June 3, 2012

“Totalitarianism results when bureaucracy has succeeded in breaking our will to resist arbitrary, whimsical and senseless requirements. Passive, cooperative and apologetic, we accommodate, without protest, to tyranny.”

Ed Smith


Nature study

January 19, 2012

“I am not always in sympathy with nature-study as pursued in the schools, as if this kingdom could be carried by assault. Such study is too cold, too special, too mechanical; it is likely to rub the bloom off Nature. It lacks soul and emotion; it misses the accessories of the open air and its exhilarations, the sky, the clouds, the landscape, and the currents of life that pulse everywhere.

…What I have learned about [nature’s] ways I have learned easily, almost unconsciously…My desultory habits have their disadvantages, no doubt, but they have their advantages also. A too strenuous pursuit defeats itself. In the fields and woods more than anywhere else all things come to those who wait, because all things are on the move, and are sure sooner or later to come your way.”

–John Burroughs, The Gospel of Nature

Books provide a supplement to memory, but they also, as [Umberto] Eco put it, “challenge and improve memory; they do not narcotize it.”

–Nicholas Carr, The Shallows

Carr further notes that for Erasmus, memorizing was the first step in a process of synthesis, a process that led to a deeper and more personal understanding of one’s reading. Far from being a mechanical, mindless process, Erasmus’s brand of memorization engaged the mind fully. It required creativity and judgment.

Erasmus suggested that every student and teacher keep a notebook, organized by subject, “so that whenever he lights on anything worth noting down, he may write it in the appropriate section.”

This is the origin of the commonplace book.

Seneca recommended something similar. Both Erasmus and Seneca’s memory/learning metaphors were organic, not data-driven.

In 1623, Francis Bacon observed that “there can hardly be anything more useful” as “a sound help for the memory” than “a good and learned Digest of Common Places.” By aiding the recording of written works in memory, he wrote, a well-maintained commonplace “supplies matter to invention.”

William James: “The art of remembering is the art of thinking.”

Forming strong connections between memories requires strong mental concentration, amplified by repetition or by intense intellectual or emotional engagement. The sharper the attention, the sharper the memory.

The internet, by distracting us, discourages these connections.

(All notes are paraphrased from The Shallows)

This is definitely a trend, at least among British writers of a certain era…

From “Why I Write,” by George Orwell:

I was the middle child of three, but there was a gap of five years on either side, and I barely saw my father before I was eight. For this and other reasons I was somewhat lonely, and I soon developed disagreeable mannerisms which made me unpopular throughout my schooldays. I had the lonely child’s habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons, and I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued. I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life. Nevertheless the volume of serious–i.e., seriously intended–writing which I produced all through my childhood and boyhood would not amount to half a dozen pages…

…However, thoughout this time I did in a sense engage in literary acitivites…for fifteen years or more, I was carrying out a literary exercise…this was the making up of a continuous ‘story’ about myself, a sort of diary existing only in the mind. I believe this is a common habit of children and adolescents. As a very small child I used to imagine that I was, say, Robin Hood, and picture myself as the hero of thrilling adventures, but quite soon my ‘story’ ceased to be narcissistic in a crude way and became more and more a mere description of what I was doing and the things I saw. For minutes at a time this kind of thing would be running through my head: ‘He pushed the door open and entered the room. A yellow beam of sunlight, filtering through the muslin curtains, slanted on to the table, where a match-box, half-open, lay beside the inkpot. With his right hand in his pocket he moved across to the window. Down in the street a tortoiseshell cat was chasing a dead leaf’, etc etc. This habit continued until I was about twenty-five, right through my non-literary years. Although I had to search and did search, for the right words, I seemed to be making this descriptive effort almost against my will, under a kind of compulsion from outside. The ‘story’ must, I suppose, have reflected the styles of the various writers I admired at different ages, but so far as I remember it always had the same meticulous descriptive quality.”

From Narcissus Regards a Book, by Mark Edmundson:

“Life in America now is usually one of two things. Often it is work. People work hard indeed–often it takes two incomes to support a family, and few are the full-time professional jobs that require only 40 hours a week. And when life is not work, it is play. That’s not hard to understand. People are tired, stressed, drained: They want to kick back a little. That something done in the rare off hours should be strenuous seems rather unfair. Robert Frost talked about making his vocation and his avocation one, and about his work being play for mortal stakes. For that sort of thing, assuming it was ever possible, there is no longer time.”

I’ve been thinking about this idea of years now. I could dedicate the rest of my life to thinking of ways around the modern notion that there’s no longer time for play with mortal stakes. Homeschooling has been one such way around. But sooner or later the homeschooler grows up and has to find his or her own way in the world. Then the issue becomes broader, that of finding sane ways of life, and the child has to choose for him or herself, but still, I think there are ways. Often they involve relative poverty, self-control, and/or doing things for one’s self.

Why a meritocracy?

February 2, 2011

The following passage comes from an article from The New Atlantis called “The Ivy League Lament,” by Rita Koganzon. It may seem a bit difficult to get into at first, but it’s worth rereading, because I think she’s onto something about the reason for our college admissions having become more about high test scores than interest in learning.

“No longer certain of anything about the world, the adults of the last two generations have given up trying to pass it on…but they have found nothing with which to fill the holes left behind. They have lost credibility, and regrettably or happily depending on whom you ask, ceded authority so that succeeding generations can start from scratch to figure out how to fix things. One of the notable products of this abdication has been the rise of an educational meritocracy that continually rewards “aptitude,” which seems like something everyone can still agree is good to have and adults are willing to reward, even when they cannot agree on the essential question of what it is worth directing one’s aptitude towards. The result is a system that produces an elite that has no clear idea of its own purpose.”

Multum non multa

October 7, 2010

“In those days a boy on the classical side officially did almost nothing but classics. I think this was wise; the greatest service we can do to education today is to teach fewer subjects. No one has time to do more than a very few things well before he is twenty, and when we force a boy to be mediocre in a dozen subjects we destroy his standards, perhaps for life.”

–C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy