Friday, July 30, 2010

Some shameless self-promotion (& genuine gratification)

As some of you out there have noticed, there has been a hiatus in my blogging for the past several months. I have various explanations and excuses, but I'll just skip them here and say that I plan to resume blogging (and, perhaps, catch up with some topics and controversies I missed) pretty soon. Meanwhile, here is a little item that might interest some of you ... and that false modesty won't prevent me from sharing.

=> My friend Donald Black at the University of Virginia just passed along to me a brief interview with E.D. Hirsch. I've never met Hirsch, but it so happens that he's a writer for whose judgment I have long had high regard.
E.D. Hirsch Jr. is an academic literary critic and a professor emeritus of education at the University of Virginia. Hirsch is best known for his writings about cultural literacy and his controversial 1987 book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. His most recent book is The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools, which argues for reforming the way children are taught.
Cultural Literacy is a very intelligent and useful book, by the way. It was published in 1988, but it remains all too timely. (This review of Hirsch's latest book by Alan Wolfe helps explain why. I agree with Wolfe that "E.D. Hirsch is a great American, a scholar who cares deeply about the youth of this country, what they are taught, and how likely they are to become engaged and thoughtful citizens.")

It turns out that last year Hirsch read Public and Private in Thought and Practice (1997), a collection of essays that I co-edited with Krishan Kumar, and for which I wrote an introductory/overview essay on "The Theory and Practice of the Public/Private Distinction". Not only did he read the book, but he liked it and found it stimulating.
What book has influenced you the most?
This is a hard question for an 82-year-old who continues to read books and to be influenced by them—that’s more than 75 years of being influenced by books. I find this an impossible question to answer. What influenced my earlier self is often something I reject now! I’m going to flunk this question. The book that influenced me most last year was Public and Private in Thought and Practice: Perspectives on a Grand Dichotomy, edited by Jeff Weintraub and Krishan Kumar. Along with liberty, the public-private distinction is a foundational principle of the American experiment that has from the start been concerned with finding the right balance between the demands of these domains and giving due weight and respect to each.
When one sends a book out into the world, one never quite knows what its fate will be. That's especially true when the book is recklessly interdisciplinary and also aspires to capture the interest of a general educated audience (that possibly mythical constituency). So it's gratifying to know that this book continues to find discerning readers and to give them something to think about. The authors of the other essays in the book (including my co-editor, Krishan Kumar) are invited to share this gratification.

Yours for the republic of letters,
Jeff Weintraub

=========================
The University of Virginia Magazine
Summer 2010 | Arts
Required Reading

E.D. Hirsch Jr. is an academic literary critic and a professor emeritus of education at the University of Virginia. Hirsch is best known for his writings about cultural literacy and his controversial 1987 book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. His most recent book is The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools, which argues for reforming the way children are taught.

What books should Americans read to become better Americans?
The best books to read are Abraham Lincoln’s collected speeches and any good biography such as David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln. My reasoning is that Lincoln was deeply connected with the founders and deeply understood the principles of the founding, but had incorporated them into a modern point of view and synthesized them more profoundly than anyone else before or since. I write admiringly about Lincoln in my book The Making of Americans.

What book has influenced you the most?
This is a hard question for an 82-year-old who continues to read books and to be influenced by them—that’s more than 75 years of being influenced by books. I find this an impossible question to answer. What influenced my earlier self is often something I reject now! I’m going to flunk this question. The book that influenced me most last year was Public and Private in Thought and Practice: Perspectives on a Grand Dichotomy, edited by Jeff Weintraub and Krishan Kumar. Along with liberty, the public-private distinction is a foundational principle of the American experiment that has from the start been concerned with finding the right balance between the demands of these domains and giving due weight and respect to each.

How does reading fiction contribute to education?
Good fiction has the same aim as good nonfiction: to tell the truth about some aspect of the world, though it also has the function of entertaining, which it used to do for centuries before the era of movies, television and the Internet. But those media should also be understood as vehicles for stories. I simply repeat what the ancient Roman poet Horace said about literature: It should please even while it instructs and instruct even as it entertains. These days I tend to like my instruction straight and my entertainment straight. That’s age talking. I used to like stories and novels, and my wife and I read War and Peace out loud the first year of our marriage—a fond memory.

Any guilty pleasures on your bookshelf?
Guilty pleasures? I’m a big fan of Lee Child. And wish he could turn them out even faster. That man can write—not true of most thriller writers—and can make a plot, evoke place and make you turn the page. I’m completely up to date on his thrillers.

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