a novel by JOHN GRABOWSKI

Posts tagged “Common Core Standards Initiative

Replay: Make way for the Stupid Generation II

UPDATE: Since writing this a little over a year ago, David Coleman, the “architect” behind educational “reform” in U.S. public schools, has only gotten bolder. Having seen his curriculum implemented by most states, he is now turning to post-secondary education. And his business cronies are very much with him there too, because there’s a lot of money to be made turning thinking, questioning children into productive and obedient workers. Just ask these people.

Or to hear the warm and cuddly Mr. Coleman explain it himself, click here.

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When Hollywood newbie Orson Welles was going to make Citizen Kane, he begged cinematographer Gregg Toland to teach him everything about how the camera worked. Toland told him not to sweat it, because he could learn all the technical details in one long weekend.

I guess Mr. Toland didn’t get the memo that instructional manuals are complex reading material that will develop and stimulate our children’s minds more than an education steeped in the classics (which Welles had) will.

475x350The U.S. government, under its new Common Core Standards Initiative in conjunction with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, wants to cut out 70 percent of the fiction reading in public schools, because, you know, kids spend too much time with their noses in books already, the little eggheads. The spokesperson for this idea, David Coleman, a businessman with his talons in the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other enterprises, says we can’t engage the bright minds of tomorrow in this Brave New World with the dusty minds of the past because this is a different ballgame, a fast-paced one that doesn’t have time for contemplation. “As you grow up in the world,” he says, “you realize people really don’t give [expletive] about what you feel or what you think.” I wonder if that thought has ever occurred to him about himself, because that was my first reaction.

Instead Mr. Coleman, and Mr. and Mrs. Gates, want the majority of reading in our high and middle schools to be of instructional or vocational manuals to prepare the kids for their careers. And people are taking this very seriously. So far 46 states and the District of Columbia have joined in. I keep waiting for someone to say, “April Fools” but so far this is being discussed largely with a straight face by people who call themselves “educators.” At the very worst it’s being offered with a “It isn’t as bad as it looks” disclaimer, which I remember hearing once from a Ford Pinto salesman too.

I’m writing about this again because I just bought a Blu-ray player. What does one have to do with the other? Well, I started replacing some of my DVDs with better-looking Blu-rays, and one of the very first to get the upgrade was Jean Renoir’s 1939 satire The Rules of the Game, which is one of about a dozen films I’d have to take with me if I were banished to a desert island, provided my desert island had electricity.

The film is intricately-plotted. I don’t think I fully understood it until I saw it the fourth time, and maybe I still don’t. Every time I watch it I marvel at the nuanced layers of character and social skewering that goes on. Renoir—yes, he’s the son of the famous painter—wanted to show the hypocrisy of both the ruling class and the servants who kowtowed under them. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. At the premiere the audience tried to burn down the theater they were so incensed. The filmmaker made cuts to no avail. Then the French government got into the act and banned the film. When the Nazis invaded a few years later they too didn’t like it (for reasons this time dealing with the relationships between Jewish and Austrian characters) and burned it. (Prints were not found again until after the war.) You have to work pretty hard to piss of the French and the Nazis both!

As I watched I tried to imagine sharing my great enthusiasm for this masterpiece with one of my contemporaries and I realized I couldn’t. They were all ignorant of the social history and social classes behind the story, which takes its premise from Beaumarchais, who ruffled more than a few feathers when he premiered his play. The basic underpinnings continue to be used and adapted into the present, from Robert Altman’s Gosford Park to the somewhat dumbed-down but infinitely more popular Downton Abbey juggernaut. rules-of-the-game_image05Figaro/Rules of the Game/Gosford all show that the very rich and the very poor are anything but very different. But more than that, Rules of the Game is filled with subtle allusions, dry jabs and deft attacks at everyday societal norms not questioned on a regular basis. It’s the work of a brazen dramatist daring to clear his throat at the fancy dinner table and say something that will embarrass the hosts even as the hosts are feeding him duck a l’orange and pâté de foie gras. Yet it’s not stuffy: the blend of high and low comedy (there’s a chase through a chateau worthy of the Marx Brothers) make Rules of the Game as sophisticated as any great novel. And as timeless, because the more things change the more they really stay the same. I don’t think insulation manuals teach that, or teach many of the other facts of life that might make tomorrow’s worker bees a little upset with their overlords, but I digress.

Rules of the Game tells us many things, but the over-reaching theme is that the rules are made by the rich and they serve the rich, and one of their most important jobs is to keep this important knowledge from the poor, or to make the poor so dependent that they rationalize the rules away themselves. It’s probably not an accident that the freest spirits in the movie end up either dead or dismissed from service, and the brownest of noses come out in the best shape.

rulesofthegame01As I sat there realizing I could not share my filmic experiences with anyone I knew, I tried to think of what technical manuals educators wanted our kids to read (because literature “doesn’t prepare them for the complexities of the world,” according to Mr. Coleman) that would have equivalent value. Would Recommended Levels of Insulation by the the US Environmental Protection Agency, or Invasive Plant Inventory by California’s Invasive Plant Council to pack the same punch or better-illuminate the world these kids would someday go out into, better? We’ve already been told kids no longer need a foreign language requirement. Then most sociology was stripped from the classroom because it was “too controversial.” Now we don’t need literature either—and indeed, to make iPhone apps, to drive tractors, to sell computer equipment, to write web code that pops up and reminds you to buy certain brands of vodka or SUV, you don’t need William Golding. In fact, Golding may hurt you because you might read it and realize how people who seem to know what’s best are really oftentimes fools.

Back when I was in middle school our history teacher told us that one of the hallmarks of the communist countries (this meant the Soviet Union) was that they merely trained their workers to be drones, cogs in the machine, slaves. They didn’t have free minds, he said. They weren’t permitted to read much literature in school because it was subversive. It caused dissent, unrest, made them think about their situation in life and alerted them to the fact that there might be other places where things were better. Or at least different. That distinguished them from us, he said, and those words were something that really stuck with me.

Now I’m hearing “educators,” and damn if I can type that word without putting quotes around it, want to strip away a good deal of the same material, arguing the purpose of school is to make them efficient workers able to compete in the 21st century. But I never thought public education was intended to turn children into hardworking little machines. Back when I went to school that’s what they did with the hopeless kids who weren’t bright enough for an academic course—they went to a “skills center” three days a week and learned carpentry, or how to drive a forklift, or assemble electrical components on an assembly line. Not that there’s anything wrong with those things, but I was grateful that I was getting an education in history, literature, science, sociology, music and art. As my college advisor Sari Thomas told me, as Gregg Toland told Orson Welles, you can learn how to be a button-pusher later, in a long weekend.

To be fair there are many teachers who’ve voiced their displeasure. But even their arguments are not, to me, as strong as they could be. Rather than point out that it’s important to “engage” the imagination, and that beauty and feelings are necessary too (they are, but you rarely win with a mushy liberal argument like that) they should point out that Figaro helped usher in the French Revolution, and for that reason was banned in Austria and other countries. (Remember that confrontational scene in Amadeus between Mozart and the emperor?) They should mention that whenever a dictator seizes control, artists and writers are among the first people he rounds up and imprisons or executes. I doubt the writers of technical books get tortured, though judging by some of the manuals I’ve read, they should be. In fact, countless technical manuals would be better-written, eliminating costly mistakes to industry as well as serious safety breaches, if technical writers were better-versed in reading and writing comprehension. Some of their efforts would be funny, if billion dollar decisions weren’t being made on them.

Rules of the Game - ChristineI would wager if half the MBAs in this country were replaced by English lit grads, the bottom line of the Dow and the NASDAQ would actually be improved. As recently as the late 80s, conservative businessman Harvey Mackay, in his bestseller Swim With The Sharks Without Being Alive, urged people to master the written and spoken language by reading voraciously, saying that anyone who was good with words “had it made.” Judging by the wealth of literary references in this and other books he’s written, he’s well-educated and no stranger to the canon of Great Books. He also had no technical training whatsoever and has led one of the most successful (if not the flashiest) companies in the last half century, Mackay Envelope.

I’ll close with a borrowed thought, from two columnists at The Washington Times. Their excellent article on the Common Core Standards ended with this:

We lost our literary heritage once — when Rome fell and the world descended into the barbarity of the Dark Ages. The great works of antiquity really were lost in this period, physically lost. How sad that after our medieval ancestors took such pains to recover and preserve that heritage, we are starting again to lose it. Yet the books are no longer lost.

We are.

That hit me so hard that I’m going to repeat it.

We lost our literary heritage once — when Rome fell and the world descended into the barbarity of the Dark Ages. The great works of antiquity really were lost in this period, physically lost. How sad that after our medieval ancestors took such pains to recover and preserve that heritage, we are starting again to lose it. Yet the books are no longer lost.

We are.

Part I of this blog post is here.

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Reading: It’s good for you

Reading is good

Drink your milk, exercise and read.

Several recent studies refute U.S. College Board president David Coleman, who takes the position that reading literature isn’t very important for developing the mind in this day and age. Specifically, he says, “Forgive me for saying this so bluntly. The only problem with a [personal narrative] writing is, as you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give [expletive] about what you feel or what you think.”

I know I’ve been ramming his arse pretty heavily on this blog, and generally I try to steer clear of political topics, but seriously, an educator said that. Imagine if the head of the EPA said, “Trees? What do we need with those silly things? They just drop sap all over my car.” Or as Homer Simpson might say, “Stupid no-good trees! What have you done for me lately? D’oh!” And Mr. Coleman strikes me as about as intelligent as Homer Simpson, but fortunately Homer is in a harmless job that only involves handling nuclear waste. Mr. Coleman is controlling the education of our children.

As I’ve said before, Mr. Coleman would rather see our youngsters preparing for jobs today by reading “technical manuals” than by studying the getting to know thoughts of the great people of the past, because the type of jobs America seems hungry for these days eschews this kind of ambiguous thinking. (“Eschews,” Dave. Look it up if it’s too tough for you.) Better to be a good, productive worker.

Not that I’m condemning any sort of workers, from baristas to barristers. But we used to push our kids to do so much better and aim so much higher in the United States, not very long ago. We’ve changed radically—and scarcely anyone has noticed (or at least commented). There’s hardly a peep about Mr. Coleman and his Common Core Curriculum in the mainstream media, and what has been written has been neutral at best and laudatory at worst.

But as David Chura says in this interesting article, the Common Core designers believe students are unable to analyze complex and government documents because they’re reading mamby-pamby literature. In other words, reading insulation manuals instead of George Orwell will help them understand the governmental double-talk surrounding climate change, starting with the fact that the government insists on calling it “climate change” rather than global warming.

The Common Core answer is for “informational texts”—those manuals—make up 50 percent of elementary school readings and 70 percent of 12th grade readings by 2014. If you do this you get money from a number of “philanthropic” organizations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who don’t have a vested interest in creating a vast hive of technical workers bees, honest. (On second thought, maybe those workers could improve Windows 8.)

Now several independent studies, including a recent one from The University of Toronto, find that people who read a great deal are better at solving problems that come up in business every day. It seems those who excel in business—those entrepreneurs we love to love so much—don’t just type code and geek out all day. They have to analyze strategies, manage people, follow the business market, figure out logistics and legal issues—in short, understand human nature. But don’t just take my word for it: no less than the Harvard University John Shad Professor of Business Ethics, Joseph L. Badaracco, says the same thing.

For years Badaracco’s been teaching a course that uses literature to help develop leadership skills. He has also made his case in a book, Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership Through Literature. “Literature gives students a much more realistic view of what’s involved in leading,” he says.

The Toronto researchers meanwhile found that people exposed to complex reading material—material that offers no clear-cut answers but shows the folly of those who think they have them—better recognize and accept ambiguity and therefore don’t rush to judgment.

And it’s something we—and Americans especially—have become terrible at in the last quarter century, as so much is increasingly presented in simpler and simpler terms, whether by the news media (“Is your child safe?” “Will the victims of this tragedy ever feel closure?”), movies (driven by one-dimensional characters and situations and unrealistic choices), and music (I won’t even go there; the lyrics alone are way too explicit and degrading, the emotions childish, the musical content simple and repetitive).

If I were Mr. Coleman, I’d be a lot more worried about our children growing up in this sewage than in them getting too much exposure to Shakespeare or Dickens or Flaubert. During the aftermath of 9/11, when our administration chose to attack Iraq as a sort of cathartic vengeance while the constant drumbeat of non-existent WMDs) played in the background as justification, more people might have better understood the folly of this misdirect if they were familiar with the opening of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I. Alas, they were not.

Maybe we should have been a little more suspicious of group-think. Like the sort going on in education right now. Forty-six states and the District of Columbia are on board for the Common Core Curriculum. But remember when everyone embraced New Math, too? (You really should click on that link to watch the Tom Lehrer clip if you don’t know what I’m talking about.)

Read more about the Toronto study here and here. And read about similar fears over the desire to take apart the educational curriculum in the UK here. Only, it appears the changes they fear happening are largely how things are already taught in the U.S.—the standards we’re trying to protect, in other words.

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Lads from Liverpool: “Serious literature acts like a rocket-booster to the brain”

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That’s what Philip Davis, a research professor, concludes after a study found the obvious, namely that reading literature stimulates the brain to think, reflect, and solve problems. And vacuum cleaner manuals do not.

The research was conducted at Liverpool University, and while I’m not sure whether it was a deliberate and direct response to the dumbest idea to come out of the U.S. Educational system since New Math, namely, the Common Core Standards Initiative, it sure does show the idiocy of people who call themselves educators but who will really shill for anyone who will fill their pockets.

The pocket-fillers in this case are David Coleman, who is the granddaddy behind these Core Standards, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Bill Gates is the chap whose company is behind such products are Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows XP and since his abdication the even more-ill conceived Vista and the current fiasco Windows 8. Unable, after more than fifteen years of trying, to create a computer operating system that isn’t riddled with bugs, bloat, security vulnerabilities, and ridiculous “features” like balloons that pop up every few minutes to tell you you are connected to a network or you need to update your drivers, the Wizard of Bloatware is now turning his sites to educating the entire U.S. population.

It would be so funny if it were the punchline to a sitcom.

Bill and Melinda, by way of Dave, think that instead of reading Orwell and Melville and Shakespeare, kids should spend more time with “instructional manuals” to stimulate their practical side. Books that teach them useful skills, like how to install Microsoft software or, I kid you not, insulate a house. (This from the Core’s own suggested reading list.) That anyone who’s called an “educator” could advance this and be taken seriously is beyond belief. But Coleman defends his position by saying, “Forgive me for saying this so bluntly. The only problem with [personal narrative] writing is, as you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give a[expletive] about what you feel or what you think.” (Side note: He thinks this is a good thing? I agree there are more and more places where no one gives a bleep what you think. I thought the USA was all about fighting this sort of ignorance.)

He and others like him maintain that non-fiction gives students the ability to digest and analyze complex information. Literature is just girly stuff, I suppose. You can just watch Downton Abbey on public television. At least, you can until the government shreds that.

Well, the folks in Liverpool disagree that it’s nothing but naval-gazing. They’ve found that the very areas of your brain these Core Curriculum people want to stimulate are energized with the Bard and the Woolf. And lots of other people Mr. Coleman finds non-relevant in this hut-hut-hut world.

An article on the study explains:

Using scanners, they monitored the brain activity of volunteers as they read works by William Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, T.S. Eliot and others.

They then “translated” the texts into more “straightforward”, modern language and again monitored the readers’ brains as they read the words.

Scans showed that the more “challenging” prose and poetry set off far more electrical activity in the brain than the more pedestrian versions.

Scientists were able to study the brain activity as it responded to each word and record how it “lit up” as the readers encountered unusual words, surprising phrases or difficult sentence structure.

Self-help, and presumably other instructional books, didn’t have the same effect, the study found. I’m shocked, as Claude Rains says in Casablanca.

As for me, I think this is just another in a long line of excellent arguments for home-schooling.

I’d love to send a copy of this study to Mr. Coleman, but I’m sure he doesn’t read. And doesn’t care that he doesn’t read.

If you’re an indolent latte-slurping hippie who does, the entire article can be found here.

Another excellent article is here.

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The Hoover Chronicles: Breaking Dawn

I was looking for something new to start reading the other day and was about to reach for a book on my shelf when I remembered the U.S. Government’s new Common Core Standards Initiative, so I decided to grab an instruction manual anyway.

The Initiative, as you may not have heard of it since the media is busy chasing Justin Bieber and speculating on Obama’s cabinet appointments, is a new set of educational guidelines that say public schools should stop wasting their time teaching boring ol’ Huck Finn and Chuck Dickens because that stuff’s just liberal arts pussy stuff. The program is being funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which wants to cut 70 percent of the fiction reading in public education. After all, after smoking in the bathroom, the biggest problem teachers are facing in schools is the kids read too much lit. The spokesperson for this plan, David Coleman, says, and I quote, “I’m sorry, but the truth is as you grow up in the world,you realize people really don’t give [expletive] about what you feel or what you think.” So Coleman, as well apparently as Bill and Melinda Gates, is advocating the substitution of instructional manuals such as Recommended Levels of Insulation by the the US Environmental Protection Agency, the Invasive Plant Inventory by California’s Invasive Plant Council. No, I’m not being funny, look it up. These teach children how to process complex cognitive tasks, they say, whereas from Moby-Dick they only learn how to harpoon whales.

So with that in mind, instead of reaching for silly crap like Kafka, I grabbed an old Hoover vacuum cleaner manual out of the closet, poured some coffee, and settled down to a cozy afternoon read.

I have to admit, the cover just grabbed me. How can anyone resist this? My crappy pictures taken in poor light because it was a rainy day don’t convey the excitement I felt as I opened the instruction book to the Hoover Bagless Wind Tunnel Vacuum! Why haven’t we seen the movie yet, starring Kristen Stewart?

But the fun was just starting.

safeguardsThe page of safeguards made excellent reading to train young legal minds, I realized. Eighteen legal points just to operate a home vacuum cleaner! Students will quickly learn what a mindblowly-litigious society the United States is. (If you need further proof, just note the number of legal disclaimers, warnings and safeguards you get on your TV screen—in multiple languages—when you insert a simple DVD.) This is valuable educational material. I am surprised, upon reviewing it, that they don’t warn you not to use the vacuum in the bathtub, which they do warn me with my TV.

I know many of today’s young people like to read so-called “graphic novels,” known in less inflated times as comic books. Now that graphic novels are thought high art, and should, according to some, occupy a place alongside the Mona Lisa and Raphael’s Madonnas, students may find the pages of fascinating illustrations to be captivating and another reason to read these manuals. Look at these fascinating drawings of how to replace parts in your vacuum cleaner, for example, drawn with a draftsmanship Leonardo might envy:

Many educators bemoan the fact that the foreign language requirement is disappearing from our schools, and kids are graduating today knowing only English. Since most manuals are written in about a half dozen languages from English to Mandarin to Tamil, students will get excellent exposure to the many tongues and cultures of the world.

And just like many controversial works of literature, some manuals deal with explicit situations that may be controversial or offensive. Some manuals are so suggestive, with sections on suction, stimulation, and horsepower, that they may need to be censored:

Motor skills and following directions are tested with the quick assembly guide and the registration form that must be filled out at the book’s end.

I admit I started out skeptical, but I found after a couple hours’ reading with this booklet that the Hoover vacuum instructional manual has a lot to offer our young people in their journey to being more productive, technically-competent, info-filled, hard-working, untroubled producers for our great American economy…just like these folks.

Sierra Exif JPEGOh glorious day!

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Make way for the Stupid Generation

teens-on-cell-phones

There was the Beat Generation. The Lost Generation. Gen X and Gen Y. Now I fear we are about to unleash the Stupid Generation. And it’s not, strictly speaking, their fault.

I know it’s a bit of a downer to post something like this fresh in the new year. We’re supposed to begin with optimism for better times. After all, isn’t that what New Years is all about? (Well, that and drinking.)

But something has me both deeply depressed and astonished, something that in better times would be a mock headline from that parody newspaper The Onion. But it’s quite real.

The U.S. government, which has been trying all sorts of programs for the past 20 years (“No child left behind!”) to get our kids smarter in lieu of simply sticking to a curriculum of hard-core education, is now pushing what it calls the Common Core Standards Initiative. So far 46 states and the District of Columbia have embraced this fiasco, which states, among other atrocities, that students now only spend thirty percent of their English reading time on literature such as Huckleberry Finn. —Oh, wait, Huck didn’t make the cut. He wasn’t deemed relevant.

Seriously.

So what do teachers have to teach the other 70 percent of the time? Non-fiction items such as instructional manuals and technical reports.

I’m not kidding. “Informational texts,” they call them, a term that should be swept up and thrown into the garbage by, hem, sanitation engineers. You kids who thought Madame Bovary was boring are in for a shock…

The architect behind this colossally-bad idea, David Coleman, said, and I quote, “Forgive me for saying this so bluntly. The only problem with a [personal narrative] writing is, as you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give [expletive] about what you feel or what you think.” (Side note: And he thinks this is a good thing?) He and others like him maintain that non-fiction gives students the ability to digest and analyze complex information, the sort found in studies and reports. Literature doesn’t fill your noggin with useful knowledge. That’s why writers are never targeted as dangerous or subversive. When totalitarian regimes come to power, the first people they lock up are the ones who write manuals. They are also the leaders of social change, not Dickens and Orwell and Twain.

That could only have been said by someone who cut all his lit classes in high school and got someone else, probably some nerd with double his IQ, to write his papers.

bill-and-melinda-at-lee-high-school-houston-texas

Incidentally, counts as his supporters the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Participants get funding grants from Bill and Mel. Now, if you sell nails wouldn’t your solution to all of life’s problems be a nice, shiny new hammer? More hilariously, though, the man who couldn’t give us a stable computer platform is now going to tackle the U.S. educational system.

One of the things literature has taught me is how to recognize conflicts of interest, and, more broadly, how throughout human history, from Homer to Chaucer to EL James, people act in their own self-interest, while rationalizing that interest to the hilt. So forgive me when I make the observation that the B&M Gates Foundation has a personal financial stake in rewiring the curriculum to suit what it has to sell. The astonishing thing is so few of the media “watchdogs” out there have picked up on this. Or if they pretend to they quickly dismiss it with a quote from Mr. Coleman. “Frankly, I think there’s a disproportionate amount of anxiety,” he said recently. The new educational standard is backed by both the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. And while I don’t think he was asked, I’m sure Kim Jong-un would approve.

Some examples of the non-fiction on the list are Recommended Levels of Insulation by the the US Environmental Protection Agency, the Invasive Plant Inventory by California’s Invasive Plant Council and hypertext markup manuals. They’re not touting Tocqueville or Bernard Bailyn.

The thinking behind the Common Core Standards Initiative is that we’re living in an age of fast, fast, fast, baby! Tweets and Instagram rule now. Books full of words? You know, those things no one uses anymore when they can just type LOL and STFU and ;-).

If I had a nickel for how many times I’ve heard this age or this situation is new, that the old standards no longer apply. “We’re living in a different era,” Coleman said. I heard this when computers first spread into the classrooms in the 80s. I heard it during the first tech bubble of the 1990s. I heard it when Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 came into being. I heard it when the Dow hit 7,000 and again when it hit 10,000.

I can’t think of much that prepares students for critical thinking, as well as attention to detail, organizing thought and argument, and understanding different and opposing points of view, better than reading literature. The lessons of despotism, futility and intolerance in Shakespeare, Orwell, Twain and so so many others reveal these “educators” for the charlatans they are, for their either don’t see it too or they’re ignoring it, realizing the fraud they are perpetrating for some quick Microsoft bucks, and either way they should be flunked and expelled. George Orwell explained very clearly the benefits to writing—and thus reading—in his famous essay “Why I Write.”

Instead we’re being told reading “informational manuals” will teach us more about the world and our place in it than Richard Yates and Virginia Woolf. Never have I seen a generation in the pockets of the technocrats more than the current one, willing to eschew any intellectual or moral standards for a fast buck. man-installing-attic-insulation-getty_1447405dd07dabc5bd98ebf76c724af9_3x2_jpg_300x200_q85Never have I seen administrators so uncritical of the solutions they’re sold. And what used to be a skeptical media has been demolished or bought off by this same technology—today anyone with a camera phone (which is to say anyone) can snap a picture and email it to a “news organization” and that person’s “report” will “go viral.” Who checks to see if that person understood what they photographed? Who follows up on the facts? Who is responsible? We used to call them “gate-keepers” with a certain negativity, but in my opinion we could sure use those gatekeepers now. The best of them had excellent critical thinking skills acquired through reading the great minds of the past, folks who’d been around the block before you and see maybe more than you had and had something to say, wisdom to impart.

For you younger readers, this is different from a mere blogger, who is anyone with an internet account (which is to say anyone).

If you’ve read your Fitzgerald, you’d understand that the claim “We’re living in a different era” is far from new—and you know how his era ended. If you read your Woolf, especially if you are female, you’d understand why it’s so special that today you can sit in the same classes as the boys and read the same books as they do and acquire the same knowledge they can, whereas a hundred years ago nobody wanted ideas in your pretty little heads. If you’ve read your Harold Frederic, you’d know the dangers of hubris and faux sophistication. Then you’d recognize that all of this is still very much with us, and always has been and always will be, and that we are definitely not living in times that are in any way different or new. In short, you’d be a lot harder to hoodwink, you’d see through shell-games easily, and you’d really have that marvel of marvels, an education instead of technical knowledge that allows you to excel in one area while remaining an overall ignorant member of the human race.

That’s one of the crucial qualities that distinguishes literature from entertainment—literature is skeptical. Literature asks questions and often finds answers that aren’t pretty but are true. I get the impression these technocrats think reading The Red Badge of Courage is no different than reading Sue Grafton, and that it’s dispensable, a luxury we can’t afford in this age of work work work. And defenders aren’t alerting them to the difference, either because it’s become gauche to point out that certain things have artistic or intellectual superiority to other things or because they themselves don’t get it. And the latter would not surprise me—the liberal arts tradition is generally not attracting the Best and the Brightest anymore.

When I watched members of the various “Occupy” movements last year, I was struck by the fact that they had some very legitimate and deeply-felt issues that they wanted addressed. What they lacked was the ability to clearly articulate them. They knew and know that something is wrong, and that the deck is stacked against them, but I could tell they couldn’t quite express or explain exactly how. They lacked the very analytics that literature—great literature, not Twilight—can provide.  Literature contains allegory, analogy, comparison, irony, parody, ironic distance, and many other teaching techniques that roll off of today’s working people—even educated working people—like raindrops off a vinyl slicker.

Or, just to put it all in a sentiment short enough for a tweet: if literature weren’t of paramount importance, dictators wouldn’t make the censoring of it one of their first priorities when they take power.

See, that’s 136 characters, including spaces.

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