It’s St. Patrick’s Day, and I need to say at the outset that I am not Irish. Elizabeth Warren is more Native American than I am Irish. Still, that doesn’t prevent me from appreciating the Irish just as it didn’t prevent the distinguished senator from Massachusetts from contributing a Cherokee crab recipe to Pow Wow Chow. For the record, I have no intention of submitting a recipe for soda bread to a faculty cookbook or anywhere else. Panettone maybe, but not soda bread. Then again, you don’t want my recipe. I don’t bake.
Although not Irish, I appreciate Irish history, politics, religion, and culture. I admire St. Patrick for his missionary work. I can read Ulysses and enjoy it without throwing the book across the room. Of course, I would never think of doing such a thing with The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, written by my favorite Irish author, Laurence Sterne (“I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them….had minded what they were about when they begot me…”). But I can be Irish in spirit at least, which is to say high spirited.
I once heard of a woman named Nellie Kelly who married a man named Luigi Fanelli. She became Nellie Kelly Fanelli, which sounds like an Irish limerick except that it is true. I have come to the conclusion that Irish-Italian romances are pretty good. That’s because they balance each other, unlike Norwegians and Swedes, who are too close. Or Ivorians and Ghanaians, whose countries border each other in West Africa but speak different languages, the one French, the other English.
All of this reminds me of a talk I attended years ago by Robert Bellah of Habits of the Heart fame in which he told how he was criticized for teaching Chinese language and literature earlier in his career. The criticism was directed on two levels. First, not being Asian, how could he hope to understand Chinese culture? Second, he held a position in Asian Studies that could have gone to an aspiring Asian scholar, perhaps a woman. The implication, not so subtle, was that he needed to step aside in favor of someone less privileged.
Since then, I have witnessed similar prejudice. Sometimes it targets men, as in Bellah’s case. Other times it is directed at women, youth, or–increasingly as the population ages–seniors. Often, it is justified as a means of making amends for previous historical prejudice. This has always confounded me. You don’t overcome hatred and fear with hatred and fear. That’s not justice but revenge. It’s also disingenuous, the real aim being power, not freedom or equality.
As a teacher, I try to move students away from ideology. Any writer or thinker, whether mainstream or on the margins, should be studied if they can rise above the specificity of their experience and speak to the universal, human condition. And not just speak to that condition but transport us beyond it to greater heights. Of course, you have to believe such universality exists. And that such heights exist. I do. Otherwise, we’re just balls smashing into one another in a giant pinball machine. I suppose some people like that idea.
As a learner, I am not concerned as much with Robert Bellah the man as his ability to help me understand the Cultural Revolution, for instance. Since I am not Chinese, I am forced to imagine what the social and political conditions were like for people living back then. And imagination is exactly what needs to be stirred in the classroom. Let’s see if they come up with a standardized test for that.
Obviously, it’s not just education that needs imagination. Given the pitiable state of civic dialogue today (what civic dialogue? you may ask), imagination and good faith could be what get people to sit down and talk. Or at least stop pounding each other into submission. Left-Right, white-black, Maga-Bern, East Side-West Side, all around the town. You may say I’m a dreamer, but please don’t. Just let me enjoy being green today.
Image credits: feature by Keli Santos from Pexels; freckled boy by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash; four leaf clover by Djalma Paiva Armelin from Pexels. Want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a proud member of The Free Media Alliance.