Raban’s special interest was the prairie. His book ‘bad land’ is beautifully crafted, and completely unputdownable.
Jonathan Raban recaptures and tries to recreate the unique ninety-year history of the Montana plains. ‘bad land’ is part history and part memoir. He reconstructs the whole scene so vividly – people who had read the propaganda, believed it, uprooted themselves from their villages and towns, and came to eastern Montana was with a dream, determined to put down their roots. They learnt how to farm the unforgiving land, deal with inclement weather, and create a society. After a few successful years, though, life became near nigh impossible with conditions becoming harsh and raw, forcing them to move again…
Describing life on the prairie, he talks about education, for all children must go to school….As soon as the homesteaders got their homes going, they would put up the school house, and their place of worship. The schoolhouse was actually at the center of their lives, and in a way it took on the importance of the seat of government – all important topics that related to their life on the prairie, were talked about, discussed, and debated here. The schoolhouse also knitted the group that came from widely different backgrounds into a community.
This is what Raban found:
With schools going up all over the prairie, and there being no qualified teachers, teenage sons and daughters of the homesteaders pitched in, for as long as their labor was not required on the farms. The child-teachers were as much in need of instruction as the children they taught. State-approved textbook were detailed, laying out lessons complete with stage-directions and props for the novice teacher. Educating the educators, thus, was an important part of textbook writing. Randall J. Condon, Superintendent of the Cincinnati Schools and general editor of the Atlantic Readers series, deals with this issue. Talking about the criteria for textbooks, he says: “Are these books intended as ‘basal texts’? By all means, for they deal with the most fundamental things in life: character, courage, service. These books teach peace founded on justice, but they teach also the beauty of a willingness to die if need be for the sake of truth and honor, for freedom, conscience and of country.”
Since the first homesteaders were an intrepid lot, and came from diverse backgrounds, and a variety of ways of living from great cities to tiny villages, the classrooms were full of kids with foreign accents. They were perfect strangers to the kind of ‘strong, self-reliant nationalism’ that was required.
Condon continues: The aim of education was to achieve the shining paradox of American nationalism – that it must be multicultural, a nationalism of all-the-nations. Textbooks had selections that would help deepen a sense of good will and fellowship and kindly consideration for others by emphasizing the fine qualities of all mankind. Education endeavored to teach that our pledge to the flag, ‘one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all,’ means a national unity of spirit that cannot be divided into groups or sects or races – into rich and poor, into weak and strong, into those who weak on farms, in factories, forests, and mines, and those who do not have to toil – this nation to include all with liberty of conscience and conduct for each; and that full justice must be done to all if America were to realize the great dream that great dream that our fathers dreamed, of social amity, with religious and racial equality for all the people.
The nationalism that Cordon talks about is a simple pride in America for having gathered so many traditions under one flag and for incorporating so many beautiful landscapes in one political geography. Cordon’s thoughts reaching out to include Germans, Norwegians, and Irish, among the eclectic group, showed as much sensitivity to the complex fate of being an American as to the traumatic process of becoming one.
Thus it was through secular, progressive, rational, scientific, and can-do practical textbooks that the idea of America was ingrained in every child in the belief that as adults groomed in the tradition of faith in the flag and the land, they would contribute their bit to making America a great country.