Friday, January 28, 2011

Inspiring the imagination

In response to my previous post Dawns asks, "[W]hat are some things parents do to help children observe, enjoy, and think?" I started writing about some of the things that my parents did that I've tried to imitate with my own children, and the reply got so long I decided to make a new post.

My daddy loved the night sky and he shared that love with us. Watching the Perseids in August was an annual event and was so much fun. Also, I knew the story of Perseus rescuing Andromeda and I knew that Cassiopeia was her mother and could easily recognize that constellation. I think I knew these stories before I began reading mythology -- I got my first copy of Edith Hamilton's book when I was in fifth or sixth grade, and I was already familiar with some of the stories, so I'm thinking Daddy must have told them to me.

There were at least three things going on here:
1) Daddy loved the stars and shared his excitement with us.
2) He told us some facts about what we were seeing.
3) He told us beautiful stories that both connected to what we were seeing and to people who lived long ago and far away

Charlotte Mason talks about education being the science of relations, and we know how important it is to let children make their own connections, but I think it's also important for parents to make a few connections for their children, to cut the trail, so to speak -- to give them an example of how things are connected. Now, I don’t believe I was “thinking big thoughts” during the Perseids -- we were too busy trying to be the first to see the next shooting star. But on other evenings it would all come together, and it was awe-inspiring to be lying in the grass in the 1970s thinking about people who had lived thousands of years before, and how we have the same sky they had and the same stars and the same stories.

Notice there wasn't a religious lesson, even though the feelings inspired are the kind we associate with religion -- awe, wonder -- and I know Dawn wasn’t asking about religious education, but when you’ve had that experience, repeatedly, and then you read, “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth his handiwork,” you know exactly what that means, and all that you’ve felt in response to the sublime comes back to you and that emotional connection is made there in response to the God who made heaven and earth, and you worship him, and give him the glory due unto his name. And for us Christians, that’s the whole point.

So, in a nutshell, share your loves with your children, make a few judicious, ennobling connections for them, and try to avoid, as Cindy mentions a lot, making everything into a Bible lesson.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things—
      For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
            For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
      Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
            And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
      Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
            With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                                                                    Praise him.

~Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 - 1889)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child: Chapters Two and Three

(Follow the discussion of Anthony Esolen's book at Cindy's blog.)

What does Esolen mean by imagination, anyway? lists the first definition as “the faculty of imagining, or of forming mental images or concepts of what is not actually present to the senses.” My 1940s Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary goes further by adding, “esp. [mental images or concepts] never perceived in their entirety; hence, mental synthesis of new ideas from elements experienced separately.” I especially like’s fifth definition, “ability to face and resolve difficulties; resourcefulness.”

Those qualities are what I’ve been thinking of so far while reading the book, and I’ve seen children who really didn’t have any imagination -- or, as my children would say, “Those kids don’t know how to play!” It’s not that they didn’t know how to play on the swingset or throw and catch a ball, but that they didn’t know how to make-believe.

In her post on keeping them inside, Dawn says:

I don’t ever remember, as does Esolen, thinking big thoughts, being intrigued by nature, staring at the sky, being around animals other than sheep or dogs or cats.

Part of my problem with these sorts of books is that I think the writers are the exception to the norm; do most children enjoy wandering with their inmost thoughts on death and proving God’s existence? Are children really that introspective? The examples he gives are wonderful, but I have to think something at home was done so the examples wished to think on Dante or other long thoughts. That being outside wasn’t by itself the solution.

I think she’s right. My parents’ attitudes surely influenced my own, and they also made sure I had the right books to read and plenty of time to read them and to daydream. But maybe being an introvert has something to do with it, too, since you’re predisposed to sit and wonder about things. When I was in kindergarten, every morning I’d go sit quietly at my desk and watch the other kids laughing and talking and playing together, and I distinctly remember wondering how they were able to do that. “I have to get used to people before I can do that,” I told myself, and that was every morning for at least half the school year. When I was five years old. Maybe “most children” aren’t that introspective, but I don’t think I’m exceptional, either -- just more inclined to sit and watch and think than to interact.

Well, on to the methods -- and I’m so late on last week’s contribution, and anyway these two methods belong to each other, that I’ve decided to make one post of it.

Method 1: Keep Your Children Indoors as Much as Possible, or They Used to Call It “Air”

Method 2: Never Leave Children to Themselves, or If Only We Had a Committee

My parents utterly failed at these, and how grateful I am that they did!

I have a lot of pleasant childhood memories -- Mom playing Chopin’s waltzes on the piano as we fell asleep at night; Daddy taking me on my first boat ride, and to visit his workplace, a laboratory -- he was a chemist; make-believe games with my brother, usually involving the deep recesses of the linen closet which could be anything from the Swiss Family Robinson’s tree house to a spaceship, or appliance boxes Daddy brought home.... But most of my happy memories take place outside.

Daddy would take us out to the carport during thunderstorms to watch the lightening and listen to the thunder, and we had regular times of lying in the back yard watching meteor showers. My best friend, Nan, and I would lie on our backs watching the clouds and tell stories about what we saw there, then we’d roll over onto our stomachs and look for four-leaf clovers. I don’t remember whether I ever found one, but I did find a five-leaf clover once and pressed it in my Bible. I remember the tiny flowers that grew in the grass and watching the ants move about in their own tiny world, as oblivious of us as we were to what happened above the sky in the daytime. I remember waking up one morning and looking out my bedroom window to see that a ring of mushrooms had magically sprung up overnight. Thankfully I’d read the right books, so I knew just what that meant -- the fairies had danced there in the night!

When we were a little older, my brother and I played in the woods that were behind our house. Our neighborhood was a suburban one, but it had once been part of a farm and our house was built on the edge of a former pasture up against a large wooded area that was state property. Trails wandered all through it and one of them led to a pauper’s cemetery -- people who’d died in the State Hospital were buried there. It was such a sad lonely place, no real headstones at all, only small, flat concrete markers with numbers identifying whoever was buried there. I used to sit and wonder who those people were and how they got to be there instead of in a cemetery surrounded by family like all my relatives were. The cemetery was dug up when I was ten or eleven years old to make way for new buildings for the state police and the Game and Fish Commission and I always wondered what they did with the bones. Of course there were also ghost stories that we kids told each other that all took place in that cemetery after dark. That neighborhood couldn’t have been more than five years older than I was, but our stories made it seem like it had a long history, and we told all of them as if they were true.

The best part of the woods was the creek that ran out of it and across the wide path that ran between the back yards and the woods, and into a concrete pipe and underground. Johnny and I spent countless hours there panning for gold -- never found any. One summer we dug out the area beneath a tiny waterfall (it was maybe a foot high) to make a swimming hole. We finally got it deep enough that we could sit, one at a time, up to our chests in the water.

We had to move away when I was thirteen years old, but that place is so much a part of who I am that to this day when I dream about being At Home, I’m in the house I grew up in surrounded by those woods.

Reading over what I’ve written, I notice that there are hardly any adults present in those out-of-doors memories. The parents were there, just in the background. Nearly all of the moms were home during the summer and most were during the rest of the year. My mom taught school for several years while I was growing up, so I spent more time in day care than is typical of people my age, but she preferred being home, so when school was out, we were free -- no organized activities except for Vacation Bible School at our church, the first week of summer break.

In letting us have so much free time outside Mom was merely raising us the way she and my daddy had been raised.

Both my parents grew up in close-knit farming communities, so their parents knew everyone and didn’t have to worry too much about what might happen to their kids when they were out playing with friends, or walking to and from school. I walked to school, too. My kindergarten was a half-day affair at a Methodist church three blocks from my house. Several of the kids in my neighborhood went there and we all walked together. We “Walkers” felt very superior to the kids who were driven by their parents. First through third grade was an elementary school that we got to by walking along the wide path between the woods and the back yards in our neighborhood, then across a pedestrian overpass that spanned the new Interstate, down a hill and across the school yard -- a little over half a mile, over all. Then, from sixth through ninth grades I went to a junior high that was a little more than a mile away, and of course we walked whenever we could. There was a city bus that we could catch on bad weather days or when we were running late, but it cost thirty-five cents we and preferred to use the money to buy a candy bar at Wal-Mart on the way.

That is a lot more freedom than my kids have today, but it’s less than my parents had. My daddy, who was born in 1935, used to tell about going rabbit hunting as a boy -- he’d spend the entire day out hunting, taking along his lunch and gun, and bringing home something for supper. Once, wandering in a swampy area near the Arkansas River, he lost his way and spent hours trying to find a landmark he recognized. It was getting late and he’d decided to look for a dry place to build a fire and spend the night when he finally found his way home. He was eight or ten years old at the time. And it was not the last time he spent the entire day out like that.

It’s certainly a different world today and we can’t let our kids have the same kind of freedom that we had growing up, let alone that our parents had, but I think Esolen still makes a good point, in his tongue-in-cheek manner -- if you want your kids to grow up without two ideas to rub together, keeping them safe indoors and perpetually occupied are where you should start.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child: Introduction and Chapter One

(Follow the discussion of Anthony Esolen's book at Cindy's blog.)

I had an epiphany while reading the first chapter, entitled "Why Truth Is Your Enemy and the Benefits of the Vague," and it made me really angry. In the midst of explaining how to make any subject dull, Anthony Esolen turns to mathematics. "There can't possibly be any imagination in manipulating numbers, right?" He answers the question by first talking about memorizing math facts and rules of operation, which are dull enough in themselves, but then warns the reader that having a kid full of that kind of fact is really quite dangerous if you're trying to produce a dull, unimaginative mind, lacking in insight and initiative. To illustrate the danger, he pulls a problem from the classic math text, Ray's New Higher Arithmetic (1880) -- "Multiply 387295 by 216324."

Simple drudgery, you say. Ah, but here's the trick of it. Do the operation by performing only three sets of multiplication. That is, 216324 has six digits in it, and you'd think, if you were not imaginative with numbers, that you would therefore have to perform six sets of multiplication, first by 4, then by 2, and so on. It isn't so.

The trick is to see -- and imagination is a power that allows us to combine things and recombine them, seeing them anew every time -- that 216324 has a pretty set of digits. It has a 3, and a 24, and a 216. But 3 x 8 = 24, and 24 x 9 = 216. These things you just know; they are tools for your cleverness to fool about with, as a machinist learns the feel of a wrench or a drill press. This means that if you multiply by the 3 first, putting the product...

... and then he goes on spouting some gibberish explaining how easy it is to multiply those horrendous numbers in Three Easy Steps. Only I don't "just know" what he suggests I should because I never learned my eights, and don't know my threes very well, either. I know my nines, but only up to eleven, so "24 x 9 = 216" is something I have to figure out either with pencil and paper or by skip-counting.

Esolen describes this facility with numbers as "play." That's when I had my epiphany. I used to LOVE playing with numbers and number patterns. When I was seven or eight years old I invented a pattern that goes like this: 1 1 2 3 5 8 13 21 34... It's only been a few years ago that I learned that some Italian guy nearly a thousand years ago first wrote about that pattern, so it's called a Fibonacci Sequence in his honor.

Anyone who knows me at all knows that I'm terrible at math. I'm so bad at it that I've taken to bragging about it as an act of bravado. I hate math because I was so bad at it in school -- well, starting around the fourth grade. Before that I was really good at it and enjoyed it. I don't know what changed in the fourth grade, but by the sixth grade I was happy if I got a "D" in math because that meant I wouldn't have to repeat the class.

But according to Esolen, playing with numbers IS math!

I felt the same way during my oldest child's first year of formal education. We were reading Margaret Pumphrey's book Stories of the Pilgrims as our history text, and thoroughly enjoying it. I've always loved reading about people who lived Long Ago, and finding out what they thought and seeing how they dressed and so forth. But I hated "History" as a subject in school -- we had to memorize names and dates of battles and treaties and whocaresaboutallthatstuff -- so it was a pleasant revelation to find out that, actually, I loved history. But pleasure quickly turned to anger that my schooling made me think I hated it.

Several years later, it slowly dawned on me that, even though I had hated studying Poetry in school, I loved poetry. I've figured out why that's the case: In school, you study poetry by killing and dissecting poems.

I suppose that that's what they do with History and Math, too.

~*~ ~*~ ~*~

On a more cheerful note, I now have a new favorite sentence: That sixteen-line-long feast of words and ideas and humorous commentary from Henry Fielding's Jacob Andrews that Esolen quotes earlier in chapter one.

I won't quote it just now, but I will say that if you haven't read Joseph Andrews you really should -- it's delightful. But first you have to prepare yourself by reading Samuel Richardson's Pamela, followed by Fielding's Shamela. Then and only then can you fully appreciate Joseph Andrews.