The common read for 2010-2011 is T.C. Boyle's Tortilla Curtain. The following letter was sent, along with a copy of the book, to entering first year students.
Learning happens best in communities, as people discuss important issues from many different perspectives. That idea is one of the great lessons of urban life. It’s also the principle motive for the Common Ground program at Westminster College. Common Ground is an effort by faculty, students, and staff to strengthen the Westminster community by encouraging everyone to participate in learning activities around a shared, place-based theme. This year’s theme, “city,” is particularly apt because cities have been the most powerful community-building engines in all of human history. Cities gather people of diverse backgrounds into close quarters and impose relatively few restrictions on how they interact with one another. Because difference often makes people uncomfortable, the results are unpredictable and sometimes even frightening. They’re also thrilling. Many of the most important intellectual and artistic traditions of the modern era, from Jazz to the labor movement to skateboard culture, have been born out of the texture of urban living. A sustained conversation about cities will make our community more engaged, diverse, collaborative, and contested.
Each year, a book serves as the lynchpin of the Common Ground program. This year’s book is T. C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. You will find a copy enclosed with this letter. Read the book and arrive on-campus ready to talk about it with the other members of the Westminster community. As the year progresses, you will have several opportunities to engage with the issues that this book raises—including immigration, racial difference and racism, and, of course, the nature and purpose of cities.
We also invite you to experience a city for yourself. Jane Jacobs has written that “[w]henever and wherever societies have flourished and prospered rather than stagnated and decayed, creative and workable cities have been at the core of the phenomenon . . . It is urgent that human beings understand as much as we can about city ecology . . . The humble, vital services performed by grace of good city streets and neighborhoods are probably as good a starting place as any.” (The Death and Life of Great American Cities (NYC: Modern Library, 1993, xvii-xviii).
Among what Jacobs describes as "humble, vital services," we might include:
· Access to social spaces like coffee shops, bars, libraries, and museums
· Open-air art, including buildings, sculptures, graffiti, street performers, window displays, and billboards
· Chances to see how people present themselves in public--how they dress, what they say and in what languages, what books they carry, how they use their phones, whether they engage in public displays of affection, etc.
· Access to diverse food, music, and other kinds of culture
· The potential for interesting conversations--or other kinds of contact--with strangers
We'd like you to experience some of these "humble, vital services," and to that end we ask you to travel to the biggest urban center within easy reach of you and ramble there for an hour or more. Record your experiences in any medium you choose. You might take photographs, shoot video, write down your experiences, trace your path on a map, or record micro-interviews with people you meet on the street. After you've had your urban experience, share it with the Westminster Community on our "Experiencing the City" wiki page, which will provide you an easy way to publish your reflections. Visit the wiki at https://wiki.westminstercollege.edu/commonground
You might consider some questions that The Tortilla Curtain raises during your ramble. Does the city seem to be segregated or integrated along lines of race or gender? What mechanisms seem to allow the segregation or integration that you notice? When and under what circumstances do people cross the dividing lines you discover?
Please keep your eyes open for other Common Ground activities this year. We look forward to continuing this conversation when we are all settled together in Salt Lake City, itself a fascinating and engaging urban environment.
Common Ground Committee, Westminster College