30 May 2008

Sharing a Culture

The June issue of The Atlantic Monthly contains a thought-provoking article titled "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower" on the futility of pressing a university education on every American who hopes to advance in life, whatever their preparation or skills. The anonymous author, "Professor X," ends with finding the common element of American culture in--where else?--the MGM Wizard of Oz:

One of the things I try to do on the first night of English 102 is relate the literary techniques we will study to novels that the students have already read. I try to find books familiar to everyone. This has so far proven impossible. My students don’t read much, as a rule, and though I think of them monolithically, they don’t really share a culture. To Kill a Mockingbird? Nope. (And I thought everyone had read that!) Animal Farm? No. If they have read it, they don’t remember it. The Outsiders? The Chocolate War? No and no. Charlotte’s Web? You’d think so, but no.

So then I expand the exercise to general works of narrative art, meaning movies, but that doesn’t work much better. Oddly, there are no movies that they all have seen--well, except for one. They’ve all seen The Wizard of Oz. Some have caught it multiple times. So we work with the old warhorse of a quest narrative. The farmhands’ early conversation illustrates foreshadowing. The witch melts at the climax. Theme? Hands fly up. Everybody knows that one--perhaps all too well. Dorothy learns that she can do anything she puts her mind to and that all the tools she needs to succeed are already within her.
The sad irony, for Professor X, is that simply putting one's mind to a goal doesn't mean one has the tools to succeed. Of course, the literal message of the movie is also about staying home and not chasing one's dreams elsewhere (a message undercut by the rest of the movie, but that's another posting).

(Thanks to Chaucerian to alerting me to this article.)

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