E. D. Hirsch's How to Educate a Citizen: The Power of Shared Knowledge to Unify a Nation is just out. We will have the author on one of our podcasts soon. The book argues a thesis—no, a fact—pressed by Hirsch since the 1980s when Cultural Literacy spent six months on the New York Times bestseller list. The fact is this: Reading is not a generalized skill. It involves another factor, background knowledge, which is not an abstract intellectual capacity. If you hand two groups of kids a passage about baseball—one group made up of strong readers who know little about the sport, the other of middling readers who know a lot about it—an interesting result follows. When tested on their comprehension of the passage, the average scores of the two groups converge. This is why Hirsch says that a reading test is really a knowledge test.
It is also why he rejects “skills” curricula—that is, teaching and assignments that emphasize abstract capacities such as “critical thinking” and “problem solving” and, in the lower grades, “reading comprehension.” Exercises such as “Find the main idea” and “What does a topic sentence do?” are of limited value. It is much better, Hirsch says, for teachers to assign knowledge-building readings and discuss the specific content of those readings. One, this will build the background knowledge that will enable students to perform well on high-stakes tests later on; and two, students will absorb unconsciously how to find a main idea and what topic sentences do.
Hirsch's Core Knowledge curriculum, a K-8 sequence that is used in thousands of schools, puts the theory into practice. (I serve on the board of his foundation.) His new book has fresh scientific findings to back up the knowledge factor. There is a fascinating section on the memory of chess Grand Masters, good historical material on Noah Webster and nineteenth-century schooling, and dismal records of what happened to academic achievement when schools went with the “skills” approach to learning. I recommend his books especially to those parents who find themselves doing lots of homeschooling in this age of lockdown.
I recently picked up Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. For those of you who, like me, neglected to read it back when it was on the bestseller lists, the “omnivore's dilemma” is deciding what to eat when there are so many things we can eat. Pollan follows four meals on their journey from the soil to his plate. In the process, he shows that just as much is at stake in our choices about food today as when we were hunter-gatherers trying to determine which mushrooms and berries were safe to eat. That is, the questions are still life-or-death, even if the food systems are much more complex and remote.
The best section is the eponymous chapter sixteen. In it, Pollan points out that food and sex are both “fundamental biological drives necessary to our survival as a species, and both must be carefully channeled and socialized for the good of society.” “But food,” he argues, “is more important than sex. . . . Sex we can live without (at least as individuals), and it occurs with far less frequency than eating.” Yes, indeed. And, that being the case, it seems to me the time is long overdue for conservatives to bolster our well-articulated defense of traditional sexual ethics with a defense of food: local, sustainable, and ethical. We know how we ought to order our appetite for the one, but it's time to put some serious thought into how we order our appetite for the other, for both are essential to culture.
“One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.” So begins Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment. It evokes another famous opening line that begins with the ordinary and ends with the extraordinary: “One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug.” Thirty-eight-year-old Olga’s transformation from content housewife to la femme rompue, the destroyed woman, is arguably just as radical as Samsa’s. The further away she slips from reality, the less human she becomes.
Olga’s language is reduced to expletives and her imagination to pornographic nightmares as she obsesses over her husband, Mario, and his young lover. In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry describes how pain is language-destroying, reducing us to wordless exclamations that are universally recognized. In Olga’s case, her language veers toward the obscene: The breakdown of her speech and mind is a sign of her dehumanization. Furthermore, Scarry notes that someone else’s pain “may seem as distant as the interstellar events referred to by scientists who speak to us mysteriously of not yet detectable intergalactic screams or of ‘very distant Seyfert galaxies. . . .’” Olga’s anguish, which defies communication, distances her from her children and neighbors. Even when they’re standing right in front of her, she might as well be on another planet.
The circumstances surrounding modern-day, real-life abandonment are rarely exciting and often dull; adultery or dissatisfaction (whether sexual, material, or emotional) are hardly as interesting as, say, being left to the elements to die as an infant because an oracle prophesied that you would kill your father and marry your mother (thus setting into motion the epic events of one of the greatest Western tragedies). Yet the dullness of the circumstances hardly dulls the pain of being left behind. Everyday life lacks the order of drama or poetry; Mario’s infidelity is not a product of hubris, for that necessitates prior greatness; there is no “plot,” as Aristotle defines it, no climax, no satisfying resolution or catastrophe. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of modern-day abandonment is that it isn’t tragic.
The remedy to non-poetic “everydayness” is to turn to literature. Olga seeks to understand and convey her suffering through reading and writing. Anna Karenina gives voice to her suffering—she underlines the questions Anna asks herself before she jumps before the train in red (“My God! where am I to go?”). And not just her own suffering: Olga, in a moment of insanity, sees the ghost of the poverella—a woman she once knew as a child who, “unable to die by poison, had drowned herself near Capo Miseno” after her husband left her—sitting in her writing chair. She writes not only for herself, but for the untold stories of the dead.
So, too, Ferrante’s writing acts as a sort of astronomical instrument, giving voice to Olga’s “intergalactic screams,” and manages to convey perfectly the disconnect between Olga’s raging interiority and the disinterested goings-on of the outside world. When grappling with the wordless, one must return to the written word.
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