More of Mill on Education

From the middle of chapter 2 of John Stuart Mill’s autobiography, my thoughts exactly:

And I do not believe that boys can be induced to apply themselves with vigour, and what is so much more difficult, perseverance, to dry and irksome studies, by the sole force of persuasion and soft words. Much must be done, and much must be learnt, by children, for which rigid discipline, and known liability to punishment, are indispensable as means. It is, no doubt, a very laudable effort, in modern teaching, to render as much as possible of what the young are required to learn, easy and interesting to them. But when this principle is pushed to the length of not requiring them to learn anything but what has been made easy and interesting, one of the chief objects of education is sacrificed. I rejoice in the decline of the old brutal and tyrannical system of teaching, which, however, did succeed in enforcing habits of application; but the new, as it seems to me, is training up a race of men who will be incapable of doing anything which is disagreeable to them.

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Why We Need Definitions, Borders, and Boundary Maintenance

Cross-posted from Millennial Star.

 

PART I: INTRODUCTION

Can you define the word “chair?” Seems simple—let’s say it’s a small, raised platform that’s supported by legs and which typically has a back against which your torso can rest. That definition brings to mind a single, simple, useful picture—in short, a conservative ideal of chairs.

But might that seem too restrictive?  So let’s say a chair can have variations. Chairs with wheels are chairs, too, and shouldn’t be judged for being different! Those tacky old chairs that are shaped like a giant hand? Those are chairs that demand to exist as they are—a chair that lives on the fringes of society and is getting tired of being mistreated.

Maybe accepting some natural variations is morally decent, though, right? But now we’re on a slippery slope. There are some people who claim to be more high-minded than the rest, who embrace diversity and tolerance as the greatest values, and who therefore feel driven to constantly expand our understanding of chairs for us, for the good of those would-be chairs which have been marginalized and for those of us who are too culturally dull to know that we had many more chairs among us in the first place.

Is not, they indignantly say, a chair anything on which one might reasonably sit?  Is not a bean bag a valid chair? A couch? The ground itself? Well, perhaps, we’re inclined to say, for we see many of our peers nodding at the wisdom of this, and feeling good about ourselves for being such pioneers of inclusion.

And now we’re solidly in liberal territory (liberal, after all, connotes expansiveness above all—the eternal obsession with widening existing things). Once we’ve established that the very surface of the world could be called a chair, for it can kind of serve a similar function if forced to, we have given a green light to the radicals who insist that it’s a moral imperative to recognize as a legitimate chair anything and everything that could ever conceivably be used for sitting. The hood of a car, a rock, a stack of books: all chairs.

By this point, much of society has decided that—in line with the warped thinking that has gotten us this far—virtue lies in defending the most extreme minorities possible. Life becomes a contest to advertise our righteousness by campaigning for the most imaginative visions of chairs.  The tops of skyscrapers, piles of razor blades, the backs of sleeping grizzly bears: all are supposedly just as valid as any other kind of chair.

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John Stuart Mill on Living Well

I’m getting a lot out of Mill’s autobiography. From the end of chapter 3, wise advice:

I learnt how to obtain the best I could, when I could not obtain everything; instead of being indignant or dispirited because I could not have entirely my own way, to be pleased and encouraged when I could have the smallest part of it; and when even that could not be, to bear with complete equanimity the being overruled altogether. I have found, through life, these acquisitions to be of the greatest possible importance for personal happiness, and they are also a very necessary condition for enabling any one, either as theorist or as practical man, to effect the greatest amount of good compatible with his opportunities.

And near the end of chapter 4 Mill details the casual self-improvement programs he and some friends conducted, mostly as a sort of intense book club. They studied languages, read and discussed serious works, and debated issues. Where are such groups today?

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“The Whole Concatenation of Diabolical Rascality”

Probably the single coolest phrase in all of scripture, right there.  In Doctrine and Covenants 123, Joseph Smith encouraged the Latter-day Saints to keep track of all the “libelous publications,” as well as property damage and physical abuse, they had suffered.

Verse 5 uses this unique and memorable phrase to summarize that record: “the whole concatenation of diabolical rascality.”  Isn’t it wonderful?

First of all, it’s funny in the way that wordy phrases are, using multiple long, obscure words right next to each other.  Also, it’s a perfect example of that 19th century style of excruciatingly exact wording.  The individual words themselves are quite funny, too.  “Concatenation.”  Just say that one aloud.

Everybody should definitely highlight this phrase in their own copies right away.

And if you haven’t read the Doctrine and Covenants, you really should.  Who wouldn’t want to read a book that has gems like this in it?

 

 

Reviewed: The Brainy Bunch

downloadI wanted to like this book because I think I would like this family.  Sadly, I’m judging the book based on its content, not how appealing I find the authors.

The cover promises that this is “The Harding family’s method for college ready by age twelve.”  That’s what they’re famous for: of their ten children, those who have turned twelve by now have all been enrolled in at least some kind of college class by then.

But the book isn’t really a useful how-to.  There are a couple of short chapters in the second half that address their methods, but it’s mostly common sense: lots of reading, daily writing of any kind followed by revising, lots of math exercises and computer math games, and then a lot self-directed research on subjects and fields that interest them (and by research, they often mean Google). And a ton of prep for the SAT.

There really isn’t too much more than that.

So what’s in this book?  The first half is entirely stories about the family.  They’re nice, but probably not what anybody’s paying for.  I’ve read the books by the Duggar family, and they also tell stories about themselves, but their stories are just to support the larger purpose of sharing their ideas about life.  For the Hardings, it’s the other way around.

Many chapters are followed by pages written by the children, including the very young ones, that are often nonsense.  The book ends with some random messages from the father to people who are not the reader.  All this shows what this book really is: a vanity project.  That’s not the worst thing in the world, but it hardly inspires confidence that this is worth the reader’s time.

It’s also not very well written.  Each chapter reads like it was written independently of the rest, with no guiding plan.  Concepts repeat themselves endlessly–we’re treated to the definition of quincenera, for example, multiple times.   Continue reading

Great Education Quotes From John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, Chapter 1

Mill’s story of his unusually successful education is worthy of study for every parent, student, and teacher.  Or any lover of clear, precise prose, for that matter.

The single best quote comes from near the end of the chapter:

 

A pupil from whom nothing is ever demanded which he cannot do, never does all he can.

 

Here are five others worth pondering:

 

  1. It was at this period that I read, for the first time, some of the most important dialogues of Plato, in particular the Gorgias, the Protagoras, and the Republic. There is no author to whom my father thought himself more indebted for his own mental culture, than Plato, or whom he more frequently recommended to young student. I can bear similar testimony in regard to myself. The Socratic method, of which the Platonic dialogues are the chief example, is unsurpassed as a discipline for correcting the errors, and clearing up the confusions incident to the intellectus sibi permissus, the understanding which has made up all its bundles of associations under the guidance of popular phraseology. The close, searching elenchus by which the man of vague generalities is constrained either to express his meaning to himself in definite terms, or to confess that he does not know what he is talking about; the perpetual testing of all general statements by particular instances; the siege in from which is laid to the meaning of large abstract terms, by fixing upon some still larger class-name which includes that and more, and dividing down to the thing sought—marking out its limits and definition by a series of accurately drawn distinctions between it and each of the cognate objects which are successively parted off from it—all this, as an education for precise thinking, is inestimable, and all this, even at that age, took such hold of me that it became part of my own mind.

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North Las Vegas Stake Pioneer Day Fireworks, July 26, 2014

Every July for 40 years, the North Las Vegas Stake of the LDS Church has put on a Pioneer Day celebration that has become legendary. Here are the fireworks from the end of last night’s festivities. Yes, they are close to the crowd, and yes, this is done with the permission and supervision of the fire department! Sorry for cutting off the first bit of the first song.

Great Writing About Great Writing

“Something has happened to me, something that I must record. I strain to recapture my feeling of purple. It quickly comes, and there I am in my imagination weaving in and out of desolate trunks with my eyes wide open. In a flash of energy, I write several sentences on this experience. But then rises in my mind that amassment of sludge and the doll fragment. I think to myself that I shouldn’t be excited over this season of sordid appendages and squalor. I stop writing. I look over what I have written. It is turgid, hyperbolic. With slight disdain, I begin to mark out extraneous words and phrases. I feel the brisk satisfaction of making lean what had before been bloated, of rubbing off a layer of dirt. In the end I am left with a three tight sentences and the slow-burning rapture of successful creation, the play of energy and form, the beating heart and the mind that’s chilled.”

–Eric G. Wilson, Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, 46-47

Notes and Quotes, June 2014

Education

  • List of technology-enhanced activities for secondary English classes.
  • Examples of worthwhile technology-enhanced lesson plans.
  • Quick thoughts from the Hardings, homeschooling parents of ten who have sent seven kids to college by age 12.
  • Recently found this silly video I made for a class I was taking two years ago.  Amusing.
  • Instapundit nails it: the humanities lost relevance when they decided to preach that nothing has intrinsic value.  It’s been my experience that students (yes, even at-risk, underprivileged minorities!) appreciate the classics.  Everybody likes the egalitarian ideal of participation in the uniting, universal canon, rather than manufactured niche curricula that only panders to trends.

 

Language & Literature

  • Great WSJ essay on one of my favorite books, A Confederacy of Dunces.
  • Cute chart collects insults from famous authors who hated each other’s work.
  • Fascinating memoir of writing the script for Star Trek: Insurrection. Included here because it shares so much about that specific writing craft.  Also, Insurrection is often over-maligned—it is not great, but not nearly as bad as many say.  This long essay shows how it could have been great.
  • Long lost introduction by Anthony Burgess to Dubliners.

 

 

Living Well

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Science: Literature Changes Your Brain

Recently, some pioneering work in neuroscience has begun to suggest what English teachers have long known: that the power of literature is the power of alterity, creating the possibility of encountering the other in a form not easily recuperable, not easily assimilable to the self. “Imaginative sympathy,” we used to call it. To read literature well is to be challenged, and to emerge changed.

–“Dead Poets Society Is a Terrible Defense of the Humanities

 

My Favorite Hudson River School Paintings

Albert Bierstadt

Yosemite Valley, Yosemite Park, c. 1868, Oakland Museum, Oakland, California

Yosemite Valley, Yosemite Park, c. 1868, Oakland Museum, Oakland, California

 

 

Frederic Edwin Church

A Country Home, 1854, Seattle Art Museum

A Country Home, 1854, Seattle Art Museum

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