Wandering with my eyes and heart open, searching for pieces to add to my own personal big picture.

Tag: university

From Melting Pot to the Pluralist Vision

Part III of The Opening of the American Mind, starts with From Melting Pot to the Pluralist Vision, my version looks more like a tapestry.

Lawrence W. Levine starts with this:

“The United State themselves are essentially the greatest poem…Here is not merely a nation but a teeming of nations.” – Walt Whitman, Preface, Leaves of Grass 1855

When did we, the United States, become singular?

I think it was after the World Wars. We became a “super power” by the end of World War II, and ever since then I’ve read the “United States” as one nation, indivisible. But are we? Should we be?

“…by Alexis de Tocqueville in a letter to Ernest de Chabrol in the spring of 1831: ‘Imagine, my dear friend, if you can, a society formed of all the nations of the world…people having different languages, beliefs, opinions: in a word, a society without roots, without memories, without prejudices, without routines, without common ideas, without a national character, yet a hundred times happier than our own.’”

Gives me chills reading that. It sounds so amazing, like looking at a beautifully intricate tapestry. Each thread, warp and woof, laying next to each other, not blending, but standing independent of the other. And when you pull back you see the picture they create.

 “The melting pot” is another way of describing it. You’ve heard that before. There was a Schoolhouse Rock episode of it, all the people of the world coming together, melting into one, and creating something different, greater than the sum of its parts.

I’ve never been a fan of that visual. I like the idea of a heterogenous people verses a homogenous one. A mixture of races, cultures, ideas and visions, all moving toward a common goal: freedom, prosperity, and pursuit of happiness. But that’s an unruly bunch to control, isn’t it?

“If American schools produced, ‘one general, and uniform system of education,’ (Dr. Benjamin) Rush argued, it would ‘render the mass of people more homogenous, and thereby fit them more easily for uniform and peaceable government.’”

I’m starting to love the idea of “multiculturalism” more and more every day. That’s what this book is really about, that universities are moving toward teaching in our own time what is important to the people of our time, along with the past greatness in the context of our own time.

Since this book was written in 1996, much has changed, some of it not for the better, at least from my vantage point. It seems we are all at each other’s throats, threatening each other, cancelling each other. It does not feel like we’re moving toward anything better than what we’ve had, one side against another fighting for dominance instead of equality.

But the author has shed some much-needed light on what’s going on, all the way from thirty years ago. I feel better after reading this, not worse, which is much appreciated.

I’m going to leave this book with the following quote:

“Every previous generation of Americans has had is profound difficulties accepting ethnic and racial groups who did not seem to adhere to some earlier model; every previous generation of Americans has spied in the new immigration of its own time the seeds of dissolution and chaos; every previous generation of Americans – composed of the children of earlier immigrants – has seen itself as the native guardians of the Pure and Original America. And every previous generation of Americans has been incorrect in its fears and its certainties because every previous generation – and our won as well – has understood only very imperfectly the phenomena of immigration and assimilation.”

Today, we still have vicious arguments over immigration, but we’ve added so much more. Sexual identity, lifestyles, medical choices, the list goes on and on. It seems we don’t want a “melting pot” or a “tapestry.” We want everyone all over the nation to act just like us, whatever that is. There’s no sense of “live and let live.” We’ve become a tribal mess.

The idea of a heterogeneous society is what I think we need; like Tocqueville described, a large group of people, from different backgrounds, races, and cultures, all living along side each other in peace. Sounds fantastical, but I think we can do it. At university, college, and even simply in high school and reading on the internet, we can learn about each other, speak our languages, find our commonalities, and celebrate our differences.

Here’s a crazy idea. What if the internet and even social media can facilitate that? What if each time you post a piece of yourself for the world to see, you invite more people to know you and your ideas and your culture? And each time someone reads that positivity, they adopt some of it for themselves or leave it alone for someone else. And what if we simply did not react to the naysayers. Let them nay say.

Honestly, I thought that’s what the internet would bring us. What happened?

History – The Awareness of Yesterday

Have you ever finished reading a book and you’re lost in thought, so much so that you don’t know where to start talking about how it affected you or what it even said? That’s where I am right now with The Opening of the American Mind by Lawrence W. Levine. There was so much that made sense, so much that I didn’t realize, that I’m sitting here staring at my notes thinking, “Now what?”

I typically don’t summarize a book at all, so why am I trying to do it with this one? Maybe because there was so much in it that I want other people to know, and I know no one else is going to read it. THAT’S what’s bothering me. I’m trying to get all the details about this book through to you, just in case my posts are all you ever read of it. That’s not going to work.

In hindsight, the moment I realized how much I was highlighting and making notes in this book, I should have slowed down and written something about each hour I had read, instead of powering through and scarfing it all up. Smaller bites mean better digestion, right? But I was in a mood to just read over the weekend though, so here we are.

Sigh…this is what happens when you love a book’s contents too much. We live and learn.

I’ll just go through the book, start throwing down some quotes, and see where we end up. Ok?

The first part of the book established his confusion about people’s feelings about changes in university curriculum.

Part I: A Historian in Wonderland – Through the Looking Glass

“Finding evidence of radicalism in the very title of books whose substance is not examined has become standard practice.”

This was true in 1996 when the book was written, and true now, maybe more so since the invention and proliferation of social media. Now we ban the content of books by our assumptions based on the title, and we condemn an idea based on the headline of an article or the party affiliation of the person who wrote it.

“Should their education include the lives and culture of everyday people? A traditional liberal arts education, Roger Kimball has asserted, ‘is unquestionably elitist in the sense that it focuses on the pinnacle of human cultural and intellectual achievement,’”

The next chapter goes into this more, but I had no idea that curriculum had changed that much over the last 100 years. The books and histories that we use in our education systems were all based on the winners of our society, the wealthy and powerful. Before the 60’s, we didn’t study anyone else. Why? This book will tell you.

“The current emphasis on social and cultural history which so troubles contemporary critics is no more permanent than were past emphases on political, intellectual, economic, or diplomatic history. Neither is it any more – or less – politically motivated. It reflects, as earlier historiographies have reflected, the questions, problems, issues that touch our time and help us make sense of the world. It also reflects the fact that history today is written, as it has always been written, by human beings who are part of their own societies and cultures.”

Until the early 20th century, a Bachelor of Science was not popular, looked down on, and not every school allowed it. Study new ideas and thought? Why? All those ideas were based on the ancient texts. Study those. And there were nasty terrible debates and arguments about that then.

Here’s an idea I thought was fascinating: history isn’t written by the people living at the time. When I write about what’s happening around me right now, I’m not writing history. I’m writing memoir. It’s one point of view. Someone in the future may read my memoir, among other documents, and put them all together from their point of view and that would be called a history. A hundred years later, someone else would read those documents and write another history from their vantage point. History changes.

“To understand where the university is we have to understand where it has been and how its present state was constructed. There is no quicker or easier way to proceed; to fathom today requires some awareness of yesterday. In the process we will learn not only about higher education, we will discover truths about our culture and, hopefully, about ourselves as well.”

I would like to create a billboard campaign with the words “to fathom today requires some awareness of yesterday” and place them along every freeway in the United States.

The next part goes into that history and I’ll tell you about it tomorrow.

High School Did Not Help Me Make Decisions as an Adult

Confession: Ever since high school I have been hoping that someone would tell me what to do next.

Graduating high school, relieved.
Spring 1991

I was a good student in high school. I got decent grades in most classes. I kept on top of my work. For the most part, I did so by simply showing up and writing things down. It wasn’t that I was an exceptional scholar or was particularly interested in the subjects. I had simply discovered that if showed up every day, on time, wrote down when things were due, and made an attempt to finish the assignment, I passed my classes.

At one point in a history class, I realized that I didn’t have to read the whole chapter or really understand what was happening to pass the tests. I only had to have a general idea of the dates we were talking about and scan the chapter titles and headlines because that’s what would be on the test. As soon as the test was over, I forgot all about the material. Science was about the same.

English was the same class I’d been taking since the sixth grade. Once we learned to read, which I don’t remember, I feel like I always knew how to read, we just went over more and more grammar rules and sometimes read a book and did a book report. All through high school I waited for the change to literature and creative writing, but it never came. Well into my senior year, I was amazed that we were still talking about nouns, verbs, and paragraphs.

Spanish was rough. I was required to take two years of a foreign language to graduate, and Spanish seemed logical. Growing up in Southern California, most people speak some Spanish. I hear it all day, every day. You’d think it would have been easier for me to pick it up, but I never did. I understand some and have a few words and phrases, but never did well in the classes at all. Honestly, I think it was because serious study doesn’t come naturally to me. I never learned how because I rarely needed to.

All my “electives” were theater related and those were simple. Memorizing scripts and blocking, designing, and building sets, were fun for me and I spent all my waking hours in the theater until my senior year when I started working at Disneyland at night.

Four years of high schooled marched by. Every year I had limited choices as to what I could take and when. I had to be there five days a week and I had to take 6 classes a semester. Most of those were required classes, some were chosen electives. All of them were strictly guided and had little self-direction, critical thinking, or logic. I showed up. I turned in my assigned work. I did my time. And graduation loomed ahead. The final threshold into the “real world.”

The REAL world, people! From my work at the mall and then at Disneyland, being around college kids and working adults all through the summer before and during my senior year of high school, I was starting to get the feeling that the REAL world was nothing like my school world and that the skills I was using here were not going to translate out there.

After high school at university.
Fall 1991

I had no real urge to go to college but ended up enrolling anyway because everyone else was. School counselors didn’t give you any options other than which college to go to. The school I chose wasn’t a local community college, it was a private university in the next county, far enough away from home to have to find a place to live away from my parents. It never occurred to me, and no one in financial aid brought it up, how I was going to pay for my education or whether I should.

How did I find this school? My high school theater class took a tour there when the university had a theater competition for high school students. I entered a set design I had done and won first place. I had been acting in competitions like this for the last four years and had never gotten past the first round. This was the first time set design and playwriting were offered as divisions. Stage design and painting had been my real love of the theater the whole time but there were no strictly stagecraft classes. You had to take acting or general theater, which meant some acting, to be able to work on the lights, sound, and sets, so I did. I was ecstatic when I found out I could enter as a designer. And then I won! First place…of three entries, but still. I got a thousand dollar “scholarship” too if I went to that university.

I fell in love with that school the moment we drove up in the school bus. It looked like a small version of an ivy league type school right out of the movies to me. And it wasn’t that far from home. I was never a very adventurous kid. Even though I hadn’t really considered going to college before, the moment I saw it and then went around their tiny theater department, I started having visions of me attending and becoming a famous designer on Broadway. When I won the award, I was sure this was the path for me.

I spent the next few months catching up. It was already early spring and everyone else had been working on college prep since the tenth grade. I hadn’t even taken the SAT’s. I remember signing up and taking the test, doing ok, but I can’t remember what my scores were. I applied at the school and was accepted and sent to financial aid to work out the details. I had to have my mom apply for a parent loan, which I was sure she couldn’t afford. Then I applied for the student loan. That’s when I realized how much the school was going to cost me.

Seventeen thousand dollars. Per year. And I had been so excited to get that $1000 scholarship. Financial aid assured me there would be other grants and scholarships available. I only needed to apply and wait. Meanwhile, I signed up for the classes and got my student loan for the first year. The other grants and scholarships never came, and I was on the hook for that $17K when I graduated or quit school, which was what ended up happening a year and a half later.

Overloaded trying to work and go to university full time in two different counties, I looked at the costs of continuing and what I would get from it and decided it would be irresponsible to keep spending money on an education that wasn’t going to get me a better stagehand job than the one I already had. Besides, I wasn’t doing very well academically anyway. It turns out that university classes take a bit more thought and time than high school classes and I couldn’t keep up while working for my living and at the school’s theater. I dropped my remaining classes, got an apartment close to work, and hoped to start working fulltime. Six months later, I started paying on those student loans. I started adult life at 20 years old, $24K in debt with a part time job as a seasonal stagehand at an amusement park.

That’s the moment I stopped looking for someone to tell me what to do in life and started making my own choices based on my own needs and my own thinking. It was terrifying but liberating. At first, I felt like I was failing at life completely. I couldn’t hack university life, dropped out, and now here I was.

Looking back, it was the best decision I could have made. The work I wanted to do didn’t really require a degree. It required knowhow and contacts. I already had my foot in the door where I wanted to be, and I was gaining the knowhow every day I worked with new people that knew more than I did. It didn’t make any sense to keep racking up debt the way I was.

If I could change one thing about the end of high school, it would be to find someone that would actually help me make better decisions and plans for myself instead of steering me into what they believed was my best course of action. I needed more support getting to know myself and what I wanted from life those four years, not following someone else’s curriculum. I spent those years bored and waiting for life to begin and it really sucked.

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