As I was making the final edits to the syllabuses for my College Composition and my College British Literature courses today, I was drawn to the sad appropriateness and intertextuality of the classes’ primary texts. For Composition, the text of readings for discussion and student essays for modeling is titled America Now. For British Literature, I use Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Other.
If one studies the arc of American history from the long view, it is certainly fair to say and encouraging to believe that we have made giant strides in regard to inclusiveness and Jefferson’s assertion that “all men are created equal.” We should not lose sight of that truth. However, In America Now, many of us seem to want to define ourselves not so much by who we are but by who we are not, not by that which we have in common but by that which sends us off to our opposite corners. Many of us seem to have a desperate need to point out The Other as the cause of our difficulties and shortcomings as individuals and as a nation.
We have allowed ourselves to be divided into blue and red states. Some of us hide inside of our homogeneous circles of friends and neighbors. Some of us insist on their supremacy of race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation. Some argue over whose lives matter. Some of us have risen to positions of great power and influence by doing little more than stoking fear and distrust of The Other. It’s fair to argue that Hector St. Michael Crevecoeur’s once-vaunted metaphor that compared America to a melting pot is obsolete in America Now.
What lifts my spirits and bolsters my optimism for the future is the students with whom I will be engaging in civil dialogue regarding these two texts this semester. I will look out (from behind my plexiglass shield) upon white, African-American, and mixed-race students. I will see young adults from several categories of LGBTQ(IA+); although, some of them won’t even completely know it yet themselves. I will engage with highly-“churched” individuals, the religiously-indifferent, the agnostic, and the atheistic. I will have students who live in gated communities and those who have spent their entire lives in public housing sitting side by side (but six feet apart), and it will not be difficult to tell which is which. I will treat them each as legitimate and worthwhile in whatever category Nature or their own choices have placed them. All of which makes me believe that, perhaps, if the melting pot metaphor still has relevance, its greatest applicability may be in our public schools and that the seeds of division – being spread in America now by too many adults all across the political spectrum – will be left to wither by the young people of today when they set forth to harvest the fruits of the previous generation’s planting.
In my white bread existence, I will admit I’m far from a multicultural warrior, but I will continue to encourage my students to overcome their fear and distrust of “the other” by actively seeking out that which makes them uncomfortable. In my own experiences, my greatest growth spurts of empathy and tolerance have occurred when I actively did so myself by, in college, going to dances sponsored by the African-American fraternity, by attending services at a Baptist church, by un-ironically patronizing a gay bar, by living in urban public housing (Admittedly, this was inspired more by poverty than outreach.), even by open-mindedly watching or reading right-leaning news and opinion outlets that run counter to my own leftist views.
I want to believe that, in our American Future, we will be less focused on what divides us into “We” and “They” and more willing to embrace our diversity and to celebrate what makes us unique. I hope to teach my students that it is possible to be proud of one’s own group affiliations without being suspicious, intolerant, or hateful of “the other.”
Call me a Pollyanna, a romantic, a liberal. The antonyms for these are defeatist, unromantic, and narrow-minded respectively. I’ll gladly align myself with the former terms whether they be of derision or endearment.
One of my all-time favorite songs was written by Nick Lowe and sung by Elvis Costello. The title and refrain of which asks, “What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?” I think it an appropriate question for America Now.
If we ever hope to bridge the divides between ourselves and The Other, the answer is nothing.
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