Learning never ceases, as the past informs the present. That could have been the slogan of Saturday’s One Day University, part of an 11-year-old program that brings together some of the country’s most distinguished professors for a day of public lectures.
The Chrysler Museum of Art hosted the event in partnership with The Virginian-Pilot.
People over age 50 dominated the packed house, which reflected research done at the inception of the program that revealed older Americans still love learning.
Leonard Steinhorn, professor of communication and history at American University, has been with One Day University for five years. His lecture Saturday afternoon was “Race, Gender and Civil Rights: How the 1960s Shaped American Politics Today.”
The other two lectures were: “Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness” by Catherine Sanderson, a professor at Amherst College; and “The Three Greatest Films in America Cinema” by Marc Lapadula, a senior lecturer in the film studies program at Yale University.
Steinhorn said the 1960s upset the conformity, complacency and exclusivity of the ’50s. He also said it set the stage for the politics of President Donald Trump.
The professor illustrated his points with clips from movies, TV commercials and TV news, as well as political speeches. Before understanding the impact of the 1960s, Steinhorn said, people have to understand the ’50s. He used TV’s “Superman” as a symbol of what America believed about itself.
“We were the world’s superpower,” said Steinhorn, who’s also a political analyst for CBS News in Washington and author of “The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy.” We were figuratively able to leap off tall buildings in a single bound. We were protecting freedom from tyranny. Our mission was very, very clear: truth, justice and the American way.”
But as Steinhorn detailed, that era of prosperity with new suburbs, well-paying jobs and American-made cars was disproportionately realized by Christian white men and their wives, whose lives were limited inside and outside the home. Blacks, Jews and any other nonwhite groups were all but invisible in the mainstream and shut out of the “American Dream,” he said.
All of that and more was challenged in the ’60s, Steinhorn said, with the rise of the civil rights movement and later the gay liberation and women’s movements. The Vietnam War, which devastated the American economy and the lives of mostly working-class white and black men, was the impetus for class divisions still felt today, the professor argued.
Resentment among working poor whites grew as the blame for their stagnant socioeconomic status was deflected onto the media and the new establishment of intellectuals, many of whom were from affluent families and avoided the draft, Steinhorn said. This included a young Trump, he said.
While the political victories of the 1960s made the election of Barack Obama possible, Steinhorn said it also left the door open for the political tactics of Trump.
Steinhorn ended his hour-long lecture with a quote from author James Baldwin. The passage not only summed up the talk, but also seemed to reflect the mission of One Day University: “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”