Sweet Thirteen

Today is my unschooled daughter’s birthday; Pippa’s thirteen years old today, and getting more wonderful, more beautiful, every day. We’re going out to dinner in a few minutes with our friend Ellen, and I’ll have to work pretty hard not to spend the whole time beaming and boasting about her my daughter. [How cool is this? Pippa spotted my ambiguous pronoun: “Beaming about me or Ellen?”]

October 15, 2006 -- After

Meanwhile, Doc added a kind note about un- and home- schooling. I deeply admire the work that dedicated, under-appreciated schoolteachers do — nonetheless, Margaret and I anticipated that the best alternative for Nate and Si and Pippa was to learn at home on a student-led basis. So far, that judgment has been borne out.

On a different front, three fantastically kind friends have agreed to write last-moment recommendation letters for a big-deal grant to support my unpaid months at the Center of Theological Inquiry. Two other applications in the next few weeks, then waiting to hear. . . .

O Times!

Sunday’s New York Times featured an article on unschooling, the approach to home education that we’ve practiced for fifteen years. While I am not surprised that the newspaper sought out the ominous undercurrent of this subversive practice, I do marvel that a professional educator provides them with the sensational blare for their warning: “the folks who are engaging in these radical forms of school are doing so legally”! Oh, no!

The concluding paragraph of the article concedes that unschooled children don’t learn everything, that “there are definite gaps” in [one] unschooled student’s education. Are we then to understand that at PS 666, all students do indeed “know everything,” and find no “gaps” in institutionally-schooled children’s educations? If the school systems have improved that much since I graduated from high school, I’m at a loss to explain why I hear so much about our troubled school systems.

Here’s the real story: it’s possible for unschooled kids to emerge from their childhood poorly-prepared for further academic life, and it’s possible for institutionally-schooled kids to emerge from their childhood poorly-prepared for subsequent endeavors. On balance, does unschooling offer a better prospect than institutional schooling? Whom would we ask to discern?

[Disclosure: Our unschooled eldest son is beginning doctoral work at the University of Michigan with a Regents’ Fellowship. Our unschooled second son is a sophomore at Marlboro College, doing OK last I checked. Our unschooled daughter has not ventured into the world of quantified educational evaluation.]

You Need to Learn

Stephen Downes takes a half hour out to list ten things that he thinks you need to learn. I think he’s hit the mark on almost every point; at the same time, I’m beginning to think that I can summarize my own perspective on “what you need to learn” in the three-word phrase, “knowing the difference.”

Simplifying to the extreme, most of what I deplore in academic and ecclesiastical life involves collaboration with the forces that promote indifference, and if we would recuperate from pernicious indifference, we need to pay close attention to differences, and to weigh them with critical diligence.

So — for instance — Downes correctly inveighs against undervaluing ourselves (point 9), but I’d want to insist on the caveat that we aren’t all “valuable” in all ways. As an athlete, I’m just flat-out dispensible, and if I want to insist that I have something to offer as a theoretician, as a preacher, as an interpreter of Scripture, as a Dad, and so on, I need to be willing to allow that as a point guard I mostly just occupy court space that others could put to more productive use. I may be intrinsically valuable as a human being (and even that claim deserves critical refinement), but that doesn’t make my judgments about twelve-tone music or my advice about political maneuvering “valuable.” We need to know the difference between self-respect that’s grounded in demonstrable qualities and self-esteem that’s inflated with delusion. Vilely destructive as is contemporary culture’s tendency to inflict insecurity wherever it can, we remedy that syndrome not by answering pejorative lies with affirmative lies — we remedy the culture of fearful self-doubt by observing actual strengths, acknowledging actual weaknesses, and operating in life on the basis of an honest (corrigible) version of our strengths and weaknesses.*

* I wouldn’t want to suggest that Downes argues in favor of vain self-aggrandizement. He regularly cites specific virtues and vices in the technologies, practices, and arguments that he describes; it would be out of character for him to stand up for groundless puffery. Here, I’m just arguing that generalized good feelings about oneself need a connection to people, capacities, characteristics, and so on. In the world into which Chris Locke gives us so frighteningly unsparing a view, “we are special, from head to toe.” Baloney. My toes are no big deal, and that’s maybe the least of my deficiencies.

Once and Future

Our friend from old days at Evening Prayer in Princeton, Curtis Hoberman, stopped by last night for a catch-up visit. We took him out to Cozy Noodle, pumped him for details of his visit to Washington to receive the Jefferson Award for Public Service, and learn what’s been happening in our former, and future, home town. Great dinner, good times, exciting prospects. . . .

Peculiar Bug

My iPod is getting a little old (in digital terms — if it were a hammer, it would still be in its early years of usefulness), and the battery has lost a lot of its capacity, but I didn’t expect this:

Every now and then, the “shuffle” function will forget that it’s supposed to be shuffling by song, and will continue playing a particular performer’s songs until it runs out. You can fast-forward it through the supposedly-shuffled playlist, but if it falls into this while playing songs by a favorite performer, or an especially prolific act (such as the Magnetic Fields), it can take a great many button-pushes to get the shuffle function out of its rut.

Yes, I have checked, and the “shuffle” function is checked for “by song,” not by artist or album. Moreover, it doesn’t always get tracked for an artist even when I have multiple selections by that artist.

Worse things happen at sea, of course, but it’s an odd little nuisance of a bug.
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Kiss Me Quick

The anniversary of Kirsty MacColl’s sad death comes round in a couple of weeks; yesterday, walking down to Pippa’s Latin lesson, her prescient “Soho Square” came on my iPod.

One day you’ll be waiting there, no empty bench in Soho Square
And we’ll dance around like we don’t care
And I’ll be much too old to cry
And you’ll kiss me quick in case I die before my birthday

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Very Good and Write

And our bounden duty.

A couple of months ago, Micah emailed me the link to this page, which I promptly forgot about until a recent spasm of emailbox-cleaning. From my exalted position as Writing Director at Seabury (“no benefits, just more responsibilities”), I have several reactions to the article and its attendant comments. First, I approve — generally — of the list of desiderata for students assignments. I don’t want to think of them as “rights”; that terminology engenders too much murky thinking. They do, however, comprise a very good list of desirable features for writing assignments, and I try to observe many of them.

The comments note that teachers vary in the ways they apply their standards; one awkward element in the frustrating knot involves teachers who lack all but the basic (and in some cases, “even the basic”) skills for assessing written expression. I’ve encountered their writing in my role as editor; I can’t begin to imagine how these impaired writers evaluate students’ papers. When a student encounters varying evaluations from teachers with varying capacities, what sense can the student make of the divergent sets of comments? Why should the student not trust the more favorable, more charitable grades and comments?

And while I’m at it: Stephen Downes linked to a post on Creating Passionate Users, which argues that more sources should use more graphics to communicate more effectively. Amen, and Amen. But as with ill-composed writing, so with ill-composed graphical communication: just putting something out there doesn’t imply that it will contribute to getting a message across. Too often, people feel obligated to throw kitchen-sink graphic communication into presentations with no regard whatever to whether the images contribute to clear communication of particular ideas. Imagine if one did that with words! (Sadly, too many of us need not “imagine” such a circumstance, since we’ve seen and heard arguments that seem to have been composed with random words thrown in for seasoning.)

If what you write, or if the images you use for graphical communication, do not contribute to expressing clearly and precisely the message you’re hoping to convey — then don’t confuse and distract your readers with pointless, vague, superfluities.* Communicating is a difficult enough task without further complicating it with noise.

* I don’t mean you should never allow your reader to relax a bit, or never digress, or never entertain. We should, however, assess such indulgences with a pretty rigorous criterion of whether they contribute to communicating the greater message. (I’m looking at you, preachers who include irrelevant shaggy dog stories in your sermons.) Sometimes readers benefit from a light distraction, an opportunity to relax their concentrated attention. More often, distractions attenuate the focus of one’s rhetoric and diminish the effectiveness of the entire presentation — especially when the presenter hasn’t maintained a taut focus to begin with.
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Over the weekend I confirmed to relevant authorities that I plan to accept the offer of membership at the Center of Theological Inquiry for the 2007-08 academic year. The financing remains to be worked out, but Margaret, Pippa, Bea and I will spend next year based in Princeton.

Over and above the honor of being chosen for this opportunity, we give thanks for being given another year to live and work in Princeton. Our five years there were exceptionally important to us; Pippa’s best friend still lives there, and we know and admire the choir director at Trinity Church — it’ll be a great choir for her. Margaret and I will be able to study at the Princeton Seminary Libraries, and at Firestone. Amazing.
Continue reading “Thanksgiving”

Filling In The Blanks

I’m ba-a-a-a-ack.

What do theologians do when they go away to an academic conference?

What Do Theologians Do?

The answer presumably involves someone in conference planning who doesn’t keep alert to online jargon (definitions two and three).

My response to Dale Martin’s Sex and the Single Savior follows in the extended link at the bottom of this post. The session was delightful; it began with Daniel Boyarin looking up and down the dais at Amy Hollywood, Stephen Moore, Dale Martin, Serene Jones, Jon Berquist, and me — and saying, “I love being on a panels like this. It’s like Cheers.” He also got off the zinger of the evening when Serene suggested that Dale wrote with a disingenuous irony comparable to that of the Bush regime: “The only difference between George W. Bush and Dale Martin is that Dale is actually from Texas.” Dale shocked a number of audience members (and some panelists) by asserting his unwavering commitment to doctrinal orthodoxy.

Yesterday was devoted mostly to mop-up shopping (I bought my copy of Robert Jewett’s monumental Romans commentary, to packing and to travel, though I ran into B.J. and Rodney at the departure gate at National Airport and pitched to them an idea for a book series. On the book production front, both Faithful Interpretation and Reading Scripture With the Church sold out at their respective display booths, and Faithful Interpretation received a favorable short notice in the Christian Century.
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All But The Shopping

The annual meeting is pretty much complete, except for the Tuesday-morning “it’s on sale, it’s such a bargain, I really ought to read it” impulse purchases at the book display. My response to Dale’s paper went well, but it’s on my computer, not Margaret’s (which I’m using to compose this, since our hotel makes you pay for wireless per CPU); I’ll blog it as soon as I can get a signal.

Margaret’s response yesterday went very well (the scholar who invited her was delighted), and we’ve been to numerous wonderful parties. Sadly, my metabolism is not what it once was (I almost titled this post, “Too old to SBL, to young to die”) — my feet are swollen and weary, my digestive system rebelled against me this afternoon, and staying awake at parties gets harder every year. Still, the joy of seeing Margaret incresingly at home in her own professional milieu at the meeting strengthened my weak hands and made firm ny feeble knees.