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Published in 1997, Arundhati Roy’s debut novel The God of Small Things was described by the New York Times book review as, “part political fable, part psychological drama, part fairy tale.” The novel tells the story of the Kochamma family, a wealthy family in the village of Aymanam in Kerala in Southern India, the same village where Roy herself was raised. The story begins with the daughter, Rahel, returning home as an adult to see her twin brother, and goes on to explore the events from their childhood that shaped the family and changed all of their lives.
The God of Small Things gained almost instant international success after it was published. It won the British Booker Prize for Fiction and was named as one of the five best books of 1997 by TIME Magazine. Since then, Roy has concentrated solely on nonfiction and political causes and The God of Small Things currently remains her only novel. However, with that detailed and sweeping first work, sometimes focusing on the history of India itself, sometimes on the individual concerns of one family, Roy truly connects the universal to the personal and illustrates how the small things in life are important and can have far-reaching effects.
Chief among the many talents for which American novelist and Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck was noted was his ability to demonstrate how social and economic conditions affect various individuals in a given society. The Grapes of Wrath, his ninth novel, served as no exception. With the Great Depression of the 1930s as a backdrop, the novel focuses on the economic struggles of a family of migrant laborers who are forced to leave their homeland of Oklahoma in order to attempt to seek prosperity out in California.
Written in 1939, The Grapes of Wrath almost immediately garnered support from the masses, especially among the working class. Yet, it was often assailed by critics who felt that Steinbeck was pushing too much of an anti-capitalist agenda with his gritty, no holds barred approach to portraying the hardships faced by the Joads, the destitute working class family that the novel centers upon. With disagreements among different economic classes just as much of a hot-button issue today as they were in the 1930s, it is easy to understand how The Grapes of Wrath has endured as an important literary classic that still serves to make an strong impression on readers of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Like many of Jane Austin’s works, Pride and Prejudice, first published in 1813, is centered on the life of a young woman growing up in middle class Regency England. Through the use of infectious humor and gritty social commentary, this book served to help spearhead the way toward the literary revolution of 19th century realism. Indeed, "Pride and Prejudice" still stands as an invaluable tool for stimulating philosophical exploration of both the status of women throughout history and the struggles between and within the different social classes of both the past and present, all written in a style that consistently succeeds in bridging the gap between Austen's world and that of the reader.
I’ve done a lot of presentations over the years on education and technology but as a fan of “TED Talks” I felt some pressure to say something profound. When I sat down in my office to write something for today, I realized there was very little chance of that actually happening. And, I’m okay with that, because there’s a freedom in not having to get it exactly right, to float ideas out there, to be able to promote thought, to let ideas evolve in this social setting.
In part, I owe this humble insight to a mystic I’ve followed, someone that I think you’ll recognize…
Clearly, the world is full of great ideas and you’ve heard a number of them tonight. But what’s equally important as those ideas is the questions they raise, how it challenges your thinking! That’s the way the knowledge has evolved over the centuries, that’s the evolution of thought.
Consider this clip from MGM’s Love and Death between Diane Keaton and Woody Allen:
Sonya: “If God created the World then everything in it is beautiful even if his plan is not apparent to us.”
Boris: “Sonya, what if there is no God? What if we’re just a bunch of absurd people running around with no rhyme or reason?”
Sonya: “If there’s no God then life has no meaning, why go on living? Why not just commit suicide?”
Boris: “Let’s not get hysterical. I could be wrong. I’d hate to blow my brains out then read in the paper that they found something.”
Perfect. Hypothesize … express an informed opinion … but always remember the likelihood is that, upon further examination, possible flaws in your logic may become apparent, even dramatic. Moral of the story – keep reading, keep your ideas fluid.
So really, what does this have to do with education? Everything. Knowledge evolves, a challenge of previous notions, some sound, some absurd, all contributing to the next. The key is to have knowledge so you have something to build upon. And what’s the primary source of knowledge? Wikipedia? Spark Notes? Despite this common practice for students – no, not exactly, but close. That would be, ah, yes, … reading.
I’m pretty sure I know why I didn’t get into Harvard. They asked me for the titles of all the books I’d read over the last three months, so I listed a dozen James Bond novels. What was I thinking?
Luckily the college I did get into, Colgate, moved my reading beyond pop lit. It also led me, in a roundabout way, to StudySync.
Late in 2009 my friend and Colgate classmate, John Romano, mentioned that his brother, Robert, had started an educational company concerned with critical reading for young adults.
I had just returned to freelance writing after doing twenty years as a writer and editor in the School Reading Department at Houghton Mifflin. Prior to that I’d written educational media programming in Canada, including a ten-part radio series on writing. I also had a teenage son.
$37,000 according to the University of Iowa. Students interested in receiving the Tippie scholarship are prompted to tweet “What makes you an exceptional Tippie MBA candidate and full-time MBA hire? Creativity encouraged!" Wow! $264 dollars per character? Having been a starving college student some years back, it’s hard for me to imagine receiving that amount of money for 140 characters, no matter how well-chosen. But if you think about it, there is artistic beauty in being able to convey ideas succinctly, effectively, and creatively. And we can all appreciate the qualities of brevity, right?
For me, John Steinbeck comes to mind when thinking about simple, powerful language. In fact, I distinctly remember my high school English teacher wanting us to understand how what often appears to be simple in the art of writing can often be the most memorable, powerful storytelling. A lesson plan on TeacherVision describes Steinbeck’s The Pearl in the following way. “The story is simple but exciting. However, within its simplicity is the great complexity of a tale filled with imagery, symbolism, and thematic significance.”
Students can experience – and practice – this same to-the-point powerful approach to writing with StudySync, whether through student essays or StudySync Blast responses on current events. While the perfect 140-character Blast response may not garner students a $37,000 reward, it does allow them to express themselves quickly, concisely, and thoughtfully – from any device, anytime, anywhere. And that can be an even greater reward than the money – well, almost.
Excerpts from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, The Pearl, and Travels with Charley can also be found in the StudySync Digital Library.
It’s hard to argue against the unique and special brilliance of inventor, author, and futurist, Ray Kurzweil. He has been labeled by many highly respected sources as, “revolutionary,” a “genius,” and the “heir to Thomas Edison.” Bill Gates said that “Kurzweil is the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence.”
In his highly successful 2005 book, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, Kurzweil predicts how our bodies will eventually merge with technology. He points out that technology in general, and artificial intelligence specifically, has been and is continuing to grow at an exponential rate. Human intelligence is not. Hence, according to Kurzweil, machine intelligence will someday surpass human intelligence, and he thinks that this will happen by the year 2045. He calls that moment in time the Singularity, and he believes that it will fundamentally change life on Earth. The implications of his theory are numerous, fundamental, and controversial.
This is precisely why this groundbreaking work was perfect for StudySync. Kurzweil’s writing exists simultaneously in the worlds of science, science fiction, philosophy, and history, and raises fundamental questions of what it means to be a human in a human-dominated world. How better to model vital critical reading and thinking skills in our student users than by introducing them to such cutting edge content?
StudySync CEO Robert Romano took the stage to a sold out crowd. In addition to demonstrating the product, he shared his vision, along with a bit of history behind the company's founding.
[My] first company I founded with James Moffett, who is a renowned educator from Harvard, one of the preeminent educators in language. He passed away during that project, but his inspiration carried over to my second project which is founded in the ideas that fill our books and our libraries, our personal libraries and our public libraries.
It's the idea that getting students today, at any level, to read is very difficult. Even a presenter earlier said it's a challenge to even read text for ourselves. So, how do you do that? Those ideas in those books are the cornerstones of our culture, our own source code of the people that we are. It's important to know that the kids that are now in schools really have an interest in learning those ideas.
On my way to a meeting in San Francisco, I'm driving south on Highway 121, the Sonoma vineyards racing by on both sides - nice place to live. Being the stimulus junky that I am, I scrolled through the iTunes playlist on my dash. Nothing. So I hit the radio, clicked off the rap station my teenage son had set, and tapped into 88.5 catching mid-conversation the CEO of a major book retailer, an executive from a large publishing company, and an NPR interviewer. Articulate, thoughtful, FM voices. The topic if the day - books going digital and how all the new devices are affecting the experience of reading.
Am I wrong or was this the same conversation from, oh I don't know, maybe a dozen years ago? Ink on a page vs. pixels on a screen. That's news? Really?
The audience called in with comments, like: