The Thinking Cap

Toward El Morro, © 2017 Susan Barsy

My father’s death a month ago overshadowed the calendar: overshadowed politics, Christmas, the work on my desk.  Though long-expected, his dying was startling and awe-inspiring, as awful and absorbing as seeing a ship sink or a comet flicker out.  Will the final disappearance of someone so constant and strong bring on other mysterious changes, too?

Writing about it feels strange: words, like shovels, make his demise and burial more definite, undeniable.  Besides, when I write, I put on my ‘thinking cap,’ which amounts to a return to habit, the resumption of a normal routine.  I doubt my father would have it any other way.  The deaths of his parents were followed by silence, their funerals unadorned with eulogies, the family sitting together at home after a noisy funeral luncheon, each mourner quietly nursing a whiskey.  The next day it was back to work, with nary a tear or outward trace of loss.

This much tribute, though, must be paid: without my father I would not have the intellect I have today.  Not only was he the model of a thoughtful and curious being, but he encouraged these attributes in his children and respected our gifts.  He was happy to have daughters with musical or mathematical abilities, who had political opinions, or were good at problem-solving.  Not surprisingly in high school I was a math nerd, a National Merit Scholar along with 5 boys and my friend Wendy.  In college, when my literary interests flourished, I found gifts like Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature and Edmund Wilson’s collected letters under the Christmas tree–reads that defined my earliest intellectual goals.

In a way that my formal education did not, my father stood for an active engagement with society.  He was someone who understood every physical feature of a landscape: its plants, institutions, machinery, and buildings.  Besides being a businessman and industrialist, he was a worshipper and a forward-looking inquirer.  He looked out.  He was interested in our futures, in the direction of society.  He traveled widely for work, bringing back gifts and stories; otherwise he remained in motion, always busy with projects that would bring new beauty or marvels home.  His view of us and of other people was profoundly egalitarian and mercifully free of social-science thinking.  Despite his practical, scientific bent, my father’s worldview left plenty of room for the ideal and the miraculous.

I’m fortunate to have had such a wonderful father.  He left me an heiress of sorts.  Some such is my song as I put my thinking cap on.

Image: ‘Toward El Morro,’
© 2017 Susan Barsy

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Old-Time Schools and Schooling

Teacher and students stand outside a one-room schoolhouse.

Photographs like this one capture the historically fragile character of public schools and schooling.  Although the nation’s founders believed that our republican form of government could not be sustained without adequately trained leaders and an informed and virtuous citizenry, the political growth of the United States always been somewhat at odds with the development of its schools.  Today, public education is often talked of as a monolith–which in some respects it is.  At the same time, it is a congeries of state and local impulses and arrangements, betokening ambivalence toward the concept of public education itself.

For much of US history, public schools were scarce, and getting schooling was not a right or requirement, but often a too-brief privilege or opportunity.  My maternal grandmother had only a third-grade education, for instance, while my paternal grandfather (who later became an electrical engineer by taking correspondence courses) had to stop school after the eighth grade because his father had died in a mining accident, leaving his mother and many young siblings to provide for themselves.  Children attended school only when circumstance permitted them to, and the education they received was often rudimentary.

In the early 1900s, when the photograph above was taken, children were often absent from school because they were in the fields and factories working.  The nexus of poverty and education has always been strained.  So too has the nexus between education and assimilation.  Why we have public schools and what the aims of public schooling should be will likely hotly debated in the months ahead.

Image by Lewis Hine from this source.