Emma Morel Adler is a preservationist and educator in Savannah, GA, Joanna Semel Rose is chairman of the board of the cultural journal Partisan Review, and Alice Mitchell Rivlin is a leading economist, who served in the Clinton administration.
"Individual and Selective Memories: The Importance of the Past"
Emma Morel Adler
I think it's good that I'm speaking about the past, because Savannah was one of England's colonies, the 13th in this country, and not too long ago it suddenly it occurred to me that one of the stripes in the American flag is Georgia, which made me feel good. I really have been so interested in change as I have lived through it, and I have also have been very interested in education. I think that you will see, perhaps, a little evidence of that in the words that I am going to read.
Memory is as important in any era, but its status is of particular significance to day, at the beginning of the 21st century, when educators are allowing technology to replace the human brain as memory's repository. Lady MacBeth characterized memory as 'the warder of the brain." There is a cliche 'Use it or lose it'. Is Shakespeare's guardian threatened? Karen Armstrong, prolific English writer on the history of the world's great religions believes this to be so. In C-SPAN interview with Brian Lamb while discussing the poetic qualities of the Koran, created for oral recitation, she blamed technology on the fact that memorizing is out of date. We are losing our memory in the 21st century. Distinguished historian, Jacques Barzun, says knowledge lives by being known, not stored. It's widely recognized that human beings are capable of storing tremendous amounts of information. Margaret Mead is among those who have recorded individuals entrusted with the awesome responsibility of storing history for the collective benefit of the community in areas were no written languages existed. In scientific studies have compared young minds to computers since they are capable of retaining vast amounts of information if this is expected of them.
Memory's status declined during the 20th century as John Dewey's strong opposition to the mere accumulation of facts was accepted by those who deeply affected American educational theory and practice. Educators continue to emphasize the importance ofteaching students to access information, requiring computers even in elementary classrooms as they reject the importance of memory work. It is argued that information should not be spoon fed; students should think critically for themselves, in fact critical thinking is a great buzz word among public school educators anyway. Of course students should think for themselves, but retaining important factual information should not be an impediment to critical thinking.
Recently scholarly journals and newspapershave attested to the fact that something is wrong. As they reveal statistics showing that American students today have scant knowledge of history, little acquaintance with geography and the basic skills of reading and writing have not been transmitted successfully. The abysmal failure of elementary and secondary schools that educate the student population have made redemption necessary at a college level and caused education to emerge as a priority issue in the last presidential campaign. Perhaps the tide is turning.
Plato believed that specific contents transmitted to children are the most important elements in education. This is fully illustrated by Socrates and Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics as he emphasizes the need to cultivate knowledge of the good through repetition and continued reinforcement. Good habits must be learned. Important information must be retained. Traditionally young students were introduced to the Western world's great literature. The McGuffy Reader, perhaps the last example of its kind was in use throughout the 19th century, and the study of Latin continued to increase the understanding of the etymology of the English language as it strengthened knowledge of instruction until the mid 20th century. Right up in the front of my memory is the fact that to get into Bryn Mawr we had to have three years of Latin and two other languages. Times have changed.
Diane Ravitch in her fine analysis of American education, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reform, recognizes E. B. Hirsch, the author of Cultural Literacy, in a book called The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them as a strong advocate of shared knowledge. She praises him in the forefront of respected educational theory as his popular for knowledge curriculum gains acceptance in schools across the country. In his preface to Cultural Literacy, Hirsch describes a corrective theory to do it as "an anthropological theory of education," since it is based on the observation that communities are founded upon specific shared information.
My formal education in elementary school, which began in 1936, relied heavily on memory. First we learned nursery rhymes, later the continents, oceans and seas. The 13 colonies in North America and date of settlement, states and capitals, the multiplication tables, the names of great Roman and Norse gods and goddesses, the dates of important wars in out country. We memorized the 10th Commandments, selected Psalms and poems, and learned the names of the streets and squares in Savanna. In high school, inEnglish Literature classes, we read Shakespeare and memorized significant passages, and as we studied European history, we learned to relate great events in other countries to those in our countries. Remembering was cultivated as a habit. It is one for which I am continually grateful as I draw upon information that I carry with me. Recently my car radio, always tuned to Public Radio, picked up a science-body program which revealed that research is indicating that the use of cultivation and memory in the elementary school years may be a deterrent to Alzheimer's disease.
My father's oldest sister Ellen, born in 1871, had a profound influence on my life. As a little girl, I walked throughout downtown Savanna with her. In the colonial cemetery, she would point out a grave of a member of our family, Pat O'Brian Morel, who was killed by being thrown from a horse on April 5, 1790. As we walked in the square she would talk about friends who had lived in this or that house or we would visit her good friend Margaret Thomas who later bequeathed her beautiful mansion designed by the English architect William Jay to the Telfair museum. Through my mother's mother, who was in Savannah as a young child throughout the Civil War and who sometimes spoke of it or sang a song about the war and through my father's family, I feel in close touch with the 19th century. My own parents were about 10 years old when Queen Victoria died.
Our way of life during my childhood was far removed from life today, and my memories of it are vivid ones. I was reading Laurens Van der Post's Voice of the Thunder as we traveled through China a few years ago. This beautiful book is concerned with long memories and with the connectedness of humanity. Vanderpost notes that "Ours is an age with its back resolutely turned against its origins." As I noticed the all-consuming interest of the Chinese and western technology and Western-style development, it became clear that they are fast erasing their traditional buildings and way of life. This wasthe case in Savannah in the mid-1950s. Soon after our marriage, Lee and I both native Savannians, both became acutely aware that our city's architectural heritage was in jeopardy. Economic prosperity following World War II accelerated momentum towards change. The chamber of commerce was holding up Jacksonville, Florida as an example and promoting the demolition of irreplaceable buildings as it called "progress" to bring Savannah into the 20th century. I remember a Helen Hokinson cartoon in The New Yorker. Two heavily corseted matrons bemoaning the fact that 'They're tearing down Boston and putting something else.' This almost happened to Savanna. Thanks to Historic Savannah Foundation, the non-profit organization founded in 1955, Savannah has retained much of its architectural patrimony. An annual celebration of the founding of the 13th English colony in Savannah in 1733 also helps our community retain the memory of its important heritage. The Savannah-Chatham County public school system heritage education program brings Savannah's history to life for all students. Some years ago we went to a wedding in Midland, Texas, a city which seemed to have sprung up full blown in the modern era. During that weekend, someone suggested that we visit the Oil Museum. Here we found huge murals of old brick buildings, horses and carriages, a 19th century town totally erased 3 dimensionally. Memory in Midland is only archival. To me this is barbaric, since with Shakespeare I believe that the past is Prologue.
Joanna Semel Rose '52
It may have been purposeful, but I suspect that it was a coincidence that while you've asked a preservationist to talk of the past and a social scientist to speak of the future, you have left the present to an English major: well, you were right. The present is the domain of the novel, the province of the imagination.
The first book I remember being assigned in Freshman Composition, E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel, said the historian records; the novelist creates. People start life with an experience they forget and end it with one which they anticipate but cannot understand. History develops; art stands still. A novel describes life in time, but the life of values as well. Our daily life in time is this business of getting old, but our life of values is one of love and freedom, choice, satisfaction, sorrow, friendship and memory.
Life at Bryn Mawr in our lime was very different from what it is now. There was the Lantern Man, who met us at the gate at night and escorted us to our halls. We: had maids and porters, even a Maids and Porters Show directed by students (try explaining that to your children, much less your grandchildren!). And on the list of what to bring to college was a tea set. I called the College to find out if this was still the case. Dead silence. They called back to say that in 1971 it was suggested that a mug might be useful.
The days of our youth have passed, but those of us who entered Bryn Mawr in the Fall of 1948 were probably very similar to those entering today: advanced young women, individualistic (we were never a Mary McCarthy "group"), curious, energetic, outspoken. I found it puzzling when ours was dubbed the "silent generation."
The fifties were the days of classification by threes-ectomorph, mesomorph and endomorph; highbrow, middlebrow, lowbrow. We were definitely highbrow-by Virginia Woolf's definition, "A woman of thoroughbred intelligence who rides her mind at a gallop across country in pursuit of an idea." In 1950 David Riesman (son of a Bryn Mawr graduate) published The Lonely Crowd, defining character types as other-directed, tradition-directed,, and inner-directed. Of course, we concluded, we were inner-directed: we had goals and the capacity to go it alone. We had high self-esteem. Recent studies seem to bear out the fact that girls in single-sex schools do better in academics, athletics and social situations (I'm not sure about the latter, but we did have self-esteem). We were feminists before feminism. We never thought there was anything we couldn't do just because we were women. About children and careers-well, we did it seriatim. Most of us weren't ambitious enough to feel we could do it all at once and well.
So here we are--in the present, suspended between a Golden Age that was or seemed to be, and a Golden Age that will or may possibly be. The present is a Golden Age for the class of 1952. When I look at our reunion book, my mind plays tricks. I see, not our frailer selves, but us as we were 50 years ago. In our minds, who's to say we are not? We still live by the Bryn Mawr motto, veritatem dilexi. We still question and care about ideas, and we are in a unique position: we are the last generation who have read the same books.
We have time now-some of us retired, our children grown; we're traveling, gardening, writing. We have time to transmit our memories, our world, and our take on this new world to others. We can select what we want to transmit. We would do well to remember the Russian who had a memory so perfect he couldn't forget anything. As a result, he was unable to make sense of things because he was too focused on every detail.
We might adopt the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, taking pleasure in natural things, a recognition that beauty is fleeting and imperfect, a reverence for simplicity and the spiritual essence of things. We know it is nourishment for the soul to spend hours reading in a hammock, savoring a Brandenburg Concerto, meandering through a museum. We can transmit that knowledge. Millicent Carey Mcintosh (I had not realized she was the niece of M. Carey Thomas) claimed that it is important for each individual to order her life so that she becomes a happy, creative person. Not yet in our second childhood, some of us are reordering our lives with second careers, second chances, second thoughts.
Shakleton announced as the Endurance was sinking in Antarctic ice, "A man must shape himself to a mew mark directly the old one goes." In my case that means defending excellence against the charge of elitism. The life of intellect is hierarchical. Everything is not of equal value.
A few weeks ago. Partisan Review, the literary- and cultural journal whose board I have chaired for 30 years, organized a symposium in Boston, a redux of its 1952 "Our Country, Our Culture" issue. 1952, the year that Dewey, Santayana, and Benedetto Croce died, the year Dylan Thomas and our own Marianne Moore published collected poems, the Partisan Review intellectuals deplored mass culture, social conformity, material prosperity, a fragmented self, and center that did not hold.
At our conference in 2002, intellectuals bemoaned the fact that the popular culture of the fifties had triumphed, that there is no longer a pursuit of truth to set us free, that there is, instead, no accepted truth in the academy; the Derrida view prevails-that there is no reality, only "representations."
Today, the speakers claimed, power, not freedom, is what counts. Today the question is not what to read, but how to read. In the university, conformism is promoted under the name of multiculturalism or diversity. People talk about things that are different, not better. Cynthia Ozick (whose daughter chose Bryn Mawr) wrote that most good students don't recognize Lionel Trilling's name, but they know Foucault.
Well, we know Trilling and Foucault. We were trained to read and we agree with Philip Roth that a trained reader reads for pleasure. If, as Jacques Barzun fears, western culture is waning, we may be its last beam of light.
We were educated to recognize the best in thought and deed. We may be too old to fight the unconventional battles the 21st century has brought, but we can articulate why they must be fought. We can imagine the future. I myself came face to face with that future 30 years ago when my young daughter announced: "I don't know everything, but I know how to find it." The future means exponential growth in technology and in the economy, and new machines that will enhance our creativity. The human is the only species that tries to expand its potential- and we are good at it. Currently, according to Ray Kurzweil, modem science is adding 100 days a year to human life expectancy.
Our class bird is the peacock-in the Middle Ages, the symbol of immortality, of eternal life. We don't need eternal life, nor even want it. We have faces that show the stigmata of age and the traces of time, faces that wear the features of life fully lived, the scars of experience, of passion, of hope, of disappointment and of joy* We have earned our faces. Unlike children, we want and should be heard, not seen.
Cicero said, "Every part of life, like the years, has its peculiar season: children are by nature weak, youth is rash and bold, staid manhood more solid and grave; and so old age in its maturity has something natural to itself that ought particularly to recommend it." Let our "something natural" be wisdom so we can echo Bryn Mawr's first President at his inaugural address in 1885: "We rejoice in a culmination and a beginning." Whether we are reading to grandchildren, writing poetry, sculpting, digging, exploring, singing or teaching, we are, and should continue, transmitting those values inculcated in us at Bryn Mawr: joy in learning, pleasure in knowledge for its own sake, independent thought and intellectual courage. I leave you with these words from Dorothy Sayers: "Time and trouble will tame an advanced young woman, but an advanced old woman is uncontrollable by any earthly force."
*appreciation to Jasper Griffin
Alice Mitchell Rivlin '52
"The Future" is a vast--indeed, infinite--subject. Since my role is to provoke you to share your own thoughts, I want to leave plenty of time for discussion. Hence, I will limit myself to three aspects of the future:
· The economy--because that is what you expect me to talk about
· The balancing of family and other responsibilities--because we've all wrestled so hard with that problem and are now watching another generation deal with it
· And what I think of as the spiritual side of life--because it is so important in this dangerous world. I also want to limit the future to the next decade: What will things be like when we come back for our 60th reunion? That is risky--you will check on me!
I am optimistic about our economy over the next ten years. When we were in college, the U.S. economy was near the beginning of remarkably strong growth period that lasted another two decades. Productivity growth was high, and incomes were going up across the whole income distribution--bottom, middle and top. Americans were busy buying cars and building new houses in the suburbs--creating both a better life and problems of congestion and pollution to be dealt with later.
Then, about 1973, the doldrums set in, for reasons economists do not fully understand. Productivity growth plummeted, and the economic engine slowed. People with less skill and education suffered most--their wages (adjusted for inflation) dropped substantially. Poverty increased again, partly because of slow growth and partly because of the downside of the sexual revolution--a lot more single mothers with kids.
After another twenty years, in the mid-1990's, productivity growth surged again--also for reasons economists do not fully understand. Technology played a major role, and economic policy certainly helped. I have to believe that because I worked hard on the policies, both in the Clinton Administration and the Federal Reserve. Moving the federal budget from huge deficits into surplus was a big success and helped the Federal Reserve keep interest rates low. Unemployment dropped and inflation stayed remarkably quiescent. Incomes began growing faster again, especially at the high end. With low unemployment rates even the wages of unskilled workers moved up, although the incomes of people with skills and education growing even faster.
The excesses of the 1990's--like the excesses of the 1920's that we heard so much about from our parents--led to an inevitable readjustment. This recession, however, has been mild and was not greatly worsened by the tragedy of September 11th. The economy is clearly recovering, although it is far from certain how strong the resurgence will prove in the short-run. This year started with a bang, but the second half could well be slower. Much depends on how rapidly capital spending recovers, especially spending on technology. I suspect that strong growth will take a while to gather steam and the Federal Reserve may keep interest rates low for quite a while.
In any case, the outlook for the next decade is for healthy growth. Technology, especially increasing use of the Internet, remains a very positive force. We could well be near the beginning of a sustained high-growth period like the one that began in our college years. But my optimism is tempered with the realization that there enormous challenges to be met if our economic system is to perform as we want it to. Three important challenges are ensuring integrity in corporate information (so investors know how companies are really performing), making work pay for the less skilled (the last thing we need is a tax cut to make work pay better for upper income people!), and improving public services, especially education.
Being a Woman--the Career/ Family trade off and related issues
We were adventurous 50 years ago. Opportunities in the world of work had not yet begun to change rapidly for young women. Those of us who went into what were then unconventional jobs for women--law, medicine, business, economics--encountered a lot of obstacles and stereotypes, including our own. We muddled through without storming the barricades, leaving that to women a decade younger. In general, our feminism was low-key. We juggled families, jobs and community service, mostly came out all right. The work part was easier for our daughters. They were more self-confident and encountered less resistance the job world. I remember the somewhat mystified look of my daughter, soon after she graduated from law school, when a friend of mine asked her if she worried about being a woman in a legal career. "I sometimes worry about not being smart enough or tall enough," she replied, "but I never worry about being female." Our daughters married later, and had their children later, so some us thought we'd never get to be grandparents. But they are still trying to do everything--balancing the responsibilities of wives and lawyers, artists and soccer moms, community activists and whole people--and now they have us to worry about, as we become older and frailer. And we, too, are still juggling competing roles.. I was recently driving from Grandparents' Day in my granddaughter's first grade to a professional meeting downtown, feeling mildly stressed because I was going to be late. Since it was the same school her father had gone to, I was acutely conscious of having been in this situation many times before. I flipped on the radio to find Diane Rehm interviewing Lisa Belkin about her wonderful little book, An Unbalanced Mom. I later e-mailed Diane that somebody ought to write a book for the working grandmother, and she e-mailed back that her second grandchild had been born that very day!
Is the balancing act going to get easier for our granddaughters? I don't think so or for our grandsons either. They will have even more opportunities to develop and use their talents and to be leaders in all fields. But world will keep moving faster, inundating them with more information and more choices and increasing their need to figure out what is most important to them as life rushes by. I believe the revolution in gender roles took place on our watch and is pretty much accomplished. Both men and women will be sorting out the consequences for decades to come. Which brings me to the spiritual dimension.
Inner peace and world peace
I don't have any cosmic thoughts to offer--just a lot of questions, private and public. The private search for meaning in life assumes more importance as we grow older, perhaps because we are running out of time to figure it out. The questions we argued about in freshman philosophy have not changed, and the answers are only a little clearer. But after 50 years, we know that time is too precious to waste on hate or envy or fear or anxiety or indecision. We search for meaning and connectedness in poetry, music, art, intimacy, religion and meditation. We may not find inner peace, but the searching makes us more sensitive, caring, loving people than we used to be. That's called "growing up," which we now know is a process without an end. Indeed, the main thing we know now that we didn't know fifty years ago is that we never grow up, we just keep trying. We'll be a little more grown up by our 60th!
The question that seems to me overwhelmingly important now--since the World is so small and weapons so destructive--is what can we all do to help nations grow up, including our own? Indeed, especially our own, since we are the most powerful nation in the World and can make the most difference if we figure out how.
No one in Washington seems to be asking the right questions: Is the best way to prevent future terrorism to bomb Afghanistan? To obliterate people hiding in caves? To attack Iraq? Aren't there ways to reach out to the people who think the United States is responsible for all the evil, poverty and injustice in the World and show them we care about these things, too, and work with them to make their lives better? Do we have to stand by while the Israelis and the Palestinians slaughter each other? Or the Indians and Pakistanis? Can't we get in there and yell, "Stop! Stop the killing, and we'll help you all build a better life!"
I don't pretend to know the answers, but I believe that unless a lot of us raise these questions and suggest radically new and spiritually different approaches to international conflict, the world will become an increasingly violent and dangerous place. When we come back for our 60th reunion, the economy could be doing great and our family lives might be strong, but in a world of escalating terror it may not matter. I hate to end on such a dire note, but I think this challenge cannot be left unsaid. How we and others like us meet it will determine what the world is like ten years from now.
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