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Bach in the Background

with 11 comments

I know it’s not Sunday, but it’s the last calm day I’m going to have this week, sooooo…

I’ve been reading the comments lately with some bemusement–I think we’ve now seen the expression of every single known political point of view in the comments, at least over time, if not consistancy.

But it all sort of feeds into what I’ve been reading, so I’ll go from there.

One of the things that strikes me about reading through the Greek and Roman authors in excerpted in The Classical Tradition is this:  there is an enormous amount of stress placed on the idea it is not possible to be fully and nobly human if you must spend your life engaged in commerce or toil.

This is not a particularly unusual sentiment in the history of the world, and it is not peculiar to Western civilization.  You can find it fully operative in African tribal cultures that have not yet emerged fully from the bush.   It is the destructive poison at the heart of many cultures around the world, where physical work is left to the women while the men sit around in cafes most of the day, drinking coffee and arguing about politics.

The men in the cafes are not by any stretch of the imagination of a high social class.   In places like Rhodos and Samathraki, they tend to own small businesses largely run by their wives–shops selling sweets and newspapers and tourist souvenirs and the endless little map books that are supposed to tell you how not to get lost in a country whose alphabet you can’t decipher.

Men of high social class in these places do not live in village, and do not spend their day in cafes. 

If there is a case for American exceptioinalism, it starts in the assumption here that there is something wrong with somebody who does not work.  Even our upper classes feel the need to show that they “do” something, even if that something bears little relation to work as defined by the mechanic down the street.

To say, however, that inequalities of income arise here from the inculcation of “class” in schools and communities is, I think, not true.

In the case of the surgeon–I don’t think he’s worth more money than I am because he’s “smart,” but because he can actually do things that keep people alive and that I cannot.  People want to stay alive, and they’re willing to pay quite a lot of money to make sure they do.  They are willing to pay more for that than they are to get their car fixed, for instance, or to have a nice handbag, or even to keep their homes heated in the winter.

And that being the case, if we all started off materially equal tomorrow, and thoroughly embued with the idea that nobody is worth any more income than anybody else–the good surgeons of the world would have much higher incomes than most of the people around them within the year.  There would simply be more people out there willing to give them money–and a lot of it, if that was what it took to get the service–for what they do.

Other people are worth very little, but worth it to a lot of people.  Stephen King, for instance, isn’t “worth” a $5 million advance–he’s worth $7.99 to each of five million people, who find that a reasonable price to pay for a paperback copy of one of his books. 

Numbers like that add up, over time. 

As long as people are free to choose what to spend their money on, there will be inequalities of income for reasons like this–and there will need to be no inculcation of class attitudes by the educational system or anything else to get us there. 

Which is not to say that such inculcation does not occur.   Of course it does, but I don’t think it does it by convincing people that they’re not smart and therefore have no right to higher incomes.

In my experience, schools that deal principally with students from middle-middle class backgrounds and lower tend to do nothing at all to indicate why people in higher social classes will make more money than they do.

In fact, they do so little to explain or excuse such a thing, they don’t even bother to indicate that there might be something going on at the school up the road that isn’t going on at their own. 

Most such students finish high school firmly convinced that “education” is a scam, that it’s all bullshit, that there’s no actual content to most of the “subjects” they have to take.  They do, indeed, think the doctor deserves to make a higher income than they do, but that’s because they see the practical utility of what he does, not because they think “smart” automatically should be paid more.

In fact, in quite a few cases, they think “smart’ deserves to be paid less–they see very little reason or justice in handing a ton of money to stock brokers or the people who run the banks.

On the other end of the class scale, there is certainly a tendency in some “elite” schools to push the study of the liberal arts as a kid of fashion accessory. 

There are remarkably large numbers of people in this world who will quote Aristotle and  Keats to you in that smug little way that shows that they may have read the stuff, and they may have remember a fair amount of it verbatim, but they have absolutely no idea what any of it means.

I spent most of my adolescence pining for the day when I would be able to escape from people just like that–and others who knew nothing about things like literature and art and philosophy and therefore decried it all as bunk–

I would be able to escape from such people into a world where there were other people who got it, who loved it the way I loved it, who just wanted to be in the middle of it to be happy.

It was one of the great disappointments of my life that what I found when I got to that place–and the exact place; I was three years old when I saw a picture in the Funk and Wagnalls encyclopedia of Vassar College and decided I wanted to go there–

It was one of the great disappointments of my life when I got there and found most of the same learning-is-a-fashion-accessory people I’d been trying to escape from.

Except, of course, I also found other people.  They were a minority, but they were there.

I don’t much like schools.  I’ve said here, before, that there’s something about the structure of them that works against what I really want, which is a country with many people in it who do get the point, who understanding that learning is valuable in and of itself, even if you never “use” it for anything; but who also realize that it is not possible to fail to use it, because it is the most useful of all things.

One of the other themes in the excerpts from the classical authors I’ve been reading these past several days is this:  that being human in the fullest and most important sense is an aspiration, something to be worked at and lived up to.

The Greeks said that human beings were creatures half  gods and half beasts.  St. Paul said that human beings are each and every one of us not only the image of Christ but the rightful inheritors of his kingdom.  Psychology says that we are all creatures of our habits, our emotions, our whims and our desires, and that it will kill us if we don’t “express” “ourselves.”

I don’t care about schools.  I do care about a world where people know that humanity is one of the things that can be chosen, and in order to get there I need every person to have a basic competence in things like reading and writing.

Which leaves me back to not knowing how I want education to be worked out.

Written by janeh

September 14th, 2011 at 10:36 am

Posted in Uncategorized

11 Responses to 'Bach in the Background'

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  1. How goes the old saying? “Youth is wasted on the young”?

    So also is education, at least for most people. These days, and for most of history, the vast majority of people will never have had the luxury “to be fully and nobly human” because they “must spend (their lives) engaged in commerce or toil”. Only the wealthy or that vanishingly small minority of extremely dedicated and focussed scholars willing to forego the normal distractions of the outside world will ever achieve that state of exalted humanity. Most of the rest of us have what seem to be far more urgent and pressing needs lest we starve and freeze in the dark somewhere.

    But, for a lucky few of us there comes a time when we have the leisure and the resources and a desire to reignite a smouldering spark in the embers of that rudimentary education that we impatiently suffered through some 50 or 60 years ago. Some of us are even lucky enough to find ourselves among interesting well-educated people willing to share their knowledge and expertise free of charge.

    Lucky us.



    14 Sep 11 at 11:26 am

  2. Ah, Mique, I’ve always dabbled a bit in religion and philosophy, but now, when I’m slowly working my way through Jerome Taylor and Jacques Barzun (especially Jacques) I feel some pity for the people who tried to teach me the basics back when I had the time and money to actually study full time! With teachers! Maybe I’m remembering myself as worse than I was (although thinking about my abyssmal result in that Philosophy of Education course, maybe not). Now, it’s like I’ve hit some kind of critical mass of connections, and can think ‘Aha! So THAT’S why Wagner is so famous’ or ‘That idea must have been in the air around then; I’ve seen it before…’. Mind you, sometimes I can’t remember which name belongs to which sister, but I blame that on heredity and not age because my mother and grandmother did it too.

    I longed passionately to get away from my original home town and out to the Big City (pop about 100,000). Once I hit very early adolescence, I was bored, bored, bored. I think I hoped I’d find people who shared some of my interests once I escaped, but unlike Jane I didn’t assume there would be somewhere that there were people like me. I just wanted somewhere that there might be. And that there’s be things I’d always wanted to do or try that small towns simply don’t have.

    And that’s the Protestant Work Ethic, that is, that Jane’s describing. At least, that’s what we called it, being Protestants. And it’s deeply engrained in me. The idea that it’s important to contribute to society in the form of work (paid and unpaid); that we are essentially imperfect, but that’s no excuse to avoid becoming better – a better worker, and of course better in improved character and personality.

    I am never so aware of how alien this sort of think is in my culture as I am when I read some human interest story, usually in the women’s or ‘life’ section of some site or newspaper. Whatever the challenge or change – it’s often something involving a family or relationship or child/pregnancy or sex issue – the general impression is of a bunch of particles floating through life in a kind of Brownian motion. None of them ever seem to think ‘I have X (or ‘X happened to me’) and I need/want/should have Y. X isn’t my fault; things just happen. And I got Y, and isn’t it great that things just happen?

    Something’s missing. Admittedly, not everyone is going to start off by analysing the moral issues surrounding X for themselves and those around them, but I doubt if they are quite so passive as they seem. They couldn’t be; even a barnacle is less passive, surely. They are either not examining their own lives at all or they are simply saying what the reporter wanted o hear. They’re the exact opposite of what’s recommended by just about any thinker on what it means to be human.


    14 Sep 11 at 12:38 pm

  3. Hmmm. I never had to go anywhere to find people with similar tastes and beliefs. I found them everywhere I went–always a very small minority. I didn’t expect college to be different, and it wasn’t. The Army was, in that respect, a little better than I’d expected. As I say, the secret of true happiness is diminished expectations.

    I should have said we didn’t have exactly the full-bore “real men don’t work” philosophy–but we have a very large and influential minority who believe a variant of it: real men (or women) don’t work for profit. The day laborer is duly patted on the head, but anyone so uncouth as to save and invest is clearly not with the program. Perhaps you missed Obama’s commencement speech of two or three years ago advising the graduates of some elite institution (Smith?) to join the civil service–or the Peace Corps, or Americorps, or a non-profit, or pretty much anything so long as they didn’t (a) make money or (b) defend the nation? And the President is not, in that sense, an imaginative man: he’s the perfect reflection of his upbringing, education and class.

    You were mentioning, I believe, a textbook which explained that advertising was evil and extolled the virtues of “publically funded” political campaigns? Same program. It’s a variant on the “theory of the leisure class” in which taking money from someone is acceptable, but exchanging goods and services is declasse. As with Veblen, there are loopholes: speaker’s fees, book deals and real-estate transactions don’t count. You’re paid, if you will, for being who you are. The important thing is not to just go out like Sam Walton or Bill Gates and offer people something in exchange for their money.

    Education: It may not matter what I want, because I’m not sure the present system can be changed without either more time than I have or more bloodshed than I’d tolerate. But clearly first we have to give the young people the basic skills–literacy, numeracy, reason and science. Without those we build on sand. This is where we are conspicuously failing. After that, I’d like to see everyone have at least one trade not tied to politics–something which can be practiced when “your kind” aren’t allowed to teach, or when you’re not allowed in the country in which you’ve passed the bar exam. Beyond that, everyone should have all the riches of our culture open to him. But it would go down better if, say, modern literature were presented as an option I might like and less as a test of moral superiority.

    The High Culture as fashion statement doesn’t draw the sort of people I’d care to associate with.


    14 Sep 11 at 4:00 pm

  4. I agree with Mique that “Youth is wasted on the young.” Perhaps it takes some experience to appreciate history or philosophy.

    And Robert is right that we must get the fundamentals of literacy and numeracy into the students. Beyond that I’m not sure. Reason in the sense that if you believe “If P is true than Q is true” and you also believe that “P is true”, than its irrational to claim that “Q is false” can be taught. But many of the arguments I see in the news are about whether “P is true”.

    Science? Please define the goals. Do I want students to learn conservation of energy or learn why they should slow down on wet roads? And how do I teach them to see the connection between an air conditioned bed room and the need for new power generators?


    14 Sep 11 at 6:32 pm

  5. P is true–or not, for reasons. Sadly, the state of public discourse convinces me that we have a long way to go in getting students to consider how we know what is true. SO much easier to tell the kids “P is true” than to explain “this why we BELIEVE P is true” or “this is why we KNOW P is true” let alone the difference between the two.

    Conservation of energy is science. Braking distance is Driver Ed. I would say the goal was fundmental principles of physics, chemistry and biology, an understanding of the scientific method, and a comprehension of the difference between opinion and fact. But I wouldn’t be averse to explaining to some of the little darlings some of the math–like just exactly how many ergs you can get from an acre of temperate zone sunlight–and how much land you’d have to cover with solar panels to give a suburb air conditioning, internet connections and plasma screens. Something about fanaticism inhibits math skills.

    Or maybe it’s the other way around.


    14 Sep 11 at 7:04 pm

  6. Yes, braking distance is driver’s ed. But we are saying we want science to be taught, we are not saying we want driver’s ed to be taught.


    14 Sep 11 at 8:13 pm

  7. When you start talking about education, you have to start from HOW DO CHILDREN LEARN?

    From what I have read of all of your postings (I haven’t gone back much before the beginning of this summer), you all subscribe to the old idea that children are like empty vessels that the teacher or the parents pours knowledge into. The No Child Left Behind examination then tests how “full” each of those vessels is with the require knowledge.

    Unfortunately, this is not how children learn, and the more schools try to promote that method of “teaching” children, the more they will fail. I put “teaching” into quotation marks because you cannot actually “teach” a child anything, you can only facilitate (or hinder) their learning.

    Until you all know at least a tiny bit about how children learn, your opinions about what is wrong with education today are nothing more than blatherings.

    I’m sorry to have to say it so bluntly, but that is the way I see it.

    To make matters worse, none of you seem to be willing to learn anything. You are all locked into your own positions. Yes, I, too, am locked into my position, but at least I apparently have a lot more knowledge than any of you about how children learn–which knowledge I can use to back up my arguments about what is needed–and NOT needed–in schools today.

    Does this mean I don’t agree with a lot of what you say? Of course not.

    Schools are boring. I was bored starting with first grade and bored all the way through high school. Some of my college classes I also found boring. I was bored because I knew 95% of what was being “taught” in my classes before the teacher “taught” us. Many of my classmates were bored because they didn’t understand the material. Many others were bored because the “knowledge” the teachers were trying to pour into their heads had no relevance to their lives. I did not know ONE SINGLE CLASSMATE who thought school was interesting, exciting, fun — anything, other than boring. Extracurricular activities = fun; breaks between classes = fun; lunch time = fun; classes = BORING.

    My own three children were bored all the way through school. Their classmates were likewise bored. But in their generation, they were no longer willing to go through the motions and do the pointless, mickey-mouse assignments that the teachers assigned. They simply didn’t do them, and the teacher wasn’t able to do much about it because 90% of the students didn’t read the assigned books, didn’t do the assigned worksheets, etc.

    Now my granddaughter is in fifth grade. Three weeks of school, and she is already bored out of her mind with school work, BECAUSE IT IS BORING. It is the “core curriculum” that the state says has to be poured into each student’s head so that the students can regurgitate enough of it on the NCLB examination.

    YES, educators in the United States have come a long way toward understanding HOW CHILDREN LEARN. They have learned ways to facilitate children’s learning. They have learned ways to avoid boring children. And everything they have learned has been brushed aside by people–apparently like all of you–who think that children are empty vessels that you just have to pour the right selection of knowledge into.

    WAKE UP!

    Let me tell you about learning when you are a retired adult. Let’s say you decide you wanted to learn more about, oh, say, the Greek classics, and you sign up for an adult-education class. Now let’s say you go to the class the first day, and the teacher hands out a book to read and a stack of work sheets and tells you that you have read so many of pages per week and do the work sheets, which are just questions where you have to find the answers in the book and write the answer down on the worksheet. Then the teacher tells you that at the end of the semester you will be graded on how many of the facts you can remember about the Greek classics. During the entire class period, under the teacher’s watchful eye, you read pages in the book, then answer the corresponding questions on the worksheets; read more pages, then answer more questions on the worksheets.

    How many of you would go to the second class, much less make it through to the end of the semester?

    Now let us suppose that this is not voluntary. And not one class but six or seven hours of class each day, five days a week. How many of you would say, “Now that I am an adult, I love learning”?… but wait — what was that? “Love learning” does NOT equal “Love going to school,” now does it!

    What you mean is, “I hated school when I was young because it was boring — the teachers tried to pour facts into our heads. Now that I am an adult, I love learning BECAUSE I don’t have to do it in that bass-ackward way. BECAUSE I can do it in a way that works for me rather than in a way that is supposed to work for everyone.

    Put back into school today — into the grade chools or even the high schools AS THEY ARE TODAY, I defy a single one of you to say, “I love going to school because I am learning so much.”

    If you think you could say that, then you have not been inside a grade school in years.

    You can quibble all you want about whether braking distances belong in physics class (they do) or in driver’s education (they do), but you still aren’t dealing with the core issue here, namely that the schools in the United States (and I suspect also in a lot of other countries) are spending most of their time and effort preventing children from learning.

    If any of you want to discuss the question of HOW CHILDREN LEARN, I will be happy to contribute, but if you just want to go on blathering about which knowledge ought to be poured into the dear little tykes’ heads, then don’t kid yourself that what you are saying has any meaning, relevance, wisdom, or truth.


    14 Sep 11 at 9:33 pm

  8. Sure, most people would pay a lot to stay alive. In fact I think most of us, in the face of certain death, would give everything we have just for an off chance to live one more day.

    That it is morally or socially desirable that people /must/ give all their income to doctors, or die, does not necessarily follow. If willingness to pay were the sole criterion of value, kidnappers would be heroes.

    I would personally have no problem with using a surgeon who had two years of training in surgery instead of two years of such training along with eight years of extraneous baggage, and would work for a tenth as much – and I am sure there are many people who would provide such service at that price, if they were permitted. I don’t care if the dude slicing up my insides knows the difference between positivity and Positivism, and chances are he doesn’t either. After a certain point, all that matters is experience, and more education = less experience.

    I have to disagree with you about people – working class people, at least – thinking that “smart” and money go together. Maybe it’s different in Yankeedom, but in the great Hawrtland it was the drones that voted for Ross Perot, “Because he must be a genius to be that rich.” And if I had a dollar for every person who told me I should be rich because I’m smart, I’d be rich. Or at least I’d have enough for a weekend with a prime hooker.

    Also: inequalities of income arise partly from education, of course, but they aren’t identical with class, which is ultimately defined by shared values, experience, and culture. It is not uncommon for self-made millionaires to remain distinctly (and proudly) middle class or even working class in their tastes, associations, and habits. Education works to maintain classes economically, of course, but culturally as well.

    Concerning the “humanities” type subjects that make up a large part of the padding in education, I think they accomplish nothing. The people who don’t want to learn them will take away nothing but contempt; a year after the last final, they won’t know the French Revolution from Dadaism, but they do remember that art and history are annoying. You can’t force a broad education into a narrow mind. Even students who could and /should/ be learning useful skills (i.e, writing) in these classes are usually a lost cause before they even get to college. No matter how awkwardly inchoherent their writing is, they’ve already decided that it’s quite good enough – and as far as college is concerned, they’re right. A seventh grade writing level is sufficient to graduate with.

    One argument in favor of “liberal” education (especially history) is that it prepares people to be fit citizens within a democracy. Given the performance of this arrangement so far, I think this is more of an argument against democracy.

    And: Since Charlou brought it up, YES. A lot of what schools do, especially at the lower levels, is inhibit learning. If I had a dollar for every time a teacher told me to quit reading ahead in the text, or to quit reading altogether, or to do this chapter’s problems instead of those four chapters on, I’d have that hooker for a whole damn month.


    14 Sep 11 at 10:13 pm

  9. Well, I simply don’t know how to express the depth of my disagreement with the idea that teaching the humanities is a waste of time. For me, it was the humanities that were the key to everything, that made school – particularly my boarding school – tolerable. Many years later, when I had reached a mid-level management grade in the Air Force, the knowledge I missed most was an in-depth understanding of philosophy. We had a super-sufficiency of technical experts, eg engineers of every discipline and sub-discipline, logisticians and medical specialists of all types whose brains were available for the picking. What we lacked were open-minded generalists with analytical skills and a depth and breadth of perspective capable of making informed, rational decisions – in short, an ability to see the woods for the technical trees.

    And in my younger, pre-Air Force days, I taught primary school in Papua New Guinea village schools. These were kids who understood the value of education (first generation Asian migrant children would be the closest western analogy). I refuse to believe that you can’t teach kids anything. I did just that for several years.


    15 Sep 11 at 1:39 am

  10. I think one of the most valuable results of being bored in school (and I often was) is that sometimes – not always – you learn that the boring exercises equip you to do more interesting stuff. Arithmetic leads to algebra (which I liked, although calculus and I did not get on well). Reading the more boring required tests often instills tidbits of information and often provides vocab that come quite in handy when reading books I picked out for myself at the library. French grammar drills didn’t prepare me to speak French, but at one time I could read it fairly fluently, which I enjoyed. And as for my least favourite elementary school class, Grade 8 geography, well, I have never found a use for lists of products produced on both sides of the Andes mountains, but I wouldn’t mind being able to visit there myself.

    Certainly, a good teacher makes things as interesting as possible, but a student who isn’t given the chance to discover that studying boring things can pay off in the long run will miss out on a lot. I sometimes regret that I persuaded my mother to allow me to drop piano lessons with all that boring practice. I suppose I could take it up again, but now I don’t really have the time or money. Or piano, for that matter.


    15 Sep 11 at 6:47 am

  11. Oh, and talking about the other end of education…I just started reading a recent Newsweek with an article on ‘The Student Financial Crisis’ which seems to be arguing that colleges should teach financial literacy. Since this is not yet required and nor is it taught in high school, the author rather reluctantly concludes that the parents are the only hope of ‘kids’ learning the basics.

    I would have thought that ‘kids’ smart enought and old enough to attend university would be able to figure out, and find information on financial management on their own – and that most careful parents, especially if they are funding the studies in whole or in party, would mitigate the risk by doling out the money for the semester with the firm warning that if the money runs out before the semester does, the kid is coming home and looking for paid work.

    This is a prime example of the kind of mission creep that exists in all forms of formal education – it would be good if all students knew or did this, so we will make it compulsory in school regardless of whether it is related to reading, writing, math, science, a second language, history and geography.

    I suppose we couldn’t leave out the geography on the grounds that anyone studying history will pick it up anyway?


    15 Sep 11 at 7:34 am

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