Monday, June 11 2007

English Class, Great Books, and American Culture

I was struck by this particular passage in a post by Dan Collins at Protein Wisdom:

“The traditional subject areas have been hijacked to promote fashionable causes such as gender awareness, the environment and anti-racism, while teachers are expected to help to achieve the Government’s social goals instead of imparting a body of academic knowledge to their students,” it says.

It brings to mind a recent mini-furor that erupted when the Fairfax County public library system announced it was reducing the number of books it has shelved and that many of those removed were under classics.  A lot of conservative pundits objected that removing classics from the library was a step on the road of the destruction of American culture, even though it turns out that they're reducing the number books on hand of some of the titles instead of removing particular books entirely, and that they had used an automated formula to pick out books which hadn't been checked out in years.

My question is this:  Why do we study English in school?  Specifically, what is the primary rationale behind the course curricula of high school English?  I know there are a number of reasons English is studied, and that all of them to some degree contribute to the course of study in English classes:
  1. To teach proper grammar and build vocabulary.
  2. To teach students to understand the written word, both factual,  fictional and poetic, and to write and interpret writing for both style and content.
  3. To give students an overview of the history of the written word and history as told through the written word, and to provide them with a basic understanding of classic literature which serves as a common cultural root.
  4. To teach social responsibility and cultural diversity through the written word by exposing students to a diverse body of literature.
  5. To attempt to teach students to enjoy reading for its own sake, and to foster a love of reading.
Number one is primarily accomplished in elementary school, although many high school students could use a refresher.  (Heck, I could use a refresher on proper plurals and possessives.)  Number two is technical in nature, and can be addressed by just about any choice of reading material.

Number three, the use of literature to establish a common cultural root, is the "body of academic knowledge" referred to by the quote at top.  Although the speaker was referring to all academic disciplines, English allows much more leeway for social engineering than, say, math or science.  Likewise, number four is the "government's social goals" alluded to in the quote.  Most high school English classes seem to choose works based on some combination of numbers three and four.

Books chosen to satisfy the demands of social multiculturalism (number four) were always my biggest problem in class.  They were often incredibly boring, often because they were chosen by a panel of adult English teachers, most female, to satisfy the goals and interests of adult English teachers.  For a male high school student, even one that loves reading, they satisfy nothing.  Slowing them down to attempt to both address the need to technically understand the written word by learning about the writer's use of stylistic elements (reason number two) and to keep all the class at the same point made them more unbearable.

Books chosen for historical context were sometimes marginally better.  We studied Shakespeare because a lot of later works make reference to his works, and it helps to properly understand the context of the original.  References to Hamlet, MacBeth, and Romeo and Juliet pop up everywhere.  But a lot of the old classics have lost their cultural relativity as time has passed.  A lot of modern culture relies on books not covered in high school English.  Most high school students that care about reading or would benefit from knowledge of the classics would learn more from Lord of the Rings than The Great Gatsby or The Old Man and the Sea.

The question is:  what literature is still culturally relevant today?  If you had to do a short list of what English students need to read to get American culture, what would be on it?

My list is as follows: The Illiad, The Odyssey, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, MacBeth, Dracula, Frankenstein, 1984, Animal Farm, the Time Machine.  Ideally, the list should include at least one of Bradbury's or Asimov's works, plus a Sherlock Holmes story (Hound of the Baskervilles, perhaps?).  There are a couple of real classics that would remain second string, such as A Tale of Two Cities, which while I found them to be boring, do serve a useful purpose.  About the only poetry on the list is Edgar Allen Poe's the Raven.

You'll notice no further mention of Goal Number Five.  That's because, paradoxically, the more effort you put into forcing people to read, the less likely they will be to read for fun.

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Wednesday, June 06 2007

June 6th, 1944

I don't normally post on Wednesdays, as it's one of my evenings off playing normally silly games.  One of those games is Flames of War, a World War 2 historical miniatures game.  I've got two units constructed, one US and one DAK to provide some opposition.  Painting up the miniatures and figuring out tactics required getting back into reading the history of World War 2, a favored topic of mine when I was younger.

To make a long story short, 63 years ago today, nine divisions, 5 American, 3 British and one Canadian (plus smaller units including troops from other nations) landed on the beaches or parachuted into the fields of Normandy, France.  Even with some study of history, it is impossible for me to think of what it must have been like to cross those kill zones into Nazi-occupied Europe.

Every day, as I travel down route 29 in northern Virginia on my way to work, I pass a sign designating the highway as the "29th Infantry Division Highway".  Until recently, I didn't connect that name with the inexperienced American troops that landed on Omaha beach that morning 63 years ago.  I wonder how many other drivers even notice the sign?

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Monday, June 04 2007

Amateurs and Experts

I usually need to wait for a post from a real blog before I write a post, so I can have someone important to refer to, and to give some insight as to how what I say relates to real issue.  I can't pretend I'm a good writer.  Part of the reason I started writing is to learn to write.

My last post refers to the benefits of the reduced barriers to entry in allowing more people to work at producing content.  Today, I read Glenn Reynolds and he links to Lawrence Lessig's critique of Andrew Keen's book, "The Cult of the Amateur".  Keen is sharply critical of what I praised in the last post, so we'll have to agree to disagree.

One thing I want to bring up is Keen's disparagement of amateurs as opposed to experts, citing (for example) Wikipedia and the internet in general as examples of amateurs lowering the level of the discourse by publishing unverifiable or even false facts and clouding the debate, and that he prefers the established media with experts for finding the truth.

My complaint is that the media by and large isn't composed in experts in anything except journalism.  Certain journalists have enough experience in other specific areas (Middle Eastern politics, sports, etc.) to claim some degree of expertise, but so do those of us in the public at large.

Any time I read a story in the paper about something I have taken an interest in, I can count on finding simplifications, distortions, omissions and outright false information.  Journalists are human, just like the rest of us, and its a challenge packaging information for the unique product that is the modern American media.  This means that they are not infallible conveyors of information, and pretending that they are only serves to increase the disconnect with consumers of news.

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Sunday, May 20 2007

France and the Rules of Nations

I love reading the letters to the editor in the Washington Post.  I know the paper has a liberal bias, the editorial page especially, but because I know it's biased I can read it without too much guilt.  Sometimes, I suspect that whomever chooses letters to the editor to appear on the editorial page
has a secret conservative bias, as some of the liberal letter writers do their own cause more harm than good.

Case in point: a letter from Joan Salemi that appeared in today's Outlook section.  She calls into question a recent columnists' argument that Tony Blair was a better leader than Chirac, as Blair used his power to benefit the world while Chirac used his power to benefit France. It's a short letter, but the relevant passage is here:

"Would that President Bush had adopted Mr. Chirac's worldview. The United States would not be tied down in the deadly Iraq war."

Uh, hello?  France with Chirac at the helm certainly had no problems acting unilaterally to intervene in other parts of the world.  Chirac has emerged as a reliable ally for dictators around the world.  Although, ironically, she may be right about one thing... if Chirac had been president on September 11th, we probably wouldn't have invaded Iraq, though I don't know if his favored approach would be viewed by Ms. Salemi as being any better.


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Thursday, May 10 2007

Non-Discrimination, Sexual Orientation, and the Politics of Groups

Sorry for the delay in posting serious posts.  Work took a while to catch up on.

Recently, there has been talk of expanding anti-discrimination laws to cover sexual orientation and gender identity.  My interest in in this debate is in the political and cultural implications of legally favoring certain groups.  My concern is that the practice of legally favoring certain groups with special statuses creates impossible to resolve legal complications and paves the way for government social engineering.  By allowing groups to play politics with special statuses, we increase the amount of corruption and destructive political infighting in society.

Quick theoretical question:  It has recently been established that employers in states with "at-will" labor laws can fire people for any reason except membership in a protected class, such as gender or race.  Some examples of this rule in use are businesses firing employees for smoking at home, on the grounds that smoking is a health risk.  Suppose I am an employer in a state with "at-will" labor laws and anti-discrimination laws that include sexual orientation as a protected class.  I put in effect a policy that my company will not employ any man that has had sex with another man, citing health reasons relating to the spread of blood-borne diseases and as part of a larger set of policies relating to minimizing workplace exposure to communicable diseases, something akin to the list of restrictions on who may donate blood.  Further, I enforce these policies evenly as written.  Am I discriminating against homosexual men on the basis of sexual orientation?

The problem is this: If, legally, I am discriminating against homosexual men, then a religious conservative can look at that policy and see government protection afforded to a particular behavior, and particularly a sexual behavior, not some vague "sexual preference" protection.  I look at the current legal climate and don't see how such a policy could be viewed as anything other than discrimination.

Although Catholic, and someone who believes in the fundamental tenants of his faith, I'm a libertarian, a Heinlein fan, and an anime fan.  I don't care what you do in the privacy of your own home as long as the others involved are able to give proper consent.  I am unlikely to ever get even a date, so it's all academic to me anyways.

I see a growing split in America between the faithful religious and the secular intellectual, and I see that both sides have their own valid points.  To some degree, I think I have a foot in both worlds, and the annoying tendency to just ignore the obvious contradictions between my own principles.

One of my friends teaches school.  He's big on encouraging his kids to read.  He's not religious himself.  He occasionally brings up stories of one of his evangelical Christian co-workers that is vehemently protesting the presence of Harry Potter books in the school. To my friend, this is a travesty.  He sees kids wanting to read, and the popularity of the Harry Potter series as a good starting point, and thinks his evangelical co-worker is  ruining a good thing for no reason.  And my friend isn't alone.  In a recent survey, 53% of university professors though poorly of evangelical Christians.

I recently thought about the situation and came up with an explanation for behavior like that of my friend's co-worker.  Evangelical Christians are trying to fight the culture war by the same unwritten rules that the secular intellectuals have been using.  It has been established that if you don't like something in your kids' school, be it prayers at graduation or the pledge of allegiance, if you throw enough of a fit, the school system will give in.  Evangelical Christians have seen things they approve of removed from the system in this manner.  If that's a valid way of getting things removed, they should be able to use it to their advantage, so they throw a fit about Halloween, Harry Potter, and Evolution.

And therein lies the problem.  You can't satisfy everyone's wants.  If schools are able to teach values, why should one set of values be taught over another?  Who decides which values are the correct ones?  And as long as the religious faithful feel they are losing, they are either going to push back politically harder to get their way, or change the system in their favor.

Which brings us back to the politics of sexual orientation and of groups in general.  Evangelical Christians see a group gaining government enforced protection on the basis of what they see as sexual behavior, and get indignant that the privileges they have are being taken away, and this drives the destructive political split in American culture.

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Thursday, April 19 2007

Firearms Ownership and Crime Rates

[Seems that the tragedy at Virginia Tech has taken over my train of thought recently.  Don't worry, I'll be tying it all together.]

I had some thoughts in regard to the discussion of gun control and measures that could be taken to prevent a repeat of Monday's massacre, sparked by the discussion here, here and here.  The substance of the debate lies between two general positions, one which says that reducing the number of guns by increasing restrictions on gun ownership reduces violence and one which says that increasing the number of gun owners licensed to carry decreases violence.  Each position insists that it is correct and that the other is wrong.  My position is that both groups are correct, depending on circumstances outside the scope of the debate.  Note:  this is all speculative, as anyone can find the statistics to prove what they want anyways.


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Tuesday, April 17 2007

Thoughts on the Virginia Tech Tragedy

This post may turn out to be unexpectedly serious.  Both my immediate supervisor and one of the secretaries at work have sons at Virginia Tech.  Both are alright, as are their immediate circles of friends (as I understand it).  My bosses' son had a class scheduled in the building at 11:00.  The secretary's son was just entering the building when he was warned out.

Its too soon to draw conclusions from this event, aside from the obvious. This is a serious tragedy. Our condolences go out to all the families and friends of those killed.  There were heroes among the dead, and a few among the living.  Beyond that, not much is certain.

Part of me wants to second guess the actions of all involved.  Part of me realizes that its too soon to do so.  Perhaps when the facts come out we can look back and come to some sort of idea.  But the emotions are too raw to allow anything other than anger or sadness to come out.

While I won't attempt to analyze the events themselves yet, I will take a look at how I and others outside the events look at what happened.  It took a while after the full extent of the tragedy became known before the reality of what happened sank in, but I feel the reflected shock from coworkers with a connection to the tragedy.

I see anger from coworkers, superficially directed at the authorities of Virginia Tech, as if the perfect vision of hindsight should have been obvious.  It's anger at the impotence of being unable to do anything, of not having a perfect solution.

In the real world, there are no perfect solutions.  Everything has a tradeoff.  Imagining that some perfect level of gun control or perfect freedom of self-defense would solve all the problems is a luxury available to those living in a world of ideals.  Everything can be better for a sufficiently defined value of 'better', but no one can agree on defining what 'better' is.

I'm going to go back on what I said earlier.  I will make a statement regarding contributing cultural factors to this incident after hearing in the background a press talking head asking leading questions about gun control to one of the state law enforcement chiefs.


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