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The Holocaust of the Mind and Heart

A good friend told me recently that a blog post I wrote was over his head. He has now, perhaps, told me why.

He asked me what my evidence was for the case I was making.

Which seemed odd, since I thought I had laid it all out pretty systematically.

So I repeated the list of literary references I had used:


His response was that he had only ever heard of one person on that list, Moses, “but never read his work.”

This, I think, says something important.

This is not a man off the street. This is a guy with two degrees, a college instructor. A college English instructor, an instructor in the Humanities. How much worse the case must be for the average Canadian or American.

Moses, of course, wrote the Bible. Or at least the first five books of it.

Moses rescued from the rushes--Dura-Europos

I think this shows we have stopped educating our rising generations in any meaningful sense. We stopped some time ago. These stories and texts used to be the entirety of our education, in terms of its content.

For good reason. These stories told us what we most needed to know.

There is no way to talk about non-physical experiences of any sort without using either metaphor or narrative or both—an “objective correlative,” as TS Eliot calls it. Like these stories.

Yet ALL of our experiences are non-physical. All of them. As Berkeley rightly pointed out.

Without this common language of symbol and myth, we can no longer communicate with each another, on anything other than a caveman level.

“Gimme meat.” “Sex now.” We can talk only about physical wants.

No wonder modern life feels increasingly empty and meaningless. No wonder there is a “spiritual catastrophe” going on, as Leonard Cohen called it. No wonder the statistics for depression and for mental illness generally are scraping the stratosphere en apparent route to infinity and beyond. No wonder America, Europe, “Western civilization,” and civilization generally (it is a mirage to suppose there is any intact civilization outside the West that might take over. They all fell earlier.) seem to be coming apart. No wonder we can no longer talk to one another, but only swing our fists. Even in the bedroom, between men and women.

This is where it began.

People have solid grounds, of course, for thinking studying literature, myth, religion, philosophy, and history is a waste of time. There are no jobs to be had there.

But this is tautological: there are no jobs there, any more, because nobody any longer values myth, literature, religion, philosophy, and history. There is not even any puzzle here involving chickens and eggs: the devaluation had to come first, and then there were no jobs.

Granted, these stories may not give you much practical help currently in finding or even performing a job.

But a job is not much good when everything else is falling apart; especially if you are psychotic, drug addicted, and hopelessly alone. You may not be making it in for work anyway.

And those jobs that need have nothing to do with the Humanities are exactly those jobs that are easily replaced by a machine. And that is already happening, rapidly.

I am not talking here of the “Western canon.” “Western” is a red herring. We would do as well to study the Vedas, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Confucian classics and those two vast literatures, of India and China. (I do not speak here of the Quran and Muslim literature, because it is already a part of the larger West). In fact, we really should study them all. But the same myth motifs and plots tend to be found all over the world. So do the same philosophical issues, and the same philosophical positions.

Dragons are in folk tales everywhere.

Besides giving us a common language of narrative, allusion, and metaphor, so that we can communicate our own thoughts and feelings to one another, necessarily, most of the best thinking of the past ten thousand years or more have been expressed in this language of myth and story.

If we do not know or understand it, all of that is lost.

This is, taken together, the myths, the stories, the fairy tales, the philosophy, the recorded history, the literature, the rock upon which all civilization is built. It is what our passage through the cosmos on this strange round rock has been about, as sentient beings.

You don’t think anyone figured out anything important or useful in those thousands of years?

You think it is better to smash all the statues, forget it all and start again from scratch?

Clearly, many people do.

These are what is properly known as bad people.

And this impulse seems to be deep within the culture now. My friend’s protest that he could not understand in the end still seems odd. He did not really need to know any of these characters or their stories. I had not been relying on allusion: I think I had given the relevant details when I referred to them.

It was as if he saw a myth or a word from literature or history, and a lamp in his mind at once went off.

There is worse. When I noted that the typical fairy tale involved a wicked parent or step-parent, my friend queried this. He said he could think of only one example, Cinderella.

I would have thought that Disney had preserved at least a decent selection of the traditional fairy stories. Perhaps, however, they pass over us in flickers of light and are forgotten, as the typical movie seems to be. It is only a few hours entertainment, and in most cases we cannot remember much about them a few days later. Eye candy, but leaving nothing to ponder about.

Fairy tales do not belong in that medium. They were orally transmitted for unknown generations. This means they were composed to be memorized, contemplated, thought about in our solitude and leisure.

Here is the list I offered him, more or less off the top of my head, of familiar fairy tales that seem to include some version of the theme of a wicked parent.

Briar Rose

How many of them do you know well enough that you could retell the basic story to your child? This, after all, is the medium, memory and oral transmission and retelling, for which they were intended.

Snow White
Hansel and Gretel
Little Red Riding Hood
Cupid and Psyche
Puss in Boots
The Ugly Duckling
Dick Whittington and his Cat
The Gingerbread Man
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
The Little Match Girl
The Musicians of Bremen
Sleeping Beauty (Disney version of Briar Rose)
Briar Rose (Grimm version)
Beauty and the Beast

Perhaps it was here, in the nursery, where the holocaust began. This is when and how we began seeing ourselves and other people as objects.

Steve Jobs on School Choice

He gives a good argument for ending the government schools monopoly:


Here's a great web site to work on your reading skills:

And their new site,…

You can read a graded passage on a subject of interest, review new vocabulary, then take a comprehension quiz online.

Here is a great resource: you can search song lyrics by word or phrase. A great way to find songs to teach vocabulary or pronunciation.

Coming: Cheap (not Free) College Online

Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, believes college, now almost prohibitively expensive, will soon be free online.

I do not think he is entirely right. His vision calls, for example, for a suspension of all copyright for online education materials. This is a non-starter. It expects everyone to work for free. Not right, and not going to happen. Some may choose, as they can now, to offer their work for free under Creative Commons License.

He also writes “you need some form of accreditation.” I think he overlooks the obvious path. In the future, I suspect, name institutions like Harvard will be limited to creating evaluation procedures. Where you acquire the knowledge is wide open. The university simply certifies that you have it.

But his basic point is correct. It is true right now, at this moment, that online teaching platforms are more flexible, allow better experiences, than classrooms do. At a small fraction of the cost, when you calculate in the need for students to move and cover living expenses.

The Growing Problem of Foreigners Not Knowing How to Think

German (left) versus Chinese techniques of exptressing an opinion, graphically illustrated. More at bsix12

Recently, I attended a conference for English teachers, and a talk on the need to “teach our students critical thinking skills.” This is a growing movement within EFL (English as a Foreign Language). And it is alarming.

We are not talking here, note, about grade school kids, or high school kids. These are college and university students.

Can we assume that these students really “do not know how to think critically”? Isn’t there an obvious danger that what we are really seeing, given the EFL context, is a tendency to think in ways unfamiliar to us EFL teachers as Westerners? Isn’t it racist, flat-out racist, to assume that we are the experts on “how to think,” apparently on no better grounds than that we Westerners?

But let’s suppose the students—EFL students everywhere, apparently-- genuinely do not know how to think. Should we, as English teachers, be telling them? If the average university student “does not know how to think,” on what grounds can we assume that the average English teacher does? We have no qualifications, and have never been tested ourselves, in the subject. How much do we really know about formal logic, logical fallacies, formal debate procedure, and the syllogism? You want someone with qualifications to teach you how to think clearly and incisively, you want a philosophy grad, not an English major.

Finally, where do we get off deciding what the students need to know? Our students have signed up to learn English. That’s what we tell them we are here to do, and that is what they are paying for. Where do we get the right to instead make them spend their time “learning how to think” as we would like?

German versus Chinese approach to problem-solving.
This is symptomatic of a larger problem we face in the EFL field. In the normal course of things, as the EFL field has grown, it is universities and linguistics departments in English-speaking countries have set themselves up as the "experts" to train aspirants for this "profession." With the trainers being the resident instructors there.

This means that those who are training people for careers in EFL either 1) have not themselves ever taught abroad, or, 2) if they have, have decided they would rather return home. In other words, they are self-selected for not being good at dealing with foreign cultures.

Among other problems, this bias means that the standard TEFL/TESOL training ignores altogether the one most important issue faced by people in the field: how to deal with a foreign culture.

Nor, catastrophically, do they learn anything about comparative lingustics, because their trainers know nothing about it. Asa result, the field tends to treat EFL students as though they have never previously known any other language; as if before they started learning English they could not read or write.Besides being terribly insulting, this means we spend a huge amount of time--about half of all class time, by my reckoning--"teaching" EFL students things they already know from their first language: skimming and scanning a reading passage, composing a paragraph, listening for details, and so forth. At the same time, we ignore any issues that are likely to cause them special problems: things like the difference in how tone is used in Chinese and in English. To teach at all efficiently, any teacher of EFL should have a basic knowledge of their likely students' first language--training should involve at leasto ne course in comparative linguistics. This need not require all the heavy lifting of vocabulary aquisition. But they should know the basics: word order, how stress is used, what phonemes are available, and so forth.

Ultimately, the solution is simple: TESOL training should be offered and taken, by native speakers, but at universities in non-English-speaking countries. Nor would this be difficult to do: the expence of moving abroad could be more than offset by the cheaper cost of living while studying in a country like Cambodia or Costa Rica.

Lyrics Training