Monday, June 18, 2012

Political booby traps

Last night we watched The First Grader, a National Geographic BBC film.  It is the story of an 84 year old Kenyan who was tortured by the British in their fight against the Mau-mau.  The man, Kimani Maruge, learned at the age of 84 that the by-then independent government of Kenya offered free education to everyone.  Maruge had received a letter from his government but couldn't read and he wanted to read it for himself.  So, on the day the local elementary school opened, he marched over to the school to be a student and learn to read. The movie depicts the excitement of local children and parents at having a chance for their children to receive an education but they were suspicious and unsettled at learning that the tall, grizzled old man was also a pupil.

Older local men, used to spending the day just talking and drinking beer, ridiculed the strange pupil.  As an education professor, I was interested in the film as an example of the power and attraction of education for adults.  So, I was surprised by the many ways the locals of various ages were strongly against this old man going to the new school.  I was even more surprised as I realized that in this country and many others, adult education, help for illiterates and language learners is widespread and, I think, fully accepted and even admired.  So, the vehemence of opposition coupled with both the accepted authoritarian tone of most of the teachers and administrators along with the confusion and fear of the government at the prospect of a much bigger educational need than they were prepared for, showed me how differently life can unfold on different parts of this planet.

Similarly, I checked the "To The Best of Our Knowledge" web site.  That group is outstanding at holding 5 to 15 minute interviews with very interesting and stimulating people.  This morning, I learned about the book "White Bread" by Prof. Aaron Bobrow-Strain, a political scientist and food historian.  Anne Strainchamps again put together an eye-opening and memorable interview of Bobrow-Strain on the subject of white bread, the normal everyday stuff that we have all eaten.  In the early years of the 1900's, high levels of fear and anxiety over immigrants to the US showed up, among other ways, in the idea that many 'dirty', even 'fundamentally and innately unclean' foreigners were working in small bakeries throughout large cities, making unclean bread that could sicken people.

Bobrow-Strain could find no evidence that there was truth to the idea but white bread "untouched by human hands" became a symbol of the better, higher, cleaner way of life.  Then, by the counterculture days of the flower children 60's, white bread morphed into the symbol of unwise eating and domination by anonymous corporations.

Who knew that an 84 year old illiterate or a loaf of white bread could be so powerful emotionally?  Who would guess that deep passions of vary hues would arise over either?

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