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October 31, 2004 [feather]
Knee-jerk reaction

A Fort Lewis College part-time instructor has apologized to a Fort Lewis student for kicking him after he modelled his College Republicans shirt at a local restaurant. At the time of the kick, which she delivered to the calf, Maria Spero told Chris O'Donnell that she should have kicked him harder and higher. In a letter written after the student ascertained that his assailant was a teacher at his college, however, Spero strikes a different note:


I acted entirely inappropriately by kicking you, giving vent to a thoughtless knee-jerk political reaction that should have never have happened. I also apologize for my untoward comments. Before the incident, I did not know you and that you are a Fort Lewis student. I am entirely sorry, I am ashamed of my behavior, and I hope you will accept my apology.

It's a little tough to believe that Spero didn't know O'Donnell was a student when her reason for kicking him was that she found his College Republicans shirt offensive. Be that as it may, O'Donnell correctly observes that the college should hold professors at least as accountable as it holds students for their behavior off campus. He plans to file a formal complaint against Spero with the school. If he also presses charges, Spero faces a fine of $1000 and up to 90 days in jail.

Thanks to Regenlief for the tip.

Erin O'Connor, 3:02 PM | Permalink | Comments (8)




October 29, 2004 [feather]
Highly recommended:

Tobias Wolff's first novel, Old School. Here's the first paragraph:


Robert Frost made his visit in November of 1960, just a week after the general election. It tells you something about our school that the prospect of his arrival cooked up more interest than the contest between Nixon and Kennedy, which for most of us was no contest at all. Nixon was a straight arrow and a scold. If he'd been one of us we would have glued his shoes to the floor. Kennedy, though--here was a warrior, an ironist, terse and unhysterical. He had his clothes under control. His wife was a fox. And he read and wrote books, one of which, Why England Slept, was required reading in my honors history seminar. We recognized Kennedy; we could still see in him the boy who would have been a favorite here, roguish and literate, with that almost formal insouciance that both enacted and discounted the fact of his class.

Old School is a gem of a little novel, a deceptively simple story of nostalgic regret for past mistakes that contains within it a complicated meditation on the nature of honesty, creativity, and community. There's also a devastatingly biting extended portrait of Ayn Rand, so sniping and spiteful that the narrative nearly sacrifices itself for the sake of a nasty knife twist. But it doesn't, and instead, the Rand interlude just becomes a structural analogue of the story's ongoing investigation of how personal integrity and truth-telling are not only not always the same thing, but are at times wildly, impossibly opposed.

Read it.

Erin O'Connor, 11:10 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)




October 28, 2004 [feather]
Eviction for insensitivity

FIRE's latest case speaks for itself:


DURHAM, N.H., October 28, 2004ůThe University of New Hampshire has evicted a student from housing for posting fliers in his residential hall joking that freshman women could lose the žFreshman 15Ó by walking up the dormitory stairs. ›The public university found him guilty of violating policies on affirmative action, harassment, and disorderly conduct, and has sentenced him to mandatory counseling and probation along with his eviction.
›››››››››››››››››››››››››››››››››››››››››››››››››››››››››››››››››››››››››››››
In appealing his sentence, student Timothy Garneau explained that the flier was intended to make light of the common frustration with people who delay the elevator by taking it for just one or two floors instead of taking the stairs. ›UNH rejected his appeal, and Garneau was ordered to move out of his dormitory. Garneau reports that he is currently living out of his car.

žForcing a student into homelessness for posting a satirical flier is not just unlawfulůitŪs ›cruel,Ó remarked David French, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which has intervened on GarneauŪs behalf. ›žUNH is demonstrating to its community not only that it will ignore their First Amendment freedoms, but also that it doesnŪt care about the basic welfare of its students.Ó

The žoffensiveÓ flier included a cartoon picture of a woman in outdated workout gear and the following message:

9 out of 10 freshman girls gain 10 Ů 15 pounds. But there is something you can do about it. If u live below the 6th floor takes the stairs÷.Not only will u feel better about yourself but you will also be saving us time and wont be sore on the eyes. [sic]

Garneau posted copies of the flier in the elevators of his dormitory, Stoke Hall. According to Garneau, a resident assistant had removed all of the fliers within less than two hours. When Garneau was approached by the Stoke Hall Director and accused of hanging the fliers, he initially denied responsibility, fearing that he would be punished harshly and embarrassed in front of his peers. However, Garneau soon admitted to posting the flier and was charged with offenses including: žacts of dishonestyÓ; violation of žaffirmative actionÓ policies; žharassmentÓ; and žconduct which is disorderly, lewd.Ó

Within a week of the incident, and prior to his hearing, Garneau posted a written public apology for unintentionally offending others in his residential hall and apologized in person to students that he knew had complained.

At an October 8 hearing, the university found Garneau guilty of all charges. ›Despite GarneauŪs offers to voluntarily atone for his actions through community service, social awareness projects, and other activities, the university sentenced him to immediate expulsion from student housing and disciplinary probation extended through May 30, 2006. He was also required to meet with a counselor to discuss his ždecisions, actions, and reflectionsÓ about the incident, to write a 3000-word reflection paper about the counseling session, and to submit an apology letter to the residents of Stoke Hall to be published in the hallŪs newspaper.

Garneau appealed these outrageous sanctions on October 21, and quickly contacted FIRE for assistance. UNH promptly denied GarneauŪs appeal, however, and he was ordered to leave his dormitory by October 24.

On October 22, FIRE wrote a letter to UNH, explaining that administrators had unlawfully punished GarneauŪs protected expression and misapplied federal law by interpreting the poster as žharassment.Ó FIRE reminded the university that this action violated its obligations under the First Amendment.

žBy severely punishing a student for posting this flier, UNH administrators have revealed themselves as callous bullies with no regard for the law,Ó remarked Greg Lukianoff, FIREŪs director of legal and public advocacy. ›žUNH will discover, however, that free speech doesnŪt end wherever administrators arbitrarily decide that it should. FIRE will keep fighting until Tim GarneauŪs rights are fully restored.Ó


If this is what happens to residents who make snide suggestions, one has to wonder what UNH has in store for dorm residents who actually do something wrong--who steal, or bring alcohol onto the premises, or who simply won't turn down the loud music at a reasonable hour.

My guess is that if UNH applied the draconian standards employed with Garneau fairly and evenly to all residents, its dorms would empty out pretty quickly. My guess is also that Garneau got treated the way he did because he landed on the wrong side of an ideologue masquerading as an administrator. Men are pigs, after all, not to mention potential rapists, and it is therefore important to make instructive examples of them when the opportunity arises--or so I imagine someone righteously thought when confronted with the damningly sexist evidence of Garneau's flyer.

It would be nice not only to see Garneau reinstated at his dorm (with an apology from the school), but also to see the people who handled his posting of a slightly off-color flyer in such an excessive way held accountable for their actions.

Erin O'Connor, 12:19 PM | Permalink | Comments (21)




October 26, 2004 [feather]
Great beginnings

In response to this thread on favorite opening paragraphs, Our Girl in Chicago offers up Elaine Dundy's The Old Man and Me.

I've enjoyed readers' contributions (and enjoyed guessing those that did not come accompanied by authors' names)--the Bellow and the Koestler, particularly.

Here's another:


For a long time I used to go to bed early. Sometimes, when I had put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to say "I'm going to sleep." And half an hour later the thought that it was time to go to sleep would awaken me; I would try to put away the book which, I imagined, was still in my hands, and to blow out the light; I had been thinking all the time, while I was asleep, of what I had just been reading, but my thoughts had run into a channel of their own, until I myself seemed actually to have become the subject of my book: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between FranŃois I and Charles V. This impression would persist for some moments after I was awake; it did not disturb my mind, but it lay like scales upon my eyes and prevented them from registering the fact that the candle was no longer burning. Then it would begin to seem unintelligible, as the thoughts of a former existence must be to a reincarnate spirit; the subject of my book would separate itself from me, leaving me free to choose whether I would form part of it or no; and at the same time my sight would return and I would be astonished to find myself in a state of darkness, pleasant and restful enough for the eyes, and even more, perhaps, for my mind, to which it appeared incomprehensible, without a cause, a matter dark indeed.

For purists, here it is in the original beautiful French:

Longtemps, je me suis couch» de bonne heure. Parfois, ż peine ma bougie »teinte, mes yeux se fermaient si vite que je nŪavais pas le temps de me dire: īJe mŪendors.™ Et, une demi-heure aprňs, la pens»e quŪil »tait temps de chercher le sommeil mŪ»veillait; je voulais poser le volume que je croyais avoir encore dans les mains et souffler ma lumiňre; je nŪavais pas cess» en dormant de faire des r»flexions sur ce que je venais de lire, mais ces r»flexions avaient pris un tour un peu particulier; il me semblait que jŪ»tais moi-mÕme ce dont parlait lŪouvrage: une »glise, un quatuor, la rivalit» de FranŃois Ier et de Charles Quint. Cette croyance survivait pendant quelques secondes ż mon r»veil; elle ne choquait pas ma raison mais pesait comme des »cailles sur mes yeux et les empÕchait de se rendre compte que le bougeoir nŪ»tait plus allum». Puis elle commenŃait ż me devenir inintelligible, comme aprňs la m»tempsycose les pens»es dŪune existence ant»rieure; le sujet du livre se d»tachait de moi, jŪ»tais libre de mŪy appliquer ou non; aussitŔt je recouvrais la vue et jŪ»tais bien »tonn» de trouver autour de moi une obscurit», douce et reposante pour mes yeux, mais peut-Õtre plus encore pour mon esprit, ż qui elle apparaissait comme une chose sans cause, incompr»hensible, comme une chose vraiment obscure. Je me demandais quelle heure il pouvait Õtre; jŪentendais le sifflement des trains qui, plus ou moins »loign», comme le chant dŪun oiseau dans une forÕt, relevant les distances, me d»crivait lŪ»tendue de la campagne d»serte oė le voyageur se híte vers la station prochaine; et le petit chemin quŪil suit va Õtre grav» dans son souvenir par lŪexcitation quŪil doit ż des lieux nouveaux, ż des actes inaccoutum»s, ż la causerie r»cente et aux adieux sous la lampe »trangňre qui le suivent encore dans le silence de la nuit, ż la douceur prochaine du retour.

Bon.

Erin O'Connor, 8:20 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)




October 25, 2004 [feather]
A reader asks...

"What books have you given to friends or loved ones only to find out that they couldn't care less about them, and how much of a disappointment has that been? Similarly, what books have you been given that you just can't get around to or bring yourself to read, and why?"

Erin O'Connor, 4:06 PM | Permalink | Comments (14)




October 24, 2004 [feather]
Balm of Gilead

Taking a break from reading Andrea Seigel's over-rated Like the Red Panda this morning, I ran across an excellent piece in the New York Times Magazine about Marilynne Robinson, who immortalized the obsessive inability to throw out glass jars in Housekeeping (1980), and whose long-awaited second novel looks like it will turn out to have been well worth the wait:


Like ''Housekeeping,'' ''Gilead'' is a lyrical evocation of existential solitude. But it is also a provocatively sympathetic account of the abolitionist movement and of John Brown -- whose attack on Harpers Ferry helped bring about the Civil War. In Robinson's mind, American progressives have lost the ability to ''take hold'' of an issue to mobilize change the way that radical reformers once did. And so ''Gilead'' differs from ''Housekeeping'' in one crucial way: it is an explicit corrective to what Robinson calls ''cultural amnesia.'' The explicitness of this ambition makes Robinson an anomaly in a literary landscape still more given to postmodern pontification than to old-fashioned political arguments.

In a sense, Robinson is a kind of contemporary George Eliot: socially engaged, preoccupied with the environment and the moral progress of man (especially as catalyzed through art) and preoccupied with the legacy of John Calvin (a misunderstood humanist, by Robinson's lights). Robinson, who has no television and doesn't drive, offered a scathing indictment of contemporary America's materialism and frivolity in her essay collection ''The Death of Adam''; all told, the book offered an almost anachronistically stern view of the moral failings of humankind. The curious part, then, is the degree to which readers of all persuasions find Robinson's strenuous vision a welcoming -- and welcome -- one.


Robinson came at Gilead by way of a failed attempt to write another novel in the (to me) increasingly strained and exhausted genre of pained women's literature:

Until a few years ago, Robinson was actually trying to write a different novel: a darkly comedic story of a woman ''abraded'' by her experience of the world. She worried, though, that she was stuck in an isolated female voice like the one in ''Housekeeping''; the novel didn't seem to come together. One day, she composed a piece of a poem by one of the book's ancillary characters, an elderly preacher. ''All of a sudden, this character emerged that had a voice and presence and authority that swept everything else I'd been doing away,'' she said. After this, she wrote ''Gilead'' swiftly, in two years or so. She told Conroy that it was as if she were sitting on the narrator's lap as he whispered the story to her.

At first glance, ''Gilead'' may seem eccentrically conceived: set in 1956, it weaves together an intimate family story and a century's worth of political events in the Middle West, sprawling from Kansas to Iowa and back. The narrator is John Ames, a 77-year-old preacher in Iowa who, facing death, has decided to make an account of his life for his young son (the unexpected gift of a late marriage to a much younger woman). Much of the novel is a reflection -- albeit an oblique one -- on the Kansas abolitionist movement and the years leading up to the Civil War, as experienced by Ames's grandfather, a spirited abolitionist and Civil War chaplain, and Ames's father, an ardent pacifist, whose ideologies set them at loggerheads. John Brown plays only a cameo role: the young Ames helps shelter him on the way home from a murderous raid. But the questionable merits of violent social activism cast a long shadow over the book.


Robinson's found novel is also part of a growing genre of American literature--genealogical novels that draw connections between past and present by looking backward to nineteenth-century American ancestors. Think Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain--which is not only set during the Civil War, but was inspired by a fragment of Frazier's own family history (Inman is the name of Frazier's great uncle, a Confederate deserter whose story matches in its broad outlines that of the novel's Inman); Steinbeck's East of Eden, also inspired by the author's family history (Steinbeck's grandfather emigrated from Ireland to the Salinas Valley); and more strictly fictional retrospectives by Annie Proulx, Toni Morrison, Edward P. Jones, and others. Robinson's own relationship to this genre has to do with her interest in tracing the complex interworkings of conscience, faith, history, and memory--all issues brought forward by the famously fraught story of John Brown.

I usually wait for the paperback, but I may have to make an exception this time.

Erin O'Connor, 1:04 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)




October 22, 2004 [feather]
Great first paragraphs
I am always drawn back to places I have lived, the houses and their neighborhoods. For instance, there is a brownstone in the East Seventies where, during the early years of the war, I had my first New York apartment. It was one room crowded with attic furniture, a sofa and fat chairs upholstered in that itchy, particular red velvet that one associates with hot days on a train. The walls were stucco, and a color rather like tobacco-spit. Everywhere, in the bathroom too, there were prints of Roman ruins freckled brown with age. The single window looked out on a fire escape. Even so, my spirits heightened whenever I felt in my pocket the key to this apartment; with all its gloom, it was still a place of my own, the first, and my books were there, and jars of pencils to sharpen, everything I needed, so I felt, to become the writer I wanted to be.
I always choose a novel by reading the first paragraph and seeing whether it fits well with my present reading mood. If it does, I keep going; if it doesn't, I put the book right down, though I may return to it in the future and find that the first paragraph has magically become engaging, inviting, everything it wasn't before. It's as good a means of choosing bedtime reading as any; I've always found that my response to the opening paragraph is a pretty good indicator of how I will respond to the narrative that follows.

It's gotten harder to find compelling first paragraphs over the years--increasingly I am struck by how often first paragraphs are awkwardly contrived, even trite; by how poorly they bode for the narrative to come. The one I quote above--even though it describes an entirely stock situation (the nostalgic remembrance of a home) through the eyes of a stock sort of narrator (the nostalgically recalled wanna-be young writer)--was a welcome exception. There is just enough awareness on the part of the narrator that he's not God's gift to writing, just enough idiosyncrasy in the description of the run-of-the-mill apartment, to bypass the cliches with which the story's premise openly toys.

There's a prize for the first reader who names the author of the passage above, and the work it's taken from. Work from memory only, please. No consulting shelves or amazon.com search engines, no Googling lines.

Readers are also invited to transcribe opening paragraphs that they particularly admire.

Terrible openings will be discussed in a future entry.

Erin O'Connor, 2:32 PM | Permalink | Comments (21)




October 20, 2004 [feather]
The Catcher on the Couch

Jonathan Yardley speculates on why J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye is so popular with high school English teachers:


Viewed from the vantage point of half a century, the novel raises more questions than it answers. Why is a book about a spoiled rich kid kicked out of a fancy prep school so widely read by ordinary Americans, the overwhelming majority of whom have limited means and attend, or attended, public schools? Why is Holden Caulfield nearly universally seen as "a symbol of purity and sensitivity" (as "The Oxford Companion to American Literature" puts it) when he's merely self-regarding and callow? Why do English teachers, whose responsibility is to teach good writing, repeatedly and reflexively require students to read a book as badly written as this one?

That last question actually is easily answered: "The Catcher in the Rye" can be fobbed off on kids as a book about themselves. It is required reading as therapy, a way to encourage young people to bathe in the warm, soothing waters of resentment (all grown-ups are phonies) and self-pity without having to think a lucid thought. Like that other (albeit marginally better) novel about lachrymose preppies, John Knowles's "A Separate Peace" (1960), "The Catcher in the Rye" touches adolescents' emotional buttons without putting their minds to work. It's easy for them, which makes it easy for teacher.

[...]

From first page to last, "The Catcher in the Rye" is an exercise in button-pushing, and the biggest button it pushes is the adolescent's uncertainty and insecurity as he or she perches precariously between childhood, which is remembered fondly and wistfully, and adulthood, which is the great phony unknown. Indeed a case can be made that "The Catcher in the Rye" created adolescence as we now know it, a condition that barely existed until Salinger defined it. He established whining rebellion as essential to adolescence and it has remained such ever since. It was a short leap indeed from "The Catcher in the Rye" to "The Blackboard Jungle" to "Rebel Without a Cause" to Valley Girls to the multibillion-dollar industry that adolescent angst is today.


Yardley may be overstating his case--but then again, he may not. He definitely has a point about the American fascination with coming-of-age stories centered on alienated teenagers messing up in school; if the rebellious adolescent is our cultural idol, the school seems to be the setting we are never, imaginatively speaking, willing to leave behind.

I'm finding it a fascinating exercise to return to novels that moved or fascinated me as a teenager, as a college student, as a grad student, not because those returns recreate--or even accurately recall--my initial responses to those novels, but because they almost always don't. Sometimes, it's a simple case of realizing that some work that was peddled to you by a teacher as Great Literature is actually embarrassingly badly conceived and painfully badly written (like Jack London's The Call of the Wild, which I first read in the seventh grade and which I had occasion to reread last spring); at others, it's more about registering, through one's shifting responses to a work, changes in oneself (I've written about Steinbeck's East of Eden and George Eliot's Middlemarch as examples of this).

I dutifully read The Catcher in the Rye as a teenager, with no sense whatsoever of the irony involved in dutifully reading a novel about the dangers of being thoughtlessly dutiful. I thought I was being subversive in reading it, because I had procured (from the public library no less) this forbidden, presumably dirty book (Salinger was not assigned in my school). I couldn't figure out what all the fuss was about; I was bored by the novel, but dutifully finished reading it anyway, I suppose so that I could say that I had. It wasn't an electrifying reading experience, but at least my teachers weren't trying to use the book to manipulate my understanding of my own adolescence.

Alternative assessments of Yardley's assessment of Salinger are at Bookslut, Maud Newton, and Old Hag.

Erin O'Connor, 8:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (21)




October 16, 2004 [feather]
A very easy death?

Nobel Prize-winning author V. S. Naipaul has announced his retirement. He has also announced that the novel as a genre is dying:


I have no faith in the survival of the novel. It is almost over. The world has changed and people do not have the time to give that a book requires. A book needs great thought.

My sense is that Naipaul isn't saying that novels won't continue to be written and published--clearly they will, and at breakneck speed--but that it is increasingly unlikely that good ones will be written, and that this is as much the fault of novelists as it is of their readers. His own reasons for retiring at 72 speak to this: "I really am quite old now. Books require an immense amount of energy. It is just not pages. It is ideas, observations, many narrative lines... Many things are going on in a book."

I'm interested in readers' thoughts on this claim. On the one hand, it's a too-familiar gesture to declare the death of art, culture, and so on, particularly when the occasion of such a declaration is one's own creative exhaustion. On the other hand, Naipaul has a point about the novel, which requires prolonged periods of dedicated concentration to be read properly, not fitting in well with either our hyperactive lifestyles or the depleted attention spans that go with them.

So I am curious: Is there really a problem? If not, why not? If so, are there novelists working today who promise to revive, reinvent, or rejuvenate the genre? Do we even need novels (or, if you prefer, do we need even more novels)? If the novel-as-art-form essentially dies out, will it matter? What, if anything, would the death of the novel say about our styles of attention and our modes of imagining?

Erin O'Connor, 10:13 AM | Permalink | Comments (18)




October 13, 2004 [feather]
Regressive progressives

As I slowly make my way through Diane Ravitch's Left Back, I am continually struck by her account of how modern pedagogy was born a little more than a century ago. I haven't time to do all the details justice--readers who want highly particular history should go read Ravitch herself and then work backward from her bibliography to the writings of Dewey and others. But I'll just summarize and excerpt a couple of telling quotes.

In the early chapters of Left Back, Ravitch writes extensively about the debates that surrounded the rise of the progressive education movement during the early decades of the twentieth century, paying particular attention to those progressives who (quite unprogressively, it seems to me) argued that it is basically not possible to train the mind to reason well and remember much. They used this premise to justify a socially deterministic tracking curriculum that barred all but the most elite, college-bound children from a traditional academic curriculum, and that instead emphasized vocational training. Learning for its own sake was considered impractical and elitist even as the rationale for not teaching academic subjects was itself elitist: The subjects taught in the traditional academic curriculum--Latin, Greek, algebra, and so on--were felt to be well beyond the abilities of most people, who could neither reason nor remember well enough to master them. Progressive education as it was initially conceived and implemented by educationists across the country was thus in many ways profoundly conservative, even reactionary, in its conception of human potential and in its correspondingly rigid notion of school not as preparation for life as a thinking citizen but as preparation for specific manual jobs.

A tellingly extreme example: one progressive educationist took this reasoning to such an extreme that he actually proposed tracking high school-aged kids into a host of highly specialized vocational schools that would teach such skills as "tailoring, jewelry salesmanship, poultry farming, coal cutting, stationary engine firing, waiting on table (hotel), cutting (in shoe factory), automobile repair, teaching of French in secondary school, mule spinning, power machine operating (for ready made clothing), raisin grape growing, general farming suited to Minnesota, linotype composition, railway telegraphy, autogenous welding, street car motor driving, and a hundred others" (quoted in Ravitch, 85). As extreme as this image is, its shadow has been retained by many public schools--I recall taking required courses in home economics, wood shop, and metal shop in junior high school; my high school ran (and still runs) a "career center" that offered training in such practical vocational skills as typing, auto repair, and construction work. I think that's a good thing. But I'm also appalled by the narrowness of the philosophy that made it possible. It's one thing to be able to choose to learn these skills as part of one's education. It's another to be relegated to learning these skills because one has been designated incapable or unworthy of traditional academic study.

For balance, the prescient comment of an early opponent of progressive education: "the great drift of American education and life toward absorption in the fascinating spectacle of the present has not been, perhaps cannot be, checked .... The majority still believe that modern civilization can find not only entertainment but also all the instruction and all the culture which it requires in the contemplation of moving pictures of itself, whether in the five-cent theater or the ten-cent magazine or the one-cent newspaper" (quoted in Ravitch, 117). That was written in 1910. Interesting to consider how the deterministic pedagogy of progressive educational tracking arose alongside the present-centered narcissism that has come to define so many aspects of American social and political life. Interesting, too, to consider how old these trends--which, in our present-centeredness, we think of as fairly recent--really are.

Erin O'Connor, 9:09 AM | Permalink | Comments (17)




October 12, 2004 [feather]
The use and abuse of memory

Reading Diane Ravitch's Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform while experimenting with ways of teaching vocabulary in a meaningful and memorable way have led me to reflect in my extremely rare free moments on memory and memorization as learning devices. I'm interested in readers' recollections of what they had to memorize in school, of what stuck and what did not. I'm interested in what memories readers have of memorizing, and what memorizations they can still recite. I'm interested in what value, if any, readers would assign to different kinds of memorization (the times tables, poems, the presidents, and so on). And I'm interested in whether readers think there are certain speeches, poems, or literary works that ought, as a matter of course, to be committed to memory--as a matter of mental discipline, or as a matter of cultural heritage, or both.

Comments are open.

Erin O'Connor, 4:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (27)




October 8, 2004 [feather]
A sentence is a sentence is a sentence

žI really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences. I like the feeling the everlasting feeling of sentences as they diagram themselves.Ó

That's Gertrude Stein. More on the fun and games of the diagram at Kitty Burns Florey.

Erin O'Connor, 8:29 AM | Permalink | Comments (5)




October 7, 2004 [feather]
Remembrance of things rote

An interesting anecdote from Diane Ravitch's excellent Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform, the occasion for which is Ravitch's discussion of how early educational psychologists affected ideas about whether it was possible to train children to remember accurately and reason well:


The first attempt to test the validity of mental discipline was recorded by the eminent Harvard psychologist William James, who conducted a trial of his own memory. He wanted to see 'whether a certain amount of daily training in learning poetry by heart will shorten the time it takes to learn an entirely different kind of poetry.' During an eight-day period, he memorized 158 lines of Victor Hugo's poem "Satyr" at the rate of one line every fifty seconds; then, over a thirty-eight day period, he memorized the first book of Paradise Lost. When he returned to the Hugo poem, it took him fifty-seven seconds to memorize each line, which indicated that he had gained nothing in speed or efficiency from his earlier memory feats. While James thought that one's memory might be improved by various methods, he doubted that the faculty of memory could be strengthened merely by training. He referred to his self-test in a footnote to his monumental work The Principles of Psychology.

This seems to be a real-life analogue of Lewis Carroll's spoofing of rote memorization in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Fans of the Alice books will recall how much of Alice's trouble in Wonderland stems from the fact that her head is stuffed with facts she has memorized without understanding them, and verses she has learned by rote without ever actually thinking about them. My personal favorite is Carroll's crazed version of Robert Southey's "The Old Man's Comforts and How He Gained Them":

'You are old, Father William,' the young man said,
'And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head -
Do you think, at your age, it is right?'

'In my youth,' Father William replied to his son,
'I feared it might injure the brain;
But, now that I'm perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again.'

'You are old,' said the youth, 'as I mentioned before,
And have grown most uncommonly fat;
Yet you turned a back-somersault in at the door -
Pray, what is the reason of that?'

'In my youth,' said the sage, as he shook his grey locks,
'I kept all my limbs very supple
By the use of this ointment - one shilling the box -
Allow me to sell you a couple?'

'You are old,' said the youth, 'and your jaws are too weak
For anything tougher than suet;
Yet you finished the goose, with the bones and the beak -
Pray how did you manage to do it?'

'In my youth,' said his father, 'I took to the law,
And argued each case with my wife;
And the muscular strength, which it gave to my jaw,
Has lasted the rest of my life.'

'You are old,' said the youth, 'one would hardly suppose
That your eye was as steady as ever;
Yet you balanced an eel on the end of your nose -
What made you so awfully clever?'

'I have answered three questions, and that is enough,'
Said his father; 'don't give yourself airs!
Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?
Be off, or I'll kick you down stairs!'


For the full effect, read this poem while enjoying John Tenniel's drawings of Father William standing on his head, somersaulting in at the door, after eating the goose, and, best of all, balancing the eel on the end of his nose.

The full complement of Carroll's nonsensical rewrites--which may be read at least in part as tongue-in-cheek meditations on rote memorization--is collected here.

Erin O'Connor, 10:17 PM | Permalink




More pragmatic question

I'm hunting for non-dull, even enjoyable ways to teach vocabulary--ways that actually go some way toward ensuring that what's learned is actually retained (i.e., really learned). Suggestions are welcome; things that work for working teachers are particularly welcome.

Erin O'Connor, 6:43 PM | Permalink | Comments (21)




October 5, 2004 [feather]
Question

Are there private high schools in this country that explicitly operate according to a libertarian ethos?

Usually, we think of private schools as institutions that are not required to observe the civil liberties of students, and that therefore do not. But what I am wondering is, are there private schools out there that use their prerogatives as private institutions to educate students in the ways and means of freedom?

Comments are open; responses are welcome.

Erin O'Connor, 9:55 AM | Permalink | Comments (31)




Quote for a harried Tuesday

All education is despotism. It is perhaps impossible for the young to be conducted without introducing in many cases the tyranny implicit in obedience. Go there; do that; read; write; rise; lie down; will perhaps for ever be the language addressed to youth by age. ›››
--William Godwin

Erin O'Connor, 9:52 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)




October 4, 2004 [feather]
Quote for a harried Monday

Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It instigates to invention. It shocks us out of sheeplike passivity, and sets us at noting and contriving.

--John Dewey

Erin O'Connor, 9:18 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)