No Allusions in the Classroom

I used this essay for years on the first day of class. It is unfortunately as relevant today (if not more so) than it was three decades ago. “We ain’t gettin’ no smarter.”

http://www.smirkingchimp.com/thread/jaime-oneill/52305/no-allusions-in-the-classroom

In light of the recent episode of the Jimmy Kimmel show in which he turned up evidence of complete ignorance of the fact that Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act are the same thing, I thought of this old essay I wrote almost three decades ago. We ain’t gettin’ no smarter.

No Allusions in the Classroom
by Jaime M. O’Neill
Appeared in Newsweek, September 23, 1985

Josh Billings, a 19th-century humorist, wrote that it is better “not to know so much than to know so many things that ain’t so.” Recently, after 15 years of teaching in community colleges, I decided to take a sampling to find out what my students know that ain’t so. I did this out of a growing awareness that they don’t always understand what I say. I suspected that part of their failure to understand derived from the fact that they did not catch my allusions. An allusion to a writer, a geographical locality or a historical episode inevitably produced telltale expressions of bewilderment.

There is a game played by students and teachers everywhere. The game goes like this: the teacher tries to find out what students don’t know so that he can correct these deficiencies; the students, concerned with grades and slippery self-images, try to hide their ignorance in every way they can. So it is that students seldom ask pertinent questions. So it is that teachers assume that students possess basic knowledge which, in fact, they don’t possess.

Last semester I broke the rules of this time-honored game when I presented my English-composition students with an 86-question “general knowledge” test on the first day of class. There were 26 people in the class; they ranged in age from 18 to 54. They had all completed at least one quarter of college-level work.

Here is a sampling of what they knew that just ain’t so:

Creative: Ralph Nader is a baseball player. Charles Darwin invented gravity. Christ was born in the 16th century. J. Edgar Hoover was a 19th-century president. Neil Simon wrote “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”; “The Great Gatsby” was a magician in the 1930s. Franz Joseph Haydn was a songwriter during the same decade. Sid Caesar was an early roman emperor. Mark Twain invented the cotton gin. Heinrich Himmler invented the Heimlich maneuver. Jefferson Davis was a guitar player for The Jefferson Airplane. Benito Mussolini was a Russian leader of the 18th century; Dwight D. Eisenhower came earlier, serving as a president during the 17th century. William Faulkner made his name as a 17th-century scientist. All of these people must have appreciated the work of Pablo Picasso, who painted masterpieces in the 12th century.

My students were equally creative in their understanding of geography. They knew, for instance, that Managua is the capital of Vietnam, that Cape Town is in the United States and that Beirut is in Germany. Bogota, of course, is in Borneo (unless it is in China). Camp David is in Israel, and Stratford-on-Avon is in Grenada (or Gernada). Gdansk is in Ireland. Cologne is in the Virgin Islands. Mazatlan is in Switzerland. Belfast was variously located in Egypt, Germany, Belgium and Italy. Leningrad was transported to Jamaica; Montreal to Spain.

And on it went. Most students answered incorrectly far more than they answered correctly. Several of them meticulously wrote “I don’t know” 86 times, or 80 times, or 62 times.

They did not like the test. Although I made it clear that the test would not be graded, they did not like having their ignorance exposed. One of them dismissed the test by saying, “Oh, I get it; it’s like Trivial Pursuit.” Imagining a game of Trivial Pursuit among some of today’s college students is a frightening thought; such a game could last for years.

But the comment bothered me. What, in this time in our global history, is trivial? And what is essential? Perhaps it no longer matters very much if large numbers of people in the world’s oldest democratic republic know little of their own history and even less about the planet they inhabit.

But I expect that it does matter. I also suspect that my students provide a fairly good cross section of the general population. There are 1,274 two-year colleges in the United States that collectively enroll nearly 5 million students. I have taught at four of those colleges in two states, and I doubt that my questionnaire would have produced different results at any of them. My colleagues at universities tell me that they would not be surprised at similar undergraduate answers.

My small sampling is further corroborated by recent polls which disclosed that a significant number of American adults have no idea which side the United States supported in Vietnam and that a majority of the general populace have no idead which side the United States is currently supporting in Nicaragua or El Salvador.

Less importantly, a local marketing survey asked a sampling of your computer whizzes to identify the character in IBM’s advertising campaign that is based on an allusion to Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times.” Few of them had heard of Charlie Chaplin; fewer heard or knew about the movie classic.

Common Heritage: As I write this, the radio is broadcasting the news about the Walker family. Accused of spying for the Soviets, the Walkers, according to a U.S. attorney, will be the Rosenbergs of the ‘80s. One of my students thought Ethel Rosenberg was a singer from the 1930s. The rest of them didn’t know. Communication depends, to some extent, upon the ability to make (and catch) allusions, to share a common understanding and a common heritage. Even preliterate societies can claim the shared assessment of their world. As we enter the postindustrial “information processing” age, what sort of information will be processed? And, as the educational establishment is driven “back to the basics,” isn’t it time we decided that a common understanding of our history and our planet is most basic of all?

As a teacher, I find myself in the ignorance-and-hope business. Each year hopeful faces confront me, trying to conceal their ignorance. Their hopes ride on the dispelling of that ignorance.

All our hopes do.

We should begin servicing that hope more responsibly and dispelling that ignorance with a more systematic approach to imparting essential knowledge.
Socrates, the American Indian chieftain, would have wanted it that way.

James H. Wolfgang (August 13, 1922 — March 20, 2015)

Today, I’m thinking of my father on what would have been his 93rd birthday. It is the first of his birthday anniversaries since he passed earlier this year — and the first time we can’t celebrate with him. The Blessed Hope of the resurrection in Christ tempers our loss, as we anticipate the more sublime celebration after awhile. In the meantime, I am posting some comments by my brother John, which he read at Dad’s funeral on March 28, 2015. Well said, John!

MORE IS CAUGHT THAN TAUGHT

My Dad taught us many things. He taught me how to ride a bike and how to drive a car. When I was in Cub Scouts, he tried to teach me how to climb a tree, but that didn’t work. When I was in 7th grade, he tried to teach me the rules of football, but that didn’t stick. But there were many things we learned from him just by being around him and by observing, because “more is caught than taught”.

When I was cleaning out Mom and Dad’s house a few months ago, I came across Dad’s office– that’s not the room with the computer and file cabinet, etc. It was the dining room table. That was his “office”. That’s where he did his “book work”–church finances, home finances, correspondence, etc. And in these last few years, when it became more difficult for him to get around, he “nested”, gathering the things around him that he needed. What I found among these “office” things was 4 books. For some reason, I laid them out and took a picture of them and later came understand that each one represented something about Dad. And that’s what I want to share with you.

The first book was a recent gift to him from Steve called, “Lost Indianapolis”. There wasn’t anything about Indianapolis that was lost to Dad. He knew everything about the city, having lived here for all of his 92 years (except for his years in the service). He could tell you where anything was or where it used to be i.e., “oh that’s on Capitol Ave….” or …”that’s where the RCA plant used to be” or whatever. And he knew the state of Indiana, too. You could ask him anything about any town or county and he could get you there…”take State Road # whatever and go up through such & such town”. And if for some reason he was stumped, he would get his map and a magnifying glass and find it for you and then report back to you when he talked to you the next time.

And he was mentally sharp to the end. He knew who some distant relative was that I had never heard of, and without missing a beat could tell me her name and the relationship to the family.

And Dad was the first GOOGLE. The only difference was that it was all in his pocket. He wrote down everything that was important to him. And he could give all kinds of information from the notes in his pocket…like, when Lesley was born, or what Liam’s middle name is. And that was one of the important things I learned, ASK DAD.

The second book was a book about Song Leading. It had things in it like, “what to do with a rogue singer” etc. I found it amusing and thought he would enjoy it. Dad had a really nice voice. At the Care Center, when I would play the piano for him, he would sing along. And one of the residents commented, “Your Dad sure has a nice voice. He must have been in the choir.” If he was in the right mood, you might get him to sing the Wheaties song, or his a high “a,” believe it or not, in La Golandrina, or maybe even the Tech Fight Song. He loved to lead the songs at church and he was good at it. He learned from older men when he was young and he taught the younger men when he was older…how to use the pitch pipe and beat the time, etc. And, I think most importantly, he wanted to do it well. So he would practice at home, in front of a mirror, to get it right. And if he needed a little help with a melody, Mom would help him. He would work hard at it, just as he did at everything else–his job, the yard, the house, the church jobs–all done with HARD WORK–another thing I “caught” from my Dad–WORK HARD.

The third book was from Tech HS, called “400 Words Everyone Should Be Able To Spell”. Doing things RIGHT, mattered to Dad. How it looked. He had very neat handwriting even into his last years. Small numbers, tiny print, etc. And he kept this ready reference book handy (I believe) so he could check his spelling. And if he needed some help, he ASKED MOM. I have a picture in my mind of him sitting at the office table, and summoning Mom from the kitchen, he would seek her assistance. She would be there in her apron, dish towel and dish hand, looking over his shoulder, checking his work and giving her help or approval. What was caught, more than taught? If you need something done right… ASK MOM! (she was the first Spell Check, by the way).

Book number 4 was car book–a Ward’s mileage book, where he kept a record of every trip, every gas fill (to check mpg) and every maintenance done on the car. And it really was a record of their life. Where they went travelling, what they did and who they visited. And he had a brand new one for this year, ready to use. He loved his cars and could tell you every single one he had, beginning with 1941 Chevy Coupe (?). He was a Chevy man, then digressed for a few years to Plymouth and Dodge, and then returned to General Motors. And then I guess they had a sale on red Cadillacs, that was their favorite. It was his pride and joy to drive and to take care of. Washed, cleaned, swept out regularly with a whisk broom, and always looking brand new. And that was the lesson observed, TAKE CARE OF WHAT YOU HAVE. And that, of course, extended to us, and so it wasn’t surprising that during my last visit with him, he said, “Take care of your Mother.” Take care of what you have and those around you.

And so, thanks Dad, for the many lessons you taught us; not just these 4, but so many more. Rest now, from you labors, and know that your work was not in vain.

Can You See What I See?

This is spot on!

finding hope in the word

pain and suffering

Over the years I have had the opportunity to labor with so many wonderful people. I have preached in Illinois, Missouri, Virginia, and Iowa. I have gone overseas to Norway and met with the saints there. I have traveled and met with saints all over the states. (Although I realize that I am nowhere nearly as traveled as others preachers I know). One thing that I have learned over the years is that Christians are often blind. We like to think of ourselves being enlightened. We like to think of ourselves of being able to clearly see the truth of God’s word. We like to think of ourselves as being able to see what ails the world. We like to think of ourselves as being able to see the cure that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But, my friends, we are blind.

While we might see the problems that…

View original post 510 more words

The Life of a Preacher

Worth reading and contemplating — for preachers and non-preachers alike. Via Wesley Key’s blog.

finding hope in the word

prayer

In the last month I have had the blessing of hosting 3 different preachers in my home. The first was a preacher who had been laboring in South Africa for the last three years and is back in the states for the first time. The second is someone who has preached the gospel for several more years than myself (he was in Iowa for almost as long as I have been preaching). The third has not actually started preaching. He was in the middle of a move and needed a place to sleep. It was interesting to me to listen to the stories that we have told about various hardships we have faced while preaching the gospel. In same ways, I was able to do something that I haven’t done in a really long time. I was able to be open and honest with someone about what was going on…

View original post 627 more words

Parable of Immortality

Parable of Immortality

I am standing upon the seashore.

A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength, and I stand and watch until at last she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come down to mingle with each other.

Then someone at my side says, “There she goes!”

Gone where? Gone from my sight . . . that is all.

She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side and just as able to bear her load of living freight to the place of destination. Her diminished size is in me, not in her.

And just at the moment when someone at my side says, “There she goes!” there are other eyes watching her coming . . . and other voices ready to take up the glad shout . . . “Here she comes!”

This poem, variously attributed to Henry Van Dyke and Luther Beecher (cousin of Henry Ward Beecher), has been oft-quoted and by some considered overused. But it has been meaningful to me, even before my days as board chair of our local Hospice – with which it is sometimes associated – in  Kentucky, before we moved to Chicago. It is even more so now, on the occasion of my father’s passing. Whoever wrote it, it seems an apt, though imperfect analogy of how we experience the departure of a loved one.

There are, course, many other hymns and other poetic expressions, describing the experience – to say nothing of Scripture. In the words of hymnist Tillit S. Teddlie: “Loved ones are waiting and watching my coming” (Heaven Holds All To Me, 1932).

For more on the poem – sometimes titled “What Is Dying?” – see http://dallaslibrary2.org/blogs/bookedSolid/2014/04/i-recently-heard-the-poem-the-parable-of-immortality-in-searching-the-internet-i-found-it-attributed-to-henry-van-dyke-bishop-charles-henry-brent-and-even-victor-hugo-i/

Traveling Music (ReMix)

Here is yet another iteration of a “re-run” post from a different venue several years ago, engendered this time by scanning old iPod tracks on the ever-more-repetitious journey down I-65 from Chicago to Indianapolis.  It is likely just babel/babble to anyone but me.  FWIW.

Mumford and Sons – Babel – ROCKS!

But it also engenders reservations, similar to their first album, about which I posted the following on 21 January 2011.

In an earlier post I mentioned listening to the musical group, Mumford & Sons while driving near the end of long trip.  Due to some questions, I took it down, lest anyone think I condone the use of profanity on that CD (Sigh No More).  I do not.  Here’s a response of sorts to some of the questions:

Presumably most people understand that mentioning a group, person, or work of art does not imply endorsement of everything in, on, or about it.  The track Timshel, referencing Genesis 4 and resonating Steinbeck’s East of Eden, does not imply endorsement of Steinbeck or all that is in the book.  Quoting a commentary on Genesis 4 does not mean accepting or recommending everything in it.  This is, one hopes, elementary for anyone willing to think about it.

I’m a sucker for clever lyrics, especially those with religious implications – even cryptic ones (especially when married to great harmonious melodies).  Who could not like the opening lines of the first track: “Serve God, love me, and mend – this is not the end…Sigh no more, no more.  One foot in sea and  one on shore.  My heart was never pure – You know me.”   Or, “If only I had an enemy bigger than my apathy I could have won” (from “I Gave You All”).

Or this:  “You told me that I would find a hole Within the fragile substance of my soul, And I have filled this void with things unreal And all the while my character it steals”  — followed by, “It seems all my bridges have been burned, But you say that’s exactly how this grace thing works – It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart, But the welcome I receive with the restart” (Roll Away Your Stone).

However, admixed with admirable thoughts expressed with dexterity are others of a baser sort…of infidelity and betrayal, doubt and denial.  Of course, many people, even those of strong faith, have experienced such thoughts and possibly even behaviors, as we succumb to various temptations to one degree or another.

Most vexing and disturbing is the gratuitous use (in Little Lion Man, CD track 7) of a common vulgarism meant to describe one of the most divinely pleasurable of human experiences – made into a cheap swear-word.  That is, of course the nature of profanity – taking something which is a should be special or limited to particular circumstances and profaning it by making it common or ordinary.  As several before me have noticed, if one wished to express extreme displeasure, one could at least use something REALLY unpleasant, like “Audit you, buddy!”

I realize one can hear such vulgarities at the mall or at a high school sporting event (to say nothing or college or pro games).  But it pains me to spend money to download or rip such junk.  One man’s opinion.

Other issues raised by such questions include how those who find such things objectionable should react.  Bury head in sand and ignore?  Boycott?  Draw up the bridge and retreat behind the moat?  Or recognize and engage when possible?  Do we read only that which has no objectionable material?  Hard to come by.  Can we be “fans” only of athletes, teams, or artists without flaw?  Good luck.

Late night thoughts from a fried brain at the end of a long day. Anybody want to sound off on this?  No obligation.

(A closing thought:  It is sobering, when contemplating passing an 18-wheeler in snow, to hear lyrics like, “In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die…for you were made to meet your maker.”  Hmmmmm)

 

“You shall not steal…You shall not covet”

Ferrell's Travel Blog

“You shall not steal. “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” (Exodus 20:15-17 ESV; cf. Romans 13:9)

The Ten Commandments, given to the nation of Israel, were clear about the attitude one should take toward the property belonging to others. Coveting causes one to desire the wife, or the property, of another man.

The reason the donkey and ox of another was not to be coveted or stolen was because these were the man’s means of income. How could he work without his donkey or ox?

A loaded donkey at Seleucia. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins. A loaded donkey at Seleucia. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

It may be that none of my readers own a donkey or an ox, but the principle is clear. You shall not…

View original post 533 more words