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Archive for March, 2009

She Loves You, Yeah…

with 2 comments

First, let me say that I’m in the middle of finishing a book, and I’m late, due to the Big PRroblem which is still not entirely resolved–or even sort of, yet–so my posts to this blog may get a little sketchy.

Also,  I have a new book coming out in about a month, called Living Witness, and when it does, I’m going to be blogging at SMP for a week. 

So, you know, heads up.

But a couple of thins.  I still reject the idea that it is part of the job of English courese in elementary school and high school to teach “a love of reading.”  It’s a nice bonus if you can get it, but you wouldn’t ask the math teacher to make a “love of algebra” or  the science teacher to make a “love of biology” as one of the main goals of their teaching, and there’s no reason why English teachers should be expected to take on the psychological reconstruction of their students in a quest that is bound to fail ninety nine percent of the time anyway.

The purpose of taaching literature in high school is to make sure students are acquainted with literary forms and how to interpret them and to provide a (largely superficial) acquaintance with the touchstone works of the culture.  I’m not asking that students read Chaucer in high school.  I’m asking att they not receive a high school diploma without knowing who Chaucer was and why The Canterbury Tales is a milestone in the development of literature in English. 

That last is a lot easier and less onerous than most of you imagine.  “It was the first serious literary written in English instead of Latin so that it could be read by an audience that included a rising middle class of merchants as well as classically trained scholars and ecclesiastics” isn’t that hard a concept to grasp.

I also think that some of you have a very restricted idea of what the Canon is, and Robert seems to think that it includes everything he was asked to read in English classes.

In my experience, high school English classes in most places teach little or nothing of the Canon.   What they like are modern or contemporary books written to be “thoughful” and to “deal with issues” considered “important.”  That is, I think, how we end up with so many high school students asked to read To Kill A Mockingbird, which is a nice enough but largely minor novel with a bad case of Lord  Peter Wimsey syndrome.

Lord Peter Wimsey syndrome is what I call it when a woman writer invents  The Perfect Man–the one she’d like to marry, but can’d find–and turns him into the hero of her fiction.  Atticus Finch is ridculously pefect, and that is one of the reasons why Mockingbird is unlikely ever to actually make it into the  Canon. 

One of the other favorites of high school English courses that’s unlikely ever to make it into the Canon is  Catcher in the Rye, a book whose main virtue seems to be that so many people want to ban it.   It’s beautifully written.  The prose is incredibly clean in every possible way.  It just has litle or nothing to say unless you take adolescent angst to be necessarily insightful, which I don’t. 

But if you don’t mind my saying so, the inclusion of these two books on most high school reading lists is the result of that urge to teach students to “love to read,” mostly by giving them things teachers think they will find “interesting’ and “relevant.” 

It would make more sense to me simply to give students classics, different ones of different difficulty over time.  Classics are classics because people have read them year after year after year.

And no, getting the book assigned in English classes doesn’t turn it into a classic.  If that’s the only way the book is surviving, it will fall out of sight soon enough.

There weren’t even any university courses in English literature in American colleges and universities before the twentieth century, and right up until the 1950s the rule in such courses was that no book was included that hadn’t been in print for at least fifty years.  

You may find Joyce’s Ulysses annoying, but it sold to generations of readers who never had it assigned to them in any class.  And that goes double, or better, for  Dickens, who made it in print for a hundred years before he was ever assigned in a  course.  

Some books have survived because they’ve made an enormous impact on the culture, including on people who have never read them–Gone With The  Wind is one, so is Atlas  Shrugged. 

Robert suggests that some of Heinlein woul dhave to be included, but at least at this point nothing he’s done seems to me to hae risen to the level of all-pervasive public consciousness that pushes books into the status of cultural icons.  And some books that look as if they’re going to make it, because they’re enormously popular when they’re first published, disappear into nothingness a few years later.

Right now, I am so disappointed and frustrated with the contents of high school English courses in all but a very few top-end prep schools that I’m about to scream.  The book my younger son brings home from ninth grade  English make my teeth hurt.  The assignments he’s given just make me tired.  There seems to me to be no point to any of it, and I can’t imagine that he’s actually learning anything.

Last summer, he read The Odyssey.  In translation, of course, but start to finish, and he had a good time with mosters and disasters and all that good old classical swordplay.  Bill read Julius Ceasar to Matt when Matt was only six or so, and Matt still remembers most of it–which means that he knew more of Shakespeare than most of the people he went to high school with.

If I was going to yell and scream about education in  English these days on any level–elementary, high school, university–it wouldn’t be that the offerings are snobbish and dull, or that they’re politicaly correct, but that they’re negligible.

Too often,  English teachers these days are teaching nothing at all.

Written by janeh

March 30th, 2009 at 7:02 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Being Bored

with 3 comments

Okay, let me see if I can clear up a few things here.

1) I wasn’t saying that teachers shouldn’t try to make the material they teach interesting and engaging for their students.  Of course they should.  The ability to do that is the mark of a good teacher.

I was arguing against determining the content of the course by what we think will interest the students.

Basic algebra is basic algebra.  A gifted teacher may be able to get students excited about that, but even if nobody can, we still have to teach basic algebra.

We shouldn’t be including books or excluding them in literature courses because we think our students will or will not be interested in them.  Books should be included in such courses because they are part of the cultural heritage that every student must know.

The fact that some students will choose not to know them–will not do the work–is no reason to stop teaching them.   Some students will always refuse to do the work.  That’s a fact of life.

2) What Lymaree is suggesting belongs in elementary and middle school, not in high school (and certainly not in college).   And that is, in fact, what we do in elementary school.

Personally, I think we’re mistaken.   We can teach technique with The  Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as well as with the latest popular novel, and then we kill two birds with one stone–we teach the technique and we acquaint the students with part of the Canon.

That said,  I think it’s funny that Lymaree chose Raymond Chandler, of all people, as an example.  I think Chandler is a terrible writer, overwrought and pretentious as hell.  I managed to force my way through exactly one book of his, and the second one became one of less than half a dozen than  I’ve ever failed to finish out of disgust.

You wouldn’t have gotten me interested by trying to shove  Chandler down my throat.  You’d have done better with Sayers, but she’s a pedestrian writer.  And neither of these authors present the kind of expanded vocabulary and complexity of sentence structure that we need to teach at this stage.

I do have at least one modern n ovel I think will wok in teaching technique in the sense I’ve been talking about it here.  That’s Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods, which is one of the most amazing extended metaphors out there, and which requires literally buckets of cultural literacy just to follow.

For composition–not for lit–Ido assign that, and it sometimes works. 

But that kind of thing should stop at the eighth grade.

3) As for high school–I don’t think we will ever get most people to take part in the Great  Conversation, and high school is not the place for getting anybody to do that.

Elementary school is for teaching technique, high school is for presenting an outline of the nature and contents of the culture, and of prsenting the basic fields of knowledges, why and how they’re important, and the touchstones of each that broadly educated people should know.

In a sane world, only ten to fifteen percent of students would ever get past this part in any formal way.  Of that ten to fifteen percent, about two thirds will not only be introduced to the Great Conversation, but understand it, and about half of those will choose to continue it. 

And, of course, some of the people who stop with high school will end up both introduced to the Great Conversation and pursuing it on their own time. 

I had a grandmother from a small island in Greece who taught herself to read first Greek and then English and who then became one of the most knowledgable people I’ve ever met on the subject of the classical ballet.  Some people do because they do.

High school, however, has exactly two tasks:  to teach the outlines of the culture and to make students understand what the standards are for including or excluding works in that outline, and that those standards are neither arbitrary or subjective.

Most high school teachers right now couldn’t do any of that to save their lives.

4) Try to think of the teaching of literature in high school (not in college) as an offshoot of the teaching of history.   Practically everything we think of as a result of the “cultural revolution” of the Sixties had occured almost a hundred years before in the Transcendentalist movement–fascination with Eastern religions, utopian communes, free love, you name it. 

In fact, the ideas that gave rise to that outbreak of radicalism and to several since are embedded deeply in American culture.  They go back before the Revolution, and they are in many ways the philosophical underpinnings of–The Scarlet Letter.

Or rather, the conflict between them and the original Calvinist  principles is. 

Good historical novels are always about the way we live now–nobody can write a historical novel in the sense of one that is true to the ideas and assumptions of the history, and that means that the ideas and assumptions are always the ones that exist now, but placed in a different context in order to illuminate them.

Someday, go back and listen to Hester Prynne’s lecture on love and adultery.  If you didn’t know where it came from, and I tweaked the language to be a little less formal, you’d have thought somebody had delivered it in Berkeley in 1968.

5) Robert complained, in an e-mail to me, that it is impossible to talk about The Canon withhout a list of books–but I don’t think it’s that simple.  

For one thing, there are really several Canons, not one.  All a Canon is is an official list of books.  People talk about the Star Trek cCanon as well as the “literary” one. 

If we’re going to use the Canon of Westsern intellectual  history–the most expansive one for academic purposes–it’s going to include nonfiction as well as fiction, history and philosophy as well as novels and plays and poems.  And there’s good reason to insist that it also include some music and some painting, sculpture and even architecture.

Nobody is ever going to learn all that.  Even people like me, who get a kick out of trying, couldn’t do it in a single lifetime.  

For the present half second, what I’m most interested in for my students is that they be able to see that there are other ways to live than the ones they’re used to, and other ways to think than the ones they’re used to–and to be able to put those things in context.

But for my very poorest students, the ones with the crack addicted mothers and the garage in the hallwys, Jane Austen is considerably more of a shock than science fiction (or problem novels) could ever be.

Written by janeh

March 27th, 2009 at 9:40 am

Posted in Uncategorized

A Thought Experiment, and a Suggestion

with 10 comments

Let me through out a couple of statements here and see what you think about them.

Kids really hate math.   All those abstractions turn them off, and practically nobody but math majors likes them anyway.   So, okay, let’s give them some of that if we have to, but let’s concentrate instead on the fun stuff like how to calculate betting odds and weird science statistics.  That way, maybe some of those kids will actually decide they like math and be willing to do some after they leave school.

History is really boring.  All those dates, and all those people from years ago who did stuff that just doesn’t make sense any more.  Kids hate history, and no wonder.   Instead of feeding them all that, we should concentrate on things like the history of rock music or the sexual revolution of the Sixties.  That way, maybe some kids will decide they like history and read it on their own time after they leave school.

Physics is really hard.   Maybe all those concepts were interesting to physicists once, or even physics majors now, but for most of us now they’re just hard to understand.  Instead of trying to force students to understand what’s so difficult for them, we should concentrate on common sense things like simple Newtonian mechanics.

The reason most of you out there will find what I just said to be outrageous is because you think math, history and physics are areas of study that have content students should learn wheither they like it or not, and whether they find it difficult or not.

The purpose of middle school and high school education in math, history and physics isn’t to induce a love of the subject in the students, but to make sure they learn basic concepts and operations.  If they also decide they love the subject, that’s nice, but not part of the goal.

I don’t think the Canon constitutes a “narrow slice” of literature.  It is, in fact, the broadest possible sample of literature, and includes books that could be classified in all of the genres, and plays and poetry as well. 

The decision to teach a book–rather than just to read it–cannot be about how students might love it and be inspired to read more, any more than the decision to teach one mathematical concept rather than another, or to teach one period of history rather than another, can be based on what we think students will like and emotionally respond to.

Almost all intellectual disciplines are difficult to learn at first, and frustrating at first.   We get beyond that point and what began as dificult becomes easy.  At that point, what started out as easy often begins to seem boring.

The long, complicated sentences f nineteenth century authors aren’t “good writing for their time,” they’re good writing.  The problem lies in the fact that our education is reading has been so dumbed down that we don’t know how to function in the face of subordinate clauses anymore.

And yet, being able to read complex sentences, subordinate clauses and all, isn’t a negligible skill.  Someday, take a look at the periodicals of the Victorian era covering things like politics, public policy, even science.  They were aimed for an audience of educated laymen, doctors and lawyers and businessmen who liked to keep up on things on the side.  They present articles so dense, and writing so complex, we wouldn’t expect most graduate students in the field to understand them these days. 

But society was better off when ordinary educated laymen not only could understand writing of that difficulty, but actually sought it out.

Literature does not exist in the curriculum so that we can induce students to “love reading.”  If that was the only point to it, then there would be no point to it, and it would rightly be removed from the list of subjects we expects students to master.

Literature exists in the curriculum because there are certain kinds of reading skills we need students to have, and because it represents part of the intellectual history of this civilization, and therefore presents ideas and works students ought to know if they are to function fully in the here and now.

I’ve never read Jennifer Cruise, but I know why The Scarlet Letter ought to be in the curriculum and I can see no reason, looking online to find out something about the book, why Bet Me should be there.

Like it or hate it, The Scarlet Letter is an extremely important work in the history of American letters.  It represents an entire generation’s attempt to make terms with its history and to fashion a new and uniquely American identity.  It presents one of the earliest attempts to define and negotiate an enduring theme in American public life, one we deal with even now, and even on this newsgroup–the nature of guilt and responsibility, the claims of the head and the heart, the tug of war between the people we now call “liberals” and “conservatives.”

Do I “like” The Scarlet Letter? As a matter of fact, I do.  I read it when I was very young, and on my own, not because it was assigned, and it engaged me and excited me and I read it over again just a week or so after I’d finished it the first time.

But none of that contitutes a reason for assigning the book in a class or making it a part of a curriculum.  If the other things did not exist, it would not belong in school.

What are the reasons for assigning Bet Me to students if the criteria is NOT “they might like it and get turned on to reading other stuff?” 

In other words, if you take literature seriously as an area of study, if you accept that it has content and skills that are necessary for students to learn–why would you assign a contemporary genre novel in class at all?  Most books that fall into that category (including mine) are ephemeral.   They don’t require students to develop or exercise higher order reading skills.  They don’t usually deal with enduring themes or point the way to the development of those themes in the culture at large.

The one case in which I can see assigning such stuff in class is not in a literature course, but in composition, where what you want is a simplified form of some literary form or device to teach to students who have not in fact learned what they should have learned in high school.

Janet did it with a book of mine, and I’ve done it with Terry  Pratchett’s Small  Gods–but that’s not teaching literature, it’s getting students to develop the skills they need to eventually read literature.

Why assign a contemporary romance novel when you can assign Sense and  Sensibility?  Why assign Raymond Chandler when you can assign Crime and  Punishment, or The Brothers Karamazov, or even Sherlock Holmes? 

Those of you who want English classes to be full of your favorite novels are doing the same thing the people who are assigning Judy  Blume do–you’re desperately fishing for something that will make the students “like” the subject.

It’s irrelevant if students like it.

It’s very relevant that they learn it.

Written by janeh

March 26th, 2009 at 4:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Broccoli. Or Maybe Broccoli 2.

with 5 comments

Because I really don’t remember if I gave this title to a post already, and I’m too lazy to look it up.

First, I’m going to apologize to Janet.  I will say in my defense that I anticipated I would have to.  Sorry, I took the “more contemporary” in Janet’s comment to mean, well, right now.   Janet only meant “late enough in time so that there was actually plumbing.”

But something has finally occured to me, and that’s that I think I understand where Robert is coming from when he says that I and other people who teach literature approach reading like “eating your broccoli.”

Here’s the thing–I enjoy what I read, or I wouldn’t read it.  Sometimes I do get into a situation where I  have to read something as a professional obligation, but once I got past graduate school, that happened a lot less than you’d think.  

In general,  I read what I like, and as often as possible I read what I love–but what I love is very rarely genre fiction. 

If I was going to put together five books to take with me to be stranded for life on a desert island, the very first out of the box would be Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, and Jose Saramago’s Blindness would come next.  Even Sherlock Holmes would only make it if I got to take ten instead of five.

But the fact that I like a book, or even love it, isn’t a reason to assign it to students or make it part of a curriculum in  English literature.

For one thing, we don’t all like the same things.   Janet thinks students will like Dickens, but Robert hated the one Dickens novel he was assigned in school.  My sons read Beowulf and Gilgamesh as small children and took to them as if they were superhero movies, but John doesn’t think he’d be able to stand them and wants Faulkner and Hemingway instead.  Everybody but Cheryl seems to think that Silas Marner is an evil plot to murder small children.

I’m not sure it’s really possible to give reasons for why we like something.  I know that several of you have criteria you think you’re using, but I think it’s mostly subjective. 

There’s the issue of the “good story,” for instance.  Most of you say you like a book if it has a “good story,” but what is a good story, exactly?  Robert came up with a set of rules to define that, and some of the rest of you have your own, but the simple fact is that a “good story” is whatever interests you.  It is not an objective criterion to judge a book.

Treasure Island bored me silly.   I could never get all the way through the book, and much as I like Hemingway’s writing, not only The Old Man and the Sea but all his go-out-and-hunt-things novels made my eyes glaze over. 

What makes a “good story” for me are intricate details of personal relationships between characters, a hero or heroine who undergoes a deep and permanent internal change because of the events of the novel,  and a narrative arc that concerns a character’s ability to finally walk out on a person or situation that is harming him.  Or her.

My guess is that what makes me happy when I read would make a lot of the rest of you bored or annoyed, and there’s no reason why that shouldn’t be so.   We don’t all like the same food, either.

But I get the feeling from some of the comments here that some of you think that people who teach English insist on reading and assigning books that they know are boring or distasteful, because those books are “good for us.”

The fact is, however, that part of the reason that people become English majors is the fact that what they actually like, what makes them happy, what they enjoy, are the same books you find boring–and what they find boring are the same books you enjoy.

For better or for worse, the criteria for selecting books for instruction has to rely on something other than taste, or a mad dash to find books students are going to “like.”

In fact,  I think that mad dash is how we ended up with all this Judy Blume.  We need something relevant!   We need something students will be interested in!

There’s something truly insane about restricting a curriculum to what sixteen year olds will be “interested in.”   They don’t actually know what they’re interested in.   Their experience of the world is limited, and that goes for even the ones with the kinds of advantages that took them on a tour of Prague at the age of seven.

Two of my abiding passions at the moment are things I knew nothing about until my early twenties.  Hell, in high school, I didn’t even realize there was such a thing as a harpsichord.

Sixteen year olds live in a bubble of a world with little or no connection to most of the great fields of human endeavor.   Most of them know little to nothing about history, literature, philosophy, muisic, science, mathematics, or those “other cultures” educationists are always babbling about.

At least part of the point of an elementary or a high school curriculum has to be to introduce students to those things.  Listening to an hour of Bach or a lecture on the instruments in a symphony orchestra may feel like being forced to eat your broccoli, but without those things our sixteen year old’s understanding of music comes down to The All American Rejects and  Brittney  Spears.

What’s more, students, like the rest of us, tend to take what is as “normal,” and probably eternal.  One of the reasons the culture is ‘coarse,” as  Victor David Hanson puts it, is that our media is saturated with coarseness.  Just as important, however, is the fact that our students see nothing else.

Some of the best things in life are distasteful at first acquaintance.  Eating your broccoli is a chore until you begin to like broccoli.  

And when your parents tell you that vegetables are delicious, you’re often convinced they must be lying.

If you ask me why I choose to read a book, I’ll tell you that I like it.  If you ask me why we should teach a certain book, or why that book is “good” or “bad,” my likes and dislikes do not, and should not, come into it.

But the fact that there are objectively good reasons to include a book in a curriculum doesn’t preclude my liking it, or even loving it–those are just two different questions with two different types of answers.

Written by janeh

March 25th, 2009 at 6:20 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Polite Society

with 2 comments

I think it’s interesting who does like Obama and who doesn’t–I like him quite a bit, and I remember the Carter administration too well to think he’s the “most informal” president we’ve ever had–but the part of the VDH article that really strikes me is that part about “coarseness.”

I want to be a little careful here.  Lynne Cheney made me a fan of  Eminem.  She went on and on at some hearing about how he sings about wanting to rape and murder his mother, and it made me crazy, so I sought out the song and the lyrics, and it turns out that he’s quite consciously talking about his reaction to his mother’s Munchausen by proxy.  And we all have fantasies of violence we never will and never will want to carry out.

So I’m not going to have the fit VDH does about rap and hip hop and all the rest of it.  It’s like anything else, more complicated than not, and the fact that a lot of it is full of Anglo  Saxonisms of one sort or another is mostly reflective of the lives these people led before they started making music.

And no, I’m not saying it’s all relative, and a world of non-stop cussing, respect for nothing but money and violence, and crack dealers on every  corner is “just as good” as one of stable intact families and respect of education and manners.   I’m only saying that that world exists.  It is what it is.  I don’t think it’s a bad thing that some of the people in it have found a way to express the reality of it. 

Some of them are more interesting than others–there’s a subset of rappers who seem to have nothing to dalk about but “look, I’ve got a lot of mone now and I can get laid all I want,” but there are others (Eminem among them) who are actually commenting on that world and what it means to live in it. 

But the thing about the commercials, I definitely get–if I  have to listen to one more  paean to one more cream or pill that promises to increase the size or staying power of the  American penis, I think I’m going to scream.  I mean,  I know that men are supposed to fixate on that organ to the exclusion of common sense, but I really don’t need to hear about it 24/7.  In fact, I don’t really need to hear about it at all.

The same goes for various feminine hygiene products, the various uses of K-Y jelly, and all those laxatives that promise to do precise things to the color, shape and consistency of my stool. 

Sometimes it seems to me that hundreds of people over hundreds of years worked very hard to end censorship, and when they did the culture didn’t talk about politics or art or even real medical problems.  It just hunkered down into obsessing about sex.

Somebody told me once that no matter what it is you can think of, there’s a branch of porn devoted to it.  And it’s all out there, on the Internet.  BDSM, which used to be a kinky, forbidden and slightly yucky topic in my adolescence, is now the fodder of jokes on prime time TV.  Everybody is into spanking now, except parents, who have mostly given it up.

I’m not much for formality.  I don’t really see the point of elaborate rituals of manners, and one of the things I’ve always liked better about the US than the UK is the fact that we do tend to be very informal.  Informality can be, and often is, a way of expressing lack of deference–you may be a big shot lawyer, or even Secretary of the Interior, but you don’t know how to fix your own God damned plumbing, and I do.

Well, I don’t.  But you know what I mean.

It’s not the informality, but something else that is often lumped in with it that I think is the problem–the utter, relentless leveling of everything and everybody to a standard so low that it becomes less and less possible to imagine anything better.

Certainly that is, at least partly, a result of the culture of money–the last twenty years of a world in which money was the only thing that mattered.  It’s been better to be Bernie Madoff lately than to be the local electrician or the single mother with two part time jobs.  Madoff may be going to jail, but he gets respect even from the media that rails against him.  The electrician and the single mom are just losers.  In a culture that values cash above all else, not having it means your life is worthless, no matter what else you do with it.

But it’s not just the culture of money that’s the problem.  It’s the attitude–and I see it in a lot of my kids–that nobody really achieves anything.  It’s all flash and dash, fake and brag–people say they’ve done all this stuff, but it isn’t really true, they’re just making it up, or faking it with mirrors, or something.

The inherent contradiction of this attitude is such that I sometimes try to entangle it.  The bridges and roads and skyscrapers are there.  The plays are there, whether you think Shakespeare wrote them or not.   The “Emperor’s Concerto” is there.

Unless you think those things were put on earth by God or aliens, somebody must have “done” them. 

I would make this argument and see students accept it, at least rationally–and then come back in the next week with the same attitude they had before.  I think that’s because the purpose of the attitude–it’s all flash and dash, it’s all a fake–isn’t to make a statement about the world, but to provide an exculpatory foundation for not doing anything with the lives they have.

And the need for that exculpatory foundation comes from an inner conviction that they themselves are not capable of doing much of anything of significance.

The point needs to be stressed, because I think that one of the differences between the world VDH longs for and the one he has now is that more people felt that they were capable of going out and doing something with their lives.

I don’t mean that more people felt they could go out and be President, or CEO of Ford,  but that they thought they could be instrumental in the world, they could achieve something.

Part of that was that we offered them achievements we respected that were not  CEO of Ford.  We honored work and saving and sacrificing money and time and dreams for our children.  We at least gave lip service to the idea that to be poorish and honest was a better life than to be rich and corrupt.

There are very few things that my kids are capable of doing that the world wil respect them for, and the kids that do the best are the ones who have found a way to focus on levels of achievement that are actually within their grasp.

In a way, my very poorest kids have an advantage here.  For a kid from the projects whose mother was a crack addict, who was in and out of the foster care system, who never knew if she’d be able to sleep indoors even on the coldest nights, a job as a parole officer, an apartment in a neighborhood without gangs, and two kids who stay in school amounts to one big, enormous deal, one she can be and is proud of. 

For my middle class kids, the ones who end up in my classes because they aren’t very bright, the news is all bad.  The world they come from will not respect most of what they are actually capable of doing, and the schools they come from do nothing to explain why the other things (academic success, careers in the professions) is worthy of respect.

In middle class towns where the school system is geared up to provide a real and rigorous education to the top ten percent and to let everybody else slide–it’s either that, or get seriously sued by the parents of that other ninety percent–academics are a joke and success at them not only looks arbitrary, but probably is. 

And, of course, the kids are scared.  They know they don’t “get” a lot of what they’re supposed to get.  They know they’re not capable of doing what their parents do, and that their parents consider them somehow defective for not being capable.

I seem to have strayed far from the point here, but I do think that all this is connected. 

And I’m reading an essay now on Pico della Mirandola and his ideas on the dignity of man, and I think that what’s happened to us is that we’ve deprived human beings of any dignity at all.  

Unlike VDH and a lot of other people who write about this particular thing, I don’t believe dignity requires tea party manners or relatively formal clothing.

I do think it means living with the understanding that being a human being is something you have an obligation to live up to.

Maybe what VDH really misses is the feeling that was prevalent even in the early 1960s–that being an American is something Americans have an obligation to live up to.

I don’t know if other countries had that same sense of themselves.   I remember when we had it, though, and I think itls largely gone.

Written by janeh

March 24th, 2009 at 5:37 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Means, And The Ends That Justify Them. Or Not.

with 5 comments

Yesterday, I wrote a post so lame I ddn’t bother to publish it.  I know I tend to blither, but by the time I got finished with Luther, Calvin, the doctrine of predestination and all the rest of it, even  I didn’t know what I was trying to say.

I’ve had a bit to sleep on it, though, and I think  I can finally get to the point.

When did we decide that “I meant well” was an excuse for practically anything at all?

Okay, we don’t always put it that way.  The formulation I’m most used to is, “But  I was doing it because I was concerned!”  or “But  I was doing it because I care about you!”

Honestly, there are times when I really, really wish some people would being “concerned” about me and mine.

Somebody posted a note about something else that indicated that he thought that the problem with the therapeautic culture was that it thought it could rely on reason by itself–without,  I presume, God–but the truth is that there is nothing particularly rational about the therapeutic mind.

In fact, if religion were to be defined as the acceptance on faith of a set of unproven and unprovable dogma, the culture of therapy would qualify as a religion far more thoroughly than the Catholic Church would.

But at the base of that culture is that formulation, the underlying assumption that is taken as self-evidently exculpatory no matter how one behaves–“I’m concerned!”  “I care!” 

Let me leave off here the fact that this formulation is almost always a lie.  From what I can see of the forced ministrations of the therapeutic culture, “caring” counts a whole lot less in the motives of its practictioners than power.

My problem is that I don’t understand how we got to the place where intentions were all that matters.

It’s not that intentions are negligible.  If you run over a dog with your car, it really does matter whether you did it deliberately or accidentally because you couldn’t see the do out your rearview mirror when you were backing up.

And our criminal justice system makes allowances for intention, too–that’s why there’s something called “involuntary manslaughter.’ 

I know I’ve gone on about this before, but it’s the one thing that keeps striking me about  The  Situation,  and about some of our contemporary politics, too.

People keep justifying the most outrageous behavior by saying, “But what other motive could I have?  I was just concerned!”

The issue this seems to cling to most closely these days is definitely “assisted suicide,” by which almost nobody actually means assisted suicide.  I’m sure there are cases out there where some guy desperately wants to end his battle with cancer but can’t get a doctor to prescribe enough pain medication for him to take an overdose, but those aren’t the cases that make the news, and for good reason.

For one thing, there aren’t a lot of them.  If there’s one thing a doctor knows, it’s that patient who truly want to get hold of a lethal dose of drugs will usually find a way to do it–by going to multiple doctors, by hoarding pills, by stealing stuff out of other people’s medicine cabinets and sometimes even doctor’s offices.

The cases that usually hit the news aren’t assisted anything, they’re outright euthanasia–the patient who’s been in the coma a long time, the spouse with a debilitating disease.

These cases didn’t used to be difficult to adjudicate–no matter how much you “couldn’t stand to see her suffer” anymore,  you didn’t get to kill her.  Nor were vague assertions that “she’d always said she’d rather die than end up like this” accepted as exculpatory.  We didn’t kill off our old and our sick, period.  No matter what your reason for doing it, you went to jail.

In a way, this sort of thing mirrors a lot of contemporary thinking about God and religion, at least that by people who aren’t really committed to any particular religion in any particular way.

Ask the American public if they think they’re going to Heaven when they die, and almost everybody is just plain sure they are.  All that matters is being “a good person” and “a good person” is “somebody who cares.”  The idea that there are things they can do–lie, cheat, steal, manipulate, murder–that their good motives will not absolve them from engenders first incredulity and then resentment.  Who are you to judge them, anyway?  You don’t know what they feel!

Maybe this is what drives me so crazy about the word “inappropriate.”  The implication is that actions are not right or wrong, but only right or wrong for the situation we’re in at the moment.

And there are certainly areas in which this is true enough.  My husband’s Italian family tended to live emotionally large–fights were noisy and physical, upsets led to screaming and crying. they behave in a way that would be considered outright nuts at Yale.  There is, in general, nothing right or wrong about emotional expressiveness or emotional restraint, only arenas in which each is appropriate or inappropriate.

But lying to someone or manipulating him, especially someone who has reason to believe he can trust you, isn’t “appropriate” or “inappropriate,” it’s wrong.  It doesn’t matter what your intentions are.   It doesn’t matter what your motives are.  It doesn’t matter how much you care. Even if you really do care, and you’re not using “caring” as a mask for a naked grasp for power, what you’re doing is still wrong.

And that,  I think, is the basic assumption at the back of the detective novel.   The genre does recognize the fact that many people do wrong out of what they think are the best of motives, and sometimes out of even genuinely good motives.   It upholds the truth that the wrongness of some actions inheres in the action, not in the intention with which we commit it.

Okay, that was a truly terrible sentence.

And I have to go off and teach.

Written by janeh

March 23rd, 2009 at 6:14 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 3 comments

Having regained some of my equilibrium over the last couple of weeks, I’m back to reading the kind of thing that makes some of you claim that I read the way people eat spinach–because it’s good for me, not because I enjoy it.

But I do enjoy the stuff I read.  It makes me very happy, often, and even better it sets off series of thoughts in my head that sometimes make me happier, and that’s in spite of the fact that I never seem to come to any firm conclusions.

Today, though, I’ve been thinking about the nature of the detective story, as we were talking about it before–and specifically about the fact that the detective story assumes a world in which people are in control of their actions and responsible for what they do.

That is, a world in which people are fully capable of choosing to do evil or choosing to do good.

The reason this has stuck in my head at the moment is that I decided to follow a long month of reading my way through various novels by  Martha Grimes by pulling a thing called Renaissance Thought and the Arts off my TBR pile.  Renaissance Thought and the  Arts is an old book, published originally in the early 1960s, by a famous and widely respected intellectual historian named Paul Oskar Kristeller.

The book is actually a compilation of several scholarly papers published elsewhere, including a two new to the edition released in 1990, and it’s one of those things I have lying around without any clear idea of how it got here.  Sometimes I buy books I don’t read for years.  Sometimes people send them to me.  Who knows?   A couple of years ago, I went through a phase of reading a lot about Florence, Italy, including a couple of really nice histories that show that the Mafia wasn’t invented in Sicily in modern times.

Except, of course, they didn’t call it the Mafia, they called it the government of Renaissance  Florence.

Whatever.  Somehow, I ended up with this book, which is almost entirely about the Italian Renaissance, and yesterday I decided it would make a nice change from  Melrose Plant, Richard Jury and Sergeant Wiggins.

This morning, I reached the essay about the moral thought of the Italian Renaissance, and what struck me was this:

One of the biggest controversies of the time was that between those who believed that the will was the tool of the reason (or the passions) as the individual willed it, and those who thought that the will, having been corrupted by the Fall, could not do good without the grace of  God.

The first thing that struck me is that the roles of changed–if we had a modern discussion of this issue, the people defending the idea that people can choose to do good or evil would include most contemporary  Western Christians, while the people defending the idea that man is not capable of so choosing, that his “decisions” are actually determined by forces outside his control, would be largely composed of people who do not believe, or whose religious commitments are at least not traditionally Christian.

In our modern day argument, the deciding-isn’t-definitive people would cite things like poverty, or child abuse, or the influence of the media instead of the devil to explain why the individual can’t make the choice, but the agents of helplessness matter less here than the assumptions of helplessness. 

In the Renaissance, though, the battle lines were clear.  It was the pagan philosophers who insisted on the primacy of reason over will, who believed that once we know what is right, we are fully capable of acting on that knowledge.   It was the  Christian Church and its philosophers and theologians who insisted, with St. Paul, that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.  Man can know the right and find himself incapable of acting on that knowledge.  He can know what that an act is wrong and still find himself compelled to commit it.

I’ve always thought that the Christian account of the relationship between reason and will made a lot more sense, and was in a lot more agreement with the world as I’ve seen it, than the pagan one did–but it’s the pagan one that gives us the  Enlightenment, and it’s the pagan one that underlies the classic detective story.

The classic detective story assumes that the murder knows that murder is wrong and can stop himself from committing it, but gives in to his irratoinal passions (greed, lust, pride) instead.  The narrative arc precludes any acceptance or assumption that the perpetrator needed help from outside himself in order to control himself.  If he needed that, then his culpability for the crime is diminished, and it would not be justice to send him to jail for life or see him hanged. 

I know a fair number of detective novels at least nominally based on Christian principles–their detectives are priests or nuns, for instance–and yet, in none of them, even the explicitly Christian ones published by  Christian publishing houses, is this matter of the weakness of the will after the Fall even approached.  

What’s more, I know that a fair number of the people on this blog who defend the idea that men and women can be held accountable for their actions because they are capable of controlling them are committed Christians, too, and none of them has ever brought up the problem of the Fall for any such assumption.

I’m not saying that an acceptance of the idea of Original Sin, literal or metaphorical, requires you to absolve men and women of rape, murder and embezzlement, only that it seems odd to me that the modern positions are where they are.  

It does seem true to me that there is a kind of mind body problem going on within each and every one of us all the time–that Paul was right, and so was Augustine, when they cautioned that even the strictest and most serious resolve to do good and not evil might not be enough to compel our actions all the time.

I’m also sure that a society that assumes that people can control themselves and a moral system that makes the same assumptions is more likely to produce people who control themselves most of the time than a society that assumes the opposites of these things–but then, that, too, is an indication of the effect of outside forces on internal decisions.

In case you’re wondering, I have no idea where to go from here, or what any of this is supposed to mean.   It just feels to me like an interesting problem, and one of the ones we’re in the middle of trying to solve while pretending we’re not.

If civilization is not something we have, but something we do–than  I’m having a hard time figuring out what we should be doing.

Written by janeh

March 21st, 2009 at 12:04 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


with 3 comments

First, let me start off this post by saying I’m really beginning to feel that I have to go out and read Silas Marner.  I never have, and it was never assigned in any school I went to, or in any school my sons went to, but it seems to be such an excruciatingly awful experience it’s put a lot of you off the Great Tradition as a matter of principle–and I’m not even sure it properly belongs in the Canon.

That said, there are a couple of differences between me–and Janet, and, I think, Raphael–on the subject of what to assign in elementary and secondary schools, and the first one has to do with why we assign reading at all.

I don’t think it’s the job of the schools to “instill a love of reading,” and in fact I don’t think they can do it in any but the most exceptional cases.   Instructional situations are not meant to instill love, they’re meant to instill information–and in elementary and high school, I  mean information, not knowledge.

The first kind of information such reading is meant to instill is an understanding of how the  process is done–enough in the way of knowledge of form, vocabulary, and cultural context to make it possible for you to read a New ork Times op ed, or an Agatha  Christie mystery, and know what it said.

The second kind of information such reading is meant to instill is a glancing acquaintance with the fact that there is a great tradition, and that some writers and some works are importnt in it. 

I really mean a glancing acquaintance.   I don’t expect your average college sophomore to be able to analyze, dissect, or even fully appreciate “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” or King Lear, but I do expect him to know that there were writers names Geoffrey Chaucer and  William Shakespeare who wrote the works in question, that the first came earlier in time than the last, that the first wrote poetry and the second plays in poetic form as well as poetry, etc. 

Right down to the twentieth century and George Orwell. 

It should not be necessary for an entire college composition class to be stopped dead in its tracks because no student in the room knows what Nadine Strossen means when she says that the new surveillance systems being installed in malls are reminiscent of 1984.

This is, really, a very basic and undemanding level of information I’m asking for here, and it doesn’t require any high school student, in a traditional classroom or out of it, to truly understand Shakespeare, or even William Blake.   It is only necessary that such students know that these people existed and that they are important and maybe a little about why.

On the elementary school level, I’m asking for even less–in American venues, I’d say that a thorough acquaintance with things like “Paul Revere’s Ride” and the stories of Washington  Irving, placed in the context of “these are the things people wrote because they wanted to assert their new identity as Americans” would do.   Other countries would of course have their own literary works of that kind, ones that everyone calling themselves “Italian” or “french” or “swedish” should know. 

Often such works are not canonical at all (over the river and through the woods…), and they’re rarely difficult to read and to understand.

But although  I don’t think elementary and secondary education should be about “instilling a love of reading,” if that was what I was going for, the last thing I’d give them is the kind of work by a contemporary author that “asks interesting questions.”

Okay, I must apologize to Janet here before I start, because I may be misunderstanding her.  She didn’t give any examples of writers in that vein, so I may have assumed something I shouldn’t.

But when  I hear things phrased like that–contemporary writers who ask interesting questions–what I think of is Judy Blume and those endless “young adult” problem novels about  sex, drugs, rock and roll, divorce, sexual identity, high school outcasts, yada yada yada yada yada.

If that was all  I knew of reading when I was in school, I’d have walked out the doors after graduation and never bohered to read anything else again.  Lots of people here think Silas Marner is the ultimate literary turn off.  I think it’s The Outsiders, and all its cousins.

The problem with these books for me is that they are just one more reflection of the therapeutic culture promoted by the school, by parents, by teachers, by almost everybody, until we’re damned near drowning in it.  They ask questions, yes, but they’re always the same questions, and they’re always the wrong questions.

Romeo and Juliet has more to say about the experience of teen-agers in love–the full experience–than any Judy Blume novel ever could, because Shakespeare understood that such love is violent and destructive and only worthwhile at all because it is both. 

Judy Blume and her sister authors would cluck and sigh over all this “inappropriate” behavior and try to urge the lovers to mature “choices,” but none of that is true to the experience involved, and none of it will stop the next suicide pact in your local high school.  Shakespeare might, because anybody who reads that play (or sees it) sees just those emotions they really do feel, instead of being told (tacitly, but bluntly) that they aren’t real emotions at all, or that they’re so out of left feild that they need to be fixed.

People are what they are.  They are not what the therapeautic culture tells them they are.

Don’t get too fixated on individual suggestions–I’m not demanding any one book in particular. What I’m saying is that if you want to instill a love of reading, then you have to give kids real books, books that mirror and even celebrate all that “inappropriate” behavior.

Yes, of course, a lot of The Iliad is men behaving badly, but that’s because men–and especially young men–do behave badly.  It’s perfectly natural, and has as much to do with evolution and hormones as it has to do with “choices”–hell, a lot more to do with evolution and hormones.

In modern society, of course, we expect men to control themselves better than they would have been expected to in the world of the Trojan War, but that doesn’t change their nature, nor does it make pious little problem novels that define such behavior as “understandable acting out” that can be made right by more of those “good choices” true to life.

What good literature presents us with is the full range of human experience, good and bad, moderate and extreme, and insists that it is all legitimate, all of it.  It is all part of being human. 

What the therapeutic culture and all those problem novels present us with is a vision of the “normal” human being that is not normal to human beings, or at least not to most of us.

The first books I loved were defintely the stories about Nancy Drew, but the first books I couldn’t stop reading were by Dickens, and Dostoyevski, and, yes, Hemingway.  The people in them did not have problems, and the books did not ask questions, interesting or otherwise.

What they did do was present me with people, lots of people, different people, served up raw and identified as fully and legitimately human, with “choices” just as valid as the ones made by the people who made the “right” ones.

I had a good friend for many years who had a history of clinical depression, the really awful kind that makes you just sit for hours on end and makes it impossible for you to do anything.  She spent years going to doctors who gave her antidepressant drugs.  Some of them did nothing.  Others did, but left her blank, with no sex drive, and not much ambition.

And then she discovered something: smoking cigarettes not only temporarily lifted the depression, they did so without impairing her in any way.  They were relatively cheap, she could self-dose any time she needed to, and the result was a career on a jet-speed track and a life she really loved.

In a contemporary problem novel, all these benefits of smoking would have been illusions, and our heroine would learn that they were, find the perfect antidepressant drug, and start making “good” and “approproate””choices” in her life.

And anyone with my friend’s particular set of circumstances would, on reading that novel, know that it was a load of crap.  And if that was all she knew of novels, she’d conclude–with reason–that all novels were just loads of crap, just one more delivery system for the Official Version.

If you have to insist on trying to instill a love of reading, keep kids as far away from those contemporary writers who ask interesting questions as you possibly can.

And now, of course, Janet will tell me she eas really talking about Umberto Eco and Joses Saramago.

Written by janeh

March 20th, 2009 at 8:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Some More Learning How To Think, Sort Of

with 4 comments

John says that teaching somebody to recognize whether an op-ed is in favor of abortion or against it, for instance, isn’t teaching how to read but teaching how to think.

And I’ve thought about it, and I don’t agree. 

Teaching someone to disset the op-ed’s argument and decide whether it’s valid or not is teaching how to think, but simply teaching students to recognize WHAT is being said–with that WHAT defined very broadly, so far–is a mechanical process that requires less thinking than it does information.

It requires first expanding vocabularies–it’s remarkable how few words my students know, but it’s even more remarkable how few works even good students know.  What’s even more frustrating is how unwilling they are to ask anyone what a word means, or to look it  up, even on a computer with Internet access.  If they don’t know what a word means, they glide over it and try to “get” it from context, which almost never works, especially when they’re faced with an unfamiliar idea, opinion or subject. 

Nor or these words necessarily difficult or esoteric–I’ve run into brick walls on words that appear nearly every day in any newspaper, even theones aimed at not very educated audiences.

What’s more, vocabulary has to include not just individual words but at least some idiomatic phrases, and some cultural touchstones–not being able to decipher ‘the tower of Babel” or “the ant and the grasshopper” will make it difficult to read in any meaningful sense, which is why the E.D. Hirsch cultural literacy approach works as well as it does.

After vocabulary, in the broadest sense, you have to teach forms and structures.

It’s not that it’s so important to know specifically what English and Italian sonnets are and how they differ, and that McLuhan was, to an extent, right–the medium is at least partially the message, and form frames and informs content.  An essay entitled “A Modest Proposal to Solve Global Warming” is different than an essay entitled “What We Need To Do About Global Warming”–if you can’t recognize that the first title signals satire and that satire does not advocate the things it seems to be advocating, you’re going to get yourself in a lot of trouble.

My students invariably read Katha Pollitt’s “It Takes Two:  A Modest Proposal for Holding Fathers Equally Accountable” as if she meant every word of a set of completely outrageous and unlikely proposals, and respond to essays by Dave Barry with, “Sometimes I thought this writer was trying to be funny.”

Literary form is not simply “nice to know.”  If you want to understand what you’re reading, it’s essential that you be able to recognize what it is you are reading. 

But most of all, I think what students need to learn to read is a wide range of experience in works of the imagination and ideas.

So much of K-12 education has become handing out bromides–hate and elitism are bad!  tolerance is good!  everything is an opinion!–that it can be almost impossible for a college freshman to recognize the fact that they’re looking at a different opinion.

And it’s not that they can’t learn.  When they’ve been presented with alternatives by their schools or by the culture at large, they’ve got no problem hearing what that side wants to say.  On Big Issues, like abortion or gay marriage, where the culture is full of debate, they can figure out whether Author A is for or against, almost entirely because they’re aware that there is a for and against.

Take something a little subtler, however, and you’ll see my problem.  Every term, I pass out a set of short pieces to be rendered into paraphrase, and one of these was a short article for a midwestern newspaper in praise of elitism.

The piece was not difficult in terms of vocabulary, and the woman who wrote it was not shy about coming out and saying what she meant:  there is good art and bad art, the difference between the two is fact and not opinion, and you are a better and more worthwhile person if you can recognize and appreciate the first instead of the second.

Now, you can agree with the sentiment or not, but the fact is that my students can’t even identify it.  Their most common resopnse to this piece is to declare that they didn’t  understand a word of it.  Their second most common response is to say it says that “everybody has different opinons about what is good or bad art, so it’s up to you to decide what you like.”  In other words, exactly the opposite of what the article actually says.

The discussions that follow this reading are fascinating–it sometimes takes me an entire class to convince some students that the writer is saying what she is actually saying.  When they find out that there is an entire tradition in the same vein, hundreds of years of people saying this same thing, and lots of people in the same institution they are thinking it, they’re literally stupefied.

If there is one thing that students do not get in their education before college, it is an acquaintance with contending ideas and traditions.  Rather, back to that therapeutic culture again, we have decided what is “healthy” for them to have, and we push it in a way that implies that nobody anywhere ever thought anything else–or, if they did, it was a long time ago, when people were ignorant.

In other words, I think s tudents, to learn to read well, need to read some things that are not the Official Version of events.  People used to smoke, a lot.  They knew it was bad–no, they weren’t being duped by the tobacco companies; they were calling them “coffin nails” even in the Twenties–but they liked it, and lots of admirable people did it.  Lots of people think that the Warrior Ethic is a good thing, not a bad one, and that war sometimes is the answer.  There are people who reject equality and do no believe it is a good thing.  They have reasons, and arguments, that are coherent.

What I’m getting at, I think, is that we need to provide students with an acquaintance with a broad range of nonfiction, including nonfiction whose ideas we find morally wrong or hateful, and that we REALLY need to provide students with an acquaintance with imaginative literature that rejects the conventional wisdom of the therapeutic ethic–a pciture of men and women behaving throughout the full range of human possibility, almost none of it “sick” just because we don’t like it.

Which goes to indicate that I saw Janet’s post just a few seconds ago, and not only won’t I throw her off the blog–I don’t actually know how to throw anybody off the blog, and I don’t want to–I’ll devote all of tomorrow’s post to why I think she’s wrong.

As for The Iliad and men behaving badly–yes, of course  Exactly.

Written by janeh

March 19th, 2009 at 10:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Learning to Think, or Not

with 3 comments

So–John thinks it’s impossible to teach anybody to think, and Lymaree thinks it can be done, but I  was really asking for a lot lesst–I want to teach people to read.

You can, in fact, teach some levels of analysis–literary and logical–even to students with very little in the way of intellectual talent, but what I want is to teach them how to figure out if the author of the op-ed is in favor of abortion or against it, and whether the article on autism and vaccinations says that vaccinations cause autism or not.

The simple truth of the matter is that even reading simple informative work like this is a matter of decoding not only the individual words, but the form they’re structured in and the allusions they make.

And every writer makes allusions.   It’s not possible to write much of anything without offhand references to something or the other, usually things the writer thinks all her readers will automaticaly understand.  If we couldn’t do that, we would have a hard time expressing much of anything in a short form. 

Noah and the ark.  A stitch in time saves nine.   One if by land, two if by sea–almost everything we read is full of references of this kind, and if they mean nothing to you, the chances are good that you’re not going to understand what’s in front of you.

What’s more, if you don’t know how to recognize satire, if you don’t know what a hypothetical is, if you can’t tell the difference between a presented point of view and the narrative voice–you’re not going to be able to understand much, either.

All these things can be taught, and they’re not just nice to know, they’re need to know.   Most people will have, in daily life, far more use for this information than they will for any but the most rudimentary forms of algebra, if that.  

I could make a similar case for basic history.

As things go now, we teach virtually nobody any of these things.  Our top ten percent, coming to the process naturally, gets practice, the rest get nothing but one more round of socially concerned young adult novels.

As for psychology and the various witch hunts and moral panics we’re prone to–I agree we’re prone to them, which is why  I think we need to be very careful about who we empower to enforce them.

At the moment, in the United States, we have sent out a vast army of “mandatory reporters” armed with think training in anything, little experience with real life, and endless “checklists” purporting to help even the uninitiated identify children and adults with “mental health issues.”

If you’ve never seen such a checklist, you could try this one:


or, almost better yet, this one:


The first is a checklist for ADHD, and includes such things as disliking homework and interrupting when people are talking.  The second is for childhood onset schizophrenia, and although it’s better–hallucinations!–it includes things like “poor attention span” and “inappropriate expression of emotions.”  Practically every kid has a poor attention span for stuff he doesn’t like, and “inappropriate” is in the eye of the beholder, even when the mismatch between environment and expression is very large.

I wonder what a kid from a large, largely immigrant Italian family like Bill’s would do when, thrust into a buttoned-down WASP school environment, he gets upset–do you think he’d act “appropriately” as the school would define it, or in the way he sees every day at home?

The symptom I like best from the second list, though is, “talking to yourself.”  You’d better lock me up.  I do it all the time, and have, ever since I was a child.  I talk out loud, with emotion, and with hand gestures.  I rehearse arguments I’m about to have with people, I rehearse class presentations, I rehearse stuff I’m about to write, and sometimes I  just fantasize, yes, even at my age. 

Of course, the difference between me and a schixophrenic talking to himself is that, if you stop me mid-talk, I’m usually a little embarrassed, but I’m not disoriented, I can tell you what I was doing and I can go right in to a sensible conversation about it or something else.

But–it’s all well and good to say that “professionals” will be able to tell the difference between cultural dislocations and “real” mental illness, but in clincial psychologists are notoriously bad at this, and the people we have empowered to spot such “disorders” in our children aren’t even clinical psychologists.  They’re teachers, nurses and social workers, often  provincial as hell in terms of their acquaintance with the behavior of cultural groups other than their own, who not only rely on the checklists to tell them when something is wrong, but who are often primed to find “disorders” whether they’re there or not.

After all, if T.S. Eliot was right, and all the evil in the world is caused by people trying to be important, then the school nurse who wishes she was  doctor or the teacher who finds her classroom life boring and meaningless are primed to get their personal significance from the heroic effort to identify and save children with “disorders.”  If parents complain, or people who know the child in other contests protest–well, that’s all just denial, and the child needs to be saved from the other people in his life as well as from his disorder.

If a kid is accused of stealing, or running away, or anything else that can be called a crime, he’s got fewer rights than adults, but he’s got rights–to confront his accusers, to present evidence in his behalf, to go before a judge and in some cases to go before a jury.

A kid accused of having a “disorder” has no rights.  The “diagnosis” can be pasted on him at any time and he can be forced to take drugs, spend time in a “secure” mental health facility, or simply to carry the label for the rest of his life on a record that will follow him to every school, college and job he wants.  Never mind making it untrue of him that “anyone” can grow up to be President.

And any attempt at self defense becomes yet another set of symptoms.  A child who claims to have been sexually abused is showing a symptom of sexual abuse–but a child who claims not to have been sexually abused is also showing a symptom of sexual abuse.   It’s a box that, once entered, cannot be escaped.  

We complain, on this blog and elsewhere, of the stubborness of belief in the face of contrary evidence–the checklists are the biggest and most powerful examples of that that we have in our society today.   Once one of these people decides tha the kid has a “disorder,” there’s no way to disprove it, or protest it, or defend against it.   The kid’s very impulse to reject the diagnosis becomes yet another proof that the diagnosis is true.

Moral panics will come and go, but this is more than the operation of a moral panic.   It’s an institutionalized form of injustice that harms hundreds of children and families every year, and that is going to become increasingly dysfunctional as the society around us becomes more culturally diverse. 

If psychology is science, then it ought to be able to  provide evidence of its efficacy at the same level as any other kind of medicine.

If it’s not science–and I don’t thin kit is–then it should not be allowed to wield this kind of power over children.  

Or anybody.

Written by janeh

March 17th, 2009 at 5:34 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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