Okay, First Things parents. Those of you with adolescent boys at home—you need help. So do I.
No matter how energetic and vigilant the teachers are in this time of seclusion, hours at home can't replicate the classroom. As soon as the online assignment is finished, once the streaming lecture is over, the boys drift back to the iPhone for games and peer banter and pictures. The atmosphere of the school disappears. Instead, boys are back in their private spaces (and virtual social spaces), wherein books and knowledge are negligible matters.
You have been thrust into the role of part-time homeschooler with little warning, and you need better tactics than the bare confiscation of that demonic device. By all means, take the tool away, but give it back after the boys have done their daily work for school and spent some time with the syllabus you have fashioned as a supplement to it.
In the area of history, have them watch episodes of Appointment with Destiny, a short-lived series from 50 years ago that 14-year-old boys will love. There are only a half-dozen entries in the series, each one a documentary-style recreation of a fateful moment in time. One episode dramatizes Cortes and Montezuma, another one the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. There are reconstructions of Appomattox, the hunt for John Dillinger, the attempted assassination of Hitler. Lorne Greene narrates some, Rod Serling others. Historical figures speak to the camera as if they are on 60 Minutes. Historical settings, clothing, speech, and actions are reproduced with vivid fidelity. Check out one episode here.
In the area of music, let's introduce them to the classical tradition with an engaging battery of lectures by Leonard Bernstein. The site is Harvard University, the time 1973. Bernstein was in residence at Harvard for a year, savoring the academic climate and ending up idolized by the students. He had to give six public lectures, which he devoted to music theory from Mozart to Stravinsky, using Noam Chomsky's linguistics as a conceptual frame. He sits at the piano explaining what happened with Beethoven et al., then turns to the piano to illustrate the point. Occasionally, the lecture breaks away to a film of Bernstein conducting the Boston Orchestra in the symphonic pieces he is discussing—such as Berlioz's Romeo and Juliet. Some of the theory will go over the heads of younger teens, but Bernstein's winning manner and the brilliance of the examples he plays on the piano make everything clear. Here is the lecture on the Romantics.
(Younger kids will enjoy the young people's concerts that Bernstein led for a dozen years at Carnegie Hall, starting in the late ’50s. They were broadcast on prime-time television and made him one of the most beloved cultural figures in America. Here is one on melody.)
For a more traditional course on classical music, consider these wonderfully relaxed lectures by Professor Craig Wright of Yale University, who runs the gamut of classical music from beginning to end.
Boys like movies, but let's get them past the superhero, Star Wars, and car-thief juvenilia. Not just to show them that stock characters muttering banal declarations while facing fantastical or creepy situations aren't the stuff of grown-up taste, but also to show them some better visual artistry than the cinematographic clichés used again and again in Hollywood movies. Apart from obvious choices such as Citizen Kane and City Lights, here are some films that have strong plots but also the touch of a genuine visual artist doing things with light, perspective, juxtaposition, foreground and background, the grammar of images . . . some of them are on YouTube.
La Jetee (Chris Marker)
Seven Samurai (Kurosawa)
The 400 Blows (Truffaut)
The Flowers of St. Francis (Rossellini, with script co-written by Fellini)
The Third Man (Reed, with help from Welles)
North by Northwest (Hitchcock)
Paths of Glory (Kubrick)
Duel (a 1970s TV movie, the best thing Spielberg ever did)
Grand Illusion (Renoir)
Finally, let them watch a sports show, but from the Old Days: This Week in Pro Football (see, for instance, this episode from 1970). It will show them the game without artificial turf and indoor stadia, dancing in the end zone, or puerile bickering among the hosts (as often happens on ESPN).
I gather that everybody here is familiar with the Great Courses, which cover all areas of history, the arts, literature, politics, philosophy, and science. Public libraries (if they are open) have them.
And how do you get the boys to do all this? Simple: “Young man, you may have your phone back when you have finished watching.”
Mark Bauerlein is contributing editor of First Things.