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.

Don’t Be a Teacher Steve King Would Like

Speaking with the New York Times for an article published today, Congressman Steve King seems to have put one of his few remaining cards on the table:

Mr. King, in the interview, said he was not a racist. … At the same time, he said, he supports immigrants who enter the country legally and fully assimilate because what matters more than race is ‘the culture of America’ based on values brought to the United States by whites from Europe.

‘White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?’ Mr. King said. ‘Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?’

Those of us who teach American history—especially those of us who appear to be white—have a responsibility to design history courses that will refute the impression Steve King says he got in his.

“Our history and our civilization” are not white. From the beginning, and continuously to the present, the territories and societies that became the United States have involved and incorporated and held captive, as well as excluded and expropriated, non-European and non-Christian peoples.

The story of America, told honestly, is not a white story. It may indeed (unfortunately) be a story of white supremacy—but whiteness is not the story of “us.” Neither were the dominant cultures of the United States created by simply transplanting some supposedly European cultural essence to the western hemisphere.

Unfortunately, it is very easy for even truthful history teachers to fail to challenge the perception their students have already received long before they reach our courses.

In 2019, let’s make sure our students would have a very difficult time getting the impression Steve King got.

Painted in Bright Colors

Photograph of the cover of the book Everything Happens for a Reason

I can’t reconcile the way that the world is jolted by events that are wonderful and terrible, the gorgeous and the tragic. Except I am beginning to believe that these opposites do not cancel each other out. I see a middle-aged woman in the waiting room of the cancer clinic, her arms wrapped around the frail frame of her son. She squeezes him tightly, oblivious to the way he looks down at her sheepishly. He laughs after a minute, a hostage to her impervious love. Joy persists somehow and I soak it in. The horror of cancer had made everything seem like it is painted in bright colors. I think the same thoughts again and again: Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.

—Kate Bowler, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved (New York: Random House, 2018), 123

Rational Educational Choices

Lower Ed by Tressie McMillan Cottom

For the students I have talked to, a credential mostly meant insurance against precisely the kind of cultural assumptions that the knowledge economy wants: a worker who embraces and embodies a new type of social contract. The students I spoke with wanted the credentials so that they could keep the promised social contract of the post-industrial economy—the contract of guaranteed employment, dignified work, and health and retirement benefits. Capitalists see credentials as evidence that workers have eschewed those old-economy expectations for the new-economy realities. It is a setup for collision that dovetails with flexible, accessible credentials that can be financed when the labor market eventually and inevitably sends aspirational workers back for more training.

The problem of information asymmetry, wherein prospective students are provided the information to make rational decisions about enrolling in a college, assumes that there is a rational educational choice that can be made. Given the character of the new economy, one that by definition is risky and highly variable, for millions of people that simply isn’t true.

—Tressie McMillan Cottom

Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy (New York: The New Press, 2017), 172-173