Saturday, January 4, 2020

Humanities, history and Harper Lee

I read a novel twice for the first time recently. I followed that up by reading another novel for a second time. I don’t know why I have not done this before, but I recommend it. Rereading literature can increase appreciation, something about a more complete situation model. The more literary the work, the greater the effect, or so the story goes.1 I also recommend reading about the books you read. Who is the author? What motivated the book? How was it conceived? Context adds value.

I wanted to read about the enigmatic Harper Lee whose To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most widely read American novels and among the most popular books to reread. I was inspired by Casey Cep’s Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee to reread To Kill a Mockingbird (it had been at least 25 years) which led to rereading Go Set a Watchman which led to reading Atticus Finch: The Biography by historian Joseph Crespino. The four books framed a short course in publishing, literary criticism, character development, history, sociology, and biography; a fascinating interplay of stories, real and imagined, and the fine lines that separate them.

The publication of Go Set a Watchman in 2015 created fresh opportunities to research the life of Harper Lee and review To Kill a Mockingbird and its characters, especially Atticus Finch; for some a disconcerting affair but also an enriching complexity that re-frames the field of view, removing from the shadows details in the lives of Lee and her characters that enrich rather than diminish her work. To Kill a Mockingbird is fluid and refined, simple even. But Go Set a Watchman is unencumbered, rough and raw, complicated by dissonance. Go Set a Watchman is the story that poured out of Lee first in the initial weeks of 1957 after a Christmas gift of time allowed Lee to quit her job and devote herself to writing. Go Set a Watchman provides insight into Lee’s life not available in To Kill a Mockingbird, exposing hidden kernels of her life’s truth that inform the lives of her characters, most undeniably that of Atticus Finch.

Lee’s writing life is fascinating and so was the process by which To Kill a Mockingbird emerged and grew to become one of America’s most purchased, most read, most celebrated novels, and how Atticus Finch became one of American literature’s most beloved characters. In The Furious Hours, Cep describes Lee’s interest in writing about the events surrounding a bizarre series of deaths in 1970s Alabama; an interest, Cep asserts, motivated by Lee’s experience helping Truman Capote research his true crime opus, In Cold Blood. While Lee never published this book, Cep tells this haunting story for her. But it is the second half of The Furious Hours that was most compelling; Lee’s childhood friendship and difficult adult relationship with Capote, her significant work on his most famous book, and her discomfort with the fame that came with the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird. In Atticus Finch: The Biography, Crespino delves more deeply into Lee’s relationship with her father, the inspiration for Atticus Finch, and the civil rights movement that provided the backdrop for the writing and publication of To Kill a Mockingbird.

While I was interested in the comparative literariness of Harper’s two novels and, upon rereading, came away with a greater appreciation for both books, it was less the construction of each novel and more the dynamic between them, played out in Lee’s real life story and covered so well by Cep and Crespino, that made reading them again so engaging. The Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee and Atticus Finch: The Biography are well researched, well written, and well worth the time.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Framing the history of school choice

In Public vs. Private: The Early History of School Choice in America, Robert N. Gross surveys the historical ground upon which American public and private school systems emerged and the legal context in which their relationship has evolved. Gross’s major assertion is that the state-sponsored frameworks erected to support public school development were also applied to private schools seeking a secure place in the education market in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The state participation and public regulation that promoted private school development can, Gross argues, also inform how we understand the nation’s larger regulatory state “with its often-blurred distinctions between public and private.”

Gross doesn’t make a value judgement about the merits of public or private education, either today or historically. Instead, he deconstructs their relationship to reveal the premises upon which today’s debates are still based.

Not gripping but fascinating. Not conclusive but thought provoking. Public vs. Private provides some answers but raises more questions. Read it if you want to better understand one of the nation’s oldest dilemmas, discern its component parts, and contribute to the current discourse.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

The Fiery Trial is artistic inquiry

Hardcover, 448 pages
2011 Pulitzer Prize for History 
Abraham Lincoln said writing is the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye. The assertion that writing is an art is certainly evident in Lincoln’s most famous pens. Read the Gettysburg Address. But a second, underlying, proposition in Lincoln's observation is perhaps more relevant to understanding the man himself. Writing informs thinking.

Lincoln’s private secretary, John G. Nicolay, referred to Lincoln’s pre-writing habits, jotting notes and recording fragments, as his “process of cumulative thought.” Lincoln used writing to understand the world around him. Indeed, Lincoln called writing the greatest invention of the world and the key to human progress.

In The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, historian Eric Foner tracks Lincoln’s personal and professional transformation, producing a sharply focused historiography of Lincoln’s evolving disposition toward the institution of slavery. Foner relies on Lincoln’s writing, his command of language, unique among presidents, along with his own deep understanding of 19th century American politics, to reveal Lincoln’s social, political, and moral maturation on the issue of slavery.

Foner notes that it is the precision of Lincoln’s writing, along with his principled consistency, that makes Lincoln’s record especially credible. For readers who only know the transcendent emancipator, Foner re-humanizes Lincoln. He synthesizes a process, discernible in the arc of Lincoln’s writing, that Lincoln pursued to grow unto himself and for the country.

If history is the art of making an argument about the past by telling a story accountable to evidence, The Fiery Trial is artistic inquiry. Foner questions, considers, infers but always returns to Lincoln’s own words, the evidence, to tell the story of a protagonist, conflicted, ambitious, yet sincere, who prevailed. The story is, in the mind’s eye, both tragic and triumphant. And well worth the time.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

An essential tome for readers of American history... and other good reads

Henry Clay: The Essential American by David and Jeanne Heidler is an essential tome for readers of American history. Congressman. Senator. Secretary of State. Strategist. Negotiator. Presidential Candidate. The Great Compromiser, Henry Clay occupies a place in antebellum statesmanship that few others can claim. And he clashed with most who tried. The Heidlers' research is impeccable, supporting great storytelling and providing context for the study of a life few surpass in influencing, sometimes for better and sometimes not, the turbulent youth of America's republic.

There There: A Novel by Tommy Orange is a mournful, haunting call about being homeless at home. It’s about race and place, past and present. A prĂ©cis of Native American experience in the prologue foreshadows a discomfiting read. And the stories of a dozen characters moving toward a single, fateful day delivers on that promise. The story is heavy but makes evident, through provocative, elegant language, what is not but should be in plain sight.

Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860 by Carl E. Kaestle is less a chronology of public-school history than a study of the social context in which public school systems emerged in the early years of the republic. It is relevant for those interested in the debates about public schools today, not so much form or function but purpose, especially the common school focus to develop citizens that could maintain government of the people, by the people, for the people, something that has been lost in today’s standardization movement in which schools are asked to do everything but develop citizens for democracy.

Visceral. Emotional. Tragic. Hopeful. Real. Raw. Powerful. The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a must-read for anyone interested in learning about the mental and emotional strain occurring as a result of injury or severe psychological shock; what is known, what is not known, and what might be on the horizon. David J. Morris writes with energy, urgency, and a personal authority that pulls the reader into the pages, into the stories, and as close to the minds of those suffering from PTSD as may be possible in literary prose.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Beware of snakes in the grass

Most people have a healthy fear of snakes. I don’t. I have an incredibly unhealthy fear of snakes. I see them where they are. I see them where they aren’t. I’ve been known to toss a bowl of popcorn into the air when they suddenly appear on the television screen. So, when I learned about the Cobra Effect, the circumstance in which a plan to reduce the venomous snake’s threat to humans actually increased the threat, I was horrified. But that’s nothing compared to the alarm I felt in reading The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better in which Daniel Koretz uses the Cobra Effect as a mechanism to organize the junk drawer of problems with standardized testing in public education.

Specifically, Koretz outlines an example of the Cobra Effect known as Campbell’s Law in which social scientist Donald T. Campbell asserts “the more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor." Insufficient measures generate distortions, and Koretz argues that in education, standardized testing is the insufficient measure.

The distortions?

There are too many for a short review but Koretz does a good job organizing the basic misunderstandings, unintended consequences, and defeat devices associated with standardized testing. From the widening gaps among the intended, taught, and learned curricula… to the people-sorting nature of standardized tests… to the incentivizing of instructional behaviors that run counter to how people learn, Koretz reviews the specifics of how standardize testing is an incomplete instrument for evaluating teaching and learning.

More importantly, in using Campbell’s Law, Koretz includes education in a broader discussion about social change processes, cleverly applying in his thesis what he recommends for education evaluation; broaden the discussion, increase balance in the evaluation process, recognize that there are tradeoffs in managing complex systems, and stop trying to quantify everything.

As much as I would like to make the comparison, standardized tests are not the Cobras of this story. Unfortunately, the Cobras are the distortions and unintended consequences of their misuse; score inflation, test prep, the needlessly diminishing reputation of public education, the struggles of the poorest students in a system not designed to account for them, and the limitations of an evaluation instrument built around regression to the mediocre.

I won’t throw a bowl of popcorn into the air the next time I see a standardized test, but I do fear the real snakes in the grass, the unintended consequences of misusing standardized tests. The charade, as Koretz calls it, will eventually come back to bite us.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Sowing the seeds of time

I don’t remember reading William Shakespeare’s Macbeth in high school, but I might if Dave Fogelstrom or Rusty Weaver had been in charge. I will remember reading their collaboration, McBeth and the Everlasting Gobstopper, for two reasons. One, it landed on my summer reading list after a chance encounter with Weaver in the shadow of one of the world’s most dangerous volcanos; a symbolic reminder, perhaps, that reading (and writing for Fogelstrom and Weaver) is a great way to let off a little steam. Second, the book’s super-heated, irreverent tone belies a sincere, soulful introspection that resonated with my own experience as a teacher. Gobstopper made me laugh but it also made me think and reflect and think some more; about the importance of teaching, about the worthy journey of learning, about the teachers I had in high school and what they might think of me today and about my own students and what I would think of them today.

I read Gobstopper shortly before having what Fogelstrom and Weaver call a Blue Heart diamond moment, one of the rare occurrences for teachers when the “fog of the unknown” lifts briefly, allowing a glimpse at the “mature result of our work.” It was a wedding; a moment in which the time between then and now dissolved, an occasion in which a former student’s thoughtful sentiment about the role of this teacher hit home. It was a moment to cherish, fleeting yet indelible. It was also a reminder that teachers breathe a song into the air, having faith that knowledge, wisdom, and the important stuff will go forth and be found again in the heart of a friend. Gobstopper reminded me of my own song, and my Blue Diamond moment revealed one of its resident hearts, which warmed my own. For that alone, it was reading time well spent.

Mount Rainier by Ed Suomenin | Flickr

Friday, June 22, 2018

A Shout in the Ruins leaves a lasting impression

The challenging part of historical study is listening, having the presence to hear the echoes of life long ago and appreciate the contemporary implications of an age from which all personal experience has passed. Literature can fill the gaps between names, places, and dates on the timeline, distill the subjective knowledge of life long ago, the affective derived only from context, from seeing, hearing, and feeling what once was. 

A Shout in the Ruins by Kevin Powers is an instrument for hearing the echoes, a model for historical reflection, a consideration of the experience and legacy of slavery, the physical and mental brutality of the time, and its reach far into the future. With language lyrical and laconic, Powers tells a story of love and loss… of one man’s life in the century after the Civil War and his attempt, near his term, to go back in time, to make meaning, to listen to the echoes of his own life. George Seldom’s search is for knowledge, not the kind found in history books, but the kind found in memory and experience. From the formative George, those things were hidden by the raw, remnant residue of slavery and war.
There is intensity in the rhythms of Powers’ writing that allow the reader to feel the moments in time the story traverses… the violence, the sadness, the despair but also the hope that the long arc of history does indeed bend toward justice.