Each weekly Headliner essay is written to the RPDS community by our Headmaster, H. Palmer Bell. Topics important within the life of the school, education, contemporary parenting, culture and spiritual formation are common themes. Click the underlined article title to read each week's full Headliner. The "get link" is provided to allow a quick way for you to share a direct connection to the essay with friends and family. Mr. Bell welcomes your comments as you meet him on campus or through e-mail at email@example.com
For forty four years I have had the most fulfilling vocation I could have ever imagined. There have been all the highs and lows that each of you experience in life. Yet, through it all I have always known education was perfect for me, a teacher, mentor, advocate and believer in the generation then “in process.” These last twenty one years I have used the Headliner, first in Texas and now here at RPDS, to provide a perspective on issues of child development, education, culture, world events, family dynamics and spirituality. At the heart of each article of course, were children – your children – our RPDS students. Obviously, this is not the only way to use the weekly Reminders cover page; I chose it. It was my wish to draw you into our weekly news, but even more to share something of myself with you, to invite adult dialog and to initiate intergenerational conversations.
The teamwork engendered by these conversations has been instrumental in our successes. RPDS is stronger today in nearly every measurable way than it was when I arrived in 2008. Our accomplishments have not been accidental or haphazard, nor have they been the work of an individual. Honest and effective leadership must acknowledge the instrumental role played by those influenced who choose to come along-side. Survey the biographies of the world’s most influential leaders and you will quickly uncover periods of failure, not for a lack of ideas, veracity, focus or oratory. Why the failures? In those periods receptive audiences did not gather. Effective leaders strike the tuning fork. When a critical mass of followers resonate to the same frequency, you will at once recognize the miracle of a flourishing melody.
I leave you with the following thoughts and my sincere thanks for your support during these exciting years at RPDS! Ralph Waldo Emerson reflected that, “whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising which tempt you to believe that your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires courage.” It is my belief that in the issues of life, parenting, school and community one individual can be right without necessitating that another individual be wrong. I can only advise that our philosophy over the last nine years has been an invaluable one: is this decision, mission-centered; child-focused; essential for the strategic health of the school and its respected position in the educational framework locally, regionally and nationally; and finally, does the decision support the school’s continuing commitment to being nimble, personal, innovative and a vibrant community? After that, it is only “tuning!”
The future of RPDS is bright indeed. Persevere. It’s the Riverside Way!
It has become an informal, one word way to share best wishes at partings of acquaintances and friends; it even crops up as you gather your purchases from businesses. The word? ENJOY! As we sharpen our gaze on summer vacation, ENJOY! You’re talking a family road trip to a new destination, ENJOY! It is time to head to summer camp in the mountains, ENJOY! You’ve baked your first pineapple upside down cake, ENJOY!
What does it really mean to enjoy? The word’s Latin and French roots imply that we should recognize two connotations; we are to both rejoice and to share joy. I love the reminder that enjoying is both internally and externally focused.
When John G. Wendel immigrated to the United States in the late 1700’s he became a highly successful fur trader with his new friend John Astor. The successful trading allowed each man to invest in New York City real estate. Somewhat sadly, the Wendel family story became a weird one as the wealth accumulated and the generations passed. Suffice it to say that the Wendel family defined the “1%“, long before the characterization developed its contemporary meaning. The family investment strategy resembled the worst attributes of an adversarial Monopoly game. As the Wendels invested, three simple rules were mantra: they never mortgaged, never sold and never paid to repair any acquisitions. The reclusive John G. Wendel II was the final male heir and he never enjoyed the trappings of wealth. His wardrobe was valued at $10. He lived in the same deteriorating house (remember Rule 3) for 50 years and he convinced his six sisters to also avoid marriage and to join him in the house. The youngest sister, Ella, watched her siblings pass away in turn, until she too died in 1931. Even then the estate was valued at over $100 million dollars! Yet, Ella was buried in the only dress she owned; a simple frock she had made herself some 25 years earlier.
In life, and certainly in the course of each school year, we accumulate knowledge, skills, friendships and perhaps eventually wealth of other kinds. ENJOY! Rejoice and share. Spend some of the education you have gathered. Read a challenging book, write the story or poem you’ve been thinking of, or use your new self-esteem to try a new sport, craft or activity. Spending your “wealth” will provide perspective on its true value. ENJOY!
Over the last month here in northern Florida and southern Georgia we have been dealing with smoke and ash, as even now the fire that has consumed over 130,000 acres in the Okefenokee Refuge remains ablaze. The smoke clouds our vision and chokes the airways. It reminds me of the strange paradox in post-modern culture that very complex issues are framed as if they are merely black-and-white, while many simplistic concepts are treated with debilitating complexity. When the view is cloudy we pretend it really is not and yet when vision is 20/20 we heap “facts” into the view until the resulting muddle is paralyzing. When details are not known, the temptation is to “fill in the gaps” with pieces that appear to fit and yet, which may be totally inaccurate.
This February, I rekindled a passing acquaintance with Dr. Michael Thompson. I first met Dr. Thompson at workshop for prospective heads about 25 years ago and over the intervening years we stayed in touch at other workshops. He became our inaugural, national visiting lecturer for the Episcopal school I led in Texas. The psychologist and author provides clarity in the cloudy world of child development and parenting through vignettes, stories and anecdotes. A student question during his visit in Texas found its way into his writing. The technique is intended to foster a personal connection or memorable analogy to deepen audience understanding. This is very different from creating meaning or attempting to develop an accurate, complex picture from anecdote alone. For example, children often arrive home with a story from their day that may be clouded by their personal developmental roller coaster. The best parent response is typically not to assume the picture is fully accurate or developed in the adult sense. A more helpful path forward is usually, “what do you think that means?”, “what do you think you could have said (or done)?, or “who could have helped you through this issue?” In these ways parents and teachers seek to build coping skills and strategies for future navigation.
Teaching developmentally appropriate coping and strategy skills is good preparation for the inevitable issues that lie ahead. The world, its issues and the relationships we all rely upon are getting more complex by the day. Coping together to face such a world takes time but provides much greater clarity than merely snowplowing the issues aside for a child. The groundwork, laid together to prepare for future solutions on complex issues will be of infinite value. May we be wise enough to peer through the smoke and ash for clarity and understanding!
Years ago I saved an internet parable of unknown origin that reminded me of Shakespeare’s warning to guard against seeking too much of a good thing. It also seems to fit nicely as a reminder to guard the amount of daily time you and I dedicate to screen gazing.
A young boy was walking down the street one day when he found a bright copper penny. He was captivated by his good fortune to find money that had cost him nothing. This experience soon shaped the boy’s life and he spent the rest of his days walking with his head down and eyes open, actively scanning for further treasure.
As life was drawing to a close, the now elderly gentleman took stock of his good fortune. His ledger sheet showed 296 pennies, 48 nickels, 19 dimes, 16 quarters, 2 half-dollars and one crinkled dollar bill. His collection totaled $13.26. Money for nothing!
Another might question what the collection of this found asset of $13.26 COST? He missed the breathless beauty of 31,369 sunsets, the colorful splendor of 157 rainbows and the fiery beauty of thousands of maple leaves nipped by autumn’s frost. He never saw white clouds drifting across blue skies and shifting into various wondrous formations. How sad that birds flying, sun shining, and the smiles of a thousand passing people are not a part of his memory.
The summer vacation now on the horizon is a gift; for children there are summer camps, trips to the pool, family vacations and carefree hours of outdoor play that seemingly never end. As adults we longingly remember those re-energizing days, yet we work on, focused instead on financial worries, business dilemmas and responsibilities that cloud our realities. Childhood offers us the reminder to relax and to share a healthy infusion of “a vacation heart.” Stop picking up the pennies. Intuitively, we know that the calendar will close summer once again and that it is best if we have embraced a break, which prepares us to return refreshed to the responsibilities of our lives.
Rarely a week passes without another painful reminder that serious tension exists between our rights and our responsibilities. The sad truth is that many individuals can no longer distinguish between them. This is precisely why virtually every organization specifically writes detailed lists of each in its governance documentation and procedural manuals. Last fall, some NFL players took the opportunity to sit down during the playing of our National Anthem. Do they have the “right?” Certainly. Is it right? No. More recently the airlines have had more “dust-ups” with passengers exercising what they saw as rights, which contradict airline employee responsibilities. In modern culture we see that the pendulum has clearly drifted toward exercising individual “rights” to the extent that responsibilities, personal or corporate, are only considered as after-thoughts. Coins have heads and tails.
We understand that God has created man with free will; it’s been getting us into trouble ever since. Rights and responsibilities lie as counterweights on the extremes of an invisible bungee cord. No wonder life has so many ups and downs! We have freedom to stretch our bungee cords, testing new ideas and behaviors, and questioning goals and values. Trusting a bungee cord that isn’t firmly attached is foolish, or even worse, deadly. It is folly too to blindly exercise rights or responsibilities without a solid moral anchor. It is only when we are firmly rooted that we will always safely rebound and return “home.”
In the end, Right and Responsibility sit perched as the two heads on Dr. Doolittle’s Pushme-Pullyou, yet they remain permanently fused at the body. In a way, Right and Responsibility remain both master and captain, and so the tension between them will persist. However, it is worth remembering that without a willingness to take responsibility, rights will disappear.
The NCAA has known many wonderful coaches, both men and women, over its history. I was blessed to play and work for one personally. The finest coaches have always mentored athletes to live lives of character and purpose with athletics as their platform. Such leaders seemingly stand on a different bulwark of foundational values and their players come to realize the gift they have been given. History records names like, Knute Rockne, Eddie Robinson, Pat Summitt, James Naismith, John Wooden and Bear Bryant as such coaches.
The Smart Take From the Strong, was written by Princeton University’s Men’s Basketball coach Pete Carril at the close of a career that included 500+ victories and 13 Ivy League championships. It summarizes in simple paragraphs the life lessons and coaching wisdom from Carril’s nearly 30 years at Princeton. As he collected his thoughts in writing, he had just finished his final season with the stunning upset of UCLA, the men’s national champions, in the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament. More than a few of Carril’s tenets caught my attention, but his entry called “Behaving Wisely” seems especially poignant; sadly, it also appears archaic in today’s world of high profile athletics that lives and dies on winning.
Great philosophers of education have said there are two things important in learning. Both begin with a definition of the words to know. One is learning facts, data – information. The other is knowing how to behave intelligently. They are both important, but one is more desirable than the other. That is what discipline means: behaving wisely. It has nothing to do with saying, “Yes, sir,” “No sir.” Some guys know about things, but their actions are not wise or mature. Coaching is helping guys behave and act wisely – to do the smart thing. Anyone can teach a Shuffle Offense or a zone defense, but the quality that makes the exceptional coach like Vince Lombardi is the ability to get the player to do what he does not want to, and to do it well.
We hire such coaches and teachers at RPDS. I can only wish for you and your athletes that they will experience as I have, educators of character who are worthy mentors for life’s journey.
Over the years I have returned to this story from a collection by Fr. Anthony de Mello entitled, The Song of the Bird; it recounts the story of a very confused golden eagle.
A man found an eaglet’s egg and put it in the nest of a backyard hen. The eaglet hatched with the brood of chicks and grew up with them.
All his life the eagle did what the backyard chickens did, thinking he was a backyard chicken. He scratched the earth for worms and insects. He clucked and cackled. And he would thrash his wings and fly a few feet into the air.
Years passed and the eagle grew very old. One day he saw a magnificent bird far above him in the cloudless sky. It glided in graceful majesty among the powerful wind currents, with scarcely a beat of its strong golden wings.
The old eagle looked up in awe. “Who’s that?” he asked.
“That’s the eagle, king of the birds,” said his neighbor. “He belongs to the sky. We belong to the earth – we’re chickens.”
So the eagle lived and died a chicken, for that’s what he thought he was.
Self-image is the picture we etch in our mind of our personal attributes, characteristics and abilities. Our self-esteem grows from the degree to which we are comfortable with that picture and accept that with those very attributes we have tremendous value and worth. The shaping of each individual’s self-image and self-esteem during childhood and through the years beyond, is greatly influenced by the surrounding environment, the conversations we listen to and believe, and the filtering of the cultural “soup” in which we each are immersed. When, as was true for the golden eagle, we are comfortable living in the shadows of others, content to fit a mold crafted by them without ever fully exploring and embracing our potential, our destiny remains out of reach. Tread carefully amid the cultural stepping stones leading to monetary success rather than the path of risking, growing, and striving that may more fully express personal gifts and attributes. The temptations to follow a pathway toward being a successful “chicken” are many, yet ultimately will be far less fulfilling than striving to become even an unsuccessful “eagle.” Dare to soar!
Every year around April Fools Day, human creativity is on full display. This year I liked the Nabisco ad announcing the creation of “All Stuf Oreos” in a bright blue package. Who needs those pesky chocolate cookie halves when what everyone really wants is just the discs of pure cream? Equally clever was the Zappos internet announcement that to thwart “porch thieves” it would be shipping its shoes in invisible, unstealable boxes; they provided the video proof that the boxes were now indeed invisible!
In Margery William’s Velveteen Rabbit, Rabbit wonders aloud to Skin Horse, “What is REAL?” In all honesty, this question makes perfect sense all year long and April Fools reminds us that having someone tell you that what you are experiencing is real, is just about the worst evidence to rely upon. Pranksters, professional wrestling and “reality” television all come to mind!
It is important to emphasize that nothing about this issue is new. Whether one is snookered into believing something is real due to his own ignorance, through the purposeful omission of pertinent facts, or simply through a lack of diligence in cross-checking the related facts, the resulting embarrassment and confusion remains the same. Years ago I saved an article by Michael Lewis from the online discussion site “Slate” that recalled Mark Twain’s gift for stretching the facts. Even before he wrote his historical lampoon, Roughing It, “…he played up his encounters with gunslingers, desperadoes, Indians, deserts, wild beasts, and bad weather. Writing for an audience already a little vague about the Wild West … Twain clearly sensed that a gap had opened up between what was believable and what was true, and he made the most of it.” In Twain’s words, "When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it happened or not."
What are the educated to do? Read again the advice from Skin Horse of the Velveteen Rabbit. "Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real." “…It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."My advice is that it also takes time to discover reality, to seek the motives of those whose aim it is to convince you of reality and then to ask, “Just how well do I understand it all?”
The rapid switch from “winter” to spring in north Florida occurs in an eye-blink. Suddenly the blooms of spring flowers, shrubbery and trees flood our neighborhoods with color; oh yes, and pollen! The geese are flying, the cardinals chattering and even our year-round shore birds are starting to brighten their plumage. The bright green of a new growth season and the other signs of rebirth are everywhere.
Over spring break, green even burst in upon our grandson’s birthday celebration when it showed up in an unexpected spot. He was quite sure he should not be eating some of his potato chips because there were green patches on them and along their edges.
Our conversation, of course, had to start from the beginning. Authentic potato chips are made from – wait for it – potatoes! He was starting to set such chips aside concerned that they weren’t healthy eating. Potatoes are plants that have evolved underground stems, which enlarge as they store starch. Yet the potato still bears all the hallmarks of other plant stems. Now clearly, plants did not become such successful organisms by wasting the energy that the sun provides for free. While potato stems are typically subterranean, if the stem breaks through the soil surface because rain or irrigation washes away the supporting soil, sun scald occurs. Exposed to the sun, the potato quickly assembles chlorophyll to trap the available sunlight. Chlorophyll turns the potato and the chips we eventually make from them green along the edges. Fortunately, the short story is that chlorophyll is harmless to humans.
All the greenery of spring and St. Patrick’s Day could not convince the birthday boy to try green-tinged potato chips! We agreed that was a fine choice but that it was also was a good reminder. Sometimes we are quick to wrongly judge things by their outward appearances, when it would be best to learn a bit more.
We Americans love the show. It is the computer-controlled, whole house holiday lighting schemes that lead to traffic jams of eager viewers, virtuosity on stage to a standing “O” and the homerun derbies rather than singles to left that we seem to crave. We longingly eye the ski-lift to the black diamond ski run, though everyone knows our skills are best suited for the bunny slope. We’re “all-in” for the multi-million dollar lottery payoff, choosing not to buy tickets if the pool “is only $2 million.” You get the idea. It’s all about the big dance. In college basketball this week, the men’s and women’s dances are simply known as March Madness.
We love the unexpected. There are smiles around the watercooler every time the experts’ predictions prove no better than our own. “Have no fear, Underdog is here!” Even the best prognosticators succumb to the busted bracket and are left to hope at least the final four will hold up another night. Alas, there are sleepers lurking and a Cinderella, intent on thwarting big money programs with million dollar coaching staffs and marquee rosters, may threaten to crash the party. We’ll marvel if the UConn ladies can stretch their winning streak beyond 110 games, but secretly root for an upset just to see who can pull it off.
There is a teachable moment ahead as you watch these exciting weeks unfold. Basketball is played five on five. For every monster jam, MVP scoring run and buzzer-beater-upset, remind your children to admire the defensive star, the adept wizard from the foul line and the calm, consoling coach with an arm around a player in distress. The points from the foul line are of equal value, a coach’s wisdom can meld an unbeatable spirit and the defensive ace that prevents another from scoring might as well have scored herself. While others are focused upon the showiest at the dance, help your child pick out the quiet, unassuming players whom others miss as only “bit part actors;” these invaluable roles actually ensure that the show must go on.
As adults, each day we wrestle with life’s dilemmas seeking to understand the implications and shape our decisions with consistency. Complex issues (and today what issues are not complex?) can be elusive and we naturally fall back upon values and life experiences as a framework to balance the mountain of conflicting information we are experiencing. Maturity allows adults to choose positions of trust and faith, as well as to apply core principles to filter the deluge of data. For children however, I would invite you to consider two related thoughts. First, ultimately we must trust someone and/or something AND second, our children do not yet have the maturity or a lifetime of experiences to properly perform this intellectual balancing act. My general counsel to parents is that until youth are old enough to effectively make positive use of complex and confusing information they should be spared from its full weight. Just as you started your infant on baby food before deciding their digestive system was ready for a four course meal, rational decision making is an executive skill that one grows into. At this stage, children learn more effectively by watching your thinking process and hearing you express the core values you are utilizing as you proceed, than they do by filling their plates and assuming they can digest the whole meal.
Ludwig von Beethoven was once asked why he composed music and how he decided which music he would emphasize and spend the most time and energy upon. His response exposed his core principles and the foundation upon which he chose to build.
I have never thought of writing
for reputation and honor.
What I have in my heart must out;
that is the reason why I compose.
Even when children cannot comprehend the multithreaded arguments associated with a complex issue, they can understand the underlying principles you as an adult value. On life’s journey, Beethoven developed the values and principles he would live by. So it must be for each of us.
There is an anonymous Cherokee story about a grandfather who taught such wisdom to his grandson.
One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about the conflict that was going on inside himself as he lived each day. He said, “My son, there is a battle between two wolves. One wolf is evil and in its pack are anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other wolf is good. It travels with joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.” The grandson thought for a moment and asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins the battle?” The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one I feed."
Seen from a longer perspective, a child’s developmental years provide the best opportunity to shape the core structural, intellectual and spiritual principles that they will rely upon some spring day when the clouds of conflict appear upon their horizons.
I’ve always been fascinated by precision mechanical devices. Gears, cogs, spindles, all meshing to efficiently get a larger job done. As a fifth grader looking for something to do, I was foraging one afternoon in the game closet when I uncovered an original Polaroid Land camera from the late 1940’s or early 1950’s. My grandfather apparently bought the camera to participate in the latest craze. I was hooked and of course, I took it apart. There were settings to manipulate, rollers to clean and a mechanism to understand. Eventually, I asked my dad if I could buy some film, which for that camera only came in black and white.
The unique photographic process that Edwin H. Land introduced, captured each image typically enough through camera and lens. However, his film and the camera’s rollers mixed the developer over the negative immediately when the photographer pulled the film through the camera. Sixty seconds later you could peel apart the picture layers and voila! The marketing ploy, of course, was that you immediately knew if you had captured your shot; no more double images or missing photos discovered only after development, when your roll of twelve shots came back with marred or missing prints. If you were pleased with your Polaroid shot you needed to coat the picture with a pink swab to “fix” the image; skipping that final coating destined the photo to rapid fading and deterioration.
In the 1940’s, it was Edwin Land’s three year old daughter who asked, “Daddy, why can’t I see my picture NOW?” Her innocent question started the chemist dreaming, then experimenting and finally, perfecting his famous film. Who knows when a dream is born? Great ideas come at all ages. It is also a reminder that nearly every process, product or commercial success, which today yields the instantaneous results we seemingly can’t live without, has taken years of planning and development. For every mechanical device whose parts mesh with clockwork precision there are piles of flawed designs, broken prototypes and commercial failures. Childhood development too takes time, as it progresses along rollercoaster routes peppered with rapid acceleration and painful pauses. Someday, it will seem as if it has all happened in an instant, even though you see all the signs of the journey. In the end, maybe that is what we enjoy so much about photography, however the image is made. It allows us to freeze our churning, rapid-fire world into fixed instants. Just remember to swab liberally with love to coat those memories so they never fade.
Monday was the 55th anniversary of Astronaut John Glenn’s historic three orbit flight in Friendship 7. The anniversary is punctuated this year through the Oscar nominated film, Hidden Figures, which shares the stories of physicist and geometry expert Katherine Johnson, aerospace engineer Mary Jackson and NASA supervisor and computer programmer Dorothy Vaughan. In myriad ways, American culture was dramatically different in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The anniversary and the film remind us that too often many incredibly smart, talented African Americans and others have played hidden roles in the success of our national pursuits. However, we are also reminded that this dynamic era symbolized the tremendous upheaval that was gathering momentum within the constructs of culture, politics, science and technology.
To maximize the impact of the Hidden Figures movie, the NASA timeline of events from the late 1950’s through our first orbital flight in 1962 are compressed. John Glenn himself trained for three years for his five hour, three orbit flight. Years were also required for the numerous conjoined NASA initiatives to unfurl in the successful journey. After all, there is a dramatic difference between rocket theory, the mathematics of orbital flight, the engineering of the necessary equipment and systems to support space travel, and the decision to put your life on the line, wedged into a capsule designed to test all those theories! As children in 1962, the people and their hidden stories of depth and courage that aligned to launch John Glenn into space, were never in view as we assembled around a small black and white television in the school cafeteria.
Due to the extremely limited history of manned space flight in the early 1960s, a great deal of crisis planning and “worst-case” thinking accompanied preparations for each flight. Furthermore, the very limited computing power available (remember, the basic four function calculator did not burst onto the scene until 1967) caused many scientists to be wary of computer calculations. In the film, this is dramatized by the astronaut asking Katherine to, “Check the numbers!” The fact that Mrs. Johnson spent a full day and a half resolving the complex, eleven variable problem to eight significant digits provides additional insight into why the space program spurred technological innovations. John Glenn also asked NASA linguists to provide some basic “help phrases” in the native languages represented along his orbital route in the event that he landed somewhere unintended. In a later reflection, Glenn noted that in each of those primitive languages there was no distinction between the words for “stranger” and “enemy!”
Sadly, especially since 9-11 and the advent of terrorism, we too have begun to approach strangers with skepticism and implied enmity, rather than to begin with a desire to discover talents, common interests and shared values. At best, it is always disquieting to be a hidden figure or a stranger. During John Glenn’s first orbit, the people of Perth, Australia decided they would coordinate a blinking of their lights to send a “welcome and best wishes” across the miles to the astronaut overhead. As individuals, a school community and a nation, we too must continue to find ways to light the paths of those strangers and hidden figures in our personal orbits of influence.
Human memories are irredeemably sensorially oriented. Our recollections are indelibly stamped with events, locations and people, as well as associated odors, sounds and visual cues that have been etched together. Many of these memories are happy occasions like marriage proposals, reunions, graduations and special trips. Sadly too, tragedies are similarly involuntarily recorded. So it is that Pearl Harbor, the JFK assassination, the loss of the shuttle crews in Challenger and Columbia, 9-11 and other catastrophic events are firmly lodged as long term memories. A trigger odor, sight or sound transports us back to where we were and who we were with; associated memories such as the song on the radio or perhaps the clothes we each were wearing come flooding back to add technicolor to that moment we heard “the news.” The associative nature of our human neural wiring, bolsters such memories by linking the experience with accompanying sensory information to ensure that the brain’s important long-term recollection capabilities are utilized. Once the association was formed, Pavlov’s dogs salivated as the bells rang, even without the presence of food. Common sound associations forever linked to pain or other trauma for humans are dental drills, approaching windstorms and even earthquakes. For many, simply the whine of the drill triggers an emotional and physiological response. In a similar way, the smells of holiday meals or baking bread are often associated with happy gatherings, stories and laughter with extended family.
My guess is that you personally still remember the afternoon the snail-mail contained the “thick or thin” envelope from a college you were counting on. What did the envelope look and feel like? What may not be immediately obvious is that your children are also locking away memories for a lifetime by associating them with their own sensory perceptions. A sample of their events might include: the first time they coordinated the leg-pump and swing movement, or the moment the training wheels came off and they excitedly screamed, “I can do it myself!” Imagine the sights, smells or sounds that students associate with a mountain hike, a leaf pile plunge, a first goal or perhaps with the time they exclaim, “Stop! I’ll read it to you!” For both parents and students, sensory data also help the hippocampus affix memories of the first honor roll, chapel prayer, date and formal dance.
You undoubtedly see the point and other examples. Our brains are complex neural networks designed to layer and reinforce the most important information into stored memories for future use. Gifted educators employ multiple modalities each day to associate important skills and classroom details by pairing music, dance and/or scents with the learning. The new associations encourage the brain to transfer such information into long term memory. Think back. What happened when you stumbled upon a natural source of hydrogen sulfide gas (i.e. swamps, hot springs, volcanos)? Simply a whiff of “rotten egg” is an instant recipe for transporting you back to one of those special high school chemistry experiences. Of course, future events threaten to supplant items or to push them deeper down the mental list; however, realize that for your children, their equally important neural catalog is in active formation. You’ll want to be present for the recording session! My wish for you this week is that you will carve out the time and will have the wisdom to discern when you need to be THERE.
My daughter-in-law discovered an ancient truth this past weekend. She and our young granddaughter sat down together to read Shel Silverstein’s, The Giving Tree. As we go through life, there is continual tension between our developmental age, chronological age, biological age and cognitive skill age. It is important also to realize that this tension between our “ages” is not confined to childhood. For educators this means that since a student’s social/emotional and physical functional ages are not tightly tied to a child’s chronological age, we must be prepared to carefully tailor instructional challenges and outcomes for each individual. For our daughter-in-law and for you as parents, this means that a ___ year old may have the technical ability and vocabulary to read a classic book, yet they have not reached the developmental maturity to digest it. The result in this case was that our granddaughter became a tear-streaked mess for hours as the different emotional issues of the book washed over her.
This developmental tension has me concerned as we consume the latest wave of technological helpers being invited into homes around the world. The advertisements for Google Home, Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa all appear innocent enough. “What’s will the weather be today?” “Play the movie, Finding Dory.” “Find a recipe for Irish Pudding Cake.” As you move forward in this new world, recall that whichever gender you select for these assistants, you are talking to an algorithm. A cold, unreasoned, programmed voice selects responses from the vast dataset at its disposal. The answer may be factually accurate but totally inappropriate. The “voice” does not know who is on the receiving end of the information it provides and it certainly does not know anything about the “ages” of those awaiting a response. Yes, you may eventually laugh at the items delivered on your doorstep after a child’s unapproved Amazon order; however, the overall issue is much more complex. This Siri/Alexa roulette is exacerbated by human curiosity; imagine the questions that children ask and how many times you tailor your response to the uniqueness of your child! Think for a moment who it is that you wish your child’s questions to be answered by and when. Remember too that there will be questions when you are not at home to supervise.
As you know, I am not a technological Luddite. Knowing that this toothpaste is not going back into the tube, I believe prudence dictates that as adults we must ensure our tech tools are appropriately serving our families. Nearly every piece of hardware, software and voice assistance protocol has security parameters, age profile settings and other safeguards, but these require your active engagement. Your children watch, learn and mimic how you interact with your devices. This is an opportunity to model the behaviors you wish to see. Finally, I continue to recommend that parents set specific protections and that they utilize technology WITH children.
Each of us is a complex array of ages, which is not defined by the number of birthdays we have logged. Recognize and celebrate the variety of ages you see within your own life and the lives of your children. Perhaps, with good fortune you will one day happily ask, “Alexa, why was childhood so much fun?”
In the 1990s, the Lemelson Foundation began collecting data to gauge teenage and young adult perceptions about inventors, inventions and how our culture spawns inventiveness. The Lemelson Foundation honors the memory of the late MIT professor Dr. Jerome H. Lemelson by fostering a culture of creativity through programs and prizes that raise the stature of inventors and innovators. As it has matured over more than twenty years, the Lemelson-MIT Program has discovered that students greatly value inventions and inventiveness. However, in general they also wish that our educational system did more to celebrate the inventive process, while providing opportunities and facilities in which to imaginatively create.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is an international group that supports economic and social development worldwide. Their research into the achievement by boys and girls around the globe and its impact on opportunities available, found that Girls “lack self-confidence” in their ability to solve mathematics and science problems and achieve worse results than they otherwise would, despite outperforming boys overall. Yet, when students are asked what single factor they credit for their decision to enter a particular field of study, to pursue a particular degree program or to enter a particular profession, they indicate an influential adult. In other words, we have the ability to foster the needed self-confidence and to nourish the creative skills that both boys and girls require.
Most often, student mentors are specific teachers or the students’ parents. Through its annual contest prizes The Lemelson-MIT Program seeks to encourage invention. The winning inventions are truly inspirational. The Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam contest provides $10,000 prizes to honor winning high school students or teams. The Lemelson-MIT Student Prize provides multiple $10,000 prizes for university and graduate students, and a separate “grand prize” of $500,000 is awarded to one mid-career inventor. All winners speak of the foundations for inventiveness that were laid years earlier.
I do not believe that contemporary students lack creativity, inventiveness or concrete ideas. The responses of RPDS students to our own STEAM projects and challenges certainly corroborate this assumption. In general, teens say they need more encouragement from teachers and parents to develop the innovative ideas they have already developed. Students also have consistently reported belief that innovations in medical research will find a cure for cancer in their lifetimes; why wouldn’t we want to nourish such enthusiasm and optimism? Make it a point to encourage your children to dream, to invent, to build and to assemble. Encourage their projects and ideas. Our world is depending on the work we do today.
Success by any measure requires commitment and sacrifice. Today, RPDS looks brightly to a successful future because of the commitment and sacrifices of its employees, parents and extended community. You certainly have similar reasons for projecting success for your children. Each week, our emotional intelligence program, character formation work and service initiatives through Project LEADS reinforce the concepts of commitment and sacrifice within our students. There is a very old story about two friends that I have used before to make these issues concrete and memorable.
Albrecht Dürer and Franz Knigstein were friends back in 1490 when they were unknown, struggling artists. They were very poor and made it a habit to work odd jobs to support each other. Soon they each were doing more work than art. One evening the pair made the decision that they would draw lots. The “winner” would get to study art full time and the “loser” would work full time to support his friend. They then agreed to switch roles so that the first to study would return home and assume the breadwinning, allowing the other to begin his full-time study. Albrecht Dürer was the first to study and he left immediately for the great cities of Europe. The world soon learned that Dürer was an artistic genius. However, when the time came for Albrecht to honor his agreement with Franz he enthusiastically returned to begin his labor. Sadly, he discovered that the commitment of Franz had required a tremendous sacrifice. The hard manual labor had crippled Franz’s hands to the point that he no longer had the ability to produce the delicate, exacting brush strokes needed for fine painting. While Franz no longer could hope to be an artist, he never stopped encouraging and supporting his friend Albrecht.
One evening, Albrecht Dürer discovered his friend deep in prayer. As he studied the callused, twisted hands intertwined in prayer, Albrecht sketched the scene. Later he decided to honor his friend’s commitment and sacrifice by creating the work of art now known by millions as the masterpiece, “The Praying Hands.” It was the commitment and sacrifice of Franz Knigstein that enabled the success of Albrecht Dürer. It is simply a fact that none of us shines without the light from others to reflect. The hidden strength, commitment, love and sacrifice of sometimes surprisingly few individuals supports the visible successes of multitudes.
It is resolution season. With each New Year, resolutions quickly follow and often are just as swiftly parked on the off-ramp. The truly hard work of stepping into new beginnings is letting go of those things we have grown comfortrable with, but whose time has come. When we are able to let go, we clear the necessary room for more favorable things to take root. At the same time, it may be important to remember that being comfortable with our “knowns” does not mean it isn’t time for change; coziness with the known is not synonymous with being pleased with those routines, experiences or outcomes. They are simply known. The following story is one of a number with similar themes that frame the all-too-human response when we try to let go of the past.
There was once a man being chased by a hungry tiger. As the fellow raced to escape, the tiger forced him off a cliff and then out onto a limb that was overhanging a sheer drop of over one thousand feet. With the tiger growling above him and his hands quickly growing tired, the man noticed a tiny mouse crawl out onto the branch. Horrors of horrors, the mouse began gnawing through the limb. That was the last straw!
With a shout toward Heaven the man pleaded, “Dear God, if you are there, please help. I will do anything you ask, but please help!
Suddenly a booming response was heard, “You will do ANYTHING I ask?”
“Oh, yes God. I will do anything you ask but please save me,” said the weary man.
The voice replied, “There is one way to save you, but it will take great faith and courage.”
By now the mouse had nearly chewed through the branch and it creaked in weakness. Still the drooling tiger watched the man with anticipation. “Please Lord, my time is short, tell me what I must do and I will do it. Your will is my will!
“All right,” the voice echoed. “Let go of the branch!”
The man looked down a thousand feet and his fall to certain death. He looked past the chewing mouse and up at the smiling tiger just a few feet beyond. Then he looked to Heaven again and yelled, “Is there anyone else up there?”
There are times when, try as we might, we cannot see the brighter future beyond because letting go is the only way we can clear space for new light to filter in. Partially, the problem for us all is believing it is best to “let go,” and then to act physically and emotionally do it. Yet, even when we know it is best and then actually make the needed fresh beginning, a new issue may emerge when we discover that the sticky tar from the past won’t let go of us. Oprah Winfrey has expressed a helpful reminder to support resolution resolve. She advises, “Breathe. Let go. And remind yourself that this very moment is the only one you know you have for sure.”
In the last year, there have been numerous examples of why we must work diligently to ensure that facts, issues and even whole programs are fairly and honestly shared. In contemporary culture, it is essential to be able to spot dishonest reporting and to “break the chain” by refusing to forward such reports. Non-vetted information shared within social media by well-meaning individuals is notoriously circumspect. Fake news “bombshells” seem to turn up with regularity and there is no sign of the trend abating. Even if we disregard the numerous cases where facts are manipulatively and intentionally distorted, there remain many more instances when stories openly shared as fact, remain uncorroborated and that harbor false information. This happens so easily and quickly in our technological age that the sheer volume of identical, yet wrong, reports overwhelm our usually rational minds, tricking us into believing the inaccurate. To confuse things further, it is also common that accurate tidbits of stories are reassembled into misleading fabrications, which are then shared as fact.
Recently, the somewhat sad news that a Giant Sequoia called the Pioneer Cabin Tree had fallen made national headlines. The report and photos of “the iconic, drive-through sequoia’s” demise generated many heartfelt recollections. Yet, for many this wasn’t THE iconic tree they remember. This reminded me of a long-ago discussion with a park ranger in Sequoia National Park. The ranger was explaining that there was a storied record of visitors asking for the location within the park where they could drive through The Tunnel Tree. When told that there were no such trees in Sequoia National Park and that Yosemite National Park or Calaveras State Park would be where to seek such trees, angry visitors apparently reported the rangers as uncooperative liars. It turns out that within California in the late 1800’s, there were a number of Sequoia and Coastal Redwood tree trunks hollowed out to generate enthusiasm for visiting the parks. Hikers, wagons and later, automobiles would be photographed passing through the gigantic tree trunks. The Pioneer Cabin Sequoia was one such tree located in Calaveras State Park; another Sequoia many remember photographing was the Wawona Tree in Yosemite National Park. That tree fell in 1969. There remain other “tunneled” Coastal Redwoods still standing but none of them are in Sequoia National Park. Still the recollections of doing all this in Sequoia National Park persist.
More than ever, students need to be taught the necessary skills to parse fact from fiction and to verify, verify, verify. My guess is that like me, your electronic feeds are filled with bogus “IT’S TRUE” warnings against viruses, claims that various individuals said or did outrageous things and/or assurances that a generous Sultan is passing out cash! The resulting skeptism of all shared information means that wonderful organizations like RPDS must work constantly to ensure that messages of hope and success receive the honor they deserve. Did you know that our graduating class last year logged over 3400 hours of community service and that this years’ 6th Graders have already exceeded 1800 hours of service? Did you know that 84% of RPDS 3rd-6th Graders met or exceeded independent school student scores on the WrAP writing test administered this fall? You should be proud to hear that three RPDS faculty members were selected by the National Science Teachers Association to present a STEAM workshop at the NSTA conference this March! Finally, if you wonder if RPDS students still seek academic challenges, you need look no further than to consider that 19 of our current 5th and 6th Graders voluntarily began our new course offering in Mandarin Chinese this fall and that they are already speaking and writing in Chinese!
Over the years I have written often about the role perspective and experience play as master educators. The first hammer-blows on Noah’s ark must have seemed very odd. The first aviator to attempt a “controlled fall” with bird-wing appliques surely looked a few cards short of a full deck and when teenagers Gates and Jobs started tinkering at the school mainframe and in a dusty garage these “geeks” were likely the focus of much curious laughter. Enter perspective and experience and such individuals are hailed as pioneers.
Perspective and experience help us to hit the NEXT curve ball, to perfect the next STEAM project, to better love the next person with a special need and to see the next opportunity as golden. In our culture today we seem in a rush to heave as many experiences through as small a window as possible. The push is on in culture (Baby Einstein anyone?) and in schools to have children doing increasingly cognitive coursework at earlier and earlier ages. Not only are children’s brains not yet wired for such work, an accumulation of experiences (analogous to the “he/she with the most toys wins” philosophy) is not the point. When we do this, at best we rob children of the reflective opportunity to employ perspective and experience, and at worst we so overstimulate and overshoot the capabilities of the developing brain that the planned effects are not realized.
Schools too should accept the wrist-slaps needed for participating in an “educational arms-race.” As I travel as a part of accreditation teams it is not uncommon to hear schools proudly differentiate their offerings by pointing to Algebra in grade 6, biology in grade 8 and long-periods of “seat work” pushing a pencil in Kindergarten. The strength of any curriculum and of a school, depends not only upon what is taught and when, but also upon the appropriateness of the school mission, educational philosophy, chosen methodologies and planned skill spiraling year-upon-year for the students that are being served.
Whether we are judging the age-appropriateness of an experience, or the point at which an educational concept or skill is introduced, we should ask whether the individual child has the foundational development, perspectives and experiences to derive value from it. As has often been shared, childhood and education are more closely aligned with running 26.2 rather than a 50 yard sprint.
One of the great joys of each holiday season is the sharing of family traditions. These are moments for sharing “the whys” of life with those you most love. Likely, there are food preparation, home decorating, entertainment and/or gift giving traditions among others to be shared. In our family while I was growing up, there were magical fluorescent tree lights to hang and special rules for handling (and saving!) the lead tinsel. Just standing in the kitchen with my grandparents and a houseful of family was a tradition. Discussions were wide ranging, but sooner or later how my grandmother got her lemon meringue pie to be so perfect and the re-telling of how she stumbled sending a birthday cake skyward (then, kersplat!) would each enter the conversation. Perhaps there are traditions in your home that you pass along when together. Do you reveal the history behind a cookie recipe, a secret dressing or gravy, or for preparing for an annual talent show? How do your traditions reflect the heart of Christmas?
Years ago, the following story from Hawaii in one of Medard Laz’s books caught my attention. He related that as one Christmas approached, a teacher who was working on a remote Hawaiian island was trying to explain to a young boy why gifts were shared between individuals on the holiday. She explained the thoughtfulness and grace behind God’s gift on the first Christmas, as well as the joyful responses of those who embrace it.
On the last day of class, the Hawaiian boy presented his teacher with the most exotic shell she had ever seen. The teacher asked him, “Where did you find such a unique and marvelous shell?” The young lad told her that there was only one place he knew to find such extraordinary shells. He explained that the location was a secluded and hidden bay over twenty miles away and how he had discovered that such shells occasionally washed ashore there. “Well, it is absolutely gorgeous; I will treasure it for a lifetime,” said the teacher. “But you should not have gone all that way to get a gift for me!” Remembering the lesson his teacher had taught about gift giving, the boy’s eyes brightened and he said, “Long walk, part of gift.”
The sharing of family traditions, cultural history and personal reflections provides “found blessings.” They allow us to connect the generations, to understand the past and to gain perspective for the future. I hope you will have time together with family during this holiday season for sharing the best of your own traditions and stories. Merry Christmas!
A friend has recently journeyed to Cuba with a National Geographic educational tour. His description of a hopeful Cuban people living amid the challenges of an economic system and physical infrastructure that are in serious need of modernization, reminded me of the exploits of English explorer Samuel Herne back in the 1700s. It was the Hudson Bay Company that tapped a young Samuel Herne to explore the Northwest Territories of Canada. This area we know as Manitoba was described in an 1882 guidebook for pioneers, “the climate…consists of seven months of Arctic weather and five months of winter.”
In the 1700s, the Hudson Bay trading empire was seeking to recapture its mission as a firm of exploration, when it hired Samuel Hearne to work with the local Indians and to map a Northwest Canadian Passage trade route. This led Hearne to undertake three journeys in search of the Coppermine River. These were no Sunday strolls! Hearne carried a 60-pound pack to which he had strapped his navigational quadrant and stand. On the first two trips, the company supplied Chipewyan and Cree Indian guides that were at least as hampering as helpful. The explorer and his companions canoed, walked and snowshoed across the barren wilderness following Caribou migration routes and by blazing new trails. Vicious snowstorms were still likely midsummer and the party frequently was without shelter or dry clothes. Amid that backdrop and on his second journey Herne’s added to his journal, "…the day after, several Indians joined me from the Northward, some of whom plundered me and my companions of almost every useful article we had, among which was my gun." Yet, Samuel Hearne went on to write, "the weather for some time proved fine, and caribou were very plentiful. As the above ravagers had materially lightened my load by taking everything from me except the quadrant (which they broke), books, & clothing this part of the journey was the easiest and most pleasant of any I had experienced since my leaving the Fort."
As you navigate your Advent journey, perhaps your search for hope, love, joy and peace is challenging. Are you in Arctic weather or five months of winter? Are you plagued by nagging pests seeking to "lighten your load?" Are your weapons gone? We all can empathize with life’s difficulties attacking; however, I’m challenged to model Samuel Hearne’s response in my life! As my friend reflected on his Cuban experience and as I think of Samuel Herne’s journey, the common theme is that one’s joyful outlook need not depend on his or her resources. May you be surrounded by friends and family this holiday season who help you realize that attitude is a mirror of our inner world and not a cloak supplied by exterior circumstances.
As the season of Advent begins, the annual frenzied competition between the religious and secular holiday seasons begins anew. Perhaps this year you’ll find it helpful to ponder the concept that “big things come in small packages” and all the ways that phrase gains meaning as the days pass. For some, this little ditty is a thinly veiled reference to receiving expensive jewelry or other small but high priced treasures. For others, God’s Christmas gift in a manger, light from of a star and the inspired visits by penniless shepherds fit the paradigm. Perhaps, as you imagine the proverb from the perspective of value rather than expense, you will share stories of your experiences or the individuals you have met, which have uniquely taught this truth.
Abraham Lincoln was not asked to Gettysburg as the principle speaker. Instead, famous orator Edward Everett spoke first and it was his two hour speech that was praised in the newspapers. Abraham Lincoln’s gift to history lasted just two minutes, received little notice and even brought some criticism at the time. Consider also the lightning bolt. Generally, such electrical discharges arc from ground to cloud and measure a mere one inch in diameter. These displays heat the air to nearly 18,000 degrees Fahrenheit in a matter of milliseconds. The resulting thunder rattles on and on. Big things come in small packages indeed.
In 1990, Ralph Gadiel imagined a Colorado mining town from the 1860s and ‘70s, having no idea how lively a village it would become. He began marketing his vision as “The Liberty Falls Christmas Collection” and quickly discovered that value and expense need not be related. His 3-inch-tall buildings were cold-cast, hand-painted porcelain. Eventually there were figurines, coaches and foliage to adorn the landscape. The popular Christmas villages decorated piano tops, mantels and tree skirts. Originally, the miniature buildings were individually priced at just $5; however, as the sets gained variety and notoriety the collectable values far exceeded the selling prices. Truthfully, it was the romanticized image as much as the hand-painted quality and low price that attracted collectors. Each building was accompanied by a nostalgic, “historic” description of the building’s purpose and role within the Liberty Falls. A collection of legends was written by Susan K. Jones in two volumes entitled, The Life and Times of Liberty Falls. The conceptualized village was mass produced, annually refreshed and individualized to create unique sets for major department store clients. Liberty Falls “real estate” brought Gadiel millions of dollars and created lines of eager shoppers. Yet, like the mining towns that Liberty Falls purported to represent, the village’s boom years were quickly followed by decline and insolvency.
As you search to maintain your own Advent traditions, I hope you will share your reflections upon big things coming within small packages from spiritual as well as secular perspectives. I hope too that the “reason for the season” is not lost amid the commercial hoopla or fictionalized storylines. Your insights may just enlighten the life of another with lightning bolt efficiency, while providing a lifetime of thundering shockwaves. It is Advent, a season celebrating the gift that spans past, present and future!
Many of you have commented that Thanksgiving this year has sneaked up on us. Perhaps the uneven schedule due to extreme weather and its aftermath during this first trimester has camouflaged next week’s celebration. In truth, if retail stores are any indication, our “fly-over” culture finds it more difficult with each passing year to honor Thanksgiving; we rush instead to get to “Black Friday,” “Cyber Monday” and our Christmas must-do lists. Giving thanks is too personal to be easily monetized.
The original Thanksgiving displayed little resemblance to the Hollywood portrayal. Awful weather, disease and dwindling food supplies conspired against the fledgling Plymouth settlement. One-half of the original Mayflower travelers had died by the end of the first year due to epidemic, exposure and poor nutrition. Construction of homes on the Massachusetts mainland was one of the first tasks for the settlers. Often little more than one room, the shelters had thatched roofs and dirt floors. Thatch, created from bundles of straw provided a great deal of protection from the elements, but such coverings had their faults. Even the sophisticated thatched-roofed homes back in England were notorious for leaks, insect infestations and other droppings from above. There was a reason that canopied four-poster beds came into fashion!
The early immigrants were pre-occupied with survival and times were hand-to-mouth-bleak. Relationships between the Pilgrim separatists, the non-religious passengers known as “strangers” and the local native culture required deft handling. The storied gathering of 1621, which has since been institutionalized, was consistent with the regular Pilgrim habit of holding religious observances in thankfulness for God’s provisions; however, the meal’s menu did not become a template for contemporary family feasts. Governor Bradford’s invitation to Chief Massasoit made it clear that the colony was deeply thankful for the aid of the Wampanoag Indians and for their shared insights about planting corn and finding both fish and beaver. The settlers had lived through one full year in their new surroundings and had reaped a successful harvest. These were reasons enough to gather for giving thanks.
Today, few of us worry about thatched roofs, dirt floors or harsh winters. There is a greater probability that we will lose one-half of our possessions than experience the nightmare of losing one-half of our family, friends and neighbors. Yet, world events and occasional outbreaks of disease do signal that although our vulnerabilities may have shifted, vulnerable we remain. The lesson taught by those first Pilgrims is that personal gratitude and the thanks-giving worship it spawns, arise as spiritual needs that must be satisfied. It is in such reflection that we place God’s provision of abundance, safety and security in perspective. The spiritual truth is that when you place God’s provisions on a scale’s balance pan, those will always outweigh whatever our world heaps on the opposing pan. Happy Thanksgiving!
A feature of each month’s all-school, outdoor flag raising ceremony is a closing challenge from the Headmaster. The point of each puzzler is to ensure students are thinking, researching and communicating; a small prize and the bragging rights for winning that month’s query help to maintain excitement. The art of being able to explain your answer in everyday language or with a captivating example is a less obvious skill also being nourished. Einstein reportedly believed that, it can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience. After apparently deciding he should take his own advice, Einstein reduced this sentiment to the oft-repeated quote that, “everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
News reports preceding next week’s “supermoon” are a perfect example of how to fail Einstein’s charge. Headline writers for The Washington Post and CNN have each tantalized, November's Supermoon Will Be Bigger Than It Has Been Since 1948. The website AZCentral insisted, November Supermoon Will Be Biggest in 70 Years! Is the volume of our moon magically swelling and shrinking with its waxing and waning? Of course not. The moon will be no larger than it was on any other day. Viewers often fall victim to the visual illusion that the moon is larger as it rises and sets at the horizon. However, so-called “supermoons” are much rarer instances when the moon’s elliptical orbit brings it nearest to the earth. Next week, the moon’s orbital approach also coincides with a full moon. These facts will conspire to make the lunar image appear larger and brighter than it is typically. This is the moon’s version of a fisherman holding a fish he’s just landed at arm’s length and closer to the camera. The impression is that the angler has hooked a lunker instead of a minnow.
Numerous authors display the gift of making difficult concepts as simple as possible without being simpler. Jacob Bronowski, Issac Asimov, Brian Greene and Richard Feynman are all science writers who are gifted at explaining the intricacies of scientific knowledge in understandable, elegant prose. Each has learned another valuable lesson of a classic education; applying all your knowledge in a given situation is not necessarily a good thing. The contemporary flood of information available to students is potentially immobilizing. Prioritizing the value of a broad array of data, selecting appropriate information and then being able to clarify its relevance before clearly communicating the essence to others are essential skills. Perhaps the following classic brainteaser will help frame the issue. “A man digs a circular hole that is exactly 3 feet in diameter and 9 feet deep. What is the volume of dirt in the hole?”
So it goes. We have more than enough knowledge to answer such questions. Don’t let that knowledge get in the way of your ability to appreciate the beauty so close at hand. Oh, just in case Algebra and Geometry got in the way, there is no dirt in the hole … that’s why it’s a hole.