Chance Developments – Review

Alexander McCall Smith. Chance Developments. New York: Pantheon, 2015. Print.

I do not write a review of every book I read. Sometimes I do not do so because I could not write a good review. I have loved most of Alexander McCall Smith’s tales of the #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and have reviewed a number of them here. One, alas, was a dud. So was one of his other books. I was beginning to be concerned. Was Mr. Smith losing his touch?

I am happy to report that Chance Developments is a delightful and bittersweet look at humanity. Like some of the best of the Ladies’ Detective Agency books, we can see and understand that Smith loves people. Coming away from this, one cannot help but say with Miranda, “O brave new world that has such people in it!”

Chance Developments sounds like it may have been inspired by a writing class. Smith tells us that he was given some old (c. 1910-1940) black and white photographs of unknown provenance with unidentified people. He takes five of those photographs—each reproduced in the book—and develops a story around them.

“Sister Flora’s First Day of Freedom” tells of a young woman in her early thirties who decides to leave her order of teaching nuns after ten years. She has the idea that she is going to go out into the world that she has been cut off from for a decade, buy some clothes, and find a nice man. Her naïveté is endearing, but so is her faith. A generation ago, this long short story—or, perhaps, novella—would have been serialized in a woman’s magazine.

“Angels in Italy” is a very different story. The main character, a teen boy who is a budding artist, is also a bit naïve. The way he is described, he almost sounds borderline autistic. He says very little, keeps to himself, and does not seem to have many social skills. Still, he understands in his own way the importance of human relationships. In the photo, he is only 7 or 8 and wearing a kilt. Indeed, most of the story is set in Scotland. Still, since our protagonist is an artist, there is a connection with Italy and the one friend who takes time to understand him.

“Dear Ventriloquist” is based on an unusual old photograph of a young man sitting on the lap of a young woman. The dress dates the photo from before World War I. That got Mr. Smith thinking of a ventriloquist, as if the man on the lady’s lap were her dummy. He adds another twist by telling the story from the point of view of the young man taking the picture, obviously unseen. No selfies in 1910! The approach does lead to some disappointment in the mind of the young photographer, but it is a lesson we all can learn something from.

“The Woman in the Beautiful Car” is based on another pre-World War I photo of a well-dressed woman standing next to a vintage automobile while two men change one of its tires. From this, Mr. Smith develops a very clever story line in which it appears everyone lives happily ever after.

The last story begins with a photo of a man in an Australian Army uniform and pretty woman looking out of the side of a sailboat. Smith imagines the picture being taken right before World War II, and the man spending most of the war in a Japanese slave labor camp. He returns from the war and marries the woman in the picture, but they have a rough go of it. Perhaps they both changed during the war; perhaps he had some PTSD problems he never dealt with. The tale takes some surprise twists, though, and one can say that through his suffering the ex-POW can relate to and serve others who are suffering. (See II Corinthians 1:4) And his wise observation at the end is something that perhaps we can all affirm in our own ways.

How much of life is intentional and deliberate? How much is chance? We may never know, but like Sister Flora, we can learn to appreciate that ultimately God is the blessed ruler of all things. (I Timothy 6:15)

Radio Fifth Grade – Review

Gordon Korman. Radio Fifth Grade. 1989; New York: Scholastic, 2010. Print.

If anyone is following this blog, the last few entries have been some pretty heady nonfiction works—brain function, infinity, education reform. I needed a break. Ah, who better to lighten the way than one of our favorite YA writers—Gordon Korman!

As is obvious from the title, Radio Fifth Grade has a slightly lower reading level than many Korman’s other titles which are geared more toward middle school or early high school. The content and style is not much different from his Swindle series, for example, but Radio Fifth Grade is a bit shorter. It is still a lot of fun.

The students at an elementary school in the city of Venice USA (the state is not specified) have been allowed half an hour of air time Saturday mornings on a local FM radio station. Benjy, Mark, and Ellen-Louise are the fifth grade producers of the show. Benjy idolizes a certain disk jockey whose autobiography he has practically memorized to become the host of the radio show. Mark does the physical labor, and Ellen-Louise is the teacher’s pet type who tries to keep the adults happy.

They get into some crazy situations on Saturday mornings for three main reasons. (1) Their classroom teacher suddenly leaves, and the new hire, Ms. Panagopolous, is fresh out of teachers’ college ready to get the kids to do a fifth grade seminar. (2) The school bully, a hulking sixth grader known as the Venice Menace, writes a totally lame story about two kittens who fight over a ball of yarn and gets to read it over the air (or else). (3) The show’s sponsor is local pet store whose grouchy owner is focused on the bottom line and wants to sell a talking macaw who only seems to want to say, “That parrot is a rip-off!”

I actually laughed out loud reading this book, something I do not do very often while reading. The story of the kittens Fuzzy and Puffy is so bad that it’s good. And the kids devise a plan to outsmart their teacher and get answers for the “seminar” homework, but they have to make sure that “Professor” Panagopolous does not listen to the show.

The kids are quite creative—not so much on the air, but in figuring out how to use the show to hoodwink their teacher and keeping the Menace from beating anyone up. Of course, it all begins to unravel. Technically, there are no break-ins in this story, but there are some other shenanigans that come pretty close.

Radio Fifth Grade will be great for nearly anyone from second or third grade on up to old-timers. Teachers should love the satire on their profession. Thank you, Mr. Korman, for keeping us smiling.

In case you are interested, other reviews here of books by Mr. Korman:

Ungifted
The Hypontists
Swindle
Zoobreak
Hideout

Jackpot
Unleashed
Masterminds
The Dragonfly Effect
Masterminds: Criminal Destiny

Everything and More – Review

David Foster Wallace. Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity. New York: Norton, 2003. Print.

Having enjoyed and admired Infinite Jest, I had to read what its author would say about the concept of infinity. Everything and More keeps the reader’s interest. It is not what I expected, but that is OK. By the way, I spell out the word infinity in most cases in this review, except for a couple of equations. Wallace frequently uses the symbol for infinity, the lemniscate. Even the book’s subtitle is written A Compact History of ∞.

Everything and More is truly a mathematics-based history of the concept of infinity, starting with the ancient Greeks. This work is a combination of mathematics and philosophy. Wallace frequently quotes a high school AP math teacher of his. One of my high school math teachers actually majored in Philosophy and Mathematics at Harvard. If Mr. Galvin is still around, I am sure he would enjoy this book—if he has not already read it.

I will be honest. I did take math in college up to theoretical calculus, but I have not used much of the higher math I studied since taking those classes, so I did skim over some of the more formulaic parts. For any serious mathematicians, there is an erratum at http://www.thehowlingfantods.com/dfw/images/enmerrata.pdf. However, the philosophical parts were fascinating, and I think I got the gist of the main arguments.

Wallace notes that it was the Greeks who, as far as we know, were the first people to look at numbers a potential abstractions. For example, the Egyptians and Babylonians knew about a 3-4-5 right triangle and used them to form and measure right angles. However, it was the Greek Pythagoras who showed the relationship among the sides by the theorem that still bears his name. Prior to some of those Greeks, numbers always stood for something—as Wallace puts it, five meant “five of something” like, say, five oranges. I guess one could say that numbers were adjectives that the Greeks began to see as nouns.

So they began looking at numbers as numbers. Indeed, Wallace asserts that Platonists and Aristotelians had a different view of number. The Platonists would see a number as a form or ideal. Aristotelians saw them as representing or describing something in the physical world. Aristotle dismissed the concept of infinity because nothing in the material world is infinite. Wallace has some fun with some ridiculously small and large numbers to illustrate that even the smallest measurable division of time or the number of electrons in the universe may be numbers so large or tiny as to be unimaginable, but they are still not infinite.

The Greeks were made aware of infinity largely through the infinitesimal, namely Zeno’s Paradox. Most students who have finished junior high math have heard of it. If you keep going halfway, you will never cross the street, yet how can two halves make a whole? What Zeno was suggesting was that between any two integers there are an infinite number of numbers.

As with so many things, the teachings of Aristotle held sway for about a millennium and a half (some still do). Yet people were aware not only of Zeno’s Paradox but others as well. For example, the invention of calculus brought a kind of corollary to Zeno—that in any given position or moment of time an object is at rest, so how does one account for motion?

Even the ancient Greeks had an idea that rational numbers (i.e., numbers that can be expressed as a ratio) do not account for all the numbers. Thanks to Pythagoras, they saw that the diagonal of a square is the square root of two [√ 2 ], which cannot be expressed as a ratio. Neither can pi [π]. So to have continuity on the number line—or even to account for motion mathematically—one has to account for every point, and there are an infinite number of points between any two rational points on a line.

Galileo came up with his own paradox: Even though there are many more numbers that are not perfect squares, when dealing with all the integers (an infinite number of integers) the number of integers and perfect squares are the same because every integer can be squared. Wallace explains this very clearly.

Everything and More focuses on George Cantor, the nineteenth century mathematician who developed much of modern set theory and, in doing so, was able to answer many of the questions people had about infinity such as the two paradoxes mentioned here. Unlike some of the calculations in the book, Wallace explains very clearly why there are different infinities. Although there are an infinite number of integers or squares or rational numbers, there are many more irrational numbers. This means that the set of real numbers is a degree of infinity greater than the set of integers or rational numbers.

Cantor used the Hebrew letter aleph [א]to designate an infinite set. A greater infinite set would then be designated by an aleph with a numerical subscript. With the first level aleph being aleph sub zero [א0]. So aleph sub one [א1] would describe the set of real numbers, which corresponds to a line of one dimension. Since then, people have shown that there are sets of infinities based on dimensions. Yes, there are an infinite number of points on a plane, but that is a degree of infinity greater so that becomes aleph sub two [א2]. Three dimensional space has aleph sub three [א3], and so on. Other mathematicians have made a case that these different alephs can be expressed as two to the aleph power of the aleph that precedes it, so א1=2א0, א2=2א1, and so on. I think I presented this correctly.

Going back to Zeno, this “solves” the problems of continuity and motion mathematically from the perspective of number theory. Aristotle may have been correct saying that in the physical universe there are not an infinite number of anything, but when we observe motion and measurements, we take such an idea into account. This also becomes a topic of discussion in this book and among math scholars: Is induction a valid technique for finding what is true in mathematics or should we, like Euclid, stick to deduction?

Because Infinite Jest was a wonderfully funny work of speculative fiction, I expected Everything and More to be more speculative than it was. Of course, because its topic is infinity, a certain amount of speculation is unavoidable. Still, it was mostly history. And Wallace desires, though cannot quite bring himself, to agree with the professor in the Narnia stories who explains, “It’s all in Plato. What do they teach in the schools these days?”

Ironically, for someone who is contemplating infinity, Wallace takes a narrow view of things. He asserts sadly, “That our thoughts and feelings are really just chemical transfers in 2.8 pounds of electrical pate.” (22) Well, as our last review notes, the mind and the brain are not identical. Similarly, he trivializes love as “a function of natural selection.” (23) How drearily mechanistic. How much like Roger Chillingworth!

Everything and More dismisses, for example, Aquinas’s speculation (and the old saint’s only disagreement with Aristotle) about infinity—that God is infinite and that eternity is infinite in time.

I confess that if I were writing about infinity, that is what I would be speculating about. Take one simple example I share with my students when we study Tom Stoppard. We know from the Second Law of Thermodynamics that the universe is winding down. Stoppard tells us “the future is disorder” and some day “heat is gone from the earth.” However, eternity is different. Eternity means unlimited energy forever. I can prove it mathematically.

We learned about a hundred years ago that the inherent energy of something is its mass times the square of the speed of light, or E=mc2. Eternity is timeless. That means that speed, which is distance divided by time (d/t in math class) is infinite in eternity. Instead of c=186,000 miles/second, in a timeless environment the speed of anything, light and everything else, is the distance over zero because there is no time in eternity. Any number divided by zero is either nonsense or infinity. Wallace makes a case that any real number divided by infinity is zero [e.g., 1/0=∞]. If eternity exists, that means E equals m times infinity [E=m·∞], so E=infinity [E=∞], so eternity has infinite energy. That helps explain creation, miracles, and other things we might consider supernatural. It is a thought.

Everything and More is very well written. Wallace is first and foremost a story teller. Even this book tells a story in a pretty effective way even it its speculation is materialistic, something Infinite Jest starts with but does not end with. Indeed, the last three sentences of Everything and More suggest such things as I speculated on in the last paragraph, but instead of seeing eternity, Wallace saw the “Void.” (305, his capital) Alas.

P.S. The copy of this book that I obtained is the original edition. In 2013 an edition of Everything and More came out with a preface by Neal Stephenson. Stephenson is also a very clever speculative writer. It would be interesting to see what he had to say about this book, but that will have to wait.

Switch on Your Brain – Review

Caroline Leaf. Switch on Your Brain. Grand Rapids MI: Baker, 2013. Print.

Switch on Your Brain is subtitled The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health. The author is a doctor who specializes in communication pathology. The first two thirds of the book make a case for what she calls neuroplasticity, that the nerve cells in our brains can be made to work differently depending on our thoughts. Politically, theologically, practically, and scientifically, she would assert that people have free will.

The book could be seen as a kind of Pangloss or Norman Vincent Peale positive thinking book. To some degree it is. The author makes a case, however, that while we may not be able to do much to change our circumstances, we can choose to react to them in a positive way. A consistent attitude—whether positive or negative—begins to make a regular road in the neural pathways of the brain. In effect, Switch on Your Brain makes a scientific case for positive thinking. You might as well get those pathways headed in a positive directions.

One striking assertion of this presentation is how it parallels the experience of Dr. Eben Alexander in his Proof of Heaven, reviewed in this blog. That book is a testimony, not a how-to or self-help book. However, the author is a brain surgeon. He shares how he was brain-dead for a week and then revived. Even though his EEG was flatlined the entire time, he was conscious. Prior to that experience, he had always assumed that the mind and the brain were the same. He realized from this experience that that is not the case.

Dr. Leaf’s experience counseling and treating people has led her to the same conclusion—that the mind is not exactly the same as the brain. The brain is the physical manifestation of the mind. She notes, though, that they are not independent. She makes a case, as did Dr. Alexander, that there is a lot we do not know about the mind.

She notes that the scientific and mathematical models in recent years indicate that there are at least eleven dimensions to physical existence, and frankly, we know little about most of them. She notes that quantum leaps of subatomic particles like electrons are instantaneous. She notes that some subatomic particles seem to react to the manner in which they are being observed. In all this, and especially in her discussion of brain anatomy, she makes a case that there is much we do not know but that free will exists. To quote the title of a book from a generation ago on the psychology of happiness, this means that happiness is a choice.

The second section of Switch on Your Mind, approximately the last third of the book, covers five steps to renew the mind (see Romans 12:2), or as the author puts it, to “switch on” the brain. Those five steps do appear to be helpful and do make this a true self-help book.

That section might be a bit weaker simply because it does involve self-help. Dr. Leaf has devoted her life to helping others, and gives some fascinating case histories illustrating her steps and showing how they have helped her clients and patients. Still, it one thing to be led through therapy by a skilled expert and another thing to “do it yourself,” even if the directions were written by an expert.

Does it work? Well it worked, she tells us, for some very disadvantaged school students in a Johannesburg, South Africa, slum. It certainly cannot hurt. If nothing else, this book is a good reminder that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14)

Chain Saw Juggler

As mentioned in a previous blog entry, I served as an AP Exam reader for English Literature this year. I happened to be reading essays on Richard Wilbur’s 1949 poem titled “The Juggler.” As I was reading essays on this topic, I thought of the modern practice of chain saw juggling. The poem includes references to figures of speech because many of the essays did. However, I confess I got some of the figures of speech, not from student essays, but from the ultimate authority which lists somewhere around 400 different figures of speech, Bullinger’s Figures of Speech in the Bible.

Chainsaw Juggler

He stretches the starter cord
And flips open his fingers
And the saw sputters and starts with a start
And then another
And then a third saw in polysyntedon
Until three buzz saws roar like a tree full of locusts.

As the audience draws in a single breath,
He balances one saw on his nose,
Flings a second, finally, asyndetonically,
The third till all three are flying fantastically orbiting his ears.

The pair of EMTs are poised,
Praying in alliteration.
They avoid considering possibilities;
Even if he just grazed a finger—
Forget head wounds or leg stumps;
They, too, held their breaths.

It is dangerous and defiant what he does,
Juggling chain saws as if before the gates of hell,
Abandon all hope ye who falter here.
But he falters not,
And audience acclaim is awesome in its assonance
Though it is hard to hear over the sound of the saws.

The seconds seem like hours
As he hurls the saws around.
How does he do it?
Ten thousand hours, they say, to become an expert.
Think of the days and ear-protected hours it took,
And now we sit in awe and
Loose our lips and larynges
In honor, respect, and exhilaration serially
For the one who defies both nature and common sense.

After twenty cycles,
One by one he sets the saws on the cement, still buzzing.
He seizes a sawbuck and places a balsa log in its crotch.
With a single swoop he manhandles a saw
And slices the log in two,
Throwing each half to the audience where they can feel the heat
And sniff the sawdust synesthetically—
This is not smoke and mirrors,
No nesting swords piercing a lady in a box.

One by one he cuts the engine of each saw
And wipes the sweat from his forehead and face.
We applaud, urging an encore.
We are impressed and amazed in hendiadys.
Would we dare it ourselves?
Of course not!
But still we can watch and preach like the prophets:
Oh death, where is thy sting?

Between the Lines – Review

Bob Sorge. Between the Lines. Kansas City MO: Oasis House, 2012. Print.

As I look back, I realize that I have reviewed three books by Bob Sorge since starting this web log. Like The Fire of God’s Love, Unrelenting Prayer, and The Fire of Delayed Answers, Between the Lines is intense and effective. Though perhaps not as intentionally as John White’s Daring to Draw Near, Between the Lines looks at a lot of things from God’s perspective.

Basing his book on the principles that Jesus is not only the Creator, but the author (I Corinthians 14:33 KJV, Hebrews 5:9 KJV and Hebrews 12:2 KJV), the Word (John 1:1 et seq.), and even the letters of the alphabet (Revelation 1:8, Revelation 1:11 KJV, 21:6, and 22:13), Sorge tells us that God is writing a story for each of us. He reminds us that the best stories have lots of conflict, suspense, and eleventh hour impossibilities. God’s stories are often that way—in order to show His glory.

For example, Exodus 9:15-16 tells us that God specifically told the Pharaoh that He could have just wiped out the Egyptian royal family, but He raised up this king so the whole world would see God’s glory. It was ten plagues and a miracle at the Red Sea that delivered Israel. It took a while. It appeared that Egypt had all the advantages, but the final outcome was much more thrilling and powerful. I note that forty years later, the people of Jericho are afraid of the Israelites because of what their God did to the Egyptians.

We could say similar things about Jesus’ passion, about the life of David or Joseph and other Bible figures. Sorge reminds us to look at our own lives the same way. No doubt because of his own experiences (detailed in some of his other books like The Fire of Delayed Answers, this rings true. I am reminded of what Betsie ten Boom told her sister Corrie before she died at Buchenwald: “They will listen because we have been there.”

Sorge notes how waiting and swiftness often go together. The Israelites had to wait at least eighty years for deliverance, but actual events that set them free were sudden. The actual final escape literally happened overnight. So did Jesus’s resurrection.

Between the Lines is divided into three parts: (1) The Stuff of Story (God as author), (2) Staying in the Story (Perseverance leading to transformation), and (3) A Story of Biblical Proportions (a retelling of the life of Jacob).

As a reader, writer, and English teacher, part one really spoke to me. I believe it is anointed. It was certainly a rhema word this this reader. The second part was straight teaching on what true faith in God means. Again, this was not merely theoretical. Sorge has been there.

I heard him speak last year, and his voice is still quite weak. Sometimes people tell him that because of his soft voice, they have to listen more intently, so they get more of what he is trying to share. He very honestly says that while he is glad that people listen, it is not much consolation to him because it is still painful to talk. He would rather have his voice back. Yes, we get it.

To begin the third part, Sorge makes an interesting observation, one I believe that few people have thought about. Who is the person named most frequently in the Bible? He describes the seven people mentioned most. Seventh is Aaron, the first high priest and brother of Moses. Sixth is King Saul. Even here the number six signifies man by himself without God (see Revelation 13:18) and suggests rebellion and antichrist. Judah is fifth because his tribe dominates much of Old Testament history. Four is Moses, probably as significant in world history as anyone except for Jesus Himself, who is number three. King David comes in at number two, but number one is Jacob. His name is mentioned 2,980 times, almost three times as often as David (1,087 times).

Part three, then, is a teaching on the life of Jacob. This perhaps is where the significance of the title really comes through. We read about significant points in Jacob’s life: his birth, his bargaining with Esau, his tricking his father, his dream of the ladder, his marriage to Rachel and Leah, his escape from Laban and return to Canaan, the loss of Joseph, and his settlement in Egypt. Those are quite a few events, but we are reminded that they cover a span of 147 years.

That means that most of his life was devoted to working as a shepherd, raising a family, and waiting. He was still single at 75. He lost Joseph at age 108 and it took 22 years before they were reunited. During that time we are told “he refused to be comforted.” (Genesis 37:34-35) Towards the end of those years, when Simeon was kept hostage and the Egyptian leader (who was, in fact, Joseph) demanded Benjamin, Jacob got even more depressed.

Things seemed to get worse before they got better. What was the key to Jacob’s growth spiritually besides suffering? In a word: Covenant.

Sorge gives a different perspective from what is usually taught about Jacob’s vow in Genesis 28:20-21. If God provides his needs and he returns to his homeland in peace, “the Lord shall be my God.”

That is a key to Jacob. It is not so much that he skeptically kept his distance from God for twenty years. No, what is important is this: Jacob kept his vow. As he re-entered Canaan after being gone for twenty years, God renamed him Israel, i.e., Prince of God. As soon as Jacob settled in Shechem, where he planned on staying, he built an altar and named it El Elohe Israel (Genesis 33:20)—God, the God of Israel. God is Jacob’s God.

From then on, Jacob continued to remain faithful. In spite of the long time he refused to be comforted, he kept covenant with God and ultimately he was blessed above most men in history.

There is a lot more to the story as Sorge tells it. At the end of his life Jacob notes that he has been blessed more than his father Isaac or his grandfather Abraham. He tells his sons:

The blessings of your father have exceeded the blessings of my ancestors…(Genesis 49:26)

Yes, he wanted Isaac’s blessing and Abraham’s covenant, but he wanted God even more. His God was the God.

What a story!

One thing this reviewer would add, perhaps as a note to the author is Ephesians 2:10. Most versions say something like “we are His workmanship” (KJV, ESV) or “we are God’s handiwork.” (NIV) That Greek word translated “workmanship” or “handiwork” is poema. It means what you think it means: We are God’s poem. It is beyond the scope of this review to discuss the significance of poetry in the Greek culture, but that verse confirms Sorge’s thesis in Part 1 of Between the Lines.

I would like to end with some personal thoughts. Before I read this book, I identified with Jacob somewhat. Frustrated, perhaps too clever for my own good, my name (James) is an Anglicization of the name Jacob. Many years ago I wrote the following. It still applies.

Jacob Fought with Jesus

I don’t want to fight you, Jesus,
But I know that I have.
Let me trust you completely
And know that you are love.

Jacob was no dummy
But Jacob fought with Jesus.
He fought Him most his life despite the Lord’s Word.
Why bribe his brother?
Why dupe his father?
The Promise was his and that was that.

Jacob loved Rachel,
But he got tricked, too,
Ended up with a love-life soap operas envy.
He knew God was faithful
He knew His word was true
But he wanted to make sure and rose up against God.

The day finally came
He had to leave for Canaan,
One more trick to play on his father-in-law.
But Jacob’s stomach shivered,
For Esau would be waiting.
Something had to give, and he feared it would be himself.

A man came down from heaven;
Jacob called Him God.
He started fighting Jacob and Jacob fought back.
Jacob knew He loved him,
Jacob loved Him, too,
But they struggled and strained till the morning light shone.

Jacob knew now
As he never knew before
The Creator of the heavens had come to him as man.
It was useless to struggle
Even struggle for a blessing
The blessing had been his since the dawn of time.

Jacob was now crippled,
But he had met his Maker;
Known afterwards as Israel, he would claim his land.
Jacob was no dummy
But he could have been much smarter
For there was still much for him to do according to God’s plan.

God will have the victory
As He did with Jacob.
His victory was with him, not over or above him.
One of God’s names we use now
Is the name the God of Jacob—
A title for all time of the Creator’s love for men.

Though I fight hard against you
My God, O God of Jacob,
My hope for those who know me
Is they’ll know you are my God,
And with the name of Jacob, Jesus,
You’ll say you’re my God, too.

The Global Achievement Gap – Review

Tony Wagner. The Global Achievement Gap. New York: Basic Books, 2010. Print.

I read this book shortly after I read Gatto’s An Underground History of American Education. The Global Achievement Gap makes some of the same critiques of the current American education system but also comes up with some proposals that have seemed to work to improve things in different schools. Wagner’s concern has been echoing for at least 59 years since the old Soviet Union launched its first Sputnik satellite: America is falling behind in technology, and the schools need to do something about it.

The author of Underground History spent his entire career as a classroom teacher. Wagner spent about a decade as one, but since then he has worked as a researcher and university professor. Wagner first identifies what he calls seven survival skills and then tries to present what seems to work and what does not in developing these skills.

Here are the skills: (1) Critical thinking and problem solving, (2) Collaboration and leading by influence, (3) Adaptability, (4) Initiative, (5) Effective oral and written communication, (6) Obtaining and analyzing information, and (7) Curiosity and imagination.

As a teacher, my reaction to each of these things varies. I understand the need for all these things for anyone just to enjoy everyday life. I do wonder, though, if schools are the always the places to develop these things. I know from experience that some of these things that could be developed in schools are often not developed, or if they are attempted, they are done in a superficial manner.

I note that Wagner is very critical of “teaching to the test” techniques. From my experience, he is absolutely correct. However, I would suggest that the problem is not usually the tests themselves. The College Board, for example, has lots of statistics to prove the efficacy of its tests. The problem is the practice of teaching to the tests.

When I was in high school, for example, the contents of the SAT were still a secret. In 1980 New York passed a law requiring the SAT and similar entrance and employment tests publish their questions. After unsuccessfully challenging the law in courts, the College Board began releasing its tests in 1984. That changed education more than the test itself. Now people could actually teach to the SAT.

When I was in high school (pre-1984), we knew that the SAT tested reading, reasoning, and math skills. If you were a good reader, a decent critical thinker, and did well in math through your sophomore year, you would do OK on the test. That same idea worked on other standardized tests as well: what we now call the SAT-II subject tests, the Advanced Placement exams, the Iowa Tests, the Stanford Achievement Tests, or whatever.

Now since we have a better idea of what the tests are like, there is more of a focus on acing the test. While Wagner perhaps has some reasonable criticisms of the contents of some of the tests, I believe a bigger problem is with the approach to the tests. Students often treat the standardized test as something to learn to take and, when it is over, to forget about. Any vocabulary or skill that the student might have learned is now irrelevant. If the student learns the skill, it will help him or her on the test, surely, but if he or she understands that the skill will help for other things in the future, it becomes more important.

I believe that any decent school or teacher is teaching numbers 1, 5, 6, and 7 from the above list. Students ought to learn logic and vocabulary in more than just geometry. I have found that students really like the logic lessons I teach. At least they like the concepts. Some do not like the exercises we do because they are not always easy, but, hopefully, they begin to understand the skills. It becomes more exciting as a teacher when I see them pick up on logic, logical fallacies, and propaganda techniques in things they are reading or studying.

As an English teacher, it is my duty to get kids to develop effective communication skills. Teachers of other subject areas need to do this as well. This is a lot of work, not just for the student but for the teacher. It means assigning a lot of writing and grading a lot of assignments. “Completion grades” are a joke, and students know it.

Obtaining and analyzing information is an outgrowth of effective communication. English teachers have a part in this, but so does every teacher in his or her area of expertise. A good writer can use impeccable organization, style, and logic and still produce garbage because the information is not any good. My biggest challenge nowadays, besides plagiarism, is to convince students that books and journals are generally more reliable than random stuff on the Internet. Why? It gets back to logic. How do you test the testimony?

Curiosity and imagination are harder for schools to specifically develop. We have all heard students say, “No one is going to point a gun at me and ask me…” I have been at the same school for over 30 years. Recently I was asked which classes were my favorites. I said that I liked the classes that were more creative, more risk takers. I wish I knew why some of those classes were different. I do not think I taught them differently, but they ran with what they were given. Perhaps they were less concerned about pleasing the teacher and motivated to think independently.

It is the same with curiosity and imagination. Those are things that cannot be taught. However, they can be encouraged and perhaps inspired with examples. Even grammar can be made interesting if you treat it more as a research project and use examples from real life to show what you mean.

So what about collaboration, adaptability, and initiative?

Collaboration has two sides. Students do work together on projects in classes. Some classes have group assignments. Obviously, extra-curriculars like sports and drama involve some form of teamwork. However, teachers also know that this can devolve into cheating, plagiarism, and letting one person do it all.

Adaptability also has two sides. Some schools, for example, require great adaptability for their teachers. They are always trying something new, many times untried things that may not work. I will be honest, adaptability gets harder as one gets older. Twenty years ago, I was ahead of all my students in technology. Now, especially when it comes to cell phones and tablet devices, they are ahead of me. I have no desire to learn “emoji” language. I am skeptical of new programs because over the years I have had experience with what works and what does not work. In many cases, the new program is simply a recycled old program. Sometimes I say, I have been doing the same kind of thing for years. Other times I say, a pig with lipstick is till a pig.

For students, I guess if we want them to be adaptable, we have to place them under some pressure. If things are too easy, they will lack adaptability when they are older and things become difficult. Much of this skill though depends on circumstances and situations outside the school.

Initiative is always tough in a school situation. Schools are bureaucracies and require a certain amount of conformity. That stifles initiative. Sad but true.

Wagner does try to emphasize that not everything works for everyone. He mentions some successful schools—mostly private schools. In many cases they are not answerable to state and federal bureaucracies the way government schools are. Even Gatto in Underground History credits his one year at a Catholic school with getting him to think independently.

One truly alternative school he names I am familiar with, the Sudbury Valley School. I grew up in Sudbury and the brother of a friend ended up going to Sudbury Valley. It was one of the best things that happened to him. He was given the freedom he needed to develop his thinking. However, others simply milked its lack of structure and had little to show for their time there.

All seven of these things do depend a little on the school and its culture, but they really depend on the individual teachers. Wagner and Gatto both identify some of the same problems. One they both point out has been major one for me. There is little opportunity for teacher collaboration. We are all so busy in our full schedules with our own classes that even informal discussions are hard to come by. New teachers often have a hard time because all the other teachers are so busy, the new teacher does not know who to ask or what to do.

A few years ago, we had a new English teacher at our school who had a lot of potential. He was a reader, a writer, and had a decent high school and college education. Fortunately, he was wise enough to soon perceive that all the other teachers were quite busy and he had enough initiative to ask questions. I am so glad that he did. He has been doing a great job.

Reading Underground History and The Global Achievement Gap at nearly the same time produced one great irony. An Underground History of American Education notes that a lot of the worst of the present system came out of the era of the robber barons and was based on social Darwinism and progressivism. It appears that there are “elite” schools, but if the non-elite schools fail, it is no big deal. Those students are meant to be peons anyhow.

Wagner says that he came up with his seven points and some of his solutions by getting input for today’s robber baron and elitist types. He mentions Microsoft, Silicon Valley, Apple, and so on. Are his “solutions” much different from what already exists? Is the need for technicians much different from the need for administrators promoted by the Fords, Carnegies, and Woodrow Wilsons?

While there is a certain amount of overlap between An Underground History of American Education and The Global Achievement Gap, it seems that Underground History relates a lot more to Throwing Stones at the Google Bus while The Global Achievement Gap is closer to Isaacson’s Steve Jobs. I suspect that there is still a trap—that Wagner’s approach still ends up treating a lot of smart kids as though they are stupid. Yes, we like those high-powered techies, but we still need baristas at Starbucks. Any way you cut it, the teacher makes the difference.

Killing Patton – Review

Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. Killing Patton: The Strange Death of World War II’s Most Audacious General. New York: Holt, 2014. Print.

The title of Killing Patton caught my attention because the other titles I was familiar with in this series were all about people who everyone knew were assassinated or set up, even if the specific theories varied: Lincoln, Kennedy, and Jesus. But Patton? He died in a car wreck, but was he deliberately killed?

My uncle thought so. He was a retired Army Lt. Colonel who served under Patton in North Africa. He would receive both the Silver and Bronze Stars later in the war for commando and intelligence operations. He spoke very highly of Eisenhower, Wainwright, and Patton. But he also believed Patton’s death was suspicious. What would Reilly and Dugard have to say about this?

It must be noted that the first half of the book is largely about Patton’s last year, especially his successes in the Battle of the Bulge and the relief of Bastogne. It is a remarkable story, and the authors give Patton a lot of credit. His audacity worked on the battlefield, but not so much in the bureaucracy. Eisenhower comes across as not so much weak but politically motivated. We are reminded more than once that Eisenhower never had any direct battlefield experience. Patton is frustrated time and again because Eisenhower orders him to wait—mostly to keep British and Soviet allies happy.

There are many interesting tidbits of information. I was familiar with the slogan of the 101st Airborne: “They’ve got us surrounded, the poor bastards.” Killing Patton tells us its origin. The 101st Airborne led by Gen. Anthony McAuliffe was the unit surrounded by German Panzers in Bastogne. One of the officers was talking about their situation and said, “They’ve got us surrounded.” A medic who happened to be present gave the famous rejoinder.

McAuliffe was offered terms of surrender by the Germans. Today he is best known, not for his battlefield prowess but for his response to the German proposal that he surrender. The messenger who turned the German letter over to McAuliffe had to wake him up. McAuliffe, like many other people wakened early from a sound sleep, muttered, “Nuts!”

When he was awake and dressed, McAuliffe, who was not going to surrender, asked aloud, “How do we answer their letter?” Someone suggested he reply with what he had said earlier. Killing Patton gives the actual text of his reply. Besides the usual heading, salutation, and closing, the letter simply had his one-word reply: “Nuts!” When the Germans received it, even the America-trained English translators did not understand the message. The American couriers used much stronger language and more words to communicate the gist of McAuliffe’s letter.

For better or worse, McAuliffe even today is best known for that simple reply in spite of his distinguished service. After the war, he would sometimes get annoyed because no matter where he went someone would bring up the subject of “Nuts.” Once, a few years later, he attended an evening party and was having a wonderful time because no one mentioned it the whole evening. As he was leaving the party, the thanked the hostess profusely. She replied, “Thank you and good night, General McNut.” (325)

I recall discussions in the sixties and seventies about why and by whom “we lost China” to the Communists. During the war, the United States supported Gen. Chiang of the Kuomintang against the Japanese but also reached out to Mao and the Communists. After all, we were allies with the Soviet Union.

“Wild” Bill Donovan, head of the Office of Strategic Services of Military Intelligence, contacted Mao and asked him how much money he needed for weapons to help against the Japanese. The sum that Mao quoted was outrageously higher than what the arms would cost—in fact, it was the same figure as the OSS’s entire annual budget. When Donovan asked him what figure would he settle for, Mao came back with an even higher number. This told America that Mao was either looking to feather his nest or that he was not really serious about fighting the Japanese.

Killing Patton includes chapters keeping the readers abreast of what some of the key figures in the war were doing, notably Eisenhower, Donovan, Hitler, Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin, and, after FDR’s death, Truman.

The second half, leading to Patton’s death, is sad. It is clear that O’Reilly and Dugard believe that if FDR and Eisenhower had listened to Patton, less of Eastern Europe would have become Soviet and that the Americans could have made it to Berlin first. Truman seemed to be the only one who would admit that Patton was right, but Truman disliked anyone who was as flamboyant as Patton. (Though they do not mention this, that may have been why Truman took a dislike to MacArthur in the Korean War.)

We read of the rather pathetic events leading up to Hitler’s death. We read of Roosevelt’s death. Killing Patton notes that even Stalin was visibly upset on hearing the news about FDR from the American ambassador and then recommended that they should do an autopsy to insure he had not been poisoned. Paranoid? Truly, but the book details the various ways the Soviets developed untraceable poisons which they mostly used against their own people. (Judging from some news reports, the Russians apparently still use them today.)

The circumstances of Patton’s death are certainly weird. A stolen U.S. Army vehicle driven by a drunk driver appears out of the woods heading straight for a building strikes the car in which Patton is riding. The driver tells three completely different stories each time he is questioned and then disappears.

Reilly and Dugard present pretty convincing evidence that Stalin wanted Patton dead. But there is reliable testimony that Donovan, who was at least sympathetic to Russia, also wanted him dead. After he was hospitalized, doctors were confident that Patton would probably recover. He died ten days after the accident. Was the accident a setup? Might he have been poisoned afterwards? Was it the Russians? The OSS?

One other interesting observation—and there are many in the book—occurs at the Potsdam Conference when Truman told Stalin about the atomic bomb. Churchill and Truman both noticed that Stalin had no reaction. Of course, we would all learn later that it was not news to Stalin thanks to highly placed spies, notably Klaus Fuchs and Alger Hiss. At Potsdam Truman also learned, though, that Stalin could not be trusted. Potsdam set the stage for the Cold War.

Some readers might criticize Killing Patton for its lack of specific documentation. O’Reilly and Dugard appear to try to avoid it to make the book less pedantic and more readable. Still, there are many editorial footnotes, and the writers are careful to give the sources of the lesser known or more controversial points they make such as Donovan’s desire to get Patton out of the way.

Killing Patton is a great battle story as well as a fascinating tale of intrigue. Whether he was ultimately correct or not, my uncle was not just blowing smoke when he spoke of Patton’s death.

As a postscript, I cannot help think of the famous film Patton starring George C. Scott in the title role. In the film, Patton gives a speech where he says that the soldier is not supposed to die for his country. He is to get the enemy soldier to die for his country. Patton’s actual speech which is quoted in its entirety in Killing Patton is much more colorful and patriotic.

There is also a brief scene in the film where Patton gives the order to a chaplain to pray for certain weather during the siege of Bastogne. While Patton may have done that, Killing Patton lets us know that Patton prayed a very specific prayer himself. The subsequent attack succeeded even though the weather did not change. When Patton saw that the weather affected the Germans more adversely than it did the Americans, he admitted in a subsequent prayer that he had made a mistake and thanked the Lord for knowing better. Even today, that is a wise approach to unanswered prayer. As had been said, “The will of God is exactly what I would do if I knew all the facts.”

Silas Marner – Review

George Eliot. Silas Marner. 1861; Amazon Digital Services, 12 May 2012. Ebook.

I have been a high school English teacher for over 35 years, and I missed this one. Silas Marner is found in a number of high school anthologies and is often used to introduce students to Victorian Literature. For Eliot, it is short book, fewer than 200 printed pages. (I had read Middlemarch in college. It was worth reading, but to me not worth re-reading.)

I confess, I was somewhat prejudiced against Silas Marner. A college friend once told me that she had read the book in high school and hated it. She said it was one of the most boring books that she ever read. However, a few years ago a parent of a student mentioned the book and said it was a delightful story of redemption. Hmmm.

In a sense, both of these informal critics are correct. Other than a few key events, not much happens in Silas Marner. It is more like most people’s ordinary lives. After the first few chapters, much of the book is about people not directly related to Silas. We could say that Eliot’s chief means of characterization is reputation—what others say about Silas and a few other folks in his village. It gets a bit repetitive, and it seems that we will not see a lot of those people again.

On the other hand, the overall impact of the story is uplifting and even refreshing.

At times I felt like was reading something like Tristram Shandy. That is a humorous biography of the title character who is not even born until about a third of the way through the novel. Except, of course, Eliot is not writing for humor. Shandy is largely set in a tavern for the jokes and humorous caricatures. At least of third of Marner is set in a tavern or more upper class social gatherings. We hear gossip, testimony, and speculation, but no jokes.

As can be told by the bibliographical entry above, this was read on a Kindle. The Kindle tells the reader what percent of the book has been read. The main conflict of the story is not really established until 94% of the book has been read. I can see why a high schooler might grow impatient with it. However, the conflict and resolution make it a very sweet story.

The author is less critical of Christianity in this work than some of her others. However, Silas Marner becomes an outcast because of a dubious practice of the nonconforming “chapel” he attends in his home city. We discover what it was in that last, powerful six percent. Indeed, Silas discovers redemption partly through the state church in the village he adopts as his home. Today we might say Eliot is an establishment elitist. I would compare her outlook to Matthew Arnold’s.

Although I had never read the book, I had known its basic story line for many years. Silas Marner, a miserly outcast, becomes more tender and humane when he rescues and adopts an orphaned toddler, Hephzibah or Eppie. Still, Marner is no Scrooge. He is not cruel or especially selfish; he merely keeps to himself and appears melancholy because of a burden from his past that he will not share. Yes, if you can make it through that first 94% (and it is not all bad), everything comes together almost like the way Dickens does it.

Does the Word Church Have its Origins in Witchcraft?

In 2007 I came across an article that claimed that the English word church was derived from the name of Circe, a sorceress-goddess from Greek mythology. That simply is not so. When I went on the internet, I found many articles making the same claim. A lot of them are worded the same way, and many of the web sites have similar themes, so I suspect that they all got their information from the same source.

The oldest source I could find was from 1898, and this was a dictionary of fable by E. Cobham Brewer (see http://www.bartleby.com/81/ ). Since most dictionaries are compilations, I am sure that Mr. Brewer was not the first person to make this connection. However, it was during this time period that scholars often made large leaps of logic based on spurious etymology. I recall once reading a old paper from the early twentieth century that said that the name Odysseus (or Ulysses) was related to the Greek word for bear (arkios, source of the English word arctic—because the two northern constellations were named for bears). I thought that was a cool idea because I liked the story of Odysseus and my last name means “bear.” Maybe I was related to Odysseus! Both relations are bogus…in case you could not guess. Those Greek words are not similar at all.

I first read about this supposed connection in an article entitled “Church of the Mind” by Bill Cassada (formerly posted at http://www.thelionsheart.org/ ). The article points out that the famous witch-goddess from Homer’s Odyssey who turned Odysseus’ men into pigs was Circe, or Kirke in Greek. The article then notes that in Old English the word church was spelled circe or cyrice, and in other Northern European languages was spelled kirke, like the Greek mythological figure. The article then goes on to say that the word church was derived from a Greek cognate that relates to witchcraft. 

Other articles I read note that some of the early English translators like Wycliffe and Tyndale often translated the Greek word ekklesia (the word church in most translations) as “congregation,” “assembly,” or another word different form church. Actually, Mr. Cassada’s article is really a very thoughtful article about what the Bible says the church is supposed to be. Mr. Cassada tries to make a distinction between “the church” and “the ekklesia.” I understand the point, but the linguistics is bogus.

Anyway, I have taught language and language history for a number of years. I studied some linguistics in graduate school, and I have read and taught Homer more times than I care to recall. I also studied Old English under some of the most highly esteemed Medievalists in the world. I might not be a professional linguist, but I am no tyro. I want to examine the claims of Cassada, Brewer, and others who make a linguistic connection between mythical Greek witches and the European word for church.

The Word Kyriakos in Bible Greek

The Greek word kyriakos is indeed where the English word church comes from. However, the article’s analysis of the word kyriakos is incorrect.

The Greek word kyrie means “Lord.” It is used hundreds of times in the New Testament. Some churches recite or sing the “Kyrie Eleison,” which means “Lord, have mercy.”

The word kyriakos is simply the genitive or possessive form the word kyrie. It means “the Lord’s” or “belonging to the Lord.” It is used twice in the New Testament (I Corinthians 11:20 and Revelation 1:10). It is, I admit, not quite the same as “the called out ones,” but the meaning is not that different. After all, the people who are called out or chosen by the Lord belong to Him!

Brewer in his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable thought it significant that words that derived from kyriakos appear in other northern European languages before they appear in English. He mentions Celtic languages, but the Celts in Britain were evangelized long before the English. The Britons were first evangelized in the second century, possibly earlier. The mother of the Emperor Constantine was a Christian Briton who lived in the third century. St. Patick worked in the fourth. The first Christian mission to the English did not begin until A. D. 597. Brewer’s example of French is cirque, which means “circus” (e.g., Cirque du Soleil), not church. The French word for church is église which comes from the other Greek word for church, ekklesia. He notes the “Scotch” for church is kirk, but that is not Gaelic or Celtic, that is Scots English, and is a mere regional variation of pronunciation that is the same as the English word church itself. Brown is at best curious, but really mistaken here. His explanation confirms the above observation about spurious etymology.

What Works in Greek is Different in Other Languages

Also, in Greek the y letter or upsilon (υ) is not interchangeable with the i letter, iota (ι), as it is in many of the Western European languages. The upsilon is pronounced like the French u or the German or Mandarin ü; in other words, it is just about unpronounceable to native English speakers! It is very different from either iota or the letter i. In Greek, Kyr would never become Kir, or vice versa. Yes, the English or Latin name for the witch in The Odyssey is Circe. In the Homeric Greek, her name is Kirkê. While that is similar to some Northern and Western European words for church, there is no relationship in the Greek. Circe or Kirkê is simply a woman’s name and probably means “bird,” maybe “hawk.” It is onomatopoetic, like the Hebrew name Zipporah (Moses’s wife, whose name means “sparrow”). If Circe has any similarity to any English word, that word would be caw or chirp, not church. In other words, the word church literally means “belonging to the Lord,” and its roots have nothing to do with witchcraft or the witch of the Odyssey.

I should note here also that, for similar reasons, the name Circe does not have a direct relationship to the Latin word circus, which means “circle” or “ring” and where we get the English words circle, circulate, circus, and so on. I mention that for those who see another connection with the name of the character in the Odyssey that again has nothing to do with church.

For what it is worth, the Old English spelling of church followed the Medieval Latin spelling and pronunciation system. A c followed by an e or i is pronounced like Modern English ch. For example, child in Old English is pronounced the same as our modern word but it was spelled cild. So cyrice or circe in Old English is pronounced the same way we pronounce church today, possibly with an extra syllable after the r. In Scotland and parts of Northern England, because of the Danish influence, the c was pronounced like a k, which is the way the word is still pronounced in Scotland—kirk. It is the same word, just pronounced a bit differently. It is like noting that Rick and Rich are both nicknames for Richard. You say tomato, I say tomahto.

This Does Not Discredit the Whole Article at All

Having said all that, I do agree with Bill Cassada’s message, his exhortation. The church often has become an institution that requires the accomplishment of certain works to prove worthiness or ability in the way that the occult does. Calvinists used to call this priestcraft. For example, when Robinson Crusoe asks Friday about the religion of his people, Friday tells him that only the wise old men of the tribe can speak to their gods. Crusoe, the archetypal Calvinist of English literature, notes the following:

By this I observed that there is priestcraft even amongst the most blinded, ignorant pagans in the world, and the policy of making a secret religion in order to preserve the veneration of the people to the clergy is not only to be found in the Roman but perhaps among all religions in the world…(See http://wyeth.artpassions.net/crusoe23-24.html )

The reason that some of the early English Bible translations used words other than church to translate ekklesia had to do with the institution of the Roman Catholic or Orthodox Churches at the time. Those translators believed that if they wrote “church,” the average reader would think of the hierarchical institution centered at Rome or Constantinople, rather than a group of believers in Christ.

According to Romans 12, God has created us with different inherent giftings. These are motivational by nature. They are not occasional gifts as I Corinthians 12 from the Holy Spirit. They are not ministry gifts as Ephesians 4 from Christ. They are part of our created makeup “that God hath dealt to every man” (Romans 12:3 KJV). The teacher is not motivated by the same things that motivate the exhorter or encourager.

Cassada’s message is excellent. I am sure that some of the other articles that speak of a Circe-Church connection still have some good exhortation on the role of the church. But the teacher in me also has to note that the story of word origins is inaccurate. To use the language of Romans 12, Mr. Cassada is an exhorter, and I think his message is valid even if some of the technicalities are not.

Oh, and don’t believe everything you read on the Internet…

Copyright © 2007-2009, James Bair. All rights reserved.

Questions, Comments, and Observations on the English Language