The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘school’

Black History

November 24, 2015 | by

Celebrating Umoja Karamu, a “ritual for the black family,” on Thanksgiving.

From the cover of Disgruntled, Asali Solomon’s debut novel.

Back in the early 1980s, no one at the mostly white elite prep school I attended had heard of Kwanzaa, which I’d grown up celebrating instead of Christmas. This was a yearly hassle of explaining: yes, presents; no, Santa Claus. But absolutely no one had heard of Umoja Karamu, “a ritual for the black family” that we observed at Thanksgiving. This one I never volunteered to explain. Black families who celebrated Umoja Karamu (Kiswahili for “unity feast”)—and we were the only one I knew of—were to trade in the ritual of senselessly stuffing ourselves for one in which we used food and words to reflect on the grim, glorious trajectory of black people in America, to recall the crimes of the “greedy one-eyed giant” white man, and to keep the “Black Nation” energized and focused, struggling toward liberation from racism.

During Umoja Karamu, which lived in a 1971 booklet (a mere two years older than I was) published by a fellow Philadelphian named Edward Sims, we sat at our special holiday table and took turns reading solemnly aloud from a pithy narrative of African American history that moved from the ancient kingdom of Mali to the Watts riots. Between readings, we ate a symbolic sequence of aggressively non-Thanksgiving foods, including black-eyed peas, rice, corn bread, and leafy greens, all served unseasoned, perhaps to make us more thoughtful. Blessedly, my mother always insisted on a normal holiday meal after Umoja Karamu. But Edward Sims was certainly about his business. Each Thanksgiving, as I waited to get to the stuffing and gravy, I did indeed taste the suffering we read about. I experienced the “bland and tasteless condition under which Black Folk lived during the slavery period” in the form of unsalted white rice and chalky black-eyed peas. But happily, enduring Umoja Karamu, unlike the suffering of the Black Nation, was a private shame, one about which my school friends knew nothing. That is, until I received a fifth-grade assignment to write an essay about family Thanksgiving traditions and to read it aloudRead More »

Mother Approved

October 6, 2015 | by

Only the best for my boy: the actress Helen Twelvetrees and her son, Jack Woody, in Sydney circa 1936.

I used to have a superpower. I never told anyone, of course—that’s the rule with powers—and in the grand tradition, it was a mixed blessing. It was this: mothers loved me.

It’s true. Mothers of all kinds wanted me to date their sons. Hell, they wanted me to marry them. Not shockingly, the actual sons in question were less jazzed about the prospect. It seemed like the very qualities that rendered me totally unsuitable to boys my own age—my good manners, my bookishness, my lack of any adult sexiness, even my runty size—were the same things that drew their mothers like catnip. Read More »

Back to School with the Übermensch

September 16, 2015 | by

Nietzsche on education, inequality, and translation.

Nietzsche as a pupil at Schulpforta, 1861.

 When I went off to college, it wasn’t, as far as I could tell, the result of any decision. The assumption—the fact—was simply there, in my family or high school or race and class or wherever it was, that there was more to come after twelfth grade. I didn’t appreciate the privilege nearly enough, but I also felt no need to justify to myself or anyone else how I planned to spend the next four years. There must still be such eighteen or nineteen year olds out there, never expected to explain themselves, but it is harder to imagine them. Nowadays, education is fraught and embattled and debated and doubted down to the core.

I feel like I’ve read the same essay half a dozen times recently­—here are two good examples—an essay insisting that the true value of education is not calculable in monetary terms. Education is moral, philosophical: a process of creating and becoming better people. You can make the argument that a liberal-arts education is “valuable” in the narrow sense, since it is, but even if that argument wins some battles—and it rarely does—it will lose the war. Once you concede that economic striving takes priority over artistic or humanistic goals, then arts funding and English degrees and even pure science are never going to withstand the juggernaut of business and technology. You have to fight under a higher standard.

I agree with this line of thought and am happy enough to see the point made half a dozen times over. I’ve read it recently in Friedrich Nietzsche, too, whose little-known 1872 lectures On the Future of Our Educational Institutions are appearing this fall in my new translation under the snappier title Anti-Education. Even in Nietzsche’s day, the state and the masses were apparently clamoring for

as much knowledge and education as possible—leading to the greatest possible production and demand—leading to the greatest happiness: that’s the formula. Here we have Utility as the goal and purpose of education, or more precisely Gain: the highest possible income … Culture is tolerated only insofar as it serves the cause of earning money. 

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Growing Pains

May 28, 2015 | by


From Punch, 1877.

“Do you realize,” my friend Susannah said to me, “that we’re getting too old to be precocious?” This was at the start of the sixth grade. Susannah was, in fact, very precocious: politically minded, she had styled herself as an outspoken feminist, organizing an abortive boycott of a substitute gym teacher’s sexist softball practices. “I know,” she said sympathetically when she saw my face. “That’s how I felt, too—I almost cried. It’s a tragedy.”

This was dramatic, but Susannah wasn’t wrong. In some ways, the sands of time were running out, and our glory days were behind us. Soon, behaviors we’d once been rewarded for would be recognized as obnoxious, or precious, or odd. We’d have to hide them rather than flaunt them. What had been advanced was now arrested. Students at this point were honored for work and accomplishment rather than for quirks of early development. Read More »

New Words

April 8, 2015 | by


Sometime in the third grade, a girl in my class began to claim she was ambidextrous. Previously, this girl had said she wanted to be a marine biologist. She also claimed to have athlete’s foot. This girl was a pretentious liar.

In fairness, marine-biology ambitions were all the rage that year. We were just moving beyond the easy descriptor stage; it was no longer enough to want an occupation you could identify from a Richard Scarry book, such as baker, doctor, or fireman. Now people wanted to be not just teachers but middle-school teachers, not just football stars but running backs—ideally, our choices conveyed an element of mystery and worldliness to the other kids. Still, generally speaking, our ideas for future careers were about as complicated as those you see in contemporary romance novels, where the heroines have easily explained jobs that seldom seem to interfere with the business of being a glamorous grown-up. Marine biology, with its vague hints of tropical waters and dolphins, seemed like a perfect career path for both the frivolous animal-lover and the committed scientist. None of us was sure what it entailed. Read More »

Wittgenstein, Schoolteacher

March 5, 2015 | by

What the philosopher learned from his time in elementary-school classrooms.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, who knew how to sully a chalkboard with the best of them.

Every philosophy major has at some point had to answer the standard challenge: “What are you going to do, teach?” It’s especially frustrating after you realize that, for someone with a humanist bent and a disinterest in worldlier things, teaching is a pretty good career choice. Unemployables in the humanities might take comfort from the fact that one of the twentieth century’s greatest philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein, made the same choice. He revolutionized philosophy twice, fought with shocking bravery in World War I, inspired a host of memoirs by people who knew him only glancingly—and for six years taught elementary school in the mountains of rural Austria. Biographers have tended to find this bizarre. Chapters covering the period after his teaching years, when Wittgenstein returned to philosophy, are usually called something like “Out of the Wilderness.” (That one’s from Ray Monk’s excellent Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. The next chapter is called “The Second Coming.”)

By the time he decided to teach, Wittgenstein was well on his way to being considered the greatest philosopher alive. First at Cambridge, then as an engineer and soldier, Wittgenstein had finished his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, at once an austere work of analytic philosophy and—for some readers, Wittgenstein apparently included—an almost mystical experience. In it, he claimed charmingly and not without reason to have solved all the problems of philosophy. This was because of the book’s famous “picture theory of meaning,” which held that language is meaningful because, and only because, of its ability to depict possible arrangements of objects in the world. Any meaningful statement can be analyzed as such a depiction. This leads to the book’s most famous conclusion: that if a statement does not depict a possible arrangement of objects, it doesn’t mean anything at all. Ethics, religion, the nature of the world beyond objects … most statements of traditional philosophy, Wittgenstein contended, are therefore nonsense. And so, having destroyed a thousand-year tradition, Wittgenstein did the reasonable thing—he dropped the mic and found a real job teaching kids to spell. Read More »