Hegel, Michael Pollen, and gardening with children – what it means to feel at home

The German philosopher Hegel wrote about Heimatlichkeit, the sense of being at home, as a way of knowing. Europeans had taken this concept from the Greeks, who also believed that knowledge was a sort of feeling comfortable with one’s situation. It was the goal of parenting and citizenship in the ancient world to raise children who could feel in their bones what it meant to be Greek, to know they belonged in their city-state.

In contrast, someone feels alienated when nothing in their environment makes sense to them. The worst punishment in the ancient world was to be expelled from the community by the exact same forces that helped give someone a sense of home. To live in exile and lose one’s sense of home was worse than execution. If you have ever lived abroad, you likely know that homesickness can feel like physical torture.

I think about Heimatlichkeit a lot these days. Many people look at elements of our society, feel acutely alienated by them, and develop a passionate longing to return to a time where they felt at home in the world. That’s not really a story about change being difficult, so much as a falling away from the constellations of beliefs and practices that have real meaning to us. Civilizations can navigate and endure all kinds of disruptive events if they feel like they are defending a home. (It was the Heimatlichkeit of Americans and Europeans that took down Hitler as much as bombs.) But there’s no political vocabulary that offers an effective substitute for Heimatlichkeit.

The ideal held up by self-proclaimed elites nowadays is a sort of un-Heimatlichkeit. They talk incessantly about being a “citizen of the world.” That’s a nonsensical phrase. No person can feel at home everywhere, unless their own life is a vacuum. A hipster from Los Angeles may feel like he is a “citizen” of Europe because he went backpacking and toured some art museums, but that’s not a sense of real belonging. You only get to this perspective by diminishing the place where you originally belonged. And that’s exactly what they want you to do.

I think I can say confidently that I have very little in common with the author Michael Pollan now. But I used to. This is someone who used to grok Heimatlichkeit.

When he became a popular proponent of organic agriculture and clean eating, I read several of his books. I’m not sure I gleaned anything spectacular from them, mostly because I already agreed with those principles. I was buying locally-sourced, organic foods before they were easy to obtain and I never put pesticides on my own gardens or lawn. Not from any sense of moral superiority, but because these things are a way to be happier. In fact, one of the things I loathe the most about living in suburbs is the amount of poison people dump into the ground for no other reason than they are too lazy to pull weeds. (Again, where is your sense of home?) It’s a struggle for me not to point this out to my neighbors when they ask me how I achieve such massive blooms each year. The answer is simple: I respect that soil is a living thing and I don’t try to murder it. Really kind of simple, if you think about it.

But my agreement with Pollan pretty much stops with soil. I could never follow him daily because his progressive politics is eyeroll-inducing to me, and don’t even get me started on how he’s become an advocate for legalizing psychedelics. Whatever good he has done in reforming the food industry he’s cancelled out with the harm he’s helping inflict upon the social fabric of great American cities.

All that said, I have been reading his book Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education and I am enjoying it immensely. It’s a reminder of how much I liked Pollan’s early writings.

Pollan takes a David Copperfield approach to talking about gardening in the book. That is, he starts with what are literally his first memories of “working” in a garden. In his case, that was climbing behind the lilac and forsythia branches in his parents’ suburban yard as a preschooler. You can appreciate how a child perceives scale from his description of his first “garden,” under those towering shoots of blooms. There he would spit out watermelon seeds, and then triumphantly one day realized a watermelon plant was growing out there. He had made that happen, there in the margins ignored by the adult world. He picked the melon and ran with it to tell his mother, but the melon went splat on the back porch, since it was being hauled by a young child with little agility. As you can imagine, tears were involved. (I wanted to tell him that I have shed real tears over plants as an adult.)

The first serious gardener he knew was his grandfather, one of the first real estate developers on Long Island and thus a very wealthy man. His grandfather had a professional gardener to assist him in keeping decorative trees and flowers, but his own domain was a half-acre vegetable garden. His grandfather maintained his gardens with military precision, waking up to hoe his vegetable garden every day and not letting a single weed survive in his beds.

The man could afford any luxury, but he lived in the dirt. His wealth came from the dirt and that’s what he put his wealth back into.

You are left with the impression that this is why he lived well into his 90s. He was a passionate man with a passionate sense of home. He had a reason to wake up each day because of it. Even when he moved to a condo in his last years, he had a container garden on the patio to tend.

His memories of his grandfather’s immaculate gardens stood in sharp contrast to his own father’s refusal even to mow the lawn of their suburban plot, much to the humiliation of his wife and children. His father became persona non grata in their neighborhood, and when the neighbors finally confronted him about the fact that his grass was so high that it had gone to seed, he responded by getting out his lawnmower and carving his initials into their suburban meadow. Pollan says it was a “fuck you” to their neighbors, but I think it was as much a “fuck you” to his wife and kids. Fuck you having a sense of home.

In reading that, I felt like I understood Pollan’s own behavior as an adult better. Imagine the pathology of growing up with someone who doesn’t want to make things beautiful for their family. Who cares so little about their home that they will go out of their way to manufacture outsider status for their children. His kid likes ingesting toxic mushrooms, you say? That’s just depressing. But at least he had his grandfather, who thought like a good Greek citizen and modeled it for the kids whether they were wholly receptive of it or not. Pollan did not grow up entirely without an aesthetic, which would have been tragic.

The more I read about Pollan’s accounts, the more I started to think about how I garden with our daughter and the significance of the memories we are creating. How she will probably remember even the smallest details about being out in the garden with me because gardening is such a big part of my own identity. This is what her mother loved to do and this is how she acted while she was doing it. This was how we made a home and it was important.

From Pollan:

In both our eyes [his and his grandfather’s], this was a landscape full of meaning, one that answered to wishes and somehow spoke in human language….

One of the things childhood is is a process of learning about the various paths that lead out of nature and into culture, and the garden contains many of these. I can’t imagine a wilderness that would have had as much to say to me as Grandpa’s garden did: the floral scents that intimated something about the ways of ladies as well as flowers, the peach tree that made legible the idea of fruit and seed, the vegetables that had so much to say about the getting of food and money, and the summer lawns that could not have better expressed the hospitality of nature to human habituation.

He recounts how, as a teenager, he proudly built his own garden on an especially small plot of land. His parents, after the lawn incident, moved into a new, more posh neighborhood with the intention of having their yard professionally maintained, as his father was entirely too lazy and uninterested in being outside to push a lawnmower back and forth or dig a hole for something beautiful.

They would only concede a corner of the yard that was completely out of sight for their son to plant vegetables. He was older, but still working along the margins of the adult world.

Pollan did many right things in setting up his garden. He ordered quality soil and organic materials. But he planted the vegetables in a jumble to maximize his small space. They were mixed together as they could fit, and were not in his grandfather’s neat rows. And he was certainly less religious than his grandfather in weeding.

He was rewarded for his efforts, however, with bushels of vegetables. He considered the garden a great success and convinced his grandfather to come see it. Of course, all his grandfather saw was a mess that reflected his hippie grandson. To him, the fact that his grandson could not maintain a simple vegetable garden with any sense of order mirrored a wasted generation of young people who weren’t going to be good for anything. And he let young Pollan have it. That was the end of Pollan maintaining a garden for a long time. Pollan got his driver’s license and spent as much time away from home as he could. You can’t work on your gardening skills if you are never at home.

Gardening with children can be really frustrating, especially if you have a talent for gardening yourself. Gardeners are hypnotized by order, even the ones with strategically messy cottage gardens. Their calendar revolves around the first frost and the last frost-free day. Full sun and shade. Flat and sloped. They plant according to what will not shock plants, which can seem like some unintelligible primitive ritual to the uninitiated. They can look at the plants and tell you what specific elements are keeping the soil from perfection. Gardening is about management and control.

Children, on the other hand, learn about boundaries by testing them. This applies both to what they can and cannot do to make things grow and how far they can go before exhausting all of your patience. Working with them can seem like deliberately introducing chaos into the order you’ve worked so hard to obtain. And the stakes can be high. Have you ever set a kid to work planting bulbs only to realize they’ve planted 50 tulips upside down? Trust me, it’s time to give up and fix a martini at that point. The plants will do their own job and find the Sun.

The only way to get past all of this is to multiply the time you spend with your children. Much like education, you have to introduce children to order gently and over time. You aren’t going to have much success dictating to your child how things must be. They will learn from your example and from their own successes and failures that if they want to create something beautiful themselves, they have to work deliberately.

You are helping them build an aesthetic. You are helping them understand what belongs, and a big part of that is helping them understand that they belong.

Chick-lit authors pile on a college student who dissed content at a junior high reading level

I don’t know if this story should restore my faith in humanity or nuke it altogether.

An article was published in the local newspaper for Aberdeen, South Dakota (population 28,388) about the Common Read program at Northern State University, a small regional school (enrollment 3,622).

It was something of a human interest story, praising what sounds like a pretty cool program:

The first Common Read book at Northern State University — “The Routes of Man” by Ted Conover — was picked because of a budget and a phone call.

“So I Googled speakers’ reps, and I found a guy and I called him and I said, ‘Who’s your best person for $3,500?’” said Erin Fouberg, professor of geography and director of the honors program. “And he said, ‘Absolutely, hands down Ted Conover.’”

The next couple of books were picked by Fouberg and Jim Smith, president at the time, she said, often with budget in mind.

But as the program has grown and evolved, the books are selected by committee — a committee that anyone can be on, Fouberg said …

At first, the only students required to read the book were Fouberg’s freshman honors students, but it eventually became required reading for all first-year students once freshman seminar was moved from a one-credit class to a two, she said. But it also grew to a campus-wide event, and quickly beyond.

In 2013, the selection was “The Glass Castle” by Jeanette Walls, which was also a popular book club book, Fouberg said.

“People who were in book clubs saw that she was coming to speak, and they showed up, and they have just trusted us ever since,” Fouberg said. “I’ll get stopped in Kessler’s as soon as March and people will be asking, ‘What’s the book?’

They started off with a small group of students reading a book together and talking to the author. People loved the book discussion so much that the program was extended to everyone on campus and then members of the community started joining in as well.

That sounds amazing, right? They have the whole city now reading the same book and getting together to discuss it. Maybe literacy isn’t dead after all.

The article goes on to explain the various motivations students at the university had for joining the committee that selects the books. Remember that this a committee that anyone can be on. Anyone.

One former student said she joined the committee to improve the caliber of books being selected. It would seem some wanted a young adult book to be the common read. She thought pop fiction written for teenage girls was not appropriate for an adult academic environment. They ended up reading Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, a nonfiction book about wrongful convictions, instead of Sarah Dressen, who writes books with 8th graders as the target audience. And they had the opportunity to speak to a man who experienced being wrongly convicted.

During her junior year, Brooke Nelson said she fought hard against a Sarah Dessen book being selected.

“She’s fine for teen girls,” the 2017 Northern graduate said. “But definitely not up to the level of Common Read. So I became involved simply so I could stop them from ever choosing Sarah Dessen.”

That was the year they ended up picking “Just Mercy,” by Bryan Stevenson.

“It was incredible, so that became the book I supported,” Nelson said, who majored in English and is now working on a master’s degree in Florida. “That’s how I sort-of inadvertently joined the Common Read Committee.”

That was Katie Olson’s favorite Common Read book.

“Not only was it an extremely moving book that spoke about the injustice that can occur within our justice system through the stories of real people, but personally meeting and hearing from one of the individuals we read about was an especially powerful experience,” wrote the senior art education major.

The subject of the book, Anthony Ray Hinton, rather than the author, came to speak that year, Fouberg said.

Now, you might not think the suggestion that college students should be reading books at an adult reading level would be controversial. Sure, if you are in the university’s School of Education, you should be reading young adult books as a study of how to teach them to young people. But that’s not what we are talking about here.

I’m not sure how this became a larger news story than Aberdeen local news, except perhaps that the young adult lit author Sarah Dressen probably Googles herself every day and lost her mind when she discovered that people in flyover country think she writes unserious stuff.

Dressen summoned a posse of chick lit authors on Twitter, including Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult to rant, rant, and rant some more about how a young female English major is oppressing them and suffocating the voices of teenage girls everywhere. They made sure to talk about her directly, to shame her for expressing an opinion and invite their followers to join in the harassment, which from the looks of their feeds is pretty much what these female authors do on social media all day long. Apparently it is lost on the chick lit crowd that we are talking about a college and not junior high school here. (And, honestly, I would hope junior high kids are reading books like To Kill A Mockingbird instead of the bubble gum drivel any of them write.)

I want to talk about this. Not only does it suck because @sarahdessen is one of the loveliest women you’ll ever meet, and because she has been a guiding force into the love or reading for thousands of kids including my own…but because this implies something more sinister. /1 https://t.co/JLnVgN90MO— Jodi Picoult (@jodipicoult) November 13, 2019

This suggests stories about young women matter less. That they are not as worthy or literary as those about anything but young women. That their concerns and hopes and fears are secondary or frivolous. This kind of thinking is what leads to gender discrimination in publishing/2— Jodi Picoult (@jodipicoult) November 13, 2019

It’s why there are more shows on Broadway with male leads than female ones. It’s why there aren’t many female directors. Even though the majority of book buyers and ticket buyers are women./3— Jodi Picoult (@jodipicoult) November 13, 2019

Got that? If you are a young woman who thinks reading about criminal justice reform is more important than chick lit written at a junior high school reading level, you are doing the work of the patriarchy. Your actions are sinister. You are the reason why there are more male actors than female actresses on Broadway. (Not sure what Broadway has to do with a book club in South Dakota, but okay.) It’s like I always say, if you want to be CEO of a Fortune 500 company, you need to read beach romances so you can talk competently about the needs and aspirations of women.

I don’t read chick lit, never have, but I had no idea that chick lit authors were so mental. I’m starting to get the sense that it’s a prerequisite for the genre, however.

A middle school teacher chimed in, again apparently oblivious that we are talking about college students here, to let everyone know that chick lit is the most circulated content at their school library and the coed critic is probably just jealous the author. In case you wanted another reason to feel sorry for kids in junior high.

I’m a recently retired middle school librarian(and teacher)and Sarah’s books were among the highest circulated books in our library ALWAYS…she was and IS an important voice in YA literature. I personally loved each of her books…any negativity must be jealousy pure and simple.— Bookchick 53 (@JuliaBo53) November 13, 2019

Author Jennifer Weiner thinks this is a #MeToo moment, because not reading young adult books is obviously like rape:

And I will piggyback in what Jodi said, with a reminder: when we tell teenage girls that their stories matter less — or not at all — there are real-world consequences. https://t.co/WlYoALXW9H #MeToo https://t.co/stYfTJd0qZ— Jennifer Weiner (@jenniferweiner) November 13, 2019

You’ll note that she’s upset that teenage girl drama is not being taken as seriously as a black man being being sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit. The struggle is real, y’all.

And then there was this, which Weiner seems to have deleted, perhaps when someone pointed out to her that anyone can serve on the committee, no one is turned away:

Weiner even went to the news article to comment, saying that it was sad the college student had “internalized misogyny to the extent that she can see nothing of worth in books beloved by ‘teen girls.'”

If I were the young woman being mentioned, I’d take some screen shots of these comments for my C.V. Getting dog-piled by people like this should be worth something. Cheers to college students who have standards for what the kind of books they want to consume.

Hiking through swamps

Wetlands are some of my favorite places to walk. There is so much wildlife to observe and diverse flora. You can walk for several miles and it doesn’t feel far at all.

I love how different coastal wetlands are from swamps too. We have the coastal wetlands of the Intracoastal Waterway in our neighborhood, which are almost always full of luxurious, transcendent light and the cool relief of the tradewinds. No matter what kind of mood you are in when you show up, you will feel brighter by the end.

The swamps, however, are the opposite. The swamps are dark and brooding. Everything in them is wet, and you will be too when you are done walking. Even your underwear will be wet. Water hangs in the area, like some backwards cloud that starts in the earth instead of the sky. You can hear creatures moving around you, but you can’t see them and you are sort of thankful for your ignorance. It feels dangerous to be there. I grew up thinking of swamps as ugly things, but now I think they are quite beautiful and good for the imagination.

These are pictures from the Graham Swamp Conservation Area in our town. The freshwater swamp itself covers about 3,000 acres of land that is part of the Bulow Creek floodplain. I wrote about hiking to the ruins of the Bulow plantation, which was torched by Seminoles, here.

To love a swamp, however, is to love what is muted and marginal, what exists in the shadows, what shoulders its way out of mud and scurries along the damp edges of what is most commonly praised. And sometimes its invisibility is a blessing. Swamps and bogs are places of transition and wild growth, breeding grounds, experimental labs where organisms and ideas have the luxury of being out of the spotlight, where the imagination can mutate and mate, send tendrils into and out of the water.

Barbara Hurd, Stirring the Mud: On Swamps, Bogs, and Human Imagination

There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.

Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing

Though I imagine we’re killing ourselves right now in all manner of ways that’ll seem insane to people in the future. And as doors to the next world go, a bog ain’t a bad choice. It’s not quite water and it’s not quite land – it’s an in-between place.

Ransom Riggs, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

My most memorable hikes can be classified as ‘Shortcuts that Backfired’.

Edward Abbey, The Journey Home: Some Words in Defense of the American West

(This is quite true of our relationship to Graham Swamp. We once walked over eight miles in the swamp because we thought we were taking a short cut back to the main road. We ended up finding a lake instead.)

I passed so many vacant acres and looked past them to so many more vacant acres and looked ahead and behind at the empty road and up at the empty sky; the sheer bigness of the world made me feel lonely to the bone. The world is so huge that people are always getting lost in it. There are too many ideas and things and people, too many directions to go. I was starting to believe that the reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size. It makes the world seem not huge and empty but full of possibility. If I had been an orchid hunter I wouldn’t have seen this space as sad-making and vacant – I think I would have seen it as acres of opportunity where the things I loved were waiting to be found.

….

There is a deep stillness in the Fakahatchee, but there is not a moment of physical peace. Something is always brushing against you or lapping at you or snagging at you or tangling in your legs, and the sun is always pummeling your skin, and the wetness in the air makes your hair coil like a phone cord. You never smell plain air in a swamp – you smell the tang of mud and the sourness of rotting leaves and the cool musk of new leaves and the perfumes of a million different flowers floating by, each distinct but transparent, like soap bubbles. The biggest number in the universe would not be big enough to count the things your eyes see. Every inch of land holds up a thatch of tall grass or a bush or a tree, and every bush or tree is girdled with another plant’s roots, and every root is topped with a flower or a fern or a swollen bulb, and every one of those flowers and ferns is the pivot around which a world of bees and gnats and spiders and dragonflies revolve. The sounds you hear are twigs cracking underfoot and branches whistling past you and leaves murmuring and leaves slopping over the trunks of old dead trees and every imaginable and unimaginable insect noise and every kind of bird peep and screech and tootle, and then all those unclaimed sounds of something moving in a hurry, something low to the ground and heavy, maybe the size of a horse in the shape of a lizard, or maybe the size, shape and essential character of a snake. In the swamp you feel as if someone had plugged all of your senses into a light socket. A swamp is logy and slow-moving about at the same time highly overstimulating. Even in the dim, sultry places deep within it, it is easy to stay awake.

Susan Orlean, The Orchid Thief

On the history of American hiking

Theodore Roosevelt hiking with John Muir

I just finished reading the book, On the Trail: A History of American Hiking by Silas Chamberlin. If you love hiking and conservation (as I do), this is a delightful tome. I had not thought much about how hiking was an unintended consequence of the growth in industry and the introduction of sophisticated infrastructure into cities.

Before the late 19th century, nature walks were the province of aristocrats. Ponder for a second how much of Pride and Prejudice is devoted to talking about natural beauty and jaunts through the countryside, and how Mr. Darcy takes this as evidence of Elizabeth Bennett’s autodidact-aesthetic and intelligence.

In post-Civil War American society, however, the popularity of walking grew out of the anxiety of increased industrialization and the sense that “progress” might not be commensurate with certain notions about a life well-lived:

On the one hand, Americans welcomed improvements in their quality of life and took pride in innovations as mills, canals, steamboats, and trains. On the other hand, they recognized the potential for technology to create larger, dirtier cities inhabited by a class of workers with no means of escaping factory life. These dichotomous responses were embedded in the culture of the period and permeated discussions of politics, literature, and society. Nineteenth-century Americans adopted the pastoral ideal, or “middle landscape,” as an alternative, more desirable vision.

Most people will remember this from studying transcendentalists and the Hudson River School artists in school. (I was impressed that the author devoted a section to what a total charlatan Henry David Thoreau was, talking about hanging out by Walden Pond in the middle of the city as if he were David Livingstone trekking through deepest Africa.)

But walking as a form of leisure and moral improvement became a sort of national obsession during the period that was hardly limited to philosophers and artists.

Investors started funding walkways along the canals and factories they financed to ensure their ventures would be better received by residents and local politicians. (During this era, canals competed with railways as a form of mass transit, with railroads eventually winning, at least until automobiles came around.)

This improved the quality of life of the working class significantly, as they took advantage of new greenbelts and public parks in droves:

One of the most remarkable – and least known – examples was the canal-turned-greenway in Lowell, Massachusetts. Lowell’s canal system consisted of several short canals that provided waterpower to the city’s famous mills. The Boston Associates – the wealthy group of investors who owned most of Lowell’s mills – became concerned about the town’s stark appearance. Beginning in the 1820s, they embarked on tree-planting and landscaping projects along their canals and in their factory yards. The first plantings were adjacent to the company’s boardinghouses, home to the young women who worked in the mills. Although the land between the street and the canal had been used as an informal promenade for several years, the new landscaping evoked a parklike setting that encouraged more people to use it as a public walk. Textile workers were encouraged to publish their poetry, short stories, and other writing in a monthly periodical called the Lowell Offering…

When the Northern Canal along the Merrimack River was completed in 1847, city residents could follow the Merrimack, Western, Pawtucket, and Northern Canals in an approximately four-mile circuit of the city that took them through the rural countryside west and north of Lowell. By design, canals are relatively flat, so these four-mile jaunts were hardly strenuous, but they did offer an opportunity to experience walking in a natural setting, especially outside of town.

From such projects, a sports craze developed, with the introduction of professional pedestrians:

As a formal sport, pedestrianism emerged from the British aristocratic practice of placing bets on how far and how long their footmen could walk behind their carriages or around a circular racetrack… By 1809, the stakes, audience, and prestige of the pedestrian had grown. In July of that year, Captain Robert Barclay, a wealthy Scot with royal blood, completed his well-choreographed and widely celebrated “thousand miles in 1,000 hours for 1,000 guineas.” Barclay, who along with a small team had planned and strategized his approach for more than a year, circled a track for nearly six weeks straight, walking at least one mile every hour. When he completed the task, he earned, along with side bets 16,000 guineas, or the equivalent of 320 years of income for the average artisan who composed his audience of thousands. American newspapers picked up the story from London…

By the mid-nineteenth century, reports like these had inspired a small group of celebrity pedestrians in the United States. In the winter of 1861, a professional pedestrian named Edward Payson Weston walked between Boston and Washington DC in eight days. The walk originated in a casual bet with a friend: Weston promised to walk to Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration if Lincoln were to be elected.

In the end, Weston had gained such notoriety that he had the opportunity meet President Lincoln. Lincoln offered to pay for the man to ride back to Boston on a train. (He walked instead.)

In the 1860s, social groups emerged not only to take nature walks but to take on aggressive hikes (like climbing Mt Washington in the White Mountains of New Hampshire). I found this development interesting for a couple reasons: (1) you would not think about recreation being an all-consuming pursuit for people during the middle of the Civil War (it almost goes to show you how removed some northerners were from the Civil War as a political concern with a direct impact on one’s ordinary life) and (2) women were included in these hiking groups from the very beginning (perhaps because city infrastructure gave women the chance to become physically athletic too).

Nowadays, female athletes make a big deal out of “trailblazers” like Katherine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, who had her bib number ripped off of her by organizers mid-race. But women were climbing some of the highest peaks in the Appalachians in hoop skirts a century earlier.

Anyway, the book from that point transitions into accounts of the founding of the Appalachian Trail Conference, the Sierra Club, and similar groups, along with the fights to establish state and federal parks. The further you get into it, the more it becomes a sort of directory of early members and their pet causes, and the tension between people who were in hiking for the sake of sport and people who turned it into political activism – which is interesting, though way too much for a blog post.

A fun, though very esoteric read.

Latin – the language of a thousand small victories

I’ve mentioned before that Latin is our daughter’s favorite subject. I even catch her playing her Latin songs for fun when she’s alone. I’m not sure how this happened, except that she is already mature enough to understand the concept of word play.

I took for granted how much studying Latin helps children piece their world together. They develop a considerable English vocabulary simply because the meanings of words become self-evident.

This morning, I was working with Elise on fractions for math. I told her that she could remember that the denominator was on the bottom because it started with a D and the word down also begins with a D. It was a mnemonic device I learned as a child.

She stared at me for a second and replied (rather condescendingly, I might add): “Or, I could just remember that the stem de– in Latin means down, as in decline or descend.” Seriously?

From this word, she also recognizes nomen, the Latin word for name (quid est tuum praenomen … tell me what your name is). Incidentally, this really is how we got the word denominator – you have the number and the total within the class of things you are counting. In theory, the denominator defines (names) what it is that you are counting.

Here I was thinking that would be a difficult word for a seven-year-old child to learn, but she had already decoded it and was ready to move on. I can’t tell you how often this sort of thing happens in our household. So many words are fun puzzles to solve.

I have been reading Victor Davis Hanson’s book Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom. The book is about cycles in history where studying classical literature (i.e. Greek and Latin literature, the building blocks of a traditional liberal arts education) has come into and out of favor. I highly recommend this book if you enjoy a meta perspective on education. (It’s also good for your sanity if you hate the culture wars… This is not the first unbearably stupid time to be alive, and what is outstanding about western civilization will ultimately persist unharmed.)

We are obviously living in a period where classical education is out of favor in the broader culture of education. Nearly a century ago, there were one million American students studying Latin in any given year. Now Latin is the language of an evil patriarchy and universities apply a curve to SAT scores, as a not insignificant number of American teenagers are completely mystified by the content of their own language.

A young child in the 1930s would think your average college student in 2019 was an imbecile. (Incidentally, we get the word imbecile from bacillus, a device for physical support, like a cane. If you are an imbecile, your mind is a physically weak structure. You have not been given anything to hold you up as a person. A great metaphor for education.)

Dr. Hanson suggests in the book that classical literature has survived because the wisdom of ancient civilizations always find passionate protectors. I am happy to be one of them in this era.

Moral nutrition

Lately, I have been reading The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, and Identity by Douglas Murray. The book is a brilliant critique of identity politics and the war on freedom of speech in western democracies by an established journalist who also happens to be openly gay. Murray believes that progressives’ identity politics ultimately undermines the human rights efforts they ostensibly exist to advance by building deep resentment and divisiveness within societies. It’s an easy argument to make for anyone who resides outside the identity politics dumpster fire intellectually, but it’s personal to Murray. I am glad he wrote this book.

One observation I have come away from the book with is no matter how bad we think identity politics has become in the United States, it is far worse in the United Kingdom. Censorship is pervasive there. Interest groups micromanage everything that is shown on television. If your child makes a statement about how they disagree with homosexuality, for example, you might get a visit from real police, not just social media mobs. In the United States, identity politics is pretty easy to ignore if you aren’t active on social media and do not send your children to public schools. In the UK, there is a much higher effort to invade and police ordinary life.

But a much more interesting observation Murray makes is how much social justice warriors have come to resemble the Christian evangelicals they so passionately hate. That is to say, identity politics is as much a personal habit as a dogma. That’s part of the power it exerts over the people who are consumed by it.

I am from a Catholic background personally, but I know many evangelicals from attending a religious university and from living in the South most of my life. I do not agree with their positions on many things (particularly theology) but I also have no problem getting along with them. I personally respect their faith. So don’t take this as a criticism of their religious beliefs, which they are entitled to have.

Evangelicals believe that managing one’s personal habits is essential to living a good life, which they define as honoring God. They make the practice of religion a central habit. Every day, they set aside blocks of time to pray and read Scripture. They send their children to Christian youth organizations and schools. They read a lot of what I call Christian self-help books. They listen to specific radio shows and praise music from Christian artists. They fill their homes with signs and pillows with lines from Scripture. They brand themselves in public with what they wear and the stickers on their car. In short, they live in a sphere where their faith is ubiquitous and thus mostly impenetrable.

Murray describes this sort of behavior as “moral nutrition.” Your dogma is reinforced by your habits in the same way that your health is reinforced by eating five servings of vegetables a day. You get your five servings of Jesus a day and you are a healthy Christian soldier.

Social justice warriors behave the same way with their own (albeit increasingly nonsensical and contradictory) dogmas. They consume identity politics all day long, as if they might risk sobering up if they didn’t. If you read the New York Times or the Atlantic, for example, they find ways to bring identity politics into a discussion of pretty much any random thing: corporate governance, restaurant reviews, architecture and real estate, book and movie reviews. Like-minded folks dutifully circulate this content on social media and on cable news programs, so they can all get their five servings of dogmatic social and economic resentment a day. So they can feel like their political god is everywhere.

And like evangelical Christians, social justice warriors understand the necessity of converting children. Social justice warrior parents and educators also make sure their young charges get their five servings of identity politics a day.

This isn’t because they are trying to force their beliefs on you. It’s because they are trying to force them on themselves.