Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 7, 2008
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
College on CD
Education never ends. If you stop trying to learn, you learn anyway -- but you
aren't in control of any part of the process.
Our brains are built to learn. Anything you do repeatedly, your brain learns
how to do without engaging your conscious attention.
That's why all of us who drive cars have the experience of "waking up" and
wondering where we are -- at fifty miles an hour. Our brain has done a fine
job of doing all the routine tasks of driving, while our conscious mind was off
on its own, thinking deep thoughts.
OK, maybe the thoughts aren't always deep, and that conscious mind is
notoriously unreliable. You're cleaning up a small mess and you think: I've got
to get another roll of paper towels. You head for the cupboard and open it and
... what was I here to do? What was I looking for? You have to reconstruct
what you were just doing in order to have a hope of remembering what you
were about to do.
Meanwhile, though, your brain carried out your instruction to "go to the
cupboard and open the door." That's because your brain has learned the go-to-cupboard-and-open-door instruction set.
So, without paying attention, we constantly train and re-train our brains.
For instance, computer keyboards. Mostly, keyboard layouts have settled
down into some basic patterns. Of course the QWERTY layout is constant, but
even the placement of the Control, Alt, and Caps Lock keys has become
To my chagrin, since I hate the lower-left Control key placement, and I never
use Caps Lock at all -- that's where I want the Control key to be. But I've
learned to live with it.
But when they're designing smaller computers -- like the Asus Eee PC mini-laptop that I just bought -- they have to cram all the necessary keys into a
smaller space, and they make compromises.
Sometimes they make really bad ones -- or at least ones that don't work for the
way my brain has been trained.
On the Eee, in order to fit the standard upside-down-T formation of cursor-arrow keys, they moved the Right Shift key over to the far side of the Up Arrow
This meant that my touch-typist brain, which has been finding the Right Shift
key in a certain location for 44 years now, kept hitting the Up Arrow key when I
wanted to capitalize or shift another key.
Now, I know from experience (that Control/Caps Lock key problem) that I can
learn a new pattern and it will become a new habit.
But I don't want to learn a new placement for the Right Shift key because all
the other computers I use will still have the normal pattern.
Instead, I decided to make the computer learn to do what I wanted it to do.
So I went to PC Magazine's website and paid a tiny amount of money to
download a program called "TradeKeys," written by Gregory A. Wolking. (You
can find it at http://snipurl.com/3ont6, or use the full name:
I told my new Eee to make the Up Arrow key into a second Right Shift key. Of
course, then I didn't have an Up Arrow key. What would I do about my habit of
using that inverted-T formation?
Well, it turns out that the only time I use those keys in a habitual way is
playing Tetris. So I won't play Tetris on that machine. Meanwhile, for other
uses -- which are nonhabitual -- I made the Windows keys, which I never use
for anything at all, into new Up Arrow keys.
And while I was at it, I taught the Eee to make the Caps Lock key into a second
Left Control key. Then, on the remote chance that I might someday want to
use Caps Lock, I turned the Scroll Lock key, whose purpose I have never
known and never needed to know, into Caps Lock.
All of this work so that I don't have to learn something new.
But it's a proven fact that if we keep learning, making our brain forge new
pathways, we are more likely to be able to postpone the effects of senility. (I'm
not talking about Alzheimer's here, just normal senile dementia.)
Also, there's simply the sheer pleasure of learning things. I'm one of those odd
people who loved school. Not the stupidity of school -- the bureaucracy, the
niggling rules designed to dehumanize students, the lazy or incompetent
teachers who were and are far too common, or the other students who are just
marking time. I loved the textbooks, the courses, the good teachers, the fellow
students who cared and were fully engaged in the subject.
That's why I went back to grad school twice, in pursuit of a doctorate that was
meaningless to my career, but would have marked a milestone that I would
have cared about.
The first time, I found myself pursuing a literature degree in an English
Department that was being taken over by the deep dumbness of
deconstructionism; since I was the student who kept asking awkward
questions that showed my skepticism about this phony fits-anything "critical
method," the faculty declined to give me a leave of absence when I needed to
take a semester to write a novel and earn a living.
The second time, in a graduate writing program, I was stunned when the
teacher came to me and explained that the other students didn't like the
harshness of my criticisms in the writing workshop.
Since I was never harsh, merely accurate, and the teacher should have known
that and affirmed it, I dropped out with contempt for the students who
preferred praise to learning, and for the unavoidable teacher who actually
listened to the lazy students in order to silence the rigorous one.
Meanwhile, I watched professor friends struggle with a system that increasingly
penalizes good teachers and rewards often phony "research," so that tenured
faculty is increasingly dominated by people who are really good at the
publication game but indifferent, when not awful, as teachers.
I realized that the problem was me: Since I valued rigorous teaching of true
and/or useful things, and it was clear that literature and writing departments
nationwide were abandoning any such process, I was like a guy trying to buy a
gourmet meal at Burger King. Who's the idiot?
So I stopped trying to go to school (though, having found a wonderfully
eccentric liberal arts college that has not abandoned the kind of teaching I love,
I do teach one semester out of four at Southern Virginia University).
Instead, I continued my lifelong habit of reading rigorous books by intelligent
writers. Truth to tell, that has always been the real source of education
anyway. And when I disagree with the writer or have serious doubts, I can
note my objections in the margin and the writer never knows about it, and
therefore doesn't penalize me for being too "harsh" or taking up too much of the
class's time in attempted dialogue.
But -- and I know this will be obvious -- reading a book isn't social. There's no
conversation. The flow is only one way; my marginalia are never taken into
account by the writer.
I miss the classroom. Or rather, I miss being a student in the classroom of a
wise and enthusiastic teacher. Such teachers still exist -- but I don't think my
family -- or the other students -- would understand if, at age 57, I enrolled in
Jay Wentworth's classes at Appalachian State or Francois Camoin's at the
University of Utah; and Fred Chappell, Ed Vasta, and Norman Council have all
retired (from UNC-G, Notre Dame, and U of U, respectively).
So I'm in Barnes & Noble and I spot a display of heavily discounted courses in
the "Portable Professor" series. Two of them look interesting, so I buy them.
One is a sixteen-lecture, eight-cd course on Roman history, called To Rule
Mankind and Make the World Obey, and the other is When Gods Walked the
Earth: Myths of Ancient Greece.
Now, at my age, and after all my reading, I actually know quite a bit about both
subjects. But I've never taken a course in either. I'm not after information, per
se, because I already own books that are more in-depth. What I want is
something like the classroom experience.
And no, of course there's no dialogue with the cds any more than with a book.
But it's oral, I'm listening. And within its limitations, the first course I listened
to -- the Greek myths course -- does a surprisingly good job.
I've read (but not recently) the Iliad and the Odyssey, as well as the plays of
Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, and Aristophanes that the teacher refers to,
but not Hesiod or the more obscure sources of myths. I can't say whether the
teacher, Peter Meineck, does a perfect job of making things clear to students
who haven't read Homer or the Greek plays, but I believe he does, and I
certainly had no problems with the stories from Hesiod's Theogony.
In taking a course, the quality of the teacher is the foremost consideration, and
even though I'd like it to be, it's not just about what the teacher knows. It
makes a huge difference if the teacher can present information in a clear and
interesting -- no, let's be honest, entertaining -- way. The course has to be
organized in an intelligible way, rather than being a mere infodump.
Meineck is a very good teacher on all counts. I've been listening to the course
while driving twenty-minute errands at five-thirty in the morning, and not only
do the lectures keep me awake, I actually retain what I've been taught.
In fact, Meineck does a better job of helping me find meaning in the mythic
aspects of Homer than did the teacher who "taught" me the Iliad in college, in
Meineck has a homely British accent that is quite charming. And, like all
teachers, he has quirks -- sentences and phrases he repeats more as filler or
punctuation than for any content they might have. "This is important" gets
said more than it should, and sometimes about things that aren't important.
But that's part of having a human teacher.
Here's the thing. ("Here's the thing" is one of my own repetitive phrases, by the
way, which my own students mock.) Meineck may have written out the
lectures, but it doesn't sound like that. It sounds like he's talking from a really
good set of notes, but that the actual sentences are coming out of his head
afresh. In those circumstances, filler and marker phrases are unavoidable.
Potentially more annoying is his occasional moments of illiteracy. Most of what
registers in my mind as mispronunciation is quite possibly the difference
between British and American pronunciations. The Brits are utterly negligent
of the pronunciation of the original language -- they have always made hash of
other languages when they pick up names and words.
But there's simply no way that even a Brit could really pronounce the word
progenitor as "PROJ-uh-NAY-tor." Meineck repeatedly turns the i to an a.
But language snob though I am, I'm only a snob about written language (a
writer -- or editor -- who can't handle lay/lie or who/whom earns a sneer from
me). When we're speaking, the rules relax. And I actually have a great well of
affection for people who mispronounce words because they learned them from
I happen to live in a sub-culture where the word progenitor is relatively
common and adults all know how to pronounce it. That's because of Mormons'
obsession with genealogy. (And even Mormons often pronounce genealogy as if
it were written geneology, and we definitely should know better!)
Meineck apparently learned progenitor by reading alone. And I think it's
something to be proud of, when your reading vocabulary leaves your oral
vocabulary behind and strikes out on its own.
Anyway, the quirks make this more like a real classroom experience, and that's
what I bought the course for.
How much have I learned that I didn't know? Maybe a quarter of the material
is new to me. But that's why I chose this course as my test case. After all, how
could I evaluate a course in a subject where I knew nothing? I could be lied to
continuously and have no idea.
Meineck is, where I already know something, accurate. Where judgment and
opinion come in, he alludes to differing opinions and makes it clear when he is
speaking his own private views. His lectures are clear, concise, and logically
organized. And because he's theatrically talented and trained, when he reads
passages from (translations of) Homer, Hesiod, and the playwrights, he makes
them come to life.
I have been listening to audiobooks for years, and I love them. The Portable
Professor series is not the same thing, even though it's delivered using the
same medium. I can't compare this series or even this particular course to
other recorded lectures, because I've never listened to any others.
But I can tell you this: I have ordered a translation of Hesiod to read on my
own, and I think I'm going to reread the Odyssey as well, since I was so young
when I read it the first time.
And I have also ordered several more Portable Professor courses from Barnes &
Noble online. (http://www.bn.com.)
Speaking of Barnes & Noble online, I'm a much more frequent customer of
Amazon.com, mostly because Amazon showed me the respect of letting me
make my author website, www.hatrack.com, a gateway that kicks back a bit of
the purchase price to me.
There are a couple of irritating things about the Barnes and Noble site. For one
thing, the official name of the story is Barnes & Noble, but of course you can't
use the ampersand in a web address. So they tell you to type in www.bn.com
-- but the address in your browser says it's barnesandnoble.com. It always
makes me nervous when the address I type turns out to be a redirect.
But the really irritating thing is that the B&N homepage runs a continuous
scrolling graphic that demands so much computer time that it makes my
mouse jumpy (not the physical mouse, of course; it's not hopping around on
my desk; I'm speaking of the pointer on screen), so it took me nearly a minute
to keep stabbing at a button -- any button -- onscreen in order to get away
from that graphic.
Don't these people test their web graphics on real machines before abusing
their customers this way?
Anyway, in order to get the full list of Portable Professor offerings, don't go to
the B&N website directly. Use this address -- yes, it's a redirect! --
Or you can use the whole address, if you like typing:
Back when Mitt Romney was a candidate -- or one of the top names mentioned
for McCain's veep choice -- a lot of silly things were said about the Mormon
Church. After 178 years of intensive missionary work, it's amazing how little
most people know about Mormonism!
Many of the things that were said were malicious -- there's a whole industry of
people making up lies about Mormons, though I'm sure their motives are pure.
(I guess they figure that lying is justified as long as the lies keep people from
going to hell because they joined the Mormon Church.)
But most of the misinformation is inadvertent. People have heard things, or
mingled their idea of Mormons with the Amish or the Moonies or some other
religious group; or they have correct but partial information.
What's this with Mormons and polygamy? And how did a fully integrated
church get a reputation for racism? Why do they "oppress" women?
All these ideas are actually related to history, but what's usually lacking is
context and meaning.
This Friday night from 7 to 9 p.m., at an open house at the Mormon Church at
3719 Pinetop Road (across from Claxton Elementary), I will be doing four half-hour sessions precisely for the purpose of answering such questions. My
sessions are not designed to convert anybody. I'm not selling anything.
Donations will not be accepted. I will simply deal with whatever you may have
heard and tell you the facts, insofar as I know them. And usually I do.
You can come to the open house, go straight to my session, and leave when it's
over. You will come away with more correct information -- and fewer false or
partial ideas about Mormonism.
The overall open house definitely has a missionary purpose, but since our
missionary work consists of telling what we believe and letting people decide
whether or not they believe it, too, it's quite safe to come. You will not be seized
and programmed with a new religion. (The idea of Mormonism as a
brainwashing cult is just silly -- brainwashed "converts" would be no use in
You might simply enjoy seeing what else is on offer, on the theory that you
have no hope of understanding a community until you see what they choose to
say about themselves, as well as what others say about them.
Here's the secret: If you don't want the Mormon missionaries to come to your
house, don't give them your address. (They may still happen to knock on your
door as they randomly canvass neighborhoods, but that would be coincidence,
not conspiracy, and you can smile at them and say "no thanks" and they'll go
on to somebody who's interested.)
So there it is: A chance to relieve ignorance about one of the groups in America
that Politically Correct people still feel free to hate and ridicule, because
Mormons are one of the religious groups openly working to protect traditional
values. Since Rhino readers are quite likely to be supporting the same side as
the Mormons on a lot of important social and political issues (though probably
not all!), you might as well find out who we actually are.