Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Reading John Dewey

A few weeks ago, I happened on a slim book called Dewey on Education, edited by Martin S. Dworkin. Never having read any of John Dewey's work, I thought it worth reading. Having now read it, I'll say it is. Dewey served for me as a name for a school of pedagogy spoken badly of by many of the teachers and writers I respected: Santayana, Jarrell, and Flannery O'Connor come to mind. Jacques Barzun in his mentions of Dewey distinguished the man and his writings from the work of those who thought of themselves as Dewey's followers. It was in part Barzun's remarks that made me curious to read Dewey.

Dewey raises a question that may never have occurred to some who speak poorly of him: Shall these bones live? Less poetically, how shall we take the dead matter on the textbook page and make it into live learning? The question only intermittently occurred to me for a good deal of my life, and I think that many persons, particularly many of the well educated, haven't bothered to ask it much. I arrived in elementary school from a household that had books and parents that read them. My parents were comfortable with numbers. When I encountered history and geography in the classroom, I knew something of them. It really didn't matter that much for me, and for the students from similar families, that there were fifty or more students in the first-grade classroom. It did not occur to me, and probably didn't occur to my friends, to wonder what impression the school made on children from different backgrounds.

Dewey did not anticipate the excesses of those who thought of themselves as his followers. He writes in "The Child and the Curriculum"
Just as, upon the whole, it was the weakness of the "old education" that it made invidious comparisons between the immaturity of the child and the maturity of the adult, regarding the former as something to be got away from as soon as possible and much as possible; so it is the danger of the "new education" that it regard the child's present powers and interests as something finally significant in themselves.... It will do harm if child-study leave an impression in the popular mind that a child of a given age has a positive equipment of purposes and interests to be cultivated, just as they stand.
Yet Dewey's influence was not on the whole positive, I think. He became regarded as the leader, respected, maybe read, probably not quite understood, for the progressive schools movement. He inspired with enthusiasm those who did not correctly understand him. He did not overlook this efffect. After years avoiding association with it, he eventually accepted an honorary presidency from the Progressive Education Association, which he then addressed with a lukewarm speech.

Partly the problem arose from Dewey's writing. Dworkin writes that
Dewey wrote badly. His style was often opaque, his terminology ambiguous.... in a way, Dewey may be said to deserve whatever confusions came to be associated with his name. It may be no compliment to professional educators that they so easily understood Dewey while professional philosophers shook their heads.
Diane Ravitch writes of Dewey's prose as "dense and difficult", which is charitable, for the density is not that of semantic content: Dewey multiplies expressions without making his point clearer. He is apt to reach for a phrase that sounds good, as
Just as two points define a line, so the present situation of the child and the facts and truths of studies define instruction.
which recalls Euclid only to confuse: several pages later is a more sensible passage distinguishing the logical and psychological approaches:
We may compare the difference between the logical and the psychological approaches to the difference between the notes which an explorer makes in a new country, blazing a trail and finding his way along as best he may, and the finished map that is constructed after the country has been thoroughly explored.
And there are judgments that are just odd, as in this sentence from "School and Society":
Literature would contribute its part in its idealized representation of the world-industries, as the Penelope of the Odyssey--a classic in literature only because the character is the embodiment of a certain industrial phase of social life.
Dewey's description of the Laboratory School of the University of Chicago, a large portion of the book, may be mostly accurate, but I think misleads.  First, to the extent that teachers and students thought of it as experimental, it would have suffered from the Hawthorne Effect. Second, to the extent that the students were recruited from faculty families and from others interested in the experiment, the school had a considerable advantage: all that weaving, cooking, and drawing would not distract them from learning what they would have learned elsewhere.

There is a sentence in Santayana's The Last Puritan that I remember as "Learning, traced to its sources, was as fresh as sensation." On this, Santayana and Dewey are in agreement. The point lost, not by Dewey, was that learning was necessary. Teaching in the manner Dewey had in mind must be harder, not easier, than following a textbook, and the teachers must have mastered the subject well enough to set the textbook aside. This was not the message that those who claimed to be his followers understood.

Monday, July 28, 2014

When Almost Doesn't Work

We are having the basement renovated. Most of the work is in the hands of the contractor, but we are cleaning up the windows, which is to say sanding them down, moving and replace broken panes, removing and replacing old brittle putty, and someday painting them. We are old hands at the work, having done even more elaborate restoration of the first and second floor windows. The experience doesn't mean that the work is faster or more entertaining.

On Sunday I was trying to get the first of the cracked panes out. I scraped away as much as I could of the bits of old putty that obstructed its way, pulled the glazier's points, and used the scraper to dig out the putty beside it on both sides. I then started gently pressing up on the bottom of the pane. I thought I pressed gently, but maybe not. There was a Bang!, and about half the pane bounced off my chin on its way elsewhere. It may have been the same piece that grazed the heel of my hand. I took time off to clean up. The cuts were tiny: had I not been continuing with the work, I'd have skipped the bandages. The other broken panes came out less dramatically. Still, it reminded me that glass has very little flexibility, and that partly stuck can be as bad as wholly stuck.

We are also replacing the old hinges on the windows. As far as we can tell, nobody now makes quite the same pattern: the holes in the leaves don't line up. My wife says, Well they almost line up. I say, That's even worse: you would have to drill into the side of the original hole and enlarge it so that the screw won't hold. I guess we'll putty the holes and let the contractors figure out a new placement.

Friday, July 25, 2014

SysAdmin Day

Today, the last Friday of July, is SysAdmin Day, a day to celebrate the labors of systems administrators, which, if successful, are never otherwise noticed.* Systems administrators are the men and women who keep computer systems running. Anyone who has ever used a computer used by more than one person at once, or connected to a network, let alone blogged about cats, has benefited from the work of a systems administrator.

Many of us no longer see our systems administrators, for our systems are out there in the "cloud" rather than in a glass room in our buildings. But the sysadmins are out there, keeping the systems running, keeping the data backed up. If you can't buy any of them a beer, think good thoughts about them.

(Thanks to The Register for reminding me of the day.)

*Some months after the computers in a limited part of the University of California campus were networked together, in the 1970s, the administrators found it necessary to bring the network down for some changes. At once the halls were full of persons complaining that they couldn't get any work done. Or so I have read.

The Ad Council Tells Me

I walk to work some mornings, passing many bus shelters. Over the last several months, maybe two years, I have been seeing many advertisements on them with an "Ad Council" mark near the bottom. I learn from them that

  • We should save money.
  • We should set examples for our children.
  • We should listen to our children.
  • We should talk to our children.
  • We should give our children healthier snacks. ("Change Your Child's Snack for Good": I think the item shown was a mango.)
  • We should become teachers, make a difference, and make more. Alternatively, we should become a teacher since there is no reason to be anyone when we could be someone.
  • We should not drive under the influence of alcohol.
  • Avoiding eye contact is a sign of autism.
  • We should do more to keep high school students from dropping out.
  • We should save energy.
I don't necessarily disagree with any of these, though I bet that most of those avoiding eye contact around bus shelters and on buses are attractive women who are not even slightly autistic. But I do wonder

  • Whether the firms advocating thrift had any part of Citbank's "Live Richly" campaign some years ago, the one that was going on even as the banking industry was lobbying to make personal bankruptcy harder.
  • Whether the firms that want us serve our children mangoes have any snack food accounts.
  • How many of the designers at the firms would really care to work at a teacher's salary.
  • How much the ubiquity of these public service advertisements has to do with a depressed market for outdoor advertising.

Sunday, July 13, 2014


Noted a couple of days ago in Little Wilson and Big God, by Anthony Burgess, the first volume of his autobiography:

There is something desperately wrong with our remembering mechanisms. The trivial, especially if it is in verse, sticks. Great thoughts and great expression of great thoughts vanish. I have repertory of about a thousand popular songs and only one line of Goethe. From one of the 'Little Tales' in Punch, I remember this: "He said I love you, and she said I love you too. Then they went in to tea and he made jokes about the jam sandwiches.' What the hell is wrong with us? The greatness of James Joyce lies partly in his recognition of the importance of the trivial, but it is not his responsibility to explain the importance. Flaubert's Felicite dies seeing a parrot flutter over her head. I shall die on the memory of the HP Sauce bottle from which I first learned French:  'Setty sauce, de premier choyks. . .'
(I think that I have the advantage of Burgess in the matter of Goethe: I can remember three or three and a half lines, probably somewhat mangled.)

I suspect that the sticking power of the trivial verse comes in part from the age at which it is encountered. The lyrics of John Lennon or John Denver are remembered because encountered in childhood or adolescence, ages of energy and hope.  And I think that the same process works for much better verse. The Athenians captured at Syracuse could recite Euripides at great length; Eugenia Ginsburg, on the train to Siberia, could recite Pushkin for half an hour by the watch; I'm sure that they learned the verse young.

Friday, July 11, 2014

A Sesquicentennial

One hundred and fifty years ago today and this weekend, Federal and Confederate troops skirmished on the outskirts of Washington, DC, three miles or so from where I sit. The Washington Post and other local news sources have items about the anniversary.

Federal forces under General David Hunter had been forced by lack of supplies to retreat from the Shenandoah Valley; their lack of ammunition meant that they had to retreat toward the Ohio River, rather than directly toward Harper's Ferry. This opened the valley to Confederate forces under Jubal Early, who crossed the Potomac, and moved on Washington. General Lew Wallace got together a scratch force of mostly raw troops, and fought a delaying action on the Monocacy River near Frederick. They Union force lost, but the Confederates were delayed a day, which gave Federal reinforcements, principally the 6th corps of the Army of the Potomac, to arrive from the James River.

July 12th and 13th saw skirmishing in front of Washington, mostly in the area around Fort Stevens, near present-day Piney Branch Road and Georgia Avenue, NW., though some Confederate cavalry made a reconnaissance in the direction of what is now the American University neighborhood. Fort DeRussy, in Rock Creek Park near Military Road, contributed fire support. Ultimately, Early decided that it was not worth trying to force his way into the city, and retreated.

Vestiges of the works and the battle remain. You can see the old earthworks at Fort Stevens from Piney Branch Road; you can see what is left of Fort DeRussy by walking a hundred yards or so in from the intersection of Military Road and Oregon Avenue, NW. Battleground National Cemetery, on Georgia Avenue, NW, between Van Buren St. and Whittier Place has graves of Federal soldiers; it occupies about a third of a city block. In the churchyard of Grace Episcopal Church in Silver Spring, about three miles north, there is a grave marker for some Confederate soldiers.

It certainly would have embarrassed the United States government to have the capital raided. Whether that would have had an effect on the war is less clear; there had been a year of successes by July 1864. Early's raid led to Philip Sheridan taking command of Federal forces in the Shenandoah Valley, where he defeated Early's forces at Fisher's Creek and Winchester, giving the US command of most of the valley.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

And One Grows Old

Mme. de Sevigne writes to the Comte du Bussy-Rabutin, August 6, 1675:
You also know about my life: five or six friends whose company pleases me, a thousand little duties, and that's something. But what upsets me is that the days go by in doing nothing, and one grows old, and one dies, and our poor life is made up of these days.
I can't say that many of my days pass in doing nothing; but enough seem to pass in accomplishing nothing, and given Mme. de Sevigne's thousand duties, perhaps that's what she meant.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Programming as Performance

Twenty-five years ago, in a systems administration class, I met a couple of women who seemed rather old, though reckoning says that they were younger than I am now.Both had started programming when it was an unusual occupation. At least one had learned the trade in Manhattan, which then probably had more programmers than Seattle and Palo Alto put together.

She told me that when she was a new programmer, the company's machine room had a picture window onto the sidewalk. Passersby would stop to look, for computers were few then, and not well understood. The programmer would hand off her card deck to the operator, who would read in the job, set it, and run it. This gave the spectators more to watch, for in those days tapes held much of the data and the work space, disk drives being new, few, and expensive: one could watch the drives go back and forth, tapes being taken down and hung, and so on. But if the program ABENDed (came to an abnormal end), all the tapes would stop at once, and the failure would be obvious to the public. It was, she said, a strong incentive to write one's program correctly.

I believe her. The PC revolution made it possible for millions to encounter program failures, and the web has greatly increased the number of programs and the number of users. But nobody has to hand off the code to an operator in full view of a sidewalk full of New Yorkers.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Historical Fiction

I think that the rules for historical fiction reduce to a generalization of one of Mark Twain's nineteen rules for romantic fiction, as given in "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses":
8. They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as "the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest," by either the author or the people in the tale. But this rule is persistently violated in the Deerslayer tale.
I would omit the reference to the woodsman and the forest, and settle for the crass stupidities not being played. But even this sometimes is too much to ask.

As to particulars, one must limit "historical fiction" to the historical novel, perhaps as practiced since Sir Walter Scott. The Greek and Roman epics are full of anachronisms: Homer has no idea of the tactics of chariot warfare (not that anyone else does); Homer's warriors wear armor of different eras; Virgil has bronze-prowed ships and makes his Trojans recline at table like Romans. Shakespeare has bells tolling the hour in republican Rome; he uses the name of a tough and durable partisan warrior for his wastrel Falstaff; and nobody cares.

But in the novel, details count. I should say that rules are something like the following:
  1. You have limited freedom with well-known historical events. You can write up Borodino as a draw, but not Marengo. You should not represent General Desaix as the victor of Hohenlinden, or place General Grant at Gettysburg.
  2. The diction should be internally consistent. Probably it is better not to archaize too much. Definitely it is best to avoid obviously recent usages: Matthew Brady had better not take "selfies".
  3. The characters' thoughts should be more or less appropriate to their era. They should not in the 1860s use the terms of 1970s psychology.
  4. Technology and its products should not be in advance of the age.
Beyond that, I think that the rules are those of general fiction. Your characters must be plausible. They must say and do what the reader can imagine them saying and doing in life. To refer again to Twain,
5. They require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject in hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the Deerslayer tale to the end of it.
11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency. But in the Deerslayer tale this rule is vacated.