"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Why can't kids just read good stories?

George Will once wrote that if the U.S. model of education had been imposed on us by an outside power, "it would be considered an act of war."
Monopolies mean trouble. People within their walls develop their own self-serving agendas. They can't allow students to just enjoy life and become self-empowered. Self-empowerment might mean less reliance on the state and its educational apparatus.
Students surely don't know what's good for them, right?
Oh, this doesn't apply in the natural sciences or mathematics. Nor in industrial arts. But as I reflect on the classes I was steered toward in school (because someone thought I was a good writer), I'm mystified.
I hope the situation has been addressed since my school days.
Here is where political conservatives can do us a favor. Conservatives would advocate getting a shovel and cleaning out the barn. They assail with some cause our monopolistic public education system where young people are subjected to a lot of turgid material.
I remember that not long after high school, I heard a news report about a conservative group protesting some high school reading materials here in Minnesota. The TV report showed a pile of some of the objectionable material. There was a big blue book I remembered from high school.
"Well, that makes sense," I thought.
Here's a case where I'm totally aligned with these people, people who today tend to be tea partiers. We mustn't generalize when it comes to movements. People of an ideological stripe can sometimes see merit in the opposing side. Let's occupy Wall Street!
I'm with John Stossel on a lot of philosophical matters even though he tends to associate himself with the Fox News crowd which I reject. Stossel is a libertarian but it's obvious he's gentle and caring - not a snarling pit bull.
My old boss says I express a political philosophy on this site that defies easy categorization. Thanks, I think.
Have I become such an old-timer I actually exude wisdom? I'm a progressive who has no real problem with European style socialism. But I get irritated where progressives get carried away.
There are areas in American life where market principles can be a real boon. Public education needs a strong dose.
I suspect there has been progress since when we had that "blue book" thrust on us.
It's hard getting teachers straightened out because of the power they acquire.
Why can't kids develop their reading by just reading "good stories?" Why can't kids learn history in a way that leaves a little more room for optimism about the American story and American model?
It's quite possible things are being done better now. But that "blue book" and other such tripe were rightfully under fire from sensible people who wanted kids to open their horizons in a way that was less coached.
Don't think for an instant that kids don't know what's going on. Many of them "play the game" as set down by their teachers and move on, probably with wrinkled forehead over what happened.
Like what? Well, maybe like reading "Death of a Salesman."
The intelligentsia would say this is a "classic." If it is, I'd say it's a classic in their own minds. All the more reason to storm across the moats and remove these people from their pretentious perches.
Reading a synopsis of "Death of a Salesman" leads me to think I could scribble the plot line for this on a bar napkin at the end of a night on the town. My God, this material is dreary and depressing.
So is "A Piece of Steak" by Jack London, written in 1909. Isn't a lot of this material too dated to really be interpreted properly by young minds? Again, it's a woefully dreary and depressing story. An over-the-hill boxer who can't afford a proper meal loses to a younger opponent.
Aging and poverty are a bummer.
We had to read "Walden II" by behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner. This was a 1948 story about a small planned community based on the model suggested by H.D. Thoreau.
Thoreau might be an interesting person to sit across from at a bar. In his time he was able to get his writing in front of enough people to be considered important. But why do we take him and his kind so seriously today?
Why can't we just move on from Jack London? These people found a market for their work in their time. Good for them. But they put their pants on one leg at a time.
It's like Jim Bouton writing that all the hyperbole about "old-timers" in baseball was sheep dip. It seemed the more time went by, the more the old names got ingrained in the baseball pantheon in an immortal way.
"The classics" get inflated whether in literature, music or whatever.
I will make an exception for Charles Dickens. He wrote true classics. A lot of the other stuff can be filed in the dustbin.
Much is preserved because it serves a political agenda.
Because public schools are the epitome of collectivism, teachers tend to be left-of-center. This doesn't apply to the natural sciences and math where the body of knowledge is self-defining. But the kind of classes where we read "Death of a Salesman" are quite another matter.
I remember being forced to read "Animal Farm" by George Orwell. This fit the objectionable pattern. The book might have had relevance in 1945. Orwell was a democratic socialist and critic of Joseph Stalin.
Let's at least assert here that high school kids are too young to read this stuff and put it in proper context.
I'll add to this list "Of Mice and Men" which I paged through when young - assigned reading of course. I still remember the expression "the fatta the land." The John Steinbeck story came out in 1937 and had a Great Depression backdrop.
It had vulgarity and violence. One of the principals shoots his companion in the back of the head to ensure his "painless and happy death" because there's a lynch mob coming.
Again, I could probably construct a story line like this on a bar napkin. And if I presented it to a publisher I'd have the door slammed on me.
We read "Bartleby the Scrivener" in high school. I still remember Bartleby's trademark line: "I would prefer not to."
What sort of "genius" is behind this story?
It's about a "copyist," Bartleby, who refuses to go on doing the sort of writing demanded of him. He "forsakes conventional modes because of an irresistible preoccupation with the most baffling philosophical questions."
And this is appropriate reading for high school youth?
You can't go out in the world and simply refuse to do your job properly.
I know my class was during the nonconformist early 1970s but let's get real about such tripe.
Why? Why was all this oddball, idiosyncratic, dreary and (I would suggest) pseudo-intellectual stuff by self-absorbed, detached writers who fool the intelligentsia the way "modern artists" fool the art world, thrust upon us?
Why can't kids just read a good story? Why not read a John Jakes type of historical novel? Why not a novel that suggests the American story does in fact have some room for optimism?
Why not a story with characters that appear well-adjusted, get along with others and have high aspirations?
Well, many teachers in the humanities feel their material should be difficult and elusive to grasp, with ideas that seem lofty and are implanted in subtle ways. We can't just let kids enjoy their reading, right?
We have to read about people with problems. People with alcoholism or who commit suicide.
Well, the likes of Stossel and that conservative protest group would vigorously suggest the alternative.
We can read a good clean story about well-adjusted Americans dong the proper things and ending up reasonably successful. It doesn't mean we're in denial about the injustices that can crop up in American life.
In closing, I can quote from an old Cheech and Chong routine from when they were in their marijuana-inspired prime of entertaining my generation. They're watching a movie with torture - this was long before Dick Cheney as VP - at a drive-in theater when one says to the other: "This movie's a bummer, man."
Likewise with so much of the required reading I recall.
How sad and avoidable.
- Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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