Will the Liberal Arts Survive?

Stevens Point

Adam Harris, education writer at The Atlantic, tells the story of cuts to liberal arts programs and majors in the University of Wisconsin system.  Here is a taste:

For many years, Wisconsin had one of the finest public-university systems in the country. It was built on an idea: that the university’s influence should not end at the campus’s borders, that professors—and the students they taught—should “search for truth” to help state legislators write laws, aid the community with technical skills, and generally improve the quality of life across the state.

Many people attribute the Wisconsin Idea, as it is known, to Charles Van Hise, the president of the University of Wisconsin from 1903 to 1918. “I shall never be content until the beneficent influence of the University reaches every family of the state,” Hise said in an address in 1905. “If our beloved institution reaches this ideal it will be the first perfect state university.” His idea was written into the mission of the state’s university system, and over time that system became a model for what public higher education could be.

But the backbone of the idea almost went away in 2015, when Governor Scott Walker released his administration’s budget proposal, which included a change to the university’s mission. The Wisconsin Idea would be tweaked. The “search for truth” would be cut in favor of a charge to “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

To those outside Wisconsin, the proposed change might have seemed small. After all, what’s so bad about an educational system that propels people into a high-tech economy? But to many Wisconsinites, the change struck at the heart of the state’s identity. They argued that the idea—with its core tenets of truth, public service, and “improving the human condition”—is what makes Wisconsin, Wisconsin.

Walker ultimately scrapped his attempt to alter the Wisconsin Idea, claiming that his administration hadn’t meant to change it, that it was just a “drafting error.” And so the Wisconsin Idea was preserved—at least in an official sense. But though the words survived intact, many Wisconsinites believe that in the years since, the change Walker had proposed has taken place nevertheless. And one of the state’s institutions, the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, is the epicenter of that change.

In mid-November, the university announced its plans to stop offering six liberal-arts majors, including geography, geology, French, German, two- and three-dimensional art, and history. The plan stunned observers, many of whom argued that at a time when Nazism is resurgent, society needs for people to know history, even if the economy might not. But the university said it just was not possible: After decades of budget cuts, the most extreme of which came under Walker, Stevens Point no longer had the resources to sustain these six majors.

Read the rest here.  We are educating for our capitalist economy.  But are we educating for a thriving democracy?

Middle School 2008 vs. Middle School 2018

Cell Phone

Brian Conlan, a public school teacher, has written an important piece about social media in schools.  It is part of a larger campaign to limit smartphone use among kids.  Here is a taste:

Let’s imagine a seventh grader. He’s a quiet kid, polite, with a few friends. Just your ordinary, run-of-the-mill twelve-year-old. We’ll call him Brian. Brian’s halfway through seventh grade and for the first time, he’s starting to wonder where he falls in the social hierarchy at school. He’s thinking about his clothes a little bit, his shoes too. He’s conscious of how others perceive him, but he’s not that conscious of it. 

He goes home each day and from the hours of 3 p.m. to 7 a.m., he has a break from the social pressures of middle school. Most evenings, he doesn’t have a care in the world. The year is 2008. 

Brian has a cell phone, but it’s off most of the time. After all, it doesn’t do much. If friends want to get in touch, they call the house. The only time large groups of seventh graders come together is at school dances. If Brian feels uncomfortable with that, he can skip the dance. He can talk to teachers about day-to-day problems. Teachers have pretty good control over what happens at school.

Now, let’s imagine Brian on a typical weekday. He goes downstairs and has breakfast with his family. His mom is already at work, but his dad and sisters are there. They talk to each other over bowls of cereal. The kids head off to school soon after. Brian has a fine morning in his seventh grade classroom and walks down to the lunchroom at precisely 12 p.m.

Read the rest here.

An 8th Grade History Teacher to His Students on the Last Day of Class: “Never Stop Learning”

Moses Brown.jpg

Moses Brown School, Providence, Rhode Island

Jonathan Gold teaches 8th grade history at Moses Brown School, a Quaker school in Providence, Rhode Island. (See his September 2016 piece on teaching history in the age of Trump and his October 2015 piece on teaching historical thinking).

Gold ends every academic year by delivering a formal speech to his students.  Here is a taste of this year’s version:

I’m not ever sure what students actually learn in here. But my hope is that you have come to embody the insight of my favorite educational philosopher, John Dewey, who articulated the goal of education as the ability to acquire more education. In other words, education should teach you how to learn — what questions to ask, how to find answers, and how to make connections — but also give you an insatiable desire to keep learning.

So how do we do that? We start, perhaps ironically, by embracing the limits of our own knowledge. Remember when we studied Israel and Palestine? We didn’t rush to solve the conflict or develop a thesis; we asked ourselves what else we needed to know and sought more information. What we found were irreconcilable narratives that helped us understand why the problem is so difficult to resolve. What we focused on was embracing complexity and tolerating uncertainty. We used this same mindset in our student-led discussions. The goal was to connect to others’ ideas, to bolster each other’s thinking, and to keep probing. It was about the process, not the result.

The human brain craves simplicity and clarity, but the world — with its infinite strangeness — offers only ambiguity, uncertainty, and complexity. We can’t change the nature of the world — it will always be complex — so we need to train ourselves to be comfortable with that complexity, to lean into what we don’t know and acknowledge our own small place in the universe.

Part of that means an aspiration towards humility. What I mean by that is starting with the assumption that we don’t know very much and that what we do think we know is incomplete and unrefined and helplessly biased, so much so that we are better off constantly seeking more knowledge and information than declaring something fully known. That doesn’t mean we can’t have opinions, or we can’t develop a worldview, but it does mean we need to see our viewpoints as subject to improvement and refinement. Those who disagree with us having something to teach us, and we can’t possibly know everything. Mostly it means developing an insatiable thirst for new knowledge and information.

It may feel odd to get to the end of the year and hear me arguing that we can’t fully know anything. It can be scary to think that there’s always more to know, more detail, more nuance, more subtlety, more perspective, more work to do to scrub bias from our thinking. But I find that to be perhaps the single greatest thing about being human: there’s always more to learn.

Read the entire text here.

The Author’s Corner with Robert Gross

 

GrossRobert Gross is a United States History Teacher and Assistant Academic Dean at Sidwell Friends School. This interview is based on his new book Public v. Private: The Early History of School Choice in America (Oxford University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Public v. Private?

RG: I have always been deeply invested in educational policy debates about school choice, charter schools, and private schools. As a historian I wanted to look to the past to understand the origins of what I consider to be modern school choice and what we can learn from that history. I ultimately found that this was a 19th- and early 20th-century story, when public systems arose to eliminate the private, market-based schools that had existed earlier, and when Catholic school systems then emerged to challenge public schooling. It was in this period that, after significant conflict, Americans agreed to the existence of systematic alternatives to public schooling. Understanding how that happened, what it tells us about broader American legal ideas about public and private, and what it might mean to the present is what I wanted to write about.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Public v. Private?

RG: That we owe the existence of school choice in the United States much less to market forces than to public regulation—Americans have consented to private schools precisely because states have regulated them substantially, and, in return, given them significant public subsidies. I also argue that broader American legal battles over the scope of public power over private enterprise have been centered on, and determined by, state regulation of private schools.

JF: Why do we need to read Public v. Private?

RG: As I indicate above, American historians have missed the central role that private schools have played as sites of contestations over the extent to which states can regulate private enterprise. I don’t think we can understand just how powerful state regulation has been in this country without looking at schools, and private schools in particular. Secondly, this story has important lessons for our contemporary discussions over charter schools, voucher programs, and school choice more broadly. Too often we frame our debates about school choice over whether one is “pro” or “anti” charter schools, to cite the most prominent example. Public vs. Private argues that the more important question, perhaps, is how we will regulate school choice. What should be the standards for a school to receive a charter today? How should we hold these schools accountable? What do we collectively owe parents to help them navigate educational markets? These kinds of questions became essential to working out the relationship between public and private schools in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and we would do well to return to them.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

RG: I suppose I’ve always been searching for the answer to the question that David Byrne of the Talking Heads posed: “How did I get here”? I think my particular path to becoming primarily a historian of American education emerged from my own schooling. I’ve always sought to know why our schools look the way we do, why private schools exist, and how Americans have thought about education in the past.

JF: What is your next project?

RG: Nothing is imminent at the moment. I currently live in DC and am fascinated by the history of the city and what it tells us about so many important areas of American life, from race to urban planning to the role of the federal government.

JF: Thanks, Robert!

Should Conservative Professors Be Leading the Way in Identity Politics?

identity

Jon Shields, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College, thinks that conservative professors should embrace identity politics.  Here is a taste of his piece at The Dallas Morning News:

When I was in college, I took a class in logic. There I learned that one should never reject an argument because of the characteristics of the person making it. Instead, one should assess the argument itself on its rational merits. And while I agree that the power of an argument should not depend on the person making it, nonetheless, it does.

I learned that lesson during my first year as a visiting professor at Cornell University. I taught a course on American evangelicals, which attracted a mix of secular and religious students. When we discussed The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, a 1994 book by Mark A. Noll about anti-intellectualism in the evangelical tradition, my evangelical students were critical of it. But they were willing to take the book’s thesis seriously because the author was an evangelical.

Perhaps Noll’s identity shouldn’t have mattered. His historical evidence and the power of his arguments would be worth considering even if he were Catholic, Jewish or secular. But his identity did matter. It mattered because my evangelical students could not simply assume bad faith on the author’s part. They knew Noll cared about evangelicals as a group of people. Instead of dismissing Noll as a bigot, my students thoughtfully engaged with his work.

Since then, I have taken identity into account every time I have assigned new books for one of my courses. I currently teach a course called Black Intellectuals, which is focused on debates about racial inequality in the post-civil rights era. It tends to attract progressive students who, in analyzing racial inequality, are drawn to arguments that stress structural obstacles to equality and the enduring power of white racism, especially in our criminal justice system.

Read the rest here.

Shields may have a point.  As readers of this blog know, I am a big advocate of historical empathy–walking in the shoes of others.  It would seem that middle-class white kids need to learn how to empathize with people who do not share in their identities.  But I wonder if we can expect students who are not white and middle class to do the same thing?  Education in the Latin means “to lead outward.”  Yet today much of education today is about self-discovery and “finding oneself” in the curriculum.  If we really want to educate our students they must read things written by people who are not like them.

My Boston Trinity Academy Chapel Talk on Rural America

rural

Get the context here.  I gave this short chapel talk to the faculty and students of Boston Trinity Academy on January 16, 2018–JF

I am so pleased to be back at Boston Trinity Academy. (BTA)  I continue to reflect fondly on my last visit in May 2014 when I had the honor of serving as your commencement speaker.  It is great to see old friends and I have already made some new ones.

Students: please know how privileged you are to be at this place.  BTA is a school committed to the integration of Christian faith and learning at the highest level.  There are few places like this in the country.  Cherish your education here.  Thank God for it every day.  And be attentive to God’s voice so that you can obtain the wisdom necessary to know what you should do with this great gift you are receiving.

I am also excited for all of you as you spend your J-Term exploring the culture of rural America.  I wrote my first book about rural America.  It focused on a young man living in the 1760s and 1770s.  His name was Philip Vickers Fithian.  Philip left rural America, went to college at Princeton, and served his country during the Revolutionary War. But he never forgot the people from the rural community who raised him and taught him how to love God and others.  Philip’s path of education and self-improvement always seemed to lead him home.  So, needless to say, the topic you are studying this week is near and dear to my heart and I look forward to working with you today– the first day of your journey.

The countryside.  The frontier.  The hinterland.  The backcountry.  Whatever you want to call it—rural America played a powerful role in our understanding of who we are as Americans.  One of my favorite rural novels is Willa Cather’s My Antonia (if you haven’t read it, you should!).  I teach it at Messiah College in a course I offer on the history of immigrant America.  In this novel we meet a young man named Jim Burden.  He grew up on the East Coast, but after both his parents died he was sent to Nebraska to live with his grandparents.  As Jim gets a first glimpse of the Great Plains he says: “There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.” Several days later he adds: “Everywhere, as far as the eye could reach, there was nothing but rough shaggy red grass, most of it as tall as I.”

As he stands in the Nebraska fields, Jim starts to consider his own smallness: “Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out…  that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.” Jim Burden teaches us that rural America—with its pristine meadows and vast expanses of land—can have a humbling effect on those who experience it.  The rural writer Kathleen Norris, in her introduction to the edition of My Antonia I use in class, writes that Jim is “obliterated by the landscape.”

Thomas Jefferson, our third president and author of the Declaration of Independence may have related to the fictional experience of Jim Burden.  “Those who labour in the earth,” Jefferson wrote, “are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.”  Jefferson wanted to build the United States around the character traits that he saw in the ordinary farmer.  He used the word “yeoman”—a common term for a landholder—to describe this kind of farmer.

Throughout American history farmers have been committed to local places, to living lives in community and to the importance of family.   They understood the dignity of hard work.  They were often portrayed as healthy and strong.  They were people of faith—the kind of faith needed to place complete trust in a God who controls the weather.  They were patient folk who knew how to wait on the Lord.

At the same time, farmers were independent–the kind of people needed to sustain a nation founded upon freedom.  In other words, they were not dependent on others—such as manufacturers and bank owners–to survive.  They were not defiled by the corruption and self-interest of cities—urban centers filled with workers who were at the mercy of factory owners. Jefferson envisioned a country filled with landowners who would spread out across the continent.  Manufacturing and urbanization did not play a major role in his vision.  These things were part of the vision of his political rival Alexander Hamilton.

Jefferson’s rural vision for America died after the Civil War.  It gave way to industry and railroads and factories and markets.  If Jefferson were alive today he would probably be appalled by how dependent we are on food processed by big companies.  He would not be happy that we pursue the American dream by going into debt to credit card companies and mortgage firms and banks. (This, despite the fact that Jefferson spent most of his adult life in debt).

Indeed, we don’t live the kind of independent lives Jefferson envisioned.  We trade the patience of the farmer for immediate gratification.   We want it all—and we want it now.  But the American rural dweller,–the farmer–teaches us to slow down and listen.  To endure.  To trust God for our most pressing needs.  Maybe even to suffer—as many farmers did when the weather did not cooperate.  Farmers understood (and understand) that that suffering produces perseverance.  They understood that perseverance produces character. They understood that character leads to hope (Romans 5:4)

There is a lot to commend in this vision of America.  But it also easy to get nostalgic about it.  The warm and fuzzy feeling we get when we read about Jim Burden or study Thomas Jefferson’s America can blind us to another side— a dark side—of the history of rural life.  Maybe you have heard of this term, “nostalgia.”  I think of it as a sort of homesickness for a time in the past when everything was wonderful or when we at least thought that everything was wonderful.   But nostalgia is an inherently selfish way of thinking about the past because it often fails to see how other people—people who are not like us—lived through the same era and did not think it was so great.

With this in mind, as we gather on the day after Martin Luther King Jr. birthday, we would be remiss, and historically irresponsible, if we did not think about this other side of rural America.  After all, for most of American history the countryside was the home of forced labor camps—white people called them plantations—where millions of enslaved Africans and their families cultivated the land. Abraham Lincoln described slavery in his First Inaugural Address as “250 years of unrequited toil.” The whip of the slaveholder drove the Southern cotton economy and contributed to the success of Northern manufacturing and industry.  The growth of American power went hand in hand with the growth of slavery.  The rise of American capitalism would be impossible without the labor of the enslaved.

Slavery ended officially in 1865, but the enslaved—now called freedmen—had a hard time escaping rural America.  Many of them returned to the fields as sharecroppers—a system of work that could be just as degrading as slavery. And they also came face-to-face with white rural Americans who were not happy that they were free.  For the next century these white Americans in the South would do everything in their power to deny African Americans the liberties they were entitled to.

Martin Luther King and the other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement knew this history of rural America very well.  But they refused to let the past have its way with them. They fought to bend the trajectory of America’s future toward justice.  By the time of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, many African-Americans had left rural life in search of opportunities beyond the cotton plantations of the South.  They traveled to northern cities like Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and St. Louis.  They came to work in the factories of Buffalo, Boston, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis.  Even those who stayed in the South left the farm for cities like Greensboro, North Carolina; Atlanta, Georgia; Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma, Alabama; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee.  Ironically, it was in cities like these where Martin Luther King Jr. fought against the racism born in the fields of rural America.

Today about 10% of African-Americans live in rural areas.  This makes rural America largely the domain of poor white men and women who do not have the financial resources to get out. They often live alongside immigrant laborers—most from Central America—who do farm work for the big corporations that now control most of American agriculture.

As the urban population of America grows, the rural communities of the United States lose about 30,000 people per year. Donald Trump was right when he described a rural America of  “rusted-out factories” scattered “like tombstones across the landscape.” Once-thriving town-centers in rural communities are now filled with closed storefronts.  People in rural America have limited access to doctors and are now more likely to suffer from diabetes, heart disease, and cancer than people living in the cities and the suburbs.  Suicide rates in rural areas are double that in urban areas.  People are living in despair.  Access to a good education is becoming more and more difficult.  If you want to get a glimpse of rural America’s decline in places like Kentucky and Ohio I encourage you to pick-up a copy of J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis.  I re-read some of it on the plane on the way here.  It explains a lot about why so many rural Americans saw Donald Trump as their savior in 2016.

So what happened to Jefferson’s vision of a country built upon yeoman farmers?  Does Jim Burden’s Nebraska still exist?  What has the long legacy of slavery and racism done to rural places?  These, I hope, will be the questions you will try to answer this week.

As I close, let me suggest that your task in making sense of rural America must be guided by the practice of at least three virtues essential to any kind of educational endeavor:

The first is empathy.  For many of you here in Boston, “rural America” might as well be a foreign country.  Empathy will be your passport for entry into this strange land.  This is going to take some discipline on your part.  You will need to walk in the shoes of those who live in rural America.  Your mind must be open to the experiences of the people who have inhabited and continue to inhabit these places.  As historian John Lewis Gaddis has written, to practice empathy means you must make every effort to “understand their hopes and fears, their beliefs and dreams, their sense of right and wrong, [and] their perceptions of the world.” I challenge you to see life on their terms, not yours.  Pray about this.  Ask God to open your eyes and ears to people who are different.  This, after all, is what school is all about.  The Latin word for education literally means to “lead outward”—to grow personally by encountering others.

This kind of empathy will ultimately lead to a second virtue:  humility.  Like Jim Burden, who felt overwhelmed and small from staring into the Nebraska sky, your experience with people who are different should make you realize that you are part of something much larger than this moment, this particular place, and this particular time.  As an individual, you are important.  You are a child of God.  That gives you a dignity that no one can take away.  But at the same time, it’s not all about you!  To take a deep dive into another culture or another part of the world, or even another part of the United States, is to realize that God’s human creation is much more diverse, much larger and wonderful, than the tiny little slice of the world that you experience here in Boston or through the screen on your cell phone.   Pray for humility this week.  Whenever we study people who are different we see the awesomeness of God’s glorious creation.  This kind of encounter should humble us.  If it doesn’t, the problem is not with the rural Americans you will be studying this week.  The problem is with you!

Third, welcome the stranger.  During J-Term you will be meeting people who live in rural America.  You will also encounter the voices of rural America visiting your classroom in the form of historical documents and pieces of literature and videos and online sources.  Listen to these voices.  Make them feel at home in your classrooms. Make them your guests.  I know that sounds kind of strange, but unless you show hospitality to the texts you read and the people you encounter—even in a virtual or imagined way—you cheat yourself and are rejecting an opportunity to learn.

So I wish you well in this educational and intellectual journey for which you are about to embark.  Remember that Boston Trinity Academy is a place where your teachers love you.  And because they love you they want to encourage you to love the Lord with your minds.  And for that we can say “thanks be to God.”

More Thoughts on Cedarville’s “Biblically Consistent Curriculum.”

Cedarville

I am quoted today in a Times Higher Education piece on Cedarville University’s “biblically consistent” curriculum.”  Read it here.

The quote is accurate, but it is also part of a larger statement that did not make it into the story.   Here is my entire response to the reporter:

On academic freedom:  Cedarville is a private evangelical college.  As a result, faculty need to sign a statement of Christian doctrine in order to teach there.  Any Christian college of this nature does not have academic freedom in the same way that a non-sectarian or public university has academic freedom.  For example, a faculty member does not have the “freedom” to be an atheist or reject a belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  So Cedarville has the right to define what ideas are acceptable and what ideas are not.  

But as someone who teaches at a private Christian college, one that is not as conservative as Cedarville, I think this new “Biblically consistent curriculum” confuses education with indoctrination.  Any institution of higher education requires an engagement with the world. What distinguishes a Christian college from a Christian church is an engagement with ideas and culture–all ideas and culture.  At a Christian college, this kind of engagement happens through the lens of Christian faith.  Cedarville seems to be motivated by fear of the world rather than engagement with it.  The college has chosen a path of separation from the world rather than an engagement with it.  This is the essence of fundamentalism.

Let’s face it–as soon as graduates leave the Cedarville bubble, they are going to be exposed to what their administration or their parents deem to be unholy or impure aspects of culture.  Isn’t it better that they learn how to think Christianly about culture in the kind of community a Christian college offers?

As the THE piece notes, I have written about Cedarville and its new curriculum before.  Read my posts here.

“The Closing of the American Mind” at 30

ClosingAllan Bloom‘s bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind, turns thirty this year.  Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, cultural critic and New Left activist Todd Gitlin reflects:

“You can slam its young people into universities with their classrooms and laboratories, and when they come out all they can talk about is Babe Ruth. America is a hopeless country for intellectuals and thinking people.” Babe Ruth is the giveaway. These words were spoken in 1923, and the speaker was Theodore Dreiser, who had dropped out of Indiana University after one year.

So it is not a new thought that American universities are nests of self-betrayal and triviality where inquiring minds trade the nobility of their tradition for cheap trinkets and the promise of pieces of silver to come. Indeed, five years before Dreiser popped off, Thorstein Veblen was denouncing “the higher learning in America” for having surrendered to business domination, ditched the pure pursuit of knowledge, cultivated “conspicuous conformity to the popular taste,” and pandered to undergraduates by teaching them “ways and means of dissipation.” “The conduct of universities by business men,” to borrow from Veblen’s subtitle, had rendered university life “mechanistic.” Veblen anticipated that the academy would wallow in futility when it was not prostrating itself at the feet of the captains of finance. His original subtitle was A Study in Total Depravity. Veblen having dropped it, Allan Bloom should have picked it up.

Veblen thought the university had been seized by “pecuniary values.” To Bloom, whose bestselling book, The Closing of the American Mind, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, something much worse had happened: The university had been seized by the absence of values. “The university now offers no distinctive visage to the young person. He finds a democracy of the disciplines. … This democracy is really an anarchy, because there are no recognized rules for citizenship and no legitimate titles to rule. In short there is no vision, nor is there a set of competing visions, of what an educated human being is.”

A horde of bêtes noires had stampeded through the gates, and the resulting noise had drowned out the proper study of both nature and humanity. Nihilism had conquered. Its chief forms were cultural relativism, historicism, and shopping-mall indifference, the humanities’ lame attempts at a holding action that “flatters popular democratic tastes.” Openness was the new closure; elitism had become the worst of all isms.

Read the rest here.

The Founding Fathers Rejected School Choice

Montville

My alma mater

Earlier today University of Western Washington history professor Johann Neem visited The Author’s Corner.  Yesterday he visited the pages of the Washington Post to talk more about public education.  As Neem correctly notes, the founding fathers believed that public schools were the foundation of a virtuous republic:

Here is a taste of his piece “Early America had school choice. The Founding Fathers rejected it.”

During the Colonial era and into the early American republic, most Americans shared DeVos’s notion that education was a family responsibility. Parents who could afford it taught their children at home, hired itinerant men or women who “kept” school for a fee, or sent older children to charter schools called academies. Most Americans had little formal schooling.

The revolution transformed how some Americans thought about education. These Americans agreed with Thomas Jefferson that the future of the republic depended on an educated citizenry. They also believed that the opportunities offered by schooling should be available to rich and poor alike. Many state constitutions included clauses like Georgia’s in 1777: “Schools shall be erected in each county, and supported at the general expense of the State.” But how to execute this directive? The best way, American leaders ultimately concluded, was to encourage local public schools and to limit the growth of academies.

As early as the 1780s, Massachusetts Gov. Samuel Adams asserted that academies increased inequality because well-off families chose them over local district schools. Citizens, Adams argued, “will never willingly and cheerfully support two systems of schools.” Others shared his concern. New York Gov. George Clinton argued in 1795 that academies served “the opulent” and that all children deserved access to “common schools throughout the state.”

Read more here.

Author’s Corner with Johann Neem

9781421423210-2
Johann Neem
is a Professor of History at Western Washington University. This interview is based on his new book, Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America (John Hopkins University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Democracy’s Schools?

JN: I decided to write this book for two reasons. First, and foremost, I worried that citizens and policy makers did not have a “go to” book for the formative era of American public education. The leading books in that field were influenced by the culture wars—and thus they were highly critical of the potential of public education. Scholars on the right and left agreed that schools promoted “social control” and served elites, not ordinary people. At a time when our public discourse of education is increasingly vocational and instrumental, I wanted to clear the space to remind Americans today why we had public schools in the first place: to develop the capabilities of citizens; to promote human flourishing for each individual; and to bring together a diverse society.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Democracy’s Schools?

JN: Democracy’s Schools argues that there exists a longstanding and productive tension between the demands of “democratic education” and of “education in a democracy.” Democratic education emphasizes civic goals and the liberal arts and was often promoted by elite reformers such as Horace Mann, whereas education in a democracy depends on local control and schools tied culturally and politically to citizens themselves.

JF: Why do we need to read Democracy’s Schools?

JN: We need Democracy’s Schools because we’re adrift today. At a time when we tend to focus on narrow skills and economic training (“college and career readiness,” in the words of the Common Core—see my essay on the subject), it is worth looking back to an era when public schools served democracy’s needs and represented democratic values. It is worth remembering why reformers sought to increase access to the liberal arts. And it’s worth recognizing that the public schools have a responsibility not just to reflect our differences but also to bring a diverse people together. In short, we need Democracy’s Schools to remember that in the dirty bathwater of our education history there is still a baby worth caring for.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JN: I was a history major in college, but had intended to go into education policy. I wrote my senior thesis on civic education in a democracy, so in some ways I have returned to my roots in this new book. I decided to become an American historian after taking Gordon Wood’s class on the early American republic and realizing that the questions that most intrigued me were being asked by all Americans– whether rich or poor, white or black, male or female– in the decades following the American Revolution.

JF: What is your next project?

JN: I’m not sure. I am continuing to write about education, democracy, and higher education reform. I have started doing some work on the historic relationship between the humanities and American democracy, not just in schools but in society more broadly. We’ll see where it goes!

JF: Thanks, Johann!

What is Critical Thinking?

critical

Why should we study history?  Why does the college where I teach require students to take a history course?  I asked these questions to my students today.  A few them mentioned the phrase “critical thinking” in their answers.

As Georgia State University English professor Rob Jenkins notes in a recent piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education, “critical thinking” is an overused catchphrase in American higher education.

But it can be defined.

Here is a taste:

Critical thinking, as the term suggests, has two components. The first is thinking — actually thinking about stuff, applying your brain to the issues at hand, disciplining yourself (and it does require discipline) to grapple with difficult concepts for as long as necessary in order to comprehend and internalize them.

This is important because we live in a society that increasingly makes it easy for people to get through the day without having to think very much. We have microwaveable food, entertainment at our fingertips, and GPS to get us where we need to go. I’m not saying those things are bad. Ideally, such time-saving devices free up our brains for other, more important pursuits. But the practical effect is that we’ve become accustomed to setting our brains on autopilot.

Actual thinking requires deep and protracted exposure to the subject matter — through close reading, for example, or observation. It entails collecting, examining, and evaluating evidence, and then questioning assumptions, making connections, formulating hypotheses, and testing them. It culminates in clear, concise, detailed, and well-reasoned arguments that go beyond theory to practical application….

The second component of critical thinking is the critical part. In common parlance, “critical” has come to mean simply negative — as in, “I don’t like to be around him, he’s always so critical.” But of course that’s not what it means in an academic context.

Think of movie critics. They cannot simply trash every film they see. Instead, their job is to combine their knowledge of films and filmmaking with their extensive experience (having no doubt seen hundreds, even thousands of films) and provide readers with the most objective analysis possible of a given movie’s merits. In the end, what we’re left with is just one critic’s opinion, true. But it’s an opinion based on substantial evidence.

To be “critical,” then, means to be objective, or as objective as humanly possible. No one is capable of being completely objective — we’re all human, with myriad thoughts, emotions, and subconscious biases we’re not even aware of. Recognizing that fact is a vital first step. Understanding that we’re not objective, by nature, and striving mightily to be objective, anyway, is about as good as most of us can do.

Read the rest here.

Jerry Falwell Jr. Will Head Up A Trump Task Force on Higher Education

U.S. Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump shakes hands with Jerry Falwell Jr. during a campaign event in Sioux City Iowa

Here’s a taste of a piece from the Chronicle of Higher Education.  I am sure there will be more to come here and elsewhere.

Jerry L. Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, has been asked by President Trump to head up a new task force that will identify changes that should be made to the U.S. Department of Education’s policies and procedures, Mr. Falwell told The Chronicle on Tuesday.

The exact scope, size, and mission of the task force has yet to be formally announced. But in an interview, Mr. Falwell said he sees it as a response to what he called “overreaching regulation” and micromanagement by the department in areas like accreditation and policies that affect colleges’ student-recruiting behavior, like the new “borrower defense to repayment” regulations.

“The goal is to pare it back and give colleges and their accrediting agencies more leeway in governing their affairs,” said Mr. Falwell, who said he had been discussing possible issues with several other college leaders and at least one head of an accrediting agency for the past two months. “I’ve got notebooks full of issues,” he said.

Read the rest here. Stay tuned.

“One of the Great Curses of Our Time is Well Trained Uneducated People”

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Over at dotCommonweal, someone who goes by the name “unagidon” writes:

Education is a bit hard to define, but training is not.  When they tell you to go to college to get a “marketable skill”; when they tell you that the smart kids major in “business”, finance, accounting, or law, they’re talking about training.  When they tell you that you need to focus on certain things in order to get a good job, whether as a professor, dentist, geologist, chemist or whatever, that too is training.

Training is absolutely essential of course and it is a very bad idea to think of education and training as an either/or proposition.  But training without an education is very bad.  One of the great curses of our time is well trained uneducated people.  Uneducated well trained people are setting themselves up to be slaves, no matter how much money they make.  (If you don’t think that this can happen, many of the most important executives in ancient Rome, China, the Ottoman Empire, Byzantium etc. were also slaves).

“Unagidon” continues:

“…once one opens oneself to knowledge one has to cultivate a love of it.  Love is joy (and who doesn’t want to cultivate joy?) but it also entails work, sacrifice, and willing suffering.  (These are aspects of love that we do not talk about very much these days.  But Bloom did).

A thing about love is that it’s never complete and loving with its never ending incompleteness is an end in itself.  Its object is always being revealed anew.  This contrasts with training, which strives for crystal clarity and up-to-datedness and a belief in completeness, which is why it is so many control freaks mistake it for an education.

As you can see, it’s a tough message for the children.  When they pick a college they do need to make savvy choices on the training they think they will need.  But regarding an education, they should look for specific teachers or, even better, a program with more than one good teachers.  A good library is also a plus.

Read the entire post here.

Falwell: Trump Offered Me the Secretary of Education Job

falwell-jr

Unless, of course, this is more fake news.  (Somehow I strongly doubt it):

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. says President elect-Donald Trump offered him the job of education secretary, but that he turned it down for personal reasons.

Falwell tells The Associated Press that Trump offered him the job last week during a meeting in New York. He says Trump wanted a four- to six-year commitment, but that he couldn’t leave Liberty for more than two years.

Falwell says he couldn’t afford to work at a Cabinet-level job for longer than that and didn’t want to move his family, especially his 16-year-old daughter.

Trump announced Wednesday he had selected charter school advocate Betsy DeVos for the job. Falwell says he thinks DeVos is an “excellent choice.”

Trump spoke at the Christian university in Lynchburg, Virginia, in January and Falwell later endorsed him.

This almost makes one thankful for the choice of Betsy DeVos, a woman who has no experience with public education.

(And by the way, DeVos is not a Reconstructionist as many liberal critics are saying. Perhaps a post on this later).

Will Trump Choose Jerry Falwell Jr. as Secretary of Education?

U.S. Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump shakes hands with Jerry Falwell Jr. during a campaign event in Sioux City Iowa

He has probably been vetted.  Here is a taste of an article in today’s Washington Post:

“I met with the president-elect and several of his top advisers to discuss what role I might be able to play with regard to education,” Falwell said Monday. “It was a very good discussion.” Falwell said he could not elaborate.

But in general, Falwell added, he takes a skeptical view of regulators at the Education Department. “It’s troubling to see how much they’re micromanaging colleges and universities, using their power, through financial aid and student loan programs,” Falwell said. “That’s been a concern of mine for a long time.”

During the campaign, Falwell took some criticism from within the Liberty community for his backing of Trump. Some students said they could not support the Republican nominee because they had doubts about his character and values.

Falwell’s is one of several names that have become associated with Trump’s education transition. The president-elect also has met in recent days with former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee and with school voucher advocate Betsy DeVos. When Trump will announce a nominee for education secretary is unknown.

Read the entire piece here.

And here is a taste of a piece at Alternet:

Falwell Jr. confirmed to the Associated Press on Friday that he had met with Trump at Trump Tower. Falwell told Virginia’s Richmond Times-Dispatch last week that he’s let the administration know that “one of my passions is reforming higher education and education in general.” When pressed by other outlets, including the Associated Press, whether that role would be as Secretary of Education, Falwell would not, “confirm or deny whether he was being vetted as secretary of education, but says he will ‘definitely play a role’ in the administration.'”

 

Alan Taylor Channels Gordon Wood

school-house

By now many of you have probably read a review of Alan Taylor‘s new synthesis of the American Revolution.  (We will be featuring Taylor in an upcoming edition of the Author’s Corner.  Stay tuned).

Writing in The New York Times, Gordon Wood described Taylor’s work this way:

A major legacy of the Revolution, he concludes, was the emergence of a society dominated by ordinary middle-class white men, the very people he has most criticized as patriarchal, racist and genocidal. In Taylor’s mind their victory seems to have come at the expense of others. By focusing on common white men, he maintains, the Revolution worked against blacks, Indians and women. The question raised by Taylor’s book is this: Can a revolution conceived mainly as sordid, racist and divisive be the inspiration for a nation?

And here is Eric Herschthal at Slate:

Taylor…gives a central role to women, blacks, and Native Americans in determining the war’s fate. The wives and daughters of Patriot soldiers took over the shops, farms, and slave plantations of those who left to fight. For the first time in their lives, white women became public participants in politics, organizing boycotts and participating in street protests.

Indeed, Taylor’s new book is not your traditional Whig history of the American Revolution.  If the reviews I read are correct, Taylor gives due attention to women, blacks, frontier settlers, and Native Americans, making these groups important actors in the story.  (I discussed, and praised, Taylor’s similar approach to the colonial period in Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past).  Since I have not yet read American Revolutions, I don’t know how Taylor covers the so-called “founding fathers.”  I am guessing that few reviewers, especially historians of a progressive bent, will say much about his treatment of these white men.

But for those who have not yet read the book, I think we get a glimpse of how Taylor treats the founders’ ideas from his recent piece at the American Scholar titled “The Virtue of an Education Voter.”

A lot of folks on my social media feeds are criticizing Gordon Wood’s review of the book (perhaps rightly so–Wood writes with his usual crankiness), but in this American Scholar piece Taylor sounds a lot like Wood in The Creation of the American Republic.  Taylor focuses on the role that “virtue” and the common good played in the founders’ thinking, particularly as it relates to their belief in an educated citizenry.  Like Wood, Taylor argues that this kind of self-sacrificial virtue was important to the founders.

But Taylor also writes prescriptively about the founders’ belief in the importance of virtue.   In other words, he suggests that the founders were correct when they called for a virtuous republic built upon an educated citizenry.  He tries to resuscitate these civic humanist arguments and employ them in our current debates over the funding of education.

Perhaps there is more Gordon Wood in Taylor’s book than some reviewers would like to admit.

Here is a taste of Taylor’s essay:

We have come to think and speak of education as primarily economic (rather than political) and individual (rather than social) in its rewards. As a consequence, growing numbers of voters care only for the education of their own children. These conceptual and rhetorical shifts lead legislators to wonder why taxpayers should pay for the education of others—particularly those of poorer means, different culture, or darker color. If only the individual, rather than society as a whole, benefits from education, let the student bear the cost of it: so runs the new reasoning.

During every recession, state governments make budget cuts, and public colleges and universities become the tempting, soft targets. That temptation grows when states feel pinched by rising costs for Medicaid and prisons (places stuffed with the poorly educated). By reducing public support for colleges and universities, legislators and governors induce them to increase the tuition and fees that students pay. A recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities finds that since the 2008 recession, states have reduced spending on public higher education by 17 percent per student. During the same period, tuition has risen by 33 percent. The University of California system is the largest in the nation. According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the state of California provided a quarter of the system’s budget in 2002. After a billion dollars in cuts, the state now pays for just nine percent of the system’s costs, yet legislators howl in outrage when university administrators admit more out-of-state and foreign students, who can be charged twice as much as in-state students. The same game is playing out in every state.

Increasingly reliant on loans to cover the cost of higher education, students have assumed alarming levels of debt: an estimated $1.3 trillion owed by 42 million Americans. According to the August issue of Consumer Reports, graduates this year average $37,000 in debt per student. The debt burden puts a drag on the overall economy and society, as thousands of graduates delay buying a home or having children. Increasingly, young people from middle-class families question whether attending college is worth the cost.


As a country, we are in retreat from the Jefferson and Peck dream of equal educational opportunity for all. And the future social costs will be high. Proportionally fewer Americans will benefit from higher education, inequality will increase, and free government will become a stage set for opportunists to pander to the prejudices and fears of the poorly educated.

Although the current definition of education is relentlessly economic, the source of the crisis is political. Just as in Jefferson’s day, most legislators and governors believe that voters prefer tax cuts to investments in public education. Too few leaders make the case for higher education as a public good from which everyone benefits. But broader access to a quality education pays off in collective ways: economic growth, scientific innovation, informed voters and leaders, a richer and more diverse culture, and lower crime rates—each of which benefits us all. Few Americans know the political case for education advanced by the founders. Modern politicians often make a great show of their supposed devotion to those who founded the nation, but then push for the privatization of education as just another consumer product best measured in dollars and paid for by individuals. This reverses the priorities of the founders.

Americans lost something valuable when we forsook “virtue” as a goal for education and a foundation for free government. In 1950, a Harvard committee published an influential report titled General Education in a Free Society. The authors wrote that “our society, like any society, rests on common beliefs and … a major task of education is to perpetuate them.” But the report struggled to define the “common beliefs” best taught by modern American universities. In the 19th century, most colleges had promoted a patriotism linked to Protestant Christianity. But in our own century, no one creed seems capable of encompassing the diverse backgrounds and values of American students. We also balk at empowering any public institution to teach a particular political orthodoxy. The sole common ground is a celebration of the university as a “marketplace of ideas,” where every individual can pick and choose her or his values. Secular universities preach just one core value: the open and free investigation of multiple ideas. Liberal education now favors a process of free choice rather than any other particular belief.

We need to revive the founders’ definition of education as a public good and an essential pillar of free government. We should also recover their concept of virtue, classically defined, as a core public value worth teaching. That, in turn, would enable more voters to detect demagogues seeking power through bluster and bombast and pandering to the self-interest of members of the electorate. At the end of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a woman in Philadelphia is said to have asked Benjamin Franklin what sort of government the delegates had created for the people. He supposedly replied, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”

Read the entire piece here.

The Training of History Teachers: A Twitterstorm

I wrote this tweet in the midst of a great discussion with history teachers (K-16) that spontaneously broke out last night on Twitter.  Much of the discussion revolved around how colleges and universities train history teachers and whether or not they are doing it effectively.  By my account we had over 50 teachers participate.

For those of you who are interested, we collected all (or most) of the tweets using Storify. You can read them all here.

Julie Guthrie, a New Jersey middle-school history teacher who I had the privilege of getting to know last week during our Gilder-Lehrman Princeton Seminar, has suggested that the conversation continue at #historyteacherchat  I will try to jump in at this hashtag whenever I get the chance.

Quote of the Day

The purpose of college…is to turn adolescents into adults.  You needn’t go to school for that, but if you’re going to be there anyway, then that’s the most important thing to get accomplished.  That is the true education: accept no substitutes.  The idea that we should take the first four years of young adulthood and devote them to career preparation alone, neglecting every other part of life, is nothing short of an obscenity.  If that’s what people had you do, then you were robbed.  

–William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite, p. 87.

History Teachers Who Did Not Study History in College

It has been said that most high school history teachers go by the first name “coach.” The idea behind this adage is that anyone can teach history.

School districts demand that their music teachers have a college degree in music and are certified to teach music.  The same goes for foreign language teachers, art teachers, science teachers, English teachers, and math teachers.  Yet, according to this study brought to my attention by Robert Townsend of the Humanities Indicators Project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, only 27% of public high school history teachers have a college major and a state certification in the subject.

Over the course of the last ten years I have been doing a lot of work with teachers. Townsend’s statistics confirm my anecdotal evidence.  Most history teachers I encounter did not major in history. Instead, they majoed in social studies or social sciences, subjects that require a small smattering of history courses–perhaps two, maybe three.

Things get worse when we consider the qualifications of middle school teachers.  Only 17% of middle school history teachers have a history major and a state certification.  Over half of the middle school history teachers in the United States do not have a history major or a certification in history.

So not only are public schools eliminating history from the curriculum, but when history IS taught, it is likely taught by someone without a history degree or certification in the subject.  (Not all states have a history certification).

This information tells us that we have a long way to go in trying to convince school districts and state boards of education that history is more than just the memorization of “one damn thing after another.” It takes training–training in the discipline of history–to excel at teaching a primary source, getting students to think historically, and having them think about things like complexity, contingency, causation, change over time, and context.

Let’s keep working on this…