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Posts Tagged ‘education’

15 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Nobel-Winning Playwright Eugene O’Neill on Happiness, Hard Work, and Success in a Letter to His Unmotivated Young Son

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“Any fool knows that to work hard at something you want to accomplish is the only way to be happy.”

By the time he was fifty, playwright Eugene O’Neill had just about every imaginable cultural accolade under his belt, including three Pulitzers and a Nobel Prize. But the very tools that ensured his professional success — dogged dedication to his work, an ability to block out any distraction, razor-sharp focus on his creative priorities — rendered his personal life on the losing side of a tradeoff. Thrice married, he fathered three children with his first two wives. His youngest son, Shane, was a sweet yet troubled boy who worshipped his father but failed to live up to his own potential.

In the summer of 1939, as O’Neill completed his acclaimed play The Iceman Cometh, Shane was expelled from yet another school. Frustrated with the boy’s track record of such dismissals over the course of his academic career, O’Neill sent his 19-year-old son a magnificent letter epitomizing tough love, found in Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children (public library) — the wonderful anthology that gave us Albert Einstein’s advice to his son on the secret to learning anything, Sherwood Anderson on the key to the creative life, Benjamin Rush on travel and life, Lincoln Steffens on the power of not-knowing, and some of history’s greatest motherly advice. While heavy on the love, O’Neill’s letter is also unflinchingly honest in its hard truths about life, success, and the key to personal fulfillment.

O’Neill doesn’t take long to cut to the idea that an education is something one claims, not something one gets. With stern sensitivity, he issues an admonition that would exasperate the archetypal millennial (that archetype being, of course, merely another limiting stereotype) and writes:

All I know is that if you want to get anywhere with it, or with anything else, you have got to adopt an entirely different attitude from the one you have had toward getting an education. In plain words, you’ve got to make up your mind to study whatever you undertake, and concentrate your mind on it, and really work at it. This isn’t wisdom. Any damned fool in the world knows it’s true, whether it’s a question of raising horses or writing plays. You simply have to face the prospect of starting at the bottom and spending years learning how to do it.

O’Neill’s son seems to suffer from Fairy Godmother Syndrome — the same pathology afflicting many young people today, from aspiring musicians clamoring to be on nationally televised talent competitions that would miraculously “make” their career to online creators nursing hopes of being “discovered” with a generous nod from an established internet goddess or god. O’Neill captures this in a beautiful lament:

The trouble with you, I think, is you are still too dependent on others. You expect too much from outside you and demand too little of yourself. You hope everything will be made smooth and easy for you by someone else. Well, it’s coming to the point where you are old enough, and have been around enough, to see that this will get you exactly nowhere. You will be what you make yourself and you have got to do that job absolutely alone and on your own, whether you’re in school or holding down a job.

O’Neill points to finding one’s purpose, and the inevitable work ethic it requires, as the surest way to attain fulfillment in life:

The best I can do is to try to encourage you to work hard at something you really want to do and have the ability to do. Because any fool knows that to work hard at something you want to accomplish is the only way to be happy. But beyond that it is entirely up to you. You’ve got to do for yourself all the seeking and finding concerned with what you want to do. Anyone but yourself is useless to you there.

[…]

What I am trying to get firmly planted in your mind is this: In the really important decisions of life, others cannot help you. No matter how much they would like to. You must rely on yourself. That is the fate of each one of us. It can’t be changed. It just is like that. And you are old enough to understand this now.

And that’s all of that. It isn’t much help in a practical advice way, but in another way it might be. At least, I hope so.

Toward the end of the letter, O’Neill makes a sidewise remark that might well be his most piercing and universally valuable piece of wisdom:

I’m glad to know of your doing so much reading and that you’re becoming interested in Shakespeare. If you really like and understand his work, you will have something no one can ever take from you.

Complement Posterity with more enduring fatherly wisdom on life, including Ted Hughes on nurturing one’s eternal inner child, F. Scott Fitzgerald on what is worth worrying about in life, Charles Dickens on cultivating kindness, and Jackson Pollock on falling in love, then revisit Anton Chekhov — whose sensibility O’Neill’s is often likened to — on the eight qualities of cultured people in a letter of advice to his younger brother.

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08 SEPTEMBER, 2014

The Little Red Schoolbook: An Honest Vintage Guide to Teenage Sexuality, Education Reform, and Independent Thinking

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“Leaders remain leaders only as long as you let them.”

In 1969, shortly after the Summer of Love swept America, Danish schoolteachers Søren Hansen and Jesper Jensen penned a slim and provocative book for teens as “a protest against the Victorian/authoritarian school system with its robotic discipline,” encouraging young people to think for themselves, to question social rites, to demand more of their education, and to explore their sexuality without shame. While aimed at kids, these refreshingly lucid principles of identity and interpersonal dynamics applied just as elegantly to grownup domains like romance, the workplace, and the creative process. It was at once an instant success and a publishing debacle — read by parents, teachers, and students from Japan to Mexico, it was translated into twenty languages but quickly stirred great outrage by precisely those robotic disciplinarians it sought to challenge. The Greek publisher was thrown in jail, the UK authorities confiscated all copies from the warehouse and successfully prosecuted the publisher under the Obscene Publications Act, and the Pope proclaimed the book immoral. A highly censored second edition was published, but it quickly went out of print. For decades, the original remained unavailable and, due to this very forbidden-fruit quality, a highly prized item.

Now, nearly half a century after its initial publication, the original and uncensored version of The Little Red Schoolbook (public library) is at last released — a book as refreshingly honest and elegantly straightforward as its cover design. Rather than dated, its idealism, insight, and practical advice on everything from education to sexuality ring with remarkable resonance in the context of today’s culture, well beyond the intended audience of teenagers.

For instance, the book’s piercing critique of education sounds like it may have been written today — in fact, fragments of it can be found in such highly quotable contemporary counterparts as Sir Ken Robinson on changing educational paradigms and Seth Godin on the success myths the industrial economy has sold us. Writing in 1969, Hansen and Jensen describe the same broken system at work today:

Education should teach you how to find out about the things you need to know and give you the opportunity of developing your own particular talents and interests to the full. The trouble is that few people really know how to do this. Those who do know, or at least have some good ideas, are not the people who actually control the education system. The system is controlled by the people who have the money, and directly or indirectly these people decide what you should be taught and how.

[…]

The industries and businesses that control our economic system need a relatively small number of highly educated experts to do the brain-work, and a large number of less well educated people to do the donkey-work. Our education system is set up to churn out these two sorts of people in the right proportions — although it doesn’t in fact succeed.

Illustration from 'My Teacher Is a Monster' by Peter Brown. Click image for more.

In a sentiment that Adrienne Rich would come to echo a decade later in her spectacular commencement address on why an education is something we claim rather than get, they add:

What you get out of your education will largely decide what you get out of your whole life. So you have a right, and a duty to yourself, to insist on getting the best possible education. You should know how the present system works and what its limitations are. But you must not let this stop you demanding a proper education.

But rather than a document of lamentation, the book is a toolkit of empowerment, teaching young people how to handle with elegance and dignity their inner struggles and interpersonal dynamics — skills that help navigate the education system but, more than that, help navigate the complex world in real life. Their advice is worded simply enough for kids to understand but also emanates a purity of conviction that jolts grownups out of our convoluted cynicism.

One of the most poignant chapters deal with the art of persuasion and the role of honesty in influencing people:

To have influence it’s important to remember

  • That it’s easier to influence someone if you like them and they like you.
  • That the most influential thing you can do is to be honest (and tactful).
  • That you need to know the person you want to influence — and to understand why he does what he does.
  • That a person who’s frightened is hard to influence: he often gets angry so as to hide his fear.
  • That it’s best to bring disagreements out into the open if everybody knows they exist. That discussing and sorting out disagreements is a good way of learning more about each other. It also helps clear the air.
  • That if words fail, you can try positive action.

In a section titled “Honesty is Influence,” they point to the lack of honesty between students and teachers as a key culprit in the limitations of the education system — insight that, once more, applies to so many other aspects of our everyday lives:

If everybody dared to be honest with each other all the time, our present school system would collapse very rapidly. But as a rule neither teachers nor pupils dare to be honest with each other.

Neither teachers nor pupils usually dare to say that they’re bored. And even if a teacher knows this, he can’t usually face up to it and deal with it. So you should realize that if you speak the truth to a teacher in one way or another, he will be influenced, even if he doesn’t show it at the time.

Truth can be told in many ways.

Illustration from 'Advice to Little Girls,' Mark Twain's irreverent encouragement of girls to think independently rather than blindly obey social mores. Click image for more.

When honesty alone is not enough, Hansen and Jensen presage James Murphy’s modern aphorism that “the best way to complain is to make things” and speak to the power of action, the other key element of influence:

If being honest doesn’t work and all your suggestions get talked to death, then act to show that you mean what you say… The best way to act is to simply do what you’ve talked about for so long. If there are things you’ve wanted to introduce into school — whether in lessons, in breaks or after school — and you’ve been refused, start them by yourselves.

Noting how difficult it is to influence someone who is afraid of you — something David Foster Wallace would capture beautifully decades later in his spectacular definition of what makes a great leader — Hansen and Jensen write:

Most bad and authoritarian teachers are tied up in knots or afraid of something or other. They’re often afraid of their pupils and think they have to appear strict and unapproachable. They’re afraid that the pupils may be right and that they may be wrong. They’re afraid that there’ll be chaos if they give up their power and authority.

This fear arises because they don’t believe in other people’s ability to organize themselves and find their own solutions to problems. This lack of faith in others may be due to a lack of belief in themselves. They’re insecure and have to rely on their authority all the time.

[…]

If your teacher is frightened of you and therefore afraid of doing anything new with you, he’s usually very hard to influence. In order to influence each other, it’s necessary to feel reasonably secure. So to influence a frightened teacher, make him feel secure. Show him you’re willing to cooperate. Give him a real chance to explain what he’s trying to do. If you ask to do new things, explain that this is not in order to test him out, but so that everybody can be freer and therefore enjoy themselves more. Once he realizes that in some situations things can be done in a different and freer way than he has known so far, it may be possible to make some progress.

Teachers who are afraid that things will get chaotic if they take off their masks, their false authority, won’t usually go further than allowing something new “just for once” or “as an experiment”. Make use of this opportunity. If the “experiment” works, the teacher should obviously be willing to do it again.

This principle, of course, applies as much to the dynamics in the classroom as it does to the dynamics at the workplace, in politics, or even in the family — a recurring tendency across much of the advice in the book. They later add:

Democracy is built on action. This doesn’t mean unconsidered actions, but active contributions towards getting things changed. Democracy comes from below.

A section that appears, on the surface, dated is the one about corporal punishment — something long since outlawed in schools, but at the time widely practiced across the school systems of the world. But what makes the discussion of it pertinent is that corporal punishment, an extrinsic motivator using negative reinforcement to promote a desired learning behavior, is simply the flip side of standardized praise for achievement, something widely practiced today and shown to be ineffective in promoting true growth — for the very same reasons that Hansen and Jensen decry corporal punishment, namely the haplessness of extrinsic motivators compared to intrinsic ones and that attention rather than reinforcement produces achievement. They write:

Time and time again it’s been shown that corporal punishment can do serious harm to disturbed, backward or mentally handicapped children. Yet it’s most frequently used on precisely these children. These unfortunate children often show their distress in “abnormal” or “delinquent” behavior. What they want is more attention and encouragement. What they get is a slap or a caning. This can make them even more disturbed and backward — and it isn’t even effective in stopping their “abnormal” behavior.

Corporal punishment isn’t effective on ordinary children either. If a teacher gives you a cuff round the ear (often quite unjustifiably) it doesn’t make you change your attitude and really pay attention: it just makes you resentful. If you get called to the headmaster’s room for a caning you may be a bit afraid and it will hurt for a while. But it doesn’t miraculously make you “see the light” and transform you into a “nicely behaved little boy.” At best it’ll make you try not to get caught again. And when it’s over, the chances are you’ll treat the whole thing as a big joke.

But Hansen and Jensen’s most important point is one of values, encouraging independence of mind and personal integrity — the very capacity Jeanette Winterson argued so beautifully that art helps us cultivate. They write:

Don’t blindly accept the values of grown-ups. Think things out for yourself and base your judgement on what you really believe.

They circle back to the question of leadership with a thoughtful section on group organization and the fluidity of roles in successful groups:

Some people — real leaders — are always more active and decisive than others. But some people — bad leaders — always say more than others and listen less. Some are forever giving orders and bullying others “under” them. Some are on top, others are at the bottom. Groups like this are organized like a pyramid.

Groups don’t have to work like this. There are many ways of organizing things. You can create democratic cooperation, so that everybody feels that he belongs and has a real influence in all the group’s decisions.

This means that you’re not limited to a particular role, that you can at times lead or be led, according to the situation. It often means that you have different leaders for different things…

It’s worth knowing that two kinds of leaders often emerge. There are those who want to decide everything themselves. They use their power to give themselves the jobs they want and they try to dominate when decisions are taken. And there are those who don’t try to decide everything themselves but give others real responsibility and use everybody’s energies and talents to the full.

Leaders remain leaders only as long as you let them.

But perhaps the best, most timeless, and most poignant section of the book is also the one responsible for the controversy and censorship — the chapter on sex. Hansen and Jensen begin with a wonderfully worded, almost poetic, seemingly simple yet profound morphology of sexual relations:

People go to bed with one another for many reasons.

  • They are close friends and enjoy talking to one another — with their bodies as well.
  • They do it because people need sexual satisfaction, and masturbation is no longer considered to be enough.
  • They may lack security and seek it through sex.
  • They may be under pressure to do it because everybody else in their group boasts about their “conquests”.
  • They may use sex as a way of exploring their own identity.
  • They may have deep feelings for each other and perhaps want to have children.

Whatever the reasons may be, and however many people you may go to bed with, it will have consequences for each person.

Sex may or may not involve strong feelings. Strong feelings may or may not involve sex.

The only way to avoid unforeseen consequences in sexual relationships is for both people to be honest with one another about what they are looking for.

Illustration from 'An ABZ of Love,' Kurt Vonnegut's favorite vintage Danish guide to sexuality. Click image for more.

In the same era when children were sending Judy Blume distraught and endearing letters about masturbation, and a century after Mark Twain satirized society’s hypocrisy about the subject, Hansen and Jensen offer an entertaining matter-of-factly aside:

Some girls, and a very few boys, don’t masturbate. This is quite normal. It’s also normal to do it. Some do it several times a day, some several times a week, some more rarely. Grown-ups do it too. If anybody tells you it’s harmful to masturbate, they’re lying. If anybody tells you you mustn’t do it too much, they’re lying too, because you can’t do it too much. Ask them how often you ought to do it. They’ll usually shut up then.

In another passage of refreshing lucidity, they offer special attention to the female sexual experience — something consistently regarded, especially in that era, as either taboo or, at best of minimal, secondary importance to the discourse on sexuality:

Having an orgasm is usually called coming… Coming is less obvious for a girl. The feeling is different for each girl. It can be intense pleasure or excitement or a feeling of relief. Some girls come a lot faster than others. It may take some experience for a girl to find out what coming really is for her.

Photograph from 'The Invisibles,' a compendium of archival images of queer couples celebrating their love in the first half of the twentieth century. Click image for more.

In a particularly prescient passage that illustrates both how far we’ve come in the decades since and how much baggage of bigotry we have yet to undo, they consider the question of homosexuality mere months before the historic Stonewall riots:

In purely physical terms, homosexuals make love just like anybody else, although of course they can’t have intercourse in quite the same way. Their love and their feelings are just as real and genuine and natural as anybody else’s.

Many of them have great difficulties because in our Christian culture they are considered sick, abnormal or even criminal. In many other cultures homosexuality is recognized just like other forms of sexuality. Homosexuality has recently been made legal in Britain, but only “between consenting males over 21, in private.” However homosexuals are still often persecuted by ignorant people. (Female homosexuality, which is called lesbianism, has never been illegal in Britain.)

Many homosexuals live together in stable relationships. The time will come when homosexual marriages are recognized.

Illustration from 'How to Be a Nonconformist,' a 1968 satire of conformity-culture written and illustrated by a high school girl. Click image for more.

Hansen and Jensen springboard into a wider discussion of difference and nonconformity, as relevant today as ever, and resonant across a multitude of cultural contexts — a reminder of what we intuit so deeply but, for a variety of internal and social reasons, often fail to enact:

It’s normal to be different. We all are.

People use the word “abnormal” to mean many things. They may mean something which doesn’t fit in with their particular standards (for example regarding school or religion). They may mean something which goes against the traditional view of what is right and wrong. They may simply mean something of which they themselves are afraid.

“Abnormal” is a very dangerous word. It’s often used as an excuse for the persecution and repression of some people by others. It’s particularly misused in the sexual context.

It’s not considered abnormal for people to have red hair or collect coins or play the bagpipes. So why should it be considered abnormal for some people to fall in love with others of their own sex, to like unusual positions for intercourse or to like being caressed in an unusual way.

If you’re not allowed to enjoy special interests which don’t harm anybody else, it’s usually because of other people’s intolerance. You may feel that you’re the only person who experiences things in a “strange” way, and you may think you are abnormal. It can be a help to discover that there are many other people who are almost the same as you. There always are.

The Little Red Schoolbook, long subjected the very same persecution of out-of-the-ordinary thought that the book itself challenged, is well worth a read now that, at last, we live in a culture ready for it. Complement it with An ABZ of Love, an equally progressive vintage Danish guide to sexuality that Kurt Vonnegut sent to his wife.

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26 AUGUST, 2014

The Power of Not-Knowing: Pioneering Muckraker Lincoln Steffens’s Beautiful Letter of Life-Advice to His Baby Son

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“Keep your baby eyes (which are the eyes of genius) on what we don’t know.”

Lincoln Steffens was one of the original muckrakers — that increasingly rare breed of capital-J Journalists driven not by vanity-motives but by the irrepressible urge to speak truth to power. His ambitious series of McClure magazine exposés on corruption in local government, a masterwork that pioneered the investigative reporting genre, was eventually collected in the influential 1904 book The Shame of the Cities. Steffens’s passion for justice extended not only to the public sphere, but also to the private — he was an early proponent of equal parenting and once proclaimed that “the father’s place is in the home.” He got to practice his preaching when, at the late age of 58, he was given the gift of fatherhood — a gift that took him by surprise, but one he welcomed with great delight and care.

From Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children (public library) — the wonderful anthology that gave us Albert Einstein’s advice to his son on the secret to learning anything, Sherwood Anderson on the key to the creative life, Benjamin Rush on travel and life, and some of history’s greatest motherly advice — comes a spectacular letter 60-year-old Steffens wrote to his two-year-old son, Peter, celebrating the importance of finding ourselves in the unknown.

Lincoln Steffens with his wife, Ella Winter, and young Peter

On a visit to Germany in June of 1926, while working on his autobiography, Steffens writes with equal parts humor and crystalline conviction:

This place will suit you I think. Down three flights of stairs is a restaurant through which you will go to either an open café in front or on a side toward the town to a large graveled playground. There is not much for a little fellow like you to do on this playground. It is the grown-up idea for a place for kids. A bare yard where there is nothing to break and nothing to get hurt on… Sometimes we can go in back of the house to a playground for grown-ups. That has a net and balls ’n’ everything to amuse the big children who can’t play with nothing like a baby. They have a game called tennis which they work at hard rather than do anything useful. It’s thought to be degrading to work; and it is.

He parlays this into a beautiful meditation on the difference between work and labor and the rewards of fulfilling work:

It is a sure sign that your father was an honest man and never got any graft, if you have to work for your living. I hope to arrange it so that you will not be ashamed of me; I leave you my graft and I’ll show you how to get more if you need it. If you work, you will work as a scientist or an artist, for fun, not for money. Money cannot be made by labor. But work, real work, for what we call duty or the truth, that is more fun than tennis.

Steffens’s most vital point, however, has to do with the self-transcendence that happens once we surrender to not-knowing:

Nobody understands things as they are and the proof of this is that nobody, — not the greatest scientist, not the tenderest poet, not the most sensitive painter; only for a moment, the kindest lover can see that all is beautiful. I can’t, I only believe that.

It may be wrong; there may be ugliness … but I have a funny old faith that, if a little fellow like you is shown everything and allowed to look at everything and not lied to by anybody or anything, he, even Pete, might do better even than Joyce did what Ulysses was meant to do; he might see and show that there is exquisite beauty everywhere except in an educated mind.

Steffens, indeed, was a vocal opponent of formal education, which he — like William Styron — believed only blunted children’s natural ability and inherent curiosity. In fact, his famous line asserting that a father belongs at home goes on to argue that there, he can “stay — on guard — to protect my child from education.” And so it is unsurprising that he takes a fitting jab at education in this letter to his own son, adding one final piece of advice about the importance of preserving children’s remarkable tolerance for taking risk and the soul-vitalizing power of taking care to continually expand one’s own range, capacities, and horizons:

An educated mind is nothing but the God-given mind of a child after his parents’ and his grandparents’ generation have got through molding it. We can’t help teaching you; you will ask that of us; but we are prone to teach you what we know, and I am going, now and again, to warn you:

Remember we really don’t know anything. Keep your baby eyes (which are the eyes of genius) on what we don’t know. That is your playground, bare and graveled, safe and unbreakable.

This is precisely what Rebecca Solnit so elegantly contemplated nearly a century later, when she wrote about the “art of being at home in the unknown.”

Complement Posterity with more timeless fatherly advice, including Ted Hughes, Charles Dickens, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, John Steinbeck, and Jackson Pollock’s dad.

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