Holmes, the Law, the Author and the Reader

For years, I’ve been curious about Oliver Wendell Holmes. His name seemed to show up in other people’s biographies, and I knew he was an important U.S. Supreme Court Justice, but I didn’t know much more. That’s why I was excited about reading a relatively new biography by Stephen Budiansky.

After early chapters about growing up wealthy and connected in Boston, the son of a famous father, the younger Holmes and his Harvard buddies sign up to lead a Civil War regiment and make a complete mess of it. “The officers [Massachusetts Governor Andrew] chose for the Twentieth [Regiment] read like a page from Boston’s social register…one-half of the regiment’s officers literally were Harvard graduates and at least two-thirds were drawn from the city’s social elite. None had military experience…”

What could possibly go wrong? They found out at Ball’s Bluff, “the first place they could face fear and death the courage they knew was expected of them…” However, “most performed with extraordinary bravery in the midst of the chaos and bungling leadership for which Ball’s Bluff is primarily remembered by military historians today. A military disaster…” Holmes was seriously injured and narrowly escaped death, but hundreds of others, including officers, were not so fortunate. It is a crackling good war story–the first of several, in fact, as we move from Antietam to Fredricksburg to Chancellorsville– and a most unlikely first act for a man mostly known for his work some forty years later as an independent-minded justice on the high court.

Unfortunately, the author attempts a fairly balanced look at Holmes’s whole life. In many biographies, that would be the best approach, but here, Holmes’s many friendships with rich women, in the U.S. and the U.K. fill so many pages, the distraction outdistances the narrative value. Granting the importance of context, even a tenth as much would have been sufficient.

Reading about the war experiences set my hopes high for the author’s discussion of Holmes’s life on the court. Sadly, more than half the book and two-third of his life are gone before Oliver Wendell Holmes becomes a Supreme Court justice. Certainly enough for a deep dive.

Seeking clarity on Holmes’s thinking, his approach to the law, his most important cases, I struggled. I do not believe this to be a failing of the book, but instead, my lackluster background in the law. Many of the cases seemed to turn on technical details and fine points, so the overview and thrust were difficult to grasp. I loved the relationship between young Felix Frankfurter, a good friend mentored by Holmes and deeply affected by his approach to judicial restraint. Frankfurter later became a Supreme Court justice as well. Stories about the warm relationship between Holmes and Louis Brandeis, who served alongside Holmes, and also became both an ally and a good friend. To see the Supreme Court justices as human beings, good friends who care so deeply about the underlying structures of democracy was thrilling.

Still, I kept coming back to the deliberations, the opinions, the cases that were so much a part of Holmes’s daily life, and the country’s decision-making processes, for three decades. (He served until 1932.) Consulting Wikipedia for a review of his most significant court cases, feeling as though I’d learned too little by reading an important book, I confirmed my self-assessment.

And that leaves me with a question. Is it the job of the reader to come to a well-written, well-researched biography of a significant U.S. Supreme Court Justice with an understanding of legal philosophies and cases from a century ago, or is the job of the author of such a book to hold the hand of an ill-informed student (me) to make certain that he or she comprehends the subject’s thinking and accomplishments, knowing full well that the reader (also me) is likely to read the book and then move on. Move on not to a book about Brandeis or Frankfurter or another Justice, but to Doris Kearn Goodwin’s Leadership in Turbulent Timesand then, probably, Robert Caro’s Working, with an Ian Stewart math/science book (perhaps Flatterland, or Visions of Infinity) or, more likely, conductor John Mauceri’s For the Love of Music: A Conductor’s Guide to the Art of Listening. With some poetry, some short stories, and probably a fiction book or two or three along the way? Did I fail because I didn’t take the time, or did Budiansky fail because he didn’t inspire me to read and learn more? I’ll take responsibility. And I will learn more about the Supreme Court, the Justices, and their thinking, but I may need another decade or two before I come around again.

A City of Books

Although the idea of writing a book about books and bookstores for people who enjoy books seems to be both precious and redundant, I find browsing, then reading, these books to be irresistible. The newest in this genre is A Booklover’s Guide to New York, by which author Cleo Le-Tan and illustrator Pierre Le-Tan seem to mean not the state of New York, nor most of the city of New York, but instead, the island of Manhattan. And that’s just fine: few places on earth contain a richer assortment of delights for people who love books.

The book is set up as a combination of a tour and a series of conversations. The first stop is The Mysterious Bookshop, down in TriBeCa, relocated from further uptown, accurately described as “a homey destination” and “a haven for any crime, suspense and thriller reader.” Next page: an interview with Otto Penzler, who owns the shop, and founded Mysterious Press back in the mid-1970s. It’s fun to read his back story–so many people who live in NYC have a backstory–after he started the publishing house, and it succeeded, he decided to open a shop without knowing anything at all about starting or operating a retail enterprise. What was the key to success?: women started writing popular mystery fiction, and that attracted more female readers. He describes Manhattan as “ground zero” for mystery.

Within walking distance: Poet’s House at 10 River Terrace, which has been operating for three decades, “still prides itself on “bringing world-renowned poets to new audiences. And: Richardson, at 325 Broome St., owned by Andrew Richardson, who also publishes a magazine (same name as the shop), with a selection that is “either deeply intellectual, aesthetically pleasing, or highly sophisticated.” And sometimes, erotic. This is not just a book filled with pages about bookstores; the Seward Park Library is one of several public libraries. Opened in 1909, it’s located in Chinatown, which tends to be busy much of the day and night, but here, there is quiet. And a lot of books. And all of the modern conveniences. Museums get their due, too. The first is the Tenement Museum, located at 103 Orchard Street (all of the places in this paragraph are walkable from one another, but subways and buses can shorten the travel times). The museum offers guided tours of life more than a century ago in lower Manhattan, a time when poor European immigrants lived in close quarters. Of course, it includes a specialist bookstore.

Let’s head to midtown. It’s a healthy walk, about two miles north, but it’s quick and easy to hop on the subway. Mostly, this is a busy business district with lots of skyscrapers. My favorite bookstore–the Gotham Book Mart–is among the many shops that are no longer there. But there are plenty of places to visit, and perhaps, buy even more books. If you’re staying overnight, there’s the Library Hotel, 299 Madison Avenue at 41st Street, one of a growing number of hotels with their own collections of books for guests (these are popping up all over the world). The Morgan Library & Museum is a notable Manhattan landmark, and “originally the private library of one of America’s most notable financiers, Pierpont Morgan.” The Morgan also hosts special book-related events and other arts events. It is simply a stunning place. Even more fun: The Drama Book Shop, filled with scripts, scores, and all things theater. Under new ownership–Lin-Manuel Miranda and several of his Hamilton cronies–a new shop opens soon. A short walk leads to the main branch of The New York Public Library, at 42nd Steet and Fifth Avenue, with its awesome map room, classic reading room, and so many places you’ve seen in magazines and in movies. Next, it’s over to Algonquin Hotel, 59 West 44 Street, where “right after World I, a group of rather intelligent and witty twenty-something New York writers, critics, and actors, and nicknamed themselves ‘The Vicious Circle,” and included NY Times theater critic Alexander Woolcott, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and Robert E. Sherwood.

As time and interest allow, there’s John Steinbeck’s apartment at 190 East 72 Street, walkable but again, a subway is faster. And if you want to further explore Manhattan’s Upper East Side, check the schedule for the 92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Avenue, because there are often authors and various performers on stage discussing their work: in March, the list includes novelist Zadie Smith, Maria Kalman on her new book about Alice B. Toklas, film director Barry Sonnenfeld talking about his new book with Jerry Seinfeld, E.J. Dionne, Hilary Mantel, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn on their new book, a lot of musical performances, and more. Right nearby: La Librairie des Enfants, a charming lending library, and an informal community center. Also in the neighborhood: Kitchen Arts & Letters at 1435 Lexington Avenue, offering not only cookbooks but tons of books about food history and related topics

What about the other boroughs? Sure, there are a few pages about the Bronx (2 pages, plus a good interview with local author Richard Price), Brooklyn (The Center for Fiction–moved after two centuries in Manhattan, The Central Library, which is not part of the New York Public Library but a magnificent enterprise of its own) and Queens (a lovely story about fulfilling the need for neighborhood bookstores–Kew & Willow Books).

There are some photographs, but they tend to be small and suggest snapshots. Better are the pen-and-ink illustrations that do not attempt to support the text in a literal way. Instead, the pictures provide a sense of place, offer little piles of books and the occasional bookworm. Think about the use of spot illustrations in the New Yorker magazine–but add spot color.

 

(Note: New Yorker illustrator Pierre Le-Tan died in October 2019.)

 

 

 

TIME’s Youngest Person of the Year–Before Greta Thunberg

I decided to do some counting. So far, Greta is the youngest individual TIME Magazine Person of the Year.

Before Greta, can you figure out who the holder of the “youngest individual” was? Here are several possible answers:

– Mark Zuckerberg
– Queen Elizabeth II
– Mahatma Gandhi
– Wallis Simpson
– Charles Lindbergh

I will publish the correct answer in the next blog post.

But while we’re all paying attention, I did notice that the vast majority of winners have been older white men: 73 in all. During that same period, there have been just 6 females–and including Greta, just one other female since 1987. (Yes. TIME should probably question its processes). She was:

– Margaret Thatcher
– Elizabeth Warren
– Hilary Clinton
– Angela Merkel
– J.K. Rowling

Again, look for the correct answer in the next blog post.

One final thought: during the past few years, and throughout its history, TIME has given the honor to, for example, The Computer, The Endangered Earth, and the Ebola Fighters. Who was Greta’s immediate individual predecessor as Person of the Year?

– Barack Obama
– Donald Trump
– Nancy Pelosi
– Beyoncé
– Tim Cook

Answers to come.

Bring on the Immigrants!

“These days, a great many people in the rich countries complain loudly about migration from the poor ones. But as the immigrants see it, the game was rigged: First, the rich countries colonized us and stole our treasure and prevented us from building industries. After plundering us for centuries, they left, having drawn up maps in ways that ensured permanent strife between our communities. Then they brought us to their countries as “guest workers”–as if they knew what the word “guest” means in our cultures–but discouraged us from bringing our families. Having built up their economies with our raw materials and our labor, they asked us to go back, and were surprised when we did not. They stole our minerals and corrupted our governments so their corporations could continue stealing our resources, they fouled the air above us and the waters around us, making our farms barren, our oceans lifeless; and they were aghast when the poorest among us arrived at their borders, not to steal, but to work, to clean their sh*t and f*ck their men.”

Suketa Mehta is angry. He has every right to be angry. You and I should be angry, too. He’s angry because we are upside-down and ignorant about immigration. That’s why he wrote a manifesto–in the form of a book appropriately entitled This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto. His choice of words is narrow: this is a manifesto for all people who live in the U.S. because more than 99% of us are, in fact, immigrants. The remaining 1% are survivors. The paragraph that begins this article also begins his book.

Mehta is a very a good writer, especially when he’s angry. He’s a journalist and a professor, a smart guy who makes very powerful arguments in favor of knowing far more than we know today. He is angry about the hypocrisy, and it’s bracing to see all of this material in print–from a major publishing house. And it is hopeful. Metha makes it clear that we can and must do better, in part because the 21st century demands a higher level of global interaction, in part because “never before has there been so much human movement…and so much organized resistance to human movement.”

This is a book about the whole world–not the United States, not just Europe. It’s filled with stories about people whose lives are in London, Abu Dhabi, Tangier, Bhopal, Palestine, Korea, Rotterdam, Manhattan, Canada, Denmark. Migration, emigration and immigration–each a variation of the other two–is and has always been a global adventure.

The history is difficult because it’s told in all candor. Winston Churchill, for example, “loathed Nazis and Indians, and tried to kill as many of both as possible.” He advocated the use of chemical weapons against Iraqis, who rebelled against the British Empire. Taken as the ideas of a influential individual, they are upsetting. Taken as part of a larger story, they provide vital insights: “in all, 40 percent of all of the national borders in the entire world today were made by just two countries: Britain and France.” Look at a map of Africa, and you can easily see how thoroughly the many straight lines destroyed local tribes and cultures–hundreds of tribes caught in a cycle of violence as they attempted to reinstate families that, inexplicably, were now in different countries. The mess that now defines the Middle East is largely the result of borders and boundaries determined by a British fellow who never once visited the region.

“The Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Limits and Settlement” shifted ownership (the term is “cession” as one nation “cedes” territory to another. It was signed in 1848. In March 2017, a Mexican politician attempted to nullify that agreement and require the United States to pay for its use of the territory that was once about half of Mexico’s entire country–and is now most of California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah, and parts of four other states. At first, this seems like a wild idea, but it’s just one of many examples of nations taking over parts of other nations as if it was their right to do so. Now, the time is right to start thinking more seriously about whether the items in the British Museum, gathered from hundreds of years of empire, ought to be returned to their native countries. And if we follow that line of reasoning, whether people born in those regions ought to go home, too. Or be allowed to stay. None of this is absolute. It’s been in motion for a very long time.

Mehta grew up in New York City. In Queens, where there are more people from more ethnic backgrounds than any other place on earth. “It’s astonishing how little ethnic strife there is in New York. It’s astonishing how safe New York has become, while encountering some of the biggest waves of immigration in its history. It’s astonishing how free the immigrants are to follow their own culture, language, religion. It’s astonishing how rich immigrants have made New York. If there’s a poster city for demonstrating immigration works, New York is it.”

The author blasts through ugly arguments about how immigrants take jobs away, how they are more likely to participate in crimes, how they destroy culture. Unlike most people who talk or write about any of this, he has done the homework. We are so upside down on this information, his reliable sources are nearly impossible to believe. From Criminology, “Increases in the undocumented immigrant population within states are associated with significant decreases in the prevalence of violence.” Also, “As for jobs, 86 percent of first generation immigrant males participate in the labor force, which is a higher rate than the native born…immigrant men with the lowest levels of education are more likely to be employed than comparable native-born men, indicating that immigrants appear to be filling low-skilled jobs that native-born Americans are not available or willing to take.”

Schenectady, New York is a city near the state’s capital, Albany. It is one of many cities in upstate New York that have been forgotten by the vibrant U.S. economy. That’s why the mayor personally travels to the Queens neighborhood of Richmond Hill, to recruit people from Guyana so they will move to his city where “they’re refurbished abandoned and burnt-out homes with little to no government assistance, rehabilited them with sweat equity, with neat brick-and-metal fences around them.” A far better idea than demolishing those homes (cost: $16,500 per home), the policy to sell the home instead (cost to new homeowner: $1). This is why 12 percent of Schenectady’s population is now Guyanese. The model has gained considerable acclaim, so it is being replicated in other cities: a quarter of nearby Utica, New York is immigrants, including 7,000 refugees from Bosnia.

If you’re sensing a much larger story than you’re hearing from politicians, reading in the newspapers, seeing on the TV news, or learning in school, you’ve got that right. This is a spectacular story–inclusive of its highly appropriate anger–that every immigrant, potential immigrant, long-ago immigrant, policy advisor, school adminstrator, journalist and pundit ought to study, and research in even greater detail.

In short, immigration is not the problem. It is the solution. (No spoiler alert needed here: to find out why immigration is the solution, you’ll need to read the book.)

The Thinking Side of Climate Change Requires an Emotional Partner

When the formidable Greta Thunberg barked about climate change, she didn’t do it to become famous. She did it so that adults would take the time to learn about the science. I decided to take her up on the challenge. Fortunately, I happened upon a useful tool: a book written by an apolitical scientist who writes clearly. His name is Robert Henson, and his book is sensibly called The Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change. (Second Edition.)

I learned a lot, and I wanted to share. Here’s rundown on some of the more important ideas:

Earth is definitely warming. We know this because independent scientists have analyzed more than a century’s data. Overall, the rise is about 1 degree Celsius, but the increases have been greater in some parts of the world, and less in others. We also know that the earth is warming because the ice in major glaciers, large areas of Greenland, and the interior of Antartica is melting rapidly. In addition, the growing season in the Northern Hemisphere is longer than before, and certain annual events are occurring earlier because of the warming: the Sakura (Cherry Blossom) Festival in Japan, the appearances of daffodils in England’s Royal Botanical Gardens, the high bush blueberries around Walden Pond. You’ve probably noticed this plant behavior in your area, too. One more indicator: mosquitoes, birds and other creatures are being driven to higher altitudes, and, in a parallel development, marine life seems to be migrating toward the poles. Taken as individual instances, none of these indicate much of anything. When they are considered as part of a larger pattern, scientists strongly believe that this activity to be a clear indicator of warming.

One degree may not seem like much, but remember that’s an average across a very wide range of regions. Better to consider the hot spells experienced by, for example, Chicago, where hundreds of people died from heat-related causes in 1995, followed by thousands in Paris in 2003 and more in Moscow in 2010. Cities become “heat islands” where nighttime temperatures do not cool as they did before, so the buildings and the streets trap the heat and cause temperatures to remain well above normal for extended periods. Air conditioning is a potential remedy, but many cities are not structured for large-scale use of air conditioning, a technology related to electricity and fossil fuels–not an ideal solution.

You’ll have to read the book to satisfy your curiosity about how much of this warming is due to human action–the answer is a lot–but it’s far safer to assume that we are too blame, so we can take as much corrective action as possible (the alternative only makes things worse).

Browsing the chart on page 57 (there are many charts and illustrations, all helpful in navigating the collected wisdom), it’s clear that the big game is change the behavior of two large countries–China and the U.S.–because they are responsible for 43% of the global carbon dioxide emissions in the world (counting only fossil fuels, cement, and gas flaring). Add India and Russia, and the four culprit total is 54%. Focusing on the big stuff seems sensible–there is reason for concern about Qatar’s very large per capita contribution, but Qatar has less than 3 million people, so its total contribution is small. It’s comforting to see real progress from, for example, the U.K., and Mexico, and Brazil–but deeply disturbing to compare their numbers with the U.S. and China (each seemingly more concerned with tariff brinksmanship than dealing with gigantic problem in which they are the most significant perpetrators). Moving on…

Climate change does not exist in a vacuum. “Many victims of heat waves die not because the air is so warm, but because it’s so dirty. The sunny, stagnant conditions prevalent during heat waves make an ideal platform for…” and here, the list of dangers becomes very nasty, causing serious lung conditions and heart attacks. The cause is fine particulate matter that enters the indoor environments, and tends to be very difficult to manage. With global warming, we consistently exacerbate the potential for human tragedy–especially among the elderly, the pregnant and the youngest children. This heartless approach to environmental management now seems to permeate many aspects of life on earth.

Climate change is also related to floods and droughts–which seem contradictory but they occur when the land can no longer do the job of absorbing water. Along with several other factors, these provide good reason for people to migrate to areas that were previously too hot, cold, wet, dry, or otherwise unappealing or nonproductive. With time, they are changing so that new agricultural lands are indeed opening up. Problem is, the additional warm, or wetness, or dryness, causes unpredictable responses from flora and fauna, and new weather patterns. The new kind of wheat may successfully grow in the new region, but it may also become home to previously dormant microbes that wreak havoc hundreds or thousands of miles away. (These patterns are utterly normal, but scientists are losing their ability to keep track of what’s happening because much of the science is still developing and because the climate is changing faster and in less predictable ways than anyone thought possible.)

While trying to manage the impact of what we do know–and deal with the sluggish government response to problems that seem so overwhelming and yet tend to be difficult to comprehend–scientists are discovering the impact of all sorts of scary phenomena. Some of this is related to melting ice. The Permafrost layer in eastern Siberia, and large Arctic regions are experiencing environmental and physical changes that are downright spooky. In Fairbanks, Alaska, for example, bicycle paths buckle and sinkholes emerge from construction sites. In time, they will probably emerge on their own. As they do, as the Permafrost continues to melt, everything could become a lot worse because massive amounts trapped methane and carbon dioxide may be released–causing lots more melting, and sea level rise with positive impacts all the way down the eastern seaboard of the United States (that is, flooded subways in New York City; destruction of Atlantic beach communities; submerging low-lying cities and fishing communities).

This is not alarmist writing. This is the science that Greta Thunberg wanted adults to learn. As you can see, I’m only touching a few points–we haven’t discussed oceans, rivers, hurricanes, trees, or anything related to the likely statistical impact of each of our possible individual and global actions.

The book is terrific, but most people don’t read books, and fewer still read 500 page science books. So: the information is available, but so far, adults are not doing a very good job capturing hearts and minds. Greta did, and she caused street protests and some media attention. That’s important because raising awareness is part of the game, and because big decisions and social change are often driven by emotion, not scientific fact. Still, we lack a clear picture of what is happening, in a form that most people can comprehend, remember, and share. Every adult must be able to explain climate change to their children, and to one another. Every teacher must be equipped to teach these lessons every day (a great deal of the current curriculum can be pointed toward global understanding of climate). The American Meteorological Association seems like the kind of organization that could step up as a kind of source authority, as it has attempted to do with the publication of this particular book. Somebody needs to step up and make the story clear so that we can all become partners. I want to help. I hope you do, too.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

The Success of Smaller Cities

Traveling the world, I find myself drawn not the megapolis, but to the smaller cities where life seems so much more reasonable. The year 2018 included travel to Bulgaria, where I enjoyed Stara Zagora, an old place in the less-traveled center of the county, and in Slovenia, the charms of wandering around Ljubljana made me want to spend more time in sidewalk cafes along the old river bed. I really enjoyed my time in both Sheffield and Manchester, England, too.. And in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Certainly, the charms of London and Paris, and New York City (we’re exploring Brooklyn like tourists) are abundant, but there is something hopeful and forward-thinking about smaller cities that have found their way in the faster-paced, deeply complicated, economically confounding 21st century.

Given endless time and money, I would explore every small city I could, and maybe that’s what I’m doing. Along the way, I’ve become quite jealous of James and Deborah Fallows, who managed not only to do the trip by traveling in their own small plane, but also visiting about two dozen small cities and writing a popular new book about their adventures. It’s called Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America.

What have I learned from my travels? What did they learn from their travels? Did we learn any of the same things?

  • Most of these cities have a bona-fide downtown district where people shop, visit and hang out during the day, on weekends, and even at night. There are cafes, restaurants, retail open into the evening and sometimes later. I love finding the bookstore/cafe/bar that used to be a bank, the place where Tuesdays are open mic night, and people just sit around on comfy couches. One such place, the Book and Bar in Portsmouth, used to be a customs house and post office. It’s now open until midnight on Wednesday and Thursday nights, and until 1AM on Friday and Saturday nights. And it’s a great place to buy books. Food and drink are good, too.
  • They are very open to people from other places, and welcome these people as neighbors. Yes, this runs counter to the nationalist thinking that dominates the national conversation. Fallows: “Cities as different as Sioux Falls, Burlington (VT), and Fresno have gone to extraordinary lengths to assimilate refugees from recent wars. Greenville (SC)’s mayor asked us to listen for how many languages we heard spoken on the streets from residents or from visitors.
  • There is a research university nearby. Often, but not always. Why does this matter? The international students and faculty, which leads to international restaurants, and smart families demanding more from the community and local schools, too. This is usually tied to an appreciation of the importance of public libraries, children’s programs, and similarly positive activities and enterprises. In Manchester, there is a substantial university community. Ditto for Rochester, NY, which struggles with a proper downtown (it faded away in the 1970s, and never returned), but benefits from several neighborhoods that may qualify because of the restaurant, music, club and other activities nearly every night of the week. In this category, I would probably add a good independent film theater that sometimes shows foreign films, and, a good vinyl record store (or, several good vintage clothing shops, I guess).
  • And a good community college, too. In the words of the Fallows: “Not every city can have a research university. Any ambitious one can have a community college…Just about every other world-historical trend is pushing the United States (and other countries) toward a less equal, more polarized existence: labor replacing technology, globalized trade, self-segregated residential housing patterns, and the American practice of unequal district-based funding for public schools. Community colleges are the main exception, potentially offering a a connection to higher-wage technical jobs for people who might otherwise be left with no job or one at minimum wage. East Mississippi Community College has taken people from welfare and prepared them for jobs in nearby factories that pay twice as much as local median household income. Fresno City College works with tech firms and California State University, to train the children of farmworker families (among others) for higher-tech agribusiness jobs…we saw a number of such schools that were clearly forces in the right direction. The more often and the more specifically people talk about their community college, the better we ended up feeling about the direction of that town.”
  • They support several innovative schools. The specific approach or content associated with innovation seems to matter less than the imagination and bold decisions that make the school possible and allow it to thrive. It may be a specialty in technology, or mental health, or a maker culture, or it may celebrate the richness of local traditions, or global competence. The important idea here is the willingness of the community to take the time and the initiative to understand its responsibilities to the next generations, and to play an active role in their education. The Fallows celebrate “the intensity of experimentation.” As I spend time in schools throughout the world, the ones that stand out are the ones that want to stand out. For them, there is no crisis in education. There is opportunity and often success–accompanied by tremendous community involvement and authentic civic pride. You can see it on the children’s faces, you can easily observe it by watching behavior in the hallways and listening to the chatter, and, almost always, you can measure it (even with the over-the-top evaluation tools that many schools must use, regardless of their relevance to the ultimate goal of raising empowered kids).
  • People share a common mythology, and most people tell the same story about their town. I first noticed this in Bulgaria–every school child knew all seven of their city’s previous names (Bulgaria has been ruled by the Turkish and other peoples for a very long time). They know the history. They use the same words and phrases to describe what is meaningful and beautiful. It’s a delightful sort of local propaganda, but it certainly builds unity and identity in a way that feels authentic. I saw this in Ljubljana, in Manchester, and in so many other places. Big city folks may treat these stories with skepticism as they point out inconsistencies and ironies, but these local belief systems are very important, and often guide small cities to do the right thing.
  • National politics is over-rated, overwrought, and less interesting on a local level than national news would have us believe. In this country, coverage of ordinary people is lackluster and spotty. When you spend time in a cafe, or another public setting, you find good and decent people who care about one another and about their communities. They are concerned about what’s happening in the nation’s capital (I visited Whitesburg, Kentucky on the day of the Kavanaugh hearings, and that was a concern, but hardly the overriding concern of the day).
  • A small number of people “make this town go.” They may or may not be politically ambitious. They may be educators, or religious leaders, or people in the community who care. So they build fire department buildings, make sure the hospitals are well-funded, and help people in need. They also make sure the community is engaged, and see one another at events that are both fun and meaningful. I met some of these people. The Fallows met a lot of them. We both saw the same thing–and this is probably a small city phenomenon, more difficult to achieve and sustain in a larger city. Often, the strength of partnerships between private companies and public service providers is just plain normal–not special, so it doesn’t get much attention. But it works.
  •  They drink local craft beer. Increasingly, according to James Fallows, the local craft brewery and its popularity is a useful indicator of city pride and city progress. Not sure I agree because we’re now seeing remote ownership of these enterprises–maybe ten or fifteen years ago, he was right. And in the places where local beer in a local brewpub is owned by, managed by, and lovingly nurtured by local dreamers, he’s spot on. Me, I look for a local maker culture, a local music culture, a local food culture (farm to table, etc.), and anything resembling a new independent bookstore. I want to see the old city bar transformed into an extremely popular and fairly priced breakfast place where college students, day workers, and politicians all order muffins, pancakes, fresh juice and fresher coffee from the same blackboard menu. That’s the place I ate breakfast in Cumberland, Maryland, a city whose history was so captivating, I spend over $20 on a picture book about its history, even though my time as a visitor was under four hours.

Muffin and Friend, Cafe Mark, Cumberland, Maryland, USA

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