Thursday, September 11, 2014

"The Teacher Wars"--a review

It's definitely a book worth reading that can simultaneously enrage, engage and entertain you. The Teacher Wars tells the story of why America's teachers are so roundly despised and used as a punching bag by the political elites and power systems. Completely fascinating and non-partisan as far as I can tell, this history should be read by anyone who ever had anything to say about the quality of teachers these days, which is a group that includes, roughly, everyone. I myself was hooked by page 9, which I read, as it happens, during the twenty minutes I allow myself for lunch, at my desk, while getting ready to do some last-minute grading so I could make a meeting with a colleague so as to plan our joint lessons for the next week:
"...(Places like Shanghai) have made big strides in student achievement without drastically adjusting the demographics of who becomes a teacher. They do it by reshaping teachers' working days so they spend less time alone in front of kids and more time planning lessons and observing other teachers at work, sharing best practices in pedagogy and classroom management."
Yeah, I could get behind something like that. Can't imagine why it resonated with me so deeply.

In a nutshell, education journalist Dana Goldstein explains how the public school teacher ethos morphed and mutated over the past two centuries, got mixed up in the labor movement and a bunch of other clashes between warring factions, was put right in the middle of a bull's eye for America's power systems to start shooting at, and is now sort of the scapegoat (not always incorrectly) for many of society's ills.

If that's too brief a nutshell, here's a slightly less-condensed summary: early in the 19th century, reformers like Catharine Beecher "feminized" teaching (then more a male profession) by hijacking the missionary zeal nascent in urban women: "Go west and make a difference! Teach pioneer children and be one with God!" After the Civil War, black educators got caught up in a battle over whether black children should be educated vocationally, in order to work and excel in a world that afforded them fewer opportunities, or educated classically and by elites, in order not to neglect their potential. In many ways, this debate continues today, and not just concerning minorities. Then the teachers' unions split with the extreme left during the McCarthy era and joined with the working class unions engaged in their own war against the corporate elite.

Unfortunately, when the Reaganites took power, the working class saw their benefits and power decline, even as the teachers' unions kept theirs, and a schism emerged (again--one still with us today), creating understandable resentment with the working class (today, maybe 7 percent of the nation's workers are unionized). On the heels of Reagan came the "teacher accountability movement," ostensibly a product of progressivism but increasingly tied to corporate interests via the language and premises of free market enthusiasts. (Goldstein doesn't put it like that--that's more my own reading of the history. But I'll stand by it.) Now, with many of the experiments of the blame-teachers-first crowd having come up empty-handed as their reforms didn't turn out to be silver bullets after all, America is in a position to rethink what's to be done about the state of our schools.

Yet Goldstein argues that certain other movements have born useful fruit: she runs through some data concerning Teach for America and speaks highly of their "transformative" approach (though she does not believe, accurately, it can be replicated on a larger scale). She also reports that value-added measurements (attempting to link test score gains to individual teachers), while nonsensical in high-stakes conditions, works well as a tool to help educators develop and improve their instruction. Fair enough.

It's a fascinating story, even to those who know the basics already (I flatter myself to be one of them). Her reporting is objective and fact-based yet still leading her to inescapable conclusions about how teachers have been demonized, why this has happened and what's to be done about it all. At the end of the book, she trots out some not unreasonable suggestions: knock standardized tests back to tools of diagnosis; beef up our oversight of administration (Goldstein outlined these ideas in a recent Chicago Tribune piece); give teachers more active roles in the formation of school curriculum and training; free up time for collaboration. She also argues we need to ditch the last-in-first-out power that tenured teachers wield, though, she is careful to point out, not without employing a system of remediation and assistance using reliable measurements, so as to protect them from the whims of administration and school boards.

Sounds good. And yet, running through these suggestions, one can't help but notice we're talking about quite a price tag. One, I suspect, taxpayers would be happy to pay (as I write this, the nation is gearing up for another military adventure in Iraq, and I don't hear the budget hawks screaming yet), particularly if we were to differentiate between the kind of spending we've been doing and the kind of spending we should be doing.

Yet such fiscal transformation is unlikely today, and perhaps for many years to come. Neither is it likely that the social spending necessary for an empowered middle and lower class will come about any time soon. Goldstein freely acknowledges this, and ends with the whole let's-focus-on-what-we-can-focus-on spiel that TFA, unions and the like rely on when confronted with the task of changing the system without being able to actually change the system:
"In the absence of these "bridging instruments" between policy and practice, I fear American politics will continue to reflect profound disappointment in teachers, and teachers themselves will continue to feel embattled. But there is hope. If we accept the limitations of our decentralized political system, we can move toward a future in which sustainable and transformative education reforms are seeded from the ground up, not imposed from the top down. They will be built more upon the expertise of the best teachers than on our fears of the worst teachers. This is how we will achieve an end to the teacher wars."
It's lines like these, in all their reasonableness and logic, that get me reaching for my emergency whiskey bottle. Yes, if teachers are the ones "seeding" this kind of change, I'd be all for it. But the Wendy Kopps and Michelle Rhees, the Bill Gateses and Eva Moskowitzes and now, apparently, M. Night Shyamalans of the world are just too well-funded. No matter their intentions, the damage they're doing to the greater narrative is too lasting to ensure that the notion of public education is linked to notions of community and macrosocioeconomic factors.

Well, at least we've got a solid history to point to in order to justify such a perspective. Though I hope I'm wrong, I think we're going to need it for the foreseeable future.

Monday, May 06, 2013

The Reagan Buckley Knew: WFB's memoir and its alternative take

I seem to be unable to read this title as anything other than “The Reagan I Knew.” The Gipper, in the wake of the Iran/Contra scandal, famously proclaimed that, though his heart told him he hadn't approved arms sales to terrorists, his head told him he had. What Buckley’s head and heart told him over the years, I could not say, but The Reagan I Knew describes a politician who might as well be wearing a cape—he’s a strident, confident voice who all but saved democracy for the future, and to Buckley, anything less than our complete adulation is insulting. Heart, one; Head, zip.

It’s a personal memoir, at its heart. You might find astute political analysis in Buckley’s dredged-up columns from the 60’s when he runs through gubernatorial contests—that’s an example of WFB at his best. There are transcripts of Reagan’s appearances on Firing Line, and I got a kick out of eavesdropping over Buckley’s and Reagan’s debate over the surrender of the Panama Canal, and their conversations over Nixon, Ford and Carter.

But the material revealing what these men were really thinking is what’s really engrossing, to say nothing of infuriating. Take, for example, “A Self-Interrogation on the Size of the Government,” where Buckley attempts to explain away Reagan’s campaign promises to shrink government, given the fact that Reagan’s deficit rose from $79 billion to $153 billion. Buckley argues to himself, “It is a factor in democratic government that pressure is brought to bear to finance, by federal spending, projects that commend themselves to…some of the voters”:

[The] political power of the legislature was greater than the political power of the executive [when federal expenditures rise]. When the forces that ask for more spending prevail, their success depends in some measure on their power to move against the traditional American ethos [of self-subsistence]. Reagan always believed that people should earn their own living, and that a country should too, and that a country that does so is entitled to its national budget.
Read between the lines: The president has to resist the legislature, which is influenced by its constituency. Therefore, federal success is measured by its ability to resist majority votes, which will force them to go out and get a paper route to pay for their health care. I guess Buckley doped out the majority opinion during one of his intercontinental yacht-jaunts across the ocean and decided considering them further in political affairs was unnecessary. (That’s not a fair observation, I know. But I don’t care.)

There’s more of this kind of sentiment, and you don’t have to look all that hard. Buckley, unsurprisingly, does not have much to say about the Iran/Contra scandal except to quote a letter he wrote Reagan in 1988, urging him to issue pardons to Poindexter, North, et al. What’s particularly telling is when he raises the possibility of Reagan having to take the stand and testify: “In order to do this, you will be instrumental in exposing to public view the mechanisms by which the United States protects its vital interests. What the Left in America will do with this is absolutely unthinkable.”

Translation: We can't tell Joe Citizen about our support for sonsofbitches, because George McGovern will use it to win elections. Plus, Noam Chomsky will also use it to erect Chairman Mao statues all over the White House lawn.

The conduit between the two men is, by today’s terms, disturbing and unsettling: Reagan taking his cues from National Review, all but publicly acknowledging that it was Buckley and his ilk that created him, and nobody bothers to say a fucking word? What would happen if President Obama made a pet columnist out of Eric Alterman at The Nation or something? I don’t know what the Buckley/Reagan relationship says about the media and politics in the 80’s, but I’d like to think we've come farther than that today.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Local artist's performance gets rave reviews, and gets me tail

MIDNIGHT, CHICAGO--I'm at the L'An Riche, the swankiest, trendiest, most elegant restaurant this side of the Mississippi and other side of Elkhart, Indiana. The place is dark, intimate. Across the table from me sits Victoria Beckham, model/singer/businesswoman currently in a transition, she tells me, to actress/model/lingerie tester. Tall, curvaceous, lissome, with an elegant bearing and nice boobs, she epitomizes grace mixed with raw sex appeal. Her long lashes bat at me flirtatiously from across the table and her left foot is gliding up my pants leg. I stare at her sullenly. What a fucking bitch.

"How's your veal," she purrs.

"I hate it," I sulk, pushing it around on my plate.

"Maybe some wine will help," she says, pouring me a glass and stroking the neck of the bottle suggestively. Once the glass is poured, she pushes it over towards me, allowing our fingers to touch. I smirk, grab the bottle, and down a few slugs. Then I wipe my mouth with my tie and slouch back in my seat sullenly.

"So anyway, I was saying I'm just so fed up with our society's social mores," Beckham continues. "I mean, the idea that we can't have what we want when we want it is so unbelievably primitive when you think about it. The idea that sheer animal magnetism is absent our civilized species is a throwaway to a Victorian morality that does our primal psyche no good."

"Yup," I respond when she pauses. I have no idea what the hell she's talking about.

"For instance, the notion that sex should be interlocked with some type of relationship, however brief, simply isn't healthy. I mean, look at you and me together. What's to stop us from going back to my place, dimming the lights, and having me strip for you and pleasure you while you watched ESPN? Just our stupid culture's obsession with values."

"Right," I say when she pauses again. "Values. You nailed it."

"And speaking of nailing," she says, biting her fingertips softly and, when my attention is distracted by a dust mote floating gracefully through the air, grabbing a bread roll and thrusting it into a muffin vaguely shaped like a woman's behind, "I have a redheaded model friend  who said she's at my place right now, absolutely naked, chained to the bed, waiting. For us."

"Fantastic," I say, doodling a monster truck onto the menu. "She can have this veal. It sucks."

"So even though the answer is perfectly obvious, I'll ask you anyway: Where would you like to go after this?"

"I think we both know the answer to that," I say, leering appreciatively.

"I think we do," she asserts.

"You and me..."

"Uh huh..."

"...with nothing to come between us..."

"Oh baby..."

"...except Brendan Losch's solo performance." I whip out the stage bill and flash it at her with what I can only guess is erotic abandonment. "He goes on in two hours, so we'd better leave. Right now. So I can get a good seat."

Beckham sighs heavily. "I don't quite know how to tell you this..."


Except she does, as it turns out. The only reason I'm at this posh restaurant with some broad for whom, I'm told, half of Chicago would gnaw their left testicle off in order to get a shot at, listening to her prattle on about her high-power celebrity career and disdain for undergarments, is because Brendan's band manager, in a last-ditch effort to get rid of me for the evening, bribed her to take me out and keep me away from his show. In fact, as we sit here, a mere four blocks away at Cafe Mustache, Brendan is setting up for his gig. And what with Aaron Sandberg and John Morton accompanying him, plus Erik Bostrom sitting in the audience throwing empty beer bottles at their heads, it's the closest thing to a Bullets in Madison reunion this century is likely to get.

"So, let's run through it again," Brendan is (probably) telling John and Aaron right now. "First song, I'm on guitar, Aaron, you're on cymbals, John, you stand behind him and look pretty."

"As if I could look anything else," John retorts indignantly.

"Next song, John, you're on the cymbals, Aaron, you're on tambourine looking moody."

"I majored in that in college," Aaron asserts proudly. "Looking moody, I mean."

"The next two songs, I want you guys on either side of me, gently working the cymbals and tambourine, and then after that, Aaron can do background vocals, caressing the microphone stand and looking moody and discontent. John, you lay out on the floor and whistle backup."

"We got this," John assures him. "We're going to sizzle. The audience will be remembering this for at least a half hour."

"And one more time, where's what's-his-name? That tall guy who thinks he's a reviewer?"

"He's at that fancy Frog restaurant with that former Spice Girl," Aaron says, checking his iPhone. "I paid her twenty bucks, so she'll be all over him like Roseanne Barr at a buffet. No chance he's showing up tonight."

"Then I guess that's it," Brendan says. "Okay, let's set up the tambourine over there, and the cymbals over here...John? John, what's wrong?"

John's face has gone white and he shrieks like he shrieked that one time when he found out that men's fashion store would be out of Spritz cologne for a month. "I forgot the cymbals!" he yells and barrels through the already-crowded cafe, shoving several groupies and BiM-emulaters out of the way so he can make the fifty-mile round trip back to his tenement apartment on the poor side of town to retrieve his cymbals set. Behind him, Aaron is snickering.

"I hid them in the closet," he tells Brendan. "Now let's go get a beer and stare at our phones."


All of this is a reasonable surmise on my part, but since I'm not actually there but instead getting my time wasted by this prattling simpleton in front of me, I don't get to see it. Which just goes to show you once again: there is no justice in the world. Nor decency. Nor good veal, for that matter, which this dump I'm sitting in could say plenty about.

"Did I show you my tattoo?" Beckham whispers throatily into my ear. For some dumb reason, she's now sitting next to me in our secluded booth, with one thigh draped across my lap and her arms around my neck. I stare embarrassedly at passers-by, gesturing towards the empty seat in front of me, raising my eyebrows and point at her as if to say, She's a little dumb. What can I tell you? "It's of a comet," she breathes. "Right next to my...special place. Want to see it?"

"Nah," I say, rolling up my sleeve. "Now here's a tattoo." And I show her my pride and joy, up on my shoulder: Brett Michaels' made-up face, emblazoned with the logo "Open up and say Ah!" She looks suitably impressed.

But not impressed enough to pay the check, call a cab and get us the hell out of here over to the show in time for Brendan's full set, where he'll be playing music that has so far garnered the attention of XRT MTV and the Home Shopping Network. I grow desperate. And as William S. Burroughs once said, Desperation is the raw material of drastic change.

So as she fiddles with her bra strap and talks incessantly (and a bit irritatedly, it now seems to me) about the Kama Sutta or something like that, I whip out my Bic lighter and surreptitiously set the table lining on fire. The resulting chaos should buy me ten minutes to shove past her out the fire exit and grab a cab, so I can make the show. The subtlety of this plan is brilliant, I realize, and necessary. And as Plato once said, Necessity is the mother of invention.

Anyway, dear readers, that's the best I can give you at the moment, as I am currently en route. So if it's not too late, go check out the show, and if John has those cymbals, rest assured, they're going to rock the joint. If not, whatever. Because, after all, as Brendan Losch once said, They won't give a shit. Or something like that.

Which would you take? A no-brainer.

Monday, November 05, 2012

How my home builder reminded me that voting is pointless

The timing couldn’t have been better.

I’d just finished a load of laundry and was taking it upstairs when I grasped hold of the railing on the basement steps, and felt it wiggle. Like a loose tooth, it felt as though one good yank would pull the sucker clean of the wall. Upon inspection, I saw further cracks in the drywall surrounding it, and up and down the walls leading to the ground floor.

Terrific, I thought. Add that to the drywall already crumbling on the second floor, the holes in the garage walls (cleverly concealed from the home inspector before we moved in), the drafty doors, the sagging fences, the leaky garage roof, the splintered paneling and the walls thin enough to allow us to hear the neighbors playing World of Warcraft at 10 p.m. on a worknight. Some of this stuff is doubtless normal wear and tear, but much of it is the result of shoddy construction, and all of it will have to wait until other repairs are done on the condo I’ve owned since 2005 and rented for years now since I can’t get rid of it in the current market. It's enough to get you to start drinking vodka in the morning. Except I already do, so I guess I can't blame the house. 

When I got back upstairs and checked the mail, still juggling figures in my head and trying to decide whether the drywall repair could wait until spring or not, I found a nondescript envelope bearing the title “voter” next to my name. When I opened it, it turned out to be a letter from my builder. Advising me on how to vote.

I won’t quote the letter, but the gist of it was that my builder, reminding me of his credentials as a small business owner of the community who’d been building homes for fifty years and employing tens of thousands of people in the industry, had concerns over the direction the country was headed under President Obama and certain members of the House and Senate. He advised me to vote Republican, under the grounds that the country can’t afford another four years of reckless spending on entitlements and ill-advised programs. It closes with an urgent call to action: it’s time to take back the country for the next generation.
The basement wall is perfect symbolism for the 2012 election. The drywall represents my eroding trust in our electoral system, and the paneling is pure evil. 
 Take it back? I can’t help but wonder. Take it back to what? Back to military aggression, unaffordable tax cuts and a public docile from fear of terrorism, happily signing their library records away to the government and racking up credit card debt? What planet is this guy from?

Well, at least he gave me a better reason to break out the Absolut. Got to give him that. 

“Reckless government spending” is a line that’s starting to get old for a number of reasons. Mostly because “reckless” (or whatever derogatory term you prefer) is an epithet applied selectively, depending on whom you ask. Some argue that massive spending on health care for the poor and infirm is unaffordable while others argue that wars tend to be pretty reckless, especially if you decrease taxes while fighting them. But hey, my builder wants to build more homes. He’s throwing his weight behind the guy he thinks will get that to happen. If I had to bet, I’d say you’re barking up the wrong tree, but good luck with that anyway.

Actually, my builder’s letter infuriates me for a different reason: He’s forcing me to stick up for President Barack Obama.

Let me be clear: I am not making a partisan argument here. Vote your conscience. But as historian James Loewen reminds us, although we’re all entitled to our own opinion, we are not entitled to our own facts.

There’s a current of thinking that seems to be building steam: Things were great back in the aught’s (2000-2008-ish) because back then, we had President Bush and the Republicans in charge. Unemployment was low, the stock market was booming, consumer confidence was high and nobody was making any noise about hope and change. We were on top of the world, but then the Democrats took Congress in 2006, and Obama took over in 2008. Suddenly, the economy crashes, people lose their homes, we’ve got a massive deficit and China and India are killing us on the global market. So if we just get the right guys back in charge, we’ll be back in the good old days again.

All of that used to be called a “straw man argument.” Then it surfaced as a viral email debunked by Snopes. Now it’s circulating in my newsfeed.

Were I to rebut all of these points one by one, I’d be, at best, parroting finer minds than my own; at worst, outright plagiarizing them. But I hope it’s not untoward of me to point out that to accuse Obama and the Democrats of tanking the country after a mere 15 to 20 months or so in power is to severely overestimate their power. Remember that President Bush was in office for eight or nine months when 9/11 happened, yet to blame him and him alone for that would be idiotic. Rather, one has to take a wider perspective of our foreign entanglements, and once you do that, you go beyond one president and one party, and start to focus on the military/industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us about in 1961. Ditto with the economy: anyone who can think their way out of a paper bag will have no trouble drawing a line from the Friedmanite/Reaganite overhaul of the 1970s/1980s to the deregulation and subprime mortgage vomit-inducing monstrosity that left us all holding the bag while the criminals went off scot-free, more powerful than ever and ready to do it all over again.

(Side note: My original mortgage lender was Countrywide. You’ve heard of them--at least they’re getting slapped on the wrist with a civil suit. But every morning when I wake up, I say a little prayer to the Gods of Retribution that the hookers those guys were frolicking with all had scorching cases of herpes.)

I’m willing to yell about all that to whomever wants to debate the issue, provided we’re interested in arriving at some kind of truth rather than just scoring points and trying to get votes for “our guy.” Hell, I’m no genius, and I need all the perspective I can get. Yet I hope that, by articulating the aforementioned points of view, I’m not forced, by shoddy logic, to take the role of de facto apologist for President Obama. We should all possess the requisite gray cells to qualify the issue here.

There are grave concerns and misgivings I have about Mr. Obama, but almost none of them are shared by anyone in our country’s mainstream political reporting, or, if they are, I haven’t heard of them. “Obamacare,” for instance? Less to be disliked for its “socialism” and more for its subsidies to the insurance companies while simultaneously expanding their customer base.

His foreign policy? Sure, it’s great that bin Laden is dead, although if you want to split hairs, we did commit a war crime. Meanwhile, drone attacks have  skyrocketed under the president from the level they were at under Bush, which is a pretty good way of sowing anti-American sentiment and future self-styled holy warriors with an antipathy for America. (Never mind that their accuracy is abysmal.)

His education plan? A complete train wreck: accountability takes the form of test scores and discounts external factors that have a much greater impact on a pupil’s performance. Race to the Top might as well be called Frankennochildleftbehind.

And don’t even get me started on fiscal reform and his explanations of it thereof. His opponents can scream about how taxing the rich won’t help all they want—that’s a sideshow to me (although if you decide to tackle long-term deficit reduction, the $90 billion a year we’d save turns into $900 billion over ten years, a much more serious figure than the $130 million or so we give to public broadcasting that Mitt Romney sees as so unsustainable). What we should really be talking about is a system of oversight that ensures we won’t have to bail out the banks any more. We should be talking about why Obama’s Justice Department failed to prosecute the worst of the financirati even when they practically had DNA evidence of their malfeasance. And would it kill him to hire economists without fingerprints all over the current crisis?

But none of that has happened, for a perfectly clear reason: Wall Street funds Democrats in addition to Republicans, as do pharmaceutical companies and education reformists/activists/lobbyists. All of them have deep pockets. The voters suckered into thinking there’s a tangible difference between the two political parties include, it would seem, my builder, who’s convinced that his guy will make a difference because he’s not going to throw any lavish cocktail parties and he’ll sleep on a sleeping bag in his office to save money. Sort of like…why, it’s like cutting Sesame Street to pay for a financial bailout, isn’t it?

If we hire a few hundred billion of him and then fire them all, we'd save billions!
In 2008, I was of the opinion that “Change” was a no-brainer: Rising unemployment, two wars, and a looming economic crisis? How the hell did that happen? No, no, we’ve got to turn this mess around!

Now, “change” is being marketed as Change to the stuff we did before the radical socialist took charge, and in order to swallow that pill, you just have to hit the right parts of your head hard enough to forget all the history that led up to the mess we’re in right now.

But if you try to correct the record, if you’re not careful, you wind up playing defense for Team Obama, and until my rental property is saleable, Countrywide is behind bars and drone planes are recalibrated to start dropping books all over the Middle East, I’ll pass, thanks. 

So anyway, Mr. Builder of my Home Sweet Home, I won't be voting for your guy. I'm not even sure I'll be voting for the one everyone assumes is my guy. Or anyone's guy. I don't think there is a guy for us any more, even if we use the term in a gender-neutral sense. But as long as there's guys like you to distract us with the bogus issues, I guess there'll be plenty of mud slinging and innuendo to spare for 2016-on. Now come over and help me fix this wall. You bring the plaster. I've already got plenty of vodka.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

"A Shropshire Lad" Reread

Deceptively simplistic, this collection ranges along the varied experiences and nuances of life itself. Love, death, defeat, fleeting victory, eventual demise and a general feeling of transience, A.E. Housman reminds us continually that we are but a page in a book we can never see entirely. Housman's Shropshire, in all its pastoral idyllic beauty, never existed any more than Margaret Mitchell's romanticized South, or even Hardy's Wessex. No matter. His themes are universal and readily accessible to us all. Substitute Shropshire for wherever you hold your dearest childhood memories, and you've got your own "fields and men we know by heart." Your own youthful loves and devotions become Rose Harland, who "walked with a better man" while "stock still lies Fred, and sleeps." And even if you never served a day of military duty in your life, just the very act of getting up Monday morning to go to work is enough to give certain lines an alternative, dare I say preferable, flavor:

Wake: the vaulted shadow shatters,
Trampled to the floor it spanned,
And the tent of night in tatters
Straws the sky-pavilioned land.

Housman is at his best, I think, when he touches on the universality of human suffering. The figures in his poetry sometimes clash, sometimes are victorious, very often are defeated and dark, and yet the countryside continues. One poem points out that the struggles that inflamed the Roman breast ("now ashes under Uricon") are still present in the Englishman's breast today, and doubtless will be in the souls of whoever is (un)lucky enough to be standing on the ashes of his own existence. "The tree of man was never quiet," he reprimands us. "Then 'twas the Roman, now tis I." It's a mistake to see all this as a downer. Rather, it gives the sense of solidarity--we're going through what many have gone through; we are not alone in our solitude. In fact, Housman effectively disarms this criticism in the penultimate poem, where in his alter ego of Terence, he is accused by a friend of "moping melancholy mad" with "the verse you make." Terence refutes this criticism with a reminder that there are more effective ways to prepare for what must be endured than by avoiding it:

Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
uck's a chance, but trouble's sure,
I'd face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.

Indeed, he follows his own advice. At the very end of the book, the "ashes" of the Roman he refers to earlier in the collection transcend into his own verse (this is how I see it, anyway). Our struggles are forgotten, yet since they're relived, they're always remembered, and so are we. In LXIII, he turns his advice (good advice, for the record) into "flowers" that he "hoed and trenched and weeded," giving some sense of the sheer efforts of creation:

And fields will yearly bear them
As light-leaved spring comes on,
And luckless lads will wear them
When I am dead and gone.

In Why Read? Mark Edmundson wrote that "vital options" for the individual quest for truth in art "may be found for this or that individual in painting, in music, in sculpture, in teh arts of furniture making or gardening. Thoreau felt he could derive a substantial wisdom by tending his bean field." Add to this Housman's invented countryside, set in opposition to (or perhaps even mirroring) a world of war, work, weariness and eventual defeat, and you've got your truth, and then some.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Grammar counts when writing propaganda

In his column today, George Will writes, “In the 1960s, public-employee unions were expanded to feast from quantitative liberalism (favors measured in quantities of money). And qualitative liberalism was born as environmentalists, feminists and others got government to regulate behavior in the service of social “diversity,” “meaningful” work, etc.”

If I had the moxy, I’d use this article in a lesson on the passive voice. Labor unions “were created.” By whom? For what? Ditto civil rights and women’s rights: who were the ones clamoring for all this? Was it this big monstrosity cooked up by the government to control our lives? Or did this all happen with thousands of people toiling away year after year, educating, building awareness, raising the issue and demanding change? The article is replete with issues I’d take up if I were ever (mis)fortunate enough to debate the matter with Mr. Will and his column (a typical one), but at the very least, we can all agree that the AFL-CIO didn’t come from some sort of legislative big bang. It came from the people. If that’s a special interest, then there aren’t enough of them today.