Medieval Schools – Wrath Of Gnon on Twitter

“Far from what we imagine today, schools were available to many children in medieval England, as long as the family could spare their labour. Apart from monastic schools, there were free standing private grammar schools in many parishes. Here is the medievalist Nicholas Orme…”

“So much for the ‘Dark Ages’… Modern education in England (and indeed the world) has the early medieval schools to thank for almost every aspect of what we today take for granted…”

As an academically-trained, as well as avocational, medievalist (my B.A. is in medieval studies, and my Master of Theological Studies was focused primarily on early and medieval Christianity), “so much for the Dark Ages” is a pretty good condensation of my own conclusions! The “Dark Ages” were not nearly as “dark” as most people think; there was a good deal of scholarship, and quite a lot of creative thought, going on in them, and while some elements of the knowledge of late Hellenistic antiquity were lost to the West until the Renaissance, thanks to both monasteries and cathedral schools, much survived.

What I had not fully realized was the extent to which that knowledge was available outside of the cloister and the University. I should have! I was aware of private tutors, as well as the vast number of “clerks in minor orders” who were not, properly speaking, clergy, but who were the recipients of academic training in the aforementioned monastic and cathedral schools, and later the Universities, and passed that knowledge on – for a fee! – outside the walls.

What I hadn’t realized, but should have, was that then as now, education began young: for how could older youth be beneficiaries of knowledge without the seeds of learning being sown in their younger years? Latin is not learned overnight, nor is philosophy, nor yet the trivium and quadrivium. The existence of parish grammar schools is not something I had thought much about, one way or the other, but it is certainly not surprising.

Most interesting, though. Most interesting indeed!

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West Rise Junior School – Teaching young students resilience, in the out-of-doors

“If kids never step out of their comfort zone, how are they going to learn resilience?”

— Mike Fairclough, Headmaster, West Rise Junior School (Eastbourne, UK)

Not sure if I shared this last year, when it first appeared – if not, I should have! If I did, it’s worth a re-share. As I wrote at the time:

What, you mean there’s a school that’s actually teaching children where real food actually comes from – as opposed to magically appearing, wrapped in styrofoam and plastic, at the supermarket? Good heavens! In fact, the whole program sounds absolutely brilliant.

This amazing state school in the UK teaches children from “a varied demographic” – most of whose families are on various forms of social assistance – how to shoot, hunt, dress and cook the game they take, make bows, build fires, and otherwise function effectively in the outdoors.

The video shows them gutting squirrels, plucking pigeons, splitting wood for the fire with a mallet and fro, and cooking and eating the proceeds.

“The most dangerous thing you can do to a child is to not expose them to an element of risk and danger,” says Mike Fairclough, Headmaster, West Rise Junior School, who adds that “if children are excited about coming to school, if they’re being inspired and enthused by being outside, then that has an impact back in the classroom.”

The school gets the best exam results in the area, and won the 2015 T.E.S. Best School of the Year award, according to the video. “Teaching the children to shoot is controversial,” the video notes. “But the school argues it teaches discipline and responsibility.”

“The cotton-wool culture of Britain has got a little bit out of control,” Fairclough comments, referring to the modern desire on the part of many – schools, parents, media, etc. – to wrap children up and insulate them from many of the realities of life. “It’s only really peoples own sort of limiting beliefs, and a few media myths that people have invested in, which have stopped children from having these sorts of activities.”

Here’s an article with more information (despite the rather absurdly breathless style in which it is written).

Kudos to Mike Fairclough and West Rise Junior! You’re doing it right.

Mike Fairclough, head master of West Rise School, just outside Eastbourne. With some of the school's water buffalo
Mike Fairclough, head master of West Rise School, just outside Eastbourne, with some of the school’s water buffalo. Photo: Christopher Pledger

History isn’t a ‘useless’ major. It teaches critical thinking, something America needs plenty more of.

History isn't a 'useless' major. It teaches critical thinking, something America needs plenty more of

Why are college students turning away from studying history as preparation for a future as citizens and workers?

Source: History isn’t a ‘useless’ major. It teaches critical thinking, something America needs plenty more of | LA Times

Unfortunately, history – and other humanities majors – are not being “sold” to students / prospective students (or anyone else, for that matter) because they do not appear to have an immediate, direct “practical” application. The extreme push to channel everyone into “higher education” – regardless of temperament or aptitude – has exacerbated the problem, while cheapening (as I have discussed many times previously) the value of the degree received.

Unfortunately, I fear we are turning out a passel of graduates who may well be prepared to work in the IT, health-care, or other “STEM” fields, but have little-to-no breadth or depth of knowledge in the areas – history, literature, philosophy – that are necessary to function effectively (learning from history in order to make sense of the present and intelligently plan for the future) in the polis: the public square, as citizens of a functioning representative republic.

Trade schools would be the more appropriate venue for those who want skills alone, but a working republic needs a core of critical thinkers, and persons well-grounded in the wisdom and experience of the past. Instead, we are turning out, as others have commented on many occasions and in many fora, a herd of sheep, easily swayed by demagoguery: whether you consider the demagogue in question to be Trump or (for instance) Hogg is immaterial.

Of course, adding to the problem is the fact that, in the words of one commentator, “the history curriculum at most schools [teaches] indoctrination instead of critical thinking.” I was fortunate to have received my undergraduate training at a time when, despite inroads from the late ’60s, ’70s, and early ’80s, the humanities were still being taught with a strong sense of passing on worthwhile traditions (and, yes, cautionary lessons) and teaching critical thinking.

That is less true, now… to put it mildly!

Middle School Reading Lists 100 Years Ago vs. Today – with musings on the implications for our culture and its future

Middle School Reading Lists 100 Years Ago vs. Today

“I recently dug up a 1908 curriculum manual in the Minnesota Historical Society archives. It provided instructions on everything from teacher deportment to recommended literature lists for various grades…”

Source: Middle School Reading Lists 100 Years Ago vs. Today | Intellectual Takeout

Writer and educator Annie Holmquist compares 7th & 8th grade readings lists for 1908 Minnesota with one from 2016. What she found may not surprise many readers of this blog, but it may sadden us: the idea that the curriculum has been “dumbed down” over the last century appears to be all too true.

Noting the disparity in age of the literary works on the 1908 list compared to the 2016 one, she points out,

“Older is not necessarily better, but the books on the first list suggest that schools of the past were more likely to give their students time-tested, classic literature, rather than books whose popularity may happen to be a passing fad…

[Nota Bene: C.S. Lewis had some good things to say on the subject of reading old books.]

She then goes on to add,

“A second striking difference between the two book lists are the themes they explore. The first is full of historical references and settings which stretch from ancient Greece (Tanglewood Tales) to the Middle Ages (Harold, Last of the Saxon Kings) to the founding of America (Courtship of Miles Standish). Through highly recognized authors such as Longfellow, Stevenson, Kipling, and Dickens, these titles introduce children to a vast array of themes crucial to understanding the foundations upon which America and western civilization were built.”

I would like to highlight her statement, quoted above, that the books on the 1908 reading list “introduce children to a vast array of themes crucial to understanding the foundations upon which America and western civilization were built,” because that is a big piece of what we have lost over the last hundred years, in my opinion.

Education nowadays seems to have as one of its core values the elevation of the wonders of multiculturalism… and a subsequent, and consequent, devaluation of “the foundations upon which America and western civilization were built.” Is it any wonder that our children are graduating from grade school, and later college or university, with little knowledge and less appreciation for America, and Western civilization?

And it it any wonder that the foundations, left thus untended, or even undermined, are becoming more than a little shaky?

Moving along: to be honest, she is a bit too generous in many aspects of her assessment of the contemporary list for my tastes. But you can read that on your own, and make your own judgements. However she is square on the money, I think, when she writes,

Unless we give our students challenging material to dissect, process, and study, how can we expect them to break out of the current poor proficiency ratings and advance beyond a basic reading level?

Quick answer: we can’t.

Or as they say in computer lingo, “garbage in, garbage out.” That is not to say that everything our children are being taught today, literature-wise or otherwise, is garbage. But the percentage of low-quality selections is too high. As in so many other areas of life, the concern is more for making sure that students are exposed to works that are contemporary and multicultural, rather than time-tested and substantive.

Anyone who is paying attention cannot help but notice an overall decrease in literacy and erudition over the past century. But what really brought it home to me was the opportunity I had, some years ago now, to pore over a stack (actually a shelf) of old yearbooks at my alma mater, the former Western Maryland College (now “McDaniel College”), that went back at least to 1912, that I recall.

Some years were missing, and I didn’t have time to skim through them all, but the decline (dare I say, degeneration?) was clear to see – and particularly in the years following World War Two. The early ones were indeed erudite! And that at a level one would never even think to expect of a yearbook, nowadays. Articulate, polished, witty, and replete with plays on words and classical references, they were an embodiment of what college education used to stand for, back in the days of its glory.

There hadn’t been too much slippage by my mother’s time there (she graduated in 1949), but they still weren’t quite up to the standard set by those earlier volumes. By the time of my brother’s college years (he graduated in 1975) the rot was well on – the references weren’t to classical heroes and classical philosophy, but to football, beer, and girls.

And by my time – I entered in 1983, left in 1985, and returned to finish up from 1989-91 – it was about what you’d expect: the “Animal House” approach to the college experience (with a side of incipient political correctness, even at the beginning, and especially during my second tour there). I don’t know what they’d be like now, and I’d almost prefer not to imagine…

But of course, college doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The seeds are sown at home, naturally, but the sprouts are tended and watered (or not) in grade school. If the early school curriculum is dumbed down, it’s no wonder that colleges and universities must spend so much time remediating that lack, to even get students up to where they can function at the “college level” – and why so many seem to have given up on academics and what used to be called “higher education,” being content to function as glorified (and expensive) trade schools.

It’s really quite sad, and one of the many factors (whether symptom or cause being one of those chicken-and-egg questions that may not be wholly answerable) in our overall cultural and societal decline. If there are two institutions which have done the most to preserve, foster, and transmit Western culture and civilization over the last millennium, they are the Church and the University. If both are failing, as it appears they are – whither the West?

School “walkout” – grassroots or astroturf?

So, yesterday (Wednesday, March 14th), many schools around the country had a “walk-out” in which students – many with the support and encouragement, and even in some cases the mandate – of their administrations protested violence in schools (which is a legitimate concern) and in most cases also called for additional gun control measures.

It is the latter that (as will not surprise regular readers of this blog) I have issues with.

The sad reality is that it is actually much more likely that kids will be killed at home by a relative than that they will be shot in school by a lunatic. Well, anybody who shoots anyone who isn’t threatening them is a lunatic, but you know what I mean…

Point is, this should have been a “teachable moment” to help kids understand a) where the real threats are, and are not, and b) the point and purpose of our God-given and inalienable rights and liberties, as enumerated in – not granted by – the Constitution. Instead, we see this.

It is very frustrating to me to witness schools, which should be fonts of knowledge, promulgating misinformation and disinformation and even encouraging it. Civil disobedience is also a right (as long as it does not involve violence or mayhem), of course – but we need to be very careful, imho, what examples and precedents we set!

It’s also interesting to see which rights schools deny students, and which they do not – and why. In many school districts (including, now, my home district of Carroll County, Maryland), it is not permitted for students to wear or carry Confederate images or memorabilia: a prohibition which is a clear infringement on their First Amendment right to free expression. But, goes the argument, schools have the authority to limit the rights of their students while they are in school.

However, now students apparently have the right to walk out of class in protest… as long as it’s for an approved cause. Wonder what would happen if they walked out for gun rights, or to protest bans on Confederate iconography, or in support of the white farmers in South Africa being brutally attacked, and who are now in danger of having their lands seized without compensation?

I’ll bet the administration wouldn’t be so eager to have them walk out for those causes!

Also telling: some students have been disciplined for refusing to join the walkout, and others for carrying signs that disagreed with the premises of the protest. While I do not deny that many students are concerned – nor that they have a right to be – their teachers and administrators are not, in many cases, serving them well by supporting and encouraging emotional reactions not justified by the facts.

Update: it’s not just students:

A California high school teacher says she was “aghast” to learn she was placed on leave over comments she made about National School Walkout Day.

Julianne Benzel, a Rocklin High School teacher, said that administrators’ decision Wednesday followed a debate she held in her history class about the nationwide school protest supporting gun control reform…

“I just kind of used the example, which I know it’s really controversial, but I know it was the best example I thought of at the time — a group of students nationwide, or even locally, decided ‘I want to walk out of school for 17 minutes’ and go in the quad area and protest abortion, would that be allowed by our administration?”

That is a darned good question, actually, and it ties in directly with my comment above: that civil disobedience is being selectively allowed – and even encouraged – by schools, so long and only so long as it’s in support of a cause they favor.

“I didn’t get any backlash from my students,” Benzel said. “All my students totally understood that there could not be a double standard.”

On National Walkout Day, she received a letter from the human resources department notifying her that she was being put on paid administrative leave.

Benzel, who has since retained legal counsel, said the school’s decision has raised questions about First Amendment rights.

Indeed it has! And her point about a double standard is square on. But as I have commented before, double standards and unintended irony are all too characteristic of the contemporary American Left.

In a related move, the City of Baltimore (struggling against rampant crime and an opioid epidemic, among other challenges) apparently plans to spend $100,000 to bus students to an anti-gun protest in Washington, DC, and even provide t-shirts for them!

Indeed, far from being the “grassroots” movement that is claimed, this whole thing shows definite signs of being astroturf, instead.

While I do not doubt that there is legitimate concern on the part of many students, which is entirely understandable under the circumstances, teachers and administrators – rather than engaging students in a genuine dialog on the costs of freedom, the limitations of attempting to legislate safety in the absence of a moral climate which encourages self-control and respect for life, and the importance of balancing rights and freedoms with safety and security (or vice versa) – appear to be encouraging and even manipulating them in some very concerning and authoritarian directions.

I am once again boggled by the prospect of people who self-identify as “liberals” loudly and aggressively insisting that their rights be taken away!

Students learn more effectively from print textbooks than screens, study says | Business Insider

Books and Tablet

Our work has revealed a significant discrepancy. Students said they preferred and performed better when reading on screens. But their actual performance tended to suffer.

Source: Students learn more effectively from print textbooks than screens, study says – Business Insider

“Teachers, parents and policymakers certainly acknowledge the growing influence of technology and have responded in kind. We’ve seen more investment in classroom technologies, with students now equipped with school-issued iPads and access to e-textbooks…

“Given this trend, teachers, students, parents and policymakers might assume that students’ familiarity and preference for technology translates into better learning outcomes. But we’ve found that’s not necessarily true.

“As researchers in learning and text comprehension, our recent work has focused on the differences between reading print and digital media. While new forms of classroom technology like digital textbooks are more accessible and portable, it would be wrong to assume that students will automatically be better served by digital reading simply because they prefer it.”

This doesn’t surprise me a bit. There is something… superficial, for lack of a better term… about pixels on a screen compared to printed words on a page. They don’t stick in the mind – never mind sink down into the heart and soul – the way actual, physical, tangible books do.

And I had to chuckle at the comment that, “it would be wrong to assume that students will automatically be better served by digital reading simply because they prefer it.” Ya think? Given a choice, most school-age kids – and even many adults – would prefer ice cream or candy over solid, nourishing foods, but if health and well-being is the goal, that preference is a poor predictor. Our preferences, as humans, are not always to our own benefit, in a whole range of scenarios!

That said, the person who shifts over from a steady diet of soda-pop, fast food, and sweets to a steady diet of nutritionally beneficial foods generally will eventually come to prefer the latter, even wondering how on earth they could have ever stood to eat and drink the junk they’d eventually given up. And a person who shifts from a relationship pattern of one-night stands and superficial hook-ups to the love and commitment of a steady relationships is usually glad they did.

I suspect a shift from screens back to books, as a general rule, might have a similar effect. This is not to say the shift should be 100%! Even the most nutritionally-aware eater enjoys an occasional sundae, or slice of birthday cake. And screens aren’t likely to go away, in our larger society, short of a major X-class solar flare zapping our technology back to the 19th century, and students need to know how to use them.

Besides, as this article points out,

“One of the most consistent findings from our research is that, for some tasks, medium doesn’t seem to matter. If all students are being asked to do is to understand and remember the big idea or gist of what they’re reading, there’s no benefit in selecting one medium over another.”

However, “when the reading assignment demands more engagement or deeper comprehension, students may be better off reading print.” This is a distinction which should be kept in mind, in my opinion, both in school and in life! I have noticed the phenomenon myself, in my own reading, although I had not attempted to articulate it prior to reading this: I read faster on-screen, but engage the text – and the ideas behind it – better when I’m reading from a physical print medium.

And generally feel better and more satisfied after having completed the reading task, as well, which ties into another of the study’s conclusions:

“There may be economic and environmental reasons to go paperless. But there’s clearly something important that would be lost with print’s demise. In our academic lives, we have books and articles that we regularly return to. The dog-eared pages of these treasured readings contain lines of text etched with questions or reflections. It’s difficult to imagine a similar level of engagement with a digital text.”

There are both tangible and intangible benefits to directly, physically engaging with specific, individual books: their look, both the design of the book itself and the wear-and-tear it has received over the months, years, or decades; their heft, in which even the difference between a mass-market paperback, a trade paperback, or a hardback book can be significant, not only in weight but in the feeling of permanence and solidity it engenders; and even the scent: for many of us, the smell of old books is a part of their appeal, reminding us that they have been around, cherished and re-read, for in some cases a very long time. Conversely, the smell of a new book can be exciting in a different way, carrying with it the sense of beginning an adventure. Many of these benefits are substantially reduced, or lost entirely, if our reading is mostly or entirely on electronic screens.

You will have noticed that I’ve several times alluded to the permanence / impermanence issue. Pixels on a screen are fundamentally transient, impermanent. They can be changed or deleted, either individually or en masse; they can be rendered inaccessible for a myriad of reasons ranging from running out of battery, to not having the right operating system (Kindle vs Nook vs ….?), to forgetting your password, and the list could go on.

Yes, physical, printed books can have issues, too. They are vulnerable to fire (though that is rarely an issue) and water (I suppose you could drop yours in the toilet, or the lake, and you wouldn’t want to read it in the rain – but the same could likely be said of your tablet); you could forget it, or lose it… but again, the same applies to your e-reading device. There are simply not so many things that can go wrong with a physical book, as with an e-reader.

There is another concern, too: it is way too easy to get rid of electronic “books.” We humans have evolved, over the centuries, a protective attitude toward physical books, and an aversion to damaging, destroying, or discarding them. Many or most of us would prefer to give old books we don’t need anymore away, or take them to the library for a sale, or donate them, than simply throw them out. And the idea of burning books, or even banning them, carries connotations of police-state totalitarianism.

But what if those books can simply be deleted, or their text changed – quietly, unobtrusively, unnoticed – with a few strokes of a keyboard? What then for the preservation of ideas, the evolution of human thought? At this point, the practical considerations, and even the educational ones, shade over into philosophical and moral concerns. I am not sure anyone has sufficiently addressed these implications of the digitization of our written media.

Of course, the argument so often raised in favour of digital media is that you can carry a hundred (electronic) books in an e-reader the size of a paperback. A veritable library in your pocket, purse, backpack, or messenger bag! And that is an undeniable advantage – at certain times, and for certain reasons. Travel, for instance… if you’re sure you’ll have regular access to an electrical outlet, for charging. If not, you may be better off with one or a few well-chosen actual books.

Otherwise, it is at least arguable whether high capacity is a “feature,” or a “bug”! Distraction, and/or merely superficial attention, is one of the major issues with reading on-screen as opposed to in actual, physical, print media. Carrying a whole library with you in a single, compact device sounds great on the surface, but it may well serve to increase the tendency to engage the text(s) only superficially – and if, as many e-readers do, you have the ability to also go online, there is another two-edged sword.

It’s great to be able to easily look up obscure references or background information for a passage you’re reading. But it also increases the temptation to “just check my email (or Facebook, or Twitter, or whatever) while I’m online,” and before you know it, you’re down the rabbit-hole. As one comment I like (albeit in a rueful sort of way) puts it, “With the internet, we have immediate, 24-7 access to the wisdom of the ages. But most of us use it looking at pictures of cats.” Distraction is a thing.

This has gotten a bit far afield from the specific issue of using screens for reading in an educational context. But it is worth raising the question of whether encouraging students to use screens – whether computers, laptops, tablets, smart-phones, e-readers, etc. – as their primary information source is really serving them all that well, with respect to either their current educational task, or their future.

Like a lot of other forms of technology, screens are useful, but not entirely benign. They are, as the old saying goes, “useful servants, but bad masters.” The problem is that so many of us are allowing them to dictate our lives, rather than the other way ’round. Gotta check my email. Gotta check my Facebook. Gotta check my Instagram. Gotta check my messages. Gotta check, gotta check, gotta check… and respond, of course. And then look up something else. Scan articles. Scan blog-posts. And on an e-reader, scan books… or the electronic facsimiles thereof.

Now, I am aware of the slight irony of composing this objection to excessive use of online devices, online! If my goal was to bash technology entirely, I should be writing it on parchment, with a quill pen… or pressing it into damp clay with a wooden stylus. But I am not. As I said above: “useful servant, bad master.”

I am writing this online because I can reach far more people this way than by mailing it out in letters to people I think might be interested – and even if I were going to print it out and distribute it that way, I’d still type it on the computer, because I can type much faster than I can print or write longhand. Taking advantage of certain aspects of technology for its benefits does not, or should not, immunize us from also considering its problematic elements.

Nor am I limiting myself to electronic media. Before I started this essay, I was re-reading – for the nth time – J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (specifically, the second volume, “The Two Towers”)… using an actual, physical book. Earlier still, I did an online broadcast of Morning Prayer – again, because I can reach more people that way – but using a decades-old copy of The Book of Common Prayer 1928, and reading a meditation from another book originally written in 1858 (the edition that I have was printed in 1890).

It’s one thing to use a variety of appropriate technologies, depending on your needs and intentions. It’s another thing to become so fixated or dependent on a particular one – particularly one with the limitations of electronic screens, as described above – that you don’t end up using anything else. As the authors of the linked essay put it,

“we realize that the march toward online reading will continue unabated. And we don’t want to downplay the many conveniences of online texts, which include breadth and speed of access. Rather, our goal is simply to remind today’s digital natives – and those who shape their educational experiences – that there are significant costs and consequences to discounting the printed word’s value for learning and academic development.”

Indeed.

The Faithlessness of Public Education | Crisis Magazine

“Our nation is mired in a chronic civil war, because the great concern that might unite us, a knowledge that we are all proceeding to the grave and to judgment before a just God, has been smothered, and there is nothing left for us but to scramble for the perks of the world and hate those who are more successful at it than we are.”

Source: The Faithlessness of Public Education – Crisis Magazine

The inestimable Professor Anthony Esolen recounts the dismaying degree to which public education has become not merely unconcerned with religious faith in general and Christianity in particular, but actively hostile toward it. The first is the perhaps inevitable result of a society, and an education system, which is secular, multicultural, and democratic. Separation of Church, and State, and all that. The second is the point toward which that trajectory seems, sadly, to inevitably lead…

“I am not saying that the teachers are all wicked, or that hatred is uppermost in anyone’s mind all the time, though the word ‘hate’ has become astonishingly common. I am saying that it is in the air, inescapable: hatred of the west for its sins, hatred of the west for its virtues, hatred of men, hatred of women who did not hate men as they ought to have been hated, hatred of religious people for taking their religion seriously, hatred of people who do not hate whom they ought to hate and who therefore vote the wrong way, hatred of the past for not being the present, hatred of the present for not being the future, hatred of all the imperfections of this world for being what they are, and, in the darkest souls, hatred of God, for being who he is.”