Revisiting My Honors Not-a-Western-Civ Course

This fall, I’m scheduled to teach Honors 121 again at La Salle University. More than two years ago, I described some of my planning process for that course. The outcome was excellent, if I say so myself. It may have been the most fun I’ve ever had teaching.

Now I’m in the late stages of revising my syllabus (PDF) for another attempt.

This time, one big thing has changed: The honors program is now explicitly trying to avoid thinking of Honors 121 as a western civilization course. What it is instead … is an interesting question.

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How Should We Then and Now: Introduction

This is the beginning of a series of weekly posts as I rewatch a 1977 documentary film series called How Should We Then Live? The first regular installment was posted the following Thursday.


In the years after Time Magazine profiled him as a missionary to the “painters, writers, actors, singers, dancers and beatniks” of Europe in the 1960s, Francis A. Schaeffer IV cut a striking figure.

Francis Schaeffer as he appears in a composite image on a recent cover for the film series

By the late 1970s, wearing knickerbockers and turtlenecks, with collar-length hair and a bushy goatee, Francis Schaeffer looked a bit like a shepherd who had come inside for a poetry reading—which I suppose is, metaphorically speaking, precisely what he was. He spoke in a soft, hoarse tenor. His accent had become unplaceably transatlantic without quite losing the sound of working-class Germantown, Philadelphia. In photographs and films, he always looked a bit sad.

And, of course, Francis Schaeffer had made a new life in French-speaking Switzerland. That was a very long way, in more than one sense, from the fundamentalist Presbyterian churches that had provided his early intellectual formation in America’s future rust belt.

Though he struggled with incapacitating depression and an explosive temper, Francis Schaeffer, together with his wife Edith and their children, had opened their home to a little international community, aiming to share the life of the mind. Established in 1955, L’Abri, meaning “The Shelter,” had become a kind of Protestant ashram, combining aspects of a youth hostel, a utopian community, and a religious study group.

There, in chalets in the foothills of the Swiss Alps, the Schaeffers offered hospitality—but also, as they saw it, uncompromising lessons in the truth—to intellectual wanderers. They promised “honest answers to honest questions,” which became a catchphrase. For if “Christianity is truth,” Francis reasoned in 1974, it must have answers about “every aspect of life”—but this required “that we have enough compassion to learn the questions of our generation” in the first place.

By the 1980s, this paradoxical Pennsylvanian in Switzerland—whom his own daughter would jokingly call “a very odd man”—had become one of the most important writers and speakers in America’s evangelical movement. By extension, he exercises a crucial influence on U.S. politics to this day. (L’Abri still exists, too, with satellite study centers as far away as Brazil, South Africa, and South Korea. The name, by the way, is pronouced “lah-BREE.”)

Here’s what interests me for the purposes of this blog: Between 1974 and 1977, Francis Schaeffer, a preacher with no relevant academic training, attempted an ambitious interpretation of European cultural history in the form of a documentary film series and a companion book.

Continue reading “How Should We Then and Now: Introduction”

Testing the West at Howard University: Thoughts on a Very Strange Op-Ed

I have mixed feelings about a widely shared Washington Post opinion essay published Monday by Cornel West and Jeremy Tate. The current headline: “Howard University’s removal of classics is a spiritual catastrophe.”

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Do Humanities Teachers Know How to Deradicalize Students?

carus-memoriesofrome-1839

This week, the Guardian and the BBC claimed to have uncovered the identity of an apparent neo-Nazi who may be responsible for some recent alleged terrorist plots inside the United States.

For my purposes, what’s most interesting is the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s report that this man attended an elite boys-only Catholic preparatory school (which offers a traditional college-preparatory liberal arts curriculum to help the young man develop the knowledge, skills, integrity, and sensitivity that distinguishes a self-renewing educated person“). Then he went on to study philosophy at Villanova University, another Catholic institution near Philadelphia. He apparently attended Villanova for three years and left without graduating, though a lot of things about his background are unclear.

I have no independent information about this story, and I’m approaching it with caution. Some aspects of the reporting are confusing and raise the possibility that things aren’t what they seem. However, other aspects of this story seem stereotypically consistent with other recent stories about the extreme rightincluding the man’s background in the humanities.

That’s what I want to focus on.

Continue reading “Do Humanities Teachers Know How to Deradicalize Students?”

Assessment in the Survey: Three Experiments (Part I)

grailly-oxbow-from-mount-holyoke-cleveland-museum-of-art

This fall, I’m implementing a new scheme to assess overall student learning in my introductory courses. When I say “overall learning,” I mean learning not with respect to particular facts and skills—that’s what the existing quizzes, exams, and assignments are for—but in the form of changes in the way each student conceptualizes the whole topic of the course.

I’m adapting a simple and brilliant exercise described a few years ago by Jennifer Frost, a U.S. historian at the University of Auckland. For a course on the Civil Rights Movement, which she designed to challenge the top-down “Montgomery to Memphis” narrative that she believed most students would bring into the classroom, Frost devised a pair of assignments for the beginning and end of the course.

The first assignment directed students to “write a brief overview of the African-American Civil Rights Movement: when it happened (beginning and end), why it emerged, who participated, and what was achieved.” At the end of the term, the second assignment referred explicitly to the first: “In your overview of the African-American Civil Rights Movement, you commented on when it happened (beginning and end), why it emerged, who participated, and what was achieved. Do you still agree with your overview? How would you change or modify it in light of what you’ve learned this semester? You are not rewriting your overview, but rather reflecting and analyzing on what you originally wrote.” Frost reported that her students were eager to show that the course had changed their thinking―specifically by correcting misconceptions they had held.*

Now, Frost’s entire course was organized around the principle of questioning a certain grand narrative, which probably took a fairly explicit form in students’ minds when they began the course. The linked assignments were part of that design. They were meant to shape student thinking as well as reveal it.

My goal in adapting Frost’s linked assignments is a bit different. With the notable exception of my early U.S. survey, I hypothesize that the first linked assignment will show most students how much they simply don’t know (or aren’t sure they know) about the subject of the course. The second assignment, if all goes well, will show them that they now have the ability to articulate a basic (narrative-shaped) explanation of the course subject, including subtopics of which they previously weren’t aware at all.

In the early U.S. survey, however, my goals are closer to Frost’s. I assume that many students will enter the course with a certain grand narrative distinctly in mind. I hope that the course will challenge and complicate that narrative as well as present students with new information.

With those goals in mind, here are my initial drafts for the prompts I will give my students next week in the first linked assignment.

  • World History I: Write a brief statement (about 250-300 words) describing, purely in your own words, what has happened in the world since 1500. If possible, include several key events, changes, factors, concepts, etc. (This is an assessment tool that will help the instructor understand the overall picture of world history you have in mind as you begin taking this course. It will be evaluated only on the basis of completion, not on graded for accuracy. Please be honest—do not consult any sources.)
  • Western Civilization I: Write a brief statement (about 250-350 words) explaining how you might define “western civilization” and then describing, purely in your own words, what happened in the history of western civilizations between prehistory and the 1600s. If possible, include several key events, changes, factors, concepts, etc. (This is an assessment tool that will help the instructor understand the overall picture of western history you have in mind as you begin taking this course. It will be evaluated as participation, not graded for accuracy. Please be honest—do not consult any sources.)
  • U.S. History I: Write a brief statement (about 250-300 words) describing, purely in your own words, what happened in the United States (or in the places that later became the United States) up to 1865. If possible, include several key events, changes, factors, concepts, etc. (This is an assessment tool that will help the instructor understand the overall picture of American history you have in mind as you begin taking this course. It will be evaluated only on the basis of completion, not on graded for accuracy. Please be honest—do not consult any sources.)

Students’ answers will be due as homework in the second week of each course, giving me time to provide a bit of coaching and reassurance about the assignment in class but also ensuring that students’ answers will reflect minimal exposure to course content.

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* Jennifer Frost, “Using ‘Master Narratives’ to Teach History: The Case of the Civil Rights Movement,” The History Teacher 45, no. 3 (May 2012): 437-446, esp. 441.

Image: Detail from Victor de Grailly (attributed), The Oxbow Seen from Mount Holyoke, after 1840. Bequest of Mrs. Henry A. Everett for the Dorothy Burnham Everett Memorial Collection, Cleveland Museum of Art. Public domain / CC0.