Tag Archives: liberal arts

Montana Story, Part II: Apply Yourself

And about that college in Montana. It is not that the people in my department did not care about my research. It’s that they saw any small success that came my way as something to resent. Sometimes I told myself that they saw my work through a lens of insecurity, that my productivity reflected on their own lack of productivity. But I was not all that productive in Montana. Anyways, I know now that this was never the case. They were just mean-spirited bastards, and I let those assholes get under my skin.

I have thought about this a lot in light of the Netflix show “The Chair.” I saw someone on twitter ask about Bob Balaban’s character, the starchy and elitist professor of American literature Elliot Rentz. Pembroke University, the fictional setting for “The Chair,” looks like paradise compared to MSU-Billings, which at the time I taught there was a demoralizing hellscape led by a dunce of a President and a dumbbell Dean.

My department consisted of two Jeopardy Champions. One, who was working on a bibliography of lynching, insisted that the infamous Willy Horton advertisement was perfectly acceptable and had nothing to do with race in America. The other was a Harvard-trained historian of the French Revolution who had been denied tenure at two other institutions before he landed in Billings. He did not drive, and relied on students to drive him around. He liked to hang around the dorms. When I left Billings, he warmly congratulated me, told me how great my new department chair was, and then scurried off to tell him how awful I was. My new chair assured me that this reflected badly on everyone in Montana but not on me.

There was also in the department an Iraqi Seventh-Day Adventist who believed that African Americans were moving to Billings because it was an easy place to commit crimes, and a Missouri-Synod Lutheran pastor who proudly claimed that being a professor “was the best part time job in the world.”

There are all sorts of people in the United States who do not want to hear anything bad about the American past. These people can make our jobs difficult. What I think is often overlooked, however, are the barriers to doing the work we do inside the academic institution: administrators who don’t want to draw the dangerous attention of dingbats in the legislature or on the Board of Trustees by discussing controversial subjects; penny-pinching college leaders unwilling to make the investments, personally and financially, to make the college a welcoming space for Indigenous students; and students, even in areas where Native Americans are the largest minority group of campus, who sometimes care nothing at all and Indigenous peoples and their communities. Racism of these stripes was a genuine repressive force in Billings.

I taught there for four years, in an era when it seemed the internet was still in its infancy, without cell phones, and with no computer provided by the college. And because I was a single parent for three of my four years, I could easily stay out of the loop. I was really busy, and Billings felt far away from everything. The right-wingers like Lynne Cheney and Pat Buchanan who, at that time, denounced “politically correct” history, really did not affect me much at all. Not directly, anyways. What mattered more was teaching a subject that was considered provocative, in a bad way, at an institution presided over by leaders who actively discouraged discussions raising challenging questions about the American past.

I was hired to teach the history of Early America, from the colonial period through the “Age of Jackson.” It just so happened that not only had my predecessor left, but another guy, who taught Native American history was retiring. During my on-campus interview, he drove me forty miles to a bar in Columbus, Montana, where we split a six pack of Budweiser. He was a good guy, I think. He left me a ton of books. He taught the subject as little more than the history of the Plains Wars.

New Atlas Saloon in Columbus, Montana – Legends of America
The New Atlas Bar, Columbus MT.

That wasn’t me. I focused my research on the seventeenth century. I was turning my dissertation into a book. I had a much broader coverage in mind. What do to, then, when the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, in a meeting after my first contract renewal, told me that she wanted to see more “relevant” and “applied” research? No one in Montana cared about the history of the Chesapeake or New England, she seemed to suggest.

Eastern Montana State Normal School, Billings, Montana

Contract renewals were tough. Each year my contract came up for renewal. Each year, the two Jeopardy champions voted to fire me. Each year, the Pastor and the Seventh-Day Adventist voted to keep me around. One student member of the committee, God bless them, voted each year to save my job. It was tense, and I needed every ally I could get.

So I tried to play ball. I started speaking with some of my students who drove to Billings from the Crow Reservation. I learned a lot, things I had read in no scholarly monograph. What came from these conversations was the racism these students faced–in high school in Hardin, Montana, in the city of Billings, and in classrooms at my college. Perhaps there was a story to tell here.

I cannot remember the details. There had been some event at Hardin High. The non-Indigenous students stayed home from some sort of cultural awareness day, their truancy excused by their parents. The Crow kids, as kids will do, made some noise about racism. The next day, distributed throughout Hardin, were copies of some white nationalist text like The White Man’s Bible. I went down to Hardin. I tried to learn more. I tried to blend in and listen. I talked to a few people about racism in Hardin. I had gathered some great insights about racism in a reservation border town. This struck me as immediately significant and relevant to life in Montana and in a host of western states. In the end, it was too difficult to do the research. I would have had to spend a lot of time in Hardin, an hour’s drive from where I lived, and my family life would not permit that. But the bigger barrier was the Dean, who somehow had become the Provost, or something like that. I ran into her, somewhere on campus, whcih almost never happened, and told her about the project. I could see clearly from her reaction that this was not what she had in mind at all.

I left Billings in 1998. At Geneseo, where I have taught pretty much ever since, I have been able to do what I wanted to do. We do not have a lot of money, but in every other way my research has been supported.

And that’s the key point. To do research requires a network of support. It is easier for us to do our work when we have interested colleagues who encourage us and provide pointed criticism, administrators who recognize the value of what we do. With that assistance, we can stand up to the racists, the haters, the bigots and trolls. That part of the job becomes easy. It’s when these things are missing that our academic lives can be miserable.

This Is Not A Lament

We all know that we live in tough times. A number of small, private, liberal arts colleges have gone belly up, a product of mismanagement, declining enrollment, or a combination of the two.  Funding for public higher education is either flat or falling, and some schools have dramatically cut back on programs.  Western Kentucky University, for instance, recently announced an end to 101 academic programs. Faculty members do more with less. 

Demographic changes, meanwhile, have made their impact felt, as colleges compete for a declining number of prospective first-year students.  Institutions with deep pockets and strong reputations are able to offer generous packages of financial assistance, while state colleges and smaller private institutions struggle to keep up.  Adjunct faculty do an increasing amount of the actual teaching at institutions across the spectrum, and universities seldom replace departed faculty members in uncertain times. I may be part of the last generation of tenured professors.

Perhaps predictably, this sorry state of affairs has produced some soul-searching. Some commentators or critics have explained that the current crisis is the fault of the academy itself.  The demographic trends could have been visible to anyone who looked, they argue. At the same time, professors, more interested in pursuing their overly-narrow research interests, do not put adequate time into their teaching.  This hyper-specialization spills over into the classes they offer. Quite simply, colleges are not offering classes that students want to take. Try to find a military or diplomatic history course, they say, and you will search for a long time. Maybe professors would be better off teaching relevant courses for their students than dunking on buffoons like Dinesh D’Souza.


Can we give it a rest?

Of course, there are serious problems in higher education. I do not want to dismiss the seriousness of the crisis.

But let’s not blame the liberal arts or their practitioners, and let’s not look to their alteration, diminution, or elimination as a solution to the deep structural problems afflicting the academy. At SUNY-Geneseo, where I teach, the number of majors in our history program has increased in each of the last three years. Our liberal arts programs are healthy and vibrant.

There are a couple of reasons for this. We have outstanding teachers in our department, and we encourage faculty to pursue their interests, to share their passions with their students. Instead of requiring old-school survey courses in United States history and Western Civilization, a tired model if ever there was one, we emphasize the discipline of history. We study continuity and change, measured across time and space, in peoples, institutions and cultures.  We teach students to formulate questions, to answer them in a manner that is honest, thorough, and disciplined, and to write with grace and style.  We offer no courses in military history, it is true, but we offer courses that our students find relevant and important and that teach students the skills of the historical discipline. They learn to work with facts, evidence and explanation. They study the history of everyday life, histories written from the “bottom-up,” and histories of groups traditionally underrepresented in other historical accounts. They want histories shorn of the patriotism and myth that they see as characterizing parts of their high school experience. But they study as well the classics.  They read widely and they read deeply. 

            Many of us are active researchers still, and our scholarship informs our teaching. Some of us focus on topics that are narrower than others, but we are working, exploring, asking questions, and examining our own assumptions as we examine the evidence.  We bring this research into the classroom. We deploy a variety of teaching styles. Some of us lecture. Some emphasize discussion and form our students into groups to analyze the reading. Most of us do both. Over the years, I have sat in on discussion classes where little has been accomplished, and others where the resulting conversations were so stimulating that my mind raced for the rest of the day. I have sat in on lecture courses as a student that bored me to tears. And I attended lectures that changed my life.

            If you were young once, you might remember how an idea could turn you on, how a topic about which you knew nothing could consume you, and inspire you to dig deeply for more knowledge. Students hunger for knowledge. They want to think big thoughts, ask and answer important questions, examine the contours of their own existence.  They want to learn the skills of their particular discipline, yes, but many also want to talk about meaningful citizenship. They want to understand the world they live in and the people in it, and how to make their world a better place.

            There are scholars who write on “narrow” topics, to be sure.  Some publish and present their work to small groups of like-minded scholars. There are writers in the liberal arts whose writing is difficult and jargon-filled.  But there are others whose work is accessible, urgent, and available. They write about subjects of immense importance, and they do so with energy and style.  Their work sheds light on the human condition, and they share their work widely with readers and with their students.  They may not write about war, politics, or diplomacy, but they explore what it is to be human, to live in community with others, and how we got here.  Those who read their work find it powerful and important.

            Students love their courses in history. 

In our current political climate, however, they hear from politicians and policy-makers that to be educated is to have a job, and that little else matters.  The president, his party, and their propagandists dismiss the value of the life of the mind. They dismiss the liberal arts as elitist, or as dominated by topics that are “politically correct,” largely because they distrust the democratizing potential of free inquiry, and resent the calls for justice that lie at its core.  Professors should teach the facts, they say, and they should not indoctrinate their students.  They express that fear frequently.  They worry about freedom of expression and freedom of speech on college campuses, but what they really fear is open debate and the discussion of topics that challenge their assumptions. When we ask students to consider the meanings of freedom, equality, and power, to explore the inconsistent relationship between law and justice, and to examine the yawning gap between our reality and our ideals, between the way things are and the way things ought to be, they see a threat.  They fail to understand how it is essential to a thriving republic for citizens to ask these deep, probing questions.  They fear the questions and those who ask them.

We who teach these subjects must push back against this style of thought.  We can talk about how liberal arts students will find work, about how they make decent money, and how students need to be adaptable because today’s students will likely be doing many jobs that do not even exist.  Many have made the point about the economic value of the liberal arts.  But there is a larger, cultural force against which we contend.  Anti-intellectualism and resentment against the privilege that colleges and universities seem to represent are powerful forces. It will not be easy, but it is essential, that we engage those who hold these views.  We are, after all, educators. And our most important job, in addition to teaching the students in front of us, may be to explain to a skeptical public the importance of the work we do, and how wrestling with big ideas is necessary not only for meaningful citizenship, but for a richer life.

Everything is Beautiful

I have completed all of my grading for the fall semester, made it through the stress and hustle of the holidays.  Some time to reflect, before the next semester begins in a couple of weeks.  The final essays written by students in my Western Humanities course inspired me. We can read so many laments about “kids these days,” so many ill-informed condemnations of “campus climate.”  God knows, there is a lot to worry about in this world, but these kids are all right.

            I have written about Geneseo’s Western Humanities requirement on this blog before.  In my version of the course, the students begin by reading three works from Ancient Greece: Antigone, Thucydides, and Plato’s Republic.  They then read Cicero’s Republic and Virgil’s Aeneid.  After the Greeks and Romans, we move into the Judeo-Christian tradition: Genesis, much of Exodus, the first and most of the second book of Samuel, a good chunk of Isaiah, the Gospel of Matthew, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and the passion narratives in the other three gospels. We spend the next three meetings on the first nine books of Augustine’s Confessions. Followed by Aquinas’s Treatise on Law, More’s Utopia, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  It is a heavy reading load for a single semester.  We wrap up with three short readings: Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Jack Gilbert’s poem “A Brief for the Defense,” and Roger Rosenblatt’s 2016 essay for The Atlantic called “The World is a Thriving Slaughterhouse.”

            If you read this blog, you will know my affection for Rosenblatt’s essay.  Going through an attic full of photographs, notes, and clippings documenting his long career as a war correspondent in some of the late 20th century’s most brutal combat zones, Rosenblatt told the story of the people he met—in Israel, Palestine, the Sudan, Cambodia, Rwanda.  He closed the essay with the story of Khu:     

Here are notes on a conversation with Khu, a 15-year-old boy who fled Vietnam to Hong Kong after the war. His parents are dead. He had nothing in Vietnam, so one night he jumped aboard a boat in Haiphong, headed up the South China Sea to Hong Kong. After some time, the people on the boat ran out of food. The captain, or “boat master,” assigned one man to knock Khu unconscious with a hammer and another to cut his throat, so the others could eat him. When the crew members saw the tears on Khu’s face, they let him live. But the next day, the adults killed the man with the hammer and cut up his body. “Everyone was issued a piece of meat, about two fingers wide.” Khu holds up a hand to indicate the size of the portion. He says he understands their actions. They were starving. Would you do the same?, I ask him. No, he says, I would not kill in order to live.

It is evening, and Khu and the translator are sitting with me, looking over the dazzling Hong Kong harbor. We watch the junks move among the little islands. The mountain of the city rises like a Christmas tree. I ask Khu what he’s thinking about. The lights, he says. They are beautiful. And the boats. I ask what he thinks about the boats. He says they are also beautiful. What else is beautiful?, I ask him. He says everything is beautiful.

I asked the students to write an essay reflecting on Khu’s last statement, drawing as they did so upon any four of the pieces we read over the course of the semester. 

            Because to me and to them, I know, it does not always seem beautiful. The suffering in Syria or Yemen or Afghanistan, or the violent persecution of minorities on a global scale, or the callousness shown to the millions of people displaced around the world, so many of whom flee victimization only to become victims once again. Two children, fleeing the hell on earth that is their homeland, died in the custody of American law enforcement.

            The students acknowledged this suffering. I encouraged them to follow the news, and many did so. They wrote movingly about these global injustices, placing this ugliness in the context of their understanding of Plato’s forms, or the call in Testaments Old and New to extend grace, compassion, and kindness to those on the margins, and Augustine’s urgent determination to find an explanation for the reality of evil that did not leave him wrecked and wretched.  They used Sophocles and Aquinas to make the case that a higher law exists—somewhere—against which the deeds of even the most confident despot will be measured. And Hamlet: in that grief-shattered young man, aware fully of the rottenness surrounding him, the students drew the lesson that as long as you are alive, you might find the chance to look past the despair, a lesson Hamlet himself could not learn. They understood well, as Ethan Hawke’s character in the film “First Reformed” put it, that balancing despair and hope is a struggle at the center of the human condition, even if Hawke’s character succumbed to that despair as well.

            So many of the students went beyond the news, the world at large, to write about their own moments of darkness.  They wrote with feeling, and I am grateful to them for sharing their stories with me. They were so personal, and so certain am I that they have not shared these stories widely on campus, that I do not feel that I can share them here in any detailed manner.  They wrote of the trauma and pain they carry, for example, from their parents’ acrimonious divorce. They wrote of their first encounters with death: of high school classmates to accidents, overdose, or homicide; of the adults in their lives, to cancer, accident, and suicide.  They wrote of people who died young, and their loss left these kids with their first taste of grief.  They identified with Augustine, who saw in his own struggles with grief a sign that he was not well, that his heart was unquiet.  They chronicled their struggles with breathtaking frankness. They spoke of their own mistakes, and the hard lessons they have learned.  They understood their own shortcomings, the steps they need to take in places to make themselves whole. 

            Spend four months talking with these students. Read their writing.  If you had the chance to do so, you would worry less about the future generation.  The students, at their best, wrote essays in which they examined big questions: the experience of evil, the suffering in the world and in their own lives, their place in a cosmos that at times seems close to shattering.  They looked out at the world, took its measure to the best of their ability, and they saw the beauty in it all.  They were not naïve, to my mind. They understood that there is so much injustice, so much that is so seriously screwed up.  But if they did not have a ready solution for the problems they so clearly could see—problems that great thinkers have thought about for millennia—most of them believed firmly that it did not have to be that way. 

            I find the Humanities course a challenge to teach. I was not around long ago when my colleagues assembled the original reading list, a menu from which faculty are allowed to make selections in a number of categories.  We have some freedom to substitute and innovate, but at the end, we have a long list of books that discuss all sorts of things. Finding unifying themes, I found difficult when I first taught the course.  After eight years of teaching it, the themes are more apparent.  Have no fear, I tell the students.  If there is one thing the books that they read share it is this: an awareness of the need to be not afraid, to be willing to ask difficult questions, to demand evidence, to express their dissent.  As we watch a political system presided over by the Travesty-in-Chief, aided and abetted by the tens of millions of Americans who still support him, and political leaders who know better but refuse to speak up, that courage is more necessary than ever.

            These students expressed, each in their own way, their optimism that their generation was up to the task.  They expressed their openness to the possibility that the world does not need to be the way it is.  They agreed with Khu.  That faith, in a country where somehow that smash-and-grab operation that is the Trump Administration managed to come to power, buoys me and, I suspect, many of those of us who teach. 

Here’s to hoping 2019 is better than 2018. I wish you peace in the new year.

Intellectual Courage

I gave the following keynote address to the annual meeting of NYSACAC, the New York state organization for high school and college admissions counselors, which took place at SUNY-Geneseo earlier this month. In some ways, it encapsulates what I tell my students each semester on the first day of class in my Humanities class.


I am delighted to be here, and to join those who have welcomed you here to our beautiful campus.  Geneseo, as a place, shows up in the historical documents long before Rochester existed, long before Monroe or Livingston counties, long before there was much of anything European established in what became the broader upstate region. It lays in the heart of the ancestral homeland of the Senecas, the keepers of the western door of the Haudenosaunee, the Iroquois Longhouse.

Seneca soldiers and diplomats who lived in this Genesee valley played a role in the history of two empires, the French and the English, in the Iroquois League and Confederacy, and in the history of the native confederations that threatened the existence of the British Empire in America and then the young United States in the 1790s. They continued to live in this valley, at least some of them, even after Major-General John Sullivan led Continental forces through the Finger Lakes in 1779, burning crops and villages, and scorching the earth, as he went.  They were here in the 1790s and into the 1800s, before they moved to Allegany and Cattaraugus and Grand River in Canada.

Stories from the past.  I could tell you more: about Mary Jemison, the white woman of the Genesee.  She lived for a time as a captive, and adoptee, a refugee, and a Seneca homesteader down the road in what became Letchworth State Park, where you can see a statue of her and a replica cabin.  There are some documents with her mark on them in the county courthouse at the end of Main Street, where she deeded Seneca lands she claimed to white men associated with the Ogden Land Company, among whom numbered one of Geneseo’s founding fathers.  Her Seneca sons, who died violently, two of the three at the hands of their brothers, victims of the alcohol that could cut jagged holes in the fabric of Native American life.  There are New York State historical markers all over this county.  Biased, to be sure, but all telling historical stories about this part of New York State.

For nearly two decades, I have told stories like these to students at this school.  I have taught a lot of students over the years, and told a lot of stories. I am a historian.  That’s what we do.  I am interested in the past, and its connections to the present.  How things came to be.  Continuity and Change measured across time and space in peoples, institutions and cultures.  But all of that is just a way of saying that I am a guy that makes my living by asking questions.  And I love the questions—the search for evidence, the complexity and the lack sometimes of definitive answers, and the stories—the stories are at the heart of all that we historians do as teachers and writers.

I imagine that in your line of work you have stories that you can tell, too, stories of young people who have all sorts of challenges in front of them, or who survive trauma and neglect, some who have succeeded wildly and some who have broken your hearts.  I am sure you have stories of kids who are coming to you before they leave home to go to school, or to work, or into the service, or off to some experience—a gap year or a slack year or an adventure–and who want to begin writing their own stories for themselves, and perhaps by themselves, for the very first time.  These are stories, too, of continuity and change, of how things came to be, of being and becoming. Some of these young people are becoming competent and capable. Or they may be developing generosity and compassion, and some of them might be frightened and uncertain, sometimes for reasons that go deep into theirs and their family’s past, layers upon layers of stories you may have to disentangle if you want to understand them, where they are coming from, and where they hope to go. Some of them do not know what their story is going to look like, or how to begin writing it.

Like you, I have seen students who fall into all of these categories, students who, whatever they are feeling, can do so much to make this world—our world—a better place.

I can also imagine, and only imagine, the time constraints that you, and our colleagues who are out there in the classroom, work under in an era of increasing demands and declining resources. My teacher friends do so much, with so little, so often for people outside the building who have little understanding of what a good job actually looks like, who measure success in ways so foreign to the lived experience of you and your students.  And so it is with some trepidation that I propose to you today, if we are truly “dedicated to serving students as they explore options and make choices about pursuing postsecondary education” as Article I, Section 1 of your association’s by-laws read, that there is more that we can and should do for these young people who are so important to all of our futures.

My oldest daughter is one of these young people, She is at this point in her life where she interacts with her counselor a bit in high school, and talks with an occasional admissions representative.  She has entered this period that is so rich with opportunity and potential but also fraught with vulnerability. She is finishing up her junior year in high school. She has visited colleges and will visit some more and has begun to think when her way-too-busy schedule permits about what she might like to do with the rest of her life.  She has received all sorts of advice on what sort of story she might write, and she has received a lot of advice on how to navigate the college admissions process.  She has been plopped down in front of computers to navigate Naviance and see what her next step might look like. Programs to get her thinking about how to begin her story.

And based upon what I have seen as a parent and a professor, it seems to me that there is one area that is so essential to success in a college classroom, and especially at a liberal arts college like this one, that does not get talked about at high school enough: the importance of cultivating and encouraging intellectual fearlessness; to develop in young people the courage not to shy away from those things that seem to them–to all of us—to be extremely difficult. To master basic skills, of course. To be honest, curious, inquisitive, and relentless to be sure, but most of all, in terms of the questions they ask, the evidence they consider, the ideas they engage with, and the theses they advance, to be as fearless as they can be.  Now, on campuses like this, in this country, in this global community, more than ever.

Geneseo, as I have said, is still a liberal arts college. It’s a phrase that gets thrown around a lot.  We integrate the liberal arts into the curriculum whatever a student’s major. We here at Geneseo wear that label, a liberal arts college, proudly, and many of us still hope our students will, too.

But that is a difficult—an increasingly difficult—thing for them to do. I imagine that some of the students you advise have heard the jokes about liberal arts and humanities majors.  They have worried parents who fear that their kids will not be able to take care of themselves without a “marketable” degree. Some of your students, before they arrive on campus, will already have been asked, “What are you going to do with that degree?”  Sometimes those questions can come from innocent curiosity, like, really, what are you going to do with that degree. But these questions can also come with a barbed tip, too, in the sense that the liberal arts and humanities are thought by some people out there to have limited value because, unlike the STEM fields and business and “the Art of the Deal,” the liberal arts are too often thought of as adding little of value.

The governor of Florida, for instance, a few years ago, argued that we do not need more anthropologists.  Another Floridian, a United States Senator, during his brief, quixotic run for the presidency said that we need “more plumbers and less philosophers.”  The Lieutenant Governor of Kentucky told students at Eastern Kentucky University that they should not bother studying history, and that since they attended a public college, funded by taxpayers—people who work—that they should do something useful to the Commonwealth.   Why should the state subsidize the study of French literature, the governor of that state asked.  What value does it add for Kentuckians?  Even in the SUNY system we have seen a diminishment in the perceived importance of the liberal arts, social sciences, and humanities.

And all of this is too bad, for I would argue that the study of these fields adds a lot, because they give us the cultural capital necessary to participate in a democratic society in a meaningful and constructive way.  But thinking in terms of nuances, complexities, ambiguities, shades of grey; being one of the people who embraces the big questions, pursues the answers over the long haul, who appreciates the value of open debate and discussion, who endeavors to find truth, and digs like a terrier for answers—people like that can find these times we live in rough sledding. People who ask fundamental questions about why things are the way that they are and how they ought to be—they can be perceived as threatening to those in power, which is why we see this assault on institutions like the National Endowment for the Arts and the NEH, which fund in a variety of ways arts and humanities projects that explore issues that cut to the marrow of the human condition.

Our students now live in a world that you and I have helped to create for them where too many people confuse their feelings and their fears for facts, where being smart and engaged and critical and willing to ask questions can make one an object of scorn.  They live in a world as well where complexity is so often dismissed, where big and difficult answers to the big questions are avoided, that asking these sorts of questions can take a certain amount of courage.

Let me give you an example. The former talk show host Bill O’Reilly used to have a segment on his shows where he sent a correspondent out to do “on the street” interviews where his goal was to expose the ignorance of the liberals he so often criticized on his show. One time the correspondent ran into a highly knowledgeable young guy, college-aged, who was more than willing to engage in a reasoned and informed debate and before he could get to his second sentence, Boom! “Nerd Alert!” flashed on the screen, as if being knowledgeable about public affairs and the world in which we live is a bad thing, something to make fun of.

Many Americans live in a world where they simply do not invest their time and energy to ask questions, stay informed. When we have a President who lies baldly to the press, and a press that is more concerned with ratings and clicks than in pursuing difficult stories, that is interested in fad and outrage and that has the attention span of a 2-year-old, we arrive at that dire point where the use of “alternative facts” can really be a thing that we can talk about with straight faces.  We, collectively, the mature adults in the room, have modeled some very, very, poor behavior.  We reason sloppily or lazily; we are dishonest, or cynical; we are cowards and grotesquely ill-informed.  For instance:

  • A sitting congressman told an audience that the theory of evolution and the Big Bang were “lies straight out of the pit of hell.”
  • The chairman of a Senate environmental panel brought a snowball into that august chamber as proof that climate change is a hoax.
  • When only 36% can find North Korea on a map, and that remaining majority is far more likely to favor military action against a nuclear power led by a deranged mad man;
  • And when almost one in three Americans could not identify President Obama’s vice president, who was there for the entire eight years of his presidency,
  • We have come pretty close to bottoming out.

Think about this: Americans, according to a recent survey, are more likely to be able to identify any two members of the Simpson family than any one of the five freedoms protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, rights that now, as they have been at many points in the past, are under assault. (I known, you think Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie, but maybe not quite as readily of press, religion, speech, petition and assembly).  22% of Americans can name all five members of the Simpson family, while only one in one thousand could name all five first amendment freedoms.

We are complacent in the face of inequality and injustice.  As the searing documentary “The 13th” pointed out, the United States has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the people who live their lives behind bars, and we are working hard to increase that percentage, if we are to believe the current United States Attorney General.  But think about that: One out of every four persons who is incarcerated ON EARTH  is imprisoned in the land of the free, and the home of the brave, though that freedom and that bravery is, at times, quite hard to find. People of color are imprisoned at rates far out of proportion to their share of the general population.

OXFAM reported in January of 2017 that 8 men, the wealthiest in the world, own as much as the poorest half of the world’s population.  8 men own as much wealth as the poorest 50%, 3.6 BILLION PEOPLE.  The wealth of these eight men grew by half a trillion dollars over the course of the preceding five years, while the wealth of the poorest 50% fell by 1 trillion. At the height of his fame, Michael Jordan was paid more than all the factory workers in all of Nike’s factories combined.

We have seen gun-craziness, racism, rising antisemitism, fear.  You know it is all there, and you can, I imagine, think of additional examples.  Violence.  White supremacists marching in New Orleans and Charlottesville to protect monuments explicitly commemorating white supremacy. The election of an incurious and juvenile president who has, at various times,

  • insisted that freedom of the press—part of that pesky first amendment—does not allow the press to criticize him;
  • that torture, specifically prohibited by American laws, should be brought back;
  • that we should wall ourselves off from the rest of the world;
  • claimed that women are objects who can be grabbed and groped at his pleasure; and that the norms and values and responsibilities of civil society and basic ethics simply do not apply to his family and favorites.
  • I cannot keep up with it all—every time I thought I was done writing this address, another bit of news…And here is the point:

Rational, reasoned, and just public policy is difficult if not impossible without an informed, engaged, and rationally-thinking public willing to ask tough questions, to engage.

Fear.  Many Americans live in fear: of immigrants and Islamist extremists–but a plastic surgeon botching your operation is more likely to kill you in the United States than a terrorist. Peanuts kill more Americans than terrorists, as John Oliver pointed out.  Yet we are told to be fearful.  And many of us do as we are told. People around the globe and in this country—some of them, anyways—seem to have more confidence in fear and anger and hate than in their opposites. With malice towards many, and charity for few; with little interest in heeding the call of the Old Testament prophets to care for the widows and comfort the fatherless, the weakest members of society, and to seek out injustice and correct oppression.

Our students are coming of age in this moment where a lot of really old issues—race and inequality and class and gender and violence and justice, are resurfacing in complicated and anguishing ways.  The problems are out there.  But to name them and to ask, “What can we do?” and to gather the information to solve them, that can be tough.  And so many of these problems we face are rooted, in part, in a rejection of critical thought, in an embrace of the irrational, and a society with these problems can fall prey to demagogues with their simplistic answers, and will find it difficult to display emotional maturity, and will be prone to violence.

What are we going to do about all of this?  I don’t know. But maybe if we are to make America great again, or as great as it might be, it might be the young people who you help send to a school like this one, who get a solid grounding in the liberal arts, whatever their majors, who will best see that “injustice anywhere” just may be a threat to justice everywhere.  And that if it is “an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny, that binds us, one to another,” as Martin Luther King once wrote, that these kids, these young men and women, may be among those best suited to do something about it.   So those of us at a school like this, we who think and reason; we, the people who read the footnotes–we can deploy that wisdom that not only makes our lives richer but makes the world a better place—–only if we have the courage to act, and to use it.

All of us, you and I, we need to do a better job with the young people we advise and teach.

After all, we live in and have helped to create a world where—when we stand up in the face of the problems before us and ask, “Why?” and when we insist on a reasoned and relevant response to that simple question—it’s like an act of subversion, and subversive acts, even the smallest ones, require a degree of courage, of fearlessness.

It can beat your down, if you let it. I see it occasionally on this campus.  Despair. Hopelessness.  Cynicism.  Especially cynicism. I worry that it can beat down the young people with whom we work, if we do not do a better job in equipping them to be intellectually fearless. Again, look at the spectacle of public life that we are in the process of bequeathing to this generation. We might forgive them for an easy slide into a deep cynicism, but we must emphasize that cynicism is an intellectually lazy position, a colossal cop out or a reflection of a feeling of powerlessness.

But these young people do have power.

It can take courage to trust and to respect and to appreciate, as well as to care and to love, and to accept the validity of ideas presented by those with whom we would be predisposed to think we might disagree.  To never underestimate others, to take people seriously, whoever that person happens to be, to accept the possibility that those with whom we disagree might have a point and, indeed, to admit that we might be wrong.  To appear vulnerable in the face of those who despise us.  It is not an easy thing for us, and it is not an easy thing for our students.  It takes courage, and a willingness—a true commitment—to approaching everything and everyone with a readiness to see goodness and to be surprised.

It is so easy, and at a level perfectly understandable, to feel like the challenges we all face are too big and it is possible, I think, that we all feel at times like we are not enough to make a difference—that we need to be wealthier or have more expertise or access or a stronger prescription or whatever.  But what if the students we worked with used their skills and their thoughts and their reason and acted as if they were exactly what was needed? If we all knew we could work to close the gap between the way things are and the way things ought to be, even a little bit, would we have the courage to act? Would we really do it?

A long time ago I had a great history professor.  His name was Albie Burke.  He died about five years ago. And even though I left Cal State Long Beach where he taught in the late 1980s, I still got back to campus every other year or so to have lunch with him and to catch up, to talk about the Supreme Court, constitutionalism, politics, and all sorts of other things. We were both historians who sort of wanted to be lawyers.  I can remember feeling nervous and unprepared before having to present some of my work in seminar, my thesis project on two really big Supreme Court cases in the field of American Indian law.  And believe me, I was stressed out. We would meet in his very Spartan office, and he always made really incisive eye contact when you were speaking to him.  Bright, bright, blue eyes. He would listen very quietly, never interrupting.  Very comfortable with silences.  And then when you finished, spilling out your guts, telling him how you were not ready, he would pause for a few beats and then say:  “You will never be prepared. You still got to do it.”  He’d smile just a little bit as he said that. It was a tough lesson for some of his students, I think, but his point was that you can spend all your time worrying and fretting and fearing and preparing and not doing.  Fear can keep you from doing what needs to be done, in public life, and in terms of what you want for your own lives.  His daughter told a similar story at his memorial service about many conversations she had had with him just like that.  It is so easy to talk yourself out of pursuing your dreams, of tackling the challenges that may lie in front of you, and that lie in front of all of us.

It is this spirit that we must teach and nurture and cultivate.

How do we get there? Not by rubrics and grades and tests.  Not by slapping labels on kids without making clear to them that at the end of the day they will have to decide whether that label will serve as an explanation for their failures or an obstacle, however burdensome and unfair, that they will have to overcome if they are to succeed.

I know that I have a lot to learn still. I learn a lot from my students.  Maybe I do not know much at all.  But I do know this: Students do not become better people, or more courageous citizens, through exams and grading.  Students do not learn from many forms of assessment.  The tests and the grades we assign do nothing to make them better people. And yet we do this still. The non-profit ETS brings in over 1.6 billion dollars a year.

And when grades or test scores are used to as great an extent as they are at present to determine opportunity—to open doors for some students and close doors for others—they can have the effect of reinforcing inequalities and systematic injustices that have stood for far too long.

The grades your colleagues give, and the grades I give, and the subjects that many of us teach, may in fact matter less for the scores and the content that we are mandated to cover than for what we give to our students to help them to learn to think, and reason, and ask tough questions.  Students will remember how we made them feel, if we made them feel, more than any of the subject matter we teach them. I am willing to bet that if you take a minute, and think back to the time you spent in class, in high school or in college, and what you remember from those classes, that you might agree with me.  I hope so.

Maybe we can be the types of teachers who worry less about grades and missed deadlines, who will believe their excuses, and give out more “A’s.” I am walking proof, after all, that there is little relationship between high school and even undergraduate achievement and later academic success.   And nobody—NOBODY—will convince me that a sixteen or a seventeen or an eighteen-year old should have doors shut because they were not inspired or equipped by their overworked and underpaid teacher to complete their assignments, or able to place their rote work and assignments ahead of whatever crisis, great or small, was dominating their life.  Grades and test scores, to too great an extent, measure the dutiful but not the beautiful parts of our students.

Students.  I have used that word a number of times in this talk, but it is important to remember that we are talking here about young people—people like us years ago– with potential and with dreams who are still learning where their talents lie.  And we need those dreamers.  Stargazers.  That’s what Plato called them.

Here’s what a student of mine wrote for her Humanities final just a month ago. Humanities is a course that we used to really value here, and that used to make Geneseo special and unique.  I gave the students an essay by Roger Rosenblatt that appeared last fall in The Atlantic in which he reflected on his long career as a war correspondent, and the seemingly limitless capacity of people for inhumanity and barbarism.  It is powerful, heartbreakingly beautiful essay. The assignment, in the end, asked students to write about human nature, justice, and the problem of evil, as the contemplated this article, and works by Sophocles, Plato, Thucydides, Augustine, More, the Bible, Shakespeare, and some others I am not remembering.  “The question remains,” this very talented student wrote, “how do we account for all of the hatred, violence, and injustice that we witness? What words do we use to describe it? How can we possibly rationalize it and make sense of it? Where do we find its opposite in the world, and how do we eagerly point at that, so as to say, ‘See, this is also us. This is also me.’

“In a world and a human history overwhelmed by hatred, violence, and injustice, what counters it, I argue, is love, compassion, faith, and the courage to rise above it.”

Maybe we should refuse the rubric, and ignore the scores.  Look for the beautiful.  This rising generation of students is already better than us in important ways—their open-mindedness, their tolerance, their acceptance of difference. I really believe that. Encourage courage. We have a lot of influence.  Or at least we have the potential to be highly influential:  a cruel or an uncaring word from us, for example, even when cast off thoughtlessly or uncritically, or because we are stressed out or too busy, can do so much damage, while a kind word, a single note of encouragement, can do something that these students will remember for the rest of their lives, something that can help them write a beautiful life story.

So let’s do better.  Let’s encourage fearlessness, even where we have failed to demonstrate it ourselves.  I feel that I have the best job in the world. Really. There is nothing else that I can imagine doing because, like you, I get to spend my time talking to young people, many of whom are optimistic, who are neither jaded nor cynical but see the world as one with so much potential. And it is, for those with the courage to act.  How cool is that?

And each and every day, I have the opportunity, if I choose to truly be present, to truly listen, to be awed by their achievements, humbled by the obstacles they have overcome to get to this college, inspired by their creative thinking, pushed by their challenging questions, and amazed by the alacrity with which so many of them seek out injustice, attempt to correct oppression, and in thousands of small ways show the vital courage to make the world—our world—a better place.

I have enjoyed this opportunity to speak to you.  I thank you for listening, for giving me some of your time, and I hope that you enjoy and benefit from your time here at Geneseo, at this conference, and at this beautiful campus.


On The Way of the Human Being

Yesterday one of my very good students told me that he was driving through New York’s Finger Lakes region, not all that far from my campus.  He was enjoying a nice spring day, noticing the signs remaining from the heyday of the Anti-Indian group Upstate Citizens For Equality, and listening to one of the blowhards on right-wing radio.  Slim pickings, sometimes, in the Finger Lakes.  Whoever it was that he listened to argued that Native Americans need to move on and “Get Over It.” Stop whining and stop complaining. The injustices they suffered occurred a long time ago.

It is the end of the semester here at Geneseo.  All of us, I suspect, students and faculty alike, are limping into finals week.  The weather is turning nice, the flowers are blooming. It is difficult sometimes for students to focus on schoolwork. I get this.  The last reading I give to the students in my American Indian Law and Public Policy course is Harold Napoleon’s essay, Yuuyaraq: The Way of the Human Being.  It is, in places, a beautiful book, but a small number of my students were pretty hard on it. Disappointingly so.

Napoleon, a Yup’ik, wrote his essay in the late 1980s from a penitentiary in Alaska.  During a state of intoxication that he cannot remember, he killed his child. Napoleon wondered in Yuuyaraq not only how his story ended in prison–college-educated and capable, he had served his community by holding a number of leadership positions–but the larger story of what had happened to his people.

Yuuyaraq was, for Napoleon, a beautiful way of living. Indeed, his essay directly inspired the historian Calvin Luther Martin‘s beautiful but flawed meditation on the experience of native peoples in a book he wrote, also entitled The Way of the Human Being.    The human beings lived in a world in which they interacted with a range of spiritual forces, malevolent and otherwise, and a host of human and other-than-human beings. Ritual allowed this world to work.  Hunters made requests; hunters treated the animals they pursued with courtesy and so long as the animals were accorded the proper respect, no misfortune could befall the people. (Gregory Evans Dowd twenty-some years ago did a wonderful job of showing how these beliefs informed native peoples’ conduct and understanding of the cosmos in the first chapter of A Spirited Resistance, a book I sill assign in my classes).

Look at the primary sources.  Look at the extant accounts.  You cannot miss it. Napoleon discusses the primary sources. Following upon his work and that of a host of scholars and writers, Native American and non-native, I attempted to present this world of ritual and spiritual power in the opening chapter of Native AmericaIt is a world where native peoples paid close attention to ritual in order to deflect the wrath of malevolent forces whose ire could spell ruin for indigenous farmers, hunters, and warriors.

You also cannot miss when you look at these accounts how fragile all of this was.  Epidemic diseases tore gaping, jagged holes in the fabric of native community life.  For Napoleon’s people, the experience was a relatively recent one.  He writes of what his elders called the “Great Death,” which struck Alaska Native communities at the very beginning of the twentieth century.  60% of the people, the real human beings, died.

Wreckage. That is what Napoleon describes, and it is a painful read.  Other native peoples, whether recorded in white sources or in their own writings, have described the resulting chaos and pain in similar terms.  I think here of David Silverman’s searing portrait of Christian Indians in central New York who, when their white neighbors celebrated their independence from Great Britain and acted on their voracious appetites for Indian land, became convinced that they were a people cursed by God to suffer for all of eternity.  Or spelatch, the term Skokomish artist Bruce-subiyay Miller used to describe the world of change that came to his people after the arrival of Europeans.  The Skokomish “fell into disarray,” Miller wrote, his ancestors’ experience akin to that of “a shipwreck where everyone was trying to find something to cling to, to save their lives.”  As with Napoleon’s people, many turned to alcohol.  Some tried to assimilate, or turned to Christianity.  All of them struggled, for they found that “the things that they venerated, that gave them their vital life force and their strength for survival, suddenly were condemned as evil.”

A small number of my students, four out of the thirty in the class, thought that Napoleon was blaming the victims, but they badly misread his work.  The epidemic produced wreckage that most of us, mercifully, can only struggle to imagine.  The epidemics destroyed Yuuyaraq.  The survivors, Napoleon said, with their traditions , their customs, their networks of kin, and their very way of comprehending the cosmos destroyed, began to listen to missionaries who described their culture as sinful and demonic, their ways of living wicked.  Napoleon clearly did not blame the converts.  They were trying to get by, to make sense of a horrifying new world.  He described his people as victims of something very much like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as victims of “cultural genocide” and a historical process that he described as “evil.”

When I teach Napoleon, I think often of the long poem that runs through Leslie Marmon Silko’s masterful novel Ceremony, which in its manner conveys something very powerful about the historical processes described in Yuuyaraq.  If you have not read it, you must. Though a work of fiction, Ceremony can work well in a history class. If you are a student, you can learn much from Silko about the horrifying new world the arrival of Europeans created for native peoples.

In the novel, Silko’s witches begin to duel, and conjure a horrifying vision.


Long time ago

in the beginning

there were no white people in the world

there was nothing European.

And this world might have gone on like that

except for one thing:


Silko’s witches told the story of the arrival of white people on American shores.  It was a horror story, for these newcomers

grow away from the earth.

Then they grow away from the sun

then they grow away from the plants and animals.

They see no life.

When they look

they see only objects.

The world is a dead things for them,

the trees and rivers are not alive.

The deer and bear are objects

They see no life.

They fear

They fear the world

They destroy what they fear

The fear themselves.

The white people would bring a New World to native peoples. The newcomers, Silko’s witches warned,

will kill the things they fear

all the animals

the people will starve…

They will fear what they find

They will fear the people

They will kill what they fear

Entire villages will be wiped out

They will slaughter whole tribes.

There were survivors, but they struggled with the horrifying consequences of this witchery.  Napoleon told his story, after all, from a prison full of Alaska Native who suffered from what one recent report labeled “Intergenerational Trauma.”  Martin, who taught at a penitentiary during a portion of the time he spent in Alaska, met men and women who found themselves incarcerated after committing horrible acts they could not remember.  They were struggling to carry the burden imposed by a legacy of unresolved grief.

Napoleon proposed solutions. He was not an expert, he claimed, nor a wise man.  But he had seen a lot and experienced a lot.  Talking circles, to open up, to restore shattered bonds, to heal.  It is hard to disagree with what he suggests. He was a humble man, and he has continued to struggle to meet the challenges communities like his face since he was granted parole.

Still, the problems remain.  In Canada, too, as the enduring epidemic of suicide in Nunavut attests.

Trauma.  An absence of well-being. Communities still struggle.  Get over it, they are told.  These are the words of white critics who are racist and stupid, and they can be dismissed as such.  But what to do?  In the United States, much of the talk about Native American communities focuses on economic development, sovereignty, self-determination.  Like justice, democracy and pizza, everyone is for these things, but what, really, do they mean?  And with the measure of self-determination and sovereignty determined by the governing structures of the settler state, or decided, as Roger Echo-Hawk put it in his too-long book of several years ago, in “The Courts of the Conqueror”?  How much can the governments of settler states do? What are they willing to do?  How much can their experts achieve?

Napoleon argued that communities needed to solve their own problems, to forcefully advocate for themselves to pursue changes in government policy but also to deal with the grief and heal.  In Wasase, Taiaiake Alfred, (who my students read as well) laments the limitations imposed by leaders who all-too-often act just like white politicians, administering the programs and policies put in place by the settler state.

Alfred, Napoleon, Martin–they are describing communities in the midst of complicated problems, and if we do not force our students to confront them we do a disservice to them as historians. Grief is a force in Native American history.  Read a bit, and you will find it hard to miss.

I know my students sometimes are asked why they are studying this or that field in the liberal arts.  What good is that? I’m willing to bet that if you are a student, you have heard it, too.  Maybe on our post-truth, alternative-fact world, history is not worth much to many of our leaders, but if we keep our eyes and our hearts open, and read with discipline, energy and compassion, we can arrive across the distance of time and geographic space at something close to understanding.  And that is no small thing.



Hey, Teacher, Leave Those Kids Alone!

We’ve come to that point in the semester where I begin to see on Twitter and on Facebook and elsewhere “bloopers,” students’ answers to questions on their midterms or finals that are so wrong that their professors or teachers find them funny.

I would urge you to think twice before you post things like this, for those student bloopers may reflect more poorly on you as a teacher than it does upon the young people enrolled in your courses.

When I began my teaching career back in the mid-1990s, my first tenure-track job, I shared space in a department with two former “Jeopardy” champions  Our offices were small, and a packed in closely along a strip of contorted hallway on the eighth floor of the college’s Liberal Arts building. I could overhear the conversations in other offices. And I can remember one of those Jeopardy champions meeting with a student during office hours to review for an upcoming test.

“Abraham Lincoln’s first vice-president was?” I can remember him asking.

Dead silence.  Nothing.  The poor student did not have a clue.

“Hannibal Hamlin,” my colleague said.


And so it went. And nowhere, in any of this, did the most important question of all appear: Who cares? So what? Why should I, some kid enrolled in a general education course I have to take to complete my requirements, care about Hannibal Hamlin? In what ways did he, or his vice-presidency, matter?  My colleagues tested students on how well they could memorize facts that, by themselves, meant little, and mattered less.

There was in that department as well a Missouri Synod Lutheran Pastor, who divided his time between his church and the department, and who used to brag that being a college professor was “the best part-time job in the world.”  He gave his students multiple choice exams, with one of the choices a joke, a crazy answer that he liked to think was funny.  He liked to share his exams with me.  He thought they were funny in the way that people who do not know how to tell jokes think things are funny.  When his students chose, for example, “D: A Heavy-Metal band” as an answer to the question, “What was the Black Death?” he would laugh at their lack of knowledge.  He couldn’t believe, he said, that the students would fallen for this and he would shake his head in dismay at their ignorance. “Kids these days,” he may as well have said.

No, I thought.  You have it all wrong. Both of my colleagues had it wrong.  It was possible, it seemed to me, that students do not know who Hannibal Hamlin is because you did not convince them that this individual mattered, that he lived a life that they ought to know something about.  Or that the lectures and the notes and the memorization of facts, or the mammoth textbook you assigned, sucked all the life out of a subject that is so inherently interesting when taught with passion, planning, and attention.  Or, perhaps, they may have chosen to identify the Black Death as a metal band because you failed to convey to them the significance of this event.  You may not have interested them in the topic. The students may not have cared about what you told them.  That is sad.  They may not have cared about you.

I cannot criticize students for this.  I encourage my students, as they read the books I assign, or listen to our discussions, to ask themselves and to ask me, “So What?”  If I cannot handle that challenge, then I am not fit for this line of work.

I have been teaching a long time.  I have worked with some truly wonderful colleagues, committed, dedicated, and creative teachers.  But there are those who quiz their students, to keep them honest, to give them an incentive to do the reading that these instructors believe they would not otherwise do.  Others offer exams that serve no purpose other than to demonstrate what students do not know or, perhaps, what the instructor failed to teach them.

I hated exams when I was a student. It was not because I did not want to work.  I loved history.  Even before I declared it as my major. I loved the work in the library, and the reading, and the discussions.  I can remember the first primary source from the library’s special collections that I held in my hands, a pamphlet written by the interesting Pennsylvania loyalist Joseph Galloway. It is important for those of us who teach to remember what drew us to this field in the first place. Every historian I know is a voracious reader. Yet I know of no historian who reads for enjoyment a textbook.   But I prepared for the exams. They caused me stress.  I memorized what I was expected to memorize.  I saw students who knew the material as well as I did at a conceptual level choke, or have a bad day.  And I know that I never learned a single thing taking an in-class examination.

Instead of trying to find out, in effect, what our students do not know, it might be better to assess them in a way that allows them to show what they do know, and to demonstrate how thoughtful and creative and worth listening to that they actually are. One of the greatest parts of this job is the opportunity it provides me to be inspired by and learn from my students’ insights.

In my nineteen years at Geneseo, I have never given an in-class exam.  I have never used a scan-tron form or a blue-book. I give students take home projects, short papers, really, and give them a week or more to work on them.  Some of the questions that will be appearing soon on the Resources page of this website are ones I ask my students in the Native American survey course. In my humanities course, in which the students read works from Antigone to Hamlet, I pose for them big questions.  Recently, for instance, I asked the students to reflect on Roger Rosenblatt’s essay that appeared in the Atlantic last year, an essay I have remarked upon for this blog in the past. It is a harrowing depiction of the capacity of human beings for evil and violence, but also about the possibility that beauty, and love, might survive even our darkest moments.

The strongest essays show me students who are thinking deeply, wrestling with huge questions, and who are striving to understand the great works that they have read.  I can see from the essays that the students took the assignment seriously, and I can see not only that the books I assigned mattered, but how they mattered. I think back to the best of these answers often. I think of the non-traditional student, a bit older than his classmates, coming back to make another try at college after spending time with the Army in Iraq. I have mentioned him in this blog before.  I could see him working through his wartime experiences as he wrestled not only Rosenblatt’s observations, but with Thucydides’ admonition that “war is a violent teacher” and the call in the Gospels not only to love our neighbors, but our enemies as well. Or the student, a volunteer in a hospice, now on her third or fourth major, fighting her own demons as she wrote an essay that moved me to tears.  Or the guy from some part of Francophone Africa, arrived in nearby Rochester through one of the refugee resettlement programs, who described the slaughter of his own family as he struggled to understand what was worth fighting for, dying for, and perhaps killing for.   And the kids with the more comfortable or conventional backgrounds, who are turned on by a text, whether Augustine’s own struggles to define who he was as a young man, or Antigone’s decision to resist an unjust law, or Cicero’s command that the man of virtue must serve the commonwealth, even when that service offered the frightening prospect of criticism or condemnation.

My point is that I learn a lot from these essays, and I am a guy who still has much to learn.  I rethink my own beliefs and assumptions about the texts I assign based on what my students write. I reconsider how I teach them. I see in them things I had not seen before.  I learn.

If this is not your experience, and if you are one of those professors out there who likes to post student bloopers on Facebook or Twitter, or even if your default position is one where you assume that the kids know little and care less, I would urge you take a good, long, look in the mirror. I love history.  If you are bothering to read this, there is a good chance you do, too. Many of our students have been taught by over-worked and underpaid teachers, racing to cover as much material as their states require for their students to be able to pass whatever standardized test awaits them at the end of the year.  I have watched my own kids as they take their high school history classes.  Watching them work through their assignments–the busy work and regurgitation and memorization–I would not blame them for a second if they did not like history as a subject.  In my mind, it is not at all unreasonable for these students to expect us to sell them on the significance of what we do, on why it all matters. We should not shy away from this challenge. And if you are concerned by your students’ shaky grasp of the facts, or bothered that they do not know things “that every informed citizen should know,” you might be asking the wrong questions. Before you laugh, consider what you are doing.  Facts are important, but they are only the most basic building blocks of history, and they have little value without creativity, interpretation, and imagination.

And here’s a final point.  When you laugh at student bloopers, you come off as smug, arrogant, and a bit of a prick. I doubt you would laugh about that student’s answer with that student sitting right in front of you.  Teaching matters. It is hard work. It takes great effort to do it well.  The failure of your students might be, at least in part, a failing on your part as a teacher.

Betsy DeVos Needs to go to School

What a dark and frightening world it is that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos sees awaiting the young people attending the nation’s colleges and universities. “The faculty,” DeVos warned an audience some time back at the Conservative Political Action Conference, “from adjunct professors to deans, tell you want to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think.”
Oh, Secretary DeVos, you have it all so wrong.
I have attended colleges and universities, public and private, as a student in California and New York. I have taught at colleges and universities in Montana, Texas, and New York. I have spent more than three decades, as student and a professor of American history, on college campuses.
My colleagues and I have, I will admit, told students to do their assigned work. We have told them that they need to communicate clearly and effectively with evidence to support their reasoning. Sometimes we complain that they do not work hard enough or think with enough discipline. But we do not tell our students what to think. Indeed, there would be no better way to lose an audience of 18-22 year old young people.
I have no idea how much time Betsy DeVos spends in college classrooms, but I can say that higher education as it actually is practiced bears little resemblance to the dystopian vision she outlined last week and that is echoed so often in the right-wing media.
In history and the liberal arts, we pose big questions over which great minds around the world from many cultures have wrestled with for millennia. We study continuity and change, measured across time and space, in peoples, institutions and cultures. We urge students to be curious and hard-working, critical but kind. But we do not tell students what to think. We ask them to use their imagination and their reason. We expect them to argue—to investigate problems, gather evidence, consider the scholarship, and advance a thesis with confidence and clarity. We urge them to question everything, to challenge assumptions, to demand evidence, and to be intellectually fearless. We demand that they think.
Are there incompetent professors? Or ideologues in the university classroom? Sure, there are a few, and as many on the right as on the left in my experience. But they are a tiny minority, as they are in any line of work. There are, after all, incompetent and close-minded politicians, plumbers, and cabinet secretaries, as well, and “the faculty” is generally a group of fiercely independent and open-minded thinkers.
And that is what we want for our students. When I teach my college’s required course in the Western Humanities, my students read Sophocles and Thucydides, Plato and Cicero, the Bible and Augustine, Aquinas and Thomas More. That is a reading list that Conservatives a couple of decades ago would have loved. My students debate questions of immense importance: what are the components of human nature, what is the source of evil, how does one define

Yours Truly, Telling students that they should not kill the Melians

justice, and the relationship between law, power, and liberty, to name a few. The students’ opinions cross the ideological spectrum, but all understand that they must explain why they believe what they believe, and the evidence and experience that led them to those beliefs. And they must consider the ideas of great thinkers along the way, some of whom will challenge all that they believe to be true. Education can be an unsettling experience. Students who really want to be educated will be challenged.
Betsy DeVos seems to look on all of this with dread. She wants college students to join in “the fight against the education establishment,” to root out those phantoms “who say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you are a threat to the university community.” She believes that conservative students are under siege, assaulted by a college community that pays little heed to their First Amendment rights.
Nonsense. And the few exceptions she might trot prove no rule. Professors are as much a threat to free thought on college campuses as Grizzly Bears are a threat to children in elementary schools.

Education is essential for the functioning and survival of a republic. STEM education is important. We all know that. But a thriving democracy requires informed and questioning citizens, capable of thinking for themselves, assessing evidence, and dismantling the cant of demagogues and press secretaries. This is precisely what education in the liberal arts provides: students who can write, who can reason, and who can debate; students who can cut to the quick of an argument and insist on seeing the evidence and demand answers. These are the sorts of people, judging by Secretary DeVos’s demeanor at her confirmation hearing, that she worries about the most.
Spend some time on a college campus. Listen to what students talk about when they talk about their classes. Read what they write and what their professors write. Look at what they learn. Do so broadly, and with an open mind. You will see, then, that Secretary DeVos needs to go to school.