More Radishes (i.e. Radical Ideas)

Education is not so much the planting of new information as the weeding out of old, deeply-rooted misinformation.

When I first heard this statement, I didn’t fully believe it. I was in college then, and determined to suck up as much information about everything as I could. I wanted to be smart, have informed opinions, express myself in a way that people would take me seriously. Education was all about information as far as I was concerned.

Having spent much of my adult life as a teacher, I now believe that misinformation is a much bigger problem than lack of information. Once we believe something, we tend to ignore information that contradicts our ‘facts.’ This is why schools will never be completely replaced by e-schools. A kid sitting in front of a computer can find lots of information, but he can’t be persuaded to believe something new if he’s already acquired wrong ideas.

My job is secure; I won’t be replaced by a software program anytime soon, if ever.
The other reason I don’t worry about my job is that I am cheaper than the alternatives. I am not complaining about how much I get paid; as many of my colleagues say, “If I wanted to be rich, I wouldn’t have become a teacher.”

But people seem to be looking at the alternatives a lot these days. Why must learning occur inside a school building? Why can’t children learn in different settings? More

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Stickers and Grades

I’ve had a few garage sales in my time. When I move from one place to another, I’m always surprised by how much junk I’ve accumulated. Selling my junk to people who consider it treasure is a good solution for everyone.

It is harder to sell things I no longer need, but am still sentimentally attached to. I can’t keep everything; there isn’t room. Even in the house where I now live, which is huge, space is running out. I’ve lived here over ten years, longer than any other house, and the extra space has somehow become packed with both junk and treasure.

It’s not hard to put stickers on things I have no attachment to – books I didn’t care for, old VHS tapes I can’t play anymore, kitchen gadgets I can’t remember why I bought, clothes that I don’t like wearing.

But putting a value on the guitar I’ve had since seventh grade, or my son’s saxophone (no longer played), or anything I spent a lot of money on is more difficult. When a man picked up my guitar and offered me 50 cents for it, I knew I could never recover what it was worth to me. I kept it.

If I held garage sales more often, I might be able to figure out what I really value.

This is what I hate about grading papers, too, except I’m not trying to sell. I’m the picky buyer looking at a beat-up guitar that someone has loved, trying to decide what I ought to pay for it. More

Sweet Rationalization

There are times when my brain is completely devoid of ideas. At such times I can successfully look at television, as long as no one asks me to explain what I’m watching. I can stare at my computer screen and occasionally hit a few keys. I might even hold a conversation. But my brain is not cooperating; it has become a sieve.

I might blame sugar for this state of mind. We are old friends, sugar and I. Unfortunately, sugar is the kind of friend my mother always warned me to stay away from. Did I listen? Of course not. I had already been brainwashed into the cult of 31 flavors.

There was a time when I believed that sugar was the root of all evil, or at least all mental and physical ailments. I read somewhere that the chemical structure of sugar and cocaine are almost identical. Believing this did not prevent me from feeding my addiction. More

Top of the Globe

Nothing grows in Barrow, Alaska. It’s like being on another planet.

I remember standing at the Arctic Ocean, looking out over the ice floes. We walked along a desolate shore, covered in smooth, black stones. I thought, “I’m standing at the top of the globe.” The North Pole was just 1122 nautical miles away, about the same distance as between Boston and Minneapolis. I put a couple stones in my pocket.

Awe is a difficult experience to describe. People tend to respond, “Cool.”

I felt somewhat the same thing the first time I used Google Earth. I decided to see if the house in Connecticut where I grew up was still there. I typed in the address and immediately zoomed up, arced across several states and flew down so quickly that I almost got dizzy.

We’re standing on a planet – one of those things we learned about in science. They were tiny spheres bouncing on a mobile, made out of styrofoam and painted different colors. We used pipecleaners to make the rings of Saturn. That was our galaxy.

But we’re not bobbing on a coat-hanger. We’re hurtling through space. If I spin a globe, I can simulate the earth’s rotation. But since I can’t feel it, and since the rest of the planets are still just painted styrofoam balls, I don’t really believe it.

I know it’s true. I know it – I just rarely feel it.

I don’t know why any of this matters; it’s just a different perspective on what I already know. Billions of people live on this planet, but you wouldn’t know it looking down from space.

And I don’t think about it as I drive to work, or stop at the store, or sit in my living room typing on my laptop. But when I go up to the park and tromp through the snow to get some exercise, I gaze up at the sky and imagine looking down at myself, a tiny ant wandering in circles.

It’s a strange feeling. Realizing that I’m so tiny and insignificant ought to make me feel fragile. Instead, I think how fragile this planet is, and I am awed.

Kamikaze Pedagogy

It’s grading time again, end of the semester, when I must put a number on everyone’s forehead. Numbers make me a little crazy, which means that this must be Random Radical Idea Day.

I’ve been teaching long enough to have a few radical ideas. I do not equate ‘radical’ with ‘crazy.’ The word comes from the Latin ‘radix,’ meaning ‘root.’ (Whence ‘radish.’)

Radical ideas are those which dig down to the roots of things. True radicals are not those ranting against things. They are not the idiots who plant bombs in shopping malls to make their point. Nor are they the people who lament the passing of ‘the way we’ve always done things.’

True radicals are those who look for the simple idea hidden by all the weedy consequences that flow from its root. When things go wrong, we don’t blithely sprinkle more seed, hoping that something new will grow. We don’t burn down the garden. We go back into the ground, looking for the source of the trouble. We get dirt under our fingernails.

We are seekers of the one true radish. More

Fun and Funner

We had a German exchange student once who kept confusing ‘fun’ and ‘funny.’ He would say, “We played paintball. It was funny,” or, “That was a fun joke.”

It’s funny – not ha-ha, but odd – that these two words behave this way. ‘Fun’ ought to be the noun, and ‘funny’ the adjective – like ‘love’ and ‘lovely,’ or ‘salt’ and ‘salty.’ And yet they can both function as adjectives – with different meanings. ‘Fun’ also works as a noun, but ‘funny’ is stuck with being an adjective.

They come from a common root: ‘fon,’ meaning ‘to befool,’ or ‘a fool.’

Going off in another direction, ‘fon’ is also the root of ‘fond,’ which used to mean ‘foolish.’ It is probably in this sense that Juliet uses the word when she tells Romeo,

“I am too fond; and therefore thou mayst think my ‘havior light.” (Romeo and Juliet 2.2.102) She fears that he may think her frivolous or silly.

Here’s something else that’s funny about ‘fun.’ Most one-syllable adjectives add -er and -est to form their comparative and superlative forms, e.g. cold, colder, coldest. Longer adjectives use ‘more’ and ‘most’ – beautiful, more beautiful, most beautiful.

But we don’t say, ‘fun, funner, funnest,’ except informally. Correct usage dictates ‘more fun, most fun.’ (Dax prediction: ‘funner’ and ‘funnest’ will be considered correct within ten years.)

We do say, ‘funny, funnier, funniest.’

Neither ‘fun’ nor ‘funny’ happily takes the adverbial suffix -ly. ‘Funly’ is not a word; though I’ve heard ‘funnily,’ it doesn’t strike my ear right.

And there are the idioms:

‘Making fun’ of someone recalls the obsolete usage – making a fool of someone.

‘Have fun,’ is an odd sort of command. As if fun could be demanded.

‘Fun’ is more versatile than its cousin; it can even be a verb (informally), as in, “I’m just funning you.” (Which must be said with the proper accent: “I’m jess funnin’ ya.”)

Both ‘fun’ and ‘funny’ are subjective concepts. For example, I think it’s fun to look up words, while most people would just find that funny (odd, not ha-ha).

The Muse is not a Jerk

People who write or paint or compose may also have a talent for making other people miserable. For some reason, they are given a pass on this behavior, on the grounds that they have an ‘artistic temperament’ and can’t be expected to remember that it’s their turn to do the dishes.

But creativity is not defined by piles of unwashed dishes, unfolded laundry, and overdue bills. All artistic people don’t live on take-out, sleep odd hours (or not at all), or forget mundane things like birthdays and anniversaries.

Creativity is no excuse for making other people pick up after you. Being an artist  doesn’t justify being a jerk.

I would like to be taken seriously as a writer, even though I’m paying my bills on time, getting enough sleep, and holding down a job. Can’t creative people have organized file cabinets and clean desks?

Where did this notion come from – the ‘artistic temperament’? More

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