Friday Morning Reading: The Story of One Hundred Great Composers

Today my school is doing its second Live Remote Learning Rehearsal days.  These are days for us to test out remote learning in the event The Virus necessitates returning to distance learning full-timeLast time teachers tuned in from home while teachers were on-campus.  This time, both teachers and students are able to work from home, so I’ve been enjoying a more leisurely morning.

Indeed, I just wrapped up my first morning class of the day, a section of Middle School Music.  The students in that section wrote brief, rough draft biographies of renowned composers, and after giving them feedback in-class yesterday, they presented on their composers this morning.  It was a good lesson for digital learning, as it required their active participation for the bulk of the class, and they all did quite well.

I’ve assigned composer biographies in music courses for years, but what inspired the assignment this time around was the rediscovery of a charming little book I keep on a small end table in my den:  Helen L. Kaufmann’s The Story of One Hundred Great Composers.  Published in 1943, the book is a tiny, pocket-sized digest of two-to-three-page entries—arranged chronologically—of composers from the sixteenth century forward.

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TBT: On Ghost Stories

Today marks the first day of October, perhaps my favorite month of the year.  We’re already getting that first crisp coolness in the air here in South Carolina, and it’s feeling more and more like autumn every day.

So with Halloween just thirty days away, I thought it would be fun to look back at a post from last “All Hallowe’s Eve Eve,” as I wrote at the time:  one all about ghost stories.

I finally finished slogging my way through The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories, thanks in no small part to quarantine.  It’s an excellent collection, and I stand by my recommendation from last October, but there are a handful of stories that are way too long—or dense.

I’m now reading through a more accessible, far lighter read:  the classic Tar Heel Ghosts by John Harden.  It’s a collection of North Carolina-based ghost stories published in the 1950s, so it has that pleasing sense of implicit patriotism and love of place that is now so sadly missing from our cynical, cosmopolitan writing of today.  Like The Story of Yankee Whaling, it possesses a refreshing innocence about and love for its subject:  no hand-wringing over now-unfashionable ideas, no condemnation of a lack of diversity, no talk of “marginalized” groups being “unrepresented.”

I picked up the book sometime in my childhood on a family trip, but I don’t think I ever finished the collection.  I’m rectifying that all these years later, and I’m thoroughly enjoying it.  I also plan to reread Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree, one of my favorites to pull out this time of year.

Here’s hoping you find some spooky tales of your own to curl up with on these cold, October nights.  Here’s October 2019’s “On Ghost Stories“:

It’s Halloween!  Well, at least it’s All Hallow’s Eve Eve, but that’s close enough for some ghoulishly delicious ghost stories.

I love a good ghost story.  The Victorians did the genre best, but many writers since have honed it further, adding their own unique twists and scares.  Even Russell Kirk, the great conservative philosopher, was a fan of ghost stories.  Indeed, his bestselling book was a ghost story.

For the Victorians, ghost stories were told at Christmastime.  This timing, while peculiar to modern readers, makes sense intuitively—Christmas is a time for remembering the past, in part (perhaps especially) our honored dead (just ask Washington Irvingif he comes by to haunt you).  The “ghosts” of departed loved ones linger closely during those long, frosty nights.  The inherent nostalgia of Christmas and the winter season—and bundling up next to a crackling fire—sets the perfect mood for ghostly tales.

Nevertheless, what other time of year can beat Halloween for a good tale of witches and werewolves; of monsters and mummies; of ghouls, goblins, and ghosts?

As such, I’d encourage readers to check out “Nocturne of All Hallow’s Eve,” a deliciously frightening, blood-soaked tale of the supernatural and the macabre from Irish-American author Greg Patrick.  Alternative fiction website Terror House Magazine posted it back in September, and I’ve been saving it to share on the blog until now.

Patrick’s style conjures the dense verbiage of Edgar Allan Poe.  Indeed, he overdoes it a bit (see his more recently published “The Familiar“).  But his subject matter is pure Halloween—the tenuous space between the natural and the supernatural, the mysterious rituals, and on and on.

If you’re still in search of some ghostly reads, check out The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories.  It’s the collection I’ve been reading since my trip to New Jersey this summer.  It’s a truly spine-tingling collection that covers some of the great—and many of the undeservedly unsung—writers of the genre, the men and women who truly created and molded what makes a good ghost story.

So wherever you find yourself the next couple of nights, curl up with a good book, a warm fire, and a good ghost story (and maybe someone else, if you’re so inclined).  You and the ghosts will be glad you did!

Ghost

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TBT^2: Back to School with Richard Weaver

Today marks the first day of school for the 2020-2021 school year:  The Year of The Virus, if we were to affix a Chinese Zodiac-style name to it.  It’s going to be the most unusual school year any of us have ever experienced, I imagine.  Please keep teachers, students, administrators, and staff in your prayers.

As I’ve noted often, I reread at least the introduction to Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences every school year.  The introduction offers a strong diagnosis of modernity’s ills, and it reminds me why teaching is so important—not just the accumulation of random facts into worldly knowledge, but to inculcate deeper knowledge and virtue—what we might call “wisdom.”

Here is “TBT: Back to School with Richard Weaver“:

Every year I try to reread the introduction to Ideas Have Consequences, Richard Weaver’s masterful work of analysis and prophecy.

With school starting back in just FOUR DAYS—may God have mercy on us all—it seemed germane to bring back this post from 2018, itself a contextualization of a Facebook post from 2014.

Here is “Back to School with Richard Weaver“:

Every year, I try to sit down and re-read at least the introduction to Richard Weaver’s seminal Ideas Have Consequences, probably the most powerful book I’ve ever read.  I tend to undertake this re-reading around the time school resumes, as it helps remind me why I teach.

In addition to Ideas Have Consequences, Weaver wrote some of the most eloquent essays on the South—and what it means to be Southern—in the twentieth century.  In 2014, I posted the following quotation on Facebook; I will allow it to speak for itself[:]

I’m undertaking my annual baptism in the works of Richard Weaver to focus my philosophical thinking for a rapidly approaching school year, and, as always, I’m presented with an embarrassment of riches. Few thinkers cram so many nuggets of truth into so little space. Every paragraph of Weaver’s writings yields insights that speak to the very heart of humanity.

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Passing of Bernard Bailyn

Last week, legendary historian of colonial America Bernard Bailyn passed away at the age of 97, making his own voyage into the next life.  Blogger buddy Gordon Sheaffer at Practically Historical wrote a brief but effective tribute to Bailyn earlier this week.

As Sheaffer wrote Monday:

No other scholar impacted the study of the American Revolution more than Bailyn. His masterwork, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, continues to challenge readers 50 years after it was published. Bailyn was able to express the unique qualities of American civilization without politicizing the history with talk of exceptionalism.

I have not read—to my great shame and discredit—The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, but I have read Bailyn’s The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction, a much shorter work that serves as an introduction to a larger study on the settlement of British North America.  The book is so good, and gives such a flavor for the various peoples that settled in the original thirteen colonies, I once assigned it as summer reading for my very first AP US History class back in 2011.  It’s an accessible book, but it was a bit much for rising high school sophomores.

That said, I’ve been searching for my copy this morning in my classroom, without any luck.  Hopefully it will turn up soon.  My dad and I were talking about Bailyn’s death, as there was a small bit about it in the newspaper, and he expressed interest in reading it.  I also wouldn’t mind rereading it, as I haven’t done so in nearly a decade.

Even so, bits of it stick out to me.  Near the end of the book, Bailyn briefly explores the odd religious sects, mostly German, that came to the colonies.  I distinctly recall him writing about a self-proclaimed prophet or sage living in a cave in Pennsylvania.  There were multiple sects and utopian movements and cults and denominations popping up in British North America during the First Great Awakening, which reached its peak sometime in the 1740s and greatly influenced the American Revolution.

In an age of toppling statues and lurid efforts to erase our national history and faith (to be replaced with… what?), Bailyn’s works take on increased importance.  Let us hope he isn’t summarily cancelled like everything else that is good, decent, and doesn’t inherently hate America.

Walkin’

Yesterday morning, longtime Nebraska Energy Observer contributor Audre Myers shared a charming post, “Walking …“—a reflection of the late 1960s and Woodstock.  Regular commenter Scoop posted an achingly nostalgic response that sums up the significance of Woodstock to that cohort of early Boomers—it was the last incandescent burst of rock ‘n’ roll’s triumph before petering out in the 1970s (which, I would argue, is when hard rock got good).

The tug of nostalgia is a strong one.  I’m only thirty-five, and I already feel it from time to time.  Indeed, I’ve always been a sucker for nostalgia, which a psychologist might argue is one of the reasons I studied history.  Perhaps.  I also just enjoy learning trivia.

Regardless, Audre’s post caught my attention because I have been contemplating the literal, physical act of walking lately (although I often take metaphorical strolls down memory lane, too).  I’ve put on a bit of weight in The Age of The Virus, so I’ve taken up walking as a way to complement a regimen of calorie counting (which is more of a loose, back-of-the-envelope calorie guesstimate each day).

I’m trying to get in around two miles of focused walking a day, mostly around Lamar.  Although work commitments don’t always make that possible, I do find that simply going about my work results in around two miles of walking in aggregate.  I’m curious to see what my step totals will be once the school year resumes, and I’m dashing about between classes, pacing the rows of students, and striding across the boards as I teach.

I’m not a runner, by any means.  My older brother loves to run, and has the physique to show for it.  More power to him, but I know myself well enough to know it’s not something I want to do.  Runners swear oaths to running’s efficacy and delights, but gasping for breath in 100-degree weather with maximum humidity doesn’t appeal to me.  Walking at a brisk clip in that weather, though, is at least bearable—once I’ve embraced the stickiness and the sweat, I can go for a couple of miles easily, and sometimes three or four.

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Fifty Years of Radical Violence

On the Right, we tend to point to the 1960s as the decade when everything went wrong—the rise of the counterculture, the anti-war movement, the radicalization of campuses.  Or we’ll look back to the Progressive Era of the first two decades of the twentieth century, or the Frankfurt School that introduced “Cultural Marxism” to our universities.  Deep students of ideological infiltration will point to the American infatuation with German Idealists and the German model for higher education.

But in focusing so intensely on the 1960s, we overlook the following decade—the sleazy, variety show-filled 1970s.  Of course, what we think of as the cultural and social upheaval of the 1960s really occurred mostly in early 1970s.  Indeed, I suspect that so much of the romanticizing (on the Left) of the 1960s is because of the Civil Rights Movement, which now holds a place of uncritical holiness in our national mythology.  It probably also has to do with the dominance of early Baby Boomers in media and the culture for so long—they built the counterculture, and they still idealized their youthful misadventures as tenured radicals.

Regardless, good old Milo posted a link on his Telegram feed urging followers to “Read this.”  “This” was a book review, of sorts, of Days of Rage: America’s Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence by Bryan Burrough.  In his review of the book, author Brian Z. Hines writes that

Days of Rage is important, because this stuff is forgotten and it shouldn’t be. The 1970s underground wasn’t small. It was hundreds of people becoming urban guerrillas.  Bombing buildings: the Pentagon, the Capitol, courthouses, restaurants, corporations. Robbing banks. Assassinating police. People really thought that revolution was imminent, and thought violence would bring it about.

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SubscribeStar Saturday: The Portly Politico Summer Reading List 2020

Today’s post is a SubscribeStar Saturday exclusive.  To read the full post, subscribe to my SubscribeStar page for $1 a month or more.  For a full rundown of everything your subscription gets, click here.  NEW TIER: $3 a month gets one edition of Sunday Doodles every month!

It’s that time of year again:  summer!  That means we’re due for The Portly Politico Summer Reading List 2020!

I’m actually a bit overdue for this list.  I typically publish it in early June, to give those of you blessed to enjoy summer vacation a chance to look them up.  But my long illness for the first couple of weeks of the month waylaid a number of plans, and last weekend I was occupied with family festivities, so the list is a few weeks later than I like.

But, like Sunday Doodles—a perk for $5 a month subscribers—my philosophy is “better late than never!”  And with the Independence Day holiday approaching, it’s a great time to do some reading.

For new readers, my criteria is pretty straightforward.  To quote myself from the 2016 list:

The books listed here are among some of my favorites.  I’m not necessarily reading them at the moment, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t!

Pretty vague, I know.  Additionally, I usually feature three books, plus an “Honorable Mention” that’s usually worth a read, too.

For those interested, here are the prior two installments:

But that’s enough yackin’.  Here’s The Portly Politico Summer Reading List 2020:

1.) Richard Weaver, edited by George M. Curtis, III and James J. Thompson, Jr., The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver (1999) – Regular readers know I love Richard Weaver, and I featured his masterpiece Ideas Have Consequences on the 2016 list.  The Southern Essays feature a collection of Weaver’s writings on the South.

Weaver was a literary critic and English professor at the University of Chicago, but his roots were in Asheville, North Carolina.  He possessed a deep and abiding love of and respect for Dixie, particularly its writers.  Weaver’s background in literature and poetry is evident in these essays, in which he ruminates on the abundance of prolific Southern literary types.  He also brings some nuance to the question of the American Civil War and the South’s role therein.  I believe it was in this collection that I first learned of John Randolph of Roanoke, the great, ornery Virginian who resisted federal overreach in the early nineteenth century.

Weaver’s writing can be a bit dense, but once you get used to his mid-century style, his ideas are easy enough to absorb.  I highly, highly recommend you pick up this collection.

To read the rest of this post, subscribe to my SubscribeStar page for $1 a month or more.

TBT: Conservative Inheritance

With the Summer 2020 session of History of Conservative Thought in full swing, I’ve been reviewing the Summer 2019 archives pertaining to the course.  Among the various class summaries and overviews of great conservative thinkers, I came across this short essay, “Conservative Inheritance.”

I’d largely forgotten about it, which is a shame—I think it might be one of my better analytical pieces (although you, dear reader, will be the ultimate judge).  I go back to the dominance of “Rooseveltian liberalism” following the Second World War, and how conservatism morphed into a political program that largely accepted the premises of that liberalism, but acted as something like the more cautious junior partner—“a tapping of the brakes, not a full stop or reversal” of liberalism.

The debate over what exactly is conservatism has grown thornier and more immediate over the last year.  There is a sense among the intellectual Right that the prevailing orthodoxy of Buckleyism is inadequate and outmoded, that it can’t really address the problems of our age and culture.  Indeed, this essay explores the idea that conservatives essentially abandoned the culture in favor of political victories.  The sad commentary on that decision, which made sense in the 1950s and 1960s, is that our political victories are hollow.  Without the culture, political victory merely forestalls progressive dominance for a season—the brakes are tapped, but the machine doesn’t stop.

These are sobering but necessary ideas to consider.  I spoke with a friend on the phone earlier in the week; he claimed that traditional conservatives and Christians have lost the culture wars.  I prefer to think that we’re losing the culture wars, but that there is still hope of a rear-guard action or some kind of renewal.  Either way, it’s an uphill battle, a Pickett’s Charge.

With that, here is June 2019’s “”Conservative Inheritance“:

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TBT: Sailer and Spotted Toad on Education

The grand experiment in online learning continues apace, although it is (somewhat thankfully) reaching its summer-bound conclusion.  Unlike many colleagues and teachers I’ve spoken with about the hasty transition, I have thoroughly enjoyed the distance learning experience, but I am thankful for the advent of summer.

Recording lectures can be a marathon effort, not unlike actual classroom teaching, requiring rapid shifting from one topic to the next.  I try to record “horizontally”—that is, I try to record multiple lectures for the same class or subject at once—rather than “vertically”—recording for each day’s classes—as “horizontal” recording allows my mind to stay fixed on a single track, but this week I’ve been a “vertical” recorder.  Yesterday I recorded a review lecture on Jefferson’s presidency (with a dash of Madison and the origins of the War of 1812), then a review lesson on Congress, then a Music lesson about the Phrygian mode.  I call myself a “Renaissance Man” in the post below; I might be right!

Of course, almost all of teaching is, as one colleague recently put it, “rebuilding a plane while it’s in mid-air.”  A beautiful, gleaming craft takes off confidently in August; by Labor Day, you’re buffing out the first spots and adjusting the navigational systems; by October, you’ve replaced the entire fuselage.  Christmas is a lonely island in the South Pacific where you refuel and make calculations for the next leg of the journey, which feels like flying over 6000 miles of ocean with no land in site.  From January to Spring Break the plane pretty much gets rebuilt entirely, until it’s no longer properly the plane you begin with.

By summer, you’re flying the glider the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, and not the F-16 or B-52 or 747 you started with for the year.  Not only that, but your canvas wings are punctured and your tail-fin is missing.  You’re not even worried about saving the plane at this point—you’re just trying to land somewhere without killing yourself or anyone else.

But I digress.  It’s been, overall, a pleasant experience since day one, for reasons detailed elsewhere, and my Kitty Hawk glider is looking more like an F-16 at this point in the year than it usually does.

In casting about for this week’s edition of TBT, I stumbled upon this post from nearly a year ago, a look at Steve Sailer’s review of blogger (and former NYC science teacher) Spotted Toad‘s book 3 Ways of Going on a Field Trip: Stories about Teaching and Learning, which I read shortly after writing this blog post.  The book is a short read, and quite good, as it details the challenges a young Toad faced in adapting to the chaos of an inner city Middle School Science classroom.

With my own summer vacation approaching, and the blog focusing more and more lately on education, I’m kicking around the idea of putting together an eBook with my own reflections on teaching, with some unorthodox proposals about what the field could look like in the future.  Spotted Toad’s work could be a source of inspiration.

Regardless, here is May 2019’s “Sailer and Spotted Toad on Education“:

Demographer Steve Sailer has a review on Taki’s Magazine of a new book from blogger Spotted Toad.  The book, 13 Ways of Going on a Field Trip: Stories about Teaching and Learning, is a narrative memoir detailing Toad’s decade teaching in public schools in the Bronx.

Sailer, a dedicated statistician in his own right, lauds Spotted Toad’s statistics-laden blog, but points out that his memoir eschews statistics in favor of narrative.  This focus on narrative, as Sailer points out, does not detract from the book’s insights about education, but makes them more viscerally real for the lay reader.

Based on Sailer’s summary of the book (which I plan to purchase and read soon), Spotted Toad’s teaching experience led him to insights similar to my own; that is, that administrators and school boards spend too much time chasing education fads and pushing a romantic narrative about teaching, rather than just getting out of the way and letting teachers… well, teach.

Toad was hired as part of the once-fashionable Teach for America program, which placed young, enthusiastic idealists into poor school districts, usually in tough inner city schools.  The theory was that bad or lazy teachers weren’t engaged enough, so schools needed an injection of Dead Poets’ Society-inspired young’uns who would bend heaven-and-earth to reach urban youths.

Sailer speculates about why Teach for America was so popular in the latter part of the last decade, and suggests that it’s because upper-middle class New York Times readers forwarded glowing articles about TFA to their out-of-work, overly-educated kids.

That somewhat comports with my own experience, as I briefly considered joining TFA upon finishing graduate school at the height of the Great Recession.  I think it’s even more accurate to say it was popular because it promised work during a time when few people could find it, and didn’t require lengthy additional years of education and training.

Sailer pooh-poohs the idea that TFA could create qualified teachers, and he’s not entirely wrong—the program was certainly overly optimistic about its own efficacy—but I think the apprenticeship model of “learning on the job” is one of the better ways to learn the craft.  Most education classes are a joke, and other than a few useful pedagogical insights, my impression is that many of them are indoctrination camps for the latest progressive educational fads.  I’d much rather have a “pure” young teacher learning the ropes with the assistance of battle-hardened veterans in the trenches than to have that teacher languish away in a series of Two-Minute Hates for another couple of years.

Indeed, that’s been my big complaint with the State of South Carolina’s alternative certification program.  We have a teacher shortage, but you want me to shell out cash and three years of my time to teach in a crummy public school?  No thanks.  How about adopt my proposal to grant automatic certification to any private school teacher with three years of teaching experience and a Master’s degree in a relevant field, or with five years and a Bachelor’s?  That would solve the problem more quickly, and would bring a number of qualified teachers into public schools quickly.

My premise is that credentials don’t make a good teacher; classroom experience does.  I’m generally anti-guildist, as I fancy myself a bit of a Renaissance Man.  Of course, that comes from my personal experiences professionally:  out of necessity, I’ve taught a slew of social studies courses, as well as music at different levels, for nearly a decade.  I would have benefited from some education classes to learn solid pedagogical methods in some areas (particularly music education), but I’ve picked up many of these methods through trial-and-error, and sheer force of will.  When you have to get twenty inexperienced middle school musicians to play a Christmas concert, you figure out how to make it work (and sound good).

Regardless, Spotted Toad’s experiences hit upon some common problems in education, particularly education policy.  Toad writes of the coming-and-going educational fads and programs, some supported by big-wigs like Bill Gates, that are championed, implemented hastily (and at great profit to the companies that market and develop these programs), and then abandoned in five years when some new, shiny trend emerges.

Take a moment to read Sailer’s review this morning, as it offers some interesting insights into the push-and-pull of education policy, and an interesting, if sad, retrospective on the bungled federal efforts in the Bush and Obama Administrations to address education in the United States.

That said, for all the doom-and-gloom surrounding discussion of education in America, Sailer ends on a positive note:

For example, as I’ve pointed out over the years, on the international PISA school tests, Asian-Americans do almost as well as Northeast Asian countries, white Americans outscore most white countries other than Finland and few other northern realms, Latino-Americans outperform all Latin American countries, and African-Americans beat the handful of black Caribbean countries that even try the test.

We Americans do spend a lot to achieve these educational results, but our outcomes by global standards are much less terrible than most Americans assume. (In particular, Indian states that have tried the PISA bomb it, scoring at sub-Saharan levels.)

At least we’re beating our peers in other countries—usually.