Daniel Wolff discusses How Lincoln Learned to Read

Daniel Wolff will make a whirlwind trip to the Midwest from October 18 through October 25, speaking in Chicago, Springfield, Madison and Milwaukee. Poet, grammy nominated music writer, and revolutionary thinker, Wolff begins  Sunday AM with an appearance on WGN radio. Daniel’s Chicago events continue when he signs books on Monday evening at the Book Stall at Chestnut Court and at 57th Street Books on Friday evening.

Daniel has written incisively on the implications of the charter school phenomenon:  <http://www.counterpunch.org/dwolff09252009.html&gt; Earlier in the year I reviewed Daniel’s book for Chicago Labor & Arts Notes.  This is what I wrote then:

How Lincoln Learned to Read

How Lincoln Learned to Read

Twelve Great Americans and the Education that Made Them
by Daniel Wolff

reviewed by Lew Rosenbaum

Sundays my family gathered in the living room and listened to the Jewish hour on the radio, a program from new York that featured some of the Jewish entertainers of the late forties and early fifties.  The Barry Sisters answered for us the pop media girl group, the Andrews Sisters.  And the highlights were the various comedians from the borscht circuit, people whose voices I learned before some of them made it to TV and perhaps the Ed Sullivan Show.  It’s from this time, perhaps from those comedians who claimed to repeat what their mothers told them,  that I first heard, in a heavy accent that is not reproducible with English letters, that succeeding in life meant: becoming a “doctor, a lawyer and a cpa.”  For my mother, who repeated this mantra to me  in my adolescence, this meant doing well in school.  Neither of my parents ever spent a day in a college classroom.  I am not sure that they graduated from high school.  Their calculus led to this equation:  Education equals going to school equals good grades equals a good profession.  Emphasis on the word “profession.”  A good job wasn’t enough.

For much of American history, schooling (and therefore education) has meant something of that, especially from the period of the early 1800’s and the growth of reform movements that sprang from the industrial revolution.  There is a measure of this in the years immediately following the Civil War, when freed slaves took the lead in developing a free public school system in the South that educated not only black families, but also poor whites (who had been excluded from education) as well.  There is also a measure of this in the trade unions who hired readers to come into the factories and read to workers while they labored at their machines.  I say “a measure of this” because there has also been another element in schooling and education that is more difficult to quantify than the number of dollars you have at the end of the working day.

I can describe that other element as a thirst for knowledge independent of what will come home in a paycheck.  A hunger to understand the universe in which we live. To amass the tools for solving problems, for changing the world as well as understanding it.   I don’t know any other way to explain why, in my fourth year of pre-med, I endangered my potential earning power by taking as electives a course in calculus and an advanced seminar in German literature.

Wait.  One assumption needs to be stated, without which this also makes no sense.  My mother made this assumption, the freed slaves made this assumption and the common school movement made this assumption as well. Both Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown V. Board of Education made this assumption too.  All education may not be schooling, but all schooling is education.

In the year 2009, I am certain all schooling is not education. I am also just as certain that a movement is developing in America that is raising this issue.  Within that movement you will find teachers, students and parents fighting for a complex of things like class size, teacher pay, special education, safe schools, and against school closings to name a few.   Most of these actors believe that they are fighting for education.  The battleground on which they are fighting is the preservation of schooling and the improvement of the current system.

They are joined by a group of people who have a different agenda in mind for the children of our society.  That agenda privatizes the schooling system we have and renders it as a warehouse system from which those who are best able to cope with schooling are removed to be given a better system of schooling and training for future professional positions.  The warehouse is a necessary system of day care until the prisons, the armed forces and the homeless shelters swallow its graduates.

In other words, the schooling system in America serves the function it is supposed to do, and not because the managers are inherently evil or because of a few mistakes that can be corrected.  How else can American corporations respond to a society in which jobs are being eliminated?

There is a more important question. Perhaps “getting ahead” was a reasonable goal for education in an era in which our working lives were commodities. When the ability to work has less and less value, in the twenty-first century, what is education for?

I think that this is the way to read Daniel Wolff’s new book, How Lincoln Learned To Read.

“it’s a classic American moment, a classic moment in American education,”  Wolff writes.  The profile of Helen Keller, which ties up so many patterns developed earlier in the book, begins with those words.  They describe her “first step” in learning, one which has been memorialized on stage, screen and printed page, The scene is by a water pump in the family back yard. Teacher (Anne Sullivan) grasps Helen, forces her to go to the pump, takes the handle and pours water over Helen’s hand, all the while tracing the letters “w-a-t-e-r” on her hand. Suddenly Helen recognizes the key to the universe lies in those symbols.

The scene by the water pump (much like Lincoln’s storied walking for miles to borrow and return books and reading by candle light) becomes iconic, serves to hide a much more complex relationship.  The back yard is behind the house on a plantation owned by generations of Kellers.  Helen grows up in the shadow of the Civil War; the war and its aftermath has placed her family in position to reimpose and enforce the lynch law of the South.  Unable to see, hear or speak, nonetheless she assimilates the Southern aristocratic attitude that her teacher from the north finds repulsive.  Despite their histories, and because of them, they are thrown together and each learns from the other.  Teacher learns the fundamentals of education, while Helen opens her mind up to the world around her.

First comes structure, obedience, know your place.  So Teacher believes.  But then, she concludes that there is something internal to Helen that allows her to learn, that gushes out.  Teacher is not feeding Helen, but merely liberating what has been choked up and suppressed.  To do this she embarks on a program of answering any questions Helen comes up with rather than a disciplined course of study.  She champions this instructional method (taken up later by Montessori) until, at a certain point, she and Helen decide she needs more of the “rudiments.”  You do not learn by filling in the “rudiments” earlier, but now it is necessary to become more accomplished in a traditional educational setting.  It is a matter of stages as much as anything else. Or, deciding, at each stage, what is education for?  What do I need now?

At every stage she is confronted by the economics of education.  She requires a more intense process.  But how is she to get this?  In the South, education has returned to pre-reconstruction levels.  Southerners know that education is just another abolitionist trick.  But even in the North, education requires money, especially at her level.  Philanthropy steps in, and her patrons help out so that she is able to get not just a high school diploma but university degrees.  Not, however, since her earlier days has she gotten an education:  she has gotten training, useful perhaps, but not all of what is needed.  Wolff skillfully raises the issues of training vs. education, and the question of what that means.

Keller’s story is central also because she had to use all available forms to achieve her goals.  Goals she pursued with vehemence.  At one stage school was essential.  At another stage it was an obstacle. She did not have the luxury for either/or; she needed both/and.  And what she learned, the author makes clear, is a way of viewing the world that she could neither see nor hear.

This collection of stories treats individuals with different backgrounds, different skills, different goals.  It begins with Ben Franklin and ends with Elvis Presley.  In between, Wolff gives us portraits of Sojourner Truth and Henry Ford, W.E.B. DuBois and John F. Kennedy.  People who believe deeply in a public education, people who think that public education is money and time wasted.  In the journey on which he takes us, he points out landmarks along the way that indicate how our ideas of necessary knowledge have changed and stayed the same.  He wants us to find out what we want to be when we grow up (as a nation):  “Because isn’t any history of American knowledge . . . a history of expectations, of preparing for the future, of hope?”

There is a conversation in this book, an argument among those portrayed and, inevitably, an argument with us readers. Not the least of these arguments is the existence/extension/dismantling public education itself. Suburban vs. inner city. Charter vs. magnet vs. parochial/private vs. public. Union vs. non-union. Can the demands for equal and quality education be resolved without redefining what we mean by education?  How can we even begin to define what me mean by education if we leave that definition solely to the CEO’s of our schools and their staffs (and teachers)?  One significant insight that Wolff contributes to this discussion is that the student’s very valuable insight should be prominent in any decision making. The perhaps indirect implication also is that the very necessary battle against privatization in the schools is only a stage in countering the turning over of all possible public services to corporate economy.

These are some of the arguments that surface as I read this book. Because the problems we face are the same and yet fundamentally different.  If we are still asking the same questions (and Wolff suggests we are: e.g., “Don’t we still have to decide if Henry Ford was right: that great men are born and that most people don’t want to think?”), perhaps a new set of assumptions and questions are in order.  “And then we come back to the question of how to prepare for the future.  We listen for what’s next.”  That is a profoundly revolutionary task for all of us.

I admit I approach this book with some blinders in place:  I have admired Daniel Wolff’s work for some time now. I know Daniel and consider him a friend.  I reviewed his Asbury Park with similar feelings:  a small book hiding as a history of a resort town. Like that book, How Lincoln Learned  to Read tells a history of class relations and race relations in this country.

How Lincoln Learned to Read

How Lincoln Learned to Read

11 am Sunday  October 18, join Daniel Wolff for a brunch discussion of what constitutes education in the 21st century, at the Chicago Cultural Center in the court behind the Randolph Cafe. Chicago public education has had a severe dose of Duncanization under the Daley administration; with Arne Duncan in higher places, we’ve already seen the Chicago disaster model projected as a national panacea.  While many of us are fighting to save what little is left in our still severely segregated schools, Daniel asks fundamental questions that need to be brought on the table. And, he is quick to add,  all of us at the table need to carry on these discussions and establish our visions of what is possible.

Bagels and cream cheese will be provided by the Chicago Labor and Arts Festival.  The program is co-sponsored by the Chicago Education Committee of the League of Revolutionaries for a New America. (The Randolph Cafe is closed on Sunday)

7 pm Monday October 19: Daniel reads and discusses his work at the Book Stall at Chestnut Court, 811 Elm St., Winnetka (www.thebookstall.com)

6 pm Friday October 23: Daniel reads and discusses his work at 57th Street Books, 1301 E 57th St. (http://semcoop.booksense.com/NASApp/store/IndexJsp?s=localbestsellers )


Recovery just around the corner . . . the illusory oasis

Marx and Lenin Reconsidered


“Capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.”

–Karl Marx

If Karl Marx and V. I. Lenin were alive today, they would be leading contenders for the Nobel Prize in economics.

Marx predicted the growing misery of working people, and Lenin foresaw the subordination of the production of goods to financial capital’s accumulation of profits based on the purchase and sale of paper instruments. Their predictions are far superior to the “risk models” for which the Nobel Prize has been given and are closer to the money than the predictions of Federal Reserve chairmen, US Treasury secretaries, and Nobel economists, such as Paul Krugman, who believe that more credit and more debt are the solution to the economic crisis.

In this first decade of the 21st century there has been no increase in the real . . . (for more go to http://www.counterpunch.org/roberts10072009.html )