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Celebrate the Old and New

January 4, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Some members in my family celebrate New Year’s Eve with lutefisk or sauerkraut. Some people celebrate with both. I, however, draw the line at lutefisk. I just cannot stomach it. What seems to me to be a petty difference of taste really bothers others, though. They fear bad karma (or something) when I disrespect the tradition. We turn this into a joke at the dinner table, but in reality, traditions run much of our lives and so I thought it might be worthwhile to better understand what they are and how they function in society.

While tradition is not in the Great Books anthologies per se, Custom and Convention is listed as one of the great ideas. In it, Mortimer Adler offers the following definition convention. He explains:

“In the tradition of the great books, the word ‘convention’ has at least two meanings, in only one of which is it synonomous with ‘custom.’ When ‘convention’ is used to signify habitual social practices, it is, for the most part, interchangeable with ‘custom.’ In this significance, the notion of convention, like that of custom, is an extension of the idea of habit. What habit is in the behavior of the individual, customary or conventional conduct is in the behavior of the social group.

“The other meaning of ‘convention does not connote the habitual social behavior but stresses rather the voluntary as opposed to the instinctive origin of social institutions, arrangements, or practices. … Whatever is conventional about social institutions might have been otherwise, if men had seen fit to invent and adopt different schemes for the organization of their social life. This indicates the connection between the two senses of the word ‘convention,’ for all customs are conventional in origin, and all conventions become customary when perpetuated.”

Obviously, this relates to the idea of New Year’s Eve lutefisk (and all traditions) – in that we celebrate what we find worthwhile in our lives and cultures. What we find worthwhile, however, may arrive through instruction, precedent, example, practice, or law. During the transition into a new year, many lists are compiled such as the greatest music, literature, or entertainment from the previous year. Do these lists merely reflect person opinion, or is it more complicated than that? Adler continues:

“The most familiar of all of the sophistic sayings – the remark attributed to Protagoras that ‘man is the measure of all things’ - is interpreted by both Plato and Aristotle to mean that what men wish to think or do determines for them what is true or right. Man’s will governs his reason, and convention, or the agreement of individual wills, decides what is acceptable to the group.”

In other words, convention drives personal opinion, perhaps even in undetected ways. It may be through trends and media that we receive hints about the health of our daily habits. These sources, though, represent, according to Adler, “an agreement of individual wills.” The line between individual and group, however, is extremely difficult to determine. How large does the group have to be before it becomes a group? What constitutes a fad? Is the mainstream synonymous with either the popular or traditional? Claude Lévi-Strauss adds that:

“Among the most primitive peoples it is not very difficult to obtain a moral justification or a rational explanation for any custom or institution … Even in our own society, table manners, social etiquette, fashions of dress, and many of our moral, political, and religious attitudes are scrupulously observed by everyone, although their real origin and function are not often critically examined.”

Many would argue that traditions arrive from nature or necessity, such as in the form of cleanliness, or human morality, or social preservation. Convention and tradition make for interesting discussions, but as for lutefisk, I am still not sold. In an effort to incorporate new traditions (aka my own) with old, I compromise with rice pudding. However, since it is an attempt to honor the idea of tradition, but is not actually traditional, perhaps I do more harm than good.

To read more about Resolutions, visit: hmu.edu.

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Heri Za Kwanzaa

December 28, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Heri za Kwanzaa means Happy Kwanzaa. Since Kwanzaa began on December 26, and since I know so little about the holiday, I thought that today was the perfect opportunity to learn about it. Also, due to the fact that I know so little about it, I would be happy for anyone to correct anything that I have posted. This post intends simply to touch the surface of the holiday. Furthermore, I am very interested in literature that may include mention of Kwanzaa or other traditions related to Kwanzaa. Feel free to post comments for literature and/or corrections!

Maulana Ndabezitha Karenga founded Kwanzaa in 1966. It is an African-American and pan-African holiday which celebrates community, family, and culture. It begins on December 26 and continues until January 1. The first symbol of Kwanzaa is the mkeka, a placemat which demonstrates African traditions. Kwanzaa is based upon seven principles called the Nguzo Saba. Karenga explains: “As we said in the ‘60s, the Nguzo Saba are a Black value system, a set of communitarian African values which aid us in grounding ourselves righteously and rightly, directing our lives toward good and expansive ends, and toward conceiving and bringing into being the good communities, societies and world we all want and work and struggle so hard to bring into being.” Kwanzaa is celebrated with feasts, music, dance, poetry and narratives. The holiday is concluded with a day of reflection upon the commitments of the seven principles. Karenga continues, “The holiday, then will of necessity, be engaged as an ancient and living cultural tradition which reflects the best of African thought and practice in its reaffirmation of the dignity of the human person in community and culture, the well-being of family and community, the integrity of the environment and our kinship with it, and the rich resource and meaning of a people's culture.” I thought that this sentiment is consistent with the foundations of other religions. I am interested in Kwanzaa’s inclusion of metaphor, symbol, and history. Due to the foundational nature of the seven principles, I have listed them below. I find these ideas consistent with the season.

The seven principles of Kwanzaa include:

Umoja: Unity, the willingness to help one another

Kujichagulia: Self-determination, that we make our own decisions

Ujima: Collective work and responsibility, that working together creates a better life for all

Ujamaa: Cooperative economics, that we support our community

Nia: Purpose, that we have a reason for living

Kuumba: Creativity, that we use our hands and minds to make things

Imani: Faith, that we believe in ourselves, our ancestors, and our future.

All information for this blog is taken from the Official Kwanzaa website.

Whatever your faith, whatever your community, we hope that you celebrate with peace and love. Happy holidays from Harrison Middleton University!

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Narrative of Helen Keller

November 30, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Recently, I read The Story of My Life by Helen Keller. (I have already expressed my appreciation for the way she describes language in a previous post.) I was also quite taken with her reflections on nature, which played a large role in her education and entertainment. She also speaks eloquently about the excitement and challenges of travel and college. During university, Keller notes the difficulty in finding some of the college-level texts in braille. She often had to wait for resources to be translated or shipped. In addition to school, however, she enjoyed art, literature, travel, and conversation. During her travels, Keller spoke to many celebrities, artists, and scientists. As a way of greeting, she often touched their face or to read their lips. In turn, they waited patiently for translators and interpreters. With strong will and curiosity, Helen Keller defied unimaginable odds to overcome her disabilities. Of course, her family had the means to seek and provide these resources. They found teachers and sought help from celebrated scientists, educators, and politicians. The combination of her own personal endowments with that of her family’s wealth and sacrifice create an incredible story well worth the short time it takes to read.

Today, however, I want to focus on Keller herself and the way that a person becomes textualized. Having proclaimed my appreciation for The Story of My Life, I do also see her narrative as a reflective, nostalgic view of life. As with all texts, I enjoy the ability to discover both hidden truths and falsehoods. Perhaps she has romanticized elements of her story. Perhaps her story is no more noteworthy than so many others sitting on today’s bookshelves. Over the years, however, some of Keller’s works have been banned, which begs the question: what makes her story unique and worthwhile? Why should we continue to read her words?All things considered, I tend to agree with History.com which claims: “Widely honored throughout the world and invited to the White House by every U.S. president from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon B. Johnson, Keller altered the world’s perception of the capacities of the handicapped. More than any act in her long life, her courage, intelligence, and dedication combined to make her a symbol of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity.”

The Story of My Life was written during Keller’s college years. The fact that she later became a voice of socialist movements has been well-documented. Though socialist agendas do not show up in this early memoir, she does give a hint of frustration with the world in Chapter XXII. She writes, “It seems to me that there is in each of us a capacity to comprehend the impressions and emotions which have been experienced by mankind from the beginning. Each individual has a subconscious memory of the green earth and murmuring waters, and blindness and deafness cannot rob him of this gift from past generations. This inherited capacity is a sort of sixth sense - a soul-sense which sees, hears, feels, all in one.” Clearly she connects with the cosmos, with nature, and with other people who remain ghosts to everything but her hands. She continues, “The sun and the air are God's free gifts to all, we say; but are they so? In yonder city's dingy alleys the sun shines not, and the air is foul. Oh, man, how dost thou forget and obstruct thy brother man, and say, ‘Give us this day our daily bread,’ when he has none! Oh, would that men would leave the city, its splendour and its tumult and its gold, and return to wood and field and simple, honest living! Then would their children grow stately as noble trees, and their thoughts sweet and pure as wayside flowers. It is impossible not to think of all this when I return to the country after a year of work in town.” This voice echoes Walt Whitman. It has been reinforced by her particular brand of religion. It also echoes socialist ideas which she embraces later in life.

Even so, her letters, essays, and books help give depth and understanding to the era of both World Wars. During this time, she corresponded with many famous and influential people, which itself alone merits reading. What is it, though, that makes any story worthwhile? I have to believe that Keller, like so many others, writes in order to understand what life is, to speak her story, and to preserve her memory. I wonder if the desire to leave something lasting pressed upon her because she lived in a tangible, but invisible world? In The Story of My Life, she describes the joys and frustrations of communication without hearing or vision. What must it be like to take everything on faith, to depend upon others for everything? She must, of course, resort to the written word as a natural path of communication.

As I think about this story again, despite its faults, I find no reason to remove the reading. Others disagree, however, and even this year the state of Texas has proposed removing Helen Keller from their curriculum. (She has been overshadowed in the media, though, due to the possibility of Clinton’s removal). I wish that I had been included in those conversations because having read Keller’s works, the removal of them makes me wonder: Why do we read if not to discover a world of ideas, some of which may challenge our own? If we seek to remove Helen Keller’s works, then have we not artificially textualized them? It seems to me that any singular or explicit definition of her work has replaced Keller with text. In other words, in removing context, we have also removed the person.

This is something that I am still coming to terms with myself. In reading through the Great Books it is easy to forget that Dante or Hume or Homer was a person. Plutarch carefully reminds the reader again and again that Rome was ruled by people, not giants. Certainly, history offers any number of problematic authors, but we are skillful readers. We ourselves are curious and intelligent, interested in the world, and to me, that means that we are capable of pursuing problematic texts for ourselves. And if we seek to encourage critical thinking skills in others, then we must provide opportunities. This post is not intended to be a defense of Helen Keller, but rather a defense of the idea of exploration. There are few women in history who have provided us with so many writings, not just her own memoirs, but letters to (and from) many influential people of note. I think it serves us better as educators and students to flesh out this person of interest rather than discard her as a firebrand of little worth.

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Holiday Menus

November 23, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

“Cookery is the most ancient of the arts, for Adam was born hungry.” - Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

I love cooking and so, naturally, I love old cookbooks. The holidays present a perfect time to rummage through my cookbooks. I learn so much about culture just from these pages. I also enjoy the pamphlets and chapbooks that small entities publish, such as church groups and non-profit organizations. Though some recipes are redundant, each publication adds a little flavor to the shelf. Today, I just wanted to share holiday tips from a variety of magazines and cookbooks over the last 100 years. As the years change, so does the style of food and the description of ingredients. It is fun to see recipes change from “a peck of potatoes” to “a pound of potatoes” and also to note changes introduced by accessibility to freezers, microwaves and other devices. If you have a favorite tradition or table setting, please, share it below!

Though it has no special section dedicated to Thanksgiving, the 1930 Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook explains, “At the formal dinner, butter is not served. None of the food is on the table when guests come into the dining-room. The napkin is on the service plate. Suppose the menu consists of a fruit cocktail, a soup, an entree, a main course, a salad, a dessert, and after-dinner coffee.”

From January 1951 article in EveryWoman Magazine. Article by Mary Grovesnor Ellsworth. Photo credit: Alissa Simon.

From January 1951 article in EveryWoman Magazine. Article by Mary Grovesnor Ellsworth. Photo credit: Alissa Simon.

Tucked inside a corner of this same cookbook, my grandmother saved an article by Mary Grovesnor Ellsworth titled “Blue Print for a Winter Party” from the January 1951 edition of EveryWoman Magazine. It recommends Jambalaya as the best holiday feast because it is a dish that “is much, much easier than pie – and that nobody will have had yesterday.” The page includes a map of footprints to guide your guests from serving table to dining tables and strictly advises that the traffic between kitchen and serving tables should never cross. She prepares everything the day before and suggests that men make the salad. Ellsworth writes, “The easiest and showiest way of coping with the salad is to dress it in the bowl. Men love to do this! It looks complicated and professional, is very easy to do, and actually produces a dressing that for some reason tastes different from the same ingredients combined before they hit the greens.”

A small book called the Foodorama Party Book, published by Kelvinator (at that time a division of American Motor Corps out of Detroit), 1959, contains recipes centered around frozen foods (which makes sense for Kelvinator, one of the first big names in freezers). For example, their Thanksgiving includes “Broccoli California” which is frozen broccoli cooked according to directions and topped with olive oil, garlic, almonds, and olives. To prepare for the feast, they write:

“The Thanksgiving table is set with your prettiest cloth and appointments. The ever-perfect centerpiece is that traditional symbol of a plentiful harvest: red cabbage, acorn and yellow squash, white and yellow onions, pumpkin, eggplant, green peppers, apples, grapes and oranges – all arranged on a tray lined with autumn leaves. … Simple family games for after dinner include Nut Throw (take turns pitching unshelled nuts into a bowl set a few feet away), Thanksgiving Day (make words from the letters in Thanksgiving Day), Nut Relay (push a nut along the floor over the finish line – but push only with your nose!).”

The Thanksgiving Feast suggested by Betty Crocker’s New Picture Cookbook (from 1961) is as follows: Roast Turkey, Bread Stuffing, Cranberry Sauce, Mashed Potatoes, Giblet Gravy, Creamed Onions, Mashed Squash, Carrot and Celery Curls, Ripe and Green Olives, Assorted Hot Rolls, Old-fashioned Mince Pie, and Autumn Pumpkin Pie. They also included a picture of their advised table setting (below).

Thanksgiving table setting according to  Betty Crocker’s New Picture Cookbook , 1961. Photo credit: Alissa Simon.

Thanksgiving table setting according to Betty Crocker’s New Picture Cookbook, 1961. Photo credit: Alissa Simon.

And finally, jumping up to 2007, in The Art of Simple Food, Alice Waters displays her love of entertaining with the following advice:

“Here are a few practices I employ to help me plan a menu, think it through, and cook it. These are critical for large gatherings and complex events, but they are useful for simple dinners, too. Once you have decided on the menu, make a game plan. First write out the menu and draft a shopping list. If, when you make the shopping list, you discover that the shopping, not to mention the cooking, is too complicated, go back and revise the menu – or see if anyone can help. … I also like to have a little something ready to nibble on when the guests arrive. This can be as simple as a bowl of warm olives or roasted nuts. I often make croutons topped with a tasty tidbit. Another of my favorite little somethings is a plate or bowl of freshly cut seasoned vegetables (carrots, fennel, radishes, celery, sweet peppers) served with nothing more than a sprinkle of salt and a squeeze of lemon.”

Whatever your holiday tradition or feast, enjoy! We wish you all the best.

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