Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Talkin' Dustbowl Blues for Today

The comparisons have begun. This summer's drought is definitely the worst since 1956 but some folks are comparing it to the Dust Bowl. The news media is filled with reporters holding up pieces of shriveled corn. Cameras pan over dried caked lake bottoms. And well they should. The similarities are fairly accurate. With unemployment, corrupt bankers, Wall Street in chaos, and now the weather, it's easy to say, "we've been here before." But let's not get lost in these striking comparisons because things are not the same. True we could use a few federal programs to put people back to work and begin to repair our crumbling infrastructure, but there are glaring differences as well. The Middle Class is evaporating as fast as the water in south central Texas. The price of a college education has at least quadrupled in the last few decades. Technology has connected more people, but it has also separated them in new ways. What does it really mean to day someone is your "Friend" these days? How can a public school education be experiences while online? All this and it's an election year. Some years ago, while teaching The Grapes of Wrath I had a most exceptional class. It had been an eventful year in many ways, and these kids didn't need to do another literary analysis essay. I decided to challenge them (and myself) in a new and frightening way. We wrote a parallel novel to Steinbeck's classic. That is, we took a family, not unlike the Joads but facing the social issues of the day, and had them migrate from one part of the country to the next. It was both frustrating and rewarding, but in the end some valuable comparisons were made and in emulating and modeling Steinbeck, we were able to appreciate his masterpiece in a most original way. I think this is a year that could easily lend itself to the same kind of activity in a Junior English class. What would the great issues of social justice be for the year 2013? Of course, I'd begin with Woody Guthrie's "Talkin Dustbow Blues." It's haunting to hear it now, so give a listen. I'm sure kids today could write some new verses. Woody would definitely love that.

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