The Wizard of Oz and the Removal of Chests

Dorothy meets the Cowardly Lion, from The Wond...

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The Wizard of Oz seems to be a fine movie from all I can tell, but the book strikes me as exactly the sort of thing that CS Lewis was talking about when he spoke of making “men without chests.”

Chapter XXI is called “The Lion Becomes the King of the Beasts.” After seeing the wizard and being given courage, the lion arrives, with the Woodman, the Scarecrow, Dorothy, and Toto at a forest that the Scarecrow finds gloomy but the lion finds “perfectly delightful.”

“I should like to live here all my life,” he says. See how soft he dried leaves are under your feet and how rich and green the moss is that clings to these old trees. Surely no wild beast could wish a pleasanter home.”

Leaving aside the question of whether a lion who has just received a chest (courage) would even notice a home with soft dried leaves underfoot and the nostalgic moss clinging to old trees rather than an opportunity to show off its newly gained courage, I proceed to tell you that, in spite of the fact that “no wild beast could wish a pleasanter home,” they don’t see any.

The next day, however, they resume their journey and soon hear a “low rumble, as of the growling of many wild animals.” (Baum seems to do this a lot: raise a problem that ends up not mattering, that demands nothing of the characters but the passing of time, that has nothing more than an accidental significance if any at all.)

And indeed the animals have gathered in a clearing where they came across hundreds of beasts in council. He quickly determines that they are in great trouble. But when he appears, the assembly falls silent and a tiger approaches him.

“Welcome, O King of Beasts, you have come in good time to fight our enemy and bring peace to all the animals of the forest once more.”

When he asks what their trouble is, the tiger tells him that they are threatened by a fierce spider-like monster, as big as an elephant, with eight legs as big as tree trunks. It has eaten every other lion in the forest, but none of them had been “nearly so large and brave as you.”

Then the newly brave lion asks, “If I put an end to your enemy, will you bow down to me and obey me as King of the Forest?” When they gladly agree, he heads off to “fight” the great monster.

“He bade his friends good-bye and marched proudly away to do battle with the enemy.”

In all the foregoing, I admire some of Baum’s story-telling tactics, though he is no Grimm. I have problems, but most of them can probably be responded to. But in the last paragraph of the chapter, he describes this battle, and I will tell you right now, I think it is badly done, and I think Baum betrays a harmful frivolousness that reminds me of Lewis’s opening words in Abolition: “We are not attentive enough to the importance of elementary text books.”

The great spider was lying asleep when the Lion found him, and it looked so ugly that its foe turned up his nose in disgust. Its legs were quite as long as the tiger had said, and its body covered with coarse black hair. It had a great mouth, but its head was joined to the pudgy body by a neck as slender as a wasp’s waist. This gave the Lion a hint of the best way to attack the creature, and as he knew it was easier to fight it asleep than awake, he gave a great spring and landed directly upon the monster’s back. Then, with one blow of his heavy paw, all armed with sharp claws, he knocked the spider’s head from its body. Jumping down, he watched it until the long legs stopped wiggling, when he knew it was quite dead.

The Lion went back to the opening where the beasts of the forest were waiting for him and said proudly, “You need fear your enemy no longer.”

Then the beasts bowed to the Lion as their King, and he promised to come back and rule over them as soon as Dorothy was safely on her way to Kansas.

Compare this “battle” with any other encounter in any other fairy tale or folk tale or fable and see if you can justify it.

The Lion is practical, he achieves his end. But he is not courageous, he is not noble, he is not worthy of a story for the simple reason that nothing worth learning about him or about virtue was displayed. It is not fitting to the world of fairy tales or children’s literature to read about such a conquest. We have had one more piece of our chests removed by reading and not resisting this story.

Give me Reepicheep, whom I can welcome into my soul with joy.

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Why we think and how we can do it better

Portrait of Chaucer from a manuscript by Thoma...

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We think to determine three things: whether something is true, whether something should be done, and whether something commands our appreciation. In other words, we think to know truth, goodness, and beauty.

In each case, a judgment is made. A judgment is embodied in a decision and expressed in a proposition.

When we know the truth, we don’t need to think about it so much as to enjoy it. When we know what is good, we need to act, which will arouse a thousand more questions, few of which will reach the conscious mind. When we know what is beautiful, we need to adore.

Thinking begins when we feel a contradiction. This is because thinking, as we generally experience it, is the quest for harmony, that is, a mind without contradictions. Thus Socrates: “Great is the power of contradiction.” It makes us think.

How then does The Lost Tools of Writing teach thinking? Mainly by pushing the responsibility for making decisions back to the students. Every essay involves making a decision – whether so and so should have done such and such, whether X should do Y, etc.

But if you want to undercut thinking in a hurry, give someone a responsibility without the tools to fulfill it. In my view, this is the cause of over 95% of students’ laziness. Therefore, LTW does not drop the task on the student, telling him to bear a burden that his teachers won’t bother carrying, and then walk away. It provides the tools to make decisions.

First, it provides the topics of invention. These are the categories of thought, without which one cannot possibly think about any issue adequately. It provides practice using these categories (topics) in real world issues, but not issues that concern them directly. They have not yet learned how to think based on principles, so I don’t want them getting emotionally involved in issues they cannot understand yet.

Because thinking takes practice.

It also takes order, and that’s what the canon of arrangement teaches. I’m not sure people generally appreciate how important order is to sound thinking. After all, the object of thought is a harmonious solution to a question, and the only way we can know if our solutions are harmonious (i.e. lacking contradictions) is if we see the parts in relation to each other.

Thought also requires judgment or assessment. The thinker needs to know if the form of his thought is sound, if the proportions and emphases match the reality about which he is thinking, if the more important parts are given their due emphasis.

This tends not to come under the Progressive reduction of thought to “critical thinking” but it is an essential element of clear and honest thinking.

In the canon of Elocution, LTW teachers yet another mode of thinking: the quest for the fitting expression, which requires a subtlety of judgment that cannot be gainsaid.

Here’s the thing: we can only appreciate what we can perceive. What we perceive depends on two things: the thing we are perceiving and the eyes with which we perceive it.

Now by “the eyes with which we perceive it” I do not mean only the eyes of the body, but also what Shakespeare called “the mind’s eye.” The mind’s eye perceives what it perceives as it perceives it because of the concepts it possesses while it perceives it.

When I listen to music, I cannot hear what my good friend John Hodges can hear. He is a composer with a tremendous and informed gift for music. But notice that he has an informed gift. He knows music. As a result, his experience of music is very different than mine.

In fact, he once converted me about a piece of music. When first I saw Les Miserables, I thought of it mostly in political terms and judged it to be sentimental claptrap. But when John explained the musical qualities, how characters had their own tunes, how the story put melodies out in one place, then withdrew them, the reinserted them in other places to tell the story through the music, I came to understand why it is regarded by those who can perceive these things as a masterpiece.

I was informed. My mind’s eye could see better. My appreciation grew.

Even so, modern readers (and that means most of us) struggle to read great poetry, while we can watch movies with incredible complexity. Why? Because since we were very little we have gone to the theatres and learned how to watch movies. We understand the art form without even having to think about it very much.

Poetry is not what it used to be, at least not in the classroom. The conventions are regarded as evil, the forms as tyrannical. Consequently, nobody reads Longfellow anymore.

But LTW is a classical curriculum. If that means anything it means that we respect the conventions. 2500 years of artistry gave us quite a remarkable treasure trove of riches. In elocution,  we teach students schemes and tropes so they are capable of appreciating Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, and Spenser, and by appreciating their artistry, they can enter into the astounding insights that lie between their paradoxes and dilemmas.

Through LTW students begin or continue to grow toward a perceptive, insightful, and refined mind. Standardized testing and critical thinking become fleas they snap off their shoulders because they are on to important things, like making decisions and acting on them, adoring the beautiful, and knowing truth.

The Lost Tools of Birthing

Between Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of The Canterbury Tales who died in 1400, and Edmund Spenser, who published The Sheapherd’s Calendar in 1576, you will scan your anthologies of English verse in vain for a renowned poet.
Why did English literature blossom in the 14th century only to enter an aesthetic dark age until Spenser? And why did the late 16th century, the Elizabethan age, experience a flowering that many students of English literature still consider a golden age? How did nearly 200 obscure years disappear in the radiance of Spencer, Sidney, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Donne, and so many great poets, writers, explorers, and scientists?
Grammar and rhetoric.
In 1540, King Henry VIII issued an Executive Order that every school throughout the realm should teach a uniform grammar. In the 1544 version, the following “letter to the reader” explains why he issued his history-altering decree:
“His majesty considering the great encumbrance and confusion of the young and tender wits, by reason of the diversity of grammar rules and teachings (for heretofore every master had his grammar, and every school diverse teachings, and changing of masters and schools did many times utterly dull and undo good wits) hath appointed certain learned men meet for such a purpose, to compile one brief, plain, and uniform grammar, which only (all others set apart) for the more speediness, and less trouble of young wits, his highness hath commanded all schoolmasters and teachers of grammar within this his realm, and other his dominions, to teach their scholars.”
Every English school child in Elizabethan England memorized this famous “Lily’s Grammar.” Even earlier, Dean Colet had re-founded St. Paul’s school in London, where he implemented a curriculum and text books written and assisted by his friend, Erasmus. By the time Shakespeare reached the Stratford Grammar School in 1571, the curriculum and methods of St. Paul’s had spread throughout England. Sister Miriam Joseph describes the manner of teaching:
“The method prescribed unremitting exercise in grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Grammar dominated the lower forms, logic and rhetoric the upper. In all forms the order was first to learn precepts, then to employ them as a tool of analysis in reading, and finally to use them as a guide in composition…. The boy must first be grounded in the topics of logic through Cicero’s Topica before he could properly understand the one hundred and thirty-two figures of speech defined and illustrated in Susenbrotus’ Epitome Troporum ac schematum et grammaticorum et rhetoricorum”
The assumption behind this Renaissance curriculum is the same assumption that an athlete or a painter or a dancer makes when he seeks excellence: virtue requires “unremitting exercise,” which is to say, disciplined mastery of the craft.
The Lost Tools of Writing is a shadow of the curriculum Erasmus and Lily established in 16th century England. It is hoped that this shadow, learned by eager students and taught by humble teachers, can plant the seeds of a thousand individual Renaissancen.
The Lost Tools of Writing rests on the conviction that our world is populated by geniuses and intelligent people who fail to realize their genius or fulfill their intelligence for lack of disciplined training in the craft of writing. When the insights and epiphanies come, the unprepared mind has no vessel to preserve it.
The more intelligent the student, the more frustrating the experience.
Perhaps it strains the point to insist that writing is a craft with tools that empower the craftsman through practice, that writing produces artifacts that can be objectively assessed for their consistency with the principles of the art, and that the goal of instruction is for the student to attain self-mastery, which is synonymous with freedom.
If American education is going to be reborn, if the United States are going to experience a much-needed rebirth of freedom, it will only occur through a wide-spread commitment to the verbal arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

The Sack of Truth: A Fairytale at the Heart of Redemption and Classical Education

Ruth Sawyer’s classic fairytale “A Sack of Truth” saved the lives of my sophomores and redeemed mine. Not only is the title brilliant and amped for discussion, but the tale smacks paradigmatic for classical education. It contains that which is really real and true.

I am now even more convinced of the power of fables and fairy tales to shape one into a right human being—and to truly educate by cultivating wisdom and virtue in the heart.

If you haven’t read the tale, I’ll briefly summarize:  There lives a king in Spain. His daughter is ill. A doctor says only the finest pears in Spain will cure her. The king asks for the finest pears from all over to be brought and the one whose pears heal his daughter will be richly rewarded.

A poor peasant with three sons has a pear tree that produces other-worldly golden pears. He sends his oldest son to the king with a basket of pears. On the road he meets a sad-faced woman carrying a little child who asks him what he has in the basket. Rather than offering the sad woman and child a pear to eat, he snubs her. It is a kind of test. The woman turns his pears into horns. When he arrives to the king with horns, the king throws him into a dungeon.

The second son is sent with a basket. He responds to the needy woman in the same way and fails the test. He is also thrown into the dungeon.

Importantly, when the third son is introduced, this is what is said of him: “No one had ever thought him very clever, only kind and willing and cheerful.” When he meets the sad-faced woman he thinks to himself, “I must not be greedy with those pears. There is the old saying—‘He who plays the fox for a day, pays for a year.’” He uncovers the basket and gives a pear to the child.

He shows compassion and therefore passes the test and gets to the king. His pears heal the king’s daughter. The king offers him anything he wants. Again the story says, “he thought of the old saying: ‘gratitude is better scattered than kept in one’s pocket.’ He asks for the release of his brothers.

The rest of the story involves the sack of truth, but I won’t retell that part here. Essentially, things work out well for the youngest son.

In my class, we discussed much concerning this. Here are some of the questions I raised:

I asked if they were admitted to our very-hard-to-get-into high school because they were clever or because they were kind, willing, and cheerful.  Clever was the obvious answer. I responded that as a result they have been admitted into an institution that desires to create the two older brothers.

Standard education is very interested in what a child can do or how much he or she knows (cleverness), not in who the child is.

I asked if the students’ very full and heavy backpacks were sacks of truth, sacks of knowledge, or sacks of BS :). We concurred that, unfortunately, they were not sacks of truth. And if they decided to call them sacks of knowledge, then through discussion we realized that it would have been better to call them sacks of BS because at least BS knows that it’s BS.

In other words, there’s a big difference between truth and knowledge. And there’s a big difference between knowing and knowledge. Notice that Aristotle said, “All men desire by nature to know.”  He did not say “all men desire by nature, knowledge.”

Why are our schools founded upon gaining knowledge and not on desiring to know?

I asked what the youngest son did when he faced his crises, his moments of temptation.

The students said that he recalled two old sayings: “He who plays the fox for a day, pays for a year” and “gratitude is better scattered than kept in one’s pocket.”

I asked if he looked the sayings up on the internet.

Students: No

I asked if a nearby animal shouted them out.

Students: No

I asked how he knew the old sayings.

Students:  he remembered them.

I asked where he got them:

Students:  in fables and fairy tales.

I asked them what lines will come to them when they find themselves in their moments of high temptation.

Will they be lines from the latest blockbuster movie or video game?

Or maybe, just maybe…

If we read enough of them in the next nine months…

Classic fables and fairy tales.

By which we will fill our sacks of truth.

And save our souls.  And a needy mother and child on the way… and maybe even the king’s daughter.

Could William Faulkner Write?

I don’t like to travel without an interesting compelling time-filling book, and I’m driving up to PA tomorrow in what is still called a car because that is what the people over at Hertz call it – a bright cool air-conditioned chamber with the windows all closed because as a man I realize that hot air prevents coolness from spreading and the open window will let more heat than cool in – so I was glancing over my office qua study bookcase covered with anthologies of great books and poems and individual novels from which life-changing insights broke in random gusts, breaking the backs of cultures on the rack of history and I made the mistake of picking up Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom. I read the first page and a half and thought, “This demands a response.”

So, even though I have no time for it, and even though I can’t possibly say anything intelligent, I am going to take a few moments and respond to this page and a half.

My first thought, by the time it formed itself into a proposition, sounded something like this: “How does such a book find a publisher?”

It’s not that it doesn’t deserve to be published, it’s just that it breaks every rule in the publishers library of rule books. How did the first editor get past the second page? This book, were it handed in to a college professor, would have almost certainly been dismissed as ridiculous.

But the error would have been the professor’s, I guess, because its now among the great books in the American canon.

My trouble, and the trouble is mine and it is a vice, is that when I pick up a book to read on my own, I want to know it will be worth my time. I am a distressingly pragmatic reader. I want to take something out of the reading and I want to do it quickly.

So when I read, “From a little after two o’clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that — a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with ….” I wonder:

How do I know Faulkner isn’t playing a joke on me?

The thing is, it may be that Faulkner is writing this exactly as it needed to be written given the reality he is embodying in this description. It may be that unless we see all these things interpenetrating each other verbally we can never perceive how they interpenetrated each other in reality. In other words, maybe high school essay prose won’t express the idea Faulkner is trying to express.

So I flip randomly and end up on my head. Then I flip the pages of my book randomly and end up on page 87, where I read this:

“She must have seen Judith now and Judith probably urged her to come out to Sutpen’s Hundred to live, but I believe that this is the reason she did not go, even though she did not know where Bon and Henry were and Judith apparently never thought to tell her.”

And just as I’m about to plunge into despair, he follows that with this:

“Because Judith knew. She may have known for some time; even Ellen may have known. Or perhaps Judith never told her mother either.”

He can write short sentences – but he won’t write in a perfectly linear way, that’s evident. Every phrase seems to be a qualification of the preceding one.

Now, being a child of the age, I prefer to read fast and to get on to the next book, but it’s pretty obvious that if I’m going to read Absalom, Absalom I’m going to have to slow down and think about what I’m reading. I’ll probably even, horror of horrors, have to read it more than once.

Who’s got time for that? There are 54 great books in the great books set and this isn’t even one of them! Plus I have to read Hicks, Plato’s Phaedrus, and The Tempest for the apprenticeship, study Latin, study poetics for LTW development, and read things for next year’s conference – etc. etc.

Who’s got time for a leisurely read?

It reminds me of Emo Phillips doing the triathlon. He swims for about five minutes and then thinks, “This is stupid, the bike is getting rusty.”

So who knows, maybe I’ll read Faulkner or maybe I won’t. I know that until I do I can’t be considered educated, but that’s the way the cookie bounces. I blew my chance to get educated when I went to school as a child. Now I just do what I can.

But it does seem to me that the effort would be worth it. For one thing, I would have to read in a manner I’m not accustomed to reading and that’s always a good thing to do. Reading is an almost miraculous activity in that it opens the mind, not only to new ideas, but to new forms of thinking, to new patterns of perception.

I like the standard clear strong manly English sentence with a subject, predicate, direct object. I like the periodic sentence too, where the verb (imitating Latin and German), till the end of the sentence, is withheld. It seems to hold the attention while the reader, anxious to see whether the sentence will heal or wound itself with its ending, poised on a balance beam, waits; and the writer, heels over head, dismounting the same beam, nothing promises.

But Faulkner: what is he doing?

Here’s how it appears to me. He is not writing, or so it seems to me from the two pages I’ve read, about actions or about the world outside. He seems instead to be writing about perceptions, relationships, and recollections all flowing together – not a flow of thought subjectivism, but a dynamic interaction between the world around and the organ of perception.

His form, therefore, while it is not easy, would seem to be essential, as much a part of the story as the words themselves. It will be demanding, as much poetry as prose. But if I ever have the time and if I ever feel like it, I might well read this book. For now, I’m happy with my Spider-Man comic.

Why History Class Must Die!

By Brian Philips

Currently, the Peanuts comic by the late Charles Shulz strip stands out as a source of great wisdom and insight in our culture. I say this with partial sarcasm, only partial.

One particular strip showed Sally in Sunday School class, her teacher before her. He began, “Today we are going to discuss Church history. What do you know about Church history, Sally?”

She thought. Finally, she spoke up, “Well, I know our pastor is about 50…” Tragic insight. Tragic, accurate insight from Shulz.

American culture, Christians included, suffers from an odd sort of historical amnesia. Ours is a forgetful people. Of course, we do not realize we are forgetful because we have forgotten all we should have remembered. To make the memory lapse more bearable and seem less significant, we redefine history to make it unimportant. Cue the modern history class.

Students around the country open textbooks written by men and women determined to let us know all that has happened in the history of the universe…in 1000 pages or less. Along the way, they happily interpret events to clue us into their “real meaning” and leave out details and events deemed forgettable. At the end of the process, we are handed a text free of the nagging baggage of primary sources, eyewitness accounts, original documentation, and literature of the period. Oh, what a burden lifted. Now we have a history we can live with, a history that can be taught in a semester! But, now we have a history that is faceless, revisionist, and inhuman.

Events of the past happened to real people – men, women, and children who endured or enjoyed it all in real time and real places. The modern “textbook” approach to teaching history removes those real people from the process. When primary sources, documents, and stories are removed, we are left treating history as fantasy. History courses must be taught using the literature of the period. We must do them the honor of hearing them out, considering their words, and evaluating the events of the past through those who lived it.

Why the Short Story?

When I was in high school I remember feeling some strange disappointment when I would come across a book of short stories by an author whose novel’s I admired or when I was assigned a story for school.

I loved to read and always had, and did so a fair amount, but I found that I much preferred the long form of the novel to that of the more brief, inherently and uniquely reserved, short story. I certainly enjoyed, for the most part, what I read of author’s like Flannery O’Connor (who I today consider one of America’s greatest writers ever), mostly, I’m sure, for her weirdly ambiguous endings and mysterious characters.

Yet, I seem to have found the lack of unique plot twists and of distinctly moving moral situations so common in the short form to be a negative. I’ve been wondering why. Today, I prefer few novels to a wonderful short story (and no, it’s not because a short story does not surpass the 300 page limit I often say I don’t read beyond, jokingly of course).

Don’t get me wrong. Good short stories, and certainly O’Conner’s, do contain moving moral situations. But they are necessarily reserved in their immediate implications towards the reader. Since, in the short form, the author is limited regarding how much information they can provide, how much background they can introduce, how close they can make the reader feel to the situation or characters, such moral dilemmas can only mean so much to the reader. In other words, since you can’t know Mr. Smith from Joe White’s The Made-up Story as well as you could have had the story been a novel, then the fact that he is about to burn down his home and join a militia group is going to be less meaningful than it would be if you did know him as intimately as a similarly plotted novel would allow.

(Note that I said that short stories are limited in their “immediate implications.” Further contemplation and interpretation certainly will open up a world of implications to the thoughtful, observant reader.)

So, it would seem, the short form is concerned above all with the “why?” of the tale and the novel above all with fact, incident – the “what” of the story.

Of course, part of my lack of affection for the short form back then probably derives from the fact that novels – and the good one’s especially – are uniquely capable of creating plot-based excitement and anticipation, emotionally transfixing moral conundrums, and characters whose many layers offer insights into the human existence. Things that the short story simply cannot provide in the same way. The short story writer must work within the confines of their form and therefore they must say what they want to say, or rather show what they want to show, in a much less complicated – though, hopefully, no less thoughtful – fashion.

Necessarily, therefore, the short story, since it cannot do all the work itself, demands much more of the reader than the common novel (there are exceptions, of course). This is probably why, as a high school student, I didn’t much appreciate the form. I didn’t want to have to work as much as was being demanded of me.

I love this quote by Harold Bloom (from How To Read and Why) that, I think, sums the idea up pretty well, and provides some advice to boot:

Short stories favor the tacit; they compel the reader to be active, and to discern explanations that the writer avoids.The reader… must slow down, quite deliberately, and start listening with the inner ear. Such listening overhears the characters, as well as hearing them; think of them as your characters, and wonder what is implied, rather than told about them. Unlike most figures in novels, their foregrounding are largely up to you, utilizing the hints subtly provided by the reader.

From Turgenev through Eudora Welty and beyond, short story writers refrain from moral judgments… The most skilled short story writers are as elliptical in regard to moral judgments as they are in regard to continuities of action of the details of a character’s past life. You, as reader, are to decide if moral judgment if relevant, and then the judgment will be yours to make.

The short story provides some unique challenges for both writer and reader, challenges that they must, in effect, confront together, in concert with each other.

In it’s own meta-fictive way, reading a short story is a bit like solving a mystery. The clues are laid out for us (one hopes) and it is our job to make sense of them.

It is for this reason that I love reading a good short story.

And I suppose, therefore, that writing a short story is something like creating a puzzle, perhaps one of the crossword variety even. It is the job the writer to set forth pieces whose shapes will appropriately fit together. With just the right amount of ambiguity of course.

I for one hope the short story makes a comeback.