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Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.

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Out of Many, One?

The annual Hyde Park Fourth of July parade doesn’t normally prompt reflections on the state of culture in the United States. The rag tag procession of various community groups celebrates everything from local schools, politicians, Scout troops, dance ensembles, anti-violence campaigns, etc. But a chance conversation on the sidewalk got me thinking about whether it matters that we don’t seem to have much of a shared cultural legacy in our country.

At several points in the parade marchers carry banners announcing the names of Hyde Park institutions. As the banner for the Bret Harte Elementary School went by, the stranger next to me chuckled and said, “Bret Harte? Why name a school for a professional wrestler?” Huh? I told him that Bret Harte was the name of a very popular American writer in the nineteenth century. That he wrote about the American West with colorful stories about miners in the Gold Rush. My neighbor stared at me with a blank face. “Never heard of him.” I Googled Bret Harte later in the weekend. Sure enough, there was an article about a Canadian professional wrestler named Bret Hart. Who knew?

Maybe I’m just resisting the reality that I’m getting old, that the English anthologies now in use in middle and high schools have been revised and revised and revised again since my school days, now including authors excluded or ignored when I was growing up. I’ve tested this with younger friends. Indeed, Bret Harte draws blanks stares. Certainly the literary canon needed to be expanded to include authors long overlooked because of their race or gender or cultural place. Inevitably some names fall away. More likely I was annoyed by the fact that this forty something man watching the parade with his children could identify a professional wrestler but not an author who shaped many Americans’ views of the West for much of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries with stories like “The Luck of Roaring Camp” and “The Outcasts of Poker Flat.”

I’m not about to mount a defense for the return of Bret Harte to the public school curriculum. But my conversation does raise the question of whether literature in particular, and a broad shared cultural legacy in general, can serve the purpose of helping the many be one. If the name on one of our elementary schools evokes memories of engaging stories of the American West for one citizen, while bringing to mind professional wrestling for another, is the dream of “e pluribus unum” utterly futile? Or is that a fundamentally modernist notion, now supplanted by the hypercriticism of post-modernity which has trained us to be enamored of almost every expression of diversity while suspicious of any cultural commonality lest it become hegemonic?

Indeed, any attempt to promote a richly diverse but still shared cultural legacy runs the risk of elitism and reminds us of the need to be attentive to who is defining what should be shared, and whose agenda may or may not be being served. Even well intentioned efforts face nearly insurmountable obstacles. Look at the discussion about placing an engraving of a woman on our nation’s currency. Which woman? Representing which set of values, and commitments, and particular historical context? Eleanor Roosevelt? Susan B. Anthony? Harriett Tubman? And which man should be supplanted? The well-known President Andrew Jackson who promoted the expansion of slavery, a brutal Indian removal program, and the destruction of a national banking system? Or the more obscure Alexander Hamilton whose federalist program and economic policies helped create a sense of national cohesiveness and unity when that was far from a self-evident direction for the newly independent colonies? Amazingly, Jackson seems to be winning the game of currency survivor.

Does any of this matter? Multiplicity reigns supreme in every academic discipline from the liberal arts to the sciences. Social media builds community by exposing participants to an ever expanding array of cultural oddities, fringes, and anomalies. News reporting is fragmented into multiple ideological performances, and the notion of a “paper of record” these days is mocked. We don’t even watch the same television shows anymore. Do we only share tweets?

Bret Harte is not the answer. Nor is nostalgia. Much of what shaped a common sense of “America” in the past was racist, patriarchal, and violent. But recognizing that does not require abandoning any effort to gather a people around some shared encounter with the cultural legacy of our forebears. Common Core Standards, currently hotly debated, give prominence to critical and analytical reading skills, but limited reference, at least as I read them, to developing a strongly shared cultural legacy. But if the ghettoization of our cultural legacy only reinforces the racial, economic, and political ghettos that are growing more and more prominent, then public education will have missed, it seems to me, one essential responsibility. Namely, the task of making many, one.

John H. Thomas
July 30, 2015

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