08/21/14

Great books: the academic view


Great BooksIn the mid-1990s, journalist David Denby took on a personal challenge to return to Columbia University for a year to take two courses, both focused on reading the “great books” of the Western canon. The results and his observations – along with an entertaining bit of biography about his journey – is told in Great Books (Simon & Schuster, 1996).

I was interested in Denby’s narrative primarily because, in looking through the table of contents, I noticed he commented on Machiavelli and Montaigne – two of my favourite writers. That made me want to read what he says about them, and about others, so of course I purchased the book.

But of course, the book is about a lot more than those two: it covers a wide range of Western writing from Homer to Virginia Woolf. The actual reading list covers almost four full pages at the beginning of the book. It is not a collection of great English writing – the original languages include ancient Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, German, Spanish and one sample of Russian (an essay by Lenin). All, of course, in an English translation.

Surprisingly, there are no works by or excerpts from the great Russian novelists like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. No Latin American, Chinese or African writers, either. But there is a significant difference between a list compiled for reading during a single academic year and a comprehensive list of great books meant to convey the breadth of culture, learning and civilization.

Also, the list is specifically a Western canon, not a world canon.

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06/26/14

The Death of Handwriting?


I almost cried in pleasure when I watched this video; the handwriting is so beautiful. Apparently some viewers have, as Jesus Diaz writes. On Gizmodo he says that it’s:

…a video that caused many to discover autonomous sensory meridian response, a perceptual phenomenon that gives a pleasing tingling sensation. Some said they got it watching people writing. Well, put your headphones on, because this is the mother of all calligraphy ASMR videos.

Okay, maybe it is for me because I was raised with handwriting and still delight in it. Penmanship was taught in school at least for a few years when I was there. In fact, I was in Grade 9 penmanship class when the news of President Kennedy’s assassination was broadcast over the school’s PA system. It’s one reason I can still recall taking penmanship, although I think it was the last year of it for me.

Penmanship taught more than just basic cursive: it skirted the boundaries of calligraphy, trying to teach resistant and recalcitrant students how to craft beauty out of our splotchy letters scratched from ink with clumsy fingers. Control, frugality, grace; things adolescents seldom have in quantity. But somehow, some of it stuck, and even though I lack the grace of the calligrapher in the video, I can still thrill in making those swoops, the lines, to hear the scrape of the nib on the paper.

True, I fail in great part because my gel-point and ballpoint pens haven’t the aesthetic pleasantry of a real ink-and-nib pen.

Diaz also informs us:

It’s a demonstration of a fountain pen—a Namiki Falcon customized by nibmeister John Mottishaw—with crystal clear video and sound, writing with various inks (if you’re curious: Iroshizuku Tsuki-yo, Iroshizuku Yama Budo, Noodler’s Black, Noodler’s Apache Sunset) on Bristol board and Leuchtturm1917 dot grid notebook paper.

I don’t know about you, but even the sight of a well-crafted fountain pen makes my heart beat a little faster. And paper? I’ve been known to loiter in art and stationary shops, fondling the sheets in notebooks, searching for that perfect feel, the ultimate sensation of paper on fingertips that through some osmotic process will encourage me to pick up a pen and dip it in the inkwell.*

Details aside, I find the act of writing itself fulfilling – and watching a master calligrapher at his art even more so, like watching a ballet or listening to a symphony being performed live. And it reminds me that in handwriting there is an enormous cultural heritage we should never lose – can never lose without losing something of ourselves.

But if some muddle-headed educators and some dizzy-wth-digital trustees have their way, our whole culture may suffer from enforced dysgraphia - which Wikipedia tell us is a

…deficiency in the ability to write, primarily in terms of handwriting, but also in terms of coherence.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think that the death of handwriting would be to culture what the death of bees will be to agriculture.
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09/18/13

Should Latin Return to Ontario Schools?


Teaching LatinWhen I was a young lad, all I ever wanted to be was a paleontologist. Dinosaurs were the most important thing in my life until around age 14 or 15. That’s when I barely scraped through my high-school Latin course. After that, my interests shifted to other, more attainable career goals.

Basic Latin was, at least back then, required for a career in paleontology. Greek, too*. My ability to learn languages was, as a young teenager, not up to the mark. I barely passed Latin, probably given a pass by a teacher who felt sorry for my linguistic disability (and didn’t want to suffer me through a remedial summer class).

Which is odd, given that today Latin fascinates me and I delight in reading about it and its etymological influence in our language.  I often spend time online looking for Latin phrases or translations. I happily struggled with some phrases from Livy when researching my book on Machiavelli.

But back in high school, it was more a drudgery than a delight.

According to a 2010 story in the Toronto Star, Latin was mandatory in Ontario high schools until 1968. It started falling off curricula after that.

For centuries, Latin and ancient Greek were staples of general education, and working knowledge of authors like Cicero and Virgil was required for university admission. Latin was mandatory in Ontario’s high schools until 1968.
But since 1994, the number of Ontario schools offering Latin has fallen to 60 from 159 — a 62 per cent drop. Classical educators face a battery of pressures: tight student timetables, teacher shortages, and underlying it all, the perennial accusations of irrelevance and Eurocentrism.

Irrelevance? Latin has a firm grip on the English language, a millennium-and-a-half after the Roman Empire collapsed. As Wikipedia notes:

…a significant portion of the English vocabulary comes from Romance and Latinate sources. Estimates of native words (derived from Old English) range from 20%–33%, with the rest made up of outside borrowings. A portion of these borrowings come directly from Latin, or through one of the Romance languages, particularly Anglo-Norman and French, but some also from Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish; or from other languages (such as Gothic, Frankish or Greek) into Latin and then into English. The influence of Latin in English, therefore, is primarily lexical in nature, being confined mainly to words derived from Latin roots.

Many neologoisms are based in Latin – especially the “classical compounds,” although the word neologism is actually from the Greek (neo-new, logos-word). But that’s just a reinforced argument for teaching at least rudimentary Greek as well.

The Star story goes on to say,

One American study showed that students who learn Latin in high school have average GPA scores of 2.89 in university compared to 2.38 for those who didn’t study any language and 2.80 for those who studied a modern language. Latin students also consistently out-perform on the SAT.

Because SAT scores are paramount for admission at American colleges, in the U.S. “they can’t get enough Latin teachers,” according to Margaret-Anne Gillis, a board member of the Ontario Classical Association and Latin teacher at Barrie Central Collegiate. Two teachers she helped train had their green cards expedited.

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02/10/13

Sound and fury, signifying nothing


Creationists, not local bloggers...There’s a truly great moment in Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth, when Macbeth voices his last, and perhaps most moving, soliloquy about the fleetingness of life, and the meaning of what we do on this mortal coil. Life is devoid of meaning, he says, and our days are as short as a candle’f brief flame. The ignorant march onward, regardless:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5

A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. What does that remind you of? (And I don’t mean in the local blogosphere. I’m talking about the real world.*)

It makes me think of the ongoing attempts by a group of right-wing, anti-science fundamentalists to force the teaching of mythology and superstition in US public schools instead of scientific fact. And, of course, they are always Republicans (what is it with them and creationism?) voicing that idiot’s tale.

Recently, Huffington Post reported on an attempt to both pave the way for creationism in public schools, and deny climate change science (taking responsibility for human activity’s impact on the planet is verboten among Republicans):

A Republican bill that would have paved the way for creationism to be taught in Colorado schools as well as encouraged teachers to deny the science of climate change was killed in committee on Monday, as expected.

What I have always found ironic is that the Republican fundamentalist views are eerily (and frighteningly) similar to the Taliban’s, just with a change in name for the particular Hairy Thunderer they worship. In fact, creationism is rearing its ugly head in even moderate Muslim countries like Turkey with similar arguments.

The Huffpost goes on to note that this has been a bad year for critical thinking in the USA:

…creationism legislation has been on the rise nationally in the last year, with Tennessee passing a bill similar to Kruse’s proposal, and several other states also proposing (though failing to pass) bills to teach creationism. Louisiana passed a “truth in education” bill in 2008. Earlier this year, former New Hampshire state Rep. Jerry Bergevin (R-Manchester) suggested that the teaching of evolution led to the Columbine massacre and the rise of the Nazi Party. Bergevin left office Wednesday after losing a bid for a second term. New Hampshire lawmakers overrode Gov. John Lynch’s (D) veto earlier this year of a bill that would allow parents to object to any part of the school curriculum and allow the teaching of an alternate curriculum.
A recent report found that students in Texas’ public schools are still learning that the Bible provides scientific evidence that the Earth is 6,000 years old, that astronauts have discovered “a day missing in space in elapsed time” that affirms biblical stories of the sun standing still and moving backwards, and that the United States was founded as a Christian nation based on biblical Christian principles.

So much codswallop in so few lines. Obviously Texas teachers use a different definition for “scientific evidence” than the rest of their nation. In fact, it’s different from the rest of the world. But it’s not surprising:

…according to a 2012 Gallup poll, 46 percent of Americans believe God created humans within the last 10,000 years. Only 15 percent of Americans believed God played no part in human evolution while 32 percent believed that humans had evolved, but that God played a part in that process.

So who is the chair of the Texas Board of Ed? A creationist who worries that the schools aren’t forcing more claptrap down the throats of students. The Dallas Observer ran a story with the headline, The Texas Board of Ed Chair is Upset Schools Aren’t Teaching Evolution “Alternatives”. The article included this quote from the chair, Barbara Cargill, (a Republican, of course) made to a Senate Education Committee:

“Our intent, as far as theories with the [curriculum standards], was to teach all sides of scientific explanations … But when I went on [to the CSCOPE website] last night, I couldn’t see anything that might be seen as another side to the theory of evolution,” she says, according to TFN’s transcript and brief video clip. “Every link, every lesson, every everything, you know, was taught as ‘this is how the origin of life happened, this is what the fossil record proves,’ and all that’s fine, but that’s only one side.”

Duh! There is no other scientific explanation to evolution. Just like there isn’t a scientific alternative for gravity, the speed of light, relativity, quantum physics and chaos theory. One side? You can’t have two sides of fact. Creationism isn’t a theory: it’s a fairy tale, like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

In modern science, the term “theory” refers to scientific theories, a well-confirmed type of explanation of nature, made in a way consistent with scientific method, and fulfilling the criteria required by modern science. Such theories are described in such a way that any scientist in the field is in a position to understand and either provide empirical support (“verify”) or empirically contradict (“falsify”) it. Scientific theories are the most reliable, rigorous, and comprehensive form of scientific knowledge, in contrast to more common uses of the word “theory” that imply that something is unproven or speculative (which is better defined by the word ‘hypothesis’). Scientific theories are also distinguished from hypotheses, which are individual empirically testable conjectures, and scientific laws, which are descriptive accounts of how nature will behave under certain conditions.

Meanwhile, in Missouri, according to the Washington Monthly, another republican is trying to foist fantasy on students from elementary to college level. In the Riverfront Times, it notes:

Missouri Representative Rick Brattin, a Republican, has introduced a bill that would mandate schools across the state give “equal treatment” to the theory of evolution and so-called “intelligent design,” which is similar to creationism. Why? “I’m a science enthusiast,” he tells Daily RFT. “I’m a huge science buff.” He’s not, however, much of a Darwin fan.

He’s a fan of science, but not the scientists? He’s so much a science fan that he rejects one of the core tenets of biology in favour of the superstitious, pseudoscience twaddle called “intelligent” design.**

Brattin tells the paper he’s not just another creationist (really!) trying to force the state to teach his religious claptrap:

But his bill has nothing to do with religion, Brattin says. In fact — it is the opponents who are being religious in their stubborn support of evolution.

Nothing to do with religion? Snort. And calling scientists and teachers who support evolution as being “religious” is a canard. Or rather, a logical fallacy.

The good news in this depressing tale of medieval thinking comes in a small story in the Vail Daily, that noted,

Young adults have taken a dramatic leap from faith. These youthful Americans reject the religious right’s bossy, sanctimonious spirit.

Like Pontius Pilate, a third of adults under 30 have washed their hands evangelical politics.

They avoid religious affiliation whatsoever, reports the Pew Forum on Religious & Public Life. Pew polls indicate these religiously unaffiliated “overwhelmingly think the religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.”

The religious right’s political power peaked in the 2004 presidential election.

I don’t agree with that last sentence. I seen little proof that the fundamentalists – the American Taliban – have receded. The last Back in 2002, Slate predicted the “end of creationism” as a political force:

Intelligent design, as defined by its advocates, means nothing. This is the way creationism ends. Not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Hasn’t happened yet. I see the GOP pushing more mindless religious ideologues like Paul Broun into the spotlight to spout their own ridiculously embarrassing sound and fury:

During the 2012 campaign, Broun was most notable in a video segment that went viral when he gave a presentation in front of a wall mounted with a dozen deer heads and complained that evolution, embryology and the Big Bang theory were all “lies from the pit of hell.” Broun is on the House Committee of Science, Space and Technology.

As of Feb. 1, four US states were considering anti-science bills to force teaching creationism in their schools (Colorado’s bill was subsequently defeated, as noted above). But the real keynote in the story is towards the end:

A June 2012 Gallup poll asked some 1,000 Americans nationwide about their thoughts on the origin of human life. The survey revealed that 46 percent of Americans believe God created human beings. Numerous creation science advocates continue to hope that the Intelligent Design theory will make its way into US public schools, though they have not been very successful so far.

With such a high percentage of people who believe in pseudoscience rather than science, it will be difficult to change the current trend towards increasing the mass stupidity. Americans clearly don’t wish to be the pioneers of science, space exploration and medicine in the future.

I think we’ve still got a long way to go before we see the end of this particular idiot’s tale. I see little to hope for in American politics when wingnuts like the anti-science child of privilege, Paul Ryan, gets nominated for vice president. Maybe the new generation of American voters will change that, but I won’t hold my breath waiting.

~~~~~

* Okay, creationists are delusional and don’t really partake in the real world any more than some local bloggers. But they act on a larger stage and have real influence. Creationists join their NRA-gun-toting wingnuts as foolosophers (my comment on the fools of the gun debate is here).

** “Intelligent” design isn’t. It’s lipstick on the creationist pig (or more properly, a lab coat…). But like wearing a stethoscope around your neck won’t make anyone a doctor, calling superstition “science” won’t make it so, either.

Doonesbury cartoon