Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘education’

06 JUNE, 2013

June 6, 1917: Edna St. Vincent Millay Almost Gets Banned from Her Own Graduation

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“I always said … that I had come in over the fence & would probably leave the same way.”

Anne Sexton’s recently rediscovered report card revealed that the celebrated author barely made it through school. During her last week of college, Edna St. Vincent Millay — beloved poet, eloquent lover of music, writer of passionate love letters and playfully lewd self-portraits — found herself in a similar conundrum, though for very different reasons. On June 6, 1917, the vivacious, life-loving 25-year-old Millay sends her family a letter from Vassar, which she had entered late, at the age of 21, after taking several classes at Barnard College and, dissatisfied, deciding to transfer. Found in The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay (public library), it informed them of the consequences of Millay’s youthful mischief with charmingly self-conscious faux-nonchalance. Underpinning her words is her signature blend of irreverent pride and genuine sensitivity, and her unrelenting ability to seek and find, above all else, that which is beautiful and worthy of cheer.

Dear Mother & Sister —

In a few days now I shall write myself
A.B.
& send home my sheepskin for you to frame & hang up unesthetically in a conspicuous position. Everything is all right. My bills are paid.

But I must tell you something unpleasant but quite unimportant which has just occurred. — Because I was absent-minded & stayed away out of town with three other girls one night, forgetting until it was too late that I had no right to be there because I had already lost my privileges for staying a couple of days in New York to go to the Opera, — the Faculty has taken away from me my part in Commencement. — That doesn’t mean just what it says, because my part in Commencement will go on without me, — Baccalaureate Hymn [which Millay composed], for instance, or the words of Tree Ceremonies, which we repeat — & it all seems pretty shabby, of course, after all that I have done for the college, that it would turn me out at the end with scarcely enough time to pack and, as you might say, sort of “without a character.” — The class is exceedingly indignant, bless ‘em, & is busy sending in petitions signed by scores of names, & letters from representative people, & all that. It will do no good. But it is a splendid row.

I always said, you remember, that I had come in over the fence & would probably leave the same way. — Well, that’s what I’m doing.

I don’t pretend that I don’t feel badly. I do. — I have wept gallons — all over everybody. — Terribly nervous, you know, because I had sat up three whole nights during exams, to get my topics done, — & no sleep in the day-time. … It isn’t a disgrace, you see, folks, — it’s just a darned unpleasant penalty for carelessness of college rules, occurring at a darned unfortunate time.

But I never knew before that I had so many friends. — Everybody is wonderful.

So wonderful were her legions of friends, in fact, that they steered things in Millay’s favor. The following Sunday, she writes her sister:

Dear Norma —
Tell Mother it is all right, — the class made such a fuss that they let me come back, & I graduated in my cap & gown along with the rest. Tell her it had nothing to do with money; — all my bills have been settled for some time. — Commencement went off beautifully & I had a wonderful time. Tell her this at once if you can. . . .

But, to be sure, Millay was no careless party girl — during her time at Vassar, she had already sold a number of poems to various publications and was about to launch into adult life with full force. She writes Norma in the same letter:

I’m staying here & just looking around for a job. If I get one soon enough, & it doesn’t begin for a short time perhaps I shall come home when Kathleen does, but otherwise I shall just stay on here until I get something to do, probably. YOu see I have to start right in working as soon as I can get a job, — & I may not be able to come home at all. We mustn’t be foolish about these things.

I have sold October-November to The Yale Review, a fine magazine.

If I got an engagement for the fall then I could come home & do some writing, which I am very anxious to do, this summer. But I can’t come home unless I have something sure here to come back to, — you understand.

I am feeling much rested, — & all keyed up to go to work — but, oh, I am so homesick to see you, dear, & Mother, — & the garden & everything! — Never mind, if I have good luck I shall come home, — unless I have to begin work at once.

She excitedly signs the letter with her newly earned academic degree:

Vincent
(Edna St. Vincent Millay, A.B.!)

Millay, in fact, donned the cap and gown not once but twice in her lifetime. Exactly twenty years later, she received an honorary degree from NYU.

1937 Honorary Degree Recipients with Chancellor Harry Woodburn Chase. Edna St. Vincent Millay appears in front row, center.

The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay is a treasure trove in its entirety, full of timelessly delightful wit and wisdom from one of literary history’s most remarkable figures.

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15 MAY, 2013

Heinz Haber, Disney’s Chief Scientist, Explains the Atom in 1957

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What Aristotle, Aladdin, and Captain Nemo teach us about the promise of nuclear energy.

In 1954, Walt Disney entered an unusual barter-economy arrangement with television network ABC: He would provide them with a weekly hour-long broadcast, and in exchange they’d fund the construction of Disneyland. The TV show, originally named after the theme park Disney envisioned and later renamed Tomorrowland, went on to become one of the longest-running series in TV history, producing 54 seasons, 13 of which were hosted by Disney himself.

In January of 1957, two years after the release of Disney’s illustrated gem Our Friend the Atom, German atomic physicist and science writer Heinz Haber (May 15, 1913 — February 13, 1990) — whom Disney had hired as chief scientist at Disneyland and who had authored the book — appeared on an episode of the show bearing the same title as the book and exploring the “exciting possibility” of atomic energy as a new power source for humanity through a mix of science and illustrative animations from Disney films:

The atom is our future. It is the subject everyone wants to understand.

See the wonderful mid-century illustrations from the book, sadly long out of print, here.

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13 MAY, 2013

Greil Marcus SVA Commencement Address: How the Division of High vs. Low Robs Culture of Its Essence

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“What art does … is tell us, make us feel that what we think we know, we don’t.”

However skeptical one might be of formal education, one of its great traditions remains the art of the stirring graduation speech. At the 2013 commencement ceremony for the graduating class of New York’s School of Visual Arts — which rounds out creative culture with such diverse programs as Design Criticism, Computer Arts, Animation, and Visual Effects, and the country’s only Masters in Branding degree — cultural critic and prolific author Greil Marcus delivers an absolutely remarkable commencement address that captures everything that’s wrong about our divisive high/low model of culture and all the hope that art, at its heart, gives for bridging this divide by speaking to the most profound depths of the human psyche:

Echoing Perry Meisel’s defiance of “high” vs. “low” culture, Marcus argues:

I’ve always believed that the divisions between high art and low art, between high culture, which really ought to be called “sanctified culture,” and what’s sometimes called popular culture, but really ought to be called “everyday culture” — the culture of anyone’s everyday life, the music I listen to, the movies you see, the advertisements that infuriate us and that sometimes we find so thrilling, so moving — I’ve always believed that these divisions are false. And, as a result of trying to make that argument over the years, I’ve also come to believe that these divisions are permanent — they can be denied, but they can never go away.

He points to MoMA’s 1990 exhibition High and Low, which presented wildly famous “high art” pop paintings next alongside their “low-art,” pop-culture inspirations, as a dramatization of this dichotomy, then observes:

I couldn’t understand then, and I don’t understand now, why George Herriman’s Krazy Kat strips, or the comic books by anonymous artists and inkers and graphics people, were lesser art — really, why whey weren’t better art, the real art — than the pop art classic that Philip Guston and Roy Lichtenstein had made of them. Nearly everything I’ve written is based on the conviction — the experience — that there are depths and satisfactions in blues, rock & roll, detective stories, movies, television, as rich and as profound as those that can be found anywhere else. Who, really, could argue that the sense of transportation, even in the religious sense — taking of oneself out of oneself, connecting oneself to something greater, something you know in the moment, in your heart, that every person who was ever born must experience or their life is going to be poor — who can argue that that sense of transportation is not as present in The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” … as in the art most exalted in motive, most revered in history?

(Of course, in an era when MoMA is acquiring data visualization and video games into its permanent collection, the lines are clearly blurring even for traditional arbiters of “high” culture.)

Marcus makes a beautiful addition to history’s finest definitions of art:

What art does — maybe what it does most completely — is tell us, make us feel that what we think we know, we don’t. There are whole worlds around us that we’ve never glimpsed.

His own sense of art, Marcus says, was shaped by the views of the late critic Dennis Potter, citing his 1987 meditation:

I think we all have this little theatre on top of our shoulders, where the past and the present and our aspirations and our memories are simply and inevitably mixed. What makes each one of us unique, is the potency of the individual mix.

Marcus extrapolates from his transcendent experience of seeing a painting of the Virgin Mary in Venice’s famous Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari and being swept off his feet by the all-consuming glory of it:

That’s what art does, that’s what it’s for — to show you that what you think can be erased, cancelled, turned on its head by something you weren’t prepared for — by a work, by a play, a song, a scene in a movie, a painting, a collage, a cartoon, an advertisement — something that has the power that reaches you far more strongly than it reaches the person standing next to you, or even anyone else on Earth — art that produces a revelation that you might not be able to explain or pass on to anyone else, a revolution that you desperately try to share in your own words, in your own work.

He articulates beautifully the tantalizing beauty of influence:

What’s the impulse behind art? It’s saying in whatever language is the language of your work, “If I could move you as much as it moved me … if I can move anyone a tenth as much as that moved me, if I can spark the same sense of mystery and awe and surprise as that sparked in me, well that’s why I do what I do.”

Playing off the recent controversy over the two versions of The Great Gatsby cover design — one based on the Hollywood adaptation and the other featuring the original 1925 cover art — Marcus bemoans the “fascist vanity” underpinning the assumptions about each:

It all comes down to that urge to fascism — maybe a big word to use for art, but I think the right word — it comes down to that urge to fascism to know what’s best for people, to know that some people are of the best and some people are of the worst; the urge to separate the good from the bad and to praise oneself; to decide what covers on what books people ought to read, what songs people ought to be moved by, what art they ought to make, an urge that makes art into a set of laws that take away your freedom rather than a kind of activity that creates freedom or reveals it. It all comes down to the notion that, in the end, there is a social explanation for art, which is to say an explanation of what kind of art you should be ashamed of and what kind of art you should be proud of. It’s the reduction of the mystery of art, where it comes from, where it goes…

Marcus’s most recent book, A New Literary History of America (public library) from Harvard University Press, dives deeper into many of the subjects he touches on in the speech.

Complement with other remarkable and timelessly inspiring commencement addresses by Ann Patchett, Jacqueline Novogratz, Neil Gaiman, David Foster Wallace, Ellen DeGeneres, Aaron Sorkin, Barack Obama, Ray Bradbury, J. K. Rowling, Steve Jobs, Robert Krulwich, Meryl Streep, and Jeff Bezos.

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