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Book Review: The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen

TUDRipplecoverThe Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen (English translation by H.P. Paull, illustrations by Ripple Digital Publishing Corp.) is a brilliantly written fable. I recently re-read it and found that, in its own way, the tale repudiates collectivism and egalitarianism – the idea that everyone should be regarded as equal in everything – with a clever inversion.

Without revealing the story’s twist, the duckling is born ugly, which he can’t help. Other ducks ridicule, even assault, him just for being different. His own siblings spurn him. At first, his mother defends him until, seeking others’ approval, she finally says she wishes he had never been born.

After more rejection and abuse, he flees his family for another group’s domain, where he is told that he will be tolerated as long as he doesn’t marry into the collective. He moves on to a group of wild ducks, facing the threat of the huntsman. With shots firing, and birds falling around him, the Ugly Duckling chooses to think; he hides, waits and bides his time to leave when it’s safe. When he does depart, he is exceedingly cautious. He takes nothing for granted. It’s the first hint that he might be better than everyone else. This is made explicit in the next part of the story when he is castigated by a hen for thinking he’s better than others as he finds himself among a trio of misfits. “Do you consider yourself more clever than the cat, or the old woman?” asks the hen. “Don’t imagine such nonsense, child, and thank your good fortune that you have been received here.”

The Ugly Duckling refuses to be humble. In encounter after encounter, he senses that he might be special. He sadly moves on after each episode, seeking happiness, and the lonely path he takes exacts a heavy toll. That he sees himself as he truly is only when he makes himself ready to give up climaxes the moral of the story, which is a kind of fable about authentic self-esteem. Adversity makes you stronger is certainly part of Andersen’s point but The Ugly Duckling is not, as is sometimes claimed, merely about being different. It is also a tale about discovering and becoming aware of one’s potential. The notion that one should accept himself as he is, recognizing limitations and strengths and accepting that life is hard, and pain is temporary, is obviously relevant to those who are different. But this story is also, and not as obviously, meaningful to the one who is better than others yet unaware of the truth.

Robert Downey, Jr.

RDJAs awards shows have proliferated, they have become proportionately meaningless except as the equivalent of momentary outbursts of some sort of cultural display. Miley Cyrus comes to mind. The Oscars used to revel in glamor, though less and less so. The Grammys would indicate the general state of popular music. And so on. This makes Robert Downey Jr.’s appearance at this weekend’s Kids’ Choice Awards, concocted by Nickelodeon and sponsored by Bounty, Toyota and Cinnamon Toast Crunch, less a leading cultural indicator than merely another high point lost in the increasingly wild and swirling news cycle that long ago ceased to be filtered by sound judgment from rational minds.

It doesn’t help that Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man, The Soloist) appeared to accept an award called Best Male Buttkicker. Ours is a fast-moving era that encourages short-range, fragmentary half-thoughts instead of long-range, contemplative rationality as that awards title suggests. That’s too bad because Downey, an actor who is heroic in real life for having beaten the monster of drug addiction, an enormous achievement in a confusing world, said something important. That he chose to say it to an appropriate audience, children, with clarity of topic and theme, is impressive.

Accepting the award, he told the audience: “You know I wasn’t always a buttkicker. In fact, life has kicked my proverbial butt countless times in many ways for many years, until I decided one day to start kicking back. Now look at me!” Cashing in on what that really means, he pointedly turned today’s rampant look at me! self-centeredness into something more constructive, adding, as a poignant afterthought: “Remember when life is kicking your butt, never forget to kick it back right in the face.” In this context, Downey’s is a well-told lesson in self-renewal; that life means fighting, being assertive and, if necessary, self-defensive with the aggression aimed to hit the right spot. Too often in life we are told to passively yield, accept, resign and be at peace, or let it be or let it go, regardless of context. Downey’s words are a crucial and urgent counsel to today’s scoreless, overtested, indoctrinated youth to do the opposite and choose to judge, reject victimhood and if necessary fight back. What he said goes against everything today’s youths are being taught and propagandized. What he lives by example – and projects onto the screen – offers the youthful of all ages proof that life is worth fighting for.

Marva Collins’ Way

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Chicago businesswoman Marva Collins brought logic to learning when she rocked the Windy City years ago with her radically rational approach to education, as Susan Crawford, RN, recently reminded readers on her Rational Parenting List (RPL). Like the basketball coach in one of my favorite sports-themed movies, Coach Carter, Ms. Collins confronted the reality of government-run education in the ghetto with reason, optimism, and determination, not determinism.

Teaching that one should examine ideas before accepting them, she started teaching troubled students in her own home, opened her own school, wrote a book, Marva Collins’ Way, and became the subject of a television movie starring Cicely Tyson (read my review here). Today, she insists that “there is a brilliant child locked inside every student.”

Explaining her program on her Web site, Ms. Collins writes: “The child is taught to refer to what has been learned previously to support an opinion. References come from many different sources, from poetry, newspaper editorials, magazines, great speeches, novels, or any other written material. Everything everywhere provides potentially excellent material for developing reasoning skills…Textbook word-for-word, lock-step methods never make good critical thinkers. There is a difference between word reading and word understanding. And, there is a difference between knowing how to read, and loving to read.”

Learn more about Marva Collins’ philosophy here.

[Postscript Summer 2015: Marva Collins died on June 24, 2015. Read my review of The Marva Collins Story here].

Patriotic Parents Pull Kids from School over Presidential Address

In the wake of news that the President of the United States will deliver a speech urging government control of medicine, a growing number of parents are planning to pull their children from government-controlled schools on Tuesday, September 8, when the President delivers another speech. The White House announced some time ago that President Barack Obama’s address to primary education students would be carried live to the nation’s government schools, with government-established lesson plans, one of which originally assigned students to “write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president.” Obama’s speech will be shown live on the White House Web site and on C-SPAN at noon ET on Sept. 8.

Not to my kids, many Americans are saying.

“Districts in states including Texas, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Virginia, Wisconsin have decided not to show the speech to students. Others are still thinking it over or are letting parents have their kids opt out,” Associated Press (AP) reports. Government school districts are apparently responding to the opposition. A district near Houston, Texas, plans to show the American president’s speech but, in the words of its spokeswoman, “we would not force them to listen.”

Gee, thanks. This is another example of the Obama administration’s determination to use every available means to indoctrinate the nation’s youth, as the Bush administration did to promote similar expansion of government controls, and use propaganda. This time, patriotic Americans are speaking up, taking action, and actively opposing the government’s rules.

Good for their kids and good for America. We need such principled acts of opposition to government control of our lives more desperately than ever. In fact, the Republican Party, which is dominated by those who would implement government control for God or Judeo-Christianity, should learn a lesson from the patriotic parents. The Grand Old Party (GOP) would be wise to repudiate its religionism, stand united for inalienable individual rights (which inherently means the right to an abortion), and unanimously walk out of President Obama’s socialized medicine speech to Congress the following night.

Book Reviews: Boys, Quakes and Cooking

Unfortunately, I cannot recommend Michael Gurian’s The Purpose of Boys (Jossey-Bass, $ 26.95), because the author completely endorses the view that the purpose of boys—and presumably girls—is, of course, service to others. Self-denial runs throughout this thoughtful book, which appealed to me because the author, a family therapist, focuses on the development of boys in an often anti-boy culture. Dr. Gurian encourages parents and boys to embrace heroism—a rare advocacy these days. Here, too, Dr. Gurian’s definition falls short of man as a rational and selfish human being. He writes that he advises patients to think of the term HEROIC as an acronym for Honorable, Enterprising, Responsible, Original, Intimate, and Creative. Excellent ideals but check out what he means by being responsible: “a boy who cares about others’ needs, and becomes a man of service.” That means the boy must put others first—and himself last—in service of … whom? What? Why? Dr. Gurian’s right that boys are being seriously neglected. Sacrifice of boys (or girls) is not the cure.

A good beginner’s book for kids who want to understand earthquakes—which we’ve been experiencing here in southern California lately—is Earthquake! ($ 3.99, Aladdin Paperbacks) which is part of Simon & Schuster’s Natural Disasters series. The large print, 32-page edition by Marion Dane Bauer, with color illustrations by John Wallace, is scientific about how the earth moves, with facts about the earth’s movement presented in sequence with the three major types of fault movements. A few pages cover various myths about quakes, correctly described as “made up” stories, and the book includes a note to parents and teachers and sound advice on what to do during a quake. Earthquake! is Level One of the four levels in the publisher’s Ready-to-Read series, which means longer sentences and increased vocabulary for the beginning reader.

The Family Chef ($ 27.95, Celebra) by sisters Jill and Jewels Elmore contains very healthy soup, salad and family meal recipes for adults, babies and kids and it’s a well-organized cookbook for those who seek to replicate the food consumed by shapely actress Jennifer Aniston, who hired them and wrote the Foreword. Short notes are personal, fun, and sometimes educational, though the print is too small so use eyeglasses or contacts while cooking if you wear them. With a table of contents with chapter titles such as “Go, Fish!”, lots of white space and color photographs for each recipe, this is a handy kitchen reference for making relatively simple, light meals (assuming the reader is already familiar with different types of lettuce such as mache, Grenoble, and Parella) in international styles. I like the resources section, which provides addresses, Web sites and telephone numbers for the Elmore ladies’ favorite grocers, utensils and ingredients. Also included in The Family Chef: an index and a listing of their favorite food and cooking books—and movies (No Reservations, Ratatouille, and Lasse Hallstrom’s Chocolat, all highly recommended by me, too, especially Chocolat!)