Sunday, May 13, 2018

Is it time to write an Obituary for American Education?

I recently saw this on fB:

There is a lot of truth to this sentiment; in many ways it is a--certain sort of--educational failure that has brought us to this to this pass.  It is a bit preposterous to claim that those of us who deplore Trump's philosophy were educated the right way, and that we need everyone to be educated that way.  But--despite what those in our bubble tell us--the right education should be politically neutral.  People should be able to choose the decisions that will imply moral consequences.  Quite honestly, I think the education system has done a remarkably good job of leaving moral issues up to the citizens.

I was not sure how to respond to this meme, signed by a fellow whose heart is (as far as I know) in the right place.  In any case, I responded as follows:
You can't fix the education system. The constitution guarantees that. Rich families always get the education they want, which is not always good for them (and not at all good for the rest of us).  Poor families get what the rich families want us to get, and that's not good for us, either. I don't want to say that we're screwed, but ... it certainly looks that way.  Our only hope is people who were educated well in some other country, and it looks as if they don't want to come here any more, to teach our kids, now that idiots are in charge.  (It's easy to destroy something that works.)
I didn't have time to think out my response carefully, but a large part of what I said seems to hold up to scrutiny so far.  I have to think about this.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Education and Our Society

Suppose we have a young person, say Andy, who lives in a town, call it Hometown.  Hometown is a placeholder for any community.

Andy is a bright fellow.  Hometown needs lots of help.  Whatever help Hometown can get out of Andy can come from two places: Things that Hometown can persuade Andy to do for it, and Things that Andy decides to try to do, just because he wants to.

This is where education comes in.

Our early education focuses on the sorts of things Andy needs to know to be able to go about living in Hometown.  It's a combination of things that Hometown needs Andy to be able to do, not to be a nuisance, and things that Andy needs to be able to do for himself, e.g. buy stuff at the store, get a driver's license, borrow a book from the library, keep a bank account, pay his taxes.

In Middle School, Andy learns various skills he may never need, but which, if postponed, might be too late for Andy to conveniently learn.  These include skills that Andy needs to have fun: computer skills, reading skills, which are also skills in which it would be useful for a Hometown business or employer to have Andy be proficient in.  There certainly are some occupations that Andy could get into that do not require proficiency in reading or writing at the Middle School level (which are, even at this late date, better than the skills that Donald Trump has, for instance; but it doesn't take a lot to be quite a successful businessman).

Now things become interesting.  If Andy were of more than average intelligence (or even if he wasn't), he might not actually be familiar with certain pieces of information or areas of knowledge that he might be interested in.  There's just so far that you can depend on Television to supply this information, or high school, or other sources of information, given that young people don't read much these days.  Furthermore, there are additional skills in whose acquisition Andy might not be interested in, but in which he might be interested later on.  If he holds off on these, by the time he does get interested in them, it might require more effort on his part than he is willing to put in.

Unfortunately, since society has chosen to put Andy with a host of other kids in the same school, and they might all have wildly different interests, the school is forced to teach them all the same skills.  The more affluent the society, the less tolerant the kids are going to be, so that the school is obliged to sweeten the deal by making the skills training as entertaining as possible.

It used to be the case that parents would explore other avenues to encourage their kids to acquire skills that might deliver rewards later in time: deferred gratification.  There used to be special-interest clubs that kids could join: Astronomy Clubs, Business Clubs, Horticulture Clubs, Art Clubs, and so on.  But the hardworking parents of Hometown may not be aware of such things, and the overworked club leaders are getting tired of putting in a lot of work into these clubs, so Andy's intellectual needs are no longer being provided in ideal ways.

So education is a combination of things, some of which are intended to make Andy a functioning member of Hometown society, and a useful citizen at a low level, and employable at a moderate level.  Some aspects of education are intended to awaken Andy's interest in more sophisticated things, which, if Andy picks up on them, will lead to more useful work that Hometown (and Hometown businessmen) can obtain from Andy, which, ideally, would be more rewarding to Andy.  (Of course, a compromise has to be found between what Andy thinks his labor is worth, and what his employers think it is worth, and of course this is a struggle, and usually the employer wins!)

The higher in the education world Andy goes, the more tenuous the line between what he learns, and how useful it makes him.  Those who are new to the education concept tend to believe that no matter what Andy learns, regardless of how much entertainment value his teachers have inserted into their lessons, that it will lead directly to a skill useful for the line of work Andy chooses.  This is not true.  This brings us to the last of the things education has to offer.

Education can also expand Andy's interests.  The more he knows, the wider his circle or interests will be; indeed, as we said, there may be areas of study, areas of knowledge, of whose existence Andy is totally unaware, which could grab him.  It may be an entire field, or a subfield, or a small backwater within a subfield, which may seize Andy's imagination.

And Andy begins to appreciate the interest of his fellow students in these other things, which is an important skill.  Education at this level increases Andy's awareness in ways that are far from being mechanical.  I mean mechanical in the sense that the skill leads directly to its use in Andy's employment.  He could also find, in books, information that even his teachers have not been aware of.  Finally, if he gets to know his teachers well, he could also learn from them unique and interesting approaches to various problems: of understanding problems, and solving them.

So, the connection between Andy's educational experience and the skill-set that he brings away from school is very vague and tenuous, and likely to be different for Andy from what his friend Bill brings away.  You would think that this is an argument for making highly individualized educational plans for each student.  But no parent can afford such an individualized plan; it is only affordable if it is carried out for an entire group of students together.  And whether it is even possible is a matter of luck and accident.  Andy's parents could help luck along in many ways, but they are usually too exhausted to give much thought to such things.

This is the problem of education: how to reconcile the sophisticated training that modern society needs to pass on to its children, with financial constraints of the Business-driven economy within which we have to function.  Excellence is available, but society demands that the better it is, the more expensive it is going to be.  And it requires an enormous amount of flexibility from Andy, his parents, his school and teachers, and his friends.

Hometown citizens of the managerial class would normally say: this is a problem for the teachers.  Give them a small raise, and ask them to come up with a fantastic new education plan by next Tuesday.  And some teachers will jump at the chance, and neglect their present work on the way.  Nobody realizes that the subtle needs of students can only be successfully addressed by those who have the leisure to do it, and the inclination, and the imagination.


Sunday, April 15, 2018

Poetry for All

When I was a kid, poetry was a fun business.  We learned lots of poems by scores of poets, on all sorts of topics, most of them fun, fanciful things, that had to do with fairies, or adventure, or complicated moral lessons.  Of course, since a few decades ago, there's a lot of suspicion about all this received wisdom, and the ethnicity or social standing of the poets, and what gender they were, and so on and so forth.  But I really wonder whether we have replaced these pieces of verse---that's all they deserve to be called, apparently; when I was a kid we never distinguished between verse and poetry, but now we do---with anything of greater value, and anyway, who is qualified to classify these things?

Verse is easy to commit to memory, which is why there was such an emphasis on it in times when it was impossible to give each child his or her own book of verse.  I don't know how many centuries ago the practice of incorporating poetry / verse in organized education was begin, but I suspect it was at least a few centuries ago.  But now poetry has become a consumer item.  A poet is invited to give an evening of poems, and a few of those poems find a receptive audience, but nobody ever memorizes the verses.  There are a few notable exceptions, such as Maya Angelou, or Paul Simon, or Bob Dylan, or John Lennon, or John Denver, but the vast majority of modern poets are forgotten far sooner than the poetry we learned as kids.  Admittedly, those favored poets whose work was included in the grade school curriculum had an advantage, but I wonder whether we're better off.

I forgot William Shakespeare.  Blank verse is harder to memorize; it is definitely a more adult thing.  The few of us who learned Shakespeare in their late teens, and who had the support at home to make sense of it, certainly had something of value.  Shakespeare had an amazing way of presenting complex motivations without being heavy-handed.  The last few lines of Hamlet's soliloquy are powerful, but they remain Hamlet's feelings, not necessarily ours.  I do believe that that sort of poem helps to prepare us to follow the thinking of many people in their agonized moments.

The big emphasis these days is to encourage every student to write his or her own poetry.  Some poetry is certainly being written, and I know at least a couple of people who enjoy playing with words (which is a lot of what poetry is about), who might not have got into that pastime without the influence of high school poetry classes.

As I blogged in the distant past, the best poetic tradition seems to have found a home among serious composers of popular music, such as most of these mentioned above, and yet others, like Billy Joel and Carole King, and Joni Mitchell.  Some of these poets---Oh, let's not forget Neil Diamond---have been accused of being commercial (writing verse that would help their songs to sell), or too self-involved (and don't tell me that Shakespeare wasn't self-involved occasionally), but the lyrics are memorable, and surprisingly helpful quite apart from their purpose in songs.  A colleague in the English Department once said that song lyrics are a sort of bastard step-child of poetry.  Well, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but it seems to me that song lyrics are definitely a strong entry in the verse department, at least in the last few decades.  Lesser-known songwriters such as Leonard Cohen wrote material that deserves to be called poetry by anyone.

I don't know where I'm going with this; a student once accused me of never being clear where I was going with anything!  Well, I'm retired, now, and I can indulge my tendency to be obscure.


Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Spring Equinox, and Johann Sebastian Bach's Birthday!

People probably wonder why Bach has such a long name, and especially today it is appropriate to be a little more curious about it than on other days.  Well, in the Bach family, many, if not most, of the boys were called Johann.  So if you did a search on the name "Johann Bach", which was essentially John Brook, in German, you would turn up thousands.  Sebastian was his true given name, so in his family, they called him Sebastian.  (Today you have to use the whole thing, or his initials.  He even had a son, Johann Christian Bach.  But we digress.)

Why are there Leap Years?  In earlier posts I have written about this at length, but the older you get, the more effort it takes to even click on a link, so I summarize the facts for my senior readers whose memories are short, whose arthritis is acute, and who are incorrigibly lazy.  (I realize that I'm not likely to make any friends by insulting my readers, but most of them should be able to take a joke.)

I myself didn't know the answer to this question, until I found myself chatting with the professor who taught astronomy at my school.  Why Leap Years? I asked him.  Oh, he said, because farmers want the growing season to start roughly on the same date every year, and they get awful mad if spring begins a little earlier in the year each year.  And we know what happened when farmers got mad: food got expensive.  So initially, back in the days of Julius Ceasar (or someone else whose name was Julius), they introduced the idea of an extra day at the end of February every four years.  But if you live long enough, you know that some years that are numbered a multiple of 4, we do not take an extra day in February.  (This was the invention of astronomers of the time of Pope Gregory.  At one time I knew their names, but mercifully I have forgotten.)  And then, more recent astronomers decided to be even more exact, and put the extra day back every some thousand years, and it started getting completely silly.  I'm willing to humor farmers to some degree, but this is getting out of hand.

Because it was the Catholics, namely Pope G, who instituted this calendric adjustment (which most of us agree is an improvement), the protestants in the land of Martin Luther dug in their heels and just said no.  After several centuries, when the Baptismal Record of little Sebastian's church showed that he was born on March 21st, it was quite a different day of the year in Italy, and other countries that were using the much more accurate new calendar.  (Apparently the historical texts that recorded the events that took place when the Lutherans finally, reluctantly, adopted the Gregorian Calendar, make interesting reading.)  So, going by from what direction the sun rose when Sebastian was born, as an observer in Stonehenge would have said, it was probably early June.  But for various reasons, I celebrate Johann Sebastian Bach's birthday on March 21st, today.  If Bach were to be notified of the facts, who knows whether he would prefer to celebrate his birthday in June, or stick to March 21st, though the weather would be considerably colder than he was accustomed to feeling when they lit the candles on his birthday?  Does it still make a sound?  Know, we do not.

The music of J. S. Bach is full of variety.  Some of it is sober, some of it is light and even mischievous, though even the silliness of Bach comes through as just mildly amused.  Some of his melodies are romantic, even in his serious church music; romance in music is an intangible thing.  (I'm not talking about the Romantic Movement, which is a phenomenon of the 1800s, and ultimately had little intrinsic relationship to the concept of a romantic melody.)  I'm going to suggest some pieces that you might try to find and listen to, to try and become aware of J. S. Bach's music.

If melody is your thing, the slow movement from any of Bach's concertos are a good bet.  For instance, the slow movement of the Double Concerto for Oboe and Violin, BWV 1060, is a lovely, epigrammatic tune.

Bach's genius was counterpoint, a style of writing in which every part (or voice) had an interesting melody.  To get a taste of Bach's counterpoint, I suggest two pieces.  Firstly, the aria "My Heart Ever Faithful," (Mein gläubiges Herze) from Cantata 68, BWV 68.  There is a track on the beautiful recording Voices of Angels, by Teldec, with Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting various boy's choirs.  Listen all the way to the end, where the accompaniment closes with a trio for violin, oboe, and cello.  The second piece I suggest is Contrapunctus 1 from The Art of Fugue.  The link takes you to a file in which the fugue is played by a Flute, English Horn, Cello, and Bassoon.  (The original piece had no designated instruments.)

Depending on the year, Bach's birthday falls either in Lent, or sometimes shortly after Easter.  Even if you're not religious, you will find Bach's religious music strangely moving.  One chorus in the St. Matthew Passion is O Mensch, bewein dein' Sündre gross, or "O Man, bewail thy grievous sin".  This number is sobering to anyone, and to a believer, it is heartbreaking.  The words are almost like a creed, summarizing the life of Jesus, and it is sung by a choir in four parts, as well as a dozen boy trebles (or, these days, any old trebles).  It is fully accompanied by flutes, oboes, string orchestra and organ.

Finally, I draw your attention to yet another slow movement from a concerto, a piece that I fell in love with in my grad school days: the slow movement from the Triple Concerto in A minor, BWV 1044.  The soloists are a Flute, a Violin, and the Harpsichord, and it is like a slow dance where each instrument takes turn being the featured soloist.

Let's stop there.  Too many suggestions would result in none of them being followed up on!

Happy first day of Spring, and Bach's Birthday!


Thursday, March 15, 2018

I Wrote a Second Movement for the String Quartet

I had written a movement of a string quartet, but they usually have at least three movements, so I was honor bound to write follow-up movements.
I had initially decided to write a sort of standard Haydn-like movement, because I was trying very hard to write a conventional piece, rather than an off-the-wall Archie-type curiosity.  But this tune came into my head, and I went with it.  Hope you like it!!
[Added later again: the movement has been lengthened further; I'm a little bashful to detail what all has been done, but if you've heard the earlier versions, you would identify the additions.]

String Quartet, 2. Andante
In case some landmarks might be helpful:
The main theme is played by the second violin,  accompanied by just the cello and viola.  Then the second violin is silent while the first violin plays the theme.  (Only the accompaniment is varied.)
The viola then gets the lead melody, but it is a countermelody, sharing the same rhythm as the theme.
[An episode in a major key comes here, played by the First Violin.]
Then the Cello plays yet another melodic variation,  this time traveling as far afield as F Minor, before coming to settle in B minor.
At this point,  I tried several different things until I decided to resume with the First Violin playing just 4 bars of the main theme in B minor, but then there is a bridge to the main theme in the original key of E minor,  which ends the movement.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Why we are upset at the Federal Government

Well, we’re most of us always upset at the Federal Government, but seldom to this degree.  But I have thought about this at length, and there is something to be learned about ourselves, and about our fellow-citizens, and about people around the world.
Focusing on the US for the moment, think about the services that we depend on.  Many, if not all of these, continue being provided unless something comes up to throw a wrench it in.  Goodness knows that an amazing number of wrenches have been heaved onto the Washington bureaucracy by the GOP and the White House, many of which have been sidestepped, while half the country heaves a sigh of relief, and the other half curses.  (It actually is about half and half, though we thought everyone wanted the country to run in a manner that those reading this blog approved of.  Unfortunately no: about half, or at least a significant minority, appears to believe that everything is being done wrong, and has sent forward Mr. Trump to fix it.  We can talk about that another time.)
As I have mentioned before, an enormous volume of money comes to localities from the Federal Government, and it is this money that keeps the wheels of towns, cities, counties and states turning, especially in little ways, such as keeping roads repaired, police patrolling the streets, keeping agro-businesses from selling questionable food items in supermarkets, etc.  But lots of services of the government that do not have to do with daily life have definitely been impacted: National Parks, Wildlife Conservation, Ocean oil drilling, and so on.  Gun laws have been relaxed, people have been shot, and the rhetoric coming out of the Capital is: Suck it in.  (Thoughts and prayers, etc.)
Looking further afield, those who are listening hear a great sense of sorrow from foreign countries; even from reasonable citizens of such countries as Russia and the Ukraine.
It may appear that the World is afraid of a nuclear disaster.  But I don’t think most people are fearful for themselves.  They are sorry for what Americans are facing.  Some are embarrassed for America, but others are simply sorrowful for the way the government has been surrendering the gains made in various areas: Health reform, Marriage equality, Bank procedures reform, Environmental initiatives, Energy sustainability, and numerous other regulations that have been viewed with dislike by people we have thought of as ignorant.  They may be ignorant, but they know enough to vote, and enough to intimidate people at the polls, and sneaky enough to steal the Democrat trick of gerrymandering.
You and I care about what is going on, to some degree for our own sake, but arguably for the sake of the people at large.  Australians are upset, people all over the world are upset, mostly for our sake.  Why?  Because over the years they have learned to care, and have thought of Americans as their friends.  The US Government has not always been a friend, but the American People have convinced the people of the world that we have their backs.  It is not a matter of simply sending in the Marines; it is a moral belief.
Undoubtedly, Trump views this from the Business point of view, and says: that’s too expensive; we can’t afford that.  This is one principle on which he ran as a Presidential candidate: I can run the government better, because I’m a stinking businessman.  I know all the tricks.  (Sorry: I meant “businessman”.)
But leaving politics aside—and I really don’t want to focus on politics in this post—this matter of being concerned for reasons not having to do with self-interest is something we need to look at.
Religious folk, especially Christians, are taught that they have been put on the earth to do God’s work.  (Sometimes the principle gets distorted, and they begin to believe instead that they have been put on the earth to keep religious ministers in comfort, and make Christians out of everyone.  Obviously that’s a lot easier than doing “God’s work.”)
As an atheist, it gives me comfort to learn of this almost universal concern that is being expressed.  I have read messages such as “We’re so sad to see you guys in the US frying with all this crap!  The gun laws in the US are such a shame!”
Obviously, our gun laws do not affect their safety.  So this outpouring is purely motivated by concern and empathy.  At one time, we were the empathy champions of the world.  But we have been left behind.  Nevertheless, the fact that empathy exists, without necessarily a religious motivation, is a heartening thing.  Of course I can’t prove that religion has nothing to do with it.  I do believe that most of this empathy has nothing to do with religion, just on faith!  Does that sound funny?
Unlike Christians, though, I don’t believe that matters will become better because God will jump in.  Nothing is going to happen unless we do something.  But it is a matter of Atheist Faith that we can do something.
Already in Pennsylvania, where the districts had been Gerrymandered so heavily that the GOP could win every election for the foreseeable future (except for elections for Governor), the State Supreme Court intervened, and rejected the most recent—ultra-Gerrymandered, evidently—redistricting that had been proposed by the heavily Republican House.  They were given a brief time to bring in an acceptable redistricting map.  That, too, failed.  Then the Supreme Court created a redistricting considered fair by itself, which infuriated the House and Senate.  Now there is an initiative to impeach all the judges of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, which will probably fail, but . . . it just goes to show that there is light at the end of the tunnel, or at least that the tunnel is being lit.  Oh man, I do love this state, warts and all!
[Aside: My wife was just now deploring the fact that there is so much preaching on faceBook.  Then we agreed that there would not be any preaching if people didn’t care.  The liberals and the Democrats are like: OMG, what’s wrong with these people?  Pass gun laws NOW!  The GOP and the conservatives are like:  Take away our guns?  No freaking way!  And the Cynics are like: Just be quiet.  Don’t you realize that whenever there’s a threat to the NRA, people just go out and quickly buy more guns?  It’s a marketing ploy!  The NRA gets huge money from the gun manufacturers!
Be that as it may, there is caring.  Of course I think the true caring is among the liberals, and the response of the conservatives is largely retaliatory.  Still, the existence of concern is, to me and other atheists, a justification of our philosophical position.  And faceBook seems to support this belief.  So it’s doing something right.]

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Knowledge and Vocabulary : The joys and sorrows of broadening the mind

The more you learn, the more special-purpose words you use.  This is something everyone guesses; little kids who read a lot tend to use bigger words (and depending on their family, they get criticized for it, or admired for it).  One thing that should happen in college is that undergraduates should become more aware of the actual meanings of words (in contrast to what they may have thought they meant) and their use of language1 should become more exact.
Something that irks people is that college educated people tend to speak with more difficult words, and often with longer sentences.  The difficult words are because they are probably thinking more difficult (and nuanced) thoughts and trying to get them across; longer sentences because they feel the need to set limits on every thought.  Here's an example: "We need to have stronger laws concerning the buying of guns--though, of course, we have some laws now, but they don't seem to be working."
I got on to this subject by reading an article in Wikipedia, called Cultural Relativism.  This is an idea that came up a few years ago when I was a member of a committee that steered the better students at our school in a special ongoing program, which presented extra seminar topics over their four years of college.  We were studying the Middle East that semester, and one of my colleagues introduced this idea, and he was philosophically opposed to it.  To make it clear, the basic idea, expressed precisely, is that when it comes to studying other cultures, it is impossible for us to be objective.  Our own cultural background most definitely gets in the way.  Expressed crudely and inaccurately, as it is expressed by some people in the government: our culture is better than your culture.

[I forgot to explain the meaning of the title of this blog post.  Most interesting topics of learning require learning new words and phrases: technical terms.  For this reason, it gets daunting to delve into these topics, though many of these 'new' words are just words borrowed from ordinary language, which are (temporarily, within that subject) given a special meaning.  For instance, in geometry, we have the word eccentricity.  In ordinary language it means a little not right in the head, or having a set of assumptions that is different from the norm; but in geometry it describes how far an ellipse is from being a circle.  Anyhow, I was just thinking how difficult it was to read the article, simply because of all the new words, and as I was going along, I was alarmed to find that I was learning the meanings of words that I had sort of ignored all this while, and was feeling resentful at all this forced education.]
I started reading casually (since it has been many years since I got heated up with this topic) with the view that, hey, it seems a lot of fun (I'm kidding; actually, it's pretty heavy going) but not really relevant to me, when I came up against a related concept called moral relativism.  I was marveling at how beautifully these guys and gals expressed themselves; you had to admire their skill at getting across some really tricky ideas, and some incredibly fine points, and believe me, some of the ideas are among the trickiest I have encountered.  And to my amazement, there was a practical application, and an important one at that.
Right after WWII 2 the United Nations decided to come up with a Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  But the anthropologists warned that it was looking very much like a declaration of Western Human Rights, and not universal at all.  This was a issue of moral relativism, but an important one; for instance if the Declaration had things in it that said guys had the Right to have any number of wives they wanted--as was the custom in many non-Western cultures--it would become something that Westerners could not support; on the other hand, if they said One Man, One Wife (at most), it would have been a Right that people in those other cultures could not support.  (In the end, luckily, no mention was made about marriage at all, which probably was good, considering the chaos that has ensued 3 because of what I consider the gains in marriage equality in the USA.)
The belief that one's own culture is superior to all other cultures was observed with interest by Western anthropologists studying other cultures.  They came up with a name for it: ethnocentricity.  They declared that it was a serious shortcoming of those cultures, and used in some quarters to illustrate how immature those cultures were.  But it was gradually realized that the strongest instance of ethnocentricity was Western ethnocentricity; in old-time anthropology--which was conducted almost entirely by Westerners, every new culture they studied was compared to Western Culture as the implicit standard, as the undisputed most superior culture.  This meant that if Western anthropologists were to continue business as usual, the validity of their findings would be destroyed.  The only way around it is to study as wide a spectrum of cultures as possible, and avoid judging any culture by any other culture.
In earlier posts, I have struggled to understand and to explain the value of a college education, but now I think I would probably say it this way: a young person who has been through a (good) college education will not make the mistake of judging other cultures, but instead see the value in them, and their importance in the life of that graduate.  The language I used was that education enables a person to appreciate things (cultures) that may be far removed from everyday experience.  This would flow not only from the courses the graduate has taken, but also from the diverse sorts of fellow-students he or she would meet in college.  (Even at the grade-school level, this is one reason to avoid home-schooling; but some families do have special needs, and cannot tolerate cultural conflicts.)
I do not recommend the Wikipedia article to everyone; you have to have the time to read and enjoy it.  But every time I encounter 4 a great article in Wikipedia, two things happen.  I marvel at the time and thought that has gone into writing it, though of course, it must be a topic close to that writer's heart; and secondly, my vague feeling that the world is going to hell is reduced a little, and I think to myself, like Shakespeare, O brave new world, that has such marvels in it!  Wikipedia is a treasure of our times, and should be appreciated, despite the fact that many people are scornful about how little authoritative it is.  To paraphrase Bernard Shaw, it is not that the dancing dog dances well, but that it dances at all.
This presents education as a survival skill.  It is getting increasingly harder to keep cheerful in the face of the carefully planned chaos that seems to be creeping in.  An appreciation of numerous wonderful things does help to slow down the hopelessness!  But you have to be ready to learn some new words.

1  That is, speech and writing
2 World War Two
3 Quite unnecessarily, but inevitable, I suppose
4 Come across

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