Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport (Portfolio/Penguin 2019)
Janet recommended this one to me, and after checking out Newport's TED talk, "Why You Should Quit Social Media," I decided to reserve it at the library. I had to wait in line; maybe more than a few people are rethinking Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Old Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all.
Digital Minimalism is divided into two parts: Foundations, and Practices. I read through Foundations easily, able to enjoy the book without pasting sticky tabs all over it. For me, this is like going somewhere and not taking pictures. Those sticky notes represent text that I will later laboriously transcribe for my reviews. As with the photos, something is gained but something is lost. I was enjoying the book and anticipating an easy review.
Then I hit Practices. Or Practices hit me.
The first chapter of that section, "Spend Time Alone," is about solitude deprivation. I could have sticky-noted the whole chapter. Here is me, restraining myself:
Everyone benefits from regular doses of solitude, and, equally important, anyone who avoids this state for an extended period of time will ... suffer. ... Regardless of how you decide to shape your digital ecosystem, you should give your brain the regular doses of quiet it requires to support a monumental life. (pp. 91-92).
[Raymond] Kethledge is a respected judge serving on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and [Michael] Erwin is a former army officer who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. ... [Their book on the topic of solitude], Lead Yourself First ... summarizes, with the tight logic you expect from a federal judge and former military officer, [their] case for the importance of being alone with your thoughts. Before outlining their case, however, the authors start with what is arguably one of their most valuable contributions, a precise definition of solitude. Many people mistakenly associate this term with physical separation—requiring, perhaps, that you hike to a remote cabin miles from another human being. This flawed definition introduces a standard of isolation that can be impractical for most to satisfy on any sort of a regular basis. As Kethledge and Erwin explain, however, solitude is about what’s happening in your brain, not the environment around you. Accordingly, they define it to be a subjective state in which your mind is free from input from other minds. (pp. 92-93)
You can enjoy solitude in a crowded coffee shop, on a subway car, or, as President Lincoln discovered at his cottage, while sharing your lawn with two companies of Union soldiers, so long as your mind is left to grapple only with its own thoughts. On the other hand, solitude can be banished in even the quietest setting if you allow input from other minds to intrude. In addition to direct conversation with another person, these inputs can also take the form of reading a book, listening to a podcast, watching TV, or performing just about any activity that might draw your attention to a smartphone screen. Solitude requires you to move past reacting to information created by other people and focus instead on your own thoughts and experiences—wherever you happen to be. (pp. 93-94).
Regular doses of solitude, mixed in with our default mode of sociality, are necessary to flourish as a human being. It’s more urgent now than ever that we recognize this fact, because ... for the first time in human history solitude is starting to fade away altogether. (p. 99)
The concern that modernity is at odds with solitude is not new. ... The question before us, then, is whether our current moment offers a new threat to solitude that is somehow more pressing than those that commentators have bemoaned for decades. ... To understand my concern, the right place to start is the iPod revolution that occurred in the first years of the twenty-first century. We had portable music before the iPod ... but these devices played only a restricted role in most people’s lives—something you used to entertain yourself while exercising, or in the back seat of a car on a long family road trip. If you stood on a busy city street corner in the early 1990s, you would not see too many people sporting black foam Sony earphones on their way to work. By the early 2000s, however, if you stood on that same street corner, white earbuds would be near ubiquitous. The iPod succeeded not just by selling lots of units, but also by changing the culture surrounding portable music. It became common, especially among younger generations, to allow your iPod to provide a musical backdrop to your entire day—putting the earbuds in as you walk out the door and taking them off only when you couldn’t avoid having to talk to another human. (pp. 99-100).
This transformation started by the iPod, however, didn’t reach its full potential until the release of its successor, the iPhone.... Even though iPods became ubiquitous, there were still moments in which it was either too much trouble to slip in the earbuds (think: waiting to be called into a meeting), or it might be socially awkward to do so (think: sitting bored during a slow hymn at a church service). The smartphone provided a new technique to banish these remaining slivers of solitude: the quick glance. (p. 101)
When you avoid solitude, you miss out on the positive things it brings you: the ability to clarify hard problems, to regulate your emotions, to build moral courage, and to strengthen relationships. (p. 104)
Eliminating solitude also introduces new negative repercussions that we’re only now beginning to understand. A good way to investigate a behavior’s effect is to study a population that pushes the behavior to an extreme. When it comes to constant connectivity, these extremes are readily apparent among young people born after 1995—the first group to enter their preteen years with access to smartphones, tablets, and persistent internet connectivity. ... If persistent solitude deprivation causes problems, we should see them show up here first. ...
The head of mental health services at a well-known university ... told me that she had begun seeing major shifts in student mental health. ... Seemingly overnight the number of students seeking mental health counseling massively expanded, and the standard mix of teenage issues was dominated by something that used to be relatively rare: anxiety. ... The sudden rise in anxiety-related problems coincided with the first incoming classes of students that were raised on smartphones and social media. She noticed that these new students were constantly and frantically processing and sending messages. ...
[San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge observed that] young people born between 1995 and 2012 are ... on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. ... [She] made it clear that she didn’t set out to implicate the smartphone: “It seemed like too easy an explanation for negative mental-health outcomes in teens,” but it ended up the only explanation that fit the timing. Lots of potential culprits, from stressful current events to increased academic pressure, existed before the spike in anxiety.... The only factor that dramatically increased right around the same time as teenage anxiety was the number of young people owning their own smartphones. ...
When journalist Benoit Denizet-Lewis investigated this teen anxiety epidemic in the New York Times Magazine, he also discovered that the smartphone kept emerging as a persistent signal among the noise of plausible hypotheses. “Anxious kids certainly existed before Instagram,” he writes, “but many of the parents I spoke to worried that their kids’ digital habits—round-the-clock responding to texts, posting to social media, obsessively following the filtered exploits of peers—were partly to blame for their children’s struggles.” Denizet-Lewis assumed that the teenagers themselves would dismiss this theory as standard parental grumbling, but this is not what happened. “To my surprise, anxious teenagers tended to agree.” A college student he interviewed at a residential anxiety treatment center put it well: “Social media is a tool, but it’s become this thing that we can’t live without that’s making us crazy.” (pp. 104-107)
The pianist Glenn Gould once proposed a mathematical formula for this cycle, telling a journalist: “I’ve always had a sort of intuition that for every hour you spend with other human beings you need X number of hours alone. Now what that X represents I don’t really know . . . but it’s a substantial ratio.” (p. 111)
The past two decades ... are characterized by the rapid spread of digital communication tools—my name for apps, services, or sites that enable people to interact through digital networks—which have pushed people’s social networks to be much larger and much less local, while encouraging interactions through short, text-based messages and approval clicks that are orders of magnitude less information laden than what we have evolved to expect. ... Much in the same way that the “innovation” of highly processed foods in the mid-twentieth century led to a global health crisis, the unintended side effects of digital communication tools—a sort of social fast food—are proving to be similarly worrisome.(p. 136).
After winning me over with the chapter on solitude deprivation, Newport lost me somewhat with his approach to taming the beasts. The basic problem is that, for a guy who has written several books and has his own blog, he seems to have very little respect for the written word.
Many people think about conversation and connection as two different strategies for accomplishing the same goal of maintaining their social life. This mind-set believes that there are many different ways to tend important relationships in your life, and in our current modern moment, you should use all tools available—spanning from old-fashioned face-to-face talking, to tapping the heart icon on a friend’s Instagram post.
The philosophy of conversation-centric communication takes a harder stance. It argues that conversation is the only form of interaction that in some sense counts toward maintaining a relationship. This conversation can take the form of a face-to-face meeting, or it can be a video chat or a phone call—so long as it matches Sherry Turkle’s criteria of involving nuanced analog cues, such as the tone of your voice or facial expressions. Anything textual or non-interactive—basically, all social media, email, text, and instant messaging—doesn’t count as conversation and should instead be categorized as mere connection. (p. 147)
I heartily disagree with his lumping e-mail in with "all social media, text, and instant messaging." I will grant that most social media, texts, WhatsApp, IM, and the like are severely limited by the difficulty of creating the message. Phones simply are not designed for high-speed typing, and I don't know about other people's experiences, but for me voice-to-text makes so many errors I spend almost as much time correcting as I would have laboriously pecking out a message on the tiny keyboard. (That's why I much prefer WhatsApp, where I can type my messages on the computer keyboard, to texting, where I can't.) So messages tend to be short, of restricted vocabulary and complexity, and full of nasty abbreviations. But e-mails are simply typed letters that get delivered with much more speed than the mail can achieve. I will grant that you miss the tone-of-voice cues that can be heard over the phone, but I think that's often more than made up for by the ability to both speak and listen without interruption. On the phone, if I turn all my attention to what the other person is saying, there's a long silence when it's my turn to talk while I think of how I want to respond. But if I try to figure that out while the other person is speaking, I'm likely to miss, or mis-interpret what is said. And when I'm speaking, it's more than likely that I will get interrupted before getting out my entire thought, and the conversation will veer off in another direction, leaving my response incomplete and likely mis-understood. E-mail leaves plenty of time for listening, thinking, and responding.
Newport has serious problems with Facebook's "Like" button. I can see his point in some respects.
The “Like” feature evolved to become the foundation on which Facebook rebuilt itself from a fun amusement that people occasionally checked, to a digital slot machine that began to dominate its users’ time and attention. This button introduced a rich new stream of social approval indicators that arrive in an unpredictable fashion—creating an almost impossibly appealing impulse to keep checking your account. It also provided Facebook much more detailed information on your preferences, allowing their machine-learning algorithms to digest your humanity into statistical slivers that could then be mined to push you toward targeted ads and stickier content. (p. 192)
I do get the slot-machine analogy. We all crave (positive) feedback for whatever of ourselves we have put "out there." And the temptation to keep checking is real. It reminds me of the joke from 'way back in the America Online days, in which the person sitting at the computer (no smart phones back then) checks his mail, sees that there is none waiting for him—and immediately checks again. It was funny because that's what so many people did. But I think Newport misunderstands how many of us use the Like button.
In the context of this chapter, however, I don’t want to focus on the boon the “Like” button proved to be for social media companies. I want to instead focus on the harm it inflicted to our human need for real conversation. To click “Like,” within the precise definitions of information theory, is literally the least informative type of nontrivial communication, providing only a minimal one bit of information about the state of the sender (the person clicking the icon on a post) to the receiver (the person who published the post). Earlier, I cited extensive research that supports the claim that the human brain has evolved to process the flood of information generated by face-to-face interactions. To replace this rich flow with a single bit is the ultimate insult to our social processing machinery. (p. 153)
But here's the thing. I don't know anyone who pretends that clicking "Like" or "Love" or "I care" is conversation. However, it is the digital equivalent of one part of a successful conversation: the nod, the smile, the grunt, the frown, the short interjection, which in face-to-face conversation we used as an important lubricant to keep a conversation running smoothly. It hardly communicates any more information than the Facebook buttons; maybe it's little more than a bit—but it's an important bit. It says, "I'm listening, I hear you, I agree, keep talking," or "Wait, what you said confuses me, or angers me," or "I'm sorry, I sympathize."
As soon as easier communication technologies were introduced—text messages, emails—people seemed eager to abandon this time-tested method of conversation for lower-quality connections (Sherry Turkle calls this effect “phone phobia”). (p. 160)
Guilty as charged, but there's no need for Newport (or Turkle) to be snarky about it. I'm hardly alone, and there's ample evidence that phone phobia is attached to the same set of genes that makes me like mathematics. I love the (true) story a colleague told of a bunch of math grad students who decided to order pizza. Every one of them hemmed and hawed and delayed making the order, until the wife of one of the mathematicians, herself a grad student in philosophy, sighed, "For Pete's sake!" and called the restaurant. Text-based communication is a real boon to people like us. Call it a disability if you like—and then remember that you shouldn't mock or discriminate against people with disabilities.
Fortunately, there’s a simple practice that can help you sidestep these inconveniences and make it much easier to regularly enjoy rich phone conversations. I learned it from a technology executive in Silicon Valley who innovated a novel strategy for supporting high-quality interaction with friends and family: he tells them that he’s always available to talk on the phone at 5:30 p.m. on weekdays. There’s no need to schedule a conversation or let him know when you plan to call—just dial him up. As it turns out, 5:30 is when he begins his traffic-clogged commute home in the Bay Area. He decided at some point that he wanted to put this daily period of car confinement to good use, so he invented the 5:30 rule. The logistical simplicity of this system enables this executive to easily shift time-consuming, low-quality connections into higher-quality conversation. If you write him with a somewhat complicated question, he can reply, “I’d love to get into that. Call me at 5:30 any day you want.” Similarly, when I was visiting San Francisco a few years back and wanted to arrange a get-together, he replied that I could catch him on the phone any day at 5:30, and we could work out a plan. When he wants to catch up with someone he hasn’t spoken to in a while, he can send them a quick note saying, “I’d love to get up to speed on what’s going on in your life, call me at 5:30 sometime.” ... He hacked his schedule in such a way that eliminated most of the overhead related to conversation and therefore allowed him to easily serve his human need for rich interaction. (pp. 161-162)
I have to say, that strikes me as more selfish than clever. It's saying to everyone else that he will only communicate with them through his own preferred medium. Granted, it's his right to do so, and maybe he's learned that that's the best way he can get the most accomplished. But I'd have to be pretty desperate to call someone who I knew was going to be driving while he is talking with me. Either he's not going to be giving me his full attention, or he's not going to be giving the other cars on the road his full attention, neither one of which strikes me as ideal. And if I have a complicated question, I definitely want the response to be by written word, where there's a record of what was said, and more chance of getting a well thought out response.
I’ve seen several variations of this practice work well. Using a commute for phone conversations, like the executive introduced above, is a good idea if you follow a regular commuting schedule. It also transforms a potentially wasted part of your day into something meaningful. Coffee shop hours are also popular. In this variation, you pick some time each week during which you settle into a table at your favorite coffee shop with the newspaper or a good book. The reading, however, is just the backup activity. You spread the word among people you know that you’re always at the shop during these hours with the hope that you soon cultivate a rotating group of regulars that come hang out. ... You can also consider running these office hours once a week during happy hour at a favored bar. (pp. 162-163)
<Shudder> Really? I'm supposed to go to the expense, inconvenience, and annoyance of sitting around at a coffee shop or bar on spec, just hoping a friend shows up? And expect my friends to be willing to pay an insane amount for a cup of coffee just to talk with me? Here, and in many other places in Digital Minimalism, you can tell that Newport is an extrovert—with plenty of spare cash—and friends who are the same.
And anyway, whatever happened to visiting people in their homes? One friend of ours decided to quit Facebook, and in her final message invited anyone in town to drop by her house for tea. I could get into that. If you're willing to get out and drive to a restaurant, come instead and knock at our door. You'll be more than welcome and none one of us will have to buy an expensive drink. (This pandemic won't last forever.)
[In the early 20th century, Arnold Bennett, author of How to Live on 24 Hours a Day, speaking of leisure activities] argues that these hours should instead be put to use for demanding and virtuous leisure activities. Bennett, being an early twentieth-century British snob, suggests activities that center on reading difficult literature and rigorous self-reflection. In a representative passage, Bennett dismisses novels because they “never demand any appreciable mental application.” A good leisure pursuit, in Bennett’s calculus, should require more “mental strain” to enjoy (he recommends difficult poetry). (p. 175)
Newport approves of the idea that "the value you receive from a pursuit is often proportional to the energy invested." But then he adds,
For our twenty-first-century purposes, we can ignore the specific activities Bennett suggests. (p. 175)
And what, pray tell, is snobbish or unreasonable about literature and poetry?
Newport has a lot to say about the value of craft: of woodworking, or renovating a bathroom, or repairing a motorcycle, or knitting a sweater. He includes musical performances as well. But—and I find this odd for an author—he seems to have little respect for creating books. Would it be a more noble activity if they were typed on an old Remington, or handwritten? He similarly discounts composing music using a computer as less worthwhile than playing a guitar. I don't buy it.
The following story is for our two oldest grandsons, who have a way of picking up and enjoying construction skills.
[Pete's] welding odyssey began in 2005. At the time, he was building a custom home. ... The house was modern so Pete integrated some custom metalwork into his design plan, including a beautiful custom steel railing on the stairs.
The design seemed like a great idea until Pete received a quote from his metal contractor for the work: it was for $15,800, and Pete had budgeted only $4,000. “If this guy is billing out his metalworking time at $75.00 an hour, that’s a sign that I need to finally learn the craft myself,” Pete recalls thinking at the time. “How hard can it be?” In Pete’s hands, the answer turned out to be: not that hard.
Pete bought a grinder, a metal chop saw, a visor, heavy-duty gloves, and a 120-volt wire-feed flux core welder—which, as Pete explains, is by far the easiest welding device to learn. He then picked some simple projects, loaded up some YouTube videos, and got to work. Before long, Pete became a competent welder—not a master craftsman, but skilled enough to save himself tens of thousands of dollars in labor and parts. (As Pete explains it, he can’t craft a “curvaceous supercar,” but he could certainly weld up a “nice Mad-Max-style dune buggy.”) In addition to completing the railing for his custom home project (for much less than the $15,800 he was quoted), Pete went on to build a similar railing for a rooftop patio on a nearby home. He then started creating steel garden gates and unusual plant holders. He built a custom lumber rack for his pickup truck and fabricated a series of structural parts for straightening up old foundations and floors in the historic homes in his neighborhood. As Pete was writing his post on welding, a metal attachment bracket for his garage door opener broke. He easily fixed it. (pp. 194-195)
If you're wondering where to learn skills needed for simple projects ... the answer is easy. Almost every modern-day handyperson I've spoken to recommends the exact same source for quick how-to lessons: YouTube. (pp. 197-198, emphasis mine)
In the middle of a busy workday, or after a particularly trying morning of childcare, it’s tempting to crave the release of having nothing to do—whole blocks of time with no schedule, no expectations, and no activity beyond whatever seems to catch your attention in the moment. These decompression sessions have their place, but their rewards are muted, as they tend to devolve toward low-quality activities like mindless phone swiping and half-hearted binge-watching. ... Investing energy into something hard but worthwhile almost always returns much richer rewards. (p. 212)
Finally, I can't resist his description of former Kickstarter project called the Light Phone.
Here’s how it works. Let’s say you have a Light Phone, which is an elegant slab of white plastic about the size of two or three stacked credit cards. This phone has a keypad and a small number display. And that’s it. All it can do is receive and make telephone calls—about as far as you can get from a modern smartphone while still technically counting as a communication device.
Assume you’re leaving the house to run some errands, and you want freedom from constant attacks on your attention. You activate your Light Phone through a few taps on your normal smartphone. At this point, any calls to your normal phone number will be forwarded to your Light Phone. If you call someone from it, the call will show up as coming from your normal smartphone number as well. When you’re ready to put the Light Phone away, a few more taps turns off the forwarding. This is not a replacement for your smartphone, but instead an escape hatch that allows you to take long breaks from it. (p. 245).
Despite our areas of disagreement, there's only one really, really annoying section of the book. He spends seven pages on the ideas of someone named Jennifer who "prefers the pronoun 'they/their' to 'she/her'." The ideas are not worth the ensuing confusion between singular and plural. I found myself constantly re-reading trying to figure out who was being referenced in the text.
But I do recommend reading Digital Minimalism. The concept of solitude deprivation alone would make it worthwhile, and the rest of the book is pretty good, too—especially if you're not a phone-phobic, introverted author.
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Recently I stumbled upon The Conservative Student's Survival Guide. It's a five-minute video offering advice to—you guessed it—conservative students who find themselves a despised minority on liberal college campuses. That's no joke: for all the talk you'll hear from academia about tolerance, liberal values, and minority rights, it's a jungle out there if your particular minority isn't currently in favor, and it seems the only status more dangerous than "conservative student" on most American campuses is "conservative faculty." It was true when we were in college, it was true when our children were in college—and everything I see leads me to believe the situation is far, far worse now.
What's surprising about this video is that, unlike much that comes from both Left and Right these days, it is calm, well-reasoned, and respectful. What's more, even though it's aimed at conservative students, any thoughtful person who wants to make the most of his college experience would do well to consider this advice.
The speaker is Matthew Woessner, a Penn State political science professor. All of his seven suggestions make sense, but my top three are these:
- Avoid pointless ideological battles. It's not your job to convert your professors or your fellow students. Discuss and debate, but don't push too hard.
- Choose [your classes and your major] wisely. I was a liberal atheist in college, but much on campus was too far Left even for me. Being a student of the hard sciences saved me from a great deal of the insanity that was going on in the humanities and social sciences departments. A quarter-century later, one of our daughters found some of the same relief as an engineering major. Our other daughter, however, discovered that life at a music conservatory was quite difficult—despite the name, conservative values were not welcome.
- Work hard—college faculty value hard-working, enthusiastic students. I'd say this is the most valuable of all his points. Excellence and enthusiasm are attractive. A student who participates respectfully in class, does the work, and learns the material will gain the respect and appreciation of most of his professors. Teachers are like that.
C. S. Lewis wrote the Preface to a book by B. G. Sandhurst entitled How Heathen is Britain? This essay has been republished as the thirteenth chapter of Lewis's book, God in the Dock, which I recently finished re-reading. I deemed the excerpts below too extensive for my review of that book, so here they are in their own post.
The essay, written in the mid-1940's, deals largely with the effect of state education on students' beliefs and attitudes about the Christian faith. A few quotes can't do justice to the logic of the argument, but should suffice to give the flavor. All bold emphasis is my own.
The content of, and the case for, Christianity, are not put before most schoolboys under the present system; ... when they are so put a majority find them acceptable. ... [These two facts] blow away a whole fog of "reasons for the decline of religion" which are often advanced and often believed. If we had noticed that the young men of the present day found it harder and harder to get the right answers to sums, we should consider that this had been adequately explained the moment we discovered that schools had for some years ceased to teach arithmetic. (p. 115)
The sources of unbelief among young people today do not lie in those young people. The outlook which they have—until they are taught better—is a backwash from an earlier period. It is nothing intrinsic to themselves which holds them back from the Faith. This very obvious fact—that each generation is taught by an earlier generation—must be kept very firmly in mind. (p. 116)
No generation can bequeath to its successor what it has not got. You may frame the syllabus as you please. But when you have planned and reported ad nauseam, if we are skeptical we shall teach only skepticism to our pupils, if fools only folly, if vulgar only vulgarity, if saints sanctity, if heroes heroism. ... Nothing which was not in the teachers can flow from them into the pupils. (p. 116)
A society which is predominantly Christian will propagate Christianity through its schools: one which is not, will not. All the ministries of education in the world cannot alter this law. We have, in the long run, little either to hope or fear from government.
The State may take education more and more firmly under its wing. I do not doubt that by so doing it can foster conformity, perhaps even servility, up to a point; the power of the State to deliberalize a profession is undoubtedly very great. But all the teaching must still be done by concrete human individuals. The State has to use the men who exist. Nay, as long as we remain a democracy, it is men who give the State its powers. And over these men, until all freedom is extinguished, the free winds of opinion blow. Their minds are formed by influences which government cannot control. And as they come to be, so will they teach. ... Let the abstract scheme of education be what it will: its actual operation will be what the men make it. ... Your "reform" may incommode and overwork them, but it will not radically alter the total effect of their teaching. (pp. 116-117)
Where the tide flows towards increasing State control, Christianity, with its claims in one way personal and in the other way ecumenical and both ways antithetical to omnicompetent government, must always in fact (though not for a long time yet in words) be treated as an enemy. Like learning, like the family, like any ancient and liberal profession, like the common law, it gives the individual a standing ground against the State. Hence Rousseau, the father of the totalitarians, said wisely enough, from his own point of view, of Christianity, Je ne connais rien de plus contraire à l'esprit social ("I know nothing more opposed to the social spirit"). ... Even if we were permitted to force a Christian curriculum on the existing schools with the existing teachers we should only be making masters hypocrites and hardening thereby the pupils' hearts. (p. 118)
I am speaking, of course, of large schools on which a secular character is already stamped. If any man, in some little corner out of the reach of the omnicompetent, can make, or preserve a really Christian school, that is another matter. His duty is plain. (p. 119)
What a society has, that, be sure, and nothing else, it will hand on to its young. The work is urgent, for men perish around us. But there is no need to be uneasy about the ultimate event. As long as Christians have children and non-Christians do not, one need have no anxiety for the next century. (p. 119)
Clearly Lewis did not anticipate that Christians would embrace the radical move to very small families nearly as much as secular society did. I'm thankful for those who are now reversing that trend. The idea is mocked today ("evangelism by procreation"), but Lewis—though he had a difficult home life and no biological children of his own—clearly recognized the life- and faith-affirming value of begetting and bearing children in Christian families.
As for the rest of the quotations: it is still true that democratic governments have much less control over what children think and learn than they would like. But the same is now also true of teachers. Lewis was thinking of the influence of teachers when he wrote,
Planning has no magic whereby it can elicit figs from thistles or choke-pears from vines. The rich, sappy, fruit-laden tree will bear sweetness and strength and spiritual health; the dry, prickly, withered tree will teach hate, jealousy, suspicion, and inferiority ... [no matter what] you tell it to teach. (pp. 117-118)
This is even more true, now, of the movies, music, and other media that are the very air our young people breathe (and rarely think about), and of the peer-oriented society we have bequeathed them. As I wrote in my review of Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté's book Hold On to Your Kids (a book I strongly recommend to all parents, grandparents, teachers, pastors, and anyone else who cares about children),
It is essential to the survival of a civilization that its culture be passed on from one generation to another. Today's children are not receiving culture, they are inventing it as they go along. We are into the third generation of this problem, and appear to be reaching a tipping point. If the idea of peer culture being more important to children than their family culture doesn't seem strange and wrong to us, it's because that's how we grew up, too.
I've never liked William Golding's book, The Lord of the Flies. Why high school English teachers think it helpful to assault students' spirits with the distressing imaginations of disturbed minds, I cannot imagine. My daughter hated it even more than I did, and although she finished reading the book weeks before the school exam, she steadfastly refused to reread or study it in any way. She'd rather fail, she insisted. (Actually, she aced the test. Having a good memory is both a curse and a blessing.)
The Lord of the Flies certainly hit a chord with popular society, and like it or not has become part of our culture. Say to someone, "it's a Lord of the Flies situation there," and he knows exactly what you mean. It has also contributed to a good deal of negative and cynical thinking.
My sister-in-law, who knows my feelings on the matter, sent me this marvellous story about a real-life event that illustrates just the opposite about human behavior. (Warning: if you read the article, you may have to ignore some incidental, intense political ranting; I don't know what extras might be showing when you get there, but the last time I saw it I almost decided not to include the link. But credit must go where credit it due.) Here are some excerpts with the bare bones of the story:
This story [of the degradation and brutal behavior of castaway English schoolboys] never happened. An English schoolmaster, William Golding, made up this story in 1951—his novel Lord of the Flies would sell tens of millions of copies, be translated into more than 30 languages and hailed as one of the classics of the 20th century. In hindsight, the secret to the book’s success is clear. Golding had a masterful ability to portray the darkest depths of mankind. Of course, he had the zeitgeist of the 1960s on his side. (emphasis mine)
Years later when I began delving into the author’s life. I learned what an unhappy individual he had been: an alcoholic, prone to depression. “I have always understood the Nazis,” Golding confessed, “because I am of that sort by nature.” And it was “partly out of that sad self-knowledge” that he wrote Lord of the Flies.
I began to wonder: had anyone ever studied what real children would do if they found themselves alone on a deserted island? I wrote an article on the subject, in which I compared Lord of the Flies to modern scientific insights and concluded that, in all probability, kids would act very differently. Readers responded sceptically. All my examples concerned kids at home, at school, or at summer camp. Thus began my quest for a real-life Lord of the Flies. After trawling the web for a while, I came across an obscure blog that told an arresting story: “One day, in 1977, six boys set out from Tonga on a fishing trip ... Caught in a huge storm, the boys were shipwrecked on a deserted island. What do they do, this little tribe? They made a pact never to quarrel.”
It took some work to uncover the source of the story, as the date given was incorrect; the real year was 1966.
The real Lord of the Flies ... began in June 1965. The protagonists were six boys—Sione, Stephen, Kolo, David, Luke and Mano—all pupils at a strict Catholic boarding school in Nuku‘alofa [the capital of Tonga]. The oldest was 16, the youngest 13, and they had one main thing in common: they were bored witless. So they came up with a plan to escape: to Fiji, some 500 miles away, or even all the way to New Zealand.
The boys "borrowed" a small sailing boat, and their voyage started out fine, with fair skies and a mild breeze.
But that night the boys made a grave error. They fell asleep. A few hours later they awoke to water crashing down over their heads. It was dark. They hoisted the sail, which the wind promptly tore to shreds. Next to break was the rudder. “We drifted for eight days,” Mano told me. “Without food. Without water.” The boys tried catching fish. They managed to collect some rainwater in hollowed-out coconut shells and shared it equally between them, each taking a sip in the morning and another in the evening. Then, on the eighth day, they spied a miracle on the horizon. A small island, to be precise. Not a tropical paradise with waving palm trees and sandy beaches, but a hulking mass of rock, jutting up more than a thousand feet out of the ocean.
These days, the island is considered uninhabitable. But by the time the boys were rescued, 15 months later,
[They] had set up a small commune with food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens and a permanent fire, all from handiwork, an old knife blade and much determination.” While the boys in Lord of the Flies come to blows over the fire, those in this real-life version tended their flame so it never went out, for more than a year.
The kids agreed to work in teams of two, drawing up a strict roster for garden, kitchen and guard duty. Sometimes they quarrelled, but whenever that happened they solved it by imposing a time-out. Their days began and ended with song and prayer. Kolo fashioned a makeshift guitar from a piece of driftwood, half a coconut shell and six steel wires salvaged from their wrecked boat ... and played it to help lift their spirits. And their spirits needed lifting. All summer long it hardly rained, driving the boys frantic with thirst. They tried constructing a raft in order to leave the island, but it fell apart in the crashing surf.
Worst of all, Stephen slipped one day, fell off a cliff and broke his leg. The other boys picked their way down after him and then helped him back up to the top. They set his leg using sticks and leaves. “Don’t worry,” Sione joked. “We’ll do your work, while you lie there like King Taufa‘ahau Tupou himself!”
They survived initially on fish, coconuts, tame birds (they drank the blood as well as eating the meat); seabird eggs were sucked dry. Later, when they got to the top of the island, they found an ancient volcanic crater, where people had lived a century before. There the boys discovered wild taro, bananas and chickens (which had been reproducing for the 100 years since the last Tongans had left).
They were finally rescued on Sunday 11 September 1966. The local physician later expressed astonishment at their muscled physiques and Stephen’s perfectly healed leg.
The article has much more of the story, including how the rescued boys were immediately clapped into jail for having stolen the boat. (It ends well.)
This is a much better story than The Lord of the Flies, and it's true. Sadly, it's unlikely to have the social impact of Golding's book. But I hope all English teachers who insist on teaching Golding will be inspired to include the real story in their discussions. At the very least, parents now have an antidote to offer their distressed children.
And we all have an antidote to the evening news and social media.
It's time for my annual compilation of books read during the past year. A few patterns stand out: my current C. S. Lewis retrospective; the discovery of several new Rick Brant Science-Adventure books, necessitating a re-read of the whole series; the release of a new Green Ember book, ditto; and the discovery in July of the Brother Cadfael books. Mystery and adventure were heavily represented this year; hence so was fiction. Here are a few statistics:
- Total books: 92, not up to last year's 108, but more than any other year since I started keeping track in 2010
- Fiction 61, non-fiction 22, other 9
- Months with most books: February and December, tied at 15
- Months with fewest books: September, not a one; June had only two; travel is another way of expanding one's horizons
- Most frequent authors: John Blaine (Harold L. Goodwin) 24; C. S. Lewis 23; Ellis Peters 16
Here's the alphabetical list; links are to reviews. Titles in bold are ones I found particularly worthwhile, but the different colors only reflect whether or not you've followed a hyperlink. This chronological list has ratings and warnings as well.
- 100 Fathoms Under: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #4 by John Blaine
- 3000 Quotations from the Writings of George MacDonald by Harry Verploegh (ed.)
- The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis
- The Armchair Economist: Economics and Everyday Life by Steven E. Landsburg
- The Bible (The Message paraphrase)
- The Black Star of Kingston by S. D. Smith
- The Blue Ghost Mystery: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #15 by John Blaine
- A Book of Narnians: The Lion, the Witch and the Others by C. S. Lewis, James Riordan, Pauline Baynes
- The Books of the Apocrypha
- The Business of Heaven: Daily Readings from C. S. Lewis by Walter Hooper (ed.)
- C. S. Lewis on Scripture by Michael J. Christensen
- The Caves of Fear: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #8 by John Blaine
- The Chronicles of Narnia 1: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
- The Chronicles of Narnia 2: Prince Caspian by C. S. Lewis
- The Chronicles of Narnia 3: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis
- The Chronicles of Narnia 4: The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis
- The Chronicles of Narnia 5: The Horse and His Boy by C. S. Lewis
- The Chronicles of Narnia 6: The Magician's Nephew by C. S. Lewis
- The Chronicles of Narnia 7: The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis
- The Confession of Brother Haluin (Brother Cadfael #15) by Ellis Peters
- The Crusades Controversy: Setting the Record Straight by Thomas F. Madden
- Danger Below!: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #23 by John Blaine
- Dead Man's Ransom (Brother Cadfael #9) by Ellis Peters
- The Deadly Dutchman: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #22 by John Blaine
- Decisive by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
- The Devil's Novice (Brother Cadfael #8) by Ellis Peters
- The Egyptian Cat Mystery: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #16 by John Blaine
- The Electronic Mind Reader: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #12 by John Blaine
- Ember Falls by S. D. Smith
- An Excellent Mystery (Brother Cadfael #11) by Ellis Peters
- The First Fowler by S. D. Smith
- The Flaming Mountain: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #17 by John Blaine
- The Flying Stingaree: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #18 by John Blaine
- Go Wild by John Ratey and Richard Manning
- The Golden Skull: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #10 by John Blaine
- The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis
- The Green Ember by S.D. Smith
- The Hermit of Eyton Forest (Brother Cadfael #14) by Ellis Peters
- Innovation on Tap by Eric B. Schultz
- The Last Archer by S. D. Smith
- The Leper of Saint Giles (Brother Cadfael #5) by Ellis Peters
- The Lost City: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #2 by John Blaine
- Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray by Sabine Hossenfelder
- The Magic Talisman: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #24 by John Blaine
- Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis
- Miracles by C. S. Lewis
- The Misadventured Summer of Tumbleweed Thompson by Glenn McCarty
- Monk's Hood (Brother Cadfael #3) by Ellis Peters
- A Morbid Taste for Bones (Brother Cadfael #1) by Ellis Peters
- More Sex Is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics by Steven E. Landsburg
- Ocean-Born Mary by Lois Lenski
- On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature by C. S. Lewis
- One Corpse Too Many (Brother Cadfael #2) by Ellis Peters
- Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
- Past Watchful Dragons: The Narnian Chronicles of C. S. Lewis by Walter Hooper
- Perelandra (space trilogy part 2) by C. S. Lewis
- The Phantom Shark: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #6 by John Blaine
- The Pilgrim of Hate (Brother Cadfael #10) by Ellis Peters
- The Pirates of Shan: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #14 by John Blaine
- Poems by C. S. Lewis
- A Preface to "Paradise Lost" by C. S. Lewis
- A Rare Benedictine: The Advent of Brother Cadfael (Brother Cadfael #16) by Ellis Peters
- The Raven in the Foregate (Brother Cadfael #12) by Ellis Peters
- Recasting the Past: The Middle Ages in Young Adult Literature by Rebecca Barnhouse
- Reflections on the Psalms by C. S. Lewis
- The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson
- Rocket Jumper: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #21 by John Blaine
- The Rocket's Shadow: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #1 by John Blaine
- The Rose Rent (Brother Cadfael #13) by Ellis Peters
- The Ruby Ray Mystery: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #19 by John Blaine
- Saint Peter's Fair (Brother Cadfael #4) by Ellis Peters
- The Sanctuary Sparrow (Brother Cadfael #7) by Ellis Peters
- The Scarlet Lake Mystery: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #13 by John Blaine
- The Screwtape Letters and Screwtape Proposes a Toast by C. S. Lewis
- Sea Gold: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #3 by John Blaine
- Smoke on the Mountain by Joy Davidman
- Smugglers' Reef: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #7 by John Blaine
- Son of Charlemagne by Barbara Willard
- Stairway to Danger: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #9 by John Blaine
- The Story of Christianity, Volume 1: The Early Church To The Dawn Of The Reformation by Justo L. Gonzalez
- The Story of Christianity, Volume 2: The Reformation to the Present Day by Justo L. Gonzalez
- Strange Planet by Nathan W. Pyle
- Studies in Words by C. S. Lewis
- Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis
- That Hideous Strength (space trilogy part 3) by C. S. Lewis
- Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis
- The Veiled Raiders: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #20 by John Blaine
- The Virgin in the Ice (Brother Cadfael #6) by Ellis Peters
- The Wailing Octopus: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #11 by John Blaine
- The Weight of Glory and other Addresses by C. S. Lewis
- The Whispering Box Mystery: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #5 by John Blaine
- The Wreck and Rise of Whitson Mariner by S. D. Smith
The following quotation is from C. S. Lewis's Studies in Words. It's not a book aimed at the hoi polloi—those of us without a strong background in classical literature, Latin, Greek, French, and whatever else scholars were supposed to know in his day. So do not even try to understand it all, stripped as it is of its context and what has been said on previous pages. It's not hard to follow the point of the sentence I have bolded, however.
Distinct from this, so far as I can see, is the use of communis sensus as the name of a social virtue. Communis (open, unbarred, to be shared) can mean friendly, affable, sympathetic. Hence communis sensus is the quality of the "good mixer," courtesy, clubbableness, even fellow-feeling. Quintilian says it is better to send a boy to school than to have a private tutor for him at home; for if he is kept away from the herd (congressus) how will he ever learn that sensus which we call Communis? (p. 146)
If you want to poke the bear at any gathering of homeschoolers, ask the question, "But what about socialization?"
We have to be careful because this can be an innocent, serious inquiry that deserves a serious answer. The above is not suggested as the best way to respond, no matter how tempting. But we get so very, very tired of the question, perhaps in the same way that parents of large families get tired of being asked, "Haven't you figured out what causes that?" Large families who homeschool get both, of course.
I'll spare you the numerous studies and writings—and comics—that make the point that homeschooling is an excellent vehicle for helping children learn to get along well with others and to engage wisely with society in general. You can Google that for yourself.
But Quintilian (c. 35 - c. 100 AD) proves that the question is nearly as old as the Roman hills. Then again, he was a teacher with his own public school, and a lawyer as well, so perhaps he was a bit biased.
Our Church History class has resumed: we have moved on to Volume 2 of Justo L. Gonzales' The Story of Christianity. The books are interesting and the class even better—it's helpful to have our well-educated pastor's insights to affirm/debunk/clarify/expand the author's views. I wish there were more discussion—but the class is already an hour and a half long.
I recently rediscovered this cartoon, which I first came upon in 2012. Sometimes it feels like a good summary of church history. Or the history of science, for that matter. Or the human condition in general! (Click image to enlarge.)
Recasting the Past: The Middle Ages in Young Adult Literature by Rebecca Barnhouse (Boynton/Cook, 2000)
This was another book from my son-in-law's wish list that I found intriguing. It turned out to be both disappointing and enlightening.
The disappointment was my own fault: The stated purpose of the book is "to provide teachers, librarians, and scholars of adolescent literature with a discussion of fiction set in the Middle Ages," so I should not have been surprised that the author talks like an educationist. Neither should I have been surprised (though I was) that the books she analyzes are all very modern. It reminds me of the fifth grade teacher who required that during their "free reading time," her students read only books from the Sunshine State Young Readers Awards list. This, she assured me, was because she wanted to make sure the children were reading quality books. Once I discovered that even to be nominated for that list a book had to be fiction and published withing the last three years, I knew why I was far less than impressed with the selection. I suppose modern authors need some support, but inflicting their works—to the exclusion of all others—on helpless students is even more unfair than forcing the students to eat school lunches.
This teacher-orientation and modern-author bias of Recasting the Past got my reading off on the wrong foot, but I was able to get over it because there really is some good information here. I've long known that much historical fiction, particularly for some reason that favored by schools (and popular movies), plays fast and loose with the facts. I figured the blame mainly fell on lazy authors, who had a story to tell and liked the idea of fitting it into an historical time period, but preferred to make the time fit the story rather than the other way around. Barnhouse opened my eyes to an entirely different source for the problem.
Although the author does not acknowledge this, I'm convinced that the base culprit is that there is such as thing as "young adult fiction." Why there should be is beyond my ken. Anyone who is mature enough to handle the subjects dealt with in these books—which include torture, religious doubts, and sexual activity—should be offended by dumbed-down reading levels and the assumption that everyone of a certain age must be interested in the same things.
Be that as it may, these are aimed at a young adult audience, and it shows. First and worst, the authors are apparently viewing their stories primarily as vehicles for teaching, and teaching 21st century values more than teaching history.
One such value is literacy. Barnhouse notes that much historical fiction aimed at schoolchildren is anachronistic in its attitude towards reading, writing, and book learning. No doubt they want to encourage the same in their modern readers, but it is wrong to give the impression that back then books were considered the key to knowledge, ignoring the practical ways knowledge was passed on in those times.
Modern authors also seem uncomfortable with allowing their young readers to experience attitudes not in line with 21st century standards. The young protagonists must be models of tolerance and diversity as defined by modern educationists; if anything negative is said about Jews, for example, it must come from the mouth of a character that the readers are not likely to like or respect. In a similarly unrealistic approach, Jews, Muslims, and generally anyone-but-Christians are treated by authors of much young adult fiction as paragons of virtue, instead of as human beings.
Barnhouse touches on other subjects, including stories that appear to be set in medieval times but actually belong in the Fantasy genre.
The primary use of his short book is for developing some tools for recognizing anachronism in so-called young adult fiction. Perhaps the most important of these tools is simply being aware of the problem.
Just two short quotes this time, emphasis mine:
The words "Middle Ages" imply a time between two eras, the Roman Empire and the rebirth of Roman culture in the Italian Renaissance. However, tell a twelfth-century Parisian scholar like Peter Abelard that Roman learning is dead and you'll get a surprised look—that is, if you can pry him away from his study of Greek and Roman historians and philosophers. Abelard and his contemporaries used the word modern to describe themselves. The big lie perpetrated by the Renaissance Italians, who said everything was dark and barbaric until they reinvented Rome, shows how little they knew about the transmission of thought, culture, and learning in the medieval period. While it's true that the vast majority of people didn't participate in all of this learning, neither did the majority of Romans. (Introduction, p xiii)
Well-told modern tales of the Middle Ages abound. ... The writers who research carefully enough to understand the differences between medieval and modern attitudes, between different medieval settings, and between fantasy and history, can help their readers understand a strange and distant culture: the Middle Ages. Writers who create memorable, sympathetic characters who retain authentically medieval values teach their audience more than those who condescend to readers by sanitizing the past. Trusting readers to comprehend cultural differences, presenting the Middle Ages accurately, and telling a good story results in compelling historical fiction, fiction that, like medieval literature in its ideal form, teaches as it delights. (p 86)
UPDATE 11/5/19 Here's a table from Stephan, summarizing the book's evaluations. Click to enlarge.
Stephan says, What might be confusing about the table is the multiple use of the comments column. The first books with a fidelity rating > 0 come with comments that summarize very briefly Mrs Barnhouse‘s critique; those with a rating = 0 with a „fantasy level“ comment; and the rest with a summary.
The school lunchbox is dead in Italy.
The Italian Supreme Court has ruled against parents who want to send lunch to school with their children. Their logic? Not eating the school-provided lunch is "a possible violation of the principles of equality and non-discrimination based on economic circumstances."
Even the United States isn't that crazy—yet—despite pushes in that direction by busybodies experts who worry that food from home might not be "good enough," and school-lunch providers who have a deep financial stake in forcing parents to buy their product.
Parents, naturally, are not happy.
Lorenza, who has two children at a Turin school, told a local TV station she spent more than €2,000 (£1,823) on school meals, more than her monthly salary. "My older daughter was not happy because the quality of the food didn't justify the cost, and also because of the hygiene issues with the canteen. "She would often complain that the cutlery was dirty, that the glasses were not particularly clean, or that there would be hairs on the plates," she said.
As with many news reports, this paragraph does not give enough information for us to know just how outraged we should be. Over what time period did this mother spend $2200 dollars? One month, as implied by the comment that the cost was "more than her monthly salary"? Annually per child? Over the entire school experience of all of her (possibly, though not likely, many) children?
Never mind. It doesn't matter. Even if the meals were totally free (where by "free" we mean paid for by other people, of course), it would still be an outrage.
School lunches may be a necessity for some children, who would otherwise not eat—though I've never been able to answer satisfactorily a friend's question, "Isn't that what SNAP (formerly Food Stamps) and WIC programs are all about? Why do we also need free school lunches?"
School lunches are certainly a convenience for busy parents—though there is no reason why a child of school age shouldn't be able to pack his own lunch.
But there was never any doubt in my mind that my own packed lunch was vastly superior to what was offered in the school cafeteria, and apparently our children thought so, too. Even if they often traded their carrot sticks to other children for cookies—at least some child was eating healthful food. I'm reminded of one family I know who qualified for free meals for their children. The children gave it a try, determined that the food at home was better tasting, more nutritious, and even more plentiful—and wisely opted out. At least here they had that option.
More to the point: whatever the Italian Supreme Court may say, being able to feed our children as we think best is a basic, human, family right—right up there with being able to birth, educate, and otherwise rear our children as we think best. As all totalitarian governments know, once you come between parents and their children, most other freedoms become meaningless.
For those families who cannot or will not handle these responsibilities on their own, we rightly make assistance available. That's called charity. But forcing that "assistance" on those who do not want it? That's called tyranny.
And the "principles of equality" the court found so important? Should we make everyone feed their babies formula because some mothers can't or won't breastfeed? Dumb down the school curriculum to the lowest common denominator? Put every child in daycare because some families need that service? Force every child into public school because some parents can't or won't provide private or home education? Make every woman give birth in a hospital because some babies need a doctor's care? Ban unpasteurized milk, orange juice, and cider because not everyone has access to safe sources of these delicious drinks? Forbid handmade clothing because not every mother can sew? Put handicapping weights on the feet of the best dancers to eliminate their advantage over the klutzes?
Oh, wait. Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.
People on Facebook and elsewhere have been wishing Florida students "happy first day of school." Leaving aside that I agree with C. S. Lewis that "the putting on of the school clothes was, I well knew, the assumption of a prison uniform," and that I am so glad to be past that part of our lives, I just have to say that August 12—the start date for many here—is a ridiculous day for the school year to commence.
Here in Florida it's not so bad, as all the buildings are air conditioned, and summer isn't the nicest season of the year anyway. But when our kids were in school and the district flirted with starting mid-summer, our kids had to choose between skipping some wonderful summer educational programs elsewhere in the country and skipping the beginning of school. (We chose the latter, but would rather not have had to do that.) Perhaps I shouldn't complain too much about that, however, or someone will suggest that school schedules should be set nationally, and I'm highly in favor of local control of schools. If people are going to wear chains, at least let those chains be of different colors.
Someone pointed out that we make up for starting early by getting out at the end of May, which is true. There's something to be said for that, though I'm not sure why one would cut off days at one end of summer just to sew them back on to the other end. The weather in June is sometimes nicer than in August, but you sure can't count on it. Still, shifting the calendar is at least better than the other thing schools have been doing: shrinking summer vacation and adding vacation days here and there throughout the year. I'm of two minds there. Granted, it's lovely to have days off in the middle of the school year, especially when the weather is nicer.
But nothing beats the traditional long, idyllic stretch of the summer, where the days are free for reading, exploring, playing pick-up games with the neighbors, or just stretching out on the ground (or up in the treehouse) and watching the sky. The summer mindset doesn't come quickly. I noticed with our own children that a week's vacation from school wasn't nearly enough, because the beginning of the week was filled with what we called detoxification—as the children re-learned to order their own days—and the end with anticipation of the return to school. Summer was long enough for freedom to take hold in our hearts. I suspect teachers feel much the same way: after each return to school, it takes students time to settle back in, and as an anticipated vacation approaches, their focus is broken. Time is wasted when durations are too short.
All that aside: Be you student, teacher, or parent, if you've chosen (or had chosen for you) the life of being tied to the School Year—I do wish you the best: a happy first day of school and all the rest of them as well.
I never fail to get a kick out of the way my mind has a mind of its own. There are things I know that I don't know I know, tucked away in the depths of those "little grey cells," waiting to be called forth, or more likely, to bubble up at random times, unbidden.
For example, there was the time I saw an interesting-looking butterfly flitting around the garden, and into my mind popped, "It's a gulf fritillary." I had no idea I knew what a gulf fritillary butterfly was, but I know I'd seen the identification before, having quite long ago made a book about butterflies for our grandchildren. It was there in my mind, somewhere, even though I could not have voluntarily recalled that information.
Then there was this, quite recently: I had just finished reading C. S. Lewis's Surprised by Joy, and when my eyes passed over the title of the book on our kitchen counter, my mind filled in, "Impatient as the wind." After a moment's wonder, I realized that I was quoting a poem, and my next thought—again unbidden—was, "It's probably Wordsworth." Which, I later confirmed, it is. I have no idea from what depths that knowledge was dredged, nor why, at this particular time and place, it came to me.
Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport—Oh! with whom
But Thee, long buried in the silent Tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind—
But how could I forget thee?—Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss!—That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.
I had been looking at the book and its title multiple times a day for several days, yet never once in those previous days had the poem come to mind.
I'm reminded, also, of the time early in her mathematical education, when our younger daughter cried out in frustration when I—dutiful teacher!—asked her to show her work, instead of just writing down the answer to the problem. "I can't show my work!" she exclaimed, "There is no 'work'—there is just the answer!"
I think we all know a lot more than we think we do—not everything we learned went in one ear and out the other. The problem is not so much knowledge as retrieval. It's all the more interesting to me because one of our grandchildren appears to have this undependable retrieval system under much better control than most of us: When he learns something, he knows it and he remembers it—at least a lot better than most of us do. How does that work?
And what other fascinating facts are there, sleeping in the recesses of my brain, that I know but don't know I know until they choose to reveal themselves?
Ocean-Born Mary by Lois Lenski (J. B. Lippincott, 1939)
I grew up with Lois Lenski's Indian Captive, a fictionalized version of the story of Mary Jemison, captured by Indians during the French and Indian War. She remained with the Senecas all her life, and I have seen her grave in Letchworth State Park, one of our favorite spots in Western New York. It remains one of my favorite stories.
Many years later, after moving to Florida, I discovered the Newberry Award-winning Strawberry Girl, Lenski's novel about rural Florida in the early 20th century, and liked it also.
I wish Lenski's books weren't so hard to find. Recently I discovered a new one, in little Hillsboro, New Hampshire's tiny library: Ocean-Born Mary—and it's as good as the other two.
There's a reason this book is in a New Hampshire library: it is the fictionalized story of Mary Wilson Wallace, who was born on a ship that was part of the 18th century Scots-Irish immigration to New England. She grew up in New Hampshire, and her grave is in Henniker, the next town over from Hillsboro. Our New Hampshire grandchildren will want to be sure to read the Afterward, where they will find such familiar names as The Isles of Shoals and Star Island.
Warning: some spoilers below, but important for parents to read.
I loved Ocean-Born Mary. This is the world many of my ancestors lived in. Lenski has fictionalized the story and softened some of the harsh details for the juvenile audience, but there is great historical detail and it rings true. Written in 1939, it does not have 21st-century sensitivities, and modern parents may cringe at the casual references to "Negro slaves." But that was reality, and it's good for Northerners to realize what they would love to forget—that slavery was not exclusively a Southern sin. It was part of life at that time, as were smallpox and starvation, Indian attacks and British oppression.
Many modern parents may find even more objectionable the protagonist's friendship with an older man of very ill repute, and the fact that she sneaks away on several occasions to meet with him. Nothing untoward happens, and there is nothing at all romantic in the modern sense about the relationship. I've read many modern children's books that are infinitely worse in that dimension. Nonetheless, it may make modern parents queasy, which is why I'd suggest this book as a read-aloud, or that parents might at least read it themselves, first.
But I do recommend Ocean-Born Mary, highly. It's a gripping story, enjoyable to read, and I think it paints a good picture of colonial New England.
There's no doubt that video games and manipulating phones and tablets develop certain skills. But if we think all that button pushing and finger-swiping are improving manual dexterity, apparently it's not doing so in ways that still matter greatly—such as the skills needed by a surgeon.
Roger Kneebone, professor of surgical education at Imperial College, London, says young people have so little experience of craft skills that they struggle with anything practical. ... "It is a concern of mine and my scientific colleagues that whereas in the past you could make the assumption that students would leave school able to do certain practical things—cutting things out, making things—that is no longer the case," says Prof Kneebone.
Prof Kneebone says he has seen a decline in the manual dexterity of students over the past decade. ... Students have become "less competent and less confident" in using their hands, he says. ... "We have students who have very high exam grades but lack tactile general knowledge."
Such skills might once have been gained at school or at home, whether in cutting textiles, measuring ingredients, repairing something that's broken, learning woodwork or holding an instrument.
Is this something to be gravely concerned about, or will we simply turn surgery over to robots the way we have turned shifting the gears in our cars over to automatic transmissions?
C. S. Lewis wrote about peer orientation? Certainly not by that name.
But recently, as part of my C. S. Lewis retrospective, I came upon a passage in Mere Christianity that immediately brought to mind the epidemic of children taking their culture and direction from peers, rather than from parents or other adults, which has been going on in our society for at least three generations.
What Lewis was actually writing about was the central tenet of Christianity: what it is and what it is not.
The central Christian belief is that Christ's death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did that are another matter. A good many different theories have been held as to how it works; what all Christians are agreed on is that it does work.
As part of his explanation of one of those theories, Lewis likens God's work in us—enabling us to repent, reason, and love—to a teacher who helps a child learn to write by holding the child's hand and forming the letters with him. Later he writes [emphasis mine],
I have heard some people complain that if Jesus was God as well as man, then His sufferings and death lose all value in their eyes, "because it must have been so easy for Him." Others may (very rightly) rebuke the ingratitude and ungraciousness of this objection; what staggers me is the misunderstanding it betrays. In one sense, of course, those who make it are right. They have even understated their own case. The perfect submission, the perfect suffering, the perfect death were not only easier to Jesus because He was God, but were possible only because He was God. But surely that is a very odd reason for not accepting them? The teacher is able to form the letters for the child because the teacher is grown-up and knows how to write. That, of course, makes it easier for the teacher; and only because it is easier for him can he help the child. If [the child] rejected him because "it’s easy for grown-ups" and waited to learn writing from another child who could not write ... (and so had no "unfair" advantage), [the student] would not get on very quickly. If I am drowning in a rapid river, a man who still has one foot on the bank may give me a hand which saves my life. Ought I to shout back (between my gasps) "No, it’s not fair! You have an advantage! You’re keeping one foot on the bank"? That advantage—call it "unfair" if you like—is the only reason why he can be of any use to me. To what will you look for help if you will not look to that which is stronger than yourself?
Rejecting the help of those who are stronger than ourselves is what we have been doing for decades. We turn for help and advice—for the very shaping of our lives—to our peers, and we not only tolerate, but encourage, the same in our children. Unlike all generations before the 20th century, we do not acquire our culture from our parents, but from agemates who have no more experience, knowledge, and wisdom than we ourseves. We ignore history, throwing out all mankind has learned from the beginning of human life on earth, on the grounds that the benighted, ignorant savages that came before us have nothing to say to our modern world. The latest TED talk or Huffington Post article gets more respect and attention than the wisest writings of the past.
No wonder we're in a mess.
The year of 2018 may stand as the one in which I read the most books ever. Records were made to be broken, of course, but this year's effort was helped considerably by the completion of my project of reading my entire collection of books by Miss Read, which tend to be under 300 pages and easy reading. When I realized that I had tied my previous record before the end of September (73, set in 2015), the thought crossed my mind, "Wouldn't it be cool to reach 100 by the end of the year?" "Impossible," I told myself. Well, you know how I feel when someone says, "impossible," even it's myself to myself. So I set a goal of reaching a full century, without resorting to padding the list with books chosen merely for their brevity. I confess that the goal did change my reading habits somewhat, since after making that decision I put off any particularly lengthy books—such as my grandson's favorite Wheel of Time series with its 900 or so page average—until 2019.
The month with the fewest books read was January, no surprise since we were overseas part of the month, and that's when I read the first of the Wheel of Time books. I read the most books (14) in October. Once again I'm pleased with the mixture, though as I said it was pretty heavily weighted towards Miss Read. I enjoy these projects of binge-reading a particular author; I've also done Shakespeare, George MacDonald, and J. R. R. Tolkien. My current project is C. S. Lewis, which will weigh in very heavily next year, given that our home library alone contains 50 books by or about him.
Here's the alphabetical list; links are to reviews. Titles in bold I found particularly worthwhile. This chronological list has ratings and warnings as well.
- Affairs at Thrush Green by Miss Read
- American Terroir by Rowan Jacobsen
- At Home in Thrush Green by Miss Read
- Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild
- Battles at Thrush Green by Miss Read
- The Bible (ESV - English Standard Version)
- The Big Burn by Timothy Egan
- The Birth of the United States: 1763 - 1816 by Isaac Asimov
- The Black Star of Kingston by S. D. Smith
- By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder
- C. S. Lewis: A Biography by Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper
- C. S. Lewis: Images of His World by Douglas Gilbert and Clyde S. Kilby
- Celebrations at Thrush Green by Miss Read
- Changes at Fairacre by Miss Read
- The Christmas Mouse by Miss Read
- Country Bunch by Miss Read
- Dancing Shoes by Noel Streatfeild
- The Dark Tower and Other Stories by C. S. Lewis
- Ember Falls by S. D. Smith
- Ember Rising by S. D. Smith
- Emily Davis by Miss Read
- The Excellence Habit by Vlad Zachary
- The Fairacre Festival by Miss Read
- Farewell to Fairacre by Miss Read
- Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder
- Farther Afield by Miss Read
- The First Four Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder
- Force 10 from Navarone by Alistair MacLean
- Foster's War by Carolyn Reeder
- Fresh from the Country by Miss Read
- Friends at Thrush Green by Miss Read
- From a Northern Window by Ronald MacDonald
- George MacDonald: 365 Readings by C. S. Lewis
- George MacDonald's Fiction: A Twentieth-Century View by Richard Reis
- The Golden Door: The United States from 1865 to 1918 by Isaac Asimov
- Gossip from Thrush Green by Miss Read
- The Green Ember by S.D. Smith
- The Harmony Within: The Spiritual Vision of George MacDonald by Rolland Hein
- Heidi by Johanna Spyri
- Highest Duty by "Sully" Sullenberger
- The Howards of Caxley by Miss Read
- Invitation to Number Theory by Oystein Ore
- Killing Lincoln by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard
- The Last Archer by S. D. Smith
- Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading by Maureen Corrigan
- The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien edited by Humphrey Carpenter
- Life Essential: The Hope of the Gospel by George MacDonald, edited by Rolland Hein
- The Light in the Forest by Conrad Richter
- Lincoln's Last Days by Bill O'Reilly and Dwight Jon Zimmerman
- Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
- Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
- Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
- The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder
- The Lost Empress by Steve Robinson
- The Man Who Counted by Malba Tahan
- The Market Square by Miss Read
- Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink
- The Mindverse Chronicles by Anaya Roma (Diana Villafaña)
- Momo by Michael Ende
- Moonshiner's Son by Carolyn Reeder
- The Pilgrim's Regress by C. S. Lewis
- Mrs. Pringle of Fairacre by Miss Read
- Proving the Unseen by George MacDonald
- New Worlds to Conquer by Richard Halliburton
- News from Thrush Green by Miss Read
- Night Without End by Alistair MacLean
- No Holly for Miss Quinn by Miss Read
- Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t by Steven Pressfield
- On Stage, Please by Veronica Tennant
- On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder
- On the Way Home by Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane
- One Beautiful Dream by Jennifer Fulwiler
- Our Federal Union: The United States from 1816 to 1865 by Isaac Asimov
- Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis
- Outlaws of Time #1: The Legend of Sam Miracle by N. D. Wilson
- Outlaws of Time #2: The Song of Glory and Ghost by N. D. Wilson
- Outlaws of Time #3: The Last of the Lost Boys by N. D. Wilson
- A Peaceful Retirement by Miss Read
- Planet Narnia by Michael Ward
- The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis
- R & M (beta version) by MB
- Return to Thrush Green by Miss Read
- The School at Thrush Green by Miss Read
- Shades of Gray by Carolyn Reeder
- The Shaping of North America: From Earliest Times to 1763 by Isaac Asimov
- Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog by Kitty Burns Florey
- Spirits in Bondage by C. S. Lewis
- Summer in Fairacre by Miss Read
- Theatre Shoes by Noel Streatfeild
- These Happy Golden Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder
- Thrush Green by Miss Read
- Time Remembered by Miss Read
- Toby Tyler; or, Ten Weeks with a Circus by James Otis
- Tyler's Row by Miss Read
- Village Affairs by Miss Read
- Village Centenary by Miss Read
- The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
- What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell
- The Wheel of Time Book 1: The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan
- White Fang by Jack London
- The White People by Frances Hodgson Burnett
- The White Robin by Miss Read
- The Wind from the Stars by George MacDonald, edited by Gordon Reid
- Winter in Thrush Green by Miss Read
- The World Encyclopedia of Christmas by Gerry Bowler
- The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan
- The Wreck and Rise of Whitson Mariner by S. D. Smith
- The Year at Thrush Green by Miss Read