Monday, July 16, 2012

Growing Their Brain In Every Direction

One of the blessings of the birth of our daughter was that we were suddenly spending a lot more time with her grandparents. My father-in-law is the retired head of the literature department at a major university, a man I'd gotten to know fairly superficially through periodic family events over the preceding decade, was now a person with whom I was spending many hours a week, usually as the "guys" in the background as mother and grandmother bonded with the baby. He is the most conversant human I've ever met on all sorts of literature, but he specializes in the 18th and 19th century English novel.

Since my own reading from this era of the novel's greatest blooming was limited, it didn't take long before I was inspired to start asking him for recommendations. He started me with Tom Jones, giving me permission to skip the dull essays, and I was on my way toward my informal masters. Week-after-week for years we sat together as I asked questions or told him what I thought about the great novel I was reading, he would listen and nod, then basically share with me what he'd been sharing with decades of students. As time went on and our knowledge gap (or at least the familiarity with the material gap) closed a little, we began playing games that involved, say, putting together lists of the top 5 novels of any 50 year period, taking particular pleasure in trying to figure out which contemporary authors folks would still be reading 200 years from now. It reminded me a lot of how I once played with my baseball cards, another subject matter into which I'd once gone quite deeply as a course of independent study.

I don't watch a lot of television, but I can't look away when the more-erudite-than-most game show Jeopardy is on. I enjoy trying to get the answers, in the form of a question, before the official contestants. It wasn't long before I began to notice that I was increasingly able to get the correct answers, even in subject categories in which I'd thought I knew nothing, usually by referencing what I learned from all that novel reading. For instance, I might be able to take an educated guess at a question on fashion by employing what I knew about, say, the attire of Jane Austin's characters, or a question on Victorian era politics because of a dilemma from Thomas Hardy. My brain was getting "bigger," not just in terms of the English novel, but in every direction. I don't suppose that this phenomenon is limited to literature either: I suspect that pretty much any subject matter into which one freely delves and plumbs will lead to this general increase in intellectual capacity, be it architecture, cosmetology, or modern dance. As long as there is an intellectual curiosity to be satisfied, the brain will continue to get "bigger."

A few years ago, for reasons of my wife's profession, I was finding myself at a lot of cocktail parties, chatting with people I'd just met and who I was unlikely to meet again. I grew bored with asking people, "What do you do?" and instead switched to asking, "What are your hobbies?" Oh boy, is that a more interesting question, at least if your goal is to actually get to know someone. Some folks react as if  confused, treating it almost like a "too personal" question, stammering around, not sure, I suppose that they even have a hobby. But everyone has a hobby be it sports, fashion, food, movies, or collecting bottle caps, and there, more often than not, is where you'll find a person's passion. It's once you get onto that topic that you can finally have an interesting cocktail party conversation, one from which you might walk away inspired and edified: or better yet, having met a person who you wish to meet again.

This is one of the ways a play-based curriculum works. We've all seen children who bring their fascination with dinosaurs or princesses or outer space or volcanos to bear on pretty much anything they undertake, losing interest when space is not allowed for their "hobby," their passion for the day or week or year. That boy who wears his cape every day, that girl who carries her Hello Kitty doll into every game, that child who turns everything into a "what else can this do?" kind of experiment, those are children who are "going deep" in their freely chosen subject matter, growing their brain in every direction, while cobbling together their very own master's degree.

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m .j. bronstein said...

Teacher Tom should be syndicated, broadcast far and wide for all the world to read.

The Knitty Gritty Homestead said...

I'm with M.J.

the jensen's said...

I'm dying to see that recommendation list of books! :)

Stephanie said...

I agree with the above comments regarding syndication. :) Teacher Tom, I really enjoy your insightful posts.