After Eleanor and Edward fell asleep in the magical room in the attic, they woke up facing a mirror where they could see reflections of themselves extending back to infinity. As they approached, they found themselves walking through that mirror, then facing a choice between two more mirrors.
Both mirrors reflected their every move, but they were slightly different. The mirror on the right showed them as they were, but in an agreeable mood; the mirror on the left showed Edward with a slightly unpleasant stubborn grin, and Eleanor wearing thick white powder to cover the freckles that led her to dislike her own face. They chose the second mirror and stepped through. Again they found two mirrors, with the same dichotomy: those on the left stubborn, worldly, and discontent, those on the right more natural and unaffected.
The journey through mirrors continued. The siblings began fighting over which to choose, running haphazardly and pulling themselves through one after another. Then, before they realized it, they stood before middle-aged versions of themselves, each terrified to find hardened grimness and meanness of spirit on their older faces.
“Oh, no, no!” screamed Eleanor, and turned to escape. “Choose, choose!” she said, “oh, let’s be careful how we choose!” Together they stared at the next pair of images.
But there was no choice. There was only one more set––one Edward, one Eleanor––a frightening, savage Edward, and a terrible, tawdry Eleanor.
They turned this way and that, looking for the other pair of images. But there were no more. They had come so far in the wrong direction that they could no longer choose at all. They could go only one way. The choices had shrivelled down to one alone, and that was no better than none at all.
I was stunned at the power of this image as I finished reading aloud this chapter of Jane Langton’s The Diamond in the Window to my kids. What Langton depicts so well is a view of character development that I find compelling: that free will is something we enjoy most fully when we are young, but that we are quite capable of carelessly making choices that will mold us into a future person we never would have chosen from the start, and which is much harder to change once our habits are formed. In the book, the children are given a chance to retrace their steps and choose better “versions of themselves” on a second trip through.
In The Diamond in the Window, and seven subsequent books about the Hall family, Langton has built a world that celebrates American philosophy like C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books celebrate the Christian faith. Children travel to magical worlds and learn life lessons through their adventures. Langton’s inspirations are the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson and the philosopher Henry David Thoreau, the two most famous members of the American “transcendentalist” school of thought from the 1800’s. Both men lived in Concord, Massachusetts, which is where the children in Langton’s book live. Their home is inspired by a real house at 142 Walden Street in Concord, which you can see through a google map search.
Eleanor and Eddy are orphans who live with their Aunt Lily and Uncle Freddy, middle-aged brother and sister. Years earlier, their other aunt and uncle (children at the time) disappeared mysteriously along with Aunt Lily’s beau Prince Krishna, who had surrendered a throne in India to stay in America with Lily. Now Eleanor and Eddy enter the magical world in hopes of rescuing their missing family and saving the family home from repossession.
A friend of mine said this book helped her fall in love with reading as a kid, and I was glad that I read it aloud to my kids. Langton writes lively characters and suspenseful adventures, and there are plenty of big ideas lending substance to the story.
The weaknesses are similar to those of the Narnia books: the various episodes can be a bit preachy, and some of the lessons are over kids’ heads. But that can be a feature as much as a bug: my younger kids could still follow the adventures most of the time, my older kids had more complex ideas to challenge them, and I had something to keep my mind active while I read.
I recommend the book, and indeed I also read my kids the second book in the series, The Swing in the Summerhouse. This second book followed a format similar to the first, and started to get a bit formulaic with its quotes from transcendentalists, followed by magical journeys that taught corresponding lessons. But still it was a solid read-aloud with some fun moments. At the moment I’ve switched over to a different book series to shift gears, but then we’ll move on to Langton’s third Hall Family book, and I’ll see how my kids respond from there.
The Diamond in the Window is available as an inexpensive reprint paperback. The other books in the series are mostly out of print and harder to find; I got #2 by ILL through my public library and bought #3 used online.
In the true-story movie Rudy, a runt of a kid grows up wanting nothing so much as to play football for Notre Dame. He works passionately, toiling on the practice squad, but is never good enough to make the cut. Finally, his last game as a senior, the players on the team beg the coach to play Rudy for the final game because he has worked so hard. The coach agrees; then in the final seconds of the game, once Notre Dame has wrapped up a victory, Rudy gets into the game and gets a sack against the opposing quarterback.
The movie is supposed to be a feel-good story, but to me it’s a cautionary tale. Rudy only wanted to become one particular thing that his body simply was not a good fit for. In the end he gets a symbolic victory, which I guess is fine if that’s what he really wanted. But just think if he had decided to wrestle for Notre Dame instead. Not as romantic as football, but who knows if his drive and passion could have taken him to the Olympics at his weight?
Body Nature and Nurture
In the book The Sports Gene, David Epstein writes about how different people get different results from the same athletic training regimen, just because of how their different bodies naturally work. One person does weight training, and their muscles quickly grow bigger and stronger, while another person lifts the same weight but just doesn’t get the same gain. One person’s lungs grow in oxygen capacity almost immediately when they train for running, while another person does the same work, but their lungs stay the same, year after year.
From whatever combination of genetics and nutrition and habits, our bodies (minus PEDs!) just respond differently to training.
This can be bad news if you want to play football for Notre Dame and don’t have the right body type, but it’s not the whole story. Even if some people have natural advantages, Epstein also tells stories of people who lacked certain natural gifts, but picked a sport that was a good fit and worked hard till they succeeded. Their limits may have kept them from being elite, but they still became very, very good.
The key is to find the right method of training, and to fit it on a realistic timeline to get us where we want to go. Our bodies aren’t infinitely malleable, but we do still have a lot of choice in the matter.
Brain Nature and Nurture
It seems the same is true of our minds. Consider a story like the one on NPR this week about a kid in Georgia named Caleb Anderson, who is taking college classes at age 12. The story tells how his parents nurtured his intellect, which is huge. But the vast majority of kids aren’t going to start reading at 6 months old (as Anderson did!), no matter how how hard their parents try to make it happen. Anderson has something natural, born into him, that just lets him learn faster than most of us can. If he develops that skill, a normal mind will never catch up with what his mind might do.
A lot of people find it offensive that one person would be “naturally” smarter than another, but it’s hard to deny there is at least some truth in the idea. As Epstein writes, some people are able to become chess masters (a measurable level of chess skill) through far fewer hours of work than others. Part of that depends on using the practice hours efficiently, but it seems clear that native intelligence plays a big role, at least when it comes to the very best players.
This makes sense on so many levels. We all know there are people like Anderson, who have amazing gifts, and other people with severe MR that can never be fixed by hard work or study; how strange it would be for there to be those extremes of natural ability on opposite ends of the spectrum, but for everyone in between to somehow have the exact same amount of mental potential. Then you have the sports comparison: how strange it would be if our genes could cause such a variety in how our bodies respond to athletic training, but then have nothing to do with how well our minds respond to academic training. And finally, consider: if every kid is born with the natural ability to become Einstein if they just work hard enough, then what massive failures we must all be!
But this hardly means that we are simply born with an IQ, and that’s it. Just as in sports, the other side of the story is true at the same time: becoming a world-class thinker may end up requiring unusual natural gifts like Anderson has; but just as in sports, the vast majority of us can still learn to become excellent thinkers in areas we’re well suited for, if we work hard and have teachers and mentors who help us find the right studying methods to get where we want to go. Our minds aren’t infinitely malleable, but we do have a lot of choice in the matter.
Learning Speed and Education
What does this mean for educating kids? I would say that we need to learn the right lesson, and also not learn the wrong lesson, from all this. The right lesson is that our kids will learn differently, and we should help them learn at a pace that works for them. We shouldn’t assume one kid will learn just as fast as another, as long as they “try hard enough,” or whatever. Some kids will simply be able to advance faster, and some may advance to places others can never reach.
On the other hand, we need to avoid drawing the wrong conclusion, that a slower learner should be written off as having preordained limits on what they can become. Maybe a kid who is a slower learner won’t be able to catch up to a Caleb Anderson in the quest to become a world-class aerospace engineer, but they may well have the potential to become an excellent aerospace engineer if they have the right drive and nurturing, and spend the extra time it might take. Or maybe they won’t, but a teacher hardly needs to know that from the outset.
I suppose it’s possible that a kid does have world-class abilities, but they just aren’t evident as early as Caleb’s. But even if that may sometimes be true, I don’t think it’s a good idea to push that as the norm, and fall into the trap of assuming that everything just depends on nurture and hard work. That kind of approach puts a burden on us all that I think is really unfair. We may end up encouraging our kids to become a Rudy, when a shift in focus could lead them to pursuits where they could really excel and contribute to the world for the long run.
Instead, I would argue that educators should go into teaching embracing a two-sided truth: We do not have to pretend that kids are all the same, in order to affirm that the vast majority of kids can excel at something.
One thing I have learned from teaching my young children: You can only learn as long as you can pay attention, and you can only pay attention as long as you can keep a cool head.
Time and again, I find the biggest hill for my kids to get over in learning something new is just to handle the stress of it all without dissolving into a fit. The clearest sign that stress is getting in the way is when they suddenly can’t do something they could do before: solve a math problem, or read a word, or play a song.
This can be very annoying, but it points to a major advantage of homeschooling, which has everything to do with tailoring our teaching for each kid. I don’t know if I could do it with a room full of students, but with just my four kids, I can pull it off at least often enough to keep them moving forward.
Teaching = Leading
My starting point for helping manage my kids’ workload is a theory of leadership from a book I read in seminary called Leadership Without Easy Answers, by Ronald Heifetz. It says that one key to leadership is to “give the work back to the people” by helping to focus everyone’s attention on the problems needing work, and then keeping just the right amount of pressure on them to solve their own problems: not so little pressure that they can coast through things without having to grow, and not so much pressure that the stress overwhelms them and you face a backlash against the task at hand.
This is a great approach to teaching kids. First, they need to feel pressure to work hard. I do look for ways to make learning fun, but if it all feels effortless to the kids, we’re probably wasting the opportunity to learn more. Even if they’re making fine progress anyway, education is not just about learning subject matter, but about building the character to do hard things. I say this from personal experience: if a bright kid breezes through school, they may have a rude awakening if they move on to something that pushes them to their limits, like doing a Ph.D. program, starting a business from scratch, or the like.
On the other hand, if schoolwork is too stressful, the day can dissolve into crying or fighting, or even just into hard-core procrastination. This is a very bad habit to get into because it can teach the kid, even if only subconsciously, that throwing fits gets them out of doing work. On the other hand, if I can find a workable balance of stress for each kid with each subject, and for the total work-load for the day, we can learn and have a pleasant day at the same time.
In homeschooling, this means for example that a kid who is ready to read at age four can jump ahead of grade level as long as the work doesn’t stress them out too much, and the kid who finds it too stressful can take a slower pace and pick it up when they are ready. Neither situation requires formal decisions about holding back or jumping forward grades, and it is seamless to let a kid race forward in one subject while moving slowly in another.
Stress for Five
One other key: I have to find this balance of stress load for all five of us, so that I don’t become too complacent on the one hand, or dissolve into a fit myself on the other. After all, the work of putting the right balance of pressure on my kids does and should put stress on me too. But, to borrow a bit of family therapy language, if the kids do start to act out because of the work load, they will be only too happy if I absorb their stress onto myself and start acting out, because then they can feel some relief in leaving it to be my problem to solve rather than theirs. That’s not healthy for a student or for a family.
Incidentally, looking at stress load management is a good test for whether homeschooling is the right choice for a family. Is the stress created by the whole process the right amount to help the family grow, or does it overwhelm the family and cause more harm than good?
As a classical homeschooler, my challenging (but hopefully not too challenging) job is to be firm but calm when my kids start to react to the stress of their schoolwork. Sometimes I insist they keep going, or sometimes I might cut their work short to let off some pressure. But in both cases my goal is to keep calm so that I “give back to the kids” the hard work of managing their own emotions, and handling their own stress. If we do it right, the same work will help them grow in both mind and character.
Last week we finished The Penderwicks, by Jeanne Birdsall. It’s the story of four girls (ages 4, 10, 11, and 12) and their father, told several years after their mother died of cancer. Beth read it to my oldest a long time ago, then bought it for me for Fathers Day 2018, a few months after her own cancer diagnosis. We’ve been reading a chapter a day at bedtime.
My bigger kids (boys and girl of 4, 6, and 8) all loved it, and I did as well. It has lots of strengths:
Family and Friendship: The family is tight-knit, but readily welcoming of anyone they meet as new friends. They look out for one another, checking in when someone needs support. At the same time, the complain enough about unpleasant characters to keep the tone realistic.
Grown-ups and kids: The Penderwicks have a loving father, but the girls also have their own world that doesn’t depend on him. When something big happens, they get together for MOPS (Meeting of the Penderwick Sisters) or MOOPS (Meeting of the Older Penderwick Sisters). They have slogans and rituals that help keep the family close.
Humor: The kids and I laughed aloud at least once in most every chapter. The story moves quickly and is delightful throughout.
Morals: The kids in the story are constantly called to grow, whether to be bolder, or kinder, or more self-controlled, or more self-aware. Birdsall presents lots of moral lessons without much preachiness. The moral choices they have to make are not simple, so there is good jumping-off material for discussion.
Variety: Each kid has a different personality, all of them likable. Their differences are depicted in the flow of the narrative, in contrast for example to the heavy-handed characterization of the Baudelaire children in Lemony Snicket.
The book won a National Book Award, so it’s no shock that it’s nicely done. A kid could read it on their own and understand it, and an adult could read it on their own and stay engaged as well. It’s a light read that also has some substance. I’d say it’s best to read together, and I’m glad I got to share it with my kids.
NOTE: I made some changes a few minutes after I originally posted this.
“Let’s hatch a PLOT blacker THAN the kettle CALL-in’ the POT!”
My four-year-old and six-year-old were so excited this week when they could both say this line in tempo without any mistakes. Ten minutes of one of them trying, and the other patiently correcting, and finally they had it. This morning my two-year-old mastered it as well. This wasn’t an assignment, but as a homeschooler it made me smile.
Like lots and lots of people, our family loves Hamilton. Beth fell in love with the album, and I took her to see the play in Des Moines as a Christmas present two years ago. Now the kids and I listen to the first hour (till the end of the Revolution) at least once a week, and it hasn’t gotten old. I won’t claim it’s in a league with Shakespeare, but I will say this: it’s great for homeschooling for a lot of the same reasons. Like Shakespeare, Hamilton has a great mixture of big ideas, poetic language, and a moving story.
If you wonder why so many people love the play, here’s a video of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s solo performance of the first song at the White House in 2009, before the musical was produced. He has a charisma and a passion that draw you into the story.
Two big disclaimers: First, much of the second act just isn’t appropriate for kids. And second, I bought the “clean” version of the album and then edited the audio files of the first act to get the version I’d be happy to hear coming from my kids’ mouths. I even took out a whole verse at one point, but audio editing is a hobby of mine, so it’s not for everyone. I did leave in Aaron Burr saying, “I’m the DAMN fool that SHOT him!”, because it’s such a key to the first song; I just tell my kids that word isn’t polite to repeat.
That said, I’ll hit some high points of why I love this for my kids.
1. Savoring Language
I don’t know much about hip hop, but clearly a strength of the genre is how it celebrates language, words and sounds. Consider Hamilton’s soliloquy about the coming American Revolution:
I know the action in the street is excitin’ But J****, between all the bleedin’ ’n fightin’ I’ve been readin’ ’n writin’ We need to handle our financial situation Are we a nation of states? What’s the state of our nation? I’m past patiently waitin’. I’m passionately smashin’ every expectation Every action’s an act of creation! I’m laughin’ in the face of casualties and sorrow For the first time, I’m thinkin’ past tomorrow And I’m not throwin’ away my shot!
The language isn’t fancy, but if you read it aloud the cadences come out. In this passage, the rhyming climaxes in a barrage of P’s, S’s, SH’s, and A’s, in the three lines: I’m past patiently waitin’ / I’m passionately smashin’ every expectation / Every action’s an act of creation! If you listen to the audio track (“My Shot”), those lines are also set off by musical blasts. It’s smart, and also moving. Shakespeare often ends a speech with a pair of rhyming lines to mark the climax of the speech; Miranda does something similar by marking the climax of a song with fast-paced internal rhymes and assonance.
Here’s another I enjoy:
They’re battering down the Battery, check the damages We gotta stop ’em and rob ’em of their advantages Let’s take a stand with the stamina God has granted us Hamilton won’t abandon ship, Yo– Let’s steal their cannons—
Or try reading this out loud:
Burr, check what we got Mister Lafayette, hard rock like Lancelot I think your pants look hot Laurens, I like you a lot Let’s hatch a plot blacker than the kettle callin’ the pot What are the odds the gods would put us all in one spot Poppin’ a squat on conventional wisdom, like it or not A bunch of revolutionary manumission abolitionists? Give me a position, show me where the ammunition is!
To get a bit geeky, look at the tetrasyllabic metrical feet in the last two lines, which Miranda created by changing the emphasis in the word “revolutionary”: “a bunch of REV-o-lu-tio-NA-ry ma-nu-MIS-sion ab-o-LI-tion-ists [pause one beat], PUT me in po-SI-tion, show me WHERE the am-mu-NI-tion is!
From what I’ve read, there is debate about how much of an abolitionist Hamilton was, and “poppin’ a squat” is kind of embarrassing to say out loud. Not every parent will like the content of this play for kids, but mine have been hearing the gruesome versions of fairy tales for years, so we’re on that train already. Anyway, as a classical homeschooler, I want my kids hearing and reciting well-crafted language, and this is one fun way to do it. It’s also good mental exercise trying to get the words straight in your head so you can sing along. As my kids have found, it’s fun and satisfying to master a tricky line.
2. Character and Growth
The play starts with a strong moral theme of fortitude. Miranda doesn’t pretend that just anyone could have become Alexander Hamilton, but he does emphasize the hard work and toughness it took Hamilton to get where he got:
The Ten dollar founding father without a father got a lot farther by working a lot harder by being a lot smarter by being a self-starter… Started workin’, clerkin’ for his late mother’s landlord Tradin’ sugar cane and rum and other things he can’t afford Scannin’ for every book he can get his hands on Plannin’ for the future, see him now as he stands on The bow of a ship headed for a new land In New York you can be a new man In New York you can be a new man
My wife Beth loved this play in part because Hamilton got where he got by hard work, and by the power of ideas. It paid off when he had the good fortune to cross paths with George Washington, and be “seated at the right hand of the father,” as Miranda puts.
Every day when we do school, what are we actually doing? Hamilton gives the kids one piece of an answer: study hard, learn about ideas, and be ready for your shot if it comes along. Why do we school classically? In part because it opens the doors to big ideas, and if one of my kids wants to run all the way with something they find there, they may get the chance to go out, put in the work, and try to become a leader in that field.
3. Historical Pegs
I’m sure Hamilton distorts history, like every work of art does. But I love that the play says something, because that will give us the chance to engage it critically when the time is right.
When my kids are older, there are lots of great conversation starters here: (1) What parts of our nation’s founding does Miranda miss because of the angle he takes? (2) Does the picture of the founders as “immigrants” hold true, or is the play pushing too hard to make a modern political statement? (3) Does the play let George Washington off the hook too easily as a slave holder? (4) Does the portrayal of Hamilton’s affair play into a misogynist stereotype of “woman as temptress” and man as simply “not strong enough to say no”? (5) How do we sort through the complicated social question of an American-born Latino artist using a Black form of music to put on a play that casts mostly actors of color buts especially appeals to white audiences?
Those questions will come later, but already my daughter can recite one critical question raised about American history by the character Angelica Schulyer:
I’ve been reading Common Sense by Thomas Paine Some may say that I’m intense or I’m insane You want a revolution? I want a revelation! So, listen to my declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal” And when I meet Thomas Jefferson I’m a’ compel him to include women in the sequel, work!
There are plenty of more mundane history lessons as well. For example, Hamilton tells how Washington won the war by attacking and retreating until he wore the down the British, and how the war turned in the colonists’ favor when the French joined in. It also gives a surprisingly detailed lesson on the practice of dueling, and talks about marriage practices for wealthy young women. And finally, it sticks names such as Hamilton, George Washington, Lafayette, Aaron Burr, and King George in the “fun” part of my kids’ brains alongside Batman, Han Solo, and Harry Potter. That’s a plus.
4. Diversity is Smart
The linguist Steven Pinker once made a great point, that a kid who can switch back and forth between proper English and other dialects or styles of grammar is actually better at language than the kid who always speaks proper English. If you doubt this, just read Shakespeare, or Charles Dickens, or Mark Twain, or Toni Morrison. Excellent language takes lots of different forms, and just as sure as you can find terrible prose with perfect grammar, you can find excellent compositions that use less “proper” grammar. Hamilton is one.
Along with different styles of grammar and language, the play also has different styles of music. When George Washington calls Hamilton in before the battle of Yorktown, the song is in a more traditional show-tune style, and Miranda also includes a delightful satire of a love song, sung by King George to the colonies:
You’ll be back Soon you’ll see You’ll remember you belong to me You’ll be back Time will tell You’ll remember that I served you well Oceans rise, empires fall We have seen each other through it all And when push comes to shove I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love
This variety in style, language, and grammar, not to mention sophisticated allusions to other works and sayings, is great for the growing mind.
I don’t know if Hamilton will become known as a “great work,” and in fact I don’t even know if it would count as good hip hop to those who know the genre. I’m sure people have argued whether Miranda appropriated black culture to sell to white audiences, who might end up thinking it “belongs” to us. My bias says to enjoy the music as it is, and discuss the cultural issues with my kids as they get older.
But cultural questions are only one angle to come from; the other angle is that Miranda has used hip hop excellently, and I don’t think he’s done it cynically. I love how he uses spoken verse to tell a big story on a big stage. As I help my kids learn to swim in the ocean of art and literature we have around us these days, I’m betting this one will remain part of our life.
The premise of this 1902 novel: Five kids on vacation in a small English town find a sand-fairy that grants them one wish per day, but each wish disappears at sunset. As it happens, each wish goes horribly wrong, and the kids escape each time through various combinations of quick thinking and wit, dumb luck, profuse apologies, and chasing down the sand fairy to beg for a second wish for the day.
Probably my favorite episode is when the kids wish that their two-year-old brother (nicknamed “Lamb”) were grown. He immediately becomes insufferable as an adult, and insists that he will head into the city for evening drinks, and that his siblings must go home for dinner. The problem is that the spell is set to end at sunset, which would leave an unattended two-year-old at a club bar. The siblings solve the problem by flattening his bike tires, and then sabotaging his effort to pick up an attractive young woman at the bike repair shop.
In a particularly disastrous chapter, news spreads that a neighbor woman has had all her jewels stolen that morning. One of the children, before she can stop herself, wishes that their mother would find “all these lovely things” in her room when she got home from a trip later that day. That one made me squirm a bit.
I did skip the chapter called “Scalps.” One of the children wishes that England had “Red Indians,” who then appear and promptly attack. I can tolerate a bit of archaic language, and just coach my children that we don’t say things like that anymore. But in this chapter, the Indians show up to kill them all, leading to this exchange: “Do you mean to scalp us first and then roast us?” asked Anthea desperately. “Of course!” Redskin opened his eyes at her. “It’s always done.”
Is this just satirizing white people for their simplistic stereotyping of Indians? I’d say no, as the children then escape because they have created fake hair with strips of black fabric, which the Indians then “scalp.” Nesbit writes, “The poor untutored savages had indeed scalped the children. But they had only, so to speak, scalped them of the black calico ringlets!” I know it’s supposed to be silly, but it’s done with a very nasty stereotype I don’t want in my kids’ heads.
Though I won’t leave this one on the shelf for my kids to find, the rest of the book is worth reading aloud. Nesbit creates clever scenarios that are imaginative and funny, and we all enjoyed it. Her kids mostly act like kids, and the dialogue is fun, rather than just moving the story along. The idea of Unintended Consequences is great for kids’ imagination, plus it raises moral questions that could make for good discussion starters.
Two added bonuses in finding an older book that holds up well. One is that it is available for free on Project Gutenberg, so I was able to read it on the tablet without having to buy it or check out a paper version at the library. The other is that the language is just archaic enough that it keeps kids on their toes, and helps expand their language skills for hearing and reading different styles of English prose.
Today is Rich Mullins’s feast day in our house, the 23rd anniversary of his 1997 death in a car crash. Mullins was complicated and decidedly imperfect, but he’s a saint for our family for several reasons: he loved God passionately, he was exceptionally generous and lived simply while giving away everything else, and he kept learning and growing. Also, Beth fell in love with me while listening to me play Mullins’s songs on the piano at the grad student house where we both lived in 2007-08. That’s why our third child is named Richard Francis, and it’s why Mullins’s words, “Saints and children, we are gathered…” inspired the title of my blog.
Mullins was a pop singer to be sure, but his music holds a passion and longing for Beauty, sometimes found in rugged messiness, and sometimes in orderly perfection. For the orderly part, he loved to play and talk about J.S. Bach. If you listen to this link, at about the 1:30 mark you hear something familiar to fans of Rich Mullins and Amy Grant: https://youtu.be/R0nZjkh-U7I.
Mullins used Bach’s Fugue No. 2 in C Minor as the intro for “Sing Your Praise to the Lord,” which Amy Grant made famous in the early 1980’s. You can also find videos of Mullins playing other Bach pieces in concert. Here’s a video from less than a week before he died in 1997. I don’t know if I’d stand by everything Mullins says here, but it’s a nice peek into how he saw the world: https://youtu.be/rzQm_XF81eQ.
I don’t know if Mullins would agree with me, but I think we can just sidestep the question whether the church “owns” or “gets credit for” various parts of culture. There are always different currents mingling in larger streams, and you can’t always separate what was “from the church” and what was “from the world.”
I don’t think that should be a problem for Christian education. God made all of the world as a Beautiful and Good thing, and people who are searching for what is Beautiful and Good and True will often land in similar places, whether they are Christian or otherwise. Ancient philosophers compared the order of music to the movement of the stars in the skies, and linked them all to the realm of the Divine. A modern secular writer named Douglas Hofstadter won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for a book tying the work of Bach, along with M.C. Escher, to patterns found in mathematics and computer science.
The Order and the Mess
Genesis 1 also paints a picture of an orderly world at the start. Yet this orderly world is also the place where our messy lives happen, and the messiness is something Rich Mullins loved to talk about. Mullins said in concert one time that “God ain’t got no taste,” which is why God can love every one of us. He named his band the “Ragamuffins” because he believed that God’s embrace of human brokenness is at the heart of the Gospel. That theme was also evident in the way Mullins played his music, where he fell out of tune or out of tempo from time to time, and sometimes forgot the words to songs he had written, all while singing with a voice that grew increasingly gravelly over the years from an evident habit of smoking.
And yet, Rich Mullins kept coming back to Bach, who is perhaps the greatest example of a squeaky-clean family-man composer who spent decades perfecting his craft and dutifully composing music that is perfectly orderly, and even admired by mathematicians. How does this fit together?
Loving the Order and the Mess
The two great Christian commandments are Love God and Love Neighbor, which means God wants us to love what is perfect and what is imperfect at the same time. This is very hard to do.
It’s always hard to celebrate ideals and still embrace what is imperfect. Our society often fails this test on big questions like family structure and body image. The temptation is to either throw standards to the wind, or else stigmatize those who don’t match the standards. The really hard thing is to hold the two halves together in love.
What about in music? I have been working over a year on the first half of a Bach piano piece called the Gigue movement from his fifth French Suite. It is really hard, and I just can’t play it perfectly––I always mess up somewhere. But I never get tired of working on it, because Bach has composed such a perfect piece.
So what is my great joy in playing it? Right now, it’s in trying to do it perfectly even though I can’t. It’s in reaching for a perfect goal as an imperfect person.
(Bach, of course, would have played it perfectly. I wonder if that’s why he dropped in a couple of discordant notes here and there, so that the piece could at least feel like it was still striving for something more perfect than itself.)
Holding the Two Together
Parenting and homeschooling are the same way. I have ideas of what I would like my kids to become, and what I would like to become as a parent, but we love each other each day when we don’t meet the ideals. And every day for school I try to hold up what is Beautiful and Good and Perfect for my kids to see and to work toward, but we love each other––and hopefully are learning to love our studies––even when we don’t learn and master it all. One way I like to think of it is this, especially with music: practice as if the only goal is perfection, but perform as if the only goal is joy.
Rich Mullins was decidedly rough around the edges as a person and a musician. If having the heart to embrace “ragamuffin” music and people was the only thing he had taught us as a Christian saint, I could live with that. But he also was not afraid to celebrate and strive for the perfection of Bach, even when Mullins didn’t meet it in his own music. That leaves us with a saint who shows us something even more special: he embraced the Perfect and the imperfect at the exact same time. I think the thing that allowed him to do it was love.
When I was a kid, I once grabbed a four-color box of modelling clay and started blending different combinations until I had a full palette of colors. It must have taken me a whole afternoon, but something about the order of it all was just very satisfying to me. So today for my kids’ art session, we did the same thing with play-doh.
First I put the three primary colors in a triangle, and then each kid got a pair of small lumps to blend together. First everyone had red and yellow, and my four-year-old got first guess what color they would make. When it became clear, everyone handed their orange lumps to my oldest to combine in a bigger ball, and then we did the same with blue and yellow, then blue and red. We lined up the six colors in order, talked about the difference between primary and secondary, and then put them a circle so they could see how purple cycles back to red at the end of the wheel.
After we saw how to blend primary colors to get secondary, the second step was to ask: Can you get primary colors by blending secondary? This time each kid got a different combination of purple and orange, orange and green, or green and purple. It worked out nicely, as each kid ended up with a lump of brownish gray or purplish gray. We noted how blending secondaries can’t get you back to primaries, and how blending all three equally moves you closer and closer to gray.
Finally, I got out some white, and we did lighter versions of each color for our wheel, with the brownish-gray lump in the middle. Sadly, I don’t have black play-doh, so the completeist in me had to deal with disappointment.
Along with building a useful skill, the color wheel teaches a part of our universe that is orderly, and shows how beautiful that order can be. The other side of art is the messiness of creativity, and in fact as I write this my kids are mushing some colors together, pressing others through a plastic plunger into spaghetti strings, and making others into cookies for a pretend birthday party. But I believe it is essential that creativity always starts with order: the old expression of first knowing the rules, so that you can know when and how to break them.
Should a two-year-old know something about physics?
Personally I like the idea, but only with a skilled author. With themed kids’ books like this there is a huge range in quality, so let’s look at two books, one excellent and the other disastrously bad. The two books have obvious differences in quality, but I would say the most important difference is that one author knows their audience, and the other doesn’t.
The Good Book
First is Baby Loves Quarks!, by Ruth Spiro and Irene Chan. Here are sample pages:
This book is well made and illustrated with lively pictures. But look especially at how its language engages children. The sentences are concrete, and their concepts are things kids can get, Y is made out of X. New terms, like quark, proton, and neutron, are placed in simple sentences. Kids are used to learning words they’ve never heard of as a part of their daily life. So the language of the book matches its intended audience.
The Bad Book
Moving on, here are sample pages from Newtonian Physics for Babies, by Chris Ferrie:
Just a glance shows that the illustrations are absurdly lazy. Colored circles are the only images on most pages, without even shading to make them look like actual balls rather than just circles. I suspect he finished all these illustrations in a couple of hours’ work. And if you’re willing to get really geeky about it, the shadows under the balls are placed too low, so they actually make the balls look like they’re floating just above the ground rather than sitting on the ground. This last point drove me nuts.
But there’s a more fundamental problem with the book, which is that its concepts don’t match the minds of little children. For example, the idea of “the force of the ground” pushing up on a ball is very difficult to get your head around, and not remotely appropriate (or useful) for a small child. Nor does a small child have any use for a mathematical rule, that the force of the ground always equals the force of gravity.
The author claims to write for babies, but the actual appropriate audience for the Newtonian Physics book is high school or college intro physics students, who want a visual study guide to help them keep a few concepts straight for their first test. It is no surprise that Chris Ferrie turns out to be a college professor––of computer science, not pedagogy.
So what is the key here? Science books for babies are fine, but they should not try to teach science. That’s overstating it a bit, but my point is that a book like this should be a primer, to make kids familiar with a few science words so they’ll be ready to learn about them when they get older. Only the most basic concepts of how the terms relate are appropriate at this age level.
The Newtonian Physics book tries to do more, and the result is something that Chris Ferrie might illustrate with four gray rectangles, a squiggly line or two, and a drop shadow suggests they’re sitting just above the ground. That is, a train wreck.
But the Quarks book does this well, using just the very basic concept, X is made up of Y. My kids have enjoyed it for years now, and it makes me happy to read as a parent. Ruth Spiro did a great job, and also has a similar book we like, called Baby Loves Coding. The coding book maybe gets a little over the head of young kids, but it’s still solid, beautifully illustrated, and mostly age-appropriate. I’d recommend her stuff.
That’s the question I ask my grade-school son when I see him walking or jumping on the sofa. That may seem an odd parenting choice, but there’s a big reason I do it, and it has to do with Aristotle.
Professor Michael Sandel asks a provocative question: if the finest Stradivarius violin in the world is up for auction, and two people are bidding for it, who would it more justly go to: the richest person in the world, who wants to put it on display, or the best violinist in the world, who wants to play it?
I’d guess most people would say that the richest person should get it if they offer the most money. And people are probably right that the law should let the violin go to who pays the most, and not try to meddle in who deserves it based on merit, or based on how they’re planning to use it. But that doesn’t tell us whether it’s right morally for things to turn out that way.
If you disagree, consider: What if the richest person wanted to buy the violin not in order to display it, but in order to publicly burn it? Doesn’t that just seem wrong?
There are different ways we can get at that moral question, some of them looking for a rule or principle against destroying things, and others imagining how people would miss out on beautiful music if a great violin were destroyed. But Aristotle gives a third approach that I happen to love: asking what a violin is for. It is for making music, and surely the best thing that can happen is for a wonderful musician to use it for its purpose.
This principle has lots of uses. Facebook is a great tool when it is for keeping up with friends and family, and a lousy tool for trying to change other people’s minds about political issues. Science is a wonderful tool for understanding how the world works, but deficient if it’s expected to explain the meaning of life.
Or with parenting: when teaching young adults about sex, you can gives rules because “God says so” or warn against STDs or pregnancy. But consider the power of also talking about what sex is for, and teaching your teens to behave accordingly. Or if you’re explaining to your kids why they need to do school, you could tell them “that’s what we do in our family,” or that it will help them get a job. But consider the power of telling them that they have a purpose as well, that they are for something, and that education will help them grow into strong, knowledgeable, good, and Godly people–so they can live out all the parts of whatever their purpose turns out to be.
I will admit the sofa example is silly. I want my son to see that the purpose of the sofa is for sitting on, but of course a sofa can be for somersaults and playing at times as well.
But my real goal is to prime my kids to see the world in a certain way, that asking what something is for is one great piece of making good decisions.