I feel privileged to bring to you at the very close of this conference Le dernier cri—the last word. That is a daunting assignment and it would be even more intimidating if I had not assembled a panel of cultural pundits of extraordinary talent and range, who understand and contribute to the state of culture in this country and beyond, and who, in my view, walk the Imagining America walk—every day. I start off with bad news and good news. One of my anchor panelists, Clement Price, was not able to come to Seattle due to a family emergency which is, thankfully, resolvable. The good news is that Jan Cohen-Cruz—your indomitable, inspirational leader, has agreed to join the panel. And that is very good news, as with Jan’s help, after flying into some spaces outside the usual realm, we will have a smooth landing on IA turf. Looking back, I recall that I was actually in Ann Arbor—on another assignment—given me by Julie Ellison–when Imagining America was born. I followed it for years and in fact was commissioned to write an essay on it for one of its publications in the 90s, which I did happily.
I return to Imagining America after all these years because first of all, I am so impressed with its progress; second, I am now a deliverer of some of my university’s cultural riches to the community, and third, for the past five or six years, I have seen promising signs coming from institutions outside the academic realm that we are moving to a place in the cultural world that is beyond elitism and populism. Which is, I would argue, just where we want to be? Thanks to a growing commitment to going to that “beyond,” and with more than a little help from our technological friends, I believe that we are on our way to bringing the cultural life of this nation to a place that is beyond elitism and populism. Philosopher Hannah Arendt described the period between the two world wars as “between the no longer and the not yet.” I love the phrase—its cadence and its meaning. Isn’t it where we all reside? I certainly feel that way about our own at once promising and perplexing moment in history.
In this, our time, the only time we have the opportunity to do what we might do to make the world a slightly better place, not only do I see academic institutions, including my own, adding value to the culture life of their communities, but also recognizing that it is a two way street. We gain from as much as we give to our communities, enhancing our institutions as we enliven the communities in which they reside. And in the realm of reaching beyond—I feel that I would be remiss if I didn’t refer to what some well established non-academic institutions are doing. I have been truly enthralled by the Metropolitan Opera’s Cinema versions of their productions—available in all our communities on a monthly basis at the price of a movie ticket. Their consequence is profound: Last I heard they were operating on six continents in over 1000 theaters and the model they have used is already being replicated and tweaked by other opera companies and other non-operatic arts organizations. I’ve also admired Arts 21, with its capacity to insinuate contemporary art into our living rooms. And we’ll be hearing more about that shortly.
Back to universities, I need to take the moderator’s prerogative to give you a glimpse of my own work at the University of Scranton, in bringing a non-credit continuing ed program—principally grounded in the humanities– to our community. I am happy to see that the humanities figure prominently in the IA mission, and I only wish they would regain their prominent place in the university. But that is a subject for another conference. At Scranton, we have created the Schemel Forum, a continuing education program, which offers the community some of our most valuable resources—our faculty and their infinite storehouse of great ideas. Here is a sampling of this semester’s offerings: courses on Jane Austen and some of her contemporaries, Michelangelo as artist and poet and American Philosophy that includes Transcendentalism, Pragmatism and Native American Thought. A World Affairs Luncheon Series that brings the world to Scranton, featuring pundits and public leaders to inform us on China, Iran, Afghanistan, cultural diplomacy and national security— and, a week from today, our third annual University for a Day that includes a three lectures and a panel discussion featuring Jay Parini and recently reconfirmed, Christopher Hitchens.
I bring these examples to your attention as they reflect, I believe, the convergence zones and the translocal practices referred to in the conference title. warrant our praise and our consideration. We must do more to imagine America—and the rest of the world, in this increasingly interdependent era, and I believe we are on that path. And more and more do we recognize that it is a mutually beneficial enterprise. Indeed, isn’t that the only kind of relationship that is truly sustainable?