Childhood learning · Education · Folklore · Political Correctness

One Potato, Two Potato: The Secret Education of Children and My Eight Minutes of Fame

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No adult needs to teach kids how to play Hide and Seek.

Forty-two years ago this month, our first book: One Potato, Two Potato: The Secret Education of American Children was published by W.W. Norton. As was their custom, they submitted their newly published books to The Today Show, hoping that they would select one to be featured. Much to our publisher’s surprise (and ours), they selected our book!

Before the Today Show would book me for the eight-minute interview, however, I had to audition. I don’t remember much about it, but I do know there was a wait of several weeks before I appeared on the show, during which time I lost ten pounds.

I had been given the questions and practiced in front of a mirror (with daughter Sarah’s coaching), but apparently Jane Pauley didn’t get the memo. Nevertheless I managed to deal with the unexpected turn of the interrogation, and the interview was deemed a success by the publisher and my co-author.

Still eight minutes is hardly enough time to explain why children’s folklore is worthy of serious consideration when it seems so trivial. Who can take “King’s X” or “liar, liar, pants on fire” seriously?

As we watched children playing we discovered that the traditional customs—the rhymes, sayings, games, and stories that children teach each other and that have been passed down for generations without the mediation of adults —play a critical role in their social and emotional development.

From the book:

Unsupervised children playing together learn how to govern themselves. They learn how to deal with cheaters and cry babies. They make sophisticated juridical distinctions that strike a fine balance between the self-interest of individuals and the good of the group.

They are competitive, but winning is not their goal. They come together voluntarily for a good game. Thus they learn the joy of team play without suffering from the depersonalization and bitterness that mark fiercely competitive supervised contests where the goal has been reduced to mere victory.

They let off steam, releasing tensions created by the repressive atmosphere of the school.

They play with the emotion of fear, thus becoming less fearful.

In all this, they are guided by their folk tradition.

Is there still a playground culture? Today children have so little opportunity for unsupervised play that it seems doubtful that it flourishes to the extent it did 42 years ago. On the other hand, we sometimes see evidence that it has not disappeared altogether: a tell-tale hopscotch diagram chalked on the sidewalk, two little girls playing a clapping rhyme on a cross town bus.

Certainly kids have learned by observing their elders’ attitudes to clean up some of the politically incorrect or racist rhymes that we collected. It’s very doubtful that today any publisher would publish a trade book recounting the history of childlore that included these rhymes.

Education · Technology

Why Robots Scare Me

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Erica, the robot created by Hiroshi Ishiguro, which was scheduled to take over the position of news caster on Japanese television this year.

It’s not that I fear they will take over so many jobs that we will end up with a permanent class of unemployable unskilled workers. Some think so, but in this regard I’m feeling optimistic today  (no doubt because of a good night’s sleep). I think that what will happen is that our entire educational system will be reorganized to accommodate new needs and opportunities that will arise from the brave new world that is now developing. It won’t be easy and it won’t be quick, but there are already hints here and there that it is happening.

Here’s what concerns me about automation in general

It is distancing us from one another. There are fewer and fewer casual contacts that used to be necessary to carry on our daily business. Bank tellers, waitresses, order takers, receptionists, are disappearing right and left—drivers for hire to follow. In countless factories where workers used to take breaks and tell jokes, or exchange their troubled stories, the work is done primarily by robots who neither laugh nor cry. In Tokyo there is actually a hotel where guests never see another human being from check in to check out.

And speaking of Japan!

Here is where you’ll find the forerunners in the development of lifelike androids—robots that look like real people. As yet they are not “bipedal,”—they can’t walk around—but they’re working on it.  The professed aim of these inventors is to create robots that are “self conscious and aware” in the words  of Erica’s creator, professor Hiroshi Ishiguro.

What’s behind the Japanese push to excel at robotics.

There is a practical problem that the Japanese hope to solve with the introduction of robots. For over three decades, they have been experiencing negative population growth; the population is aging and the number of workers decreasing, making it increasingly difficult to fill job openings. They hope that robots can replace these lost workers.

For instance, it is impossible to find enough people willing to be attendants in nursing homes. I suppose if the robot that delivers medication and dinner looks like a person, it will be more acceptable as a caregiver. But what the elderly in nursing homes need most of all—what we all need— is a smile from a fellow human being, a compassionate touch, and love.

Human beings were created in the image of God and thus have the capacity to love one another. No matter how expertly the robot is crafted, no matter how convincingly it blinks or appears to breathe, or how well its warm body responds to our commands, it cannot love.

When we give our robot vacuum cleaner a name and assign it a gender, it’s a joke. We think it’s funny. But when a robotics inventor creates a lifelike robot with the intention of, in his own words, “changing the definition of a human,” in my book, it’s no joke; it is a sacrilege.

Culture · Education · Political Correctness · Politics

How We Learned To Be Snobs

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Snobbery is the basic cause of our nation’s present troubles. Sadly, we have been encouraging it for many years, I know because I was present the creation of modern snobbery.

First, a definition.

Snobbery flourishes when everyone is being rated on the same scale, as when the “No Child Left Behind” program forced children to move lockstep from K through 12, studying the same subjects, taking the same tests.

We have abandoned that program, thank heavens. But society still coerces students to feel it is essential that they go to college and to the “best” college possible. We ignore the fact that people who do not care for algebra or Proust may, indeed often, turn out to be “smarter” (a word no one can define) than people with degrees enough to paper a room.

America wasn’t always like this.

Before WW2, some people had college degrees; some professions required them, but most people did not, and this was not a handicap.

Old fashioned American snobbery was based on money.

But in a commercial society. a person whose status depends on money can never be fully at ease. The damndest people can get ahold of it and the grandest people can lose all they’ve got. The people with old money have to accommodate the folks with new money, and the people who used to have money have to learn new skills to survive. To some extent this uncertainty mitigated class differences.

But since 1960 we have had to deal with a more invidious class marker (bred in the bone, supposedly) that has led to the idea that America is divided into the elites and the deplorables.

In 1960 I was teaching at a private boys’ prep school  When I was hired, I’d never heard of the SATs. I learned that my job was to get my students into colleges that accepted students largely on the basis of their SAT scores. The test was supposed to reveal a student’s “potential” for successfully completing college level work. Even in the innocent ignorance of my youth I had my doubts about this statistical winnowing. And the scores’ effect on my students was disheartening. When they learned their scores, they knew what (not “who”) they were: “Harvard material” or “state university material.” “Material” in any case.

Years later, I read Daniel Boorstin’s The Democratic Experience

In that book, Boorstin noted that 1960 was the first year the College Board told students their scores. Previously it told only the schools where they applied for admission. That same year, the president of the College Board made a speech in which he revealed that there had been “great fear” at the company that “students would have their values warped by learning their own scores.” Put more bluntly, he was afraid the students with high scores would be derided by the deplorables, but to his delight the students who made low scores were the ones who were derided—their lowliness having been scientifically confirmed by a multiple-choice test. He gleefully reported that his own children and their friends were referring to such “unfortunates” as “jerks,” while regarding with “awe” the “genius” who made 700. This, he declared, was a “triumph of morality.”

Yes, he actually said that!

And our screwed up belief that we should not be judgmental (that is, should not use our own experience to judge people on their character and achievements but should let multiple choice tests do our thinking for us has) been making things worse ever since.

 

Childhood learning · Culture · Education · Role of Women

The Lesson Learned is not Always the Lesson Taught

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Herb is the one who usually writes about poetry, but I have something to say about a poem.

Miss Mary Braden, my fifth grade teacher, was a throwback to the Victorian era. Her skirt came down to her ankles, she carried a cane, and her long gray hair was tied up at the back in a big bun. She was a regular Gradgrind. and she hated children, or so it seemed to me. To Miss Braden poetry was a trusted pedagogical tool; To this day I can still remember many lines of the poems we were required to memorize and recite.

In School Days by John Greenleaf  Whittier was written in 1870 at the height of the Victorian era. It tells a charming story about children, but it ends with a discouraging message:

Self interest is the motivating force that informs almost all human interaction. So don’t expect to be given any consideration just because you are likeable (or even loveable).

 That was the lesson we were supposed to learn, but what we took from the poem was something quite different.

The setting is a one-room schoolhouse  at dismissal time. A boy and a girl linger behind.  There has been a spelling bee that afternoon in which the boy and girl ended up as the last two contestants, and the girl turned out to be the winner.

In School Days

Still sits the school-house by the road,
A ragged beggar sleeping;
Around it still the sumachs grow,
And blackberry vines are creeping.

* * * * * * *

Long years ago a winter sun
Shone over it at setting;
Lit up its western window-panes
And low eaves’ icy fretting.

It touched the tangled golden curls,
And brown eyes full of grieving,
Of one who still her steps delayed
When all the school were leaving.

For near her stood the little boy
Her childish favor singled:
His cap pulled low upon a face
Where pride and shame were mingled

* * * * * * *

He saw her lift her eyes; he felt
The soft hand’s light caressing,
And heard the tremble of her voce,
As if a fault confessing.

“I’m sorry that I spelt the word:
I hate to go above you,
Because,”—the brown eyes lower fell,—
“Because, you see, I love you!”

Still memory to a gray-haired man
That sweet child-face is showing.
Dear girl! The grasses on her grave
Have forty years been growing.

He lives to learn, in life’s hard school,
How few who pass above him
Lament their triumph and his loss,
Like her,—because they love him.

Now we ten-year-olds knew nothing about life’s hard school, not yet having experienced it. The lesson of the ultimate stanza was therefore lost on us, but we could identify with these children.

I had brown eyes; I was a good speller. I was in love—_with Jack Sevier— as was every other girl in our class. “Tangled golden curls”? Well, okay, three out of four; I could still identify.

And although I could not have then articulated it plainly, here was a potent message packaged so that even a ten-year-old could understand it. It was a lesson girls were taught over and over in subtle ways long after Whittier and Miss Braden were around to teach it.  It taught girls how to behave and boys what to expect from girls:

“I’m sorry that I spelt the word,
I hate to go above you,
“Because,”—her brown eyes lower fell,—
“Because you see, I love you.”

Girls need to disown their accomplishments if they want to gain favor with boys.  And there are certain techniques that girls can use to be appealing   . . . the lifted (and lowered) eyes; the caressing hands, the trembling voice, the frank apology.

In spite of the genuine progress women have made since 1870, when Whittier wrote his poem, sad to say, some women still are reluctant to own their accomplishments, and some men would just as soon they didn’t.

Do you still remember a poem you were required to memorize in school?To leave a comment scroll to the top of the post and click on the word “comments.”

 

Books · Childhood learning · Education · Laura Ingalls Wilder · Museums

In Defense of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Part Two

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Replica of the log cabin Pa built, located at The Little House on the Prairie Museum, Independence, Kansas

First of all, let me dispatch the criticism of the passage most frequently cited by the media as offensive: The Little House on the Prairie was published in 1932. On the first page of that first edition, the following sentence appears:

There the wild animals wandered and fed as though they were in a pasture that stretched much further than a man could see, and there were no people. Only the Indians lived there.

It seemed clear to most readers that what was meant was that there were no white people like Laura and her family. But in 1952, a reader wrote to the publisher complaining about the passage. The editor was shocked that no one had ever noticed the wording before and suggested a correction. The author immediately responded:

You are perfectly right about the fault in Little House on the Prairie and have my permission to make the correction you request. It was a stupid blunder of mine.

In a new edition published in 1953, the offending passage was replaced by the following:

There the wild animals wandered and fed as though they were in a pasture that stretched much further than a man could see, and there were no settlers. Only Indians lived there.

 In other words, the original offensive wording has not appeared in the book for 65 years!  But apparently there is no statute of limitations in the case of careless political incorrectness. It is really stretching to assume that Wilder thought Indians were subhuman.

I imagine the authorities dislike Laura’s physical descriptions of the Indians or the fact that the “wild men” frighten her:

First she saw their leather moccasins. Then their stringy bare, red-brown legs all the way up. Around their waists each of the Indians wore a leather thong, and the furry skin of a small animal hung down in front. . . .Their faces were bold and fierce and terrible. Their black eyes glittered. . . .When Laura peeked out from behind the slab again, both Indians were looking straight at her. Her heart jumped into her throat and choked her with its pounding.

But make no mistake: it is Pa who is the central character of this book. It is his decisions that drive the action; his accomplishments as a frontiersman that fill the pages; his songs and fiddle that provide much of the poetry. Surely it is to Pa we must look for the values this work endorses.

And what are they when it comes to the Indians?

One day a tall Indian suddenly appears in the doorway,

‘How!’ he said to Pa. Pa held onto Jack and replied, ‘How!’ He dragged Jack to the bedpost and tied him there. While he was doing it, the Indian came in and squatted down by the fire. Then Pa squatted down by the Indian, and they sat there, friendly, but not saying a word, while Ma finished cooking dinner. . . .Ma gave Pa and the Indian their dinners on two tin plates, and they ate silently. The Pa gave the Indian some tobacco for his pipe. They filled their pipes, and they lighted the tobacco with coals from the fire, and they silently smoked until the pipes were empty. . . .A while longer they all sat silent. Then the Indian rose up and went away without a sound.

‘Let Indians keep themselves to themselves,’ said Ma, ‘and we will do the same. I don’t like Indians around  underfoot.’

Pa told her not to worry, ‘That Indian was perfectly friendly,’ he said. ‘And their camps down among the bluffs are peaceable enough. If we treat them well and watch Jack, we won’t have any trouble. . .

The next day, when Pa opens the door there is another mounted Indian  on the trail that runs by the house. Jack stands snarling before the Indian, ready to pounce. When the Indian sees Pa, he points his gun at Jack. Pa grabs Jack’s collar and pulls him off the trail.

‘That was a darned close call!’ Pa said. ‘Well, it’s his path. An Indian trail, long before we came.’

Later, Laura overhears a conversation between Pa and Mr. Scott and Mr. Edwards, who are distant neighbors. Scott and Edwards think that perhaps the Indians started a recent prairie fire on purpose to drive out the settlers and that they “mean devilment.”

Mr. Edwards said there were too many Indians in those camps; he didn’t like it. ‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian,’ Mr. Scott said.

Pa said he didn’t know about that. He figured that Indians would be as peaceable as anybody else if they were let alone. On the other hand, they  had been moved west so many times that naturally they hated white folks.

 

You be the judge.

 

Coming next: A Kickapoo Kidnapping, A True Family Story