By Michael Gos
Buffalo Gap, Texas
I watched as she pulled a nail out of the wall with a pair of long-nose pliers. She moved over about five inches and down a couple, then pounded it back in.
I was at the Perini Ranch Steakhouse, a place I had heard about for years. This was my first trip to Buffalo Gap and I had spent the day finding the natural pass the old buffalo herds traveled through and touring the Historic Village. I got a sense of the location of Great Western cattle trail that ran through here on its way from Bandera to Dodge City, Kan. Now it was time for dinner. It was Friday night and there was a 45 minute wait for a table, so I sat at the bar nursing a Corona and watching her work.
Satisfied with this attempt, she picked up what looked to be a very old black and white photo of a group of people in front of a chuck wagon and hung it on the nail. After examining her work for a few seconds, she took it back down and again pulled out the nail.
I asked what was going on. She said she was trying to put up this photo of the precursor to the restaurant—a scene from when Perini’s was a cowboy catering business. I guess I wasn’t clear. I asked about the nails.
“I want to center it on that wall and get it about this level,” she said, touching the wall to identify the spot. But I keep missing. It always turns out to be higher than I want it and while it looks centered when I pound it in, it doesn’t when I’m done.”
I asked why she just didn’t measure the wall and the distance between the top of the hanging wire and the frame. She looked at me and asked “why?”
“So you could get it exactly right.”
I finally realized what was really going on and decided to change the subject. In the next few minutes she made three more attempts before finally getting it how she wanted it. Then she reached under the bar and pulled out a small can.
She smiled at me, showed me the can and said, “Spackle. A girl’s best friend.”
One of the things I try to instill in my Humanities students is an awareness of the “Great Conversation” going on around us all the time. Everywhere we turn, the conversation goes on. It happens in our private interactions with others. It is in the books we read, what we see on TV and what we hear on the radio. It is in our movies, our newspapers and magazines, even our music. The conversation began in the dawn of time and continues today. The interesting thing is, it transcends time. We can listen and respond to the ideas of our contemporaries or to those from people who came centuries before us. The conversation revolves around the “Big Questions” in life, and as we try to negotiate our ways through the world we were born to, we can look to this conversation to help us sort it all out.
But there is a problem. It is a conversation we miss if we lack the knowledge and cultural background to recognize it is happening. If we don’t know the allusions in the conversation, we are excluded from it. My number one goal in my Humanities classes is to give my students access to that conversation. First, I have to show them it exists. Then I have to convince them of its importance.
To demonstrate to them the reality and magnitude of the issue, we examine a couple of paintings by Van Gogh, look at his life story, learn about the hero’s journey myth and study the archetype of the garden. Then I show them an episode of the old Northern Exposure TV show—the one where Joel leaves Alaska. They are shocked to see all of the things we talked about in a single episode of a TV show, right down to Van Gogh’s bandage. They still miss references to gatekeepers, sirens and ships crashing on the rocks, things they would have understood had they read the Odyssey, but that is no longer required in high schools. At least they begin to see how their interaction with the world is reduced by their lack of knowledge. It opens up a whole new world to them.
My students watch TV, go to movies and occasionally even read a book (okay, I admit that is rare), and yet large chunks of what they see go right over their heads because they lack the knowledge to follow the allusions that the participants in the conversation assume everyone will recognize. The worst part is, they are completely unaware that they are missing anything. When the characters in Big Bang Theory mention Schrodinger’s cat, viewers who have never heard of the physics analogy just ignore the reference; they pretend it didn’t happen. In fact, when I ask my students about certain references in a work we read or see, they often claim they never noticed them. It is interesting how that works.
My students remove from their experience the parts of the TV show that feature references they don’t recognize. The woman at Perini’s reduced her capabilities substantially to accommodate her inability, or perhaps unwillingness, to do simple math. The pattern is clear—we shrink our lives to accommodate what we have failed to learn. If we lack the tools to do a job, we change the job to accommodate the tools we do have. The woman at Perini’s was much more adept with Spackle than with simple arithmetic, and she rearranged her life to accommodate the skills she possessed. How negative of an effect did that have on her life? It was probably not that big of an issue in the greater scheme of things, but in some cases, the cost can be far greater.
A number of years ago, a member of an environmental organization was making a presentation to a local government body. In an attempt to stop a project they felt was destructive to the area, he indicated his group would be attacking the project in a multitude of small ways simultaneously to cause what he called a “death by a thousand cuts.” A member of the body, not having that reference to Chinese history in her educational background, accused him of making a terroristic threat. Needless to say, it turned out to be an embarrassing situation as people began to ridicule her comments. Failure to understand the reference being made, and then reacting in an inappropriate way, did serious damage to a promising career.
Sometimes the damage caused by our lack of knowledge expands further, hurting not just us, but others around us. In another meeting, a small town government body was asked to tackle a particularly touchy problem. One member advised against it saying “we really don’t want to touch that tar baby.” Someone who didn’t recognize the reference to the old Uncle Remus children’s tale interpreted it as a racial slur and called in protesters from Houston. For several weeks the controversy stirred up the town. A lot of people paid a price because of a hole in someone else’s knowledge.
There are those who say this can all be avoided if we simply stop assuming that people share these common cultural references. They believe we should stop using them and instead “democratize” our conversations. But if we do that, we greatly reduce the richness of the conversation solely to accommodate the lowest common denominator.
It seems to me that a far better option is to do a better job introducing our children to the culture so they too can enjoy the richness of the conversation. And, you know, it wouldn’t be such a bad idea for us to do exactly the same thing for ourselves. The more I learn, the bigger and more interesting the Great Conversation becomes. I have noticed that no matter what it is, the minute I learn something new, I start to see it popping up around me everywhere: on TV and radio, in lunch conversation and bar talk. I’m sure the subject in question didn’t just suddenly become a hot topic because I learned about it. I suspect it was a part of the conversation all along, but because I had no knowledge of it, I didn’t even notice the references.
That richness of the conversation seems to me to be the strongest argument for lifelong learning. As we learn, the whole discussion just gets more and more interesting—and that makes life more rewarding.