(These ideas are explicated in this sloppy manifesto)

Friday, February 06, 2004
Guerrilla Schooling: The Death of Caesar...

So you don't think my son is always picking intellectual fights at school, presented below is his entry for this year's school speech contest.

He did this last year, and it was cool right up to the anti-climax: Even though this is a national competition, Cameron's school district stops at the district level for some reason. And even at the district level, they don't reward the best speakers: Everyone gets a "Certificate of Participation" for successfully fogging a mirror. Oh, boy.

He's already advanced to the district level again this year, and the (non)competition will take place later this month. Last year there was one other good speaker and a vast host of breathless reciters of highly-detailed trivia.

All that notwithstanding, the boy wrote another good speech, and he can deliver it with high drama about half the time:
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to praise Caesar, not to bury him. The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones; So has it been with Caesar. And here's how:

The Gaius Julius Caesar--that's the Roman pronounciation--we know from history has always been portrayed as the bad guy. But that figures doesn't it? History is written by the victors. They always define themselves as the good guys. In my opinion, Caesar was a good guy and his opponents were the bad guys.

Consider the accusations leveled against Caesar by Marcus Tullius Cicero--we call him Cicero--and others. They said that he was an evil tyrant and dictator who wanted to destroy the Roman Republic and crown himself king.

How does that jibe with the historical record?

When he returned to Rome after his conquest of Gaul, one of his former allies, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, or Pompey as we call him, was sent by the Senate of Rome to stop Caesar from coming back to Rome. The Senate was afraid that Caesar would take over Rome and make himself dictator.

On January 7, 49 BC the Senate called for Caesar to lay down command of his army since his proconsulship was up. Caesar resolved not to give up his army, instead crossing the Rubicon River and engulfing Rome in civil war.

He crossed the Rubicon, saying, in Greek, "Let the dice fly high!," according to Pollio. This in contrast to the claim of Suetonius that Caesar uttered the grim and fatalistic, "The die is cast," in Latin.

It is reasonable to argue that the highly educated Caesar would have spoken in Attic Greek, rather than the Latin of the common people. And although these phrases are close in wording, they are very different in meaning. The first is exuberent and optimistic while the other is cynical and pessimistic.

In 49 BC Caesar made himself dictator for ten years. In 48 BC Caesar defeated Pompey's army. Pompey fled to Egypt where he was killed. Caesar also went to Egypt and helped put Cleopatra on the throne. He returned to Rome in triumph, lending credence to the claim that he intended to enthrone himself.

But wait, just stop and think. From Caesar's point of view, the Roman Republic had become an ossified oligarchy, more like the American Mafia than a rational government. The Senators of Rome were taxing all the land they controlled for their own profit.

And while Caesar did take dictatorial control of Rome, he did so in what he saw as Rome's benefit. During the Roman civil war Caesar allowed the people fighting on the other side to live in peace once they had been defeated. In all other civil wars the victors banished or killed those who opposed them, seizing all their property.

As another example of Caesar using his superior talents to help Rome, he decided to correct the Roman calendar. In the Roman calendar there were only 360 days. The Romans usually added 20 days every few years to catch up with the seasons, but they hadn't done this lately. By the time Caesar fixed the calendar they were off by 90 days. Caesar's calendar, the Julian calendar, had 365 days and was used until people made a minor correction to it in 1752 AD.

On March 15, 44 BC Caesar was murdered. He was killed inside the Senate's meeting place and died in front of Pompey's statue.

Marcus Junius Brutus--we call him Brutus--was one of the conspirators. It was rumored that Caesar was actually his birth father. As Brutus was about to stab Caesar, he said, "Sic semper tyrannis!,"--"Thus always to tyrants!" Caesar retorted with, "Even you, my son?," in Greek, according to Suetonius. Shakespeare has him saying, "Et tu, Brute?," in Latin, which means, "And you, Brutus?"

Cicero argues that Roman patriots rescued the empire from a rapacious tyrant. But it seems more likely to me that he was killed by men envious of his talents and jealous of their own rapacious privileges. I'll leave you today with this final thought:

What might the Roman Empire have become if Caesar had not been murdered?

Thursday, February 05, 2004
Guerrilla Schooling: Bearding the lion--again...

Cameron is having another little battle at school, again with the same teacher. He was assigned to write an essay giving travel directions to our home from school. An essay. Not a map on a napkin. Not a scrawl on the back of a business card. An essay. Creative lad that he is, he actually managed to make something of this ineffable nothing, thereby getting himself in trouble. Again. This is his opus:
One day you are planning on walking home when (for some reason) you say, "I think I will walk to Cameron's house!" Then you realize that you do not know where Cameron lives. Then you remember that sheet of paper with directions to Cameron's house that you stole--I mean borrowed!--from Cameron. You decide that following these directions will help keep you from getting lost on the way to Cameron's house.

So you look at the paper that Cameron "gave" you and you cannot read it. Then you realize that you are holding it upside down. You look at it the right way and start to read. It says that first you should walk to the edge of the parking lot without tripping, falling or otherwise hurting yourself. Then you should walk to the crossing guards, who should now be to the LEFT of you. You then cross 39th Avenue. (It's the one with the big, green sign that says 39th Avenue.) Now you are supposed to go straight until you reach 37th Avenue and then turn right. (No, not left, right!) It says to walk until you reach Cochise Drive and then turn left. The last part says to go to 3608 West Cochise Drive, which should be the fourth house on the left.

So you actually followed directions for once in your life. Did you know that following directions will get you a better job? Of course not! You are fired! But at least you got to my house.
Now, this is puerile, a word that comes to us unchanged from Latin. It means "childish", or even more precisely "boyish". This is a boyish essay, snotty and funny and light-hearted and as joyous and ephemeral as a butterfly. So what? So everything, according to the teacher. For this essay is sarcastic and must be re-written to take the assignment seriously. In case anyone has forgotten, the original, very serious assignment was to write an essay--an essay!--giving travel directions to our home from school.


I think the world of grammarians, and I think a man is less than human if he cannot distinguish among the subjunctives. I admire good punctuation and I abhor bad spelling. I can make stout arguments for sturdy structure, within reason, but I am always delighted to gaze in awe upon a structure I might not have believed, in advance, could stand. But I do not think it is any damn business of teachers of English, much less of 'Language Arts', to grade work upon its style, its content, its point of view or any other feature we would ascribe to taste or opinion or predilection. If the assignment is fulfilled and the English is correct, then the content is irrelevant and the work, even if boyish, is acceptable. Period.


I wrote a letter. Wouldn't you? Here is what I had to say:
Mrs. Griggs,

Regarding your comments attached, I would appreciate clarification. You say, "You need to focus your efforts on fulfilling the assignment seriously, please." Insofar as Cameron wrote a humorous essay, remarkably humorous for his age, I don't see any reason to quibble. I would be much more concerned had he taken the assignment seriously, since a serious effort at writing directions could not take more than 25 words--none of them colorful words. For the life of me, I cannot imagine how any bright child could have taken this assignment as gravely as you seem to have expected. It is simply not possible to write a grave essay about travel directions. In the circumstance, Cameron's resort to humor seems not only appropriate but refreshing.

I have huge problems with Cameron's academic effort this year, but I have no problem at all with his academic aspirations. And I am coming to have problems with what I see as grading practices at ALTS that have nothing to do with measuring academic achievement. My son reads hundreds of pages of very serious books a week, but he is marked down in reading for failing to get his form initialed. He writes HTML daily and is teaching himself C++, but he is marked down in computer class for failing to regurgitate the names of the hardware components within the machine. For your class he writes an essay that is an actual essay, rather than a collection of rote paragraphs, and you scold him for it--in your remarks on his paper, and, he reports, face-to-face outside of the classroom.

All of this is simply wrong. I should think the goal of education would be independence, not obedience or compliance or rote memorization of the inessential. Certainly the insolence of youth is insufferable. And this is why we must suffer it anyway, because it is the means by which insolent youth graduates to creative adulthood. If you think I am wrong, I should sincerely like to know why. And, not to put too fine a point on it, if you cannot defend your position, please do expect more of the same from Cameron. Though insolent, his essay is good. Not as good as I might wish, and not as good as he surely will achieve in due course. But good in spite of the poor assignment from which it was sprung.

Greg Swann

cc: Dr. Virginia Voinovich
As you might expect, this missive has elicited no reply. Cameron did come home, however, with instructions to rewrite the essay, taking the assignment seriously. I told him to leave it alone, and instead to write a second, sanitized version to go along with the first, both on the same sheet of paper. This is his sanitized essay:
From the edge of the parking lot, turn left. Go straight. When you reach the crossing guards on Peoria Avenue, turn right. Cross 39th Avenue. Go straight until you reach 37th Avenue. Turn right. Walk straight until you reach Cochise Drive. Turn left. Walk straight until you reach 3608 W Cochise Drive. Stop walking. Think about a universe with no style, with no creativity, overrun with mediocrity. Cry yourself to sleep.
This is creeping Lisa Simpsonism, and that's a fact. But it's White Mutiny, too, a literal compliance with arbitrary power that volunteers nothing to conceal the nature of that power. It's my little John Galt gravely intoning, "Get the hell out of my way!" It makes a papa proud.

We're done with this school, and that's a fact, too. Math, great. Science, great. Music, extra great. Everything else is sloppier year by year. My son is being run out of his school--not for being stupid, not for being a trouble-maker, but for being too smart for some of the stupid assignments he is given.

Think about that. Then cry yourself to sleep.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004
Islam watch: The Passion meets the fury...

I've been watching the incipient imbroglio over Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ for a while. I doubt very much that it will incite anti-Semitism among American couch potatoes, but I think this prognostication from is likely to turn out to be true:
'This will be the catalyst for the conversion of hundreds of thousands of people,' said the Rev. Jerry Johnston, pastor of First Family Church in Kansas City, Kan.
What is interesting to me as a sort of unlapsed unCatholic is what effect The Passion will have on Muslims, in those countries where they will be permitted to see it. Christianity is no substitute for reason, but it remains that the Church of Paul--not of Peter, not of the Nazarene--was the means by which vast amounts of Hellenic culture was transmitted across the ages.

The story of the Nazarene is the story of Socrates--the man who died rather than renounce his truth and submit to the mob--but it is more than that. Faith, hope and love, says Paul--says Saul of Tarsus, citizen of the Roman empire--and the greatest of these is love. Religion at its very best is a crude set of asinine rationalizations for living every moment in Cain's world while pretending to be Abel, but Christianity is a much kinder and gentler set of asinine rationalizations than is Islam.

I don't doubt that The Passion of the Christ will incite a wave of revivals. What I want to see is what it does among our friends of the unreconstituted East who have so far missed out on the best of the wonders of the West.