Saturday, January 31, 2009
Some say the evidence for global warming is clear; others say the issue is a hoax. Either way public policy lies in the balance. As with other differences, experts and politicians disagree. While most of us hanker for certainty and clear direction, ready answers elude us. The real issue is do we want to pay the price of making up our own minds?
We can choose to learn nothing, do nothing. What is the worst that can happen? Let some one else decide. Is not that why they are the leaders so they have the burden of decisions and we followers can go about our business?
But if they are the leaders, they are so by our forbearance or election. In a democracy at the root, we decide. We decide based upon either interests or information. If decision is to be on the basis of interest alone, representative government implies that we know our own interests in an informed way and have made some effort to determine how acknowledged interests are best represented. Either way, we need some kind of answers, at least to the questions we ask ourselves.
Do I know where to look for answers? It is very popular to blame school age students for their lack of knowledge on science, geography, history and other subjects. However, recent surveys by the National Science Foundation and other agencies indicate that the adult-out-of-school population suffers the same deficiencies. Fewer than half of American adults understand that the Earth orbits the sun yearly; only 9% know what a molecule is; 25 million Americans cannot locate the United States on an unlabeled world map.
These questions are not difficult and are easily answered by most commonly available almanacs, encyclopedia yearbooks, dictionaries, or online sources. Because ignorance is not so terrible to admit, you can go to a library and ask any question in the strictest confidence. All it takes is a little curiosity, energized by frequently asking, “Do I know what this means?” and then not suppressing the question without followup.
When looking at the evidence do I know how to judge it? Commonly we weigh accuracy by whether the information given squares with what we already know. When we do not know enough either we have to learn more which is always a good thing, or we have to gauge the trustworthiness of the source that informed us. But when we think over where we go for the information we trust, it is typically to those convenient to us – family, friends, co-workers, and likely the Internet. Major studies of information seeking behavior for 75 years have consistently shown the same thing: in matters of information (that which we otherwise do not know), convenience trumps all other criteria for evaluating the worth of the information. Most of us are not ready to test the information in front of us by seeking more than one source, particularly sources with differing perspectives and different kinds of authority. To do so likely leads us from just two to three sources or more.
When I must judge conflicting information what is the method? Accuracy is more than counting noses. The skills required depend upon our abilities to spot accuracy due to multiple factors – currency, the credibility of the source, internal consistency with the known facts, objectivity in reporting, and the bringing together of mutual supporting sources. Also consider why contrary information fails to explain a problem or hold up to testing. Majority information is likely informative, but the razor that information has to pass over is the ability to make sense by itself without reference to any extraneous outside idea.
Why does method require the absence of ideology? If something is true, it is necessary apart from anyone wishing it true. Recent articles in The New Scientist and other professional journals suggest that science suffers a bad rap because it so often uncovers bad news. Viruses are developing ahead of our ability to control them; the melting arctic endangers polar bears; the magnetic pole could shift in such a way that the solar wind would strip off our atmosphere. The most difficult matter in science as in any human endeavor is to probe the falsifiability of an idea or theory; we are so eager for our proofs that we do not look for the one example where the subject in question fails the test.
Are we to seek simplicity or distrust it? The answer is yes. In science or any knowledge, we are to use our best tools, whether intellect or instruments, and seek the most elegant and necessary of answers. Frank Herbert in his novel Dune (1965) has one of his minor characters say, “The highest function of ecology is understanding consequences.” Likely true, but we are none of us in possession of the truth. The International Journal of Science Education reported in 2006 that when three sets of adults were exposed to differing presentations on science, each group wound up with more positive views towards science, irrespective of their own choice, but a less scientific one, that science is infallible. After all our efforts, science is only the best knowledge we have at this point. The adversaries to policy corrections on global warming know this and note that we have been wrong about science before – that the sun revolves around the earth, for instance – so we can be wrong now.
What do we do when uncertainty remains? We keep on searching. Real learning is constant. We watch the most relevant, balanced and pertinent programs, follow the hard news first, visit the library and consult the sources that do not come into our own home. We visit museums and take in lectures. We examine what we know and do not know. We have discussions that exchange real information.
Debates over science and the appropriate policy actions will continue as long as the U.S. is a democracy that wants to stay in the forefront of creativity, knowledge, and liberty. As citizens we can do our part, as best we can. For democracy, no one has found a substitute for vigilance.
Roger Sween specializes in the art of questions and their answers and therefore in the science of information-seeking behavior.
© 2009 by Roger Sween.
I welcome substantive comments on the contents of this blog. Personal comments to me may be sent to the email address given above.
Friday, January 30, 2009
Our national days vary in the ways they honor and memorialize features of our civic life. They range from the most individual, Martin Luther King, to the most symbolic, Flag Day. Yet, they center on an origin fundamental to the rest, the 4th of July. The 4th is our most peculiar celebration.
It is peculiar because we celebrate it with fireworks, firepower, parades, martial music and pyrotechnic speeches. It’s been this way since the beginning, even before the beginning when on July 3, 1776, John Adams imagined how future celebrations would be.
It is peculiar because what the 4th of July commemorates is a document, and the resolution that document supports. We don’t even celebrate the ratification of our constitution, as some other nations do, in the way we herald the Declaration of Independence. That declaration, its particular content, and the actions that share in turning its principles into reality are more than memorable. They are the organic foundation of our way of life and the key to every other national holiday.
We may know a little of the chain of events that drove the thirteen colonies to come together in the Continental Congress, beginning September 1774, and to work out common actions. As John Adams wrote home to Abigail, “Yesterday the greatest Question was decided, which ever was debated in America, and a greater perhaps, never was or will be decided among men. A resolution was passed without one dissenting colony 'that these united Colonies, are, and of right ought to be free and independent states.' You will see in a few days a Declaration setting forth the causes, which have impelled us to this mighty Revolution, and the Reasons which will justify it.”
The Continental Congress accepted the one path to which the spiraling conflict with the British had driven it: independence. After amendments of its own, the Congress passed the declaration that its committee reported to them. In time all delegates signed it, including those not present at its hearing and one other seated weeks after the others had signed. What they endorsed and published, upon threat of execution for treason, was a statement of political principles or truths, so widely held as to be self-evident.
Twenty-seven statements, offered as facts, substantiate how the King of Great Britain, George III, referred to only as “he,” acted in a tyrannical fashion contrary to the implied ideals of civil government and a free people. Two consequent paragraphs round up the situation: this same king has failed to hear cause for redress. The colonies have no choice but to sever their ties of allegiance and pledge their lives, fortunes and sacred honor in defense of their independent status among the nations of the world.
All are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. To secure these rights the governed institue governments, but when governments abuse their authority and exercise undue tyranny over rights, it becomes the right and duty of the governed to throw off the oppression.
One could say that the rest is history, except that ours is neither an automatic history nor a finished one. Though Jefferson and his compatriots had become imbued by natural law (Newton and those who made him popular) and natural rights (chiefly Locke), how these ideas are to work out in political and practical ways has taken the following decades of discussion, trial and refinement.
Are we not still on the way to equality while securing the blessings of life, liberty and happiness? And how have we been persistent to attend to the responsibilities of informed consent in our governance? How have we ever settled questions of rights and justice in representative government when minorities and shifting majorities continue to clash?
To most suitably and profitably address the promise of the 4th of July and thereby rightly celebrate it, first dive into the Declaration of Independence itself. Copies are abundant. Savor its meaning and act upon its living impact. May we be more enlightened from our borning document than from any rocket’s red glare.
© 2006, 2009 by Roger Sween.
First published as “A peculiar Fourth warrants some investigation: commentary,” Republican Eagle (June 28, 2006) 4, and here revised.
I welcome substantive comments on the content of this blog. Personal comments to me may be made to the email address given above.
Thursday, January 29, 2009
Values are in contention with one another in our society and world. Of that observation there is no doubt even though, at some core, values hold us all together. Some will say that antagonistic extreme positions exaggerate our differences and that the middle majority retain the central position as to the values question. Efforts to sort this out elude easy solution despite continued attention to the subject. Nevertheless, some perspective, however limited, is necessary.
Ideally, values comprise a system of qualities of intrinsic and applied worth, expressed in principles, that are severally and interdependently desirable and beneficial to the people individually and collectively who live under that system. So said, the values bundle needs some unraveling to see if this definition really means what it pretends. The question then becomes how a values system applies to us as persons and citizens. Finally, what ought we to do about that application?
We can identify values by thinking about our human situation in order to discover what quality underlies or should underlie good ways of living together. Good ways, simply put, means everyone benefits and no one gets hurt. The thinking approach to values, we call philosophy. Presumably, everybody has a philosophy of life based on personally integrated values whether they have thought them through or been less rigorous about determining the meaning, consistency and excellence of the values adopted.
Such rigor is not for everyone, and the prevailing way of integrating values into one’s life is to absorb them by living in the received culture. While philosophy exists to determine, examine or clarify values, culture nurtures its values by example and reinforces their adoption through approval of the appropriate responses and disapproval of the inappropriate ones. Cultural anthropologists have found that though every one of 5,000 existing cultures has a value system, all values are relative to the particular home culture and that there is no such thing as universal values. As expected, this professional principle of cultural relativism is also in dispute. While some values may be dysfunctional to social and human well being, universally everyone expects treatment with respect.
Religion or recognition of the spiritual dimension also portends values. I say portends, since not all spiritual expressions come across in the same way as to claims on the lives of their believers or explicitness as found in their history of teaching, dogma, or doctrine. A common element of spiritual systems, however, is that they draw upon sources or revelations that are outside the human experiences of thinking or making empirical discoveries about the world and our lives in it. Thereby values gain another context: we ourselves are not the sum and substance of value; some greater entity outside us, yet still somehow related to us is that sum and substance.
Though these three prominent ways of getting at values – the philosophic, cultural and religious – exist and may be the major ones, they are not the only ones. Besides, of course, these methods overlap. We can think about each approach and develop philosophies of them; we can enrich each avenue to values by our cultural traditions and its history of informants; we can peer beyond human limits through religion as to purpose and holism. Though few of us are professionals, especially concerning technicalities, in philosophy, culture, or religion, we are likely to inhabit each approach and can gain from their methods what we have the will to pursue.
When we look about our resident situation, we find that all three approaches to comprehending values, their systems, and imports fail to bring us into cohesion. Part of the problem is that the United States and most of what we have in the three value-determiners before us is not like most of the 5,000 cultures in the world. They are small, bounded, authoritarian, established, and homogenous. We are large, globally enmeshed, democratic, new and changing, and diverse. The very freedom, individualism and expansiveness that we prize and espouse undercut the stability that value systems are supposed to bring to a society. So, we curse one another for the practice of our values and do not have the wit – collectively at least – to find our way out of this troubling achievement.
As a nation, we have so little cohesiveness because we are a bundle of contradictions. We debate, but the debate causes dissension. We adjudicate for justice, but the decisions divide. We multiply choice, particularly in the economic sphere, and are amazed at the lack of taste, decorum, and civic involvement. We accelerate abundance and then surprised by pollution. We expect even grade school children to take the loyalty oath of the Pledge of Allegiance, but fail to exercise the responsibilities of citizenship. We promote globalization, but fail to see ourselves as citizens of the world.
Let us admit that life is complex, but we all start from the same irreducible base. Every individual must sort out their responses to life in five areas. These are the physical conditions of earthly existence, the existence of the self as a distinct entity, the presence of other people, our cultural inheritance, and the possible future. Everything else stems from these five. One may ignore the areas as they choose, but such unconsciousness does not do away with their pressures upon us.
This framework admits that whatever one’s particular culture may be, it has its influences on each of us. But because of the mix of the five areas, no one area is exclusive, and it is dubious to pinpoint any one area, culture included, as dominant when they all interact. We have a difficult enough time fully understanding and directing ourselves with whom we have the greatest proximity and the most control and presumably the fullest knowledge.
Values are the basis on which we consciously or habitually by integration make choices in taking one line of thought, belief or action over another. Values are one cultural product yet remain open, as long as an individual wills it, to personal examination, clarification and redefinition before being adopted, but more significantly after being adopted. Articulated values at variance with the culture when acted upon tend to make critics, rebels, deviants or criminals. Cultures, depending upon the nature of the variance, exert a range of pressures from raised eyebrows to executions in order to gain conformance.
In the physical arena we have issues of the appropriate long-term use of finite natural resources, of population size and viability, of health and of responsibility for the environment in which we cannot but live. For ourselves we face numerous life choices that hover around individual identity, potential, achievement and happiness; here no one can do for us what we must do ourselves. Concerning others, our relationships flow from the private and interpersonal to our roles in the neighborhood, community, economy, political associaton and for the common good. Cultural inheritance, let me emphasize, is a treasure trove of the past up to the very minute during which humanity experienced what we face and need to know if we have wit to learn in order to benefit from such heritage. An evolving culture is open to all of history’s enrichment. By comparison, the future may stretch on as long and potently as the human past, but exactly in what manner we do not know. With such uncertainty comes less clarity and the tendency for less thought and neglect. Thereby, we may be engineering our own extinction and need to consciously chose and create that future most desirable to us.
We cannot address questions of the value-base of culture and society unless we share some working principles. As a career information professional of forty-plus years, I offer the following for consideration.
It is better to know than not know.
·Knowledge, the product of knowing, is imperfect and therefore individuals’ search for truth (the knowledge that is perfect) is unending.
·Consequently, we need to be modest about our own knowledge, and reflective on our own limitations.
·Ambiguity about the certainty of our own knowledge requires psychological security, the realization that our conclusions, though our best at present, are tentative.
·In seeking knowledge and examining our own conclusions, we need criteria, which criteria are also subject to continued examination and improvement.
·Whatever criteria of coherence, currency, verifiability, correspondence with others may be, we must continually test knowledge against experience and attune ourselves to the results.
·We need to be alert to all human weaknesses, especially among ourselves – laziness, distraction, and self-deception – and realize that our knowing requires learning as a continuous endeavor.
·Learning may have its automatic features, that is, learning by living, but the greatest potential for learning comes from focused attention and endeavor to identify and overcome our persistent ignorance and mistaken nature.
In brief, we live profitably by knowledge that we must seek while being humble about what we already know.
I have tried to look deeply into the values question and find that primarily, we are not geared in the mass to share in any but the most token way a commonality on values. Most of our institutions pivot on an assumption of inherent human disagreement and not on the desire for solutions. Our laws arise out of factions where agreements come by compromises at best or overpowering at worst. All these efforts continually model that someone is right while someone else is wrong and that taking up the cudgels, even if the cudgels are words, is the answer.
The answer, the only answer, to our fundamental differences is to be in conversation. Despite the enormous problems identified, global, and often out of our hands, we have plenty of opportunities to do what we can in our spheres of contact to make amends. We can know others face to face, make more friends than enemies, work together for mutual understanding and problem solving, show respect, listen and speak in turn.
In this manner we have a better means to enter the complexity of existence as it is, where always (let us be informed) there is another side. And by conversation, we can find ourselves more fully through our relationships with others. The principal freedom we have and value is the liberating freedom to be neighborly.
© 2007, 2009 by Roger Sween.
Roger Sween admits the heavy influence of his family of origin, a preference for reading as learning, certain formative books read when young, a particular Lutheran rendition of Christianity, a penchant for introspection, rationality and judgment, a love of history as the holistic discipline, and the career frustration that most people do not make routine use of the abundant information and intellectual resources available to them.
First written at the Editor’s request and published in Practical Thinking, v.1 no.2 (December 2005) 1-3. Practical Thinking was a joint publication of the Minnesota Association for Continuing Adult Education and the Minnesota Independent Scholars Forum. That article is here revised.
I welcome substantive comments on the contents of this blog. Personal comments may be made to be at the email address given above.
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
1. Reading is for everyone because it is not all one thing.
2. Many kinds of reading exist: people read different things for different reasons, and they read differently at different times, including at different times in their lives.
3. People read for fun, to amuse and occupy themselves, to be up on what others are reading and talking about, to learn and know things, to explore themselves, to travel outside themselves and away from their locations, to gain from other’s lives, thinking or imagination what they have to say beyond one’s own experience.
4. Reading is at times technical, practical, entertaining, adventuresome, playful, silly, poetic, serious, matter-of-fact, fantastic, mysterious, symbolic, mystical, argumentative, political, informative, worshipful, philosophical, historical, questioning, advising, model-making, or many other dimensions.
5. Because reading is individualized for different people, readers read what they like feel good while reading, feel rewarded for having read and enjoy themselves during the process of reading and afterwards as they think about and talk about what they have read.
6. There is little point in reading what you don’t like. Enough other things exist to read than to spend time with something that doesn’t make you want to read it. Even things you are told you have to read and may not like, you can often find something else that substitutes for them.
7. Reading is a lifetime skill, except that you cannot predict what kind of reading you might need or want to do in the future.
8. Reading is developmental, that is, you gain reading ability by reading, and there is no other way, no short cut, no way to know reading except to read. Some things are easy to read, and some things are hard. The Constitution of the United States, for example, is at the 22d grade level or senior year in college; if you want to be good in reading at that level, you need to just keep on reading.
9. Because reading is developmental, for most people the practice of reading will readily put a person’s abilities beyond the average for their age level. Those who have reading difficulties, when they are detected, can also become a successful reader.
10. Reading is more fundamentally human than any technology. Reading is older than paper, older than the English language, older than printing presses, older than computers and the Internet. We will still have reading should all the newspapers, magazines, books, and love letters disappear.
11. People either want to read things by themselves and mull over them in their heads or read them as part of a group and talk to others about them. Both ways make sense.
12. Reading is portable, cheap, flexible and beneficial. Be prepared: have something to read with you at all times.
13. Reading can become habitual. Of course, reading is not automatic; readers have to set aside time to read. Since we all have the same 24 hours a day, reading requires choosing when to do it. No one time fits all.
14. Reading is discovery. Anything not yet read is a deep, dark unknown, and we are often reluctant to pick up something new because we don’t know if we’ll like it. So look it over, examine the clues—cover comments, introduction, contents listing, beginning pages, here and there in the book. If it seems promising, give it a try; if that doesn’t work, go on to something else.
15. Reading has a tendency to continue ever onward, and it is impossible to read everything, even everything that you might think is important and good to read. Reading proceeds by choosing what to read, and there are plenty of guides to what to read next, but the best one is what your own reading suggests.
16. Reading is a basis of relationships, between classmates and friends, within families and between parents and children, between students and teachers, between co-workers, between neighbors, between members of the same organization, among and between faith communities and within civic communities.
17. Reading is the basis of most work from the 20th century onward in knowledge-based and information-oriented societies.
18. Reading is a basis of learning and of continued learning across the lifespan. And reading is independent of any institution except bookstores and libraries, both of which only exist to help you find what you want.
19. Reading is the key to our past, both the immediate past and of ages past. Then people—some like us, some more informed and wiser—took the time to write down their experiences and their thoughts for our benefit. If we want to, we can take advantage of what they had to say.
20. Reading is an investment in one’s own personal future. Reading is stocking up stories, information, knowledge, narrative and expression for the times we need to draw on what we’ve read, to remember, talk, think, figure out, know and consider some challenge or some future state of being from the fund of past reading experiences.
© 2001 by Roger Sween.
This listing of 20 responses to the question Why Read? by Roger Sween was written in response to a request on reasons for high school students to read asked by Jane Prestebak and first posted on the MEMO-L listserv in November 2001. The MEMO co-presidents subsequently with permission distributed the list at the pre-conference on reading at the American Association of School Librarians that fall. At the request of Judy Bull MEMOrandom (February 2002), the newsletter of the Minnesota Educational Media Organization, published the list with permission.
I welcome substantive comments on the contents of this bloog. Personal comments may be sent to me at my email address given above.
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
The question of the role of the classics is hot right now. This issue is not new. As long as there has been literature, the audience has been at odds as to what is worthwhile and what is not. But in time, certain books and certain authors gain canonical influence; we regard them as the standards.
The argument over the classics is without resolve and difficult to bring to application; the facts evade and challenge any easy generalization. Instead of a quantity approach as to how many people read what, let us start from quality, an approach based on admitted observations and values. Here the predisposition is that some books are better than others are, and accordingly, it is better for readers to pay attention to them. Cues come from a couple of authors who are
“classic” in the original sense; they wrote in Latin and came from the first class of citizens.
Cicero, an industrious provincial, so rigorously applied himself to study and self-improvement that he became the most noted Roman orator of his day. In so doing, he gained great political influence and suffered many enemies. In his later years, he labored to preserve the republic against dictatorship and to pass on to his compatriots the learning inherited from the Greeks. Towards the end of On the Orator, he says
To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain forever a child. For what is the gain in human existence, unless it be woven into the lives of our ancestors through the records of history? – De Oratore, III, 120 (55 BCE).
Quintillian, an admirer of Cicero, came along a century later. He headed Rome’s foremost school of oratory, the first to be paid at state expense, taught the Emperor Domitian’s grand-
nephews, and received from Emperor Vespasian the designation “Professor of Rhetoric.” In retirement, he wrote The Training of the Orator that is in part a technical work. Of greater value is his declaration on the principles of education, including character formation from earliest
childhood, and reviews of prior Greek and Latin literature.
…I have already said that some profit may be derived from every author. But we must wait till our powers have been developed and established to the full before we turn to these poets. Similarly, at banquets we take our fill of the best fare and then turn to other food that, in spite of its comparative inferiority, is still attractive owing to its variety. …But until we have acquired that assured facility of which I spoke, we must form our minds and develop an appropriate tone by reading that is deep rather than wide – Institutio Oratoria, X, 1, 58-59 (ca. 95 CE).
The values implicit in the classical approach are that each individual lives in the long run of history, shares an inherited culture, and develops in association with the others who surround and interact through everyday life. So to mature into the society and to equip oneself for the fullest opportunity and development, learners will necessarily, as appropriate to them, hone in first on the best sources of the human experience to gain knowledge and understanding. Since young learners have no way to know what is best for them, it is left to their seniors to responsibly lead the way.
You can see that the classical position is based upon an enormous assumption: parents, teachers and other exemplars know their duty and will tend to it. In fact, the upper classes
of Rome often left their children in the hands of unlettered slaves, just as today children are babysat by an indifferent television. And so we must admit that routine reading has always been a minority activity, and intensive reading of the classics, as Quintillian wanted, an activity with an even smaller minority.
We are hard pressed to find any book that is shared among the population as a whole or among any majority of it. The 39 books of the Old Testament canon, a library of varied writing in itself, likely come closest, but even this possibility does not quite fill the bill. When was the last time any random group of people launched into a discussion on the anguish of Job, the bravery of Esther, the tragedies of King David, or the wondrous poetry of the Psalms?
We are so imbued with notions of equality; as educators and librarians we want everyone to have every opportunity and consequent success in equal proportion. We castigate ourselves when we fail at this goal; we hang back from initiatives unless they are going to reach everyone. Yet what can we do in the face of the undeniable realities that daunt us?
Are the classics in decline? Quintillian 1900 years ago thought so then. Yet they do not go away in total. In 1998 an advisory panel to the Modern Library imprint of Random House selected the 100 best English language novels of the Twentieth century. See Newsweek (3August 1998) 64-65. That August I owned 69 of the 100 and my local public library had a comparable number, though a different mix of titles. However, the combined public libraries of the southeast region had all but one. That was Henry Green’s Loving (1945), not a title on the tip of anyone’s tongue.
A standby guide for library acquisitions is The Readers Adviser that over the 20th century grew to 6 volumes comprising approximately 45,000 entries. All of the titles listed in a full range of subjects are judged to be “the best” of their particular field or genre. Another more focused
volume, Literature Lover’s Companion (2001), calls itself “the essential reference to the world’s greatest writers – past and present, popular and classical.” It touts the works of over 1000 authors from Homer, 9th century BCE, to Ben Okri, a Nigerian, born in 1959. Five to eight titles represent most authors. These two guides recommend items for first purchase in greater number than most libraries hold.
We need also to recognize that one influence of the classics is an indirect one, through their effect on the writing of other authors. About twenty years ago, two Minnesota state university professors surveyed entering students at Mankato state as to their favorite authors. Hands down, the favorite was Stephen King. These students as seniors answered the same survey four years later to show how their tastes had changed. And the favorite was Stephen King, a discovery that brought considerable alarm to academics. In 2000, King published “a memoir of the craft” On Writing. In an appendix, he credits his reading of other authors as making him a writer and lists about 100 entertaining books. Most are contemporary to King, but among them are Heart of Darkness (1902), The Moon and Sixpence (1919), As I Lay Dying (1930), Brideshead Revisited (1945), A Death in the Family (1957) and Our Man in Havana (1959).
Currently, Francine Prose, a well-established writer, but no Stephen King as to popularity, harked back to Quintillian’s emphasis on intensive reading by pointing out how a number of classic authors achieved their successes. Her appendix of 115 titles in Reading Like a Writer (2006) is definitely more literary than King’s and shares only two titles with his preferences, Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From and Richard Price’s Freedomland. Among the older titles Prose lists are Sophocles’ Oedipus in the Young translation, the medieval Song of Roland in Sayer’s translation, Shakespeare’s King Lear, Milton’s Paradise Lost and Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Two by Austen, now enjoying a great revival of interest, start off the 19th century – Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. Curiously, she also lists Loving, the absent title mentioned above, along with another of Green’s novels, Doting.
That King and Prose have two entirely different takes on reading and writing is typical and highlights the basic situation. We are so overrun with good books that the constant question remains: how do the classics fit in?
While many choices as to title emphasis are possible, I recommend the following overall principles and objectives.
• Everyone should come to understand that relatively few books out of the millions published have lasting influence.
• Books of the past have more than historical importance when they speak to the continuance of human experience; these books continue to affect and change lives.
• These books provide a common ground to understanding ourselves amongst others.
• As works of art, classics are meant for enjoyment, not study, and never picked to pieces.
• Because such books last through time, one can reread them during a lifetime with increased pleasure and greater understanding.
• To whet the appetite for such reading, families, libraries and teachers need to provide, model and encourage quality choices as their charges develop their own personalities, interests and abilities.
• Worthy titles are those that provide readers both enough attainment for satisfaction and additional enticement for more books.
• Everyone should recognize that it takes more than a lifetime to read all the most highly recommended books.
• Everyone should learn how to pursue and obtain more books than are readily or easily available.
I believe that to some extent, we all work towards these ends. The challenge is to do it more consistently, with more resources, and more enthusiasm.
“The Classics Question” appeared in an earlier version in MEMOrandom, v.16 no.4 (January 2007) 6-7, and is here revised.
© 2007, 2009 by Roger Sween.
I welcome substantive comments on the content in this blog. Personal comments may be sent to me at my email address given above.
In education, we aim in summary at two comprehensive ends for all learners. The two goals are the fulfillment of human potential and the attainment of humanity’s cultural heritage. Certainly potential and heritage, being vast and complicated, are long-term and seldom fall nicely and completely into place for any individual educator during their temporary time with the learner. Further, since the individual psyche thrives on its own individuality, no educator can actually command learning. Rather, education as a life process needs first to be won and then gradually surrendered to the self-direction of the learner. Never mind that the human potential and the human heritage are mutual; everyone has to sort out the intricacies of these particular relationships for themselves.
Reading, nevertheless, is central to the process of learning and has the principle virtue of being an educational engine in itself that is more diverse, more companionable, and more lasting than any other single educator.
From a practical point of view, the existence of so many million books pressures each reader to spend their time on the select few titles most beneficial to themselves. ‘Select few,’ means a few thousand compared to sixty million trade editions since the invention of printing. Select reading always exists thanks to the reading choices every reader necessarily makes. Choice is inescapable and exists along a continuum from refusal to read or inattention to reading – each no better than the inability to read – all the way to the most active and dedicated of lifetime reading plans.
People make choices beneficial to themselves in lots of different ways. Hopefully, their reading selections develop along the lines of informed and judicious selections. Still the process of making productive choices can be difficult and full of challenges. For some, obstacles discourage reading and block the way to exercising choice. Parents, teachers, library and media professionals are all educators who work to overcome and remove obstacles for the benefit of the learner in their charge.
Learners can be educated as to the options in their choices, but not all with the same realization or to the same extent. Not all learners become readers in the same way or at the same level. Whatever our desires that every person learn, every learner read, and every reader excel, likely no society has ever had a preponderance of readers in any full sense. Take together considerations of deliberate, planned, regular, persistent, serious and deep reading, and you will find few that measure up to this totality. Still we try to do the most we can amidst the whole population. At the height of reading achievement are those readers who become writers.
Questions of what reading is worth seek some foundation of what is meaningful enough to win and hold potential readers. Many are the values offered on behalf of reading’s importance: reading engages, reading extends beyond experience; reading transmits heritage; reading plumbs the depths of being. In every value named, reading goes beyond bare humanity, humanity in association with others, and humanity as lived. Reading enriches; that is the short of it. At least, such a claim is reading’s promise and potential.
Of course, reading is non-existent without readers, and through each of those previously valued interactions, the reader discovers and experiences each value as known and made real. Yet each transaction between reader and text differs. When two or more get together to compare responses and understandings as to what they have read, they discover their varying readings. It is the same text, exactly, but the reading experience is not the same for everyone. Further, the experience upon successive readings is not the same, especially as the years go by. As readers age, mature, and change, they will not bring their same selves to the text each time.
I read Baum’s Oz books when I was ten years old, lucky to find them in my small town public library. At that time, critics already considered the Oz books as mediocre because they doomed any series to be questionable merit. Later in life, the children’s literature class I took surprised me: I learned how poor Baum was considered to be. I wondered how this could be since I especially remembered some of the titles very fondly. Fifty years after my first reading, the year 2000 was the centennial of The Wizard of Oz, and Baum once again enjoyed the passing attention of the day. I decided then to re-read or read new all his books. Seeing them as an aged critic myself, I noted their general unevenness and several flaws. But at their best, those that had been my favorites in 1950 were still my favorites despite the decades.
Out of fourteen Oz novels that Baum wrote over a twenty-year period, three titles emerged in my estimation as better than the rest—The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904), The Emerald City of Oz (1910), and The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1913). What I admired about these three from the intervening perspective of reading hundreds of novels, myths, legends, fairytales, and works of fantasy and science fiction was Baum’s élan that breathed itself into the achievement of each favored book. These three are truly innovative and Baum does not copy himself, except as to the background that grows richer. The characters are ingeniously individual, robust, and likeable. Baum shows great humor and delectable irony. The stories come to surprising and satisfactory endings that contribute to the environment of the whole series. While Baum entertained and amused me when I was ten, at sixty he gave me a finer aesthetic enjoyment with the same texts. To me this makes unarguable that reading is a unique experience for every individual at every time of their reading.
The particular learning I have come to over the decades of reading a great deal of varied texts is that a person comes to prize some works over others because they are better. “Better” means that some books demonstrate ”qualities” or ‘characteristics that qualify’ them in such a way or ways as to set them apart from the general mass of readily available reading material. The qualities speak to or evidence the particular values that the reader has come to hold in some kind of hierarchy. Just as the reading experience varies with the reader, judgments of quality are also going to vary. Popularity, timeliness, excitement, consciousness-raising, the attraction and relevance of any of the numerous disciplines of knowledge, and the pursuit of hard or theoretical truths all have their appeal. The book market is alive with variables from the blockbuster bestseller to the most abstruse treatise, and they all find their audiences, however mammoth or minute those audiences may be.
Critics, mostly of the professional variety, based on their preferred aesthetic or critical theory, will argue that certain named works are good, less good or otherwise lesser all the way to bad. Choosing-up sides as to good and bad books is a human activity; everyone likes to be on the good side, the right side. Certainly, criticism has its values when it provides tools for looking at texts and helping to evaluate them, but no criticism is the textual work in itself. Always, the piece of literature must speak for itself and not through the filter of someone else’s criticism.
As we educators go beyond the mechanics of reading to the content of reading, we take various approaches to point to the merits of literature so that maturing readers use those sample qualities as they will, may or can in making their own judgments. Given the difficulty of imposing standards of right and wrong in anything, let alone reading taste, let us examine the use of good examples and model behavior, a method whose sanction is as old as Aristotle.
First, give heed to wise old Montaigne. His father had Montaigne’s tutors submerse the infant in Latin and allowed no spoken French within earshot until by the age of six the child had gained such proficiency in the language that the only way to test him was to require him to turn bad Latin into good. This Montaigne, whose essays have set the standard for that genre, said,
Teachers are for ever bawling into our ears as though pouring knowledge down through a funnel: our task is merely to repeat what we have been told. I would want our tutor to put that right: as soon as the mind in his charge allows it, he should make it show its fettle by appreciating and selecting things – and by distinguishing between them…
Bees ransack flowers here and there: but then they make their own honey, which is entirely theirs and no longer thyme or marjoram. Similarly the boy will transform his borrowings; he will confound their forms so that the end-product is entirely his; namely, his judgment, the forming of which is the only aim of his toil, his study and his education.
Readers are of two kinds, those that are nurtured and those that read despite nurturing or the lack of it. Nurturing is the only thing that we can hope to have any control over. As far as early reading is concerned, there is little substitute for oral tradition from early childhood, or in the womb, as some say, and for parents and other family members reading to children. Happy and productive is the family that adopts a routine reading ritual. All this telling and reading to children, which is likely continued, supplemented and expanded in schools and at public libraries, has an aim. We aim to exemplify reading in its humanness, pleasure and cognitive content prior to and alongside unraveling the mechanics.
The aim of the mechanics of reading is that learners become able to read on their own and to pursue their own reading as they will. Primary school readers move beyond their first books and begin to fill out reading wheels with a growing variety of literature types. They distinguish poetry, fairy tales, biographies, and other kinds of fact books from one another. They are learning the bases of the structures of literature as they discover them.
Such discovery learning is not new; you can find it in Socrates. When I left college in the early 1960s, instead of the whole class reading the same text, some English teachers had their classes read half a dozen novels divided among the students. The class then discussed what makes the novel a novel as they reached for the elements common to those six titles. I’ve never found such methods very widespread; whatever the virtues of this discovery system, it requires more preparation of the teacher and expects more attention from the students. Serafini warns of the dangers, difficulties, and experience required on the part of teachers and students to conduct such profitable examinations. I recommend his article highly.
Mostly what Serafini warns about is the omnipresent possibility of the teacher insisting on his reading of the text as the correct reading. The same thing may happen in stifling student discovery in a study group activity where some students dominate others or students as a group seek to discern the mind of the teacher and please that one in charge. Searafini worries too that the current emphasis on high stakes testing is inimical to students developing their critical senses and their examination of quality measures in what they read. These judging skills are marked down as of little importance in the tests or are not easily tested.
Of course, school media and public librarians are in excellent positions to do a lot for younger readers in their development of strong reading habits and developmental reading abilities. It always seemed to me as I was growing up that I was the fortunate one of the gods because I had the same two personal librarians from birth to age eighteen, and both of them knew me. One was in the public library and the other in the public school. They always showed great interest in what I was reading, were ready to exchange a few words or a lot of words about what I read, and with greater acumen than Amazon or Netflix does today could recommend other items of interest to me and answer my questions. As time went by, they set books aside for me that they knew I would like. The public librarian even broke the state rules and requested interlibrary loan for me even though in those days this service was not available to children.
I think it was those dyadic conversations at the check-out desk that made all the difference for me in my life. I was always fortunate to always find more books I wanted to read than I could read. The pervading idea that books are wealth proved inescapable. I came to realize, likely after high school, that I had learned more from reading books from the library and those of my own purchase, than I had from textbooks, class time or and from all my teachers. This concept may be a dangerous one, but I found it unavoidable. My range of ideas, attitudes, knowledge and habits had come from books, not from classrooms. To me the books, especially the ones I favored and continued to think about, seemed the most determinative.
Many books go out of date and lose appeal when readers grow as suspicious of their worn exteriors as their fallible contents. Best sellers peak and pale; you can look at the history of bestsellers over the history of the United States and see the vast numbers of titles that once attracted the highest interest. Most of them have few readers today. Yet some books have long staying power, not for everyone necessarily but for some respectable readership. To attract readers and bolster them with quality examples, the challenge becomes to acquire for their choosing most of the best that one can. You cannot dictate readership, but you can enable it by concentrating on quality in selection.
Quality evidences itself in two principal ways. One is the extrinsic quality of affect, that is, certain books pull at and impress certain readers in ways that by emotional result touch or change them. The other is the intrinsic quality of construct; the way the message, as delivered, becomes appreciable in itself. These two kinds of qualities are not mutually exclusive, though they vary in proportion. Many readers seek affect; fewer construct. And it is easy to relish the affect of, say, To Kill a Mockingbird, even when you are twenty, as I was, and miss the construct until later, or to be overwhelmed by the construct in Huckleberry Finn and miss the affect until later. Alas, many of us are not mature enough to absorb a book as we might just because we have read it before were ready to appreciate it.
Often I worry about Silas Marner and other dreaded “classics,” which so many of us in my generation had to read and hated. Well, ‘no literature was ever written to be studied.’ (I believe I paraphrase Winston Churchill.) What would those of us in the silent generation think now if we read George Eliot again? At about 200 pages, Silas Marner doesn’t take long to comprehend.
© 2009 by Roger Sween
I welcome substantive comments on the contents of this blog. Personal comments may be made to me at the email address above.
 See my calculations in “The Reader as a Self-Directed Learner,” Update newsletter (August 1999) 5-10.
 Robert Scholes in The Crafty Reader (2001) discusses ways in which readers gain the abilities to decode and follow the crafts that authors employ in different genres and styles of literature.
 Compare “Why Bother?” aka “The Harper Essay” (1996) by Jonathan Franzen in How to Be Alone: Essays (2002).
 See also two others who have written extensively on their childhood and youthful reading: Anna Quindlen, How Reading Changed My Life (1997) and Francis Spufford, The Child That Books Built (2002).
 Michel de Montaigne, “On Educating Children,” The Complete Essays I:26 (M. A. Screech) 1991, p.169, 171.
 F. Serafini, “Getting Beyond ‘I like the book’: Impediments to Quality Literature Discussions.” 2/13/05. http://serafini.nevada.edu/WebArticles/Lit/LitDiscussions.htm.
Monday, January 26, 2009
A gift, something given, is by derivation from “to give” something unmerited and outside of our control. The word itself came into Middle English from gipt in Old Norse. Most gifts, even the commonplace ones of care and concern, habit, food and other necessities, come to us as inheritance from our parents or so many others who have endeavored and gone on before us in the eon past. If we know our pioneer ancestry or recognize even a slice of history, the contributions of the past, given to us, come to mind. The most extraordinary gift, however, and the one that is at the basis of all the rest is language.
Thanks to language, we construct and communicate the sense and meaning of our experiences. Orality precedes and turns into literacy, a process still underway after thousands of years. From language and its written form come concepts, the creation and transmission of community and culture. Knowledge becomes a human enterprise, and we are on the road to civilization. The possibilities and choices for learning accumulate and grow, then explode. So, too, do politics and bureaucracy, speculation and religion, science and superstition, literature and the conscious appreciation of the arts. Throughout endless permutations between thought and talk, we lose track of any conscious ability to separate mentality and verbalization.
We tend to take language for granted likely because the absorption of it is osmotic and with little seeming effort. An excited two-year old runs at us to announce, “I builded a tower!” The tot first follows the regularity of most English grammar, but in easy time soon learns the exceptions. It is built not builded, went not goed, and so on. We soon grow so comfortable in our native tongue, that we only get riled over it when we think it threatened by another language or variations in our preferred way of using words. In forty-plus years as an educator, the most hostile discussion of my experience was a group of highly educated colleagues arguing over bilingualism. Rosalie Maggio tells that when she toured promoting her book The Dictionary of Bias-Free Usage on talk radio shows, such examples as gyp and welsh that she used to illustrate ethnic slurs brought hostile callers phoning in and accusing her of “changing the language.”
Few metaphors about language surface in common consciousness beyond the stories of the Tower of Babel and the visitation at Pentecost. These andirons either side of the living and uncontrollable fires of language reflect a desire for one language for all. At Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), God confused the words of those seeking to reach heaven by their own merits, and populations scattered over the earth. At Jerusalem (Acts 2: 1-13), an outpouring of the Spirit allowed foreigners, gathered together from throughout the known world, to hear all the others in their own language. Languages, which serve as instruments of commonality and inclusion, also in effect exclude those not of the lingua franca.
The desire for one language, preferably one’s own, has a long history. Among others, Sumerian, Sanskrit and Hindi, Chinese and Mandarin, Greek, Latin, Arabic, French, Spanish, and today’s English have all had their turn and wide influence. While efforts to keep Latin global, concoct formal languages such as Esperanto, or promote the simplifications of Basic English carried on the desire for a universal language, all fail. With the exception of American Sign Language, mathematics, and computer languages, all of whom have their “native speakers,” living languages require speakers living and interacting in the language of that linguistic culture. Consequently, languages change and by their evolution stay useful. Individual words may become archaic and die, but the language thrives.
However much we may take our given language for granted, with the treasure of language comes a great responsibility. And without a universal language, we must attend to the one we have. Language may evolve as much by naive deviation from some standard as it does by informed or creative intention. Yet, language use, if it is to serve as a vehicle of common understanding, requires certain rigor, accuracy, and honesty. We can wink at the innocent ignorance of the young student’s mangled definition: “Puberty is the stage between childhood and adultery.” Unfortunately, we often find, as expressed by Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, someone who uses the language “more to blackmail than to teach.” We live in an age of such blackguards, who whether for the low purposes of consumerism or the high purposes of political advantage, twist the language with misrepresentation and contrivance.
Expressions such as contract with America, core mission, culture wars, death taxes, digital divide, distance learning, family values, Judaeo-Christian, pro-life and other tortured anti-concepts contort language to mean something beyond what the words actually say. Along with these slights of tongue, even the dictionary definitions of conservative as traditional and liberal as advocate for human rights have become hacked to pieces and distorted from their established meanings. It is though Humpty Dumpty’s argument with Alice on the other side of the looking-glass has come to life.
“When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
Mastery in language – let us prefer proficiency - is a developmental skill; that is, a skill developed through practice. First, the language that has come to us from beyond our knowledge and wish, has charge over our understanding. Language, as the product of populations long before our time, is still the shared experience of the society in which we find ourselves. By personal cleverness, we may introduce new words and extended meanings into the common vocabulary, but they have no accuracy except as they bring us together in meaningfulness instead of separate us.
Otherwise, we return to the babble of Babel, a word that in origin means confusion.
Roger Sween, who gave up employment to read and write, finds himself captured by language and witness of its first-hand progress among five grandchildren, who range from toddlers to teenagers.
“Language: The Greatest Gift” was first published in The Carp, No. 20 (February 2008) 3.
© by Roger Sween 2008.
Sunday, January 25, 2009
Thank you for asking about my retirement so I can think about these things some more. You know, I do not like the idea of retirement and do not use the word. I tell people I have not retired, but that “I quit employment.” They go blank, so it is better to tell them “I am a freelance writer.”
A friend told me one time, a few years ago, that on the average, a writer in the United States earns $1900 a year. I don’t know what this means. Possibly, there are an awful lot of people scribbling away, and they bring down the average; or, the business of earning one’s living by the pen is fraught with difficulty. I believe both to be true, but especially the latter.
Although modern society supports a large segment of its society whose medium is reading, writing and thinking, and who pays them for it, my own experience is that it is not an easy thing to get into. One has to be focused and willing to sacrifice to get there. Biographies of artists, scientists, authors – intellectuals in general – are stories of drudgery and struggle against the odds. Rare are the fortunate few who have places already made for them: more typical are the poets I’ve met who grumble that they support themselves at temp jobs while they squeeze out a few drops of poetry which may ultimately earn them a very few dollars.
We are a society of extremes: a small percentage produce best sellers and movie scripts that go for millions. The vast majority are on the margins. I’ve marveled that the typical press run is 1200 to 3,000 copies, the same as it was in the infancy of printing, five hundred years ago. The main difference is that now there is a larger volume of published titles and in more areas of specificity.
My own path is that though I wanted to be a writer and be paid for thinking, I made choices that meant I was soon involved in other obligations that made the free-lancing life too risky. Raising children and paying mortgages seems to override a lot of independence, creativity, and the time required to be productive. And, of course, we humans occupy a range of different personality types. I find myself unable to dash off anything but have to think about a topic or question for a long time and do a lot of re-writing before I gain satisfaction with what I have done. Only then, can I set aside my self-criticism and with some ease go public.
Instead of freelancing as I might have wished, I occupied myself with several years of mulling my thoughts and experimenting with ideas under the promise that by planning-ahead I would some day come to the position to do what I always wanted to do. That day has come. I’m subsidizing my own future. Whether I ever earn anything by reading, writing and thinking is no longer important for me – I don’t have to – reading deeply, thinking critically and writing creatively are the important things. Still, nothing is automatic, and the last months have taught me the value of routine, forethought and self-discipline.
Perhaps, all I’ve said is too idiosyncratic. Plenty of people are busy reviewing books, writing essays and magazine articles, consulting, and doing the other profitable things that revolve around reading, writing and thinking. I’m glad to have had a library career, where I was always close to intellectual work, to the emergence and flow of new ideas and means of expressing them. That’s where I had a chance to develop my learning and thinking skills. Even though my everyday life for close to forty years was not always what I exactly wanted, I felt I was on the right track.
I still do.
Saturday, January 24, 2009
Chapter I: Beginnings.
President Nancy Kassenbaum in the first act of her second term appointed under the co-chairs Vice President Bill Clinton and Speaker of the House Pat Schroeder the National Commission for the Bicentennial of the Library of Congress, three years hence in the year 2000. This history of library services during the last 200 years in the United States is but one product of that celebration, which we have come to call "The Great Jubilee." For no other act of Congress in its concept and execution has had greater impact on the people and civilization of the U.S. than that which established the library.
This is a history of how our system of library services stems from the foundation of the Library of Congress, and how the impetus of that institution has molded our civilization so that at the core of our education, our literature, our industry, our technology, our lives it is the very nature of libraryness that has made our nature and shaped the American character and way of life, making both character and way of life markedly different than they are anywhere else in the world.
In 1800, formal schooling was important to most American families, but they had relatively limited expectations for it. They wanted their sons, and usually their daughters as well, to acquire the rudiments of reading, writing and calculating – enough to read an almanac or the Bible, understand a property deed or reckon an account. New England, often called the "land of schools," had schoolhouses, paid for by local taxes, spread across its countryside. Elsewhere schooling was thinner, supported by varying mixtures of private, local government and church arrangements. Far to the South and to the West they became comparatively scarce. Nowhere was school attendance compulsory.
In all rural communities children old enough to do serious work took whatever schooling they might get in the winter months between the end of harvest and the start of planting. They were often kept at home whenever their parents needed their labor, so that those from hard-pressed families attended very irregularly, and some were still struggling through elementary reading and arithmetic in their late teens. Children as young as two or three went along to school with their older brothers and sisters, less to learn than to get them out from underfoot in busy households. Schoolmasters -usually young unmarried men who took the job on before settling on a trade or taking over a farm – faced a heterogeneous mixture of ages from "infants just out of their cradles," as the Massachusetts educational reformer Horace Mann obsered, to "men... enrolled in the militia." Schoolhouses were small, poorly kept structures, usually built near roadsides on barren, unwanted corners of land. In most of them, pedagogy stressed memorization before understanding, and the custom of reciting aloud often made their interiors a constant buzz of discordant voices.
In 1800, most white American children between five and fifteen spent a few weeks, up to a couple months, in school every year. Some never went at all, and in the back-country communities illiteracy was common, with many who "could neither read nor write, did not send their children to school."
The substantial majority of white American men, perhaps as many as three-quarters, had acquired enough schooling, sometimes with instruction at home, to be able to read. A slightly smaller number could write, the result of traditional practices that taught reading and writing as separate skills. American women lagged behind men in literacy; girls were more often kept from school. Slaves were kept unschooled and illiterate by conscious policy and in many Southern states by law. To be found reading, or trying to learn, could be positively dangerous for Southern blacks.
For a rural people, by the standards of their time, Americans were strikingly literate, surpassing most of the nations of Western Europe. But this did not mean that they were a country of great readers. Some of them, due to their meager instruction, read slowly and haltingly. Most Americans did not read much or at all; their cramped houses, scantily illuminated by a candle or two, made reading at night difficult. Books were relatively expensive and usually bought to fill only pressing needs. Bibles, hymn books, primers, spelling books, arithmetics and almanacs – books which guided worship, elementary instruction and the planting of crops – made up almost all of what country storekeepers stocked on their shelves and inventory takers recorded of household libraries. In Kentucky, "a newspaper ... was almost as scarce among the country people around us as the Sibylline leaves." New Englanders read more than Southerners and Westerners, but even in the countryside of Massachusetts, no more than one household in ten or twelve received a newspaper, and most families owned only a few volumes and "the year's almanack." Middling and prosperous city people, and some of the great farmers and professional men in the countryside, often read much more. The gulf was less profound than in societies with mass illiteracy, but it was real enough – in some communities almost a "matter of centuries," Francis Underwood thought.
Amidst early American pragmatism and the desire to read for the good of work and the good of the soul, the need for a library for Congress can readily be traced to the very foundation of the new nation, and the founders who brought it into being. For they were, by and large, gentlemen, that is patricians, educated, and with enough leisure to be be readers. In all, thirty-four of the fifty-five delegates finally seated at the Federal Convention were lawyers. More lawyers would have been present but for peculiar circumstances. Lawyer Patrick Henry declined to serve and later claimed he "smelt a rat," while attorney Richard Henry Lee also refused a place on the Virginia delegation in deference to his duties at the Continental Congress (meeting in New York).
Thus almost two-thirds of the delegates had cut their eyeteeth on Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, John Taylor's Elements of Civil Law, and Sir Edward Coke's celebrated Institutes of the Lawes of England; or, A Commentary upon Littleton. Perhaps lawyer Abraham Baldwin was the typical delegate in more ways than one. He came to Philadelphia late, but stayed until the last rap of Washington's gavel. Harvard-trained with "a compleat classical education," this Georgia attorney pursued "every other study with ease." Another member of the Georgia delegation said Baldwin was of "an accommodating turn of mind," and "well acquainted with Books and Characters."
Every lawyer on the Convention floor knew William Blackstone's Commentaries as well as his own handwriting. This familiarity caused Hamilton to allude to "the celebrated Judge Blackstone" when the debate concerned the focus of national power. Hamilton paraphrased Blackstone's remark "that the power of Parliament is absolute and without control" when he argued for a similar sanction in the Constitution. Eventually, the small-state delegates retreated and agreed that the Constitution, with its legislative branch as the working agent, "shall be the supreme Law of the Land." Blackstone's influence from the Commentaries is also evident in Article III, where treason is defined as "levying war against" the United States "...or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort." The words are straight out of Blackstone's chapter on treason, which he adjudged to be the most heinous of all crimes.
Books and a knowledge of historical characters were the mainstays of the American public man in 1787. Although delegate-lawyer John Dickson said during the August 13 debates, "Experience must be our only guide," what he meant was not personal knowledge but the valuable precepts of history that every man present had gained through reading. As bookbinders from Boston to Williamsburgh learned, their customers for standard legal works were often gentlemen who were not interested in being admitted to the bar. For lawyers as well as laymen, books served as practical tools for that generation nurtured to manhood during the colonial crisis from 1765 onward. Nearly all of them knew the ancient writers on history, particularly Thucydides, Tacitus, and Livy. Probably half the delegates were able to read Cicero, Demosthenes, Aristotle, and Polybius in their ancient forms. In all likelihood, they had some acquaintance with Grotius Law of Nature and Nations, as well as the volumes by Vattel and Pufendorf bearing the same title. Many delegates were familiar with works on moral philosophy (an adjunct to legal study) by the Scotsmen Francis Hutcheson and Adam Ferguson. Every educated American had read Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations by 1787. Less popular but revered by lawyers and laymen alike was Jean Jacques Burlamaqui's Principles of Natural Law, in Which the True System of Morality and Civil Government is Established, a standard work in American law offices that spread natural-law doctrines well into the nineteenth century. As Isaac Kramnich has noted, the Americans interested in improving mankind late in the eighteenth century "were much more likely to base their arguments on natural rights than historical rights." The fifty-five men at the Federal Convention actually preferred to involve both bases.
Clearly, most of the delegates gathered in Philadelphia were scholars of one sort or another. James Wilson, who spoke more than any other man during the proceedings, was a learned Scot trained at St. Andrews but Americanized in short order, and perhaps as well-read as any man at the Federal Convention. As a country filled with immigrants or the offspring of European immigrants, what was already unusual about America was that so many people read books. A contemporary Englishman who visited the new nation reported: "Whatever is useful, sells; but publications on subjects merely speculative, or rather curious than important, lie upon the bookseller's hands. They have no ready money to spare for anything but what they want; and in literary purchases, look for the present, or future use."
Indeed one reason Philadelphia was an attraction to the delegates was its libraries. The first Continental Congress met "in the Carpenter's Hall in one room of which the City library is kept & of which the Librarian tells me the Gentlemen make great & constant use," Madison was told in 1774. "Vattel, Burlamaqui, Locke & Montesquieu seem to be the standards to which they refer." By 1787 the situation had changed but little. The Free Library Company and American Philosophical Society collections were a quick walk from the delegate's desks, so that nowhere else in America was there such easy access to the collected knowledge of western civilization.
Moreover, the convention delegates were far ahead of most of their fellow men in terms of education, both formal and informal. A great deal of their leisure time was spent reading, and they read with much discernment. Two of the best-read delegates, Madison and Mason, were not lawyers and Mason's formal education was sketchy. Not all of the lawyers had attended the colleges at Cambridge, New Haven, Philadelphia, New York, Princeton, or Williamsburg, but most of them had a diploma from these institutions – Harvard, Yale, King's College (renamed Columbia in 1784), the College of New Jersey, or William and Mary. A few attended the Inns of Court or Inner Temple in London. These facts alone set them apart, for fewer than 2 percent of all Americans in the thirteen states had any formal education at all. Even so, Americans early on had stressed literacy in their daily, Bible-reading lives, and nearly every visitor from Europe was soon struck by the fact that even chambermaids and husbandrymen owned copies of Pilgrim's Progress or often read newspapers between their chores.
The revolution itself had been a great learning experience. By the time thirteen states had set up their own governments, lasted through eight years of war, and stumbled into a threadbare peacetime economy, the men chosen to be state legislators, councilors, congressmen, commissioners, justices of the peace, and other public functionaries had picked up a good deal of on-the-job training that required more than practical knowledge of the world. As the English bookseller noted, Americans keenly sought information "for the present, or future use."
On January 24, 1783, over seventeen years before the Library of Congress was established, Congressman James Madison presented to the Continental Congress "a list of books proper for the use of Congress." The books were never purchased. But Madison's comprehensive list of books for the intellectual nucleus of a legislative library is an outstanding example of his belief, shared by Jefferson and other founders of our nation, that if men possessed enough knowledge they would be able to solve the problems faced by the new nation.
During the latter half of 1782, the primary issues before Congress concerned finance, commerce, prisoners of war, western lands, and international affairs, including the alliance with France, the hoped-for terms of peace, the unsatisfactory relations with Spain, and the treaties with the Netherlands and Sweden. Most of the subject classifications in Madison's report reflect the needs of Congress for the guidance of authoritative works on these topics.
Madison certainly did not derive the names of authors and the titles of their books from a single source. Besides the modest library of James Madison, Sr., the private libraries of Donald Robertson, the Reverend John Witherspoon, and the Reverend James Madison suggest themselves, as do various institutional libraries, chiefly the Library Company of Philadelphia. Again Madison may have acquired much information by browsing in Philadelphia bookstores and scanning advertisements in the gazettes of that city. Among the volumes that attracted Madison's attention were the "near 4000" that Colonel Isaac Zane, Jr., had purchased from Mary Willing Byrd, the widow of Colonel William Byrd III, and brought in October 1781 to Philadelphia for sale at Robert Bell's bookstore near St. Paul's Church on Third Street.
During January 1783, when Thomas Jefferson was rooming at Madison's boarding house in Philadelphia, the two men surely conversed on the subject of a reference library for Congress. Many of the books Jefferson enumerated for his own desired collection parallel those of Madison.
Although neither Madison nor any other delegate in Congress could have known the exact number of titles and volumes in print by 1783, a reconstruction of Madison's list with full bibliographic information totals approximately 550 titles in about 1,300 volumes. Although the bulk of titles cover law, political philosophy, exploration and travel, history, and economic statistics, the list includes Encyclopédie Méthodique (Panckouke et al.) begun in 1782 and to include 192 volumes, a number of works on language, especially European, but also Richardson's A Grammar of the Arabic Language, 1776; Halherd's A Grammar of the Bengal Language, 1778; Ferguson's A Dictionary of Hindostan, 1773; and Jones, A Grammar of the Persian Language, 1771.
In time, of course, the rule of the patrician elite was supplanted by a popular democracy, but one cannot blame the democratic movement alone for the decline in regard for intellect in politics. Soon after party division became acute, the members of the elite fell out among themselves and lost their respect for political standards. The men who with notable character and courage led the way through the Revolution and with remarkable prescience and skill organized a new national government in 1787-88 had by 1796 become hopelessly divided in their interests and sadly affected by the snarling and hysterical differences which were aroused by the French Revolution.
The generation which wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution also wrote the Alien and Sedition Acts. Its eminent leaders lost their solidarity, and their standards declined. A common membership in the patrician class, common experiences in revolution and state-making, a common core of ideas and learning did not prevent them from playing politics with little regard for decency or common sense. Political controversy, muddied by exaggerated charges of conspiracies with French agents or plots to subvert Christianity or schemes to restore monarchy and put the country under the heel of Great Britain, degenerated into demagogy. Having no understanding of the uses of political parties or of the function of a loyal opposition, the Founders surrendered to their political passions and entered upon a struggle in which any rhetorical weapon would do.
Not even Washington was immune from abuse and slander. However, the first notable victim of a distinctly anti-intellectualist broadside was Thomas Jefferson, and his assailants were Federalist leaders and members of the established clergy of New England. The assault on Jefferson is immensely instructive because it indicates the qualities his enemies thought could be used to discredit him and establishes a precedent for subsequent anti-intellectualist imagery in our politics. In 1796, when it seemed that Jefferson might succeed Washington, the South Carolina Federalist congressman, William Laughton Smith, published an anonymous pamphlet attacking Jefferson and minimizing his qualifications for the presidency. Smith tried to show how unsettling and possibly even dangerous Jefferson's "doctrinaire" leadership would be. Jefferson was a philosopher and, Smith pointed out, Philosophers have a way of being doctrinaires in politics.
The characteristic traits of a philosopher, when he turns politician, are, timidity, whimsicalness, and a disposition to reason from certain principles, and not from the true nature of man; a proneness to predicate all his measures on certain abstract theories, formed in the recess of his cabinet, and not on the existing state of things and circumstances; an inertness of mind, as applied to governmental policy, a wavering of disposition when great and sudden emergencies demand promptness of decision and energy of action.What was needed was not intellect but character, and here too Jefferson was found wanting: philosophers, the pamphleteer argued, are extremely prone to flattery and avid of repute, and Jefferson's own abilities "have been more directed to the acquirement of literary fame than to the substantial good of his country." Washington – there was a man, no nonsense about him: "The great WASHINGTON was, thank God, no philosopher; had he been one, we should never have seen his great military exploits; we should never have prospered under his wise administration." Jefferson's skills lie in "impaling butterflies and insects, and contriving turn-about chairs." No friend of Jefferson or of the country should "draw this calm philosopher from such useful pursuits" to plunge him into the ardors of politics. Jefferson's merits "might entitle him to the Professorship of a college, but they would be as compatible with the duties of the presidency as with the command of the Western army."
In the campaign of 1800 all inhibitions broke down. The attempt to score against Jefferson on the ground that he was a man of thought and learning was, of course, only one aspect of a comprehensive attack upon his mind and character designed to show that he was a dangerous demagouge without faith or morals; or, as one critic put it, of "no Conscience, no Religion, no Charity." It was charged that he kept a slave wench and sired mulattoes; that he had been a coward during the American Revolution; that he had started the French Revolution; that he had slandered Washington; that he was ambitious to become a dictator, another Bonaparte; that he was a visionary and a dreamer, an impractical doctrinaire, and, to make matters worse, a French doctrinaire.
The campaign against Jefferson became at the same time an attempt to establish as evil and dangerous the qualities of the speculative mind. Learning and speculation had made an atheist of Jefferson, it was said; had caused him to quarrel with the views of the theologians about the age of the earth and to oppose having school children read the Bible. Such vagaries might be harmless in a closet philosopher, but to allow him to bring these qualities of mind into the presidency would be dangerous to religion and to society. His abstractness of mind and his literary interest made him unfit for practical tasks.
Nevertheless, Jefferson was elected, becoming president in order to appoint the first two Librarians of Congress and to suggest books for purchase and addition to the library. As President, Jefferson was frequently asked for advice of all kinds. One correspondent, John Norvell, is typical of the number asking for recommendations on books and how they might best pursue their own learning. Norvell wrote in May 1807, "I should be glad to have your advise of the proper method to be pursued in the acquisition of sound political knowledge. Is it essential that much history should be read? And if it be, be so kind as to mention those authors which should be read; as likewise those writers on political subjects, who may be studied to greatest advantage."
Here, in part is Jefferson's reply, which he says must be of very short notice. He mentions 14 titles in all, several of multitple volumes, and opines on each.
Norvell, who was only seventeen years old when he wrote to Jefferson, learned the journalistic trade in Maryland, studied law as well, and in 1817 purchased the Lexington Kentucky Gazette. Norvell moved to the Midwest, became involved in Michigan politics, and ultimately served as U.S. senator from that state from 1837 to 1841.
I think there does not exist a good elementary work on the organization of society into civil government: I mean a work which presents in one full & comprehensive view the system of principles on which such an organization should be founded according to the rights of nature. For want of a single work of that character, I should recommend Locke on government, Sidney, Priestley's Essay on the First Principles of government, Chipman's Principles of Government & the Federalist. Adding perhaps Beccaria on crimes & punishments because of the demonstrative manner in which he has treated that branch of the subject. If your views of political enquiry go further to the subjects of money & commerce, Smith's Wealth of Nations is the best book to be read, unless Say's Political Economy can be had, which treats the same subjects on the same principles, but in a shorter compass & more lucid manner. But I believe this work has not been translated into our language.
History in general only informs us what bad government is, but as we have employed some of the best materials of the British constitution in the construction of our own
government, a knowledge of British history becomes useful to the American politician. There is however no general history of that country which can be recommended. The elegant one of Hume seems intended to disguise & discredit the good principles of the government, and is so plausible & pleasing in is style & manner, as to instill its errors & heresies invisibly into the minds of unwary readers. Baxter has performed a good operation on it. He has taken the text of Hume as his ground work, abridging it by the omission of some details of little interest, and wherever he has changed the text to what it should be, so that we may properly call it Hume's history republicanised. He has moreover continued the history (but indifferently) from where Hume left it, to the year 1800.
With Jefferson we continue the next chapter of this history. For when the British burn Washington in the War of 1812, Jefferson, always destitute for cash, offers to recover the loss of what library Congress had so far amassed, by selling his own collection to the nation. A partisan debate on the question followed.
© 2009 by Roger Sween.
I had thought to write an alternate history on the relation of books and learning in the United States on the occassion of the Bicentennial of the Library of Congress, but got only this far.
I am indebted to the following sources, especially those with *.
James Axtell, The School upon a Hill: Education and Society in Colonial New England (1974).
*Daniel J. Boorstin, The Americans: the colonial experience (1958).
John Y. Cole, Jefferson’s Legacy: a brief history of the Library of Congress (1993).
Robert D. Heslep, Thomas Jefferson and Education (1969).
*Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963).
Dumas Malone, The Sage of Monticello / Jefferson and his time; v.6 (1981).
John C. Miller, The First Frontier: life in colonial America (1966).
*Samuel Eliot Morison, The Intellectual Life of Colonial New England (2nd ed., 1956).
Russel Blaine Nye, The Cultural Life of the New Nation, 1776-1830 (1960).
S. Alexander Rippa, Education in a Free Society: an American history (1984).
**Clinton Rossiter, 1787, the grand convention (1966).
*Robert A. Rutland, “Well Acquainted with Books”: The founding framers of 1787; with James Madison’s list of books for Congress (1987).
To His Excellency Thomas Jefferson: Letters to the President. Compiled and edited by Jack McLaughlin (1991).
Lawrence C. Wroth, The Colonial Printer (2nd ed., 1965).
Thursday, January 22, 2009
In order to read more, I long ago gave up ephemeral activities. I was never interested in sports, not even as a spectator, I stopped watching commercial television, I skip most sections of the daily newspaper, but never the feature articles. Decades ago, I taught myself that if I start a book and it fails to grab me, I am free to quit it. Because of this choice, most of the books I read rate high with me.
I always have something to read with me, the expression in our family being, ‘You never know when you’re going to be caught in a flood.’ So, we carry our flood books. Because of some specific project, I research and read task-fulfilling stuff almost all the time, but when it comes to reading books generally, I fail my own expectations. Most of the books that I read to the finish are ones that I intend to read on an emerging priority basis or that I read in those hours, often between 2 and 4 a.m. When I cannot sleep, I regard tossing and turning as too wasteful. Because I am in a book club, I read a number of books that I would not otherwise choose.
Books Read in 2008 (listed chronologically).
Note: The ratings given follow the book club’s: 5-best; 4-top 20%, 3-middling, 2-less than average, 1-bottom. BC – Book Club selections. SF – Stratford Festival plays. YA-Title written for teenage or younger readers.
Amy Ephron, One Sunday Morning (2005). BC Though compared to Edith Wharton sendups on the social elites of 19th century New York society, I found this brief novel shallow, stupid, and boring. 1
Penelope Lively, The Photograph (2003). Gift* A landscape historian finds a picture of his deceased wife holding hands with her sister’s husband. He does not rest until he discovers what was going on. This quest starts a chain reaction among all those involved. Excellent treatment of character and manners. 4
Diane Lee Wilson, I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade (1998). YA A young Mongol girl, fascinated with riding and horses, impersonates a boy and by chance is trusted with carrying a secret message to the great Kublai Khan in China. A well done historical. 4
Brian Aldiss, The Dark Light Years (1964). Though I had read the short story that spawned this science fiction novella, the story intrigued me all over again. Aldiss is profound in contrasting human assumptions with alien existence. 5
Ayn Rand, ...Answers (2005). Since Rand’s death, her executors have resurrected a number of unintended books from recordings made of her speaking off the cuff. This one organizes by topic her responses from question and answer sessions following formal speeches. Though Rand was an early influence on my life, and although some of her answers are stimulating, many show her as extreme, violent, merely opinionated, and irritated. I take this collection as revelatory in its chance randomness but lacking in sufficient context. Valuable to students of Rand but cannot be rated.
Louise Erdrich, The Painted Drum (2005). BC Though Erdrich is a noted Minnesota author, this book is the first of hers I have finished, so I take that as a sign that it is easier. An authentic native drum so captivates an appraiser of antiquities that she steals it from the estate. The magic of the drum haunts her until it brings its own return to its place of origin. A beautiful story that crosses half the U.S., generations, and peoples also, thereby, fascinates. 4
Alfred Duggan, Growing Up in Thirteenth Century England (1962). YA Duggan treats a microcosm of Edward I’s time by profiles of the teenage children in three upper class families. Perhaps this makes sense since these had the most options, but I would have liked to see something more bourgeois. A clear picture of feudalism emerges, most of it comparatively grim. 4
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Heat and Dust (1975). BC An English woman in colonial India finds her life suffocating and to escape it spends more and more time in the palace of the local prince to disastrous results. I had expected more, but the story turned very flat. 2 Another novel with a similar theme, The Holder of the World (1993), by Bharati Mukherjee, I found far superior because of its meaningful merit and evocative movement. Give that one a 4.5.
George Bernard Shaw, Caesar and Cleopatra (1900). SF Though straying from the historical, Shaw’s comedy of the aging Caesar mentoring the teenage Cleopatra is a joyous romp of satire in the face of puritan traditions and illuminates the true worth of magistracy. 5
Lope de Vega, Fuente Ovejuna (1619). SF Previously unknown to me, the prolific maker of Spanish classical drama, regarded in Spain as second to Cervantes in their literature, was a later contemporary of Shakespeare. In this play, the residents of the village “Sheep’s Well,” rise against their vicious feudal overlord and kill him. All face death until the clement understanding of Ferdinand and Isabella reprieve them. As insightful to the time of its setting and time of its writing as any Shakespeare drama. 4
William Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost (1598). SF Of interest to me is how Shakespeare’s minor plays, some of them very neglected, are so fascinatingly wonderful. LLL is a courtly piece in which the King of Navarre and three of his fellows swear off women in order to devote themselves to study. Then arrive the Princess of France and three of her women. As the principals match up, the women test of the seriousness of the men’s interest and find them faithless. A messenger intrudes with the report of the King of France’s death; the Princess is now Queen, contrary to all history. So the play abruptly ends with this conceit of loss, though they men are set tests for a year and a day, upon which the women shall return to see what is proved. Yes, a slight story, most elegantly told with a hilariously silly subplot. For Shakespeare, this is a 3, overall in literature a 4.
Euripides, Trojan Women (415 BCE). SF Along with Euripides’ Medea, this is one of the most gripping and terrible tragedies I know, not excelled after 2,425 years. The women of Troy, soon to be sent into slavery, and the anguished Helen each have their say bringing the play step by step closer to grief until Hecuba, widowed of King Priam, and bereft of all her sons faces the final disaster. 5!
William Shakespeare, All’s Well that Ends Well (1623). SF As one of the “problem plays,” the problem here is that Bertram refuses to recognize his marriage to Helena so that she must win him by obtaining his ring and bearing his child when he deserts her. Most interesting is that Helena and the other women are heroic while Bertram is a cad. Another 3, 4.
Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). BC Do you know of Mr. Rochester, the brooding master of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre? Rhys wrote a prequel of Rochester’s earlier life and his wife’s origins in the slave-holding Caribbean. She is the crazy woman who burns down the hall at the end of Jane Eyre. Now you know why. Though a slender novel in size, WSS is profound as an artistic deconstruction of the pretense (or naïveté) of imperial fiction. 4
Vince Starrett, Life of Sherlock Holmes (1933). In a series of chapter sketches, Starrett treats Holmes and Watson analytically as though these characters had real lives, and thereby explains away the inconsistencies in their stories. Entertaining even if you are not a Baker Street Irregular. 4
Kiran Desai, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard (1998). The young son of a middle class Indian family is a disappointment to them. He has a low-level postal job and no ambition. Suddenly he goes off on his own to live in a tree in an abandoned orchard. His joyful solitude lasts until the neighborhood discovers him as a “holy man” and his notoriety spreads. Chaos follows. Desai has a wonderful way of writing with subtlety of connotation and verve of expression. This one was a great delight and I must explore more of her books. 4
Ursula K. LeGuin, Lavinia (2008). LeGuin has been among my favorite authors for 30 years. In her mature writing through this period, she blends exquisite prose, inventive situations, and depth of portrayal that always succeeds. In Lavinia she takes a slight reference near the end of the Aeneid to Aeneas’ Latin wife and builds a whole, marvelous story around her that is visionary, feminist, culturally significant, and artistically satisfying in the finest sense. A 5 once again.
Steven Saylor, Roma (2008). I came to Saylor through his early books on Gordianus the Finder, an early version of detective, who at first appealed to me as an industrious man able to step outside his illusions. His grunt work for Cicero in various cases, though critical of that articulate Roman, illuminate society in the years of the “great men” Sulla, Pompey and Caesar. Though Roma’s subtitle is the novel of ancient Rome, it is not so much a novel as an episodic series of stories and novellas that dramatize key episodes from the city’s prehistoric location to Augustus’ foundation of empire. The novelistic elements are two – two family histories that weave in and out of the major events and the evolution of Rome itself as a polity and culture. Though containing enough pettiness among the characters to wear me down, Saylor always vaults his homework into tensions that reveal as they intrigue. 4
Nancy Freedman, Sappho: the tenth muse (1998). Though Sappho’s poetry exists in scraps and a vaporous mystery surrounds her life, numerous books seek to make her into a whole person. This novel is one that I owned for several years before I got around to reading it. Freedman, new to me, writes with elegance and power and consistently uses metaphor and simile as no one I have read before. My only complaint was the heavy doses of eroticism and subsequent jealousy among characters that detracted from Sappho as a poet, feminist, and intellectual of her day. I wanted to believe that Sappho invented the concept of romantic love, a woman far in advance of her time and place. 4
Penelope Lively, Consequences (2007) Gift* Lively takes refreshing approaches in her various novels. This one tells the story of three generations of women through the 20th century. Each – mother, daughter, granddaughter – must seek her own path and relationships and thereby exercise both will and choice among the chance opportunities that life and history deal out. What a beautifully conceived and executed book of verity and significance! 4
*My friend, Cy Chauvin, and I have exchanged books at holiday times for several years. Because we share many of the same interests, including appreciation of the novel of manners, several of Cy’s gifts have been Lively books in this genre where she excels.
© 2009 by Roger Sween.