Pardon my Pique, Again . . .

In the Hoover Digest, Spring 2013 issue, Chester E. Finn writes in “A ‘Bar Exam’ for Teachers?” about his concern with a phrase in one of the American Federation of Teachers’ objectives for such a national exam.  It is the phrase “in-depth test of subject . . . knowledge.”  He indicates that the AFT document tells little about what subject knowledge is to be known.  Finn, along with the blogger Andrew Rotherham, at Eduwonk, has doubts about the purity of the AFT proposals to raise standards for new teachers.

But I  am still stumbling over the expression, “in-depth”.  Yes, it is in my dictionaries.  Yes, it means what it means.  It also is among the most overused words in “professional” discourse.  My students litter their papers with it.   In practice, however, the word often means little.  Beyond that concern, with so many richly nuanced candidates in the dictionary, why not consider using them?

I have in mind (to replace the term in the objectionable phrase) words like deep, comprehensive, thorough, ample, complete, extensive, and exhaustive.  Yes, I know that speakers and writers seek words that communicate to hearers and readers clearly.  But I refuse to accept the assumption that jargon serves best, when a better word, just the right word, could serve better and more thoughtfully. 

 A word fitly chosen is like apples of gold in baskets of silver.  The baskets of silver are rare, still rarer the apples of gold.

But back to Finn’s doubts about the AFT’s concern for subject-matter knowledge also relate to the emphasis on an “in-depth test” rather than a test of comprehensive knowledge.  We do have too many “in-depth” tests, and often too little mastery of content in the teaching field.  Perhaps the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards can develop acceptable nationwide standards for disciplinary examinations, but I am with those observers who ask whether that is a good idea.  Apparently it sounds like a good idea to some, or might it also serve unspoken political purposes?  This matter is worth attending to over the near term.

Eden Waning

When I think about the paradise called Eden, I am torn between two visions (just two, but not that there are no more possibilities).  The first vision, much like the Persian paradeizia or walled garden, is a place of cooling shade and breezes in a desert or semi-desert.  Such a place is indeed a delight in the predawn or early dawn and later in the evening, and at the least a welcome break during the heat of the day.  The second vision suggests a humid, subtropical or tropical, verdant jungle where the heat of the day still is quite comfortable and the evening and morning will balance rising humidity with coolness.

This is not what I find in East Texas right now, here, in the seam between summer’s hottest period and the decisive cooling trend that is still to come, and especially when the days are humid and still or misty and rainy like today.  It is as if the seasons have almost agreed on a boundary between themselves, and they cannot decide when and where to mark it.  So it is a transition, yes, that is what we say.   The astronomical summer season ends  in just nine days by the calendar, but we do not dare to hope that its heat will leave us quickly, though we will still feel it during many days in October and perhaps even November.  Autumn will enter gloriously and at a time  not of our choosing.  This year, with our late summer rains, the browning and dying are to be a bit late, following surely the later greening that surprised us, that conflicted with our expectations of August and September.

Blackbird Artistry

To Laura, age 5 1/2:

I saw a wonderful thing this morning! Just as the sun came up, I was walking on the meadow path by the creek. It is down the hill from my and Mimi’s house. A hundred blackbirds ate their breakfast in the meadow grass. As I walked toward them, the birds closer to me flew up and settled on the other side of the flock. They did so continuously. They were a rising and falling wave of black birds against the green-brown field.

At once they decided—all together, as if they had the same mind—to fly to a tree. They rose in a wavery but true sphere of black bodies and wings toward a tree. It is winter, still, and the tree has bare branches. The tree has a teardrop shape, rounder at bottom, narrower toward the top that ends in a point. How marvelous!

As the ball of birds flew upward it took the shape of the tree, but larger at first, and then shrank to the size of the actual tree as the birds lighted on its branches. It was wonderful to watch this happen with the grey sky in the background. The tree seemed to have black leaves, too, but just for a minute.

So, blackbirds are artists in a flock! This morning they also reminded me that God is an artist. He makes art together with his creatures. Now, how wonderful is that? What a beautiful thing I saw this morning! I thought of my granddaughters, right then and there. I wanted you to know about it too. — Papa

Update, May 25, 2011.

David Lyle Jeffrey remarks on the poetry of Richard Wilbur in the June/July 2011 issue of First Things and mentions a poem on the birds.  Of course Wilbur’s observation recalled what I saw and reported to Laura.  He wrote,

As if a cast of grain leapt back to the hand,

A landscapeful of small black birds, intent

On the far south, convene at some command

At once in the middle of the air, at once are gone

With headlong and unanimous consent

From the pale trees and fields they settled on.

After a paragraph or two of Jeffrey’s comment, another stanza from Wilbur reads,

Delighted with myself and with the birds,

I set them down and give them leave to be.

It is by words and the defeat of words,

Down sudden vistas of the vain attempt,

That for a flying moment one may see

By what cross-purposes the world is dreamt.

Harvest Unbidden

Downhill from the house, in the creek bottom next to the walking trail, the wild persimmon lives from ground level upward, trunk-to-trunk with the oak.  Their branches and leaves intermingle.  The hard persimmons on the tree’s north side hold tightly to their stems, waiting for their process from tannic tartness to fruity sweetness.  Softer, most of the fruit on the south side have almost arrived.  A few have released their hold and made twilight snacks for returning coyotes and deer whose signature tracks remain.  The deer–and at least one human passerby–have also plucked the sweeter, low-hanging fruit.  It is the season of waiting, ripening, and the harvest’s first-fruits.  By mid-November persimmons throughout East Texas will lie rotting among fallen leaves, their sugary, alcoholic aroma proof of abundance, more than deer, coyotes, and others need.  Yet that is no waste, but evidence of a superabundant, normal order of providence beyond mere reason.  What intoxicating extravagance!

Wing-Beat, Wingborne . . .

Some loved ones create delight by keeping their bird feeders stocked (with the avian-approved, “good stuff”) and waiting for the delight.  Hours of it come in flashes of cardinals, blue jays, orioles, finches, variegated blackbirds, black-capped chickadees, mourning dove, sparrows, and the seasonal many others.  They are delight on the wing, “wingborne” snatches of a common grace present in the general environment but focused at the feeders.  Yes, there are the fat squirrels and the after-dusk racoons, interlopers in something not intended for them, but who are they to turn down a good deal in that extension of common grace?  All are distinctive, and all take part in what is offered.

That wingborne delight comes from the givers’ provision.  The “good stuff” is not cheap, nor is it second-rate, the kind some birds turn away from–they understand stingy giving and simply choose something else.  The givers give for the sake of present and anticipated joy, liberally, and they get to share in grace redoubled.  It all comes from a life-attitude, not a singular, selfish desire just to enjoy the local wildlife, but to show they share somehow in a common life borne of a common provision.  It is so with the birds and is potentially true for all their relationships!  As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. 

The Father provides, and so do his children.  Grace is a gift received and given.  Providence is divine, but people pass it on to others.  It is not only spiritual or only material, mostly these are inseparable in the gift.  Either way or together, through the Spirit there is provision and there is delight.  It is the wingborne foundation for a life of joy. 

Our international culture lore and our use of domesticated birds abounds with the birds and the “wing-beat” of their work and significance:  storks bring children to parents; the hummingbirds–Mayan divinities incarnate–do they not sip the gods’ nectar?  The gospel dove descending upon the Son of Man (or in gospel songs on people as the Great Speckled Bird or the Snow White Dove); the swallows heralding spring at San Juan Capistrano; the American Bald Eagle, bird of peace first, then war; the albatross of Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”; the California Sespe condors–a weak flock though they are outsized fowl.  The pampered peafowl of India.  Moving closer to our hearts, and table habits, the Thanksgiving Turkey (the wild turkey does indeed fly, yes, Sir, Mr. Franklin of Philadelphia and the Pilgrims of Plymouth!), and, just as with the chicken-domesticators of the Indus Valley, 6,000 b.c.e., do we not all (well, most of us) partake of the yardbird, aided these days by the Arkansas Tysons and the Texas Pilgrims?  And eggs, too. 

About the wing-beat, in another entry.

F. R. — Evidence of Future Trajectory

Franz Rosenzweig still challenges the West eighty-plus years after his death.  But as a teen-aged student, his often pithy diary comments suggested the later direction of his thinking and word-speaking.  Consider for example November 17, 1906:

Words are tombstones.

Words are bridges over chasms. One usually walks across without looking down. If one looks down he is liable to feel giddy.

Words are also boards laid over a shaft, concealing it.

To be a philosopher is to open tombs, look into abysses, climb down shafts.

Word-speaking, word-pictures — such as we find in his Star of Redemption later.

[from Nahum N. Glatzer (presenter), Franz Rosenzweig, His Life and Thought, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998]

It’s Poring, not Pouring.

Have you seen this?

Here and there, in the newspapers, advertisements, books, yes–in student papers–but even in publications from those folk who should know better, I find the expression, “As I was pouring over this idea,” or “I poured over his book,” or some whatnot . . . .

World, let’s not let the vulgar tongue take us down that trail!  One “pores” over something of interest such as a book; one does not “pour.”  The infinitives are, respectively, “to pore” as opposed to “to pour.”

There!  Now wasn’t that snippy of me?  Now, the interesting and instructive thing about these forms is that they both appear to come from the same Middle English “pouren,’ but somehow their spelling reflects a history of either transitive or intransitive usage.  Or they may be considered to have nothing to do with one another.  There is at least one instance of “pore” being used for “pour” in Chaucer.

Follow-up on Anathem . . .

I cannot resist musing about the avaunts in the concents of Stephenson’s Anathem who just might occasionally suffer from the acedia Kathleen Norris exposes in her new book Acedia & me:  a marriage, monks, and a writer’s life. Can you see, with me, the auts (avaunts) poking their heads out their doors and windows to see what everyone else is doing?

And among the four groups — the Unarians, Decenarians, Centenarians, and Millennarians — does the denomination suggest its members vary in their ability to cope with “the noonday demon” called acedia?  Do the Millennarians, who are allowed to emerge once every thousand years, have a special gift of focused discipline that allows them to endure?  Or do the others do better?  How do they vary in their encounters with boredom, or depression, or apathy?  Stephenson may have some answers from the geek-sci-fi- side; I’m reading Norris for hers.