Friday, February 24, 2012

Citizen Rocky


In the US of A are many ideologies. I call it “ideology” when believers won’t second-guess themselves upon meeting someone from Canada or Britain, even when that someone gives them a funny look and says, “Are you sure? Because no one in my country believes that.”

Here’s my thought experiment: Suppose, like many in the US in recent years, I am a “market fundamentalist,” believing the free market is always functional and Good and Morally Correct. (Let’s forget we had to rush up to Canada for vaccines after the marketplace failed us during the panic over the avian flu) Suppose one day I’m at my country club with two of my fellow “fundies.” In walks a man pleased with himself and his new million-dollar bonus, a financial executive who has just helped to melt down Wall Street and plunge the world into a recession. Do I smile, share his happiness at his new bonus, and invite him to join us to make a foursome for golf?... No…

The principle here, it seems to me, is all of our enforceable US laws are under the umbrella of the US Constitution. Meanwhile, all my morals, my circles of friends and my ideologies are under the non-enforceable umbrella of Citizenship. It’s a higher umbrella: Any warm body, any civilian, is always under the legal code; but only good citizens will choose to commit to a moral code. For financial executives, it’s a choice as old as the Greeks: As Homer pointed out regarding Agamemnon’s unfair treatment of Achilles, an unfairness that undermined the war effort, “sometimes a citizen has the perfect legal right but not any moral right.”

I learned in college about how the Iliad begins with Achilles, the invulnerable superhero, sulking in his tent. This I learned only from taking a liberal arts (general studies) class - praise the Lord for higher education! I  don't believe college is purely for job training; I don't believe in market fundamentalism.  I do believe in citizenship... 

Citizen Rocky

I still remember a warm summer evening when Corporal John Oxley, an old army buddy, walked me around and around a park and talked some perspective into my head. It helped immensely. A few years later it was my turn to do the same one warm evening at the end of term, walking with a young university man. I’ll bet he still remembers, too. Call it paying it forward. The student’s name was Rocky. He knew how to study hard. But here was the thing: Rocky had just spent a year studying awfully hard, only to get awfully poor results. As we talked, I came to see that my challenge that night was to give Rocky permission to see things from a bigger perspective.

Perhaps, if Rocky and I had been women, I might have pointed out how “just recently” we women, through our weekly consciousness raising groups, had given each other permission to see that society was wrong… The messages we women were getting about when to speak up, what we were supposed to look like and how competent we could appear to be—or aspire to be—were just plain wrong. … Back then nobody could have imagined there would one day be an hour-long weekly TV series about a woman commanding the federation starship Voyager.

Rocky and I, being males of the white collar read-for-pleasure and attend-university sort, had received messages too. On TV was there was the Dick Van Dyke Show and Bewitched: both about businessmen. Peruse the contents of a collection of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books and again the message was clear: the hero and his wife and their friends were not merely of the working world, but were specifically of the office world. No proletariats, no artists. It followed logically, then, that the most grown up thing for a white collar university student to do was to value a career program over, say, a program in the fine arts, and to value a business program most of all. And poor Rocky was an earnest sincere young man. Of course he believed what society appeared to believe.

But I knew something about Rocky: he was like me. As a young soldier I had not just been a person wearing green clothing and carrying a gun. No, I had aspired to be a “real soldier” between my ears. And now Rocky was trying to be a “real student.” As it happens, some students, poor fools, are merely persons carrying books, while they merely talk about the weather and gulp beer. They might just as well be clones of their non-student peers. Not Rocky. He conversed with students about “the meaning of life, the universe and everything.” He played on a varsity team, he got involved and of course he voted in student elections. He cared about life. Because I knew Rocky cared, I knew how to reach him.

Perhaps, that night, bearing in mind how students have found “you can’t go home again…” I pointed out to Rocky the importance of the personal growth we associate with our student years. Not so much our later years: For non-students there may be such a thing as too much growth. A book for police chiefs, Police Command, (page 63-64) from the days of long hair, back when peace officers were called “pigs,” notes the common belief, back then, that a policeman will be better able to relate to the community if he takes a few college courses. Then, in the wisdom of that time, he shouldn’t get a complete diploma because too much education would ruin him. (This has changed) Perhaps I pointed out how on remote army bases, just as in General Baden-Powell’s day, soldiers could quickly learn to put on comic stage plays, but the training and growth needed for acting in serious dramas would be beyond their best interest. (This is still true) Only students, traditionally, are seemingly unharmed by, and encouraged in, culture shock and growth. They are not encouraged to squish themselves down. But then they can’t go home again.

Maybe I said such things, but most likely? I think I talked in terms of citizenship. After all, Rocky was already an involved, participating member of his university... A few weeks later, as a number of us were straggling into the warm night from the student bar, I overheard Rocky saying something like, “Sean said a soldier has a narrow circle of interest, a businessman has a bigger circle, but a citizen has the widest view of all.” In a nutshell, that’s what I had said to him. Why squish yourself down, before you even graduate, to restrict your circle? Why not, to quote my feminist soccer friends, “go for the gusto!”

It follows logically that a spirited citizen could well use the campus years to pursue some grand interests. The old motto of the University of Calgary, translated, is “I will lift up my eyes.”  Rocky switched majors to something he cared about, something that fit his values: He started to seriously learn about history. Immediately, without any more effort than before, he was getting A’s. (This was in Canada, where A’s are hard to get) It all worked out; now he has a good job with a good pension. Today Rocky is still like me: I teach classes at work, and with my essays, while Rocky teaches at school.

Summer becomes winter; winter becomes summer. Down the years into middle age I have had my circles of friends, and yes, some of them have been “fundies.” I maintain my economic bias and vested interests, of course, but I never forget how all this is embedded in something higher, in “the big picture.” When I lift up my eyes I lift my spirits too.

Sean Crawford
Summer, 2011

Choose your values well: In the literary novel Revolution Road (later to be a Brad Pitt movie) the hero has a tragic friend: A man who, like many in those days of the “strong, silent Hemmingway ideal” had used his considerable will power to warp his life into being a “regular guy,” a man uncultured, with an uncultured wife, a man not too verbally skilled. Sad to say, I can relate to him.

Footnotes from Academia:
Here is a link to a good editorial in the local student newspaper on "why university?" with a perspective on citizenship

US citizens may be surprised to hear that here in the Canadian part of North America nobody bothers to put the adjective “good” in front of university. As in Australia and Europe, all of our universities are good. Same with our high schools.

US Americans may also be surprised to know that in Asia students enjoy being photographed with their sensei, while in Canada teachers are respected and nicely paid. (Respected, but with mixed feelings, like with lawyers) When I read Michael Crichton’s brief scene of how US yuppies regard teachers, (in Timeline?) I felt revulsion. Don’t yuppies know any better? I recall a congressional committee during the cold war investigating US schools and then reporting that if the system had been purposely set up by communists it would not have been any worse.

Imagine my despair last month when the New York Times was serving as a forum for concerned citizens who were strangely ignorant of the efforts of their congress even though they were concerned about the state of the schools… they were trying to be open minded… but not one was bloody willing to take their head out of their america! No one dared look at how other nations do it. Hello, there are foreign countries? Where people speak English? It’s not impossible to do like Rikki Tikki Tavi: “Run and find out!”
Meanwhile, I don’t suppose they looked at what a fellow New Yorker, John Gatto, wrote back in 1991, either.

As for post-secondary schools, as regards real world professional status: According to my professors, who have traveled to North American academic conferences, (and compared and contrasted) my Canadian degree program is easily equivalent to a US master’s degree. Easily. But the Yankees won’t admit it. Among the reasons is this: They forget that US universities, besides still not achieving closure on the Vietnam conflict, have still not addressed the grade inflation of the Vietnam years. This inflation was from department heads trying to help draft evaders keep from flunking out. There are still entire faculties where the average grade is definitely not a C.

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