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Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

Okay, I’ve been miserably long in posting this (and it’s still not complete) but here is the first installment of a look at U.S. education.

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I recently finished the classic tale of The Brothers Karamazov, written by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (or Theodore Dostoevsky, as it’s sometimes anglicized). If the name didn’t tip you off, he’s Russian, and so are the brothers he writes about. The tale was written in the nineteenth century, about the scandals of nineteenth century life in a small Russian town … and yet I think it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. It is a masterpiece in every sense.

Once I came to that conclusion, I wondered why it was that my school-age self never got the chance to read him. Was, in fact, forced to slave through stories that were boring and verbose, like Last of the Mohicans, instead. How was Dostoyevsky dismissed (never even mentioned, actually) when Romeo and Juliet was crammed down our throats not twice but three times in high school alone? At least I heard about Tolstoy’s massive classic War and Peace, and Hugo’s Les Miserables, though neither ever had a place on our bookshelves nor in our library nor curriculum. So I began thinking about our education system. I began to wonder, what are students actually learning? When English class rolls around and pupils open their textbooks, what greets them?

From my own school days I recall curricula that rarely wavered from writings of the “Big Three” – the US, the UK, and Ancient Greece – with virtually nothing newer than the nineteenth century except for a handful of short fiction and poetry. It never really struck me at the time how little we read of international authors. Even my university literature classes – open to anything written anywhere, anytime – featured little outside the well-worn paths of American, English, and Greco-Roman classics. Just in case we missed them in high school, I guess. I recall only two exceptions: a piece by Voltaire, a Frenchman; and Metamorphosis, by German author Franz Kafka. For crossing borders, that’s a terribly poor selection. Not that those authors don’t have writings worthy of study, but they were the only representatives of the greater world. I had in fact read Kafka’s famous tale as a teenager without realizing he was not American, which seems an even poorer world lit choice. I expected a great deal more out of my “education.”

I expected my horizons to be stretched; I wanted to be introduced to all manner of thing new and exotic (to me, at least). Growing up in rural mid-America and attending a small public school, I understood they operated under certain limitations. There were few frills – no AP classes, no special college jump-start programs. It was a small school with only a handful of faculty and staff, with mostly older buildings and low district millage rates. It was considered a stretch of our horizons to read Antigone (the story of Oedipus was pretty scandalous for the youth of a town with one gas station, one bank, and five churches). But now our “small” public schools have budgets rivaling that of my university alma mater. So I wonder if the latest crop of students are more well-read than my antiquated little class.

I still live in a rural area, very much like the one I grew up in, and I’m going to use the nearest public school as my model. Its middle and high school sections (with adjoining campuses and shared buildings) serve less than 900 students with more than 100 faculty and major staff (not including higher school officials or secondary staff). The middle school includes thirty-five classrooms; the high school has more, though I’m not sure by what margin; and most of the buildings are less than ten years old. Students can compete in eight different sports and graduate with more than 20 college credit hours. Sounds good, right? So let’s see how they measure up via ye olde standardized testing (not the best judge but the most decent judge I have easy access to).

Let me pre-empt these numbers by noting that very little is available on post-8th grade rankings, and virtually nothing prior to 1998. So, for starters at least, I will have to settle for comparing the 8th graders of 2009 to the 8th graders of 1998 to get any picture of the system at all. Now, on with the show. Since we’re talking literature, tests in Reading and Writing seem the most relevant, and from 1998 to 2009, there was a whopping change in our 8th graders statewide. Writing showed an increase of 5% and Reading showed an astounding increase of … [drumroll, please] … 1%. Wow. Wait a second; let me pull my socks back on before plunging ahead. In 1998, 8th graders in the state ranked 29th nationwide in Reading; in 2009, they ranked 41st. In Writing, their ranking fell from 33rd to 36th. But those are statewide and nationwide numbers, not a representation of my model school. So let’s see what else we can find.

According to 2009 literacy test results, my local high school ranked 96 of 253; the middle school section ranked 102 of 299 – both solidly mediocre. Not bad, not good, but I find it very disappointing given the present funding. Compared to what my former high school worked with, this model school is rolling in money. For instance, my high school had unpaved parking lots, not ideal but certainly functional and low maintenance. The model local school recently spent $1,000,000 on one paved parking lot. Let me repeat that: they spent ONE MILLION DOLLARS to prepare and blacktop ONE LOT so visitors and employees could walk to the main building without getting dirt on their shoes. Never mind the curriculum, crushed rock is hell in heels. But maybe their test scores are fantastic and their budget is overflowing with surplus … which I’m presently researching and hope to include in the upcoming Part 2.

As an interesting aside, I checked the state requirements, and the language arts standards specifically mention only “American, British, and Greek/Latin” literature, with later mentions of “and/or other” literatures. No wonder our school featured nothing else; the Big Three were the only outside sources of literature specifically approved by the state.

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What to look for in Part 2:

Local school results
Teachers’ pay versus test scores
State and National test scores
and anything else I run across that looks juicy

Stay tuned.

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If you’ve read much of the Science Fiction/Fantasy genre, you’ve probably heard of Orson Scott Card. Probably best known for his “Ender” series (beginning with Ender’s Game), he has authored dozens of books and short stories as well as having worked on scripts, comic book novelizations, video game dialogs, and many other projects.

Buried somewhere in his bibliography, which most people probably scan right by, is a little book called Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus. Classified as an “alternate history,” the story centers around a small group of people specially chosen to go back in time and reduce the nagative impacts of European contact with the New World. It was published in 1996, and I happened to have just finished reading Ender’s Game when Pastwatch hit the paperback shelf in Wal-Mart so I picked it up to see if he was an author worth following.

While it didn’t convince me to follow him as an author, I did fairly enjoy the book. And the older I get – the more I see of the world around us – the more one facet of it returns to me. That small group of people from the future who travel back in time do so because their own time is a dead end. The world has been decimated, and it becomes clear that it can no longer sustain the human populace. Homo sapiens face imminent extinction. But only a few people realize this. Most of the world’s population toil on in complete ignorance.

Sometimes I wonder how near this we are. Eco groups shout doomsday prophecies of global warming; governments and economies fall apart; religious zealots spark worldwide fears; scientists offer a thousand obscure but entirely possible paths to “the end of the world” … but they’re all pretty easy to write off, aren’t they? Nobody believes global warming will wipe out mankind, not even the most hardcore eco-warrior. Governments and economies may fall apart but some form of rule always asserts itself and nuclear armageddon is extremely improbable. And while quasar bursts and ballooning red giants may one day spell the end of this planet, it’s not likely to happen anytime soon.

Despite all the fearmongering, we’re a rather logically placid species. Someone screams that the sky is falling and most of us just look up, squint a little, and wave it off with a “Nah, go have your head examined.” In many ways, I think we feel invulnerable: “it won’t happen, not to me, not here, not now.” We understand that it really can happen, even to ourselves, right here and now, but that’s a bit heavy to deal with in the day-to-day. A little denial goes a long way toward stable social constructs and the perception of safety.

It’s human nature. A lot of people don’t want to know when something bad is going to happen, whether or not that knowledge could change the outcome. Like ostriches burying their heads in the sand, many people prefer ignorance to disillusionment. I do myself, on some levels; if I could un-see certain things, I would. Which brings me, finally, to the point, the question: would you want to know that the world was imminently doomed?

Yes. I believe I would. I would like a chance to atone for certain things and to set my affairs straight. Of course, death may come at any time, so I suppose on a very personal level the threat of doom is always imminent. “Death comes unexpectedly,” the author of Beowulf astutely noted. But perhaps not so unexpectedly on a global scale.

My greatest lament, when the human race expires, is that we were such a blight on this planet. Without us, it was a fertile and amazing world. And yet within a few millenia, an ecological blink of the eye, we managed to destroy, pollute, and otherwise adversely affect every inch of it. I only hope that after we go some bacteria will survive to begin again. Surely not all creatures of “intelligence” are so hopelessly and destructively ignorant.

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Anyone with more than a cursory glance at the history of this blog may have noticed several book-based posts. See, I like books. I like readings stories of peoples and places and things; whether or not they are true makes little difference. An author (Stephen King, I think?) once described fiction as the “truth inside the lie,” a sentiment with which I agree whole-heartedly. Chances are that someone somewhere at some time has experienced, to some degree, anything that the human mind can conjure on paper. In some dark corner, it is all real and true, if only in the reader’s mind.

In celebration of the written word, I joined a great little website called Good Reads which, you may have gleaned from the title, is all about books. There is a small but lively discussion board and neato widgets galore (though most don’t work in WordPress, sadly) but the site is primarily for book-lovers and books. Once joined you can review any book you’ve ever read (unless it hapens to be a quite obscure tome that even Amazon and Ex Libris have never heard of), read other people’s reviews, track what books or authors interest you, check out up-and-coming publications, even enter to win free copies of new books as they hit the shelves. I’m not big on places like MySpace or Facebook or Twitter, or whatever holds the honor of latest flash-in-the-pan, but if you enjoy reading, this is an excellent community to join. Period.

And if you enjoy writing, it’s even better. Discussions are littered with published authors offering tips and advice and opportunities. As with any writing site, a fair amount of bad poetry leaks into the threads but don’t think this is merely a group of mediocre writers with less talent than a junior high poetry class. A lot of these people are truly gifted writers and are sharing relevant information, not just the common vagueries of so many sites. I promise, you won’t find a single post or poem along the lines of

Roses are red
Violets are blue,
Gucci is cool
And so is Jimmy Choo.

On my mother’s eyes, I swear. I don’t know why I hadn’t heard of this place earlier but it’s quickly becoming a favorite.

So grab your latest literary conquest, write a scathing review or two, and drop into the discussions to see who’s accepting entries. Honestly, it’s worth a look. And in case you missed it the first time, here it is again: Good Reads.

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