What Are We Reading? Reviews by Dr. Putnam and Constance Henney ’14

Dr. Frederic Putnam

In Spring 2017, Jordan Kolb (THC ’17), Anneke Lujan (THC ’13/EU MA/Ed ’17), and I held a tutorial on “Philosophy of Education.” John Holt’s vision for education could change the world. (This is not hyperbole.) Respecting the person of the child, letting them set their own sequence and pace for learning, and encouraging them to “play” until their play leads to understanding (however long that may take), he reminds us that human beings are capax omnia (“capable of [learning] anything”, as Aquinas said), especially in an atmosphere of exploration and the wonder that comes from a child’s version of Josef Pieper’s leisure—contemplating (“playing with”) reality until its parts begin to arrange themselves in meaningful ways.

How Children Fail is heartbreaking. Based on observing of fifth-grade students, it consists of shorter and longer notes on what didn’t work and why. Why will some children wildly guess when they don’t know the answer to a question? Holt offers a sound explanation that startled me (sorry—no plot spoilers).

On the other hand, How Children Learn, based on observing even younger children, is exhilarating. “The Mind at Work” (ch. 8), e.g., opens by his asking why students could solve a puzzle that he had proved was geometrically impossible.

Based on observations of young and very young children, both are nonetheless filled with a wisdom that will help anyone charged with helping someone learn (and that may explain why you are struggling to learn something). Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, administrators…anyone who has to do with children should (a categorical imperative) read them both.

N.B.: The “revised” editions contain the unchanged text of the originals, with added comments from a further ten years of teaching and observing, sometimes affirming his earlier choices and sometimes leading him to suggest what he should have done.

Constance Henney ’14

I’ve just finished reading A History of Loneliness by John Boyne. This novel is the story of Father Yates, an Irish priest who, unlike many of his fellow seminarians in 1970s Ireland, believes himself to be eminently suited to his vocation. He is to discover over the course of his life that some of his strongest convictions—that “the priesthood was…a profession filled by decent men who wanted to propagate kindness and charity,” and even that he was one of those “decent men”—were, at best, formed in ignorance. Despite his efforts to not see, Father Yates finds himself surrounded by the widespread sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests, abuse that the leaders of the Church knew of and allowed to continue for the sake of the Church’s image. He is forced to ask himself whether he will acknowledge what is all around him, what his own responsibilities are, and how he is to bear the burden of guilt that is rightfully his.

I was absolutely gripped by this book. I always find novels to be the most powerful carriers of meaning—because, I’ll admit, I’m far more attentive if I’m being entertained. A History of Loneliness was not only entertaining but thoroughly thought-provoking. I found myself wondering at how a deeply-rooted culture of clericalism can rob the Church of her ability to serve in love, and instead make her a slave to power. Boyne sheds a bright and painful light on the ways that sins of commission and omission ravage us all, raising questions of guilt, complicity, free will and the power we have (or don’t have) to make our lives what they ought to be.

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