Sunday, March 27, 2011

Back to Basics: Classical Education and the Count of Monte Cristo

I read an article today that was a breath of fresh air: A Classical Education: Back to the Future, by Stanley Fish. I have already read one of the books that he speaks of in the article: The Death and Life of the Great American School System, by Diane Ravitch, so I was fully primed for his views. I have not read the other two books he mentions (The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education, by Leigh A. Bortins; and Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, by Martha C. Nussbaum), but they are already loaded into my Kindle app, waiting for me.

But first they'll have to wait for me to finish re-reading The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas.  I recently noticed that I was experiencing the most profound bout of burnout I've ever been through, and decided the cure was to do only exactly what I have to do and no more, and to spend the remainder of my time doing things I used to enjoy when I actually had spare time. I went looking for books and movies to add to my "cure," and stumbled upon The Count of Monte Cristo in the library.

Ah. The count. The Count of Monte Cristo, was the first book I ever read more than once (it was assigned reading in a high school English class, and I read it 3 times that year).

I didn't understand this when I was in 11th grade, but the reason that I was so enthralled with the book was because it told a story of justice. Yes, yes--Edmund Dantes sought vengeance on his enemies for the injustice and cruelty to which they had subjected him for fourteen years, and for the life they stole from him. But in the end, everyone gets exactly what they deserve; so the repayment meted out on them is justice, not simply revenge. 

But that's not all....I have always been interested in a lot of things, but I never gave much thought to why I am interested in so many things. I think it is likely that it's just the way I'm wired--I like to learn things for the sake of learning things. I like to make stuff. I like to learn about other people and cultures, because I find them interesting, and I want to be a better person. 

I had forgotten, until this fourth re-read through The Count of Monte Cristo, that while Edmund Dantes was in prison he received the equivalent of a university degree in the humanities under the tutelage of the Abbe Farria. Edmund already spoke several languages because of his life as the First Mate of a trading ship in the Mediterranean, but he learned several more, plus Latin, from Farria, and also learned the cornerstone subjects in a classical education: mathematics, science, philosophy, etc. 

It occurred to me as I was re-reading this book that that is why I became a teacher: I love to learn, and I love to share what I learn with others. 

The joy of learning and teaching has left me in the public school system. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have made what was originally conceived as a way to "close the achievement gap" in America into a general lowering of academic expectations. Moreover, it has taken all of the fun and excitement of learning and discovery out of teaching and learning. 

In re-reading The Count of Monte Cristo it occurred to me that this is exactly what is missing in public education. Those of us who are enthusiastic and exuberant about what we teach despite the current climate of hostility toward our profession face the seemingly insurmountable obstacle of a general populous and student body who just doesn't care anymore about learning for the pure joy of it. This is very discouraging. 

However, having already made the decision to leave public education because of this (as well as other numerous, demoralizing factors), it occurred to me that there is no reason I can't pick up where I left off when I was 16 years old, and go to school with Edmund Dantes and the Abbe Farria. So I decided to reignite my own excitement around learning new things, and resume my education in the classical style. (You can read about my progress with Spanish in my new blog: Montana Gringa.)

Meanwhile, I encourage you to take the initiative and learn whatever it is that you have always wanted to learn how to do. There are so many resources on the web these days that there's almost no excuse not to.

But don't stop there--if you have children, take charge of their education and make sure that they get the most enriching and well-rounded education possible. If you don't know where to start, begin with The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education. A classical education will teach your children how to teach themselves, and how to be life-long learners, and provide them with the education they are missing out on in public school, as more and more the curriculum is narrowed to basic skills. It is no longer enough to simply send your child to school and trust that they will learn what they need to know, even when they have really good teachers.

So, what are you waiting for? Grab a book and let the learning begin.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

NaBloPoMo Blog Post #3 - Oh, How I WISH I could Dance With Dragons!

I've been waiting for George R.R. Martin to finish "A Dance With Dragons" for nearly two years. I started reading his "Song of Ice and Fire" series in the summer of 2009 (one should only read these books in the summer, or on a long vacation if you're not a teacher or student who has down time in the summer, because you will NOT be able to do anything else until you've read every single one of them). I was between books, and a friend from Montana who loves Sci-Fi / Fantasy as much as I do told me about them. I got them from the public library, and could not put them down. I read straight through all four of the books that had been published to date, and after all of that serious investment and commitment was left in a cliff-hanger!  How cruel.

So I went to George's website to see if there were any clues about when "A Dance With Dragons," the next installment, would be completed. Oh, joy! He said it would probably be out in October. No problem--I'm impatient, but if I can get urban high school teenagers to sit for 90 minutes in my classes, then I could certainly hold it together for just a month and a half.

October 2009 came and went. There were rumors it would be out in February 2010. February 2010 came and went. It is now November 2010, and he announced at the New York Comic Con in October that it would be  "sometime in 2011." AAAACCCKKK!!!

This blog post is supposed to (a la the handy prompts provided by NaBloPoMo) "Describe the plot of the next book you want to read, even if the book doesn't exist yet." Forgive me if I've taken the opportunity to RANT about the long overdue appearance of ANY plot for "A Dance With Dragons"!

OK--I'll step back a little. I mean, here we are, well into November, the annual season of frenetic and frantic writing, the season of NaNoWriMo and NaBloPoMo. At this time of year, it's probably good to remember that the very reason we have these two fine traditions is that so many of us never get off our respective arses to write that book that we've been saying we'll write "someday." In all fairness to Mr. Martin, if tens of thousands of us wannabee writers have to use props like NaNoWriMo and NaNoBloPo to get our poop in a group, our pen to the page, our electrons onto the screen, why should it be any different for George R.R. Martin? Perhaps he has writer's block? [SPOILER ALERT]: Or perhaps he is tired of killing off all the "good guys" in his books, and is mourning over these losses and reconsidering his strategy. [END SPOILER] Or perhaps (gods forbid) he has lost interest in the story or the characters or both, and just can't bring himself to finish it.

I don't know. But I'm thinking that whatever it is that is the equivalent of clapping for Tinkerbell should be undertaken immediately by all "A Song of Ice and Fire" fans everywhere. Perhaps the equivalent life-saving (or in this case, book-series-saving) activity is just what we are all doing here: raising our pens to the page in solidarity and support of each other in developing/maintaining a good daily writing habit.

So, with my pen raised and my fingers anxiously poised over asdf jkl;, I salute you, George, and wish you godspeed in your effort to get "A Dance With Dragons" on book shelves everywhere by....oh....let's say Christmas, just for kicks and giggles, shall we? That would make such a nice holiday read. (And I'm going to clap furiously and repeat over and over, "I believe in fairies! I believe in faires!" just to hedge my bets.