Caution: I Brake For History

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When I look back at these family excursions, it seems they not only afforded me a unique educational opportunity but permanently afflicted me with a healthy dose of American restlessness. During high school Frederick Jackson Turner’s seminal essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” confirmed my hunch that all Americans have one common attribute: movement. All our ancestors had made the arduous immigrant or chattel journey, and even the Indians, we were taught, were nomadic people. “Have bags will travel” was our national motto, whether uttered by Dean Moriarty, Willy Loman, or Black Jack Pershing. It has been said of Daniel Boone that when he heard the sound of a neighbor’s rifle, he moved on, for he knew civilization was encroaching. Life in America was so different from life in Europe, where people tolerated a circumscribed existence under the constant scrutiny of the community. Americans had to feel sorry for foreigners who did not understand open space, who were not blessed with the psychological outlet Turner called “The Frontier Valve.” In America it seemed only village idiots, town drunks, and farmers clung to the hamlets of their origin.

 

Emerson once asked an entire generation to define what constituted the distinctive American character. To me, it boils down to three words: optimism, action, and energy. The individual who most instinctively resonated to this trinity was an action addict with incredible optimism who, even confined to a wheelchair, spent weeks at sea every year. I am referring to the greatest politician of this century, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

For my own generation—like so many that preceded it—it seemed clear that the key to success in America was to keep moving in pursuit of the future. We moved out of family homes and into college dormitories, then on to starter jobs and first apartments. We relocated where opportunity presented itself, and if we failed, small matter. Forgiveness is part of our national character: America, the land of the second chance. However calamitous our mistakes, we can always get new haircuts and move to Phoenix.

All this was swirling around my mind when I began creating a new kind of course at Hofstra University in 1992. With universities being run like failing businesses and the art of teaching often considered antiquated, it seemed important to inject the joy of learning back into the college curriculum. I wanted my students to experience our country the way I had as a fortunate boy. A solution that appealed to my sense of adventure was to abandon the classroom altogether and take to the open road in a fortyfoot-long sleeper coach with my students. I would teach America’s history and literature as we went, and my students would earn credit reading Flannery O’Connor in Georgia, Willa Cather in Nebraska, Sinclair Lewis in Minnesota, and Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes everywhere. Instead of fidgeting in a Long Island classroom reading about the civil rights movement, we would visit the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery; hold political seminars on Martin Luther King, Jr., at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and his crypt in Atlanta; discuss the African-American struggle with Amiri Baraka in Newark and Morris Dees in Montgomery. The challenge was to turn a bus into a classroom and learn about our nation at the close of the twentieth century. Instead of merely studying America, we would grab it by the scruff of the neck. I called the course “American Odyssey.”

I wanted my students to experience our country the way I had. The solution: abandon the classroom and take to the open road.
 

My motto for creating it came from Davy Crockect:: “Be always sure you’re right—then go ahead.” I was pretty sure I was right; in any event I certainly went ahead. Every year since 1992 I’ve taken to the open road on the “Majic Bus” —spelled with a “j” to avoid a copyright clash with “The Who,” the British rock group with a hit song by that title—in the program now based at the University of New Orleans. Hundreds of students continually inquire about how they can apply for the course. I work my way through all the requests and select twenty students to hop aboard the Majic Bus. Usually the level of enthusiasm apparent in the letters rather than the grade-point average is the deciding factor in who rides.