Maybe this is the start of my next Reader Column

I have only rarely taken posts for the blog and turned them into Reader Columns. Today my be an exception but only if I can take the 2000 plus word worthy ideas and shave them down to half that. Last night I woke up with a very different idea of a column. I woke up enough to write the title down in an email and sent it to me. 1969. It involved my singing a Civil War tune on my bicycle the summer of that year as I looked up at a moon with humans on it and encountered a new college student on her steps who asked me if I knew what the word “gay” now referred to as opposed to the song lyric when it was written, “In the prison cell I sit …..While I try to cheer my commrades and be gay.”

But now two stories in the NYT have my attention. As always I send them to myself as a reminder to keep them in mind for future reference. Most days I send between one and four to myself. Rarely do I follow up with them. Today’s are One: There Are Better Ways to Study That Will Last You a Lifetime

I copied one sentence out of it that summed up my thinking about lifetime learning as opposed to study it quick for the test then forget. That sentence was about an equivalent form of physical exercise that apparently fools kids into thinking they are getting good exercise, to wit: “Students try to learn by doing the mental equivalent of push-ups on their knees.” pushups on knees are infinitely easier than pushup on tippy toe and a fraction as useful.

The other article was about children failing to learn how to read in the US despite our adoption of a phonetically spelled written script that made universal education possible once printing became widespread. That story was this one: ‘Kids Can’t Read’: The Revolt That Is Taking On the Education Establishment

In rough order here are the things that occur to me on these twinned subjects.

As a kid learning to read I was no overnight success. I failed first grade. I remember learning the basic sound unit of reading that I was told was called a syllable. I also recall my suspicion about the idea of it being basic because everytime I encountered a sylable I found many more sounds in it. For example cat was cuh, a, and tuh. So wasn’t that really three syllables. The idea of a phoneme would probably come in college long after I began to read.

I also remember that in my youth television swept America and that I was addicted to it. I remember feeling guilty about this when I turned down my next door neighbor’s request that we play catch together. I would watch almost anything rather than pick up a book something my neighbor would do regularly reading an astonishing book or two each week.

Today I spend two or three hours on my cell phone every day as I used to do on newspapers for the first forty years of my married life. But I’m reading new not looking at Tic toc videos. I am a news junkie.

It occurs to me that our national divisiveness may stem in part from our citizens trending away from reading to inform themselves and falling into the orbit of talk shows full of nonsense and crap filled like those of Rush Limbaugh. Listening to Rush for five days a week for thirty years while ignoring written media ….. Dear God!

Like a lot of boys I was interested in sciencey sorts of things. My parents were interested in many things as well and were also great readers. There were many great readers in my family. When my Mother’s father moved his living room wall had a built-in bookcase full of history books in it. I suggested his interest in History in one of my favorite Reader Columns “They died with their boots on.”

My wife reads a book or three a week. They are rarely the histories I read occasionally but her vast reading made her an exception in her family. Of twelve near an extended people on her father’s side only three were serious book readers. No one was available to suggest books for her voracious reading and she consumed all manner of stuff the complete opposite of my family where books were recommended all the time. She read War and Peace two or three times before she married me. Who does that?

I had a voracious curiosity which television addressed early on but my reading habit was finally turned on in seventh grade by the Reader’s Digests my Minnesota English teacher encouraged us to read. This six year addiction was addressed in another of my columns

Before I launch into the main thrust of this reading related post I’ll mention China.


I’ve been fascinated with how nations make themselves successes and failures for ages. As mentioned earlier the phoenetic alphabet helped bring literacy to nation’s lucky enough to have one. Other far more complex writing methods developed with other sophisticated cultures but they were all relatively cumbersome and limited to an elite class of educated people. China had one such system which began simply with picture images that were simplified over time. Over that time of simplification the script was shared between dozens if not hundreds of related languages that were incomprehensible to one another. But like hand sign language the picture images could be understood. In that way as China’s many princely nations fought and combined an elite group of administrators had a universal means to communicating to each other on paper…..another singular invention of the Chinese.

The modern history of China going back to the intrusion of European armies on their coastlines is one in which their fabulously cultivated culture was overwhelmed by navies and small armies of nation’s that had leapt ahead of the Chinese technologically by several hundred years.

China has been reeling from this assault all through the last century. Its contemporary leaders have long saoght means by which to overcome this ancient and hard to learn writing method. So to my blog I’ve wanted to add a story told on Radiolab on Public Radio that explains this history including the development of a typewriter that was capable of putting a thousand simplified Chinese Characters on paper with only a few dozen keys. It is a method that pits another simplification of the last century. Pinion (European phonetic script) on a language to which it seems ill suited. Its called The Wubi affect A Facebook link has a subtitle “How do you fit 70,000 Chinese characters on a keyboard.”

But this is not the main thrust of the piece I might craft into a 800 word column. I’ll attack that now although I can’t imagine I’ll manage it in so few words without a fair about of tinkering later.

Over a year ago I wrote a number of columns about my failure to get tenure.

The federal school board

Sitting and Thinking (Which by the say I wanted to title ‘Sittin on the Shitter” but my editor found it too offensive for his tastes)

36 Children, 50 years later

Historian of the School Board

Heidi O’Bromowitz

Why I was willing to Cross the Union

Organizing a Union of substitute teachers

These seven were a little more deliberate attempt to explain my thinking about the centrality of public education to the state and to the individuals it inculcates or (as the George W. Bush Administration suggested) leaves behind.

Collectively, I hoped they would explain my frustration with discovering so many children left behind when I began my frustrating attempt to teach junior and senior high school children who could only read at the second or third grade level. Imagine my frustration to read long after I first got elected to the Board in the NYTimes stories that once again the United States is discovering vast numbers of high school students who read as though they only got a couple years of school in the African bush. (There are not enough exclamation points on an 8.5 by 11 inch leaf of paper to express my rage.)

The last of my columns about crossing the union explains my willingness to challenge the powers that ruled the School Board of old to invite Charter schools into Duluth. One of the columns must mention the attempts by Bush to leave no child behind which also forced drill and kill on them a horrendous African Bush sort of teaching method.

I’m not interested in pointing fingers but reading has been screwed up on a national basis much as in my youth “New Math” was poorly substituted in the curriculum to complicate math. America is not Red China. Here you can drag a horse to the water but you can’t make it drink.

Hell, after Covid you can’t even vaccinate children anymore for the common childhood diseases that suddenly vast numbers of school children have no internal protection from.

But they can have guns toted into their schools and have their little brains blown out by the crazies who are provided AR 15s by the National Rifle Association. Talk about jackboots.

This is hardly a satisfactory end and at 1,550 words its far in excess of what I want a column to be……but it may be a start. Wish me luck turning it into a column for tomorrow’s submission deadline.

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