest kids developed a taste for the stuff, and my neglected SCOBYs found a savior in my husband’s willingness to make new brews of different flavors. This morning he and the younglings got busy bottling up different flavors, cutting off layers of SCOBY for the fall planting soil, and having an all around good time making several bottles of the stuff:

img_20180723_151314~21098936724..jpg
Individual flavors of kombucha on their second ferment.

Ever the teacher, it occurred to me that perhaps we should have an impromptu lesson on what a SCOBY is, fermentation, the meaning of symbiosis, and why things work together the way they do to produce the fizzy flavored teas that they enjoy so much.

“Way to suck the fun out, MOM!”

No, no one said that, but their faces said it all.

coming from where I'm from, Els' Rabbit Trails, writing

Reading is easy. Writing is harder.

This blog is primarily centered around the love of reading and reviewing books. As such, it’s a slow traffic space. That’s fine with me as several book bloggers have noted that blogs generate the smallest amount of interest when they review books. Nevertheless, I am committed to the review format because I sincerely and truly want to encourage reading and expose books to people that they may not have considered.

However, that’s not all this was supposed to be about. I have been flirting with the idea of writing a book for several years. The topic is fresh, largely unexplored in depth, and quite possibly one of great interest. It may even be controversial, which would surprise no one who knows me well enough to have gotten my unvarnished views on the state of the world. Despite this clearly exalted view of my own brilliance and ability to come up with something “new”, I haven’t been able to get myself to start writing, and I am not quite sure why.

By way of encouragement, my beloved bought me a new computer this week. His confidence in my ability backed with concrete action toward helping me move forward is touching. I should be excited and ready to start typing away on my new laptop, but I’m stuck. And struck by the thought that, despite the ravings of my 1th grade gifted English teacher, those seeds which first germinated the hope that I might actually write something someone else wanted to read, the journey from germination to fruit is a long one.

No amount of confidence from my teacher, my husband, my friends or anyone else can prune for me the weeds of procrastination, eliminate the squash bugs of doubt, nor cure the blight of writer’s block which sends me back to the easy comfort of reading books and writing book reviews.

In other words, reading a book is easy. Writing one? That’s hard.