The joy of audiobooks

Once upon a time, I was a stalwart purist about printed books.

I applauded the development of audiobooks and ebooks in general because I support anything that promotes and expands reading. They were great for others, just not for me.

The act of reading is still at its apex for me when I am turning the pages, the scent of the acid-free paper enhanced by the fragrance of fine leather binding. I hear the characters’ dialogue or thoughts or the narrator with my mind’s voice. I see all the scenes, landscapes and events with my mind’s eye.

Though I do my share of online reading, I’ve never liked ebooks, and their appeal is waning nationwide. Much of the research I do involves my computer or tablet screen, but I have never read a book for pleasure that way.

Audiobooks are another story.

It would be a stretch to say I was an early adopter for the medium, which predates anything digital—there were books on records and cassettes and even CDs long before Internet popularity and smartphone access exploded.

Typically, free audiobooks have only been those in the public domain, many of which are read by Librivox volunteers, whom I applaud for freely giving their time to make literature available. My first experiences were with such titles.

You typically get what you pay for with anything, and that is the rule as well with audiobook narrators. Like all rules, however, there are exceptions among no-cost Librivox volunteers, as the following examples indicate.

Known only as “Chip,” this Librivox volunteer lends his distinctive silky voice to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which I listen to every Halloween season. His supple recitations are like the brook that glides through the valley not far from the village of Tarry Town, “with just enough murmur to lull one to repose.”

Another favorite holiday Librivox recording is A Christmas Carol, read by volunteer Glen Hallstrom, aka “Smokestack” Jones. His pace, accent and character nuances make listening a wonderful gift to give yourself.

Fans of Sherlock Holmes have no problem finding free Librivox editions to listen to, and a number of volunteers do the Conan Doyle stories justice. But one—Simon Evers—is simply brilliant.

In The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist, Holmes scolds Watson for bungling a fact-finding mission.

“You really have done remarkably badly,” Evers-as-Holmes declares dryly in summation, with just the right cadence and condescension.

Still, few free audiobooks live up to the exquisite performances routinely delivered by professionals for the major publishing houses.

Edoardo Ballerini is an Italian American actor who has now recorded some 250 audiobooks, including the latest one I “read,” The Cutting Edge by Jeffrey Deaver. It’s the 14th book in the quadriplegic criminalist Lincoln Rhyme series, and the third I have listened to by Ballerini.

His power to subtly infuse each character with individualized “voices” is nothing short of superb.

My enthusiasm for audiobooks took off after I learned of the “Libby” app, which syncs to my local library card. With Libby, I’ve been able to check out all sorts of books for free—including recent editions—that I otherwise would probably never have read, from history and nonfiction to popular authors and pulp fiction.

After seven days, my borrowed audiobooks are electronically “returned” (unless renewed) to the library. Thus I’ve completed a lengthy string of audiobooks in a relatively short period.

I listened to Brian Kilmeade read both his Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans, and Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates. Tom Hanks was delightful reading his first book, a short-story anthology called Uncommon Type.

The narrator of Mindhunter, the chronicled career and adventures of psychological profiling pioneer John Douglas, perfectly executed the text, sounding like a seasoned FBI investigator himself.

A John Grisham fan, I knocked out a trio more of his novels: Gray MountainCamino Island and The Reckoning, read by accomplished narrators Catherine Taber, January LaVoy and Michael Beck respectively.

Narrators Will Patton and Ann Marie Lee eloquently delivered all the twists and turns in The Outsider (Stephen King) and The Woman in the Window (A.J. Finn).

Autobiography authors often choose to read their own audiobooks. For Michael Caine in Blowing the Bloody Doors Off, it was an audible feast. For Hillary Clinton in What Happened, it wasn’t. Andrew Lloyd Weber wisely cast British narrator Derek Perkins, with 270 recorded audiobooks on his resume, to read Unmasked.

Janet Evanovich best-sellers abound in any bookstore, but I’d never read anything by her until I borrowed Visions of Sugar Plums on a whim last Christmas. Actress and award-winning audiobook narrator Lorelei King’s rendition was “vocal acting” at its best in conjuring up vivid imagery from the dialogue and dialect of the somewhat screwball characters.

The late American actor Ralph Cosham narrated my “re-reading” of Mere Christianity, and became the voice of C.S. Lewis forevermore in my ears.

Audiobook popularity has grown tenfold in less than a decade, and with smart speakers and other technology aids and improvements expanding, shows little sign of slowing down.

As a freshly minted devotee, I can fully see (and hear) why.


Value of Americanization

Americanization is an old word and an old concept, but it’s enjoying a welcome bit of revival.

Last year, the Arkansas General Assembly passed a law requiring high school students to pass a citizenship test before they can graduate. In February, public school districts began administering the exam to students seeking a diploma or GED this May.

Also in February, a study of 41,000 Americans by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation underscored the need for such tests. In only one state—Vermont—did a majority of respondents pass the test.

In Arkansas, 70 percent failed.

I took a couple of sample tests that included 20-something of the 100 questions on the citizenship test. Given my personal love of history and penchant for reading, I fully expected to earn a perfect score, and I did on both.

Many of the questions were easy (first president, date of Independence Day, etc.), but there were a few that gave me pause, and made me think (the multiple-choice question that listed four sets of three states, and asked which grouping was from the original 13 colonies, for example).

Critics who argue that such exams only test rote memory miss the point. The whole point of any testing is to require study and preparation. To successfully answer the question about what Benjamin Franklin was famous for required some beneath-the-surface knowledge beyond the Pennsylvanian’s foul weather kite-flying and authorship of Poor Richard’s Almanack.

Obviously, it’s important for Americans to understand their country and citizenship as they come of voting age. That’s critical for any society that values freedom and hopes to retain it.

World history is replete with toppled democracies, and post-mortem lamentations by citizens looking back on what might have been. Indeed, more is often learned from failure, provided the lesson is taught. And the recurring theme for failed democratic societies is destruction from within; the lack of knowledge and active diligence in preserving democratic ideals leads to individual self-centeredness and moral rot which ultimately destroys them.

“Perils will befall democracy everywhere when it forgets that free men have duties as well as rights,” an elderly Frenchman is reported to have said following the downfall of the third French Republic in 1940. Two millennia prior, Thucydides blamed selfishness and blindly immoderate behavior for the Athenian democratic collapse.

Those two perspectives are featured in the opening section of The American Citizens Handbook, which was published by the National Education Association for 27 years, from 1941 to 1968.

Now, more than 50 years after the final edition was printed, it’s time for the NEA to reconsider resurrecting the concept of a citizenship anthology that explains the American creed and explores its development.

Today’s version needs to be digital, accessible through smartphone app technology, with multimedia dimensions: a podcast series on the Constitutional Convention, annotated audiobooks of the Federalist Papers, interactive infographics for aid in understanding the musical Hamilton.

Twenty states now require civics exams for graduating high school seniors; none did five years ago. The timing is right because one thing our hyper-consumerist age has drilled into our heads is that achieving successful brand loyalty requires cultural adherence to core company values.

The best, most revered and most prosperous organizations—from commercial to industrial to nonprofit—all spend substantial money, time and other resources educating employees about their vision, mission and culture. “Living the brand” is a proven method to building it. A successful America must do no less, and modern Americanization is important not only for children in school but also for immigrants.

Americanization doesn’t require immigrants to lose their ethnic heritage. What it should do is educate and enable them to maximize their opportunities here. Properly done, Americanization emphasizes the Unum in our national motto, because that’s where our strength lies.

What unites us is what propels the nation forward. But an immigrant won’t know what those unifying values, beliefs, rights and responsibilities are unless we teach her or him. And that is one of the great untold and unmeasured costs of illegal immigration.

Not only do immigrants who come here illegally circumvent our fundamental fidelity to the rule of law, they also sidestep all formal Americanization education processes in place to benefit them. They essentially start out on two wrong feet.

Today’s shrill politics constantly seeks to stake out dividing lines, but accusations of widespread anti-immigration sentiment are false. The mass majority of Americans realize and respect that we are and always have been a nation of immigrants; what they rightly oppose is illegal immigration.

The old NEA handbook featured “The Code of the Good American,” which listed 11 “laws” that the best citizens traditionally observed and obeyed: self-control, good health, kindness, sportsmanship, self-reliance, duty, reliability, truth, good workmanship, teamwork and loyalty.

It’s quite telling that those “laws” were all frameworks for individual behavior that only grow and get better when practiced over time. As guideposts for virtuous citizenship, each was followed by several “I will …” statements and paragraphs detailing their practical application.

That’s the focus that must be reclaimed for true Americanization across the board. And it’s the best legacy gift we can give to new immigrants.

The Cortez curiosity

New York’s 14th Congressional District politics is a lot like the old Arkansas situation: Whoever prevails in the Democratic primary by default is the general election winner.

The 14th District’s seat is deep-sea blue through-and-through. The hapless and hopeless plight of Republican candidates in that district is illustrated best by the 2018 campaign finance report. Incumbent Joseph Crawley reported spending $5 million on his failed re-election bid in the primary. In the general election, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez reported $1.7 million spent on her campaign.

The total reported amount spent by Anthony Pappas, the Republican candidate, was $2,500. He lost by 64 percentage points.

Except for a short stint during the Reagan era, the 14th District has been solidly Democratic since 1927. No Republican presidential candidate since 2000 has gotten more than 25 percent of the vote. The victory spreads have been extremely lopsided: 47 points for Gore, 49 points for Kerry, 57 and 63 points for Obama, and 57 points for Hillary Clinton.

If indeed Democrats trotted out a yellow dog in the 14th, it would beat Republicans like a drum.

Even though the district is populous (it includes part of the Bronx and Queens), Ocasio-Cortez only garnered 16,898 votes in the primary. For perspective, the mayor of Jonesboro won re-election with 11,465 votes.

New York seats 27 members in the U.S. House of Representatives, 21 of which are Democrats. Of New York Democrats who won election to the House in 2018, all but one were sent to Washington with more votes than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Each of the 435 U.S. House congressional districts represents an average of around 747,000 people. The average general election vote tally for Democratic winners in U.S. House races in New York was 156,650.

Ocasio-Cortez, aka AOC (a wishful subliminal nod to FDR and JFK, perhaps) polled only 110,318 votes in her district, which was listed with a population 691,813 in 2017. She polled fewer votes than three losing Republican candidates: John Faso in NY District 19, Claudia Tenney in District 22 and James Maxwell in District 25.

Nationwide, the average vote count for Democratic congressional candidates elected to the 116th Congress was more than 227,450.

To come to the House of Representatives with one of her party’s lowest voter support records isn’t, by itself, abnormal. Somebody has to be near the bottom in any counting of votes. The oddity is AOC’s darling status in the media and the Democratic Party.

Her upset victory in the primary was reported mainly in the context of timing and turnout: New York had moved its primaries to June, and subsequently AOC was essentially elected by only 7 percent of eligible voters. More than 80 percent in her district stayed home that day.

Her rather radical campaign thesis—even for NY’s immutably blue 14th District—got little news coverage. Many of her ideas have grown more extreme since her election.

The price tag for her Green New Deal has been estimated at $93 trillion. For reference, the annual federal budget is about $4 trillion.

Some GOP pundits hope AOC and her fringe who-cares-what-it-costs zealotry continue to gain support from the DNC. “With enemies like AOC,” wrote one, “who needs friends?”

But like the proverbial broken clock, even AOC isn’t wrong 100 percent of the time. Her Medicare-for-all proposal may not be the right solution, but it casts some fresh light on a longstanding problem. We need some innovative thinking for our health care, and in a brainstorm environment, there are no dumb ideas.

The only way to reduce health-care costs is to improve the nation’s health, physically and mentally. It’s expensive to supply the diagnosis, treatment and healing demands of a national population that excessively overeats, under-exercises, abuses alcohol and drugs, and commits violent crimes. There are always exceptions, but the rule is that health-conscious people who practice healthy living habits have fewer health problems.

What drives up health-care costs are chronic illnesses, many of which are tied directly to unhealthy habits and actions.

There will be no real “fix” to health-care affordability until its cost is reconnected to individual lifestyle choices. It’s not unfair to charge radically different health insurance prices to radically different people. Drivers who get tickets and have wrecks way more often than the average person have to pay way more for auto insurance.

Life insurance costs more for unhealthy and older people. Decisions and actions by homeowners involving size of their house, fire alarm and security system investments, and even their personal credit situations, all affect home insurance costs.

If the cost of car insurance was the same for all, regardless of driving history or age of car, would that be more fair?

Hardly. Even worse, it would disconnect liberty and free enterprise from individual initiative and responsibility. It would punish good drivers who are economical with their car purchases, and reward reckless drivers who overspend.

By all means, let’s have some revolutionary discussions about health-care insurance.

AOC’s got the socialist nanny-state angle covered. Who’s going to have the political courage to address individual responsibility and behaviors on the issue?

Some flag context

Democratic state Rep. Charles Blake has been re-thinking his party’s wisdom when it enacted a 1987 law formally describing the meaning behind the stars on our state flag.

The specific language the Democratic sponsor and majority incorporated into the state flag statute was “The blue star above the word ‘Arkansas’ is to commemorate the Confederate States of America.”

In 1987, Democrats held 91 out of 100 state representative seats, and 31 out of 35 state Senate seats. Democratic Gov. and future U.S. President Bill Clinton signed the law.

The original need for a state flag arose in 1910 when construction began on the USS Arkansas battleship. Eponymous state naval vessels typically flew their local colors alongside Old Glory, so the Daughters of the American Revolution chapter in Arkansas encouraged a flag design contest.

DAR member Willie Hocker’s design was selected and modified in 1913 to feature three blue stars in the white field: one above and two below the state name. In 1923, a fourth star was added, but in an awkward-looking two-over-two arrangement. A year later it was revised to the existing design, with a single star above the name, and three stars below.

In 1924, Democrats held 97 of 100 seats in the state House, and all 35 seats in the state Senate. The genesis and perpetuation of the lone star above the name commemorating Arkansas’ CSA heritage is as deeply azure as a blue state can get.

From the CSA commemoration until 1980 only one Republican was ever elected to the state Senate, and for 36 of those 66 years Democrats occupied 98 or more seats in the state house, and never fewer than 94. In the 32 years since establishing the CSA homage as law in 1987, Democrats were the majority in the General Assembly for 22 of them. As late as 2010, Democrats still held 72 of 100 state representative seats and 20 of 35 in the state senate.

The entire time during which our state flag and its CSA commemoration was created, described anecdotally and engrossed statutorily, the state was controlled by nothing less than an invincibly dominant Democratic dynasty.

The Arkansas flag’s Confederate connection is there because Democrats wanted it there, put it there, and kept it there. For all those years the Democrats were the party with supermajority power, they never felt obliged to remove it.

Not in the midst or aftermath of the Central High School episode. Not during the civil rights struggles in the 1960s. Not even during those terms when they held every single seat in the General Assembly.

Not once in all those prolonged decades. And, even if we discount the shameful Dixiecrat-era influence, not in the first 10 years of the 21st century.

That record suggests abject political apathy on the subject, which is probably pretty close to what it was. As long as they held commanding state government majorities, Democrats didn’t give a flip about that star or its CSA genealogy.

Perhaps trying to blame and shame Republicans for not rushing to do now what Democrats carelessly didn’t do for 100 years passes for political strategy these days. The timing reveals a lot about the real bottom line of Blake’s “feel good” revisionist bill to remove the CSA language: It’s nothing but pandering theatrics intended to incite some teapot tempests.

Revising the obscure symbolic wording behind a solitary star on the state flag into some other wording equally obscure in the public conscience is pointless. If Congress decided to declare that the arrows clutched by the eagle on the American Seal suddenly celebrated archery rather than war, it wouldn’t change the reality of the original design. Or the history behind it.

Our legislators don’t need to feel better by trying to rewrite history. They need to do better.

Neither this silly flag bill nor the ensuing contretemps about it will solve any social problem, provide assistance to any needy citizen, or improve the overall standard of living.

It offers no deliverables whatsoever in terms of public-service efficiency, private-sector productivity or collective community safety. It tackles none of the intractable social maladies faced disproportionately by minorities such as poverty, illegitimate births, fatherless families, lagging educational achievement, stunted economic opportunity and intraracial crime.

That may be partly why Democrats left the flag and its innocuous Confederate reference alone for all those years. It never mattered against the larger task of effective governing.

The years spent under Spanish and French dominion are nothing any Arkansan wishes to return to, and neither is the time as part of the CSA.

I suspect most people never knew the story behind any of the stars and couldn’t care less now that they have learned it. But they do care about real social issues and challenges crying out for legislative leadership and solutions. Opportunistic political gimmickry like this only saps our partisan capital resources and divisively distracts our attention.

Arkansas Democrats had countless chances throughout a century of ruling authority to change the Confederacy commemoration of that star, right up to 2010.

The statute of limitations for their belated false piety on the matter has expired.

Numbers don’t add up

Most of the news coverage associated with the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery focuses on the least likely outcome.

In a Google News search of the subject by name, nine of the 10 returned results on the first page are headlined by winning tickets, winners themselves or ticket sales.

One woman wins $2 million lottery … Little Rock man wins $1 million scratch-off ticket … instant-ticket record sales in January …

Clicking through the first five pages of search results, the word “student”—the supposed beneficiary of all this—appears in only one of the 50 total headlines. It’s crowded out by more giddy and gaudy story headers that appeal to high-roller instincts: Sky-high jackpots … Sales Keep Soaring … Unique Ways to Win … This is Winning! New Slogan …

We shouldn’t be surprised that a numbers racket, even one sold on noble purposes and promises, peddles foremost the dream of instant treasure.

Indeed, if all you know of the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery is what you read in the news, you’d have no idea of how successful the organization is or isn’t with regard to its mission of funding higher education.

Lost amid the convoluted calculus of prizes, retailer commissions, tax revenue, economic impact and even net proceeds to scholarships is any sort of big-picture or high-level analysis of effect over time on the various measures of collegiate progress. And when it comes to assessing our state’s performance in higher education, the numbers don’t add up well at all.

For starters, we the people were originally asked back in 2008 to sell our souls and amend the state Constitution in exchange for $105 million in scholarship funding, dispensed to students at the rate of $5,000 for each incoming freshman’s first year and the next three at four-year institutions.


The lottery scholarship proceeds have never gotten within $10 million of that goal. And instead of $5,000 as pledged, the first-year amount has been slashed by 80 percent, and the four-year total cut by 30 percent.

And switched.

The measly $500 per semester our record-setting lottery is providing freshmen pales even more against warned-against escalation of college costs.

With nearly a decade of lottery decadence at play on our college landscape, there’s enough data to draw reasonable conclusions. In other states where lotteries to fund education had been approved, specifically South Carolina, colleges and universities saw opportunity in games of chance and tuition spiked to such a degree that the lottery wound up making higher education more expensive.

Cost increases here have been more modest (we’re a poorer state) but still significant, especially in light of shrinking scholarship awards.

At the largest public university, the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, in-state tuition has grown by 28 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars (real dollar costs) since the lottery was approved. Others where tuition hikes exceed that include Southern Arkansas University (31 percent), UA Fort Smith (41 percent) and UA Pine Bluff (46 percent).

At private institutions, where tuition was already much higher, similar inflation-adjusted increases have occurred in the era of lottery scholarships. At Hendrix College, tuition is up 53 percent since lottery scholarships were approved. In 2008, a $5,000 freshman scholarship would have funded 17 percent of tuition there. Today, the $1,000 amount covers only 2 percent.

Even at more affordable state schools, the double-whammy of higher costs and lower scholarships is a demonstrable detriment. At UA Fayetteville, the original $5,000 figure represented two-thirds of freshman tuition. Today, the reneged-on sum of $1,000 is only 11 percent of tuition, and not even 5 percent when including room and board.

It’s bad enough that lottery riches were waved in our faces as a way to make college truly affordable, only to be scaled back to become irrelevant in many cost-of-attendance cases. What’s worse is that luring several billion dollars from citizens’ pockets hasn’t moved important needles like college graduation or enrollment rates.

Jefferson County, home to UA Pine Bluff, ranks 11th in population but was second in lottery sales in January (Pulaski County was first), ahead of more populous and prosperous counties like Benton, Craighead and Washington.

But UAPB’s four-year graduation rate is an abysmal 5.6 percent, which is 75 percent lower than the state average. Even using the more forgiving six-year grad-rate average, Arkansas is still 49th in the nation.

Clearly, the math’s awry.

And not just in the community where people spend more funding lottery scholarships, and university costs are rising faster, yet only six students out of 100 earn a degree in four years.

In all lotteries, the odds are stacked against players. But scholarships should be tilted in students’ favor, and we ought to restore the $5,000 on a merit basis for high school applicants with excellent grades.

Kids with 4.0 GPAs are unlikely to become college dropouts. They are hard-studying students who earned the original declared amount.

More importantly, the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery owes them what was promised in the first place.

If we can live with record lottery sales while not keeping our word to the state’s best and brightest high school graduates, we deserve snake eyes.

Untenable half-truths

In a representative democracy dominated by dual partisan factions, half-truths are destined to abound in public discourse. They are political leopard spots, unlikely to change, especially in an “information age” that rewards volume over veracity.

Indeed, one theory for modern electioneering might hold that more national elections today are lost than are won. That the candidate whose half-truths wander least from intuitive honesty is less likely to be dismissed by lazy voters.

Regardless of campaign rhetoric, party planks, media bias and shouted soundbites, there are universal truths that are understood, whether or not they can be articulated.

Life isn’t fair. Time waits for no one. Change is inevitable. We all die sometime.

The list of immutable realities, if you sit down to itemize it, is long. And government can neither alter or eliminate any of them. Any government, and any politician, that claims or seeks such ability is either foolish or false; often both in mingled degree.

Thus the appeal of the half-truth: Rather than challenge a broad principle, attack one narrow sliver.

It is easier to argue, for example, about the the plight of poor women mutilated or killed in back-alley abortions than plead the case for killing unborn children a million times a year.

Even abortion-rights proponents always sound the chorus that legal destruction of fetuses should be “rare,” which isn’t really that far from their political opposites who think it should be never. But in the decades since, abortion has been commonplace, not rare. The early restrictions have been eroded and relaxed, till some otherwise reasonable-sounding leaders now seem tone-deaf to barbarism bordering on infanticide.

The Supreme Court justices in 1973, along with the normal majority (to borrow Will Rogers’ sublime designation) of people, would have repulsively rejected any claim of the right to abort a near full-term baby.

In other words, had the argument before the court back then been to secure the reality we have today, the case for abortion would have failed miserably.

That also partly explains the issue’s continued contentiousness, even after all this time. It has trouble living up to a “law of the land” standard because as constructed—not as a legislative product of self-governing democracy, but as a coercive judicial edict—it clashes with the universal truth regarding sanctity of life.

Across the political spectrum, each extreme hurls its half-truths into the public fray, where normal Americans weigh them against innate universalities.

For all nations, legal immigration is better than illegal, and border security is a requirement. Every illegal immigrant not only cheats our country’s laws, but also gains an unjust advantage over legal immigrants properly awaiting their turn.

The politician or party that ultimately polls better probably will be the one whose ideas and solutions least offend those truths.

On matters of crime, race, education, taxes and foreign policy, half-truths dominate discussions, complaints, promises and blame-mongering. Since few people are inclined to truly research any of them, they tend to weigh the untenability of arguments against the true north of their trusted internal American compass.

The principles of limited government and sovereign individual rights are deep-seated in our core. Those particular realities also figure favorably among the best governments ever instituted.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are the furthest thing from guarantees of any specific result or outcome, however. Freedom to do wrong is still freedom, and rushing unwisely down an unsound path in search of happiness is still a pursuit.

The purpose of government isn’t to ensure through its power the selection of right choices or right paths. The American experiment has succeeded because, normally speaking, we the people possess foundational moral values buttressed by education and religion.

Only a people with a propensity for good can enjoy liberty and be productive. For people prone to mischief, liberty is an enabler of their vices. Sometimes they run afoul of laws and wind up losing their freedom. More often, they simply fall short of their American potential. Overeating is a problem that produces a host of other problems. So is irresponsible parenting. And drug or alcohol abuse. But they’re also all products of liberty.

America’s strength has always been its people, not its politicians. The true value of our diversity is realized through uniculturalism with respect to universal truths.

The way Will Rogers put it was, the American in the Normal Majority just goes along, “believing in right, doing right, tending to his own business, letting the other fellows alone.”

Stephen Vincent Benet eloquently invoked our infused national spirit to open his 1929 Pulitzer Prize-winning epic poem “John Brown’s Body,” from which a few couplets are pertinent (and beautifully written).

American muse, whose strong

and diverse heart

So many men have tried

to understand

But only made it smaller

with their art,

Because you are as various

as your land …

A friend, an enemy,

a sacred hag

With two tied oceans

in her medicine-bag …

All these you are, and each

is partly you,

And none is false, and none

is wholly true …

So, from a hundred visions,

I make one,

And out of darkness build

my mocking sun.

The perils of neglect

The link between learning and liberty is immutable and indisputable. Every big name involved with America’s founding remarked upon the necessity of education, none more forcibly than George Washington.

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports,” he wrote in his Farewell Address in 1796.

“Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government,” he continued, calling its corollary education an “object of primary importance.”

Today, his words are more likely to be found swept under the proverbial rug than anchoring school mission statements. Fortunately, our state constitution codifies a declaration of educational core values that echoed the general’s sage sentiment.

“Intelligence and virtue being the safeguards of liberty and the bulwark of a free and good government, the State shall ever maintain a general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools,” reads Article 14.

The Twitter-ized, truncated tendency to abandon sentence structure in texts notwithstanding, the rules of language remain intact. “And” is an inclusive conjunction; it means both when connecting two nouns or subjects.

The constitutional precept is really just a restatement of common-sense reality. Before any child can ever truly master the fundamental three Rs of education, he or she must first learn the two Rs of right and wrong. Yet modern curricula focus almost exclusively on teaching students to acquire and apply knowledge and skills—the intelligence requirement.

How many classes are built around moral instruction, and how many tests measure its successful learning? How many Common Core standards explicitly address teaching virtue?

In a search of the Arkansas Department of Education website, the word “standards” returns 8,390 results and the word “knowledge,” 3,820 results. The word “virtue” garners a mere 164 mentions–and 118 of those are contained in “by virtue of” clauses.

Derivative words are even more sparse: “morality,” 37 results; “kindness,” 28 results; “goodness” only seven results, all of which are preceded by either “my” or “thank.”

In sampling several dozens of the framework documents themselves, which cover every class for every grade and number anywhere from around 10 pages to more than 50 each, I never found the word “virtue” at all. Not in English Language Arts, not in Fine Arts, not in Social Studies, not even in the Psychology or Sociology frameworks.

In short, across the gargantuan site containing all manner of curricula descriptions, frameworks, standards and learning services, there’s basically no mention of anything regarding the second half of the declared purpose for Arkansas public schools.

There are hundreds and hundreds of search results for words like “analyze” and “critical thinking” and “explore” and “reason” and “experiment” and “calculate,” as there should be. There is no deficiency in the Department of Education’s demonstrated quest to further intelligence. Where inadequacy exists is in the cultivation of its twin criterion, which happens to be a relatively recent development.

This school year marks the 51st since the National Education Association stopped publishing its American Citizens Handbook. For 27 years, from 1941 to 1967, that volume was an inspiring nationwide model that balanced the instruction of knowledge with the development of virtue among its 400-plus pages.

It built on the foundation previously laid by the McGuffey Readers, 120 million copies of which were sold between Arkansas’ year of statehood, 1836, and 1920. An estimated 80 percent of U.S. schoolchildren were taught using McGuffey books, which embodied the founding-era understanding of virtue as essential to self-government and education the means of instilling it.

Common school visionary Horace Mann lamented the failure to match the Revolution’s governmental transformation with corresponding change in education institutions and structure. “For every dollar given by the wealthy … to colleges to cultivate the higher branches of knowledge, a hundred should have been given to primary education,” he said in his “Go Forth and Teach” speech in 1842.

Incisive perspective at a time when multimillion-dollar gifts to state universities are making headlines.

Noting that our republic allowed the “vote of the veriest ignoramus” to balance that of Franklin or Washington, Mann cast a prudent warning. “With universal suffrage there must be universal elevation of character, intellectual and moral,” he said, “or there will be universal mismanagement and calamity.”

His closing rings prescient.

“Licentiousness shall be the liberty; and violence and chicanery shall be the law …” he predicted, “of that people who neglect the education of their children.”

It would be a mistake to minimize the coincidence of the decline and fall of the NEA’s handbook as an educational influencer with the rise in criminality (every crime is a wrong moral choice).

We have not wholly neglected education—only one part of our constitutional charge, albeit a crucial part.

Perhaps the new legislative women’s caucus, which just addressed educational literacy, will step up, dust off Article 14, and take a leadership role in restoring the teaching of virtue as an educational focus and responsibility.

There’s already a wealth of timeless truths in maxims and essays and lessons out there—two centuries’ worth, enough for lots of effective frameworks for all grades.

All that’s needed now is the will.