It's been quite a while since I've had one of my pauses to reflect on the state of Amarikuhn edgykayshun. Perhaps it is time to do so, with the death of John Taylor Gotto, who did so much to try to awaken the "edugarchy" (as Gary Lawrence and I called it in our book Rotten to the (Common) Core), and the wider public to what is going on. At one point, Gotto observed that the "fifty minute bell" inoculated students against the idea that any subject discipline was worth any intense and prolonged reflection. Rather, students were herded from one class and one room to another, and by the time "roll call" and "attendance" was taken and announcements were made, ten precious minutes had passed, leaving the teachers who took their responsibility to deliver their subject material and the tradition it represented, but forty minutes to do so.
In other words, in the "sound bite world," life speeds up, learning - which requires an investment of time, time to pause and reflect - slows down and is shut down entirely, by a system deliberately designed to do just that.
Which brings us to today's article, shared by Mr. V.T. And it's one of those articles that, in itself, is meant to be reflected upon:
Consider just the three excerpts quoted from that 1897 textbook:
"One of the quickest ways of learning to know good English, is oral reading. For him who would write the language it is therefore a great economy to learn to read it. It is an invaluable habit to read aloud every day some piece of prose with the finest feeling the reader can lend to it. In no other way can one so easily learn to notice and to remember new words. In no other way can one catch the infinitely varied rhythm of prose, and acquire a sense of how a good sentence rises gradually from the beginning and then descends in a cadence. This rise and fall of the sentence is not merely a matter of voice; it is a matter of thought as well. …
If the student reads aloud from writers whose work was natural, unforced, original, he will gradually come to see his own ideas more clearly, feel his own feelings more keenly."
"To gain new words and new ideas, the student must compel himself to read slowly. Impatient to hurry on and learn how the tale or poem ends, many a youth is accustomed to read so rapidly as to miss the best part of what the author is trying to say. Thoughts cannot be read so rapidly as words. To get at the thoughts and really to retain the valuable expressions, the student must scrutinize and ponder as he reads. Each word must be thoroughly understood; its exact value in the given sentence must be grasped.”
"To the habit of memorizing, many a person is indebted not merely for high thoughts that cheer hours of solitude and that stimulate his own thinking, but for command of words. The degree to which the language of modern writers is derived from a few great authors is startling. Shakespeare’s phrases are a part of the tissue of every man’s speech to-day. Such writers as Charles Lamb bear Shakespeare’s mark on every page. The language of the King James version of the Bible is echoed in modern English prose and poetry. It formed styles so unlike as those of Bunyan, Ruskin, and Abraham Lincoln. Most teachers would declare that a habit of learning Scripture by heart is of incalculable value to a student’s English.”
Forget about that part of reading Scripture, even for a literary purpose. It simply doesn't "skim" well. And you can forget about oral recitation, too. When I was in public school, I had to be able to recite the preamble of the US Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, and yes, even the occasional Shakespeare soliloquy. And that was in the seventh grade. We had to stand at our desks, and recite them, perfectly, with Mrs. Rosine overseeing the whole process. We also had to be able to spell. It wouldn't work today, because students can barely read, much less recite, much less take a pen or pencil and write a coherent sentence.
But what really caught my attention here is the emphasis not only on recitation, but on reading slowly. I have to admit, that resonated, because I am a ploddingly slow reader. I even take notes in my books as I read; they're full of underlinings, notes in the margins, post-it notes when the margins won't provide enough space. It's laborious work. It requires slowing down, pausing, re-reading passages.
It's not a process for someone in a hurry to gobble up information and regurgitate it in a constipated tangle of unrelated factoids. It's not "speed reading." (And while we're at it, has anyone ever investigated how speed reading techniques might be connected to the disappearance of proper verb conjugations, or the proper use of definite and indefinite articles, reflexive or demonstrative pronouns, and so on, or the other atrocities passing for written English in today's schools? I can't think of any, but I suspect there's a connection to the speed-reading craze of the 1970s, and today's mess, where the attitude to a Shakespeare soliloquy is "Can't he get to the point?")
What's really happening, I fear, is that the splits we see all across our culture - from politics to the arts - is a fundamental one, and there's really no common ground between the two. It's that split between those who think Google is a library, and replaces a library, and those who know not everything is on the internet, that occasionally, one has to dig through the stacks, blow the dust off a book, sit, and read, and reflect. The one turns us into Pavlovian machines, tapping a keyboard, and pushing "enter" and out pops the informational meat we're salivating for. Problem solved, reflection, slow pausing to think, not needed nor necessary. The other reminds us we're human, and come from a long tradition and history, from Christ to Kant, with people reading, writing, reflecting, elaborating or critiquing.
Americans use "quote", the verb, to mean the noun, "quotation," because they don't even know the difference between the two any more. "Let me read you a quote from Milton." Milton would have already left the room as soon as that sentence was uttered. Into the vacuum left by our non-reflective "kulcher" steps the narcissist and his feelings and reckless abandon with words. We hear the solipsistic turn on every television news broadcast, in every attempt to have a serious conversation about anything. "How do you feel about that?" has come to replace "What do you think about that?" And the reason for its ubiquity in conversation is simple: people don't think, because they don't want to take the time. It's the secular version of the revival tent meeting. Read the Bible? In Greek? The Church Fathers? The Greek Philosophers? The Medieval Scholastics? The Renaissance Humanists? Luther? Calvin? Kant? or even, Hegel? No, the personal experience and testimony, divorced from all that came before, is much easier. It's more fun. It's self-validating. And besides, if you ask what someone thinks about something, you actually have to waste your time and listen to what he or she thinks about it! We've forgotten, entirely, that the journey is a part, and the largest part, of any answer.
It's much easier to skim through a text, to "mine data" rather than understand information, to think about it, and how we got "here" from "there". As the article says, good speaking and ability to write, comes after a long period of listening, and reading, others.
Ok... rant over.
See you on the flip side.