Archive

Tag Archives: education

alaskan brown bear 2
In May, nearly half the world population of the rare Mongolian antelope, the saiga, were found dead, presumably from disease. Some 120,000 carcasses were discovered on the grasslands of Kazakhstan. The population of saiga has been under decline for many decades, and the Saiga Conservation Alliance estimates that the number of animals has dropped by 95 percent in the past 15 years — and that was before May’s catastrophe.saiga 2

This is enough to alarm any animal lover, and anyone worried about the state of the environment anywhere on the globe, but it had a personal resonance with me, because I knew of the saiga vulnerability since I was a child, thanks to a remarkable book I received when I was perhaps 6 years old: Wild Animals of the World, by William Bridges and Mary Baker, which was first published the year I was born — 1948.

On page 221, Bridges writes: “This odd antelope of the cold, flat treeless steppes of Siberia has the misfortune to be highly prized by the Chinese pharmaceutical trade for the sake of its horns…” On the top of the page is a fine black-and-white drawing of a saiga by the artist, Mary Baker.

The book was one of those premonitory gifts of childhood that dug deep into my growing brain and stayed there. On the surface, it was a bestiary, a catalog of mammals of the world, written for young people; each page featured a portrait of an animal by Baker and a short text by Bridges giving a mini-overview of the animal, its habits, its usefulness to humans, when appropriate, and often, a warning as to its peril.title page 2

Looked at that way, it was certainly a successful book: I loved it on that level alone.

But it had several other things going on for me. It was in its way a “gesamtkunstwerk” for my curious child brain: It fascinated me on several levels, and led me to art, to language, to design and to a love of “the things of this world.”

Let me explain.

First, the drawings were distinctive. Even as a kid, I could distinguish between the look of Baker’s drawings and the look of photographs, and the look of other artists’ styles. I valued Baker’s fine detail, the beautifully delineated textures of the fur, hides, and markings of each animal. The drawings were hyper-realistic, yet somehow not “photographic.” They were clearly drawings: I could see the pencil on the paper. This difference — the esthetic surface of the image — I did not understand at that tender age, but I clearly felt it, and it thrilled me. I pored over the book endlessly. It was my first acknowledged awareness of “art” as a separate entity.

When I was a little older, maybe sixth grade, I picked up a pencil and copied several of the drawings, and felt proud satisfaction when my version approximated the original. uakari 2

Then, there were the animal names. I knew horses and cows, even monkeys and deer, but this book told me about scores of exotically named animals, such as the anoa, argali, chevrotain, coypu, douroucouli, gaur, gerenuk, nilghai, paradoxure, thylacine, yapok, kiang, and of course, the saiga. There are dozens more: sitatunga, ratel, quagga, pichiciago, okapi, galago, and the flying phalanger. Who knew the world was this strange, that language was this baroque?

I reveled in this richness of nounage. The world was full of amazing things, and this book showed them to me. There were more things in heaven and earth, etc. And they all had names. I started on a long quest for vocabulary and the building of a word-horde.wisent 2

With my early and budding interest in language, I even put together the similarity of the European wisent and the American bison and thought, they must be related words. The wisent, by the way, was my best drawing copy.

But there was more. I cannot say I was consciously aware of all the book meant to me, or of all I learned from it, but I felt these things, even as a child. I loved, for instance, the typography. I wouldn’t have known that’s what it was, but the book was very well designed, and each page had the name of the animal at the top in a display typeface different from the text font. I loved the difference. There was something exotic in that display font. gorilla 2

In the same way, I had a nascent awareness of design. Each of Baker’s drawings had a blank background, except for a shaded rectangle, asymmetrically positioned to provide an active balance to the overall design. We are used to pictures being bound by a rectangular frame, but here, the animals burst out of the rectangle, giving them more life and vivacity. Again, I wouldn’t have put it that way as a boy, but I clearly felt it.chimpanzee 2

There were 251 animals described in the book, all of them mammals, and it gave me an encyclopedic sense of zoology. I wanted to learn more.

I don’t know how to express how essential books like Wild Animals of the World were to me growing up. There were other books that had the same kind of hold on me. Life magazine’s The World We Live In was one, the ancient Compton’s Picture Encyclopedia, from the mid-1930s was another, with its endpaper dirigibles and gyrocopters flying over futuristic cities.

But it is essential to recognize that it is not merely the information contained in these books that is important. What meant so much to me was not simply the factoids, but the whole experience of the book — its design, its typography, the color of the paper it was printed on, the smell of the binding, the stiffness or flexibility of its cover. It is a whole experience.
Kiang 2

Which is why I worry about the current educational emphasis on information. This is an information age, we are told, but it isn’t fact alone that is meaningful. What I loved — and still love — about Baker’s book is everything about it. The physicality of the learning experience, not its disembodied data.

Which brings me to my last point. Now that I am old, I find that there is a recurring pattern to the years. There are moments when we acquire and moments we divest. This is true of possessions as well as ideas. At some point we buy things we want; later we come to “simplify” our lives by getting rid of clutter. Certainly one of the effects of retirement is reducing the number of things we need to pack when we move out of the large house and into something more convenient for age. But there is a countervening impulse to reacquire some of the things we have lost, whether it is a CD of a record that used to mean so much to us when we were courting, or a Ford Mustang we used to drive, or — in this case — a book that meant so much to the inchoate curiosity of our yearning childhood.

I had long ago lost possession of Wild Animals of the World. I have no idea where my original copy went. Probably my parents sold it off in a yard sale after I moved out to go to college and they got rid of most of the household residue when they retrenched to a double-wide in a retirement community in Florida. But I felt a deep nostalgic need for the book and found a used copy online for some ridiculous price — a buck ninety-nine or some such — and ordered it. I still pore over it. I still learn from it.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

snow on peaks 2

Some people say the best thing about traveling is coming home.

I say, you never do come home.

That is, if you have gotten from your travels what they best offer, you can never return to the life you had been living. You are changed.

Of course, the return to normal life, after weeks of living out of suitcases and eating out of McDonald’s bags, is a relief. Vacationing is hard work. You use all the hours of the day like each day is the last.

But an engine is not meant to run full throttle 24 hours a day.

At home, you can finally take your shoes off, sit back and watch Seinfeld reruns, knowing that you are going back to the office in the morning. It is like the rerailing of a derailed locomotive; you are back on track, you know where you are going and when. The schedule is published and you can consult your timetable.

And there is also something comfortable about being surrounded by all your things. They are familiar. Your books, your TV, your sofa — and most of all, your bed.

Home is where your family and friends are, too — or so it used to be before America decided to move every few years.

It’s like putting on an old pair of sneakers after wearing rented shoes for a week.

Yet back home, there is something you miss from the traveling. A kind of rush from not knowing what comes next, from having to pay attention. Travel can be exhausting, but it is also enlivening.

For the workaday life is a life that is not fully awake. Routine dulls the luster of the stones under your feet, turns the music of the blackbirds in your back yard to an irritating squabble.

Feijoada

Feijoada

Travel provides many other benefits. It makes you less provincial, for one thing. You can no longer believe that your local way of doing things is the only way. You may have been brought up on meatloaf and mashed potatoes, but only the most stubborn of us is not seduced by Brazil’s feijoada or London’s aloo matar. We learn that other nations may be more civilized than our own. Certainly there are many that are safer.

Travel also entertains. The scenery shifts, the menus shift, the languages shift. There is always something new to tickle our attention.

And travel can separate us from our problems, like a two-week bender. We forget office politics, forget project deadlines, forget our debts and trespasses. It is like halftime in the game of life.

But none of these things is as important as the power travel has to reawaken us to our own lives.

Drakensbergs

Drakensbergs

What travel gives us that our regular lives cannot is newness. Everything seems brand new; you can’t get enough of it. We may have mountains at home, but we don’t really see mountains until we drive through the Rockies or the Drakensbergs in South Africa. We have desert at home, or a river, but we don’t see them until we cross Death Valley in July, or see the moon glowing on the fast midnight current of the Rhine near Dusseldorf.

Our work lives are formed of clay and mud. Our travel lives burn with flame.

But if we have done our travel properly, we bring that flame home with us. And we are reawakened to our own lives; we can see it again for the first time.

It can be even more true if the travel has lasted too long. Twenty-five years too long.  A lifetime of travel, and a later return to what was once familiar. The Ithaka you left is never the Ithaka you return to.

As I write this, snow has just left the lower heights of the Blue Ridge and hangs over the tops of the bowl-rim of peaks that form the zig-zag horizon just outside Asheville in North Carolina. Up on the ridges, the white remaining on the ground provides a visual relief allowing us to see the leafless trees as distant hashmarks inked onto the hills like pen-strokes, in a way we can never see it in summer, when the foliage softens the view and makes ever mountain furry instead of hairy. snow on forest floor 2

Seeing that again this year is refreshed in a way it never was when winter was the ordinary slush of melting snow, greyed with soot and piled by snowplows into tiny cordilleras parallel to the curbs of the wet, slick streets. Coming back to the East after a quarter-century in the Arizona desert has allowed me to see the snow all over again as something miraculous, a world-state of the intensely beautiful.

And the ordinary light of day is rendered what it always is, extraordinary.

washington and d day

”For one million dollars, how do you spell IQ?”

If you asked America that question, America would not win a million dollars.

What can I say? When Who Wants to Be a Millionaire was popular on network TV, a study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that most Americans thought it counted as educational television.

Some 70 percent of those asked also identified the Oprah Winfrey Show as ”serving their children’s educational needs.”

It has only gotten worse since then.

As a nation, we are dumbing down. We have decided, like one third-grader told my wife when she was teaching, that ”my mama says there’s only so much the brain can hold or it will explode.” And we’re playing it safe. monte cristo

So we think the questions Regis Philbin asked were actually tough.

”Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?”

Although, actually, most of the questions on that show involved celebrities rather than past presidents. The only Grant who counted was Hugh.

Another study found that 80 percent of seniors at 55 top universities flunked or nearly flunked a basic high school history test. ludden and princeton

So that, nowadays, it is rare to find an actual quiz show on TV, outside Jeopardy, which keeps up a decent and atavistic standard. Instead of watching smart people answer questions, we now prefer to watch people being stupid and doing stupid things on “reality TV.” Perhaps this gives us the illusion that if we are not as idiotic as the contestants, perhaps we are now the “smart” ones. cedric the entertainer

Nothing says as much about the course of empire than the slow dumbing down of quiz shows, from the really arcane questions that Allen Ludden asked on the G.E. College Bowl to the pap that passes for knowledge on Millionaire. It is no surprise that in its current syndicated incarnation Millionaire is hosted by Cedric the Entertainer.

Nowadays, we are amazed when a contestant remembers the name of the cute little girl on Family Affair.

It tells us what we, as a culture, value. And we don’t value learning. We value entertainment.

In the past, even people who didn’t have much education valued it and made sure their children received its benefits. Older schools often have the names of great thinkers or artists carved into friezes around their sides: Aristotle, Mozart, Pasteur, Newton. They stood for high goals we should set and aim our efforts at.

That all has changed.

It isn’t merely that schools being built now might scribe the names of Katy Perry, Justin Bieber or Beyonce, but that we think there should be no names at all.

For in our warped sense of democracy, we have decided that ”all men are created equal” means that no one should be better than anyone else.

I never have understood this: We somehow maintain the belief that there are basketball players who are more talented than everyone else, and we reward them richly. We keep the belief that there are more successful CEOs and reward them richly too. But somehow we are not to believe — or at least applaud the fact — that there are some people who are smarter or more talented academically or artistically. We reward such people only with suspicion.

And we make our education system inane to the point that everyone can earn a ”B” and keep their wonderful sense of self-esteem.

Then we wonder why our kids don’t know where Chicago is on a map, can’t balance a checkbook, or believe George Washington was the general on D-Day.

Obviously, we decide, our school standards are set too high, and we lower them yet further.

For it isn’t just the students who don’t know anything of history, geography or spelling but also their parents and teachers who don’t know and don’t think it important.

Another study, by the non-profit Foundation for Academic Standards and Tradition, found that half of all current education majors in college — those who will become the teachers of our children — don’t read books other than what is required for class. And 60 percent think there is too much emphasis placed on books.

What do they want instead? If they are like most Americans, they want to be entertained. They want wall-to-wall television. And they’re getting it.

It is the democratization of culture, so that if you have the Encyclopedia Britannica on one side and Project Runway on the other, we decide they have equal weight.

Learning gives us the context to understand events. It prevents us from making egregious choices. It gives us skepticism.

Learning turns us into individuals rather than demographic statistics, rather than mere consumers. It gives us the confidence to make difficult choices and makes us the free agents for political choice that democracy was originally meant to nurture.

But we have become instead a nation of intellectual and emotional infants, swayed by commercial advertising, hoodwinked by ”alternative” science, led by politicians who can utter no thought longer than a sound bite.

We have the world’s largest and most sophisticated military yet are left defenseless by our own embrace of ignorance. Read your Gibbon.

cletus spuckler and wife

There is little science on the Science Channel, almost no history on the History Channel, nothing to discover on Discover, and you will look long and hard to find any art on the Arts and Entertainment network.

And if you learn anything from The Learning Channel, it is that America’s intellectual level has dropped from the sky like a disabled alien spacecraft, to crash and burn in a desert of mindlessness.

The History Channel, for instance, now specializes in (as explained on Wikipedia): “mythical creatures, monsters, UFOs, aliens, truck drivers, alligator hunters, pawn stores, antique and collectible ‘pickers,’ car restoring, religions, disaster scenarios, and apocalyptic ‘after man’ scenarios,” to say nothing about credulous explorations of the writings of Nostradamus. ancient aliens

Each of these channels began with virtuous motives, and for their early years, created or acquired genuine documentaries for TV viewers, but as they have come to seek ratings over virtue, each has bitten the bait, and now gives us “reality” programming, sensationalist pseudoscience, and celebrities, celebrities, celebrities.

The prime offender of this last are the cooking and food channels, which at one time gave us instruction on cooking and food, but now concentrate on celebrity chefs, some even with studio audiences to applaud and ooh. Julia Child actually taught us something. david pogue

And it isn’t just that Bravo or A&E have given us the bait-and-switch, but that even once laudable programming on PBS has been dumbed down to provide more “entertainment” and less hard information. Their once-proud flagship program NOVA has become a showcase for the high-jinx of such “info-comics” as David Pogue, “Destroyer of Brain Cells.”

It is as if no one believes that actual history or science or art can hold its own in a world of Gypsy housewives of LA married to lumberjacks who look for gold in Alaska and find Nazi ghosts piloting flying saucers from the future, as predicted by Nostradamus.

(Note to Discovery: I now have a copyright on that idea, in case you decide to make such a series.)

I have no complaints with science writers who make complex and often mathematically dense material comprehensible for laymen, such as myself. That is what NOVA used to do: It was aimed at intelligent non-scientists, people with an interest but without the background and training; it now seems aimed at Cletus Spuckler and his family of slack-jawed yokels from The Simpsons.

Is it any wonder that American students fail so badly in math and science, or that a scary percentage of American voters don’t believe in basic scientific principles, and that a major political party carries on a non-too-disguised war on science? We believe in ghosts, UFOs, and ESP, but not in evolution, global warming or environmental degradation. One scratches one’s head.

At least PBS still maintains a veneer of science or history in their documentaries, the commercial cable channels have given up completely. It is all hokum shot through night-vision goggles looking for trumped up ghosts, or teams of competing slackers moaning and groaning about how hard it is to beat the deadline making spangles for their dresses or how to turn squid beaks into desserts for the panel of judges. TLC

How is America not embarrassed to show its face in the world for presenting Toddlers and Tiaras, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant, I Eat 33,000 Calories A Day, Potty Power, Sarah Palin’s Alaska, Starter Wives Confidential, Trading Spouses, Wedding Dress Wars, or Big Hair Alaska? And those are just from Discovery.

The History Channel (now, of course, rebranded as History, keeping the only part of their name that doesn’t describe anything true about itself) has offered: Ancient Aliens, Ancients Behaving Badly, Angels and Demons: Decoded, Ax Men, The Bible Code: Predicting Armegeddon, Big Shrimpin’, Cajun Pawn Stars, Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked, God, Guns and Automobiles, Hairy Bikers, Ice Road Truckers, Shark Wranglers, Swamp People, and, of course, UFO HuntersPawn Stars photographed by Blair Bunting

Its highest-rated show, Pawn Stars, exemplifies one of the unpleasant trends in this new field of television.  So many “reality” shows (I can’t help but put quotes around the word “reality,” since the word is so horribly misused in this application) rely on having a bully at its center, whether it was Simon Cowell on American Idol or here, with “Old Man” Richard Harrison, a truly repulsive ignorant blusterer lording it over his clan like a cartoon patriarch, an uneducated know-it-all, with little sense of curiosity — there is no glow in his ball-bearing eyes, just the dull, yellowish glare of a sluggish dragon guarding its horde.

So much of TV is either aimed at or about the unwashed, uneducated and superstitious, as if all of America lived in a trailer park and had only half its teeth. It’s the Jerry-Springerization of America, and it cannot bode well for our future.

So, the rest of us find ourselves either leaving TV altogether, or braving the ridicule of our friends and family, tuning in to C-Span 2 on the weekends to watch Book TV. It’s the last bastion of a medium that used to bring us Omnibus, Young People’s Concerts and BBC nature programs.

 

museum gorilla

I had two homes as a boy. First, there was the house my family kept, where I was fed and went to sleep. But second, there was The American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. Its vast halls and marble floors held the wonders of the world. I couldn’t get enough of it. To say nothing of the Hayden Planetarium next door.

There were dinosaurs and sharks the size of split-levels; there were dioramas and a life-size blue whale; there were vast vitrines of rocks in darkened rooms where sound bounced off the hard floors and walls, giving young ears their first taste of echo location — the inner ear knew this was a large space.

There was the “Soil Profiles of New York State,” always one of my favorite places. The museum opened me up to the wide world and the things in it. The woods I grew up knowing were enshrined behind glass, letting me know that such things were important enough to study. It first showed me that there was nothing truly “ordinary,” that everything was somehow miraculous, like the gigantic centipede in the leaf litter exhibit.museum postcard

I have gone back to the museum countless times in the ensuing years, and it has always been a joy. But something has changed, and not just in the Wordsworthian sense.

What has changed is museum philosophy. Back then, museums were collections displayed indiscriminately: glass cases of quartz crystals; boxes of dragonflies; walls of stuffed birds.

Today, the emphasis is on education and, as a result, the displays are smaller, more organized and accompanied by explanatory text, with maps and diagrams. What used to be a pile of rocks is now one or two dramatically lit examples with a video display next to them with a media baritone giving us the pertinent facts.

It used to be the museum was about stuff. Now it is about words, and the stuff has been turned into visual aids. museum blue whale

The new museum is less cluttered, has greater clarity and is easier to digest. And, for me, that is just the problem. I feel cheated: My museum experience becomes passive.

I am no longer allowed to think for myself but am given only a single interpretation of the material, one that can only be called ”the official story.”

What I loved, and what sparked my boyhood imagination, was the profusion of specimens, and the lack of coherent explanation. There were those vitrines, with their hundreds of small chunks of quartz, and next to each a tiny typewritten label saying it came from Haddonfield, N.J., or Bloemfontein, South Africa. It was up to me to figure out why they all meant something, and why they were exhibited together. I got to make up my own story from the blizzard of data. museum butterflies

Surely, my stories might not be accurate, but then, they might be more accurate than the “official story.” That’s how Alfred Wegener figured out that the continents were rafts, how Johannes Kepler figured out — from the rafts of data collected by Tycho Brahe — that the planets move in ellipses.

Science, after all, like history, is made up of two elements: data and hypothesis, that is, primary material and the sense we make of it.

A historian, for instance, doesn’t write history from history books, but from the letters people have left behind, the church records and deed registers, old clothes and kitchen middens. A mass of confusing detail comes into his hands, and he has to whittle it down to a believable story. Only then is the history book written, and, if the historian has done a good job, his version becomes the accepted version.

Just being spoon fed the accepted version hinders our ability to make progress. Because the accepted version is always, to larger or smaller degree, imperfect. museum elephants

Part of the wonder of museums for me was just that: seeing a jumble of minerals or scarab beetles and figuring them out. I miss the confusion and the creative thought that is born of it.

The history of science is littered with abandoned theories, from geologic catastrophism to uniformatarianism, from geocentrism to heliocentrism, from Newton to Einstein.

In the science of history, this is often called ”revisionism” and thought of as a bad thing, although I can’t imagine why. New information or better hypotheses are good: They are truer.

So, when I go to the American Museum of Natural History and I see a few dinosaur bones with a timeline on the wall, I know the version I’m being fed is no more sacred than the version it replaced: coldblooded, lumbering lizards replaced by warmblooded, twitching, nervous birds 20 feet tall. museum dinosaur

The new museum thinks it is being educational, but more exactly, it is being entertainment. It is like TV.

And I cannot call that an improvement.