Thursday, February 18, 2021


The sudden seizure of Antwerp may have been a severe blow to the German high command, but over the following days, when the British Second Army failed to secure the north side of the Scheldt estuary, General von Zangen managed to establish defence lines. These included a twenty-kilometre-wide redoubt on the south side of the mouth of the Scheldt called the Breskens pocket, the South Beveland peninsula on the north side and the island of Walcheren. His force soon mustered 82,000 men and deployed some 530 guns which prevented any attempt by the Royal Navy to approach the heavily mined estuary.

Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, the Allied naval commander-in-chief, had told SHAEF and Montgomery that the Germans could block the Scheldt estuary with ease. And Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, the First Sea Lord, warned that Antwerp would be ‘as much use to us as Timbuctoo’ unless the approaches were cleared. General Horrocks, the corps commander, later admitted his own responsibility for the failure. ‘Napoleon, no doubt, would have realized this,’ he wrote, ‘but I am afraid Horrocks didn’t.’ But it was not the fault of Horrocks, nor of Roberts, the commander of the 11th Armoured Division. The mistake lay with Montgomery, who was not interested in the estuary and thought that the Canadians could clear it later.

It was a massive error and led to a very nasty shock later, but in those days of euphoria generals who had served in the First World War convinced themselves that September 1944 was the equivalent of September 1918. ‘Newspapers reported a 210-mile advance in six days and indicated that Allied forces were in Holland, Luxembourg, Saarbr├╝cken, Brussels and Antwerp,’ wrote the combat historian Forrest Pogue. ‘The intelligence estimates all along the lines were marked by an almost hysterical optimism.’ The eyes of senior officers were fixed on the Rhine, with the idea that the Allies could leap it in virtually one bound. This vision certainly beguiled Eisenhower, while Montgomery, for his own reasons, had become besotted with it.

Antony Beevor, Ardennes 1944 (14-15). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Monday, February 15, 2021


None of the children who continued to go to school died, but several of the teachers did. The last section of the Famine Scrapbook, introduced by a title page with a decorative funeral urn painted in purple watercolour, was written by Tikhomirov, the headmaster. It was a series of obituary notes of the teachers who were either killed in the war or had died of hunger. The assistant headmaster was “killed in action.” Another was “killed at Kingisepp,” in that terrible battle of Kingisepp where the Germans broke through towards Leningrad from Estonia. The maths teacher “died of hunger”; so did the teacher of geography. Comrade Nemirov, the teacher of literature, “was among the victims of the blockade,” and Akimov, the history teacher, died of malnutrition and exhaustion despite a long rest in a sanatorium to which he was taken in January. Of another teacher Tikhomirov wrote: “He worked conscientiously until he realised he could no longer walk. He asked me for a few days’ leave in the hope that his strength would return to him. He stayed at home, preparing his lessons for the second term. He went on reading books. So he spent the day of January 8. On January 9 he quietly passed away.” What a human story was behind these simple words!

I have described conditions in Leningrad as I found them in September 1943, when the city was still under frequent and often intense shell-fire. This shelling continued for the rest of the year, and it was not till January 1944 that the ordeal of Leningrad finally ended. During the previous weeks a large Russian armed force was transferred under cover of night to the “Oranienbaum bridgehead” on the south bank of the Gulf of Finland; and this force, under the command of General Fedyuninsky, struck out towards Ropsha, where it was to meet the troops of the Leningrad Front striking towards the south-west. During that first day of the Russian breakthrough no fewer than 500,000 shells were used to smash the German fortifications. About the same time, the Volkhov army group also came into motion, and, within a few days, the Germans were on the run, all the way to Pskov and Estonia. On January 27, 1944, the blockade officially ended.

Alexander Werth, Russia at War, 1941–1945: A History. Skyhorse Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Friday, February 12, 2021


 [The association of language arts mainly with fiction and poetry is an accident of recent intellectual history that is not inherent in the nature of things.]

For many years, the great reading researcher Jeanne Chall complained that the selections offered in language arts classes did not provide students with the knowledge and language experiences they need for general competence in reading. She observed that far too much time was being spent on trivial, ephemeral fictions and far too little on diverse nonfictional genres. In the two decades since Chall entered this complaint, little has changed. Most current programs still assume that language arts is predominantly about "literature," which is conceived as poems and fictional stories, often trivial ones meant to be inoffensive vehicles for teaching formal skills. Stories are indeed the best vehicles for teaching young children—an idea that was ancient when Plato reasserted it in Republic. But stories are not necessarily the same things as ephemeral fictions. Many an excellent story is told about real people and events, and even stories that are fictional take much of their worth from the nonfictional truths about the world that they convey.

The association of language arts mainly with fiction and poetry is an accident of recent intellectual history that is not inherent in the nature of things. Older American texts that were designed to teach reading, such as the McGuffey Readers, contained moral tales and historical narratives as well as fictional stories (not that we should go back to the McGuffey Readers, which have many shortcomings). Ideally, a good language arts program in the early grades will contain not only fiction and poetry but also narratives about the real worlds of nature and history. Ideally, such a program will fit in with and reinforce a well-planned overall curriculum in history, science, and the arts. The recent finding that word learning occurs much faster in a familiar context implies that the overall program should stay on a subject-matter domain long enough to make it familiar. As we've seen, such integration of content in reading and subject-matter classes will serve simultaneously to enrich background knowledge and enlarge vocabulary in an optimal way.

That fictional stories can convey factual and moral truths is the traditional ground for defending their value and importance in education. The truth-telling and knowledge-enhancing aspect of fiction is emphatically just as important as the aspect of fiction and poetry that stimulates children's imaginations. The romantic idea that literature should mainly nurture the imagination fits in well with the generally romantic flavor of early childhood education in the United States today. I do not wish to appear in any way hostile to developing children's imaginations. But the second- and third-rate fictions that are too often presented to children in the early grades are far less stimulating to their imaginations than classical stories and well-presented narratives about the real world.

We need to reconceive language arts as a school subject. In trying to make all students proficient readers and writers, there is no avoiding the responsibility of imparting the specific knowledge they will need to understand newspapers, magazines, and serious books directed at the national language community. There is no successful shortcut to teaching and learning this specific knowledge. Those who develop language arts programs at the school level or in publishing houses must understand that the skills they wish to impart are in fact knowledge-drenched and knowledge-constituted. The happy consequence will be reading programs that are much more absorbing, enjoyable, and interesting than the disjointed, pedestrian programs offered to students today.

E.D. Hirsch, The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children. 2006 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021


What happened in the unseen labyrinth to which the pneumatic tubes led, he did not know in detail, but he did know in general terms. As soon as all the corrections which happened to be necessary in any particular number of the Times had been assembled and collated, that number would be reprinted, the original copy destroyed, and the corrected copy placed on the files in its stead. This process of continuous alteration was applied not only to newspapers, but to books, periodicals, pamphlets, posters, leaflets, films, sound tracks, cartoons, photographs—to every kind of literature or documentation which might conceivably hold any political or ideological significance. Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date. In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct; nor was any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record. All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary. In no case would it have been possible, once the deed was done, to prove that any falsification had taken place. The largest section of the Records Department, far larger than the one on which Winston worked, consisted simply of persons whose duty it was to track down and collect all copies of books, newspapers, and other documents which had been superseded and were due for destruction. A number of the Times which might, because of changes in political alignment, or mistaken prophecies uttered by Big Brother, have been rewritten a dozen times still stood on the files bearing its original date, and no other copy existed to contradict it. Books, also, were recalled and rewritten again and again, and were invariably reissued without any admission that any alteration had been made. Even the written instructions which Winston received, and which he invariably got rid of as soon as he had dealt with them, never stated or implied that an act of forgery was to be committed; always the reference was to slips, errors, misprints, or misquotations which it was necessary to put right in the interests of accuracy.

But actually, he thought as he readjusted the Ministry of Plenty's figures, it was not even forgery. It was merely the substitution of one piece of nonsense for another. Most of the material that you were dealing with had no connection with anything in the real world, not even the kind of connection that is contained in a direct lie. Statistics were just as much a fantasy in their original version as in their rectified version. A great deal of the time you were expected to make them up out of your head. For example, the Ministry of Plenty's forecast had estimated the output of boots for the quarter at a hundred and forty-five million pairs. The actual output was given as sixty-two millions. Winston, however, in rewriting the forecast, marked the figure down to fifty-seven millions, so as to allow for the usual claim that the quota had been overfulfilled. In any case, sixty-two millions was no nearer the truth than fifty-seven millions, or than a hundred and forty-five millions. Very likely no boots had been produced at all. Likelier still, nobody knew how many had been produced, much less cared. All one knew was that every quarter astronomical numbers of boots were produced on paper, while perhaps half the population of Oceania went barefoot. And so it was with every class of recorded fact, great or small. Everything faded away into a shadow-world in which, finally, even the date of the year had become uncertain.

George Orwell, 1984 (125-126). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

Saturday, February 6, 2021


Back in the early twentieth century, for example, Professor Lewis M. Terman of Stanford University launched a research project that followed 1,470 people with IQs of 140 and above for more than half a century. Data on the careers of men in this group—from an era when full-time careers for women were less common—showed serious disparities even within this rare group, all of whom had IQs within the top one percent.

Some of these men had highly successful careers, others had more modest achievements, and about 20 percent were clearly disappointments. Of 150 men in this least successful category, only 8 received a graduate degree, and dozens of them received only a high school diploma. A similar number of the most successful men in Terman’s group received 98 graduate degrees—more than a tenfold disparity among men who were all in the top one percent in IQ.

Meanwhile, two men who were tested in childhood, and who failed to make the 140 IQ cutoff level, later earned Nobel Prizes in physics—while none of those men with IQs of 140 and above received a Nobel Prize in any field. Clearly, then, all the men in Terman’s group had at least one prerequisite for that extraordinary achievement—namely, a high enough IQ. And, equally clearly, there must have been other prerequisites that none of the hundreds of these men with IQs in the top one percent had.

As for factors behind differences in educational and career outcomes within Terman’s group, the biggest differentiating factor was in family backgrounds. Men with the most outstanding achievements came from middle-class and upper-class families, and were raised in homes where there were many books. Half of their fathers were college graduates, at a time when that was far more rare than today.

Among those men who were least successful, nearly one-third had a parent who had dropped out of school before the eighth grade. Even extraordinary IQs did not eliminate the need for other prerequisites.

Thomas Sowell, Discrimination and Disparities (3). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

Friday, February 5, 2021


 The czars in Russia, the shah of Iran, the Batista regime in Cuba, were all despotic. But they look like sweethearts compared to the regimes that followed. For example, the czars never executed as many people in half a century as Stalin did in one day. Even the best countries must make changes and the United States has made many economic, social, and political changes for the better. But that is wholly different from making “change” a mantra. To be for or against “change” in general is childish. Everything depends on the specifics. To be for generic “change” is to say that what we have is so bad that any change is likely to be for the better. Such a pose may make some people feel superior to others who find much that is worth preserving in our values, traditions and institutions. 

The status quo is never sacrosanct but its very existence proves that it is viable, as seductive theoretical alternatives may not turn out to be. Most Americans take our values, traditions and institutions so much for granted that they find it hard to realize how much all these things are under constant attack in our schools, our colleges, and in much of the press, the movies and literature. 

There is a culture war going on within the United States—and in fact, within Western civilization as a whole—which may ultimately have as much to do with our survival, or failure to survive, as the war on terrorism. There are all sorts of financial, ideological, and psychic rewards for undermining American society and its values. Unless some of us realize the existence of this culture war, and the high stakes in it, we can lose what cost those Americans before us so much to win and preserve.

Thomas Sowell, The Thomas Sowell Reader (7). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021


In Russia we have a vast, dumb people dwelling under the discipline of a conscripted army in war-time; a people suffering in years of peace the rigours and privations of the worst campaigns; a people ruled by terror, fanaticisms, and the Secret Police. Here we have a state whose subjects are so happy, that they have to be forbidden to quit its bounds under the direst penalties; whose diplomatists and agents sent on foreign missions, have often to leave their wives and children at home as hostages to ensure their eventual return. Here we have a system whose social achievements crowd five or six persons in a single room; whose wages hardly compare in purchasing power with the British dole; where life is unsafe; where liberty is unknown; where grace and culture are dying; and where armaments and preparations for war are rife.

Here is a land where God is blasphemed, and man, plunged in this world’s misery, is denied the hope of mercy on both sides of the grave—his soul in the striking, protesting phrase of Robespierre, ‘no more than a genial breeze dying away at the mouth of the tomb!’ Here we have a power actively and ceaselessly engaged in trying to overturn existing civilizations by stealth, by propaganda, and when it dares, by bloody force.

Here we have a state, three millions of whose citizens are languishing in foreign exile, whose intelligentsia have been methodically destroyed; a state nearly half-a-million of whose citizens, reduced to servitude for their political opinions, are rotting and freezing through the Arctic night; toiling to death in forests, mines and quarries, many for no more than indulging in that freedom of thought which has gradually raised man above the beast. Decent, good-hearted British men and women ought not to be so airily detached from realities, that they have no word of honest indignation for such wantonly, callously-inflicted pain.

Winston S. Churchill, Great Contemporaries, 1937 (Winston S. Churchill Essays and Other Works) (58-59). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.