A Fool in the Forest

A fool, a fool! I met a fool i' the forest,
A motley fool; a miserable world!
As I do live by food, I met a fool
Who laid him down and bask'd him in the sun,
And rail'd on Lady Fortune in good terms,
In good set terms and yet a motley fool.

As You Like It, Act II, Scene 7

L'homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l'observent avec des regards familiers.

Les Fleurs du Mal, “Correspondances”

Thursday, October 16, 2003
A Southbound Soirée

For a refreshing change, it is pleasure rather than business that will limit posting for the next few days. Old friends from points north, including Rick the friendly futurballist, are descending upon us for a long-planned weekend of merriment highlighted by a jaunt to the Art Deco recesses of Hollywood's Pantages Theatre for the west coast production of The Producers. At last, an opportunity to put Terry Teachout's assessment to the test! Reports will follow, as warranted and as opportunity presents itself.
Working and Collected Works

Speaking of education and poetry, as I was in the next post down the page, one of my regular reading stops is Erin O'Connor's Critical Mass, which usually turns a jaundiced eye on the follies and ecstasies of the university-level humanities establishment. When I last checked in, however, I found that the subject was poetry, and particularly the deleterious effects of creative writing programs, a hothouse environment in which the Lake Wobegon principle -- "all the children are above average" -- is often the order of the day. The jumping off point for Critical Mass was an essay on poetry readings by Irish-Canadian poet Tom Henihan. You can get a sense of the flavor of the piece, smoking from a long, slow burn, in this excerpt:
Another ominous entity that is making a comeback in poetry circles is the term 'riff'. Of course everyone knows that the superficial connection between jazz and poetry has been 'on the road' since the forties or fifties. The trumpeter Wynton Marsalis has this to say about jazz.' It is the hardest music to play that I know of and it is the highest rendition of individual emotion in the history of Western music.'

Ironically, the use of jazz idioms where writing is concerned usually suggests a license to be careless. It is my suspicion that most writers who use the term riff when introducing a poem don't even listen to jazz. If they did they would know that a lot of hard work precedes those riffs and if they are not up to the mark, fellow musicians and jazz aficionados don't keep that fact a secret. With poetry however, its hugs and kudos all round no matter what kind of a show has been put on.

Poetry readings should not be afforded the same cozy protected environment of workshops and poetry groups. We don't invite an audience to the theater to watch the players rehearse. A performance is a lot more decisive if there is something at stake and poets should welcome the opportunity to face down a critical audience that responds with authority.
The thrust here is that good poetry, like the best in any other endeavor, is hard to create and rare to find. A secondary point, emphasized in the Critical Mass commentary, is that poetry may grow best from a writer who is engaged with the 'real world' by actively living in it, rather than within the sheltering arms of the academy. This is a point often advanced by Dana Gioia and Tom Disch, among others, and Erin O'Connor invokes, as examples of Poets With Day Jobs, T.S. Eliot [working at the bank] and Wallace Stevens [a vice president with the Hartford Insurance Company, dealing with surety bonds of all things] -- to whom we might add others, such as the good doctor William Carlos Williams -- as well as pointing to writers (Dickens, Trollope) who kept body and soul together (often tenuously) by writing, not by the teaching of writing. And to return to Tom Henihan's invocation of the theater: the most revealing test of any art, including poetry, is to place it before an audience that needs to be actively won over, to be convinced of its merit by the poem itself, in other words an audience that has no built-in incentive -- as one's teacher or fellow students do -- to declare the work a success.
Because My Parents Raised Me Right

I was taught early on to use "please" and "thank you" whenever possible, and those skills have served me well over the years. "Thank you" is the first order of the day today.

The past 48 hours or so have brought this site its highest traffic levels yet, for the most part through the various kind links to my posts below on CBS News' mis-reporting about homeschooling. (I've tried to acknowledge them all in updates to the original posts.) This Fool is still just a tiny fish in a big, big sea, but today it seems possible to aspire, as Gideon Strauss put it recently, to "live quite happily with a nanoaudience of 250."

Thanks are also in order to poet Mike Snider, who actually read my interminable piece below on line breaks in poetry -- which is more than I expect even of my family and close friends -- and, bless him, has gone so far as to write kind things about it. It's enough to turn one's head.

In sum, my favorite classes of people today are homeschoolers and poets, which is not bad company at all.
Wednesday, October 15, 2003
As the Curtain Rings Down, The Sound of One Persona Posting

The elusive Jack Cliente, who is suspiciously never seen in the same room with David Giacalone, has posted a last minute addition to David's farewell at ethicalEsq?:, including this sound bit advice to me and to all my fellow toilers in the fields of the law:
Don't send e-flowers to honor ethicalEsq?, but actively work for the consumer of legal services both out in the real world, and through the power of weblogs:

(1) help make bar associations at the local and state level client-oriented, instead of guild-oriented (e.g., improving the Discipline System would be a great place to start);

(2) harness the power of the web to make the self-help-law revolution a reality, and

(3) with or without new laws or ethical rules, get more information to consumers about their rights and options -- with enough information, consumers can create their own powerful competitive forces for innovation, improved services, lower prices.
Words to live by, and a worthy goal toward which to strive.

[Cross-posted to Declarations and Exclusions.]
What Links May Come [part of a continuing series]

Checking in to my referrer logs yesterday, I discovered that this site has been added to the link list of Gideon Strauss, whose page proclaims its eclectic offerings of "worldview revivalism, neocalvinist unapologetics, & zeitgeist surfing". Calvin -- the theologian, not the small boy -- is indeed very much in evidence, and one can also deduce that the Strauss household, operating from its base in Ontario, Canada, is engaged in homeschooling two young daughters utilizing an extraordinarily detailed curriculum of their own invention (follow the link and scroll down to "The education of our daughters (4)"). There is a great deal of Jane Austen involved. [I'm a Persuasion and Northanger Abbey man myself, and thanks for asking.]

My main reason for noting all this -- apart from thanking Mr. Strauss for his kind link, in the category of "friday flânerie" -- is his post responding to Terry Teachout's remarkably popular piece on "middlebrow culture." (Follow the link and scroll down to "The future of middlebrow culture". My own comments on the original Terry Teachout piece were posted here, and other web journal-ists have commented on it just about everywhere.) Mr. Strauss concludes:
Here is my little prognostication: the epicentre of tomorrow's middlebrow culture is in today's homeschooling movement.
CBS News' Homeschool Hatchet Job, Part II

I was not at home last night -- I was teaching my weekly insurance law course -- so I was not able to catch the second segment of the CBS Evening News' self-importantly horrified report "Home Schooling Nightmares." [Again, the link is to the network's print version of the story; a link to the video is available on that same page. My take on Part I of the series is the next post down this page.]

Not content with basing their first segment on a two-year old, entirely unrepresentative case, CBS used its second segment to expand its misleading parade of horribles, even going so far as to trot out the notorious Andrea Yates mass-bathtub-drowning case (and to feature Ms. Yates' photo prominently with the Web version of the story). Here's the passage in which CBS tips its hand to show its preferred solution to this supposed problem, which is -- what else? -- more regulation:
In eight states, parents don't have to tell anyone they're home schooling. Unlike teachers, in 38 states and the District of Columbia, parents need virtually no qualifications to home school. Not one state requires criminal background checks to see if parents have abuse convictions.
The logic of that last item is particularly odd: even assuming that criminal background checks for homeschooling parents -- as opposed to, say, checks of all parents or annual reporting to the local constabulary by every citizen -- made sense in the first place, how does CBS propose to "protect" an only child or the firstborn in a family, before whom these highly suspect parents had no opportunity to be convicted?

And while I'm on about this, the inner hobgoblin of my little mind asks: can anyone reconcile for me the distinction between CBS' attitude toward regulation of homeschoolers [ongoing investigation based on a presumption of possible guilt is a good thing] versus its attitude toward the post-9/11 Justice Department [ongoing investigation based on presumption of possible contact with genuinely guilty and dangerous people is the End of Our Constitutional Rights As We Know Them]? I'm just asking, don't you know.

I will mention here one other gap among many in the CBS story, which only serves to further misinform viewers who have no contact with homeschoolers: CBS implies that all or a large majority of homeschooling families "go it alone," retreating into their trailers, tents and townhouses to educate their children with virtually no outside contacts of any kind. This is a false impression. Most homeschool families have active lives in their community. Those homeschoolers who started the process out of religious conviction -- a large group in the homeschool world, but hardly the only one -- generally have a high profile in their church and in church-based organizations, if nowhere else. More secular homeschoolers also have lives in which they and their children constantly interact with the outside world. An ever-growing number of homeschoolers regularly send their children out of the home on a regular basis for at least some portion of their schooling, to attend classes in subjects that the parent does not feel qualified to teach him/herself. The number of homeschool support organizations that make such classes available, as well as the number of "outside" classes organized by groups of homeschooling families, increases daily, as does the number of families electing to homeschool one or more of their children.

I could go on, but we'd be here all day and CBS and its viewers would not be any better informed. But you, gentle reader, know better now, don't you?

Not incidentally: Welcome to Joanne Jacobs readers and thank you, Joanne, for the link. More on the CBS story, and more on homeschooling generally, can be found at Daryl Cobranchi's Homeschool & Other Education Stuff, Izzy Lyman's The Homeschooling Revolution (for whose link this Fool also says "Thank you") and at further links on those sites.

And to correct an inaccurate impression I may have created yesterday: to call me a "homeschooling dad" gives me too much credit. The day to day workings of our sons' education -- including tracking down the wealth of resources for assistance, curricula, classes and support that is out there in abundance when one goes looking for it -- has been the province of my indispensable wife. As I tell it to anyone who asks: She's in charge of curriculum and I run the financial services office.

Update: Additional comment on CBS and homeschoolers' response to its story, reported live from the guillotine, can be read here. And do I need to say "thanks for the link"? You bet I do: thanks for the link, O lively guillotinistes.

Just one more: Somehow the last time I passed through there, I failed to notice that Kimberly Swygert's Number 2 Pencil has also checked in with some thoughts about the CBS story. This now seems to have been pretty fully through the wringer as a "they're out to get homeschoolers" story. Someone -- perhaps I'll do it if I can find the time to say something worthwhile -- needs to consider CBS' performance from the standpoint of Journalism. It seems to me that the connections CBS was trying to draw are so tenuous that this would have been just plain Bad Reporting regardless of the particular subject matter.
Tuesday, October 14, 2003
A Little Learning Is A Dangerous Thing . . . for Journalists

I am still spouting the occasional puff of steam from my ears over the incredibly irresponsible bit of reporting broadcast last night by the CBS Evening News, the first in an apparent series on A Dark Side To Home Schooling. [The link is to the print version of the story; to fully appreciate the tut-tutting, isn't-it-awful tone of the piece, click on the video link if you have a speedy connection.]

Here is what CBS delivers: yet another (genuinely) tragic tale of life in a squalid trailer in the backwoods with the Miller family of North Carolina, ending in the suicide of their teenage son after he first shoots and kills his brother and sister. So far, so lurid, but still largely within the bounds of respectable journalism -- although CBS gives no indication that these sad events unfolded more than two years ago. What can have been the cause of these deaths? To hear CBS tell it, it's not poverty, deprivation or terrible and abusive parenting. No, sir: it's the direct result of homeschooling.
Since it became legal in North Carolina in 1985, the number of home school students has jumped from just a few hundred to more than 50,000. But there's been no change in the number of state employees overseeing the program - just three for the entire state.

'I think there's so little supervision that they really are not protecting those kids,' Marcia Herman-Giddens, of the North Carolina Child Advocacy Institute.

Herman-Giddens is on the state task force that reviewed the Warren case. The conclusion: home school laws 'allow persons who maltreat children to maintain social isolation in order for the abuse and neglect to remain undetected.'

'They deliberately keep them out of the public eye because the children do have injuries that are visible, and they don't want them to be seen,' she says.
The logic at work here is interesting. Abusive parents can indeed be expected to keep their children away from those who might perceive evidence of that abuse, but that can be done without even the pretense of schooling. In fact, it would be more effective to simply move out to the woods without telling anyone, since the homeschooling statute in North Carolina provide that the parents must notify the state of the establishment of their school.

To suggest that abolition or tighter regulation of homeschooling is essential because some small number of homeschooling families are also abusive makes no more sense than to suggest that we should regulate or ban families taking care of their own aging relatives at home, because some of those households are prone to elder abuse. Given that an entrenched and ineffectual state bureaucracy is often one of the factors that drives parents to elect to school at home rather than through the public schools, the imposition of just such a bureaucracy on homeschoolers in the name of "child protection" is an undesirable outcome, not to mention an insult to the vast majority of homeschoolers who are responsible, caring and effective parents.

Part 2 of this story airs tonight. We'll see whether the network digs itself deeper into its self-important hole. Dear CBS: Please go to the board and write 50 times, "Correlation does not imply causation."

(A confession of personal bias: Our sons have homeschooled for the past several years, so I am not an entirely disinterested observer on this subject. I submit, however, that based on the evidence of this story I am more trustworthy on this subject than is CBS News.)

[Update:Coincidentally, since I was planning to write about education anyway, I found an e-mail awaiting me this morning from my compatriot Rick at Futurballa Blog, forwarding a link to these assorted educational musings by Kevin Drum. I've repaid Rick with a link about zombies, which he is using here as an excuse to discuss movie-endings. Any resemblances between zombies and broadcast journalists are strictly in the eye of the beholder.]
Monday, October 13, 2003
Ave Atque Vale ethicalEsq?

David Giacalone has, sadly, concluded that he must end or suspend his invaluable web journal -- he swore off the term "blog" for reasons first stated here and here -- ethicalEsq?

I could praise David as "tireless," but that would be almost exactly wrong: his reluctant retirement from the field is driven largely by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. The ailment has, if anything, served to focus his mind and pen wonderfully, and the accumulated posts at his site (which will remain available for the foreseeable future) contain a wealth of cogent and often wry observation on his topic of choice: the need for lawyers to maintain their focus on doing right by their clients and doing so in a fundamentally honest and honorable way. This topic is especially relevant to me, as an attorney, but this world is so awash in lawyers and it is so hard to avoid us at one time or another in one's life that the subject is always timely and always an important one even (particularly?) for non-lawyers.

David represents much of what is best in this medium and in our shared profession. Go, read, browse his archive and profit from the treasures therein.

[Cross-posted to Declarations and Exclusions.]