Education Reading Update

I’m constructively working through my anxiety by reading. So far, got 3-4 books off John C Wright’s Essential SciFi Library list read or reading, and a good start on my collection of Thomas Shields and Edward Pace writings. Reviewed Shields’ First Book here. Am halfway through his Making and Unmaking of a Dullard, an autobiography of sorts, framed as a Platonic dialogue. Think Symposium, but with early 20th century Progressives instead of Alcibiades and Socrates. In other words, much less fun.

Also, found The Catholic Educational Review, VOLUME XI January- May 1916 on Arhive.org. This is a periodical founded by Pace & Shields which ran for decades. Sigh. I’m going to slog through at least this volume, just to get a feel for it. Finally, have a dead tree copy of Shields’ The Philosophy of Education (1917) in the stacks here, got to fish it out and read it next. Then, I must return to Burn’s The Catholic School System in the United States, which I never finished reviewing. Burns got his PhD from Catholic University in 1906 under Shields and Pace, wrote the definitive history of American Catholic schools, and went on to be president of Notre Dame.

Shields, Pace, and Burns are the big dogs when it comes to Catholic education in America. Until they came along, parochial schooling and Catholic colleges were a bit of a free-for-all. For better and worse, they put some order onto Catholic schooling.

All three appear to me to be American Catholic Millennialists, believing that by application of scientific psychology to Catholic education, America can lead the Church to a perfect, or at least a better without limit, world. They are the foremost representatives of Americanism after the manner of Hecker and Brownson. It is fascinating that Pace and Shields were responsible for the article in the 1914 Catholic Encyclopedia discussing the heresy of Americanism, where the pope’s and many Americans’ concerns that the American Church was being lead into Modernism by its some of its leadership were dismissed as a mere baseless misunderstanding.

Right.

The optimism and faith in progress of these men is all but unbelievable. They are just sure that, by applying modern scientific thinking to education, they can create perfect little American Catholics, who are of course without question the model for Catholics world-wide. Their late 19th century psychology and ideas about science are not an advance on phrenology. Seriously. We’ll get to that in a moment.

A couple notes:

The Catholic Educational Review, VOLUME XI January- May 1916

– A large portion of this volume is devoted to an attack on the Carnegie Foundation’s views of education, as expressed in a recent report the Foundation had issued. The gloves are totally off. I have no real understanding of what the issues are, but I can guess. I’ll write this up when I’m done reading it.

– This raises the endless issue: now, I’ll need to find and read that Carnegie report, right? Sheesh. Everything I read points to multiple other sources that seem essential.

Making and Unmaking of a Dullard

– This dialogue seems to be little more than a gripe session about the interlocutors’ childhoods, in order to provide Shields with the opportunity of expostulating on his frankly silly psychological theories.

– Shields lists 7 ways a dullard, or idiot, or atypical child can be created, but focuses on one, the one to which he attributes his own difficulties in school: Alternating Phases of Development. Here’s how Shields puts it, in answer to the Judge’s request for an explanation:

“A full explanation of this physiological phenomenon, Judge, would involve a treatise on the physiology of the nervous system, but stripped of technicalities the important facts in the case are these. All vital functions are controlled by nerve currents….

“On the other hand, the process of mental development, as indeed all the phenomena of consciousness, rest upon high tension nerve currents in the cerebral cortex. Now, it frequently happens that a boy or girl grows very rapidly for a few years, during which period the physical organism makes such demands upon the nerve energy that the cortical tension is lowered and there is not sufficient nerve energy left to carry on the work of rapid mental development.

“We all know how injurious it is, for example, to indulge in mental work immediately after eating a hearty meal. When food enters the stomach it originates nerve impulses that draw the blood away from the brain for use in the processes of digestion. If brain activity be indulged in at this time, the blood is withdrawn from the viscera and forced into the brain under an increased pressure to furnish the required nerve energy and thus the digestive process is delayed and sometimes the digestive apparatus itself is injured.

“Now, we have a similar conflict going on between mental and physical development. It seldom happens that during childhood and youth the balance is preserved between the growth and development of the body and the growth and development of the mental processes. The extent to which this balance is disturbed and the length of time that each phase continues varies within wide limits.”

“If you exclude the children who have become dullards through any one of the six causes just enumerated, and arrange the children in any third or fourth grade room in accordance with their physical development, you will find them fairly well classified inversely as their mental capacity, that is, the brightest children will be the smallest and the largest children will be the dullest. Here and there puzzling exceptions to this rule will be found, but these are not sufficient to obscure the general truth.

“The eagerness and ambition of the smaller children, coupled with their quickness of movement, indicate high cortical tension. If these children are constantly over stimulated, as frequently happens, their physical development may be retarded for some years. In extreme cases they are to be found among those children whom over-fond mothers are in the habit of regarding as too bright or too good for this world. Less aggravated cases not infrequently result in permanent invalidism. This is particularly true of girls when the period of over stimulation is carried beyond the twelfth or the fourteenth year. If these precocious little ones escape disease and death from over stimulation they will finally reach a time in which the balance swings in the opposite direction and physical development, so long retarded, sets in with unusual rapidity. The ensuing mental phase is characterized by lack of energy which to the uninstructed is pure laziness.

CH V, Alternating Phases of Development

So, quick children need to be slowed down by the expert educationist, so as not to overdo their nerve energy or their cortical tension and thus damage their minds and become invalids. You can see the beginnings of No Child Left Behind here: the solution is to dumb down the bright kids – for their own good – and make sure the slower kids get to catch up. All very scientifiliciously described.

That a kid might grow and learn well if encouraged to follow his own interests is not to be considered. Instead, the bright child is to be frustrated in his desire for learning, on the basis of a half-backed theory that is buzzword-compliant, circa 1910, but has little else to recommend it. As Lewis (I think) put it: say you are going to experiment on children, and everybody is up in arms. But say you’re putting them in an experimental school, and all is good.

– Again, Shields has his interlocutors refer to or quote from contemporary sources that I’ll have to at least look up.

Got a lot more reading to do. Further bulletins are events warrant.

Education History Reading: Thomas Shield’s First Book (1917) pt 1?

Fr. Thomas Edward Shields (1862-1921) was a professor at Catholic University, who, along with Fr. Edward Pace, founded the psychology department there. He was one of the most influential Catholic educators of the early 20th century.

Here, we begin a review of his First Book, a little tome intended for 6 year olds. In many ways, it is a charming book: Shields organizes each of the 10 chapters in 4 parts: a scene from nature, a scene from family life, a scene from the life of Christ, and a simple song. Sections are illustrated with nice art. The kids are supposed to learn reading from this book, as well as get a bit of nature and art. Teachers are advised to read how to teach singing in Shield’s Teacher’s Manual of Primary Methods. But the main point of the book is to teach religion, specifically, Catholicism. The overall approach is integrated: nature, art, the family, music, the Gospels, are all used to inculcate a little Jesus into the tender young minds.

But – you knew there was going to be a ‘but’ – Shields remains a Progressive and a 19th century psychologist. He can’t stop with a charming, unobjectionable little book. Nope, he needs to introduce a bunch of theory. He has to believe that the little tykes could become so much better if properly lead by properly educated teachers according to scientific psychology. The tacit judgement: all those kids who have not been guided by fully trained teachers according to scientific principles are somehow flawed, and fail to live up to what they could have been.

Yikes. Like Pestalozzi, Shields believes in the constant monitoring of every student by a trained teacher, who then directs the student according to sound scientific principles. In other words, leaving the kids to figure anything out on their own is mere disaster. Also, subtly and almost certainly unintentionally, the family is being held to an impossible ideal. To illustrate this, let’s take his nature examples first. In the very first one, Shields describes a mother robin caring for her hatchlings. All very sweet and beautiful. The charming story is used introduce the child to the idea of family and ultimately divine love and care.

But what happens when the poor kid learns that bird very often kill their own chicks? That, in many species, the mother shoves the less perfect hatchlings out of the nest to their deaths, in order to concentrate her energies on their bigger, healthier siblings? Nature isn’t nice.

Similarly, the book describes family life in charming terms, where Mother selflessly cares for her children, and Father selflessly protects and provides for them all. Well? Sure is a good image and a proper ideal, but very few families are going to live up to it always and everywhere. What happens when an individual kid’s experiences don’t line up with this ideal? Since it is tied very tightly to Shield’s exposition of the faith, where Jesus’s love for us is presented as a more perfect version of our parents’ love for us, and, indeed, of robins’ love for their chicks, a failure anywhere along that line invites the kid to disbelief.

Not saying Shields’s approach is wrong, exactly – I want kids to believe in the goodness of nature and family – but it is laying what could be dangerous landmines for particular kids. On the plus side, maybe a kid will be enabled to see that his family isn’t living up to the ideal, and judge his family, and not the ideal, as the problem. It’s different, fundamentally, than reading Little House on the Prairie or Little Women, which are examples of particular families and include lots of problems and even tragedies. Here, in Shields’s book, the ideal family is presented as a realized ideal – kids are invited to see their families as such. Seems dangerous to me, or at least, an open invitation to a certain kind of problem that could be avoided by a different approach – say, reading the kids the books just mentioned.

More generally, the problems here are twofold: first, the idea that a late 19th century psychologist had ‘scientifically’ determined the best way to educate every kid is absurd. Merely setting up ‘laboratories’ to measure psychical phenomena doesn’t mean you are doing or discovering anything real. You might be able, for an example from the 19th century, to determine how long, exactly, people need to see a picture flashed before their eyes before it registers at all on their minds. And? Does that lead to any coherent theory of education? Indeed, what happens instead is that theories far beyond what any observation could support are crowbarred into a lab coat and called ‘science’. John Tylor Gatto observed that there isn’t anything like science behind any of the popular theories of education – it’s just biases, prejudices, and handwavium all the way down. Shields does nothing to disabuse me from Gatto’s view.

Second, and this is a general issue observable in Hecker, Brownson, Pace, Shields, Burns and all the 19th century ‘educationists’ from Fichte and Mann on – Progressivism, if it means anything, means a belief in the perfectibility of man in the here and now. If that belief happens not to be true, then you’ve set up an educational system that is bound to leave teacher, students, and theorist disappointed, to say the least. One could then change one’s opinion to match reality (ha! I slay me.), despair, or double down. Of the last 2 options, despair is the better by far. We’ve already seen how well doubling down works.

Maybe I’ll do a part 2, and go into details of this particular book. First, I find it enlightening to find out a little bit about these titans of Catholic education. To their credit, both Shields and Fr. Edward Pace were instrumental in the creation of the wonderful 1914 Catholic Encyclopedia. However, reading the excerpt quoted below made me realize I love that old encyclopedia because of the way Catholic issues are written about – I never read anything in it to see how, for relevant example, contemporary psychology was written about. Seems I’ll need to read that sort of thing at some point, to balance out my take.

So, who is Thomas Edward Shields? Here what Encyclopedia.com has to say:

Educator; b. Mendota, MN, May 9, 1862; d. Washington, DC, Feb. 15, 1921. The son of Irish immigrants, he was somewhat unruly as a child and finished his formal schooling late. He was admitted to St. Francis Seminary, Milwaukee, WI, in 1882, and to St. Thomas Seminary, St. Paul, MN, in 1885. At St. Thomas he published his first book, Index Omnium (1888), which was designed to help professional men correlate data gathered from wide reading. After his ordination on March 4, 1891, he studied for his Ph.D. at the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD. His dissertation, The Effect of Odors Upon the Blood Flow (1895), influenced psychological research, and in 1902 he joined the faculty of The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC, as an instructor in psychology.

Shields soon transferred his interest to education. In 1905 he set up a correspondence course, supplemented by diocesan summer institutes, for sisters in the expanding Catholic school system. He established the university’s department of education in 1909 and served as its first chairman. The following year he founded the Catholic Educational Review. In 1911 he conducted the first Summer Institute for Catholic Sisters at the university, and he founded the Sisters College, of which he was dean. In 1912 he was instrumental in securing the adoption of the University Affiliation Program. To correlate the curriculum of the Catholic school, Shields wrote a series of four widely used texts in religion. He was also the author of The Education of Our Girls (1907), a dialogue; The Making and Unmaking of a Dullard (1909), a description of his youth; and The Philosophy of Education (1917), the first Catholic book of its kind in English. He was perhaps the leading Catholic educator in the U.S. during the first quarter of the 20th century.

For Edward Pace, we turn to Wikipedia (so sue me – it’s succinct and accurate as far as it goes):

Edward A. Pace (July 3, 1861 – April 26, 1938) was a Roman Catholic priest of the Diocese of St. Augustine, Florida. He was the first native Floridian to be ordained a diocesan priest.

Pace did his doctoral work in psychology in Germany with Wilhelm Wundt. He wrote his dissertation on Herbert Spencer and evolution.

Pace was extensively involved with the early development of The Catholic University of America. He was the first professor of psychology at CUA, and was the founding dean of its School of Philosophy. He held several administrative positions throughout his career, and was involved with many of the University’s academic initiatives. He was one of the general editors of the edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia completed in 1914. In addition, Pace contributed to the founding of Trinity College, Washington, D.C.

In 1892 he became one of the first five psychologists elected to the American Psychological Association by its charter members. He was co-founder of the American Philosophical Association (1893), cofounder of the Catholic Philosophical Association (1926), co-founder and first editor of Catholic Educational Review (1911), cofounder and coeditor of the journal New Scholasticism (1926). Between 1907 and 1912 he was one of the leading editors of the fifteen-volume Catholic Encyclopedia. He was appointed by President Hoover to the National Advisory Committee on Education in 1926.[1]

Here’s Shields in his element, from Wikisource, the 1914 Catholic Encyclopedia:

As applied to a mental process, assimilation derives all its force and meaning from the analogy which many educationists have found to exist between the way in which food is incorporated into the living tissue and the manner in which truth is acquired by the growing mind. That education means the assimilation of truth is almost a commonplace in modern pedagogy. Few, however, have felt the full force of the comparison or realized how completely the psychological in this as in other instances follows on the lines of the physiological. Just as the living cell cannot delegate the task of assimilation, so the mind cannot by any contrivance of educational methods evade the task of performing the assimilative process for itself. All that the teacher can do is to prepare the material and to stimulate the mind of the pupil; the pupil himself must perform the final act of acquiring knowledge, namely the act of incorporating into his mind the truth presented to him. In the second place, the mind cannot take over into its own substance a complex truth as such. The truth must first be broken up into less complex component parts, which are assimilable by the mind in its present condition of development.

There is little profit, for example, in placing before the pupil a finished essay, unless the pupil is taught to analyze the finished literary product into its constituent elements, and to reconstruct those elements into a living whole. This, of course, implies much more than the task of summarizing each paragraph and labelling it more or less happily. When the term assimilation is used with reference to mental development, it is well to remember that, while it originally referred to the building up of anatomical elements, these elements, once constructed, have an immediate psychological bearing. Each particle of matter that is lifted into the living tissue acquires thereby a functional unity, that is, it is brought into functional relation with every other particle of the organism. Similarly, a truth once incorporated into the mind sheds its light on the entire mental content, and is in turn illuminated by every previously assimilated truth. Acting on these principles, the up-to-date educationist insists: first, that each new truth should be not only an addition to the stock of knowledge of the pupil, but also a functional acquisition, something that stimulates the pupil’s mind to increased activity; secondly, that in every educational endeavor the centre of orientation should be shifted from the logical centre of the body of truth to be imparted to the present needs and capacities of the growing mind.

Smorgas-bored

Got all these posts to write, from serious – more analysis of the current panic – to fun – review of Galactic Patrol the latest book I’ve read off John C. Wright’s essential scifi list. But that gets to be work, sometimes. So, instead, let’s fire up the flotsam randomizer, and see what floats by:

A. If anyone says ‘the world has too many people’ anywhere other than on their own suicide note, such a one is a murderous bigot.

B. Space Alien Footstep? Look at this:

The dappled lighting made this hard to see, so I put a red border around it.

This (hard to see in the picture, not hard in real life) is a near-perfect rectangle of dead grass in the backyard. It appeared a week or so ago. It’s about the size and shape of a cooler, maybe slightly bigger.

So – what? I can’t remember puttying anything on the lawn, let alone anything that would kill the grass. Nobody else here can, either. The unnaturally exact rectangular-ness makes natural explanations seem far-fetched….

Weird.

C. This deserves at least a dedicated post – Edward Feser’s latest, Ioannidis on the politicization of science, which begins with a link to a 2005 Ioannidis paper, Why Most Published Research Findings Are False Regular readers here know I’m saying ‘duh’ right about now. It seems that Ioannidis’ paper was well-received, back in 2005, in the sense that many scientists acknowledged its obvious truth. I trust you see what’s coming next: Ioannidis recently published another paper, applying his logic from the 2005 paper to COVID studies. As Feser says: ” In a new essay at The Tablet, Ioannidis reflects on the damage that has been done to the norms of scientific research as politics has corrupted it during the pandemic.”

These observations were not as well received.

I started a long response to Dr. Feser, which I may still complete, simply noting the observation that was the genesis of this blog – that, for the most part, one does not need to be a scientist to spot the errors in most papers, that logic, a basic knowledge of the history of science, and, most important, a fairly basic understanding of how science really works – what science can and cannot do – is sufficient to judge most claims made in the name of science. It’s not like it takes genius or a PhD to note, for example, that ‘cases’ are a moving target over time and space, with definitions and data gathering protocols being wildly inconsistent, such that any comparisons of one time with another, or one place or another, needs A LOT of ‘splaining – just assuming a change in the reported numbers reflects increases of infection purely is irresponsible, to say the least.

(Aside: you can separate out the posers at this point – they are the people who will say I’m nit-picking here. To such people, all technical criticism of methodology will appear as nit-picking, yet any knowledge of science history will show that such ‘nit-picking’ is how science works, when it does work.)

Good stuff.

D. Just one thing about E. E. Smith’s Galactic Patrol prior to the full write-up: you can spot a dozen Star Trek episodes and most of Star Wars right there, in a book written in the 1930s. Jedis, way cool mind powers, Hero’s Journey, evil empire, fight to the death. It might be faster to list what’s missing: Dark Father doesn’t get redeemed or even exist; the love interest is not the hero’s sister, and Chewbacca is played by a dragon and Yoda by a disembodied brain. With way-cool Jedi mind powers. Stay tuned.

Sci Fi Classic Book Review: Verne’s Master of the World

I like to read up on the authors as I go through these classic Sci Fi works off of John C. Wright’s Essential Sci Fi Reading List. Reading up on Jules Verne, I discovered that many of the English translation of his novels were rushed and abridged, as American and English publishers thought they could most quickly cash in on Verne as an author of children’s books. While better translations have long been available, these abridged editions seem to make up a good portion of Verne’s works available for free on the web. Now I’m left to wonder what, if any, Verne I’ve actually read, and how many watered-down and condensed English versions I’ve instead plowed through.

Book Cover

Dead give-away: the translation/condensation of Master of the World I’ve just finished lists no translator, and is only about 140 pages long. I spent a few minutes conducting a by no means thorough search for an unabridged translation for free on the web, to no avail. Serious, non-abridged English translations of Verne began shortly after his death in 1905, so they’re out there and out of copyright. Amazon offers this collection at a $1.99, which says it’s ‘unexpurgated’.

So until I get a chance to read the full novel, this review of the kiddy version will have to do.

One of the things I enjoy about Verne is that he treats Americans as the exotic species we really are. In From the Earth to the Moon, Verne gives Americans fanciful names and absurd behaviors which I imagine were very amusing to his continental readers back in 1865. The one thing he latched on to, and a thing he might well have intended as a rebuke to his countrymen, is America’s can-do attitude: a bunch of American artillery men, fresh off the ‘glories’ of the Civil War, turn their attention to firing humans to the moon out of a giant canon, because why not? Master of the World is likewise a tale of audacious Americans.

Our narrator John Strock is presented as the great detective working for the (mythical?) Federal Police, who have time, budget, and portfolio to pursue odd events in rural North Carolina. Peculiar happenings have been observed atop a lonely mountain called the Great Eyrie. This inaccessible peak is topped by a sheer 100′ cliff that completely encircles it, such that no one has ever surmounted it. Yet over the course of days, fires, lights, and noises originate from its hidden peak.

Strock gets a team together to go investigate, but they are stymied by the cliffs. He needs the funding and permission to get some more extensive climbing or tunneling equipment to access the peak. His boss isn’t ready quite yet to commit, as another series of strange phenomena have since drawn attention away from the Great Eyrie. One or more strange monsters or perhaps vehicles has been sighted in Boston Harbor as a boat, in Wisconsin as a car, in a mythical lake in Kansas as a submarine. The nation’s and eventually the world’s attention is riveted.

So Strock is sent to investigate, but not before he receives a very threatening letter telling him to back off from the Great Eyrie, or else. He takes it as a joke, and does not discuss it with his boss.

Eventually, the conviction grows that these sightings are of a single machine, an incredible contraption that is faster than any automobile, faster than any ship, and can dive as a submarine to escape any pursuers. The Government of the US, followed by the governments of all the major powers, publish offers to buy the technology from its inventor for fabulous sums. A letter is sent to the Federal Police declining the offer, taunting the world’s powers, and claiming to be impervious to any means they have of stopping him. Signed: The Master of the World.

From there, the story follows Strock and his team as they try to track down and capture, or, if necessary, destroy the inventor and his machine.

Not as scientifilicious as some of Verne’s other works. The contraptions are no more fantastic than the Nautilus, of which he conceived decades earlier. This is the earliest use of a super villain of which I am aware. His ideas about heavier than air flight are not much advanced on da Vinci’s, and had already been superseded by the Wright Brothers by the time this book went to press.

A good, entertaining story, even in its condensed form.

A. Merritt’s The Moon Pool – Classic SciFi Book Review

The Moon Pool is the second Abraham Merritt book I’ve read from John C. Wright’s Essential Sci Fi Library. Published in 1919, the story concerns a first-person narrator Dr. Walter T. Goodwin, a scientist/adventurer traveling about Polynesia. He runs into Throckmorton, an old friend, who is in ragged shape and whose face flashes strange signs of ecstasy mixed with profound horror. He tells Goodwin that his wife and their companions were taken by some eldritch horror while he and his team were exploring some very ancient ruins near Borneo. Classic ‘can’t get the natives to help, they all leave for 3 days around the full moon, great evil lives in those ruins! Run! Ruuuun!’ situation – but of course they don’t. They discover some ancient gateway that only opens when enough moonlight strikes it, and out from which comes the Shining Horror. On three consecutive nights, the Thing grabs a team member until only a desperate and nearly deranged Throckmorton is left.

THE MOON POOL | A. Merritt | Later edition

On board the ship Goodwin and Throckmorton are taking to Australia for supplies to help get Mrs. Throckmorton and friends back, the full moon rises over the ocean. On the first night, Throckmorton is spared by overcast skies. But eventually, the moonlight reaches the ship – and Goodwin sees sees his friend taken before his eyes!

Goodwin thinks the story is too insane to tell the crew, and has no hope of finding Throckmorton alive out in the ocean, so he keeps quiet. He gathers the equipment he needs, then gathers a set of heroes: Larry O’Keefe, the brave, dashing, handsome Irish-American aviator who happens to go down with his plane within sight of Goodwin’s ship, and Olaf, a giant Norwegian sea captain who had his wife and daughter taken by the Shining Horror and is attempting to follow them. They set out for the ruins…

Merritt has a wonderful archaic vocabulary, and loves detailed descriptions of everything. He also has an over-the-top pulp sensibility about adventures and love. Of course, there’s an evil but irresistibly beautiful priestess and a pure and valiant Handmaiden of the Silent Ones, both of whom fall madly for O’Keefe. The love triangle plays out in the most dramatic, swashbuckling way possible. Narrow escapes, betrayal, evil Russian scientist, human sacrifice, mistreated slaves, frogmen, deadly plants, poisonous jellyfish of doom – and the Shining One, a creature of unparalleled beauty – and evil!

I made the mistake of reading other people’s reviews of this book, who modern readers give 3.3 stars, on average. One even said they were repelled by the obvious racism – Merritt commits the unforgivable sins of mentioning the Chinese tend to have slanted eyes, and that Polynesians tend to be short and wide – and other such horrors. That his heroes include frogmen and some of these same Polynesians doesn’t seem to register with woke readers. Pshaw! If you get into the spirit of the thing, this book is loads of fun.

I don’t know enough to say how old or widespread or, indeed, original, the tropes found in this book are, but Merritt is the earliest stuff that I’ve read that includes many of them – anti-gravity, ancient civilizations under the earth, many different intelligent species, panspermia, the whole natives won’t go there, stupid white man thing, disintegrator rays, evil Russian scientist, spring to mind. Goodwin is always making scientific asides and footnotes to make it seem real – Merritt was as up on the ‘modern’ science of 1919 as Verne or Heinlein was on the science of their times.

Merritt had an obvious influence on Lovecraft, seems to me. While the exotic adventure story is certainly nothing unique to Merritt, I don’t recall anyone else who creates such a brooding sense of horror blended with science – until Lovecraft. Edgar Rice Burroughs definitely does the exotic setting in fine detail thing, and the over the top adventure and love story stuff, but not with the science background – at least not to the degree of Merritt. I’m sure there are a number of threads leading to and from Merritt in the world of speculative fiction – I’m not well read enough yet to point them out with any confidence.

Kindle has that wonderful lookup function, with bailed me out a number of times with Merritt’s vocabulary. I recalled ‘lambent’ and ‘ebon’ from The Metal Monster, but he had some new ones here. I like learning new words, bring ’em on!

So, 5 stars. Lots of fun. Indulge your inner Indiana Jones and just go with it, and it’s great.

Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker: Book Review

Here, I mention that I started reading Olaf Stapledon’s 1937 classic Star Maker. Just finished it up. Stapledon sets for himself the task of imaginatively describing all of creation, all of the possible universes, from, ultimately, God’s perspective. Star Maker was a very influential book – C.S. Lewis almost certainly is thinking of it in his Preface to That Hideous Strength:

I believe that one of the central ideas of this tale came into my head from conversations I had with a scientific colleague, some time before I met a rather similar suggestion in the works of Mr. Olaf Stapledon. If I am mistaken in this, Mr. Stapledon is so rich in invention that he can well afford to lend, and I admire his invention (though not his philosophy) so much that I should feel no shame to borrow

After the fashion of Dante in his Paradiso, Stapledon strives to achieve an effect of awesomeness and wonder by repeated references to how indescribable, how beyond imagination, are the visions he sees. He describes things as indescribable. This devise increases in frequency and vehemence as the book progresses, following the first-person narrator as he mysteriouly tours the universe through both space and time, until he finally meets the Star Maker. The Star Maker turns out to be a catch-all God with features that, by themselves, would be at home in any number of religious imaginations, although Christian and Gnostic sources seem to dominate. In the end, this Star Maker ends up a hideous monster. C.S. Lewis commented that the book descended to mere devil-worship by the end. I agree.

On the plus side, in the latter 2/3rd of the book. Stapledon reveals a profound imagination much harder to see, I think, in the first third. Not that I’m all that well-read in the speculative fiction classics, but this book contains a number of SciFi trope firsts, for me at least:

  • multiverse
  • intelligent stars
  • group minds
  • sentient plant-things

And probably a few more I’m missing.

Alas, Stapledon’s soaring imagination, which incorporate a multiverse, a demiurge, eon-spanning visions, the accretion of multi-species group minds, sentient plant-things, symbiotic intelligences, conscious stars and nebulae, galactic and cosmos-spanning intelligences, intergalactic telepathy, and a host of further wonders, can’t imagine any other political analysis or Utopia than taught by Marx, or a theology much different than Hegel’s. The most outlandish and dazzlingly imagined races still are trapped in capitalistic decadence on the horns of a dialectical dilemma, as it were. His Star Maker is coming to know himself through his unfolding in history, more or less. Worse, his solutions to all problems are a particularly egregious sort of expertise-itis fantasies – the little people are all looking to their glorious leaders to sort things out, meekly following their lead, up to an including suicide or euthanasia, to which they enthusiastically agree.

We noted that the new world-orders were very diverse. This was, of course, to be expected, since biologically, psychologically, culturally, these worlds were very different. The perfected world-order of an Echinoderm race had of course to be different from that of the symbiotic Ichthyoids and Arachnoids; and this from that of a Nautiloid world, and so on. But we noted also in all these victorious worlds a remarkable identity. For instance, in the loosest possible sense, all were communistic; for in all of them the means of production were communally owned, and no individual could control the labor of others for private profit. Again, in a sense all these world-orders were democratic, since the final sanction of policy was world-opinion. But in many cases there was no democratic machinery, no legal channel for the expression of world-opinion. Instead, a highly specialized bureaucracy, or even a world-dictator, might carry out the business of organizing the world’s activity with legally absolute power, but under constant supervision by popular will expressed through the radio. We were amazed to find that in a truly awakened world even a dictatorship could be in essence democratic. We observed with incredulity situations in which the “absolute” world-government, faced with some exceptionally momentous and doubtful matter of policy, had made urgent appeals for a formal democratic decision, only to receive from all regions the reply, “We cannot advise. You must decide as your professional experience suggests. We will abide by your decision.”

Most of the book is concerned with the various challenges the ever-growing and merging group minds face on their Hegelian journey toward ever more enlightenment and self-realization. The goal is always idealized communism, always toward a group identity, unified group thought, and unified group action. The individual, while maybe not nothing as orthodox Marxism demands, certainly ain’t much. Stapledon repeatedly insists collective group identity is the fulfillment of all individual desires, so much so that the individual cells in the group will happily be murdered, die or even kill themselves if the group thinks it right. Only in the early, unenlightened days do individuals buck against the collective’s wisdom.

It’s tedious. Stapledon’s inventive genius is almost interesting enough to carry the reader through the endless barrage of one-note commie-think. This is not helped by this book being the one example I’ve ever read that goes all in on ‘tell, don’t show.’ Not 1% of the book is ‘show’ – it is just the first person narrator telling us about his adventure, with only one other named character in the entire book. That it works as well as it does is food for thought, from a writing perspective.

In the end, The Star Maker creates a series of universes, with a variety of characteristics, just to see how it works out. His multi-verses are interesting, and copied all over the place:

By the end of the story, our narrator is a part of a multi-galaxy telepathically linked group mind, containing all the accumulated wisdom to all the member races. It is in this state, as the most exalted of group minds, that he meets the Star Maker. The Star Maker creates a series of universes, with a variety of characteristics, just to see how it works out. His multi-verses are interesting, and copied all over the place:

In one inconceivably complex cosmos, whenever a creature was faced with several possible courses of action, it took them all, thereby creating many distinct temporal dimensions and distinct histories of the cosmos. Since in every evolutionary sequence of the cosmos there were very many creatures, and each was constantly faced with many possible courses, and the combinations of all their courses were innumerable, an infinity of distinct universes exfoliated from every moment of every temporal sequence in this cosmos.

After his interview with the Star Maker, the narrator finds himself back on earth, back to be an individual Englishman. He pauses to describe the world of 1937, with the perspective gained through his journeys. In case we missed it, he hammers home again how the Soviet Union and communists in general are the good guys. Here, for example:

Further on, the Spanish night was ablaze with the murder of cities. Away to the left lay Germany, with its forests and factories, its music, its steel helmets. In cathedral squares I seemed to see the young men ranked together in thousands, exalted, possessed, saluting the flood-lit Fuhrer. In Italy too, land of memories and illusions, the mob’s idol spell-bound the young.

Far left-wards again, Russia, an appreciably convex segment of our globe, snow-pale in the darkness, spread out under the stars and cloud tracts. Inevitably I saw the spires of the Kremlin, confronting the Red Square. There Lenin lay, victorious. 

Victorious. Right. Then he describes the battle facing the world:

One antagonist appeared as the will to dare for the sake of the new, the longed for, the reasonable and joyful, world, in which every man and woman may have scope to live fully, and live in service of mankind. The other seemed essentially the myopic fear of the unknown; or was it more sinister? Was it the cunning will for private mastery, which fomented for its own ends the archaic, reason-hating, and vindictive, passion of the tribe.

“…in which every man and woman may have scope to live fully, and live in service of mankind.” Propaganda always sounds so kindly, so drenched in sympathy. The key aspect of the story, the climax, is the narrator learning that God is not bound by human ideas of love, that he is free to torture his creations if he feels like it, all in pursuit of a cosmos that adequately expresses his creative. The narrator finds himself repulsed by the evil the Star Maker does, casually and without feeling, in the name of, well, progress. But he confesses he loves him, including his evil aspects. I’m reminded of John Dewey’s defense of Trotsky, where he asserts that the only moral standard is: does it move the Revolution closer? Need to destroy worlds, murder billions, enslave billions, consign billions more to hell, in the search for a better cosmos? Who are we to judge?

Stapledon’s God is a demon, and Stapledon’s urge to worship him is diabolical.

More Micro Book Reviews: John C Wright & Starmaker

This past week, read a couple short books and waded into a SF classic:

1920 was an interesting year: the people of the West, including writers, were just coming out of the horror of WWI. Wells’ Outline of History (which I, so far, have lacked the inner strength to even try to tackle) was serialized over 1919, but published in book form in 1920. Belloc published Europe and the Faith in 1920, as the response of a real historian (and a Christian) to Wells’ rewriting of history to be more in line with his Fabian socialist fantasies. It took Chesterton until 1925 to publish his rebuttal, Everlasting Man. The problem is one still with us: serious scholars accept the validity of the criticism that history as written has the writer’s inescapable cultural and personal biases baked in. Socialists critics then feel free to rewrite history, bake in their own biases, but then reject any criticism. So serious scholars, trying to do their best and well aware of their limitations, feel the sting of criticism to which their opponents assume immunity. Thus, Wells is as insanely biased as any writer, but his history was seen as somehow more valid because it was a ‘response’ to previous writers assumed biases.

It helped that Wells’ take appealed to the fantasies of his social class, which saw the Late Unpleasantness as a repudiation of everything they had believed – God for Harry, England, and St. George, so to speak. The gross biases of the amateur Wells are preferred to the more conscious and defensible biases of a pro like Belloc. The defense deployed by the rewriters of history is to simply dismiss their critics as backwards, and never directly address the criticisms themselves. Sound familiar? The weakness of traditional historians of the time was that they took their critics seriously, more or less – a favor their critics never returned. You lose that battle before it begins.

Speculative fiction was also engaged in the battle of how we tell the story of ourselves. Voyage to Arcturus, published in 1920, is a completely nihilistic work, aiming to show the fraud and inanity of all human efforts – not surprising, given the shattering effect of the First World War.

Lord of World was published in 1907, before WWI and the Russian Revolution. Benson could assume socialism, the fad and infatuation of his age, would work just fine – except for the part about destroying the human soul, which he saw apart from that destructions physical manifestations in totalitarianism and physical suffering. Even as early as 1920, events had contradicted the airy fantasy that socialism could replace decadent capitalism (by which we mean, evidently, Russian feudalism) with a much better, *scientific* rule by experts.

The Lament of Prometheus: An Examination of David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus by [John C. Wright]

Which brings us to today’s mini-reviews: John C. Wright wrote The Lament of Prometheus: An Examination of David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, a short book in which he proposes to explain Lindsey’s vivid symbolism, heaps praise on his imagination, yet ultimately calls the book a failure. I suppose I should be more interested in Lindsey’s book, as it was very influential in the decades after its initial release. Voyage to Arcturus itself failed, generally, to hold my full attention – too much pointless violence, too many abrupt and complete changes in motivation, too grim a view of just about everything. It ends in defiance, I suppose, when despair would be a more obvious and truthful response. It’s just you in the void, baby, whatever you may happen to be, doomed to pain and failure, so – rock on? I guess?

Wright’s book was very helpful in getting a grasp on what Lindsey is up to. I was picking up on maybe 25% of what Wright lays out. Lindsey gives everything goofy names – Joiwind is a sort of nature-spirit, pure in love; Tormance is a planet of pain; Maskull is a mask on a skull – a sincere veneer over what is ultimately a dead man walking (I guess Everyman was taken…). And so on, virtually every name for a character or place has an over-the-top meaning, just in case you miss the point being hammered into your brain.

Wright explains that Lindsey is presenting a modernized take on classic Gnosticism, where the spirit is good, the body is evil, and the physical world is a trap and a lie. Maskull’s constant flipping from one set of beliefs and goals to another are what happens to souls that seek enlightenment in a world controlled by the Demiurge. That he’ll hate, love, then hate and murder someone he just met – hey, that’s the way things are, here in this valley of tears.

I appreciated Wright’s authorly analysis of Voyage‘s shortcomings as literature – how set ups must have payoffs, that themes demand a certain kind of resolution, and how Lindsey’s dazzling imagination can mask how thoroughly he fails to deliver as an author. What I experienced as frustration, Wright, as a master of the craft, sees in terms of failure at that craft. Very interesting.

If you want to read Voyage to Arcturus – I don’t regret doing so, but I doubt I’ll go back for more- do so, then read Wright’s book to fully plumb its depths.

From Barsoom to Malacandra: Musings on Things Past and Things to Come by [John C. Wright]

Next, since I was on a Wright kick anyway, and have a small pile of his books already purchased but not yet read, I went on to read a collection of his essays, From Barsoom to Malacandra. They were all good. I particularly enjoyed his two on Lewis’s Space trilogy, The Silent Planet and A Voyage to Venus. Those of us who are regular readers of his blog have come to expect the deep yet charming analysis Wright doles out on books he loves; on books he doesn’t love so much, we get honest praise and a serious breakdown of its flaws. This book is full of both. He owns up to having misunderstood Heinlein all these years, spoofs the insult that is the current round of Star Wars films by all but writing appropriate sequels himself, discusses the intrusion of political messaging in fiction (and how and how not to do it) and laments and otherwise excellent anime series that dies a stupid death right at the finish line.

Good stuff. Check it out.

Finally, a preliminary review – dipped again into the Essential SciFi list, and chose Olaf Stapledon’s Starmaker. About 1/3 the way through. It has been, so far, all but impossible to read this book as anything other than 1937 vintage progressive propaganda. All the fun stuff that Woodrow Wilson supported – eugenics, euthanasia, racism, socialism, all us little people ruled by our mire enlightened brethren – for our own good, of course! – all told in a insufferably sympathetic tone: poor, poor, little people! So doomed! If only enlightenment, insight, and communism could rule them! All would be just swell!

Maybe this is just me projecting my expectations back onto poor Olaf, but: so far, in the first 3rd of the book, you could find more diverse forms of intelligent life in Queens, NY, than he ‘finds’ on a million planets. All are locked in class struggles; all hang suspended beneath inevitable economic dialectics; racism, slavery, the excesses of capitalism – everywhere! From slug-beasts and sentient ships to symbionts, it’s all Marx all the way down!

Blech. Not exactly creative. But praised! Oh, yea, all the right people love them some Starmaker!

Anyway, a more complete review once I’m done.

Micro Book Reviews (the reviews are small, not the books)

Haven’t written up any book reviews in forever. Have been doing some reading, however. Time is tight: prepping for my 8th and 9th grade history & lit classes set to start in September, trying to schedule a boatload of deferred maintenance for the house, and writing some books and composing a Mass (what’s a fellow to do, to avoid a feeling of helplessness?).

So let’s take 3:

Combat Frame XSeed, by Brian Niemeier

This is fun book. Jumps right in with dramatic escapes, last-second rescues, and battles to the death, with moral questions about exactly how far one is justified to go in war. The story features a bunch of well-drawn characters who unfold and gain depth over time. And giant punchy mechs with swords and stuff!

Niemeier creates a world of space habitats, supermen, a sort of technological tyranny, freedom fighters, genius inventors, fem fatales, and daring soldiers, with enough political intrigue and plot twists to keep the reader on his toes. I particularly liked how each of the main characters has a distinct personality and motivations. Some are loyal to a fault, some have learned to function under an oppressive regime, some are eeeevil.

And mechs! Loving attention is lavished upon them, detailed descriptions, with blow-by-blow fight scenes and epic battles against impossible odds. They punch each other, sword fight, blast each other, fly in space, cruise under water. Very cool. Reminded me of this:

Except there actually are a plot and characters and stuff in XSeed. Fun stuff, check it out.

Here’s a truly irrelevant aside: mechs, and, indeed, any sort of relatively small, heroically-piloted military equipment – fighters, tanks, Imperial Walkers, guys in armor – tend to take me out of any sci fi story, and put me into fantasy right away. 40 years ago, dogfighting was replaced with pilots firing their missiles at a blip on a screen, then turning tail and trying to outrun the missiles similarly targeted at them. Similarly, tanks have become what they originally were: rolling artolatry, not armored cavalry dueling other tanks. It can happen, but that’s not what they’re for. (I await correction by people who know what they’re talking about.)

One can come up with a theory of battle where individuals in suits of really, really cool hi-tech armor are how you need to do things. It’s not like there are rules, exactly, but it’s just another thing to account for – and, it usually isn’t accounted for in my limited experience. You have your Dune conceit, where the standard defensive measures stop all the high-tech weapons, but not swords, so people can get all Erol Flynn on each other. Something like that.

All that said, twice now in stories I’ve worked on I’ve stuck in mechs – stupid, since I don’t know the tropes and clichés. Once, I ignored the issue (to me, at least) of why there were mechs in the first place; the second time, they are part of an ancient military tradition by an alien race that hasn’t fought any real wars for millennia. I really shouldn’t go there.

A Voyage to Arcturus, by David Lindsey.

I dunno. This is a classic, and I sort of get it, but – not my cup of tea. It sold about 600 copies back in 1920 when it was released, and only gained status as a classic after the author had died. Like a lot of modern art, it’s more interesting than good, IMHO.

What’s interesting: Going back to Gilgamesh and Job, at least, is the problem put by Milton as the need to ‘justify the ways of God to men.’ Classic literature from the Iliad and the Old Testament, through Dante, Milton and on and on are stabs, in one way or another, at addressing this issue. It might reasonably be claimed that it’s difficult to be great literature unless it at least touches upon these themes. Lewis’s Space Trilogy and the Silmarillion are more modern examples, and the Oracle Wikipedia says that both Lewis and Tolkien were fans of Lindsey’s masterpiece. So we have here an exploration of the eternal questions about God and man explored by a very capable writer, as part of a long and noble tradition of such explorations.

Lindsey displays an amazing imagination. His planet Tormance orbiting the twin suns of Arcturus is a constant stream of dazzling images and creative flourishes. He imagines it a young world still in a sense being created, where the battle between reality and illusion is being fought out every moment in every creature and feature. It’s a bit like Gulliver’s Travels, in that every new place on Tormance presents new sights and rules. It’s a wild ride, and almost worth reading just for the fabulous craziness of it all.

What’s not so interesting: Now suppose you’re a Nihilist, as Lindsey certainly seems to be. A modern Gnostic, who picks up the task, as he sees it, of debunking all pleasure, all love, all noble feeling, indeed, all material existence, as lies and frauds.

That doesn’t make for a very attractive story. Indeed, there is no plot, no real character development except that the protagonist, Maskull, simply changes and acts under the influence of the latest ‘delusion’ he is in the process of having peeled off. He at first falls in among rather too pure and saintly aliens, who are just straw men to be blown away. Maskull’s enlightenment takes the form of murdering people – or worse. He is described as a sort of giant of a man. The people he murders are always no physical match for him, a good many are women. He leaves a trail of bodies in 5 days that would make a serial killer proud.

And, at the end, he’s a nihilist, so it all doesn’t matter.

I read this book because it is on John C. Wright’s list of essential Sci Fi. He even wrote a book about A Voyage to Arcturus, which I got from Amazon a couple hours ago. (Wright’s Eschaton Sequence may have been inspired by Lindsey’s book, and is a much better (and vastly longer) exploration of the modern philosophical ideas under which we labor. Plus, Menelaus Montrose is a much better protagonist and a gas.)

Soooo – if you want to read a book demonstrating how out there a human imagination can go, give Voyage to Arcturus a try. Otherwise, not so much.

Mentioned a while back that I was rereading Lewis’s That Hideous Strength. Finished it up. Now, we’re almost done with it as family reading out loud after dinner. I want my 17 year old son, who evidently tuned it out when read out loud years ago, to hear this book.

It’s good. Buy several copies. Reread it often. With Benson’s Lord of the World, That Hideous Strength is about a timely a book as you could read.

A Catholic High School, Circa 1904

Reading a short book, Report on a Visit to American Educational Institutions by an English educator sent to America to report on what the Americans were up to, circa 1904. He writes about the Catholic high school in Philadelphia:

The City of Philadelphia contains several high class public and private secondary schools, of which the writer had the pleasure of visiting the Roman Catholic High School and the Central High School. Dealing first with the Catholic High School, which was built some 12 years ago, with donations by Thos. Cahill, of the Knickerbocker Ice Company, the students number 300 (all boys), mostly drawn from the 80 parochial schools in Philadelphia. The staff consists of a Rector and Pro-Rector — both clerics — assisted by 18 lay masters. The course of study lasts four years, with a post-graduate course of one year for pupils entering the Universities, the curriculum being arranged by the diocesan superintendent. Candidates for admission must bring certificates of recommendation and pass an entrance examination which is fairly difficult, since out of 240 candidates last year only 120 were admitted. Of the 500 pupils ” graduated ” since the opening of the school, many have taken up the study of dentistry, law and medicine ; a few are drafted into the Seminary at Overbrook, and one or two have entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

The course of study is a combination of Classical, Commercial and Manual Training, there being a common course for the first two years. In the third year Manual Training is replaced by Latin for the professional career, but no Greek is taught. The Manual Training consists of drawing, clay modelling, and wood carving, a special feature being that the pupils are taught to use both hands. Special rooms are provided for clay modelling, wood carving, architectural drawing and typewriting, the latter containing machines of various makes. A Chemical Laboratory holding 40 pupils and a Physics Room for 25 pupils are somewhat less elaborately fitted up.

Among the fine specimens of wood carving worked by the students were some types of Old English clock cases, an altar in the large Assembly Room, and vestment cases at the Churches of the Visitation and St. John the Evangelist.

This fine school, erected at a cost of £50,000, provides free tuition and books for all pupils from the Catholic Elementary Schools of Philadelphia, including the Catholic coloured schools.

No Greek?!? They call THAT a high school?

Seriously, most modern holders of Masters degrees couldn’t get into, let lone graduate from, this high school. (That’s because education, social services, and ‘studies’ degrees make up the bulk of master’s currently awarded, but you get my point.)

A more subtle point: the Catholics were in an arms race with the public schools at this time, as they were under constant attack for their poorly staffed and equipped parish schools. The public schools had yet to fall under the baleful influence of Dewey, whose goal was to prepare kids for the upcoming Revolution, not fill their heads with actual thoughts. Preparing kids to think for themselves, as Fichte observed, is not what schools are for. In addition, the public school advocates were in the process of ‘consolidating’ the one-room schools out of business, and thus had to show, somehow, that their big graded schools were better. Since the consolidated schools most certainly were not better in terms of customer satisfaction (students and parents tended to love their one room schools), cost efficiency (consolidated schools were about 4 times as expensive on a per-student basis), and time efficiency (6 hours a day plus homework for 9-10 months a year didn’t get better results than the shorter, less frequent school days of the rural schools), they mostly outspent the competition, while depriving them of government money at the same time.

So we got a glorious blossoming of well-equipped, well-staffed high schools with high standards in America that lasted in most places through the 1950s, or later if the schools were far enough from the major cities. Similar to the way moderns talk positively about Communism now that the bulk of Americans who knew first hand about it have died off, so the educators could move to fully implement Dewey’s (and Freire’s) ideas once those who had been educated outside the system died off or could be marginalized (e.g., Catholics and home schoolers). That’s the source not only of the dumbed-down woke death spiral in public education and the embrace of secular woo-woo by all ‘elite’ Catholic schools who still think they’ll get a seat at the cool kid’s table if only they conform to The Latest Thinking, but also of the perennial calls to ban homeschooling and private schools and to require public school attendance for everybody.

So the archdiocese of Philadelphia was moved to create what sounds like an excellent high school. Good times.

More Education History: Pestalozzi and American Normal Schools

Been busy, reading, researching, and taking notes on several books and collecting several more, plus some letters and essays. The pile keeps growing. Archive.org is the biggest single rabbit hole in existence.

Finally made some headway in discovering the origin of the age-segregated classroom that is the main feature of modern schooling, and its bane. First, finished up  The Educational Ideas of Pestalozzi by J. A. Green. Surfing around, it seems Green in general and this book in particular are well-regarded by education historians. The book has been reprinted a few times since its 1905 debut, and shows up in the references in other books. Since I don’t read German, it is a little encouraging to find I’ve stumbled across a work that has begun to pass the test of time.

I’m coming to appreciate Pestalozzi more, at least, insofar as Green represents him. While he had practices and behaviors to which a modern parent would object, and his inability to explain his principles or, indeed, to understand what he was doing, remain stumbling blocks, at least he, himself, loved his students and treated them well.

Pestalozzi has this recurring idea of an ‘A-B-C’s’ of X, where X is a category or type of education, such as an A-B-C’s of reading, or arithmetic, or morality. Although he was not the kind of man to use terms like these, it’s a bit like Aristotle’s epistemology, where we start with a ‘this’, a thing that by its nature separates itself out from the background, generalize, and finally define the species and genus, moving from what is most readily known to us to what is more knowable by nature. Thus, the general pattern for Pestalozzi is something like sense-impressions, followed by analysis, followed by words. His point, made repeatedly, is that, without focused attention on the initial sense impression, without careful analysis of what one is seeing, the words used to express definitions will be at best crippled. He is concerned about what he sees as the damage caused by rote learning, where a child can succeed by parroting words he doesn’t understand.

All well and good. The result is that, to be a Pestalozzian teacher, one must learn to present appropriate sense impressions to the child, focus the child’s attention on every detail, and only then start in with the proper naming and defining of the thing. Thus, reading and writing are in some ways the capping activity, to be pursued once the child really understand the thing the words signify. Pestalozzi is very concerned that this process happen in the right sequence and degree appropriate for each child. Each area of learning, in Pestalozzi’s view, had its own appropriate A-B-C waiting to be discovered and made into a ‘science’. He thought his work here incomplete – he has discovered some, and made some progress on others, but at the end of his life did not think the ‘science’ fully fleshed out.

He calls his method ” the organic-genetic elementary method which aims at seeking out and establishing the unchangeable starting points and the unchangeable lines of progress in all instruction and education.” It is an unconditional principle of the method that it cannot put into the child what is not already there in germ. The child is made in God’s image. He is not a tabula rasa on which one may write from without, nor is he an empty barrel which has to be filled with strange matter, but a real, living, self- active power .which from the first moment of its existence is busied with its own development, using the materials presented to it by circumstance to that end.

Quote from Pestalozzi’s Lenzburg Address in Green’s The Educational Ideas of Pestalozzi

And there’s something to this, especially when one considers what it must have been like in the schools of the time, where failure to comply with rote recitals might get a kid whacked with a ruler or worse. If you wanted to destroy a kid’s interest in learning, starting with memorization of things the kid doesn’t understand backed with corporal punishment would seem a pretty good way to do it. (1)

What is more important to Pestalozzi., the most important thing of all, is gaining the trust of the student, of loving each child and selflessly willing his good. The teacher in Pestalozzi’s view is an extension of the child’s family and particularly the child’s mother. He insists that, in the normal course of things, children should learn first and best from their own mothers, then from the larger family, and then, when ready, move on to more formal schooling.

Schooling should always aim to educate the child in a manner appropriate to his concrete situation. The children of laborers, artisans, and the wealthy get different education, appropriate to the life they will be living once their schooling is finished. There should be the possibility of further education to children who show particular promise. Thus, the child of a landowner might get Latin and Greek, while a farm boy usually won’t – unless he shows interest and ability in it.

I have commented before that Pestalozzi’s writings seem to be more a Rorschach test than instructions anyone could follow. He was a notoriously poor writer – Green makes a subtle plea for the readers understanding at one point, stating that, unless one has attempted to claw Pestalozzi’s German into English, one cannot appreciate the challenge. Further, his practice was consistently observed to be at odds with his (often poorly and inconsistently defined) principles. In one example, he lays down the principle that it is damaging to children for them to learn words before they understand what those words signify, then teaches the kids rhymes full of unfamiliar words for the fun of it. That he doesn’t see any contradiction in this is typical; that it baffled those trying to understand him is also a running theme.

Pestalozzi’s message of love and respect for children, his faith in there being one correct and scientific way to do education that merely awaited discovery, and his rejection of all previous methods of instruction made him a hero to the late 18th century Enlightenment crowd. That his most devoted followers would say it took years to understand the method, and then disagreed on what the method was, and that the people who came to study his method generally failed to successfully implement it, testify to, at least, his lack of clarity.

Green himself falls into this trap.

Then came the crushing events of 1806, followed, in the winter of 1807, by Fichte’s stirring Addresses to the German Nation in which the Prussian people were exhorted to seek national regeneration in the education of their children. Although Fichte criticised sharply certain details in Pestalozzi’s theory and practice, taking a general view he urged the Pestalozzian school as the true type.

Pestalozzi praises the family, especially mothers, as the indispensable first teachers of children; Fichte sees the family as the educational problem that his schools will solve. Pestalozzi wants to educate children for the world and situation they find themselves in; Fichte wants to educate children for an upcoming fantasy world which will supplant the current world in its entirety. Pestalozzi teaches children the 3 R’s to equip them for their future lives; Fichte discounts reading and writing as unessential to true education, an afterthought. Pestalozzi’s unspoken but inescapable goal is to equip children to be parts of their own families; Fichte wants unquestioned loyalty to the state to replace the all family loyalty.

Details. (2)

I will do a more detailed write-up of Pestalozzi’s A-B-C approach, which appears to be the heart of his ‘science’ of education at some future point. In reality, what made his schools work was his love of the children. He genuinely cared for their welfare, and sacrificed much to help them. This trumps any method, as long as love can overrule process at any point. This love of children is also how Catholic schools in America also succeeded as much as they did. The teaching sisters understood each student was a beloved child of God, even if they often imperfectly lived and expressed it.

That Pestalozzi was beloved by his students is attested by one of them:

One of the most interesting accounts of the work at Yverdun is that given by Vulliemin in his Souvenirs racontes a ses petits enfants. He entered the school as a pupil at eight years old. “Imagine, children, a very ugly man whose hair stood on end, whose face was deeply pitted with small-pox and covered with red blotches, with a ragged, untrimmed beard, without a necktie, with trousers half unbuttoned, and hanging in folds over stockings that were down over his clumsy shoes. Add to this an unsteady, jerky walk, eyes which sometimes opened wide and blazed with fire, and sometimes were half closed as if given up to inner observation. Think, too, of features which now expressed deep sadness and now the most benign happiness, and of a voice whose utterance was sometimes slow and sometimes quick, sometimes soft and melodious, and sometimes thunderously loud. This is a picture of him whom we called Father Pestalozzi.

“Him, whom I have just described, we loved; we all loved him, for he, too, loved us all. When it happened that we did not see him for a time, we were quite sad, so heartily did we love him; when he appeared again we could not take our eyes away from him.”

This former student mentions the drills in accurate sense-impression analysis in context of a field trip:

For the first elements of geography we were taken into the open air. They began by turning our steps to an out-of-the-way valley near Yverdun, through which the Buron flows. This valley we had to look at as a whole, and in its different parts, until we had a correct and complete impression of it. Then we were told, each one, to dig out a certain quantity of the clay, which was embedded in layers on one side of the valley, and with this we filled large sheets of paper, brought with us for the purpose.”

When we got back to school, we were placed at large tables which were divided up, and each child had to build with the clay, on the spot assigned to him, a model of the valley where we had just made our observations. Then came fresh excursions with more explorations. Thus we continued, until we had worked through the basin of Yverdun, and had observed it as a whole from the heights of Montela which command it entirely, and had made of it a model in relief. Then, and then only, did we turn to the map, which we had only now gained the power of correctly interpreting.”

Sounds charming and fun.

Pestalozzi is also in favor of less school, and, it would seem, less professionalism among those who teach:

My aim all through was to push the simplification of all means of instruction to such a point, that any common man might easily be put in a position to teach his children, thereby making it possible to dispense almost entirely with the need of schools for the first elements. Just as the mother is the child’s first physical nurse, so should he receive his first intellectual nourishment from her, and I look upon the tendency to send children too early to school and to substitute outside artifice for the home in the early education of children as a very serious evil. My experience quite confirmed these views. I am also more than ever convinced that the sooner we unite firmly and psychologically instruction with manual work, the sooner a race will arise which will discover, that what has been hitherto called learning need not take up one tenth part of the time or the energy which it has done in the past. My experience has certainly established two facts which will contribute to this end — first that it is possible to teach a large number of children even of different ages at one and the same time, and second that this large number may in many cases be taught they are engaged in manual work ….

Another departure for Fichte, who wants kids schooled entirely apart from their families for about a decade.

Much more to be thought over here. What needs to be kept in mind is that however poorly articulated and however many times his devotees failed in their attempts to implement them, Pestalozzi’s ideas dominated discussions of education in 19th century Europe and America like no other theorist.

Back to  Rise and Growth of the Normal School Idea in the United States. The Holy Grail of my research has been to discover the origins of the now ubiquitous age-segregated classroom. I suspected it traced back to Pestalozzi or at least to Fichte and von Humboldt. I was wrong. The bulk of the Prussian schools implemented in the 1810s and 1820s seem to be largely indistinguishable from American one-room schools in how they functioned; Pestalozzi himself always had age-mixed groups with plenty of peer-to-peer teaching.

In America, at least, the bane of age-segregated classroom with rigid, child-indifferent curricula seems to trace back to 1853 in Oswego, NY:

The history of the normal school at Oswego, N. Y., constitutes an important chapter not only in the history of the training of teachers, but in the history of the public schools of this country . It originated, indeed, out of the necessities of the public schools of Oswego. In the spring of 1853 these schools were organized and consolidated [‘consolidation’ was the process of eliminating local one-room schools and replacing them with much larger, centrally controlled schools – ed.] under a board of education. Under the new arrangement a mixed system of schools went into operation, and a close classification was soon adopted. So thoroughly was this perfected that each teacher had but a single class of children of nearly the same age and of the same stage of advancement. Every grade had the same daily programme, so that the superintendent could tell at any given hour of the day exactly what exercises were going on in any school in the city. All promotions were made upon the basis of examinations conducted under the direction of the superintendent, who prepared all the questions and marked all the answers on a scale of ten. The standings were published in the annual report.

But as admirable from a management point of view as schools thus structured must be, they left a little something to be desired, at least in the heart of E. A. Sheldon:

But Mr. E. A. Sheldon, who had been elected superintendent of schools in 1853, and who had originated this educational machine, was not satisfied with it. It seemed to him that something was wanted to give it life. As a mere machine, it was, indeed, worthy of all admiration. The definite tasks assigned to each teacher and pupil, each hour in the day, each day in the week, each week in the month, each month in the year, and each year in the course, were performed with praiseworthy exactness. Every rule and every definition was committed to memory with an exactness that defied criticism and applied with wonderful celerity. The system was, indeed, a perfect body, but it was dead, or rather it had never been alive. Words, words, words, were thrown into the hopper and the grist was nothing but words. The children could answer with great readiness all questions relating to what they had learned in their text-books, but outside of their text-books they were helpless. In a word, the system was an excellent machine for transferring the utmost possible amount of text-book information into the minds of the children, but as a means of developing latent powers, of cultivating permanent intellectual interest, of quickening and expanding the whole intellectual life, it was very defective indeed.

Couple of things to note. First, we see here the implementation of total teacher control. The only way to be sure that the students are doing *exactly* as directed is to direct the activities of the teachers with equal rigidity. This is a clear example of the filtering process much discussed on this blog: only people who could embrace such rigid direction need apply. In other words, anyone who had any active sympathy for the children and who wanted to really teach would never make it through the normal school. The second is that schooling any more different than what Pestalozzi practiced could hardly be imagined. The beloved and unpredictable father figure as teacher, leading kids of various ages on one impromptu adventure after another is about as completely incompatible with the ‘machine’ described above as could be imagined.

So, of course, Sheldon brings his machine to life by applying his understanding of Pestalozzian theory. He traveled to Canada, where he met a superintendent who had studied at a school in London that employed one of the teachers Pestalozzi himself trained, as well as the son of another such teacher.

When he returned to Oswego he resolved to thoroughly reconstruct the course of instruction and radically change the methods of teaching in the schools under his supervision. He resolved to begin this reformation at the bottom of the ladder and go up step by step. He accordingly laid out a detailed plan of work for the primary schools based on Pestalozzian principles.

How he went about implementing this new Pestalozzian undersstanding is telling:

The first year after the introduction of the new course of study Mr. Sheldon gave all his time and energy to the introduction of the new methods into the first year or lowest grade of the primary school. He met the teachers of this grade every Saturday, and during the following week he went through the schools of this grade, encouraging and aiding them in carrying out the instructions given the preceding Saturday. The second year he pursued the same plan with the next higher grade.

So, essentially, he kept the machine intact, kept the age-segregated grades and the teachers who had mastered and had experience tending the machine, and attempted, grade by grade, to implement a Pestalozzian approach on top of it.

The earlier one-room schools, structurally at least, were much more consistent with Pestalozzi’s practice than the new age-graded schools which had consolidated them out of existence. You could not but end up with a Frankenstein’s monster of a school, where some understanding of Pestalozzi’s theory is applied as a veneer to a system completely at odds with his practice, where kids are grouped for the convenience of the school and taught the same exact lessons according to an externally -established detailed schedule, by professional teachers trained for such an environment. The kindly and beloved old man encouraging kids to teach each other and taking pains that each child be taught what is appropriate for that particular child – that part, which is the part that might work, is tossed.

And then you run into the problem first expressed by Socrates: that when people are paid to teach what any competent adult knows, they will make the easy hard, and the quickly learned long.

The Oswego approach caught on like wildfire. Sheldon invited other educators to visit and comment, and the reaction was almost universally positive. Sheldon couldn’t keep his own teachers – once he had trained them up, other school districts would hire them away at salaries his own district was unwilling to meet. Thus, via impressed educators and teachers trained in the approach, the idea of a age segregated Machine cranking out educated students began to get the death grip on American education we see today.

Been a while since I posted, there’s a ton more here worth thinking about, but that’ll have to do for now.

  1. The psychologist Alice Miller reports that 19th century German child-rearing books advised fathers to break their children, to set them up to fail and punish them for that failure, in order to teach them to rely entirely on the authority of the father. Sick, but easy to see in the undoubtedly true stereotype of the knuckle-busting teacher.
  2. Reminds of a similar bit of wishful thinking from Fichte’s translator: “Some of the ideas and opinions expressed in the Addresses are obviously false and cannot be accepted, while others are gross exaggerations and require considerable modification. Little comment need be made on Fichte’s conception of the German language as the sole living language), or on his notion of the part that Germany has played and must still play in the process of the salvation of the world. His whole-hearted enthusiasm for things German inclines him at times to regard everything genuinely German as necessarily good, and everything foreign as necessarily bad. It is obvious what evil results would accrue from the logical development of such a conception. He greatly exaggerates the part played by Luther and by Germany in the reformation of the Church ; and it may be that his forecast of some of the good results that would follow upon the adoption of his educational reforms is fantastic and overdrawn. The fact, however, remains that these false and exaggerated ideas are but small blemishes in the work; they are easily explained, if not justified, when we consider the desperate state of the times, the exalted aim of the lecturer, the peculiar difficulty of his task, and his enthusiastic personality. In any case they do not affect to any considerable extent the tremendous influence of the Addresses at the time, and their great importance for the understanding of subsequent periods.