IDEA #39. Go to a library and read from cover to cover a general magazine about society and culture, like The New Yorker, The Atlantic, or Harper’s. There are others. Pat yourself on the back if you feel like writing a letter to the editors in response to something you read. If your letter is published, get someone to take you to dinner in celebration.
A surprising amount of the world’s intellectual discourse continues to take place in the pages of magazines frankly targeted at the affluent and educated—and influential. In articles, reviews, and opinion pieces, major topics of concern are introduced, defined, and debated, and anyone wanting to understand the nuances of the issues of the day ought to be familiar with the way in which the “national conversation” takes form at a higher-than-network-television-or-even-cable-news level.
Most public libraries will subscribe to several of these magazines. The New Yorker is notable not only for the high quality of its non-fiction and fiction content but also for its sophisticated cover art and cartoons; in recent years the magazine has broken important stories on aspects of American foreign policy as well as on human rights issues and domestic policy. The Atlantic and Harper’s tend to have a bit less variety (but more illustrations, some in color), but they regularly feature articles by serious “opinion makers” as well as book, film, and even food reviews. The conservative National Review and the more liberal New Republic and The Nation tend to focus more on political issues, including elements of American culture that have become pressure points in liberal–conservative disputation. Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone are the village elders in a related genre of magazines promoting a particular kind of “hip”-ness; many of these are devoted to a serious analysis of popular entertainment, although the range of topics covered runs from outdoor adventure (and gear! Outside is a leader in this area) to alternative politics (Utne Reader and Mother Jones, for example).
There are numerous smaller magazines of opinion and culture, some with explicitly political agendas and others that cover arts and entertainment from an intellectual standpoint. Left alone in a library or bookstore, the curious young reader can become familiar with any numbers of such publications and, more importantly, become familiar with the ways in which writers with cultural influence frame and express their arguments. At the very least, the young reader is likely to be mildly amused by the New Yorker’s cartoons (although some might be rated PG-13)
Posted by Peter Gow on October 30, 2013
IDEA #38. Attend an art event: a festival, the opening of a gallery show, or even a play or concert
Arts events and gallery openings are significantly different from museum collections in that they offer the suggested and often physical presence of the artist. Such events are celebrations of someone’s creative spirit, and even if the someone is long dead, the connection between what is viewed or heard and an individual’s creative spirit becomes palpable. Moreover, such events are often designed to encourage conversation or interaction between audience and art (or at least among the audience), making them into more than just passive viewing or listening experiences.
It would be great if the child could attend the event with a friend or anyone with whom he or she can actually talk about the event, and the art, as they experience it. What is on display, or what have you seen and heard? What is the artist’s intention? How does the work make you feel? What does it make you think about? How is it like or unlike other things that you have experienced? How do viewers agree or differ in their responses to the same piece of work? If there is an opportunity to speak with the artist, what questions are important to ask, and how satisfying are the answers?
If nothing else, arts events can catalyze both the development of taste and an understanding of the ways in which people’s response to art can vary. Furthermore, a well-organized event can also teach young audiences of the power of the arts to create, sustain, and even deepen community through shared experience.
All of this is of course equally true for almost any theatrical event or performance, and it might be worthwhile to remind the young viewer or listener to be on the lookout for signs that the audience as a whole has become bonded, for the moment, into a community through the shared experience of the performance.
Posted by Peter Gow on October 27, 2013
IDEA #37. Find a radio or television broadcast in the modern language you study or would like to study at school and listen to or watch it for a half-hour every week. For example, Spanish-language soap operas, soccer broadcasts, and game shows are pretty easy to find and understand. Or tune your radio (or use shortwave or streaming on the internet) to French-language broadcasts from Canada, Africa, the Caribbean—or France. And the shortwave radio spectrum opens up, quite literally, an entire linguistic world.
The multicultural reality of the United States is never more palpable than when one is channel surfing or seeking stations on the radio. AM radio in many metropolitan areas is a cornucopia of broadcasts in many languages, from Spanish to Hindi to Mandarin to Portuguese to…. And in almost every part of the country one can find several Spanish-language cable broadcasts featuring game and variety shows or soap operas (telenovelas) with vividly emoting actors. It is also possible nearly everywhere to find at least a few hours a week of programming designed for speakers of other languages.
Be patient and listen for familiar words and patterns. Even if the words are unintelligible, the sense of what is being communicated is often clear. Along with trying to suss out the meaning of the show, the thoughtful television viewer could muse on a number of questions:
- What is the nature of the aesthetic or aesthetics that are being shown? Are the production values (pacing, scenery, make-up, dress, sound, color palette, and even the framing of each shot) like or not like what might be seen on a typical American English-language broadcast? The same questions, incidentally, could be asked about some of the BBC programming that is seen on American public broadcasting stations. (It is also possible that the child habituated to listening to a variety of British Isles speechways via the BBC–or public television’s anglophile Masterpiece Theater–will be that much more ready to appreciate the richness of Shakespearean language when encountering the Bard at school.)
- What is being advertised? In what ways are the consuming patterns of the target audience like or not like those of mainstream American viewers, at least insofar as comparisons can be made based on the ads seen or heard on similar English-language shows.
- If you can find a sports show, preferably fútbol (what Americans call soccer), how does the coverage vary from typical American sports coverage, if in fact you can observe differences?
- What, actually, is the place of origin of the programming? Are you looking at shows produced in the United States or material produced in a country in which the language is the majority tongue?
- Is the setting beyond the television studio visible? Do exterior scenes look typically “American” (like what you might see on an American-produced English-language sitcom, for example), or do they offer a glimpse of what you might see if you were visiting another land or culture? Can you actually define the differences, if any exist?
- Beyond developing your skill in the language of the broadcast, can you make out any English words, or words from English that are just like words in the language? (These are called cognates.) Some people are concerned that, because of the spread of American cultural products like films and television shows, English is gradually “polluting” many other languages and thus threatening the cultures associated with them. Do non-English-language broadcasts on American radio television support this theory?
As a corollary suggestion, if the household has a DVD player it is usually possible to view many feature films either in another language—often Spanish or French—or with subtitles in English or another language. Try watching a favorite film on DVD several times through, using the other-language and/or subtitle functions. (Consider some Japanese anime—the films of Hayao Miyazaki, for example—that are already dubbed and sometimes come with original titles or soundtracks in Japanese.)
It is worth emphasizing to young viewers that nothing that appears in the frame of a film or television program is there by mistake. Watching a film when unable to understand the dialogue forces the viewer to attend carefully to the detail in the scene (it’s called mise en scène) in the struggle to make meaning out of what is being viewed. Sometimes this detail has symbolic or other content value that supports the theme or the storyline in subtle ways, and the astute viewer is alert for these elements.
Posted by Peter Gow on October 22, 2013
IDEA #36. Explore a place that is part of your heritage—it could be a neighborhood, or it could be a country. Imagine what it was like to live there “back in the day,” and imagine what your life would be like if you lived there now.
It is common in schools for students to engage in exercises relating to their heritage, and questions among students such as, “What are you?” or “Where are you from?” (meaning, What is your ethnic background?) are a regular part of young people’s experience. And although a child may know in some vague way that his or her ancestors are from Scotland or West Africa or Greece, he or she may not be truly able to imagine what it would be like to live and work in an ancestral homeland. Furthermore, the child may also be unaware of specific information about his or her heritage, information that could be gathered either from existing family records or memories or from some library or Internet research.
This activity may be among the most challenging, and most fun, of any. Beside the obvious financial difficulties involved in putting a heritage trip together, there is the matter of planning an itinerary that somehow authentically relates to known aspects of the child’s family background. Where to go, what to see—these questions require choices and sometimes best guesses.
For children who may be refugees, or adopted, or whose families may have been brought to America by force (as slaves, say), the challenges are more profound and potentially more troubling. Clearly some destinations are simply out of bounds—war zones or prohibited travel zones—while others may only be approximations of a family’s place of origin; although more resources are becoming available for the study of genealogy of slave families, many lead only to regions and not to specific localities. For some adopted children, the question of heritage may touch on emotional vulnerabilities that may be better left alone until the child is older, in which case this activity should be ignored.
For those with limited resources or Native American ancestry, domestic travel is an answer. With Americans so mobile a people (families in this country move on the average of once every five years), it does not take long for many miles to accumulate between generations; few youngsters can tell you, much less have visited, where all their grandparents were born. A trip to one of these birthplaces, even if it just another town in the same state, will help connect the young person with his or her heritage in a way that mere words can never do.
Posted by Peter Gow on October 16, 2013
IDEA #35. Find a local business that will let you volunteer as an “intern” or helper. Even if you don’t wind up doing much important work, what can you learn about the business and about how people work?
Internships are increasingly a standard part of the professional planning phase of collegiate life, but the opportunity to spend some real time in a workplace setting is above all a chance for younger people to come to an understanding of how actual work is carried out in the adult world.
Schoolteachers are constantly reminding students that certain kinds of behavior will not pay off in the “real world,” and children are accustomed to living in a more or less authoritarian environment. What better way can there be to see both how adults behave in the workplace and how decisions are made and implemented in the adult world than by observing real work?
Not all businesses will welcome young volunteers, and some may simply say no. The age of the child (probably no one under twelve or thirteen should even consider this activity) and his or her level of responsibility—perhaps attested to in a written recommendation from a teacher or principal—will have a bearing on what kinds of opportunities open up, and patience may be necessary. Issues of hazard and confidentiality may also arise and should be thoroughly discussed by parents or guardians in advance.
An ideal situation would have the youngster tagging along with a particular individual who is not unhappy to have a young sidekick and who will have the patience and interest to explain and answer questions. For children on the younger side the old “take your child to work day” concept may be a good way to start, as long as the parent or guardian is able to perform his or her job with a child at hand and as long as the employer is not averse to this arrangement.
Among the valuable lessons students tend to learn from internships is that not every job is suitable for every person; some students find out just how much they do NOT want to work in certain kinds of environments. On the whole, however, most youngsters find some exposure to a real work setting to be of great interest and great value, and the thinking child will find much food for cogitation as he or she observes adult work in action.
Posted by Peter Gow on October 9, 2013
IDEA #34. Go on a whale watch, visit a nature center, or take a hike to observe nature
Like looking at the Moon or a planet through a telescope, seeing a particular creature or even an unusual plant in its native habitat can be awe inspiring. Whether the youngster has the good fortune to see a right whale spouting right beside a whale watch vessel or just sights a carnivorous plant in a marsh, the notion that such things do exist outside of the pages of books—and often surprisingly close to our homes—is a reminder that the natural world, for which humans are obligated to care lest we lose it altogether, is real.
Almost every organization with a focus on nature offers some kinds of viewing experiences. A local science or nature center may sponsor regular events, and branches of the Audubon Society, especially, make a point of making field trips to natural destinations available to youngsters. A whale watch might be far off a family’s beat and budget, but other opportunities will exist in the community. And even if no organization seems to offer what is needed, perhaps a local teacher or scientist could lead a private tour for an interested young person.
It is unfortunate that we must include here a small caveat: There are some unscrupulous operators of nature tours whose practices are scientifically and ethically unsound. They may enter animal habitats in unsuitable vehicles or vessels, or they may go so close to the animals as to disturb their patterns of existence; some even lure animals to be seen using methods that are directly harmful. Any “nature tour” being contemplated should be checked through a local museum or environmental organization.
Posted by Peter Gow on October 4, 2013
IDEA #33. Attend a sporting event that comes from a culture other than your own—cricket, bocce, Irish football
This may not be quite so easy to do if you reside in an area that does not have a large immigrant or expatriate population, but it may even be possible to find cable television or internet broadcasts that provide not only a view of the sport but also explanatory play-by-play (unless the broadcast is in a language unknown to the viewer).
In areas that do have significant numbers of residents representing other cultures, there may be flourishing leagues and clubs devoted to homeland sports. Caribbean and South Asian expatriates may gather to play cricket regularly in a public park, or bocce may be one of the activities offered at Italian-American associations or other cultural groups who play variations of this ancient lawn-bowling game. (Bocce’s world regulatory body, headquartered in Rome, goes by a Latin name: Collegium Cosmicum ad Buxeas—surely a unique attribute in the world of sport.) Cultural festivals may also involve sports—the various “Highland Games” events around the country include several unusual events involving feats of strength and timing. Although they are not exactly “cultural,” lumberjack festivals also feature uncommon sports, some involving chainsaws. All of these activities give the thoughtful spectator an opportunity not only to marvel at the range of human ability to test ourselves but also to speculate on the nature of cultural difference and why certain kinds of activities appeal to certain people.
For many years ABC television’s bygone Wide World of Sports introduced viewers to sporting events of the sort we didn’t see every day. Fortunately our increasingly diverse society and the proliferation of ethnically focused cable television channels can fill the void left by the cancellation of that show.
Posted by Peter Gow on October 3, 2013