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.

Who’s who in classical education

There is an unbelievably good essay by Ian Lindquist in National Affairs on the movement among homeschoolers, private schools, and charter schools to revive classical education.

What makes it incredibly useful to classical homeschoolers (like us), or folks seeking an independent classical school, is that it explains the history of the movement and provides something of a who’s who of people involved in running clusters of classical schools and producing classical education curriculum.

For the uninitiated, I think this excerpt describes classical education well:

Classical education tends to emphasize rich, canonical works that have stood the test of time. Not all schools read the same works but, by and large, classical schools hew to Matthew Arnold’s notion that culture, and therefore a sound education, is comprised of “the best which has been thought and said.”

These works are usually part of a core curriculum, which all students must engage with to matriculate to the next level. Classical schools tend to think that there is a body of work with which all students should come into contact. This is not the same as a body of knowledge or a set of facts — though some things do simply have to be known. Instead, it may be better to say that students should be familiar with a body of works that suggest certain questions about what it means to be human and the nature of the world. Classical schools tend to hold that human experience is severely truncated when students do not have the opportunity and vocabulary to ask these questions. This comes as a welcome antidote to the notion, commonly held today, that education can impart facts in the hard sciences and give students an “appreciation” of disciplines such as literature and philosophy.

A corollary of holding that there are certain questions one must ask to be considered an educated person is that students and teachers are open to mystery and transcendence. Students at classical schools tend to be familiar with words like “goodness,” “beauty,” “truth,” “justice,” “virtue.” For many graduates, these are not impenetrable concepts even if they are mysterious. Mysteries excite wonder and elicit inquiry. Graduates of these schools tend to be at home in a disposition of wonder and a mode of inquiry.

Many classical schools expect their teachers to be models to students when it comes to practicing a sense of wonder and inquiry. The teacher is a model of personal ethical conduct as much as an expert in asking questions and prodding students to ask them too. School leaders, for their part, are usually considered not simply bureaucrats who manage a budget and the operations of the functional equivalent of a small business, but are drawn from the ranks of the faculty and tend to have had extensive teaching careers. They act as instructional leaders and coaches to their teachers, in addition to being able to articulate the vision of the school to parents of students.

Finally, classical schools tend to emphasize a coherent school culture as vitally important to the life of the students. Rather than encouraging teachers to develop their own practices and procedures within their classrooms, classical schools tend to encourage faculty to coach and mentor students in the same habits and dispositions throughout the school day. The school is therefore not a series of “island” classrooms but rather a unified whole.

I highly recommend reading the whole essay from the link above if this is something you are interested in for your child.

George Will on the value of a classical education

To those who say we are threatened by a suffocating “hegemony” of Western civilization’s classic works, the correct response is: If only that were the problem. The danger is not cultural hegemony but cultural amnesia, and the concomitant balkanization of the life of the mind.

George Will, The Conservative Sensibility

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have been working my way through George Will’s new tome on political philosophy and history, The Conservative Sensibility. It is an excellent read, even if (especially if) you do not share Will’s political biases. (I do, however.)

The general purpose of the book is to provide a timeline for where the dueling conservative and progressive strains in American political thought emerged and developed. I don’t think there is much controversial content in what Will writes on that account. Conservatives are people who see themselves in the Enlightenment and neo-classicism of the nation’s Founding Fathers; progressives are creatures of Nietzsche’s postmodernism. For folks who did not receive a solid liberal arts education, however, the easy manner in which Will distills historical events and philosophical shifts could be very helpful in understanding how they are situated among moral and other conflicts.

My favorite chapter of the book so far is Will’s defense of a classical education. I think it is safe to suggest that – at least in American public schools and universities – there is a crisis regarding what exactly an education should do for a child or young adult. Education in the US from kindergarten through graduate school has been colonized by Nietzschean progressives who see “virtue” in turning their backs on what have been historically regarded as “the classics.” And they’ve replaced the classics with… Well, a whole lot of nothing, actually.

For most of K-12 education, there is no serious attention paid to history or literature or languages (certainly not the dead languages of the world’s greatest civilizations), which are now often portrayed as tools of oppression. Most attention is paid to subjects that can be easily measured by standardized tests, and by all accounts schools are failing at teaching them as well. If you look at the gaps in academic performance between kids who attend public schools and kids who attend private schools or are homechooled, one thing is clear: kids who are raised on the classics are more literate and analytical individuals. They are challenged intellectually earlier in life and their sense of learning is more systematic and less chaotic. This has been a formula for success for millennia, but educators in the 21st century are rejecting it with predictable results. (This is quite ironic too, as the founder of postmodernism was himself an impressive classicist. I used to be able to read Nietzsche in his original German, and the wordplay with Greek and Latin was fantastic. I don’t think he anticipated his disciples abandoning his intelligence altogether, but here we are.)

Folks on the left love to portray everything as an “existential crisis.” It’s Armageddon 24-7 in their world. Electing a Republican president means a nuclear holocaust is coming. We are at full employment, wages are rising, asset prices are increasing broadly, consumers are happier than they have ever been, demand for benefits is down, but a recession is just around the corner – as if a recession is just going to sneak up on you out of nowhere, because that’s totally how economics works. I read a news article recently that was predicting doom based on the obviously standard economic indicator of recreational vehicle sales. Is it possible to get less serious than that? Americans have endured several decades now of environmentalists predicting the end of life on Earth without trillions of dollars of new investment. When I was a kid growing up in the 80s and 90s, aerosol cans were the era’s plastic straws, because a younger, but substantially similar Al Gore thought the hole in the ozone layer would kill off life on Earth. (In reality, it closed up on its own and he moved on to selling other forms of doom because he has no other shtick.) Now we have politicians saying that we need to support black and brown people in developing nations killing their babies because otherwise they will steal all our natural resources. We need genocide for the environment – that’s a real claim made by liberal political elites in 2019, and they wonder why kids these days feel okay hurting their peers.

The older I get, the more absurd claims that it’s all going to collapse any day now seem. The world never ends; the Chicken Littles in politics just retire to a beach house bought from a lifetime of brokering government contracts. A beach house they spent their life arguing would be underwater thanks to global warming, like the Obamas new mansion on Martha’s Vineyard. That’s how seriously they take their own panics. It’s like Paul Krugman predicting global economic collapse with Trump’s election. If he had actually put his money where his mouth was and went massively short the financial markets, he’d be bankrupt. Because the world didn’t end, because people in the real economy rightfully don’t care about the dystopian fantasies of the chattering class.

The one sector that these folks do not see Armageddon in is the one they probably should: education. The US has long been losing its intellectual hegemony to other countries. Even the Chinese are increasingly choosing to keep their children at domestic universities rather than send them to the American Ivy League. And who can blame them? All US schools are doing now is cranking out kids that will be easily replaced with algorithms (likely written by their peers in India and China). That is a bona fide existential crisis.

America desperately needs to turn its educational institutions around. Right now, the classroom is seen as space for indoctrination rather than a place to teach kids how to succeed and flourish in the real world. We won’t continue to be a superpower or have the world’s largest economy unless we can produce future generations who are willing and able to compete for that status.

Unfortunately, this is at its core a political problem. What postmodernists believe necessarily makes them destructive educators. We did not place astronauts on the Moon by believing that there are no facts, only interpretations. Cancer won’t be cured by opinions. There’s a reason why the Enlightenment was a period of great discovery and the space program died when the hippies of the 1960s went into government and got jobs as teachers.

US taxpayers across the local, state, and federal levels of government spend roughly $1 trillion every year on education. Think about that for a second. One trillion dollars annually. That’s the scale of bad investment in postmodernism right now. We don’t need to throw more money at education consultants and academics to invent ever-new philosophies of education.

The answer to improving education is pretty simple. You want smarter kids? Read better stuff to them. George Will gets that.

Karate, curry, and hunting for Neptune (maybe)

We are finally back into our “normal” routine. For most of the time we’ve lived in Florida, Elise has done two extracurricular activities: hunter-jumper horseback riding (with endless riding camps) and piano. About a month ago, she asked us if she could quit piano (or at least put it on hold) to take up karate.

In the past, we have not been too worried when she quit activities. However, analytical as she is, she is good at playing the piano and picking up music theory. It seemed like a shame to let her drop piano. It was not difficult to sympathize with her reasons for quitting though… She wanted an activity that involved being around other children. Playing piano was a lonely activity. So we let her pick up karate. Behold the cuteness.

Now that she’s doing it, I am so glad that she convinced us to study karate. Florida being Florida, we are surrounded by folks from all over the world, particularly the Caribbean, South America, Italy, and Portugal. It is such a cool experience for a young child to meet people from so many different backgrounds. Her karate sensei moved here several years ago from Peru. Never in a million years would I have thought someone from Peru would be teaching our child Japanese terms. But here we are. There are a ton of other homeschoolers in her class too, which is fantastic.

Per Elise’s request, we’ve spent most of this week working on history and Latin. We’ve been reading about the Crusades, Genghis Khan (who horrified Elise), and the Jewish diaspora. I’m honestly a little shocked by how much Latin vocabulary and Latin derivatives she’s picked up from Classical Academic Press and Royal Fireworks Press materials. And she’s naturally working Latin words and phrases into ordinary conversation.

We took an hour to get out to one of the zillion playgrounds in our town. This is my favorite, where the playground was built under a canopy of live oaks filled with tons of spooky Spanish moss. The whole playground is in the shade, which is a gift in the land of eternal summer. I’ve been working my way through George Will’s excellent new book (500 pages of political philosophy and history, yay). Under the trees, with a breeze, watching the neighborhood children play… heavenly.

How many kids can you fit onto one swing? The answer, according to Elise and her friends, is four. Eventually, I got up to push them because they were getting a little kamikaze about someone getting the group moving and then jumping on.

Tonight’s project involves breaking apart our beast of a telescope and cleaning the mirrors and other optical components. I’ve been lazy and it has been sitting the garage without its shroud, which is not good for keeping dust away.

Tonight will be a good night for stargazing, if we can pull it off. Hurricane Dorian pulled all the clouds and moisture out of the region, so we’ve had days of clear night skies during a season when no such thing usually happens. (Usually, I save the telescope for “winter,” when the skies are clear and astronomical darkness occurs a bit earlier.) And Neptune is in opposition, which means we can get the best possible view if we can stay up past midnight.

That’s another bonus to homeschooling. If you want to stay up past midnight looking at distant planets on a school night, you can. It’s no one’s business if your kid sleeps in.

Being back by the ocean means being back by our favorite Thai restaurant (Thai by Thai) and towers of tuna and salmon that tastes like a pat of butter melting in your mouth.

And eel, Elise’s favorite. (Fun story: One time, Rodney and I tried ordering eel from our local fishmonger because we loved it so much. We did not understand how much we were ordering, and ended up with a freezer full of boxes and boxes and boxes of eel. We ate eel for so long. I am glad that Elise loves eel so much, but I think we have had enough for a lifetime.)

And a beautiful lamb curry with fresh scallops thrown in, because why not.

Rodney also spent yesterday slow-cooking pork for some Carolina barbecue. We’ve been eating seriously well lately. Have I mentioned today how much I love living in the South?

Now Scholastic is pushing identity politics on very young children

Anyone who has spent much time in the children’s section of a library over the last decade or so has likely observed a shift in the selection of books available for children to borrow. The books have become (1) a lot more politically correct, and (2) a lot dumber overall. More and more of the books explicitly push a far left-leaning political agenda. And the people who write children’s literature because they have an agenda generally do not care about things like building a child’s vocabulary. (Indeed, there is something about needing to tell people what they should believe that is infantilizing in its own right.) Some urban libraries now offer children’s programs like Drag Queen Story Hour – which started off controversial and became even more so after a Houston library invited a registered sex offender convicted of assaulting an eight-year-old boy to read to the kids.

If you have followed the professional organizations for library staffers on Twitter or Facebook, this behavior would not surprise you at all. Many of their posts are ideological in nature, because apparently it is hard to increase literacy among children without being divisive. Your tax dollars at work.

Public schools and libraries are attractive to political activists precisely because they offer access to children. Not unlike pedophiles and other child predators, these folks engage in “grooming” behavior. They do a thousand little things to build trust with children and then they try to exploit that relationship.

Political activists deliberately target ever younger children because they are betting that they will beat parents and churches to these conversations. Why does a kindergartner need to be hanging out with drag queens at the library? Because chances are parents have not had a conversation about sexuality with a five-year-old and most parents do not think they are dropping their child off in the children’s library to learn about getting a sex change.

I learned early on in parenthood that I needed to pre-read what our daughter found at the library because children’s books were becoming ever more inappropriate, glorifying promiscuity and suicide and many other destructive, antisocial behaviors. Children’s television has also followed suit. Now we have shows like 13 Reasons Why – which fetishizes the depression of a young girl and makes her suicide seem so deliciously full of drama. They are coming out with a Nancy Drew series, but this time the detective work involves casual sex. A relative was telling me that when her son was in 7th grade, his teacher passed out boxes of condoms to every kid in his class. Because in public schools, the assumption is that responsible adults encourage seeking sexual partners among girls who are barely old enough to have gotten their period. Is it really surprising that Jeffrey Epstein was once a school teacher?

You have to be a royally fucked up person to delight in sexualizing childhood. Unfortunately, there are a lot of fucked up people working in schools and libraries now.

Beyond sex and suicide, there are now a lot of books targeting very young children intended to subvert values like patriotism. Consider this book – with third-graders as its target audience – that is written from the point of view of the illegitimate sons Thomas Jefferson had with one of his slaves. Twenty years ago, eight-year-old children were reading books like Charlotte’s Web and Abel’s Island. Now they are given books about raping female slaves. Help your child question the meaning of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” its Amazon listing boasts. Just what every third-grader needs to be doing.

Scholastic Books used to be the definition of a wholesome service for kids. Teachers would distribute the company’s fliers to kids in their classroom, the kids would take it home like a Toys R Us catalog, beg their parents for the money, and then wait for their package to arrive at their desk weeks later.

Now Scholastic is promoting books like:

Caroline Mackler’s Not If I Can Help It, where the main character discovers her father is sleeping with her best friend’s mother

Alex Gino’ George, about a transgender elementary school student

Barbara Dee’s Star Crossed, about a middle school girl who discovers that she is bisexual during their school’s production of Romeo and Juliet

Alex Gino’s You Don’t Know Everything, Jilly P, which includes text like this:

Jillian prides herself on not being a bigot. She has an aunt who is black and her aunt has a partner, whom Jillian loves as well. Her Aunt Alicia, who is black has two children, Justin and Jamila, 3 and 5 respectively and Jillian just loves them. However, she has other family members such as her grandmother and her Uncle Mike, a singular buffoon who display their bigotry. The grandmother asks her daughter-in-law Alicia to bring ethnic foods such as a sweet potato pie. She also makes comments about Jamila’s hair. Many people might not catch the subtle bigotry in that, but to me and many others the subtext is quite plain…The uncle is Archie Bunker revisited, an unabashed bigot who defends his ignorant comments, even when he sees that he is driving others away. You just want to shove a drumstick down his throat.

Then Molly Osertag’s The Witch Boy, because now gendered followers of the occult are oppressors:

In thirteen-year-old Aster’s family, all the girls are raised to be witches, while boys grow up to be shapeshifters. Anyone who dares cross those lines is exiled. Unfortunately for Aster, he still hasn’t shifted . . . and he’s still fascinated by witchery, no matter how forbidden it might be.

When a mysterious danger threatens the other boys, Aster knows he can help — as a witch. It will take the encouragement of a new friend, the non-magical and non-conforming Charlie, to convince Aster to try practicing his skills. And it will require even more courage to save his family . . . and be truly himself.

All of these books are targeted at 8- to 12-year-old children.

These folks are not going to stop until they trash everything associated with childhood. They are doing everything they can to ensure that the chasm between people who invent and fetishize suffering and everyone else is multi-generational. And the end result will be that there are a lot of normals whose kids will not experience the joy of getting books from the library because there’s nothing but garbage on the shelves. And, probably, at some point, governments will stop subsidizing public libraries altogether because it’s too controversial.

I used to laugh at my mother when she’d say things to me like, “you should really buy up all the classics you can, because they are going to stop selling them.” Now I see that’s a sort of wisdom.

What I am reading these days

I have a great love of books and film to begin with… But I have to say, I have been indulging in some rather magnificent fare lately.

All Things India

First, I have developed a serious interest in India. (Or perhaps recovered is a better term. I had a Jhumpa Lahiri phase in my early 20s.) I know I have mentioned the fantastic book I finished on the history of curry. Feasts and Fasts is another amazing book by the same author, which uses the history of food as a gateway into discussing the broader history of the Indian subcontinent (and, by extension, the various cultures that have been stakeholders there across millennia). It is so strange to me now to hear the name of a dish and be able to pinpoint the region it comes from and how it ever came to be a thing there. India is high on my list of places to visit now.

Before that, I had been reading about the Mountbatten dynasty via Pamela Hicks’ Daughter of Empire: My Life as a Mountbatten. (I wish I could recommend this book, but it’s honestly quite painful. Torturous really. If you can imagine Gwyneth Paltrow with all of her name-dropping of celebrities and shallow digressions, but with nabobs, then you have already gleaned all there is to glean from this book.) I am thankful my interest survived.

I started working my way through the series Indian Summers on Masterpiece, which I think is excellent. (Does this series come from the book Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire? I am curious, but have not read that book yet.) The show takes place across summers in Simla, which is in the foothills of the Himalayas, with a group of the British civil servants and merchants at the time of the British Raj, beginning in 1932. The show follows two plot lines: one with the British and one with the struggle for independence.

Martha Gellhorn

We very much loved touring Hemingway’s house in Key West last year, and since then, I have read a lot of books on Hemingway’s time in Florida and Cuba. And then I started reading the works of Martha Gellhorn. Gellhorn was an incredible writer in general, but an especially talented war correspondent. Most people, however, know her only as “Hemingway’s third wife.” She met Hemingway at Sloppy Joe’s bar in Key West (Hemingway’s favorite haunt) while vacationing with her family. Lord, what that woman could do with words. Her books are filled with very nuanced tales of how war and poverty impacted ordinary people.

Hemingway’s house in Key West

The Second Seminole War

I wrote earlier about how I have been studying the Second Seminole War (or, as I like to call it, the Afghanistan of the 1830s) ever since Elise and I decided to hike out to the ruins of a sugar plantation that was torched by Seminoles. My latest book on the topic is The Second Seminole War and the Limits of American Aggression. A lot of folks like to make a big deal about the Seminoles resorting to guerrilla tactics, but it’s silly to pretend this was a novel development in American history even then. After all, we have a country because a bunch of colonialists did exactly the same thing to the Brits.

Novels… I’m Trying to Enjoy Fiction (The Struggle is Real)

I am attempting to read a series of novels by H.S. Cross that revolve around the lives of boys and adults at a boarding school in England. I vastly prefer non-fiction to fiction, but these novels are well done and erudite, with is sort of a reward for a life of reading quality non-fiction, no?