image by sarah mccoy photo

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Glorious Strains

This is the season when songs get stuck in my head.  To my dismay, the song is painfully likely to be “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time,” or worse, “My Grown-Up Christmas List.”  When, Oh blessed relief, that warbling soundtrack gives way to the cascades of Handel’s “Glory to God,” I feel like asserting the permissibility and rightness of ranking the better and the best.

Social norm or not, we don’t have to maintain with a foolish smile, “It’s all just a matter of taste.”

Says Tracy Lee Simmons, “…culture is unapologetically evaluative. It refers to lower and higher, better and best. A ‘cultural’ achievement elevates. It improves…Now, of course, this older idea is not quite safe, or at least not safely expressed, because it attributes higher qualities to some people and things and not to others…Here the anthropological invades a realm properly guided by the aesthetic, perverting both thought and sentiment. But some judgments cannot be made by a show of hands. The majority doesn't always rule. Nor in some matters—and here’s the rub—should it” (Climbing Parnassus, Introduction).

We can, and must, acknowledge some things as higher and better.  Even if we secretly like “Santa Baby.”  (Which we do not.)  Or else it’s all going to get really insipid, really fast.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Slow Down, Young Grasshopper

A friend sent me this article about some wild results from innovative teaching techniques.  Or, maybe off-the-cuff is a better descriptor.  Teacher in an extremely underprivileged school finds research on out-of-the-box educational theory, tries ideas almost at random, and his class shoots to the top of the charts for all Mexico.  It’s a good story.  Read it!  Here are my thoughts.

1.       Amen and Amen!  It’s so nice to have someone outside our little cult of Classical Educators corroborate our stance on educational philosophy.  Says this article: “…the dominant model of public education is still fundamentally rooted in the industrial revolution that spawned it, when workplaces valued punctuality, regularity, attention, and silence above all else.”  We Classical folks are always lamenting, “That John Dewey! Remaking our schools in the image of a Model-T Assembly Line!”  And we get the looks that people give conspiracy theorists, despite the ample evidence.  So thanks, independent source, for pleading our case!

2.       BUT.  While acknowledging that some of this stuff hearkens back to Socrates, the author and his giddy interviewees then fail to pursue that line of research: what distinguished the methods of Socrates and Aristotle and how could we apply?  Instead, they seem to say, “Cool coincidence!” and continue to experiment in the dark.

3.       The article quotes a neuroscientist who says, “The bottom line is, if you’re not the one who’s controlling your learning, you’re not going to learn as well.”  Well, learning to self-teach is the crux of Classical education.  Its dialectic aspect capitalizes on the student’s growing ability to process and builds on his natural curiosity about the grammar he’s internalized.  But he needs a grammar stage in order to have something to process.

4.       The teacher in Mexico was inspired by one Sugata Mitra, a scientist who planted laptops in remote villages to see what kids would do with them.  Mitra envisions the future of education with glass rooms full of kids self-educating with high tech toys.  This is an interesting tech-age take on Socratic methodology that removes one crucial component: the mentor.  A laptop may stimulate curiosity and teach subject matter; it may create a student.  But a mentor shapes a human being.  The ability to self-educate is the result, not the starting point, of Classical education, and a laptop cannot replace a mentor.

 What’s the real bottom line?  These guys, having discovered the problem, are still falling into a rut of modern thinking as they seek a solution; they are still looking for The New to save them.  The sidebar demonstrates this, chronicling a history of “Alternative” schools.  This categorization demonstrates a preoccupation with innovation rather than a concern with results or cohesive philosophy; an idea has to pass on its merit, not its novelty.  If things have worked in the past, or say, over the course of thousands of years, it seems audacious to just rake those things into a cool list of ideas, and then trust your own innovations to be better.  Just because they’re new. 

Without a cohesive framework for analysis, the author ranks some of the aims of Common Core in with these “alternative” ideas because the Common Core suggests that students approach mathematics by finding “meaning” in the problems.  And that sounds new, right?  It’s pretty much the opposite of the historically proven methods that first fill heads with grammar about which to find meaning.  Cart and horse stuff.

Socrates and Common Core don’t really belong in the same list unless your only criterion is “new.”  Why reinvent the wheel?  Look instead to the best minds, the da Vincis and the Newtons and ask what produced them.  The ideas (and their results in Mexico) are exciting, and I'm glad my pet cause is getting some positive media attention.  But don't mistake this stuff for new.  It’s just touching on the Classical.  And that, adopted as a whole philosophy, really works.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Another Day Down

A glance at the dates of my blog-posts will tell you just how Leisurely my 2013 has been.  Or just how mind-numbingly busy.  But last night I got some sleep, so today I will write something.

Cookie has a philosophy that goes like this: At the end of the day, the day ends.

Here's why this was, and is, life-changing and profound. 

When Cookie first began beating his philosophy into my head, Gale Force was an infant and was tossing the pieces of our family life about in the hurricane of her first year.  About once a week, Cookie would come home from work, take in the mess and all of us still in pajamas, and suggest we eat out. 

I would say something in a eerily high-pitched voice like, "You gave me no lead time to adjust the nap schedule! Now what am I going to do? This is a nightmare!"

And then we would go out, and it would sometimes be awful, and we would come home, and the day would end.  And Cookie was always right.  Gale Force would drive me crazy at home or at a restaurant or any old where.  But at least I'd get out, and have no dishes to clean up.  And the day would always end at last.

So, three years later, I'm having a doozy of a week alone with the kids, and I haven't slept (or cooked) much.  To illustrate the dooziness-level, yesterday's lunch consisted in piles of shredded Monterey Jack, stacks of pepperoni slices and V8 juice.  I'd also been up three times during the night, each time too stunad to remember that I should be resettling, not feeding, the baby.  Lucky girl.

On these days, my brain, like a teenage girl's, is nearly convinced that the world is actually ending and I am constantly tempted to stamp my feet and say crazy and dramatic things to people.  But an amazing thing happened.  Each time I wanted to do something ridiculous and irreversible like chop someone's blankie to tiny bits, I thought to myself, "there is a good chance that the world will not end, and tomorrow will be totally different."  At the time, this felt like a wildly foolish thing to hope for, but I woke up this morning and it turns out, Cookie came through again.

At the end of the day, the day ended.  It always does.

 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?  ...Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.  Matthew 6