Issue 256 | Correspondence | The Sun Magazine


The February 1997 issue is one of the best I’ve read. God bless John Taylor Gatto [“Reading Between the Lines”]. Also, Poe Ballantine’s “Green-Eyed Dog” was a rich and delicious slice. I relished not only the spicy hotness of the prose, but the discovery that there’s a job worse than driving a cab: delivering pizza.

Finally, I must admit that, before reading “Nit Wit,” I was not a big fan of Sparrow’s poetry; but now I am.

Harvey Goldner Seattle, Washington

Thanks once again for publishing John Taylor Gatto. His book Dumbing Us Down was instrumental in causing my husband and I to really examine the school our son was attending. We have subsequently decided to homeschool him. We consider Gatto a true hero of our time for speaking such a valuable truth.

Lucy Seyler Schuylkill Haven, Pennsylvania

I found interesting the juxtaposition of essays by John Taylor Gatto and Helena Norberg-Hodge in your February 1997 issue. The authors agree on the characteristics of good education. Gatto says, “People live better lives in small, decentralized places, where they learn love and duty in families and communities,” while Norberg-Hodge [“To Raze A Village”] says that, in traditional Ladakhi culture, “education was the product of a person’s intimate relationship with the community and the environment.”

Unfortunately, your readers are not traditional Ladakhis, nor are we the Amish people Gatto understandably admires. So the question that interests me is: how can we best educate our own children, who are part of a society in which often both parents work, people are removed from the land, and friends and family are spread all over the map? Whatever the answer (and it probably does involve paying more attention to phonics and less to corporations), I doubt it will be found by scapegoating public schools or by doing as my fair state has done: decreasing funding for schools, and increasing funding for prisons.

Margaret Brye Eugene, Oregon

While reading John Taylor Gatto’s thought-provoking article on education, I had a strong reaction to the derogatory mention of Friedrich Froebel, inventor of kindergarten. Nearly forty years ago, I studied elementary education at Bedford Froebel College in England, and I never heard that Froebel wrote about children as “vegetables.” Where did Gatto get that from?

Froebel believed that children learn by doing. He created kindergarten as a rich environment in which they could play, experiment, ask questions, make discoveries, and come to their own conclusions. Numbers were learned by playing with sticks, stones, leaves, seeds; measurements and weights were learned by playing with water, mud, earth, and containers. Writing developed as children learned to express what they had discovered, and to add words to their drawings; reading came when books were needed as a source of information, and stories were read to stimulate the imagination. The teacher’s job was to guide the children’s exploration, share their joy and enthusiasm, intervene for their safety and well being, answer questions, and generally lead them in their quest to satisfy their curiosity: in other words, to let learning happen.

Froebel’s was a philosophy of education based on common sense, one sensitive to the needs of young children and responsive to their individual learning processes. He allowed young children to learn naturally, at their own pace, through play. As Mary Frances Sim, first headmistress of the Bedford Kindergarten and Training College, said: “He realized . . . strongly that children must be trained as human beings before we begin to make scholars out of them.” Above all, he respected the uniqueness of every child. His philosophy still holds true.

E. Ann Berens Orinda, California
John Taylor Gatto responds:

I’m sorry E. Ann Berens took my reference to Friedrich Froebel as derogatory. I try my best to be accurate and candid without being insulting. I am not surprised that the curriculum of Bedford Froebel College in England teaches an abstract of Froebel’s system, absent any elements that might raise eyebrows. The theories of Froebel, and others whose work helped create compulsory public schools, are preserved for us in sanitized lists of good ideas (and many of them are good) to which only a meanie could take exception. But the total reality of Froebel’s contribution is much stranger than the abstraction Berens was apparently taught.

Growing up in Austria at the end of the eighteenth century, Froebel had a bad family life. As a result, he was prone to intense, solitary rambles in the woods, and there became convinced that humankind and nature were governed by the same laws. He believed the notion of humankind as divine was an illusion, a barrier to enlightenment, and that formal religions had to be set aside while we “honor Science in her divinity.” Children grow the same as plants and trees, he concluded, through fixed and discernible stages, and a graduated course of exercises prepared by experts could and should be used to guide their growth. In Froebel’s scheme, the sacred scientific goal of state schooling was to gently remove or weaken the influence of parents, transferring it to the “gardeners of children.” He thought of kindergarten as “an enclosure in which young human plants are nurtured.” That this nurture would follow a course dear to the hearts of holistic thinkers (and to some extent my own) cannot change the gruesome fact that the outcome sought was a radical conformity, the kind that makes a “free” society unfree in every important regard. That Froebel’s purpose has been substantially achieved in the West is the curse of our time and lies at the heart of the problem of modern schooling.

In your February Correspondence, Kearney Smith defined idea correctly, but his claim that The Sun is not a magazine of ideas is in error. You publish plenty of ideas worth thinking about, and you publish even more of what Smith contemptuously calls “experience.” Apparently, Smith doesn’t like to get his hands dirty in the slop of human emotion.

I enjoy your Readers Write section because it is pure experience. It’s true you publish many pieces that are aimless, flaccid, teary, and trivial, but there is also much that is heartfelt and genuine in The Sun. It is novel, although sometimes too gravely sincere. At worst, the magazine conveys a tone of complaint, of whining, even of suffering; at best, of yearning touched with optimism. That puts it above the prevailing journalism in our society, which is salacious, vicious, opportunistic, committed to fearmongering, and, alas, indispensable.

Most curious and dear of all, perhaps, is that, despite its commitment to melancholy, The Sun tries hard to remain open to the possibility of a better world, as if, one of these days, it will have the opportunity to publish something wholly and infinitely momentous. Or perhaps it already has, and I missed it.

Barry Herem Seattle, Washington

Kearney Smith says the articles in The Sun are without ideas. Not so. The ideas and insights are easily available, like apples on a tree. They are not handed to us, already plucked, delineated, and explained, but they are visible and within our reach.

Bill Bridge Hollow, Arkansas

The February 1997 issue saddened me. I kept reading and reading, finishing each piece on the verge of tears, hoping to find, before bed, an article that would turn the tide of sorrows. It didn’t happen. The later into the night I read, the more the melancholy built, and my chances of going to bed with dry eyes were lost in “Mom,” “If I Were God,” and Sunbeams. Thanks.

Mark James Taos, New Mexico

I thoroughly enjoyed Colleen Creamer’s “Miles of Promise” [January 1997]. I laughed out loud, and felt the daughter’s outrage toward her mother, and finally the shame of having cast blame without any understanding. How many times do we find ourselves in this same humiliating and painful predicament?

Melinda Seelig Belfair, Washington

One of my favorite parts of The Sun is the contributors notes. They are every bit as entertaining and fascinating as the rest of the magazine. I have a fantasy that I am able to visit each of the writers, poets, and photographers listed in an issue — January 1997, for example. I could tell Colleen Creamer how much I enjoyed “Miles of Promise” and ask her to call me when she gets her novel published. I could breathe deeply the scents of Jim Nollman’s garden. I could find out if Sparrow is really as weird as he sounds. And at the end of my journey I could go storming into the offices of The Sun and get a look at Sy Safransky to see if the beauty of his soul is as evident in his eyes as it is in his writing.

Flavia Florezell Boulder, Colorado

I enjoyed reading your January 1997 issue, especially “This Thing about Goodness,” by Alison Luterman. Her voice was so direct, so clear and courageous. I was deeply moved by her situation and those of the women she described. I also cut out John Spivey’s “Coyote Genesis” for my “keep” file. I had been considering ending my subscription — it’s hard to find time to read all the great books and magazines — but after that issue, I decided I just couldn’t let it lapse.

Priscilla Frake San Ramon, California

A short time after I started reading The Sun, my perspective on many things changed. I became more accepting, and less judgmental. I learned to acknowledge — even cherish — the perspectives and opinions of others. I realized how trivial and condescending my “women’s” magazines were; I canceled those subscriptions.

I don’t know why I received your subscription offer — fate? luck? serendipity? — but I look forward to every issue.

Sarah Thompson Greenwich, Connecticut

In response to Mary Sojourner’s story “Hag” [November 1996]: I am tired of reading about how unfair it is that men are attracted only to young, beautiful women. It’s absolutely true, of course; a woman’s desirability is determined by her looks. But that tells only one side of the story. A man’s attractiveness is unfairly determined by how much money he has. Both are superficial ways to judge somebody, but that’s life.

Since youth is beauty, and wealth generally comes with age, desirability slowly passes from women to men over our lifetimes. At age thirty-five to forty it probably reaches equilibrium, more or less, but after age forty, women cry, “No fair!”

Sojourner is quick to point out what jerks men are for pursuing a woman based on looks alone, but would she marry a man who was destitute? Would she work to support him?

John Y. Torres Oakland, California
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