Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Pancake Day

Great A, little a
This is Pancake Day
Toss the ball high,
Throw the ball low,
Those that come after
May sing heigh-ho!

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Just the Facts, Ma'am

Progressivist education, at least that of a certain sort poisoned by bumper-sticker ideology, a caricature that alas exists all too often in self-caricaturing reality, is the sworn enemy of "mere facts," "rote memorization," and "drill and kill." There is a venerable pedigree to this peculiarly American brand of anti-intellectualism, one which scoffs at creationists but embraces discredited Rousseauian ideas of a child's "innate nature" and persists in believing that the acquisition of all knowledge is simplistically analogical to a child's acquisition of language. On the ground, this translates into a dismissal of book-larnin' and a fetishization of nebulous unmeasurables that just don't show up on tests, explaining why our kids are surely smarter than the rest of the world's kids, but just don't test so well at everything.

Fortunately, in education as in American Catholicism (the chief topics of this blog), there is much evidence that the Silly Season is ending. Soon, God willing, parents will never again have to hear vapidities like "teach the child, not the subject" and "schooling shouldn't interfere with education."* Note that this isn't a school-vs.-homeschooling thing; if I hear one more progressivist homeschooler tsk-ing about "stuffing a child full of facts as if she were a sausage," I will forget my Lenten resolutions and smack her.

Some worthy and interesting articles on the need for procedural fluency and mastery of facts, algorithms, and other data. For those who still need convincing.

Reaching for Common Ground in K-12 Mathematics Education

Inflexible Knowledge: The First Step to Expertise

Practice Makes Perfect– But Only If You Practice Beyond the Point of Perfection

You Can Always Look It Up — Or Can You?

Classroom Research and Cargo Cults

Knowing And Teaching Elementary Mathematics

Why Students Think They Understand—When They Don’t

Basic Slills Versus Conceptual Understanding

Neglecting the Early Grades

(Source: KDeRosa at Chris Correa.)

*My, one could go on all day listing inane educational phrases, couldn't one? "Teach to the whole child." "Every child is gifted." "Commitment to excellence." "Emotional intelligence." "Learning to learn." One of my favorites is "the highest level of learning is when a student has the ability to instruct others"; besides being demonstrably false, it's only pressed into service when schools want to cancel gifted programs and use children as unpaid teaching assistants instead. Please feel welcome to add your own.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Electron Art

Elder Offspring and I have been tackling intro chemistry. As in high school, I found myself wondering why only the s-, p-, and d-orbitals for electrons are ever shown in the textbook. What do the f- and g-orbitals look like? Back then, of course, one could only wonder. Today, in the miraculous age of the internet, the answer is a few keystrokes away. Behold.

Aren't those cool?

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Happy Sexagesima:
Only Fifteen More Drinking Days Until Lent

For the hopelessly POD or just us retro and nostalgic Catholics, last week was Septuagesima. This week, naturally, is therefore Sexagesima, next week will be Quinquagesima (one of my favorite words) for three days, and after that Quadragesima, the first Sunday of Lent.

A history lesson for those of us who were born after 1963. In the old days, for a couple of millennia, back when TV was still in black-and-white, "fasting" meant "not eating." That sounds strange to modern Catholic ears. Today, "fasting" requires a paragraph in the bulletin to explain, because it means eating just like always most of the time, except on Lenten Fridays and Ash Wednesday, when you can eat only one meal a day, except that's not quite true because you can really eat two other meals, but you have to call them "collations," which is Latin for "meals you eat while pretending to fast." But no snacking, and we're serious about this.

In case this discipline should be too rigorous, the following are excused: children under the age of 14, adults over the age of 59, pregnant women, and anyone else who complains to their parish priest that they feel faint when driving past Whataburger without pulling over for a bacon and cheese special.

In addition, the ancient discipline of fasting is observed before mass. Or rather the discipline of "fasting," which requires that no food be eaten within the hour before mass, and in fact "before mass" doesn't mean counting backwards sixty minutes from the processional, but an hour before the Eucharist is received. Which is to say, no eating your french toast in the pews.

So. What used to be done? Of course there were variations in different countries, but here's the rules that obtained in the European Middle Ages and for long afterwards. My history knowledge is insufficient (see post below) to tell you when the full fasting rules were in place, but it was pretty darn early. First, fasting really meant "no eating" on Ash Wednesday and on Friday. All Wednesdays and Fridays were fast days throughout the year, up until the 1960's, though by then they were Station Days and you only fasted through noon, prayed the Angelus, and scarfed down lunch. Fasting at various levels of strictness was observed also from midnight until mass, on Saturdays and other vigils of feasts, and on Ember Days and Rogation Days (don't ask).

Fasting on non-Fridays of Lent meant only one meal per day, really. And no meat. And no meat products: eggs, dairy, broth. All vegan, brother. Except for the fish thing, which nobody has ever really been able to explain. An attempt at no alcohol lasted only until the ninth century, but that was a little too much to ask of good Catholics, so you may have your glass of wine with your cod filet. The meal was noonish, but the dreaded collation crept in around the time that wine did, though it was seriously just a piece of bread and, of course, a wee drappy of the tonic.

To make it all a little less brutal, one eased into Lent with the abovementioned Gesima days. At Septuagesima (meaning the seventieth day before Good Friday, and thus the third Sunday before Lent), depending on the part of the world you lived in, was a time to start cutting down on the goodies. Penitential eating increased --or rather, decreased--at Sexagesima (sixtieth day before Good Friday, and thus the second Sunday before Lent), followed by Quinquagesima (etc.), and then Quadragesima (etc., etc.). Those of you who are quick at arithmetic may notice that the days don't quite add up, what with weeks having only seven days. Pay no attention to that minor fact.

By Quinquagesima, if not before, you have given up meat. This was called the Carne Vale (Latin for "goodbye, meat!") season therefore. In some parts of the Catholic world, notably among depraved French speakers, the penitential abstention from meat turned into a season of partying, giving the modern word "carnival." No doubt it was getting to stop eating frogs and snails that made them so celebratory, but at any rate the Church tried hard, and obviously unsuccessfully, to curtail the revelries, notably through the introduction of the Forty Hours Devotion during Quinquagesima. You may judge the success of the devotion by comparing the number of college students spending the days before Lent praying empty-bellied before the exposed Sacrament to those heading off to Louisiana to collect beads.

The day before Ash Wednesday was the last day for using butter, eggs, and lard, none of which would last through Lent, and so that Tuesday became Mardi Gras (fat Tuesday) or, in England, Pancake Day, since that's the obvious best use of the soon-to-be-banned foods. Quinquagesima was also considered the perfect time to kick off Lent with a good confession, or "shriving" (a word that persists in English in the phrase "give someone short shrift"), and so become known as Shrovetide.

This year, let's get into the Sexagesimal spirit. Lay off the junk food and desserts and snacking. Stop before the second helping. More veggies. But don't take away my Shiner Bock.
Getting the Facts

Great piece on learning the facts of history, and the consequences of schools' failures to teach the same, over at EducationNews. Lots of stuff homeschoolers should take to heart, too.
The question remains that if we need to appoint an ambassador to the United Nations, is it OK if they know nothing about the world or the people in it, or the history of their own country? Do we want self-actualizing Senators and members of Congress who cannot read or write anything but personal fiction? Will we be in a good position to compete economically with very serious people in India and China if our graduates have specialized in songs for their IPod and new ringtones for their phones, while in a school which told them that information and knowledge—in other words, facts, people, dates, events and the like—were too trivial for them to bother with?

Bertrand Russell once said “the first task of education is to destroy the tyranny of the local and immediate over the child's imagination,” but just that tyranny has devotees among too many of our educators.

HT to Joanne Jacobs.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Walks Like a Duck

The following arrived as part of an e-mail alerting teachers of the rules changes for this year's PSIA contests. (PSIA is basically UIL for private schools and homeschoolers.)

I present it here without comment, except to say that it makes one wonder why Aristotle even bothered.


Please note these reminders and recent interpretive rulings regarding competition.
POETRY DOCUMENTATION: Much time is now being spent at the state office assisting parents and coaches in documenting their students’ poems for the Poetry Contest. Please make finding appropriate documentation a research project for the contestant, who will benefit most from this experience. Although you want to be assured of appropriate documentation, you should have found something FIRST that you believe to be documentation before you call the state office. Time will become very critical as we draw closer to the district and state meets. Assist your students in finding works that are documentable.

Internet poems are documentable to the extent that information is found STATING that the work is a poem.

If you find your chosen work by title with the word “poem” after it in the Library of Congress listing, this page may serve as verification of the work’s classification as poetry. Print the page that has this information on it and bring it to contest.

Poems that have anonymous authors can be used, if the work can be specifically referred to in the source in which it is found (or other sources) as a poem.

The word “rhyming” or “rhyme” will not necessarily classify a work as poetry. Many children’s stories are written in rhyme or light rhyme; whereas, many poems are written in blank and free verse, which do not rhyme.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Let us praise the Father of mercies, the God of all consolation.
Blessed be God for ever.

My soul is deprived of peace,
I have forgotten what happiness is;
I tell myself my future is lost,
all that I hoped for from the Lord.
But I will call this to mind,
as my reason to have hope:
The favors of the Lord are not exhausted,
his mercies are not spent;
They are renewed each morning,
so great is his faithfulness.
My portion is the Lord, says my soul;
therefore I will hope in him.

Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine,
et lux perpetua luceat ei.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

This one's for Yahmdallah...

... and any other rabble-rousing Presbyterians round here.
Vanity CAIR

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Da Vinci Stuff

"Gentlemen, you are now about to embark on a course of studies which will occupy you for two years. Together, they form a noble adventure. But I would like to remind you of an important point. Nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life, save only this, that if you work hard and intelligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education."
--John Alexander Smith, Professor of Moral Philosophy, Oxford, 1914

Since everyone else is hopping on the Da Vinci Code bandwagon, I see no reason not to blog on it, despite never having read the book, nor planning to, nor intending to waste time or money on the movie. I've already discovered that a Catholic who fails to read the book is doing so because the Evil Covering-Up Church has told her she shouldn't read it, and of course she obeys like the good little brainless minion she is, and that Thinking Catholics have all read it and learned much Truth (TM) from it. And having discovered also that there is no way to climb out of that particular designative hole, I'm not going to bother trying. As is the way with conspiratorial thinking, protests serve only to confirm.

One fun aspect of DVC is that it's so full of rubbish, everybody in every field gets to have a crack at it. Historians disavow any opinions on the theology involved, but just want to point out that all the historical stuff is, frankly, made up. Cryptographers don't have much to say about the history or theology, but have much to mock in the claims that Dan Brown is some sort of expert in their field (do read the whole thread at that link). A linguist with nothing to say on history, theology, or cryptography can tell us, not just that the writing stinks--something those of us who haven't avoided the many excerpts floating around the web figured out pretty quick--but can tell us exactly why it stinks.

I have nothing to say about the history, cryptography, writing, or theology, but a little something to say about the apparent inability of many to recognize a culturally pervasive literary genre. Central to DVC is the idea that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and established a bloodline, and the Evil Institutional Church hushed it up, in part out of hatred of womyn, by spreading the rumor that the Magdalene was a reformed prostitute. All I can say is, are the people buying this nonsense unaware of the one basic Christian plotline? It's this: Awful sinner encounters Jesus, repents, and becomes a great Christian. It's the same plotline used for David, Rahab, St. Paul, St. Matthew, Zaccheus, St. Augustine, St. Thais, Chuck Colson, Fr. Corapi, and in some late Christian literature, Pontius Pilate. The Pilate apocrypha should give us the hint that, where the actual story doesn't quite fit the plotline, it often gets massaged a little, even if this means adding a little extra sin at the front end, or a little extra repentance at the back. Augustine has his childhood theft of pears; Patrick hints at some unnamed great sin of his past; even the evidence for St. Matthew's tax-collecting past is about as strong as the evidence for the Magdalene's past scandals.

Evangelical Christians continue this venerable tradition: many are the testimonies of those who have been raised all their lives as Christians, who accepted Christ as Their Personal Lord and Savior at the age of six (to be applauded at any age), but nevertheless manage to have some story of malfeasance and bad living to be worked up as a foil to their present saved lives. I had thought this plotline so embedded into our culture that the narrative would be easily recognizable. But somewhere along the way, it's been forgotten, to the extent that otherwise educated people think it obvious that the best explanation for playing up the Magdalene's sinful past is an ecclesial conspiracy to discredit her in the eyes of Christians.

The fact is, Christians love a good repentant sinner story. With St. Mary Magdalene, it was pretty easy. She's identified as having had "seven devils" cast out of her by Jesus, hinting at some great unnamed sinfulness of life. She seems identifiable with Mary, the sister of Martha, who in turn is sufficiently similar to the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus, and who seems to be a prostitute, that one could reasonably draw the conclusion they are the same. Whether one agrees with the series of associations made by early Christians--and most modern biblical scholars don't--it's just ignorant to believe either that there was no ground for making them, or that hagiography emphasizing the Magdalene's pre-conversion sins is best explained by a church-wide conspiracy to discredit her. The eagerness to believe in the slander campaign and cover-up could only exist in a society that has forgotten its own stories: a society, that is, that no longer recognizes its own culture.

Not that pointing out the ubiquity of the central Christian story makes any difference. The ignorance and literary tone-deafness of a depressingly large segment of the book-reading population, the eager willingness to believe in the wildest conspiracy theories, and the satisfied confidence of each generation that all who came before them were stupid, uncritical, easily deceived by priestcraft, and considered women to be mere chattel, will prevent mere facts from making a dent, and serve only to confirm that those presenting said facts have bought so deeply into the system as to be wilfully blind sheep, to be pitied if they cannot be made to see.

Being a homeschooler, I can't help reflecting on how ignorance of history, literature, culture, and art (how are so many people unaware of the medieval convention of painting St. John the Evangelist as an effeminate young man with long hair?) has contributed to the culture-wide uncritical acclamation of a third-rate book, filled with laughable inaccuracies and falsehoods, as an incisive thinking-man's thriller. But there's the fact of it. What can we do except try to immunize the next generation against the swallowing of tripe? Not by apologetics or counter-arguments or fideism, but by immersion in the history, literature, art, and science that is their birthright.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Igor ... Get me the brain!

At long last we made it to the Mock Surgery Day at one of our local hospitals. This is a great event, with the entire operating room area turned over to exhibitions (using non-gross models, of course) of various kinds of surgeries being performed, with videos showing the actual surgeries (grossness level, again, kept low), and nurses and techs aplenty answering various questions. Offspring #1 has for quite a long time been determined to grow up to be some combination of detective, FBI agent, and pathologist: basically, a crime scene investigator. We've avoided letting her know that there happens to be a popular TV series about exactly this profession. She's pretty much memorized Fisher's Techniques of Crime Scene Investigation (courtesy of our local used book store), befriended the sweet guy at church who recently retired from the FBI and has dozens of great war stories, talked me into starting a high school chemistry course with her, and was oh so eager to go see human insides, or at least convincing models thereof, at Mock Surgery Day.

We got through the cataract surgery exhibit, and were admiring the brute simplicity of bolting a plate to a broken fibia when dearest child suddenly keeled over in a dead faint, smacking her head nicely on the linoleum as she went down. So much for the brilliant career in medicine that was going to support me in my old age. At least she passed out in a room full of nurses.

So our study of biology and human anatomy will continue in less crowded and realistic circumstances. While we were still all vertical at Mock Surgery Day, she was admiring the medical posters up on the walls, and I have promised her the reward of a cool medical poster for each bodily system she can master, form and function, up to a reasonable high school level. She's opted for the brain, a choice perhaps not unconnected to her many questions about why exactly she fainted, and what happens when you faint, and what's the evolutionary use of fainting, anyhow? Though 'Diseases of the Digestive System' very nearly had first choice.

The desired poster is here, and she is swotting away (as they say in the UK) at the autonomic nervous sytem and the various lobes, occipital and parietal and the rest. Isaac Asimov wrote a nice little book about the brain in his wonderful "How Did We Find Out About...?" science series for children (I got hold of dozens of them for almost nothing; I do love library sales). Maybe I'll even go so far as to pay a butcher for a sheep or cow brain, and we can do some hands-on dissection.

While everyone is sitting down, of course.