Between Harlem and Peoria, I Realized Something
Last Friday members of many of the graduating classes from the school I attended from first through 12th grades gathered at the site where we had been students (and teachers). New Lincoln was located on 110th St. — which the alert reader will recognize is both in Harlem and on the northern edge of Central Park. New Lincoln was born out of Teachers College Columbia (home of John Dewey) and was Progressive Ed — for good and ill. See this blog from another grad from a younger class mjsoulpictures.blogspot.com The good and bad part of Progressive Ed was the focus on thinking. For example, the entire study of grammar I experienced in 12 years (aside from specific comments on papers) was a 6th grade class debate on whether grammar is the structure of language, or language the structure of grammar. I can’t say that I totally understood the question, then or now, and I could have used some time at the blackboard parsing sentences (it is much harder to learn a foreign language when you only intuit rather than can define the rules of English grammar). But as I recall it was a really fun, lively, discussion.
I am telling you this because I am about to go to a library conf. in Peoria, Illinois, and they asked me to speak about my books. In putting together the talk, I began to realize something about my approach to nonfiction which links directly to NL — and to a criticicism that I have often run into. What NL taught every one of us, from the youngest to the oldest, is that learning is thinking, and that thinking means formulating ideas for yourself. Critics of my books often accuse me of "speculation" — as if NF, especially for younger readers, should be distant, calm — engaging to read, but not showing any sign of my own hunches, guesses, theories. Going back to NL made me realize that I simply could not write that way even if I wanted to.
Formulating a theory is just what happens when an engaged reader encounters new information. We all do it all of the time. So the fun, the pleasure, in nonfiction is both to learn new things and to come up with new theories, new ideas. I need to defend them. I need to consider other views. I need to be open to being wrong. But I must be there thinking along with the information I present. Does that silence readers, forcing them into my mold? All I can say is that when I meet young readers they seem very ready to disagree, to question, to formulate their own theories — just like the kids I remember at NL.
The root of the word "speculation" is the same as "spectacle" and "spectator" it relates to seeing. I believe that engaged viewing, that generative reading, is the essence of what NF offers. Then we can all have the fun of debating whether my, yours, or young peoples’ speculations are true.