Remedial Education: Progress Report, of a sort…

by Bernard Brandt

things-to-do

Those four or five people who actually read this miserable weblog may, from time to time, wonder why I have not been writing all that much in it, lately.

Well, part of the reason was that I was working on a big project for a friend. You know, you promise to help a guy, and then you find out that it’s turned into a federal case.  The literal kind. Like, before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and all.

So, as a result, and because I don’t like to get into things, even unpaid volunteer work, without at least doing my homework, I spent a lot of time at the downtown law library, which appeared to be the only place in La La Land that had the resources I needed.  Things like federal substantive and procedural law. And other things like practice guides to assist in writing appellate briefs. Little things like that.

What made matters worse was that, for the reply brief part of the deal, I was sick for the last couple of weeks, with one of these nasty stomach flus that turn the contents of your abdomen into an unspeakably foul mass, and the contents of your cranium into prune whip yogurt, which dribbles out through your sinuses and several other facial orifices.  Let me tell you, it was not a pretty sight. Fortunately, I live alone, and only my neighbors were there to witness the humanity of it all.

Fortunately also, I had been reading all of the stuff that I had gathered, and pondered the lot of it in my heart for quite some time. And a week before the brief was due, and the yogurt was finally draining from that portion of my anatomy which serves as my head, I could finally see where the brief was leading me. The work then began, from my sick bed, as I wrote the stuff down on yellow pads, and then for the few minutes of the day when I could sit upright long enough to hit the keys. Sometimes it is good that I can type like the wind.

The result was that, by the day that the brief was due, I had that sucker written and sent to my friend, who had managed to do all the formatting (which may or may not have involved little things like table of contents, authorities, etc.), and to get it filed timely with the court that day. So, for a couple of weeks, I was well enough to do things, which involved, among others, my little excursus into southern fried chicken, which I have written about elsewhere.

But then, last Thursday (Feb. 2), as I had come back from my church for the Matins of the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple, I found a note on my door from the Gas Company, saying that my gas had been shut off for non-payment. The amount was for less than one hundred dollars. ‘Odd’, I thought to myself, ‘I hadn’t received any warning letters from them, or e-mails either.’ I checked both my e-mail provider, and my collection of stuff from the U.S. Snail to verify this, paid the bill over the phone, and then called up the number on the note to reconnect my service.

‘Sorry,’ sez they, ‘but the earliest we can send someone to turn your gas back on would be next Tuesday.’ (Feb 7).

‘Excuse me,’ sez I, ‘But I’m a 64 year old man living alone, who can not afford restaurant food, and who has to cook for himself. That leaves me with no heat, no hot water, and no hot food. It’s starting to rain outside, and the forecast is for heavy rain for the next week. How am I supposed to live in the mean time?’

They hemmed and hawed, and then put me on hold for a quarter of an hour. At the end of that time, they sez, ‘We can send someone over on Saturday, but there will have to be an adult present all day there, until our agent can get there.’

‘Looks like I have no choice but to do as you say,’ sez I. ‘But thank you for doing what you could to help me. Goodbye.’ The girl on the other end of the line sounded surprised, and said, ‘And thank you’.

By the bye, I have found that it is not helpful to berate service people who have just told you the bad news. The people actually responsible for the bad news are the morons who programmed the shutoff without bothering to check to see whether the customer was warned. Or those who scheduled insufficient numbers of agents to turn on the shut-offs. And most always, the reason for that is the executives who are busy cutting costs, at the expense of both the customers and the employees.

So, I kept to myself the thoughts that, come the Revolution, there were going to be some awfully surprised executives lined up against the wall to be shot. (Cue appropriate mood music)

Unfortunately, that still left me without heat for two days, during which time the weather in my little micro-climate got down to somewhere around 40 degrees F. during the two nights I was without heat. As a result, my resistance to disease, especially in the wake of my recent bout of stomach flu, was reduced to the point that I caught a cold that I had until now been fighting off. You know, fever, chills, nasal congestion, laryngitis. The Full Monty.

In consequence, as I am only now beginning to recover, my writing style slips away from its usual and proper formal diction, and wallows like a swine in the Village Idiom of my mis-spent youth. Sorry about that.

But I am happy enough to say that this morning, I was able to cook something a bit more complex and sustaining than the tea, butter, and flour tortillas upon which I was subsisting for most of the previous week. Today, I got my mise en place game back together, grated some cheddar cheese, sweated a finely diced shallot and sweet red pepper (courtesy of ZerGüt) in some butter and olive oil, beat two eggs seasoned with white pepper and turmeric, and cooked a proper omelette in the only non-stick pan worth mentioning: a well-seasoned six inch cast iron pan. It was delicious.

And now, sustained with good food and Irish Breakfast tea, and, I hope, finally over my own personal Series of Unfortunate Events, I am now in a position to relate what progress I have been able to make in my ongoing attempts toward my Remedial Education

§     §     §

As I have remarked, here, there, and elsewhere, I am and have been profoundly disappointed in the education which I was allegedly given when I was young, and with those scraps of a self-education I have since managed to garner after they kicked me out of, er, I graduated from university and law school. I had decided, therefore, to re-educate myself, using the mediaeval exempla of the Trivium (i.e., Grammar, Dialectic, Rhetoric), an updated Quadrivium (i.e., Music, Mathematics, Visual Thinking, and Physics), and the Cross of Reality of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (i.e., History, Literature, Science/Theology, and Political Theory). Those who want to suss out the gory details can do so by hitting the above links.

That said, I decided to start with Grammar, Mathematics and Music for my first year of study.

I thereupon promptly collided with certain strengths and deficits in that odd conglomeration which I laughingly refer to as my mind.

My strengths are that if I see a problem, or just a pattern that needs understanding, it is a simple matter for me to look at it, take it apart into its components, examine each part, and then put the whole thing back together in my head, and it is there for me forever afterwards. It’s how I remember learning how to read, when I was around two. My mother would read to me, and after a while, I would stop her, and ask, ‘What does this say?’, while pointing at a letter on the page. ‘That’s a ‘buh’ sound,’ she’d answer. Then I’d go to the next letter, and ask what it sounded like. This went on until I had them all down, and I found that I could take them apart, and put them back together so that could both see and hear in my mind what those words said.

One of my strongest memories is of the time, long ago, that my dear Aunt Ann said, ‘we’re going to go to the store to buy some P-E-P-S-I.” And, being the noxious little brat that I was, I immediately shouted out ‘PEPSI!’ Not yet getting the hint, she went on to say, ‘And then we’re getting some C-A-N-D-Y.’ And of course, I immediately yelled out, ‘CANDY!’ She soon figured things out, though, and she never spelled aloud in my presence anything she did not want me to understand.

But I went from this to find that I could both see and hear words on a page. And put them together into sentences. And put those sentences together into a story. So my mother and father bought me The Little White House, that classic Dick and Jane book that everyone seems to be bagging. Personally, while I got awfully tired of that ‘See Dick run!’ stuff, I’m glad that I continued reading. There was this cool story called ‘The Little Red Hen’. It told me that if ya don’t wanna help planting the grain, growing it, harvesting it, grinding it, and baking it into bread, then ya shouldn’t expect to be anywhere near the bread line when it’s done.

Personally, I think that the Little Red Hen was a Commie.

But I digress. I learned, largely from my own experience, and from my mother, that if you read a sentence, and you didn’t understand it, you’d start by trying to figure things out by the context. If that didn’t work, then at least you’d remember the word or phrases you didn’t understand, and you would ask someone what they meant. If the someone didn’t know (and that was seldom, because my mother and my father knew quite a lot), you’d go to the dictionary. And if you didn’t find out from that, there was always the library. And finally, sometimes just by reading another book, you’d suddenly discover, ‘Oh! That’s what they were talking about!’

And then I went to school.

Hell, the first year, on the first day, the teachers ostentatiously first put me into first grade, and then, just as ostentatiously, and on the same day, took me out of there, and put me into kindergarten, because (I learned much later) I was ‘too young’. I learned also (long afterward) that my mother and my father were otherwise occupied, because my mother was giving birth on that day to my sister, Susan. Maybe they would have done something if that hadn’t been the case.

But, for a year, I was in a class with a bunch of crying kids who didn’t seem able to say much, and for whom we had naps and play time and a lot of useless stuff. I was elaborately bored. But I knew that there was home, where I had my books and my family. So I suppose I was okay with all that. But I was still hoping for something more, when I finally got to first grade.

What I learned was a lot more boredom. And I learned, years later, that while I was in first grade, my teacher had these words to say to my parents, at their first parent-teacher conference: ‘Your son is reading at an eighth-grade level. We want you to help us to stop him, because we feel he is embarrassing the other students.’

I bring all this up now, not to obsess over the past (oh, well, maybe not too much), but to indicate the deficits which have occurred in me as a result of my so-called ‘education’.

The primary result was that I had, by the time that I was six, come to the quite reasonable conclusion that my schooling was not for the purpose of my education, but rather, for the purpose of preventing any possibility of my educating myself. Thus, I became both defiant and oppositional to any effort to force me to do or to learn anything. They might force me to come to their damned school, but I would be damned if they would do anything to or with me that I didn’t want to cooperate in.

Among other things, this made me entirely uninterested in things like grades. My teachers reciprocated, and gave me bad grades. As the late Robin Williams said in the motion picture, The Birdcage, “Tough gazongas.”

But the primary mental deficit that all of the above gave me was that it made me constitutionally incapable of learning anything that had been presented to me in a rote manner. Things like mathematics, and languages. And of course, this would have an impact upon any attempt on my part to study mathematics, or grammar.

So, much of my time in the last year has been spent in trying to overcome the damage which was caused by my stupid schooling, and to try things that might actually help me to learn the things that I had been prevented from learning by that schooling.

To date, I have found two websites that have helped me to overcome my two deficits in mathematics and language: khanacademy and duolingo. Please let me tell you what I have found.

Khanacademy

My main problem with the way I was taught arithmetic was that, for eight years, it was like this: First, we learn a simple operation like adding, subtracting, multiplying, or dividing two numbers. We’ll start with small numbers, and then get bigger problems. But we will repeat them, over and over and over again. We won’t try to show you better or faster or easier ways of doing the same thing. We won’t even try to make sure that you understand what the skills involved are, or why they are important. We’ll just step repeat, lather, and rinse, until everyone is sick to death of the process.

And my main problem with how I was taught algebra, geometry, and trigonometry was not that the guy teaching it didn’t love math. It was clearly obvious that he did. The problem was that he loved math so much that he couldn’t believe that an intelligent person could be turned off from math as I had been, and as I described in the previous paragraph.

So I remained as a more-or-less intelligent innumerate (as C.S. Lewis describes that he was in his superlative autobiography, Surprised by Joy, and for much the same reasons) for MORE THAN FORTY-FIVE stinking years, until I happened to find khanacademy.org. And yeah, I know: I’ve linked on it now for three separate times.  Here’s why.

Because, in less than two months, at my own speed, it allowed me to see what all those skills were, why those skills were important, and to help me achieve complete mastery of all of them, instead of taking the sixteen years it took those precious schools to develop in me such a loathing of them all, and such incompetence at them.

And it did all that in such a simple way: the website provided both an overview of the component skills, and itemized modules in each of those skills, which involved first YouTube clips showing how each skill worked, and then staged exercises in which one could work out problems involving those skills with either multiple choice answers, or (better yet) writing out those answers. And no bad grades, frowns, red marks, or the myriad of other ways that teachers had and have of blaming their victims.

And, just as an aside, doctors bury their mistakes, lawyers bill theirs, cooks eat theirs, mechanics ignore theirs, and teachers flunk theirs.

Venom aside, though, what I most liked about khanacademy was that it allowed me to see, and for the first time, the beautiful thing that mathematics was: this process of seeing a problem, taking it apart, working through the parts, putting it back together again, learning how everything works, and maybe even solving the problem in the process. It was so much like what I found when I was first learning to read, and what I thought, and still think, that learning should really be.

So now, my current plan is to return to khanacademy, work the math module all the way through linear algebra, calculus, and differential equations, the physics module all the way through relativity and quantum physics, and then go on to this and this. That should work, at least for starters, for mathematics, visual thinking, and physics for my updated quadrivium. I’ll let you know what I find when I get there. In the meantime, while I’ve also been working on music, well, as that eminent philosopher, Scheherezade, has remarked, ‘That is another story.’

Duolingo

The problems that I had with grammar in grade school, and languages in high school, were of a piece with the problems I had with arithmetic and mathematics in those same schools. The whole process, as I have now finally figured out, was preposterous, in Shakespeare’s coining and use of the term. Our teachers, as usual, had put the cart before the horse, instead of their heart before the course.

Had they done the latter, instead of the former, or had they a concern for really teaching their students, instead of doing their ‘job’ and getting their pay, then they would have realized the following:

Children, between the ages of six and puberty or menarche, have their best chance of learning new languages during that period. During that time, they can even mimic the accents and delivery of native speakers to perfection. Afterwards, not so much. On the other hand, children generally can not analyze phonology, morphology, syntax, or prosody well, until after they reach puberty.

Reasonable people, therefore, who wanted actually to teach their children, would first start with exposing them to languages that might be valuable, like maybe Latin, Old English/Germanic, French, and Greek (which are the primary precursor languages to English), or maybe even things like Mandarin, Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian (which are widely spoken in the world).

Apparently, my teachers were anything but reasonable, because my first four years were spent being taught how to read, and the next four years were spent teaching me English grammar. It would have been one thing, had I not known how to read, but as I believe that I have already mentioned, I already knew that. And, for the most part, the little grammar that I actually learned, other than the graphed sentences which were my teachers’ substitutes for that task, I had already absorbed by the process of my reading. In my youth, I noted that I was better spoken than most of my so-called teachers.

Years later, when I was in high school, I found C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, which included Lewis’ magnificent Screwtape Proposes a Toast. That toast included these words, which when I read them pierced my heart like a sword, as they do to this day:

Children who are fit to proceed to a higher class may be artificially kept back, because the others would get a trauma — Beelzebub, what a useful word! – by being left behind. The bright pupil thus remains democratically fettered to his own age group throughout his school career, and a boy who would be capable of tackling Aeschylus or Dante sits listening to his coeval’s attempts to spell out A CAT SAT ON A MAT.

But I again digress. When I finally got to high school, it was a rather good one. In it, we had four years of American, European, and World History; four years of World, English, and American Literature, with loads of world stuff in translation, and the same for things like the Seafarer and Beowulf, but everything from Chaucer and Gower, and later Mallory, through Marlowe, Shakespeare, Jonson, Milton, Dr. Johnson,  on past Pope, Byron, Newman and Wilde, all the way up to Eliot, Pound, Auden, Spender and Stevens, just as they wrote it all); We also did political theory from Plato to Marx, science (biology, chemistry, and physics); mathematics, Latin and French.

Most of it was quite good. To tell truth, I believe I got a better education from my high school than I did from UCLA, which is not to denigrate that worthy university, but to praise my first good school. The only flies in the ointment were mathematics and languages. I’ve already spoken about mathematics.

The problem with learning languages began because, in the boneheaded and brain-dead system we affectionately call ‘American Education’, I didn’t even begin to have the opportunity to learn a language in school until I had come to high school, after the optimal period for new language acquisition had ended.  But my problems with Latin and French in high school were not that I had a bad instructor, but rather, because I had a superlative one. He had gone from St. Patrick College to do graduate work at the Sorbonne, and to pick up a beautiful and cultured wife from Paris in the process. He had gone on to do more graduate work in Mediaeval French at UCLA, but because of academic politics, his whole Ph.D. program had been torpedoed out from under him, and so he had to be content with his two M.A.s.

His loss, however, was my and his students’ gain. He spoke beautiful French, as did his wife, who taught for a year, and I gained my ear for that accent, and other accents, as a result. In my freshman year in high school, he took me and my class to a beautiful French bistro, where he opened the door for me to a world of cuisine that I had never known before. While my fellow students were paltering among themselves as to whether they would dare to eat a snail, I ordered a full serving, and reveled in the pleasures of escargot in drawn butter and garlic. And the experience inspired me and my family to go on to explore St. Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Most important, though, was that when, in my junior year, he could no longer teach at my high school, but was starting to teach at the local junior college, he arranged that his high school class could learn at that college, get college credit for it, and thereafter be enrolled in that college. As a result, by the time I was sixteen, I was attending both high school and college, and I continued doing so until I had graduated from high school, and went on from there, eventually transferring to UCLA. For all these reasons, I am greatly in his debt.

The debt, alas, did not extend to a proper education of the French language. Again, this was not the fault of my professor. He was a consummate master of that language. He was an intelligent and a considerate man. It was the method of teaching that he was taught which was defective. He taught from the same book for four years. The book was mainly composed of conversations, and repetitious drills. He had us do frequent dictées. This is all very well for someone who actually already speaks the language. I didn’t.

And, as a result of my oppositional-defiant behavior, which I had developed from my poor previous schooling, I was uninterested in more stupid rote learning. I wanted to hunt down each and every word myself, devour and consume them all, and then go on to learn to read. He appeared to think that that could only be done after you had spent years ‘playing the game’. I did not want to do that. So it goes.

The result was that, for decades after, I had something of a psychological barrier toward learning languages, at least through books. I had managed, by talking with the many latinos in California, to learn a passable conversational Spanish. I have also picked up the smatterings of about ten languages through the same means. But I had been hampered  from getting a grammatical understanding of any foreign languages, because of my ill education.

Until now.

About three weeks ago to the day, through the kindness of a Facebook friend, Dr. Edward J. Peters, I was introduced to Duolingo.  This tricky little number is a crowd-sourced online FREE language school which millions of people are using to learn more than thirty world languages. It manages to pay for itself in two ways: 1) by providing a cheap online test to certify that the test taker can read, write, speak and understand standard English (whatever that is); 2) the company also provides a translation service whereby texts (primarily those of CNN and other newscasters) are translated to and from English and other languages. The way the company does so is so ingenious that it deserves another paragraph of explanation.

The way it works is that the company takes the source text, breaks it into sentences, and distributes those sentences among the millions of people who know the source language, and who are studying the target language. Hundreds among those millions are set to translate the sentence into the target language. The company’s algorithms assist the company in selecting the optimal translations. Then those algorithms put together those sentences into the target language’s translation text. All in a matter of minutes.

This strikes me as a perfect non-zero-sum game solution. The company is able to fund itself to provide free education to millions of people. The people are able to get that education freely in exchange for the work that they would be doing anyway in learning the language. And the paying customers are getting a good product which is provided quickly. I don’t see a down side here.

But for me, the main benefit is that Duolingo’s method of teaching is particularly well suited to the way I think and learn. Like khanacademy, it breaks the acquisition of a language into its component parts and skills. Each lesson, which can be done in a couple of minutes, involves the learning of five to seven words, and the scaled repetition of words already learned, to make new sentences. It requires one to do word recognition from multiple choice, translation from one’s own language into the new language, and vice versa.

Three weeks ago, I started Duolingo by beginning the Spanish course. I worked on it for about an hour.  The second day, I began the German course, and worked on both it and the Spanish course for an hour each. On the third day, I also began the French course, and worked on all three for an hour each. I then proceeded to keep to the same schedule.

Today, at the end of those three weeks, I am at level 11 for Spanish, and level 9 for French and German. This means that I have completed the main course work for Spanish, and most of the course work for French and German. In terms of awards, it means that with that and a couple or three bucks, I can buy a tall latte at Starbucks. If I were so foolish as to do so.

But for me, it means that I have a grammatical reading knowledge of Spanish, and am near to doing the same for French and German as well. It means that I can now look at a paragraph written in three languages other than English, and I can intuitively and immediately understand between 90 and 90 percent of what is being said there. It means that with either a bit of educated guessing from context, or a quick look up via dictionary or online, I can figure out the remaining 5 to 10 percent, and read the whole paragraph with ease.

It means that the barriers that for the last near half century which have kept me from effectively learning another language have been broken, and I can fulfill my dream of reading Jules Verne, Herman Hesse, Jorge Luis Borges, and hundreds of other writers in their own tongue, rather than through translation.

I think I am better than most as regards putting things into words. But I do not have words enough to tell you what this means to me.

I can tell you, though, that I will not be stopping at what I have now started with. Duolingo has courses in the major languages of the Italic, Germanic, Slavic, and Celtic groups, as well as modern Greek, and scads of non-Indo-European languages such as Hungarian, Hebrew,  Swahili, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Korean and even Klingon (!).

I will, of course, be continuing my grammatical studies, which will involve a better understanding of phonology, orthography, morphology, syntax, and prosody. I will also, of course, be attempting to fill the many gaps and lacunae which I have in classical philology. But the game is now afoot, Watson. And the whole game has now changed. I intend on pursuing things further, to see where they lead me.

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