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”


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


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


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…

What Can Low-Income, Minority, Urban 16-Year-Olds Learn From the Great Books?

Tamara Mann teaches in the “Freedom and Citizenship Program” at Columbia University. The program is directed by American Studies scholar Casey Blake and brings low-income high school students to the Columbia campus during the summer to read Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Jefferson, Lincoln, DuBois, Dewey, King, and other authors.  In a piece at Inside Higher Ed, Mann discusses how this program has transformed her and her students. Here is a taste:

As the distance closed between 4th-century Athens and 21st-century New York City, between ideas and our actual lives, and between my students and myself, our collective education took on its full purpose-driven force. My students came to this course because it was a means to an end – college. They left the seminar almost embarrassed by the shortsightedness of that goal. As one student put it, “Now I want to go to college not just to get there but to really learn something, so that I can give back; it’s not just about me and my success but about what I can do with it.”
We are in a period of exceptional innovation in the way education takes place. We must test and develop ever-new forms of virtual courses to convey skills while containing costs. But while doing so, we cannot forget the value of an education that is personal and beholden. This July, over 40 individuals, both teachers and students, learned about freedom, citizenship, and the purpose of knowledge by reading significant books and talking to one another around a battered old wooden table. The results were wondrous.

Sam Wineburg on Historical Thinking

I always need to remind myself of this quote by Wineburg.  I have it on my office door.

For the narcissist sees the world–both the past and the present–in his own image.  Mature historical understanding teaches us to do the opposite: to go beyond our own image, to go beyond our brief life, and to go beyond the fleeting moment in human history into which we have been born.  History educates (“leads outward” in the Latin) in the deepest sense.  Of the subjects in the secular curriculum, it is the best at teaching those virtues once reserved for theology–humility in the face of our limited ability to know, and awe in the face of the expanse of history.–Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.

"Education and Economics are Essentially Incompatible"

St. John’s College, Annapolis, MD

This is the belief of Christopher Nelson, president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. He explains further in a recent Washington Post article.   Of course St. John’s prides itself on offering a purely liberal arts curriculum focused on the Great Books.

Here is a taste:

Begin with the idea of economics as the science of scarcity. The price of a commodity is largely dependent on its relative scarcity. Economic value increases when a commodity becomes scarce, and a commodity that is not scarce will become scarce if it is distributed widely and used up indiscriminately. Scarcity is basic to the world view of economics—so much so that the language of economics speaks as though scarcity and value are inseparable.
The things that matter most in education, though, do not fit this paradigm. They are not scarce, and yet they are extremely valuable—indeed they are among the most valuable in human life. They do not become scarce by being shared. Instead, they expand and grow the more they are shared.
One of these things is knowledge. Knowledge has never been exhausted by spreading it to more and more people. Today, it is more abundant than at any time in the past, and it reproduces more prolifically as it is shared. Moreover, technology has made it possible to store knowledge efficiently and to access it cheaply. No wonder that the economic paradigm is having difficulty capturing and domesticating it into a well-behaved economic commodity.
This is disconcerting for institutions that think of themselves primarily as providers of information. If the knowledge is out there, freely accessible, why then should anyone pay large sums of money to a knowledge gatekeeper—let alone go into debt? Today, the confrontation between free technological access and proprietary gate-keeping is leading to turmoil about new models of delivery in higher education.
But the idea that a college or university is a purveyor of information is a misplaced economic metaphor. Education is not information transfer. The educated college graduate is not simply the same person who matriculated four years earlier with more information or new skills. The educated graduate is a different person—one who has developed the innate human capacity for learning, to the point of controlling it. The educated graduate is an independent learner, able to seek out answers to whatever questions arise, and able to direct his or her own learning in accordance with the challenges that life presents in the circumstances of his or her own life.
The maturation of the student—not information transfer—is the real purpose of colleges and universities. Of course, information transfer occurs during this process. One cannot become a master of one’s own learning without learning something. But information transfer is a corollary of the maturation process, not its primary purpose. This is why assessment procedures that depend too much on quantitative measures of information transfer miss the mark. It is entirely possible for an institution to focus successfully on scoring high in rankings for information transfer while simultaneously failing to promote the maturation process that leads to independent learning.

A 103-Year-Old Reflects on Education

During the final few years of my grandfather’s life my brother Chris (a plumber living in New Jersey) spent several days a week with him.  Their regular meetings included eating meals (Chris liked to bring over a pizza on Sunday nights), watching old movies, listening to old music, and talking about life.  Occasionally Chris would turn on his cell phone and record parts of the conversation.

My grandfather came to the United States from Italy in 1913 at the age of three.  He spent most of his adult life delivering beer for two Newark breweries:  Krueger and Pabst Blue Ribbon.  He spent most of his life driving a beer truck on three different one-day routes: Newark to Albany, Newark to Wilmington, Delaware, and Newark to Riverhead, Long Island.

I wrote about doing an oral history interview with my grandfather here.

In this video, my grandfather (who passed away earlier this year at the age of 103) discusses his lack of formal education.  I have done my best to transcribe it below.  (At times his voice is hard to make out because one of his favorite songs, “The Old Lamplighter” is playing in the background).


Chris:  “I am not as smart as you.”

Grandpa: “That’s not true,  You’re a hell of a lot smarter than I ever was.”

Chris: (Laughs)

Grandpa:  “I was probably smarter in terms of strength, but as far as mentality, I didn’t have any.  But I did a lot driving.  I picked up a lot of stuff on the road–different distributors driving from Albany down to Wilmington, Delaware, out to Long Island.  I picked up a lot of stuff.  It’s nothing like you going to school or college, nothing like that.  Plus the fact: what am I going to do with the added knowledge?  I have no use for it.  If it comes to me, I’ll accept it, but I’m not going out seeking it.”

Chris: “I got ya.”

Grandpa:  “I hope you understand what I am trying to say.  I know I sound really old.”

Chris: “I understand what you’re saying.”

Grandpa: “Yea”

Chris: “You let your life experience dictate what you learned and what you didn’t.”

Granpda: “That’s what I have, I have the experiences, I got out there, I make a living.”

Chris: Sure, yea.

Gettysburg College President Responds to Obama’s Rating System

Obama’s plan to rank colleges and universities has sent college administrators on the warpath.  One of the more concise and effective responses has come from Gettysburg College president Janet Morgan Riggs.  Here is her “appeal” to Obama:

I share and applaud President Obama’s interest in promoting value and affordability in higher education, as well as increasing opportunities for low- and middle-income students and families. I also applaud the concept of ratings — not rankings. As the administration develops its strategy for assessing college performance, I ask them to keep in mind the following points:

-The breadth of educational offerings we provide in our country demands an evaluation system that takes into account a variety of institutional missions and student demographics. Indeed, that variety is one of the great strengths of the American system of higher education.

-Post-graduate success is contingent upon more than income. Careers in public service, non-profit sector, and teaching are integral to our communities. Ratings that put too much emphasis on graduate earnings could dissuade institutions from encouraging their students to pursue careers that are of great value to our communities.

I have to presume that President Obama recognizes that for many students, there’s more to college than gaining the credentials for their first job–especially as many of today’s students will require an education that prepares them for engaged citizenship and a series of careers throughout their lifetimes. As President Obama and his administration refine the details of their plan, I urge them to consider the value of an education that provides that flexibility.

–Janet Morgan Riggs, Gettysburg College President

From the Harrisburg Patriot-News

Ph.Ds in the High School Classroom

Stanford University will pay for humanities graduate students who want to pursue careers as high school teachers.  Here is a taste of an article at Inside Higher Ed:

The plan consists of a new course offering that will expose graduate students to humanities issues in high school pedagogy and curriculum, and a promise by the School of Humanities and Sciences to fully fund each humanities Ph.D. admitted to the competitive Stanford Teacher Education Program in the Graduate School of Education.

Over at Northwest History, Larry Cebula thinks it is a bad idea:

The Stanford plan is terrible in all kinds of ways. High school social studies jobs are already scarce, and it is not clear if a PhD will make a job seeker more competitive or less. While a broad knowledge is absolutely necessary for a good high school teacher, the hyper-specialization and research focus of a doctoral program is not a path to that broad knowledge. The time commitment is enormous–perhaps 7 or 8 years to the PhD (though Stanford is trying to cut this to 5) and then another 2 for the education degree–for a job that you might have landed with an undergraduate degree. And as a Facebook friend of mine said when I shared the article, “Hope they can coach a sport.”

The real problem of course, is the overproduction of PhDs in humanities fields. Year after year, and despite the warnings, thousands of your people come to places like Stanford to earn a PhD with the unlikely goal of becoming college professors. “The primary goal of Stanford’s Department of History’s graduate program is the training of scholars. Most students who receive doctorates in the program will go on to teach at colleges or universities,” Stanford tells its prospective history graduate students, offering a link to “placements.” The link is broken.

Read Cebula’s entire post here.


Sharon Liao is a history major at Columbia University who is concerned that elite colleges and universities are discouraging graduates from pursuing careers as K-12 teachers.  Here is a taste of her article at The Washington Post:

Working at a campus calling center this year, I spoke on the phone with hundreds of Columbia alumni, many of whom work in finance, health care, law or media. My elite, expensive school tells me in subtle ways that the “best” students pursue those sorts of fields. No matter how noble it may be to educate tomorrow’s leaders, or how accomplished an individual teacher may be, that person will never earn the social prestige or compensation that professionals do in many other fields.

Alumni who had gone into teaching asked whether I really want to teach or had considered the likely disrespect, insufficient pay, long hours and lack of autonomy that go with the job.

In short, I’m being scared out of teaching by teachers. And it seems reasonable to ask: Who wants to pursue a career in which they won’t be appropriately respected or compensated? 

On one hand, it is shame that some of the best college students in the country are not considering careers in education. This does not surprise me.  Fewer and fewer undergraduates seem to be devoting themselves to selfless lives in service of the public good.  Why teach when you can make much more money doing something else?  I wonder how much this has to do with increasing narcissism among the millennial generation.

On the other hand, young people may be discouraged from teaching by an educational system that has replaced classroom creativity and intellectual inquiry with standardized tests and state requirements.

Introducing "Reckless Historians"

Whenever I teach The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin I spend some time talking about The Junto–Franklin’s club for mutual improvement.  Here is how Franklin describes the Junto:

I should have mentioned before, that, in the autumn of the preceding year, [1727] I had form’d most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which we called the Junto; we met on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased. Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory; and to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.

Several years ago I suggested that we need more Junto’s in our colleges and universities. Here is part of what I wrote in that post:

I usually teach the Autobiography once a year and I always make a point of emphasizing this passage. I ask my students to consider the possibility of leaving history class and joining a group of fellow students in an extended conversation about the ideas discussed that day. Most students have never really pondered such a concept. The thought of going back to their dorms and discussing the impact of industrialization on rural life in the nineteenth century is an absurd one. For them college is about getting a degree or developing some kind of practical skill that they could use to make a living. In such an economic climate as the one in which we live today, to suggest that students should spend time discussing ideas in a Junto-like fashion seems useless or at least a bad use of one’s time.

My Junto sermon ends by explaining to my students how a truly liberally educated person needs to be engaged with the world of ideas. I expound on how ideas have social consequences and can be useful in real life. Ideas can often motivate people to serve others and the common good, a thought that I hope has some appeal among my Christian students. I then, in good Puritan homiletical style, hit them with the “application” by exhorting them to start a Junto of their own. I reinforce the message of this sermon throughout the semester. Whenever we run across a big idea (which is basically every class period), I finish class by telling the students to “continue the discussions in their Juntos.” The remark usually gets a laugh as students pack up their books, but that is about it.

Is it too much to ask that students take the ideas they learn in class and make a conscious and deliberate effort to converse about them away from the classroom? I know today’s students are extremely busy, but Franklin and his Junto managed to put aside a small amount of time each week for this kind activity. Students can find plenty of time for Facebook, Myspace, weekend road trips, and video-games. Why not ideas?

I know of several groups of students who have formed Juntos after reading the Autobiography.  During my first several years at Messiah College, a group of students met weekly in the college snack shop.  Another group of students at Northwestern College formed a Junto that read, among other works, The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  And over the years a few more Juntos were created by Messiah history majors.

The latest Junto is made up of a group of sophomore history majors at Messiah College.  They call themselves “Reckless Historians” and have created a blog by the same name.  If you are an undergraduate historian, a history major, or simply someone with a passion for learning more about the past, I would encourage you to check them out.

Great Britain’s History Wars

When it comes to pundits and politicians decrying the lack of historical knowledge among young people, there is nothing new under the sun.  Writing at The Times Literary Supplement, David Cannadine, author of the recent The Undivided Past: Humanity Beyond Our Differences and The Right Kind of History: Teaching the Past in Twentieth-Century England, reminds us of this fact in the context of the debates over the history curriculum in British schools:

…there have been constant complaints about the teaching of history for as long as it has been taught: that young people know too little about the national past; that they are ignorant about dates, battles, politicians and kings and queens; that (alternatively) the rote learning of dates, battles, politicians and kings and queens is excruciatingly boring and is not the same as history; and that there was once a golden age when history was better taught, and when boys and girls did know about the national past, from which there has been a recent and catastrophic decline. Across the whole of the twentieth century, there was scarcely a decade when points such as these were not being made. And when these criticisms were levelled, as they have again been recently, it was usually in complete ignorance of the fact that they had already been made several times before. Ironically enough, the criticisms of history teaching in English schools, made by people who, presumably, think history is important, are almost invariably lacking in any historical perspective. 

Cannadine has offered a vision for history in British schools that is different from the one offered by Secretary of Education Michael Gove.  Read the entire article to learn more, from Cannadine’s perspective, about the differences.

Here is a taste of Cannadine’s proposal:

Yet if the National Curriculum is not the problem, then what is? Our answer was clear, namely that since the 1900s, insufficient time has been given to history in the classroom: hence the rushed and superficial treatment of unrelated subjects; the lack of a firm chronological sequence and narrative structure; the difficulty of giving adequate attention to the big picture; and the risk of repetition at Key Stage Three and at Key Stage Four for those taking the subject at GCSE. Reforming the National Curriculum, we concluded, would not address these problems, and the only way to do so would be to make history compulsory to the age of sixteen. That had been Kenneth Baker’s original intention when he devised the National Curriculum; it would integrate the National Curriculum with GCSE, and it would align our teaching practices with those of other Western countries. By gaining more time for history in the classroom, the problems of superficiality, chronology, incoherence and repetition could finally be confronted. That was our recommendation, which was welcomed by professional historians and schoolteachers, by Ofsted and the Historical Association, and by the Independent and the Daily Telegraph. Our proposal was also endorsed by an Expert Panel set up by the Department of Education and by the Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Archives and History, who urged that “history should be part of a curriculum as a core subject to sixteen”.