The Importance of Critical Reading

One of my favorite podcasts, EconTalk, presents a diverse range of topics that the host, Russ Roberts, somehow finds a way to adeptly navigate through. One recent example of this was Roberts hosting Doug Lemov as a guest on the subject of the central importance of critical reading. The implications are of tremendous importance as it relates to personal growth and development, as a parent raising young children to love reading and that singular activities’ critical foundational importance in developing knowledge and understanding all other subjects, and as members of a broader community in fostering within our school systems and educational models the most effective modes of learning. Lemov is a well-known author on teaching methods and also runs many successful charter schools in poorer communities throughout the Northeast. In other words, his theories have found a useful and meaningful practical home to great ends.

There were several key insights from the episode I wanted to write down and commit to my own practice and that I also wanted to share with anyone who has an interest on the topic:

  • Whereas most instructors and parents adhere to an idea of “age or level appropriate” reading and texts, Lemov urges us to have our children or pupils grapple with challenging texts. This allows them to work through more difficult concepts, ask probing questions, and hear words, ideas, and concepts that they may never get to experience in an edition of Magic Tree House, as fine as those kinds of simple serial books can be for pleasure reading. The example he uses in the podcast is reading with his then 2nd-grader a novel, The Island of the Blue Dolphins, which tells the story of a girl stranded for years off of the California coast and which is ostensibly an eighth-grade level text. He remarks that by reading aloud to her and grappling through the story with his daughter, she was able to interact with the story in a meaningful way, learn words such as “befall” that she would never learn in traditional assignments and novels, and begin to develop an anticipatory love of the types of great literature works that she would experience as she grew into adulthood. I am pleased to report that upon reading to my own daughters (3rd and 1st grades) the first two chapters of the same novel, I have witnessed the same impressive level of understanding, inquisitiveness, and delight at hearing aloud a novel much richer in context, feelings, and exploration of the human condition than other novels that they read on their own that are “their level.”
  • Lemov indicates that what is most common is to instruct children on understanding the higher level context on what is going on in a text and to bypass difficult language by offering a quick summary of the content distilled into modern simple language. Thus, a tough passage from Hamlet gets paraphrased and reduced to its simplest form. Lemov believes that while bigger picture thinking is an important part of instruction and knowledge building, of equal importance is deep and critical analysis of the actual written text. He advocates for a deeper level of understanding on a line by line basis and of developing knowledge of what the author was truly trying to say within the context of the author’s language. This means a more methodical plowing through of Shakespeare, but the long-term implications are that the person will develop a much broader ability to pick up and analyze challenging texts and to reap the benefits of their robust life insights.
  • I wholeheartedly agree with Lemov’s stance on technology in the classroom. In the podcast, he states unequivocally:

    I think a lot of parents, one of the first questions they ask about their school is, ‘Is the school infused with technology? How will my kids have access to technology?’ My concern is the opposite. If I could have anything from my school, it would be a place where my kids sustain their focus in conversation, in reading, in writing, without being interrupted with a technology for as long as possible.

Indeed, one public school that I toured focused very little on academic rigor in their “pitch” and much more on the modernity of the facilities, use of iPads, and use of electronic voice amplifiers that more effectively connect teachers to their students. My personal observation is that my own children pick up and adapt to technology in the home at an incredible pace without need of my aid. Thus, they have little need of a school teaching them how to adapt to smart devices. At best, technology access adds some ability to quickly reference some key concept, while vitiating the critical life skill of research and exploration. My fear, in addition to what Lemov discusses, is that it serves such a distraction and takes away from the deep meditative aspects of what a school should be that it erases any benefit that could be derived from it.

  • One novel concept Lemov spells out is to pair nonfiction concepts with fiction reading. As a result, a potentially bland topic (in the eyes of a young student) such as food rationing and war preparations comes alive when it is paired with a novel such as Lily’s Crossing, a novel about a girl whose life is disrupted when her father leaves for World War II, her best friend moves to a war production factory town, and life in New York City assumes a broader war posture with rationing and bombing raid preparations.

There are more great insights and practical ideas in the podcast, therefore I highly encourage the listen of this particular episode, which takes no overt ideological stances and is rather thought-provoking. I also recommend EconTalk in general for those who are interested in learning and hearing more about the philosophy of faith in the free individual working in a free market undergirded by a limited government applying the rule of law that is not arbitrary. In short, it is a tremendous podcast in defense of traditional classical liberalism/libertarianism.

The most misused words in the English language

Adverse

Inc. Magazine recently released an article on the most misused words as chronicled by a Harvard linguist. I personally enjoy exercises in making sure that my language is correct. Or at least I should say that I find focus on written language to be worth the effort. I am afraid my oral (not verbal!) language will continue to always be a work-in-progress. It appears I will at least have to rethink my use of, “begs the question,” which from this list seems to be my most frequent linguistic sin.

Here are some highlights:

  1. Adverse means “detrimental.” It does not mean “averse” or “disinclined.” Correct: “There were adverse effects.” / “I’m not averse to doing that.”
  2. Appraise means to “ascertain the value of.” It does not mean to “apprise” or to “inform.” Correct: “I appraised the jewels.” / “I apprised him of the situation.”
  3. Beg the question means that a statement assumes the truth of what it should be proving; it does not mean to “raise the question.” Correct: “When I asked the dealer why I should pay more for the German car, he said I would be getting ‘German quality,’ but that just begs the question.”
  4. Bemused means “bewildered.” It does not mean “amused.” Correct: “The unnecessarily complex plot left me bemused.” / “The silly comedy amused me.”
  5. Cliché is a noun, not an adjective. The adjective is clichéd. Correct: “Shakespeare used a lot of clichés.” / “The plot was so clichéd.”
  6. Data is a plural count noun not, standardly speaking, a mass noun. [Note: “Data is rarely used as a plural today, just as candelabraand agenda long ago ceased to be plurals,” Pinker writes. “But I still like it.”] Correct: “This datum supports the theory, but many of the other data refute it.”
  7. Depreciate means to “decrease in value.” It does not mean to “deprecate” or to “disparage.” Correct: “My car has depreciated a lot over the years.” / “She deprecated his efforts.”
  8. Disinterested means “unbiased.” It does not mean “uninterested.” Correct: “The dispute should be resolved by a disinterested judge.” / “Why are you so uninterested in my story?”
  9. Enormity refers to extreme evil. It does not mean “enormousness.” [Note: It is acceptable to use it to mean a deplorable enormousness.] Correct: “The enormity of the terrorist bombing brought bystanders to tears.” / “The enormousness of the homework assignment required several hours of work.”
  10. Hone means to “sharpen.” It does not mean to “home in on” or “to converge upon.” Correct: “She honed her writing skills.” / “We’re homing in on a solution.”
  11. Hung means “suspended.” It does not mean “suspended from the neck until dead.” Correct: “I hung the picture on my wall.” / “The prisoner was hanged.”
  12. Ironic means “uncannily incongruent.” It does not mean “inconvenient” or “unfortunate.” Correct: “It was ironic that I forgot my textbook on human memory.” / “It was unfortunate that I forgot my textbook the night before the quiz.”
  13. Nonplussed means “stunned” or “bewildered.” It does not mean “bored” or “unimpressed.” Correct: “The market crash left the experts nonplussed.” / “His market pitch left the investors unimpressed.”
  14. Parameter refers to a variable. It does not mean “boundary condition” or “limit.” Correct: “The forecast is based on parameters like inflation and interest rates.” / “We need to work within budgetary limits.”
  15. Phenomena is a plural count noun — not a mass noun. Correct: “The phenomenon was intriguing, but it was only one of many phenomena gathered by the telescope.”
  16. Shrunk, sprung, stunk, and sunk are past participles–not words in the past tense. Correct: “I’ve shrunk my shirt.” / “I shrank my shirt.”
  17. Simplistic means “naively or overly simple.” It does not mean “simple” or “pleasingly simple.” Correct: “His simplistic answer suggested he wasn’t familiar with the material.” / “She liked the chair’s simple look.”
  18. Verbal means “in linguistic form.” It does not mean “oral” or “spoken.” Correct: “Visual memories last longer than verbal ones.”
  19. Effect means “influence”; to effect means “to put into effect”; to affect means either “to influence” or “to fake.” Correct: “They had a big effect on my style.” / “The law effected changes at the school.” / “They affected my style.” / “He affected an air of sophistication to impress her parents.”
  20. Lie (intransitive: lies, lay, has lain) means to “recline”; lay(transitive: lays, laid, has laid) means to “set down”; lie(intransitive: lies, lied, has lied) means to “fib.” Correct: “He lies on the couch all day.” / “He lays a book upon the table.” / “He lies about what he does.”

What is magnanimity? What the ancient philosophers can teach us about the deeper meaning of words, ethics, and the virtues

Keeping up with the Presidential race over that last few months, I get the pessimistic feeling that much of America and perhaps the entire Western world continues to erode in a sense of what are the virtues that are essential to upholding the freedom and liberties that we hold dear.  We seem to value and promote above all else elements such as wealth, presence, competence, and theatrical performance even if these values are accompanied by tremendous flaws such as lack of truthfulness, lack of self control, self-aggrandizement, and arrogance.  Many philosophers and leaders, both ancient and modern, have long argued that without some sense of morality, our experiments in relative freedom, a recent and modern phenomenon when put on a history of the world timeline replete with oppressive dictatorships and empires, will not long hold. Margaret Thatcher stated that, “…without a moral basis, such a society would not long endure.”  This was a sentiment that was shared by American founders and Presidents such as John Adams, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln.

The core of our values and the foundations that we lay in our educational systems seem to have descended into basic memorization and understanding of facts rather than a focused effort to build the mind and the character. If there is any attempt at defining values, virtues, and individual character, it is shibboleths of “respect and tolerance” as those that are chief among them (which can be fine things, but I believe there are far more important virtues that our children should learn and develop that truly defines character), meanwhile a significant strand of society pays lip service to these values but continues to be enamored with material success and conflates it as a proxy for virtue or leadership. Over time, I intend to write a series on what defines the various virtues, pulling on threads across multiple sources, from Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, the Bible, as well as more modern philosophers who hail primarily from the classical liberal tradition most predominant in 18th and 19th Century Britain.

The idea first occurred to me recently as I was reading Aristotle’s description on magnanimity as one of his virtues in Nicomachean Ethics, a book which I would firmly place in the category of “Great Books” that I mention above. This has long been a word that I was fond of using as a more high-minded sounding word in place of generosity. The reality is that the term encompasses much more than the singular definition of generosity, a deeper meaning of which I was ignorant of until recently. It would seem that my confusion and requirement to become an autodidact to learn words and their meaning is an anecdotal  indictment on society at large – we are losing our understanding of the richness of the vocabulary that is available to us and the variety that those words afford to us to more richly describe situations through our written and verbal stories. Only the bare minimum in vocabulary, writing, and speaking skills are stressed in our education systems of today. Magnanimity is one small personal anecdote. Long one of my favorite words, I failed to understand its full measure.  Judging by the graph below, all of the English-speaking polity is also failing to understand its full value, be being completely ignorant that the word exists in the first place. I suspect that many words would fit this same trendline, and I think we have lost something valuable in society with the loss of powerful and full of meaning words. The remedy would be a broader emphasis on the part of our education systems and parenting to promote the production of good and virtuous citizens of high character and with the ability to think, write, and speak with confidence and dexterity. This would necessarily involved learning the art of high-minded thinking, greatness, approaching a problem or a belief and being able to fully write or speak to it, and striving and getting validation on how their character is developing. In this vein, learning from the Great Books would be an essential component of such an education. Whether this approach is for the secular or the spiritual realm, I believe this sort of rigor in training our children and training ourselves is warranted.

Magnanimity

That is quite enough moralizing and lamenting on the decline of vocabulary and understanding of virtues. Now to get to the purpose of the post – the richness of the way in which Aristotle defines magnanimous as a virtue. With each virtue, Aristotle defines the optimum value as a mean between extremes. In the case of magnanimity, the deficient extreme state would be pusillanimity and the extreme positive state would be vanity. Magnanimity itself is explained as something that we might associate with being noble or high-minded. Indeed, many translations of Ethics describes this section using these terms rather than magnanimity. While generosity can be a subset of magnanimity, the two are not perfect synonyms in all occasions. Indeed, magnanimity as defined by Aristotle may be something that is far more powerful in describing a certain individual trait than generosity on its own could never achieve.  Magnanimity is one of few virtues described by Aristotle, so one would expect it to be an expansive word that encompasses some form of greatness. Indeed, the Greek word from which magnanimity comes from is megalopsucheia, which translates into ‘‘greatness of soul.” This inherently includes great generosity as one plank, but it is also covers such issues as how one responds to honors and praise and how one grants honors and praise. In this sense, a magnanimous person willingly accepts honors from their fellow-man and bestows them with matters that are in fact great, magnificent, and truly worthy of honor and praise. One might say that a magnanimous person is even somewhat driven by achievement in great things, and does not eschew honor as a motivation for doing so.

However, the magnanimous person is not concerned with petty matters, whether it be petty honors and praise (flattery), petty gossip, or revenge for petty wrongs done. The magnanimous person is somewhat above it all and quick to forgive. The magnanimous person is quick to assist one worthy of receiving assistance, but reluctant to ask for favors (where the generosity synonym likely derives from). The magnanimous person is honest in all matters, hiding nothing, as he is not concerned that being too honest might actually harm them in some way. The magnanimous person does not covet admiration of others but in turn does not admire much, save the truly great and magnificent.

There are other essential elements that Aristotle discusses, but the point is that this is far more expansive than a singular meaning of generosity. In fact, one may perceive some form of internal conflict and think that this definition of magnanimous steers disconcertingly far away from what we tend to correlate with generosity, which is the virtue of humility. One modern translation of Ethics, Terence Irwin, highlights this potential discord in his notes and even discusses that many Christians are uncomfortable with Aristotle’s description and find it antithetical to humility.  Echoing Irwin’s sentiments, these two virtues (humility and magnanimity) are not out of alignment in my view. Recall that the magnanimous person only receives honors that are truly worthy. Likewise, he gives honor and praise when it is deserved. If anything, the magnanimous person gladly accepts honors for a great action, fully recognizing that great actions are performed every so often in one’s lifetime, but otherwise is aloof and unconcerned with others’ praise. It is the vain person that seeks honor and praise for petty accomplishments. To further distinguish and define the essence of humility, I will echo C.S. Lewis that humility is not thinking less of oneself, but thinking less often or not entirely about oneself. Given that this definition provides plenty of scope for greatness and honor without veering into vanity, I believe that these virtues can live together in one great soul.

A bit of background context on Nicomachean Ethics is that it is essentially a quest to find the essence of human meaning, which he defines as achieving a form of happiness. However, this is not the hedonistic happiness we would associate the word with today, but more a form of achieving a fine life full of virtue that is worthy of living.  Much of the book defines the proper way to achieve happiness is to in fact be virtuous. There are no doubt hundreds of translations, but I find the following one that is very enjoyable to read and replete with useful notes for additional context:

http://www.amazon.com/Nicomachean-Ethics-Aristotle/dp/0872204642/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1445982542&sr=8-1&keywords=Nicomachean+Ethics Th

The book concepts are paralleled in the thoughts of Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments in which a central theme is that man desires to be esteemed and loved by his fellow-man, and that virtuous conduct is the surest way to win fellow-man’s esteem and love. In Plato’s Republic, a key critical concept is that leaders of society should be trained in the virtues in order to develop outstanding character and that only the truly great characters are fit to lead a society. I hope to draw on many of these texts and this theme in the near future as I discuss other virtues as well as apply them to the Presidential candidates.