My Personal Smithsonian

If the Smithsonian is “America’s attic,” then America’s attics (& basements, garages, sheds, etc.) are personal Smithsonians…

my personal smithsonian

Collecting? Or something else? Basement storage

The Smithsonian is the world’s largest museum and research complex, with 19 museums and galleries, nine research facilities, and a zoo (the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C.). The Smithsonian is sometimes affectionately referred to as “America’s attic,” and the nickname is apt.  Visitors to Washington, DC and its environs are routinely impressed by the sheer volume of objects which the Smithsonian displays: over a million objects in building after huge building covering over 2.7 million square feet of display area. The scale of the Smithsonian’s collection of stuff is truly mind-boggling in number and scale. One photo alone covers more square footage than my entire house (a 3,375 square foot pinhole photo of an airplane hangar).

However, the Smithsonian only displays a tiny fraction (~ one percent) of its entire collection at any one time, so their massive displays are not even the tip of the proverbial iceberg; they pale in comparison to the actual Smithsonian collection itself, which consists of about 137 million objects which are housed behind-the-scenes in the museums (about 58 percent at the Natural History museum), in other off-site storage facilities, and at Smithsonian’s state-of-the-art Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland. Think of the closing scene in the first Indiana Jones movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which the ark is put in a nondescript wooden crate and stored in a gigantic warehouse, presumably to be lost and forgotten among the rows upon rows of other identical wooden crates. Except that in reality, the actual Smithsonian is far larger than what’s depicted in the Indiana Jones movie; and of course, the Smithsonian is (presumably?) far more careful about keeping track of what it has.

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A Smithsonian “wet pod” with >20,000 jarred specimens

Americans can appreciate the Smithsonian as “America’s attic,” the place where Americans collect objects deemed valuable, because this relationship also works in reverse: because so many of us have attics filled with treasures — our own personal Smithsonians.  Each reflects the other: if the Smithsonian is “America’s attic,” then America’s attics — and its basements and garages and “spare rooms” and sheds and barns — are small-scale museums commemorating individual homes, families, and their lives.  And my house was certainly no exception.

Words like hoarding or accumulating or grasping may sound too harsh or judgmental to describe this phenomenon. One could simply call it collecting — so long as one recognizes the difference between collecting with a purpose and just plain collecting.

Even though I didn’t own a huge amount of things to begin with, there was no shortage of collections in my personal Smithsonian: household furnishings and recreational equipment and gardening tools and childhood games and boxes of photographs, just to name a very few. Some of these were designated as personal treasures, but other things just seemed to accumulate for no apparent reason. Once I became aware of this, however, I eventually owned the process. Things didn’t simply accumulate; I collected them. More accurately, I collected them and held on to them.

Oddly enough, one of the first things where I noticed my tendencies for collecting and holding on to things for no (initial) apparent reason was with my collections of papers. Like a lot of people, I kept paper copies of bank statements and utility bills, mortgage documents and tax returns. I also kept paper copies of most of my work related to my consulting business — documents produced for clients, meeting notes, client-produced documents, you name it. I often kept paper copies even if I also had a digital copy or two somewhere.

When I started wondering why I resisted getting rid of these paper files, the inner voices at play emerged. There could be valuable work in there. I’d put a lot of hard work and thought and effort into creating those documents. They embodied ideas and insights and personal creations of a sort, the products of a successful business over more than a decade’s worth of work. There might be valuable ideas in these documents that I could use again on a future project. Even if I had the file in digital form, they felt more immediate and useful somehow in paper form.

Those were some of the thoughts, anyway; the reality was that I had no idea what was valuable in there. It dawned on me that saving paper was a legacy habit for me, which followed one simple rule: keep old paper files for as long as possible. The result was my own particular case of weakness in numbers: I had a hard time finding things in my office, or in the bins I kept old files and papers in, because there were so many of them. I could tell which old projects were in a particular bin or filing cabinet, but I couldn’t really tell you what was where. I certainly couldn’t find a particular idea or concept or work product embodied in a document very easily.

There was also this lingering idea that I was preserving history. That maybe someone someday would want to look through my things as a form of cultural anthropology or some such. The typical office of a self-employed office worker, late 20th/early 21st century. Look, here’s a document that was clearly printed on an Apple IIe, circa 1990, during the dot matrix printer period. Now, this one here is clearly more recent; this font was not widely used until the mid 1990s…  Digging deeper into my paper stash, this intrepid cultural anthropologist might also be delighted to encounter a historical record of the transition between a paper-based and a digital-based enterprise: old exam books written in ink; papers I’d written in college on a typewriter, the white outs and typeovers still visible in some cases.

There was some truth to this. But it wasn’t as if my office was the only remaining example of these types of relics. There surely must be millions of them still out there. Why should I be the one to hold to them? Why should I continue to have my own personal museum?

This was when I realized that there was a difference between collecting with a purpose, and just collecting and holding on. In fact, collecting is too nice a word to describe the latter process; the word grasping is more accurate way to describe it. More on that soon…

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Want to Get Education Unstuck? Try a Little WD-40…

Education needs something to help it get unstuck. Maybe a little WD-40 would help?

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One of the reasons that it’s so hard to change education is because it is stuck in its current practices: legacy systems that are organized more around sorting, indoctrination, and custodial care than around learning.

Education needs something to help it get unstuck. Maybe a little WD-40 would help? For as it turns out, WD-40 offers us several valuable lessons on how we might get education unstuck from its current predicament.

The first lesson is described by an article by John Merrow (thanks to my friend and colleague and Peggie Weeks for sharing this on Facebook!), which is entitled Why ‘WD-40′ Is Not Known As ‘WD-1′. This article explains how the number ’40’ in the name “WD-40” stands for the number of attempts it took for the inventors of the product to perfect their formula. This illustrates a well-known but routinely overlooked truth about learning: that failure is an essential part of succeeding, and thus of learning as well.

If learning were the essence of education, failure would be a recognized, even encouraged part of the schooling process as well. Unfortunately, however, the opposite is true: education is stuck on rewarding success based on very narrow time-based measures, and on punishing failure rather than using it as an integral part of the learning process. Grading systems routinely measure each student’s performance at the same time relative to each other, which works passably for sorting purposes but not for learning purposes. The reward success/punish failure principle is an essential design feature of standardized tests. School calendars and schedules leave little or no time for trying and failing to improve quickly, let alone failing 39 times before finally getting it right on the 40th try.

John Merrow’s article describes some of the alternative approaches which allow for learning through attempt, repeated failure, and eventual success: field trips, discovery, tackling of real problems. And there are many more.

If the numbers in WD-40’s name illustrate the value of learning through failure and persistence from repeated trial and error, the letters in WD-40’s name offer some equally valuable lessons. I was reminded of this while telling a friend of mine at dinner about the story behind WD-40’s name. Her response was to ask, “what does the WD stand for?” Although I’d read it in the article, I’d forgotten what it was, and so I had to look it up again. The ‘WD’ stands for “Water Displacement,” which reflects WD-40’s original purpose as a water displacing formula to protect the outer skin of the Atlas Missile from rust and corrosion back in the early 1950s.  So the “WD” in WD-40 is also instructive in several ways:

– The label is not important. Almost nobody knows what the “WD” in “WD-40” stands for, and with good reason. While it’s an interesting curiosity and a fun fact to know, it’s unnecessary for us to know what the label “WD-40” means. It’s far more useful to know what it can do for us.
– Knowing the right answers has its place, but the more powerful learning results from moving beyond right answers. At the beginning, WD-40 was part of a product line of rust-prevention solvents and degreasers for use in the aerospace industry; it was the right answer for solving the problem of “Water Displacement.” But this answer was just the beginning; soon after the product was invented, employees found that it worked so well that some of them began sneaking some cans of the stuff out of the factory to use at home. Eventually, the company’s founder started putting WD-40 in aerosol cans to see if consumers would find it useful. And they did: in fact, the makers of WD-40 have a list of over 2000 uses for the product: cleaning, shining, protecting, lubricating, polishing, unkinking, unshining; stops squeaking, rusting, sticking. Many of these uses still depend on “water displacement,” but the product has clearly evolved far beyond that.

This is how education should work much more often: looking for right answers through trial and error, through embracing failure as a vital part of the learning process, and then moving beyond right answers to exploration and making new discoveries.  Instead of treating education as a giant content installation project, we can follow Columbia University neuroscientist Stuart Firestein’s approach and choose to structure education as the pursuit of ignorance: learning as the process of discovering knowledge which reveals what we don’t know, which creates a virtuous cycle: the desire to learn more, fueled by the ever-unfolding discoveries of our ignorance.

WD-40 has such a wide variety of useful purposes that it has become a cultural phenomenon. Need to hold something together? Duct tape. Need to get something unstuck? Spray some WD-40 on it. Maybe applying a little WD-40 could work some wonders on education as well…

Easy as Pie: Remembering Mom…

As a Mother’s Day tribute, here’s what I said about her at her memorial service in December 2007…

Pecan (pronounced

Pecan (or as Mom would have pronounced it, “peek-in”) pie, Mobile, AL, June 2013. She would have approved…

My own remembrances of my mother that I want to share with you are prompted by something near and dear to both of us:  baked goods.   When I arrived at my parents’ home the day after she died, I found a pan of chocolate cake brownies with chocolate icing on the kitchen counter.  Apparently she’d made it for my sister Candie and her husband Dave for their planned visit today to do some work around the house.

At first it was very strange to see a pan of brownies which had been made by someone who was no longer alive, let alone that that someone was my mother.  A friend whom I told about this later commented that it must have been difficult to eat those brownies.  No, I replied, it wasn’t difficult at all.  I finished off about a quarter of the pan over the next two days.

In fact, it is altogether appropriate that one of mom’s baked creations outlived her, since I can honestly say that she was one of the best bakers I have ever known.   She made the best chocolate cake ever.  The recipe has coffee, which I don’t like at all, and vinegar, which makes no sense to me, and yet the result was always sweetly sublime.  The jars upon jars and tins upon tins of toll house cookies she made for the Christmas holidays were something I always looked forward to.  And her shoo-fly pies were for me the standard of all shoo-fly pies – nice and gooey on the bottom, cakey in the middle, and not too dry on the top, none of those dry crumbs you get in store-bought pies.  And what better excuse could anyone have for eating flour, sugar, and butter in large quantities?

I hope you understand that when I talk about these baked goods, I am really talking about her, and about what I learned from her baking.  If food is love, as my sister Patty likes to say, then Mom shared a tremendous amount of love through her baking.  Her chocolate cake taught me that you could put things together that you didn’t like or couldn’t understand and still somehow make them work out wonderfully in the end – a valuable life lesson.  It wasn’t just the dates she put in her toll house cookies that made them extra special, but the abundant generosity they represented.  And from her shoo-fly pies, I learned the value of setting high standards and sticking to them – plus the value of allowing oneself to indulge every now and then.  Most of all, I learned how to bake from her.  Although I will never make a pie crust as good as hers, thanks to her I will always know that there is more to baking than making the perfect result.   Thank you for baking, mom, and for everything.