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Spontaneous Integration: Jazz Music, Playwrights, and the Cold War

What do Shakespeare, actors, newspapers, jazz, and communism all have in common? Continue reading this article to discover how one Challenge III class threaded these disparate ideas together.

Last week in my Challenge III class, we had some spontaneous moments for subject integration. We began the morning talking about the role of jazz during the Cold War. The students were surprised to read this in their history text. They were further astounded when I revealed that rock music played a large role in the fall of the Berlin Wall. From the rise of communism to its fall, there was an ongoing connection to music.

We started with the simple question, “What in the world could jazz music have to do with politics?” The students looked at me somewhat blankly, so I asked them to think about jazz music and jazz players. “Do jazz musicians usually follow the notes on the page?” I asked. One of the students responded in the negative, explaining that jazz musicians are known for their improvisations. I followed up with, “Does this quality make them more likely to follow the crowd or to live like distinctive individuals?” This one was easy—clearly, jazz musicians like to go their own way. Then, I asked, “In communism, do you want people to follow a uniform path or to improvise?” Now the light bulbs were coming on all over the room. Art reminds people that they are uniquely created individuals, that they are not designed to be state-controlled robots.

It would have been fun to camp out on this topic for the whole hour, but we had to move on to McCarthyism. This topic gave us time to review earlier U.S. history as well as American drama from Challenge II. First, we began with a definition of “McCarthyism”—a movement led by Senator Joseph McCarthy with the purpose of uncovering Soviet spies in America. Some of the students had read other U.S. history textbooks that painted McCarthy as a witch-hunting villain who persecuted innocent people. This led us to discuss bias in textbooks and to try to determine the truth about McCarthy.

In an effort to pinpoint the origins of McCarthy’s bad reputation, we harkened back to Challenge II when the students read Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible. Miller, who had close ties to Hollywood, compared the McCarthy era to the Salem witch trials. We utilized the common method comparison to discuss Miller’s perceived similarities between these two events in American history. Then, we used our textbook to discuss potentially less biased similarities and differences. We talked about the impact of Miller’s pen on McCarthy’s legacy.

Since the debut of Miller’s play, Hollywood has continued to dramatize McCarthyism because actors and directors in Hollywood were named as Communists or called upon to incriminate others as Communists. McCarthy repeatedly serves as the villain in Hollywood movies made about this brief period of our history. This led us to review the Stamp Act in which the British angered the newspapers by taxing paper itself. This ensured that the newspapers would side with the patriots and spread the revolutionary fervor. It would seem that, in the colonial days, it was unwise to anger the newspapers. In our day, it is unwise to anger Hollywood.

After U.S. History, we turned our attention to the Shakespeare seminar. We happened to be reading the scene in which Hamlet devises his famous Mousetrap to catch his murderous uncle. In the play, Hamlet instructs a traveling troupe of actors to re-enact the murder of Hamlet’s father by Hamlet’s uncle. In this way, he hopes to “catch the conscience of the king.” (Act II, Scene II).

As Hamlet turns the players over to the hospitality of Polonius he says, “Do you hear, let them be well used, for they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time. After your death, you were better have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live.” (Act II, Scene II) McCarthy could have benefited from these words. Now, my students and I had cycled back to the idea that it was unwise to anger the newspapers and Hollywood. In chronological order, that would be: do not anger the Shakespearean actors, do not anger the colonial newspaper reporters, and do not anger Hollywood writers and directors.

We concluded our discussion by talking about playwrights as the “brief chronicles of the time.” We talked about the differences between nonfiction newspaper accounts and fictional plays. Which one portrays truth? The students concluded that a Shakespearean play would give them a much richer understanding of human nature which led us to a discussion of current events and the Common Core Standards.

In the afternoon, we happened to be writing about Shakespeare in our logic class which meant that our entire day was unified around the discussion of certain big ideas. These spontaneous connections were only possible because of the blessed luxury of the Challenge program—I am able to stay with them all day to ponder all of their subjects. What a joy!

TIERS: challenge
CATEGORIES: Articles, Classical Christian Education, Rhetoric Stage (ages 14 to 18)

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