Salena Zito’s latest NYPost column is about the Harvard course she developed to introduce Harvard undergrads to life in the Midwest. It’s an eye opener. I truly wonder how people could grow up and not have some level of experience with the kinds of things she is allowing these kids to experience. When I was growing up such a lack of experience was available only to the deeply urban and in those days that generally meant deeply poor. If you lived as I did, in the ‘burbs, farms were close enough that you picked up ag work as a odd job to pay for that new car or stereo or…. My dad was an executive type, but that meant summer jobs in the factories belonging to the business he worked for. Neighbors owned small businesses, and so forth. Life just brought about the experiences that these kids have to take a non-credit course to get. That fact suggests some pretty amazing socio-economic change that is worth some serious exploration, but by others more qualified than me.
What I found most fascinating was the attitude changes these experiences brought to these kids. Aren’t the current generations supposed to be the least bigoted, most enlightened our nation has ever produced? Yet the divide illustrated by these efforts strikes this observer as essentially the same as the color line bigotries of my youth. How is the concept of “flyover country” really that different than “the negro part of town?”
Zito, to be sure, paints her students differently than what we see on TV:
The students’ course was coming to an end, and while no one got college credit or earned a grade, they had all passed my most important test: They had taken a walk down Main Street and made a lot more friends than judgments. They had learned that, in order to understand a country’s politics, you first have to understand its people. That means getting out of your bubble and spending time away from people like you. If you don’t, Kuang said, “you lose the ability to spark the evolution needed to bridge the country’s divide.”
But her students are studying politics, and it is the Midwest that just sparked a revolution – it would be really stupid for them not to look. I am far more worried about the commentariat and the media industry generally. Trump Derangement Syndrome is almost by definition disdainful of Trump voters – the kind of people Zito was introducing her students to.
I tend to avoid cable news like the plague. The hosts’ MSNBC show is the only appointment cable news viewing I do. But when I do watch, the disdain virtually drips from the set. All this while they are showing us shows about bigotry against immigrants, or historical perspectives on days of Jim Crow. It reminds me of way too many conversations I heard at gatherings in Mississippi while growing up during the civil rights era. By that time blatant, bigoted statements were no longer uttered; it had become de rigeuer, but bias and bigotry was very real and it oozed throughout the conversation.
Zito’s course reminds me so much of efforts in the 60’s trying simply to get whites and blacks to have reasonable conversations with each other. There is a hint of “Black Like Me” to it. It’s not that I do not think what she did was worthwhile – it most certainly was – it is just that I cannot believe it is necessary in this day-and-age. The formality and structure necessary for simple human interaction makes plain the inhumanity of life without it.
The issue set to dominate this week is the separation of illegal immigrant families. It is an inhumane practice. And yet attitude-wise it seems right in line with how we treat each other. As the debate roils through the week we are likely to treat the other side of the debate disdainfully. Of course, actions are louder than words or attitude, but I think the debate would be greatly aided if we checked the attitude at the door.