"I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good." --Cymbeline, V.iv.209-210. An English teacher's log. Slow down: Check it once in a while.

Monday, October 31, 2005


The following is a paragraph I am including as boilerplate in this week’s progress reports on my tenth-grade English class. Except for the part about caffeine, the facts come from the students:

General Note to Parents:

It has come to my attention that many of my students engage in what is euphemistically called “multi-tasking” while doing homework. At the same time that they are supposed to be understanding their reading or solving grammar problems or writing an essay (to say nothing of their math, science, history, and foreign language studies), they are also doing one or more of the following: visiting “My Space” on the computer, communicating by Instant Messenger (IM), listening to what is (often euphemistically) called “music” on an iPod, watching TV or a video, talking on the telephone, playing a video game, and perhaps also drinking a caffeine-laced drink. Some students have confessed to doing four or even five of these at a time. Such combinations cannot but lead to difficulties in concentration and stunted intellectual growth. I would like to suggest that, depending on your own student’s particular situation, perhaps a conversation on the subject and, if necessary, some increased adult supervision might be in order.

I don’t know what the parents will say when they read this. Many of my students are going to be up in arms. “We’re perfectly good at multi-tasking, we’re doing fine in school,” they will say, “and who are you adults to tell use how we study best?”

Well, I’ll tell you who we are (that is, if we are really behaving like adults). We are people who, as we grow older and more dependent on you, don’t want to have to live in a world in which the people running the world can’t concentrate on what they’re doing.

Furthermore, some of us know better than you do about what “doing fine in school” really means. We know from experience that it’s not just about good grades and decent progress reports. It’s about growing from the kind of person who keeps counting how many pages you have left to read into the kind of person who forgets everything else in the world but what is happening in a good book. And how can you lose yourself in a good book when raging words screamed to a primitivistic beat (or syrupy words whispered to a sentimental drone) are being piped into your head and when every ten or twenty seconds you feel compelled to respond to an IM of imbecile banality hurriedly composed by someone paying equally minimal attention to your banal IM?

Do IM. Fine. But do only it—for as long as it takes to complete a conversation. Then turn it off and listen to your infernal song if you have to. Then turn it off and win points in the video game. Then turn it off and read the good book your English teacher has assigned you.

Of course the book will seem boring at first because it isn’t screaming in your ear and flash-dancing in front of your eyes. But somewhere inside you there is a soul that needs nourishing, and it won’t be satisfied with what multi-tasking can feed it any more than your body can be satisfied by eating candy-bar wrappers and soft drink ads.

How do I know this? Because I’ve done both. I’ve multi-tasked and I’ve read good books. Reading good books is better.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Science Building

Meditation on the dedication of a new science building (celebrated with a day of hideous pronouncements from the N.I.C.E.*):

Science without wisdom is superstition;

Knowledge without virtue is death.

*pronouncements like those of Dr. Kurt Benirschke, who began by identifying himself as a former German paratrooper who “jumped out of planes for Mr. Hitler” and came to America in 1946 because “nothing was happening in Germany,” and who, after showing a famous 1940s photo of a very crowded Coney Island, as who should say “look at this verminous overpopulating human race,” proceeded to argue that since, thanks to human beings, all wild animals will be extinct in a few years, we must freeze tissues from zoo animals, as he has done, in order to be able to clone them in future for purposes of scientific study. He ended with a slide of “the most beautiful animal in the world,” a southeast Asian monkey, depicted in soulful-eyed close-up, who will soon be extinct thanks to human tourism and therefore ought to have his nuclei frozen along with the other 1000 or so species of animal tissue the professor has preserved in liquid nitrogen at the San Diego Zoo and the Wild Animal Park for the sake of future research. The purposes of such research were not mentioned.

pronouncements like those of Dr. David Baltimore, keynote speaker, Nobel laureate in microbiology and retiring head of Cal. Tech., who wants us all to study science not only because all our gadgets depend on it and because only science can save us from an avian flu pandemic and because we are all having to make difficult decisions about medical procedures and because superstitious religion, which we though we’d finally gotten over, is once again rearing its ugly head, but because science now at long last is addressing “children’s questions” such as “Why is there something instead of nothing?” and “In the big bang what banged?” and “What is consciousness?” That, as Plato said, “the eye cannot see itself” or, as Wendell Berry says, “we cannot comprehend what comprehends us” seems not to have occurred to him.

Not all the speakers were so N.I.C.E.: The noble Dr. Brent Eastman, who pointed out that though we must prepare for major disasters in which thousands might suffer, a doctor must and can treat people only one at a time, and the good Dr. Fred Walker provided welcome contrast.

(N.I.C.E. is the acronym for the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments in C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength.)

Please return to the two-line meditation above before it is too late.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Freak Dance and Civilization

Last week a student wrote anonymously in a school publication to complain that adults had stopped students from “dancing the way we want” at a school dance. In response, the writer says, the students refused to dance at all and pouted away.

Here is why adults should stop students from freak dancing:

It reduces girls from dance partners to sex toys;
it reduces boys from artful dancers to public masturbators;
it reduces dancing from multi-dimensional art—the celebration of spirit in form—to one-dimensional sensuality;
it reduces a school dance from the civilized celebration of the mystery of Eros at the heart of any community to a spiritless mass sensual self-indulgence.

The young are not to blame for this reduction. They are enslaved to it by the ubiquitous bad art of their favorite entertainments. Adults who neglect to draw them out of the pleasant mud are the ones to blame.* So bravo to those proctors who set a limit on public human animality.

And if you are one who can enjoy no kind of dancing except freaking, you might take a good look at male-female dance forms from waltz to swing and then inquire what has so impoverished your imagination.

*Adults are up against four heavy obstacles in trying to preserve youngsters from their own self-indulgence:

One is the overwhelming quantity of titillating poison to which the young are addicted that goes by the name of popular entertainment (music videos, rock/pop/rap songs, TV, movies, and—all too often—school dances).

The second is the lack, in many school communities, of adult moral support for a principled stand against such entertainment.

The third is the adults’ own fear of not being liked by the young in their charge (arising from a fatal supplanting, in their own psyches, of the principle of duty by that of good feeling).

And the fourth is the erroneous belief in the natural goodness of man, an inheritance from the Romantic revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, which replaced the venerable doctrines of free will and moral responsibility with that of natural impulse as the principal guide to right mental and social life.

If the young are naturally good and it is society that corrupts them (as Rousseau argued), then to let them follow their impulses without interference from adult society is to let them remain innocent and good. Believers in this doctrine, whose memories usually reach no further back than the 1960s, argue that they themselves were once young and outrageously rebellious in their parents’ eyes too and yet turned out ok, that the present-day youth will no doubt turn out ok too. (“Ok” seems not to include the notion that a well-turned-out adult is one who can properly educate the next generation of youth.)

The problems with this doctrine are two: The first is that it ignores the fact that the youth of today are already being corrupted by society—in the form of the entertainment poison mentioned above.

The second is that the doctrine isn’t true. Human beings may be well or badly influenced by society, but man is not now and (since Eden) never has been naturally good. Man either is born morally neutral or is fallen into depravity; in any case he requires labor to resist evil and become good, labor directed at achieving right reason (Plato’s formulation), right habit (Aristotle’s), or right will (the Bible’s).

Hence, those adults who stand by and watch as the youth indulge in the reductions of freak dancing listed above are themselves guilty of some combination of the following: titillation at watching what they would never permit themselves to do in public; fear of losing the easy affection of young people whom they ought rather to be teaching how to earn adults’ respect; and worship of unconsecrated feeling as the god of their (one hopes unconscious) idolatry.

When such feelings, beliefs, and behaviors reach a critical mass in the community or the culture at large, look for one of three events: a sweeping movement of take-no-prisoner fundamentalist religious or personality-cult fervor, a fall like that of Rome, or the rebirth of a genuine vision of the nature and meaning of man. Hope springs eternal, but the two-to-one odds against the last possibility ought to worry us.