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Other Paths to Knowledge

Learning to Read in the Pacific Northwest

by DANIEL WOLFF

My prologue to the readings from my book How Lincoln Learned to Read in the Pacific Northwest is a weekend stay up on the Olympic Peninsula. A walk down the beach facing the Juan de Fuca Strait reveals sea otter, bald eagles, loons, seals, grebes. Drawn by this wilderness, the folks I meet are in the middle of a re-education. They’re convinced the car-driven, oil-dependent, energy-wasteful culture is suicidal, and they’re trying to figure out another way to go. Public transportation, composting, grow your own food, used clothes, intense awareness of energy use, and a local focus that leaves the rest of the continent – from the news to the pop culture – blurry. Call it a re-Americanization: the thirty-something guys in their beards and flannel shirts, women in gore-tex and hiking boots, are like immigrants to a new, green land. They’re in the middle of inventing the language, the values, the customs.

So it makes some sense, later in the week, when the discussion of the good-sized crowd at Powell’s Books heads in the direction of alternative ways of learning. There’s the woman in the first year of home-schooling her 15 year old son; she talks about how he’s not only more curious but physically healthier. (Are pale, acned adolescents a product of fluorescent lights and history class?)

A soft-spoken, gray-haired guy wonders why, after all these years, our schools still can’t manage to teach the basics. A middle-aged woman behind him answers that the circumstances keep changing: both the present world and the imagined, future world kids are being prepared for. So, the basics keep changing, too. How we read and what we read shifts – or the emphasis shifts. We aren’t teaching for the farm anymore. (I wonder if 21st century green living will mean going back to educational basics, too?)

A woman up front makes a point about what she calls reverse discrimination. She has four kids, the youngest is mixed race, and that one is offered a richer variety of programs in high school. Because she’s part Hispanic the woman says.

A high school student a couple rows back answers her. Her honors program is mixed race. As are lots of the school’s programs. And, the teenager adds, what’s wrong about home-schooling is you lose that diversity.

The discussion zips back and forth, me adding some anecdotes from How Lincoln Learned to Read. One guys talks about his “a-ha!” moment in middle school when he stays up all night to finish a paper and realizes he likes learning. A librarian wonders what libraries have to do with early American learning, and we talk about Ben Franklin borrowing books, Abigail Adams holed up in her grandparents’ library.

Afterwards, the talk is more personal. One former elementary school teacher is now helping doctors with their handwriting. She sighs; penmanship has been a lifelong struggle. Another has self-published a book on the scripture. A guy wants to talk about the role of Free Masons. It’s a lovely, slightly loony conversation.

At the end, a man in his early 60’s with thick glasses and a gentle voice describes how college wasn’t very good for him: he never learned the skills he needed. It was too “de-individualized.” “Only now,” he says and looks to the ceiling, “– what is it? May? –so five months ago, I realized what it is I need to know to do the things I want to do.” He pauses. “I believe in life-long learning,” he says and hopes his son turns out the next night when I’m reading at the University of Washington bookstore.

DANIEL WOLFF lives in Nyack, N.Y. His other books include "4th of July/Asbury Park: A History of the Promised Land." He is a co-producer of the forthcoming Jonathan Demme documentary about New Orleans, "Right to Return." He can be reached at: ziwolff@optonline.net