Sunday, January 23, 2011

Uprootings: Towards an autobiography?

Perhaps my least favorite science fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein is Job: A Comedy of Justice. In it the lead characters keep getting yanked abruptly from one version of the universe to another, and from one location on earth to another, without any rhyme or reason. I wonder if my distaste for this novel reflects the abrupt discontinuities in my own life, discontinuities which I can only call “uprootings.”

My first two uprootings I do not consciously remember.

Being born, of course, is an experience shared by everybody. A consciousness thrust abruptly into a universe of space and time, a new baby, finds the world a “blooming, buzzing confusion” as the philosopher-psychologist William James so colorfully put it. It takes us all a while to be able to make sense of what is going on, like a projected slide that is totally blurred and then gradually brought into sharper and sharper focus. And then, just when I probably was starting to get my bearings, whammo!

This second uprooting occurred when, at age 2, my father jumped from being a high school band conductor in Adrian, a very small town in the boondocks of Depresssion-era eastern Oregon, to become an engineer at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. West coast to east coast. Peacetime to wartime. Small town to big town. Poverty to moderate prosperity. This, I also do not consciously remember, though it must have been quite a shock at the time. For the life of me, I cannot remember how my mother and I got to Washington, D.C. from Oregon, though it must have been by train---air travel was not the thing, back then, and she didn’t learn to drive until I was 17 years old. Dad had gone on ahead, due to wartime urgency. This was in 1942, after Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into World War II.

I can only remember a few details about life in Washington, D.C. A bright spot was eating lunch with my mother at the children’s restaurant at Woodward and Lothrup department store----they served rice, which I dearly loved and must not have gotten at home. I also remember the spectacular electrical storms during the tropical summers, and I had not become afraid of lightning yet as I did later when we had returned to Oregon, so I would watch them out the window with great interest. I do remember a stray dog that was a great favorite of mine running around in the rain during such storms, and how my folks unsuccessfully tried to get me away from the window when the police came out and shot the dog, which upset me greatly.

At one point I came down with measles and had to stay in the dark for days on end, as it was thought that light during this disease would damage the eyes. Dad had a shortwave receiver that I played around with during this time, though I have no recollection of what I listened to. At another point I was sick enough to have an antibiotic prescribed, probably when they first came on the civilian market. There were no pills, so my mother had to jab me in the fanny with a needle to give it to me.

When I started school I learned to dread going off on the bus. Older kids once took one of my shoes away and threw it out a window. I was so scared that I couldn’t learn much, and was nearly held back in the first grade because I couldn’t learn to read. Still, Washington, D.C. was the only place that I could remember living.

My third uprooting was in 1946 when Dad’s work at the Naval Research Lab (the development of airborne radar) came to an end and we moved back to Oregon, where he again became a high school band conductor in Redmond. Redmond at 3,000 people was much bigger than Adrian but much tinier than Washington, D.C. I can remember this period, our journey across the U.S. by car, learning to read by reading road signs and ads flashing by.

Life in Redmond was very different from life in wartime Washington, D.C., and the difference was all positive in my book. I haunted the local library, learned to swim, took piano lessons, learned to ride a bicycle, started playing the clarinet, joined the Boy Scouts, went to church potlucks with my parents and younger brother, had a few friends. Life was not bad!

And then my fourth uprooting hit me from the left and from the right in 1952 at age 12. My grandfather deLespinasse, age 72, suffered a stroke in March that left him paralyzed on his left side and requiring constant help. My grandmother couldn’t handle it by herself, so as soon as school let out I was bundled off 150 miles to their residence in Hubbard to help take care of him. Hubbard was a town of 600 where I knew nobody my own age and couldn’t leave the house for more than a few minutes to bicycle downtown for the mail or to do a little shopping for the household.

I spent the whole summer in this depressing situation, becoming so bored that I listed to every word of the Democratic and Republican presidential nominating conventions that ultimately nominated Adlai Stevenson and Dwight D. Eisenhower, a rather unusual activity for a 12 year old. I very much looked forward to returning home to Redmond at the end of the summer, but it was not to be. Dad had decided to leave teaching and go back into electronic engineering, a decision that required him to move frequently from one project to another for the next several years. Rather than uprooting the family several times a year, Mom and I and my brother moved to Salem, which I suppose was to be closer to Hubbard (20 miles) than we would have been in Redmond, but also had more job opportunities for Mom and more cultural opportunities for all of us.

Of course this move was a shock, since I was cut off without even being able to say goodbye to friends in Redmond, and I knew nobody my own age in Salem. But at least the move was before school started, so I did not have the pain of changing schools in the middle of the year.

The next uprooting came in 1955, when Dad’s professional travels came to an end and he landed at Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, California. It was nice to have the whole family together again, but this time our move came during the school year. I was a sophomore in high school in Salem, but in Vallejo the sophomore year was still in the junior high school and the high school only accommodated the juniors and seniors. So I was back in junior high school, a terrible shock! And the class I had been doing best in, bookkeeping, in Salem, wasn’t even offered at my new school, so I had to drop it. Once again, I knew no one my own age, and as usual found it difficult to make friends, though I finally did make a few.

My next uprooting came when I graduated from high school in 1957, and it was the first one where I had anything to say about where I would put down my new roots. When I had gone to the University of California in Berkeley to take the S.A.T. they had put us at first in a big classroom that held 750 students. Then we were broken up into smaller groups and put in “small” classrooms that only held 200 students! This convinced me that I did not want to attend a large university. Since my parents had met in a physics lab while students at Willamette University and Willamette was in Salem, Oregon, a town where I already knew my way around, I applied there and only there. It is a good thing they accepted me!

At the same time I relocated to Willamette my folks moved for a year to the Philippine Islands, where my father was managing a military electronics project for RCA, his employer. Although I had two aunts in Salem and my grandparents 20 miles away in Hubbard, I immediately became pretty much on my own as a result of this uprooting. But I thrived at Willamette, did well academically, got to know lots of people and made some good friends. I really did not want to graduate, but of course that had to happen.

However at the beginning of my senior year a couple of faculty members had me come in and asked if I had considered going to graduate school and becoming a college teacher. In all honesty, the idea had never occurred to me. I hadn’t known any college teachers become coming to Willamette, and people usually don’t think about becoming a college teacher when not even sure they will graduate. However my original goal of going into the U.S. Foreign Service (which is why I had taken three languages at Willamette---Spanish, French, and Russian) had become less attractive thanks to my work the summer before my senior year as a management intern for the Oregon state government, which had paid well and was educational but not habit-forming. Also, the thought of being able to hang around college all my life was very attractive since I had enjoyed my four years at Willamette so much!

So I applied for graduate school at five places (U. of Oregon, U. of Washington, M.I.T., Harvard, and Johns Hopkins), was accepted at all five, and ended up going to Johns Hopkins because it and M.I.T. had offered the best financing and the Willamette faculty convinced me that the program at M.I.T., though excellent, was not appropriate for someone who wanted to teach political science at a school like Willamette. Going to Johns Hopkins was probably a mistake on my part, as it turned out, but it was a very productive mistake and I don’t think my subsequent career would have been at all the same if I had not gone there. (Of course it might have been better, but I am not so sure about that.)

The shock of moving from Willamette U. to Johns Hopkins makes the term “uprooting” seem totally inadequate, but this time (like when I went to Willamette) I had done it all by myself and had no one else to blame. All my friends were at Willamette or scattered around the country in other graduate schools. Willamette was a small friendly school, and its political science department a small friendly department. Johns Hopkins, though not large by major graduate school standards, was larger, and the political science department was very “cold”. The faculty for the most part not only neglected the undergraduates, but they paid as little attention as possible to the graduate students. There was no sociability to speak of, no invitations to dinner in faculty homes. For the most part the other graduate students in the department did not socialize much, either.

I finally got to be quite good friends with one other graduate student and did some visiting with other Willamette graduates who were in grad schools up in the New York/New Jersey area. But Christmas dinner my first year was by myself in a Chinese restaurant, the only place I could find open on that holiday. To make things worse, the novelist Ayn Rand came in to give a talk, and to prepare for that I read her novel Atlas Shrugged, which sank me into a very bad depression! (Later, though, I used that book to good effect in a special class at Adrian College.)

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Why the Soviet Union cracked up

I have just sent a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal commenting on a book review in today's (January 12) edition. I signed it as a professor emeritus both of political science and computer science since the latter might be relevant to my expertise on this subject.

Here is my letter:

To the editor:

As a long-time student of the Soviet Union I question Edward Lucas’ claim that Gorbachev’s “failure … to deal with the dictator’s [Stalin’s] legacy made the state inherently unstable.”

Gorbachev was striving mightily to deal with what was left of Stalin’s legacy and the stagnation more characteristic of the Brezhnev era, and he is an unfortunate example of the cynical generalization that no good deed goes unpunished.

The most likely explanation for the crackup of the Soviet Union was the computer revolution that had been happening in the west and that had barely touched the Soviet Union when Gorbachev came in. I can imagine Gorbachev’s experts explaining to him that unless the country put computers to widespread use it would become an increasing economic backwater in the world economy. I can also imagine other experts warning him that computerization would destroy the government’s ability to maintain its monopoly on the means of communication.

Remember that this was a country employing 80,000 people in its censorship agency, Glavlit, that nothing could be printed without that agency’s permission, and that people had to have a license from the police to have a typewriter. (Typewriters, to say nothing of copy machines, were considered dangerous weapons.) Dissidents were reduced to typing up forbidden manuscripts with several carbon copies and circulating them to people who might in turn type up more copies.

As Gorbachev’s experts undoubtedly understood, computerization would allow easy dissemination of dissident ideas on floppy disks, even before the internet (which hadn’t happened yet) came in. But I believe Gorbachev decided that the economy absolutely had to have computers, and that his principal successful reform, glasnost (openness, freedom of speech and press) was an effort to get some political credit for what was going to happen anyway when computers came in.

It was free speech that destroyed the “unbreakable union” (as the Soviet national anthem put it). As soon as speech was free, dissidents began demanding that the non-Russian union republics secede from the U.S.S.R. In Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, for example, in 1989 I saw people openly circulating petitions for Estonian independence. The force of nationalism triumphed and the country came apart at the seams.

The Soviet Union fell, not because of Gorbachev’s failure to deal with Stalin’s legacy, but because of his success in doing so.

Paul deLespinasse, Ph.D.

Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science

Adrian College

Adrian, Michigan 49221

Now living in Corvallis, Oregon. Details on letterhead, above.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Cleaning up Mark Twain a very bad idea

Leonard Pitts has written another of his excellent columns, this time attacking the publisher who has "cleaned" up Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn by substituting "runaway slave" for the n-word used by Twain's character. You can read it here

It seems to me that Pitts' analysis could with equal force be applied to the church bureaucrats who have been removing "sexist" language from classic old hymns in the new editions of hymnals, and the people who "colorize" old black and white movies.

I have sometimes jokingly threatened to form an organization calling itself "The Committee For Artistic Integrity" that would slip quietly into churches, slap sticky inserts with the original words over verses of hymns that have been messed with, and leave a Pink Panther-like calling card proclaiming that "the Committee For Artistic Integrity has struck again!"

No one would argue that composers and writers should refrain from writing new hymns that apply current standards (or fashions, if you prefer). Some have done so, and often with very nice results. I myself have written church music that complies with current standards. (You can access it on my webpage.) But when somebody changes a line in the classic old hymn, " O God Our Help in Ages Past", so that instead of "Time like an ever rolling stream bears all its sons away" we find "time like an ever rolling stream bears all who breath away" it is just too much! While I find the inclusion of our former house cats Lady Bird, S. Cat O'Logical, and others (who breathed) touching, I do note that they, like human mortals, are not breathing when born away. Worst of all, the new words are uninspiringly abstract, replacing the simple and concrete word in the original verse. Did anybody ever think that "sons" did not refer to children and indeed people in general and that the verse implies that daughters are not born away or are not missed when they die?!

And I was outraged when the newest Methodist hymnal inserted an asterisk next to the line in "O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing" which proclaims "Here him, ye deaf, his praise, ye dumb, Your loosened tongues employ; Ye blind, behold your savior come; and leap ye lame, for joy" and notes at the bottom of the page that this line "may be omitted." This inspiring hymn has traditionally been the first one in Methodist hymnals, and it seems to me that this verse is in no way a putdown of the classes of people referred to. And I would bet that it has inspired more than one scientist to work a little harder to develop ways to help the deaf to hear, etc. Further, since when does a congregation need permission to leave out some of the verses when a hymn is sung. It is frequently done when services promise to drag on for too long.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

What you can't measure with a test

This morning I wrote the following letter to the editor of the Portland Oregonian. The article about which it was commenting follows, with the kind permission of the author.

To the editor:

Dena Minato’s article says something that needed to be said, and says it uncommonly well.

I enjoyed a 36 year college teaching career and would have found high school teaching equally satisfying. But I would have doubts about going into public school teaching today. It seems to me that “No child left behind” and other recent trends threaten to squeeze most of the joy out of life for students and for teachers.

Cutbacks in music classes, for example, may be eliminating the one thing that motivates many students to hang in there and look forward to arriving at school each day.

Although Ms. Minato does not go this far, I am convinced that the ability to measure learning is inversely proportional to the importance of what is being learned. Gradgrind’s “facts” are easy to measure, but as Minato notes they are not the heart of true education.

Paul deLespinasse

Corvallis, Oregon


What you can't measure with a test

By Dena Minato

"'Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them ... Stick to Facts, sir!' The scene was a plain, bare, monotonous vault of a schoolroom, and the speaker's square forefinger emphasized his observations by underscoring every sentence with a line on the schoolmaster's sleeve."

Charles Dickens began his novel "Hard Times" with these words more than 150 years ago. In this scene, a school headmaster named Thomas Gradgrind shares his educational philosophy with Mr. M'Choakumchild, a teacher. This "plain, bare monotonous vault of a schoolroom" sits on the edge of Coketown, a fictional industrial town of the mid-19th century. A few paragraphs later, the narrator describes the children sitting in the classroom as little vessels "ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim."

A few months ago I sat in my high school classroom reviewing the first chapter of "Hard Times" in preparation to introduce the novel to my Advanced Placement Literature students. I had taught the book the previous four years, but that afternoon Dickens' words troubled me in ways they had not before. I pondered why.

My classroom, thank heavens, is not the bare vault Dickens describes. Dozens of colorful homemade kites depicting topics and issues raised by Khaled Hosseini's novel "The Kite Runner" hang from the ceiling. Student-created posters, collages, story maps and cartoons exploring the plots and themes of various literary works -- "Jane Eyre," "Gilgamesh," "The Book Thief," "Oedipus the King" to name just a few -- adorn bulletin boards and walls.

My high school students who studied these literary works and created this artwork are not little vessels waiting to be filled. They are too smart, too independent, too passionate -- too human -- to be that passive.

We began our literary journey in early September watching a clip from "Dead Poets Society," a 1989 film in which Professor Keating (Robin Williams) defends the study of poetry to his affluent prep school students bound for lucrative careers in medicine, law and business. "We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion," he says to the boys huddled around him in the middle of the classroom, reflecting his own passion for teaching and learning.

I started teaching in the fall of 1978 at Silverton High School, the day after I turned 22. I had graduated that spring from Oregon College of Education (now Western Oregon University) with wide-eyed optimism and large doses of the passion displayed by Professor Keating. This fall, early in my fourth decade as an educator, I once again returned to school ready to immerse myself in the delightful, challenging, intellectually engaging and passionate world of teenagers.

But I felt less enthused than in past years. The wide-eyed optimism, which over the years has taken a few hits but has never disappeared, waned a bit. Was it because I had experienced an energizing summer of tandem bike rides, river floats, road trips, backyard campfires and sipping wine on my front porch and just wasn't ready to say goodbye to summer? Was it because my husband -- also a 30-plus-year veteran of the high school classroom -- and I have more frequent conversations about what we will do when we retire?

I was pretty sure it was more than that. Then I opened up my worn copy of "Hard Times," the one bearing a cover depicting a dark image of a strait-laced Victorian schoolmaster filling a student with facts, and reread Chapter 1, interestingly titled "The One Thing Needful." Dickens spoke to me like he hadn't before.

Professional Learning Communities. Common Formative Assessments. No Child Left Behind. Adequate Yearly Progress (PLCs, CFAs, NCLB and AYP in educator talk). Data-driven instruction. Research-based instructional strategies. Standardized tests and more standardized tests to assess our little vessels' retention of facts, facts and more facts. Fill them to the brim.

Has old Thomas Gradgrind stepped from the pages of this Industrial Revolution-era novel and entered the conversations about school reform in the 21st century? I shuddered at the thought.

Yes, our schools need to change to meet the needs of this new century. Yes, we need to collaborate with our fellow teachers across the hall and around the country. Yes, we need to accurately and intelligently assess student learning. Yes, we need to pay attention to the data and to the research. And, yes, Mr. Gradgrind, we need to teach facts -- but not at the expense of our students' hearts and souls. Not at the expense of their passion for learning.

Much of the educational debate today espouses the need to "focus on student learning," as if teaching has somehow been about something else all these years. Most teachers I know care passionately about student learning. We devote much of our waking moments thinking about student learning. We spend our own money on courses, books and classroom materials, and devote hours of unpaid time reading student papers and researching topics for lessons. (I'm revising this article over my winter holiday after a few hours of grading essays on "A Doll's House.") We give up our lunch breaks explaining math formulas, Spanish grammar, the Electoral College or persuasive essay techniques. We have always focused on student learning. In fact, teachers are the greatest investment any district makes in student learning.

I see evidence of student learning in my literature classroom every day. Some of it can -- and should be -- measured and compiled and recorded. Some of it cannot be measured just yet or maybe ever. But it's happening. I know it is because I'm a teacher, and my students are not vessels overflowing with gallons of facts. They are amazing, thinking, feeling humans who daily ask questions about literature -- which translate into questions about life -- that I can't, or won't, give answers to, factual or otherwise.

In recent months, I've become a fan of Facebook, but not for the same reasons my 17-year-old daughter and her friends love it. I've reconnected with former students from five, 10, 20 and 30 years ago. In our "chats" we have updated each other on our lives, families and careers. That's been delightful, but my love of Facebook grows from something more. In these chats, many of my "kids" (some now in their 40s) have affirmed what I believed could happen when I walked into my first classroom decades ago. Teachers make a difference. Teachers impact lives. And the lessons we have to teach cannot always be measured by a test.

The fact-obsessed Mr. Gradgrind tells his own children to "never wonder" after catching them sneaking peeks at a circus. Spoiler Alert for those thinking about reading this Dickens classic: Gradgrind's system fails him, fails his children and all the students ensnared in that monotonous vault of a schoolroom Dickens described. The only one who survives unscathed is Sissy Jupe, a child of the circus.

Thank you, Mr. Dickens, for reminding us to preserve the wonder in learning and keep it at the heart of teaching.

Dena Minato teaches language arts at Corvallis High School.