National Greatness Is a Moving Target

It is this appreciation for change and multiple perspectives that makes the U.S. history classroom a poor place to inculcate or beat back patriotism. ‘How great are we?’ is simply not the question history seeks to answer. ‘How did we get here?’ is closer to the mark.

The point of history is not to list all the good things or bad things that have happened, nor to strike some desired balance between them. It’s to understand origins, persistence and change. We teach it because we hope that knowing how slavery ended or the Second World War began will equip students to think intelligently about the present. History helps them to see why and by whom their world was built. It shows them how visions have had consequences — sometimes far-reaching, sometimes unintended. It gives them the intellectual tools to act on their society: a complex, dynamic place that is theirs to change or conserve.

The aim of history class isn’t to get students to love or loathe their country. It’s to prepare them to live in it.

Daniel Immerwahr, “History Isn’t Just for Patriots,” Washington Post, Dec. 23, 2020

Human Seriousness

Cover of 'Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life,' by Zena Hitz

Free adults who undertake sustained and serious inquiry are not made from scratch—they are cultivated on trust. Education begins from the assumption that students are capable of taking responsibility for their own learning and that they are naturally motivated, even driven from within to pursue fundamental questions. That assumption is based on nothing other than the simple humanity of the student and the student’s free choice to take up an education.

It is a commonplace of the theory of human excellence, going back at least to Aristotle, that virtues are learned by imitation. If we wish to promote the virtue of seriousness in young people, to pass on free inquiry, to lead students into the depths where real insight and understanding take place, we must first cultivate ourselves. We should remind ourselves of the human questions that once gripped us. We should reconsider our work, our choices, the broad scope of our lives in light of those questions. We must form the community of equals that human seriousness makes possible, and invite our students to join us.

—Zena Hitz, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life (Princeton University Press, 2020), 196-197

“Never Waste a Good Pandemic,” He Actually Said

I’ve been quoted in Inside Higher Ed this morning.

Two days ago, the Twitter account of United Campus Workers Colorado, a new union local that organizes workers across the university, shared an announcement from the interim dean of arts and sciences at CU Boulder.

In the original message to his colleagues, James W.C. White announced that his college intends to meet (and exceed) a budget-cut target through “incentivized retirements of tenured and tenure-track faculty” in the arts and sciences, with the likely aim of replacing many tenure lines with a smaller number of jobs for contingent workers.

Yesterday, Colleen Flaherty of Inside Higher Ed interviewed me by email about why I have said (previously) that we should expect to see many more announcements like this in U.S. higher education in the coming years. Some of my response made it into her article after a comment about tenure by the dean (which I didn’t see before I wrote):

Asked about concerns that his plan chips away at tenure, White said, ‘That horse left the barn a long time ago. We weren’t the ones who did it.’

He added, ‘We have culture in higher education where our value as departments revolves around how many tenure-track positions we have and how many graduate students we have,’ and ‘we need to think about whether that is sustainable in the long run.’

Jonathan W. Wilson, an adjunct instructor of history at several institutions in Pennsylvania and New Jersey who has written about the adjunctification of higher education, said, ‘Things like this news from CU Boulder don’t surprise me at all. We’re going to see more and more stories like this.’

Once colleges proved that contingent workers were an ‘acceptable substitute’ for full-time professors in the classroom, ‘once the pool of excellent underemployed academics became big enough, and once public pressure and financial pressure built up enough, it was just a matter of time for many colleges to start dispensing with even the pretense of tenure,’ he said. ‘It’s an expensive anachronism. Contingent faculty members teach our courses for a small fraction of what tenure-track academics cost. And we’re much easier to fire if you don’t like the job we’re doing in the classroom.’

Like Wolf-Root, Wilson said that many contingent faculty members ‘do engage in research and publication. But mostly we do it on our own time and our own dime. It usually doesn’t result in any job security or recognition.’ Colleges and funding sources ‘don’t actually care much about scholarship,’ though, he added. ‘If they did, they would pay for it. Today, we’re just waiting for a coming wave of retirements to allow them to dispense with the pretense.’

You can read the rest of the article, including the quip from Dean White that I quoted in the post title, here at Inside Higher Ed.

_______________

Edit: Having this opportunity, I would like to clarify one thing about my remarks in the article. When I said that many academic institutions and funders “don’t actually care much about scholarship,” I was referring to the role research has in undergraduate teaching.

Obviously, many institutions do sponsor research even when they don’t absolutely have to. However, hiring adjuncts and other contingent workers to teach core courses reveals that they don’t really believe research, or forms of job security designed to protect research, are crucial for most college teaching. When adjuncts are the only experience some students have with entire disciplines—when colleges routinely allow adjuncts to be the entire face of history, biology, English, chemistry, or mathematics for students who aren’t majoring in those subjects—they are revealing what they really think about the nature of higher education itself.

And because most American colleges and universities exist because they offer undergraduate instruction—that’s where most of their revenue and public support comes from, either directly or indirectly, even if they also get research grants—and because so many academic departments are “service” departments that exist because of general-education courses they provide to students majoring in other disciplines—anything that is not critical for basic college teaching can be sacrificed as pressure builds to cut costs.

Many established academics have been trained to find this unthinkable; they think research and publishing are their core mission because research is how they got hired, tenured, and promoted, and that is the basis of most of their professional relationships outside their institutions. But for purposes of long-term planning in a time of retrenchment, this is an illusion. Their employers don’t actually think research, or the tenure system designed to protect it, is necessary for doing most of their jobs.

_______________

Edit 2: I think it’s worth reading John Warner’s Twitter thread (and now an Inside Higher Ed essay) on this situation. As Warner says, the real question is not whether tenure in its traditional form can be preserved. It’s whether post-tenure higher education will fairly compensate, retain, protect, and promote its non-tenure-track faculty members as they do their work.

Thus, I largely disagree with the demonization of James White that I’ve seen on social media since this news came out, although his wry phrasing was highly infelicitous. White has been ordered to slash his budget, and unless he can somehow resist that order as an interim dean, he effectively has no alternative but to propose cutting tenure lines.

He could have proposed moving to exploitive, degrading adjunct employment instead, but he didn’t. He proposed creating full-time lecturer positions—jobs for people who might conceivably be fairly paid and recognized for their teaching and provided with reasonable job security and health and retirement benefits. This is not inherently the wrong thing to do in the current academic environment. But it does mean dropping a pretense.

Why I’m Still Thankful I Teach in the Age of Trump

Two years ago at Thanksgiving, I wrote about my gratitude for the ways Donald Trump’s America had become a great place to teach history. I think what I wrote has held up well.

This year, after another general election—and during a mismanaged pandemic that has already killed some of my friends’ relatives, made the death of one of my friends (from other causes) lonelier and more surreal, forced some students to drop my courses because they couldn’t function for weeks after they were infected, and made effective teaching at any level all but impossible—I’m taking stock again.

It takes more effort to write it this time. But here’s why I’m still thankful I get to teach history in the age of Donald Trump.

Continue reading “Why I’m Still Thankful I Teach in the Age of Trump”

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”

What Americans Think About the Humanities

Click to view the report on another site

On Monday, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released a 100-page report called “The Humanities in American Life.” It comprises the results from a national survey administered last November. The researchers asked more than 5,000 respondents about their engagement in “humanistic activities” and their attitudes toward humanities education.

On the whole, the report’s findings should encourage most humanities workers, including social studies teachers and historians. But careful examination of the details may be especially useful. This report identifies important discrepancies or tensions in public attitudes.

Champions of humanities education should be prepared to expose or remedy—or exploit—these tensions. There are both dangers and opportunities here.

Continue reading “What Americans Think About the Humanities”

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.

_______________

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.

_______________

* 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.

_______________

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.