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Hunter: A Modern Reader

01/03/12 5:55PM By Edith Hunter
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(Host) Commentator Edith Hunter's first reaction to a book she recently read is that one should never put the word "Modern" in a title, since today's "modern" is tomorrow's "historic".

(Hunter) Son William keeps me supplied with reading materials - books he picks up at yard sales, or at library sales after collections have been culled.

Recently he brought me "A Modern Reader", published in 1936, edited by Walter Lippmann and Allan Nevins. Historian Nevins was the father of Weathersfielder Meredith Mayer, so Will thought I might be interested. The book includes about 70 "Essays on present-day life and culture."

The essay I would like to comment on is entitled "Five American Contributions To Civilization," by Charles W. Eliot. Eliot was the Harvard President who, between 1869 and 1909, revolutionized the curriculum at Harvard - instead of an almost exclusive diet of Latin and Greek, he introduced the idea of offering electives in a broad range of fields.

In 1896 he outlined what he considered America's five "durable contributions" to civilization. They were: the abandonment of war as a means of settling international disputes; the practice of religious toleration; the enactment of universal "manhood suffrage"; a welcoming attitude toward new-comers, and "the even diffusion of well-being."

I'm afraid that President Eliot would be disappointed at the "durability" of those five contributions.

To begin with there have been seven wars since he delivered those words 115 years ago.

As for religious tolerance, our increasingly narrow Christian sectarianism and our attitude toward Moslems does not bode well for this contribution.

On the subject of suffrage, President Eliot did not mention the almost total disenfranchisement of African Americans in 1896, nor did he mention the absence of women's suffrage.

As for "our welcoming attitude toward new-comers" it is certainly being put to the test these days.

When he spoke of the "even diffusion of well-being", he said that he was referring to the universal improvement in the standard of living. He gave the credit for this to, "the telegraph and telephone, the sewing machine, the cotton gin, the mower, the reaper, and threshing machine, the dish-washing machine, the river steamboat, the sleeping car, the boot and shoe machinery, and the watch machinery."

What an odd list! How would he think that the automobile, radio, television, and computers have affected our current standard of living? And what would he think of today's chasm between the haves and the have nots?
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