Education

Alas, Poor Yorick

I recently watched a Zoom presentation of 19th century mourning customs. Since I was an English teacher for a good part of my former life, I suppose it is not surprising that I began to think about how death and mourning are presented in literature. 

The first thing that came to my mind was Hamlet’s musing on the skull of Yorick, perhaps the most often quoted passage from Shakespeare’s works. I had the great privilege of teaching Hamlet to high school seniors for many years—five classes a day. I read the play out loud, explained the unfamiliar language and discussed the play with my students. Before I retired I practically had the play memorized—all parts. But it never got old because Hamlet is one of the great works of English literature, maybe as Kenneth Brannagh has suggested, the greatest work of art across all disciplines.

Setting the Scene

Act I, Scene v–Hamlet and his friend Horatio are walking through the cemetery when they come upon a gravedigger busy digging a fresh grave. They engage in idle conversation. Hamlet asks how long a corpse will last before it rots. The gravedigger nonchalantly holds up a skull he has recently unearthed. “Here’s a skull now. This skull has lain in the earth three and twenty years.” Hamlet asks whose it was. “This sir was Yorick’s skull, the King’s jester.”

David Tennant in the title role. Hamlet, Act V, Scene 1

The mood suddenly becomes serious as Hamlet reaches for the skull and holds it in his hands. 

Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio; a fellow 

of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath

borne me on his back a thousand times, and now, how

abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at

it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know 

not how oft. Where be your jibes now? Your

gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment

that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one

now, to mock your own grinning? Quite chap-fallen.

Now get thee to my lady’s chamber and tell her, let

Her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must

come; make her laugh at that. Prithee, Horatio, tell

me one thing.

HORATIO: What’s that, my lord?

HAMLET: Dost thou think Alexander look o’ this fashion 

In the earth?

HORATIO; E’n so.

HAMLET: And smelt so? Pah!

HORATIO; E’en so, my lord.

HAMLET: To what base uses we may return, Horatio! 

Do high school seniors still study Hamlet?

Probably not. Too many triggers. But come to think of it, isn’t all great literature saturated with triggers that encourage us to think deeply about the disturbing aspects of life—like the inevitability of death? 

Which raises the question: What is the purpose of education?

Andre Tchaikowsky, brilliant composer and pianist (not to be confused with the famous Russian symphonic composer) died in 1982, having bequeathed his skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company. The video above featuring David Tennant in the title role of the RSC production probably features Andre Tchaikowsky (his skull, that is) in the role of Yorick.

Education · Handwriting

The Missing Amenity

ilarge-woman-writing-letter

This post originally appeared on Jan. 10, 2017. In belated observance of National Handwriting Day (Jan 23) I am reposting it today

Over the holidays we had occasion to spend a couple of nights in a hotel, something we hadn’t done for awhile.

Of course we were not at all surprised to find the huge TV, the little ihome clock radio, the microwave, the refrigerator, the coffee maker, the iron , the ironing board, the hair dryer, the illuminated magnifying mirror (I could have done without that), and various lotions, gels, soap, and shampoo. And a note left on the vanity informed us that the management would be happy to supply a toothbrush, or comb if we had forgotten to pack those items. The safe in the closet, I’ll admit, was a bit of a surprise.

I wondered if there might still be a Gideon Bible hidden somewhere. I opened the drawer of the night stand and sure enough! There it was. Since it was almost Christmas, I read the Christmas story as told by Matthew. That was nice.

However even with this superfluity of amenities, there was something missing—NO STATIONERY! And we know why, don’t we? Because nobody writes handwritten notes or letters any more.

 Or do they?

waldorf-stationery

I decided to ask Google about hotel stationery. (Google knows everything.) It seems that while many hotels have stopped offering it, some— mostly high end— hotels still do. In fact there is a luxury hotel in California where complimentary stationery is embossed with the guest’s name! Actually, I think that’s a bit much.

I realize that just because the hotel offers stationery does’t mean that guests use it. Nevertheless, the fact that high end hotels still provide it seems to support a notion I have had for awhile.  That is, that the handwritten note is becoming a status marker. High end parents who want their children to appear refined and well educated may see to it that their children write thank you notes by hand. They may even insist that the kids learn to write a cursive hand, even if they have to hire a tutor. Privileged children then may learn a skill that used to be taught to all children, thus increasing the social divide. This would not be progress. mlk

Education

They’re On Their Way to the Ivy-covered Halls!

Lehigh University

Today many tearful mothers and stoic fathers will pack the car and for the first time haul yesterday’s babies off to an “institution of higher learning.”

Tonight the babies will sleep in a strange bed; tomorrow a stranger will make their breakfast. But no one will wake them up or do their laundry when the time comes. They will have unaccustomed responsibilities. No one will nag them to do anything; they will be expected to get to class on time and to the infirmary if they are sick.

A few lucky ones know exactly why they are there; they have known since they were children what they wanted to be when they grew up and now they are ready to learn how. 

Others will figure it out in the next two years before it is time to declare a major. 

But four years from now, some will be wondering “Now what?” And others will have made a false start only to discover that what they thought they wanted to be was in fact not what they wanted at all.

But for all of them, the four-year college will serve as a half way house on the road to independence. And that’s no small thing, although in most cases, it’s a pretty expensive way to learn to do the laundry.

The fact is that college today is too expensive—absurdly expensive. Young people (or their parents) should not be burdened with debt in order to prepare themselves for the adult world of work. Last year, 69% of graduating seniors took out loans, graduating with an average debt of $29,800. That’s just not right; it’s really wrong. It can’t go on—and so it won’t. 

It will take a long time, of course. Cultural change happens slowly. Still there are already signs that the four year college as a necessary path to the adult world of work and social status is undergoing slow transformation.

But for now, for families who can swing it, it seems the obvious course of action. 

So good luck to all those young people who are starting the four-year journey. May you choose wisely and make your parents proud.

Education · Folklore · paintings

A Painting about Play

Ring Around the Rosie
Oil on canvas by Herbert Knapp

I have looked at this painting by Herb for hours. In our apartment in New York it was hanging in a spot opposite the couch where I tended to recline with some frequency. Over time, I grew to love it, not only because I just like the way it looks, but for what it says about children’s play.

The figures in Herb’s painting are not real life children. Their bloodless limbs, their simple monochromatic dress and the dark moonlit setting suggest to me that these figures and what they are doing transcend time and place. They are playing a circle game in which children reach out to one another, join hands and move in an unbroken circle, learning the rhythms of human interaction. No doubt you remember some of these games from your own childhood.

Or maybe not. It may depend on how old you are, for these and other folk games that are passed on by children themselves without mediation (or sometimes even the knowledge) of adults no longer have a fertile ground in which to thrive.

Pete Gray, professor at Boston College, who is an evolutionary psychologist, contends that the need and impulse for play is biologically embedded in our nature as human beings. In his book Free to Learn, and in his blog for Psychology Today, he explains that it is through play that children learn the skills and behaviors that they need to thrive.  

In our incessant drive to encroach further and further on playtime that is free from adult authority, we are making a tragic mistake. If you are a parent, grandparent, or just care about the consequences of our education system, I strongly suggest that you check out this very readable blog post by Gray.

* * * * * * *

In 1976 Herb and I were studying at Indiana University, on leave from our teaching positions in the Panama Canal Zone.

Our study of children’s traditiional games and practices of children that have been passed down by children for generations began as a paper written for a folklore course we were enrolled in. Since we were English teachers, we were focused on the verbal accompaniments to these games and practices— something that most people dismiss as trivial childish rhymes and formulaic sayings that are of no particular significance. I mean who can take “I’m rubber; you’re glue” or “I see London, I see France; I see someone’s underpants” seriously?

However as we watched children at unsupervised play we realized that what they were doing was anything but trivial. We saw that unsupervised children playing together on their own learn how to govern themselves, according to a system of rules.

They learn how to deal with cheaters and crybabies and how to make sophisticated juridical decisions. They learn the joy of team spirit and group solidarity without suffering from the depersonalization and bitterness that characterize competitive supervised sports.

They let off steam, releasing tensions created by the repressive atmosphere of the classroom. They play with the emotion of fear, thus becoming less fearful.

And we decided that the subject deserved more thorough study and exposition. Thus the idea for our book, One Potato, Two Potato, was born. It was eventually published by W.W. Norton and is still in print after 43 years! Some twenty years after our book was published, Herb painted the picture.

Like most artists, he is reluctant to discuss the “meaning” of his work or the creative process that results in a painting. However, he assures me that he did not have the study of children’s folklore in mind when he set about to paint this picture, What eventually appeared on the canvas simply “emerged” as he painted.

Herb seems to have dimly and unconsciously recognized what Gray is telling us: Play is part of our human nature; we are sorely in error when we impose our ideas of how our children should structure their time and activities, thus denying them opportunities for unsupervised play and the development of their humanity.

Childhood learning · Education

How I Learned to Read

Eastman-Johnson-Boy-Reading

The other day in one of those internet searches that leads you somewhat astray, I stumbled down a track that dealt with the teaching of reading.

In an article titled “Yes, There is a Right Way to Teach Reading,” the author maintains that some kids are just not sensitive to the sounds of the spoken word. For example, they don’t hear that there are three sounds in the word “bag.”  In teacher-speak they lack “phonemic awareness.” Therefore what is called for is at least 100 hours instruction in phonics early on.  

This triggered a memory of how I learned to read, I was apparently one of the lucky ones to whom phonemic awareness came easily although I certainly did not get off to a good start.

 * * * * * * * * * *

Some drink, Some take drugs. I read. It’s my mother’s fault. Not that she taught me. Oh, no. That was my teacher’s job. She got paid for it. But when Miss Morgan failed to do her job and passed me on to second grade “with reservations,” Mother took charge, and the first glorious day of summer vacation just as I was on my way outside after breakfast to play sword fight with my friends, she grabbed my arm, marched me out to the squeaky glider on our screened-in front porch. plunked a stack of library books down beside me, and said. “Now read! No more monkeyshines!” (So much for Progressive education.)

I learned I was going to sit there until noon every day all summer, except to go to the bathroom. I whined. I pouted. I amused myself by turning a slow backward somersault on the glider. “Is it noon yet?” No answer. Boredom. Boredom. So I began teaching myself to read.

Mother was pleased. She looked forward to the day when “we” would “show” those old teachers of mine. Reservations, indeed!

“We” showed them, all right. But then I went right on reading.

Mother began to worry. “Too much of anything’s not good, son.”

Too late. I was hooked. Before long, when my mother started parking my sister and me at the library while she grocery shopped, I got a library card and eventually began making long walks on my own—14 blocks—to the nearest branch library. In those days—the late 1930s and early 1940s—nobody felt obliged to intervene if they saw a little boy walking alone—unless he was bleeding.

Mother wouldn’t have minded if I’d read how-to books, or inspirational books, or books about science. But all I read were stories. She thought stories were fine for relaxing. But a person couldn’t spend his life relaxing. (I didn’t see why not.)

If my teachers had known I loved to read stories, they, too, would have disapproved. In the 1930s, all the experts agreed that students who loved stories were introverts, loners. They were trapped in “the romantic realm of yesterday.” (The science was settled.) A teacher’s job was to discourage “outmoded individualism” and to focus children’s attention on the present not the past, to teach them to face facts—like dates, names, and statistics. Every “social studies” test I took in elementary school seemed to include the question, “What are the chief exports of . . . ?” The country didn’t matter. The answer was always “copra, bauxite, sisal, flax, and hemp”—whatever they are.

But my teachers could see I wasn’t one of those romantic loners. I didn’t act like a bookworm. I was simply a good reader. They approved of that. Being able to read well helped a person solve problems, and solving problems was what modern life was all about. Besides, my scores on their reading tests reflected well on their “progressive” teaching methods.

Dick and Jane

I don’t remember the names of the books Mother plunked down beside me, Ferdinand the Bull? No, I think that came later. But knowing nothing of theories of reading, she did not bring me any books with scientifically tested “age appropriate” vocabulary about Dick, Jane, and their beloved Spot. (Run, Spot, run. See Spot run.) I’m sure my poor performance in first grade was solely the fault of these boring books. Has anyone ever cared if Spot ran or not?