1973 - when I started asking questions, like, "Why are we all dressed so funny?"

Sunday, August 28, 2016

I'm a Simpleton. Are You a Simpleton?

Image result for simpleton

In Walter Miller's tale, A Canticle for Leibowitz, there is a "great simplification" unleashed after a nuclear holocaust akin to Pol Pot's attack on the learned in Cambodia but world-wide in scope.

As I set sail for the year 1493 (that would be Chapter 2 in James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me), I feared I was headed for one of Miller's (in)famous Simple Towns where learning has stopped and simple explanations reign. In this I was disappointed that this was the case, but not surprised.

What was surprising was reading Loewen's unconscious mimicking of a the worst approaches to any subject: simplification to the point of distortion. One would think that Loewen would be astute enough to remove the lumber from his own self before railing against the textbooks but it was not to be.

Image result for simple town leibowitz miller

The big question for people like Loewen who congratulate themselves for happening to have been born after the unenlightened hordes who proceeded them is along these lines: So, are you suggesting that it would be better that you did not exist? According to your narrative, the world would have been better off if Columbus never set sail and history did not unfold as it did. Had it not, I dare say that none of us would be here opining about the crimes of others that we distance ourselves from.

Loewen would prefer a world where the weak are not trampled on by the strong and that is understandable, but that world does not exist. That does not mean sugar-coating the sins of our fathers, but it does mean recognizing that every group of people has done evil. Do you think the Aztecs would have shied away from slaughtering the Spaniards if they had the means to do so? Does a group of people achieve sinless status simply because they get exploited?

C'mon, virtue does follow simple because one has been victimized. Yes, high school history textbooks over-simplify and are vapid, but great books are not created by simply inverting the historical narrative.

I'm a Simpleton. Are You a Simpleton?

Image result for simpleton

In Walter Miller's tale, A Canticle for Leibowitz, there is a "great simplification" unleashed after a nuclear holocaust akin to Pol Pot's attack on the learned in Cambodia but world-wide in scope.

As I set sail for the year 1493 (that would be Chapter 2 in Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me), I feared I was headed for one of Miller's (in)famous Simple Towns where learning has stopped and simple explanations reign. In this I was disappointed that this was the case, but not surprised.

What was surprising was reading Loewen's unconscious mimicking of a the worst approaches to any subject: simplification to the point of distortion. One would think that Loewen would be astute enough to remove the lumber from his own self before railing against the textbooks but it was not to be.

The big question for people like Loewen who congratulate themselves for happening to have been born after the unenlightened hoardes who proceeded them is along these lines: So, are you suggesting that it would be better that you did not exist? According to your narrative, the world would have been better off if Columbus never set sail and history did not unfold as it did. Had it not, I dare say that none of us would be here opining about the crimes of others that we distance ourselves from.

Loewen would prefer a world where the weak are not trampled on by the strong and that is understandable, but that world does not exist. That does not mean sugar-coating the sins of our fathers, but it does mean recognizing that every group of people have done evil. Do you think the Aztecs would have shied away from slaughtering the Spaniards if they had the means to do so? Does a group of people achieve sinless status simply because they get exploited?

C'mon, virtue does follow simple because one has been victimized. Yes, high school history textbooks over-simplify and are vapid, but great books are not created by simply inverting the historical narrative.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Francis Moment

First Things' R.R. Reno's disdain for Pope Francis is palpable in articles too many to cite. I suppose that what Reno most hates about Francis is what I love best.  Through his papacy Pope Francis lives out the Liberty of a Christian. He's giving the conception of "counting the cost" of following Jesus a new connotation, a new twist. 

Some believe that following Jesus means putting on a public face that does not give undue scandal. This was exemplified for me by some Protestant friends I knew in northeastern Colorado who would travel to the big city in order to have a "Denver Margarita." They knew and believed that alcohol was OK in moderation, but they didn't want to scandalize people who thought alcohol the root of all evil. I only half-jokingly suggested that I was scandalized by their duplicity!

Pope Francis refuses to count the cost in the sense of a politician counting the cost or my friends above. Like the mythical Aslan, he's not necessarily safe but he's good. Safe in our day means predictable, controllable. The freedom that Frances exudes is an opportunity for us to all judge for ourselves. He's calling into question the whole cult of experts. In other words "professional Catholics" like R.R. Reno.

Gatekeepers are neither required nor wanted. This is Francis' genius. He neither requests nor needs permission from you or me to be Pope. He is authentic in this sense: being true to Christ and to himself. 

To my mind he simply building upon the firm foundation set down by Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI. These two were the Great Clarifiers. An analogy: Just as the Second Vatican Council had both dogmatic and pastoral constitutions, so too this small "t" trinity of popes contain both but Francis simply highlights the pastoral. 

When's the doctrines are laid out, it's time to begin living them. What we see in Francis is that there is no "orthodox" or "politically correct" way of living out orthodoxy. Doctrine is not a straitjacket, but it enlarges the soul.  

 Francis' unwillingness to countenance the power of sound bites is not a lack of prudence on his part. It is rather in in an invitation to go beyond the sound bite culture to begin listening once again to the voice of Christ.  The message of Francis to the Catholic intelligentsia may just be talk less, live more.  

All of this takes us back to that "right-winger" Paul VI and what he said about teachers versus witnesses. Our world is filled with so called experts bearing witness to their egos but little else.  No matter how clever it's just not all that attractive. Pope Francis is both a teacher and a witness in exactly the right time and place.

"B" movie, "A" content: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

G.K. Chesterton was of course right when observed (I think it was in What's Wrong with the World?) that "if it's worth doing, it's worth doing poorly." Some films are not exemplary in terms of production values, acting, and all the other goodies but they did some things well.

Today's example:

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World was surprisingly warm and gentle for a film dealing with the moral catastrophe that precedes the extinction of the human race. It is a bit surreal when amid the debauchery and mayhem, much goes on as usual. For example, when the unlikely yet strangely likable couple, Dodge (Steve Carell) and Penny (Kiera Knightley) get a bite to eat at the local "Friendsies" restaurant, the staff is warmer than ever and intoxicants flow freely, but no one seems all that concerned about the impending crack of doom. Alas, death (thankfully) is not the point of the film. The point is living life. Not living life at the level of an abstraction but with immediacy with what and who is front of you. Yes, it is a bit creepy when the inevitable relationship that grows between Dodge and Penny does flourish, but it also rings true and somehow right. Dodge gives up the quest for finding his high school sweetheart when he realizes he's chasing an illusion. Penny for all her flaws is real. She is present. The film is not a "realistic" end of the world set-piece, nor is it a romantic comedy. It is more appropriately a meditation on living morally and humanely while everything else comes crashing down.

Chesterton noted that what was wrong with the world was himself, thus pointing to the fact of Original Sin. He surely would have appreciated the paradox that what is wrong with the world is also what is so, so right with the world: human beings.

Friday, March 04, 2016

Of scaffolds and substance

"The text, that's right, but they never talk about that" (from Whit Stillman's Barcelona). 

I recently subbed in a freshman English class. They were - yeah! - reading Shakespeare, but merely "Romeo and Juliet." In any event, we listened to Act II, scenes 4-6 on a CD, which is kinda like speed-reading but better than them trying to read it on their own silently.

Their task was to read a summary of the scenes and "fill in the blanks." As we went through some of the answers I was struck by (a) how quickly students could identify literary elements such as foreshadowing but (b) how ignorant [note: this is not meant in a pejorative way] they were of a simple biblical allusion.

I asked one class, "When Friar Lawrence says, 'The two be one,' what is he referring to?" No one knew. A vague sense that they were getting married but no connection to the Book of Genesis or the Gospels.


Monday, February 15, 2016

How to be critical of the past

The Guys Who Started It
Negativity is Not Enough
Reflecting on the nature of being an historian, John Lukacs writes the following: "The purpose of historical knowledge is more than accuracy; it is understanding" (The Hitler of History, p. 2). Understanding requires some degree of sympathy for the person, period or phenomenon one is investigating or it will remain a sterile (at best) inquiry or something borne aloft by negativity (see the "masters" above).

It was truly this lack of sympathy in James Loewen's Lies that made it unreadable - sensationalism has never appealed to me and he takes that tack not so much by what he writes, but what he fails to write.

Refutation for refutation's sake is sterile. Deconstruction alone never leads to construction. As Stephanie Mackler observes: "Although something new might arise after destruction, destruction itself does not aim toward anything but negation of what is (Learning for Meaning's Sake, p. 11). Since the past is all we know (Lukacs), we ought to treat it well and seek to understand it, not merely criticize it and thereby save ourselves from real self-scrutiny. 

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Things I love about subbing

Arriving early

In an attempt to be a glass half-full kind of guy, here are some reasons I love being a guest/substitute/single-serving teacher. In no particular order

1. When I repeat my corny stale jokes or engage in painful puns, they're fresh for the students.

2. It is fun to plan and organize the day with just a few minutes to know what the day is going to look like (block or traditional schedule? when's lunch? is there a place to walk?).

Afternoon, heading back to school
3. I almost always can get in at least 20 minutes of vigorous walking, sometimes close to an hour if I get a prep and lunch back-to-back.

4. I get to see a variety of teaching styles (second hand) by (a) examining handouts, texts and other artifacts and (b) by talking to students about their experience in the particular classroom.

5. By focusing on subbing for English and history teachers (predominately, not exclusively), I've had the opportunity to assess myself as a teacher: "Where do I feel more 'at home'? Which subject would I enjoy more - be better at?"

6. I've seen enough of both English and history classes to see that both are subject to certain shortcomings or limitations in the way they can be taught: (a) English - excessive attention paid to technical aspects of literature (mood, tone, diction...) but insufficient emphasis on discovering the meaning of the text (the latter based on numerous conversations with students about this very question - how do you discuss the text? what does it [say, Animal Farm] mean to you?). (b) History - too much "bookwork" and note-taking and worksheets. Likewise, a lack of discussion in any organized or systematic way. Students lack both interest in history and an understanding of its relevance for their lives. The good thing: I'm seeing things to avoid in the future. 

7. I'm getting to know the schools themselves. How they operate, but more significantly, the relationships between students and staff. School culture, in other words.

8. I'm becoming convinced that I could not merely 'survive' but thrive in most of the 15 or so high schools I've subbed at. That's pretty cool.

9. My appreciation for the block schedule has grown by leaps and bounds. I think it is not only good for teachers, but good for students, too.

"Cue the Sun"
10. Even when I have the occasional bad day, tomorrow is a new day.

11. Rarely, very rarely do I have any homework after school or reporting to do.

12. I can almost always work productively with students and have a few laughs.

Friday, February 12, 2016

If I Teach English

The Sum of All Fears

You assign it, you read it
Reading literature requires writing about it on the part of students. That is fitting and just. Striking the right balance between helping students write intelligently and keeping a manageable workload is essential. I've bumped into teachers (or their stacks of essays, see above) who assign enormous writing projects. I think to myself, "Will this teacher ever find the time to attentively read all of that?"

Understanding literature requires conversation about its meaning. Both for assessment but more importantly for the good of the students. This is where Shared Inquiry/Socratic Seminars come into play. Based on what I've seen of class sizes and my prior experience with classes of 30 (and middle school students at that), I think it is possible to divide classes into two or three groups and have productive and meaningful discussions. Not easy but not as ridiculous as trying to read reams upon reams of tired old themes!

I need to understand the correct approach to literature-as-form and literature-as-content. I'm un-apologetically a content guy. To me, what makes literature interesting is the story and ideas discovered therein. I see a lot of charts and graphic organizers in the English classes I've been in and that makes me a little uncomfortable. That is, I would not be comfortable with assigning too much about theme, genre, mood, tone, etc. Must take a look again at those content standards to see what's required versus what is commonly practiced.

The Goal 

The shape of Socratic circle
Yes, there's too much "teacher" in the photo, but this is the idea: sharing a common text together and working at understanding the meaning. 40-45 students in a classroom - is it possible to teach this way? Yes it is. 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Bad Book, Good Effects

Even a bad book can be useful. Sometimes I read a book and think, "I wish I had written that" or "This author was spot-on." Other books elicit a negative reaction such as "What a waste of paper and ink" or "There goes several nights of reading I'll never get back."

Then there is a third category: books that provoke thought but the book itself is neither admirable nor even readable. Such it is with James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me. The unreadability stems from Loewen's approach which is to mock how one-sided and superficial history textbooks are then wade in with his own one-sided, mean-spirited, and [sigh], superficial approach to the same topic. So, while he does a good show illustrating the failings of hagiography-as-history, he falls prey to demonizing historical figures with a sense of moral superiority complex that self-assuredly suggests, "We know better, are better and will be better in the future... As long as you, Dear Reader, understand that by 'we' I mean 'me.'"  There is no moral drama in Columbus or the Spanairds. They are bad, but then so was everyone else back then. What?! 

Spanish Male, ca. 15-16th Century

A note on what history can and cannot be. This comes from John Lukacs' The Hitler of History but is something that I wish Loewen had considered in his book. Lukacs good. Loewen baaaaad! 
Contrary to the "scientific" illusion, in the research and writing of history there are no final results. And the purpose of history is often not so much the definite accounting of the events of a period as it is the historical description and understanding of problems: description, rather than definition; understanding, rather than completeness -- because while a perfect completion of our knowledge of the past is not possible, a reasonable and proper understanding of it is within our powers (xii).
Grasping the limits of our knowledge and the nature of historical truth would have helped Loewen and his book.
I think I can...
The book that needs to be written. Loewen's book did get me thinking seriously about how history is taught and/or should be taught. That could have been the subject of his book, but it is the textbooks themselves that he focuses on. Here are some thoughts after reading several chapters by Loewen.

1. Textbooks are and aren't the problem. Textbooks are the problem in ways that Loewen points out: they're too massive and aim at comprehensiveness instead of understanding. They over-simplify and create an atmosphere of thinking of history as being about brute facts instead of the human drama. But I would suggest that even if the textbooks were "good," they'd still be bad. The nature of the market for these boat anchors is such that they will be the way they are until teachers stop using them. At one point in the book Loewen mentions that there are slimmer and trimmer textbooks that survey much less history. This combined with a rich use of primary sources could make for an interesting class.

Perhaps Loewen is too polite to say it, but there is probably more things wrong with the teachers of history than anyone would like to admit. Loewen does mention that there do seem to be a disproportionate amount of coaches out there who also "teach history." Can you imagine your brain surgeon being a golfer who also "practices surgery"?! The priority of schools is surely to blame here and the lack of historians who teach history. A good teacher can do without a good textbook but a great textbook will never compensate for an incompetent teacher (except for those self-starting students who learn no matter what).

2. History is the story of persons, not mechanical processes. One of the most interesting things about history is how in any major event (and all kinds of minor ones), things could have been different. I don't think it's necessary to stress contingency with an excess of "what if" scenarios, but just because it did happen the way it did happen, we can sometimes fall into the trap of thinking it had to happen that way. Textbooks would be useless in bringing this out, but take a book like Lukacs' Five Days in London: May 1940 and it is evident that what may be seen as chains of events linked by specific causes may also be viewed as being shaped by persons with all the range of virtues and vices imaginable. This is something worth communicating to students

3. Ideas have consequences especially when we never heard of the ideas (or ideologies, more often). This points directly to the need for philosophy in the high school. Why on earth one can find psychology and sociology on offer but no philosophy course in the dozen high schools I've subbed at is beyond me. Religion? Forget about it. Never mind that religion and philosophy existed for millennia while the other two are recent inventions.

Well, that's enough for now. The book to be written could be titled How to teach history even if you're stuck with a lousy anchor masquerading as a textbook or something similar. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Loewen's LIES

Name Calling Saves Time 

I really thought I could systematically trudge through Jimmie Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me for the greater good of humanity and history as it is taught in our high schools, but I just couldn't do it. I felt like I was faced with one of those Jack Chick tracts. Oh, unfamiliar, well, then see below:

Where does one begin? Jack or Jimmie, one is at a loss. "Holy Faulty Premises!" the Boy Wonder never said. Chick has the advantage of having MORE salacious images which is not exactly a compliment, but Chick is more fun.

In any event, the best I can do for now is to point out the following.

Loewen's Lack of Curiosity 

What seems to be missing from the chapter "1493" (and perhaps other chapters but my gag reflex prevented further exploration), is his disinterest in the transformation from slavery as "acceptable" to an "abominable" practice. How did we get here from there? At one point Loewen points out that "everyone was doing it" so to speak so Columbus and friends were not heinous when judged by the mores of their time, but this is one sentence after a catalog of cherry-picked quotations and sources that lead inexorably to the conclusion that most every Spaniard was guilty of malice aforethought and were gleefully committed to rape, pillage and destruction. 

And naturally this was in no small part attributable to their "pious orthodox Catholic" views. Eek! 

When he's not trashing Catholic Christianity, Loewen bleats "racism" to a degree that is reminscient of Orwell's Animal Farm: "White guys bad, brown guys gooood!" 

One reviewer noted that it wasn't worthwhile to catalog all of Loewen's errors and I must concur. Some authors aren't worth refuting. This is one of them. 

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Over-correcting Does Not Set the Record Straight

Trust Me...

Well, I really enjoyed the Introduction to James W. Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me but it has failed to enlighten much after a pretty stellar beginning. In the first chapter (Handicapped by History: The Process of Hero-making) it becomes clear that Loewen is one of those authors who has this super-mystical ability to see through everyone and everything to see the "true" motives and either discover the manifold darkness that lurks in the hearts of men (especially of the dead white dude variety) or that kids aren't being mean (i.e., just being kids) when they mock but are really enlightened critics of traditional pieties: 
Students poke fun at the goody-goodiest of them all by passing by passing on Helen Keller jokes. In so doing, schoolchildren are not poking cruel fun at a disabled person, they are deflating a pretentious symbol that is too good to be real (36). 
Concerning the authors prioritization of ideology over truthfulness, I should have been tipped-off by the "lies" in the title. Errors or even omissions or mistakes would suggest a possibility of goodwill in one's adversaries, whereas lies ensures that one's opponents are not merely sloppy or mistaken or naive, but wicked, wicked, bad people. 

We'll see if Loewen suffers from selective outrage. I suspect that while he speaks in glowing terms about Helen Keller's socialism, he'll have little praise for Elizabeth Cady Stanton's opposition to abortion. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

Hidden Curriculum, Hidden Anthropology (Phase II)

What are People for?

Wendell Berry has a collection of essays entitled What Are People for? And the answer to that question would make any hidden anthropology explicit. In all the talk of school reform (whatever that means, we aren't likely to see that happen any time soon because it opens up a can of worms that we are culturally unable to address without perplexity and perhaps are not able to address without violence.

It's not that modern society doesn't have any answer to the question, but it has a grab-bag of discrete and at times contradictory answers. It remains unanswered in theory but present in practice (for even the most banal of tasks must be done with some sense of their meaning or purpose -- even schooling!).

A Tale of Two Approaches

I. John Dewey is famous for being a progressive educator, and this is an approach wonderfully satirized in To Kill a Mockingbird: 
“Don’t worry, Scout,” Jem comforted me. “Our teacher says Miss Caroline’s introducing a new way of teaching. She learned about it in college. It’ll be in all the grades soon. You don’t have to learn much out of books that way—it’s like if you wanta learn about cows, you go milk one, see?”
“Yeah Jem, but I don’t wanta study cows, I-”
“Sure you do. You hafta know about cows, they’re a big part of life in Maycomb County.”
I contented myself with asking Jem if he’d lost his mind.
“I’m just trying to tell you the new way they’re teachin‘ the first grade, stubborn. It’s the Dewey Decimal System.”
Having never questioned Jem’s pronouncements, I saw no reason to begin now. The Dewey Decimal System consisted, in part, of Miss Caroline waving cards at us on which were printed “the,” “cat,” “rat,” “man,” and “you.” No comment seemed to be expected of us, and the class received these impressionistic revelations in silence. 
Dewey's experiential ideal is fine in theory but given the exigencies of real students, real classrooms and real limits, the "Miss Carolines" of the world often content themselves but not their students with card waving of one sort or another.

That was not Dewey's intent, to be sure, but it matters not whether the theory is grand but simply if it can be applied to good effect. Dewey's theories have not panned-out.

II. Jimmy Conant.  At a practical level, James B. Conant (above) has undoubtedly had a greater organizational affect on education than John Dewey. Conant is perhaps best known for leading the charge for the kind of high school we take for granted today: the comprehensive high school. Reviewing Conant's The American High School Today one contemporary commentator noted the following items of interest:
James B. Conant states as his top priority the elimination fo the small high school, thus joining the legion of modern educators who have fought stoutly for consolidation.
The Report assumes , without questioning that proliferation of many subjects is better than concentration upon fewer, that four of something is necessarily better than two or three, that twenty or more courses during the high school years are better than sixteen, that a seven or eight period day is better than one with a block of time for a core...
The report repeatedly deals with the shadow, not the substance, of the curriculum. ... Almost completely neglected is the crux of the curriculum problem: what goes on within the courses.  
At that last sentence one might heave a sigh of relief: Oh, but we have content standards now - problem solved!. However, the dirty little secret (which Common Core will change not much at all either way) is that standards are merely one link in the chain of communicating content. Whether the weakest link is the teacher, the student or the textbook is perhaps a fruitless argument for another day.

Yet even if content standards did miraculously appear each and every course, the core problem would remain: after four years of high school, how will the average graduate answer the question, What are people for? The approved pedagogical gods at the State level don't bother asking the question so we can only get at their answer(s) by indirection. I'll try to get there by way of Mortimer Adler, so a few words about him first.

 III. Mortimer Adler. If Dewey was concerned with educating for citizenship and "real life," Mortimer Adler's concern was more ambitious but more achievable: give everyone the best possible education. With his emphasis on Big Ideas, Great Ideas, and Great Books, the rotten tomato labelled "elitist" was oft lobbed in his direction. His pithy reply was, "If everyone get this kind of education, it's no longer elitist, is it?" or words to that effect. Adler often credited and quoted Robert Hutchins: The best education for the best is the best education for all. 

If I were to put the question What are people for? to Mortimer Adler, what do I suppose his response might be? I suspect he would reply to be educated. Were I to press him and I'm sure he would humor me, he might very well reply: To be educated means to have an education in the humanities. As I wrote in 1983: "Humanities, as general learning, must include all the subject matters, not just some" (quoted in "Reconstituting the Schools").

All the Subject Matters?

I. An Outline of Knowledge.  In A Guidebook to Learning Adler summarizes what he takes to be an outline of knowledge:

  1. Matter and Energy
  2. Earth
  3. Life on Earth
  4. Human Life
  5. Human Society
  6. Art
  7. Technology
  8. Religion
  9. History of Mankind
  10. The Branches of Knowledge
    1. Logic
    2. Math
    3. Science
    4. History and Humanities
    5. Philosophy

II. California Content Standards.  When this is compared to current California K-12 content standards, we get a very different picture of essential knowledge. Here's a summary of California standards:
English-Language Arts
English Language Development
Career Technical Education (consisting of 15 areas, ranging from Agriculture to Transportation)
Health Education
History-Social Science
School Library Standards (how to research and gather information)
Physical Education
Visual and Performing Arts
World Languages 

This excerpt from T.S. Eliot's "Choruses from 'The Rock'" gets at the heart of the matter:

The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

Both Adler's outline and California's standards propose categories of knowledge. There is a wide swath of common ground, but what is missing or superfluous in the California standards according to Adler?

Adler would surely exclude from the category of general learning everything in Career and Technical Education. Missing from the California standards are the following: Religion, Logic and Philosophy.

One can argue for the omission of Religion on all sorts of grounds but the omission cannot be attributed to recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions. The following is a portion of a statement found on the ACLU's website:
Teaching About Religion
5. Students may be taught about religion, but public schools may not teach religion. As the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly said, "[i]t might well be said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion, or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization." It would be difficult to teach art, music, literature and most social studies without considering religious influences.
The history of religion, comparative religion, the Bible (or other scripture)-as-literature (either as a separate course or within some other existing course), are all permissible public school subjects. It is both permissible and desirable to teach objectively about the role of religion in the history of the United States and other countries. One can teach that the Pilgrims came to this country with a particular religious vision, that Catholics and others have been subject to persecution or that many of those participating in the abolitionist, women's suffrage and civil rights movements had religious motivations.  
Constitutionally permissible but nearly unheard of. Yes, one may find the occasional Bible as Literature or World Religions course but more likely religion is alluded to in a hit or miss fashion in a literature class here or a history course there.

Logic and Philosophy? Much the same.

So, what are people for
according to our public schools?

Wanda the Welder
One can only guess. Pride of place clearly goes to the world of work. But the absence of any emphasis on religion, logic and philosophy clearly indicate an unseriousness (at the state level) of a humanistic, general education. Liberal Arts? Just say No.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

CSET, English, Subtest IV

These Things I Carried ...

Books, notes, and colorful pens

I was flummoxed by my inability to pass the fourth subtest. I generally test well (I achieved the highest possible score on the GRE written exam), so failing the first and then second time were bitter disappointments. The first time I failed, I attributed it to fatigue: after attending to 100 multiple choice questions on literature, textual analysis, composition, rhetoric, language, linguistics and literacy, and two long essays on these same area, I was done. Having to write four shorter responses to unpredictable questions on topics ranging from drama to media to technology to poetry, graphic design, elocution, stage combat, oral interpretation, pantomime and underwater macrame (OK, officially it's only speech communication, journalism/media, drama, and creative writing, which is diverse enough) after hours of testing was akin to taking the Army's PT test consisting of push-ups, sit-ups and a two mile run, and then completing some activities that require fine motor skills such a Jenga and "pick up sticks."

I couldn't blame my second failure on fatigue. I blew it by misreading the directions. I thought I was limited to no more than 125 words per short response but the direction state clearly that the written response should be "approximately, but not limited to, 75-125 words..."  Ugh. Hence I wasted valuable time paring down my responses to this self-imposed limit and failing to attend to having thorough answers.

The Third Try 
Another unacknowledged unvictim of gender bias?


I toyed with idea of filing a class-action lawsuit claiming gender bias on behalf of all the other men who have repeatedly failed this subtest, but that didn't seem like a productive use of time. Did you know that in 2009 nearly 70% of the Ph.D.s in English Lit went to women? Or that around 60% of all secondary teachers in the U.S. are female? That's up 5% from 1999. I could not find statistics on percentages of male versus female high school English teachers but I suspect it's close to 25/75 (merely anecdotal: I've subbed for half a dozen female English teachers but only one male).

The unease I experienced taking and preparing again and again for subtest IV is rooted in this: these four domains (speech communication, drama, media/technology, creative writing) require their own set of competencies. On the test one is asked to do two things well: first, to have a firm grasp of theory and practice on each of them; secondly, to be able to summarily articulate how one would approach a problem in each area. The breadth of this task seems to favor women if the observation is valid that women tend to be better generalists and men specialists.

What is the point of this silliness? Merely to say that complaining is much more fun than buckling down and doing the work require.d to complete a task. I'm glad that I chose the route of work instead of complaining ... this time

Let the games begin...

Instead of launching a frivolous lawsuit, I took an online course (more of a set of resources) from the San Diego County Office of Education which proved really useful. It was $40 for the single subtest, but spending money motivated me to take the test seriously.  I also purchased a test preparation book. The resources are only as good as the effort one puts into studying so made flashcards with key terms and ideas, wrote sample responses to sample prompts, and perhaps what proved most important, I racked my brain to remember relevant teaching experiences and anecdotes. 

Notice the missing checkmark beside drama. This lack was evident in the results.

Just the facts, Ma'am... 

For each of the areas (speech, drama, media, creative writing) I made an outline of how I had taught some aspect of the category before. While not exactly having a "canned" answer, I tried to have a grasp of things that could be quickly recalled and applied to potential questions. Interestingly, as seen above, I passed all three of the areas with flying colors but the feedback I got on drama was "lacking support." Hello, I've never taught drama in my whole life nor do I expect I will. 

Preparing for the speech portion, I outlined an experience I had with adults at a parent-teacher night while a middle school teacher. I used this experience during the test. One of my potential media/technology topics was a beautiful Proctor & Gamble commercial for the 2012 Olympics, which I was able to use. Finally, for creative writing (the essay questions are more about editing or teaching writing), I used a comparison of two narration styles used in two chapters of The Things They Carried: third person omniscient in "The Man I Killed" and first person in "Ambush"). As the paper indicates above, I prepared for at least two scenarios for each of the areas. This preparation was very worthwhile. 

Concerning that drama essay, a note I took after the exam reminded me that the essay question was something about an Oscar Wilde play and what I would do to help students be funny or somesuch thing. Hmm...  I had no clue so I was reduced to blowing smoke.

One last hint

While not explicitly recommended, I chose to go back and read (or more accurately, read for the first time)a half dozen  "classic" high school books. This gave me a lot of familiarity with books that might be alluded to on the exam. This didn't have a big impact on the exam but it was important to do anyway. It boosted my confidence a bunch. Another "final" hint: I read and re-read Shakespeare's Hamlet, Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, and Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. 

Why bother anyway? I'm already certificated in Social Sciences... 

My rationale was straight-forward. About 10% of secondary teachers teach history while a full 20% teach English. Demonstrated competency in these two areas makes me theoretically employable for almost 1/3 of the teaching vacancies. Any minute now I'm expecting that call to come with this invitation: Mr. McGuiness, come pick out your classroom!

Monday, January 11, 2016

John Lukacs, A Short History of the Twentieth Century

Coming in at just over 200 pages one might expect but a mere outline. Lukacs surprises and delights with an engaging narrative that leaves out much (how could it not?) but leaves one with a sense of knowing far more about the pivotal ideas and figures who shaped the century.

Some samples:
The enormous events of the twentieth century, the two mountain ranges that largely determined its landscape, were the two world wars -- the Second largely a consequence of the First, and the so-called Cold War almost entirely a consequence of the Second (3).
Hatred is stronger than fear. ... But in the human world, hatred eventually becomes self-destructive; it does not always prevail in the long run, while fear often does. Still, this can be no consolation to those who either experience or comprehend the power of hatred over fear in the short run. Besides, hatred, even more than fear, may also involve participation: people hate what they hate in themselves, or they often hate who or what is close to them. What is vengeance but the wish to cause suffering in order to heal one's own suffering? "In the spirit of revolt," Georges Bernanos wrote, "there is a principle of hatred or contempt for mankind. I'm afraid that the rebel will never be capable of bearing as much love for those he loves as he bears hatred for those he hates" (53). 
Enemies of Roosevelt would call these preliminaries to Pearl Harbor Roosevelt's "Back Door to War." That was a half-truth. What is true that throughout 1941, Roosevelt tried everything -- well almost everything -- to provoke a serious German attack on American warships in the Atlantic...(124). 
Churchill. Surely we assess him by his consequences. He did not win the Second World War in 1945. But he was the one who, in 1940, did not lose it. Whence his historical grandeur. ... He foresaw, perhaps before anyone else, what Hitler meant (128-9).
 One thing we may say in favor of Stalin: his ambitions -- contrary to the belief that was widely accepted for decades after the Second World War -- had their limits, not because of his modesty, of course, but probably because of his peasant-like realism (129). 

The Way Back

The Way Back 

Director Peter Weir has taken a controversial book and made a great film. The book is The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz. The Way Back is inspired by the book but does not pretend to be a "based on a true story" kind of film because it cannot be verified that what the Polish author (who was indeed imprisoned by the Soviets) actually made the journey or if someone else did or whether it happened at all. There seems to be evidence that something did happen along the lines of escaped prisoner trekking from Siberia to India during the Second World War.

This is a film that probably can be used in the form of film clips but would not justify viewing the entire film for the purposes of understanding Stalin and his particular form of evil. But it is a great film for understanding that the weakness of kindness can actually be a strength that restores humanity to a person.

Enter Irena 

Derived from the name of a Greek pagan goddess of peace, Irena does bring peace but also an opportunity for the characters to grow more human. Irena tells a tale of being a farm girl who witnesses the murder of her parents at the hands of the Soviets and is then sent for work on a collectivized farm. She escapes. Mr. Smith puts her story to the test by Irena's improbable geography. The truth is, her parents were Polish communists who emigrated to Russia during the salad days of the post-Revolution period but are later arrested by Stalin's regime. Irena is placed in an orphanage.

Irena serves as a bridge between the men, allowing their own crimes and evil to rise to the surface. The admission of the past is not something that destroys them but serves as an opportunity for grace and forgiveness. She exhibits the feminine genius of at once disarming and empowering men to be more themselves.

For how she does it one must watch the film.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

J.L. Gaddis, The Cold War

Got Love? Strangelove?

Hello, Dimitri?
John Lewis Gaddis' The Cold War: A New History is a nice thematic introduction to the subject. If one is hung-up on chronology, this is not your book. But if you enjoy an author taking themes and weaving them in and out, then Gaddis is for you.

Video and Music Ideas for Teaching the Cold War 

I previously mentioned a couple of Twilight Zone episodes that would be suitable for this era. I didn't mention two real obvious additional choices: "The Shelter" deals with how neighbors and friends treat each other when shelter grows scarce once the Russians launch an attack on the U.S. More about the nature of the human heart and how people deal with crises and our human limits, but the bomb shelter is a nice background.  "Time Enough at Last" is really not about the Cold War or a nuclear holocaust at all but about what makes life ultimately worth living. Fans of J.P. Sartre may be saddened to see his "hell is other people" remark get turned on its head, but others may love the poetic justice. Man does not live by bread (or books) alone.

Video Clips (tbd)

Here's one I haven't found on YouTube: From Whit Stillman's Barcelona: The scene where Lt.(jg) Fred Boynton discovers that there is anti-NATO sentiment in Spain and asks, What are they for? Soviet troops racing across Europe, eating the croissants?  Pure genius!


Coming in at just over 8 minutes The Waterboys' "Red Army Blues" is a heart-breaking but eye-opening narrative about a Russian lad who enlists to fight the Huns and is eventually shipped to Siberia and work and rot -- "all because Comrade Stalin says we've become too 'Westernized'"

I would be remiss in not including the Sex Pistols' "Holidays in the Sun" which though convoluted is interesting with its references to going over the Berlin Wall. Then there's The Call's "War Weary World" which is much deeper than the peppy music would imply.  Or one that the "rads" in erstwhile West Germany seemed to love: Nena's "99 Luftballons" (which loses some but not much of its pathos the English version). 

For lovers of the surreal: Camper Van Beethoven, "Sweethearts".  Who can resist a song that mentions Dixon (CA)? And finally, U2's "Seconds." 

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Hidden Curriculum, Hidden Anthropology (Phase I)

I. Critical Pedagogy and Hidden Curriculum

Promoters of "critical pedagogy" sometimes speak of the "hidden" curriculum that is present and assumed within the public or overt teaching that happens day-to-day. Joan Wink writes: "The hidden curriculum is the unexpressed perpetuation of dominant culture through institutional processes" (Critical Pedagogy, p. 46). Wink gives a good example of some Native American kids who think Thanksgiving is the celebration of when white guys taught the Indians how to farm! One could argue that what these students expressed is less about what goes at school than what is received as common "wisdom" from a multiplicity of sources (friends, family, media, etc.). But I digress.

Suffice to say that teachers and schools communicate far more than what is said or read in school. Education is always an "incomplete" process, of course, but what happens when entire fields of human knowledge are ignored? What might one call that? Hmm, unexamined subjects. Perhaps Unsub could be the Newspeak word. Or perhaps the omission of certain subjects are the result of the "hidden anthropology" of public education?

An East German soldier seeks an absent good
What's lacking in the American curriculum?

II. Hidden Anthropology - An Initial Sketch 

If one were to examine K-12 state standards (or Common Core) and ask, "What is omitted?" one would discover some interesting things. First, by "what is omitted?" I mean, What is a substantial field of human knowledge that is neglected or disproportionately small in the curriculum? The next step is to ask, "What do these omissions suggest about the nature of the human person that is assumed by the absence of these subject areas in the curriculum?"

A Premise. This may be so obvious as to seem unnecessary to state: Important things ought to be taught. This statement seems platitudinous, after all, who will argue that education ought to consist in the communication of trivia and frivolity? Hopefully no one. However, this premise could have transformative implications for the public school curriculum if it were taken seriously.

Fields of Knowledge versus State Standards. This is where "Phase II" comes into play. To find the missing like and hence the hidden anthropology. Stay tuned for details.

Two Twilight Zone Episodes for the Cold War

It doesn't get much colder than this ... 

When I was teaching middle school Religion I would show a Twilight Zone episode every three weeks or so. To my surprise and delight I found that students just loved these old school shows in black and white with an accessible but often "subversive" undercurrent or message. On more than one occasion, the story-line was so complex or just plain fascinating that we were able to have great Socratic seminars on an episode ("Number 12 Looks Just Like You" generated some great discussion - especially with the girls).

Here are two episodes that my former students loved and I will use again in teaching, say, World History when it comes to the Second World War and after.

The Mirror 
In "The Mirror," Peter Falk is great as a Castro-like revolutionary who seizes power in a former Spanish colony. To ensure the purity of the Revolution and his own safety and maintenance of power, Ramos Clemente orders the executions of hundreds of people. Typical of the type, right? Yes, but the twist is that the former dictator of the country, one General de Cruz, "gifts" Clemente a mirror telling him that it will allow him to see his enemies. The mirror turns out to convince Clemente that all of his trusted Comrades who fought by his side in the glorious revolution are his real enemies. Thus a great slaughter is unleashed.

The Obsolete Man 
From an authoritarian personality we move to a totalitarian system. "The Obsolete Man" concerns a man deemed "obsolete" by the state: his "function" was librarian, but since books no longer exist, he has no purpose and he is scheduled for termination. Some great dialogue and a defense of human dignity. Great plot twist as one expects from Serling.

It gets to the heart of totalitarian paradox: when one surrenders his humanity to the System for safety's sake (or ideological conviction), that very System becomes homicidal, fratricidal and eventually self-imploding (an eventuality that Orwell didn't see but History did -- see the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 or 1989). Or, from the Old Testament: Moloch consumes its own children.

Sample Questions for each episode (the episode was viewed after spending time with a reading that had a similar theme or issue, so the questions are not solely related to the episode).

Questions for "The Mirror"

The Mirror” (The Twilight Zone) & C.S. Lewis’ “The Fall of Man”

Introduction. In Lewis’ “The Fall of Man,” we are told that God chose not to stop Adam and Eve from sinning nor did He let the first sin (original sin) have no consequences. Instead, God chose to let sin and evil exist and to slowly help us to overcome sin. One thing sin helps us to realize is that our actions are important – they have consequences for good or evil.

In this Twilight Zone episode, we meet a man, Ramos Clemente, who has overthrown an evil dictator, General de Cruz. Will Clemente create peace and freedom for the people or will be no different than General de Cruz? Let's take a look in the mirror.

Directions. Watch the episode and answer the questions.

  1. How can a screaming mob make a man drunk?
  2. Is rebellion enough to make someone free?
  3. What do the people want for General de Cruz?
  1. Does Clemente (whose name in Spanish means “gracious” or “merciful”!) want justice for the general? If not, what does Clemente want? If so, what kind of justice does he seek [hint: look at the C.S. Lewis handout...]?
  2. The deposed general [removed from the presidency of his country] tells Clemente and his comrades that “You are me … we are all the same breed.” What does he mean? Is it true?
  3. General de Cruz tells Clemente that he gives him the gift of __________. Is it a gift or a curse?
  4. Why does Clemente trust what he sees in the mirror? Would you trust the mirror?
  5. Speaking of the death of his friends (whom he killed!), Clemente admits he felt nothing in killing them. Why does he feel nothing?
  6. Is it true that when a man has power (lots and lots of power), he has no friends? Why would anyone then want power?
  7. Fr. Tomas tells Clemente that all tyrants have one true enemy. Who is Clemente's real enemy?

Questions for "The Obsolete Man"

The Obsolete Man” (The Twilight Zone, Season 2)
The Judgment of Men versus the Judgment of God

Edict: an official order. Obsolete: out of date; old and no longer needed; replaced by something else. Assassin: a killer who kills someone for political or religious reasons. Anachronism: something that belongs to one time period but not another; for example, a picture of Jesus with an ipod. Liquidation: a way of saying to kill some without saying it directly. Vengeance: punishing someone for what they’ve done

That night the Lord commanded Gideon, “Get up and attack the camp; I am giving you victory over it. But if you are afraid to attack, go down to the camp with your servant Purah. You will hear what they are saying, and then you will have the courage to attack.” So Gideon and his servant Purah went down to the edge of the enemy camp. The Midianites, the Amalekites, and the desert tribesmen were spread out in the valley like a swarm of locusts, and they had as many camels as there are grains of sand on the seashore.

When Gideon arrived, he heard a man telling a friend about a dream. He was saying, “I dreamed that a loaf of barley bread rolled into our camp and hit a tent. The tent collapsed and lay flat on the ground.”
His friend replied, “It's the sword of the Israelite, Gideon son of Joash! It can't mean anything else! God has given him victory over Midian and our whole army!”
When Gideon heard about the man's dream and what it meant, he fell to his knees and worshiped the Lord. Then he went back to the Israelite camp and said, “Get up! The Lord is giving you victory over the Midianite army!”
- from Judges 7

In this Twilight Zone episode, we meet Mr. Romney Wordsworth, a man who does something that is not considered “useful”: he is a librarian. He is on trial for his very life. He is being judged by his country, but countries too are judged by God.

Directions. Watch the episode and answer the questions.

  1. What is Mr. Wordsworth’s profession?
  2. Can a person become “obsolete”?
  3. What does Mr. Wordsworth say about what happens to his ideas after he's dead?
  4. What does the “jury” decide about Romney Wordsworth?
  5. Why does Mr. Wordsworth lock the door?
  6. What does the Chancellor say the problem was with Hitler and Stalin?
  7. Has the Chancellor underestimated Mr. Wordsworth?
  8. How does Mr. Wordsworth spend his time while before midnight?
  9. How does the Chancellor spend his time?
  10. In whose name does Wordsworth let the Chancellor out?
  11. How do things end for the Chancellor?
  12. What is one of the lessons of this episode?
  13. THEME: Happiness. Compare and contrast how God versus this future State care about human happiness...
  14. THEME: Human Weakness. Compare and contrast how God versus this future State treat human weakness...
  15. Do you think the future shown in this episode is likely to happen?