Current/Recent Reading List

29 July 2007

Couple 'o Quotes

Lots of good stuff in the August/September First Things, but here are a couple of passages that stand out:

Harvey Mansfield, of Manliness fame, on the failure of modern-day political science to concentrate on anything but that second word, science:

Ambition embarrasses our political science because ambition smacks of greatness; it is not average enough to be the object of a science that knows nothing of individuality, hence nothing of greatness. Even the word great is unscientific because it is pretentious. But we human beings are animals with pretensions.

My profession needs to open its eyes and admit to its curriculum the help of literature and history. It should be unafraid to risk considering what is ignored by science and may lack the approval of science. The humanities too, whose professors often suffer from a faint heart, need to recover their faith in what is individual and their courage to defend it. Thumos (the part of the soul that makes us want to insist on our importance) is not merely theoretical. To learn of it will improve your life as well as your thinking.

And then this from Richard Neuhaus on the latest boom of bestselling books that attack religion, and how they should be categorized:

Hitchens, Harris, et al. are not really making the case for atheism. They are attacking the grab bag of evils and absurdities associated with that amorphous reality called religion, which is an easy thing to do. "Religion" has to do with human beliefs and behaviors that are as riddled with nonsense as any other human enterprise. Christians qua Christians, have no stake in defending "religion." Much of what is called religion is false and meretricious. The Book Expo had it right: The "atheist" books in question are a subcategory in religion. Now, if Hitchens and company want to talk about God, i.e., Reality, that would be a most welcome discussion.

26 July 2007

Celebrity Status

I remember one of the best discussions from the fast-forward certification program I attended five years ago centered on why teachers have to watch their behavior even outside of school. The main point of the discussion was that you could be seen by a student, student's family member, colleague, or county office worker at any time. Some in the program (these were all second or third career-switchers) balked at this: "Why should it matter how many beers I had at the bar on Saturday?", or "What difference does it make who I was seen with during the summer?", or "Who cares what I wear when I'm not teaching?" After a few minutes of griping, by one man in particular, the experienced teacher who was in charge of the discussion finally lowered the glasses on her face and said something to the effect of, "Sir, you are not living in Southern California."

I can vouch for the soundness of all this advice. On the few occasions I go to one of the major malls in Raleigh, it seems I inexplicably see someone from my former little-tiny school there (including my principal last December), even though it is 50 miles away. And now that I'll be teaching at a bigger school near my local community, this is bound to happen more. In fact, it has.

Six girls from my new school attended the June yearbook workshop with me. Two days later, I ran into the mother of one of them at a Chick-fil-A. I've seen another twice, as a waitress, at a local restaurant. Then, this morning I saw a former School #1 student at Lowe's Home Improvement, and this afternoon another of the six new girls comes walking into the same public swimming pool, 25 miles away, that I've been taking my son to occasionally this summer. I might as well just start expecting this every time out.

Of course, I behave myself in public, and mostly in private (wink, wink to Wyfe). But I have this irrational fear that one day a student is going to catch me lingering in front of the magazine section at the grocery store, gawking at a oh, let's say a cover featuring a scantily clad Jessica Biel (um... just to offer a completely random, hypothetical example, of course).

Watch your back, teachers.

24 July 2007

One Month And Counting

Until teachers report to duty, and five weeks until school really starts. Since I've been teaching, the second half of summers have always taken on a different hue for me (poor guy, with his summers off). No different now - already there is a slight sense of melancholy over the time that has passed (or has been squandered), and nervous apprehension about what is on the horizon. Even going in to my fifth year at my old school, where the routines were familiar and the kids were mostly known quantities, I got nervous - in fact, I was much more nervous last summer than I am this summer, though I have more reason for it in the present case. What is that all about?

Well, for one thing, moving to a better school with better students has motivated me to reevaluate myself a little more, as a person and a teacher. This is my vocation, paradoxically both chosen and, I believe, chosen for me. All my life I have been a shy, understated person, and while I'm comfortable with this (and don't wish to change my basic personality), I do think it is time for me to step forward with a little more bravado and confidence. Nervousness needs to recede in the face of more important priorities. I've been a good teacher, and think I was one of the best at my old school, but there were many areas where I was ineffective or clueless. To be a master teacher, I must continue to improve. In addition, experience convinces me that most teenagers are dying to have strong adult leaders who can be trusted. It sounds corny, but that is my charge - to be one of those leaders.

Suddenly reads like I'm quite the Calvinist here, with all my struggling and striving , huh? But look, even if I'm lucky and have a long time remaining in this profession, there is another sense in which three decades (more or less) is a short time. With whatever time I'm given, I don't want to feel like I was just cruising along.

20 July 2007

Nailing It

There are so many other ways to lead a successful and meaningful life that are not denominated by money or fame. Adult life begins in a child's imagination, and we've relinquished that imagination to the marketplace...

Art is an irreplaceable way of understanding and expressing the world--equal to but distinct from scientific and conceptual methods. Art addresses us in the fullness of our being--simultaneously speaking to our intellect, emotions, intuition, imagination, memory and physical senses. There are some truths about life that can be expressed only as stories or songs or images.

Art delights, instructs, consoles. It educates our emotions. And it remembers. As Robert Frost once said about poetry, "It is a way of remembering that which it would impoverish us to forget." Art awakens, enlarges, refines and restores our humanity.

If it is necessary to have a National Endowment for the Arts, then it should be necessary to have it headed up by the Dana Gioia's of the world. Take a couple of minutes to read this.

18 July 2007

Life As The Novel Of Manners

On his blog Monday Tony Woodlief sparked a lively discussion about manners and parenting by commenting about a girl whose rear end was showing in church. Tony's further points in the comment thread that ensued are tremendous, btw. And all this got me thinking about the boys in my second period class last semester at my old school.

First, this class, to be blunt, was heavily populated with redneck boys, all of whom were friends, except when they were mad at each other (a frequent occurence). One of their favorite out of class activities, judging from their conversational topics, was "rolling up" in parking lots, intersections, etc. and demanding attention by blasting bass-heavy music and revving engines. There is nothing new here, except that when I was their age such boys would have been blasting Iron Maiden instead of aggressive rap.

Well, one thing these boys definitely love doing is entering and exiting school premises in such a manner - and at this school it is easy for them to "buzz" the front office and front hall. So, the principal told them to stop, and one of the teachers on parking lot duty told them to stop, and they were threatened with having their parking privileges revoked. This had them in high dudgeon at various times during the semester, and they would ask me (an obvious authority on the proper bounds of redneck activity) if I thought this was fair. What I would usually ask them is if they thought it was fine to irritate and disturb others who might not share their enthusiasm for high-volume habits. The answer was always the same: "Well, I paid for my stuff (speakers, car), so I should be able to do what I want to with it." There's little need to further comment on such reasoning - obviously my opinion of it is low.

Some time after the first of these conversations, I had my own opportunity to be "buzzed" by one of these same students. He, in particular, loved to brag about rolling up on teachers and revving his engine loudly. One morning after arriving at school, as I exited my car and started pulling my stuff out of the trunk, I saw him coming in his blue Mustang GT, about 100 yards away. One of my special talents is being able to spot someone I don't want to deal with from afar, before they spot me, and adjusting my position to avoid them (works great in shopping centers, especially). So, acting like I never saw him in the first place, I walked toward the doors and pretended to be really focused on something in front of the main school entrance as he slowly revved himself right by me.

In class that day, the first thing I heard, in the same tone of anticipatory excitement I associate with five year-olds, was, "Mr. P., did you hear me this morning? I went right by you!" Clearly, he couldn't wait to be acknowledged for his accomplishment. And, as unflappable as a cold, pitiless assassin, I replied, "No, Joe. Really? Well, I never pay attention to what's going on first thing in the morning."

So I lied and possibly crushed his psyche - for which, come to think of it, I need to ask forgiveness. But at least I was lying in the service of promoting good manners.

17 July 2007

Yearbook 24/7

I have officially concluded business on my last yearbook for my old school, and actually finished it in a faster manner than I did the previous three. I had more incentive this time, obviously. Because who wants to be still worrying about the old job when the new job needs attending to? Hey, how did I get into this racket again?

Well, when I found out I was to be the advisor for the yearbook at my new school, I was not enthused, because by this time of year I have had it with the whole enterprise. You would think yearbook would be all peachy-keen. After all, you get to hold watch over mostly high caliber kids, and they do most of the work, correct? That is what I thought when I first became an advisor four years ago. What I quickly learned was this: you are running a small business with workers who by definition are transitory, and among whom only a small percentage will care about quality, responsibility, or deadlines. And let's face it people - on the list of all-time great picks to run any kind of business enterprise, the English Teacher is of a genus and species near the bottom. Want to guess who handles the bills at my home?

There are considerable consolations, however. For one, those few good kids who will work hard and conscientiously are worth their weight in gold, and getting to work with them year-round is a joy. Also, there is no lecture time, homework, or essays, and the atmosphere of the class is laid back. And finally, yearbook is generally considered an important enough duty in and of itself that no one will come hunting the advisor because they are looking to fill a coaching slot (cross my fingers). I love sports, but I both a)have a child and wife at home that I enjoy seeing, and b)am an inveterate and notorious homebody as it is.

The yearbook kids I've met from my new school seem quite promising and ambitious, so I am actually excited about seeing what we are able to do this year. Sure, I'll lose three or four nights' sleep over the school months, but add that up over the course of a career and it will only take a few months off my life, right?

12 July 2007

We're Off To The Blue Ridge

Mountains, that is.

It is time for our annual long summer weekend at the site of my illustrious upbring, Asheville. Only Thomas Wolfe can rival me in fame there - and when you think about it, what does Look Homeward, Angel offer that this blog doesn't?

In any case, Wyfe and I will spend the next couple of days foisting the child off on grandparenats as much as allowed; meanwhile, we may prowl the downtown area trying to look as square as possible in the sea of Bohemians.

Hey, we're nothing if not counter-cultural; we just pick our own circumstances for it. Be back Sunday.

11 July 2007

Movie Limbo

Over the past few years, two things have conspired against my formerly eager appetite for watching movies or their more ambitious cousins, films. One has been parenthood, and the other has been Hollywood. The former involves the practical matter of time, and the latter involves the 9/1 ratio of movies that make me groan or yawn to movies that were actually worthwhile. Much to Wyfe's dismay, I tend to only enjoy movies/films that aim for at least a minimum of artistic merit (this includes comedies), which leaves out the usual mindless summer fare. For instance, I absolutely refuse to see another super hero flick except maybe the follow-up to Batman Begins, which I enjoyed. Wyfe still pays in grief for dragging me to both the Superman and Pirates of the Carribean disasters last summer (to be fair, we would not have tried Superman if Pirates had not been sold out the first time). But then the trouble with so-called artistic, more serious, films is that they are usually neither, but instead are either morally-bankrupt and lifeless, or bloated vehicles that further promote already trite and boring modern-day political/social orthodoxies. So, I don't see many movies, and frankly find myself not missing them, something I never would have believed ten years ago.

And, as Wyfe pointed out last year, Netflix-type services paradoxically encourage us to be less interested in watching movies, even while we are paying to rent them.

However, I still tilt at the Netflix windmills in hopes of finding the good stuff from time to time, especially during the summer. The other night I watched The Squid and the Whale after reading about it quite by accident a few weeks ago.

Overall, I'm going to give it a B+, which is encouraging, though I have a few reservations, in particular about a couple of "ick" scenes that seemed to me unnecessary distractions (we could find out about the sexually-related cries for help of the twelve year-old without seeing actual body fluids smeared on lockers or library books). But I don't think the film was trying to glory in the dissolution of the American family the way I thought, for instance, American Beauty did. There was no sense of preachiness from the director (apparently this was at least semi-biographical), but instead just a sense of what it is like for an adolescent to slowly, painfully put together what his parents have visited upon him, and what he has in turn, already, been visiting upon himself and others.

I already know, by the way, I will enjoy the next thing in the queue . It is a true rarity - something I not only went to the theatre to see, but also loved.

09 July 2007

4th of July Musings

(Granted, a few days late).

Since I'm already off, the 4th of July week (yes, week - because unless you are a blue collar worker, I defy you to tell me you worked hard last week, if you were working at all) doesn't have the same vacation feel for me as it does for most. We don't generally go anywhere or do anything special, but we do always attend our local-yokel parade/community gathering and corresponding fireworks event.

The parade is always worth it, especially if you are the kind of person who enjoys observing the local color such events bring out. Of course, these days not even the smallest communities totally avoid the kitsch of universal media culture. Hence, at our little parade, we witnessed a little old man and woman driving a classic old tractor with a stuffed chicken attached to the front of it, followed soon by a pick-up full of poor souls stuffed into Sponge-Bob, Cinderella, and Super Mario costumes. My personal favorite was the "Buckle Up With Jesus" license plate on one of the old Chevy's that crawled by. Oh, and the Wyfe also got hit on by a WWII Marine veteran signing her up for a raffle ("Just write your name and phone number here, and I'll give you a call sometime when your husband's not home.") And truly, there is comfort (and a smug sense of "Hey ACLU-types, here's mud in your eye!") to be had in the public prayer offered up, followed by a rousing rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. In any case, have a look:

The grand marshal carriage - that horse can't be enjoying itself on the hot asphalt, I imagine.

Our congressman, Bob Etheridge. One of our friends said, "How 'bout I run out there and ask him for his take on amnesty?"

I'll admit it - the local high school band (which really is renowned throughout the state) always gives me goosebumps when they play the usual 4th of July repertoire.

Which makes this parade more certifiably rural and Southern? The cavalcade of tractors, or...

...the requisite Junior Miss? You make the call.

This speaks for itself. Can you say 92 degrees, anyone?

Oh, if only my beloved muse was around to put such a gathering to use. It would have been right up her alley.

02 July 2007

Hanging On

My bete noir, as I've mentioned before, is that nagging question the kids ask when we study literature: "How is this stuff possibly going to help me in life?"

In An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture, Roger Scruton gives English teachers (or at least those of a certain bent) and their ilk this nugget to ponder in an age of both disappearing high culture and common culture:
...there arises what has become, for teachers of the humanities, the most pressing of moral dilemmas. Do we attempt to impart our culture to the young, knowing that we can only do so by requiring efforts which they themselves may see as wasted? Or do we leave them to their own devices, and allow the culture which shaped us, and which provides our lasting images of value, to die?

Well, I plan to hang on to option A until they pry my cold, dead fingers from it. However, it continues to be hard out here for a believer in the value of ye olde arts and literature. Case in point comes from Anthony Daniels' recent essay in New Criterion entitled "Diagnosing Lear" (registration reqd.), in which Daniels, a doctor himself, points out the periodic need that certain well-read physicians and psychoanalysts have had to figure out what illness plagued Shakespeare's famous character. After all, there would have been no need for all this family trauma to be wrought upon the stage if only Lear had been alive in a more reasoned, scientific age, right? To wit:
If only Lear had taken the right pills, everything would have been all right, and Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia would have been like the Andrews Sisters. The only question Lear raises for the modern mind is how to get him, or anyone like him, to the right doctor on time, before it is too late; presumably absolute monarchs carry adequate health insurance.

Daniels' chief objection is "that the medicalization of Lear’s behavior deprives it of moral significance."

Indeed. But then, "How is this moral significance stuff possibly going to help me in life?"