Monday, December 15, 2014

On Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth"

On Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth": First performed in New Haven, Connecticut, in October 1942, The Skin of Our Teeth quickly moved to Broadway within a month. The play, which focused on the Antrobus Family from "Excelsior," New Jersey, eventually won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1943. As for the play's author, Wilder possessed a brilliant, yet eccentric, literary mind. Born in the Midwest, he was the product of two Ivy League schools (Yale and Princeton), and briefly served in the U.S. military during both World Wars. Being in the military gave him the unique experience of constantly facing the prospect of non-existence. And it was this kind of "existential-extinctive" feeling/theme that recurs throughout The Skin of Our Teeth. Biblical allegories and references aside, (especially to Sodom and Gomorrah), the play places the reader in a fictional twentieth-century Jersey Shore town, which is on the verge of entering another Ice Age. Ironically enough, a devastating war catalyzed the town's ultimate demise. But at the play's end, it becomes abundantly clear that despite the pernicious capacity of mankind to destroy, it's our collective will to rebuild which always triumphs.

Monday, December 1, 2014

On the Origins of Progressive Education

On the Origins of Progressive Education: Perhaps one statement, above all, captures American Progressive education in a nutshell: "If we teach today's students as we taught yesterday's, we rob them of tomorrow." That statement came from pragmatist philosopher John Dewey (pictured above) in 1916. He was a staunch advocate of separating "education" from "schooling," by claiming that education is the process of living and schooling is the process of learning how to make a living. Decades prior, in the 1880s, similar sentiments had been expressed by American sociologist Lester Frank Ward. Ever the egalitarian, he asserted that one of the biggest sources of injustice in society "was the unequal distribution of knowledge." Traditional education, as Ward saw it, had become nothing more than a tool for the upper classes to reinforce social norms (the status quo). He also believed that traditional education's aristocratic roots persisted in a pre-modern form of tracking, which often groomed students for particular careers based on heritage instead of merit. In effect, Ward proposed that all students should have the opportunity to accumulate knowledge for knowledge's sake (and in any subjects they choose).

Saturday, November 15, 2014

On the Early Years of Television

On the Early Years of Television: When the television made its debut at the 1939 World's Fair in New York City (NYC), nobody understood what its ultimate impact on society might be. Such a dilemma had already been playing out with the radio, which came into existence during the 1920s. Would this new communications technology be used for crass commercialism (in the form of advertisements & entertainment) or cultural uplift (in the form of educational information)? This question was central to the early historical development of television. And two shows in particular helped steer television toward a mixture of both entertainment and cultural uplift. First, I Love Lucy, which ran on CBS from 1951-57, followed the trials and tribulations of a rambunctious NYC housewife, Lucy Ricardo, as she tried to break the daily monotony of household activities. Second, The Honeymooners, which ran on CBS from 1955-56, followed the lives of a crude NYC bus driver Ralph Kramden (who later became the inspiration for Fred Flintstone) and his witty wife Alice. Because each show existed mostly before the days of cable, their analog appeal reached nationwide. Ultimately, however, both shows were social commentaries about the basic nature of family and class structures in post-World War II America.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

On Early American Landscape Architecture

On Early American Landscape Architecture: In the 1850s, American architects began to consider the importance of landscape design in urban planning. Cities like Boston and New York were becoming overcrowded due to the influx of European immigrants (mostly Irish). These cities needed more housing (tenements), more infrastructure (sewers), more streets, and more open spaces. Textile, shoe, and steel factories had begun to dominate urban landscapes, and thus, make city life rather uncomfortable. Often deemed the "father" of American landscape architecture, Andrew Jackson Downing was originally drawn to the design and construction of homes. He believed that people's moral dispositions were firmly tied to their living circumstances. But from his work on home design, he started to understand the significance of landscaping. And until his death in 1852 from a steamboat explosion on the Hudson River, he was considered the front-runner for designing New York's Central Park. That duty later fell to Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., who in 1858, won a design competition to expand Downing's plans. As a committed egalitarian idealist, Olmsted concluded that every New Yorker should have equal access to the park. Such an idea was quite radical in the 1850s, especially since some urban parks had been reserved for private functions in certain neighborhoods (e.g. - New York's Gramercy Park).

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

On the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition

On the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition: Four-hundred and one years after Christopher Columbus landed in the Bahamas (and "discovered" the Americas), the city of Chicago hosted a World's Fair. It was to be bigger and better than any previous World's Fair, as its planners particularly sought to outdo the Paris EXPO of 1889 (where the Eiffel Tower had been unveiled). Despite the onset of a serious financial panic in 1893, the Fair's planners spared no expense to show off Chicago's greatness. Only two decades since the city's Great Fire of 1871, the Fair represented a grand opportunity to exhibit how the rebuilding process had made Chicago ultra-modern, especially in terms of railways, roadways, and skyscrapers. Some of the Fair's highlights included the world's first Ferris Wheel, one of the world's first steam locomotives (the John Bull), and numerous Beaux-Arts/neoclassical buildings which required around 120,000 incandescent lamps to light up at night. Pragmatist philosopher William James remarked that everybody who visited the Fair "grew religious," while socialist politician Eugene V. Debs believed the Fair had a "healthy effect" on American workers at the time. By the time the Fair closed in October, it was drawing more than 150,000 visitors/day. With such high daily attendance figures, the total number of visitors eventually surpassed 25 million.