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Posts Tagged ‘education’

24 JULY, 2013

Amelia Earhart on Drive, Education, Religion, and Human Nature in Letters to Her Mother

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“The more one does the more one can do.”

When Amelia Earhart, born on July 24, 1897, disappeared over the Pacific on July 2, 1937, she left behind a legacy shrouded in legend, glory, and modern-day mythmaking. But whatever Amelia the public icon may have imparted, Amelia the private person brimmed with far more dimensional insight on life — on determination, on education, on religion, on human nature — which spills open in Letters from Amelia: An Intimate Portrait of Amelia Earhart (public library), the same fantastic volume that gave us her remarkably forward-thinking views on marriage.

Though she grew up in a troubled home, financially strained and with an alcoholic father, Amelia’s determination and independence were evident from an early age: In March of 1914, aged 17, she wrote in a letter to a school friend:

Of course I’m going to [Bryn Mawr] if I have to drive a grocery wagon to accumulate the cash.

Amelia Earhart, St. Paul, 1914.

Though she didn’t end up going to Bryn Mawr, Amelia was firmly set on getting an education and entered the Ogontz School, a junior college in Pennsylvania, in the fall of 1916. In October the following year, twenty-year-old Amelia writes her mother about having taken on an extraordinary amount of academic and extracurricular work — something she found stimulating rather than stressful, per her already typical determination:

I am taking Modern Drama Literature, German and German Literature outside. French three and five in which latter we are reading Eugénie Grandet. And Senior arithmetic and logic if I can. Besides reading a good deal and art, Bible, etc. etc.

I am elected to write the senior song, but you know the more one does the more one can do.

A few days later, she adds in another letter:

Despite my unusual activity I am very well organized to do more the more I do. You know what I mean. … I am not overdoing and all that is needed to bouncing health is plenty to eat and happiness. Consider me bursting, please.

In the fall of 1919, Amelia enrolled in Columbia University as a premed student. In a letter to her mother she sent from New York that year, Amelia expresses her views on the disconnect between religion and spirituality in a simple yet enormously eloquent way:

Don’t think for an instant I would ever become an atheist or even a doubter nor lose faith in the [Episcopalian] church’s teachings as a whole. That is impossible. But you must admit there is a great deal radically wrong in methods and teachings and results to-day. Probably no more than yesterday, but the present stands up and waves its paws at me and I see — can’t help it. It is not the clergy nor the church itself nor the people that are narrow, but the outside pressure that squeezes them into a routine.

But Amelia soon found her faith in the skies. In 1920, she fell in love with flying and the rest, as they say, is history. Eight years later, in June of 1928, as she was about to make her first transatlantic flight as a passenger, she wrote her mother in a telegram:

DONT WORRY STOP NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENS IT WILL HAVE BEEN WORTH THE TRYING STOP LOVE-A

Orville Wright and Amelia Earhart at Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, 1936

But despite her passion for the skies, Amelia always kept education, especially the education of women, a primary focus of her relentless dedication, lecturing in universities around the world and even inspiring a course in “household engineering” at Purdue University, where 1,000 of the 6,000 students were women. She also counseled young women on their careers. At Purdue, she advised graduating girls to try a certain job but not be afraid to make a change if they found something better, adding:

And if you should find that you are the first woman to feel an urge in that direction, what does it matter? Feel it and act on it just the same. It may turn out to be fun. And to me fun is the indispensable part of work.

(Appropriately, she titled her memoir The Fun Of It: Random Records of My Own Flying and of Women in Aviation.)

Arrival after solo transatlantic flight, Culmore, Ireland, 1932

But her most poignant words — a lament on the good and evil in human nature — come from a letter to her sister Muriel, who was trapped in an abusive marriage to an alcoholic gambler:

Adult human beings owe as much to themselves as to others, for by asserting individual rights, the baser natures of those who have them are held in check. That is often very hard to do. One hesitates to bring on a quarrel when it can be avoided by giving in. But perhaps one definite assertion will prevent the slow accumulation of a sense of superiority in a person who really should not claim superiority. Given a little power over another, little natures swell to hideous proportions. It is hopeless to watch a character change of this kind in one you have cared for — a few rows might have been less suffering in the long run.

She adds:

Human crises have a way of happening at inconvenient times.

A few months later, during her second attempt to fly around the world, Amelia disappeared over Howland Island in the central Pacific, never to be seen again.

Amelia Earhart. Self-portrait. Date uncertain.

In the afterword to Letters from Amelia, which is sadly out-of-print but luckily still available used and an absolute treasure in its entirety, editor Jean L. Backus captures the singular expansiveness of Amelia’s spirit with a few brilliantly chosen words:

Amelia Earhart was clear as glass and cloudy as milk at the same time, and she was marked for greatness. She rarely failed either in public or in private to live up to what she demanded of herself. She would not compromise with integrity, she did not quail before danger, and she brought honor by word and deed to her sex, her country, her kin, and herself.

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23 JULY, 2013

Pioneering Astronomer Vera Rubin on Science, Stereotypes, and Success

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“Science is competitive, aggressive, demanding. It is also imaginative, inspiring, uplifting.”

When pioneering astronomer Vera Rubin, born on July 23, 1928, graduated from Vassar in 1948, she was the only astronomy major in her class. She was rejected by Princeton’s graduate school, which didn’t allow women into the program, and eventually received a master’s from Cornell in 1950 and a Ph.D. from Georgetown in 1954. She went on to confirm the existence of dark matter — one of the most important milestones in the history of understanding space — by proving beyond doubt that galaxies spin faster than Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation dictates they should. As if being a trailblazing woman in science in the 1950s weren’t already challenging, Rubin was at first severely criticized for her theories, but once her evidence proved indisputable even for the greatest skeptics in the astronomy community, she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences as only the third female astronomer and was eventually awarded the National Medal of Science, America’s most prestigious scientific accolade.

Vera Rubin shakes hands with President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore upon receiving the 1993 National Medal of Science. (Photo courtesy Emilio Segre Visual Archives)

On May 17, 1996 — exactly 48 years after her own graduation in 1948 — Rubin addressed the graduating class at Berkeley. The transcript of her timeless and timely commencement speech was included in her altogether excellent 1997 anthology of essays, Bright Galaxies, Dark Matters (public library).

The invitation to address you tonight came while I was preparing to go observing at Kitt Peak National Observatory, to study orbits of gas and stars and galaxies. And on several disappointing rainy nights, I wondered what you might like to hear on this momentous day in your lives. I wondered if you realized how long is your past, and how much more there is in your future. I remembered a Peanuts cartoon that my family likes. Lucy is saying to Charlie Brown, “on the oceans of the world are many ships, and some of them carry passengers. One of the things the passengers like to do is to sit on the deck and watch the water. Some of the passengers like to face forward, so they can see where they are going, and some like to face backwards, to see where they have been.” And then Lucy asks Charlie, “On the ship of life, which way are you going to place your chair: to see where you are going or to see where you have been?” And Charlie Brown replies, “I can’t seem to get my chair unfolded.”

Well, my chair is OK, and tonight I am going to look backward, to tell you how you are connected to the early universe, and how the early universe connects to Berkeley, 1996.

Rubin goes on to give a sweeping tour of the history of astronomy to answer the deceptively simple, windingly complex question of where in the universe Berkeley, California is. Much like the magnificent Charles and Ray Eames film The Powers of Ten, she traces the journey of a single carbon atom from 15 billion years ago to the miracle of the human body, by way of a glass of milk, then brings it all back to the awareness that we are all stardust:

You drank the milk, the carbon atom entered your bloodstream, traveled to your brain, displaced a carbon atom, and took part in the thought process permitting you to pass your final exam. So without that single carbon atom, made in some star billions of years ago, you might have failed to receive your diploma today. See how lucky you have been?

This then is the answer to the question, “Where in the universe is Berkeley, California?”

She then grounds this Feynman-like, Sagan-esque poetic meditation in the real world with a vital, prescient reminder of what is needed to save science:

So that is your past. And now, you must turn your chairs to face the future. You are concerned tonight with more than the fate of atoms. You need jobs, admissions to graduate schools, research support; you want a healthy planet, space, choices. Individually, you will be called by many names: spouse, partner, teacher, professor, writer, representative, president, CEO, doctor, judge, regent. Some will be called scientists. For those of you who teach science, I hope that you will welcome, as students, those who do NOT intend to be scientists, as well as those who DO. We need senators who have studied physics and representatives who understand ecology.

And for those of you who choose to be scientists, I have one piece of advice. Don’t give up. Science is hard and demanding, but each of you must believe that you can succeed. It may seem unlikely tonight, but there is not one among you who cannot make important, major contributions to the world of science. At my commencement on May 17, 48 years ago, the probability that I would be addressing you tonight surely was zero.

Rubin ends with a timeless meditation on finding one’s purpose and not only withstanding but actively pushing back against the torrents of discrimination:

Instead of advice, I offer my hopes for you. I hope you will stay alert and heed the words of Yogi Berra: “You can see a lot by just looking.” I hope your lives will be filled with health and peace, that you understand there is much work to be done in the world and that many of you will choose to join with those who work and lead. I hope you will disdain mediocrity and aim to excel in whatever you do. I hope you will love your work as I love doing astronomy. I hope that you will fight injustice and discrimination in all its guises. I hope you will value diversity among your friends, among your colleagues, and, unlike some of your regents, among the student body population. I hope that when you are in charge, you will do better than my generation has. In 1993, U.S. universities awarded Ph.D. degrees in physics and Astronomy to a total of nine black Americans. You do better.

[…]

My achievements in science came about because I knew what I wanted to do, and I found professional colleagues among helpful, gentle astronomers. I was never discouraged by others who were sometimes discouraging. Instead, I insisted on working on problems outside the main stream of astronomy so that I could work at my own pace and not be pressured by bandwagons. I do not offer this as an example for you, but only to show that there can be diverse approaches to science. There must be. I hope some of you will be able to devise your own paths through the complex sociology of science. Science is competitive, aggressive, demanding. It is also imaginative, inspiring, uplifting. You can do it, too.

[…]

Each one of you can change the world, for you are made of star stuff, and you are connected to the universe.

Bright Galaxies, Dark Matters is a remarkably lucid yet stimulatingly mind-bending read in its entirety. Complement Rubin’s commencement address with more timeless words of wisdom to graduating seniors: Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life, Neil Gaiman on making good art, Greil Marcus on “high” and “low” culture, Arianna Huffington on redefining success, Joss Whedon on embracing our inner contradictions, Oprah Winfrey on failure and finding your purpose, Judith Butler on the value of reading and the humanities, David Foster Wallace on the meaning of life, Bill Watterson on creative integrity, and older favorites by Ellen DeGeneres, Aaron Sorkin, Barack Obama, Ray Bradbury, J. K. Rowling, Steve Jobs, Robert Krulwich, Meryl Streep, and Jeff Bezos.

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18 JULY, 2013

Maurice Sendak, Teacher: Lessons on Art, Storytelling & Life from the Iconic Illustrator’s 1971 Yale Course

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“Maurice’s pleasures were his obsessions, and every one of them was contagious.”

In the fall of 1971, Paul O. Zelinsky, who would go on to become a celebrated children’s book writer and illustrator, signed up for a picture-book class at Yale taught by none other than Maurice Sendak. The course was the brainchild of an aspiring writer named Helen Kivnick. In 1970, while a junior at Yale’s Ezra Stile College, she had found herself writing increasingly long poems reminiscent of children’s stories, so she fancied what a dream come true it would be for the college to offer a course in children’s books, taught by Sendak. She shared the idea with A. Bartlett Giamatti, Kivnick’s writing instructor and the master of Stiles College, who told her that if she contacted Sendak and convinced him to teach the course, the college would allow it to happen. So she leafed through the New York City phone book — a moment of pause for appreciating that noble middleman of communication made long obsolete by today’s technology — and gave him a nervous call. To Kivnick’s surprise and delight, Sendak agreed to teach the course — but on the condition that the school provide another teacher for him to help with the class, which they gladly did: Dr. Elizabeth Francis, a young assistant professor specializing in Victorian literature.

The rest, as they say, is history — and Zelinsky tells it with absorbing affection in his essay “Maurice Sendak as Teacher, Educator, and Mentor” from the altogether fantastic Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work (public library), the companion volume to the wonderful recent exhibition at New York’s Society of Illustrators.

Zelinsky writes of Sendak’s singular enchantment as an educator:

Maurice came overflowing with historical information and critical commentary that, in its concentrated delivery, defied note-taking. He spoke seriously, with energy and conviction, displaying an Anglophilia that his Brooklyn accent threw into interesting relief. Maurice’s pleasures were his obsessions, and every one of them was contagious. He drew us into his admiration for Randolph Caldecott and for Samuel Palmer and William Blake, whose Songs for Innocence and of Experience he saw as proto-picture books.

Maurice Sendak at a lectern

Zelinksy notes that while Sendak made his students feel as if they were “sharing in his life” as he recounted anecdotes of friends and colleagues like Edward Gorey and his magnificent editor and champion Ursula Nordstrom, “only later did the limits of his openness become clear”: Sendak didn’t once mention the love of his life and his partner of many years, Eugene Glynn, to whom Sendak’s moving posthumous love letter is largely dedicated.

As an educator, however, Sendak practiced a kind of radical, though kind-spirited, candor:

Maurice was generally protective and kind, but he could not praise what he didn’t like. … With us, as with his own writing, he did not condescend.

[…]

It was with the greatest passion that Maurice approached his art. He reserved his greatest contempt for those who, in his view, didn’t share that seriousness.

Sendak's unreleased drawings and intaglio prints. Click image for details.

Though Sendak did away with the conventions of art education, his appreciation for art history profoundly permeated his work:

In the art department, formalism ruled. Art was abstract, and its tools, its terms, its raison d’être were visual. All subject matter was irrelevant. … Formalism wasn’t remotely Maurice’s approach. But as I learned more, I started to see that on a formal plane, Maurice’s pictures have great strength. He looked at the old masters and grasped the abstract essence of their images. You can tell it from his pictures. His illustrations for chapter books by Meindert DeJong weren’t ersatz Rembrandts; they conjured, without copying, the way Rembrandt’s drawings function, the vivacity of his line, and the judiciously placed accents. … My other teachers used the word “illustration” to mean an image that falls flat as form, whose only interest is on the level of subject matter. Sendak was quite the counterexample.

Yet despite his disdain for formalism, Sendak’s work exuded a distinct structure, the secret of which was a revelation in the art of storytelling:

If Maurice didn’t talk about the abstract choices he made as a draftsman, he did speak about the formal structure of his books, and this was an eye-opener for me. He talked about a book having rhythm, much the way a piece of music has rhythm from beginning to end. The word “rhythm” alone opened a world of understanding to me. Looking at Randolph Caldecott’s idiosyncratic layouts, where words of a nursery rhyme aren’t regularly placed through the book, stanza by stanza, but are interrupted by a wordless vignette here, or a free-standing line — Maurice showed us how it became music: the pauses and repetitions, loudness and softness, all with a big overall shape that carries you from the first page to the last.

Drawing from Sendak's little-known illustrations of Tolstoy. Click image for details.

Sendak’s streak of lovable curmudgeonliness came through in the classroom as well:

He also liked to bemoan. How hard it was to do the work, how little respect the world had for it. … But the bemoaning never grew burdensome because he kept his sense of humor and wouldn’t let himself get too carried away. Over the years, our conversations on the phone may have tended to drift into grand statements about the sad, downhill state of things, but then Maurice would stop himself. I remember once, in the middle of such a pronouncement, he said: “Why am I saying this? I’m just being fatuous.”

[…]

He had no patience for people whose hearts, as he saw it, weren’t in the right place. But for the others, his attention and patience and concern were manifest.

Sendak illustration from 'I'll Be You and You Be Me' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for details.

But Sendak’s greatest legacy, both as an artist and an educator, was one of optimism and unflinching faith in children’s intelligence. Zelinsky puts it beautifully:

He believed that art can be for children, that it mustn’t be treacly or pandering, and that it should be as rich and good as the art that adults want for themselves.

Indeed, nearly two decades after his Yale class, Sendak famously told The New York Times:

I have this idiot name tag which says “controversial.” I’ve had it since 1965, with Where the Wild Things Are. It’s like Pavlov’s dogs: Every time I do a book, they all carry on. It may be good for business, but it’s tiresome for me. … Grown-ups desperately need to feel safe, and then they project onto the kids. But what none of us seem to realize is how smart kids are. They don’t like what we write for them, what we dish up for them, because it’s vapid, so they’ll go for the hard words, they’ll go for the hard concepts, they’ll go for the stuff where they can learn something, not didactic things, but passionate things.

Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work is magnificent from cover to cover, a treasure trove of insight on Sendak’s spirit, sensibility, and evolution as an artist.

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