Libraries, books, and education

Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent. ― Henry David Thoreau

Now here is a piece of good news. According to Gallup polling, visiting the local library remains, by far, the most common cultural activity Americans engage in. It’s nice to know Amazon hasn’t yet put libraries out of business!

For the most part, I think libraries have remained relevant in the cultural landscape because Librarians have adapted to the changing times fairly well: Bringing in advanced technologies—computers, Wifi, digital, etc, etc,—and continuing to be innovative in sponsoring various events at their libraries that attract young families. So let us applaud the librarians and the local government officials who’ve continued to support them at budget time.

With that said, I’ll add that while it’s encouraging to see how well libraries are doing, it would be even more encouraging if we knew Americans were actually reading more good books. The Gallup poll tells us that Libraries are being used and visited, but that doesn’t mean Americans—especially adults—are actually reading more quality books. The jury is still out on this one.

For example, when visiting my local library I notice all the computers are usually taken up by someone researching (or surfing). I notice people in the various conference rooms, and I usually see a few young families with small children walking the book aisles or sitting in the children’s area looking through a stack of books. But typically I don’t see a lot of adults checking-out or turning-in stacks of quality history, biography, or science books. Of course I’ll note that I have no idea how many adults check-out books via digital audio or print, which can be done online. So maybe I’m wrong. I hope so.

But then maybe it’s just me, but I don’t detect in a lot of people’s conversations that a lot of deep reading about complicated subjects, or the biographies of great men or women, or ideas in general, are something they do regularly…or at all. And I completely understand that some people may not care for reading—tragic though that may be. Maybe they’re just not interested or too busy. What people do with their time is their prerogative.

I just tend to feel that a democracy—especially one that’s “of the people, by the people, and for the people“—is hard to maintain when a sizable amount of the population appears to be terribly uninformed or just plain ignorant about the nation’s history, government, policies, social challenges, or things like basic science. We can’t properly defend our own or our family’s self interests, better yet the nation’s, if we don’t understand enough to know whether the choices we’re making are actually serving ours or our nation’s interests at all. Many of us, for example, vote for policies or people that are in direct opposition to our interests.

A lot of us uncritically adopt the opinions of others—from our family, group, favorite media source, or some other talking head on TV. But the measure of our own education and personal freedom is when we get to a point where we can intelligently challenge (openly or in own mind) our relied upon sources of information—by weighing and analyzing in light of our own personal readings and observations and then being able to change our mind on a topic or cherished belief….and then having the courage to say it.

Knowledge and education, of course, aren’t a guaranteed cure human folly, prejudice, or our politics. Only a fool who hasn’t read History could honestly think that. Educated people can be just as willing as anyone else to ignore their conscience, twist facts, and advance deep seated prejudices.

But what deep and focused reading can potentially do is introduce us to ideas and thoughts that may gradually crack our caked prejudices and inherited world views and open us to the idea that maybe what we’ve believed all along may be wrong or misinformed or at least in need of some updating. That maybe we need to rethink some of our beliefs about people, your society, and the world.

I should add, that along with quality books and literature, Art in general typically aims at doing this, especially serious films and other performing arts. They can expand our ability to empathize with others—open us to feeling our shared humanity. Note, that’s one big reason authoritarian rulers immediately shut down writers and artists when they take over. Genuine Art is subversive in the authoritarian’s world view.

And then, of course, I can’t leave out, the reading of books that elevate our cognitive grasp. As we read about science and the methods of scientists and the incredible amount of experimentation and research put into their findings, we learn how successful the scientific approach to knowledge has been in promoting human flourishing and, in the long run, democracy itself. As we look back through history we see that science and democracy tend to rise together—a phenomenon to be discussed at length in another post, eventually. With an education in science (reading science books) we learn to think more systematically, more scientifically in other words, about things and ideas and the opinions of others. And that’s a good thing.

And so I’ll close with encouraging you to go to the library, check-out books, or buy books at the store, and then read those books whenever you can. Hopefully you’ll learn, grow, see and feel more deeply.

That’s what being truly educated is all about.

A Bookshop Education

Every person has two educations, one which he receives from others, and one, more important, which he gives to himself. — Edward Gibbon

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Riverby Books on Capitol Hill

John Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, once wrote: “Life is one long lesson in humility.” It’s one of my favorite quotes, because it’s confirmed almost every day. Of course I’ve learned—and re-learned—a lot of other lessons along the way. And so while humility is one of the core lessons of life, I recently got to thinking about where, and by what means, I learned all the other stuff that’s served to confirm just how important humility plays in the scheme of one’s life.

If I had to list the main sources of my education, I would put them as follows: 1) bookstores, 2) periodicals, & 3) schools. (Note: Libraries are the archives of civilization and very important, but for me, my primary experience with them was at school.)

Starting from the end of the list, let me be candid and say I was a lousy student growing up. After getting the basics in reading, writing, and math in primary school (God has a special place for Elementary school teachers), I pretty much checked out mentally during my secondary school years. Socialization is an important part of any education, and I feel confident my scores were rather high in that area, but unfortunately that proficiency wasn’t part of my grade point average. So, after a less than stellar showing, pathetic really, in High School, I decided my best option was to enlist in the military move on to college. Even if I wasn’t exactly college material at the time, it just seemed the best alternative over getting a full time job.

It was a community college luckily, so they pretty much had to take me. I can’t say I made the honor roll, but I was in the running—a close, razor thin 50 point margin—so at least I was improving. Sloooowly but surely, however, I was discovering what truly interested me—if only I could making a living with it! The history, literature, and philosophy classes confirmed my intrinsic interest in the humanities. Great! So poverty would be my lot! Okay, so I actually did fairly well in those classes. In others words, I liked the subjects that caused the typical tuition paying parent to say: “And what are you going to do with a degree in…”.

More importantly, at community college I adopted strategic patience, which entailed taking my sweet ass time getting through community college…i.e. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do and was drifting between an extension of my teenage years, rotating between part-time and full-time school attendance, and searching for a career while working on-and-off at my dad’s company. It goes almost without saying, but I will, my community college years went well beyond the typical 2 year period. It was truly a time of drifting, hoping for something to come along.

But there was a bright ray of sunshine that pierced those cloudy, horizonless, years. My professional community college years would lead to the chance meeting of my future wife, Melissa, in Doctor Jones’s history class. Of course I ended up doing lousy in that class—odd for a guy who loves history I realize—because I spent most of the class time passing notes (we didn’t have cellphones) with Melissa. For this reason alone, I wouldn’t change anything from my community college years. Nothing. I’ve failed at many things in life, but meeting my future wife as a result of my foolishness turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me.

Well eventually I took a job—before completing college—and got married to my soulmate. Of course, like so many people who don’t complete their degree and enter the work force, I told myself I would like to finish what I’d started and so I spent years looking into various programs hoping to complete my BS degree. No one in my immediate family had gotten their college degree, so there was the added desire of being the first—it was also about pleasing my wonderful parents who’d done so much for me. Eventually, about 9 years (yeah, it took me awhile) into my career, I went back to college. It’s amazing how much more focused you are when you’re married and already have a career—I think it’s called the maturing process actually. I completed my BS degree (with honors) and ultimately went on to get a graduate degree (MS) from Johns Hopkins University. Considering how my college career had begun, it was a real high point in my life to walk in a commencement for my graduate degree from such a prestigious institution.

With all this said, while I enjoyed my later college years, and enjoyed learning “how to think,” and loved the colleges I attended, if I’d had to rely on just my formal schooling I’d be in poor shape educationally speaking. In large part, my education has come from the writers of essays, quality magazines, and books. My love for reading is mostly responsible for the expansion of my mental world—and continues to be. Continue reading “A Bookshop Education”

School and the Development of Moral Identities

I ran across an interesting piece in the Atlantic. Paul Barnwell, an English teacher in Kentucky, argues that too much time in school (primary and secondary) is spent on pure academics and not much is given to allowing students to develop a moral identity.

Barnwell’s concern was peaked after he initiated a discussion involving a moral dilemma:

A few months ago, I presented the following scenario to my junior English students: Your boyfriend or girlfriend has committed a felony, during which other people were badly harmed. Should you or should you not turn him or her into the police?

The class immediately erupted with commentary. It was obvious, they said, that loyalty was paramount—not a single student said they’d “snitch.” They were unequivocally unconcerned about who was harmed in this hypothetical scenario. This troubled me.

Hmmm. If we assume that “other people were badly harmed” means others were physically harmed, I’m shocked Barnwell’s entire class was “unequivocally unconcerned” and wouldn’t say anything to the police. Yeah, that might have been hypothetical but sheesh. I mean where is Barnwell teaching? Tough crowd! That’s definitely a moment of clarity for a teacher.

Anyway, the bigger point that Barnwell took from this was how the students seemed more drawn to these moral discussions:

We continued discussing other dilemmas, and the kids were more engaged that they’d been in weeks, grappling with big questions about values, character, and right versus wrong as I attempted to expand their thinking about who and what is affected—and why it matters…

(Italics added)

Well first I’d say I don’t think it’s just high school kids who’re “more engaged” by moral questions, just watch a group of adults at election time! Let’s just say you don’t know people as well as you think you do.

Anyway, our moral identities are a large part of who we are. And of course ethics is politics writ large. So a challenge to our moral world view (or our politics) is a challenge to our personal identity, and that can be very personal to some people. And that’s largely why schools tend to avoid ethical discussions, because it can offend some students which can lead to parents showing up at the school complaining “My kid doesn’t go to school for that!”

However, while these moral discussions may offend some parents, they’re usually very interesting to the students. Whether you’re a student or an adult you get passionate about what we believe, and being passionate is good. It reminds us we’re alive. It stirs our sense of connection to something larger than ourselves. I think most people crave that. Educators should capitalize on that and guide their students to explore their value systems and the connections they have with others. It’s not about imposing a view, it’s about exposing the student to the views of others. Empathy is how we expand our moral imagination.

One of the central reasons for an education is to free the mind. By doing so we free the individual from the tyranny of manipulation. The motto for the Enlightenment, coined by Immanuel Kant, was Sapere Aude! [dare to know] “Have courage to use your own understanding!” That, at least, is how I see the goal of education. Provide students with the tools and then let them decide how to use that knowledge in their own life.

There is nothing wrong with teaching moral courage, honesty, and the acceptance of others. The vast majority of parents agree with this. The trick is how you go about it. Barnewell’s thoughts are you “expose students to tough (moral) issues in the context of academic work—not imposing values, but simply exploring them.”

The idea is to draw students into various perspectives and let them explore them. This can be done with various disciplines. For example, Barnwell uses his HS biology teacher who challenged his class to think about their consumer choices and how these affect the ecosystem and the environment. The question doesn’t impose a value or ask students to adopt one, but challenges students to think through the various connections and consequences of their individual decisions. The student can decide what this means to them. As they think, as they see, so they feel.

Of course HS English and History teachers have the advantage in this task. There’s nothing like literature and the stories of human beings to frame moral questions and stir our moral imagination. Those of us who love the humanities have always known this was why a liberal arts education is so important for the maintenance of a just and free society.

The Dictionary Project

I picked up my youngest son at school the other day. After getting in the car, instead of immediately buckling up, he started searching his book bag for something. I sat patiently and waited util he was ready to go. He found what he was looking for and got buckled up. I started driving toward his favorite restaurant (Applebee’s), where I’d promised to take him the day before. As we were driving, I noticed in the rear view mirror he was reading through a book. Great, I thought. We stopped at a traffic light and he asked me to turn and look at a map and a sign language chart in the book. He had the air of a kid who knew his dad liked books and so he wanted to show this one off. I was happy to oblige.

After parking the car, my son quickly unbuckled and started showing me sections of the book. At first I thought the book might have been some type of encyclopedia but I still wasn’t sure yet. After about my third question, my son finally handed me the book. The cover of the book had me immediately.

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There in vivid color were the starry heavens, mother earth, an a profound quote by one of the 20th century’s greatest philosophers. I have to say, the quote of Ludwig Wittgenstein really sealed the deal. It’s one of my favorite quotes, and for a dictionary meant for 3rd graders having this quote on the cover was just the type intellectual presumptiveness I find very encouraging. A quote like that ignites reflection before you even open the book.

This Dictionary was given to my son as part of The Dictionary Project (DP). The DP’s goal is to “assist all students in becoming good writers, active readers, creative thinkers, and resourceful learners by providing them with their own personal dictionary.” There are many great causes in life to dedicate yourself to, but this has to rank as one of the most important. So much of the personal and professional success that young people ultimately have in life stems directly from the quality of their education at the primary school level.

In the opening pages of this dictionary there’s a short, concise essay that cuts to the central reason why students (at school and throughout life) need to use and refer to a dictionary regularly:

To succeed in school and in life, you must be able to use the English language effectively. You simply cannot learn all that you need to know without being able to understand the words you hear and read, and without knowing how to use the right words to convey your thoughts and ideas clearly.

For someone who admires intelligence, creativity, and the artful use of language and the power that words can carry, it was a nice reminder that there are so many people and groups—teachers, parents, and private Foundations—constantly striving, in big and little ways, to improve the lives of our most precious resource, our children.

Quote: Leo Tolstoy and the Challenge of Learning

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“The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.” — Leo Tolstoy