Banning books

The always controversial Texas State Board of Education added to its tragicomic history with a confusion over Martins:

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, Why Were You Banned?

Bill Martin is a philosophy professor at DePaul University who has written a book called Ethical Marxism: The Categorical Imperative of Liberation.

Bill Martin Jr., who died in 2004, was a children’s author who wrote Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? The men are not related.

Last week, the two Martins were briefly fused into one persona by Pat Hardy, a member of the Texas State Board of Education, who moved that Bill Martin be removed from a suggested revision of the state’s third-grade social-studies curriculum. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram quoted Ms. Hardy as saying that his books for adults contain “very strong critiques of capitalism and the American system.” –Don Troop

The  issue might be simply amusing, except that the Texas State Board of Education decides what will be taught in Texas public schools. Because the Texas market drives what publishers sell in other states, it plays an extraordinary role in defining American public education.

Recently, the Board has considered reviving the reputation of Senator Joseph McCarthy, to portray him as an American hero. They also debate the Biblical underpinnings of the nation’s founding, the superiority of America, and its divine ordination.

Pat Hardy, is from my hometown of Fort Worth. Unlike many others on the Board, she’s actually an educator. Although she’s a conservative Republican, she’s been attacked in elections to the Board by social conservative groups, who criticize her insufficient support of creation science and lack of solidarity with the social conservative bloc on the board.

Much of the commentary on this incident has focused on its silliness, on the apparent confusion of such different authors and books. But for me, it raises some important questions about the Board, and by extension, American education:

  • What if Bill Martin Jr. (the children’s book author) had written a book on ethics? Would that be a bad thing? Would that justify banning his beloved book for children?
  • Must we agree with Bill Martin (the philosopher) about vegetarianism and animal rights in order to read his book? Is it wrong to read a book that critiques and extends Marxism?
  • Should the role of the Board, or the role for any of us as educators and citizens, be to weed out books with ideas we don’t accept (or perhaps, understand)?
  • Do we want students to grow up unquestioning, and safe from bad ideas only when we diligently purge them from their world?
  • Might we do better to “teach the controversy,” as Gerald Graff says, to open up the world of books, ideas, and learning, rather than to try to shut it down?

WIllow Lake, Fort Worth

WIllow Lake in Fort Worth is an artificial lake in an urban setting, which nevertheless boasts a wide variety of wildlife. I spent a week near there and saw fish, turtles with foot-long shells, scaups, coots, ducks, grey herons, nutrias, and more.

The nutrias are South American water rodents that were introduced recently into Louisiana and have been spreading in the southern US. In many places they’re considered pests, because they eat all the desirable water plants. I suspect them of eating the duck eggs at Willow Lake, but don’t have proof so I won’t say that.

Thinking with toes and fingers

Four generations

four generations

What pleasure could be greater than spending time with four generations of family (see photo at left), as we did last weekend in Fort Worth? The twins, Caitlyn and Chloe provided all the entertainment one could want, far surpassing anything that might have been offered on TV or on some stage. They were in turn the most attentive audience, soaking in everything around them, including as you can see, Caitlyn exploring her own toes.

Chloe's fingers on the Mac keyboard

Chloe’s fingers on the Mac keyboard

We did venture on to YouTube to listen to some Raffi songs. This led to some “digital” explorations by the generation poised to supplant in not so many years the so-called digital natives of today. It’s not evident in this photo, but digital here includes toes as well as fingers.

The final photo shows Chloe studying the camera studying her.

Chloe, 7 mos.

Chloe, 7 mos.

For Chloe and Caitlyn, learning involves all the senses and all the body. They explore faces using their eyes, but also their noses and fingers. Things are as they look, but also as they smell and taste and feel.

Some people would claim that the girls don’t talk yet, but that’s only in the incredibly narrow sense of saying that they don’t speak standard English. Their world is actually suffused with communication; it’s a rich laboratory of experiments with sounds linked to ideas and feelings. They gently remind us that the adults among us who constrain their talk to formulaic utterances and language without feeling are the ones who don’t know how to talk.

It will not surprise some of you to hear that this reminds me of John Dewey, who says:

Upon this view, thinking, or knowledge-getting, is far from being the armchair thing it is often supposed to be. The reason it is not an armchair thing is that it is not an event going on exclusively within the cortex or the cortex and vocal organs. It involves the explorations by which relevant data are procured and the physical analyses by which they are refined and made precise; it comprises the readings by which information is got hold of, the words which are experimented with, and the calculations by which the significance of entertained conceptions or hypotheses is elaborated. Hands and feet, apparatus and appliances of all kinds are as much a part of it as changes in the brain. –pp. 13-14, John Dewey, Essays in experimental logic


Dewey, John (1916). Introduction to Essays in experimental logic (pp. 1-74). Chicago: University of Chicago.

Miss Dierdorf and the mythology newspaper

I was asked to write about a favorite teacher for a project in a philosophy of education course. The person who asked me plans to use the lenses of John Dewey, Paulo Freire, and Pádraic Pearse to look at the responses from various people. Here’s mine:

I remember many good teachers, but no one that stands out far above the rest. But I’ll pick one: Miss Dierdorf at W. P. McLean Junior High School cared about literature and history in an infectious way. She organized a class newspaper project in which we wrote and illustrated stories from Greek (and Roman) mythology. The antics of the ancient heroes and gods became as real to us as the day-to-day events around the school.

As I recall, every student felt that he or she had a vital contribution to make to the newspaper. We designed the paper, wrote and drew, because we too cared about the stories and the characters. I think that the sense of becoming engaged with the ideas and feelings of the past or faraway has stayed with me ever since.

It was interesting to see that the majority of the responses were about English teachers.

I should add that there are many mythology newspaper curriculum units available on the web and other formats, such as Greek Mythology Newspaper, by the children’s book author, Bernard Evslin. They all seem to be more sharply defined in terms of skill development and assessment than I remember the class to be.

Dissertation: The logical structure underlying temporal references in natural language

Bruce, B. C. (1971). The logical structure underlying temporal references in natural language. Ph.D. dissertation, The University of Texas at Austin, Computer Sciences Department. [Note: The archival file is very large; here’s the content in a smaller file size.]

Committee: Norman M. Martin (Co-Chair), Robert F. Simmons (Co-Chair), Michael Richter, Terrence W. Pratt

From the Introduction:

Temporal reference in natural language include tenses and other time relations, references to specific times, and a variety of phrases such as “present”, “later”, “when”, “how often”, and “never”. Their high frequency of occurrence reflects the importance of time to the users of natural language. Although the structure underlying temporal references may appear complicated, it is a working assumption of this thesis that a sound logical explanation of its characteristics can be made.

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Bruce Piano Company

Bert Sr. in the piano storeBertram Bruce, my father, opened Bruce Piano Company around 1950 in Fort Worth. The store later became the authorized Steinway dealer for Fort Worth and provided pianos for performers visiting the Fort Worth Symphony and Opera. We occasionally got to meet those performers in our home.

I worked in the West Lancaster store in the summer when I was 15. I remember learning how to buff hammers, replace bridle straps and damper felts, install new hammer shanks, glue on new plastic key surfaces, and generally, restore most other parts of the piano action. I also helped with refinishing, including converting old uprights into mirror spinets. This was mostly on old uprights, some of which were in sad shape after years of abuse in a bar or humid basement. Many of the operations were challenging at first, but even I could learn them after 88 times.

In the beginning, the store focused on pianos, but later began selling televisions. That led to several robberies in which mostly the new TVs were stolen. This proved to be a great hardship on the small business.

Bertram BruceThe original location was on Fifth and Calhoun St., in the Binyon O’Keefe Moving Company warehouse. Later the store moved to 8th Avenue near Massey’s, then to the Westchester House where it doubled the space. After that it moved to West Lancaster near Farrington Field. My mother made curtains for the first store and played a crucial role in many other ways to help the young store thrive.

Later, Bruce Piano Co. opened a second store on Pipeline Road in Hurst, with Ken Nance as manager. Harvey MacDougall became the manager of the main store. The final location was on Inwood, off of Camp Bowie Boulevard. Bert then invited his brother Don to merge his business.

I remember Don as being an excellent salesman, but like many good sellers, he was an overly willing buyer, too. Rather than insisting on the cash that the store needed, he’d make trades for a boat, a pool table, and once, a donkey. My father had to rein him in from ordering a truckload of the latest amp or band instrument.

All of this happened shortly before my Dad died on December 12, 1969. Don bought the store after my Dad died and then Harvey took over after Don died. Don, who was two years younger than Bert, also died at age 54, just two years later.  Later Harvey bought Bruce Piano Co.

guitarBruce Piano Co. was a well-known part of Fort Worth for 35 years, offering everything from used and low-cost new pianos for families who wanted their children to learn music to Steinways for visiting performers. There were also practice rooms used by local piano teachers.

Over the years it also sold sheet music, organs, guitars, band instruments, speakers and amps, televisions, and even once conducted an ill-advised experiment in bagpipes. But changing habits among the public, with the rise of television and music recording devices, meant that piano sales were less and less a central part of middle-class family life. When the Savings and Loan crisis hit in the 1980’s the bank cut off credit for floor planning and the company could no longer survive.

This is a sad story, but I’m proud of what my father accomplished (with ample help from my mother, Don, and others). I’ve also become more aware of what the store did for the community over many years. There’s a piano in our home with a decal showing that it was once on the floor of Bruce Piano Co. I try to play a little each day, and imagine the others whose lives were also enriched by what the store did.

Quetico, August 1963

Here are some photos from my trip to Quetico Provincial Park in August 1963. Notice the water damage on the 35mm slides, which is explained by the story that follows the photos.

In August of 1963, our Explorer Post 52 traveled to Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park just west of Lake Superior on the Canada-U.S. border for a wilderness canoe trip. In order to get to Quetico, we journeyed for three days from Fort Worth in what was even then an old, yellow school bus. We stayed in Air Force bases, sleeping on the gym floors and experiencing steam baths for the first time.

This was a year of changes, including the arrival of the Beatles in the US and the assassination of President Kennedy. But the trip was the major event in my life that year.

It was a wonderful trip in many ways. We stayed up most of one night watching a rare display of the Aurora Borealis, which filled the sky for hours. The sun was shining, the fishing was good, and there was great singing, story-telling, and endless argument about the meaning of life around the campfires. It was good exercise, too, especially with the canvas packs of those days. On portages, one of us would carry the canoe, one a food pack, which weighed 110 pounds in the beginning, and one all our gear–cotton sleeping bags, canvas tent, and clothes.

The Storm

We had been out for at least a week when the storm came up. It was on the Basswood River, but in a wide section, like a long lake. When the storm arrived, we decided not to risk a crossing and pulled into a cave a the base of a huge granite cliff with pictographs. “Picture rock” on Crooked Lake was shown in the September 1963 National Geographic, and I recall seeing the Basswood cliff when I returned from the trip.

I held my canoe onto the rock under this 100-foot cliff, as did Fred Moyer, our guide. The other two canoes held on to us, locked together to avoid capsizing.

After a few minutes, I released my grip on the rock for just a moment to tighten my poncho. As I did, lightning struck a solitary tree at the top of the cliff. The current traveled down the cliff to our cave. Everything went suddenly white, for some indefinite period. If you told me today that it was ten seconds or just one, I wouldn’t be able to dispute it, because time didn’t exist for me then. I could feel the charge in the air, and am still sensitive to changing electrical conditions. When I’ve felt that while canoeing, I get very nervous.

The current reached Fred’s hand, which was still touching the rock. His canoe, which was the only wood and canvas one, was shattered. Bob Cocanower and Gary Rall were the two scouts in Fred’s canoe and they both suffered physical injury from the lightning: Bob’s arms were paralyzed and Gary’s legs. Fred was killed instantly.

After Fred died, Chuck Borgeson and Duane, the guide from a companion group, took his body to the ranger station (see Bobby’s account, too). I must have gone into shock, because I went to sleep later that morning and slept until the next day. We, of course, cut the trip a short from what was planned originally, but not by much, because there wasn’t an easy way just to exit from such a remote location.


The accident was reported in Texas newspapers as “lightning strikes Scout group, at least one killed.” Naturally, our parents were distraught, but unable to learn much about what had happened for several days. This was well before cell phones and we had no portable radio.

It’s sobering to realize that I was the only one other than Fred holding on to the rock just before the lightning struck. If I hadn’t let go to pull my poncho, all 12 of us might have died, because it would have completed an electrical circuit connecting all our aluminum canoes.

We managed to complete the trip without further mishap, but aspects of it are still vivid for me today. After the wilderness experience, we went to Winnipeg and found a restaurant that offered all-you-can-eat lunches for 49 cents. After two weeks of vigorous exercise and eating our own cooking of dehydrated potatoes, we were hungry beyond any measure a restaurant should have to endure. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear that we put them out of business.


Coalson, Bob. The Fred Moyer incident. Post 52 history: Charles L. Sommers Canoe Base.

Olson, Sigurd F. (1963, September). Relics from the rapids. National Geographic, 124(3), 412-435.

W. P. McLean Junior High School

Three years at W. P. McLean Junior High School (now W. P. McLean Middle School) in Fort Worth, September, 1959 – May, 1962. I worked on mythology newspaper in Miss Dierdorf’s class, and later on the school newspaper, The Thresher.

William Pickney McLean Junior High School first opened on January 28, 1936. The school was located at the corner of Forest Park and Berry Street, the present sight (sic) of R. L. Paschal High School. McLean Junior High School moved to its present location on Stadium Drive in September, 1954. In September of 1969 it was renamed McLean Middle School. McLean’s first principal was Mr. E. E. Dyess, who served for 22 years as the principal. In 1954, the McLean Letter “M” Award was begun …[to be] presented to 8th graders who who excel in scholastic achievement, good citizenship, and extracurricular involvement. –School History, William Pickney McLean Junior High School

Connecting learning and life

Bruce, B. C. (2003, Summer). Connecting learning and life. Frontiers!: Official publication of the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, p. 7.

Frisky and Blossom are long gone now, and I wouldn’t recognize them if they showed up today. But they taught me more about life than many people I’ve known. They were de-scented skunks who lived at the Fort Worth Children’s Museum (now the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History). I met them when my mother enrolled me, as a three-year-old, in the Frisky and Blossom Club held at the Museum.

The Frisky and Blossom Club was the first class of what later became the Museum School, now one of the largest museum school programs in the world, having served over 200,000 children. It was one of the first museum preschools to be accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. But in 1950, the Club had only five members, Ben Hulsey, his younger brother Price, Gary Rall, Doug Wiley, and me.

Mr. and Mrs. Bigelow ran the Frisky and Blossom Club out of an old house on Summit St. We started in the summer of 1950, and came several times a week. There were outdoor benches where we sat for activities. We played with Frisky and Blossom, learned about rocks and fossils, and other artifacts the Museum offered. We also talked about things we liked to do and the Bigelows helped us connect those interests to each other’s and to the larger worlds of science and nature.

Museum School

Zeiss projectorLater, I took other classes from the Museum School. These included Insects, Rocks & Fossils, and Astronomy. I joined the Astronomy Club, run by Mary Charlie Noble, the namesake of the Noble Planetarium. I still have my notebook from the Astronomy Club. It has issues of Sky and Telescope from 1956, diagrams of constellations, and notes from our classes. It also describes our wonderful field trips, in which we sat on a hillside watching for meteors, or studying the Milky Way (a stupendous sight available to anyone on earth to see in the days before we polluted the skies). I also participated in a program to spot enemy aircraft, presumably Russian bombers that had somehow missed being seen on their way to Fort Worth. I don’t know whether I helped save the Nation, but I remember being excited about a chance to contribute, and learning how to identify planes by their sound and silhouette. I still have a book Astronomy, which I won for spotting the most planes.

Although my writing in that notebook seems primitive compared to that of the nine- and ten-year-olds I see today, it recalls for me the joy I felt in expanding my imagination. I listed distances of planets, not because I was to be tested on it, or because it was good preparation for middle school, but because the Museum classes had awakened my senses. They concocted a living organism out of the natural curiosity of a child, knowledgeable and caring adults, interesting books, charts, and images, and the clear Texas skies.

What emerged from the Astronomy Club can be said about the other activities as well. I’ll never forget searching for insects in the Fort Worth Botanical Gardens or making boxes for mounting them. I can still identify insects by their order and was interested to read about the recent discovery of a new order, Mantophasmatodea. In fact, a characteristic of all the experiences I had at the Museum School is that they didn’t stop when the class or club ended. Instead of covering a topic and moving on, the Museum School caused me to open up, to seek to extend and enhance those experiences.

Another characteristic of these experiences was that they were never just, say “rocks & fossils” or “insects.” Through the insects class, I learned about cigar boxes (to hold the mounted insects), carbon tetrachloride (now banned as unsafe!), painting and homasote, the Greek language, flowers in the Botanical Gardens, diseases, history, and much more. Through “rocks & fossils” I learned about plaster of paris, two-D and three-D representations, dinosaurs, evolution, geology, oil exploration, and the age of the Earth. In contrast to some of the formal instruction I had received, this was a living process, a statistically unpredictable one, in which each experience led to learning and in turn to new experiences.

What It Meant to Me

It’s impossible to identify all the ways the Museum School affected me. The fact that I married Susan, who was working then at the Boston Children’s Museum, seems too obvious to say. Perhaps it’s all the little things, reading a biography of Roy Chapman Andrews as a teenager and fantasizing about exploring the world, loving to canoe and to hike in the mountains to this day, choosing to major in biology in college, being a regular reader of Scientific American, Natural History, Smithsonian, and National Geographic, participating in Science for the People, wanting to share a love of science with my children.

The most pervasive effect for me is how it has shaped the way I think about learning and life. In school we sometimes experience learning as a negation of life (“sit down and finish your workbooks!” “that doesn’t belong in the classroom!” “what were you doing instead of your homework?”). The testing mania of today only exacerbates that tendency.

When learning is separated from life, it becomes sterile: How many hours did all of us spend doing calculations in math classes and how many of us feel confident in math, care about it, spend time thinking about it? If the sterile approach helped develop people with a lifelong passion for learning, critical social engagement, and caring for others, I’d reconsider my views about it, but from where I stand those qualities emerge in spite of the sterility of much of formal instruction. Much of my work today is aimed at making learning come alive by connecting it to what matters in each learner’s ordinary experience.

The Museum School taught me a lot about the world. To this day, I can tell you the difference between diplodocus, diptera, and dipper (and I’m probably less afraid of skunks than I should be!). But more importantly, it taught me that the process of learning and growing is both challenging and energizing. The energizing aspect comes because the learning is connected to things the child cares about. That caring in turn is what makes it possible to for the child invest deeply in what would otherwise be daunting tasks. In the end, the learning becomes deeply embedded.

I mentioned above the joy I felt in expanding my imagination. I think many of us identify museum learning with joy, or simply with fun or play. In so doing, we risk conceiving it as un-serious, as inconsequential, as peripheral to real learning that can be organized into the scope and sequence of a curriculum or assessed on a standardized test. But my experiences with Frisky and Blossom, and yes, the people, too, taught me that joy means being connected to what matters, to being deeply engaged in life, and that joy in one’s experiences is the only real source for lifelong learning.