Sam Wineburg’s Twitter Thread About Wikipedia

Some great stuff here from Sam Wineburg:

What a Historian Does During Vacation

Pitz

Ezra Fitz

With the first leg of the Believe Me book tour behind me, I decided to spend a few weeks in August (including an Outer Banks ,NC vacation), relaxing and consuming things that I do not usually consume during the rest of the year:

I read Rod Dreher’s The Little Way of Ruthie Leming.  Anyone familiar with Dreher’s The Benedict Option should read this book as well.  Dreher’s memoir about his sister and his Louisiana hometown made me think differently about The Benedict Option.

I read Carlos Eire’s moving memoir Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy.   This book will be with me for a long time.  Eire, a Yale religion professor, tells the story of his Cuban childhood in the years before and after the revolution.

I read Hannah’s Son, Stanley Hauerwas’s “theological memoir.”  Hauerwas, the man who Time once called the “America’s Best Theologian,” writes about his upbringing in the Texas working-class, his close relationship with his son, his experience with a mentally-ill wife, his engagement with the world of academia, his spiritual journey, and, of course, his theological views.

I went back and reread Huxley’s Brave New World.  Many are reading this book again in the age of Trump.  The comparisons between the World State and Trump’s America are a bit of a stretch, but Huxley’s points about the differences between building a society based on “truth” and “beauty,” and building a society based on “happiness” and “comfort,” are always worth thinking about.

I learned a lot about Dominican culture from reading Junot Diaz’s novel The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  I don’t understand Spanglish very well, and had to look-up the meaning of some of the words, but overall it was worth my time.  There are some great New Jersey scenes in the novel.

My daughters sucked me into binge-watching the ABC Family drama Pretty Little Liars.  Don’t judge me!  My favorite line of the show came in Season 7 when Aria Montgomery asks her fiance, a novelist named Ezra Fitz, to remove a dead body from the trunk of her car.  Fitz tells Aria that they “need to deal with the problem in your trunk.”  Aria asks, “how?”  Fitz replies: “I have a master’s degree in American literature.  There’s nothing I can’t handle.”

Bring on the new academic year!

Gutting Academic Books

99bbc-academic2bbooksDouglas Hunter has published a really interesting piece at Slate about the practice, common among graduate students in history, of understanding the argument of a book without really reading it.  This process is often described as “gutting.”   Hunter explores the implications of this practice.  Here is a taste of “Book Breaking and Book Mending“:

I wonder how many books on reading lists are ever read in depth, for pleasure, by people who have to study them. I had several hundred books on my course lists. My dissertation’s bibliography ran to 37 manuscript pages. I can only name a handful of titles that I ever read enjoyably, cover to cover. There was no time to do so, and for seven years, first as a doctoral candidate and then as a postdoctoral fellow, I read almost nothing outside my studies for pleasure. The process very nearly killed my love of reading.

The consequences of academic books being fundamentally written not to be read in full, even by an academic audience, are troubling not only for academia but for society as a whole. Society suffers when the ideas of academics are trapped inside the feedback loop of academia; academia suffers because society considers its output irrelevant. In my own work, I have probed the history of theories on human migration and race. I have shown how archaeology, scientific racism, and American manifest destiny have had a horrendous impact on indigenous people, and how corrosive, racist ideas persist in pseudohistory. I think these are important subjects, and I hope that my academic colleagues pay attention to my work, but I am also persuaded that society would be a better place if more people understood, for example, why pseudohistorical notions that ancient white people colonized America before indigenous people are popular with white supremacists. This is true of other scholars as well; we’ve seen the damage done, for example, when researchers in climate science, women’s history, and African American studies can’t get their findings into the wider world. Many scholars have been trying, in every way possible, but academic books are still striving for general accessibility.

Read the entire piece here.

Reading as a Graduate Student

Why Reading Matters

Karen Wulf of the Omohundro Institute has a nice post at the Vast Early America blog on “reading” in graduate school.   If you are studying for your comps and find yourself awash in a sea of monographs, this piece is very helpful.

I’ve seen graduate students struggle with a heavy reading load, and I’ve seen them use various methods to try and lighten that load.  One is to not make it through the reading, which is obviously not ideal.  (Understatement.)  I’ve also seen some use book reviews as a substitute.  Also not ideal, but for reasons I’ll explain below.  And I’ve seen students sacrifice a lot to make it through every last page, and sometimes (often?) that trade-off (especially with sleep and general health) wasn’t a wise one.

The reason students do this are many, but among them are a sense of anxiety about their ignorance.  I don’t think they believe me when I say that the more you know, the better perspective you’ll have on just how little you know.  Plenty of clever people have found ways to phrase that.  Earlier this month astrophysicist Adam Frank described for NPR how important ignorance is in a world that seems increasingly casual about expertise and “alternative facts.”  It might seem counter-intuitive, he noted, but by exposing the limits of our own and others’ knowledge it clarifies where expertise lies and has been achieved.  Get used to being ignorant because it’s not only okay, it’s the natural state when you’re leaning.  The helpful bit here for graduate students is the same, I think, as it is for me.  It’s not to say that we will never achieve knowledge, even expertise, but that there will always be limits to it if we’re curious about the world.  If we think that learning is not only important but exciting and interesting then–yay!–we’re in for a lifetime of acknowledging our (relative) ignorance.

Click here to learn about her “TICCN” strategy.

What Black Readers Read in 1943

Beecher Terrace

Over at History News Network, book historian Jonathan Rose discusses a 1943 study of African American reading habits in Louisville.  Here is a taste:

In 1943 a study of reading habits was conducted in Beecher Terrace, a black Louisville public housing community. At this point “the projects” were new, clean, and well maintained, a vast improvement over the hovels they replaced, and not yet ridden by crime and drugs. The residents were nearly all domestic, service, and industrial workers, but only 11 percent of households were headed by single mothers, and the unemployment rate was just 4.4 percent. As for schooling, 44.2 percent had some elementary education, 44.8 percent had attended high school, and nearly 10 percent had some exposure to higher education. Beecher Terrace offered a range of social and recreational services and was located near a black business district and a segregated branch public library. It was a stable and hopeful community, and although life wasn’t easy, it was improving.

The investigator, Juanita Offutt, visited all 616 homes and interviewed the residents about the books they owned, read, and borrowed from the library. And when she asked about their leisure activities, the most popular answer, volunteered by nearly a third of all residents, was reading. A 1938 study of Cincinnati had found that 34 percent of black homes were bookless, but the figure for Beecher Terrace was just 7.3 percent, though four times as many had only a Bible, and another 13.1 percent only a Bible and dictionary. Nearly half of the Beecher Terrace homes had more substantial libraries, averaging 3.7 novels, 2.3 religious books, and 1.5 works of non-fiction.

Offutt compiled a complete inventory of all the books she found in residents’ homes, a total of roughly 1,800 volumes. Mostly they were standard romantic and detective fiction, Tarzan, westerns, children’s books, religious tomes, Sherlock Holmes, Rudyard Kipling, Louisa May Alcott, and seven copies of How to Win Friends and Influence People. But there were also some classics: The Arabian Nights, Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights (four copies), Pilgrim’s Progress (four copies), James Fenimore Cooper (eight individual volumes plus his collected works), eleven volumes of Charles Dickens (including three of Oliver Twist), Lewis Carroll, Silas Marner (three copies), Madame Bovary, John Dryden’s Marriage à la Mode, The Vicar of Wakefield, Far from the Madding Crowd and The Return of the Native, Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Moby Dick, Ivanhoe (three copies), Tristram Shandy, Gulliver’s Travels, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Brave New World, Das Kapital, Thus Spake Zarathustra, and twelve individual Shakespeare plays plus two volumes of his collected works.

There were four volumes of essays by Emerson, a popular author among black autodidacts (Ralph Waldo Ellison was named after him). Eighty-three households stocked some poetry, mainly Robert Browning, Burns, Byron, Chaucer, Coleridge, Virgil, Kipling, Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Masefield, Milton, Thomas Moore, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Tennyson, Whittier, Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, and nothing really modern. There was some contemporary middlebrow fiction: Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth (three copies), A. J. Cronin, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (four copies), John Galsworthy, James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, Main Street and Arrowsmith, Somerset Maugham, O. Henry, All Quiet on the Western Front, Treasure Island (8 copies), The Grapes of Wrath, Booth Tarkington, H. G. Wells, and even P. G. Wodehouse.

And Offutt found seventeen sex manuals, including Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, but mostly common-sense guides for married couples, such as Harland W. Long’s Sane Sex Life and Sane Sex Living. As Offutt conceded: “Frequently the tenants admitted that the books were given to them and that many of them had not been read by any one in the family.” But the sex guides clearly had been bought and thumbed through.

Very few households regularly subscribed to magazines, but some were bought and read at least occasionally: the most popular were Life (23.3 percent of homes), True Stories (21.9 percent), Good Housekeeping (13. 1 percent), and the Ladies Home Journal (8.2 percent), compared to just 3.1 percent for Time and 1 percent for the Crisis, the NAACP organ.

Four out of five households read the Louisville Defender, the local black weekly, a comparable proportion read the white-owned Louisville dailies, and only 5.5 percent of households never took in a newspaper. (In 1943 total circulation for African-American newspapers was 1,613,255, more than triple the figure for 1910, and rising rapidly.)

Read the entire post here.

Keep Buying Books

Shelf
I love Jessica Stillman‘s piece at Inc.com: “Why You Should Surround Yourself With More Books Than You’ll Ever Have Time to Read.”  Here is a taste:

…I have good news for you (and for me, I definitely fall into this category): your overstuffed library isn’t a sign of failure or ignorance, it’s a badge of honor.

That’s the argument author and statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes in his bestseller The Black Swan. Perpetually fascinating blog Brain Pickings dug up and highlighted the section in a particularly lovely post. Taleb kicks off his musings with an anecdote about the legendary library of Italian writer Umberto Eco, which contained a jaw-dropping 30,000 volumes.

Did Eco actually read all those books? Of course not, but that wasn’t the point of surrounding himself with so much potential but as-yet-unrealized knowledge. By providing a constant reminder of all the things he didn’t know, Eco’s library kept him intellectually hungry and perpetually curious. An ever growing collection of books you haven’t yet read can do the same for you, Taleb writes:

A private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.

An antilibrary is a powerful reminder of your limitations – the vast quantity of things you don’t know, half know, or will one day realize you’re wrong about. By living with that reminder daily you can nudge yourself towards the kind of intellectual humility that improves decision-making and drives learning.

Read the rest here.

Obama Shares His 2017 Reading List and Playlist

Obama books

And it also looks like he has been to Springsteen on Broadway!

From his Facebook page:

During my presidency, I started a tradition of sharing my reading lists and playlists. It was a nice way to reflect on the works that resonated with me and lift up authors and artists from around the world. With some extra time on my hands this year to catch up, I wanted to share the books and music that I enjoyed most. From songs that got me moving to stories that inspired me, here’s my 2017 list — I hope you enjoy it and have a happy and healthy New Year.

The best books I read in 2017:
The Power by Naomi Alderman
Grant by Ron Chernow
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond 
Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid 
Five-Carat Soul by James McBride 
Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
Dying: A Memoir by Cory Taylor
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
*Bonus for hoops fans: Coach Wooden and Me by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Basketball (and Other Things) by Shea Serrano

My favorite songs of 2017:
Mi Gente by J Balvin & Willy William 
Havana by Camila Cabello (feat. Young Thug)
Blessed by Daniel Caesar 
The Joke by Brandi Carlile
First World Problems by Chance The Rapper (feat. Daniel Caesar)
Rise Up by Andra Day
Wild Thoughts by DJ Khaled (feat. Rihanna and Bryson Tiller)
Family Feud by Jay-Z (feat. Beyoncé)
Humble by Kendrick Lamar
La Dame et Ses Valises by Les Amazones d’Afrique (feat. Nneka)
Unforgettable by French Montana (feat. Swae Lee)
The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness by The National
Chanel by Frank Ocean 
Feel It Still by Portugal. The Man
Butterfly Effect by Travis Scott
Matter of Time by Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings
Little Bit by Mavis Staples
Millionaire by Chris Stapleton
Sign of the Times by Harry Styles 
Broken Clocks by SZA
Ordinary Love (Extraordinary Mix) by U2
*Bonus: Born in the U.S.A. by Bruce Springsteen (not out yet, but the blues version in his Broadway show is the best!)

Stuff Sitting On (and around) My Desk That I Still Hope to Read

Office

This picture of the messy side of my office was taken from the clean side of my office

My office at Messiah College is both a work zone and an inviting (I hope) space to meet with prospective students and their families.  The work zone half of the office is a mess, but I try to keep the hospitality side of the office relatively clean and clutter-free.

Speaking of clutter, the books, papers, magazines, and other assorted hard copy items are starting to pile-up on and around my office desk.   A lot of the clutter is paperwork related to teaching or my role as chair of the Messiah College History Department, but some of it is just stuff I want to read in the near future.  Today I was trying to bring some order to the clutter and thought I would jot down a few things I found that fall into the latter category.  I hope to get to them soon, but I am not optimistic about it.

What the Founding Fathers Read

founders

I just learned about Greg Specter‘s Duquesne University course titled What the Founders Read at the Pedagogy & American Literature Studies blog.  It looks great.  Here is a taste of his post on the course:

This semester I’m teaching What the Founders Read. The class is a 200-level literature course and it is cross-listed with Political Science. I had one goal when I began designing the course: make sure that the Founders would run. I made several tactical choices about the focus of the class and the works that I included. I made sure to include Hamilton; I made sure to play that up in the course description. I included works like The Federalist Papers in order to meet the needs of the course’s cross-listed audience. Many of these choices altered my initial vision for the course. As I began planning the day-to-day trajectory of the course, I felt the class leaning towards what the Founders (and Lin-Manuel Miranda) wrote—not what they Founders read. I began to see nothing but problems the foundation of my class. Honestly, I started to rue even thinking about planning and teaching the class. I still find it a challenge to write and think about this course…

In light of the narrow topic of the course’s primary readings, I sought to assign additional resources that introduced a variety of perspectives. Given the topic of the course, the content is largely white and male—a direct result of the topic proposed. I sought to mitigate this limited focus by including a unit on the correspondence of Abigail and John Adams, plus a unit on the poetry of Phillis Wheatley. Still, the women included in the course can be seen as defined in relation to their connection to the Founders. I wanted to include additional voices and perspectives in this class. This is a 200-level course with a lot to cover. I did not want to add a wealth of secondary materials, but it would be irresponsible in a course like this not to include current critical conversations related to the Founders. I tried to reach a middle ground on this issue in two ways. First, I wanted the course to have a component that focused on public scholarship: pieces that were easy to read, models of writing for a general audience, but still rigorous. I selected works from popular media, blogs, podcasts, and other sources.

I tried the best that I could to include a diversity of voices and perspectives in the class, especially regarding scholarship by women, but I need to do better. In selecting readings and podcasts I added as many voices as I could. In day-to-day course meetings I try to be aware of which voices I emphasize from our readings. I try to point out these disparities in class discussion. Though the course doesn’t emphasize assigned secondary readings directly from journals or books, I want students to come away from the class aware of the ongoing critical conversations– like those that inspired the Women Also Know History initiative. In selecting the assigned pieces I made sure to select works that could act as conduits to additional secondary sources. I also created a Twitter list that could be a student resource.

Read the entire post here.

On the Loaning of Books

Bookshelf

Over at U.S. Intellectual History Blog, Robert Greene II has a nice piece on the experience of loaning books to his father.  It reminded me of the power of ideas and the importance of making those ideas accessible to people other than academics.

Here is a taste:

Perhaps not all historians can write for a general audience. When we lament that folks outside the academy don’t (or can’t) read our work, however, we never seem to slow down and think, “Wait a minute. Are we sure our work is that hard to comprehend?” Or to put it another way: is it time for us to stop underestimating what people outside the academy can read, understand, and enjoy?

Again, I only bring this up because I think about loaning monographs to my father and getting his reaction to reading them. Just today, I went home to celebrate his birthday. I was glad to, in addition to handing him his gift, to loan him my copy of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and George Frederickson’s White Supremacy. I handed over The New Jim Crow because my father, during casual conversation last week, mentioned wanting to get the book down the road. Wanting to spare my dad a few bucks, I briefly perused my book shelf before finding it and letting out a small whoop of satisfaction.

Read the entire piece here.

Prayer Books and the American Revolution

Book_of_common_prayer_1662Over at the U.S. Intellectual History blog, Sara Georgini of the Massachusetts Historical Society examines the impact of the American Revolution on Boston Anglicans through a close reading of their prayer books.  Georgini describes the “humble prayer book” as “a key intellectual artifact of the revolution.”  In the process she also provides us with a nice little slice of revolutionary-era lived religion.

Here is a taste of her post:

Church records tell us half the tale of how people “lived” religion while turning their hearts and minds to full-scale war. But modern revolutions run on reading material, and all books have biographies. To get at early America’s shifting worship politics, let’s “track changes” in the Books of Common Prayer amended by Anglican and Episcopal laity in the 1770s and 1780s (shown here). As they changed ways of daily worship, Americans imprinted a new language of selfhood and statehood. They road-tested national rhetoric, long before they had any clear, constitutional vision of what that nation might look like. (For more, check out John Fea’s #ChristianAmerica? post, too). Parishioners moved around sacraments to suit new needs. The laity’s handwritten edits in prayer book margins—scraping off “King of Kings” and pasting over rote prayers for the royal family—operated as cultural cues for political change. At critical moments in the war, as colonists endured sieges and made sacrifices, they edited their prayer books to endorse turns in popular thought at the local level. During a holiday week when we think about declarations of independence big and small—and in a year marking the Protestant Reformation’s 500th anniversary—the humble prayer book still serves as a key intellectual artifact of revolution.

At the same time, these volumes were signs of consensus and communion in the Atlantic World. Books of Common Prayer first reached America’s shores alongside the earliest settlers. Often, the 1662 edition printed by London’s John Baskerville was formally issued to new American churches by the Royal Wardrobe. At Old North Church in Boston, vestrymen of 1733 opened a green-baize lined trunk mailed “from the Jewell Office.” Next to sterling silver communion plate, velvet pulpit cushions, and a Bible emblazoned with the royal arms, lay a second cache. Old North vestry received two prayer books, “bound in Turkey leather strung with blue garter ribbon and trimmed with gold fringe” and a dozen more for the community to share, all “bound in Calf Gilt & filleted & strung with blue Ribbon.” Prayer books were more than highly prized signals of royal favor. These worship aids consolidated five liturgical texts: daily offices, Litany, Holy Communion, pastoral offices, and the ordinal. As Rowan Williams suggests, the Book of Common Prayer outlines theological positions, but it is “less the expression of a fixed doctrinal consensus… more the creation of a doctrinal and devotional climate.” Across the Atlantic World, Anglo-American clergy used them to convey a community’s civilization, and learning. In fractured parishes, buying prayer books was often the sole purchase that everyone agreed on.

Read the entire post here.

The Reading Habits of Journalists and Public Intellectuals

reading-and-learning-481x230

Check out Danny Funt‘s piece at Columbia Journalism Review titled “What does it mean for a journalist today to be a Serious Reader? In the course of the essay he discusses the reading habits of Adam Gopnik, David Brooks, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Rebecca Traister, E.J. Dionne, among others.

Here is a taste:

The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of the most respected magazine writers of the day, as much for the sharpness of his sword as the depth of his artillery, once wrote, “The intellect is a muscle; it must be exercised.” There’s a lot of equipment inside a gym—without knowing better, you might spend an hour doing a few curls and then bouncing around on a balance ball. A balance of news and broader information is desirable, but the optimal proportions can be elusive. Discussing reading habits tends to make people nervous about coming off, as one newspaper writer put it, “like a pretentious twit.”

I encountered no fanatical workaholics like Aristotle, who read with a brass orb in hand so if he dozed off and released his grip, a bang on the ground would startle him back to work. None was quite as industrious as the late writer David Foster Wallace, who advocated studying a usage dictionary on the toilet. Nor did I interview any stunt readers like Esquire’s A.J. Jacobs, who spent a year ploughing through Encyclopedia Britannica A to Z, 44 million words in all.

A couple years before his death in 2008, the legendary critic John Leonard estimated that he’d read 13,000 books for work. As he once explained, “I spend half my day writing about television, and the other half writing about books, and I read instead of sleep.” One way or another, Serious Readers must overcome a basic problem: There are only so many hours in a day.

In the Trump era especially, just keeping up with the news can be suffocating. At 7 each morning, the New York political analyst Jonathan Chait gets up in his Washington home and reviews the tweets he slept through, followed by policy news and Op-Eds in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. From 8 onward, with a break to cook and eat dinner with his family, he’s plugged into following news on the computer, taking short pauses to write when inspiration strikes.

“I’ve been draining down my long-term capital because the value of reading books is very high even if the payoff is delayed,” Chait says. “I can constantly get ideas from the news, but you need depth elsewhere.”

“You can’t live like this forever.”

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Kevin J. Hayes

GW BooksKevin J. Hayes, Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Central Oklahoma, now lives and writes in Toledo, Ohio. This interview is based on his new book, George Washington, A Life in Books (Oxford University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write George Washington, A Life in Books?

KJH: After finishing The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson, I began searching for a similar project, that is, another intellectual life of a major figure in early American history. Once I started researching Washington’s life of the mind, other historians tried to discourage me, asserting that Washington had little intellectual life. My preliminary research told me different. The more I researched the more I realized I could tell a story of Washington’s life unlike any previous biography.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of George Washington, A Life in Books?

KJH: My book presents a biography of Washington that concentrates on how the books he owned and read shaped the man he became. Organized chronologically and thematically, George Washington, A Life in Books examines many different subject areas Washington studied — devotional literature, histories, travel writing, political pamphlets, agricultural manuals — and situates them within the context of his public and private life.

JF: Why do we need to read George Washington, A Life in Books?

KJH: Though there are numerous Washington biographies available, mine presents a fresh look at Washington, portraying him as both a reader and a writer. It provides a unique view of Washington’s life and adds a completely new dimension to the story of a man we thought we knew.

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

KJH: I chose to attend graduate school at the University of Delaware because it was one of the best places in the country to study American literature during the eighties. Professor J. A. Leo Lemay, a leading scholar of early American literature, informed me about the numerous opportunities in his field. In addition to the critical study of literature, the field of early American literature would let me pursue parallel interests in American intellectual history and the history of the book. Researching the literary history of early America, I could be both literary scholar and historian.

JF: What is your next project?

KJH: I write biographies. This summer, Reaktion, a London publisher, will release my next book, Herman Melville, as part of its series Critical Lives. Over the past few years I have unearthed a considerable amount of new information about Benjamin Franklin, which I am now incorporating in an book-length study of Franklin’s life and writings.

JF: Thanks, Kevin!

Stop Reading in Bed!

Meijer Bleekrode Els Bleekrode lezend in bed, Nederland, ca.1935-1936

Unless, of course, you want to burn to death or be perceived as a self-interested threat to society.

Check out Nika Mavrody‘s piece at The Atlantic on reading in bed in early modern Europe.

Here is a taste:

As sleep transformed from a more public to a more private social practice, the bed became a flashpoint for that anxiety. Ultimately, the real danger posed by reading in bed wasn’t the risk of damage to life or property, but rather the perceived loss of traditional moorings.

Changes to reading and sleeping emphasized self-sufficiency—a foundation of Enlightenment thinking. The new attitude untethered the 18th-century individual from society. A social environment with oral reading and communal sleeping embeds an individual in a community. Falling asleep, a young woman senses her father snoring, or feels her younger sister curled up at her feet. When she hears stories read from the Bible, some figure of authority is present to interpret the meaning of the text.

People feared that solitary reading and sleeping fostered a private, fantasy life that would threaten the collective—especially among women. The solitary sleeper falls asleep at night absorbed in fantasies of another world, a place she only knows from books. During the day, the lure of imaginative fiction might draw a woman under the covers to read, compromising her social obligations.

The celebrated soprano Caterina Gabrielli was presumably reading one such novel when she neglected to attend a dinner party among Sicilian elites at home of the viceroy of Palermo, who had been intent on wooing her. A messenger sent to call on the absent singer found her in the bedroom, apparently so lost in her book, she’d forgotten all about the engagement. She apologized for her bad manners, but didn’t budge from bed.

Read the entire piece here.

The Mind of George Washington

HayesHistorian Kevin Hayes has a new book out on the reading habits of George Washington. (Kevin, if you are out there I would love to interview for the Author’s Corner.  I can’t seem to find an e-mail address.  Thanks).

He gives us a preview of George Washington: A Life in Books at the blog of Oxford University Press.

Here is a taste:

A hundred years ago Ezra Pound criticized American history textbooks for ignoring George Washington’s intellect. More often than not Washington has been seen as a shelf-filler, someone who decorated his home with books, but seldom read them fully or deeply. Here’s an alternate theory: though George Washington never assembled a great library in the manner of, say, Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson, he did amass an impressive and diverse collection of books that he read closely and carefully and that significantly influenced his thought and action.

No one has ever written an intellectual biography of George Washington. Though Washington’s surviving comments about books and reading are not nearly as extensive as those of other Founding Fathers, he did leave many different types of evidence that, in the aggregate, can help to reconstruct his life of the mind. The evidence takes many different forms:

Surviving books

Though Washington’s library was widely dispersed during the nineteenth century, many of his books do survive. The Boston Athenaeum holds the single largest collection of books formerly in his possession. Additional books survive at Mount Vernon. Other libraries—the Firestone Library at Princeton University, the Houghton Library at Harvard University, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Library of Congress, the Lilly Library at Indiana University, the Morgan Library, the New York Public Library, the Virginia Historical Society—all hold books from Washington’s library in their collections, most of which I have examined.

Marginalia

With the notable exception of his copy of James Monroe’s View of the Conduct of the Executive of the United States, Washington’s surviving books contain little marginalia, but he did write in his books occasionally. Most of the time he did so to correct typographical errors, but sometimes his marginal notes reveal how he read. Occasionally his notes in one book indicate other books he read. The fact that Washington wrote in his books has gone largely unnoticed, because uncovering these notes requires work that some find tedious. One must examine the surviving books meticulously, turning over one page after another in search of the slightest pencil marks showing that Washington did read the volumes that bear his bookplate.

Read the entire piece here.

Learning to Teach Students to Read With Charity, Humility, and Justice

smithYesterday, the first day of the 2017 Messiah College Humanities Symposium, I attended a great lecture from Calvin College professor David I. Smith titled “Charity, Humility, Justice: Learning to Read and Inviting Virtue.”  I don’t have time today to write-up a nicely crafted post, but I do want to share some random ideas I gleaned from the lecture.

Smith drew heavily from the work of Paul Griffiths and Alan Jacobs.

Griffiths, in his book Religious Reading: The Place of Reading in the Practice of Religion, distinguishes between two kinds of reading: “religious reading” and “consumer reading.”

When we read religiously we read repetitively.  The reading of a particular text is ongoing.  For example, we don’t read the Gospel of John once and then never return to it again for the rest of our lives.  When we read religiously there is an implicit assumption that the author of the text knows more than we do.  We cede authority to the text and expect it to make moral demands on our lives.  Finally, religious reading is done in community.  It implies that what people have said about the text, in the past and present, is important.

Consumer reading, on the other hand, is what we do when we read the Internet, or a restaurant menu, or (God forbid!) a blog post.  When we read as consumers we get what we want from the text and then we dispose of it.  Consumer reading is mastery-oriented.  We control the text.  Moreover, we expect to be the same person after reading the text than we were before we started to read it.  No one’s life is transformed from reading a restaurant menu.

Griffiths suggests that religious reading and consumer reading are both essential in our everyday lives.  But there are more “mechanisms” in our culture prompting us to read as consumers.  At this point in the lecture I could not tell whether Smith was speaking for himself or still summarizing Griffiths (I have not read Griffiths), but he suggested that education was one of the main reasons that consumer reading is so dominant.  Our system of education sees books as something we”check off.” (Again, few people read the Bible or another sacred text for the purpose of getting it off their bucket list).  Students do not see any need to revisit a text because, as they see it, they “read that one already, why do they need to read it again?”  This attitude implies that they are consuming the text–mastering its content for a brief period of time so that they can take a quiz or pass an exam.

Smith then turned to Alan Jacobs’s book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.  Jacobs describes reading in terms of “lingering.”  Rarely do students “linger” on a text.  Smith used the example of a poem about the Holocaust.  He suggested that there might be something wrong about reading the poem ten minutes before class and gleaning just enough information about it to impress the professor in the class discussion.  Smith said that the students are not to blame for the reading habits they have developed.  If a professor assigns 5o pages of reading a night he or she is inviting students to skim.

Smith then turned to a fascinating discussion about the place of “speed” in the classroom.  Studies show that teachers often measure the intelligence of a student based on how quickly they are able to answer a question in class.  The student who answers quickly and talks fast must be intelligent.  Speed is thus rewarded in the classroom.  Smith pointed at the irony of it all: “do we really believe that the student who speaks with the least forethought is the most intelligent?”  He even suggested that when it comes to the end of the semester, and a teacher is deciding whether to give a student an A- or a B+, the teacher might remember the speed in which the student raised his or her hand in class and factor that into the grade choice.

In other words, we do not reward “lingering.”  This kind of lingering, however, becomes a symbol of charity to the text.  It requires attentiveness. It means we listen to a text and do not read it to provide a platform for our own views.  Charity requires believing the best about the author for as long as you can.   Humility requires that we enter a text with the purpose of trying to learn from it. Most of our courses are structured in such a way that is NOT conducive to the cultivation of these virtues.

Smith spent the rest of the lecture discussing how he incorporates these ideas in a German literature class that he teaches at Calvin.  He left me with a lot to think about it.  Much of what he said intersected with some of the ideas I put forth in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, but Smith pushed me to take this kind of reading more seriously in my classes.  Finally, Smith’s examples were mostly about reading fiction.  How is this kind religious or charitable reading done when students are reading the William Penn’s 1692 Frame of Government or the Federalist Papers?

Great lecture.  It was an excellent way to kick-off the 2017 Messiah College Humanities Symposium.

The Intellectual Life–Part 8

sertillangesRecently I reread the A.G. Sertillanges’s classic work on the life of the mind: The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods.  Sertillanges (1863-1948) was a Catholic writer and a member of the Dominican Order.  He published The Intellectual Life in 1934.  Read the entire series here.

p.145: Now reading is the universal means of learning, and it is the proximate or remote preparation for every kind of production. We never think entirely alone: we think in company, in a vast collaboration; we work with the workers of the past and of the present.

p.151: …have no superstitious respect for novelty; love the eternal books that express eternal truths.

p.158: The communion of saints is the support of the mystical life; the banquet of the sages, perpetuated by our assiduous cult, is the invigoration of our intellectual life.

p.158: Contact with writers of genius procures us the immediate advantage of lifting us to a higher plane; by their superiority alone they confer a benefit on us even before teaching us anything.

p.160: The society of intelligent minds is always an exclusive society; reading gives us easier entrance to it.  We cast on the inspired page an imploring glance that is not in vain; we are helped, paths are opened up to us; we are reassured, initiated; the work of God in rare minds is put to our account as well as to theirs; we grow through them; we are enriched through them.

p.164: An essential condition for profiting by our reading, whether of ordinary books or those of writers of genius, is to tend always to reconcile our authors instead of setting one against another.

p.166: There is a great revelation in discovering the hidden links that exist between ideas and systems the most dissimilar.

p.170: To develop wisdom was the first object of our education; it is still that of the education that we essay to provide for ourselves.  Without wisdom, what we take in would be worthless, it would be as useless as was the first when it was on the library shelf.

The Intellectual Habits of Barack Obama

book-obamaMichiko Kaktutani of The New York Times has published an amazing article about Barack Obama’s habits of reading and writing during his days in the White House.  Obama is, at heart, a humanist–a man of ideas and a student of the human condition.  I am struck by Obama’s commitment to this kind of thinking, reading and writing amidst the daily rigors of running the United States.  He is a President who refused to be intellectual stagnant. He was constantly replenishing his mind with new ways of thinking about the world. He regularly used books to cultivate empathy in his life–to “get in somebody else’s shoes.”

I love what Obama says about history:

The writings of Lincoln, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, Mr. Obama found, were “particularly helpful” when “what you wanted was a sense of solidarity,” adding “during very difficult moments, this job can be very isolating.” “So sometimes you have to sort of hop across history to find folks who have been similarly feeling isolated, and that’s been useful.” There is a handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address in the Lincoln Bedroom, and sometimes, in the evening, Mr. Obama says, he would wander over from his home office to read it.

Read the entire piece here.  It is worth your time.  If Obama could sustain this kind of intellectual life in the White House then we have no excuse when it comes to sustaining it in our own busy lives.

Donald Trump: Anti-Intellectual

Last night  I tweeted @johnfea1

Granted, my thoughts on the passing of a constitutional amendment were a bit far fetched. 🙂  I would probably compare them to what I wrote in 2012 about requiring all Americans to take two years of post-secondary liberal arts training.  But I do believe in the ideas behind these less than practical proposals.

After doing some very basic research, I learned that Donald Trump has a B.S. (Bachelor of Science) in Economics from the University of Pennsylvania.  Trump’s degree was awarded by the Wharton School of Business, not the School of Arts & Sciences.  The degree also appears to be connected to Penn’s program in Real Estate.  I may be wrong, but I doubt the students in Trump’s program were deeply invested in liberal arts learning.  (Although Economics could certainly be taught in this way, as it is in the B.A. program in Economics in  Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences).

I have no idea how Trump’s education at Penn is connected to his lack of curiosity about the world and I would hesitate to say that one’s degree automatically explains one’s level of curiosity as an adult.  (This is why I think my idea for a Constitutional Amendment is probably far-fetched).

I do, however, want to suggest that Trump’s approach to the world, if he has one, does not reflect the kind of intellectual curiosity that should be required of a President of the United States.  Trump does not seem to read.  He does not seem to have any interest in learning from the past or understanding this present moment in our nation and the world in a larger context.

His comments to Chris Wallace about his lack of interest in the daily security briefings reveals his anti-intellectualism.  Frankly, I want my POTUS to be reading those briefings as much as possible.  It suggests that he or she is engaged with what is happening in the world.  I am no expert on the content of these reports, but I imagine that the information contained in them provide much fodder for thinking –in down time, in the shower, while trying to fall asleep at night, on Air Force One, while walking on the White House lawn–about how the country (and the POTUS who is leading it) should respond to global events. This practice of perpetual thinking and reflecting is the mark of an intellectual.  And it is a necessary prerequisite for action in the world.  It also is a hallmark of any liberally-educated person.

Why Historical Thinking is Essential in the #AgeofTrump

Why Study History CoverThis morning two commentators were on CNN talking about how a gunman, claiming he was investigating a fake news story about Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, fired shots in a Washington D.C. pizzeria.

Yes, you read that correctly, a guy acted on a fake news story and could have killed someone.  Perhaps he was mentally unstable.  Perhaps he was one of the many people who feel empowered to do this kind of thing in the #ageoftrump. Or perhaps he was completely incapable of deciphering the difference between a fake news story and a real one.  To make matters worse, CNN is reporting that the son of Gen. Michael Flynn, Donald Trump’s pick for National Security Adviser,  apparently created this story. Flynn himself has promoted similar stories.

In the course of the on-air discussion, both CNN commentators tried to say something about the importance of truth, evidence-based arguments, critical examination of news stories and other documents, understanding the context of news stories, and considering the source of such narratives.  Needless to say, I perked up as I watched these commentators desperately search for a language to describe this problem.

Let me suggest that the language they are looking for is the language of historical thinking.  Consider the recent report published by Sam Wineburg and the Stanford History Education Group. Read the entire thing here.  It is very rich and it should be read by all teachers, especially history teachers.

https://www.npr.org/player/embed/503129818/503141179

I remain convinced that the study of history is the best way to teach kids and college students how to read.  If Wineburg and these CNN commentators are correct, the study of history, and the thinking and reading skills that come with it, may be our best hope. Perhaps the #ageoftrump will finally wake us up to the need for this kind of thinking.   I hope so.