At a meeting of the California Studies Association in Sacramento a few years ago, a scholar from Los Angeles complained, "I don't see why this meeting has to be held clear up here in Northern California every year. It's a real hardship." From the back of the room, a voice responded, "This ain't Northern California, pal, it's Central California. Try Yreka." That exchange among supposed authorities illustrated for me that America's supposedly best-known and certainly most-publicized province is not at all well understood, even by its residents.
North of L.A. doesn't constitute Northern California. South of San Francisco doesn't constitute Southern California. Anyone who believes those things is oblivious to the actual state. Both "Southern California" and "Northern California" tend nowadays to exist as much as self-serving, malleable images rather than actual places. There are in fact several northern and southern Californias, depending on what one wants to emphasize: geography, ethnicity, weather, etc. All but the least informed native recognizes this.
A few years ago, my wife and I hosted Javier, a bright young student from Spain, and one evening he said, "Students here don't know much where they are living." When I asked what prompted that observation, he said he and his group had studied California before visiting, and he knew more often far more about what was where than the American students he met. "Why they don't care where they are?" he asked. "This is famous California!"
I later asked the teacher coordinating the Spanish students' visit how much California material was included in the local secondary school curriculum, and he said not much was required, then added rather defensively that convincing overworked teachers to reconstruct curricula was unrealistic. I didn't argue, but said, "If you're teaching literature anyway, for instance, why not start with authors writing about people or places the kids can recognize? Use Joan Didion, John Steinbeck, Maxine Hong Kingston, William Saroyan, Luis Valdez, Wanda Coleman, Robinson Jeffers, Walter Mosley, Gary Soto, Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel, Jack London, Amy Tan, and on and on."
"I think most prefer to teach the classics."
Without pointing out that some of those California writers had already produced acknowledged classics, I replied, "I'm all for the classics, but lead readers to them with local material. Most of us connect more intimately when we recognize characters and settings. You might create not only readers, but also give them more information and pride about their homes."
He didn't rush out and convene a curriculum committee meeting, but at least he listened because he knew it was a serious suggestion. We all need to know more about where we are so we can at least argue local issues more intelligently.
Not wanting to pour it on too thick, I didn't say that the fluorescence of California writers since World War II, in particular, has reflected our democratizing culture. The authors are by no means all white or all guys. Many are from blue-collar backgrounds and rural settings. The variety of names on that list seems to verify the latest census data.
After convincing myself that literature could be taught well employing California settings and subjects, I asked some colleagues at Sonoma State University about using California to teach introductory courses in their fields, and received positive responses from folks in geology, economics, political science, geography and, of course, ethnic studies and environmental studies. I have to admit, though, that none immediately volunteered to change the content of their courses.
In much of the world, people seem to consider the Golden State not only a fine destination, but also a fascinating place. Yet I sensed no such fascination among my own students at Sonoma State. I asked them about their California exposure in school, and most said they'd made "cardboard missions in the third or fourth grade," then chuckled.
A few years ago, on a visit to my parents' home in the Bakersfield area, I asked my youngest son, who'd just finished his own "cardboard-mission" California unit in a Petaluma school, if he knew where the richest agricultural region in world could be found? He hesitated, then said, "In Israel?"
I smiled and said, "Look out the window."
He blinked then narrowed his eyes since I had been known to trick him, and said, "No lie, Dad?"
"No lie. This Valley."
He told me that, except at home, he'd never even heard anyone even talk about the Great Central Valley where Grandma and Grandpa lived. Looking around in the Kern County smog that day he couldn't see any edges, so he wasn't certain he was even in a valley.
In truth, though, even though I was born and raised in the Central Valley, I had no idea of its actual centrality until a photographer friend showed me a Landsat photo from outer space. California appeared to be composed of a vast trench surrounded by ranges of mountains, with a long shoreline to the west and bordering deserts to the east.
Then I realized that, although my family and I had traveled all over the Golden State, we had never put the puzzle together in our minds. We didn't grasp the state as a unit. In that, I suspect, we were typical Californians: if you live in Escondido, Escondido is the core, the rest surroundings; if you live in Lincoln, Lincoln is the core, the rest surroundings.
Misunderstanding of the physical places isn't the only problem. An old army buddy of mine, a Texan, once said to me, "Thing is, life's just too damned easy out there." When his phone call arrived, I was dog-tired, just having returned from a shift of roughnecking on a drilling rig next to Suisun Bay, so I begged to differ with him but his view was the popular image. Of course, we've all heard California disparaged as nothing more than Disneyland or smogville or swishy wineries but tell grape-pickers that. Folks in Southern California pretend those negative stories are about the north. The people in Northern California know they're about the south. Those in the center are usually ignored:
"Valley? What Valley?"
It all invites the question: If we Californians don't care enough to study our state, why should we hope others will? We'll have to continue to be represented by the tourism bureau and bombarded with misinformation from fake experts. A special issue of Time magazine a few years ago "California: The Endangered Dream" asserted in its preface, "Northern and Southern California, split from each other by the mountains east of Santa Barbara, are the notorious yin and yang." Say what? Split by the mountains east of Santa Barbara?
Journalist Garry Wills, writing in that same issue of Time, referred to Fresno as "un-Californian." If Fresno is "un-Californian," then what's "Californian"? Berkeley? Venice? Maybe Disneyland? Get serious. In fact, Fresno is quintessentially Californian, but Wills confused the state's stereotype for its reality.
It's time to do something about this, so let me add a caveat to the following suggestion from Sacramento's own Richard Rodriguez " there should be a limit to California. Every family in this state should be allowed no more than three generations here. When your time is up, you would have to move on. Is there, after all, any other way to 'save' California for those newcomers who give California its dynamism?"
I say let's give every family a test on California after three generations here. If they still don't know the north from the center from the south, the Valley from the coast from the mountains, the tortillas from the bagels from the corn-dodgers, then it's time to send them to the land of Nod, on the east of Eden. Or perhaps the north of Yreka.