Critical Thinking, “Ethan Brand,” and the Holiday Spirit

We happen to be a family that celebrates Christmas, and we have tended to do it in a fairly traditional secular way: tree, stockings, presents, sit-down dinner. For a week or so before the actual day lights twinkle stereotypically in the living room and cats sip spruce-infused water from the tree-stand. Each of us maintains a hidey-hole for gifts and avoids the burden of wrapping until the last minute. There is egg nog.

At some point in my late adolescence I remember deciding that this kind of celebration, with more-or-less mandated giving, orchestrated good cheer, and choreographed gestures of comfort and joy stripped, in my home, of religious content, was indeed a humbug. Any day can be a fine day for giving or receiving a gift, and a little more spontaneity in the exchange can deepen its meaning. Why not find other days for random family gatherings or acts of kindness? Why Christmas? Didn’t the ritualization of pretty much everything about the day empty it of meaning and eviscerate “the true spirit of Christmas,” whatever that might be?

It wasn’t so much that I was Scrooge—I wasn’t trying to save a few bucks—but rather that I was taking my role as a self-styled cultural critic to a logical end. I still can’t say that I was wrong about anything, but I had missed something rather important. I could engage in my own personal boycott of Christmas, but if no one else was, what was my point except to add a bit of critical discomfort to the lives of family and friends? (Which may have been my point. But still.) I could reject the holiday spirit, but if everyone else had it—for whatever reason, because it was in the air, because they felt Christmas or the Solstice or something similar very deeply, or just because they were “s’posed to”—then my little boycott was not just a statement but an active turning away from community.

And in my personal spiritual construct, turning away from community was in fact the definition of the wrong thing to do. I had learnt this from the Nathaniel Hawthorne story “Ethan Brand,” where this rejection is in fact the Unpardonable Sin. So I made those around me suffer through one season, and then I decided that I could acknowledge and participate in the rituals of the holiday. To be sure, I have always found gift-giving hard, because I so want to quote-what-is-the-unpardonable-sin-asked-the-lime-burner-it-is-a-sin-that-grew-within-my-own-nathaniel-hawthorne-69-92-80find the perfect thing for each recipient and I remember all too keenly the disappointments of some of my own childhood Christmases. But I also know, as a parent now, that there is something very nice about sitting around with family and watching others be surprised and occasionally genuinely delighted by another’s gift. I like the smell of the tree, even if I don’t really love egg nog.

At some point I suspect many interested children will question the rituals and traditions with which they live, and I believe wholeheartedly that they should. Whatever the holiday or occasion—and it certainly doesn’t have to be Christmas—it will mean more when the young person comes to it on his or her own terms, having tested it, questioned it, thought it through. I suppose this risks full-on rejection, but that is an individual’s right, just as it is an individual’s responsibility to figure out what he or she owes to family and community and how to make good—or not—on that obligation. I may have taken my theology from “Ethan Brand” (others will find better, richer sources), but we must all decide for ourselves where the “spirit” and the rational self and our place in the world intersect.

I am sorry for having annoyed folks with my Christmas boycott many years ago, but in my own way I grew from it, and when I say “Happy Holidays!” to some one nowadays I mean it: I want them to be happy. And I hope that they have thought about why they might be happy, or even how they could be happier or be making others happier. Being in the holiday spirit, I think, entails thinking about what this might actually mean. And meaning, of course, is what matters.happy-holidays

“Problem-Solving Communities”

A recent blog post by Steven Mintz on the Inside Higher Ed site extolled the virtues of “problem-solving communities’ The piece referenced the history of problem-solving organizations and competitions in elementary and secondary education and gave a particular shout-out to Future Problem Solving Program International, an international organization founded in 1974 to promote problem-solving as a specific skill and mindset.

Twenty-five years ago I had a brief stint as assistant coach to a team of students who were engaged in the competitions managed by Odyssey of the Mind, founded in 1978, now also an international organization imagesand competition. Our team made it to the World Finals, but a tight budget kept me off the plane to Colorado, and thus I missed seeing our team finish third there! But the experience, and the program, inspired me.

Part of that inspiration has drawn me to a certain genre of reality TV that involves problem-solving and puts the problem and the solving over human drama. The old Scrapheap Challenge (known in the U.S. as Junkyard Wars) program enchanted me, with teams competing to solve engineering challenges under tight constraints and limited in their selection of raw materials to what they could find in what seemed to be the world’s most wonderful junkyards. Project Runway at its best offers the same kind of experience: a problem, constraints, solution design, coaching, and critiques. All these shows lack is the opportunity to iterate and improve the work product, but otherwise they give a fair representation of the “design thinking” process that many schools are talking about these days.

But I digress. The Interested Child likes to reference programs and opportunities offered in schools that might pique the curiosity and perhaps in time the passions of kids, and programs like Odyssey of the Mind and its counterpart, Destination Imagination, are superb in this area–and we suspect there are local and regional versions and variations that also ignite children’s creativity around solving complex problems in ways that incorporate every aspect of STEM, STEAM, and intellectual endeavors in general. There are also numerous robotics programs and competitions that serve the same purpose–and then there is Canstruction, which combines design, problem-solving, and service learning.

So if your school–or your interested child’s school–has a team or a program based on the idea of problem-solving, look into it. If you’re an interested adult, you might even ask about volunteering as a coach or a driver or a fund-raiser.

And if there is no “problem-solving” program, suggest that having an Odyssey of the Mind, robotics, Canstruction, Destination Imagination, or similar program would be a great way to engage kids in hands-on learning in science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics, the humanities in action, and even service learning. I remember the thrill of watching kids’ gadgets and machines and solutions in action at OotM competitions, and you and any interested children you know can be thrilled, too.

#102. Become an expert on something

IDEA #102: Become an expert on something: ball bearings, the moons of Jupiter, the manufacture of lip gloss, the art of Renoir. Learn as much as you can about the science or engineering or art behind your topic; offer to give a presentation on your subject to your class at school or to some other group.

At some point many children become at least temporarily obsessed with something, and parents or guardians can nurtures the idea of obsession and expertise. Even so, many other children have a difficult time latching onto something that is truly of great interest, and so it is the combined job of the family and the child to try to identify something that has the potential to become, if not an obsession, at least the center of a strong, deep interest.

Sometimes the subject can be elicited through a kind of Socratic dialogue with the child, trying to draw him or her out on some apparent interest, past of present. The interest might be related to sport, to family, to nature, to the arts, to a pet or a hobby—it does not matter. What does matter is that child begins to see value in amassing more than a superficial knowledge or skill and to reach the point where one piece of information invites the discovery of yet another, and so on, until the youngster’s knowledge may exceed that of those around and even become a source of pride.

Many school projects are designed around the idea that the student should find an interest and develop it, and the best of such projects succeed admirably in inspiring children. Sometimes the student may carry the interest forward with him or her, building upon it until true expertise is obtained.

There is of course a danger that a narrow and passionate interest will somehow run counter to the exigencies of mr-peabody-and-sherman-tv-showschool learning, or that the individual will indeed run the danger of boring friends and family with recitations of facts and figures. With regard to the former, a well-developed interest is regarded as the sign of a capable and disciplined mind, while it may be up to those friends and family members to help give the young expert some perspective on where and when a demonstration of mastery might or might not be appropriate. But the child who possesses the curiosity and the discipline to develop a strong interest has acquired intellectual character of a fundamental and important sort.

#99. Become really good at a strategy- or mathematics-based card or board game

IDEA #99. Become really good at a strategy- or mathematics-based card or board game. Study some books on chess, and practice until you are ready to enter a local tournament. Work to develop serious skill at other games, like cribbage, bridge, go, or even checkers. Try becoming a bridge master.

Summer is game-playing time in many families, among groups of friends, and even at camps. Some people enjoy playing games above all things, and many people are blessed with a basic “game sense” that grants them a certain degree of success. But skill in serious strategy games, as opposed to those that are based on luck, can be developed, and many popular board and card games can be played by expert players at a very high intellectual level.

Few games have attracted more thoughtful attention than chess, contract bridge, and the Japanese strategy game, go. Any library’s games section will have numerous books on chess strategy and on bridge, and a larger library is likely to have books on go; the internet is another obvious source of instruction. Mastery of certain basic skills and strategies in all these games can rapidly improve a player’s level of success, and all these games have organizations devoted to raising the level of play as well as to allowing young players of equal skill to test their abilities against one another in tournaments and other ranking events. If the youngster is interested in any of these games, there is literally no limit to what he or she can achieve.

Even humbler and simpler games, like checkers, Monopoly, and other card games, have established strategies by which the most successful players play, and the internet has provided a forum for serious players that is also a great resource for novices who might wish to become serious themselves. There are tournaments held in all these games, too.

More esoteric games—strategy games like Dungeons and Dragons, Scrabble, backgammon, and other patent card and board games like Uno and Five Crowns—all have their serious players, and once again the internet has enabled communities to form. There are even junior tournaments in Scrabble, and some schools even have competitive Scrabble teams that are every bit as disciplined and intense as school chess teams.

Even if the youngster only wants to become good enough to beat a grandparent at rummy now and then, the art of seeing any game as an assemblage of strategies, contingencies, and problems to be solved is powerful intellectual exercise. Along the way the child may also develop his or her number sense, spatial visualization skills, memory, powers of observation, and ability to visualize far ahead of play.

#98. Go to a themed community festival

IDEA #98. Find a town or community festival with a particular theme; enjoy yourself, and pay close attention to what is being celebrated and how the celebration is organized

The Fourth of July and Canada Day are behind us, but summer is when the inhabitants of communities large and small seek to recognize and reinforce their sense of shared identity and also to attract others to their communities by arranging community celebrations. The result is a coast-to-coast panorama of fairs, fetes, and festivals that honor everything from local agricultural products to local history to particular religious figures or events. Some are in smaller towns and villages, while others take place in big city neighborhoods.

Such festivals often feature foods and crafts that are unique to or at least identified with their place, and often there are parades, musical performances, community meals, and sporting events to attract and engage visitors. Often there are opportunities to participate and not just spectate; the interested child can run in a race, submit a piece of art, or judge  a contest.

I am realizing as I write more of these posts how important is a sense of place in our electronically connected but all too often virtually perceived world. The interested child may be a dynamo of intellectual curiosity, creativity, and technological savvy, but if he or she does not know how to connect to and appreciate where they are–the place they inhabit and the cultural and natural complexities and wonders of that place–they will be missing something essential in their development. Humans need to be together, and we need–I think, anyhow–to feel as though there is a place in which and to which we belong. Celebrating together–even in a place that is not exactly “ours”–reminds us, reassures us even, of the power of connection to place.

#97. Explore a museum or cultural collection at a local college or university

IDEA #97. Explore a museum or cultural collection at a local college or university

Your local college or university may in fact have the superb art gallery you have already explored, but perhaps it has other collections that are more esoteric or more modest. These collections may pique or inspire new interests, and a visit may hold many surprises.

The first order of business is to determine what is there. A search through the college department listings on line may turn up a “museum” or “collection” of whose existence you had been unaware, or perhaps the college library has information. It is possible that the facility you seek has limited hours or limited access; you may even have to throw yourself on the mercy of a librarian, curator, or docent for permission to view and explore.

In the aggregate, America’s university collections of cultural and natural objects dwarf those of the Smithsonian, and locally you may find yourself gazing at birds’ eggs from the Arctic or ethnographic relics from nineteenth-century journeys to the

Yale's Peabody Museum

Yale’s Peabody Museum

South Seas; maybe you’ll even find dinosaur skeletons

. You may come across surprising and delightful troves of material from your own community’s human or geological past, or the papers and possessions of a well-known graduate of the school. Perhaps there is an arboretum or a special garden or greenhouse.

The actual content and size of the collections do not matter in this activity. The object is to explore the ways in which other minds have worked to order knowledge and experience for the use and edification of others and to let oneself be captivated and inspired in the process.

#96. Master a pre-electronic form of mathematical calculation

IDEA #96. Master a pre-electronic form of mathematical calculation: learn how to use an abacus, a slide rule, a quipu, a Curta calculator, or some other calculating device or method. Instructions can be found in libraries or the Internet, and slide rules can be found at yard sales, on Internet auction sites, or even in dusty drawers in old mathematics classrooms. There is even chisanbop, a really efficient form of calculating using just the fingers that can be learned on the Internet; it is Korean in origin, and experienced practitioners can perform chisanbop calculations almost as fast as an electronic calculator.

It is hard to believe that just two generations ago most of the electronic technology that we now use to perform mathematical calculations was unavailable to the general public. Even electric adding machines used power only to assist mechanical processes, and only the most expensive and cumbersome machines were capable of simple multiplication.

Even so, human genius in many cultures had observed certain characteristics of numbers and created hand-operated devices that could perform sophisticated and precise operations. The east Asian abacus, for example, can add, subtract, multiply, and divide in skilled hands almost as quickly as an electronic calculator; although its capacities are limited, it is still sufficient for most commercial needs. The slide rule, images-1based on logarithmic principles, enables rapid calculation in a number of modes, depending on the design of the rule (not, incidentally, a ruler, since a slide rule is not made for measurement); during World War II virtually every complex machine short of the atomic bomb was essentially developed by engineers using only slide rules.

The Curta calculator, a rarity these days and rather expensive when one can be found, is a masterpiece of precisioncurta-1-nolegend2 design and manufacture from Liechtenstein that could do virtually anything a slide rule could. But the Curta is entirely digital, taking input and yielding data in precise numbers. We are partial to the Curta if for no other reason than that its mechanical elegance is almost unsurpassed. If the youngster has access to one of these, simply handling it will be a satisfying experience.

Chisanbop (also chisenbop) made its appearance in the U.S. just as cheap electronic calculators were imagesentering classrooms, and so a promising and capable way of teaching students to perform calculations literally by hand never quite had its day in school. Like the mechanical calculators, chisanbop provides its own education in aspects of number theory.

If the youngster is intrigued by this kind of technology, there are still other, less known systems that have been used for numerical recording and calculating, and there are also groups of enthusiasts who are determined to keep alive the skill of using them. While teachers may decry the apparent de-emphasis of “math facts” in contemporary education, the simple fact is the humans have been engaged in developing ways to make calculating “automatic” for hundreds of years.

#92. Find and read from cover to cover a magazine about science or some branch of science

IDEA #92. Go to a library or a bookstore (or maybe ask a science teacher at your school) to find and read from cover to cover a magazine about science or some branch of science. Scientific American would be a natural choice, but there are magazines about astronomy, environmental science, and technology that are pretty easy to find.

In the world of science—any science—periodicals serve a paramount purpose as the vehicle through which the results of virtually all scholarly research are made public. Even Scientific American, which has been published for more than a century as the most prominent magazine for laymen as well as scientists, occasionally presents new findings, and it remains important as a monthly summary of the most significant issues and compelling ideas in the field.

But along with Scientific American there are a host of magazines, some highly technical and others written for non-scientists, whose aims are to introduce their readership to the excitement and challenge of science in the twenty-first century. Science and Nature are probably the most prestigious general publications for scientists and medical researchers, while popular magazines like Science News and BBC Focus cover many issues.

Specific sciences also have their own magazines. Astronomy and Sky & Telescope are leading astronomy magazines, but there are other very readable periodicals in fields from archaeology to zoology. There are also many, many magazines with a technical focus, some general and others relating specifically to a single aspect of computer science, say, or alternative energy.

The youngster who can spend some time leafing through one of these magazines is likely to find a few articles of interest, a few things that are intellectually challenging, and very likely an entertaining but partially baffling array of advertisements and non-editorial content that serve, if nothing else, to provide a sense of the complexity and richness of the world of science.

#90. Find your oldest living relative and ask them to tell you stories; write these down and share them

IDEA #90. Find your oldest living relative and ask them to tell you stories. Write them down in “nice” form and give copies to other family members.

It is hard to imagine a more pleasant or interesting pastime than this activity. All families have stories, short, long, funny, sad. Too often, these stories are only told as half-remembered anecdotes at wakes and funerals, when the actual participants and original tellers are no longer around to give them context, richness, detail, and meaning.

A number regional and national projects currently exist for the purpose of collecting family narratives, and some, like Storycorps, even go so far as to provide equipment so that the stories can become part of the rich fabric of American oral history. For families who can take part in such projects, the satisfaction of participation must be enormous, and their addition to the national treasury of memory rewarding in all respects.

But such work can begin on a much smaller, more personal scale. A child of almost any literate age can sit at the feet of a grandparent, aunt, or uncle and take down an anecdote or short reminiscence; computers and smartphones can also be used to record video or even just audio for later editing and transcription. Perhaps with the editorial guidance of an older hand, this narrative can be transcribed and improved into a final draft and then bound or even framed accordingly. (We would warrant that there would be some photocopies made and sent around to other family members before that final version went between covers or under glass.)

The child who begins to focus on the nature of his or her family stories will, if nothing else, connect more deeply with those who tell them. In time, perhaps, the child will even take on the responsibility of family archivist or griot. One imagines that more than a few professional authors began in just this way, and the family reminiscence is a structure that has served many novelists well.

And think of the appreciation from other members of the family, including the teller.

#89. Find and read from cover to cover a magazine or newspaper whose content is about a cultural, religious, or gender group that is not your own

IDEA #89. Go to a library or bookstore and find and then read from cover to cover a magazine or newspaper whose content is about a cultural, religious, or gender group that is not your own: The Advocate, Essence, Savoy, Ebony, Latina, aMagazine, or a local or regional paper or magazine devoted to the Jewish or Roman Catholic religious community. If you are a member of a cultural or ethnic minority, you might look at “mainstream” publications like Time or The Atlantic or even Outside or National Geographic. How does the publication that represents or focuses on a culture different your own seem different from and the same as—content, layout, advertisements—magazines or newspapers that you normally encounter?

Like viewing films or television broadcasts from other cultures, looking at magazines with a specific ethnic, cultural, or spiritual focus opens, for many of us, a window into a hitherto little-known world. Along with explorations of the aesthetics at work in these publications—their graphics, their layout, the nature of the images displayed in both editorial and advertising copy—there is also an opportunity for thoughtful content analysis. What issues are being addressed? What editorial stance can be discerned? How are the topics of articles like or unlike articles in publications that one might commonly read that represent that majority culture or that would be readily associated with one’s own culture?

In addition, some analysis of the advertising content would be interesting. What “mainstream” products are being advertised, and how are the ads for these products like or unlike products in mainstream publications? What products seem to be unique to or directly connected with the culture or group at whom the magazine is aimed? How are these products advertised?

As we live in a society in which the dominant, white, European culture makes up a shrinking majority of our population, reading about and understanding the concerns of other groups as these are represented in their own media can be a powerful tool for building cross-cultural understanding. It can also be reassuring to know that the same brands of automobiles one drives or cottage cheese one eats are equally a part of the experience and aspirations of other Americans whose “differences” are often more emphasized in society than the characteristics we all share.

The possibility exists here that the young reader may encounter editorial opinions or content that will surprise or even unsettle. We would hope very much that this activity would be undertaken entirely in the spirit of empathy and open-minded curiosity, but it is true that historically marginalized or oppressed groups may express positions in their publications that may be hard for complacent or untutored readers to digest or appreciate. The reader and his or her adult guides must be ready to discuss what the reader encounters and to work hard to understand and make sense of unfamiliar or unsettling points of view. This, after all, is the point of the exercise: to build the child’s capacity to recognize, understand, and respect other viewpoints, even if they conflict with his or her strongly held beliefs or unexamined positions. But history demonstrates that nothing kills real thought and the prospects of a truly democratic society more effectively than allowing the survival of unquestioning intolerance.

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