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Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Teacher: The One Who Made the Difference

In Books, Educators on September 23, 2011 at 3:56 pm

Teacher-one-who-made-difference-mark-edmundson-paperback-cover-artI (Craig) just finished Mark Edmundson's book, Teacher: The One Who Made the Difference, a rambling yet rousing tribute to his high school teacher, Franklin Lears. While Edmundson's memoir takes place in his Massachussetts public school, he writes as someone more than familiar with classical philosophy, literature, and even some pedagogy. Some quotes:

"There is something archetypal about the world of high school, something allegoric. The kids have formalized roles. The teachers have nicknames that fix their place in the meager cosmos. Even the building is full of highly charged locales – the place where this or that clique hangs out, the corridor where the fight took place, the detention room where Big Fran, the submaster, had to call the police. There is something eternally burning about this world; it lives in the mind ten, twenty, thirty years after the fact, as though it had been concocted and instilled by a small-time Dante, who had himself once been injured by it and wanted it preserved eternally as a reminder." (35)

"In every early encounter between a teacher and a student there are multiple beings present, multiple ghosts, many of them not beneficient. Great teachers react differently to this fact of pedagogical life. Some of them never show their hand. They always turn the question back on the student. They never declare themselves. This is the way of Socrates, as it is of the expert therapist (Socrates is, among many other things, the first deep analyst of the psyche, the spirit), who functions as a mirror, always showing the patient her own reflection back.

But there is another way of proceeding too, and it can be no less transforming. That is to expose oneself fully as a teacher, to be receptive to everything, every resentment, fantasy, affection, and hatred the student brings forward. And once those passions are alive, once they are in play, then let the student use them as energy for intellectual inquiry and thence for change. Such teachers are human incadescences – they have ideas, then the ideas have them; they promulgate theories, they burn brilliantly with them, and they are always, always right. They create disciples, smaller versions of themselve. They found schools. Freud was such a teacher. So was Plato. So, in his way, was Jesus." (78-79)

"In general, teachers do not want to be 'responsible' for students' screwing up their lives because they give themselves over uninhibitedly to Whitman and try to live as the old queer anarch would, or to Dickinson, who created her own God and her own cosmology and lived with them. Many teachers, I suspect, don't trust kids to sift these matters for themselves. Nor do they even really trust other adults to do it. The idea of a society full of people running amok, using the poets and artists to remake their own minds, individually and with only their own judgments and disasters and disappointments as inhibiting walls, can make teachers crazy." (239)

"It was words instead of body blows that [Lears] traded in. The powers that he had by virtue of knowing how to talk and write, commanding irony when he needed it, being able, when pushed, to impale an adversary on the point of a phrase – this power became manifest to me. And I thought back through some of the worst moments of my life, and I began to see how differently a few of them might have turned out if I could only have spoken half well rather than pitched a fit or thrown punches. Even in the face of violence, a sure mind, I began to believe, might bring you through." (250-251)

"Good teachers have many motivations, but I suspect that loneliness if often one of them. You need a small group, a circle, to talk to; unable to find it in a larger world, you try to create it in the smaller sphere of a classroom." (266)

An interesting read that got better as it went along (give it at least 50 pages to appreciate Edmundson's writing style), Teacher: The One Who Made the Difference makes for a nice wind-down at the end of the day.

Lost in Transition

In Books on September 13, 2011 at 9:34 pm

Lost in Transition David Brooks writes in The New York Times this week about an all-too-depressing reality: the lack of critical thinking employed by American young people. Quoting from Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, the new book from notable Notre Dame sociologist, Christian Smith, Brooks argues:

"In most times and in most places, the group was seen to be the essential moral unit. A shared religion defined rules and practices. Cultures structured people’s imaginations and imposed moral disciplines. But now more people are led to assume that the free-floating individual is the essential moral unit. Morality was once revealed, inherited and shared, but now it’s thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart."

He's right in his analysis. Some more excerpts:

"It’s not so much that these young Americans are living lives of sin and debauchery, at least no more than you’d expect from 18- to 23-year-olds. What’s disheartening is how bad they are at thinking and talking about moral issues."

“'Not many of them have previously given much or any thought to many of the kinds of questions about morality that we asked,'” Smith and his co-authors write. When asked about wrong or evil, they could generally agree that rape and murder are wrong. But, aside from these extreme cases, moral thinking didn’t enter the picture, even when considering things like drunken driving, cheating in school or cheating on a partner. 'I don’t really deal with right and wrong that often,' is how one interviewee put it."

"Smith and company found an atmosphere of extreme moral individualism — of relativism and nonjudgmentalism. Again, this doesn’t mean that America’s young people are immoral. Far from it. But, Smith and company emphasize, they have not been given the resources — by schools, institutions and families — to cultivate their moral intuitions, to think more broadly about moral obligations, to check behaviors that may be degrading. In this way, the study says more about adult America than youthful America."

"For decades, writers from different perspectives have been warning about the erosion of shared moral frameworks and the rise of an easygoing moral individualism. Allan Bloom and Gertrude Himmelfarb warned that sturdy virtues are being diluted into shallow values. Alasdair MacIntyre has written about emotivism, the idea that it’s impossible to secure moral agreement in our culture because all judgments are based on how we feel at the moment. Charles Taylor has argued that morals have become separated from moral sources. People are less likely to feel embedded on a moral landscape that transcends self. James Davison Hunter wrote a book called The Death of Character. Smith’s interviewees are living, breathing examples of the trends these writers have described."

The point is that students are not being taught what moral categories are, let alone trained how to use them to organize moral (or immoral, or amoral) ideas, behaviors, and philosophies. It's like trying to sort the mail without slotted boxes…or finding something on the Internet without a search engine…or charting a travel route with only an address but no map on which to plot it. The result is personal confusion, misdirection, and (ultimately) hurt – not to mention a society crumbling due to its inability to discern right from wrong because we are unable to name or describe either.

Many argue that education is the solution, but the claim needs more specificity to be even partially true. In reality, education that helps students recognize and contextualize ideas, behaviors, and philosophies is only part of the solution (and even then it is the foundation – not the pinnacle – of moral formation).

More on this on Friday.

A Primer on Conferencing

In Books, Calling, Church, Education, Places, Thought, Veritas on June 16, 2011 at 9:38 pm

  Repairing the Ruins

I'm here in Atlanta with 944 other folks for the 17th annual Association of Classical and Christian Schools conference. It's quite a gathering, with some neat folks from all over the country in attendance, and I'm grateful for the chance to join them.

The schedule is pretty straightforward: morning plenary, two morning workshops, afternoon plenary, two afternoon workshops. Evenings are free to process or collapse, depending on your temperament. The stage is sparse and the visuals non-existent (two critiques I have of a conference with a workshop titled "The Imperative of Beauty and the Aesthetic Call"), but the facility is terrific, the content is great, and there's always plenty of people to watch and wonder about (like the guy who is the spitting image of Richard Dreyfuss as a young Glenn Holland in the film, Mr. Holland's Opus – weird).

Because I used to periodically attend conferences when I was with The Navigators (not to mention design and run them at Glen Eyrie), I've developed my own set of conference-going habits for taking part in these kinds of gatherings. Granted, this event is more professional than personal, but some guidelines still apply. For instance:

  • With regard to speaker notes, I don't bother filling in blanks or capturing every point speakers make; instead, I listen for quotables that strike me and capture them on paper or online, as those are what I'm more apt to remember and want to revisit (to follow my quotable tweets from this conference, go to Veritas' Twitter page).
  • Because conference-attending is a huge commitment not only of money but of time, I give myself permission to work on other tasks while listening. This doesn't work for everybody, but I'm primarily an auditory learner, so the plenary pedagogy works well enough for me (plus, I get some things done, and there's a lot of those things to do now that I'm one week into the role).
  • I also give myself permission to skip sessions I'm not interested in, switch workshops from ones that aren't well-prepared to others that are, and take needed naps to stay fresh because, let's face it, most conferences are overprogrammed with little time built in to process and play around with ideas otherwise.
  • I always try to identify 3-4 people – presenters, fellow conferees, people who just look interesting, etc. – with whom I can schedule individual meals and breaks before, during, and after sessions. While there are a couple of moderated group lunch discussions I plan to attend with an eye to content, I don't find those nearly as engaging as sitting down with someone eyeball-to-eyeball to ask questions, to listen, and to try to learn something specific.
  • Rarely do I stop and visit the vendor booths unless 1) there's something very, very specific I'm interested in, and 2) the vendors aren't there (this is the best time to pick up free promotional material without having to endure the spiels). Yes, I know this seems both non-curious and cruel, but they're getting their material into my hands…I'm just controlling the delivery system a bit.
  • Finally, I pray for Megan and the girls and keep in touch so they know that just because I'm away doesn't mean they're forgotten. I know from experience how hard it can be on a spouse holding down the fort while the other is traveling, enjoying some schedule autonomy, and experiencing new intellectual stimulation. This is probably why Megan and I talked tonight about her attending the ACCS conference in Dallas with me next June.

I thought about listing the sessions and workshops I'm planning to attend, but it might be more interesting to give you an idea of how weird (but wonderful) a world this whole classical Christian education is by listing a few of the more intriguing workshop titles:

  • Terque Quarterque Beati: Unpacking Virgil's Tripartite Soul
  • Everybody's Reading Boni Libri
  • Bring It (Don't Dumb It) Down: How to Teach a 12-Year-Old a Classic
  • I See Dead Lines: Cultivating Students' Sixth Sense Through Poetry
  • Progymnasmata in the Classroom

To quote presenter Douglas Wilson: "Books are the original distance-learning packets, but the Bible assumes true education within a godly community of others."

It's good to be here talking about Christian ideas from the classic books, and doing so in the context of others. Perhaps the greatest benefit of a classical Christian education can be summed up in this realization: I have much to learn.

And I do.

Review: Atlas Shrugged (Part 1)

In Books, Movies, Politics on April 17, 2011 at 11:40 pm

Atlas-Shrugged-Movie-Poster_e
Over the past several months, I've been working my way through Ayn Rand's seminal novel, Atlas Shrugged. While I'm usually a quick reader, Rand's 54-year-old, 1,088-page epic about the clash between laissez-faire capitalism and unbridled socialism has taken more time than usual to read, but not because it's poorly written; I'm a coach and it's baseball season (and books don't read themselves).

Fortunately, I'd read enough to cover the newly-released Atlas Shrugged (Part 1) movie, made for $10 million and filmed in 26 days. Megan and I saw it Sunday night and, though I confess I was skeptical as to how it would play for reasons of limited budget and potentially bad acting, my fears were relieved. This independently-produced film featured some capable actors (I liked both Taylor Schilling as Dagny Taggart and Grant Bowler as Henry Rearden), a good musical score (Elia Cmiral), and CGI that wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it'd be. In case you haven't seen it yet, here's a trailer to give you an idea of what I mean:

In a word, the film is plenty watchable as a movie, but the real reason to see it is for the storyline of the book. Conservative columnist Cal Thomas wrote a succinct summary at TownHall.com, noting its timeliness for our present-day economic situation:

"Atlas Shrugged is a novel, but its plot is anything but fiction. In it, successful businesswoman, Dagny Taggart, the head of one of the largest railroad companies in America, struggles to keep her company alive in challenging economic times. Searching for innovative ways to stay afloat, she teams with steel magnate Hank Rearden, the developer of an innovative metal alloy, thought to be the strongest metal in the world. Success seems assured. Then the federal government steps in. The government proclaims the Taggart-Rearden partnership 'unfair' to other steel producers and passes a law regulating how many businesses an individual can own. The law is euphemistically titled the 'Equalization of Opportunity' bill."

Thomas goes on to explain the significance of the book 54 years since its publication:

"Atlas Shrugged is about those who would penalize individual achievement and subsidize 'the collective.' It is the embodiment of Karl Marx's philosophy, 'From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.' To put it another way, the collective believes that if you earn $2 dollars and I make $1 dollar, you owe me 50 cents to make things 'fair.' This is redistributionist or, to paraphrase the president (Obama), 'spreading the wealth around.'"

Not one to swoon (over anything), Thomas encourages folks to go see the movie. More liberal thinker Michael Shermer, writing at The Huffington Post, also liked the film, noting that "the choice to set the film in 2016 instead of the 1950s allowed the writers to tie in current events related to the recession and bailouts — with truck transportation and the airlines financially restricted because of excessive fuel prices and America returning to railroads as the bloodline of commerce." For the uninitiated, he also explains Rand's overarching philosophy of objectivism and her ultimate hero, John Galt:

"Who is John Galt? He is the film's principle avatar for Ayn Rand, without her all-too-human flaws. Who is Ayn Rand? She is the mind behind the philosophy of Objectivism, which she once summarized while standing on one foot:

1. Metaphysics: Objective Reality
2. Epistemology: Reason
3. Ethics: Self-interest
4. Politics: Capitalism

In Objectivism, (1) reality exists independent of human thought, (2) reason is the only viable method for understanding it, (3) people should seek personal happiness and exist for their own sake and no one should sacrifice himself for or be sacrificed by others, and (4) laissez-faire capitalism is the best political-economic system to enable the first three conditions to flourish. This combination, said Rand, allows people to "deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit."

To American ears, this sounds positively patriotic…until one looks past Objectivism's ideals into its realities. In a recent Facebook exchange, Ryan Dykhouse, a former student of mine and now a junior political science major at Olivet Nazarene University, voiced his perspective on Rand's philosophy this way:

"Ayn Rand believed that charity was immoral, that individuals are solely themselves responsible for all circumstances, and utterly promoted the prominence of the elite. Reason, the rational individual, has been utterly debunked. All individuals are products of the relationships they have with others. If you ignore the communal nature of humanity, you ignore the function of morality. The overbearing individualism of Ayn Rand's objectivism destroys the communal nature of humanity, and therefore humanity itself. Jesus promoted community and the giving of oneself to others, not the self-promoted greed of John Galt and the elitist heroes of Ayn Rand. Even within conservatism, believing that the individual is the sum of all things is dangerous…at least I believe so."

As I told Ryan, I don't disagree. I'm not an objectivist, nor someone who believes that the individual is the sum of all things. I do, however, appreciate Rand's spot-on commentary on what happens when government over-reaches in the name of the state. In light of recent history of "too big to fail" initiatives, this aspect of her writing (and of the film) is uncanny and scarily prophetic. Ed Morrisey, writing at Hot Air, gets at the timing of everything below:

"It occurred to me last night that this film wouldn’t have resonated nearly as well three years ago, or ten years ago, or perhaps not any time in the 54 years since Rand published the novel. The sense of crisis in the movie would have seemed too far from the experience of most Americans; likewise, the sense of aggressive, populist redistributionism would have looked hyperbolic and contrived. If this isn’t the perfect moment for this film, then it’s as close as I’d like to see it in my lifetime."

Unfortunately, Christianity gets pulled both ways by well-intentioned Christians who believe that either unrestrained capitalism or compulsory socialism is the economy of the Kingdom; neither is correct. John Wesley's view of a healthy capitalism was to "make as much as you can, save as much as you can, give as much as you can" – all three had to be in play for capitalism to be biblical. And an understanding of Acts 2 does not read as New Testament Marxist theory when one understands that Communism saying, "What's yours is mine," is very different from Christianity saying, "What's mine is yours."

The extremes of pure capitalism or pure socialism are both evil, and there's plenty of evidence in the world to support this claim. Whichever extreme of the economic spectrum one may favor, Atlas Shrugged – in book or movie form – should serve as a nuanced critique of both rather than a simplistic rationale for either.

Good movie. Recommended.

What Does Love Win If There Is Nothing to Lose?

In Books, Church, Theologians on March 27, 2011 at 4:56 pm

I've had a couple friends email me for my thoughts on Rob Bell's controversial new book, Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. While I haven't read it yet, enough people whom I respect have and the verdict seems mixed at best. Megan says I somehow owe the world a few thoughts since Bell and I have the same glasses, so with that flimsy justification in mind, let me respond to the only thing I really can at this point – the promotional video for the book:

It's important to understand from the beginning that Bell is more a compelling communicator than a precise theologian; he flies and dies by the rhetorical question, which makes him both interesting as a teacher and dangerous as one as well. Personally, I enjoy listening to him tell stories in his rambling stream-of-consciousness way, and his Nooma videos are much like this one in terms of good production values and style.

Bell's art show story in the beginning of the video is a good example of Bell's gift. After telling the story, he rightly chastises the sticky note incivility of one of the show's attenders and calls Christians to take a fresh look at how rude and ridiculous this kind of behavior is. This, I think, is when Bell is most helpful – he has a keen eye for recognizing legalism in the Church and smartly addresses the thinking behind the behavior rather than just the behavior itself.

Unfortunately, Bell's rhetorical nature takes him down the wrong road quickly. His response to the judgmental Christian's "reality check" is so exaggerated and over the top ("Will only a few select people make it to Heaven and will billions and billions burn forever in Hell?") that he sweeps away his audience in a tsunami of hyperbole, leaving little standing in its wake. He jumps immediately to what a Christian's opinion (whether conceit or horror) might be concerning Hell, seems to accept it (whatever it may be) as gospel, and continues to think out loud by raising (but not alluding to anything other than) his own questions on the topic.

True to form, Bell then overemphasizes personal responsibility ("How do you become one of the few? Is it what you believe, or what you say, or what you do, or what you know?") as a possible way of dealing with the idea of Hell (which, in the video, has been referenced – and apparently in the book, regarded – as little more than personal interpretation). The initial question of eschatology (the study of end times) becomes one of soteriology (the study of salvation) and then of divine ontology (the study of God's essence), but all dependent on (and seemingly subject to) the hermeneutic of experiential relativism:

"And then there is the question behind the questions. The real question is what is God like? Because millions and millions were taught that…God is going to send you to Hell unless you believe in Jesus. And so what gets subtly caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God. But what kind of God is that that we need to be rescued from this God?"

This is, as one of my seminary professors would say after considering an honest (but misguided) inquiry, "the wrong question" due to the unbiblical theological suppositions upon which it's built and the variety of problematic propositional fallacies it violates. While I would not disagree with Bell that eschatology is crucial to understanding God, his rhetorical questions are not helpful in substance ("millions and millions" were taught that God is going to send you to Hell?) nor phrasing (Jesus "rescuing us" from God?) and instead cast God as suspect in his role as Creator and Redeemer.

After a final set of rhetorical questions about who God is and what God is like, Bell ends the video with a statement so sweepingly broad and generally vague that it really means very little (comparitive superlatives are, after all, only meaningful when you qualify what the initial positive is). He claims:

"What you discover in the Bible is so surprising, unexpected, and beautiful that whatever we've been told or taught, the Good News is actually better than that – better than we could ever imagine. The Good News is that love wins."

This, I'm guessing (again, I haven't read the book), is what so much of the controversy is about: Bell's theology seems so indistinct and non-commital as to what he actually believes that it's difficult to figure out what love wins and why it matters. This has some raising the question of whether Bell is a univeralist. I don't know the answer to that, but I do know that Jesus didn't "rescue us" from God; he rescued us as God (this is what the biblical doctrine of Incarnation is all about). I also know that God does not send us to Hell; the wages of sin we ourselves have earned (Romans 6:23) condemn us more than enough for that.

Love wins. Okay, but wins what? And how? And for whom? And says Whom? These are the questions I hope Bell answers biblically and convincingly in his book. Unfortunately, from the little I've read, watched, and listened, I'm not optimistic that his answers are going to be all that definitive.

Below are a few links concerning the Love Wins debate. Feel free to add others that would be helpful.

Why Books Are Still My Favorite “Gadget”

In Books, Technology on March 26, 2011 at 10:07 am

BASICS-popup Saw this article on digital spring cleaning in the NYT and thought it was helpful. My favorite quote:

"Yes, e-readers are amazing, and yes, they will probably become a more dominant reading platform over time, but consider this about a book: It has a terrific, high-resolution display. It is pretty durable; you could get it a little wet and all would not be lost. It has tremendous battery life. It is often inexpensive enough that, if you misplaced it, you would not be too upset. You can even borrow them free at sites called libraries."

I would add that books are a lot more fun experientially to buy in person and you never have to worry about formats or platforms when sharing. Other advantages come to mind?

Forget Chocolate; I’ll Take a Book Instead

In Books, Holidays, Technology on February 13, 2011 at 8:36 pm

Book Heart
Our Valentine's Day tradition here at the Half-Pint House involves two things: board games and books. Megan usually picks out a new game for the fam and purchases a new book for each of the girls to unwrap and enjoy.

This year, we're changing up our routine and letting the girls pick out their own books thanks to Groupon doubling some gift money set aside for Barnes & Noble. With that to look forward to, here's a quote I read in Newsweek over the weekend that sums up my thoughts on the whole ebook question. It's from James H. Billington, librarian of Congress:

"The new immigrants don’t shoot the old inhabitants when they come in. One technology tends to supplement rather than supplant. How you read is not as important as: will you read? And will you read something that’s a book—the sustained train of thought of one person speaking to another? Search techniques are embedded in e-books that invite people to dabble rather than follow a full train of thought. This is part of a general cultural problem."

There are other quotes in the article worth considering, but this one particularly struck me as addressing the real issue. Whether one reads is one thing; how one reads is another. Personally, I need fewer – not more – distractions when I read; thus, I'm still in need of (and in love with) the printed page.

Regardless (and whichever way you may read), have a happy Puke Valentine's Day.

Booklist 2010

In Books on December 20, 2010 at 8:23 am

Just in time for any last-minute Christmas shopping needs, here's the list of books I read this past year. (For years past on the blog, click here: 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006.) Enjoy.

January (4)

  • Luther the Reformer by James M. Kittelson – enjoyable and theologically astute biography of Martin Luther; balanced approach to a man given to extremes (good and otherwise). (8)
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy – fast read about a man and his son surviving a post-apocalyptic world; the feeling of futility is real, but the redemption not so much. (7)
  • The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahir – liked this story about a couple from India and their first generation American-born children adjusting to both worlds; movie not as good. (7)
  • Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver – good writing and interesting characters make this multi-narrator novel satisfying, especially as it moves to convergence in final chapters. (8)

February (0)

Wow. I read, but I apparently didn't finish anything.

March (1)

  • Unprotected: A Campus Psychiatrist Reveals How Political Correctness in Her Profession Endangers Every Student by Miriam Grossman – well-written and documented (and so needed). (8)

April (0)

Coaching baseball. About the only thing I read was my players' box scores.

May (3)

  • The Ten Commandments: Manual for the Christian Life by Jochen Douma – well-written and thoroughly Reformed commentary essential to teaching God’s Ten Words. (10)
  • The Space Between: A Parent’s Guide to Teenage Development by Walt Mueller – Mueller produces an accurate summary of teenage-dom; some good convergence and quotes, but if you know teenagers at all, it’s nothing too surprising or new. (6)
  • The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver – not a big fan of multiple character narration, and the first half of this story about a missionary family and their hypocritical husband/father was less than enjoyable, but it got better the less he was mentioned. (5)

June (6)

  • The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America by Bill Bryson – initially afraid this would be the small town memoir I always wanted to write; instead, it was a mean, hyper-cynical look at rural America. Boo. (3)
  • Baseball is a Funny Game by Joe Garagiola – older book by a St. Louis boy who made good in the Bigs; not the best writing by any means, but baseball’s baseball, so it was okay. (5)
  • Rise to Rebellion by Jeff Sharra – a novel about the people and events leading up to the Revolutionary War; my first book of historical fiction, but definitely not my last. (9)
  • Cannery Row by John Steinbeck – curious novella set in California’s Monterey by one of my favorite novelists; a quick read with little resolution, but the characters alone are worth it. (7)
  • The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr – one of the most important, best-researched, and well-written books I’ve read in ten years; what the Internet is doing to our brains is scary. (10)
  • Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World edited by Heidi Hayes Jacobs – series of essays on “essential education for a changing world,” the contents of which are both thought-provoking and overly pragmatic. If unbridled technology in the classroom is your cause, here’s your bandwagon. (7)

July (4)

  • Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church by N.T. Wright – for a theologian of Wright’s academia, he is an unbelievably readable writer; all Christians should read this to separate fact from fiction inherent to their eschatology. (9)
  • The Final Forest: The Battle for the Last Great Trees of the Pacific Northwest by William Dietrich – older book read for Summer Seminar Washington on the logging/environmental debate in the Pacific Northwest; writing wanes a bit in the end, but overall very helpful in understanding the debate that shapes that region. (7)
  • The Journey by Peter Kreeft – short, enjoyable allegory filled with pithy points on philosophy and worldview; a good (and accessible) book for believers and skeptics alike. (8)
  • Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton – listened to this fun pirate tale on CD with the girls; a bit on the PG-13 side, which should make it just right for a summer movie coming soon (6)

August (4)

  • Voyager: Seeking New Worlds in the Age of Discovery by Stephen J. Pyne – story of the Voyager space probes contextualized within voyages of discovery throughout history; a little long at times, but space stuff fascinates. (6)
  • The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends on It by Os Guinness – much-needed take on the place of religion in American society; eloquently written and intelligently argued (which is exactly why most politicians will never understand it). (8)
  • The Discomfort Zone by Jonathan Franzen – Webster Groves native’s/bestselling novelist’s personal history; good writing about growing up in St. Louis, but sad and unfulfilling. (6)
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – first of an adventure/sci-fi trilogy that garnered rave reviews from our sophomore literature students (no small feat); where were books like this when I was in high school? (7)

September (1)

  • The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen – writing so good you barely notice how dysfunctional and depressing Albert Lambert and his family really are; just a little redemption, please? (8)

October (2)

  • Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins – the story of Katniss and her battle with the Capitol continues (though this one dragged a bit compared to the first). (5)
  • Next by Michael Crichton – there are too many characters to keep track of and the story is all over the place and silly at times (talking animals, etc.), but Crichton’s always interesting when it comes to fictionalizing science (in this case, transgenics). (5)

November (3)

  • Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins – the final book of The Hunger Games series, the ending of this kids’ version of Running Man was not predictable, but not really fulfilling either. Glad I read it, but glad it’s over. (5)
  • The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King – quick read (half a day) over Thanksgiving about a young girl who gets lost in the woods and experiences the best paranoia KIng can come up with. (5)
  • Half Broke Horses by Jannette Walls – this prequel to Walls' Glass Castle (which I liked) is really her grandmother's memoir written as fiction. Deep characters, great writing, powerful story. (8)

 December (8)

  • Re:Thinking Worldview by J. Mark Bertrand – helpful book on worldview written by an English major rather than a philosopher of theologian (though he's not bad at those, either); different. (8)
  • The Universe Next Door by James Sire – this classic text on worldviews and religions is succinct and to the point concerning the beliefs that have shaped our world; every Christian should read this. (9)
  • Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe – couldn't remember having read this before, so I pulled it off the shelf for abeautiful picture of a man coming to terms with God and his sovereignty. (8)
  • Jack by George Sayer – a biography of C.S. Lewis by one of his university friends; a little dry in general, but okay (Lewis is a hero). (6)
  • Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity by Nancy Pearcey – Pearcey totally destroys the whole sacred/secular and public/private dichotomies; Francis Schaeffer in female form. (10)
  • Fasting: A Neglected Discipline by David R. Smith – a helpful little old-school (1954) evanglical book on the purpose, benefits, dangers, and methods of fasting. (7)
  • God's Chosen Fast: A Spiritual and Practical Guide to Fasting by Arthur Wallis – another small book (110 pages) on the discipline of fasting; this one has more practical details and how-tos. (7)
  • Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Faithfulness and Homosexuality by Wesley Hill – HIll, a gay Christian, explains why celibacy is the only choice for homosexuals who want to walk with God; beautifully written and biblically sound, this book is a must-read for the Church today. (10)

We Interrupt Our Normally Non-Scheduled Weekend…

In Arts, Books, Calling, Church, Education, Family, Friends, Musicians, Nature, Places, Places & Spaces, Theologians, Thought, Travel, Young Ones on September 17, 2010 at 12:13 am

Here are some groovy events – several of which I'd love to see a familiar face at if you're in the area – that I'll be part of in the next six weeks. (If you or anyone you know has questions about the conferences, click the links or let me know and I'll fill in details.)

SEPTEMBER


Applefestival 17-18: Griggsville Apple Festival (Uptown Square, Griggsville, IL)
I've written about this cultural tour de force before, but words and pictures just cannot do justice to my hometown's annual fall celebration; you just have to be there. That said, I'm once again looking forward to more time on the farm (now in harvest mode) since our Labor Day visit two weekends ago, as well as to seeing some former high school classmates from back in the day (when you graduated in a class of 30, it doesn't take much to have a yearly class reunion each September).

Camping 24-26: Annual Fall Family Camping Trip (Babler State Park, Wildwood, MO)
We always schedule this trip the weekend following Parent/Teacher conferences (after talking with parents for six hours straight and the struggles many of them are having in connecting with their students, I'm usually newly motivated to spend time with my own kids). New activity this year: the family bike ride, as all six of us are bike-mobile (now we just have to figure out how to get all six bikes there).

OCTOBER

Tour2010logo 1-2: Tour de Cape (Downtown Pavilion, Cape Girardeau, MO)
Speaking of bikes, I've been pseudo-training (about 30 miles/week) to take my first "century ride" this weekend with a couple of co-workers (both of whom are much better bikers than I am). I've never before ridden 100 miles in a day, so we'll see how much Advil it takes to do it when it's all said and done.

Biblical Imagination 8-10: Biblical Imagination Conference with Michael Card (Fredericksburg, VA)
I wrote about this not too long ago, and it seems a little strange that we're less than a month out already. I'm pretty stoked to hang out on the east coast with Mike and company. This is the first conference of what I hope are many to come, so if you're too far from D.C. this time around, hang in there: odds are we'll be coming to you soon.

TwentySomeone 15-17: TwentySomeone/ThirtySomewhere Conference (Memphis, TN)
My good buddy, Mitchell Moore, is a pastor at Second Presbyterian in Memphis, and he's asked me to come down to speak at a retreat for peeps in their 20s and 30s. Revisiting the material (as well as working on some new for the next book) has been really fun, and I'm still "smokin' what I'm sellin'" (figuratively speaking, of course) in terms of making the most of these decades. Megan and the girls are coming with me, and we'll sight-see around Memphis on Saturday afternoon.

Relevant 22-24: Megan at The Relevant Conference (Harrisburg, PA)
The good news: I'll be home (and probably won't leave the house if I can help it); the other news: Megan won't be. As she did in Colorado in July, my wife will be taking in another blogging conference – this one of a more devotional than technical nature – in Pennsylvania. I'm interested to see what comes out of her time there, as well as to what degree the two conferences overlap and supplement each other.

That's all for now. We now return you to our normally non-scheduled weekend…

Dear Christian School Administrator,

In Books, Calling, Education on September 7, 2010 at 4:55 pm

When I was hired to teach at Westminster Christian Academy three years ago, my administration took a risk, as I had very little formal education experience and background. But, it was a calculated risk – one they thought might work because of WCA’s commitment to develop teachers before and in the midst of teaching students.

After a three-day orientation the first week of the summer in which I learned the basics about our school, vision, and curriculum, I was paired with two mentor teachers – one for each of the two subjects I was to teach – with whom I met over the next year. This was helpful not only for curricular reasons, but for being able to listen to teachers talk teaching.

In addition, Westminster sent me along with other new staff to the Independent Schools Association of the Central States (ISACS) conference in Chicago a few weeks before school started in August. This was helpful not so much for learning strategy or technique (though that happened to a degree), but for again being around teachers – old and new – who were talking teaching.

LearningEducation I’m sure you have your own version of teacher orientation, training, and development, but I’m also guessing that you’re always looking to improve it. To that end, I’d like to make you aware of a tool I hope will provide another “teacher talking” resource: Learning Education: Essays and Ideas from My First Three Years of Teaching.

In the book, I recount my first three years teaching full-time at Westminster, processing them through the lenses of my coursework at Covenant Theological Seminary, from which I recently graduated with M.A. degrees in Theological Studies and Educational Ministries. The result is a good balance of theory and practice for the reader.

Would this be a helpful “teacher talking teaching” companion for your new teachers this fall? The books are $12.75 each, but I’m glad to take 10% off orders of 10 or more if that would be helpful (you can email me directly for bulk orders).

Thanks for your consideration, as well as for your commitment to Christian education. Enjoy the rest of your fall, and God bless you and your educational efforts this year.

Biblical Imagination: New Opp w/ Michael Card

In Books, Calling, Church, Education, Musicians, Theologians, Writers on August 6, 2010 at 12:14 pm

When I was 14, a friend of mine gave me my first Michael Card cassette, Scandalon. The year was 1985. Though quite different from the music my friends were listening to at the time, I was desperate for anything that spoke of my new friend, Jesus, who had just introduced Himself to me a few months earlier.

Thirty days later, I had worn out the tape.

While I enjoyed the richness of Michael’s distinct voice and memorable melodies, I was more intrigued by the words and phrases that made up his profound lyrics. Sadly, growing up in my small-town Methodist church, I had not heard much about (let alone begun to understand the meaning of) “the stone that makes men stumble and a rock that makes them fall” (Scandalon), or that “the Lamb is a Lion who’s roaring with rage” (The Lamb is a Lion), or that when we follow Christ, we are following “God’s own fool” (God’s Own Fool). I was fascinated.

Though little of the language made sense to me at the time, I kept listening (though I had to get another tape—where were CDs when I needed them?). I also began reading (barely) the Scriptures, which I didn’t understand much at first, either. But whether listening to Michael (and others), or “semi-reading” the Bible, the imagery of it all stuck with me, dancing in my high school-aged head at night, sparking a hunger and thirst within me not only for this imagery’s meaning, but for being able to respond to its meaning. That’s what the power of creativity can do…and that’s what it has done in my life.

In 2002, as the program director for The Navigators Glen Eyrie Group, I booked Mike for a series of conferences/concerts at the Glen and insisted he be part of planning them. This was surreal for me and new for Mike (he had never had the opportunity to actually speak into the planning of a retreat for which he had been booked), and together we created the Scribbling in the Sand Conference on Creativity.

Twenty-five years since that initial listen to Scandalon and five years since our last conference days, I'm flying to Nashville this weekend to hang with Mike, as he has asked me to join his team as a creative adviser/collaborator/teacher for the next stage of his ministry. Mike has just signed a four-book deal on the topic of biblical imagination with InterVarsity Press, has a new album coming out in February, and wants to converge all these together in a weekend retreat/conference experience beginning next year.

Because of our friendship and past ministry together, he's asked me to help, both as a facilitator and as a co-teacher like we used to do back in the day. I'm thrilled, especially since a majority of the teaching he's doing these days is in the summer, which works well with my own teaching schedule during the school year at Westminster Christian Academy.

As a friend of mine mentioned as we were having breakfast this morning, God does not waste a thing in our lives. Indeed, to trace the hand of God through all of this has been yet another significant lesson in the reality of God's sovereignty and the importance of our faithfulness in the littlest of things. I don't know all that lies ahead (whether with Mike or otherwise), but I do know that God does, and he has proven himself trustworthy far too many times throughout history (the world's and my own) to doubt him.

I'm sure I'll have more after the trip, but in the meantime, thanks for any prayers you may offer on my behalf. Pray I'll be faithful to what God (and Mike) may be asking me to do as part of this new opportunity, as well as to what I'm doing now here in St. Louis.

Twilight It Isn’t

In Books, Education, Nature, Places, Science, Travel, Westminster on July 9, 2010 at 5:36 am

Twilight-eclipse-2

I'm flying to Portland today in preparation for Westminster's Summer Seminar in Washington, which starts tomorrow and runs for the next ten days. We've got 22 soon-to-be-seniors and 7 staff (none of whom are pictured above) going on the trip. Here's a tentative (read: weather-permitting) itinerary:

July 10, Saturday
Rendezvous with students/staff in Portland, OR
Lunch
Transport to Forks, WA (yes, I know this is where the Twilight "saga" is set, but no, that's not why we're going there)

July 11 or 12, Sunday or Monday
Forks logging and mill tours
Hoh Rain Forest hike
or
Hurricane Ridge
and Crescent Lake

July 13, Tuesday
Tidal pool study at Ruby Beach
Transport to Mossyrock

July 14 and 15, Wednesday and Thursday
Mt. Rainier
or
Mt. St. Helens

Transport to Deschutes River state park

July 16, Friday
Hike Mt. Hood (Copper spur: 7.8 miles)

July 17 and 18, Saturday and Sunday
Raft Deschutes River

July 19, Monday
Holiday Inn Express, Portland, OR

July 20, Tuesday
Depart

Core classes include:

  • Is This the Way It’s Supposed to Be?
    This core will introduce the tension of needing a vital raw material, yet wrestling with the consequences of acquiring that resource.
  • The Biology of the Old Growth vs. the Modern Lumber Industry
    This core will explore the idea of an old growth forest juxtaposed with a replanted forest: Can we simply replant and expect to sustain the old growth ecosystem?
  • The Way It Should Be: Systems That Function
    This core will explore ecosystems functioning as they were intended to and seek to understand that species work towards the benefits of the entire system due to a “biological Invisible Hand”.
  • The Cedar as Central: The “Buffalo” of the Pacific Northwest
    This core will explore the Native American view of the old growth cedar as central to their survival and how the same cedars are central to the survival of Forks, WA. Students will understand the centrality of the cedar to an old growth ecosystem and its species. A comparison will be drawn to the buffalo on the Great Plains. What are the differences between the White and Native American views of these natural resources?
  • Sustainability
    This core will explore author Lynn White’s claim that a Christian worldview with its notion of dominion is ultimately responsible for the ecological crisis. Students will also interact with Francis Schaeffer’s "Pollution and the Death of Man" as a counterpoint to White’s ideas and will seek to explore a proper Christian view of dominion with an emphasis on sustainability.
  • Mt. St. Helens: A Theological View of Restoration
    This core will explore the gradual, natural restoration of Mt. St. Helens and the parallel idea of God’s restoration of Creation from a Reformed eschatological position.
  • The Economics and Politics of Logging: What Will It Cost You?
    This core will explore the costs of proper dominion. Considering that the whole Old Growth debate is driven by the economics and politics of rationing a scarce resource, students will be introduced to the notion that proper dominion will be costly to their generation.

Students are to have read The Final Forest: The Battle for the Last Great Trees of the Pacific Northwest by William Dietrich and written an introductory three-page response essay before the trip. They'll then submit five revised journal entries, culminating in a five-page essay due at the end of the month. I'm responsible for the reflecting/writing/grading aspect of the trip, as well as for publishing a book compilation of the students' best writing and pictures.

All in all, it should be fun. If I see Edward or Bella, I'll say hello for you…

Review: The Shallows (Part 3 of 3)

In Books, Education, Technology on July 2, 2010 at 5:51 pm

(The following is the third of a three-part review of one of the
more important books I've read in the past ten years:
The
Shallows by Nicholas Carr
. Parts one and two are below.)

The Shallows In chapter 7, titled "The Juggler's Brain," Carr clarifies what he (with the help of brain researchers) think the Internet is doing to our brains. He writes:

"One thing is very clear: if, knowing what we know today about the brain's plasticity, you were to set out to invent a medium that would rewire our mental circuits as quickly and thoroughly as possible, you would probably end up designing something that looks and works a lot like the Internet. It's not just that we tend to use the Net regularly, even obsessively. It's that the Net delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli – repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive – that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions. With the exception of alphabets and number systems, the Net may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use." (p. 116)

He continues:

"The Net also provides a high-speed system for delivering responses and rewards – 'positive reinforcements,' in psychological terms – which encourage the repetition of both physical and mental actions. When we click a link, we get something new to look at and evaluate. When we Google a keyword, we receive, in the blink of an eye, a list of interesting information to appraise. When we send a text or an instant message or an email, we often get a reply in a matter of seconds or minutes. When we use Facebook, we attract new friends or form closer bonds with old ones. When we send a tweet through Twitter, we gain new followers. When we write a blog post, we get comments from readers or links from other bloggers. The Net's interactivity gives us powerful new tools for finding information, expressing ourselves, and conversing with others. It also turns into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment." (p. 117)

One could argue (or at least I will here) that a better solution to kids' ever-increasing struggles with Attention Deficit Disorder could be technology reduction rather than Ritalin prescription. Think about it: When a kid has trouble paying attention in class, rarely is there ever a discussion about doing away with smart phones or Facebook; medicines are started, adjusted, or switched, but God forbid we address ubiquitous, long-term technology exposure as part of the problem (this would, after all, seemingly punish the kid whose friends are all constantly connected, not to mention become inconvenient to parents who think of their kids' cell phone as a digital leash). Consider this from Carr:

"The Net commands our attention with far greater insistency than our television or radio or morning newspaper ever did. Watch a kid texting his friends or a college student looking over the roll of new messages and requests on her Facebook page or a businessman scrolling through his emails on his BlackBerry – or consider yourself as you enter keywords into Google's search box and begin following a trail of links. What you see is a mind consumed with a medium." (p. 118)

Other effects our brains may suffer due to frequent Net exposure: we fear "our social standing is, in one way or another, always in play, always at risk" (p. 118); we suffer from constant distractedness that the Net encourages ("distracted from distraction by distraction") (p. 119); this online distraction "short-circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively" (p. 119); as a result, we suffer "cognitive overload," for "if working memory is the mind's scratch pad, then long-term memory is its filing system," and "the depth of our intelligence hinges on our ability to transfer information from working memory to long-term memory and weave it into conceptual schemas." (p. 124)

True, concedes Carr, "Research shows that certain cognitive skills are strengthened, sometimes substantially, by our use of computers and the Net. These tend to involve lower-level, or more primitive, mental functions such as hand-eye coordination, reflex response, and the processing of visual cues." (p. 139) Is this good news or bad news? Carr answers the question this way: "The Net is making us smarter…only if we define intelligence by the Net's own standards." (p. 141)

I could go on (and Carr certainly does) with more research and examples to make his case, but for me, the point is this:

"The development of a well-rounded mind requires both an ability to find and quickly parse a wide range of information and a capacity for open-ended reflection. There needs to be time for efficient data collection and time for inefficient contemplation, time to operate the machine and time to sit idly in the garden…The problem today is that we're losing our ability to strike a balance between those two very different states of mind. Mentally, we're in perpetual locomotion." (p. 168)

One of the biggest takeaways for me from the book is my need to educate students (and parents) about what really is happening to our brains as a result of the medium – not just the message – of our technology. This has to go beyond quoting studies of teen cell phone use and time spent on Facebook; I have to figure out how to practically help them understand the science of the reality, backing up the latest research with Scripture's timeless call to "take every thought captive to obey Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:5). (See my posts "Why Johnny Can't Write, parts 1 and 2" for more on the challenges of this.)

At minimum, this is easily an entire period or maybe a multi-day mini-unit at the beginning of the school year; at maximum, it's an on-going conversation in and out of the classroom the whole year round. Whichever, I don't plan to have the conversation via email.

Important topic, great book. Ten of ten and highly recommended.

Review: The Shallows (Part 2 of 3)

In Books, Education, Technology on July 1, 2010 at 8:05 am

(The following is the second of a three-part review of one of the
more important books I've read in the past ten years:
The
Shallows by Nicholas Carr
. Thanks for reading.)

The Shallows I remember hearing a story about a man who died after being hit crossing a busy big-city street while talking on his cell phone. When paramedics arrived on the scene, they discovered that his cell phone was not a cell phone at all, but a child's imitation plastic toy phone. Unfortunately, it wasn't only the phone that was dead.

The story is one I tell my high school students (nearly all of whom shudder to think about going a day without their cell phones) in order to start a conversation about how our culture idolizes digital technology for social reasons – status and identity, ease and convenience, inclusion and interaction. Few teenagers will argue my claim of idolatry; fewer still will do anything about it. It is, after all, they say, how we live.

Or at least how we think we live. But is our obsessive (pathological?) devotion to technology really living? In creating something we can't seem to do without, are we the better for it in the long run? What's behind all that has come about as a result of the digital revolution of the past 20 years? Writes Carr:

"Every technology is an expression of human will. Through our tools, we seek to expand our power and control over our circumstances – over nature, over time and distance, over one another…Intellectual technologies, when they come into popular use, often promote new ways of thinking or extend to the general population established ways of thinking that had been limited to a small, elite group. Every intellectual technology, to put it another way, embodies an intellectual ethic, a set of assumptions about how the human mind works or should work." (p. 44-45)

The discussion of an intellectual ethic is, in my opinion, what's been missing from so many of the conversations, books, articles, and emails I've read over the past 3-5 years about technology in society. This doesn't mean there isn't one – or even multiple ones – out there, but it seems to me that, as our use of technological tools becomes more and more constant, the attention given to considering an ethic – intellectual, spiritual, whatever – regarding them becomes less and less. Carr says this is not surprising:

"The intellectual ethic of a technology is rarely recognized by its inventors. They are usually so intent on solving a particular problem or untangling some thorny scientific or engineering dilemma that they don't see the broader implications of their work. The users of the technology are also usually oblivious to its ethic. They, too, are concerned with the practical benefits they gain from employing the tool. Our ancestors didn't develop or use maps in order to enhance their capacity for conceptual thinking or to bring the world's hidden structures to light. Nor did they manufacture mechanical clocks to spur the adoption of a more scientific mode of thinking. Those were by-products of the technologies. But what by-products! Ultimately, it's an invention's intellectual ethic that has the most profound effect on us. The intellectual ethic is the message that a medium or other tool transmits into the minds and culture of its users." (p. 45-46)

According to Carr, there are really two schools of thought on the matter: Technological determinists argue that “technological progress, which they see as an autonomous force outside man’s control, has been the primary factor influencing the course of human history.” On the opposite end of the spectrum (and where I had here-to-fore placed myself) are the instrumentalists, "the people who downplay the power of technology, believing tools to be neutral artifacts, entirely subservient to the conscious wishes of their users. Instrumentalism is the most widely held view of technology, not least because it’s the view we would prefer to be true.” (p. 46)

But is it true? Is all the technology we're creating and then subjecting ourselves to really ours to control, or (from the point of view of the determinist) is it really controlling us? Shouldn't these questions be asked concerning a technology's medium and as well as its message? This seeming absence of consideration calls to mind actor Jeff Goldblum's portrayal of chaos theorist, Dr. Ian Malcom, and his explanation of all prehistoric hell breaking loose in the movie Jurassic Park: "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they
didn't stop to think if they should."

Granted, we're not dealing with dino DNA, but to what degree are we messing with ours? Carr gives numerous examples of how technological advances have often marked turning points in history, reminding us that, "In large measure, civilization has assumed its current form as a result of the technologies people have come to use." But then Carr comes full circle back to his study of brain research, reminding us that, "What's been harder to discern is the influence of technologies, particularly intellectual technologies, on the functioning of people's brains." (p. 48) In the meantime, multiple generations of people – especially our youngest – are hardly waiting around for a verdict.

Carr lists Socrates as the first real critic of "new media," as the philosopher was suspect of the written word replacing oral tradition's memorized and spoken one:

“Socrates grants that there are practical benefits to capturing one’s thoughts in writing – 'as memorials against the forgetfulness of old age' – but he argues that a dependence on the technology of the alphabet will alter a person’s mind, and not for the better. By substituting outer symbols for inner memories, writing threatens to make us shallower thinkers, he says, preventing us from achieving the intellectual depth that leads to wisdom and true happiness." (p. 55)

Socrates' student, Plato, however, was an advocate for the written word and thus differed from his mentor with regard to the transition from an oral to a literary culture (ironic that, without Plato, we wouldn't know much of what Socrates thought). Nevertheless, writes Carr, "It was, as both Plato and Socrates recognized in their different ways, a shift that was set in motion by the invention of a tool, the alphabet, and that would have profound consequences for our language and our minds." (p. 56)

From Carr's perspective, every early media transition was bumpy but beneficial to our brains in some way. Papyri reading required deep concentration combined with deciphering text and interpretation of meaning; book writing pushed the bounds of knowledge and culture as arguments became longer, clearer, more complex, and more challenging. Gutenberg introduced the printing press and literacy became increasingly common among the commoners. But the change was on more than just on a cultural level:

"One of the most important lessons we've learned from the study of neuroplasticity is that the mental capacities, the very neural circuits, we develop for one purpose can be put to other uses as well. As our ancestors imbued their minds with the discipline to follow a line of argument or narrative through a succession of printed pages, they became more contemplative, reflective, and imaginative. 'New thought came more readily to a brain that had already learned how to rearrange itself to read,' says Maryanne Wolf [in her book, Proust and the Squid]; 'the increasingly sophisticated intellectual skills promoted by reading and writing added to our intellectual repertoire." (p. 75-76)

This would be the case in increasing fashion for the next 550 years, but then something very different emerges on the scene: electronic media. Writes Carr:

"The shift began during the middle years of the twentieth century, when we started devoting more and more of our time and attention to the cheap, copious, and endlessly entertaining products of the first wave of electric and electronic media: radio, cinema, phonograph, television. But those technologies were always limited by their inability to transmit the written word. They could displace but not replace the book. Culture's mainstream still ran through the printing press." (p. 77)

It did, that is, until now:

"Now the mainstream is being diverted, quickly and decisively, into a new channel. The electronic revolution is approaching its culmination as the computer – desktop, laptop, handheld – becomes our constant companion and the Internet becomes our medium of choice for storing, processing, and sharing information in all forms, including text. The new world will remain, of course, a literate world, packed with the familiar symbols of the alphabet…But the world of the screen, as we're already coming to understand, is a very different place from the world of the page. A new intellectual ethic is taking hold. The pathways in our brains are once again being rerouted." (p. 77)

I'll try to finish up on Friday with Carr's observations of the Internet's impact on our brains and some possible implications for the world of education. Hang with me.

Review: The Shallows (Part 1 of 3)

In Books, Education, Technology on June 30, 2010 at 1:07 pm

(The following is the first of a three-part review of one of the more important books I've read in the past ten years: The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. I hope I can do it justice.)

The Shallows One of the major themes running through discussions at every level of education these days has to do with technology – specifically, that having to do with the opportunity, expectation, and (for lack of a better word) mandate to use it in the classroom. As teachers, we're told that a true 21st-century education demands technology, and since we're ten years in by now, well, we're already behind. (Note: For a primer on this perspective, read Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World edited by Heidi-Hayes Jacobs.)

The question here is behind what? What is the supposed eight ball we find ourselves peering around? Is it educational or technological effectiveness? A combination of both? What would being ahead and on the front side of said eight ball look like?

Enter Nicholas Carr's recently published book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Released earlier this month amid a flurry of accompanying high-level PR from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and others, Carr's book picks up where his provocative July 2008 Atlantic Monthly article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" left off, raising the question no one in our 21st-century world really wants to answer: Is technology really good for us? Carr writes in the prologue:

"Whenever a new medium comes along, people naturally get caught up in the information – the 'content' – it carries. They care about the news in the newspaper, the music on the radio, the shows on the TV, the words spoken by the person on the far end of the phone line. The technology of the medium, however astonishing it may be, disappears behind whatever flows through it – facts, entertainment, instruction, conversation. When people start debating (as they always do) whether the medium's effects are good or bad, it's the content they wrestle over. Enthusiasts celebrate it; skeptics decry it." (p. 2)

He continues (and this is the main thesis of his book):

"What both enthusiast and skeptic miss is…that in the long run a medium's content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act. As our windows onto the world, and onto ourselves, a popular medium molds what we see and how we see it – and eventually, if we use it enough, it changes who we are, as individuals and as a society." (p. 3)

Is technology good for us? Always? Sometimes? Never? Before Carr gets around to dealing with the question, he rightly sets the context for the discussion by providing several fascinating chapters on the brain – what we know about it, what we don't know about it, and why it matters that we may attention to both. What jumps out from his research (which is excellently written in both detail and summary form) is the concept and importance of brain plasticity:

“Although the belief in the adult brain’s immutability was deeply and widely held, there were a few heretics. A handful of biologists and psychologists saw in the rapidly growing body of brain research indications that even the adult brain was malleable, or ‘plastic’…As brain science continues to advance, the evidence for plasticity strengthens.” (p. 21, 26)

Plasticity, Carr argues, is what makes our brains more human than hardwired. He writes:

"The brain is not the machine we once thought it to be. Though different regions are associated with different mental functions, the cellular components do not form permanent structures or play rigid roles. They're flexible. They change with experience, circumstance, and need. Some of the most extensive and remarkable changes take place in response to damage to the nervous system. Experiments show, for instance, that if a person is struck blind, the part of the brain that had been dedicated to processing visual stimuli – the visual cortex – doesn't just go dark. It is quickly taken over by circuits used for audio processing. And if the person learns to read Braille, the visual cortex will be redeployed for processing information delivered through the sense of touch. 'Neurons seem to 'want to receive input,' explains Nancy Kanwisher of MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research: 'When their usual input disappears, they start responding to the next best thing.'" (p. 29)

In other words, the brain not only adapts to stimuli, it alters itself because of it; that is, our brains are not only changed by the message but by the medium carrying the message. Carr's take on this, of course, is purely evolutionary, but it's interesting to think about his findings from a Christian worldview, taking into consideration Paul's emphases on transforming and renewing our minds (consider Romans 8; Romans 12; Ephesians 4; and Colossians 3); scientifically speaking, it would seem we were designed to actually be able to do this:

“The genius of our brain’s construction is not that it contains a lot of hardwiring but that it doesn’t. Natural selection, writes the philosopher David Buller in Adapting Minds, his critique of evolutionary psychology, 'has not designed a brain that consists of numerous prefabricated adaptations' but rather one that is able 'to adapt to local environmental demands throughout the lifetime of an individual, and sometimes within a period of days, by forming specialized structures to deal with those demands.' Evolution has given us a brain that can literally change its mind – over and over again. Our ways of thinking, perceiving, and acting, we now know, are not entirely determined by our genes. Nor are they entirely determined by our childhood experiences. We change them through the way we live – and through the tools we use.” (p. 31)

To keep us out of "the shallows," I'll stop for now and write about "the tools we use" on Thursday. Feel free to leave comments or questions, as the writing is still in progress.

Summer 2010 Preview, Etc.

In Books, Calling, Education, Family, Humanity, Internet, Musicians, Places, Places & Spaces, Theologians, Thought, Travel, TV, Vacation, Web/Tech, Westminster, Writers on May 23, 2010 at 11:00 pm

Sitting here on a Sunday night listening to some Lucinda Williams and doing a little writing. It's been a while since I've done a summary post of sorts, so since Megan and the girls are out of town and we're collectively an entire season behind to really make the LOST finale worth watching, here are a few things I've been thinking about and/or looking forward to:

School: This week is finals week, so I'll be spending most of my time grading. The good news is, unlike the past three years when I was evaluating projects and papers, I'm going into finals week with nothing other than finals to grade, so that should make for a little less consuming week in general.

In other school news, I've signed on for another year at Westminster, but my role is changing a bit as I'll be leaving the world of freshmen New Testament behind for fourth section of sophomore Ethics and one section of senior Worldviews next year. I'm glad for the transition all around.

One last note on the school front (this time the homeschool front), we're going to be entering a new stage of education here at home. This fall, our two oldest girls will be full-time students at Central Christian School in Clayton, while Megan continues leading the Classical Conversations group and homeschools our younger two (here are details from Megan's perspective).

Summer: In addition to writing (more on that below), my primary goal in June is to hang out with the little ladies, read some books, and get a few projects done around here. In addition, I'll help coach our Westminster summer baseball team for a week in June, as well as get trained on some new school information software, as I've been asked to be a mentor teacher to the rest of the staff this fall.

July ups the ante considerably in terms of travel, as we're planning a family trip to Colorado Springs, as the girls are now old enough (somehow) to attend The Navigators' camping programs (Eagle Lake and Eagle's Nest) we helped lead back in the day. I'll try to see as many folks as I can in a few days' time before I jump on a plane from Denver to Portland for my third year as part of Westminster's Summer Seminar. This time, I'll be investing ten days with 25 soon-to-be seniors in Washington state instead of South Dakota, after which I'll fly back to Colorado and then we'll all drive back to Missouri.

August sees staff reporting as earlier as the week of August 9th, but I'll have a few publishing projects to edit and design from the Washington trip, as well as a fair amount of prep work to finalize for my new
Worldviews class. Orientation starts the 12th and the first day of class is the 16th.

Studying: Despite baseball high-jacking my time and energy, I've been reading in a couple areas of interest this spring, not the least of which has been the study of the end times, or eschatology. N.T. Wright's book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, has been helpful, as has revisiting my notes from seminary (particularly Dr. Dan Doriani's notes from his Epistles and Revelation class). Of the three years I've taught Revelation to my freshmen New Testament classes, I feel like I've done the best job this year.

I'm also finishing up a couple books on education, namely John Dewey and the Decline of American Education by Henry T. Edmondson III, Curriculum 21 edited by Heidi Hayes-Jacobs, and The Secret of TSL by William Ouchi. It seems I've been reading these for a while (and I have), but there's been some good content that's come as a result.

Looking ahead, I have some Worldviews reading to do this summer, including (Re)Thinking Worldview by J. Mark Bertrand; The Compact Guide to World Religions edited by Dean C. Halverson (ed.); The Journey by Peter Kreeft; Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey; and The Universe Next Door by James W. Sire. Should be fun.

Writing: Now that my second book, Learning Education: Essays & Ideas from My First Three Years of Teaching, is finished, I'm turning back to finishing the ThirtySomewhere manuscript this summer. I'm still looking for a formal publisher to get behind it, but now that I've experimented with the self-publishing gig a bit (and am still experimenting), I may go with what I've got at some point this fall and see what happens. We'll see.

I plan to continue blogging here, though I really wonder how much people are interested in anything longer than 140 Twitter characters these days. Speaking of which, I've enjoyed Twitter enough to keep using it, but there again I just have no way of really knowing how far the medium's actual reach is so as to invest more time in it. Oh well.

Guess that's it for now. There's more, but this is long enough. I'll try to post a few more thoughts later on this week (nothing brings out literary creativity like the desire to avoid grading). Have a good one.

Learning Education: Second Endorsement

In Books, Education, Seminary, Westminster on May 10, 2010 at 5:33 pm

Here's a second endorsement for Learning
Education: Essay & Ideas from My First Three Years of Teaching
,
this one from the seminary professor level:

Learning Education (cover)“How
does a teacher learn how to teach? Craig answers his own question by
weaving together a colorful tapestry of reflections, papers, logs, and
reviews from his own early teaching odyssey. Teachers from every
experiential strata will identify with his heartfelt descriptions of the
highest highs and lowest lows. They will also appreciate Craig’s
ultimately hopeful, redemptive tone that reminds us that the best
teachers are those who love to learn. They are those who take their cues
from the Master teacher who embodies the grace and truth Craig so
skillfully reflects.”

DR.
DONALD GUTHRIE
, PROFESSOR OF EDUCATIONAL MINISTRIES, COVENANT
THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY

If you haven't done so yet, click here
to order
your copy. And please help spread the word via your blog, Twitter, or
Facebook account.

Journeying On

In Books, Calling, Church, Thought on May 2, 2010 at 8:33 am

Read this in The Valley of Vision this morning:

JOURNEYING ON

Lord of the cloud and fire,
I am a stranger, with a stranger's indifference;
My hands hold a pilgrim's staff,
My march is Zionward,
My Eyes are toward the coming of the Lord,
My heart is in thy hands without reserve.

Thou has created it,
redeemed it,
renewed it,
captured it,
conquered it.

Keep from it every opposing foe,
crush it in every rebel lust,
mortify every treacherous passion,
annihilate every earthborn desire.

All faculties of my being vibrate to thy touch;
I love thee with soul, mind, body, strength,
might, spirit, affection, will,
desire, intellect, understanding.

Thou art the very perfection of all perfections;
All intellect is derived from thee;
My scanty rivulets flow from they unfathomable
fountain.

Compared with thee the sun is darkness,
all beauty deformity,
all wisdom folly,
the best goodness faulty.

Thou art worthy of an adoration greater than
my dull heart can yield;
Invigorate my love that it may rise worthily
to thee,
tightly entwine itself round thee,
be allured by thee.
Then shall my walk be endless praise.

Wow and amen.

Learning Education: First Endorsement

In Books, Calling, Education, Seminary, Westminster on April 29, 2010 at 10:05 am

Here's the first endorsement (a very kind and gracious one from my own Head of School) for Learning Education: Essay & Ideas from My First Three Years of Teaching:

Learning Education (cover) “Teachers learn most of what they come to know and trust about teaching during their first three years. Craig provides an insightful and compelling practitioner’s view of the joys, pitfalls, and non-negotiables of the early years that are the building blocks of successful teaching and effective learning. His reflections will resonate with the veteran teacher, as well as encourage those beginning or establishing their careers in Christian education.”

JAMES C. MARSH, JR., HEAD OF SCHOOL
WESTMINSTER CHRISTIAN ACADEMY

Click here to order your copy. And please help spread the word via your blog, Twitter, or Facebook account.

Now on Sale: Learning Education

In Books, Calling, Education, Seminary, Westminster on April 27, 2010 at 6:39 am

My second book, Learning Education: Essays & Ideas from My First Three Years of Teaching, is now available through Second Drafts for just $12.75 (+$3 for shipping).

In addition, purchase my first book, TwentySomeone: Finding Yourself in a Decade of Transition, and get the best price available at just $10 (+$1 for shipping).

To order online, go to the Second Drafts storefront and click the book(s) you want, add them to your cart, click checkout, and pay via PayPal (allow 7-10 days for delivery).

Storefront
If you'd rather pay by mail, indicate which book(s) you want, add $3 for shipping for your first book (+$1 for each additional book), make your check out to me, and mail to:

Craig Dunham
7419 Canterbury Avenue
St. Louis, Missouri 63143

Be sure to include your shipping address with your order (allow 7-10 days for delivery). Questions? Feel free to leave them in the comments and I'll get back as soon as I can.

Thanks in advance for your order, as well as for spreading the word
about the new book.