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Archive for March, 2009

Classroom Privileges

with 4 comments

Well,  I could start this off by arguing with  John about what we need to know–if “reading” is one of those things every student needs, then the great classics of the tradition and understanding how to recognize and decode literary forms are also “need to know” items, for the simple reason that people who cannot do those things cannot really read.  Oh, they’ll decipher the instructions on their TV dinners well enough, but they’ll run into brick walls of misunderstanding every time they try to read a newspaper or understand a political commentator on television, never mind trying to read a mystery novel in third personal multiple viewpoint and being able to figure out the difference between what the character believes and what the writer advocates.

And, trust me, if you don’t think that this kind of inability to read is a big problem  you’ve yet to meet the average American college student.

But that’s a topic for a different time.  The topic this time  is the therapeutic culture and the centrality of schools.

I didn’t say I wanted to abolish schools.  As far as I’m concerned, the present system of schooling both public and private can go chugging on merrily as it has done–BUT.

And it’s a big  BUT.

Here’s how the system works now:

Happy  College requires all of its entering freshmen to have received three years instruction in a foreign language, two years in history, one year in a laboratory science, four years in English, and up through Algebra I in math.

Presumably, it requires those things because it wants entering freshmen to have a certain basic level of knowledge before they start college work.

Student A has been homeschooled, so in order to satisfy Happy College, she must take AP tests,  SAT-II tests, provide portfolios of her work, etc, so that HC can verify that she knows what she is supposed to know.

Student B has gone to Merry  Valley Senior High  School, “taken” all the proper “courses,” and received a  B or better in each one.  Happy College therefore assumes Student B knows what it wants him to know, and requires no further proof of it than the basic SATs, which are supposed to measure aptitude.

Why, exactly, do classroom “courses” enjoy this kind of privilege?  It would be one thing if the people who “took” such courses and got “good” grades in them actually showed up on their college campuses knowing what the “courses” were supposed to teach–but even the colleges don’t expect that these days.  Even the high level first tier ones offer lots of remedial options in math and English–the very basic stuff the  SAT-I is supposed to take care of–because so many of even their suburban good-suburb admits are completely clueless when it comes to high school level work.

A significant blow to the centrality of schools could be leveled just by ridding the system of the prejudice in their favor.  Let the schools go on doing what they do, but their grades would not be grounds for admission to any college or vocational course and their students would be required, as homeschooled students are now, to demonstrate their knowledge and ability on third party, open to all tests or in processes like portfolios or presentations.

 This was, after all, pretty much the system across the Western world prior to  WWI–whether you prepped or not, you got into Yale or  Columbia by taking the college’s admission test and passing it. 

These days, schools no longer certify even that their students have managed to sit still and hand in work more or less on time for four years, which is what their subsidiary “credentialing” purpose is supposed to be.  In some inner city schools, it takes full-scale long-term absence to get a grade below a C in anything.  Any college teacher who teaches students from schools like these knows that they think–because it’s what they’ve been taught–that they have the right to “make up” anything, including final exams, at any time, for any reason, that they do not believe theyshould be held responsible for work if it was assigned when they weren’t in class, even if they weren’t in class because they were getting high and even if the work itself is on the syllabus or up on Blackboard.

Privileging classroom study in the way we do does not help anybody, and it may even hurt our attempts to make sure that students actually learn things.  The privilege was instituted originally to make it possible for high level private universities and the flagship campuses of state universities to admit students from rural districts where the preparation was poor, on the assumption that talented students from schools such as these could catch up once they got to campus.  

The privilege is no longer needed for that purpose.  It would make more sense to ensure that libraries across the country were equipped with enough really good computer equipment and really fast Internet connections to make it possible for kids to find out what would be required on college entrance tests and to access material that would help make sure they learned it–and if their local schools were providing real instruction in those areas, good, and if not, not. 

Once schools were no longer central to college entrance, students and parents who didn’t like the ethos of a school–all therapy all the time! that kid is a pain in the ass, let’s diagnose him with something!–could pick all knds of alternatives to get them where they wanted to go.

After that, maybe we could start taking psychologists seriously that what they’re doing is “science,” and making them meet the same kind of accountability standards that real sciences do.

Because it’s all well and good to say that psychology is “a science and an art,” but right now it’s an art that can get people locked up indefinitely, brand kids with “disorders” that will follow them throughout their lives and ruin any chances they have of significant success in dozens of fields, and split up families who won’t acquiesce in the “diagnosis.”

If these people want that kind of power, then we’ve got the right to demand that they prove it. 

During the series of  day-care-sex-abuse scandals in the 1980s, one of the “tools” used to “prove” that the children had been sexually abused was to present them with anatomincally correct dolls and see what they did with them.  If the children pulled at the genatalia, this was considered “proof” that sexual abuse had occurred, even if the child denied it and no physical evidence of it existed.

The problem was–no studies had ever been done to see how children who HADN’T been sexually abused responded to these dolls.  Those studies were done eventually, after a dozen people had been sent to jail at least partially on the “science” claimed for them–and it turned out that three to five year olds pull at a doll’s genatalia pretty much universally.

In other words, no double blind studies had been done to establish this tool scientifically, the people using it had no idea what it actually meant when the children pulled at the genatalia, and people went to jail because–well, there MUST have been sexual abuse, the kid pulled at the doll’s penis, and it’s science!

Most of the people who were wrongfully convicted of these crimes that never existed are out of jail now, but their lives are ruined, their families have been destroyed, and in at least two cases the state continues to to brand them as “sex offenders.”

And last I checked, Gerald Amirault is still in jail in Massachusetts.  He’s been offered a free pass out of jail if he’ll just “confess” to the “crimes” he’s supposed to have committed, but he seems disinclined to confess to things he did not do.

If we’re going to let the therapeautic culture have power like this–power that cirumvents the Constitution on a number of issues–then I think it’s time we made these people prove that they know what they’re doing.

Written by janeh

March 16th, 2009 at 10:04 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Courses

with 4 comments

It really does seem as if we’re all so entrenched in thinking about education in terms of “courses,” that we can’t seem to get out of it.

To answer some of the questions and comments–no, I don’t think a series of national tests will lead to a national, centralized curriculum, because we already have such tests–the  SATs and ACTs, plus the  AP program–and it hasn’t yet.

And long before such tests existed, colleges and universities devised their own to determine who would be allowed to enter, and that entry did not depend on grades from a school–or even attendance at any school at all.  

A fair number of the men who made the American founding–most of them able to read Latin and some Greek, most of them far more conversant with the classics than any high school senior is expected to be now–never saw the inside of a classroom until they entered college.  

There is absolutely no reason whatsoever that knowledge must be arranged in “courses” that people are supposed to “take.”  John says he would have hated Beowulf, and Robert, if I remember correctly, loves it, but the issue isn’t what a student will love or hate but getting that student to actually learn something.

As far as I can tell, the majority of the content in high school English courses these days is makework without a point, and yet “passing” such a “course” is supposed to certify that the student is capable of going on to higher level work.  In my experience, it certifies no such thing,  Most students arrive, even on “good” college campuses, with little or no understanding that there has been a Western literary tradition, that it has a history and that that history is not random, or even of how to dissect and analyze a work of the imagination.  Most of them know none of the standard literary terms or what they mean, don’t know how to scan a line of a poem or what the basic rhyme schemes are, can’t tell you the difference between a ballad and a narrative, and really can’t tell you the difference between an English and  Italian sonnet.

I once gave a class the assignment to come in with four Italian sonnets for the next class meeting–they came in with reams and reams of sonnets in  Italian.  It would have been funny if it hadn’t given me a headache.

My point is not that English is a special case, but that it isn’t.  There are lacunae like this in every student’s background in every subject.  Colleges and universities have known for a long time that an A in biology, or algebra, or history represents absolutely nothing about what the student knows in any of those subjects.   That’s why they rely so heavily on SATs and  SAT-IIs.   They’re not the best tests in the world, but they give at least a basic idea of what the student can be said to actually know.

But if that’s the case, why bother with the high school course at all for people who don’t want to pursue their education in that way?  Why shouldn’t a fourteen year old who can get a 750 (out of 800–it’s an unusually high score) on his SAT-II in calculus, or biology, or French, simply be acknowledtged as having that particular accomplishment under his belt?  Most of the students who do “take” the “courses” will know less than he does, not more.

My problem is that I don’t see what purpose the schools are serving in these cases.  Yes, certainly, there are people for whom sitting in a classroom is as good as it’s going to get, but there are lots of others–and I increasingly think it’s the majority–for whom it is a waste of time.  

There are, after all, other ways to learn things, and even other ways to acquire a coherent sense of what an educated person should know.  People did it for centuries.   The idea that schools are the “normal” way to learn is relatively new.

I also know one thing.  We’re not going to make inroads against the therapeutic culture as long as we’re funding a huge set of institutions who see their missions as “treating” the “whole child,” and that’s been the rationale in American public and private schools since the Sixties. It’s been as true under Republican presidents as Democratic ones, under liberals as well as under conservatives. 

Of course, what would be even better would be to get some solid information about the efficacy of that therapeutic culture into the culture at large–how good are its predictions about individuals?  (hint:  piss poor)  How effective is it at identifying children with psychological problems (NOT “the children we identify are messed up” but “okay, these are how many children needed therapy or had breakdowns that we DIDN’T identify).

In other words, actual information about whether psychology, as it’s now constituted in clinical practice, is doing good, doing harm, or doing nothing at all.

If you give me a lump of goo and ask me to test it for arsenic, I can run a series of tests that will determine if it has arsenic in it or not.  The results of those tests will not change depending on whether I believe the goo MUST have arsenic in it, or MUST NOT.  My feelings and perceptions do not matter.  That’s science.

In too much psychological testing, however, the perceptions and assumptions of the tester are the whole ball game–the “practictioner” finds whatever he expects to find.

About five years ago, away at boarding school, my older son was sent to the school psycholgist for testing because–well, they “just wanted to know” if he had a learning disability.

And the school psychologist dutifully found a learning disability, bringing me into her office to explain at length how all the tests she’d done “proved” this.

Unfortunately, Matt didn’t have a learning disability.  He had secondary stage Lyme disease, and there were plenty of physical symptoms of it–sitting in class with sweat pouring off him in the middle of winter, literally rivers of it making wet spots on the floor  was one; not exactly easy to ignore–that the school and his teachers blithely ignored.

If he hadn’t come home on vacation where I could see him, and if I hadn’t taken him to h is long-time doctor to get checked out, he could easily have gone into tertiary stage and permanent neurological damage.

But, you know, he must have a learning disability.  That’s the “science” of psychology.

Of course, there’s been no sign of it since we got rid of the Lyme.

Written by janeh

March 15th, 2009 at 7:06 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Yes! Given the Chance, I Cause Even More Confusion

with 5 comments

One of the fascinating things about writing this blog is the way in which, thinking I’m being perfectly clear, I suddenly realize that I haven’t managed to get my point across at all.

Those of you who posted after the last entry tended to concentrate on things like students who want to be carpenters or plumbers, or students who want to drop out at sixteen.

But I wasn’t talking about students like that.

I was talking about intellectually gifted students who want to go on to be historians, philosophers and lawyers.

I was saying that I  didn’t think the centrality of schools was good for them.

Actually, I more and more believe that it isn’t good for anybody, but we’ll get to that later.

I agree with Cheryl that there are certainly people out there whose behavior is so extreme that it might call for a mental health diagnosis, or even some intervention by professionals, although part of me says that the meaning of freedom is in being allowed to go to hell in you own handbasket.

But the kind of thing I’ve been talking about–the medicalizing of children who don’t “fit” the school’s (or their parents’) perceived notions of what they’re “supposed” to be like–occurs not with kids at the lower end of the intellectual scale, but kids at the upper end.

A kid with an IQ of 140 who thinks his classwork is endless, boring, and stupid and doesn’t bother to do the little make work homework because he’d much rather be playing Grand Theft Auto or writing his own screenplay is the kid who gets hit with Ritalin.

And if he’s writing his own screenplay, he’s likely to get hit as well with worries that he’s “psychotic” or “delusional” or possibly “schizophrenic.”  I don’t know what it is about certain of the “helping professions,” but they seem to attract a remarkably high percentage of people with no imagination at all, people who have never done things like heard music in a woodpecker’s peck or seen an elaborate picture in the way the branches of a tree have fallen to the ground after a storm.

What’s more, I’m more and more at a loss to see how traditional schools benefit intellectually gifted children.  Hell,  I’m more and more at a loss to see how they benefit much of anybody, with the exception of that small gruup that enjoys sucking up to authority.

In  my own field–talking literature as an academic discipline here–I have watched English classes in elementary and high schools disintegrate over the years into…well, I don’t know what it is exactly that these people think they’re doing.

Robert complains about being given Silas Marner, but I would kill to have my sons assigned something like that in “English” class.  What they get instead is one trendy book after another–“adventure” memoirs, stories about contemporary teens taking drugs or getting pregnant, and usually one or two volumes to satisfy “diversity” requirements. 

What’s more, what they’re then expected to do with these books is just silly, if not worse.  There’s some point in asking about Lear’s motivations in giving his estate to his daughters and their husbands.   There’s little point in asking about the “symbolism” of the mountain in some memoir about two guys who decide they’re going to climb a dangerous peak even though they know they are going into avalanche conditions.   Once you get past “I can’t believe they were stupid enough to do that” and “if this guy is so conflicted about his relationship with his father that he’s going to put himself and forty people on a rescue squad in mortal danger, he needs psychotropic drugs,” there really isn’t much to say.

If I was going to design a high school curriculum for English, I’d start by assigning The Iliad, Gilgamesh, Beowulf and a few other things along those lines, and then I’d talk about why poetry was the medium of choice in the ancient world and why it isn’t any more.   Then I’d move on to Chaucer and Dante and Shakespeare. Then I’d give a year of American literature that would include James Fenimore Cooper and Twain’s critique of him, John Greenleaf Whittier and Henry Wadsworth  Longfellow, all the way on up to Hemingway and Faulker and, yes, even Poe.

And I’d make sure the papers I assigned were long, required documentation, and dealth with subjects that made some difference in the reading of the work.

But I’m not much happier with the teaching of history, and I think I could design a better curriculum for that, too–let’s say take A People’s History of the United States AND A Patriot’s History of the United States and read them together, talking about point of view and the biases involved in the inclusion and exclusion of material and in the weight of the analyses.  

At the end of a course like the one above, you’d at least know the basic facts of America history and have been introduced to the dialogue on how to interpret that history, a dialogue that has been going on for as long as we’ve been a country. 

What seems to happen in schools, these days, is that students are assigned a course–“English” or “European History After 1815*–they’re given a smattering of material, graded on whether they do what the teacher wants them to do with that material, and then considered by everybody (including colleges) to have “studied” it and to “know” it.

As far as I know, the only students being held to account for whether or not they actually know this material are the ones being homeschooled, because, lacking the automatic credentialing system provided by schools, they have to produce some proof of what they’re supposed to have learned.

If, therefore, what we want is for students to actually know some particular things by the time they get to university–why is this the system we’re using?  The universities know that the students they admit don’t usually know the things their transcripts say they’re supposed to, but it’s as if we’re all in a dance whose steps were set so long ago nobody dares to question their validity.

I’m not advocating abolishing schools.  Certainly, as Lymaree says, they ones we have now serve other functions that parents might want to avail themselves of.

What I’d suggesting is removing the school as the default mode–the “normal” path–for learning. 

Rather, let’s find a way for students to demonstrate what they’ve learned–English, history, philosophy, math–right up to university level, no matter how they’ve managed to learn it.

When  I was seventeen,  I had never taken a course in medieval literature, but I could read middle English, I’d made y way through The Canterbury Tales in the original, I’d read a ton of stuff on  Christian iconography in the works of Geoffrey  Chaucer, and I could probably have passed a college course in the subject in my sleep.

But since I had never taken a “course,” it was assumed by everybody and anybody that I didn’t really know anything about the “subject,” and of course in college I had to sit through a semester of this stuff just to get a grade to “prove” I knew it.

I want to eliminate the semester.  I want to find a way to render schools just one of many options for ALL  students, maybe especially the ones on their way to university. 

It’s intellectually gifted students who are in the most danger from the therapeutically oriented regime now in place in most schools, both because they just don’t think like other people, and because a certain subset of them just isn’t inclined to put up with too much bullshit.

Written by janeh

March 14th, 2009 at 8:13 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Centrality of Schools

with 4 comments

THERE’S a title calculated to turn off any lurker who might fight his way over here.  Or hers.

But I’m going to try to backtrack a little here.

I agree with Cheryl that there has to be some way to insure that most people at least get the chance at a basic education, and that means that there are going to have to be schools, and probably some version of public schools.

But it seems to me that, as late as when I was growing up, “school” was something people did for a very small part of their lives and then never thought of again.  It was admitted to be an anomalous case–the real world was not like school, and what happened to you in school was not particularly important, because actual life ran on other rules and assumptions.

It further feels to me that, somewhere since the 1960s, that assumption has changed.  Now we tend to think of school as the default mode, the norm for the rest of life, and any problems a kid may have in school, academic or social or otherwise, become crises that must be addressed by aggressive action.

To go back to the example I brought up before somewhere, only a school would think that a teen-aged boy who liked being a slob and hated doing homework had some kind of “disorder” that required “therapy.”  If that same kid has a job at Wal-Mart or Stop ‘n’  Shop, his manager will bitch at him until he looks neat enough for the customers and won’t assign homework at all–and he’ll get paid, giving him something of an incentive to keep his shirt tucked into his pants.

The psychomedicalization of childhood and adolesence requires a set of assumptions that would be perceived as lunatic outside of schools–that it is “normal” for children to be willing and able to sit still for long periods of time at small desks all facing forward; that any “healthy” child wants to be neat and clean at all times and never wants to get dirty, or enjoys it, or doesn’t care;  that faced with adults who order one about and don’t seem to like him, a student’s “rational” response will be to do what they tell him and try to make them have a better opinion of him.

All of those assumptions are, quite frankly, wrong–they describe nothing true about most human beings.   I’m considerably older than a teen-ager, but I know how I respond when people try to order me around–if they’re paying me, I may just put up with it, but even then, I push back.  And I can push really hard. 

Any look at any website purporting to describe the “mental health issues” of children and teenagers will throw up a stunning array of behavior deemed symptomatic of psychiatric distress that the rest of us would call normal–because it is normal.  

“Oppositional defiant disorder” is only a “disorder” if you think it is somehow abnormal for teenagers to rebel against life in general and to resist authority.  I suspect that it exists for one reason only–because the courts have shown little patience with juvenile authorities whose basic attitude is, “it’s a child, so I get to lock it up for any reason I want to.”

Psychology enjoys enormous prestige as “science,” and it has been used successfully to circumvent due process and basic rights protections for children and teenagers.  The SCOTUS  put a stop to jailing teen-aged girls for getting pregnant somewhere in the early Seventies,  I think, so now we have  ODD to “diagnose” them with and then it’s okay to jail them on that, since we’re only trying to help.

When I  say it’s time to ditch the centrality of schools, I mean it’s time to go back to seeing schools for what they are–UNusual environments, whose norms cannot provide a basis for judging behavior in the real world.

And the first thing we need to do to do that is to reduce the power schools have gained over the lives of those children and teen-agers.  At the very least, there should be due process protections for children, teenagers and parents who resist the use of psychotropic drugs, and we should end the practice of allowing such resistance to be “evidence” of the childs disorder or the parents’ incompetence.

The next thing we need to do is to provide alternatives–if the reason for having schools at all is to make sure children learn a certain set of things at a certain level, then it’s not clear that schools are doing all that good a job to begin with.  

In 1930, the large centralized school where everybody did the same thing at the same time made a certain amount of sense.  We had a large population to educated and not a lot of alternatives for how to do it, and what alternatives there were were expensive.

With the Internet, the availability of courses (and good ones) on audiotape and DVD, and a system of standardized tests already in place to judge achievement, it’s unclear to me why we should see “big bunches of kids sitting in small rooms all listening to the same thing at the same time” as the default position here.  

Somebody–it may have been Charles Murray–has suggested that there should be a set of national tests that any student could take at any time–think you already know enough about algebra?  take the algebra test and your score is your grade, whether you’ve ever been in an algebra classroom or not–and colleges and employers could decide which tests passed at which level constitute the prerequisite for getting admitted or getting the job interview.

I know a fair number of kids who would do better under such a system than they do under the one we have now, and at least two who could have taken SAT-II tests in fairly advanced mathematics while they were still in grade school.  My two would almost certainly have aced any test in English or American literature pitched at a high school level, and I think my younger son could probably do fairly well on a literature AP exam even now.  

Why, exactly, are we putting any of these people through year after year of being forced to sit still and be good while even the teacher at the front of the classroom knows less about the subject matter than they do?

In case you think this is an issue that affects only gifted children, I think it would work at the other end of the talent scale, too–what good are we doing the child who can’t grasp the elementary concepts of algebra when we stick him in a room full of kids who can and demand that he “buckle down” and “study”?  Give him an interactive program he can do at his own pace, and he might actually learn something.

The bottom line, for me, is that schools are the wedge for the psychotherapeuticization of everything–I wonder if that word is longer than antidisestablishmentarianism.  Maybe not.

If we’re going to save th is culture from the gross stupidity of that particular approach to human nature, getting rid of the wedge, or marginalizing it, is the place we have to start.

Written by janeh

March 13th, 2009 at 7:37 am

Posted in Uncategorized

A Few Notes on the Culture of Therapy

with 9 comments

So, here’s the thing–I think the problem with the therapeutic culture is bigger than excusing murderers because they couldn’t help themselves.  If that was all this strain of the culture was doing, it would be far more benign than it actually is.

What it’s mostly doing, however, is redefining undesirable personal traits–especially in children–as somehow “pathological.”

The most notorious instance of this is in the use of  Ritalin to treat “attention deficit disorder” and “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,” which may actually exist on some level–and I’ve heard stories from parents with children whose behavior is apparently extreme, so I don’t rule it out–but in practice is usually foisted on a kid (almost always a boy) who is either not much interested in paying attention to class and homework and is thereby bugging his teachers, or doing the same and giving his middle or upper middle class parents the vapors that he won’t get into a “good” college.

To get back to one of my favorite points–the fact that you can learn more about human nature, and human psychology, from literature than you ever will be able to from a psychology textbook–Mark Twain knew better, and we should know better, too, but we don’t anymore.

Young boys have lots of pent up energy.  They almost always would prefer to be outside doing something than sitting in a classroom studying stuff that bores the hell out of them.  And they are often bored.  That’s why  Tom  Sawyer spent so much time skipping school, and  Tom  Sawyer’s people had a single prescription for his “problem”–he should grow up.

These days, though, a boy who is bored and restless in class isn’t just a boy, doing what boys do.  He has a “disorder,” and if his parents resist putting him on a daily does of speed to “fix” him, they’re likely to be turned into the juvenile authorities and forced to dose him.  Never mind the fact that this has been one of the largest pharmacalogical experiments in history and we as yet have no idea how taking speed for a decade while your body develops will affect you in the long run.

It goes beyond Ritalin and ADHD, though–remember rebellious teenagers?  They don’t exist anymore.  There’s “oppositional defiant disorder” instead, so if your sixteen year old hates your politics and won’t let anybody tell him what to do, he’s mentally ill and can be required to attend therapy sessions to “manage” his “disorder.”

The best one I’ve ever heard, though, is this:  it’s a symptom of “mental illness” in young boys and adolescents if they’re slobs.

I’m not making that up.

You throw the kid in the bath in the morning, you dress him in nice clean clothes, you make sure he looks beautiful and you send him out to the bus stop or drop him off at school–and, of course, by the time he hits home room, his shirt has come out of his pants, his socks are down around his ankles, and he’s somehow acquired a weird mustard yellow stain on the right leg of his pants.

This, I’m told, is a “symptom,” a sign of schizophrenia, even–not caring about your appearance is a big indicator of “mental illness.” 

As far as I can figure out, my father was “mentally ill” as an adolescent by this criteria, as was my brother, my husband, and both my nephews.   All the adlescent male characters in literature at least through the 1950s were similarly mentally ill, as were most of the ones in movies and on television. 

If you point out the silliness of all this to people committed to the therapeutic view of reality, you get told that it’s all about extremes–you have to look for the “extreme” cases.

But “extreme” is in the eye of the beholder, and what looks extreme to one person does not look extreme to another.  A lot depends on how you define the “problem” you’re looking at.   If I’m primed to see adolescent boys as immature slobs who ditch class and homework for videogames if they get half a chance, then all I’m going to “see” when they do that is a normal kid who needs to mature some, or even a lot, and get his act together.  If I’m primed to see a “pathology,” on the other hand, then a few weeks of bad hair suddenly become a “symptom.”

What really bugs me, though, in all of this, is the extent to which predominantly female behavior has been defined as “normal,” leaving what boys do naturally as “pathological.”

Girls commonly sit still in class and pay attention.  Girls commonly care desperately about their appearance.  Girls tend to like to make nice to authority and make a show of doing what they’re told.

What the therapeutic culture seems to want is for boys to act like girls–and if they don’t, then there must be something wrong with them.

Back to Mark Twain again, in literature we know better.  The rebellious adolescent has been a staple of every literary tradition since the beginning of time–a sure indication that what we’re looking at here is completely normal.  In no literature anywhere are adolescent males portrayed as polite, obedient neat freaks who want only to do their homework well and make their teachers love them.

Yes, okay, I know, individual girls and individual boys are often more like the other gender than their own.  But my point remains, I think, valid.  The therapeautid culture defines as “normal” a set of traits largely only normal in female children and adolescents, and brands anybody who strays from those traits as “ill,” and not only as “ill,” but as needing to be fixed, forcibly if they or their parents will not cooperate.  

Okay, I’ll admit it.  My animosity to this goes even further.  It’s not just that the therapeutic culture defines female behavior as “normal,” it’s that it defines as normal the behavior of the kind of female I never could stand even as a child.  Prissy, obedient, eager to suck up to people in authority, obsessed with appearance over substance, unimaginative and conventional–the perfect picture of the sort of girl who Gets  Good  Grades because she’s so utterly unoriginal she doesn’t threaten anybody, ever. 

Of course, some of this is the triumph of the culture of the school–as school coming to be seen as something “normal” that most of us do most of the time, for most of our lives.  Even many workplaces have been redefined as school-like, complete with regularly scheduled report cards called “performance reviews” and the expectation that middle management will be obedient and conventional, if it wants to stay employed.

Maybe the other problem with this is that it seems to me to be so insidious.  Our elected representatives are not installing laws to implement these ideas–if they were, there would be some public discussion of them.   Instead, these are the trends and fads in teachers’ colleges and schools of social work, and they’re implemented as departmental policy in public institutions.  You’re unlikely to know what’s going on until you crash right into it. 

I don’t know how it can be undone, or if it can be undone, but lately I’ve thought that I might know a place to start trying.

Maybe it’s time to eliminate the centrality of schools.

And more on that later.

Written by janeh

March 11th, 2009 at 5:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized

It Would Be Spring if it Would Just Stop Snowing

with 4 comments

Okay, that was unfair.   It snowed yesterday for about an hour and a half, then stopped, then snowed for another hour and a half, and it didn’t stick.  But it was still annoying, especially as we’d had all the heat off for two days, then had to put it back on, then turn it off again…

Okay, never mind.  Back to novels vs genre novels.

I still say the novel is something, designed to suit a particular purpose.  That may not be a purpose you’re much interested in–the way we live now, the full range of human nature–but that’s what a novel does and what it is for, and it is a good novel or a bad novel based first and foremost on whether it serves its purpose.

Once again leaving out science fiction here–because as far as I can tell, SF people think SF is everything–genre fiction is usually designed to do something else altogether, and n ot necessarily the same something else for every genre.

Genre mystery fiction is first and foremost a declaration in favor of civilization in the basic sense–of the rule of law, the rejection of random violence, and the importance of intelligence and the use of reason to solve problems and keep us all going.

Look back at the classic detective fiction and you’ll find that that definition fits–Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers,  Rex Stout, even  Dasheill Hammet.

There are exceptions, of course–Mike Hammer comes to mind–but the exceptions, at least at that period, are not so far from the core as they might at first appear.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with what a genre novel is, it’s just that, in order to fulfill its purpose, it may–and I think it often does-have to jettison some of the qualities of a novel.

For one thing, such a genre mystery is almost required to present a world the background of which is largely static.  When a change occurs in such a world, that change is almost always for the bed–it’s a murder, for instance–and a good part of the story from then on out is engaged in getting rid of it so that life can go back to being what it was.

This is not an entirely wrongheaded view of the way the world works.   In more areas than we like to admit, nothing has and nothing will ever change.   Human nature is fixed by genetics and evolution.  The therapeutic society is wrong.  We will never get rid of “addictions,” or “self destructive behavior,” or envy, jealousy, violence or greed.  None of these things is a “pathology” that can be fixed with therapy, drugs, or anything else.  All of them are a part of being human, and we’re more likely to have the poor no longer with us than the human drive to be stupid in pursuit of selfishness.

The problem, of course, is that in order to provide a framework for this particular insight in a very short book, a lot of things that do change have to be largely ignored, or somehow acknowledged and made to look as if they don’t actually change.

Miss Marple has some interesting little speeches about change over the years, but most of the changes that actually occurred in British society never made it into either the Marple or the Poirot books, and the New York  City of Nero  Wolfe is frozen in time from the beginning of that series to the end.

The genre murder mystery requires not only a relatively changeless society, but a relatively changeless socity of a certain type–that’s why somebody like Hitchcock, steeped in modern psychological theories, never produced one.  The world of such a mystery is first and foremost one in which human nature is assumed not to change in any significant way, and assumed not to be changable.  Second, it is a world in which people are assumed to have the power to direct their own actions–habits are strong, but they’re not “addictions,” they’re not beyond the power of the person to manage or control; drives like greed and lust are strong, too, but indulging them is assumed to be a decision, consciously made, and within our control if we want it to be.

The genre mystery makes no sense in a world in which human behavior is considered to be deliberate only when it is good, and assumed to be beyond the conscious control of the perpetrator when it is anything else.

In the therapeutic society, eating broccoli and broiled fish for dinner, studying hard for your chemistry exam, and carefully putting away a tenth of your income every month in savings are “choices.”  Eating fifteen taco bell tacos and a giant sized Coke for dinner, ditching your homework for yet another Renaissance Fair, and blowing your entire paycheck (including the rent money) on lottery tickets are evidence of “addictions.” 

That’s why the anti-drug programs run in so many schools are so annoying, and so infuriating to so many teenagers.  “We’re just trying to help you make good choices!”  the “facilitators” of these things cry–but, of course, they’re lying.  They’re not interested in their students making “choices” at all, since there is only one right choice, and that is not to use recreational drugs. 

There are plenty of studies out there purporting to show that kids who take these drug programs are actually more likely to use drugs than kids who don’t take any program at all, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it were true.  You’re not free unless you’re free to make the wrong choice, and that little insight occured to me before I was ten. 

The world of the classic detective novel is a world in which people make decisions which they were fully free to reject, not one in which they are driven by blind forces over which they have no control without ten steps and rehab.

Maybe the real reason why nobody publishes this stuff any more–or few people publish little of it–is that for readers who have grown up in the therapeutic ethos, for anybody under the age of thirt-five, say, the assumptions of the genre mystery would make no sense.

Written by janeh

March 10th, 2009 at 9:13 am

Posted in Uncategorized

A Few Things About the Realities of Publishing

with one comment

Okay, I’ve looked at the comments, and I think there are a few things I need to straighten out here.

First, for those of you who wandered in here not because you already read my books, I already have a book contract with a major New York publishing house, St. Martin’s Press.  They also publish  the Stephanie Plum books, and they’re very nice people, and I love them.  They put out the Gregor Demarkian books.

The problem with getting a classic mystery published is the definition of classic mystery.  It’s not just that Christie or Sayers are “fair play,” but that they’re thoroughly and uncompromisingly genre and nothing else.  There’s not a load of character development–in fact, in some of them, there isn’t any–and there’s no reference to social or political issues.

A standard Christie is 90,000 to 120,000 words long, and it consists of the puzzle, period.   There are no side plots, no complicated ironies, nothing but pretty much stock characters and the Great Detective.  Murder, investigation, solution, over.

Mysteries published these days–and I’m talking about detective novels, not “crime” fiction, but it suits that, too–are expected to be much more like “real” novels.  Character development is key, side plots are endemic.

Every  Gregor  Demarkian mystery contains not only the mystery, but usually at least one or two side plots centering on the suspects and another centering on the continuing story of Gregor and Bennis and Cavanaugh Street.  Any random Poirot or Marple contains the mystery, and neither detective is developed at all except to get older and frailer as the books go on.

It’s this second thing that publishers don’t want now–if they’re going to publish a novel, they want to publish a novel.  Standards are higher for the genre as a whole in areas like plot development, character development, and complexity of theme.

I can read a Christie in two hours flat, assuming I’ve got the two hours to sit and do it.  I can’t read a Dennis Lehane even in three times that time, and a  P.D. James or a Ruth  Rendell can take me days.  There’s just a lot more there, a lot more I have to pay attention to.

There is no question in my mind that P.D. James is a better writer than Agatha Chrstie, on every level.  But grilled Dover sole is a better food than cotton candy on every level, and yet there are times when I want cotton candy. 

There are books published these days that do in fact have the sort of skeletal construction of a  Christie, but almost all of them are “cozies.”  In spite of her  rep, Agatha  Christie never wrote cozies.  A cozy is first and foremost cutsey–people have weird names, and everything is jokey, and there are big arguments over things like Cutest Christmas Tree  Constests and Possum Pie Bakeoffs.

Cozies drive me crazy, and I can’t read them at all.  And they can often rack up decent sales, so major publishers publish them.  I don’t know if classic detective novels could do that at this point–rack up the sales, I mean–but even if they could, the simple fact is that editors and publishers now demand books that are far more sophisticated. 

Beyond that, there is the issues of print on demand (POD) and small publishers.  The world is changing, of course, but it remains the case that you do not want to release anything POD if you want a career.  Oh, I suppose if you’re Stephen King you can do what you want and nothing much will hurt you, but the tag of “self published” is the kiss of death for most ordinary writers.  It tends to make people important to us–reviewers at the major print organs, for instance, and book buyers for the major bookstore chains–think that we aren’t “real” writers at all. 

A book published POD, like any other self published book, is not eligible for any of the prizes given out for writing–no, not even the Edgar.  It isn’t considered a qualifying publication to gain entry to any of the professional writers organizations.  

Self publishing is a little like, um, cooties.

Small presses are fine, of course, or at least some of them are–companies have reps of their own–but I’ve had experience with those on and off over my life, and what I’ve found is not only that they don’t pay very well, but that they often don’t actually send the money when the time comes.  Of course, major publishers do a fair amount of that last thing, too, but the major publishers actually have the money they’re not giving you, and small publishers sometimes don’t.  

This brings me to the format problem–UI had thought that what I would do with a book I published online was a) make it printer friendly so that you could run it off and read it like that if you  wanted and b) make it available both chapter by chapter and, when the chapters were done, in total in one fell swoop.

That seemed to me to cover all the bases, except, of course, that a book you printed out would be on big annoying paper instead of a small format like a paperback.

Anyway, I have no idea why  I’ve started to think about this now.  I’ve got enough to do, and more keeps coming in every day, and I’ve got a book to finish that is definitely going to be late.  And there are lawyers coming.

But, still.  I think it’s an interesting idea.   And I want more Christie to read.   There gets to be a point where reading the books over and over and over again doesn’t quite do it.

Written by janeh

March 6th, 2009 at 7:36 am

Posted in Uncategorized

A Proposal

with 9 comments

So, I have a question.

I was thinking that, when I finally finish this book I’m working on, I’d post to the web site–not the blog–one of these things I work on for fun that I know no modern publisher would ever touch.

That is, fairly straightforward fair-play classic detective stories, complete with amateur detectives and that kind of thing, no politics, no philosophy, no anything except the exercise of it.

And I’d publish them one chapter at a time, at a cost of say a quarter a chapter.

Would anybody out there pay for that?  I’m not just talking about people on the blog, but people that people on the blog know–IS there a market for classic detective stories at all?

Okay.  That’s all for now.

Written by janeh

March 3rd, 2009 at 12:12 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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