In a Cabin in the Woods (not working on my manifesto – I ain’t even got one!)

Checking in, from beautiful Arnold, CA. (pop 3,288; elevation 3,999′) where the entire family is meeting up. But am working on a few things, as follows.

I’ve been working on the pulp-style space adventure from 28 years ago that I found 50 pages of when packing up to move. ‘Working on’ here means taking pictures with my iPhone, offloading them to my laptop, then using Googledocs’ OCR function to open them up as text. It kind of works! I will need another hour or two to clean up the formatting and obvious mistakes, and still need to find the penultimate chapter that somehow got separated from the other draft chapters and read it in. Still faster than retyping it, for me, anyway.

While the writing is obvious amateur first draft level, I love the ideas. I’ve got Dante in there – one of the bad guys is named Smarrita, as in:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark wood
Where the straight way was lost

And the deal gone bad is with a race I call Selvans – our hero finds himself in a dark spot in the ‘woods’. And so on, I was being cute.

Funny: Brian Niemeier’s Soul Cycle (reviewed beginning here) is all about Dante in Space, and here I was, 28 years ago, writing a very different Dante in Space book. I would be happy to be half as good as Niemeier. Along the same lines, found a short story from back then where the premise is that explorers crash land on an Eden-like planet, only to slowly starve to death, as their bodies can’t break down the available nutrition – a variation on a theme from Michael Flynn’s Eifelheim. I’ve been obsessed with this thought for decades: that the chemistry of LAWKI is so weird and unique, with seemingly arbitrary ‘choices’ among chemicals and stereoisomers, with crazy things life-threatening prions, it would be amazing if encounters with alien life, no matter how superficially benign, didn’t kill us. I would think that the first step toward terraforming would be to nuke the planet from space, just to be sure. This is a theme in several short stories and two novels I’ve started drafting over the last 30 years or so.

Also, is anyone else bothered by the ‘enhanced’ pictures we get from the Hubble, and will no doubt soon get from the Webb? I look, and see nothing; I look, and see nothing even using fantastical modern tech. BUT – I don’t look, let that tech feed its input into spectrographs, computer algorithms, and other fancy stuff, and they produce:

Beautiful, but what is its relationship to reality? I don’t know.

This is also a ‘picture’ of the Pillars:

Also beautiful.

In what sense are either of those pictures real? Certainly, no naked eye look at the Pillars is going to look anything like either of these, even ‘naked’ eye through a powerful telescope. The question becomes: what information do we want to convey? In the old pulp draft, I have passages like these:

The small circular viewports on either side of the module cabin dimmed automatically for a moment, to protect the delicate eyes of the occupants from the brilliant flash of the cruiser disintegrating into plasma and dust. On the front viewer, a computer processed image revealed the details of the explosion, all extraneous light and radiation filtered away. On that screen, the ship neatly vanished into a gradually thinning aura. Neither man was watching,

and

The star cruiser appeared quickly, a sudden point of light, then a highly distorted image of a ship, trailed by a thousand house of mirrors reflections strung back into space-time. Then, just as suddenly, and with no apparent logic, a perfect little star cruiser was visible alone against the field of stars. Despite his predicament, Warner couldn’t help wondering how much of what he just saw was the result of the viewsys’s inadequate attempts to create a sensible image out of unknown inputs, and how much was “really” taking place. The question was nonsense, he reminded himself.

It’s a little bit like MiniTrue: somebody had to decide what is the important information, and arrange to have the ‘unimportant’ information filtered out.

Next, my beloved and I married 35 years ago on May 30; our older daughter married 2 years ago on May 30; our middle son married May 29th last year. Younger daughter married Jan 8 this year – but we let her and her husband come anyway. Joint anniversary celebration. Because 3 of our kids married over an 18 month period, it is now a running joke to remind our 18 year old son that he doesn’t need to get married anytime soon, it’s OK.

We, our 18 year old son, and our older daughter, her husband, and their 7 month old daughter are already here; the others are due in Friday morning and staying through Sunday. A rip-roaring anniversary hoedown! Elder son-in-law found a nice big cabin for us all.

It’s nice to have a family where everyone gets along. Anyway, we had lunch and a walk yesterday at White Pine Lake, a reservoir in Arnold. I walked to the dam and back:

The dam spillway
The creek flowing away from the dam.

And here’s the view from the back porch, where I sit typing this.

Temperature is sensory-deprivation-tank perfect: I was falling asleep earlier, sitting on the back porch, in shorts. Ideal.

Next next, our house is scheduled to hit the market tomorrow, if all things go well., with open houses this weekend. St. Joseph, please pray for us, that the Father may prosper the work of our hands to His glory! Meaning, of course, that we get a good offer soon, and find a good place to buy.

Starting next Tuesday, we will be staying in another very dear furnished rental in Auburn, and spending our time house hunting like mad. Not gonna look at the markets, no siree, not me, not one bit… AAAGH!

Interesting times.

Writing Research: MHI

Reread Larry Correia’s first novel, Monster Hunter International, this time looking for answers to the million dollar question: what does a highly successful first novel look like? What can I, a very modest writer with 1 – count ’em, I mean, it – *1* paid work published in my soon to be 64 years on this earth, learn from it?

A lot, it turns out. *Spoilers ahoy!*

First off, the overall structure is what you’d expect: epic fight scenes tied together with character introductions and character building. The only surprise, perhaps, is the use of visions and flashbacks to fill in the blanks. So the story looks like:

  • Epic Battle
  • Vision
  • Character introductions/development
  • Prep for next epic battle
  • Repeat to finis.

It’s not quite this clean, as many of the visions are broken up into segments by more connecting tissues. Also, what I’m calling here character introductions/development always involves actions that move the story forward – Correia is way too good to put in very much stand alone yakking. But that’s the overall shape. Starts and ends with an epic battle; key characters are introduced and slowly revealed in a very satisfying way.

Many characters are drawn well enough to make you emotionally invested in them – major characters, including the protagonist Owen, his love interest Julie, fellow newbies Trip and especially Holly, as well as any number of minor characters such as the Orcs Skippy and Gretchen, and Agents Franks and Myers, are generally deftly and sympathetically drawn. The Old Man of the visions and many of the other characters are stereotypes but not, generally, in a bad way. In most cases, they are fleshed out enough to make them distinct enough personalities that you grow to like or loath them as appropriate over the course of the story.

A few don’t quite work as well. Earl Harbinger is supposed to be mysterious, which works to his disadvantage as far as making him likeable or sympathetic. It’s more like you know he’s supposed to be likeable and sympathetic rather than those emotional ties developing more organically. Being utterly indestructible without a Lois Lane weakness to offset it also dampens one’s emotional investment. The elves, intended as comic relief, fall flat, unlike the orcs, who quite literally rock. The difference might be that Skippy and Gretchen get fleshed out and have heroic moments, while the elves are simply appalling.

But these are minor quibbles. Most emphatically, the characters work. The battles are all epic and emotionally (if not always logically) satisfying.

Characters are a major strength in this book. It’s almost the anti-Asimov approach: while the old master tried to wow the reader with cool ideas so that they overlooked the cardboard characters and their often numbingly dumb motivations, Correia alternates between blistering action and getting the readers to invest in the characters. The stand out for me was Holly Newcastle. She is fearless, remorseless, irreverent – and a former pole dancer built like a brick house. By the end, it’s impossible not to love her.

As far as the plot goes, stuff done got blowed up good. The conceit – that B-movie monsters are very real, and we’re being kept in the dark about them because people can’t handle the truth – makes for a lot of hilarious banter, and epic battles. That some monsters – some orcs, one lone werewolf, a Wendigo – might be good guys or at least not bad guys, is a nice touch. But in general, the bad guys are cannon fodder, meant not to elicit any sympathy when they meet their generally gruesome demises. Correia goes out of his way to mock the whole sparkly misunderstood vampire thing, which I appreciate.

Correia lavishes attention on the weapons, which was part of the appeal to his original target audience – other gunnies. I had no idea what he was talking about much of the time, and looked up some guns just to get an idea. Evidently, his descriptions of the gunplay is dead on, which, again, appeals to his target audience.

The way the story unfolds is just amazing upon rereading. Even though I’d read it before, I still was kept hanging: each bit of information about what’s going on and who these people really are is, itself, a cliff-hanger. We are left wondering how much more we don’t know after each bit or clue is revealed. Correia is juggling a lot of pieces, and rolls them out just an inch at a time, yet, by the end, we feel satisfied. The twists revealed in the final battle are all set up nicely. Lord Machado is righteously despicable but not incomprehensibly so, and ends up being the dupe. That Owen ends up being the hero of the prophesy made more sense on this rereading, as the clues were all there.

The magical elements are simply used as needed. I’m usually not aa fan of magic, for precisely this reason – it tends to be an easy out. How do we escape from this inescapable situation? It’s MAGIC! Here, it’s used about as well as anywhere this side of Lord of the Rings. Magic is important, as is the nature of the beast, but not overdone. Character reigns supreme.

The only parts that fell a little flat for me were the elves as mentioned above, and the rather loose logic of the last battle. Stuff just kind of happens a lot of the time. Only once was I taken out of the moment, however. Skippy rescues Owen and Julie who are falling to their deaths from – a mountain in a pocket Universe? Just how does one fly a helicopter into such an event? And figure it out fast enough that you’re already up in the air and ready to go when it happens? And you see it happen? In a story full of vampires and zombies, that was the only time I went ‘O, come on!’ – which is pretty impressive, when you think about it.

I don’t know which would be more impressive: plotting all this craziness out in detail before hand, or winging it an yet making it come out in the end. Either way, this is some good work.

So, what are the take-aways? What should I do to increase the chances that my first novel will find some readers?

First off, on the non-novel side, Correia had a ready-made audience for his writings through his involvement with the gunny community. This only worked because he understood what they wanted and gave it to them.

Next, Corriea is a very intelligent guy, extremely well-read. This allows for him to add all sorts of detail. He writes scenes in modern day Alabama, WWII Germany, and ancient Mesoamerica with Conquistadores and native Indian civilizations. It would be easy to lose people with false steps, but, at least for me, he made none. It all seemed real.

On to the writing itself. The strength of the story for me is the characters. It’s almost a fish out of water story, given the fundamental goofiness of the premises. What we have are a group of somewhat normal people from all walks of life who 1) survived being attacked by B-movie monsters; 2) get trained up as commandos; and 3) face constant life-or-death challenges. The key that makes this work is Correia’s convincing portrayal of the Monster Hunters as real people with understandable motivations and emotions. We get why Owen turns out to be a great hunter, why Holly is fierce and fearless, even why Skippy considers Owen royalty, and so on. It’s a trick, and Correia has mastered it.

While loving care is lavished on the fight scenes, and they are great, it’s really in the visions and most especially just the ‘normal’ interactions of the characters that the story is made. The trick of ratcheting up each battle is largely achieved by ratcheting up the emotional stakes. It’s not just more stuff getting blowed up good, or even the ultimate ‘the fate of the Universe hangs in the balance’ battle, it’s the Hunters having believable emotional stakes in the outcome, especially in the survival of their comrades. The characters care about each other through all their flaws, and so we care about them and identify with them. I need to study more how he does this.

Finally, and I’ll need to think about how universally applicable this may or may not be, but Correia rarely lets a page go by without some sort of comedy. His dialogue is often pretty brilliant and very funny.

What I need to try to do:

  • Never let an opportunity to make a character more sympathetic and human pass;
  • Put them in situations that reveal their character without having to talk about it;
  • Go easy on interpersonal interactions that don’t move the story forward at the same time;
  • Write humorous dialogue where appropriate.

And blow stuff up good.

Now For Something Completely Different

A mountain is a strange and awful thing. In old times, without knowing so much of their strangeness and awfulness as we do, people were yet more afraid of mountains. But then somehow they had not come to see how beautiful they are as well as awful, and they hated them—and what people hate they must fear. Now that we have learned to look at them with admiration, perhaps we do not feel quite awe enough of them. To me they are beautiful terrors.

I will try to tell you what they are. They are portions of the heart of the earth that have escaped from the dungeon down below, and rushed up and out. For the heart of the earth is a great wallowing mass, not of blood, as in the hearts of men and animals, but of glowing hot, melted metals and stones. And as our hearts keep us alive, so that great lump of heat keeps the earth alive: it is a huge power of buried sunlight—that is what it is.

Now think: out of that cauldron, where all the bubbles would be as big as the Alps if it could get room for its boiling, certain bubbles have bubbled out and escaped—up and away, and there they stand in the cool, cold sky—mountains. Think of the change, and you will no more wonder that there should be something awful about the very look of a mountain: from the darkness—for where the light has nothing to shine upon, much the same as darkness—from the heat, from the endless tumult of boiling unrest—up, with a sudden heavenward shoot, into the wind, and the cold, and the starshine, and a cloak of snow that lies like ermine above the blue-green mail of the glaciers; and the great sun, their grandfather, up there in the sky; and their little old cold aunt, the moon, that comes wandering about the house at night; and everlasting stillness, except for the wind that turns the rocks and caverns into a roaring organ for the young archangels that are studying how to let out the pent-up praises of their hearts, and the molten music of the streams, rushing ever from the bosoms of the glaciers fresh born.

Think, too, of the change in their own substance—no longer molten and soft, heaving and glowing, but hard and shining and cold. Think of the creatures scampering over and burrowing in it, and the birds building their nests upon it, and the trees growing out of its sides, like hair to clothe it, and the lovely grass in the valleys, and the gracious flowers even at the very edge of its armour of ice, like the rich embroidery of the garment below, and the rivers galloping down the valleys in a tumult of white and green! And along with all these, think of the terrible precipices down which the traveller may fall and be lost, and the frightful gulfs of blue air cracked in the glaciers, and the dark profound lakes, covered like little arctic oceans with floating lumps of ice.

All this outside the mountain! But the inside, who shall tell what lies there? Caverns of awfullest solitude, their walls miles thick, sparkling with ores of gold or silver, copper or iron, tin or mercury, studded perhaps with precious stones—perhaps a brook, with eyeless fish in it, running, running ceaselessly, cold and babbling, through banks crusted with carbuncles and golden topazes, or over a gravel of which some of the stones arc rubies and emeralds, perhaps diamonds and sapphires—who can tell?—and whoever can’t tell is free to think—all waiting to flash, waiting for millions of ages—ever since the earth flew off from the sun, a great blot of fire, and began to cool.

Then there are caverns full of water, numbingly cold, fiercely hot—hotter than any boiling water. From some of these the water cannot get out, and from others it runs in channels as the blood in the body: little veins bring it down from the ice above into the great caverns of the mountain’s heart, whence the arteries let it out again, gushing in pipes and clefts and ducts of all shapes and kinds, through and through its bulk, until it springs newborn to the light, and rushes down the Mountainside in torrents, and down the valleys in rivers—down, down, rejoicing, to the mighty lungs of the world, that is the sea, where it is tossed in storms and cyclones, heaved up in billows, twisted in waterspouts, dashed to mist upon rocks, beaten by millions of tails, and breathed by millions of gills, whence at last, melted into vapour by the sun, it is lifted up pure into the air, and borne by the servant winds back to the mountaintops and the snow, the solid ice, and the molten stream.

Well, when the heart of the earth has thus come rushing up among her children, bringing with it gifts of all that she possesses, then straightway into it rush her children to see what they can find there. With pickaxe and spade and crowbar, with boring chisel and blasting powder, they force their way back: is it to search for what toys they may have left in their long-forgotten nurseries? Hence the mountains that lift their heads into the clear air, and are dotted over with the dwellings of men, are tunnelled and bored in the darkness of their bosoms by the dwellers in the houses which they hold up to the sun and air.

The Princess and Curdie, George MacDonald, CH 1

The list of writer who admired MacDonald is nearly coextensive with the (non-sci fi) writers of English since 1900 that I admire. The Oracle Wikipedia lists, among others, Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, Robert E. Howard, L. Frank Baum, T.H. White, Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Madeleine L’Engle. Who am I to argue with that?

Yes, I’m still among the living. Both a nasty flu and the Coof have blown through my family and circle of friends over the last three weeks – some of the sicker people testing negativo on the Kung Flu, and, of course, once anyone tests positive they stop looking for anything else, so who knows? One, the other, or both, or something else? Nevertheless, while almost everybody was over whatever it was inside a week, a couple of the older or less healthy people did get hit pretty hard. So we’ve been busy, and doing the only thing among all the demanded steps and measures that makes any sense: staying away from other people when you’re not feeling well. We’re mostly OK, but it lingers.

And I’m supposed to be packing up to move. Sheesh.

Did take this opportunity to read few books. Will review as time permits.

Old Guy’s Books

This is how it always works for me:

  1. Son and lovely daughter-in-law are in from Denver for little sis’s wedding, and, heroically, have offered to do all the reception food (they both have much experience in the food service industry; we have a nice, big kitchen). So the kitchen has been taken over;
  2. I have my computer and books for the history class I’m teaching on the kitchen table. So I need to put them back on my bedroom office desk.
  3. The bedroom office desk and the floor around it were filled with books and papers – I’m using it as the staging area for packing up the bedroom. And, frankly, I’ve just been piling up all the education history and some of the sci-fi I’m supposed to be reading. The idea is to pack up the books I’m unlikely to need for at least the next 3-4 months and stick them in the front of the garage until we get the Pods to stick them in.
  4. The front of the garage is full of largely undifferentiated ‘stuff’ the largest single component of which is – books. 20+ boxes of books that we’ve never unpacked since (at least) 16 years ago when we had to pack up for the remodel.
  5. These boxes have been rifled through repeatedly as kids went to school, looking for copies of the Classics, of which we have at least 2 copies, one from my collection and one from the spousal unit’s collection from when we both studied Great Books.
  6. These boxes of rifled through books were no longer tape sealed and, having had some books pulled from many of them, had sort of collapsed, the upper ones crushing the empty space out of the lower ones. So I can’t just throw more boxes of book on top, without risking further collapse and damage.
  7. Rats. Yep, they’re enough space under the door for rats to have gotten into the front part of the garage. Nothing too recent-looking, but – rats, and the messes and shredding that entails. Icky.

Sooooo – in order to clear my desk so that I can work, I needed, as the essential beginning of a series of steps, to clean up and repack 20+ largish boxes of books so that they were sturdy enough to stack yet MORE boxes of books on top, THEN pack up some books and papers in my bedroom and move them into the garage.

Now, I’m a piker as a reader – I read, but every since we’ve had kids, if I get more than 2 books read in a month, that’s a lot for me. But that adds up over time, and, when I was younger, I read more. Wife is the same. And then there’s the dozens of books I’ve bought that I’ve yet to read for my education history obsession… Inside the house, just counting the ground floor, there are at least a dozen full size bookcases packed with the books we have unpacked. Every one of 4 bedroom upstairs has at least a bookcase full. So, those 20 or so boxes in the garage represent a minority of our books.

AND and – of course, I’ve got to look at some of the books and papers… I found, for example, a collection of letters to the editors I wrote from 1989; funny (at least to me) memos and projects from work from the same period. Evidently, I would draft up what I wanted to say, file it, then do the boring actual writing the bosses wanted. You work in Insurance, you do what must.

On the plus side, found a couple books I’d been missing, in the sense that I couldn’t lay my hands on them when last I looked in the amount of time I was willing to devote to the task:

The Barnard bio is the short one I was looking for when I found the much longer one I did read; the Lafferty I wanted for some quotations for my students. Both were right where they were supposed to be, but somehow I didn’t see them until I started pulling and reorganizing books…

The Great Pack Up and Move has now begun in earnest. This New Year, I also need to crack a book when i get up in the morning, rather than wasting an hour or two surfing the net. Otherwise, I really won’t live long enough to read all this stuff.

On Staying Sane

Or, rather, sane-ish. One must work with what one has, after all.

Like many people, I suppose, reading myself to sleep was one thing I did obsessively for many years. I started from about age 12, and kept it up until to age 29, when I got married. From then until our first child arrived 4 years later, I kept it up, but noit like when I was younger. Then, once there were babies – 4 in 6 years – getting sleep trumped reading, so I did little, if any, until the kids were putting themselves to bed. Then – I hardly think I’m unique here – your body insists on trying to catch up a little. THEN, we had the Caboose, born 6 years after his next older sister, so start it all over just about when we’d recovered.

That’s 18 to 20 years, right there, during which I wasn’t getting much if any bedtime reading in. Aaaand – having a house full of kids meant, for me at least, not getting a ton of reading in during the day, either.

Finally, a couple years ago, I got back in the grove. Now, I typically have one or two daytime books going, and one or two bedtime books I’m working on. Did you know there are simply too many books worth reading for any one person to read them all? It’s true! And that’s before all the good books I want to reread.

Now to the sane part. I’m kinda slow on the uptake, usually. I had been reading, or trying to read, some of the more heavy (or at least more boring) education history stuff in bed. This is not calming, and requires too much attention to understand. Such reading also tends to rile up the blood. A few months back, therefore, I switched to rereading books I love. This is why you’re seeing a lot of Lewis and Chesterton quotations here recently. Those are two smart dudes, but, more important today, are two sane dudes. Reading them reminds me that not everyone is insane – a sometimes difficult truth to hang on to.

For example:

Akin to these is the false theory of progress, which maintains that we alter the test instead of trying to pass the test. We often hear it said, for instance, “What is right in one age is wrong in another.” This is quite reasonable, if it means that there is a fixed aim, and that certain methods attain at certain times and not at other times. If women, say, desire to be elegant, it may be that they are improved at one time by growing fatter and at another time by growing thinner. But you cannot say that they are improved by ceasing to wish to be elegant and beginning to wish to be oblong. If the standard changes, how can there be improvement, which implies a standard? Nietzsche started a nonsensical idea that men had once sought as good what we now call evil; if it were so, we could not talk of surpassing or even falling short of them. How can you overtake Jones if you walk in the other direction? You cannot discuss whether one people has succeeded more in being miserable than another succeeded in being happy. It would be like discussing whether Milton was more puritanical than a pig is fat.

The main point here, however, is that this idea of a fundamental alteration in the standard is one of the things that make thought about the past or future simply impossible. The theory of a complete change of standards in human history does not merely deprive us of the pleasure of honouring our fathers; it deprives us even of the more modern and aristocratic pleasure of despising them.

To sum up our contention so far, we may say that the most characteristic current philosophies have not only a touch of mania, but a touch of suicidal mania. The mere questioner has knocked his head against the limits of human thought; and cracked it. This is what makes so futile the warnings of the orthodox and the boasts of the advanced about the dangerous boyhood of free thought. What we are looking at is not the boyhood of free thought; it is the old age and ultimate dissolution of free thought. It is vain for bishops and pious bigwigs to discuss what dreadful things will happen if wild scepticism runs its course. It has run its course. It is vain for eloquent atheists to talk of the great truths that will be revealed if once we see free thought begin. We have seen it end. It has no more questions to ask; it has questioned itself. You cannot call up any wilder vision than a city in which men ask themselves if they have any selves. You cannot fancy a more sceptical world than that in which men doubt if there is a world. It might certainly have reached its bankruptcy more quickly and cleanly if it had not been feebly hampered by the application of indefensible laws of blasphemy or by the absurd pretence that modern England is Christian. But it would have reached the bankruptcy anyhow. Militant atheists are still unjustly persecuted; but rather because they are an old minority than because they are a new one. Free thought has exhausted its own freedom. It is weary of its own success. If any eager freethinker now hails philosophic freedom as the dawn, he is only like the man in Mark Twain who came out wrapped in blankets to see the sun rise and was just in time to see it set. If any frightened curate still says that it will be awful if the darkness of free thought should spread, we can only answer him in the high and powerful words of Mr. Belloc, “Do not, I beseech you, be troubled about the increase of forces already in dissolution. You have mistaken the hour of the night: it is already morning.” We have no more questions left to ask. We have looked for questions in the darkest corners and on the wildest peaks. We have found all the questions that can be found. It is time we gave up looking for questions and began looking for answers.

Orthodoxy, CH III

Year-End Update (a little early)

A. First of all, gratitude to all the readers of this blog. Not sure why the beloved 100 readers (on a very good day) come back for more, but thanks. Just know that you’re only encouraging me.

The writing here has come out even more unfocused than my original intent, which was pretty broad. “Culture. Religion. Politics. Science. Philosophy.  Music. Art.” was the original charter 11 years ago. We do do that here, but also a lot of Home Improvement Projects and blithering about the books I intend to write. Which brings us to:

B: The ‘I should write a book about that’ books I’ve worked on here on the blog, ones where I might be qualified to have an opinion, are:

  • A book on the origins of the Catholic schools here in America, and how they have arrived at their current sorry (with very few exceptions) state
  • A more general book about the origins of schooling in America, circa roughly 1700 – 1940. An expose of the clowns and poseurs involved, and the paper-thin fantasy world that constitutes the foundation of all modern ‘scientific’ education.
  • The How to Think About Science book.

Starting with the last one first: as the Crazy Years progress, it’s painfully clear that ignorance of how science works is so far downstream from the real problems as to be all but irrelevant. The best case scenario, where someone reads my book, reexamines his world view, and changes how he thinks about things – sigh. Not happening in the real world.

And it’s not even the rejection of logic, which you have to have at least some grasp of in order to begin to understand how science works. Underlying both logic and the science is the notion that the world makes sense. That the world IS. Our well-schooled contemporaries specifically reject the very idea of shared objective reality in favor of a world willed into being by their own narcissistic selves. That any such world is definitionally inconsistent, and conflicts necessarily with anyone else’s similarly constructed world is not a problem for the dedicated narcissist. That they hold both to the sacredness of people’s self-constructed reality AND bow and scrap before the altar of social and political conformity isn’t a problem – they never expected the world to make sense. It’s Will all the way down.

When my teeth are set on edge by patently anti-science claims of ‘settled science’ and ‘scientific consensus’ or people doing as they are told claiming they are ‘following the science’ which they haven’t read and wouldn’t understand if they did, I imagined the problem was the general lack of scientific literacy, and thought I might be able to help a little by writing a book about basic science.

Silly me.

Therefore, I’ve reconsidered the point of this proposed book, why I would write it and who it is for. I’m reading Kreeft’s Socratic Logic now, and perhaps will write this book as a sort of follow-on with a focus on the specific application of Aristotelian logic used by modern science, insofar as it has any legitimate claim to our acceptance of its conclusions.

So, basically, a high-school level book. (Kreeft’s book is also supposed to be a high school level book, but it’s pretty tough. He, an expert, isn’t leaving much out, and there’s just a lot of logic that’s not obvious or simple. Good, but tough.)

Time frame: Once we’re moved and settled.

The other two books I get bugged by my kids to complete. They’ve heard some of the points I make about schooling from the cradle, and have found them to be true in the world. They’d like there to be a book (or two) summarizing these things. These works have been in the works for years now. It is time.

Time frame: Once we’re moved and settled. I’ve recommenced reading source materials. as evidenced by the last post.

#magnus pyke from Old School Science Fiction

C. Then there are the fun books I’m supposedly writing. Well, I set a goal for this past June for the first of several speculative fiction books I hope to write, and got thousands and thousands of words into them…

But I didn’t finish. May 2021 was when the insanity finally began to get me down. It started taking work to just get on with it, whatever ‘it’ happened to be at the moment. As it became clear I wasn’t going to get any of the spec fic done by June, I got distracted by a musical composition. Why? I have no idea. Writing music and writing stories really are very similar: you get an idea, you pound it into some sort of shape, you write the next part and the next part and so on, sometimes skipping ahead to more fun/clearer ideas, and then backtracking to write the connecting scenes. Then read it out loud/play or sing it, rewrite as needed, then get other people to read/listen, and take their feedback…

And I’ve gotten maybe 5 minutes of a 6-part Gloria written, with a minute or so more to write, plus outlines/sections for a Kyrie and Agnus, and a idea or two for the Sanctus. Haven’t even thought about a Credo yet.

Why I found it possible to write music and not possible to write fiction is anybody’s guess.

Time frame: I’ll keep working on the Mass while we pack up and prep the house; the books I’ll take up again once we’re moved and settled.

D. We gotta get out of this place. We had the house tented a month ago; getting quotes for painters. Spoke with the Pods people, looking to start loading out in January.

Yesterday, picked up 10 bags of ready mix; today used 8 of them to put in what I intend to be the last segment of the vast, endless front yard home improvement brick project. Scaled it well down from the original plans – no grotto, less fancy brickwork. Sigh. Need it simply not to look ugly and unfinished. So, simple wall topped by some redwood lattice.

Aaaaand – a million other things need to be done. Not to mention the final pack what’s left up and get out of Dodge push in a couple months. Then finding a new place to live….

E. In a somewhat round-about way, I’m looking for a job, specifically, seeing if a new Chesterton Academy that is to open near where I’d like to live might hire me to corrupt the minds of our youth, after the fashion of Socrates and Aristotle. And quote a lot of Chesterton. It would be nice to teach, and have a little income.

F. All in all, I’m very grateful, and have gotten past letting myself get too down about the current insanity. For the most part. I used to pray in thanksgiving for getting to live in a land of plenty in a time of peace. Now? I pray that God will remember His promise of mercy, and, for the sake of His Name, for the sake of the Blood shed by His Son, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, He will not judge us as our sins deserve, but rather forgive us yet again. That He will send Mary, who crushes the head of the serpent, Joseph, the terror of demons, and Michael the Archangel to lead the heavenly host down to cast Satan and his minion out of our lives, our nation, and our world, bind them and cast them back into Hell where they belong. Then, that He may grant us the strength to endure whatever we must and the grace to die to ourselves and live only for His Will.

Otherwise, who can stand?

Have a happy and holy Thanksgiving!

Reading in Education History So You Don’t Have To: 2 Books – an 1870 Report & a Bio of Barnard

Just received this book:

Very preliminary thoughts, I’ve just started reading this. ULAN Press prints public domain books as reasonably nice paperbacks, including, as here, things of so little general interest I doubt they sold 1,000 copies. This book cover goes all “…” right before naming the year of this report – but then below shows 1890. OK – 1890, the 3rd year of the long reign of William Torrey Harris as US Commissioner of Education, smack in the middle of the peak turmoil among Catholics, who wanted a) very, very much to be accepted as Americans, and b) not to have their kids indoctrinated in anti-Catholic beliefs in the public schools. Thousands of parish schools were built during this period, anathemas were (unofficially) leveled against those Catholics who could send their kids to parish schools and didn’t – while Bishop Ireland was giving speeches before the National Education Association on how Catholics needed to go to public schools, expressing, I imagine, the views of sophisticated Catholic Americans, who found their more vehement coreligionists more than a little embarrassing…

So I ponied up to get this 579 page Report, thinking it would provide invaluable background materials for that crucial period, then eagerly crack it open to discover:

Um… That’s not what I wanted. Typo? Just what happens when people are printing small runs of low-margin, nearly unsellable books? I was disappointed.

Upon reflection, I decided to keep and read it. Education history from right after the Civil War up to about 1880 I don’t know much about, yet. The first wave of passion for state funded compulsory schools hit America in the 1820s and 30s, when American young men returned from Prussia after seeing Fichte’s ideas as realized by von Humboldt in the public schools there.

(One thing I need to investigate: how much time, if any, did these slumming scions of ambitious Americans spend in actual Prussian schoolrooms, versus how much time they spent hearing about how wonderful they were at Prussian universities? The contemporary French politician Victor Cousins begins his glowing and haranguing report of the Prussian schools by saying that he meant to spend some months investigating these institutions but ended up only having a couple weeks to look into them – yet he promptly writes hundreds of influential pages on the experience, which are promptly translated into English in America, where they are again very influential. Allowing for early 19th century travel times, how much time, really, could Cousins have spent in real classrooms? Any? Upon such slender fantasies are our educational edifices built.)

The influx of Irish immigrants in the 1840s and 50s as a result of the Great Famine flamed the Know-Nothings and helped make the idea of forcing kids into public schools more popular. Pre-war tensions and the War Between the States absorbed attention for the next decade and a half, and, in its aftermath, Northern educationists flooded the South and set up schools. Any local opposition could be ignored.

Where the trees have fallen, the weeds grow. What had been some fairly strong opposition to the notion of state-controlled mandatory schooling in the first half of the 1800s seems to have disappeared in the enthusiasms and chaos of the post war years – again, I don’t really know yet, but it seems to be true. Except in Catholic circles, where the obvious Protestant and anti-Catholic biases in the public schools and among their supporters inspired Catholics to found their own schools.

So let’s dig in to some background to this report:

Founded in March 2, 1867, the US Department of Education was first headed up by Henry Barnard, a man who spent exactly 3 unhappy months as a teacher at the age of 20 – and yet, after Mann, is the most influential ‘educationist’ of the period. I’m not expecting much from Wikipedia, but note the rather vague assumption of a life spent improving things in Barnard’s bio, without any concrete examples. A lot of “reorganized and reformed,” and “founded” stuff, not a lot of anything that clearly made life better for anyone:

Henry Barnard was born in Hartford, Connecticut on January 24, 1811. He attended Wilbraham & Monson Academy and graduated from Yale University in 1830. In 1835, he was admitted to the Connecticut bar. In 1837–1839, he was a member of the Connecticut House of Representatives, effecting in 1838 the passage of a bill, drafted and introduced by himself, which provided for “the better supervision of the common schools”, and established a board of “commissioners of common schools” in the state. He was the secretary of the board from 1838 until its abolition in 1842, and during this time worked indefatigably to reorganize and reform the common school system of the state, thus earning a national reputation as an educational reformer.

In 1843, he was appointed by the governor of Rhode Island agent to examine the public schools of the state, and recommended improvements; and his work resulted in the reorganization of the school system two years later. From 1845 to 1849, he was the first commissioner of public schools in the state, and his administration was marked by a decided step in educational progress. In 1845, Barnard established the first “Rhode Island Teachers Institute” at Smithville Seminary.

Returning to Connecticut, from 1851 to 1855, he was “superintendent of common schools”, and principal of the Connecticut State Normal School at New Britain, Connecticut.

In 1852, Barnard was offered the newly created position of President of the University of Michigan, but he declined. From 1859 to 1860, he was chancellor of the University of Wisconsin–Madison and agent of the board of regents of the normal school fund; in 1866 he was president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland; and from 1867 to 1870 he was the first United States Commissioner of Education, and in this position he laid the foundation for the subsequent work of the Bureau of Education.

Barnard’s chief service to the cause of education, however, was rendered as the editor, from 1855 to 1881, of the American Journal of Education, the thirty-one volumes of which are a veritable encyclopedia of education, one of the most valuable compendiums of information on the subject ever brought together through the agency of any one man. He also edited from 1838 to 1842, and again from 1851 to 1854, the Connecticut Common School Journal, and from 1846 to 1849 the Journal of the Rhode Island Institute of Instruction.

Servant of the Mouth of Sauron. Yes, for one year, he was President of my alma mater. Imagine.

Compare and contrast: his Italian contemporary John Bosco (1815 -1888) founded schools where thousands upon thousands of orphaned and abandoned boys were taken in, fed, clothed, and housed, given a first-rate education, and help finding apprenticeships and jobs. Hundreds of testimonials survive from the men who were taken in by Don Bosco. Then, inspired by the great saint, hundreds of other such homes/schools were founded around the world. Thousands of men and women dedicated themselves to his cause. Hundreds of Bosco schools are still around (even if the modern versions are but faint shadows of their founder’s passion – a high bar, it must be granted).

So – where are the testimonials for Barnard? Maybe in here?

Dude had a righteous beard. One fun thing to do: look for writings by former students praising their primary schooling. You can find some for Bosco and indeed for many one room schools. Paeans to PS 145 or Woodrow Wilson High School are – unknown. Be true to your school, just like you would to your girl!

Reading the Wikipedia bio caused me to grab off my shelf this more detailed bio. I think I also picked up a shorter one, too, but I didn’t see it in the 30 seconds I devoted to looking. So, let’s see, skimming this biography:

  • Son of a sea captain in Hartford
  • Graduated from Yale at 20
  • Described as “Fastidious and slightly snobbish.”
  • Taught school – for 3 months. That’s it for classroom experience for his entire life. He didn’t like it and wasn’t good at it.
  • Spun his wheels for a couple years, dabbling in politics, law, and intellectual pursuits
  • Toured D.C. and the nearby South
  • Admitted to the Connecticut bar at the age of 23
  • Went to Europe. Unlike his contemporaries, merely as a tourist on daddy’s dime. (Barnard comments in passing that it would be good if the immigration of the ‘bellicose” Irish to America could be stopped.)
  • Had enough money that he never really needed to work.
  • Elected to the Connecticut legislature in 1837, age 26

As a legislator:

He secured passage of a bill creating a board of commissioners to supervise the state’s faltering common schools, was appointed to the board, and in 1838 became its executive secretary.

Barnard, who found the schools poorly maintained and attended, wanted public education “good enough for the best and cheap enough for the poorest.” He believed that thorough moral training in the common schools was the surest safeguard of the community’s happiness. An intensive campaign featuring public meetings and teachers’ institutes, the creation of the Connecticut Common School Journal, which he edited, and a series of annual reports describing school conditions and suggesting remedies yielded legislation reorganizing the schools. But in 1842 a hostile assembly disbanded the board as “a useless expense.”

Your Dictionary Biography

Note:

  • “Moral training” – What are we to think of a Yale man who answers the eternal question “can virtue be taught” with a quick “yes” and presents himself as just the man to do it? We all need to get over the idea that public schooling was created to educate in any merely intellectual sense. The movement has always had at its core the idea that the state should empower “good” people to intervene to make sure everybody turns out correctly moral. The idea that such a thing as moral education cannot except accidentally happen through schooling seems never to have occurred to these folks.
  • “A useless expense” – An example of the antebellum opposition to state education initiatives. Of course, these hard-headed Yankees are the bad guys in this story, frustrating the pure and holy goals of the educationists. It’s way past time to ask if they were not, in fact, on to something. Barnard, so far in my light skim of this biography, comes off as a prissy elitist who was afraid to make enemies and retreated to writing whenever the going got tough – he lasted 3 months as a teacher, 9 months as President of St. John’s College, less than three years as US Commissioner of Education, throwing out ideas and giving speeches – but decades as editor and publisher of the American Journal of Education.

Barnard was succeeded as US Commissioner of Education by John Eaton (1829-1906), who held the office from 1870 to 1886. He was the man responsible for the Report with which this essay began. Another fascinating character, who later went on to become prominent in the

Eaton was educated at the Thetford Academy, which claims 7 prominent educators among its early graduates. The Academy was founded to fulfill a clause of the Vermont Constitution calling for the establishment of free secondary schools – 26 years after that constitution became law. Again, note the educational enthusiasm of the leadership seems to exceed the interests of the people.

The regulations require the students to regard all the proprieties of a sober, industrious and enlightened religious community. The teachers aim not to teach a sectarian creed, but to inculcate the great principles of morality and religion.”

Thetford Academy Website

I quote the above to illustrate something striking about early 18th century America that may be hard to grasp for us moderns: it was so close to possible to pretend that all the serious early American religious groups – Puritans/Presbyterians and their traditional enemies, the Episcopalians, as well as the spin offs such as Baptists, Methodists, Quakers, and Unitarians – agreed on morality that people generally did pretend it. Lewis’s concept of ‘Mere Christianity’ is the final expression of this fantasy.

This idea of essential agreement on a biblically-based morality, so close to true at least early on, was part of the foundation of the education of our future educationists. Once reality kicks in, and one sees that real people often disagree vehemently on what constitutes good morals, the options are to start another war on the heretics, or to jettison all areas of moral disagreement from the set of essential morals upon which we all agree.

America has embraced the power of ‘and’. The Civil War, Prohibition, and the current woke attempts to exterminate the unwashed are the wars; we’ve ‘compromised’ on morality to the point where buggering children is a lifestyle choice.

Barnard, when he toured Europe, commendably developed a taste for good wine. Would Eaton approve? Barnard’s father plied the New England-Caribbean trade routes, where American goods were typically paid for in rum produced by slaves on sugar plantations. The rum was then sold to Americans.. Well? Everybody cool with that? Our immunity to cognitive dissonance is nothing new, it’s just reached a new apex.

Eaton was an ordained Presbyterian minister and educationist, who entered the war as a Union chaplain and rose to brevet brigadier general for his work among the black freemen, work he continued until discharged from the army. He was a big part of the educational carpet bagging after the war, where New Englanders descended upon the South to found schools. In addition to his decade and a half as the US Commissioner of Education, he acted as President of several colleges including one in Alaska, and inspector of schools in Puerto Rico. He seems to have been very effective building up the education bureaucracy in DC and writing reports.

Busy man. Later in life, Eaton also was President of the American Society of Religious Education. A bit of digging around on the web reveals little about this society at the time Eaton would have been involved in it, except that the goal was to have biblical morality taught in the schools. Perhaps the passionate push for state controlled compulsory schooling would be best seen as yet another sect sprung from the 2nd Great Awakening.

The Second Great Awakening led to a period of antebellum social reform and an emphasis on salvation by institutions.

New religious movements emerged during the Second Great Awakening, such as AdventismDispensationalism, and the Latter Day Saint movement.

Wikipedia, of all things

I mean, check it out, just using Wikipedia’s three examples of new religious movements above: Adventism is the belief that the Christ is coming very soon; Dispensationalism believes the next (or perhaps current) dispensation is the 1,000 year reign of Christ, and that “each age of God’s plan is thus administered in a certain way, and humanity is held responsible as a steward during that time.” Later-Day Saints believe God may grant new, Scripture-level revelations at any time – that His plan can be spelled out anew in, for example, the previously unknown Book of Mormon. The fervor of the 19th century public school advocates is not only based on an understanding of Divine Will, but also the assumption that, with the right people as stewards, a perfect world can be brought into being right now. That God requires compulsory state-run schools is simply a new revelation. (1)

It would be hard to overemphasize the 19th century’s infatuation with progress and perfectibility. In such a state of mind, evils, even or especially the intractable evils that were historically classed under ‘man’s fallen nature’ were intolerable, and must be fixed at once. Many Americans were convinced that every wrong was not only within their power to right, but that the righting of all wrongs was a sacred duty. Like the woke today, and Prohibitionists of a century ago, arguing that human beings just aren’t like that merely infuriates them. The Abolitionists really were willing to burn the entire world down, if that’s what it took to end slavery. Arguments advanced by the more moderate factions, that slavery could be brought to an end over time without the horror of total war on the South and all the death and destruction that would entail, were the arguments of heretics. Those people down south were sinning, and we needed to fix it now. Mine eyes have seen the glory….

Similarly, the many were not sufficiently moral, as defined by, first of all, New England Puritans like Eaton and Barnard, and later by ministers of the other mainline and new Protestant sects. Therefore, it becomes ‘our’ duty to fix it, STAT! Never mind that the intractable ignorance, weakness of will, and inclination toward evil of us people is more a feature than a bug. Never mind that there was and remains precious little evidence that morality is something that can be imparted via compulsory graded classroom schooling. Never mind that the early 19th century was almost as heavily infested with drawing room revolutionaries challenging traditional morality as any time up to the 1950s. Nope, there is an undefined (but definitely not Catholic!) morality that needs to be beat into little heads! And we’re just the people to do it!

So now I’m several thousand words into this post, and haven’t even gotten to the book it is putatively about. More later….

  1. Wed or transfer this religious fervor to Hegelianism, and – oh, boy.

Two Odd Books: Pilgrim’s Progress & the Iron Chamber of Memory

Keeping with the pattern of switching back and forth between the Current Insanity and Anything Else, let’s discuss two books I just happen to have read at the same time.

Here.

The above definitions are somewhat useful. What one wants to be able to say is when something is not an allegory – the essence of a definition. With the broadest stroke of the definitions above, one can possibly say that the work under consideration is not symbolic, and, therefore, not an allegory.

(Sorry for the digression here. I thought I knew what allegory is, but then made the mistake of thinking about it, looking it up, and now have to sort through it. The interwebs are indeed fields of rabbit holes.)

Made the mistake – woe is me! – of visiting the Oracle Wikipedia, and thus fell into a cesspool of woke:

As a literary device or artistic form, an allegory is a narrative or visual representation in which a character, place, or event can be interpreted to represent a hidden meaning with moral or political significance. Authors have used allegory throughout history in all forms of art to illustrate or convey complex ideas and concepts in ways that are comprehensible or striking to its viewers, readers, or listeners.

People way too big for their britches

One little phrase removes all usefulness from this thing: “…can be interpreted to represent…” Thus, any possibility of saying what is or is not allegory is banished, in favor of everything being an allegory if it merely can be interpreted to represent something else, a feat any college sophomore can perform with ease on absolutely anything. Cafeteria food in an allegory for control exerted on the masses by structural oppression. I’m oppressed by the paucity of avocado on my toast …. And so on. (1)

Then, since logical consistency is a social construct of an oppressive white patriarchy and thus must be violated, we shift the grounds back to the intentions of the author, by which we mean ‘artist’ – there I go with that consistency thing again! – thus contradicting the original ‘definition’, which is based on the interpretation of the consumer of art: “Authors have used allegory throughout history in all forms of art to illustrate or convey complex ideas and concepts in ways that are comprehensible or striking to its viewers, readers, or listeners.”

Now we possibly need a college junior to explain how this contradiction is suspended but not resolved in a synthesis, but I haven’t had breakfast yet, so we’ll stop. Suffice it to say: if allegory is something the reader or viewer reads into something, then there’s no definition possible – no one can say what is and is not allegory, or rather, everything is allegory.

Back in the real world, we’re not completely freed from this muddiness even if we look to the author’s intent. Often, authors don’t express their intent; often they will say that there’s more to their works than what they, themselves consciously put there – maybe the work is allegorical even if that’s not what they were thinking at the time. But at least in some cases, we can say: Pilgrim’s Progress and Animal Farm are allegories. Those two stories were intended by their authors as allegories, and are really not open to any other, contradictory, interpretation. The character of Christian IS any Christian pilgrim; the pigs ARE the Russian Communist leadership. There’s practically no story if they’re not.

Unfortunately, at least from a tidiness point of view, few books fall this neatly into or out of this category. Is Dante’s Inferno allegorical? Of course! Is is completely allegorical, like Pilgrims Progress or Animal Farm? No. There are real characters throughout who are meant primarily as themselves, and only secondarily as stand-ins for the sinners as a class. Paolo and Frencesca are two real people, not just illustrations or symbols. Christian and the pigs have little if any personality apart from their symbolism.

Then there is the concept of a natural symbol, where its symbolic content fundamentally rests in the nature of the thing. Sometimes, symbol versus sign is used, with symbol having a connection by nature to the thing symbolized, while signs are merely conventional. Unfortunately, English does not really support that distinction, in that people have long used both those terms for both those concepts without distinction. Too bad.

The classic example: red, the color of fire and blood, symbolizes those things and things related to them by nature; a stop sign is conventional – there’s nothing about red hexagon that means ‘stop’ by nature (we had to write ‘STOP’ on it to get the message across initially), but red is the right color (or among the right colors) for a sign that needs to grab people’s attention in order to function. A lovely sky-blue stop sign would seem wrong, and not just by convention.

Allegory will be stronger the more it employs natural symbols rather than signs whose meaning is not connected to the thing it is a sign of by anything other than convention. Paolo and Francesca are blown about against their wills, which wills they had surrendered to their passions. Leaves in the wind is a good natural symbol for that situation….

Sigh. All this wandering around just to talk about two short books.

I found myself reading Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan’s 1678 Christian allegory, because it was mentioned on John C. Wright’s blog and I realized I’d never read it. Wright stated that it is probably the only allegory out there that can be read on its artistic merits. We’re not talking about the use of real, flesh-and-blood characters (or, at least, characters written so that we might imagine them real) to represent, more or less consciously on the part of the author, ideas or social problems or what have you. Rather, Pilgrim’s Progress characters have names that ARE their characters: Christian, Faithful, Hopeful, Little-faith, Ignorance, Worldly Wiseman, and so on. There’s very little to even the main characters beyond what you might guess from their names.

Bunyan was a Puritan preacher who spent a good chunk of his adult life in jail for refusing to stop preaching Puritanism. 17th century England oscillated between the established church tolerating ‘heretics’ and throwing them in jail or worse. Bunyan’s life straddled a couple of these peaks and troughs. He is assumed to have began writing Pilgrim’s Progress during one his extended stays in prison. It became an instant classic, translated into over 200 languages and hardly being out of print since.

Buyan’s skill is in how he uses his various allegorical figures and places to illustrate his Puritan theology. He sees this story in a series of dreams: A Christian, a husband and father, is visited by Evangelist, who warns him to leave his home town, City of Destruction, and pilgrimage to the Celestial City carrying a heavy burden on his back. His family thinks him crazy, so he leaves them.

The rest of the story concerns Christian’s journey to the Celestial City, the places he visits or avoids, how he is tempted and aided, who he meets along the way, the fates of those whom he meets (spoiler: his companion Faithful is martyred – this is good, in context, the greatest good in fact; Hopeful completes the journey with Christian, while Little-faith, a character in a story within a story within a dream, eventually makes it. Ignorance fairs less well.)

Conclusion: it is a good story to read, both for a Christian and for anyone who wants insight into how Puritans think. In some ways, the person treated most harshly in the book is Ignorance. He comes off worse than many of the active sinners and tempters, with more pages spent having Hopeful and Christian harangue him than are spent on any other single topic. We look back to Bunyan to understand this: he is a Puritan preacher, hell fire and brimstone style. His enemy is Ignorance, meaning people who do not understand or who reject the central themes of Calvinism. The damned are the damned – you give converting them a shot, then move on. But the Ignorant, those who travel the same path you are travelling but are doing it WRONG – they are the real challenge.

In Bunyan’s dream, Ignorance shows up at the Pearly Gates all alone. He knocks, and – it is not opened unto him. Rather, the agents of the King ask to see his papers – scroll, certificate – proving he is among the elect. When he fails to produce them, he is bound by two angels and cast into Hell. So a guy who left everything, followed the path, rejected or escaped from temptation, and saw his journey to Heaven through, is damned because he DID IT WRONG!

Despite all its protestations to the contrary, Calvinist Puritanism remains as legalistic an expression of Christianity and anyone could hope to find.

Ignorance is an annoying character, so sure that if his heart doesn’t trouble him, he has not erred. He is confident that, since he left everything, went on the pilgrimage, and did the required good works along the way, that he is going to be admitted to Heaven. Hopeful and Christian go after him hammer and tongs, because he is not embracing his utter depravity and relying entirely on the completely unearned and undeserved Grace of God as expressed in Jesus. Ignorance repeatedly says he does not understand what they mean by that idea. He loves Jesus, and follows His commandments – isn’t that enough?

A Catholic Pilgrim’s Progress would be Dante’s Divine Comedy. But say a lesser Catholic poet tried his hand at doing the allegory Bunyan-style: first, Sacraments and Saints would be essential characters, accompanying the pilgrims on their way. Major time would be given to those church officials who have failed in their callings – you know, all the bad popes and clerics that populate Dante’s Hell – and the damage they do and their unpleasant eternal fates, how to identify and avoid them, how to honor the offices without succumbing to the evil of the office holders. There would be Good Pastor and Bad Pastor, Patron Saint and False Saint. The Cloud of Witnesses would include all those people by whom God, as secondary causes and in order to have His glory reflected by creatures made in His image, passed the Faith all the way down to Christian.

But mostly, there would be Purgatory. Ignorance would knock, and the doors would be opened, and he would finally SEE. In that moment of searing clarity, all the errors of his ignorance, all his pride and foolishness, would be clear to him – and he, himself, of his own will, would seek to hide from the Face of God. Yet God, in his infinite mercy and love, would not cast out one who had tried, who made the effort however badly, and who has endured the journey. Thus, to the singing of choirs of angels rejoicing that another soul had been saved, Ignorance would be carried to the foot of the mountain of Purgatory, to be purified of his pride.

I gave a one-paragraph review of John C. Wright’s Iron Chamber of Memory when I first read it back in 2016, and mentioned I’d do a full review of it later.

It seems now is later.

This review will be abstract, as spoilers would be a terrible thing. You just need to read this book. It begins as a tale of unrequited, and unrequitable, love: the girl our hero loves is engaged to marry his best friend, and his sense of honor makes doing anything to frustrate those plans unthinkable. Yet, the two of them keep bumping into each other alone, without her fiancé, even so far as meeting up at the manor house on the Isle of Sark, which said fiancé has recently inherited. Through a hundred little nudges and coincidences, they end up at the door of a particular room within the manor house, and…

Stuff happens. Increasingly insane stuff, stuff that starts out uncanny and moves on from there, until – really crazy stuff happens. A story that starts out as a tragic romance, a love triangle between two best friends and the woman they both love, ends up involving a number of saints and mythical creature.

And I’m afraid I must leave it at that. The setting for the story – the very real Isle of Sark – is, in real life, about as romantic and epic a place as exists on the planet. A little island off the coast of France, the last feudal fief in Europe, pirates, caves, foot paths with 300′ drops on either side, Nazi conquest and resistance, ancient farms, ancient families, the world’s only Dark Sky island – awesome.

As for the allegory bit that I started writing about – well, it spoils it pretty intensely. So, I recommend reading the book before reading this little bit, because the plot twists, if you can call them that, are epic, and this will ruin it.

You’ve been warned.

Sark.

In the final chapters, it is revealed that the Rose or Red Room is only the first enchanted layer of memory, that there are several nested rooms. When deep enough in, enough memory is restored, that Hal Landfall, the main protagonist, is revealed to be Henwas Lanval, a Knight of the Round Table who had been seduced by the sea fairy Tryamour; Laurel du Lac is the fairy Lorelei, who aimed to seduce and destroy Hal, Manfred is a monk and magician named Mandragora. Depending on whether each character is in or out of a chamber of memory, and on which chamber of memory each is in, they “know” who they are very differently.

So the question naturally arises: What is real? What is really going on? The soul of Manfred, in the innermost chamber of all, speaks of dreams, of how everything we see in this life is shadows and confusion, we have forgotten who we are. Only the saved soul sees the long line of triumph back through to Adam, of souls that have done well and who still do well. Henry really is a great knight fighting a great battle. He just thinks, in his forgetfulness, that he is a student working on a Master’s thesis. He is part of a great army protecting what is really important.

Is something in there an allegory? Is the whole story? I tend to think it doesn’t matter. What is different: Wright’s characters are people first, warts and wings and all; Bunyan’s are allegories first, and only accidentally people, if they are people at all.

  1. Oops – not an allegory – it’s the literal truth that the paucity of avocado on my toast IS the me being oppressed by the avocado -hoarding patriarchy. If I understand the approach correctly.

Education History Book Review: Shield’s Making and Unmaking of a Dullard

Thomas Shields (1862-1921), a priest and doctor of psychology at Catholic University of America, wrote his Making and Unmaking of a Dullard in 1909. Although written in the form of a dialogue taking place at weekly dinner parties over the course of months, it is universally considered his autobiography. As a dialogue, it is a resounding failure: no one besides the author comes off any deeper than a cardboard cutout, nor contributes much of anything except leading questions that simply interrupt the flow of Shields’s story.

Archive.org is wonderful

This book reinforces an impression long held: the central figures in American education history are, almost without exception, unimaginative mediocrities. Horace Mann or William Torey Harris would, I imagine, bore one to tears ov er a beer, if they every did something so common; Shields comes off as precisely the sort of academic Silence Dogood or Mark Twain would have a field day with. The one exception, whose native brilliance sometimes shines through his prose, is, alas, a force for evil. John Dewey is a sharp dude, and a horror. Other intelligent men, like Brownson and Hecker, merely wrote about education without being crowned as ‘educationists’. And they have their own issues.

Back to Shields. Here is the list of participants in the dialogue, with as much as I can glean about their personalities and roles:

  • Mr. O’Brien – the host?
  • Mrs. O’Brien – The O’Briens make obvious statements or ask obvious questions
  • Miss Russell/Miss Ruth – model teacher in the Lee School; “eminently qualified to enlighten us on the characteristic features of the modem school- room.” She provides the latest news on education trends.
  • Judge Russell – her father? A judge, who also had a horrible experience in school but overcame it to become a judge. A gruff, elderly voice. O’Brien announces at the beginning that Judge Russell will need to keep the peace between the next two characters.
  • Dr. Studevan – Shields
  • Professor Shannon – Shields’s adversary, I guess. He provides the current wisdom, and reads articles from magazines. Maybe the Simplicio of the scene?

Bottom line: except for the O’Briens, each of these characters delivers a brief monologue or two early in the festivities, makes a few remarks, then, essentially, disappears half-way through. I never once wondered what the Judge or Shannon was going to say about anything – they, and all the characters, are, effectively, furniture.

One fascinating thing: complaints made about the schools in 1909 sound oddly modern. For example, Shannon quotes at length from G. Stanley Hall: *

“Many of the boys, especially in the upper classes of the high schools, are so out-numbered that they are practically in a girls’ school, taught by women at just that age when vigorous male control and example are more needed than at any other time of life. The natural exuberance of the boy is often toned down, but if he is to be well virified later, ought he not in the middle teens, and later, to be so boisterous at times as to be rather unfit for constant companionship with girls ? Is there not something wrong with the high school boy who can truly be called a perfect gentleman, or whose conduct and character conform to the ideals of the average unmarried female teacher? Boys need a different discipline, moral regimen, atmosphere, and method of work. Under female influence certainly — as, alas, too often under that of the male teacher — form now always tends to take precedence over content. The boy revolts at much method with meager matter, craves utility and application. Too often, when the very germs of his manhood are burgeoning, all these instincts are denied, and he is compelled to learn the stated lessons which every one else in the country is learning at his age, to work all day with girls.”

“the February number of Munsey’s

I think this is meant to be a dig at Shields, as he was (I think – have to look through the notes) a major proponent of women teachers, which would mesh with the weird otherwise content-free adversarial relationship between Shannon and Shields. Also, it’s worth remembering that American ‘educationists’ had only recently managed to sell the idea of high school for everyone. 15 or 20 years earlier, few would be talking about high school age boys not getting enough exposure to manly-men in school, because teen age boys weren’t in school for the most part.

Back to Shields. His laboriously-told story is that, at the age of 9, his teacher judged him unfit for any academic pursuits, labeled him ‘Studevan’s omadhaun’ (an Irish term meaning fool) and sent him home to work on the farm. Shields’s says that he had learned how to read and perform the multiplication tables, but had merely been advanced too far – he couldn’t quite manage the 3rd Reader, had been humiliated and terrified into a silence he could not overcome. Thus, from age 9 to 16, interrupted briefly at age 13 by another failed attempt at school, he stayed home and worked on the farm. He forgot almost all the math and reading he had learned, and accepted the judgement of his teacher and family: he was simply a dullard, incapable of any intellectual achievement.

As he entered his 16th year, a slowly-developing sense that he wasn’t so dumb after all accelerated. Farm work left a lot of time for thought, and he tried to figure out the various measures used on the farm, and the working of the farm equipment. Finally, he became obsessed with building a stump-puller based on his understanding of how levers and pulleys worked, secretly modified an abandoned machine to that end, snuck it out to the fields when his family was at Mass – and yanked up some stumps.

Now convinced that he could at least become a mechanic, he began to pursue knowledge, recovering his ability to read, and, I suppose, the rest is history. At least, this is where the story ends.

Early in the story, the interlocutors discuss how the dullard – by which they seem to mean any child uninterested or incapable of doing as they are told – is the bane of all teachers. Miss Russell and Professor Shannon read or recite statistics and stories illustrating the appalling frequency of dullards – half of NYC kids, for example, were, in modern terms, not performing to grade level. Shannon generously points out that a huge percentage of those kids are immigrant children trying to learn English at the same time they are trying to keep up in school, but allows that, even so, there a lot of idiots out there.

Finally, the create something of a taxonomy of dullards. They identify 7 ways a kid can become an idiot:

  • heredity,
  • disease,
  • environment,
  • malnutrition,
  • defective senses,
  • fright,
  • alternating phases of physical and mental development

I don’t know anyone who would argue that the first 6 causes are not real, and, in the story, no one disputes them. Note here that Shields creates a single class – dullards – into which he puts all kids who are not cooperative or responsive in school. The nearsighted and hard of hearing are classed with the bored and violent, and the truly mentally deficient, and so on. But Shields is not interested in the first 6 causes because they do not apply to him, and so they are not developed at all. Instead, we focus on his pet theory: that kids alternate phases of physical and mental development, and that trying to get a kid to learn when he’s in a phase of physical development is futile and injurious. Pardon the long quotation, part of which I’ve already quoted in my earlier preliminary review – here is Shields explanation of his theory:

“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. The quality and quantity of every secretion, as well as body temperature, respiration, and the circulation of the blood, depend upon appropriate nerve currents. And not only this, but the nutrition and growth of every organ and gland, of every cell in the body, are dependent upon the same source. A broken bone, for instance, if it be deprived of its proper nerve supply, will never heal.

“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.

“If the pupils are at this time entrusted to incompetent teachers the discouragement into which they fall is likely to degenerate into permanent dullness from which they make no further effort to escape. And thus it happens that precocious children are seldom heard from in after life. I am quite convinced, however, that when the precociousness is not due to inherited or acquired disease this result may be prevented by competent teachers. But in the present condition of our schools the chances of permanent success are much better where the physical development of the child is in the ascendant during the early years of school life. Here the danger to health from over stimulation is avoided and when at last the processes of physical development begin to slow up, if the discouragement is not too deep, mental life may awaken to a new vigor.

“Either extreme, however, is difficult to manage and may prove dangerous in the hands of incompetent or careless teachers. A balance between the two processes of development is the safest and may be considered the condition of typical children. The development of these children should accordingly determine the work of the grade and their condition should form the ideal towards which the teacher should constantly strive to lead the developmental processes in the atypical children.”

CHAPTER V – Alternating Phases of Physical and Mental Development

Recall that Shields is a professor of psychology at Catholic University of America, under Fr. Edward Pace, founder of the Psychology department at that school, and a student of Wilhelm Wundt. To quote Wikipedia:

A survey published in American Psychologist in 1991 ranked Wundt’s reputation as first for “all-time eminence” based on ratings provided by 29 American historians of psychology. William James and Sigmund Freud were ranked a distant second and third.[6]

So the ‘scientific’ stylings of Shields are by no means some outlier – he’s but one step removed from the greatest psychologist of his age. It would be straightforward, if a bit time-consuming and tedious, to, you know, *test* those theories of his, after the manner of actual scientists, plenty of whom were contemporaneously extant. But psychologists prefer insight, after the manner of Hegel and Marx – you just *know* what’s what, because you’ve thought about it at and you’re just so smart and enlightened. Rather than examining those perplexing outliers – guys like me, who have always been among the largest and quickest children in any classroom I’ve ever been in – indeed, rather than setting up any sort of systematic approach to examining his assumptions, Shields just runs with it. He concludes – and keep in mind, he is among the most influential ‘educationists’ in American history – teachers need to retard the progress of – dumb down – the smart kids in order to save them from the all but inevitable sickness, death, or at least invalidism, that will inevitably result from letting them study what they want.

The key aspects here:

  • Highly trained teachers are essential
  • Constant monitoring of students is essential
  • Any error in technique can have devastating consequences
  • Graded classrooms are essential
  • The average student’s learning capacity (within a graded classroom) is the standard to which all students will be held.
  • Exceeding that standard is as bad or worse than falling beneath it
  • All of the above are Science!(tm)

How about, just for kicks, another set of conclusions from the same data Shields presents?

  • Schooling from age 9 to 16 is unnecessary – Shields got none, and he became an elite professor at an elite university
  • Better to grow up on a farm and do useful work than go to school.
  • If you skip 7 years of schooling, you can catch up in a matter of months.

Shields does have Shannon Simplicio point much of this out, only so that he can mock him and (very unconvincingly) shoot it down.

It is from men like Shields and thinking like this that modern schooling has been built.

Next up: F. V. N. Painter’s Luther on education; including a historical introduction, and a translation of the reformer’s two most important educational treatises (1889). About half-way through. All I can say: if you want to understand why Catholics wanted nothing to do with public schools, Mr. Painter will explain it to you.

* Hall is another 19th – early 20th century psychologist, the usual mixture of eugenics fanatic and ‘educationist’. Then as now, psychology, perhaps even more than other academic fields, attracts nuts and mediocrities who, enabled by education and certification, are then hellbent on telling saner, happier people how to live.

Heinlein Find

Somebody is cleaning up the corner house 4 houses down. The old man who lives there has hardly stepped outside – at least, I haven’t seen him – in 20 years. We never got to know him. Common suburban tragedy.

Whoever is cleaning up – I’ve never seen this person, either – keeps putting items out on the lawn under a ‘free’ sign. Things that seem too good to throw away yet few sane people would want. We’ve even picked up a few items, priming the pump for our own kids future cleanup efforts. Sigh.

BUT:

My wife walked by this morning and saw these – and snatched them up!

So my neighbor, living a couple hundred feet away, who I never go to know, seems to have been a science fiction fan, especially of Heinlein. This stack has a couple Arthur C. Clarks, one Bradbury, and one forlorn Steinbeck, but is otherwise all Heinlein. I can make all kinds of excuses, especially how busy we were with raising kids and running a school, but, in the end, I should have tried to get to know this person.

I’ve read maybe 6-8 of these already, but the pile includes a couple works off John C. Wright’s Essential Sci-Fi Library list that I have not yet read. Woohoo!

I assume the man died, or had to move to a home. Now, I’m going to keep an eye out for whoever is putting stuff out on the curb, and make a way too late effort to find out something about him.