Hi-Phi Nation: a Philosophy Podcast

The February 2019 dead tree edition of Chronogram, a local magazine here in the Hudson Valley of New York, had a brief interview with Barry Lam of Vassar College about his philosophy podcast, Hi-Phi Nation. I listened as a result, and found Hi-Phi Nation to be entertaining and interesting, even punny. But I may be an outlier: check it out yourself.

Economists enjoy great media cachet. I don’t see philosophers being revered in the same way as go-to problem framers.

Philosophy has the reputation of being a little old-fashioned or weirdly inaccessible. We haven’t done a good job in philosophy of putting ourselves as one of the branches of people who have been thinking about these kinds of things and have a stake in it and can offer a way of approaching these problems that an ordinary person concerned with social issues and what’s happening with the world can access. The public has to feel that philosophers are offering an insight versus just arguing endlessly amongst themselves about things that nobody else cares about.


Yes. People don’t like jargon, for good reason. But what they really hate is uncertainty.

They also ask tough questions like, “Philosophy? What kind of job can you get with that? Stand-up philosopher?” As if nothing is worth doing for itself.

And as if philosophy is not something that everybody can do.

Revisions Needed

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

Anonymous

I came across, by way of a footnote on Jason Kottke’s piece on clam gardens, an interesting review of Sam Arbesman‘s work on the half-life of facts, which apparently can be described mathematically. How long will it be before the conventional wisdom is neither conventional nor wisdom?

Mr. Kottke notes,

I’m guessing most people reading this learned in school that the Americas were sparsely populated and almost pristine before Columbus showed up, but subsequent research over the past 20 years has shown that this is very much not the case.

I should ask my kids what the kids are learning these days. I’m sure Pearson has had little incentive to update the standard texts, even though William Cronon’s Changes in the Land was published 36 years ago, in 1983. Though evidence certainly abounded before then, it was news to me when I read Changes in the Land in 1990 or so.

Update: JSTOR Daily, in “Yes, Americans Owned Land Before Columbus,” notes that our understanding of the indigenous understanding of property has changed over time, and points out Allen Greer’s “Commons and Enclosure in the Colonization of North America.” The American Historical Review, vol. 117, no. 2, 2012, pp. 365–386.

Persistence

a black walnut, opened by a squirrel
a black walnut, opened by a squirrel

Have you cracked a black walnut?

Or, perhaps more precisely, have you tried to crack a black walnut?

I found this half of a walnut shell on my walk this morning. The squirrel who enjoyed the nutmeat at the heart chewed through against the grain, avoiding what little help the seam between the shell halves gives. His technique doesn’t translate well to human teeth: his grow back. Instead, we use saws, hammers, and snips to get inside. But, luckily for us, people sometimes do crack these walnuts and bake them into cakes or cookies. The effort is worth it.

What persistence one must have to continue until reaching hidden delights, or what hunger.

Any Morning

Just lying on the couch and being happy.
Only humming a little, the quiet sound in the head.
Trouble is busy elsewhere at the moment, it has
so much to do in the world.

People who might judge are mostly asleep; they can’t
monitor you all the time, and sometimes they forget.
When dawn flows over the hedge you can
get up and act busy.

Little corners like this, pieces of Heaven
left lying around, can be picked up and saved.
People won’t even see that you have them,
they are so light and easy to hide.

Later in the day you can act like the others.
You can shake your head. You can frown.

— “Any Morning,” William Stafford (1993)

Feedback

I don’t recall many of my college successes with great clarity, but I do recall my few failures. Two in particular stand out: both D’s on short papers because “the assignment was not addressed.”

One was for a course on art in New York City, where we were to pick a work that moved us, say why, and discuss the work. We were not limited to the visual arts — the course covered architecture as well as paintings in museums — but I apparently stretched the definition of art a bit too far, and wrote of a surprising cornfield in the front yard of a house in The Bronx.

The other was for a course on communications technologies, where we were to discuss an emerging technology and its current and potential effects on society. I wrote on how credit cards and networked point-of-sale magnetic stripe readers enabled the elimination of people from the purchase of gasoline and, by extension, the elimination of clerks in general. This was in 1991 or so, and most credit transactions still involved imprints in triplicate on carbon paper. By 2001, full-service gasoline stations were no longer an option (except where required by law), and staff had been reduced to a sole employee whose only purpose in life was to check identification for cigarette and alcohol sales. And nearly all retail stores were experimenting with self-checkout lanes. Not sure how this didn’t satisfy the assignment.

I wonder if I were able to revisit those pieces today I would agree with the professors. Because I’d like to point out that I was right.

The Illusion of Perfection

One of my favorite stories of a political figure is of Jimmy Carter, who said, yes, I’ve sinned.

I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times. This is something that God recognizes I will do–and I have done it–and God forgives me for it.

We know no one is perfect–we certainly aren’t–but we insist on believing others are. Our heroes must be, at all costs. Columbus, for example, who bumped into the New World by an accident of math, couldn’t possibly have been a brutal, ravening slaver. It would not do to admit that the emperor has no clothes or that the king has feet of clay.

After all, he’s just a man. — T. Wynette

Sherry Turkle spends a balanced chapter on the subject in Alone Together, but I’ve since run across a number of snide remarks bemoaning the cultivation of an image of perfection on Instagram or of editing one’s online personality on Facebook, at once more plastic and more permanent. This seems such an ungenerous assessment of how we use those tools, unlike Pinterest which is obviously solely aspirational, engendered perhaps by our American obsession with marketing our personal brand illusion. Why not see these, of necessity cropped, images as snapshot of beauty in the world?

Beauty’s where you find it. — Madonna

At times the entire project of the American Dream seems collapsed to nothing more than envy and covetousness, underlaid by a deep sense of unease. That’s more motivation than one can reasonably extract from the purchase of a large home with a large mortgage and a large garage filled with large cars. It’s exposed more in the frantic scurrying for a place in the Right kindergarten or avoidance of the Wrong school district, anxiety about getting into the Best college or joining the Prominent firm, as each of these choices appears to open or close future opportunity: My children won’t have a perfect life if I eat Frankenberries while I’m pregnant, if I’m not a Tiger Mom, if I am a Tiger Mom. We simply must do the one single right thing, but doubt what it is. The courage of our convictions is lost in the crowd.

There can be only one king of the hill. That’s how superlatives work. There’s only one greatest of all time. But these are terms for comparison within a group: relative positioning, not absolute. The argument over who is the best is absurd without context. Nevertheless, the struggle for position in this tribe of great apes matters. Because shit rolls downhill, one must fight for one of the few limited spots closer to the top of the shit heap. The ape on the top of the heap can’t show weakness.

Sports model society, to a degree. Not all the parents are LaVar Ball, nor do all sporting enterprises target the anxieties of parents, but a number are, and a number do, leading to the impression that one needs to specialize early, that one just has to join the elite academy team at age 8 in order to play in college at 18, if one harbors any dream of playing professionally. Have to be ready when those scouts come looking for the next 13 year-old star. Never mind that puberty happens. One could also move to Argentina and acquire a growth hormone deficiency in hopes of trying out for Barcelona. Not that either method works: Sales doesn’t like statistics that get in the way of money.

What happens to joy? What place has fun?

What if we looked at life, and particularly parenting, as an unfolding practice instead of something we have to perfect on our first attempt? What if we could make mistakes in public? What if we could admit fallibility? What if we could experiment? Does anyone have all the answers? Has no one seen nothing new? Is everything the same day-to-day? Why is it so hard to respect how things are and, at the same time, allow the possibility of improvement? What if curiosity and compassion were stronger than fear?

What if we said yes?

“Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” [Luke 18:16–17 (ESV)]

Woke Up This Morning

Starting the morning with a poem is, oddly, a practice that hadn’t occurred to me until listening to Krista Tippett’s conversation with Naomi Shihab Nye: Your Life is a Poem. No. 1 Daughter, around the time she became the Big Sister, wrote “pomes” she would carry around the house in her pocket. I wonder if she still does.

Today’s offering from the American Academy of Poets is Jenny Xie‘s “To Be a Good Buddhist Is Ensnarement.”


The Zen priest says I am everything I am not.
In order to stop resisting, I must not attempt to stop resisting.
I must believe there is no need to believe in thoughts.
Oblivious to appetites that appear to be exits, and also entrances.
What is there to hoard when the worldly realm has no permanent vacancies?
Ten years I’ve taken to this mind fasting.
My shadow these days is bare.
It drives a stranger, a good fool.
Nothing can surprise.
Clarity is just questioning having eaten its fill.

Jenny Xie, “To Be a Good Buddhist is Ensnarement” (2018)

Shut Up and Sit Down

The Arlington (NY) Central School District, after declaring a snow day because it was snowy, sent parents a note regarding the possibility of intentional student absences on two days in particular: walkouts are planned for March 14 and April 20. The organizers * of the local events know that civil disobedience bears accepting the consequences. The district is compelled by law, if not inclination, to ensure that there are consequences, and thus threatens both students and parents. None of this language is new:

As on a normal day of school, students will not be permitted to leave any school building without prior parent written permission. Written parent permission for reasons other than sickness, family sickness, death in the family, required court appearance, doctors appointment, religious observance, impassable roads, quarantine, military obligation, or counselor endorsed college visits will be designated as an illegal absence. Students leaving school without prior parent permission will be considered truant and may face disciplinary consequences based on the Code of Conduct.

The original sin of compulsory schooling rears its ugly head.

The student is compelled to attend to instruction (translation: go to class). Failure to attend is considered interference with instruction — one’s own — even if there is no other disruption of the classroom. It’s certainly insubordination. It’s defined as such in the district’s Code of Conduct:

Students may be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including suspension from school, when they: … Engage in conduct that is insubordinate. Examples of insubordinate conduct include but are not limited to the following: … Lateness for school or class, missing school or class, or leaving school or class without permission. [emphasis mine]

This is a district which has responded to the difficulties of an intentionally large high school as a problem of crowd control: by requiring permission slips for everything, including using the bathroom, visiting the library, or going to one’s locker during lunch. Such small daily reminders that you are powerless. But don’t worry; we have support available if you feel like you don’t belong.

They try, at least.

One can tell that they do care, and that thoughtful consideration is given to the whole student. They are well aware of the risks of mental stresses on school safety, for example. The rules are not in place just for the sake of having rules. It’s even possible that the indignity of permission slips is imposed from above, that the administration is as much a victim of the system as the students are, and are doing the best they can in the circumstances. The walkout organizers have met with the principal, and have a cordial, sympathetic relationship. Both parties understand the house of cards depends on compliance.

Yet following procedures hasn’t worked to get the legislatures to discuss their concerns, much less address them. Writing letters to the editor, or to Congress, or calling or visiting the offices of their legislators has had no effect. What else can they do? Wait to die?

A walkout is quite clearly against the rules. It is quite clearly disobedience. It is quite clearly insubordinate behavior. And the administration must, quite clearly, punish it. They have no choice.

Unless they permit it.

Colleges, meanwhile, quite clearly approve:

The history of our nation is replete with examples of movements that began with a few voices that became many, and that have resulted in lasting change. Vassar will not penalize you for raising your voice in peaceful protest, and for upholding the values about which you feel passionately. To the contrary, as high school students across the country have organized authentic, meaningful protests, we at Vassar have been proud.

This conflict strikes at the heart of the role of schools, particularly the high school, in American society. While the school is ostensibly there for academic pursuits, and declares its mission to be humanity, we’re reminded that their primary objective is obedience.

The Arlington Central School District mission is to empower all students to be self-directed, lifelong learners, who willingly contribute to their community, and lead passionate, purposeful lives. [emphasis mine]

And color within the lines.

Obey. It’s the American Way.


* I should note here that No. 1 Daughter is the leader of this crowd of hooligans.

The Water the Frog Boils In

The last few days I’ve been watching presentations from LISA and Velocity on the difficulties and rewards of the cultural transformation needed by a lean, agile DevOps practice. It’s pleasant to be reminded of the range of interests of those in this field; I dislike falling into caricature. So while I generally enjoy John Naughton‘s writing in The Guardian, I’ve been bothered by a piece of his from last November on how the technorati don’t fully consider the ethics of what they do – and so implement things like Facebook – but might have if they’d had a more humanist college education.

It never seems to have occurred to them that their advertising engines could also be used to deliver precisely targeted ideological and political messages to voters. Hence the obvious question: how could such smart people be so stupid? The cynical answer is they knew about the potential dark side all along and didn’t care, because to acknowledge it might have undermined the aforementioned licences to print money. Which is another way of saying that most tech leaders are sociopaths. Personally I think that’s unlikely, although among their number are some very peculiar characters: one thinks, for example, of Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel – Trump’s favourite techie; and Travis Kalanick, the founder of Uber.

So what else could explain the astonishing naivety of the tech crowd? My hunch is it has something to do with their educational backgrounds. Take the Google co-founders. Sergey Brin studied mathematics and computer science. His partner, Larry Page, studied engineering and computer science. Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard, where he was studying psychology and computer science, but seems to have been more interested in the latter.

Now mathematics, engineering and computer science are wonderful disciplines – intellectually demanding and fulfilling. And they are economically vital for any advanced society. But mastering them teaches students very little about society or history – or indeed about human nature. As a consequence, the new masters of our universe are people who are essentially only half-educated. They have had no exposure to the humanities or the social sciences, the academic disciplines that aim to provide some understanding of how society works, of history and of the roles that beliefs, philosophies, laws, norms, religion and customs play in the evolution of human culture.

While I agree with a humanist, liberal education, and believe that our secondary and collegiate educational systems are too oriented toward the perceived needs of the workplace, the computer industry in practice attracts a lot of people who did not study computer science: people who were, for example, history majors. Peter Thiel, mentioned above and formerly of PayPal, holds both a B. A. in philosophy and a J. D. from Stanford, with nary a science degree in sight.

Nevertheless, it’s often the case that it is the makers of tools who think deeply about how they used, and those who use them who do not. This is not, of course, to say that everything is rational, or that there aren’t people who act unthinkingly, but engineers do spend a fair amount of time considering the consequences of the latest novelty. Some of them happen to read science fiction — and if there’s been a class of people who has thought long and hard about their tools and their effects on society, it has been the authors and readers of science fiction (and the Amish). So do the fine folks in Marketing, though sometimes it’s hard to tell.

It’s not that there’s no thinking going on, though that’s true in some cases, but that the answers are disagreeable. A more apt politically relevant example, Mencius Moldbug, a computer programmer by trade, has spilled much ink thinking about his place in the world. His work is seminal fluid for the “alt-right.” Perhaps if he were calmly discussing the joy of monarchy on an academic quadrangle surrounded by ivy-clad brick it might be more respectable. Perhaps not; he doesn’t seem interested in the fuzziness of dealing with people. And that is, after all, what the humanities require.

Looking for an explanation for Facebook other than “asshole“?

Try Wall Street or Madison Avenue.

This is a cultural fault. And, as I’ve heard a couple of times the past few days, the real values of a firm are shown by who gets rewarded or let go. Facebook, et al., have been rewarded, handsomely, for doing exactly what it is they are doing. Why should they stop? We have consistently affirmed for some time now that earning a profit by any means necessary is the best and highest purpose of mankind: “Greed is good.”

A culture is defined by what it preserves and what it casts aside. Education talks mostly about HOW to do something, not WHAT to do or WHY. We leave those questions to the wider culture, which, at least at the moment, rewards the pursuit of wealth and power.

Patience, Grasshopper

A little attention goes a long way.

I’ve come to believe that a great deal of unnecessary coercion, what one might call excessive use of force, is directly related to impatience; to a misplaced urgency; to the idea that something must be done now, when I command, not later on its own time. We see this in the daily challenges of parenting, those quotidian sins of our life, beating the weaker as that merciless master the clock beats us: yelling at No. 1 Daughter to get in the car so we get to church — or anywhere – on time; shoving No. 2 Son on the bus every day for the first years of schooling; yelling at No. 2 Daughter to clean her room; throwing No. 2 Son in the water at swim lessons; threatening repercussions if the room is not clean, if the teeth are not brushed, if the music is not practiced, if the homework is not done, if the lights are not off. We see this present systemically, in ever earlier compulsory schooling, for example, with the requirement to read on schedule rather than when the child desires. It’s in our language, when we equate listen with obey, or when we force a plant to bloom.

It backfires. The bed goes unmade. They fail out of college. They stop singing. We express puzzlement and alarm at why a large percentage of adults give up reading when they have the option. The blooms fall off so quickly.

No. 1 Son started a fire on the sidewalk yesterday. He was so proud. He tells me he knows the secret to using flint and steel.

His grandfather has taken an interest in No. 1 Son’s scouting. They go to the meetings together. Each week Pop-Pop helps him with one of the rank requirements. Together they’ve come up with a plan to make Eagle Scout. No. 1 Son set the goal. Pop-Pop encourages and guides him along, helping to shape the vague intention into slow, steady, methodical action.

I sat this morning with No. 2 Son. He gets frustrated quickly with his practice, and angry with anything that isn’t immediately easy. After he calms down, he’ll return to the drums and continue, but it takes some time for his inner John McEnroe to pass. Watching this from behind the safety of my pressing tasks is both frustrating — he’s not getting it done! — and easy for me: the burden is all his.

But this morning I sat with him. I was interested in what he was practicing. I tried to play it. He showed me how to do it. I held the sheet music for him. I listened carefully. I followed along. He played without difficulty or complaint. We enjoyed our thirty minutes together. And then caught up with Ash and his Pokémon.

Such a small thing, attention and time.

Observations on Compulsory Schooling

Walking back from the bus stop, No. 2 Son, who is only just 10, looked thoughtful. A few steps later, he remarked, “School is slavery.”

“It isn’t,” I replied.

“School is like slavery.”

“How so?”

“You are ripped away from your family.”

“But at the end of the school day you come home.”

“That’s true.”

He turned to his friends who were walking alongside: “School is like prison.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“You are forced to go there and you cannot leave.”

Wonder

Yesterday I asked, what about the world beyond the virtual? Computers didn’t have, for the longest time, sensors. Their only interaction with the world was through input devices such as punch-cards, then later keyboards and mice. They only knew what they were told. Many have a variety of sensors now: antennae, gyroscopes, cameras, thermometers, and so forth.

In the late-1980’s, if I recall correctly, science fiction fans and aerospace professionals engaged in heated arguments in the Planetary Society‘s journal  over what should be the policy direction of the United States’ space program. Should we attempt Mars directly or build a base on the moon first? Should we have a space station? Should we emphasize manned missions or send robots off to explore? It was a matter of cost vs. benefit for some: robots were cheap; humans die. I was in favor of both human and robot missions, but as a teenager I wasn’t sensitive to prices. I just thought we should get off this rock and go have a look-see.

I traveled in books. I’m left with sense impressions, of days lying on the braided rug on the floor, musty National Geographic in black-and-white or fresh issues in color in front of me. Nights listening to rain on the tin roof, wind in the tree outside my window, after I’d left the seashore: a plastic square recording that came with the National Geographic of whale song. Nights in the forest primeval listening to The Language and Music of the Wolves. Nights on the moon.

Listening today to an interview with Sylvia Earle, I recalled glimpses of the universe through the Life Nature Library and the Life Science Library, and the big telescopes at Greenbank. The world was full of wonders just waiting to be explored. Will a robot marvel at the wonder? Will a robot follow its curiosity in to a dark forest?

Sometimes it seems like there’s no wonder now. Only fear and greed.

 

But I Get Up Again

I didn’t hit publish on my latest until after midnight, so it looks like I missed two days, not one. I could fudge the record by back-dating posts, but I’d rather not. Instead those gaps in the calendar stand as an example, assuming I continue writing.

Everyone stumbles and falls. Some get up and keep going.

How we approach failure matters. Even in this one sentence, this one paragraph, I keep writing even though I’m not quite sure how best to say what I’m thinking. I could wrestle over each individual word used before I put pen to paper, and do — that’s how I normally approach the page — but when I do that two things happen: I forget what I was trying to say, and I don’t write. Why would I even do this to begin with? I’m not producing permanent etchings on rock; I can change words as I go along, or come back later and revise whole sections — and that’s just on paper. Digital ink is even more flexible. But I’ve done this for decades; I stopped writing in a journal when I was 11: my scribblings were defacing the beautiful book.

I recall some author attempting to make the case that these specific lines in Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” were proof that they were a Satanic band, because you can’t get to Heaven on the highway to Hell:

Yes, there are two paths you can go by / but in the long run / there’s still time to change the road you’re on.

Which is funny because this point is made several times in the Gospels: there’s still time to change. We are all sinners, redeemed by the grace of God. As Paul argues in Romans, because God has forgiven you, refrain from continuing to sin, and instead walk in the path of righteousness.

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. — Romans 6:1-4 (ESV)

(Now that I think about it, that commentary on Led Zeppelin hides a temptation. Shall we despair and continue to sin because there is no hope?)

Let not your sins be a heavy burden, but get up and walk with God, “for my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” That attitude applies not just to grievous faults, but to every little mistake we make. As the Zen Buddhists say in teaching mindfulness, and the yogis in teaching yoga, approach with beginner’s mind. Return to the breath if your attention wanders. It is still there. Observe that thought passing through, how you are not your thoughts. Begin again.

“Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. — Matthew 18:3 (ESV)

We carry the mistakes of the past with us, as lessons: The bee may sting if you try to pet it. What lesson will we learn? What will we teach? If we do not risk failure, if we win without effort, is that success? Each moment, this moment, is new. Pick up the pen and write.

Special Snowflakes

Number Two Daughter asked if I was writing a book. No, just my journal, I replied. It looks like a book, though: it’s bound nicely and is filling. I suppose I could write a book, but at the moment I have no ideas for a book. I do have ideas for short essays, and if I wait long enough another of the 7.5 billion monkeys will write them. There’s many a thing I’ve read where I recognize the thoughts and arguments that have gone into the work, from premise to conclusion. One of the fascinating things about history is how often ideas bubble to the surface around the same time, sometimes more than once. Sometimes they even stick.

I was told stories as a child. You are unique, they said. You are gifted. You are talented. You are handsome. You are smart. God gave you innate gifts — use them in his service.

The thing about half-truths is that they are so easy to believe. That kid is bigger than I am. His parents are bigger than mine are. He must be bigger because he was born this way. He must be stronger and faster and smarter and richer and otherwise all-around better all for the same reason. It’s no leap at all to believe that if I’m better at something, it is because of my natural talent alone. Similarly if I’m worse at something. Einstein’s a genius. Mozart’s a prodigy. Rainman didn’t need to practice math. If it’s easy, it’s because I’m good. If it’s hard, because I’m bad.

Small children know this in their heart of hearts to be true, by the time they are six, or seven, or eight.

But if they think about it, they see it’s a lie. Life is much more nuanced.

Last night at the U10 soccer practice, one of the players said, “I love the homework you give us! It’s so much fun!” Made my day. Each week along with a letter about the week’s schedule, I’ve been sending a short homework assignment tenuously tied to soccer: play FIFA, balance on the curb, run around the house, watch others play soccer. The idea being that in addition to the techniques specific to soccer, there are certain general skills that pretty much anyone can cultivate and which are necessary: attention, agility, balance, coordination, speed, and so forth.

Recently, our understanding of human performance has improved beyond the story of Conan taking his place by right of birth as king of Aquilonia. Neurology, endocrinology, psychology, and other fields have provided insight into how humans work, fleshing out previously vague assertions about willpower with details about executive function, ego depletion, and glucose; connecting the dots between illness, stress, placebo, and mindfulness; showing how learning from deliberate practice excites myelinization; how physical exertion exercises the brain as well as the body; how both muscles and learning form while the body rests after a stress; and how perspective is tied to persistence: mindset and grit.

This is something we have known before. Motivational posters have lots of examples.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. — 老子 (c. 6th Century BCE)

Practice makes perfect. — Anonymous

Slow and steady wins the race. — Aesop (c. 620 – 564 BCE)

“…we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act but a habit.” — Not Aristotle (384–322 BCE)

My success, such as it is, was not, or not entirely, because I was gifted with being smarter, but because once I learned to read, I loved it, and so practiced reading diligently and with attentive love. I liked looking at maps, and pored over them, and so was already familiar with geography by the time it came up in school. I read the World Book Encyclopedia, because I was curious, and so was already familiar with topics covered later on in school. Later, topics caught my interest and I learned of them before I needed to, though I could more precisely say that I simply pursued my interests where they led. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn practice as a discipline.

But still the Nature vs. Nurture debate rages on, both arguing that they can’t both be right, while some people, perhaps with a naturally finer attention to subtlety, grasp that it doesn’t need to be one or the other. And this assumption, that talent is simply a gift — though perhaps it’s a confusion over the definition of the word, talent — is, in fact, my major complaint about talent identification programs, whether by parents, sports programs, schools, or employers; and the current fad of arguing over which astonishing athlete is the GOAT.

Or, to put it another way, this isn’t Highlander.

I Wish I Could Go Back to College

No. 1 Daughter is a junior in high school this year. My how time flies. Her next act on the world stage approaches. Last year, to be helpful, because she was really not interested, and didn’t take the PSAT, I signed her up for the mailing lists of a couple of colleges. Specifically, I signed her up for those which I was interested in when I was looking at schools.

That’s not wrong, right?

Not all of them, though. I didn’t put her on the mailing list for Deep Springs or Hamden-Sydney because she’s, ahem, female. Or for Stanford, since this isn’t about me: it’s about getting her interested in the possibilities.

Yeah. Right.

Maybe I could visit her far too many times if she chose Bard (or, better yet, Simon’s Rock) or Vassar or Fordham, or even just a few too many for a modicum amount of comfort if she chose Mary Baldwin or St. John’s College. Perhaps the better choice, beyond a semester at sea, is something far away, like Oxford.

A community college is right out. I’ll be there every day.

School, a Poem

Locks us inside

3 minute breaks in between

42 minutes

“School,” a poem by Number Two Daughter (13)

Number Two Daughter brought this poem home from school today. She’s expressed this unhappy sentiment several times before, more frequently since the recent increase in lockdown drills and procedural restraint on the movement of students.

I have particular opinions about how the schools are structured, which I may share vocally now and then, but I believe my children are developing their own opinions based on observed experience rather than any ranting I’ve done. The subjects of the system notice what the system is doing, even if they are powerless to prevent or change it. Later, as adults, they might forget, or perhaps accept it as “just the way things are,” and send their children through the same system. As has been remarked in other contexts, this is a feature, not a bug.

Fight the Power

Why do I hate compulsory schooling, do you ask?

There are two reasons. First, I’m against coercion on principle. But, more importantly, it makes mornings a living hell as I become a complicit actor in projecting State power–and an awful father.

So what did I teach Number Two Son this morning?

Did I teach him that one of the great joys of life is learning? No.

Did I guide him in disciplining himself? No.

I taught him that the Bigger and Stronger One gets what he wants through fear and force. Perhaps a more useful lesson, considering that power relationships pervade life, but not the lesson I wanted to teach.

Disillusionment

I can clearly remember the moment when I realized that my interests did not align with school’s. I was 13.

I loved school.

I loved it because I saw my friends. I loved it because I was excellent at dodgeball and red rover and running. I loved it because I was learning new things every day.

We moved.

And then I had to make new friends. I did.

And then gym was nothing more than basketball. I didn’t like basketball.

And then I got bored. 8th grade math was just the same as 7th, which had been slightly more than 6th. I asked to be moved to the next class. Sure, just pass this test; it will assess whether or not you know what will be taught this year. Makes sense. I failed the test. I had never heard of some of these things. Guess I’ll learn them this year.

But we didn’t. We never covered that material. And next year I got to the class I wanted the year before, just because.

School was not there to teach me the things I wanted to know. School was there for something else.

What?

The First Day of School

The Night Before

No. 2 Son (6), on tomorrow: “I wish every school day were Saturday, so then we would not have school.”

Supplies bought. Forms completed. Bags packed. Clothes picked out. Lunches packed. And four children sound asleep in bed. Next: fold the laundry, unload the dishwasher, and wash the dishes that accumulated on the counter while the dishwasher was running.

The Morning Of

Children up. Beds made. Breakfast eaten. Teeth brushed. Animals fed and watered. #1 off to 9th grade. #2 off to 7th grade. Table cleared. Soccer played. #3 off to 3rd grade. #4 off to 1st grade (with no objections). Dishes washed. Work started. The laundry remains unfolded.

Later…

I think No. 2 Daughter arrived home from school. She seems to have transformed into an iPod.

No. 1 Son, ten minutes after arriving home with his 3rd grade homework assignment: “All done. I need flash cards.” What for? “Says I need to practice subtraction with flash cards.” OK. Guess we can get some from the store.

Made applesauce this afternoon. The children arrived home from their outing. The applesauce is all gone.

No. 1 Son, a minute after opening the flashcards: “These only go to 12. This is too easy.” And that, my friends, is why we should teach to the abilities of the children and not to their “grade level.”