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The Clergy Project

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Well, what can I say?  The simplest explanation for why I’m writing this this early in the morning is that it’s that time of year again.  The new Gregor is due in about ten weeks, and I somehow have to cut most of the manuscript before St. Martin’s will be willing to publish it. 

That’s how I write.  I do a first draft by just going at it and not really thinking about what I’m saying.  The draft ends up being 800 or 900 pages long.  Then I cut away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.

At least, I hope I do.

Cutting is actually a lot harder than writing.  When you cut, especially when you cut a lot, you have to make sure you’re not cutting things that need to be left in in order for the book to make sense.

With Cheating at Solitaire, I managed to cut out the stuff that explained the title of the novel.  Originally, there was a fair amount about how these Pop-Tart starlets “bought” friends–acquired entourages by paying all the bills, by putting people on payroll, and that kind of thing.

That was the point of the title.  These people look surrounded by friends, but in fact they don’t really have any. 

But none of that made it into the book, and so for weeks afterwards, I got a little rainful of e-mails wanting to know what the title meant. 

It was a shame, really, because it was a very good title.

With this new one, I’m unlikely to have a problem with the stuff that explains the title–maybe because it can’t be explained–but there will be other things, and I absolutely guarantee you that I’ll cut at least one clue necessary to working  out the mystery.

This will result in a plaintive note from the copyeditor telling me that whatever is going on on page 264 makes no sense.

She’ll be right, too.

The other thing that gets to me is that when I write books, I read, and I read a lot.  I’ve usually got some social issue I’m trying to think through by putting it in various people’s heads.

I think that probably makes me less of a stellar seller than I might be, and my guess is that I’m even less of one because I try–if I’m going to do an issue at all–to see all the sides of it and not make one side look good and the other look stupid.

This not only makes people on every side angry, it makes them angry for exactly the same reason–left or right, liberal or conservative, chances are that you’ll think I’m on the other side.

Of course, sometimes (as in Blood in the Water, which comes out in a couple of months) I’m not looking at any social issues at all.

And sometimes, I’m not looking at any as the focus of the book, but one or another creeps up in the private life of a character.

And sometimes, an issue that comes up in the construction of a character leads me to read things that lead me to read other things that end me up with an issue I didn’t even know existed–and that doesn’t make the book, but it does make me pause.

This time, the issue that isn’t part of a book concerns an organization called The Clergy Project, founded by the evolutionary biologist and New Atheist Richard Dawkins. 

You can find its web site here:


I first heard about it from an article in Freethought Today, which is the monthly newspaper of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.  The FFRF are the people who go around demanding to be allowed to place a Freethought sign next to any Christmas creche on public property. 

The  law says the creche can only be there if there is an “open forum” that allows the presentation of all points of view.  FFRF puts up a sign from another point of view.

Every year or so, Bill O’Reilly goes ballistic about this, as if it were something new.  I think FFRF has been putting up a sign in the Wisconsin capitol building for close to two decades.

At any rate, somebody sent me a complimentary copy of the December issue of Freethought Today, and there was the article about the Clergy Project.

If I understand it correctly, The Clergy Project tries to be a kind of support group and decompression chamber for members of the clergy who no longer believe. 

The reason for providing a support group for clergy is that clergy, unlike ordinary believers, often can’t just pick up stakes and go.  They’ve got jobs, families, pension plans, entire lives invested in their religion. 

Walking away can be not only intellectually disorienting–change your mind on something central like this sometimes; it’s kind of like being high, but in a bad way–but materially disastrous. 

A man whose education consists of a string of theology degrees and who is already fifty or so years old is not going to have an easy time in the secular job market.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, there were similar organizations set up to help women leaving Roman Catholic religious orders in the wake of Vatican II.  The issues were, I think, similar, if not necessarily a matter of the loss of faith. 

A woman who had spent twenty years of her life wearing Medieval (literally) clothing and arranging her life to bells had a certain amount of decompressing to do before normal life could feel normal.

I don’t think The Clergy Project is a bad idea.  In fact, I think it’s largely a good one, and my guess is that it comes in handy for a number of people who, having found themselves adrift, need help to negotiate their way into another way of life.

What struck me, however, was The Clergy Project’s claim that its members include many active members of the clergy in all denominations.

Active means that these men and women are still occupying the pulpits of their churches, that they are preaching the Gospel and giving “spiritual counseling,” even though they no longer believe in God or think there’s anything like a spirit to be counseled.

The old nun’s organizations were based on the needs of women who wanted to leave their orders, but most of those women had not lost their faith. 

I’ve known a number of ex-nuns in my life, and most of them have been devout and enthusiastic Catholics.  It was life in a religious community they couldn’t handle.  They had no problems with God.

The issues would be a lot dodgier, I would think, for the men and women in Dawkins’s organization. 

It is specifically an organization for people who have lost their faith.  They do not believe in God any more.  In some cases, they have arrived at the conclusion that faith itself is a malevolent thing.

What I think I’m having trouble understanding is  how they manage their day to day lives in respect to their work–how they go on with the sermons, the counselings, the Sunday Schools, and all the rest of it. 

I know that it’s not really feasible for some of them to just get up and leave.  There are all those material considerations involved.  Walking away from an entire way of life and everybody you’ve known in it, risking your marriage and your relationships with your children, is not something most of us could do, ever, no matter what the issue. I certainly don’t know if I could.

But maybe because I think of religion as something fundamental to a personality–religion or the lack of it, I suppose–I have a hard time understanding just how such men and women go about doing the daily routine once they no longer believe. 

It seems to me that it would take an almost superhuman effort to go on saying words you felt were meaningless or pernicious.

And yet, obviously, people do it and go on doing it for years.

And that makes me wonder about something else–how many people are there in other lines of work who have analogous problems, psychologists who no longer believe in psychology, teachers of Women’s Studies who have come to believe identity politics are a crock, apostles of the market who think capitalism is an anarchic mess and prophets of socialism who have become convinced that the world is full of welfare queens.

Let’s face it.  An awful lot of what we all do these days depends on complicated webs of assumptions and conventional wisdom that do not, on examination, have much to do with the real world.  We tend to notice the disconnect when it occurs in our opponents’ thinking, but not when it occurs in our own.

But reality will intrude, and sometimes it does, and it lands us–

Well, we live in an age of taking sides. 

You’re with us or you’re against us.  If you so much as hint that the other side might be making a point, or be honest about what they say they believe–well, obviously you’re one of THEM, and to be banished from polite company ever after.

You don’t have to be a religious believer, or a clergyperson, to lose your life when you have a change of heart.

I wonder how many of us are out there now, repeating the same old same old, because not to would be to cut ourselves off from friends, family, maybe even work.

Which only goes to show.

I can be depressing no matter what the topic.

Written by janeh

January 13th, 2012 at 8:49 am

Posted in Uncategorized

21 Responses to 'The Clergy Project'

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  1. It’s not entirely clear-cut in many Christian circles what ‘believe’ means. For all the jokes about clergy who don’t believe in Christianity I’ve heard, a lot of them are about people who consider themselves perfectly good Christians, they just don’t believe in miracles (including the resurrection or any afterlife at all) or believe that God (a fairly non-personal force from what little I’ve read of this approach) is something that inspired Jesus and inspires us, but all that substitutionary atonement and sin stuff is nonsense (see Harpur, Spong etc although I found Spong pretty unreadable).

    So although many of their co-religionists may see them as non-believers, they don’t see themselves as such, and often are enthusiasic evangelists of their views.

    People who actually lose faith…some at least do have the honesty to leave their positions. They seem to go into things like social work or social activism or possibly teaching, which makes sense because they probably entered the priesthood in the first place to help others. I don’t suppose it’s much worse (except in the eternal sense) than any other life-shattering job or family loss in middle age – and there are lots of those in all spheres of life.

    I tend to think in dichotomies. On the one hand, nowadays we tend to abandon relationships when they ‘no longer work for us’. On the other hand, many of us, especially those from a religious background, believe or were taught that there may well be times in a relationship when you don’t feel the initial love, times in a job when you don’t feel the initial fascination and enjoyment. And you don’t walk away, you work through it and eventually you will start feeling some love or enjoyment or job satisfaction again. I can see someone from that background sticking at a job as a clergyman long after he became convinced God didn’t exist. It’s like a short bio I read about a counsellor (non-religious in this case) who suffered from severe depression that eventually resulted in suicide – but continued to counsel right up to the end people in her own situation, apparently successfully. The work was important to her, so she kept on doing it even though she was also convinced that everything in her life, including her work, was pointless. People are able to hold conflicting ideas at the same time.

    Friends come and go. Family mostly go, as they age and die, unless you have lots of children and even more grandchildren. And eventually, even though compulsory retirement is now not allowed, work goes. We might be unwilling to acknowledge this, and hold some image of our family, our friends, our reason for living in our hearts while acknowledging in our minds that the image is untrue. But it often seems a small price to pay for a bit of companionship and a way to keep the roof up and the wolf away.


    13 Jan 12 at 9:26 am

  2. I keep flashing back to an old movie no one else seems to remember–Dick van Dyke and James Garner in THE ART OF LOVE. At one point Garner is on his way to the guillotine. The executioner is firmly politically and morally opposed to capital punishment–but he’s three years from his pension, so…

    Many of us have done work which seemed futile–and sometimes WAS futile–to support our families, or simply to eat. That sort of thing is soul-destroying. But to decide that religion is malevolent–bad for society and harmful to the individual–and to go on supporting it because there is money in it for you is beyond that. There are words in the Bible for people who don’t care what they do as long as the money keeps coming, and they’re a lot worse than “atheist.”

    And I’ll use one of them: to call yourself a Christian while denying miracles, the divinity of Christ and the existence of God is hypocrisy of the rankest sort. The same witnesses who tell us that Christ told us to love one another, to care for the poor and sick and to forgive our enemies tell us that he called on us to worship a God who was not a blind force but a personality, that he worked miracles and that he was raised from the dead. If there is no God, then either Christ was a raving lunatic or our sources too hopelessly compromised to tell us anything about him at all, and I don’t think any clergyman could be so Biblically illiterate to be unaware of the choice. Such people go on calling themselves “Christian” because there is something in it for them–usually a nice pension. You don’t find atheist ministers preaching on streetcorners and starting congregations. You find them in nice comfortable established denominations with retirement funds.

    Which is the nicest thing I’ve said about streetcorner revivalists in years.


    13 Jan 12 at 4:49 pm

  3. Two of my first cousins are former nuns of an order unique to Australia, founded by the just recently canonised Mother Mary McKillop.

    The best that can be said of them is that both are very damaged women. However, I’m in no way convinced that I can distinguish cause and effect in all this. I know from recent discussions with one of them that getting as far away as possible from their very dysfunctional family as soon as possible was a major, perhaps _the_ major consideration of their joining the convent.

    But one thing is for sure: neither was fit to survive in the “real” world and needed a great deal of help to adjust.

    I also have an acquaintance who is a former priest (sacked for preaching that women have the right to control their own fertility), and he has lived in virtual penury ever since, surviving by relief teaching at local private school and, more recently, just with the old age pension.

    The situation here in Oz, with the RC Church at least, seems to be that the Church is willing to care for its clergy from entrance to the grave, but only if priests, brothers and nuns remain within the bounds of their church communities. There are no pensions for those who “quit” for whatever reason.

    And Australian governments seem unwilling to do anything about this disgraceful situation.


    13 Jan 12 at 8:06 pm

  4. Hmmm. Mique, We have that in the States, and not just with churches. If you join the Marine Corps and at some point stop obeying orders, advocate pacifism or stop wearing your uniform, they stop paying you. I hadn’t really thought of that as a disgraceful situation, though.

    For that it’s worth, I think mostly we’d be better off with a “defined payment” situation: get any paycheck from a company or government department, and a specified percentage of your pay goes to some retirement program. Systems in which getting rid of someone at Year X costs you nothing, but keeping him to year X+1 means a permanent obligation creates some interesting incentives, to say the least–not to mention problems with “defined benefit” systems and optimistic assumptions about future rates of return. Many levels of government and a number of corporations are having that catch up with them.


    13 Jan 12 at 8:28 pm

  5. Part of the agreement when you go in a convent or the priesthood is that you are giving your life to service, not taking an ordinary job, so a pension is not part of the agreement in the RC church. I have had it explained to me why some parish priests seem so rich – richer than the Protestant equivalent, who usually do have salaries and pension plans and so on. It seems that they aren’t all vowed to poverty, and a popular priest can get a lot of donations for his own use.

    The ex-nuns I know or heard of – most specificaly, a daughter of one of my mother’s late friends – seems to be living happily in financial comfort earned after she left using skills the convent paid for. Of course, she wasn’t damaged or from a dysfunctional home when she ‘went in’, but the years she spend inside don’t seem to have harmed her or made her unable to cope in the big world. I wish I were doing as well!

    Drastic changes in occupation in midlife are quite often financially devastating even when the first job contract provided some kind of partial pension or severance pay or ‘package’. When it doesn’t, your old age tends to be spent in even greater penury than when it does, as happened to your friend. All this seems perfectly normal, although sad.

    The local convents tended to expect their members to become nurses and teachers – and given the odd school system here back in the day, they got the same salaries as any other nurses and teachers, tended to be trained in slightly unusual and highly-desired fields like science, music, mathematics (always employable), or to have developed major organizational skills running large hospitals while being paid according. So they can easily afford to take care of their own and give to charity. I gather in the US members of some of the smaller orders who always taught in parochial schools are sometimes dependant on charity, because they worked for nearly nothing and now, as in most convents, many of them are too old to work at all and need expensive care.


    13 Jan 12 at 8:52 pm

  6. I agree with you both that there are similar situations in the “real” world. However, in the case of my cousins, one had to leave the convent relatively young and after considerably fewer years than would normally be considered pensionable service elsewhere. However, it is at least arguable that the mental breakdown which caused her to leave early was caused by her service and, certainly in the Australian military, she would have been compensated in one form or another for that.

    The other sister soldiered on for well over 40 years service – closer to 50, with something like 25 years in the one fairly remote country community. There are few if any other occupations which are allowed to deny their employees with that length of service pension entitlements.

    I can’t now recall the precise reason why she chose to quit, but I think it was when the rapidly aging and disappearing order wanted to move her elsewhere during her retirement years. Last I spoke to her some months ago, a precedent had been set in another case of nuns in her circumstances, so she might get some compensation yet.


    13 Jan 12 at 10:09 pm

  7. My point was only partly that similar things happen elsewhere. More importantly, joining a convent or the priesthood is not taking a job, and the relationship between the nun, monk or priest and the church is not one of employee/employer. This is not the case in some Protestant groups, which have various ways of employing ministers/pastors/priests, some of which do follow an employer/employee model, with either the congregation or some episcopal authority acting as employer.

    You’re the ex-RC, not me, but I was at one time quite fascinated by religious life in the RC and conservative Anglican/Episcopal sense, and I’m pretty sure that although many nuns and monks are employed (in and outside of religious institutions) the relationship between them and their convents or monasteries is not one of employer/employee. I’d say it was supposed to be one of family memeber, but in these days we have parents suing children for support and children suing parents for abuse, so that’s hardly a relationship free of obligations of support.

    Still, if I cut myself off from my family voluntarily, as an adult, I wouldn’t expect them to support me financially.


    14 Jan 12 at 9:26 am

  8. Humans tend to persist in behavior such as sacrificing children and livestock to influence a deity, singing songs that use kings as models of power and glory, reciting the more blood-thirsty final verses of many psalms, and promoting faith in the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, and Santa Claus long after most sane adults realize that the behavior is meaningless or pernicious. Some life forms and social institutions evolve.

    Some species that existed before an evolution persist. There are faith communities that still practice animal sacrifice. Perhaps Fundamentalists are similar to platypuses, or ginkgo trees. They occupy a niche in the social ecology. They survive.
    Some clergy and members may stop living inside their old faith communities. As others have commented, the skill sets for motivational speaking and counseling can be transferred out of churches or temples. Experience with keeping an organization running, or making music may also transfer. However, sometimes clergy and members evolve to say and do what is consistent with their new understanding. That seems to have worked for Judaism after the temple was destroyed in 70 CE.

    If producers hope for fireworks by booking Bishop Jack Spong and Richard Dawkins on the same program, they may be disappointed. Heat and light might be generated, but not destructive explosions. If producers are looking for fireworks, they can take the Republican primaries as a model. They can book those who are competing for a slice of the same ecological niche. I recommend a mix of the five different kinds of Baptist found in eastern Kentucky.


    14 Jan 12 at 11:40 am

  9. Mique, I was thinking more of your former priest. Argue with your bosses about doctrine, and your career is likely to be brief, whether you’re arguing for birth control in the Catholic church or pushing light tanks in Armor Branch. Pretty much any job involves some limit on public speech. You can’t work at a grocery and speak poorly of the vegetables to customers, either. Maybe it’s unjust, but it certainly shouldn’t be a surprise.

    In the case of the younger nun, mental health is always tricky. If someone comes back from overseas duty with a rare and untreatable disease, most organizations take pretty good care of them. These days, armies are going some distance to declare PTSD or “combat stress” injuries. But if my case was, effectively, that the Army drove me crazy and now owes me a disbility pension, I might be a while collecting.

    MM, these people still sacrificing children in order to promote the prosperity of the group in accordance with ancient beliefs: why don’t you stop beating around the bush and mention the National Education Association by name?


    14 Jan 12 at 12:10 pm

  10. Robert, yes, the priest brought it all down on his own head, and I don’t think he has any grounds for complaint. He certainly would have received fair warning. As an aside, the archbishop who effectively defrocked him was a distant cousin of mine.

    As for the nuns, I think I might have gone off half-cocked. :-)

    The NEA? Just what is it about teacher unions that makes them, almost universally, so poisonous. I’ve never met a teacher who didn’t detest their own union, or who felt anything other than powerless to change them.


    14 Jan 12 at 7:21 pm

  11. I didn’t detest mine, when I was in it. I disagreed very strongly with them on one particular thing, and lost, but that’s how things go. I voted (I always vote whenever possible) and could have had a bigger influence by running for a position, had I wanted to.

    What baffles me is the way some people old enough to know better (I add this because I once thought this about other jobs) think that they, who haven’t set foot in a classroom, or in any other job involving organizing groups of people and making sure most of them stay on task, claim to be able to walk in off the street and teach any class fromm K to 12. I always used to suggest that they go for it, since it was such an easy and desireable job!


    14 Jan 12 at 8:08 pm

  12. I’m not sure I’ve met any of those people you describe Cheryl–but I know a lot of people who won’t accept the word of educational spokespeople that (a) teachers in the US are seriously underpaid, (b) no non-teacher can evaluate how well the kids are learning, and (c) only a social revolution or vastly more money could possibly get better results.

    As a matter of fact, I’m one of them. Deference to authority just isn’t what it used to be, and that seems to especially infuriate educators.

    But I’ll admit to being intrigued by the number of people who feel they have mastered “management” and can run an organization without understanding what it does or how it does it. We seem to be a bit overstocked with such people these days.


    14 Jan 12 at 11:59 pm

  13. Thank you, Robert. I laughed so loud at the NEA comment I startled my cats.

    Lack of deference to authority seems to infuriate many of those who get themselves elected or hired into positions of authority. Organizing people and getting most of them to stay on task does tend to make some people even more short-tempered than they were originally. Might help if the tasks they set were less meaningless and pernicious. Might help if people who crave deference didn’t get elected or hired into positions of authority.


    15 Jan 12 at 12:48 am

  14. US teachers salaries vary so much by and within region it’s hard not to suspect that some of them aren’t underpaid.

    Attempts to evaluate teachers are so poor it’s difficult to think that those not in the classroom at some point in their adult lives would do better. This is particularly true when there isn’t a lot of agreement on what the average third grader should be able to, especially when you are then required to apply this to rich and poor schools. The board I was in favour of supported provincial curriculums and testing, by the way.

    I’m not in favour of any revolution unless your government is disappearing opponents or something similar, and I’m sure the local union isn’t either. They, like their non-teacher political masters, do sometimes tend to fall for the latest revolution in educational methods (actually, the politicians do so even more than the teachers) which I think is a weakness.

    There’s nothing wrong with a certain amount of deference. If I want to learn something from someone, naturally I defer to that person’s knowlege of the matter. Sometimes I hit a person I decide doesn’t have the knowledge I want and I move on.

    The ‘you’re not the boss of me’ kind of anti-deference demonstrated in word and action in a classroom make learning impossible for everyone.

    I never thought of it before, but I doubt if many people who want deference either achieve a position to which it’s offered, or hold it long if they do. After all, everyone in or aspiring to such a position gets a lot of the opposite of deference both on the way up and in the top position. Just look at the US political scene righ now. Or any political scene.

    One exception – the deference due to age. Being old enough to get courtesy from those who subscribe to such a policy can be done by not dying.


    15 Jan 12 at 8:43 am

  15. I’m perfectly willing to accuse politicians of corruption, stupidity and incompetence–but I will not blame them for–just off-hand–“open classrooms” “look-see” reading instruction, “holistic” paper-grading, “bilingual” education or the proliferation of “administrative” positions which help teachers escape actually dealing with students. Seems to me that all the serious damage done to K-12 education in the past 60 years has come at the behest of educational professionals, who are now inclined to get huffy whenever anyone wants to check the kids’ English and math competencies.

    Actually, for what it’s worth, I’m sure somewhere in the United States there IS an underpaid teacher–indeed, probably many–and many others who shouldn’t be paid at all. But given that we’ve pretty much doubled out per-student spending with no discernable result, I’m a bit of a hard sell on the notion that pouring even more money down the existing rat holes is going to produce much improvement.

    Deference. At some point, all of us have to say “Joe’s an expert on this: I’ll pretty well have to take his word.” I can’t follow Einstein’s math, but I can see that the math makes predictions which can be and have been tested, so I consider that his conclusions are valid. When I buy a car, I have to take other people’s word on fuel efficiency and reliability. If a trained nutritionist suggests I’ve got something out of whack in my diet, I take him seriously. I have to. The time when one man could know everything probably passed during the Iron Age.

    But the price paid for that deference is results I CAN verify. Johnson and the “Skunk Works” got paid serious money up front because they delivered reliable aircraft which did what they were supposed to do, and people lined up to buy new Apple products because Steve Jobs mostly delivered. You didn’t have to be an aeronautical engineeror a computer programmer: you could see the results.

    But these days I seem to be surrounded by experts who want me to defer to their opinions when they are not delivering testable results. Educational theorists may not be the worst, but I’d put them in the top three with politicians and economists.

    If fashionable educational methods were delivering improved math and English skills, the educators would be falling all over themselves to have outsiders test the students and publicize the results. When they tell me that the tests won’t measure the important things–that is, the kids’ social attitudes and political beliefs, mostly–I already know what the math and English scores will look like.

    Heinlein once wrote that the basis of allmorality was “women and children first” and that generations of adult male philosophers have searched for an alternative. I would suggest that teaching basic English skills is very hard work, but we knew how to do it a long time ago. Much of our problem over the past 60 or 70 years amounts to tachers trying to find some less stressful, more fun–for them–way to teach English, and trying not to admit that they don’t work as well.

    Go back to 1950 instructional methods in Grade 1-4 English. Deliver literate students to the higher grades and to colleges, and watch most of the other problems in education go away. Beginnings are critical. Instead, I bet the teachers’ colleges are even now incubating another method of not delivering the goods.


    15 Jan 12 at 6:24 pm

  16. @Cheryl

    “Sometimes I hit a person I decide doesn’t have the knowledge I want and I move on.”

    I’m shocked, Cheryl, shocked, I tell you. :-)


    15 Jan 12 at 7:37 pm

  17. Mique, that’s what I get for sending before I re-read. I don’t think I’ver really hit anyone except maybe a sibling many, many years ago!

    And Robert – don’t forget we’re now trying to bring nearly everybody up to a level of literacy acceptable to universities, which no one ever tried before. Even the early champions of universal literacy thought most people probably only needed to read the Bible, and maybe write down a recipe or inventory or something.

    So naturally people get antsy about scores even when they aren’t opposed ot testing anyway because of their personal beliefs about testing or equality of outcomes.

    And I don’t have any answers. Giving different programs to different groups can work a bit as long as they don’t get certificates claiming they know the same stuff. But people keep getting put into the wrong groups, particularly if they’re bright kids from poor backgrounds and no books at home. So streaming isn’t the entire answer.

    I could go on, but it’s been a horrible couple of weeks, and all this is bringing back memories of a job I am so glad I left all those years ago.


    15 Jan 12 at 8:37 pm

  18. …we’re now trying to bring nearly everybody up to a level of literacy acceptable to universities, which no one ever tried before. Even the early champions of universal literacy thought most people probably only needed to read the Bible…”

    The translation program must have garbled this passage. Get every high school graduate to where he or she can read a King James Bible, and I for one, will declare victory. Or would you like me to cite by name the Ivy League graduate politicians who demonstrably can’t read on that level?

    But let’s talk what I think of as the essential fact. During WWII, the armed forces worked on the basis that anyone who had completed 8th Grade in an American school system–ANY American schoolsystem, and only 8th Grade–was fully literate. He might still be dumb as the proverbial box of rocks, but he could read any regulation, manual or order, and they wouldn’t have to be “dumbed down” for him. By the Koean War, the armed forces had to start literacy tests, because that assumption was no longer valid. By the mid-1980’s about one company-grade officer in six–mind you they had to have four-year degrees to be commissioned–couldn’t pass that WWII 8th grade. It was not safe to give them a written order or show them a regulation without a verbal explanation.

    I do not think it is unreasonable to ask educators why 16 years of schooling cannot be counted on to produce the result once reached in eight, and I find the response that we’ve RAISED our standards frankly baffling.
    There it is. My line in the sand. I expect every student not mentally disabled to graduate 8th grade fully literate. If we knew how to do this 70 years ago, someone’s going to have to explain to me in great detail why it’s not possible today. No vocabulary more advanced than a KJV, please.


    16 Jan 12 at 7:15 pm

  19. Eighth grade seems to be the key. When I was in school, you didn’t get through eighth grade unless the teachers thought you had a fighting chance of getting through high school – and our school didn’t have a ‘basic’ program. It was a small place. Students who were in basic programs elsewhere took the ‘academic’ program there, except that they were permitted to substitute geography for French. My grade 8 year was interesting in some respects. There was a fairly wide age range, to begin with, since your parents got the ‘baby bonus’ until the baby was 18 as long as he or she was enrolled in some kind of education. But the major result was that a LOT of people never finished grade 8. They dropped out and got jobs as laborers in the local mine or fishplant or helped their mothers at home until they were married. And a lot of them were a lot less literate than my grandfather, who didn’t have the opportunity to get as far as Grade 8, but read and wrote very well. Like two of my great-grandparents, who were illiterate, again because of lack of opportunity I think, it didn’t matter much that they couldn’t read because they could function perfectly well in society. Now, we’re not only offering the equivalent of those who didn’t have the chance to learn to read high school courses in English, we’re doing everything we can to get the determined non-reader there too, when all he or she wants is to get out of school. We no longer force this group out because they can’t perform academically.

    I must have been more tired than I realized to imply that being able to read the KJV wasn’t much of an achievement. I don’t know what I meant, but it wasn’t that!


    17 Jan 12 at 8:02 am

  20. Thank you Cheryl. That was much clearer, and tricky to refute without a full-scale research project.

    Reason why I’m not buying, though: popular trash. Pick any two books by current adult best-sellers you like. I run toward Crusie and Krentz, but I’m sure Steel and Clancy will work equally well: the sort of book which gets a prominent display in the bookstore and a waiting list in the library because it’s the latest by that author.

    Now take a look at, say, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ PRINCESS OF MARS (1912, ALL STORY WEEEKLY) or H. P. Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” (written for WEIRD TALES: published in ASTOUNDING, 1937.) If you don’t like those, KING SOLOMON’S MINES will do. Generations of schoolboys have hidden these in textbooks to keep from being driven mad by GREAT EXPECTATIONS or SILAS MARNER.

    Compare sentence length and vocabulary. By any of the usual measures of reading difficulty, those scapegrace schoolboys of 1937 were reading for pleasure text several years in advance of the reading level of a DC yuppie with a four year degree.

    I want to know why, and I want it fixed. Education professionals explaining why it can’t be fixed needn’t waste my time.

    They’ve wasted enough people’s time already.


    17 Jan 12 at 6:15 pm

  21. Well, there are some of us who could tell you why. Mind, many of us are not considered education professionals–psychologists, especially the school, educational, and cognitive varieties.

    There are some components that are societal. We don’t value or model reading any more, and there are certainly a lot more non-reading distractions available.

    But the fact that teachers, and teacher ed programs, don’t listen to us when we tell them how kids learn and how to teach effectively is a huge part of it! Teaching should be “fun” and “engaging” for the kid as well as for the teacher, rather than “effective.” Fads and face validity matter more than evidence. In fact, data and evidence are dirty words. Feh.

    Cathy F


    18 Jan 12 at 10:39 pm

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