Episode 21: Why We Need More Historians in the Silicon Valley

podcast-icon1The liberal arts vs. STEM. A degree in the humanities vs. a degree in business. The current conversation around higher education consistently pits the study of history, philosophy, or English against more “practical” pursuits like engineering or computer science. But both data and the insights of business leaders tell us that this is a false dichotomy. Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling discuss the value of the liberal arts within both the current economic and political climate. They are joined by venture capitalist Scott Hartley (@scottehartley), author of The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts will Rule the Digital World.

Episode 21 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Drops in Two Hours

HartleyEpisode 21 will be here at midnight.

The episode is titled “Why We Need More History Majors in the Silicon Valley.” My commentary focuses on the National Endowment for the Humanities and we spend some time chatting with one of the show’s sponsors, Dr. J of Jennings College Consulting.

Our guest is venture capitalist Scott Hartley (@scottehartley), author of The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts will Rule the Digital World.

Stay tuned.


The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown


This week the new Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia is getting all the press, but J.L. Bell reminds us that there is another museum of the American Revolution that recently opened at Yorktown.  Bell paid a visit to the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown and tells us what he saw in a recent post at Boston 1775.

Here is a taste:

Though this museum is at the site of a particular event—the Yorktown siege of 1781—it covers the entire Revolutionary conflict, starting with the imperial situation of the 1750s and running to the expansion of the U.S. of A. in the 1790s. The galleries have the themes of “The British Empire and America”; “The Changing Relationship—Britain and North America”; “Revolution,” meaning the war; “The New Nation”; and “The American People.”

The museum also uses a lot of interactive technology. I didn’t watch the introductory film, “Liberty Fever,” but I was impressed by many of the smaller video displays. One standout was the museum’s Liberty Tree, a metal sculpture draped with “20 electronic lanterns that display liberty messages from all over the world.” Visitors in person and online can type out short remarks (no more than 108 characters) about what liberty means to them, and those appear on the lanterns.

Beside the museum building there’s a feature I remember from Yorktown decades back, a recreation of the Continental Army camp during the siege of 1781. Alongside that is an eighteenth-century farm raising vegetables and herbs; it includes a tobacco barn, representing colonial Virginia’s main crop, but apparently no tobacco fields.

The American Revolution Museum is allied with the Jamestown Settlement, a recreation of the first lasting British settlement in North America—not to be confused with the actual site of that settlement, which is a different attraction. And of course they’re all within a moderate drive of Colonial Williamsburg. As I said, well worth a visit.

Read the entire post here.

Jim Wallis and Eric Metaxas Discuss Evangelicals and Trump

Eric Metaxas says that over the past “twenty or thirty years” evangelicals have come to understand that “even in public life, the Christian faith is about grace and forgiveness, more than it is about moralism….This doesn’t mean that morality and character don’t count, but at the end of the day, Christianity is not a faith that is principally focused on one’s sins but on forgiveness and on grace.”

In the first part of this statement, Metaxas makes an appeal to recent history.  So I wonder, have conservative Christians over the past twenty or thirty years really come to understand that their faith is not about trying to bring evangelical-infused moral values to the culture?  Metaxas seems to be implying that over the past few decades evangelicals have come to terms with the fact that their faith is apolitical and no longer driven by “moralism.”  Trump is a sinner. Christians should forgive him.  And they should vote for him.

Where has Metaxas been these past few decades?  Does he listen to his own radio show?  I have listened to it on occasion.  In nearly every segment Metaxas makes it clear that he does think Christianity is about moralism.

Has Metaxas read his own book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty?  I have read it and reviewed it here at The Way of Improvement Leads HomeThe book is about all the ways in which the Christian faith has contributed to the moral fabric of the country.  In fact, anyone who reads If You Can Keep It would come away believing that Metaxas thinks the mission of Christianity in the United States and the mission of the United States itself are identical.  In other words, he is as much of a Christian nationalist as David Barton.  The only difference is that Metaxas went to Yale, lives in New York City, and has a better tan.  (They are both fast talkers).

Metaxas embarrasses himself in this video.

He calls Wallis silly, sloppy, and wrongheaded (rolling his eyes) because Wallis thinks that the government of the United States will be held accountable for racist policies and its treatment of the poor.  Metaxas suggests that biblical commands of this nature do not apply to governments.

And then later in the interview Metaxas says that God will hold the United States accountable for abortion.  So does God hold the United States government accountable for its sins or not? Will God hold the United States accountable for abortion and not for its failure to care for the poor and oppressed?

“I’m depressed by the dialogue.”

I Hate When Politicians Do This

Trump Jackson

The most dangerous POTUS of all time?  

At a rally yesterday in Salt Lake City, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez announced, among other things, that “we have the most dangerous president in American history.”

Stop it.

One of my pet peeves is when politicians make political statements and try to couch them with some type of moral authority by appealing to American history.  Obama used to do this all the time with his “right” and “wrong” side of history stuff.

Is Trump the most dangerous president in American history?  This is not a question that historians usually ask because it is virtually impossible to answer.  Even if the American republic comes to a crashing end in the next several months, future historians will debate whether or not it was really Trump’s fault.

I am sure many Native Americans in the 1830s thought Andrew Jackson was the most dangerous president in American history.  I am sure conservatives and libertarians during the New Deal thought FDR was the most dangerous president in American history.  I am sure free-soilers thought James K. Polk was the most dangerous president in American history.  Many evangelical Christians thought Bill Clinton was the most dangerous president in American history.  And we could go on…

OK.  My sermon is over.


Want to Be a Doctor? Study the Humanities


George Mellgard is graduating from Duke University next month with a degree in Classics.  It sounds like he is heading to medical school.

Here is a taste of his story from the pages of the Duke student newspaper, The Chronicle.

When I first came to Duke, I knew I wanted to take the pre-medicine route. I enjoyed both sciences and the humanities and thought the path of a doctor was most suited for exploring my interests. Therefore, I decided that, like the model pre-medicine student, I wanted to major in Neuroscience or Biology.

It was not until second semester that a friend of mine challenged me to take a risk. At the time, I was taking Roman History and had expressed to him my excitement at taking courses in the Classics. He suggested that rather than major in the sciences, I pursue a non-traditional major that I consider majoring in the Classics.

While I first wrote him off as being idealistic, I eventually found that this non-traditional route was not merely a possibility, but something that I actually wanted to pursue. The rest will hopefully be history, since I hope to graduate in less than a month with a major in the Classics and having fulfilled the necessary requirements for pre-medicine.

Majoring in the Classics has provided me with an experience entirely different than the sciences. It has taught me to look to the past to inform myself about our present situation. It has also provided me with guiding principles not only for learning but also for how to live life. However, my college academic path could have very easily taken a different route had I not been pushed to seek something different.

For this column I want to talk about the ways in which we choose classes and learn at this university. After all, while I value my major, it does not directly relate to my chosen professional path. For many, classes serve not as a way to learn but as a means to an end. We take classes so that we can get that easy A, fulfill that ALP or QS and to ensure that we are able to get that pre-professional summer internship.

In fact, ask almost any student here about why they are taking their current classes and you will get something along the lines of “because I have to” or “because I should.” Less often than not will the answer be because “I want to.”

While it is important for us to consider our future careers and overall performance, we turn to the more nuanced purpose of learning today. What I hope tomorrow’s students avoid is picking a predetermined path or class for the sake of their future—for dodging risks or the Math Department in favor of the clearer and defined road.

Taking this road is understandable. After all, there will always be the sense of dread or the lingering suspicion that taking the risky class is a luxury just not afforded to the average Duke student. But taking that easy path prevents us from experiencing our authentic self, or even worse prevents us from discovering what might be our true calling in life.

Read the entire piece here.

FOUND: A New Parchment Copy of the Declaration of Independence

national treasure

Read all about it at The New York Times.  Harvard University professor Danielle Allen discussed her find yesterday at the Yale University conference honoring Bernard Bailyn. She thinks the mid-1780s parchment was copied by order of James Wilson.

Here is a taste of Jennifer Schuessler’s story on the find:

Archival research doesn’t get much more exciting than the 2004 heist movie “National Treasure.” Nicolas Cage, playing a historian named Benjamin Franklin Gates, discovers a coded map on the back of the Declaration of Independence. Globe-spanning intrigue ensues — accompanied, offscreen, by a tsunami of eye-rolling by actual historians.

But now, in a bit of real-life archival drama, a pair of scholars are announcing a surprising discovery: a previously unknown early handwritten parchment of the Declaration, buried in a provincial archive in Britain.

The document is the only other 18th-century handwritten parchment Declaration known to exist besides the one from 1776 now displayed at the National Archives in Washington. It isn’t an official government document, like the 1776 parchment, but a display copy created in the mid-1780s, the researchers argue, by someone who wanted to influence debate over the Constitution.

It may not hold the key to a Masonic conspiracy, as in “National Treasure.” But its subtle details, the scholars argue, illuminate an enduring puzzle at the heart of American politics: Was the country founded by a unitary national people, or by a collection of states?

“That is really the key riddle of the American system,” said Danielle Allen, a professor of government at Harvard, who discovered the document with a colleague, Emily Sneff.

That riddle has bedeviled American history, from debates over Southern secession to calls to abolish the Electoral College today. And it was the burning question in the mid-1780s, when the American experiment was at risk of falling apart, and the push for a federal constitution, creating a strong national government (with, crucially, the right to tax), gained steam.

The new parchment will hardly end the argument. But it “really shifts our understanding in how the nationalist position emerged,” Ms. Allen said.

It remains to be seen what scholars will make of the discovery, which will be announced on Friday at a conference at Yale. A paper, posted online, runs through a wealth of textual and material evidence supporting the claim that the document, while found in Britain, was created in America in the 1780s. Ms. Allen and Ms. Sneff’s conference presentation will focus on their leading candidate for person behind it: James Wilson, a Pennsylvania lawyer and one of the strongest nationalists at the 1787 Constitutional Convention, who probably commissioned the parchment.

Some historians who have previewed their research are impressed.

“The sleuthing they’ve done is just remarkable,” said Benjamin Irvin, an associate professor of history at the University of Arizona and the author of “Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty,” a 2011 study of the Continental Congress. The identification as American, from the mid-1780s, he added, “looks pretty watertight.”

Read the rest here.

What is More Important: Quality Consumer Goods or Social Equality?

CarnegieThe obvious answer is quality consumer goods. How could we live without them?

At least this is how Pennsylvania steel magnate Andrew Carnegie would have answered the question posed in the title of my post.

Yesterday  in my Pennsylvania History class I taught Carnegie’s famous 1889 North American Review essay titled “Wealth.”

Here is part of what he said:

Formerly articles were manufactured at the domestic hearth in small shops which formed part of the household. The master and his apprentices worked side by side, the latter living with the master and therefore subject to the same conditions.  When these apprentices rose to be master, there was little or no change in their mode of life, and they, in turn, educated in the same routine succeeding apprentices.  There was, substantially, social equality….

But the inevitable result of such a mode of manufacture was crude articles at high prices.  To-day the world obtains commodities of excellent quality at prices which even the general preceding this would have deemed incredible. In the commercial world similar causes have produced similar results, and the race is benefited thereby. The poor enjoy what the rich could not before afford. What were the luxuries have become the necessaries of life. The laborer has now more comforts than the landlord had a few generations ago. The farmer has more luxuries than the landlord had, and is more richly clad and better housed. The landlord has books and pictures rarer, and appointments more artistic, than the King could then obtain.

The price we pay for this salutary change is, no doubt, great. We assemble thousands of operatives in the factory, in the mine, and in the counting-house, of whom the employer can know little or nothing, and to whom the employer is little better than a myth. All intercourse between them is at an end. Rigid Castes are formed, and, as usual, mutual ignorance breeds mutual distrust. Each Caste is without sympathy for the other, and ready to credit anything disparaging in regard to it. Under the law of competition, the employer of thousands is forced into the strictest economies, among which the rates paid to labor figure prominently, and often there is friction between the employer and the employed, between capital and labor, between rich and poor. Human society loses homogeneity.

The price which society pays for the law of competition, like the price it pays for cheap comforts and luxuries, is also great;but the advantage of this law are also greater still, for it is to this law that we owe our wonderful material development, which brings improved conditions in its train.

After walking my students through this text, I ended class and let them ponder it over the weekend.  We will see what they think on Monday.

Morning Headlines

New York Times: “Attack in Paris Casts as Shadow as France’s Election Nears”

Washington Post: “‘Big announcement’ on tax reform unlikely to reveal details, official says”

Wall Street Journal: “U.S. Denies Exxon Bid for Waiver on Russia Sanctions”

Harrisburg Patriot-News “Franklin on new football rules, more”

BBC: “Afghan army base casualties pass 100”

CNN: “‘We’re all really, really scared'” 

FOX: “Trump-Like Boost: Populists Le Pen sees jump in support with clock ticking to France’s election

Can Colleges Cut Their Way to Greatness?

Messiah Union

No, according to community college dean Matt Reed.

Reed’s post at his Inside Higher Ed blog “Confessions of a Community College Dean” should be taken seriously by all college administrators.

In places with declining enrollments and without generous external benefactors, it’s easy to fall into the trap of constant cutting. Each year is a fresh emergency, bringing another round of short-term patches and “temporary” workarounds that quickly become new baselines.

Over time, though, the cuts do damage that starts to show up in enrollments. Too many classes cancelled or calls unreturned lead to attrition, which leads to calls for still more cuts. Cut an off-campus location to save money, and whoops, you lose its enrollments, leading to a need for more cutting. Add an inexorably rising underlying cost — say, just hypothetically, health insurance — and you have the makings of a death spiral.

What makes the spiral so insidious is that each individual decision that constitutes it, taken individually, makes sense. It’s the cumulative effect that proves fatal. 

Interrupting the death spiral is much harder than it looks, though.

At a really basic level, it takes recognition of what’s happening. That means getting beyond the short-term panic of a scary looking balance sheet to look several years into the future. And it means getting past the simpleminded assumption that the only barrier to draconian cuts is a lack of guts.

So that means a combination of vision and emotional self-control. Already, that’s a tallish order.

Read the entire post here.


Ouch! The “Weekly Standard” Reviews the New Museum of the American Revolution


The Museum of the American Revolution opened on Wednesday.  Conservative pundits are already trashing it.

Here are a few snippets from Andrew Ferguson‘s review of the museum.  Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

As the chief historian at the new Museum of the American Revolution, which opened April 19 in this city’s historic district, Philip Mead had the job of writing the museum’s explanatory labels—those little signs next to an exhibit that tell you what you’re looking at. By his own admission, he would sometimes get carried away. He has a Ph.D. in American history from Harvard, and, perforce, he writes like a guy with a Ph.D. from Harvard. He might even use words like “perforce.” Not reader-friendly, in other words.

Fortunately for him, he had several chefs peering into the pot of his prose. “They’d say things like, ‘You’ve got room for 75 words and you’re trying to get four ideas in,’ ” he said the other day. “They’d say, ‘That’s three too many. You only get one.’ ” The museum’s director of learning and engagement ran his every sentence through a pitiless piece of software called Hemingway Editor, which ranks a piece of writing by grade level. In Hemingway, the lower the grade, the better.

“She’d come back and say, ‘Hemingway says you’re writing at 37th grade level. You have to get it down to 8th grade.’ ” And so he did. Mead isn’t complaining—he says he’s glad he mastered the art of writing “short, declarative sentences” and keeping things simple.

Still, a plunge of 29 grade levels might prompt a grumpy critic to complain that the museum has undergone a measurable dumbing-down. Such a critic, whoever he is, will have to get over it. Nearly all attempts to educate the general public, from PBS documentaries to art shows to history museums, are pitched to the level of a slightly dim, constantly distracted middle-schooler. Curators and exhibit designers spend their lives gripped by the fear that they will lose the attention of this mythic museumgoer.

This is why exhibits in modern museums jump and shimmy and flash and roar with every digitized mechanism the budget will allow. The gimmickry is best understood as the frantic arm-waving of designers and curators, hopping up and down and screaming at the top of their lungs, “Hey! Kid! Over here! Look, look, look! It goes boom!”

And this:

The third-largest donor was the Oneida Indian Nation, with a check for $10 million, plus incidentals.

That would be the same Oneida in the exhibit with the stern-faced tribal elders. The Oneida’s donation came with a quid pro quo that is refreshing in its openly transactional nature. Concessions to big-ticket donors are of course routine in every nonprofit project, not only in museums but hospitals too, and performing arts centers, and so on. Long gone are the days when a benefactor like Andrew Mellon could found and endow a museum like the National Gallery of Art without naming the enterprise after his own modest and generous self. Ballrooms and theaters, even toilets and water fountains, carry the names of the donors who made it all possible. Inside or outside the Museum of the American Revolution you’ll have trouble finding a square foot of real estate whose naming rights haven’t been bought by a big corporation or a civic-minded, guilt-ridden member of the 1 percent.

But buying the content of exhibits is seldom so frankly acknowledged. The curatorial attention lavished on the Oneida is almost comically out of proportion to the role the tribe played in the real revolutionary war, and no one I talked to at the museum bothers to argue otherwise. The curators never miss a chance to pay tribute to the benefactor. In a cathedral-like space dubbed the Oneida Indian Nation Atrium, at the head of a grand staircase, a 16-by-19-foot painting of Washington conferring with Rochambeau, called the Siege of Yorktown, dominates the room.

Read the entire review here.

The Mike and the Mad Dog 9/11 Tapes

Mike and Mad

I just stumbled upon this article at Deadspin.

As I have written here before, I spent a lot of time over the years listening to WFAN, New York City’s first sports-talk radio station.  Between 1989 and 2008 Mike Francesa and Chris “Mad Dog” Russo were the heart and soul of the station.  Their afternoon drive-time show “Mike and the Mad Dog” dominated the New York City radio airwaves, especially among men between the ages of 25 and 55.  (Francesa is still at WFAN.  Russo now has his own Series XM Radio channel).

I was living in Valparaiso, Indiana on September 11, 2001 and was thus not listening to Mike and Mad Dog.  I never really thought about how they would have reacted to the tragic events of that day until I read this piece.

I had no idea that they did a controversial show on September 12, 2011. I also did not know that this show was not preserved or made available to the media.  Keith Draper and Nick Martin have located a recording of the show and they have analyzed it extensively at Deadspin.

Here is a taste:

On Sept. 12, 2001, Mike and the Mad Dog host Mike Francesa drove to his local gas station to fill up the tank before coming into work. The station was owned by an “Arabic family,” and he said he could tell that the man working was understandably nervous given the previous day’s events, so he “gave him a slap on the back” before leaving the station.

 Francesa related this anecdote on the air later that day, as he and partner Chris “Mad Dog” Russo spent the six hours of their WFAN afternoon drive radio show occasionally discussing sports, but mostly the 9/11 attacks, and how they happened, who was responsible, and, critically, who should be blamed.

That broadcast, and the broadcasts on the days that followed, entered into a shadowy sports-radio infamy because of what was supposedly said. The Anti-Defamation League wrote a letter to WFAN program director Mark Chernoff denouncing how Francesa and Russo spoke about Jews and Israel, New York Post columnist Phil Mushnick wrote a number of critical columns about the duo’s 9/11 takes, and Francesa and Russo even addressed it for an upcoming 30 for 30 documentary.

But the actual tapes of the Sept. 12, 2001 Mike and the Mad Dog broadcast were seemingly not preserved and never made available. Mushnick asked WFAN for them and was stonewalled. The director of the 30 for 30 couldn’t locate them. Chernoff told us that WFAN doesn’t have them in an archive.

According to former WFAN employees, at the time the Mike and the Mad Dog show was recorded onto six-hour long VHS tapes. The video track was from a station security camera. But these tapes would only be stored for six months, at most, before they were re-used and recorded over. Only certain portions—say, an interview with a coach that might be replayed—were transferred off of VHS onto audio cassettes. In the days before the huge capacity of external hard drives, WFAN didn’t keep an archive filled with endless physical tapes.

Rumors continued to suggest that the tape was somewhere out there, however, and Deadspin was able to confirm that in the years afterwards there were—at the very least—two copies of the Sept. 12, 2001, broadcast of Mike and the Mad Dog.

Read the entire piece here.


Is the Democratic Party Divided Over Abortion Rights?


The late Pennsylvania governor Bob Casey was reportedly denied a speaking slot at the 1992 Democratic Convention because he wanted to give a pro-life speech

What should the Democratic Party do with its pro-life members?  Over at The Atlantic, Clare Foran reports that the politics of abortion threaten to divide the party.

Here is a taste:

Ahead of an event on Thursday where Bernie Sanders, the independent Vermont senator who remains the left’s most popular figure, was slated to appear with Representative Keith Ellison, the Democratic National Committee’s deputy chair, and Heath Mello, an Omaha, Nebraska Democratic mayoral candidate, NARAL Pro-Choice America, an organization that endorsed Hillary Clinton in the presidential primary, harshly criticized the DNC for what it called the party’s “embrace” of “an anti-choice candidate.”

The statement followed a report in The Wall Street Journal that Mello once supported legislation “requiring women to look at ultrasound image of their fetus before receiving an abortion.” The liberal website Daily Kos withdrew its endorsement of Mello over the report.

On Thursday, Mello told The Huffington Post, however, that he “would never do anything to restrict access to reproductive health care,” if elected. Jane Kleeb, the chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party and board member of Our Revolution, a group that emerged out of the embers of the Sanders campaign, said in an interview that The Wall Street Journal and NARAL had “mischaracterized” Mello’s legislative record.

“Heath is a strong progressive Democrat, and he is pro-life, and you can be both things,” Kleeb said, adding: “What Heath did actually was stop a bill to make ultrasounds mandatory by getting Republicans in our legislature to agree to make them voluntary.”

Mello’s vow did not satisfy NARAL, however. “It’s not enough to issue a statement for political expediency when your record is full of anti-choice votes,” Ilyse Hogue, the organization’s president, said in a follow-up statement. “The Democratic Party’s support of any candidate who does not support the basic rights and freedoms of women is disappointing and politically stupid.”

Read the entire piece here.

I did not think the pro-life faction of the Democratic Party was that strong. Or at least I have not heard the divisions in the Party framed this way recently.  I assumed that pro-life Democrats lost all power in the Party sometimes shortly after the election of Bill Clinton.

If you want some perspective on how the Democrats became a pro-choice party I recommend Daniel K. Williams’s book  Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade (Oxford 2016).  Before you go out and buy the book you may want to hear Williams talk about the history of the pro-life movement in Episode 2 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

As I have argued, particularly in a piece I published a couple of years ago in USA Today, the modern Democratic Party should really be the party of life.

“It was about the extension of white supremacy”

HoweI just finished lecturing on Andrew Jackson in my U.S. survey course.  (Actually, I still need to cover the bank crisis. I will do that in lecture on Monday).  One of the central themes of this lecture is that Jackson’s understanding of democracy was directly tied to white supremacy.

Everyone seems to be talking about Jackson these days. Slacktivist recently called my attention to a 2010 blog post by public intellectual and award winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates in which Coates quotes from Daniel Walker Howe’s Pultizer Prize-winning What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848.  The quote comes from Howe’s section on Jackson and Indian removal:

Seeking the fundamental impulse behind Jacksonian Democracy, historians have variously pointed to free enterprise, manhood suffrage, the labor movement, and resistance to the market economy. But in its origins, Jacksonian Democracy (which contemporaries understood as a synonym for Jackson’s Democratic Party) was not primarily about any of these, though it came to intersect with all of them in due course. In the the first place, it was about the extension of white supremacy across the North American continent.

Cornel West and Ross Douthat Together at the University of St. Thomas



I have been concerned lately about the lack of open debate and public conversation on college campuses.

All colleges and universities invite guest speakers to campus.  At my college we do a fair job of inviting a range of voices. Some speakers come from within the Christian tradition and some come from outside of it. Some are liberal and some are conservative.

Liberal factions on college campuses bring in speakers who will attract liberal faculty and students.  The speakers tell the audience what they want to hear and basically confirm the audience’s already held convictions.  Everyone oohs and ahhs for 45 minutes.  Then, when the applause is over,  they loft “softball” questions that the speaker can easily hit out of the park.  After the lecture they talk about the speaker for days, hoping that the college as a whole will take note of what he or she said and start to enact meaningful change along the lines that the speaker has proposed.

And then the next week a conservative speaker comes to campus and the same thing happens all over again.  Very few of the faculty and students who were present for the liberal lecture show up for this lecture.  The speaker expounds upon her or his conservative values and everyone leaves feeling pretty good about themselves.  Then comes the usual post-lecture swoon.

Rarely is there a conservative response at the liberal lecture or a liberal response at a conservative lecture.  I imagine that sometimes people worry about this kind of intellectual exchange becoming too contentious.  (This is certainly an issue at my college where Christian peace and the absence of conflict stem from the school’s Anabaptist heritage).  Yet such arguments, when conducted civilly, contribute to the educational and intellectual culture of our campuses.  Rarely do our students see two intellectuals with different ideas engaged in conversation over things that matter.

Last week I was up in Wenham, Massachusetts to deliver the Gordon College Franz Lecture.  My topic was “Why Study History?,” so I used my time to talk a little bit about the ongoing problems that I see with American democracy.  (Readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home or Why Study History? have heard or read this before).

Here is a small part of my talk:

And what is happening to the state of democratic conversation? Public argument and debate over the critical issues of the day too often takes place in 30-second sound bites between talking heads on cable news. This sound-bite culture makes it difficult to fully engage with and even understand the viewpoints of those neighbors with whom we disagree. Cable news encourages a kind of passive approach to public life. Rather than engaging in civil conversation, we sit on our couches or in front of our screens and merely consume it all. This is not citizenship.

As the late historian and cultural critic Christopher Lasch has written:

“The attempt to bring others around to our point of view carries the risk, of course, that we may adopt their point of view instead. We have to enter imaginatively into our opponent’s arguments, if only for the purpose of refuting them, and we may end up being persuaded by those we sought to persuade. Argument is risky and unpredictable, therefore educational. Most of us tend to think of it….as a clash of dogmas, a shouting match in which neither side gives any ground. But arguments are not won by shouting down opponents. They are won by changing opponents minds—something that can only happen if we give opposing arguments a respectful hearing and still persuade their advocates that there is something wrong with those arguments. In the course of this activity, we may well decide that there is something wrong with our own.”

I was thus encouraged when I recently read about a week of lectures and conversations at the University of St. Thomas, a Catholic liberal arts college in Minnesota.

The highlight of the week was a session featuring Cornel West and Ross Douthat.  The topic was “Christianity and Politics in the U.S. Today.”

Here is a taste of University of St. Thomas theologian Michael Hollerich‘s description of the event at the website of Commonweal

Then on Friday, St. Thomas’s Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy hosted a conversation between Cornel West and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat on “Christianity and Politics in the U.S. Today.” A cynic might have derided this as a celebrity event. It was much better than that, and the planners deserve warm congratulations for pulling off a remarkable success. The Murphy Institute is named for the late Msgr. Terrence Murphy (d. 2004), for over thirty-five years the university’s president and chancellor, and sometimes referred to as St. Thomas’s Fr. Hesburgh. The institute is jointly administered by the university’s Center for Catholic Studies and the law school. Apart from its legal-education programs, for much of its twenty-year history the institute stuck to topics and speakers from the conservative end of the Catholic spectrum. The last few years it has been braver about going outside the usual suspects. A good example is the seminar led by German sociologist Hans Joas on his 2013 book The Sacredness of the Person, which draws on American pragmatism and German historicism for a new genealogy of human rights.

Cornel West was a reach well beyond that. I am not privy to whatever dealing brought him and Ross Douthat, a very public Catholic conservative, to our campus. It turned out to be an inspired match. Anyone who expected Crossfire-style vituperation would have been disappointed. West, who looks like an aging Frederick Douglass in cufflinks, was funny, powerful, and lightning quick on his feet, with a daunting expressive range and a limitless supply of intellectual and cultural allusions. He played his audience like a maestro conducting an orchestra. Douthat was the real surprise. His journalism didn’t prepare me for his self-deprecating humor and charm. There wasn’t a trace of the sometimes-churlish voice of the columnist. West’s booming greeting to “Brother Ross” set the tone. Douthat also showed impressive self-possession in not being bowled over by West’s bombast. He seemed mostly willing to play the straight man to West’s shtick (did he have a choice?), while slipping in his own sly cracks. The humor and the moral and intellectual passion were infectious. Who expected a spirited detour on John Dewey (Douthat called him an aggressive secularizer and a defender of amoral instrumental reason; West said his love of democracy was mystical and almost religious)? Or Cornel West invoking “Gilbert Keith Chesterton”? It helped that they shared a common contempt for Donald Trump (and possibly Hillary Clinton as well). On Trump, Douthat was unsparing—when I referred above to Trump’s “racialized politics,” I was borrowing Douthat’s phrase.

Read the rest here.  We need more events like this on our campuses for the purpose of modeling conversation and intellectual exchange about important matters.


Morning Headlines

New York Times:  “Trump Rails Against Trade Deals, From Steel to Milk”

Washington Post “American detained in Egypt for 3 years returns to U.S. after Trump intervention”

Wall Street Journal: “In ‘Buy American’ Push, Trump Is Starting in a Hole”

Harrisburg Patriot-News: “‘I want to die, I just want to see daddy’: Frein victim’s wife on her children’s pain.”

BBC: “Paris gunman was ‘on police terror radar'”

CNN: “Russia flexes muscle over the Pacific”

FOX: “Hunt for Information: French authorities search home believed linked to ISIS-claimed attack.”

Hawaii is the 50th State


That’s right.  It is part of the United States of America.  It received statehood on August 21, 1959.  You can learn more about it here.  People born in Hawaii are U.S. citizens.  I think we all learned this lesson when Sessions’s boss suggested that the former POTUS was not born in the United States.  Yes, it is a “little island in the Pacific,” but it is part of this country just like the other 49 states.

Someone please pass this information along to Attorney General Jeff Sessions.  He was only twelve when Hawaii became a state.  Perhaps he doesn’t remember.

Here is what Sessions said today to talk radio personality Mark Levin.
SessionsIt is also worth noting that this judge, Derrick Watson, is a federal judge.  The 9th Circuit is part of the United States Court of Appeals.  We have a federal court system in the United States.  We are no longer living under the Articles of Confederation and the Confederacy lost the Civil War.

Springsteen’s Anti-Trump Song


It was only a matter of time.

The Boss has teamed-up with Pittsburgh rocker Joe Grushecky to record Grushecky’s anti-Trump song “That’s What Makes Us Great.”

Here is a taste of a post at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Joe Grushecky and Bruce Springsteen have joined forces once again, this time on a passionate protest anthem called “That’s What Makes Us Great.”

It’s the first track that the singer-songwriters from Pittsburgh and New Jersey have worked on since Grushecky’s 2009 album “East Carson Street.” The two musicians, who have been friends since the mid ‘80s, first collaborated in the studio when Springsteen produced Grushecky’s 1995 album “American Babylon.” Springsteen won a rock performance Grammy in 2005 for a live version of “Code of Silence,” a song they wrote together in 1997. 

This duet, a gritty rocker in the vintage Houserockers/E Street vein, takes on the Trump administration over immigration and alternative facts.

Grushecky wrote the song around the time Donald Trump took office in January.

“I had this song, and Bruce and I had been talking. I sent it to him and he liked it. I said, ‘What do you think about singing on it?’ He gave it the Bruce treatment.”

Read the entire piece here.

Here are the lyrics:


They come from everywhere

A longing to be free

They come to join us here

From sea to shining sea


And they all have a dream

As people always will

To be safe and warm

In that shining city on the hill


Some wanna slam the door

Instead of opening the gate

Aw, let’s turn this thing around

Before it gets too late


It’s up to me and you

Love can conquer hate

I know this to be true

That’s what makes us great


Don’t tell me a lie

And sell it as a fact

I’ve been down that road before

And I ain’t goin’ back

And don’t you brag to me

That you never read a book

I never put my faith

In a con man and his crooks


I won’t follow down that path

And tempt the hands of fate

Aw, let’s turn this thing around

Before it gets too late

It’s up to me and you

Love can conquer hate

I know this to be true

That’s what makes us great


In the quiet of the night

I lie here wide awake

And I ask myself

Is there a difference I can make?

It’s up to me and you

Love can conquer hate

I know this to be true

That’s what makes us great