Sunday, November 27, 2011

Reading Across the Curriculum and Against the Grain

The other day when I was tutoring a sixth grader, I found out that she had never heard of the theory of evolution or of Darwin. She was asking a lot of very good questions about how language evolved, who invented it, etc, and I mentioned the fact that nobody knows, for example, if Neanderthals had language, and that some primates seem able to learn sign language. She had never heard of Neanderthals. I said that they were a species of hominid that lived in Europe till around 50,000 years ago and then went extinct. I thought her eyes would pop out of her head when I said that! She seemed amazed that there were other kinds of "people" besides Homo sapiens. I mentioned that all hominids were primates, and that chimps, gorillas, and humans were probably descended from a common ancestor, the so-called "missing link." She was intrigued and amazed.

So yesterday when I went to her house, I brought a book about human evolution called The Human Odyssey: Four Million Years of Human Evolution.  She snatched it from my hands as if it were a banned book, which in a way it is. In Texas, as in many other American states, teachers shy away from discussing evolution because it can get them in serious trouble.  A school administrator at the state level was fired for being critical of "intelligent design." It is not exactly illegal to teach the theory of evolution in Texas, but since both Governor Perry and former Governor Bush expressed support for "intelligent design," it is risky for teachers to touch the subject at all. I imagine that most of them just skip that chapter in their textbooks.

Textbooks are a very contentious battleground in Texas.  Texas is the second-largest market for school textbooks in the country, and if a textbook is adopted in Texas, it is a success for publishers. But an elderly couple in Texas, Mel and Norma Gabler, has for many years held a stranglehold over the content of Texas textbooks: if they decide a book is "anti-family" or "anti-Christian," it effectively cannot be adopted in Texas.

I have always wondered why students read widely outside of textbooks in English class, but not in history or science classes. Even if they have a textbook in English class, it is usually an anthology of primary sources. Not so in history or science. But history and science textbooks for elementary and high school students are so dumbed down, and so watered down, so as to avoid offending the Gablers and their ilk, that one's eyes glaze over trying to read them.

This is nothing new: history textbooks for children in the South for many years elided the real reasons for the Civil War: slavery. Although Southern politicians, when the war began, stated clearly that the purpose of the war was to preserve slavery, after the war some revisionism set in: it was said that the purpose of the war had been to preserve "states' rights." I remember as a child reading a book about Nathan Bedford Forrest that never mentioned slavery; it said the war began because Lincoln was elected!  Well, sort of...

At some point--maybe about sixth grade, in 1966--I realized that the adults were hiding something from me, and I set about to find the truth. I read every book I could find in my grandparents' house about the Civil War. But alas, they were all military histories, with almost no information about slavery or the political economy of the antebellum South, much less about the Jim Crow South that I still lived in. I heard about Jim Crow in 8th grade--they could hardly hide it from us by 1968--but I still didn't understand what it meant. I didn't understand that segregation had been de jure, and that blacks had a hard time voting. Textbooks back then didn't explain all that, and I could not get the real books I needed to understand the underpinnings and history of my own society. The situation was urgent, as the Civil Rights Movement was active in Nashville, to the point one time that riots were feared and tanks were parked, just in case, not far from our house. I knew something big was afoot, but the grownups--teachers and parents alike--were not talking. There was a Big Secret, clearly.

(There was at least one book that arrived in my parents' house, courtesy of the Book of the Month Club, that could have filled in some of the gaps in my understanding: The Confessions of Nat Turner, by William Styron. But that book was snatched away almost as soon as it arrived, and my mother told me that it was unsuitable for me to read. She was probably right that it shouldn't be on the reading list of seventh graders.)

So, what does all this have to do with a book about human evolution? The new battleground for the hearts and minds of children is not in the field of history any more: kids know all about the genocide of Native Americans, slavery, the Middle Passage, and Jim Crow now. What they DON'T know, in many parts of the country and in a great many schools, is that there is no real argument among scientists about whether or not Darwin's theory of natural selection is largely true. It is true. Yes, it is a "theory," but there is a big difference between a "theory" in science, which can be tested with experiments, and literary theories, for example, which are just somebody's opinion. The theory of evolution is not just an opinion, and there are not really "two sides" to it, as the Intelligent Design proponents would like for your kids to believe.

It's obvious why white teachers and parents in the South tried to hide the reality of racism from white children: they knew it was indefensible, illogical, and inhumane.  Maybe they were even a bit ashamed of it. But why do so many Christian teachers and parents now want to hide a scientific reality from children? Most Christians don't dispute gravity, or that the earth revolves around the sun. Why do they pick on Darwin?

I can't claim to have a definitive answer on this, but I have some guesses. My most charitable answer is that for some people it is genuinely troubling to consider the possibility that God didn't personally create them for a purpose, but instead, evolution rather randomly generated trial balloons, as it were, and then popped some of them through natural selection. The survivors are the ancestors of you and me. Evolution does not have a grand purpose or a grand design for anybody, including you. It just is.  I can live with that; I think it's kind of humorous, actually, perhaps in a dark way. It has a Dada quality to it that I like. But it's not for everybody.

There is some evidence that there are some real hard-core Christian believers who think that the Enlightenment was a big mistake, and that we should return to some sort of theocracy. For these people, science, democracy, secularism, and "materialism" are the enemy and must be discredited and then destroyed. This is very scary, but I don't think Americans will go for it, when push comes to shove.

My best guess is that the majority of politicians and public figures who support the teaching of Intelligent Design as a comparable and competing theory to the theory of evolution are just extremely cynical exploiters of a potent wedge issue. For them, the controversy over the teaching of evolution is just another emotional issue to exploit, like abortion. They know that poorly educated people can easily be whipped up into a paranoid frenzy about the possibility that their kids are being taught by atheist teachers who want to persuade the kids that the Bible is wrong, and who want to abolish Christmas, or the Bible, or both. This exploitation of ignorance for political purposes, coupled with the abetting of more ignorance, is contemptible. It hurts our country by depriving children of a complete science education.

There is also the possibility that some right-wingers believe that by discrediting science generally, they can discredit climate science, which they see as a threat to untrammeled capitalism, and oil revenues more specifically.

Luckily, there are books other than textbooks. I hunted them down during the Civil Rights era, and although I was not particularly successful at finding books then that answered my questions, I did find such books later in life. Faulkner finally clued me in as to what had been going on for a couple of hundred years in my part of the world. So hand out all the non-textbooks you can find to kids, and not just Harry Potter books, but non-fiction books about history and science. They aren't reading them for school.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Women's Book Clubs: Why or Why Not?

I belong to a venerable neighborhood book club: it is at least thirty years old, and some of our members have been in it almost that long! I like the fact that it's a neighborhood book club, and that we arrive on foot at the hostess's house, and we can walk home together. Last night I walked just around the corner to my neighbor's house to go to the meeting. It was nice to see her family photographs and to get to know her a little better.

Almost all of my women friends over the age of about thirty belongs to a book club. But none of my male friends do. It seems to be an accepted fact of life in America that only women join book clubs. It's not that men don't read: some of my male friends read a lot. But they don't seem to feel a need to discuss what they read with other men, and only other men, in the way that women seem to want to discuss their reading with other women.

Or maybe men just don't like to be told by a group what to read. I know at least one woman who doesn't belong to a book club for that very reason: she likes to choose her own reading matter. I like to choose my own reading matter too, but I can squeeze in a group book from time to time. (I don't read all our book club's selections, because I am often out of town for the meetings. Also I don't read the books that I don't think I am going to like.)

It's an interesting difference between men and women: women like to read books together and then discuss them. Men don't. Maybe the reason is just that women like to talk more?

Another reason we don't have co-ed book clubs may be the fact that women's book clubs seem to read mainly books about women! In fact it seems that there is an unlimited market for contemporary fiction that is written quite specifically for women to read in groups. I suspect that The Help was such a book; it was written not only for women to read together in their clubs, but so that the movie rights would be bought (for a huge sum) and then women could go to the movies together! A money-maker all around.

These contemporary "chick books" often revolve around some way in which women are, or have been, oppressed. There are oppressed women in The Help, of course. Another mainstay of women's book clubs is an awful, treacly novel called Snowflower and the Secret Fan.  I will admit now that I read that book even though I hated it. It was about foot-binding in China. I've read other, non-fiction books about foot-binding, and I don't object to reading about it in principle, but this book's title put me off from the beginning, as it sounds like a book written for "young adults," aka seventh graders. Maybe it reminded me of a Nancy Drew book like The Secret of the Old Clock.  But at least that one wasn't called Nancy Drew and the Old Clock.

There are cultural, regional, and ethnic subsets of books about how women have been oppressed: there are books about slavery and Jim Crow, and Holocaust books, and foot-binding books, and probably child-bride books, and certainly books about Muslim girls who can't go to school (Greg Mortenson's books are another mainstay of women's book clubs.) Last night we were brainstorming about new contemporary novels to read, and I was thinking to myself that maybe I should propose a book about Hillbilly-American women (my own regional and ethnic group), but the only book I could think of right away was Winter's Bone, which is about Kentucky people who cook meth. That didn't seem to stack up well next to the Holocaust survivor books, so I didn't suggest it. It might encourage invidious comparisons. Also, there are a lot of men in that book, and a man wrote it. (On the other hand, there is a movie based on it. But it's really violent.)

OK, so men don't belong to book clubs because (1) they don't need to discuss their reading with other guys or women; and (2) they don't like to be told what to read; and (3) so many books these days are about how mean men are to women. What can we do to change this? Do we need to change it?

Maybe not! Maybe book clubs are the new beauty parlors. Women don't spend hours in the beauty parlor any more chatting with other women; we don't have time. We just get our hair cut at Walmart in fifteen minutes and continue on with our duties. And because we are so busy, we barely have time to talk to our friends without some excuse like a book...about other women's lives! This is, of course, different from the seventies, when women in consciousness-raising groups talked about their own lives. Maybe a book club where we talk about pretend women is as close as we can get these days to a real feminist discussion.

And that brings me to another weird thing about book clubs: we sit around talking passionately about people who aren't real!  As an English major I feel as if I'm betraying my tribe by saying that it's weird to talk about fictional characters as if they were real and to judge their behavior by our own moral standards. After all, the novel from its very beginning has been about the moral dilemmas of female characters. Jane Austen practically invented the modern novel single-handedly. And Elizabeth Bennett is as real as any person who's ever lived, to me anyway.

One day I was thinking about whether Elizabeth Bennett is real or not, and if so, in what sense. She lived a long time ago (in the early 1800s); I've heard a lot about her (from one book and a lot of movies); and she's probably a composite based on people who actually lived. In that sense, she's not that different from Mary Mump, or Sadie Hunt, or Uncle Jack, people in my family that I've heard a lot about, but that I never met, because they died before I was born. Some of my ancestors and extended ancestral family are like characters in a book to me: I've heard a lot of stories about them, and they lived a long time ago, and the stories have probably been embellished and exaggerated as the years have gone by. I always think of those people as real. Maybe stories about real people--embellished over the years, handed down--are the roots of modern fiction. So in that sense, Elizabeth Bennett is as real, in a way, as my great-grandmother, Jenny Shannon.

Still. Nowadays, when the real world is falling apart, and real people's problems are so acute and dramatic, fiction often seems superfluous. Sometimes talking about fictional people seems like sort of a waste of time. But maybe the test of good fiction is whether it can seem compelling enough to NOT be a waste of time. I never feel as if I have wasted time on something superfluous and fictional when I read Faulkner, for example. Those characters ARE real, based on stories Faulkner's grandparents told him, and on his research into the history of the South through the ledger books, for example. For some reason, though, we don't read Faulkner in our book club. Or Jane Austen. Or any other old books. Maybe we should.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Language Arts? Pleasure and Song

English teachers in the elementary grades are now called "language arts teachers." But it's hard to feel as if you are teaching anything like "art" when all you do is drill kids on rules about commas, or make them memorize the definitions of vocabulary words like "ubiquitous."

I was thinking about this as I drove out to my tutoring gig in Katy, TX. I tutor a sixth grader who is preparing to take the ISEE test, which is a test that private schools require for admission. The ISEE test is your usual fill-in-the-bubble test: you match words with their closest synonym, or you find the words that "best complete the sentence," or you read a passage and make inferences. None of it has much to do with art. Or pleasure.

It's a long drive, so I burn CDs to play in the car, or I listen to NPR. On my way to Katy on Sunday, I heard a review on NPR of a new album by Miranda Lambert, an up -and-coming young country music star in my home town of Nashville. On her new album, she covers that great song by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, "Look at Miss Ohio."

Oh me, oh my, oh
Would you look at Miss Ohio
She's a-runnin' around with the rag top down
She says I wanna do right but not right now.

I thought that was one of the best hooks I've ever heard. I just kept singing it for days, out loud and in my head.

It turns out that my student is also a country music fan. She loves Taylor Swift.  Taylor Swift was recently described in a New Yorker article as a song-writing prodigy, of which there are not many in Nashville. She started writing songs as a young teenager, and she is a "poet of teen angst," as the New Yorker author says. Why don't we have more of these? Rimbaud wrote his entire oevre before the age of 21.

Maybe because school has drained all the pleasure out of language for young people. Getting back to that wonderful song by Welch and Rawlings: what makes it great is the alliteration, for example in the third line: "runnin' around with the rag top down." But the way they rhyme "oh me oh my oh" with "Miss Ohio" is pretty brilliant too. It's likely that the character in the song is not literally the winner of the Miss Ohio contest. But we can see her: a young woman, probably, running away from a small town in Ohio, headed for Atlanta and some adventures, the song implies, in her convertible with the "rag top down." Then, "I wanna do right, but not right now." The two meanings of "right" that create a wonderful irony: "right" as in morally right, and "right now," as in instantly. In other words, instant gratification is almost always in conflict with what you're supposed to do, and that little line captures that entire idea so economically and wittily. (It also conjures up that joke about "Mr Right" versus "Mr Right Now," and you can imagine the character pursuing the latter rather than the former.)

You don't need a big vocabulary to derive pleasure from this tiny poem. Or for that matter, from this one:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes.

Again, a song with a great hook! By Bill Shakespeare, who would have made it big in Nashville had he been a singer/songwriter.

Again too, it's the delicious alliteration that makes it so pleasurable and memorable. In his memoir, Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt talks about how he rolled those words around just for the pure pleasure of how they literally felt in his mouth, and for the pleasure of the sounds. It's not just the alliteration: it's also the end rhyme and the rhythm of the words. Significantly, this is a song in The Tempest, not dialogue in the play, a song sung by a sort of fairy or sprite named Ariel. (A sprite sort of like Taylor Swift or Bjork.) Song lyrics are often more loaded with pure aural pleasure than poetry that is meant to be merely read or spoken. Nowadays, very little written poetry even rhymes. But songs do.

Young people love pop music and song--country music, rock, rap. Maybe English teachers should pay more attention to that and talk with their students about where the pleasure comes from: talk more about poetic devices like alliteration, end rhymes, internal rhymes, meter, etc. Poetry--even very academic, formal poetry that seems meant only to be read--comes from song. Epic poetry, even, was sung, and the long stories that epic poets told are the ancestors of short stories and novels. All literature, you could say, goes back to popular song. As they say on the classical music station, all music was once new music.

I could just say, put the "art" back in language arts, and then pleasure would follow. But it's not that simple, because pleasure has become suspect in most of the arts, including visual art. In academia, art teachers often chide students for making art that is too pretty. Continental theory has been at work for several decades now, on the project of making people feel guilty or somehow politically incorrect if they get pleasure from visual art. It's a bourgeois pleasure that we're supposed to feel ashamed of.

Well, enough of that. A lot of contemporary visual artists are now ignoring their art school teachers and making stuff that actually looks good. English teachers, take note: pleasure is back. It never went away on the radio, and your students know that. Throw away the lists of Latinate words and get out your good old Anglo-Saxon words. They're fine. They'll do. Write some songs with good hooks. Read novels aloud in class. Act out plays. No more bubbles and number two pencils!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

How to Build Vocabulary

                                                     James Murray, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary

Right now I'm tutoring a girl who is trying to improve her vocabulary. Having a big vocabulary is important on a lot of standardized tests, so it's a common obsession of parents and teachers.

When I was in elementary school, we had a series of books in the Word Wealth series that were supposed to teach us vocabulary. We had to memorize the definitions and use the word in a sentence and so on: the usual drills. But I don't think it worked very well. I remember one word in particular: facetious. Word Wealth said that it meant, "inappropriately witty." I was sort of a class clown, dying to be witty at all times, and I couldn't imagine an inappropriate time to be witty, except maybe at a funeral or something. But apparently that's not the only time you could conceivably be "facetious." I kept asking my English teacher about it, and she really couldn't explain when you might say, appropriately, "I was just being facetious."

Many years later, though, I did understand what "facetious" meant and even started using it. It doesn't really mean "inappropriately witty," although that might be as close as you can get to defining its present usage. But when the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) was written, there was nothing pejorative (another vocabulary word that I struggled to understand) about the word "facetious": it meant "characterized by, or addicted to, pleasantry; jocose, jocular, waggish. Formerly often with laudatory sense: Witty, humorous, amusing..."
Ok, there's a slight hint there in the word "formerly" that facetious is not quite as great as it used to be. Maybe people are just too serious these days? After all, quotes the OED, "the medieval carvers were many of them facetious fellows." A guy named Mickelthwaite said that. Anybody with a name like that must have thought wit was always appropriate.

I've been thinking about all this as I strive to impart to my sixth-grade student the nuances of meaning of such words as "accede" or "abdicate." I told a long story about the abdication of Edward VIII, which he did to marry Mrs. Simpson,  a very interesting story in part because it led to Queen Elizabeth II becoming Queen, and it was the back-story in part to the whole drama about Charles and Diana and Camilla, and even to the marriage of William to a commoner. The royals have evidently learned from their history, although it took them a long time to get the message.

The problem was that for a twelve year old this story was not as rich as it was for me, because she could not remember the death of Diana or the whole drama surrounding it. I am beginning to think that words acquire their patina of meaning over a lifetime. All the times you have heard that word used, something "stuck" to it, and now for you that word has a very personal meaning. It's as if it picked up a scent from all its previous contexts.

Context is key. Learning words out of context is just rote memorization. I keep telling people that they just need to read a lot, to improve their vocabulary painlessly, but nobody really seems to want to do that. I guess it takes too much time, and it seems as if memorizing definitions is a short cut. But it doesn't really work: the word is not yours unless you have handled it, kept it in your pocket, got it out to look at it like a magic rock, thrown it at other people, kept it in a drawer of your desk.

One thing I like about the OED is that it gives you some of that fast, if you're in a hurry. You can look up any word and find out how somebody used it three hundred years ago. I just opened it at random and looked at the word "excavation." In 1751, somebody named Chambers wrote, "The excavation of the foundation of a settled, by Palladio, at a sixth part of the height of the whole building." Palladio! Really? What a useful rule of thumb, for when I build my chicken house! But, is that just in Italy, or everywhere? What about on the Gulf Coast?

If the word "excavation" was new to me, just thinking about all this--how to really use it, and use the information associated with it--would make it MY word. A word doesn't exist in a vacuum. It comes trailing clouds of glory, as it were. There's no short cut to being able to feel that aura: you just have to read a lot, and if you're in a hurry, play with your magnifying glass and the OED.