Thursday, November 27, 2008

Cicero is More Than a Town in Illinois

For all of you language mavens out there, there's a lovely article from Great Britain about Obama's use of rhetoric, and its historical antecedents.

And yes, it is sad that only the British are well enough educated to a) write this story and b) think that the general public might want to read this story.

Here's a little teaser for you:

There have been many controversial aspects to this presidential election, but one thing is uncontroversial: that Obama's skill as an orator has been one of the most important factors - perhaps the most important factor - in his victory. The sheer numbers of people who have heard him speak live set him apart from his rivals - and, indeed, recall the politics of ancient Athens, where the public speech given to ordinary voters was the motor of politics, and where the art of rhetoric matured alongside democracy....

During the Roman republic (and in ancient Athens) politics was oratory. In Athens, questions such as whether or not to declare war on an enemy state were decided by the entire electorate (or however many bothered to turn up) in open debate. Oratory was the supreme political skill, on whose mastery power depended. Unsurprisingly, then, oratory was highly organised and rigorously analysed. The Greeks and Romans, in short, knew all the rhetorical tricks, and
they put a name to most of them....

Here's Why

Here's why you need to know all that history stuff. Because without it, this news story is just filler in the human-interest section:

When she came back from her White House visit recently, [Malia Obama] told her dad that she plans to work at the desk in the Lincoln bedroom. Obama, who is known to be an avid reader of Lincoln history, said his daughter told him "I'm going to sit at that desk, because I'm thinking that will inspire big thoughts."

That particular desk just happens to be where Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. And now it's where little Malia is going to do her homework. In the White House. Tell me that doesn't inspire just a teensy moment of awe.

From slavery to the presidency in 140 years. That's a long time for a person, but maybe not so long for a people. History may move slowly, but it moves.

Monday, November 24, 2008

You Are Here

How much of your country's history, civic structural organization, and founding philosophy do you think the general citizenry must know in order to keep the country functioning more-or-less as intended (or, if you're of that opinion--to return the country to a more-or-less functional place)?

There is an interesting civic literacy test online here. Go take it and see how you do. Here are the major findings of the test so far:
  • Of the 2,508 Americans taking ISI’s civic literacy test, 71% fail.
    Nationwide, the average score on the test is only 49%.
  • Americans age 25 to 34 score an average of 46% on the exam; Americans age 65 and over score 46%.
  • Americans earning an annual income between $30,000 and $50,000 score an average of 46%; Americans earning over $100,000 score 55%.
  • Liberals score an average of 49%; conservatives score 48%.
  • Americans who go to church once a week score an average of 48%; Americans who never go to church score 50%.
I'd say that's pretty appalling. I would argue that you cannot maintain a sense of nationhood and common culture in a country whose growth and energy are fed by a steady stream of immigration and an increasingly diverse population, without making an explicit and concerted effort to educate children and new immigrants about the ideas and ideals that (once?) defined us as a nation--especially since we are that very odd kind of nation that is defined by nothing other than common ideas and ideals.

I am one of those cusp babies, born at the very tail end of the baby boom and therefore not really of that generation culturally--and yet not really of GenX either. My political consciousness grew from childhood images of TV war footage, hippies wandering on the street, and Watergate. My introduction to politics and civics was tinged with an understanding that disappointment was to be expected. And yet, I was also raised singing old-fashioned patriotic songs, from "You're a Grand Old Flag" to "The Marine Corps Hymn." From the time I moved into Junior High School, at the bicentennial, I did not hear those songs again until 9/11--and then, only once.

My parents were Depression babies, WWII children, and Eisenhower teens. They missed the 60s entirely, being too busy raising children. They were not radicals. They did not raise radical children. And yet, they did not raise cynics either, though I had plenty of cynical peers, growing up. I read, and still read, Jefferson, Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman without irony or snickering. I believe in the things they wrote, even if I see scant evidence of their legacy around me. I know I should see more evidence of it. I know things would be better if I did.

A nation that wishes to be both ignorant and free is a nation that never was and never will be. Somebody once said something like that. Brad Pitt, maybe?

UPDATE: Just BTW, here's my score on the test:
You answered 31 out of 33 correctly — 93.94 %

The two questions I missed were on economics. Figures.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Book of Dad: Recent Chapters

I go for a run but am interrupted by The Wife, driving past me with Things 1 and 2, coming home from school. Thing 2 has contracted Coxsackie, which is highly contagious. Thing 1 is sitting next to him in the backseat, looking unhappy. I pull him out of the car, and the two of us walk home together. He skips happily ahead of me, arms swinging back and forth in his floppy, oversized shirt. Then he stops and turns around, with a very serious look on his face, and says, "I've got to get to a junkyard soon so I can start making my water-powered car. I just need to figure out how to get the water boiling to make it go." Then off he skips again.

I am driving Things 1 and 2 to a restaurant, to have dinner with their grandfather and grandmother. They are in the back seat, playing with something they have decided is their shipboard computer. "We're going to the restaurant planet, right, Dad?" Thing 2 yells. "Right," I say. "Are we going into hyperspace yet?" "Not yet." "Can I count down when we're ready?" "You absolutely can."

Thing 2 finds a dinosaur book he likes at a used bookstore where we have nearly endless credit from our last book dump. We bring it home and start to read it at bedtime, only to discover that it's a wacky, creationist account of the dinosaurs, explaining how they lived among people (specifically Noah), and how their fossils aren't as old as those dumb old scientists think. I whisk the book away and explain that it's full of mistakes (I may actually have said "lies") and that I need to return it. Thing 2 is devastated, even when I promise to get him a new dinosaur book. He is eventually placated, but Thing 1, the scientist in the family, and a serious student of all things dinosaur, asks me about the book for days thereafter: why would people write that? Why would they say things that aren't true? I think I'd almost rather have the sex talk.

Thing 1 also has taped a picture of a triumphant Obama on his bedroom door. At age 8, he was VERY concerned about this election, and insisted on staying up to watch the returns. He fell asleep in our laps long before the end, but The Wife woke him up later to let him know Obama had won. He grinned and said, "Thank you, Mommy," and went back to sleep.

"I love you all the way to the moon and back."
"Well, I love you all the way to the sun and back."
"Well, I love you all the way to the end of the galaxy and back."
"Well, I love you all the way to the end of the universe and back."
"Well, I love you all the way to the end of the universe, and then even farther than that, and then back again, and then out again, and then back again, a hundred times."
"Well, okay then. I guess you win. Good night, Sweeite."
"Good night, Daddy."

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Well, at least they're taking it well...

From one corner of the right-wing blogosphere:

We’re now looking at the reign of an illegitimate usurper who has made a joke of the election process in this country. He has feloniously gathered hundreds of millions in illegal contributions, he has used his arm, the so-called “press” to do his business by refusing to do the people’s business which is to vet people and ask questions, he has used uniformed thugs to intimidate voters at polling stations, he has used corrupt organizations and willing accomplices in state
governments to illegally register ineligible people (quite a few of them dead and/or imaginary) to vote, and those are just some of his crimes against our Republic....At the top of that hierarchy, they have a neophyte empty suit now. A clown who, while capable of reciting every word that Bill Ayers ever wrote from memory, has absolutely zero experience in how to run a country. Or a hot dog stand, for that matter. Unlike his ideological forefathers, the National Socialists and Soviet Communists, he doesn’t have a solid machinery and the experience already in place to run it. He’ll fuck up so bad every day that it’ll almost be too easy to skewer his ignorant ass. That dumbass fuckhead is in so far over his head that it’s not even funny.

This whole "working together" thing is going to be hard.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Baby Steps

I'm reading reviews of new books on school reform, and it's all the usual blather about Proficiency and Accountability and Blah Blah Blah. The usual arguments about whether or not All Students Can Reach Proficiency by 2014. One book posits that if legislation had demanded of doctors that No Patients Die by 2014, the doctors would have fought back. Not sure the analogy holds, but it's interesting.

Does every single student in the United States have the ability to read, write, and do math at a college-ready level? I have no idea. Neither do you. Neither does anybody, really. Our attempts to get them over that line, thus far, have been haphazard and pathetic.

But there's another question that we probably could answer, which is: Does every single student in the United States need to be able to read, write, and do math at a college level?

Folks, we can't even promise our children a solid eighth-grade education by the time they leave high school. Maybe we should start with that promise and see if we can live up to it, before we reach higher.

I mean, it's lovely to hope that all adults in our society will understand Algebra. But the sad fact is that millions of adults in our society do not understand decimals and fractions. And can't write a coherent paragraph.

By aiming at the moon, are we eroding the ground beneath our feet?

Who Are We?

If you're in the mood for an article that combines descriptions of plague bacilli, tapeworms, and fat mice with quotes from Lewis Carroll, Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, and SpongeBob Squarepants, then I refer you here to a fascinating article about our "selves" and the foreign bodies we carry around within us that may have some sway over our alleged free will.

A little creepy, but fascinating. And very well written.

And, touching back to the the post below and its silliness about elitism, go read this article and see if you disagree with me that this so-called science article is immensely deepened and enriched by making reference to a wide range of literature.

Sine Qua Non

I found this over at Joanne Jacobs' edublog:

Bournemouth Council, which has the Latin motto Pulchritudo et Salubritas, meaning beauty and health, has listed 19 terms it no longer considers acceptable for use.

This includes bona fide, eg (exempli gratia), prima facie, ad lib or ad libitum, etc or et cetera, ie or id est, inter alia, NB or nota bene, per, per se, pro rata, quid pro quo, vis-a-vis, vice versa and even via.

Its list of more verbose alternatives, includes “for this special
purpose”, in place of ad hoc and “existing condition” or “state of things”, instead of status quo.

The amusing headline from the original article, from Great Britain, is:

Councils ban 'elitist' and 'discriminatory' Latin

They are phrases that are repeated ad nauseam and are taken as bona fide English, but councils have now overturned the status quo by banning staff from using Latin terms, which they claim are elitist and discriminatory

I've never head this particular definition of discriminatory before. Elitist, sure. Latin is elitist. Fine. But discriminatory? My understanding of that word is that it has to do with erecting barriers for one group of people--keeping some people out of or away from something. Latin is not such a barrier; there's a big ole door right there in the wall of elitism. All you have to do to walk through it is, you know, learn it. And I don't mean learn the language. I never learned the language. But I can handle the odd phrase, because I read. And if you have trouble with Latin phrases, there's only about a dozen websites out there that provide definitions for common ones.

How is it that every generation in Europe and America since the fall of Rome has managed to live with some amount of Latin woven into their home language, but we--we special folks of the early 21st century--are just too precious and vulnerable to be able to handle is?

Someone might confuse e.g. for egg? Well, then, someone needs to learn.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

NaNoWriMo: A Second Year of Craziness

November is the dumbest month, for those of us who have absolutely no free time to begin with, but take on the additional challenge of writing a 55,000 word (minimum) novel between November 1 and November 30.

Yes, it's NaNoWriMo time again (that's National Novel Writing Month). I failed to complete my opus last year (and, sadly, it remains unfinished to this day--a testament to my inability to work without deadlines). But that is not stopping me from trying again, this year. And since my worklife has only gotten crazier in the past year, AND I've started a doctoral program in the meantime, I anticipate fantastic results from this year's word race.

My only saving grace is that I'm adapting a play I wrote back in 2000, so there's some raw material for me to start with (which may be cheating, but I don't much care).

Feel free to drop by here if you're interested in tracking my progress and reading the Work as it develops.