Friday, January 13, 2012

An Autobiography by Frank Lloyd Wright

In December, Tim started reading An Autobiography (1943) by Frank Lloyd Wright to N. as the next text in the improvised biography/autobiography curriculum they've been pursuing together.  This choice made a lot of sense since N. loves buildings and drawing and has long been a fan of some of Wright's most famous structures, such as Fallingwater and the Guggenheim Museum.  But the book is challenging listening for him, not only because of Wright's nontraditional narrative style, which N. has been able to follow well enough.  As much as N. admires some of his buildings, Wright's aesthetic was formed in vigorous opposition to the style N. absolutely loves: the Queen Anne house.  So he has had to wrestle with the intellectual challenge of appreciating some but not all of the views of an inspiring man.

In his account of his childhood, Wright dismisses most of his formal education as having little impact on his learning or development:
But -- of the schooling itself? Not a thing he can remember!  
A blank!  Except colorful experiences that had nothing academic about them.  Like dipping the gold braid hanging down the back of the pretty girl sitting in front into the ink-well of his school desk and drawing with it.  Getting sent home in consequence (p. 36).
Instead, he credits Froebel's Gifts in his very young childhood, raucous play with friends (including running a printing press and lots of drawing), and summers of hard labor on his uncle's Wisconsin farm with truly forming him. 
But the schooling!  Trying to find traces of it in that growing experience ends in finding none.  What became of it?  Why did it contribute so little to this consciousness-of-existence that is "the boy"?  It seems purely negative, and for that reason it may not have been positively harmful.  Difficult for one to say.  You can't let boys run wild while they are growing.  They have to be roped and tied to something so that their parents can go about their business.  What not a subbing post or -- school then?  A youth must be slowed-up, held in hand.  Caged -- yes -- mortified too.  Broken to harness as colts are broken, or their would be nothing left but to make an "artist" of him.  Send him to an Art Institute.
But certain episodes were harmful and remain so to this day (p. 37).
So, Wright doesn't denounce school, but he repeatedly describes his real learning taking place elsewhere.  He matriculated at the University of Wisconsin at Madison to study engineering because he couldn't afford architectural school, thus escaping what he calls "the curse of 'architectural' education of that day in the United States with its false direction in culture and wrong emphasis on sentiment" (p. 52).  He attended classes in the mornings and worked in the afternoons at the private engineering firm of the Dean of Engineering at the University; "it was with Professor Conover, in that practice of his, that the youth really learned the most" (p. 53).

His university classes frustrated him: "Mathematics excepted, there seemed little meaning in the studies" (p. 52).  Wright criticizes his math professor for having "no feeling for the romance in his subject.  A subject when rightly apprehended most romantic.... Is it unreasonable to suppose that a professor of mathematics should be a poet?  Or a civil engineer be a creative composer of symphonies?" (p. 52). Similarly, he "yearned to read and write his own language -- yearned to speak it -- supremely well" but found his pompous English professor's minimal marks on his compositions worthless.  Instead, on his own he read Carlyle, Plutarch, Ruskin, Morris, Shelley, Goethe, Blake, and Viollet-le-Duc.  "But he doesn't know in the least what he read in the school course" (p. 53).

When he was eighteen, though he only had one semester remaining to complete his degree, Wright left the University and absconded to Chicago to seek a job in architecture.  He repeatedly contrasted the "Doctrine" at the University with the "active contact with the soil" he'd had laboring on the farm (p. 57).  His family strenuously objected, but he yearned to act, do, make -- now. 
He now put "University" behind him; a boundless faith grown strong in him.  A faith in what? He could not have told you.  He got on the Northwestern train for Chicago -- the Eternal City of the West.
Here is the bravery of all life, in this tragic break with background, in this stand against the clear sky -- whatever fear, superfluous: This is my own earth!  A song in the heart (p. 60).
Wright calls this sentimental even as he writes it, and almost sheepishly blames the Goethe he'd been reading for his romantic sense of purpose and urge for "action, again action and more action" (p. 58).  But origin stories are always romances, and isn't that what we read autobiographies for?

When they see N.'s drawings and hear about his passion for old buildings, people often say to us, "Oh, he'll be an architect when he grows up."  But unlike Wright's mother (who intended him for architecture from the cradle), we have no specific plans or expectations for N.'s career choices.  Wright's story is valuable for N. because, like all the others Tim has read to him so far, it details the courage, hard work, passion, and contrariness required to live an inspired, true life, no matter what one's profession.


Anonymous said...

Every time I read your blog, I grow more and more inspired to unschool. We've just finished consolidating our books into one central space (by the way....the IVAR bookshelves are awesome!! Thanks for highlighting them here....they were exactly what we needed in our smallish home). As we worked together situating the books into their new homes, I pondered out loud the idea of reading our way through our collection of books (library books included too), one at a time, in place of curricula. I was met with glee at the prospect from my girls! We've pretty much done away with everything except math anyway and both my girls love read aloud.. I do silently freak out at the thought of doing away entirely with schooling conventions even though we are all flourishing in a much more relaxed environment! Thank you for the insight you provide. It continues to inspire!

Megan D. Neal said...

This book sounds fascinating. I don't know much about the man, but I love reading autobiographies. I'm intigued by your "talking points". I hope my library has a copy.

Adrienne Pilon ("A") said...

Yes to your final comment AND it also affirms the idea that the one-size-fits-all schooling approach is problematic---especially for the independent thinker. What, though, did you think of FLW's style? Seems a bit...melodramatic. Loved reading your reading of it!

Fanny Harville said...

Anonymous: Thanks for your comment!

Adrienne: If I had to put my many thoughts about education in one sentence, it would be, as you say here, that the one-size-fits-all approach is problematic. And FLW's style is quite melodramatic, but still somehow compelling.