Election Day Morning

I voted nearly a month ago, dropping my postal ballot into a drop box outside city hall. Since then, I’ve been trying to help demystify the voting process for students in my various courses. That’s a difficult task in ordinary times, given the arcane complexity of the U.S. electoral system and the relatively high number of American adults who are disenfranchised by law or practice, but it has been especially challenging during a pandemic that has upended a lot of voting processes. Making matters more complicated still, students are taking my classes remotely from several different states.

This year, more than most I recall, I have seen evidence that some teachers (like a lot of other Americans) are struggling to keep their anxiety under control. Indeed, many instructors on social media have been urging each other to postpone deadlines, knowing that students and teachers alike will find it impossible to focus on work in the next few days.

At one university I work for, an undergraduate’s parent even recently wrote a public Facebook post denouncing an unnamed humanities professor for (allegedly) breaking down in tears on Zoom and cancelling two weeks of class due to their fear about which presidential candidate would win. I have my doubts about the accuracy of that parent’s rant, but it illustrates several challenges of teaching controversial subjects in late 2020. For my part, I’m keenly aware of the potential delicacy of teaching modern U.S. history this year to around seventy intelligent, engaged adult students who are voting in a variety of ways.

For what it’s worth, here’s how I ended a message to some of my students on Sunday night. I have given the same message, more or less, to other students in live remote classes. It is a message to myself as much as to them.

Finally, as you know, this Tuesday is the last day of voting in the 2020 elections in the United States. You are probably tired of politics. You may be anxious about the results. You may feel disillusioned or distrustful. All these feelings are natural and normal!

If you are feeling bad right now, I encourage you to remember this: More than 100 million people* are taking part in democracy together this year. The process is flawed, bitter, and harmful, and many people who should have a voice have been denied one. But that can be said of every human activity that matters. If democracy is good, then on some level it is good for us to participate in an election like this, however unsatisfying it may be at the time, and however imperfect our democracy is.

And we can hope that one day, through our patient efforts and hard work and even our bitter arguments, our democracy will be better than it is now.

(* That would be well over 100 million people, actually. About that many Americans are already known to have voted early.)

The fact is, although I don’t think many of my friends surpass me in capacity for pessimism, I have always found the morning of Election Day immensely exciting and hopeful.

Even today, when I have not traveled to the polls in person, I feel it. No other collective public act in our time has the same comprehensiveness, representing a comparable investment by millions upon millions of people—wise, foolish, deluded, cynical, corrupt, naïve, selfless, rigidly partisan, rapidly evolving, certain, and confused alike—in the American commonwealth.

I am old enough to have been disappointed by the results of elections as often as I have been pleased. I am, on some level, full of foreboding right now. But my Election Day morning hopefulness is not really about specific outcomes at all. It is about participating in work that happens on the scale of decades, generations, and centuries.

Oh, and one other thing. This year marks the centenary of the Nineteenth Amendment. It would be a great shame for cynicism or fear to prevent us from celebrating that anniversary.

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Image: Three suffragists casting votes in New York City, ca. 1917. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. Public domain. (Original caption: “Calm about it. At Fifty-sixth and Lexington Avenue, the women voters showed no ignorance or trepidation, but cast their ballots in a businesslike way that bespoke study of suffrage.”)

“Why Wasn’t I Thinking?”

In America, a Jesuit magazine, a recent college graduate reflects on how his years at a religious university changed him.

By his own account, Elisha Valladares-Cormier arrived at college as a conservative Catholic culture warrior. And his school, Franciscan University of Steubenville, has a reputation among American Catholics as a very conservative institution. He entered college during the 2016 election, a divisive moment for U.S. Catholics.

Looking back, he writes:

The skeletons in my closet pop up when I least expect them to. I am reminded of them when Facebook tells me that five years ago, I shared a meme from a conservative page essentially using the Boston Marathon bombers’ refugee status as a rationale for stopping all refugees from entering the country. Other links I shared include headlines beginning with ‘Liberals Lose Their MINDS When…’ followed by examples of what today would be referred to as ‘Karen’-type behavior.

I am only 22, but I cannot pin exactly what led me to share these posts, full of exaggeration, hyperbole and more. I was at that know-it-all age most teenagers land in, where the best argument is a ‘gotcha’ one. But looking back, what frustrates me the most is the intellectual dishonesty of some of these posts.

What was I thinking? Perhaps I should be asking, why wasn’t I thinking? These were complex issues, but the world around me had taught me to view these issues through binary, partisan lenses. …

I did not come out of Franciscan University less conservative or more liberal, or vice versa. Instead, I was pushed to consider new perspectives, to question positions I previously held, to take a Christocentric view of the world even though I might not feel at home with any major party.

—Elisha Valladares-Cormier, “I started school at Steubenville as a conservative culture warrior—and came out the other side more Catholic”

Experience tells me that we shouldn’t assume any new college graduate’s current views will remain static. As a thoughtful person with a university education, Valladares-Cormier is likely to continue evolving in unpredictable ways. This may well lead him to new forms of partisanship, to a fundamental change in political or religious views, or perhaps to complete disillusionment with the position he now holds. (Then again, he may turn out to have changed very little thirty years from now.)

What I think is useful about this essay is that it presents us with a snapshot of a young student who recently has experienced a higher education as transformative—and intellectually liberating and generous—in unexpected ways.

Versions of this story (mutatis mutandis) are very common among university students and graduates who came to college anticipating, or trying to engineer, a specific intellectual outcome. You’ll hear stories like this from students at all kinds of universities and colleges, including schools with reputations for producing belligerent partisans and culture warriors.

This is what gets lost in much of the storm and stress of American political debates about higher education. In all the nonsense about students’ supposed brainwashing and indoctrination* at the hands of professors, we rarely hear about the downright ubiquitous experiences of students—of all kinds—for whom college, sometimes in unexpected ways, lives up to its mission of intellectual liberation.

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* Ironically, of course, in this case, indoctrination would be a quite literally correct description of what Valladeres-Cormier says he sought and received from his Catholic professors. It just turned out not to mean what he expected.

Image: Steubenville, Ohio, 2007. Photograph by Mike Sharp via Wikimedia Commons. Used under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Samuel Paty and the Courage to Teach

A black image with white and gray text, saying "je suis enseignant."
An image circulating on French Twitter, October 17, 2020: “I am a teacher.”

Yesterday, a middle-school (collège) history and geography teacher named Samuel Paty was brutally murdered near his school in suburban Paris. French authorities say the murder was an organized Islamist terrorist attack. The killer, apparently a Chechen immigrant about eighteen years old, is said to have no other connection with the school or the teacher. French police have arrested nine people so far, though it’s not clear how many of those people were actually involved.

According to media reports, Paty seems to have been targeted because of a controversy that began early this month. That’s when showed his quatrième (eighth-grade) students caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad—perhaps from the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, itself targeted in a major terrorist attack in 2015 and a smaller attack just last month—as part of lessons on freedom of expression.

This outraged at least one Muslim girl and her father, who claimed the teacher had ordered Muslim students to leave class before showing students a “photo” of a naked man, saying it was a picture of the prophet. It’s not clear that this was accurate. Another parent said Paty “simply said to the Muslim children: ‘Leave, I don’t want it to hurt your feelings.’ That’s what my son told me.”

What’s most striking to me, here in the United States, is how the French government has rallied around Samuel Paty as a martyr to freedom and the secular republic.

President Emmanuel Macron said Paty was murdered “because he taught. Because he taught his students about liberty of expression, the liberty to believe and not to believe.” The minister of national education called him a representative of the French republic itself, “a servant of the state” as well as of his students.

In a wider context, some politicians and activists in France (and elsewhere) will certainly use this attack to advance anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, and anti-Muslim policies. That script is depressingly familiar.*

But the immediate context is also important, and we can reject the false choices offered by all kinds of extremists and bigots.

I don’t know exactly what happened in his classroom. But we can assume Samuel Paty knew it could be dangerous to teach in the way he believed best. He certainly knew about the recent history of Islamist violence in his own country—and knew that it has been connected, probably, with the very images he showed his class. Indeed, he was almost certainly teaching in direct response to a similar knife attack targeting Charlie Hebdo just days earlier.

Samuel Paty was a man of courage who ultimately gave his life for his students’ education.

History teachers everywhere know that doing our jobs well—with moral and civic conviction, with intellectual honesty, and with openness to the complexity of the world—means taking risks. Most of us will never face anything close to the kind of danger Paty faced, but any of us, under the right circumstances, could. And only rarely will any of us receive the kind of full-throated official support that Samuel Paty has received after his assassination.

Samuel Paty’s murder is a reminder that the work of teaching is the work of freedom.

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Update: Twitter user Arnaud Léonard, a fellow history educator, points out an exhibition of drawings Samuel Paty’s students produced last year, based on the motto of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” Themes of racial and religious harmony are prominent.

* Update 2: Sadly, in the weeks since I wrote this, it has become clear that Emmanuel Macron and his political allies have chosen to exploit Samuel Paty’s death, in the context of French racism and Islamophobia, as a pretext for authoritarian policies and catering to the French racist right. This shift in Macron’s public posture was already underway when Paty was killed. But what is striking now is how naked the power grab is—how directly and overtly it contradicts Macron’s claim to be defending the liberty of expression, as the French contemplate criminalizing protests on university campuses, censoring the research of scholars, and preventing public scrutiny of the police. Not only does this make a mockery of the French government’s espoused republican principles; it also dishonors the memory of Samuel Paty.

Quick Update on Credentials

This is a very minor announcement, but it feels more important because it took so long during the pandemic. Some seven months after I applied—which was just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States and shut down agency offices—the New Jersey Department of Education has finally issued me a certificate of eligibility in social studies (CE 2300). This is a content-area endorsement for prospective public school teachers that covers not only history but also anthropology, economics, geography, government, political science, and sociology.

This is not a teaching certification, as that term is usually understood; it’s more like an authorization to begin working toward a teaching certification. (By itself, it represents little more than state affirmation of academic credentials I already had.) For now, nothing about my career as a college instructor has changed.

Still, I’m very happy to be able, finally, to add this to the inventory.

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Image: New Jersey State Normal School, Montclair, N.J., 1912. New Jersey State Library, Digital Jerseyana Collection, Montclair Postcards. Public domain.

What Was the Electoral College For?

I have a short essay out now in Contingent Magazine. A couple of teachers have remarked that they have already found it useful for talking with high school students. (It’s probably short enough and glib enough to elicit a number of different kinds of responses.)

In the article, I consider the original purpose of that most mysterious of jury-rigged institutions, the electoral college—and I point out that, despite the stated intentions of some of its framers, the Constitution still does not guarantee Americans the right to vote for president at all.

“Fundamentally,” I argue, “the electoral college failed to work as designed because its design was contradictory in the first place.”

The whole article is available for free. Educators may also want to look around in the magazine’s curated collections of articles for classrooms. If you find them valuable, please consider supporting Contingent in its work.

“The Most American of All”

Of all the shameful things about many recent political attacks on The 1619 Project—some of them, more shamefully still, orchestrated by a handful of white historians—is this: Directly contrary to what they claim, The 1619 Project is an explicitly, even militantly patriotic set of documents.

Don’t believe me? Let me quote at length from Nikole Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay, which is the text that most attacks focus on. These passages are crucial to her argument.

My dad always flew an American flag in our front yard. The blue paint on our two-story house was perennially chipping; the fence, or the rail by the stairs, or the front door, existed in a perpetual state of disrepair, but that flag always flew pristine. …

Dad hoped that if he served his country, his country might finally treat him as an American.

The Army did not end up being his way out. He was passed over for opportunities, his ambition stunted. He would be discharged under murky circumstances and then labor in a series of service jobs for the rest of his life. …

So when I was young, that flag outside our home never made sense to me. How could this black man, having seen firsthand the way his country abused black Americans, how it refused to treat us as full citizens, proudly fly its banner? I didn’t understand his patriotism. It deeply embarrassed me.

I had been taught, in school, through cultural osmosis, that the flag wasn’t really ours, that our history as a people began with enslavement and that we had contributed little to this great nation. It seemed that the closest thing black Americans could have to cultural pride was to be found in our vague connection to Africa, a place we had never been. That my dad felt so much honor in being an American felt like a marker of his degradation, his acceptance of our subordination.

Like most young people, I thought I understood so much, when in fact I understood so little. My father knew exactly what he was doing when he raised that flag. He knew that our people’s contributions to building the richest and most powerful nation in the world were indelible, that the United States simply would not exist without us. …

Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves — black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights.

Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans, our democracy today would most likely look very different — it might not be a democracy at all. …

In every war this nation has waged since that first one, black Americans have fought — today we are the most likely of all racial groups to serve in the United States military.

My father, one of those many black Americans who answered the call, knew what it would take me years to understand …

I wish, now, that I could go back to the younger me and tell her that her people’s ancestry started here, on these lands, and to boldly, proudly, draw the stars and those stripes of the American flag.

We were told once, by virtue of our bondage, that we could never be American. But it was by virtue of our bondage that we became the most American of all.

—Nikole Hannah-Jones, introductory essay (“The Idea of America”), The 1619 Project

See, I’ve actually read The 1619 Project.

That so many white Americans can read passages like these (or pretend they’ve read passages like these) and think they see an anti-American message, an attack on “patriotic history,” probably says a lot about the true nature of their so-called patriotism.

“Opinions Are Cheap”

In Defense of Knowledge and Higher Education

The Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors just arrived in my mailbox, and in it I find an AAUP manifesto (dated January 2020) called “In Defense of Knowledge and Higher Education.”

The AAUP is noteworthy as an academic professional organization that has consistently attempted to keep structural first principles at the top of its agenda. I’m proud to be an AAUP member.

“In Defense of Knowledge,” though, is a complicated document because it attempts to expose and reframe a set of complex misconceptions. I don’t think it’s perfect, by any means. Partly because it’s such a bold and explicit statement, there’s something in it for almost anybody to disagree with.

For me, for example, the statement’s implicit complacency about the U.S. military-industrial-educational state is questionable. “How can we develop a credible foreign policy, ensure effective diplomacy, and prepare our military,” the statement demands, “when area studies and foreign language programs are curtailed, eliminated, or made subject to political intrusion?” I don’t think you need to be a pacifist to wonder, “Prepare our military for what?” And the statement is explicitly nationalistic in other ways that many academics will dissent from far more strongly than I will.

But I applaud the AAUP’s attempt to define what, exactly, colleges and universities are good for, and to show why they deserve broad-based public support. In fact, I think it’s crucial for everyone working in higher education today to make an explicit defense of their work—all their work—as a service to a free and democratic community.

Here are some of the passages that I found especially provocative and potentially useful for future reference:

It is not only research that is affected [by political attacks on academic independence]; teaching is as well. Teaching is, after all, the transmission of knowledge and a means of its production. A narrowing focus on vocational training, combined with attacks on the liberal arts and general education, closes off access to the varieties of knowledge and innovative thinking needed to participate meaningfully in our democracy. …

There are, of course, endless philosophical debates about the meaning of ‘knowledge.’ For our purposes, however, we need define it only as those understandings of the world upon which we rely because they are produced by the best methods at our disposal. The expert knowledge to which we refer is not produced merely by immediate sense impressions. …

These [academic] disciplines cumulatively produce understandings that are continuously tested and revised by communities of trained scholars. Expert knowledge is a process of constant exploration, revision, and adjudication. …

Academic freedom rests on a paradox. There must be freedom of inquiry, but that freedom must always be subject to peer judgment and evaluation. …

Colleges and universities deserve public support to the extent that American society requires expert knowledge. Expert knowledge has fueled American progress. It has checked ideological fantasies and partisan distortions. It has provided a common ground on which those with competing political visions can come together constructively to address common problems. Without expert knowledge, we lose our ability to know the past, to shape the future, and to acknowledge the differences and similarities we share as human beings.

—American Association of University Professors, “In Defense of Knowledge and Higher Education,” January 2020

As they say, I recommend reading the whole thing.

Pauli Murray at Hunter College, 1932

Cover of Pauli Murray's memoir Song in a Weary Throat

My one bad experience with race at Hunter College was a year-long American history course. I was the only Negro in the class, and as far as my professor was concerned I did not exist. She was not openly insulting, but she never once suggested that colored people played any role in the nation’s development other than as abject objects of the national controversy over slavery. Her treatment of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction made me shrivel in my seat in the back row, feeling shame and resentment. I knew from my own family history that her presentation was one-sided but was too unsure of myself to challenge her in class. Unable to mount an effective protest against her bias, I performed so indifferently in the course that I got only passing grades in a subject in which I had always excelled. That ordeal, however, spurred me to become a passionate student of Negro history after leaving college.

The experience also led me to take my first tentative steps toward activism.

—Pauli Murray, Song in a Weary Throat: Memoir of an American Pilgrimage, 1987 (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2018), 110

Is Trump Turning Students Against Conservatives?

In 2016, American undergraduates who had started college in the fall of 2015 (more than 7,000 of them at 122 institutions) said that their opinions of both conservatives and liberals had dramatically improved during their first year of college. Half of all students had already become more appreciative of conservatives; nearly half had become more appreciative of liberals.

But when surveyed again in their final year of college, those same students had changed their minds. Across almost all religious groups, the appreciation that these undergraduates had gained for conservatives had been “nearly or totally erased” since early 2016. In fact, by the time the class of 2019 graduated, its students from every major religious group—including Mormons and evangelicals!—were more likely to report a high opinion of liberals than of conservatives.

These are the (not yet published) findings of researchers running a project called IDEALS (the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey), who discuss their work today in an essay at Religion & Politics.

Matthew Mayhew, Kevin Singer, Alyssa Rockenbach, and Laura Dahl write that “students of all faiths in the class of 2019 were warming up to political conservatives at the end of their first year in college, which was during the final year of Obama’s presidency. Now, three years into Trump’s presidency, conservatives can only wonder what could have been.”

The researchers blame students’ plummeting approval for conservatives on “the Trump effect.”

Allow me to make some observations of my own.

I do think the “Trump effect” explanation for these findings is basically plausible. It is also consistent with my experiences working in higher education.

There has been a dramatic shift in student political temperament since early 2016 on the campuses where I have worked, and it does seem to be connected (in various ways) with the Trump phenomenon. Undergraduates in 2020 tend to identify conservatism with Donald Trump, in my experience, and they tend to hold conservatism in much lower regard than the undergraduates I taught a decade ago. But for the purpose of evaluating the IDEALS study as a piece of research, I do approach the idea with some caution.

Continue reading “Is Trump Turning Students Against Conservatives?”

Fall 2020: Two Propositions

I get the sense that a couple of things aren’t clear to everyone responsible for making decisions in U.S. higher education right now.

  1. Regardless of your opinion of online teaching—and most of us, broadly speaking, are at least mild skeptics—most U.S. colleges and universities will have to move to all-online teaching by the end of the fall semester. (In many states, governors will make that decision for them if they don’t make it themselves. Many may have to switch to all-online teaching before the semester even starts.)
  2. You have to give college instructors months of advance time to plan if you want that to go well.

Granted, if your college or university is like most, it routinely hires adjuncts at the last minute—sometimes a matter of mere days before courses begin—to teach your gateway undergraduate courses. In normal times, it can get away with that, to some extent, because those are usually standard courses; either we have taught them before, or we have seen them taught many times, or we have taught courses fundamentally similar to them before.

But almost nobody has taught all of their scheduled fall courses—general-education, upper-division undergraduate, and graduate—in an all-online format before. And a vanishingly small number have ever taught them in whatever HyFlex panic mode your administration has tried to devise in order to keep campus open.

In general, instructors teaching college courses this fall will have to redesign them—often all of them at once, and often from the ground up—in order to have any hope of teaching in a reasonably effective way throughout the semester.

We needed to have clear, reliable guidance about formats and methods all this spring and summer to make this happen. Had received it, we would still be hard pressed to make things work.

As it is, it’s now July 15. Most U.S. colleges and universities will be in regular session within about a month and a half, and many have opted for early start dates. Right now, most U.S. colleges still claim that they will be open in a traditional face-to-face format this fall.

It was one thing to make an emergency pivot to online teaching in an unforeseeable crisis this spring. What’s about to happen this fall is something quite different.

I really hope I’m wrong about this.