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A question which much agitated the 18th Century -- whether morality and aesthetics are different principles -- remains difficult today.

Samuel Johnson believed they were distinct and, consequently, was eager to give precedence to morality. It would be easier to agree with him if we were sure we know precisely what morality is.

What if it is actually something that is best approached by taste? And what if taste operates with equal force on both morality and aesthetics?

Morality separate from taste has to fall back on rules. And rules fall back on convention.

Johnson may well have had premonitions of this because there were times when he seemed to agree with Joshua Reynold's definition of taste as the power of knowing right from wrong. One might say this is a specialized meaning, but it might also be the most potent one.

Language itself tells us something when we speak of certain actions as being ugly.  (Posted, 7/1/06)

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Of all the writers Johnson chose to contribute quotations to the Dictionary,  Francis Bacon was probably best at distinguishing the various components of learning. In one of his most succinct aphorisms he says, "Reading makes a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man."  It fits perfectly with my own observations. Nowadays conversation -- or conference -- is the most neglected part of education. People seem to feel no responsibility to speak interestingly in company and, in fact, most talk is brushed aside as a waste of time.  Given the kind of talk we engage in, that's probably an accurate assessment. Yet, unless talk flourishes, it's impossible to say that social learning is taking place. We have fallen to the habit of talking to make points rather than to explore and to find out how other people think. And without knowing the latter, we know actually very little about the world.  (Posted, 6/6/06)

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In Robert DeMaria's study of Johnson's Dictionary (University of North Carolina Press, 1986), one of the main themes is that Johnson equated literature and learning and sought in his great work to show how they're actually the same thing. It's still a desirable ideal though the great increase in technical writing makes it even more difficult for us than it was for him. Still, it gives us instruction in how we should strive to think. Narrow mastery has come to be the code of our time and if anyone could show, in a detailed way, the immense harm it has caused, he would have a treatise as impressive as Johnson's. There is probably no way of knowing, for example, how many people have suffered because they had ill-read physicians who could not step back from lab reports to see the entirety of a case. But the number, if known, would surely be ominous.  In No.139 of The Rambler, Johnson noted "it is always a proof of extensive thought and accurate circumspection, to promote various purposes by the same act."  It seems fairly clear that minds capable of choosing such acts are not sprinkled liberally among us.  (Posted, 6/3/06)

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In the realm of things that have been made to appear what they are not, national violence ranks high. Nietzsche says "The prince who, for his determination to make war against a neighbor, invents a casus belli,  is like a father who foists on his child a mother who is henceforth to be regarded as such. And are not almost all publicly avowed motives of action just such spurious mothers?" In the most recent example of this, we have protection against weapons of mass destruction as a maternal force, shielding her babies from bad men who want to hurt them. And the babies coo at the sound of the mother's consolatory clucking. It has become a journalistic cliche to cite violence as the source of our security and to praise the brave men who wield it as the guarantors of everything that matters to us. One wonders how many people believe this, but I suspect Nietzsche would tell us that whatever the number, it's too large. (Posted, 1/11/06)

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It is generally the case that a person's opinion is not well-grounded. That's why when people are pressed about their opinions they try to avoid the conversation. Nietzsche explains this by saying, "The first opinion that occurs to us when we are suddenly asked about anything is not usually our own, but only the current opinion belonging to our caste, position, or family; our own opinions seldom float on the surface." This is true. But it neglects to add that when one has identified his own thoughts with those of a group for a long time he can lose the ability to form an opinion of his own. I have noticed this with respect to career army officers more than with anybody else but I have no doubt it's the case with members of many systems.  Certainly, I have found it to be true among people who think of themselves as progressive educators.  (Posted, 1/9/06)

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The item I posted yesterday about the tendency of people expend the least amount of intellectual energy possible was an example of that very tendency. I said the buying of votes could be reduced by insisting on a public record of all gifts given to lawmakers. And that probably would reduce the corruption. But it wouldn't solve the problem of money in politics. To do that would require more careful thinking than Congress has done or than I have done. We all need to be ready to admit that we haven't thought hard enough about a problem. The corrupting influence of money in political decision-making will be brought within reasonable limits only when the lure of money in society generally is reduced to a sensible level. We need to stop thinking of money as magical and see it for what it is, a useful tool. And in a money-worshipping world of the sort we inhabit, that will require a religious reformation. Bringing that about will take mental energy of a near-Nietzschean level.  (Posted, 1/8/06)

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A prophet, says Nietzsche, in Section 551 of Human, All Too Human,  is one who understands that ordinary people will always make use of the smallest intellectual expenditure to free themselves from  disagreeable situations. I recall that once in a moment of flippancy I told myself that the principal aversions of the two sexes are that women, when sitting, cannot stand to keep their feet on the floor and that men, whether sitting or standing, cannot bear to think. I wonder if there's something in evolution to account for the two revulsions. In any case, the avoidance of thought is a well-documented human habit. It's the reason why political reforms almost never stick and have to be attempted time and again down the ages. The initial reform is never thought through all the way but is adopted as soon as the corruption it seeks to address becomes unbearable. We'll soon see another example of this as Congress reacts to the Abramoff scandals.  The buying of votes could probably be reduced to insignificant instances if reporting all gifts, of any sort, to lawmakers were not only required but carefully investigated and effectively publicized. Of course, failure to do it might be seen not as intellectual laziness but as the result of even more scheming. (Posted, 1/7/06)

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All human undertakings have need of evil-smelling manure. This is what idealists forget about their particular causes says Nietzsche in Section 490 of Human, All Too Human. I've been searching my memory to see if this is borne out by my own experiences and observations, and I think, probably, it is. When I was young, I worked among educational idealists who would tolerate none of the pedantries or make-work that marked other educational settings. As a result, almost no education took place because education depends on the manure of learning which is not always pleasantly acquired. The only other thorough-going idealists I was ever around were ardent feminists, who believed that all human evil arose from some primordial subjugation of women to men, whose cause they were never quite up to explaining. In wanting to rid themselves of the grossness of men -- much of which is undoubted -- they were sacrificing the peculiar genius of women. They wanted, in effect, a single gender in which women would not really exist.  (Posted, 1/6/06)

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When a highly intelligent person takes up a subject with which he has little experience he tends to achieve brilliant insights which are, nonetheless, only partially true. We see that over and again in the sixth division of Human, All Too Human, which is titled "Wife and Child." Nietzsche, of course, never had a wife or a child so the common view might be that he doesn't know what he's talking about. Yet, he was a very acute observer.  When he says, for example, "Women are always secretly intriguing against the higher souls of their husbands; they want to cheat them of their future for the sake of a painless, comfortable present," he is probably being unfair to women who are simply trying to introduce practicality into their family life. Yet, there is a sense in which too much feminine practicality -- even when delivered out of love -- can be limiting.  (Posted, 1/5/06)

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I don't know if other people are like me in this regard, but I almost never attend a social event without coming away discontented. Sometimes, I don't actually know what's bothering me, but there it is, at the edge of my consciousness, scraping on something. In Section 351, titled "Pricks of Conscience After Social Gatherings," of  Human, All Too Human,  Nietzsche offers his explanation for the feeling. He says it's because we have not treated a subject justly, or because we have neglected to speak out when we should have. But, then, he rolls his explanation into a nugget, saying "in short, because we have behaved in society as if we belonged to it." Do most people experience a horror at the thought of being a member of society as Nietzsche does? I know I do. Whenever I'm in a large room of people, my impulse is to get to the side, away from most of them. Is this a pathology, a Nietzschean pathology, so to speak? I have to leave that answer to others.  (Posted, 1/4/06)

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A fine quality of Nietzsche's writing is that he discusses not only grand philosophical principles but the minutia of the life of thought which occupy the greater part of our days. The sixth chapter of Human, All Too Human, titled  "In Relations With Others," is made up of short thoughts about the problems of being in human company. Even though many of them summarize musings we all must have had, they are expressed with startling sharpness. Section 324, for example, says in whole: "In dull society -- Nobody thanks a witty man for politeness when he puts himself on a par with a society in which it would not be polite to show one's wit." It calls to mind dozens of holiday dinners where bigotry became the main topic among one's relatives and ironic statements, which had to be repressed, began to hammer on one's brain. What I have never been sure of on such occasions is whether silence is politeness or cowardice.  (Posted, 1/3/05)

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A thought that must strike at most of us from time to time is that we have attained neither great fame nor great power. And these are the measures the world uses to judge success. Does our failure -- if it can be called that -- in this regard mean that our lives lack significance? Nietzsche addresses this problem wonderfully in Section 291 of Human, All Too Human which is titled "Prudence of the Free Spirits." He offers us a different notion of importance than the one world offers and one which is available to anyone who wishes to seize it. It is a far more meaningful definition of liberty than the parodies which roll off the tongues of bloviating politicians. The purpose of genuine liberty, he says, is to "dive into the element of knowledge." And those who do it achieve a "refined heroism which scorns to offer itself to the great mob-reverence as its coarser brother does." Many must have felt that ideal glimmering at the edge of their consciousness. But it's hard to hold onto in the face of the world's strident ambitions. I guess that's why reaching it does require a kind of heroism.  (Posted, 1/2/06)

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It's disconcerting to write something and then to pick up a book and find someone from the past saying almost the same thing. That happened to me this morning after I had sent off my weekly column for The Harvard Square Commentary. I had written about the uses of time and then in Section 283 of Human, All Too Human,  I found Nietzsche discoursing about "the chief deficiency of active people." Their undoing, he says, is that in being active as social functionaries they fail to be active as individuals. That's nearly the same thing I meant when i said that people in our society place secondary activities above the primary. All mankind, Nietzsche says, are divided between those "roll as the stone rolls" and those who maintain their days for themselves. I had written my piece assuming that these conditions were particularly peculiar to modern society. But Nietzsche tells me they are characteristic of human society generally. And I suspect he's right.  (Posted, 12/31/05)

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"The principles of the fettered spirits" is the term Nietzsche uses to describe the beliefs of those who accept uncritically the ruling attitudes of their time and place. America is the greatest nation, and so forth. But at least in Section 227 of Human, All Too Human, where Nietzsche spells out the nature of these beliefs he fails to remind us that they need to be expressed in undefined or ill-defined words. The man who is convinced that America is the greatest country cannot tell you what "great" means. And he would brush aside any questioning about it as mere trifling. I know this is the case because I have attempted to ask.  (Posted, 12/28/05)

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In Section 70 of Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche says that every execution offends us more than the murder for which it is imposed. The question that immediately comes to mind is who the "us" are. Clearly, execution, does not offend everyone. There are many who revel in it. What is their state of mind? Or, perhaps, it would be better to ask, what is their condition of mind? Earlier, Nietzsche had argued that morality is bound closely to goodness of intellect. Or, to put it in more earthy terms, stupid people are unlikely to have a finely honed morality. This is a theme that deserves more constant and active consideration than it generally gets. We tend to think that opinion arises from some mysterious source so wreathed in social and personal origin we can't hope to fathom it. Nietzsche would probably tell us that opinion is as much a matter of quality of mind as it is of past experience. We would have a more intelligent social conversation if we began to give that possibility genuine attention.  (Posted, 12/27/05)

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Where do things come from? Every religious cosmology has to answer this question. In the religions of the West, the answer has been out of the unfathomable creativity of God -- which strikes some as meaning, "we don't know." In Nietzsche, the answer is that they come out of the Will -- also called the Will to Power -- which is just as unfathomable as god, but which does have this characteristic: it is always thrusting to create and destroy in ways that appear chaotic to human understanding. Ultimately, the main difference between so-called believers and so called atheists is whether they see their god as orderly or disorderly. And these perspectives have a great deal to say about the nature of human freedom.

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Nietzsche generally used "metonymy" to mean the substitution of cause for effect, or the mistaken attribution of cause. It would be interesting to apply his analysis to the use of emotionally charged words, like abuse. We say that a person has been abused when a particular sort of thing has happened to him. But the thing that happened is not abuse until we take knowledge of it into our minds and transform it into abuse. So the cause of the abuse is not the act itself but the way we think about the act. We can see this because we know, from history, that acts which were once seen as benign and beneficial have now become abusive. There are many acts which will be harmless when we think of them as being harmless and become abusive when we begin to think of them as abusive. This is always the case where the harm of the act is psychological rather than physical.

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The Dionysian type enters into any skin, says Nietzsche in Twilight of the Gods.  The question for me is what he does when he gets there. Does he become the thing inside the skin that was there before him? Or does he retain something of what he brought with him? And if he does retain something, what is it that he retains?

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Nietzsche uses "dream" to mean what I usually think of as imagining. To make life bearable, we create an imaginary world, which in our less thoughtful moments, we say is not real. But why is it not real? Since what we typically call reality is just appearance anyway, why shouldn't the appearance of appearance -- as Nietzsche terms it -- be accorded a kind of reality? Or at least a significance? The quality of the imaginary world we create is as essential to the quality of life as anything else.

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The wage laborers of language take revenge on language itself. They become accustomed to the slime of journalistic jargon. And thus they bore even themselves. Friedrich Nietzsche made the point about the Germany of his day. But it's true of any nation entering a course of self-glorifying stupidity. The fate of America is prophesied in the rhetoric of Dan Rather.

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The scholar asks, "What did Nietzsche really say?" The thinker asks, "How does what Nietzsche said help me towards truth and understanding?" The schools have been set up to promote scholarship rather than thought, and this has become a cause of their failure. Yet we should not wish to banish scholarship from the schools, in the manner of the so-called progressives, because it is an aid to thought and, perhaps, an indispensable one. How to use it without letting it take over is one of the great quandaries of education.

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Harold Bloom has written yet another book, this one titled Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine.  One of his theses is that there's not much in common between the Jesus of the Gospels and the god called Yahweh of the earliest Biblical texts, and since the writing about them is separated by a thousand years, I don't suppose that's surprising to anyone who doesn't find the Bible to be a coherent whole. But the most interesting feature of this new book for me is Bloom's explicit argument that it's foolish to view great books sanctioned by religious organizations any differently than we do great books acclaimed by long readership. In other words, in terms of significance, there's no reason to place the Bible and Shakespeare in different categories.  Frank Kermode, who reviews the book for the New York Review, says that some readers may find the notion disagreeable. That's no doubt the case. Yet, it seems to me there's a fine liberty in the concept. There are many people who are held away from the Bible simply because some other people think it's divinely inspired. It's a silly reason to deny oneself access to great literature and yet I'm afraid it has functioned to disrupt cultural continuity and to create ignorance about about our intellectual heritage. Our social discourse would be enriched if knowledge of the Bible were as expected as knowledge of other classical works, regardless of one's religious affiliations.  (Posted, 1/2/06)

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There are many stretches of historical ignorance which bedevil our society, but there is none more arid and productive of misery than the lack of knowledge many professed Christians have about the origin of the New Testament. Here is a collection of twenty-seven writings that are said by the faithful to be the source of their spiritual existence. Yet, only a small percentage of the people who profess to believe in the New Testament as the message of God have any idea where it came from. They are unaware that for centuries debate about what should and should not be accepted as holy scripture proceeded not only vigorously but viciously, accompanied by much loss of blood. It was not until more than three hundred years after Jesus died that a list of the books now accepted into the New Testament appeared in a letter written by Athanasius of Alexandria. There were many writings that were excluded, by forces it is hard to recognize as instruments of God. The danger in this blind acceptance is that it breeds more blind acceptance and can create in the mind a belief that unexamined acceptance is the only avenue to truth. And a person whose mind has fallen into that state is always ready to be duped. This may seem like an arcane matter fit only for discussion by dry-as-dust scholars. But in truth, it affects every social and political decision the nation makes. It will have a major influence on the upcoming presidential election and, therefore, determine, in many instances, who will live and who will die after January 2005. And, yet, for some reason we seem content to toddle along in ignorance about how fundamental moral beliefs were formed.

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St. Augustine said we all need prolonged, deep reading to develop our spirits though he did not have perfect faith in its results. He was wise in both the prescription and the caution. The best minds have been nurtured by reading but so have some of the worst. We ought to have a better general theory of what makes for an intelligent reader than we do. Some of the best-read people I know have been less than thoughtful and that offers, at least for me, a hint about how to discriminate between healthy readers and pedants. The key is whether reading is seen as a support for thought or as a substitute for it. One reason our universities tend to be tiresome is that they are strongly influenced by professors who have no use for thought unless it comes from dead people. To see it in its awkward, floundering state of becoming strikes them as vulgar. They prize students who recite rather than students who think. For them, the ultimate intellectual achievement is the ability to cite a text. It's easy to allow such false teachers to  turn one away from reading altogether. But a good reader knows that just because the practice can be misused does not alter the glories it offers to those who are struggling to strengthen their own thought.

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John Shelby Spong was, until the year 2000, the Episcopal bishop of New Jersey, a post he held for about a quarter century. He's the author of numerous books -- maybe as many as 18 -- about the problems Christianity faces as it confronts the modern intellect. He doesn't think that any generation can capture eternal truth and consequently doesn't believe that texts created in the so-called Biblical period can direct the thinking of people now who want to be honest with themselves. They have to discover their own ways of delving into ultimate meaning. His position is laid out in a book he published six years ago, titled Why Christianity Must Change or Die. In the items that appear here over the next week or so, I'll tell you what I think about his arguments and share with you any questions they raise in my mind. If you have thoughts about any of them, I'd love to hear from you. (December 13, 2004)

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An early feature of Spong's analysis is the importance he gives to the vision of the physical world that prevailed in the 1st century. People then believed that the universe was divided into three regions -- the earth and sky together, a realm above the sky which was called something like heaven, where God lived, and the domain beneath the earth, thought of as the nether region or the underworld. Spong's point is that there was no figurative thinking in this division. People conceived this as the way things actually -- physically -- were. And the scriptures which Christianity now designates as holy were founded on this belief. We now know that this is not the way the universe is configured. We know about space, and distances measured in light-years, and galaxies, and stuff like that. So, to the extent the old cosmic geography can still function in our minds, it has to assume a symbolic cast. You might say, okay, what's wrong with that? It can still work. But can it? If God is transformed from a being who actually lives above the sky and can, therefore, look down on everything that's happening on earth, to an entity who, somehow, can survey the immensity of space, doesn't he necessarily become a different kind of thing? Is it possible to imagine a god who can pervade the universe as we now know it and still can get caught up in who's going to win a battle between two small tribes? Maybe. But Spong doesn't think so. He's convinced that the orthodox conception of God is shaped by the ancient view of the cosmos, and that if we broke that bond, then we would be free to think about God in ways more compatible with our modern intellect. It's an interesting point, but I'm not sure what I think about it as theology.

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Spong makes much of the concept of being in exile, which is where he says all thinking Christians are today. What are they in exile from? From a religious structure based on a worldview that is no longer credible. Christians, today, he says, are in a position similar to that of the Jews who were driven out of Palestine in the years after the Babylonian conquest of 586 BC. They could no longer practice the forms of religion they had known because those forms were based on worship in a particular place. Their god had been the god of the temple in Jerusalem. Because they lost Jerusalem, they lost their god. And when people find themselves in that condition, when they have lost virtually everything they thought they knew about the nature of their god, then god must either grow or die (p.29). That's the situation Christians find themselves in today. They have not been driven out of a geographical location but they have been excluded, by the march of modern knowledge, from the intellectual environment that sustained their ancestors. So now they have to decide. Will their god grow or will he die? You might think that's up to god rather than to humans. But, it's pretty clear that in Spong's conception of things, there is a god-human conjunction, and each component is responsible for what happens to the union. That's certainly giving more significance to human will than Christian orthodoxy would give. To make god in any way dependent upon humans is an abomination. And, yet, if there's no dependence, why, in the orthodox view, did god make humans in the first place? Try as some will to banish human will and human desire from the foundations of religion, it's very hard to keep them out.

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Last night (March 29, 2004) I went to a church in Montpelier to participate in a discussion about the film, The Passion of the Christ. As has happened to me before in group conversations, I was struck by the easy confidence Americans have that they can know things about the past that are, in truth, exceedingly hard to know. One of the ongoing criticisms of Mel Gibson has been that his film diverges from history. What history? Gibson made a film based on literary texts, primarily on the four Gospels. But exactly what relationship those texts have to the events they purport to describe, no one knows. Certainly, there is no evidence of the sort that would normally be demanded by historians to certify the historicity of the texts. The main support for the nature and existence of Jesus, outside of the Gospels, has been a passage found in some editions of The Antiquities of the Jews, a work published by the Jewish historian Josephus in Rome about sixty years after the supposed date of the crucifixion. That passage, which is generally called the Testimonium Flavianum, resembles closely certain portions of the Gospel according to Luke. But there's no consensus among scholars that the Testimonium was actually a part of the work Josephus published. It may have been added later, or at least modified sharply, by Christian apologists. Or it may be that both Josephus and Luke were relying on an earlier Christian text that is now lost. The latter is the theory that has most support among scholars nowadays. In either case, the notion that Josephus provides us with disinterested evidence of who Jesus was is not established. Yet, among my fellow discussants last night, there seemed to general assurance that we know clearly who Jesus was, and that we know how he lived and how he died. I went away from the meeting with visions of archaeologists ten centuries hence searching through the midlands of what was once England for the gravestones of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy.

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Several years ago, in an attempt to stumble towards an adequate definition of education, I decided to jot down the characteristics of educated persons as they presented themselves to me in daily life. I got through forty-two and then, doubtless because something else attracted my attention, stopped doing it. The thirty-sixth entry on my list was this:

An educated person will aspire to be, before becoming any other kind of reader,
a common reader of the sort delineated by Samuel Johnson and Virginia Woolf,
as memorialized in Johnson's famous comment: "I rejoice to concur with the
common reader; for, by the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary
prejudices, after all the refinements of subtlety and dogmatism of learning,
must finally be decided all claim to poetical honours."

Common readers with common sense, uncorrupted by specialized perspectives, are needed now more than Johnson might have been able to imagine. The prospect of getting them, though, in significant numbers, doesn't seem bright. I wonder why not. I can't believe that people are actually as busy as they are commonly said to be.

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Many readers will recall that eighteen years ago Alan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind made a great stir. Writing now on May 17, 2005, it scarcely seems credible that it was that long ago. I read the book in 1987 with pleasure, which is not to say with complete agreement. But I found it to be worthy enough to make it hard to comprehend the howls of rage it elicited from the university world. There was something about it that struck a nerve.  It has come to my attention again because recently I finally got round to reading Saul Bellow's novel, Ravelstein, a fictional treatment of Allan Bloom's personality. The narrator says over and again in the novel that he doesn't want to get into Ravelstein's ideas. But since Bloom's life was inseparable from his thought, it's impossible to read even a fictional account of him without thinking about his one big book.  What I want to do in this series of notes is to explain the effects that a rereading now is having on me.

Saul Bellow provided a foreword which is unusual in that it doesn't say much about the book but rather concentrates on Bellow's own educational experience. Standing alone, it's a fine essay which makes a number of telling points about the nature of growing up in America and how genuine education is a process of escaping environmental influence. So far as the university was concerned, it served Bellow mainly as a place to discard bad thought rather than as a source for acquiring wisdom.  If it were seen that way more generally, I suspect it would rise markedly in value. Professors occasionally have sensible criticism of bad thought but to turn to them for good thought is a mistake. Bellow overrates the quality of Bloom's argument but it's a forgivable error. There's nothing wrong with mildly exaggerated praise of a friend.

The text itself is, largely, a defense of natural law and the morality supposedly embedded within it, a sense of right and wrong which reason finds in human nature.  Bloom was doubtless influenced by his teacher Leo Strauss,  the most famous  advocate of natural rights in recent American history. This ancient doctrine, Bloom says, has been under attack by the desire for unrestricted freedom, leading to the relativism that afflicts the minds of all American university students. My own experience tells me that most students are not steady enough in their thinking to be persistent relativists, or persistent anything else. They jump all over the place, depending on the impulse that's  visiting them at the moment. And they scarcely give a thought to their own internal inconsistency. In that, they are solidly in line with most of their fellow citizens. Philosophical integrity has never been an American trait.

The American mind is closing because we are confused about two kinds of openness, one of them false and, therefore, the opposite of what it's purported to be. There is an openness to reason, which allows us to seek truth and reject error. And, then, there's an openness to everything, based on the proposition we can't know what's true. The latter, relativism, is actually a sealing up of the mind against truth. All this strikes me as simply another formulation of the problem of God -- though Bloom never calls it that. Either there is some guide -- entity, force, spirit, tendency -- outside human thought which leads us towards truth, or there is not. If there's not, then the only possible definition of right is what some group of humans decides. And since different groups decide different things at different times, right is dependent on where and who you are and when you happen to be alive. Bloom hates that idea and all his writing is designed to refute it. He is reputed to have been an atheist, but if so, he was a religious atheist.

Bloom's entire introductory chapter is a refutation of relativism, which in modern times has been given the name of openness, but which, he says, is in reality nothingness.  If one believes nothing, then one can never be wrong. He has no errors he can learn how to refute. And if he can't refute errors in himself, he can't refute them in anyone else. Bloom gives his chapter the title "Our Virtue" to indicate that we have no virtue. We live in a complete moral vacuum.  This, of course, is nonsense. Students may be mixed up about their moral stance but they aren't devoid of one. Bloom goes so far as to say they must be taught prejudices in order that they can, eventually, sort them out and learn which ones to discard. Otherwise, they can never have a soul. I suspect that Bloom was arguing more against his university colleagues than he was against the actual students he encountered. He presents the latter as being completely under the intellectual control of the professors, but in doing so he confuses the blather a student will pump out in a classroom with what he or she actually believes.  Also, he forgets that professors are mostly perfected classroom children. If you keep them away from  the classroom for a while they'll become as morally jumbled as anyone else.

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Michelle Easton, president of the Clare Booth Luce Policy Institute supports having schools based on ideology. Then parents could pick among an array of left-wing schools and right-wing schools. And that would be a good thing she says, that would be real choice. Just think about the hiring procedures at such places. Profession of faith would count far more than competence. But, then, the very concept of competence would be out the window, anyway. Competence in teaching is helping students find the truth. But finding the truth would not be a goal in an ideological school. Getting in line and staying in line would be the main thing. That we have voices calling for this sort of development in America is discouraging. It shows how far away from the ideal of liberal education we have strayed. (Posted, 6/6/05)

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Steve Ray Goodman, an educational consultant in the Washington area says (Washington Post, April 10, 2005) that increasing numbers of parents are getting disgusted with the huge fees they have to pay to send their children to college, especially when they can’t see that the education being offered is of much value. And I say, it’s long past time. The gigantic debts being shouldered by Americans to support the indulgences of the professorial class is one of the genuine scandals of our time. Goodman says the ideological excesses of the colleges are the parents’ chief complaint. That may be so. But ideological foolishness is only a small part of the host of shallow practices colleges perpetrate. The principal flaw in college education today is a lack of seriousness on all levels. And it comes because a majority of professors are abjectly inept in tying their professional activities to the purposes of intelligent human life. That’s the disconnect which allows them to wallow in intellectual fluffery, ideological or otherwise. There have always been pedants in schools and colleges. But they used to be bounded by stable culture. Never have their eccentricities been harmless, but they were at one time, in America, reasonably limited. Now, because of a radically evolving society, pedantry is permitted to run amok. It’s costing us great piles of money and, worse, is screening us from what real education would be.  (Posted, 4/10/05)

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Ruth R. Wisse, professor of comparative literature at Harvard, has an article in the April Commentary about what's commonly termed "political correctness" in the academy. I wish we didn't have to deal with the expression. It obscures far more than it clarifies. Ms. Wisse thinks political correctness is a destructive attitude, particularly for young women. She says it deludes them about important features of life and especially about the need for family support as one grows older. And she's probably right about that. Yet, she doesn't dig to the more serious issue that undergirds the term, a false notion of "career" which it promotes not only among college professors but throughout the supposed leadership class of the country. Young people are being led to believe that career can do for them what it can't do and, consequently, many of them spend their energies in foolish ways. Career is being touted as the overweening purpose of life. And, that's a pure lie. It's easy to forget that career is simply reputation among people who perform similar tasks and the accompanying physical rewards they spread to one another. It is not love. It is not good taste. It is not satisfying thought. It is not the ability to enjoy one's dinner. It won't ensure that anyone has the basic goods of life. Therefore, to join fanatical groups whose only purpose is to guarantee that their members are "successful" in their careers is to undermine social equity. The academy, in failing to come to grips with that truth, is committing a misdeed far more serious than enabling a few childish zealots to disturb the social peace.  (Posted, 4/4/05)

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Among educators there's a great debate going forward about why boys don't learn to read as easily as girls do and why they don't take as much pleasure in reading as they get older. One of the problems with this debate is that we don't know whether the premises are correct. The common assumptions about literacy weakness among boys may come from no more than a skewed notion of what it means to read, from the idea that reading a novel is real reading whereas reading a newspaper is not. Regardless of how accurate our measurements are, however, there seems to be little doubt that boys, as well as girls, fail to acquire what used to be thought of as common cultural knowledge. They know little of history or literature. And it's pretty clear why. Knowledge of history and literature is not respected in our society. A boy sees no profit in aspiring to be a well-read man because he encounters few people who admire well-read men. When, over the course of a couple centuries, a country moves from having as president Thomas Jefferson to having George Bush, it's clear that literary knowledge is not rising in esteem. The notion that this trend can be reversed by adopting new techniques of teaching is abysmally naive. Some techniques may work slightly better than others but no technique will create either curiosity or desire. They rise from the core of cultural meaning and they won't be intensified unless our thoughts about worth are transformed. I see few signs that the United States can move towards having a well-read population. And, perhaps, the best response would be to recognize that we -- generally -- don't want a well-read population. Then, at least, we could set aside the incessant twittering about the learning propensities of boys versus girls.  (Posted, 3/15/05)

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The New York Times says "high school reform can succeed only if the governors are willing to expend real political capital" (March 1, 2005). The judgment comes in an editorial commenting about Bill Gates's speech at the recent governors' conference, where he said that the current American high school system is obsolete and dysfunctional. The notion that good education is dependent on political action is deeply engrained in American thought but it makes little sense. The core problem is that politicians don't know what education is any more than the bureaucrats in the schools do. So when the political classes put their heads together and decide what to do about schools they usually end up making them worse. For too long America has been obsessed with the idea that children can be educated without learning to think. Consequently, reforms proposed by government generally take on an automaton quality. Only when we grasp the simple idea that knowledge and thought are dependent on one another will the high schools become more effective. It's not hard to set up programs that will promote intelligent use of knowledge. The first step is to expect teachers to engage in thought in the company of their peers. But I doubt the average governor can begin to comprehend how that expectation would energize what happens in classrooms. If we look to governors for high school reform, don't count on getting it.  (Posted, 3/1/05)

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The genuine question raised by the recent controversy at Harvard is whether there can be such a thing as a group aptitude. And the answer, of course, depends on what kind of group you're talking about -- biological? racial? geographical? religious? But the policy question has to do with whether supposed knowledge of a group aptitude can be used for any good purpose. I tend to think it can't. We know, for sure, that it can be abused. We've seen that down the centuries. But let's say that we know that Group A is slightly better at learning auto mechanics than Group B. So what? What's the possible positive application of that knowledge? There can still be excellent mechanics in Group B. The entire notion of group aptitude is murky at best and vicious in its more common applications. We would be better off to stop talking about it, and an essential step in stopping is forgoing fits when somebody does.  (Posted, 2/24/05)

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The National Conference of State Legislatures has issued a report which is less than flattering to the No Child Left Behind law. The federal act is said to interfere with ongoing state reforms, contradict other federal laws, and to be unconstitutional. besides. I'm glad to see these criticisms. They're mostly valid. Even so, they don't get at what's most seriously wrong with the law which is that it's based on a false concept of education. It equates education with a demonstration of school accountability, and, then, it tries to hold schools accountable not by how much they teach their students but rather by how well their students score on standardized tests. It has been shown, over and again, that testing of this sort measures the social background of students more than anything else and says very little about what they have got from their schools. The underlying thesis behind the law is that if you take a money stick and beat a teacher hard enough, then that teacher's students will learn. We can, though, say one thing for the act. It reflects perfectly the attitude about how to make things better that pervades the entire Bush administration.  (Posted, 2/24/05)

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The saga of Larry Summers and the faculty at Harvard goes on and on. Both sides seem to be trying to say more foolish things per hour than have ever before been said in the history of the world. The incident that presumably set it off -- Mr. Summers's musings at an economic conference -- was insignificant. It's true that his language was silly but since that seems to be a requirement for being at Harvard in any capacity, I don't know why it should have got him in trouble. The flap shows us one thing, at least. It's extremely dangerous to be part of an enterprise with the reputation of being first in the world. It leads people into such absorbed self-puffery they have little chance of  saying anything intelligent. We can only hope that when they're going about their daily rounds and not pontificating for journalists they speak as sane human beings, with comprehension of the contingency of most things. We can hope, but we can't be sure.  (Posted, 2/22/05)

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I heard Thomas E. Woods on C-Span 2 yesterday (February 20, 2005) talking about his best-selling book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. By the standards of most scholars, his opinions are ridiculous. He seems to write merely by standing conventional theory on its head. His notion that a country like the United States could exist in today's world with virtually no government is at best naive. Yet, there are lessons to be taken from writers like Mr. Woods and the first of them is that the facts of history will yield almost any interpretation one wishes to draw from them. Woods appears to be a reasonably well-informed person about what happened, and what people said, over the course of the nation's development. But he doesn't find the same meaning in those events as most scholars do. His diversions, however, force us to ask, where do conventional historians find their opinions if it is not in the facts of the past? The answer, of course, is that they find them where anybody else finds them, in the currents and desires of their own time. This isn't to say there's no truth in history, but it's a truth that will bear any reading. We would have a better educated population if our schools could latch onto the understanding that history is not handed down by God, it is made up by men and women. It's made up from materials presented to us by the past, but it's made up, all the same.  (Posted, 2/21/05)

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My local paper, the Times-Argus, ran an editorial on Sunday, February 6, 2005, raising questions about the validity of President Bush's educational initiatives. The key passage said this: "Reliance on standardized tests to reward schools and teachers is distorting and undermining education in America, and efforts to challenge the new educational bureaucracy are worthwhile. The justification for No Child Left Behind was to impose accountability, an imposition growing out of a lack of trust in teachers and schools.." Everything noted there is perfectly true. There is, however, an implication that can do with scrutiny. The passage seems to suggest that  it's wrong not to trust teachers and schools. The first problem with the sentiment is the lumping of teachers and schools. One thing we know for sure in America -- teachers don't run the schools. They are run by local educational bureaucrats, whom we have no more reason to trust than we do to trust the federal bureaucrats behind the president's proposals. The teachers are more trustworthy than the bureaucrats, but their relative powerlessness and the hectic schedule imposed on them don't encourage them to display much originality. And we have to face the bitter truth that the average public school teacher is not an intellectually vibrant person. Most schools have three or four teachers who are avid learners but they tend to be overwhelmed by those who are not. So just trusting schools and teachers is not enough. There's nothing wrong with the concept of federal involvement in the schools. What we need is assurance that what the federal officials do makes sense. Some will say that's not in the realm of possibility, but, certainly federal efforts to encourage teachers to continue learning themselves -- and not just by taking required college courses -- would do far more to improve the schools than the current efforts which are designed mainly to scare and punish.  (Posted, 2/7/05)

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In the spring of 2004, the University of Connecticut conducted a survey about First Amendment rights among 112,003 high school students. The results were released at the end of January 2005. It turns out that 36% of the students questioned think newspapers should have to get government approval before they publish articles. One might simply dismiss this as adolescent imbecility. But, I think it reveals more than that. It's a reflection of how ignorant many young people are about the nature of government. It seems that many of them don't know what the word itself means. That they don't is the fault of parents, yes, but primarily it's the fault of the schools. If school officials don't have the wit to teach about the history of tyranny, one wonders what they are competent to teach about. Surely, there is no lesson more fundamental or simple than that power is dangerous, and that government, because, it has more guns than anybody else, is always extremely powerful. Consequently, you'd think it's an essential understanding of civilized life to recognize that government must be checked by independent investigators. And, yet, a considerable portion of American youth has no comprehension of this need whatsoever. When the schools have failed us this badly, one wonders what influences within them can begin to reverse the failure.  (Posted, 2/1/05)

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Howard Gardner is the Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The title alone ought to give pause to anyone interested in the validity of Mr. Gardner's thought. Pretentiousness is one of the key warning signs. He is, within professionalized education, the multiple intelligences guru. This means he has argued that intelligence is not a single thing but many things and that though these things interact they are quite distinct. The main political effect of this theory is that students who were formerly thought to be dull can now be classified as intelligent. A boy, for example, who can't read a sentence or add four figures may well possess "bodily-kinesthetic intelligence" that enables him to knock hell out of a baseball. A goodly percentage of the work in the social sciences involves not discovering anything but simply redefining words. A common feature of this effort has been to take a word that formerly pointed to a desirable and rare characteristic and force it to mean something that's not rare, so as to confer on almost everyone a trait that formerly only a few possessed. What good this does is questionable. Admirers of Mr. Gardner say his theories have opened teaching to more varied approaches. Detractors say he's just making stuff up. I'm all for more varied approaches in schools. In the past, many schools have been quite rigid and stupid. But, I wonder if we might not make greater progress towards this goal by pointing out that good teaching requires fashioning a set of techniques for each student rather than by getting caught up in high fallutin redefinitions. Fancified theory that encourages unimaginative teachers to apply formulas is probably not the best way to help students learn. Although, doing nothing is certainly not desirable either.  (Posted, 1/31/05)

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A frustrating feature of squabbles within a university, and particularly of  arguments between presidents and faculty members,  is that unless one is on the inside it's nearly impossible to get an accurate view of what's going on. The psychological makeup of faculty members and of administrators is so bizarre that ordinary good sense often has no standing among them. Consequently, it is very difficult to analyze the genuine nature of the hard feelings that seem now to be permeating Harvard. President Lawrence Summers is said to be too blunt for faculty tastes. But whether he's blunt in a way that's actually rude and humiliating is impossible to know from journalistic accounts of his conflicts. The article by Sara Rimer in the New York Times for January 26, 2005 leaves a reader with the thought that Summers may indeed be a brute or that his critics may be a pack of ninnies. Since Ms. Rimer is not bold enough to tell us which, we end the article knowing no more than we knew at the beginning other than that there's some kind of fuss going on there. I wish I had an intuition about it, but I don't. I do know that universities are astoundingly difficult to manage because so many of the people who inhabit them lack a sense of humor and are neurotic about their self image. It would be good if more people could start being both scholarly and sane. But I doubt that will happen anytime soon.  (Posted, 1/28/05)

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For years, educational psychologists have been pushing the notion that high self-esteem is a foundation for learning and for moral behavior. Now comes psychologist Roy Baumeister of Florida State University, writing in the Los Angeles Times (January 25, 2005) to say that's not exactly true. He was commissioned by the American Psychological Society to survey the literature on the effects of high self-esteem and report his findings. It turns out that self-esteem doesn't help people learn nor does it produce socially healthy behavior. It does go along with people's feeling better about themselves but, then, that's a redundancy, isn't it? I can remember arguing with my faculty colleagues over the years that self-esteem is okay so long as it's based on the truth but that trying to make it up out of nothing is both foolish and counter-productive. It's mere common sense to see that if a person has deluded himself into thinking he's doing everything right, he's not likely to want to improve. The worst students I ever had were people who were convinced of their own brilliance but had done nothing to demonstrate it. They couldn't learn anything because they couldn't imagine it was possible for them to improve their thought processes. My friend Dan Noel used to say that self-esteem should be called the self as steam. To make it the aim of schooling is one of the most inane programs we've pushed. And, yet, it continues to have its advocates.  (Posted, 1/27/05)

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The "Advanced Placement" tests given by the College Board for the past half-century, enable some graduating high school students to skip introductory courses in English, history and science when they get to college. The tests naturally have some influence on the way these subjects are taught since schools like to brag that their students do well on them. Now the College Board has announced the tests are going to change so as to encourage conceptual understanding and place less emphasis on memorization. I wish I knew what was meant by these two terms  --conceptual understanding and memorization -- but it's hard to find out from journalistic accounts. I also wish I had more confidence the College Board knows what it means by them. Abstractions of this kind play a big part in modern discourse about schooling, but my experience in attending hundreds of meetings causes me to suspect that few of the people who use them, often blithely, have much of an idea what they are. Obviously, education is a process of acquiring knowledge and of learning to think well. If either of the processes are slighted, education is diminished. The way to make sure they're not slighted is to understand that the one depends on the other. If you don't know anything then you're not going to think well about anything. If you don't think about what you know, then you don't really know it. I'd be happier if our educational leaders were talking more about a full integration of these processes than about emphasizing one at the expense of the other.  (Posted, 1/26/05)

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Last summer (July 2004), the National Endowment for the Arts put out a study titled Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America. If you think reading's a good thing, then this was a discouraging report. It says that Americans don't read much, not even as much as they used to. It also says that boys have lost interest in reading even more than girls have. In their leisure time, young people read on an average eight minutes a day. Lots of people say we ought to do something about this but there's little agreement about what it should be. One thing seems fairly clear to me: if books are not talked about then relatively few people will read them. And we're not very good at talking about books in this country, either in school or out. We appear to want to place them in a la-de-dah category where they can't be discussed like a movie, or a TV show, or a sports contest, or the latest sexual biological experimentation among celebrities. Kids, in particular, hate priggish talk and school teachers are trained, almost exclusively, to be prigs. A few of them resist but not enough to ensure vital talk about books in the schools. Truth is, there may be nothing to do about the decline of reading. Few will admit that but it still may be the case. Even so, if you want people to read books, the best thing to do is read some yourself and then talk about them with no chalky tones in your voice. If you can convey to somebody that you can read a book without becoming a pompous stick, he might be tempted to read one himself.  (Posted, 1/25/05)

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Novelist Norman Mailer, writing in the Sunday supplement Parade yesterday (January 23, 2005), offers the thought that the reason our children are so poorly educated is television commercials. There are so many of them they break up kids' attention span into no more than thirty second intervals. And no one who can pay attention for only thirty seconds can really learn anything. The solution is pay TV where there will be no commercials. The children can then concentrate on stories that last an hour or so. I'm not one to support the number of commercials we're subjected to, but, somehow, I doubt that getting rid of them is going to solve our educational problems. Single solutions to overarching social problems are almost never successful. You'd think Norman Mailer would know that. That he doesn't may point to an even bigger problem than commercials, and that's obsession. It seems we live in an age when it's easy for people to become obsessed by one thing or another, and I confess I've never been able to believe that education and obsession are fruitful partners. It's probably true that in order to become well educated one has to experience some passions -- like a passion for Charles Dickens or a passion for sorting out the evidence about dinosaurs. Yet, I continue to believe we can distinguish between passions and obsessions and, also, that the ability to do it is one of the primary characteristics of the educated mind.  (Posted, 1/24/05)

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Nobody quite seems to know what "information literacy" is. But the Educational Testing Service is launching a new test that will tell you if you've got it. It's called "Information and Communications Technology literacy assessment." Teresa Egan, who's the project manager for the new test, admits that many critics say testing is pulling time and energy away from more important educational activities. She has an answer for that, and here it is: "But the public wants accountability. People want to ensure that colleges are actually preparing students for the future -- the future being an information society." (New York Times, January 17, 2005). I'm not sure when "accountability" became the chief buzz word in schooling, but it should be marked in the histories of education as a benchmark on the path to utter stupidity. In this case, it seems, colleges must be held accountable for preparing students for the future. It was once the case that an educated mind understood nobody could predict the future. And, also, that valid educational standards might not fall in line with the future. But that's all out the window now. People who provide schooling have got to show that they're genuflecting to the future, no matter what it might be. And, if they don't, they won't get a mark of approval from the ETS -- at least not on this test.  (Posted, 1/20/05)

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The "No Child Left Behind" law says that all fourth and eighth graders must become proficient in reading and mathematics within ten years. And, if they don't their schools face a loss of funding. But, there's sticky little problem. The law doesn't define proficiency. It leaves that up to the states. Some states have quite low standards whereas other are fairly rigorous. So, the states with the low standards are the ones least likely to be penalized by the federal government because it's easier for their students to become proficient. Somehow that doesn't seem in keeping with the spirit of the law. There are national standards, which are determined by the "National Assessment of Educational Progress" (or N.A.E.P.). But though the N.A.E.P. tests are required they don't figure in the flow of money. In some states the divergence in results between the state tests and the N.A.E.P. are sizable.  For example, using the state test, we find that 87% of Mississippi's fourth graders are proficient in reading. But when N.A.E.P. is used, proficiency falls to 18%. Arguing about which test ought to be accepted is a perfect example of how politics penetrates schooling to thwart education. The issue ought to be whether the children in Mississippi are being taught to read.The best way to do that would be to spend time, money and effort on seeing that each child spends time each day with an literate adult who helps the child learn to read stories that are interesting enough to cause a sane person to want to read them. But if you put your energies into programs like that, then you wouldn't have percentages on standardized tests to tell you how you're doing. And that's what counts in politics, not whether children learn to love stories. One thing's for sure. A society has only so much energy to put into promoting literacy. And when a significant portion of that energy is used to enable politicians to proclaim where we stand, many fewer stories get read.  (Posted, 1/19/05)

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Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard, has created a mini-storm by remarking that innate differences between men and women may be one of the reasons that women don't hold fifty percent of the top positions in science and mathematics. The response has been predictable. Nancy Hopkins of MIT, for example, was so offended she couldn't breathe. Upon walking out of the room, however, she appears to have recovered her breath because she made a number of remarks that couldn't have found expression had there been no oxygen in her lungs.  In all the hoopla about whether Mr. Summers is expressing bigotry towards women, the most interesting thing he said has been downplayed. To be successful at the levels he was speaking about requires, he said, working on the job eighty hours per week. When women have children, some portion of the necessary eighty hours has to be sacrificed. I'm not much of a mathematician, but it seems to me that eighty hours constitutes nearly 48% of the total time there is in a week. If we take into account the hours required for sleeping, eating, and discharge of waste materials -- presumably, even these paragons of intellectualism are required to perform basic biological functions -- there's very little time left for anything else. Nevertheless, according to the president of Harvard, to be successful in banking, the law, business management, science, mathematics, engineering, you've got to put in the eighty hours. Those of us who don't, have time to sit back and ask ourselves what this means about the moguls of American professionalism. I have a hard time shaking the thought that they must be ignoramuses about almost everything and that they almost never give any thought to what it means to be a human being. And, this is the ideal of education -- the ideal of success -- being proclaimed by the president of our ideal university. Maybe we should stop worrying quite so much about bigotry towards sub-species of humanity  and turn our concern to the mania that modernity appears to be projecting onto all of us.  (Posted, 1/18/05)

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If one accepts political convention he will believe that "education" is primarily an economic matter and has relatively little political or personal significance. Or, to put it more crassly, one gets educated in order to get money. So long as that view holds, we will not have an improved educational system in America. Concentrating on producing the employees managers say they want leads inevitably to a degradation of reading, writing, and thinking skills. That's because most employers want workers who can read, write, and think in a limited manner but not to the best of their ability. Few managers can bear employees who are better educated than themselves. The way to enhance education is to perceive it as process of personal and social development. In other words, genuine educators should be more concentrated on helping people order their lives intelligently and cooperate in useful social endeavors than they are in giving either Wal Mart or General Motors what it wants. People who are personally and socially healthy will be adequate workers but they will not be fanatical slaves of their jobs. And, if you pay attention carefully to what most politicians say, the latter is what they are really after. Consider President Bush's remarks, recently, as reported in ABC News's The Note (January 14, 2005) "At the White House Economic Conference on Dec. 16, Bush called community colleges 'market-oriented places of higher education' because they are 'affordable, they're accessible, and they're able to adjust to the demands of the local economy.'" The president, clearly, is not talking about education; he's talking about training. But he doesn't want anyone to be aware of the difference.  (Posted, 1/15/05)

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The president went yesterday (January 13, 2005) to J.E.B. Stuart High School in Falls Church, Virginia, where he said this: "Listen, I've heard every excuse in the book not to test. My answer is, How do you know if a child is learning if you don't test? We've got money in the budget to help the state implement the tests. There should be no excuse saying, 'Well, it's an unfunded mandate.' Forget it. It will be funded. " One could easily write a book about the faulty thinking (and expression) in this statement. But since this isn't a book, I'll limit myself to the issue of whether standardized testing is the only way to find out if a child is learning. Anyone who thinks it is has an astoundingly small-minded view of what learning is. I'm not dead set against all testing, If tests are reasonably intelligent and if they're interpreted by sane people, they can be moderately useful. But they are not the only, or the best, way to know if a student is learning. The best way, of course, is through conversation with well-informed people. Good teachers know which of their students are learning. If we worked with them, and provided them time, to report on what they know about their students, we would be more adequately equipped to know where to put our efforts. But, the results of teachers' assessments couldn't be easily standardized, and, therefore, they couldn't be politicized. And political fodder is what the president seeks in his educational efforts. If he sincerely cared about learning, he would have sought it for himself.  (Posted, 1/14/05)


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