Good Books for Civilizational Greatness

Coming from a family with a long history of loving books and valuing true education (not necessarily having anything to do with “school”), I found this essay by William Edmund Fahey interesting.  He writes about great and good books and the effect and importance they have on culture and education:

Our own disorders spring from so much neglect of the real soil of culture: the widely shared canon of good literature and the widely affirmed understanding that there must be goodness in literature, and that such literature should be read aloud within families and by each and every person who dares call himself civilized—before, during, and after their formal education.  Goodness is the soil of greatness.

I do not mean by goodness in literature and good literature that all characters should be plaster statues without depth or real complexity.  No, I mean literature which elicits a clear understanding of what is true, good, and beautiful, because what is light is seen nearby to what is dark.  Enchantment will not work in an imbalanced world of goody-goody mannequins.  The enchantment offered by good literature works because those reading or listening to a tale already know first-hand that life is complex.  We need go no further than Squirrel Nutkin to understand how this very real balance is achieved even in a children’s literature.  Nutkin is, at once, morally flawed and attractive.  No one who encounters Squirrel Nutkin—even one of five years—can fail to miss his conceit, fail to anticipate his demise, or fail to recognize his own fallenness in the impertinent will-to-power of Nutkin.

I will go so far as to say that a reader who has not had his experience nurtured and refined by the likes of Squirrel Nutkin is unlikely to comprehend Thucydides, St. Augustine, or Nietzsche.

Do the Great Books Sustain Wonder and Lead to Morality?

Over the last century, “great books” programs and colleges have fought a valiant battle to keep up the high standard of what it means to be human and civilized.  Sadly, most of the progenitors of these programs neglected or gave little time to thinking about the supporting culture—especially as it touched upon family life and social customs.  Worse still, some of the “great books” proponents thought that by rubbing up against Milton’s Areopagita, or joining in a seminar discussion of Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, leaders would be born who would create, leaven, and sustain a good society.  Somehow the idea has held steady for decades that an almost sacred encounter with great literature between the ages of 17 and 22 could transcend a hollow and malnourished family life, where little song was heard and none sung.

Yet the great books demand a supporting culture—both before and after and throughout.

Would we place our trust in a man who was well-versed in Nichomachus’s Introduction to Arithmetic or Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, but who could not complete a line of nursery rhyme, who had never slept under the stars with Jim Hawkins, never wanted to rescue the likes of Princess Flavia, never shrunk in horror at the witches of Macbeth, never wept at the death of a bull dog named Jack or sorrowed over the sins of Kristen Lavransdatter?  The one thing a liberal arts or great books education will not do is create a moral imagination where there is none.  Yet somehow many educators believe that reading advanced works and chatting about them will lead to a good society.  It may lead to a well-read society, but that need not be a good one or a happy one.

Fahey goes on to quote John Senior’s article, “The Thousand Good Books:”

The “Great Books” movement of the last generation has not failed so much as fizzled, not because of any defect in the books—“the best that has been thought and said,” in Matthew Arnold’s phrase—but like good champagne in plastic bottles they went flat.  To change the figure, the seeds are good but the cultural soil has been depleted; the seminal ideas of Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas, only properly grow in an imaginative ground saturated with fables, fairy tales, stories, rhymes, adventures, which have developed into the thousand books of Grimm, Andersen, Stevenson, Dickens, Scott, Dumas and the rest. Western tradition, taking all that was best of the Greco-Roman world into herself has given us the thousand good books as a preparation for the great ones and for all the studies in the arts and sciences, without which such studies are inhumane.

Read the rest here, including a list of recommended good books for different ages to read.

(The list looks interesting and makes me feel not nearly well-read enough!)

The Collapse of Parenting

If you start to think your own kids are terribly bratty and poorly behaved (which all kids are at times) and that you’re doing a terrible job as a parent (which all good parents sometimes think), just look at examples of how much of society at large is doing things and you’ll feel much better (unless, of course, this IS how you’re parenting and then, well, you’re in trouble).

An example from an interview with Dr. Leonard Sax :

The Associated Press: What exactly do you mean by a collapse of parenting?

Sax: I wrote about an office visit with a 10-year-old boy who is sitting and playing a game on his mobile phone, ignoring me and his mom as I’m talking with his mom about his stomachache. And his mom is describing his stomachache and the boy says, ‘Shut up, mom, you don’t know what you’re talking about.’ And he laughs.

That would have been very unusual in 1990 or 2000. It is now common: children, girls and boys, being disrespectful to parents, being disrespectful to one another, being disrespectful to themselves, verbally and otherwise. The mother did nothing, just looked a little embarrassed. The culture has changed in a profound way in a short period of time in ways that have really harmed kids.

It’s much worse today of course, but I’d say that this sort of thing was getting under way even in the 90s.  I certainly saw examples of this kind of disrespect even back then.

Dr. Sax isn’t the first to conclude that today’s parenting styles/techniques are really harming kids and not helping them grow up to be happy or successful (by any measure). Here’s some of what he thinks parent’s should be doing instead:

AP: What types of things can parents do to help a child or teen become a fulfilled adult?

Sax: The first thing is to teach humility, which is now the most un-American of virtues. When I meet with kids I ask them what they think it is and they literally have no idea. I’ve done that from third grade through 12th grade. The high school kids are more clueless than the third-graders.

They have been indoctrinated in their own awesomeness with no understanding of how this culture of bloated self-esteem leads to resentment. I see it. I see the girl who was told how amazing she was who is now resentful at age 25 because she’s working in a cubicle for a low wage and she’s written two novels and she can’t get an agent.

The second thing is to enjoy the time with your child. Don’t multitask. Get outdoors with your child.

The last thing: Teach the meaning of life. It cannot be just about getting a good job. It’s not just about achievement. It’s about who you are as a human being. You must have an answer.

That first line about humility is spot on.  And it really could be said to be true of virtue in general.  No one cares to teach virtues.  It’s all about me, me, me instead.  It’s not new knowledge that leading a fully self-centered life isn’t going to lead to true or lasting happiness or fulfillment.  How sad that everyone seems to have forgotten that.

Dr. Sax’s recent book looks interesting:

This book cover image released by Basic Books shows, "The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups," by Leonard Sax. Sax, a family physician and psychologist, argues that American families are facing a crisis of authority, where the kids are in charge, out of shape emotionally and physically and suffering because of it. He calls for a reordering of family life in response.

 

Time to burn our Harry Potter books?

JK Rowling’s fans, fed up with her political posting on Twitter, pledged to burn her books and never read her work again.  JK responded with class demonstrating how much she really cares for her fans:

Well, the fumes from the DVDs might be toxic and I’ve still got your money, so by all means borrow my lighter. 4:29 AM – 31 Jan 2017

JK Rowling: fantasy and arrogance at its best?  Psst, JK, your books aren’t really that awesome, could’ve used a good editor, and seriously declined in quality as the HP series progressed —  but you got lucky and now you’re rich.  How about a little gratitude and loyalty to the fans that put you where you are?

Or maybe it’s time to give her even more money by donating so she can really stand by what she says about the poor refugees?  Mike Cernovich and other Twitter users call her out on her hypocrisy.

The Green Rust

What a fun read! The Green Rust is a  mystery by Edgar Wallace. You can get it for free from Gutenberg. The story is set in England after World War I. This mystery has everything I like, a sensible, pretty, and resourceful girl, a clever detective and a smart, evil villain with a frightening plan. There is romance, fear, suspense, and plenty of action.Why don’t they make movies out of stories like this?