“My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers”

We were sea kayaking in the Pacific ocean off the coast of La Jolla, California earlier in spring when our guide asked us to look up on the hills above and pointed to a small house where Dr Seuss lived.

This is where Theodor Seuss Geisel wrote many favorites children books as If I Ran the Zoo (1950), Horton Hears a Who! (1955), If I Ran the Circus (1956), The Cat in the Hat (1957), How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1957), and Green Eggs and Ham (1960). In May 1954, a report in Life magazine in a report on illiteracy among children concluded that one of the reasons for kids not reading because their books were boring. In response, William Spaulding, from the education division at Houghton Mifflin and Geisel compiled a list of 348 words that he felt were important for first-graders to recognize. He asked Geisel to cut the list to 250 words and to write a book using only those words. Spaulding challenged Geisel to “bring back a book children can’t put down”. Nine months later, Geisel completed Cat and the Hat, using 236 of the words given to him. Its greatly simplified vocabulary could be read by beginners while still retaining the drawing style, verse rhythms, and all the imaginative power of Geisel’s earlier works. 

In Lake Forest College Lake Forest, Illinois, there is a small plaque to commemorate the commencement speech which Dr Seuss gave in the summer of June 4th, 1977.
In the words of the Lake Forest President Emeritus Eugene Hotchkiss III as he reflected in 2004 on how this came about.

“As Theodor Geisel stepped forward to join me at the podium on a bright spring day in 1977, I began nervously to read the citation accompanying the degree the College would be awarding him on this occasion. Although he was listed in the program as the Commencement speaker, I was uncertain if he would accept his degree with anything more than a thank you. And thereby hangs a tale.

The search for a Commencement speaker that year had been unusually frustrating and unsuccessful; one after another of those recommended by the seniors declined. I recall to this day the visit from a reporter of the Stentor, who was preparing copy for the final issue of the year. He pled unsuccessfully with me to give him the name of the individual who would address the graduating class. Alas, at that late hour not even I knew who he or she might be. Suddenly I recalled that a trustee of the College, Kenneth Montgomery, had once told me that should I ever need a speaker he would be willing to approach his good friend Ted Geisel and invite him to the campus. “Green eggs and ham,” thought I. “Why not?”

A phone contact was made by Trustee Montgomery, who told me that Mr. Geisel would be pleased to be honored at the Commencement ceremony. I quickly informed the Stentor, and the word was out: Dr. Seuss would be the Commencement speaker. The seniors were elated, but I was told that some faculty expressed the opinion that my choice just proved that the Seuss books were likely the last ones I had ever read!

Still, I relaxed until, responding to a formal invitation I had written describing the nature of Commencement and his talk, Mr. Geisel called to say that there must have been a mistake. He thought he was being asked to receive a degree, not to talk. “I talk with people, not to people,” he declared, and if, he continued, I was proposing that he give an address, there had been a grave mistake. No, he reported just days before Commencement, he would not agree to speak.

As I pondered my choices I grasped onto his statement to me, and I urged him to arrive early Friday afternoon so that he might talk with the graduates at the senior reception. And then, talking with him in person, I would attempt to persuade him to talk to the graduates, albeit if only briefly. He agreed to come to the campus as early has he could on Friday, although because he lived in California and would be flying against the clock, the odds of a timely arrival were slim indeed.

The events on the day preceding Commencement were several, and each was surreptitiously extended so that the reception would be delayed, anticipating Mr. Geisel’s late arrival. Happily, shortly after the now-delayed reception began, he joined my wife, Sue, and me in the receiving line and did indeed talk with the graduates and many others, even autographing some well-loved Dr. Seuss books. Still, I wondered, would he be willing to say anything from the podium the next day?

Both before and after dinner that Friday evening, I talked with him informally, hoping the influence of good wine might soften his resolve as it strengthened mine. I urged him to respond following the awarding of his degree, but he did not waiver. Perhaps the best that could be made of a desperate situation, thought I, was to announce at the Commencement that, as he requested, he had indeed talked with the graduates on Friday and to thank him for his cordiality. The evening came to an end – well, almost, for I did not sleep well that night, and I could hear the seniors partying and, undoubtedly, discussing the talk their much-liked Dr. Seuss would give.

On Commencement morning, as the honored guests robed in their academic regalia, I again asked Mr. Geisel if he would be willing to say but a few words, acknowledging his degree. Still his silence was penetrating. Finally the time came to read his citation. As I reached its end and as Faculty Marshals Rosemary Cowler and Franz Schulze stepped forth to place the hood over his head, I spoke these penultimate words, for which I must credit my wife, Sue: “We proclaim you not the ‘Cat in the Hat’ but the ‘Seuss in the Noose’.” And then I awarded him the College’s degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.

At that moment, fearing his response, I shook his hand in a whisper and asked him if he would be willing to say a few words. He reached under his academic gown, announcing loudly for all to hear that it was “a bathrobe,” pulled out a piece of paper from his shirt pocket and turned to the microphone. And the rest, as they say, is history.

His commencement speech was

“My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers”

My uncle ordered popovers

from the restaurant’s bill of fare.
And, when they were served,
he regarded them
with a penetrating stare

Then he spoke great Words of Wisdom

as he sat there on that chair:

“To eat these things,”

said my uncle,
“you must exercise great care.
You may swallow down what’s solid
BUT
you must spit out the air!”

And
as you partake of the world’s bill of fare,
that’s darned good advice to follow.
Do a lot of spitting out the hot air.
And be careful what you swallow.

 

 In a few lines, Dr Seuss passed on a profound message to his audience to serve as a guidepost as they were entering the ‘real world’.

In a similar vein, John Dewey, one of the most influential champions of education reforms in the twentieth century, discusses in his remarkable 1910 book How We Think (http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/37423) his thoughts about what education should be like.

He emphasizes that true education is supposed to  equip one with  critical thinking abilities which counteract the ‘bad mental habits’ instilled by societal influences and the erroneous tendencies of ones own mind. True education is supposed to ‘safeguard an individual against the besetting erroneous tendencies of his own mind—its rashness, presumption, and preference of what chimes with self-interest to objective evidence — but also to undermine and destroy the accumulated and self-perpetuating prejudices of long ages.’   True education should inculcate in its students ‘deep-seated and effective habits of discriminating tested beliefs from mere assertions, guesses, and opinions; to develop a lively, sincere, and open-minded preference for conclusions that are properly grounded, and to ingrain into the individual’s working habits methods of inquiry and reasoning appropriate to the various problems that present themselves.’

Dewey cautions that ‘Discriminative habits are not gifts of nature (no matter how strong the aptitude for acquiring them); since, moreover, the casual circumstances of the natural and social environment are not enough to compel their acquisition, the main office of education is to supply conditions that make for their cultivation. The formation of these habits is the Training of Mind.’

He suggests that this process has to be highly individualized and tailored such that the focus should be on ‘making students learn to think well, but not to think for them.’Respecting the individuality and uniqueness of the learner experience, educational training should ‘itself based upon the natural tendencies’ and should be concerned about giving them ‘proper direction’, but ‘not with creating them’.

However, he does not let the learner off the hook, clearly defining the role of the learner in this dyadic endeavor. He argues that ‘in the educational transaction, the initiative lies with the learner.’ The learner has to show ‘intellectual curiosity’ and a ‘desire for fullness of experience.’ Dewey writes:The curious mind is constantly alert and exploring, seeking material for thought, as a vigorous and healthy body is on the qui vive for nutriment. Eagerness for experience, for new and varied contacts, is found where wonder is found. Such curiosity is the only sure guarantee of the acquisition of the primary facts upon which inference must base itself.To the open mind, nature and social experience are full of varied and subtle challenges to look further.’ He eggs on students to be intensely curious, embrace uncertainty and enjoy exploring the unknown instead of being paralyzed by the fear of the unknown.  The teachers role, he says, is to have an insights ‘into existing habits and tendencies of a student, the natural resources with which he has to ally himself.’

Dewey also talks about the right moment for learning and cautions that ‘If germinating powers are not used and cultivated at the right moment, they tend to be transitory, to die out, or to wane in intensity.’

He warns that in ‘few people, intellectual curiosity is so insatiable that nothing will discourage it, but in most its edge is easily dulled and blunted.Some lose it in indifference or carelessness; others in a frivolous flippancy; many escape these evils only to become incased in a hard dogmatism which is equally fatal to the spirit of wonder. Some are so taken up with routine as to be inaccessible to new facts and problems. Others retain curiosity only with reference to what concerns their personal advantage in their chosen career. With many, curiosity is arrested on the plane of interest in local gossip and in the fortunes of their neighbors; indeed, so usual is this result that very often the first association with the word curiosity is a prying inquisitiveness into other people’s business. With respect then to curiosity, the teacher has usually more to learn than to teach. Rarely can he aspire to the office of kindling or even increasing it. His task is rather to keep alive the sacred spark of wonder and to fan the flame that already glows. His problem is to protect the spirit of inquiry, to keep it from becoming blasé from over-excitement, wooden from routine, fossilized through dogmatic instruction, or dissipated by random exercise upon trivial things.’

Swami Vivekananda, while egging Indian’s to achieve new heights, rightly said ‘What is education? Is it book-learning? No. Is it diverse knowledge? Not even that. The training by which the current and expression of will are brought under control and become fruitful is called education. Now consider, is that education as a result of which the will, being continuously choked by force through generations, is well-nigh killed out; is that education under whose sway even the old ideas, let alone the new ones, are disappearing one by one; is that education which is slowly making man a machine? It is more blessed, in my opinion, even to go wrong, impelled by one’s free will and intelligence than to be good as an automaton. Again, can that be called society which is formed by an aggregate of men who are like lumps of clay, like lifeless machines, like heaped up pebbles? How can such society fare well? Were good possible, then instead of being slaves for hundreds of years, we would have been the greatest nation on earth, and this soil of India, instead of being a mine of stupidity, would have been the eternal fountain-head of learning.’

‘The ideal of all education, all training, should be this man-making. But, instead of that, we are always trying to polish up the outside. What use in polishing up the outside when there is no inside? The end and aim of all training is to make the man grow. The man who influences, who throws his magic, as it were, upon his fellow-beings, is a dynamo of power, and when that man is ready, he can do anything and everything he likes; that personality put upon anything will make it work.

He equated social upliftment to ‘Education, education, education alone!  Travelling through many cities of Europe and observing in them the comforts and education of even the poor people, there was brought to my mind the state of our own poor people, and I used to shed tears. What made the difference? Education was the answer I got. Through education comes faith in one’s own Self, and through faith in one’s own Self the inherent Brahman is waking up in them.’ In saying so he was echoing the words of his teacher Shri Ramakrishna “As long as I live, so long do I learn.” That man or that society which has nothing to learn is already in the jaws of death.

Kabir, the ageless Indian poet, in his timeless couplet said

Guru Kumhar Sikh Kumbh Hai, Gadh Gadh Kadhe Khot

Antar Hath Sahar De, Bahar Bahe Chot

Guru is the Potter, disciple is the (unbaked) pot
Gives Shape and cures the flaws with care
Protecting (always) with palm from inside
While pounding the pot from outside

We can only close with an earnest prayer to the Divine as we humbly recognize our self-limitations ‘to bring in Light and wisdom where it is lacking’.by invoking a few lines from the Upanishads

Asatoma Sadgamaya

Tamasoma Jyotri Gamaya

Myritorma Amritam Gamaya

[In Sanskrit]

From the unreal lead me to the Real

From the darkness, lead me to the Light

From death, lead me to Immortality.

 

As we invoke this prayer, the question to ask is’ Are we willing to seeks out the Truth beneath the ever-changing and shifting reality of the physical world. Are we ready to connect with the eternal, ever-blissful and peaceful nature that resides within us at all times? Do we have it in us to cultivate the mental discipline to expand upon our ‘knowledge’ as we go on this lifelong journey of curiosity and lifelong learning?

 

Reference:

 

http://www.humanity.org/voices/commencements/dr.seuss-geisel-lake-forest-college-speech-1977

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dr._Seuss

 

Freedonload of book How We Think – John Dewey – http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/37423

 

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