Tag Archives: education

Bosco and the memory of William Drenttel


A couple of days ago, I wrote about Bosco, the 8 year-old who knows all about meth labs and not a lot else.

I got precisely one response, a woman who said this was kind of problem she likes to solve.  And that was it.

I thought, “maybe if I develop the idea a little.”  My first idea was a kind of twinning project.  You know, the kind that cities have. ( New York is a sister city to Cairo.)

We would identify 6 kids across the US who would then become Bosco’s twins.  And we find away to capture what they are learning as they are learning it and we find some way to communicate this knowledge to Bosco.

Our objective is to make him cosmopolitan in the ways that they are cosmopolitan.  (And by “cosmopolitan,” I mean merely, “knowledgeable about the world outside one’s own.”)  My assumption: that there are many disadvantages to growing up in the home in which Bosco finds himself but one of the most debilitating  is a lack of knowledge/understanding/awareness.  (Call it “cultural capital.“) This lack of knowledge is, we could argue, more damaging than illiteracy or innumeracy.

Problem 1.  There is a “barrier to entry” problem here.  As meth cookers, there’s a good chance that Bosco’s parents have limited horizons (prima facie case, no?) and that they would not welcome the intrusion of a system that is designed to broaden the horizons of their son.

I don’t how to solve this problem.  I have a feeling that an anthropologist and an economist working together, with the levers of meaning and value, could come up with a solution, but more on this later.

Problem 2.  There is no question that this twinning process, if it worked, would transform Bosco and there’s not much doubt that it would estrange Bosco from his family.  This would make Bosco the captive of a hostile environment.  From the parental point of view, we have created a “little Lord Fountleroy,” someone who thinks himself (or is thought to think himself) better than his family.

I don’t know how to solve this problem either.  It’s worth pointing out that every immigrant and upwardly mobile family find themselves with kids who  are more cosmopolitan than their parents.  And these parents find a way to deal with it.

Mind you, these people have sought the condition they endure.  Our “meth” mom and dad accomplish that magical contradiction that allows them to refuse the idea that they are not cosmopolitan even as they resent those who are.

How do we reach them?  What do we say?  Could we construct a forgivable space, a status allowance, for Bosco in the home,  one that allows his parents to say, “Oh, don’t listen to him.  He’s our little Martian.  Always talking about the craziest stuff!”  (Yes, but of course, we could hope for something more than this but I think it’s wise ((and not particularly hostile)) to assume the worst.  We are not looking for perfection.  We just want an allowance.)

The trick is making it “our little Martian.”  We need to construct a status for Bosco in the home that gives him room to take on and give off cosmopolitan knowledge.  And this will depend on constructing a status that allows his parents to forgive, and perhaps even take credit for, their oddball son.

At this point, I need to address a tide of unhappiness that I know is rising in anthropological readers (and some others).  People will complain that I am “essentializing” Bosco’s parents and Bosco himself, that I am imputing characteristics in an act of class stereotyping and status diminishment, that this is an exercise of power.

Allow me to do an anthropology of the anthropologists (and engage in another act of classification).  Anthropologists are almost silent when it comes to the big problems of our day and that is because the field is largely preoccupied by acts of self criticism.   Hand to brow, with a show of their sensitivity, they ask, “Can we generalize?  What are the politics of generalizing?  What are the ethics of generalizing?” These are real questions.  But Anthropology is now effectively an amateur theatre company dedicated to a production of moral posturing and ethical declamation.

I am not saying these cautions do not matter.  They do.  But when they are the only thing you do, when they are the thing you do instead of helping a kid like Bosco, when they are the thing you do that prevents you from helping a kid like Bosco, I say this.  Bite me.  Get over yourself.  Snap out of it.  Start again.  Your trepidations matter less than Bosco’s future.  While you posture, pain and suffering flourish like the green bay tree.

Whew!  Sorry.  Anthropologists have to stop being too good for the world.   It’s the only way they can return to usefulness.

One way to address Problem 2 is to catalogue all the instances of families in which children are marked as different, where parents are called upon to explain and, we hope, make allowances.  Families with autistic kids, for instance, sometimes resort to calling them “little professors.”  There are other precedents.  What are they?  Are any of them usable here?  How would we adapt these?

Let’s say we solve Problems 1 and 2.  Let’s say we find a way to create a twinning system and relay information from Bosco’s twins to Bosco himself.  How would we do this?

This is where I thought of William Drenttel.  I gave a paper at Yale a couple of years ago and afterward he and I had a roaring, gliding conversation.  It was clear he was trying to recruit me for one of his grand schemes and to my discredit I failed to rise to the occasion.  (I was working on schemes of my own, which I now see were minor and ordinary by comparison.)

When I thought about how to get information, knowledge and understanding to Bosco, I thought of Bill.  He is one of those designers who strike me as the anti-anthropologist: citizens of several worlds, effortlessly mobile in passage between them.  Bill, I thought, would know how to think about this problem.  This is a design thinking problem because we are, in effect, being asked to design thinking.  

If we could find some way to represent the knowledge being accumulated by Bosco’s twins, this might help.   Let’s say Twin 1, the one in Philadelphia, is sitting with his family watching TV.  There’s a news story about LA and the family conversation that follows somehow puts LA on Twin 1’s “mattering map.”  (I have this term from Rebecca Goldstein).

The trick now is to make LA matter on Bosco’s mattering map.  The fact that we are talking about geographical knowledge helps a lot.  A map is itself a useful, perhaps the original, visualization.  But our job is to show how “LA” matters not just for its relative location (Bosco lives somewhere in the midwest) but also as the home to Hollywood,  dinosaur-rich tar pits, several sporting franchises, and a particular place in the American imaginary.  (We will have to fit that last one with new language.)  Our question: What does Bosco already know and how do we use this to help him grasp facts and fancies about LA.

Bill, I thought, will know how to take this problem on.  And today I discovered that William Drenttel passed away in December of last year.  (See this remarkable obituary by Julie Lasky.)  I think an honest, hard-earned  moment of self repudiation is called for here.  Why wasn’t I in touch with him?  Why didn’t I know about his illness or his passing?  Is there some good reason why I live like a small forest animal, posting out of a tree stump and otherwise out of touch with the world?  What is my excuse exactly?  And who am I kidding?  (Forgive a maudlin outburst.)

My thought originally was to make designers and anthropologists the intermediaries of the movement of knowledge between Bosco and his twins.  But in a more perfect world, and now with social media at our disposal, it might be possible to make Bosco and his twins a tiny community (Marshall Sahlins’s “mutuality of being“) that pools its knowledge and helps one another master it.  Can eight year-olds do this kind of thing?  I don’t know.  Maybe with some training.

Happy coincidence but this morning I saw a tweet by Sara Winge on the attempt by UNICEF to use Minecraft to show what a reconstructed Haiti might look like.


Could a band of eight year-olds build a model of their knowledge?  In Minecraft or some other medium?  Jerry Michalski has put some of his knowledge online.   Some 160,000 “thoughts” all  in categories and ready to hand.   Bosco and his friends might do the same with the right education and encouragement.

There is lots of work to do here.  Who’s interested?  If we get something up and running, I propose we call it the Drenttel project.  No, there are so many Drenttel projects running in the world, that would be wrong and clueless.  Let’s call it A Drenttel Project.


Thanks to Kevin Smith, William Drenttel and Architect’s Newspaper here for the image of Bill above.

The Wire to the Rescue

I am a long standing enthusiast of the idea that the TV show called The Wire would make an excellent course for kids in high school.  It has richness, drama, complexity.

The thing I like most about it is that it contains many worlds, and this helps make the points that:

A) you have to shift out of your assumptions to capture any of other world, and certainly any of these worlds. 

B) you have to shift into the assumptions of any one world to “get” that world.

C) you have to shift from one set of assumptions to another to “get” a show like the Wire or indeed the real world.

(My assumption: if there is a single thing, a single intellectual or cultural capital, that drop outs are unlikely to understand, it’s that there are many worlds outside their own and that with the application of the right ideas, these worlds are penetrable and indeed occupy-able. The cost of a suspended education is limited mobility: social, cultural and career.)  

A couple of days ago, I found myself thinking that the only way to construct this teaching “material” is to extract the right footage from the Wire and insert this footage into a map of Baltimore.  Mapping helps show that the worlds exist in the world and coexist in the world.

And today, when I was staring at the sign above, I thought, “why not take footage for each world and insert it into a navigable map on line, perhaps Google maps.” This would give us a virtual space a student could wander until he/she/they discover the various worlds and the footage that helps to grasp these worlds and the assumptions that form and inform them. 

Mark Warshaw, Mauricio Mota and I have been talking about this project for several years now.  Please get in touch with us, if you have ideas and especially if you have funding.  

Will time travelers please announce themselves at the front desk

It’s time to start training time travelers.

Picture the scene at the NATTA (National Aeronautics and Time Travel Administration).  There is the time traveler (NATTATT) in period costume, and surrounded by his or her advisors who give advice on language, usage, accent, on local history, on the anthropology and sociology of life in the time period, on politics, family life, food, clothing styles, on built form, material culture, and popular culture.

Our NATTATT must “pass.”  He or she must escape detection.  For the consequences of detection are cataclysmic.  The NATTATT would be quizzed, perhaps tortured.  Secrets of the future would be revealed.  People would begin betting on imagined scenarios.  The past would go ass over tea kettle and so would the present.  Imagine leaving in a present that had new turbulence in its past.  We think we live in a turbulent world now.

My assumptions:

1) time travel will someday be possible. We will move through time as we move through space.

2) even if time travel is not possible, we should prepare for it anyhow.  Why?  It is, I believe, the single best way to teach history at high school and college.

NATTA colleges will be a lot of fun.  Deeply grumpy historians will begin each term with a new cohort of recruits.  Kids with more daring than brains or skill.  The instructors will take them through the exact details of life in, say, 19th century London or 18th century New York.  The students will be smart alecks who believe themselves invincible.  Our grumpy instructors will have to persuade them otherwise.  They will have to soak these kids in knowledge.  And unlike some history courses, this will be knowledge with an edge, a purpose, an urgency.

Training a NATTATT will be like training an actor, spy, historian and improv artist.  They will want deep resources of knowledge.  It will take ‘just in time’ recall and, when necessary, daring and imagination.  They must work with what they know and fake what they do not. They will have to swim like fish through conversations that are barbed as anything.  We can craft our time traps to elicit breathtaking acts of improv (or failure).  "Sorry, kid.  You are not ready.  One more failure and you must ring the bell."   

Look at it this way.  That person sitting beside you.  She could be a time traveler. She is doing a wonderful job of passing.  You would never guess.  But what if she is, a time traveler?  Certainly, it would explain why she choose to combine that scarf with that sweater. And that’s the thing, even tiny errors can be telling.  (I have a friend who speaks English perfectly but he speaks it as a second language.  He was "found out" when he said he was putting a billiard ball in the "middle" of the table instead of the "center" of the table.  I know.  This is a distinction too subtle for me.  Still, he claimed it gave him away.)

After a term of exhaustive instruction, we will send the NATTATT into a “time trap” to see if they are ready.  The time trap will be furnished with every kind of puzzle and temptation.  The NATTATT will need to be able to spot the anomaly.  The NATTATT will have to manage conversations at the bar, hotel, shop, and opera house.  Is this person dressed in a way that signifies mourning, status, eccentricity, or fashion?  The NATTATT will have to know how to respond.  He or she will have to perform flawlessly, finding their way through conversations as if their lives depend upon it. 

Of course we may never invent a time machine.  But we can fund our preparedness out of an educational program that will achieve great things even if our students never get out of the 21st century.