#1 12/9/2020, Socrates, Faust, Asimov


I got my only daily habit out of the way at 1:30 this AM when I rolled out of a sleepless state and spent better than an hour on Duolingo. When I had completed 50 points I got the notice that I had completed my daily challenge yet again for the 780th day in a row. Yesterday my online teacher Duolingo sent me a Facebook-like page to share on Facebook (to toot their own horn) encouraging me to toot my horn. And I did. Of 27 million people studying French on the ap worldwide last year I was in the top 1 percent in terms of the time I’ve spent practicing French. Its about 6.7 hours a week, just under an hour a day.

I am a reasonably intelligent person and I’ll be the first to tell you that learning a new language at age 67 is damn hard…..especially if you want to write, read and speak it. Between now and ten months from now when, Saints willing, Claudia and I fly to France after our year-long Covid postponement of a French language course in Aix, France I will have all of those nailed down……at least to the level of a six or seven year old.

For me learning language is a test that I am stubbornly sticking to. I never wanted to learn higher math. Learning music well enough to play an instrument never appealed to me as much as singing with just a limited grasp of following the notes on a sheet of paper. I didn’t even have any desire to study a foreign language. I told myself as I avoided foreign languages in high school that if I wanted to learn another language I’d much prefer doing it by living in the country. That does make sense except for the next fifty years I only made a few brief appearances in foreign countries in locales swarming with English speakers.

A few years back after the Red Plan helped denude the Duluth Schools of teachers and classes to offer poor Denfeld High School students shortchanged a fifth year of French began bemoaning their unequal treatment. A fifth year was offered at the eastern high school of the swells. Denfeld students didn’t like being chopped liver. I didn’t like treating them that way and I resented the influence of East High School voters to unwittingly tilt the playing field to their children by insuring that the Red Plan’s disastrous funding became a reality.

So this series of posts I’m beginning for this morning is about several things all at once. learning. class rule and resentment. and maybe something else depending on how much of my time I spend at the keyboard.

So about the names atop this post and their relation to my idea of learning.

Socrates was an unpublished Greek philosopher who had a messiah like hold on several of the most important philosophers to following him starting with his student Plato, the source of our knowledge about the lazy, henpecked Socrates and Plato’s student Aristotle who for most of Christendom until the Renaissance was the official source of all knowledge outside the Bible.

In high school I heard Socrates’ quote about learning. “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Although I can quibble with it now I decided early on to make the maxim part of my mental framework. I am interested in everything and have as good a head for what others think of as trivia as anyone I know. Only if I know it it hardly seems trivial to me.

Also in high school I heard the Cliff’s Notes version of the fictional character Faust. Faust made a famous deal with the Devil. The devil got his soul but Faust gained the omniscience of God. He got to know everything. Except for the soul part I liked that idea.

And finally Asimov.

In 1980 as I was about to climb my way back into teaching after a disastrous experience in the Proctor schools I decided to embark on a serious program of reading. I had in mind my Father’s advice to the son of a friends family. Brian, a fellow my age, was griping that he had so much coursework to do in college that he never had time to read all the great books that he wanted to. My Dad, a college teacher himself, suggested that he take a year’s break and do independent study reading the books of literature that he wanted. Brian did that and, as I recall, read something like 87 books the next school year. By the way this is at least my second mention of Brian in the blog. (This was probably the first.)

So as I was beginning to substitute teach looking for a second chance I began attempting to rectify what I saw as a deep liability in my shallow knowledge of so much of it. Like the example of Brian I decided to begin reading like crazy. Except I was no Brian. My reading list other than catching up on Tolkien’s Ring Trilogy was almost all history. Also I only got through 30 books the most I have ever read in a single year. I know this because I began keep track then and years later began keeping track here on line. Check out the reading list for 1978.

If you do you will see that 9 of those books were by Isaac Asimov. He was a noted book writer. He may have set a record for the number of books he wrote. Some of them were science fiction. I had read his Foundation trilogy. Most however were non fiction. For years I scoured his Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology. In the case of 1978 I had been looking for good summaries of a wide swath of historical information. Asimov had them in spades and they were written with junior high school kids in mind. Good simple declarative writing crammed with information that was concise, within reach and clear.

From that point on Asimov the polymath and communicator was my guiding star. Interested in everything, and eager to share his knowledge. His books became the source of the Trivial Pursuit game that held a generation of people in its thrall. But Asimov was a genius. I was just a general purpose intellectual omnivore.

One of the things I learned as I read through all those book in 1978 was the remarkable connections between topics, people, history and science. I’d pick up a new book and find it connected in unexpected ways with other books that were apparently about different subjects. Connectivity that’s one of the ingredients of learning if for no other reason than because as one byte of information begins to stick in your memory banks it will attract other stray bits of information. You can imagine how cluttered my seventy year old brain is with its steady daily diet of three or four hours of gathering news and other information. I can’t always find particular pieces as quickly as I want. I’m slower at the game Jeopardy than I was twenty years ago but with Google there are almost no data bytes that can hide from me for long.

I do make mistakes. A couple days ago I turned in a one-day-wonder of a Not Eudora column to the Reader. I read it a day later and found a couple of seriously embarrassing errors in it. I appealed to the Reader’s editor, Jim Lundstrom, to let me turn in a cleaner version. Jim demurred because, as he told me, he had already fussed around with its mistakes. He asked if I couldn’t simply send him the edits I wanted to make. One of them was the name of a noted screen writer Herman Mankiewicz that I had confused with Frank Mankiewicz. Jim is a cinephile (movie lover) and that mistake caught his attention. As my eight loyal readers discovered long ago. This blog could use a better editor than me.

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