Letter to that Lame Provost in Montana–Some thoughts on History and the Liberal Arts

Dear Provost,

I’ve been thinking a lot about a piece Timothy Egan wrote that appeared in the New York Times back in August. Egan lamented “our Dumbed-Down Democracy,” and saw in the rise of Donald Trump evidence of a failure in, among other things, American civic education.  If Americans knew their constitutionalism, Egan argued, they would be less likely to support a candidate who showed no concern for the American constitutional tradition.  “The current presidential election,” Egan wrote, “may prove that an even bigger part of the American citizenry [Bigger than the thirty million adults who, Egan asserted, cannot read] is politically illiterate—and functional.  Which is to say, they will vote despite being unable to accept basic facts needed to process this American life.”

There has been no shortage of opinion pieces and analyses like Egan’s in recent months.  As a college professor, as a teacher of history and the humanities at a school where, fortunately, these subjects are still valued, I wonder about whether any of the current state of affairs can be laid out our steps.  Are we doing enough to produce critical and informed citizens? Should we do more?

A long time ago when I taught at your college in Billings, Montana, you emphasized that we should be doing “applied research.”  We should strive to be relevant.  I was untenured, and in a deeply dysfunctional department.  You were no help on that front, either. I understood that to survive as a professor I needed to toe the company line. But what on earth did “applied research” mean? I was a historian with training in early American and Native American history.  How, I asked, would I cast these interests in a project that you would consider “applied” and relevant?

You did not expect the question, and I never got a meaningful answer, but I could see plenty of problems on campus. As you might remember, Native American students were the largest minority on campus, and many of them traveled a long way from the Crow Reservation to attend their classes.  There were those on campus who did much to make the college a welcoming environment—staff and faculty.  They did good work.  Students could use Crow to fulfill the college’s foreign language requirement, for instance, and the Intertribal Indian Club was a valuable and effective resource.  Its annual powwow, a beautiful and inspiring event held off campus, was the college’s largest student-sponsored event.  I do not think you knew that.  In the four years I was in Billings, neither you nor the President ever attended because, in the President’s words, it was a thing “for Indians.”

There were a lot of problems on campus. Financial aid was limited.  Some faculty embraced stereotypical and, in places, racist views of Native Americans that could create an incredibly hostile environment on campus.  Many faculty, acting on an assumption that Native American students would not speak up in class, never bothered to reach out.  I heard faculty say, about a student who did well in a class, that “she did really well for an Indian.” I told you about this.  You said something along the lines of, “Yeah, sometimes the Crows will really surprise you when they do well.”  Again, untenured.  I did not tell you how screwed up I thought that was.

But I watched this environment.  Coming from southern California, this was all new to me.  There was an event that caught my attention. I thought it would fit your description of an “applied research” project.  Down in Hardin, a town that borders the Crow Reservation, a series of ugly racial incidents took place.  I do not remember all the details, and I am sure you don’t either. There had been some sort of cultural awareness day at the high school. A significant number of white kids, with their parents’ support, stayed home.  Took a walk.   The Crow kids made some noise about this and, the next morning, distributed on driveways in Hardin was some racist, Christian Identity literature, and texts like “The White Man’s Bible”—really vile stuff.

That’s what I heard.  I heard a lot of stuff. I went down to Hardin.  Tried to talk to some locals.  I couldn’t blend, really. A friend of a friend put me in touch with a local minister, and I talked to her for a while.  She confirmed that there was some ugly and really open racism in Hardin, but also that there were good people trying to make things better. To investigate this problem, would require getting into the community, spending a lot of time, watching and listening and talking.  Producing a piece of “applied” research, then, would be difficult.  I lived sixty miles from Hardin.  I was a single parent, at the time, and I taught seven courses a year.  Time was short.  I could not get into the community enough to understand what these white people were thinking.

I could talk to my Crow students who had attended Hardin High, however. I persuaded a number of them to allow me to record interviews with them. I still have the microcassettes in my desk at Geneseo, even though I no longer have anything upon which to play them.  They spoke of the white ranchers’ kids who drove to school in their big, new trucks, paid for from the proceeds of ranching operations on land that had once belonged to the Crows. They spoke of intimidation.  Of gym teachers who told kids to take a leak before they went out for PE, “because they need something to drink down at Crow.”

When I was a student at Cal State Long Beach, one of my professors in American Indian Studies told me that interest in Native American studies among white people decreases in direct proportion as you get closer to Indian country.  And that seemed to be the case in Billings.  A lot of the people in my classes did not want to hear about racism at Crow, and the statistics that testified to the continuing impacts of colonialism and discrimination.  You and the President proved the truth of that statement, too.

I never did anything with those tapes.  Never did an “applied research” project that accorded with your hazy standards.  But I did keep plugging away at my own research in Early America, and Native America, and I continued to try to improve myself as a classroom teacher.   And I left Billings, and found a job at a wonderful college in the Finger Lakes region of western New York.

I do not like to enter into the debate over what a degree in history is worth in monetary terms, because it brings us value in other ways.  I have drawn upon the advice of so many people, and that advice informs how I teach.  I tell my students that we are the ones who question everything.  I tell them that  I love the questions—the search for answers, the complexity and the absolute lack of definitive answers sometimes, and the stories—the stories are at the heart of all that we historians do as teachers and writers.

In history, these stories can be tough to handle sometimes.  Particularly in my field, I read about horrifying acts of violence, greed, viciousness, and hatred, all the ways in which war is a violent teacher.  It can get you down sometimes, and history can be a brutal business.  But, once in a while, there are these amazing stories: of selflessness, of grace–and of courage.  And I tell them, that to the utmost of their ability, they should try to be intellectually fearless, and to have the courage to not shy away from those things that seem extremely difficult.  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 this campus, in this country, in this global community, more than ever.  This is History, Applied.

My students now live in a world 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.  They live in a world where, when we stand up in the face of these problems and ask, “Why?” and when we insist on a reasoned and relevant response to that simple question—it is like an act of subversion, and subversive acts, even small ones, require a degree of courage and fearlessness.

I tell my students this, and that their studies can help them makes sense of this world.   Looking at the spectacle of public life that my generation is in the process of bequeathing to their generation, I tell them, it might be easy to slide into a deep cynicism, but cynicism is an intellectually lazy position, a sort of cop out.  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.  That is not an easy thing to do. That takes courage, and a willingness—a commitment—to approaching everything and everyone with a readiness to see goodness and to be surprised.

It is easy to feel like the challenges we 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 whatever.  But what if we used our skills and our thoughts and our reason and acted as if we were exactly what was needed? How would we live or have lived if we were exactly what is needed to solve those things we see as problems? If we knew we could 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?

I am not sure what you would say to these questions.  I do not know that you would agree that the power of history, whatever the subfield, is that it allows us to share in the experiences of people far removed from us in space and time, to take part in our broader, shared, humanity.  That was never something you valued.  You wanted the standards low, the seats full.   I know that.  So I thought of you when I read Egan’s piece. You never realized the merits of the liberal arts, the power of ideas, the feeling of connection one can achieve when they study the past.   You left Billings, and became the president of a small college in a similarly red state, I think, but I did not pay any attention.  But I do know this: history and the liberal arts empower our students to be curious, kind, and fearless in an informed way that makes our world a better place.  That is something that transcends price and simplistic ways to measure learning outcomes.

2 thoughts on “Letter to that Lame Provost in Montana–Some thoughts on History and the Liberal Arts”

  1. I am proud to have been Michael Oberg’s colleague at SUNY Geneseo before my retirement. He speaks to the heart of what education consists of–leading students out of darkness. It is not that we professors stand in the fullness of light but that we are a bit further removed from the cave than they are. PS: I have visited the Crow Reservation several times and have friends there. I feel attached to those good people.

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