Monthly Archives: December 2011

George Whitman, Shakespeare & Co., and what I learned from living in Paris

December 29, 2011

George Whitman died recently at the ripe old age of 98.   He took over the famous Left Bank bookstore, Shakespeare & Co., after the original owner, Sylvia Beach, left it at the onset of World War II. She ran it as a publishing company that famously published James Joyce’s revolutionary novel Ulysses in 1922. The book was banned in the U.S., no American publisher would publish it.  It was considered obscene.  But what is considered obscene in America is often considered great literature or art in Paris.  George Whitman took over the book store part after she left and ran it pretty much until he was in his 90s and infirm; his daughter then took over.

My three years in Paris in the 1970s taught me much more than I ever learned in college. When in Paris you discover Arab and African culture. The powerful music emanating from these regions, and the art that moved Picasso, Debussy, and Brancusi to create fabulous new works. I heard a lot of African Arabic music that was simply out of reach in LA. I also learned about the great multi-ethnic food culture of the City of Lights, both 3 star and three-franc, as well as the joys of walking in a city designed for the pedestrian instead of the car. And plenty of good slang.

You learn from living abroad. You come to understand how other people live and think. Cultural differences become less important. I was concerned, when George Bush was elected in 1998, that he’d never travelled outside the U.S. This lack of understanding certainly colored his presidency after September 11th, 2001, and his self-righteous, chauvinistic crusader behavior reflected this ignorance.

But back to Shakespeare & Co. and George Whitman. I got to know George Whitman while in Paris in 1970 and a student at the Sorbonne.  I had gone to Paris because I spoke French, loved France, nouvelle vague movies as well as Luis Bunuel and Jacques Tati. And Flaubert, Gide, Balzac, Stendhal, Voltaire, ad infinitum.  I loved that great photo of Jean Paul Belmondo smoking the Gaulois. And then there was the ultimate sex kitten, Brigitte Bardot. But, truth be told, I was also trying to delay draft induction into the army and be sent to Vietnam.

I liked the store for several reasons.  It was well-heated, had books everywhere, both in English and French. Books were much cheaper there than at the French bookstores (books are $$$ in France).  There were lots of comfy chairs to peruse what you found there, and no obligation to buy.  I didn’t go there to socialize, though many people did.  George to his credit also took in the homeless, hungry, and lonely crowd.  Shakespeare & Co. was a true literary and social oasis.

Obits have written about George Whitman’s lifelong commitment to running the store. For my part, I found him cantankerous, crotchety, and bilious.  I must have told him that I was living there partly because I had a small trust fund that my brother, sister and I got when we turned 21.  I must have told George about this, because he began pestering me every time I came in to buy the store from him.  It was the last thing I wanted at the time—I was only 23–but he just kept asking, but it seemed to me at the time that he, at 57, had had enough of it and wanted to unload the store.

I sometimes visited French libraries—don’t ask me why bookstores are called libraries in France……bibliothèque is the word for library—-but found the beautifully-bound paperbacks very expensive and beyond my budget.  One day, emerging from the Presses Universitaires near the Sorbonne, I was arrested by the C.R.S.–the French riot police–and thrown in jail.  There was a student demonstration at the Pantheon that I didn’t even know about.  But my carte de sejour said I was a Sorbonne student and that was enough.  I have a police record (dossier) there…I found this out when I was applying for a work permit after returning and getting a teaching job at the École Universelle a few years later.   I was awarded a knighthood by the French government a few years ago for helping promote Francophone music, and have a nice green medal framed in my office.  Now if I could only get my police record to proudly frame and put next to it. Wonder if there is a freedom of information act in France?

So George Whitman is gone, but Shakespeare & Co. is there for future generations of people, bibliophiles or not, to discover.  It’s there where it’s always been, on the Left Bank close to Notre Dame, Cluny, the Sorbonne., and all the wonders of Paris’ Latin Quarter.

Tom Schnabel, M.A.
Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres
Host of music program KCRW 89.9 FM Sundays noon-2 p.m.
Blogs for KCRW (rhythm planet / KCRW)
Author & Music educator, UCLA, SCIARC, currently doing music salons

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Season’s Greetings from ACEI

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Down the Rabbit Hole

December 15, 2011


“Alice came to a fork in the road. ‘Which road do I take?’ she asked.
‘Where do you want to go?’ responded the Cheshire Cat.
‘I don’t know,’ Alice answered.
‘Then,’ said the Cat, ‘it doesn’t matter.”

–Lewis Carroll

Education has taken a nasty fall. In fact, if we do not commit to a serious dialogue with the intention of finding immediate solutions, we will never find our way back up. At the bottom of this hole are entire generations without focus or incentive. At the top of the pile are the latest young college graduates, without the necessary tools of creative and analytical thinking, nor the processes to come up with solutions and answers to the multitude of problems awaiting them. And we are working on the newest generation, insuring a continuation of more of the same. Why would we do this? How is this happening and is there anyone building a ladder to the surface? One system that is attempting to work through this conundrum is the German school system, although, even in this forward thinking system the cracks are beginning to appear.

In the U.S. people don’t like to pay taxes, even if that means their children receive an inferior education and grow up to be welfare recipients condemned to minimum wage jobs, if they can find them. Henceforth, our state-funded schools do not have adequate funds to support healthy education. Not to mention that higher education is no longer a choice, but a matter of privilege, and if you don’t have it, you borrow it. If we take a closer look at the Bank/Corporate-to-Students zero-sum game, we will find that it is a form of indentured servitude. Easy credit, and low and stagnant wages. The Banks/Corporations win by ensuring themselves a profitable return and a constant supply of worker-bees–– under educated and ill prepared to come up with alternatives to the situation. Our young people are forced into unproductive, creatively un-challenging, low-income jobs, barely able to make ends meet in order to pay back or risk failing into default.

Here in Germany, where I’m currently residing, education is public and placed strictly in the hands of each of its 16 “states.” Each state is responsible for and administers to primary, secondary, career training schools and much of higher education, and is free to create its own curricula. That means that most schools, colleges and universities are paid for with taxpayer money, with a few institutions of higher learning charging a nominal fee. Teachers are Federally-tenured and there is coordination between state and federal administrators, teaching and testing standards ensuring that education is relatively equal throughout the country. However, globalization has pretty much corporatized education, even in Germany. Corporations want school children in the work force as soon as possible in order to fill positions in a rapidly growing industrial-export economy. As a result, the system is implementing a reduction in the number of years attended below college, from 13 to 12 years. School begins at 7:30 a.m., ensuring that children can ride the bus or that parents can drop their children off at school, relieving traffic congestion for people on their way to work. Sounds somewhat sound, however many studies have recently turned up indicating that both students and teachers ability to cope with this early biorhythm has affected attention and learning. Hmmm.

Empowering teachers helps to ensure a productive and fulfilling classroom experience. The Corporatizing of education has eroded the primary teacher-to-student experience. Every child has different affinities, abilities and interests that affect the way they absorb and learn from the materials presented in any given curriculum. Adding to this are classrooms full of multi-cultural, multi-ethnic children, creating a situation, which makes it next to impossible for teachers to do their jobs and connect with students on a deeper level. In the U.S. a broad-spectrum curriculum has been imposed without acknowledging these factors, effectively devaluing the creative and critical thinking that might one day turn the tables on the corporate imperative of a “dumbed-down” work force, perfectly designed to turn a corporate profit.

Taking into consideration that not everyone will learn the same way, at the same rate, or has the desire to go to the same place with their accumulated knowledge, the biggest difference between schools in the U.S. and Germany is that of freedom of choice. The German constitution guarantees all citizens the right to fully develop their human potential, which includes the right to choose one’s occupation and to have access to the appropriate career training. It recognizes that if you are going to become a productive member of a multi-dimensional society, overlaying one educational model simply does not work. Therefore parents and students are given a choice early on. The system gives parents the possibility, based on aptitude, grades and interests by the end of the 4th grade, to select what type of secondary school the child should attend and has made this flexible as well, by allowing students to change their minds later on. This ability to choose continues by offering students based upon their interests, a dual-track job skills training program: a three year classroom instruction together with a paid internship (Berufsfachschule), as well as other options. To read more about the German education system see: The Educational System in Germany

The less money that goes towards education, the less time and resources teachers have to give students the attention and individual respect they deserve. We do not have to agree to the Bank/Corporate agenda dictating to our educational systems. If we are to climb out of the rabbit hole, and begin to take back our rights to choose our future and create our lives, we have to change teaching paradigms and instruct our children how to think creatively and problem solve with patience to persevere in the face of obstacles. A distracted and fractured mind is an all to easily malleable mind, and we’ll fast find ourselves in a complicit wonderland, wondering how we got there:

Mad Hatter: Would you like a little more tea?
Alice: Well, I haven’t had any yet, so I can’t very well take more.
March Hare: Ah, you mean you can’t very well take less. 
Mad Hatter: Yes. You can always take more than nothing.

Jeannie Winston Nogai
Owner / Winston Nogai Design / E:


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Education As We Know It: Time to Review, Revise & Upgrade

December 8, 2011


There’s been a great deal of talk lately about the value of education whether at the elementary, secondary or college level. People are starting to wonder whether a college degree is worth the tuition required to earn one. The education system as we know it is no longer working. Some education leaders think a complete overhaul of the entire system is overdue.

According to Sir Ken Robinson, an internationally recognized leader in the development of education, creativity and innovation, the education paradigm needs to be changed ASAP. He sees today’s school-age children and college students as seriously doubting the purpose of education. They are hopeless and disenchanted. And for those considering a college education, many are beginning to question the value of their degree. They don’t feel that a degree offers any guarantees like it did in the past.

Sir Robinson has a point and it is cleverly illustrated in this video which shows that the current system of education was designed for a different time and age. It was conceived during the age of enlightenment, at a time where the concept of compulsory public education funded by taxation was novel and revolutionary. Prior to the 19th century there were no public schools as we know it. Only those from affluent families were able to afford education, albeit through private tutors.

Sir Robinson brings up another point which is that our educational system and even the physical design of its architecture is modeled on the “interest and image of industrialization.” He suggests that by stepping back and taking a look at our schools we can see that they are “designed to run like factory lines, ringing of bells, separate facilities, where we educate children by batches, by age group.” By dividing and isolating the students and judging them separately we are in fact separating them from their “natural learning” environment. Most great learning, according to Sir Robinson “occurs in groups through collaboration.”

He asks a very good question: why do we teach our children by age group? Since children of the same age group respond and perform differently to different subjects. What’s the logic behind this? Is it about conformity and standardization? Is the structure of our current education model compatible with the age of technology? Are we preparing our children with the skills and knowledge necessary to survive in today’s globally-interconnected economy? Are all these standardized tests really necessary? I wonder. What do you think?

The Frustrated Evaluator

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Whatever Happened to Music Education?

December 1, 2011


In writing a recent blog, inspired by LA Philharmonic’s Music Director Gustavo Dudamel’s orchestral version of a popular Puerto Rican band’s hit song, I began to muse on the subject of music education: in Venezuela and the U.S.

There are a million kids enrolled in Venezuela’s music system, called El Sistema. Some of them, like Gustavo Dudamel, rise to the top. Then there was the at-risk kid, Edicson Ruiz, who got off Caracas’ dangerous streets and joined El Sistema. He learned the bass from scratch and won an audition for the Berlin Philharmonic. No small feat. Watching Dudamel conduct the huge Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra is truly inspiring. Classical music isn’t boring when played with that kind of energy and passion. And by kids, no less, which makes it even better. And many of these kids were rescued from a life of crime and gang warfare. Sounds like a good idea for U.S. cities.

Music education is important: it gives kids a chance to develop another language, a chance to explore another part of their minds.

I’ve done hundreds of interviews with musicians over the past 30 years and I’ve often noted that these artists were not verbally gifted. They didn’t give great interviews either. But when playing music an altogether different voice spoke up: eloquent, elegant, compelling. Charlie Parker, when given a Down Beat magazine award by the late critic Leonard Feather, sounded downright dumb. When Jean Paul Sartre told Parker he liked his new bebop music, Parker replied “I like your music too”. He had no clue as to who his famous philosopher fan was. But look at his music. Parker was not only a genius musician who blew everybody else away, but he, like Bach, invented awhole new musical language. Ditto for even the great Coltrane, not exactly a man of many words. Thelonious Monk was even more elliptical with speech, but he was a genius composer of evergreen jazz classics.

Back in the day when I was a kid, there was music education in public schools. Kids got instruments and didn’t have to pay for private lessons their parents might ill afford. That is largely gone now. And sadly. The creativity involved in music making can help kids find outlets, purpose, and keep off the streets. Away from mindless pursuits like video games and TV. Music can organize and improve young lives, be participatory rather than just passive. Without music education, otherwise gifted youth can wind up in mediocre jobs, gangs, or even prison. There could be thousands of gifted musicians we’ll never know about who could make positive contributions as teachers and role models in sharing the gift and joy of music. Like the ex-con who’s now playing with the Berlin Phil.

We see such good things happening in Venezuela. Whether or not you like Hugo Chavez or not, he’s spending his oil money on something priceless. Gustavo Dudamel has brought some of that enterprising musical education spirit here, as the following Huffington Post article demonstrates, but we could surely be doing much more. There’s much more in life for young people than just following Justin Bieber’s every move.

Here is the link to the Huffington Post article about El Sistema. The video is really great.

Tom Schnabel, M.A.
Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres
Host of music program on radio for KCRW Sundays noon-2 p.m.
Blogs for KCRW (rhythm planet / KCRW)
Author & Music educator, UCLA, SCIARC, currently doing music salons

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