America Subterranean

This Is a Book That Got Me Thinking

I have just finished reading a book recommended to me by my friend Suzanne: Tara Westover’s Educated. Ever since 2016, I have been pondering what it is about the United States of America that gives rise to all these anti-governmental splinter groups that are directly or indirectly associated with Trump’s base.

Tara is an attractive young woman who was raised in a small town in Franklin County, Idaho, of a Mormon survivalist parents. Her father ran a junkyard; and her mother, starting out as a midwife, became a producer of essential oils called Butterfly Express. What the author describes is almost an archetypal experience of a religiously conservative familial craziness:

  • The father is a staunch survivalist who collects guns, including one that could shoot down helicopters such as those involved in Ruby Ridge.
  • Insists that all the children be home-schooled and work in the family junkyard and essential oil business.
  • Doctors and hospitals were to be avoided. Instead, Mrs Westover effected all cures using natural remedies.
  • There was an emphasis on the Old Testament (and, in Tara’s case, The Book of Mormon).
  • Women were expected to dress modestly lest they be considered sluts.
  • There was no involvement with government. Tara did not get her birth certificate until she was nine. (She was born at home.)
  • The males in the family tend to be bullies that enforce compliance with their fringe beliefs.

Tara Was Not Only Smart, But Tough As Nails

Somehow, Tara showed that she had the brains despite her desultory home schooling to get into Brigham Young University, and then Cambridge University in England and Harvard, where she got her PhD.

I don’t normally read best sellers, but Educated was an exception that was definitely worth reading. There was something about her upbringing which was truly horrifying, such as the repeated life-threatening auto and junkyard accidents that had to be dealt with using only the mother’s natural remedies. Today, Tara Westover is no longer in touch with her parents. She, for one, managed to escape.


Catholic School

Dominican Sisters Wearing Traditional Habits

When we lived in the Buckeye Road Hungarian neighborhood, I didn’t do well in school. It started in Kindergarten when my friend András and I started kicking our teacher in class for being angry with us because we didn’t speak English. What in blue blazes was this English? Everyone on Buckeye Road spoke the Magyar tongue, and Harvey Rice Elementary School was in the middle of Buckeye Road. Was our teacher stupid or something?

My mother and father understood the problem. My little brother Daniel had just been born when they decided we would have to move to a white bread Anglo neighborhood, which we did in the summer of 1951. Being born in January, I had just finished the first half of first grade when—poof!—I started second grade in September at a new Catholic school, Saint Henry, where I was taught by Dominican sisters (and some lay teachers). Fortunately, by this time I had some notion of the English language, but was still thought of as being a tad slow. My teacher, Sister Frances Martin, would sneak up behind me in class, pull my ears, and call me “cabbagehead.”

In fact I was just an average student, and a bit of a disciplinary problem, until I reached fifth grade. By then, I started getting the hang of things. Unfortunately, that’s also the time my pituitary tumor started bothering me with frequent severe frontal headaches. I was now a whiz kid, but looked very young for my age.

Saint Peter Chanel

After eighth grade, I got a tuition-free scholarship to attend Chanel High School in nearby Bedford, Ohio. The school was named after a missionary from the Marist order of priests who taught me, one St. Peter Chanel, who was martyred for his faith in Polynesia. (Coco Chanel came from the same family.) I got the idea from somewhere, though I’ve never been able to confirm it, that St. Peter Chanel was cooked and eaten by the savages he was trying to convert.

Anyhow, I was considered a whiz kid at Chanel and was always on top of the honor roll. I graduated as class valedictorian and received the Mr. Chanel award for being the best all-round student at the school, despite the fact that I was too sickly for sports. I lettered in band and academic achievement, which made me the natural enemy of those students who toiled for the letters on the sports field. So it goes.

Although I am no longer a practicing Catholic, I have nothing but respect for the sisters, priests, and lay teachers who taught me. I was never an abused altar boy: In fact, I was never even an altar boy. The idea of getting up at 5 am to serve Mass was not my cup of tea, though my brother did it for several years.


Encountering an Old Friend

A Book That Greatly Influenced My High School Years

A Book That Greatly Influenced My High School Years

There it was on the shelf of Iliad Book Store in February 2009: A not-too-beat-up copy of the Committee on College Reading’s Good Reading, circa 1964. Naturally, I picked it up if for no other reason than to walk down memory road when I was a voracious reader. (And, if you read this blog, you know of course that I still am.)

I was the valedictorian of my class of 1962 at Chanel High School in Bedford, Ohio—a school that no longer exists. First it changed its name to Saint Peter Chanel, then, some years later, the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland shut it down. Even though I was in excruciating pain from a tumor that was pressing on my optic nerve, I still read as much as I could. On weekends, I would take the 56A bus downtown, stop in at Schroeder’s Bookstore on Public Square, and then spend some time at the main library, which was built in 1925.

What I felt I needed were books that served as a bibliographic reference to what I ought to be reading. That’s what Good Reading did. There were individual chapters by different members of the Committee on College Reading, all faculty members at various colleges. Just to give an example, here are some of Robert Clark White’s recommendations for 20th Century Continental Novels:

  • Samuel Beckett: Molloy
  • Albert Camus: The Stranger and The Plague
  • Karel Čapek: The War with the Newts
  • André Gide: The Counterfeiters
  • Jaroslav Hasek: The Good Soldier Schweik
  • Hermann Hesse: Steppenwolf and Siddhartha
  • Franz Kafka: The Trial
  • Thomas Mann: Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain, and The Joseph Tetralogy
  • Marcel Proust: The Remembrance of Things Past
  • Jean-Paul Sartre: Nausea and Troubled Sleep

These are not bad titles for the time. I probably would have added something by Iceland’s Halldor Laxness and Portugal’s Fernando Pessoa, but these are mere cavils. Thanks largely to this book, my attention was directed to great writers in every field. And the book covered more than literature: There was also history, philosophy, religion, anthropology, physical sciences, and other subjects.

I was such an earnest young student. Even while on the bus, I would pore over books such as Norman Lewis’s 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary and Word Power Made Easy, taking all the quizzes in the books over and over until I got a perfect score. Despite all the physical pain, I had a good childhood, starting with what my loving parents gave me and adding what I could along the way.


(Not) In Praise of Education

My Classes Were Better Managed Than This

My Classes Were Better Managed Than This

From today’s Futility Closet posting comes this attack on education in the form of four quotes, three from England and one from Poland. I mention this because nothing I experienced was anywhere near as negative, despite the fact that I began my schooling speaking only Hungarian. Of course, everything I’ve read about an English Public School (really, Private School) education sounded rather like Dotheboys Hall in Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby, with the possible addition of homosexual rape.

Anyway, here are the quotes:

“There is, on the whole, nothing on earth intended for innocent people so horrible as a school.” — George Bernard Shaw

“I sometimes think it would be better to drown children than to lock them up in present-day schools.” — Marie Curie

“Nearly 12 years of school … form not only the least agreeable, but the only barren and unhappy period of my life. … It was an unending spell of worries that did not then seem petty, of toil uncheered by fruition; a time of discomfort, restriction and purposeless monotony. … I would far rather have been apprenticed as a bricklayer’s mate, or run errands as a messenger boy, or helped my father to dress the front windows of a grocer’s shop. It would have been real; it would have been natural; it would have taught me more; and I should have done it much better.” — Winston Churchill

“Not one of you sitting round this table could run a fish-and-chip shop.” — Howard Florey, 1945 Nobel laureate in medicine, to the governing body of Queen’s College, Oxford, of which he was provost

Is This a Valuable Talent?

This Makes Zero Sense to Me

This Makes Zero Sense to Me

Among the children of my friends, I am famous for being totally uninterested in computer gaming.Today, while driving home from work, I heard a news story on NPR that almost made me rear-end an Acura. Robert Morris University in Chicago is offering a full athletic scholarship in the video game League of Legends. If your child has wasted hundreds of hours exercising his thumbs (but not his brains) on a fantasy computer game, he is entitled to a scholarship that will pay 50% of tuition and 50% of room and board. (Excuse the pronouns: Women also are eligible for the award.)

What the university is doing is making a computer game equivalent to a sport. Not that I have any particular love of college athletics (I was in the band), but I am wondering why an accredited university should be encouraging an activity that will most likely be considered out of date in about three weeks. At least football, track, and maybe even baseball will continue to exist, I do not expect the same of any computer gaming product now on the market. (Well, maybe chess….)

I see this as opening scholarship chances for skateboarding (that’s been around for half a century), in-line skating, Razor-Scootering, pogo sticks, and other forms of “physical” activity indulged in by youthful slackers. We could make awards based on smart phone handling while crossing a busy intersection or texting and vaping while driving in reverse. The possibilities are limitless.

Now that Robert Morris University got its name in the news media by this stunt, I wonder what could be next.



How I Survived 7 Years with the Penguins

The Former Saint Henry Church and Elementary School

The Former Saint Henry Church and Elementary School

To begin with, I have a terrible admission to make: I never finished First Grade. As my birthday is in January, I started kindergarten at Cleveland’s Harvey Rice Elementary School on East 116th Street in January 1950. I was not a huge success, as I did not speak a word of English. Mrs. Idell sent me home with a note pinned to my shirt that said, “What language is this child speaking?” Duh! She was teaching kids in a Hungarian neighborhood, so she should have guessed. But in 1950, people didn’t think that way.

Halfway through First Grade, my parents moved to the suburbs in what was then called the Lee-Harvard area. After half a year of First Grade at Harvey Rice, I started in immediately with Second Grade at the newly opened Saint Henry School on Harvard Avenue. Please don’t tell the authorities at the Cleveland School District that I didn’t complete First Grade, or they might come looking for me and make me sit for six months at one of those tiny school desks in which my adult posture would become stunted.

Dominican Sisters

Dominican Sisters (a.k.a. Penguins)

For the next seven years, I was a prisoner of a mixture of Dominican nuns (whom we referred to as penguins because of the color of their habits) and lay teachers. They included:

  1. Sister Francis Martin (Second Grade). She pulled my ears and called me Cabbagehead.
  2. Sister Marjorie (Third Grade). She was not a full sister yet, just a postulant; but she was rather cute as I recall.
  3. Mrs. McCaffery (Fourth Grade). A nice, warm-hearted Irish woman.
  4. Miss Cunningham (Fifth Grade). Something of a cold fish, looked vaguely like Tippi Hedren.
  5. Mrs. Joyce (Sixth Grade). Friendly and knowledgeable.
  6. Sister Beatrice (Seventh Grade). In her eighties, but with no diminution of her abilities.
  7. Sister Rose Thomas (Eighth Grade). A short martinet, but very capable.

I started Saint Henry with a rudimentary knowledge of English and ended up something of a whiz kid—with a specialty in English. In my younger years, I took a lot of guff because of my foreignness, so I deliberately set about becoming something of a specialist in the language. I could still diagram a sentence. (Do they do that any more?)


What’s Happening Here?

Rioting WWU Students Twerks Bellingham Squad Car

Rioting WWU Student Twerks Bellingham Squad Car

This is a story that has received extensive coverage in the Washington State news media, but does not seem to have made a dent in the national media yet. According to a story in the Daily Mail, some four hundred students at Western Washington University threw a party on October 12  that quickly turned into a riot. Bottles were thrown at the police. One coed (above) twerked a Bellingham squad car. Finally, the police went into riot mode and dissipated the crowd with smoke bombs.

The University responded by threatening to discipline the students involved in the riot with expulsion.

Although I am sure it was an unpleasant scene for both the students and the police, I cannot help but wonder what was behind it all. College students around the country must feel that they are getting the short end of the stick. A college education now costs a fortune, and there is no guarantee that a nice plum of a job is waiting for the graduates. At the same time, universities around the country are suffering budget cuts, which in turn affects the quality of the high-priced education that the students are receiving.

From another point of view—that of my generation—these kids are just out of control. They’re spending their parents’ hard-earned money on booze and drugs and going wild at the drop of a hat.

Who’s right?

Rioters in Bellingham

Rioters in Bellingham

Perhaps both are right. I tend to think that the drunk students who are identified to the university’s administration be disciplined, but not expelled with an arrest on their permanent record. I feel that things are grim enough for millennials across the U.S. Some decades ago, I received a great education at an Ivy League college for a small fraction of what the students are paying today for a somewhat less-than-great education. It was a different society then. When we graduated, there were jobs waiting for us. Now what’s waiting for tomorrow’s grads is a return to their parents’ house where they will continue to be infantilized, despite best intentions.

The American education system, like our health care system, is broken. No one knows yet how to fix them. Until such time, we need to understand what is happening and remain flexible in our response.