Finding balance in the second half of life

Posts Tagged ‘education’

What We Know

In Family on November 5, 2011 at 6:06 pm
Dmitri May 1983

A few months before the cream cheese incident.

Last weekend I had one of those alarming conversations with my daughter, who is much too far away. I was alarmed by clues that I had, perhaps, failed her as a mother.

The scene that came to mind right after I hung up the phone was set in the kitchen of the apartment where her older brother and I lived when he was two, before she was born. It was after church; I was making lunch. While I cooked, he sat very quietly at the table behind me, completely absorbed with the half a bagel I’d given him to tide him over.

When I finally turned around, I found that he was quiet for good reason. He was scraping the cream cheese off his bagel with one index finger and applying it to his toes, which were bare.

“Don’t put cream cheese on your foot!” I exclaimed, a phrase that became emblematic for me of the rules we would tell our children if we ever imagined the need. (That particular rule also represents a peculiar subcategory of rules, really: rules we’re not sure we dare tell our children because we’re afraid we’ll inspire things they’d never think of on their own. Rules of this type, for sons, often open with “Never try to burn…”)

Anyway, that set me thinking for a few days, wondering what I should have told my daughter but hadn’t. Which led me to think about when, exactly, it’s too late. Or what topics a responsible parent should have been expected to cover, and in what depth or specificity.

About that time, our middle son very generously made a cheesecake for a friend’s birthday, using a springform pan that I generously loaned him. Several weeks later, I texted him that I needed the pan back, because a baby shower required me to make another cheesecake.

“Um. Bad news about that. Paul threw it away…? He didn’t realize it wasn’t disposable…”

Who doesn’t know that a springform pan’s not disposable? Well, Paul, for one. He blames the “void of homemade cheesecakes in my life,” which, I suppose, would do it.

And that reminded me of a guy my sister dated back in college, who didn’t realize that you could re-roll the scraps when you’re making biscuits.

So here I was, musing about the holes that can gap in one’s knowledge, when I ran across this spousal exchange in A Lighthearted Story of Two Innocents at Sea, by James A. McCracken:

You know what that means.” My rose petal looked at me accusingly.

“‘Junk of Pork’? Sure. It means a piece of rotten, poisonous pork. It’s junk. To be thrown away.”

“It’s perfectly good Maine usage. It means a piece of pork. A ‘junk of wood’ is a piece of stovewood. A piece or a chunk or a hunk is a ‘junk.'”

“Thanks.” I looked at her. Here we’ve been married all these years, sitting around in this boat for all these days, and she’d never told me that. What else did she know?

Well, that turned my musing on its head. It was a gentle reminder that whatever I know that someone else doesn’t, there’s likely just as much or more that someone else knows that I don’t.

I know my daughter, for example, who might be a little sketchy about laundry technique, knows quite a lot about biology. She knows the names of all the bones in the body, and is intimate with the lives of sand crabs, which I hope never to observe directly.

Dmitri March 2008

Finding happiness in a way completely foreign to me.

When I get over the self-absorption that parental insecurity can induce, I can recognize that of course none of us will know only the same things. That the job of a parent is not to transfer an encyclopedic knowledge. It is to point your kids in generally a right direction, roughly toward love and happiness, and to teach them how to learn things for themselves. On our best days, we realize how much we can learn from them.

And the way they find love and happiness may be completely different from your own. Good thing they can learn things we don’t already know. At this moment, I’m thinking cream cheese might feel really good on my feet.

–Lois Maassen

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School of Life

In Fulfillment, Survival on December 29, 2010 at 8:24 pm

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, one of my favorite writers, Alain de Botton, makes a good case for changing the way we teach the humanities (literature, philosophy, the arts) in higher education. Instead of focusing on factual information and scholarly analysis — memorizing the names of the major artists of the Ming Dynasty, say, or explicating Thomas Hardy’s use of flowers as metaphor in Tess of the d’Urbervilles — de Botton wants classes that teach us “how to live.”

“It should be the job of a university education to tease out the therapeutic and illuminative aspects of culture, so that we emerge from a period of study as slightly less disturbed, selfish, and blinkered human beings.”

Along with a group of like-minded professors, writers, and artists, de Botton has founded a school in London that practices what he preaches. “The School of Life” offers courses in marriage (“Making Love Last”; required reading includes Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary),  choosing a career (“How to Find a Job You Love”; readings include Thoreau’s Walden and The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber), and dying (“Facing Death”; reading works by Samuel Johnson, Luis Bunuel, and Joan Didion).

Unfortunately, The School of Life does not yet offer online classes, but their website showcases some interesting “Ideas to Live By.” I’m tempted to try out the  “Bibliotherapy” services they offer. An individual consultation with a bibliotherapist via phone or Skype will get you a customized reading “prescription” for your “particular area of concern or curiosity.” 

–Debra Wierenga


No Hurry

In Community on December 13, 2010 at 8:00 am

I’m thinking of starting a new column on documentaries called “I Haven’t Seen the Film But I Read the Review.”

My latest want-to-see-but-probably-won’t-until-Netflix-has-it is Race to Nowhere, a documentary produced and directed by Vicki Abeles, a concerned mother who picked up a video camera to  document the stories of children, parents, and teachers caught up in a system so focused on ACT scores and the demands of college admissions offices that no one has time to wonder whether real learning — or even real preparation for participation in the adult world — is taking place.

According to a recent article in The New York Times, Race to Nowhere questions both the pressure and the value of college prep curricula that have teachers teaching to tests like the ACT and Advanced Placement exams and students desperately trying to learn the formula for a high-scoring “timed writing” while running from soccer to Science Olympiad to community service projects in an effort to build an admissions-friendly resume as a well-rounded, four-point-oh, SAT-acing 17-year-old.

When my oldest son was in high school, I encouraged him to take as many AP classes as possible. As a result, he was able to complete his BA in 3 years — one year ahead of his peers to enter a job market that has no use for their degrees or their SAT scores.  By the time my youngest got to high school, I was much less inclined to push him to mold himself into the ideal college applicant. I’m thinking that if his lack of AP credits and heavy focus on independent studies in music keep him from getting into the college of his choice, well, he can take a year of community college and reapply. I’m thinking, what’s the hurry?  I’m thinking it would be a good idea for schools and communities to schedule a screening of Race to Nowhere.

–Debra Wierenga

Enter Career, Stage Right

In Family on March 9, 2010 at 12:22 am

Not too long ago, I again paid a price for eavesdropping. This particular conversation was between a parent and a college professor; the parent was concerned about the practicality—as measured by earning potential—of her daughter’s choice of major. And the price I pay is a tongue nearly bitten through, because I have so much to say to that parent.

I’m afraid that we are, as a nation and a culture, headed toward vocational education, and not just for those who don’t choose a “college track.” Even in higher education, we seem to pressure students to choose a major as though they’re choosing a life-long career. Never mind that these are kids who, at 18 or 19, hardly know what their career options might be. Never mind that it’s a rare teenager who’s had the “scope for imagination” (thanks, Anne of Green Gables) to find her real passions or talents. Never mind that nobody believes a single career will last a lifetime any more.

The conversation I overheard was at a liberal arts college, which at least suggests that the particular student will be exposed to a variety of subjects and disciplines. A liberal arts education, I think, does deliver on teaching students how to think and how to learn, both of which equip them to be agile in pursuing the careers they discover they’re interested in—or, let’s face it, in this economy—there’s opportunity in.

It may be overreaching to say that a liberal arts education also is foundational to a democracy, but I’d make that case: The more we understand about the breadth of experience and thinking that human history contains, the more prepared we are to build a society that is capacious enough to engage and affirm all of our citizens.

Within a liberal arts framework, I’m not sure it matters what the particular major is, unless there’s a particularly mature student with an extremely clear career goal. Becoming an MD, for example, requires a specific educational path. So does becoming an engineer. But for hundreds of thousands of students, a major is a stressful choice or an ambivalent evolution. And I’m just not convinced employers—or students or parents—should care.

I was able to parlay a theater major into a successful career in marketing, technology, product development, and communications. I’m not sure I ever seriously considered a career in theater, but I was attracted by the classes, which represented a variety of topics and tactile, physical skills, and put all the pieces together in a practical way. To stage a Shakespeare play, for example, we needed to understand enough of the geography and the history of the place where the story was set. We had to parse poetry and expand our vocabularies to understand how to convey the story. We studied color theory and science to design the lighting and design principles and geometry to envision a buildable set. We hammered and painted and sewed and sawed. We figured out who would come to the play, sold them tickets, and balanced the books. And we had a heck of a good party on closing night.

That’s an interdisciplinary education, and along the way I learned a number of other things:

  • Unless you want to do the same thing over and over again, you have to keep learning. If we only wanted to produce Shakespeare, maybe we could slow our pace. But since we also wanted to act Harold Pinter and Tennessee Williams, we needed curious minds and the initiative to track down answers.
  • There’s nothing like a well-publicized opening night to make sure you’re getting things done. Once you’ve published your schedule and sold some tickets, you’re committed. You figure out what kinds of trade-offs can be made when the unexpected happens. You surpass the limits you assumed, find energy and resources you didn’t know you had. You amaze yourself.
  • Budget and deadline are two additional criteria for a design problem. You can stage a play without spending any money at all; you can also spend millions of dollars. Not having a big budget or a lot of time doesn’t let you off the hook creatively (although, of course, you need to be clear-eyed about the objectives of the project!).
  • Once you’ve made Peter Pan fly across the stage, replicated a believable shipwreck, or gotten an audience to gasp in despair together, you start believing that very nearly anything may be possible. Believing in possibilities is the first step in relationships, business, volunteer work, and your own creative projects.
  • Great teams work when there’s common purpose, clearly defined roles, diversity of talents and expertise, and respect among the members. Nobody expects the carpenter who’s building the set to be the lead actor, too (although it can happen). No one thinks the show can go on without the lighting crew. The leading man is profoundly grateful to the wardrobe crew when his ripped costume gets stitched up during intermission.
  • And finally, the work is not the person. The degree to which personal identities get tied up and confused with the work can be a handicap to any organization. When you’ve got 10 or 30 or 50 people working on a show, it’s always about the show. Sure, occasionally there was a stereotypical theatrical ego, but we were working within a useful construct: the show, the cast, the crew. And the best actors were those who recognized that delivering solo lines did not make magic; what made magic was the interplay, the energy, the tension among the characters in the play.

While I’m clear on the benefits of my own educational experience, I won’t claim that the Theater Department is the only place lessons like these can be learned. My daughter, mysteriously a biology major, may be learning lessons much like these from dissecting cats. I’m certain, though, that the value of the major is not in the specific content—which is likely Google-able and evolving as new discoveries are made—but in the process of learning and working together.

Back to that mother. Here’s what I would have said if I hadn’t been bloodying my tongue: Please let your daughter find her own way. Encourage her to postpone choosing a major as long as possible. Let her think about, experiment with, the areas that pique her interest. Help her to see that it’s her initiative, her creativity, her network, and some luck that will determine her financial future—and that there are more ways to measure success than a salary level. Show her that her college major is just one piece of a life of learning, which she can design—and redesign—for the next 70 years.

–Lois Maassen