Wednesday, January 02, 2013

When I Was A Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson

I hope this finds you all well and rested from the holidays. I spent them in upstate New York surrounded by a flurry of snowstorms and even got an extra couple of days due to weather related flight cancelations. I did not have nearly as much time to read as I had hoped, but I was able to get into a book I had been truly looking forward to. With class required readings behind me for the time being, I am able to turn to the stack of books that has been sorely neglected and I pulled out When I Was A Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson. Robinson is easily one of the most talented writers living today. Her novel Gilead won the 2004 Pulitzer and her other two novels, Housekeeping and Home are profound, beautifully written, and challenging. I've heard people I greatly respect compare her positively to C. S. Lewis and Wendell Berry and I'm inclined to agree. Her skills of observation allow her to cut through so much of the clutter that crowds our days and refocus her readers' attention on the things that are eternal and true.

While I have not finished When I Was a Child I Read Books, I have greatly enjoyed what I have read so far and anticipate that the more time I spend with this book, the more I will be challenged and inspired. Robinson, a student of American history for the past four decades, seems to have written this book as an attempt to refocus our attention on what it means to be American, what it means to be a citizen of a democracy, and what our roles within this community are. Her concern for our educational system is palpable as is her alarm at the rapid fracturing of society. I wanted to share a few things that stood out in her essay "Imagination and Community" as they relate to education and many of the topics we discuss here. Below are a few of the passages that jumped out at me:

Robinson on the role of books in her life:
I remember once, as a child, walking into a library, looking around at the books, and thinking, I could do that. In fact I didn't do it until I was well into my thirties, but the affinity I felt with books as such preserved in me the secret knowledge that I was a writer when any dispassionate appraisal of my life would have dismissed the notion entirely. So I belong to the community of the written word in several ways. First books have taught me most of what I know, and they have trained my attention and imagination. Second, they gave me a sense of the possible, which is the great service–and too often, when it is ungenerous, the great disservice–a community performs for its members. Third, they embodied richness and refinement of language, and the artful use of language in the service of the imagination. Fourth, they gave me and still give me courage. 
On the value of educators:
From time to time I, as a professor in a public university, receive a form from the legislature asking me to make an account of the hours I spend working. I think someone ought to send a form like that to the legislators. The comparison might be very interesting. The faculty in my acquaintance are quite literally devoted to their work, almost obsessive about it. They go on vacation to do research. Even when they retire they don't retire. I have benefited enormously from the generosity of teachers from grade school through graduate school. They are an invaluable community who contribute as much as legislators do to sustaining civilization, and more than legislators do to equipping the people of this country with the capacity for learning and reflection, and the power that comes with that capacity. Lately we have been told and told again that our educators are not preparing American youth to be efficient workers. Workers. That language is so common among us now that an extraterrestrial might thing we had actually lost the Cold War. 
The purpose of an education:
The intellectual model...for most of the older schools in America–for all of them, given the prestige and influence of the older schools–was a religious tradition that loved the soul and the mind and was meant to encourage the exploration and refinement of both of them. I note here that recent statistics indicate American workers are the most productive in the world by a significant margin, as they have been for as long as such statistics have been ventured. If we were to retain humane learning and lose a little edge in relative productivity, I would say we had chosen the better part. 
I hope you find these passages encouraging as people who have chosen a different educational path and are investing in the future generation in unique and profound ways. If you are interested in purchasing Robinson's excellent book, feel free to give us a call at 800.889.1978 and we'd be happy to special order you a copy. I have found it to be a good book to read at the beginning of a new year, with all it's promise and challenge, this book provides thoughts to wrestle with and ponder in the days to come.

I would love to hear what you're reading right now! Any books you've found particularly challenging or inspiring? Any favorite titles from 2012? Leave a comment below to share the titles with other readers!

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Education as Legacy

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