Further thoughts on the end of America

I do feel, quite deeply, that America is changing rapidly; a certain old essence is disappearing, even faster than when I was young.

In such cases I think of my father, an old-stock American, Vietnam vet, lover of God, Guns, and Glory–basically all your red state stereotypes.

While chatting with parents down at the local playground, one of the moms claimed to “love” her HOA. Why? I inquired, distressed, because all mine does is wreck the landscaping and eliminate parking. After a moment’s thought, she responded that the HOA prevents people from leaving their trash cans out overnight and stops them from painting their houses strange colors.

Goodnight! Who joins an organization just to meddle with their neighbors?

Of course there are corners of America where people still mind their own business, but we are increasingly squashed into corporate-molded cities where neighbors spend more time worrying about their property values than interacting.

Anyway, I tracked down the book I referenced in the previous post: Childcraft, Volume 11: Music for the Family, with copyrights from 1923-1954 (presumably the copy I hold hails from ’54, as its photos are that era, but the text may be somewhat older.)

Most of the book is children’s songs, but there is a section at the end with biographies of famous composers: Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert,Chopin, Verdi, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Humperdinck, MacDowell, Debussy, Sousa, and Gershwin. Here are a few excerpts:


“No!” said Father Handel sternly. My boy shall never be a musician!”

In that day in Germany, musicians were often treated like servants. Father Handel wanted his son to be an important man, not a servant. It was splendid to be a barber-surgeon–like Father Handel–and be called to the castle to trim the duke’s mustache or treat his indigestion. It was even more splendid to be a lawyer, and earn rich fees for giving advice to a prince or a king. But little George Frederick Handel wanted only to be a musician.


In the same year that George Washington was born, an Austrian peasant family named Haydn celebrated the birth of a fair-haired baby boy. They named him Joseph.

Joseph’s father made wheels for wagons and coaches. His mother was a cook for noble families. both parents loved music. In the evenings, by candlelight, the family often sang songs of the people, or folk melodies…

At one time Haydn played a joke on the powerful Prince Esterhazy, who had hired him as music director. The prince kept his musicians at a palace in the country. He seldom allowed them a vacation. Many of the musicians longed to visit their families. Haydn wished that he might  help them. But he did not see what he could do. He did not dare speak directly to the prince about it.

One day Haydn announced that he had written a new symphony. Prince Esterhazy and his court gathered in the great hall of the palace to listen. As the orchestra began the final movement, one by one the players blew out the candle on their music stands and left the hall. Finally only two violinists were playing. They they too departed, and only the director remained.

Haydn turned and bowed to the prince. “Your Grace,” he said, “I call this the Farewell Symphony.”

The prince looked perplexed, then began to smile at Haydn’s musical prank.

“I can take a hint from old Haydn,” he said “The musicians may start their vacation tomorrow.” As you may imagine, all the musicians were grateful to their beloved “Papa Haydn.”


By the time Wolfgang was twelve years old, he had played in many great cities of Europe. He was the favorite of queens and princesses. Princes and kings gave him money and jewels. Many musicians envied the young Mozart, because it was then the custom to teat musicians like servants.

It would seem that Mozart’s early life was just one gay adventure. But the boy grew very wise about kings and queens, princes and princesses. He learned that kings and noblemen were just like ordinary people. Some were wise and just. Others were stupid and cruel. Some princesses were gracious and kind. But others had very bad manners, and sometimes young Mozart told them so. He knew that many ordinary persons had better manners and were better people than some of the nobility.

Mozart began to believe that bad and stupid kings had no right to tell people what to do. These were dangerous thoughts, for king often punished person who had ideas about freedom. Mozart put hi ideas into music, rather than speech.

When Mozart grew to manhood, he wrote operas which poked fun at king and noblemen. One of these operas is the Marriage of Figaro, which had many lilting melodies. Another is Don Giovanni, in which we hear the lovely “Minuet.”


The music Beethoven wrote shows that he loved people, because it is written for all the people, and not merely for king and princes. But Beethoven also felt that cruel people had bought much evil into the world. he was happiest when he could be outdoors, in rain or sunshine, and listen to the songs of Nature.


The Patriot Composer of Poland

Father Chopin began a merry Polish folk tune on his flute. Little Frederic sat still and listened. Soon a tear rolled own his cheek and dropped on his blouse.

The music of the flute rose higher. It danced like a happy peasant girl. It trilled and shistled like the song of a bird. Little Frederic’s chin began to tremble. He opened his mouth wide and began to cry.

Father and Mother Chopin loved Frederic deeply. But they also loved music, and they were sad because their little son seemed to dislike it so. …

Upstairs, the boy who should have been asleep lay awake listening. He squeezed his pillow tight against his eyes to keep the tears back. How could they ay he he hated music! His tears were not tears of pain, but of joy. Frederic loved music so much that the sound of it made him weep. But he was so young that he could not find the words to tell his parents how he felt. …

Young Chopin began to compose his own music almost as soon as he could play the piano. His compositions were influenced by the kinds of music his parents loved best. His father had come from France, and often played the music of that country on his flute. Frederick liked the French music, but most of all he loved the  songs his mother sang–songs of his native Poland. It is the Polish music he wrote that is most popular.

Frederic’s mother told him that Poland had once been a proud and free country. Then neighbor nations had taken away its freedom. The Polish people remembered the days when their country was free, and sang songs about the land they loved. Frederic used these national songs in his compositions for the piano. …

Chopin’s love for his country speaks through his music, like a beautiful language which the people of all countries can understand. Chopin’s stirring music still has the power to make strong men and women of any country weep, just as a little boy wept over a Polish folk tune many years ago.


Now let’s take a look at Mathematicians are People, Too: Stories from the lives of the great mathematicians (copyright 1990). (I would like to note that this is not a bad book; I am just trying to highlight the change in political tone/emphasis over the decades.) It covers Thales, Pythagoras, Archimedes, Hypatia, Napier, Galileo, Pascal, Newton, Eurler, Lagrange, Sophie Germain, Gaus, Galois, Amalie (Emmy) Noether, and Ramanujan.

There is a sequel which I have not yet read, published in 1995, which covers Euclid, Omar Khayyam, Fibonacci, Descartes, Fermat, Cardano, Maria Agnesi, Benjamin Banneker, Mary Somerville, Ada Lovelace, Babbage, Sonya Kovalesky, Neils Abel, George Polya, and Einstein.


But Hypatia was not only a well-known scientist and mathematician’ she also became a highly respected philosopher. Her father had taught her to be open-minded about ideas. Like many Greeks, he believed people should keep questioning rather than settle on one version of truth as final. He introduced her to a variety of religions, and she learned to value the good in each. Because of this, he taught her students to ask lots of question, even about ideas that government or religious leaders said they should not question. Eventually, this caused trouble for Hypatia.

Hypatia got caught in the middle of a struggle between two leaders in Alexandria. Orestes, prefect or governor of Alexandria, was Hypatia’s friend. They enjoyed talking together and often wrote letters about the latest ideas. Cyril was the archbishop of Alexandria, the head of the Christian church in that city. He was suspicious of anyone who did not accept his religious views. Conflict developed between the two men and their followers, and Cyril became convinced that Hypatia was behind it. …

An angry mob of religious fanatics, fired up by false rumors of Hypatia’s teaching, kidnapped her one day as she rode through town on her chariot. They dragged her through the streets to the cathedral, where she was brutally murdered and he bones burned. Her death marks the end of the great age of Greek Mathematics. …

Although Hypatia made many important contributions to mathematics and science, few women have adopted her interests–until recently. Some historians believe that Hypatia’s horrible death may have discouraged other women from becoming mathematician. Still others believe that Hypatia’s life–not her death–is the perfect symbol of what women or men can achieve when they work hard and stand up for what they believe is right.

(A lot of mathematicians in this book, including Pythagoras, Hypatia, and Archimedes, were murdered. Apparently mathematician is a much more dangerous profession than composer.)


Lagrange’s influence was beginning to be felt throughout the scientific communities of Europe. King Frederick of Prussia had formed a prestigious college of mathematics in Berlin. Frederick sent this rather impressive invitation to Lagrange: “The greatest king in Europe must have the greatest mathematician in Europe in his court!”

Clearly, Frederick was not as modest as Lagrange, but he was an avid supporter of science and mathematics. …

Lagrange was quick to praise persons who had encouraged or influenced him. He applauded when Napoleon ordered a tribute to Lagrange’s father, still living in Italy. He acknowledged the greatness of Euler, He mourned with the chemist Lavoisier was sentenced to death by guillotine. And just as he recognized those who had affirmed him, he was quick to encourage younger mathematicians.

Once, while teaching at the Ecole Polytechnique, he received and impressive paper from Monsier LeBlanc. … After some research, he discovered that the mystery student was really a young woman named Sophie Germain. Only men were allowed at the Ecole, so Sophie had borrowed lecture notes from friends and asked them to smuggle her paper in among theirs. Lagrange went immediately to her home and made her feel like a true mathematician, helping launch her important career.

Sophie Germain:

When Sophie was very young, her parents had welcomed her interest. They allowed her to use her father’s library whenever she wished. But soon they decided that she was studying too much. They agreed with the popular notion that “brainwork” was not healthy–maybe even dangerous–for girls. They told Sophie that he could not study mathematics anymore.

But Sophie would not give up. Night after night she crawled out of bed and studied after everyone else had gone to sleep. …

“Oh, Father, I’m so sorry, but I just can’t stop,” Sophie cried. “These problems are so fascinating! When I work on them I feel like I’m really alive.”

“But, Sophie,” her mother said softly, “remember, you’re a girl. It isn’t good for you to fill your mind with numbers.” …

With that her parents gave up. Sophie was allowed to study to her heart’s content. Fortunately, her father had an excellent library. As wealthy citizens, the Germain family knew many educated people in Paris and throughout France.

When Sophie was young, however, traveling and visiting were restricted by the political turmoil in France. The French Revolution began in 1789 when she was thirteen, and Paris was an unstable and dangerous city… Sophie’s parents shielded her from the fighting and conflict. She eagerly filled her time reading and learning. …

In 1816 mathematicians and scientists around the world heard about Sophie Germain. In that year she won the grand prize from the French Academy for her work on the law of vibrating elastic surfaces…

Sophie Germain enjoyed only a brief moment of recognition for a lifetime of dedicated study. The barriers to women in mathematics certainly hampered Germain’s development–but they did not prevent her from following her quest.


Galois could have coped with normal disappointments, but so many setbacks took their toll on him. Bitterness filled him He began to distrust all teachers and all institutions. He tried starting his own school, but no one enrolled. Then, because he wanted to fight injustice, he got involved in politics. He joined the Republicans, a forbidden radical group. They spoke out for justice, especially for the poor, and for freedom of the press. They wanted a better standard of living for the common people, instead of for the wealthy few.

Galois ended up in prison for his political activities, then got killed in a duel at the age of 20.

My goal isn’t to dissect the truth of these stories (often children’s biographies are at least a bit fictionalized), but to examine what the authors chose to highlight. We are often don’t even notice the political beliefs of our own age (“Of course they did it that way. It’s only natural,”) but can easily see the politics of another age.

The cover of the Childcraft book on music features two children holding a book (on the book’s cover are two more children, holding a book…) Mathematicians are People, Too, features Amalie Noether happily studying math while her flustered mother (dressed like a maid) looks on in consternation. Volume two has African American Benjamin Banneker on its cover. (Silly me, I would have put Euclid and Newton on the covers and probably not had as many sales.)

It took a bit of digging to find the full list of mathematicians in Volume 2–the book’s blurb on Amazon only lists Omar Khayyam, Albert Einstein*, Ada Lovelace, and “others.” Clearly, during the production of Volume 1, the authors were thinking about how to emphasize women in mathematics; by Volume 2, they wanted to emphasize diversity. The publishers didn’t even think it worthwhile to list Euclid!

*I love Einstein as much as the next guy, but he’s not a mathematician.

To be fair, there are probably more people looking for biographies of Ada Lovelace or Einstein than of Euclid, though personally I spend a fair amount of time thinking “When do we start Euclid? Is there a children’s version of his Elements?” and not much time thinking, “When do we start Ada Lovelace?”

So one of the major difference between these two works lies not in the explicit phrasing of the stories, but in the frame of the particular people they chose to highlight. Why Benjamin Banneker? Unlike Omar Khayyam, he didn’t contribute very much to mathematics, and we have not exhausted our list of great mathematicians such that we need to go searching for obscure ones. Surely Turing, Erdos, von Neuman, al-Khwarizmi, or Aryabhata contributed far more–but perhaps that doesn’t matter, as the book’s target market can hardly understand advanced math in the first place. Banneker was chosen because the authors believe that it is important to have an African American character in order to appeal to African American readers.

The conclusion of Hypatia’s story is more explicitly political–Hypatia wasn’t killed because she was a female mathematician and her story certainly hasn’t discouraged women from doing math–if the authors thought it did, they wouldn’t have put it in the book!

Do the political messages in children’s books matter? Do they create culture, or are they created by culture? Chickens and eggs. Either way, culture has changed. Politics have changed. People have changed. Technology has changed.

1950s civics class didn’t happen in a vacuum–and I don’t think the political culture that created it is coming back.


7 thoughts on “Further thoughts on the end of America

  1. Yet, 1950s civics classes created the generation that created this iteration of America. At the very least, it didn’t stop the current state of things from coming about. I keep coming back to the sociology (or anthropology, really) of industrialization, and the stains it put on civilization. Clearly, the old gods lost their hold on the common people. However, by the time we had created an idol that could handle the new structure (nationalism) we were already moving into the next phase. The information age is quickly turning into the disinformation age, and what can people believe in when everything is (potentially) lying to them, even their own senses?


    • “Yet, 1950s civics classes created the generation that created this iteration of America.” That may indeed be, but I don’t think we can blame (as the original author of that piece I was responding to last week did) the rather recent appearance of Trump on those 1950s classes… Or if we can, it’s an effect that took a long time to show up in the data.

      The rest, though… civilization is a tricky thing.


  2. So, this is actually slightly on-topic… we’ve been cleaning out our basement recently, and one of my hobbies is collecting old books, particularly old textbooks, and the one I came across today is a 1930’s social studies textbook from California. (I also own a 1930’s complete Childcraft set, which I haven’t shared with my kids yet because one of the stories is kind of awkward in a Song of the South kind of way…)

    Anyhow, I don’t know where I’m going with this comment… Just putting it out there. In my infinite free time maybe I’ll think of something…


  3. Apparently mathematician is a much more dangerous profession than composer.

    Everyone hates math has taken on a whole new context

    Good read darling. Thank you. On a personal note, one of the things I almost regret is loosing the ability to sing and play a guitar.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s