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And Not Really All That Balanced

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Okay, I’m sorry–I couldn’t help it.

Reading the comments this morning was amazing–mm is quite right.  She never said anything about equalizing outcomes, and neither did I.

What I DID say was that most of us are comfortable with the idea that people should be rewarded differently for making different choices.

We think hierarchy is “fair” if people acquire their places in it through their own effort, work, and decisions.

It is only when winning and losing are based on something outside our control that most of us have a problem with different outcomes for different people.

I tried to point out some of the problems with the “it’s okay as long as it’s based on our own effort and decisions” position last post, let me try to say something about “environment” in this post.

The first thing I want to do is to remove from the discussion something that is “environmental,” but that actually functions more like what is genetic:  problems that are the result of permanent damaged caused by something experienced in the womb. 

For better or worse, things like fetal alcohol syndrome, birth defects due to exposure to toxins and that kind of thing tend to be grouped, in ordinary conversation, as things people are “born with.”   So I’m going to leave the discussion of those things to part about what we’re born with.

Differences due to environment are actually what we usually mean when we complain that outcomes are “not fair.” 

And we don’t usually discuss the fairness or the unfairness of the adults in the household.  It’s not the adults for whom poverty is “unfair,” but the children–to the extent to which children are born with more or fewer material advantages, we believe that the outcomes of their lives are affected.  And if some people will have better outcomes merely by having the luck to be born to better parents, the entire system begins to look corrupt.

In some ways, the reason why we feel this way is fairly clear-cut.  I call it the Paris Hilton Syndrome.

The woman has done little or nothing to earn the money she spends.  She barely bothered to finish high school.  She’s not talented, accomplished or hard working–or at least that’s the perception.  Even so, she spends on a single handbag an amount of money that would save some family’s home from foreclosure for months. 

One of the things I find interesting is that Hilton herself doesn’t actually quite fit this description, but that’s another story for another day.

At the most basic level, environmental unfairness begins with things like nutrition–can the family afford all the food it needs, and the right kinds of food?  do the parents know what the right kinds of food are?  do they care?

This is a matter of money, and the money issue goes a long way.  Wealthier families can afford good private schools if the local public ones are inadequate.  Those private schools have more resources than most public schools do.  The parents can afford private tutors if Johnny is failing, expensive academic enrichment summer activities (think space camp), extensive travel and other amenities that we think will give a child an edge in school. 

What’s more, some parents, even though they’re not necessarily all that well off, are more capable of giving their children advantages in other ways–because the parents read books, there are books around the house; because the parents are concerned with politics, there are discussions of current issues at the dinner table.

A few months ago a story broke about a principal in, I think, Georgia, who had required all students in AP classes in his high school to sign a pledge not to do any homework at home or to discuss the AP coursework with their parents.   This was, he said, because some students might have access to more resources at home than other students,  and if they were allowed to use those resources the competition for grades on AP courses would not be “fair.”

I spent a fair amount of time this morning trying to find one of the articles about this and couldn’t.  I remember the story, though, becaues Matt and Greg and I discussed it at the time.

And also because, of course, its premise is true–if you have me as a parent, you’re going to have at least some scholastic advantages over a kid with a parent like, say, my cousin Chris.

When my sons were small, I used to make them earn the right to watch television during summer vacations by passing quizzes.  One year, Greg’s right to play video games during the summer required him to be able to recite the entire Bill of Rights, verbatim, and to explain each one.

When Greg got to American history in eighth grade, he not only already knew most of the material, he could argue positions on issues using Supreme Court rulings, and cite those rulings by title and date.

This did, inevitably, give him a head start on the rest of the class.  In a public school where levels of parental support for education would have been wider, it would have given him a HUGE head start on some people.

For most people, though, those kinds of inequalities are acceptable–after all, somebody worked for them, even if it was the parents instead of the children.  We also tend to find the actions of parents who do this kind of thing admirable.  They are taking care of their children.  They want what’s best for them and they work hard to get it.

Still, we can’t help but be aware of the fact that some children have more than others, and we’re fairly convinced that when this is the case, the children who grow up with more are automatically advantaged on the road to “success” over those who grow up with less.

We support this belief by pointing to statistics that show that children from more affluent families have higher academic and career achievements that children from poor ones.  A school that is 95% white and middle class will produce higher scores on standardized tests than a school that is 95% black and Hispanic and on welfare. 

In point of fact, the issue is even more complicated than it seems, because not only do poor schools have fewer resources–crowded classrooms, not even textbooks, no science labs–but they also tend to have teachers that are not only from the bottom of the barrel of the applicant pool (mixed metaphor alert!), but who think that the children they teach aren’t really smart enough to learn.

Yes, that’s what I said.  Go back and read it again.  That’s the secret behind the cheating scandals in Atlanta, Pennsylvania and now at least one school in Connecticut.   These are schools whose teachers and administrators are convinced that their students are incapable of meeting basic academic standards. 

And if you don’t think it matters if teachers think their students are capable of learning–well, you’ve got more faith in native talent than I do.

I think most of us would agree without too much argument that all schools should have the necessary textbooks and other equipment required to teach.

Beyond that, though, what’s going on here is not as clear as it looks.

For one thing, there are plenty of successful people–often very successful people (think Bill Clinton and Barack Obama)–who came from families who were poor, dysfunctional and on welfare.  One of the more interesting things about reading Too Big To Fail was noticing that a big chunk of the most powerful CEOs in America had come from families that were no better than working class, and often less, and from schools that were–well, inadequate.   Poor-kids-made-good were grossly overrepresented in the land of the eight figure bonus. 

And that means, of course, that rich kids with all the advantages were underrepresented, which brings me to another point:

It is not the case at all that kids from rich or quasi-rich families, who get to go to expensive private schools and who won’t need to take much in the way of loans for college–it is not the case at all that all of those kids, or even a majority of them, “make good” in the sense of going on to high paying and prestigious careers.

One of the great secrets of American upper middle class life is the way in which it must be reearned in every generation, and the way in which bringing a kid up with “all the advantages” often makes that goal difficult to attain.

In the highest performing public high schools–the Wiltons, the New Triers–a solid core of overachieving workaholics gets into the Ivies and their equivalents, while most of their just-as-advantaged peers scrape by and settle for second, third and fourth tier.  Their parents write the checks that mean they can go to the University of Denver or Colby-Sawyer or wherever, but they don’t end up at white shoe wall street law firms or with the presidencies of banks.

Maybe what’s really going on here is this:  all things being equal, differences in environmental advantages will have a big impact on eventual outcomes.

But all things are almost never equal. 

And I’ll get to genetics, and natural talent, tomorrow.

But, in the meantime: to the poster who said that the dramatic unities were thought up by the French and produced only mediocre drama–

The dramatic unities are from Aristotle’s Poetics, and they describe perfectly that actual dramatic plan of all the plas of Sophocles, including Oedipus Tyrranus. 

Shakespeare may never have written a play like that, but many dramatists of the Classical period in Athens did, and they wrote good ones.   Not only the Oedipus cycle of Socrates, but the Oresteia of Aeschylus and many more were written according to the unities.

Aristotle was not laying down rules, but describing what the greatest playwrights of his day actually did.

Those plays remain, to this day, among the greatest ever written–and yes, at least as great as Shakespeare.

Written by janeh

August 5th, 2011 at 7:49 am

Posted in Uncategorized

15 Responses to 'And Not Really All That Balanced'

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  1. It would appear then that the French classical theater (late 18th century) took the rules of the classical Greek theater and adopted them as their own. I still maintain that the French “classical” dramas were eminently forgettable.
    Could it be that something other than the “rules” was operating here? That the classical Greek theater had something more going for it than just adherence to rules?


    5 Aug 11 at 8:53 am

  2. The ideal of the rules for classical drama lasted for centuries although some places and times emphasized them more than others. There’s two possible approaches to this – first of all, something can be excellent of its kind, and yet not appeal to people because they simply dislike the style, or because they haven’t taken the time to learn to enjoy the style. I would say that for me, rap music is something I simply dislike, and opera is something I used to dislike, but am enjoying more and more as I gradually learn more about the structure of the art. Perhaps you simply dislike classical French theatre, and would enjoy other plays that also observe the classical rules. Or perhaps you dislike the rules enough that you dislike any form of play that observes them. They don’t bother me much one way or the other.

    Anyway, back to what I was going to type.

    Environment. One project that fascinated me, but which I never finished, was an attempt to figure out why, in our villages, the population of one would make every effort to find and keep teachers and restrict the working opportunities of their children until they ‘got their Grade XI’ (graduated from high school), but the apparently identical people of the next community down the coast would have to be forced by the law or bribed by the continuation of what used to be called the Baby Bonus to keep their kids in school to the end of Grade 8 or the age of 16, whichever came first, and complained mightily that their children couldn’t contribute economically to the household as much as they should as early as possible. This was a while ago, mind, but it was very noticeable. One community would produce teachers and clergymen and nurses as well as fishermen, and the next would produce fishermen. It’s a cultural thing, really, not just a family thing.

    Oh, well, the fishery is largely going and all those communities are dying anyway.

    And it is entirely true that some teachers are absolutely convinced that some of the children (sometimes all, or almost all of the children) in their school can’t do the work, and such children are invariably from the poorest and least respected families in the community. It is true that some children in any public school that accepts all kids in a community will be incapable of doing, say, high school ‘academic math’ (the program required for admission to university, nursing school, and the more technical of the trades programs). But when someone says ‘None of that X family’ or ‘None of the crowd that lives over there’ will ever be able to do academic math, I get suspicious.

    Progress is messy. Locally, at least we more or less eliminated the really basic programs in core subjects for all except those diagnosed with, what’s the term today? Developmental delays? Those programs pretty well ensured that any kid put in them early in elementary school wouldn’t have the time or the necessary teaching to switch over to the regular program in junior or senior high even if the basic ability was there. But of course, putting everyone in a regular program seems to ensure there’ll be a few who can’t handle it, so we need to institute basic ones again, only later in the program…and around and around we go.

    Not much balance and equality, I suppose, but on the other hand, sometimes some of the changes improve the chances that a few more kids will have at least the basic tools needed to function in society, and maybe have a fighting chance to get, if not their dreams, a better life than they would otherwise have had, with more economic security and comfort, and maybe pleasure from reading.


    5 Aug 11 at 9:17 am

  3. Okay, a couple of notes on the side issues.

    First, it’s been forty years since I read classical French drama, and I read it in translation. I vaguely remember one about Phaedra that I rather liked. Other than that, I can’t tell you.

    But if writing to the Greek unities didn’t seem to work, it might be merely a matter of fit.

    You have to remember that Aristotle did not write a lot of rules that Greek playwrights then followed.

    Rather, Aristotle went to the theater and studied what playwrights actually did. He chose the best of those, and wrote down how they were constructed.

    The Poetics is Aristotle’s homage to Oedipus Tyrannus, which he thought was the best play ever written.

    That later playwrights took these for “rules” is another issue entirely.

    And finally–this is Jane’s guide to how to enjoy opera:

    Never, never forget that in its country of origin (Italy, now) opera is not high art. It’s popular entertainment. Fishmongers and waitresses buy cheap seats in the pit and throw rotten vegetables when they’re not satisfied with the performance.

    Trust me.

    This explains a lot.


    5 Aug 11 at 9:39 am

  4. Your latest exploration of “fair” makes sense to me. My birthparents’ families worked the Oklahoma oil fields. My adoptive parents worked to make sure that I, and my younger (home-made) siblings, knew the secrets of middle class living. They even introduced us to opera. My friends and I watched Verdi’s “Nabucco” last month. Thanks in large part to my parents and subtitles I thoroughly enjoyed the music, and laughed out loud in spots at the bad theology, willful ignorance of history, and implausible romance.


    5 Aug 11 at 10:05 am

  5. Opera’s fun. This is a great discovery. It can be hilarious or touching or tragic, but it’s not all about getting decked out in your best clothes and solemnly discussing the latest diva’s aria – although people do get all worked up in anticipation of certain particularly famous high notes. And even without the plot, some of the music is simply fabulous.

    And then there’s Wagner. The music sounds great, but my, he does go on and he does take himself very seriously!

    Warning to neophyte opera-goers: When attending Wagner, check how long it runs. Then you won’t be surprised as I was when I attended Tristan und Isolde. I knew the basic story; how long could it take? I sort of surfaced from the music periodically, noticing I was getting a bit stiff from the long period sitting.

    We get, among other offerings, the Met on HD at the local movie theatre, and there’s an opera workship here in the summer. I missed their Dido & Aeneas, which I regretted because I’d seen a DVD and would have liked seing it live, but I loved ‘The Marriage of Figaro’.


    5 Aug 11 at 10:55 am

  6. Back when I was teaching in high school (42 years ago now), I automatically got the journal of the National Education Association (all teachers back then were coerced into joining the NEA, but that’s a different topic). One of the articles I read in it concerned an experiment that had been done in about grade two or three. Right before the school year started, the teachers were shown a list of several students who would be in their classes. The teachers, who were unaware that this was all part of an experiment, were told that the students on the list had been identified as “late bloomers,” who could be expected to make “great leaps forward” during the school year. The students’ names were actually chosen at random. Amazingly enough, the students whose names were on the lists did all make great leaps forward, even though at the end of the year none of the teachers could name a single student from the original lists they had been shown. They therefore had not consciously made an effort to help the students achieve more, but somehow the students picked up on their teachers’ unconscious expectations.

    Another thing I discovered on my own.

    When I started teaching German, I felt it would be too much to expect of my students (mostly 9th & 10th graders) that they should have to learn things like the genders of all the nouns, all the irregular verb forms, etc.

    The second year I expected the students to learn more, and the third year even more.

    By my fifth year my expectations had gone up so much that a student making a C would have been getting an A if he had been in my class back when I started teaching.

    Except he wouldn’t, actually, because what I also discovered is that as my expectations went up, my students grades did not go down. I still had the same number of ‘A’ students, the same number of ‘B’ students, and the same number of ‘C’ students (the very few students making a ‘D’ or ‘F’, usually not more than one or two per class, were not allowed to continue taking German).

    I realized therefore that my students had “set points” that determined what grade they would get. By this I mean that a ‘C’ student would study the material only until he had mastered about 70-79% of what he was expected to know, and then he would stop studying; a ‘B’ student would study the material only until he mastered about 80-89% of the material, and an ‘A’ student would study until he mastered at least 90% of what he was expected to know.

    The fact that by my fifth year of teaching I was expecting my students to learn probably four times as much as my students had been expected to learn during my first year of teaching had nothing to do with it.

    Other things being equal? In my case, other things were equal. I was teaching in the same school, same town, and my students either wanted to learn German, or felt they had to study a foreign language (back then still a prerequisite to get into many colleges), or they had parents who wanted them to learn a foreign language. In other words they were not the disadvantaged. Most of them came from middle class families with educated parents.

    Yes, the students who were not as “gifted” did not get ‘A’s, not the first year I taught and not the last year I taught. On the other hand, by the fifth year the “not as gifted” students were learning four times as much as the “not as gifted” students had been learning the first year I taught.

    Can we therefore say that innate mental ability is the deciding factor in learning something?

    Many years back a professional football player (I don’t remember his name or how many years ago this all happened) was in a terrible accident, and the doctors told him he would probably never walk again. He told them he intended to play professional football again. And he did. So how much does innate physical ability have to do with success as an athlete?

    Something else to consider —

    When I went to high school back in the 50s, if a student wanted to and was willing to work hard enough, he or she could do the four years of high school (9th through 12th) in three years (usually this required one session of summer school) and graduate a year early.

    Back to when I was teaching German–
    One year I was told that I would be getting a special class of sophomores who were part of an experimental program to identify and encourage “gifted” children. Their schedules had been arranged so that they could do the six years of junior high and senior high (grades 7 through 12) in five years rather than six years.

    The students also told me right at the beginning of the year, “We’re the gifted class.” I had these students for two years, in German 3 and German 4.

    A few of them did really well, but most of them did no better than the students in my regular classes. I was not surprised by this because I had figured out much earlier that handing a kid something rather than making him work for it was a stupid thing to do.

    Not only did the students in the “gifted” class not live up to expectations, but some of them did really, really bad because they had no experience with studying. If a student comes from a home where his parents speak “good” English, i.e. standard English, and where they read books to him when he is little, and where they talk about things at the dinner table, he can usually pick up enough that he doesn’t really need to study much in English class, or in geography, or in history. And if he’s smart, he can pick up arithmetic and math and science pretty easily in class, and he can usually make ‘B’s or even ‘A’s without studying a lot outside of class.

    But unless a student’s parents speak German at home, he can’t pick up enough German that he can ‘ace’ it without studying outside of class. And many of my “gifted” students had never, ever had a class where they needed to study outside of class. So they ended up with ‘C’s and even ‘D’s in German. It was quite a shock for them. And yes, I was called in by the principal to explain how I could possibly have given a ‘D’ to one of the students in the “gifted” program. Fortunately, I had another section of third year German that was not “gifted,” and I was able to point out that I was giving the same tests in the “gifted” and in the regular classes, which made it pretty hard for the parents to insist that I was picking on their child.

    I am always in awe when I come across the case of a child who, no matter how appalling the conditions in his childhood, has managed not only to succeed in life but to succeed brilliantly.

    On the other hand, I find it not at all surprising that there are so many children who, having been given all the advantages their middle and upper class parents can possibly provide, only manage to have mediocre careers or who even fail dismally at everything they try.

    The key word in that last sentence, of course, is “given.”


    5 Aug 11 at 11:03 am

  7. Most of the opera in this country is sung in Italian. Except, of course, for Wagner, which is sung in German. That’s just, well, the way opera is, don’t you know.

    When I was a student at the University of Heidelberg, I discovered that Italian opera is sung in German in Germany. Wow! What a difference! Opera goers can actually understand the words!

    So why is German opera sung in German, and Italian opera sung in Italian in this country? Why do we put a language barrier between the opera and opera goer?

    It’s right up there with the presumption that foreign films with subtitles are somehow “better” than foreign films with dubbed in sound tracks.

    Could it be that we are a tad pretentious about such things? There seems to be a prevailing attitude that opera is supposed to be only for those people who are cultured enough to appreciate it.


    5 Aug 11 at 11:19 am

  8. Well, you no longer need to understand the language an opera is sung in because they usually have sub- or sur-titles in English.

    And there are operas written in English.There are even operas written in English in the 21st century – the Vancouver Opera did ‘Lillian Alling’ last year.

    The plots of a lot of operas aren’t really all that complex anyway, and there’s usually a crib sheet handed out if you want to know what’s going on.

    If you think about it, you’ll realize that translating words into English and still having them fit the rhythms of music written for Italian or French is, mmmm, a challenge. There’s a reason so much beautiful music is sung in the original languages – languages have a rhythm, music intended to be sung is written for that rhythm in a particular language.

    I think you’ll also find that opera singers all over the world can and often do perform in the original languages rather than in translation.

    I must admit I’m familiar with the attitude expressed your final comment, but it’s not a view I’ve ever really understood. For me, listening to and enjoying music is not dependant on understanding the words, and I’ve often enjoyed performances (mostly on CD, alas) in Gaelic, French, Welsh, German, Italian, French, Latin of course, and probably other languages that escape me at the moment. I see an encounter with music sung in a foreign langauge as a happy discovery of a new world of beauty I had not previously known, not as a display of pretention, or something that’s closed off to all but some cultural elite. I can’t help it if other people have a different response. I suppose I should pity them for what they miss by dismissing anything in a foreign language as something only the extremely cultured and those pretending to be could possibly enjoy.

    Mind you, there are some forms of music I have not yet and probably never will develop a liking for, but there’s so much other great stuff out there, I’m not much worried.


    5 Aug 11 at 12:47 pm

  9. The point I was trying to make when I brought up the subject of the “Three Unities” is that having rules for how you are supposed to write, and then following those rules does not mean that you will write a successful novel, play, short story, mystery, or whatever. Following some rules does not preclude success, of course, but neither does it guarantee success.

    My reaction, therefore, when someone thinks up some rules for writing (or for many other areas of life) and then decrees that such rules are necessary for success, is to say, “yeah, right,” in what can only be described as a sarcastic tone of voice.

    If they insist that their rules are indeed necessary, then I am, of course, always ready to debate them and to provide examples that show their rules are not, in fact, a necessary component of whatever it is we’re talking about.

    As far as being a good fit, what I observed with the French drama that I had to read 59 years ago is that in all cases the playwrights had to do what the ugly step-sisters did in the original versions of Cinderella (one sister cut off her big toe so that she could force her foot into the glass slipper, and the other cut off part of her heel), namely they had to mutilate and distort their subject matter to make their plays fit into the form that was deemed the only correct form for serious drama.

    Then, of course, the playwrights expected praise because see, they had written a play that “fit.” Well, actually I don’t know what the playwrights expected. But my French professors were rabid in their praise for the plays because the plays did such a marvelous job of following the rules of drama, therefore they were not only good plays but they were better plays than the non-French plays that didn’t even make an effort to follow the rules.

    None of my French professors ever even considered the question of whether or not the rules were valid in the first place, nor did they discuss how the plays might have been much better if they had not been forced into the required mold.


    5 Aug 11 at 1:04 pm

  10. Think of it like a game. You have a set of rules that you have derived from the observation of a popular game. Other people want to produce new games as ‘good’ – popular – as the original, but yet new and different. As long as they follow the rules – say, use a ball – they will have a more or less successful attempt at their aim. If they change the rules, they will have failed at their original aim, however good the product – to use the sports analogy, if they add in the use of a stick, they’ll have completely failed at producing a new and enjoyable form of football even though they may have produced a great form of golf or baseball.

    A mold or a frame or a set of rules guides and challenges as well as restricts. If a particular playwright is doing his best to write a great play in which the three unities are followed, it’s rather pointless to say he’d have done a better job if he hadn’t bothered. It’s like saying football would be a better game if the players had sticks or didn’t have balls.


    5 Aug 11 at 3:33 pm

  11. Playwrights and rules: This is what Clausewitz was talking about when he said that the theorist studied what the genius did, and derived rules from it. It beats reinventing the wheel every time, but it’s no guarantee of success, and it doesn’t mean there is no other way. The difficulty comes when the critic or teacher decides that adherence to the rules IS the measure of success.

    Which bring up opera. If you love it, God bless, but in America it mostly seems to be Art, which is dead. Shakespeare is dead to English teachers who think a play is great because it’s Shakespeare, and to students who read MACBETH because it’s required reading. Shakespeare lives when people read and perform HENRY V because it’s a great story with dialogue that they envy, expressing what they feel. Homer is alive because after 3,000 years we still feel for soldiers trapped in a war they can’t win and can’t leave, or for a woman berating the corpse of her captor’s friend–helpless, but not broken.
    This is the good stuff. But it’s being the good stuff that makes a work of art classic. When you measure a work of art, not by how much it grabs you, but by the prestige it’s accorded or how well it corresponds to the rules, you’ve lost the beat. Go find something that does grab you, and work with that.


    5 Aug 11 at 3:59 pm

  12. Robert, I like your second paragraph. The problem is that a lot of people don’t recognize the good stuff because their schools don’t teach it as a play or a book, they teach it as Full Of Hidden Meaning which, of course, Must Be Decoded.

    My husband’s high school put him off Shakespeare forever. When I was in high school my friend Terry used to come over and we’d divide up the cast of one of Shakespeare’s plays and read it through for fun. You’ve got to hear the language and enjoy the stories before you can worry about Hidden Metaphors and Interpreting History via Shakespeare.


    5 Aug 11 at 6:24 pm

  13. The sad part of this all is that too often the people involved, say film makers or dramatists, think that they know why a movie or a play was a hit, and so they try to duplicate the winning formula. Unfortunately, in too many cases they misidentify the key things that produced the first hit, and so the second film or play flops. I’m not talking specifically about sequels here. I’m talking about whatever movie or play is so good that it spawns a dozen imitators, which mostly turn out to be mediocre and extremely forgettable.

    About reinventing the wheel… well, basically isn’t that what we’ve been doing over the last several millennia? We are no longer using (at least not in this part of the world) a wooden disk attached directly to an axle. We’ve kept the essential parts (something round, attached some way to an axle) and changed the other parts.

    Now suppose back in Greece in, say, 500 B.C., someone had written down their rules for making wheels: Rule 1: The wood for a wheel should be from an x tree or a y tree. Rule 2: The wheel should be 4-5 inches thick (or whatever their units of measurement were). Rule 3: The wood for the wheel should be aged for a full year before it is shaped into the wheel. Rule 4: The wood for the axle should be from w tree or z tree. And suppose in the process of formatting these rules it didn’t occur to anyone to have a rule that the wheel should be round. Or that the axle should be straight.

    Now, how well would those rules work today when engineers are designing wheels for automobiles and trucks and railroad trains and airplanes?

    And how well will our present-day wheels be meeting our wheel needs fifty or a hundred years from now?

    The people who succeed in science or mathematics or business today are the ones who can “think outside the box,” i.e. the ones who can ignore (= break) the old rules and make something new and different.

    I find rules interesting because they are an integral part of history. But that doesn’t mean I’m willing to let someone else’s rules limit my creativity.

    (And no, I don’t want to get into a discussion of rules like the Ten Commandments!)


    5 Aug 11 at 6:28 pm

  14. Shakespeare lives when, on a balmy mid-summer evening, in a park on the southern shore of Sydney Harbour, a group of actors puts on a performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” which makes you forget that you are on the southern shore of Sydney Harbour, surely the most beautiful harbour in the world. Sheer magic!

    Back in the day when Shakespeare was still being studied in High Schools around the nation, an organisation called the Elizabethan Theatre Trust would send teams of young actors around the country towns putting on plays on the school curricula for kids never likely to get to see them otherwise. It was called Shakespeare in Jeans, and that’s exactly what it was. Sets were virtually non-existent except the odd painted screen, plus a random column or two, and costumes consisted of just a sheet over the jeans to simulate a toga in Julius Caesar or whatever.

    It was fascinating to watch the faces of the “cool cats” in the audience moving from the obligatory outright scorn, as they were literally and very reluctantly herded into their seats, to the utter enrapture they all displayed for long minutes after the performances ended. Thus, Shakespeare lived.

    It’s very hard to persuade boys in country communities to knuckle down for 12 years of school and for a further four or five years of post-secondary education, after which they will be lucky to earn, in the short term, sufficient to survive on unassisted by their parents. They are perennially broke while their less academically inclined mates, who dropped out of high school at the end of Year 10 to earn relatively big bucks in the surrounding rural industries, seemingly are able to afford all they ever wanted. It makes no difference if you try to advise them that 10 years downstream their mates will still be earning no more than they are now, while they will probably have surpassed them in earnings after only a few years, with a relatively unlimited potential for the future. Pies in the sky count for little at that age.


    5 Aug 11 at 9:35 pm

  15. Hmmm. I didn’t mean to desparage the notion of rules–just to point out the limitations. I think we’ve all seen the “daring” or “experimental” works which too often demonstrate why certain rules should NOT be broken. The trick seems to be (a) in writing rules, to capture the essentials and not the incidentals, and (b) in creating art, to have a standard of excellence apart from obedience to the rules. As Jane points out, Aristotle didn’t start out by observing which plays obeyed certain rules: he determined on some other basis what plays were best, and decided what their essential features were.
    Living art. I think one of the measures is that it’s ripped off regularly. See CLUELESS or 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU. Another is that it’s readily available and usually cheap–the $10 Homers and the $6.98 hardcover P&P’s. It’s not the box seats with annual fee that are proof of life, but the groundlings, spending beer money for standing room in the rebuilt Globe.
    It takes a REALLY bad teacher to ruin Shakespeare.


    5 Aug 11 at 10:57 pm

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