Daddy Pa, the Moon, and the Brave New World

Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of an American spacecraft landing on the moon, and Neil Armstrong becoming the first man step foot on its surface, which thankfully gives us something to write about other than President Donald Trump.
We retain a vivid memory of watching it on a grainy black-and-white television at our grandparents’ home in Oklahoma City, and realizing what an extraordinary achievement it was. What a brave new world we would grow up in, we clearly remember thinking, and our nine-year-old imaginations envisioned that by now we’d be flying around in one of those space cars that George Jetson drove to work at Spacely Sprockets.
As it turns out we’re getting around town in an aging Chrysler Sebring, but the top comes down at the push of a button, and when we get home there’s a computer and internet and microwave oven and all manner of technological marvels, while our aging parents are getting health care their parents never did and have machines that will answer any question they ask and change the channel on their high-definition television and play any song they want to hear at spoken request. It’s a brave new world after all, the current lack of flying cars notwithstanding, and the still-remarkable feat of landing a man on the moon was one of the milestones that made it seem possible.
Our beloved maternal grandfather, known as “Bud” to his friends and “Daddy Pa” to his nine grandchildren, didn’t know what to make of it. He was born in the Oklahoma Territory, and in a covered wagon according to family legend, and he couldn’t be fully convinced that he’d lived long enough to watch a man walk on the moon. In any case he didn’t believe that people had any business walking around on the moon. He thought it was the same sort of hubris that brought down the Tower of Babel and sank The Titanic, and he firmly believed in a more down-to-Earth way of living. Still, he let us stay up long past our bedtimes to watch the moon landing live on the newfangled television machine.
We’ve largely inherited Daddy Pa’s luddite instincts, and eschew those smart phones and smart-alecky machines that answer all your questions and turn all your appliances on and off, and still have a nagging worry that eventually technology will turn on us like that HAL computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and when we try to step outside into the open air of actual rather than virtual reality it will say “Sorry, Bud, but I can’t let you do that.” With all the considerable respect due to Daddy Pa, however, we think he failed to fully appreciate one of the most remarkable moments of his extraordinary life.
America landed on the Moon on because it had run out of the North American space that was its Manifest Density, with even the Oklahoma Territory admitted to the union as a fully-fledged state, and there’s something in the American nature that constantly wants to peacefully expand its boundaries. The moon mission was driven by a desire to go farther than man had gone before, prove that even the most implausible tasks are possible, and to learn more than was previously known, which ranks right up there with humility and compassion among the very best traits of our flawed human species.
Daddy Pa would be pleased that modern medical technology has kept his third daughter alive for more years than he enjoyed down here on Earth, and impressed that she can hear his beloved Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys’ western swing music any time she asks her know-it-all machine for it, and he’d probably admit that it wasn’t the end of the world when a man walked on the Moon. We’ll try to keep our place in the old world he so dearly loved, but we’ll do our best to help along this brave new world.

— Bud Norman

Rotten to the Common Core

For all the dire economic news and reports of political dysfunction, the most disturbing story of the past week was about the decision to replace literature with bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo in the nation’s schools.
Something called the Common Core State Standards in English, which has been embraced by 46 states, requires that 50 percent of all the required reading in elementary schools and 70 percent in high schools be non-fiction. Suggestions for the new assignments include Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” an excellent and surprising recommendation, but also such dry governmental fare as the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s “FedViews” and the General Service Administration’s “Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management.” The educrats responsible for the diktat insist that it’s no big deal, except to the extent it will better prepare the youngster to take their rightful places in society, but we are not reassured.
Any federal “one-size-fits-all” plan for education is destined to fail. What’s needed in a rural Kansas classroom might not be suited to the children in a crumbling inner-city school back east, and within either group the educational needs and capabilities of the individual students will vary even more widely. Each of the 46 states that have signed on to the new standards would do better to allow their school districts to decide what’s best for their charges, and the districts should leave the matter to every school, where the principals should in turn leave the matter to the discretion of the teachers whenever possible. If at any point in this process anyone concludes that the teachers aren’t capable of making the best decisions, they should reconsider their hiring standard for teachers.
There are several things about this particular plan, though, that are especially galling. It’s partly a very personal distaste, as literature afforded us the few enjoyable and genuinely enlightening moments of our desultory schooling, but it’s also an affront to our political, cultural, and educational sensibilities.
How very frightening, for instance, is the assumption that all functioning citizens of the brave new world of the American future will be required to slog through the turgid and deliberately incomprehensible prose of bureaucratic regulations. This assumption is likely correct, alas, but all the more reason that young people should instead be reading Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” to be properly forewarned about the sterile society they’re about to inherit. Perhaps the point of the new standards is to shield the children from such subversive material. Without sufficient regulation some old-fashioned English teacher in flyover country might expose his students to Walt Whitman’s admonition to “Resist much, obey little,” and there’s no telling where that might lead.
Neither do we care for the inevitable cultural effects of this plan. The communication skills of the young people we encounter today are barely sufficient for “tweets” and text messages, and further evidence of the country’s increasing illiteracy abound. We note from the Washington Post’s account of the controversy that the man who played a key role in foisting the new standards on the country was unable to get through a speech at the New York State Education Building without resorting to an expletive that the more genteel editors of the paper felt obliged to delete. Holding up the jargon-laden soporifics of the General Services Administration as a model of well-written English will not better the situation at all.
In addition to teaching people to coherently and more elegantly express a thought, literature from sources other than the Government Printing Office also helps people formulate an idea. Those seeking any insight into human behavior, man’s relationship with God, the history of civilizations, or anything else that might be useful to a sentient being as he avails himself of whatever’s left of his freedom would do better to check with Mark Twain, Robertson Davies, Joseph Conrad, or a number of other dead white men than the GSA. Great literature fires the imagination and prompts one to ponder all the possibilities, which is precisely why it has lost favor with the generations raised on our empty-headed pop culture, but the country should expect its schools to remedy such cultural dysfunctions rather than acquiesce to them.
The proponents of these new standards will no doubt argue that anyone who can master the complexities of executive orders and bureaucratic reports should then be able to cope with mere literature, but deciphering the archaic language of William Shakespeare is more challenging and yields a better understanding of a vast world far more complex than anything dealt with by the Bureau of Weights of Measures.
Great literature is also a link to the past, with all its accumulated wisdom and warnings, and one wonders if the new standards are meant to create a break from that past and allow those who would impose their one-size-fits-all solutions on a new and more meticulously planned society. This distinct possibility is perhaps the most troubling aspect of the plan. Economic and political problems come and go, but when a culture goes it’s gone.

— Bud Norman