Nothing new under the sun — Education edition

Some years ago, I was evaluating an education program in The Gambia (read the evaluation here), soon after the government had outlawed corporal punishment in schools. We included a question about it in the evaluation and learned that there was a gap between legislation and practice, which the government then sought to resolve. 

Of course, controversy over corporal punishment in schools isn’t new, but I was surprised to see it debated in Noli me tangere, the 1887 novel by Filipino writer José Rizal. A frustrated schoolteacher recounts that after reading several books, his views changed: 

Lashings, for example, which since time immemorial had been the province of schools and which before I had seen as the only effective way to make children learn (that is how they have accustomed us to believe), began to seem far removed from contributing to a child’s progress, completely useless. I became convinced that when one keeps the switch or the rod in view reasoning is impossible… I began to think that the best thing I could do for these children was to develop confidence, security, and self-esteem.

So he eliminates corporal punishment. 

Little by little I held back the switch. I took the whips home and replaced them with emulation and belief in oneself.

Like any good experimenter, he evaluated short and medium run impacts.

In the beginning it seemed as though my method was impractical: a lot of them stopped studying altogether. But I pressed on, and I noticed that little by little their spirits rose. More students attended class, and more often. And when one day one was praised in front of everyone, the following day he learned twice as much.

But the local priest and the parents didn’t buy it and demanded he return to the traditional system.

I had to renounce a system that after a great deal of effort had begun to bear fruit.

Poor guy, but I imagine there are a number of reformers today who can feel his pain. 

The quotes are from Harold Augenbraum’s translation of the book.

Sure we should all be feminists, but how to raise one? A review of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions 

On a recent road trip, my wife and I read aloud Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s new book Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, a collection of advice to Adichie’s childhood friend on how to raise her young daughter as a feminist. 

This is a small book — just 63 pages — but don’t confuse it with Adichie’s OTHER small book on feminism, the 2014 We Should All Be Feminists, which was based on a public talk of the same name. The first book is the what (be feminist!) and the second book is the how (15 suggestions!).

This is a readable, thought- and discussion-provoking collection. Each suggestion is followed by a few pages of discussion, which is where the richness lies. Suggestion #6, for example, is “Teach her to question language. Language is the repository of our prejudices, our beliefs, our assumptions.” But here’s how that plays out concretely in the discussion: “Teach her that if you criticize X in women but do not criticize X in men, then you do not have a problem with X, you have a problem with women. For X please insert words like ‘anger,’ ‘ambition,’ ‘loudness,'” etc. 

Here’s another: Suggestion #4 is “Beware the danger of what I call Feminism Lite,” which is the idea of “conditional female equality,” which gives rise to ideas like “men are naturally superior but should be expected to ‘treat women well.’ No. No. No. There must be more than male benevolence as the basis for a woman’s well-being.” Yes! Yes! Yes!

I didn’t agree with every idea, but each was well argued such that I couldn’t dismiss it without careful consideration. 

Obviously I could just quote the whole book. But I won’t. Go read it yourself. It won’t take you long, but you’ll be thinking about it long after, and — if you’re like me — encouraging others to do the same.

Fun fact: The book describes some sexist attitudes in order to combat them. Our 12-year-old son — listening to snatches from the backseat — commented that the book sounded pretty sexist to him. Correct on the passage but not on the book as a whole, son: Context!

Thrilling roller coaster with a long wait — a review of Kwei Quartey’s Gold of Our Fathers

Kwei Quartey writes mysteries that give a window into current Ghanaian social issues. Some authors with African ties — Quartey was born in Ghana and grew up between Ghana and the US — cringe at the assumption that they are writing “ethnographic texts dolled up as literary fiction,” as Taiye Selasi put it. Quartey — to the contrary — embraces that role in his crime novels: His first book with detective Darko Dawson of the Ghana Police Service explored polygamy and traditional religion, his second dealt with street kids, his third was set in the oil industry, and — in Dawson’s fourth outing — we come to the gold mining industry in Gold of Our Fathers.

Dawson is a highly capable detective. He’s not corrupt. He’s faithful to his wife. (He almost cheated in the last book, but he just couldn’t do it!) He occasionally smokes pot but he’s trying to kick the habit, with broad success. He’s so capable that at the beginning of this book, he is transferred far from the capital, Accra, to fill in for a deceased officer in Obuasi, a rural gold-mining district in central-southern Ghana. As soon as he arrives a Chinese immigrant miner is found murdered. Dawson is on the job!

My favorite Darko Dawson novel is the second, Children of the Street. This one, by contrast, felt like two novels in the one. The second half is captivating. The first half is paced very slowly (it took me weeks to work my way through) and has far too much language that sounds like “teaching Westerners about Ghana,” as in this exchange:

“How far, boss?” the sergeant asked, slang for “How goes it.”

or this one

Dawson: “I’m broke—can you mobile me a little cash?” 

Dawson’s wife Christine: “Okay—I’ll send what I can by MTN Money.”

Presumably Dawson knows how he and his wife send money and she wouldn’t clarify. There are many other examples. 

I’ve never been to Ghana, and maybe this won’t bother you if you haven’t either, but I prefer the unapologetically immersive style that lets readers catch up on local culture rather than bringing them along by the hand.

If you haven’t read Darko Dawson, start with the first or second book. This book is a great ride if you don’t mind waiting a while to get to it.

Magic, mayhem, and inspiration — A review of Tove Jansson’s Finn Family Moomintroll

A few months ago, I was in Finland, and I asked two education professionals over dinner, “What are the books that every Finn has read, whether in school or outside?” They gave me two: Seven Brothers, by Aleksis Kivi (published in 1870), and the Moomin books, by Tove Jansson (published between 1945 and 1993).
moomin and snufkin
When I returned home, I picked up Finn Family Moomintroll from the library and read it aloud with my 6-year-old daughter. It is delightful and crazy and continually surprising. Moomintroll is the protagonist, a good-natured, roundish creature who lives in Moomin Valley with his mother, his father, and a whole pile of other creatures. Early on, Moomintroll and his friends Snufkin and Sniff find a hat. Back home, they use it as a wastebasket and discard some eggshells in it. The eggshells then turn into mini-clouds that Moomin and his friends are able to fly around on. All kinds of other adventures ensue. At one point, a character discovers a significant amount of gold.
“I wonder what you’re all thinking of doing with the Snork’s gold?” said Snufkin.
“I think we shall use it to decorate the edges of the flower beds,” said Moominmamma, “only the big bits, of course, because the little ones look so rubbishy.”
Two creatures — Thingumy and Bob — show up who speak largely in spoonerisms: “‘Don’t nake any totice,’ whispered Bob.” Ultimately, a magician called the Hobgoblin shows up — it turns out the hat was his — as he realizes that the ruby he was seeking in the valleys of the moon is actually in Thingumy and Bob’s suitcase. The Hobgoblin then grants wishes to everyone, not without a little mischief: The Muskrat had been reading a book entitled On the Uselessness of Everything; his wish is merely for his book to be returned, but when he gets it back,
“‘On the Usefulness of Everything’,” read the Muskrat. “But this is the wrong book. The one I had was about the Uselessness of Everything.”
But the Hobgoblin only laughed.
Peppered throughout the inspired lunacy are these little nuggets of anti-materialism and optimism. I keep wanting to compare these books to others: They’re like Winnie the Pooh but less safe (in the best possible way). They’re like the Smurfs but smart. But it’s ultimately a futile task: the Moomin inhabit their own world entirely. What the book lacks in narrative momentum, it makes up for in inventiveness and hope. I loved it.
Bits and pieces
  • My daughter and I are now reading Tales from Moominvalley (another book in the series), and I’m reading the collected Moomin comic strips that Jansson also wrote to all my children together.
  • Moominmamma on education: “Moomins go to school only as long as it amuses them.”

How to read a lot more books

While hopefully not as annoyingly as Aziz Ansari’s Saturday Night Live character The Bookworm, many of us would like to read more.

Two recent articles highlight how to read more. If you want all their tips, read the articles. Here, I’ll highlight those that resonate with me. In Neil Pasricha’s 8 ways to read (a lot) more books this year, he talks about going from five books a year to 50. He recommends the following steps among others; I just chose my favorites. The bolded words are his; the rest is my editorializing.

  1. Centralize reading in your home.  He suggests having a bookshelf rather than a TV at the center of your living space.
  2. Make a public commitment. Among some of my siblings, we usually run some sort of reading challenge from year to year. Sometimes it’s a bingo board where you try to reach books in a wide range of categories. This year, we’re trying to each read at least ten books by non-U.S. authors.
  3. Reapply the 10,000 steps rule. Here, he refers to the idea of walking 10,000 steps, taking advantage of every opportunity. “When do I read now? All the time. A few pages here. A few pages there. I have a book in my bag at all times.”

He shares a wonderful (undocumented) anecdote about author Stephen King:

A good friend once told me a story that really stuck with me. He said Stephen King had advised people to read something like five hours a day. My friend said, “You know, that’s baloney. Who can do that?” But then, years later, he found himself in Maine on vacation. He was waiting in line outside a movie theater with his girlfriend, and who should be waiting in front of him? Stephen King! His nose was in a book the whole time in line. When they got into the theater, Stephen King was still reading as the lights dimmed. When the lights came up, he pulled his book open right away. He even read as he was leaving.

In Charles Chu’s In the time you spend on social media each year, you could read 200 books, he talks about reading 200 books each year. One tip is to “go multi-medium.” Chu writes:

If your goal is to read more, you can’t be picky about where you read or what mediums you use. I read paper books. I read on my phone. I listen to audiobooks. And I do these things everywhere—on park benches, in buses, in the toilet… Wherever I can. Make your reading opportunistic. If you have a chance, take it. If you don’t have a chance, find one.

I’ve found this to be my single best strategy for reading a lot. Right now I’m reading an ebook on my phone, listening to an audiobook on my phone, listening to another audiobook on my swimming iPod (you know, so I can swim and listen to books at the same time), and reading one print book around the house. That way I can read anytime, anywhere.

Chu also recommends stepping away from social media and TV. In his not-at-all-judgmental way, he writes:

Here’s how much time a single American spends on social media and TV in a year: 608 hours on social media. 1642 hours on TV. Wow. That’s 2250 hours a year spent on TRASH. If those hours were spent reading instead, you could be reading over 1,000 books a year!

Unlike Mr. Chu, I enjoy my TV consumption and my social media use, and I learn from them, like this bit I learned from Joan Cusack the TV show A Series of Unfortunate Events:


That said, I’d probably be happier and wiser with a little less time on Facebook and more with my nose buried in a book. I remember visiting the wonderful Tinkertown Museum in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Over 40 years, Ross Ward carved and collected his way to an amazing museum collection of wooden figures. Near the exit, I saw this sign.

ward television


So my aspiration isn’t to carve a museum of wooden figures, but I do like reading books. Maybe I’ll read or listen to 50 this year.

Happy reading!

Bonus reading: