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.
[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.
“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?