Why a blog about lifelong learning and adult education?

Some might wonder why I’m starting a new blog about lifelong learning and adult education during a global pandemic, but this actually makes good sense to me. During this challenging time, hundreds of millions of people around the world have sheltered in place, donned masks, and practiced social distancing in order to stop the spread of the coronavirus. While this is hardly an ideal way of living, perhaps this time offers opportunities to engage in healthy learning activities.
 
I’ve actually been planning to launch this blog for some time. I’ve been a lifelong learning devotee for, well, all of my life. And though I’ve earned various degrees and worked full-time as a law professor for nearly 30 years, many of my most enjoyable educational experiences have been outside of formal, degree-earning settings. Among other things, I love to read and am awash in books. The internet has enabled my news junkie status and provided many online learning opportunities. Quality television, podcasts, and social media content abound. Music is abundantly available via multiple media as well.
 
Sadly, travel — another wonderful form of learning — isn’t an advisable activity as of this January 2021 writing. This means that many rich learning experiences associated with visiting other places aren’t currently available. I look forward to the day when that aspect of our world re-opens, perhaps as early as later this year.

In any event, I hope that a blog devoted to lifelong learning and adult education will both inspire and inform. Here I’ll share personal observations and insights, tales of my own educational adventures, and plenty of learning suggestions and resources. I hope you’ll enjoy More Than a Song!

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For the story behind this blog’s title, More Than a Song, please go here.

Living history: The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis as experienced by a U.S. Navy officer on a destroyer

October 2022 marked the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a perilous showdown between the United States and the Soviet Union, in which the two superpowers narrowly averted a catastrophic nuclear war. On this Veterans Day in America, I thought I’d share the story of a late friend (and his fellow crew members) aboard a U.S. Navy destroyer, the USS Waller, which served with distinction during that critical episode in our history.

The conflict began when reconnaissance photos taken by a U.S. surveillance plane flying over Cuba revealed the stunning presence of nuclear silos, a clear sign of a potential Soviet nuclear capability within easy striking distance of America.  During a 13-day period, the U.S. and Russia engaged in a taut diplomatic and military chess match that brought us closer to nuclear holocaust than at any other time in human history. Eventually the give and take of diplomacy prevailed, but not before saber rattling between the White House and the Kremlin and U.S. and Soviet naval forces risked a nuclear exchange.

During the Crisis, my friend Brian McCrane (Annapolis ’53) was an officer aboard the Waller, which was assigned to the U.S. Navy task force that created a quarantine zone around Cuba to prevent Russian vessels from reaching the small island. After Brian passed in 2018, his oldest daughter Denise (and one of my dearest friends) gave me several albums she had assembled for him, containing records and mementoes of his service in the Navy. One of these albums is devoted to Brian’s service on the Waller, covering the period of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Reading through it recently, I understood that this was a bit of living history.

The most significant informational document in the Waller album is a memorandum that Brian prepared in 1992, in response to a request from a military historian who was researching the specific actions of U.S. Navy warships during the Crisis. Brian’s written answers to the historian’s very specific questionnaire tell a dramatic story, but you need to dig beneath a Navy officer’s tight, descriptive verbiage to grasp just how perilous the situation happened to be. I’m pleased to share some of it here, using snapshots from the album.

Brian’s memo starts by giving his dates of service on the Waller and his rank (Lieutenant) during that time.

From the album, here’s a photo of young officers aboard the Waller. Brian is on the far right.

I chuckled when I noticed that Brian was the only one not holding a drink. The son of a man who served in World War I and owned a car dealership in New Jersey, he was an earnest and serious officer, sharply focused on his duties.

Watches stood during Crisis

Here, Brian was asked to list his watches, i.e., the times that he was assigned to specific duties and responsibilities. Let’s break this down.

“Officer of the Deck” means that Brian had significant responsibilities on the ship’s bridge. Wikipedia explains that, in the U.S. Navy, the officer of the deck:

…is a watchstanding position in a ship’s crew…who is tasked with certain duties and responsibilities for the ship. The officer of the deck is the direct representative of the ship’s commanding officer and is responsible for the ship.

“General Steaming” is what it sounds like. No doubt the men were on alert, but there was no immediate threat.

But then we get to “(General Quarters) Condition I ASW,” a ship’s highest state of readiness. A call to General Quarters means that engagement with an enemy combatant is present or imminent. If you’re wondering what this might’ve sounded like on the Waller, the first 15 seconds of this recording will give you an idea:

And “ASW”? That’s anti-submarine warfare. The Waller and other U.S. Navy warships were intercepting and tracking Russian submarines, and now the situation was coming to a head. More on that below.

Fortunately, things did wind down. “Condition II ASW” indicates that a threat is present, but not imminent.

Dramatic action for the Waller

In order to stop the Soviets from delivering more weaponry to Cuba, President Kennedy ordered the Navy to set up a quarantine line designed to intercept Russian ships bound for Cuba. The Waller was among the ships assigned to that task. Brian describes the assignment as a “barrier patrol,” during which the Waller “conducted ASW operations and patrolled the assigned sectors for surface ship interdiction.”

In his compact prose, Brian describes the Waller‘s involvement in one of the most dramatic moments of the Cuban Missile Crisis: “Waller was responsible for surfacing one Soviet submarine.” They had detected a Russian diesel submarine and maintained contact with it for some 36-48 hours. The Waller kept up this cat-and-mouse game, until finally forcing the sub to surface. The Waller and supporting aircraft then escorted the sub out of the area.

So that, dear readers, is part of what “(General Quarters) Condition I ASW” was all about during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

What the U.S. Navy didn’t know

Unbeknownst to the Americans, the Russian submarines were carrying nuclear weapons. Indeed, we now know that another Russian submarine that reached the U.S. Navy’s quarantine line came perilously close to deploying a nuclear torpedo. Again, I draw upon Wikipedia:

At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Soviet patrol submarine B-59 almost launched a nuclear-armed torpedo while under harassment by American naval forces. One of several vessels surrounded by American destroyers near Cuba, B-59 dove to avoid detection and was unable to communicate with Moscow for a number of days. USS Beale began dropping practice depth charges to signal B-59 to surface; however the captain of the Soviet submarine and its zampolit took these to be real depth charges. With low batteries affecting the submarine’s life support systems and unable to make contact with Moscow, the commander of B-59 feared that war had already begun and ordered the use of a 10-kiloton nuclear torpedo against the American fleet. The zampolit agreed, but the chief of staff of the flotilla (second in command of the flotilla) Vasily Arkhipov refused permission to launch. He convinced the captain to calm down, surface, and make contact with Moscow for new orders.

In other words, but for the intervention of one Soviet officer and the cool-headed, deliberate actions of Navy personnel on both sides, nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union might have started right then and there.

Recognition and reflections

Although my friend Brian was not one to tout his individual recognitions in the Navy, it should be noted that he carried out his duties with distinction during this precarious time. Here is the formal letter of commendation he received in recognition of his performance:

Brian didn’t mention the commendation letter in the memorandum that he prepared for the military historian. However, you will see his brief assessment about the Waller‘s readiness to perform its duties:

Brian’s overall performance would soon lead to the realization of one of his major life aspirations, the command of a Navy warship. In fact, he would become the skipper of two Navy destroyers, the USS Calcaterra and the USS Joseph P. Kennedy. (The Kennedy, by the way, has found a home in Massachusetts, as part of the Battleship Cove museum of U.S. Navy ships in Fall River, not too far out of Boston, where I live.)

Brian’s years in the Navy would remain among his most cherished set of memories, and many of those he served with would be counted among his dearest friends. Here he is in 2017, about a year before his passing, enjoying one of his Navy albums.

Of course, Brian’s story is just one of millions of those who have served in the military. On this Veterans Day, please allow this lifelong civilian to bow in appreciation of that honorable service. 

Free online event: “The Dignity of an Intellectual Life for All,” Oct. 21, 1-3 pm.

The Dignity of an Intellectual Life for All

Friday, October 21, 2022, 1:00-3:00 p.m., Eastern Time, Online Format

Hosted by Suffolk University Law School (https://www.suffolk.edu/law/) and co-sponsored by:

Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, University of Chicago, Graham School https://graham.uchicago.edu/programs-courses/basic-program)

Harrison Middleton University (https://www.hmu.edu)

World Dignity University Initiative of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (https://www.worlddignityuniversity.org)

With a focus on Dr. Zena Hitz’s thought-provoking book, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life (2020), this program will examine the value of embracing the liberal arts and humanities for their own sake and consider how a rich intellectual life for everyone enhances human dignity. The program opens with a conversation featuring Dr. Hitz, followed by a responsive panel comprised of four distinguished educators, with opportunities for Q&A.

Featured Speaker

Zena Hitz, Tutor, St. John’s College, Annapolis, MD, and author, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life (Princeton, NJ: Princeton U. Press, 2020)  https://zenahitz.net

Guest Panelists

Joseph Coulson, President, Harrison Middleton University   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Coulson

Hilda Demuth-Lutze, English teacher (ret.), Chesterton High School, IN, and author of historical fiction                                               https://kingdomofthebirds.wordpress.com/about-the-author/

Amy Thomas Elder, Instructor, Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, University of Chicago, Graham School                https://graham.uchicago.edu/person/amy-thomas-elder

Linda Hartling, Director, Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies  https://www.humiliationstudies.org/whoweare/linda.php

Moderator

David Yamada, Professor of Law, Suffolk University Law School, Boston, MA https://www.suffolk.edu/academics/faculty/d/y/dyamada

UPDATE: A freely accessible recording of this very engaging program has now been posted to YouTube. Go here to watch it!

2022 side gig: Serving as a “Fellow in Ideas” at Harrison Middleton University

This year, I’m delighted to be doing an important “side gig” endeavor as a 2022 “Fellow in Ideas” at Harrison Middleton University (HMU), an online university devoted exclusively to the exploration of Great Books and Great Ideas.  Those selected as Fellows contribute reviews and essays to HMU’s publications and join in various discussion groups.

So far, my participation has included:

I look forward to taking part in more HMU activities to round out my fellowship experience during the fall.

Harrison Middleton University is a unique educational entity. Its strongest intellectual roots trace back to Great Books of the Western World, a series of books first published by the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1952, comprised mostly of full works by selected authors of the Western canon. HMU has obtained national accreditation through the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC). Whereas many DEAC-accredited members are for-profit institutions emphasizing vocational preparation, HMU is a non-profit, online university devoted solely to the liberal arts.

HMU’s work is especially needed during a time when independent inquiry, liberal learning, and the Great Books are on the decline in much of standard-brand higher education and under attack from the social and political extremes. It is a gift to be a year-long visitor to this stimulating, intelligent, and welcoming community.

“I read the news today, oh boy”: On following coverage of a war in Europe

Screenshot of an Economist subscriber briefing on the Russia-Ukraine war

I sheepishly admit that until a few weeks ago, I had never paid much attention to Ukraine. But once Vladimir Putin’s Russia appeared ready to invade its much smaller neighbor, I sat up straight and quickly realized what was at stake. And all it took was a look at a map plus my (very) rudimentary understanding of global diplomacy and treaty obligations.

Back in October, I wrote about the importance of developing a global orientation, while confessing that I had a ways to go before reaching that state of insight and awareness:

In my more self-deluded moments, I like to think of myself as being something of a “global citizen.” After all, I do some international travel, engage in work that has some transnational relevance, donate to global charities, and gratefully have friends in and from many different countries. Hey, I even subscribe to the Guardian Weekly and The Economist!

In reality, though, I’m yet another professor whose travel experiences, work, and network of friends have international dimensions. I’m just as likely to check on the fortunes of my favorite sports teams as I am to click to news stories of key developments in other parts of the world.

Well folks, it’s interesting that I touted my subscription to The Economist as evidence of a supposed international perspective. Among the news sources I’ve tapped to understand the European situation right now, this magazine is becoming my go-to authority. Its smart, concise, and historically-informed coverage is spot-on for this moment in time. And to think that I considered not renewing my subscription earlier this year!

What’s not part of my news rotation right now is regularly watching television coverage of the war. Fortuitously, I guess we could say, my cable TV service has been off and on, and for various reasons I haven’t scheduled an on-site service appointment. So I’ve been relying on online news sites and print subscriptions to keep me informed.

My verdict? Television news may provide that dramatic, you-are-there kind of coverage, but it’s thin on deeper perspective and endlessly repetitive to boot. It feeds anxiety over the global situation, without delivering a concomitant benefit of more in-depth understanding.

The heroism and suffering of the Ukrainian people,  the actions and intentions of a tyrant in command of a huge military force, and the diplomatic chess game both transparent and opaque have drawn much of my attention. Two weeks ago, I missed a university committee meeting because I had gone down an internet news rabbit hole about the Russian invasion — clicking like mad from site to site and story to story — and didn’t re-emerge until the meeting had concluded!

When the world initially went into shutdown mode during the pandemic, some pundits said this marked the end of an era of globalization that had defined our international outlook since the 1990s. But this war in Ukraine is showing us, with sudden brutality, how we cannot afford to look at our lives through a narrower lens. Memo to self: We are all citizens of the world, whether we choose to admit it or not. Our day-to-day learning and self-education must encompass that global view.

Walking the streets of Ye Olde London Towne: When a big book satisfies

My current streaming devotion is Netflix’s “The Frankenstein Chronicles” (2 seasons, 2015-17), a mystery and horror drama set in early 19th century London. The series features Sean Bean as Inspector John Marlott, lead investigator of a string of violent crimes possibly associated with a scientist who is intent on bringing the dead back to life. It’s a clever build on Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818).

“The Frankenstein Chronicles” depicts the London of the poor and downtrodden, drawing upon real-life historical figures to make for an entertaining mix of fact and fiction. This grim and gritty side of 19th century London has long held a fascination for me.

In fact, this current binge view caused me to reach for one of my favorite books of popular history, Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography (2001).  Here’s a snippet from the Publisher’s Weekly starred review of the book:

Novelist and biographer Ackroyd (The Plato Papers; T.S. Eliot; etc.) offers a huge, enthralling “biography” of the city of London. . . . Ackroyd examines London from its pre-history through today, artfully selecting, organizing and pacing stories, and rendering the past in witty and imaginative ways. . . . Anglophiles and others will rejoice.

London: The Biography is less a chronological history and more a thematic narrative, drawing generously on contemporary accounts from Londoners known and not-so-well known. Its greatest success is an array of especially vivid depictions of everyday life during the Elizabethan through Victorian eras.

Reading this book, you can practically smell the cooked food from street carts and cheap eateries, and the stinking slop of unsanitary streets. You can picture yourself walking into smoky coffee houses and seeing Londoners of all types conducting their business over “dishes” of the hearty brew. You can imagine the awful living conditions of the working poor and the destitute.  And you quickly grasp that stealing a bit of food or an item of clothing, even out of pure desperation, may lead to harsh and humiliating punishments meted out by an unforgiving justice system.

This is a big book — some 800 pages — but fortunately it can be read selectively and completely out of order, dipping and choosing based on one’s specific curiosities. If you decide to take a look at it, do remember that you’re not reading about a city celebrated for its beauty, such as Paris or Venice. Rather, as Patrick McGrath put it in a review titled “A City Much Like Hell” for the New York Times, this is:

…a loving portrait of a rambunctious monster, warts and all. Of the modern city Ackroyd says it ”can hold, or encompass, anything; in that sense it must remain fundamentally unknowable.” His own great accomplishment in this hugely entertaining volume is to make unknowable London to a large extent knowable — by the inspired selection and deft organization of extraordinary materials, and his spirited prose. He succeeds in animating on the page the lived life of one of the oldest and greatest — if dampest and grayest — cities in the world.

 

Aristotle’s invitation to consider the people and events material to our lives

As I wrote in one of this blog’s first posts, since last September I have been enrolled in the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, offered by the University of Chicago’s Graham School for Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies. The Basic Program is an open enrollment, non-credit, four-year study of the Great Books of Western Civilization.

There are no exams, papers, or grades. Rather, the main activities are reading and discussion, via weekly classes smartly facilitated by Program instructors. Traditionally offered in face-to-face format at the school’s Chicago center, the Basic Program is now available online as well. (It has been delivered exclusively online during the pandemic.) The online format has made it possible for me to enroll from Boston.

Aristotle’s Poetics

Among the books assigned for our current, second-year autumn session is Aristotle’s Poetics, regarded as the first comprehensive work of literary criticism. Aristotle was an inveterate cataloguer and categorizer of knowledge and information. In this compact work (all of 35 pages, in the edition we’re reading), he identifies and discusses the core properties of literature and poetry, including tragedy, epic poetry, and comedy.

I find it fascinating to read how Aristotle sets out basic elements of storytelling that we now teach from grade school on up. At times he keeps it remarkably simple, telling us that a plot “is a whole if it has a beginning, a middle, and an end” (ch. 7). A little later,  he reminds us that “if the presence or absence of a thing makes no discernible difference, that thing is not part of the whole” (ch. 8). It’s basic stuff that we now may take for granted, but Aristotle helped to give us these elementary frameworks for understanding and creating dramatic work.

The stories of our lives

I also find that Poetics helps me to view my own stories more clearly. For example, the two passages quoted above may seem like statements of the obvious, rather than meaningful insights. After all, it doesn’t take a literary scholar to know that stories and plots — including our own — have a beginning, middle, and end. It also doesn’t take much to understand how people and things that pass through our lives with little impact aren’t core parts of our life stories.

But they serve as easy frames for identifying, sorting, and understanding the stories of our lives. What are those plots? What are their beginnings, middles, and ends? Who are the core players in them? Perhaps I’m especially appreciative because I’ve reached a point in my life where events and people in my life seem to be shaping into coherent chapters. On that note, a short passage from Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation (2004), by the late Joseph Campbell, is instructive:

In a wonderful essay called “On an Apparent Intention in the Fate of the Individual,” [philosopher Arthur] Schopenhauer points out that, once you have reached an advanced age, as I have, as you look back over your life, it can seem to have had a plot, as though composed by a novelist. Events that seemed entirely accidental or incidental turn out to have been central in the composition.

Making the Great Books your own: Growing in literary literacy or cherry-picking for relevant passages?

Let me confess that I may be guilty here of cherry-picking Poetics to suit my own purposes. Unlike some of Aristotle’s other works, this is not obviously applicable as a self-help volume. And yet I’m juxtaposing two short passages in a way that serves such a purpose for me.

In the Basic Program, our first objective is to understand and appreciate these works as literature. We are expected to read assigned chapters closely before class. During class, oftentimes we read passages aloud and discuss them at length. For many students in the Program, this is a golden opportunity to obtain a classical liberal arts education during the heart of adulthood, and/or to renew a connection with books encountered (and sometimes glossed over, to put it kindly, in my case) in our earlier schooling.

However, as one of our learned Chicago instructors has remarked on several occasions, the Great Books can also work as therapy. In fact, we now have a term — bibliotherapy — that captures how reading works of literature can help people to understand and cope with the ebbs and flows of their own lives. There’s even a book that provides specific reading suggestions, Ella Berthoud & Susan Elderkin, The Novel Cure, From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You (2013).

Personally, I am happy to combine both programmatic and personal learning benefits in reading these classic books. Unlike some of my more intellectual friends, I am not given to reading great novels and other literary works for their own sake. I need a connection, a point of relevance, to appreciate them more fully. So when a few lines from Aristotle speak to me, I get excited about that. I hope there will be many more such moments during the path of the Basic Program.

Embracing middlebrow culture: The Book-of-the-Month Club

1965 BOMC ad

Not long ago, if you were part of America’s growing middle class and wanted to expand your cultural literacy, the Book-of-the-Month Club (BOMC) was a popular option towards doing so.

Founded in 1926, BOMC was the brainchild of New York ad agency guys who tapped into America’s embrace of mail order and the reading appetites of its upwardly mobile middle class. People typically became BOMC members by answering a magazine ad or a direct mail invitation. The Club’s marketing hook was an initial membership package that offered either a free premium volume or allowed you to select titles from the club’s catalog for a small initial sum. However, you also had to fulfill a membership agreement, which meant buying a specified number of books at club prices within the next two or three years.

Every month, members would receive a packet in the mail, containing a flyer describing the editors’ main selection for that month, a short catalog describing alternate and back list selections, and a reply card. If you did nothing, the main selection would be sent to you. You could also use the reply card to indicate that you didn’t want the main selection or to order alternate and back list selections.

Here’s a premium book once offered to new BOMC members, a 1954 illustrated profile of Europe. I can only imagine the different emotions evoked by this volume, published just nine years after the conclusion of the Second World War.

(photo: DY)

BOMC as a middlebrow cultural broker

BOMC offered a way to bring good books into your home with minimal hassle, screened by reviewers who had discerning eyes for the reading tastes of middlebrow America. Over the years, BOMC assembled various panels of judges to evaluate and select books for its catalog, some of whom were accomplished authors in their own right. During the Club’s heyday, serving as a BOMC selection committee judge carried some prestige within mainstream publishing circles.

Commercially speaking, BOMC was a big deal to authors seeking to broaden their readership. Main selection status signaled a stamp of approval by a trusted brand and a guarantee of higher sales. BOMC favored quality fiction and non-fiction for a general, intelligent audience, while largely avoiding books that might be considered too tawdry or cheesy. Its marketing campaigns played on such appeal and the idea of building a good home library, while usually managing to avoid lapsing into higher-level snobbery.

Among some stuffier types, however, this combination of commercial advertising and middle class reading tastes prompted derision of the whole enterprise (and by implication, perhaps, of its customers). Nevertheless, the Book-of-the-Month Club elevated America’s literary intelligence by bringing good books to an upwardly mobile swath of America’s population.

BOMC bestseller

If you’re looking for a sign of where BOMC’s cultural center of gravity rested during its heyday, consider that its bestselling book ever was journalist William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. First appearing in 1960, it was a publishing phenomenon, stunning industry experts who believed that Americans wanted to put anything to do with the war behind them. The Rise and Fall was a BOMC main selection and a favorite backlist choice for years to come.

 (photo: DY)

Big box and online booksellers

Predictably, the appearance of larger, brick and mortar bookstores and the emergence of online booksellers would spell trouble for the Book-of-the-Month Club. I was an off-and-on member from the 1980s through the early 2000s, and I witnessed its steadily declining commercial and cultural significance in shaping reading appetites.

After briefly shutting down in 2014, BOMC quietly reappeared the next year. Its owner, Bookspan, relaunched the Club as a fully online enterprise, using a streamlined subscription model. Its target readership is younger women who enjoy popular fiction.

When more is less special, and less is more special

I sometimes think about BOMC’s classic sales model as I try to manage my personal and professional book collections.

I’m generally careful in my personal spending, except for when it comes to buying books. On that note, I have little willpower. I can justify rationalize a book purchase on multiple grounds: (1) I want to read it now; (2) I want to read it later; (3) I might want to read it later; (4) It’s on sale; (5) It’s a used bookstore bargain find; (6) It’s useful for my work; (7) It’s a lovely edition of a favorite book; (8) Whatever. As a result, I have many more books than I could ever hope to read, even assuming a comfortable retirement someday and many healthy years to follow.

I’m grateful that I can afford to indulge my book-buying habit. I realize, however, that adding multiple books to my home and office libraries each month is not as special as the delicious anticipation of a new book, selected from a curated list. For example, I wonder how cool it was for a hungry reader to receive Marchette Chute’s Shakespeare of London (1949), including a neat little essay accompanying the volume.

(photo: DY)

Highly recommended

I won’t burden you with further observations about BOMC’s place in America’s 20th century cultural history. If you want to learn more about that story, with a big dollop of personal reading memoir mixed in, then I highly recommend Janice Radway’s A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle Class Desire (1997). Ignore the snarky reviews by those who, for some reason, can’t get over (1) a book that’s good with middlebrow culture; and (2) BOMC’s undeniable profit-making motive. This is an informative and entertaining read.

(photo: DY)

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Note: Passages from this post were adapted from a 2016 entry to my personal blog, Musings of a Gen Joneser.

On developing a global orientation

Old Town Square, Prague, Czech Republic, during a 2017 visit for a law and mental health conference (photo: DY)

In my more self-deluded moments, I like to think of myself as being something of a “global citizen.” After all, I do some international travel, engage in work that has some transnational relevance, donate to global charities, and gratefully have friends in and from many different countries. Hey, I even subscribe to the Guardian Weekly and The Economist!

In reality, though, I’m yet another professor whose travel experiences, work, and network of friends have international dimensions. I’m just as likely to check on the fortunes of my favorite sports teams as I am to click to news stories of key developments in other parts of the world.

By contrast, I know a good number of people whom I count as bonafide global citizens. Whether they travel around the world or not, they have a genuine international orientation that gives them a broader perspective on this planet we inhabit. Some, like friends and colleagues connected with the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network and the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence, two wonderful organizations on whose boards I serve, devote significant energies toward furthering peace, justice, and humanitarian initiatives around the world.

How can we become more globally oriented citizens? This question has crossed my mind often and seems especially important right now, as we continue to grapple with a global pandemic and face a world increasingly impacted by climate change. Ironically, these developments threaten to turn us inward rather than outward, restricting international travel (a marvelous way of expanding our horizons) and causing us to protect our smaller circles rather than advancing the well-being of the broader global community.

For those of us who have leaned towards being more local or national in our outlook, it requires intentionality to view the world through a wider lens. This includes paying closer attention to news developments from around the world. It means bringing a more inclusive spirit to our lives, one that celebrates variety and diversity and naturally builds bonds with people from other cultures. And, when possible, travel can be part of the picture. In the words of Rick Steves, the popular travel author and educator:

Of course, travel, like the world, is a series of hills and valleys. Be fanatically positive and militantly optimistic. If something’s not to your liking, change your liking. Travel is addicting. It can make you a happier American, as well as a citizen of the world. Our Earth is home to over 7 billion equally important people. It’s humbling to travel and find that people don’t envy Americans.

. . . Globetrotting destroys ethnocentricity. It helps you understand and appreciate different cultures. Travel changes people. It broadens perspectives and teaches new ways to measure quality of life. Many travelers toss aside their hometown blinders. Their prized souvenirs are the strands of different cultures they decide to knit into their own character. The world is a cultural yarn shop.

And, at its most challenging levels, building a global outlook involves trying to understand and address the seemingly intractable differences that are causing so much strife and division today. For as President Kennedy said in his moving and compelling 1963 speech on the urgent need to curb the nuclear arms race:

And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.

My problem with The New Yorker — or is it The New Yorker’s problem with me?

A New Yorker cover for our times

For decades, The New Yorker magazine has aspired to excellence in publishing what we now call long-form journalism. Each week, it delivers well-written, deeply-researched, and fact-checked dives into topics both mainstream and esoteric, along with fiction, poetry, reviews, and its legendary one-panel cartoons. A subscription to The New Yorker is something of a mild status symbol, proclaiming that you seek quality commentary about current events and popular culture.

The New Yorker also has a very lively online presence. In addition to publishing its print issue articles online, it adds a lot of content daily, often on breaking news topics. In all, The New Yorker offers a lot to its subscribers.

But here’s my somewhat blasphemous hypothesis: The New Yorker may also be one of the most unread magazines in existence. If my experience is in any way typical (and I freely admit that it may not be so), then a lot of folks get their magazine in the mail, quickly scan the table of contents, and then put it aside with the best of intentions to get to those beefy articles when free time allows. We rinse and repeat with each weekly issue, thus creating a pile in our homes.

Furthering the blasphemy: The New Yorker sometimes says too much about too little. Too many long pieces are overextended explorations by gifted writers who are very close to narrow topics that may not justify the reading time of many readers. Others — such as lengthy explorations of current news topics — may have a very limited shelf life. (I’m not going to give examples, because my purpose is not to trash specific pieces or writers.)

In sum, The New Yorker strikes me as being a writer’s magazine, but not necessarily a reader’s one.

Of course, my problem with The New Yorker could fairly be recast as The New Yorker‘s problem with my limited attention span and my decidedly middlebrow center of cultural gravity. You see, as much as I’d like to think of myself as the kind of reader who devours each issue in order to be both informed and sufficiently erudite, I am not that person.

Many of my day-to-day interests are of a niche variety, and if The New Yorker‘s chosen deep dive niches don’t match with mine, then I’ll likely flip past them. (To be totally fair, I don’t expect The New Yorker to run pieces about my niches, such as my passion for karaoke or my interest in obscure, defunct professional football leagues.) And I tend to rely on newspapers (online editions, these days) for current news and commentary.

From a lifelong learning perspective, The New Yorker implicates the choices we make about our reading. Given X amount of time available for reading, how much of it do I want to devote to lengthy article Y? Using that calculus, I’m on the fence about renewing my subscription.

In any event, I’m confident that my little critique of The New Yorker will not have a negative impact on its readership. I’m good with that. After all, the magazine stands for quality commentary and stringent editorial standards, at a time when the written word needs such strong support.

Masterful, self-directed learners: The Wright Brothers

A wonderful, fascinating story.

At this stage of my life and career, most of my learning is self-directed. I know that I share this trait with many other middle-aged adults. This understanding has led me to be thinking a lot about the philosophy and practice of self-directed learning lately. It also has caused me to return to  historian David McCullough’s wonderful book, The Wright Brothers (2015).

Before we dive into the main story, let’s start with a definition. In Self-Directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers (1975), renowned adult education professor Malcolm S. Knowles defines”self-directed learning” as:

…a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.

That’s as good a definition as any. It covers what a lot of us are doing to enrich our lives and hone new skills.

It also captures what Orville and Wilbur Wright did on their way to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903, when they invented and flew the first successful airplane.

Going back to my boyhood days, I had long been familiar with the historic narrative of the two brothers who owned a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio and used virtually all of their spare time to learn about flying. I figured that I knew what I wanted to know about that story, until I started reading McCullough’s book and became enthralled.

McCullough writes about how Orville and Wilbur were raised in very modest surroundings by a missionary father who strongly believed in the power of reading, how their sister Katharine strongly influenced and supported their work, and how an intense devotion to teaching themselves the science and mechanics of flight led to their success.

The brothers were smart and eager to learn. Wilbur, notably, demonstrated qualities of genius. Their accomplishments were especially remarkable given that, as McCullough states, they had “no college education, no formal technical training, no experience working with anyone other than themselves, no friends in high places, no financial backers, no government subsidies, and little money of their own.”

At the time Orville and Wilbur were reading the existing scientific studies about the prospects of manned flight and conducting experiments with homemade wind tunnels in their bicycle shop, other more prominent, well-funded, and well-credentialed inventors and scientists were also working tirelessly to become the first to achieve motorized flight. But this did not dissuade the two brothers from pursuing their goal, with a giant assist from sister Katharine. In fact, they would largely rewrite the book on the science of flying. and in the process refute previous theories and studies advanced by many “experts” on aviation.

Talk about self-directed learning…with a learning outcome that was literally airborne and with consequences that would change the world! If anyone doubts the power of self-directed learning, then let Orville and Wilbur Wright be prime examples that prove otherwise.

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For more about self-directed learning, check out the International Society for Self-Directed Learning and the Alliance for Self-Directed Education.

Some passages in this piece are drawn from a 2015 article about David McCullough and the Wright Brothers posted to my professional blog, Minding the Workplace.