Thursday, February 2, 2023

AN ACTIVIST

Robert Conquest, Harvest of Sorrow
New York: Oxford University Press, 1986, 232-233
An activist recalls [Stalin’s forced famine in the Ukraine]:

    “I heard the children…coughing, coughing with screams [from government-planned famine]. And I saw the looks of the men: frightened, pleading, hateful, dully impassive, extinguished with despair or flaring up with half-mad, daring ferocity.

    ‘Take it. Take everything away. There’s still a pot of borscht on the stove. It’s plain, got no meat. But still it’s got beets, taters ‘n’ cabbage. And it’s salted. Better take it, comrade citizens! Here, hang on. I’ll take off my shoes. They’re patched and repatched, but maybe they’ll have some use for the proletariat, for our dear Soviet power!"

    It was excruciating to see and hear all this. And even worse was to take part in it…and I persuaded myself, explained to myself. I mustn’t give in to debilitating pity. We were realizing historical necessity. We were performing our revolutionary duty. We were obtaining grain for the socialist fatherland. For the Five Year Plan.”

    He adds, “With the rest of my generation I firmly believed that the ends justified the means. Our great goal was the universal triumph of Communism, and for the sake of that goal everything was permissible—to lie, to steal, to destroy hundreds of thousands and even millions of people, all those who were hindering our work or could hinder it, everyone who stood in the way. And to hesitate or doubt about all this was to give in to ‘intellectual squeamishness’ and ‘stupid liberalism,’ the attribute of people who ‘could not see the forest for the trees.’

    That was how I reasoned, and everyone like me, even when…I saw what ‘total collectivization’ meant—how they ‘kulakized’ and ‘de-kulakized,’ how they mercilessly stripped the peasants in the winter of 1932-1933. I took part in this myself, scouring the countryside, searching for hidden grain, testing the earth with an iron rod for loose spots that might lead to buried grain. With the others, I emptied out the old folks’ storage chests, stopping my ears to the children’s crying and the women’s wails. For I was convinced that I was accomplishing the great and necessary transformation of the countryside; that in the days to come the people who lived there would be better off for it; that their distress and suffering were the result of their own ignorance or the machinations of the class enemy; that those who sent me—and I myself—knew better than the peasants how they should live, what they should sow and when they should plough.

    In the spring of 1933 I saw people dying from hunger [eventually about 14.5 million human beings were made to starve to death]. I saw women and children with distended bellies, turning blue, still breathing but with vacant, lifeless eyes. And corpses—corpses in ragged sheepskin coats and cheap felt boots; corpses in peasant huts, in the melting snow of the old Volgoda, under the bridges of Kharkov…I saw this and did not go out of my mind or commit suicide. Nor did I curse those who had sent me out to take away the peasants’ grain in the winter, and in the spring to persuade the barely walking, skeleton-thin or sickly swollen people to go into the fields in order to
fulfill the bolshevik sowing plan in shock-worker style.

    Nor did I lose my faith. As before, I believed because I wanted to believe.”

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

HIGH SCHOOL

 A Message to High School Teachers and Principals

I would like to believe that many of the high school teachers and administrators who will read this are the products of a liberal education. If so, at some point your mind was touched by a teacher or your imagination was excited by a field of study. You decided you had a vocation in teaching, so you put aside easier and more lucrative endeavors to show adolescents something of the joys of knowing. Some of you, the best of you, use the classroom, with its conversation and its readings, to expand your own horizons and continue to grow in knowledge yourself. It’s been my experience that many of you truly love some aspect of the liberal arts. Even more than many university professors, who can sometimes be devoted more to their research projects than to the broad sweep of their field, you are in love with history or literature or French or science. You persist in this devotion despite all the challenges and disappointments we all know are part of the life of a high school teacher.

Having said that, I hesitate to burden you with another problem, with a thought both true and sad: If your students do not get a liberal education under your tutelage, they almost certainly will never get one. And for the great majority, even with the beginnings of a liberal education from you, they will abandon what you love, and they will go on to other things. The liberal arts will not play much of a part in their future lives. To reshuffle some of the figures I set out in the introduction, in one recent year over 300,000 undergraduate degrees were given in business, with only 37,000 in philosophy, English, and history combined. But the problem isn’t that so many of your students will go to college with particular career or vocational goals before them. Let’s hope that you’ve widened their interests to a degree that even in the most technical of fields they can find issues and questions that will lead them to continue to expand their minds regarding important human questions. No, my real worries are different. Even if your students do go to an ostensibly liberal arts college, we all know how deeply specialization and “research” have set down their roots, even at that level. I worry that, with your having sown the seeds, they will go to college in search of even greater liberal learning…but the seed will shrivel and die…

…Of course, even at the best liberal arts colleges taking courses in biology, history, or anthropology often means not learning the broad sweep of the discipline but, rather, learning how to be a professional biologist, historian, or anthropologist. I’m sorry to tell you this, but in the vast majority of cases, the last chance for our children to see the world and see it in its breadth and complexity rests with you. Their last best hope of seeing the broad sweep of this civilization and its works is in your hands.

John Agresto, The Death of Learning (221-223). [2022] Encounter Books. Kindle Edition.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

DEFEATING THE ORDINARY

Finally, what seemed to start as an attempt to tear down the high and exceptional—great books, high culture, the ancient and modern Hellenic/European literary and philosophic tradition—has now moved on. Having debased and degraded the high, it is now in the midst of an attempt to defeat the ordinary—ordinary family life, heterosexuality, simple love of country, traditional virtues, traditional religious habits and outlooks. To do this, universities use not only their course offerings but all the controls at their disposal—regulations, codes, freshmen orientation, residential and extracurricular student life, sensitivity training, required diversity courses, the dismantling of “the canon,” and more. This is sometimes done quietly, relying more on acquiescence and acceptance than threat, though the more committed among them can, if provoked, openly turn against their own (reflect, again, on the hapless Dr. Summers).

From the start, the real goal of the multicultural movement and then the politicization of liberal learning was not simply to enrich the study of music or add to our appreciation of new poetry; the real goal was the transformation of society at every level, from high to low. In order to accomplish this goal, what previously was deemed ordinary needed now to be stigmatized. To believe, for example, that racial preferencing has no place in institutions of learning is now considered not reasonable but racist. To entertain notions of possible differences between men and women is now not only unacceptable but sexist. To think that one might learn something of value from ancient writers is now not ordinary but elitist. To think that a survey of Western civilization should be offered in a university core rather than courses sponsored by the women’s studies department or by the coalition for LGBTQA+ studies is to open yourself to charges of sexism and homophobia as well as any number of other iniquities. 

To hold to orthodox religious observances and beliefs, above all to believe in any standard religious/ethical framework, might put you at odds with current views regarding lifestyle “choices” and thus at odds with modern understandings of social justice. Especially be careful of any displays of old-fashioned patriotism or love of country. You may not be censured by your fellow students; often their souls are not so dead. But you can easily run afoul of the faculty and administration acting as diversity police, protecting international students from being affrighted by any display of possible student chauvinism. Along with the high, what was once regarded as normal has now been derided and jettisoned, and a new regime of belief has supplanted what was once merely ordinary. In all this, of course, liberal education has come out the worst. Just as dogs know the difference between being tripped over and being kicked, students know the difference between being taught and being indoctrinated, know the difference between ideas examined and ideas thrust. So, despite new requirements that mandate a certain number of liberal arts “diversity” courses, student adherence to the liberal arts continues to drop.

John Agresto, The Death of Learning [2022] (103-104). Encounter Books. Kindle Edition.

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

INDIVIDUAL ACHIEVEMENT

A few years ago, when the College Board was about to scrap the writing section on the SAT, I suggested that they instead simply send a copy of the essay to colleges and have it replace the corrupt, time-wasting exercise that is the personal statement colleges currently require…Offer students the option to write an essay in a one-hour or two-hour proctored setting. Send the results in some secure fashion to college administrators or employers. 


AEI

AI, Your College Student and the End of Individual Achievement


By Naomi Schaefer Riley
Deseret News
December 30, 2022


What can students do on their own? It’s a question that college admissions officers may increasingly be thinking about in the coming years. Unfortunately, they will have no way to measure this.


The recent news about how artificial intelligence apps can manufacture a high school or college essay from scratch has prompted the obvious observation that it will be much easier to cheat. Those who are inclined to do so won’t have to pay someone else to write it or even worry that the professor will be able to find the same essay online. And you can ensure that the essay will actually sound like you or someone at your level actually wrote it.


But truthfully AI is only the latest nail in the coffin of measuring individual achievement. The campaign against standardized testing is probably the largest part of the problem. Many colleges have made the SAT and ACT optional. Those who defend testing are considered backward, if not racist. And while some schools, like MIT, quickly realized this was not feasible if they were going to maintain high standards, others (where it is easier for students to switch to grade-inflated humanities majors) will stick to their guns. 


These changes have started earlier than college too. Cities have started to do away with testing to get into high schools for high-achieving students. The prestigious Boston Latin School, for example, is now accepting students via standards based on census tracks. Even testing students to see whether they are “gifted” is fraught now.  


But it’s not just testing. Elementary, high schools and colleges’ relentless focus on collaboration means there is little room for students to demonstrate their individual level of achievement. Every class is chock full of group projects, and schools are eager to tell parents that they are preparing children for a world of team building, leadership, cooperation and interpersonal negotiation. English classes feature student-led reading circles. Math classes include group quizzes (no, I’m not kidding). Social studies and science projects are jointly created Google slides presentations. 


But colleges and employers don’t simply want to know how well you work with others (which, when it comes to group projects, could also mean how well you coast while letting others do the work or how well you edit everyone else’s slides without offending them). They want to know: Who is this person applying to my school or for a job with me and how will they perform if I hire them?


Newspapers used to require copy-editing tests that were taken on the spot. Secretarial work required the demonstration of a certain number of words typed per minute. A few years ago, when the College Board was about to scrap the writing section on the SAT, I suggested that they instead simply send a copy of the essay to colleges and have it replace the corrupt, time-wasting exercise that is the personal statement colleges currently require. 


Sure, the SAT writing section might be short and maybe it doesn’t show the full breadth of a student’s ability but at least you know he or she did it alone, without a parent or a coach or the internet. You can read it to find out if a student has a basic grasp of the English language and maybe some familiarity with logic.


The College Board didn’t take up my suggestion. But there’s still a chance for some other company to try. Offer students the option to write an essay in a one-hour or two-hour proctored setting. Send the results in some secure fashion to college administrators or employers. Of course, the company could grade them, but such a score would almost be irrelevant. Different schools and employers want different things out of their applicants. Maybe one school wants to see some creativity and another values clarity above all else. Maybe there is some school out there that cares whether students have mastered the rules of grammar.


Now that there is a push to do away with the LSATs, law schools might also want to consider whether they want a measure of a student’s individual abilities. Surely being able to write a clear brief still has some market value in the legal world. Judges don’t want to see your collaborative Google slides presentation. And most law professors don’t want to be tasked with teaching kids basic writing skills. 


Technology has made it harder to measure individual skills, and it has often made it more difficult to teach those skills too. But that is not a reason to give up on the goal. While no man is an island, simulating the conditions of one can occasionally be useful.

Thursday, January 5, 2023

READING IN HIGH SCHOOL?

Schools are switching to curricula that “aim to systematically build students’ knowledge about the world”…


Joanne Jacobs
1-3-2023


Teaching reading in high school

Memphis high schools are teaching reading skills to teenagers who didn’t learn to read well in the early grades, reports Sarah Mervosh in the New York Times. Some need to learn basic phonics, she writes. “Every student—including top performers—is learning to break down new vocabulary words, part by part.”


With his new tools, Roderick studied “I Have a Dream,” the speech by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—no longer skipping unfamiliar words, but instead circling them to discern their meaning.

Literacy is embedded in English, social studies and science classes


Tennessee’s Reading360 initiative doesn't just train teachers in the science of reading, writes Scott Langford, assistant director of schools in Sumner County, in Curriculum Matters. It gives teachers curriculum tools.


Furthermore, the state is training upper-grade teachers in reading science across all content areas, he writes. Teachers say the training is "incredibly beneficial."


In Sumner County, using a more rigorous curriculum exposed the fact that “so many of our kids were guessing at words,” writes Langford. But improving reading instruction in the early grades isn’t enough. Teachers were seeing reading problems in upper grades, until “our shift to knowledge-building curriculum.”


His bottom line: Foundational skills are the easy (and important!) win; knowledge-building is harder.

Schools spend a lot of time teaching comprehension skills and strategies, such as finding the main idea, but not nearly enough teaching knowledge, writes Natalie Wexler. For example, “kindergartners who got a literacy curriculum grounded in science topics had better reading comprehension” than similar students taught general comprehension skills, according to recent research.


2022 was a big year in reading instruction, as states and districts climbed on the "science of reading" bandwagon, writes Sarah Schwartz in Education Week. This part of her summary struck me: The “science of reading” isn’t just about building a foundation. It includes “evidence-based strategies for teaching vocabulary, comprehension, text structure, and other skills and knowledge that students need to become skilled readers.”


Schools are switching to curricula that “aim to systematically build students’ knowledge about the world, diving deeply into topics like the solar system or the civil rights movement by introducing them to lots of different texts on those topics,” she writes. It seems to work.



Monday, January 2, 2023

AMERICAN HEROES

The people who are warring on the reputations of our great founders and heroes are in fact trying to deliberately dismantle this country: hero by hero.


New York Post

 
We must rescue America’s heroes from those who tear them down.


Douglas Murray
December 22, 2022

[Murray’s latest podcast “Uncancelled History” focuses on American historical figures who have been at the forefront of scrutiny in recent years.]

When I first moved to the United States I did what any new arrival should do. I read about the country. And the first book I chose was Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People. Published 25 years ago, it has a memorable opening line: “The creation of the United States of America is the greatest of all human adventures.”
 

Just one thing that struck this then new arrival was that 25 years later it would be almost impossible for a book about this great country to begin with such a positive line.


Even in the period I have been here I have seen the whole story of this country turned on its head. A country that used to feel good about itself is being taught to feel bad about itself. A country which has done such a power of good in the world has been told to consider itself a great force of evil in the world. Almost everything in the American story has been turned on its head. With a quite deliberate intent.
For instance, we hear much about the propaganda of the “1619 Project.” Yet such initiatives cannot even be described as pseudo-history. They are mere propaganda exercises. An attempt to turn the story of America into a story of original sin, slavery and much more.


What is worst is that they have done this to our nation’s heroes. Every single one of them.


So earlier this year I decided to try to make my own small effort at hitting back. I do not have the resources of the New York Times at my disposal, but I got a team of the best young technicians and researchers and put together a list of the American figures who have been most maligned in recent years. I am sorry to say the initial list was very long. It would have been easier to create a list of American heroes who had not been lied about in recent years.


But in the end we decided to focus on the absolutely central figures. The Founding Fathers, Christopher Columbus, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and more. Throughout the course of this year I have been sitting down with some of America’s— and the world’s—leading historians to fill in the gap of ignorance that has been deliberately inserted into American society.


We called it “Uncancelled History” and you can listen to it on all podcast channels and watch each hour-long episode for free on YouTube among other places. I hope it will be a great learning resource. I am very proud of the results.


For instance speaking to the great Jefferson scholar Jean Yarborough, she told me things about Jefferson that I doubt one in a million Americans know. For instance we have been told for 30 years that Jefferson took sexual advantage of his inherited slave, Sally Hemings. The evidence was said to be conclusive.


Not so, says Yarborough, who sat on the commission that looked into the DNA evidence in the 1990s. As she showed, one of the most base claims against Jefferson would be chucked out if it had ever come into a court of law. The reputation of this most extraordinary man has been completely unfairly maligned. And even Monticello— which is meant to preserve the great man’s legacy—has gone along with such calumnies.


Historian after historian came up with similar nuggets of truth. But what struck me most was something that came up when I asked each historian why this is happening now. Why would anyone want to attack all of our heroes? Why would they want to wage war on these of all people? The answer was given by the Lincoln scholar I spoke with, Andrew Fergusson. Loving Lincoln, he said, is a way of loving America. And so hating on Lincoln is a way of hating on America.


There is a great truth in there. That the people who are warring on the reputations of our great founders and heroes are in fact trying to deliberately dismantle this country: hero by hero. These critics want to say that there is nothing good about us, that we never were good and that the whole thing was rotten from the start. If you want to push that agenda you can push it fastest by trying to pull down all the idols of the country.


Well it is time that Americans pushed back against this. It is something I am trying to arm people to do, in my own small way. I think this country is an extraordinary place. If I didn’t then (like millions of others) I would never have made my way here. But America is amazing not by accident, but by design. It is time we understood that design, and paid due reverence to the designers themselves. Because we have not just something—but everything—to be thankful to them for.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

LORD HOWE

Pitt meant that the actual command of the army should be in the hands of Brigadier Lord Howe, and he was in fact its real chief; "the noblest Englishman that has appeared in my time, and the best soldier in the British army," says Wolfe. And he elsewhere speaks of him as "that great man." Abercromby testifies to the universal respect and love with which officers and men regarded him, and Pitt calls him "a character of ancient times; a complete model of military virtue.”

High as this praise is, it seems to have been deserved. The young nobleman, who was then in his thirty-fourth year, had the qualities of a leader of men. The army felt him, from general to drummer-boy. He was its soul; and while breathing into it his own energy and ardor, and bracing it by stringent discipline, he broke through the traditions of the service and gave it new shapes to suit the time and place. During the past year he had studied the art of forest warfare, and joined Rogers and his rangers in their scouting-parties, sharing all their hardships and making himself one of them. Perhaps the reforms that he introduced were fruits of this rough self-imposed schooling. He made officers and men throw off all useless incumbrances, cut their hair close, wear leggings to protect them from briers, brown the barrels of their muskets, and carry in their knapsacks thirty pounds of meal, which they cooked for themselves; so that, according to an admiring Frenchman, they could live a month without their supply-trains.

"You would laugh to see the droll figure we all make," writes an officer. "Regulars as well as provincials have cut their coats so as scarcely to reach their waists. No officer or private is allowed to carry more than one blanket and a bearskin. A small portmanteau is allowed each officer. No women follow the camp to wash our linen. Lord Howe has already shown an example by going to the brook and washing his own.” Here, as in all things, he shared the lot of the soldier, and required his officers to share it. A story is told of him that before the army embarked he invited some of them to dinner in his tent, where they found no seats but logs, and no carpet but bear-skins. A servant presently placed on the ground a large dish of pork and peas, on which his lordship took from his pocket a sheath containing a knife and fork and began to cut the meat.

The guests looked on in some embarrassment; upon which he said: "Is it possible, gentlemen, that you have come on this campaign without providing yourselves with what is necessary?" And he gave each of them a sheath, with a knife and fork, like his own. Yet this Lycurgus of the camp, as a contemporary calls him, is described as a man of social accomplishments rare even in his rank. He made himself greatly beloved by the provincial officers, with many of whom he was on terms of intimacy, and he did what he could to break down the barriers between the colonial soldiers and the British regulars. When he was at Albany, sharing with other high officers the kindly hospitalities of Mrs. Schuyler, he so won the heart of that excellent matron that she loved him like a son; and, though not given to such effusion, embraced him with tears on the morning when he left her to lead his division to the lake. 

In Westminster Abbey may be seen the tablet on which Massachusetts pays grateful tribute to his virtues, and commemorates "the affection her officers and soldiers bore to his command."

Francis Parkman, Montcalm and Wolfe. [1884] Library of Alexandria. Kindle Edition.