Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Pete Seeger: American Hero

Since we've been thinking about life stories and justice this quarter, and since we also considered the pantheon of New Trier's Hall of Fame, I started thinking about my American heroes. My top choice is Pete Seeger, the great folk singer, activist, and peace lover. Pete routinely sang at Farm Aid in recent years alongside Eddie Vedder, Neil Young, and John Mellencamp -- a feat all the more amazing when you consider that Pete Seeger just died -- at 94 years old!  You may already know about his work with his buddy,Woody Guthrie, who wrote This Land Is Your Land. You can learn more about Seeger on a recent NPR piece, profiling his extra-ordinary life.

In this post, I'd like to hear about the American heroes you admire and why. If you can, please provide examples of their heroism. I'll go first:

I first heard Pete when my wife — then my college girlfriend — and I went on our first date to...where else? A Pete Seeger concert! But Pete's not just a folk music hero in my house; he's also known around the world as a man of tremendous principle, who has truly lived his convictions. Some examples: He married a Japanese woman in the 1940's when our country was throwing over a hundred thousand Japanese-Americans (most U.S. citizens) in prison camps. He fought tirelessly for civil rights, singing with the great African-American baritone, Paul Robeson, when it nearly cost him his life. He inspired many famous civil rights leaders, including Julian Bond, who credits Seeger for opposing Jim Crow laws long before "the Movement" really got underway. Pete even wrote some of the lyrics to "We Shall Overcome." He fought for unions and for the common working man — and woman (since he also advocated equality among the sexes). Check out his song "I'm Gonna Be an Engineer" and then think about the stories that women are able to tell.  Last, Seeger traveled the world, recording and archiving world music like no one had ever done before.

For these actions he was branded a Communist and banned from appearing on TV for 17 years just when he had reached the height of his popularity. When the ban was finally lifted he shocked everyone by singing an anti-Vietnam War song called "The Big Muddy." Since then he has sung to end apartheid in South Africa and almost single-handedly galvanized efforts to clean-up the Hudson River. As recently as four years ago he was nominated for yet another Grammy Award in the category of folk music.  Who are your heroes?

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Getting a Handle on Gun Control

There have been so many mass shootings:  Aurora, Sandy Hook, Vicksburg, Charleston, Fort Hood, and, sadly, many more.  Last week, after another senseless massacre by a deranged gunman in Oregon, President Obama called on news outlets to compare the number of American deaths due to terrorism vs, the number of deaths due to gun violence.  This chart reveals the shocking differences:

According to a podcast called On the Media, the American death toll due to acts of terrorism including 9/11 is just over 3,000.  The death toll due to handgun violence is approximately 200,000.  If you include accidental death and suicide, that number is almost half a million.   Shocking figures and hugely bigger numbers than any other comparable (read:  large, wealthy) nation:

Doesn't it make sense to enact stronger gun laws -- minimally requiring mandatory background checks on the previous convictions and mental state of gun owners and potential owners?  Gun lobbyists resist any restriction on gun control, often pointing to the 2nd Amendment "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." But what does "well regulated" mean to you?  Seems to me the Founding Fathers foresaw limits. Further, as many people (recently Garry Wills and Adam Gopnik) have pointed out, the phrases "keep arms" and "bear arms" are terms specifically used by the military. In other words, the Amendment may not apply to personal possession of guns at all.  The Supreme Court was deeply split on this issue when it last came before the court, narrowly (5-4) siding in favor of guns.  Like our Silding Doors poems, it's tempting to think of what might have changed if the court held a slightly different balance.  It's not clear when the issue will again be decided by the Court or by legislators.  Will the upccoming (current?  it's just 13 short months away!) presidential race will give politicians and ordinary citizens a new chance to voice their opinions on gun control. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

Any Questions?

Let’s start with two parables:

First, a Zen parable: A traveler went in search of knowledge. In order to attain as much knowledge as possible, the traveler undertook a great journey. The road was not paved or straight. At many intervals, the traveler needed to double back; at times the traveler needed to pause in order to determine the road already covered and the road that lay ahead. Sometimes the path was uphill; sometimes the footing was uncertain. 

At long last, the traveler arrived at the hut of the wisest person in the world. When the traveler entered the hut, the wisest person in the world said, “What is the question you’d most like to know?” This class will focus on questions – since we’re after wisdom and truth; not mere “answers.” Questions are generative: they lead to further thought, discussion. They form the basis of all Intellectual life. This course will arm you with some new questions to ask throughout your life, and it will sharpen your ability to ask questions – of yourself and your country. 

The second parable comes from a commencement address delivered about 10 years back by writer David Foster Wallace. It goes like this: 

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, 'Morning, boys. How's the water?' And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes 'What the hell is water?'" 

Note, the joke here rests on a question. In order for us to understand ourselves and our world, we need to understand where we live, how we stand and what we stand for. What water are we swimming in, and how has that water affected our values, goals, and beliefs? And what better place to explore this question than in an English class? Reading and writing are the core skills of this class, and these are the skills that will help us think more deeply about these vital questions. We’ll question everything – even things (especially things) we’ve come to take for granted. 

Remember, for example, that “The Star Spangled Banner” – a song you’ve probably heard hundreds of time and perhaps America’s most famous song – actually starts and ends in a question. So be ready to explore questions in this class, and I suspect that at the end of the year with hard word and careful thought, we won’t merely have answers, we’ll have more questions to accompany us on our lifelong journey toward truth. Oh, and have fun!