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Primary Sources Spark Necessary Wonder

April 4th, 2014 by dk

Teenagers no longer care about what comes in the mail, except in the springtime of their senior year. If they hope to continue their education, they’ve chosen their favorite universities, written their essays, gathered their recommendations, completed their applications. All that’s left to do now is what may be most difficult — wait.

“Thick envelope, good. Thin envelope, bad.” I was given that advice when I stood in those shoes. It takes only a page for a school to tell you no. But if the answer is yes, there will be a host of “next step” documents riding inside the same envelope.

For some, there remains ahead one more difficult task. They will have to choose from among their thick-enveloped replies.

Too often, the deciding factors are cost, distance or climate. Knowing what I know now, I’d ask a different question altogether. Where will I get closest to primary source material?

If education is to remain true to its roots of skepticism, we must teach our young people to value and pursue the originators more than the summarizers. This can happen in a wide variety of ways.

A Stanford graduate I know remembers seeing two classmates, before they founded Google, together in a bar, talking about something that seemed important. What were they talking about? He can only wonder. And wonder is central to education.

I spent time this week at the University of Oregon, poring over early letters Ken Kesey wrote to his lifelong friend Ken Babbs. Kesey’s wife Faye sometimes would add a letter of her own, handwritten on the back of Ken’s typewritten pages. The intimacy is so palpable, it’s hard not to feel like an intruder.

The most fun part was reading where he was wrong. Once we make a person into a statue, all their mistakes get airbrushed out.

In 1961, Kesey marveled at his little brother: “Look at my goofy brother … just barely 22 and has already finagled around and got him a creamery on other men’s funds, which he’ll be able to sell next year at a $10,000 profit.”

Chuck and Sue Kesey still own and run Springfield Creamery. Nancy Hamren, their bookkeeper and the namesake of Nancy’s yogurt, is retiring this month after 44 years.

Knowing the mistakes the originators avoided, and which ones didn’t matter to them, gives you almost direct access into what they were thinking and feeling at the time. Kesey, for example, was an atrocious speller. I’m sorry he’s gone, but I’m also certain autocorrect would have killed him.

I had a professor who taught Sigmund Freud’s theories brilliantly because he had read Freud’s letters and early drafts. He saw first-hand the concepts Freud rejected, because they were crossed out or hastily erased from notes along the margins. (Ask me sometime about Freud’s nationalistic choice of the Hegelian dialectic over the Cartesian — and how it has fueled Shakespeare’s popularity ever since.)

Reading in the margins is the best training possible for reading between the lines. Most of what gets said in the world is not stated outright, yet you’ll still be held responsible for knowing it. We’ve always considered this empathetic intuition to be a life skill. It’s quickly becoming a survival skill.

My understanding of how messages are crafted and conveyed came from a primary source.

My class met Tony Schwartz in his studio. Schwartz had made a name for himself by writing and producing the “daisy” television ad for Lyndon Johnson’s presidential campaign. (Look it up.)

One of my classmates asked Schwartz about his views on regulating advertising. He was ready. On his desk was a reel-to-reel recorder. He set it to “play,” then stood back with his arms crossed — as if to say (or maybe he did say), “Regulate this.”

It was not finished work. He didn’t make it for a client. He wanted to make a point. On the tape, simply a woman’s soothing voice: “Headache? Come to Bufferin.”

The tone and rhythm mimicked the comforting phrase “Come to Mama” perfectly. We wondered, “Could we write a rule that forbids that cadence, that echo, that memory?” We couldn’t.

It’s the wondering that stuck.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

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