Monthly Post

The Taste of Another’s Thoughts

We’ve taken a somewhat rambling route in our discussion of how each of us can haul ourselves up out of the swamp of abstractions in which modern industrial society is sinking fast, and find our way to the solid ground of things that actually matter. I know some of my readers have been baffled or irritated by the vagaries of that route, but that can’t be helped. Our sense of where to look for straightforward solutions is exactly what’s led us into this swamp; raised in an era of abstraction, we instinctively try to solve problems caused by too much abstraction by piling on more abstraction, or swapping out one set of abstractions for their opposites.

As Einstein pointed out, you can’t solve a problem by using more of the thinking that created it. What’s more, the solutions to really intransigent problems usually have to be found by asking questions about the most basic assumptions that undergird the thinking that created them. One of Einstein’s odder contemporaries, the irrepressible Charles Fort, put it this way: “It is by thinking things that schoolboys know better than to think that discoveries are made.”

For most of two thousand years, to cite a useful example, astronomers across the western half of Eurasia had tried to make sense of the motions of the planets under the assumption that the sun, moon, and planets moved in circles. The result, as observations piled up, was a vast creaking mechanism of epicycles, eccentrics, and equants—geometrical gimmicks intended to force circles into copying the simple and elegant motions of the heavens. It took a mystical astrologer named Johannes Kepler, who’d brooded over Renaissance sacred geometry for decades, to see through the clutter, realize that the planets moved in ellipses rather than circles, and send the whole lumbering mass of fudge factors into history’s compost heap. Everyone else in his time thought that the problem could be solved by piling on even more epicycles; it was Kepler’s great insight that the best solution to the problem was one that did away with epicycles altogether.

A similar shift is what’s needed now—or, more precisely, a series of similar shifts, because the swamp of abstractions left behind by the departing age of reason can’t be drained by one channel alone. We’ve talked already about how reality is always anecdotal, how overinflated claims to authority need to be subjected to the sharp pin of personal experience, and how attention to the the old traditions of topics and commonplaces serves to anchor thinking and conversation in shared realities. That’s one channel, and it’s an important one, but it won’t do the job all by itself. To start opening a second channel and get the muck draining back to the sea in a different direction, we can start with the simple act of reading.

I wonder sometimes how many people realize just how spooky the act of sitting in a comfortable chair and reading an interesting book actually is. When you do that, and especially when you’re so caught up in what you’re reading that you lose track of your surroundings, you’re quite literally seeing into somebody else’s mind. The author uses the toolkit of written language to set out a sequence of thoughts in a form that other people can experience, and the reader then uses his or her own mastery of that same toolkit to experience those same thoughts. For once, when you’re caught up in the experience of reading, you’re not stuck inside your own head; someone else’s thoughts, shaped by experiences and reflections that aren’t yours, unfold themselves before your mind’s eye, and you get to taste their structure and flavor, the unique way of looking at the world another mind has developed. That’s an extraordinary thing to be able to do.

Interestingly, it’s not something that happened as soon as writing systems were invented. In every known society that’s figured out the trick of writing, literacy was restricted at first to a small professional class of scribes or priests, and written documents functioned as scripts for oral performance. If you were a scribe in one of the city-states of ancient Sumer, let’s say, sitting there cross-legged in your woolen kilt with a nice fresh clay tablet in front of you and a neatly trimmed reed in your hand, most of the work that paid your bills consisted of taking dictation from illiterate people, on the one hand, and reading documents to illiterate people on the other.

Letters in those days—and we’ve got tens of thousands of them, since a clay tablet properly baked in the kiln stays readable for millennia—started with a little heading like “Say to Gul-Zaba of Ur,” and the text of the letter came afterwards. That’s exactly what the scribe did. Some other scribe over in Lagash, say, copied down the words of Nin-Murru in clay, and once Gul-Zaba got the letter and took it to a scribe in Ur, the scribe who got handed the letter was responsible for reenacting Nin-Murru’s speech for Gul-Zaba to hear, just as though Nin-Murru had walked the long dusty road from Lagash to Ur himself.

Language in the age of scribal literacy was a matter of oral performance, and of course that’s what it had been before writing was invented, all the way back to the forgotten era when a bunch of social primates who’d been forced by climate change into unfamiliar environments gradually worked out the trick of making their familiar grunts and hoots take on meanings that weren’t assigned by hardwired patterns or childhood imprinting. At first glance, there may not seem to be much difference between a story or a speech experienced as an oral performance, and the same story or speech experienced as a text read silently by oneself, but the shift from one to the other has profound implications.

Take a few moments to think about your own experiences of oral performance—speeches by capable orators, storytellers weaving tales for children, actors in live theater, or what have you. You’re not just getting the words. Every linguistic act in an oral performance is surrounded and bracketed by a galaxy of other, nonverbal communicative cues: body movements, gestures, facial expressions, vocal tones, as well as culturally specific framing devices such as the raised podium and the formal introduction of a speech, which tell the audience how to interpret the verbal side of the performance. An oral performance is always an interpersonal event, and the words are only a small part of the total communicative act.

None of that went away when reading changed from the professional activity of a small cadre of scribes to an ordinary attainment of educated people. Oral performance remained the standard way of using and encountering language, as it is today—but there was another option. People began reading by themselves, silently, without any interpersonal dimension at all outside of the words themselves. For a long time that was a minority habit; in his own time, for example, Julius Caesar was considered a little creepy because, when he read something, he stayed totally silent and didn’t even move his lips. In Roman society in the first century BCE, that had about the same unnerving quality that telepathy has today.

Long before Caesar’s time, though, the habit of solitary reading had begun to drive astonishing changes in the way people related to their own thinking. It’s an interesting fact that in any society where literacy spreads outside a scribal elite, philosophy—the habit of thinking about thinking, of exploring human thought as far as it will go—pops up promptly. Any number of theories, by turns grandiose and grittily materialistic, have been proposed to explain why philosophy sprang up at nearly the same time in Greece, India, and China, but in all three societies, not long before the birth of philosophy, literacy either broke free of a caste of professional scribes or (in the case of Greece) never got assigned to such a caste in the first place. What’s more, in every society where literacy dropped out of common use—think Europe after the fall of Rome—philosophy promptly ground to a halt, and had to be relaunched later once literacy spread again.

Think about what happens when you read in silence and solitude, and it’s easy to understand why this should be the case. As you sit there with a book in your hands, another person’s thoughts are scrolling through your mind. None of the nonverbal dimensions of an oral performance are there to distract you from those thoughts, or keep you from noticing where the thoughts of the writer differ from your own habitual thinking patterns.

If you’re paying attention at all, you’ll likely begin to wonder why the writer thought the things he or she did, and why those thoughts differ from yours; you may even begin to wonder why you think the thoughts you do, and whether you need to adapt your habitual thoughts, either to embrace some of the ways the writer thinks or to ward off some of the mistakes he or she has made. Words stop being an element in a social performance and turn into carriers of meaning that can be analyzed, criticized, taken apart, and understood on their own terms—and that’s the spark from which philosophy catches fire.

Of course that kind of thinking can be taken in unproductive directions. In point of fact, it was inevitably taken in unproductive directions. Back in the sixth century BCE, as literacy became widespread in ancient China and kindled the usual intellectual explosion, Lao Tsu started his brilliant and cryptic handbook of practical philosophy Tao Te ChingThe Book of Process and Value is as good as translation as any—with the following necessary warning:  “The description of a process is not the process it describes. The names assigned to things are not the things that they name.” Despite his efforts, half the history of philosophy consists of various attempts to insist that words are more real than the things they describe, and the other half consists of the long struggle to get back out of the blind alleys that resulted from ignoring Lao Tsu’s warning.

This has implications we’ll be getting to in other posts. For the moment, I want to circle back around to the experience of silent reading, the confrontation in the quiet of your own mind between someone else’s thoughts and your own. That confrontation embodies an enormous range of possibilities, but there’s one in particular I want to discuss here: it makes it possible, and indeed rather easy, for you to change your mind.

That’s a controversial issue to bring up these days. A great many people in American society just now, and in a great many other modern industrial societies as well, have embraced the odd notions that nobody ever changes their mind about anything and that it’s something between an insult and an absurdity to ask them to try. To some extent, of course, this is one of the ways that people wiggle out from under the tyranny of mandatory niceness in contemporary society. If minds can’t change, after all, then people who have wrong ideas can be assigned the permanent status of Bad People, and it’s therefore okay to hate them. Since hate plays exactly the same role in polite society today that sex had in comparable circles in Victorian times, excuses to wallow in hate are highly popular these days, and this one gets a lot of use.

There’s another side to the same insistence, though, and it goes a good deal deeper. It’s standard across a very wide swathe of American society just now for people to equate their opinions with their identity, and to treat even the most polite challenge to their opinions as an existential threat. Partly that’s a reflection of the way that opinions have been turned into stalking horses for class interests in American society—find out what someone thinks about anthropogenic climate change, for example, and you can almost always predict on that basis where they’ll stand on the whole range of issues that trace out the competing economic interests of the middle-class and working class blocs whose conflict defines most of US politics just now—but there’s another side to the issue as well.

Over the last few decades, through government mandates backed enthusiastically by both parties, education in the United States has been transformed into a sustained exercise in passing standardized tests, with the careers of teachers and school administrators as well as the futures of their students held hostage to a rising tide of arbitrary abstractions in multiple-choice form. As a result, getting the right answer has become the be-all and end-all of US education. Independent thinking and creativity are not merely discouraged but punished, often very harshly—after all, a child who thinks for himself or herself might not get the right answer.

Thus the ordinary stresses of schooling have been cranked up to the snapping point as, year after year, children and teachers alike have to go through the motions of learning with the gun of failing test scores pressed perpetually to their heads. Under te circumstances, it’s no wonder that so many people come out of the US education industry scared to death of changing their minds—after all, if they change their minds, they might not get the right answer. The fact that most questions in the real world have no right answers just adds a mordant irony to the picture.

It’s going to take a long time, a lot of hard work, and (probably) the collapse of the education system in the US and its replacement by new, more localized systems to undo the damage that’s been done by federal education policy over the last forty years or so. In the meantime, though, there’s a simple and remarkably effective tool available for those who want to get past the barriers to learning imposed by the bad policies just discussed, and it unfolds from the process of solitary reading we’ve been talking about.

Two further barriers have to be evaded in order to get to the goal. One of them is the very widely cultivated habit of skimming written materials, rather than reading them closely. Skimming is fine as a way to decide what you want to read, because not every sequence of thoughts deserves space in your mind; the problem creeps in when all you do is skim across the surface of one thing after another, without ever sitting down and reading anything thoroughly. Confusing skimming with reading is like thinking that you can eat a steak by licking its surface. Sure, you get a little of the flavor, but you’re missing a lot more—and there’s also the little issue of nourishment. A great many minds these days are starving to death intellectually because they never take the time to chew, swallow, and digest what they read.

That’s the first barrier. The second is the habit of reading through a thick screen of moral judgment. The political correctness of the left and the patriotic correctness of the right both mandate this habit, which is one of the ways you can tell that both movements are hostile to freedom of thought (as well as clones of each other, but that’s a topic for another time.)  The reader who approaches a book this way sits in judgment over it, looking for something that can be twisted around into a confession of guilt; once this is forthcoming, the prisoner is dragged from the courtroom by a howling mob and ceremoniously burned at the stake. This is a great way to wallow in your own sense of moral superiority, and also a great way to avoid ever changing your mind, but it gets in the way of the spooky miracle of silent reading, the communion between your thoughts and someone else’s—and that’s exactly what it’s meant to do.

Is there a place for moral judgment in reading? Of course, but it comes afterwards, as you reflect on what you’ve read—and it may come after you’ve read the book two or three times to be sure you understand the unfamiliar sequence of thoughts you’ve encountered. The difficulty here is that your moral judgment may not be the one that your peers, or the authority figures you’re supposed to follow, want you to make.

As you compare the thoughts of the writer to your own habitual thoughts, you may decide that the writer’s ideas make more sense than yours did; you may discover that there’s some broader way to look at the world, in which there’s room for your thoughts and the writer’s thoughts to coexist; you may even find yourself veering off in pursuit of some half-glimpsed insight that contradicts both the book you’re reading and the ideas you’ve been taught, and following it may take you into intellectual territory no one’s ever explored before. None of these outcomes are acceptable either to the politically correct or to the patriotically correct, which is why both these dogmatic movements try so hard to slap moral blinders in place so that no one anywhere will take the liberty of thinking an unapproved thought.

We need unapproved thoughts just now. The approved thoughts, the right answers, the canned responses and parroted arguments are the things that have landed us in our present predicament. The insistence that there is no alternative, that the only acceptable choice is to keep on doing the same things and hope we get different results, isn’t going to lead us anywhere more useful than the parallel insistence on piling up epicycles led the astronomers of Kepler’s time. The taste of another’s thoughts, the stretching of mental perspectives that results from silent and solitary reading, is one of the tools we can use to move in a different direction. Next week we’ll talk about the practical side of putting that to work.


  1. I’m breaking a usual rule here: I generally take the time to read your posts twice before making comments, since tolerably often the second reading reveals something I missed the first time around. I figure though, it’s appropriate to note that habit here. 😉

  2. I think there’s a third barrier, as well as moral judgement and skimming, which may admittedly be hard to separate from moral judgement: over confidence in our own intellectual capabilities. I know a number of people who won’t even consider reading the other side of an issue, not because they feel morally superior, but because they’re so confident that they’re right, and the other side is wrong, that they dismiss it as irrelevant before even reading anything on it.

  3. Hi JMG,

    Thank you for another great article. Your critique of the US education system hit close to home for me. When I was a boy in school, I thrived in an environment of standardized tests and correct answers. I went so far as to taking standardized tests as an extracurricular activity, and I did quite well. Through my formative years, I was consistently rewarded for regurgitating the “correct” answers with academic achievement, local acclaim, and competitive awards. It did great things for my self esteem, but when I was thrown into the real, anecdotal world, the consequences of all that test taking came down on me, hard. I have greatly struggled with ambiguity, and look desperately for the “correct” answers to my problems when I know none exist. It is only very recently that I realized the hell that my high school curriculum and I created for myself.

  4. Hello JMG and others,

    Will you allow me to jump in early to proffer a tangentially connected comment? It may be a pertinent example of not pursuing the thinking that caused the problem, and perhaps will assist some readers who are still having trouble getting going on Dreamwidth.

    When I created my DW account, everything seemed normal until I tried to write (a reply to one of JMG’s posts). At that point the site claimed I was not logged in. Well, I certainly thought I was, having a brand new purpose-made Dreamwidth identity only a few minutes old!
    To be brief, instead of closing the thing down or logging off and trying again, I left it open, and went to another device. There I WAS able to log in and post, and since then things have been fairly smooth.

    I can’t explain what it was about but it did seem to overcome the bug that commenters here mention.
    If you don’t have two computers handy, maybe just going back into DW on a different browser will help.



  5. When I visited Nepal, one thing that amazed me was the teenage waiters and waitresses who spoke foreign languages, such as English and Chinese, quite fluently. Some of them even understood the differences between American and British slang.

    I spoke to these young people, aged 13~17, and most of them had barely if any formal education. They also didn’t pick up their language from TV or the internet. They got textbooks, taught each other, interacted with customers regularly, and generally realized they could earn good money in the local tourist market just being able to speak a foreign language (some sell Buddha statues to Chinese tourists using Mandarin, and they’ve never been to China).

    Many of them also manage books by hand without using a calculator or software. They learnt what they needed literally “on the street” and “on the job” without any formal education. As far as I could tell, they’re thriving, eating well, and have plans to take their skills abroad to establish a financial future for themselves.

    The lesson I took away from all this is that formal education, at least as it presently exists, is arguably to a large extent unnecessary. You get better results through organic learning. I tend to think education is more about socializing children and youth to think and act in certain ways (as you suggest), which in many cases is actually contrary to their own interests (mental health especially). Trying to scale back or reform public education in industrialized countries would be a tough sell, however, since a lot of bureaucrats and businesses want to retain their share of the pie.

  6. As concerns the present educational system. I Well remember experiences I had, and that many have, in various studies, in correctly solving a trig, calc or physics problem but doing it in ways the instructors did not understand or care to understand. Usually marked wrong.

  7. Hear, hear! This essay poses a fascinating counterpoint to Jordan Peterson’s Rule 10: Be Precise in Your Speech. In it, Peterson explains (from his clinical experience) how people use conversation to construct meaning from their life experiences. Indeed, without speech, they may have a very difficult time knowing what they think, or even who they are. I think he’s right…but I also think you’ve hit the nail on the head in describing the “spooky miracle” of communing silently with another over the span of distance and time. Incredible. For those of us who love to read, there’s noting remotely like the pleasure and insight that reading brings–and your writing counts among the very best.

  8. Some time back, our host posited that something was making modern materialist science corrupt. I suspect the discoverers of entropy. I think they did rituals with skulls and such, haven’t been able to track that down. Entropy is basic to modern science, and has a more creepy vibe than necessary.

  9. Beautiful, John, and thank you!

    I think it’s worth emphasizing (contrary to the history many of us were taught in school) that it was Kepler, rather than Copernicus, who was the revolutionary in astronomy. There was nothing wrong with Copernicus’ heliocentric model… apart from the fact that he, like all his contemporaries, was still thinking of planetary motion in terms of circles, and so without epicycles and the rest, his circles around the sun gave worse predictions that the older model. Heliocentrism by itself provided no improvement. So, the shift was not about “where do we center our circles?”, whether around the earth or around the sun. It was, as you say, about getting rid of circles altogether.

    On a smaller note, I hadn’t realized that Julius Caesar was a silent reader. My stock example for ancient attitudes toward silent reading has long been the passage in Augustine’s Confessions, where he expresses his wonder and admiration for Saint Ambrose performing that neat little trick.

  10. @JMG
    Re: Kepler

    One of the things that sets my teeth on edge is thoroughly bad examples – or at least it did while I still had teeth in both jaws to set on edge. In this case the issue is Kepler and the state of astronomical thought in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

    Johannes Kepler is properly referred to as a mathematicus, not an astrologer. A mathematicus practiced all of the mathematical arts, including astronomy, astrology, navigation, cartography and a dozen et-ceteras. Kepler was no exception; he was the court mathematicus to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II, among other things, and he was expected to turn his attention to problems in pretty much the entire range of applications, which he did. One of his minor publications considers how you measure the liquid contents of a barrel (how full was it) without opening it up. This was, of course, for tax purposes.

    I can understand the temptation to refer to him as an astrologer, especially since his contributions to astrology are on a par to his contributions to astronomy. Besides, it twits a certain class of cock-sure materialists.

    More serious, though, is the idea that 16th century astronomers spent time trying to add more complexity to the Ptolemaic model to fix its many accuracy problems. Au contraire, the primary opinion was that the problems were due to bad observations that had been corrupted by centuries of copyists errors. This is why the Danish nobleman, Tycho Brahe, decided to accept the island of Hven and a stipend to conduct observational research instead of the larger stipend he was due for being, well, a Danish nobleman. (His budget was, in correspondence to the times, on a par with NASA’s.)

    What drove a stake through the heart of the Ptolemaic system was Galileo’s observations of the phases of Venus – that demonstrated that Venus orbited the Sun, not the Earth. Astronomical opinion shifted to using Tycho Brahe’s combined geo-helio model that had Mercury and Venus orbiting the Sun, while the Sun and everything else orbited the Earth. Copernicus was not considered, especially since Tycho Brahe had proved that it didn’t work.

    Kepler’s heliocentric system swept everything before it because it was more accurate, not because it was simpler (although it was), and accuracy was what people were looking for.

    Another point: Aristotle’s dictum that all heavenly motion was circular was getting a thorough examination in the 16th century anyway. It was showing a lot of cracks long before Galileo and Kepler.

    REF: The Renaissance Mathematicus at .

  11. I have found reading poetry to be good training for close reading. Judgement tends to be suspended in favor of just trying to parse what’s being communicated, and after simply reading through a poem as if it were a light novel or a newspaper article it is often fairly obvious that one has not gotten much out of it yet. Of course there are those who flatly declare that they do not like or “get” poetry; if it is a matter of taste, fine, but I find that often if one can be induced to read through a poem slowly and actually think about it even a little, line by line, an epiphany is had and meaning is extracted from what was thought to be impenetrable. The school system typically makes the reading of poetry rather miserable, and one is encouraged to come to the “right” interpretation by means of tedious trivia and pedantic glosses, and to hate poetry forevermore, but if this can be avoided, I find that it rewards most readers and delights those with a taste for it. I read philosophy much as I read poetry, which tends to work well for me; if I read philosophy like a novel, I miss much. Of course you can read a novel closely too, and I do upon occasion, but mostly I like to devour them for sheer entertainment! Too many available books leads to shallow reading for me (I never skim, in the sense of jumping over certain passages or skipping ahead, but I often read too much too fast, and do not take the time to mull over the insights and questions that arise as I read).

  12. Brilliant as usual JMG, thank you.

    I’m having trouble with this bit:-

    “Since hate plays exactly the same role in polite society today that sex had in comparable circles in Victorian times, excuses to wallow in hate are highly popular these days, and this one gets a lot of use.”

    Can you expand on the same role aspect? How so?

  13. John, you’ve certainly been someone who, over the years, has challenged me to think differently or to look at an issue from a different perspective, so thank you for that. My life feels richer as a result. Anyway, your comment about public education certainly struck a chord with me. I was one of those who never tested very well in school. My mind wandered too much and I day dreamed a lot during “valuable” class time and so I often missed getting the “right” answers (although my dreams were fantastic!) I bombed the SAT test in high school because I was too slow- we not only had to come up with the right answers but we had to do it FAST. I read a lot of books- a habit I continue to this day- but they were often ones I had sought out myself, not the assigned texts we were supposed to be reading. Not all my teachers were bad, of course, but the ones I valued the most were the ones who introduced me to a few dead authors who literally changed my life. Those teachers- the ones who encouraged independent thought- often didn’t get tenured…

  14. Skimming… yes, I do a fair bit of that, and I’ve certainly also found myself sitting in judgement on works as I read them. There is a place for both these things, especially when you run into things that build houses of cards on faulty premises, and are fairly obviously not worth finishing, but they shouldn’t be the only way we read things.

    I also must note that a lot of modern writing, especially that written for the internet, does not stand up to the level of deep scrutiny you are suggesting. Some does, notably your columns, but they are an exception.

    Regarding silent reading being spooky in Caesar’s time, I found that amusing. It is strange to think that I would seem spooky in those times for something so simple as the way I read. Though since I don’t speak or read latin, and am not living in those times, this is a moot point.

    By the way, this is corydalidae. I’m changing my email address, and thought I’d change my handle with it back to the one I used on the archdruid report.

  15. I think that another way of advancing beyond current abstractions is to admit how little we really know. I am an avid reader, have travelled extensively, have been acquainted with or involved in many industries and occupations, and, in addition, hold an advanced educational degree, but recently I have come to the conclusion that – of all there is to know – my knowledge of things is vanishingly small.

  16. JMG QUOTE: The political correctness of the left and the patriotic correctness of the right both mandate this habit, which is one of the ways you can tell that both movements are hostile to freedom of thought (as well as clones of each other, but that’s a topic for another time.) UNQUOTE

    Not to jump the gun, but I’m looking forward to hearing – errr, reading more on the similarity of the ‘left’ and ‘right’ (I’ve been thinking a lot on how similar they are to one another when you put the culture war peekaboos to one side).

    I was talking to a friend recently about the comical nature of the complaint “Both of our parties are the same”. Well, maybe the parties would be different if democrat and republican voters were meaningfully different from each other (inhabiting as they do a very narrow overton window). They flip their respective good guy / bad guy hats, but they have far more in common than they imagine.

    “Our nation has never been more divided” – if so, it’s the Crawleyan / Freudian narcissism of small differences.

    Both sides are obsessed with BAU / economic growth; both desire material wealth; both worship billionaires / capital; both worship technology – and are slaves to it; both have bizarre conspiracy theories (russiabots under every bed vs. sharia law around every corner); both have selective amnesia / selection bias; both demonise opponents; both use race realism when it suits them; both have a siege mentality; both speak the 18th/19th century language of ‘rights’ – (as Mary Midgley says in her book ‘Utopias & Dolphins’, pretending that they are universal when they are not); both cheer for war when their guy or gal is in the WH, and are against it when their guy or gal is not, etc.

    If there’s a democrat who wants to replace this failing system with a truly different or radical one, I have yet to meet them. They’re still in ‘Elon Musk and St. Jobs will save us’ denial / bargaining.

    Back in 2006 Matt Savinar (now an astologer, but then owner of the LATOC forum) posted a comment about the ‘iron triangle’, easily found below the article on this link. Might be of interest:

  17. Skimming versus close reading – indeed, a very bad habit if one does too much of the former, and not enough of the latter. I was recently reading an article on the history of the old SRA exercises and how Dr. Don H. Parker developed the idea of learning materials geared to allow individual reading levels to flourish in a classroom environment. I had the good fortune of my teacher using those in second grade (back in 1969), and I believe that helped develop “close reading” skills. Silver, gold and tan, here I come!

    And yes, the moral syrup most things in media today are doused in, is something that has to be filtered through to get any value from it. Much material has an agenda behind it, and some are not easily discerned. And it’s so easy, so lazy to follow down the path to echo chambers that apply another layer of useless varnish on top of your current judgements, hardening them against necessary change should they be incorrect. Many people mistake the “lack of conviction” as some sort of moral weakness, instead of the acknowledgement of limits and non-binary thinking.

    Fortunately, we do have access to some decent content in the Information Age, including the fine essays of our host, requiring close reading, and checking the moral judgements at the door. If only such material was a larger percentage of what the masses demanded for their use….

  18. Following on Jeffrey’s post, I tried to teach my children to read well, to be compassionate, kind, grateful, honest, respect others, and to work hard. I did not emphasize education. Neither finished high school. Both are wonderful, intelligent, compassionate adults, who have done very well in life with their own families and friends, success in business.
    I can say that the educational system is there to make zombies,think consumers, of young people.
    My daughter is seriously considering home schooling her two children. Thank the gods!

  19. Nicely done, as usual, JMG. Thank you. This had me envisioning a Monty Python or SNL type skit where a Fox type talking head announces that a public figure (congressman, actor, whatever) is allegedly guilty of independent thought. Might not be that far fetched, in this day and age, eh?


  20. Will, I normally read twice, or even three times, anything I want to understand, so I appreciate the comment. I’ll be talking more about that next week. As for your third barrier, no question, that’s also a factor — and there are others. All of them are ways people avoid the hard work of thinking.

    Dylan, I get that! I also specialized in taking multiple choice tests, and so got grades and test scores that had no relationship with my actual knowledge or skill level. (For example, I came in at the 92nd percentile in the mathematics section of the SAT; I’m lousy at math, but good at psyching out multiple choice test questions if I know the grading formula.) I also had to recalibrate in a big way once I hit the real world.

    Kallianeira, thanks for this.

    Jeffrey, no argument there! Schooling in the US is purely a support system for the corporate economy. My guess is that it’ll come crashing down as the corporate system does.

    Frederick, yep. I had the same thing happen way too often.

    Karen, thank you.

    Engleberg, hmm! Let me know if you track that down…

    Barefootwisdom, I didn’t know about the St.Ambrose story — thanks for that.

    John, and if I wanted to spend a chapter or two on the subject, sure, I could have gone into that much detail. Since it was only a single paragraph without room for footnotes, and I wasn’t writing for historical scholars, something a little simpler was useful…

    Jen, a good point! We’ll talk more about that in upcoming posts.

    Mrbluesky, I discussed that in detail in an earlier post.

    Patricia, that’ll help!

    Kurt, I’ve been there!

  21. Frederick,

    I’ve had those experiences, but I think I’ve had worse ones: in high school, on two separate occasions I was the only person in my class to get the right answer to a problem, and the only person to fail that question. It was really quite bizarre that it happened once, let alone twice.

  22. Mac McMaster,

    I can picture it now: the talking head says it, and then starts digging into the evidence, prompting another talking head to accuse him of independent thought, at which point the first talking head asks who told the other talking head to think that….

  23. Oh, now this is so appropriate. I’ve been listening to audiobooks for our William Walker Atkinson discussion group, and as I listen (and yes, I am still knitting dishcloth while I do this!) some things grate across my nerves, while others I think are brilliant, interesting, or deserving of more thought. To extend the steak metaphor a bit, it does need the gristle of a century-ago trimmed off. The arrogance of the time period, obvious in liberal use of “savage,” “barbarians,” and of course your favorite, “primitive Man,” probably never registered to his original readers. One thing I have picked up is his occasional “man or woman” instead of just man. Looking into the New Thought genre closer, along with having several prominent women in the forefront (and being a contemporary of Theosophy) it was often closely tied to the women’s suffrage movement. The more of Atkinson’s work I listen to/read, the more I see it as a matter of winnowing out the seeds from the chaff. Both are present in abundance, as he was just as human as anyone else.

    While I did have have a public education, I was also fortunate to have some renegade teachers. My all time favorite was junior honors English, Mr. Peters, who never came to school before 10 in the morning, was always dressed in jeans and a blank T-shirt, and had long hair with the beard and mustache. It caused quite the stir when he came in clean-shaven one time, until he explained he was auditioning for a part in a play where he would need to even cut his hair if he won the part of a World War I soldier. Some fun things: often he would start class with, “Greetings, droogs!” as he knew we had passed Burgess around the freshman year (along with one certain George R.R. Martin … in 1987-88), his assignment for us before our junior year started was to see who and how many could get through Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (I bogged down halfway on the topic of quality), and in the spring of our junior year he offered an intro to philosophy for college credit after school. He was much needed after the sophomore English teacher, whose section on poetry Jen neatly describes above. Perhaps I should give poetry another chance after all these years of having a hatred of it instilled in me.

    (shameless plug: the link on my name now leads to my DW page for the book discussion group. Click if interested.)

  24. Also, I noticed the extreme censure of “unapproved thoughts” some years ago when I was immersed in social justice issues. The ritualistic retribution and groveling repentance that became mandatory for those who expressed opinions that deviated even minutely from acceptable thought were creepy enough, but it eventually became the case that even sincere questions from those who were clearly inclined to be in agreement, if only someone would tell them what they were meant to agree with, received the same response. You not only had to think what you were told, but you were meant to know what that was before you were told, even in matters most minute and obscure. I would also note that even reading, much less enjoying, anything that was not in the approved canon of social justice writers, was suspect and subject to the same public censure.

  25. I go back (because of you! It’s all your fault!!!) to two times in college: once when trying to come up with some sort of original thinking and putting it to paper and then to peers for critique, I was told to forget it and stick with the “tradition”. Stopped that episode in its tracks since one cannot easily carry through some way of thinking without feedback (for good and ill). Another was to be placed into an untenable position by a prof who said that of all the people in his class (this was the first of the semester) my paper would be the only one to be published! I was so embarrassed that I gave up on that class and the prof. I could not even face the other students! I do not intend to be a braggart, but to emphasize that I have always believed that community learning is the most appropriate way to ‘know’, from earliest education through Piled Higher and Deeper. Even genioses have to work and live in a society/culture from which they cannot extricate themselves.
    My sister-in-law has a Grade 10 formal education, and always castigated herself, but she became indispensible at the place she worked because she was the one to compile, edit, compose, and finalize the annual report every year. I was quite happy to point that out to her when she was downplaying her abilities.
    Lifelong learning is what I wish for everyone, and over the course of a lifetime we can, if we truly wish to learn, become better human beings. Our education system prefers to deliver ‘one trick ponies’ to the existing workforce, not persons with self-esteem and worth, either in their own eyes or the eyes of their peers.

  26. JMG, glad to hear you will be touching on poetry in future posts. I find it weird how much smaller a role it plays in public and literary life than it used to.

  27. JMG & All
    Our family still like being read to, when there is time. As children we were read to by parents or older siblings and we did the same for our children, and they do the same for theirs. In the late 40s to end of the 1950s we were lucky that the BBC ‘wireless’ (radio) had some terrific stories for children. Later we caught some serial readings for adults. There were plays – no pictures – so the worlds we entered had to be ‘pictured’. I first heard some of the Hobbit as a dramatization – strong stuff.

    The silent reading habit was if anything strengthened by the shared reading. As time went on one of my brothers teaching children up to age 11 said he thought children were increasingly finding it difficult to follow stories, especially stories that involved context of place and time. He thought it was because it had become more difficult to picture what was going on. I wonder if this was actually the case. It seemed to be happening across the social class spectrum, and I wonder also now that they are adult if it is easy for them to grasp what other people are attempting to convey, especially if the ‘message’ is outside the range of stereotypes i.e. perhaps outside of debating points and jokes, put-downs etc. and, err… chat shows?

    I sound elderly! But my grandchildren are very fond of stories and reading for themselves.


    Phil H

  28. There are, by now, several repositories of examples of why you are my favourite essayist on the web. This is another excellent exemplar.

    In hindsight, your choice of reading alone as a fine way to develop an individuality seems so obvious. It is clear I spent too little time contemplating where you might go in your last essay in this thread.
    In that light, I would have to credit a large part of my own individuation to the same process.

    The hardest translation of the opening of the Tao that I have read, is simply ‘truth told not truth’.
    Even that coldly put, I find it more inspiring than ‘In the beginning God created’.
    Along with it’s cousins. ‘The map is not the territory’ and ‘The name is not the thing’, they tell me more.

    I’m British, not from the US. But what you say about education echoes my comparison of the education I received to what my son said of his. Particularly, his horror of the problems caused by having read ahead of. Or, in some cases I suspect, of having a wider awareness than, the syllabus.

    I have thrown books at my son since he could read. Thankfully, he is an avid reader and shows clearly his own individuation.

    You reflect that you can predict an American’s choices on many social issues by what think about anthropogenic climate change.

    Then in your final paragraph. You invite unapproved thoughts.

    Mine sums up my position on ACC and I think is unapproved, perhaps heretical.

    “While we worship debt, we will immolate”.

    I fear that soon we may reach, if not have passed, points where:
    A: Even if debt worship collapsed, the really long follow through of nature’s ‘lash-back’ will immolate us anyway.
    B: Expression of such ideas may inspire new pharisees to nail people to trees.

    Not the way I want to end my days. Perhaps I shouldn’t be posting in a public forum.

  29. Hi JMG and community
    Reference the education system: my son who is 17 has just left school after most of the first year of 6th form – year 12. I think my reading of ADR and this blog – since 2015 has had an enormous impact on my being able to support him in that and let go of concerns that he should go to university as a matter of course. My son – who has Asperger’s is a very independent ( if somewhat rigid at times) thinker – and some credit to the school for that. However he was a sqauare peg in a round hole. He is currently working as a waiter, mixing with adults and free from relentless testing and grooming for conformity. He can start to make his own way in the world. He was born December 2000, so is just on the millennial generation cusp. He has a very mature sense of the world, doesn’t buy into all the anti Putin hype in the UK and is pro Corbyn. Also not interested in the royal family – change is coming. Speaking of which a comment a few weeks ago was asking how people’s perspective’s have been changed by reading your blog. Pretty profoundly is my answer, especially as mentioned above in the case of my son and his education, which in some ways makes me sad as I had a very fine school and university education in the UK, but reading here and elsewhere – largely due to suggestions from yourself and your readers has enabled me to see it with new eyes. Rather the University of Life at this time than an actual university – where for example my niece recently told me she couldn’t write another essay on a topic she had already touched on in case she plagiarised herself! A small example of crazy dogma. Thanks to this blog I feel I am acquiring tools to think for myself at depth about the world I inhabit, a perilous quest however – but thank you for what you do.

  30. Ohh yes! This post sure sparks me off.

    When you talk about the difference between reading/ writing merely as a supplement to oral presentations and reading writing as an activity in itself not to be spoken, I think of how I’m experiences these two books I’m going through at the moment. One is a book of Teutonic Mythology by Donald A Mackenzie, and the other is a collection of English Fairy tales. What I’ve found is how these tales make no sense if simply read, and must be spoken out loud to be comprehendible. Its amazing how the stories come to life when spoken (I guess that shouldn’t be a surprise, the stories I’m reading have probably spent the vast majority of their existence as an oral tradition).

    As for the ‘looking into someones mind’ part, I’m remembering particularly when I last read the ‘Diary of Anne Frank’, and how as I was reading the diary, its almost like Anne Frank herself was right there talking to me (I should probably add here my experience of reading the diary is strongly coloured by the 2009 tv production starring Ellie Kendrick). Perhaps too being a deeply introverted intuitive/feeling type person, I can deeply engage with the process of reading a book like perhaps some other people can’t.

    Anyway, great piece! Just a few reflections/ reactions.


  31. Oh the horror! To let the young think, but what would they think about? As someone who earns his living as a highschool teacher, I am only half joking here.

    I do agree that an excesive use of rote memorization is detrimental for the intelectual life of children. I have seen too much of this already, and I am barely one year into the job.

    On the other hand, is is highly impractical to expect that each kid will come on their own with some creative way to figure out the topic at hand to a minimum standard under the constrains of modern education. Beginners need to be told what to do early and often, and only when the basics have been internalized they can be asked to produce original performances.

    This is specially true if you are training a skill, not teaching a topic:
    * In a swimming class, the student is left to get a sense of wheir movement in water, in a pool that is just deep enough for they to be buoyant but where they can still stand with their heads and shoulders full above the surface. But then they are shown the technique of how to move, not left to device a personal swiming style.

    * In various forms of martial arts, you are drilled into exercises to develop both muscle memory and the strenght/flexibility to perform further. Then you will spend part time mimicking traditional forms and way later making use of whatever you have picked up in actual combat.

    * In math, you are (or were, before the stupid reforms) shown some algorithms to solve specific problems and drilled into their use. If you were lucky, your parents would show you a different algorithm but you are still spected to learn how to do it “as the teacher says”. The very concept of algorithm is something you come up with pretty late in your education, when you are able to generalize from multiple examples.

    @Frederick Perry.
    Please do not be too harsh to judge your teachers. You are right that some are poor smucks that are barely competent themselves and cannot understand that there’s more than one way of doing things, but I would put the blame on the people that hired them to do this job.

    On the other hand, I can tell you from experience that when a student comes up with an innovative way of doing some task in their homework assigments, it is more often than not the case that they are just parroting a solution given by some parent or other “helpful” adult that has not yet grasped the fact that kids are not tiny adults, but young persons with different (as in, not fully developed) neurology. They cannot be “just told” how to do it, but since they are trainned to please, they shut up and try to present “the right answer”. This is no imagination from my part, BTW, but it took actual inquiring to figure out. Maybe your teacher was already burned out of the job, and could not be bothered to double check that this was not the case.

  32. Dear JMG – Probably a tangent, but about the quiet reading bit. I generally drag a book with me, just about everywhere. A couple of times when I’ve been reading in a public place, I’ve been attacked (verbally, luckily) for reading. Once I was snarled at, “Oh, a reader, huh!” Well … yeah.

    Several times in my reading 🙂 I’ve run across other people who have commented on this phenomenon. What’s with that? Lew

  33. It seems relevant to point out that the written word has been in decline in the Western world since the invention of radio. Now that podcasts have been technically practical for 25 years and internet video for ten years, we’re back at a place where most people in the industrial world absorb nearly all of their media through audio or video. Of course, watching a youTube video or listening to a podcast is still a lot like reading – after all, you can’t interact with a podcast.

    Regarding education: It’s completely horrible. I don’t know of any aspect of North American life that has been subject to such withering criticism from just about every perspective and yet persists. When everyone from people like Howard Zinn and Chris Hedges to the Evangelical Christian movement to libertarians and people like Christina Hoff Sommers, Camile Paglia and Lenore Skenazy (free range kids) has produced broadly valid criticisms of a system, you know it’s rotten to its very core. 1/6 of boys require drugs to cope with the current system, and yet there is virtually no discussion about the school system in polite society.

    Regarding multiple choice tests:

    I got sent to a public school for gifted children (supposedly the smartest 5%) based on the results of a multiple choice test I took in kindergarten, where I apparently outperformed 19 in 20 5 year olds. It didn’t work out, I got kicked out after grade 6.

  34. It’s so nice to have a polite, thoughtful forum! Last Friday, I told my on-line altercation group of politically divergent relatives that I would be out for up to a week, and departed, only to return later that day. (My electrosensitivity is resulting in such severe dizziness now that in congested areas, I may as well be drunk-driving, and public transportation is completely out of the question. I have scheduled an appointment over the dizziness, but that won’t be until June 8–there are that many other people experiencing dizziness.)
    Rather than returning to what appears to be a dead-end conversation, I started deleting their messages without reading them. It’s such a relief! Both sides seem to think it would be a good idea to bomb Iran, but they are arguing whether it would be okay to shoot “invaders” at the border, like Israel.
    Can you say “ugly”? I thought so. But they are beloved relatives, so I will confine my messages to them to puppy and kitty stories.
    On education, in 1990, I was in the States for a year, and I kept running into people who thought the Japanese system of education was superior to our own, because they did so well on standardized tests. I tried to disabuse them. Famously, what their students were learning under the heading of “English” was nothing useful for communicating. Later on, I picked up a book of past exams for entering a medical school and tried it out. With an education in linguistics and years of teaching Japanese how to pass the TOEFL, I could only get 70% correct on the English test. It would have required me quite an effort to go learn what they thought the rules of English actually were. But far worse was the science section, my nerdly field of great interest, where it was clear you had to have memorized a certain body of standardized information, not just understand the concept of, for example, ecosystem cycles. At that point, I began to wonder if medical school in Japan would be simply beneath my dignity.

  35. From personal experience, I suspect that the idea that reading gives us more or less direct access to another’s thoughts is only partially true. I could write down a detailed description, for example, of the neighborhood in which I grew up: the way the street formed a U-shape, the small, sandy beach near the bottom of the U, the trailers lining each side of the street with their tiny, postage stamp lawns. Readers will probably see something like that in their heads, but they probably don’t see the exact scene I remember. They see their interpretations of my words, perhaps superimposed on another trailer park they’ve seen or with which they are familiar. With another beach.

    If it’s that hard to make readers see my childhood street, imagine how hard it is to truly understand less concrete concepts that lurk in the brainmeats. We’re not really within each other’s thoughts, I don’t think. We’re inside our own interpretations of the Other’s thoughts that we’re reading. That has …implications… for how we consider and absorb the words of others, thusly filtered.

  36. A wonderful essay! Thank you again.

    My favourite communal story is the forecast of the new High King of Ireland (destined to be Cormac Mac Art): the hook detail, seemingly a nothing, throwaway remark is that

    “No man with a blemish on his face can become High King in Tara.”

    Dazzlingly simple since we (or I, at least) are slyly invited to imagine the sarcastic comments of older siblings directed at their young brothers hearing the story for the first time:

    “That’s you ruled out then, you pockmarked runt!”

    Your invitation to imagine how solitary reading enriches us is fantastic. Thanks once more.

  37. Very interesting train of thought!

    This may be as good a place as any to mention Ivan Illich’s Rivers to the North of the Future, which I read, slowly, some months ago. I read it so slowly because I had to think hard after each short chapter… Illich manages to attack absolutely everybody’s sensibilities in this book, so that I cannot imagine a single reader who would gladly agree with all his points. If somebody does agree with the four following points, please tell me! Otherwise, the book will be an excellent exercise in suspended judgment.

    1. Universal obligatory education and universal healthcare are overall bad, particularly for the poor, and should therefore be abolished (these arguments date already from the 1970s).

    2. Universal obligatory education and universal healthcare developed out of Christian institutional charity, which is almost as bad.

    3. The incarnation of God in Jesus Christ is the most important event in human history and enables people to freely help complete strangers.

    4. Christianity and the modernity that arose from it are so perverted that one might wish God had never incarnated.

    The book is also chock full of little-known historical facts, e.g. about the origin of hospitals in a brotherhood of people afflicted by St Anthony’s fire (ergotism) or the connection between horse harnesses and obligatory confession.

  38. Like licking a steak! I burst out laughing at that. When that approach is practiced on most online content it might be something like licking a slice of bologna. Your posts are, however, always comparable to savoring a small pork medallion, or at least a nicely sauteed scallop. Worth chewing and worthy of contemplation. Thanks!

  39. Pygmycory, welcome back. 😉 Oh, granted — skimming is useful to sort out popcorn reading (or, for that matter, chemically flavored and colored junk food reading) from something you’d like to chew slowly and digest, and sometimes it’s hard to avoid judgment when something’s bad enough.

    Mike, that’s what Socrates said when the oracle called him the wisest of the Greeks, so you’re in good company.

    Dermot, it seems to me that you’ve done a very good job of making my point for me! Thank you. Exactly; it’s the difference between L and M, pretending to be the difference between A and Z.

    Drhooves, now there’s a blast from the past! I got the SRA reading system in elementary school as well, though it was kind of too late — I was reading at a sixth grade level when I started first grade, and found the SRA materials too short to hold my interest (I adored long novels even then).

    Dirk, and of course that’s what matters. I’m delighted to hear that your daughter’s considering doing the right thing.

    Mac, I can see it!

  40. Dfr1973, one of the great things about older books is precisely that their habitual patterns of speech and thought grate on our sensibilities. With a little time and practice, that leads us to wonder what our own descendants will think of our habitual patterns of speech and thought!

    Jen, dear gods, yes. I’ve watched that sort of thing from a distance in the science fiction and fantasy communities, where competitive moral bullying has been an Olympic sport for some time now.

    Bruce, I don’t do well with community learning myself — Asperger syndrome doesn’t go well with that — but I know a lot of people do benefit from it. Fortunately, what I’m trying to do now involves inspiring individuals to take up the task of their own self-education, and that allows an immense range of flexibility in terms of method.

    Phil K, thanks for this.

    Jen, poetry is scary. It forces the reader, as well as the writer, to grapple with the interface between language and meaning, and thus is inimical to the sort of parrot-mind that our industrial culture tries to inculcate.

    Phil H., my parents read to my sister and me when we were small, and one of the very few public school teacher who I remember with fondness — Mr. Picou, my sixth grade teacher — kept the class from getting restive in the last half hour or so of class every day by reading aloud. It’s a hugely important habit. I’m also very much in favor of radio theater — for reasons we’ll get to, it doesn’t have the mind- and imagination-numbing effects of television.

    Pip61, it’s always risky to speak in a public forum, but i suspect a lot of other people are going to be ahead of you in the nailed-to-trees line.

    Falling Tree Woman, thank you — glad to hear that my blogging has been of help to you. I’m very glad to hear that your son dodged the university trap. As you probably know, I also have Aspergers, and got next to nothing out of my first try at university; when I went back a decade later, I had a lot more savvy and knew what I wanted to do, and succeeded. May your son find his own way to a happy and successful life!

    Tom, good. You’re quite right about oral stories — they’re meant to be performed, and lose a lot of their meaning outside of that context. I find JRR Tolkien’s poetry is the same way — it’s got to be recited out loud to really show off what it has to offer. (I have Bilbo’s poem about Earendil by heart, and sometimes chant it while washing the dishes.) It’s a good reminder that the two modes of language, as oral performance and as silent communion, really are different, and lead to different modes of expression.

    CRPatino, I consider rote learning to be a very good idea, for reasons we’ll get to in a later post — so my response will need to wait until then.

    Lew, I don’t know. Maybe it’s just the beard and ponytail, but people generally don’t hassle me in public, so I haven’t had this experience. Can anyone else suggest a cause?

    Justin, taking in a video or a podcast isn’t like reading in any of the ways that matter, because so many of the nonverbal dimensions are still there. I’ll be discussing those issues in more detail as we proceed.

    Patricia, I get that. The delete button really is a blessing. Me, I have the additional help of IP banning, which allows me to corral repeat trolls in the trash file, so I only have to look at them if i want to — which, these days, isn’t very often.

    Laureth, if you were to write down a detailed description of the neighborhood where you grew up, you wouldn’t be communicating your thoughts — you’d be communicating your memories of sensory experiences. Other modalities, such as visual art, are better suited for that. Let’s say that instead you were to write an essay about your childhood; that would be communicating something rather different — your own reflections and feelings about your experiences — and if you did it well, you would find that readers would understand a great deal more than you seem to think. Have you ever had the experience of reading an autobiographical essay, let’s say, in which you got a very clear sense of the personality of the author and the shape of their life experience? That’s the sort of thing I mean.

    Cortes, you’re welcome and thank you!

    Shane, just one of the services I offer. 😉

    Matthias, that does sound like Illich! I may make time to read that one of these days.

    Daniel, thank you! I’ll have to use the bologna metaphor sometime.

  41. The entire school system is a reflection of how little we care for our kids. We should all take a lesson from Finland and create a school system that kids love and want to attend. Fund it, stock it with resources and good people, stop wrapping kids in cotton balls, let them EXPERIENCE life in all its forms, from running and falling to laughing and fighting. How do you do this? Ask the kids what they want, listen to their replies and provide it. What a revolution? We might even make our dire and sour nations a little happier.

  42. @JMG – Fair enough. I am sure you’ll have the most interesting take about traditional learning techniques.

  43. @Lew – the problem with being a public reader may be quite simple. You’re being perceived as intelligent, and therefore a threat. There are many illiterate people out there – the real numbers would shock you, and jealousy comes into play. Another aspect to that is that by reading, you’re showing potential interest in learning something, and it’s human nature (for some) not to have other members of the herd get ahead.

    Believe it or not, I’ve had a similar experience in my job, being known as a “serial emailer”. Not so much now, where email can be shunned a bit more easily as being less productive, but in the heydays of the .dot com bubble, from 1997 or so until about 2004, those of us who could actually write a coherent sentence or two were either victims of jealousy or mistrust. When I’d explain that over-communication didn’t hurt, especially when trying to manage the explosion in numbers of mid-sized Unix and Windows servers, I was accused more than once of just trying to toot my own horn and get ahead.

    Thankfully, emoticons, Facebook kitties and 128 character limits on Twitter saved humanity.

  44. At the opposite pole from the seductive vice of silent, solitary reading, the excellent BBC series ‘In Search of the Trojan War’ has, in episode 6, ‘The Singer of Tales’, two wonderful insights into bardic performance – Irish and Turkic, the latter showing a bard – trained from the age of 7 – keeping a roomful of hundreds entertained all night with an heroic epic.

    Well worth watching, I would suggest, and still on Youtube – although looking so ancient, and making me feel it!

    There is material on Sufi storytelling and the North African tradition in Tahir Shah’s entertaining ‘In Arabian Nights’, including conversations with Moroccan people who abhor the written word as a ’cause of forgetfulness’. A lot of stuff about Jinns, too.

    The nearest one gets to that in England are the open-air performances of El Sheikh-El Pir in the summer, held in the ancient gardens of the university here, when it doesn’t rain. ‘The Tempest’ works best of all.

  45. “Every linguistic act in an oral performance is surrounded and bracketed by a galaxy of other, nonverbal communicative cues: body movements, gestures, facial expressions, vocal tones, as well as culturally specific framing devices such as the raised podium and the formal introduction of a speech, which tell the audience how to interpret the verbal side of the performance. An oral performance is always an interpersonal event, and the words are only a small part of the total communicative act.”

    That’s brilliant, John.

    And as concise an explanation I have ever read as to why the electronic communications of social media and email fail so miserably in creating constructive social interaction. And why the likely future for any people who rely upon such methods of communications is so disturbing to contemplate.

  46. On the subject of how people think differently, you said atheism an materialism don’t satisfy most people over the long term. What percentage of people do you think are satisfied with them and what is different about those people that makes them content with seeing the world that way? Even when I was officially an atheist materialist I was still reading about Buddhism, shamanism and remote viewing and hoping at least some of it was true.

  47. I contend that history will judge this era as a ‘modern dark age’ when retrospective analysis finally brings clarity. An over abundance of information, education, politicization, yet the western world can’t see such simple things. As you say, the developed world is cutting off the branch it sits upon. Preceding that, the western world is broke; we are insolvent to the point of absurdity, yet nobody cares.

    Sadly, the next of kin to this closed off, clammed up western mindset is malignant narcissism. There will be no ‘walking this back’ from the abyss I’m afraid. The societal inoculation to change is complete.

  48. The written word is a form of extrasomatic memory, and it is indeed spooky and occult even. We forget this in our hyper abstract society, but it is a source of immense power, and even mystery.

    By carefully going over someone else’s memory crystallized outside of their body one can then inform their own memories, can receive a ray of memory. This is a mystery of the utmost power. My own life has been small and myopic and time-bound but, thanks to books, I’ve fought in the Trojan War and watched the decline of the Roman Empire over the course of hundreds of year. I fought several positions at the battle of Austerlitz with the Russians and watched the Civil War play out from beginning to reconstruction, I’ve met beings from other worlds, and met the most interesting characters with fascinating perspectives and travelled with them on the most outlandish adventures. I’ve learned to sympathize with people I’ve never met and apply my experiences with real people. I’ve learned to forage, garden, and heal myself with herbs. I’ve tried on dozens of perspective to see how well they fit. And all of this without breaking a sweat!

    These noetic adventures would have impossible without the technology of reading. I tend towards the idea that skimming can be fun and useful; sometimes it is only important to get a taste of something, and some books are pretty much just popsicles! That being said, my metric for reading a book is how coherently someone else’s memory is transferred into mine. If I can quote a passage extempore that is one thing, if I struggle to provide a basic outline that is another. If I can apply what I’ve read to my life and use the information practically, that is yet another thing still, and that is always a little spooky, even in this hyper literate age of abstractions (people look at me with a mixture of fear, apprehension and curiosity when I tell them I taught myself a real world skill from reading about it!). When I truly wish to remember something I’ll often hand copy it, sometimes many times. When something is committed to memory it is in both the book and myself; it has become part of me on a profound level. Again, this borders on mystery and occultism; any deep reader has a fleshed-out world within themself which remains secret, hidden and, perhaps most saliently, inexpressible. Alternatively, it could be said more simply that deep reading builds a rich inner world.

  49. Hi, JMG!

    This post touches me in many ways. One thing that’s intriguing to me is how a bunch of different writers can take the same writing prompt and create such widely varied scenes based on their experiences, biases, sense of humor (or lack of it) and my favorite, whimsy. (Btw, I saw the word “Tauranus” to describe the recent transit of Uranus into Taurus, which of course sparks my MAD magazine funny bone!)

    It’s also interesting what happens when 2 people hear a writing prompt differently. Decades ago, I was in a playwrights workshop and the writing prompt was to go through maps of different countries to find names of towns that could form the basis for a personal “national anthem.” What was hilarious to me in retrospect was that I thought we were supposed to also come up with music to it. It shaped the way I looked for different placenames to serve as a template for a nonsensical but appropriate national anthem. As people read their thoughts, and none of them even tried to sing, it dawned on me that maybe I did it wrong.

    But it got to my turn and I apologized but said I also came up with a little tune for my National Anthem. I still remember it to this day, because it made people laugh–which is very much part of my “nation,” as it were. Plus, I even translated it from this hodgepodge “national language.”

    All this leads to my odd point which is that being a part of writer’s groups as well as book clubs is really helpful. Different writers have different strengths with the elements of say, screenwriting. I’m good with structure and I’m decent with character and dialogue. Not always so good with sticking with a theme–which to me is not all that useful. But someone else might come along and say something about a work-in-progress which will help me to elevate the material and create something profound.

    I appreciate those people who can stay by themselves and write something amazing, like the late Edward Albee. But I also appreciate those who subject their work to the rigorous reading of other people who have their own subjective experiences as well as biases, and that can help to shape a work.

    One last thing: I find synchronicities in my life, and I don’t know if you’re familiar with Fr. Richard Rohr? This week, his meditations are about the need for imagination and that “God breaks through.” Citing examples like Picasso in painting, and Savion Glover in dance, etc. There’s an echo for “unapproved thoughts” at any rate.

  50. I’m in the process of reading a James Cone book titled, Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare. Published in 1993, the ideas in the book are still relevant today, if not more important as the drive for social justice is a never ending battle.

    What I found interesting is a reference to how Malcolm X spent his time in prison. He spent it reading. He read so frequently and deeply, that he forgot he was in a prison! Imagine that. Reading and writing transformed his person. Mastering those skills allowed him to focus on his oratory and in the end, his power of communication.

    In the end, it is all about meaningful communication. What marks the modern era is the profound isolation that has been created by both technology and ideology. We have created a new type of prison. A new form of illiteracy. The prison of individualism. Instead of building connections, the landscape is littered with fragments of isolation and despair- masked by the illusion of intimacy and technical connectedness.

    Reading properly requires a quietness that is a form of meditation. From that meditation, insights gained about the world in which we live can be shared with our comrades- our fellow travelers in experience.

    Reading properly does not lead to the self or the individual, but to a larger, beautiful world of interconnectedness and possibility.

    Then its just a matter of hard work to bring about a vision and make it reality. There must be common goals though and that is going to take time to formulate and solidify in the mind.

    Thanks, JMG- I enjoyed this piece very much.

  51. JMG & all,

    As I was tasting your mind, I thought of the work of Ivan Illich, whose books I’d like to revisit again now.
    His book, “In the Vineyard of the Text: a commentary to Hugh’s Didascalicon”, had a profound impact on me. It focuses on the shift from reading aloud to reading silently. I also appreciated it for its glimpse into monasticism. I found that I liked to commune with Illich’s mind after reading that book, and went on to study “Deschooling Society”. The ideas in “Deschooling Society” would be useful touchstones in the present discourse. His idea of intentional learning outside the classroom via webs of peers/mentors in particular areas of study is particularly relevant.

    His idea of tools versus machines is also something I find would be a good part of the deindustrial toolkit. Basically he thought that a tool should be an expression of its user. A machine on the other hand creates a situation where a human become its servant. Anyone who has owned a car should know the feeling!

    It’s good stuff, and I think I will dive into some of his works I haven’t read yet now.

    All the best, and thanks for writing about the three R’s in your recent posts here.

  52. @Engleberg – Hoo boy! I’ve been wanting to share my thoughts on entropy with someone for a while now. My degree was in energy engineering so I spent more time than most learning about thermodynamics. As a result I’m quite convinced that entropy is a modern equivalent of epicycles, No two professors ever conceptualized it the same way, I’ve heard such diverse descriptions as ‘a fictive value we use to make the math work’ and ‘the opposite of data’ (that latter one leads to some interesting questions if we try to define data). Not to mention that math involving entropy only works in a rigorous way in closed systems which are generally accepted not to exist.

    If you are interested in researching this troubled area of the modern worldview, I highly recommend looking into an early biomimeticist called Viktor Schauberger – he was of the opinion that most of our technology since the industrial revolution has been what he called ‘explosion-technology’, characterized by the kind of outward-moving dissipation where entropy is a useful and consistent hack. He suggested that we had overlooked a whole class of technology he called ‘implosion-technology’, characterized by a concentration of energy and complexity (living things are examples of such structures). If you’re going to be tasting the thoughts of the people who formalized the theory of entropy, you may want something from a person like him to clean the palette!

  53. @barefootwisdom
    Re: Copernicus

    A minor nit: Copernicus’ heliocentric model had three more cycles and epicycles than the then-current Ptolemaic model. It is absolutely not a poster child for simplicity.

    Otherwise I agree. I’ve seen a comment that, at the beginning of the 17th century, there were only about 10 people in Europe who believed in heliocentricity. Kepler is overshadowed by Galileo only because a pair of 19th century advocates for “the eternal fight between science and religion” pulled him from the dumpster of history as one of their great examples of religion shafting great scientists.

  54. @JMG “CRPatino, I consider rote learning to be a very good idea, for reasons we’ll get to in a later post — so my response will need to wait until then”.

    I’m going to look forward to this. I always took for granted the view that rote learning was bad. Then I came to live and work in China, where rote learning is the norm. Similarly when I taught in Russia: my students had at the very least had to memorize the classics of literature, by heart. The Russians I found to be excellent students, almost without exception. The Chinese – who I taught in much greater numbers – were more hit and miss, but the good were very good. I gather there is a body of academic research demonstrating that rote learning provides a solid foundation for independent thinking, and my experience as an educator would support that. To the extent that I wish now I’d had it as a child… it was very much out of fashion, though, in 1970s Wales…

  55. To Jen (May 16, 2018 at 8:55 pm):

    A while back I read Joseph Goebbels’ diaries. I did that since my job involved persuasive writing and Goebbels was the father of modern propaganda. I wanted to get insights.

    But god forbid that I mention to anyone that I read Goebbel’s diaries without going into a long explanation of “why.” I am at the point now where I am sick of having to justify the paths that I pursue and having to give the reasons for what I do.

    I recently quit a job since – in large part – I was sick to death of bowing down to “political correctness” in all of its increasingly intrusive forms.

  56. I did not become an avid reader until jr. high school when I discovered science fiction. I think it provided a wonderful escape from the fact that my family had moved from my childhood home where I felt thoroughly connected, to a place I didn’t and I felt very adrift.

    I kept reading sci-fi into my young adult hood, but I also got introduced to The Mother Earth News and The Co-evolution Quarterly which provided even tastier fodder then fiction and in due time I dropped the fiction. No great loss as it had become very repetitive and I couldn’t escape the feeling of being manipulated by the author in many instances.

    Now days I seldom read fiction unless it is by an author I trust not to manipulate and my reading has started to be come deeper as I ready mostly non-fiction and that usually requires a closer reading for me to understand what they are trying to say. I am a slow reader anyway as I never learned how to skim read something, so sometimes it takes me quite a while to get through a book. I am now trying to work on understanding my own thought about what I have read.

    As for poetry, I don’t think I learned to dislike it in school as I had a very shallow public education for the most party, but I did learn to dislike it sometime in my young adult hood because so much of it seemed self-indulgent and sticky, and swamp like. I had some poetry friends help me get over this and very frequently I have found good poetry to be very illuminating. However, I still don’t have the habit of reading poetry. I do prefer that it be spoken though.

  57. Jen,

    And may the gods help you if you mention an “unproved experience” to the social justice warriors….

  58. JMG, I saw your response to Bruce about “inspiring individuals to take up the task of their own self-education.” Since I started reading the Archdruid Report 6 years ago, the books, people, and concepts you have written about have generated more hours of research on my part than any other medium.



  59. @Lew: Here are some possibilities for the “reader” challenge. Racial issue; class issue in university town; male aggression, i.e., youth feeling oats; courtship approach if you happen to be good looking (or male territoriality if you seem more attractive than the challenger is to others nearby); people suspecting narcs and expressing disdain and disbelief in your bona fides; people lost and lonely and wanting real interaction but unsure how to engage in a hostile urban setting, expecting a rebuff; people uneasy about their own inferior abilities and wanting a smile or acknowledgement of their presence or an explanation about what is holding your interest away from their far more interesting selves; people envious of smartphone types, wondering if you are poor like them and wanting validation of their worth without benefit of upscale accoutrements; people longing for parental guidance or interaction that might relieve boredom or spark a new direction in their aimless lives and equating you with an authority figure or even a celebrity; people uneasy with, yet attracted to different behavior.

  60. The real problem with the modern education system is that we are being misled into believing that its purpose is to develop young minds to their full potential of intellect. What rubbish! The education system was never intended to do that, but instead to train children to work productively in the regimented environments of the factories and offices of 19th-century industrialized society – hence the emphasis on the discipline of rigorous unquestioning adherence to prescribed schedules, procedures, and thoughts; which is diametrically opposed to the development of skills required to reason independently.

  61. Another barrier to free thought alongside moral judgementalism is that certain opinion clusters appeal to a particular vanity. On the liberal left side, the vanity appeal is based around intelligence, whereas on the conservative right side, the vanity appeal is to courageousness. Social media is full of liberals congratulating themselves and each other for being smarter than all the dumb right wingers, and conservatives celebrating their own courage in daring to say what cowardly left wingers apparently “know” but dare not admit.

    When you encounter someone who has internalised one of these vanity complexes it is really quite amazing how dogmatic they tend to be.

  62. A little anecdote about fear of the “unapproved.”

    I attended St. John’s College, a school that dares to teach Plato and Homer to every incoming freshman. Recently the president of St. John’s went on Fox News to advertise the college’s traditional philosophy program to conservatives. There was an enormous online uproar over this from liberal alumni. The online alums acknowledged that Fox is one of the most popular media sources in America today, but in their imaginations, it could only attract racists and Nazis to the college. One person posted a photo of neo-Nazis marching at Charlottesville with the caption, “The St. John’s Class of 2022.”

    I responded to this, “Can virtue be taught?”

    “Not to these cretins,” they responded.

    “The Greeks would have thought it couldn’t be taught to slave boys,” I fired back. In Plato’s dialogue Meno, Socrates calls out a slave boy and uses the Socratic method of education to show that the slave boy is capable of rational thought and even geometry, which was thought to be the highest type of thought possible.

    I think this must have been one of the reasons Socrates was sentenced to death. As you might know from reading Aristotle, the belief in “natural slaves” incapable of education or thought was a crucial one for Greek society. It’s how they justified their own slave based economy. Socrates disturbed the essential line between slave and free, the same way that Marx would disturb the line between passive workers and active élites thousands of years later. And the same way that the line might be disturbed between “evil, racist Fox News watcher” and “philosophy-loving St. John’s student” in 2018, with enough close listening and close reading.

    In the end my analogy fell on deaf ears. The online mob (all white, of course) was infuriated that I had used the phrase “slave boy” in the course of a “sensitive” conversation, and when I refused to apologize for it most of them ignored me. Even among people who have all read the Meno there is still plenty of unapproved thought.

  63. Well, Matthias, I shall have to look him up! I might argue his 4th point, but the first three are tolerable fits, and he seems not certain on the last anyway.

    In regards to education, even among home schoolers, the idea that public school is a rarity historically and that generally children scraped some education out around the edges of more important, survival-based jobs, is uncomfortable, and to suggest that hours of daily schooling cannot and will not continue indefinitely is poorly received.

    In my state, the current educational hullabaloo is over the public online charter schools. They have attempted to seduce home schooling families in with some success, but the organizations of home schoolers have wisely and loudly distanced themselves. Now the public online charters have proven disasterous at educating, but the attempt to tar home schoolers with the same brush has not started yet. It will-there’s little the schools are less tolerant of than independance from them.

    We don’t do any online education, but I’m spooked, and finally decided to bite the bullet and join HSLDA, even though I don’t approve of their habit of non-homeschool-related lobbying.

  64. Justin: Glad to head somebody liked Illich’s Vineyard! I haven’t encountered it yet, but it is one of the many other themes of the posthumous interview-based book that I read (in addition to the very short summary I gave), and it sounded interesting.

  65. Rob, that’s certainly one way to do it. There are plenty of others. We have far and away the worst school system in the industrial world, and for that matter quite a few Third World countries have significantly better schools these days than the US does, so almost any other model would be a step up.

    CRPatino, I hope so.

    Xabier, and that’s also an art form — just a very different one, with effects far removed from the ones I’m discussing here.

    Fred, well, yes, there’s that!

    Yorkshire, you’d have to do a well-designed survey and followup interviews to find the percentage, and some serious research to figure out what differentiates those who find materialist atheism satisfying from those who don’t. Since I haven’t done either of those, I won’t venture a guess.

    Dave, I’m quite sure you’re correct about trying to walk things back collectively. That’s why I’m concentrating my energies on giving useful tools and strategies to individuals.

    Violet, oh, no question, there are popsicle books and popcorn books; I’ll be talking about popcorn reading in a later post, because it also has a place. But the deeper dimensions — yes, that’s where we get into the spooky territory. The other name for that latter is power. More on this as we proceed!

    Richard, I suppose it depends on the writing group; as I noted in an entry on my Dreamwidth journal, I’ve heard way too many accounts from people who’ve had disastrously bad experiences with writers’ groups and writing workshops. Me, I’m very much a solitary writer; most of the time I brood over something, then write, then tinker, then polish, and only then do I want anyone else to see it. A writing group, for me, would be an exercise in unwanted stress — nor is it helpful for me, while I’m working on a project, to have to read what other people write. Still, your mileage may vary.

    Scott, nicely put. Exactly; one of the bitter ironies of the modern world is that there’s so much stress on being individualistic, and so much stress on avoiding the quiet private time in which one actually becomes an individual.

    Justin, thanks for this — I haven’t read the Illich book you mention, and I should change that when time permits.

    Bogatyr, in my experience, if you haven’t memorized anything, you have nothing in your mind to think with except whatever scrapings from pop culture happen to have stuck there. That’s a good half of the reason why people in the US spend so much of their time lurching through failed routines they can’t think their way out of — they have no raw material for thought in their minds. More on this down the road a bit!

    Kay, by all means! I read more nonfiction than fiction — a lot of fiction these days leaves me feeling not so much manipulated as slobbered on — and it’s no one’s business but yours to decide whose thoughts you want in your mind.

    Mac, thank you.

    Steve, it’s a little more complex than that. Remember that in the US, a lot of the first couple of waves of public schooling were focused in rural rather than urban areas, and the model was the one-room schoolhouse where older children helped younger children and the schoolmarm was the center of a little community of learning. The problem, as you’ve pointed out, is that this model has been, ahem, progressively overridden by the urban model of school as factory, enforced by government mandates and the vagaries of the academic industry.

    Phil K., thanks for this! Are those terms yours? If so, I’ll want to credit you as a source, as they’re worth spreading far and wide.

    Avery, people have been trying to dodge the implications of Plato’s Meno since ten minutes before the ink dried on the original manuscript, so none of this surprises me!

  66. Thanks JMG for your reply. “Slobbered on” is definitely how I felt trying to read the Harry Potter books.

  67. CR Patino and JMG – just to say that to me, rote memorisation and rote recital of the “right answer” are two entirely different things. The one is training of one’s own skill, and CR Patino is entirely correct in saying that memorisation of certain amounts of information whether in the mind or in the body, are the prelude to their creative application. (I have found this to be true in my own vocation of acupuncture.). Whereas rote recital of the “right answer” is to depart from oneself and undertake the guesswork as to what is externally required of one to deliver. A form of self-alienation.

    That is to say, I do not find any fundamental disagreement between your various points.

    (Apologies, CR, that my typewriter will not permit me to spell your name correctly).

  68. drhooves – And, sadly, it seems well written e-mails are hitting the techno dustbin. So old school. I don’t text. I’ve even lost a “friendship” or two because I refused to shift away from e-mails, to texting.

    I once had a fairly long e-mail relationship with someone who found me interesting just because he said I knew how to use a semicolon. I really know bumpus about the mechanics (I’m sure some one will leap in and explain it all :-). For me, it’s just rhythm and instinct. A comma is a slight stop, a semicolon is a longer pause and a period is a full stop.

    Emoticons -I’m really considered “old school” because I still use :-). I use it as my humor can be pretty dry, at times, and I don’t want to be misunderstood. I use it to signal that I’m telling a (lame) joke or pulling someone’s leg. Lew

  69. John,

    An article echoing a great number of your ideas regarding class in America has appeared in The Atlantic magazine.

    A section in the article is titled “The Politics of Resentment” and deals with Trump.

    I would love to have a chat with the author and see if he has read you (or is willing to fess up to doing so). He’s background seems very appropriate for his analysis, with a mixture of exposure to a earlier dying American aristocracy through his Grandfather, a lower middle class military brat hood and climbing into the class he is now describing.

    One wonders, another flash in the pan of awareness or the beginning of a trend of cultural evaluation. I think its likely too soon to be optimistic.

  70. @ gkb – All of the above? :-). I live in a pretty rural area. I don’t talk down to people, but, I’m aware of the vocabulary I use and work to keep it simple. Even so, I’ve been tagged with the title “Professor” in some groups. Much to my chagrin :-). Lew

  71. JMG. What do you think about audio books?

    Jen. What was in the cannon of social justice warrior writing? Elsewhere our host has recomended reading things that you find personally ofensive. Those would fit for me so i should read them.


  72. Socrates refused to write in book form and wanted to have one-on-one discussions because he considered reading some else’s thoughts wide open to misinterpretation (in a way in which a dialogue is not).

  73. Lovely post–strange that I, too, was going to bring up the topic of poetry. Glad to hear that you will be addressing it in the future? The best poems make the familiar new–something that we all need from time to time. JMG–I would love you to parse syllogism vs totality (Hegel) as pertains to living in an age of abstraction. Perhaps you covered this in the past and I missed it?

    Matthew Stewart’s essay in the Atlantic this month hits the nail square on the head. Many of the readers here might appreciate it.

    I would argue that it is nearly impossible to leave behind prejudices and preconceptions when approaching a new text. When reading do you employ practices to minimize biases? If so please share.

    I also enjoyed the licking the steak bit–lovely imagery.


  74. I think that a large part of the problem with thoughtful reading in the US in particular (I had one year of schooling in British Columbia but that was in 1961, so whatever I observed may no longer be true) is that our school textbooks are deliberately constructed to not require thoughtful reading.

    For starters, most textbooks are written at the low end of whatever grade level they are designed for. The actual discursive text is supplements by chapter and section headings, sidebars, vocabulary lists, illustrations and their captions, tables, etc. Sometimes the chapters end with a series of main points. These are followed by questions for discussion and so forth. Obviously some subjects require illustration and some require statistical tables or other aids to understanding. And it is useful in many disciplines to define the specialized vocabulary.

    But by being spared all of the biting and chewing of real study the student never acquires these skills. Then when they are required to read something like Plato or a a chunk of Newton, or the Federalist Papers they are like toothless babies meeting a T-bone for the first time. Frustration and anger is the result. I was TA for the Western Traditions , sometimes called Western Civilization or similar terms, at the university where I did my graduate work. The classes were required, starting in the sophomore year. Such wails of dismay–why do we have to learn this, what use is the Iliad, when will I ever use this in real life? But I suspect part of the dismay was the difficulty of the texts assigned compared to the textbooks students were accustomed. to.

  75. Any update on your translation of the Tao Te Ching first mentioned in your post “Overcoming Systems Stupidity” on the old blog? I’ve been hoping you’d have the time and energy to finish it!

  76. In high school it was as though we were caught in the same flow, and as time passed the flow split into many paths and the friends I knew drew further away, but were still within sight. Eventually In college I found myself all alone, floating, but still sure the flow was taking me somewhere good. In time it slowed and eventually stopped. I began to swim, but I could only swim so far. Now here I am sitting on the bottom, looking up at shimmers on the surface. They show me glimpses of possibilities, but I know if I swim back up there is still only forward or back.

    To go back is senseless, an act of a child who wont grow up. To go forward is impossible without a current to help me. I guess its time to walk to shore? heh…

    These ramblings brought to you by the US education system!

    I think I rarely ever got more than a few licks deep of any other’s thoughts during my formal education. There was never any time. Everything was hurried along so we could get to the next subject. Ironically only several years after my formal education have I actually developed interest in reading! However I must admit to read deeply and see how an author’s constructed world intersects and diverges with my own is hard to learn and exhausting at times.

  77. With regards to rote learning, I still remember in high school having to memorize passages of texts for English final exams. They did away with it, because people “couldn’t” do it. I think it had to do with people not wanting to, and also the fact memorization is a skill, and it’s one that we hardly practiced. Then there’s the fact that we wouldn’t know the topic until we got the exam, which made it really hard to know what to memorize….

  78. Patricia,

    They value courage, in the same sense that upper class liberals value justice: up until it gets in the way of what they want to do anyway. My two sense anyway, as someone who’s looked heavily into the Conservative Party of Canada.

  79. @Scotlyn,

    Thank you, having two word phrases, rote memorization vs rote recital, does help a lot to clarify this. And do not worry about the Ñ thing, I use N myself often enough when dealing with foreigners.

  80. @JMG “in my experience, if you haven’t memorized anything, you have nothing in your mind to think with except whatever scrapings from pop culture happen to have stuck there.”

    Aaaahhhhhhh!!! Thank you for this. I am often asked by my Western colleagues here in China why I am so enamoured of Russia. I’ve had a hard time pinning down the exact reason why I found my time there so rewarding, but you’ve just put your finger on it. Unlike my peers from the UK, or other Anglophone countries, the Russians I interacted with had depth. They were able to refer to a corpus of literature, poetry, history and philosophy as a routine part of their discourse. The same, in fact, is true of educated Chinese although, being less familiar with Chinese culture myself, I don’t get the references so much. You’re absolutely right, though, that Westerners in general don’t have foundational material to use beyond ‘scrapings of pop culture’. This explains to me why I’m finding it harder to interact with other Westerners after my stay in Russia than before: my expectations have been raised.

  81. I want to share a valuable experience I had in 4th grade, which I own much to. We had a section of math problems to do, the form of them was all the same. Person one and two made yay-much money together, but person one made so-much more than person two did. How much did they each make. We were assigned to use guess and check; which I loathed, and never agreed to do. So I figured out that person A made Yaymuch/2 + somuch/2 and person B made Yaymuch/2 – somuch/2. At the age I didn’t have the math vocabulary to write that up quite as neatly. I was given zero points on the assignment, and Mrs, O. argued with me that my solution wasn’t valid, and tried but failed to write out a properly algebraic solution. We argued, and came to a consensus that I would do it my way, get every answer correct, and accept a zero on the assignment.

    That was a great blessing to me, for I was the type who could game a standardized test at the highest level, and had all too much pride in this trick, but I learned that the right answer was not always the correct answer. Mrs. O. taught me that the school system need not be taken seriously, which in turn helped me to profit much more from my remaining 4 years of public education than I might otherwise have.

    Blast, the belief in having the correct answers! How dull it makes us so ensnared! It reduces the music of verbal play to the bleating of hungry sheep or the yapping of small dogs. Too many time I have been trapped in a fear of being wrong, and pride of the proneness of my deductions the care of my sourcing of facts, the breadth of my background. And, though I am still pride in my efforts to do my best in each of those field’s I an also look back at the times I made myself a fool to myself by the blinders of certainty. This followed by the shame of not being the expert I had appointed myself to be; the isolation and drawing back, the debasement of the value of my own word, like a lead denarius. And the contrast is stark with the positive experiences I can think of, well eared respect of good friends, which have followed from a forthright confession of uncertainty, and a sincere promise to use the best judgment I can manage.

    Oh, what is it some philosophers wouldn’t give up to be certain, they would sell their souls, if only to be paid in certainty that hell were real! Truly this has roots deeper in the Faustian civilization, roots our school system brewed a narcotic brew from.

    Being surrounded by the maimed and disfigured veterans of public education carves a gully of sorrow into me, and at times when I am reminded of the possibility of another way, those gullies wash out again under a torrent of rage. I hope I can do more the make the best of things here, and am glad my friends mostly have kids in Montessori or Waldorf inspired systems.

    In practical matters for me this comes on in the ideological side of the agricultural information I can get access to. I am trying to figure out how best to grow lots of good food with the local land base, and minimal externalizes. Last week I was away ranch sitting for a guy that does that intensive rotational grazing, got shocked plenty by the fencing too. It’s hard work moving those animals all the time, and the fields are too new to it to say if it has an effect. I was reading my clients books on the matter, and so much of them argue for the practice on the grounds of the ethics of this or that other practice. Or describe the practice, stressing detains I cannot begin to address with the setup at hand. That’s constructive close reading, trying to figure out why you are doing 3 hours a day of fencing, when you grew up with fat cows on green rich pasture, none the wiser. I cannot make sense of it, but so many people I know believe in this kind or grazing or don’t believe in it. What matters all believers!

    Happily I found a great book while trying to make sense of this.
    Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture. I don’t offer a promise of any snake oil, it shows the charming nerdiness of a soil and tree lover of the early twentieth century trying to figure out what the prospects are for tree based agriculture, largely by visiting or letter writing with folks who have done it.

  82. @ Jen

    I was very much taught to dislike poetry, and have only partially untangled myself from that nest. Vast swaths of poetry, mostly from the last hundred years irk me when I try to read them. I suspect that much of the last centuries poetic talent picked up a gittar, and set it to song. There are plenty of musicians that are much more poets than they are masters of their instruments, and yet sung poetry isn’t the same, as something you can look and and follow your minds thread to un riddle its meaning. Though alot of the poetry I do like is music where I find an interesting idea in it, but don’t understand it, so I read the lyrics, only to love the lyrics and set them to memory, only to lose interest in listing to the records ever again.

  83. @Justin

    You said:
    “Regarding education: It’s completely horrible. I don’t know of any aspect of North American life that has been subject to such withering criticism from just about every perspective and yet persists. When everyone from people like Howard Zinn and Chris Hedges to the Evangelical Christian movement to libertarians and people like Christina Hoff Sommers, Camile Paglia and Lenore Skenazy (free range kids) has produced broadly valid criticisms of a system, you know it’s rotten to its very core. “

    I can think of one other institution… Congress! 😀

    Jessi Thompson

  84. Will Oberton,

    I’m sure I am forgetting much, but here is a sampling of the canonical social justice activist literature as I remember it:

    James Baldwin, particularly Notes of a Native Son
    Pretty much anything by bell hooks
    Angela Davis, known for her work on the prison-industrial complex
    The INCITE! anthologies: Color of Violence, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, Conquest
    That’s Revolting!: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
    The slave narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs (some others too, but these two were most popular)
    The Autobiography of Malcolm X (controversial; many would exclude him from the canon)
    Judith Butler (I wouldn’t read Butler first, if at all; influential, but generally considered abstruse even by those who are into this sort of thing)

    Fiction: Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, Sherman Alexie (since accused of sexual harassment and thus out of favor)

    Poetry: Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich

  85. In a nice bit of synchronicity with this post, lately I’ve been chewing on the myth of the Three Rays of Light described in JMG’s Druidry Handbook. In it, Einigen the Giant has all knowledge revealed to him by a divine source, and he writes it down on three wooden staves, intending to share it with others. To his chagrin, when he tries to do so, the people start worshiping the staves themselves instead of learning the knowledge written on them. (Einigen was so p.o.’ed by this that he ‘burst asunder’ and died- ouch! The original misunderstood author.)

    I’ve been pondering just this point- what does it look like, in our current society, to worship the appearance or outward form of knowledge, without actually learning it? Skimming for bragging rights without actually engaging with the text, or perhaps reducing learning to standardized testing skills? Demanding a college education, without actually wanting any powers of original thought to be developed therein? I am not sure if these modern habits fit the category of “worship,” or indeed if most inmates of our society worship anything at all. Does our fetish for formal education credentials, without the pesky intellectual development, stand in for a received religion of faith, as opposed to a messy personal experience of and engagement with the divine? Still chewing on that one…

    I am wondering if this myth connects, too, with Lao Tsu’s warnings. Were Einigen’s would-be pupils making the kind of errors he referenced, mistaking the descriptions of things for the things themselves?

    JMG, I would welcome your comments on what it means to worship something as opposed to learning the knowledge it offers. And thanks for the steak! Yum!

    –Heather in CA

  86. @JMG – yes those terms are mine. I evolved them when talking to a relative, who is a fervent EU supporter, who actually used his self-diagnosed “intelligence” as a justification for why his views simply could not be incorrect.

    @Patricia – the right are trashing McCain because they see him as a political enemy, and they are using the rhetorical trick of defining his character around the fact that he surrendered, rather than around the fact that he endured gruelling years in prison.

  87. I wonder if the almost daily school shootings can be seen as a pathology related to the increased stress created by the current educational system.
    I suppose for some people, this latest suggestion of yours, to simply sit and read thoroughly and deeply, and then evaluate the ideas against one’s own sense of judgement, will appear to be a radical suggestion, but this, like your previous discussion of maintaining a set of personal values as a constant measure to make sense of the world, is just what I’ve always done. Thank you, once again, for putting this into words for me.
    I read very slowly because my mind wanders constantly, as every idea needs to be tested for what Einstein (purportedly) described as the Truth: “logical consistency, economy of explanation, and agreement with experience.” (or at least the facts as reported by trusted sources.) There is a great deal of writing that fails at least one of those tests. In fact, I’d venture to say most of what passes for opinion and political writing these days fails at least one of those tests. That’s also why I usually take some time before being able to comment on your work: ideas take time to integrate with all the existing ones.

    I learned early on that I don’t think the way others do and have scars to show for it. Someone gave me a set of readers that were supposed to be for 6 year olds, that I learned to read by the time I was 3. When I got to school, I failed reading because I couldn’t answer the questions on tests, not because I couldn’t read, but because I was reading material years beyond what I was supposed to be reading. Seriously, how could I answer questions about what Dick, Jane, and Spot were doing, when I was reading Madelein L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time” under the desk and deeply wishing I had Charles’ emotional control so I wouldn’t cry so much when being beaten up. But that’s the thing about fiction: it isn’t real and doesn’t do a very good job of explaining life, or social relationships. No matter the medium, it is just entertainment, but a very welcome distraction from the daily cares of life.
    I’ve failed twice to get a high school diploma, and three times to get anything out of university. I finally gave up trying to memorize and regurgitate the required facts in the required way about 20 years ago because my brain just doesn’t work that way. The only reason I kept trying at all is because by 1980, that was the the offical barrier erected to prevent anyone getting a decent-paying job. The sort of job that in the 1950s had required only the ability to read and write, but by the 1980s required a university degree as a basic entry requirement. Eventually, I determined that my mind just does not work the way academia, and by extension, everyone else, requires. I describe myself, from being in the army, as being far too knowledgeable to be a good Private, too creative to be a good NCO, and too thoughtful to be a good Officer, and by extension
    Since then, I’ve found myself ever-more outside the norm, as I watch the growing unreflexive tribalism that has, over the past 30 years, come to define politics and political affiliation. I have always been baffled by the way so many people (especially Conservatives) apparently do not experience any cognitive dissonance as they blithely manage to accept contradictory ideas to be part and parcel of the same ideology, but of late, I’ve watched the two tribes circle around each other like armies maneuvering back and forth occupying the same terrain by turns. I see Conservative Parties adopting the same policies they fought vehemently against when these were espoused by Liberal Parties and vice versa. And I see the Liberal Parties and their supporters become the defenders of the status quo and adopt the kind of oppressive, controlling attitudes they used to struggle against — in the name of struggling against oppression.
    About the only constant is that conservatives still worship wealth above all and are OK with disparity, and liberals still claim to care about those poorer than them while not really alleviating anything. Tribal loyalty has become more important that rational thought and questioning current doctrine is heresy, even when current doctrine contradicts the tenets of their ideology.

    Rennaissance Man

    P.S. As to Lew’s question, I’ve never, ever, seen anyone disparaged for reading in public. It’s a most common thing to do on public transit. Perhaps the anti-intellectualist bent of the current “conservatives” is a factor?

  88. @ JMG, I look forward to reading your thoughts on popcorn reading. Something disturbing I noticed a few months ago is when I try to read a popular novel I’ll often feel the same nausea that I have when I hear television blather. That is to say, it has stopped being fun. When I get in a good groove with reading I’m not even aware of the words, instead I see images and scenes spring forth from the text. Modern novels manage to reproduce the some inner audio/visual quality as television! This rends them unreadable, at least for me. Older works manage to stay free from this, but in my experience, they tend to demand quite a bit more chewing than popcorn! That being said, I treasure well-written escapist fiction, but it can be paradoxically harder for me to find than anything else in my local library system.

  89. More on the topic of education, perspectives, and anecdotal reality. My wife and I make an interesting pair: on top of our differences in age (large enough to put us in slightly different periods growing up), she left high-school in 10th grade, later got her GED, and had a successful career in advertising, whereas yours truly spent a decade in college, wound up with three degrees, and has been trying to find the “mathematical formula of existence” ever since. She in an intuitive artist while I am learning not to analyze everything to death. We spend time on weekend mornings talking about the lessons we are learning in this life, the family programs we are here to work through and resolve, and the vastly different perspectives from which the two of us approach things. In the beginning these differences created much confusion and tension, but over the years we have learned to open our minds a bit. “How is [this] not obvious to you?” was something we’d often each say to the other. But the sharing of our thoughts in these conversations has provided each of us with a wider perspective on things.

  90. Hi John Michael,

    I never learned how to skim read text. On the other hand if text does not speak to me, I can put it down and then read something else. You know, reading word by word gives a lot of insights into how the authors mind works and also how they structure their thoughts, because after all, as you write it is a written representation of their thoughts.

    Just for your interest, I get a lot of business communication nowadays that appears garbled to me. I’m not perfect when it comes to putting thoughts to paper (or screen) but, standards have slipped recently and I’m finding that I often have to interpret other peoples text. When I was younger someone once remarked to me (and I forget who it was) that the aim of writing is to convey an idea, story, or instruction to another person, and you have to re-read your writing to ensure that that is the indeed the case! Until that time, the thought had never occurred to me, but education is usually by way of rote learning these days and people spend time swiping at screens. I was planning to write about that education story on my next blog as it was part two of my story… You beat me to it! 😉 Hehe!

    That reminds me, I mentioned to you that I re-read William Catton Jr. book “Overshoot” twice in quick succession because I wanted to make sure that I had not misinterpreted his words. Alas, I believe he is correct in his assertions and leaves no wiggle room.

    I reckon you are correct too about the late Mr Robert E. Howard. I’m about two thirds of the way through “The Tale of Sailor Steve Costigan – A Collection of Short Stories”, and the authors voice has abruptly changed and he began adding colour and depth to the stories (as well as additional humour). I believe it began at about the story of “The Sign of the Snake”, and whilst the colour, depth and humour was always there, the stories just got greater in the telling.

    A good example was these lines: “China never speaks. Like a vast, sleeping yellow giant she preserves her ancient and mysterious silence inviolate. Finishing my meal, I sauntered out into the streets again, with their filth and glamour, sordidity and allure going hand in hand…”

    Those few sentences are good because they really paint a picture without saying that much. The author is also giving the character emotional depth as he ages in the stories. It is good stuff.

    Don’t you reckon it is hard to fight the things that have been drummed into you from a wee young age? Of course, a certain stubbornness assists that particular matter, as does testing out the veracity of the claim. I’m beginning to slowly come to terms with the very narrow margin of surplus that nature provides us with using the energy of the sun.



  91. @Matthias: The Vineyard of the Text is definitely worth a read. I’ll have to check out the Rivers North of the Future! Thanks for mentioning it here. I missed your mention of Illich on my first read of the comments. (If I comment, I usually write mine first, and then go back and read through everyone else’s comments). It seems to me that since two of us mentioned Illich in response to this article, there must be something to it!

    Illich’s intellect is one I like to taste. It’s massive. And he is such an awesome curmudgeon. Even if I don’t agree with every single point he has, he really gets you thinking and examining. The Vineyard was a book that really got me thinking about the various applications of Lectio Divina. Being a library worker, I take that as a vocation. And since I’m also interested in mysticism & magic, there is another element to it: lectio is a way of life.

    Now I think I will re-read it, as well as reading for the first time: ABC: The alphebetization of the popular mind.

    @JMG: Something else you will find worthwhile in the Vineyard of the Text is his discussion of the Art of Memory. He writes that “Memory training is the prelude to wisdom.” He talks briefly of how Hugh was the first to try and revive the classical Art of Memory. Later I went and found Hugh’s books (in translation) and read about how he used the image of Noah’s Ark as a type of memory palace.

  92. Something else. Earlier this week I read a quote from Cicero: “Si hortum in bibliotheca habes, deerit nihil”. “If you have a garden in your library nothing will fail.” It seems to be a synchronistic thread, as a “vineyard of the text” also implies this. Illich writes of “the page as a vineyard and garden… Pliny had already noted that the word pagina, page, can refer to rows of vines joined together”.

  93. Dear John Michael Greer,

    Your essays are a bright light on my Wednesdays, thank you. In this essay you are saying something of profoundest importance.

    The comments I have read so far are unusually fine, most notably the one by Violet:

    A reflection. In the larger world I hear too much nicey-smiley about the value of reading as if any and all reading were the same. In large part, however, the value of reading is in the intention that motivates it. Whatever the subject matter, reading to merely pass the time (say, with the latest formula thriller) and/or reading to signal status and identity (which comes with a refusal to read anything that might endanger same) are in no way in the same league as reading that is motivated by genuine curiosity, a passion to learn, to explore, and/or to experience beauty. And by value I do not mean monetary value but intellectual and spiritual value.

    Yes, I use the word intellectual. It is unfortunate that, so loaded with negative connotations, it has largely fallen out of use.

    It is a recipe for a headache to try to read with the television blaring. For this reason I do not have a television. And if anyone brought one into my house it would prompty suffer an accident, possibly with an axe.



  94. Well Mr Greer you have hit another one out of the park. Thanks very much. I am personally grateful to be back to issues of learning and growth rather than wondering how many angels can (oh, never mind, I scroll past it all).

    So here’s an interesting observation from my ongoing Druidish meditation practice (not off topic if you’ll bear with me a moment): I have been shifting to a Druid meditation format for about two months now and last week I got beyond looking at a white dot and began looking into what interests me from a meditative point of view. The topic was Temperance (or Temperate) since that is my biggest stumbling block to maintaining focus in life. Well I found that the word temperance does not mean total abstention, as I had always assumed, but something more like the white dot in the black part of the tao symbol (or the black dot in the white area). Tempered, softened, moderated, alloyed, beyond brittle and so on. I won’t get into the rich loam of fertile ground the meditations exposed but as related to this week’s post I found a critical insight. As I was studying and reading about the issues of Temperance (as presented by Mr Google, et al) I came across the Women’s Christian Temperance League. In reading about the organization it was as I expected but the pictures of the luminaries of that movement from the mid 1800s to the present were nothing short of astounding. I’m a visual artist (have been for over 60 years now) and so the images carry a lot of weight with me. These gals were laced up tight. I’m sure you know the look. That left me wondering how something I thought valuable could come from people who I would run from in fear were I to meet them face to face. About this point this week’s essay appeared and the part about underlying assumptions just jumped off the page at me and slapped me on the face. I was accepting the definition of what is “BAD” from somebody else and it may not be true. At least for me. The particular issue was their insistence that all alcohol is bad. Period. The end. No room for even a drop nor any social value nor anything. It’s so obviously binary (again, thanks for this way of seeing issues). None is good. Any is bad. Nuance, what’s that?

    What I’m finding as I follow along with this series of writings and the commentary that accompanies them is that all things are related and mutually supportive (or destructive). Let me refer to the example above. ‘Temperate’ came from your mention in an earlier post (or reply to a comment) as one of four virtues that would make life better. As I recall it was Brave, Just, Temperate and Prudent. Now I’m finding that Justice is not easy with out Temperance. Nor is Bravery possible without Prudence. Nor is Temperance possible without Bravery and Prudence. And so on………..(I’ve always been OK with juggling 3 balls but his is ridiculous!)

    Walk in beauty, Aged Spirit

  95. Here’s something I learned a few years back that might be of value: If I read something and it leaves me confused as to what the author is saying it likely said author is confused.

    Sure, this is not always the case and it would be foolish to lean on this as an excuse to not read deeply when the subject is a difficult one. However it is often the case, particularly in our semi illiterate world where digital media gives anybody a public voice. It also makes a strong case for thoughtful editing which most folks seem to forego if their writings are taken as an example.

    Best wishes, Aged Spirit

  96. @Lew: in American English, a semi-colon is used to separate two independent clauses. An independent clause has a subject and a verb, so it’s basically a complete sentence, even if it’s really short. Like “I ran.” That is an independent clause. You can either punctuate it with a period, or hook it up with another independent clause, as in: “I ran; he pursued me with an ax.”

    In American English, if you use a comma to separate two independent clauses, you have what’s called a run-on sentence (a run-on sentence isn’t just a really long sentence, in other words). From what I understand, in British English, it’s perfectly acceptable to connect two independent clauses with a comma, though.

  97. Just one more thing, for now. Looking at some poetry books made me think of it. It also touches on education.

    I love poetry. I like writing it and reading it, and was involved in a great poetry discussion/reading group for a few years. Not our own poetry, but that of writers from the Western cannon. In any case, I kind of ducked out of the poetry scene. It is one area of literature where MFA programs have really messed it up, in my opinion. A lot of the new published poetry I see has this MFA stamp on it. I don’t think that the traditions of poetry that will survive the collapse of our civilization will be those predicated on MFA degrees. MFA’s have done the same thing to novels. “Literary” fiction or poetry is as much of a genre bound by their own conventions as SF and Fantasy. And like SF and Fantasy, etc., the “literary” mode is in as much need of an overhaul and fresh re-invigoration as the other genres.

    Yet contemporary poetry is so vast, there are sure to be things you’ll find to like. As a writer I got more out of being part of a poetry reading club for three years than I think would have been available as an MFA. It put me in touch with practicing local and national poets and sidestepped the issues I also find to be true about “writing workshops”.

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to the poetry discussion too!

  98. Rita, that description of textbooks is very familiar for BC highschools in the late 1990s, and the sciences in university in the early 2000s. The illustrations and diagrams really are the best way to explain a lot of things in the sciences, though. When explaining biological concepts to someone else, I invariably start wanting to draw my explanation. How to talk about the working of a cell without drawing a cell? Many of the answers on the tests involve drawing diagrams for that very reason. Though yes, there were plenty of multiple choice too.

    You are right about the main body of text not adding all that much information to that contained in the bullet points, diagrams, and summaries, though.

  99. Kay, no argument there.

    Scotlyn, that’s an excellent point. Classic rote memorization isn’t a matter of memorizing disconnected factoids taken out of context; it’s a matter of memorizing entire texts and sets of relations — for example, committing a poem to memory, or the multiplication table, so you then have the raw material ready to mind to do things with either (or both). This latter is what I’m talking about.

    John, fascinating. I’d wondered if common sense would begin to sink in once it became painfully clear that shrieking “Trump! Trump! Trump!” wasn’t doing the job…

  100. Wait. If reading is tasting someone else thoughts, then shouldn’t we decide if we want to read a book by licking it?

    Synesthesia for the win!


  101. “Getting the right answer.”

    I’ve often thought that this is why people in the “skeptic” community panic so much about the so-called “paranormal.” And not just skeptics– people who are interested in “proving” the existence of the paranormal often demonstrate the same kind of thinking, rushing around frantically to rule out any possibility of a “rational explanation” before ruling in the supernatural. It occurred to me some time ago that this is all the effect of our education system– They’re all afraid of getting the wrong answer!

    What if you thought something was a spirit, but it turned out to just be the wind? Well, let’s ignore the fact that you’re already begging the question, by assuming that if something is material then it is not mental/intentional, even though the only thing that we know about the mental is that it is always occurs with the physical. Ignore that– What’s the worst thing that would happen if you were wrong? Neil DeGrasse Tyson would give you an F? The smart kids would laugh at you? Who cares?

    A lot of people, apparently.

    “The description of a process is not the process it describes. The names assigned to things are not the things that they name.”

    This is one of the most interesting, and also most useful, translations I’ve ever seen. Tell me there is more to come.

    “The taste of another’s thoughts”

    I love this. I primarily read things by dead people, which is a habit I picked up from you, and one for which I’m immensely grateful. By reading things from different eras and cultures, I can step into different modes of being and different ways of thinking. I find it hard to explain to people why this is so important. In part, of course, because what C.S. Lewis called “Chronocentrism” is so universal these days. But it is important.

    I’ve also had a habit of memorizing things, ever since I was a child. I hadn’t thought of it as a collection of tools for thinking, though it is that. I also quite enjoy reciting poetry to myself when I go walking. I’m sure it just looks like I’m talking to myself. Which I kind of am.

    Finally, on a note unrelated to this week’s post, but related to the larger project of the blog:

    I’ve spoken here before about the odd corner of Appalachia where I grew up. I use social media to keep up with friends who still live there. The other day I saw a post from a guy about how “It must be Springtime because the scavos are out.” I asked what a scavo was. As though it were the most obvious thing in the world, he said “The scavenger people that take junk at spring cleanup.” “Oh of course,” I said.

    Looks like that postindustrial salvage economy is already up and rolling in Pennsyltucky.

  102. Regarding how people are not expected to change their minds: I am often bemused by the polls in the USA that talk about “democrats” and “republicans” (as in “X % of democrats gave answer A to question Q”) as if they are separate species, identities carved in stone. Even when they mention “independent” they are assumed to be somewhere in-between those two. Nothing else exists.

    And one of the first things that I found strange when I moved to this country many years ago was how opinions were assumed to be bunched. If you are for gay rights, you must therefore be against nuclear power, etc. Groups with suites of opinions. Thinking about each topic on its own is not allowed.

  103. Hello JMG

    Small aside – the warning at the start of the Tao Te Ching could, I feel, be generalised into “Your knowledge of a thing is not the thing itself” i.e. your knowledge of a thing is nothing more than a representation of the thing, because you know something by being able to represent it to yourself. Which is another way of saying “Don’t believe everything you think”!


  104. Hi JMG,

    Thank you for another interesting post. This one hit a nerve for me, as I’ve been pondering my kids’ schooling for the past little while. Although they’re at what I would consider to be a very good school right now, something about it isn’t working. I can tell by their moods and behaviors that things are not quite right. I had initially planned on homeschooling, but with my daughter’s diagnosis of autism, I figured that she would benefit from the increased socialization from attending a school outside the home. Now that she’s doing so much better, I have been seriously reconsidering that decision. I’m very sorry to say, but from what I have seen and been told about, a lot of the behaviors modeled by the students (and teachers!) are not something I want either of my kids to emulate.

    I downright hated school as a kid; actually right on through to university, even though my mother was a teacher! My grade one teacher made me sit at the back of the room and read the dictionary because I already knew how to read and she was too busy teaching the rest of the kids to find me something better to do. I remember figuring out early on how to get good marks on essays – just identify the teacher’s perspective and then parrot it back to them; in other words, avoid thinking for myself at all costs. Thinking for myself usually only served to irritate the teachers; possibly because it forced them to think a little bit about their own perspectives?

    And let’s not talk about the unending social dramas, or the fact that much of the school day is taken up by classroom management on the part of the teacher. I’m very concerned about the fact that those things take away lots of mental energy which could otherwise be used for learning. I also don’t want to let my kids look to their peers for cues on how to think or behave, but rather to me as their parent, and to other elders in the community.

    School seems to crush kids’ sense of personal agency – it seems to be largely about doing what the teacher says. Our thoughts inform our actions, and if the thought is ‘someone else is going to figure it all out for me,’ what kind of action does that lead to? I would rather inspire their minds to think for themselves and learn how to learn, not just sit back and basically be told what to do. Once I left school behind and got on with real life, I found I learned best by just doing things – learning the least amount possible necessary to make a start (usually by reading) and then learning the rest on the fly by actually doing the thing; thinking for myself instead of letting someone else think for me. School also seems to be about doing what everyone else is doing, and at the same pace as everyone else is doing it, mainly for the convenience of the teacher. I would rather enable them to focus on certain areas where they have natural talent and interest. School in general seems to be more of an abstract concept about getting an education; the idea of an education, rather than actually teaching the kids anything they would actually find useful and interesting. So I’m thinking about homeschooling again.

  105. Thank you so much for this week’s post. Or should I say, thank you so much for this week’s sumptuous meal!

  106. Will J,

    You said:
    ” I know a number of people who won’t even consider reading the other side of an issue, not because they feel morally superior, but because they’re so confident that they’re right, and the other side is wrong, that they dismiss it as irrelevant before even reading anything on it.”

    This has really become very common and is the crux of my frustration with “liberals” or whatever they are. It’s why people who don’t toe their line get run off of facebook and get unfriended and they don’t even seem to realize how intimidating and offensive they are. Those who quietly leave aren’t noticed!

  107. This is on topic, but it involves a small digression: I have discovered a fascinating news story that should be front page news. It turns out that the Auditor General of Ontario has reviewed the provincial budget, and found it understates the deficit we should expect this year by 75%. The only reason it’s on the news is because one of the candidates for Premier here (Doug Ford) has started suggesting auditing the government.

    My thoughts on it aren’t relevant, and so I’ll probably save my election thoughts for the June open post (after the election).

    What is relevant here is that this shows there’s another major issue here for people who want to find interesting things to read/think: it’s very, very hard to find good material these days. Too much of what is readily available is devoted to the Harry Potter series and the like, and not enough is spent on anything important. I’m increasingly thinking that’s by design, although I’m far from sure.

    Regardless though, if for whatever reason you don’t want to look, or don’t know where to look, it’s far too easy to avoid anything more than a bologna slice or two.

  108. @ Steve – are the activities of scavos unusual where you are? Here in Australia, it’s perfectly normal (at least up to the middle class) to look at what the neighbours are putting out for collection to see if there’s anything good in there. While I was at university we used to call it ‘free furniture week’. Our landfill sites are managed so that people are no longer allowed to go through the stuff other people are dumping there – the scavenging rights are sold off and the professionals run a shop if you want to buy useful things that have been salvaged. None of this looks like a sign of the apocalypse over here.

  109. Dear Dermott O’Connor, Left and Right, in the USA, seem to me to be almost mirror images of each other. The insistence on ideological purity, which changes by the day, the longing of each for heroes and heroines, , the demands for cultural conformity, and the inability and unwillingness to keep their excessively long noses out of other people’s bedrooms are only some of the most obvious characteristics which both have in common.

    Dear Dave T. It is my belief that Western Civilization is already dead, that it received a mortal wound in WWI, and the poniard thrust through the helmet during WWII. We now seem to me to be like ancient Romans of about the 5thC AD (Do not get me started on what I think about so-called Common Era.) stumbling around the ruins of imperial greatness, waiting for Caesar to return.

    I am now involved in (possibly temporarily) homeschooling a 8 year old grandchild. I have so far discovered:

    The 2nd grade curriculum had already introduced geometry and fractions but she couldn’t perform simple math, which had caused great frustration to the point of panic. I did what coaches do, went back to basics, bought a Kuman book of arithmetic exercises and started her on those.

    Something called MLA, which I gather amalgamates reading, grammar and spelling, consists of the reading of very dull paragraphs and answering questions about them. “Reading comprehension” this is called. She had heard of nouns, verbs and adjectives, but could not identify them in a simple sentence. I could not today at B&N find a decent grammar book.

    This involved a long journey on the Amtrac to retrieve her and bring her to my home; I could not find a road map on which we could follow the train journey. Not even at a Chevron station! People looking for vocations or avocations which should be useful in future decades might want to consider cartography. AAA members, you might want to grab those free maps while you still can!

    She loves reading to me, usually from Dr. Seuss or similar fun books, and being read to by me. Reading Time at night is a tradition for me; I used to command obedience from my girls by threatening suspension of Reading Time.

    It is my provisional conclusion that the execrable Common Core is designed, with malice aforethought, to accomplish two things, which are, 1. to ID budding genius, especially in math, and 2. to habituate children to giving authority the answers and perform the behaviors which authority wants to hear and see.

    I wonder if the demise of the official school system is not nearer than we think. Common Core is almost universally hated, so far as I can tell. What I think that means is that the education establishment, from teachers to administrators to everyone else involved has finally lost the claim to respect and status they once until very recently enjoyed.

  110. Archdruid,

    I think this is why the fears of our society don’t wear me down so much. So many of the fears that are parroted by mass culture are simply mistaking the model for the thing they’re studying. Take AI for example. I literally cannot count the number of times I’ve been in debates where people go bonkers about the coming AI revolution that will render humanity irrelevant. I want to point out the shortfalls of research on defining intelligence, and ask how exactly we intend to duplicate something we can’t even define, but I realize it would be fruitless. As far as most people are concerned the mind isn’t like a computer, it is a computer, thus AI! My best response is “okay bro, I gotta get another drink.”

    Analogies are comparisons of similarities, but that does not mean the things compared are the same!



  111. JMG: On reading:
    It occurs to me that besides the “how” of reading, the 3 barriers you mention in the post, which have to do with the subjective experience of silent reading and the possibility of reading leading to a change of mind of the reader, there is also the question of “what” is read.
    To illustrate by extremes, There’s a world of difference between reading a short story by Kathrine Mansfield, a play by Shakespere, or a post by JMG and reading tweets or news feeds on Facebook. (As an aside I’ll mention that Shakspere is no longer taught in American high schools; its way too difficult for minds of limited attention span and shallow comprehension, and no longer “relevant” to modern lives).
    On the subject of “the news“ as reading material, I’ve just been reading (a real physical book BTW) “The Victorians” by A. N. Wilson. In the chapter “The Fourth Estate” Wilson discusses the rise of the “New Journalism” as typified by William Thomas Stead. Wilson states “The type of journalism which Stead espoused and developed was to become an essential prism by which the modern world observed itself. It was based on a threefold alliance, between an eagerly opinionated public, a political class anxious to test and ride these opinions like surfers waiting for the next roller to bear them crashing to shore, and the conduit that brought these two together, the solicitors or procurers known as journalists”.
    There is also the question of the nature of the reading media, physical books vs screen. “The medium is the message”. These different ways of encountering the written word affect, in subtle and not so subtle ways, the experience of reading. For a good overview of the differences I recommend “The Shallows” Nicholas Carr.

  112. Hi John Michael,

    A bit of clarification about my earlier comment is somewhat necessary. I wrote: “education is usually by way of rote learning these days”. I managed to read all of the comments this evening and I can see that I mean something entirely different from your understanding of the word “rote learning”.

    Whilst I can not speak for your experience, my educational experience was of being drilled to the final test. To be honest it reminds me of repetitive martial arts moves – or from my understanding of army training for that matter. Endless repetition building experience as to how to respond to slightly differing situations (or questions in the case of my education) and keeping your cool.

    Yeah, perhaps my use of the words ‘rote learning’ was incorrect as I believe it differs from your understanding. My experience of education was more of being in the hands of a Sargent who is a firm believer in being well prepared for the final confrontation.

    Hope that clarifies the matter?



  113. Nastrana, yeah, Common Core is bizarre. What I find strange about the primary school math curriculum (the only part I have really looked at) is the bizarre range of techniques by which students are required to perform arithmetic.

    For instance, one technique is called “making ten”, where to subtract 6 from 15, the student is required to write:
    15 – 6 -> 15 – 5 – 1 -> 10 – 1 -> 9. I remember being taught some of these mental tricks in American public school (I live in Canada now but grew up in a coastal city) but we were never required to mechanically perform the procedures. The fact that we could subtract six from fifteen and come up with nine was the end of it.

    In Canada math is still taught more or less the same way it has been for the last fifty years, but instead students are required to learn ideologies as if they were facts, and then operate as if those ideological beliefs were real things and not narratives or opinions.

  114. Onething,

    The very funny part is watching the cognitive dissonance unfold when someone they think of as smart expresses an opinion they think of as stupid.

  115. I’d like to explore the relationship between the spread of literacy beyond a narrow scribal class, and the development of philosophy. While you don’t explicitly call your view that there is such a relationship a “theory,” you do clearly contrast it with “any number of theories … proposed to explain why philosophy sprang up” when and where it did, so I’ll treat your proposal as a alternative theory to these.

    I think it’s certainly an interesting conjecture, which (whether historically a matter of fact or not) encourages us to reflect on the relationship of the written word to philosophical thought.

    But I’m curious, then, how we would distinguish the following two cases:

    (1) Writing begins to be used by people outside the scribal class. The act of reading and writing influences some of these people (in a way which it never influenced the scribes!) to begin thinking about thinking. Thus, philosophical writings begin to appear. These writings constitute our evidence for the beginning of philosophy.

    (2) Even before the advent of literacy, some people begin thinking about thinking. Once these people learn to read and write, they are able to record the thoughts and conversations which they have been having all along. Thus, philosophical writings begin to appear. But because written records can be preserved (and “scientifically” dated by modern scholars), these writings constitute our evidence for the beginning of philosophy.

    In each case, we end up with very similar surviving evidence, but in two different ways. But since the absence of evidence of philosophy is not evidence of philosophy’s absence, how should we adjudicate between the two?

    While it seems clear to me that writing helped accelerate the diffusion of philosophical ideas, it’s still not obvious that philosophy did not pre-exist literacy.

  116. To press a distinct but related point a little further, let’s consider some examples of philosophical texts and traditions. My knowledge of Chinese intellectual history is woefully limited, so I’ll confine myself to Greece and India.

    Among our earliest surviving philosophical texts in Greece, we find works like Parmenides’ poem On Truth, composed in the same epic meter as the (pre-literate) works of Homer and Hesiod. The metrical form could be explained either because writing is so new that prose composition hasn’t really developed yet, or because these philosophical reflections stand in a (potentially much longer) oral tradition, much the way Homer’s epic cannot possibly have been the only story told around the fire in the first millenium BC.

    Moving a century or so later, we will also need to deal with Plato’s sustained critique of writing as something which impedes genuine philosophical understanding.

    Turning to India, the history of philosophy has long centered, on the one hand, around memorized texts, which would be explained in oral discourse by a learned (and properly initiated!) teacher; and on the other hand, around active and formal debates conducted out loud, in public, in front of an audience. To be sure, the teachers’ commentaries (and the contents of the debates) could be, and sometimes were, written down—thus providing our evidence for them. But in the self-understanding of those engaged in philosophical practice, that practice was centered in the oral tradition.

    As a final coda, even in the present-day in the Tibetan monastic community (who are among the direct heirs of the Indian traditions just mentioned), no matter what written texts they have available, philosopher-teachers will only publicly discuss or compose commentaries on texts for which they “have the lineage”—where “having lineage” means that another scholar both spoke the entire text to them, and gave oral commentary on it. Once again, we see the word as spoken in the community getting pride of place, both in the classroom and the debating ground, and the written word as coming in second.

    Here again, we could certainly make the claim that writing catalyzed these authors and traditions in ways of which the practitioners themselves were unaware or unwilling to acknowledge. But it does seem to be that we should be cautious about overthrowing those self-understandings too easily.

  117. Finally, in case my lengthy reflections do not already express this, I’m deeply grateful to you for prompting me to reflect on these issues and organize my own thoughts, and I’ll welcome your responses.

    As the esteemed Robert Mathiesen commented a few weeks back, in a way that foreshadowed this week’s blog post, “I do not read for information. I read for the companionship of another interesting mind. Our host here gives me that in abundance.” I fully concur, and thank you!

  118. P.S. Something seems to have changed in the website code; I no longer see a “preview” of my as-yet-unapproved post after I submit it.

    It would be very comforting to get that feature back. Is this something your tech guy could consider? Thanks!

  119. Kfish–

    The town I live in now has a large university, and right now ’tis the season for dumpster diving, with the students departing for the summer.

    I think that what my friend was describing is a different phenomenon. There is no college in the town he lives in, which is in the middle of a depressed coal mining region. Most of the stuff the scavos will be after will be sold, rather than used, and it probably provides an important part of the living for many of them. Also I found the name kind of charming. But I also hear the entire conversation in the quirky local accent,

    “‘Ey bud, youns see dem SCA-vos aht dere de other day?”
    “O yea bud, me an my mum were aht, dere’s some good pickin’s up New Germ’ny Rood!”

  120. And Kfish–

    As for “signs of the apocalypse”– that’s your word, not mine. But remember that I’m talking about Appalachia. A part of Appalachia north of the Mason-Dixon, in which Germans and ethnic Catholics rub elbows with the usual Scot-Irish, but Appalachia nonetheless. It’s the kind of place where the front page article on the local newspaper is a picture of the winner in the annual archery contest and his prize, a new tree stand. The local industrial base was devastated by the collapse of the steel economy and the closure of many coal mines in the 70s and 80s. It never recovered. Starting in the 90s (we were early to this particular party) the opiate epidemic hit extremely hard. I’ve written here before that I never get news from “back home” but that there is a premature death involved, either an overdose or a suicide or an alcohol meets motor vehicle fatality. Except in 2014, when the news was that the Church had been covering up the usual pattern of serial rape for 50 years, and was able to do so because candidates for chief of police and fire marshal for the region both had to be vetted by the Bishop.

    My friend was complaining about the scavos coming out of the hills in their “s–t-box pickup trucks” that “only get about 9mpg” and stopping at every house on his road (a rural road, nowhere near a gas station much less a university.) I promise you, if you followed those scavos back up into the hills, you would see a very, very different America– and in particular a very different White America– than anything you’ve encountered on American television. Yeah, it would probably look a bit like an apocalypse.

  121. Wonderful post as always.

    Speaking of memorization as raw material for thinking:Greek Muses (all of arts) are born out of union Mnemosyne (memory) and Zeus(god of lightning strikes, among other things). Something I always noted as fact that ancients have know a thing or two about creative process..

  122. As part of an event at a local military museum today, I had a table to talk about ham radio. “Over here, you can see a device used by soldiers to send a ‘text message’ “, I said, pointing to a telegraph key. “And here’s a device they could use to save a message, as they received it,” pointing to a manual typewriter. “And here’s an archaic information storage device, in which information is stored in the form of ink on paper,” pointing to a large book. One of my guests, in his late teens (I suppose) explained it back to me this way: “reading a book is a hallucination you get from looking at a dead tree with a tattoo”.

    That just made my day, and I had to share it with you.

    After one young man had spent a few minutes consulting the telegraph code chart and “sending” his message with the key, a young lady stepped up to take a turn. “How do I reset it, to clear out his stuff?” she wanted to know. I told her that, since no one had typed out his message while he was sending it, it was already completely gone. She seemed relieved by that.

    Does this comment system tolerate markup strings? (If there’s nothing between “tolerate” and the “?”, the answer is “no”.

  123. Hello everyone,

    Maybe this is slightly off-topic for this week but it is related to the task of training our minds for the long descent ahead, that is, using our hands to learn music and math.

    Ellen in Maine

  124. Will, I don’t enjoy them — I read much faster than a human voice can talk, even when I’m reading slowly, so I find audio books slower than molasses in January.

    EasternRoman, one man’s misinterpretation is another man’s freedom of thought. Yes, I’m aware of Plato’s views on the subject, but freedom of thought wasn’t his strong suit either…

    Michael, I haven’t covered it — Hegel isn’t my cup of bilgewater. 😉 I’ll probably have to return to him one of these days, but my last pass through him left me more convinced than ever that Schopenhauer was right when he accused Hegel of stringing words together at random to try to look profound. As for ways of approaching a text, we’ll get to that.

    Rita, no argument there. To my mind, one step toward real education is to throw out the textbooks and use actual texts instead.

    Brennan, it’s been on hold for a while — my original version, to my mind, didn’t really do what I wanted. I’ll be returning to it when I think I have a better chance of making it work.

    Mitch, real learning is hard work. Take it a step at a time.

    Will, oh, granted. There’s a lot of incoherence in the education industry these days, and that adds to the confusion.

    Bogatyr, exactly. I find a lot of people in the US mentally insipid, because they literally have nothing in their heads except whatever pop culture put there this week. It’s the people who’ve brooded over some body of knowledge — any body of knowledge — who I generally find most interesting.

    Ray, thanks for this. I had similar problems from time to time in school, and no question, it taught me a lot about the uselessness of the conventional wisdom.

    Heather, excellent. Yes, in fact, that’s one of the things that the myth of Einigen is meant to teach. As for the ways our culture worships knowledge instead of learning from it, both the forms of worship you’ve mentioned are included in that — and there’s also the notion that having a particular set of opinions makes you intelligent, even when you parrot them mindlessly! It’s the confusion between thought as content and thought as process — between having “the right thoughts” and learning how to think. More on this as we proceed.

    Phil, duly noted and thank you. I’ll give credit when I use them.

    Bruce, I hear you. I had similar problems with the dumbed-down curriculum in school — if I hadn’t made a point of learning how to psyche out multiple choice tests, I’d probably have had much the same experience you did. As for the mindless tribalism, no argument there at all. The question is what forms of response can help those people who want to think their own thoughts do so, and evade the mindless hostility of the two contending powers…

    Violet, I’ve given up trying to find good popcorn fiction at the library. A well-stocked used book store with a good selection of science fiction and fantasy paperbacks from decades past is much more my style these days.

    David, fascinating. My wife and I also are opposites intellectually in a lot of ways, and our marriage has been good for both of us as, among other things, a chance to try to grasp unfamiliar ways of thinking.

    Chris, no question, there’s a lot of astonishingly bad writing these days, and I think you’ve identified the major cause of it — people have by and large forgotten that the point of writing is to communicate something to someone else. The notion that writing, like other arts, is about “expressing yourself” — rather than reaching out to someone else — is something I need to critique in a post one of these days… As for Howard, no argument there. It really is an appalling pity he died as young as he did; if his writing had continued to mature and ripen with age, he’d have written some great works by the time the 1950s rolled around.

    Justin, I’ll keep that in mind! As I recall, Mary Carruthers discusses that side of Hugh’s work in one of her books.

    Millicently, I appreciate your sentiment concerning television. Myself, I prefer to adjust the reception of televisions with a long-handled sledgehammer, but that’s mostly due to warm memories of the Society for the Eradication of Television TV-smashing parties in my insufficiently misspent youth. (My wife Sara, asked for her opinion, votes for a very large rock.) More generally, of course, you’re quite right; there’s reading, and then there’s reading. In a future post we’ll talk,a lot, about that.

  125. @Justin-
    The primary math curriculum you are describing strikes me as such a good example of a description of a thing becoming mistaken for the thing itself. It’s built on a misunderstanding or misapplication of some pretty interesting research on how people come to understand math. Google Cognitively Guided Instruction if you want to geek out on it, but the basic idea is that people naturally come up with their own strategies to solve math problems that are relevant to them- e.g., a four or five year old with a basic understanding of counting can figure out how many cookies are left if Grandma baked a dozen and she just ate two. They will break numbers apart and recombine them in ways that make perfect sense, but might not fit the “standard algorithm” until fairly late in their mathematical development. These strategies do not need to be explicitly taught; people come up with them on their own, and they develop in complexity and sophistication as required by the situations that are encountered, in a pretty predictable sequence. But as in all areas of human thought, ther’s generally more than one way to skin a cat, or solve a math problem.

    The Cognitively Guided Instruction researchers therefore advocate that teachers should pose interesting and understandable questions to groups of kids, allow the kids to solve them in any way that makes sense to them, and then have students share their solutions with the group. Students are expected to “taste the thoughts” of their classmates by trying to understand their solution strategies and connect and compare them to their own. In this way, efficient strategies will naturally spread among groups, as kids try out things they have seen their classmates succeeding with or -sometimes- try out a strategy that the teacher, through careful observation and conversation, realizes they are ready to develop with some prompting and support. But the emphasis is always on multiple solution strategies, flexible thinking, and making sense. This requires a teacher who is well trained in selecting the types of problems that promote deep thinking about the math concepts that are important at various developmental stages, recognizing the strategies that students typically use, and actually a broad and deep understanding of the content itself so that the types of disaster described up-thread, where students developed their own strategies and the teachers shot them down because they didn’t understand them, do NOT happen. Also, the teacher has to be really good at classroom management and facilitating focused discussions, or the environment to do this kind of real thinking just isn’t possible.

    But of course, this type of teaching is very demanding. Companies who get wind of some of the basic ideas of the research- breaking numbers apart! multiple solution strategies!- then try to develop “idiot-proof” curricula, whereby teachers force-feed the various naturally-occurring strategies to their captive students, whether they are ready for them or not- the exact opposite of the teaching ideas above. The making-ten strategy you described, which is actually a very common and useful one *when a kid comes up with it himself*, becomes just another dumb nonsensical sequence of steps to memorize when it’s inflicted upon him because it’s Tuesday and time for Lesson 36, Making Tens to Solve Multidigit Subtraction.

    The Common Core Standards, which indicate what concepts should be learned when, should be really evaluated separately from many of the slick, crappy corporate products marketed as “Common Core Aligned Curriculum!” I’m not saying that the CC standards are great, btw, just that an idea and a product someone claims will “teach” that idea are not interchangeable.

    –Heather in CA

  126. Hello, I ve been buying the Archdruid Report books on kindle version, but the recent ones are not available, why not? will they come out soon?

  127. @Christopher Henningson- thanks, fictive value to make the math work, forsooth. Opposite of data sounds like communications science. Just bought a Victor Schauberg book on your recommendation.

  128. Are canon and cannon exact homophones to you all? I thought that canon is said with a more rounded ‘o’ sound, closer to the “aw” that comes with elegant nasal uplift; whereas cannon ends with an ‘o’ sound closer to the schwa or ‘uh’ more like the dull thud of a cannonball hitting the ground. These things matter to me in reading; not merely as a nice, carping proofreader, intent on correct meanings, but also as a poet. One wishes the sound of words to be correctly ‘heard’ by a silent reader. Similarly, the disconnect between spoken word sounds and written words in some systems of Chinese writing is fascinating. It has advantages for the durability of scholarly works over the course of spoken-word pronunciation drifts and for preserving the power of communicating accurately with people who speak a very different dialect; but how does it affect poetry? What do ideogram readers ‘hear’ within their silent heads? Maybe they don’t ‘hear’ but ‘see’. Chinese poets have been better able to introduce nuances of meaning in poetry via a visual dimension than us alphabetical types. I have heard of one poem that recounts the climb of a Seeker to the Wise Hermit at the summit of a hill in which the last character of the poem, at the top of the column of text, is that of the empty frame of an open doorway, signifying all that could mean to the ascent of the Seeker and much more to the readers.

    Oh, and about Plato/Socrates on writing. I thought it was more complex than just one stage: that dear old Doc Soc considered thoughts to be degraded apprehensions of the Eidos, words to be a degraded and fractured form of pure thoughts and writing to be a degradation of live spoken words, stripped of other signifiers such as sly teasing, sarcastic, or serious tones of voice plus body language and whatall not. Surely this is comparable (in part) to “The Way that is spoken of is not the Way.” Or reminiscent of the Telephone Gossip Game that delivers a weirdly garbled message to the last hearer in line. Shakespeare does not come across to me on the page; it reads like dull soap opera TV. I never got why people thought him great till I saw Branagh’s movie version of Much Ado About Nothing. It was the performance that made the words come alive.

  129. Fascinating. Indeed we are inundated with information and stimuli carefully crafted to short circuit our rational thought processes. And truly exploring carefully crafted presentations of other people’s thoughts is rare. Skimming and moral judgement are indeed barriers. I think these are symptoms of another mistake: overestimating the range of new independent lines of thought that an individual can fruitfully explore. Skimming is obviously an attempt to get the idea without spending the time the author thought was necessary for the idea at hand. But moral judgements are also an intellectual shortcut. Rather than evaluating the possible outcomes of various actions, rules are created that allow a wide range of possibilities to be eliminated without consideration. Both are rational responses to a world more complex than we are capable of comprehending. It is essentially impossible to find ways to simplify thinking so that the range of topics and viewpoints with which one needs to become facile in order to live a good life is small enough that an individual can explore them adequately. We depend on communities of thinkers and good books to make it possible to live a good life, but we are in an era when the cacophony of viewpoints make choosing a community to embed one’s thinking in is very difficult. To me, that is what education is: guiding students in choosing wisely about the people and writers whose thoughts they taste and embed into their lives.

  130. Aged Spirit, excellent! I know the kind of picture you mean, and I’d be uneasy trying to have a conversation with any of those formidably rigid ladies too. It’s one of the ironies of history that “temperance” took on so intemperate a meaning! The entire concept of the golden mean, the point of balance between extremes, got misplaced in a culture of almost psychotically extreme moral dualism. You can find the same rigidity today in more places than one, though it usually fixates on other candidates for Evilest Evil That Ever Eviled.

    As for your comment about confusion, bingo. It’s my experience that if you can’t write something clearly, it’s usually because you don’t yet understand it. That makes the act of writing a powerful tool for insight and self-knowledge.

    Justin, we’re going to have to talk more generally about the baleful effects of professionalization and academic degrees on the whole spectrum of liberal arts. It’s not just poetry and literature that have been turned into a self-referential exercise in group onanism by MFA programs; the same thing happened to philosophy — it’s hard to remember that much less than a century ago, significant philosophers were public figures whose work was discussed in newspapers — and to religion, where the institution of the M.Div. has played a larger role, perhaps, than any other single factor in pushing what once were thriving and vigorous mainstream Protestant denominations into a death spiral from which they show no sign of reviving. More on this in an upcoming post!

    AV, mixed metaphor for the win. 😉

    Steve, that makes a great deal of sense. Most of the self-proclaimed “skeptics” I’ve met were obsessed with being the guy with the right answers — which of course made them hopelessly gullible when it came to buying in whatever dogmas their preferred authority figures wanted to market to them.

    Moshe, good. That’s an excellent point. That kind of tribal affiliation isn’t unique to the United States — I saw a lot of it in Britain around the Brexit issue — but it’s taken to an extreme here, and that extreme may offer a place into which a mental crowbar can be inserted…

    SMJ, of course, but Lao Tsu goes on to develop it in a different way:

    The description of a process is not the process it describes.
    The names assigned to things are not the things that they name.
    What escapes description is the wholeness of the system;
    The act of description is simply a listing of parts.
    Approach it without an agenda and you experience the whole system;
    Approach it with an agenda and you focus on its effects.
    These two approaches encounter the same reality in different ways,
    And this seems confusing,
    But accepting that confusion gives access to the whole system.

    Stefania, your kids are individuals and you have to make your own choices, but my experience as a child with Aspergers syndrome was that being forced into social interactions wholesale to try to make me learn how to deal with people was a massive mistake. It simply left emotional scars that took a long, long while to heal. School for me was a miserable experience — and by all accounts the public schools have gotten much, much worse since I was interned there. It’s your call, but in your place, if you can homeschool, I’d strongly encourage you to consider doing so, for the sake of your children.

    Blue Sun, you’re welcome! I’m glad you enjoyed the steak. 😉

    Will, and that’s an excellent point. There’s way too much bologna on offer…

    Nastarana, I’m delighted to hear that you and your granddaughter read to each other! That’s going to be a source of warm memories for her all through her life — and the attitude toward books and learning that you’re helping her establish will make her a wiser and happier person.

    Varun, good. One of the benefits of actually thinking for a change, instead of just parroting what the media has to say, is that a great many phantasmal fears generated for the sake of clickbait dissolve like mist before the sun….

    Sandy, well, of course! We’ll be getting to that in upcoming posts.

    Chris, okay, gotcha. The term “rote learning” clearly has multiple meanings, and I’ll keep that in mind when it becomes time to discuss memory and memorization, so I can make sure people don’t think I’m justifying the execrable habit of memorizing test answers and calling that learning.

    Barefootwisdom, good. That’s also a way of talking about the origins of philosophy, though it’s not one that furthers the specific point I have in mind here, which is to focus attention on the act of silent reading. The act of oral instruction and discussion is its own phenomenon, and the Tibetan Buddhist custom you’ve mentioned shows that in their view, at least, the act of oral instruction and discussion is crucial to the transmission of the specific kinds of insights they want to transmit; the same, of course, was true of Greek philosophy in its original form, which was inevitably transmitted from teacher to student via the practice of dlalectic. Yet philosophy as it now exists, and as it has existed in the Western world since before the time of Descartes, is not transmitted that way; it exists primarily in a world of silent, individual contemplation of texts — the same world in which we experience literature (another phenomenon that used to be oral and collective, and has become silent and intensely personal). Right now, in a civilization in decline beset by stunningly dysfunctional mental habits, that latter option — silent, personal consideration of texts — is a more accessible tool for the goals I have in mind; and of course it’s also relevant that, as someone with Aspergers syndrome, I don’t learn well, or teach well, in the oral-instruction mode. Thus the focus in these posts…

    I’m not at all sure what might have changed in the website code, btw; I certainly didn’t do anything to it!

    Changeling, true enough!

    LatheChuck, thank you! I like that. (As you see, yes, markup strings are fine; I use simple HTML commands in these comments all the time.)

    Ellen, that didn’t come through as a workable URL. Do you have another you can offer?

    Shane, a being can dream!

    Ignacio, you’d have to ask the publisher. I have no control over what comes out in what order.

    Gkb, canon and cannon are pronounced identically in the Pacific Northwest accent I grew up with; so are pore, poor, and pour. We were kind of vowel-challenged in Seattle! As for Plato et al., granted, but I think there’s more to it; as Barefootwisdom pointed out, there’s a specific mode of philosophical thinking that was (and in some societies still is) transmitted by personal contact, using all the nonverbal communicative modes I discussed in the post. Plato, very much the conservative, was trying to defend that mode against the emergence of the mode of silent contemplative reading, with its potential for wide-open interpretation and freedom of thought.

  131. I remember SRA, really got caught up, in 5th grade, about advancing to each more difficult color. Also remember the school librarian pulling a book off the bookshelf and saying to me, “This is the most difficult book in our elementary school library.” I checked it out and read it, but wouldn’t it be awesome to have books ranked in order of difficulty in reading?

    But what I really wanted to say: In grad school, one of my roommates’ parent was head of security of Education Testing Systems, you know, the SAT, the ACT, the GRE, and so forth. In America, standardized tests are kept under lock and key supposedly, in order to preserve the integrity of “getting the right answer.” Several years later, I was walking through the entrance hall/reference section of the University of St Louis Library, and on a shelf at eye level sat the Oxford University Entrance Exam. I stopped in midtrack and pointed it out to my companion. The reply, “Yes, in England, all major university entrance exams are freely available. Everyone knows how rigorous they are: the public in general, students, teachers, parents, craftsmen, university graduates. Everyone works toward passing them or not.” I looked at a few Oxford University essay exam questions; they relied heavily on the ability to be widely read, to write well, and to synthesize information learned in school and apply it.

  132. Two comments–one on American education , the other on the Temperance Movement.

    One of the major institutions fighting against women’s suffrage was the liquor industry. They knew quite well that many women were advocates of Prohibition and that the women’s vote would probably put it over. The practical reasons for this were that so long as women lacked access to education, good jobs, fair divorce, birth control and other ways to control their own lives they were at the mercy of fathers and husbands. A drunken spouse could legally beat you, take your wages to spend on more booze, leave you and your children homeless, hungry and destitute. It was easier to blame booze, than to blame men. After all most cultures that use alcohol have a long tradition of moralists and philosophers decrying its misuse. Direct attacks on the power of men met with even more opposition than attacks on alcohol. Therefore many women saw the Temperance Movement as a logical direct action to improve the lives of women and children. And despite the undoubted problems that Prohibition brought, there was some evidence that it reduced violence and homelessness in poor neighborhoods. (Lender and Martin _Drinking in America_)

    It is very difficult to generalize about American education. First, despite the inroads made by No Child Left Behind, etc. , you still have 50 distinct systems with different curricula, different textbooks and different levels of funding. Within each state there are hundreds of school districts. They usually have to adhere to the state curriculum, but frequently have a choice of different approved textbooks. They also have hiring and firing authority, but are usually restricted to teachers who have been certified by their state. Within a given city there are rich schools and poor schools. Oh sure, they may in theory get the same money per student. But the rich schools have parent associations who raise money for extracurricular activities. I have a friend who taught high school drama in the area of Washington state that Microsoft executives live in. He took his students on field trips: to New York for Broadway shows and to England for Shakespeare. There are also magnet schools of various types–high schools that specialize in the arts. in technology, in fundamentals, etc. Within even a standard high school there are classes for college prep and classes for students who are probably not going to a four year college. One class may be reading Shakespeare, the other not. This is probably bewildering to readers from nations with more centralized systems. It means that schools only a few miles apart may be very different. One may have happy, innovative staff, well-maintained buildings and the latest textbooks, the other may have burntout staff or rejects from other schools, hungry or even homeless students, rats and mold and textbooks that are older than the students. That is without even going into Charter schools, private schools or other alternatives.

    Question for JMG–I just finished reading _The Secret of the Temple_ and found it very interesting. Wondered if you were familiar with _The Lost Treasure of the Knights Templar_ by Steven Sora. I couldn’t finish it, but gathered that it claims the mysterious pit on Oak Island was built by the Templars.

  133. A few comments:
    My mother loved to quote a letter I had written at about 6 years old: “Dear Oma, My favorite hobby is reading.”
    I took algebra in 7th grade. I failed the final exam because I didn’t “show my work”, despite getting the correct answer in each case. The work in my head didn’t count. I repeated the year, showed my work, and got straight “A”s, despite not learning anything except how to appease the (different) teacher. That was 50 years ago, so there was no Golden Age in the education system then.
    I am taking a class to prepare for the exam to get a Coast Guard license, so I can legally pilot boats for hire. The teachers, who are exceptional sailors and boatmen, have to drill it into us that the Coast Guard exam will only accept a regurgitation of the verbiage from the regulations. The age range of the class is from about 19 to mid 60s. I have a harder time to regurgitate when the Regulations contain internal contradictions, but the younger members of the class don’t seem to be bothered by them. On the water, however, I know that open eyes and ears, and a calm center, will get you through almost any difficulty.
    I do, pace Will J, have a high degree of confidence in my own intellectual capabilities, which has landed me in trouble in the past.

  134. Re: Getting the Wrong answer

    Well I think I’ve just discovered a major blindspot in my own thinking. having been raised in the NZ public education system (not quite as bad the US one, but still not good), I have a constant fear of ‘getting the wrong answer’, meaning I often don’t express opinions or do things for fear I will be ‘wrong’.

    I think this might have been partly what pushed me in the direction of liberal arts subjects rather than maths or science, especially toward the end of my eduction. at least in my education, my liberal arts/ humanities teachers were not so concerned with ‘getting the right answer; but rather weather or not i argued something convincingly (or interestingly). I got pushed out of science partly because for my science tests my teachers and markers were so insistent on using exactly the right words to describe the process. So even if I understood the processes, if I didn’t use the ‘right words’ and get the ‘right answer’, I’d be marked right down. Obviously there are differences in the subjects, and perhaps i just had not so good teachers, but still.

    Anyway, just a few more ramblings from me


  135. Will J and onething

    Regarding people who are so sure they’re right that they become both disiinterested and hostile to different opinions – I think one part of the problem is, in many (most?) cases, they have decided what to believe based on group identification, being in sync with like minded people and showing fidelity to the group they self identify with. IOWs they didn’t reach their opinion after careful sifting of the facts and rumination on the topic, instead they came to believe what they believe because that’s what others in their group believe. All further “research” on the topic is basically biased, seeking that which confirms their belief and rejecting competing views. It’s a prevelant feature of modern thinking that facts are marshaled in defense of beliefs, not as a precurser to forming them. People intutitively understand that the “other side” operates in the same fashion so they assume any contrary view is simply an attempt to tear down and perhaps denigrate their beliefs. You’re both right in saying that they simply can’t imagine they could be wrong. To imagine such a thing would be to come to a belief after some pondering and letting it roll around the ‘ol brain pan for a while, after consideration of several points of vew. When one gets his views from a fb meme there’s nothing left to do but defend. The thinking step has been eliminated from the process, replaced by rock solid certainty.. Actual consideration of another pov would require suspension of certainty.

    My impression is that “liberals” and “conservatives” both do this. It’s also my impression that “liberals” do it to a slightly greater degree or at least feel more comfortable being impolite to those who have the audacity to disagree with them.

  136. My wife and I homeschool our children, and so far it appears to be working rather well. I understand this may not work for everyone. My own education was a mix. I started with public school, was homeschooled for a few years, and then returned to public school at the end. With homeschooling, there is more flexibility, and I believe it strengthens the family as a whole. Public school children are held most of the day, released late in the afternoon, and then hours of homework await. This is increasingly true even in the lower grades.

    Reading stories to my children at the end of the day is one of my greatest joys. My own parents did the same for my siblings and me. My oldest daughter reads on her own now and enjoys it very much.

    For my own reading, I have generally read fiction. Are there any genres of nonfiction you find as fascinating as a good fantasy tale? I would like to branch out a bit.

  137. Isn’t it surprisingly open-minded for Plato, who clearly took to the book-form, to give Socrates’ voice of authority to an opposing position?

    In my current reading of Augustine I just came across a relevant passage which I probably wouldn’t have grasped were it not for the discussion here on the rarity of ancient silent reading:
    “After sitting for a long time in silence (for who would dare to burden him in such intent concentration?) we used to go away. We supposed that in the brief time he could find for his mind’s refreshment, free from the hubbub of other people’s troubles, he would not want to be invited to consider another problem. We wondered if he read silently perhaps to protect himself in case he had a hearer interested and intent on the matter, to whom he might have to expound the text being read if it contained difficulties, or who might wish to debate some difficult questions. If his time were used up in that way, he would get through fewer books than he wished. Besides, the need to preserve his voice which used easily to become hoarse, could have been a very fair reason for silent reading. Whatever motive he had for his habit, this man had a good reason for what he did.”

  138. Ray Wharton,

    I suspect that you are correct, and that this preference of a greater proportion of the poetically-inclined for a musical instrument to accompany them instead of a pen is related to the widespread abandonment of traditional meter and rhyme in modern poetry. I don’t hate all modern poetry, but much of what used to draw people to poetry–catchiness and entertainment value as well as beauty of word and image, grandeur, elevating sentiment–is much less common in modern poetry, it seems to me. And modern poetry (to generalize even further!) is much more obviously meant to be read from the page instead of recited–you see a lot more poets playing around with visual effects on the page, etc. So I also suspect that anyone with a hankering for fame or a means of making a social or political statement would be more likely to turn to music than poetry in recent times. Although much new music seems idiotic to me–probably I am missing the good stuff since I mostly only hear what’s on other people’s car radios or what’s playing when I’m forced to go to the store.

  139. Jenxyz, the British have the right idea in this case. The test doesn’t have to be secret if it actually tests for a broad basis of knowledge and the ability to think clearly about what you know.

    Rita, I haven’t read that specific book; there’s a huge literature these days on the legacy of the Knights Templar, and I’ve had to scramble just to keep up on the specific parts of it that are central to my own research!

    Peter, I managed to skate through math classes because all I was expected to do was cough up the right answer, and I was able to do a sufficiently good job on multiple choice tests to fake that. If I’d been asked to show my work I’d have been in deep trouble!

    Tom, and now that you know that, you can begin defusing it.

    Christopher K, the genre of nonfiction that’s closest to fantasy is history. Good lively history books about the Middle Ages are so close to standard fantasy that you’ll hardly miss the dragons.

    Will, the guy probably had a long position on petroleum futures — that’s what hedge fund managers do — but he’s almost certainly right that a supply shock is coming our way. Depletion never sleeps…

    Ellen, ah, the Guidonian hand! That would definitely be something worth reviving. Thanks for this.

    EasternRoman, Plato used his dialogues as ways of popularizing his teachings. His Seventh Letter shows that he kept the core teachings for personal students — very much the standard practice then and later. Remember that in his own time, his dialogues were normally read aloud — again, silent reading was just becoming a known phenomenon — so it was still a matter of performance rather than of reflective contemplation.

  140. JMG
    I too appreciate Ganv’s point about our complex world: “We depend on communities of thinkers and good books to make it possible to live a good life…”
    It occurs to me that in a similar if mundane way, it is good to have proper retailers for the goods we need, perhaps especially food – continually doing research and upgrading knowledge, and preferably subject to local reputation. That is an awful lot of canny research and keeping eyes open. And it helps to have a social conscience.
    Local reputation can serve a good purpose provided the political framework is set properly. We used to have local road menders, which meant that road drains matched the surface height. People noticed if ‘Tom’ – and it mattered to Tom – could no longer get his settings right and puddles froze in winter and tore up his repairs. A modern market for contracts dressed in utilitarian ideology (‘lowest cost’) got in the way. In my view ‘framework thinkers’ (a la Ganv) matter a lot if we want to get the right guys.
    Thinking of weights and measures, and purity, brings me round to rules rather than virtues: and to ‘federal’ structures in their widest sense and to their measure of the ‘good’. ‘Trading’ extends to more than goods and services. I take Ivan Illich’s broad critique seriously: “contemporary society has become a congealed and corrupted Christianity”.
    Phil H

  141. I’m with Jen – poetry is almost a lost art these days. Twatting seems to be the direction culture has chosen. Unfortunately, that block of ‘rote learning’ formerly considered normal in education (in days long gone) has been shattered. The character limit of twattering, which should induce some very interesting things in composition and word use, has to fail due to the lack of any mutual foundation.

    I like poetry and one reason is that word selection is extremely important. Constrained by form, rhyme or both, choosing the word and meaning required to convey the nuance or emotion of the poet is necessary. Hence the rote part of learning ir prerequisite.

    It’s very hard to ramble and meander poetically without losing your reader. This is also one of the downfalls of writing – meandering and rambling causes an editor fits and readers to flip the page in hope of an end of finding the actual point.

    This was a good essay. Words ARE important and can convey much more than is readily apparent if the reader is following. That is incumbent on the writer if they wish to share their actual thoughts and emotions.

  142. Bogatyr:

    Two decades ago, I was hired to be an English language conversation partner for a group of older Russian immigrants. I got the job because I was a foreign language major in college with some facility in Russian although it was not my primary language focus, and I had a good grasp of how language worked and how beginners tackled a foreign language since I had done so many times.

    The “students” were in their late 50’s and early 60’s at the time, had some knowledge of English, and did not want to live in a Russian language ghetto for the rest of their lives so we often practiced situational language: how to ask for something in a store, what to say at the bank, how to give and understand directions, etc. What impressed me so much was that they were all extraordinarily well read, and not just Russian/Eastern European authors. They were familiar with Emerson, Twain, Thoreau, Alcott, Shakespeare and pretty much the entire Western Canon. They also had a remarkable grasp of American politics (Clinton was still president at this point) even though they could not always understand English fluently. I got an earful when I mentioned Gorbachev; clearly Russians did not love him the way Westerners did. One of the women, a former literature teacher in St. Petersburg (where, she insisted, people speak the finest Russian) went to the local bookstore to pick up a couple of novels to read to improve her English. Not knowing contemporary authors, she bought some books by Danielle Steele. After she’d read a few chapters she declared it to be, in her heavily Russian-accented English, thus: “Is crap”.

    Other observations: all of these folks had lived through the Stalin years and decades of material deprivation, yet they all had the most magnificent sense of humor and got the best laughs over their mistakes after I’d contrasted what they’d intended to say with an explanation of what they had actually said. All in all a lovely group of people.

  143. “I’m also very much in favor of radio theater — for reasons we’ll get to, it doesn’t have the mind- and imagination-numbing effects of television.”
    Ah, I look forward to that, as someone who’s enjoyed “old-time radio” since I was a child.
    I’m also interested in exactly how it’s different, as it seems a bit surprising to me that the simple addition of a visual aspect could produce such a large change. And how do live theater and film-in-a-theater compare, to each other and to radio and television?
    Also, how different is a radio play from an audiobook? I assume there’s a spectrum between a fully and expertly acted radio play with sound effects and a book read by an exceedingly monotone text-to-speech computer program, but I’m wondering how wide that spectrum is.

    (By the way, while I’m still very, almost certainly more, fond of trains, I _have_ noticed that my interest in and appreciation of canals and canal boats has risen significantly since you mentioned them to me.)

  144. JMG,

    Sorry to be off topic, but I just read the comments and your replies to the “dulcimer” article. Have you written any on our native folk religion or folk magic?

  145. Darkest Yorkshire, JMG:

    You can count me as one who is satisfied with materialist atheism. It has been my contented worldview for fifty years. I expect I will die with it.

    Anecdotally, most (around eighty percent) of the people in my acquaintance who claim to share this position hold it weakly and yearn for “something more”, often adopting an alternative metaphysics as they age and are more starkly confronted with the prospect of their death.

    Andrew Celestina

  146. @Reese, if you like full cast audio dramas, there is a company you might be interested in called Big Finish Productions. They’ve been in existence since the late 1990s. A lot of their output centres around producing original Doctor Who adventures and spin-offs, but they also sometimes adapt canonical works, and are increasingly producing original material. I recently finished listening to a six part miniseries loosely based on the life of MarcusTullius Cicero and it was excellent. Their Sherlock Holmes adventures are also very, very good.

  147. Phil, excellent. Of course it also helped that Tom was immediately answerable in his local community for the quality of his road repairs, just as the local butcher, baker, and candlestick maker all had to worry, not only about the profitability of their businesses, but their standing among their neighbors if they engaged in the kind of practices that the bog box stores do as a matter of course.

    Oilman2, a solid point. One of the reasons that poetry written in an established meter is so often so much better than free verse is that fitting your thought into the limits of a sonnet, say, forces you to be conscious of exactly what you’re saying, and to think your way through word choices. Free verse doesn’t do that, and a lot of people who write free verse have never learned that that’s part of writing a good poem.

    EasternRoman, you’re welcome. I’ve spent a lot of time brooding over Plato, for obvious reasons, and one of the things that’s come through that process most forcefully is that he was a transitional figure, poised on the border between an archaic, orally transmitted wisdom tradition, on the one hand, and philosophy as a discursive literary phenomenon on the other, and his central goal seems to have been trying to communicate the insights of the former in the language of the latter. That makes him endlessly interesting and endlessly frustrating, as he tries over and over again to make the incommensurables match up exactly!

    Reese, good question. I’m not really the person to ask about theater, as I’m not really into it, and audiobooks bore me — if it’s not being acted out in the radio-theater style, the pace is just too slow compared to the pace at which I read.

    Mac Tírè, whose native religion and folk magic did you have in mind? “Our” covers a lot of potential territory…

    Andrew, thanks for this. I’d suspected as much.

  148. JMG re homeschooling,

    Wow, your experience sounds pretty horrible; sorry you had to suffer through that. I only hope I haven’t made my kids suffer through anything commensurable. I’ve had to learn to forgive myself for past actions, for things I didn’t know, for decisions made in ignorance, and this is no different. As a parent I often find the responsibility of having to make this kind of decision on my kids’ behalf to be frightening. I don’t think it’s too late to turn things around for them though.

    Interestingly, when I asked my daughter what she thought about homeschooling, her first reply was that she was all for it, but later on she told me she thought she would miss her friends too much! And my son, who is what I suppose would be considered neurotypical, supported the idea right away. I asked him if he said he would miss his friends, and he said he didn’t really have any friends right now. It sort of broke my heart.

    Anyhow, I’ve embraced the idea, but we’ll have to see how things play out. It would undoubtedly be a major life change for all of us, but sometimes that’s a good thing. And difficult; I’d have to reinvent how I do things in a lot of ways.

    I’m reminded of a passage from the Tao:

    Undertake difficult tasks by approaching what is easy in them;
    Do great deeds by focusing on their minute aspects.

    Let’s hope it works out that way!

    Thanks for your advice; I really appreciate it.

  149. JMG – as a follow-up to the idea that a “book is a dead tree with tattoos”, it later occured to me that when I said “ink on paper”, that young male member of my audience probably thought “…instead of ‘ink on skin'”. A great many of my guests were showing inked skin, and, well, what ELSE would one use “ink” for? Not for printing a newspaper; nor for filling an inkwell; probably not much even contained within a ballpoint pen. In a modern paper-less electronic society of digital natives, when one says “ink”, it’s very close to saying “tattoo”.

  150. JMG,

    I had in mind the folk religions/folk magic of Appalachia and Pennsylvania.

  151. Stefania, well, my childhood basically sucked, and the public schools were only part of it. Fortunately I grew up, and things got better. I hope that homeschooling goes well for you and your children!

    LatheChuck, I suppose that’s true. It didn’t occur to me — which I suppose shows you how out of touch with pop culture I am these days!

    Mac Tírè, I lived for eight years in the north central Appalachians — enough time to get a taste of the land and the culture, nothing like enough time to be accepted sufficiently into the social network to find out anything worth knowing about the magical traditions, or any of the less public side of the religious life. (I attended some religious services, but those were all mainstream Protestant services which my Masonic lodge attended en masse to prove that we really aren’t devil worshipers.) A year ago next month I moved to Rhode Island, which has a pleasantly weird culture with a very different ambience; we’ll see what I encounter.

  152. @Stefania-
    I remember well the scary feeling of standing on the brink of homeschooling my kids. I wish I had realized then that there were so many options- homeschooling groups, co-ops, and programs, classes offered in individual topics or subject areas, field trips and activities offered by institutions just for homeschoolers- it’s definitely not all-or-nothing. Parents can customize from kid to kid, year to year, and subject to subject, depending on what their and their children’s needs and strengths are. The hybrid at-home and in-class options, along with activities like scouts or 4-H or other extracurriculars, can offer lots of socialization opportunities too.
    I hope you find the right fit for your family. Best of luck!
    –Heather in CA

  153. One of the main things I got from Euthyphro, Apology, Crito and Phaedo is that Socrates really was guilty as sin, and there was no miscarriage of Greek justice involved.

  154. @Synthase:

    I’d love to know more of what you mean. Would you explain a bit more?

  155. cattleman: Socrates was charged with impiety towards the gods of the city, and corrupting the youth of Athens.The context on the first charge his agnosticism was well known and tolerated for many years, (and is demonstated in the dialogue of Euthyphro) however the city (and Greece in general) was facing catastrophic decline including an unfavorable (for Athens) end to the Peloponnesian war. This was thought in part to be the ire of the gods, and put an end to that kind of tolerance generally. The context of the second charge – corrupting the youth of Athens – stems from Socrate’s pro-Spartan and anti-democratic views, and the actions of one of his most prominent students, Critias, who led the Spartan puppet-oligarchy of Athens known as the Thirty Tyrants, which generally tortured the city of Athens and bathed in the blood of her people. Finally, Socrates defended himself in his trial, his defense speech being the main part of Apology, which was extremely self-incriminating. In context the jurors had no other choice.

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