Monday, April 21, 2003

Any reader of short stories is familiar with "The Yellow Wallpaper", by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, but unfortunately the rest of her work is not widely known. I recently finished Herland and Other Stories, which I found to be clever and delightful. "Herland" is exactly what it sounds like--the tale of a female utopia, completely implausible as are all utopias, but amusing nonetheless. My favorite part was her description of the clothes designed by these uberwomen, with "pockets in surprising number and variety". Yesterday I was wearing a dress that always makes me happy, not just because it is comfortable and flattering, but because it has pockets!! Why is women's clothing so lacking in pockets?--oh right, because it's all designed by men...

All of the short stories address the emancipation of women in some way, and I found them surprisingly progressive, as well as intelligent and interesting. An unusually rebellious woman herself (she and her young daughter left her husband in the late nineteenth century, and she supported herself by writing and lecturing, becoming one of the leading speakers on women's issues and socialism), Gilman encourages women through her stories, not necessarily to leave their homes, but to find the courage to work and become economically independent. Many of the stories portray older women whose children have left home, and who are inspired by various means to open boarding houses, training schools, or women's clubs; and through the success of these ventures, they overcome the doubts of their husbands or relatives, and are in turn inspirations to other women around them.

I particularly liked the story "If I Were A Man", about a young wife who suddenly finds herself in the body of her husband, allowed to observe the world from his perspective for a day. In the end she works through him to speak out for the rights of women, but what was more striking was her revelation that, in this body, she is the right size--that everything has been arranged to fit the male figure. She revels in having pockets, possessions, and responsibility. Another excellent story is "When I Was A Witch", where a young woman wakes up one day with the power to wish punishment on all who deserve it, and is highly successful in improving the state of society until she tries for the really good wish of emancipating women--and her power deserts her.

What underlies all these stories, and particularly "Herland", is the necessity of equal education. To the uberwomen, education and continued learning is the highest goal of their society, and this desire keeps their will focussed. Gilman enlightens her characters with new ideas, and they are eager to share this wisdom and teach other women to be independent and free-thinking. In other words, they are working towards becoming citizens.

Saturday, April 19, 2003

On this Holy Saturday we celebrate the baptism of a very dear friend into the Russian Orthodox faith. Congratulations, Erin!
"I'm tired of reading, in educational magazines, 'Teach Your Students to Develop Self-Awareness'. I don't want my students to develop self-awareness--I want them to study chemistry!" --The Rev. Dr. Robert Dinegar, Curmudgeon
And now, the gentle reader might ask, what is the solution to yesterday's rant against compulsory public education? Fortunately I was reading Susan Schaeffer Macaulay's For the Children's Sake at the same time as Dumbing Us Down, and can give, as Gatto also did, the wonderful option of homeschooling. The daughter of Francis and Edith Schaeffer (of L'Abri fame), Macaulay builds on the foundation of Charlotte Mason's philosophy (a vast subject which I will touch on in a later post), giving a picutre of education exactly the opposite to Gatto's and, I imagine, very close to what he desired.

As I have said before, teaching a child is simply providing him with the tools to learn, and Macaulay shows this in her outline of a curriculum based on "living books" (literature and other works written by a single author truly interested in sharing their knowledge, as opposed to textbooks) and a love of learning. The three R's are indeed important to the creation of a free citizen, which is why we still insist on teaching them, but children must be allowed to love reading, to love writing, and to love the intricacies of mathematics. How else are they to educate themselves if they do not possess this love, and how are they to be free citizens if they cannot or will not educate themselves?

One of the impossibilities of public schools is the growing expectation that teachers can take the place of parents--that is, that everything can be taught in school. In contrast, homeschooling gives the teachings of morality, ethics, "self-awareness", sexual education, etc, proper context. Children learn by example; thus, a lesson in honesty is much more effective when a child sees his parent tell the truth than when he watches a video or demonstration in class. Also, as Macaulay explains, children are rarely confused by differing viewpoints in such matters when they are kept at home. They more easily develop will and reason through this contextual, exemplary teaching and through encouragement to figure things out for themselves.

Homeschooling provides such a richness of learning that children become not only academically stronger, but wholly stronger as well. This is what education is supposed to be.

Friday, April 18, 2003

Okay, I'm against public education now. John Taylor Gatto convinced me in his book Dumbing Us Down, which is a collection of speeches given after being presented with various Teacher of the Year awards. I can't imagine why anyone would keep nominating him for these awards when he responded with such scathing declamations against public schools, making it perfectly clear that he believes these institutions to be absolutely wrong and unnatural in every respect. From the very beginning the intention of compulsory public schooling was to separate children from their parents, yet another step in the process of categorizing our society. Just as children are locked away in schools all day, old people are placed in nursing homes, Indians on reservations, the poor in shelters, and working adults in their tall windowed boxes. Everyone has a category, so no one is required to think or learn for themselves. Community has been replaced with networks. And think of all the economical gain! Why, without these networks and tidy categories, we would have no need for therapists or indeed much medical science at all, the entertainment industry, the fashion industry, pornography (and there goes 98% of the Internet), ever more sleek and seductive automobiles... Society as we know it would indeed collapse without public schools.

The words in Gatto's speeches drive home again and again the point he is desperate to make--public schools turn children into automatons, not people. We insist that to be true citizens, people must be taught the three R's, and yet what typical adult can honestly say he reads more than advertisements, email, or the front page of the newspaper? What typical adult writes more than, again, emails (and there, of course, he uses the best of spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and grammar, not to mention a rich content), or brief notes and lists? What typical adult uses more arithmetic than a quick headcount or a glance at monthly bills--and higher math, if it ever resided in the brain, departs at graduation!

Besides, these basics of education do not require anywhere near 13 years of schooling. Gatto claims that once a child is ready, he can be taught to read in one hundred hours--and the process takes even less time if the child is encouraged to learn the skill on his own! Children are eager and willing to learn, their brains are programmed to learn and absorb knowledge; yet public schools have been devised to squelch every natural autodidactic impulse. If a child is lucky, he first leaves home at five or six, to enter kindergarten. He is shut into a room with a strange adult, more strange children than he can count, and nothing that belongs to him. He spends each day being herded from one incomprehensible and boring activity to the next, being taught more than anything else to share toys designed for only one child, to stand in line, to wait his turn, to suppress emotion, and to memorize meaningless facts.

Once this child reaches a more structured class, he is taught to work at the same pace as everyone else (too fast, and he is bored; too slow, and he is dumb), to switch his brain from Ancient Egypt to long division at a moment's notice, and to compete for the teacher's attention. Encouragement and discouragement comes through red letters or numbers written at the top of a workbook page, and acceptance from the equally mindless children around him. These have been my experiences, in the few times I have unwillingly found myself in a public classroom. Having been homeschooled, I am more aware of these atrocities, and have always felt that it must be like hell. Public schools, through association, quite effectively shut off any natural desire for learning and produce helpless automatons who must be shuttled through the rest of their lives. Of course, as always, this is not a general statement--I have many acquaintances who struggled through public school and emerged with knowledge and a desire for continued knowledge, but they were fortunate enough to possess genius or family that drove and inspired them.

I'll end this lengthy post with an interesting anecdote from Gatto's book. When Thomas Paine's Common Sense was first published (before compulsory education was instituted), it sold 500,000 copies to a population of 3 million. Fifty percent of that population was slaves, and another twenty percent indentured servants. Now there's a bestseller!

Sunday, April 13, 2003

Sorry for the long silence--Internet weirdness again. I'll post at length tomorrow; in the meantime, the fun stuff I've been reading in the past couple days includes Louisa May Alcott's Plots and Counterplots, early potboilers that are wonderfully Gothic and melodramatic; the delightful and definitive work on gnomes by Rien Poortvliet; Gogol's short stories ("Diary of a Madman" is decidedly odd, and "The Overcoat" is quite amusing); and Pack of Cards, more short stories by Penelope Lively, which are clever and snarky and most enjoyable.

Saturday, April 05, 2003

Running out of bookshelf space seems to me a fairly normal occurence. But running out of space in which to stack books when there are no more shelves? A library book sale today left us $70 poorer, and about 50 books richer; unfortunately, it also means another trip to the grocery store parking lot for more milk crates. I'm overwhelmed and appalled by the sheer volume of books being rapidly accumulated in this house, but, on the other hand, I would have it no other way. There's something wonderfully satisfactory about owning a hefty percentage of the books one wants to read, as well as being able to immediately produce a book when it comes up in conversation. And yet... soon our only available space will be in the bathroom, which wouldn't bother me except for the steam damage. Perhaps bibliophiles should not pair up, although the other options are probably worse. I guess we'll just never be able to move.

Our best finds of the day include an illustrated dictionary and concordance of the Bible, as well as Strong's Exhaustive Concordance with Greek and Hebrew dictionaries (yes, two concordances, but at $15 total for two massive hardbacks it was not to be passed up). Also a 1928 biography of Francois Villon (apparently worth $150, bought for $0.75 -- I love book sales), a lovely copy of Vanity Fair, Three Jacobean Tragedies, Maria Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent, Genghis Khan and the Mongol Horde (Landmark Books edition), A Documentary History of the United States, Boswell's London Journal, Biblical Demonology, and many other treasures as well as the usual handful that will be read and re-donated to next year's sale.

Thursday, April 03, 2003

After reflecting sadly that too few authors are interested in the genre of mythic fiction, I was delighted to stumble across an author new to me, who, while not in Charles de Lint's league, is wonderfully bizarre and fascinating. My favorite thing about Nina Kiriki Hoffman's A Red Heart of Memories is the nonchalant way in which fantasy elements enter the story. Some of the characters are, naturally, surprised by a brick who turns into a witch (he was helping the wall rebuild itself, of course) or the embodiment of magic artistic talent (a gold substance that can be formed into any shape desired), but Hoffman writes as if there is no reason for the reader to be surprised by these things. This stratagem might not work in other cases, but she does it beautifully, and I hope that this book is only the first in a long succession of her works that find their way to my nightstand. And I must give credit to Terri Windling's lovely site for directing me to Hoffman and several other new authors who I am also eager to read.