Monthly Archives: November 2017

the absurdity of racial categorizations (a glaring example)

 

 

“Race is a construct, not a real thing.” — Luanne Castle, “Memoir and the Construct of Race”

blog post, January 2018

Memoir and the Construct of Race

 

 

 

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In a previous blog post

 

“this isn’t racism?”

https://rogersgleanings.com/2017/09/03/this-isnt-racism/

 

I wrote:

… what is white, anyway, and what is black? When it comes to racial categories, that is.

Whites are not really white and blacks are not really black. Were my skin white, I would probably scare a lot of people. … There is such diversity in ethic groupings that it seems nonsensical to me to sort them into ironclad groupings. The groupings were made up by someone or other who manufactured them out of thin air, bureaucrats; they ignore many ethnic groups and sort them almost willy-nilly.

 

 

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Consider the following news item about Prince Harry’s new fiancée, Meghan Markle.

 

She was born Rachel Meghan Markle in Los Angeles in 1981 to a white father and black mother.

Her parents — lighting director Thomas Markle and clinical therapist Doria Ragland — divorced when she was 6, but she has said they remain a close-knit family. …

In an essay written for Elle magazine in 2015, Markle discussed coming to terms with her racial identity and how conflicted she felt in seventh grade when forced to check a box indicating her ethnicity.

“You could only choose one, but that would be to choose one parent over the other — and one half of myself over the other. My teacher told me to check the box for Caucasian. ‘Because that’s how you look, Meghan,’ she said,” Markle wrote.

“I couldn’t bring myself to do that, to picture the pit-in-her-belly sadness my mother would feel if she were to find out. So, I didn’t tick a box.”

When she came home, her dad said, “If that happens again, you draw your own box.”

 

“How Meghan Markle went from minor celebrity to English royalty,” by Danika Fears, The New York Post, November 28, 2017

 

 

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To me, this story is indicative of the absurdity and the harm done by the present system of racial categorization, and racial categories, existing in the United States.

 

— Roger W. Smith

  November 2017; updated January 2018

 

 

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Addendum: I have been thinking about this some more.

Ms. Markle’s seventh grade teacher told her that she looked Caucasian, so she should check the box for white.

All of the news accounts of her and Prince Harry’s engagement noted that she was of “mixed race.”

I know what this is supposed to mean, but aren’t almost all humans a  blend, genetically speaking, of races and ancestors? Someone might say, echoing Orwell, that some are more mixed than others. But how about all the mixing of races and ethnicities from different nations and continents? If Prince Harry were engaged, say, to a woman with an American father and an Asian mother, would the press have taken much note of it?

The government and many institutions such as colleges  and universities think race is important. They require it to be designated on census forms, applications, and such. How is one to keep track of it all? Should everyone be required to submit the results of an Ancestry.com DNA test?

 

 

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Addendum: See also

“It’s time the Census Bureau stops dividing America”

by Ward Connerly and Mike Gonzalez

The Washington Post

January 3, 2018

 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/its-time-the-census-bureau-stops-dividing-america/2018/01/03/a914a176-f0af-11e7-97bf-bba379b809ab_story.html

code words

 

 

 

 

Friends Academy ad

 

 

 

Advertisement

Sunday Review section

The New York Times

November 26, 2017

pg. 6

 

 

Friends Academy

Locust Valley, Long Island, NY

Quaker, Co-Educational, Independent Day School

For ages 3 through twelfth grade.

 

 

EDUCATORS OF COLOR

Open House

Please join us for this special event.

 

 

Friends Academy is hosting an Educators of Color Open House for educators of color interested in teaching at our school and learning more about independent schools.

 

 

Bring your resume!

 

 

 

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In the now distant past, our Polish nanny had completed several years of employment with my wife and me. She wanted to continue working in the US as a nanny. To help her, we offered to place and pay for an employment wanted advertisement in the New York Times classifieds section.

I wrote the ad, which said something like “Experienced European nanny seeking a position in Manhattan. References provided.”

The Times classified section contacted me by telephone and said that the ad was not acceptable as worded. Not only ethnicity but also country of origin could not be specified in such an ad, the rationale for this stipulation being that any hint of ethnicity or race was prohibited. (European might be an indirect way of saying “white.”) This was a newly implemented policy at the time. I understood this and found it reasonable. I removed the word “European” from the ad.

I don’t like the term “people of color.” It is too vague a term for me. It’s an invented word functioning as a sort of code word, meaning that there are more commonly used words available. I might ask, “What color?” And, with reference to this ad, does this mean that white people are not invited to this open house (since white is a color)? I am being facetious. It is clear that they are not.

A question. This sort of thing has often occurred to me. What if I were responsible for recruitment of teachers at a fancy prep school where I was an administrator? What if I wrote an advertisement saying something like, “An open house for White Anglo Saxon Protestant educators interested in teaching at our school will be held on _______.” Do you think that The New York Times would print it, and should such an advertisement be published,  do you think anyone might object?

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   November 2017

Sic semper tyrannis

 

 

Have you noticed? On cable news stations now, it’s all Trump, all the time.

Trump and his administration should be covered closely and his actions, statements, and claims scrutinized.

But, in my humble opinion, it’s way too much. It’s as if there were nothing else to talk about. It almost seems addictive or unhealthy, like compulsive snacking.

Isn’t there anything else important?

 

 

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I started thinking about the Mueller probe. It is entering a new phase, with the special counsel announcing three indictments at the end of last month — including the indictment of Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Investigators are interviewing people close to the president’s inner circle.

And running through my mind thoughts about how this might be viewed in comparison with past investigations and scandals.

For instance, Watergate. I devoured each morsel of news that was divulged, piece by piece, as members of the Nixon administration and Nixon himself got ensnared in the scandal. As Nixon’s lies were shown to be lies.

As Nixon’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler, dismissed the first report of the break-in at the Watergate Hotel as a “third rate burglary attempt” and then, as the investigation into Watergate deepened, admitted that his previous statements had become “inoperative.” (Shades of false claims made by White House press secretary Sean Spicer and what Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway said, in defending Spicer, about “alternative facts.”)

I hated Nixon, thought he was a crook. The consummate practitioner of political dirty tricks: he and his administration. I not only felt that Nixon deserved to be impeached, I couldn’t wait to see it happen. If it could be brought about. Because it was, until the very end, by no means certain. To bring down a president who had been reelected in 1972 by the widest margin in popular votes of any US presidential election.

But, I see now in hindsight that the reason Nixon was forced to resign (facing impeachment) was that enough people — especially the establishment — didn’t LIKE him. The establishment turned against him and, ultimately, the diehards in his own party did.

The Watergate affair began with the arrest of five men for breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in June 1972. The actual damage done by the break-in was negligible. But, the deepening scandal revealed a pattern of abuses of power by the Nixon administration and a subsequent cover up.

In the case of the Mueller probe, the proximate cause that has led to an inquiry was Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and the Trump campaign’s involvement in it. Again, the damage done does not seem serious enough to bring down an entire administration.

 

 

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So, what causes leaders to lose power?

Most will say, perhaps rightly: ABUSES of power.

But, I would say: With all the committee hearings and all the twists and turns. With the probes designed to trap and ensnare officials in their own lies, like someone all twisted up in a coat they’re trying to take off. That leaders lose power when they fall out of favor. When not enough people support them any longer. When they are considered, perhaps, as pariahs: an embarrassment or offensive to good taste. When the establishment doesn’t support them. It has been this way since ancient times.

If they lose support, it is only a matter of time before they’re gone. They and their administration will collapse like Humpty Dumpty or a house of cards. All sorts of investigative probes and hearings and rationales will be held and advanced to justify to the public’s satisfaction, and to provide a supposedly legal foundation for, the removal of the officeholder. But what really counts is whether the leader is still liked. By the RIGHT PEOPLE.

 

 

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What is really going on with the Mueller probe is the following: A lot of people, including practically the entire liberal elite, want to see Trump gone. By any means. For and using any reason. The probe and the committee hearings are a sort of play acting, a choreographed dress rehearsal for what they hope will be the president’s downfall.

The Watergate hearings: Senator Sam Ervin, Samuel Dash. Great political theater.

President Nixon: an anathema to the liberal establishment.

Donald Trump: a bull in a China shop, darling of the “deplorables.”

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   November 2017

Mrs Miniver

 

 

I recently saw the American film (which I had always assumed, mistakenly, was English) Mrs Miniver (1942) on television. I have seen it many times.

The film, as described in a Wikipedia entry, “shows how the life of an unassuming British housewife in rural England is touched by World War II.”

Kay Miniver (Greer Garson) and her family live a comfortable life at a house called “Starlings” in Belham, a fictional village outside London. The house has a large garden, with a private landing stage on the River Thames at which is moored a motorboat belonging to her devoted husband, Clem (Walter Pidgeon), a successful architect.

As World War II looms, their son Vin (the oldest of three children) returns from the university. As the war comes closer to home, Vin feels he must “do his bit” and enlists in the Royal Air Force, qualifying as a fighter pilot.

Together with other boat owners, Clem Miniver (Walter Pigeon) volunteers to take his motorboat, the Starling, to assist in the Dunkirk evacuation.

Early one morning, Kay, unable to sleep as Clem is still away, wanders down to the landing stage. She is startled to discover a wounded German pilot hiding in her garden, and he takes her to the house at gunpoint. Demanding food and a coat, the pilot aggressively asserts that the Third Reich will mercilessly overcome its enemies. She feeds him, calmly disarms him when he collapses, and then calls the police.

Soon after, Clem returns home, exhausted, from Dunkirk.

Later, Kay Miniver and her family take refuge in a shelter during an air raid, and attempt to keep their minds off the frightening bombing by reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which Clem refers to as a “lovely story” as they barely survive as a bomb destroys parts of the house. They take the damage with nonchalance.

At the end of the film, villagers assemble at the badly damaged church where their vicar affirms their determination in a powerful sermon:

We in this quiet corner of England have suffered the loss of friends very dear to us, some close to this church. … The homes of many of us have been destroyed, and the lives of young and old have been taken. There’s scarcely a household that hasn’t been struck to the heart. And why? Surely you must have asked yourselves this question? Why in all conscience should these be the ones to suffer? Children, old people, a young girl at the height of her loveliness? Why these? Are these our soldiers? Are these our fighters? Why should they be sacrificed?

I shall tell you why. Because this is not only a war of soldiers in uniform. It is the war of the people, of all the people. And it must be fought not only on the battlefield but in the cities and in the villages, in the factories and on the farms, in the home and in the heart of every man, woman and child who loves freedom. Well, we have buried our dead, but we shall not forget them. Instead they will inspire us with an unbreakable determination to free ourselves, and those who come after us, from the tyranny and terror that threaten to strike us down. This is the People’s War. It is our war. We are the fighters. Fight it then. Fight it with all that is in us. And may God defend the right.

The members of the congregation rise and stoically sing “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” while through a gaping hole in the bombed church roof can be seen flight after flight of RAF fighters in the V-for-Victory formation heading out to face the enemy.

Wikipedia

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mrs._Miniver

 

 

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It’s one of my favorite films. I love the slow, deliberate, unfrenetic pace; the feeling of another time; the nostalgia and the pathos. (And the lack of blood and guts seen in films such as Saving Private Ryan, which I hated.)

I can relate to the ethos and the decency of the characters; their values.

Does that make me a retrograde snob? Perhaps it does. Well then, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, I’m an atavistic elitist.

Scenes I love:

When the stationmaster wins first prize at a local fair for his rose and they all sing “for he’s a jolly good fellow!” Warms the soul.

Walter Pigeon with his quiet dignity and his pipe almost perpetually in his mouth.

Greer Garson: so beautiful, the perfect mother. Quiet; caring, understanding and sympathetic; yet no shrinking violet. Reminds me of my own mother in looks and personality.

When Clem Miniver and his fellow boat owners row off, silently, in the stillness of the night, in darkness, to assist in the Dunkirk evacuation. It’s a beautiful scene made effective by silence. Boats being rowed. No engines. Stealing off, as it were.

The Anglican church services. The hymns. Reminds me of hymn singing in church when I was growing up. (When I was simply experiencing the rousing music and was too young to be evaluating it or attempting to deconstruct religion.) “Onward Christian Soldiers,” sung by the congregation in the film, sends shivers up my spine.

The sermons given by the Anglican minister. His words. Eloquent. Beautifully expressed. The last church service shown in the film, at the conclusion, in a church with a roof with a big hole in it from German air raids, concludes (the scene, that is) with Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance.”

There is one scene I don’t like: when the German pilot is discovered hiding in the Minivers’s garden. He’s a stock figure, a fanatical Nazi. The scene is contrived.

The film is propagandistic. But, while there is pathos, it is not melodramatic. And, the people ring true. That’s what I like most about it.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   November 2017

 

 

 

unnamed.jpg

my mother

 

 

 

 

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Addendum:

 

“Mrs Miniver: The film that Goebbels feared”

by Fiona Macdonald

bbc.com

9 February 2015

http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20150209-the-film-that-goebbels-feared

 

 

“We will come. We will bomb your cities.” So bristles a character in the film Mrs Miniver. A German pilot who had been shot down in the chocolate box English village of Belham, he momentarily brings the horrors of World War II to what is largely a domestic drama.

… Adapting the original treatment, [director William] Wyler changed the character of the German pilot from that of a sympathetic victim of war to someone much more aggressive. Thomson tells Gambaccini: “Wyler took it upon himself to toughen that character up in the scripting and the shooting – and in fact he really turns into a Nazi. The story goes that Louis B Mayer… was alarmed when he saw this footage… Wyler is reputed to have said ‘Mr Mayer, do you know what’s going on — this man is a shadow of the nastiness that’s going on there’.”

 

“I hear and behold God in every object”

 

 

I hear and behold God in every object, yet I understand God not in the least,

Nor do I understand who can ever be more wonderful than myself.

 

— Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

 

 

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I am not sure how the last part of the assertions made by Whitman might apply to me. But, I felt the truth of what he says about God’s presence everywhere during a day long ramble yesterday on Staten Island.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   November 26, 2017

 

 

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SI 1

 

 

 

 

IMG_1514.jpg

 

 

 

SI 2

 

 

 

SI 3.JPG

 

 

photographs by Roger W. Smith

Jean Renoir

 

 

In a previous post of mine

 

“on aesthetic and cultural appreciation of literature and film; my favorite directors”

https://rogersgleanings.com/2017/09/15/on-aesthetic-and-cultural-appreciation-of-literature-and-film-my-favorite-directors/

 

I discussed two of my favorite directors: Yasujirō Ozu and Robert Bresson.

I would like to add a third name: Jean Renoir. Renoir is better known than Bresson and certainly Ozu.

 

 

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Son of the impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Jean Renoir (1894-1979) was a French film director, screenwriter, actor, producer and author. He made more than forty films from the silent era to the end of the 1960’s. La Grande Illusion (The Grand Illusion, 1937) and La Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939) are his best known films.

Other films of Renoir which I have seen are La Chienne (The Bitch); Boudu sauvé des eaux (Boudu Saved From Drowning); The Southerner (1945), one of Renoir’s American films, which I saw at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; and The River (1951), Renoir’s first color film, which was shot in India and is based on the novel of the same name by Rumer Godden.

 

 

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The River is my favorite Renoir film; I have seen it many times over. It is a coming of age story of three young girls in colonial India. I love the cinematography, the local color, and the music. The soon to become famous (and marvelous) Indian director Satyajit Ray was an assistant on the film.

Rumer Godden (1907-1998) was a prolific English author who grew up with her three sisters in Narayanganj, colonial India (now in Bangladesh). Her father was a shipping company executive. The film is true to these biographical facts. It beautifully portrays female adolescence, about which I would ordinarily have little insight or understanding. As compelling as the film is, I had the experience of reading the novel (being motivated to do so by the film) and, though it was well written, I had trouble understanding parts of it.

From the opening notes of the film, you feel like you are in another place (India), another culture, another time (colonial India in the 1920’s). You are immediately caught up in it. The film has a sweep, dramatic pace, and compelling details of plot, setting, and character that keep the viewer riveted. The music is outstanding.

A Wikipedia entry states:

 

A number of Godden’s novels are set in India, the atmosphere of which she evokes through all the senses; her writing is vivid with detail of smells, textures, light, flowers, noises and tactile experiences. … Her plots often involve unusual young people not recognized for their talents by ordinary lower or middle-class people but supported by the educated, rich, and upper-class, to the anger, resentment, and puzzlement of their relatives.

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rumer_Godden

 

 

This is on target and accurate. Godden collaborated on the screenplay for the film.

 

 

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This past week, I had the opportunity to see, for the first time, one of Renoir’s best films, Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (The Crime of Monsieur Lange, 1935), in a newly restored print, shown at the Film Forum in New York. It’s a wonderful film, one of Renoir’s best, I feel. In fact, I would say that it is more “modest” than La Grande Illusion and La Règle du Jeu, and I liked it better. Le Crime de Monsieur Lange is based on story by Jean Castanier that was adapted for screen by the well-known French writer Jacques Prévert.

Watching the film reminded me what I like most about Renoir:

— wonderful characters; so many of them all together “on stage” at the same time joshing and jabbering and interacting in all sorts of ways, often trying to one up/get the best of one another; flirting, boasting, conning another. Funny, authentic, original, they keep popping up, doing something whacky, touching, or inimitable, or saying something piquant; and returning a minute or two later

— it’s wonderful to hear them speaking French

— the characters are completely individual and inimitable; so idiosyncratic; Renoir exhibits a love of humanity in all its imperfectness and wonderful individuality

That’s what I like best about Renoir: his apparent love of people with all their foibles (as well as Paris). At the end of Le Crime de Monsieur Lange. … (Well, I won’t spoil the plot.) As in the Japanese director Ozu’s marvelous films, Renoir’s characters seem to be REAL; they don’t seem to be actors or to be acting. It’s hard to believe that they are not the same persons as the characters they represent.

Compare Hollywood. Is there, was there ever, such a Hollywood actor?

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   November 2017

Roger W. Smith, piano lover; Rudolf Serkin; my stereo; the Oak Crest Inn

 

 

 

On November 22, I saw a solo piano concert by Sachiko Furuhata-Kersting at Carnegie Hall. Her program consisted of:

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 2 (“Moonlight”)

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 21 in C Major Op. 53 (“Waldstein”)

Schumann’s Fantasy in C Major, Op. 17

Chopin’s famous Scherzo No. 2 in B Minor, Op. 31

 

I have a particular fondness for the first two pieces, especially the “Moonlight” sonata (though I love the “Waldstein” sonata too, especially the third movement).

 

 

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The “Moonlight” sonata has a unique structure, as is explained in a Wikipedia entry:

Although no direct testimony exists as to the specific reasons why Beethoven decided to title both the Op. 27 works as Sonata quasi una fantasia, it may be significant that the layout of the present work does not follow the traditional movement arrangement in the Classical period of fast–slow–[fast]–fast. Instead, the sonata possesses an end-weighted trajectory, with the rapid music held off until the third movement. In his analysis, German critic Paul Bekker states: “The opening sonata-allegro movement gave the work a definite character from the beginning… which succeeding movements could supplement but not change. Beethoven rebelled against this determinative quality in the first movement. He wanted a prelude, an introduction, not a proposition.”’

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piano_Sonata_No._14_(Beethoven)#Form

 

 

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I thought it was a splendid performance, though it seemed to me that Ms. Furuhata-Kersting could have played the second movement of the “Moonlight” sonata (marked Allegretto) a tad more softly.

I was hoping there might be a review of the performance. I was dazzled by her keyboard technique, but I am no expert when it comes to performance mechanics and performance styles. I only know, insofar as I know anything, what I experience as a listener.

Nevertheless, I was thinking about the piano as an instrument, why I love it, what seems to make it so compelling and powerful as a solo instrument. I was thinking about the following:

— it is played with TWO HANDS, which can play off against one other. This is key. It must be incredibly difficult for a pianist to develop the ability to do this;

— it’s a percussive instrument. The keys make the hammer strike with such force. You get hammering sounds, banging sounds. You also get soft, tinkling sounds. It’s hard to fall asleep!

There is such richness and variety of sound in one instrument, such emotional range. (I am speaking simply as a non-specialist listener.)

To hear such things, you almost have to hear a live performance. I was reminded of this when hearing what was Ms. Furuhata-Kersting’s debut Carnegie Hall performance.

 

 

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I couldn’t help but think — as is the case with me and everyone else when it comes to music ranging from classical to pop, it seems — of the circumstances under which I first heard the “Moonlight” sonata. I had just begun to become a full-fledged classical musical lover.

It was the summer of 1964. My parents had bought me a portable stereo as a present upon my high school graduation. It seemed like such wonderful gift. I took the stereo with me to Cape Cod, where I had gotten my first ever paid employment, a summer job as a night watchman and night clerk at the Oak Crest Inn in Falmouth Heights, Massachusetts, a ramshackle summer hotel of sorts that was beginning to show its age. Rooms, if I recall correctly, were priced at four or five dollars a night. The owner, one Paul Wassseth, was a would be Donald Trump. There were a couple of guests who took a room for the entire summer and got special treatment.

My hours were 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. seven days a week, at a salary of thirty-five dollars a week, plus room and board. The food was barely edible, but who was complaining? What does a teenager know about diet or cuisine? I actually liked the job. In the morning, I would eat breakfast, cooked by the crusty old cook Leo (who used to delight in making off color remarks and dirty jokes at the waitresses’ expense), with the hotel staff (all female, other than myself and Leo, consisting of waitresses and chambermaids) just reporting for work. Then I would go upstairs to my “bedchamber,” a tiny little room of sorts in an attic that you could barely fit into to. I would crawl into bed and sleep for only a few hours, then get up and go to the beach.

I would fall asleep in the early morning (post breakfast) listening to my precious new stereo. Often, I would play an LP with a performance by Rudolf Serkin of Beethoven’s “Moonlight,” “Pathétique,” and “Appasionata” sonatas.’

I have never forgotten Serkin’s performances, and still prefer them to all others.

 

 

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A final note that may seem trivial. When Ms. Furuhata-Kersting came out to play a second encore, someone approached the stage and handed her a bouquet. She put the bouquet at her feet, sat down at the piano bench, and began to play. I would have probably have done more or less the same thing, and have done sillier things often in similar situations. People have called me inattentive, so that I will forget (or neglect) to tie my shoes or put something down in an odd place in public and forget that I put it there — as if I seem at times to be at sea. I plead guilty. To her, the important thing was the music. Who knew what to do with the bouquet?

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   November 2017

 

 

an exchange about political correctness, pedagogy, and LANGUAGE

 

 

 

A reader of a post of mine from the day before yesterday

 

“Mozart, Alexander L. Lipson, and Russian 1 with Professor Gribble”

https://rogersgleanings.com/2017/11/18/mozart-alexander-l-lipson-and-russian-1-with-professor-gribble/

 

sent me an email.

 

 

His response was complimentary. However, he did critique a few assertions I made, namely, the following:

I love studying grammar and cannot understand why modern day self-appointed language “experts,” as they style themselves, want to or simplify, essentially emasculate — in the name of political correctness or conforming to their misguided, benighted theories of how language and English composition should be taught — language instruction.

[Addendum] The 1960’s, a learned friend of mine once opined, was the Golden Era of American education. I would not dispute this. I experienced it in English and history courses, in foreign language courses, and in mathematics instruction. To get an idea of how low conceptions of foreign language pedagogy have sunk since Alexander Lipson’s time, one might take a look at the following article: “Toppling the Grammar Patriarchy,” by Carmel McCoubrey, op-ed, The New York Times, November 16, 2017

 

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The respondent to my post, a high school Latin teacher, wrote:

 

As one teaching a language today I do take issue with a couple of your assertions:

— to say the sixties was a Golden Era in American education is to assume it is now in a period of decline. Surely it is under assault (by the current administration, for starters), and educators have much to learn from successful models elsewhere (take Finland, for example). But there are many noteworthy successes that combine the best of traditional approaches with effective innovation.

— in the New York Times article to which you refer the teachers who ask for change on both philological and philosophical grounds raise important issues. To dismiss them as PC police with misguided and benighted theories is a straw-man argument. I, for example, will inform my students that 99 Roman women and one Roman man would normally be referred to as Romani, masculine gender. That is the fact. But this then invites a discussion of how ancient Roman society was patriarchal, as revealed in so many ways in their language, and what are issues with patriarchy then and today. The word virtus or “virtue” in ancient Rome meant manliness (vir = man) as shown, for example, in bravery in battle. In Victorian England virtue probably most often referred to a woman’s chastity. Gender as it pertains to language and grammar is a legitimate issue in constant need of review and revision, so while I might not agree with every position taken by the French women [discussed in the New York Times article], I respect what they are doing.

 

 

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I responded by email as follows:

 

I guess we have to agree to disagree.

I do appreciate that you read my blog post and took the time to respond and critique it.

I respect your opinions and how you present them.

My view is that

— critiquing current trends such as political correctness does not necessarily imply faulty thinking or a straw man

— languages and their grammars are organic — the product of a long evolution — and should not be messed with

— educational standards have declined out of a zeal to make the curriculum “inclusive” and palatable to all … you can see it in English and writing classes, math, social studies, etc.

I realize that you are a foreign language teacher with impressive academic credentials. It seems that you have surpassed me in the study of foreign languages and knowledge of linguistics.

Still, if it’s “la table” in French and “el mano” in Spanish and the “collective pronoun” in French for they is “ils,” masculine, I think things should remain that way and the language police should be shunted aside.

I don’t like change.

Languages have such complicated, intricate grammars. … I have read that this is true of languages of unlettered, supposedly “primitive” civilizations such as the Iroquois family of languages (which I read about in a classic work by Lewis Henry Morgan) … they are exquisite structures that should inspire reverence as the study of plants would.

To mess with languages to me is equivalent to uprooting a stately old oak tree and trying to “treat” it chemically to produce nicer foliage after being replanted.

 

— Roger W. Smith
 
  November 20, 2017

 

 

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See also:

 

“will ‘ladies and gentlemen’ go the way of the dodo?”

https://rogersgleanings.com/2017/11/13/will-ladies-and-gentlemen-go-the-way-of-the-dodo/

“try and catch me!”

 

 

I was walking in Central Park at 11 a.m. today.

A blustery day.

There was a girl about age 8 or 9 running with head down and long blonde hair blowing in the wind, on the pathway leading to the Fifth Avenue and 69th Street exit, shouting over and over again in a high pitched voice to her father, who was walking a few paces behind: “try and catch me!”

To be young. How I loved to play Hide and Seek.

 

 

– Roger W. Smith

October 19, 2017

Mozart, Alexander L. Lipson, and Russian 1 with Professor Gribble

 

 

On Thursday, November 16, 2017, I heard a performance at Carnegie Hall of Mozart’s String Quartet No. 16 in E-flat major, K. 428 by the Tetzlaff Quartet. Mozart’s K. 428 is one of his Haydn Quartets, a set of six string quartets that he dedicated to Joseph Haydn.

It is a flawless work. It exemplifies Mozart’s genius. It also brought to mind a sentence in my first-year Russian textbook — written by a famed Slavicist and foreign language teacher, Alexander L. Lipson — which was as follows: “Как и Моцарт, Пушкин написал только шедевры” (Kak i Motsart, Pushkin napisal tol’ko shedevry. Like Mozart, Pushkin wrote only masterpieces.)

The Russian word for masterpieces, shedevry, is the same as and is derived from the French. (Makes me think of the French used by the aristocracy in War and Peace.)

The Mozart piece brought to mind the comparison between Mozart and Pushkin made in the textbook from my college Russian course, and the course itself.

 

 

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I was eager and thrilled to be able to take introductory Russian in my sophomore year at Brandeis University. The course was taught by Charles E. Gribble. Professor Gribble, who held a doctorate from Harvard, began his teaching career at Brandeis. When I took the course with him, he was in his late twenties. At that time, Professor Gribble was in the preliminary phase of founding an important publishing house for Slavicists: Slavica Publishers. He was the firm’s editor for thirty years.

I was motivated to study Russian for several reasons:

I had discovered the works of the Russian émigré scholar Pitirim A. Sorokin in my senior year in high school. I was totally engrossed in books of his such as Leaves from a Russian Diary. This led to a fascination on my part with Russian culture.

At the time, the Soviet Union was regarded with outright hostility, fear, and suspicion. Being by nature a contrarian, I tended to think differently. Politics aside, I saw, as did Sorokin (to quote from one of his works), “an essential similarity or congeniality in a number of important psychological, cultural, and social values” between the USA and the USSR: vast territories with all that implies (such as various climates, topography, and regional characteristics); rich natural and human resources; major cultural and urban centers; the fact that both countries were world powers; and so on. I was a sort of Slavophil without knowing it.

Russia as I imagined it was a country with vast expanses like us and a multiplicity of nationalities and ethnic groups and with a rich, continually growing culture, including Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (whom at this stage of my educational development I had not yet read) and composers such as Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich (whose works I had already become acquainted with and admired — in fact, Shostakovich’s fifth symphony almost in and of its itself made me a Slavophil). Just like America, Russia was huge, diverse, all encompassing, culturally fertile; and with a vibrant economy. And, I felt intuitively, a rich language.

 

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My previous language study had consisted of a year or two of French in junior high school (a complete waste); four years of high school French, on the basis of which I was placed into third year French at Brandeis University; and two years of high school Latin. Romance languages.

It was a thrill for me to be studying a Slavic language and one with a different alphabet.

Learning the Cyrillic alphabet, in both cursive and print form, was a stumbling block for me, a hurdle to be overcome. It often felt like I was back in the first grade learning my letters and being taught to sound out words phonetically.

Our professor, Charles Gribble, knew the author of the textbook we used, Alexander Lipson, personally. Lipson taught at either MIT or Harvard; I forget which.

Lipson’s first year Russian textbook was in developmental form; it hadn’t yet been published. It consisted of pages that had been copied and bound, but not in book form. Without covers.

It was a clever and entertaining text, besides being well conceived from a pedagogical standpoint.

I was fascinated to find that Russian had cases — six of them — like Latin. (I love studying grammar and cannot understand why modern day self-appointed language “experts,” as they style themselves, want to emend or simplify, essentially emasculate — in the name of political correctness or conforming to their misguided, benighted theories of how language and English composition should be taught — language instruction. See Addendum below.)

 

 

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The genitive case (possessive) in Russia was introduced early, as follows. There would be an entertaining reading with a lot of words ending in –ого (-ogo), indicating the Russian form for a noun such as doctor’s used in a phrase such as “the doctor’s office.” Even Russian proper nouns have a possessive form, so that “Tolstoy’s house” becomes “Дом Толстого” (dom Tolstogo).

In the next or a subsequent chapter of Lipson’s textbook, the genitive case and its usage and endings would be formally introduced and explained. Since one already had a rudimentary familiarity with it in the previously encountered reading, one assimilated the grammar point with ease. This is sound pedagogy. It’s how we learn the grammar of our native language.

 

 

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Despite being motivated, I had difficulty with the course.

Some of the students had already taken Russian in high school, which, in the case of a language like Russian with a steep learning curve, put me at a competitive disadvantage, so to speak.

Nevertheless, I persisted. I tried very hard. I spent hours in the language lab, but — despite my best efforts — I always seemed to be a couple of lessons behind the rest of the class.

Professor Gribble said he would take into account class attendance and effort in grading. He kept his word. I got D on practically every quiz and exam. My final grade for the 6 credit course was C.

I have always had a very high aptitude for foreign languages. In French and Latin classes in high school, I was usually (but not always) the best student in the class. The same was the case when I took Spanish as a postgraduate student at Columbia University.

So how does one account of my struggles with introductory Russian? My former therapist, Dr. Ralph Colp, Jr., had an explanation. He regarded it as a case of what one might call “learning inhibition.” When a student feels uncomfortable with the classroom setting and the instructor. This was true of my experience with Professor Gribble. Strangely enough, he was actually a good guy. I went to a web site containing his obituary at

https://slavic.osu.edu/news/memoriam-charles-edward-gribble-1936-2016

and it was clear that this was the case. (The obituary mentions his concern for and rapport with students.) In the following year (I did not enroll for second year Russian), I would occasionally run into Professor Gribble in the snack bar. He was always pleasant and seemed interested in how I was doing.

 

 

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Alexander Lipson died in 1980 at the age of fifty-one. He was the author of a three part textbook, A Russian Course, which in its prototype/preliminary form, we had used as our text in Professor Gribble’s course.

In a review published in The Slavic and East European Journal of the book Alexander Lipson in Memoriam (1994), Catherine V. Chvany refers to Lipson as follows:

… language pedagogue extraordinaire, maverick entrepreneur, linguist’s linguist, travel tour designer, and enfant terrible. Though Lipson never completed his own Ph.D., members of his now gray-haired cohort have claimed in my hearing they learned more from Alex Lipson — about language, about Slavic, and about teaching — than from any of their professors.

She also notes “Lipson’s broad interests [which reflected] Lipson’s profound if irreverent knowledge of Russian literature and culture.” One could sense this in the text of his we used, which was much more fun and informative than most language textbooks. And, often, downright funny.

For instance, I will never forget how Chapter One began:

Хулиганы сидят в парке весь день и курят. (Khuligany sidyat v parke ves’ den’ i kuryat; Hooligans sit in the park all day and smoke.)

This was a mockery of Soviet attitudes towards deadbeats.

Another chapter had a reading devoted to the topic of навозные мухи (navoznyye mukhi): manure flies. This was a satire on life on the Soviet колхоз (kolkhoz; collective farm). After this chapter, the Russian word for fly, муха (muka), was permanently implanted in my mind.

Then, there was the aforementioned chapter with a reading on Pushkin. It included a short poem by Pushkin, “Ты и Вы” (“Thou and “You,” 1828) that was accessible to first year students and from which I got a feeling for the enchanting musicality and the sensuality and power of Pushkin’s verse.

 

Пустое вы сердечным ты
Она, обмолвясь, заменила
И все счастливые мечты
В душе влюбленной возбудила.
Пред ней задумчиво стою,
Свести очей с нее нет силы;
И говорю ей: как вы милы!
И мыслю: как тебя люблю!

 

Pustoye “Vy” serdechnym “Ty”
Ona, obmolvyas’, zamenila
I vse schastlivyye mechty
V dushe vlyublennoy vozbudila.
Pred ney zadumchivo stoyu,
Svesti ochey s neye net sily;
I govoryu yey: kak vy mily!
I myslyu: kak tebya lyublyu!

 

She substituted,
by a chance,
For empty “you” — the gentle “thou”;
And all my happy dreams, at once,
In loving heart again resound.
In bliss and silence do I stay,
Unable to maintain my role:
“Oh, how sweet you are!” I say —
“How I love thee!” says my soul.

 

Russian — as with the French tu and vous or Spanish tu and usted — has two forms (formal and familiar) of the second person pronoun.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   November 18, 2017

 

 

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Addendum :

 

The 1960’s, a learned friend of mine once opined, was the Golden Era of American education. I would not dispute this. I experienced it in English and history courses, in foreign language courses, and in mathematics instruction. To get an idea of how low conceptions of foreign language pedagogy have sunk since Alexander Lipson’s time, one might take a look at the following article:

“Toppling the Grammar Patriarchy,” by Carmel McCoubrey, op-ed, The New York Times, November 16, 2017