Way Leads on to Way

March 7, 2008 @ 1:09 pm | Filed under: , , ,

The other day I posted a link to this article about Harvard professor John R. Stilgoe. The article made me want to read his book, Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places. I’m only a chapter in, and already I can tell this is going to be one of those books I have to post a lot about as I’m reading it. It’s transformative.

Some quotes:

[Regarding his courses at Harvard]

“…I refuse to provide a schedule of topics. Undergraduate and graduate students alike love schedules, love knowing the order of subjects and the satisfaction of ticking off one line after another, class after class, week after week. Confronted by a professor who explains that schedules produce a desire, sometimes an obsession, to “get through the material,” they grow uneasy. They like to get through the material.

“I explain that the lack of a topic schedule encourages all of us to explore a bit, to answer questions that arise in class or office hours, to follow leads we discover while studying something else. Each of the courses, I explain patiently, really concerns exploration, and exploration happens best by accident, by letting way lead on to way, not by following a schedule down a track.

“My students resist the lack of topic structure because they are the children of structured learning and structured entertainment. Over and over I explain that if they are afraid of a course on exploring, they may never have the confidence to go exploring on their own.”


“Learning to look around sparks curiosity, encourages serendipity. Amazing connections get made that way; questions are raised—and sometimes answered—that never would be otherwise. Any explorer sees things that reward not just a bit of scrutiny but a bit of thought, sometimes a lot of thought over years. Put the things in spatial context or arrange them in time, and they acquire value immediately.”

This is exactly what I’ve enthused about when I write about the connections my kids have made—I get so excited about it; it amazes me to see what they put together in their minds, and where the subsequent discussion takes us. It’s how I learn best, and live best, too.

In a post a while back I quoted Sandra Dodd on connections:

“Learning comes from connecting something new to what you’ve already thought or known.”

She has a connections page on her website (well worth your time to explore). At the top is a quote from Heraclitus, circa 500 B.C.:

A wonderful harmony arises from joining together the seemingly unconnected.

Yesterday, perched in that tree outside the library, Beanie looked at a sign on a church across the street and said, “Mom! The Black Douglas!”

The sign said “E. Douglas.” It reminded her of the story of The Black Douglas (a Scottish hero) that we read in James Baldwin’s book Fifty Famous Stories Retold. She giggled and said the sign should say “B. Douglas.”

The Baldwin book is a great one for connections. When we see rocks poking up from beneath the waves out at sea, Bean calls out, “The Inchcape Rock!” We have a whole long-running family joke spinning off King Alfred and the cakes he burned while daydreaming military strategy. The joke kind of blurs into my kids’ very, very favorite Gunther children quote, uttered by a young Margaret at dinner one night: “Mommy, my burnt corn is cold!”

(One of the many reasons I adore Alice. She’s my kind of cook.)

Last weekend the girls were watching a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Tom was conducting an orchestra in the Hollywood Bowl (and beating down an eager Jerry who wanted to help). Jane wanted to know what the music was. I thought it sounded like Strauss, but I wasn’t sure, so I (what else) Googled it. Sure enough: it’s the overture from Die Fledermaus. We looked it up on Wikipedia and read about the opera, and we watched the overture on YouTube. Which led to viewing other songs, mostly sung by the famous coloratura Edita Gruberova, who is famous for her Adele in Fledermaus and who also played the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Magic Flute, which (if you want another Alice connection) is the song my cell phone plays when she calls me because it always reminds me of her daughter Theresa singing the aria around the house. And from there way led on to many other ways, and these connections will keep popping up in years to come, linking to something else.

Oh, I just remembered writing about this years ago, how I love that we call it “linking” when a topic on one web page connects to a page somewhere else.

“Way leads on to way,” of course, is a quote from “The Road Less Traveled.” But unlike Frost’s traveller, who, “knowing how way leads on to way,” doubts life will ever bring him back to this crossroads in the wood where he has chosen to take the less traveled path, the paths unfolding before our connections can and will be revisited and explored endlessly, in different ways, all through our lives. And like the paths in the wood, where wind and light and leaves and wildlife are always altering the landscape so that the path changes from hour to hour, our mental landmarks are changed and built upon and nuanced every time we revisit them.

Another funny connection: I had read much of the first chapter of Outside Lies Magic to Jane yesterday—it’s one of those books you just can’t keep to yourself—including the parts quoted above about Stilgoe’s students being uncomfortable working without a clearly defined linear schedule. This morning I asked Beanie to do a job for me, and I was explaining it step by step— overexplaining, evidently, because Jane laughed and said, “Gosh, Mom, it’s like you think she’s a Harvard student.” Heh.

“Exploration,” says John Stilgoe,

“is a liberal art, because it is an art that liberates, that frees, that opens away from narrowness. And it is fun.”

Yes: it is so, so much fun, and that is why I write these posts all chattery with excitement over this or that connection the kids made today. (Or that I made myself!) I know I get carried away, but that’s the point, isn’t it, that way leading on to way has carried me away? And yet—and yet—I think we are at once ‘carried away’ and made more fully present in the now, more rooted, by these relationships between ideas about things past and future. The joy of connection makes me want to celebrate this moment, this brief encounter with wild-haired child and broad-trunked tree, bus going by, sign on church wall, Scottish warlord creeping over the tower wall and startling the English soldier’s wife who has just put her babe in arms to sleep by crooning that the Black Douglas won’t get him. Child, laughing, shouting “Dinna ye be sae sure aboot that!” across the courtyard outside the library. How can I not celebrate this freedom?

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38 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. JoVE says:

    Now your making me think I need to read that book. Sounds very interesting. And the kind of thing I agree with, too.

  2. Jennifer in OR says:

    Wow, I love the new site over here! Nice and clean and pretty! Well, I think I need to get the Outdoor Lies Magic book. I never call myself an unschooler, and I don’t like the label at all, but somehow I act unschooly in many ways. Thanks for sharing these bits.

  3. Shaun says:

    Me too! I have really been thinking about the tendency to “get through” things rather than do them just to do them — I have a post that’s been in my draft box for quite a while on that very topic.

    Is it a recognition of that “get through winter” feeling now that spring is almost here?

    I look forward to finding that book!

  4. Summer says:

    Sounds like a good book! I can’t wait to hear more about it. I wonder if my local library would have it.

  5. Alice Gunther says:

    ROFL, so glad to laugh about the burnt corn with you!!!!

    🙂 🙂 🙂

  6. JJ Ross says:

    Speaking of Robert Frost, I just heard on NPR this afternoon that his 1947 talk to Dartmouth students on “poetry” has been released in tape and transcript form by his foundation. They played a few bits of it, and it was amazing! There will no dount be am audio link to hear the story after 9pm tonight at npr.org. 🙂

  7. Anabetty says:

    I love this! I love the description of your day and to see all those connections being formed. But there’s always this voice that says, look at all those people over there at Ambleside and all that they are accomplishing….as they are getting older we’ve got to get serious about our schooling….how am I supposed to prepare them for college….if I let the kids do what they wanted, they would play computer games or watch tv all day….without some structure they start getting on each other’s nerves…

    I do see your lack of anxiety and your ability to “be all there” in every moment with your children and this really appeals and speaks to me. How do you deal with these other “voices”? I am really interested in wanting to learn more.

    Today I had to take a “Teacher’s Mental Day”. I just wore myself out today. The kids did their math, their assigned reading, wrote a letter to a friend, worked on some crafts, and have been playing Zoo Tycoon for the past 2 hours. Somedays I just need to take a day off for myself (I didn’t do our history read alouds, our composer/artist study, we didn’t get to our nature time…). I’m trying to be okay with this. I need to learn from you!!!

    Many Thanks!
    Ana Betty

  8. Jeanne says:

    I love Outside Lies Magic, and I can’t believe you have that book. I read it a few years ago having picked it up completely randomly and found that Stilgoe captured something I had so often thought about. But he gave me a way to think about it so much more clearly.

    Only yesterday, my 10 year old and I were at the playground in a neighboring town, and I said, “Look, I’ll bet anything there were train tracks there.” Together we examined the level but raised ground arranged in the long slow curve.

    “Why here?” I asked the boy.

    “That building was a factory, and maybe that one was the feed store.”

    Yes! The train brought cotton, coal, hay, grain and seed, a long time ago.

    And sure enough, we went on a little further and saw a refurbished caboose parked on a short remnant of rail, serving as part of a “Rails to Trails” trail head.

    Then there is the knotty old barb wire strand between apartment buildings, once having kept cows from corn, and the old stone foundation in the woods of a farm we once owned, explaining the mysterious “rights to use the creek for water” written in a very old deed to the property.

    Stilgoe made me feel company in *seeing* more in what I was *seeing* – and his *divergent thinking* was an astonishing tribute to learning-as-exploration.

    Oh, enjoy! I didn’t want it to be over when it was over, and you might make me dig it out of one of the unpacked boxes, so I can go with Stilgoe again, way leading on to way.

  9. Becky says:

    Way 🙂

    When I first read the Stilgoe article from the CBS link you posted, it reminded me very much of the WaPo’s “Pearls Before Breakfast” article that was making the education/hs’ing rounds last year.

    It’s not enough to be outdoors. You have to keep your eyes and ears (and heart) open…

  10. Melissa says:

    Jeanne, do unpack it and reread it! It would be fun to explore the book together. (That goes for the rest of you.) Imagine the stories we could swap…

    Loved loved loved the traces-of-trains story. I know just what you mean, Jeanne, about having been in this habit of noticing before and having Stilgoe’s book bring it into articulated focus–realizing, too, that the sort of things I usually notice have to do with nature, signs of spring, look at those red flowers drooping over the white wall, etc. I can see that Stilgoe will have me noticing other things outside my usual range of interests. Which is why, of course, it is good to explore and notice with others, who bring new background knowledge and ways of observing.

    Jane read an article in Muse magazine about cell phone towers disguised as trees. My kids have been spotting them all over San Diego, including one right behind our church which we must have passed a hundred times before Jane spotted it.

    I had a professor in college who talked about the “Yugo Syndrome”–after the first time you hear about something (for him it was a Yugo), you suddenly see it everywhere. You must have been passing them all along but not noticing because you didn’t have a name for it.

    Scott just told me about a study or something that showed people five shades of pink, and the people called them all pink, couldn’t really distinguish between them. Then they were told names for each shade, and suddenly they could SEE the shades, distinct from one another. They needed the words in order to make the observation. (Honey, what was that link?)

  11. Melissa says:

    Speaking of Robert Frost, I just heard on NPR this afternoon that his 1947 talk to Dartmouth students on “poetry” has been released in tape and transcript form by his foundation.

    JJ, thanks for the heads-up–I will look for this! Thanks, too, for introducing me to Stilgoe. You were the person who posted the link to that CBS article. (At Unschooling Discussion, was it?)

  12. Jennifer says:

    I wish I had enough confidence to educate like this. I think I’ll get there – and I know from experience it works, but I’m still so new at this. I wish you could have heard the talk show I listened to in the car today – they hosts were discussing the big testing week here in TX. They said something so right – we spend all this time and energy in the pursuit of the *appearance* of a good education (meaning those precious test scores). It was such a great conversation.

  13. Melissa Wiley says:

    Ana Betty wrote:

    But there’s always this voice that says, look at all those people over there at Ambleside and all that they are accomplishing….as they are getting older we’ve got to get serious about our schooling….how am I supposed to prepare them for college….if I let the kids do what they wanted, they would play computer games or watch tv all day….without some structure they start getting on each other’s nerves…

    I do see your lack of anxiety and your ability to “be all there” in every moment with your children and this really appeals and speaks to me. How do you deal with these other “voices”?

    Well, to be honest, the voices in my head come from the other direction. The unschooler in me starts whispering whenever the kids pull out their Latin: “Pssst! Isn’t that awfully schooly?” In my head, it makes sense not to throw out the baby with the bathwater—not to eschew all forms of structured learning just because some forms can be limiting, dulling, or damaging. I don’t call myself an unschooler because I don’t want to render the word less useful by diluting it. But in a lot of ways we are like unschoolers who get in the mood to play school once in a while (our high tide/Ambleside-y periods).

    Every year, though, I find myself relaxing more completely into the place I thought we would occupy from the beginning, this wide open space of connections and exploring. I’ve talked about how I make a distinction between “accidental” learning and on-purpose learning. We’re learning Latin “on purpose,” with the help of materials that look very traditional and schooly–but it’s fun, we enjoy it, it’s like cracking codes and solving puzzles, and so we keep up this activity that might look very schooly and artificial from the outside but is in truth an interest we pursue with relish. And maybe they relish it because I do, I don’t know. Enthusiasm is catching. If one of them decides she doesn’t relish it, I’m fine with that. There is a whole big world of things to know, and Latin is only one of them.

    Anyway, this isn’t really an answer to your question because I don’t know how I would respond to the voices that say you ought to be doing more things that look like school. I don’t have those particular voices. Anyone else care to chime in? I think if I ever had them, they were drowned out long ago by the kids who astonish me daily with quotes and connections and allusions. I mean, the evidence that low tide ‘works’ is constantly before me, if that makes sense.

    As for “being all there in every moment”–oh gosh, don’t I wish! I have to struggle against a tendency to get lost in my head. It’s part of the curse of being a writer, which is to say it’s why I am a writer, because I think in narrative (to borrow back a phrase I loaned to another writer friend a while back) and my brain is constantly translating experience into prose even as it is unfolding. That can make it hard to stay fully present in the moment, and so I must continually work to stay focused on the child before me (or the husband, the friend), really listening, living that moment, saving the narration for later. It’s hard work and some days I succeed better than others.

  14. Anna says:

    Perfect. It resonates with me so deeply! It fits in with what I do with my kids. It also confirms bits and pieces that I’m reading in _A Thomas Jefferson Education_ by Dr. Oliver Van DeMille. I don’t think I’ll follow the theory of the book to the letter, but it is good food for thought.
    Truth be told, I also see this issue second hand from my father-in-law professor. He tries, as much as the college will let him, to allow for ways to lead on, so to speak. The students just won’t do it. So sad.

  15. Meredith says:

    What a great post in the true Lissa fashion!! I must get that book, it looks superb! I think I dream in narrative :)) Being in the moment in truly what I desire daily, sometimes you have to just turn everything else off!! Happy weekend!

  16. Karen Edmisten says:

    Terrific post! I want the book now … I love the way that way leads on to way. It’s the only way. 🙂

  17. Love2learn Mom says:

    I’m loving this combox discussion (especially that traces of trains part!!!)!

    Melissa said… “That can make it hard to stay fully present in the moment, and so I must continually work to stay focused on the child before me (or the husband, the friend), really listening, living that moment, saving the narration for later. It’s hard work and some days I succeed better than others.”

    This is something I can particularly relate to and is perhaps my biggest struggle with homeschooling.

  18. Leonie says:

    Very interesting – I agree that sometime having too many “have tos”, too many lists to go through, reduces our family’s education to a case of just getting through material.

  19. Madeline says:

    I was intrigued by the name of the book you’re reviewing as my 7yo has been on a quest to find magic lately. He has found lots of it, just in the back yard. I am so glad that I read this post and will buy the book. I unschool but also had never articulated what it is that kept me from retaining the learning I did in structured settings. So interesting.

  20. Sandra Dodd says:

    -=-At the top is a quote from Heraclitus, circa 500 B.C.:-=-
    Kelly Lovejoy sent me that quote.

    Sometimes I think of my site as a prairie dog metropolis. Each tunnel leads to a few more.

    Sometimes I think of it as a bunch of quilts made from donated pieces of wonderful material.

    I have a connections blog now, too:

  21. Marsha says:

    I am definitely a schedule, check-the-box type of person… and I have seen that it does somewhat inhibit our learning. Yikes. I think I’ll see if my library has that book.

    I now see the connection to your post on patience, too!

    Thanks for giving me much food for though!

  22. Elaine says:

    I agree with much of what you’ve written, but have to ask about how it will impact future options. Is there a way to pursue this style of learning and still prepare your children for college, if that’s where their purpose takes them? How far do you “look ahead,” which I realize is the antithesis of living in the moment, but perhaps something parents will always do…

  23. Michele Quigley says:

    In my experience it prepares them well for college. My “unschooled” son is finishing up his second year of trade school/college (it’s a trade school that became a college) doing exactly what he wants to do – cabinet making – and doing it very well. I am so proud of him because he has worked hard and now has a valuable skill that will serve him well. Because the school he attends is now a college and not a trade school he was required to take many other classes (literature, math, science and history classes) and he has worked hard and done very well (top grades!) in all of them. His plan is to go on and get a business degree because he wants to own his own business.

    He was unschooled through high school. He followed his interests and much to my disdain did very little writing (though always liked math). But he writes well now because he has to if he wants to get good grades and he does want that. He’s doing what he loves and he’s doing well because it was his choice and his way – the way that worked best for him. He’s turned into a very confident, reliable, mature young man. Can you tell I’m proud? 😉

    All that to say yes I think you CAN pursue this style of learning and still prepare your children for college. But it a lot of ways I feel it was more like he was preparing himself and because he had freedom to explore it gave him confidence to look at other options and think about what he truly wanted to do. I have to be honest though and tell you that he didn’t pursue this at first but instead went in the direction of the military. But things there fell apart (for which he is glad now) and it forced him to look at something else and when he did he found his joy.

  24. Meredith says:

    Michele, this is SO good to read, I can imagine how proud you must be 🙂 I’m not afraid of home education for high school anymore, not that I ever was, but when they’re so little, it seems so far away and untouchable, but examples such as yours make it all so much easier to work towards, thank you!

  25. Kathryn H says:

    I just wanted to reply to Ana Betty who asked how you deal with those voices in your head telling you that you need to get serious as the kids grow older, and that they won’t learn anyhting if you leave them to choose……I can’t say I have a solution to all that, but I certainly empathise with the feeling 🙂
    Funnily enough, though, for me it was the pressure I was coming under to ‘get more structured'(more ‘schooly’) with my older boys that really made me finally confront those voices. I’ve alwasy tried to be as little ‘schooly’ as possible, though of course it creeps in. But when I had people telling me that now I had no choice but to ‘get serious’ and stop messing about, I was annoyed! I said to myself, look, I hate the whole school approach, I know it doesn’t work, so there is no way I am suddenly going to get all schooly!’ But what was the alternative? I felt I was staring into a black hole…..and that’s when I ended up here. I was fighting for the right- for the chance- to be with my kids and ENJOY being with them, but I needed some justification for that, to answer all those ‘voices’. I’m still working through all that, and these discussions are a great help!
    Oh, and do not feel guilty about taking a day off to try to work all this out- it is so important that you do, and you need space to do that. If it’s any consolation, I have essentially taken the last 6 months off 🙁 I couldn’t carry with status quo, but neither could I let go and happily unschool. I’ve been in a no man’s land for so long, and am trying to climb out of it! Hope this is of some small help 🙂
    PS My boys LOVE Zoo Tycoon too!

  26. minerva66 says:

    Great discussion. Not an unschooler myself, but have some leanings. Up through 8th grade I provided basics with workbooks and filled in with whatever was right in the moment. I have made my kids study some particular subjects they didn’t want to do, so they can be on a path to get into and pass college classes. Basically, you take it a step at a time. We are not very scheduled. Have fought the schedules always. This is not how I learned as a child, and the farther we go with the homeschooling, the more I feel the most important thing is to teach the Learning Process and very basic (reading, writing, but not so much grammar, math, research). And provide opportunities for exploration-whether it is outside, museums, art or writing groups, etc. If they know how to learn, they can learn on their own as adults. I love your post, because moments that affirm that homeschool is best are those linking moments. My kids look up things on the computer for fun. They discuss things for fun. I didn’t do that myself til college. And have been doing it ever since, so homeschool is natural for us. I think that is the way learning should be.

    My oldest is 16 and 1/2 yrs. Most of his day is running websites, research, and blogging. I have let him go with it, because he has learned so much through it. We do some math and science together. Not spending much time on regular class work. Sometimes I feel guilty about it, but I’m not too worried about success for him. He’s going to make his own way, and he has confidence I never had.

    My middle son is 8th grade and hasn’t found his direction enough to motivate himself. He wants everything to be easy, and it’s not. He sees what his brother is doing and wants what he has without the work. But to be fair, his brother was similar at that age.

  27. Lis says:

    How serendipitous that I ended up on your site searching for tips on how to help a toddler learn how to blow his nose!

    What fun to discover that you are also a homeschooling mamma! Wait till I tell my oldest in the morning. She’ll be very excited!

    And now I have to go look up that Stilgoe book. Good thing we’re headed to the library tomorrow! 🙂


  28. sarah says:

    A story of hope for homeschool parents determined to give their kids the first-class high school education they deserve…