It was a full house Friday morning as the Filson Historical Society brought to town the One Day University, a New York-based adult learning initiative. Attendees paid admission to the event to learn from three of the country’s top college professors on various topics.
Think IdeaFest boiled down to three hours, and you get the idea.
Even though each topic was vastly different from the next, the zest in which these professors led their sessions made it interesting, appealing and eye-opening. You might not initially sign up for a 60-minute lecture on Abraham Lincoln, but with Louis Masur’s infectious love of his subject matter, it made you appreciate the man, the myth and the legend of Abe even more.
Masur, who teaches at Rutgers University and has written several books about the 16th president, was up first with a session on “The Civil War and Abraham Lincoln: What’s Fact and What’s Fiction?” He presented an image of Lincoln as a human, not as the untouchable leader of the country.
Masur said his respect and love of Lincoln is because he was evolutionary, not revolutionary. Lincoln didn’t always have all the answers, he bent the rules of the Constitution at times and, most importantly, he changed his mind on key issues and admitted when he was wrong. Even at the start of the Civil War, Lincoln wasn’t fighting for the end of slavery. But that idea evolved, and it was one he spent much time debating, wavering, considering and finally executing with the Emancipation Proclamation.
The professor also pointed out numerous examples of Lincoln’s spry sense of humor, which helped him navigate difficult times. Lincoln grew up embarrassed of his looks and suffered from depression. In a debate with another politician who had just called him two-faced, Lincoln replied, “If I’m two-faced, why am I wearing the one I’m wearing?”
Next up was an enlightening discussion on happiness by Amherst College professor Catherine Sanderson, with “Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness.” Sanderson also has written several books about her topic and speaks at seminars all over the country. In a very approachable way, she wove scientific findings with everyday realities on how each of us can strive for contentment.
We scribbled down a few notes that were interesting to us, including the fact that 50 percent of your happiness is genetics, but it’s what you do with that other 50 percent that can help you lead a longer, more fulfilling life.
Sanderson said there are four things that are proven to increase happiness, for better or worse, which are nature, shopping (buying gifts for others increases serotonin more than buying for yourself), eating and exercising.
She also covered the things people think will make them happy but don’t always — like money, love, children and job advancement. She noted that being able to find a silver lining is an important feature happy people seem to have, and the ability to do that improves with age.
Finally, Sanderson revealed that the single biggest factor for happiness is the quality of relationships you have, and she outlined 10 steps to help you work on being happy. Those were:
- Change your behavior.
- Find your match (personally and professionally).
- Read a book you love.
- Keep a gratitude journal.
- Make a gratitude visit (write a letter or visit someone who has mentored you in your life — before they die).
- Smile (even when you aren’t happy).
- Perform random acts of kindness.
- Spend money on the right things (experiences, not belongings).
- Avoid comparisons (i.e. Facebook).
- Build and maintain close relationships.
That last session was by Yale University film professor Marc Lapadula on the topic of “Three Films That Changed America.” He included video clips and industry knowledge with lecture and made clear, researched points as to why he picked the three he chose.
First up was “The Jazz Singer” from 1927, directed by Alan Crosland, which was the first feature-length film to feature sound and starred Al Jolson. It was a film that would either make or break Warner Bros., and we know which way that went.
It was startling to see Jolson perform songs in black face, but Lapadula explained that although it wasn’t right to today’s standards, it was commonplace in the 1920s and actually paved the way for African-Americans to finally appear on film.
The second film was “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” from 1932, directed by Mervyn LeRoy and starring Paul Muni. Not only was this film a comment on the poor treatment of veterans by the U.S. government, but it also inspired Congress to pass legislation for more humane treatment of prisoners, banning the shackling of chains on prisoners at all times.
Many films have been inspired by “I Am a Fugitive,” including “The Shawshank Redemption.”
The third most important film was 1967’s “The Graduate,” directed by Mike Nichols and starring a then-unknown Dustin Hoffman, who the studio thought was too old and too Jewish, said Lapadula. Nichols, however, fought for his leading man, and the rest is history.
The film is significant because of its commentary on the alienation youth were feeling in the late ’60s and its incorporation of pop music — from Simon & Garfunkel — in the soundtrack. Lapadula also dissected the last scene of the film, which shows Hoffman’s character Benjamin riding off into the sunset with his girl Elaine. There’s about 30 seconds of profound commentary as the camera pulls away from the couple, before it shows the bus riding away, that signify the couple is headed for failure.
Asked if he could add to his list of three, what films would be included, he explained he does have a longer lecture that features more, but that they’d include “Easy Rider,” “Jaws,” “The Exorcist” and “2001: A Space Odyssey,” among others.