The goals of this curriculum unit, then, are three-fold; I plan to encourage students:
—To think in new, unexpected ways;to make them aware that they are actors in the learning process.
—To discover writing as a legitimate, indispensible, and pleasurable way of thinking and communicating; and in the process, to discover a new mode of verbal expression for their thoughts, ideas,and feelings.
—To make connections, to peek into the blind spots and dark alleys of what we consider knowledge, to learn to ask questions, and to approach knowledge not as a series of discrete subject categories, but as an integrated whole with interlinked parts.
An important corollary to the last point is the realization that “nothing exists in a vacuum” once you start to talk about it. I remember hearing about the Battle of New Orleans in high school as one of the great U.S. military victories, fought three days after the War of 1812 had officially ended. The news of peace just hadn’t made it to Louisiana in time. I never really understood that the time delay wasn’t due to oversight or carelessness, or an extended drunken spree by an irresponsible courier, but to the conditions of roads and the mail service in early 19th-century America. (It took a minimum of six weeks for a return answer of a letter between Boston and Philadelphia.) In an age when we drive casually to New York, or fly to Europe in six hours, a profounder understanding of conditions in earlier periods is required if we mean to gain some empathetic understanding of history.
Such an investigation is as complex as trying to comprehend the mechanism of social change, or how our environment affects our own behavior and experience of the world. A study of the conveyance of letters has to keep in mind the modes of transportation—runners, horses, coaches, carrier pigeons, bottles abandoned to prevailing maritime currents, ships, airplanes. A detailed knowledge of geography is essential to judge the effects of mountains, rivers, deserts, oceans, and available roads on postal routes and delivery schedules. Human obstacles, such as bandits, Indians, pirates, or national boundaries and wars have an influence on the frequency of mail exchange and censorship. The concerted effort by countries to regulate international mail traffic is barely older than a century (since the convention in Bern, Switzerland, in 1873). Then again, what’s the weather like? The Greeks and Romans did not trust their galleys to the fickle wind gods of the Mediterranean during winter. Mail was conveyed securely year-round only by land. The Romans built great roads, which enhanced not only the efficiency of their postal system, but their military expansion and the spread of knowledge.