Category: Reading

Roz, The Wild Robot

This week, I finished reading Peter Brown’s The Wild Robot Escapes to my daughter, Evie. We had read The Wild Robot about a month ago, and both tell the story of a robot named Roz who washed up on shore on a remote island. On the island, she learns how to survive from the wild animals.

Book cover for 'The Wild Robot Escapes' by Peter Brown
‘The Wild Robot Escapes’ by Peter Brown

Peter Brown uses the robot and her animal friends as an allegory about family, community, and life. In a single year on the island, we see births and deaths in surprisingly stark terms. We see families and friendships forming, the harsh winter taking its toll on the wildlife, and the outside world threatening Roz and her island community.

We really enjoyed both books, though the first was a better story. Each night, we would read a few chapters and discuss family, the life cycle, artificial intelligence, personhood, independence, freedom, being a parent, being a child, and all the other wonderful motifs in these books. I was surprised by where the book took us and by Evie’s questions and maturity about these topics. I strongly recommend these books to anyone with kids old enough for some direct conversations.

The Agricultural Enlightenment: Reviewing Peter Jones’ contribution to Enlightenment historiography

Kant famously addressed the prompt “Was ist Aufklarung?” in 1784 and for nearly 200 years, we spoke of the Age of Enlightenment as the beginning of a modern age when Western European philosophes set the groundwork for the rational world.

Foucault returned to the question in 1978, challenging this positive narrative and promoting a “historico-critical” reexamination and contextualization of the 18th century. Together with Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlighenment, Focault’s work fed a post-colonial, poststructural historiography that moved away from viewing “The Enlightenment” as the unchallenged success of French and English intellectuals, and replaced it with fragmentary microhistories.

Jonathan Israel has sought to recenter the Enlightenment on the development of historical and religious studies in the Netherlands. Israel has gone so far as to suggest that Voltaire came after the culmination of the Enlightenment and that his arguments were only derivatives of the debates already played out in the Netherlands. Religious and political histories of Enlightenments in Italy, Germany, Scotland, and America similarly identify various leaders negotiating both locally contextualized social issues and broader international debates. As a result, it is far more common to hear now of enlightenments and their various agendas rather than a single unified and purposeful Enlightenment.

In the 1980s and early 90s, as emphasis was shifting from a predominantly French and English history of the Enlightenment to the more situated national enlightenments, Peter Gay, Steven Shapin, Edith Spary and other historians of science wrote about the Scientific and Technological enlightenments. Observational, experimental, and mathematical epistemologies were tied to the rationalization at the core of intellectual histories of the Enlightenment. As the history of science moved from a narrow focus on theory to the inclusion of practice and applied sciences, these scientific histories of the enlightenment have come to include the mechanical, medical, and industrial developments that connected science to the economic developments of the 18th- and early 19th centuries.

Peter Jones’ new book, Agricultural Enlightenment: Knowledge Technology and Nature 1750-1840is a sweeping, trans-European retelling of the Enlightenment(s) through the lens of agricultural development. Though agriculture has at times been included as a science or as a constellation of sciences, it has not been included to this point in either the economic or scientific histories of the enlightenment.

Jones touches on the various national key terms from the enlightenment in the first chapter. Through his discussions of  physiocracy, cameralism, political economy, and agronomy, Jones ties agricultural to the the economic and political histories of 18th-century Europe. By quickly establishing the role of agriculture in the rational management and growth of centralized governments, Jones draws together the pluralistic accounts of the various national enlightenments into a meta-narrative that applies across Europe. While political and religious debates varied by nation and even region in the eighteenth century, the desire for autonomy through self-sufficient agriculture and industry is as close to universal as any force can be for an entire continent.

An agricultural historian throughout his career, Jones draws explicitly from history of technology and history of the book in his discussion of information dissemination/promulgation in chapters four and five. Jones combines a thorough survey of the differential literacy across Europe with a summary of the class structures of farmers to paint a vivid picture of the role of books, newspapers, and correspondence in the dissemination of agricultural knowledge. He combines this history of the dissemination of written information with a study of the ‘contagion theory’ of localized, person-to-person communication of knowledge to produce a multivalent model of agricultural knowledge diffusion. I found this to be a convincing and well-developed construct for the many methods by which knowledge moved in the eighteenth century. However, I think he could have drawn from the work of Suzanne Moon and other historians of post-colonial technology to identify the various socio-cultural challenges for knowledge diffusion. Jones notes the economic and political disruption that led to documented instances of resistance from the upper classes, but I think he could have done more to acknowledge the cultural reasons why the lower classes actively and consciously resisted agro-economic change.

In chapters five and six, Jones provides insight into the geographic and social mobility of skilled labor as continental rulers at every level recruited laborers. These chapters combine well with earlier discussions in chapters two and three in parsing the roles of the various governments and major land holders in promoting Agricultural Enlightenment and Revolution throughout Europe. These chapters will be of interest for all historians of the enlightenment because they survey the patronage and power structures of nearly every country.

From the perspective of a historian of eighteenth century chemistry, the weakest section was the two-page section on agricultural chemistry in chapter seven. Jones acknowledges several attempts at agricultural chemistry during the 18th and early-19th centuries, but concludes, as so many do, that true agricultural chemistry did not take off until Justus Liebig’s work in the 1850s. In my opinion this misses the important work done by Scottish chemists William Cullen, Joseph Black, and George Fordyce and the motivational importance of that chemistry for authors that Jones does spend time with like Lord Kames, Adam Smith, and Thomas Malthus. Joseph Priestley, Jan Ingen-Housz, Richard Kirwan, and Claude Louis Berthollet were amongst the many chemists who wrote on soils and manures in the eighteenth century. Works on respiration by Priestley, William Irvine, Joseph Black, and Antoine Lavoisier were crucial to understandings of both biology and chemico-physical heat. I would argue that the marling, dunging, and even plowing techniques were all heavily influenced by lay understandings of chemistry and mineralogy in the second half of the eighteenth century, if not before.

With this self-centered objection aside, Peter Jones’ book is a wonderful addition to the historiography of the enlightenments. As a lens, agriculture provides an economic motivation that was similarly applicable throughout the various national enlightenments. The resultant meta-narrative is utilitarian in a way that complements the politico-economic histories that can focus too heavily on the great thinkers. Jones’ work also details the rise of agrarian capitalism, as a shift from feudalism, in tones that inform both the history of capitalism and the twentieth-century use of the Green Revolution to push capitalism on the developing world. Amazingly, Jones’ book remains succinct, while giving a century’s worth of agricultural and economic history for all of Europe. Agricultural Enlightenment transcends the boundaries of economic, scientific, and political history and is an important extension of Enlightenment historiography.

Action Figures in the Classroom

As I listen to the soundtrack for Hamilton, it’s easy to envision a set of action figures based on the historical musical. The eponymous Alexander Hamilton doll might come with a quill and a voice box with a seemingly endless variety of quips and quotes. To collect the whole set though you’d also need figures for the Marquis de Lafayette, George Washington, Elizabeth Shuyler and her sister Angelica. Presumably an Aaron Burr figure would come with a quick draw dueling action.

In his new book, Play Like a Pirate, Quinn Rollins suggests asking students to conceptualize just such a set. Thinking through the physical design of each figurine, the short biographies, and the actions and accoutrement would elicit accurate detail and also encourage play and experimentation.

Book cover of Play Like a Pirate

Play Like a Pirate follows in the wake of Dave Burgess’s popular Teach Like a Pirate, and the quasi-sequels Learn Like a Pirate (Paul Solarz), and Explore Like a Pirate (Michael Matera). Each of the books encourage reintroducing play into the classroom through games and gamification.

As compared to the other books in the set, Rollins’s contribution focuses more narrowly on material/physical objects with chapters on various toys like action figures, LEGOs, playing cards, and comic books. In his chapter on Hot Wheels, Rollins suggests having students create a car track representing Raskolnikov’s story from Crime and Punishment to prompt discussion on “Where does his story start, where does it end, and where does he fly off the track?” (p. 37). Alternatively you could create a hot wheel representing a white blood and then track it’s progress through the circulatory system on it’s way to an immune response.

I found Rollins’s suggestions about integrating Transformers and Smurfs into the classroom a bit unlikely and dated—I know they’re both in recent movies, but those movies were terrible. Avengers and Angry Birds might have more cultural relevance and would provide Rollins’s desired archetypal frameworks for analyzing stories. The key to the exercise seems to be discussing the the roles of the characters in a story that your students know and then finding the parallels with the historical episode or novel or political event that they are studying.

Several of the chapters mirror projects that I’ve already done in my classes. The chapter on board games both demonstrates how board games can be integrated into a class and how you can develop games for or especially with your students. This chapter quickly summarizes the appeal of serious gaming in education and mirrors much of my work with Keegan Long-Wheeler on our GOBLIN faculty development project. Crucially, Rollins notes the utility of analog game design as a more approachable alternative (and prerequisite) for digital game design.

In the last section of the book, Rollins discusses the utility of comic books, graphic novels, and comic strips. I’ve used at least three of his recommendations (Maus, Trinity, and Watchmen) in my own history of science classes and read a fourth (Cleopatra in Space) with my daughter to introduce her to comic books. As with toys and games, I think that comics can serve as a welcome alternative to thick textbooks and dry lectures. I have used books like Trinity and Fallout as an alternative to Brotherhood of the Bomb or The Making of the Atomic Bomb, because I think that students relax with the shorter, illustrated texts but still encounter the same core information. And, as with toys and games, students can make their own comic strips, either by creating their own narratives and animations, or by using meme generators and other digital tools.

Rollins’s Play Like a Pirate is a quick read that, for me, serves best as a set of suggestions for active learning activities. Not all of the ideas will be applicable for every course, but Rollins love of toys and enthusiasm for play in education will spark some ideas for any reader. You may even find yourself doing a deep dive on eBay for LEGO kits to help you explain molecular structures or Roman architecture.

The Roman Colliseum Made out of Legos

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén