Saturday, May 28, 2011

foreign language in elementary school

The HC school board is currently considering a proposal to pilot a foreign language program at the elementary school level. The idea is to integrate the use of computer technology into regular classroom instruction and eliminate the hour-long segment that they spend each week in a separate computer lab. (I guess they would still potentially use the lab space, but it would be with their homeroom teacher, and it would relate directly to whatever they're working on in class anyway.) This would free up two half-hour time slots each week for language instruction, which would be undertaken according to a content-based approach. The language instructor would work with the students on content they're expected to learn anyway--science, social studies, etc.--but conduct the class in a high percentage of the foreign language, so they get exposed to its various elements. Obviously, the emphasis would be on vocabulary and situational dialog; there would be little technical discussion of the grammar and structure of the language. The proposal is to teach all students in all schools Mandarin Chinese, but they estimate that they could offer two language options for about 10% more cost.

I have no objection to them studying a foreign language, and I'm reasonably sure the integrated approach to technology could work, though I'm not at all certain that it will. I guess my main question relates to the language selection. Now, I'll readily admit that as someone who has studied several different languages, I'm probably biased by not being personally interested in Chinese. I understand why it was chosen--the number of people in the world who speak the language, the role of China in the world economy, and the length of time and effort required to achieve some level of fluency (which makes it more beneficial to get an early start)--but I still think an argument can be made against it.

It's certainly sensible to learn the language of our new overlords. China produces the goods we buy, and loans us the money to buy them. When our politicians bicker us into default, it is China that will be first in line to repossess our country. History is filled with examples of major powers whose languages became the common currency of trade and government--Akkadian, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, etc. English is one of the more recent examples, but we're probably not far from the time when the sun really will set on the British/American Empire. China is a logical choice for the next big thing.

But I wonder if it isn't morally superior to change tactic, especially if we're not quite ready to admit defeat on the world stage, and instead reach out to those who live within our borders in ever-increasing numbers and will likely surpass English-speakers in the overall population. I'm talking about the Hispanic population, with whom we share this half of the world, and many of whom have one way or another made their way to the United States. Learning the language of those who are powerful, because we must, is one thing; but learning the language of those who are not, because we can, is something altogether different.

I also wonder if we aren't missing an important aspect of language learning. It used to be standard to learn Latin, not so much because of all the Latin-speakers out there with whom we could converse, but because of what it teaches us about our own language. I'm not so naive as to think that we'd return to that any time soon, but doesn't this other purpose of learning a foreign language apply to some degree when we learn any other language? It helps us to think about similarities and differences, and with good instruction, we can understand how those connections arise. But the further two languages are removed from one another, the harder it can be to find informative connections. Especially when we're talking about language taught at the elementary school level, they probably won't draw many conclusions about grammatical structure by experiencing two languages. But cognate words are much easier to discover and can be very useful in building vocabulary in one's own native language. It seems to me that students would gain more insight about English by learning one of its closer relatives.

The point about needing more time to learn Chinese was one I didn't think of until it was specifically brought up in discussion. There is a great deal of sense to it, but I wonder how realistic it is. A lot of the point of how this program is designed is to make it something that will work for all students. But do we seriously think that all, or even most, students will continue their study of Chinese once they have other options? And don't the same factors that make it a longer enterprise to learn Chinese also make it that much easier to lose in a summer what they've learned during the school year? How much benefit will they retain over time?

Consider writing, for instance. I don't know if there is any intention to teach Chinese writing--I would assume there would be, but maybe it's considered too complex to bother with. Either way--if they don't cover writing, students have missed an area of learning; if they do, the struggle will be long and hard, and most of them will probably forget everything they ever learned. On the other hand, a language like Arabic would also take substantial time to learn, would have quite a bit of relevance in today's world, and would challenge students with its writing system. But here, "challenging" does not mean "inaccessible." Arabic writing is difficult, but it is still an alphabetic system (technically, it's an abjad, but I'm trying not to be technical) and therefore involves a relatively small set of characters. Even if some information is lost over the summer, the task of reviewing and re-learning at the beginning of the next year is much smaller. But if we're talking about a language program for all students, it's probably better to go with something that uses the same basic Latin characters students are already familiar with.

I also like the argument that teaching English-speaking students Spanish will help them interact with their fellow students whose first language is Spanish. If it is true that Spanish-speakers typically have more difficulty adjusting to American schools than other immigrant groups, anything we can do to help bridge this gap and make the transition easier will likely save the schools money they might otherwise spend on special assistance programs.

For these reasons, I think Spanish is the better way to go. I say this as someone who has never formally studied Spanish, who doesn't speak Spanish, and who has no Hispanic heritage. But if we're going to teach one foreign language in all elementary schools, I think Spanish wins as the most useful and attainable option.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

in defense of polygamy

We've been paying for TV for a couple of years now. It has its advantages, I suppose. There are more options for the kids, not many of which are worth having. (My own recollection of a childhood without pay TV is that I mostly watched prime-time programming--the Muppet Show, of course, but action and sci-fi shows like A-Team, Airwolf, and Automan come to mind.) We decided to pay extra for DVR, which has the distinct benefit of eliminating commercials from much of our viewing. Mostly the broader selection seems to have had the negative effect of niche viewing. Where before Julie and I used to spend time after the kids went to bed watching sit-coms and a few action dramas like Alias and Lost, now she has a long list of TLC-type programming and I have local government TV. I can only take so much of little people and hoarders and coupon clippers, and my tolerance for shows about wedding dresses and giving birth is almost non-existent. She groans in what I assume is agony, if she happens to walk through the room and catch 15 seconds of a school board meeting.

One of the few shows that we have managed to watch together is Sister Wives. I guess it meets all the usual requirements of standard TLC fare--prying into someone else's family life, border-line freak show, abnormal numbers of kids, and the tired format of reality TV, where even the most mundane moments are supposed to generate suspense and tension. I'm mostly interested in the phenomenon of polygamy--interested enough, I guess, that I can put up with the rest of it.

I should say, I'm not a polygamist in reality or in principle. Personally, I can't imagine how or why anyone would want to have more than one wife. Sustaining one such relationship takes enough energy, and as I've told Julie, I don't even envision myself remarrying if something ever happened to her. I also don't think polygamy was ever God's intent for human relationships; but the fact is, he did allow it. And that, I think, is significant.

From Mesopotamian law, we get a picture of polygamy for expedience. The motivation seems to be mostly childbearing. If a first wife couldn't produce, a second wife might be taken. Laws were provided to protect the rights of the first wife, since the wife with children might otherwise supplant her as more valuable. This same pattern plays out in the Bible, with Sarah and Hagar and later with Leah and Rachel. The only other kind of polygamy we see is when Israel's kings start taking multiple wives for political reasons. Both types seem to produce negative side-effects--internal family strife, religious compromise, and even tribal warfare. But they are tolerated within limits, as is divorce, probably to prevent the kind of actions people might have taken without that allowance. (Think, Henry VIII . . . )

What's harder for me to understand is polygamy that seems to be valued for its own sake. I've heard--though I'm no authority on the subject--that Mormon doctrine teaches salvation for the man as head of a household, where his wives' salvation depends on their relationship to him. I suppose, if that is widely known and accepted, it could be a motivation to extend salvation through marriage. But is that really a doctrinal difference between mainstream Mormons and the polygamist type? Or is it simply that polygamy became a cultural norm within Mormonism, and some conservatives turned it into a religious conviction, mostly because their church betrayed that practice? The reason for polygamy never really seems to be addressed in the show--it's presented as a lifestyle choice, often based on upbringing, but otherwise without much explanation.

But I think it's this presentation as a lifestyle choice that holds my attention. In a culture where we've come to accept extramarital sex, cohabitation, divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, and even same-sex marriage as more or less a matter of personal choice, why do we look at polygamy as just some obscure freak-show fodder? As a Christian, I look at the options out there, and I see polygamy as a whole lot more defensible than most of them. I'm sure there are abuses, and I would guess that making it illegal skews the numbers of those willing to make that choice toward the lunatic fringe. But the family in the show seems reasonably healthy--arguably, a good deal more healthy than so many half-families and re-mixed families resulting from divorce. The women chose this relationship as adults. The kids seem to interact well together. They seem to be getting by financially. I'm not even sure how they can be prosecuted, since he's only married legally to one of the four wives; but in any case it seems like an archaic legal stance to consider this criminal activity, while a man sleeping with multiple women but married to none of them would be considered safe, legal, and normal.

Is it that we just haven't had enough activism directed at recognizing polygamy as a lifestyle choice? Is it that we're culturally biased to accept choices that destroy family more easily than those that promote it? I don't know, but I can't escape the feeling that this is something worth defending. I wouldn't want to be polygamist, I wouldn't advise polygamy. But if we're destined to have a culture of choice, how can we possibly rule it out as an unacceptable option? And maybe, just maybe, having polygamy as a viable option on one end of the spectrum would help to create a more balanced perspective on traditional family.

Monday, May 2, 2011

from the Akathist for the Repose of Those Who Have Fallen Asleep

I'm no friend of Osama bin Ladin, and I'm not about to dispute whether he deserved to die. Still, as Gandalf told Frodo, "Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life." If we can't give the latter, we shouldn't be too quick to cry for the former either.

The verse from Proverbs that you often hear quoted is interesting:
Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth (24:17)
but mostly, I think, for the words that follow:
Lest the LORD see it, and it displease him, and he turn away his wrath from him.
Proverbs is mostly common sense wisdom about the world around us, and as such, it is often messy. We'd like this to be a more exalted standard--love your enemy as God does, or some such thing. But no, the point here is that God may care more about teaching you a lesson in humility than about justly executing your neighbor. Or to put it in more secular terms, dancing in the streets over the death of our opponent may have more far-reaching consequences than the death itself.

But for Christians, the standard is Jesus, is it not? He who rebuked his disciples for wanting to call down fire from heaven. He who forgave his enemies while they were putting him to death. He who told us to love and pray for our enemies. I know it's not an easy standard, but what good would it be if it were? This is one of the things I love about liturgical prayer. There's no rule that says we must pray in the words of the Church, though we are certainly supposed to pray with her heart. When we don't know how to do that, we have a wealth of model language to help us. Here, then, are a few pertinent sections from the Akathist for the Repose of Those Who Have Fallen Asleep:

Kontakion 2

Enlightened by the illumination of the Most High, Saint Macarius heard a voice from a pagan skull: "When you pray for those suffering in Hell, there is relief for the heathen." O wonderful power of Christian prayer, by which even the infernal regions are illumined! Both believers and unbelievers receive comfort when we cry for the whole world: ALLELUIA.

Ikos 3

O Glad Light, Redeemer of the world, embracing the whole universe with Thy love: behold, Thy cry from the Cross for Thine enemies is heard: "Father, forgive them." In the name of Thine all-forgiving love we make bold to pray to our Heavenly Father for the eternal repose of Thine enemies and ours.
Forgive, O Lord,
those who have shed innocent blood,
those who have sown our path of life with sorrows,
those who have waded to prosperity through the tears of their neighbors.
Condemn not, O Lord,
those who persecute us with slander and malice.
Repay with mercy those whom we have wronged or offended through ignorance,
and grant that our prayer for them may be holy through the sacrament of reconciliation.
O Lord of unutterable Love, remember Thy servants who have fallen asleep.

Kontakion 5

Thou hast given us death as a last prodigy to bring us to our senses and to repentance, O Lord. In its threatening light, earthly vanity is exposed, carnal passions and sufferings become subdued, insubmissive reason is humbled. Eternal justice and righteousness opens to our gaze, and then the godless and those burdened with sins confess on their deathbed Thy real and eternal existence and cry to Thy mercy: ALLELUIA.

Ikos 5

O Father of all consolation and comfort, Thou brightenest with the sun, delightest with fruits, and gladdenest with the beauty of the world both Thy friends and enemies.
And we believe that even beyond the grave Thy loving kindness,
which is merciful even to all rejected sinners, does not fail.
We grieve for hardened and wicked blasphemers of Thy Holiness.
May Thy saving and gracious will be over them.
Forgive, O Lord,
those who have died without repentance.
Save those who have committed suicide in the darkness of their mind,
that the flame of their sinfulness may be extinguished in the ocean of Thy grace.
O Lord of unutterable Love, remember Thy servants who have fallen asleep.

Kontakion 6

Terrible is the darkness of a soul separated from God, the torments of conscience, the gnashing of teeth, the unquenchable fire and the undying worm. I tremble at the thought of such a fate, and I pray for those suffering in Hell as for myself. May our song descend upon them as refreshing dew as we sing: ALLELUIA.

Ikos 6

Thy light, O Christ our God, has shone upon those sitting in the darkness and shadow of death and those in Hell who cannot cry to Thee. Descend into the infernal regions of the earth, O Lord, and bring out into the joy of grace Thy children who have been separated from Thee by sin but who have not rejected Thee.
For they suffer cruelly. Have mercy on them.
For they sinned against Heaven and before Thee,
and their sins are infinitely grievous,
and Thy mercy is infinite.
Visit the bitter misery of souls separated from Thee.
Have mercy, O Lord, on those who hated the truth out of ignorance.
May Thy love be to them not a consuming fire
but the coolness of Paradise:
O Lord of unutterable Love, remember Thy servants who have fallen asleep.