Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Literature’s unending charm and challenge:

“I can lift the huge universe.”

Mr Sebastian Ruelos,

Principal, San Vicente (IS) Elementary School

Dr Abe V Rotor

Postwar to Cyber Age Transition

Our principal, Mr. Sebastian Ruelos, visited our classroom and wrote on the board, I can lift the huge universe, and asked us, “What does this mean. Anyone?”

Silence fell in our brick walled classroom which still bore the scars of war. No one dared to recite.There was total silence like anticipating another air raid. But the war was already over. It was already peace time.

“This is what you will face in life.” He continued, this time in our dialect - Ilokano.We were about to graduate in elementary in a small town, San Vicente, west of Vigan. War had taught us survival in the midst of danger and uncertainty. It erased much of the joy of childhood, and instead tempered us early to take over the role of adults.

When one is focused on responsibility and meeting daily needs, unsure of what lies beyond, dreams are just wishes and prayers like passing wind. When fear has numbed the mind to learn, how can it go beyond the three Rs of education - the fundamentals of literacy?

That was 60 years ago.

This time I asked my students in the university to interpret the same statement. It was the opposite of silence that filled our air-conditioned room. Atlas! came a ready answer - the mythical figure holding the sky from falling. Discussionproceeded as my students consulted their electronic notebooks, laptops, tablets, smart phones and i-Pods, and came up with different versions of “lifting the huge universe” through cyberspace. It was like picking up fragments of information from the sky, so to speak. But how can knowledge condense into philosophy from fleeting cirrus and stratus clouds?Short cut to knowledge seldom leads to wisdom.

These contrasting scenarios and the years that separate them raise questions presenting themselves into a thesis. Indeed it is.

These questions have been raised before. They are traced as far back as Aristotle advising the young Alexander the Great, to establish peace soon after winning a war. To Washington Irving’s Rip van Winkle who slept for twenty long years and found himself a stranger in his own village. To the Charles Dickens’ story of Oliver Twist, an orphan who at the end found his lineage to a rich family.To a boy herowho plugged a hole in the dike with his arm and saved Holland from deluge. To Tarzan who inspired adventure in children and kindness to animals. To sages on the question of who is more civilized – the primitive or the educated, in The Gods Must be Crazy. To Lola Basyang’s melodrama, Walang Sugat, played on the town’ entablado during fiesta.

I remember Camilo Osias’s books for school children, which are rich in lessons for growing up, but never moralistic in approach. It has the touch of Aesop, Grimm Brothers, Hans Anderson, and our own folklores. One story is about a Golden Lion. Impatient of getting a gold coin each day, a greedy boy inserted his hand into the lion’s mouth to scoop all the coins like forcing a slot machine to release the jackpot’s prize.Poor boy, the lion never let go his arm. It has the same theme as Aesop’s goose that lays golden eggs.

We kids in our time imagined the legendary Angalo moved mountains. It is no different from Superman,Lam-ang, Achilles and Beowulf. They reside in fantasy and live forever in children.

We also loved to go into the bottom of the sea, or into a deep crevice below the earth, or to go around the world in eighty days, for the love of adventure. Thanks to Jules Verne. And lo! Science and technology has succeeded in turning fiction into reality. They made us grow into real men.

And for girls, Heidi, the orphan in Spyri’s novel who did not only survive ordeal but also help otherssucceed as well, has lasting impressionsto these girls who someday will raise families of their own. What greater test of love can one find in Balagtas’ Florante at Laura? Man’s chilvalry for a woman in Lorna Doone? Or a mother’s utmost devotion to her children in The Railway Children? Or a child’s surprise in opening an old forgotten garden locked by painful memory, bringing forth new life, and rekindling the love of a father and daughter in The Secret Garden?

The Great Books are now on the Internet

The Great Books of the Western World is a series of books originally published in the United States by Encyclopædia Britannica in 1952 presented in a package of 54 volumes. The Great Books of the Western World cover the categories of fiction, history, poetry, natural science, mathematics, philosophy, politics, religion, drama ethics, and economics.The original editors of the series chose three criteria for inclusion:

1. a book must be relevant to contemporary issues, not only in its historical context;
2. it must reward rereading; and
3. it must be a part of "the great ideas," identified by the editors;

Each year from 1961 to 1998 the editors published The Great Ideas of Today, an annual update on the applicability of the Great Books to current issues.With the advent of the Internet and the proliferation of E-book readers, many of these texts became available online. Today Encyclopedia Britannica has phased out the printing of the Encyclopedia proper and has limited the printing of other publications, giving way to online publication, and the various forms of presentation on the Internet. 

I remember dad’s books he brought home after finishing his studies at De Paul University in the US during the Great Depression. One particular book is Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. It was about the French Revolution. “Be like Jean Valjean, the hero.” He told us, his three children then in our elementary schooling. It was many years later that we understood him.

Another book is Evangeline or Tale of Acadie y Henry Wadsworth Longfellow written in romantic hexameter and patterned after Homer’s epics. Longfellow listened to Nathaniel Hawthorne relate the story. It’s not my style the latter confessed. So Longfellow re-created the forcible separation and exile of two young lovers on their wedding day only to see each other again in their very old age. It was a sweet parting, their torn lives coming back in one piece, but only for a moment as Gabriel died in the arms of Evangeline.

And the epilogue goes –

“Still stands the forest primeval; but far away from its shadow,
Side by side, in the nameless grave, the lovers were sleeping
… In the heartof a city, they lie, unknown and un-noticed.
Daily the tides of life go ebbing and flowing…”

That was a long time ago. Things have greatly changed. Cable TV is bringing into the home whole theaters, the Internet whole libraries. And with palm-size gadgets, any information is virtually at fingertip’s access. Why many universities no longer have walls!

And the audience has not only increased by leaps and bounds; their profile now includes infants to senior citizens whose longevity is ever increasing. Interestingly as the world walks on two feet – communication and transportation – people are losing their cultural identity and original domicile. One-half of the world’s population of 7.7 billion live in big towns and cities, and cities are ballooning into metropolises and megapolises. Ironically one-half live below the poverty line, while the other half have simply more than what they need and the control of the world’s resources isvirtually at their disposal.

Literature seems to be far out. It is one of the uninteresting subjects in school. It is a topic we encounter everyday and yet at the end ask, “Literature ba yan?” (Is that literature?) Or one distinct from other disciplines and confined in its own quarters. It is literature, if it wears a laurel or olive leaf. And written by well-known writers whose authority is unquestionable. 

I have yet to read Filipino versions of An Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore, and Thoreau Legacy published by Penguin Classics that warn of the harmful consequences of global warming. Of a local treatise between man and nature as in Walden Pond, of the Origin of Species that broke a the age-old church’s dogma of creation, of Small is Beautiful that warns of dinosaur syndrome when man’s dream goes beyond control. Of Silent Spring that challenged the excesses of modern agriculture, chemicals that destroy the very base of production. Of Genetic engineering which created Dolly the sheep, the gateway to stemcell technology and cloning, with the human being coming next in line.

Many people are asking where does literature begin and end. What does it set its boundaries?What is its stand on issues like pornographic art, euthanasia or mercy killing, same sex marriage? This prompted me do my own share of research.

Literature and our fast changing world today. Among the ideas of our fast changing world are

1. Common Wealth’s new concept. National interests aren't what they used to be. Our survival requires global solutions.The defining challenge of the 21st century will be to face the reality that humanity shares a common fate on a crowded planet.

2. Runaway world population will reach 8 billion, and will double in 50 years. By 2050 stabilization is believed to be manageable under a sustainable development system.

3. Geo-engineering . Messing with Nature caused global warming. Messing with it more might fix it.One solution to global warming is induced volcanic eruption. (Mt. Pinatubo’s eruption in 1991 cooled the Planet Earth. Ash and sulfur actually lowered the atmosphere’s temperature)

4. Aging gracefully . Forget conventional wisdom; gray-haired societies aren't a problem.Aging gracefully means productive retirement and longer life span. Some 5 billion people in 120 countries will live to 60 years old and over not far from now.

5.Women's Work. Tapping the female entrepreneurial spirit can pay big dividends.The role of women may soon equal that of men, and may even surpass them in many fields.

6. Beyond the Olympics. New games and sports, constant TV coverage of local and global sporting events, are outshining the Olympic games.

7. Jobs are the New Assets. A sampling of fast-growing occupations - actuaries, financial analyst, computer programmer, fitness trainer, biophysicists, translators, marriage counselors, radiologists.

8. Recycling the Suburbs. Environmentalists will celebrate the demise of sprawling suburbs, which left national addiction to cars. Infrastructures will be converted in favor of "green", town centers, public libraries, museums, sports centers, parks.

9. The New Calvinism. More moderate evangelicals are exploring cures for doctrinal drift, offering some assurance to " a lot of young people growing up in sub-cultures of brokenness, divorce, drugs, sexual temptations, etc."

10. Amortality. Amortality - "non-moral sensitive" or "neutral morality' - whatever you may call it, this thinking has revolutionized our attitudes toward age. There are people who "refuse to grow old," people who wish to be resurrected from his cryonized corpse.

11. Biobanks. Safe deposits - freezers full of tissues for transplants, cryotube for blood samples, liquid nitrogen storage for sperms and eggs, test-tube baby laboratories and clinics. Welcome, surrogate motherhood, post-menopausal technology, in-situ cloning, multiple;e birth technology, and the like.

12. Ecological Intelligence. There are guidelines now available to judge products on their social and environmental impact. This is new culture characterized by environment-consciousness, environment-friendliness. Here life-cycle assessment and clean-up corporate ecology become an obligation. We are going back - happily and beautifully to a simple and natural lifestyle.

Friendly TV Programs for Growing Up – A Renaissance
When my grand daughter was less than one year old I was advised to keep her away from TV because of the bad reputation of TV to very young children. But I discovered something that convinced her mom - my daughter, and everyone at home. There are TV channels that feature children-designed programs, among them are

Baby TV
Nick Junior
Jim Jam

A cursory look into these programs are:
1. Barney and Friends, stuff dinosaur come alive to play with kids
2. Oswald, the blue octopus (kindness, gentleness)
3. See the Sea (oceanography and marine biology)
4. Fireman Sam (life of a fireman)
5. Benjamin’s Farm (life on the farm)
6. Bob the Builder (life of a workman)
7. Baby Antonio’s Circus (entertainment)
8. Heroes of the City (emergency crew in action)
9. Nuksu (Be yourself)
10. Gazoon (life of animals)
11.Little Kingdom (fairies and elves)
12. Dora and Friends (children's adventure)

The program puts an end to arrogance, violence, sex, sensationalism, and overbearing format which characterize many programs. has no interruptions of advertisements and programs that would negate its child-friendly nature. Episodes may be replayed from time to time, but this is also advantageous in the learning process. The richness of TV programs has come a long way with Discovery, National Geographic, History, and other channels, in an armchair travelogue bringing into the sala nature, whole novels, history and live shows.

The big challenge to other channels is do away with violence, real or cartoon, frivolities and wastefulness, and stories that present ways to live by as good children and citizens. – without proselytizing unless shown with good examples. Under the heap of cheap dramas, features, shows, and the like, true literature is difficult to appreciate. So with the tremendous daily output of social media and digital phorography all the more masks what literature is and should be. Thus requiring a redefinition and continuing education regarding the subject. Are diaries considered literature? Homilies and speeches? Office memoranda, legal opinions and court decisions? How about advertisements?

I was watching State of the Nation of Jessica Soho, and found out how well researched her topics are. I would say to same with SOCO, Matang Lawin, and similar programs. I can only guess how many view regularly Discovery, History and National Geographic. A million copies of printed literature would be a far cry from the power of the Radio, Television TV and the Internet whose total audience at present reaches millions and millions worldwide via satellite and other networks. The power of media can never be underestimated, for which reason literature should be able to ride on it as a strong and beautiful horse.

As a professor I find my students becoming more and more informed than in our time. They are wired to the world all the time. They carry more subjects than we did before. The information highway includes inter university library services, fellowships, student exchange, congress and symposia. Never a dull moment has the student of today.

On the part of the professor, he uses the computer to facilitate his work. Now and then he attends in his home broadcast programs in some kind of refresher course or simply to keep abreast with events. Every semester my classes view at least one movie and some documentaries. In my teaching Humanities and Mass Communication, I have chosen The Little Prince, The Fourth Wise Man, Dead Poet Society, Oliver ; in Mass Communication, Shattered Glass, Reporters at War, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Count of Monte Cristo, Hunchback of Notre Dame, for my students to view and critique. This is a method I found to be effective and to make the subjects more interesting.

Finding Nemo, The Land Before Time, Babe to mention a few of the recommended cartoon movies keep our world young. While literature is tested by timelessness, it is also measured by its success when young and old share together their time, thoughts and feelings, their dreams and hopes for a better world and brighter tomorrow.

Through literature we can lift the huge universe. ~

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