Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

N. holding an original issue of Poor Richard's Almanack (1757)
In early May Tim and N. finished reading Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography as part of their improvised auto/biography curriculum.  Franklin began writing his account of his life for his son, and his narrative of his early years immediately appealed to N.  As it happened, Tim and N. were also working their way through the Constitutional Convention years in A History of US by Joy Hakim, so the two texts dovetailed productively.  All of this reading is done aloud, most of it by Tim, but N. reads several paragraphs aloud to Tim daily as well, both for the practice in reading aloud (which N.  enjoys doing) and for a different kind of focus on the text.

I've mentioned before in reference to reading the King James Bible with N. that there is so much to gain from reading older texts with children in their original form, not in modernized versions.  So while there are many cool child-friendly retellings of Franklin's life, Franklin himself was an accomplished stylist accustomed to writing for the popular audience of his day, so his prose is quite readable.  To top it all off, N. had an opportunity to see (and hold!) an original issue of Poor Richard's Almanack and the first French edition of the Autobiography (1791) in my university library's Rare Book Room!

As with so many of the autobiographies Tim and N. have read, Franklin's account of his education is particularly interesting.  Franklin's father was a soap- and candle-maker who for a short time began to have his tenth son educated for the clergy until he discovered how expensive it would be follow this course through to university as necessary.  Thus after only two years of schooling, from age 10-12 Franklin worked for his father, learning through the apprenticeship model that was the dominant mode of trade education in the eighteenth century.  Seeing how much Benjamin hated the chandler business (and afraid he would consequently run off to sea to escape), his father took him on a tour of the other trades available to him: "He therefore sometimes took me to walk with him, and see Joiners, Bricklayers, Turners, Braziers, c. at their work, that he might observe my Inclination, & endeavor to fix it on some Trade or other on Land."  Eventually, in view of his son's "Bookish Inclination," his father apprenticed Franklin to his brother, a printer.  Once in the printing business, Franklin learned on the job and taught himself through voracious reading and imitating the style of popular writers.  "From a child I was fond of Reading, and all the little Money that came into my Hands was ever laid out in Books."  I am especially struck by Franklin's father's attention to what work would suit his child, by the strong role played by the practical in an apprenticeship model of education, and of course by Franklin's self-directed learning through reading. 

I enjoy seeing N. make use -- sometimes in ways that surprise me -- of the life stories he and Tim study.  One Saturday N. and I were having lunch with friends before the recent primary election.  We were discussing the much lamented (and now regrettably passed into law) state constitutional amendment on the ballot proposing that “Marriage between a man and a woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state."  As my friend was explaining to her son that not only would the amendment institutionalize discrimination against gay couples, but it would also likely harm other unmarried couples, N. shouted out: "But Benjamin Franklin wasn't married!  He lived with a woman and they had kids and never got married and HE SIGNED THE CONSTITUTION!"  Despite his confusion of the state and federal constitutions, I could not have been prouder of the independent critical thinking and historical knowledge my 7-year-old made use of at that moment.  Thank you, Benjamin Franklin!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Ambitious Anne

I've been immersed in Anne of Green Gables lately, reading it aloud to N. (he loved it!) and discussing it (and many of the other "Anne" books, and some scholarly articles, and a biography called Looking for Anne of Green Gables) with my book club.  As a group of high-achieving women who are either professors or affiliated with academia, we talked a lot about how influential the depiction of Anne's academic success was for us as child-readers.  We remember being inspired by her to study hard.  Anne is the smartest girl in school, and lauded for it.  How appealing and even comforting this was for us in schools where we would never be popular because we were smart!  And we remember the vague feeling of disappointment we had when reading the later books as Anne's ambition seems to dissipate with her achievement of the B.A. degree.  We understood, even as young readers, that this was almost inevitable given the time period in which the books were written, but it was nonetheless hard to justify the disappearance of Anne's drive to achieve.

On rereading the "Anne" books now as an adult, I found myself taking a slightly different view of Anne's education and ambition.  I was struck by how much of her desire to achieve in the Avonlea school was primarily for the sake of winning top honors and besting Gilbert.  While this competitiveness is certainly productive for Anne, I believe strongly now in cultivating internal motivation for learning and achievement instead.  For example, N. recently won second place in a piano competition and although he is proud of this, he has repeatedly said (unprompted!) that he doesn't care about the prize but just wants to make good music (and he really means this, which I am just thrilled by).  I don't believe Anne has such internal motivation; she doesn't study for wisdom or pursue knowledge for its own sake.  In the first book, Anne's intense studying for admission to Queen's is simply depicted as gruelling; it doesn't have any positive impact on her, but rather damages her health such that she needs a summer of outdoor frolic to recover.  Learning is entirely divorced from real life for her.  Similarly, at Queen's there is almost nothing to narrate because her studying is primarily a means to an end (winning a scholarship to Redmond College; making Matthew and Marilla proud) rather than an opportunity to develop as a person.

But when Anne gives up the Redmond scholarship to stay home with Marilla, she gets off the honors-and-achievement treadmill and learns through life experience.  She gains immense wisdom through the trials of teaching in the Avonlea school, and she plans to home-school herself: "Besides, I mean to study at home here and take a little college course all by myself," she explains to Marilla.  And to Mrs. Lynde's relief at her giving up college, Anne replies, "But I'm going to study Latin and Greek just the same, Mrs. Lynde,... I'm going to take my Arts course right here at Green Gables, and study everything that I would at college."  (There's not much reference, however, in Anne of Avonlea of her independent study; it's not clear to what extent she carries through with this plan once she is busy with teaching).  Whether she studies much Latin or not, the life experience and wisdom she gains in her two years of teaching in Avonlea strikingly changes her approach to learning.  Eventually given the opportunity to attend Redmond College after all, Anne is no longer motivated only by external honors but recognizes the inherent value of deep study.  Upon hearing that she will attend college, Mr. Harrison remarks,"I s'pose you'll be scooping up all the honors that are lying round loose at Redmond."
"I may try for one or two of them," confessed Anne, "but I don't care so much for things like that as I did two years ago. What I want to get out of my college course is some knowledge of the best way of living life and doing the most and best with it. I want to learn to understand and help other people and myself."

Mr. Harrison nodded.

"That's the idea exactly. That's what college ought to be for, instead of for turning out a lot of B.A.'s, so chock full of book-learning and vanity that there ain't room for anything else. You're all right. College won't be able to do you much harm, I reckon."

Anne articulates here the ideal of the Liberal Arts.  According to the Liberal Arts model, college does not provide vocational training for a specific job, but gives you knowledge that will help you find your vocation, your answer to the crucial question: what is "the best way of living life and doing the most and best with it?"

My own ambitions as a young person to accomplish a certain kind of academic and career success rendered Anne's redefinition of achievement here illegible to me when I first read the series.  Instead of seeing in the later books Anne's disappointing diminishment into a wife and mother as I once did (in part due to a shift in narrative focus in the later books; the adventures of Anne's children were far more interesting to me as a young reader than the grown-up Anne), I recognize now that Anne ably fulfills the ambitions that she brings to college through her eventual roles of wife, mother, and friend.  And I admire her achievements in those roles much more now than I did as a young reader.      

"I'd like to add some beauty to life," said Anne dreamily. "I don't exactly want to make people know more. . .though I know that is the noblest ambition. . .but I'd love to make them have a pleasanter time because of me. . .to have some little joy or happy thought that would never have existed if I hadn't been born."

"I think you're fulfilling that ambition every day," said Gilbert admiringly.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Where the Wild Things Aren't

Here's my offering in the children's-book version of David Lodge's literary parlor game "Humiliation," in which one admits sheepishly to not having read important books: I have never read Where The Wild Things Are.  How did this happen?  I really don't know.  Somehow it didn't cross my path in childhood, and consequently in adulthood I didn't seek it out nostalgically to share with my son.  I've read (and read to my son) other books Maurice Sendak wrote or illustrated (a favorite is Let's Be Enemies), but never this classic.  And it's not like War and Peace, right?  I could easily rectify this omission, but I haven't.

One thing I do know about Maurice Sendak, though, is that he gives awesome interviews, especially to Terry Gross.  I remember hearing one before I became a parent in which he explained his belief in the importance of including difficult, complex subjects in children's books.  This view of children as robust, non-fragile, real people whose perspectives must be acknowledged and respected was an important beginning point in my own evolving thinking about children, which was later developed further by How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk (a parenting book I love!)  To me, Sendak's view of children seems continuous with Faber and Mazlish even though they would never advise punishing your child by sending him supperless to his room; the work of all three is fundamentally grounded in the real emotions of children.

I also love the unabashed curmudgeonliness of the opinions Sendak expresses in interviews.  For example, in an interview last year, Sendak had this to say about e-books:
"I hate them. It's like making believe there's another kind of sex. There isn't another kind of sex. There isn't another kind of book! A book is a book is a book."
 I don't really agree with this sentiment, except as it relates to picture books (I don't think e-books need be seen as competition for "real" books), but I love the passion and vociferousness of it.

So, I should probably read Where The Wild Things Are one of these days, at the very least as a tribute to someone who has had such an influence on children's books.  What well-known children's books haven't you read?

[Bonus watching/reading: Stephen Colbert interviews Sendak, and a lovely appreciation of Sendak in the New York Times, which I am sure you've already read.]

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Field Trip: Washington, D.C.

Blue Morpho and Postman alight on N. as he examines a third butterfly.
Last weekend we went to visit my parents in Washington D.C. and in addition to the fun of a family visit, we got to enjoy some excellent exhibits at various Smithsonian institutions.  First we had a picnic lunch on the Mall across from the Smithsonian "Castle", the architecture of which N. happily pondered while he ate.  Then we headed to the Museum of Natural History to see the Titanoboa exhibit.  The Smithsonian Magazine article about the discovery of the Titanoboa was fascinating, but we found the exhibit, which was mainly just a full-size model of the giant snake (I guess I was expecting casts of fossils), quite disappointing.  Regardless, N. likes the rest of the Museum of Natural History a lot, so he was happy to be there again.  We made our third visit to the Butterfly Pavilion; N. walked slowly through the whole exhibit with this Blue Morpho on his bright yellow shirt.  We also spent time in "The Evolving Universe" which is gorgeous and mind-boggling, and in the Ocean Hall.  N. would have liked to stay longer at the Museum of Natural History, but Tim and I were fatigued by the noise from the hordes of kids on school trips racing around.  As I have written before, I can't process information very effectively in the museum format.  I like linear narratives, not snippets of seemingly random data on walls that I need to assimilate while also responding to objects on display.  Judging by the general mayhem in the museum, I wouldn't say too many other people were really getting much out of the Museum of Natural History that day other than the general buzz of visual stimuli.  (While we stood at the tank of tropical fish I was most bemused to hear every single person from age 2-60 who approached cry out "Nemo!" and "Dory!" as they spotted the clownfish and the purple tang, their brief encounter with these strange and gorgeous creatures entirely mediated by Disney/Pixar).   Lesson learned: avoid such places on a Friday afternoon in May!

After leaving the chaos of the Museum of Natural History we crossed the Mall for the calm of the Freer-Sackler Gallery, where we showed N. the pieces from their beautiful Whistler collection that are on display and Whistler's Peacock Room, which N. loved. 

The next day was devoted to an exhibit that N. has long been anticipating: the America on the Move show at the National Museum of American History.  His main goal was to see the Southern Railway #1401 steam locomotive, and he was pleasantly surprised to find two additional earlier steam engines on display as well.  Having visited many more transportation museums in the past seven years that I ever would have imagined before becoming the mother of a passionate railfan, I was very impressed with this exhibit.  It situates all the trains, cars, trucks, etc. contextually, creating scenes that help you understand the ways these objects functioned in real historical people's lives.  Also at the American History museum we looked at an amazing doll house (which N. loved!), historic string instruments, a statue of George Washington and an exhibit about the 200-year history of a house in Massachusetts (interesting but overwhelming).

Finally, the third day, we drove out to the Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum near Dulles Airport in Virginia.  This far exceeded our expectations and we had a great time viewing historic aircraft (I was especially pleased by a collection of objects from the eighteenth-century Balloonomania!) and the newly arrived Space Shuttle Discovery!  Seeing the Enola Gay and Discovery in one day was quite thought-provoking.

We're so glad my parents live in D.C. so we can gradually work our way through the riches of the Smithsonians and other sights with them each visit!

Bonus reading: previous trips we've made to Washington, D.C. here and here.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Screen-Free Week 2012

This week is the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood's annual Screen-Free Week, so I'm reprinting below the long post I wrote last year about our family screen habits.  Little has changed, except now at age 7 N. has seen two more movies (on DVD at home): we watched "Miracle on 34th Street" just before Christmas, which we really enjoyed (although he found the courtroom scenes hard to follow, not yet being versed in the generic features of courtroom drama).  And after reading all the Mary Poppins books, we watched the Julie Andrews movie, which he enjoyed as well, even though it is so different from the books.  

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The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood promotes "Screen Free Week" April 14-24th to encourage families to evaluate their electronic media habits.  So I'm taking this opportunity to write about our TV, electronic games, computer/internet, and movie habits.  If your habits and beliefs regarding electronic media are different than ours (and they likely are), please note that I am not critiquing your approach but describing ours.  

We're extremists about TV; there's no other way to put it.  N. has never watched TV.  I don't watch TV.  We have a satellite so that Tim can watch the Minnesota Vikings and occasional Twins games, which is the extent of his TV viewing.  So TV is not part of what Holly at Unschool Days calls our "family culture."  Tim and I are simply not interested in TV ourselves, and we don't think TV offers anything to our six-year-old right now that he can't get in richer, better form elsewhere.  I won't rehearse here all the reasons suggested by child advocates for limiting young children's exposure to TV; you are likely familiar with them.  Our top concern (among others) is with the aggressive marketing of a specific, gender-restrictive vision of childhood in order to sell stuff to kids.  The world of TV does not align with our values.

Most of our friends with kids regard our zero-tolerance policy towards TV as if it is a heroic act of parenting that they admire but could never achieve (at least that's what they say to us; privately they might well think we are totalitarian zealots!).  But it is actually much, much easier never to turn on the TV in the first place than it is to negotiate limits with a child who has developed a TV habit.  Just don't start!

It is easy for us to maintain a TV-free home because that's our family culture.  But what about all the TV outside our four walls?  We always sit away from TVs in restaurants, airports, the dentist's office, etc. (TVs are so ubiquitous!).  When N. plays at a friend's house, we tell the child and parents that N. isn't allowed to watch TV, movies, or play video games, and even if people think we are crazy they've adhered to this because they know it matters to us.  The result is that the kids always have lots of fun doing all the other things kids do together.  When a friend has turned to screen entertainment, N. has, of his own accord, left the room to play with other toys or hang out with his friend's parent (he loves talking with adults!).  I only recently learned that this was how he deals with his neighbor-friend's occasional screen time, and I was so proud of N. for having the fortitude to stick with our rule.

I think this fortitude is one of the great side-effects of our TV policy.  I grew up all but TV-free and I experienced my parents' restriction of TV as part of their larger 1970s-inflected program to resist mindlessly conforming to mainstream American culture, an approach I was very proud of.  I internalized their commitment to living their values as part of my identity, and I see N.'s ability to walk away from TV as a sign that he is internalizing this commitment too.

All this is not to say that we will never watch a single moment of TV in N.'s entire childhood.  We taped a couple of speedskating races (2-3 minutes long) during the Winter Olympics and watched them together and N. has watched an occasional Twins at-bat with Tim.  I have very fond memories of watching The Cosby Show with my family as an older child so I recognize that watching TV together as a family can be fun, though I can't imagine there will ever be another such sweet and wholesome show!  In the meantime, who even has time to watch TV?

I have an implacable prejudice against electronic games of all sorts.  It makes me sad to see kids playing DS games while out and about, utterly absorbed in their own world and missing entirely the real world in which they are nominally moving.  Multi-player online games strike me as a poor facsimile of real social interaction.  I don't believe that supposedly educational electronic games are particularly effective.  I don't understand why you'd want to play a simulacrum of a sport on a Wii instead of actually going bowling or playing tennis.  I am convinced by the argument that violent video games are detrimental to players' humanity, and I think boys are especially susceptible to this.  I was not convinced by Steven Johnson's apologia for video games in Everything Bad is Good For You.  (In addition, I don't play Angry Birds or anything else on my iphone, I don't let my son play with my iphone, and I carefully monitor my own use of it so I don't fall into the habit of constantly checking my phone.)  So, we are unabashed in our absolute restriction of electronic games.

Computers and the internet can be good homeschool resources but we are nonetheless wary of giving the computer a prominent role in our daily life.  We always look things up in books first (we have two awesome encyclopedia sets) and we use the internet as a supplement rather than a primary source.  Partly this is just to reinforce bookish habits over screens.  We feel that we interact with each other more through book research and we feel somewhat passive and isolated when using the computer.  I haven't read Nicholas Carr's The Shallows yet, but I am very sympathetic to his claim that the habits of mind fostered by the internet may be antithetical to deep concentration and sustained thought.  N. doesn't use the computer/internet himself at all and has expressed no interest in doing so.  We don't use reading or math programs on the computer because I don't think they provide anything he can't get from paper methods.  At some later point in his education we'll certainly work on learning how to do effective internet research, to navigate and evaluate resources (a skill my conventionally educated, supposedly computer literate college students sorely lack!) but there's no rush for him to acquire these skills.  Until then, there is much reading, learning, and playing to be done away from the computer.  In fact, I could benefit from spending a lot less of my work day staring at my computer!

N. before entering the theater to see The General.
All these restrictions may sound so... restrictive, as if we spend all our time policing what N. is exposed to.  But we think of our role as curators.  We want to present a rich selection of material that is fun, interesting, thought-provoking, and consistent with our values; for us, electronic media is only going to be a very small element of that selection.

By limiting N.'s exposure to electronica we actually give them more power.  He's not visually jaded.  Because I watched very little TV as a kid, I found movies exciting, overwhelming, and sometimes unbearably frightening.  Film is a powerful medium!  And while Tim and I watch no TV together, we absolutely love movies and watch at least one almost every weekend.  Until recently, N. had never seen a movie or DVD.  We wanted him to have the awesome experience of seeing his first movie on a big screen, so we were waiting for the right opportunity to present itself.  In March, a local museum showed Buster Keaton's 1927 classic silent film "The General" complete with live piano accompaniment.  It's about a man and his beloved steam engine!  What could be more perfect for N.'s first movie?  He absolutely loved it, and it was so fun to share his huge laughs at all the train stunts.

Is our largely screen-free life inconsistent with the philosophy of unschooling?  Some people would certainly say that it is.  As I have written before, we define "unschool" for our family in a more limited way than some do.  We work with N. to follow his interests, but we also offer guidance.  By curating N.'s media experiences, we are able to offer powerful visual encounters that are consistent with our values and meaningful to N.