Humanities Education’s Limits

One-room schoolhouse with flagpole, Seward County, Nebraska, 1938

I’ve seen this thought expressed a lot in the United States recently:

I shouldn’t speak for the author of that tweet, but typically (and in view of last night’s news) “this” would refer to some combination of political chaos, success by demagogues, bigotry and racism, and maybe voter apathy. (I’m guessing the author does not identify with the current president, in any case.)

In other words: Humanities education keeps democracy healthy. Conversely, poor funding and inadequate emphasis on humanities education contributed to the current lamentable state of political affairs in America.

As much as I share the goal of increasing public funding and support for humanities education―and I really, really do―and as much as I believe that humanities education does have a critical role to play in the health of a democracy, I’m skeptical of this causal claim. It may not be entirely wrong, but it’s far too simple.

It reminds me too much of other declension narratives about the American education system, from globalization-inspired stories about American children “falling behind” other children in the 1990s to the notion that Supreme Court decisions about school prayer and Bible-reading led to rising crime in the 1960s. Our schools absorb a lot of anxiety about the future of American society, and perhaps that is inevitable. But we should remember that the education system is only part of the institutional environment we live in.

(Also, on average, I suspect that the voters who strike Rebecca Makkai as the most easily manipulated didn’t get their formal education in the last twenty years.)

What larger institutional environment should we consider in this case?

First, more important than formal humanities education, or at least more pervasive in eligible voters’ thinking, are the cultural master narratives that different subcultures embrace. In our time, various groups of voters and nonvoters tend to envision American history—and calculate its urgency—very differently from each other. They also imagine that critical thinking and reading will lead to very different sets of conclusions about the aims of human life.

Continue reading “Humanities Education’s Limits”

Describing a Lasallian Approach to History Education

My move to the Philadelphia area is basically complete, and I can now say publicly that I’ll be returning to La Salle University this fall as an adjunct instructor teaching at least two and possibly three courses. (I’ll say more about another new position in the area soon.)

La Salle was the first external institution to hire me during graduate school, making it the place where I taught my first training-wheels-off history courses. So it’s very exciting to be back.

One of my goals as I draw up new syllabuses this year is to do a better job communicating how my courses relate to the larger institutional missions of my employers. I think this can be useful not only to students—who benefit from explicit guidance about the various purposes of higher education—but also to faculty members and administrators, who can use continual reminders during this fraught time in the profession’s history.

To that end, here’s my attempt at a syllabus statement summing up the centuries-old religious educational tradition that its namesake university claims to uphold.

Screenshot:

lasallian philosophy syllabus statement

Text:

Lasallian Philosophy

Jean-Baptiste de La Salle, a Catholic priest from an elite family, established the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools in the 1680s, when basic education in France was relatively disorganized. Living together in religious communities, members of his order gave up wealth and prestige in order to devote their lives to creating schools for working-class and poor children.[1] Today, the Brothers’ primary mission is still to provide “a human and Christian education” to the world’s poor—and to enlist the rich as their allies. As their rule says, the Brothers seek common ground among people of all religious traditions in advancing “human dignity, solidarity among all human beings, and the integral development of the individual.”[2] La Salle University is one of six colleges and universities carrying out this mission at an advanced level in the United States.

In keeping with the Lasallian tradition, this history course is grounded in the belief that all humans—across time, space, and social boundaries—share a common dignity. We can recognize ourselves in each other despite our differences and conflicts. Because of this, all aspects of human history have the power to help us live more coherently and meaningfully. You should use this course as an opportunity to develop greater solidarity with other people, especially the marginalized, through acts of the reason and the imagination. In the process, you may grow into a greater sense of your own personhood.

This statement is one of several (covering student learning outcomes, course design, and basic principles of academic freedom) that I’ve been happily developing or revising this summer.

Of course, this is a statement about ideals. The reality will have to emerge in the class itself.

Designing an Honors Western Civ Course

vermeer-artofpainting

This fall, for the first time, I’ll be teaching a course in a university honors program. (I’ll leave the institution unspecified since I’m not technically an employee there yet.) It’s also the first time I will teach a western civilization course as such. I started the basic planning weeks ago, but now that my last spring courses are finished, I can focus on the task properly.

My new course is unusual. It is part of a “triple” of first-year honors courses: My students, as a cohort of about eighteen people, will take a literature course and a philosophy course concurrently with my history course in the autumn. They will do the same thing again in the spring. Thus, their first year in college is designed to take them on an interdisciplinary journey through the history of western culture.

I’m really excited about this opportunity for a lot of reasons—including my own background in a university honors program, which provided access to a far richer undergraduate liberal-arts education than I might have had otherwise. I’m also nervous for a lot of reasons, including the politically fraught nature of any project framed in terms of “western” culture—though I usually enjoy politically fraught teaching. (I’ll leave most of that discussion for another time.)

I will coordinate with my literary and philosophical counterparts in the coming weeks, trying to align our courses as much as we can. In the meantime, I have been carefully considering how my course is supposed to fit into a larger education at this university. This is a chance for a more systematic approach to course design than I often get to take. There are several layers of objectives to consider.

Academic Objectives

First, I’ve been told that the honors program specifies that my course should meet the following official university-level institutional learning objectives (ILOs), which, together with ten other objectives, are part of the framework of the undergraduate core curriculum:

  1. Understanding diverse perspectives. (autumn)
  2. Information literacy. (spring)

The first of these ILOs seems natural for a course that surveys many different societies over a long span of time. (Stating it as an objective for a survey course even risks banality.) The second ILO, however, implies a definite shift in focus—from appreciation to research, or from accepted historical knowledge to critical historical knowledge, or from a survey to a workshop format. When I see the two objectives together, I begin to tell myself a story about how my students’ skills should evolve during the academic year. And I see what specific role the university believes historical understanding should play in the development of skills that apply to many other domains of knowledge and living.

In purely practical terms, this sequence of objectives implies that I should expect my students to engage in more sophisticated research and communication projects in the spring than in the fall.

Historical Objectives

In addition, I’m told the history department lays out four specific student learning outcomes (SLOs) for every section of the autumn half of this course:

  1. Students will identify those significant events, persons, institutions, and processes, which have shaped ancient, medieval, and early-modern western history.
  2. Students will carefully and critically read, analyze, and discuss a variety of primary and secondary historical sources.
  3. Students will learn to think historically, asking questions of the past and developing research methodologies to answer them.
  4. Students will develop clear expository and analytical writing skills.

Initially, those four objectives suggest to me that this course should meet all the content-coverage goals (SLO 1) and all the basic conceptual goals (SLOs 2 and 3) of any introductory survey course, but should also develop the student’s own research and writing skills (SLOs 3 and 4) more than a typical survey course might. None of these objectives in isolation would be unusual in any undergraduate history course. But the combination—if taken seriously—seems ambitious for a first-year course. (Which, obviously, is the idea.)

The temptation will be strong to skimp on content coverage in order to meet the analytic and skills objectives. That would be consistent with my experience taking honors courses in college; my professors usually designed them less to provide discipline-specific information and more to teach transferable humanist habits of mind. But that might be inconsistent with the university-level ILO for the autumn: to develop students’ understanding of diverse perspectives. Diversity necessitates breadth of coverage.

Furthermore, this course, as I understand it, will replace a regular history course in the general education core for my students. That is, any failure in content coverage on my part is likely to be a permanent gap in my students’ basic undergraduate education. And that is a problem I take very seriously.

During my years of teaching, I have grown suspicious of the tendency to prioritize concepts over coverage—not because there’s any problem with transferable habits and skills but rather because it is far too easy for students to evade basic knowledge throughout their formal education, and because that kind of basic knowledge is fundamental for sound thinking. I want rigor of information as well as analysis.

Possible Informal Objectives

Meanwhile, my own informal goals for a western civ course—whether they should be stated explicitly or simply pursued as the semester unfolds—might include some of the following:

  1. Students will learn regional and global contexts for western history, including knowledge of other religious and political traditions that western societies have used creatively as sources and foils.
  2. Students will critically examine western civilization and the western intellectual tradition as evolving concepts that reflect various modern ethical and cultural commitments and various conceptions of community—and which often have been put to invidious polemical use.
  3. Students will learn to appreciate history as a process of both investigation and imagination, with the object of attaining better factual knowledge as well as better understanding, rather than as a body of existing or closed knowledge.
  4. Students will gain insight into several causal mechanisms by which the so-called western intellectual tradition has been transmitted across time and space. That is, students will learn to appreciate the roles played by environmental, social, and political forces in intellectual history.
  5. Students will become more comfortable taking intellectual risks, resisting the notion that a university education can be reduced to a set of grades or professional competencies.

Potential Challenges

Finally, as I plan the course, I also need to keep a few problems in mind from the start.

First, I foresee a difficulty in the chronological misalignment likely to happen when a history course is linked with parallel courses in literature and philosophy. My course, for example, may take weeks to reach Homer or Plato, which may be roughly where the other courses begin. I will want to present all my lessons with this in mind, understanding that my students may experience any history lesson as a flashback or preview for something else in the other two courses.

Second, given the potentially vast scope of the course, I expect to need to identify from the beginning a few overarching themes that can provide some unity to the content and lines of inquiry. In a world history course, these would include general themes like “circulation,” “exchange,” or “authority.” In a western civilization survey, they might include more specifically appropriate ideas like “citizenship” or “liberty.” However, specificity is dangerous. Any theme that the course implies is specific to western civilization is likely to become (and may inherently be) a teleological imposition that reduces “the West” to a specific set of contemporary ideas rather than a set of recurring questions. Then again, in any survey, thematic coherence always involves that sort of risk.

Third, on a practical personal level, I have been asked to teach other western civilization survey course at a community college in the fall. I will be developing both courses over the summer. At the community college, although I have wide latitude on assignments and scheduling, I am required to use a specific assigned textbook, which I would prefer not to adopt in the honors course—and obviously two courses will require substantially different assignments and grading criteria in any case. My commuting time will also be considerable, in addition to the time I will spend putting together new lectures. Thus, although these two western civ courses will be far from identical, I need to design both courses together to maximize the efficiency of my own work—so that I am effectively creating, let’s say, one and a half new courses rather than two. This may be a difficult problem to solve.

Despite these challenges, which may seem much more intimidating after the semester begins, I’m very excited and hopeful as this work begins.

______________

Image: Detail from Jan Vermeer, The Art of Painting, c. 1666-1668, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Public domain. The woman in costume has often been identified as a representation of Clio, the muse of history.

Time in Transit


Four gas pumps in Yoder KS - 1979

Commencement is today. As a part-time faculty member, I’m vague on the details. The event is being held in a hockey arena twenty miles from the university, but I see families wandering around near campus. The effect is pleasing.

It’s a bright blue day. The air smells like gasoline and dirt. People are mowing their lawns. All the lawns in town, or so you would think.

I’m using the day to finish grading essays for the other university. That’s what I promised myself last night. Much of my day has really been given over to preparing for the upcoming move.

When I came to Scranton, I imagined I would stay here. I’m not very good at growing roots, but I believe in them. I hoped to find permanent work here. Yet it’s time to leave. I have been wondering how to measure the success of my years here, and I have been wondering what will come next, and when I will finally move someplace and stay.

There will be a lot more driving after this summer, perhaps ninety minutes per weekday. More if I find additional courses to teach, which I need to do. The oil industry will consume a lot of my earnings, and my carbon footprint, as they call it, will grow. That’s something else I had not envisioned as a life. Or rather, it’s something I had carefully excluded from my vision of a good life.

I have been lucky.

But it’s time to move on.

But not today. Today I’m in between.

_______________

Image: John Margolies, Four Gas Pumps, Yoder, Kansas, 1979. John Margolies Roadside America Photograph Archive, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Public domain.

Scranton by the Numbers

Classroom at the University of Scranton: Loyola Science Center

Here’s a small life update. This summer, I will move away from the city of Scranton, Pennsylvania, after almost five years. Although I will miss this quirky city terribly (The Office references and all), I established a college teaching record here of which I’m proud:

  • Distinct courses: 7
  • Total classes: 26
  • Median class size: 29.5
  • Total students: 762

I’ll be starting over in the region of Philadelphia and southern New Jersey with some employment plans I can’t announce yet. Meanwhile, if you’re in that area and need an experienced history instructor (United States and world), let’s talk.

Generous Reading in the Classroom and the World

How might we begin to understand the function of scholarship in dialogue with reading-in-general? And how might that understanding begin to shape a more productive relationship between the academy and the broader public?

A first step in this process could involve thinking about the kinds of work that we regularly do in our classrooms, especially in early undergraduate courses—not thinking about that work in order to change it, but rather thinking about it in order to understand how the engagements we foster in the classroom and the positions we develop and embrace as instructors might point the way to potential connections with the publics around us. Much of our effort in those scenes of reading instruction has to do with making what feels obvious instead appear strange, asking our students to step back from something that seems familiar or transparent and instead look at it obliquely. … In order to encourage this interest in perspective, however, we need to begin from rather than reject readers’ immediate experiences of the text, even where they seem to us sentimental or superficial. … Rather than setting aside emotional responses in favor of critical distance, the more fruitful approach is to dig into such responses, to figure out how they are produced and what kinds of work they do. …

Books engage and enrich the reader; they do things for people rather than for the world of texts or the cultures they move in. Acknowledging that perspective might encourage us, in the words of Clara Claiborne Park, to consider the ways ‘we would teach literature if we were in fact convinced that what we were doing could make a person different.’ And … this potential applies not just to the transformation of the lives of individual readers, but to the transformation of communities: if we could think about the ways that reading affects the building and sustenance of community, we might be encouraged to step outside of the literary or scholarly marketplace of ideas, and instead focus a bit on the more collective economies that structure much artistic and educational exchange.

—Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019), 105-106 and 110

PowerPoint Basics for Historians, Part 5

powerpoint-for-historians

Part 5: The Case for Cinematic Design

The previous post in this series explained how to use images more effectively in PowerPoint. Today’s post makes a recommendation about style.

Every good presenter, deliberately or not, cultivates a style. Your style is not simply a sort of decoration on top of your communication; you communicate through and with it. (Even the disdain that some academics affect toward style is itself a style—one that communicates specific things about what matters and who is worthy of their time.)

With this in mind, I’m going to make a recommendation today. It will not please everyone, and it’s probably not what’s best for everyone. You may, in fact, think it’s silly. But I’m going to recommend that when you design your PowerPoint template, you consider taking design cues from documentary film. I’m calling this approach “cinematic design.”

Continue reading “PowerPoint Basics for Historians, Part 5”

The Imagination Sets the Terms

Ta-Nehisi Coates in a new interview:

I think we as political writers — and this is one of the reasons why I’ve been making comic books and other things — we can argue with people up one side, and down the other. You confront them with facts, and they’ll just look away. They’ll completely look away.

Because our politics occurs within the imagination of the citizen. If I don’t believe that black people are human, it really doesn’t matter what you say to me about policy. So the question is: How do we decide who gets to be human and who doesn’t? How do we decide who our heroes are, and who our heroes aren’t? All of that is tied together in the stories we tell ourselves. …

Willie Horton, the welfare queen. These things are dangerous because of their impact on policy. But they’re also dangerous because of how they make black people look in the white American imagination. And in some cases, in their own imaginations. Because it’s the imagination that sets the terms for what’s possible in terms of policy. And so popular culture matters. It’s a part of it too.

—Ta-Nehisi Coates, interviewed by Eric Levitz in “Ta-Nehisi Coates Is an Optimist Now,” New York, March 18, 2019

Who Gets Historical Empathy?

winslowhomer-waterfan

On Sunday, the Nebraska political scientist Ari Kohen learned he had been mentioned in a former student’s white-nationalist chat messages. I heard about this when Matt Gabriele, a medievalist, pointed out Kohen’s news on Twitter.

“They’re in our classes y’all,” Gabriele warned historians. “What’s your pedagogy?”

It’s a good question.

Teachers of history (and related fields) who imagine we can argue students into rejecting white-power ideology are mostly mistaken. Although white power involves many false beliefs, it amounts to nothing less than a conception of basic human social bonds and the nature of personal selfhood. Freeing oneself from such a hell of the imagination requires more than hearing refutations.

(That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t refute false ideas. The “backfire effect” is probably overblown. But refutation is only going to get us so far.)

Work of the imagination is required.

In this context, I’m among the historians who think the most powerful specialized tool we have for combating toxic ideologies is “historical empathy.”

But there’s an important problem with the way some of us try to use it.

Continue reading “Who Gets Historical Empathy?”

Goodness Happened Here

Map from inside the back cover of Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed

In the introduction to Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, his account of the rescue operation run by the villagers of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon during the Holocaust, Philip Hallie relates a story about the importance of allowing oneself to be moved by goodness:

For years I had been studying cruelty, the slow crushing and grinding of a human being by other human beings. I had studied the tortures white men inflicted upon native Indians and then upon blacks in the Americas, and now I was reading mainly about the torture experiments the Nazis conducted upon the bodies of small children in those death camps.

Across all these studies, the pattern of the strong crushing the weak kept repeating itself and repeating itself, so that when I was not bitterly angry, I was bored at the repetition of the patterns of persecution. When I was not desiring to be cruel with the cruel, I was a monster—like, perhaps, many others around me—who could look upon torture and death without a shudder, and who therefore looked upon life without a belief in its preciousness. My study of evil incarnate had become a prison whose bars were my bitterness toward the violent, and whose walls were my horrified indifference to slow murder. Reading about the damned I was damned myself, as damned as the murderers, and as damned as their victims. Somehow over the years I had dug myself into Hell, and I had forgotten redemption, had forgotten the possibility of escape.

On this particular day, I was reading in an anthology of documents from the Holocaust, and I came across a short article about a little village in the mountains of southern France. As usual, I was reading the pages with an effort at objectivity; I was trying to sort out the forms and elements of cruelty and of resistance to it in much the same way a veterinarian might sort out ill from healthy cattle. After all, I was doing this work not to torture myself but to understand the indignity and the dignity of man.

About halfway down the third page of the account of this village, I was annoyed by a strange sensation on my cheeks. The story was so simple and so factual that I had found it easy to concentrate upon it, not upon my own feelings. And so, still following the story, and thinking about how neatly some of it fit into the old patterns of persecution, I reached up to my cheek to wipe away a bit of dust, and I felt tears upon my fingertips. Not one or two drops; my whole cheek was wet.

‘Oh,’ my sentinel mind told me, ‘you are losing your grasp on things again. Instead of learning about cruelty, you are becoming one more of its victims. You are doing it again.’ I was disgusted with myself for daring to intrude. …

But that night when I lay on my back in bed with my eyes closed, I saw more clearly than ever the images that had made me weep. …

Lying there in bed, I began to weep again. I thought, Why run away from that which is excellent simply because it goes through you like a spear? … [Cruelty] I knew. But why not know joy? Why not leave root room [sic] for comfort? (1-4)

—Philip P. Hallie, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened Here. New York: Harper & Row, 1979

I came across this account when I was a teenager, at a critical time in my early historical education. Hallie’s story became part of the way I came to terms with what I was learning—part of the way I fended off a creeping sense of nihilism.

I revisit this story from time to time, and I’ve come to think it plays a crucial role in my understanding of the job of a history teacher. I’ve written before about the conviction that stories of goodness and defiance must be part of teaching. But this isn’t simply a matter of finding a way to have hope. Hallie explains how personal the stakes are. To allow a sense of joy in the face of goodness is necessary for remaining—or finding—ourselves.