Childhood learning · Education · Folklore · Political Correctness

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

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.

paintings · Poetry · Political Correctness

This Is The Day The Lord Has Made. Let Us Rejoice And Be Glad In It. Psalm 118:24

After the sun was up and my coffee drunk, I checked my favorite blogs. Alas, the country is going to hell, just like yesterday and the day before. In California a man shouting, “F——Trump!” tried to stab a Republican candidate with a switch blade. He failed because he had a defective knife. (No details about what was wrong with the knife.) And I read that the New York Times has hired a woman who fantasizes about killing all white men, and says she thinks President Trump is Hitler.


I feel like I’ve wandered into an Alice in Wonderland Humpty Dumpty world where words mean whatever the speaker wants them to mean.

But even in the midst of all this upside-down-ness, there are still times when I feel it’s absolute bliss to be alive. It’s not the same “bliss” I knew in my ignorant, vigorous youth, but it’s still bliss. Is that okay? Or have we reached the point where a prudent man must conceal his happiness in order not to agitate a swarm of resentful, depressed ANTIFAs, all insisting on universal misery in the name of social justice and emotional equality?

The following poem isn’t as well known as it should be.

Early in the Morning—Robert Hillyer (1895-1961)

Early in the morning
Of a lovely summer day,
As they lowered the bright awning
At the outdoor cafe,
I was breakfasting on croissants
And cafe au lait
Under greenery like scenery,
Rue Francois Premier.
They were hosing the hot pavement
With a dash of flashing spray
And a smell of summer showers
When the dust is drenched away,
Under greenery like scenery,
Rue Francois Premier.
And I was twenty and a lover
And in Paradise to stay,
Very early in the morning
Of a lovely summer day.


You are sitting on the terrace of the Brasserie Wepler. (It is still there, I understand.) Your waiter is at right. He has brought you your breakfast. You are sitting under the awning that runs across the top of the frame and can see portions of empty tables in front of you. You are watching two little girls trying to cross the street. The painting is called Place Clichy and is by Pierre Bonnard.

Culture · Education · Political Correctness · Politics

How We Learned To Be Snobs


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.


Poetry · Political Correctness

Dumb and Dumber and Kipling

First Cup of Coffee I have done a lot of dumb things in my 87 years, especially when I was in high school and college, but I feel better and better about my youthful self when I compare him to some—not all—of today’s college students 


In the race for the bottom, the students at the U of Manchester in the UK have pulled ahead of the dumbos at the U of Missouri and Yale. Kipling’s poem “If” was painted on the wall of their newly refurbished student union. It is a poem of advice to young men of any creed, race, or religion. If this, if that “you’ll be a Man, my son!” First two lines: “If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you.” (Hmm. Seems significant somehow.)

The students painted over the poem because Kipling “dehumanised people of  colour.” Not in this poem, but in some other poems. The college’s “liberation and access officer” (What kind of title is that?) said pompously: “We, as an exec team, believe that Kipling stands for the opposite of liberation, empowerment and human rights – the things that we, as an SU, stand for.”

What they stand for is a self-righteous, arrogant, ignorant judgementalism. Have they read Kim? Do they know Nehru loved Kipling as did many other educated Indians and Pakistanis?

Kipling wrote a wonderful poem condemning ethnocentrism. It’s not as well known as it should be, probably because its funny.

We and They

Father, Mother, and Me
Sister and Auntie say
All the people like us are We,
And every one else is They.
And They live over the sea,
While We live over the way,
But – would you believe it? – They look upon We
As only a sort of They!

We eat pork and beef
With cow-horn-handled knives.
They who gobble Their rice off a leaf,
Are horrified out of Their lives;
While They who live up a tree,
And feast on grubs and clay
(Isn’t it scandalous?) look upon We
As a simply disgusting They!

We shoot birds with a gun.
They stick lions with spears.
Their full-dress is un-.
We dress up to Our ears.
They like Their friends for tea.
We like Our friends to stay;
And, after all that, They look upon We
As an utterly ignorant They!

We eat kitcheny food.
We have doors that latch.
They drink milk or blood,
Under an open thatch.
We have Doctors to fee.
They have Wizards to pay.
And (impudent heathen!) They look upon We
As a quite impossible They!

All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And every one else is They:
But if you cross over the sea,
Instead of over the way,
You may end by (think of it!) looking on We
As only a sort of They!

The students at U of Manchester replaced “If” with a bitter, racist denunciation of racism,”Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou.