Sunday, February 25, 2007

My (Academic) Upbringing

Responding to Steve Hargadon, who wrote,
"Do we believe in rigor and passion in our own educations? It's a hard message, but if our free time is filled with unchallenging and mindless entertainment, and if when we talk about our school days we speak of something that is behind us that "we got through," then our children will not know any better.

"When our major method for accomplishing something is enforcement (which is really what the culture of school is now), we give the implicit message that it is not something that is going to be enjoyed, no matter how much we say otherwise. Want to help your child become a better learner? Let them see you studying math or reading a classic..."

This comment is exactly right.

Neither of my parents were academics. Neither attended university (except some night classes my father took at Sir George Williams). But in our household, academic virtues were celebrated and practiced:

- the radio was tuned to CBC (Canadian public broadcasting) and so we would hear world news, scientific programs, 'Ideas', and more...

- there were always newspapers in the house - we all ended up delivering newspapers - and articles of importance, such as the current membership of the Cabinet (in the Canadian government) were posed on the wall. There was always a big map of the world on the wall.

- my mother bought a complete set of the classic works of literature for the house (these were very specifically my mothers, and I had to ask to read them), very cheap Pelican's (low-cost Penguins) that fell apart when you read them. Everything from Shakespeare to Butler to Thoreau to Twain. I read about half the 120 book collection before the middle years of high school (talk about an advantage!)

- I joined the Book of the Month Club with my father, through which I learned a lot of history - Pierre Berton, William L. Shirer, and Albert Speer all stand out, as do my Complete Sherlock Holmes

- there was also technology, and an evident interest in technology, in the house (we weren't just about academics). Our house radio was built from a kit. Bits and pieces of telephones were always about, as my father worked for Bell. We had telescopes and microscopes (much to the distress of the local bug and amphibian population). My younger brothers benefited from my father's interest in computers, but by then (1980s) I had left home. Still, I got my first model, a big 300 baud box, from my father.

- somehow I came into possession of an old Underwood typewriter (the reason I can't type to this day, because the keys took too much force to push) and a limitless supply of paper.

- I also somehow had access to tools - hammers, saws, screwdrivers, the works - to build things (and we built numerous things, including clubhouses, tree houses, go-karts and even a stage coach).

- we had a (large) garden and learned how to grow food. We were involved in preserving and canning the food (I can still remember piles of beans, a supply that would last the entire winter). We could cook basically whenever we wanted, so I took the opportunity to bake some cakes and pies.

Things like this - which, really, began with my first set of blocks, which had letters stamped on the sides, characterized my childhood. Knowledge and learning were always valued and supported.

At the same time, though, none of it was forced on me. These things were always in my environment, but I wasn't required to read the books (though the garden work was not voluntary - everybody helped because everybody ate). It was all about the environment, and not some rigorous academic regime.