Money, Business, and American Culture

by Lowell Pratt, Associate Professor of English and Humanities

This past June, I had the great pleasure of teaching a two unit Introduction to the Humanities class to 20 of the brightest students from Ngee Ann Polytechnic in Singapore as part of the California Challenge program designed to introduce these students to Menlo College and the liberal arts as a discipline along with giving them an exposure to American culture.

With the purpose of the program in mind, I chose as the theme of the course “Money, Business, and American Culture,” a concept derived in part from a seminar entitled “The Business World: Moral And Social Inquiry Through Fiction” taught at the Harvard Business School in the 1980's by Robert Coles. Although the class considered ethical concerns as Coles' seminar did, it also examined other issues regarding the influence of money and business on Americans and American culture through the study of literature, film, music, art, and history from the nineteenth century to the present.

The word “challenge” in California Challenge was aptly chosen by Ngee Ann Polytechnic. These students were in class four hours each morning for four days a week for the two week period. For out-of-class assignments, they were required to read a number of works such as classics like Herman Melville's “Bartleby the Scrivener,” F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, and Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman along with viewing three films: Grapes of Wrath, Wall Street, and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. During afternoons, the class visited San Francisco to view art related to the theme of the course at the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, the Museum of Modern Art, and Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill.

In addition to these trips, students made visits to two social service organizations: Habitat for Humanity, where students participated in the on-site construction, and the Built to Last Collaborative, whose counselors shared their experiences mentoring academically at-risk students at local high schools. Grades for the California Challenge class were based on participation in class discussions as well as leading discussion for a portion of a particular class, a 10-15 minute in-class individual presentation related to the theme of the course, two 4-5 page analytical essays, 1-2 page response papers on visits to two art museums and two local social service organizations, and a comprehensive final examination. As surprising as it may seem, the students, along with their two chaperones, were also able to make two sightseeing trips to San Francisco, visit the Stanford campus, shop at the Stanford Mall, dine at a Mexican restaurant, and attend a Giants night game at Pac Bell Park.

All in all, it was a great experience for teacher and students alike. At a farewell ice cream social on the eve of their departure to Yosemite and then their flight home to Singapore, the students and chaperones honored David Placey, Dale Hockstra, Cindy McGrew, Ivana Izonovar, J.D. Puli, Gary Nelson, and myself with kind words and gifts for our various efforts in making California Challenge 2009 such a success. I was particularly touched by a notebook the students presented me with each writing a page of comments expressing his or her appreciation for the course. I only hope that next summer Menlo will be welcoming another group of wonderful students from Ngee Ann Polytechnic for California Challenge 2010.