Reading, ‘Riting, ‘Rithmetic and Moral Reasoning: On the Urgency of Education

Sharon March 17th, 2009

When I sat down to write _Depletion and Abundance_ I had to figure out what made my own emphasis different from any other book about Peak Oil or Climate Change.  After all, if all I was going to do was a variant on Monbiot or Heinberg, what was the point? 

I came to the conclusion that what had to separate out my book was my emphasis on things that most Peak Oil and Climate Change activists don’t talk about that much (there are some notable and important exceptions here, but broadly speaking) - the “social welfare” issues that most people put first on their list of most important priorities - but which often are left off discussions of future planning.  Among these were Food Security (which does get a fair bit of attention) Health Care (which is starting to), Safety Nets for the poor, the disabled and the elderly (still under-discussed), and Education (way low on the priority list). 

There were two reasons I thought these issues important.  The first is that they are self-evidently important - that is, our quality of life depends in large part on the fact that when you get old, you don’t suffer, our sense of living in a decent nation depends on the idea that we care for those who are vulnerable, and that we are not bankrupted by our illnesses and that our kids have a future.  The second is that these are things people care about *now* - that is, they don’t have to completely rethink their priorities.  And that’s helpful for engaging the general populace - hooking ideas they are familiar with onto things they are not is part of the project.

The orphan step-child of this litany of subjects is education.  Of course everyone knows, in the abstract, that education is important.  But what is important in education is something else altogether, and in the face of potential food shortages or lack of access to basic medical care, the assumption is that we will cobble together something decent for education.  It is generally not a priority, given the urgency of so many other issues.

I think this is a huge mistake - and a mistake with far reaching implications.  We are presently paying the price for deep educational failures in the US and around the world.  Some large part of our collective failure to understand the world around us can be given to the way we teach our kids to understand that world.  By this I do not simply mean the obvious failures of our educational system, nor is this a call for more money - while I’m sure some school systems will fail in the end for lack of funds, our larger failure came not from insufficient funding across the board (inequitable funding, however is another issue), but from a more comprehensive inadequacy, one in which we are not able to see our world clearly because we spend so much time teaching our children that what they see is not what is.

Some years ago, I attended a family gathering for a long weekend. I was a new Mom and a graduate student in Literature, and among the family were cousins of mine still in high school.  One of them was struggling with her English homework, and she asked me to help her.  The homework involved reading several poems, finding examples of various literary devices (”foreshadowing” “”alliteration” “zeugma”…whatever) in them, and then “comparing and constrasting” two of the poems.  All of the poems were broadly about trees.

My immediate reaction was “Oh, that’s why so many people think they hate literature.”  The sheer monotony of checking off literary devices was sufficient to nearly drive me to hate the project, and I wasn’t a 16 year old.  I helped her find examples, and then when she asked me for ideas for a paper, and was startled by her reaction to one suggestion. 

I can’t recall what all the poems were, but two of them were Wordsworth’s “Nutting” and Frosts “Birches.”  I suggested to her, figuring that teenagers are best engaged when they think themselves rebellious or edgy, that she talk about why it was that the sexual imagery in these poems was so explicit - why both Frost and Wordsworth seemed to have such blunt memories of masturbating in the woods. 

You should have seen my young cousin’s face.  “Masturbating!?!?!  That’s not in there!!!”  She was shocked - she actually said to me “Poems aren’t about sex.” 

I had her read them out loud.  We looked at Frost, who imagines first that the trees after an ice storm look like a girl on her hands and knees with their hair hanging over, and then writes,

One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.”

Nope, no sex there.  Couldn’t be.  I asked her if she thought that he used the language of erections by accident - this man who used words as his entire profession.  She protested that this was “a long time ago.”  Wordsworth, she pointed out, was “hundreds” of years ago.  He couldn’t have been writing about sex as he approached the trees,

“Tall and erect, with tempting clusters hung,/A virgin scene!”

This we are told as the boy approaches the trees, and then after lying for a while, cheek on a mossy stone, enjoying the pleasure of his “bower,” the boy rises up -

Then up I rose,
And dragg’d to earth both branch and bough, with crash
And merciless ravage; and the shady nook
Of hazels, and the green and mossy bower
Deform’d and sullied, patiently gave up
Their quiet being”

The boy remembers feeling guilty about his “rape” of the landscape, and has couched it in deeply sexual terms.  My cousin found it hard to believe that people in the 18th century, millions of years ago ;-), thought about sex, and in fact, used a lot of the same basic metaphors that we use.

Now this would be just a story, if it weren’t for one thing - my cousin is not an idiot, and she had read the poems.  She read them several times, in fact.  But she didn’t read what they said - this is not an unusually deep reading of mine - this material is right on the surface for any ordinary, dirty minded teenager (and I’ve met few other kinds) to look at.  Instead, she failed to see what was in front of her nose simply because she “knew” that literature wasn’t sexual, or funny. 

I’ve had the same problem trying to convince students that Shakespeare is funny - they know it to be art, they know it to be distant, noble, inaccessible.  They find it very hard to look at literature as smutty, funny, angry or violent.  And yet, literature is merely the expression of the human - the best poetry isn’t noble and pure, it is human and gloriously, passionately so.  We don’t read Shakespeare because of his purity of heart - we read him because he was so perfectly and brilliantly impure.

My cousin’s education had taught her *not* to see what was right in front of her nose, and if she saw something that didn’t fit with what her education was supposed to be, she assumed she was wrong.  But mostly, she had been taught not to even see it.  Her excellent public education in a good school system had taught her to view the world in such a way as to erase the realities of history, the words in front of her face, and get her focused on whether there were instances of foreshadowing somewhere in the text.

My cousin’s example is not unusual - the whole school system is one of slight of hand, where meanings are prejudged and assumed, and the range of possible analyses decided before we even begin to think, and this doesn’t end at the schoolyard - it permeates every element of our assumptions about our society.  As Ivan Illich points out in his _Deschooling Society_,

The pupil is thereby “schooled” to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence and fluency with the ability to say something new.  His imagination is “schooled” to accept service in place of value.  Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safey, military poise for national security, the rat race fo productive world.  Health, learning, dignity, independence and creative endeavor are defined as little mroe than the performance of the institutions that claim to serve those ends.” (Illich, 3)

At no point in my cousin’s English education was she taught simply to read a poem - to really read it, to seek out appreciation in it.  Instead, she was alternately bored and told not to see what was right in front of her.  And this ran throughout her (and most people’s) education.  The version of history she was taught was the sanitized general version in which a few famous people of the past stuck out, all icons of purity and nobility who never ate or went to the bathroom, or did anything besides ruling kingdoms, writing poetry and improving tractates,  and were thus more alien to her than life on Mars could have been.  History, thus, became irrelevant, a few pleasant stories about the past that can be relegated there, since the future is always what matters, and we, cleaner, busy with our lives, have nothing to do with them. 

The fact the structure of her education resembles the public education most of us get from the mainstream media about current events is no accident, either - they are structurally similar for a reason - the media continues to educate us as we have been educated, teaching us what is important (celebrity life, one “content” story a night, minimal backstory) and getting us to look where it wants us to look, not where we need to go.  This education of ours continues our whole lives, unless we are able to break free.

She was taught (I’ve asked) nothing of the skills of a citizen - not how to research a complex question, make a compelling argument in a letter to the editor,  to seek out primary sources, or that between the black and white answers to political questions that our party system gives us there might be shades of grey.  She was taught little about ecology and the world around her, nothing about philosophy or ethics or how to come to a conclusion in a complex situation.   She learned much about the history of technical inventions, but nothing about the history of food or agriculture - despite the fact that she ate three times a day every day of her life. 

She learned that science was science, and must remain unfettered, uncritiqued, that technology must march forward, that there can never be any point at which we choose anything other than to uncritically accept the next “advance.” She never learned that our sense of what constitutes an “advance” - and where we put our research energies and monies - is a cultural choice despite our sense that science simply is and does - that we prefer to think our future is in the stars rather than at home, or that technology outranks ecology is something she never learned to see as a choice, merely as an inevitability. 

She learned little about money or wealth, or even economics - except that her job was to “succeed” in the global economy - something she wasn’t fully familiar with, and that she should plan to work her whole life, investing what extra she could find in housing and the markets.  She watched television, complete with ads, in homeroom every morning, and was taught to be ironically critical of ads, in a superficial way, while buying what they told her to buy.

My cousin is a bright young woman - she got her education in what was widely considered a good public school system.  She grew up to become an engaging and smart person, a teacher, actually - and an extraordinary one.  To the extent she could, she exceeded the limits of her education, helped by the occasional brilliant teacher who stuck out the bureocracy and disheartening life, and also helped by the fact that her parents were affluent enough to send her to college, which for all its flaws, has a few more teachers who consider critical thinking a high priority and sneak it in around theology or political science or chemistry.

 The problem is, not everyone can do this.  Not everyone gets the teacher who survived the system engaged enough to truly teach.  Not everyone can afford college - in fact, in its present form, I think we must admit that most families can’t afford college.  Not everyone has the capacity to teach themselves what they need to know, or even to find the gaps in their knowledge.  Surprisingly large numbers of people are able to do this - but they aren’t enough.

Many of our present difficulties come down, in the end, to our tendency to see what we are told to see, not what is actually in front of us.  We are told to see the growing, globalizing economy - but not the growing global poor, displaced from their land into slums.  We are told to see the bountiful products of technology - not the degradation both of the land and the people who live on it that too much affluence and technology create.  We are told to see the future only in two colors - the bleak black of the apocalypse and the bright white of technological perfection - there is nothing between them to look at.  Or so we are told endlessly. 

Throwing off our lessons is a huge project for most of us adults - and the habit of unseeing comes back to smack us in the face at the most frustrating times.  If the next generation is to face our oncoming future, they need something better - they need to be able to trust their eyes and their knowledge, they need to be able to read the poem as a poem, simply to see what it says and whether it has anything to say to them.  They need an ecological and manual education, as well as a scientific one, and a scientific one that allows them to recognize that people rarely agree in science, and that conclusions are found by research - research that goes beyond “google it and read the first two articles.”  And perhaps most of all, they need an ethical or moral education - and by this I do not mean an education in a particular faith, but the training to begin addressing the real questions that face us - the ones that all begin “what is the right thing to do.”

In the coming years, I suspect a combination of economic crisis and perhaps energy issues to put enormous strains on the school systems that we’ve created.  Those systems have been consolidated for the era of cheap energy, set up for a society affluent enough to run extensive bus systems and to provide workers for an economy that is in the process of decompensating.  Some of us will homeschool our children - but homeschooling is not enough.  Because some parents can’t homeschool, or won’t - and your community will be made up of the grownups that come out of your public schools in large part.  Your neighborhood will be filled not just with your homeschooled child, but with the children of people who lacked the time or ability or knowledge or willingness to do so.  The future depends not just on a few well educated people, but a world full of them.

This is an opportunity as well as a crisis - an opportunity to ask ourselves what we want from an educational system.  When I was a teacher, someone once asked me where we were supposed to find the time to teach critical thinking - was I prepared, I was asked, to see the students come to me completely unread, since we’d been spending the time on teaching them to analyze material?  Was I willing to accept students who never read _Romeo and Juliet_.

Yup.  Shakespeare is one of those glories you can come to at many times in your life.  I value my field - I think that literature is enormously important to the world - it is through stories that we ultimately understand our lives, and through art that we find meaning.  But you can live a good life without poetry - I want my children to have poetry and music in their heads that they know by heart, because no matter what happens, no one can take that from them.  But I’d gladly sacrifice it if that was what it took, resting assured that children who know how to think will eventually find the words of people who think engaging. 

But what we cannot afford are children who have been exposed roughly to things we call art, but are unequipped to view them, to think about them, even to understand what they say because they are trained not to see them.  An empty brush past Shakespeare or Frost, Pope or Achebe is of no value at all, it is merely the acquisition of an empty reference point.  Oh, we think, so that far away and distant incomprehensible things is the famous Wordsworth.  Big whoop.

When our communities face up to the economic problems that they have, they will cut education budgets, slash resources.  What they will not be inclined to do is rethink education overall - that’s what our job is - to say, ok, perhaps we need fewer of these things, perhaps we can’t afford all we need, but if we are to have anything, we need these resources.  Because at a minimum, we need a next generation with their eyes open.


47 Responses to “Reading, ‘Riting, ‘Rithmetic and Moral Reasoning: On the Urgency of Education”

  1. Parma Powerdownon 17 Mar 2009 at 10:35 am

    What a great post. I had to laugh as I read it though. I recall, my freshman year of HS, talking about sex in poems. The teacher had been foolish enough to ask what the natural elements in the poem could refer to and I, having been inspired to read up on the poet/poem outside of class and having run into the whole sexual angle, replied ’sex.’

    I have never heard such silence in my life. I guess that’s one way to shut up teenagers!

    Anyway, I am considering homeschooling my daughter for the same reasons you bring up in your post. My family is aghast. What about socialization they ask?

    What socialization? The ability to sit down and be quiet? No thanks!

    Considering very little of our adult lives is exactly like a classroom, I am not worried!


  2. kathyon 17 Mar 2009 at 11:20 am

    Dang, girl! Why didn’t have a teacher like you? I have always said that nobody ever taught anybody anything. At best, a teacher offers a guidebook to the world. At worst, he puts a lid on intellect. So much for us all to learn, so little time.

  3. kathyon 17 Mar 2009 at 11:20 am

    Dang, girl! Why didn’t I have a teacher like you? I have always said that nobody ever taught anybody anything. At best, a teacher offers a guidebook to the world. At worst, he puts a lid on intellect. So much for us all to learn, so little time.

  4. ChristyACBon 17 Mar 2009 at 11:26 am

    Couldn’t agree more!

    Over the past 5 decades the increasing culture of “everyone should succeed” has put paid to a lot of good intentions with our school systems. In effect, our entire society must come to grips with self-stratification of the members of our society through ability being an okay thing. This is a foundation stone of great import when it comes to education. It shifts the burden of basics and home reinforcement back to the home, where it should lie. Being at ease with critical thinking comes from an active and engaged mind all day, not just the 50 minute hours a few times a day in school.

    And yes, the downs of a topic are just as important as the ups..also agree. And tip-toe’ing around PC topics creates a lot of our gaps. Amazing the difference one can find in an elementary school book on history from my generation and the current one. Santized to the point of uselessness.

    There is also the question of fluff. Information is not equal to education, however the demand kept pulsing to have more information and to keep stuffing that into the same size sock, true education had to fall out.

    The big question is: Can this society do it? Can we all get over “it” and get back to education in a real and profoundly basic sense.

  5. Susanon 17 Mar 2009 at 12:36 pm

    Our education system as it is now arose out of the industrial age. The idea that children could be mass educated as cars could be mass produced is part and parcel of our educational system. The idea was to make citizens that were appropriately trained to stand in lines, to work for 8 hours a day, five days a week, to expect breaks and meals only at certain intervals for certain lengths of time. Those who didn’t conform didn’t ‘finish’ school. Education was designed again, to produce workers who could do the minimum to contribute to the industries they would be working at.

    I don’t think that our educational system as it is is necessarily a loss. Particularly when the ‘education’ they are getting is at the mercy of the PC police. And math and science are made so incredibly boring that almost no one ‘gets’ them, let alone enjoys them. I can’t speak for children in general, but mine knew how to read by the age of four at the latest, and were ready for the basic concepts of algebra by about age 6. By the time they actually GOT algebra in school, they were confounded and frustrated, and didn’t do well. And I spent many years wishing I had taught them more about algebra when they were excited about the concept, so it wouldn’t have made them hate math in later years, nor make them feel like failures.

    All three of my children were taught to critically think from a very young age, to challenge assumptions, to look up the primary sources. This has served them very well. Their unofficial education is something they have chosen themselves, are excited about, and are continually enhancing.

    I really think critical thinking is the key to the future. If you give a child the tools to get information (how to use the library for instance) and the idea that they can challenge established ideas and look for alternative ones, and they know someone will in turn challenge them, it will make for engaged, informed citizenry.

  6. Peter Don 17 Mar 2009 at 1:03 pm

    Hi Sharon,

    Thanks for the post - it sure hits home for me. I teach first and second year students at a local University and am stunned by their lack of curiosity and critical thinking skills (I won’t even go into their writing skills). You said,

    At no point in my cousin’s English education was she taught simply to read a poem - to really read it, to seek out appreciation in it. Instead, she was alternately bored and told not to see what was right in front of her.

    I couldn’t agree more - it’s not about reading or thinking or analyzing - it’s only about knowing. The most common question I get asked is - do I need to know this for the final. I always shrug my shoulders and say, yes, you need to know everything for the final - but shouldn’t you want to know it for other reasons as well? The intrinsic beauty of learning has been so utterly destroyed by our school system that one has to wonder how we will ever get out of this mess. We don’t teach kids to think or be curious - as you say, all they see is what they are told and what is front of their eyes. And those that are curious or who think for themselves are told too often that they are wrong or are seen as troublesome.

    Thanks again Sharon.

  7. Anna in NYCon 17 Mar 2009 at 1:10 pm

    This post reminds me of a common conversation I often have about the classic literature I read. I’ll begin with “I’m reading [Wuthering Heights, anything Shakespeare, Tom Sawyer, The Odyssey…]” and the other person will say (wrinkling her nose) “Oh, I had to read that in school. I hated it. We analyzed it to death.”

  8. BoysMomon 17 Mar 2009 at 1:17 pm

    What about socialization? The ironic part is that this question inevitably comes after the adult in question has spent the last half hour or so engaged in conversation with one of my children, finds themselves incredulous that the child is really either six–kindergarten or almost five–pre k, and comes to me for verification that the child is in fact homeschooled, as young as, and in the grade he said he was in.

    We are not analyzing poetry, but Eldest likes to read poetry. This is hard for me, because Frost is the only poet I’ve ever willingly read, and Eldest does not quite have a reading vocabulary as big as his ambitions yet, so I am sitting through poetry. I have only so much Frost, and we’ve long since run out. I am not up for this discussion with him just yet. One of my college professors pointed the sexual overtones (undertones?) out, and really, I’d never noticed, but I’d only read poetry (except for Frost) under duress. “You will read this or you will not read science fiction!” Ah, the methods of compelling homeschooled children :-)

  9. Chilling reads « Ward Houseon 17 Mar 2009 at 1:20 pm

    […] the chilling read categorie we have The Age of Stupid from Climate Progress and Reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic, and moral reasoning from Casaubon’s Book.  The post from Casaubon’s Book I have personally witnessed on […]

  10. BoysMomon 17 Mar 2009 at 1:20 pm

    Do you all, who obviously are much fonder of poetry than I am, have any suggestions for me in teaching poetry? Or is just letting him loose to read it (with vocab help from time to time) sufficient?

  11. Kation 17 Mar 2009 at 1:31 pm

    I hate analyzing poetry, but sometimes it’s fun to point out the symmetry, or the alliteration, or the other aspects. But I think the best poetry is that which flows off the tongue and creates pictures in the mind. Now, I’m trying to teach this to my (very unimaginative) daughter, but have no idea how to teach one to use one’s imagination. Especially one who prides herself on being as unimaginative and grumpy as she sees her dad to be. *sigh*

    Got any tips for us homeschooling parents on how to go about this? Especially we who were raised ourselves in Public school. I believe myself to be a thinking person who can look at things and think them through for myself and forming my own opinions, but I don’t know how well I do in those aspects in comparisson to those who were truly raised in a home & schooling background full of critical thinking and innate problem solving. I’d love to give my daughter more of an advantage, but have little idea how to do so. I’d love to see you expand on this subject, to help those of us who are seeing some problems, but who don’t have the experience to address them adequately.

  12. Sharonon 17 Mar 2009 at 1:31 pm

    BoysMom, what don’t you like about poetry? There’s a pretty wide range of stuff, so you might find that you actually can find a poet or two that you enjoy reading.


  13. SoapBoxTechon 17 Mar 2009 at 2:06 pm

    I think this is the best article I have read here. I was lucky to have a few of the sort of really good teachers mentioned here, those who taught how to go about thinking and learning.

    In terms of the growing global poor, when we ARE led to consider their existence, I think we are often misled into thinking that we have created a better situation for these poor, one that perhaps we “unwashed” should start accepting for ourselves:

  14. Fle in TNon 17 Mar 2009 at 2:08 pm

    “I’m trying to teach this to my (very unimaginative) daughter, but have no idea how to teach one to use one’s imagination.”

    PLAY! Children learn this skill from playing, dolls, pots & pans, child sized garden tools, crayons, music, dress up. Playing is more important than many people realize.

  15. Abbieon 17 Mar 2009 at 2:30 pm

    I’ve gotten pulled into the education discussion before (over at Chile’s, I believe?).

    I’m a high school science teacher, focusing on environmental science and botany. Critical thinking is my top priority, and I run my classes as an exploration of the natural world with a focus on problem solving. I can give example after example, but my students will tell you they don’t like that I make them THINK, they don’t like that I won’t just tell them the answer (the truth is, there often are multiple answers, or it’s opinion!!!).

    Students complain that fossil fuels are boring and they don’t want to learn about them anymore, and I passionately explain that if we want to SURVIVE, they have to learn about them. If we want to solve problems, we have to learn about them. My goal is to give them the background they need and the tools of inquiry, exploration, and examination to be able to solve problems. I try my best to be a good role model for my students, living as sustainably as I can. And in my botany class, I try to teach students enough that they’d be able to grow their own food. Four of my students today told me they’re planning vegetable gardens with their families for this year, and I couldn’t have felt more successful.

    Not all teachers are like me, even within my own subject. I feel that if teachers aren’t highly qualified and passionate about helping students survive in the world around them, they should get out. I can think of a few specific colleagues that need to get out. The problem is, the way the system is set up, the school can’t fire them. It’s really sad, since they have been there longer and therefore get WAY more money than I do. I’m all for merit pay, but I’m not sure how we should judge success… I don’t think test scores are the answer, but I’m not sure what is.

    Finally, I’d like to say that I’m not perfect, nobody is, and I’m always open to suggestions. Posts like this one remind me why I went into teaching in the first place. Thank you, Sharon.

  16. Apple Jack Creekon 17 Mar 2009 at 3:24 pm

    BoysMom: Doctor Seuss is poetry. :)

    So are song lyrics (choose carefully, of course).

    Sometimes if you start with something you already enjoy (I still like the rhythm of “Hand, hand, fingers, thumb, dum de de dum de de dum dum DUM!”) and maybe add some body movement and focus on the rhythmic aspect of it you can get an entrance into the concept of ‘poetry as something you can have fun with’.

    Silly word rhyming games are a good place to start too. Everyone at my house now refers to sheep as “beep” because when my son was small, he made up rhyming slang all the time … and now we all use it (and have done so in public at times, to our chagrin!)

    There are a lot of great rhyming kids books that would be an excellent starting point for poetry - even for older readers. (I love reading some of the books the kids have!)

  17. galacticsurferon 17 Mar 2009 at 3:47 pm

    cool piece sharon. People take from books and poems and art and movies what they have experienced. Modern peple impose their own meaning or just don’t see the meaning of the author. Language, pacing, subject matter, context, jargon, slang, moral standards all make it difficult to get into the poem or novel. A 16 year gets a short overview like a novice walking through the whole Louvre in a couple hours. Such poetry and deeper literature needs commentary to understand lots of deeper levels of meaning. Language and culture changes so fast. Modern poetry is in rock music for example. Who writes poetry anymore in the older sense?

  18. Brian M.on 17 Mar 2009 at 3:51 pm

    There are so many reasons I agree with this post that it would be silly to go into them all. Shoot–I’m currently teaching two sections of Critical Thinking, of COURSE I agree.

    And yet, for all that, I hope one of your basic messages that this is a problem for us all–homeschoolers or not–does not get lost. I worry that discussions like this post just get turned into yet more fodder for the “Yay us we homeschool!” cannons. It’s very easy to see all the flaws of our educational system, and there are many, and turn our backs smugly on the whole project, self-righteous in our knowledge that if we homeschool, we won’t subject our children to *that*. But the simple fact that our system supplies–in fact, *requires*–basic education for everyone is a stunning achievement, and one we cannot afford to lose. Compulsory and free education is the single most democratizing agent in our country (IMHO).

    As you point out, not everyone can or will homeschool, and those decisions are personal ones. We cannot allow education to become reserved to only those who, for whatever reasons, are willing and able to homeschool or hire tutors. If we are to have a democracy–a government of the people, by the people, and for the people–we must have an educated population.

  19. Robyn M.on 17 Mar 2009 at 3:52 pm

    DAMNIT! The “Brian M.” post above was from me, Robyn M. ARGH! STUPID COMPUTER SHARING!!!!

  20. Frogdanceron 17 Mar 2009 at 4:00 pm

    Every year I teach Romeo and Juliet to year 10 kids (16 year olds). At our school it’s the first exposure to Shakespeare they have, and they come to it with fear and trembling.
    The first lesson I do with them is all about medieval contraception, (silk drawstring bags over you know what… I don’t want to attract unwelcome google searches to your blog…), about why Juliet HAS to hold off Romeo until marriage because unwed mothers in that social setting were totally ‘ruined’ creatures, about how the noblewomen were totally unfitted to have jobs, but were only taught to run a household, etc, so if she had become pregnant without being in holy wedlock there’s only one way she could’ve supported herself and the baby….
    “Romeo and Juliet is all about s*x!” I exclaim at the beginning. Then I look at the boys and tell them that Romeo was the same age that they are now. “Be honest, guys…. how often do you think about s*x???” They all laugh and look vaguely embarrassed. But now they’re interested!
    THEN we get into the text, and every time there’s a smutty joke we all signpost it and have a laugh and then go on.
    This is all perfectly ok in the public school system in Australia. In America, from all that we hear, you’re a lot more prudish. That’s a real shame, if it’s true.

  21. Jessicaon 17 Mar 2009 at 4:01 pm

    What concerns me about homeschooling - and I want to homeschool - is the “critical thinking” - what is “critical thinking” exactly and how do you teach it. What if I’m not a “critical thinker”?

  22. Jessicaon 17 Mar 2009 at 4:03 pm

    Sorry, pressed “submit” too soon.

    We love Spike Milligan and AA Milne for poetry.

    I have a 7 year old in school - and he will watch a movie to learn about robots, Wall-e to be precise - rather than going upstairs to the library and taking books out to research the subject. They watch tv at lunchtime for “crowd control”. I also have a 2.5 year old who faces starting school in two years time. Hence my internal homeschooling debate.

    Will I be adequate though?

  23. Fernon 17 Mar 2009 at 4:14 pm

    My 21 year old son STILL won’t willingly read “poetry”, and I homeschooled him. Then again, he hated writing, too, and now he’s writing fiction in his spare time. Well, part of that spare time he uses to watch Shakespeare ….

    Given exposure and tools, humans cycle in and out of a lot of activities/hobbies/pleasures over a life time. But to compare poetry to food: first educate the palete with the pleasures of food, THEN work on how to make the dish themselves. First the joy of eating ripe berries, later the information on just how they contribute to a good diet.

    Enjoyment first, ‘mastery’ later. Tongue twisters teach alliteration. Jabberwocky goes into making up words for their ‘feeling’ - and later shows how the traditional meter it uses makes it scan perfectly into the melody for “Greensleeves”.


  24. QuestionAuthorityon 17 Mar 2009 at 5:07 pm


    I agree with your thesis that school systems teach children to plod through dull and meaningless exercises and not see what is in front of them because an authority (their teacher) told them that it wasn’t there. But your example of Frost and Wordsworth, while entertaining to contemplate, worked against your point—not because the idea wasn’t creative and observant, but because you became another authority figure that your cousin should believe.

    It may be that Wordsworth and Frost were writing, as you say, about masturbation. It is certainly a stunning and entertaining thought that would make a great paper: if it focused on comparing and contrasting the suggestive language and carefully examining the evidence to confirm (or deny) the thesis that these poems are really about masturbation. But the fact is that the psychological subtext you see is a supposition that needs careful and creative examination, with the willingness to accept that, whatever the language suggests (and it is suggestive) we might still arrive at the conclusion they WEREN’T talking about masturbation; that they were just writing a poem about the kind of wild and careless things a boy does when tearing around the forest on his own.

    The reason I believe it’s important that children remain open to literal interpretation, is that in addition to being taught not to see what is in front of them, children are also taught to see what is not in front of them—again, just because an authority told them it was there. This second is actually more worrisome than the first.

    The fact is: if more of us had realized that there was nothing cunning that made the numbers work, that there was no arcane mathematics that proved what seemed impossible, that the unseen really wasn’t there, then the mortgage lenders, and wall street analysts, and risk theorists would not have been able to cause this mess. People would have looked at the mortgage figures, and instead of saying “I don’t see how I can afford that loan, but the bank cleared me for it and the broker says I can afford it, so it must be true”, they would have said “hell no.”

    Thanks for the insightful blog. I love reading what you write: it always makes me think.

  25. sglon 17 Mar 2009 at 5:39 pm

    The Disadvantages of an Elite Education

    Our best universities have forgotten that the reason they exist is to make minds, not careers

    By William Deresiewicz

  26. Brian M.on 17 Mar 2009 at 5:42 pm

    1) I tried to post this on the beauty discussion a few days ago, but at Sharon’s insistence I did finally start a blog of my own, over at, and it does have a more extended discussion of aesthetics, beauty and hard times.

    2) I am going to have to write a long post on education-systems, because I have a LOT of thoughts/replies. It may be a day or two though.

    3) Most basically I think that a civilization’s education-system is a much broader thing than their schooling-system. People still learn, and are still educated and miseducated as adults. Even children are often learning (and mis-learning) as much or more outside of schooling as in schooling, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. People in our culture often know many many things about the pop-culture issues that they care about, and can even analyse and discuss say movies or video games quite cogently, even if they aren’t very good at applying the same skills to more school-related subjects. And there is a lot going on with complex relationships between media, news, pop-culture, professionalism, and schooling. I have too much to say, and will spend a while trying to make it clear.

    4) On critical thinking, like my wife I teach this at the college level. Some people have already picked it up a bit here and a bit there before they get to college, others haven’t. Most people find it takes a bit of work to get the hang of it, but that it isn’t too hard. Maybe 20% who make a real try to become critical thinkers find that they just can’t shift over to thinking that way. (Others find that they can, but only when trying, it doesn’t become a natural default. For others it does become a natural default posture after a few months of work. I always compare critical thinking to mental self-defense, and different ways of thinking are a lot like different “mental postures”). As with most things, the best way to learn is to find a good teacher and spend some time working on it, but it isn’t the only way. There are several decent textbooks out there, you can at least partially teach yourself by working through on. (Robyn and I both use Kahane, Howard, and Cavender, Nancy. Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric: The Use of Reason in Everyday Life. tenth edition. 2006 Thomson Wadworth. It ain’t perfect, but I’ve never found a critical thinking textbook that is just right, although I’ve taught out of 3 or 4 that are fine). I know of no particularly good web-introduction to critical thinking (hmm, maybe a niche), but there may be one I don’t know of.

  27. Brian M.on 17 Mar 2009 at 5:59 pm

    sgl - IS the reason the universities exist to make minds not careers, or is that just why we WISH they existed?

    My university is largely funded by the state, and the state says that what it mostly wants for its money is for us to train students in ways that will make them good workers.

    The next biggest chunk of our funding comes from the students and parents, and what they tell us they mostly want for their money is a good career, although the students usually add that they want an enjoyable 4-5 years also.

    Then comes our funding from the government other than the state and corporations, who mostly want us to do research, or to rate the strengths and weaknesses of the students.

    Under 1% comes from charities, which largely have other goals.


    My experience which now cover a lot of universities I’ve worked at or attended, and that family members have is that careerism is endemic all over, and at all levels, students, faculty, administration, oversight boards, the state level, etc. It is simply FALSE to say that our universities exist to make minds, not careers. There are certainly a small percentage of students, and faculty, and such who are trying to make minds not careers, but that is neither common, nor unpunished by the system. When I was at Indiana University, one of the faculty there had actually done a bunch of research on student motivations, and had worked on finding estimators for student motivation in earlier times, and argued that between 1-2% of IUs student population care more about learning for its own sake than about their own future career, and that that number had been roughly stable from 1905-1999.

    Careers, enjoyment, research, and even things like finding a spouse, or improving the community are routinely prioritized over trying to shape minds.

  28. TheNormalMiddleon 17 Mar 2009 at 7:05 pm

    Homeschooled for 3 years and then went back to teaching this year because we needed to eat and make the house payment when my hubby was put on short time. I am NOT a fan of the public school system at all.

    HOWEVER—-we can sit around and trash public education and “less engaging” teachers all we want to. They are not the problem.

    The problem is so deep that we are likely not to see it fixed in our lifetimes, if at all. We are a broken culture with weak families. That is the main problem with education.

    I have taught in both public and private schools, rich and poor, over my years in education and I can tell you they’re very different yet much the same. Parental APATHY is the #1 killer of public education. Parents don’t care. Kids don’t care. The good parents who raise a fuss and attend all the PTA meetings and fundraisers are fewer than the parents who are sending their kids to school merely to avoid truancy charges.

    Cyncial, yes. But true.

    So until we get down to basics and work on the family unit and solve our cultural and societal ills, public education will never be fair and equitable.

    Unfortunately for people like me, we don’t have alot of options available. I cannot continue to home educate and I cannot afford the wealthy $15,000 a year per kid private schools that make my kids well rounded. And please don’t give me the “you don’t sacrifice enough!” rhetoric I hear spouted off by most home educators (I did that myself for a long time, so I know it well). We have to eat, I have to work. I have a degree in education, and teaching pays a great deal better than working night shift at walmart.

    I send my three precious blessings off to public school everyday with a hope and a prayer that I can do justice by them at home and make up for what is lost at school on the afterhours and weekends. It is hard. I won’t lie. Homeschooling was so much better for us. But, we want to eat.

  29. Brad K.on 17 Mar 2009 at 7:31 pm


    Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall..

    Nursery rhymes have withstood a long test of time, embodying silly notions and the basics of ethics, preserving culture and beliefs.

    Notice the “extra” verses in your Hymnal - notice how the lines not included between the staffs seem almost like .. poetry? How about the Psalms? I am sure you can find a pastor or choir director willing to consider poetry as well as meaning, interpretation, and underlying meanings. (My experience was with the Red and Blue hymnals of the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church. Your mileage may vary, but I doubt it!)


    One aspect of “modern” society that I didn’t see you mention directly, was marketing. “despite the fact that she ate three times a day” - except, your cousin was not eating farm produce, or even garden produce except as supplement to what the store had. For her, eating was more an experience in marketing - who bought what, for what reason, prepared in such-and-such a way because “it has always been done that way” - or someone got sold on a preparation from a book, a TV show, a magazine article or ad.

    Rather than look at lies and truths in advertising, HS should look at how marketing - establishing a sale as a service to the seller - influences and defines much of “modern” life, most of politics, entertainment, science, technology, and education.

    Sadly, most of my adult focus on literature has been consumed .. by *blush* science fiction. YA authors like Tamora Pierce (her Protector of the Small sequence, Trickster’s Choice/Tricksters Queen, and Wild Magic stand out for me). And other authors, adventure, military fiction, silly and epic.

    One of the early SF books I read was Heinlein’s “Have Space Suit Will Travel”. Since I enjoyed Richard Boone’s TV “Have Gun Will Travel”, I picked up the Heinlein from the public library. The story starts out with a high school kid - his dad looks at his “science” text and adds Physics for additional, at home informal study, too. Same with literature, etc. The book was written, I think, in the 1950’s. Your observations aren’t new, they have been overlooked and procrastinated on by generations. We know better, as a society. Yet, there isn’t any marketing gist, right now, to correct the issue. Especially since a critically thinking consumer would weaken the impact of marketing ploys. Witness the recent election of President Obama, relying heavily on previously disenfranchised and disillusioned voters.

    Thanks for a very thoughtful post.

  30. Brian M.on 17 Mar 2009 at 7:40 pm

    TNM - I agree that the problem is pervasive in culture rather than being a public school/elite school/homeschool/deschool issue. Maybe homeschool is better in some cases, (or rather as my wife argues better for a family in the short run, but harder on society as a whole in the long run) but it doesn’t solve the larger cultural problems. And I agree that family problems are a big part of it, nuclear families just don’t work as well as extended families in many ways, and even nuclear families have been nuked pretty bad by the last 4 decades.

    But it isn’t quite that the parents don’t care.

    They do care. They just often lack the time to do anything about it. Or they have the time, but don’t know what is productive to do. Or they care, but they don’t know how to communicate their caring to their 10 year-old. Or they care, but right now they care even more about keeping the job so that they can keep eating, or about whether their own mom is going to recover from cancer or not, or whatever.

  31. Bonnie Northon 17 Mar 2009 at 7:56 pm

    I read, on an otherwise very important and intelligent post on this morning, where the writer called Pink Floyd’s “Teacher Leave Them Kids Alone” SILLY.


    But “Schooling” can be a very, very different thing than “Educating.”

    I grew up as “poor white trash” in rural Maryland, USA in the 50’s. I was a difficult little girl and immediately grouped in with all the other “difficults” and branded as retarded.
    When I was in the eight grade the Iowa Standardized Tests made their way through our outpost and my scores were extraordinarily high.
    Then, with no preparation in such things as note taking, research, or even having developed the habit of doing any homework , I was shifted to what they then called the “Excellerated Group.” True to the American Way of Life, that group consisted of the children of the most affluent and “upwards striving” in our little community.
    You don’t have to think much about what resulted. I became a rebel, a hippie and by the age of 18 - a parent.

    When my son, who is brilliant (now a very successful software designer - who NEVER learned a damn thing in any school BTW!), was threatened with flunking the 9th grade due to a bad experience in American History with a very rigid teacher, I set upon a remediation effort. Going over with him the pure CRAP he was being taught threw me into some deep, disturbing deja vu moments let me tell you!

    The American system of education teaches simple memorization of disconnected facts - like the trade routes of Vasco De Gama, and little or nothing of the real substance of anything at all.

    What kind of a person does it ultimately create?

    Hopefully, rebels.

  32. TheNormalMiddleon 17 Mar 2009 at 7:57 pm

    Brian, while I’d like to think that is most of the cause of the apathy I see, it isn’t where I live and in the numerous schools I’ve taught in. Sure, there is that type of parental apathy.

    What I am talking about is the parental apathy that no longer values education. How many kids never see a parent pick up a book and read it? How many kids have parents who bend over backwards to pay the cable bill yet will not send them money for field trips or the book fair? How many of us value the latest, greatest sports star who makes $40mil a year, but yet won’t take a day off work to go to a parent teacher conference?

    I have kids in my school currently (I live in a very poor to low middle class rural, mainly white area) who have lost their homes (3 in my class) and still have cell phones for each kid.

    It is a combo of misplaced priorities and devaluation of education as a whole that is causing the apathy I am discussing.

    It is tragic and I truly don’t see an end to it in sight. I just hope my children come thru the “system” unscathed and understand that we did what we had to do. If I could afford a better education, my kids would have it. Right now, we can’t. But I refuse to be apathetic and devalue education because of my circumstances.

  33. pihwhton 17 Mar 2009 at 10:41 pm

    A very good discussion of what we’ve all observed as shortcomings in our educational system can be found in John Gatto’s _The Underground History of American Education_ which is available online at

    He outlines the choices made in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to make sure that most citizens would be incapable of extended, effective thought by the time the mandatory schools got through with them. Citizens who can read and think are much more difficult to mess with, so a lot of time and money was spent to reduce the numbers who were capable.

    Goodness gracious, the bells and class changes were put in place explicitly to break trains of thought. Everyone knew that a person who got interested in something might stay with it for hours if left alone.

    Administrators were an experiment designed to reduce student achievement. Teachers left alone in Philadelphia had great success even with mandatory attendance hung round their necks. Principals were able to fix that early in the twentieth century.

    You can read about how the National Guard was brought in to quell rioting parents who objected to the new, experimental mandatory schools in New York. They thought their children would be shortchanged by the new schools.

  34. Sharonon 18 Mar 2009 at 8:00 am

    I agree with both Brian M (particularly about what university life is for - the professionalization of college means that there is a heavy price to caring about education and learning purely for its own sake - that’s one of the reasons my husband is not tenured - large state universities do not value teaching particularly, so the fact that he’s a superb and engaging teacher whose class size keeps doubling because of his skills is considered pointless) and TheNormalMiddle - I think that it is true that parents lack time and also that parents lack much care about education in any deep sense. After all, what would make them care? Rarely the kind of education they got. And NormalMiddle, I’d never tell anyone their family should be doing things differently re:making a living!

    Robyn (and I actually knew it was you - I have very mild literary synesthesia, and people’s writing looks/feels like it has colors to me - yours is purple, Brian’s is brown and cream - I can always tell you apart ;-)), to me that’s one of the more important parts. I’m not sure I would go so far as to say that homeschooling is bad for public schooling - there’s definitely a case to be made there, but it also depends on the relationship that homeschoolers have with the public schools, and on how you weight the value of some citizens in a community getting a decent education over the lack of parental involvement. But generally, yes, I agree that the important point is that homeschooling is not an overarching solution here.

    Brad, most people I know who love literature love all kinds of literature - yes, there are assumptions about high culture and low culture, but just as most musicians I know just love music - they love country and classical, hip hop and jazz, most literary people love, love, love books - sci fi and poetry, high literature and low - in fact, most of the present day “high culture” literature was the past’s low culture literature. So don’t be embarassed or apologetic about loving science fiction - I read the first couple of Tamora Pierce books when I was a teenager and loved them, and I adore Heinlein’s Juvenalia - he wrote kick ass prose (not always, but up to _The Moon is a Harsh Mistress_ which I’ve taught in my classes). Sure, there’s plenty of literary junk out there - and some of it is “high culture” stuff, and stuff other people value. I never could read _Wuthering Heights_ without being a little bit sick ;-).

    QuestionAuthority - I disagree with you on several grounds. The first is the question about whether you have to read into the text in order to find what I’m describing. In order to say that you have to imagine that poetry is something that happens rather by accident, rather than a dense concentratio of carefully chosen language - that is, the fact that Wordworth *said* he raped the landscape didn’t carry the implications that the words actually have, and he’s not saying what he’s saying. I do deep readings, but this is not one of them - this is surface language.

    But second, I don’t agree that the problem was my replacing my authority with her teacher’s - of course I did. And how else do people come to critical thinking, except by learning that even among authorities there is a wide range of opinions and how to deal with those conflicts - whether by choosing sides, navigating a middle territory, debunking both or choosing other ground. Authority isn’t inherently the problem - oh, I know that makes good rhetoric, that we want our students to decide for themselves. But in order to do that, they need grounds, and the skills that go with things like reading or analyzing or arguing. You get those skills in most cases through training - some people can get them autodidactically, but most can’t, and I find that autodidacts who haven’t subjected themselve to peer review or to some other public way of constantly getting their ideas critiqued miss stuff. The value of people who have navigated territory before you, and who can offer up ways of organizing knowledge or approaches to thinking about something - and with some degree of authority - is something I believe in. Good education isn’t just turning people loose - sometmies it is, but that’s not all it is.


  35. Elson 18 Mar 2009 at 8:32 am

    I teach Dutch language and literature on a private school in Brussels and I guess that European education differs a bit from American education.

    I do try to get my pupils/students (13-18 years old) to like literature and poetry, but this is not very simple. In 4 times 45 minutes a week, I have to run an entire program, which also includes the analysis of non-fictional texts, writing skills, argumentation and presentation. In short: a lot to do in little time.

    Second, not all, but a fair percentage of my students tends to think that literature isn’t ‘worth’ anything, since it has ‘no real goal’. Poetry and literature analysis and interpretation are pointless things because nothing you say about it is ever ‘true’. This puzzles a lot of students with a more mathematical view of the world, who think that one and one is always two and that it is pointless to even talk about other options.
    When they first enter my class, most students already think like that. Not the school system gives them these beliefs, but parents, family, peers and -very important- media do. It’s hard to fight these stubborn ideas about the ‘use’ of literature and poetry.

    Third. Literature and poetry can be dense and hard to understand. I try to present poems and stories as puzzles or riddles, which can be solved in different ways. But the difficulty of many a work scares a lot of students away.
    The analytical tools I hand my students (the zeugma, anafora etc you mentioned) I give them so that they have at least a ‘fork and knife’ to handle the dish with. I think it is very important to hand children the technical tools to dissect the poem or story. Know what you’re reading and then think about whether you like it. You can’t judge the pie if you don’t know whether it’s made with apples or pears.

    It’s impossible to teach someone to like poetry and literature. I can only offer it, and offer the tools to read and understand these puzzles a little better. My own enthusiasm is something my students get for free, and I hope that this spirit will encourage them to start exploring a bit for themselves.

    You can look at the cousin and pity her that she has had this stiff education or pity her that she doesn’t know how to enjoy great works of art, but how many of us liked, and understood, the old poets and writers when we were sixteen? Of course, some of us did, but most children nowadays are focused on a thing called ‘instant gratification’, which can roughly be translated to: ‘why doesn’t this lousy poet just say what he means so I can get on with it?’

    You may want your children to like poetry and literature, but there’s really not that much you can do, especially when you’re a teacher. One should teach students how to read a poem, so that they themselves, sparked by someone else or out of their own curiosity, become interested in poetry. Love can’t be taught, only spread.

  36. NeoLotuson 18 Mar 2009 at 10:50 am

    A few thoughts.

    1) When Sharon wrote: “When our communities face up to the economic problems that they have, they will cut education budgets, slash resources. What they will not be inclined to do is rethink education overall - that’s what our job is - to say, ok, perhaps we need fewer of these things, perhaps we can’t afford all we need, but if we are to have anything, we need these resources.”

    When I read this tagline in Carolyn Bakers newsletter my thought on this was to rethink exactly what our schools are teaching. I live in rural MN and my daughter HATES all the tests and being forced to read in order to take the AR (Accelerated Reader) computer test. Our schools don’t REALLY need all those computers. Our schools don’t REALLY need to be part of NCLB. Our schools don’t REALLY need new textbooks. Looking at this developmentally, we should be teaching foreign language in K-6 and less math. The math by daughter is getting is pure gobbledy-gook (she’s in 6th grade now).

    I’ve read John Taylor Gatto’s “Dumbing Us Down” having found that in my last year as an undergrad (1998) and have also been to his website. I have also read a few Alfie Kohn’s books who I highly recommend.

    My personal thought on education is that human beings learned best through the process of discovery. Having a guide in that process is the role of the “teacher.” They are an authority only insofar as they are an elder, not an “expert.” I am reminded of the line in “Dead Poets Society” where the Robin Williams character says something about not just considering what the author thinks, consider what YOU think.

    In fact, “Dead Poets Society” and “Renaissance Man” are two very good movies about the relevance of literature in our lives and how to make them interesting today by connecting our past with our present via the thread of our common humanity.

    To TheNormalMiddle: That parents today are uninterested in their children’s “schooling” is a testament to the system as that system has nothing to do with helping people learn and participate in/as a cooperative endeavor.

  37. NeoLotuson 18 Mar 2009 at 11:11 am

    My favorite poem as a child (late 1960s) was in a book of children poetry I received from the Scholastic Book Club. The poem was/is “February Twilight” by Sara Teasdale simply because it captured exactly what I felt of my existence as a quiet observer of the world.

    I had also tackled “Black Beauty” in second grade. It always made me cry when the story gets to the part where Beauty is being beaten to make him go up the icy hill. I guess I was unusually empathetic for my age (7). But as time in school went on reading was less about the human experience and more about its technical particulars and I became quite allergic to reading any assigned books.

    What I find particularly egregious about a total emphasis on “reading” is that it ignores the need for comprehending what is read. Comprehension is about context and context is almost always self-referential in an empathic way. Why else would we read at all if it is not to experience the life of another and find resonance within one’s own.

  38. John O. Andersenon 18 Mar 2009 at 4:49 pm

    We homeschooled our daughter from 2nd grade on. She is now a top performing math major, German minor and possibly chemistry minor, at a first tier liberal arts college.

    Her socialization occurred all along, but living in the dorms now, and participating in classes not to mention a full offering of extracurricular activities, she has more social life than she knows what to do with.

    Actually, years ago, I wrote an essay:

    Socialization: Our Biggest Gripe With Homeschoolinig

    You can find it at this link:

    It’s a jab against people who say bad stuff about homeschooling without really knowing anything concrete about it.

  39. Greenpaon 18 Mar 2009 at 5:57 pm

    Well, I have an interesting observation to make. I’m a biologist, primarily- but of course throughout school, I’ve had to do “interpretation” of literature. Took poetry writing by choice.

    In all those classes and years, I’ve consistently found myself baffled by, and in disagreement with, the interpretations of the literary types, even in German. They see one thing; I see another.

    Now- as both an ex-boy, and a biologist, I just didn’t see any references to whacking off in those two poems. I think both poets used sexual imagery, certainly; but I think they were talking about swinging on trees, and picking hazelnuts. And I just don’t see how “I raped the landscape” makes you think he was out there doing it with knotholes in trees, or mouse tunnels, or something. :-) It’s called: “metaphor”.

    Usually at this point in the discussion in my classes, we’d just mutually give up. “You’re just wrong; how can you possibly not see what I’m talking about.” Both sides would say.

    Anyway. I thought you might find that interesting. I remain unconverted. And I suspect you do too.

    Most of the rest of what you say about education I agree with. Of course.

  40. BoysMomon 19 Mar 2009 at 1:14 am

    Well, why I don’t like poetry depends on the poetry. Dr. Suess is just obnoxious. Annoying. I say this as a mother who appreciates that my kids like him, but if I never had to ‘Momma, read it one more time please!’ I’d be thrilled. A lot of poems seem snobby–t.s.elliot comes immediately to mind, like the worst of modern music you need a course in the subject to understand what you’re looking at. Much of it is very boring and irrelevent, and I say this as a fan of Phillip Glass and George Crumb, whom I know many non-musicians and some musicians feel much the same way about. In short, I figure I got the music gene, the perfect pitch gene, and the avid reader gene and missed the poetry gene (and we read poetry out loud at the dinner table!) but I don’t want to hamper my boy from enjoying it. I like poetry that talks about something I can picture–Paul Revere’s Ride comes to mind, as well as Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening and The Road not Taken. I suspect when it comes to poetry I am the equivelent of the tone-deaf gal who only listens to country.

    Jessica, I don’t know how much it teaches at their young ages, but I flip the whys back on the boys. Why did you do that? What did you think would happen? What did happen? Why do you think what did happen happened instead of what you thought would happen? What could you change in what you did to get what you wanted to happen? Now they ask those questions on their own, so I count it good enough for now. (Well, the older two do, #3’s at the ‘No! stage and Baby is preverbal.)

  41. Margareton 19 Mar 2009 at 4:28 am

    How to teach critical thinking?

    My brother has just finished a University Degree in the UK in the history and philosophy of science and one course required him to read a histiorical article, say by Charles Darwin or Isaac Newton and to write reply as a comtemporary person using only the knowledge and ideas of the period. It teaches how ideas can arise from a very shaky foundation and how to distinguish earlier ideas from later ones and how people can believe what is later found to be nonsense but also put in the foundations for later basics of the science.

    That’s one way to teach some critical thinking.

  42. Sharonon 19 Mar 2009 at 8:29 am

    BoysMom, I can understand that, and I don’t feel any deep need to convert people to poetry ;-), although if you like narrative poetry, there’s a lot of it. There’s a great scene in _Understood Betsy_ where they read Scott’s “The Stag at Eve” which then sent me back to a really engaging narrative poem. My kids know _The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere_ by heart - and Longfellow has a few other less famous, but not dissimilar poems that tell stories. I just figure if you have to read it, you might as well not be thinking “ok, that was 30 minutes I’d like back ;-)).

    Greenpa, I won’t try and convert you either. Of course rape is a metaphor here. But I would say that words do work like farmers do work - you try not to do just one thing. The fact that the metaphors do multiple things isn’t something a poet can be unaware of - so you have to ask, why these metaphors? Accident? Are we supposed to say “this is only abstract, we are not even supposed to think about the concrete?” But what happens when many people inevitably do think about the concrete? That is, in order to see it as purely a metaphor we have to assume that the poet is not a farmer, but someone hired to do one farm job without thinking about it much - that kind of reading takes the craft out of the project, and just makes the poet someone banging on a word, like me banging on a fence post and not thinking about how the fence works with everything else on the farm.

    I’d also note that the tendency to read language for metaphor - to go straight to metaphor, is a trained in habit - I actually think it derives from Christian readings of the Bible (not personally for you, but in our society as a whole - that is, in order to find in the Old Testament the preface to teh New, you have to get in the habit of making abstract connections over direct, concrete ones - saying that of course this is a reference to the messiah…yada, yada. In fact, that kind of reading has had a huge impact on our culture and on education in general. It isn’t that the metaphors aren’t there, of course, but the idea that we should first look for metaphor is a habit - but it isn’t in itself an obvious inevitability.


  43. Greenpaon 19 Mar 2009 at 9:55 am

    Sharon- you’re a delight. :-) I REALLY look forward to the day they lock you, and I, and Crunchy, in a room together; until we solve everything. lol

    It sounds to me- like I hate pilpul - and you have a kind of affection for it. Yes? No?

  44. Sharonon 19 Mar 2009 at 11:00 am

    I don’t mind pilpul if it is compellingly done - it really depends on the case. But I don’t think we’re talking about anything that even remotely resemble pilpul here - this isn’t deep reading (which is a big part of pilpul) this is really shallow reading ;-). I do deep reading, but this is teenage boy reading “Omigod, the trees are on their hands and knees bent forward, and we’re “riding the stiffness until we become limp…? Cool! Now let’s go look up dirty words in the dictionary ;-)”


  45. Sarahon 19 Mar 2009 at 11:54 am

    Boysmom — Have you encountered Robert W. Service? “The Cremation of Sam McGee” ( is delightful if you like your humor rather morbid. Traditional epics might also be another direction to go in if you can find readable versions of them.

  46. Brian M.on 19 Mar 2009 at 2:42 pm

    Ok I put a long post on educational philosophy up on my blog, now off to read Sharon on religion

  47. Pangolinon 21 Mar 2009 at 6:02 am

    I was “schooled” in suburban California schools up through tenth grade when I just couldn’t stand it any more and dropped out. Does “socialization” mean hazing to anybody but me?

    I was educated by the King James Bible (none of those modern english hack jobs thank you), Robert Heinlein (the old perv) the daily newspaper, and whatever other science fiction and general reading that I picked up along the way. When I finally got into college I was appalled to find that my fellow students had fine study habits but they couldn’t think their way out of a wet paper sack. I never did get a degree as health problems have interrupted my several attempts.

    Apparently that wasn’t just Cal State Whatever students but the entire alumni of the Ivy League. How is it that Cuba has better health care than the US and Germany has more solar power? Who’s bright idea was it to borrow the operating capital of every business in the US from a loan shark every month? Why isn’t it obvious that trade deficits that extend for more than 2-3 years put a nation on fictional reality footing? Can’t anybody use a spreadsheet in D.C. or N.Y.C.?

    Education has to be controversial to be effective. The plays need to be about sex, betrayal, pregnancy, fraud and all those nasty, meaty topics. Biology needs to include bloody animals and real bones and real plants and fish. The student should have the opportunity to drop something heavy on a foot if they do the math wrong in physics. Math needs a LOT more statistics and finance and perhaps a bit less trigonometry and calculus. Students who don’t practice failure and recovery will be unprepared for the process in real life. Just like a Judo class everybody needs to go SPLAT and get lovingly dusted off and tossed down again.

    We are a nation of idiots that is currently pretending that we don’t have to tweak the system HARD in order to pump out the bilges before the ship sinks. Elephant in the living room analogies are no longer adequate. We are a broken people in a broken land following broken laws handed down by a congress of prostitutes. Meanwhile the New York Times has articles about the tragedy of cutting back on the maid’s hours because hubby lost his $800k/yr job and now only makes $150k.

    b.t.w.- Shel Silverstein is the perfect poet for reading to children at bedtime. I also used to read several anthologies of children’s poetry of the Jabberwocky and Walrus and Carpenter genre.

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