In February we celebrate Presidents Day, a movement from specific detail (Lincoln's birthday, Washington's birthday) to the generic. Washington, of course, is supposed to have chopped down a cherry tree and then confessed to his dad: "I cannot tell a lie." But Presidents Day itself is lying to children: Some presidents were horrid, and we should not pretend that all are worth celebrating.
Meaningful holidays are specific. Easter is about Christ risen, and those who prattle about Easter symbolizing "the way we can all ascend past our own fears" are stripping the day of its power. My wife's elementary school celebrated Arbor Day by having children plant trees. Now, Earth Day pundits scare children by talking about something abstract and beyond their control: global warming.
Broad worry rather than tangible action is unproductive. For example, "compassion" lost its groove when it became a vague feeling of sympathy instead of hands-on help for those in need. Charles Dickens created a London character, Mrs. Jellyby, who ignored her own family to concentrate on international philanthropic schemes. Dickens memorably depicted Mrs. Jellyby's specific mannerisms so readers could visualize her whirled pleas.
That leads me to writing. We don't see enough good writing partly because children hear bedtime stories less frequently when a household contains one exhausted parent rather than two who share bedtime tasks and pleasures. In school, children are less likely to read good books. Their K-12 curricula often offer formulaic and legalistic writing advice: Produce a five-paragraph essay. Have four supporting points in each paragraph. Use adverbs as "dress-ups."
Students also don't learn that authors whose style seems to flow most naturally almost always achieve such an effect through unnatural exertion. Eighty percent of good writing is rewriting, but rewriting in a middle-school or high-school setting means that a teacher must read a first draft and make comments, then read a second draft and make more comments, and on it goes.
It takes dedicated teachers to work so hard, especially since grading papers is the most miserable part of a teacher's job. Many teachers don't persevere, and if they don't demand rewrites, students won't do them. So, most high-school graduates arrive in college as poor writers. The only way they will improve is to have professors demand frequent writing and rewriting, but profs hinder their career prospects spending their time helping students' writing rather than publishing journal articles (see "College bubble, Jan. 14).