Two on Reading

The first one is from The Chronicle from a few weeks back arguing that we can’t (and oughtn’t try to) teach the love of reading (though you should know that that is a pretty narrow and borderline misleading summary of the article–there’s much more than that here) :

Rarely have young people been expected to have truly deep knowledge of particular texts. Instead, education, especially in its “liberal arts” embodiments, has been devoted to providing students with navigational tools—with enough knowledge to find their way through situations that they might confront later in life. (Even the old English public schools flogged their students through years of Latin and Greek not because Latin and Greek were intrinsically valuable, still less useful, but because the discipline of such study would have a salutary effect on young men’s characters. And these are the terms in which survivors of that system typically praise it.) This is one of the ways in which the artes liberales are supposed to be “liberal,” that is, “liberating”: They free you to make your own way through the challenges of life without requiring external props.

All this is to say that the idea that many teachers hold today, that one of the purposes of education is to teach students to love reading—or at least to appreciate and enjoy whole books—is largely alien to the history of education. And perhaps alien to the history of reading as well.

The other is from the NY Times Book Review on a new book by Binyavanga Wainaina, and it includes a link to his killer essay, “How to Write about Africa“:

Harried reader, I’ll save you precious time: skip this review and head directly to the bookstore for Binyavanga Wainaina’s stand-up-and-cheer coming-of-age memoir, “One Day I Will Write About This Place.” Although written by an East African and set in East and Southern Africa, Wainaina’s book is not just for Afrophiles or lovers of post­colonial literature. This is a book for anyone who still finds the nourishment of a well-­written tale preferable to the empty-­calorie jolt of a celebrity confessional or Swedish mystery.

Not that Wainaina is likely to judge anyone’s taste in books. In fact, at its heart, this is a story about how Wainaina was almost eaten alive by his addiction to reading anything available. “I am starting to read storybooks,” he says of his 11-year-old self, growing up in Nakuru, Kenya. “If words, in English, arranged on the page have the power to control my body in this world, this sound and language can close its folds, like a fan, and I will slide into its world, where things are arranged differently.”

A GREAT Book Review

On some new publishing of David Foster Wallace’s work.

Here it is.

Don’t believe me? Check this section out:

In the wake of the fame these works brought him, Wallace was asked in 2005 to give Kenyon College’s commencement address. He again focused on free will, but this time he took a radically different approach. The speech—also recently published, as This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life—is a masterpiece. It is friendly, fond and very, very funny. In his 2004 essay on lobsters, Wallace had expressed his concern “not to come off as shrill or preachy when what I really am is more like confused.” There, in his speech, and elsewhere his confusion is expressed with rare lucidity. He did not write with what George Steiner once called “the serene malice of age and work done.” He wrote, instead, with the feverish curiosity of youth and of work to be done.

The tone of the address is, as all such addresses must be, avuncular, but the voice is that of the uncle who gets high with you, the uncle who says that your father loves you but that when he was your age he made lots of mistakes and is still to this day a whole lot less sure about things than he lets on. Though Wallace was nearly twice as old as 2005’s graduates, he spoke on their level; he cares and communicates that care. The speech is jocular, disarming, and open; its attitude is you-might-think-I’m-just-a-ridiculous-old-loser-for-saying-this-but-I-actually-believe-it-so-here-goes.

Wallace’s argument—for he has one—is that the goal of undergraduate education, and of all education, is free will. He holds that education’s greatest benefit consists in “being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.” The reason he gives is simple and absolutely typical: “Because if you cannot or will not exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”

Much of his address is thus advice on how not to get totally hosed, which is to say on how to be happy, which is to say, ethics. From Aristotle onward ethics has been about how not to get totally hosed—on the highest level. Learning this is the most desirable thing of all. It is what another great essayist of the twentieth century, Guy Davenport, called “the inviolable privacy” of the mind.

Whereas Wallace’s senior thesis aimed to explain the rightness of something that we knew was right from the outset, the commencement address aimed to explain the necessity of something we think either does not exist or we have long since acquired. He argues that if this ultimate goal of a liberal arts education has been reached, “if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention,” you will have unparalleled freedom. He then broaches the central topics of the novel he had been at work on for several years and was never to finish (The Pale King, to be published in fragmentary form in April): boredom, tedium, and alienation. “It will actually be within your power,” he continues in his Kenyon address:

to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars—compassion, love, the subsurface unity of all things.

As we might expect, the goal of such freedom is not personal pleasure, not merely “the freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms,” but what Wallace calls “real freedom”:

the really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.

That is to say, freedom is not about having as few fetters as possible; it is about leading an examined life. Freedom is being a good person, choosing to be a good person, every day.

See? Told you. Read the rest…

A Review of the New Book about Michelle Rhee

This review of Richard Whitmire’s biography of Michelle Rhee, The Bee Eater, was in Slate a few weeks ago. It’s an interesting read. To wit:

Rhee’s message about education reform is very seductive because it’s simple and optimistic. Childhood poverty and economic school segregation, in Rhee’s world, are just “excuses” for teacher failure. If we could just get the unions to agree to stop protecting bad teachers and allow great teachers to be paid more, she says, we could make all the difference in education. The narrative is attractive because it indeed would be wonderful if poverty and segregation didn’t matter, and if heroic teachers could consistently overcome the odds for students whom everyone agrees deserve a better shot in life.

The fact that Rhee is a hard-working Ivy League graduate makes the elite press respect her as one of their own. And Rhee’s flair for the dramatic makes her irresistible…

Most education researchers, though, recognize that Rhee’s simple vision of heroic teachers saving American education is a fantasy, and that her dramatic, often authoritarian, style is ill-suited for education.

Read the rest HERE.

Another One on Nature

The book reviewed here sounded a lot like one of my all time favorite books, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

It made my spring reading list:

Why are we in such denial? Carl Safina’s ambitious new book, “The View From Lazy Point,” is a series of field reports entwined with a loving meditation on the interconnectedness of nature and humanity. The story he tells is “partly about a kind of heartbreak for a world that remains so vitally unaware of how imperiled it is.” But it’s also about how, despite the gloomy reports, “the world still sings.” Safina’s account of “a natural year in an unnatural world” can be harrowing, but its impassioned, informed urgency is also filled with hope, joy and love.

Doesn’t it make you want to lie down and crack it open? Does for me.

On “The Yellow Wall Paper”

It’s one of my beloved’s favorite short stories (take it easy…it was such before she ever met me), and it’s the topic of a new book and this article about the new book.

Here’s a part:

The value of Horowitz’s book — subtitled “Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’ ” — is not that it reveals an autobiographical element in the story. The author herself made that clear in an essay from 1913. Gilman indicated that she had been subjected to a similar course of treatment following a period of postpartum depression. In 1887, a doctor gave her “solemn advice to ‘live as domestic a life as far as possible,’ to ‘have but two hours’ intellectual life a day,’ and ‘never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again’ as long as I lived.” For a woman who had earned a modest living by painting and writing in her 20s, this must have felt like a kind of death sentence.

But Horowitz, a professor emerita of history at Smith College, has excavated parts of the record that go far beyond Gilman’s account of patriarchal malpractice.

Read the rest here or buy the book!

One for the Math People

From review of a new math book for girls by the woman who played “Winnie Cooper” on The Wonder Years:

Mathematics is, in itself, an exercise in the abstract — twiddling funny squiggles on paper, really, which is fairly pointless except to mathematicians. It’s when math is applied to the universe that the mental game becomes something useful. Budgets can be balanced, bridges designed and laws of physics deduced. So good math education is in society’s best interest…

Danica McKellar, better known as Winnie Cooper, Kevin’s love interest on the TV series “The Wonder Years,” retains the rigor yet takes a friendlier approach (she substitutes the word “Happyland” for algebra in the first chapter) in her latest best seller, “Hot X: Algebra Exposed!”

Aimed at teenage girls, “Hot X” is a cross between a math class and a slumber party, and a perky, self-affirming slumber party at that: interspersed among the math are anecdotes about boys and testimonials about struggles and triumphs with math.

Read the rest here.

A Voice Against Some Who Are Against Intellectuals

Check it out:

Thomas Sowell, the conservative economist and writer who hangs his hat at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, gives it a shot. Sowell is a rare being, an intellectual who makes his life half in the university and half outside it. He has taught on several campuses, writes a syndicated column, and produces a book almost every year. As a black conservative, he occupies a visible perch, and has not been shy in advancing tough critiques of busing and affirmative action. Sowell gets noticed. With a nod to his provocative ideas, Bates College established an endowed chair in economics after him. Now Sowell turns to intellectuals.

And Russell Jacoby, the author of the piece, turns to criticism of Sowell’s arguments. Read the rest.