An outstanding link for studying the past & present

I am posting a link to the Studs Terkel radio archive. http://studsterkel.wfmt.com

This archive includes broadcasts Terkel did over his long and distinguished journalistic and broadcasting career.

As a teacher of history and the humanities I am thrilled to be able to use this resource with my students but also to use it as a means of expanding my understanding of the American past and present.

Jeremy Nathan Marks

Ecological Imperialism

I am currently studying environmental history with a student. The book, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (by Alfred W. Crosby) is an eye-opening examination of the growth of European imperialism from the standpoint of botany, epidemiology, agriculture, animal husbandry and also includes a fascinating study of climate and sailing.

The book requires readers to rethink how they understand and imagine the meeting of cultures. All too often we’ve been led to believe that one civilization colonizes another because it has superior technology, belief systems and a more sophisticated cosmology. Crosby challenges all of that. He also challenges the idea that European colonization of the globe was an inevitable result of the sophistication of European cultures.

But one of the most interesting questions his book raises is how the Europeans themselves were suited to new and alien environments and how well they did or did not adapt their thinking, mores and habits. In this age of globalization and global tourism where a person can go to the tropics, stay in an air conditioned villa, eat imported cuisine and traverse the landscape in familiar vehicles, it is all-too-easy to forget that even in the most easily settled of European colonies (e.g. Canada, Australia) colonists were often ill-suited to their circumstances and held to belief systems and aesthetic values which not only did not serve them but often led to a violent relationship with the land itself.

One of the finest examples of this in literature and film is the novel and movie “Picnic at Hanging Rock” about a turn-of-last-century picnic gone horribly wrong in the state of South Australia. The tension between the daughters and matrons of British culture and the ancient, un-English landscape of the Australian continent is palpable in Joan Lindsay’s novel and in Peter Weir’s cinematic adaptation. What stands out for me is the difference between the children of the wealthy, whose parents made money in international business, and those labourers who appear to be the descendants of the original English colonists. The question of adaptation, acclimation and acculturation cuts across the matter of social class:

Jeremy Nathan Marks 

Big Book Initiative

“Big Book Initiative”

I have begun what I am calling my “Big Book Initiative” designed to encourage my students to tackle works of literature (fiction & non-fiction) which are a minimum of 500 pages in length. The purpose of this initiative is to help young people develop the confidence necessary to take on any subject they feel in their gut they should be tackling.

When I was in grade school I knew I wanted to read Count Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” I couldn’t say why exactly, but the book beckoned from my parents’ shelves. For years this desire remained in the back of my mind and finally, as an adult, I took the plunge and completed it. I believe that the benefit of having done so is that nearly any book I pick up now seems, by comparison, a relatively simple affair.

I believe that when students challenge themselves and then meet those challenges, they become empowered in all avenues of their lives. I am not saying that reading a 500 or 1,000 page book is going to give you the confidence to become a deep sea diver or climb a 20,000 foot mountain, but what it can do is show you that you have a discipline, drive and reserve of dedication and energy which will serve you well in life. It can also show you that you are “smarter” and more intellectually capable than you ever imagined.

But there is more. We live in a time in which distractions are manifold. Often what purports to be informative, engaging and even “good for the mind” is paltry and a waste of time. It is easy to become caught up in gossip rather than ideas and to become distracted by the play of events without learning how to gauge their causes. Learning to read demanding, mature and intellectually challenging literature does in fact help us to develop not only a deeper understanding of the human condition; it also enables us to develop our analytical minds as well as our perceptive capacities which we can then turn towards society, community or any other endeavour of our choice.

I am proud to report that a student of mine recently read the entirety of War and Peace with me. This was an exciting project for both of us which produced some highly engaging discussions. I should also add that she is just 14 years old, proving, I think, that age -nearly any age- need not be an encumbrance to undertaking ambitious work. In this spirit, another student of mine who is 13 is now mulling over such reading options as Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”, Vikram Seth’s “A Suitable Boy,” Marguerite Young’s “Miss Macintosh, My Darling” and George Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” to mention but 4 possibilities.

Anyone who is interested in undertaking a “Big Book Initiative” with me is welcome; I would be delighted to have you. I also am happy and available to recommend books geared toward your specific field of interest.

Jeremy Nathan Marks

London Literacy in Action

Starting September 22nd, 2016 I will be facilitating a literature discussion group through the London Central Library. Here is a preview of the advertisement that will be appearing in the Library Newsletter this summer:

London Literacy-in-Action
(Public Affairs Discussion Group for Young Adults who are Thinkers and Activists)

Ongoing, 1st and 3rd Thursday evening every month, 7-8:30 p.m. in the Flex Space, London Central Library

September 22nd: Introducing Our Mission & Team Building Session

October 6th: Discussion of Benjamin Alire Saenz’s novel Aristotle & Dante Discover The Secrets of the Universe

Join a team of young adults (ages 15-25) dedicated to reading, discussing and debating contemporary works of fiction, literary non-fiction & memoir which cover pressing questions of ethnic, racial and gender identity and address matters of social, political and ecological importance. We will be presenting our findings to the City of London and the Community-at-large.

Further Information and Sign Up available at https://demoiindependentlearning.com

 

Politics & Social Issues Symposia for Young Adults

I am very pleased to report that my proposal to establish a Politics & Social Issues Symposia for young adults with the sponsorship of the London Library and the London Youth Advisory Council has taken a huge step forward.

I am in the process of setting up a Socratic discussion group that will meet bi-weekly to read and discuss contemporary fiction and literary non-fiction dealing with issues of socio-economic, ecological, and political importance as well as ethnic, religious, racial and gender identity. The aim of the group is to give young adults a voice on the leading issues of our time and to provide a feedback mechanism by which they will report their findings to the City. The group will be pluralistic, non-partisan and open to young adults (ages 15-25) from all backgrounds.

I will keep everyone posted. It looks like we will be convening this fall at London Central Library downtown.

Jeremy Nathan Marks

Utopia/Dystopia and listening to teenagers

I am in the midst of teaching what I am calling a mini-seminar series on utopian ideas. The course is in five parts with each session devoted to a specific book. The course is broken down like this:

Week 1: The Communist Manfesto (Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels)
Week 2: The God That Failed (Richard Crossman, ed.)
Week 3: Utopia (Sir Thomas more)
Week 4: Winnipeg’s General Strike (Michael Dupuis)
Week 5: To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee)

Already the course has become for me a fascinating discussion/rumination on the question: What is a utopian society?

What I find most interesting about this course is that I am witnessing a group of teenagers who have grown up in a post-Cold War world where the threat (or spectre) of communism no longer carries any of the weight that it carried during my own early childhood. Their opinions are free of the Cold War, East vs. West polarities I was reared on growing up in the suburbs of Washington D.C.

What I also find fascinating is that this is a generation that has grown up with a profusion of dystopian books, graphic novels and films. Over the past three years I have been introduced to vast literatures detailing for young adults what a dystopian future might look like. These books range from The Hunger Games to the Divergent series to Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series and World War Z. And of course Margaret Atwood has also made her own contribution (The Year of the Flood). All of my students are familiar with at least one dystopian novel or film and consider dystopia to be a very real possibility for their futures. I honestly do not remember a similar interest in dystopias when I was a teenager, then again I came of age during that oddly buoyant period known as the 1990s before the towers fell, before the “Great Recession” and before the broadening discussion/controversy of Global Climate Change.

I believe that it is appropriate for young adults to read, consider and discuss literature whose primary concern is asking the question: what does a fair, just and equitable society look like? It is frankly refreshing to hear them discuss these matters intelligently, politely and passionately without the cant and hackneyed phrasing so common in the popular media. But more importantly, I think that introducing young adults to literature of this calibre and indicating to them that they are ready for it is immensely important because it not only encourages them to voice their concerns, observations and opinions but it also teaches them that serious questions deserve serious consideration and that they, with their enthusiasm and verve, can make a contribution and have the intelligence and aptitude to do so.

I would like to see more air time and screen time in the media devoted to roundtable discussions and Socratic seminars where young adults are the participants. I find their observations and interactions not only enlightening but in fact more enlightening than that of pundits and wags because they have not reached a point where they feel they have found the grail for all of our problems or have a vested concern in one ideology or programmatic solution.

Jeremy Nathan Marks

 

 

Taking ideas seriously

I am looking forward to my upcoming sessions with a local “philosophy group” comprised of teenagers who have spent some months studying the works of many important historical thinkers.

Beginning this Friday we will be having five Socratic sessions which cover a range of books including The Communist ManifestoThe God That FailedTo Kill A MockingbirdWinnipeg’s General Strike and Utopia.

It is always exciting to see students taking ideas seriously and embarking upon the work of unpacking systems of thought. Like many critics, I also believe that all too often ideas are being turned into soundbites and quotes which are divested of intellectual, socio-economic and historical context. Therefore it is a pleasure to be invited to be part of a group that is working hard to educate itself and is not afraid of an intellectual challenge.

Jeremy Nathan Marks