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.

Bad Theory and the Practice of College Composition

RV Young on changes in Freshman composition over the past 40 years.

HT Martin at Vital Remnants

Two Kinds of Freedom

Human history and the human psyche reveal two conditions that we describe using the word freedom. They are, however, very different conditions.

The first is what I will call, borrowing the word from Kierkegaard, “aesthetic freedom.” This is the freedom of the adolescent and is characterized by the right to avoid making choices.

For example, the unmarried man is free to let his eyes and mind wander among the unattached females of the species, the uncommitted quasi-philosopher is free to wander among schools of thought, pretending to “not want to narrow himself to one position,” the undecided music critic is free to say, “I like all kinds of music.”

In each case, what the person is saying is that he is guided by his emotions or immediate needs, which, in turn are guided by his appetites. He is functioning slightly above the powers of an animal, but, in a way, not very far. Neither his will nor his reason have been decisively engaged.

To summarize, aesthetic freedom is the freedom of the adolescent and is characterized by the absence of willful decisions.

The second kind of freedom, and here again I borrow the word from Kierkegaard, is ethical freedom and is characterized the act of choosing.

Any time I make a choice, I am choosing more than just one of many options. For example, if I choose to go to a football game instead of a drinking party, I haven’t only chosen football over the party. I’ve also chosen a self that would go to a football game instead of the party.

In this sense, because we are created persons with a will, we are continually choosing ourselves in every decision we make.

These choices can lead to ethical slavery, in which our decisions bind us to the appetite we indulge, or ethical freedom, in which our decisions create of us a free person who governs himself and walks the path of wisdom.

Perhaps most significantly, each choice we make can be a choice for the finite or the infinite. The aesthete tries to maintain an infinite variety of choices and in so doing limits his choices to only the finite options.

The ethical person chooses limits and commitments, and in so doing he chooses the infinite, for concrete love is the infinite act of an eternal being. Love gives life to the faculty by which we can love, and that faculty is not earthly, worldly, selfish, cynical.

Indulgence destroys that faculty, thus destroying the soul of the self-indulgent.

Ethical freedom is the act of choosing oneself. Aesthetic freedom is the act of indulging oneself. The former leads to finite but real life. In the act of an infinite choice to love another one is connected to the infinite. The latter is the negation of the self by virtue of the disempowerment of the will and reason.

How to Cultivate Wisdom Through Writing (part IV)

Here is: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

I have vigorously defended contextual learning in my book because I believe that it is the key to how we learn as well as to the delight we find in learning. Children learn to speak by hearing words used in context, not by memorizing their definitions or studying their etymologies.

David Hicks: Norms and Nobility, page vi

Contextual learning is called by some synthetic learning. It is the learning that comes out of the whole to engage the part. It is the context that makes learning interesting, delightful, and profitable.

However, in the excessively analytical modes of thinking that dominate our schools, we are continually required to learn things out of their contexts, and therefore in ways that are less interesting, less delightful, and less profitable.

The archetype of the decontextualized lesson is the dissected frog. Wordsworth even treated this activity as a metaphor if not a synechdoce for modern education: we murder to dissect. We do it to Robert Herrick’s poetry as much as we do to the frog.

You don’t learn what a frog is by dissecting it. You have to experience it in context – at the pond, with its mates, etc.

All human action takes place in a moral context. Every human action arises from a human decision, and every human decision has a moral context.

Every historical or literary event, therefore, is fundamentally moral. Every story turns on an action by the protagonist and every action follows on a decision. In most stories it is the moral dilemma that drives the plot. Every story ends up celebrating some virtue, even James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, or DH Lawrence.

For this reason, literature and history have always been seen as morally formative “subjects.” Fundamentally, as Mr. Hicks points out elsewhere, history and literature are driven by the same basic questions.

Although in my curriculum proposal I use history as the paradigm for contextual learning, the ethical question “What should one do?” might provide an even richer context for acquiring general knowledge. This question elicits not only knowledge, but wisdom, and it draws the interest of the student into any subject, no matter how obscure or far removed from his day-to-day concerns. It challenges the imagination and makes life the laboratory it ought to be for testing the hypotheses and lessons of the classroom.


The question that drives the human spirit, that arouses thought in child or adult, and that makes an education worth getting is this very simple question, “What should one do?”

Writing, therefore, can be used to cultivate wisdom when we teach students to engage in this inquiry. It must not be taught in isolation, as a specialized, abstracted skill. It should be taught as a way to refine thinking about things that matter, like whether Huckleberry Finn should have helped Jim escape, whether the colonies should have revolted against George III, whether Brutus should have assassinated Caesar, whether the grasshopper should have spent his summer playing music, whether Edmund should have followed the White Witch, etc.

It should be contextualized. Notice what Mr. Hicks said above: “This question elicits not only knowledge, but wisdom.”

I’ll have more to say on how to do this in later posts, but this is an important starting point. Not only can writing be used to cultivate wisdom, it must be so used. When you use writing as a tool by which your students ask the question, “What should be done?” or more precisely, “Should something be done?” you have begun to do so.

You’ve also just made reading, writing, history, and literature exponentially more interesting, delightful, and profitable.

I don’t know if there is any other question that can properly integrate or synthesize the curriculum (Most attempts at integration fail because of their analytical bias. They try to integrate at too low a level, setting aside ethical and philosophical matters).

Perversion and Ignorance of Classical Education

Every now and then I am tempted to think I know something. When that happens (and it happens less frequently as I age), I have the perfect cure.

Pick up David Hicks Norms and Nobility and start reading.

What typically happens is that some great new insight on which I’ve spent years questing, will be sitting there on the surface of the page, serenely welcoming me and not even laughing at me for taking so long.

I’m doing a close study of this book for the apprenticeship even now and, once again, I am being humbled by the experience.

For one thing, when I do a deep study of a book, I like to get at the structure so I can see the flow of thought. That’s pretty easy with a modern book because it usually sits on the surface of the text, blaring at you that you are where you are.

The whole outline of a book reads like the document map on the side of a Word document with large fonts italicized, bold fonts, bullet points, tables to summarize, etc. etc. At no point is the mind of the reader challenged to engage the text directly and actually think about the relationships among the parts.

I find that frustrating and rather insulting because I know that the effort to organize the text is what of the ways to understand it. However, conventional writers don’t write to be understood, they write to be applied. So they write things that don’t take any thinking, that assume the reader doesn’t want to think, and that can be easily applied without any thinking.

Here’s the challenge with Norms. To identify the structure, you have to compress what the text says. You have to take paragraphs and funnel them down to a single core idea (this, by the way, is a great reading exercise that actually involves thinking and is much more profitable than answering worksheet questions, which almost necessarily focus on trivia and are controlled by the teacher instead of teaching the student higher reading skills).

I find that with Norms and Nobility, the impulse is always to unpack and develop a thought rather than to condense and summarize it. The insights are so profound and come from such a different perspective that I don’t trust myself to summarize them.

Today I spent about 40 minutes on chapter 1, section one. Which is three pages long!

Each page contains a doctoral thesis of analysis. Listen:

The popular mind associates the idea of a classical education with the narrow and elitist schools of Victorian England. In fact, these schools perverted classical education by teaching in precept and in example a hereditary aristocratic ideal intended to serve the ambitions of Empire and to preserve the status quo.

I suppose anybody could make this claim after a cursory reading in Dickens or a biography of Carroll or something like that, but with Mr. Hicks, these two sentences express the condensed result of years of reflection of his own on education.

For those of us who yearn to understand classical education he has already, in this first sentence of the first chapter, warned us off a false scent. After all, if we are looking to understand classical education, it only makes sense that we would look to that era when it stood most proudly, just before it was replaced by the evil moderns.

But Mr. Hicks says, “No, your job won’t be that easy. You can’t just bounce back 100 years and imitate what those who share your language did back then. Your going to have to think more deeply than that. You’re going to have to go beyond the surface to the spirit. And that’s never easy.” (This is my supposition of a dialogue with Mr. Hicks, not a quotation from the book.)

So he’s warned us off one false track by telling us about those who perverted classical education. The end of the first page warns us off another false track by noting the opposite error:

By the turn of the century, a growing number of self-proclaimed progressives, desiring to democratize the school and mistaking what went on in Victorian schools with classical education, began to put forward their own theories of education…. Neither ideal types, aprioric truths, nor transcendent human needs figure in the writings of these spokesmen for the progressive movement [he refers specifically to Dewey and James].

Of course, the blank stare these phrases call forth from our own minds indicate that they haven’t figured much in our own thinking either. Ideal types? Aprioric truths?! Transcendent human needs!!?? What have these got to do with education?

Heck, aprioric truths doesn’t even pass the spellcheck!

Mr. Hicks has thrown down the gauntlet. He is going to use terms that we aren’t familiar with. He has to if he is going to talk about classical education. We have all been educated under the progressives, who don’t care about the things that classical educators care about. They don’t use this vocabulary because they don’t want us to think about these things.

So you and I cannot hide behind the excuse of not knowing the terms Hicks uses. If we are going to understand classical education, we are going to have to make the effort required to learn his vocabulary. Because, as he ends page one:

To the extent that the Victorian schoolmaster perverted classical learning and the progressive educator ignored it, our modern schools have suffered.

I would change that third word from the end from schools to students. It seems like every day I meet or hear about a new person, child or adult, who has been victimized by the modern school. It’s not that the teachers don’t care. It’s that they are castrated, crippled, and crazed by administration, systems, and inhumane and subhuman ideas.

Even today a student was admitted to eighth grade in a school I know to be tutored by someone I know because someone else cared enough to see that he was pulled out of a failing school. He struggles with reading and writing apparently, but the first thing his tutor learned is that he is perceptive, intelligent, and determined to succeed.

It is no longer possible to exaggerate the negative moral impact of our schools.

Therefore, we have to be willing to put in the work this renewal requires. Forget the culture; forget schools. People’s well-being (their souls) depends on it.

Please read and meditate on this book if you are an educator or know anybody who wants to be educated.

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.

Prejudice the Soil

The essentialist rejects the progressive theory of growth with nothing-fixed-in-advance, a planless education based upon the unselected experiences and needs of the child or even selected by cooperative, shared discussions of pupils and teachers.  Growth cannot be self-directed; it needs direction through a carefully chosen environment to an end or ends in the minds of those who have been entrusted by society with the child’s education.  The problem is not new; it was first posed in modern times by Rousseau and has been the subject of controversy ever since.  It was answered for all time by Coleridge nearly 100 years ago in the following story.  –Isaac Leon Kandel, Prejudice the Garden Toward Roses?, 1939

Kandel then quotes from Coleridge’s Table Talk, July 26, 1830.

Thelwall thought it very unfair to influence a child’s mind by inculcating any opinions before it should have come to years of discretion, and be able to choose for itself.  I showed him my garden, and told him it was my botanical garden. “How so?” said he, “it is covered with weeds.”—“Oh,” I replied, “that is only because it has not yet come to its age of discretion and choice.  The weeds, you see, have taken the liberty to grow, and I thought it unfair in me to prejudice the soil towards roses and strawberries.”

E. D. Hirsch argued that Romanticism took root in American education and has continued to infect it with the kind of naturalism prescribed by Rousseau (The Schools We Need, 1996).  What I continue to appreciate about Coleridge is that he breaks the Romantic mold as it displaces the divine with the human.  The result is, as seen in the above quote, that Coleridge perceived the true nature of education as that which seeks to “exhibit the ends of our moral being.”