Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Thomas Jefferson and the Challenges of History

N. has been learning about the first 7 U.S. presidents this autumn, reading The History of Us with Tim.  So I thought he'd be interested in the recent Smithsonian Magazine cover story, "The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson" by Henry Wiencek (based on his new book Master of the Mountain).  I read it aloud to N., and we had a long conversation about the disturbing picture it paints of slavery and of Jefferson's actions as a slave-owner.  The fundamental, irreconcilable contradiction between Jefferson's words and his actions is a hard lesson, and N. was troubled by it.  Samuel Johnson put it well in his 1775 pamphlet Taxation No Tyranny: "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?"

Wiencek's article offers to resolve this contradiction by purporting to show that Jefferson simply embraced slavery in the 1790s as the most profitable economic system that would support Monticello.  Wiencek's Jefferson is no longer troubled by the distance between his famous words and his private actions on the mountaintop of his estate.  He offers as evidence records from Jefferson's Farm Book, private letters, and his declining an inheritance that would have given him means to free his slaves.  Wiencek quotes a letter from Jefferson to Washington which he says shows Jefferson acknowledging "for the first time was that he was making a 4 percent profit every year on the birth of black children" (oddly, however, Wiencek omits entirely the scholarly consensus that Jefferson fathered some of those children).

Yesterday, however, I read two damning critiques of Wiencek's book by scholars with strong credentials as Jeffersonian historians: Annette Gordon-Reed and Jan Ellen Lewis.  They point out that the "4%" letter was not describing Monticello's economy but was a generalization in "response to a request for a comparison of free labor to enslaved labor" (Gordon-Reed).  They point out that Jefferson declined to act on the will that would have given him money to free his slaves because the would-be benefactor wrote three more wills after that, and the competing claims from these wills were not resolved until 1852 (Wiencek omits these details entirely)!  They point out that Jefferson continued to lament slavery till his very deathbed.  They have much more to criticize; I recommend you read their essays.  As Lewis puts it:
"It is inarguable that Jefferson lived off of the labor of his slaves all the time that he was decrying slavery as 'moral and political depravity.' We can call that many things. One of them is tragedy, for the slaves most especially, but also for the nation. Another is paradox —but maybe that’s too complicated."  
I was frustrated with Smithsonian Magazine for publishing something that seems at the very least to need better vetting or peer-review.  I told N. about these critiques at supper last night, and we talked about the challenges of history.  Both Gordon-Reed and Lewis highlight the importance of context for creating historical narratives.  Wiencek's account of Jefferson's thinking is undermined by the larger contexts from which he pulls his selective quotes.  I think N. felt a bit perplexed.  History suddenly seemed very hard.  I tried to point out that this very perplexity is part of what makes history valuable.  There are no easy answers to the complexity of the past (or the present!)  Wiencek's Jefferson is simply a monster who callously abandoned his ideals.  While not excusing or apologizing for slavery in the slightest, it is much more honest to explore how Jefferson continued to believe in those ideals while failing to live up to them.  Surely in our own lives we all face the same challenge.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Flights of Fancy

Although I've been writing a lot of highfalutin posts lately about classical music and architecture and grit and reading Shakespeare and Ben Franklin in their original forms, we also love homeschooling for its long stretches of free play time.  I was struck by the continuing interconnectedness of play and learning recently.  For the past week and a half or so N. had been reading The Chronicle of Flight: A Year-By-Year History of Aviation, a book he recently rediscovered on his bookshelves.  Trains are usually his vehicle of choice for reading material and for play, so I noticed when he suddenly became absorbed in airplanes.  I kept stumbling over the book lying open in different rooms.  Soon I started seeing long-neglected toy planes around the house.  Then I came home to a paper airplane airfield all set up in the living room.  Another day N. took the paper airplanes (made from an old collection of paper planes N. tortured various houseguests into making a couple years ago) outside for test flights down a neighbor's hill.  Planes showed up in our conversations and in N.'s stories about his imaginary world. 
 Instinctively, N. was processing his reading through play; the information he read enriched his make-believe, which sent him back to the book for more, which led to new forms of play.  We know that play is the primary learning mode for young children, which is why we didn't want to send N. to an "academic" preschool, but observing this process last week reminded me how important play still is for an 8-year-old. 

This playing-and-learning, which I believe is so crucial, is also entirely unmeasurable.  I can show you the pictures I took, artifacts of a process that I was only tangentially part of (through conversation).  But most of this took place in N.'s head.  No project or composition or product (much less a test score) came out of it.  Nonetheless I believe that not only did he learn many specific nuggets of information, he also flexed his creativity, something alarmists warn us children have less and less opportunity to do.

Though we can't quantify what exactly N. learned as he read about and played with planes, we can note what we provided that made this process possible: we bought a book, years ago, on the $3 discount table at Borders and stored it on an accessible shelf for the unpredictable moment when it might be appealing.  We made those paper airplanes (nominally with N.'s help) from that excruciatingly difficult kit his half-sister gave him for his birthday one year, and we kept all the planes in a bag in the play room even though many times we really wanted to toss them as so much clutter.  And most importantly, we made sure he had unstructured time to explore the bookshelves, read, and play without interference.  We trusted that there was something good happening, and we didn't try to turn this sudden interest into a Thing.  Sometimes it's just good to play!    

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Never Leave Well Enough Alone by Raymond Loewy

[Source] Loewy posing with the Pennsylvania Railroad's GG1

Last year we discovered the industrial designer Raymond Loewy (1893-1986) on a visit to Roanoke, VA.  He more or less invented the profession of "industrial designer" and transformed the 20th century aesthetic.  It is hard to overstate his influence on American culture, from trains, tractors, cars, buses, refrigerators, toasters, Coke bottles, fonts, corporate logos... You can see a long list of products whose look he designed here, and an assemblage of some of his corporate logos here.

I suggested Tim read Loewy's autobiography Never Leave Well Enough Alone (1951) to N. for the next installment of their autobiography "curriculum" and they've been enjoying it a lot.  (You can see N.'s brief composition work incorporating Loewy in my recent post about nouns).  Loewy describes a free-wheeling childhood in France (he came to the U.S. after World War I) under the mentorship of two older brothers: 
 "My brothers were watching me closely, and they encouraged me to try new things on my own, to rely completely on myself, and to work hard.  They were a good influence and I owe a great deal to their constructive tutoring.  They had confidence in me and they gave me confidence in myself.  They were appreciative of my efforts and I never felt that I was working in a void.  Georges and Max established the proper climate for their young brother and they never let me down.  I was living in an atmosphere of passionate research, fascinated by anything new, unusual, or merely promising -- whether it was a paradoxical new theory, a different automobile horn, a witty expression of Parisian slang, the mouvement Dada, a new play by Rostand, or a decor by Diaghilev."
In his youth Loewy was already attuned to the ugliness or beauty of objects; for example he designed a prize-winning model airplane (and started a successful company manufacturing them as a 15-year-old) because while he was entranced with flight, he hated the look of the airplanes of his time.  This became his lifelong passion: to make objects look as beautiful and modern as they were in concept.  He had a voracious enthusiasm for the modern world he was entering: 
"The life of a young man around 1905 was an exciting one.  Can you imagine a young boy who in rapid succession sees the birth of the electric light bulb, the telephone, the automobile, the airplane, the cinema, and the radio?  How could a child born in my time wish to become anything but an active participant in one of these new earth-shaking developments? I couldn't see it.  I knew I wouldn't live happy in anything not directly connected with these momentous discoveries."
Never Leave Well Enough Alone (1951) by Raymond Loewy
 Even the form of Loewy's autobiography reflects his passion for design, from its elegant cover to his use of myriad fonts and layouts on the chapter title pages to teach mini-lessons about design. 

This book makes a provocative pairing with Frank Lloyd Wright's autobiography and the two narratives have helped expand N.'s appreciation of architecture and design beyond his beloved late Victorian/Queen Anne period.  Yesterday he pointed out that even though he likes our ottoman, Loewy would label it "schmaltz!"  Beyond this, N. is learning lots of cultural history of 20th-century America through Loewy's account of his redesign of iconic products such as the Sears Coldspot refrigerator and the toaster.  His corporate logos lead us to conversation about marketing and commercial culture.  This is such a fun, integrated way to learn history of several different kinds (cultural, business, political) while barely even noticing that's what you are doing. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

His First Shakespeare: The Comedy of Errors

Saturday we took N. to a student production of The Comedy of Errors at the arts conservatory in our city; it was his first Shakespeare play (not counting the opera version of The Merry Wives of Windsor by Otto Nicolai that he saw last spring).  Since so much of the play depends on the physical humor of mistaken identities, it was fairly easy for N. to follow the plot and he really enjoyed it.  The students did not communicate the meanings of play's language particularly well, so I was relieved that the action was nonetheless clear to N. 

Tim wanted N. to experience The Comedy of Errors without any preconceptions so he deliberately did not give him any preparation other than to tell him that it involved two sets of twins.  I can't say I agreed with this approach; I would have read N. Charles and Mary Lamb's retelling of the plot, at the very least.  But Tim was sure that N. would get the basic gist of this relatively simple play and he wasn't wrong.  Still, our opinions of the value of Shakespearean retellings differ.  Tim thinks that a student should read the original Shakespearean text and only the original (putting aside the vexed question of which text counts as the original in the case of some plays!), and not until she is ready to really engage with its complexity (he has resisted reading Shakespeare with the older homeschooled children he tutors until they are into their teens).  I think that the retellings can whet a child's appetite for Shakespeare and are therefore valuable.  Of course they may be sometimes slightly inaccurate, and they certainly emphasize plot at the expense of other facets of the texts.  Nonetheless, the long use of retellings since the early nineteenth century suggests their efficacy. 

Such are the arguments of a two-literature-Ph.D.-household.  Internet: buttress my cause!  Tell me why you use retellings of Shakespeare with your children.
"Teach me, dear creature, how to think and speak..."  --The Comedy of Errors

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Magnetic French

For this week's French lesson, we sorted our French poetry magnets into adjectives, verbs, nouns, and pronouns, building on last week's English grammar learning and exposing N. to new French vocabulary.  I hope this sorting will make it easier to start building a few sentences.  These magnets are cool because they give the English on the back, as well as whether the noun is masculine or feminine, whether the adjective is in its masculine or feminine form, or what pronoun goes with the conjugated verb.  We're taking baby steps, but definitely making more regular progress so far this year with French.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Making Musical Connections

One of my favorite modes of learning is to follow loose chains of associations that bring discrete objects into surprising conjunction (and this is why academic humanities research is so seductive... there is always another article to read or archive to dig into).  Child-led, interest-led learning is all about seizing the fortuitous moment of curiosity, fostering connections among ideas, and building those chains of associations together.  As we began homeschooling I enjoyed reading Melissa Wiley's "connections" posts recounting such moments; below is an account of a series of musical associations we followed last week.   

Last Wednesday, we listened as we often do to the Piano Puzzler on Performance Today before N. went to bed.  The object is to figure out the composer whom the amazing pianist and Puzzler-constructor Bruce Adolphe is imitating and the well-known tune he's embedded in the piece.  Last week, he fit "O mio babbino caro" from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi into an adaptation of the second movement of Ravel's Sonatine.  I figured out the Puzzler tune pretty quickly because it is one of the two ravishing arias sung by Kiri Te Kanawa on the soundtrack to the Merchant-Ivory film of A Room With A View.  My mild obsession with that film in college led me to listen to lots of Kiri Te Kanawa's  recordings and consequently to come to love opera.  When the Puzzler was over, I played "O mio babbino caro" for N., with visions of Helena Bonham Carter and Julian Sands dancing in my head. 

None of us guessed the composer being quoted in the Puzzler, but Fred Child, the host of Performance Today, always plays a recording of the piece being imitated right after the Puzzler, so we enjoyed listening to a bit of the Sonatine, which was new to us.  N. said the Sonatine's big left-hand chords in the second movement reminded him of a tune on a CD he likes called "Ultimate Big Band Collection: Great Theme Songs."  He put it on: a 1941 recording by Freddy Martin and His Orchestra of "Piano Concerto in B Flat (Tonight We Love)."  This is an adaptation of a Tchaikovsky concerto by Freddy Martin and Bobby Worth, so naturally I then had to look for a recording of the Tchaikovsky, but we didn't have one, and it was past bedtime.  The next morning, however, I found the 16-year-old Evgeny Kissin playing Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by von Karajan on YouTube, so we listened to that.  N. noticed immediately (although I didn't!) that "Tonight We Love" puts Tchaikovsky's 3/4 theme in 4/4 time.  We really enjoyed comparing the two pieces, not to mention Kissin's playing.

While rummaging in our records and CDs for the Ravel Sonatine and the Tchaikovsky, I found a CD neither Tim nor I realized we own and that we may have never listened to: Helene Grimaud playing Gershwin and Ravel piano concertos (with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra).  Tim had recently bought a compilation of Grimaud's recordings and we had just watched this promotional video for an album she's released with cellist Sol Gabetta so we were amused to find that someone we thought was new to us was already in our collection.  Thursday night after supper I idly started reading aloud the liner notes for Grimaud's Gershwin and Ravel CD.  The short essay by Robert Schwarz describes Gershwin and Ravel's relative positions in the music world in 1928 when they met, and then goes back a few years to recount Gershwin's composition of his piano concerto in F major a year after the controversial premiere of Rhapsody in Blue.  About halfway through my reading of the Gershwin section of the notes, after stopping to talk about the divides between popular and classical music in the 1920s and Gershwin's anxiety about properly following the concerto form, we realized N. had never heard Rhapsody in Blue so Tim pulled out the record and we listened to Rhapsody and American in Paris, both of which N. loved.

As it happens, our Rhapsody in Blue record is especially interesting because it features the original (and infrequently performed) version of the piece scored for jazz band rather than symphony orchestra and the jazz band on the record (conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas in 1976) is accompanying a ghostly soloist: a reproducing piano playing a piano roll made by Gershwin himself in 1925.  I read N. the record notes describing the process of making this unusual recording and then we hit the encyclopedia and the internet to learn more about how player pianos work. 

Part of what makes these associative chains both fun and effective as learning experiences is that we are all making discoveries together.  None of us began this particular series as masters of all the material we examined; we each had interests and expertise that helped us make additional, deeper connections.  I can hardly think of anything more satisfying than delving into music with my two favorite guys.  Besides delving into books, of course.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

DIY Grammar: Nouns

 Tim and N. have been working on identifying parts of speech in English (and N. and I have been talking about this in our French lessons as well).  When Tim taught eighth grade English, he found real-life examples of writing more interesting than textbooks, so he had N. underline nouns in a bunch of articles in Vegetarian Times and in a bit of his own writing.

Another day N. and I reinforced this lesson with a long session of Mad Libs: I asked him for adjectives, nouns, and verbs, wrote wrote his words in the blanks, and read him the funny results.  He found it much easier to identify parts of speech in printed text than to come up with his own words in each category.  In particular, the fact that nouns can sometimes function as adjectives made it hard for him to think of adjectives other than colors, but it was good practice.  I like the idea that with the magazine task and the Mad Libs, we looked at the same concept from opposite ends.  

I've written this before about math, and I think it's true about "language arts" as well: you don't necessarily need an expensive curriculum to teach or learn its concepts.  Language is all around you.  "Language arts" is simply learning to name what you already do every day as a fluent speaker of your native tongue.