Classical Children’s Movies: Shrek

I have a teenage son, so in my ongoing acts of desperation to get him to like me, I watched Shrek with him last night. In order to redeem the time spent on it, I am going to write a blog post assessing the movie.

Before I do, you must know not to take this post seriously. I have only watched Shrek once now, and nobody can effectively review anything that he knows as poorly as I know Shrek. There may be layers of irony and insight hidden in the movie beneath what I write about in what follows. So take my humble comments below with a grain of salt.

Humble comment number one: This movie should never be watched by anyone under any circumstances.

I’ll give three reasons because they come to mind the fastest. First, it’s a horrible movie for little children to watch because it corrupts their impression of every fairy tale ever ruined by Disney. This movie is guaranteed to undercut a child’s moral development because it robs him of the metaphors developed over the centuries that help children understand and interpret a horribly complicated world.

It does so, of course, because prior to the 20th century everybody everywhere was guilty of the one intolerable vice. They were intolerant. So we have to teach children to tolerate everything. Old fairy tales taught children to be afraid of giants (i.e. adults they didn’t know), and witches (i.e. people who accepted no natural limits on what they allowed themselves to know and do), and yes, I have to say it, ogres (i.e. what they will grow up to become if they go around expressing themselves without restrain).

Now we are taught to tolerate ogres because, after all, they can’t help that they’re ugly, and besides, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right?

Now look, Shrek does a sweet job of teaching people that they shouldn’t jump to conclusions about other people. And that’s a good lesson for an older child.

The trouble is, little children absolutely should draw hasty conclusions about other people. Strangers who offer them candy should be run from, no questions asked. Giants should be feared and fought against. Foxes who mislead and trouble-making boys who turn into donkeys should be avoided.

Little children NEED to learn intolerance of strangers as a survival mechanism.

But if the fairy godmother says the child should associate with someone, then the child should do so. And that, to those who just hastily and intolerantly read racism into the preceding, is the solution to that problem. Little children do a very fine job, I find, of playing with people they are told to play with. They trust authority.

Shrek, which speaks of moral matters as though it has authority, whereas in fact it has none, is harmful for little children. It’s a pied piper.

Second, it is a horrible movie for little children to watch because of the donkey. The humor practiced by this ass is exactly the sort little children should never hear. And it is the kind of humor that every children’s movie of the last 15 years or so that I can think of has used. Even that sweet masterpiece, The Lion King.

It’s the, “Hey, look at me! I’m here! I’m so funny, look at me, I’m here!! Notice me!” kind of humor that makes indulged children so painful to be around. To a healthy soul, the dissonance this humor creates is so great that it overcomes the laughter.

If I hated a child and wanted to make his life particularly painful, I would sit him in front of 1990’s and 2000’s children’s movies. Then I would send him to school and teach him writing. In writing class I would say, “Express yourself.” I would make sure that he thinks the purpose of all the arts is for him to express himself. Then I would offer him the utterly mystifying counsel, as early as possible, that he can use the arts to find out who he is.

If I were a demon, that is how I would raise children.

And that brings up middle school and high school children. The tone and humor of the movie is adolescent, although it is relatively restrained – unless I missed a lot.

So if an adolescent has learned all these fairy tales and knows their substance, he could watch the movie with some insight.

I’m just not sure why an adolescent would want to watch such a childish movie. If he does like it, and if he is attached to it, I’d try to figure out why. If it’s just a matter of sentimental nostalgia for a childhood favorite, that’s fine. This sort of thing is the punishment we parents have to endure for letting our children win the nag fights when they were little.

But if it’s any more than that, the child might need counseling.

Of course, if you go to a counselor, he’ll tell you to let him watch more movies like this so he can get in touch with his feelings and learn tolerance.

And if you liked Shrek, you might be inclined to believe him.

So I leave you with the words of Tiny Tim merged with the Gingerbread Man (which was a really funny, creative element in the story and could have carried a much healthier story all by itself), “God bless us, every one. “

Science and Art in Berry

It’s clearly bad for the sciences and the arts to be divided into “two cultures.” It is bad for scientists to be working without a sense of obligation to cultural tradition. It is bad for artists and scholars in the humanities to be working without a sense of obligation to the world beyond the artifacts of culture. It is bad for both of these cultures to be operating strictly according to “professional standards,” without local affection or community resonsibility, much less any vision of an eternal order to which we all are subordinate and under obligation. It is even worse that we are actually confronting, not just “two cultures,” but a whole ragbag of disciplines and professions, each with its own jargon more or less unintelligible to the others, and all saying to the rest of the world, “That is not my field.”

Wendell Berry: Reduction and Religion, in Life is a Miracle 

If, as always, Berry is seeing into the nature of things, no curriculum developer can take these words lightly. What do they say about the way we order our instruction, which, in most schools, is patterned after the Progressive model, derived from extreme naturalism?

Does this give any clues about where we need to go?

Why Private Schools Imitate State Schools

A mystery:

Given the state of the state run schools, why do Christian schools imitate the failing state system and approaches?

Suggestions:

  • Certification of teachers through NCATE
  • Control of assessment tools by Progressives
  • Financing
  • Private schools distinuguish the teaching and curriculum from the governance, thus imitating the former
  • Reputation by quantity (i.e. they’re big so we should be like them)

What do you think explains this, to my way of thinking, rather odd fact?

Teaching Bible in A Christian Classical School

When you engage in a battle, the enemy is constantly trying to direct your energies toward things other than your objective. Unfortunately, those distractions can’t be ignored.

That’s where we stand on curriculum in our day. We are so deeply immersed in a Darwinian mode of thinking (of course, it is called Progressivism) that going back to a Christian curriculum is extraordinarily challenging.

I’ve spend a lot of time trying to figure this out and have some ideas, but let me start with this suggestion (and forgive me if I’m redundant, but as I like to tell my students, I’m a teacher, I get paid to repeat myself):

Start with the ideas you want your students to understand. Make a list of 12 of them at a rather high level of generalization. For example, you want them to understand grace, justice, purity, etc.

Then add some that are more specific to the Christian tradition/doctrine: The two natures of Christ, the Holy Trinity, the church, etc.

Once those are identified, you can start working out the content and skills, and here you need to be agonizingly obvious and “unspecialized.” For example, under skills, you are going to want your students to learn how to read closely.

For content, you are going to want to choose specific stories that you’ll focus on as a school. These should be stories that 1. Embody the ideas you have listed above, and two, serve to order the stories you won’t be touching on in school.

Examples of the former would be The Good Samaritan as a type of grace, David and Goliath as a type of Faith, and so on.

Examples of the latter would be Moses leading the children across the Red Sea, which contains the whole Old and New Testaments in that one act.

The good news is that a lot of Bible stories have that quality to them. Be careful, therefore, not to try to get a one to one correspondence between idea and story. Each story will contain many ideas and each idea will be contained in many stories. That’s why your teachers should be free to teach a lot of stories and let the stories tell themselves.  

Another ordering story would be Abraham offering up Isaac.

You’ll also want to provide a structure for the narrative so the kids know where to place the stories. For that, begin by having them memorize the books of the Bible.

Then help them learn the different kinds of book (Pentateuch, history, wisdom, prophecy).

Then give them some sort of chant for the main events, something like the Walk-thru-The-Bible people do.

Creation-fall-flood-Babel-Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob-Egypt-Exodus-Wanderings-Judges-Kings and Prophets-Israel to Assyria-Judah to Babylon-Return under Persia-Greek Kingdoms-Roman Empire-Christ-Apostles-Church-Return.

Something like that, put to a nice rhythmic chant that the whole school can do from time to time.

Of course, there is more than just story in the Bible.

Under content, therefore, I would urge you to teach the tabernacle and the Levitical sacrifices. The entire New Testament is laid out in those sacrifices and in the priesthood.

This is the place for hands on projects. Have them make a tabernacle somewhere on the school grounds. But don’t have one class make a permanent one. Each class should do it at some point (probably around 5th or 6th grade).

What you want to avoid in Bible class is replacing the Bible with a Bible curriculum where some childhood psychologist expert has determined a better way to deliver the stories than God could come up with. They will be totally content-driven 99 out of 100 times.

We want our children contemplating the Bible, not merely remembering it with their heads.

Grammar Lesson 2: The Parts of Speech: Noun Side (with a little historical introduction)

What a funny term – parts of speech. Aren’t there other parts of speech besides the written words? Like gestures.

Well, not strictly speaking. Speaking is, strictly speaking, using words.

Do you know where the parts of speech come from?

Trick question. The come from language.

Do you know who discovered them?

Isn’t that an interesting question? Did you know that Aristotle would not have been able to name the eight parts of speech? I would like to develop this further in another post, but for now let me answer the question I started this paragraph with.

In fact, David Mulroy provides the answer in his The War Against Grammar:

“The individual responsible for dividing words into eight groups is known to posterity as Dionsius Thrax (“the Thracian”)…. He studied under Aristarchus, the head of the library of Alexandria and the greatest of literary scholars in the second century B.C. Later he taught grammar and literature on the island of Rhodes [ed. Note, does that make him a Rhodes Scholar or just a Rhode Islander?], another center of Greek intellectual life. There he did the usual thing for a professional scholar, publishing a number of treatises on language and literature. Of these, only a very brief one survives, Techne Grammatike (“The Grammatical Art”). Despite its brevity, it is reasonable to list Dionysius’ Techne among the most influential books ever written, for it was the work that introduced the eight parts of speech to the world.”

No small achievement!

As an aside, next time a fundamentalist Christian type asks you why you are wasting your time on “pagans” give them a one word answer: “grammar.” All the other answers are contained in that one.

Mulroy continues so we can see the context and magnitude of this accomplishment:

“Before Dionysius’ time, the classification of most words was up in the air. Aristotle and his successor spoke of nouns, verbs, and everything else; various more detailed systems of classification were proposed without catching on. Dionysius’ swept away the competition. His book became a standard textbook for centuries. His system was adopted by Syrian, Armenian, and Roman grammarians. Via the last, especially Donatus and Priscian, his influence pervades the grammars of modern European languages.”

Do you agree that there are eight? Do you agree that an article is an adjective?

Let me turn to the immediately practical: children need to learn the parts of speech as early as possible. Adults find it much more difficult to find the time and mental flexibility to learn them in their dotage (i.e. their twenties).

Notice that, from Aristotle to Dionysius, subject and verbs were clearly understood. It is worth pointing out that the parts all relate to subjects and predicates. Maybe he saw that.

A subject is going to be a noun, even if it is some other part of speech converted into a noun. Only a noun can have something predicated of it.

A predicate will usually be a verb. Can you think of any exceptions?

As soon as I have a noun, I’ll notice (often) that saying the noun is not enough to rightly express my subject. I could say, “X does this” but that would not tell me very much, unless the context tells me the rest.

So I’ll look at that noun and I’ll want to change it, to modify it. The most obvious change to make is to add an adjective.

Adjective comes from the Latin and it means literally “thrown near or next to”. This is, of course, a very concrete definition and doesn’t describe its verbal function, especially not in English. But if we think metaphorically, we can see the point.

An adjective is “thrown next to” the noun because the noun itself needed help or it needed to be modified. So we threw a word at it.

Logically or formally speaking, the attention goes to the noun, and that’s an important point.

There are exceptions. Sometimes the writer wants the attention to go to the adjective. Yet an adjective cannot exist without a noun to contain it, so even if you highlight the adjective, you’ll unavoidably highlight the noun it was thrown near, towards, or next to.

That point is important for some who want to argue that traditional grammar is all wet because some things are so hard to define.

Sometimes they claim that an adjective is a subset of the verb if we extend the meaning of a verb to include what the noun is or is doing.

Verbs and adjectives are remarkably similar. But the difference seems to be that an adjective can exist only “in” a noun, while a verb has an external relationship to the noun.

The other difference was pointed out by Aristotle. His explanation of a verb is probably more reliable than that in most contemporary grammar texts. A verb is difference because it has tense (past, present, future, etc.). Adjectives don’t.

As a speaker you might have another question you need to answer about a noun: are you talking about a particular noun or just any old noun of that kind.

In other words, are you talking about fish generally or the particular fish you want people to look at? Or maybe you are talking about a single fish, but not the specific one that somebody else might have talked about.

If you are talking about a specific fish, you will often use the definite article.

Talk about any old fish: no article.

One fish, but not a particular one: the indefinite article.

So in English we have two kinds of articles.

You could, of course, get sick of the noun you are talking about (I mean, of course, the sound-symbol, not the thing itself) or there might be so many of them that you can’t refer to them all particularly. In those cases, you’d use a pronoun, like “those” or “they.”

You remember “They” don’t you? They’re the ones who always know what to say and everybody knows what They say. I call them, “the Immortal They” and recognize that They rule the world.

There are different kinds of pronoun as well, but we’ll hold that off for another day.

There you have it: The Parts of Speech: Noun Side (not, please note, subject side).

Nouns, adjectives, articles, and pronouns.

Eacho f these helps us to better grasp the subject of our thought in most sentences. Therefore, they enable us to better understand the nouns included in our thoughts and, often, about which we are thinking.

If we know the parts, we can start thinking about the forms they take. That will come later.

Thoughts on knowing and the end of education

The english word epistemology seems like a technical word because it doesn’t come from the Anglo-Saxon or French and because it has taken on a rather precise meaning.

As a result, the word can intimidate the reader.

It doesn’t need to. It just means “what is knowable” or maybe “a set of beliefs or theories about knowledge.”

You can imagine that what you believe about knowledge would matter when you teach or build a curriculum.

What can we know? How do we come to know it? What does it mean to know? How is what we can know in one area related to what we can know in another area?

Your answers to these questions are your curriculum, so those answers matter.

So let’s take a moment and start to think about them.If we don’t, we’ll find ourselves teaching materials and in ways that we don’t understand and may not even agree with.

I would like to propose up front that we can find three broad theories of knowledge more or less commonly followed today and pursued through history.

For convenience, I will call them

  1. The Christian and classical view of knowledge
  2. The traditional view of knowledge
  3. The Pragmatic view of knowledge

The pragmatic view is the one people follow most closely in our day when they are consciously following a theory. It’s greatest champions have been men like Francis Bacon (knowledge is power), William James, John Dewey, and Machiavelli.

In the pragmatic view, knowledge is the ability to do something, especially to adapt to and exercise power over the environment. Dewey and James are the most explicit theorists, and Dewey’s pragmatic theories dominate contemporary education, even in Christian schools.

Pragmatists are skills focused and they want children to construct their own realities. They tend to undercut traditions other than their own, seeing them as constraining and even oppressive.

In the old fashioned sense of the word, knowledge is impossible because there is nothing to known in that old fashioned sense and there is nothing that can know it anyway.

In other words, the world and everything in it is constantly changing, so there is no permanent “idea” or essence of a thing that you can know. You can just “know” what it is like now and adapt accordingly. This ability to adapt is knowledge.

In the traditionalist view, knowledge is the retention and reproduction of symbols. That sounds a little silly at first, so let me explain what I mean. Every tradition contains practices, rituals, artifacts, and texts (written or spoken) that embody that tradition.

When a member of a tradition wants to pass on that tradition (tradition literally means “to hand on,” from the Latin traduo), he teaches his students the practices, rituals, artifacts, and texts (which is what I mean by symbols) of that tradition.

Sports are relentlessly traditional because you become great, not by developing radically new techniques, but by imitating and then transcending those who were great before you. The very few exceptions (e.g. the Fosbury flop) only prove the rule.

The best reason for handing on a tradition is that a tradition embodies the wisdom of its members, especially those who came before.

When handled properly, the traditional symbols lead the recipient to the wisdom contained in or, better yet, pointed to by, the symbols.

When a school requires students to memorize poetry, repeat gestures, sing songs, learn the forms of grammar and literature, read old books, and otherwise remember and recite facts and information, it is acting traditionally.

A community embodies its soul in its traditions, so no community that is opposed to tradition can survive.

The great traditional educator of the contemporary world is ED Hirsch, with his Core Knowledge sequence.

You have succeeded as a student in a traditional school when you have demonstrated mastery of the content and symbols of the tradition.

The trouble with tradition arises from two possible sources. It may be that the ideas embodied in the symbols are false. In that case, the tradition may hold a community together, but it may do so by leading the whole community into error.

Or it may be that the members of the community look to the symbols and their preservation rather than the ideas and realities embodied in the symbols of the tradition.

Only a master of the symbols can transcend them. The clearest example of this fact seems to be our Lord and his response to the Pharisees. He recognized that they were, in varying degrees, living off the traditions instead of living by them.

As a result, they began to contort the traditions handed to them to their own advantage and became wolves among sheep.

In our Phariseeism, we can forget how very easily we become pharisees.

But long before the Pharisees began to contort the traditions, they had come to see the traditions either as ends in themselves, or, worse, as means to other ends than what they pointed to.

The Sabbath, for example, was a tradition handed to the Jewish people through their covenant with God. It was meant to be a Holy Day of rest. As such, it pointed the covenant people to something beyond a one day/week religious experience.

Symbols, in other words, don’t refer to themselves. This is easiest to see when we look at words. The word “lamp” is a sound symbol. It does not refer to itself, but to an invention with which we are all familiar that can enlighten a room.

There is a reality beyond the symbols.

In the Christian classical view of knowledge, the goal of learning is to perceive that reality.

We hand on and love and honor our traditions, not so people will know them, but so they will know what they refer to.

Of course, you usually can’t know what they refer to without knowing them because the reason you need symbols is precisely because it takes great wisdom to come to know the realities in the first place.

Here’s one way it could happen. A wise person comes to understand something about life. He wants his children to understand it to. They can’t, because they are young. So he makes up a fable. That fable becomes part of the tradition.

If the child actually contemplates the fable, he can move more rapidly to the insight of his wise father than his father was able to himself.

To the Christian and/or classical educator, it has always been necessary, but it has never been enough, to know the greatest symbols (in the sense I used the word above) of the tradition.

The goal is always to see what the symbols point to.

Knowledge, therefore, to the Christian classical educator is perception of reality.

The pragmatic educator is not content to “know” in this sense, because he does not believe such knowledge exists. He focuses on skills of adaptation.

The traditional educator at his best strives for this kind of knowledge, but he encounters so many temptations (especially honor from men who don’t see the reality beyond the tradition) that he rarely transcends the tradition.

And if he does, he’ll say something a little off kilter and offend the traditionalists around him, who will scapegoat or crucify him one way or another.

The Christian classical educator loves practical applications of his knowledge. But not as much as he loves the knowledge itself. Truth is the delight of his soul, the queen of his mind.

He does not demand of her that she step down and serve him.

The Christian classical educator loves the traditions on which he was raised. But not as much as he loves the truth and beauty embodied by that tradition.

The Christian classical educator takes the knowledge of the traditional educator and the skills of the Pragmatic educator and, guided by the good, weaves them into a beautiful tapestry of truth that nourishes the soul until the disciple has attained wisdom and virtue himself.

But only because he has come to see that knowledge is not mere power, nor is it mere recall of symbols and facts, but it is the perception and apprehension of reality itself.

Two Andrews On Writing and Teaching Writing

I just finished a four city tour with Andrew Pudewa of Institute for Excellence in Writing and what a trip it was!

We divided up six talks between us as follows:

  1. Andrew P talked about the four arts of language: listening, reading, speaking, and writing. This laid the foundation for the day.
  2. Then I talked about the five paths to writing greatness:
    1. The linguistic
    2. The literary
    3. The critical
    4. The theoretical
    5. The practical
  3. Then I discussed the three canons of classical composition and, briefly, how classical compostion went out with the rejection of the Christian classical tradition at the end of the 19th century.
  4. Andrew P talked about the four stages to lead a student from report writing to essay writing (Developing the essayist: A natural approach)
    1. Reports (facts) about animals, states, and countries
    2. Reports about people, things, and events, selecting topics based on your opionions
    3. Thesis on literature, using topics selected to support the thesis
    4. Strategic persuasive essay about an issue that matters
  5. Andrew and I discussed assessment. This talk was the one in which I learned the most over our four days and by the time we got to Dallas (echoes of Glenn Campbell?) we had combined and permutated our ideas into something really useful.
  6. Panel discussion, different in each location and always fascinating.

Keep your eyes open because the Dallas presentation was videotaped by the IEW folks and I anticipate it being available in the not too distant future.

I can’t say enough how grateful I am to Andrew Pudewa for mentoring me and bringing me into his orbit. What a fine and good man.

Thank you Andrew.