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Even More Drifty

with 8 comments

Okay, so maybe just random today.

Let’s start with:  dead men talking.

What made me think of this is that there’s a new Toby Keith song out there, called “Bullets in the Gun,” in which the ballad is sung by the guy who gets shot in the last verse.  The video is a little better, since the guy singing still ends up dead but the woman he’s with gets away.

Okay, I like this thing.  It’s overwrought as hell, but overwrought the way medieval ballads are–a story song where everybody dies.  It’s practically a tradition in English.

It started me thinking, though, about how much there is ought there narrated by dead people.  The most famous of which, of course, is Sunset Boulevard, where the guy is not just dead but–as my older son put it–face down in the pool.

What gets me is that, as a literary device, it seems completely normal–at least, it seems so to me.  I never find myself questioning how this guy is talking.  The idea that somebody could tell you his story while freshly dead seems completely natural.

I don’t think this is just because I’m used to the device.  I wasn’t always used to it, and yet I don’t remember ever being surprised by it.  I do remember thinking it was odd when a teacher in college made a big point of the dead guy narrating in Sunset Boulevard.

Maybe other people are bothered by this and I’m not?  If so, I wonder why not?

The other thing has to do with something Robert said sort of offhandedly about something else.

I once said here that, in terms of the Great Conversation (the long centuries of intellectual thought, in art and philosophy and science and history and whatever) that makes up Western Civilization, Western human beings talking to each other down the centuries about the things that matter to being human–

Okay, I could write a longer sentence than this one is turning out to be but it would be hard.  You catch my drift.

In terms of the Great Conversation, only about ten percent of the school aged population is even capable of doing the intellectual work that would be necessary to that kind of an education.

Well, Robert said, half the ones capable aren’t interested in doing it.

But here’s the thing:  I think they are.  I think they’re just not interested in doing it in school.

There’s a kid like this at our place this term–not a remedial kid, obviously, but a kid who is passionately interested in all the stuff you can through at him, but who has absolutely zip interest in taking college courses in it.   He’s even interested in talking about it.  He’ll read his way through Nietzche and Plato and even Castiglione.   He can give an off the cuff analysis of something like “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” that I’d have been happy to hear from a grad student.   He’s even overjoyed to find people who also like the stuff to talk to about it.

He just doesn’t want to do it in a classroom.  In fact, he seems repelled by the idea.

I might find this more curious than I do if it weren’t for the fact that I’ve got two sons who are very similar, and the younger one is very similar. 

The older one will at least put up with the routine.  The younger one wants nothing to do with “all that,” by which he seems to mean having to sit still in a room at a desk for long periods of time and listen to “idiots.”

Okay, he’s always been smarter than most of his teachers, and surrounded by people who were also smarter than most of his teachers, and he’s an adolescent.

But I’m beginning to sympathize here.

Maybe it’s just that Matt’s in his senior year, and I’ve been at this a long time, but I’m increasingly appalled at what counts for a college education, even in good places, these days.

It’s not just that the approach to the Great Conversation is fragmentary, it’s that it’s often nonexistent, and when it does exist it seems to be used to teach platitudes of one kind or another. 

Or used as decoration.

Maybe it’s just the set up itself that’s become out of date or worse–maybe it’s just that there is something about sitting in a room at a desk while somebody lectures you and then taking a test on it that’s the wrong way to go about this.

More and more often I feel that the point to school these days–not just to college, but to high school and elementary school–is not knowledge, and not introduction to Western civilization, either, but to inculcate certain mental and physical habits:  sit still, be orderly, follow directions exactly, be as little out of the ordinary as possible.

I finally got my hands, recently, on a book I’ve been after for over a year:  Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology.  I haven’t read it yet, and I’m not likely to get to it any time soon.

And, okay, I’ve forgotten the name of the author and it’s in the other room and I’m lazy this morning.  It’s Saturday.

But I did look through it, and one of the things I found was a long section on ADD and ADHD–which includes both all my problems with drugging ten year olds because they won’t pay attention in class, to asking some serious questions about whether or not the syndrome actually exists, at least as its been commonly defined in schools.

It surprised me, because I’ve always understood–at least from the lectures I got from administrators–that there was one of those scientific consensuses around the existence of ADD and ADHD, and that I was being a know-nothing jerk to think that the whole thing sounded to me like nothing more than the resistance of young males to what’s become a hyperfeminized environment.

Okay. maybe I should do more of that when I have my mind on it.  I’m going to repost the thing about commenting on the blog and then go have tea.


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please e-mail me, and we’ll get you into the system manually.

So far, at least four regular contributors have had this problem, and I’m a little worried about new people with no experience of how the system usually works.

So if it happens, it’s just the program screwing up.  E-mail me–if you don’t have the address  you can use the contact form on the web site–and we’ll get you signed in.

Thanks.  Sorry for all the fuss. 

Written by janeh

November 13th, 2010 at 8:52 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'Even More Drifty'

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  1. I seem to be back on the air again.


    13 Nov 10 at 10:47 am

  2. I remember feeling just that, that school was mostly focused on inculcating standardized behavior, when my son started kindergarten 18 years ago. Learning was secondary. Behaving properly (that is, as the teacher desired) was the most important thing. The less individual attention each student required, the better the teachers liked it.

    I was very frustrated at that point with my ex. I wanted him to pay to send Daniel to Country Day school where he’d get at least some individual attention. He wouldn’t, and I couldn’t afford it, so I moved into the best public school system available. Even there, though, behavior was massively important.

    I get the point that misbehaving students prevent everyone from learning, but sometimes I felt like they drew these lines everywhere and made all the students stay inside them, all the time. Not much room for different drummers. Or any room.


    13 Nov 10 at 12:41 pm

  3. “…maybe it’s just that there is something about sitting in a room at a desk while somebody lectures you and then taking a test on it that’s the wrong way to go about this.”

    I would say with some certainty that it’s the wrong way to try and teach philosophy or anything except the most basic history.

    Think about it – you call it “The Great Conversation”, not “The Great Lecture followed by a multiple choice test demanding only the most basic recall of factual information I can defend as being covered from the text if we get sued”.

    A lot of what I teach is straight factual information the student just has to learn – be able to recall – if s/he is going to be working on computers. That can easily and competently be covered on a multiple choice test.

    But while that approach might also work with introductory logic – it seems quite unsuitable for carrying on, actually participating in, a conversation about philosophy or about what can properly be inferred from the bare facts of history.

    So if reading the philosophy sparks your own thinking which you want to bounce off another mind, to DISCUSS what the philosopher means when he says ‘x’ after you’ve read it – then sitting in a lecture where the professor is just telling you what HE thinks – test tomorrow.


    13 Nov 10 at 1:02 pm

  4. At the risk to stating the obvious, it seems to me that there are 3 types of education.

    Basic skills which every one needs. The traditional 3Rs of reading, writing and arithmetic.

    Skills which are needed by society but are not necessary for every person. We need carpenters and plumbers, doctors and nurses, lawyere and engineers. These seem best taught as a mix of class room and an apprenticeship. Speaking from personal experience, grad school was a form of apprenticeship.

    Finally, there is what Jane calls the Great Conversation. History, philosophy, the arts are what keeps our culture alive. And I don’t know how to teach that. I think that history is important but its not important in the same way that reading or engineering is important, perhaps that implies that it should be taught in a different manner.


    13 Nov 10 at 2:43 pm

  5. As with most complex phenomena, both things about ADHD are true. The way schools think about it is largely what you described, but there are psychologists and neuropsychologists and medical researchers who really can identify those kids who are far enough out of the bell curve in executive functions to benefit from treatment.



    13 Nov 10 at 3:55 pm

  6. I feel like a voice crying in the wilderness, but honestly, there is a place in education for children to learn to behave in groups, and without it, well, nothing really works. Maybe I’m a bit sensitive on this point because I sometimes think I have suffered a bit more than average from the results of people not behaving properly when in groups.

    And although as John says there are different kinds of education, and although I will allow that different people often learn best in different ways, may I give a rather plaintive plug for the lecture method and similar old-fashioned approaches? I always seem to be the one in the group who likes a nice, linear organized approach to a topic, presented by a good lecturer or in print, to any other method at all.

    And may I point out that just about everyone engaged in the Great Conversation before the last century or so probably learned from lectures, and a lot of them learned the basics at least in classrooms that were far more regimented than anything any of us have experienced, so such methods can’t really explain why the Conversation is changing now.

    Oh, and I think Cathy’s understanding about ADHD is more or less mine, and actually, more or less parallels what I heard when I was in the K-12 system.


    13 Nov 10 at 5:43 pm

  7. I agree with Cheryl that learning to work within a group is important and that the lecture method is a useful way of teaching.

    But the problem with teaching the Great Conversation is to get people to think instead of memorising.

    Sometimes fiction is better than fact. A few days ago, someone brought up the Weimar Republic. I reccommend a movel by Manning Coles “A Toast to Tomorrow” for a description of hyperinflation and the rise of the Nazis.


    13 Nov 10 at 6:33 pm

  8. With jd almost without qualification.

    The qualification is that everyone self-aware and making decisions needs a philosophy or code of ethics of some sort, and indeed has one. “I want what I want when I want it, and Devil take anyone else and the long-term consequences” is a workable system. You can make decisions on that basis. You can refuse to study philosophy and religion, but you still have to make decisions on some basis. Giving it some thought or study might produce a better one, but Philosophy has real troubles with “good” so of course “better”…

    But in practical terms–and remember this started in discussing formal education–the GC mostly consists of “having to sit still in a room at a desk for long periods of time and listen to idiots” and making it more of a conversation and less of a lecture only means you get a more comfortable chair–and possibly pizza–in a university dorm, at the price of getting the lecture from a student who may know even less than that idiot professor.

    I can perfectly well understand why someone might make that trade-off, but because there are such people doesn’t mean that everyone with an IQ above a certain level is reading Plato on the sly.

    I actually took the “half of them aren’t interested” from the same old Jane e-mail that gave me “only 10-15% can follow the G.C.” I am NOT looking through five year old e-mails to check my memory.

    As for the precise nature of the lack of interest, we get a bit into the nature of the G.C. The Canon tends to shift just a bit: it’s either the best writings on certain subjects, the best written books, or the books you have to be familiar with to understand what educated people are talking about–depending on which book in particular is going on the RRL. Which is why some of us think the real standard is none of those.

    Same thing happens here. “the long centuries of intellectual thought, in art and philosophy and science and history and whatever” says too much or too little. I have a deep interest in certain types of history, but very little for the intellectual history Jane regards as the sine qua non. But a woman interested in reading even the philosophers and ethicists she regards as idiots approaches the whole thing very differently. Since “what makes us human” is pretty much everything everywhere, it’s not clear to me where “not much interested in THIS ASPECT of the GC” shades into “not interested in the GC.”

    I figured out a long time ago that from an academic’s point of view you didn’t take part in the GC by by studying literature, music or painting, but by studying certain approved writers, composers and painters–which is where I dropped out.

    All of us have a philosophy of some sort–but not all of us want to revisit it every six months. Most of us enjoy some sort of art, but the urge to dissect and know the history of the art is different. And many of us have an interest in history–but not all history counts, and I’ve never been clear how the points are awarded.

    When you came to a personally satisfying religion and code of ethics decades ago and left it at that, when you read Robert Howard rather than Dostoevsky, listen to Goldsmith rather than Sibelius, and collect Frazetta rather than Klimt, and your interest in History runs more toward JEB Stuart in the Gettysburg Campaign than toward Medieval scholasticism–than either I totally misread the Great Conversation, or I dropped out a long time ago.

    Orienting yourself–knowing where you come from and where you’re going–is necessary. A lifetime of college bull sessions (or lectures) is not. Some of us just won’t do it.


    13 Nov 10 at 7:29 pm

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