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CASLL-L  January 1997

CASLL-L January 1997

Subject:

(LONG) Poetry and culture

From:

Marcy Bauman <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 13 Jan 1997 10:46:39 -0500

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (116 lines)

Before last January, I might have been tempted to agree wholeheartedly
with Anthony and Russ on this issue.  Last January, though, I attended a
Martin Luther King Day celebration at my kids' elementary school that
really gave me second thoughts about this whole notion of a common
culture . . . and even about memorization.  Here comes a long story . . .

You have to understand that I consider MLK Day kind of a silly holiday.
I agree that MLK ought to be honored, and that a holiday is an
appropriate way to do so -- but America's reaction to MLK in general and
the day in particular is just typical of white liberals' ambivalence
about race.  For example, big cities typically have a Martin Luther King
street or boulevard or what have you -- and it's typically in the worst
section of the city, which is mostly populated by blacks.  (My husband
and I have this standing joke when we're on the freeway; if we pass a
Martin Luther King Street, one of us says, "Uh-oh, we must be in the
ghetto.")  You never find a Martin Luther King street through the
financial district, say, or through a wealthy suburb (where you likely
won't find many blacks, either).  Examples like this tell me that
Americans have found a way to "say" that King is part of our
common culture, while making it clear that he really is not part of
_white_ American culture.  So I've always found the holiday kind of
hypocritical.

Last year, though, I went to a musical (written by the music teacher) put
on at my kids' school.  I could go on and on about this musical, but I
won't.  Suffice to say that by a couple of really clever moves, the
teacher managed to historicize King and the American Civil Rights
movement in ways that elementary students could understand (the musical
started with various players standing up and saying things like, "I was a
queen in my old country, and I had seventeen servants."), and which played
up the commonalities between the experiences of immigrants to this
country, no matter where or how those immigrants got here.  (So, for
example, the musical included characters of Eastern European and
Asian origin, as well as African.)  I thought it was wonderfully
sensitive and intelligent, and it made me feel something I haven't felt
in years -- patriotic.

You have to understand, here, that I grew up in the sixties, but I'm
about five years too young to have been a hippie (or of understanding
the social upheaval going on in America at the time), so
my ideas about patriotism were formed when being patriotic meant putting
"America -- Love It or Leave It" bumper stickers on your car.  I was
completely unprepared for the way I felt last January.  I'd never
conceived of a notion of patriotism based on the idea that everyone
living here (choose your own "here") has a part in the enterprise that is
this country (choose your own country); that this is "my" country by
virtue of my having been born here, but it belongs to others by virtue of
their having chosen to be here; and that no matter how we got here, we all
have a stake in seeing that it's the best place we can make it for all
of us to live.  What's wrong with that notion of patriotism?  I think if
people in general felt that way, they might feel invested enough in their
localities to make change.  Lord knows, we could all use a little change
(choose your own "change"), no matter where we are.

Now, I'm not at all trying to say that memorizing a few poems is by
itself going to make better citizens -- there are economic realities
which are so overwhelming that sometimes it seems that nothing short of
complete economic overhaul (Karl Marx, call your office) will change
anything.  But we don't have that option; we have to do what we can.  It
seems entirely appropriate that schools are the place where people go to
learn that we're all in this thing together, and to learn a bit more
about the country -- in all its richness and diversity -- that extends
out from their classrooms.

And this is not to say that I think that a common culture is Ten Top
Texts, which, once we identify, we can force students to read and be done
with it.  But what if we say that culture is the combination of our
collective past and our present, and that it's the task of all of us to
learn and contribute what we can to it?  What if we say that our common
culture isn't what you _inherit_, it's what you _create_?  Then we can
start to visualize lots of wonderfully engaging ways that teachers and
kids might go about doing that.  Fr'instance, Russ' oldest daughter
worked at her children's school helping the kids put on a play about the
origin of the school's name, because it turned out, one of the kids,
discovered, that the school was named after a ship that went down off the
coast near it.  This was a whole-school activity and involved kids &
parents in making props and other display items (e.g. a giant fish that
had on its back one figurine made by each child in the school,
symbolizing I forgot what . . . ).  Is this not an example of kids and
teachers creating a common culture?  Can we say that culture is something
you dream globally, and enact locally?

Well, as to the role of memorization, I won't go on at length, but the
kids in the musical at my kids' school had lines to learn and songs to
memorize.  Maybe some of the facts they learned in those lines and songs
will stick, and maybe they won't.  But I don't think that memorization
per se is the problem; I think it's the stupid and senseless invocation
of memorization that's the problem.  And actually, I think there are
important reasons to learn to memorize, and times of life and/or times in
the process of learning something when knowing how to memorize things
comes in very handy.  (Fr'instance, in learning another language, there
comes a point when you have to say, ok, I'm just going to knuckle down
and memorize these verb forms; when learning math you have to say, ok,
I'm going to learn my multiplication tables now.)  I also think
memorization isn't so odious to younger children as we imagine:  my
seven-year-old daughter is soaking up song lyrics and poems like crazy
now, and my nine-year-old son is soaking up hockey facts (that's right,
_hockey_ facts.  I impressed him for life the other day when we went to
the card store and I won him a free pack of cards because I knew the only
NHL team to have won the Stanley Cup five consecutive times -- and that
could _only_ be considered a difficult question in Amreica, but I digress .
. . )   Well, but anyway.  I think the point is, we need to find
meaningful and creative ways for people to learn to memorize things (or
maybe to use their memorization skills).

Marcy (too exhausted to write the C-major conclusion to this tome)

        =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=
                        Marcy Bauman
         Writing Program, University of Michigan-Dearborn
              4901 Evergreen Rd, Dearborn, MI 48128
                      fax: 313-593-5552
                 http://www.umd.umich.edu/~marcyb
                      [log in to unmask]
        =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

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