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Thursday, December 16, 2010

12 Readings in Advent: Victor Davis Hanson

Last night was battling snowstorms to and from Mohawk, where N, now 13, won two wrestling matches, 4-3 and 8-0. When we came out of the gym, huge flakes of snow were falling and the world had changed. Our eldest, Ben, was fetched home from the Albany airport after the meet, and now I must abandon him (snoozing happily) and head out to Annandale-on-Hudson to fetch home the middle child, who I do hope woke up in time for her French exam. So I do not really have time for thoughtfulness about a book but must putter off into the snowy, snowing wilderness between here and there. It’s a gorgeous snow coming down—just wish it would go away and come back at a more convenient time.

Since I won’t be around till later, I’ll cheat and offer a quote for the day and recommend a book that was popular in our family. Not long ago my husband read A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War (Random House, 2005) by Victor Davis Hanson, and enlivened life for a while by reading passages and dropping weird tidbits (as, the Spartans hated trade and merchants and used long iron bars for money—no pocket change!) He enjoyed the book very much, its clarity about a war that lasted so long and its wealth of surprising information, the work of a retired professor of classics and scholar of military history. Later he passed it on to our eldest son. It's on my To Read list. I thought of the book this morning because in noodling about the web (while I was helping our youngest grasp convection, absolute zero, specific heat, and other fascinating subjects), Mike came across an article by Hanson defending the liberal arts, and later he read it to me over tea and corn muffins baked in the shape of teddy bears. I throw in the teddy bears as an antidote to Spartans. Of course, they were baked in cast iron molds, so perhaps they are already little Spartans.

Here is a little scrap of Hanson’s thought, saved from breakfast with the bears:

The more instantaneous our technology, the more we are losing the ability to communicate with it. Twitter and text-messaging result in an economy of expression, not in clarity or beauty. Millions are becoming premodern -- communicating in electronic grunts that substitute for the ability to express themselves effectively and with dignity. Indeed, by inventing new abbreviations and linguistic shortcuts, we are losing a shared written language altogether, much like the fragmentation of Latin as the Roman Empire imploded into tribal provinces. No wonder the public is drawn to stories like "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Chronicles of Narnia" in which characters speak beautifully and believe in age-old values that transcend themselves.

Life is not just acquisition and consumption. Engaging English prose uplifts the spirit in a way Twittering cannot. The latest anti-Christ video shown at the National Portrait Gallery by the Smithsonian will fade when the Delphic Charioteer or Michelangelo's David does not. Appreciation of the history of great art and music fortifies the soul, and recognizes beauty that does not fade with the passing fad.

America has lots of problems. A population immersed in and informed by literature, history, art and music is not one of them.


  1. Enjoy the snow. Though it is hell to get around in, you will soon be all together to enjoy it.
    The reading matter sounds stellar, good for a long snowy day.

  2. Regarding the Hanson comments...

    I sort of agree with his thesis BUT. A big but. These technologies have enabled all of us (at least those of us who choose to) to reach out and interact with others around the world in a way that was just not possible before.

    To wit, my son and I have connected and corresponded with Sergei Sikorsky, Jane Goodall, and other people of lesser-but-still important note around the world.

    Yes, in the old days we could have written paper letters, and some would argue that the pixels and bits we exchanged have less value then old fashioned post. But I argue that the videos and photos and words exchanged and the very act of direct connection enabled and fostered by Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 tools have the possibility to increase the love of art and literature and science.

    Much as teaching across the internet in real time (a la Elluminate) has been derided as cold and aloof by "those supposedly in the know" a.k.a 'fogeys supporting the status quo', I posit that such tools are warm and created deep pesonal relationships between student and teacher and between student and student. Often times, these relationships and the learning fostered is greater than what could have been accomplished face to face due to time, distance, and expense. In other words, in the old days THESE INTERACTIONS WOULDN'T HAVE HAPPENED AT ALL. The choice seems to be "no connection" or "modern tools to connect" when comparing the old days to new.

    Would I have traded my face to face office hours with Marly as an undergrad? Probably not. But could I have enhanced my education by connecting with other teachers, not in those brick and mortar offices, that would have enhanced our discussions?

    And, without these tools, would our continued discourse be happening at all 25 years after the fact?

    -Gary Dietz (

  3. Gary,
    Of course, if this is the choice--ie: no connection vs connection online in the classroom--I say, more power to online classes, but as a teacher, I'd much rather (1000 x so) teach face to face. The interaction is just not the same online.
    While I blog and email and visit others' blogs and delight in the connections this brings me, I prefer as far as teaching goes to do it face to face. If that makes me a fogey, too bad.

  4. Robbi,

    I agree. As I say in many of my talks, if there is a choice, I choose F2F every time.

    But what about blends? What about using these tools *in* a physical F2F classroom? Or as a connector *after* 'class' is over to keep the discussion going - and keep it going in a more reflective way? Or allow people to join the discussion whose personalities don't allow them to speak up in front of people, but who are empowered when the connection is virtual?

    I read Hanson's point that tweeting and Web 2.0 demeans deeper thought. This is worrisome to me in that it may cause some folks not to explore the power of these methodologies for fear of them being cold, distant, and anti-intellectual. I believe the opposite can be true.

    - Gary

  5. Sure, I use Blackboard and email and whatever I can to maximize learning in the classroom. But the performance element of teaching is just too important for me to let go of. Without the Internet, I couldn't teach, and with only the Internet, my classes wouldn't be nearly as effective, I think.

  6. Robbi,

    Gah, is the day over?
    Got up at 6:00 to teach physical science concepts. Drove to Bard and back. Went to Middle School concert. Helped with more homework. The brain is mush, the eyelids are drifting downward.

    Hey, Gary--

    I don't think your truth denies this truth... they're both useful ways of looking.

    All things can be used for good or ill. Well, maybe not all things. But an awful lot of them.

  7. Marly,

    Although it may seem I want it two ways, I actually agree with Robbi - face to face teaching is almost always better, when available as an option.

    My concern about the Hanson excerpt you posted is this: These kinds of perspectives have always been around - the "new stuff" kills the validity of the old stuff. And I just don't think it is true. Rock and roll, cubism, jazz, radio, television, even the freakin' printing press were going to "ruin" the culture.

    My "truth" about new tools being useful and of value to the culture doesn't negate the "truth" of traditional methods being of great value at all. Rather, my concern is that the Hanson perspective quoted doesn't open up the possibility that the new ways can actually add to the culture.


  8. Hey there, Garino--I must have too much negative capability because I can nod at you and Hanson at the same time and not feel compelled to "choose."

    And I certainly think that I pick among the many new offerings, not bothering with much technology, likeing and using other bits...


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.