Schools That Forge a Public

Every student deserves to be introduced to American literature and history, as well as such subjects as math, science, and civics. Few Americans get this at home, whether they be native or foreign born. An integrative approach respects students’ diverse backgrounds while preparing all young people to be fluent, competent, and empowered citizens. …

The public schools are public. Their mission is to forge a public. They should help young people to move beyond their pre-existing identities to see themselves as part of the nation. In a country so divided that we no longer consider each other fellow citizens, reviving the democratic mission of public schools has never been more essential.

—Johann Neem, “Restoring the Democratic Promise of Public Schools: An Integration Agenda for the Biden Administration”

“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.

_______________

* 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.

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

75 Years of “Inner Liberation”

steinmeier-endofwwii

Today marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of V-E Day, when German armed forces surrendered, ending World War II in Europe. Public celebrations in various countries have been dampened by the pandemic.

You should definitely take fifteen minutes of your day to listen to this extraordinary address (dubbed in English) by Germany’s current president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

We had made enemies of the entire world. Today, seventy-five years later, we are forced to commemorate alone. But the difference is, we are no longer alone. And that is the happy truth of the present day. …

It has taken us three generations to admit it whole-heartedly. 8 May 1945 was indeed a day of liberation. But at the same time, the vast majority of Germans did not perceive it as such. … This country had descended too far into the evil and the guilt. …

It is a struggle, though, that continues to this day. A remembrance can never end. There can be no deliverance from our past. For without remembrance, we lose our future. …

This country can only be loved with a broken heart.

Watch the whole speech here.

(Update: The advance text of the speech is available in various languages directly from the Bundespräsident’s office.)

History the Aggressor

gilbert-personalistphilosophyofhistoryFrom the recipient’s point of view, the past is intrusive. It can be soothing, but not for very long and only at the cost of ignoring its terrible misery and destruction. The history that presents us these quandaries is not merely a propaedeutic to metaphysics. We find that it is history the aggressor. Apart from our fantasies about history, we fight history. We fight over it, and we fight against its influence. In order to be inspired by it—that is, by what past actors have done—we have to fight a way through the difficulties of temporal distance, through the complexities of their circumstances, and through feelings about our own freedom or independence. In this sense, historical experience, whether it comes from disciplinary research or from other ways of engagement, is a battle. And, in turn, by battling with the past we intrude into it. Aggressor history rouses our counter-attack strategy of intrusion into the past. As much as we ‘love’ and enjoy history, it is absolutely necessary to realize that we fight its awful burden. It attacks with its puzzles and invades with its unending causality; we defend with research or data, we counter-attack with theory. The motive for those who hate history and reject the past is deep down close to the motive for those who study and cultivate it.

— Bennett Gilbert, A Personalist Philosophy of History (London and New York: Routledge, 2019), 28

The Keys of the Educated

A humble mind, eagerness to inquire, a quiet life, silent scrutiny, poverty, a foreign soil. These, for many, unlock the hidden places of learning.

—attr. Bernard of Chartres (11th-12th cen.)

This seems to have been a common saying in twelfth-century French university life. It is quoted in several places, including:

Hugh of St. Victor, The Didascalicon: A Medieval Guide to the Arts, trans. Jerome Taylor (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1961), 94, cf. 214n61.

Who Trusts Professors?

The Pew Research Center reports that young Americans today seem to have much less confidence in their public institutions (and humanity in general) than older Americans do. Yet according to “Trust and Distrust in America,” Americans aged 18-29 are the only age cohort who trust college professors more than they trust the military or police officers:

Considering that young Americans are probably much more likely than older Americans to have direct personal contact with college faculty members, that seems like a vindication for higher education. (On the other hand, if one quarter of American adults under 30 years old don’t have much confidence in college professors, that seems less encouraging.)

The same report suggests that college professors have a relatively high trust “floor,” considering how controversial higher education can seem these days. Americans, on the whole, view professors as more trustworthy than religious leaders and much more trustworthy than business leaders. Even “low trusters” generally express confidence in professors:

Chart showing that those with high personal trust have higher confidence in key leadership groups.

Finally, of course, comes the partisan difference: Republicans view college professors far less favorably than independents and Democrats do. Yet Republicans express about as much confidence in faculty members as in government employees generally:

Chart showing that there are sizable partisan divisions in public confidence in leaders and institutions.

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

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

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.