Neem: “The STEM rubric undermines the unity between the humanities and sciences.”

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Kentucky governor Matt Bevin

Back in June, we published a post on Kentucky governor Matt Bevin‘s endorsement of a bill allowing the Bible to be taught in the state’s public schools.  I later published a shorter version of this post at Religion News Service.

Governor Bevin is back in the news after his said that the state’s public universities should cut programs that are not “helping to produce” a  “21st century educated workforce.”  Bevin urged university administrators in his state to “find entire parts of your campus…that don’t need to be there.”  He singled out “Interpretive Dance.”  Back in January, he singled out “French Literature.”  Bevin wants to put money and energy into growing engineering and other STEM programs at Kentucky universities. Ironically, according to Inside Higher Ed‘s coverage of Bevin’s remarks, the governor has an East Asian studies degree from Washington and Lee University.

Sadly, the interim president of the University of Louisville, Dr. Greg Postel, seems to agree with the governor. Postel told the Lexington Herald-Leader that his university’s engineering program is growing, making Bevin’s ideas for funding more STEM initiatives a “natural fit” at Louisville.  “Universities have to be aware of where the jobs are,” he told the Herald-Leader, “and that has to advise us as to which programs we choose to grow and put our resources in.”  If I was a humanities or liberal arts faculty member at Louisville I would be up in arms right now.  Postel has no clue about two things:  1) college education is more than job training and 2) liberal arts majors contribute to the economy and do a variety of jobs.

Check out Inside Higher Ed‘s coverage here.  It includes several faculty members who have pushed back.

Western Washington University historian Johann Neem is not mentioned in the Inside Higher Ed article, but back in February he responded to Bevin’s earlier comments on STEM. Neem believes that “science” should not be part of the STEM equation.  As he puts it, “The STEM rubric undermines the unity between the humanities and sciences.”

Here is a taste of his piece at the blog of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education:

In theory, there are two major faculties on American college campuses, those who teach in the liberal arts and sciences, and those who offer professional education in such fields as business, education, engineering, social work, and various health fields. The two types of faculties are not necessarily in opposition, but they have different missions because they are oriented toward different goals.

To faculty in the arts and sciences, undergraduate education is liberal in nature​ — it is about gaining a broad knowledge ​about how the human and natural worlds work, because doing so can inspire students and because it serves a broader public good to have well-educated adults. Ideally, and often, there is no specific vocational outcome to these majors. In fact, to ask a history, English, biology, or geology major, “​What are you going to do with that?” ought to be irrelevant since these are academic disciplines designed for academic purposes. When majors were first established, their goal was not job training but to offer intellectual depth ​and balance or, better put, to enhance a general education. Thus, majors in the arts and sciences exist for their educational purposes with no real or necessary relation to market needs.

Professional faculty, on the other hand, train people for specific jobs. Their success is measured by whether their students gain the knowledge and skills necessary for employment in specific fields. Students who major in engineering, for example, are right to ask their programs, “​What can I do with that?” Moreover, students who choose to major in these fields may not receive the same kind of liberal education as those in the arts and sciences. Instead, they seek a direct line to employment. These fields, in other words, are tied closely to market needs.

The rhetoric of “STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) seeks to professionalize science faculty by reorienting their core community of identity. The sciences are not job training but part of liberal education. Math is a humanistic pursuit. Ideally, faculty and students in the sciences and math have different goals, perspectives, and aspirations than those in engineering and technology-related fields. Traditionally, science and math faculty have identified themselves with the broader purposes of the liberal arts, of which they are a part.

The more we use the term STEM​ — in praise, condemnation, or simply as a descriptor​ — the more we divide the arts and sciences faculty from each other. The arts and sciences exist as the educational core of the undergraduate collegiate curriculum. They are tied together conceptually. There is in fact no difference, from the ​perspective of liberal education, in choosing to major in philosophy or chemistry. Faculty in both disciplines, in all the arts and sciences, believe in the value of intellectual pursuit, in fostering curiosity about the world, and in graduating students who have breadth and depth. Yet, increasingly on campuses across the United States, colleges of arts and sciences are dividing into two units, the humanities and social sciences in one, and the sciences and math in another.

Neem concludes:

The STEM rubric undermines the unity between the humanities and sciences. For many policymakers, this is no doubt desirable. Yet, if faculty in the sciences and mathematics are not careful about how they identify themselves, they will be party to the erosion of the ideal of liberal learning, of which they remain an essential part. If faculty in the humanities and social sciences are not careful, they will find themselves marginalized as the sciences abandon liberal education to join forces with market-driven technology and engineering programs. If Americans are not careful, we will soon find that we have fundamentally changed the purposes and goals of collegiate education.

Read Neem’s entire piece here.

What if Thomas Jefferson Could Come Back and Talk to Betsy DeVos About Education?

neem bookLast month, Western Washington University history professor Johann Neem visited The Author’s Corner to talk about his new book  Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America.

Over at the website of the National Education Association, Neem talks to Mary Ellen Flannery in a piece titled “What Would Thomas Jefferson Say to Betsy DeVos.”

Here is a taste of the interview:

The idea of the “common good” is referenced often in the book. These founders of public education saw that “common” or public schools would serve a common or public good. You still hear this in policy-oriented conversations about public higher education, but less often in discussions about K12 education. Is it an idea that’s falling out of favor?

Johann Neem: I think we’ve lost that focus. From the very beginning, public schools always have had mixed purposes. In the 19th century, there was a strong civic component—it was about preparing citizens for democracy. Of course there were people left out, like African-Americans, but the goal was to create common ground. And there also was this idea around developing human beings, and investing in our nation’s economy.

What’s happened is we’ve lost the first two purposes, and focused almost entirely on the third—we’ve reduced our notion of public schools to meeting the needs of a global economy. We talk about college and career readiness, and really about career readiness. We’re not talking about the liberating experiences that come with education, and the possibility of creating more fulfilled lives. One of the reasons I wrote the book was to remind people that we do care about these things.

Read the rest here.

The Founding Fathers Rejected School Choice

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My alma mater

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

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

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

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

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

Read more here.

Author’s Corner with Johann Neem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Johann!

Why Historians Should Not Abandon a National Narrative

three-immigrantsIn my book The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America, I wrote:

Philip’s “way of improvement” was by no means a smooth one.  His passion for “home,” which I use broadly in the title of this book to encompass not only his longings for his Cohansey homeland but also his desire for friendship with his future wife (who lived in Cohansey) and his deep sense of evangelical Calvinist piety (which informed the culture of Cohansey and his Christian calling to the ministry), frequently got in the way of his attempts at Enlightenment self-improvement.  In the messiness of everyday life the Enlightenment ideal was often impractical.  It demanded a style of living that only a handful of elite intellectuals could attain.  Max Hilbert Boehm, writing in 1932, reminded us that cosmopolitanism has always existed in “compromise with nationalism, race consciousness, professional interests, caste feeling, family pride, and even egotism.”  However, it is precisely these tensions that make Philip’s story so interesting.  His attempt at easing them is the focus of this book, the very essence of what I have described as Fithian’s “rural Enlightenment.”  My study of this ordinary farmer argues that an Enlightenment life was complex and complicated.  It could be lived locally–even in rural and remote places where the dominant social institutions were churches, where modern and naturalistic explanations of the world often merged with theological convictions held by people of faith, where the lines between ambitious self-improvement and Christian vocation might sometimes be blurred, and where circles of friends improved themselves through conversation amid the regular demands of the agricultural calendar.

As some of the readers of this blog are aware, The Way of Improvement Leads Home argued that people living in the eighteenth century could not easily separate their cosmopolitan ambitions from their local attachments.  In an earlier piece I published in The Journal of American History (2003) I wrote:

Fithian’s story reminds us that the abstract, urban, and elite-centered republic of letters that has so captivated early American historians over the past two decades had a real impact on individual human experience. While the Thomas Paines and Benjamin Franklins of the eighteenth-century Atlantic world could move freely within that republic, there were others who struggled with the implications that citizenship in this imagined community might have for their commitments to family, friends, faith, tradition, and place. Throughout his short life, Fithian asked not only how he might improve himself but also what might be permanently lost in the process. He rarely acted without considering carefully the answers to both of those queries.

On one level, Fithian’s attempt to live Enlightenment values in a given place define24172-fithian2bbookd by a given tradition resonates with recent theoretical work on contemporary cosmopolitanism. Today, scholars have largely rejected the notion that a true “citizen of the world” exists without some connection to a specific locale that might be called home or a specific set of beliefs that might be informed by tradition. Theorists now realize that even amid advances in air travel, the rise of international markets, and the technological creation of a “global village,” a pure cosmopolitanism, or a truly “placeless” individual, does not and cannot exist. Yet those who write about such issues of self-identity today always make the cosmopolitan ideal their point of scholarly departure. They begin with world citizenship–the highest of all moral values–and then make the necessary concessions to the particularities of region, nation, and family. The result is what has recently been described as “rooted cosmopolitanism,” a cosmopolitanism that “is there,” or an “actually existing cosmopolitanism.”

Many middling, relatively unprivileged, and educated early Americans living in places teetering between the medieval and the modern, however, understood local attachments–not world citizenship–as the necessary starting point in the construction of a modern self. Rather than rejecting commitments to the particularities of place and tradition, as Wood has suggested, good patriots and republicans such as Fithian strove to participate in the eighteenth-century equivalent of intellectual and cultural globalization in the context of their locales. Fithian’s Christianity, networks of friends, letter-writing circles, admonishing societies, and reading groups were all means of being cosmopolitan in a given place. He thus pursued a “cosmopolitan rootedness” over a “rooted cosmopolitanism.” In the end, Fithian’s life challenges us to be ever more mindful that the ideas and ideals of the Enlightenment could have a profound influence on the remote precincts of British America and the social worlds of the people who inhabited them. For him, “rural Enlightenment” was not an oxymoron.

I have been thinking a lot about this in light of some minor push-back I have been receiving on my recent post “Is There a Tension Between History Education and Identity Politics?” Some of that push-back has come in response to my suggestion that American historians should not abandon a national narrative.  Here is what I wrote in that post:

I also still believe–old fashioned as it might sound–in a national narrative. As an American historian I think it is more important than ever that my students understand the story of the United States and the ways in which the values put forth by the founders have and have not been applied in our attempts to create “a more perfect union.” If political jealousy is indeed a laudable passion, then citizens need to know what to be jealous about. Yes, I understand the way that the liberal identity politics of race, class, and gender, and the internationalization of American history, has shaped my field.  I have learned much from this approach.  But I am coming around more and more everyday to the civic role that U.S. history plays in the strengthening of our democracy.

This, of course, raises a lot of questions about how the field of American history is moving. Don’t get me wrong, I think that some of the resistance to a neo-Whig view of American history is useful, especially when we are teaching students that a civic-minded approach to history can often result in a form of presentism.  For example, I spend an entire week every summer at Princeton trying to get K-8 teachers to think about British-America on its own terms rather than as a forerunner to a “revolution” that no one in the eighteenth century really saw coming until the 1760s and 177os.

But the American Revolution did happen and I think it goes without saying that it triggered a conversation about American national identity that we are still having today.  It seems like those of us who teach broader surveys of American history cannot ignore a national narrative.  (I say more about this in my exchange with California history teacher Leslie Smith).

I have also been thinking about the relationship between national history and globalization/cosmopolitanism in light of historian Johann Neem’s 2011 Chronicle of Higher Education essay “Why We Should Teach National History in a Global Age.”  Here is a taste:

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Johann Neem

Is it a good thing for our identities to be globalized? I would argue no. Progressive politics, including the redistribution of wealth between the well-off and the less so, is predicated on a coherent and vibrant nationalism. Paradoxically, in an age of globalization, our schools must make Americans more aware of their connections to the world while reinvigorating the teaching of our national history.

History’s power is its ability to shape our collective identity. By teaching national history, we help create nationals. All identities are premised on shared stories. To be a member of a community is to identify with its past and to seek to sustain that community in the present to better it in the future. That is as true for nations as for religious, ethnic, and professional communities. As the political scientist Rogers Smith argues in Stories of Peoplehood (Cambridge University Press, 2003), national identities are based on the vitality of shared narratives that place us in the stream of history. Stories make us who we are.

Teaching national history is vital to ensuring a public that is capable of sustaining our democracy. National history promotes patriotism. Readers inclined to dismiss patriotism as a regressive and aggressive ideology may be inclined to dismiss national history for that very reason. We all know the violence that has been committed in the name of nationalism over the past two centuries.

National stories should be both celebratory and critical. Teaching national history does not mean promoting a glorious narrative of America, nor does it mean focusing exclusively on its worst moments. Like the history of any nation-state, American history is full of glory and high ideals as well as their all-too-frequent betrayal. Celebratory stories foster love for one’s nation, while critical stories ensure that love does not become blind devotion. It is the combination of love of one’s nation and awareness of its failures that makes acts of citizenship possible. Without love, who cares? Without critical awareness, how will citizens ascertain the truth about their nation’s actions and seek to make things better?

Read Neem’s entire piece here.  I think his final paragraph is on the mark:

The nation is not the only source of one’s personal identity. We each belong to religious, ethnic, professional, and other communities that shape us and to which we feel responsible. These communities make us complex beings, capable of balancing our obligations to our nation with those to others locally and around the world. But even as we Americans become more aware of our responsibilities to the larger world, democratic politics relies on our shared responsibility to each other.

What Is Causing the Drop in Humanities Enrollments?

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In 2007, when Drew Gilpin Faust became the 28th president of Harvard University, 25% of the undergraduates at the Ivy League school were majoring in the humanities.  Today that number has dropped to 14%.  Right now, only 6% of undergraduates are majoring in the humanities.  There is also a decline at Harvard in students taking classes in the humanities.

Faust relates the drop in the humanities to a surge in “vocationalism.”  Leon Wieseltier says the humanities decline is related to an “instrumentalist” or “utilitarian” culture. Humanities, he argues, is to cultivate citizens.  The humanities have “intrinsic” value.  He argues that the “enormity of the intellectual responsibility that a republic of opinion imposes on ordinary people” requires citizens who can think empathetically and thus contribute to our democracy.  I couldn’t agree more.

Faust and Wieseltier talks about the humanities in this video.  It is execellent–definitely worth your time.

Why are the humanities in crisis?  Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University, offers an answer.  Unlike Faust and Wieseltier, he believes the real problem is identity politics.

Bauerlein writes at Minding the Campus blog:

…regarding the material state of the humanities today, what counts is whether such approaches that foreground social issues in works of art and literature are going to encourage more undergraduates to choose humanities majors and courses. Unlikely.

First of all, if a 20-year-old has a particular passion for racial, sexual, or other identity themes, chances are that he isn’t inclined to filter it through Shakespeare or Wagner or Woolf.  A few of them will, but not because of their identity interests.  History is a stronger possibility, we admit, but when our youth looks at the requirements for the History major, he will find much of it lies outside his interest.  If you’re fascinated with race in America, you don’t want to spend much time on the ancient and medieval worlds.  Much better to choose one of the “Studies” departments.

Second, if students do come into college loving Victorian novels or foreign films or Elizabethan drama or Beethoven, it probably isn’t due to the identity content of those materials.  They love Dickens because a high school English teacher dramatized Miss Betsey so well, or because the students identified with David Copperfield (which is a whole different kind of identity-formation than the one academics have in mind when they discuss identity).  It’s not that undergraduates already interested in the humanities discount identity issues.  They accept them as part of the work, certainly.  But those issues are not the source of inspiration.  The first draw isn’t race, gender, sexuality, nationality, etc., in American film.  It is Intolerance, City Lights, Ambersons, Vertigo . . .  Students want works of art first, social themes within them second.

Is this kind of identity politics keeping students away from the humanities?  Maybe. Perhaps this is the case at Emory or other universities.  I see some of it at Messiah College as well.

But I don’t think this is the primary problem.  I think Faust and Wieseltier understand the real problem.   So does Western Washington University professor Johann Neem, who recently shared this statement on social media:

I agree with Mark Bauerlein that the humanities need to do more than critique. We need to revive words like appreciate, learn, and inspire. BUT, I think his historical causation is wrong. People are not abandoning the humanities because of identity politics, but because of a) the creation of a mass neemuniversity in which many students arrive seeking economic, not intellectual, goods (even at Harvard); b) neoliberal framing of education that treats education as valuable only if it serves economic functions. The humanities, even if they went back to a bygone age, would still be bypassed. We need to take on neoliberalism to save the humanities.

As most of you know, I am a strong advocate of the idea that we need to get students to think about how their historical thinking skills are transferable in the marketplace. At the same time, I am a strong advocate for colleges that train people as citizens for a democracy.  So I agree wholeheartedly with Neem and his vision for the university.   I couldn’t have put it better.

Johann Neem on the Importance of Scholarly Writing

Scholarly-penJohann Neem, an American historian at Western Washington University, is very aware of the fact that academic writing can be impenetrable.  He also believes that it is important for historians and other academics to write for the public.

Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Neem defends both kinds of writing.

Neem’s argument makes perfect sense to me.

Here is a taste:

Basic research in the arts and sciences is the source of wisdom. Yet that wisdom needs to be shared. There are in all disciplines scholars who fit Cicero’s definition of the ideal orator, combining eloquence with wisdom. Yet Cicero recognized that the philosophical pursuit of truth requires different things from us than public engagement because it is a different kind of activity. We do neither academics nor the public any service when we conflate the two. Indeed, doing so is a category mistake.

We want physicists who write for each other. I appreciate that, at conferences and in academic papers, they have challenged each other’s conclusions and, in doing so, have pushed forward the boundaries of knowledge. Yet I am also grateful for my scientist friends who posted on Facebook links to videos and essays in which scientists explained, in terms that I could understand, why it was so significant that we had heard black holes colliding.

I enjoyed physicist Lawrence Krauss’s clear articulation of why a citizen like me — who could never understand an academic paper in physics — should continue to support investing oodles of money in basic research: “By exploring processes near the event horizon, or by observing gravitational waves from the early universe, we may learn more about the beginning of the universe itself, or even the possible existence of other universes.” This matters: “Every child has wondered at some time where we came from and how we got here. That we can try and answer such questions by building devices like LIGO to peer out into the cosmos stands as a testament to the persistent curiosity and ingenuity of humankind — the qualities that we should most celebrate about being human.”

I appreciate the scientists who have taken time to write for readers like me about the importance of hearing ripples in space-time. But I am also thankful for the many scientists who spend most of their time talking to each other. Instead of writing for me, they devoted their efforts to producing inaccessible scholarship that, over time, produced public insights of profound beauty.

Read the entire piece here.