Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A Continuing Conversation

Last week I wrote a long and involved post about a critique of Classical Education, written from an Objectivist point of view by private school educator Lisa VanDamme, which a friend had pointed out to me. Now, I did not set out to write a detailed critique of Objectivism; however, since VanDamme's criticisms ultimately stemmed logically from the premises upon which Objectivism is based, I should perhaps have suspected that any criticism of Van Damme's critique, written by a Christian, would eventually wind up as a discussion of First things. One can't pull that one thread out of the tapestry without unraveling the whole thing....

So an Objectivist reader, Michael M, took issue and decided to challenge some of my assumptions; and I decided to respond, and challenge some of his assumptions, and so on. Each comment got longer and longer as the pile of threads on the ground kept getting bigger and more tangled.

So I've decided, now that the conversation has moved way beyond educational theory, to pull the conversation over here to a new post and comment thread. That way, we won't be cluttering up the previous post with article-length, intricately-reasoned comments.

We'll instead be cluttering up this post with article-length, intricately-reasoned comments.

So this post is intended to continue the conversation that was started in the Mushrooms post. So if it seems like it's starting a little abruptly, go read the Mushrooms post and all its comments first; and if you're still interested, you can wade through what follows.


Michael M, in your latest comment you said:
However, you chose to use Objectivism to bludgeon your opponent even though your grasp of the philosophy is scant at best. There is no excuse for such behavior.
I'm presuming from the context that you're referring to statements like this one from my original post:
But there are some problems with [VanDamme's preceding argument]. I am not convinced that pure Reason--unconnected from any subjective or Spiritual value system--actually constitutes the basis of a coherent, universal system of morality that upholds the dignity of the individual. I've heard plenty of atheists make this claim, but I've yet to hear even a definition of "dignity of the individual" that's purely rational in origin, let alone the argument for a moral system upholding it. And while the Objectivists certainly claim that Reason supports their views, there are all kinds of collectivist atheists (such as Marxists, and Fascists in the Mussolini mold) who make the countering claim that Reason supports their collectivist ends, which are very different from those desired by the Objectivists.
And you're saying that it's rather unfair for me to make these claims, when my grasp of the objectivist philosophy--especially its take on Reason and morality--is "scant at best." This is a fair accusation, and I'd like to offer a bit of explanation.

In judging the worth of any system of morality, it's important to consider (among other things) the question, "Why should I submit myself to this system? What are the consequences if I ignore this system, or intentionally defy it?"

Now, my understanding of the Objectivist take on Reason-based morality is certainly limited, but there are a few points that are quite clear to everyone who has even the most passing acquaintance with it. Objectivism thought concludes that the only legitimate basis for adult human interaction is one of mutual consent. This principle, if expressed society-wide, would manifest itself economically in free market and strong property rights; and would manifest itself politically in a very limited government, concerning itself with law enforcement, contract enforcement, defense of the homeland, and not a whole lot else. Schemes that use government power in the service of general wealth redistribution are absolutely rejected. Objectivist thought further concludes that the individual has intrinsic worth that is not tied to the needs of any collective. As a consequence of this, no person is expected to live his life for the benefit of others; all coerced collectivism is rejected. People may come together for mutual benefit; but all people have the right to be disassociated from any organization. As regards religion, you yourself have explained where objectivist thought stands:
In a reason/mysticism dichotomy, Marxism and Christianity are not opposites. They are on the same side. Marxism demands faith in a collective that cannot be measured. Christianity demands faith in a supernatural being that cannot be defined. Therefore, neither is able to place the use of physical force under objective control, because truth to each is subjective. In the hands of either, governments inevitably embrace tyranny.
Additionally, "altruism" is considered a dirty word in Objectivist circles. My copy of The Fountainhead has brief notes at the end about Objectivist principles, and states (beginning with a Rand quote):
"Man--every man--is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; he must work for his rational self-interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life." Thus, Objectivism rejects any form of altruism--the claim that morality consists in living for others or for society.
Everything I've written above is apparent to any first-time reader of The Fountainhead.

Now let's explore the question, "what happens if I ignore this moral system?" I'll do so by giving a couple of examples.

First, there are my parents. They've been Christians their whole lives, and they have successfully passed on their faith to their three sons. My parents also happen to be happy, fulfilled people, still in love with each other after 40+ years; and I and my brothers are very happy to have them as examples in our lives. Now, as Christians, they are guilty of the unreason of mysticism--which, if I understand correctly from the context of your writing, manifests itself as an unshakable belief in something which was not revealed to them through Reason, but which nevertheless motivates their actions. And yet, so far as this son can observe, they are completely content with the lives they live.

Now, what would they gain by rejecting their religious faith and embracing Objectivist thought? If they're already living happy, fulfilled, well-lived lives that are an inspiration to those around them, I'm not sure what they'd gain by switching that would make it worth their while. Even if Objectivists are right about everything and my parents' faith is being placed in an illusion, there are still several tangible things that would be strained or destroyed if they made the switch--including the friendships of many of the people they know, and the relationships with many, many close and beloved family members. And it's not like Objectivism has a version of Hell into which they'll be cast unless they make that switch. I can't see anything truly worthwhile that they'd gain, that would make up for what they'd lose, if they rejected their Mysticism and embraced pure Reason.

Second, and on the complete opposite end of the scale, consider Robert Mugabe--the dictator of Zimbabwe. This man has, through nearly thirty years of (admittedly irrational, racist, redistributionist) misrule, turned what was once the thriving breadbasket nation of southern Africa into a nightmare of a place. Now, I'm perfectly willing to agree with any Objectivist on the folly of the policies this man implemented that brought his country to its current state. However, suppose he decided suddenly to embrace Objectivist ethics, and:
  • disbanded most of the police,
  • gave the displaced (white) farmers their land back,
  • announced that he was accepting the true results of the recent election and stepping down,
  • thus kicking out the entire administration serving under him?
Well, there's a non-trivial chance that he'd be swinging from a lamppost by nightfall--and if he didn't, his successors would likely force him to stand trial for the horrors he's inflicted on the people. The fact is that dictators of all stripes keep their power precisely through methods that violate Objectivist ethics. If Mugabe started obeying these ethics, his party would abandon him (out of their own interest in survival), and if he survived them, he'd have to face the rest of the country--the very country he starved--without any allies. For him to embrace Objectivist Ethics would, ironically, be the supreme act of altruism--sacrificing himself for the good of the people. But if he values his power--let alone his survival--his interests lie in rejecting these ethics.

Third, and somewhere in the middle: consider all those politicians who stay in power by hoovering up all the taxpayer money they can, to bestow goodies on their constituents. Now, you could argue--and I would entirely agree--that this is highly irrational as a matter of economic policy (and as a matter of the liberty of the people). However, so long as the people are willing to vote themselves other people's money, the politician has an interest in redistributing other people's wealth in such a way as to keep himself in power.

Now, suppose a senator has a change of heart, and decides "this is irrational." What then? Well, the people of that state still have to pay taxes to support all the other senators' grandiose Monuments to Me, but they aren't getting any of the goodies because of their senator's adherence to principle. Such a senator loses influence within the Senate (because of their refusal to play the mutual back-scratch game), loses influence among the Lobbyists (because of their refusal to provide favors), and often influence among the voters (partly because voters often want the pork, and partly because the campaign contributions dry up when the lobbyists go away). So if the senator values his career--and I suspect that most find it a very comfortable and satisfying career--he will generally find it against his tangible interests to embrace the Objectivist system of morality.

So, "What happens if I ignore this moral system?" Depending on the circumstance, I may even wind up better off than I would otherwise have. There are just too many cases of people benefiting (or at least not suffering) by embracing mysticism, and there are just too many cases of people personally benefiting by embracing redistributionist policies. We're back to Job's dilemma, only in this case there's no Divine Justice to make everything work out in the end. This is what I meant when I said,
I am not convinced that pure Reason--unconnected from any subjective or Spiritual value system--actually constitutes the basis of a coherent, universal system of morality that upholds the dignity of the individual.
Emphasis added. A universal system of morality is, by definition, one with no exceptions; no one escapes the consequences of violating the system. As my above argument shows, this does not describe Objectivist ethics.


And this has some very serious real-world consequences.

Consider the nature of political power: it is, largely, a collective affair. That is, political power comes from a large number of people working toward a common goal. If one person storms the streets with a bunch of guns while yelling, "Revolution!" he merely gets arrested or shot by the police. But if a million people storm the streets with a bunch of guns while yelling, "Revolution!" then the government has a big problem on its hands.

This very fact creates strong incentives in any society--especially, but not exclusively, democratic ones--to put together collective movements. The cry, "Our lives could be much better if we could just join together and act as one!" is very seductive, precisely because there's a certain amount of truth to it. If you happen to belong to a downtrodden class of people (or a class of people that thinks it's downtrodden, or a class of people that thinks it's a class), often times it is possible to form a faction that gets more respect in the political sphere than the individuals would if they didn't combine their efforts. Now, this results in a political landscape where everyone's trying to steal from everyone else, which certainly counts as irrational in my book. But....

But imagine that you're one of the noble few who refuses to play this game. What then? Well, you wind up being the stuckee that gets to pay for everyone else's class consciousness. The principled Objectivist who rejects the pork, who rejects being part of a faction (with the collective discipline that being part of such a faction entails), winds up tangibly worse off than everyone
else. Now, the Objectivist could argue that his actions are in fact still rational, that they at least are not contributing to the degradation of freedom and prosperity that the redistributionist factionalism is committing--and I'd agree with that. But note that this is an altruistic argument, at least the way the term is widely understood: the Objectivist would be intentionally choosing to pursue a course of action in the name of the greater good, at tangible cost to his own wealth and political power.

Now consider what politics would look like, if Objectivist principles were dominant. There would be no factions out there demanding they be given a chunk of other people's wealth, or that industry be regulated to their specs; there would be no politicians trying to confiscate tax money to send back to the voters; and businesses would rise and fall based entirely on how well they navigated shifting market conditions. Now, how do we get from our faction-ridden, redistributionist, increasingly regulated system to this Objectivist Nirvana?

Well, at some point (among other things) the factions have to be disbanded. But think about what that entails: the people who make up these factions give up a great deal of their own political power when their faction gets disbanded. It improves the lot in life of everyone else, but it can cost a lot to the people who constituted it. There are a lot of livelihoods tied to the ethanol subsidy, after all; if all that government money went away, a lot of jobs that were paid for with that money would go away too. So while everyone may in theory want these factions to go away, everyone wants to start with the other factions. No one wants to be the one to go first. That would take a whole lot of altruism on the part of a whole lot of people.

But if it's tough being the only people in society who don't have a faction to represent one's interests and bring home the goodies (as you're having to pay for everyone else), it's awfully nice being the only people in society who do have a faction to represent one's interests. A society where everyone else operates on the market system (thus resulting in a prosperous economy), where you get their wealth distributed to you? I suspect the last few redistributionist factions to be disbanded would fight like the dickens. It's good to be the last ethnic militia in a war-torn country to have to give up one's guns....

In short, it's really, really hard to see how we get from the system we have now to an Objectivist ideal. There are just way too many incentives for people to behave "irrationally"; the Objectivist may claim that things will work out better in the long run, and they may well be right; but that's cold comfort to the corn farmer whose livelihood depends on the ethanol subsidy. It would take an awful lot of altruism for him to oppose that.

I don't think it's any surprise how few truly libertarian societies there have been through human history. No wonder the Objectivist society in Atlas Shrugged could only come to power after the previous order had completely collapsed; it's hard to imagine any other way such a society could form. There are just too many malign incentives out there.

But suppose we actually managed to get there. We now have a society run along Objectivist lines. Well, how do we manage to keep it an Objectivist society? Consider the fact that political power comes from numbers, acting in concert; sooner or later, some group of people will figure out that they can improve their wealth and power in this society by grouping together as a faction and demanding some kind of redistribution or other favorable treatment.

And to the extent that one faction succeeded in getting special treatment, it would be much, much harder to prevent the next one, and the next. I suspect that an Objectivist society would be a meta-stable system, like a pencil balanced on its point; it lasts so long as everyone buys in. The moment enough people in power can be flattered or intimidated sufficiently to allow one form of redistribution or regulation, it's Katie Bar The Door as everyone else will find it to be in their own financial interest to get in on the rush before they're left as the chumps paying for everyone else's goodies.


So where am I going with all this? A quick review:

1. Objectivism holds that Reason is a sufficient basis for a universal, consistent, system of morality. This is Objectivism 101.

2. Objectivism holds this system of morality advocates a society based on mutual consent, free-market captialism, and individual self-esteem and worth. This system of morality rejects all forms of altruism. This is also Objectivism 101.

3. However, if one wishes to bring an Objectivist society into existence, altruism on the part of its inhabitants is absolutely necessary. My argument on this point--which relies on nothing more than my own personal reflections on the nature of political power, my own reading of the news, and statements 1 and 2--I just described in great detail.

(And although I don't make the argument above--collective action on the part of Objectivists to keep it Objectivist may be necessary, too.)

4. And if someone rejects the morality of the Objectivist, that person does not necessarily suffer thereby. In fact, as the example of my parents illustrates, they can live quite well, in peace with themselves and their neighbors. My argument on this point relies on nothing more than my own personal observations of the news, and of the people in my life, and on statements 1 and 2.

After considering all this, I came to a conclusion that somewhere in statements 1 and 2 there is a contradiction. After all, if you have to have widespread altruism to create a society that rejects altruism in all forms, that looks to me like a contradiction. Where exactly is the contradiction? I'm not entirely sure, but I suspect it lies in one of two places: either a Reason-based society does not reject collectivism as thoroughly as Objectivism thinks, or (my own personal belief, which I've outlined above) Reason is not a sufficient basis for a universal, consistent system of morality.


I have a bit of a confession to make. After I came across the contradiction in statement 3 above, I rather gave up trying to look too much further into the writings of Objectivism. I suppose it's possible that I've missed some important reasoning on the part of an Objectivist philosopher that squares this circle; but at some point, when you're evaluating a philosophy that appears to have contradictions, you eventually give up, decide that what you're looking for is probably not there, and move on.

Michael M, I'm sure--after reading your eloquent description of why and how you left your younger faith--you can appreciate this last point.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Strange Night Last Night

Last night was a little weird.

For one thing, I had a bad case of insomnia, and didn't sleep a wink from the time I went to bed until the time I got up at 6:00. Why? Not sure; but I think the wisdom of E.B. White from Charlotte's web--that it's very had to sleep when your stomach is empty and your mind is full--applies. There's been a lot I've been thinking about lately, and I don't always get a good dinner on Sunday evenings. At any rate, I was wide awake all through the night, until I got up; then I went through my entire workday today in a non-productive haze.

For another thing, Tonya kept waking up after what she described as very unpleasant dreams. Here's the thing about dreams, though: when you try to explain why they seemed so unpleasant, the words never quite convey the ominious sense of doom as the dream itself did. And sometimes the contrast itself is quite humorous, even if the dream was terrifying:

"It was terrible! There was... well, it looked like a duck..."

So in the wee hours of the night, Tonya woke up just wanting to know that I was there. And not only was I there, but I was awake, alert, and ready to help! So I asked her to describe these nightmares she was having.

The first one had something to do with a bunch of Pirates.

The second one involved the entire cast of the British comedy Are You Being Served, who were stuck in a pub somewhere without a way to get out; and when they finally figured out how to get out of the pub and onto the street, they were confronted with a bunch of people with water cannons.

Well: sensitive, supportive husband that I am, about the part she uttered the words "stuck in a pub..." I lost all pretense of being supportive and let out a good, full, belly laugh. And about the point she mentioned the water cannons, she realized the humor of the situation too and started laughing right alongside me.

Anyway, until I get some rest, I'd probably better not write anything further. It would be decidedly un-coherent.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Got the Salsa Recipe!

A couple of posts back I discussed a deal I had with my friend Keith: I'd give him the recipe for pomegranate jelly, and he'd give me the recipe for tomatillo salsa. I'm proud to announce that Keith has yet again proven himself to be an honorable man of his word, as he ran up to me this morning at church with recipe in hand.

I figured I'd share it with y'all, with Keith's blessing.

I've edited it here a little bit, which seems fair, as it's apparently been edited by nearly every pair of hands it's passed through thus far.
All quantities are very approximate:

Tomatilloes: 8 to 16 depending on size.

Chiles: 2 Serranos + 2 JalapeƱos + 8 Pequins + 2 Anaheims.
More or less to taste. I typically use the serranos and jalapeƱos green and the pequins red. Feel free to use different varieties of chiles as dictated by taste/availability.

Garlic: 4 cloves

Onion: 1 really small onion, or half a medium onion.

Roast above ingredients in a cast iron pan, oil-free, turning occasionally. Leave husks on tomatillos while you roast 'em. The husks will be nicely blackened, the skins translucent, and the fruits soft when they're done. [Let me add: the goal is to blacken the skin while doing the least tomatillo-exploding that you can. That way they don't lose juice into the pan, that burns and smells sometimes. That means moving them around the pan as they roast.]

Put roasted vegetables in food processor with:

Salt: 1/2 Teaspoon

Cilantro: 1/4 Cup

...and process briefly.

Transfer to a pot, and cook the mixture for 5 minutes. [This darkens it up a bit, and mellows the flavors. It tastes too raw otherwise.]
Keith insisted that the top line, the one that I bolded and italicized, was the most important one on the list. In fact, I seem to remember (but don't quote me on this) that Keith didn't actually use pequins at all, but substituted extra serranos instead.

I admit, after reading this recipe, that I have questions. Pan-roasting big, bulky vegetables can be a hit-or-miss proposition, after all, especially when your chile peppers are as wrinkly as Anaheims are; you can wind up with the parts getting blackened that were in direct contact with the pan, but the rest of the vegetable undercooked.

And we assume that we eventually take the husks off the tomatillos. And then there's the question of whether you skin, seed and de-vein the Anaheims, or just throw them in the blender and hope for the best.

Nevertheless, I get the feeling that this is one of those recipes that's hard to mess up.

And I think that Keith must have quadrupled the batch or something; because there was no way that 8 to 16 tomatillos could have produced that much salsa. So doubling, tripling, or quadrupling this recipe is apparently doable, and is highly recommended.

And one more benefit of this recipe, is that it gives me one more bit of rhetorical leverage when arguing with my wife about getting a cast-iron skillet. :-)

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Fun With Cameras

My parents drove up here today to visit us, and to hang with the grandkids; and my brother and his lovely wife dropped in as well. Good time was had by all.

Now my brother and sister-in-law recently got themselves a really nice digital camera. Alas, I don't remember the exact model, so you'll have to ask them. But they took some beautiful pictures in the backyard today. Wendy (my sister-in-law) put several of the pictures up at her blog, if anyone's interested in seeing more pictures of our kids. Note that both the Pillowfight Fairy and the Adrenaline Junkie have more freckles on one side of their noses than on the other; this is because they have hair that works best parted to one side, where it swoops down and covers half their faces, just like Veronica Lake...
...so one side gets more sun than the other.

(And incidentally, the Adrenaline Junkie also has that cute little flip just above her eyebrow. Yes, I'm going to have to fight off a whole bunch of teenage boys, starting, oh... thirteen years from now. If not sooner. I'd better get back into shape now, while I have a little time to prepare....)

So in addition to the pictures at my sister-in-law's blog, here are a few others.
This is the Happy Boy, on the loose in the backyard. He loves it there. It has all the dirt, rocks, grass, insects, and snails he can eat! We figure as long as that plug stays in his mouth, we're OK, though.

This is the Adrenaline Junkie, being introduced to Technology. I think she was sufficiently impressed. Of course, she's only three, so Grandpa had to keep a close eye on his camera. Now, the Pillowfight Fairy got her hands on it a while later, and started taking pictures of anything that didn't move. "Look! It's the badminton set!" "Look! It's the pillow!" "Look! It's the computer!" "Look! It's my foot!"

Well, I made some of those up. But that's the way her brain was thinking, and it was a sight to behold.

This is the Pillowfight Fairy in her natural element: reading a book to an interested adult (in this case, a doting Granny, who was an elementary school teacher for many years, and is pleased as punch as to how well her grandkid is reading). Of course, some time after these pictures were taken, this sweet little girl busily started hurling Frisbees at our heads. (Unintentionally, of course; she's not a very good aim with a Frisbee yet. We'd have been safer if she'd actually been trying to bean us.)

Anyway, it was a beautiful day here, and everything was made better by having family around. My brother and sister-in-law live across town, but we usually only get to see them at church; and the rest of our extended families live several hours' drive away. Days like this are to be enjoyed and cherished, since they only come around so often.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Alas, It Was Not To Be

So last December, we attended a New Years' Eve party with some church friends, and everyone brought a little food. It was a most excellent spread.

But the best stuff there, the stuff that stuck in my memory (because it nearly burned my lips off--you tend to remember that sort of thing) was some tomatillo salsa brought by my friend Keith.

I have never had salsa that good before. It was sweet, fruity, bold with a bit of a nose and floral bouquet, with undertones of oak and...

...and a serrano-based heat that could strip paint. At that moment, I decided that I would plant tomatillos and serranos the moment we got our garden up and running.

Today was the day! So we were getting ready to head out to the nursery to get the seedlings, and I decided to get online and look up what I could about tomatillos. After all, they're nothing like anything that my parents, or my wife's parents, grew in their gardens when we were growing up; what do you do with these things? Are they vines? Do they come from stalks? Do you need to stake them, or build wire cages around them? We figured we needed to know that, so we'd know what other stuff we needed to get when we got to the nursery.

So I went over to the Wikipedia page on tomatillos, and learned a little about them. They are grown on plants similar to tomato plants. They do not fruit unless there are two or more plants cross-pollinating, so we needed to get more than one. And, oh yeah: there's one little detail about these things that shouldn't be missed:
Other parts of the tomatillo plant also contain toxins, and should not be eaten.
Aaaaaarrrgh! It's not possible!

Well, that kills that idea. The trouble is we've got a not-quite fifteen-month-old Happy Boy, who is busily building up his immune system by putting everything he can find in his mouth. Dirt, rocks, leaves, grass, insects, you name it. If he ever gets infected with snails, his body is totally prepared, and will beat that infection off in no time.

Of course, this means we have to avoid planting any plant containing toxins, at least until he's old enough to know you don't eat that. No oleander, no rhubarb, no Black Locust Tree, and (alas) no tomatillos.


Yeah, we can buy them in the stores around here. But it's just not the same.

My wife did go to the nursery today, anyway; she got a bunch of zucchini plants, crookneck squash, yellow banana peppers, bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, and marigolds. And yes, she got some serranos too. The way I see it, something will have to break the Happy Boy of his habit of putting everything in his mouth, and if they don't, nothing will. :-)


Anyway, I made a deal with Keith: he provides me with his recipe for Tomatillo Salsa, and I provide him with our recipe for Pomegranate Jelly. I figure this is as good a forum as any, so here goes.

We got our recipe from a book entitled The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping, which was published in 1982--so it's an older book, and you're not likely to find it in a typical bookstore. Amazon doesn't even have copies in stock, but it can get them through some third-party sellers; it knows of five copies available as of this writing.

It says:
Pomegranate Jelly
3 1/2 Cups pomegranate juice, fresh or frozen and thawed
1/4 Cup lemon juice
1 package (2 ounces) powdered pectin
4 1/2 Cups sugar

Follow the standard directions for making jelly that come with the powdered pectin.
...which to us seems a little bit like a cop-out. It's a bit like being given instructions saying:
1. Get some real instructions.
2. Follow them.
Nevertheless, the ratios of the ingredients are what's important here.

We typically use the Sure-Jell brand pectin, and the instructions we follow go something like this:
  1. Mix all the juice (both lemon and pomegranate) and pectin in a large pot. We use 8-qt.
  2. Bring to a full, rolling boil.
  3. Mix in the sugar. Stir until sugar is dissolved.
  4. Bring back to a full, rolling boil.
  5. Stir vigorously for one minute at a full boil.
  6. Take off the heat and pour it into the jars.
We also typically use the "inversion" method for canning: after we fill the jars (and one batch will fill four 12-oz. jars right up to the tops), we put the lids on, tighten them down, and turn the jars upside down for about five minutes. The heat of the near-boiling jelly is enough to kill any bacteria lurking anywhere on the lid. After five minutes, turn upright and let cool to room temperature. This method also produces a nice, tight vacuum seal.

That's how we do it. Keith, your turn to give me the recipe for the salsa. We may not be able to plant the tomatillos ourselves for the next couple of years, but I fully intend to make it anyway.

I'm Not Sure I Want One Of These...

No matter how fun it looks.

The story about this thing is here. As with so many things, I have to tip my hat to the Instapundit on this one.

You know what's really depressing about it? That guy--it's inventor--is eighteen years old. I'm over twice that guy's age, I haven't even invaded my first country yet.

Anyway, my hat's off to the kid. That thing--whatever it is--looks sweet, and I bet it's a hoot to ride.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Gods of the Copybook Headings

After writing that Colossus yesterday, I've been thinking about the topic quite a bit. Due in part to the sleep deprivation incurred while writing the thing, I had difficulty concentrating on anything else today.

In particular, I'd been thinking about our tendency, as humans, to decide that the old ways of doing things are outmoded, obsolete, or irrational. Of course, when we toss out the old ways of doing things, sometimes what comes in its place is far, far worse.

The philosopher Edmund Burke made this argument when thinking of the French Revolution: the revolutionaries decided French society needed to be torn down to its roots, and rebuilt from scratch along "Rational" guidelines. Not only did this mean eliminating the monarchy, nobility, and clergy; they went so far as to rename and re-number the days of the week and the months of the year. Nothing in society was left untouched.

And we remember the French Revolution in no small part for how bloody it was, and for how it set back the cause of Democracy in Europe by several decades, as everyone else on the continent saw the bloodbath that was the Revolution and said, "We want absolutely no part of the system that made that mess."

The trouble is that our institutions and customs, which are often passed down from one generation to the next unthinkingly and without reflection on our part, nevertheless were created for what at the time were considered good reasons. We may not remember what those reasons were, but that doesn't mean they don't still fulfill the reasons they were created. And social reformers who chuck these things out the window without understanding what role they really play in society, run the risk of discarding the very things that make our society habitable. In Burke's opinion, this is exactly what happened in France.

I was musing on all this today, and I was reminded of a poem by Rudyard Kipling along exactly these lines, entitled Gods of the Copybook Headings. I thought I'd share it with you, in case you hadn't seen it yet.

For the uninitiated, Copybooks were an educational tool that existed up until the early 20th century, that are no longer widely used (and I suspect this is a real loss). They were intended to help the student practice penmanship. The top of each page would contain a phrase or sentence written in perfect form, and the student was expected to copy that phrase or sentence, exactly as shown, numerous times down the page.

Now, these phrases were often little trite sayings or proverbs, or literary passages that were selected specifically to try to smuggle some moral lesson into the heads of the students as they were engaged in copying the text over, and over, and over again. Copybook headings might include phrases like, "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush," or "Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise," or "I am the way, the truth, and the life."

As one may expect, a "sophisticated" culture would eventually start to look down on these phrases. These are nothing more than trite cliches for the unreasoning masses! They don't require any intellect to learn, and they don't take into account the wonders of Human Progress. We've gone way past all that fortune-cookie wisdom now.

Kipling wasn't so sure; he thought that our human tendency is to toss out the plain, old, boring wisdom of the ages--represented by these copybook headings--when something shinier and more desirable comes along; not recognizing that the plain, old boring wisdom existed for a reason, and the new, shiny philosophies (what he refers to as the Gods of the Marketplace, since they let us have whatever we want) are unproven and illusory.

He especially thought this when he wrote the poem in 1919, just after the wreckage of the First World War (in which he had lost a son).

Anyway, there's a little more on Kipling and the background of the poem, here.

And without further ado, The Gods of the Copybook Headings (by Rudyard Kipling):
As I pass through my incarnations in every age and race,
I Make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market-Place.
Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.

We were living in trees when they met us. They showed us each in turn
That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn:
But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind,
So we left them to teach the Gorillas while we followed the March of Mankind.

We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace,
Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market-Place.
But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.

With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch
They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch
They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings.
So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.

When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
And the Gods of the Copybook Heading said: "Stick to the Devil you know."

On the first Feminian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller Life
(Which started by loving our neighbour and ended by loving his wife)
Till our women had no more children and the men lost reason and faith,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "The Wages of Sin is Death."

In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "If you don't work you die."

Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew,
And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four --
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.

* * * * *

As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man --
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began --
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire --
And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!

The Umpty-Umpth Carnival of Homeschooling is Up!

I say Umpty-Umpth because the numbers are getting really big.

It's over at Dana's site, Principled Discovery. My post on the Berenstain Bears is featured. It appears I'm not alone in thinking they send some inappropriate messages about fathers and family.

There are other good posts as well. I was particularly struck by Barbara Frank's post, Homeschooling Your Child With Down Syndrome. Barbara, who has done this herself, read a comment on someone else's blog asking:
I had my daughter in public school, she is 6 in kindergarten and has down syndrome. They haven't a CLUE what they are doing. I was very disappointed in their lack of teaching. I will be homeschooling her and it will be interesting as I have never done such a feat. Is there anywhere one could go to help start off in kindergarten for my little girl? Is the curriculum the same? So many many questions. I do know this, anything is better than what we have now.
...and she decided to write up a detailed post on how she herself went about doing it with her own son. I found this very interesting, not least because this is a question that is frequently asked of homeschoolers: What do we do about special needs kids? Do you really have the skill and qualifications to deal with this sort of thing? I think Barbara answers these questions quite well.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Classical Education, Logical Fallacies, and Mushrooms

Ok, time to poke the hornet's nest again. :-)

A couple of posts ago Jarrod, one of my regular readers, drew my attention to an article entitled The False Promise of Classical Education. This article is written by a private school educator, Lisa VanDamme, who is profoundly disturbed by the state of public education in this country. But she believes that the Classical Educational methods often proposed as a fix to these problems--especially popular within the homeschooling movement--are an intellectual blind alley. She presents a long and detailed critique of the various Classical Educational approaches.

One of the targets of her critique is the method outlined in The Well Trained Mind, which my wife and I are using.

The critique is long and involved; the author is obviously very well informed, and has put a lot of thought into it. I felt I needed to take a close look at the argument and chew on it for a while.

I'm done chewing.

Now mind you, my answer here is nowhere near as long or involved as the critique. It's not intended to be; I'm just a daddy with a day job, trying to do right by my children, and only writing semi-coherent blog posts late at night when I have a little time. I have neither the time nor inclination to offer a complete point-by-point rebuttal. What I offer here is merely a description of the points where I think there are some logical holes in the foundation of the argument. What then happens to the logical edifice built upon that foundation is left as an exercise to the reader.


It appears to me that VanDamme places extremely high importance on eliminating the Appeal to Authority fallacy from the educational process. Appeal to Authority, of course, is an attempt to prove a point by citing the opinions of someone who is supposedly trustworthy. In a simple form, it looks like this:

Q. Why do you think the earth revolves around the sun?

A. Because all the great scientists from Copernicus to Galileo to Kepler, and everyone since, have said so.

Appeal to Authority is of course one of the classic logical fallacies. The fact is, Nature doesn't give a hoot what Copernicus, Galileo, or Kepler thinks; Nature is what it is, and does what it does, whether or not Four Out Of Five Dentists Agree. A thousand scientists can be wrong, and the lone dissident right; in fact, we we recognize Galileo as a great scientist precisely because he bucked the (incorrect) consensus.

So how do we know the earth revolves around the sun? The correct answer is that this model fits our astronomical observations better. Planetary orbits, which were complicated epicyclic curves under the Earth-centric model, become smooth, orderly ellipses under the solar-centric model. Furthermore, these ellipses themselves were easily explained a few centuries later, as consequences of a simple, elegant set of gravitational laws with tremendous predictive power.

In short, we know the earth orbits the sun because we have evidence.

VanDamme is setting forth the argument that all real knowledge must derive from experience, and be attested to by available evidence. Appeal to Authority is described as an utterly illegitimate basis for true education.

Regarding the Trivium model, she says:
Like Hirsch’s Core Knowledge catalogue, The Well-Trained Mind fails to differentiate facts at various levels of abstraction. Facts are simply the automatically given raw material from which logical conclusions are drawn and impassioned arguments made. In the first years of schooling, the child is supplied with all the facts known to man—no matter how these facts actually came to be known, and thus regardless of how these facts can be truly understood firsthand. In the logic stage, he learns how to relate and interconnect the facts to form arguments. In the rhetoric stage, he learns to use his catalogue of facts and skill at argument to create new ideas and present them in a compelling manner. How is he to know that the said facts are facts? The answer is that he simply does not know; he is to accept them as facts because an authority says so.
If I'm understanding her argument properly, she's saying that the grammar stage program of filling the little minds with facts is faulty, because it constitutes an appeal to authority (which she explicitly states in the next paragraph). No fact should ever be taught, unless the concrete evidence upon which that fact is based is presented first, with the fact itself representing the conclusion. In this view, all legitimate education can be viewed (greatly simplified) as a collection of syllogisms: premise "A" (a fact or set of facts that we can see with our own eyes) implies premise "B", which in turn implies premise "C", and so forth from first grade up through college. All knowledge is drawn from direct personal observations, or is built upon previously established (and evidentially supported) knowledge; nothing is ever presented in a vacuum, supported only by the teacher's good word.

The Trivium's emphasis on teaching facts during the Grammar phase (Grades 1-4), and reasoning during the Logic phase (Grades 5-8) is disparaged. If we aren't going to teach any fact without giving the evidence first, then the student must learn some logic right at the beginning. It's not enough to explain to your kids how the Egyptians lived and leave it at that, because the kids have no way of knowing whether what you told them was truthful or not. If they accept your word, then they have fallen for an Appeal to Authority. You could theoretically feed them all kinds of junk, and they would have no idea. No; it's necessary, for the kids to get a true education, that the kids learn not just how the Egyptians lived, but how we know how they lived. What is the evidence? Well, we have the tombs and mummies, and we have all the architecture; there are the tools and weapons, and the written records of both the Egyptians and the other peoples of the ancient world who wrote about the Egyptians. Only after all this evidence is presented, can a teacher legitimately claim that the Egyptians lived this way, as a conclusion from the evidence.

This is my understanding of VanDamme's point, for what it's worth.

I think there's some good food for thought in this approach, but I'm skeptical.

It's not that I'm skeptical about Appeal to Authority being a logical fallacy; it most certainly is. And the educational model that VanDamme appears to champion has undeniable intellectual appeal; it is nothing less than the Scientific Method fully incorporated into the foundation of the curriculum.

Here's the best way to explain my skepticism:

Daddy: Don't eat this thing. It's Called a Death Cap, and it'll kill you.

Precocious Youngster: How do you know? It looks pretty yummy to me, and it's got a nice aroma.

D: See that slight yellow-green tint on the top of the cap, and the skirtlike veil?

PY: Yeah, yeah. But how do you know it's poisonous?

D: It just is. I learned that from my Daddy.

PY: So who has it killed?

D: Oh, lots of people. Mostly Southeast Asians, who mistake it for edible varieties from the Old World.

PY: Did you know them personally?

D: No. I just read about it.

PY: You shouldn't believe everything you read. Have you ever personally known anyone who died after eating one?

D: No.

PY: I think someone's pulling your leg.
On one hand, the Precocious Youngster is right: Daddy is attempting an Appeal to Authority on him. On the other hand, one gets the feeling that Precocious Youngster isn't long for this world.

Yes, Appeal to Authority is a logical fallacy. The trouble is, there are times when it's the best tool around. There are just some kinds of knowledge out there that are either really difficult to get at, or downright dangerous to get at, or frankly inaccessible. You can pay so high a cost acquiring a nugget of knowledge that you destroy yourself or your society in the process.

For example, consider (as I've written about before) the sexual mores of a society. I think it's pretty self-evident that the sexual attitudes possessed by a society have a huge impact on the future trajectory of that society. After all, sex is (among other things) the mechanism by which the next generation comes into existence, so what we think about sex determines how big the next generation is, and the circumstances under which they're born and raised. If you get sex wrong, you can wind up going extinct like the Shakers (extreme example, I know), or you can wind up losing your open and tolerant society, as appears to be happening in the capitals of Europe, as the sexually liberated native Europeans are simply being outbred by immigrant communities with much more traditional sexual mores--and a contempt for the social contract that made the tolerant society possible in the first place.

Note how this European state of affairs came about. The sexual rules come, by and large, from the religious sphere, and are thus based on Appeals to Authority--the authority in this case being religious authority derived from the scriptures of Islam and Christianity. But Christian Europe has played the role of the Precocious Youngster, and by and large rejected traditional Christian morality as based on illegitimate Appeal to Authority. And as a result, its population is in steep decline across much of the continent; while the Muslim immigrant communities, which did not reject their Appeal to Authority, appear set to inherit the land.

The Precocious Youngster ate the mushroom.

The sad fact of the matter is that those who listen to Authority have a way of surviving into the next generation better than their precocious peers--and this is true both at the individual level, and at the societal level.

And simply from a biological level, this means that our kids are designed--or, if you prefer, evolved--to listen to and learn from Authority. It's bred in our genes. If it wasn't, if we were mentally built to reject every premise until it was well and truly tested, we may well have eaten the mushroom too.

So while the Appeal to Authority is a recognized logical fallacy, it nevertheless has a legitimate role to play in human affairs. That role involves (among other things) keeping us alive until we're old enough and wise enough for our intellect to become a reliable guide. At what age does this happen? I'm not sure, but I suspect the Trivium model--which has the Logic phase running through the end of the eighth grade--probably has it pretty close.


So why is it that VanDamme is so worried about the prevalence of Appeal to Authority in our educational systems? I think she's concerned about more than simply our embrace of a logical fallacy.

It's apparent from the website presenting the critique that the author is an Objectivist, a member of the philosophical movement founded by Ayn Rand. Objectivism is a huge subject, much more than I could possibly cover in this blog post, so any summary of its philosophical holdings will necessarily leave out a whole lot.

But among many other things, Objectivists hold that all the evils of society--from war and slavery, to all forms of collectivism (fascism, communism), to poverty and oppression, are the result of unreason. That is, if everyone in society was fully rational--only accepting the reality of that which can be seen and measured, and testing all courses of action against a full and objective understanding of human history--then these problems would go away. Objectivists believe that Reason, together with objective observation of the human condition, can form the basis of a coherent system of morality that protects the dignity of the human individual, without the need for belief in the supernatural.

In this system, Unreason is the source of society's evils--and religions, being at their cores Appeals to Authority (and thus based on fallacies)--are inherently susceptible to evil. At this point the Objectivist will typically cite the litany: the Inquisition, the Crusades, the Thirty Years' War, the Church's prosecution of Galileo, and so forth. Indeed, VanDamme saves her most intense criticism for the Christian varieties of Classical Education:

Nothing is more destructive to a child’s (or an adult’s) ability to reason than to be fed dogma and to swallow it. Reason functions by logically integrating observable facts of reality into a non-contradictory whole. In regard to every idea, a reasoning mind must ask: Is this supported by the facts of reality? And: How does this integrate with my other factual knowledge of reality? When a rational person spots a contradiction, he knows that at least one of his premises is wrong.

But what is he to do with the Bible—which, if taken literally, provides him with an endless stream of absurd falsehoods and unscientific assertions? Can a bush talk, as is claimed in the Old Testament? Can a man walk on water or turn it to wine, as Jesus is purported to have done? Was everything created ex nihilo in six days? Was man created in his current form? Have Christians not caused major atrocities throughout history—and are these atrocities not sanctioned by the Bible?

An education that places primacy on the observable, provable facts of reality can teach a child how to think and integrate; one that does not, short-circuits his mind by telling him to accept that which makes no sense and contradicts that which he knows.

Strong words.

But there are some problems with them. I am not convinced that pure Reason--unconnected from any subjective or Spiritual value system--actually constitutes the basis of a coherent, universal system of morality that upholds the dignity of the individual. I've heard plenty of atheists make this claim, but I've yet to hear even a definition of "dignity of the individual" that's purely rational in origin, let alone the argument for a moral system upholding it. And while the Objectivists certainly claim that Reason supports their views, there are all kinds of collectivist atheists (such as Marxists, and Fascists in the Mussolini mold) who make the countering claim that Reason supports their collectivist ends, which are very different from those desired by the Objectivists.

While there are many horrible examples of Christians doing terrible things in the name of Christianity, I think it's pretty clear--and Objectivists would agree--that there have been several terrible things that have been done by people who said they were acting through Reason.
  • The French Revolution was run by people who believed that people are not born evil; but since there are obviously evils in society (poverty, oppression, etc.), it means that something along the way is corrupting the populace. They decided that, if they wanted to eliminate these evils the reasonable thing to do was to purge the corrupting influences from society. They were convinced they were doing what was Reason-based; the result went down in history as The Great Terror.
  • Marxism holds that inequality and privilege, and the envy they engender, are the primary driving forces of societal conflict in history. They reason from this that the way to make a peaceful, prosperous society is to remove inequality and privilege; and since these exist as a natural consequence of private property, the latter must be abolished. The Marxists believe that everything they do is guided by Reason; they even call themselves "Scientific Socialists".
  • The late 19th- and early 20th-century eugenics movement was seen by its adherents as Reason-based. The idea was, with advances in modern medicine, industrialization, and social stability, unhealthy people who would previously have been weeded out through natural selection (diabetics, the nearsighted, etc.) are now surviving to pass on their genes. This means that inferior genes are now being passed along, and that our race is fated to go into genetic decline unless we start managing our procreation along scientific lines, through breeding programs similar to what is done with livestock. All of this was Reason-based, according to its adherents.
Now, the Objectivist will argue that all these movements get their Reasoning wrong.

But then, I can argue that the Crusaders got their Theology wrong; and I could point to book, chapter, and verse in the Bible to back me up. The Objectivist would consider this a cop-out answer....

...and would probably be right. The Bible can be interpreted all kinds of ways. But judging from the above examples, so can Reason. In fact, Reason will arrive at whatever conclusion you want it to, depending on how you select your starting premises. And these starting premises are clearly not universally accepted among atheists of different stripes.

I believe that this problem cannot be solved without some kind of Appeal to Authority. Without a Divine Justice, there really isn't anyone to judge whether the Marxist is right or the Objectivist is. And while the latter may truthfully claim an empirical record of failure for the Marxist, the Objectivist has no record to run on, since no Objectivist societies have been formed yet. While I am highly sympathetic to libertarianism in general, my own guess is that a purely Objectivist society would quickly become a land of precocious mushroom-eaters doomed to collapse in a generation or two.


So whither Classical Education?

I suspect it'll work. Is it the best educational model? I don't know. But I suspect that it's plenty good enough. Children are a whole lot more resilient to imperfect education that we give them credit for. Witness the un-schooling branch of the homeschooling movement (which I do not mean to imply is imperfect); they give them little or no formal training, but instead immerse them in an intellectually stimulating lifestyle, and most of these kids do just fine, driven to learn by their own curiosity.

And how will I handle Appeals to Authority?

I'm not going to worry about it during the lower grades, since I don't think their brains are designed to handle analyses of cause-and-effect at that age. They're designed to learn facts, like "Some Mushrooms Are Poisonous." We'll start working the cause-and-effect stuff in--the historiography, the Scientific Method, so forth--when they get into the Logic stage around fifth grade or so.

But we will make certain to teach them about Basic Human Dignity, which is an invariant that cannot be reasoned away--because it comes from our Creator.

Monday, April 21, 2008

A Trio of Good Posts

I was just surfing around some homeschooling sites earlier today, and I happened to come across the Crimson Wife's site, Bending the Twigs. I've visited this site various times before, although it's not one of my usual stops; but there were several good posts right on top, so I thought I'd send her a little of my traffic.

(Like she actually needs it. I suspect she gets more than I do. And if it weren't for the single-handed heroism of Jarrod W. PhD., she'd be getting a whole lot more comments than me, too.)

First, this post talks about the current state of That Court Case. There's not a whole lot of news, except that all the Amicus Curiae briefs are currently being written by HSLDA and a bunch of other organizations, and are due in mid-May. The re-hearing will happen sometime in June, and the verdict probably won't be out until fall sometime. But in the meantime, there is a resolution supporting the right to homeschool (ACR 115) currently in the Assembly Education Committee--and there may at some point come an opportunity for Sacramento-area homeschoolers to drop in on a committee meeting. This would be an excellent field trip idea--if nothing else, to let the wee ones see how the sausage gets made.

The next post talks about the Teach for America program. According to Wikipedia, "TFA recruits recent college graduates to teach for two years in schools in low-income communities throughout the United States." These teachers are not required to possess standard credentials; instead, they are issued "alternate certification" as they complete their TFA coursework. Wikipedia lists several conflicting studies that have been done to determine whether the TFA teachers are effective; some of these studies suggest that TFA teachers get better results than traditionally-credentialed and hired teachers, and some say they get worse results.

The latest of these studies was published last month by the Urban Institute. This was the first study to look at the impact of TFA teachers employed at the high school level. The report's abstract declared:
We find that TFA teachers tend to have a positive effect on high school student test scores relative to non-TFA teachers, including those who are certified in-field. Such effects exceed the impact of additional years of experience and are particularly strong in math and science.
This study made quite a splash in the homeschooling community.

Anyway, the Crimson Wife's post speculates about what factors could cause a young, fresh-faced, idealistic (but inexperienced) recent college grad to get better results than a veteran educator. The results have to do, in a way, with social class and the differing worldviews that members of these social classes possess. But I'm not going to try to summarize her (rather controversial) thesis any further: read her post. And as of this writing, you still have the opportunity to be the first to comment over there!

Her third post discusses a topic near and dear to my heart: bright kids often can't abide busywork. Bright kids are often willing to work very hard at academic topics of interest to them, but if the work is uninteresting, and they are just being assigned it to keep them occupied while the rest of the class catches up, they have this way of rebelling, chucking the homework, going off to do something that interests them, and getting bad grades (which many of them don't care about anyway, since they're already in rebellion).

I remember in Junior High, going to a district-wide English competition, placing second and going to State levels--the same quarter that I got a D in English. I was quite capable of passing any test or doing any assignment the teacher gave me; I just simply couldn't be bothered to do the homework, since it didn't interest me.

How do we deal with kids like that? This is much more than an academic question for us, since our Pillowfight Fairy is exactly like that, even at age 5.

The trouble, of course, is that these kids who check out during High School often damage their chances of getting into precisely those kinds of careers and higher education settings where they would best thrive. To paraphrase Paul Graham, The only way to escape the system is to submit to it.

Crimson Wife discusses this problem. She doesn't come up with any definitive answers. She does point out that homeschooling is a bit better at dealing with these square-peg-in-round-hole situations, but acknowledges that not everyone can homeschool, so a solution needs to be found in the traditional schools as well.

Anyway, she's been on a roll lately, so go check her out.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Thoughts on Getting Older

Today's my birthday. Not a particularly special one, mind you; it doesn't have a zero in the units column. I'm 37 today.

But it does mean that I am now officially in my "late thirties". And according to some definitions, this makes me "middle-aged".

By the time Jesus got to be this age, he had already been crucified, resurrected, and ascended. By the time Mozart was my age, he was already dead. By the time Einstein was my age, he'd long since developed the theory of Special Relativity, had already published major papers on Relativity, the Photoelectric Effect, and a bunch of other stuff, and had nearly finished developing General Relativity. When Napoleon was my age, he'd already given the hoi palloi "A Whiff of Grapeshot", invaded Italy twice, conquered Egypt, gotten himself crowned Emperor of France and King of Italy, and seriously ticked off the British and Prussians.

Let's see. I haven't even taken over one foreign nation yet. But I did manage to read Machiavelli and Sun Tzu. And I think I mildly annoyed a couple of Germans once....

And let's not get into the topic of People Who Were Born On This Day In History. Ugh.

Well, if you really want to feel old, here are a few little things to think about. I remember hearing a sermon at the little church we attended when we lived in Germany when I was growing up. The preacher asked all the young military guys in attendance: "How many of you are thirty-five or over?" (A smattering of hands went up.) "Well then, statistically speaking, your lives are half over."

Yeah, that's a happy thought.

Ok, let's go the other direction: cut your age in half, and think of what you were doing at that point in time. Let's see...

Thirty-seven is an odd number, so I would have been 18 and a half. My birthday is in April, so half my lifespan ago would have fallen on October 20, 1989. Ah, yes! This was my freshman year in college. I was at home from college at that exact moment, because the infamous Loma Prieta earthquake had happened just three days prior, and they had canceled classes for the remainder of the week. Oh, yes, and that was just after I'd had my solo spin-out (driving home from the now-closed campus). In world affairs, this was a few months after the Tiannamen Square massacre had occurred, and it was about the same time that the Berlin Wall came down. I remember seeing those images of jubilant crowds taking sledgehammers to the wall, on the TV in the Dining commons during my Freshman fall semester, and thinking it was noteworthy because I'd been there on an exchange trip just a few months before! I was there! I was right where those kids are now! I had no idea that this wall, that I'd touched, that looked so permanent and so forbidding, was right at the end of its lifespan!

Ah, those were heady days.

But.... But that was half a lifetime ago. Egads! Where has all the time gone? I've been an adult for half my life now. And what do I have to show for it? That is, aside from three beautiful kids, a lovely wife, a beautiful home, and several cats, who I have successfully figured out how to herd. But aside from these not-inconsiderable achievements, what have I done with my life? I haven't even discovered that cure for cancer I was going to do, or designed that airplane, or rappelled down into the crater of that volcano to take crucial readings that would be used to save the nearby town.

Ah, well. I suppose I'm fated to just be one of those normal people, who never get feted by the historians--but who nevertheless make society work, and who nevertheless mean the world to the people whom God has put in their lives. I may not be they guy who'll single-handedly turn back the invading hordes and rescue the American Way, but maybe I'll someday write something that gives him a good chuckle.

Especially if that hero is my very own son, the Happy Boy! Now there's something worth living for.

Time to go make some popcorn for my kids. ;-)

Saturday, April 19, 2008

I Finally Had a Chance...

...to look over some of those posts from this last week's Carnival of Homeschooling.

There were two in particular that caught our attention here. The first was from one of my regular readers, Chris from A Mountain Homeschool, who was writing about what could be termed the "problem of gifts".

The problem, simply stated, is that our kids these days have far more loving family members, and good friends, than they have a need for stuff. Imagine what happens when your tyke has friends from between half- and one-dozen families; and imagine that all these kids (and don't forget siblings!) get invited to a birthday party, and bring gifts. And imagine that there are two sets of loving grandparents, and assorted aunts and uncles, who all want to shower their love down upon the birthday kid....

Furthermore, imagine what happens when little Joey's birthday party two months back had a bounce house, and little Brittney's birthday party one month back had a bounce house and a pony; and little Jason's birthday party two weeks ago had two bounce houses, a petting zoo, a magician, and (for all we know) ostrich races. When your own little one says, "I want a birthday party too!" what then do you do?

This sets up a cycle of social obligation that few parents can maintain without going completely bonkers. For one thing, the birthday kid winds up with a huge haul of toys, most of which will frankly never get played with--but which will nevertheless contribute to the tremendous pile of stuff that gets pulled out during the day, and which the parents have to make the kids clean up before bed. (My lovely bride wrote about this phenomenon here.) For another thing, all this costs money. It costs a lot to buy the presents for all the other birthday parties you attend, and it costs a whole lot of money to hold the parties for your own kids.

Some of us parents have been trying to push back against this phenomenon, in our own subtle (and not so subtle) ways for a while now. And seeing that Chris and I have so much in common otherwise that we think we are each other's doppelgangers, it's not surprising that Chris is one of those pusher-backers. He writes (forgive the extended quote):
One of the cool "trends" of late involves birthday presents. ("Thank goodness", you scream inwardly, "he finally gets back to his original subject!!!"). While not 100%, a common clause on many birthday invitations of late includes a statement similar to this:

Ella Grace is thrilled that you're going to be coming
to her party. Since she has already been blessed with
so many toys, Ella Grace would just love it if you would
bring a donation of XXX instead for us to take
to the local XXX.

OK, the phrasing isn't usually that colloquial, but the premise stands. Kids around here, instead of getting more toys, games, and (forgive me for coming right out and saying it) junk for themselves, are getting toys (for Toys for Tots), canned goods (for the local food pantry), or cases of paper towels and toilet paper (for the Ronald McDonald House). It's awesome. You don't have to try to figure out what Ella Grace would just LOOOOOVE to have. You don't have to sacrifice your friendship with Tripp's parents (Josiah Edward Smythe-Jones III) because you bought a gift that makes LOUD music at the slightest touch and has no on/off switch. And, best of all, you don't end up with a house full of "STUFF" after your own kids party.
Anyway, if this is indeed a "trend", as Chris mentions, then count me in. (And by the way, I sympathize entirely with Tripp's parents--like Josiah Edward Smythe-Jones III--about the gift that makes LOUD music.

Unless it's a pipe organ or something. But that brings us back to the bit about the cost of all these presents....


I also liked this article which talked about the dreaded "S" term. How does a homeschooler go about socializing his or her kids? There are right ways and wrong ways to do it. In general, we homeschoolers tend to think--more so than the general population--that kids don't need quite as much time around others their age than is typical in our society, but they still need to get out from time to time.

The writer talks about raising kids according to a "passion-centric" rather than a "people-centric" or "curriculum-centric" model. That is, if the kid develops an interest in--say, horses, you let the kid start doing things at the local ranch, or through 4-H. Eventually, the child will form relationships--good ones--with other people who share the passion. The people in question aren't trying to build a relationship "face-to-face," in a vacuum; rather, they're building a relationship "side-by-side," upon shared experiences.

Anyway, the writer makes some good observations. Check it out....

Friday, April 18, 2008

Great White Hunter

I've commented before a little about what life is like when you grow up an Air Force Brat.

Life in a military family tends to be small-town life. You typically don't see big military facilities right smack in the middle of urban centers--although there are some exceptions, like the Bay Area bases in California (Onizuka and Moffet) and Pearl Harbor come to mind. But bases often need a lot of land, and they generate a lot of noise (both of these being especially true of Air Force bases), so they tended to get placed out in the boonies--miles from major population centers, and surrounded on all or most sides by open land.

So as an Air Force brat, we often lived right on the edge of open range. And when you live right on the edge of open range, you sometimes have unexpected visitors, which can put a twist in an otherwise ordinary day. This picture, from Eielson Air Force Base (in Alaska) illustrates:

You don't want one of those getting sucked into your intake.

I remember as a kid (before third grade) living on base at F.E. Warren AFB, Cheyenne, Wyoming--and waking up on occasional mornings to see herds of antelope that had happened to wander near our quarters during the night. (And I remember attending evening services at church one night, where one of the attendees showed up with a dead moose in the back of his pickup truck, after a successful hunt earlier in the day. Being the curious sort, I checked it out... and then wound up walking through the lobby of the church with blood-soaked hands. I'll bet that left an impression on a few people....)

And just a few years ago I had the opportunity to visit (on business) the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst, New Jersey. Again, the military base was surrounded by open forest land and cranberry bogs on three sides; and as you might expect, the place was crawling with rabbits, deer, and everything in between. Before any attempted aircraft launch, the standard procedure was to run a fire engine up and down the runway, lights on and siren blaring, to scare everyone back into the bushes. Bird strikes on takeoff are bad enough; deer strikes are even worse.

Well, growing up in locations like this tends to make one accustomed to open land. I find that I get claustrophobic in big, dense cities. I can stand San Jose reasonably well, because I'm familiar with it (having gone to college there); but San Francisco just feels tight and suffocating to me; those buildings are too tall and too close, with not enough space between them, and not enough genuine green (or here in California, brown). I tend to prefer towns that still have a lot of open, unsettled space in them; brooks and forests; natural, native plants; parks that have trails through them, but are otherwise still in the condition that God made them. I tend to see cities as places you go when you have business to do, but not to stay in; if it weren't for the fact that I have to make a living, I'd probably want to move up to the mountains or something. My idea of paradise looks a lot like the outskirts of Flagstaff, Arizona. :-)

But the place we live now is nice. It's definitely a suburb, but it's not completely filled in yet; there's still plenty of open space and parkland. And occasionally we get a pleasant surprise. Tonya and the kids went for a walk today, and as they were wandering through the neighborhood, they came upon this little guy:
That is a ring-necked pheasant. We see them around here from time to time, as well as the occasional wild turkey. Tonya was wondering whether our pheasant was perhaps injured, as it wasn't trying too hard to keep out of anyone's way. Tonya had to shoo away a couple of cats who were stalking it. She did mention that it was at least as big as the cats were, though--so it's possible it could have held its own.

Anyway, after they had gotten home, the pheasant--who was still wandering through the neighborhood--decided to pick our own nice, shady front yard as a place to sit down and take a rest. All three of these pictures were taken through our front window (the first two, through a screen).
Usually, these birds stay much farther away from people. We had one in our backyard about a year ago, and I tried like mad to get a picture of it; but it was pretty spooked, or it wanted privacy, and kept trying to get out of sight--behind the bush, behind the compost pile, so forth. When it came to the conclusion that I wasn't going away, it jumped out of its hiding place and took off in flight. They aren't efficient fliers, but their plumage is absolutely beautiful when the wings are out and the tail is back....

And I am reminded of another episode from this Air Force brat's childhood. We were stationed in Germany for four years, and we took the opportunity to visit most of the countries of Central Europe while we were there. I remember once we were driving through the Netherlands, when Dad stopped the car. He'd seen a pheasant, and wanted a picture. So he grabbed his camera, got out, and started hunting the bird. The bird was obviously used to being hunted, and always managed to stay just one move ahead of Dad. It started to look like one of those Warner Brothers cartoons, where Yosemite Sam goes to the door at the lower right, but then Bugs Bunny comes out the door at the upper left; so Yosemite Sam goes to the upper left, and then Bugs comes out the door at the lower left; and so on and so on. I seem to remember that Dad never did get a decent picture of that bird; but my Mother and brothers and I got a good laugh from the whole episode.

Anyway, it's rather a nice thing to see something like this come through your neighborhood, and even into your yard, from time to time. It helps remind you that there's a whole world out there that doesn't worry about software engineers or itemized deductions. It's almost too bad we don't have any moose around here.