So What CAN You Do With a History Major?–Part 58

Fauci

You can lead the country through the coronavirus pandemic just like Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.  (OK–he was technically a classics major at the College of the Holy Cross–close enough!).

Here is a taste of a piece on Fauci at the Holy Cross Magazine:

Anthony Stephen Fauci was born in New York City on Christmas Eve 1940, the second of Stephen and Eugenia Fauci’s two children. His parents, both the children of immigrants, met as students at Brooklyn’s New Utrecht High School and married when they were just 18. He grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, where his father, a Columbia University educated pharmacist, owned a neighborhood drugstore, at 13th Ave. and 83rd St. The family lived in an apartment above the store, and all pitched in when needed—his father in the back, his mother and older sister, Denise, at the register.

“I was delivering prescriptions from the time I was old enough to ride a bike,” Fauci recalls.

Routinely cited in recent decades for the length of his work day and the peripatetic nature of his job, Fauci took on these habits early and came to them naturally. He was that kind of kid, too.

He grew up surrounded by disparate influences that he seems to have enjoyed and that seem to have benefited him: There was his pharmacist father, known as “Doc” in the neighborhood—whom he describes as “laid back”—and his mother, also college educated, whom he describes as “goal oriented.” There was an attraction to medicine and science fostered from an early age, and a commitment to the humanities nourished by premedical studies at Holy Cross that also encompassed the study of Latin, Greek and philosophy.

And there is early evidence, as well, that Fauci had a streak in him that was something between puckish and perverse—a stubborn adherence to his own values and interests in the face of local prejudice that had to have been fierce. Growing up in post-war Brooklyn, playing baseball in Dyker Heights Park, on Gravesend Bay, in the era of Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese, Fauci was a Yankees fan. Among his heroes were Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, which, he says, made him something of a sports outcast among his friends, Brooklyn Dodgers fans all.

If he had been a sports outcast, he was an athletic one. In a 1989 interview with the NIH Historical Office, he remembers, “We used to play basketball from the beginning of basketball season to the end, baseball through the spring and summer, and then basketball and football again in the winter.” When he was younger, he played CYO basketball in the neighborhood; in high school, he captained the basketball team. Today, he’s a daily runner who has completed the New York and Marine Corps marathons.

He attended Regis High School, a Jesuit school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. And the distance he had to travel to get there is difficult to explain, for reasons of time or geography and also for reasons of culture. Time and geography matter, of course, in multiple ways: the trip took 75 to 80 minutes each way, a bus and three subways during rush hour in both directions. By rough calculation, all the time he spent commuting during his four years at Regis, it cost him more than 70 days. And he didn’t just let the time go: then, as now, he was focused and organized. He was the kid on the subway—packed up against the other passengers, elbows against his body, wrists and forearms folded inward, a book almost on top his face, reading—in his case, probably Ignatius Loyola, at some point or other, and likely in Latin.

Time and geography also matter because Brooklyn was further away from Manhattan in the 1940s and 1950s than it is today, and Bensonhurst is deep Brooklyn, just a short three or four miles—a few stops on what was then the BMT Seabeach local line—from Coney Island and the beach. New York is New York, but it’s also five boroughs and a million neighborhoods. And working class, Italian and Jewish Bensonhurst, might as well have been 15 light years away from Manhattan’s Upper East Side, then, as now, one of the country’s most affluent zip codes.

In his commencement address this past May, U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins ’63—whose time at Holy Cross overlapped with Fauci’s, although they didn’t know each other—spoke with some nostalgia of the 10 o’clock dorm curfew of that era, and how students learned to “black out” their rooms with towels, newspapers and tin foil.

“It was behind these drawn shades,” Collins said, “that we indulged in the nefarious act of reading.”

Fauci came to Holy Cross in the fall of 1958. He played intramural sports when he had the time, but his days of more organized competition were over. He had entertained the vague idea that he might make the basketball team as a walk on, but the competition was fierce, and he didn’t quite have the height. Always a fully engaged student, moreover, he took to his premedical studies with gusto; “the nefarious act of reading” didn’t leave him a lot of spare time.

“There was a certain spirit of scholarship up there,” he remembers, “that was not matched in anything that I’d experienced. The idea of seriousness of purpose—I don’t mean nerdish seriousness of purpose—I mean the importance of personal development, scholarly development and the high standard of integrity and principles that became a part of everyday life at Holy Cross. And that, I think, was passed down from the Jesuits and from the lay faculty to the students.”

The premed program covered enough science to get the students into medical school, but also stressed the humanities—a continuation, in some ways, of what he had been taught in high school. Fauci often credits part of his professional success to the inculcation of Jesuit intellectual rigor that was a core part of his education: an emphasis on organization and logic, on succinctness and clarity of expression. Arguably, the twinning of science and the humanities has proved useful in his dual roles as physician and researcher as well.

 Read the entire piece here.

HT: John Schmalzbauer on Facebook.

Don’t Vilify Educated People

Have you seen memes like this?:

Meme Philosophy job

Jonathan Couser, a history professor at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, New Hampshire, has some good thoughts about this meme.  Here is what he recently wrote on his Facebook page (used with permission):

Bash the meme time, children. This was recently shared by a friend who, appropriately, took it down. But it’s the kind of thing that circulates a lot so I’m going to share it myself – with some analysis.

At first glance, the meme appears to be pointing out the value of trade jobs, which provide solid employment with little or no college debt. That’s true enough, and valid. These careers are good options that young people should consider.

But that’s not all it’s doing.

It’s misleading on a number of points. While “Adam’s” $100K in college debt is not unheard of, it’s nowhere near typical. Actual average college debt is around $30K. Meanwhile, “Chris'” income figure is inflated – it’s possible to make $80K a year as an electrician, but the average figure is around half that, maybe three-quarters, depending on where you live.

The meme says that “Adam” can’t find “a philosophy job,” which is no-brainer because, outside of academia, where you’d need a PhD rather than a BA, there’s no such thing as “a philosophy job.” That makes a cheap shot easy for the meme-creator, but disingenuously hides the realities.

Philosophy majors (and majors in other supposedly “worthless” degrees like History or English) actually do very well on the job market. The major is not designed as job training. Instead, they go into all kinds of careers where skills in writing, communicating, or analytical thinking are beneficial. They are also much better prepared than most to go on to graduate programs like an MBA or JD and become lawyers or business executives.

In fact, according to Five-Thirty-Eight in 2015, the average income of a philosophy major was – guess what? – $80K – the amount that was the inflated claim for “Chris'” income.

After being dishonest, the meme gets ugly.

Supposedly, “Adam” thinks that “Chris” is stupid. Meanwhile, “Chris” gleefully disconnects “Adam’s” electricity.

This is the rhetoric of grievance. It vilifies the educated people of the world, the philosophers, as a bunch of snobs who carry an unjustified contempt for working people. And it relishes the sense of vengeance, of getting even, that “we” (since we’re clearly supposed to be cheering for “Chris” by the time we read this far down the meme) are going to stick it to “them.” There’s no sense of empathy for “Adam” losing his electricity or blame that “Chris” does this to him. We’re supposed to think it’s just deserts.

To be sure, there are some educated snobs in the world. But I spend my life in academia, and I can honestly say that I can’t think of any of my colleagues, nor students, ever expressing contempt for working people. It’s a myth.

What’s really going on here is not a positive promotion of the value of a good trade career. What’s really going on is a toxic attack on higher education. The meme is designed to promote a sense of grievance, of resentment, and of contempt for education and the educated. By encouraging the “Chris'” of the world to despise the foolish “Adams”, the meme tells people they don’t need to listen to reasoning, they don’t need to respect expertise, and thus makes them pliable to misinformation, fake news and propaganda.

I agree with every word of Couser’s analysis.

“…the more I learned about the liberal arts, the more my passion to participate in the missionary effort of converting students from the humanities and social sciences to STEM declined”

humanities

Lior Shamir, a computer scientist at Kansas State University, is having second thoughts about his efforts to get students to pursue STEM fields.  Here is a taste of his recent piece at Inside Higher Ed:

For several years, I have been an active participant in the efforts to increase the participation in STEM. I’ve taken part in scholarly activities aimed at identifying the most effective ways to attract students to STEM, often at the expense of other disciplines, mainly the humanities and the social sciences. Obviously, I’ve not been doing it all by myself but as a part of a large, passionate crowd of STEM educators, researchers and administrators, getting together at academic meetings to exchange our best practices and proven interventions to attract more students to STEM. The theme of those academic meetings has been rather consistent: we must reach out to those lost souls who chose to study the humanities or social sciences and show them the light of STEM.

But as time has passed, and the deeper and more sophisticated the interventions have become, I’ve also begun to realize that I might be on the wrong side. During my attempts to understand the disciplines I was expected to encourage students to avoid, I was exposed to the many sides of the social sciences and the liberal arts that I was not aware of. I learned that scholarly questions can also be approached in ways that do not necessarily have to come down to a number and a P value, a formal proof and a protocol that can be replicated. I also learned that these paradigms can be effective in many cases where the hard sciences do not always have answers — questions related to social justice or inclusion of underrepresented minorities. The lab mind-set comfort zone that I believed to be the only way in which the universe could be understood was replaced with awareness that we can approach questions in other ways and through other methods that aren’t necessarily part of the STEM toolbox.

In fact, the more I learned about the liberal arts, the more my passion to participate in the missionary effort of converting students from the humanities and social sciences to STEM declined. As a scientist and engineer, I became concerned about the deterioration of the liberal arts and started to fear a world dominated solely by scientists and engineers. We must keep in mind that the strength of society depends not merely on its wealth and technological competitive edge but also on its ability to serve all its citizens equitably and help them become contributing members. The hard sciences alone cannot accomplish that mission.

Read the entire piece here.

Created and Called for Community: “Making Meaning” on the First Day of Class

College-classroom

I am pretty old school when it comes to the first day of class.  As some of you remember from my post last week, this semester I am teaching Messiah College’s first-year course Created and Called for Community (CCC).  Yesterday I met with all three of my sections  and introduced them to the course.  CCC has a common syllabus.  This means that every first-year student taking this course reads the same texts.  It is the only course of this nature at Messiah College.

The first day is always about logistics–required textbooks, assignments, grading scale, office hours, etc…  But sometimes the syllabus offers opportunities to talk about the importance of such a course.  I tried to do that today.

The syllabus begins this way:

The Created and Called for Community (CCC) course comprises the second half of Messiah College’s curriculum for first-year students, as well as transfer students. Together, First Year Seminar and CCC are designed to equip you with the intellectual skills needed to succeed during the rest of your education at Messiah College. In particular, both “W” courses focus on the ability to write accurately, clearly, and convincingly that will serve you well in your college career (whatever your major), as well as the vocation and profession you enter following your college career.

This is a writing course.  I will be spending a lot of time this semester reading drafts and commenting on papers.  Today, I tried to convince these students–who represent every major at Messiah College, from Engineering and Nursing to History and Sociology–that one does not always fully understand what they believe about a particular issue until they start to write.

The syllabus continues:

CCC also introduces you to the particular kind of community and institution that is Messiah College. Messiah’s history and identity are rooted in three strands of the Christian church known as Anabaptism, Pietism and Wesleyanism. We hope that this course helps you become familiar with basic elements of Messiah’s identity, mission, and foundation. The course will encourage you to cultivate a climate in which there can be better, deeper, and richer conversations about important issues precisely because they’re informed by some common understandings and curriculum. Some of the common readings assigned are classic texts which have been read by generations of college students. Others are more recent and speak to various contemporary issues and concerns.

In tell the students that it is important to understand the identity of the college where they have chosen to study.  They do not have to agree with the mission of Messiah College, but they must understand that when the college administration makes decisions about campus life they do so out of a particular understanding of Christian higher education.  If students are unhappy with the way the administration handles a controversial issue on campus, their criticism of the administration should be based on whether or not the leadership is consistently applying the religious principles that inform the identity of the college.

Finally, CCC is an introduction to liberal arts learning at Messiah College:

CCC, then, is an inter-disciplinary and common-learning course, a course in “meaning-making.” It’s hoped that over the course of this semester, you’ll receive helpful resources to address the experiences, questions, and challenges that you’ll face in the future in an informed and thoughtful fashion. And it’s also a discussion-oriented course. One way to become equipped for this task is to meet and engage with people and ideas worthy of shaping you and your thinking. This semester, you’ll have the opportunity to develop your thoughts alongside other people–the authors whose works we read, your instructor, and your classmates.

Again, you can see the reading list here.  Today I told the students that there are 27 voices that show up to class every day.  25 of those voices are the Messiah College undergraduates who are asked to come to class prepared to discuss the daily reading.  As the instructor, I am an additional voice (#26).  My goal is to facilitate conversation and to raise important questions about the texts.  And one of the voices (#27) in the room is the author of the text we are reading on that day.  Those voices include John Henry Newman, Ernest Boyer, James Weldon Johnson, J.R.R Tolkien, Alice Walker, Martin Luther King, Augustine, Plato, and Dorothy Sayers.  I urged the students to show hospitality to these voices.  I want the students to listen to these voices before critiquing them.  I want my students to approach these texts with humility, assuming that these authors are smarter than them and thus have something to teach them about the world.

The readings for this course fit into three units. They are: Creation, Community, and Calling (Vocation)

Here is how the syllabus describes each unit:

Creation: The first words of Scripture in some translations say that “in the beginning God created…” And so it seems fitting that you’ll begin exploring the theme of creation and creativity by studying the account of God’s creation in Genesis 1 and 2. You’ll examine both the natural and human creation, including the moral and ethical implications that flow from the understanding that every person is made in God’s image (or, in Latin, the imago Dei) and so possesses dignity and status. You’ll also consider how to be faithful stewards of creation and ways in which you can express the creative impulse God has implanted in you.

Community: All human beings throughout history, each of them made in God’s image, have lived within various types of groups or communities: families, groups of friends, churches, college campuses, neighborhoods, nations, and the worldwide or global community. The process of community-building brings with it both great rewards as well as challenges. Communities are inescapable, yet they place demands on us. In exploring this theme, you’ll examine the factors that strengthen and weaken community, and the challenges of community-building in a variety of settings. Along the way, you’ll consider both inspiring exemplars of community-building, as well as times and places where communities have fallen short and succumbed to the practices of segregation or racism or isolation or violence.

Calling or Vocation: Christian vocation requires us to consider not only what we do but also who we are. We’re called to personal transformation by practicing spiritual disciplines and called to social transformation by addressing injustice in the world. Exploring this theme in CCC, you’ll view some of the ways in which various people have served, look at where and how they’ve found their place in the world, look at vocation in various settings, continue the process of discerning your own vocation and place in the world, and look at some of the characteristics of Christian vocation—especially service, work, leadership, and reconciliation.

Stay tuned.  We are discussing Stanley Hauerwas’s “God With God” on Wednesday.

Follow along here.

Education Without Liberal Arts is a “Threat to Humanity”

UBC

Santa J. Ono is the president of the University of British Columbia.  The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) recently interviewed him about the role of the liberal arts in the 21st century.  Listen here.

Here is a taste of CBC’s introduction to the interview:

From engineering to medicine, we have more elaborate and specialized professions than ever.

But the academic programs that prepare people for them will have little impact on the health of society unless we develop a sense of the human condition. That’s ‘job one’ for the classic liberal arts education: philosophy, history, the great books, art, music and the sciences, too — at least according to Santa J. Ono.

The president and vice-chancellor of the University of British Columbia argues that these disciplines are often underfunded and under-promoted, a refrain he’s made repeatedly over the years because he feels he has to. The reason: he’s seen a steady decline in the study of, and support for, the liberal arts over the past 10-15 years. 

Prof. Ono is himself a medical biologist, and has made breakthroughs in his own specialized field. While he appreciates the value of STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), his own thoughts never stray far from the liberal arts courses he took as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, which have still left their mark on him. 

“I believe I’m a better scientist. I believe I am a better administrator. I believe I’m a better teacher. I believe I’m a better father and husband,” Ono said in his 2019 Carr Lecture, Liberal Arts in the 21st Century: More Important then Ever.

“And I believe that I am a better scholar because of my liberal arts education, because it was intentionally diverse and heterogeneous, because it made me move outside of my comfort zone into areas of thought and discussion that were uncomfortable to me…  it broadened my mind, it exercised my mind.”

Ono says a liberal arts education is critical if we are to arrive at a moral foundation that will lead to sustainable peace and progress. 

Read the rest here.

National Endowment for the Humanities Announces Grant Awards

924d6-logo-national-endowment-humanities-500x335

Read the press release here.  A few awards that caught my eye:

  • Azusa Pacific University: A residential bridge program for first generation students that incorporates an introductory humanities course and complementary labs and field trips focused on the ideas, arguments, and points of view contained in the Declaration of Independence.
  • Amanda Baugh (University of California–Northridge): Research and writing leading to a book about the environmental values of Latinx Catholics in Los Angeles and the history of American environmentalism.
  • Santa Clara University: Development of an augmented reality and virtual reality experience to explore the history of the Santa Clara de Asís mission.
  • Flordia Atlantic University: Development of a multiformat project on the history of Mitchelville, South Carolina, the first Freedman’s town in the United States during the Civil War.
  • Anne Arundel Community College: A three-year partnership to incorporate the study of primary sources into community college courses and establish transfer pathways for students.
  • Anne Rubin (University of Maryland): Research leading to a book about the impact of food shortages on food culture in the Civil War South.
  • Timothy Shenk (Johns Hopkins): Research and writing leading to a book on the history of the concept of the modern economy in the United States.
  • National History Day: A three-year cooperative agreement that would extend and expand NEH’s partnership with National History Day, in response to NEH’s “A More Perfect Union” initiative.
  • Eric Gardner (Saginaw Valley University): Research and writing of a book on Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825–1911), African American author, orator, abolitionist, suffragist, and civil rights leader.
  • Katherine Gerbner (University of Minnesota): Research and writing leading to a book on the development of  ideas about religion and religious freedom in colonial America as they were shaped by slavery and the criminalization of black religious practices.
  • Peter Mercer-Taylor (University of Minnesota): Preparation of an open-access digital anthology of almost 300 hymn melodies published in the United States before 1861 derived from European classical music.
  • Historic Hudson Valley: Prototyping of an interactive digital history on the New York Conspiracy trials (1741), in which both enslaved people and poor white New Yorkers stood accused of plotting to burn the city and murder its white inhabitants.
  • Jonathan Schroeder (University of Warwick): Research and writing leading to a biography of John S. Jacobs (1815–1875) and a critical edition of Jacobs’s 1855 autobiographical slave narrative.
  • Sharon Murphy (Providence College): Completion of a book on the relationship between banking and slavery in the antebellum South.
  • ETV Endowment of South Carolina Inc.: Production of an immersive website and mobile application exploring the impact and legacy of Reconstruction.

Click here for a list of all the winners.

“There is no functioning, stable, globalized world of the future without the humanities”

GLobal commerce

Karen E. Spierling is an associate professor of history and director of global commerce at Denison University in Granville, Ohio.  She believes that the humanities must “go on the offensive.”  Here is a taste of her piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education:

It is time for humanists to go on the offensive. Not by shoring up our silos or rejecting collaboration with nonhumanists. Not by insisting that the nature of the humanities is somehow unchanging across time and place and, thus, of ineffable and universal value. And not by giving in to the pressure to reduce the goals of our teaching to producing students who can manage both spoken and written communication effectively. (This is certainly an inherent product of humanities teaching, but not an isolated goal.)

Instead, we must make clear what we ourselves already understand: There is no functioning, stable, globalized world of the future without the humanities.

A world based on the constant global exchange of information, goods, services, and money depends upon an increasing need to rapidly access another person’s or organization’s point of view, cultural assumptions, and social norms. In a world where exchanges of all kinds rely on technology and big data, some of the greatest potential pitfalls come not in the numbers but in the interpretation of those numbers, the communication strategies needed to carry out initiatives based on those numbers, and the relationship-building areas of all types of work.

Functioning effectively in a globalized society — in business, politics, medicine, education, daily interactions with immigrants in one’s own community, or daily interactions with locals in the community into which one has immigrated — requires the skill of rigorous, critical, empathetic thinking.

Not just run-of-the-mill empathy. Not a wishy-washy definition of empathy that reduces it to natural feelings or emotions. Not just instinctive “people skills.” Not some kind of imagined empathy that depends on a person’s inherent ability to listen well and think from another person’s point of view. Not touchy-feely but uninformed sympathy for “those less fortunate” in other parts of the world. Instead, navigating this globalized world requires sophisticated, well-honed skills of empathy.

Rigorous, critical, empathetic thinking. How else are we to understand the experiences and points of view of co-workers, trading partners, or colleagues who live long distances from us? There are limits to global travel, and those limits are becoming more glaring as our climate-change crisis picks up speed. There are limits to technology — even with all of its benefits — and to how we communicate through video chats and instantaneous texting. There are limits to how much time and energy we can invest in moving to another place and immersing ourselves physically in the cultural practices of another society.

Read the entire piece here.

Are “once robust” humanities fields being “broken up and stripped for parts?

Why Study HistoryCarnegie Mellon literary critic Jeffrey J. Williams writes about hybrid fields such as digital humanities, environmental humanities, food humanities, medical humanities, legal humanities, business humanities, and public humanities.  He calls these fields “The New Humanities.”

Here is a taste of his piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education:

From the outside, the rise of these various new fields might seem like a sign of evolutionary progress for traditional disciplines. Still, in many cases, the humanities don’t have equal standing with the applied disciplines; they’re more like a garnish, an add-on, valued only insofar as they link with and augment those other disciplines. Thus, these yokings tend to quell the independent, critical role of the humanities as an interrogative force for human values, principles, and history. A coal-company-funded engineering project, for instance, might be glad to hear about the heroic image of the miner in art and literature, but it is unlikely to welcome questions about labor and capitalism. In their effort to accommodate other disciplines, the humanities themselves may be co-opted and lose the very critical independence that defines them. 

Read the entire piece here.

The digital humanities and the public humanities are useful fields, but they are not disciplines in and of themselves.  As I have said before, interdisciplinarity starts with a grounding in the disciplines and their specific and unique ways of thinking about the world.  It will be a tragedy for liberal education if the disciplines are replaced by these hybrid fields and majors.  Some might say that the “New Humanities” is the wave of the future and we all need to get on board.  If this is so, I will probably go down with the ship.

Every Humanities Faculty Member at a Christian College Should Read This Piece

Crown

Call it “Quit Lit” or something else, but this is a powerful and moving piece by former Crown University English professor Michial Farmer.  A friend who sent the essay to me called it “uncomfortably honest.”  I would agree.  Farmer bares his soul and, as my friend says, we are like the priest behind the curtain.  But I think we in the humanities, especially those of us at Christian colleges, can relate to some his story.

Here is a taste of “Two Forms of Despair“:

There is real freedom in resignation: For the last several years of my teaching career, I suffered a variety of annoying and humiliating medical symptoms: phantom gallbladder pain, heart palpitations, strange twitches of the nerves in my big toe, several months of constipation. When I took them to my physician, he inevitably told me that I was doing it to myself, that these were physical manifestations of my anxiety that my classes wouldn’t have enough students to run, that my college would close, that no other college would ever hire me. But symptoms of anxiety form a kind of feedback loop, and I’d lie in bed panicking that I had gallstones, a heart attack, multiple sclerosis, colon cancer—anything to avoid facing the truth that I was trying to live in a world that didn’t exist, a world in which it was possible for a person like me to be a great success teaching English, of all things, at an evangelical college, of all places. Every year, I stared out over the abyss, and hope sprung eternal as I sent out dozens of applications to state schools, overseas universities, and more prestigious Christian colleges; every year, the abyss stared back at me in the guise of form letters or, more often, a cold and mechanical silence.

I remember the last straw. I’d applied for a job at a noteworthy religious college in the Pacific Northwest, a job I was quite qualified for in a department where I knew someone. She wasn’t on the search committee, so she helped me with my application, which I spent weeks perfecting. The school rejected me during the first round; they didn’t even interview me over the phone. They sent the rejection email on a Friday night at midnight. Something broke off inside of me, and I needed two sleeping pills to fight through the jungle of catatonic anxiety and fall asleep. A few months later, my provost called me into his office and told me that I was “banging my head against the wall” by trying to turn my college into the sort of place I’d want to teach. There was no way out, and no way to improve the inside. My final physical symptom appeared: a lump in my throat so large and solid that I couldn’t wear a tie anymore. Magically, it went away after I resigned myself to the fact that a career in education was not in my future.

I don’t think cynical people go into humanities education—or if they do, their cynicism is a screen to protect them from the low financial and social rewards their thirteen years of higher education require. They—we—do it because we believe in the power of art and thought to transform lives and the world. And yet it’s a cliché at this point to talk about the failure of universities to support the noble goals of humanists, religious and secular alike.

When I went into graduate school, I believed that the Christian college could be a useful, vital counterweight to the forces of professionalization and politics that have rent the humanities at secular universities. I imagined the Christian college as a sort of monastery wherein all areas of study, but especially the humanities, find meaning and context in the shared beliefs and practices of the community. I hope I won’t sound petulant if I point out that most Christian colleges, perhaps all of them, have failed to live up to that vision—which may have only been another of my fantasies in the first place. I don’t blame them; the armies threatening the Christian liberal arts are led by Republicans and Democrats, atheists and evangelicals. Administrators have to be practical if they want to save the jobs of their faculty members and the real good their institutions are doing in the world. When my provost told me I was beating my head against the wall, I think he meant that I was trying to live in a world that can no longer exist, if it ever could have. He wanted me to resign—not resign from my job, I think, but resign myself to the idea that I could not get what I wanted from my job. He was seeking my good.

Read the entire piece at The Front Porch Republic.

The History Major is Back at Gordon College

Gordon College

I received this today from Gordon’s office of Marketing and External Relations:

The Political Science, Philosophy and History departments will be merged into one administrative department, and all department faculty worked over the summer to revise their curriculum to better meet the needs of incoming students across these three disciplines. Gordon will continue to offer majors in these disciplines as part of a comprehensive liberal arts education. The philosophy major will now include four concentrations (of which students must choose one): political theory; justice, peace and conflict; law; and language and linguistics.

It appears that the stand-alone History Department at Gordon is gone, but the major will remain.  Some of you may remember that Gordon announced last Spring that it would be dropping the major.  We wrote about that here and here and here and here and here.

Kate Shellnut mentioned this in a piece at Christianity Today earlier this month, but I missed it.

Economists Make the Case for More History Majors:

ShillerOver at The Washington Post, Heather Long calls our attention to Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Shiller’s new book Narrative Economics: How Stories Go Viral & Drive Major Economic Events.  Here is a taste of her piece:

As humanities majors slump to the lowest level in decades, calls are coming from surprising places for a revival. Some prominent economists are making the case for why it still makes a lot of sense to major (or at least take classes) in humanities alongside more technical fields.

Nobel Prize winner Robert Shiller’s new book “Narrative Economics” opens with him reminiscing about an enlightening history class he took as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. He wrote that what he learned about the Great Depression was far more useful in understanding the period of economic and financial turmoil than anything he learned in his economic courses.

The whole premise of Shiller’s book is that stories matter. What people tell each other can have profound implications on markets — and the overall economy. Examples include the “get rich quick” stories about bitcoin or the “anyone can be a homeowner” stories that helped drive the housing bubble.

“Traditional economic approaches fail to examine the role of public beliefs in major economic events — that is, narrative,’ Shiller wrote. “Economists can best advance their science by developing and incorporating into it the art of narrative economics.”

Shiller, who is famous for predicting the dot-com crash and coming up with the Case-Shiller Home Price Index, is spending a lot of time looking at old newspaper clippings to understand what stories and terms went viral and how they influenced people to buy things — or stop buying things.

When asked if he’s essentially arguing for more English and history majors, Shiller said, “I think so,” adding: “Compartmentalization of intellectual life is bad.”

Read the entire piece here.  Of course I have been making this case here and elsewhere for a long time.  We need more story-tellers!

Gordon College Gets a $75.5 Million Donation

Gordon College

Will the Christian “liberal arts college” use the money to bring back the history major?

It does not look like it.

Here is a taste of Kate Shellnut’s reporting at Christianity Today:

The historic investment in Gordon comes as the school undergoes what Lindsay called its most significant academic restructuring in 50 years. Last spring, the college announced plans to consolidate certain majors and departments to better match student demand. For example, political science, philosophy, and history were combined into a single department, though each will remain a distinct major.

In addition, the school said it would expand graduate programs, partnerships, and online education. A $10 million donation made in May helped fund Gordan Global, a platform for online education through its new School of Graduate, Professional, and Extended Studies.

As a result of the changes and budget cuts, 17 faculty members and six staff members were laid off, and more than a dozen other unfilled positions were eliminated.

While some alumni as well as outsiders questioned the move, worried the school was losing its liberal arts distinctives, Lindsay and fellow Gordon administrators saw the adjustments as a proactive way to avoid financial strain in the future, to set the school up for sustainability.

Read the rest here.

I recently mentioned Gordon College in a talk I gave to the Lee University Symposium on Faith and the Liberal Arts.  Here is what I said:

…The liberal arts, and the intellectual skills that the liberal arts provide, are at the heart of this kind of truth-seeking enterprise. We need the liberal arts more than ever in the age of Trump. Christian colleges are doing a nice job of training professionals and skilled workers to help sustain our capitalist economy, but I worry that we are not investing as much as we should in the kinds of people essential to sustain a democracy. Liberal arts and humanities programs around the country are under attack at time when we need them more than ever. Administrators and Boards of Trustees are eliminating these programs and majors at a rapid clip, all in the name of “prioritization.” All of us at Messiah College got a wake-up call when we learned this year that our sister school in Wenham, Massachusetts, Gordon College, a flagship evangelical college with a rich history of liberal arts education, dropped majors in history, philosophy, chemistry, French, and physics.  I have heard stories of other schools who have made cuts or eliminated humanities and liberal arts programs with very little conversation about the purpose of college or the way in which the sustained study of the humanities (not just general education, I might add) raise questions that go to the heart of the mission of a Christian college or university.  What are we prioritizing in prioritization?

Episode 54: Why College?

PodcastIncreasingly, college campuses have transformed from places of rigorous scholarly pursuits into glorified centers for job training. But is this what college is really for? Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling sit down and discuss the need for aspirational hope in an increasingly pessimistic world. They are joined by Dr. Johann Neem (@JohannNeem), author of the recent book, What’s the Point of College?

What Colleges and Universities Can Learn from the Silicon Valley (Ironically, its not what you might think)

Neem 1Today we recorded Episode 54 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Our guest was Western Washington historian Johann Neem, author of What’s the Point of College: Seeking Purpose in an Age of Reform.  I don’t want to give too much away because I want you to listen to our conversation,  but let me offer a teaser.  At one point during the interview I asked Neem about his passage from his book:

…forward-looking companies try to emulate traditional colleges by building large, idyllic campuses where people can interact and be creative. “There is something magical about sharing meals,” said former Google CFO Patrick Pichette on why Google discourages telecommuting. “There is something magical about spending the time together, about noodling on ideas, about asking at the computer, ‘What do you think of this?'”  That sounds a lot like the traditional college experience, but, in new model universities, fundamental aspects of traditional ones–such as personalized teaching, green lawns, academic freedom, shared governance, meaningful exposure to the liberal arts and sciences, and time and autonomy for reflection–are deemed irrelevant.

Oh the irony!

As Silicon Valley tries to promote face-to-face interaction in real places that resemble the traditional college campus, universities seem to be moving away from such a model through its increasing commitment to displaced online education and a delivery system that makes human connection more difficult.

See how Neem developed his thoughts in Episode 54.  It will drop in a week or so.  Stay tuned.

The National Endowment for the Humanities Announces Grant Recipients

NEH Logo MASTER_082010

Here are a few that caught my eye:

Stanford University 
Project Director: Clayborne Carson
Project Title: The Papers of Civil Rights Leader Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968)

Elizabeth Fenn
University of Colorado, Boulder
Project Title: Sacagawea’s World: Window on the American West

American Historical Association
Project Director: Dana Schaffer
Project Title: History, the Past and Public Culture: An Exploratory Survey

Association of American Medical Colleges 
[Cooperative Agreements and Special Projects (Education)]
Project Director: Alison Whelan
Project Title: The Fundamental Role of the Humanities and Arts in Medical Education

Theresa Runstedtler
American University
Project Title: Black Ball: Rethinking the “Dark Ages” of Professional Basketball (1970s)

Jane Calvert
University of Kentucky
Project Title: A Biography of John Dickinson (1732–1808)

Endicott College
Project Director: Mark Herlihy
Project Title: The Salem Witch Trials: Their World and Legacy (Summer seminar for teachers)

Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, Inc. 
Project Director: Michelle LeBlanc
Project Title: Mapping a New World: Places of Conflict and Colonization in Seventeenth -Century New England (Summer workshops for teachers)

Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association
Project Director: Lynne Manring
Project Title: Living on the Edge of Empire: Alliance, Conflict, and Captivity in Colonial
New England (Summer workshops for teachers)

Plimoth Plantation, Inc. 
Project Director: Darius Coombs
Project Title: Beyond the Mayflower: New Voices from Early America, 1500–1676 (Summer workshops for teachers)

American Antiquarian Society 
Project Director: James Moran
Project Title: The News Media and the Making of America, 1730–1865 (Summer seminar for teachers)

New-York Historical Society 
Project Director: Marci Reaven
Project Title: Religion and the American West

University of South Carolina, Columbia
Project Director: Joseph Morris
Project Title: America’s Reconstruction: The Untold Story (Summer seminar for teachers)

Vermont Archaeological Society, Inc. 
Project Director: Angela Labrador
Project Title: Freedom and Unity: The Struggle for Independence on the Vermont
Frontier (Summer seminar for teachers)

University of Virginia
Project Director: Jennifer Steenshorne
Project Title: The Papers of U.S. President George Washington (1732–1799)

University of Virginia
Project Director: John Stagg
Project Title: The Papers of U.S. President James Madison (1751–1836)

Montpelier Foundation 
Project Director: Terry Brock; Mary Minkoff (co-project director); Matthew Reeves (coproject director)
Project Title: Understanding the Overseer: Using Archaeology to Examine Status and
Identity at James Madison’s Montpelier

Click here for an entire list of August 2019 winners.  Congratulations!

Scientists Need the Humanities to Address Climate Change

Climate Change Manifest Destiny

What is the relationship between Manifest Destiny and climate change?

“I want to do something about climate change, but I don’t like science and I am not good at it.”

“I love history, literature, or philosophy, but I don’t see these disciplines advancing real change in the world.”

If you can relate to these statements, I would encourage you to read Steven Allison and Tyrus Miller’s piece at The Conversation: “Why science needs the humanities to solve climate change.” Both men teach at the University of California-Irvine. Allison teaches ecology, evolutionary biology, and earth systems science.  Mller is the dean of the School of Humanities.

Here is a taste of their piece:

Scholars in the humanities interpret human history, literature and imagery to figure out how people make sense of their world. Humanists challenge others to consider what makes a good life, and pose uncomfortable questions – for example, “Good for whom?” and “At whose expense?”

Going beyond science, humanists can define cultural forces driving climate change, such as the fossil fuel dependence of industrialized societies.

In her book, “Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century,” literature scholar Stephanie LeMenager asserts that 20th-century culture – novels, poetry, films, photography and television – generated a mythology of “petro-utopia.” Images of gushing oil derricks implied that the American good life meant unfettered consumption of fossil fuels.

Popular culture, land use and economics reflected this ideal, particularly in California. Even as the Golden State strives to lead the nation in combating climate change, the legacy of petro-culture endures in suburban sprawl and jammed freeways.

Humanist scholars like LeMenager help to uncover the root causes of complex problems. Yes, rising carbon dioxide levels trap more heat in the atmosphere – but values matter too. Defining features of American identity, such as independence, freedom, mobility and self-reliance, have become entangled with petroleum consumption.

Read the entire piece here.

Support the Humanities at Messiah College

History_Hero_11_061615_Messiah

The humanities are alive and well at Messiah College, but we need your help to continue  our programs moving forward.  Please consider contributing to our ongoing work, especially as it relates to student research in the humanities and efforts to engage our region with humanistic learning and programs.

In the fall I will be entering my eighteenth year on the history faculty of Messiah College and I am grateful for the college’s commitment to the study of history, philosophy, literature, modern and ancient languages, religion, political philosophy, peace and conflict, and rhetoric during a time when these disciplines and ways of thinking about the world are in jeopardy at colleges and universities across the country.  I am also proud of our work in the region through our Center for Public Humanities, Digital Harrisburg Initiative, and Public Humanities Fellows Program.

As I have argued multiple times here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home and elsewhere, the humanities are absolutely essential to future of American democracy and the common good.  I am thankful to work and teach at a place where my colleagues and administration are on board with this mission.

I hope you will consider helping us strengthen the humanities at Messiah College by making a donation at our crowdfunding page.

Below is a letter that Peter Powers, Dean of the School of Humanities, recently sent to Messiah humanities alums.  It is a nice summary of some of our humanities-based programs.

One of my great pleasures as Dean is seeing humanities students in this school help us understand the world, and also change the world for the better.  One big way they accomplish that is through undergraduate research that contributes to the public good through community engagement.  I’d like to invite you to partner with us in continuing our work for the common good through the work of our undergraduate scholars.

Two programs of which I’m especially proud are our Public Humanities Fellows and our Digital Harrisburg Initiative.  Students in these programs work collaboratively with faculty and with community partners to deepen their understanding of their disciplines and to directly contribute to educational and cultural needs of the Harrisburg region.  Whether helping school students to research and write poetry about their neighborhoods, or collaborating with community members to map the stories of their Harrisburg ancestors, these programs help us deepen our civic engagement as our understanding of one another.

Together these programs exemplify undergraduate humanities research for the public good, a fact recognized by the Council of Independent Colleges when they recently awarded Messiah College a grant to collaborate with multiple public and private partners in remembering and celebrating the history of an important African American neighborhood in Harrisburg from the early 20th century. Such partnerships exemplify the best of what it means for us as Messiah College to be a Christian institution of higher education that is working for the common good with our community neighbors.

This work requires steady commitment of time, energy, and talent.  I invite you to partner with us in this commitment.  You could do this in several ways.  First, pray for us, as you have the opportunity.  Second, consider supporting this work by donating to this project.  Every donation will help us meet our goal of raising ten thousand dollars. Every dollar will go directly to supporting undergraduate research in the humanities, with a priority given to the Public Humanities and the Digital Harrisburg initiative.  Finally, help us out by sharing this project with other people in your social and personal networks, letting them know we would value their support.  To learn more or donate – check-out our crowdfunding page! Visit: https://crowdshark.webapps.messiah.edu/humanitiesresearch/donate/115

With gratitude for your support,

 Pete Powers

Dean, School of the Humanities

University of Tulsa is the Latest University to Drop Liberal Arts Programs

Tulsa

The University of Tulsa will reorganize the Harry Kendall College of Arts and Sciences by reducing 15 departments and 68 degree programs to three divisions and 36 degree programs.  Undergraduate degree programs in philosophy, religion, and Russian and Chinese studies were cut.

Undergraduate minors in Ancient Greek, Classics, Latin, Linguistics, Russian, Digital Studies, Classical Studies, and Medieval and Early Modern Studies were cut.

Graduate programs in history, women’s & gender Studies, and anthropology also bit the dust.

Read more here.

Here is a taste of Inside Higher Ed’s coverage:

“The overarching objective … was to focus and pivot around student success as the core of what the university is about,” [provost Janet] Levit. “Objective one of our strategic plan is for us to focus on retention and graduation rates, which frankly look similar to rates at a school like University of Oklahoma or Oklahoma State University rather than a small private university that attempts to distinguish itself from public schools.”

According to College Scorecard, Tulsa has a graduation rate of 71 percent and an 89 percent first-year retention rate. Levit said the alterations made will allow the university to refocus some resources toward retention programs through a student success center opening this summer, including an academic entry point for all incoming freshmen called “university studies,” in the hopes it will decrease retention risks….

Levit had previously said during a presentation to faculty and staff members that Tulsa had tried for too long to be “everything to everyone” and had spread itself too thin, making part of the strategy to determine what kind of institution Tulsa will be.

However, the decisions have been met with resistance from some members of the faculty who aren’t fans of the new direction.

“Tulsa is essentially becoming a sort of pre-professional school,” Tulsa philosophy professor Jacob Howland said. “The writing’s on the wall — they’re just destroying the liberal arts, natural sciences and humanities at TU.”

Howland has been outspoken in his displeasure with the university’s decisions, and he said students will suffer from a lack of liberal arts on campus.

“You’re not giving students an education that allows them to adapt to changing economic circumstances. You train people for these jobs, and if there’s technological development in five years and suddenly the jobs are gone, what have you done to these kids?”

Read the entire piece here.

I hope everyone sees what is happening here.  The Provost defines “student success” in purely economic terms.  These cuts will, to use her words, “determine what kind of institution Tulsa will be.”  Exactly.

More Thoughts on Gordon College’s Decision to Drop the History Major

Gordon College

I remain saddened at Gordon College’s decision to bring an end to its history major. We had some good discussion last night on my Facebook page.  Here are some of my random reflections:

What strikes me is that Gordon College is not simply consolidating three departments for the purpose of saving administration costs. This is the consolidation of THREE MAJORS–three different disciplines that offer different ways of understanding the world.

I spent over an hour yesterday with a very bright “undecided” student. I was trying to sell her on the importance of humanities, the liberal arts, and, yes, the study of history. The skills and ways of thinking that one learns from the study of history are not something that can happen in a few courses as part of an “integrated major” like Politics-Philosophy-History.  In over two decades of teaching at Christian liberal arts institutions I can attest to the fact that a historical way of seeing the world–one informed by contextual thinking, the understanding of contingency, the complexity of the human experience, a grasp of causality and change over time–is something that is cultivated through a deep dive into the discipline. You can’t come to an interdisciplinary or “integrated” conversation without grounding in a discipline.

I can’t stress the formation piece here enough–especially at a Christian college in the liberal arts tradition. (I don’t care if it is evangelical, Catholic, mainline Protestant, etc.) Research universities and big regional public institutions are sometimes different animals since faculty do not often have the sustained engagement with undergraduates.

How are we forming our Christian students intellectually if we don’t give them the opportunity to dive into a particular discipline–a particular way of seeing the world with its own set of thinking skills? When a Christian college stops supporting the humanities (and now I am talking more broadly) it sends a message that it no longer believes that opportunities for this kind of formation are worth defending.

This, of course, raises the question: What kind of formative experiences DO Christian college believe are worth defending? At this point, a Christian college administrator might enter the fray and say that his or her school has a robust general education curriculum. Fair enough. I will be the first to defend strong Gen Ed Cores and I did so early in my career as a member of my colleges’s Gen Ed committee. But a cafeteria-style Gen Ed, while essential, does not allow for a deep formative dive into a particular way of thinking.

I also realize that some Christian college administrators might be skeptical about at my idealism. “We need to keep the doors open and no 18-22 year-olds want to study history any more.” I understand the dilemma, but if this is indeed the case, let’s just redefine our Christian colleges as professional schools where you will also get a Gen Ed Core and let humanities faculty decide whether or not they can work in such an environment with integrity.  It pains me that students no longer want to come to college to study the humanities. It pains me even more that some of our finest Christian liberal arts colleges will no longer give those who DO want to study these topics an opportunity to do so in a sustained way. So yes, I am really shaken-up by the news from Gordon.

In the meantime, as I prepare to weather the coming storms, I will and continue to cling to the arguments I made here:

Why Study History