• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Nerdy Dad Strikes Again!

Lessons from "Radical Words."

October 16, 2014

I try not to subject the kids to too many of my pet obsessions. Last weekend, though, I just couldn’t resist.

How often do you get to see the Magna Carta?

We took the kids to the Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown, to see the “Radical Words” exhibit. It’s there for a few more weeks, and I really can’t recommend it highly enough. 

The exhibit includes the Magna Carta, a working draft (“sloppy copy”) of the Constitution with handwritten notes by George Mason, an early copy of the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Declaration of the Rights of the Women of the United States, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  (TG: “Universal?  Were other planets involved?”)  The sequence gave me a great excuse to orate in the car about the spread of citizenship rights, and just how recently many of them came to pass.  The kids indulged me, and had the good grace not to note the irony of being a captive audience on a lecture about freedom.

It was political-philosophy-nerd heaven.   

The kids were remarkably good sports about the whole thing.  We met up with Rebecca Townsend and her family and made a day of it.  Rebecca got the “line of the day” award for noting that it was nice to see people lining up for something other than a superhero movie.

I had forgotten how impressive the regular collection of the Clark is.  It started as one family’s private collection, so it reflects a particular time and taste, but it does what it does well.  TG was taken by the Monets and the way that they come into focus as you get farther from them.  (“How did he DO that?”) TB preferred the Winslow Homers, and even caused some excitement when he noticed a seemingly anachronistic heart on the t-shirt of one of the men in the “Two Guides” painting.  It looked, for all the world, like someone had penciled it in later.  We had something of an art history emergency.  (Subsequent Googling suggested that Homer actually put it there; it was the symbol of a fire company.) 

The Clark has grown since I last saw it; now it has a beautiful outdoor series of pools and waterfalls, along with some walking trails out back.  The trails featured plenty of tree-climbing opportunities, which came in handy when the kids had had enough of their inside manners.  And this time of year, the colors on the trees are a show in their own right.

Kids of academic parents have certain burdens, but this one felt light and right.  I wanted them both to get a sense that Big Historical Documents They’ve Actually Heard Of are real, and are important only because of their effects on actual people.  Even better, I want them to have a sense that they’re entitled to have opinions about art, and politics, and all sorts of intimidating things.  And that there’s no contradiction between expressing opinions about art and politics, on the one hand, and climbing a tree on the other. 

The day ended, as such days must, with burgers, root beer, and general silliness.  There’s no shame in that. 

Soon the Magna Carta will be off on its way, and the leaves will be gone.  In a few years, the kids won’t let me orate in the car, even out of a sense of bemused superiority.  They may not remember the day, or very many specifics of it.  But if they retain some sense that they’re part of a much larger story, and that they’re fully entitled to take part in it, I’ll call it good.  Superheroes are fine, but I’d much rather they see themselves as contributing authors in a much larger story.  Even if that involves indulging an occasionally overenthusiastic narrator in the car.


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