History’s Half-Finished Sentences

The heroes of history are so decked out by the fine fancy of the professed historian; they talk in such measured prose, and act from such sublime or such diabolical motives, that few have sufficient taste, wickedness, or heroism, to sympathise in their fate. Besides, there is much uncertainty even in the best authenticated ancient or modern histories; and that love of truth, which in some minds is innate and immutable, necessarily leads to a love of secret memoirs and private anecdotes.

We cannot judge either of the feelings or of the characters of men with perfect accuracy, from their actions or their appearance in public; it is from their careless conversations, their half-finished sentences, that we may hope with the greatest probability of success to discover their real character.

— Maria Edgeworth, author’s preface to Castle Rackrent, 1800 (paragraph break added for clarity)

Dial 988 for Help

Blue-and-white logo for the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline

I’m excited about this development, which (so far) seems to have gotten less publicity than one might expect. Starting today, 988 is a new nationwide telephone number for free mental health crisis support in the United States.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) has been rebranded as the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. You can reach your nearest crisis center by calling or texting the new three-digit number, 24 hours a day. You don’t have to be thinking about suicide to use this service, and you can call if you’re trying to help someone else, too.

The lifeline fielded 2.6 million calls in 2021.

Update: Some activists have pointed out that 988 operators may sometimes send emergency services—including police officers—to a caller’s location against their wishes. Perversely, this practice may itself endanger lives, trigger mental health crises, and result in involuntary confinement or criminalization of people seeking help.

From what I can tell, the 988 system, unlike 911, does not yet have access to precise geolocation technology. However, the 988 Lifeline’s FAQ says that “currently, a small percentage of Lifeline calls require activation of the 911 system when there is imminent risk to someone’s life that cannot be reduced during the Lifeline call. In these cases, the crisis counselor shares information with 911 that is crucial to saving the caller’s life. … Currently, fewer than 2% of Lifeline calls require connection to emergency services like 911.”

Sadly, this may be important information for using the 988 Lifeline safely.

“Inherently Corrupt and Possibly Unsalvageable”

I want to talk about two pieces of writing that have appeared online in the last few days. Both focus on the role Thomas Jefferson should play in the way we imagine American history.

One article comes from a very thoughtful historian who wants U.S. history to have something to offer everyone in America. The other is a thinly veiled racist conspiracy theory.

I think talking about them together could be illuminating.


First, in the new issue of the Hedgehog Review, Johann Neem, a historian of education, expresses concern about what he calls “post-American” narratives of United States history. An immigrant from India, Neem discusses his fear that contemporary educators are being drawn to historical narratives denying that American heritage, in anything like its traditional form, can belong to everyone.

Another way of putting this, I suppose, is that Neem takes up the question of whether it’s still appropriate to teach the history—a single inclusive history, handed down from prior generations—of a united American nation. Perversely, Neem argues, some educators may be (accidentally) joining forces with white supremacists by claiming that America has only ever been, and thus can only be, a white nation.

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When Students Change Each Other’s Minds, It’s Called Friendship

This weekend, the political scientist Yascha Mounk posed a provocative question on Twitter: “What are the top things universities could do to encourage a culture of free debate and inquiry, not just in the classroom but also in dorms and dining halls?”

(Judging by the context, this question may have been prompted in part by a new “campus expression” report from Heterodox Academy. I discussed the problems with a previous report from the same alarmist study in March 2021.)

Here’s the thing: Because my academic work centers on teaching first-year college students, I ponder issues like this a lot, and I believe Mounk is on the wrong trail.

The thing most people asking this question are actually probing for? It’s not debate. It’s friendship.

Setting aside the intellectual shifts that can happen just because of spending time around new kinds of people, when extracurricular life changes minds, it’s typically because students are forming real friendships, in which important conversations happen organically—not because of a “culture of free debate.”

All those people who wistfully remember (or wish they remember) late nights in each other’s dorm rooms, talking excitedly about the problems of the world? The experience they’re describing is friendship.

When a conversation about something you’re reading or discussing in class spills out into the dining hall, the quad, or the apartment? Why, yes, I do believe you’ve been making friends.

The folks you aren’t afraid of offending when you say something unpopular that needs to be said? They’re either strangers you don’t expect to hang around anyway, acquaintances you’ve already given up on, or, crucially, friends who will trust you enough to listen to what you’re saying.

People who will, in the middle of a busy life, actually sit still while you carefully identify your premises and show why you think they lead to a controversial conclusion? They’re almost certainly people who care about you as a person.

And when you keep having the same argument with the same person over and over, not because you love degrading yourself but because you’re subtly shifting each other’s views over time? “As iron sharpens iron,” you’re honing the mind of your—what’s that word the proverb uses?—oh, that’s right—your friend.

The contemporary world is full of free debate and inquiry. We’re drowning in it. Public faith in democracy—and in the value of debate—is dying from it. When we’ve got the entire Internet at our disposal, a culture of free debate and inquiry is the least exceptional thing college can offer.

What intellectually curious people really want from college is friendship. The kind that can change the mind as well as heal the spirit.

This same weekend, the culture critic Touré posed another observation on Twitter that I believe is directly related to the fears our intellectuals express about college students: “After 35 it’s easier to get a new spouse than it is to get a new close friend.”

Now, I’m not sure that’s literally true, but the anguish it expresses is recognizable.

And I suspect—though of course, I can’t prove—that when aging college graduates like Yascha Mounk, my fellow geriatric millennial, bemoan the supposed intolerance of today’s young people, it often has a lot to do with how increasingly elusive that kind of friendship seems to us.

A Conversation About Pedagogy

Today, Danny Anderson, who teaches English at Mount Aloysius College in central Pennsylvania, invited me onto his Sectarian Review podcast, a wide-ranging religious humanities program, to talk about an essay I wrote here last year, “The Conservatism of My Teaching: Seven Elements.”

Our conversation went in a lot of different directions and covered a number of controversial topics. I can only hope I treated the positions of all my colleagues fairly, given the constraints of the medium and my typical shortcomings as an extemporaneous speaker. We certainly didn’t exhaust any of the topics we discussed.

Later in the interview, I talked about two articles from the March 2022 issue of the Journal of American History: “Meet Me in the Classroom,” by Olga Koulisis, and “Historical Thinking and the Democratic Mind,” by Lindsay Stallones Marshall and John R. Gram. I tried to explain why I lean toward Koulisis’s position, but both of these essays are rewarding.

The Joy of Truth

As the summer begins, I’ve been fighting off a predictable cycle of postseason depression by enjoying a great new book about a different vocation. The book is The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act, by the dramatist Isaac Butler (Bloomsbury, 2022). My public library was kind enough to order a copy and reserve it for me.

Why is this book doing so much to cheer me up? Because it’s about a multigenerational group of people who dedicated themselves to figuring out how to tell truer stories—how to develop more vivid, more authentic, and more meaningful experiences for audiences watching the stage and screen.

Continue reading “The Joy of Truth”

When Lies About CRT Spill Over

Yesterday, a young racist attacked a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, shooting thirteen people in a targeted attack on an African American community.

Ben Collins, a reporter covering domestic extremism and disinformation for NBC News, has published an assessment of the accused Buffalo terrorist’s manifesto. (As a matter of principle, I will not name the accused terrorist or directly address his manifesto here.) The attack is part of a string of white-power terror attacks around the world and in the United States since 2018. But it has a couple of specific elements worth noting. According to Collins, the attack appears to be related to high school education in at least two ways.

First, the accused terrorist, who is now eighteen years old, “claims that he was radicalized on 4chan”—a known breeding ground for Internet extremists, including the earliest participants in the QAnon hoax—“while he was ‘bored’ at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020.” Presumably, that would be the period when his high school was closed for in-person instruction.

Second, the accused terrorist “claims ‘critical race theory,’ a recent right-wing talking point that has come to generally encompass teaching about race in school, is part of a Jewish plot, and a reason to justify mass killings of Jews.”

Assuming the manifesto is authentic, as it appears to be, this is how paranoia and political lies spill over.

Xenophobia, treated as a useful tool and amusing plaything by cynical politicians and media personalities, finds new targets, over and over again. That’s its job. But people who know better will continue finding excuses for it.

The Myth of the Rashōmon Effect: A Film Misremembered

If you’ve spent much time thinking about narrative, or about truth-telling in general, you have probably encountered the word Rashōmon.

Cover of the Criterion Collection Blu-ray for the Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon.

The 1950 film by that name, directed by Kurosawa Akira, made a deep impression on American storytellers and critics. Not only has it been credited with “effectively opening the world of Japanese cinema to the West,” in the words of Roger Ebert. Its title also has given us an irreplaceable metaphor in English: the Rashōmon effect.”

Unfortunately, most Americans’ impression of this film is wrong. It contradicts both the details and the argument of Kurosawa’s movie. (Yes, I appreciate the irony.)

The movie definitely has an argument. The director said so. And the film itself isn’t exactly subtle about it. Of course, viewers should form their own opinions about any work of art, and anyone who tries to tell true stories—including a history teacher—may benefit from watching Kurosawa’s classic film for themselves. But if you do that, I recommend trying to experience it without the preconceptions that American popular culture has grafted onto it.

You may find, as I did, that this great work of art speaks to you in ways we have not been led to expect.

Continue reading “The Myth of the Rashōmon Effect: A Film Misremembered”

Space for Thinking, Space for Acting

Campuses are complicated spaces, because they aren’t just one kind of space: There’s the classroom, the dorm, the public space that is the campus. Then there’s what we could call clubs, support centers—identity based or based on social categories or political interests. It’s a terrible mistake to confuse all of these and imagine that the classroom or the public space of the campus is the same as your home. …

Academic freedom needs to be appreciated as a collective right of the faculty to be free of interference in determining what we research and teach. We’re accountable to our disciplines, our peers. We can’t just do anything and have it called quality scholarship or teaching. But the idea of academic freedom is that we are free of external interference. Free speech is different. It’s an individual right for the civic and public sphere. It’s not about research and teaching. It’s not even about the classroom. It’s what you can say in public without infringement by others or the state. ….

[I]f we just focus on this generation’s political style—and we have to remember youth style always aggravates the elders—we ignore their rage at the world they’ve inherited, and their desperation for a more livable and just one, and their critique of our complacency. That is part of what is going on in the streets and on our campuses. But that remains different from educating that rage and helping young people learn not just the deep histories but even the contemporary practices that will make them more powerful thinkers and actors in this world. If they’re right about our complacency, what we still have to offer is knowledge and instruction and some space in a classroom to think.

Wendy Brown, interviewed in “Why Critics of Angry Woke College Kids Are Missing the Point,” New York Times Magazine, May 1, 2022