A Granddaughter Responds to The Way Forward: Educational Reforms that Focus on the Cultural Commons and the Linguistic Roots of the Ecological / Cultural Crises By C. A. Bowers
I came across this book by Chet Bowers in a serendipitous way, like everything of value that comes to me lately, circling around from a friend and linking me to a deeper memory of who I am. Bowers speaks of different kinds of literacies and of contextual information exchanges. In reading this I am immediately taken back to my grandfather, a Polish American immigrant, who came to live with my nuclear family when I was very young. My grandfather sowed raised gardens in our suburban backyard.
He never gave his technique a proper name, never even heard the word “organic”, and probably wouldn’t have given much credit to the French intensive gardening movement that reflected similar garden bed construction. I don’t even know if he could read or write in his native tongue. To him, it was just gardening, something he learned as a child before coming to this country. My mother having known him as an urban man for all of her growing years never even realized he knew how to garden until he shared it with me in his golden years— and they all looked at us like we were both crazy. His knowledge with its roots in traditional ways of knowing would imbibe in me a sense of belonging to a natural world that I would never shake. We sowed carrots, watered them, watched them grow, and then we ate them when they were ripe. It was an invitation for me to understand my connections to the ground and to an extended family, and it was an invitation to learn something about patience. The man had waited most of his life for our garden.
As a child I always had a sense that my grandfather held the deepest of wisdom. After all, he was the only one I knew who could get my cat to sit on his lap. Like many young children I didn’t understand that a cat might not like to be cornered, no matter how much I wanted to love her. I would squeeze my small body under furniture in order to pursue my fleeing feline only to be reward by a good scratch. It is no surprise then, that I became awed by a grandfather who could just sit and wait until the cat would come to him. And like magic, she would let him pet her. There was tremendous value and knowledge shared in our relationship. Things I am only now beginning to comprehend.
Yet as I became a “good” student like my parents urged me to become, I was also keenly aware that the intergenerational cultural knowledge that he passed on to me with all of his grand gestures and nuances of guttural “broken” English was not the kind of knowledge that was valued in textbooks or literary journals. Book learning, it seems, according to Bowers, is not a neutral way of learning, nor is the imperialistic culture that every new immigrant or colonized person internalizes when we learn to speak American English. This is important to consider as our language spreads across the globe.
When Bowers speaks of lost cultural knowledge held within an ecology of relationships that is undervalued by our modern critical thinking, I understand exactly how words like “progress” or “we are Americans now” can change how a granddaughter of an immigrant might regard herself. I don’t need to think for more than a moment; I own it. I can even remember how as a teenager I had accepted the values of the greater society when I boasted to my father, “I’m not Polish. I’m an American.” But what does that mean? And what becomes lost by this becoming Americanized?
It would take many years before this granddaughter of a Polish immigrant would truly understand how the responsibility of becoming an American means hanging onto what I can bring to the America of my birth, as much as (or maybe even more than) the economic opportunities that America offered to my immigrant grandparents in this grand cultural exchange.
In becoming an elder myself, thanks to Bowers, I know more than ever the importance of the cultural knowledge that my grandparents brought to the garden and I can accept that it is now my responsibility to bestow upon my own granddaughter whatever knowledge I was able to hold onto. To be fair, this is the first of Bower’s books that I’ve read so I come to the page with a degree of newness and perhaps even naiveté.
In many ways this book isn’t meant for me, because it is a map for educators to understand how embracing seemingly innocuous metaphors becomes a value judgment in the classroom. It is written to help teachers examine how they can address the various literacies which come with inherent values that are common to the human condition. It is also written to help educators question their own biases toward knowledge. I may not be an educator but as a writer it behooves me to know how this kind of value judgment lies at the roots of our ecological crisis and springs forth from words. Are we all not teachers? Would it not help every one of us to recognize how in our isolated technologically rich world, we may not even be aware of the choices we are making in regards to losing other kinds of knowledge?
Bowers gives us a way to explore our biases so we can bring a greater awareness to cultural ecologies: both good and bad, sustainable and destructive. He is careful to acknowledge that we cannot stop technology because it has its own value. Yet only by carefully examining the values that are inherent in our current technologies can we overcome the dangers that come with believing something is neutral when it is not. With awareness we can embraces traditions that should be saved, and with intelligence we can re-evaluate those that are best cast aside. Bowers illustrates ways we can clearly negotiate challenges with all of our varied intelligences, so that the wisdom of people like my grandfather will not be lost to future generations.
After reading this book, I will never be able to see metaphor in the same way. It gives me hope, however, because only when we understand that words, like numbers, are just a narrow viewpoint within a much grander scope of life can we save our world from environmental collapse. And yet even within this narrow lens, Bowers inspires me to ask how to best use my toolbox of words to define a different way of being. It is an important book that belongs on everyone’s bookshelf, and needs to be read at least once for the sake of the grandchildren and the ecologies large and small of all life on this planet. How might a reader be changed by this book? I haven’t a clue, because each will bring a unique body of knowledge to the page.