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"Icons, artifacts, and American cultureAn ambitious humanities series takes a look at our national character."

"An island-wide game has begun. All one needs to play are intellectual curiosity, desire to widen one's circle of acquaintance, and willingness to entertain new ideas - and perhaps doff some old ones. The name of the game is Culture and the American Character, a five-month humanities inquiry sponsored by the Bainbridge Island Arts and Humanities Council. The objects are to identify American values by examining popular culture, and to determine how those constructs relate to Bainbridge.Since self-knowledge is the ultimate goal, everyone who plays wins.We made the inquiry multidisciplinary to reach different people, said Kathleen Thorne, program coordinator for the Arts and Humanities Council.If you don't want to read, you can see a film, she said. If you don't like movies, there's the online discussion. We're looking to ensure the broadest possible participation. From this weekend through June 1, participants will be presented with many possible entry points to the inquiry. Drama, online forums, panel discussions, films, art exhibits and literary events all will address core inquiry issues.Among the questions to be explored:* What has been our American character in the past, and do we still have one today?* What books, films, theater, music and artwork have shaped or reflected our national character? * Who determines American culture today?A pivotal theme will be addressed by Scott Russell Sanders when he speaks on The Character of Community, March 16. The nationally known author of Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World will discuss how commitment to a particular household and community might counter the restlessness and rootlessness seemingly ingrained in the American character.Cultural dialogueIf one knows how to decode them, every fashion, every lyric, every movie has a story to tell. The invisible substrata beneath plot twist, paint dab and skirt length are the cultural values Americans have deemed to be important at the time.Conversation is key to all venues, according to Thorne. What distinguishes the humanities is that they are a dialogue and not a solitary pursuit, Thorne said. I hope people who might tend not to talk to each other will find common ground in this inquiry.There are a lot of different populations on this island; we are hoping this will have the effect of bringing them together.The scope of the inquiry is ambitious for a small place like Bainbridge. In a year of research, Thorne did not find a similar community that had ever undertaken a comparable project. What she discovered, in fact, was that many urban centers - including Seattle - do not even have humanities councils. Bainbridge has a particularly educated, sophisticated populace, Thorne said. Most people here read; most think analytically. The humanities - defined by Thorne as the stories, ideas and writings that help BIAHC has developed curricula for local schools to use, including background information and lesson plans related to individual events. The lesson plans are designed so that results can be posted at the BIAHC and school district websites. Thorne will encourage the high school debate team to participate in the culminating inquiry event, a panel discussion.The Internet will be a major component of the inquiry. The BIAHC website will include a bulletin board on which community members can discuss questions raised throughout the inquiry. In addition, the website will provide background information about various events. For example, web pages accompany the current fashion exhibit, An American Point of View - 20th Century Period Elegance From the Neil S. Vincent Collection on view at the Bainbridge Senior Center. The pages lend the exhibit social and historical context, explaining the development of ready-to-wear clothes by the existence of the sewing machine and the lack of rigid class distinctions in the United States.Several online polls will be featured, including one based on the recent poll conducted by the New York Times Magazine, The Way We Live Now. Bainbridge results will be compared to the national results, gauging the closeness of the match between Bainbridge's values and those of the rest of the country.Hard copies of the website information and polls will be available at the Bainbridge Public Library. The Internet will allow islanders to shape components of the inquiry film festival. Participants can go online to select the films to be shown, from three categories spanning 1940 to 1990. The cultural events will, according to Thorne, help define what is distinctive and vital in American culture, and track trends that presaged shifts in the national character.Many events will be put in context for the inquiry with discussion of why the particular art form evolved when it did, and how that form reflects the national character of the epoch.To bring the inquiry to a conclusion, Thorne has invited Seattle Times television and social issues writer, Kay McFadden; Palestinian-born playwright and director Hanna Eady; Bainbridge author A.E. Jeffcoat; and former University of Washington professor and author Roger Sale to address American Character Now. The panel will discuss the current and future states of American culture and character. While conceding that Bainbridge is small, Thorne points out that the community is no longer isolated; technology makes the whole world accessible. And media ensure a surroundsound of commercial bombardment. The humanities, Thorne emphasized, encourage critical, independent thinking, so all can benefit in a tangible way from the program.The humanities inquiry is a way to help busy people participate in the discourse about values. It's crucial, because these questions are important, Thorne said. They impact the way we see our society and nation. They shape so many aspects of our lives. If we don't think about them - if we let media think for us - then we let other people shape our values. "

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