A Course Everyone Should Take

Students often come to college with their own set of impressions about the people in the world around them, whether they’ve ever personally interacted with those people or not.  That’s not a criticism of college students, it’s a reality of modern life.  We all live in our own little worlds, and we form impressions about what others might be like based on the news that we allow to filter into our bubbles.

img_20180526_130448But what if people tried to get out of their bubbles and actually meet some of the people they’ve formed impressions about, to see what their lives are like and experience their worlds?  That’s what the Harvard Institute of Politics tried to accomplish with something called the Main Street Project.  The goal was to get Harvard students, most of whom hailed from the coasts, out into places in flyover country where they could meet real people who live and work in the heartland.  The group of students visited towns in western Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, saw people working at their jobs, and went to the restaurants where the locals go.  They stayed in bed and breakfasts owned by locals, traveled in a van, and took the back roads.  In the process, they even met a few Trump voters and went to a gun range where women were engaged in some vigorous target practice.

As one of the organizers wrote:  “Even though these kids had almost all been raised in the United States, our journey sometimes felt like an anthropology course, as though they were seeing the rest of the country for the first time.”  The students admitted that they “had been fed a steady diet of stereotypes about small towns and their folk: “backwards,” “no longer useful,” “un- or under-educated,” “angry and filled with a trace of bigotry” were all phrases that came up.”  But as they traveled through places like Youngstown, Ohio, meeting good people who were living happy, productive lives, the students saw the stereotypes break apart.

None of the students got course credit or a grade for participating in the Main Street Project, but they did get an education.  One of the student organizers said:  “The best way to blow apart a stereotype is to challenge it” — and he is right.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone, regardless of their age, had a similar opportunity to meet people and challenge some of the stereotypes that we all carry around?

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Blazing Saddles In A PC America

Tonight the CAPA summer movie series screens the Mel Brooks epic Blazing Saddles.  I’ll be joining a group of guys from the firm who will be going to watch the film that features the greatest fart scene in the history of American cinema.

blazesaddle129It’s pretty amazing that CAPA is showing the movie in this day and age, because Blazing Saddles has to be one of the most politically incorrect films ever made.  Released in 1974, and written by Brooks and Richard Pryor, among others, it tells the tale of an ex-slave in the post-Civil War American West who is appointed sheriff and, with his drunken gunslinger sidekick the Waco Kid, works to save the aghast and unappreciative townsfolk of Rock Ridge from the depredations of a carefully recruited gang of thugs — all as part of a deep scheme to drive the people out of town and allow a corrupt politician to cheaply buy land needed for a railroad.  Along the way, Blazing Saddles manages to skewer every racial and sexual stereotype, insult just about every ethnic group and sexual orientation imaginable, and hilariously spoof all of the hackneyed elements of the western movie genre.

I think Blazing Saddles is one of the funniest movies ever — which undoubtedly says something about my sophomoric sense of humor — but it’s hard to imagine it being made today.  Our modern time seems like a more brittle, more easily offended America, where colleges have speech codes, comedians are being censored on campus, and people often seem to be actively looking for ways to scale new heights of political correctness.  Perhaps the America of 1974, in the twilight of the ugly Vietnam War/Watergate era, was just more willing to enjoy a hearty laugh at the expense of racist townspeople and gassy cowboys.

So tonight, as Lili von Shtupp cavorts onstage with dancing Germans, Mongo punches a horse and later expresses feelings for Sheriff Bart, the ungrateful people of Rock Ridge list their preferences for different ethnic groups, and a brawl in cowboy movie spills onto the sound stage of a musical featuring prancing, tuxedo-clad dancers, I’ll be mindful of the audience, too.  How many of the people in attendance will laugh at one of the stereotype-bursting lines — and then look around with a guilty conscience for having breached the invisible wall of modern political correctness?