Monday, August 26, 2013

This week at the library: economics, law, and the truth about living like cavemen

The previous week's reads:  The Making of the Fittest, Sean B Carroll | Save the Males, Kathleen Parker | The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt

Dear readers:

This past week I read Trains and Lovers, a short novel in which four men and one woman recount stories of their lives' great loves to one another. Because of the age of the characters, the stories run from the late 19th to the late 20th centuries. The stories tend toward happy endings, and impart the general idea that love at first sight happens, it makes us do irrational things, and is worth taking chances for.  The tales also incorporate travel into them,  either because people leave their homes behind in pursuit of romance, or because love takes them on unexpected metaphorical journeys.

I'm currently in the middle of Radicals for Capitalism, which I bought because it seemed interesting and was something of a value: 800 pages for $20?, retail?  I'd been hoping to learn more about men like F.A. Hayek and Murray Rothbard, whose names surface a lot in American libertarian writing.  They appeared earlier, but Radicals for Capitalism could carry the subtitle "Ayn Rand in Context". There's a distressing amount on her.  The chapter I'm on now is called "The Objectivist Crackup", so maybe she'll go away soon.  At work, A People's History of the Supreme Courtis my lunch-time reading, and when my soul starts flat-lining from all of the economic policy, I'm enjoying Marlene Zuk's Paleofantasy.  I have two more science books on order: Frans de Waal's Good-Natured: the Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals, because it was selling $1 used on Amazon and I justified buying it on that and the fact that I have no de Waal in my personal library.  I'm also expecting Two Sides of the Moon,  a collaborative memoir of the Space Right penned by cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space, and David Scott, an astronaut who walked on the moon.  A friend lent me Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus, which I plan on getting into as soon as I've wrapped up with Zuk.

Comments are still pending for Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish.

Well, happy reading!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Righteous Mind

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion
© 2013 Jonathan Haidt
528 pages

The Righteous Mind begins with a question, seriously posed: why  can't we all get along? To find the answer, Jonathan Haidt delves into the nature of morality, following the pursuit of it from philosophy to evolutionary psychology. Haidt produces three core ideas: one, David Hume was correct in positing that people are more intuitive than rational; two,  moral concerns don't have a singular source, but fall along six separate axes,  each derived from our natural history, despite being couched in flourished religious and philosophical language; and finally, that morality is double-edged sword, binding us with one another as well as against others. Haidt's work is impressive in its breadth, drawing on sources as diverse as Plato, Emile Durkheim, and E.O. Wilson, and in its delivery. Though he covers a lot of territory in a compact book, Haidt constantly works to keep readers aware of how all of the ideas discussed connect together.

The grand idea underlying all this is that morality is neither an objective truth that can be deduced via logic by anyone old enough to reason, nor is it completely subjective, an artifact of culture that is deposited into a blank slate of our infant minds. It is instead a product of evolution. Our instincts for morality are kin to our sense of taste:  there are different flavors of moral concern, and each of them played a part in our species' development. The natural basis for morality is being eagerly explored by scientists like Frans de Waal, who has demonstrated how chimpanzees can empathize with one another, and sense when others are being treated unfairly.  Caring for one another is a mammalian strength, but there is more to morality than care and fairness. There are also senses of loyalty and deference to authority useful to tribes competing against other tribes, and a sense of 'sanctity' that buds off our natural feeling of disgust that keeps us away from unhealthy influences. Our instincts may be strengthened by rationalistic arguments or ritual, but neither can conceal their source,  nor operate independently from it.

Haidt sees our moral-political instincts as particularly far-developed as compared to other primates, though. Although alphas in chimpanzee troops do have a political role in mediating disputes, they are not kings: they do not command the tribe to go here or there, or make plans for its future well-being. Haidt believes natural selection has favored our 'righteous' (political-religious-moral) instincts in this regard  out of necessity, because for thousands of years we've had to regularly deal  with so many of our own numbers:  instincts which promoted order and cooperation were favored, and those populations which most exhibited them flourished, while populations that didn't disappeared. Religion, too, played a powerful part. In Haidt's view, we are not merely instinctive creatures who one day stumbled upon culture and started happily passing it down to the next generation like a good stick. We have evolved to be dependent on culture, and this is why religion is such a universal and powerful  trait of human kind.  Religion is first and foremost about morality and keeping the tribe together:  ideological religions like Christianity and Islam are fairly novel.  

These instincts are not part of the past; they are present, with us now.  Haidt examines US political parties by this six-taste model and concludes what while liberals depend strongly on the Care and Fairness feelings, and Libertarians are somewhat obsessively fixated on the Liberty-Oppression axis (which is a 'new' taste that developed fully after we'd become tool-users), conservatives draw marginally from each 'taste' equally across the spectrum.Like all products of evolution, our righteous instincts are a trade-off. A dog with long legs runs fast, but loses heat more quickly than a short-legged rival -- and morality which evolved in the atmosphere of inter-population competition is all about Us vs. Them.  When we rally towards an 'us', we draw away from a 'them'.  In light of that, Haidt ends the book by offering ways people of varying political opinions can argue more constructively. He first asks readers to keep in mind that people who disagree with us may simply be drawing on another set of instincts and beliefs:  you are not the center of the universe, and those who are different from you are not the Evil Villain set against you in some colorful psychodrama. We must labor to discern where people are coming from if we intend to communicate. Secondly, he draws on his own experience as an idealist-turned moderate to detail what liberals, conservatives, and libertarians can learn from one another: markets are magic, but not perfect -- and if something isn't  good for the beehive, it can't be good for the bee.

The Righteous Mind is  astonishing:  the argument masterfully organized and sympathetically voiced from an author who distills a wide range of research from across the intellectual spectrum into a reflective, wise work.  This is very much recommended.


Saturday, August 24, 2013

A Quick Book Survey

From the Broke and the Bookish:

1. The Book I'm Reading:
I've just started Paleofantasy by Marlene Zuk, which casts a critical eye toward arguments that we should live more like pre-agricultural man. I've read Zuk before, in Sex on Six Legs, about insects. At lunch I'm reading from A People's History of the Supreme Court.

2. The Book I Just Finished:
 I last finished  Save the Males, by Kathleen Parker. I found it while looking for books on males and masculinity on Amazon, and it turned up while I was shelving recently returned books at the library. Obviously, Fate wanted me to read the book. I wasn't too much impressed by it. Better luck next time, Fate.

3: The next book I want to read:
Power, Inc -- the Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government, David Rothkopf.

4. The Last Book I Bought:
Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of American Libertarianism, Brian Doherty.

5. The Last Book I Was Given:
I haven't gotten it yet, but will receive it next week: Lost Scriptures: Books That Didn't Make It Into the New Testament, Bart Ehrman.


Friday, August 23, 2013

Save the Males

Save the Males: Why Men Matter and Why Women Should Care
© 2008 Kathleen Parker
215 pages

It's not a man's world any more. Far from it, Kathleen Parker writes: in America, men have not only been dethroned but imprisoned by a culture hostile to them.  In Save the Males, Ms. Parker elaborates on the many ways in which the nature  and contributions of men are scorned, abused, and discouraged by the prevailing culture, influenced as it is by 'third wave feminism'.  The first wave feminism gave women the vote, second wave got them careers and divorces, and the third wave made them porn stars.  Save the Males is less about men and more about the abuses of that third wave, which the author sees as not pro-women, but anti-male, and by virtue of the sexes' interrelatedness, anti-human.  She raises a series of fair points, but the book's focus is wobbly.

Parker doesn't detail a campaign against men, but rather has a list of complaints about the various ways men are emasculated. Education is entirely girl-focused, she says:  boys are forced to spend all day listening to soft-spoken women and denied rambunctious games of tag at recess. Women can merrily abort babies without ever consulting the fellows who contributed to the cause, divorce and child custody laws are outright malevolent to the male sex, and then there's porn!  It...puts pressure on them to perform, or something.  The list of attacks against men drifts into a list of ways society is degrading midway. As wretched as porn can be (and if you have doubts, read Chris Hedges'  Empire of Illusion),  the fact that it hurts men is somewhat tangential.  More thoughtful are her remarks about women in the military: despite the fact that women can push buttons as well as men, we have yet to civilize warfare, which -- after plans go to hell --  is still an area where brute strength, testosterone-fueled ax-crazy risk-taking are needed.  The desperate, primal struggles which erupt in Afghanistan and Iraq need frenzied, mighty men to deal with them.  Even when women are tucked away into noncombat roles on the front,  the unpredictable nature of war means they'll still get caught up in it -- and that's just not right. Regardless of our well-intentioned idealism, men and women at war are still men and women. Even if women weren't so physically inferior to men, says Parker, injection of sexual tension into combat zones would suggest keeping the military from being feminized.  The tribal mentality that resurrects itself so mightily in combat will derail combat units' effectiveness when the men start worrying about their ladies being shot and raped.  Given that the  US has recently done away with its barring women from combat roles, that tension is worth pondering.

I'm not particularly convinced by Save the Males that we of the beard are in great need of saving, though Parker does raise a lot of points worth thinking about -- divorce, military policy, and to a degree, parenting. (Parker's assertion that boys need men to teach them to be men, and girls need women to teach them to be women, and thus that test-tube babies born to single mothers are deprived of half of their necessary gender acculturation, is at first glance intriuging: I'd never considered the idea  that fathers teach boys how to act appropriately around women, and vice versa, but then I realized they don't, really, at least not outside 1950s sitcoms.  And besides, who says we need to be taught to be men or women?  If there are authentic gender roles, shouldn't they be as natural to us as breathing?)  These ideas deserve more serious consideration, however, than they find here, in a book which contains one chapter on nothing but how women worship their vaginas.

A book dedicated to men, with a woman on the cover, and which is mostly about women.  
Alrighty then.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Making of the Fittest

The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution
304 pages
© 2006 Sean B. Carroll

Sean B. Carroll's The Making of the Fittest examines the genetics of evolution, relating to readers not only how changes come about and are transmitted to the next generation, but how our genes demonstrate the passing of an evolutionary river out of Eden with the same surety that the flattened plains of the midwest testify to the passing of glaciers eons ago. After detailing the myriad ways in which genetics illuminates the inner workings and history of evolution, Carroll casts a critical eye against proponents of intelligent design and creationism.  In the stressful, chaotic world which all organisms inhabit, where circumstances and relations between prey and predator are in a state of constant flux, there is no room for grand designs:  only on-the-hoof and on-the-fly jury-rigging to respond to a given moment's crisis will do. Making of the Fittest supplies readers with both broad principles (the evolutionary arms race, in which no species is ever the 'perfected' winner, only carrying temporary momentum in the battle for survival) and specific practices, like how complex organs are formed by cobbling together smaller ones.  Though a short-enough work, it seems more technical than many other works on biology, probably because it focuses on the nitty-gritty details of genetics: one chapter is called "The Everyday Math of Evolution", and concerns mutation rates. Though of interest to general science readers, a little genetic refresher might be helpful before starting in.  

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Teaser Tuesday (20 August)

It's easy to be foolish, he thought. It's dead simple, really. All you have to be is human and to allow yourself to do the human things, like fall in love with somebody when you know there's no point and when you know, too, that it's just going to make you unhappy. It's better to be stoic -- to be one of those people who manage to keep themselves to themselves, who manage to avoid letting go and becoming entangled in something they know from experience is going to cause unhappiness. Or is it?

p. 87, Trains and Lovers,  Alexander Maccoll Smith

Monday, August 19, 2013

This week at the library: genes, love on a moving train, and war

Dear readers:

This past week I finished two books on meaning and morality and a bit of natural history. I enjoyed Shubin's Your Inner Fish, but de Botton's work on religion and Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind were both extraordinary. Comments for it and Shubin will follow in the next few days. This week I'll be wrapping up The Making of the Fittest, which examines the genetic evidence of evolution, and I'm supremely proud of myself for not having run away screaming when the author introduced  coefficients into the discussion.   For leisure reading, I've just started a novel called Trains and Lovers, wherin four strangers on a train ride in Britain from London to Glasgow share their stories with one another. I'm also entertaining the prospect of reading Stephen Ambrose's Citizen Soldiers to scratch an itch for adventure, explosions, and excitement.  I think it's been ten years since I last read Ambrose, in his Nothing Like it in the World: the Making of the Transcontinental Railroad.   I also have Betrayal, on how citizens betrayed the military, or how the military betrayed the country. Someone betrayed something, that much I know. (I've only gotten to the introduction.)

I recently found out that my university library still allows me to check out books despite being a graduate. I was so giddy to realize that enormous wealth of books was still open to me that I paid my alumni pledge early.  I'm planning my first visit 'home' in a couple of weeks, and already have a list of books to check out there. Turns out they have a lot of the authors whose works I've become interested in since graduating.  Actually, my copy of The Making of the Fittest is from my university library, checked out via interlibrary loan.  Checking them out personally will mean an excuse to revisit my old stomping grounds, harrumphing at whatever changes have transpired in my absence.

This Saturday I picked up Radicals for Capitalism: A History of American Libertarianism, the title of which caused the barista who checked me out to abruptly frown at me when she saw it. I can't blame her: it has a chapter on Ayn Rand, which makes me feel positively dirty. But it's an enormous book, and was offered at a low price, so I was seduced. I'm going to try refrain from reading it until I have something that will balance it out, like Power, Inc, or The Shock Doctrine: something to get my old progressive indignation fired up. 

Happy reading!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

What Are People For? (Comments & Selections)

What Are People For?
© 1990, 2010 (2nd Edition) Wendell Berry
210 pages

Did the Lord say that machines oughta take the place of livin'? ("John Henry", Johnny Cash)

Wendell Berry is a softly outspoken critic of the triumph of inhumanity. What are People For? collects essays both literary and critical, with topics ranging from poetry to economy, but settling most around the meaningful life and obstacles to it. Before locavorism and community-supported agriculture, Berry preached the diverse benefits of local, organic agriculture: before James Howard Kunstler, he talked about the value of Place, and mourned the destruction of it by the expansion of sprawl. But Berry is no progressive prodigy: he is, in fact, a traditionalist, who sees great value in a nation of small agriculturists and great danger in one of big agribusiness corporations and consumers. Berry sits in judgment of a modernity that destroys families, communities, people's connection to the land, and their ability to derive pleasure and independence from it. He has little regard for economic arguments for Free Markets that allow tumorously huge food-factories to drive out the little farmer: he moved by a man of flesh and blood, more concerned with his "fellow humans, neighbors, children of God, and citizens of the Republic" than economic principles and statistics that prove people are better off even as their places are destroyed by progress.  You can't stop progress, Berry might say with a sigh, but you can wish mightily for it to choke on its own exhaust.

One need not agree with Berry in entirety to appreciate his work, and I have found this collection of his essays, the first I've read (aside from "Health is Membership" in The Plain Reader), to be full of a great many humbling, gracious, and troubling thoughts. Below are a few excerpts.


The truth is that we Americans, all of us, have become a kind of human trash, living our lives in the midst of a ubiquitous damned mess of which we are at once the victims and the perpetrators, but we must count ourselves among the guilty nonetheless. In my household we produce much of our own food and try to do without as many frivolous 'necessities' as possible -- and yet, like everyone else, we must shop, and when we shop we must bring home a load of plastic, aluminum, and glass containers designed to be thrown away, and 'appliances' designed to wear out quickly and be thrown away.

I confess that I am angry at the manufacturers who make these things. There are days when I would be delighted if certain corporate executives could somehow be obliged to eat their products. I know of no good reason why these containers and all other forms of manufactured 'waste' -- solid, liquid, toxic, or whatever -- should not be outlawed. There is no sense and no sanity when objecting to the desecration of the flag while tolerating and justifying and encouraging as a daily business the desecration of the country for which it stands."

"Economy and Pleasure"
In the right sort of economy, our pleasure would not merely be an addition or by-product or reward; it would be both an empowerment of our work and its indispensable measure. Pleasure, Ananda Coomaraswamy said, perfects work. In order to have leisure and pleasure, we have mechanized and automated and computerized our work. But what does this do but divide us ever more from one another and the world?

"The Pleasures of Eating"
"Like industrial sex, industrial eating has become a degraded, poor, and paltry thing. Our kitchens and other eating places more and more resemble filling stations, as our homes more and more resemble motels. 'Life is not very interesting,' we seem to have decided. 'Let its satisfactions be minimal, perfunctory, and fast'. We hurry through our meals to go to work and hurry through our work to 'recreate' ourselves in the evenings and on weekends and vacations. And then we hurry, with the greatest possible speed and noise and violence, through our recreation -- for what? To eat the billionth hamburger at some fast-food joint hellbent on increasing the 'quality' of our life? And all this is carried out in a remarkable obliviousness to the causes and effects, the possibilities and the purposes, of the life of the body in this world."

"Word and Flesh"
"Our understandable wish to preserve the planet must somehow be reduced to the scale of our competence -- that is, to the wish to preserve all its humble households and neighborhoods. [...]
We must achieve the character and acquire the skills to live much poorer than we do. We must waste less. We must do more for ourselves and each other. It is either that or continue merely to think and talk about changes that we are inviting catastrophe to make."

"Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer"
I should give my standard for technological innovation in my own work. They are as follows:
1. The new tool should be cheaper than the one it replaces.
2. It should be at least as small in scale as the one it replaces.
It should do work that is clearly and demonstrably better than the one it replaces.
4. It should use less energy than the one it replaces.
5. If possible, it should use some form of solar energy, such as that of the body.
6. It should be repairable by a person of ordinary intelligence, provided that he or she has the necessary tools.
7. It should be purchasable and repairable as near to home as possible.
8. It should come from a small, privately owned shop or store that will take it back for maintenance and repair.
9. It should not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.
Do engines get rewarded for their steam? ("John Henry", Johnny Cash)

Religion for Atheists

Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion
© 2012 Alain de Botton
320 pages

What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? [...] Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning?   (The Parable of the Madman, F. Nietzsche)

Three years ago, former Baptist minister and now-agnostic Biblical scholar Robert M. Price posed a question to his audience of skeptics on Point of Inquiry: is the Bible  Mein Kampf?*  He asked the question to prompt religious critics to consider their animosity toward the Bible, which though flawed or offensive to them in part, still contained in it  beautiful stories and reflective wisdom; to reject the Bible because it had become the tool of fundamentalists to harp and rule over everyone else was folly, Price said; a loss to human art. It would be as if we were to spurn The Iliad because Achilles was a brute and the gods were fickle tyrants.  In the same spirit,  here agnostic Alain de Botton offers an appraising look at religion, and suggests that abandoning it entirely because we no longer believe its creeds is likewise folly, the willful abandonment of cultural adaptions humans created for their own benefit. In Religion for Atheists, he examines why religion worked for us for so long, assessing its strengths and weaknesses, then suggests ways in which skeptics, humanists, and so on can recover the strengths of the old permanent things without the witch-burnings. It is a profoundly thoughtful and wise book, which will no doubt annoy both the orthodox religious and anti-religious,  but offer  more moderate souls in and out of belief new ways to appreciate religion, and think about it seriously.

After enough glasses of wine, even the most antagonistic of atheists might admit that religion has a few redeeming virtues, mostly in the creative realm -- music, architecture, and art. Who would deny the beauty of the Sistine Chapel or the Parthenon? de Botton incorporates discussion of these into his work (with the astonishing absence of music), but his appreciation of them is linked to greater moral concerns. What does art do for us?  In de Botton's view, art should be not viewed as mere decor, as distracting prettiness: his view of art is one fully grounded in higher meaning,and he advocates using art in ways to provoke thought about the human condition. He practices this himself,  skillfully employing pictures throughout the text to truly illustrate his meaning: one plate shows a father at the end of his youth, beginning to bald as he enters his thirties, holding his toddling son and gazing upon a portrait of an elderly man in diapers:  a reflection on the realities of age.

de Botton's more broad appreciation for religion stems from the fact that life is difficult, and living a meaningful and moral life within it ever moreso. The actual beliefs of religion are irrelevant to the fact that as institutions, they provide places for people to escape from societal norms and find community among other people who have taken time to recognize that they, too, are troubled;  these same institutions constantly remind  and push their adherents to practice compassion and strive for moral excellence while giving them a broad sense of cosmic perspective. We need those reminders and encouragement, de Botton writes, because we are forgetful. Even if modernity wasn't actively pushing us into behaviors which are detrimental to our happiness and general well-being, our very nature incites us to wrath against those we love, our minds constantly bedevil us with worries that we then fixate on.  Although philosophy is an able guide and ally, as de Botton' own writings have demonstrated (see The Consolations of Philosophy, for instance),  we are at root social creatures, and find our best strength among one another: there is a reason Epicurus included companionship as part of his holy trinity of happiness (along with economic self-reliance/independence and mindfulness).

de Botton's goal is not to make extant religions attractive to nonbelievers, however much he may admire Christianity or Judaism or Buddhism. Instead, after divining out what makes them so successful and useful, he suggests ways for the nonreligious to capture its advantages.  This means changing existing ways secular progressives have sought to improve the human condition, art and education, by taking a note from religion and making them more meaningful, and thus more effective at communication.  Instead of organizing the study of art or literature by historicity or methods, why not arrange them by emotional theme; he inserts the layout of an existing London museum which exhibits have been reorganized into Galleries of Love,  Self-Knowledge, and Suffering, among others. University curriculums, too, could do with some priority-adjustment, as academics spend their lives studying increasingly esoteric questions, and devote no attention at all to figuring out what attitudes and practices best serve human relationships, or how to teach people to deal with the reality of Death.  From there de Botton's ideas broader support: he suggests temples to human virtues like Tenderness. Some of the ideas are fanciful, like a yearly recreation of the Feast of Fools, in which people are free to indulge with great abandon every passion and impulse of the flesh. (The illustration provided shows wanton public sex in the Agape Restaurant, which in a prior chapter had been the setting for relaxed conversations between people who were otherwise strangers, encouraged to talk about their lives and intimate hopes and fears.)  According to de Botton, this was an old medieval tradition, but it reminds me of nothing so much as a Star Trek episode, "The Return of the Archons", in which Kirk and co find themselves in a society filled with dour zombies who, once a week, go absolutely mad.

Most of the author's gentle suggestions would take a great deal of popular support and concern to institute, and so I imagine the book is more useful to skeptics trying to understand the power of religion than to humanist communities trying to create a more structured way of cultivating values and meaning. Those who attack religion should realize that it is these strengths they are attacking, not a simple, fervent belief in childhood credos. True or not, the great religions of the world deliver something of value to the world. To attack them is not only threaten people by going after sources of comfort and strength, but perhaps to succeed in doing so, and leave a vacuum to be filled with malignant consumerism or worse. Even if nonbelievers succeed in spreading the gospel of irreligion, those with any regard for humanity ought to be cognizant of the consequences, and go in knowing that we must give back more than we destroy.

Religion for Atheists is the best de Botton I've read in a long time, and a definite recommendation.

 How shall we comfort ourselves [...]?  What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent?  (Ibid)

* Price now hosts 'The Human Bible', which examines the Bible as literature, history, and philosophy, his intention being to coax skeptics, freethinkers, and co into appreciating it for its own human merits, instead of recoiling from it as the tool of dogma.  The show is on temporary hiatus while a new producer is found, but Price also independently creates The Bible Geek, in which he fields questions about biblical and religious history.

Friday, August 16, 2013

A reading on your mind

The brain is like a book, the first draft of which is written by the genes during fetal development. No chapters are complete at birth, and some are just rough outlines waiting to be filled in during childhood. But not a single chapter -- be it on sexuality, language, food preferences, or morality -- consists of blank pages on which a society can inscribe any conceivable set of words. Marcus' analogy leads to the best definition of innateness I have ever seen: Nature provides a first draft, which experience then revises....'Built-in' does not mean unmalleable; it means 'organized in advance of experience' 

- Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by  Politics and Religion, paraphrasing and then directly quoting Gary Marcus.  Though Haidt is not Marxist,  I couldn't help but think of this line:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. 

Marx' context was completely different (for starters, he was referring to society's self-justifications and not individuals), but  both communicate an essential truth...there are limits to how far we can reinvent ourselves. Even as babies, we are carried by the inertia of our genes' intent, and as adults, by the customs and culture of the society and times in which we live.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Basic Economics

Basic Economics: A Common Sense Guide to the Economy
© 2010 Thomas Sowell
789 pages (4th edition)

Basic Economics is a sweeping introduction  to the fundamental principles of market economics and their application to  constituent elements of the local and global economy like insurance, banking, trade, labor, and housing.  Although the principles chosen emphasize Sowell's value of free markets, Sowell maintains that certain principles  such as the role of incentives, are basic to every economic approach. Drawing from business and political history, Basic Economics is an argument by way of education, one simultaneously impressive and suspicious.

 Its scope is grand, but the  text coherent: though Sowell offers the reader a girth of data to consider, it is presented in a narrative form. Graphs and charts very seldom intrude on what is more often histories of clashes between competing companies, interest groups, and economic ideologies. Sowell first establishes his principles of economics (his working definition of that being, the study of how scarce resources with alternative uses are allocated) , then working from the general to the particular, demonstrates them in action with the aforementioned data. Most of Sowell's examples are drawn from American business or political history, but comparisons between it and the planned  economies of the Soviet Union and pre-1990s India are rife, and he sometimes plucks illustrations from Asia and Africa as well. Each section, containing multiple chapters, concludes with an overview that summarizes the essential points and provides further commentary. After establishing how prices work to moderate demand -- items being demanded less at higher prices, and more at lower prices -- he examines the concept at work in the housing market, demonstrating cases in which rent controls destroyed the market for affordable housing by increasing the demand for cheap housing., and discouraging developers from building further out of fear that regulation will forever squelch any hope they have of profit. By the same factors, Sowell writes, the gas lines in the 1970s were caused not by  the oil crunch, but by the government imposing price controls to keep prices lower than the market would have set them, and thus inflating demand by encouraging people to take advantage of the lower-than-market price.

Though Sowell's argument is mighty, given his reputation as a pundit one wonders if all the facts are in evidence in this 'scientific' approach to economics. Sowell examines history on the basis of his economic principles, and nothing else: he recounting the Bank of America's rise, he asserts its founder succeed because if his local knowledge and intimate ties with the Italian immigrant community, something no central bank or governing authority could do well.  What Sowell doesn't recount is that the  Bank of America prospered because the Great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 consumed so many of its competitors. Sowell's arguments about the consequences of rent and price controls have heft, but economic transactions do not contain all of life;  there are outside circumstances  and greater contexts to consider -- despite the spirit of vae victus, success is its own justification that reigns here. Basic economics is too simplistic: humans are not specimens of Homo economicus,  weighing incentive in our heads and acting rationally in our pure self-interest. In one section on brands, Sowell describes them as a substitute for particular and local knowledge: that is, while you have no idea  how healthy the burgers at a greasy spoon diner in the middle of nowhere are, or how they taste,  upon seeing the Golden Arches towering above the road you can rest easy, knowing that inside is a product that is perfectly predictable, right down to the shape of the fries -- it is food held to  overriding, national standards of safety and appearance  But for Sowell, that's all the brand is: a guarantor of standards.  As true as that may be,  it ignores the psychological aspect of brands on the mind, aspects the commercial firms are themselves aware of and capitalize on,  working overtime to implant affection for their brands in the minds of children so that when tykes grow up to be adults, they will be loyal customers.

Basic Economics offers a great deal of food for thought, but like the offerings of McDonalds which it hails, there are limits to its nutritional value. It is most valuable in explaining the elementary concepts of economics and educating citizens as to why public policy decisions relating to the economy have the unexpected consequences that they do: if the minimum wage is raised, why would companies not seek to  employ fewer works?  Something as complex as an economy, consisting as it does of an infinite number of transactions between buyers and sellers over a similarly uncountable number of goods and services, is perhaps too unwieldy to plan as we hoped. It does not, however, ease concern of what we then ought to do, and Sowell's detachment here, while welcome in explaining the problem, leaves one wondering if in the cold world of economics there is room for more humane considerations.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Bookshelf Scavenger Hunt

This was posted on a forum, so I thought I might post it here to see if anyone else wanted to play along.

1) Name a book you own that is written by someone with a Z in their name
Howard Zinn's A Power No Government Can Suppress.

2) Name the oldest book in your bookshelf
I have a history of German music that dates to the 1880s, written in German. My German-language professor presented our class with a box of books and said "Pick one!".  I chose that one because it was in the old Gothic script.

Oh, and I have several Bibles, including a King James Version translation. That could technically date to the 17th century.

3) Do you have a book that is a diary (real or fictional)? If so name it. 
I have Anne Frank's diary, naturally, but have also held on to a favorite series from middle- and high- school, California Diaries, featuring journals from four teenage authors -- Dawn, Sunny, Maggie, Amalia, and Ducky, all of whom had separate issues, ranging from suicidal friends to alcoholic and abusive parents.

4) Name the fictional book on your shelf which takes part in the earliest time period
That would probably be Roma, by Steven Saylor...which follows one patrician family in Rome, from prehistorical days to the rise of the Empire.

5) The five commonest surnames in the USA are Smith, Johnson, Williams, Brown and Jones. Name a book you own that is written by someone with one of these surnames.
Bitterly Divided: the South's Inner Civil War, by David Williams.

6) Name the book that you own that you have read the most times.
The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, by Max Shulman.

7) Do you own a book that is written by an author you have a love-hate relationship with? If so, name the author/book.

I own one book by Harry Turtledove, who I can't seem to stop reading despite the fact that I haven't really enjoyed anything I've read by him in recent years. That book is the first I ever read by him, Guns of the South. It has Robert E. Lee on the cover, holding an AK-47.

8) Name an author who you own more than 10 books by. 
I have an entire bookcase, five shelves worth, of nothing but Isaac Asimov. That includes the Robots, Empire, and Foundation books,  numerous essay and short story collections, science and history texts, and a few odd novels like A Whiff of Death.

9) Excluding textbooks, what book on your bookshelves did you pay the most for? 
I don't think any item in my collection was purchased for more than $30, though my Deep Space Nine companion may have been $35 or so.

10) Name the latest book you purchased.
Either The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, or Religion for Atheists, by Alain de Botton.

11) Name a book you own that is set in your state, province, county etc
I don't believe I own any southern fiction. Shame, shame...

12) If your house was on fire and you could only save one book, which book would it be?
Glimpses of World History, Jawaharlal Nehru. I checked ebay and amazon on a regular basis for three years to find a copy of that book that wasn't selling for $80 or more.  I might mention The Complete William Shakespeare, but I keep it in my automobile, so it doesn't exactly apply..

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Conservative Mind

The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot
© 1953 Russell Kirk
534 pages (7th Edition)

For most of human history, change has been a glacier -- slow to move, retreating as much as it advances. Since the scientific and industrial revolutions, however, change is  less a glacier and more a snowball, moving with rapidity, becoming ever more drastic, and picking up speed. Russell Kirk would remind modern readers that snowball modernity is moving, like other snowballs, downhill. In The Conservative Mind, he collects and comments on the thoughts of those who, since the Pandora's box of revolutions was opened, have tried to clap it shut again.  It is a large, thought-provoking work, often melancholy considering its authors are ever lamenting the loss of order, privilege, and the 'permanent things' against the advance of equality, democracy, and ideology. It attempts to demonstrate an intellectual conservativism, one based on more than an instinctual aversion to change. It succeeds in part, but its ideal audience is the half-converted, for modern readers who do not share its views are unlikely to be convinced by, or even warm appreciably to, authors who spend so much time attacking concepts like democracy, individual judgment, and equality which we hold dear.

The Conservative Mind begins with Edmund Burke, writing against the French Revolution, and continues to leapfrog between Britain and the United States for a century and a half thereafter, as the world continue to change beneath the feet of those who yearned for stability. Such changes were first material, then cultural, and finally political: as industry and commerce eroded the base of the old agricultural economy,  farmers displaced by mechanization streamed into the cities, becoming 'proletarians' in the process -- landless, resourceless men whose skills, along with those of artisans, were no longer needed, and whose only strength was in their numbers.  Converting those numbers into political power, they pressed on the reigning powers and pressed for changes that might relief their burden -- for if they had been denied the ability to provide for themselves, the state could be turned to do it for them; and if the new economic powers wanted to oppress them, they would turn the tables and put into force laws that checked the excesses. As the great tug of war pulled the national fabric hither and on, the men featured here fretted that said fabric was coming apart at the scenes.

Though I have scorned conservatism in the past for being bereft of its own ideas, incapable of doing anything other than resisting any kind of change at all, what I take for weakness, Kirk posits is a strength, and one of the themes uniting his authors' work. Conservatism is not an ideology, he writes; it is an exercise in pragmatism, of recognizing that rapid changes in anything as complex as society or the economy will have unexpected consequences, and if experience is any guide, most of those consequences will be unfortunate. His ideal conservatism is or should be the voice of rational prudence, keeping passion from doing anything too silly.  But while some of his featured authors' complaints can be appreciated as being sensible (not necessarily correct, but a perfectly rational view given the facts at hand), others are firmly in the camp of irrational reaction. One English author protests the 1832 Reform Bill for eliminating a handful of 'rotten boroughs', or election districts which no longer held populations worthy of seats in Parliament, or populations at all: these granted certain M.P.s a say in the nation's doings without their having any person at all to be responsible to.  The writers' protest was that one such seat had been the home of many a distinguished M.P, and to abolish their seat to fulfill some ideal of efficiency was outrageous. The starting point of the French Revolution is an ideal example of the value and limits of this conservative approach: while the Revolution was in many respects a catastrophe for France and Europe's stability, it did unleash positive forces. It gave lie to the fact that the people of Europe had to remain subjects to self-serving lords and priests; it gave them a reason to believe they could take command of their own fortunes, and better them in the process. As lamentable as the fire of revolution that destroys everything in its path is, so to is a conservatism that squelches all flames before they cause any kind of disruption. Superior would a flame of change that puts a fire under the seat of reactionary forces and prompts them to get out of the way of  'progress'.

At the same time, a criticism of conservatism as being nothing but a break or a nay-voice is not quite right, for Kirk maintains that his impaneled authors do believe in certain things, in protecting or restoring them. They believe, for instance, in the principle of prescriptivism, that people by and large ought to defer to the received wisdom of their elders and institutions, for the great reservoir of experience passed down from generation to generation is a far better guide to truth than any one individual, regardless of their belief in the power of objective Reason.  It's an argument one can find sense in -- collected knowledge will surely outweigh any individual knowledge, and reason without evidence  can fall into debates over how many angels can dance on the head of an Ideal Form of a pin --  but an individual may be in possession of facts that collected knowledge simply does not know.  If an astronomer identifies a source of light in the sky and posits that it is is approaching the Earth rapidly, the fact that the collected wisdom of the ancestors contains no accounts of astronomical bodies flying into the Earth does not negate the possibility. Collected beliefs are no more removed from the prospect of error than any new thought formed of reason. This is why science is such a valuable tool, for it combines free reason with the experience of evidence.   But scientists obtain their knowledge through trial and error, by performing experiments that rule out certain ideas and support others. The conservatives in this work, so keenly engrossed by the idea of man as a fallen creature who had to be kept from chaos and barbarity by stern rules and moral authority, would doubtless oppose experimenting with anything as volatile as human society, especially given that they consider some of the values of humankind to be valuable in their own rights, apart from us. Religion is at the heart of Kirk's conservatism, and he maintains that those who see it as simply a convenient curative to fix moral failings of people are doing it wrong. Religion is a dedication to Higher Things, and if people do not acknowledge the supremacy of God over the world, if they do not submit entirely to Divine Will, they will err time and again.

This is not a happy book. It is a work of reproach and lamentation, of distress, argument, and grievance. I think it valuable in terms of  the history of political philosophy, for it  offers the perspective of those who fought against changes like universal suffrage that we take for granted. Barring the collapse of civilization, it is unlikely that universal suffrage will reversed; at the same time, I find it useful to ponder the consequences of said acts, and to wonder: did they live up to the expectations of progress, or did they diminish the body-politic by putting power into the hands of people who have neither the time nor the inclination to gather facts, reflect upon them, and decide on the wisest course of action.  What has expanding the power of central governments done to the effectiveness of those governments, and to the engagement of citizens?  Do we live up the the ideal of the self-empowered Citizen, contributing to the well-being of our nations while pursuing our own individual interests, or are we simply consumer-citizens,  our only act of participation being which product we choose to buy in the election booth: Blue or Red?  The conservative mind is too damning of the species, too quick to defer to the tyranny of tradition and authority, but all the time...perhaps it is a mind that ought to be considered, if only to ward off  the possibility of modern hubris with a little humility.

This week at the library: airborne chivalry, unschooling, and cool, cool, considerate men

The week's reads: A Higher Call, Adam Makos | The Unschooling Handbook, Mary Griffith | Hannah Coulter, Wendell Berry | 1632, Eric Flint

This week I've been reading from two larger works, both challenging: Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind and Thomas Sowell's Basic Economics. I finished Kirk's anthology over the weekend, and am still collecting my thoughts on it.  I managed to get through the section on labor in Basic Economics without quitting the book in indignant rage, which I consider personal growth.  I decided to start both works to challenge my thinking and learn about views which I've long avoided.

My fun reading this week will consist of Your Inner Fish, which I've happily settled back into, and it will be followed in short order by The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution, by Sean B. Carroll. The last time I tried reading one of his works (Endless Forms Most Beautiful), the sheer amount of details was too much for my pansy humanities-focused brain. Pehaps this time I'll be more successful -- Goodreads reccommended it. Speaking of book sites, LibraryThing is sending me a copy of Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country as part of its early reviwers meeting.

The United States has been “at war” for more than a decade. Yet as war has become normalized, a yawning gap has opened between America’s soldiers and the society in whose name they fight. For ordinary citizens, as former secretary of defense Robert Gates has acknowledged, armed conflict has become an “abstraction” and military service “something for other people to do.”

In Breach of Trust, bestselling author Andrew Bacevich takes stock of the separation between Americans and their military, tracing its origins to the Vietnam era and exploring its pernicious implications: a nation with an abiding appetite for war waged at enormous expense by a standing army demonstrably unable to achieve victory. Among the collateral casualties are values once considered central to democratic practice, including the principle that responsibility for defending the country should rest with its citizens.

That sounds positively chipper.  On a happier note, I'm expecting Righteous Mind: How Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion for Atheists in the mail.  Alain de Botton never fails to enthrall.

Sunday, August 4, 2013


© 2000 Eric Flint
608 pages

Tremble, lords of Germany. A new breed has come into the world.

What happens when you throw a small American mining town from the 20th century into the middle of Germany...during the 17th-century's Thirty Years War?  Chaos -- and fun.  One morning out of the clear blue, the town of Grantville, West Virginia, suddenly found itself picked up and plopped down into one of the worst wars in history.  Left to fend for themselves  in an era of disease, ignorance, and marauding armies, they decide to rebuild the American vision from scratch, in the middle of Europe. 1632 is the start of a large and not-very-orderly series of novels that depict the evolution of Europe following the sudden infusion of 20th-century knowhow and American bravado,  and it's a ball to read.

The novel's premise is largely fantastical, and subject to a handwave in the introduction. What matters is not how the Americans came to be thrown back into time, with their library of knowledge and modern tools.  The store explores what that knowledge and tools does to Europe's fiendishly complicated political scene.  In 1632,  Europe's multitude of powers were involved in a technically religious war between Catholics and Protestants in which some Protestant powers were fighting on the Catholic side, and vice versa.  Cardinal Richileu, the diabolical chessmaster running France and  working fiendishly to keep the balance of power in Europe favoring himself,  is busy moving armies and juggling two sets of Hapsburgs (some in Spain, some in Germany) as well as the plucky Swedish nation.  The sudden takeover of part of Germany by a mouthy, irreligious Republic is a matter of some concern -- especially as the Americans begin moving outward.

Grantville is not the typical American town: it is a mining town, and a unionized one that. It is led by intelligent, technically-savvy men who are used to a fight and determined to stick together, who know how to break a jaw in defense of principles. Mike Stearns, president of the local United Mine Workers of America, becomes the city's de facto leader, for he and his men have the energy and toughness to stand against whatever brigands Europe throws at them. Although it may look primitive by their standards, 17th century Europe is a dangerous place. Its armies carry muskets, and while rumors of witchcraft abound, its leaders know technology when they see it.  They won't be scared off for long. Realizing how overwhelming the odds are against them, Stearns decides against isolation. To survive, Grantville is going to have to build on what it has already -- and expand. But not as an empire: as the idealistic Republic they were once members of, and now constitute. Their goal is to start winning the hearts and minds of their neighbors, and from the downtrodden German folk create a shining city set upon a hill, amidst the forests of Thuringia.

1632 covers Grantville's first year, and much happens -- raids and battles, politicking between the American factions over the city's future and between the warring powers of Europe, America  now included --  and a great deal of character development.  Idling teenagers who spend their days throwing dice are forced into responsible manhood:  schoolteachers and engineers now govern a nation. But the Americans are not alone, for the cast of viewpoint characters steadily expands to includes 'downtime' Europeans (some Jewish refugees, some Germans) who become citizens of the new republic, beguiled by its tolerance, high (if charmingly native) ideals, and liberties.  These characters are standouts, especially the women of both cultures. One woman grows from a rape victim-concubine hiding her family in a cesspit to a lady of war who terrifies grown men with her stare and strikes the characters as being a creature out of legend.

Although the chronology of the books that follow this is bewildering, I may have to try, for 1632 is such a delightful novel I'd like very much to see what develops from it. The insertion of 20th century knowledge and mores into the middle of early industrial Europe is fascinating enough -- what will become of the Dutch Republic, I wonder? will it make common cause? --  but the storytelling is exuberantly fun. Despite being alone in the middle of deadly chaos, the Grantville townsfolk seize the danger as an opportunity. They're full of bravado, flying around in pickup trucks and shotguns, rescuing damsels in distress and killing hordes of evil raping mercenaries with an M-60 while screaming "'MERICA!". They aren't hicks -- just country folk used to fighting for what they believe in, and what they believe in most is equality and liberty.  I'd wager European readers might be a touch turned off by the notion of cheerfully confident Americans remolding the continent in their own image, but for Americans, the first book at least should find a broad audience in anyone who can gamely tolerate speculative fiction, as it supplies a little of everything, from politics to romance to combat. This first book is available for free on Kindle, no doubt a nefarious plan on Amazon's part to hook readers like myself into wanting to read the dozen or so that follow it..

Friday, August 2, 2013

Hannah Coulter

Hannah Coulter
© 2005 Wendell Berry
190 pages

This is the story of my life, that while I lived it weighed upon me and pressed against me and filled all my senses to overflowing and is now like a dream dreamed. [...] This is my story, my giving of thanks.  p. 5
Hannah Coulter is a coming of age story, the tale of a young woman who becomes a widow twice over, raising children through wars and hardship, strengthened by her family and extended community of Port William. Like Jayber Crow, it is less a story that is told in a straight line, and more an experience which is shared by the reader, a tale that meanders with purpose. The novel is a collection of stories and reflections, knit together by the life of Hannah into a literary quilt, one beautiful to behold and comforting to snuggle under. The prevailing themes are of love and loss,  family, enduring faith (not limited to religious, but faith in life and in one another), and communion -- communion with one another, with the land, and Providence.

Agrarianism is the backbone of Hannah and her kindred's lives: it establishes the cycles of life, provides a means of self-reliance, and offers the "joy of achievement, the thrill of creative effort".  The manifest importance of the land makes itself known even in the way characters orient themselves: they do not live on this road or that, but  take their directions from topography. Families live in this hollow, or on on those hills, or off that branch of the river: the people who inhabit Port William know the land as intimately as any deer or hawk. To them, their world is not limited to narrow strips running alongside lanes, a grid that people occupy as dots. The land and place of Port William are whole, connected, and rambling. But the lives of the city are not linked just by physical presence; they're tied together too by their common experiences. Hannah and her second husband both lose loved ones in World War 2, and that shared loss is the impetus of their relationship. When they settle in, they join an informal 'membership' of neighbors, who despite occupying separate farms, work together as one, helping to mend one another's fences, or gather in the harvest.  They do for one another whatever "needs doin'", and receive in the same spirit.

As said, this intensely thoughtful work combines stories and reflections.  The stories are sometimes tragic, other times uproarious, often charming, and always demanding --  Berry's stories have a way of hovering off the page and floating right in front of a reader's eyes and mind, impossible to ignore. Closing the book does not help. Although the reflections tend toward the melancholy -- Hannah begins her life losing one parent, promptly loses her first husband, and will see her children be scattered to the wind by ambition  -- the work is, as she says, a story of giving thanks, even in the midst of trouble. This is her abiding faith -- "rejoice always".  For though the years are not kind to Port William, as its way of life is paved over by asphalt and "developed" and the sons and daughters of the community are brought low in war or move away to make better lives for themselves in different places -- lives that prove to be not as good as they thought --  the book ends in hope.

I continue to be astonished by the beauty of Wendell Berry's prose

The living can't quit living because the world has turned terrible and people they love and need are killed. They can't because they don't. The light that shines into darkness and never goes out calls them on into life. It calls them back again into the great room. It calls them into their bodies and into the world, into whatever the world will require. It calls them into work and pleasure, goodness and beauty, and the company of other loved ones.

p. 57

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Unschooling Handbook

The Unschooling Handbook: How to Use the Whole World As Your Child's Classroom
© 1998 Marry Griffith
240 pages

What does it mean to educate a child? In the United States, schooling is dominated by standards, by regular exams that force educators to teach the test. But is forced memorization a means of teaching our children well?  Mary Griffith thinks not. A practitioner and advocate of "Unschooling", she believes children ought to be free to learn the way adults do: autonomously, pursuing their own interests with the support of their family. In The Unschooling Handbook, she explains the unschooling philosophy, elaborates on how children can pursue understanding of reading, math, science, art, and even history by themselves,  and offers parents who are considering the prospect resources to make the leap. Intriguing and smartly organized, it's a welcome perspective in reflecting on education.

What happens to destroy the natural curiosity of children, corroding kids who delight in learning about anything into reluctant attendees who look on the schoolroom as if a drilling dentist were waiting for them there?  The answer is the decidedly unnatural approach of compulsory education, making children to rise early and spend all day under the authority of adults they neither know nor trust,  and forcing them memorize a variety of facts about a series of subjects that may not interest them. If a subject does not hold a child's interest, Griffith writes, why do we expect them to retain any knowledge at all?  The information may be held long enough for the test, and then promptly dumped.  The children are not improved by having been forced to memorize it, and the public is not better off for having used resources to make them do it.  That Griffith is concerned with the quality of her child's education is something of a relief: other criticisms of the public schooling systems I've encountered all had ideological roots,  with the parents being paranoid about the prospect of Other People influencing their children, zealously guarding their progeny's craniums like Gollum guarding the Ring.  Griffith doesn't complain about the Government trying to turn her child into a socialist minion, or a docile sheep for the new world order.  Her philosophy does run counter to the state's approach to education, though, and borders on libertarianism: she does not believe in making her child learn anything. She instead trusts that children will eagerly want to learn about a wide variety of subjects, if provided with the right tools. The parents' job is to guide kids through the world, showing it off, and then helping them investigate whatever catches their interest.  It may be Anglo-Saxon mythology or geology; it may be Candy Crush.  

The potential for abuse is a notable limitation of the unschooling approach, for children are not known for being moderate souls. What is to keep a child becoming obsessed with one subject, and learning nothing at all about mathematics?  Griffith's permissive streak seems a vulnerability in a world full of addictive, ever-accessible smartphone games: her technological references stop at 1998, which limits the section on the uses of television and the Internet in education for modern readers. (YouTube is a fantastic resource for learning, but it's also a fantastic way to waste time perusing funny kitten videos.)  The author's answer is that children will, in time, grow bored  even in these indulgences. Trust them.  It's a nice thought, but I'd rather err on the side of discipline. The permissive-parenting argument is a separate argument from that concerning unschooling, though, and that I rather like. I like it because I have learned more reading popular science texts on my own than I ever learned in school, and because the comprehensive variety of information I absorb through my own studying is infinitely more useful than memorizing a few rote facts that pass into oblivion.  The greatest weakness of unschooling is that parents' lifestyles may not allow for it: when living costs such that both parents have to work to support families, who can stay home to attend to the children? Reflection is warranted: perhaps a superior education for children, and a closer relationship between parents and children as a result of more time spent together, and less fighting with them to conform to school's regimented schedule and curriculum, would justify a family deciding to downshift so it could afford to run on only one salary.

The unschooling approach demonstrated here makes learning a family experience. Education is not something children endure while mom and dad go to their jobs in the 'real' world; instead, education is part of exploring that real world. The core of The Unschooling Handbook is its section illustrating how kids and parents can learn together about the world. Some subjects, like art, music, and science, are naturally entertaining, and those which require more discipline aren't too difficult to pursue, either:  children will gravitate to learning to read if they see their parents reading, and if they are read to.  This kind of education requires care on the parents' part, as they are the cultivators of their children's minds.  Although all children find the natural world awe-inspiring and fascinating, many adults find science dull, probably because their experience with it has involved more the memorization of facts and less hands-on experience that seduces them into learning more about the subject, and eventually to adopting the tools of science to learn even more. A child can be taught botany from a garden and chemistry from the kitchen.  What parents can do is help guide learning from the reactive 'wow' to the 'Eureka!' that follows dogged research. A key seems to be relevance:  children may squirm if made to memorize the dates and names of English kings (unless they find the recent birth of the latest prince interesting, as so many Americans inexplicably do), but if history is used to awe children with the fact that the places they see around them, and their family, have a greater story than what is presently seen, it may take root.  This approach hearkens to our species' ancient practice of oral traditions: being engaged by history is in our blood.

The Unschooling Handbook is both thought-provoking and useful, if dated.  I will assuredly be reading more about this subject -- for I believe learning ought to a result of our enthusiastic attempt to understand the world, and not a forced exercise in training.