“U.S.A. is the slick of a continent. U.S.A. is a group of holding companies, some aggregations of trade unions, a set of laws bound in calf, radio network, a chain of moving picture theatres, a column of stockquotations rubbed out and written in by a Western Union boy on a blackboard, a publiclibrary full of old newspapers and dogeared historybooks with protests scrawled on the margins in pencil, U.S.A. is the world’s greatest rivervalley fringed with mountains and hills. U.S.A. is a set of bigmouthed officials with too many bankaccounts. U.S.A. is a lot of men buried in their uniforms in Arlington Cemetery. U.S.A. is the letters at the end of an address when you are away from home. But mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people.” -John Dos Passos, preface to U.S.A.
I am reading The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy. Those books pulse with the tremor of life. I don’t think literature can achieve anything greater than that.
The emphasis in educational circles these days is science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It is understandable why: This is where the profitable jobs are and this is seemingly what the marketplace wants, though I don’t like reifying the marketplace by talking about it as if it is a being.
I support the emphasis on shoring up the STEM skills of students and I think it is sensible to look ahead and try and anticipate what young adults will need to find employment. What I hasten to add, however, is that I do not like seeing the humanities ignored. For years, budget cuts have harmed arts programs and in this age of devices and Chromebooks and students doing everything online, I am growing increasingly concerned that works devoted to humanizing human beings are being ignored.
I know that this is a broad statement and I base it primarily on what I am witnessing. What I want to say is something that a good friend of mine has already said which is that the humanities ask questions that are far more difficult to answer than those raised by science and technology, namely:
“How do we learn to treat one another better?”
We are not going to find answers to this question and the galaxy of further questions which it raises if we neglect the humanities and if we believe that technology and technological “fixes” can supersede the human element in human problems. . . which are the planet’s problems, too. In other words, “How do we learn to treat one another and other species and the planet better?” Technological innovations cannot answer that question, they can only be applied to the problem. But right now, is there even a general agreement on the problems we are facing? There are powerful forces at work leading people to deny or obstruct efforts to address vital questions. Relying on technology to make up our minds for us or to somehow spirit away our problems is not a solution.
While I do not believe that reading Leo Tolstoy or bel hooks or Sophocles guarantees a student a job the way programming skills might, I do believe that if we send out a generation of students versed in the necessity of addressing the question of “How do we learn to treat one another better?” then maybe we will have engineers and inventors who have a deeper appreciation and broader context for the use to which their solutions can and will and should be applied.
I would be delighted to put together a Socratic discussion on the fiction, plays and poetry of the Southeast Michigan and Southwestern Ontario region; that belt running from Ann Arbor-Flint-Detroit-Monroe-Port Huron across the Detroit and St. Clair rivers through Windsor, Sarnia, Dresden, Chatham, London and out to Woodstock, Tilsonburg and Brantford.
The region has produced some truly outstanding writers of fiction, poetry and plays including Jeffrey Eugenides, Alice Munro, James Reaney, Joyce Carol Oates, Marge Piercy, Philip Levine, Harriette Arnow, Elmore Leonard, Sara Jeannette Duncan to name only a handful.
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”
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
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
I must say that I am again delighted with the session I had with the philosophy discussion group. Yesterday we met a second time and discussed The God That Failed, a collection of testimonials by six writers who turned against communism.
I remain deeply impressed by the contributions of the group. Not only did they read the book with enthusiasm but they also connected the analysis of writers like Richard Wright, Ignazio Silone and André Gide to contemporary socio-economic and political problems. To witness a group of young people sit and debate ideas with intellectual commitment, personal humility and unfailing politeness is always a great joy for me and offers me hope for our social future.
At the risk of being repetitive, I just cannot help but express my delight at having the opportunity to work with such a group of engaged and committed thinkers who approach ideas with purpose and verve. Not only are the sessions delightful to participate in, but they are a personal gift to me as I am reminded why teaching is my calling. I am grateful to my students (and their parents) for reminding me of that.
–Jeremy Nathan Marks
I have become convinced that literature is one of the most effective ways of studying social issues. I don’t know if others feel this way, but I think that the novel form allows a writer to study human behaviour and social behaviour at a level of depth that case studies cannot quite reach. I certainly am not suggesting that case studies aren’t valuable, I just find myself consistently coming back to the insights of novels when I try and understand contemporary social problems.
–Jeremy Nathan Marks
One of the things I enjoy most about teaching literature is that I am actually afforded the time to really dig into it with my students. We get to discover the buried treasure in many different novels, plays and poetry. Just the other day I had the pleasure of reading a passage from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise aloud with my students and we had a big laugh over it.
I love what I do.