September 09, 2010


The Learning Tree: Overcoming Learning Disabilities from the Ground Up. By Stanley I. Greenspan, M.D., and Nancy Thorndike Greenspan. Da Capo. $26.

7 Dirty Words: The Life and Crimes of George Carlin. By James Sullivan. Da Capo. $26.

     The Learning Tree is the fourth and final collaboration between clinical psychiatrist Stanley Greenspan and his wife, Nancy Thorndike Greenspan: Stanley Greenspan died shortly after finishing it. It is a book that takes its title very seriously. The Greenspans’ approach to improving the learning skills of learning-disabled children is laid out in the form of a tree: trunk, roots and branches. Not surprisingly, it is a very well-conceived conceptual framework: the “trunk” is a child’s ability to think; the “roots” are the sensory systems; and the “branches” are specific academic skills. This is important because it puts academics in perspective: they are not a “root” problem. The Greenspans – assisted by Richard Lodish, Ed.D., associate headmaster of Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., who discusses several of the school’s “projects” that attempt to implement Learning Tree approaches – first give specific examples of ways to build basic and advanced thinking, then show how the thinking levels work in a school setting. Having gone through the “trunk” section, they explain in the “roots” portion of the book about such issues as visual-spatial and motor-sequence processing, sound deciphering and language development, and experiential building to help with such tasks as sound-vision connection and word understanding. Eventually moving on to “The Learning Tree in Action,” the Greenspans and Lodish give specifics about challenged students’ classroom behavior and ways to manage it to maximize participation and comprehension, including student expressiveness in writing and speaking. One of the most interesting things about The Learning Tree is that, despite its overt focus on children with learning disabilities, its structural elements really apply to all children as they grow, learn and develop. Kids identified as LD simply have a more difficult time making headway and need more careful management and guidance through the various progressive stages. Parents may find some elements of the book somewhat overwhelming – the Greenspans even point out in one chapter that previous chapters “have offered a lot of information – enough so that a process to pull it all together might be helpful to some readers.” In fact, what would be especially helpful would be to have someone like Lodish managing elements of the Greenspans’ approach at each child’s school. In the real world, implementation of these ideas is likely to fall more on parents than on schools, which have enough staffing and discipline issues already without trying to develop an implementation system for the Greenspans’ ideas (however worthy those ideas may be). Unfortunately, Learning Tree approaches are time-intensive and require a level of focus that parents may be unable to provide, especially if they have other children (LD or not) at home. Thus, although the book promises “practical advice for parents, from infancy through high school,” the practicality is likely to be compromised by real-world time and life pressures. The Learning Tree system itself, though, is a very worthy and well-thought-out one, worth considering as an ideal toward which to strive even if parents find they cannot manage to implement all (or even most) of its elements.

     Adults have plenty to learn, too, and one of the more interesting teachers as regards modern propriety and uniquely American hang-ups was comedian George Carlin (1937-2008). Carlin is most famous for his “Seven Dirty Words” routine, which was responsible for the 1978 Supreme Court decision in which the high court, by a 5-4 vote, affirmed the government’s right and power to regulate indecency on public airwaves (thereby leading to, among other things, a proliferation on cable TV and satellite radio of things that could not be said or done on over-the-air television or traditional radio broadcasts). Despite its title, James Sullivan’s 7 Dirty Words is not focused on that famed Carlin routine or the landmark court case; it is, instead, a fairly straightforward biography, although not a lot about Carlin can be said to be “straightforward.” A political satirist of some note, among whose subjects were religion and politics as well as issues of language, Carlin was known for his funny faces and weird noisemaking as well as his social commentary. Questioning authority was his stock in trade, but in fact – this may surprise readers of the book – his actual confrontations with “the system” that landed him in jail were such minor things as drunkenness, insubordination and public obscenity (for doing his “Seven Dirty Words” routine at an outdoor festival). Carlin was cynical about the United States – he said you had to be asleep to believe in the “American Dream” – but was a uniquely American phenomenon, from his Catholic-school upbringing to his addictions (notably cocaine and painkillers) to his larger-than-life comedic persona. There is still a lot to learn from George Carlin, not only for other comedians (many of whom have praised him and cited him as a major influence on their own work) but also for everyone who listens to comedy and wants to know why he or she finds things funny. Carlin avoided the topical; he was more interested in deeper issues (although he would not have put it quite that way). Even the “Seven Dirty Words” routine (one of whose words, “tits,” is scarcely considered “dirty” anymore) was an attempt to explore the reasons people hate and fear words – which are, after all, just bits of shaped air processed by vocal cords and emitted orally. Sullivan, a pop-music and culture critic who has written for The Boston Globe, Rolling Stone and other publications, generally does a good job of capturing Carlin’s freewheeling style and underlying seriousness of purpose. He is guilty, though, of being closer to his subject than readers may want to be: Sullivan throws names and references around with abandon, with the result that some readers may overdose on trivia. One example among many: “[Johnny] Carson’s producers did make a few concessions, booking the Committee, the hippie sketch-comedy troupe that had been on the Smothers Brothers show with Carlin; former pro football linebacker Dave Meggysey, known for his 1970 exposé Out of Their League, which blew the lid off the inhumane culture of the NFL; and Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, led by a psychedelic gypsy-jazzbo born in Little Rock but shaped by San Francisco’s Summer of Love. (At the time Hicks and his band were in talks with Monte Kay to become the next Little David act, though it never panned out.)” Readers with a taste for minutiae will revel in this sort of detail; others will likely find it more information than is really needed. Still, as a book about Carlin and some of the societal issues he raised, 7 Dirty Words is, on the whole, effective – although scarcely as punchy as the comedian himself.

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