All posts by witchyrichy@gmail.com

A Homemade Education

John Wesley PowellIn Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, Wallace Stegner tells the story of John Wesley Powell, probably best known as the first explorer of the far reaches of the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon. A Civil War veteran who lost an arm at Antietam, he was an ethnologist and geologist who led both the US Geological Survey and led the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian.

Stegner deliberately does not provide lots of details about Powell’s early life. His book, he says, is not a typical biography full of personal details. Instead, his focus is on Powell’s career and how his work led to the opening of the American West.
Stegner does discuss Stegner’s early education and, like many of Powell’s contemporaries, it was a “homemade education.” The son of a poor preacher, his family moved several times when he was young, and Powell had little formal schooling. Instead, he borrowed books from wherever he could find them, reading when he could find the time in his hard scrabble life. It is reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln who said, “The things I want to know are in books; my best friend is a man who’ll git me a book I ain’t read.”
Depending on who that “best friend” was often determined the direction of the reader’s later life. Lincoln borrowed books from a lawyer and thus the law became his path. Powell was fortunate to meet George Crookham, a farmer and scientist, who kept a private natural history museum and a scientific library. This meeting is fortunate for the rest of us as well as it led Powell to his lifetime’s work.
But, Powell had another teacher and that was nature itself. Like John Muir some years later, Powell spent time in the woods around his Wisconsin home:
Both boys were confirmed in their scientific interest by the surroundings of a backwoods Wisconsin farm, by nature in its intimate variety, by wandering Indians, by the persistent, constant stream of questions that the mind proposed and clamored to have answered. Both boys broke away for long rambling excursions justified by scientific collections (p. 15).
And they engaged with formal education on their own terms:
Both sought college at their own expense and interrupted their schooling by intervals of teaching and farm labor; and both ultimately got what the schools could give them, but never graduated (p. 15).
This education sometimes hurt Powell as he was not as systematic in his science inquiry as those with more formal training. But, it also helped him as well. Stegner compares him to Clarence King, a contemporary of Powell’s who enjoyed a Yale education but failed to live up to expectations:
Clarence King failed for lack of character, persistence, devotion, wholeness. For that important job he seemed to Adams cut out out to do, John Wesley Powell was actually much better equipped. Despite his homemade education, and just possibly because of it, he would do more than Clarence King would do and do it better (p. 21).
There is a lesson here for contemporary educators: Powell was just one of many great Americans who spent very little time in school rooms, putting in seat time. His own curiosity and creativity was what drove him to learn. I was struck by a similarity in the path of Evan Williams, one of the founders of Twitter. A recent New York Times’ article describes how Williams, a farm boy from Nebraska, found his life work and it did not happen in a classroom:
In 1993, a chance encounter with a new magazine at the mall in Grand Island, Neb., seemed to seal his destiny. It was the second issue of Wired, a publication dedicated to the geek gospel that a new world was dawning. One story was about a retired Army colonel named Dave Hughes who wanted to hook up all 5.5 billion brains on the planet. No farmer’s kid need ever be lonely again.
I am heartened to hear stories of innovative schools that are letting kids explore the world and pursue their passions, designing their own “homemade” educations. The stories of people like Abraham Lincoln, John Muir, John Wesley Powell, and Evan Williams suggest that they will turn out just fine.

Reading for Pleasure

Chilly gray winter coupled with angry voices have left me feeling blue and a bit angry myself. I have a list of possible blog entries but can’t seem to get past the feeling that they are frivolous in a time of great seriousness.

The New Yorker published a list of books that various writers are reading now, and Caleb Crain comments about his reading of Langdon Hammer’s biography of poet James Merrill:

In such parlous times, I felt a little guilty about indulging at length in reading for mere pleasure—the one lacuna in Merrill’s cosmopolitanism was politics, which he seems to have found boring—but only a formidable pleasure was capable of drawing me away from the news, and for the sake of my mental health I decided I had to license it.

I’m reading a lot this year, but my path does seem to have taken a serious turn that Crain might not count as reading for pleasure.  The year started with Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee’s prose poem/ethnographic study about poor southerners who worked as cotton tenants during the Depression. It seemed a good place to start to understand division and anger in America, and in The New Yorker article, Judith Thurman references it in her review of the 1960 book Crowds and Power, a book she says is about the dangerous resentments of those who feel helpless:

It seems that we are seeing something parallel taking place in Trump’s America: the panicked reaction of a crowd that feels it has been devalued and is looking to project that sense onto a group that can then be driven from the fold. This process has happened before in American history, notably in the post-Civil War South, when defeated whites, many of them poor and dispossessed, projected their sense of depreciation onto the even poorer population of former slaves. (Read James Agee on THAT subject.)

I read Agee as a follow up to Hillbilly Elegy, the new book about these same people. If I had to do over, I would read Agee first as the historical understanding helps with Vance’s more abbreviated memoir.

For Martin Luther King Day, I read all three volumes of The March, John Lewis’s collaboration with Nate Powell. The graphic novel takes us to the heart of the Civil Rights movement. Hatred and violence pulse in the black and white images of murder and mayhem during a time when it seemed as though black lives really didn’t matter and the police and courts were the handmaidens of systemic evil. As he tells the story, Lewis is preparing to attend the inauguration of the first Black president. A moment of pride and success that now seems under attack by that same evil cloaked not in KKK robes but suits and ties and forked tongues.

Sabrina Stevens’ twitter thread was one of the first things I saw on February 1. She provided a list of the myths that were going to be told to kids during Black History Month to make slavery seem not so bad.

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead’s story of a runaway slave who moves through a world where whites implement diverse evil ways of dealing with slaves, deals with all these issues. While I suspect it would not pass the censors in high schools, it would be historically realistic in a way that is, as Sabrina writes, is often not presented in public schools classrooms. Whitehead drew his characters from slave narratives and runaway slave advertisements, and in the book the runaways move along a real railroad, built deep in the ground, each station bringing them to new places where they had to discover the rules and underlying secrets in order to navigate dangerous paths. I think the most sinister of all places was South Carolina where the slaves seemed to be treated respectfully even as whites were experimenting in terrible ways. The novel was powerful, often mentally jarring, and I am still thinking about it. It would certainly overturn the myths of the happy slaves and paternal owners that are the usual fare of this month and black history in general.

My nonfiction reading–Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling–provides an ethnographic view of the racial divides that exist in seemingly integrated schools and shows the legacy of continuing prejudice. Even though they are in the same school, black and white students are not getting the same quality of education. Expectations for the students are different with many black students finding their way into special education classes while white students take advantage of advanced classes or after school programs. He describes an ugly 1985 redistricting battle that clearly hinged on race and sounded a lot like my local suburban school division lived through much more recently.

Next on the list is Hidden Figures, about the Black women of NASA. It may be a bit more uplifting except the segregated world where they did their work kept them from them from advancing. Even now, they would probably face discrimination–they might be able to use whichever bathroom they wished but the upper levels of engineering still seem to be off limits.

These are the books students should be reading rather than watered down textbooks that don’t want to make anyone feel bad about themselves or their ancestors. It is “reading for pleasure”? While it is not always pleasant, it is reading I have chosen as a way to understand the world around me which I think helps define reading for pleasure. But it doesn’t matter. It is reading for knowledge and understanding and that is more important right now.

Facts, Perspectives and Narratives

The story I want to tell may be offensive to some; even knowing that what I am going to describe still exists in our country can be upsetting. But I think we need to know how others think, how their facts blur into perspectives and then become narratives.

I wrote this in the short previous blog post about what keeps people from blogging. The question that was my challenge was “Should I Post This?” I decided to go ahead and tell the story.

I want to tell the story about alternative perspectives and where we find them. The story begins in a  bookstore in Virginia. The content in the store related to the American Civil War but from the perspective of the Southern confederacy, the Lost Cause. While many of the books have an historical perspective, celebrating Southern leaders and examining battles through a Confederate lens, others espouse political views around states’ rights and, more upsetting, segregationist racial attitudes. I went looking for the book store website, and it is connected to an unapologetic Confederate who quotes Benjamin Franklin on the homepage:

“Man will ultimately be governed by God or by tyrants.” – Ben Franklin

Even if they can’t agree what to call the war or specific battles, I believe these writers would agree with a set of facts about the American Civil War shared by historical and pro-Northern writers. There was a war from 1861 to 1865 fought by two groups of states of the confederation of states known as the United States of America. Some of the states interpreted the Constitution to say that they could leave; the other states interpreted it to say that they could not leave. That, along with ideas about states’ rights in general and slavery specifically led to a war.

From there, it starts to get blurry between facts and perspectives. Fact: As part of the war, General William Tecumseh Sherman invaded the South and wreaked destruction on the civilian population as part of his total war. Was he simply doing his job and practicing total war in order to help the North win? Or was he committing war crimes? Your answer to that question is going to determine your lens in examining other facts that might arise around the events of Sherman’s March to Atlanta and the Sea. They seem like facts because they confirm your world view.

I did buy a book in the store. It seemed to be a more unbiased story of one Virginia county before, during and after the war, focusing more on the lives of the civilian population, living in a county that saw four significant battles.

I feel like I took the coward’s way out. I should have purchased one of the more stridently Confederate books that condemned Lincoln as a tyrant and his troops as terrorists. It is, indeed, a point of view that is not taught in schools except perhaps when someone discusses the Southern perspectives. But I have a sense that these authors are not simply describing their point of view. They are using facts to create a narrative different from the one crafted by others. Facts and perspectives become one thing and trying to separate them with either logic or brute force is impossible.

Maybe I’m making too much of this experience but as I passed through the entryway of the book store and realized where I was, I had a sense of being part of a secret club. It was the same feeling I had when I visited the Jubal Early home place. A table there offered brochures for pro-Southern societies celebrating the Antebellum South and mourning the Lost Cause. Like Jubal Early, there are many who are unreconstructed Confederates, living in the modern world with a shared secret connection to the past.

Should I Post This?

I have been blogging merrily along in the new year, having fun exploring and writing about poetry and community on both this and my book blog. Part of the reason I was able to post so often was because I cut myself some slack in terms of content. Like Tim Owens, I wasn’t worried about profundity, just publishing.

Then, I started to draft of a potentially more controversial post, and I got stuck. To George Couros’s list of overthinking questions, I would add, “Should I post this at all?”

The story I want to tell may be offensive to some; even just the knowledge that what I am going to describe still exists in our country could be upsetting. But I think we need to know how others think, how their facts blur into perspectives and then become narratives so we can examine our own processes and perhaps find empathy even in what might otherwise be offensive.

So, I answered the question with a yes and you can find the post here.