Monday, January 07, 2008

Can a Fragmented Culture Find Common Ground?

My goal over the next few weeks is to address long-term trends and forces which typically get short shrift/poor coverage elsewhere. Most topics have been suggested by readers.

Though few seem to think today's topic worthy of attention, I believe it is a long-term trend with potentially negative consequences for the U.S.

During the Vietnam and Watergate eras, some 2/3 of the nation tuned in nightly to one of the three dominant televison networks: NBC, ABC and CBS. Now the typical audience of those broadcasters is around 10-12%. Today, the television audience is fragmented amidst hundreds of competing channels.

Stepping back further into time, please read this excerpt from an excellent account of World War I The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell (recommended here by knowledgeable reader Lloyd L.):

"(Private John) Ball and his friends had no feeling that literature is not very near the center of normal experience, no sense that it belongs to intellectural or aesthetes or teachers or critics. In 1914 there was virtually no cinema; there was no radio at all; and there was certainly no television. Except for sex and drinking, amusement was largely found in language formally arranged, either in books or periodicals or at the theater and music hall, or in one's own or one's friends' anecdotes, rumors or clever structuring of words.

It is hard for us to recover imaginatively such a world, but we must imagine it if we are to understand the way "literature" dominated the war from beginning to end." (emphasis added-CHS)
(pages 157-158)

The notion that American literature could form the common ground the nation uses to understand war and crisis is as alien as science fiction or medieval Europe. Even the Boob Tube, a.k.a. television, has been fragmented into so many shards that it no longer serves as a common experience.

The timespan of common experience has shrunk to the point that a decade ago is essentially forgotten history. In 1992, a mere 16 years ago, presidential candidate Bill Clinton caused a cultural stir by showing up on the Arsenio Hall TV show to blow some pretty mean saxophone.

Arsenio who? Most of the current TV audience either never heard of the show or has forgotten it existed. Ditto whatever books were bestsellers in 1992, whatever tunes dominated the pop/rap/country charts, and so on in every arts/media/cultural realm.

The reason literature plays a unique role in any literate culture is its longevity. Over time, what is faddish fades, and even what is considered "important" changes. Thus the books of John Dos Passos were highly regarded as important in the 1930s by many critics and intellectuals, but they are largely forgotten/ignored today.

Is this fair or valid? I have no idea, but books which capture some essence of an era, the American character, or key human experiences tend to keep attracting readers and critics. Former president (and university professor) Woodrow Wilson described it thusly:

"When a book has become immortal, we think that we can see why it became so. It contained, we perceive, a casting of thought which could not but arrest and retain men’s attention; it said some things once and for all because it gave them their best saying."

Unlike other democracies, the U.S. has a fragmented educational system controlled by a patchwork of local school boards. One result of this is that we as a nation cannot assume a supposedly educated citizen has read or understood any American literature which might be considered essential to understanding his/her own country.

Consider Samuel Clemen's (Mark Twain) universally acclaimed classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. A number of school districts have caved into parental demands that the book is racist and therefore must be banned: 'Huck Finn' a masterpiece -- or an insult

To say these attempts at suppression are misguided is to put it mildly. The book is the narration of a young underclass white boy in the mid-19th century, and was written in the language such an uneducated rural Southern boy would use.

The book's entire point is the humanization of the runaway African-American slave Jim, and the parallels between the white boy Huck's escape from a demonic, tyrannical father and Jim's escape from an equally demonic, tyrannical system of slavery. To call this racist is in some way admitting you haven't even read the book, and that you have zero understanding of its revolutionary quality and deeply anti-racist theme and message.

Yet Americans cling most rabidly to their largely ineffective, weak-willed, ignorant school boards. Is it any wonder American education below the community college level is a scandalous mess of fads and inane controversies?

I understand many educators have identified flaws in the national "No Child Left Behind" program, and I agree that these flaws need to be ironed out. But the program is revolutionary in an extremely positive way for two reasons:

1. perpetual failure will no longer be rewarded with Federal grants and funding

2. students throughout the nation must reach some minimal level of essential proficiencies to earn a high school diploma
i.e. claim to be minimally educated.

I look forward to the day some minimal grasp of American literature is required along with math and science. As the media technologies, TV, the Web, radio, theater and the arts churn faster and fragment into thinner and thinner shards of audience experience, literature actually gains in importance; for as President Wilson observed, it gives American history and essential American experiences their best saying.

It is risky indeed to suggest an "essential list of American literature," and I do so with all the trepidation one should feel for the task. Nonetheless, somebody has to start, and so here is my list of what every student in the U.S. should read and understand before gaining a high school diploma. Titles can be substituted, but the era/topic must be addressed.

Please note these are works of fiction or literature; they are not intended as substitutes for history or biographical texts.

Native American experience: Hanta Yo and Bury my Heart At Wounded Knee

Revolutionary / Colonial era: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and Tom Paine's Common Sense

American spirituality: Walden, Uncle Tom's Cabin and a selection of Emerson

U.S. Civil War: Red Badge of Courage and The Autobiography of U.S. Grant

Industrialization: The Jungle

Gold Rush/The West: Roughing It and Call of the Wild

The Roaring 20s: The Great Gatsby

The Depression: Grapes of Wrath

America's global reach: Typee and Two Years Before the Mast

African-American experience and slavery: Invisible Man, Beloved and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Hispanic-American experience: Brown

Asian-American experience: Joy Luck Club

World War II: Catch-22

Politics: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1972

Hollywood: The Day of the Locust

Horror/suspense: Edgar Allan Poe stories

Science Fiction: Stranger in a Strange Land, The Foundation Trilogy and Fahrenheit 451

Beatnik/hipster: The Naked Lunch

Poetry: selections of Whitman and Dickinson

Vietnam: Dispatches

I think novels like Absalom! Absalom!, Moby-Dick and Lolita are too advanced for most high school students, hence I left them off the list. I could have added many titles, but the list should be limited and consist of books which are comprehensible by the average student. I also reckon local school boards will add titles as they see fit. This list consists of about 30 titles (poetry assumes a single volume of American poetry). I know I left off Hemingway, and that reveals my own view/prejudice that his books are over-rated. Fitzgerald writes circles around him, breezily and easily, so why include a second-rater? Let the school board add the Hemingway titles and other "favorites."

Your own lists would of course be welcome.

The larger question here is: can any nation tackle the crises we will soon face without some common understanding of the nation's history and experience? I would think not, and thus I worry for the nation and most especially for the younger generations who have known only peace and prosperity. (A war fought by private armies and the sons and daughters of others counts as "peace," for the Iraq war affects few Americans beyond those fighting it and their families. The entire U.S. Military's "point of the sword" number several hundred thousand in a nation of 300 million.)

I believe we need some long-term lens to peer through, some common knowledge of previous crises and challenges, to grasp the nettles which are now in hand. Literature doesn't provide easy answers, but it can offer understanding, and the fortitude that comes with understanding that our predessessors managed to rise above even worse times and persevere. That is the essential American, and indeed, human, experience.

Readers Journal has been updated! An important new essay and more thought-provoking comments.

Readers commentaries Destruction of the dollar, presidential election politics (Yankees and Cowboys) and more.

The Cost of a 3-Day Hospital Stay ($20K) (a reader)

Books mentioned in the commentaries:
The yankee and cowboy war: Conspiracies from Dallas to Watergate

A History of Money and Banking in the United States: The Colonial Era to World War II

NOTE: contributions are humbly acknowledged in the order received.

Thank you, Marcie M.F. ($15), for your much-appreciated support of this humble site. I am greatly honored by your contribution and readership. All contributors are listed below in acknowledgement of my gratitude.

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