Tuesday, September 30, 2014

"I Will Pity Mrs. Jones for the Hugeness of Her Task"

What is this thing that stay-at-home mothers do, confined as they are with a household of small people who sport "delightful bulbous heads, three times too big for the body, which mark these human mushrooms," as G. K. Chesterton affectionately said?

Mothers are painters who work with some of the broadest brushes in the world, because their canvas is hugely enormous and profound.

“Babies need not to be taught a trade, but to be introduced to a world. To put the matter shortly, woman is generally shut up in a house with a human being at the time when he asks all the questions that there are, and some that there aren't. It would be odd if she retained any of the narrowness of a specialist. Now if anyone says that this duty of general enlightenment (even when freed from modern rules and hours, and exercised more spontaneously by a more protected person) is in itself too exacting and oppressive, I can understand the view. I can only answer that our race has thought it worth while to cast this burden on women in order to keep common-sense in the world. But when people begin to talk about this domestic duty as not merely difficult but trivial and dreary, I simply give up the question. For I cannot with the utmost energy of imagination conceive what they mean. When domesticity, for instance, is called drudgery, all the difficulty arises from a double meaning in the word. If drudgery only means dreadfully hard work, I admit the woman drudges in the home, as a man might drudge at the Cathedral of Amiens or drudge behind a gun at Trafalgar. But if it means that the hard work is more heavy because it is trifling, colorless and of small import to the soul, then as I say, I give it up; I do not know what the words mean. To be Queen Elizabeth within a definite area, deciding sales, banquets, labors and holidays; to be Whiteley within a certain area, providing toys, boots, sheets, cakes. and books, to be Aristotle within a certain area, teaching morals, manners, theology, and hygiene; I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people's children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one's own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No; a woman's function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness.”

G. K. Chesterton, What's Wrong with the World

Friday, September 26, 2014

Board Books as Evidence that the World Wants Classical Education

Have you ever read children’s books to a toddler? If so, you will realize that a large share of these books address a particular topic that is essential (apparently) to the proper socialization and education of toddler’s everywhere. The books explain that, “The horse says, ‘Neigh.’ The dog says, ‘Woof!’” These educational drills allow you to ask small children, “What does the kitty-cat say?” and receive an essentially reliable, uniform response. In fact, this response is so conditioned that a shy child who will not tell you his or her own name in the church playroom will probably tell you what a cow says.

Sometimes I wonder why all the babies of America have been set this curriculum. It is not as if the “standard animal sounds” even align with reality. Different languages spell and pronounce these sounds in different ways. Even older American books often spell the dog’s sound as, “Woah, woah,” or, “Bow, wow.” Thus, our focus on contemporary, Western, American versions of such sounds is clearly subjective and perhaps imperialistic. Worse, the knowledge has no obvious practical application, and it is taught through rote memorization instead of experiential learning and skill-building.

I think that there are three reasons why we provide our children with these little drills. One, the kiddos like it. Something within the soul of my eleven-month-old responds with joy to “The cow says ‘Moo’” (although he pronounces it as ‘Ooo’). It provokes a feeling of wonder. His desire to experiment with sounds and vocalizations, his laughter at anything that looks or sounds funny, and his eagerness to imitate all make the exercise a delight to him. Two, the activity has benefits beyond its direct content. That is, the “irrelevant” sounds help children to practice their vocal cords in ways that will equip them to tackle other, more mature words later. Three, deep down in our modern minds, we really do value common culture. We really do appreciate being able to laugh about the sound of a horse with children from any household and any part of town. The animal sounds bind us together and give us a sense of shared identity.

Surely all of this is analogous to a classical education. Classical education also aims to provide delightful material the speaks to the soul of a child even if he is not yet ready to explain or analyze it. It chooses curriculum that is sometimes removed from utilitarian practicality, yet prepares students for other learning. It binds a culture together.

Yes, I have a new definition (one of many) for Classical education: board books for all ages.

Speaking of which, this book looks pretty cool.

Linking-up to Trivium Tuesdays.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Need Every Child (Protagonist) Save the Day? Is that Even Healthy?

 Here are a few synopses of imaginary stories for children. They sound convincingly typical, right?

“Maggie’s friends all have special talents. George is a singer. Lily can make friends with any animal. Gertrude dances in a junior ballet troupe that is slated to amuse the troops on Endor. However, as the mean girls at school like to point out, Maggie doesn’t seem good at anything at all. Will Maggie find her true talent and build her self-esteem?” 
“Little Leggie is the only ant in the colony who likes to look at the stars at night and who decorates his bedroom with vintage astronomy posters. When an asteroid heads toward earth, Little Leggie thinks that he just might know the solution to saving all living species from extinction.” 
“Bobbie’s parents have started to whisper together when they think he is not looking, and he can tell that they are talking about something scary. Will Bobbie be able to discover the danger to his family in time? Will he believe in himself enough to ignore all of his parents’ house rules, and thus to save the world? Will they weep and apologize for not trusting him with news of their imminent foreclosure?”

Contemporary stories are filled with youthful characters who struggle with their identity and their place in the world. Almost inevitably, they discover that they are special, and that believing in their specialness is the way to achieve their dreams (even if their “dreams” might be better characterized as whims or wishful thinking). Sometimes they even save the world along the way. Any deviation from this pattern sticks out like a sore thumb

Are such tales are a good influence or a bad one? On the one hand, they are silly. They feed right into the ridiculous parenting culture that Mollie Hemingway describes here. Worse, they nurture the human tendency toward narcissism by teaching children to focus on themselves and their right to the limelight. Yet on the other hand, tales of triumphant underdogs and third sons come from a long and enduring tradition. It could even be said that Christian writers like Lewis and Tolkien were influential in creating a desire for stories about ordinary characters who find themselves in epic plots. Indeed, the idea that even the lowliest individual is valuable, special, and beloved by God comes straight from Christianity, and is probably an example of lingering (even if distorted) Christian influence on our culture.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Talking about History without Sounding Like a Crazed Conspiracy-theorist

When Conservatives write books about problems with modern culture, they usually include a chapter on the unsavory, nefarious, or at least shockingly-misguided history of the particular ideas behind the problem that they are critiquing. Thus, a book about abortion talks about the eugenics movement, a book about the perils of public schooling talks about Dewey and social engineering, and a book about the sex education movement shreds Mr. Kinsey.

All of this is of course useful (I have known a few Conservatives who seem to think of history merely as a series of exposés, but I'm not talking about them). Yet the approach can easily sound like an addiction to conspiracy theories as a way to explain the evils in the world. How can one write about the perils of bad ideas without falling into a conspiracy trap? How can one understand the people in the past with whom one disagrees?

I think that most people who campaign to change the world are genuinely trying to do good. It is important to remember this.

Out of this mental process came an article which is in The Federalist today.

When Goodness Goes Bad
Belief in the goodness of man addicts people to change for change’s sake 
and causes social polarization.

Approximately a decade ago, I applied for a retail job. The application included questions such as, “Do you think people are: (a) basically good or (b) basically bad?” It also inquired whether I thought that, given the opportunity, (a) all people, (b) some people, or (c) very few people, would commit theft. I knew perfectly well the department store was relying on the fact that dishonest people tend to believe most people are dishonest. If I (acting upon the historic Christian claim that we humans are all sinners) clicked on “people are basically bad,” the application would declare that I was “not a good psychological fit” and the retail chain would not hire me, because they would have no way of knowing my theological beliefs would also prevent me from pocketing their merchandise whenever the supervisors weren’t looking. Their algorithm was not prepared to process an outlook that did not mesh with popular social psychology.

Read the whole article here.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Not Just the Pretty Babies

I'm in The Federalist today.

The Pro-life Movement is About Sacrifice, Not Sentimentality
Gentle lighting casts a glow across the perfect, healthy, Caucasian newborn who sleeps in a cocoon of white blanket. The photographer has captured the baby-ethos that tugs on the heartstrings of any member of the human race with half a heart, and it is hard to look at the picture without an inward, “Aww.” The text that is superimposed over the photo says, “Not a mistake. Not a problem. Not a burden. Not an inconvenience. Not a nuisance. Not an accident. Not a punishment.” Then, in larger font, “A miracle.” It is all very lovely. And yet when I see the meme in my facebook feed, it makes me, a pro-life advocate and an ardent fan of babies, a little uncomfortable. 
“Baby J” is one of the reasons. His picture has also been posted to my feed. In his photograph, he lays in a hospital bed, his little face partially obscured with tubes and tape. This six-week-old has already undergone heart surgery. He depends on a ventilator to keep his lungs open, is expected to spend life breathing through a tracheotomy tube, and has been rejected by his biological family. He currently has no relatives to visit him in the hospital. The adoption agency that has posted information about “Baby J” states he will do best with a family that can provide one-on-one, lifelong care. Unlike the baby in the pro-life meme, this little guy does not glow beneath the lens of a camera.

Read the article here.


I've also written semi-recently about modesty. "If the Skirt Fits, Wear It?"

“Your dresses should be tight enough to show you're a woman and loose enough to show you're a lady.” Edith Head (legendary costume designer of old Hollywood)

Read the article here.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Unfinished Manuscript: a Jane-Austen-Themed Party Game

One of my sisters  got married this summer, so, as a "bachelorette" activity, I prepared a Jane Austen-themed game that we could play over breakfast in a cafe.

It's called "The Unfinished Manuscript," and the concept is that the participants are completing the plot of a novel that Miss Austen was unable to finish.

The players are introduced to four gentleman of varying fortune. They (the players) must accumulate points in four categories (beauty, amiability, accomplishments, and finance) in their quest to obtain a husband. Finance points are earned by correctly answering Jane Austen trivia questions, conveniently divided into three levels of difficulty ("Very clever, moderately clever, or very dull indeed"). Strategic thinking is involved, because only the correct combination of points will secure the husband that one most prefers. Some of the players will fail to obtain any husband at all.

Because I am a generous person who also likes to provide the world with blog posts, I am (drumroll) sharing the game with you all! You can all play it! Your friends and family can play it! It will be delightful!

The instructions and trivia questions that I wrote are to be found here.

You will probably wish to also provide portraits for the four gentlemen whose descriptions are found in the instructions. I pulled regency portraits off the web, cropped them into ovals, printed them at Staples in the size of regency miniatures, cut them out, and hung them on ribbons with "wedding bands" attached. These portraits functioned as prizes. Thus:

Here are the images that I used:

Feel free to link to this post, should you wish to share the game with others, but, of course, please don't steal it or distribute it without providing credit.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Game of Kings (review)

by Dorothy Dunnett, 1961 
Lymond Chronicles, #1

Scotland, technically under the rule of a pre-school-aged Queen Mary, is ravaged by constant warfare. The regent of England hopes to carry off the Scottish Queen and eventually marry her to England’s own boy king, Edward VI. Nobles on both sides shift allegiance with the tide of battle (many Scotsman are even forced to request permission from their own side to offer insincere fealty to the English, and must then juggle their duel-status in hopes of preserving some shreds of their estates). Throughout these tides of warfare, an outlawed, dashing figure runs amok. His name is Culter of Lymond. Believed to be a traitor to Scotland, he is pursued with hatred by both sides, and appears to serve only himself while making fools of everyone else. He is an anti-hero with a vocabulary to rival any character in literature, and a gift of oratory that might silence Lord Peter Wimsey himself. In fact, he is in some ways what Lord Peter might have been, had his lordship been born in the age of the sword instead of that of the machine gun.

Mary eventually wed the 
prince of France,
not the king of England.
Word-lovers will revel in the language of this tale. It is definitely a swashbuckler: constant adventure, topsy-turvy shifts of fate, disguises, repartee, and intrigue, all staged among a wide cast of vivid individuals. I myself appreciate the author’s deft handling of her characters. Many of them could easily have been stereotypical, single-dimensional, and annoying; and yet they all manage to come across as eminently human and almost universally sympathetic. This is fortunate, since otherwise, the constant adventure might have been too much for me. As Edith Nesbit’s Oswald Bastable would say, this book is a ripping good yarn. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Five Links: Literary Culture and Supporting Good Art

A vibrant, Christian culture is important. Stories and ideas are important. Art is important. Yet how do we craft good stories and real art from a Christian perspective, so as to build and define a vibrant culture? I think that these links are all helpful.


Katie Schuermann talks about the sorry state of Christian fiction, and delivers a call to do better.

“Weekend Fisher” blogs about how one of the things that art and literature can do is to capture, and communicate, what it is to have a religious experience.

Suzannah of Vintage Novels makes some fascinating points about the difference between being an imaginative and an introspective reader.  

I’ve already posted this, but in case you missed it, here is an explanation of why modern critics don’t like old books (and, by extension, why even good Christian fiction might not be considered “artistic” by the critics).


Also, on an almost entirely unrelated note, I got to experience my first (brief) for-the-radio interview today. It was about an article I wrote for Sister, Daughter, Mother, Wife. You can find the interview here.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

An Enticing Idea

I wrote a story this week in the style of a folk tale (I am still in the stage during which I think my story is very, very good indeed, purely out of authorly affection-- critical identification of its flaws will come later). My husband commented that the theme of the tale is actually quite Lutheran.

This gave me an idea.

Wouldn't it be delightful to write a book of original fairy tales from a Lutheran perspective, and see if CPH would publish it?

They would probably look with raised eyebrows at a query letter about fairy tales, but still!

Ha, if I ever write that story about the enchanted Book of Concord, it will of course take a place of honor in this volume.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Seven Literary Lectures of a Very Brief Nature (including, "How to Interpret Mansfield Park")

Watercolor by Diana Sperling (The family at dinner)

1. Let’s not be ridiculous

People call Mansfield Park a “controversial” book because Fanny is passive and quiet, and accuse Jane Austen of suggesting that passivity is the way to get a man. How silly. If we applied this logic to the other books, we should accuse Miss Austen of also teaching that the way to win a husband is to accuse his father of murder (Northanger Abbey), be overly gullible in the presence of flattering fellows who tell lies (Pride and Prejudice), or wait until your crush’s current date acquires a head-wound (Persuasion).

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Rags-to-Riches, Political Correctness, and Andrew Carnegie’s Autobiography

I am currently reading THIS free edition of Andrew Carnegie’s autobiography. It offers a thought-provoking window into a particular time and place.* Carnegie was the son of poor but respectable parents (his beloved father was a weaver who, in his son’s words, “failed to anticipate” and adapt to new methods of mechanization, and therefore was slowly driven out of business). In hopes of raising their fortunes, the family emigrated from Scotland to Pittsburgh, and thirteen-year-old Carnegie immediately joined the workforce. His third job, that of a telegram delivery boy, put him into contact with the railroad industry that was to make his fortune. Carnegie worked for the Pennsylvania railroad for some time before becoming a rail manufacturer and businessman on his own. His rise to wealth is of course legendary, as is his delight in “giving back” by funding libraries and cultural institutions across the nation and abroad. I have to laugh at the American insularity that resulted in complaints about his generosity to "foreign places" like his native Scotland.

The events of Carnegie's life are illustrative of the business changes that were then remolding the face of America. The book is not overly self-congratulatory (so far-- I'm not finished yet), and freely acknowledges various mistakes that Carnegie made in his career as well as his debt to many partners and employees along the way. Yet it is the sort that P.G. Wodehouse sometimes makes fun of (see “The Man, the Maid, and the Miasma” in The Man Upstairs and Other Stories, available for free from project Gutenberg). Carnegie’s story is part of the narrative that was so popular in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries—the idea that any truly bright, truly deserving boy, from any class, can (and perhaps will) become a millionaire. He need only guard and develop his moral character, cultivate knowledge by studying in his free time, and always go above and beyond in his job. Eventually, his employers will notice and promote him. Thus his chance will come.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Conflict Between "Art" and "Message" (or, Infiltrating the Arts, Part II)

If you are inclined to read Part II of this series, it is available at Sister, Daughter, Mother, Wife.

Here's a quote.
It is important to recognize that the most important thing is not to set about creating A Book That Will Convert Everyone or a movie That Tells It Right and Silences All Those Annoying Liberals. What we really need is to cultivate and support good art, and to teach and encourage good Christian thinkers. A thoughtful Christian who is writing, painting, composing, or directing will naturally portray truth as he sees it. He will be able to create material that is based on truth, rather than focused on combatting specific, narrow errors. However, if this Christian is shaped by mainstream values, his output will reflect Hollywood, Oprah, or whatever other source has shaped his view of life and truth.

It is perhaps especially difficult to create literature from a Christian perspective in a world that sees cynicism and despair as more true, and more artistic, than joy or goodness. THIS is a thought-provoking article about that very issue.

So-- what is the solution?

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