The Trump Impeachment Has Revealed Three “Deep Flaws” in the Constitutional System


Michael Gerhardt, a constitutional law professor at the University of North Carolina, writes at The Atlantic:

…few think that the acquittal of President Trump is a triumph for the Constitution. Instead, it reveals a different, disturbing lesson, about how the American political system—and the Constitution itself—might be fundamentally flawed.

Since the writing of the Constitution, three developments have substantially altered the effectiveness of impeachment as a check on presidential misconduct.

They are:

  1. Extreme partisanship
  2. The internet and social media
  3. The direct election of Senators

See how he develops these points here.

Sam Wineburg on Teaching "Gray Areas" in an Internet Culture

Over at History News Network, Sam Wineburg offers one way to teach who turn to the Internet for answers how to think more deeply about the complexity of the past.  Here is a taste:

How, then, do we close the gap between old world teaching and the twenty-first-century world that students are linked to by their smartphones? Don’t hold your breath for a change in the textbook industry. Curriculum materials will all become digital — the same drivel packaged with multi-colored illustrations and interactive maps. What then? We can wait for Godot or … we can get to work.
My colleagues at the Stanford History Education Group have chosen the latter path. Over the past three years, we’ve uploaded to the Internet scores of lesson plans for teaching American and World history, each organized around questions that stick their finger in the eye of a single right answer. We’ve come up with assessments that privilege thinking over memorizing. Our curriculum celebrates the ambiguity of the social world and teaches students to cope with it. Each lesson comes with original documents so that students can hear the cacophony of voices belonging to people who made history. These sources often feature diametrically opposed perspectives, shedding light on history from multiple angles. They are supplemented by classroom-ready materials that scaffold students’ small-group discussions. Here are just a few examples:
  • Was Abraham Lincoln a racist?
  • Was the Dust Bowl crisis Mother Nature’s fault or the consequence of human greed?
  • Was the Cuban Missile Crisis defused because, as Dean Rusk boasted, “the other fellow just blinked” or because of a backroom deal between Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and his diplomatic partner, Soviet ambassador Anatoly F. Dobrynin?

Such questions force students to contend with shades of gray, to weigh competing evidence, and to consider an author’s trustworthiness. They make students exercise the duties of citizenship.
We are guided by the belief that knowledge should not be a commodity bartered for profit, but available for no cost to anyone who seeks to learn and grow. All of our materials are free. Our work is supported by private contributions and foundations. To date, our materials have been downloaded over a million times.
Have we changed the world — or even our little corner of it? Hardly. But we take solace in the hope that, after encountering our materials, students will no longer defend their conclusions about history with the sham justification, “I found it on the Internet.”

AHA Roundtable: Historians’ Perspectives on Web Ethics

I am participating in a roundtable on historians and web ethics at AHA Today.  Check out the roundtable posts by bloggers Ben Alpers (U.S. Intellectual History), Ann Little (Historiann), and Clare Potter (Tenured Radical). 

Here is my contribution:

At The Way of Improvement Leads Home I am constantly dealing with issues related to civility. Perhaps I have an overly pessimistic view of human nature, but I assume that people writing in the comments section of the blog or tweeting a response to a post I have written are going to be tempted to say things that they would not say to me (or another commentator) in a face to face setting.  As a result, the burden of cultivating civility in the blogosphere probably rests more with the blogger than the commentator. In my attempts at creating a productive and professional space for the exchange of ideas at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, I often have to enter the comment stream in order to rebuke commentators for their incivility. I don’t care if commentators have ideological disagreements or if they want to take issue with a post. I welcome this kind of exchange and value those regular commentators who contribute dissenting perspectives on the things that I write. But I will not tolerate name calling, a failure to empathize with an opposing viewpoint, or a general rudeness or lack of manners. I usually give a warning to the perpetrators and, if they continue in their incivility, I remove their comment. I realize that this may sound undemocratic or heavy-handed, but The Way of Improvement Leads Home is my space on the web and I want to make sure that my readers—most of whom are not scholars—have a comfortable space to share their thoughts.

I am particularly troubled when historians engage in uncivil behavior in the blogosphere. We are trained to listen and understand before casting judgment. I hope that this applies to both the dead people we study and the living people we encounter in our everyday lives, both on and off the Internet. Twitter, Facebook, and the comment sections of blogs are often conducive to sloppy historical thinking on this front.

Of course all web commentary is not the same. As an independent blogger unaffiliated with a larger website or online publication, I have the liberty to monitor my blog as I see fit. A majority of my readers are return visitors, thus creating an intellectual community whose members understand the culture of respect and civility I am trying to cultivate. The Way of Improvement Leads Home does not get anywhere near the number of comments as the large political or academic blogs, but I would like to think it is a safer place to create and share ideas. If historians are going to reach the general public on the web with thoughtful teaching and dialogue about the past and its relationship to the present, then we need to think hard about the spaces we have created for this kind of learning to happen. 

Thanks to Vanessa Varin of the American Historical Association for putting this roundtable together.  You can comment on the roundtable at AHA Today or @ahahistorians using the hashtag #webethics.  I look forward to the conversation.

The Internet Archive

This is very cool. If I understand this correctly, the Internet Archive is trying to make a copy of the entire Internet. (HT: Northwest History). They even have a “Way Back Machine” which allows you to find websites that have been deleted.  For example, here is The Way of Improvement Leads Home from December 3, 2008.  And here is the Messiah College website from December 10, 1997.

Here is a description of The Internet Archive:

The Internet Archive is a 501(c)(3) non-profit that was founded to build an Internet library. Its purposes include offering permanent access for researchers, historians, scholars, people with disabilities, and the general public to historical collections that exist in digital format. Founded in 1996 and located in San Francisco, the Archive has been receiving data donations from Alexa Internet and others. In late 1999, the organization started to grow to include more well-rounded collections. Now the Internet Archive includes texts, audio, moving images, and software as well as archived web pages in our collections, and provides specialized services for adaptive reading and information access for the blind and other persons with disabilities. 

An Accessible Primer on Online Learning

What is the difference between “Old School” online learning and “New School” online learning?

How do MOOCs “type 1” differ from MOOC’s “type 2?”

What is a “flipped classroom” or a “digitally enhanced course?”

Jeffrey McClurken spells it all out for us at his blog, “Techist: A Blog About Technology, History, and Teaching.

This is a nice introduction for those of us who are still trying to navigate this new world of online learning.

The Book: Its Future and Its Past

This was the title of Anthony Grafton’s keynote lecture at last week’s Spring 2012 Messiah College Humanities Symposium.

Grafton is a phenomenal lecturer and historian.  His lecture brought the intellectual and cultural world of the 15th and 16th century to life.  I sat in awe as he interpreted an image of a 16th century print shop, teasing out historical insights about the social and cultural history of early book production.  He took us on a fascinating ride through the past and present.  Grafton made us realize that the past speaks profoundly to the present, but it can also be quite different.   Nearly everyone I spoke with said that this was the best Humanities Symposium keynote address that they have ever heard.

Grafton introduced us to the life of Isaac Casaubon, a 16th and early 17th century classical scholar and philologist.  He was a  French Protestant who studied Hebrew and sacred Jewish texts.  Casaubon died of a malformation of his bladder because he was often so ensconced in his books that he seldom relieved himself in a timely fashion.  Grafton compared Casaubon’s “adventures” in reading and his innovative approach to studying and interpreting texts to today’s digital books.

Grafton described Martin Luther as a “media maven” who mastered the world of print and was able to use it as a “megaphone” in a way that made him unlike any other “heretic.”  We also learned about the way Erasmus saw the reading of texts as a means of “polishing” one’s character.

Grafton then moved on to our current print revolution, which he described as a revolution of “speed” and “quality.”  He praised the democratizing effect of the Internet and its ability to bring scholars on the periphery into larger intellectual debates.  He lamented the fact that few American publishers today publish books that are translated into English from other countries. (About 3% of books published today are translations).  What does this say about our interest in ideas and culture originating from abroad?  He also lamented the decline of monographs published by university presses.  These monographs, Grafton reminded us, “tell us something new” about the world.  Yet more and more publishers cannot afford to print them.

Grafton called our attention to the decline of the so-called “3rd Places” such as bookstores and libraries.  The chain bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble are either gone or struggling to survive.  They lasted for about a generation and will probably disappear from the American landscape.  Public and academic libraries are now becoming “digital commons” where people come to drink coffee and sit at computer screens.  The New York Public Library, for instance, is removing their stacks and shipping a significant portion of their books to a warehouse in Princeton.

And what about Google books?  In a few years, Google books will be the largest library in the world.  Grafton called this an “incredible achievement,” but he also pointed to the dangers of such a development.  Google is placing a lot of books online, but what if their efforts to build this on-line library fail to make money?  Do we really want to trust our cherished books to capitalism?  The Google library could be gone overnight.

Finally, Grafton reminded us that we often read differently on the screen.  Studies have shown that readers do not cover the entire screen like they do when they read a text.  On the computer we read for information rather than for full content.  We read printed books with the part of the brain that is connected to long term memory.  But we read on the computer screen with the problem-solving dimension of the brain that does not deal with long term memory. 

So what does this all mean?  Where are we headed?

Grafton suggested two possible ending to this story:

1.  Reading will be transformed into something radically different.  We will no longer cast ourself “on the generosity of the writer” and submit ourselves to where the author wants to take us, but instead manipulate books to make them suit our needs through interactive features, video texts, etc…  The book as we know it will die.

2.  We will adapt.  As Grafton’s historical work shows us, people have always been very good at reading classic texts (he gave the example of the way Virgil and Augustine read Homer) and allowing them to speak to the needs of their current generation.

Great lecture.

Pew Study on Online Education

The Pew Research Center has just released its recent study, “Digital Revolution and Higher Education.”  Here are some of the findings:

  • 29% of the American public believe that online courses “offer equal value compared with courses taken in the classroom.”
  • 51% of college presidents “say online courses provide the same value” compared with courses taken in the classroom.
  • 77% of college presidents “report that their institutions now offer online courses.”
  • 89% of public colleges and universities offer online classes, but only 60% of private four-year schools offer online classes.
  • Nearly 25% of four-year college graduates have taken a course online.  Of those students, 39% believe there online course had the same “educational value” as a course taken in the classroom.

Why do more college and university presidents believe that online education is comparable to traditional classroom courses than students who take online courses? Any thoughts?

Here is another interesting finding related to mission:

College presidents’ beliefs about the mission of higher education are linked to their views and experiences with online learning. Among those who believe the most important role college plays is to prepare students for the working world, 59% say online classes provide the same educational value as in-person classes. Among presidents who say the role of college is to promote personal and intellectual growth, only 43% say online learning offers an equal value.

Conversation in an Age of Online Chat

When I was writing The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America, I spent a lot of time reading about the eighteenth-century idea of “conversation.” Philip Vickers Fithian spent a lot of time conversing with his various friends and relations.  Such conversation usually focused on the latest popular novel, some aspect of moral philosophy, or a theological topic.  The ultimate end of conversation was the self-improvement of the participants. What struck me most was that this kind of conversation was happening in the remote and rural confines of eighteenth-century New Jersey.  It was indeed a “rural Enlightenment.”

The editors of the web magazine N+1 describe early modern conversation as “an exchange of ideas, a free play of wit.”  It was “a vehicle of Enligthenment, fundamental to the self-improvement of civilization.”  They then ask: “If talking is one thing, and conversation another, then what is a chat?”

Read the rest of the piece to find out.

We Need More History Ph.Ds

Claire Potter nails it.  In her recent post, “Digital Dreams: A Case for Producing More History Ph.D’s”, she suggests that we need to start rethinking graduate education in history in order to train more historians to become digital humanists.  I recommend reading every word of this post, but here is a taste:

So here’s my question:  acknowledging that the erosion of full-time teaching and tenure-track positions is not just a problem for scholar-workers and student-consumers, why do we not up the production of Ph.D.’s in history, and train them in the expertise this present and future world desperately requires?  Why are we not developing more joint degree programs in which young scholars take a Ph.D. in history and a masters in archives management, oral history, information management, and/or computer science?  Why can we not envision cohorts of historians who will be expected to publish, will teach only occasionally, and will have as a large part of their work the development of the history Internet?

I agree.  In fact, I think some of this re-envisioning can even happen at the undergraduate level.  I know that several undergraduate history departments offer concentrations in the field of public history, but few of these concentrations have caught up to the digital age.  Why not create a cross-disciplinary public history major that requires students to take courses in history, public history, computer science, GIS technology, social media, and information management? 

What do you think?

Do You "Steal" Wi Fi? or "Can You Spare Some Wireless?"

This is a very entertaining op-ed by Helen Rubenstein, a writing professor at Brooklyn College.  We have all done it.  But is it ethical?

A snippet:

FOR a long time, I relied on my Brooklyn neighbors’ generosity — that is, their unsecured wireless networks — every time I connected to the Web. 

So, to linksys of Park Slope, in 2005, for allowing me to do my first freelance work from home; to Netgear 1 and Netgear 2 of the same neighborhood, in 2006, for supporting my electronic application to several graduate schools; to DHoffma, from 2007 to 2008, for letting me pay my taxes online and stream new episodes of “Friday Night Lights” each evening for a whole winter; to belkin54g, Cooley and, above all, to the blessed Belkin_G-Plus_MIMO of Ditmas Park, from 2009 to 2010, for the ability to speedily reply to student e-mails, video-chat with my sister, keep abreast of the latest literary hoo-ha, “like” as many of my friends’ Facebook posts as I liked and learn all about lentil-sprouting or Prometheus whenever the mood struck: Thank you. And may you rest in peace.

The Death of the Independent Bookstore

While we were in New York City on Tuesday our bus passed the Strand Bookstore on the corner of 12th and Broadway.  I used the opportunity to get up from my front-of-the-bus seat, turn around, and offer a brief lecture to my students about how any educated person must visit the Strand at least once.  I think I may have said it was the greatest bookstore in America, or something like that.

I don’t know how the Strand is doing financially or if it has been affected by Amazon, Borders or Barnes & Noble.  But I do know that independent bookstores around the country are in trouble.  See, for example, James Emery White’s post (HT: Jesus Creed) about the closing of two of his favorite bookstores.

One of the bookstores White mentions is Joseph-Beth Booksellers.  According to this article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Joseph-Beth has filed for bankruptcy and will be closing its stores in Pittsburgh, Charlotte, and Cleveland.

I was scheduled to do a book talk and signing for Was American Founded as a Christian Nation at the Joseph-Beth store in Pittsburgh on April 10, 2010.  Needless to say, the event has been canceled.

But let’s get back to White’s lament for the independent bookstore.  (Actually, one of the stores he is lamenting is a Borders Books.  Sorry, Mr. White, that doesn’t count as an “independent” bookstore).  White believes he has helped to destroy these brick and mortar shops by buying books at Amazon.  And in some ways he is correct.

I wonder if I am doing the same thing by linking to Amazon on this blog.  If I really believe in local business, perhaps I should be linking to an independent bookstore when I review a book or make reference to a book in a blog post as I have done with my own book above.

What do you think?

Internet Civility

I try to keep things civil here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home. (Such a task is rather easy when you don’t get many readers writing comments). I have no problem with people disagreeing with the things I write or stuff I post. In fact, some of my most regular and loyal readers disagree, at some level, with most of the things that appear on this blog. That’s fine, as long as the comments section does not turn into a “shouting” match or a forum for personal attacks. There have been times when I have had to delete posts, but they have been rare.

With this in mind, I enjoyed Alan Jacobs recent post on Internet discourse at Big Questions Online. Jacobs describes his experience reading blogs devoted to Anglicanism:

A couple of years ago, I was visiting an Anglican blog, as was then my habit, and came across an article in which a theological conservative — that is, someone on “my side” of the Anglican debate, if (God help us) we must speak in such terms — was accusing Archbishop Williams of something like complete epistemological skepticism, effective unbelief. I have heard many of my fellow conservatives speak of Williams in this way. I thought that if they were to read what he writes, or listen to what he preaches — this magnificent sermon, for instance — they would no longer speak of him so dismissively. I wrote a comment on this post, challenging the critique of Williams and linking to sermons, talks, and essays that demonstrated beyond any doubt that the charge of skepticism was false.

None of this convinced the author of the article or other commenters. The general conviction was that Williams had not acted decisively for conservative causes, especially regarding sexuality, and therefore that anything he said or wrote that savored of theological orthodoxy amounted to protective coloration at best and outright deceit at worst. In their minds, he was the enemy of orthodoxy and therefore their enemy, and could be granted the benefit of no doubt. (Never mind that on liberal Anglican blogs he was simultaneously being condemned for having sold out to the forces of right-wing reaction. And never mind what Jesus said about loving your enemies, even assuming that Williams really is an “enemy.”) They believed that Williams was wrong and had to be resisted by all available means, tarred by any brush at hand. My response to this attitude is summed up perfectly in Archbishop Sentamu’s lament about a “general disregard for the truth.”

The author and commenters bristled at my critique. I bristled right back. The argument escalated. At one point, I said to myself, “All right, you want to play hardball, we’ll play hardball” — and I would have cut loose and said exactly what I wanted to say, except that at that moment my hands were shaking too violently for me to type accurately. I looked at my trembling fingers for a moment. Then I closed that browser tab and spent a few minutes removing all Anglican-related blogs from my bookmarks and my RSS reader. I stopped reading those blogs and have never looked at them again to this day. I don’t think I’ve ever made a better decision…

Brooks: Internet vs. Reading

David Brooks examines the positive impact of books on kids and the negative impact of the Internet. A taste:

Recently, book publishers got some good news. Researchers gave 852 disadvantaged students 12 books (of their own choosing) to take home at the end of the school year. They did this for three successive years.

Then the researchers, led by Richard Allington of the University of Tennessee, looked at those students’ test scores. They found that the students who brought the books home had significantly higher reading scores than other students. These students were less affected by the “summer slide” — the decline that especially afflicts lower-income students during the vacation months. In fact, just having those 12 books seemed to have as much positive effect as attending summer school.

This study, along with many others, illustrates the tremendous power of books. We already knew, from research in 27 countries, that kids who grow up in a home with 500 books stay in school longer and do better. This new study suggests that introducing books into homes that may not have them also produces significant educational gains.

Recently, Internet mavens got some bad news. Jacob Vigdor and Helen Ladd of Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy examined computer use among a half-million 5th through 8th graders in North Carolina. They found that the spread of home computers and high-speed Internet access was associated with significant declines in math and reading scores.

This study, following up on others, finds that broadband access is not necessarily good for kids and may be harmful to their academic performance. And this study used data from 2000 to 2005 before Twitter and Facebook took off.

These two studies feed into the debate that is now surrounding Nicholas Carr’s book, “The Shallows.” Carr argues that the Internet is leading to a short-attention-span culture. He cites a pile of research showing that the multidistraction, hyperlink world degrades people’s abilities to engage in deep thought or serious contemplation.