Monday, November 17, 2014
Okay, I know this book was published twelve years ago, and I'm just getting around to reading it. I've enjoyed it, though, and recommend it. The book deserves a look if you haven't read it yet.
David McCullough writes popular biographies and histories, and remarkably, makes history accessible to readers everywhere. Sure, he's been criticized for some sloppy work, but he tells good stories.
This biography of John Adams is no exception. I've always admired the man who was at the front of the American Revolution and the architect of the American ideals of liberty. This book traces a moving story about a man who was driven, who worked hard, and who sacrificed nearly everything he had in order to make his vision of America a reality.
The book also has the added bonus of not trivializing John Adams' contributions to the formation of the US in order to score some kind of neolib points with modern audiences. I grow weary of biographies and histories that tear down the past because its men and women weren't progressives, or feminists, or gay advocates. I also weary of history (found in nearly every school textbook) that rips America and Americans for its supposed imperialism or for causing all the world's evils (including hangnail and baldness). I weary of biographies where the faults and shortcomings of humans are more important than their remarkable achievements.
No, McCullough doesn't have to resort to a cheap and completely inaccurate interpretation of John Adams in order to assuage the tender feelings of modern progressives. For that fact alone, I'd recommend this book. I'd also recommend this book because at the very least it shows John Adams' amazing abilities to work tirelessly on behalf of an idea - the formation of a nation based on the value of the individual.
The book is long, because John Adams lived a long time and accomplished a lot. He was the driving force behind the Second Continental Congress. He convinced all the state delegates to declare independence from Britain. He spent years, many of them futile, trying to bring the French and the Dutch in on the side of the Americans. He became the ambassador to England once the war was over. He became vice president, then president of the US. In between times, he farmed, he wrote, and he cared for his wife and children.
Through all his difficult work, he held onto and adored his wife, Abigail. They clung on to each other through thick and a lot of thin. They remained faithful to each other and to the cause of America during long absences and trials that have easily destroyed lesser marriages. In one sense, this book is also a love story.
In fact, it is Adams' relationship with Abigail that marks him as the best kind of men - faithful and true to his wife and children through all adversity.
Is the book perfect and the writing flawless? Hardly. But at the least, David McCullough's story about John and Abigail Adams is good history which should be read by anyone who, like I am, tired of the leftist propaganda that passes for history these days.
Friday, November 14, 2014
In the scene in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, Scrooge notices two children beneath the robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present. When asked about them, the ghost replies:
"They are Man’s," said the Spirit, looking down upon them. "And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!"While the Ghost of Christmas Present warns Scrooge of the dangers of neglecting orphans, the cautionary tale is plain: ignorance is the greatest of sins, producing nothing but misery.
Scrooge's ignorance is a sin in The Christmas Carol because he willfully ignores the pain and suffering around him. In his case, he can only redeem his miserable life by learning to reach out to others and to use his great wealth to help the poor and the needy.
Yet, Scrooge's miserly way is only one way ignorance manifests itself. Ignorance, especially willful ignorance, leads people into bondage. Ignorance prevents people from rising to their full potential. Ignorance allows the ambitious and the strong-willed to force their will on others.
I've been teaching history and political science for a long time. More frequently than not these days, I find students who come into my classes ignorant. This is not to say they are stupid. They are ignorant because they lack the basic skills and desires to educate themselves beyond getting a good grade so they can get on to the next class.
One milestone of ignorance is an utter lack of desire to read beyond the canon of liberal dogma. I realize that not everyone will read as broadly and consistently as I do, but I'd be happy if my students would actually read a real history book once in awhile (not one written merely as propaganda), or a biography of a virtuous person, or even a good novel not found on the NY Times Bestseller list.
Students who refuse to read anything that may challenge the concepts that they've been force fed from ernest, yet liberal, teachers make themselves willfully ignorant. Willful ignorance is a mortal sin among the variations of ignorance.
It is one thing to accept the dogmas taught in high school, since we are rarely ever encouraged to challenge our textbooks or our teachers. It is another to close our minds to any other possibilities than those dictated by the narrow and utterly intolerant ideals of liberalism. As Allan Bloom put it in his seminal book The Closing of the American Mind:
When the liberal, or what came to be called the utilitarian, teaching became dominant, as is the case with most victorious causes, good arguments became less necessary; the original good arguments, which were difficult, were replaced by plausible simplifications—or by nothing.To accomplish this task, modern liberal education de-emphasizes history, to the point of calling the whole of history meaningless, or worse, evil. I rarely encounter history textbooks anymore which do not emphasize identity politics and oppression dogmas. How can college students learn not to be ignorant if all they are ever taught is propaganda and socialist dogmas?
The problem runs deeper than the modern disregard for history. Ignorance steeps our educational system like weak tea, forcing students to care about the meaningless minutiae found in standardized testing, while defunding and deleting all those things that create meaning and importance in human lives: philosophy, art, religion, music.
I refer again to Allan Bloom:
We are like ignorant shepherds living on a site where great civilizations once flourished. The shepherds play with the fragments that pop up to the surface, having no notion of the beautiful structures of which they were once a part.The doctrines preached in today's schools are dangerous for this one, basic reason, they teach students what to think, not how to think. And, like Dickens' ghost, we must "beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased."
Wednesday, November 12, 2014
From the moment I first heard about Common Core, I knew that it would be used as a tool to preach the dogmas of progressivism. How could it not? Sure, on the face of it, the National Governor's Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers sounds like an impressive couple of committees who led a grassroots campaign to improve school standards.
Except they didn't.
Instead, these two groups recommended Common Core, a system developed by a Washington D.C. based think tank of "educators" who gained enough influence and power in the federal system to connect the adoption of Common Core standards to federal money.
In short, while Common Core standards sound impressive, they are linked to federal money, to progressive ideology, and to businesses such as publishers and standardized testing companies who want to push book and test sales which preach their own agendas. It is painfully obvious that these agendas express progressive dogmas to indoctrinate (and make ignorant) the coming generations of American children.
Here's a dangerous case in point.
One of the English teachers on my staff pointed out that the newest 12th grade English curriculum now references as a non-fiction reading an opinion piece from the New York Times, entitled "Let's Give Up on the Constitution."
I guess the progressive ideal that the Constitution is a "living" document (which removes the burdens of actually following what it says) doesn't seem to be enough for liberals anymore. In the op-ed, the author argues, using all the idiotic dogmas of liberalism, against keeping the Constitution at all.
From the opening paragraph:
As the nation teeters at the edge of fiscal chaos, observers are reaching the conclusion that the American system of government is broken. But almost no one blames the culprit: our insistence on obedience to the Constitution, with all its archaic, idiosyncratic and downright evil provisions.The main thrust of the author's argument is this: The Constitution was written by dead, white men who couldn't foresee the problems we have today. Since then, we have had to make a lot of changes to laws in order to ignore the Constitution. Those dead, white men keep getting in the way of our desires to ignore the Constitution, so we should just get rid of the document completely.
The author, besides being naive, self-serving, and impossibly ignorant about the purpose of the Constitution and the dangers of an unconstrained government, wishes to promote the ideal that freedom can only come to the people of the United States by getting rid of the Constitution, and by implication, by getting rid of the Republic.
And that, in a nutshell, is the agenda, the dogma, and the danger of liberal control of education through Common Core.
Shocked and disgusted with the reading choice, the English teacher came to me for advice on how to best handle such obvious and flagrant attempts to derail the importance of the Constitution among high school seniors. Together, we decided that she could best use the op-ed piece to prompt a real discussion about the importance of the Constitution. She and her students then went through the op-ed and pointed to all the poor arguments and fallacies contained in it.
I'm concerned, however, that other teachers at other schools will use such blather to promote the narrow and dangerous views of modern liberalism. We have already nearly destroyed the purpose of education within our democratic society - to promote thinking. Now that men and women with the ideals to end thinking among students have control over school curriculum, we will become a nation of imbeciles, never knowing the better path that the Founding Fathers created for us.
Monday, November 10, 2014
As I look back over last week's midterm election, I've come to the same conclusion as many. The Republicans didn't win the election. Instead, Obama lost the election.
This is an important distinction. The Republican Party has been plagued over the years with wishy-washy policies and platforms that barely defines it as anything more than the anti-Democrat party. Since the news media has also succeeded in demonizing the party as anti-everything, Republicans need to step up and become something other than the group that opposes Obama.
Yet, for the purposes of this past election, that was enough to launch Republicans back into power in both the House and the Senate.
Basically, Obama's policies suck so bad that Americans put Republicans back into power in Congress. Don't muck it up, Republicans.
Here are a few positive things I see that could come out of this past election:
1) Republicans could redefine themselves as fiscal and social conservatives. Instead of a party defined as anti-Democrats, the Republican party should take the opportunity to re-evaluate its platform and to incorporate the principles of limited government and individual freedom.
2) Senate Republicans can be useful, if only to block any further Obama appointments.
3) Harry "Everyone-Wants-to-Pay-More-Taxes" Reid is finally out of power in the Senate. It would be icing on he cake if House Democrats would replace Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democrats would replace Harry Reid as their party leaders.
4) Obama will sound even more stupid blaming Congress for obstructing his policies.
5) Obama and his Gospel of Liberalism will be held up to closer scrutiny. The press, even though the bulk of its members are converted liberals, can no long uphold Obama's policies that have been so roundly defeated in the last election. Sure, the die hard socialists will continue to spin the conservative ideals as false or evil, but in the end, the media will have to pay lip service to those Americans who changed Congress. The media, after all, want to make money and must produce products that people will buy.
6) Congress and Obama will still deadlock on most bills that the whole of Congress can now pass. There are not enough Senate Republicans to override a presidential veto. Obama will continue to exercise dictatorial powers. We'll just have to wait and see if Republicans do much more than throw epithets and threats.
Tuesday, October 28, 2014
High school English classes suck. High school students, having spent countless hours wading through the drivel and dreck of their English classes enter into college with fewer and fewer skills. Compared with students even ten years ago, those who take my college history classes today are poorer readers and writers. For them, correct spelling is optional. Basic sentence and paragraph structures no longer exist.
There are myriad reasons why high schools fail in teaching students: federal "oversight" and centralized curriculum, the No Child Left Behind Act (otherwise known as No Child Allowed to Excel), socialist-driven Common Core curriculum, idiotic teacher "accountability" standards, standardized testing, replacing teaching with testing, poor texts, poor tests, teachers' unions, general apathy. The list goes on. These all combine into a ghastly leviathan, which swallows the students' will to learn, trapping it in a cavernous gullet, where neither light nor breath of cool air can reach it.
There is, however, one overriding problem which traps and digests high school English students. This is the central failure of Common Core standards. The main problem is a curriculum designed by idiot professors of education. These have spent countless hours inventing "new" methods of torturing students, convinced in their collective minds that the next new theory will show an increase in SAT and ACT scores. They also demand more and more money, leeching it from teachers, to pay for new administrators, "experts" who design curricula, authors who write textbooks, and middle managers to implement "standards."
The problem would be easy to diagnose and treat, if it weren't for the axiomatic idea that power, once given away, is not given back, except by force. Those placed over our schools and educational system, once they were handed a little authority, turned around and unwisely used it to control and recreate schools in their own collectivist and elitist images.
The solution, it seems to me, is fairly simple: return to "traditional" methods of teaching English. These methods included reading good books, writing essays, and memorizing grammar and mechanics.
If I were to fix English classes, I'd start by scrapping all the classes as they are currently taught. Let's face it, what high school youth is going to learn to write if he or she cannot read (or worse, is made to hate to read). How can students seriously come to grips with the elitist literature of Faulkner, or Fitzgerald, or Steinbeck, or Joyce? How can current students come to care for literature when Common Core replaces good books with stodgy "nonfiction." Instead of torturing teens with endless ideas about "notetaking" (as is taught in their current curriculum), about phonetic spelling, about five paragraph essays, about incomprehensible authors, why not get them interested in English by interesting them in good stories?
Here's my plan. Instead of the current curriculum, start students at the earliest ages with several years of reading. Instead of selecting reading that corresponds to socialist ideals, or has some arbitrary designation of "canon" or "high art," reading would cover genres. The elementary school classes would choose from lists of readable books in several categories: biography, classics, mystery, science fiction, fantasy, action, spy, romance, poetry, historical fiction, humor, horror, and so on. (The book lists would be kept age-appropriate of course.) Teachers would be required to read books aloud in class. As students progressed, they could decide which genres interested them the most and read those on their own. This in turn would spark an interest in reading that modern students lack.
Of course, such classes don't readily show student progress, improvement, or accountability, all of which seem to be so important to government teaching standards. These classes would be even more disturbing to elitist English teachers, since the books wouldn't include the appallingly pretentious works that have been the standard in English classes since the dawn of the English Ph.D.
What is my response to this? Students won't appreciate so-called "high art," if they cannot read. Instead of raising a generation of illiterates, at least we'd have a generation of readers. On the way, they'd learn grammar, spelling, vocabulary, and be introduced to ideas. On the way, they might even learn how to think!
For those students who do become interested in English and American literature, I'd offer an elective entitled "Literature for the Pretentious." Here is where English teachers could inflict Faulkner, Steinbeck, Melville, or Salinger on their students. (I'd ensure that some readable authors were included in the mix, such as Ray Bradbury or Harper Lee.) Mind you, even in this class, the focus would be on the text, not on the silly liberal metatext that today's postmodernist deconstructionists love to drill into unsuspecting student brains.
What about "critical" reading? In my opinion, reading is reading. Let's get the children and teens reading first. If they can survive high school without being illiterate, then we can worry if they can read technical texts. In this case, interest will drive ability. For example, I learned to read philosophy, history, sociology, economics, and history of religions, not because my high school teachers taught me how to analyze texts, but because my high school teachers didn't entirely succeed in killing off my desire to read fiction novels.
What about writing? My experience with all ages of students, from grade school through college, clearly indicates that the best writers are those students who also read. I would require a semester of grammar, which included mechanics, spelling, and vocabulary. This class would find practical application, since the youth would be reading along with learning grammar. I'd also require one semester of general writing. Part of the semester would be spent writing a standard thesis essay, then editing it. Part of the semester would be spent writing stories and editing them. The editing process is as important as the writing process, and will teach better writing than a myriad theories on the subject.
There you have it - my plan to revolutionize teaching English. Of course it will never pass muster with the intellectual elite, with teachers' unions, with government bureaucrats, or with the current collection of leftist ideologues. We've handed the power over to them to "fix" the broken system that their ideology created. Yet, "power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will" (Frederick Douglass). When individuals and parents start demanding back the power to teach the children, perhaps the power elite will be forced to concede it.