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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 14, 2014

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.

Common Core, Sherman, Plato, Old Woman

For centuries, young people in England and America who were fortunate enough to go to school were subjected to rigorous education in ... Latin.

And, if you were getting a first-rate education, Greek as well.

Every schoolchild passed through weeks of translating and reciting from Julius Caesar's account of the Gallic Wars. If you were going to teach Latin to schoolboys, it was almost humane to include Caesar, because it was about war, and boys like reading about war.

Most boys never came close to fluency in Latin, but every schoolboy thus educated drew from that common experience, so that when they used Latin tag lines in their conversations, they weren't just referring to Caesar (or Tully, Erasmus, Aesop, Ovid, or Virgil), but also to the shared experience of laborious translation, rote memorization, physical pain, and regular humiliation in the classroom.

This curriculum was widespread throughout England and its colonies, including America, in the 18th century. As a result, during that era, "education" meant the same thing pretty much everywhere.

And those who really did master the reading of Latin and Greek could then take part in the Latin-based scholarship of the recent past.

But as scholarship began to be conducted in various modern languages, it was French and then German that became the necessary tongues to master.

Today, though, that essential language is English. And since most American schools stopped the serious teaching of English grammar in the past forty years or so, it's hard to say, these days, whether "education" means anything like the same thing in Boston, Los Angeles, or Atlanta as it means in Greensboro.

Education was not "superior" in the 18th century. It was generally cruel on many levels, and was expected to be "taught to the tune of the hickory stick."

Learning might be mentally grueling, but not learning was physical torture, with ferruling upon the palms or backs of the hand, or caning across the thighs and buttocks -- these punishments administered in front of the whole class.

There was also plenty of shaming, with dunce caps and special prominent seating for students who didn't perform well.

We're done with such unhelpful techniques of "education."

The one thing we miss, though, is the idea that getting a high school diploma in one state or town might mean the same thing as a diploma somewhere else.

That's the problem the Common Core was devised to resolve. (It's also what "No Child Left Behind" was meant to accomplish, but of course the teachers' unions have declared that to be immoral and evil, because it held teachers accountable.)

The idea of Common Core is to establish standards -- lists of information or techniques that students should master by certain grade levels.

The theory is that local schools and districts and state systems would devise their own curricula in order to meet those standards. Thus schooling would still be under local control -- but a diploma from Greensboro would imply the same competency as a diploma from Seattle or San Diego.

This is a very good idea. In theory.

Educational Fads

In practice, though, cynics like me are quite aware that the curricula would be devised by the same clowns who periodically go insane with pedagogically indefensible programs like "see-and-say" reading and "New Math" arithmetic.

Untested or out-and-out disproven "theories" that are supported by educational pitchmen are imposed by "educational experts" on district and state schools.

Then parents have to arrange for outside tutors to teach their kids how to read and add.

Look at the hideous burden of homework imposed on schoolchildren, even in the earliest grades, though homework has been proven again and again to be completely ineffective.

So it's no surprise that many people fear that under the heading of "Common Core," the same kind of nonsense will be imposed on longsuffering teachers, who will have no choice but to comply.

Political Correctness

Besides the educational idiocies that sweep the nation from time to time, there is also the obvious fact that the National Education Association (NEA) and almost all the other teachers' unions are completely ruled by the most rigid and intolerant sort of political correctness.

The unions make it impossible to fire bad or dangerous teachers wherever they rule the schools -- but if you speak up in favor of traditional values, you are bound to be frozen out, ostracized by everyone.

Not because all teachers are politically correct, but because the few who are make life so hellish for the ones who let it be known that they disagree, that everybody is frightened to speak up.

The result, in many school districts throughout the country, is a hunkered-down mentality of compliance without protest.

And if the history of politically correct puritanism shows us anything, it's that programs like Common Core are almost immediately coopted by the politically correct and used as a means of ramming their ideology down the throats of schoolchildren, without parents or teachers having any chance to opt out or vary from the program.


That's why when you read what the proponents of Common Core say, it always sounds like an excellent idea. That's because it is an excellent idea.

The proponents are careful to stress their content neutrality. They are not putting forth any particular educational theory. They are not enforcing an anti-Christian, anti-Western philosophy.

Yet the opponents of Common Core are not insane (though of course the proponents want to paint them that way).

Since most education colleges in most universities are almost as dominated by ultra-left ideologues as journalism schools, it is no surprise that the people in charge of designing the curricula to implement Common Core in most states and districts are "experts" who will make sure that the real common core is left-wing values.

We already have schoolchildren everywhere being taught that global warming is a fact, when it hasn't even been tested enough to be called a theory. We have textbooks being adopted to support anti-Christian, far-left ideological positions on just about everything.

And heaven forbid that anyone should try to include a solid grounding in the writings and ideas and accomplishments of Dead White Males -- even though 99 percent of the achievements of Western Civilization spring from them.

When you express any desire to prevent the implementation of Common Core in order to prevent the uniform ideological propagandizing of our children, you are accused of opposing the innocuous, content-neutral Common Core that is officially being adopted.

Legislatures in several states have braved the propaganda in order to establish legislative oversight of the curricula in order to prevent a politicized community of education experts from imposing their doctrines on all the schools in their state.

Of course these legislatures are all branded as neanderthal or fanatical or stupid -- because the American intellectual elite believe that since all Smart People believe the politically correct dogmas, anyone who opposes them is Stupid or Evil.

Meanwhile, the press coverage of the controversy is always on the side of the "neutral" Common Core. From the reporting, you'd think that the only reason to oppose Common Core is a desire to keep our children ignorant.

On the contrary: The program of the far left is to keep our children ignorant of the entire Western tradition, from Plato on forward -- except for an expurgated version that stresses how evil Christianity and Dead European Males were until true enlightenment came in the 1960s.

Unfortunately, the curricula that the opponents of Common Core often want to impose is just as biased and ignorant as the politically correct dogmas -- and filled with just as many proven-ineffective educational techniques.

Meanwhile, our public schools continue to deteriorate, and diplomas come to mean less and less. The upper division college English students I teach are almost uniform in their ignorance of how to think logically, avoid fallacy, support or refute an idea with evidence, or even develop coherent ideas in clear English sentences.

The exceptions are almost all students who were home-schooled, or who come from homes where the parents read books and discuss ideas and facts and history and news with their children.

What can you do about this, short of home-schooling your children?

Read books and discuss ideas and facts and history and news with your children.

You have no idea of how much power parents have, compared to mere teachers. You can raise open-minded, skeptical, well-educated children just by keeping your own educational process alive ... and talking about it at home.

But who has time to read? You do. Either you clip an MP3 player to your clothing or you put audiobook cds in your car, and you "read" by having somebody narrate good books to you as you drive to and from work, or as you run errands or exercise.

The more of this you do, the clearer your picture of history and of the world around us will become. If the NEA is grimly determined to undo centuries of Western tradition in the schools, then your best counterstrike is to make sure you are familiar with the Western tradition and can bring it to your children at the dinner table, or in family discussion sessions.

Let me suggest two excellent audiobooks about some Dead European Males that I recently finished listening to:


Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman, by Robert L. O'Connell, is a brand-new (July 2014) biography of the man who was arguably America's best military thinker and leader, ever.

Southerners are, of course, duty-bound to regard him as a monster of evil, but his scorched-earth policy during his march through Georgia was not the orgy of rape and pillage and burning that post-Civil War propaganda would have us believe.

When you go to the documents at the time, Sherman's foragers were remarkably well-disciplined in Georgia. They used information provided by slaves to locate hidden caches of foodstuffs that Sherman's army needed in order to travel without supply lines.

It was a policy supported by the best military doctrine. What's remarkable is that people who have no qualms about America's campaign of bombing Germany's and Japan's war-making capability -- by definition a civilian occupation -- get all hissy about Sherman doing exactly the same thing in the previously untouched heartland of the Confederacy.

His March to the Sea was the 1864 equivalent of pinpoint bombing of strategic resources in enemy country.

The only incident of uncontrolled burning happened in Columbia, South Carolina, the place where the first decision for a state to secede was made, and even then, it was not a policy decision, but a series of accidents.

But let's set post-Civil War politics aside. Military commanders can only discover their own real ability if they happen to be given command in time of war. The United States was fortunate that the brilliance of Sherman was available to us at that crucial time.

Sherman was a complicated man. An incessant talker (like Winston Churchill), he conversed freely with anyone and everyone, and never lacked for opinions.

His stern-looking pictures are a product of the way cameras worked during his lifetime -- you had to hold very still with a set expression. In fact, he was friendly and convivial, and most people liked him.

He was a committed atheist married to a committed Catholic -- and his wife won the religious wars for the hearts of their children, mostly because she was home and he was not.

Sherman was raised by foster parents who were politically prominent, and then he and one of his brothers continued that tradition -- Sherman in the army, and his brother John in Congress. (John Sherman was author of the Sherman anti-trust act, for instance.)

Nobody hated politics more than William Tecumseh Sherman. He's the man who said -- and meant -- the famous quote, "If nominated I will not run. If elected I will not serve." (His actual words were slightly different, but the famous version is close enough.)

He could have been elected president in any election after the Civil War, but he really did not like politics. Instead, his father-in-law and then his brother used their legislative clout to protect his military career from political interference.

His career took him from Florida during the Seminole War to California during the Mexican War, and despite some floundering about at the beginning of the Civil War, he soon emerged as a resourceful general whose men adored him, calling him "Uncle Billy."

Outside the military between wars he proved himself to be a wise and prudent banker -- and an honorable man, who during a financial crisis paid back the friends who had entrusted their savings to his bank out of his own funds, even though the collapse was not in any way his fault.

In Fierce Patriot, O'Connell does something odd that probably would not work for any other biography: He divides his story into three parts. The first and by far the longest part is an account of Sherman's career, beginning with West Point.

This is the stuff that made him famous.

The second and shortest part is about Sherman's army -- which O'Connell convincingly regards as the prototype for the modern American military. Sherman's success depended in large part on the genius of individual soldiers who solved problems on the fly.

This is typical of American soldiers to the present-day -- but such "creative disobedience" always flies in the face of strict obedience to military hierarchy. Sherman maintained good order and discipline -- but he also encouraged a bit of freelancing and adopted good ideas whether they came from above or below.

In many ways, this is the best section of the book -- though it is the one that is least about Sherman himself.

The third section is about Sherman's personal life. Here, near the end, is where we get the account of his upbringing, his relationship with his wife and children -- and his mistresses.

The result is an excellent, clear account of a difficult man whose influence on American history was profound, yet is now suppressed by propaganda from various groups who profit from condemning him.

This is a book not only worth reading for its own sake, but also because of the discussions you can have with family and friends about the moral issues raised by aspects of Sherman's life and career.


At the other end of Western history we have a towering figure who has dominated philosophy and religion to this very day: Plato.

Though he began as a dramatist, Plato abandoned that career path when his friend and mentor, Socrates, challenged the value of made-up stories. Instead, Plato used his dramatic talents to write the most readable and, I think, important philosophical works in human history: his Dialogues.

The early dialogues feature Socrates himself as the major figure, but by the end of Plato's life, he moved away from Socrates and used other characters as the main interlocutors in these conversations.

The dialogues are dramatic, they are funny, and they are genuinely intelligent. I enrolled in the Great Books program in junior high, and I read many of the dialogues knowing I would have to answer questions about them.

Instead of being off-putting, this provided me with focus, and I discovered with delight that Plato's Dialogues were the most entertaining and the most intellectually productive of the works I read as I prepared to earn a competitive scholarship through the Great Books program.

However, I cannot say that I really understood all that was going on in the Dialogues because most of the people in the scenes were real figures in Athenian society, and the conversations had all kinds of historical and political as well as philosophical overtones that I completely missed.

Forty years after that initial introduction to Plato, I bought from the Great Courses a series of lectures called "Plato, Socrates, and the Dialogues," taught by Michael Sugrue.

Sugrue is an outstanding teacher -- clear, personable, enthusiastic, critical, and very well informed.

His journey through the Dialogues not only provided accurate summaries of the key philosophical points -- better than the one in Will Durant's The Story of Philosophy -- but also supplied a clear picture of how the dialogues fitted into the politics, culture, religion, and philosophy of Athens during the age of Socrates.

I recommended this series to a friend, who, despite a very busy schedule, not only listened to Sugrue's entire course, but then went on to read several of the Dialogues for himself.

The course is so good that two years after my first time through, I listened to it again a week ago and got even more out of it this time.

I have my own views of Plato's philosophy -- and of the neo-Platonism that grew out of it. I also believe it's possible to speculate usefully on where Socrates left off and Plato began, and on which Socratic ideas Plato may have misunderstood or taken to absurd extremes.

But even when Plato is hopelessly wrong -- as in his theory of Forms or Ideas, in which he tries to treat words as if their meanings represented fixed but abstract realities -- he is still deeply and widely influential.

The mainstream Christian concept of God owes a great deal more to the neo-Platonist interpretation of Plato's Symposium than to the New Testament, as most biblical scholars agree.

Even if you never read the Dialogues themselves, taking Sugrue's 16-lecture course will give you a good grounding in this root of Western thought.

Courses from The Great Courses can cost hundreds of dollars (and are worth it!) -- but you can usually find courses on sale for much less.

Recently, a selection of the Great Courses has become available on Audible.com at even lower prices. You don't get the ancillary materials -- study guides, visual aids -- but they only offer courses in which these are not necessary.

Thus on Audible.com, "Plato, Socrates, and the Dialogues" can be purchased as a download for $24.46 (or one credit, if you have an ongoing membership).

Here's a link to Audible's entire collection of Great Courses.

And here's a link to Sugrue's course on Plato.


We all rely on the people that we trust. We take our children to school and assume that school officials will act in the kids' best interest. We work for employers in the firm belief that they will pay us as they said they would.

Of course, sometimes our trust is misplaced. But that doesn't mean we can stop trusting strangers. Civilization depends on specialization. We become as good as we can at the tasks we are supposed to do, trusting that others will do the same in their areas of expertise, and we'll all share in the results of each other's labors.

No one is more dependent than babies, of course. Their only two skills are learning and being cute. The better they are at both, the better the chances that other people will take care of them.

Old people, on the other hand, are generally more capable than babies. Still, they produce less and less that society values, and most begin losing more and more of their ability to take care of themselves.

They don't have babies' ability to learn like crazy. And very few of them are cute enough to make people want to take care of them.

Because old people remember being completely independent (as much as anybody ever is), they experience all of their shrinking capacity as a loss, and they look forward in dread to even more losses. Pain and fear color everything.

Yet because they once were productive and provident, they own things that other people want to get from them. Money. House. Land. Valuable possessions.

It's not paranoia when old people think that someone is trying to steal from them. It's not often the people they think are stealing, but there's no doubt that thousands of con men are gunning for them, preying on their fears and uncertainties, looking for some door they can sneak through to steal.

And it's not always con men. King Lear is a classic in part because it's so true: Old people want reassurance that the people they trust, love them enough to continue to act in their interest when they're too old to protect themselves.

That's all Lear was asking for when he challenged his daughters to say how much they loved him. When his favorite, Cordelia, too proud to abase herself, refused to give him that reassurance, what choice did he have but to make sure she had no power over him?

Of course, the irony of King Lear is that the two daughters who reassured him were lying, and take away all that he has, while the proud daughter who did not reassure him is the only one who tries to protect him.

This deep well of storytelling was not exhausted with King Lear, of course, and the dread and decay of old age have produced a very good mystery novel called There Was an Old Woman, by Hallie Ephron.

It's not surprising that younger readers -- including the middle-aged -- often shy away from stories about old people, especially when told from their point of view.

The decay of memory makes such characters unreliable observers, which is especially true of Mina, one of the last holdouts in the marsh-bordered neighborhood in the Bronx that her family once owned and developed.

She recently saw her sister's slide into the oblivion of old age and death, and she is so fearful that she is on the same road that she takes notes of all her memory lapses, almost the equivalent, in reverse, of those marks parents make on the wall to chart their children's growth in height.

Into her life there comes Evie Ferrante, the grownup daughter of the family next door, who has come back to the Bronx to tend to the needs of her mother, who is dying of alcohol poisoning.

There's a long history between the families, though Evie knows only a little of it. And to her, Mina seems bright and alert, despite her physical feebleness.

As curator of a museum, Evie involves Mina in recounting an event that she was part of -- a crash of an airplane into the Empire State Building during World War II. She believes that Mina's memory is holding up quite well; it takes a real crisis to show her just how dangerously Mina has lost control of reality.

This is a novel of dramatic irony rather than mystery: Readers quickly grasp exactly what's going on, though neither of the main characters has enough information to reach the same conclusions. So we read both storylines, knowing more than either character -- but never quite putting it all together until the climax makes things terribly clear.

The result is a novel that is highly entertaining -- and one that raises issues that most people try to avoid thinking about until they're forced to live through them. Whom can you trust to look out for your interests in your old age?

I listened to There Was an Old Woman as narrated by Nan McNamara, who does a lovely job of making both characters become clear and interesting.

Author Hallie Ephron comes from a family of writers. Her parents, Henry and Phoebe Ephron, wrote such classic screenplays as Desk Set and Carousel. Hallie's sister, writer Nora Ephron (writer and director of You've Got Mail and Julie & Julia, among many others), recently passed away, which suggests that Hallie Ephron herself is also of an age to know what it's like to deal with decay and loss.

While having successful writers as parents or siblings does not guarantee that someone will also be a good writer, it also doesn't imply that they will not. Verbal and storytelling gifts don't arise in a vacuum. So it's no surprise that the name "Ephron" should give rise to very well-written stories, whether the name preceding it is Nora or Hallie.

This book is worth the time you will give it, and more. It's the kind of book that reading clubs thrive on, because in addition to the sheer entertainment value, it offers a subject and situation worth discussing.

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