“Is Aristotle a person, or is he a subject that you study?” This is a question from my youngest son, a star, a tap-dancer, almost eight, standing beside me in our living room as I conduct a Zoom class for my undergraduates. He’s become proficient at Zoom over the last few weeks, as many have; he and his brother use it themselves to connect with their own New York City public school teachers. He’s taken to regarding my classes as his personal audience: he has dressed up as Batman in three different capes over the last few weeks, for the thrill of applause. Today, he’s trying to impress my metaphysics class, all four of them, on our optional live chat, which is supposed to answer questions left over from lecture videos and discussion boards. He succeeds. I explain to my extremely patient and long-suffering university students: the way my attention works is that I can’t help trying to parse my son’s explosively sudden question as metaphysical distinction first, before dragging myself back to their question about whether the study of metaphysics, according to Aristotle, ends in the contemplation of the first cause, God. They laugh. They are kind, and intellectually forgiving enough to recognize that both questions, theirs and the second grader’s, are metaphysically interesting; and let’s be honest, his antics are adding a human touch.
Aristotle is both a person and a subject you can study, if you desire. I am a university professor in a philosophy department in Queens, New York, where my job (and lucky I was to get it) is to try to explain ancient, existential, and political philosophy to patient yet harassed undergrads. The students must pass my core courses in order to graduate into jobs in pharmacy, education, homeland security.
They’re the best students I’ve ever taught. Not on paper – the schools they went to aren’t considered to be as impressive as the fancy prep schools that produced the often rather nihilistic honors students I taught while finishing my PhD – but they have a moral seriousness to them, an immediacy in caring about philosophy, if they care at all, that is profoundly soothing to my spirit.
I’m worried about them: about two thirds are doing some kind of work in my classes right now, and one third is not. I am not sure how long the two thirds will be able to sustain their interest, their internet bill, their devices, their health, their parents’ rent. We’re supposed to go for five more weeks.
I also am alarmed about my two elementary-school sons, who are hitting my hand exactly right now as I attempt to stop them from stopping the Wind in the Willows bootleg audiobook they are listening to while I write this, because the feed said the word ass, which they believe to be, univocally, a bad word. I will not be able to persuade them otherwise. Their school stopped holding in-person classes seven weeks ago; six weeks ago, I took on a second job of elementary school tutoring assistant and learning disability specialist.
Fortunately, this is a job I’ve done before, and it was by far the best preparation for university teaching I’ve ever had. Grad school is great for teaching you how to be a scholar of Aristotle, of Plato, of Beauvoir; but more elusive is the trick of explaining something of what these people are thinking to people who would in truth be willing to care, if they could catch the tail end of something relevant to their concerns.
I can do both these jobs. But can I do them both at once?
I can do both these jobs. But can I do them both at once? Each requires precisely the same window of time and totality of attention, at the same time and in the same respect. In metaphysics, this is a job for the principle of non-contradiction, which is supposed to be unbreakable: the same thing can’t be and not be at the same time in the same respect. Right now I am breaking this law; or rather it, being unbreakable, is breaking me.
When it first became clear that people with kids at home were going to be participating in this grand educational experiment, loosely designated “homeschooling,” the internet reactions were halfway between generous and grandiose. So many, many brilliant people have dedicated time to quickly drawn-up internet projects, and so many of them have the real goodwill and acumen to support it: the author of the Pigeon books, Mo Willems, is giving daily drawing lessons; Levar Burton, of Reading Rainbow and Roots, is doing reading-aloud sessions for several different age-group tiers of readers; and Patrick Stewart is blessing us all with a sonnet a day. The Penn Museum of archeology is offering “at-home anthropology” for kids! It’s so much, and it’s so generous. It’s also all too much.
Advice, tips, fun activities, new websites, crazy fun things you can try; I’ve forgotten half of the neat things I’ve run across already; whereas the one thing I could really use is a room of my own, soundproof, with a lock. I’m not getting one. That’s OK. I’m not sorry to be getting extra hugs every 7.8 minutes from my youngest, when he remembers again I’m just in the next room, and so, huggable.
But the current impossibilities are also a grave temptation for our productivity-inclined demons; demons we knew about before, but somehow now, when it’s even more obvious they are whispering treason, many of us have even less of the ability to withstand. In early days, that is, mid-March, I saw a series of tweets from my fellow academics/parents, who were inspired by the idea of homeschooling to begin to teach their young children how to count in ancient Mayan numbers (base 20). Is this activity fun? Yes! Intellectually fascinating? Most certainly. Is it something to drag my attention over to right now, start to learn for myself, and then attempt to get my children to focus on? Absolutely Not. To me it seems even more inexplicable and faraway than the being of being.
The problem is that what my children and I are doing right now is not school at home. It’s not homeschool, or even unschool, the kind of full-anarchy-learning situation I used to daydream about when I was bored to death by high school. You may have heard that the word school, scholê, means leisure, the real and best kind of attention where you get to follow all your most idle wondering, on your own terms, with the comfortable background sense of having, after all, all the time in the world.
Let children learn by play, Socrates counsels Plato’s older brothers.
Such self-directed playfulness, of course, could simply already be school; it’s fundamental to the approach to learning that Maria Montessori, Friedrich Fröbel (whose work influenced the Bruderhof community’s approach to education), and my good old Plato himself have all recommended in their day. Let children learn by play, Socrates counsels Plato’s older brothers in the Republic: nothing learned by compulsion stays in the mind. Montessori’s original Casa dei Bambini, “The Home of Children,” made a child-scaled world for its Roman preschoolers, where their self-direction allowed them to take thorough responsibility for the schoolroom’s smallest detail, and so became for them the most absorbing game of all.
But such approaches have remained mysteriously non-mainstream, despite America’s occasional fits of interest. And so it’s remained limited: to the Bruderhof schools, to the Greek Orthodox Montessori preschool I visited when my first son was just about of an age to enter. I had there a marvelous conversation with the school’s head about educational philosophy (of course I tried to tell her about Plato); she cried when I had to tell her we could never, never afford it.
The kind of learning we are doing within the New York City public school system is quite different. I knew this; now I know it more. To make my children’s assignments happen, for their hope of getting to the next grade next year, right now – immediately – I have to half-learn things to which others have given many years of effort: the Common Core, its very specific pedagogy for math, the intricacies of scientifically measured reading comprehension. Do I have the judgment to evaluate these pedagogies right now? Absolutely not. In the midst of action one must carry on, there’s no time to mess around debating the premises I tacitly agreed to a while back when I sent them to public schools. But I do know that their teachers, people I know and respect, took years to perfect their practice and their understanding of these techniques.
My sons’ math problems do not want only the answer to the perplexing situation of someone who had twenty-nine marbles, let eighteen of them go, and has a certain number remaining. Rather, they must show their work with some kind of variable set of visual tables of hundreds, tens, and ones, or a number line, or a graph. All of these come with obscure exhortations to strategize in some particular way, and document the strategy. We need to do this first typing and then handwritten, and then we take a picture of it, upload it, then click an extra box or two to turn it in. I sound lame complaining about this. If only all of my attention could go to figuring it out . . . but I can’t learn another person’s job while remaining dedicated also to my own. Our school system canceled the yearly end-all testing for elementary students; I am glad to not worry about trying to teach to that test, at least. But then the math-problem problem is renewed each day. And at this point, you start thinking about that elusive leisure again. What would it even look like? Homeschool, in some home beyond our home.
And at this point, you start thinking about that elusive leisure again. What would it even look like?
In Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s 1916 novel Understood Betsy, the elementary-school heroine is suddenly uprooted from the town and sent to country cousins in Vermont, where she has to learn to get past the idea that chores are for “hired men,” and are rather for people, like herself. For her this idea is at first a bit of a stretch. She’d been taught that education is a rarified matter, one properly experienced as tender anxiety via competition with classmates, and not some immediate task that obviously contributes to the common household good. In the story, she gets over it; but it takes a while. In one scene, Betsy boasts to her cousins that she knows all about the laying of asphalt, something they’ve never seen. But it soon becomes apparent she can’t relate the sequence of how it’s laid, on what, by what – not only because she never really paid attention, but also because she’s so ignorant of doing any artisanal task that the complexity of the sequence and its causal chain lies beyond her imagination (she’d have serious problems while taking college metaphysics). Her first morning at the farm, she stays in bed till she realizes no one is coming to wake her up.
Canfield Fisher also detailed in nonfiction the desire for better things; A Montessori Mother describes her 1911 visit to Casa dei Bambini, and she was one of the most enthusiastic proponents of Montessori’s work in America. In the book, she traces the resolution of her own qualms and suspicions of the method, in the hopes of persuading her fellow parents not to reject the philosophy out of hand. But it’s Understood Betsy that offers the more difficult hope of persuading children themselves to take note of the living sort of knowledge of yourself that is itself a delight, the kind you have when you don’t have to ask someone else to button your shirt – that is, if children were taking any additional improving book recommendations at this time, which mine at least are not.
What my children need is not to learn the Mayan number system, but to learn how to take out the trash.
Philip Larkin remarks that “home stays as it was left,” which is very true, until you clean it up. If school were really at home, if home were the school, it would be obvious, and pressing, as it actually is right now, that what my children need is not to learn the Mayan number system, but to learn how to take out the trash. And help with the dishes. And the laundry. What would it even mean if they could learn to sweep? Help clean the bath, the toilet. Actually flush the toilet, every time? (They did learn, initially, and then their school got automatically flushing toilets, and they stopped, seemingly forever.)
In 2012, the journalist Pamela Druckerman published the bestselling but widely criticized Bringing Up Bébé, on the surface another impossible ode to how the French somehow do everything better, but in reality a brief look at how a political community with a better understanding of childcare as a common good operates on any given weekday morning. Part of these mornings include children helping with dishes; seemingly obvious advice, but one that columnists were strangely touchy about. In the New Yorker review of Bringing Up Bébé, the narrator, skeptical of the possibility of benefiting from any such cultural alternatives, describes her attempt to let her son bring in the groceries and take out the trash for a week or two, before she got so frustrated with his inevitable mistakes that she decided it was easier to do it herself, and so the experiment ended.
This represents a failure of many things, most certainly of the imagination; one reviewer responded by arguing that the book’s advice ought to be abandoned on the principle that such a system would never produce billionaires. Canfield Fisher in 1916 quite understood one of the underlying reasons for the rejection of Montessori pedagogy: class anxiety. This is the more frustrating to witness, when you also know that the kind of slow-burning satisfaction of having really made something, or made something work, is a better antidote to stress than most others; and this is true for children no less than adults.
What I’m doing now from my apartment – still reading and teaching metaphysics and ethics, grading exams, emailing students who haven’t posted anything for weeks, and doing it badly and slowly too, but getting paid – is possible and explicable on no other terms than that my children already know how to make themselves breakfast and lunch, and cautiously, take some advice about certain matters pertaining to dinner. The youngest boldly boiled corn for us the other day, his Platonic ideal of a vegetable. Even so, what I’m still struck by is the sheer volume of things I haven’t yet, somehow, taught my children to do. Certainly they know, in the abstract, that “the trash” must be “taken out.” Their sense of the process by which this is accomplished remains hazy in the extreme, like the chiliagon, the thousand-sided figure one can imagine, but never think. This is my fault. I have been thinking about something else.
In our Francophonic charter school, founded by and run for West African immigrants as a transition without surrender towards the Anglo world in which the students are growing up, my youngest son’s teacher ends each Zoom session with advice he’s uncharacteristically enthralled by. “Clean up after yourself,” she says, in English, this time round. “Organize your room. Help your mother with the dishes. Help your mother cook!” One kid responds: “I made pancakes!” Another, from his now-cascading Zoom window: “I want to make a pancake!” Then it’s just Zoom cacophony for a while. My youngest son does not want to learn how to make pancakes right now. His attentive imagination just ran somewhere completely different: He wants to try out some microwave popcorn, burning it, but with the sheer delight of microwave. Popcorn. That he made. Sort of.
As Fröbel puts it, “Come, let us live with our children!”
This is school that is home. And my attention is completely arrested by it: it is, after all, being. Metaphysics is a subject you study, and it’s also a human being; your being, if you can pause enough to take a look. The human child is unfinished, a becoming towards its being, and so fundamentally harder to know; and yet to refuse to learn about learning, and to learn about the child’s learning, to refuse to re-bend yourself back to the most elementary places where being and learning live, is to forsake the peculiarity of being human, not to mention yourself. As Fröbel puts it, “Kommt, lasst uns mit unsern Kindern leben: come, let us live with our children!” Come, let us look at our navels, and at our kitchens; there are gods here too.