Friday, September 25, 2009

Pride and Prejudice

“No governess! How was that possible? Five daughters brought up at home without a governess! I never heard of such a thing. Your mother must have been quite a slave to your education.”

Elizabeth could hardly help smiling, as she assured her that had not been the case.

“Then, who taught you? who attended to you? Without a governess you must have been neglected.”

“Compared with some families, I believe we were; but such of us as wished to learn, never wanted the means. We were always encouraged to read, and had all the masters that were necessary. Those who chose to be idle, certainly might.”

Lucky me, I have the pleasure of teaching Pride and Prejudice right now and I’ve been thinking about whether the above conversation between Lady Catherine De Bourgh and Elizabeth Bennet suggests the Bennet family practices some kind of unschooling avant la lettre. Jane Austen attended formal school (2 mediocre boarding schools) for only about 3 years; her father, a clergyman, educated 4 of her brothers as well as the sons of some neighboring gentry in the Austen home. We don’t see in Austen’s work the kind of longing for women’s access to educational institutions that appears in, say, Virginia Woolf. Elizabeth and her sister Jane (perhaps like Austen and her sister Cassandra?) seem to have thrived under the approach to education that Elizabeth describes.

Yet Pride and Prejudice seems somewhat ambivalent about the exercise of pedagogical authority over children. On one hand, it seems likely that the novel critiques the authoritarian approach to learning by making the obnoxious Lady Catherine its advocate: “I always say that nothing is to be done in education without regular and steady instruction, and nobody but a governess can give it.” Lady Catherine’s approach doesn’t seem to have been terribly successful with her adult daughter, who is utterly dependent on her governess and barely speaks a word in the novel. The cringing, self-deluding Mr. Collins had been brought up by his “illiterate and miserly father” in a state of “subjection” that seems only to have enhanced, not remedied, his “deficiency of nature.”

On the other hand, Elizabeth finds herself wishing her father would play the conventional role of authoritarian patriarch toward his hedonist youngest daughter Lydia: “If you, my dear father, will not take the trouble of checking her exuberant spirits, and of teaching her that her present pursuits are not to be the business of her life, she will soon be beyond amendment. Her character will be fixed, and she will, at sixteen, be the most determined flirt that ever made herself and her family ridiculous.” Of course Mr. Bennet disregards Elizabeth’s advice, and Lydia runs off with Wickham, but it is not at all clear that Mr. Bennet could have done anything to prevent this. As they all see when she comes back home as Mrs. Wickham, “Lydia was Lydia still.”

However successful the Bennets’ approach to education was with Jane and Elizabeth, it was certainly less effective in the cases of Mary, Kitty, and Lydia. Mary is sanctimonious and sententious, and Kitty blindly follows the lead of her wild younger sister. In the end, though, the novel doesn’t indict the Bennets’ approach to learning per se, yet it seems to advocate stronger parental involvement, especially when it comes to a child’s moral character. This most optimistic of Austen’s novels also suggests, unlike perhaps any of her other works, that errors in parenting and education can sometimes be rectified. Mr. Bennet, having learned a hard lesson from his laissez-faire response to Lydia, takes a slightly more active role with Kitty, refusing to allow her to visit Lydia and Wickham and sending her to spend most of her time with Jane, Elizabeth, and their husbands; “in society so superior to what she had generally known, her improvement was great… She became… less irritable, less ignorant, and less insipid.”

Darcy too suggests his parents could have taken a more active role in shaping his character. Reflecting on his parents’ approach, Darcy says “I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. As a child I was taught what was right, but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit. Unfortunately an only son, (for many years an only child) I was spoilt by my parents, who though good themselves, (my father particularly, all that was benevolent and amiable,) allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing.” Luckily for him – and for us – he gets to learn “a lesson, hard indeed at first” from Elizabeth herself, a woman whose education has given her true independence of mind and the fortitude “to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness.”

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Sometimes it seems that all my extracurricular interests show up in the New York Times Style section about 4 months after I get into them, making me feel like a trendy little sheep (that’s what I get for being snide about conformity in my previous post!). For example, urban chicken- and bee-keeping (which are still only my fantasies unlikely to actually be realized), urban gardening, Alfie Kohn, even unschooling itself. Canning is no different; you can read all about the canning craze here. But I swear I was into it way last summer! That’s when I asked my mom for a pressure canner for my birthday.

I wanted to start canning for several reasons. Last year I proscribed grocery-store tomatoes after reading about the virtual enslavement of the laborers who pick almost all the winter tomatoes consumed in this country (see below for sources. And I realize that a one-family boycott isn’t doing those laborers much good, but it’s all I can manage right now). We eat a primarily vegetarian diet (deviating for ethically raised meat twice a month or so) which means a lot of legumes; as busy people we used to rely very heavily on canned beans but last year’s Bisphenol-A scare made us determined to eliminate tin cans from our grocery list. So, no fresh tomatoes that aren’t locally grown in season and no tin cans meant learning how to can for myself.

Last year I canned lots of whole tomatoes, fresh beans such as crowder peas and limas, and dried beans such as chick peas, black beans, etc., plus some beets. This year I decided to branch out, and I had a willing helper in N., who loves to help with cooking in general and who got much more interested in the canning this year than he was last year.

Watching the 9-day pickles ferment... Little hands shelling crowder peas...

My brother, knowing us well, surprised us with a tomato press for Christmas, so we canned tomato puree as well as whole tomatoes, and N. loved operating the press (part of what he likes about canning is the machinery involved!). We also canned rhubarb and strawberries, and we experimented with 3 different kinds of pickles, as well as zucchini-orange marmalade, two kinds of salsa, pumpkin, and a zucchini relish. We had an excellent science lesson when N. took too long to fill a hot pickle jar; when we put it back in the boiling water to process, the cooled jar broke. The hardest part of pickling, though, was explaining to N. that we can’t try any of the pickles yet because they need to sit and get flavorful! We are both really excited to see how they come out.

Ginger zucchini marmalade

Bonus reading on tomatoes:
"The Politics of the Plate: The Price of Tomatoes" [Gourmet Magazine]
Follow-up in Gourmet on Tomatoes and Slavery
Recent news [The Atlantic]
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers
New Yorker essay about Immokalee from 2003

Bonus reading on canning:
Small Measure
Blueberries for Sal (I love the picture of Sal's mother's old-fashioned kitchen on the endpapers of the book!)

Monday, September 21, 2009

We are Family

When you have children, you must realize, if you hadn’t already, how conformist mainstream American culture can be, and the relentless blue and pink/truck and doll gender divide is only the most obvious example. Despite the fact that there are as many kinds of families as there are people, it seems that a stereotype is still many people’s default image of a family. Our family make-up is somewhat unconventional: Tim is 60, I am 35, and he has two wonderful daughters who are only a few years younger than me. Many of our friends, even those who have known us for a long time, stumble over what name to give the relationship between Tim’s children, often referring to his daughters as N.orris’s aunts; we call them what they are – N.’s sisters. And we assiduously cultivate their sororal relationship with him; he has deeply bonded with them. We are lucky that one lives only 80 miles away while unfortunately for us the other lives on the West Coast. They are both huge parts of our life. In late October, N. is going to be an uncle. “But I’m not a grown-up yet!” he said when we told him that his sister’s pregnancy means he’ll be an uncle. “That’s just the way it works in our family,” was our reply.

Tim and I have been married for 12 years, so we are used to new acquaintances’ poorly disguised looks of surprise when they meet us as well as their terribly discreet questions about how we met. But we have not yet gotten over getting irked when strangers assume that Tim is N.’s grandfather and don’t restrain themselves from unnecessary commentary. Tim came up with a great response to this: when someone asks N. if he’s having a fun day with grandpa, Tim says loudly and heartily, “We fooled them again, N.!” But he doesn’t always have the patience to respond this gracefully; people throwing your age in your face gets old! Today Tim and N. were at a doctor’s office and a nurse was making conversation with N. while she checked on Tim. I wasn’t there, but this is more or less how the conversation was reported to me.

“So, where do you go to school?”

“I go to homeschool!”

“Oh, so your mommy teaches you at home.”

“No! I teach myself! My mommy goes to [XY University] every day.”

Tim, perhaps wanting a little credit for all he does with N., says, “But N.orris, you’re not home alone, right?”

“Yes,” the nurse joins in, “your grandpa probably helps you learn things.”

Tim, irritated, says somewhat snippily, “Well, that would be tough, since one of his grandpas is dead and the other lives in Washington D.C.!”

“Oh,” replies the nurse, slightly nonplussed, “well, you must learn things with your… friend… here.”

“That’s my dad!” N. shouts incredulously.

He’ll have to get used to making this explanation, just as he’s gotten used to telling people he’s homeschooling.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Music is a really important part of our family culture. We listen to a lot of music of all sorts, and Tim and I go to a lot of concerts, mostly classical. I play the cello (though very infrequently in the past couple years), I love singing, and in the past year I started learning to play the clawhammer banjo. I really want N. to take piano lessons and have found a teacher who I think would be compatible with our learning philosophy, but N. is resistant to the idea, so I am restraining myself from pushing this at present. I want him to take lessons because he loves music and being able to play music is so soul-satisfying; I want to give gift that to him, but I recognize that it has to be something he wants and that enforced music lessons can kill the joy of music rather than foster it. Meanwhile he plays around on the piano almost daily, making his own music by exploring the instrument’s sounds. Sometimes he picks out tunes (like “Be Still My Soul” from Finlandia). I hope his piano-playing leads to a desire for formal instruction at some point, but right now he is perfectly satisfied with what he does on the piano, and I have to admire and respect that.

So, as I was saying, we go to a lot of concerts. I wanted to be able to share this with N., so from an early age, I took him to outdoor concerts, childrens’ choir and youth symphony performances, and I’d occasionally sneak him into the second half of the Sunday afternoon performances of our city’s symphony. We’d sit in the back, and just hear a movement or two and then leave. (We’d do the same with the UNC School of the Arts dance performances.) N. always liked going to concerts with me and he had no trouble sitting still (I’d bring something for him to hold on to like a matchbox truck or stuffed animal); his main difficulty was not liking anything too loud. Once I took him to the second half of an afternoon symphony concert only to discover that the 1812 Overture was on the program, so we had to leave before the cannons boomed!

Tim and I subscribe to the symphony and during the year that N. was 3 he started asking regularly why he couldn’t go to the concerts with us. So when he was 4 we switched our subscription from Tuesday night to Sunday afternoon and bought three season tickets. The concerts are often challenging for N., yet he still wants to go. Last year, he would sometimes fall asleep on my lap during the second half of the concert. The music director of our city’s symphony often does very gimmicky programming and picks pieces that adhere to the theme he’s chosen for the concert rather than simply choosing really excellent music, and it seems to me that N. is least engaged when the music isn’t really moving or striking. For example, the mushy movie-music of the score to The Red Violin didn’t capture his attention, but when they played Beethoven’s 9th (on another day), N. was literally sitting on the edge of his seat for the entire piece.

Last Sunday we went to the first concert of the season. It opened with The Star Spangled Banner (a Southern symphony tradition to start the season this way, I think?). He enjoyed the first half of the program immensely, especially the Suite from Swan Lake. He was bobbing his head in time and looking eagerly around the stage from our balcony vantage point, watching the musicians carefully. It was fun to see him enjoying it so much! At intermission he wanted to know what “that organ sound was” and we determined he was referring to the oboes and bassoons. The second half of the concert was Rachmaninoff’s 3rd piano concerto (featured in the film “Shine”), and N. got restless during this; when it was over he said, “Whew, that was hard!” meaning it was hard for him to sit through it! When he is restless or sleepy, I start to doubt the wisdom of bringing him to the symphony. I worry about whether he’s distracting other people, and this distracts me from the music. But overall I think it is worth it. I hope going to the symphony is fostering habits of patience and attentiveness as well as support for and participation in cultural performances, not to mention learning about music. Most importantly, he wants to go and he enjoys it. For the rest of that day, he was humming bits from Swan Lake, and this week we’ve been teaching him the national anthem!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Duluth: Museums, etc.

One of the reasons we wanted to spend a whole month in Duluth, MN this July rather than our usual week-and-a-half summer visit was so that we could take full advantage of all the city’s museums and museum-type places.For us, taking full advantage means multiple visits to a museum or at least one long languorous visit during which N. can indulge his long attention span. Here are some of the places we enjoyed:

The Lake Superior Railroad Museum at the Duluth Depot. A truly excellent train museum (and we've been to 5), happily unchanged since my own childhood, which means it is gimmick-free and has nary a Thomas the Train in sight. It has not been updated in any effort to make it "educational" (which often means dumbing things down); in fact I imagine it was designed to appeal to adult railroad buffs, and that's why we like it.

There are all kinds of little displays tucked between tracks: a historical range of track maintenance vehicles, collections of train bells, of track of different widths, of the logos of the many lines that served the upper midwest. You can climb up in many of the engines, cars, and cabooses; the holdings span the history of trains in Minnesota, from the two first steam engines in the state ("Old Betsy" and "The William Crooks") to logging, mining, passenger, and mail trains. N. loves this place. In fact, last year we happened to be captured in the local newspaper as we visited the train museum!

The Lake Superior Marine Museum, run by the U. S. Coast Guard (free admission!!) is another favorite place and we go there repeatedly. It is tucked right next the the Aerial Lift Bridge under which the big ships pass to reach Duluth's harbor, so in addition to the treasures inside the museum, you're in a great location for ship- and bridge-watching.

The museum houses models of all the different kinds of ships that have sailed on Lake Superior, from schooners to self-unloading "thousand-footers." A model ore dock shows how iron ore and taconite brought down from the mines on trains were loaded into the ships. There are several real engines from fishing boats and an old harbor tug boat. N. especially likes to play with the model lock-and-dam and he enjoys the reproduction of a ship's captain's house with its wheel, map tables, and radar devices.

The William A. Irvin was for 40 years the flagship of U.S. Steel and now a museum moored in a slip in the harbor. We went there twice. The guides are retired sailors and what they lack in professional tour-guide demeanor they amply make up for in arcane knowledge. This was one Duluth museum I had never been to as a kid, though it's been open since the 80s.

We also went once to the Duluth Zoo and the Great Lakes Aquarium. I generally find zoos fairly distressing, though we've been to quite a few in the past couple years. The Duluth Zoo is at least small enough to make for a manageable visit, and it has been updated to conform fairly well to today's standards of more humane habitats. In general, I've never observed N. to get much out of a zoo visit. In more humane habitats, the animals are often difficult to see, and even when he can see them up close, N. doesn't seem very moved by the novelty of being able to see an ape or a tiger, which is the main reason people go to zoos, I imagine. It never seems like he learns or retains much about the animals in that setting either. The main exception to this I can think of is the Duke Lemur Center, where we had an excellent guided tour by a Duke student who was majoring in biology. I want to like the Great Lakes Aquarium because building an aquarium on the lakefront that specializes in Lake Superior fish seems like a great idea. But it epitomizes the modern museum-type place, full of didactic little plaques bearing random snippets of information that, for me anyway, don't cohere into a big picture. Kids all totally ignore these, which make sense, but the aquarium design discourages observation and reflection and instead seems to foster racing around, not really seeing anything.

is a robber-baron's mansion built in 1908 on the lakeshore. Of course, N. loved it -- the carved doors, stained glass windows, interesting antique bathrooms, and old-fashioned kitchen appliances (i.e. a huge mangle), the carriage house! Here we are out on the terraced gardens (it was really cold that day and if you look closely you can see that the peonies were still blooming in late July!).

Probably the dorkiest thing we did in Duluth (what? more than everything already listed?) was visit the Granitoid Memorial Park, a monument at E. 7th Street commemorating three blocks of the second oldest concrete-paved street in the nation! We had to go here after learning about it from a friend who is a passionate advocate for its preservation; it combines transportation and old things -- perfect!

Last: we went to Minneapolis for a couple days and spent two days exploring the old mill area on the Mississippi. One day we rambled for a couple hours around the mill ruins and walked along the Stone Arch Bridge, and we were so intrigued by the place that we went back the next day to go to the Mill City Museum, where we learned an incredible amount about flour milling.

This was one of our favorite museum experiences of the month and I wouldn't be surprised if we go back next year.

The museum is built within the preserved ruins of an abandoned mill that burned in 1991, so it provided another appealing combination of N.'s interests: old building and industrial machines.

Here N. is playing with a turbine simulator. This museum made me realize I need some serious brushing up on physics; I only barely understand how these early water-powered mills worked.

[Updated 9/14 -- I forgot one!] We went to one conventional art museum, The Tweed Museum of Art at the University of Minnesota-Duluth campus. We've taken N. to a few art museums before and he's generally found them very overwhelming (which is certainly understandable). We've been able to make art museums a moderately enjoyable experience for him if we limit ourselves to just a few paintings or sculptures and if we leave as soon as he's ready to (often quite soon). But for some reason, our experience of the Tweed was totally different (maybe because Duluth is magical!?); we spent a good hour and a half there and N. was totally absorbed and enjoying looking at everything. He was drawn in by the many smallish sculptures on pedestals at his eye level, as well as an exhibit of paintings by "Big Al" Carter, many of which incorporated glued-on popsicle sticks, paint-stirring sticks, and tinkertoys. Somehow these sculptures and paintings seemed to unlock the whole museum for him, and he became interested in looking at everything.

Phew! It was a busy month! It was interesting to depart so radically from our usual mode of unschooling. Instead of spending most of the day at home reading, drawing, talking, playing with toys, taking walks, listening to music, we left the house almost daily in order to enjoy Duluth. The house we stayed in in Duluth was not the primary site of N.'s learning, nor was it adequately stocked to be. It made me appreciate all the resources we have at home which make our unschooling such a pleasure: encyclopedias, myriad books, toys, art supplies (surely one can effectively homeschool with less, but these luxuries make it easy to foster an environment of curiosity, an atmosphere of learning). In Duluth N.'s days were more actively directed by us as we suggested outings he might like, and then scheduled them. I recently discovered Melissa Wiley's blog and her term "tidal homeschooling" and I have been thinking about that term as I've been reflecting on our month away. Being in Duluth was a kind of high-tide time in our homeschooling, and now the tide has turned and N. is taking great pleasure in the treasures it has made visible again.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Duluth: Churches

As I have noted, N. is very interested in general in old buildings, but he is especially passionate about cathedrals and churches. Duluth, Minnesota is rich with old churches, so we spent a couple days during our July vacation driving around town to see them. Quite a few were open, and kindly people working in the church offices frequently gave us tours and answered N.'s questions. N. was thrilled to be able to go inside so many. We felt pretty seriously nerdy explaining that our 4 1/2 -year-old was interested in church buildings and would they mind if we looked around? Here are just a few highlights:

Holy Rosary Cathedral (Catholic) and Holy Rosary School, where N.'s sisters Julia and Anne attended elementary school.
St. Paul's Episcopal

And N.'s favorite, First Presbyterian. We drove by this one just about any time we went anywhere, and N. always called out, "There's that church with the open tower!" and then, after we'd learned its name, "There's First Presbyterian!" He was thrilled when, on one of the last days of our visit, we went inside and were treated to an extensive tour.

It was interesting to see N. work very hard at putting together a mental map of Duluth. He paid careful attention to the locations of favorite places and would regularly remind me that Kenwood Avenue takes you to the College of St. Scholastica (which happens to have a main building that looks like a castle), you walk that way on Skyline Parkway to get to the Marshall School, that we were getting close to the Greysolon Hotel, etc.. He is not a passive passenger!

Another (church-related) highlight of our visit was an afternoon concert given at First Covenant Church by old friends of ours, Laurie Bastian, a violinist, and Bill Bastian, a tenor. For the final piece of the program, the audience was invited to join Bill and Laurie in singing the hymn "Be Still My Soul," which we weren't familiar with, although it is prominent in Sibelius' "Finlandia." Tim bought a CD of the concert and we've listened to that last track a lot. When we got home to NC, we listened to "Finlandia" a lot, and recently Tim and N. have been working on learning the lyrics to the hymn, which are quite complicated. Yesterday between my classes I was treated to a phone concert of N. belting out the first verse. I love the serendipity of this kind of unplanned, fortuitous learning!

For his birthday, N. received several books on cathedral architecture, and he's been learning about the differences between Norman, Romanesque, Gothic (his favorite) and Renaissance styles. He also got more wooden blocks!

Duluth: Drawings and Old Buildings

N. didn't do as much drawing in Duluth as he does at home, perhaps because we spent so much time outside in parks, at the lake, and exploring the city. But here are a couple of my favorite drawings from the month:

This is the Chester Bowl Ski Jump, an amazing structure built in 1926 that we could see from the porch of the house where we stayed, as the first photograph showed. One morning N. sat on the porch and drew the ski jump. In the second drawing he tried to capture the foliage as well. (You can see some old pictures of the ski jumps at Chester Bowl here. Scary!!)

This is the Depot (1892), formerly a train station, now an excellent train museum and cultural center.

N.'s passion for old buildings continues, and since Duluth had a big development boom at the turn of the 20th century, there were many for us to see. Here are some his favorites:

Endion School. Duluth is crawling with gorgeous Gilded Age school buildings that have been converted to apartments. Can you imagine going to school in a building like this? N. and I think it would have been fabulous.

The old police station. Unfortunately infamous as the site from which a lynch mob dragged three African-American men in 1920 (I didn't tell N.  about this).

Old Central High School (1892), now the school district's Central Administration Building.

N. also loved the old Carnegie Library (now offices), Glensheen Mansion, Fitger's Brewery, Enger Tower, The Hotel Duluth/ Greysolon Plaza, and the turn-of-the-century storefronts on Superior Street, among others. Though it is now an economically challenged city of not quite 80,000 people, Duluth was once a boom town with grand visions of its future. I'm not romanticizing an era dependent on the exploitation of natural resources and native people for its rapid growth, but the architectural legacy of that time makes Duluth especially appealing for a little boy fascinated by old buildings.

One last Old Building highlight: on the last day of our drive back from Minnesota to North Carolina, we made the impromptu decision to stop and see the the Capitol building in Charleston, West Virginia. We've always admired its golden dome as we passed through on our way to or from the Midwest, and it felt good to be spontaneous and get off the highway to check out something that N. wanted to see. There's probably a metaphor for unschooling in there!

Duluth: Parks

Duluth, Minnesota has great topography, a city built against a steep hill that rises up from Lake Superior. During our July visit we spent many days rambling in Duluth’s beautiful parks, hiking along the creeks that empty into the lake, examining the varieties of rock inscribed by glacial movements, learning to distinguish white pine from red. N. loved our park rambles. He climbed all over the rocks and struck out on new paths with boldness.

And these amazing parks were so easy to enjoy; the nearest was only a block away from the house where we were staying. Back home in North Carolina, though our historic neighborhood is beautiful, our neighborhood park is very urban and the barren creek that runs through it is said to be so polluted that we don’t dare wade in it. It was liberating and inspiring to be able to ramble freely for hours in Duluth’s big gorgeous unspoiled parks.