Why Don’t We Know More about Africa?

Simple question. Simple answer, too. Most students in most parts of the world don’t spend much time learning about Africa. There are pyramids, lions, and drums, and for more advanced students, Apartheid, e-bola, the history of slave trade, tribes and villages.

Compare that with the list of things you know about Asia, Europe, even Australia. We know more, in part because we learn more at school, and also because Japan, England, France, Australia (the country), China, India, Italy, and other places on those continents play a part in popular culture, the history that’s taught in schools, the news that’s reported in the media, and, undeniably, the food we eat. Early on, kids learn about Italian and Chinese food, but most adults’ familiarity with any food from Africa is likely to result in a list with no items on it.

All of that is about to change.

440px-Africa_(orthographic_projection).svgIn 1950, 5 of the world’s largest countries were located in Europe, 2 were in the Americas, 5 were in Asia, and none were in Africa.

By 2050, not one European nation makes the top 20. In the Americas, 3 countries make the list. Ten are 10 Asian nations (including Turkey and Russia). The other 7 are in Africa.

Here’s the tally for 2100. Only 3 of the world’s largest countries are in the Americas. The count for Asia is 7.  The count for Africa: 10 of the top 20.

In this century, half of the world’s kids are being born in Africa. Most of the world’s new schools, hospitals and universities will be built in Africa and Asia. Most of the world’s students will learn and eventually go to work for new companies in Africa and also in Asia.

This data raises some very big questions about where in the world people will live and work. Population in Africa is growing rapidly, but economic growth is lagging. You may have read that the world’s population will soon be 8 billion people–that’s coming in 2024, not very far off. We’ll reach 10 billion by 2054 and 11 billion by 2088. Think about half of those new births happening in Africa. And now consider where those people will grow up, where they will work, and where they will live.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the work of NGOs are improving the social and economic situation in Africa, so the number of extremely poor people is being reduced. This creates a growing middle class with sufficient resources to consider possible migration to improve their educational and economic situation.

Many of those people will follow old patterns–they will migrate from one place in Africa to another. Some Africans will work to improve their local situations, fighting corruption, improving health care, teaching. Others will decide to leave–and many will move to Europe. Why? Because Africa’s youthful population will find available jobs in European countries where the percentage of older people is steadily increasing. The economic opportunity may greatly exceed the current incoming European population from Africa–that’s what I think will happen.

9781509534562And that’s the basis for a provocative and well-researched new book called The Scramble for Europe: Young Africa on its Way to the Old Continent by Stephen Smith. Professor Smith is a leading expert on contemporary Africa, a former well-credentialed journalist, and now a Professor of African Studies at Duke University. He’s smart, well-informed and among a small number of people who are writing about this remarkable situation for a general audience. The title is misleading–this is a book about both Africa and Europe, but  here, Africa loses out to Europe in the main title.

What might happen? Smith’s first scenario, called “Eurafrica,” “presupposes a reservoir of goodwill towards African immigrants, who are viewed as the best chance of investing the Old Continent with a younger, more diverse and possibly more dynamic population. The second scenario is called “Fortress Europe,” and it continues a tradition of “rigorously securing its borders,” with a heavy dose of altruistic behavior. The third, with the unpromising name, “Mafia Drift,” and involves a combination of trafficking and other nasty behaviors. The fourth and final is labelled “Bric-a-brac Politics” captures the erratic realties of government action.

For me, it seems very likely that a great many people born in Africa will remain in Africa, and build significant cities with significant universities, business structures and more. This will take shape only in the countries where political and social stability allow for external investment (when nations are unstable, investors tend to either exploit or flee). It’s difficult to migrate, so most people will stay, but there are so many people who are being born in Africa, the vastness of numbers will probably reshape many of the nations in Europe within the next 10, 20 and 50 years. The same will be true for the United States as it realizes that it must shift its focus from a relatively small flow of net immigration gain from Latin America to the far larger number of people who are likely to migrate from Africa. In time, the number of African-born people in the United States will far exceed the number brought here through the slave trade.

 

 

Gandhi on the Economics of Newspapers

From yesterday’s New York Times, a special report on the death of another American newspaper. As is typical for the NYTimes, the story is in-depth, thoughtful, and well worth reading time (especially in its original Special Section print edition.) Original NY Times caption: “CreditTim Gruber for The New York Times”

Every few days, somebody sends me an interesting article about a nonprofit approach to journalism. There is usually a well-intended foundation involved, and an emphasis on discovering the future of local newspaper reporting, or something similar. These investments are made in the public interest. Unfortunately, interest from members of the public is often so limited, these journalist ventures cannot and do not sustain on their own. In the past, revenues from classified and display advertising masked this limitation. The only other form of reliable newspaper revenue, circulation (people paying for their newspapers) has long been insufficient to fund local journalism. All of this becomes more complicated when we add layers of television, radio, and internet storytelling.

The NPR model works because it is funded, in part, by Federal funds generated by taxing every American, and because some of those same people donate addition money to support not only journalism but entertainment programs as well. Given the competitive landscape in radio, NPR has developed a popular brand, so it is also able to attract advertising (which it calls “corporate support” to mask the whiff of commercialism).

And that leads us to South Africa in 1903. Gandhi was an attorney fighting for the rights of people with Indian heritage. He was a member of the team that founded Indian Opinion, a newspaper published mostly in English with section in Gujarati. “Though…this paper, we could very well disseminate the news of the week among the community. The English section kept those Indians informed about the movement who did not know Gujarati, and for Englishmen in India, England and South Africa, Indian Opinion served the purpose of a weekly newspaper.”

Indian Opinion began with advertiser support. “[Some] of our best men had to be spared to do this….some of the good workers had be set apart for canvassing and [collecting bills] from advertisers, not to speak of the flattery which advertisers claimed as their due.”

And here’s the part that struck home for me: “…if the paper was conducted not because it yielded a profit but purely with a view to service, the service should not be imposed upon the community by force…only if the community wished. And the clearest proof of such a wish would be forthcoming if they became subscribers in sufficiently large numbers to make the paper self-supporting.  [We] stopped advertisements in the paper. The community realized at once their proprietorship of Indian Opinion and their consequent responsibility for maintaining it…”

He goes on, “[The workers’] only care now was to put their best work into the paper, so long as the community wanted it, and they were not ashamed of requesting any Indian to subscribe to Indian Opinion, but thought it even their duty to do so. A change came over the internal strength and character of the paper and it became a force to reckon with….the community had made the paper their own.”

For those who could not understand the language, or afford the subscription price, neighbors would read the paper aloud, translate and explain the meaning of the stories.

With so much information flowing toward us every day, discussions about the future of journalism are constantly obscured and made unimportant. And newspapers continue to die. And the internet and NPR are insufficient replacements. Imposing solutions from above–foundation funded and such–are reasonable short-term solutions. More than a hundred years ago, Gandhi was dealing with very different realities, but his concept of pull vs. push is very much alive today.

I’m not read finished reading The Essential Gandhi: An Anthology of Writings on His Life, Work and Ideas, but this particular idea captured my imagination, so I thought I’d share it with you.

 

 

 

He, and They, but Mostly, Babe

There is always a longer story. Often, more than one. Pull one strand and three stories become visible.

The first one begins begins in 1890 when Arthur Stanley Jefferson is born into a noted theatrical family in Ulverston, a market town in Cumbria, which is located north of England’s second largest city, Manchester. The family controlled the Metropole Theatre in Glasgow. Before he was 16 years old, the boy was occasionally performing onstage. By the time he was twenty, the young actor was understudying for an actor he would always admire, Charlie Chaplin. An American tour followed, and he decided to relocate. Soon, he was making movies with the first of what would become many wives. By 1925–by now, he was 35 years old–he was calling himself Stan Laurel, and working as a writer/director for Hal Roach Studios (also known for the Our Gang comedies). Hardly famous, Stan Laurel’s involvement in dozens of films (all two-reelers, each about 20 minutes long), with a long resume of stage performance, with a distinct talent for comedy, might have taken him a long way as he matured along with the growing business of motion pictures. We’ll pick up on that story shortly.

The second story begins two years after Stan Laurel was born, in 1892, this time in Harlem, Georgia, then in Milledgeville, not far from Macon. Again, a show business family of sorts. Norvell Hardy sang locally, and operated a movie theater. By age 21, he (most often, “Babe,” less often “Oliver”) was working in Florida for Lubin Motion Pictures (one of the largest early movie companies) as a production and script assistant. A year later, Oliver Hardy made his first film, and more than 200 short films followed. When Florida’s film industry failed, he and his wife (again, many wives in Babe’s story, too), and ended up at the Hal Roach studio.

When Hal Roach puts the two actors together, the third story begins in 1927 with two-reelers. Laurel & Hardy are among the few silent film stars who built even-more-successful careers in full-length features with sound. Stan is in his glory as head writer and creative lead–he develops the gags, and simply falls in love with the popular confection known as Laurel & Hardy. Babe is more of a talented actor who enjoys the lifestyle–including gambling, women, and so on–but when he on set, he is the consummate professional.

220px-Laurel_and_Hardy
Both live a life consumed by failed relationships with women, and money issues (both closely related). They are among Hollywood’s biggest stars, but they are contract players with little economic leverage. Each lives with his own demons.

At times, they are not sure whether they even like one another, but there is no question about whether they love one another. The story of Laurel & Hardy is the story of one of the great 20th century friendships, often tested by the ups and downs of a career that continued into the 1950s.

That’s when the end of the third story picks up, not in real life, but as a motion picture. It’s called Stan & Ollie (2018). This chapter begins while Laurel & Hardy are at the peak of their creative endeavors at the Roach studio, and provides several winning examples of the two making movies. There are hints of financial troubles and struggles with producer Hal Roach, and these advance the plot to a less-than-stellar start of a tour of England in the 1953. As they wait for a British movie producer (“Miffin,” often called “Muffin” by these silly guys) to green light a feature based upon Robin Hood (which is never made), they tour to modest audiences that are only partially filled. It’s depressing, a too-close look at what happens after a star is no longer a star. Still, the show must go on, even if it requires free promotional appearances to get their names out (most people seem to think they’ve retired, but they cannot because past divorce settlements must be paid). Somehow, the promo dates turn things around, and suddenly, they are filling the biggest theaters. But Ollie’s health is beginning to fail.

shareThe magic of Stan & Ollie is presented with ideal timing and winning personality by John C. Reilly (in a fat suit), and British comedian Steve Coogan (with a bit of prosthetic as well, most to shape his chin). They do marvelous work with several of the funniest bits, including a “double door” routine at an onstage railroad station that demonstrates Stan’s spectacular control over coming timing.

Along the way, we gain some insight into Stan’s creative mind, his insecurities about his relationship with Babe, the decisions never made or made for the wrong reasons, the wives, the financial mess he keeps getting himself into (as Babe does the same), the stormy relationship with Hal Roach, who seems to be getting rich on the backs of their work. And then, it ends. Babe dies. Stan continues writing scripts for Laurel & Hardy in a Los Angeles apartment because he cannot imagine any better way to spend his days.

Every good show business story demands a fair amount of imaginative leeway. So, too, is the case with he. Who’s “he?” He is Stan Laurel, unsure what remains of Arthur Stanley Jefferson, and the young man who was once nearly on par with the great Charlie Chaplin. He is Stan Laurel who never could convince Babe to leave the Roach studio so they could set up their studio and make the fortune to which they were so deeply entitled. He is a sad man who experienced so much happiness, fame, and if not fortune, so much pleasure during the heights of his creative activities. He made magic.

s-l640He is the title of a novel–not a biography, but a novel that seems a lot like a biography but allows itself ample opportunity to explore what Stan was probably thinking and why. At first, author John Connolly’s idea for a book seems too ambitious, too flaky, too far removed from reality, too close to reality. And then, half the book is passed. Embellished by moving images of Steve Coogan portraying Stan Laurel, illuminated by watching Harold Lloyd, Chaplin and especially Buster Keaton on YouTube (another opportunity for none of them to get paid for their work), Stan takes shape as more than part of a famous show business duo. He becomes a whole person, powerful in his way, and deeply wounded, too.

The wound runs deep. There is resentment–why could Chaplin succeed in ways that he could not–why was Roach so unfair–how did Laurel & Hardy lose their careers–how did they manage to go so low as to play to small unfilled houses in 1953–but in the end, none of that stays in his mind for too long. When he looks out the window, and watches the ocean–he does that a lot in his later years, at least according to Connolly, he thinks only of Babe.

They were swell together.

And he wants nothing more than to work a gag with Babe for eternity.

800px-Stan_Laurel_c1920

 

 

Eunice, Nina and Laiona

“White people had Judy Garland–we had Nina. God bless ya, baby!”

Little Girl Blue: The Nina Simone Musical – Written and Performed by Laiona Michelle – George Street Playhouse 1/27/19 Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson© T Charles Erickson

Richard Pryor’s quote introduces a 4-CD box set, a concise summary of more than forty record albums, mostly in the 1960s. Nina Simone’s story parallels the evolution of race consciousness and rights during that period. In fact, it’s a very good story, the kind of story that deserves a proper stage show to feature both the music, the struggles, the era, and a remarkable performer that most people do not know very well.

Fortunately, I was not the only one who thought that was a good idea.

There are three names to know. The first is Eunice Kathleen Waymon, a talented girl born in Tryon, North Carolina in 1933 who never lost the child within her, for all of the good and the bad that may bring. The second is Nina Simone, a stage name built from the Spanish term for “little one” and “Simone” after the actress Simone Signoret. The third name is Laiona Michelle, a Broadway actress and singer who decided to write and star in a small stage show so the story and music of Nina Simone could be shared with a 21st century audience.

This is not a one-woman show, and that was a wise production decision. Instead, Laiona/Nina appears with her small jazz band (basically: piano, bass, drums) in an imaginative styling of a club set in the early and later 1960s (lighting and scenery are supportive and well-done).

Maybe in another time, the story would be a happy one. Watching the show, recently staged at The George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey (on the Rutgers University campus), one wishes it could have been otherwise. Her regrets are our regrets. Waymon was a gifted classical pianist, clearly special from the age of three, who benefitted from a small town piano teacher who not only recognized her talent, but helped her get to the Juilliard School in New York City (the community raised the necessary funds). Sadly, we were deprived of her work on the classical side because Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music turned down her application, almost certainly as a result of the color of her skin (in 2003, just before her death, they offered an honorary degree). She was devastated.

And, she was resilient. Determined. Vastly talented. Capable of holding the stage at a time when this was not easy for a singer to do on her own. She had a sense of humor, too, and a sense of how to keep her career in motion despite indefensible obstacles. At the start of the stage show, Laiona begins to find her way and the audience becomes comfortable with her interpretation of Nina Simone. In time, despite the occasional subtle miss, she becomes Nina Simone–and everyone in the theater is on her side. It’s not easy to be Nina/Eunice; she struggles more than any person ought to struggle, but those were her times, and she wasn’t getting the kind of help that might be available nowadays (under the best of circumstances).

It’s striking to see just how much music, and Nina Simone, and our consciousness changed in a decade. Her earliest recordings, and her earliest hits, come from Broadway. For example, George Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy,” Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Something Wonderful,” Cole Porter’s “The Laziest Gal in Town,” and Rodgers and Hart’s “Little Girl Blue” (which titles the stage show) are part of the repertoire. And they sit beside some hipper Broadway tunes such as Anthony Newley’s “Feeling Good” and “Beautiful Land.” One favorite, not included in the stage show, goes back to the early days of vaudeville, the Ziegfeld Follies, when songwriter-performer Bert Williams would perform his signature “Nobody” in blackface. The juxtaposition of this material against one of Simone’s best-known songs, “Mississippi Goddam” seems striking, but this composition, and many more of her original songs, also stand beside the Billie Holiday song, “Strange Fruit” (written by Lewis Allen), and Holiday’s own “Tell Me More and Then Some.” Certainly, the first act’s closer, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” is both a show stopper and a wonderfully sensitive reading of a song that doesn’t get much attention nowadays.

There is a lot of music in this show. Some of the above songs, some of Simone’s most popular songs, are not included in the stage show (it’s impossible to include everybody’s one favorite). (Laiona does an especially good job with one of my favorites, Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” and easily one of the best versions of the sometimes-yukky “My Way” I have ever heard). Still, there is an appropriate mix, the right songs to propel the story of Nina Simone’s progress from jazz/pop singer in the early 1960s to a fully aware, righteous Black woman and social activist later in the 1960s, and on through the 1990s and beyond. Her engagement in the Civil Rights movement leads to time in Liberia, Barbados, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland and The Netherlands. Much of the time is difficult, and as she continues to perform, the dramatic story becomes emotional on two levels. There is the life of Eunice Kathleen Waymon, who never quite left her childhood memories behind, and finds herself deeply disappointed by some of what has happened to her. And there is the life of a spectacularly talented dark-skinned singer who represents far more than herself, and tries to make things better, often against adversity. It’s not an easy story to hear because none of us did nearly enough to make things better, but the music soothes and eases the bad feelings. It’s a patent medicine, an elixir, a mode of storytelling that allows the story to progress without tearing our insides out.

As I write this article, I’m listening to the Four Women box set that recaps her work for Verve. I have a particular attachment to “Nobody,” which I mention again because I’ve just listened to it again, but as I browse the stage show’s song list, I realize that I have a particular connection to many of the songs. And not just the songs. The sense that this was a life that I should have known better, a body of work, an artist who deserves more of today’s stage than she has been allowed.

Here’s hoping we have not seen the last of Little Girl Blue by, and starring, Laiona Michelle. Here’s hoping Nina Simone finds her place in an off-Broadway theater for a spell, and then, here’s hoping she takes that show on the road so that everyone can experience, and remember, who Nina Simone was, and was she still matters.

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Excellence in Design: The Look of Jazz

You probably don’t know the name Reid Miles, but you probably know his work. He was the art director for an extensive series of significant Blue Note jazz albums. For those who care about jazz, and design, and typography, and photography, this is a lesson worthy of your time and attention.

You may know the name Francis Wolff. His photographs tell the story of Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Tony Williams, Art Blakey, and so many others.

And you may know the name Michael Cuscuna, a jazz record producer and “Blue Note archivist.” His insights bring the visual storytelling to life.

The film is produced by Vox. Nice work!

Oh Idiot! What should I want more Children for?

One of the less well-lit areas of human history is the history of children. Today, there are television channels, endless videos and photographs, schools of every description, as well as the occasional well-publicized story of a child who built a business or a charity. Our contemporary view of childhood is very different from the views held in the past, but I’ve always been insecure about the details.

Looking for a good book about childhood’s past, I waited for the new Second Edition of A History of Childhood, written by a Professor Emeritus from the University of Nottingham named Colin Heywood. Although written with scholarly correctness, it’s accessible, and it turns out to be a pretty good story, too.

He gets started in the Middle Ages, “a society which perceived long people to be small scale adults. There was no idea of education… and no sign of our contemporary obsessions with the physical, moral and sexual problems of childhood. The ‘discovery’ of childhood would have to await the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Only then would it be recognized that children needed special treatment, ‘a sort of quarantine’, before they could join the world of adults.” These early years are complicated because religious belief dominated; Puritans, for example, “did not necessarily have a high opinion of infants, the more zealous brethren assessing they were born as ‘filthy bundles of original sin’…

The Age of Innocence by painter Joshua Reynolds, circa 1788

By 1788, there are lovely paintings of innocent children, representative of romantic view, if not of all children, then certainly the fortunate upscale among them. She seems to be the perfect child, but parents remained conflicted about just what they were raising. There were constant ideological conflicts between innocence and depravity, superb and dreadful behavior, honorable and horrifying treatment, nature and nurture, independence and dependence.

To begin his fourth chapter, Professor Heywood begins with a provocative question, “To begin at the beginning, were children wanted?” Happily, the answer through the ages seems to be yes… but not too many! There were critics opposed to the whole idea, including the fourteenth century poet Eustache Dechamps, who write “Happy is he who has no children, for babies mean nothing but crying and stench; they give only trouble and anxiety.” In the throes of motherhood, Hester Thrale (1741-1821) wrote in her diary, “this is a horrible Business indeed: five little Girls, too. & breeding again, & Fool enough to be proud of it! Oh Idiot!’ What should I want more Children for?”

After leading us through history of delivery, naming, godparents, and other ceremonies, we’re faced with the unfortunates, the unwanted children and their unhappy parents, and deepening the despair, the common death of infants and young children, no less a tragedy then.

Still, children survive and thrive. There are more and more of them, especially after we determine that they are better educated than put to work as small versions of farm hands and factory workers. In fact, they thrive, leading first to the astonishing 3 billion people on earth by 1900 (just as public education is beginning to take shape), then (beyond the scope of the book), taking us to 8 billion by about 2025.

As we begin toward the modern age, fathers have more time at home, so childcare, and the love of children, shifts from primarily a mother’s role, to an increasingly common model of shared parenting.

Heywood provides much more than a historical overview. He takes us into the room with the child as he or she grows up. Example: learning to walk, children were discouraged from crawling. Why? Indoors, floors were often shared with animals, and there was a certain discomfort in seeing one’s offspring propelling himself or herself in the same manner as a pig. There was also the cold of those floors, and the filth. Better to walk up on two legs–but not too soon, lest the child become crippled or otherwise deformed, as so many others seemed to be.

There have always been toys, and games, and nursery rhymes, too. And questions about gender stereotypes. “In antebellum America, for example, many girls preferred outdoor activities such as skating and sledding to playing with dolls. Toward the end of the century…three quarter of boys studied [were] playing with dolls, while girls sometimes acted more aggressively than their parents might have hoped.”

For those with mobility, some money and parents who would take them, there was “an impressive array of entertainments designed to instruct as well as amuse in eighteenth century England in the form of ‘exhibitions of curiosities; museums; zoos; puppet shows; circuses; automata; horseless carriages; even human and animal monstrosities.” Working class families made do with “cheap and cheerful entertainments such as dancing on the streets to a barrel organ or enjoying the hustle and bustle of a street market.”

There is evidence of children’s books in England as early as the 1470s–before Columbus visited the Caribbean. By the 1770s, there were plenty of children’s books, along with enough literate children to make good use of them.

Along the way–and beyond the frame of this article–we determine that children are worthy of their own education on a large scale, and that health care specific to childhood is a good idea, too.

Of course, I want to time travel, to talk to children and teenagers at the time they lived, in the places they lived. Even the best book on this subject–and this one is quite a good one–provides only snapshots and excerpts from earlier descriptions or diaries. Considering the great progress we have made on their behalf, I can only hope that someday, through some miracle of human genius, we’re able to travel back and understand the story more completely.

 

 

 

 

From Television City in Hollywood…

Apparently, CBS is selling Television City–a complex of TV studios built in the 1950s on the site of an old stadium. This comes several years after NBC sold its Burbank studios. Television City was mostly used for variety and game shows; CBS’s facility in nearby Studio City was used for sitcoms (including The Mary Tyler Moore Show–in fact, the facility was briefly known as CBS-MTM Studios).

I mention this because CBS recently posted a gallery of CBS Television City photographs. If you’re interested in the history of American television, as I am, they’re worth a browse.

One final note: although the phrase “From Television City in Hollywood” is familiar (if anybody can name the show or shows where it was spoken, please post a comment), the facility is not, technically, in Hollywood, California. Instead, it is located in Fairfax.

 

 

 

This is me.

Amidst yesterday’s holiday junk mail, I spotted a holiday catalog from Pier 1 Imports.

On the cover, there was a striking marketing slogan: “Pier 1 – This is me.”

I wondered whether, in fact, that might be true, so I meandered through 16 color pages of Christmas stuff for the home. There were a lot of pillows (I spend a third of my life sleeping), a bunch of decorative old-style lanterns (already own one), a LED outline of a cactus and another of a pink unicorn (probably not me), cups and glasses (I drink liquids, many times each day in fact), plastic Christmas tree ornaments with pictures of Mary, Santa, a teddy bear, an angel and a dove (not really me, but the angel was pretty), five different dining room chairs, and several plush reindeers on the same page as a small tower of nutcracker figurines.

Overall, not so much me, and probably not so much anybody I know very well. I do have a friend whose house is filled with all sorts of art and furniture and smaller items from China. I used to have a friend (he passed) whose living room walls were covered with interesting optical illusions and other magical art from the past two centuries. My wife’s mother liked owls and giraffes, and there were several of them in her home, made of metal, wood, canvas and other materials (some from Pier 1, in fact).

As I look around my own home, I wonder. Does my home environment somehow define me? And how would purchases from a particular brand or store help me to understand who I am and who I might someday be?

There’s a flippant answer to this question, but there may be a deeper one, too. My house is filled with books. My wife and I both enjoy reading. Do books define who we are, or perhaps build the belief and knowledge structure that help us to understand our place in the world? (Stories are powerful, moreso  when the stories are epic or historically/socially/emotionally eye-opening). Would the complete lack of physical books in the home provide a different definition? What if those books were digital, reduced to a chip on a Kindle or a droplet in the cloud? Same definition or a different one? What if our only book was a Bible?–this is true in many homes.

If I lived in a minimalist / modernist home with no clutter at all, would I be living a simple and uncluttered life? Does a cluttered office suggest a broad and deep spectrum of interests, a tendency toward hoarding, or profound plans for a well-researched future project?

If I shop at Old Navy, or Brooks Brothers, or a vintage clothing shop where nothing is new, would that define me in some way? If I don’t shop at all, does my anti-consumerism stance define me in any particular way? If I refuse to eat animals, or wear animal parts on my body, tend my own organic pesticide free garden, and budget my carbon footprint as an exemplar, am I socially responsible or an increasingly common type of millenial? If I drive a Jaguar or the priciest Tesla, as a reward for over-the-top sales performance, am I  communicating some significant message about myself to the world, or over-compensating for self-doubt?

Maybe stuff is a ridiculous way to construct identity. And maybe it reveals some essential truth about modern life.

And maybe it’s time to check for the today’s mail. Nope. No Sears catalog. Nevermore. The book that once defined the American dream is gone, leaving only pretenders and ghosts of a former world.

A Perfectly Curious Book

Professor Susan Engel remembers growing up. She recalls small details. Not only did she eat bugs, she remembers when and where, and which bugs she ate (potato bugs). As a pre-schooler, she remembers watching TV while sitting under the ironing board, comfortably asking all sorts of questions of Nonna, who was ironing the family’s clothes above her. In a one-room school house, Mrs. Grubb’s imbalanced approach to curiosity and education began a lifetime of inquiry. One of Professor Engel’s works-in-progress is a evaluative measure for curiosity, which seems consistent with the way most people think about school in the 21st century, and, to me, wildly  counterintuitive.

The right book tends to find me at precisely the right time. That’s what happened yesterday when I started The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood. It’s fair to say that I devoured it in a single weekend.

In my studies and writing about creativity, curiosity has always been an underground river. I can hear it and sense it,  but it’s difficult to see. Curiosity differs with each person and their current motivation, and with every situation. It also tends to vary in duration and intensity depending upon personal interest at the moment, and available information.

Curiosity behaviors are familiar, easy to recognize: “We pick up objects to look at them more closely, peel things open and take them apart, ask other people questions, read books, do experiments, and wander into unfamiliar situations.”

Some people are more likely to do this than others.

“The quality of a child’s attachment has a powerful influence on the vigor and depth of her exploration of the world around her.” When a child is insecure or uncertain about their bond with mom, he or she is less likely to “make physical and psychological expeditions to gather information.” As the book unfolds, this becomes one of its most important ideas. In lower-income, and/or lower-education households, parents tend to provide specific operating instructions for life (“put that down,” “come to the table,” “not now,” “leave the dog alone”), but parents in households less troubled with economic issues often encourage and entertain open questions, theoretical ideas, and forms of play. Reading and storytelling may have little to do with the practical. Open-minded freedom builds self-confidence, resilience, and curiosity. (Not so sure? This is a 200 page book extensive references to past work by serious scholars).

Unfortunately, curiosity is very difficult to define and even harder to measure. (Not that learning is easy to measure, unless it’s wrapped in the short-term evaluative tools that structure contemporary education.)

This 2015 book pays less attention to mobile devices and the internet and social media than I do. A Second Edition would be wonderful, especially if Professor Engel expands the book to connect these innovations to curiosity and personalized learning.

Returning to economic advantage and curiosity, “children growing up in poverty hear far fewer total number of words, have a harder time learning to read, and ultimately are less likely to do well in school by the time they are in third grade…” Professor Engel goes on, “if a child lives with parents who only use words to manage practical tasks, he may struggle to use language for less practical, more contemplative purposes.” In turn, this affects the ability of children to formulate and ask good questions, which is a very important way to express curiosity and learn about the world and one’s place in it.

Focus not on the school experience, because that’s only part of child’s experience. Instead, focus on what children hear adults say and see adults do. Early on, children overtly mimic. Grown adults mimic too… following a parent or aunt or uncle’s path as a result of a gift or what seemed to be an inconsequential conversation at the time. I just found a book about world cultures that my aunt and uncle gave me when I was nine years old. I remember reading the book dozens of times. Many decades later, it’s clear that the book shaped my current professional activities in global education. I did not learn much of this in school, or in any formal setting. It was my own curiosity that shaped these ideas, and continues to shape them today.

School simply isn’t the place to nurture curiosity. There’s just too much other stuff to do. There is constant pressure to prepare the students for the upcoming test, to complete the project on schedule, to score the grades necessary for advancement. Distractions–which are essential to curiosity and exploration–are deeply discouraged. Inquisitive students must be not derail the classroom conversation, however interesting and significant their questions may be.

Is curiosity the opposite of education?

The good Professor doesn’t take the argument this far, but she sometimes comes close. Borrowing some of her own thinking and adding it to my own… Curiosity is intuitive, fluid, wide, deep, driven by interest, exceedingly difficult to measure, and essentially unrestricted by time and space. Education is defined by curriculum experts and highly structured. It is highly structured to make efficient use of time and space, and adheres to a strict timetable measured by 45 minute intervals, weeks of achievement, school years and grade levels. Education cannot run too deep or too wide because there are so many items that must be taught to so many people. Education is driven by rules, not student interest (for some, this changes in higher education). Measurement of short-term impact can be done, but the longer the period of measurement, the more variables complicate the results.

Traditional coursework on The Civil War takes students through causes (difficult to understand without lots of broader context), Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, Emancipation Proclamation, John Wilkes Booth, funeral cortege, and the dull political history of Andrew Johnson and reconstruction. Lots of education happening here, but the sheer volume of information smothers any attempt at global context or personal investigation of related stories. The story is just too complicated for education. It’s better suited to the uneven and long-term learning that curiosity can provide.

A student guided by curiosity might begin with the failure of tobacco as the South’s cash crop, its replacement with cotton and big cotton’s reliance upon the slave trade. Follow that line and you’ll bump into the enormous economic leap made possible by the cotton gin. Then, it’s off to England where Manchester’s mills make a fortune with cheap cotton from American slaves. When that supply is threatened by events leading up to the Civil War, the British look to India for an alternative cotton source, amplifying the growth and power of the British Empire. India becomes a glorious distraction–stunning history, spectacular music, art, dance, religion, food. Later, a fight for independence with Gandhi and nonviolent protest as a new way of thinking that informs US student protests to help end the Vietnam War, and Martin Luther King, Jr. to challenge authority in very productive ways. Back to Manchester for its rivalry with nearby Liverpool; follow  that line to the economic and social conditions that breed The Beatles and change popular music and culture (including George Harrison’s encounters with Indian music, and so on).

I know we don’t teach that way, but I know I learn that way.

As I understand more about how we teach, and how we learn, there may be more to eating bugs than there is to textbooks.

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