Friday, July 1, 2022

NAPOLEON A READER

 More books have been written with Napoleon in the title than there have been days since his death in 1821….


…Given the paucity of trustworthy sources, much of Napoleon’s early childhood must remain conjectural, but there is little doubt that he was a precocious and prodigious reader, drawn at an early age to history and biography. Letizia told a government minister that her son ‘had never partaken of the amusements of children his own age, that he carefully avoided them, that he found himself a little room on the third floor of the house in which he stayed by himself and didn’t come down very often, even to eat with his family. Up there, he read constantly, especially history books.’ Napoleon claimed that he first read Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse, an 800-page novel of love and redemption, at the age of nine, and said ‘It turned my head.’ ‘I do not doubt the very powerful action of his early readings on the inclination and character of his youth,’ his brother Joseph later recalled. He described how, at their primary school, when the students were instructed to sit under either the Roman or the Carthaginian flag, Napoleon insisted that they swap places and utterly refused to join the losing Carthaginians.


 (Though he was eighteen months younger than Joseph, Napoleon was always stronger-willed.) Later in life, Napoleon urged his junior officers ‘to read and re-read the campaigns of Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Gustavus Adolfus, Prince Eugene and Frederick the Great. This is the only way to become a great captain.’


 Ancient history provided him with an encyclopaedia of military and political tactics and quotations that he would draw on throughout his life. This inspiration was so profound that when posing for paintings he would sometimes put his hand into his waistcoat in imitation of the toga-wearing Romans. Napoleon’s native language was Corsican, an idiomatic dialect not unlike Genoese. He was taught to read and write in Italian at school and was nearly ten before he learned French, which he always spoke with a heavy Corsican accent, with ‘ou’ for ‘eu’ or ‘u’, inviting all manner of teasing at school and in the army. The architect Pierre Fontaine, who decorated and refurbished many of the Napoleonic palaces, thought it ‘incredible in a man of his position’ that he should speak with such a thick accent. Napoleon was not very proficient in French grammar or spelling, though in the era before standardized spelling this mattered little and he never had any difficulty making himself understood. Throughout his life his handwriting, though strong and decisive, was pretty much a scrawl.


Andrew Roberts, Napoleon: A Life. [2014] Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Thursday, June 23, 2022

HIGH STANDARDS ARE THE CURE

There is nothing more antithetical to achieving equality between individuals of different races than defining standards, merit, and hard work as “racist.”

City Journal

Truth is What Our Schools Need

Seeking "equity," too many schools are simply giving up on learning standardsa and an aspiration for excellence.

 Betsy deVos, June 21, 2022

Excerpt from Hostages No More: The Fight for Education Freedom and the Future of the American Child, published by Center Street.

The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020 set off a racial reckoning in the United States. The issue of race and how it is perceived and experienced in the United States was suddenly everywhere. Much of this national soul-searching has been a long-needed corrective. It has opened many Americans’ eyes to the experiences of their fellow Americans. It has shown us that life for some of our countrymen and women is marked by injustice and inequality. It has taken us back to the dream of Martin Luther King Jr., who called for the promise of the American founding—of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—to be guaranteed to all Americans.

But this reckoning has also called forth a poisonous ideology that rejects the belief in the fundamental goodness of America held by Dr. King. It is an ideology that writes off America as irredeemably racist—founded on the exploitation of minorities, especially African-Americans, and dedicated to their continued exploitation. This America is divided into oppressors and the oppressed. White people are racist simply because they’re white. Other groups are automatically victims by virtue of the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, or their perceived gender. Far from being rooted in judging people by the “content of their character,” the America portrayed by this ideology is divided and at odds. And it can’t be healed. It can only be torn down and remade.

Critical race theory (CRT) became the catch-all phrase for all the racialized, divisive ideas about race being taught. Parents of all political persuasions and races were alarmed by what they saw. Their children, they believed, were being taught to hate their country and themselves. The education establishment responded to parents’ growing concern with condescension, denial, and technicalities. Defenders of the new teaching, from President Biden to school union bosses to members of the Loudoun County school board, told parents they were seeing things. What they claimed was on their children’s computer screens wasn’t there because, they said, CRT is not being taught in elementary or high schools. It was a “decades old” theory taught only in colleges and law schools.

That was and is a complete evasion. It may be true that CRT is taught in colleges and law schools, but that doesn’t mean the racism that animates it hasn’t found its way into elementary and high school classrooms. It has.

In 2019, an audit of Loudoun County schools by a consulting firm called Equity Collaborative concluded that the district’s public schools were a “hostile learning environment” for minority students and teachers. The county then paid the same firm almost $400,000 to create and implement a “Comprehensive Equity Plan.” Loudoun County High School changed its mascot from the “Raiders”—which was linked to Confederates in the Civil War—to the “Captains.” They produced a video apologizing for segregation. Teachers were required to undergo training for “cultural sensitivity.”

One of the training programs the Equity Collaborative offers teachers is called “Introduction to Critical Race Theory.” It defines CRT as centered on “the permanence of racism” in America. It is embedded in our system and even in the beliefs we hold. To overcome this internalized racism, teachers and students must reject tenets of liberal democracy such as “color-blindness, the neutrality of the law, incremental change, and equal opportunity for all.” These ideas function, the program continues, not to protect the inalienable rights of all, but to “allow whites to feel consciously irresponsible for the hardships people of color face and encounter daily and also maintain whites’ power and strongholds within society.”

In other words, the foundations of liberal democracy only perpetuate racism and injustice. But what were teachers supposed to do with this information? Keep it to themselves? Teach it in a law school class? No. The prompt for the final breakout session of “Introduction to Critical Race Theory” asked teachers to contemplate “How might you use CRT to identify and address systemic oppression in your school, district, or organization?”

Some Loudoun County teachers complained about a chart used in the training sessions that broke down Americans into two groups—one that “experiences privilege” and the other that “experiences oppression.” Christians were listed among the privileged, while non-Christians were deemed oppressed.

None of this stopped Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate for Virginia governor in 2021, from claiming that it was I who had “made up” CRT.

The outrage expressed by parents wasn’t confined to Northern Virginia. School boards across the country were inundated by parents of students in schools infected with the racism of the new education ideology.

In Cupertino, California, third-graders at one school were asked to create an “identity map” describing themselves. They were told to list their race, class, gender, religion, and other traits. Then the teacher told the students they live in a country with a “dominant culture” of “white, middle class, cisgender, educated, able-bodied, Christian, English speaker[s],” which uses its dominance to oppress other people.

In 2019, as part of its effort to promote “equity, inclusion, and diversity,” Seattle Public Schools developed a “Math Ethnic Studies Framework.” The method purports to teach math by introducing divisive and unrelated concepts. For instance, the framework asked students to “explain how math dictates economic oppression” and to “explain how math has been used to exploit natural resources.” Students could also find math useful in “identify[ing] the inherent inequities of the standardized testing system used to oppress and marginalize people and communities of color.”

In Lexington, Massachusetts, fourth-graders were taught to “articulate what gender identity is and why it’s important to use nonbinary language in describing people we don’t know yet.” They learned about “gender identity,” “gender expression,” “sexual orientation,” and “sex assigned at birth” by applying sticky notes to a “Gender Snowperson” drawn in Magic Marker.

These may not technically be examples of “critical race theory.” But in the minds of increasing numbers of parents in the summer of 2021, CRT was just a shorthand for the racism and inappropriate sexual material being taught in their schools without their knowledge or consent. And it wasn’t just happening in public schools.

The Grace Church School in New York is an elite private school that adopted the practice of routinely separating its students into groups based on race, gender, and ethnicity. One day a math teacher at the school was with a “white identifying” group of students when a diversity consultant hired by the school proclaimed that objectivity and individualism were “white supremacy” concepts. The teacher, Paul Rossi, confronted the consultant.

“Human attributes are being reduced to racial traits,” he said. The consultant responded by asking Rossi if he was having “white feelings.”

Some of Rossi’s students shared his condemnation of the racism of the exercise with their peers. When word of it got back to the school administration, Rossi was publicly shamed for his questioning. He was offered to stay at the school only if he agreed to “restorative practices” for the minority students he supposedly harmed. He resigned from the school instead.

Another parent of a child in an expensive New York City private school, the Brearley School, wrote a scathing letter to fellow parents as he withdrew his daughter from the school in disgust. Andrew Gutmann’s open letter to the Brearley community is worth quoting at length because it captures the dismissal of and disregard for the opinions of parents regarding the new educational ideology—even at a $54,000-a-year New York private school.

I object, with as strong a sentiment as possible, that Brearley has begun to teach what to think, instead of how to think. I object that the school is now fostering an environment where our daughters, and our daughters’ teachers, are afraid to speak their minds in class for fear of “consequences.” I object that Brearley is trying to usurp the role of parents in teaching morality, and bullying parents to adopt that false morality at home. I object that Brearley is fostering a divisive community where families of different races, which until recently were part of the same community, are now segregated into two. These are the reasons why we can no longer send our daughter to Brearley.

Defenders of the politicization of curricula claim that these are “cherry-picked” stories that paint a false picture of schools. But these are just a few of literally hundreds of examples that have come to light as parents and teachers feel more comfortable exposing the truth about what’s happening in schools.

And truth is what is desperately needed in our schools today. America’s past is stained by slavery and Jim Crow. Racism lingers in their wake. Any and all American history curricula should deal honestly and forthrightly with these facts. Certainly, Loudoun County, Virginia, has its own troubled racial past.

But the “woke,” CRT-infused ideology in our schools goes far beyond teaching the facts of our history or even acknowledging the ongoing challenges of our present. In the name of “antiracism,” racism is being taught to American children. Fundamental facts of our country and its founding principles are at best being overlooked and at worst being distorted and denied.

Perhaps most damaging to the education of children is the fact that the solution often advocated for achieving “equity”—reducing the gap in academic performance between races—is to lower expectations and standards for everyone, not to raise the achievement of lower performers. Even though schools are awash in new funding thanks to the Covid-19 relief bills, many are simply giving up on learning standards and an aspiration for excellence. Instead they rationalize their surrender with the twisted logic of critical race theory.

Last summer, Kate Brown, the Democratic governor of Oregon, quietly signed a law doing away with a requirement that high schoolers in Oregon demonstrate that they can read, write, and do math before they can graduate. The problem was that the graduation rate of African-American students lagged that of white students in Oregon schools. So the solution, according to Governor Brown, was to make everyone “equal” by eliminating standards. Without any apparent understanding that he was demeaning the groups the governor purported to want to help, the governor’s spokesman said that the elimination of the test will benefit “Oregon’s Black, Latino, Latina, Latinx [sic], Indigenous, Asian, Pacific Islander, Tribal, and students of color.”

There is nothing more antithetical to achieving equality between individuals of different races than defining standards, merit, and hard work as “racist.” Lamentably, this toxic message isn’t just being spread in public schools. In 2020, the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) charter school chain announced that it was abolishing its traditional slogan, “Work Hard, Be Nice,” in an effort to tackle systemic racism. Apparently, the phrases “work hard” and “be nice,” in the KIPP leadership’s eyes, “supports the illusion of meritocracy.” By exposing that “illusion,” the once-great KIPP schools signaled to parents of all races that they no longer cared about the achievement and success of their students. But what parents want to send their children to a school that believes rewarding accomplishment is an “illusion?”

Monday, June 20, 2022

FEAR AND RISK

 from The Record

Fear, Risk, and the State of Political Expression at Horace Mann School

Ryan Finlay, Contributing Writer, 
June 7, 2022


The Horace Mann School appears on the surface to be a remarkably homogeneous community—politically. Our curricula are infused with the latest theories from the progressive academic community. An entire philosophy on American society and its future is packaged and distributed to the student body, and too often, as designed, students accept it at face value. There’s something rather important missing from this picture: a vast swath of the political spectrum. One could easily conclude that there are very few non–progressive students at HM, but this is an illusion; the community contains silent multitudes.


Here is the problem: HM, like so many other academic institutions today, fosters a learning environment that I believe is hostile to those who do not subscribe to progressive politics. This includes not just conservatives but also centrists and moderates on the left. As a result, our school has developed a political bubble in which the majority of the views expressed in classrooms are far to the left of the mainstream views of both the American public and the actual political average of the student community. A fantasy is built for progressive members of the student body, making them believe that their most radical opinions are far closer to the mainstream than is actually the case.


Over the course of this composition, I will attempt to illustrate exactly how this bubble is facilitated and maintained. I also intend to offer an explanation for why so many members of the student body who are not progressive are unwilling to express their political views in class. I will use personal examples, as well as reference the experiences of others. To protect everyone’s privacy, I will not identify by name any of the courses, faculty members, or students involved in any of these true events.


I recently spoke with a faculty member about the school’s political bias. This faculty member made the case to me that many teachers feel obligated to open students’ eyes to the inequality that surrounds them, as though taking off the horse blinders that supposedly plague children of economic privilege. Something is clearly being lost in translation. The result is a continuous pressure in the classroom to embrace visions of wholesale societal reform. Time and time again, when students attempt to contradict these ideas, they are criticized for failing to recognize the lived experiences of others, as if the lived experiences of their own families are irrelevant. At the end of my conversation with this faculty member, they estimated that perhaps ten percent of the student body is at odds with the politics of the school. I disagree; after four years and hundreds of conversations out of earshot from teachers, I propose a figure closer to thirty or forty percent, a sizeable portion of the student body, one composed not simply of white males of privilege as some might claim, but rather a diverse collection of students from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds.


We are constantly encouraged to think in terms of morality, which is weaponized to reinforce the political bubble. When issues of politics or social reform are raised in classroom discussions, there is a certain approach HM students are accustomed to expect from the faculty. While the specific strategies depend on the context and the individual issue, there is a common reliance, in the majority of cases, on preaching right versus wrong.


A perfect example would be the equality versus equity comparison. Every junior and senior is well acquainted with this cartoon graphic; the school makes sure of it in Seminar on Identity. For those who are not familiar with it, spectators of different heights watch a baseball game from behind a fence. On one side, labeled “Equality,” each spectator stands on a box of similar size. As a result, only the tallest can see the game. On the other side, labeled “Equity,” the shorter spectators are supplied with appropriately sized boxes so that everyone can watch the game from an equal vantage point. As the tallest spectator can see over the fence without a box, they receive none. Everyone is exposed to the graphic at some point during their HM education and told to recognize the inherent superiority of the equity model. In other words, equity is taught as a moral imperative.


The gravity of the graphic’s message is easy to miss. When it’s displayed to students, the struggle between the two choices is made cartoonishly simple, literally. The choice of equity seems so plainly obvious that if you argue for equality, it appears as if you are an elitist who doesn’t want people without certain resources to enjoy their lives. There is never any dynamic discussion on the real effects of either choice. Equality and equity are philosophies on access, but the real pros and cons of choosing one over the other, details which are decidedly complex and unable to be reduced to childish cartoons, are practically ignored. When the principle of the sports game is applied to the real world, it proposes either a rejection of meritocracy, or a denial that it exists in the first place. This approach gets students bogged down in a false impression of simplicity, leading to such conclusions on meritocracy that frequently include: the system is broken, unable to be reformed, rotten to the core, and deserving of demolition.


To those students who do not share the political leanings of the institution, the graphic is inflammatory and the associated classroom dialogues steamroll any real consideration of the benefits of equality. What is so disturbing for non–progressive students about many class discussions on politics is not just that the goal is to discredit non–progressive strategies, but rather that the merits of progressive preferences are so often steeped in moral arguments.


Students who agree with these arguments have the school’s unspoken authorization to attack opposing ideas on the grounds of righteousness. This training in moral protectionism begins early, as I recently heard one student explain: “I remember being introduced to the equity versus equality diagram back in the Middle Division. Teachers made clear that there was a right system and a wrong system.”


The school offers a range of incentives for adopting a specific outlook on society. We are at a highly impressionable point in our lives, and the school’s willingness to glue some of our ideas on progress into place while discarding others should frighten everyone. It is not a problem that some students may naturally espouse politics that are considered radical by others. It is not even a problem that they might choose to reaffirm their sentiments with a set of morals they have chosen to adopt. It is a problem when a generic set of progressive morals is pushed upon everyone else by an institution we rely upon to facilitate education.


Treating one set of political views as moral automatically labels all others as deficient. Morals are not deductive; they are a sense of right and wrong. When students are encouraged to believe in specific political ideas according to moral justifications, it becomes all too easy to decide that alternate ideas are rotten, and those who defend them are immoral. This is damaging to the community and damaging to education. It narrows the scope of perspectives deemed fit for students to engage with honestly and without unfair preconceptions. How is anyone to competently argue their position on a current political issue when the conversation assumes that one side has staked out an inherently immoral view?


Casual and sanctioned attacks on non–progressive views are frequently integrated into classes, especially the first few minutes of the period when current events are brought up for roundtable discussions. I have always enjoyed these moments: I think it is important to hear what others have to say about the latest developments around the world, regardless of whether or not we agree. What I do not enjoy is the common devolution of these conversations into vilifying conservatism, which both progressive students and even some teachers are happy to do. In one instance, a student was decried by their classmates after voicing support for deportations. Our community member was labeled immoral for speaking honestly about their political beliefs — beliefs which are accepted as perfectly normal across the country. In the Horace Mann classroom, however, this person became a punching bag for their progressive classmates.


Some teachers openly fail to set a better example, choosing to fan the flames. One year, I had a history teacher who, the day after an event that they felt merited the press’ attention, brought copies of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal to class. They would place the newspapers side by side and argue that because The New York Times’ front page included more stories about social justice issues and people of color, the more right-leaning Journal was maliciously indifferent and trying to minimize the importance of those stories. No mention was made of the fact that the Journal is openly focused on issues surrounding economics and finance. The teacher held such discussions multiple times throughout the year.


In an equally blatant display, a student shared with me their experience dissenting in SOI. While voicing concerns about the political bias of the curriculum and the overall condition of free speech at school, their instructor cut them off mid–sentence, saying, “that’s enough.” It was reinforced to this student that the purpose of social justice-related curricula is not for the material to be challenged but rather to be absorbed without question.


Signs of indoctrination manifest across campus. More concerning, though, is that some of the students seem comforted by it and rely on their teachers to feed them opinions. I once heard a classmate ask their history teacher—word for word—to “tell us what to believe,” concerning a recent civil rights issue, as if it were teachers’ responsibility to shape students’ politics. It is not. We ought to think for ourselves, and the school ought to encourage independent inquiry.


The structure of the bubble leaves students with other views in a delicate position. So many of us want to resist and be open with the HM community about who we are and what we believe. At the same time, we must grapple with the vulnerability that comes with many faculty openly opposing our politics. At the end of the day, the impulse to self-censor is fueled by risk assessment: it is not worth jeopardizing academic success at HM in exchange for political expression. Unfortunately, by protecting ourselves, we reinforce the illusion that we are a small minority of limited conviction.


Every classmate I know who is not progressive self-censors in class during discussions of current events and politics. The degrees of self-moderation vary widely, depending on a range of personal factors. Most choose to keep their comments vague to leave little room for accusations of being “too conservative” about an issue. Then, there are the most saddening cases, including the few who have resigned to stay silent because the perceived risks of speaking their mind are too great. Looming over HM’s conservative students, there is the fear of unknowable and arbitrary reprisal by those in power. Even if some of those fears are blown wildly out of proportion, as I must admit, most non-progressives have determined that the safest path in the classroom is always the silent one.


It is the mystery of unknown consequences that constrains students’ desire to speak their mind on the most important problems facing our country. Just recently, I overheard a junior advising some underclassmen on how to get through discussions in humanities classes without “getting on the bad side of your teacher.” The advice consisted of: “just agree with what everyone else is saying, that’s what I do.” When I objected to this hapless approach, I received this defense: “it doesn’t matter if you disagree with it, just lie about what you believe. It’s not worth it.”


There are multitudes of HM students, with whom I identify, who privately speak of their opposition to progressive race-focused policies but would never volunteer to say this in a class discussion. None of us want to be labeled as a racist or be reviled by our peers. Those of us who have this opinion are not racist. HM’s environment would have one think otherwise. I do not claim to identify as a Republican, identifying instead as an Independent. I consider myself moderate in most of my views. That said, I leave the impression in nearly every classroom political discussion that I am a right–wing conservative, as I frequently hear through the grapevine. I have no doubt that this is because the students’ conception of the political spectrum has been so grotesquely warped from years in the bubble.
One of the fundamental reasons why so many students feel unable to share their beliefs is the endless newsfeed telling of academic scholars and regular citizens who have had their lives turned upside down by the ravages of cancel culture. It is not so much that anyone at HM fears being sent to the Honor Council for citing their support for a conservative policy. It is that many non-progressive students at HM are terrified by the ambiguity of an administration that preaches independent thought but permits and encourages attacks on it. As far as many students are concerned, the administration has practically endorsed cancel culture through its silence on the phenomenon. Currently, students’ conclusion is: watch yourself and censor yourself; you are not protected.


Even students who believe in the messages defended by the school should feel concerned over these examples. It should make you question where exactly education ends and indoctrination begins. It is easy to claim that HM is just a progressive institution and that students and families knew exactly what they were signing up for. I disagree. When my family enrolled, we were confident that HM would prioritize “teaching students how to think, not what to think.” We saw among the schools core values, “life of the mind” and “mutual respect.” The school is not living up to its own values.


I call upon the administration to clarify its policies on political expression; I call upon the administration to actively protect and sanctify diversity of thought; and I call upon the administration to disentangle itself from the progressive political agenda that has turned the school into an incubator of bias and intellectual intolerance.


Show us we are free to develop our own moral compasses. Only action can reassure us that it is okay to disagree at HM. Prove that we should be—and can be—confident in that, and the school will truly have safe spaces.
 

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

OIKOPHOBIA

The student rebels in Paris in May 1968, and their assorted philosophical instructors from Sartre to Foucault, celebrated Chairman Mao in the midst of the murderous terrorist craze of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Ignorance thus combined with moral and political obscenity.


The American Mind
Don’t Hate Yourself
Daniel J. Mahoney
5-27-2022
 
Reject the oikophobic temptation.


Why do well-educated, rich countries hate themselves so much? A recent book, Western Self-Contempt: Oikophobia in the Decline of Civilizations, gets to the heart of perhaps the most salient cultural and political phenomenon among Western elites in the last half century. Salutary and measured self-criticism—the hallmark of reason—has transformed into aggressive and pathological self-hatred, a self-hatred that has become obligatory among the bien-pensants. The author of the book, Benedict Beckeld, a middle-aged German philosopher who writes sprightly and elegant English prose, relates the multiple obstacles to his book even seeing the light of day. The oikophobes, those driven by hatred of our Western home, or what used to be called the West, refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of naming such self-loathing for the pathology that it is. That which is obligatory cannot be named or criticized.


Beckeld rightly sees oikophobia as the “opposite extreme of xenophobia,” which is loathsome in its own way. But it is not our problem today, when the “Other” is celebrated (but only as a helpless victim) and where the nations that once made up the Western world are seen as uniquely guilty of every sin. Beckeld puts things very incisively in the opening lines of his book:


We in the West continually come across oikophobia. We see it when a schoolteacher tells the students that Western civilization has been uniquely evil in its pursuit of colonialization and slavery, with the implication that other civilizations have not engaged in such things; when a school named after Thomas Jefferson seeks to change its name because of concerns about racism; when a commercial for a Scandinavian airline insists that nothing is truly Scandinavian; when Western universities “decolonize” their departments to make them even less Eurocentric than they have already become; when the waving of one’s own flag is decried as xenophobic while other nations are encouraged to display pride in their cultures; when wild crowds tear down statues of their country’s founders.


This lucid and altogether accurate description of oikophobic self-hatred at work speaks for itself. I will leave a fuller discussion of Beckeld’s book for another occasion since this piece is not intended as a review of his book. Suffice it to say that perusing Beckeld’s provocative book led me back to the late Roger Scruton’s measured and pungent discussion of oikophobia in a book he wrote on environmental conservatism in 2010 (Scruton, along with Victor Davis Hanson also provided an endorsement for Western Self-Contempt).


Scruton was the first to apply the term oikophobia (widely used in psychiatry) to the realm of politics and political philosophy. Scruton does not succumb to Carl Schmitt’s troubling reduction of the human and political world to deep and abiding enmity between friends and enemies, nation and nation; with the Christian tradition he affirms the moral priority of “neighbor love.” But to love one’s neighbor one needs neighbors. That means, at a minimum, a political or national home to which we belong together. Charity begins at home and no one is a truly a citizen of the world, except in an abstract or metaphorical sense. The late modern world is riddled with ideologues who “loved humanity” while despising and degrading real human beings. A morally conceited but empty humanitarianism (and globalism) is thus the other side of totalitarianism.


In Scruton’s rendering, oikophobes deride “all the ordinary forms of patriotism and local attachment as forms of racism, imperialism or xenophobia.” An occupational hazard of the intellectual class, oikophobia mocks the concrete attachments and loyalties of decent citizens and human beings (the ground of all larger loves and loyalties) while lauding distant cultures and regimes about which they often know little. The student rebels in Paris in May 1968, and their assorted philosophical instructors from Sartre to Foucault, celebrated Chairman Mao in the midst of the murderous terrorist craze of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Ignorance thus combined with moral and political obscenity. In the United States, Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States continues to sell like crazy and miseducates each rising generation in a mix of self-hatred and imbecilic para-Marxism that is truly worthy of contempt. As Scruton points out, political correctness is nothing other than mandatory anti-Americanism and Western self-contempt, and is tied to a “culture of repudiation” and negation “which spreads through school and academy all but unresisted by the guardians of traditional knowledge.” It is by no means a new phenomenon.


The true intellectual and moral antithesis of oikophobia is not xenophobia but oikophilia, a love of one’s own, tied to liberty and law, that actualizes the affections of citizens for a country and civilization worth preserving and passing on to new generations. For example, command-and-control approaches to ecological matters will inevitably be coercive and counterproductive, and necessarily ignorant of the “local” facts on the ground. But a patient and reasonable love of home can inspire common efforts rooted in social trust and local knowledge. Self-contempt can only lead to debilitating civic and moral indifference if not a totalitarian effort to negate everything good that has been passed on to us. Hatred inspires nothing constructive; the cultivation of civic affections allows even strangers to build a common world and to live in peace with one another. Conservatism, not humanitarian abstractions and virtue-signaling, promotes true neighbor-love and responsible civic engagement.


In an article in the Spectator from 2018, Scruton took aim at the cult of victimization (and the art of taking immediate offense) that is at the heart of oikophobia and the culture of repudiation.
If one uses the wrong pronoun, beware; if one compliments or offends the wrong person, be prepared to have one’s personhood potentially expunged. The easily victimized lie around every corner. Even as our elites declare the West to be guilty of crimes and sins without precedent, the norms and decencies of our own tradition of civilized liberty must give way, in the dominant account, to everything foreign, transgressive, and contemptuous of common sense and received wisdom.


Scruton gives the instructive, and provocative, example of the burka—the covering of a woman’s face and body promoted by certain Islamic fundamentalists throughout the world. As Scruton puts it, we live in a “face-to-face society, in which strangers look each other in the eye, address each other directly and take responsibility for what they say.” To hide the face, to make it completely inaccessible, is to prevent access to the personhood—the soul—of another. It is also radically at odds with “the rights and privileges of citizenship.” Elsewhere, the contemporary French political philosopher Pierre Manent notes that in the Christian West, only the executioner covered his face. Scruton and Manent agree that the face-to-face encounter is at the heart of civic freedom and mutual moral accountability. It is a non-negotiable good of civilized existence.


Yet, today, we are asked to sacrifice that precious good in the name of not “othering the Other” or succumbing to Islamophobia. What a mad “transvaluation of values,” in Nietzsche’s words. It is considered an outrage of jingoism to ask for a minimal respect for our courtesies, traditions, and civilities—which have support not only in received tradition but in the best philosophical, theological, and political wisdom—while at the same time we genuflect before and marvel at the customs of the stranger. Scruton suggests that the “others” who take offense at the decencies of our Western tradition, and the pseudo-sophisticated intellectuals who justify them, need to lighten up. Their earnestness is both destructive of civilized norms and potentially deadly, as we have seen with Islamic extremism and more recent urban violence and mayhem. With laughter and self-criticism (not pathological self-hatred) free and decent men and women of different backgrounds can build a common home together, face-to-face in relative comity, even among those who begin their encounter as strangers. These are old truths that have been almost completely forgotten. They need to be recovered and renewed with vigor and insight.


The Franco-American literary critic and social theorist Rene Girard is famous for making scapegoating and “mimetic desire,” as he called it, a central theme of contemporary philosophical and cultural discourse. Girard saw scapegoating and victimization everywhere but, unlike the postmodernists and oikophobes, he emphasized the need for forgiveness rather than eternal enmity and strife. But in an interview in 2008, he denounced politically correct ideology as radicalizing the scapegoat mechanism. Political correctness, Girard charged, puts its proponents in the position of accusing their opponents of creating scapegoats, of victimizing others, as they reproduce the exact dynamic they denounce. Girard added that the politically correct say nothing about the victims of abortion and euthanasia, except to cheer their destruction. This movement of super-victimization that Girard diagnosed was nothing but “Christianity turned upside down,” scapegoating at the service of hatred and the negation of moral decency and civilized life. It was something that true Christians and all persons of good will must vigorously oppose.


In light of Beckeld’s, Scruton’s, and Girard’s considerable insights, it is time to repudiate repudiation, to affirm the value of home rightly understood and to criticize the critics of Western civilization who use criticism as a weapon at the service of hatred, enmity, and a moral nihilism (inseparable from moralistic fanaticism) that knows no rest. Let us reject the dark temptation of oikophobia once and for all.  
 
Daniel J. Mahoney is a Senior Fellow at the Claremont Institute and professor emeritus at Assumption University. He has written widely on French politics and political thought. His latest book, The Statesman as Thinker: Portraits of Greatness, Courage, and Moderation, will be released this month by Encounter Books.

Thursday, June 9, 2022

MORE NONFICTION BOOKS

The central irony of NCTE’s call to “decenter” text is this: Reading and writing were decentered decades ago…Many students don’t even read the scant number of titles they are assigned. An alarming proportion arrive at college as “book virgins”: They’ve never read an entire book.


Education Week

No, Fewer Books, Less Writing Won’t Add Up to Media Literacy

—Against NCTE’s call to ‘decenter’ print media 


By Mike Schmoker—June 3, 2022

[Mike Schmoker is an author, speaker, and consultant. He is the author of FOCUS: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning, 2nd edition (ASCD, 2018).]

Indulge me and say the following out loud: Students should read fewer books and write less expository prose.


Did that feel right? I doubt it. But that’s the message the National Council of Teachers of English is sending its members. Its recent position statement on “Media Education in English Language Arts” demands that educators “decenter” the reading of books and the writing of essays. It instructs teachers to shift their focus from print media to digital media—including GIFs, memes, podcasts, and videos.


The statement makes some legitimate points. It rightly calls for greater relevance and engagement in the classroom, for redoubled attention to the core literacy skills of speaking and listening. It insists that students learn to assess the veracity and quality of online sources, along the lines of the good work being done by Stanford University’s Sam Wineburg and associates.


But the statement’s call to “move beyond” print is profoundly misguided. The late, great media critic Neil Postman first pointed out that the ability to analyze multimedia flows directly from a strong foundation of reading and writing. Technology can only benefit education where text literacy is given primacy.


Literacy expert Richard Vacca writes that, as adults, today’s students will be required to “read and write more than at any other time in human history.” Political commentator Thomas Friedman likewise reminds us that the primary skill set for success in the 21st century is advanced proficiency at “plain old reading and writing.” And yes, speaking. It distresses Friedman that students already spend about seven hours a day absorbed in digital entertainment media.


The central irony of NCTE’s call to “decenter” text is this: Reading and writing were decentered decades ago. When I ask audiences what two activities we are least apt to observe in an average school, it takes them about four seconds to respond, almost chorally: reading and writing. Many students don’t even read the scant number of titles they are assigned. An alarming proportion arrive at college as “book virgins”: They’ve never read an entire book.


NCTE could have an immense, positive influence by reminding teachers that books enlarge our lives and experience, nourish imagination, and immerse students in the thought-worlds of people in various cultures, times, and places. Practicing teacher and literacy expert Kelly Gallagher advocates for students to become “voracious” readers. He is appalled by the increasing encroachment of pseudo-literary activities, which he has long-dubbed “readicide”—the murder of reading. Like so many of us, he knows that novels and nonfiction books open the world to young readers, offering them new modes of seeing and doing. They allow us to figure out who we are at a critical time of life.


Books also uniquely expand our general knowledge.
As cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham points out, “Books expose children to more facts and to a broader vocabulary (a form of knowledge) than any other activity.”


And writing? In classroom tours, my companions and I observe writing and writing instruction less than any other activity—even less than reading. I saw the results of this when I taught writing to college freshmen. The majority struggled mightily to organize their thoughts into a clear, coherent document. This explains why many students hit an academic wall in a variety of subjects when they reach college.


I would love to see the council take the lead on educating its members on writing’s unrivaled capacity to enable students to generate, analyze, synthesize, and retain knowledge. Writing is almost miraculous in the way it enables us to think more deeply, logically, and precisely. The eminent education reformer Ted Sizer regarded writing as “the litmus paper of thought,” which should therefore “occupy the very center of schooling.” Numerous scholars celebrate writing’s capacity to help us to express our best thinking in its best form.

 
The NCTE statement raises other concerns: It strikes me as being more ideological than humanistic—and overly enamored with what students find familiar and fun. And I also believe that it needs further clarification. For instance: What actual proportion of the curriculum would the council reserve, perhaps grudgingly, for what they term “traditional” reading and writing competencies?


The ELA community should absolutely acknowledge the digital era—but not at the expense of books and expository writing. If the council truly desires for record proportions of students to become literate, articulate, and successful, it should first:


Renounce the ubiquitous practices that are the primary destroyers of literacy, for example, skills exercises (think “find the main idea”); the excessive employment of worksheets, full-length movies, and aimless group work; the arts and crafts projects that masquerade as literacy activities—which are rife right up through high school.
Recenter, after years of decline, an intensive focus on reading, writing, and (thank you, NCTE) speaking and listening. Restoring these to their rightful place represents the most propitious opportunity for swift, dramatic improvements in all of K-12 education.


With so much at stake, we dare not lurch, impulsively, to satisfy contemporary but specious preferences for how we educate our children.

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

LIFE ADJUSTMENT

 …Here, as the authors of Life Adjustment Education for Every Youth put it, was “a philosophy of education which places life values above acquisition of knowledge.”

——————-

A traveler from a foreign country whose knowledge of American education was confined to the writings of educational reformers might well have envisaged a rigid, unchanging secondary-school system chained to the demands of colleges and universities, fixed upon old ideas of academic study, and unreceptive to the wide variety of pupils it had in charge. The speaker at the N.E.A. meeting of 1920 who lamented that the high schools were still “saturated with college requirement rules and standards” and filled with principals and teachers “trained in academic lore and possessing only the academic viewpoint” sounded a note of complaint that has never ceased to echo in the writings of the new educationists. In fact, the innovators had very considerable success in dismantling the old academic curriculum of the high school. It is hard for an amateur, and perhaps even a professional in education, to know how much of this was justified.

But two things it does seem possible to assert: first, that curricular change after 1910 was little short of revolutionary; and second, that by the 1940’s and 1950’s the demands of the life-adjustment educators for the destruction of the academic curriculum had become practically insatiable. The old academic curriculum, as endorsed by the Committee of Ten, reached its apogee around 1910. In that year more pupils were studying foreign languages or mathematics or science or English—any one of these—than all non-academic subjects combined. During the following forty-year span the academic subjects offered in the high-school curricula fell from about three fourths to about one fifth. Latin, taken in 1910 by 49 per cent of public high-school pupils in grades 9 to 12, fell by 1949 to 7.8 per cent. All modern-language enrollments fell from 84.1 per cent to 22 per cent. Algebra fell from 56.9 per cent to 26.8 per cent, and geometry from 30.9 per cent to 12.8 per cent; total mathematics enrollments from 89.7 per cent to 55 per cent. Total science enrollments, if one omits a new catch-all course entitled “general science,” fell from 81.7 per cent to 33.3 per cent; or to 54.1 per cent if general science is included. English, though it almost held its own in purely quantitative terms, was much diluted in many school systems.

The picture in history and social studies is too complex to render in figures, but changing enrollments made it more parochial both in space and in time—that is, it put greater stress on recent and American history, less on the remoter past and on European history. When the Committee of Ten examined the high-school curricula in 1893, it found that forty subjects were taught, but since of these thirteen were offered in very few schools, the basic curriculum was founded on twenty-seven subjects. By 1941 no less than 274 subjects were offered, and only 59 of these could be classified as academic studies. What is perhaps most extraordinary is not this ten-fold multiplication of subjects, nor the fact that academic studies had fallen to about one fifth the number, but the response of educational theorists: they were convinced that academic studies were still cramping secondary education. In the life-adjustment movement, which flourished in the late 1940’s and the 1950’s with the encouragement of the United States Office of Education, there occurred an effort to mobilize the public secondary-school energies of the country to gear the educational system more closely to the needs of children who were held to be in some sense uneducable.

...The conception, implicit in this observation, that knowledge has little or nothing to do with “life values,” was an essential premise of the whole movement. Repeatedly, life adjustment educators were to insist that intellectual training is of no use in solving the “real life problems” of ordinary youth.

Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (342-345). [1963] Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.


Monday, June 6, 2022

HISTORY LESSONS

History has always been a sobering discipline because it presents the story not only of man’s achievements but also of his failures. History contains many vivid lessons of what can happen to man if he lets go his grip upon reality and becomes self-indul­gent; it is the record of the race, which can be laid alongside the dreams of visionaries, with many profitable lessons. Yet the modern tendency is to drop the old-fashioned history course and to substitute something called “so­cial science” or “social studies,” which one student has aptly dubbed “social stew.” What this often turns out to be is a large amount of speculation based on a small amount of history, and the speculation is more or less subtly slanted to show that we should move in the direction of socialism or some other collectivism. Often this kind of study is simply frivolous; the student is invited to give his thought to the “dating patterns” of teenagers instead of to those facts which explain the rise and fall of nations. There is more to be learned about the nature of man as an individual and as a member of society from a firm grounding in ancient and modern history than from all the “social studies” ever put together by dreamy “pro­gressive” educators.


Philosophy too is an essential part of lib­eral education because it alone can provide a structure for organizing our experience and a ground for the hierarchical ordering of our values. But under “progressive” educa­tion there is but one kind of philosophy: that of experimental inquiry in adapting to an environment. This has no power to yield insight and no means of indicating whether one kind of life is higher than another if both show an adjustment to the externals around them.


Thus, with amazing audacity, the “progres­sive” educators have turned their backs upon those subjects which throughout civilized history have provided the foundations of culture and of intellectual distinction.

 

Imaginative Conservative April 2016
Education and the Individual
by Richard Weaver

Friday, May 27, 2022

TR ON THE RIVER

David McCullough
Mornings on Horseback
Touchstone Books, New York, 1982
Pages 346–347

        Earlier in March, having just returned to the Elkhorn after a winter in New York, Theodore was informed by Sewall one morning that a boat, a light, flat–bottomed scow that they kept on the river, had been stolen in the night by someone who had obviously taken off in it downstream. They suspected the culprit was a man named Finnegan,  who lived upriver, toward Medora, with two cronies of equally bad reputation. So in the next few days Sewall and Dow put together a makeshift boat, and after waiting for a blizzard to pass, the three of them took off in pursuit, pushing into the icy current on March 30, Sewall steering.

        It was a matter of principle, Theodore later said. “To submit tamely and meekly to theft or to any other injury is to invite almost certain repetition of the offense…”

        They were three days on the river before catching up with the thieves, their boat charging along between snow–covered buttes and weird Bad Lands configurations that looked to Theodore like “the crouching figures of great goblin beasts.” He had brought along some books to read and his camera, expecting there might be a magazine article in the adventure. Each man had his rifle. The second night the temperature dropped below zero.

        The next day, at a point about a hundred miles downstream from where they had started, they spotted the missing boat and going ashore found Finnegan and his partners, who surrendered without a fight. (“We simply crept noiselessly up and rising when only a few yards distant covered them with cocked rifles.”) From there they spent another six days moving on down the river, making little headway now because of ice jams, and taking turns at night guarding the prisoners, who because of the extreme cold could not be bound hand and foot. Food ran low and the cold and biting winds continued. But not the least extraordinary part of the story is that during these same six days after catching the thieves, Theodore, in odd moments, read the whole of Anna Karenina, and “with very great interest.”

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.’