“Free Speech?”

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General Tito

Continuing on my reflections from reading The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt(2018) I am remembering a student I taught a number of years ago. She had grown up in the then Yugoslavia and described life there under Tito. She told me that his picture hung in every classroom, that they showed him honor each morning, that she was to tell her teacher if she heard anyone saying anything negative about him(including her family) and that she knew nothing negative about him until she emigrated to the United States. Tito controlled information by letting her hear only what he wanted her to hear as a school pupil. She said she didn’t even know how to think about another point of view since he controlled hers.

A similar trend is happening on many private liberal arts campuses in the United States today. Campus speakers are shouted down, barred from appearances and anyone hosting them is shunned and denigrated. Why? Because the ideas that the speaker is espousing are considered “dangerous” and “unsafe.” The definition of safety has been enlarged to encompass “intellectual safety,” not just physical safety. A number of students believe they will be “damaged” by hearing, reading or discussing things that distress them. Students protest that certain texts are “triggering” since they distress them. I understand actual triggering. A veteran I once taught asked privately to be excused from discussing the poetry of the World War I poets because they evoked too strong emotions. But he didn’t ask that I stop teaching the poems and he was willing to share his actual combat experience with the class.

It appears that some students protected from conflict on the playground and throughout their elementary education are afraid of the distress that literature, speakers, history and political discussion provokes in them. They have bought the idea that they are fragile. I see college as the ideal place to deal with conflicting viewpoints, even ones I find abhorrent. I don’t support actual violence, of course. But I believe ignorance is more dangerous than knowledge, even knowledge I would rather not have. And what on earth will these students do after graduation when they meet the rest of the world?

“Childhood Scrapes?”

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When I was in first grade, my friend Norman and I were playing in his wooded back yard. His mother was busy in the house and had left us happily alone. Norman insisted that he knew how to fly. To prove it, he climbed up on their garden shed and jumped off with his arms extended winglike to the sky.

I learned that Norman didn’t know how to fly. His mother learned that he needed to be taken to the doctor to have his broken arm repaired. No one learned that we shouldn’t have been allowed to play alone in the back yard. Why? Because while no one wanted their kids to get hurt playing, most people I knew assumed that all kids get hurt at some time or another. It was, they believed, part of a normal childhood. I didn’t know a child who at some point hadn’t broken a limb, gotten stitches, chipped a tooth, or scarred some part of their body.

I truly appreciate seat belts, bike helmets, polio vaccines, childproof medicine bottle caps, antibiotics and pedestrian activated walk signs. None of these existed in my childhood and grievous harm came to children without these modern inventions. Still, I shudder at the overprotective  approach many parents have about their children’s safety. The book I mentioned yesterday, The Coddling of the American Mind, stresses the damage this kind of parenting does to developing children. They come to see the world as a dangerous place, made safe for them by their parents or other adults, with no chance to learn to look out for their own well being. Children become brave by confronting danger. Not life-threatening danger, but run of the mill challenges. They fall and get scraped and get up and try again without their parents standing over them warning them at every turn.

“Fragile or Coddled?”

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Taking a break from retail for a bit to comment on a fascinating book I just finished reading: The Coddling of the American Mind:How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, copyright 2018 by Penguin Press. If you have been as perplexed as I have been about some goings on at college campuses in the last few years, the book provides some explanations.

I retired from a private college in 2001 and after that worked in a large public community college. The last year I taught in the private college, an irate parent came into my workplace and began yelling at me about a grade I had given her absentee daughter. Because the girl had not handed in a paper, I had given her an F. This had been my practice for 25 years. But what had never happened to me before was to have a parent confront me about it. I was truly startled as I couldn’t fathom why a parent was involved. Worse yet, the administration didn’t support me, but asked me to give the girl a D for her final grade rather than the F she deserved. I replied that in that case, I would raise every other student’s grade one level so that they got the same treatment she was getting. As it turned out, before I had to do that, all the other teachers failed her, so my grade was in line with the others.

But Lukianoff and Haidt introduced me to the concept of the “fragile college student,” long protected from distress by her parents. And they introduced me to the concept now held by many college administrators that the student is a consumer, not the learner that the professors assume.

More tomorrow.

“Sears vs. Jim Crow”

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One of my favorite web sites which delivers an email to me most days is open culture I recommend it to everyone since at one time or another you are bound to learn something new. It amasses free resources from all over the world, including free courses, out of print books, audio and video recordings and generally overlooked arcana.

The demise of Sears has been much in the news for the last few days, and today open culture referred me to Professor Louis Hyman of Cornell University, a labor historian who teaches a course about shopping. (No, I never heard of him before. Obviously great minds run in the same channel. LOL!)

For the full story about Sears and the systematic racial segregation known as Jim Crow that existed in the Southern United States after the end of the Civil War, I refer you to the actual article. But essentially he points out that, with the advent of the Sears catalog, for the first time  rural Americans were given access to goods formerly only available in large cities. While this was helpful for rural whites, it was groundbreaking for rural blacks. Local stores often refused to sell to them, or sold them shoddy goods, or charged them extra. And some things, such as guitars, were unavailable to them altogether.

Sears recognized that even with the availability of catalogs to this population, major barriers were still in place. Catalogs were destroyed before being delivered or postmasters, often part of the general store, refused to sell postage for the order form. Sears instructed users to work directly with the mail carrier, paying him with cash and asking his help, when necessary, to fill out forms.

Most wonderfully of all, for those of us who love the Mississippi Delta blues, they arose because sharecroppers, by saving up a little money, could order their own guitars. Order they did, and we can thank the Sears catalog for making possible the rich music that we treasure today.

“A Blog Scoop”

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I got a big laugh when I read the lead editorial of the New York Times today. They must have been reading my blog post from October 13–Sears came first! The picture above (from a stereoptican viewer which allowed two photos to seem three dimensional)shows workers filling orders in much the same way that Amazon fills orders today.

The editorial also touched on an aspect of Sears’ failure that I am too uninformed to write much about. I only know that many companies were bought up by others and ended up with crippling debt. Sears also had enormous debt. Ironically, in the end, it was the real estate under the stores that held the most value. As they sold off stores they were really selling the land. Near us the Sears was torn down and replaced by REI, a giant sporting goods store with excellent customer service. The lot also now houses a Shake Shack. Apparently Americans’ love of fast food continues apace. But by the time that Sears closed it resembled something, as one reporter put it, reminiscent of a Soviet state store–bleak and understocked.

“All In One Store”

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Every medium or large city had a central downtown department store. In Portland, it was Meier and Frank. In the photo montage above you can see from left to right the store, the Georgian Tea Room, the clock and the warehouse. In Chicago my grandmother swore by Marshall Fields. In Seattle friends praised Frederick and Nelson. When I was in Boston I went to Jordan’s for my winter coat.

Department stores had a heyday throughout the first 2/3 of the 20th century before they were replaced by shopping malls. They were where I went once I was old enough(12) to take the bus downtown and shop by myself. Meier and Frank had everything I needed, including a fabric department, a stamp and coin department, and a clothing department. Sears had been all right when I was little, but I needed to see and try things on now. I was very small throughout elementary school and bought everything in the childrens’ department.

Everyone knew a great place to meet was under the clock on the first floor of the store. There were three places to eat lunch, including a men’s only room, the Georgian Tea Room and a cafeteria with counters in a snakelike pattern to seat more customers. I stuck to the cafeteria, though I did eat with my grandmother in the Tea Room. The stores downtown knew that no one wanted to carry packages around when they were eating lunch. All the major department stores would gladly deliver any purchase you made for no fee.

Credit cards had just become available and my parents had one for Meier and Frank. While I generally bought things with my own baby sitting earnings, I could also charge things on their account. All I needed was a note from my mother.  If there was any question the clerk simply called home.

Were those better times? I doubt it, but I still prefer stores with windows and doors to the outside rather than the artificial landscape of the mall. Apparently I am not alone. The “newest” trend here is “lifestyle retail.” More on in a later post.

“All I Want for Christmas”

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I actually had lost my two front teeth just before Christmas when I was six. This allowed me to happily sing the tune “all I want for Chrithmath is my two front teeth.” But other years the next best thing was the Sears Christmas catalog. It arrived in November and my brother and later my sister and I fought over getting to read it. It kept us endlessly entertained, though it had little effect on what we actually received for Christmas. In general we would get a couple of books, some new pajamas, some candy and a couple of toys. Certainly not as many as we had discovered we wanted from being exposed to the bounty of the Sears catalog.

The catalog was absolutely gender specific, with a section for girls and a section for boys. Sears made it abundantly clear that girls play with dolls, play house, draw and paint. Boys were to dress like cowboys, shoot guns and play outside. No discussion ensued about the distinctions. If you wonder about the vehement insistence when my boomer generation became parents on “gender neutral” toys, it began here. Every boy who wanted a doll and couldn’t have one and every girl who wanted a bb gun and was denied made a movement characterized by Marlo Thomas singing “free to be me.”  Among many children my daughter’s age, however, most kept happily going for the toys Sears had suggested for them when I was a kid,  with boys using sticks for guns and girls making dolls out of odds and ends. But at least we had told them they had a choice!