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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 23, 2014

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

Trick or Treat, Real Education

I feel kind of sorry for kids today. Because of a bunch of foolish folkore about razor blades in apples and other such nonsense -- none of which ever happened except when done by attention-seeking parents to their own children -- trick-or-treating is no longer a children's activity.

Just like kids' games, in which organized team play has almost completely replaced unsupervised neighborhood games, and kids' friendships, in which play dates have almost completely replaced hanging out with kids in the neighborhood, we now shelter our children to such a degree that they seem to have almost no room for freedom.

Of course, I say this because I never actually did "trick or treat." Oh, I went around with my siblings, in costume, knocking on neighbors' doors and saying, "Trick or treat," but if they hadn't given me a treat, I had no plan for playing some kind of "trick."

To me, the "trick" part of Halloween was all fictional. We would talk about mean-spirited, extravagant pranks -- the dog-doo in the burning paper bag, the eggs thrown or oreos smeared on walls or doors or windows -- but nobody I knew ever actually did any of that stuff.

Maybe some of us didn't do those things because they were scared of getting caught. But I know that I didn't do them because they didn't actually sound either fun or funny.

Punishing somebody because they didn't have candy for me? What would that make me? I may not have known the word "extortionist" as a young child, but I knew that it was not the way a good person would behave. It would, in fact, be mean. And I didn't want to be mean.

At least, not physically mean. I watch "pranks" on internet-clip TV shows like Tosh.0 and @Midnight and as people play horrible, painful, humiliating "jokes" on their "friends," I think, What kind of person would even imagine this might be funny? Why would they think they could continue to be friends after this?

Maybe it's an escalating tradition among friends, like the legendary Slap Bet in How I Met Your Mother. But inflicting physical pain or humiliation or shame on a friend seems to me to be a rotten thing to do.

We once had our house toilet-papered and oreoed, and we tried to take it philosophically. We assumed that it was done as a prank by some teenagers in our church group -- probably the very ones that hung out at our house and played with the Atari 800 in our basement (this was in 1982 in Indiana).

So my wife explained to me, "I think this is supposed to be affectionate. I think this is supposed to mean they like us."

But as we pulled down toilet paper and scrubbed off smears of white sweetened lard (what do you think that oreo icing is?), I grumbled that if this means they like us, what would they do if they hated us? Blow up the house? Break in and murder us with machetes?

In what universe, I asked, is it funny or affectionate to steal hours of someone else's time cleaning up a mess that you deliberately and voluntarily made in their yard ... as a "prank"?

But physical pranks -- practical jokes -- aren't the only kind of nastiness that passes as humor or affection in our culture. I know families, for instance, where "joking around" is so cruel that when they do it I want to get away.

Their "jokes" are so mean, and the target of them is so obviously hurt, that I can't believe they haven't long since banned such "humor" from their home.

But when I asked about it, even the most-damaged person said, "Oh, it just shows that we know each other so well, and that we can be a good sport about it."

Good sport? Hmmm. Somebody exposes your vulnerability and humiliates you with their "humor," and you're supposed to laugh it off?

Here's why such verbal cruelty is never funny, and can't be erased by saying, "Just kidding":

In order to say it, you have to think of it.

If you thought of it, it means that at some level you do mean it, it is what you believe to be true.

And therefore, no amount of "just kidding" or "I tease ya cause I love ya" can erase the fact that someone who claims to care about you, to be your friend or family member, somebody that you should be able to trust to have your back, has instead found some terrible thing to say about you ... and said it.

Even if you tease obliquely, like calling a fat person "Slim" or an ignorant person "Genius," it still hurts.

And when I see somebody cruelly "teasing" somebody else, even if I'm not the target of the gibe, it makes me angry and ashamed.

Ashamed, because it's probably funny and I probably either laugh or want to laugh; and even if I remain silent, I'm thus forced into tacit complicity with the act of unkindness.

Angry, because families and friends should provide a circle of trust and safety, where your weaknesses are overlooked and your strengths celebrated, where people want you to be happy.

If your own home is a place of danger instead of a refuge, then it's not really your home, is it? You are bound to look for that refuge somewhere else.

Now, I'm not a completely humorless grouch. There is a level of teasing and jesting that is the equivalent of puppies nipping at each other. It's the teasing that does not strike at the core.

Friends can tease each other about things that mean nothing. "Oh, so we're wearing red today. This is a red day. Why didn't you tell me? I didn't wear red." And as long as you don't keep it going too long, this kind of meaningless joke can be a mark of cameraderie.

But real friends never stab each other in a way that draws blood. They never go for the joke that says, "I know this hurtful thing about you, and I don't care how much pain it causes you, I'm going to score laugh-points by exposing this." If somebody treats you this way, they're not your friend.

I'm actually an expert on this, because when I was in college, I was that guy. The one who scored the points. I didn't go for the obvious cruelty, like gibing about acne scars or body size; but I was pretty good at finding something funny to say at other people's expense.

The kind of "joke" that is cruel enough to be surprising and memorable, but not so cruel as to cause the victim to burst into tears or run from the room. I thought I was so clever; I got so many laughs.

But not many friends.

When I left college, I didn't have a circle of hanging-out friends any more -- people who were kind of forced together because of shared projects and classes. I had work-friends and church-friends, but I'm an introvert and I never call somebody up and say, in effect, "Wanna hang out?"

So I stopped having any opportunity to "tease" people and I got out of the habit. It stopped being a thing I do.

Years after college, I happened to get together with a bunch of my old college friends and I instantly became that guy again. I could hear the words coming out of my mouth and I was appalled at the unkindness. I'm not that kind of person, I told myself.

That was when I realized that this was the kind of person that my college friends thought I was. In fact, it was the kind of person I really was in those days.

But by then, in my late thirties, I realized: I hate that guy. And that guy used to be me.

So now I proselytize a little bit against that kind of humor. The jest at the expense of someone else. Whether you do it behind their back or to their face, it's still cruel. It still shows a lack of kindness or empathy. It's a selfish humor that tries to make itself look good by making somebody else feel bad.

"Oh, she doesn't mind. Oh, he knows I love him. It's just a joke."

Here's a clue: Yes, she does mind. No, he doesn't know you love him. And it's not a joke, because you thought of it and then, lacking any compassion, you said it or did it.

Which brings me back to trick-or-treat. As kids, we talked about all kinds of "tricks" that might be played, and when we talked about them, they sounded funny. But we never did them.

We just went around in the best costume we could think of, and asked strangers for candy. And ... get this ... they gave it to us!

Nobody ever played any tricks on us, either. The candy was all safe and good. That's because we were all civilized people. We could trust the neighbors not to harm children and we could trust the children not to commit any crimes against property.

Civilization is built on trust. Family is built on trust. Friendships are built on trust. Love is inseparable from trust.

Home is, or should be, the place where you can trust the people who live there never to cause you needless pain, but instead do their best to promote your happiness.

If we can teach our children that, if we can show them by the way we treat the people we love, then we're helping keep civilization alive.

And if we don't, then we're not.


Just because you are done with school doesn't mean your education has to stop. In fact, being done with school usually means your education can finally begin.

That's because going through school usually means that other people are telling you what you must learn, what you must do, what you must think.

But your actual education begins when you start to learn things on your own, not because you're going to get a grade or score points with an employer, but because you want to put new ideas into your head.

You want to be able to think thoughts that you don't yet know how to think.

You used to love the process of learning. That's all that babies do -- wiggle and make noises and see what happens.

Our brains are hardwired to learn language, if a language is made available to us. As babies we suck in all those sounds and practice making them ourselves, and we figure out what they mean and learn how to put words together into sentences we never heard before.

Children drink in the world around them as if they were dying of thirst.

And then we get older and act as if we thought we knew everything that matters.

Oh, we would never claim to know everything. In fact, we love that joke: "When I was a teenager, I thought my dad was completely clueless. It's amazing how much smarter the old man has gotten since then."

By the time you're a grownup, you have a pretty good idea of all the billions of things in the world that you're never going to learn how to do, all the experiences you're not going to have.

As for me, I'm content with the knowledge that I will never hang-glide or run a zipline. I will never climb a mountain or scuba dive. That's fine because never for an instant did I want to do any of those things.

I speak three languages well enough to make myself understood, and one of them well enough to get paid sometimes for writing stuff. I can fake my way through reading a couple of others. It hurts to know that I'll never speak Russian or Polish, Hebrew or Arabic or Japanese. But at 63 years of age, my ambitions have been tempered.

There are millions of books I'll never read. I have to perform triage. If a book isn't good, I no longer finish it out of a sense of duty. If a movie is boring or stupid or offensive, I walk out.

I only have a certain number of days left in my life, and I don't know how many. I have to remember there are many things I'll never learn before I die.

But that doesn't mean I can't learn anything more.

The first college writing course I taught was an evening class, and it spoiled me. That's because evening school students are usually not undergraduates straight from high school.

Instead, they are mostly adults with real jobs who are taking the class, not to mark off a box or earn credits or grades, but because they actually want to learn something.

It makes all the difference in the world. It was a joy teaching those students, because they cared ... and they learned.

For those who love to learn, it never stops. I mean, if I had to live the rest of my life knowing only what I know right now, then that would mean I must be satisfied with my current level of ignorance.

And I'm not satisfied with it. I know I can never learn everything. But I can't be happy if I'm not learning something.

So these days I live my life with an iPod Nano clipped to my shirt and whenever I'm alone and not actually reading or writing something, I have earphones pumping a book or a course into my head.

I get my books -- fiction and nonfiction -- from online sources like Audible or Downpour. And for years I've gotten college-level courses from The Great Courses.

The Great Courses can be expensive -- several hundred dollars for a course. They're worth every penny. But they also have frequent sales, and almost every course can be purchased for a steeply discounted price -- if you wait and watch for the sale.

In the past year or so, Audible.com and The Great Courses have started offering some of those wonderful college courses at an even steeper discount. In fact, you can get a complete course for the price of one book or one Audible.com credit.

I still buy courses directly from The Great Courses -- and sometimes at full price. But I've also picked up a bunch of courses from Audible.com.

For instance, I just got through listening to three courses during my two-and-a-half-hour commute to and from Southern Virginia University, where I teach.

The Industrial Revolution may sound like a dull unit in high school social studies class -- but as it's taught by Prof. Patrick N. Allitt, it's a fascinating saga of the inventors and entrepreneurs who transformed society and created the modern world.

Starting with thread-spinning machines powered by watermills, and cheap bulk transportation by canal, bold and inventive people created the society we live in: the world in which you can buy anything for incredibly low prices.

Because of the industrial revolution, most poor people in America today are far richer than the richest kings of ancient times -- heating and air conditioning, instant communication, clothing that fits, shoes that last, plenty to eat, fresh food year round, the ability to wash, astonishingly good health care, medicines that actually do something useful, and the best entertainers in the world on screens or speakers or earphones.

All of this happened since about 1800. That's right -- a little over two hundred years, and everything is different.

It's a great story, especially because nobody planned it. Each person just had one or two ideas -- or a dozen, in some cases -- and then did the work or made the investments to bring something into existence that had never existed before.

Some of the technologies had a huge burst of success and then were superseded and virtually disappeared.

The Erie Canal changed America; but nobody uses it for transport anymore, because the railroad came only a few years later and did the same job even more efficiently.

Twenty years ago we were gently teasing people who never learned how to program their VCRs. Now that's a skill that nobody needs to learn and it's hard to buy videocassettes. Ditto with cassette tapes -- can you even buy a car with a built-in tape deck? For a while there you couldn't buy a car without one.

Technologies come and go, but we're used to the idea that each new technology will be replaced by a better one. (The one exception: computer operating systems.) We believe in progress because for two centuries technological progress has been the story of our civilization.

And that's what the course The Industrial Revolution made clear. It was always interesting and even though I knew about all the technologies already, it was cool to see how they meshed and built on each other.

Then I listened to Cities of the Ancient World, taught by Prof. Steven L. Tuck. Surely that's just too long ago to matter today, right?

Except that cities are civilization (that the root of the word: Civilization means living in cities) and it's surprising how many of our current city patterns evolved in the ancient world.

The orthogonal city plan, for instance, in which streets are laid out at right angles, was invented by a Greek in Asia Minor a couple of thousand years ago. Greensboro began with orthogonal streets, though once cars and zoning laws took over, we ended up with our current system, in which you have to have a car to do even the most rudimentary tasks.

Prof. Tuck points out that for a city to be viable for pedestrians, people have to have all the important amenities within about 400 meters (1300 feet) of home.

People worked, lived, shopped, dined, drank, got their entertainment, and visited their friends within that range -- even in the mammoth ancient cities like Alexandria, Rome, and Constantinople.

That remained true during the industrial revolution -- factory owners and managers usually lived very close to the factory and therefore close to their workers, who all walked to work.

It was subways and urban railroads that allowed people to commute to work, but even then, they lived in "neighborhoods" that had "neighborhood groceries" and "neighborhood schools" so that nobody had to own a horse and buggy to live their lives.

What we have now, says Tuck, are not "cities" at all; nor do we live in "neighborhoods." Rather, most of us live in isolated housing developments where we're cut off from everything we do by miles of driving. We have to pay for gasoline simply to buy food or get our kids to and from school, and we pay an additional tax in the form of the hours we spend driving and parking.

So when I listened to Tuck's lectures on ancient cities, I certainly didn't envy the way they handled water and sewage, or the way nights were dominated by darkness except on nights near the full moon. It was terrifying to imagine living on a top floor of a Roman apartment building, since fires were common and there was no escape. I'm glad I live in the modern world.

But I do remember what it was like to live in a neighborhood and walk to school and to the grocery store, because when I was growing up, suburbs still consisted of neighborhoods rather than cut-off cul-de-sac developments that hate pedestrians. My kids missed out on a lot by not growing up in a real neighborhood.

The Ancient Cities course is only about twelve hours of listening; the Industrial Revolution covers more information and takes more than twice as long. But since you can do it while driving or shopping or exercising, you're really turning mental dead time into learning time.

And because there are no tests or papers, and you get no certificate, it's truly about education: You're learning for the sake of the information, not to get a degree or a prize.

The latest course I listened to was Thomas Shippey's 12-hour course called Heroes and Legends: the Most Influential Characters of Literature. Now, as soon as I say the word "literature," some of you start to glaze over and drift away, because you've been trained to think of things like The Scarlet Letter or other soporifics.

But when I tell you that Shippey is a philologist by training and he's the foremost scholar of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, that might change your mind. Clearly he does not believe that "great literature" should be a punishment that you force on helpless schoolchildren.

Rather, he is looking at heroes, which means the kinds of stories in which people do great and exemplary deeds, or in which the leading characters are memorable and important to the readers.

He starts with Frodo Baggins precisely because he is not the strong-threwed hero of ancient epics. Rather, he's an ordinary upper-class hobbit who gets dragged by "chance" into great deeds. He becomes a hero because, despite his fear and inability, he accepts a terrible burden and a terrifying quest and then sticks it out longer and better than anyone else could have.

Shippey brings in some delightful and fascinating female heroes, too -- the Wife of Bath from Canterbury Tales, for instance, and Criseyde from Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde (not to be confused with Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida), along with other female heroes from other books.

What the course really delivers is a rather subversive approach to all of literature. Instead of preaching the canon -- talking only about the books that literature professors all recognize as being Worth Talking About -- Shippey looks at much literature that is actually known and loved for the sake of the story itself.

That is required by his very topic: When you think of literature being centered around heroes, you know you're talking about literature that survives only because people care about what happens in the tales.

It's no surprise that Shippey takes this unconventional approach. In British universities, the English department has long been divided between those on the language side and those on the literature side. They have radically different views of what makes good literature good.

Shippey, like J.R.R. Tolkien, comes from the language side. One of the pleasures of the course is when he quotes brief passages of Old English, Middle English, and even Old Norse -- in the original. So that's what our language used to sound like! (The most intelligible passage to modern ears, oddly enough, is the Old Norse.)

Shippey does an excellent job of summarizing the stories -- you don't have to have read any of the works he talks about. He gives you all the context you need.

And on the way, without directly saying so, he helps guide his students through the question of why some stories become dear to us, shaping our thoughts and our behavior, while others mean little and quickly fade from memory.

That's a question that matters, not just to readers of novels, but also to those who watch movies and television shows. Why do some become hits? Why do some stick with us all our lives, while others fade to nothing within minutes of watching them?

All three of these courses have topics that you might have shied away from in school, not wanting to be tested or forced to do homework.

But now there's no pain. These are great teachers, noted scholars in their own right and yet informal, personal, never fussy or pedantic. The topics are interesting in themselves, and yet they also apply to our own activities in the modern world.

Each for the price of a single book. Go to Audible.com and search for "great courses." You'll get an amazing list of courses that can help you pursue a real education.

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