“Required Reading”

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I have wandered back around to my focus of earlier this month, education. I began thinking about required reading in high school English classes after Pete(beetleypete)commented that Whitman wasn’t read much in England. I wonder what any of my readers were assigned in their English classes.

We read one Shakespeare play each year. Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear in that order. I assume that they thought each play was a little harder than the one the year before. No one ever connected them with each other. We got no background for the plays and stumbled through them wondering why we were reading them. But they were required.

When I got to college I realized that my high school had made no distinction between American and English authors, referring to them all as English. This was a little embarrassing to find out when sitting in an English survey and understanding I really wanted the American survey. That basic distinction would have been useful information in high school, but it was never made.

Other required reading that I remember included The Scarlet Letter, The Mayor of Casterbridge, and  The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I still have no idea why these particular works were considered essential in the early 1960’s. Thrown into each with no context, we plowed ahead because they were required.

Please share any books you were made to read in high school. I am very curious about the variety–that is if there was any.

“Meeting Walt Again”

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When I studied literature both in high school and again in college, the main critical approach was New Criticism. This meant looking at a piece of writing as an object, free from biographical and historical information. By calling itself “New” this method hoped to get away from the biographical and historical emphasis when reading a work which had preceded it. Needless to say, while I loved literature of all kinds, I rarely had a solid understanding of the cultural, biographical and historical influences on the authors.

When I was in Philadelphia, I stumbled across an exhibit in City Hall of contemporary artists reflecting on Walt Whitman for his 200th birthday. Reawakening my interest in Whitman, this display sent me back to his writing once I got home. This time I decided to read Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography written by David S. Reynolds. While I am very familiar with Whitman’s poetry, I had a very limited sense of the milieu out of which he wrote. This book continues to fill out the background and increases my appreciation of Whitman, an author I already truly enjoyed.

And why Philadelphia for the exhibit? It turns out that for the last fifteen years of his life Whitman lived in Camden, New Jersey, a bridge away across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. Who knew? Certainly not this literature major!

 

“Contradiction At The Heart”

 

 

Philadelphia highlights the opposing truths at the start of the United States. On the one hand, the Liberty Bell with Independence Hall behind it shows the lofty ideals of the United States Constitution as written there in 1781. On the other hand, as a wonderful new exhibit in the Museum of the Constitution highlights, there was no freedom for the 20% of the population that was enslaved. As for the Natives, they were not considered citizens, so were not entitled “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as spelled out in the 1776 Declaration of Independence from England.

These are hard truths, and often Americans try to disguise them by saying things like “that was then, this is now.”  But  the appalling resurgence of white “nationalism” shows that many citizens really don’t grasp the truth that this was never a “white nation.” I am grateful that in Philadelphia, at least, there is an attempt to paint the whole picture of the reality at the start.

My reading continues as I try to fill in all the gaps left by my very whitewashed presentation of history in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. I recently finished a massive biography of Frederick Douglass, and was gratified to find at the museum his original “pass” allowing him to travel in slave states since he was a free man. I also purchased a coffee mug with his face and the quote “Without struggle there is no progress.” It’s a good reminder that my country has a ways to go to reconcile truth with the myth of its beginnings.

“Philadelphia By Day”

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I had a great time in Philadelphia, exploring the city on my own while my daughter worked. This statue was a few blocks from our hotel and frames an avenue of flags from every nation that was the original home of a Philadelphia citizen. Clearly, the city is full of a diverse population of immigrants from all over the world.

I had somehow never been to Philadelphia, although I had been to every other major city in the United States. I tried to soak up as much as I could in two days, first by walking and then by taking a 90 minute double decker bus tour. Yes I was one of those silly tourists sitting on top of a bus looking around! But it did give me a preview of the many attractions I want to see on another visit.

I decided that Philadelphia is a combination of Boston and Chicago. The colonial buildings and historical landmarks echo Boston. The diversity, open spaces, abundant street art and friendly people reminded me of Chicago. It is less like New York City than I first imagined.  Here people actually wait for the walk light before crossing the street.

I’ll be back. After all, I didn’t even try a Philly cheesesteak yet.

“A New Venture”

Cupcake with Two Candles

I have been taking a couple of days to start a new blog. After a very helpful consultation with Pete Johnson(beetleypete) I decided to keep my present blog with its mostly secular focus and start another one with a more spiritual focus. I spent my professional life in a secular college and had no trouble connecting with all kinds of students, religious, nonreligious and antireligious. My blog followers include all faiths, lack thereof and points of view on matters spiritual. So, just as I explored spiritual matters away from work, so I will explore more specifically spiritual ones on my second blog.

I forgot how much work setting up a blog entails. I am presented with all sorts of themes again and the necessity of finally using Gutenberg. The themes are more confusing than Gutenberg. I will let you know when it launches and how to access it. Beyond that, you are free to just keep up with this one. I am trying to ensure that posts from the second one only go to those requesting it by checking “follow this blog” on that site. There may be a few glitches, so I count on my readers to let me know of them.

Tomorrow I go to Philadelphia, courtesy of my daughter, who has bought our train tickets and our hotel. She is celebrating my 72 birthday by taking me to the one large U.S. city I have never seen. When she heard, much to her shock, that I had never been to Philly, she quickly set about to remedy that. I will try to post a picture of the cracked Liberty Bell. It seems particularly appropriate at the moment!

 

“What to Believe?”

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First of all, I believe in facts and by extension I believe in truth. I don’t discount the reality that different people can draw different conclusions from the same set of facts, but I also believe that some truthful statements can be made in any situation. Even in such a contentious scenario as a divorce, it can truthfully be stated that the marriage didn’t survive. When we get into the territory of blame, clearly different conclusions can be reached, preventing us from saying it was all one person’s fault. More facts may give us an increasingly detailed picture of the facts of the marriage, but the truth of the marriage, while existent, cannot be definitively reached by anyone.

Why am I going on so about facts and truth? At the moment in the United States facts and truth seem to be up for debate. Partly, in the case of historical narratives, I think this happens because we become aware of other facts and other points of view. In Plymouth, for instance, I learned much more about the indigenous people living in the area as the Pilgrims arrived. Clearly one truth is that it was very disruptive for the first inhabitants. That truth was hidden when I was presented a scene of a peaceful first Thanksgiving with everyone happily sharing a meal. More facts challenged this narrative. But truth didn’t suddenly disappear.

What about opinion? Here we need, I believe, to have plenty of humility. You and I may both be presented with a set of facts, for instance about trade with China. We can study exports, imports, tariffs and other sundry bits of information. At the end each of us can have an opinion. I may think tariffs are a bad idea. You may think they are beneficial. No matter how strongly either of us makes our points, neither of us will have THE truth on the subject. The only truth available at the moment is what has happened so far. No one can accurately state the truth about the future. We can only hold an opinion.

Sadly, we are presently heatedly yelling at each other over opinions. Yes, it is difficult to know the facts of the Mueller report since we haven’t been allowed to read it. We are caught like children in a divorce with only each parent’s side available. But at some point I hope the American people will have access to a well documented, lengthy examination of the effect by Russia on American elections. We need to know. We are voting again next year. And that is the truth!