altThe Royal Road to Romance by Richard Halliburton (Garden City Publishing, 1925)

Richard Halliburton was the Rick Steves of the early 20th century—with a few minor differences, such as not travelling with a camera crew, constantly putting himself into physical danger, and showing a marked disdain for societal conventions such as paying train fares.

Halliburton graduated from Princeton in 1921, the year my father was born. Scorning a more conventional life, he and a friend signed on to a ship, as ordinary seamen, and worked their way to Europe. The Royal Road to Romance is an enjoyable narrative of Halliburton's adventures, with and without companions, tramping all over Europe; slogging through the jungles of Southeast Asia; venturing into forbidden Afghanistan; climbing Mt. Fuji, solo, in the dead of winter; supporting himself by great thrift, petty theft, and articles occasionally mailed home to magazines eager to appease the American appetite for travel stories.

This is travel, and this is adventure, but it's also chock-full of history and geography, made all the more interesting because it was written when the world's geography and politics were vastly different from today's. Imagine, too, a world in which Halliburton managed to pay homage to many of his favorite sites, now tourist meccas, from the fortifications on Gibraltar to the Taj Mahal to Angkor Wat to the Great Pyramid of Cheops—up close and personal, for hours, entirely in solitude.

The Royal Road to Romance came to my bookshelves from my father's library, along with two other Halliburton books, The Glorious Adventure and New Worlds to Conquer. I'm looking forward to more of his well-written and fascinating stories.

Halliburton's life is not one to be emulated—he died at 39 attempting to cross the Pacific in a Chinese junk—and his stories have a light-hearted amorality about them that can be a little disconcerting, as can the racial attitudes and language of the time. But understood in context, I think this would be a good book for older grandchildren—as long as they don't develop a taste for schwarzfahren.


The least commonplace of the routes [from Peking to Japan], in fact, the forbidden, abandoned route for tourists, was through northern Manchuria to Harbin, thence to Vladivostok by the Trans-Siberian and across the Japanese Sea. With my tiger's tooth no longer protecting me, with an arctic winter at hand, with a Chinese bandit army in control of one-half the railroad and the officious Bolsheviks the other, only a determined seeker after novelty would have cared to travel this route. Its disadvantages were so numerous, the possibility of being delayed and harassed so great, my enthusiasm was only half-hearted when I began to make practical investigation. However, when the American and Bolshevik authorities refused point-blank to give me a passport, my ardor for Siberia—heretofore a very negligible quantity—burst forth in a holy flame, and with a determination fired by hatred of this injustice I vowed that now I would go, and defied all the officials in Asia to stop me.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, June 6, 2017 at 9:50 am | Edit
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altJim Bridger: Mountain Man by Stanley Vestal (University of Nebraska Press, 1970; originally published 1946)

I read this book, not only because of my 95 by 65 project's goal of reading 26 existing, unread books from my bookshelves, but because I remembered Jim Bridger from Porter's stories of his 1973 vagabond trip across the United States. He was particularly interested in Yellowstone National Park, which Bridger was one of the first white men to explore, and "Jim Bridger stories" were an enjoyable part of his research.

Consequently, I read this book with an eye towards its possible use as an introduction for our homeschooled grandchildren to the history and geography of that part of the country. Although the book is more serious and adult than I was expecting, it still might serve that purpose. It certainly was enjoyable for me to read.

On the other hand, I'm having trouble figuring out what age group the author intended as his audience. The text switches, often with apparent randomness, between straight narration and narration in what I assume to be mid-19th century Mountain Man vernacular. After a while, I became accustomed to the language, but to me this attempt to add color to the story only made it feel as if it were intended for a young audience. On the other hand, the "adult" situations and language don't commend the book to children. While certainly not graphic by today's standards, one must wade through several "hells" and one "nigger" plus some unpleasant descriptions of carousing—and of atrocities. And if the term "Indians" offends you when used in referring to Native Americans, you will cringe every time at the Mountain Man talk, in which they are always "Injuns," more often than not "cussed Injuns."

On the other hand, that was the way of the Wild, Wild West, and you're not going to get a truthful history of the time and place without some of it. And truth is what impresses me most about this book. Written in 1946, the tales are blessedly free of the modern myth that Native Americans were innocent and righteous until the white men came and ruined everything. On the other hand, it is more than usually honest for the time about the stupidity and cruelty of the whites. In addition to being a well-researched biography of Jim Bridger, discerning the man in the mythos that grew up around him, the book appears to be a fair depiction of the complex clash of Indian, explorer, pioneer, and military cultures.

I think Jim Bridger: Mountain Man would be an excellent addition to any homeschool study of American history—but parents should read it first.

 


 

The Oregon Trail following up the Platte through the buffalo country had frightened the game away. And, when a hundred thousand forty-niners came swarming over that trail, heading for California goldfields, the Indians became thoroughly alarmed, suspicious, and resentful. Buffalo would not cross that broad beaten "medicine road" which cut the Plains in two. After 1850 there were two herds instead of one: the Buffalo North and the Buffalo South. The coming of the white man had turned that great pasture along the Platte into a barren desert.

Neither the passing white man nor the starving Indian saw anything to admire in the other. The whites passed through too quickly to discover how false their notion of the Plains Indian was—the notion which they had brought from the Dark and Bloody Ground, the notion that every Indian was a treacherous thief and murderer, thirsting for the blood of every stranger and delighting in torture of the helpless.

The Indian hunter, on the other hand, whose most necessary virtues were courage, generosity, and fortitude, could only despise the caution, thrift, and sharp practice of the Yankees as the meanest vices; each being in his eyes simply a species of cowardice.

Because of this dislike and misunderstanding on both sides, there was constant friction and increasing distrust. But the Plains Indian had no newspapers to state his case, and so, by 1851, had been given a thoroughly bad name in the States.

There was constant enmity between Jim Bridger and the Mormon settlers, particularly their leader, Brigham Young.  This excerpt also shows the integration of plain text and Mountain Man vernacular.

Some would have it that all the trouble between these two men originated in a woman's spite. These persons would have it that, after Bridger's Ute wife died in childbirth, July 4, 1849, Jim married a Mormon woman, that they fell out and parted, and that her spiteful, whispering tongue was the source of all the evil rumors about Bridger current among the Saints.

This story hardly fits Bridger's known circumstances, tastes, and habits. He had as much sense as any Mountain Man alive—and hardly any Mountain Man alive was fool enough to wed a fofurraw white gal from the settlements. Pale as a ghost, thin as a rail, and green as grass, a white gal was no good in camp or on the trail. Moreover, Mountain Men had lived so long among the pesky redskins that their idea of female beauty war an Injun idee, and you can lay to that. Bridger sincerely respected his Injun women, treated them as wives, and adored his halfbreed children. And in those days, even if he had wanted to wed a white gal—would she have had him?

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, June 3, 2017 at 7:58 am | Edit
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I went to the doctor for a physical the other day. To be clear, I like my doctor and think that we finally understand each other reasonably well. But as part of the preliminaries, a nurse came into the room and started asking questions.

Nurse: Are you feeling depressed?

Me: No, but if I were, I wouldn't tell YOU.

NurseHave you lost anything important to you in the past year?

Me: Well, I mislaid my cell phone for a few minutes, but I found it again.

NurseHave you....

Me (interrupting): Look, just take my vitals and let me see the doctorI came here for a physical, not a mental.

No, that's not what I said. I was meek and compliant, if somewhat confused by her sudden concern for my mental health. I make a point of not antagonizing someone who will later be jabbing a needle into my arm. But it's what I wish I could have said.

I like to think of the doctor-patient relationship as one in which I pay the doctor—with or without an insurance company proxy—to do for me what I cannot do for myself, because of his knowledge (medical school and experience), and his ability to access certain services which I cannot (medical tests, prescription drugs). More and more, however, I find the medical establishment taking on a paternal, authoritarian role, as well as poking and prodding into areas not part of the unspoken contract. For example:

  • Psychological questions such as the above. A simple, "Do you have any other concerns?" should cover anything he thinks a physical exam might miss.
  • Insisting that adolescent children be examined without a parent present. The only reason they want to do that is to ask the children questions they may not feel comfortable answering, and given the doctor's position of authority and respect, to my mind this borders on abuse. Schools do the same; I'll get to that later.
  • Asking a young child if anyone smokes in his house, as happened to my nephew. If the child has any breathing issues, this is a right and proper question to ask, but of the parent. Not of the child.

Doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel: I appreciate your knowledge, your experience, your respectful and friendly manner, and your willingness to work with me for the improvement of my family's health. I hope you appreciate my cooperation, respect, and knowledgeable concern about health matters. But I need a partner in health, not a nosy nanny.

That incident with the medical profession reminded me of my greater concern: education. I won't go into all my experiences with the educational system—as student, parent, aunt, friend, and volunteer—but I long ago came to the conclusion that the school system, especially but not exclusively the public schools, is an even greater nosy nanny than the medical establishment.

Teachers, principals, school psychologists, and others from the educational system: I appreciate your skills, your experience, and your often genuine concern for my children. I hope you appreciate my respect, volunteerism, and knowledgeable concern for my children's education. But my family needs a partner in education, not a nanny.

  • Teach my child important academic subjects. (This includes the arts, in case you think I mean only the 3R's.)
  • Do not ask about his private life or the lives of his family members.
  • Do not give him psychological or medical exams.
  • Do not try to teach him ethics or moral behavior. Teach the rules of proper classroom behavior, by all means, but leave questions like, "When do you think it's okay to lie?" to the family—and to philosophy classes. Demonstrate ethical behavior by your own example, please—but not as part of the curriculum.
  • Leave my child's feelings, emotions, and beliefs alone. They are his, and pressure on the part of an authority figure to reveal them is abusive.
  • Don't feed my child. I will feed him breakfast and dinner, and send a bag lunch to school with him. It's none of your business whether the bag contains sprouted wheat bread with organic carrots and hummus, or McDonald's drive-thru fare, or a fluffernutter sandwich and Doritos.
  • Don't be a babysitter. If my child is not actively learning, send him home. Contrary to what you apparently expect, I do not rejoice when the big yellow bus swallows him up in the morning, nor is my first thought when school vacation approaches, "What am I going to do with him under foot all day?"

If you've made it this far without giving up on me as hopelessly out of sync with modern society, let me assure you that I realize there are many families who welcome the school services I despise, and I can see why the public schools are considered a reasonable venue for providing them. But if we're going to do that, they really need to be provided on an opt-in, not an opt-out basis, just as you should be able to choose to receive special offers (known to many of us as junk mail) when you sign up for something, but the default situation avoids them.

By all means, offer before-school breakfast to students who need it, but don't make my child sit on the bus while waiting for the classroom doors to open. Stop using incentives and pressure to try to attain 100% participation in your school lunch program. Let an optometrist come in to the school and offer free eye exams, but get parental permission first. (I mean real, specific, informed permission, not a general release signed at the beginning of the year and without which the child can't attend school!) Make it very clear to the children that they do not have to answer questions that make them feel uncomfortable (math problems excepted); better yet, don't ask such questions in the first place. Provide counselling for individuals or groups if the parents assent, but stop the practice of sending whole classrooms to such sessions, especially without parental knowledge and informed consent.

I make it sound as if we had a terrible school experience, and that was not the case. Most teachers and administrators were helpful and respectful, even if they did consider us weird. But it took much knowledge, time, and attention than most parents are able to give, to craft a school experience remotely serving our family's needs. Even so, a lot slipped through our hands, either because we didn't know what was going on, or because we had to choose our battles.

All too often, "partnership in education/medicine" means that we are supposed to endorse and enforce whatever the teachers/doctors decree. That is no partnership, and it is unacceptable. As long as the medical and educational establishments expect such to be the case, they should not be surprised to find people—and mostly bright, thoughtful folks they should want to be part of the mainstream—turning more and more to alternatives.

Since money changes hands in the transaction, it's tempting to consider doctors and teachers as our servants, and I'm sure their specialized training tempts them to view themselves as our masters. In the long run, however, a good, working partnership can achieve much more.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, May 26, 2017 at 11:20 am | Edit
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When she was in fifth grade, Heather won her school's spelling bee. It was a significant accomplishment—the competition was stiff—and we were proud of her.

Imagine how Edith Fuller's parents feel. The homeschooled five-year-old from Oklahama won the regional championship spelling bee and on May 30 will be competing in Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, DC. The contest is for children through eighth grade. Here she is in action.

This Slate article takes a positive, if somewhat mocking tone, but asks, Why?

Spelling bees have a certain poignancy that, say, a science fair lacks. Being a good speller is like having beautiful handwriting or being an excellent seamstress: It’s impressive, but it’s almost totally unnecessary for most 21st-century adults. If STEM is the future, spelling feels like the past.

To which I must respond, Why basketball? Why golf? Why the Olympics? If the significance of spelling bees, and of spelling as a skill, are questioned "in the age of spell-check," what's the point of knowing knowing how to throw a javelin or to jump long and high in these days when we don't need to hunt for our food and escape cave bears?

It's possible to overdo anything, of course, and not everyone will find it worthwhile to attain Olympic or spelling bee champion status. But developing the mind and body is its own justification.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, April 8, 2017 at 6:40 am | Edit
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altThe Power of Mathematical Visualization by James S. Tanton (The Great Courses)

We are loving our Great Courses Plus subscription. We leapt right in with The Power of Mathematical Visualization, and I recommend it enthusiastically.

The great physicist, Richard Feynman, used visualization extensively to understand problems. Temple Grandin, author of Thinking in Pictures, suggests we may be too hasty in trying to prevent and cure autism, since mild forms ot Autism Spectrum Disorder, at least, lead people to different and possibly important ways of thinking. But what about the rest of us, who are neither geniuses nor autistic (nor autistic geniuses)?  Visualization is still a powerful and fascinating way to think about math, from basic arithmetic to esoteric and high-powered concepts.

Back when The Great Courses was called The Teaching Company, the course format was primarily a talking-head lecture, perfectly suited for audio-only listening in the car while commuting to work. Many of the courses still work well for that, but the company has grown and expanded considerably, not just in content but also in format. The Power of Mathematical Visualization includes plenty of diagrams, images, and physical demonstrations.

James Tanton is an engaging teacher. He does spent a bit too much time complaining about the unhelpful ways he was taught math in school, but I soon learned to forgive and ignore that. His enthusiasm for math is infectious. You can watch the introductory lecture on YouTube, if you want to check it out.

Here's a picture of the course contents. (Click for a larger image.)

alt

I'd recommend this course to anyone, including all our grandchildren. Certainly the oldest three could get a lot out of most of the lectures. The six-year-olds, being especially interested in math, are also good candidates. Even the younger ones would benefit from at least being in the same room while others are watching. You never know what they are absorbing from their surroundings.

James Tanton has another series on The Great Courses Plus, called Geometry: An Interactive Journey to Mastery. Would I ever have picked that one out of their long list of topics that are at first glance much more interesting? Not likely. But we're watching it now, because Tanton is such a good presenter, and so far it's as intriguing as Visualization.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, February 10, 2017 at 6:09 am | Edit
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This was another good reading year, not a new record for quanity, but my second highest since beginning to keep track in 2010. Granted, it squeaked into that position because I counted one children's picture book (King Ron of the Triceratops), but it was my son-in-law's first published book, so it deserved no less.

Looking at the chronological list (which has rankings, warnings, and review links), you can pretty much tell the months that we were travelling overseas. There was no month in which I read zero books, but some had only one or two. Summer was my best time for reading: over half the books fell into July, August, and September.

Here's the alphbetical list. Once again, I'm pleased with the variety, even though it's pretty heavy on George MacDonald because of my goal of reading all of his books in order over a period of three years. Titles in bold I found particularly worthwhile.

  1. The Bible (Holman Christian Standard Bible version)
  2. The Black Star of Kingston by S. D. Smith
  3. The Case for a Creator by Lee Strobel
  4. Clouds of Witness by Dorothy Sayers
  5. The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare
  6. Cure by Jo Marchant
  7. Daughter of Liberty by Edna Boutwell
  8. Dere Mable by E. Streeter
  9. A Dish of Orts by George MacDonald
  10. Donal Grant by George MacDonald
  11. Early Tales of the Atomic Age by Daniel Lang
  12. The Elect Lady by George MacDonald
  13. Ember Falls by S. D. Smith
  14. Far Above Rubies by George MacDonald
  15. The Fatal Tree by Stephen Lawhead
  16. The Flight of the Shadow by George MacDonald
  17. George MacDonald: 365 Readings by C. S. Lewis
  18. The Green Ember by S. D. Smith
  19. Guild Court by George MacDonald
  20. Heather and Snow by George MacDonald
  21. Hidden Secrets Revealed by Wallace M. Campbell
  22. Hiroshima by John Hersey
  23. Hiroshima Diary by Dr. Michihoko Hachiya
  24. The History of the Renaissance World by Susan Wise Bauer
  25. Home Again by George MacDonald
  26. The Hope of the Gospel by George MacDonald
  27. Into the Atomic Age edited by Sholto Watt
  28. King Ron of the Triceratops by S. S. Paulson
  29. The Light Princess and other Fairy Stories by George MacDonald
  30. Lilith A (first draft of Lilith) by George MacDonald
  31. Lilith by George MacDonald
  32. The Lion of St. Mark by G. A. Henty
  33. The Lion of St. Mark by G. A. Henty (re-read after visiting Venice)
  34. Main-Travelled Roads by Hamlin Garland
  35. Mark and Livy by Resa Willis
  36. Men of Science, Men of God by Henry M. Morris
  37. My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
  38. The New Testament (King James version)
  39. Old Granny Fox by Thornton W. Burgess
  40. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
  41. Poetical Works, Volume 1 by George MacDonald
  42. Poetical Works, Volume 2 by George MacDonald
  43. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
  44. The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald
  45. The Road to Character by David Brooks
  46. A Rough Shaking by George MacDonald
  47. Salted with Fire by George MacDonald
  48. Sidney Chambers and the Forgiveness of Sins by James Runcie
  49. Sidney Chambers and the Perils of the Night by James Runcie
  50. Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil by James Runcie
  51. Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie
  52. Stephen Archer and Other Tales by George MacDonald
  53. There and Back by George MacDonald
  54. They're Your Kids by Sam Sorbo
  55. The Tragedie of Hamlet by William Shakespeare, a study by George MacDonald
  56. The Tragedy of Coriolanus by William Shakespeare
  57. Unnatural Death by Dorothy Sayers
  58. Unspoken Sermons Series II by George MacDonald
  59. Unspoken Sermons Series III by George MacDonald
  60. The Village on the Edge of the World by A. T. Oram
  61. Weighed and Wanting by George MacDonald
  62. What's Mine's Mine by George MacDonald
  63. What's Wrong with the World by G. K. Chesterton
  64. Whose Body? by Dorothy Sayers
  65. Wild Animals I have Known by Ernest Thompson Seton
  66. Will Rogers (Hallmark)
Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, January 6, 2017 at 6:09 am | Edit
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Our daughter and son-in-law have always made a point of helping their six children acquire basic life skills at an early age. I've mentioned previously that by age four the kids are fully competent to chop vegetables for a salad, having begun by cutting up mushrooms at age two.

On a recent visit, we were blown away by their skills on a different front.

The family has a small apartment above the garage that is used by overnight guests. This time it was our eight-year-old granddaughter who took complete responsibility for preparing the apartment for our visit, from cleaning the bathroom to putting fresh sheets on the bed.  She did an excellent job.

And on each of our pillows she put a neatly-folded set of towels ... and two pieces of chocolate.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, December 17, 2016 at 5:07 pm | Edit
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It's far too early to have figured out all the ins and outs of the recent Ohio State killings, but two lessons seem clear to me.

I wish we would not be so quick to label such acts as terrorism. The officials may be cautious, but that doesn't stop the public from making its own hasty judgements. We don't want to dilute the term, and I for one am tired of every act of violence toward more than one or two people being called terrorism. Maybe this was, but my own feeling is that terrorism has to have a broader purpose, such as an ideology or at least a campaign to gain power and intimidate a group of people through fear. Murder/suicide, mental illness, anger, and hatred have been around a long time, and calling them terrorism gives the actions a certain respect that could lead still more deranged people to express their feelings through dramatic forms of murder/suicide.

However he might have cloaked his actions, this attacker sounds more like a lone wolf with personal problems. Calling him a terrorist, no matter how much he may have played into the hands of certain terrorist organizations, is according him a dignity he does not deserve.

Empowering is better than cowering. This article from the Columbus Dispatch explains why Ohio State broadcast the message "Run Hide Fight" to their students during the attack. (Emphasis mine.)

“Run Hide Fight” has become this generation's “Stop Drop and Roll.” It stems from a public-awareness campaign used by the Department of Homeland Security. ... The message is meant to get people to go through a series of steps to ensure survival: Run if they can, hide in a secure place if they can't and, as last resort, fight for their lives.

Dr. Steve Albrecht, an expert on threat assessment in the workplace and schools, said the “Run Hide Fight” protocol has been an effective tool in helping people react in mass-violence situations.

“What I teach in my program is these (attackers) aren’t Navy Seals, they are dumb or mentally ill guys with guns who can be stopped,” said Albrecht, a former San Diego police officer who is now based in Colorado. “You have to give people the mindset that we can fight back, and that we have to wait around for someone to shoot people is wrong. And that’s why the 'Run Hide Fight' approach has worked and fighting back has helped save the day in many of these situations.”

That's pretty much the advice we were given when our homeowner's association had a program on what to do during an "active shooter" situation—which, by the way, the speaker pointed out is a misnomer that we should stop using. A rifle range is full of harmless active shooters, and the killer at Ohio State managed to do a lot of harm without firing a shot. "Active killer," or "active attacker" would be more accurate, though I don't expect the media to change their language anytime soon.

Our speaker had some other good advice, such as:

  • When you walk into a room, note where the exits are. Active attackers may actually be rare, but that's good advice for many situations, including fires and having to take your toddler to the bathroom.
  • Recognize that guns and knives are not the only weapons available. Chairs, tables, umbrellas, and other items in the room could save your life.
  • Know the difference between cover and concealment (both make you more difficult to find, but only cover will stop a bullet).
  • Run if you can, and keep running as far as you can. Don't stop just because you have gotten out of the room/building. Many dangerous things will stil be happening. And try to remember to run with your hands up, because the police don't immediately know who the dangerous people are.
  • Remember that you won't necessarily know who the police are. In such situations, the police are called in from all over, and may not be in uniform.
  • If you are a concealed carrier and have heroically saved the day by shooting the assailant, drop your gun, put your hands up, and step away from the scene. Remember that the police will enter the room intent on stopping a man with a gun in his hand....

It's high time we stopped teaching our children that they are helpless. We don't want them to be so confident they take unnecessary risks, but if we don't give them knowledge and skills and teach them to be courageous in the face of danger—even evil—we're lost.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, November 29, 2016 at 9:21 am | Edit
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I’ve created a new category, “Inspiration,” for collecting quotations. I’ll be gleaning from many sources, but at the start it will be mostly from George MacDonald, a consequence of my 95 by 65 goal of reading all of his books.

Can I say that I appreciate my Kindle more and more?  I know that I hesitated to get an e-reader, because there’s nothing like the feel (and often the scent) of reading a physical book. I still believe that. And some of MadDonald’s books I’m reading from the delightful Johannesen complete set my father gave to me. MacDonald's book on Hamlet, for example, is much easier to read in physical form, with the text on the left page and his commentary on the right.

But the Kindle lets me bookmark, highlight, and take notes. Even when reading the physical book, I have the Kindle version nearby (easy, because of the phone app) so that I can do that. And then I can copy the quotations instead of transcribing them. It’s so much nicer than the sticky-note-type-it-all routine.

So on with this post’s quotation. The context is the process of restoring to health a severely ill young man. MacDonald wrote in the 19th century, when folks had to get well—if they ever did—without the help of antibiotics and other treatments we take for granted. Often recovery involved long stretches—weeks or months—in bed or with severely restricted activity. As unimaginable to most of us as that is, I think these exercises might still have educational value.

[Mr. Wingfold] began to set [Arthur] certain tasks; and as he was an invalid, the first was what he called "The task of twelve o'clock;"—which was, for a quarter of an hour from every noon during a month, to write down what he then saw going on in the world.

The first day he had nothing to show: he had seen nothing!

"What were the clouds doing?" Mr. Wingfold asked. "What were the horses in the fields doing?—What were the birds you saw doing?—What were the ducks and hens doing?—Put down whatever you see any creature about."

The next evening, he went to him again, and asked him for his paper. Arthur handed him a folded sheet.

"Now," said Mr. Wingfold, "I am not going to look at this for the present. I am going to lay it in one of my drawers, and you must write another for me to-morrow. If you are able, bring it over to me; if not, lay it by, and do not look at it, but write another, and another—one every day, and give them all to me the next time I come, which will be soon. We shall go on that way for a month, and then we shall see something!"

At the end of the month, Mr. Wingfold took all the papers, and fastened them together in their proper order. Then they read them together, and did indeed see something! The growth of Arthur's observation both in extent and quality, also the growth of his faculty for narrating what he saw, were remarkable both to himself and his instructor. The number of things and circumstances he was able to see by the end of the month, compared with the number he had seen in the beginning of it, was wonderful; while the mode of his record had changed from that of a child to that almost of a man.

Mr. Wingfold next, as by that time the weather was quite warm, set him "The task of six o'clock in the evening," when the things that presented themselves to his notice would be very different. After a fortnight, he changed again the hour of his observation, and went on changing it. So that at length the youth who had, twice every day, walked along Cheapside almost without seeing that one face differed from another, knew most of the birds and many of the insects, and could in general tell what they were about, while the domestic animals were his familiar friends. He delighted in the grass and the wild flowers, the sky and the clouds and the stars, and knew, after a real, vital fashion, the world in which he lived. He entered into the life that was going on about him, and so in the house of God became one of the family. He had ten times his former consciousness; his life was ten times the size it was before. As was natural, his health had improved marvellously. There is nothing like interest in life to quicken the vital forces—the secret of which is, that they are left freer to work.

 — George MacDonald
There and Back

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, September 28, 2016 at 9:48 am | Edit
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The best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is — not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him ... to make him think things for himself.

 — George MacDonald

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, August 19, 2016 at 9:41 am | Edit
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There aren't many movies I'm so excited to see that I'll venture into a movie theater, but Hidden Figures is one of them. A movie about mathematicians and the early space program? I can't wait. The embedded YouTube trailer will probably not come out. Something has gone wrong and none of my embedded videos currently work in Chrome, Firefox, or IE—at least not for me. On the other hand, they do work on my phone, so I don't know what's going on. But this link will take you there in any case.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, August 16, 2016 at 8:55 am | Edit
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I started playing with Duolingo back when it was in private beta, though I didn't make it a regular habit for another year or so. I've been pretty regular since early 2014, however, and I think it's great. I've been doing French and German the longest. I'm at Level 24 in each of them, and have finished all the lessons available in French. I had been on track to finish German not much later, but suddenly the German lessons were revised to add a whole lot more material. I'm not complaining, and hope they will do so for the French at some point. For now, I'm still making my way through new German lessons while constantly reviewing the French. I chose French because that's the language I spent 3.5 years learning in school, and German because of our Swiss family. Sadly, Duolingo has no Swiss German lessons, so High German will have to do. High German is more generally useful, anyway, but I do find myself resenting having to type the eszett, which isn't used in the Swiss version of High German but is required by Duolingo.

At some point in 2015 I added Spanish (now Level 13), out of a feeling of obligation. I live in Florida, and that makes Spanish the most practical foreign language to learn. No doubt because I am learning it for duty rather than love, it is my least favorite of the languages. I'm hoping I'll like it more as I get better at it. It took me quite a while to start liking German....

This spring, when we travelled to Venice, I added Italian (now Level 9), just for fun. I'm enjoying it, especially when I note the similarities and differences with Spanish and French. I'm hoping we'll eventually manage a trip with friends to Cortona, where it will be polite to have at least a little Italian.

Am I learning anything? I'm certainly not becoming fluent. (I have yet to figure out how Duolingo does its calculations. It claims I'm 49% fluent in Spanish, a bald-faced lie if there ever was one.)  And even though I practice speaking along with reading and writing, I know I couldn't carry out a decent conversation in any of the languages. Or even a halting, broken conversation.

However, that does not trouble me. What I am doing is increasing my familiarity with the languages, educating my ear and my speech, picking up some grammar and vocabulary, and preparing pathways in my brain for a time when I might have the opportunity to learn in a more interactive situation. I hope that by laying a foundation now, I will make faster progress at that hypothetical time. In any case, it's fun to understand a few things I did not before: When I saw a restaurant named Cena, I recognized the Italian word for "dinner."

It has also been interesting to note changes in my learning as I progress. At the beginning, I made sure to separate my language learning sessions. If I studied French in the morning, I'd tackle German in the evening. Otherwise, I'd get confused. Then suddenly, I didn't. And I really mean suddenly. All at once I could switch between languages with no interval in between. I don't mean that the German word won't sometimes come to me first when I'm working in French, or vice versa, but it doesn't happen often, and it no longer bothers me. The hardest, now, is between Italian and Spanish, because both are new to me and so many words are very similar but not identical.

I do Duolingo both on my laptop and using the app on my phone. The interfaces are different, and each is valuable in its own way. Right now I'm in a routine of using the phone most of the time, because I do my Duolingo lessons as part of my daily exercise (more on that later). For each language I generally do the suggested review ("strengthen") and then one additional lesson (except in French, where I've reached the end). The process is slower on the phone, but since I'm exercising at the same time, that's not a problem. Obviously I can't keep the same learning schedule when we're travelling, but as long as there's an Internet connection available, I can do enough that catching up is not difficult.

It's even more fun to share Duolingo with family members and friends!

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, August 10, 2016 at 7:50 am | Edit
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altThe History of the Renaissance World:  From the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Conquest of Constantinople by Susan Wise Bauer (W. W. Norton, 2013)

Three years ago, when I finished reading Bauer's The History of the Medieval World, I wrote a brief review. With very minor tweaks it could serve just as well for a review of her history of the Renaissance. I'm still looking forward to her next installment, whenever that may be; I'm still tired of "kings and battles and political intrigue" factor and want to hear more about art, music, and everyday life; I'm still hopelessly confused by the endless repetition of the same names for European rulers and the unpronounceable names of rulers everywhere else; and I still love seeing the connections between European history and my genealogical research.

Slowly, slowly I am building up a historical framework in my mind. When I was in school, I didn't have the least interest in history. I had negative interest in history, actually. Math was important, science was important—but history?  Boring and useless. Out-of-date. Now I know better. For all I know, history in schools may still be boring, but that tragedy doesn't diminish its importance. Without knowing where we've been, we don't know where we are, and we certainly don't know where we should go and how we might get there.

I would still put the ability to read well and excellence in mathematics at the top of my list of educational priorities, but a solid grounding in history would come next.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, July 21, 2016 at 8:41 pm | Edit
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This clip about the German Forest Kindergartens showed up in my Facebook feed. (Thanks, Liz.)

It caught my attention because Janet and her kids visited one (Waldspielgruppe) and had a blast.

("What do you mean, 'had a blast'?" asked five-year-old Joseph. He speaks three languages, but misses the occasional idiom. He's also very literal, and was probably puzzling about pyrotechnics. I suggested that it means "an explosion of fun.")

Perhaps the most educational part of their visit was the revelation of do-it-yourself possibilities.

  1. Spielgruppe, whether this or one of the differently-focussed options available, is expensive, costly in both time and money. You could buy a lot of cool equipment for your home and still save money.
  2. Anyone can buy the special rain gear that allows a child to emerge clean and dry from a romp in the mud—once you know it exists and where to find it. ("There is no bad weather, only bad clothing.")
  3. The forests are open to the public, nearby, and free.

Who needs Spielgruppe?  Who needs kindergarten?

Since then Janet has taken the gang, outfitted in their new rain gear, for their own fun in the forest. Once they even met up with the preschool group and they all had fun together.

Maybe the best advantage a formal organization gives you is that, after paying all that money, you work to find time for your child to participate. But if you have the self-discipline to make it happen, don't outsource the fun!

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, July 8, 2016 at 11:55 am | Edit
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altThey're Your Kids:  An Inspirational Journey from Self-Doubter to Home School Advocate by Sam Sorbo (Reveille Press, 2016)

I usually ignore the suggestions my Kindle pops up for me to read, but I'm a sucker for homeschooling stories, especially at $2.99. This one both pleased me and was woefully disappointing.

The pleasure came in the second part of the book, which describes the family's experience with homeschooling. I love these personal tales, whether the author shares my own educational philosophies or not. Homeschooling stories are infinitely varied and, to me, endlessly interesting. The Sorbos' adventures are no exception.

The disappointment came, as disappointment usually does, through foiled expectations.

I had read that the inspiration for the family to begin homeschooling came because the parents' careers (acting, modelling, writing) took them on the road a lot. "Aha," I thought. This could be the solution to a problem that has been troubling me.

Because we were homeschoolers before that educational option became popular—indeed, before it became legal in many states—my lovingly amassed collection of homeschooling stories is very old. Not that anyone's personal experiences can really become outdated, but I know that those currently homeschooling or considering the option would like to hear voices from the current century.

Moreover, while homeschooling was initially primarily a left-wing, "hippie" kind of movement, it was later enthusiastically adopted by Christians who had their own reasons for distrusting government schools, and many of the more recent stories have an unabashedly religious base. Nothing wrong with that—but it muddles the issues in some people's minds.

Knowing that They're Your Kids was from a family of traditionally secular, left-wing professions, I anticipated that it would provide a much-needed, different perspective.

It doesn't. Far from it. The beginning of the book is filled with the kind of anti-public-school ranting that the more secular folks associate with right-wing extremism, and which embarrasses so many of us who still consider ourselves both Christian and politically more right than left. Especially painful is that the author, like so many others, fails to distinguish the Common Core standards from some of the highly objectionable implementations. It's the kind of diatribe that may pump up those who already agree, but will turn off nearly everyone else.

Despite all this, I certainly don't regret buying They're Your Kids. It costs more than $2.99 to buy a bag of chips!  What I'd recommend is skipping over the first part of the book and getting right into the Sorbos' story. Every homeschooler's story has a unique perspective and new ideas

I do have one more warning; it's for my readers who are trying to teach multiple levels and wrangle toddlers at the same time:  Just ignore the part where she says her three kids get everything done in three hours.  (We only had two and never finished in three hours.)

Herewith some of my favorite quotes:

“No one can become really educated without having pursued some study in which he took no interest - for it is part of education to learn to interest ourselves in subjects for which we have no aptitude.” — T. S. Eliot

As good a job as the educators [at the Classical Christian school] were doing, I realized Shane was no longer at liberty to pursue his mathematics to his heart’s content. Now he was on a treadmill, along with his entire class.

I realized that teachers are, in fact, traffic control cops, and so my son was simply good at being herded. “What about his academics?”

“He’s doing fine...”

“Fine” was an unacceptable accolade, when I’d seen him love learning at home.

[Schools] adopt a plan that levels the expectations, by slowing down the better performers. Although this approach may seem counter-intuitive, it’s much easier to hold back the advanced students than try to accelerate the less gifted ones.

If revered institutions don’t complete the textbooks, why was I holding myself to such a high standard? Because I’m a perfectionist… but that’s unhealthy for my kids and me. I decided that just because I have high standards doesn’t mean I must follow and complete an entire curriculum to find educational satisfaction.

Keep your eye on the ball. Learning is the goal, the textbook is just a tool.

[A]t the risk of losing them to boredom or frustration, I err on the side of caution—everything in moderation. We cover the basics until I see they understand, confident that review is coming. This way, the loves of my life aren’t burdened with my obsessive perfectionism, agonizing to complete tomes of structured learning. I’d rather we concentrate on enjoying the process instead.

Early in life I’d learned to choose the hard thing, because boredom was worse than hard work.

Sometimes, you have to do something that’s hard simply because it is hard—to practice, to build strength.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, June 12, 2016 at 5:02 pm | Edit
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