Tag Archives: education

Can you follow your dream too far?

A new school year is beginning all across America and children are pouring into their classrooms to start, or continue, their journey toward knowledge and a good life. One of the standard pieces of advice given in schools is “You can be anything you want to be.”

Hillary Clinton has set a new goal now that she is running for president and has a good chance of winning. She posted on Twitter To every little girl who dreams big: Yes, you can be anything you want—even president.

The trouble with telling children they can do anything is that it’s just not true. Strangely enough, we have a popular movie out this month with an example of the limitation of


Florence Foster Jenkins

dreams. Florence Foster Jenkins chronicles the story of a woman whose dream was to be a concert singer. Because she was wealthy, she was able to achieve her desire to give concerts. But no one would say that she had achieved her dream of being a great singer. One of the attractions that brought audiences to hear her is that she simply could not sing and many people found pleasure in watching her fall short.

Jenkins was lucky to have been able to cushion the failure of her achievement because she had money, love, and friends. Many other people discover that they have to move on to new dreams. The boy who dreams of becoming a major league pitcher, discovers his throwing arm will never get him beyond the tryouts. That’s when the real test of the dream occurs. Some people sink into bitterness making their lives, and the lives of their families and friends, dismal. Others use their athletic prowess to become great gym teachers and coaches. And a dream of making your high school team the state champions is not a bad one to follow.

Most people’s lives take many twists and turns. You start out with one dream, switch to another, and move on sometimes to find far more success and happiness than you had expected. Sergei Diaghilev, the world famous producer and founder of the Ballets Russes, was a man with many dreams. Born in 1872, he grew up under the czarist regime in Russia. When he was a teenager, his father went bankrupt, so Sergei had to help support his family. His first love was music and he dreamed of being a composer. He studied composition, but was told by his teacher (the famous composer Rimsky-Korsakov) that he lacked the talent to compose music.

Unlike Florence Jenkins, Diaghilev decided to give up his first dream and to pursue his interest in the arts and dance. He started a magazine to publish Russian writers and later

Sergei Diaghilev

Sergei Diaghilev

founded the innovative dance company the Ballet Russes. With the ballet company, Diaghilev toured France and other European countries. He worked with famous artists, including Pablo Picasso, Erik Satie and Claude Debussy to produce unforgettable ballets, using modern music and modern artistic sets. His innovations revolutionized the dance world. He seemed to have a hand in all of the artistic ferment of 1920s Europe. If you want to read a good biography, you can’t do better than try Diaghilev: A Life by Sjeng Scheijen.

The trouble with telling children they can become “anything they want to be” is that, when they don’t reach that goal, it seems as though they fail. But no one is a failure because she, or he, doesn’t become President. In fact, it is a mathematical impossibility for every child to become President, or for every child to win a gold medal at the Olympics. So why do we tell them they can all reach these impossible dreams?

Perhaps we should be honest with children. Instead of telling them “you can achieve anything” we should tell them the truth: “you can dream and build a good life if you are willing to stay flexible and let your dreams change and grow.” Perhaps we ought to encourage them not to have one dream, but to have a bouquet of dreams. If one dream wilts and dies, another will take its place. Happiness is usually found not by holding onto one unchanging dream for a lifetime, but by being open to new dreams and new hopes and being willing to work to reach them.bouquet-of-flowers-drawing





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What will you have for lunch?

In the New York Times recently, Bettina Elias Siegel reports on the state of school lunches in France as shown in Michael Moore’s new documentary film Where to Invade Next. To many of us who have watched children’s reactions to food over the years, it is surprising to learn that in a village in Normandy, French school children Juliet Corsonare served “scallops, lamb skewers and a cheese course” for lunch. That sounds like a gourmet’s dream, but of course if this meal were served in an American school there would have to be many other options—what about the vegetarian children? or the ones who are allergic to fish? Or cheese? Most American children have learned to be picky and opinionated about food before they even start school. Siegel (and the film) contrast the French school with a typical American high school where the students choose pizza, French fries, and other unhealthy meals for lunch, washed down with sugary soft drinks.

Siegel makes many good points in her article pointing out that Americans are unwilling to support the infrastructure that would allow children to be given healthy, locally-sourced food for their school lunches. Americans have opted out of paying any but the lowest taxes possible to support children’s needs, in the expectation that competition among corporations will somehow provide the best options for school meals. Are we really surprised that this hasn’t worked? Instead of an array of healthy foods, most school districts yield to the economic necessity of presenting children with the cheap, highly-processed foods they have learned to enjoy. Perhaps the time has come when we should teach our children to prepare their own school lunches. They might surprise us.

Over the years, a number of reformers have tried to help Americans learn how to cook healthier, inexpensive food to feed their families. Back in 1883, when America was suffering through one of its worst depressions and many people were unemployed, a woman named Juliet Corson decided she could help people cope with poor wages by teaching them to cook. Born in 1841, Juliet leaned to cope with poverty when her stepmother kicked her out of the house and told her to earn her own living. Juliet became a librarian at the Working Woman’s Library and found out how difficult it was to feed a family on small wages. She started giving cooking lessons to women and then to children in New York City and soon began writing books about cooking and household management.

Her most successful book was called, believe it or not—Fifteen-Cent Dinners for Workingmen’s Families—and she gave away an edition of 50,000 copies; it was even reprinted in a daily newspaper. The menus suggested were wholesome with easily available ingredients. The book suggested meals such as rice and milk for breakfast and corned beef and cabbage for dinner. It included tips for choosing meat and vegetables at the market. Many Juliet_15 cent dinnersreaders were delighted with the worked and thanked Corson profusely, but, as always, not everyone was pleased. Some union leaders objected to its distribution on the grounds that if the bosses thought workers could feed their families so cheaply, there was no need to raise wages. It seems as though you can’t win when you give advice about what people should eat.

Juliet Corson had a successful career as a writer and lecturer and she started the New York Cooking School, one of the first successful cooking schools in the country. Although she charged her middle-class students for their lessons, she always provided free lessons to those who could not afford to pay. She was a pioneer introducing the teaching of cooking into the public schools in America and Canada. Nonetheless, she died in poverty at the age of 57 in 1897, and the teaching of choosing food and cooking has almost disappeared from American schools. Perhaps it is time to revive the idea.



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Elizabeth Peabody–inspiring woman publisher

We have become so used to seeing local bookstores disappear from our neighborhoods that is is difficult to remember how important these stores used to be. From the early days shortly after the American Revolution up until the end of the twentieth century many

19th century bookstore. Picture by Francis Bedford

19th century bookstore. Picture by Francis Bedford

bookstores were meeting places and informal universities where people discussed politics and social issues as well as literature. And some of the most important bookstores have been run by women including Elizabeth Peabody.

We have no picture of Elizabeth Peabody as a young woman, although she was well-known in Boston. As her biographer, Megan Marshall, explains, Elizabeth’s portrait was painted in 1828 by Chester Harding, a well-known portrait artist in Boston. Elizabeth was 24 years old at the time and teaching at a school she had started for girls. Instead of being pleased by the portrait, her parents were scandalized. Women of that time did not have pictures of themselves hung on walls and displayed to others.portrait of Elizabeth Peabody Unlike men, women were supposed to live lives that were private and hidden from everyone except their families. Despite the prevailing customs, however, Elizabeth was destined to become a well-known and beloved figure in Boston and elsewhere during her long life. The portrait, incidentally, was destroyed years later in a warehouse fire so the only existing pictures show Elizabeth as an elderly woman.

Elizabeth was one of three Peabody sisters—the other two were Mary, who married Horace Mann, and Sophia, who became the wife of Nathanial Hawthorne. All three were born in the early 1800s and lived through most of that eventful century, but Elizabeth had the most lasting influence and left a legacy that is still with us.

But to return to the bookstore…in 1839 Elizabeth opened a small circulating library and bookstore in the family home. She knew Ralph Waldo Emerson and many of his friends who were interested in expanding the intellectual horizons for Americans. They were eager to learn about the new ideas being talked about in Europe and Elizabeth’s bookstore offered them a chance to read and discuss European journals and new books. Not only that, Elizabeth also opened a small publishing operation and published several articles and books written by members of the group including several of Nathanial Hawthorne’s early stories. She was probably the first woman publisher in the United States.

Elizabeth Peabody’s small bookstore in West Street was the place where the new Transcendental Club held meetings. Margaret Fuller offered her “Conversations” in the bookstore for the wives and friends of the Emerson circle. Elizabeth’s bookstore appears in my mystery story A Death in Utopia as a place where the Charlotte Edgerton and her friend Daniel Gallagher can follow up ideas for solving a mysterious death.

Running a bookstore and being a publisher were not Elizabeth Peabody’s only occupations. Later in life she opened the first kindergarten in America and her most lasting legacy remains the revolution in teaching young children which grew out of the kindergarten movement. Megan Marshall’s biography The Peabody Sisters; Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism gives a good start on learning about Elizabeth and her accomplished sisters.


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African Dorcas Society—an early PTA?

Trouble is brewing in California over the inequities inherent in having schools subsidized by Parent Teacher Associations which buy iPads, musical instruments and books for school libraries. Sometimes these parent groups pay for music and art teachers to supplement the regular classes. According to an NPR story I heard on the radio last week, some California schools receive an average parent donation of $1000 per pupil each year. Naturally school districts where families cannot contribute money for these extras cannot offer their students equal opportunities. Is it fair in a democracy for wealthier parents to be able to provide extra funding for their own children but not for others? That is a question taxpayers should be asking themselves, but it is certainly not a new one.

Back in the pre-Civil War days when education for Free Blacks was just starting in the Northern States, a group of women in New York City formed the African Dorcas Society. Slavery was abolished in New York in 1827, and the Black population in the city increased dramatically.engraving of African Free School Leaders of the Black community, and some white leaders, recognized that the children of these newcomers would need education. Several schools had been established for this purpose, but many families did not send their children to school. The reasons were easy to understand. Not only was children’s labor valuable to the parents, many of whom were struggling, but often the children did not have warm clothing and shoes that would make it possible for them to get to school in bad weather.

The African Dorcas Society was organized by Black women and was one of the first societies in which women met independently and planned their work without the supervision of men. The women divided themselves into sewing circles to make, mend and alter clothing for poor children. They also solicited contributions from well-wishers. For several years the group flourished and supplied clothing to enable children to attend schools. Unfortunately there were many New Yorkers who did not believe that former slaves could or should be educated and there was opposition to the Society’s work as well as the schools themselves.

We all know what happened in the decades that followed, leading up to full emancipation for all American slaves and to the slow establishment of education for all Americans. The struggle still continues to ensure that all children are given the resources necessary for them to attend schools and to take full advantages of education. But during this Black History Month, we should pay special tribute to the multitude of anonymous men and women who worked to make education available to all the children in their community. It’s been a long, hard struggle and it is not over yet. Equal education for all is one of the ideals we have to struggle for every month year after year.

You can read more about how the Black community fought for education and equality during the early 19th century in Leslie M. Alexander’s detailed history African or American? Black Identity and Political Activism in New York City, 1784-1861. It’s a fascinating account of forgotten history.

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Prof. Lee Lorch, a long-lasting light in a dark world

Almost twenty years ago, in 1994, I made my first trip to Cuba as an adult. I had visited as a child with my family during Lee Lorchthe days of close U.S.-Cuban ties, but after Fidel Castro’s successful revolution, it was difficult for Americans to travel there. The 1994 trip was to a conference of the International Federation of Library Associations so participants came from all over the world. The trip was an eye-opener for all of us as it gave us a chance to see for ourselves what Cuba was really like. For me a special bonus was getting to know Lee Lorch, a most unusual academic and activist who has had an impact on people and events in several different societies.

Lee contacted me through mutual friends to see whether I would join an effort to send secondhand computers to Cuba. Having seen the shortage of technology in the schools and libraries in Cuba, I was glad to participate. As time went on I discovered that helping Cuba was only a small part of Lee Lorch’s efforts to improve the world. As a mathematician at York University he taught students and wrote scholarly papers, but being a scholar wasn’t enough for him. He had spent many years fighting racism in the United States and every time I met him there were new revelations about events he had participated in. He fought to open an apartment complex in New York City to African-Americans; he and his wife escorted students into the newly-desegregated Little Rock High School during the turmoil of school desegregation. He lost teaching jobs and had to move from one university to another as his notoriety grew.

In 1959, Lee and his family moved to Canada when he took a position at the University of Alberta. Later he moved to York University in Toronto. After all the turmoil of his life in the U.S. he found friends and a new life in Canada, and he never gave up fighting for justice. One of his interests was to encourage women mathematicians who were routinely discouraged from entering the field and often treated unfairly if they persisted.

People today find it almost inconceivable that even in the 20th century academics openly discriminated against non-white people and women. Until you read the story of someone like Vivienne Malone Mayes, it is hard to imagine the determination needed for women, and especially African American women, to be accepted in science and mathematics. Lee Lorch was among the pioneers in encouraging women to enter the field and in supporting their efforts for advancement.

I know I am late in finding out about this, but it made me very happy to learn that last year Professor Lee Lorch received a distinguished scholar award from CAUT—Canada’s organized voice of academic scholars. At the age of 97, he has participated in many struggles for justice and fair treatment for all people. He is a credit to the universe, and I hope the honors continue to flow during these crowning years of his long life.

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When Will There Be Justice for Rachel Jeantel?

Is anyone surprised that Rachel Jeantel, a young woman who was called to testify in the George Zimmerman trial, was reluctant to appear? After watching the way she was treated by the defense lawyer, surely even more people believe that a court appearance leaves them vulnerable to harassment. Fewer and fewer will want to open themselves to such treatment.

gavel_large_rs_1What does the ability to read cursive writing have to do with the power of observation? Many schools no longer teach cursive writing and many young people cannot read it. Does the fact that we as a nation refuse to provide the kind of education that is wanted in a court of law mean that the students should suffer? If the ability to read and write cursive is necessary to be a credible witness then surely our schools should make that a requirement rather than abandoning it.

Are we going back to the days a hundred or more years ago when girls were not allowed to study Latin or Greek and then, as they grew up, were told they were unfit to vote or to govern because they could not read the classic texts? Talk about setting up impossible hurdles! It is our fault that we don’t provide the kind of education that students need.

Why is it that only women are judged on the shape of their figure or the style of their hair? Many a male politician is taken very seriously indeed even though his excess weight would cause a personal trainer to blanch.

Why do tweeters around the country feel they have the right to post cruel remarks about a witness in an important trial who is obviously suffering grief at the loss of a friend? Americans pride themselves on being kind and generous people, but at the moment many of us are demonstrating that we can be cruel bullies.

Rachel Jeantel deserves our respect for doing her civic duty in coming forth to testify. Let’s treat her with the dignity she deserves and apologize for the attacks she has received.

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What a difference a century makes

The recent death of Helen Gurley Brown, the longtime editor of Cosmopolitan magazine calls to mind the scope and influence of earlier women editors in America. The appointment of Brown as editor of a traditional women’s magazine in 1962 shook the publishing world. Her emphasis on the acceptance of the right of single women to have sex was a bombshell in many conventional suburban communities. I remember as a young mother living in a sprawling housing development in New Jersey the startled reaction of some of my neighbors. One morning I saw a woman down my street sitting on her steps crying because she worried about her husband being seduced by secretaries made daring by Cosmopolitan. Within a few years the domestic life of many women was being reshaped by the bold ideas implanted by Helen Gurley Brown and her magazine.

Portrait of Sarah Hale

Long before Brown, however, women editors had shaped the lives and expectations of American women. Sarah J. Hale, who for forty years ruled over Godey’s Lady’s Book, one of the country’s most influential magazines, had a different agenda for her journal. Instead of seeing sexual freedom as the most important empowerment tool for women, Hale crusaded for education. Offering young women an education similar to their brothers was a radical idea. She strongly supported economic independence for woman and wanted them to become teachers and doctors to serve both the community and their families. Unlike Brown, Hale never saw the role of women as extending far beyond the family circle. She wanted women to use their new strength and independence to educate their children and serve their husbands. She never thought of herself as a feminist, but her influence on women’s lives went far beyond what she intended. By supporting and publicizing the founding of Vassar College, she opened the door for girls to leave home to study and work independently of their families.

Education for women wasn’t the only cause Hale worked on. She also created Thanksgiving as a national holiday rather than the quiet New England celebration it had been when she was young. After a long campaign, she persuaded Abraham Lincoln to proclaim the first national Thanksgiving holiday in 1863. Perhaps her work on this had a more lasting effect than any other single goal she pursued. Just think of the millions of dollars spent every year on advertising and merchandizing food and decorations for Thanksgiving celebrations.

Journalists who pull together the work of others to create a magazine, newspaper, or perhaps a television program are often underrated as thought leaders, but many of them have a greater effect on society than the “great books” that cause a stir. It’s the inexorable repetition of a periodical that gradually shapes our ideas far more than one book read during a few days. Perhaps we’ll never know how much Helen Gurley Brown of Sarah J. Hale changed women’s lives, but let’s take at least a few minutes to honor their memories.

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