Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.

Source of book: Lent to me by Peter Wonderly

For those of my friends and/or followers who know Peter, he is one of the best educated persons I know, either in spite of or because of his colorful history. Peter has devoted a significant portion of his life attempting to impart education to continuation students, a seemingly hopeless job.

I would venture to say he lent me this book because he figured I would be one of the few in his acquaintance to truly care about cultural literacy and its decline. If that was the case, he was correct.

This book discusses, obviously, cultural literacy. The author defines this as the body of knowledge which educated (that is, literate) adults know and take for granted in everyday speech and writing that others know as well. For example, in a typical newspaper article, the author assumes that the reader is familiar with the three branches of government here in the United States. Unfortunately, these assumptions are increasingly incorrect as applied to the population at large.

Hirsch identifies this decline in literacy, this decline in shared knowledge enabling communication, as stemming from an educational philosophy first articulated by Rousseau. (Note at this point that I have assumed that my readers are familiar with Rousseau. And with the concept of educational philosophy.) This idea was that education should not be the memorization of a set list of facts, but rather the learning of the process of learning. This was popularized in the United States by John Dewey in the form of an educational emphasis on learning the mechanics of reading, critical thinking, etc., with the idea that learning these abstract skills will then translate to the ability to learn the facts in any area of knowledge.

Hirsch argues persuasively that the facts themselves are necessary to even learn, much less use, the raw skills. Particularly in the area of reading, the mechanics of understanding the words is less useful than understanding what the words mean in the context of the culture. A reference to Shakespeare will only confuse a reader who can recognize the word, but not the man or the concepts evoked by him.

So far, this idea, although perhaps radical in our time, is well defended by Hirsch. I certainly find myself in his camp on this issue. Critical thinking and reading with comprehension are so tied up with the background facts that both need to be developed simultaneously. I find myself in my conversations with my children having to focus on the basic building blocks of knowledge. We have laid some basic foundations in biology, physics, and chemistry in order to discuss the world around us. This applies to my 5 year old as much as to my 8 year old. Electricity is mysterious unless the structure of the atom is understood.

Where I tend to part ways with Hirsch is in two vital areas. First, what is the cause of the decline in cultural literacy? Second, what is the cure for the decline?

Hirsch argues that the decline in cultural literacy, although its philosophical roots date back to Rousseau, truly accelerated in the 1970s. Since I lack the knowledge or resources (or memory, for that matter) to determine the issue for myself, I will accept this as fact. Certainly, by the time I was in high school in the 1990s, I felt like an alien among my peers because I was literate in this sense.

Hirsch attempts to blame the decline on the change in educational philosophy. (Rousseau and Dewey, again.) The problem with this argument is that these ideas really were implemented in large part one or two generations prior to the decline. Perhaps the knowledge took a few generations to disappear. Or perhaps the schools were not as important to the transfer of cultural knowledge as he thought.

This ties in, of course, with his proposed cure. He suggests, like plenty of educational theorists, that a change in curriculum is necessary. (So far, I can see his point) However, he also argues for a longer school day, longer school year, taking children away from their presumably ignorant parents for longer periods of time.

This is an easy, knee jerk reaction. (Again, notice that I assume you understand the reference.) To his credit, Hirsch is working with what he has: the ability to influence the educational establishment. However, he misses what I consider to be the fundamental point. Back in the “golden days” of shared literacy, school days and years were shorter. Thus, perhaps the time spent in school was not the determining factor.

Cultural literacy, like many other important facets of education, is not primarily learned in school. This is similar, of course, to the debate about the ever increasing obesity among Americans, which also gained significant momentum in the 1970s. Good nutrition, like shared knowledge, is primarily gained at home, through interaction with multiple generations of adults. What has disappeared is the one-on-one transfer of values and knowledge.

In my previous review of Sweetness and Power, I noted that the increase in sugar consumption was tied, not to its cheapness, but to its ease of preparation. It was a quick source of calories that did not require preparation time, thus being more convenient for a working parent to serve. I would argue that knowledge transfer has undergone the same transformation with the increasing employment of both parents, the loss of multiple generation households, and the decline of time spent communicating across the generations. Just as sugar was and is a quick source of calories, television and other less literate forms of entertainment require less work and time than the transfer of cultural knowledge.

I do not want to sound like I am discounting the contributions of teachers. Indeed, they play an important role in the transfer of knowledge. However, the system of education will never be sufficient for all that is needed. Each of us learns through all of our interactions. If we hear something at school that is not reinforced and expanded as we communicate to others, we forget what we heard. If we do not practice our literacy, it fades into distant memory at best. It is that constant honing of our background knowledge that transforms it from facts for the next test to a commonality of shared literacy. It is this that enables us to communicate with other literate individuals, though we may be separated by race, culture, location, or even time in history.

As a final note, the last 65 pages or so of this book list what the author has deemed a basic list of concepts necessary for cultural literacy. He developed the list with a few others specializing in other areas of knowledge, and then circulated the list for refinement to a large group of literate acquaintances. The author clearly indicates that this list is meant to be a start, not the final product, and solicits additions and subtractions.

I found this list to be interesting as a list of concepts to be mastered. I do, however, have a few cautions. First and most important, I would urge fellow home school parents to avoid panic. This list is best suited to college graduates, not elementary school children. This is the eventual goal, not that goal for your precocious 3rd grader.

Second, this list is well suited to an adult. I found it a good gauge of the concepts I still needed to look at myself. I am, of course, in middle age. I learned plenty of these ideas after graduation. Learning is more of a lifelong process, not a final destination completed with a diploma or a degree.

I have no doubt that a person who learns the concepts in this book will be able to better communicate with other literate persons. In that light, I would recommend this book as a doorway to better knowledge, and an alternative to the Rousseau/Dewey educational philosophy.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Reliving my Childhood Through a Favorite Book

When I was in 2nd or 3rd grade, I received two presents that still live on in my memory. The first was a used electronics project kit. Missing a few components, with a few more broken, I had to figure out which circuits I could actually make. Still, I spent countless hours with it, as my parents can attest.

The second was a book which corresponded to the kit in subject matter. It was entitled All About Electricity. This book became my very most favorite of books, and I read it over and over through my elementary school years. 

The electronics kit has long since disappeared, although I have a better one I kept from my Jr. High days. The book remains a treasured part of my library.

Tonight, I started reading it to my kids.

Surprisingly, it has aged well. It was written with a certain grade level in mind, and thus is simple, with large print. It skips over the names of many of the scientists who experimented with electricity, focusing only on the most important. However, it is still a lucid and informative read. In addition, the simple illustrations are prefect for explaining the concepts.

One of the things that struck me even at an early age was that the book seems incomplete. It was published in 1957, and thus leaves out the semiconductor revolution. After focusing on vacuum tubes for both amplification and early computers, it ends with a mention of the transistor, and its potential to revolutionize the world of electricity. Even in the 1980s, tubes had been replaced for all practical purposes with solid state devices. My electronics kit had a few diodes and transistors, and a later one even had a few IC chips.

Still, I was fascinated with tubes because of this book, and wistfully thought that maybe some day I could find some old radio or something that had them.

The 1990s brought both my teen years and the revival of vintage tone for the electric guitar. Suddenly, solid state was out, and tubes were in. I bought myself a guitar, and determined to buy a tube amp when I got through school. (I did, and yes, there is magic in the old technology) 

 6L6GC power tube, a beam tetrode, for those who care.
 12AX7 twin triode

In starting this book with my kids, I find myself again as a kid, learning about the mysterious forces which dwell in all matter, and that can be harnessed in ways we all take for granted.

I have no idea if any of my kids will find this particular book as influential as I did, but my son Ted is already fascinated with wires and how they connect. Even at age 5, he has a pretty good idea where all the cables go for my guitar rig, and can tell me where all the outlets are within 2 minutes of checking into a hotel room. Maybe he will choose the engineering career I considered before picking law.

I have been primarily responsible for the science education of my children. Amanda and I homeschool them, in case that wasn’t obvious, and I get to teach them science. It has been an amazing experience over the last three years. There are so many more fun things to learn, and I am thankful that I can be a part of that process with my children.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Thy Hand, Great Anarch by Nirad C. Chaudhuri

Source of book: Kern County Library

This book is the major reason I have posted fewer reviews as of late. Weighing in at nearly 1000 pages of smallish type, this is neither a light nor quick read. It is, however, a truly amazing work of non-fiction.

The best way I can find to classify this book is a hybrid of autobiography, history, and editorial. It goes even farther than Churchill’s works by digressing extensively from the narrative with commentary by the author.

Chaudhuri was born in 1897 in East Bengal, now part of Bangladesh, but then part of British India. He endured extensive bouts of poverty and unemployment as he followed his dream of earning his living through writing. He wrote for newspapers and magazines in both English and Bengali, spent a number of years as a secretary for Sarat Bose, a major figure in the Indian Nationalist movement, and later wrote for All India Radio. He burst upon the international scene with his first book, Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, in the 1950s. This book could be considered Volume One of his autobiography, with Thy Hand, Great Anarch serving as the second installment, covering his life from 1921 to 1951.

Thy Hand, Great Anarch took its title from a poem by Alexander Pope (The Dunciad) which satirizes cultural decay, ending with these lines:

            Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And universal Darkness buries All.

Chaudhuri wrote this book late in life – it was published in 1987 when he was nearly 90. He would live to 101, publishing his last book at age 100.

As a man, Chaudhuri makes an interesting study. He was in ill health for most of his life due to a series of childhood illnesses. He was a mere five feet tall, and freely admits his wife was bigger and stronger than he. A less imposing or less physically attractive person could hardly be imagined. However, he balanced his frail exterior with an unusually strong memory, a clear and brilliant mind which he kept to the end, a self confidence bordering on arrogance combined with a witty sense of self-deprecation.

This book is considered to be one of the best primary sources for the saga of the end of British rule in India. Chaudhuri lived through many of the important events, and knew the personalities. His portraits in this book of the poet Tagore, Sarat and Subhas Bose, Gandhi, Nehru, and others are brutally honest both as to strengths and failures. His analysis of the events and the disasters which followed were provocative at the time, and still challenge the conventional wisdom.

Uncompromising is perhaps the best word to describe Chaudhuri’s writing. He refused to even consider changing his views on anything to gain his own advantage. In reality, he was dismissed from his position with All India Radio, and even denied his pension, because of his first book. Even 35 years later in Anarch, he refused to pull punches, whether speaking about individuals, the Indian government, or even American culture. It is this quality of speaking the truth as he saw it that gives his writing its force. He states that he has rarely had to revise his opinions, because he has taken such care to never express any opinion on any subject unless he felt sure it would stand wear and tear.  Whether you agree or disagree with his conclusions, it is clear he thought them through and did his best to discard any personal bias that might have interfered.

With a book of this length and scope, it is difficult to pick only a few highlights.

First, from the introduction, he announces that much of what was written about Indian independence was blatantly partisan. Those connected with the Indian government sought to preserve their jobs and glorify the new regime. Those from Britain sought to make a saint of Gandhi and therefore forget their own failures. Neither acknowledged the catastrophe that India became in the wake of independence – the rampant corruption and prejudice that even now holds India back from her potential.

“I judge policies and actions by their results, and not by the intentions of the participants…The most extraordinary fact about the recent history of India is that none of those who, whether Indian or British, were in reality Agents of Evil, had any suspicion that they were that and not Children of Light…A true student of history knows that history does not forgive. In India she has not.”

Chaudhuri’s view was that Britain’s significant failure was their refusal to practice “cultural assimilation”. The British in India neither adopted the Indian culture nor spread their own. Rather, they viciously fought against those Indians who attempted to adopt British culture, considering them mere monkeys rather than equals. Thus, in the reaction against British arrogance, the culture of corruption and the prejudice of the caste system were elevated to the status of nationalistic icons, ruining the chance for India to rise above them. In this way, the Indian independence focused on being “not-British”, rather than having a clear idea of what good alternative to put in place of British rule.

In speaking of the Hindu-Muslim conflict which resulted first in the partition of India into Pakistan and Bangladesh, and to this day continues as a nuclear-armed standoff, he believed that lots of high-flown, but utterly irrelevant things had been said. “I came to the conclusion that the more well-intentioned people were, the more prone did they become to utter drivel.” He also became skeptical of humanitarianism after his dealings with Gandhi and others – it seemed to him to become a form of egoism. He also describes those who “draw satisfaction from self pity”, a description of continued relevance today.

Chaudhuri also disdained pacifism and “diplomacy”. I will admit he makes a great case for its failure in the case of India, and much of it rings doubly true today with the endless conflict in the Middle East. He correctly notes that pacifism has its root in fear. “The real emotion behind pacifism was and is fear of war, and there is no greater begetter of wars than this fear if it is allowed to make nations afraid to face wars. Ultimately, it really imposes war on them in the worst of circumstances.”  Regarding “diplomacy”, Chaudhuri uses an image that has stuck with me as ingenious and accurate. “This latter activity was seen in the summoning of conferences, creation of commissions, and sending of missions, whose purpose was to arrive at an agreed solution, but which achieved nothing. The strangest part of this activity was that the failure of each of these sessions of ‘dialogue’, as they would be called today, only inspired more desire for the same kind of ‘dialogue’, just as miscarriages produce immediate pregnancies.”

Lest it be thought that Chaudhuri is annoyingly self-assured, there are several passages throughout the book of brutally unflattering self assessment. He felt himself lacking in will to action, and content to let ill fortune and laziness combine to ruin him.

His account of his marriage is also humorous for his sense that he was not much of a catch. He begins the account, “In this part of the book I shall give an account of my marriage and of the first quinquennium of my married life. It would read like a madman’s tale. But since I have pulled off that bout of madness and succeeded in keeping my wife fifty-four years, it will perhaps be conceded that prudence has very little to do with happiness and unhappiness in the married state.”

In typical Bengali style, he went to his father and asked him to find a wife. His father attempted to get some idea from Nirad what he should look for, but Nirad was loath to make any demands about looks. He considered it to be brutal for a man to reject a girl because of her looks, and felt that his own looks would be a turn off for the girl in any case. His father wisely asked him, “Of the intellectual type?” He replied, “Enough for two.” As he later commented in paragraph, “In knew that if the girl I married did not have real intellectual ability but had its conceit I would make her life miserable.” I found myself nodding along at this point in my reading.

He also hilariously describes his experience with the pimps in Delhi when he lived there. They would make “alluring remarks” about girls whose “sizes and figures” would match his. He notes that he was five feet and under one hundred pounds at the time. However, his continued refusal eventually gave him a reputation, which he considered a prized certificate of his character.

Chaudhuri took a lot of criticism for his unabashed love of European culture. He loved classical music, particularly opera – a form much disdained by most Indians. He was no mere dabbler – his children learned violin and piano, and he mentions his love for Cecil Forsyth’s Orchestration, a work that graces my own bookshelf. He was fluent in English, French, and Latin, among other languages, and had an extensive knowledge of Western history. While this makes him a better writer, it did him no favors in his native land.

This book is an inspiring read both for its language and its ideas. Chaudhuri never thinks small, but always expansively, bringing in history, philosophy, and literature. This book is best enjoyed a chapter at a time, with Latin and French dictionaries handy for his use of quotations from these languages.

As a final note, Chaudhuri was an excellent example of an autodidact. Although he had a college education, he never pursued his graduate studies. He did, however, spend money he didn’t have on books, and educated himself over a vast range of topics. He even became, during World War II, the military expert for All India Radio due to his knowledge of strategy and weaponry. He firmly believed that every ten years or so, a person needs a new hobby or interest to keep him learning and truly alive. Perhaps this helped him keep his mind sharp throughout his long life.

This philosophy also served him well with his children, who he did not trust to the public schools in India. Instead, he taught them, particularly in their high school years. As he said, “So my educational theory and practice falsified the very fashionable theory that parents are the last persons to succeed in educating their children. Actually, who else is qualified to make them both educated and civilized?”

Friday, August 5, 2011

Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters

Source of Book: I own this
Copyright information: Public Domain

Edgar Lee Masters is one of my more peculiar favorite poets. This might be due to the fact that he was a lawyer – he was Clarence Darrow’s partner from 1903 to 1908. In his spare time, he wrote poetry. Spoon River Anthology is his best known and most popular work.

I first discovered this collection in high school at a formative time in my life. I don’t come from a particularly poetic family, although my parents are both avid readers – particularly my mother. I initially discovered Emily Dickinson in grade school, also enjoying Stevenson and Christina Rossetti. It was in high school, however, that I first understood the beauty of meter and rhythm, and discovered Frost, Shakespeare, and Milton. (Among many others)

Spoon River spoke to me at a level I didn’t really understand at the time. I purchased a paperback copy, and have read bits and pieces from time to time. As part of my poetry project (see previous posts), I have been reading entire collections, so I decided to read this one cover to cover.

Masters began this work by writing individual poems published under a pseudonym in Reedy’s Mirror, a Midwestern literary magazine. Eventually, he collected these, with some additions, as the Spoon River Anthology.

What exactly is this Anthology? At its heart, it is the story of an imaginary Illinois town named Spoon River told by its inhabitants through their epitaphs. Masters populates his town with 212 individual characters, each having his or her own story and personality. These stories intersect, allowing the picture of the town and its history to be told from multiple, often conflicting, perspectives.

The form is free verse, but the cadence of the language clearly positions the work in the realm of poetry, not prose broken up in lines. I found that my experience was heightened when I read aloud.

Masters starts the story with a prelude, entitled “The Hill”, setting the stage.

Where are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom and Charley,
The weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown, the boozer, the fighter?
All, all are sleeping on the hill.
One passed in a fever,
One was burned in a mine,
One was killed in a brawl,
One died in a jail,
One fell from a bridge toiling for children and wife—
All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.

The prelude continues with similar vignettes concluded with the repetition of “all” and “sleeping” throughout the prelude.

The main body of the work is the individual epitaphs. Masters allows his characters to speak without fear of retribution. They are, after all, dead. This allows a brutal honesty that would never have been an option during the lives of the characters. Overall, there is an undercurrent of pessimism. However, I never found this to be a negative. This is all about death, after all. We all will die, leaving unfulfilled dreams, lost opportunities, and in many cases regrets for what should have been in a perfect world. This is not despair – things are not hopeless, just disappointing. Again, I did not realize quite why this resonated at age 15, but at 35, it reflects my own realization that life passes quickly, and I will never accomplish everything I would like, despite my best efforts.

The other source of resonance in this work is Master’s excellent characterization. These are real, believable people. (If perhaps a bit more poetic than average) I recognize my friends, family, and clients far to well. I recognize myself more than I wish.

There are too many great sections to quote individually, but I will mention a few.

First, “Robert Fulton Tanner” describes the rat race in memorable fashion:

IF a man could bite the giant hand    
That catches and destroys him,          
As I was bitten by a rat          
While demonstrating my patent trap,
In my hardware store that day.          
But a man can never avenge himself 
On the monstrous ogre Life.  
You enter the room—that’s being born;        
And then you must live—work out your soul,          
Aha! the bait that you crave is in view:           
A woman with money you want to marry,    
Prestige, place, or power in the world.          
But there’s work to do and things to conquer—       
Oh, yes! the wires that screen the bait.          
At last you get in—but you hear a step:          
The ogre, Life, comes into the room, 
(He was waiting and heard the clang of the spring)  
To watch you nibble the wondrous cheese,   
And stare with his burning eyes at you,        
And scowl and laugh, and mock and curse you,       
Running up and down in the trap,     
Until your misery bores him.  
I also enjoyed the pair of epitaphs for attorney Benjamin Pantier and his wife. Benjamin describes being reduced by his shrewish wife to sleeping in his office with his dog – who is buried with him. Ms. Pantier, on the other hand, describes her delicate and refined taste, which was disgusted by the coarse and common Benjamin so that she loathed him and eventually drove him away.

In this, as in other “sets”, the same events are told from multiple perspectives.

Both attorneys and poets figure prominently in this work – naturally Masters writes of what he knows. I suppose it would be more likely that a poet or attorney would leave a longer or more memorable epitaph if given the choice. For example, “Fiddler Jones” ends:

I ended up with a broken fiddle-
And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories.
And not a single regret.

For the attorneys, “Penniwit, the Artist” offers a bit of familiar humor:

I LOST my patronage in Spoon River           
From trying to put my mind in the camera    
To catch the soul of the person.         
The very best picture I ever took       
Was of Judge Somers, attorney at law.         
He sat upright and had me pause       
Till he got his cross-eye straight.        
Then when he was ready he said “all right.” 
And I yelled “overruled” and his eye turned up.      
And I caught him just as he used to look      
When saying “I except.”

I will also mention a great line from “Seth Compton”, who was apparently the much maligned librarian. The populace objected to his championing of Faust, among other “evil” works.

Choose your own good and call it good.       
For I could never make you see           
That no one knows what is good       
Who knows not what is evil; 
And no one knows what is true         
Who knows not what is false.

We could start a great philosophical and theological argument over these lines.

Not all of the poems are this pessimistic, however. “Perry Zoll”, an under appreciated scientist is able to graciously reflect on his lack of honor in his hometown until far after he achieved it elsewhere.

At the very end of the work, Masters includes “The Spooniad”, purporting to be a fragment written by one of the characters. It is written in parody of Paradise Lost, although it deals with a minor election and the related events.

I will end with what is probably the best known and most popular poem from the collection, “George Gray”. It sums up the tragedy most of us wish to avoid – that of never risking, never trying, never living.

I have studied many times
The marble which was chiseled for me --
A boat with a furled sail at rest in a harbor.
In truth it pictures not my destination
But my life.
For love was offered me and I shrank from its disillusionment;
Sorrow knocked at my door, but I was afraid;
Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances.
Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.
And now I know that we must lift the sail
And catch the winds of destiny
Wherever they drive the boat.
To put meaning in one's life may end in madness,
But life without meaning is the torture
Of restlessness and vague desire --
It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.