Thursday, September 26, 2013

Non-homeschooling and Education into Beauty

Although I occasionally consider it wistfully, I'm not a homeschooling mother. My school-age son has special needs, and public school has been a great place for him thus far. He has supports in the classroom, and he has the necessary-for-him-for-now friction and pressure of being with his peers. He loves school, and academically he's at the top of his class. All the schools in our high-poverty city are Title I, meaning that a critical mass of their students live in poverty, which entitles the schools to receive a certain level of federal aid. Nevertheless, although this would seem to contradict common wisdom -- at least the faulty common wisdom based solely on student performance on standardized tests -- these schools are not bad, but, on the contrary, are extremely good. The teachers are excellent, and the curriculum is far more enriched than what's offered in most urban and even some suburban public-school settings. The district is known not only for its commitment to inclusion, but also its emphasis on the arts. Every elementary school in the city has its own choir, band, and orchestra, which students can join in the third grade, instruction provided; and the high school has, in addition to those conventional forces, all kinds of chamber ensembles, a string quartet, a jazz band, a concert band, etc. Because of ubiquitous budget cuts, elementary music instruction (though not band, choir, or orchestra) was cut in the district this year from two sessions per week to one, and, in response, a number of parents, myself included, are working with local arts organizations to try to find low-cost ways to do meaningful arts-education outreach into the schools.

In the meantime, although I'm a non-homeschooler, I spent the summer, as I did last year, devising and teaching a home-study curriculum to my rising second-grader. While last year our work comprised a general introduction to aesthetics and their place in the human person and community using picture books, this summer's focus was on Henry David Thoreau. I was led to this topic by way of a new and wonderful children's book about how Charles Ives composed his Orchestral Set No. 2. On the face of it, this may seem a dull subject for a picture book, but it's anything but. The third movement of Ives's piece, called "From Hanover Square North, at the End of a Tragic Day, the Voices of the People Again Arose," commemorates the day the Lusitania was sunk in 1915; the crowd waiting on the subway platform at the end of the workday began to spontaneously sing "In the Sweet Bye and Bye."

Because Charles Ives also wrote a musical portrait of Thoreau in the fourth movement of his Piano Sonata no. 2, "Concord," I went, in figuring out what our summer course would be, from Ives onward to Thoreau. Ives wrote that the Concord Sonata was meant to give an "impression  of the spirit of transcendentalism that is associated in the minds of many with Concord, Massachusetts of over a half century ago. This is undertaken in impressionistic pictures of Emerson and Thoreau, a sketch of the Alcotts, and a scherzo supposed to reflect . . .  Hawthorne," and I thought Thoreau would hold more appeal to a seven-year-old than his erstwhile Concord colleagues.

I also thought that my autism-spectrum little boy would understand in a particular way Thoreau's single-minded obsession with the natural world, an obsession that led him to eschew society for two years -- a society that regarded him as warily as he it -- which is altogether a sort-of spectrum-ish situation in itself, when you think about it.

I was delighted to find many children's books about Thoreau, some of them excellent. I didn't warm up to the D.B Johnson series at first, because it seemed a little precious to depict Henry David Thoreau as a bear; but then I opened one of the books and saw how wonderful they were. The illustrations suggest cubism, and some of the books veer into the dreamlike and transcendent, like Henry Climbs a Mountain, which begins with the real-life event of Thoreau's arrest for tax evasion -- enacted in protest of the legal institution of slavery -- and the resulting night he spent in jail. In the book, the bear-Henry enters into a synaesthetic vision in which he meets an escaped slave and helps him to freedom.

So, over the summer, we read about a dozen children's books about Thoreau; my son wrote about them in his journal; and we started going into nature ourselves -- a state park about ten miles away -- and observing it closely. This has proven to be an unexpected boon for my son: in nature, his near-constant anxiety seems to completely lift away, and he is quiet and observant, seeing things the rest of us miss. He brings a journal with him, and he writes poetry containing quite lovely images, and, like Thoreau, makes little sketches of the flora and fauna he encounters.

School is in session now, and we've started another home-study unit. Somehow this one branched out from my son's love of the music of Antonín Dvořák, which, frankly, has a lot of things in it for a child to love. My son first encountered Dvořák's music in a violin transcription of the famous English horn theme ("Going home")  from the second movement of his Symphony no. 9 (From the New World), which Dvořák composed in America when he was director of the short-lived National Conservatory in New York.



My son had also become familiar with Dvořák's American String Quartet last year, after we read a lovely picture book about its composition called Two Scarlet Songbirds (in a sort of "Anecdote of the Jar" scenario, Dvořák attempted to imitate the song of the scarlet tanager, which he first heard in the Czech community of Spillville, Iowa, in the quartet's third movement).

So I am envisioning an interdisciplinary home-study taking place over this fall and winter, which, like the Thoreau unit, begins with the great music of a great composer. There are many directions one can take starting out from Dvořák: folk music and culture, the encounter of the old world with the new, African-American and Native American musics, of which Dvořák was a great admirer (he told a reporter from the New York Herald that "In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. . . . .There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source"), and from an age-appropriate study of these musics on toward a study of the cultures from which they arose. 


I love doing this. Introducing my children to the beauty of the world is a great concern of mine. Sometimes I think I'd like to homeschool just in order to devise and implement such aesthetically-derived curricula. But my abilities to do all of this also raise questions for me. An aesthetic education is a given for me, a sine qua non, but what about all the other children -- most American children, in fact -- whose parents are not in a position to enrich their educations like this? It may be an accident of birth that my children have access to these things, but I feel strongly that I have a responsibility also to children who have not suffered such an accident. Public education has traditionally been supposed to remediate these accidents, and theoretically to supply all children with the same access to resources and means in order to give them all the same opportunities. But, as we know, neither resources, means, nor opportunities are evenly distributed in our society, which makes me feel even more strongly that it's incumbent on me to use my own in the service of those who lack them.


I understand that many in my cohort don't feel with me. While I greatly admire Sally Thomas as a writer, teacher, and mother, I disagree with her here, at least where it comes to my own situation.  I cannot presume to know what's best for anyone's children at any given time, and that includes my own more often than not, but my feelings about sending my children out into the world diverge from Sally's. Perhaps it's naive, but I believe that the world needs their light, and that we need to bring that light into the dark places. Every day before school I tell my son to look for opportunities to do kindnesses to people in his midst, because each kindness goes a little way towards the healing of the world, a world which, as we know, Jesus Christ is even now restoring unto himself. "Do something to make the world a better place," I tell him, an exhortation that I heard more times than I can remember at my own mother's knee. There are, of course, many ways of doing this, as many ways as there are people. For myself, while I wish to educate my children in beauty, I also would like to carry that beauty to the many children in my older son's school who have no access to it, which is why, to make a long story short, I'm working on the committee that I mentioned above. If it's unjust that my children should love the music of Ives and Dvořák and should take long walks in the woods while some children in my son's class don't have beds to sleep in or meals between school lunch on Friday and school breakfast on Monday, I believe I should do something about it, and that the best way that I can do it is through music-educational outreach, because spirits need to be fed as surely as bodies.

25 comments:

J.C. said...

After reading your post and reading Sally Thomas' article I don't really see the point of your disagreement. Her article is not an attack on those who don't home school, it is a defense of those who do. A mother's first responsibility and priority is to her family and her children. Any secondary responsibility to the community comes after the needs of her family are met. This will mean radically different things to different people. Only a mother and her husband are in a position to judge specifically what this entails. Your current judgement is that your son's attendance of public school is a positive situation for him and for your family. There doesn't seem to be any contradiction between your serving on a committee and the welfare of your son. Presumably, if the situation changed and there were a conflict, you might be forced to reach a different conclusion. But perhaps I am stating something very obvious. Maybe your disagree lies with the premise of Sally Thomas' argument, which, if I understand it correctly, in very simple terms, seems to be that women who home school are in fact fulfilling their obligations to the larger community by fulfilling their obligations in their specific vocations as wives, mothers, and educators. And, that, I agree with.

Sally Thomas said...

You are a wonderful mother, and this is an incredibly rich post. I need to come back and graze these resources . . . I'm always looking for good composer-study and music resources.

Pentimento said...

You are reading a great deal more into my disagreement than is actually there, and also making it the centerpiece of my argument, which it's not; no one mentioned any "attacks" on anyone before this comment. But perhaps I should have been clearer. I know homeschoolers who fear to send their children into the world and who don't think their children should be in the position of evangelizing. I disagree with those ideas, and that is all.

Pentimento said...

Sally, thank you. I'll take semi-competent, which is more realistic. If you want more details about the Ives/Thoreau unit (which could branch into literary studies of Emerson, the Alcotts, etc.) and/or Dvorak, let me know. One of the best Thoreau books I found was actually about his influence on Louisa May Alcott. I really loved that one.
http://www.amazon.com/Louisa-May-Mr-Thoreaus-Flute/dp/0803724705

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Hi, Pentimento!

Recently, I've been discussing reading on Emily's blog and the idea of social reading projects came up. Emily mused that perhaps school is one way of "buying" fellow readers. That hit home with me because I've been trying "to buy" fellow readers for years. It worked only for a short while with my brothers. Now I'm bending over backwards to make sure my blog readers don't leave me, too. And of course, my ultimate fantasy is to give birth to fellow readers. The ultimate captive audience! Bwahahahahaha!

I bring this up because it is related to the summer curriculum and home study units you have devised. These days, whenever I see something interesting, I don't simply dive into it as I used to, but stand back, examine it more carefully, and mentally prepare a syllabus for it. Not just for myself, but also for anyone I might be able to convince, to cajole, to trick or to threaten into studying it with me. The world is so full of wonderful and fascinating things that it is a little lonely to be exploring them all on my own.

Your thoughts about the lucky accidents of birth touch on something else I've been pondering. I don't like the way some people use money to create another world, in the sense that they no longer share the greater experience of the community. I'm not necessarily talking about homeschooling; there are people who can do this by sending their children to ivory-tower schools. Anyway, my own thoughts on the matter are not very developed yet, but some of my actions seem to be leading the way.

Early this year, I read a Filipino novel about the importance of sharing your community's experiences, even if they are tragic ones, and it nudged me into taking public transportation instead of taxis. I tell others that I do it to save money, but the real impulse is a new sense of community. And lately, although I cannot deny how ugly some jeepneys are (Look them up! =P), I also want to buy a camera to take along with me each day and to document my rides. Many jeepneys are great (if garish) examples of pop art, and there should be a tumble blog for them, if there isn't already. Even in the heart of the ugliest city in the world, there is beauty to be found--and to be shared.

Sally Thomas said...

And yes, J.C. is right that I was answering a specific criticism, and making an apologia for my family's own decision, rather than prescribing a road for everyone. I forget now whether I mention it in that article or not, but about the time I wrote it, an acquaintance of ours accused us of making idols of our children because we didn't send them to school, and of being not-really-Christian because we didn't live in his inner-city neighborhood, where apparently he was loving his neighbors more authentically than we were loving ours. Or his neighbors were *more* the kind of neighbors you love than ours were. Or something.

So although what I'd set out to do was answer letters to the editor about an earlier First Things article on homeschooling, what I think I was really doing was answering that person's attack on my character and my husband's. I don't know whether that touches on the point of our disagreement (and I don't see myself disagreeing with you, really, at all, in the present :) ), but I wouldn't want to be in the same position as that person who thought so poorly of me for not subscribing to his exact same life . . .

Pentimento said...

"I don't like the way some people use money to create another world, in the sense that they no longer share the greater experience of the community."

Enbrethiliel, this is something that concerns me about my own life and circumstances. Like you, Sally, I would not presume to prescribe an education for anyone else. It worries me, though, as I mentioned in the post, that my children get these experiences and someone else's don't. It's not as if my children deserve these experiences, and someone else's don't. My relative prosperity and cultural capital are hardly the result of my merits. They're pretty much accidents, as is someone else's impoverishment.

J.C. said...

Pentimento, I'm sorry if the word "attack" was ill-chosen, perhaps "criticism" would have been better? It was certainly not meant to be a buzzword.

All I meant was that I didn't think your and Sally's perspectives were mutually exclusive. I think I am missing something... I'm sorry.

On the other hand, maybe I focused on this part because it resonates with me. I happen to be firmly in the camp of those "who fear to send their children into the world and who don't think their children should be in the position of evangelizing." So that part of the discussion, I think I did understand after all!

Anyway, I think I will just give up commenting when I disagree. It seems nearly impossible for me to convey the charitable tone I intend through a comment box when I am disagreeing. What I envision as interesting discussion seems to come across as combative. For that I am sorry. But I do agree with Sally's comment above!

J.C. said...

To clarify, I meant Sally's original comment about your being a wonderful mother; her second comment was not visible to me yet...

Pentimento said...

J.C., I'm the one who should apologize, not you. I'm sorry for getting defensive. And I hope you will continue to comment even when you disagree, because I welcome your insights.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

Oh this is delightful. I will have to look up the Dvořák book. That one is calling to me.

I love how much further you take your studies than I would ever dream. (I'm definitely going to grab your Thoreau ideas when we get to the Transcendentalists-- maybe next year or the year after?)

I really admire your idea about evangelizing beauty in the schools. Right now it seems a distant idea, but someday I'd love to find a way to bring my teaching chops to bear in a wider community. Teaching literature, poetry, writing. But for me that's a distant future dream because, as all the strangers in the grocery store like to remind me, I've got my hands quite full. Still, reading this I had a flash of vision -- something I want to make happen in the future.

Meanwhile I think that just blogging about the books we read and the lessons we create is also a way of sharing that talent.

Pentimento said...

I agree, Melanie, that your sharing your ideas on your blog has an impact on the wider community, even if it must necessarily be a self-selected community for now. And, as you say, at some later date you can offer your considerable gifts to a wider community. I think it's the non-self-selected wider community that generally needs these kinds of gifts the most, and has the most to gain from encountering what they convey.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Speaking of living in this world and not some self-created paradise . . .

A few months ago, I met a French mother who believed passionately in the equality of all people. She had demonstrated at the Eiffel Tower in support of same-sex marriage, she told me, and deliberately chose a school for her daughter that would let the girl mingle with the children of Algerian immigrants. She and I may have some intellectual differences, but I admired her philosophy of not raising her child in an ivory tower.

She also said something about TV that really struck me. Apparently, there's as much garbage on French TV as there is on yours and mine, but though she monitors her daughter's viewing, she doesn't want to cut it off entirely. These days, she explained, it is part of the normal experience of childhood to watch TV and to be aware of certain elements of pop culture; so to deprive her daughter of that would be as bad as raising her in another country and not teaching her the local language.

Pentimento said...

Interesting about the French mother, E. I wouldn't go so far as that, perhaps -- we don't have t.v. -- but I also don't want to raise my children to fear the dominant culture. My autistic son and I talk often about the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi. He has difficulty with perfectionism -- i.e. with expecting perfection of himself and the world -- and wabi-sabi is an aesthetic in which beauty is recognized in imperfection and flaws. Since I believe that each of us is meant to do his part in restoring the world, though of course that can mean millions of different things, I also believe that my children need to learn to engage with the wabi-sabi world in order to do that.

I also believe, and I recognize this has become very old-fashioned in America now, that we all have a commitment to the community. And I believe in disability advocacy. I believe my son has something to offer to his peers simply by his presence, as someone noticeably different, amongst them. And it's well-known that the presence of middle-class students with engaged parents at a school is a = crucial factor in the success of that school, and improves the performance of poor students in the same school; therefore, the idea of "pulling out" of such a school is troubling to me.

My son is aware of the poverty of some of his schoolmates. He collected toys and gave his new winter coat away last winter to a schoolmate whose apartment building had burned down when a tenant in another apartment was cooking meth. If I kept him at home, he would not see poverty and need. How do you bring God's mercy into the wabi-sabi world when you're being raised like the Buddha was, I wonder? But anyway, as I said, I'm aware that many in my cohort don't share my feelings.

Sarah Spitz said...

Thank you for your wonderful writing!
I am thinking about becoming a Catholic as I am deeply in love with God and also with a Catholic man.
It is therefore helpful to read about Catholic life and thought on your blog.

All the best from Germany and have a wonderful weekend,

Bambi

http://lasagnolove.blogspot.de/2013/09/have-wonderful-weekend_27.html

Charming Disarray said...

Please don't feel guilty about not homeschooling your children. As a former homeschooler AND non-homeschooler, I honestly believe kids needs to be exposed to perspectives from their teachers that they might not get from their parents, while at the same time learning about art, music, literature and many other things from their parents. I guess I just think both are necessary and valuable. Plus, I'm a huge fan of the New World Symphony, which my dad introduced me too. I think you're children are lucky to have you as a mother. And this is so true: "Every day before school I tell my son to look for opportunities to do kindnesses to people in his midst, because each kindness goes a little way towards the healing of the world, a world which, as we know, Jesus Christ is even now restoring unto himself."

Pentimento said...

Thank you for your kind words, Bambi and Charming Disarray. Dvorak no. 9 rocks.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Great read. Many people have kind sentiments, but you have kind thoughts. There is something both Franciscan and Thomistic in your writing. Contemplata aliis tradere. TQ

Lizzie said...

I wrote a big long comment last week which doesn't seem to have made its way to the page!
The gist of it was - I wish you were my mum. What an amazing gift you're giving your children - sharing your knowledge and introducing them to the important things in life.
I studied aesthetics and abstract expressionism in the final year of my music degree (it was a great combo) and we looked at the Charles Ives pieces you mention as well as studying the Alcotts etc. This post also brought back happy memories of that time. I must dig out some Charles Ives to play to my son...
God bless you, gifted woman!

Pentimento said...

Thank you, Lizzie and TQ. You made my day.

Pentimento said...

Also, I've been thinking about an earlier idea mentioned in this discussion. Why are religiously-motivated homeschoolers reluctant to allow their children to evangelize in "the culture"? It seems like children from religiously-committed families are uniquely equipped to "make disciples of al nations." I read recently about six-year-old Ruby Bridges, a black girl who integrated an all-white school in Louisiana in 1960 and was set upon by an angry adult mob on her first day. She knelt down in the street in her starched white dress and prayed for the mob. I would want my own children to do the same in the face of whatever mobs, literal or figurative, they have to face.

GretchenJoanna said...

It sounds to me like your children are getting the best of homeschool and public school - you are giving them what you are uniquely gifted to give, just as I could give my children -- via homeschooling or just by being their mother before and after school -- things that no one else could give. In my case there wasn't anything like the richness in appreciation of the arts that you have to give.
In your case you have enormous musical "cultural capital" as you put it, and it is lovely that you also are in a position to share that wealth with some other children, and have the heart to do it.
But all children everywhere could be said to be missing out on something that some other children are getting. No one gets everything -- but with God's grace what they ( or we) get is enough to help them grow up happy and good and desiring God.
I find it very encouraging to hear about your excellent local school -- God bless you and the other teachers and the children!

Pentimento said...

Thank you for your kind words, GretchenJoanna. They really warmed my heart.

I'm encouraged by the thought that children (and grown-ups) get what they need to be happy and to desire God. I so want these things for my children (and for all children).

Jane said...

I'm sorry that you've met homeschoolers who try to isolate their children from the world, and that there are "ivory tower" schools where children are insulated from ever seeing poverty. My friends who homeschool take their children out into the world on a regular basis, and the private school where I teach sends the kids to serve at a soup kitchen every two weeks--always the same soup kitchen, so they can see, talk to, and get to know the regular visitors.

But, yes, we do try to isolate them from the more awful parts of popular culture in their younger years, and as they get older, teach them to recognize what is true and beautiful and what is not.

Pentimento said...

Happy to hear from you, Jane, and glad you're teaching.

Much of the culture is foul, and the right response to it is to try to shield children from it. That response, however, can really only be temporary, as children grow up, and need to know how to engage with it and create alternatives to the foulness.

Again, I'm thinking of Ruby Bridges, and also the canonized child-martyrs whom we venerate. I strongly believe it's our duty to bring something good and healing into play in the world, and I don't excuse my children from that duty, though of course they need to be formed, and formation takes years. I do know people who strive to create self-contained "Catholic villages" in order to shun the outside world as much as possible, and that seems to me a grave mistake for many reasons.