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Celebrating the 50th anniversary of a great American ideal

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Posted: Monday, February 28, 2011 3:46 am | Updated: 1:53 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

FAIRBANKS — Albert Einstein once said, “The ideals which have always shone before me and filled me with the joy of living are goodness, beauty and truth. To make a goal of comfort or happiness has never appealed to me; a system of ethics built on this basis would be sufficient only for a herd of cattle.”

But as that old cynic Diogenes pointed out, if you “discourse on virtue they pass by in droves. Whistle and dance the shimmy, and you’ve got an audience.” And many wise men have stated the corollary maxim: “No good deed goes unpunished.”

Take “The Story of Ferdinand,” the sweet children’s classic picture book by Munroe Leaf about a gentle bull who preferred smelling flowers to doing battle in bullrings. Leaf wrote it one afternoon in 1935 to provide a vehicle for Robert Lawson, his then-unknown illustrator pal, to strut his stuff.

The Disney cartoon version won an Academy Award in 1938, but did you know the matador was a caricature of Uncle Walt himself? Humorless fascists ruled much of the world then, and many thought “Ferdinand” caricatured them, and banned it. It was particularly loathed in Franco’s Spain, where its pacifist message was thought a political and cultural affront.

Ideals are as varied as human nature, like the ideals of another Ferdinand, the Baron von Richthofen. Ferdinand von Richthofen, the uncle of Manfred, the famed Red Baron of WWI, was equally daring. He mapped the interior of China in the mid-1800s, had a distinguished academic career and coined the word “Seidenstrabe,” or as we know it, the Silk Road.

We celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of one of the great American ideals of our age, the Peace Corps. There are times when our country’s spirit of freedom, independence and open-handed generosity shine forth, and the Peace Corps is a prime example. Much good has been done in the most needy parts of the world by individual Peace Corps volunteers, but their achievements change the lives of relatively few people. Try telling residents of a dry village that a new well isn’t important. Still, they mostly labor in obscurity, just as Diogenes predicted. 

Many good Alaskans share the Peace Corps’ noble ideal. Former Anchorage Public Library Director, Mo McGee, and her husband are volunteering in Botswana, and at least seven Fairbanksans are in the Peace Corps, improving lives, and living an American ideal in places as far-flung as Macedonia, Paraguay and Azerbaijan. The local Returned Peace Corps Volunteer organization includes my dear momma, who taught budding Bulgarian businesspeople how to become capitalists in the mid-90s, during the Bosnian War next door.

Speaking of unbridled pride, don’t forget public libraries. The American Public Library concept, that communities become better, wealthier places when they possess a place to educate, elevate, inform and inspire their citizenry. Such playing field-leveling institutions are rare outside the English-speaking world, and they have existed here for only a few score years.

Library usage continues to grow nationwide, spurred by the recession, but annual visits to Alaska public libraries have increased by a million in the past decade, even though Alaskans use their libraries about 10 times more than the national average. And they use their libraries in new ways.

A recent Institute of Museum and Library Services report shows 69 percent of U.S. citizens are regular public library users, and 77 million use library computers because they don’t have one, or, like much of the Interior, have non-existent or crummy home Internet connections.

Forty-two percent of them use library computers for education purposes, 40 percent for employment and 37 percent for health. A healthy, better educated workforce attracts new businesses and improves old ones.

Thanks to public libraries, more people are getting connected to jobs, lessons, interviews and applications. Even though we do the same core functions as the first librarians — acquire, organize and disseminate information — public libraries are constantly adapting and changing to remain useful and relevant.

As the old proverb states, “true nobility is in being superior to your previous self.”

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