Monday, May 23, 2022

PHONICS FIRST

 Progressive educators are not only failing to factor in the sad truth about students’ reading ability but also overlooking the fact that American students do even worse in geography and history than in reading….Scour antiracist education sites on the Internet, and you’ll get the distinct impression that no one in the field has grasped the implications of this reality or that educating children in any familiar sense of the term was never the goal, anyway. In fact, a number of antiracist activists and educators have been blunt about their indifference to teaching reading. What else could it mean when the chancellor of the nation’s largest school system scorns “worship of the written word” as an imposition of white supremacy?


from the City Journal magazine


How Really to Be an Antiracist
Teach black kids to read.


Kay S. Hymowitz
Spring 2022

There’s an old joke about a chemist, a physicist, and an economist stranded on a desert island with only a sealed can of food. The chemist and physicist each propose their own ideas about how to open the can. The punch line comes from the economist, who proffers: “First, assume a can opener.”


I’ve been brooding over this joke while watching “antiracism” teaching—some might call it Critical Race Theory (CRT) or social justice—take over the American education world with Omicron-like speed. Lesson plans, books, tips for in-class activities, discussion points, and curricula swamp the teachers’ corner of the Internet. The proposals come from a metastasizing number of pedagogic entrepreneurs and activist groups, some savvy newcomers, some influential veterans like Black Lives Matter at School, Learning for Justice (formerly Teaching Tolerance), Teaching People’s History (the Zinn Education Project), the Racial Justice in Education Resource Guide (from the National Education Association), and, of course, the current star: the 1619 Project (the Pulitzer Center). To me, all these ideas seem like the ruminations of desert-island economists. They start with an impossible premise: that the students of these recommended texts actually know how to read.


I am overstating, but not by much. A significant number of American students are reading fluently and with understanding and are well on their way to becoming literate adults. But they are a minority. As of 2019, according to the National Association of Education Progress (NAEP), sometimes called the Nation’s Report Card, 35 percent of fourth-graders were reading at or above proficiency levels; that means, to spell it out, that a strong majority—65 percent, to be exact—were less than proficient. In fact, 34 percent were reading, if you can call it that, below a basic level, barely able to decipher material suitable for kids their age. Eighth-graders don’t do much better. Only 34 percent of them are proficient; 27 percent were below-basic readers. Worse, those eighth-grade numbers represent a decline from 2017 for 31 states.


As is always the case in our crazy-quilt, multiracial, multicultural country, the picture varies, depending on which kids you’re looking at. If you categorize by states, the lowest scores can be found in Alabama and New Mexico, with just 21 percent of eighth-graders reading proficiently. The best thing to say about these results is that they make the highest-scoring state—Massachusetts, with 47 percent of students proficient—look like a success story rather than the mediocrity it is.


The findings that should really push antiracist educators to rethink their pedagogical assumptions are those for the nation’s black schoolchildren. Nationwide, 52 percent of black children read below basic in fourth grade. (Hispanics, at 45 percent, and Native Americans, at 50 percent, do almost as badly, but I’ll concentrate here on black students, since antiracism clearly centers on the plight of African-Americans.) 

The numbers in the nation’s majority-black cities are so low that they flirt with zero. In Baltimore, where 80 percent of the student body is black, 61 percent of these students are below basic; only 9 percent of fourth-graders and 10 percent of eighth-graders are reading proficiently. (The few white fourth-graders attending Charm City’s public schools score 36 points higher than their black classmates.) Detroit, the American city with the highest percentage of black residents, has the nation’s lowest fourth-grade reading scores; only 5 percent of Detroit fourth-graders scored at or above proficient. (Cleveland’s schools, also majority black, are only a few points ahead.)


In April 2020, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of former students suing Detroit schools for not providing an adequate education. The suit cited poor facilities and inadequate textbooks, but below-basic literacy skills were the primary academic complaint. One of the plaintiffs was a former Detroit public school student who went on to community college and ended up on academic probation, in need of a reading tutor. His story is typical enough as to be barely worth mentioning—except for the fact that he graduated at the top of his public high school class. And as if this isn’t bad enough, the numbers appear likely to get worse, with the impact of Covid-19 disruptions.


The tragedy for black children and their families, as well as a nation trying to reckon with racial disparities rooted in its own history, can’t be overstated. If you want to make sense of racial gaps in high school achievement, college attendance, graduation, adult income, and even incarceration, you could do worse than look at third-grade reading scores. Three-quarters of below-proficient readers in third grade remain below proficient in high school. Before third grade, children are learning to read; after that, they are reading to learn, in one well-known formulation. All future academic learning in humanities, social sciences, business, and, yes, STEM fields depends on confident, skilled reading. “The kids in the top reading group at age 8 are probably going to college. The kids in the bottom reading group probably aren’t,” as Fredrik deBoer, the iconoclastic author of The Cult of Smart, has put it. And the absence of a sheepskin is hardly the worst of it. Upward of 80 percent of adolescents in the juvenile justice system are poor readers, according to the Literacy Project Foundation. Over 70 percent of inmates in America’s prisons cannot read above a fourth-grade level. It’s been said that authorities use third-grade reading scores to predict how many prison beds will be needed. That meme is probably apocryphal, but the sad fact is that it makes sense.


The irony would bring tears to the eyes of Martin Luther King, Jr. Before the Civil War, most Southern states had laws forbidding slaves from reading or writing. Enslaved men and women were known to risk whippings and death in order to learn their letters, sometimes with the aid of a sympathetic white but frequently on the strength of their own determination. “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free,” the most famous of those readers, Frederick Douglass, promised. What would he, or King, make of an education system that leaves more than half of twenty-first-century black kids barely literate?

Scour antiracist education sites on the Internet, and you’ll get the distinct impression that no one in the field has grasped the implications of this reality or that educating children in any familiar sense of the term was never the goal, anyway. In fact, a number of antiracist activists and educators have been blunt about their indifference to teaching reading. What else could it mean when the chancellor of the nation’s largest school system scorns “worship of the written word” as an imposition of white supremacy? In fairness, most educators are probably simply assuming the proverbial can opener—namely, competent readers who also have considerable background knowledge, including basic facts about the world and history. Learning for Justice, for instance, recommends a fourth-grade text about a woman named Helen Tsuchiya. Though Tsuchiya was born in the U.S., the site tells us, she was moved “to an internment camp surrounded by barbed wire after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.” What are the chances that the fourth-grader reading at a basic level—never mind the majority of black children who are reading below basic—will be able to decipher words like internment, barbed wire, and Pearl Harbor, much less grasp their significance enough to facilitate comprehension? Progressive educators are not only failing to factor in the sad truth about students’ reading ability but also overlooking the fact that American students do even worse in geography and history than in reading.


Another lesson plan for elementary and middle school students, this one recommended in the Pulitzer Center’s 1619 portal, reveals a similar chasm between politicized pedagogical fantasy and student reality. “In this unit, students learn to identify underreported stories of migration, and what is missing from mainstream media representations of migrants’ experiences,” the plan reads. “They analyze nonfiction texts and images, practice identifying perspectives in media, and synthesize their learning to form a new understanding of migration. In their final project, students communicate how their perspective on migration has grown or changed through a creative project, original news story, or existing news story edited to provide a more holistic picture of migration.” The lesson’s unspoken purpose is to impress students with the putatively anti-immigrant slant of American news. But an elementary schooler probably doesn’t know what the “mainstream media” is and is even less likely to have read any of it. Basic readers will have difficulty deciphering words like migrant or immigration. (Unless they have family there, they also won’t know the location of Syria or Sweden, two of the immigrant countries mentioned in the lesson plan—there’s that geography problem again.) The same obstacles are bound to trip up the typical middle schooler; remember, 68 percent of eighth-graders can’t read proficiently. This is not education but indoctrination: teachers are being told to foist an opinion worthy of debate on ill-informed children, while denying them the capacity to evaluate it critically.


Social-justice educators would doubtless object that the catastrophic literacy rates of black students are solid proof of the structural racism and teacher bias that they’re intent on fighting. They would rightly observe that reading scores correlate with parental income and education; black children tend to come from less affluent and less educated homes, a fact at least partially tied to historical racism. But evidence that racial disadvantage should not be an obstacle to literacy is there for anyone who bothers to look. Nearly 60 percent of black children in New York City charter schools read proficiently; that’s true for only 35 percent of those in district schools. (And 80 percent of the kids in New York City charters are economically disadvantaged.) Unless someone can prove that district teachers are more racist than those at charters—an unlikely theory—it would seem that charters simply do a better job of teaching kids to read. The differences between states also point to a pedagogical, rather than white-supremacist, explanation for racial discrepancies. People might reasonably predict that poor Southern states would have lower overall reading scores than more affluent states in the Northeast, and they’d be right. But the Urban Institute has developed a nifty interactive chart that lets us compare states adjusting for race and poverty (or other variables).

The counterintuitive results show that Mississippi, the poorest state in the nation and one with a dreadful racial history and an equally dreadful education record, is turning things around. The state is now more successful at teaching disadvantaged black children to read than top-ranked and affluent Massachusetts and New Jersey.


These successes are no mystery, but they do require a quick history of the nation’s long-simmering “reading wars.” For at least a generation now, American educators’ preferred approach to reading has been known as “whole language.” Whole language encourages teachers to do “shared” and “interactive” reading with children, to sight-read words that they’ve seen before, and to guess, with the help of illustrations and intuition, when they encounter an unfamiliar word. The guiding assumption is that reading is a natural process and teachers should just guide kids toward literacy. Children don’t need direct instruction to read any more than they need instruction to learn to talk.


But over recent decades, linguists, cognitive psychologists, and data-driven educators have reached a consensus that this is not what makes Johnny read. The beginning reader needs, first of all, to “de-code.” To accomplish that, teachers must systematically impart “phonemic awareness.” The shorthand for this approach is “phonics”—that is, the relation between the letters on the page and the sounds of speech. Children learn to blend those sounds, or phonemes, together into syllables, which they then combine into words. With practice, the process becomes fluent, even automatic, freeing up the bandwidth for a fuller comprehension of the meaning of the words. One example from journalist Emily Hanford, who has done some of the best work on reading science, succinctly captures the problem when children are not taught to decode. Hanford interviewed a group of adolescents reading at a third-grade level in a phonics-oriented class in a Houston juvenile detention center. She asked 17-year-old DeShawn what he is learning in his class. “Like ‘ph.’ It’s a ‘f,’ like physics,” DeShawn explained. “I never knew that.”


Though whole language has been failing many millions of schoolchildren like DeShawn (and some unknown number of middle-class kids whose parents can afford to spend money on private tutors to teach the decoding skills that their children should have learned in school), educators have been loath to give up their dreams. So they introduced a (supposedly) new approach with the benign-sounding name “balanced literacy.” In theory, balanced literacy blends the two methods of whole language and phonics; in practice, phonics gets short shrift. Few ed schools or teaching programs show student teachers how to teach phonics in the defined, logical progression necessary for students to catch on to the complexities of the English language. Basement-level reading scores haven’t budged.


Still, signs of change are evident. In 2013, legislators in Mississippi provided funding to start training the state’s teachers in the science of reading; I’ve already noted their encouraging results. Other states, including Florida, Colorado, and Tennessee, are gesturing toward taking reading science more seriously. And David Banks, New York City’s new schools chancellor, canceled his predecessor’s dismissal of the “white worship of the written word.” Teachers have been “teaching wrong” for 25 years, Banks said. “‘Balanced literacy’ has not worked for Black and Brown children. We’re going to go back to a phonetic approach to teaching.”


The good news comes with some cautions: first, for reasons no one understands, a significant minority of children will learn to read competently without getting any direct instruction in how to sound out words; their success continues to have the unintended consequence of providing balanced literacy supporters cover for their otherwise disastrous results. Second, phonics needs to be taught systematically from kindergarten through third grade; no one should expect solid results with a random sprinkling of “phonemic awareness” here and there, the practice in most balanced literacy classes. Third, learning how to decode is not everything; to become proficient readers, children also must know what words mean. They will, in other words, need to develop a rich vocabulary and varied background knowledge. Finally, intelligent teaching methods are not a panacea for racial and income disparities; no matter how well black children are taught to read, white children are still more likely to grow up with educated parents, which means that they will be hearing more vocabulary words, more complex language, and more useful information about the wider world. This problem can be solved over time but only if more disadvantaged kids are given the chance to pass on the benefits of their own literacy to their children.


The reading emergency should be the primary focus for educators, especially those in a position to help black children. Yet a growing number of school districts are interviewing prospective teachers, even those for elementary school, fixated on one question: “What have you done personally or professionally to be more antiracist?” The best answer to that question would be: “Teach black children how to read.” Better yet, change the question to “What’s the best way to teach reading?” and we might see some real racial progress.


Kay S. Hymowitz is a City Journal contributing editor, the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and the author of Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

MIDDLE SCHOOL HISTORY SEMINAR


Steven Lee, Manager, and Lin Frank, Instructor
TCR Middle School History Seminar

“Teddy Roosevelt’s asthma was painful, but it also helped build his character. Perhaps this might imply that diseases in general can have a positive impact on society.”
“We tend to think of being an outsider as a bad thing, but it helped Da Vinci become more creative and observant.”
“How many stories of the successes of marginalized people have been hidden?”


These comments and questions were not formulated in a high school classroom or college seminar; they were spoken during an informal chat among middle school students in the The Concord Review’s (TCR) History Seminar, where students—so far from Canada, Hong Kong, China and the United States—read, discuss and debate about history books with the support of two experienced mentors. They were taking part in an experiment to prove that despite what many of the education establishment might have you believe, it is possible for students, even middle school students, to engage in serious nonfiction reading, debating, and thinking about history.


The roots of the TCR Seminar go back to The Concord Review History Camp, which has been helping high school students work on research papers in history since 2014. Mr. Fitzhugh, the founder of TCR, made this possible by creating The Concord Review in 1987. Steven Lee, the co-founder of the TCR History Camp, wanted younger students also to be able to read and learn about the heritage of our civilization. Now, the TCR History Camp offers programs for younger students, such as the TCR History Seminar.


The Middle School History Seminar is an eight-week long online history book discussion. It meets once a week during the weekend for an hour to discuss, share, and debate on chapters we read during the week. Books that have been featured range from David McCullough’s Mornings on Horseback—a vivid, intimate biography of the larger-than-life Teddy Roosevelt—to George Johnson’s Miss Leavitt’s Stars–a fascinating excavation of the forgotten story of how astronomers mapped the universe.


In the first one or two sessions of the seminar, the students are often shy and the discussions are slow to start. Many of our schools and families have a poor record of imparting one of the most important habits for culture and growth—regularly reading and thinking about nonfiction books. Indeed, for many seminar participants this is the first time in their lives that they’ve read a serious nonfiction book from cover to cover. They also often have little experience thinking of academic questions or responding to the opinions of their peers. A two-time TCR seminar mentor, Frank Lin, remembers having to prod the students in the right direction at first, and to offer ideas to revive the conversation. Another seminar mentor, Saadia Khan, has made a list of conversational starters to help the students get the discussion going.


Slowly, but surely, the mood changes. Students become more relaxed. Their statements become more confident, their questions more incisive. They read more carefully and critically. They become comfortable proposing their own theories and responding to the ideas of others. The mentors can step back, watching as the conversation starts to go by itself. Frank vividly remembers one occasion when a sixth-grade student introduced a fascinating angle in looking at the early life of Winston Churchill that Frank had never considered before. It was at that moment Frank knew the experiment had succeeded, that students, once “liberated” from the constraints and pessimism of the normal classroom, are capable of engaging in serious academic reading and discussion.


The students feel that sense of liberation. Indeed, despite the lack of grades as an incentive, the students work hard to dissect the readings and participate in discussions. One student insisted on joining by typing in the chatbox despite having a sore throat, while another read a hundred pages of Ancient Greek history while vacationing in Hawaii! In two months of such learning, the students expanded the scope of their understanding of the human story. Perhaps even more importantly, they learned to talk confidently and think critically, which will help prepare them for a life of learning.


This should come as no surprise. The sages of different civilizations have long agreed that studying history is one of the surest paths to cultivating an independent, vibrant mind. Lin Frank, headed for Yale, credits his background in history as a foundation for all of his education. In our age, it is perhaps more important than ever to have young people take part in the sort of serious, critical discussions that these TCR Seminar students are enjoying.

 

 

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

THE GIFTED

    Regarding stigma, these two realities about children and childhood must be recognized: First, adults do not have the option of concealing the truth. Kids know, no matter what. When children of widely varying abilities are mixed in classes, their differences are highlighted, not obscured. If the teacher calls on the children equally, then the deficits of the slower children are put on display for all their classmates to see. If the teacher calls only on the brighter children who know the answers, the kids quickly figure out what is going on. Children understand that academic ability varies and know the intellectual pecking order in every classroom. The slower children will get labeled whether or not they are grouped. It will be hurtful to them, to varying degrees. Educators do not have the option of preventing that hurt.

    What educators can do is put the relationship of performance in the classroom and merit as a person into perspective. People who are academically gifted can be fickle, humorless, dishonest, and cowardly. People who are not academically gifted can be steadfast, funny, honest, and brave. Merit as a person and academic ability are different things.

    The second reality is that every child is miserable about some personal defect. It is part of being a child. The things that make children most miserable are likely to involve shortcomings in interpersonal ability—not being one of the popular kids. Many of the sources of pain come from physical appearance—having acne, being too short, being too tall, being fat, being skinny, wearing thick glasses. Poor performance in the classroom is just one of a long list of things that make children cry into their pillows at night. It is not even close to the top of the list. Performing poorly in the classroom is not a big deal socially. Performing conspicuously well is often a social liability.

    I will spend no time on the argument that special treatment of the academically gifted is elitist. It has no moral standing. A special ability is a child’s most precious asset. When it comes to athletic and musical ability, no one considers withholding training that could realize those gifts. It is just as senseless, and as ethically warped, to withhold training that can realize academic ability.  

 

Charles Murray, Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools Back to Reality. [2009] The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Monday, May 2, 2022

LANDED CHUZZLEWITS

 
Martin Chuzzlewit, by Charles Dickens [1843]
London: The New Oxford Illustrated Dickens, 1959, pp. 1-2

CHAPTER I    
Introductory, concerning the pedigree of the Chuzzlewit family

As no lady or gentleman, with any claims to polite breeding, can possibly sympathise with the Chuzzlewit Family without first being assured of the extreme antiquity of the race, it is a great satisfaction to know that it undoubtedly descended in a direct line from Adam and Eve; and was, in the very earliest times, closely connected with the agricultural interest. If it should ever be urged by grudging and malicious persons, that a Chuzzlewit, in any period of the family history, displayed an overweening amount of family pride, surely the weakness will be considered not only pardonable but laudable, when the immense superiority of the house to the rest of mankind, in respect of this its ancient origin, is taken into account.


It is remarkable that as there was, in the oldest family of which we have any record, a murderer and a vagabond, so we never fail to meet, in the records of all old families, with innumerable repetitions of the same phase of character. Indeed, it may be laid down as a general principle, that the more extended the ancestry, the greater the amount of violence and vagabondism; for in ancient days those two amusements, combining a wholesome excitement with a promising means of repairing shattered fortunes, were at once the ennobling pursuit and the healthful recreation of the Quality of this land.


Consequently, it is a source of inexpressible comfort and happiness to find, that in various periods of our history, the Chuzzlewits were actively connected with diverse slaughterous conspiracies and bloody frays. It is further recorded of them, that being clad from head to heel in steel of proof, they did on many occasions lead their leather-jerkined soldiers to the death with invincible courage, and afterwards returned home gracefully to their relations and friends.


There can be no doubt that at least one Chuzzlewit came over with William the Conqueror. It does not appear that this illustrious ancestor ‘came over’ that monarch, to employ the vulgar phrase, at any subsequent period; inasmuch as the Family do not seem to have been ever greatly distinguished by the possession of landed estate. And it is well known that for the bestowal of that kind of property upon his favourites, the liberality and gratitude of the Norman were as remarkable as those virtues are usually found to be in great men when they give away what belongs to other people.
                 

LORD NO ZOO

Martin Chuzzlewit, by Charles Dickens [1843]
London: The New Oxford Illustrated Dickens, 1959, pp. 4-5

CHAPTER I    
Introductory, concerning the pedigree of the Chuzzlewit family

    It has been rumoured, and it is needless to say that the rumour originated in the same base quarters, that a certain male Chuzzlewit, whose birth must be admitted to be involved in some obscurity, was of very mean and low descent. How stands the proof? When the son of that individual, to whom the secret of his father’s birth was supposed to have been communicated by his father in his lifetime, lay upon his deathbed, this question was put to him in a distinct, solemn, and formal way: ‘Toby Chuzzlewit, who was your grandfather?’ To which he, with his last breath, no less distinctly, solemnly, and formally replied: and his words were taken down at the time, and signed by six witnesses, each with his name and address in full: ‘The Lord No Zoo.’ It may be said—it has been said, for human wickedness has no limits—that there is no Lord of that name, and that among the titles that have become extinct, none at all resembling this, in sound even, is to be discovered. But what is the irresistible inference?—Rejecting a theory broached by some well-meaning but mistaken persons, that this Mr. Toby Chuzzlewit’s grandfather, to judge from his name, must surely have been a Mandarin (which is wholly insupportable, for there is no pretence of his grandmother ever having been out of this country, or of any Mandarin having been in it within some years of his father’s birth; except those in tea shops, which cannot for a moment be regarded as having any bearing on the question, one way or other), rejecting this hypothesis, is it not manifest that Mr. Toby Chuzzlewit had either received the name imperfectly from his father, or that he had forgotten it, or that he had mispronounced it? and that even at the recent period in question, the Chuzzlewits were connected by a bend sinister, or kind of heraldic over-the-left, with some unknown noble and illustrious House?


    From documentary evidence, yet preserved in the family, the fact is clearly established that in the comparatively modern days of the Diggory Chuzzlewit before mentioned, one of its members had attained to very great wealth and influence. Throughout such fragments of his correspondence as have escaped the ravages of the moths (who, in right of their extensive absorption of the contents of deeds and papers, may be called the general registers of the Insect World), we find him making constant reference to an uncle, in respect of whom he would seem to have entertained great expectations, as he was in the habit of seeking to propitiate his favour by presents of plate, jewels, books, watches, and other valuable articles. Thus, he writes on one occasion to his brother in reference to a gravy-spoon, the brother’s property, which he (Diggory) would appear to have borrowed or otherwise possessed himself of: ‘Do not be angry, I have parted with it—to my uncle.’ On another occasion he expresses himself in a similar manner with regard to a child’s mug which had been entrusted to him to get repaired. On another occasion he says, ‘I have bestowed upon that irresistible uncle of mine everything I ever possessed.’ And that he was in the habit of paying long and constant visits to this gentleman at his mansion, if, indeed, he did not wholly reside there, is manifest from the following sentence: ‘With the exception of the suit of clothes I carry about with me, the whole of my wearing apparel is at my uncle’s.’ This gentleman’s patronage and influence must have been very extensive, for his nephew writes, ‘His interest is too high’—‘It is too much’—‘It is tremendous’—and the like. Still it does not appear (which is strange) to have procured for him any lucrative post at court or elsewhere, or to have conferred upon him any other distinction than that which was necessarily included in the countenance of so great a man, and the being invited by him to certain entertainments, so splendid and costly in their nature, that he calls them ‘Golden Balls.’
                                    

Thursday, April 21, 2022

ENGLISH TEACHERS VS. BOOKS

First Things

 
The English Teachers Who Don’t Like Books


by Mark Bauerlein, 4-19-2022
 


Is there anyone in business, law, science, media, or letters who would say that the overall quality of prose in his field is superb? Would anyone be surprised to learn that reading and writing scores have been dropping for years? Does anybody expect that the lockdowns, which put kids in their rooms in front of screens all day, shall have boosted verbal talents?


Of course not. But NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) has a solution. NCTE is the largest body of primary and secondary English teachers in the country. This organization certifies state-of-the-art teaching and research, hosts conferences, and advocates for the field in public affairs. Earlier this month, NCTE issued a position statement that calls for a fundamental change in the discipline. The heading reads “Media Education in English Language Arts,” which tells you where the shift is headed.


Here are the sentences summarizing the goal:


The time has come to decenter book reading and essay writing as the pinnacles of English language arts education. Speaking and listening are increasingly valued as forms of expression that are vital to personal and professional success . . . It behooves our profession, as stewards of the communication arts, to confront and challenge the tacit and implicit ways in which print media is valorized above the full range of literacy competencies students should master.

 
You got all that? It’s quite a mouthful, imparted with all the confidence of experts who know the ways of the world and do not fear breaking old habits and keeping up-to-date. Other points in the statement reiterate the world-is-changing motif. In the 21st century, communication is ever more oral and pictorial, the authors say. Kids, especially, express themselves in non-print ways. Let’s keep pace with the trend in our teaching and testing, NCTE urges, and pull print down from its privileged position in the classroom.


That’s the rationale. “Book reading”—not so big a deal in a time of screens. “Essay writing”—pull it back, think again, ask yourself if it’s really pertinent to the multimedia lives of young (and old) Americans. It may shock many people to hear English teachers downplaying the value of books. They remember a high school teacher who loved Hemingway or Jane Eyre. They may even think it is precisely because of the omnipresence of screens that English teachers should insist ever more firmly on the necessity of books. They hear talk of bad writing in the workplace, too, and want their kids to practice discursive writing in long form (not text-message length) ever more often. Why in the world, they wonder, would English teachers go with the anti-print flow?


Because, the teachers would respond, outsiders don’t understand the nature of English instruction. They don’t know the intricacies of advanced literacy. They don’t realize how the very nature of literacy is undergoing a radical transformation. In other words, a “book-centered” outlook belongs to the pre-digital past. English teachers work in the multimedia present—and rightly so. To hold kids to the old standards, to make them do print exercises first and foremost, is to fail to arm them for life, to inculcate the skills needed for Digital Age success. Worse, it is to alienate them from the other parts of their lives, from the identities they have formed in and through media.


What to say about all this? The assumption about skills needed in college and professional spaces doesn’t hold up, but NCTE holds it too tightly and pleasingly for evidence to shake it loose, no matter how solid that evidence is. NCTE people utter this claim as if it were a nugget of the discipline’s wisdom, and also proof of the utterer’s membership in the ranks. Such revolutionary talk comes up all the time in education circles, in fact, and has for at least two decades, since the Web 2.0 phase of the internet began.


Indeed, if you’ve heard these claims of “new literacies” a few times, you start thinking less about the import of them and more about the language in which they are expressed. After a while, you start to see an irony open up, a gap between the content of the words and the words themselves. We have a radical meaning clothed in banal terms, epochal dimensions offered in clichéd, conventional, pseudo-radical diction. In spite of the declamatory tone and avant-garde ethos, the words are altogether familiar. We’ve heard them many times before. There’s nothing new about them.


The passage above is a case in point. Most of the language is familiar to laymen. Nobody pauses over “book reading. . . essay writing . . . forms of expression. . . success . . . stewards of the communication arts . . . tacit and implicit ways . . . literacy competencies.” They might hesitate over the kind of “confrontation” and “challenge” NCTE envisions as teachers draw their focus away from book reading and essay writing, but the sense of the passage generally is clear.


Two words, however, stand out as unusual: “decenter” and “valorize.” They have a lot of responsibility in that paragraph, but laymen can’t quite apprehend them. Such words don’t come up in ordinary conversation, not even in professional domains. They have the aura of complexity, adding intellectual cachet to the recommendation and making the shift away from print seem sophisticated and disciplinary. That’s the point. “Decentering” and “valorization” sound like acts of expertise. Only a trained person knows how to carry them out adroitly. The terms suggest that only the virtuosi at NCTE know what must be done, and only they are astute enough to do it.


But anyone with long experience in literary theory knows otherwise. The unfortunate truth about this particular locution, which is supposed to denote our proper advance into the 21st century, is that it rests on holdovers from more than 50 years ago. For “decentering” and “valorization” are not the fresh coinages that Digital Age breakthroughs are said to deserve. They come from deconstruction circa 1966. Decentering was an essential move in deconstructionist interpretation as Jacques Derrida laid it out in his hugely influential essay “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” The same is true of valorization—or, rather, devalorization—which Derrida articulated at length in Of Grammatology. By 1980, hundreds of such readings had been carried out, and it had already begun to acquire a mechanical character. That NCTE would resort to these old clichés only shows that the progressive, forward-looking, oh-so-modish thought-world of the drafters of this media statement is no such thing.


The phony sophistication undermines the credibility of NCTE more soundly than does a debate over the status of print in a digital era. The style undoes NCTE more than the content (as does the mixed metaphor in the first sentence of the passage, “decenter . . . pinnacles,” along with the treatment of “media” in the last sentence as singular.) 


The real question is how these middling talents and pompous declaimers ever attained positions of authority within the field. What kind of decadence afflicts us when the pedagogues of print are the vandals of print instruction? How did the guardianship of books become the duty of people who aren’t terribly bookish? 


Our humanistic institutions are in the hands of people whose humanitas is feeble. They’re proud of that fact, though. They believe it’s warranted by social conditions, and they’re ready to pass along their ineptitude to the pupils they’re paid to edify.


[Mark Bauerlein is a contributing editor at First Things.]

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

STILICHO

 
The loose discipline of the Barbarians always exposed them to the danger of a surprise; but, instead of choosing the dissolute hours of riot and intemperance, Stilicho resolved to attack the Christian Goths, whilst they were devoutly employed in celebrating the festival of Easter. The execution of the stratagem, or, as it was termed by the clergy, of the sacrilege, was intrusted to Saul, a Barbarian and a Pagan, who had served, however, with distinguished reputation among the veteran generals of Theodosius. 

The camp of the Goths, which Alaric had pitched in the neighborhood of Pollentia, was thrown into confusion by the sudden and impetuous charge of the Imperial cavalry; but, in a few moments, the undaunted genius of their leader gave them an order, and a field of battle; and, as soon as they had recovered from their astonishment, the pious confidence, that the God of the Christians would assert their cause, added new strength to their native valor. In this engagement, which was long maintained with equal courage and success, the chief of the Alani, whose diminutive and savage form concealed a magnanimous soul approved his suspected loyalty, by the zeal with which he fought, and fell, in the service of the Republic; and the fame of this gallant Barbarian has been imperfectly preserved in the verses of Claudian, since the poet, who celebrates his virtue, has omitted the mention of his name. 

His death was followed by the flight and dismay of the squadrons which he commanded; and the defeat of the wing of cavalry might have decided the victory of Alaric, if Stilicho had not immediately led the Roman and Barbarian infantry to the attack. The skill of the general, and the bravery of the soldiers, surmounted every obstacle. In the evening of the bloody day, the Goths retreated from the field of battle; the intrenchments of their camp were forced, and the scene of rapine and slaughter made some atonement for the calamities which they had inflicted on the subjects of the empire. The magnificent spoils of Corinth and Argos enriched the veterans of the West; the captive wife of Alaric, who had impatiently claimed his promise of Roman jewels and Patrician handmaids, was reduced to implore the mercy of the insulting foe; and many thousand prisoners, released from the Gothic chains, dispersed through the provinces of Italy the praises of their heroic deliverer. 

The triumph of Stilicho was compared by the poet, and perhaps by the public, to that of Marius; who, in the same part of Italy, had encountered and destroyed another army of Northern Barbarians. The huge bones, and the empty helmets, of the Cimbri and of the Goths, would easily be confounded by succeeding generations; and posterity might erect a common trophy to the memory of the two most illustrious generals, who had vanquished, on the same memorable ground, the two most formidable enemies of Rome.

Edward Gibbon, [1777]. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Volume 3. Kindle Edition.