Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Frankly, My Dear, I Give a Thanks

We are at that stage of Thanksgiving cleaning where everything looks worse before it looks better. I have been scrubbing bathrooms, three yesterday, and one left for today. The fifth bathroom is Darwin's purview. He is taking this holiday week to screw down the plywood to the joists, each of which had to be carefully leveled because the previous round of renovations (ca. 1929) saw so much concrete poured that they didn't bother with whether the joists were level or not. But as of today, we will finally have a bathroom floor again for the first time in at least a year, albeit one made of plywood.

Five bathrooms, and something wrong with each one, and that's the story of our big old house.

I'm scrubbing bathrooms not only because it needs to be done every once in a while, but because we have a goodly cast of Thanksgiving guests. Right now the count stands at: 

1) 21yo College daughter, a senior at FUS, staying in room with 17yo sister.

2) My mom, staying in room with 20yo daughter. (She'll be sleeping in 13yo daughter's bed; 13yo has to go in with her youngest brothers, much to her chagrin.)

3) and maybe 4): Darwin's mother, in her first Thanksgiving since relocating from Los Angeles to live around the block from us; and Darwin's brother, who may attend but can feel uncomfortable in crowds.

5) The religion teacher from our parochial school, a recent FUS grad who's also from a big homeschooling family, whom we've taken under our wing.

6) Not a guest, but a resident: 20yo daughter's boyfriend, who rents the large room up in the attic as a studio apartment. He is a lovable fellow who is a delight to have around the house, and he and 15yo son live the bachelor life up on the third floor. I don't often put my head into the bathroom up there, as the boys are expected to maintain it, but about twice a year I give it a maternal scrub.

Various guests have offered to bring various dishes, and everything is coming together swimmingly for Thursday's meal. We have not yet reached the point of needing to send out The Thanksgiving Letter, but it mandatory holiday reading at our house, preferably performed by the 17yo (the one most akin in managerial spirit to Marney).

Saturday, November 18, 2023

Closing the Tabs

One should not let the perfect become the enemy of the good, and one should not let one's open tabs prevent one from doing other writing. To that end, I (MrsDarwin, posting under Darwin's name in a blast from the past) am clearing out a number of things I've been reading recently (or even not so recently) and chewing on, and wishing I could discuss with others, or, rather, know that others have read so that even if we're not directly discussing them, we share a common mental library.

(Alas for all the many tabs that have been lost, and the discussions that might have been!)

My grandfather died before I was born, and he remains to me a mostly mysterious figure. As is true of many people born poor who are committed to bettering their lot, his hours were taken up with work, family, and church; not much was left for that luxury item we call personality. A big man with paws for hands, in 1926 he got a job with the Consolidated Gas Company as a digger, busting up roadways and digging trenches for the laying of pipe. With his wife he raised six children in a two-bedroom apartment on 145th Street in the South Bronx. During his working life, he went to Mass on Sundays; during his brief retirement, he went to Mass every day. When I asked, people would tell me, “Your grandfather was a very good man,” and leave it at that. He left behind few stories.

But one story about him has stayed with me. He worked six days a week, but on some Sunday afternoons he would take the subway into Manhattan and visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He often went alone, because no one else in the family wanted to go with him. But his most frequent companion was my mother, who as the fifth child and fourth girl was perhaps the least regarded member of the family and wanted attention. After he died, she reflected on those museum afternoons.

“He didn’t say anything,” she said. “He would just walk through the galleries silently. He never pointed out particular paintings or statues, or expressed any particular enthusiasm. I wish I had asked him why he went—but I never found that out. He must have gotten something out of it, because he went over and over again. But he had no words.” My mother was to study at City College and become an elementary school teacher. She would visit museums all over the world, sharing her thoughts about art with anyone who would accompany her. I have her journals; they are about the art she saw. Art became a part of our family life. And behind it all was my mother’s unsatisfied curiosity about what motivated her father, the silent man in the museum.

There is always a residuum of mystery in individual choice. But I now see one obvious reason why my grandfather came to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: He had been invited. A group of wealthy men had built the institution in the hope that men like my grandfather—ditchdiggers, pipe fitters, bricklayers, and others who labored to manufacture, build, and repair—would learn of the glories of men and women who likewise worked with their hands: artists. But the story of the museum begins far away, in Paris, and with Richard Morris Hunt, the man who more than any other brought the fine arts to New York City.

The brothers — Ferruccio, Attilio, Furio, Getulio, Masaniello and Orazio — deftly juggled dual professional identities. While their main business was executing the visions of famous sculptors like Daniel Chester French, whose design for the figure of Abraham Lincoln the Piccirillis carved out of 28 blocks of Georgia marble weighing 150 tons for the Lincoln Memorial, they also sculpted their own original works.

Attilio and Furio were academically trained in Rome, and Mr. French esteemed the two men so highly as artists that he acquired original works by both for the Met while serving as the head of the museum’s board of trustees sculpture committee in the early 20th century.

...Nonetheless, the Piccirillis have been largely forgotten, lost in the shadow cast by renowned American sculptors like Mr. French himself.

Now, Eduardo Montes-Bradley, a 63-year-old filmmaker reared in Buenos Aires, wants to elevate the brothers’ legacy, casting a new spotlight on their work in a documentary he has been working on for two years. The film, “The Italian Factor,” portrays these carvers not as stereotypical unskilled immigrant laborers in “funny paper hats,” as he puts it, but rather as prodigiously talented artisans indispensable to public art in the city and in America at large.

  • Only related thematically: Meet Mr. Mincione, a longform interview at The Pillar with Raffaele Mincione, the "Anglo-Italian investment manager who sold a London building to the Vatican’s Secretariat of State".
Mincione’s name has become synonymous with the scandal of Vatican finances, and linked inextricably to the other nine defendants with whom he is on trial, some he has done business with, and some he’s never met. 

Along the way, Mincione has faced serious questions about his work for the Vatican, and his relationships with the other defendants, none of which he’s been willing to answer at length in public before.

But Mincione is adamant that he is innocent, an honest businessman unfairly caught up in a scandal in which he’s become as much a victim as the Vatican — and potentially standing to lose even more.

After years of declining interview requests, Mincione agreed last month to speak with The Pillar. In the course of several phone calls, he offered to answer any questions about his dealings with the Vatican and, as he put it, “back up everything I say with documents.” 
  • A delightful piece about persistent research, in which an obscure and seemingly useless federal project turns out to have very human origins in the needs of a specific community: The Mystery of the Bloomfield Bridge, by Tyler Vigen.

  • While searching for the price of yarn in Jane Austen's day, I came across references to this new book, which I've just reserved through our interlibrary loan program: Jane Austen's Wardrobe, by Hilary Davidson. 
  • That same search turned up this lovely blog post on Austen's approach to turning one article of clothing into something new and fashionable through retrimming and touching up, and how the world needs more of the same: Jane Austen, Scarcity, and Mawmaw's Quilts, by Jeni Hankins.
  • The best £10/month (the only £10/month) I spend is my Patreon subscription to Victorians Vile Victorians. One does not need to pay to read VVV's delightful daily dose of Victorian flash fiction, inspired by period paintings, but the Blitherer has delighted me enough over the years that I'm happy to subscribe. Patreon is often used, I feel, as a monthly charity, but in this case, there is really a daily return, for which I am pleased to contribute.

Sunday, November 05, 2023

Mrs. Dashwood, 14



A clatter at the door, a bustle in the hall, and Margaret dashed into the kitchen shouting, "He's here! He's come!"

"Who is it, Margaret?" called Mrs. Dashwood, scattering potato peelings from her apron as she rose. But Margaret was already gone, urgent to be underfoot where anything exciting was happening. "He" must surely be Willoughby returned, for Margaret would not have been half so thrilled to see Colonel Brandon riding up to the cottage. Now Marianne's sorrow, at least, would be instantly transmuted to golden joy, and her family might have all the comfort due to them after such a trial of faithfulness. Where grief is great, tears must always be near at hand, and yet one could almost be tempted to think Marianne too prodigal in her methods. It was only natural that the sight of Willoughby's sprawling script on a book's flyleaf, or the sound of the duet which he was no longer there to sing, would move his dear friend to transports of anguish in his absence. But perhaps it was not necessary to play the duet again to provoke tears, if the first time did not suffice? Indeed, Elinor had already tidied the music from the piano and shelved it amongst the exercise books, where Marianne would be unlikely to browse.

Now, apron neatly hung and her dress and hair smoothed, she was once again the gracious matron, ready to receive company. A hand to the knob and a step into the hall -- and there, amidst the flurry of bonnets and the shawls, not Willoughby, but another young familiar face peering anxiously at hers, hat in hand, hoping for welcome. 

"Edward! Oh, dear boy! How long you've been!" she cried, flying to him. "How thin you are! How worn! We'll soon have you well fed. But why have you never written these last months?"


What blissful simplicity, to be nothing more complicated than an omniscient, gracious mother again! It was clear to the meanest understanding that Edward thrived on kindness, and that kindness had been denied him far too often. She delighted to take full advantage of her maternal privileges to give him the warm embraces that his own mother would never deign to bestow. How any mother's heart could be so cold toward her own child, she could not fathom. Or could Mrs. Ferrars's schemings be a blind kind of love that imagined that her offspring could simply be forced into some mode, regardless of his own tastes and inclinations? 

Dear Edward must blossom here. She would make sure of it. He had not often been treated as a person in his own right, poor lad. At Norland she had observed how gratefully he responded to any attempt to draw him out. Now she delighted in charming Edward into conversation, not just for her daughters' sake, but for his, and had the joy of seeing not only him, but also Elinor, become more open and liberal in spirits. 

It was not to be expected, of course, that everyone should be content at the same time.

"It's not fair, Mama," moaned Margaret, maundering into the room and flopping against her mother trying to read in bed. "It was my idea to imagine that someone should give us a large fortune apiece, and Edward speculated on how Elinor and Marianne should spend their money, but he never asked me what I should do with my wealth. Edward only wants to talk to the big girls, not to me."

"I'm sure that's not so," murmured Mrs. Dashwood, her finger keeping a patient mark under the next stanza of verse. "Pray tell, what would you do with your riches?"

"I would take us all away -- yes, Edward too -- to explore some exotic locale. Borneo, perhaps, and we could hunt tigers. Or to Antigua, where we could succor Our Brother the Slave in his Anguish, as the pamphlets urge. Or Pittsburgh."

"Does Edward want to go to Pittsburgh?"

"Oh, certainly. He maintains that he has no taste for the picturesque."

Mrs. Dashwood permitted herself a brief glance at her page. "Tomorrow you must tell Edward of your plans. I have no doubt that he will enter into them as fully as you could wish."

"But Elinor will pass remarks on anything I say, and be satirical, and Marianne will either tell me I am too conventional and staid in my language, or cry over Willoughby."

"My dear, if you are to be deterred from conversation by the mere anticipation of your sisters' loving reception, you will seldom have the opportunity to speak at all."

"But it isn't fair!"

"No," sighed Mrs. Dashwood. "It is not fair. Console yourself with the reflection that not all unfairness is deprivation. It may happen one day that you receive beyond your merit. Will you complain then, and demand the strictest justice?"

Margaret pondered.

"No," she said at last. "But then I would also be kind to those who want to take part in conversation, and not always be hushing them or talking on about my own interests."

"That is something you could do even now, without needing a large fortune to improve your manners."

"I suppose." Margaret slid off the bed, but idled by her mother's side. "Mama, have you noticed Edward's ring?"

"I have."

"Have you noticed the plait of hair in it?'

"I have."

"Have you noticed that it is exactly the shade of Elinor's hair?"

"I have noticed," said Mrs. Dashwood, giving her daughter a loving push toward the door, "that it is often the course of wisdom not to mention everything one notices."

Thursday, November 02, 2023

Evil is in the Act

The Hamas pogrom on October 7th was the largest mass killing of Jews since the Holocaust, and yet the slaughter and Israel's military response to it are playing out against a background of long-term conflict in the Holy Land in which many people have strong loyalties towards one side or the other. Loyalties have a way of clouding moral thinking, and modern society is not particularly good at moral thinking the first place.

Shadi Hamid (whose work at Wisdom of Crowds, particularly its podcast, I often find interesting) had a piece in the Washington Post which seemed to throw some of those modern confusions into clear visibility. (I've attempted to share a non-paywalled link, we'll see if that worked.)

While condemning the actions of Hamas, Shadi (who is Muslim and the son of Egyptian immigrants to the US) seeks to draw people's attention to the cause which motivates Hamas and those Palestinians who support them. But then he attempts to tie this to the question of whether Hamas's act was evil:
This is not to say that Hamas wouldn’t have committed its gruesome killings had political circumstances turned out differently. There is no way of knowing. But it would also be a mistake to dismiss Hamas’s terrorism as mere “evil.” As the philosopher John Gray notes, “A campaign of mass murder is never simply an expression of psychopathic aggression.” To describe the things we can’t comprehend as evil is a cop-out. It allows us to believe something is wrong with “them” but not with us. And, paradoxically, it exposes an unwillingness to take terrorists seriously, reducing them to “crazy” or “irrational” adversaries. They usually aren’t.
This draws on a common modern assumption that "evil" is a nihilistic action which is embraced because it is evil. But of course, this means that anything which sympathetic people do isn't really evil. This mode of thinking leads to a view in which there are bestial, almost literally "inhuman" evil people (often, rhetorically, Nazis) and then there are "basically good people" whose actions are at worst regrettable, but never evil.

But such thinking makes moral judgement almost impossible, nor is it in line with traditional Christian thinking.  Aquinas taught than any action is taken with some good in mind. We may be putting a lesser good above a greater one, or we may be using an evil means to achieve some good that we desire, but even when someone is literally damning himself through his actions he is motivated in some sense by good.

That isn't to say that there is no evil. When we sin we do evil. But to say that we are going evil does not mean that we do not have some good in mind when we act.

With that in mind, saying that the actions of the killers in Hamas were evil does not mean saying that they were incomprehensible. Wanting to have political control of what you think of as your homeland and wanting to bring glory and honor to your people are not in and of themselves incomprehensible or wrong. However, intentionally killing the innocent as a means to any end is always evil. And expansively defining your "homeland" as an area which would need to be cleansed of many of its existing inhabitants (as those who state their political goal as "from the river to the sea" do) is defining control of your homeland in a way which can only be achieved by depriving others of theirs.

So are Hamas and their sympathizers necessarily "crazy" or "irrational"?  No.  But they have very much committed acts of hideous evil and they should be condemned for it.

Wednesday, November 01, 2023

Home Again, Jiggety Jog

Friends, we are home.

I am so grateful to all the excellent staff at our parochial school who build a warm, supportive environment, and all the wonderful parents who shared so much wisdom with me. At the same time, it became increasingly clear to me that we are homeschoolers down to our bones, and that it is traumatic to uproot almost two decades' worth of routine and expertise, even for a good cause. 

Indeed, it turns out that necessity is more crucial than idealism in making a huge life change. My desire to help our parish school transition to a liberal arts models was good, and must have had some purpose because it seemed to be the prompting of the Spirit. But (and this realization was the fruit of many sleepless hours pondering) when a woman of my age makes a major life change, it's often because there's some underlying dissatisfaction prompting it. Your husband doesn't talk to you anymore; you go to grad school. Your kids blame you for screwing up their lives; time to move and get a puppy. However, I didn't have an underlying dissatisfaction. I loved my happy home and homeschooling life, and wanted to share those benefits with my parish as it moves the school in that direction. 

Yet when I gave up those benefits myself, I was bereft. I moved through my day like the Little Mermaid, walking on knives of grief. God did not give me eight extra hours of energy to compensate for the time I was out of the house. Everyone was tired all the time, and at nights I barely saw my older children because I was so exhausted. I mourned our morning readalouds and Bible time. We all resented homework at night, remembering that we used to do the same kind of tutoring work during the day, when we were fresh. I didn't know when to grocery shop, and the house fell apart.

Lesser considerations, perhaps, if school was a necessity due to job and family considerations. But we knew it was not, and we knew that there was another way to live.

I had already told our gracious principal that we intended to go back to homeschooling in December, when the tonsil situation became acute. My 13yo daughter had chronic strep and had already missed a week of school (a stressful situation in itself when you are a working parent having to make attendance decisions for the day at 6 AM), and I was hoping we could put off having her tonsils out until January. No, said the doctor, she's too old to wait. It doesn't get any easier the older you are, something I can attest to as having had my tonsils out at 11. 

And so, after consultation with the principal, I stepped down as music teacher and we withdrew from school at the end of the quarter. Today we see the ENT to consult on the next tonsil steps.

Part of the radio silence here has been due to the feeling that it was impossible to write about this transition as it was ongoing, because we never seemed to hit a stable point where I could get enough of a handle on our situation and feelings to document it publicly. Now we've found our feet again, we hope we will find our words as well. Perhaps we will slip as easily into writing again as we have into being at home.

Here, have some pix of the youth in their Halloween finery.

No. 1 being mysterious

No. 2 and boyfriend as Barbenheimer

No. 5 as Unspecified Literary Character, No. 6 as Boy Eaten By Dino, and No. 7 as a Panda

No. 3 as Wednesday Addams

No. 4 as The Joker

Thursday, October 19, 2023

All Aboard the Orient Express

Dear friends, we are alive. 

If you wonder what Darwins have been up to, watch no further than this trailer for our production of Murder on the Orient Express, directed by Darwin and stage managed by me. It has been a wonderful show to work on, and a perfect example of what we love about theater: a fantastic cast and crew, each of whom brings a strong work ethic and immense creativity to their role. I think I say this about every show, but this has been one of my favorite casts to work with. 

If you are local to Columbus, we are performing this weekend and next, tickets at the door or online here.

We are currently exhausted by life right now, but you shall hear more from us after this weekend.

Wednesday, September 06, 2023

How It's Going

We are slipping. For about two and a half weeks, we went to bed very punctually, every school child tucked in early so we'd be ready to get up sharp. Every morning felt like the morning of a big road trip, a bit of shock and awe and hitting the ground running.

But our family culture has been shaped by 22 years of late nights, and our best conversations and problem solving and inside jokes happen after the rest of the world is in bed. That culture cannot just be shifted on the whim of trying out the school lifestyle, even though the school lifestyle is predicated on getting up early. The question now becomes: do we really want to shift that culture? 

And we still have eight months left in the school year.

Most people who make the shift from homeschooling to institutional schooling do it because in some way, homeschooling has failed them. There's no judgment in that. Everyone's family culture is different and requires different trade-offs, and sometimes school offers a stability or an accountability that serves a family in the way that it needs. But we are not failed homeschoolers. We love homeschooling, and miss it, with a visceral, breathless ache. Our marriage, our family from the very start, our intellectual development, our way of interacting with the world, has been shaped by the freedom and flexibility that homeschooling offers. Our friendships, the way we serve our parish and our neighbors and our families, all of these were strengthened by our easy, gracious way of living and learning, remote from bureaucracy and management techniques. A family is not run like an institution.

Our family culture has also been shaped by having an adult on the ground, able to pivot to meet the day's challenges and pick up the slack. Household maintenance, doctor's visits, emergencies, and the freedom to be gentle with a small human who may not be incapacitated, but may need an easier day than the regimentation of a school day spent out of the home can provide. The freedom to be in house as dinner simmers all day. The freedom to pick up and drive to visit family out of town. The freedom to start something while one is fresh.

I am in awe of my friends who are long-term teachers. They do amazing, necessary work. I also do amazing, necessary work. But I did long-term amazing, necessary work before this year, at home. And that work is still necessary, and I still want to do it.

And there are still eight months left in the school year.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

Climbing the Roller Coaster

It's been busy times in the Darwin household over the last week. MrsDarwin did her first two days teaching at the parish school, and the three youngest kids attended school for the first time in their lives, after having been homeschooled up until this point.  I dropped the eldest off at FUS for her senior year of college. And the second eldest is getting ready to start at OSU next week as a sophomore, while the third and fourth kids are gearing up for another year of high school, which includes taking courses at the local community college.

We have four vehicles in the driveway, and we're juggling five work schedules (even the fourteen year old has a job at a country sausage shop on Saturdays) and play rehearsals, music lessons, bible studies, cub scouts, boy scouts, community chorus, and I don't know what all.  It's a busy time of life.

And yet, it has been striking me lately that we are like the cars of a roller coaster, creeping every more slowly towards the peak at which we'll suddenly start hurdling down again.

When we had only very little kids, we were in some ways very busy. People needed diapers changed and food spooned into their mouths, and we had to make sure no one swallowed a magnet or fell off the changing table. But we didn't have to worry about the kids having their own personal commitments and we could talk about adult subjects in front of them or put them to bed and still have hours to ourselves.

At this stage in life, each child has a set of commitments and emotional needs.  I haven't had to change a diaper in years, but there are a lot of other kinds of time investment which come with living in a close community with all of these other humans.

But this will all pass strangely quickly.

It was occurring to me this morning that in five years, our youngest will be eleven and the next youngest fourteen. The thirteen year old who is currently so full of chat will be a legal adult and in her senior year of high school.  And the 21-year-old who is heading into her senior year?  Imagine having a 26-year-old daughter. And the next about to turn 25.  Indeed, it's not unlikely that there will be in-laws and grand kids five years from now.

Ten years from now?  The youngest kid mid-high school and the next youngest in college, while all the rest are our in adult life.

Somewhere in these next few years we'll reach the crest of this parenting roller coaster, moving at an exhausted crawn, and begin to move downwards, slowly at first and then with terrifyingly gathering speed.  The rearing of children which has seemed to take up more and more time as we move through life will suddenly begin to take up less and less, and rather than the busy move through each day with our young charges we'll be watching from a bit more of a distance as these young people launch out into their independent lives.

The roller coaster isn't a bad image, as I'm somewhat excited thinking about it, but there's also a sense of vertigo. Having written this blog since were had only two kids, a lot of our parenthood has been chronicled here, but it seems like in some ways the next few years will see the biggest shift of all, and I both am excited and can't quite imagine it.

Monday, August 14, 2023

A Tale of Two Couches, and Being Worried About Many Things

The Stairwell of (Furniture) Doom

(This is a time capsule post, so at the end of the year I can look back and laugh at myself.)

Last Wednesday we descended on IKEA en masse, in the big van, to buy a loveseat. Our daughter's boyfriend rents our large attic room as a studio apartment, and he'd been wanting a couch for a while, to give him (and my daughter) a place to sit other than the bed. And, rather suddenly, his parents were coming for dinner, so it was a good time to make the space look furnished to an adult level. 

Normally, I would consult Craiglist or Facebook Marketplace for furniture, being of the generation that never bought anything new as a child. But getting things up to our attic involves navigating the attic stairs, a tightly curving passage that has brought many a large item to grief. The last time we tried to get a fully assembled loveseat up there, when our lodger first moved in, it involved six people getting increasingly testy as the couch stuck, gouged walls (we're still missing chunks of plaster), and threatened to jam permanently in the stairwell. The only way anything large gets up those stairs is in a flatpack.

If anyone does flatpacks, it's IKEA. Since the issue was not necessarily price but portability, my daughter and her boyfriend settled on the loveliest settee in the store, a rolled-arm piece in a moody grey-green. We were all jovial as we waited down by the doors for the packages to be rolled out to us, the couch not being in the pack-it-up-yourself aisles. And we were suddenly unjovial when it came out to us in a huge box.

"Maybe it's in pieces inside the box," we said, and we took it home (the van is that big) and opened it. It was not in pieces. It was perhaps the only mostly-assembled loveseat IKEA sells (we had to screw on the legs, but that was it). And we could tell by the measurements that it was simply too big to fit up the attic stairs, legs or no. But it was handsome, far nicer than the tattered loveseat in the living room, and so we did not part with it. My daughter's boyfriend, a good sport, did his best to hide his disappointment. His parents were arriving in three hours.

So Darwin (who was working from home) and I set up shop and did research on how all IKEA's couches are assembled, and came up with a list of five or six that could go through the attic stairs and over the top of the stairwell in flat pieces. I stayed at home and spearheaded the last-minute cleaning and cooking while Darwin and the young man headed back to IKEA, found a full-sized couch that came in pieces (because it was easier to get a disassembled couch than a disassembled loveseat), and arrived home just as the parents pulled up. A delightful evening was had by all, dining and singing and putting furniture together.

That was Wednesday, I say. Thursday morning, I rushed over to my mother-in-law's house to bring her an ice pack (actually, a bag of frozen peas) when she'd fallen and bruised her knees. Darwin was at work, but it was easy for me to help because I was at home.

This is not the way I will be able to spend my days soon, when I will be contractually obliged to be at school from 8-3, teaching. My fears and anxieties about this cycle so rapidly that it's best to just let them wash over me without trying to solve any of them, but I am indeed sorry to lose the flexibility to shape each day to the necessity at hand. At this moment, I wish I were sending the kids to school and staying home myself -- which is exactly the opposite of the way I felt when I first made the choice to teach. As I say, there's no point in reasoning with any of this. 

School starts on Thursday, but my first full day of meetings is tomorrow. We have the school uniforms at little expense, thanks to the uniform exchange, and the school supplies at greater expense. It burns up my homeschooling heart to buy three sets of markers and to write the kindergartener's name on every crayon, though of course I understand why it's necessary. There's going to be a lot of adapting to an institutional setting, if not for the kids, then for me. The amount of new passwords I've had to create in the past week is maddening. 

I'm clinging to the first enthusiasm I had when I wanted more children than my own to have the musical building blocks that will last them a lifetime, and hoping that my first days in the classroom will revive that energy. I'm hoping that at the end of the day, I'll have anything left for my own family, and for the production of Murder on the Orient Express that Darwin is directing, and that I've committed to stage manage. Lots of other people go to work, and some even reenter the workforce after 22 years, and they survive it.

And now we're off to buy school lunch supplies, and tonight is the last round of auditions for Murder, and then maybe I'll sit on my new loveseat before I go to bed and get up early to go to work. 

Monday, August 07, 2023

100 Years of Kids

 At some point over the last month or two, the kids realized that in September there would be a week during which their ages summed up to 100 years. Unfortunately, it was a bad time for a celebration, because by then our eldest daughter would be back at college and unable to attend. So they scheduled a slightly early 100th birthday part for this last weekend. 

I slow cooked 10lbs of chicken with Mexican style spices and put out quantities of Spanish rice, refried beans, and tortillas. Various friends brought food and drink, and I made a large cake and picked up candles in the shape of a 1 and two 0s. Forty or fifty people came through the open-house style event, bringing together the different spheres of our lives: church, theater, the kids' friends, etc.

Even without this particular reminder that we have 100 years of life experience that have sprung from our marriage, I'd been thinking about the next generation lately. Our eldest is heading into her senior year of college, and we have one more in college and two in high school. Going into parenting, you imagine all your children being just like you and your spouse. I'd pictured the kids all reading the same books we enjoyed, taking the same approach to school, and having the same ambitions for their careers.

Instead, the thing you realize as a parent with many children is how staggeringly different these humans can be. We do not simply reproduce ourselves. We produce these completely independent and very different people, whom we sometimes struggle to understand, despite how much we love them and want to know everything about them.

So far, no one seems "just like us" when it comes to favorite books or academics or talents, but instead we find ourselves with people who have a great many interests and abilities which only partly overlap with our own. We are our own crowd, not just in numbers but in variety.

As I watch the kids working their way through school and taking their first steps into working, and try to nudge them in directions that seem like they would be most conducive to being able to support a family, I do worry at times. We've managed to work our way up to making much more than either of our sets of parents have. Will the kids be able to do as well in the career world as I have?

It's natural to worry, because we want good things for our kids.

But there's also a hierarchy of goods. I find that the things the kids have most consistently picked up from us are the things we do as a part of a community, which for us ends up meaning Catholicism and community theater. All of the kids, thus far, seem to have made these things very much their own, though as in all other things they each approach these activities in their own way. 

Perhaps if I'd made my career or my reading and intellectual interests the center of family activity and conversation all the time, those would have been the things that the kids had picked up most from us. But if it's a choice between those and the connection to faith, morals, and arts which they have instead picked from us, I think the path we're on is the better one. 

And clearly, 100 years is not nearly long enough to spend around such excellent people. Although the fact that they rack up another communal seven years to their total for each twelve months by the calendar underlines how exhausting it can often be to serve as the axle from which so many different spokes go out, watching these people grow into their adult selves is one of the best ways I can think of to spend my life.  Here's looking at you, kids.

Monday, July 24, 2023


Second daughter

Daughters One, Four, and Three

Three times this week I have started writing a post, about why I can't write a post because I keep getting interrupted by real life, only to be interrupted by real life -- an emergency molar extraction for a child, the wedding ring being repaired, the million demands on the at-home parent when dad and oldest brother are canoeing with the Scouts in Virginia for a week. This weekend everyone was home, and so we took it in shifts to watch Barbie. I have four daughters, ages 21-13, and they went first, all dressed up because it's fun to dress up sometimes. The girls came home with opinions, but wanted to wait to discuss the movie until we'd all seen it.

So Darwin and I went, not in costume, because although it's fun to dress up, it's also nice not to have to dress up. And we were amused, for the most part. I am not a great fan of Greta Gerwig's oeuvre. Lady Bird left me unmoved by the angsty, self-absorbed teen protagonist, and Little Women was a revision of the literary source ungrounded in historical realities and attitudes (and burdened by the talented but ubiquitous leads, Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet). But perhaps, we thought, Gerwig might have the overblown touch necessary for a camp property like Barbie.

In part, yes. The early absurdity of Barbieland, in which the perfectly sculpted characters move and act in ways believable to anyone who's ever watched kids play with their toys, was Technicolor fun -- and fun is the operative word in a movie based on a toy. But you've seen just about all of it in the trailers. Gerwig succeeds, to an extent, in humanizing her main Barbie character, aided immeasurably by the talent of actress Margot Robbie. But the only way she can deal with Ken, or with any male character in the movie, or any character who is not Margot Robbie Barbie, is by making them more, not less, of a caricature. And that's a problem in a movie that's trying to tread the ground covered with far more real human drama by The Lego Movie, which managed a much smaller-scale real-world crisis with surprising humanity.

Humanity is in short supply here. Indeed, Gerwig wants to use Barbie to make a profound point about the role in women in society, but she can't succeed in grinding her pink plastic ax to a razor's edge because she's unwilling to make any profound points about the role of men. Every man in the movie, from Ken to Will Ferrell's cartoonish Mattel CEO to a comically irrelevant husband and father (a toss-off gag), is as plastic and malleable to Gerwig's whims as Gerwig wants to claim that women are to the patriarchy. And this one-note story service isn't limited to the men, who are never presented as actual people. A real-world mother and her teenage daughter become Barbie's guides and co-conspirators, urging her to act and to value herself for herself. The bond shared by Barbie and the mother is surprisingly effective. But the teenage daughter, a vicious little piece of work -- all the abrasiveness and clever self-absorption of Lady Bird without the internal life which gave Lady Bird her context -- is like Barbie herself, only the prop that makes the mother "Mother". 

This movie is, in fact, a middle-aged woman's dream world of matriarchal relevance, where daughters are inexplicably hostile and then inexplicably appreciative, where Barbie can be sexy without sex because men are all emasculated buffoons (Barbie and Ken, as specifically revealed in dialogue, have no genitals), where men seem to be able to take over society simply by uttering the magic word "patriarchy", where women are Supreme Court judges and President and Chemists without having to demonstrate a lick of the grunt work that goes into politics and higher education. One of the few moments in the real world where the humor gives a nod to truth is where Ken is at a hospital demanding to be allowed to do surgery because he's a man, and the tired woman in scrubs tells him no. "Let me speak to a doctor!" he insists. "I am a doctor," retorts the woman, and you believe it in a way you don't believe in Nobel Prize-Winning Barbie. Ken doesn't ever act the way that boys play with corresponding toys such as GI Joe because, as Darwin noted, Ken was never a boys' toy, only an accessory to Barbie. The movie makes this point early on, but doesn't resolve it in an interesting and truthful way on its own terms.

The contrast with The Lego Movie, which did succeed on its own terms, is informative. There, each story line, toyland and real life, resolved honestly in its own world, and that worked because The Lego Movie only attempted to make a small, intimate point about the real world: the conflicts between the ways parents and children interact with beloved toys, and how that crisis of control can be bridged by love and some sacrifice. No matter the scale of the work of fiction, the only true points that it can make about the world are small and intimate and interior, because people are themselves small and intimate and interior. 

Barbie the Movie, however, wants to make a grand point about the necessity of feminism to counteract the oppressive demands society puts on women -- a society, it should be noted, that is 50% women. How do all these highly-qualified Barbies come to be oppressed by a buffoon like Ken? How can a vote to change the Constitution of Barbieland be so scary that the Barbies have to lure the Kens away from voting, when Barbies outnumber, and can therefore outvote, the Kens? Why does the grand plan to defeat the Kens give credence to pick-up artist cons? Why does the unbrainwashing of the Barbies work by capturing each one and forcing her to listen to an impassioned speech, when every intervention I've ever seen on that model in real life mostly makes the intervenee dig in and put up defensive walls? That's fantasy, if you like.

In the end, the movie's frenetic pace grinds to a halt as Barbie is encouraged to actualize herself into being human by the ghost of her original American promoter, Ruth Handler (whose historical significance in Barbie's propagation consisted of manipulating markets by bypassing parental gatekeeping and selling a German sex doll directly to children through the medium of commercials on the Mickey Mouse Club). This is the lull where, in sleepovers yet to come, the girls (who mainly want to watch fun Barbieland antics and the Kens' farcical yet satisfying dance-off) wander off to have cake or open presents or check memes together. No one wants to watch Barbie being human in a movie which doesn't have a firm grasp on what it means to be human. It succeeds at moments because Gerwig, who is a talented procedural filmmaker, gives Barbie flashes of real insight. (A moment of wonder, where a stunned, luminous Barbie realizes the individuality of each person at a park, touches transcendence.) But she can't extend that humanity to every character. As a result, where the movie is absurd fun (and that's most of it), it works, and where it tries to be deep -- well, what better time to engage in real-world interactions like cake and sharing memes? Not every movie is so considerate as to telegraph where you can stop paying attention to it.

In case you were wondering: the four daughters (who enjoy the advantage of being surrounded by hard-working, supportive father, uncles, grandfather, and boyfriend) enjoyed the funhouse aspect, but were unmoved by being told how oppressed they were, either by the plastic dolls they don't play with, or by the destructive unfriendly kind of teen girl they avoid in real life. "Why didn't they give her some backstory to show why she's so cruel?" one asked. My 14yo son, disappointed because his parents ruled against him seeing the extended nudity in Oppenheimer at this moment in time, but understanding and accepting the reasoning, decided against seeing Barbie, and I'm glad of that. He's not irrelevant to the women in his life, nor a jerk, nor an idiot, just a guy who knows that a Pitch Meeting spoof will tell you more about the movie than the movie itself.

Monday, July 10, 2023

A Change is as Good as a Rest

No rest, but lots of change coming...


First off: we are not dead, we are just in the theater. And you can be too! We are putting up Fiddler on the Roof this weekend, Friday July 14-Sunday, July 16. If you happen to be in the Central Ohio area, come see us! Various Darwins appear in various roles: I am Golde, Eleanor is the Singing Russian, Isabel is in the Dance Corps, Jack is a Jerky Russian, William is a Jewish Boy, and Darwin is Tech Director. 

Golde is a great role, and I enjoy playing her, especially against our Tevye who is an old pal of mine, but I've felt all along that that I haven't been getting her quite right. Darwin, who's been watching the rehearsals from the balcony as he's setting the tech, put his finger on the problem: "You're softening the lines," he said. "You can't imagine scolding like Golde does in real life, and so you're trying to deliver these lines the same way you would if you found yourself saying this kind of thing at home. But Golde doesn't pull her punches. She's always performing, to an imaginary audience or to God, and she's always projecting, "Can you believe the shit I have to put up with?"

He's right, of course, and I found that it's opened up the role for me to stop projecting my personality onto Golde. Go big or stay at home. It helps to break the fourth wall and kvetch directly to the audience. Being in costume also helps me get into character, as does just running the show every night -- that's where most of my best work happens in terms of building character and picking up business. It's much easier to add bits once you have a set and props.

So come see me (but not my hair; that's verboten) and some of Delaware, OH's finest tread the boards in Fiddler!


And here's the change: 

Two weeks ago I attended a conference at CUA on the Ward Method for teaching music to Catholic schoolchildren. It's the best program you've never heard of, based on quick and simple lessons that build facility with intonation, sight reading, notation, composition, and conducting, leading to fluency with Gregorian chant. Trained vocalists and musicians at the conference were all saying, "I wish I'd had this as a kid!" I'd like my own children to have this excellent foundation in music, and not just my own children, but the children in my parish and in my hometown.

And I told our pastor that I'm willing to go full-time teaching the Ward Method at our parochial school this year, and in order to support that, we're enrolling our three youngest children in kindergarten, fourth, and seventh grades.

This is a leap of faith for me, akin to descending to the Titanic in a bathysphere. Our school is transitioning to a Montessori/Classical model, which is one reason we feel it could be the right time to make this change, but as the transition is ongoing, I don't have any assurances that my youngest will actually be part of the Montessori roll-up. We have never operated in a school environment, with all the regulation and regimentation and schedule that entails. I mourn the disruption of my comfortable, pleasant family lifestyle, in which we operate on a different timeframe than the rest of world, moving at our own pace, free during the days for reading and appointments and workmen and grocery shopping.

I sought the wise counsel of a friend, which helped me to see that in all of this, I'm mainly wrestling with myself. My older children, when I presented the idea to them, all shrugged and said, "Sounds good, you should do that." The younger kids are very excited to go to school, far more excited than I am to send them. Darwin, able to work from home most days, will continue overseeing of the two high-school kids, who will still be taking community college classes. I've been volunteering at the parish with both music and children for more than a decade now, so I'm not an unknown quantity there. This new situation formalizes much of what I've been doing informally for a long time, and perhaps that what is giving me so pause now that the initial feeling of grace and confidence has deserted me: I value informality and flexibility, and now I need to discipline myself and conform to someone else's schedule, to which I will be bound not as a volunteer but as an employee.

Doubtless the excitement of my first decision will return. I've been on an emotional pendulum, crying all morning before I enrolled the children (a sorrow, as I say, shared by no one else), a Martha worried and anxious about many things. I trust that I'm also doing the one thing necessary: listening to Jesus and doing as He asks. 

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Beauport, for My Own Future Reference

Sometimes you want to share knowledge with people who will appreciate it, and sometimes you want to archive knowledge so that you yourself can find it again. This post is concerned with both purposes. I want to be able to find all this again one day, and I want to you to have seen this at least once in your life.

Several years ago, I read an article about a house. A glorious, labyrinthine house on the sea, designed and enlarged around the Gilded Age by a committed bachelor. Each room led into another. There was no central hallway, no main staircase. Around each corner was something lovely. Everywhere were nooks and views. I wanted to look at it forever.

And I couldn't find it again because I couldn't remember the name of the house or the owner. It was somewhere on the East Coast, in some place where one could find Gilded Mansions, but it was lost to me. I thought the owner's name had been Joshua, or that he was connected with Edith Wharton, but such searches revealed nothing. The house haunted me. I yearned to see the green bedroom room, filled with light and doors to elsewhere. I spent hours googling variations on every detail I remembered, to no avail.

And then recently, without warning, I came across the green room again.

Behold: Beauport, the Sleeper-McCann House in Gloucester, Massachusetts, designed by Henry Davis Sleeper. This verdant color graces several rooms, one of the few unifying design themes in this eclectic house.

There are photos galore at the above link, and biographical info on Sleeper, and the history of the house.  Take, and read, and contemplate. But what you really want to do is tour this magnificent house, and this you can do from the comfort of your couch with this virtual room-by-room walk through Beauport. First, though, you must -- no, you must -- have the floor plan for reference.

You must enlarge these photos and use them as you navigate through the tour. My green room is, I believe, the Belfry Room on the second floor. What, this isn't what you spend your nights and weekends doing, ogling the glamorous houses of yore?

Monday, June 12, 2023

Dorothy Sayers and Classical Education

 Local circumstances inspired me to spend some time lately going back to the sources on Classical Education. In particular, I've been re-reading Dorothy Sayers's 1947 essay "The Lost Tools of Learning" and organizing both an in-person discussion of it at our house this last weekend and an ongoing online discussion via Facebook.  Sayers's essay is available to read for free online here.  It's also available read aloud on Audible (paid) and YouTube (free). (If you're interested in joining the Facebook group, you can do so here, or if that link doesn't work email me and I'll send you an invite, though I make no guarantees as to how much further it will go.)

I thought it might be interesting for some readers to pull together some of the material I've been writing in the group about Sayers and her proposals around what has come to be called Classical Education. So far as I can tell, Sayers is the first person to use the medieval Trivium of Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric as the model for stages of primary and secondary education (and indeed for the stages of learning any subject.)

About Sayers

Dorothy Sayers

If you've heard of Dorothy Sayers before, there's a good chance it was due to her mystery novels.  From 1923 to 1939, Sayers wrote 11 mystery novels featuring the aristocratic detective Lord Peter Wimsey, as well as several plays and many short stories. The Lord Peter novels were international best sellers and brought Sayers a degree of financial independence. The BBC adapted the novels for television once in the 1970s and again in the 1980s.

However, Sayers interests and abilities went well beyond detective fiction. 

Born in 1893, the daughter of a Church of England clergyman, Sayers first educated at home by her father (who started her on Latin at the age of six) and later attended boarding school. In 1912 she won a scholarship to attend Sommerville College, in Oxford, one of the first women's colleges in Oxford, at a time when all the established colleges in Oxford were male-only institutions and the idea of women going to elite colleges was still controversial.

This was also the era in education when Latin and Greek were beginning to lose their 2500 year place of honor in Western education. In 1917, just after Sayers graduated from Oxford in Britain, the president of Harvard, Charles Elliot, wrote a piece for The Atlantic Magazine advocating that Harvard cease to require Latin proficiency in order to earn a BA.  (Students earning degrees in the sciences had already been excused from compulsory Latin at Harvard in the 1890s.)  Similar arguments were going on in Oxford and Cambridge, and would intensify between and after the world wars.

Sayers earned her BA and Masters at Oxford in medieval literature and modern languages.  She published several books of poetry shortly after graduating, but in order to support herself ended up taking a job at an advertising agency. She was responsible for launching the "zoo" advertisements featuring the toucan and other animals for Guinness Stout which continue to this day.

The success of her mystery novels allowed Sayers to become a full time writer for the rest of her life.

As World War II loomed, Sayers increasingly began to spend her time on non-fiction, much of it dealing with religion.

In 1940 she published Creed or Chaos, a book of essays on the importance of basic Christian doctrine (such as if found in the Nicene Creed) similar in theme to C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity, which Lewis delivered as a series of radio talks beginning the next year in 1941.

In The Mind of the Maker, published in 1941, Sayers looked at the artistic process in the context of Christianity and discussed the way in which the work of a writer could reflect God's creative power.

Also in 1941 she accepted the job of writing a twelve episode radio series dramatizing the life of Christ for the BBC. The series was attacked by secularists for putting religion on the public radio, and by conservative Christians who objected to Sayers decision to have the characters in the Bible speak in the words of ordinary people rather than the high flown English of the King James Version. The radio plays were considered a notable success bringing the story of the Bible to British citizens in wartime. Her scripts were re-produced by additional sets of actors in four additional times over thirty years and the scripts are still in print today.

Later in the 1940s Sayers undertook a massive literary translation project, translating Dante's theological epic The Divine Comedy into English verse. The first volume, Hell, was published by Penguin Classics in 1947. While opinions vary on Sayers's verse versus that of other poets who have translated Dante into English, I think her notes on Dante's theology and cultural references are the best available. The Dante project took up the remainder of Sayers's life.  She published Purgatory in 1955 and died in 1957 with Heaven still only half complete.  Here friend and collaborator Barbara Reynolds completed the translation which was published in 1962. Her translations of Dante remain in print to this day.

In "The Lost Tools of Learning", Sayers argues that the purpose of education is not to feed students specific expertise but rather to provide them with the tools to continue learning new and difficult subjects throughout life. Poet, advertising copywriter, mystery writer, public intellectual, translator -- Sayers's life certainly provides examples of living that principle out.

On the essay

Sayers takes roughly the first 6 pages of her 20 to lay out the problems she believes need to be addressed in modern education.

In one sense, the problems she sees will seem very modern, though she's writing 75 years ago:

"Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate, that to-day, when the proportion of literacy throughout Western Europe is higher than it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass-propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard-of and unimagined? Do you put this down to the mere mechanical fact that the press  and the radio and so on have made propaganda much easier to distribute  over a wide area? Or do you sometimes have an uneasy suspicion that the product of modern educational methods is less good than he or she might be  at disentangling fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible?"

Substitute Twitter and TikTok for the press and radio, and the fear that we are in an age when people are constantly bombarded with information in which it can be difficult to sort the truth from the propaganda seems very up-to-date. Given that Sayers and her generation had just lived through two world wars, and that communism had only recently spread across Europe while secularism was claiming to make religion out of date, her concerns certainly seem justified.

I think it's interesting in the age of the "fact check" that Sayers's solution is not that we need to pour ever more facts into students or urge them to always consult the proper authorities. Rather, her concern is that students have become very good at soaking up facts (at least for the time necessary to pass a test) but that they have become less able to teach themselves new topics and as they do so to judge which is true and what is false.

"Do you ever find that young people, when they have left school, not only  forget most of what they have learnt (that is only to be expected) but forget  also, or betray that they have never really known, how to tackle a new  subject for themselves?


Is it not the great defect of our education to-day...  that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils “subjects,” we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think? They learn everything, except the art of learning. It is as though we had taught a child mechanically and by rule of thumb, to play The Harmonious Blacksmith upon the piano, but had never taught him the scale or how to read music; so that, having memorized "The Harmonious Blacksmith", he still had not the faintest notion how to proceed from that to tackle "The Last Rose of Summer". Why do I say, “As though”? In certain of the arts and crafts we sometimes do precisely this—requiring a child to “express himself” in paint before we teach him how to handle the colours and the brush."

This, I think, is the key thing which Sayers is proposing to address with her approach to education. She believes that our world is changing so rapidly that it is not enough to simply teach children the knowledge and techniques they will need in order to get by in the world. Rather, we must focus on teaching them how to learn entirely new areas of knowledge and technique which will doubtless open up in the future.

For example: When I was in school "learning to code" in school meant learning how to program in BASIC. That skill was nearly useless by the time I entered the workforce, much less now. Careful training in writing BASIC would have been no use to me once I started working, when what I needed to use was SQL and PHP.  Nor does using those two programming languages bear directly on the work in Tableau and R that I do now.  However, two things that were very useful to me as I learned these later skills on the job were learning the algebraic mode of problem solving in math and learning the highly structured grammars of Latin and Greek. Mastering both of these structured modes of logic and expression gave me a good set of tools to learn a programming language or an analytics tool.

Sayers illustrates this difference between learning specific things via training and mastering the tools for learning new things oneself with an example dealing with music (an area I'm conscious of because my wife and kids know it and I do not.) She describes how overly specific training is like learning by rote how to play one specific song. You might learn how to play the one song quite well, but if you don't understand musical notation, intervals, chords, etc. you will have no advantage from that first lesson when to you go to learn to play other songs.  Whereas, if you learn the tools of music (reading notation, intervals, chords, etc.) learning additional songs will become quicker and quicker.

In pages 6-9, Sayers lays out a very brief sketch of the classical and medieval approach to the basics of learning, and how she sees these as relevant today.

She lists the Trivium as three disciplines: Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric

The Quadrivium she mentions only in passing but for what it's worth they were: Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy. These were the more advanced subjects of the liberal education (the education of a free man) and it's worth noting in passing that as such the emphasis different from how we might think of those subjects now.  In arithmetic and geometry, the emphasis would have been on proof, in other words on how abstract and geometrical calculation worked. And with music and astronomy, the emphasis would also have been on the workings and theory of the disciplines, what we might think of as something like musical theory and orbital mechanics (calculating where planets and starts would be at given times and places.)

But like Sayers I'll leave the Quadrivium be after this. Aside from noting that the emphasis in these more advanced subjects was in how to make them one's own by doing calculations and research, I think Sayers is right in the way she goes through the rest of the essay with the assumption that the disciplines modern students will apply the tools of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric to will be those of modern fields of study rather than medieval ones.

Sayers then makes a distinction that while grammar is in a sense a subject, dialectic and rhetoric are rather methods of dealing with subjects.

Let me first touch of grammar a briefly.

I had "grammar" or "language" classes throughout grade school, but I often found myself simultaneously struggle and getting good grades. I got good grades because my parents spoke with good grammar at home and read aloud to me (and later encouraged me to read to myself) as a pretty high level. As such, I had a very good grasp of what sounded right in English, and so I was pretty good at "what is wrong with this sentence" or "use the right form of this word" exercises. But I didn't have a very good grasp of how grammar actually WORKED until I tackled Latin seriously in high school.  (Thanks, Bruce!)  Sayers gets into this later when she talks about the importance she puts on learning an inflected language (such as Latin, Greek, or if one must be modern Russian.) I'll do a sidebar post on what is distinctive about Latin vs some of the modern Romance languages such as Spanish or French when I get to that section, but here I just think it's worth noting that by grammar I think we just take Sayers to mean not just "put your comma in the right place" and "knowing to say 'they run' rather than 'they runs'" but understanding the way in which a language allows us to express or decode how many people do a thing, who they do it do, when they did it, how they did it, and what attributes the various parties involved had, based on the forms of words we choose.  Grammar is the set of rules which allow us to convey and discern meaning precisely. Taken in that broad sense, grammar applies not just to a language, but to many things. If grammar is the mechanics of language, there is similarly grammar to everything from mechanical engineering to music.

This leaves dialectic and rhetoric.  

Sayers describes dialectic as meaning the combination of logic and disputation. 

Logic is the mechanics of understanding when an argument does or does not follow from some other thing.  If all bats are creatures with things, and X is a creature with wings, does that mean X is a bat?

Disputation she seems to take as how that basic logic is situated within an argument.  The combination of logic and disputation she describes as, "how to define his terms and make accurate statements; how  to construct an argument and how to detect fallacies in argument".

Rhetoric she describes as "he learned to express himself in language: how to say what he had to say elegantly and persuasively."

But she describes both dialectic and rhetoric as "methods of dealing with subjects". By this, I think she means that to reason about a thing or to make a persuasive argument about a thing, one must have something worth talking about. Applying logic and rhetoric to "why I should get a nintendo for Christmas" is a sufficiently pointless exercise that students probably won't even get good practice out of it. Reading disputes in history, science, and religion and analyzing them with these tools will be a much more fruitful exercise in that it will both allow the students to participate in real disputes and also show to them how these skills can be used in later life as they evaluate and make arguments as citizens, parishioners, workers, etc.

The next point in Sayers's essay is where she lays out her idea for three stages of childhood development in terms of education.  As she says, she has not personally had extensive experience with raising or educating children, so as we're all parents here it seems like a good time to see if these fit with people's observations.

Sayers's stages are:

1) The "poll parrot" stage, where "learning by heart is easy and, on the whole, pleasurable; whereas reasoning is difficult and, on the whole, little relished". I'd say that this pretty much lines up with the period (which our nine year old is definitely in) where a child is likely to regale you with lists of dinosaur species, facts gleaned from nature specials, etc.  (ages maybe 5-11)

2) The "pert" or argumentative stage, which is "characterised by contradicting, answering-back, liking to “catch people out” (especially one’s elders), and the propounding of conundrums (especially the kind with a nasty verbal catch in them)".  (ages 11-14)

3) The "poetic" stage which "is popularly known as the “difficult” age. It is self-centered; it yearns to express itself; it rather specializes in being misunderstood; it is restless and tries to achieve independence; and, with good luck and good guidance, it should show the beginnings of creativeness, a reaching-out towards a synthesis of what it already knows, and a deliberate eagerness to know and do some one thing in preference to all others." (ages 14-18)

My own brief take: I think these observations definitely hold some general truth. The poll-parrot stage is most recognizable, in which children seem to be very good and picking up and remembering things (sometimes to an exhausting degree) but where reasoning ability is pretty basic. Kids that age certainly don't shrink from making connections and drawing conclusions, but it's often based on very basic similarities between things or concepts.  "I noticed these two things are similar, so I bet they're connected in the following way which just popped into my head."  In terms of education, this is clearly the age for learning letters and numbers, memorizing math facts, states, countries, capitals, maps, animal classifications, etc.  More in a Classical Education direction, this is probably also not a bad age for memorizing some poems and famous speeches (I still recall most of the Gettysburg address from 5th grade) and Bible passages and prayers.

I can't deny recognizing the argumentative stage, though people who knew me as a kid might say I lived one long argumentative stage from when I learned to talk till some time in my late 20s.  Other (indeed most) kids are must less argumentative than I was.

But even coming from a long argumentative stage, I'd say that there is an earlier stage which is highly imitative.  I would pick up arguments that I heard somewhere, like them, and repeat them to anywho who would listen.  In the middle school years, I started to transition to trying to synthesize my own arguments more, and make my own connections, and was less likely to parrot arguments without examination.  And as I edged into high school I started to move from simply arguing to trying to be more persuasive and to understand how others thought and reform arguments in more imaginative ways to make my ideas attractive to others.

That's also the age when I got interested in writing, and there too my initial forays were incredibly imitative. So even within forming arguments and doing expressive or creative writing, I'd say there's an early stage which is very imitative, and that a big help in one's development in that regard is being exposed to good examples of writing and argument, and helped to understand what makes them good. 

A digression on inflected languages

On page 11, after laying out her theory of the three stages of child development and how they map to grammar, dialectic/logic, and rhetoric, Sayers gets started on some details of the first of these three stages: grammar

She says, "This, in practice, means the grammar of some language in particular; and it must be an inflected language. The grammatical structure of an uninflected language is far too analytical to be tackled by any one without previous practice in Dialectic. Moreover, the inflected languages interpret the uninflected, whereas the uninflected are of little use in interpreting the inflected. I will say at once, quite firmly, that the best grounding for education is the Latin grammar. I say this, not because Latin is traditional and mediæval, but simply because even a rudimentary knowledge of Latin cuts down the labor and pains of learning almost any other subject by at least 50 percent."

She goes on to talk about how Latin vocabulary is found in everything from anatomy to law. Then she goes on to talk about all the other subjects which she thinks should be covered at this age and how.  However, let me take a minute, as someone who studied Latin in high school and college, to talk through what I think her case is for the value of learning an inflected language at a fairly young age (let's say age 8-11) as being something like the poll-parrot age.

In Latin (and in other highly inflected languages like Greek) the endings of words change in order to make clear what the function of a word in the sentence is.

So, for instance, in English, if you wrote the sentence: The boy gives the pretty girl a rose.

You know that "the pretty girl" is the person who received the rose (the indirect object) and the rose is the thing given "the direct object" because of their places in the sentence.  Move the words around, and you could change the meaning:

The girl gives the boy to a pretty rose.

The words in this sentence are almost exactly the same (we've added the proposition "to") but the meaning is totally different -- and also somewhat nonsensical.

In Latin, the endings of the words explain what each word is doing.  So if you say: Puer puellae bellae rosam dat (the boy gives a rose to the pretty girl)

You know that "Puer" mean "the boy" or "a boy" because the ending is just "-r".  If we meant "of the boy" it would be "pueri".  If we meant "to the boy" it would be "puero".  If the boy was the person acted on (the direct object) as in "the girl hit the boy" then the form would be "puerum".

Similarly, we know that "bellae" meaning "pretty" or "beautiful" goes with "puellae" because they are both in the dative form ending in "-ae".  If the pretty girl did something, say that she loved a dog, we would have: puella bella canem amat.

Nouns (and adjectives to match them) have endings that make clear their position in the sentence:

puella (a/the girl, subject)

puellae (of the girl, possessive)

puellam (a/the girl, object)

And verbs also make clear their purpose in the sentence by their endings:

Amo (I love)

Amas (You love)

Amat (he/she/it loves)

Amamus (we love)

Amatis (you plural love)

Amant (they love)

These endings are also pretty regular.  There are some different groupings, but there are 3-4 standard ways that nouns/adjectives end and 3/4 standard ways that verbs end, and if you memorize them (which is why Sayers assigns the memorization of forms like "Amo, Amas, Amat, Amamus, Amatis, Amant" to the poll-parrot stage) you simply know how your words work.

The sort of interesting result of all this is that Latin (and Greek) as written 2000 years ago are both more complicated and more systematic than English.  English (and more so languages like Spanish, French, etc.) is like the quickie, simplified version, but with a lot of special rules that you have to memorize.  Latin may be complicated, but all the rules are right up front and visible.

So the reason why Sayers is saying that kids aged 8-11 should be learning a language like Latin or Greek is that:

1) there is a fair amount of memorization, and memorizing is something kids that age are good at

2) these ancient languages are extremely systematic and clearly defined, whereas with English a lot of the meaning has to be understood from the placement of the words, context, and irregular ways that words change.

We've all heard kids make basic grammatic errors such as "I gives it to her" or "I runs fast".  Certainly, the child learning Latin will make grammatical errors too.  But both the systematic nature of the Latin language and the overall experience of learning a different language which you can't simply judge based on "it sounds right" allows the student to learn the function of each word in the sentence and the way of expressing what that function is.

This is the sense in which "teach the kids Latin" is not simply based on the fact that people in the Middle Ages and Ancient World learned Latin.  There is something about the structure of the Latin language which necessitates teaching clearly and explicitly things which native English speaking students can skim by based on "what sounds right" and which English as a language makes clear primarily by word placement, not by very explicit things like word endings.

My plan is to write up discussion on the rest of the essay, which I can post here as well if it is of any use to people.