Thursday, April 2, 2020

CHORUS

Henry V
Chorus

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide one man, 


And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.

William Shakespeare. The Complete Works of Shakespeare
(Kindle Locations 48274-483036). Latus ePublishing. Kindle Edition.

Friday, March 27, 2020

IS THIS A JOKE?

When the academy is forced to explain the value of the humanities, the language that it uses is pathetically insipid. You may have heard the defense du jour, tossed out en route to the next gender studies conference. The humanities, we are told, teach “critical thinking.” Is this a joke? These are the professorial critical thinkers who write sentences like this: 

It is because the proper names are already no longer proper names because their production is their obliteration, because the erasure and the imposition of the letter are originary, because they do not supervene upon a proper inscription; it is because the proper name has never been anything but the original myth of a transparent legibility present under the obliteration; it is because the proper name was never possible except through its functioning within a classification and therefore within a system of differences, within a writing retaining the traces of difference, that the interdict was possible, could come into play, and, when the time came, as we shall see, could be transgressed; transgressed, that is to say restored to the obliteration and the non-self-awareness at the origin.

 And we’re supposed to believe that they can think? Moreover, the sciences provide critical thinking skills as well—far more rigorous ones, in fact, than the hackneyed deconstructions of advertising that the left-wing academy usually means by critical thinking. It is no wonder, then, that we have been hearing that the humanities are in crisis. A 2013 Harvard report, co-chaired by the school’s premier postcolonial studies theorist, Homi Bhabha, lamented that 57 percent of incoming Harvard students who initially declare interest in a humanities major eventually change concentrations. Why may that be? Imagine an intending literature major who is assigned something by Professor Bhabha: “If the problematic ‘closure’ of textuality questions the totalization of national culture.…” How soon before that student concludes that a psychology major is more up his alley? 

No, the only true justification for the humanities is that they provide the thing that Faust sold his soul for: knowledge. It is knowledge of a particular kind, concerning what men have done and created over the ages.
 

from Heather Mac Donald, The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture. St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

ANYTHING BUT KNOWLEDGE

Anything But Knowledge
“Why Johnny’s Teacher Can’t Teach” (1998)
from The Burden of  Bad Ideas
Heather Mac Donald
Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000, pp. 82ff.

Once you dismiss real knowledge as the goal of education, you have to find something else to do.


    America’s nearly last-place finish in the Third International Mathematics and Sciences Study of student achievement caused widespread consternation this February, except in the one place it should have mattered most: the nation’s teacher education schools. Those schools have far more important things to do than worrying about test scores—things like stamping out racism in aspiring teachers. “Let’s be honest,” darkly commanded Professor Valerie Henning-Piedmont to a lecture hall of education students at Columbia University’s Teachers College last February. “What labels do you place on young people based on your biases?” It would be difficult to imagine a less likely group of bigots than these idealistic young people, happily toting around their handbooks of multicultural education and their exposés of sexism in the classroom. But Teachers College knows better. It knows that most of its students, by virtue of being white, are complicitous in an unjust power structure.


    The crusade against racism is just the latest irrelevancy to seize the nation’s teacher education schools. For over eighty years, teacher education in America has been in the grip of an immutable dogma, responsible for endless educational nonsense. That dogma may be summed up in the phrase: Anything But Knowledge. Schools are about many things, teacher educators say (depending on the decade)—self-actualization, following one’s joy, social adjustment, or multicultural sensitivity—but the one thing they are not about is knowledge. Oh, sure, educators will occasionally allow the word to pass their lips, but it is always in a compromised position, as in “constructing one’s own knowledge,” or “contextualized knowledge.” Plain old knowledge, the kind passed down in books, the kind for which Faust sold his soul, that is out.


    The education profession currently stands ready to tighten its already viselike grip on teacher credentialing, persuading both the federal government and the states to “professionalize” teaching further. In New York, as elsewhere, that means closing off routes to the classroom that do not pass through an education school. But before caving in to the educrats’ pressure, we had better take a hard look at what education schools teach.


    The course in “Curriculum and Teaching in Elementary Education” that Professor Anne Nelson (a pseudonym) teaches at the City College of New York is a good place to start. Dressed in a tailored brown suit, and with close-cropped hair, Nelson is a charismatic teacher, with a commanding repertoire of voices and personae. And yet, for all her obvious experience and common sense, her course is a remarkable exercise in vacuousness.


    As with most education classes, the title of Professor Nelson’s course doesn’t give a clear sense of what it is about. Unfortunately, Professor Nelson doesn’t either. The semester began, she said in a pre-class interview, by “building a community, rich of talk, in which students look at what they themselves are doing by in-class writing.” On this, the third meeting of the semester, Professor Nelson said that she would be “getting the students to develop the subtext of what they’re doing.” I would soon discover why Professor Nelson was so vague.


    “Developing the subtext” turns out to involve a chain reaction of solipsistic moments. After taking attendance and—most admirably—quickly checking the students’ weekly handwriting practice, Professor Nelson begins the main work of the day: generating feather-light “texts,” both written and oral, for immediate group analysis. She asks the students to write for seven minutes on each of three questions; “What excites me about teaching?” “What concerns me about teaching?” and then, the moment that brands this class as hopelessly steeped in the Anything But Knowledge credo: “What was it like to do this writing?”


    This last question triggers a quickening volley of self-reflexive turns. After the students read aloud their predictable reflections on teaching, Professor Nelson asks: “What are you hearing?” A young man states the obvious: “Everyone seems to be reflecting on what their anxieties are.” This is too straightforward an answer. Professor Nelson translates into ed-speak: “So writing gave you permission to think on paper about what’s there.” Ed-speak dresses up the most mundane processes in dramatic terminology—one doesn’t just write, one is “given permission to think on paper”; one doesn’t converse, one “negotiates meaning.” Then, like a champion tennis player finishing off a set, Nelson reaches for the ultimate level of self-reflexivity and drives it home: “What was it like to listen to each other’s responses?”


    The self-reflection isn’t over yet, however. The class next moves into small groups—along with in-class writing, the most pervasive gimmick in progressive classrooms today—to discuss a set of student-teaching guidelines. After ten minutes, Nelson interrupts the by-now lively and largely off-topic conversations, and asks: “Let’s talk about how you felt in these small groups.” The students are picking up ed-speak. “It shifted the comfort zone,” reveals one. “It was just acceptance; I felt the vibe going through the group.” Another adds: “I felt really comfortable; I had trust there.” Nelson senses a “teachable moment.” “Let’s talk about that,” she interjects. “We are building trust in this class; we are learning how to work with each other.”


    Now, let us note what this class was not: it was not about how to keep the attention of eight-year-olds or plan a lesson or make the Pilgrims real to first-graders. It did not, in other words, contain any material (with the exception of the student-teacher guidelines) from the outside world. Instead, it continuously spun its own subject matter out of itself. Like a relationship that consists of obsessively analyzing the relationship, the only content of the course was the course itself.


    How did such navel-gazing come to be central to teacher education? It is the almost inevitable consequence of the Anything But Knowledge doctrine, born in a burst of quintessentially American anti-intellectual fervor in the wake of World War I. Educators within the federal government and at Columbia’s Teachers College issued a clarion call to schools: cast off the traditional academic curriculum and start preparing young people for the demands of modern life. America is a forward-looking country, they boasted; what need have we for such impractical disciplines as Greek, Latin, and higher math? Instead, let the students then flooding the schools take such useful courses as family membership, hygiene, and the worthy use of leisure time. “Life adjustment,” not wisdom or learning, was to be the goal of education.


    The early decades of this century forged the central educational fallacy of our time: that one can think without having anything to think about. Knowledge is changing too fast to be transmitted usefully to students, argued William Heard Kilpatrick of Teachers College, the most influential American educator of the century; instead of teaching children dead facts and figures, schools should teach them “critical thinking,” he wrote in 1925. What matters is not what you know, but whether you know how to look it up, so that you can be a “lifelong learner.”


    Two final doctrines rounded out the indelible legacy of progressivism. First, Harold Rugg’s The Child-Centered School (1928) shifted the locus of power in the classroom from the teacher to the student. In a child-centered class, the child determines what he wants to learn. Forcing children into an existing curriculum inhibits their self-actualization, Rugg argued, just as forcing them into neat rows of chairs and desks inhibits their creativity. The teacher becomes an enabler, an advisor; not, heaven forbid, the transmitter of a pre-existing body of ideas, texts, or worst of all, facts. In today’s jargon, the child should “construct” his own knowledge rather than passively receive it. Bu the late 1920s, students were moving their chairs around to form groups of “active learners” pursuing their own individual interests, and, instead of a curriculum, the student-centered classroom followed just one principle: “activity leading to further activity without badness,” in Kilpatrick’s words. Today’s educators still present these seven-decades-old practices as cutting-edge.


    As E.D. Hirsch observes, the child-centered doctrines grew out of the romantic idealization of children. If the child was, in Wordsworth’s words, a “Mighty Prophet! Seer Blest!” then who needs teachers? But the Mighty Prophet emerged from student-centered schools ever more ignorant and incurious as the schools became more vacuous. By the 1940s and 1950s, schools were offering classes in how to put on nail polish and how to act on a date. The notion that learning should push students out of their narrow world had been lost.


    The final cornerstone of progressive theory was the disdain for report cards and objective tests of knowledge. These inhibit authentic learning, Kilpatrick argued; and he carried the day, to the eternal joy of students everywhere.


    The foregoing doctrines are complete bunk, but bunk that has survived virtually unchanged to the present. The notion that one can teach “metacognitive” thinking in the abstract is senseless. Students need to learn something to learn how to learn at all. The claim that prior knowledge is superfluous because one can always look it up, preferably on the Internet, is equally senseless. Effective research depends on preexisting knowledge. Moreover, if you don’t know in what century the atomic bomb was dropped without rushing to an encyclopedia, you cannot fully participate in society. Lastly, Kilpatrick’s influential assertion that knowledge was changing too fast to be taught presupposes a blinkered definition of knowledge that excludes the great works and enterprises of the past.


    The rejection of testing rests on premises as flawed as the push for “critical thinking skills.” Progressives argue that if tests exist, then teachers will “teach to the test”—a bad thing, in their view. But why would “teaching to a test” that asked for, say, the causes of the [U.S.] Civil War be bad for students? Additionally, progressives complain that testing provokes rote memorization—again, a bad thing. One of the most tragically influential education professors today, Columbia’s Linda Darling-Hammond, director of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, an advocacy group for increased teacher “professionalization,” gives a telling example of what she considers a criminally bad test in her hackneyed 1997 brief for progressive education, The Right to Learn. She points disdainfully to the following question from the 1995 New York State Regents Exam in biology (required for high school graduation) as “a rote recall of isolated facts and vocabulary terms”: “The tissue which conducts organic food through a vascular plant is composed of: (1) Cambium cells; (2) Xylem cells; (3) Phloem cells; (4) Epidermal cells.”


    Only a know-nothing could be offended by so innocent a question. It never occurs to Darling-Hammond that there may be a joy in mastering the parts of a plant or the organelles of a cell, and that such memorization constitutes learning. Moreover, when, in the progressives’ view, will a student ever be held accountable for such knowledge? Does Darling-Hammond believe that a student can pursue a career in, say, molecular biology or in medicine without it? And how else will that learning be demonstrated, if not in a test? But of course such testing will produce unequal results, and that is the real target of Darling-Hammond’s animus.


     Once you dismiss real knowledge as the goal of education, you have to find something else to do.That’s why the Anything But Knowledge doctrine leads directly to Professor Nelson’s odd course. In thousands of education schools across the country, teachers are generating little moments of meaning, which they then subject to instant replay. Educators call this “constructing knowledge,” a fatuous label for something that is neither construction nor knowledge but mere game-playing. Teacher educators, though, posses a primitive relationship to words. They believe that if they just label something “critical thinking” or “community-building,” these activities will magically occur...


    The Anything But Knowledge credo leaves education professors and their acolytes free to concentrate on more pressing matters than how to teach the facts of history or the rules of sentence construction. “Community-building” is one of their most urgent concerns. Teacher educators conceive of their classes as sites of profound political engagement, out of which the new egalitarian order will emerge. A case in point is Columbia’s required class, “Teaching English in Diverse Social and Cultural Contexts,” taught by Professor Barbara Tenney (a pseudonym). “I want to work at a very conscious level with you to build community in this class,” Tenney tells her attentive students on the first day of the semester this spring. “You can do it consciously, and you ought to do it in your own classes.” Community-building starts by making nameplates for our desks. Then we all find a partner to interview about each other’s “identity.” Over the course of the semester, each student will conduct two more “identity” interviews with different partners. After the interview, the inevitable self-reflexive moment arrives, when Tenney asks: “How did it work?” This is a sign that we are on our way to “constructing knowledge.”...


    All this artificial “community-building,” however gratifying to the professors, has nothing to do with learning. Learning is ultimately a solitary activity: we have only one brain, and at some point we must exercise it in private. One could learn an immense amount about Schubert’s lieder or calculus without ever knowing the name of one’s seatmate. Such a view is heresy to the education establishment, determined, as Rita Kramer has noted, to eradicate any opportunity for individual accomplishment, with its sinister risk of superior achievement. For the educrats, the group is the irreducible unit of learning. Fueling this principle is the gap in achievement between whites and Asians, on the one hand, and other minorities on the other. Unwilling to adopt the discipline and teaching practices that would help reduce the gap, the education establishment tries to conceal it under group projects....


    The consequences of the Anything But Knowledge credo for intellectual standards have been dire. Education professors are remarkably casual when it comes to determining whether their students actually know anything, rarely asking them, for example, what can you tell us about the American Revolution? The ed schools incorrectly presume that students have learned everything they need to know in their other or previous college courses, and that the teacher certification exam will screen out people who didn’t.


    Even if college education were reliably rigorous and comprehensive, education majors aren’t the students most likely to profit from it. Nationally, undergraduate education majors have lower SAT and ACT scores than students in any other program of study. Only 16 percent of education majors scored in the top quartile of 1992-1993 graduates, compared with 33 percent of humanities majors. Education majors were overrepresented in the bottom quartile, at 30 percent. In New York City, many education majors have an uncertain command of English—I saw one education student at City College repeatedly write “choce” for “choice”—and appear altogether ill at ease in a classroom. To presume anything about this population without a rigorous content exit exam is unwarranted.


    The laissez-faire attitude toward student knowledge rests on “principled” grounds, as well as on see-no-evil inertia. Many education professors embrace the facile post-structuralist view that knowledge is always political. “An education program can’t have content [knowledge] specifics,” explains Migdalia Romero, chair of Hunter College’s Department of Curriculum and Teaching, “because then you have a point of view. Once you define exactly what finite knowledge is, it becomes a perspective.” The notion that culture could possess a pre-political common store of texts and idea is anathema to the modern academic.


    The most powerful dodge regurgitates William Heard Kilpatrick’s classic “critical thinking” scam. Asked whether a future teacher should know the date of the 1812 war, Professor Romero replied: “Teaching and learning is not about dates, facts, and figures, but about developing critical thinking.” When pressed if there were not some core facts that a teacher or student should know, she valiantly held her ground. “There are two ways of looking at teaching and learning,” she replied. “Either you are imparting knowledge, giving an absolute knowledge base, or teaching and learning is about dialogue, a dialogue that helps to internalize and to raise questions.” Though she offered the disclaimer “of course you need both,” Romero added that teachers don’t have to know everything, because they can always look things up....


    Disregard for language runs deep in the teacher education profession, so much so that ed school professors tolerate glaring language deficiencies in schoolchildren. Last January, Manhattan’s Park West High School shut down for a day, so that its faculty could bone up on progressive pedagogy. One of the more popular staff development seminars was “Using Journals and Learning Logs.” The presenters—two Park West teachers and a representative from the New York City Writing Project, an anti-grammar initiative run by the Lehman College’s Education School—proudly passed around their students’ journal writing, including the following representative entry on “Matriarchys v. pratiarchys [sic]”: “The different between Matriarchys and patriarchys is that when the mother is in charge of the house. sometime the children do whatever they want. But sometimes the mother can do both roll as mother and as a father too and they can do it very good.” A more personal entry described how the author met her boyfriend: “He said you are so kind I said you noticed and then he hit me on my head. I made-believe I was crying and when he came naire me I slaped him right in his head and than I ran...to my grandparients home and he was right behind me. Thats when he asked did I have a boyfriend.”


    The ubiquitous journal-writing cult holds that such writing should go uncorrected. Fortunately, some Park West teachers bridled at the notion. “At some point, the students go into the job market, and they’re not being judged ‘holistically,’” protested a black teacher, responding to the invocation of the state’s “holistic” model for grading writing. Another teacher bemoaned the Board of Ed’s failure to provide guidance on teaching grammar. “My kids are graduating without skills,” he lamented.


    Such views, however, were decidedly in the minority. “Grammar is related to purpose,” soothed the Lehman College representative, educrat code for the proposition that asking students to write grammatically on topics they are not personally “invested in” is unrealistic. A Park West presenter burst out with a more direct explanation for his chilling indifference to student incompetence. “I’m not going to spend my life doing error diagnosis! I’m not going to spend my weekend on that!” Correcting papers used to be part of the necessary drudgery of a teacher’s job. No more, with the advent of enlightened views about “self-expression” and “writing with intentionality.”


    However easygoing the educational establishment is regarding future teachers’ knowledge of history, literature, and science, there is one topic that it assiduously monitors: their awareness of racism. To many teacher educators, such an awareness is the most important tool a young teacher can bring to the classroom. It cannot be developed too early. Rosa, a bouncy and enthusiastic junior at Hunter College, has completed only her first semester of education courses, but already she has mastered the most important lesson: American is a racist, imperialist country, most like, say, Nazi Germany. “We are lied to by the very institutions we have come to trust,” she recalls from her first-semester reading. “It’s all government that’s inventing these lies, such as Western heritage.”


    The source of Rosa’s newfound wisdom, Donald Macedo’s Literacies of Power: What Americans Are Not Allowed to Know, is an execrable book by any measure. But given its target audience—impressionable education students—it comes close to being a crime. Widely assigned at Hunter, and in use in approximately 150 education schools nationally, it is an illiterate, barbarically ignorant Marxist-inspired screed against America. Macedo opens his first chapter, “Literacy for Stupidification: The Pedagogy of Big Lies,” with a quote from Hitler and quickly segues to Ronald Reagan: “While busily calling out slogans from their patriotic vocabulary memory warehouse, these same Americans dutifully vote…for Ronald Reagan…giving him a landslide victory…These same voters ascended [sic] to Bush’s morally high-minded call to apply international laws against Saddam Hussein’s tyranny and his invasion of Kuwait.” Standing against this wave of ignorance and imperialism is a lone 12-year-old from Boston, whom Macedo celebrates for his courageous refusal to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.


    What does any of this have to do with teaching? Everything, it turns out. In the 1960s, educational progressivism took on an explicitly political cast: schools were to fight institutional racism and redistribute power. Today, Columbia’s Teachers College holds workshops on cultural and political “oppression,” in which students role-play ways to “usurp the existing power structure,” and the New York State Regents happily call teachers “the ultimate change agents.” To be a change agent, one must first learn to “critique” the existing social structure. Hence, the assignment of such propaganda as Macedo’s book.


    But Macedo is just one of the political tracts that Hunter force-fed the innocent Rosa in her first semester. She also learned about the evils of traditional children’s stories from the education radical Herbert Kohl. In Should We Burn Babar? Kohl weighs the case for and against the dearly beloved children’s classic, Babar the Elephant, noting in passing that it prevented him from “questioning the patriarchy earlier.” He decides—but let Rosa expound the meaning of Kohl’s book: “[Babar]’s like a children’s book, right? [But] there’s an underlying meaning about colonialism, about like colonialism, and is it OK, it’s really like it’s OK, but it’s like really offensive to the people.” Better burn Babar now!...


    Though the current diversity battle cry is “All students can learn,” the educationists continually lower expectations of what they should learn. No longer are students expected to learn all their multiplication tables in the third grade, as has been traditional. But while American educators come up with various theories about fixed cognitive phases to explain why our children should go slow, other nationalities trounce us. Sometimes, we’re trounced in our own backyards, causing cognitive dissonance in local teachers.     


    A young student at Teachers College named Susan describes incredulously a Korean-run preschool in Queens. To her horror, the school, the Holy Mountain School, violates every progressive tenet: rather than being “student-centered” and allowing each child to do whatever he chooses, the school imposes a curriculum on the children, based on the alphabet. “Each week, the children get a different letter,” Susan recalls grimly. Such an approach violates “whole language” doctrine, which holds that students can’t “grasp the [alphabetic] symbols without the whole word or the meaning or any context in their lives.” In Susan’s words, Holy Mountain’s further infractions include teaching its wildly international students only in English and failing to provide an “anti-bias multicultural curriculum.” The result? By the end of preschool the children learn English and are writing words. Here is the true belief in the ability of all children to learn, for it is backed up by action.…


    Given progressive education’s dismal record, all New Yorkers should tremble at what the Regents have in store for the state. The state’s teacher education establishment, led by Columbia’s Linda Darling-Hammond, has persuaded the Regents to make its monopoly on teacher credentialing total. Starting in 2003, according to the Regents plan steaming inexorably toward adoption, all teacher candidates must pass through an education school to be admitted to a classroom. We know, alas, what will happen to them there.


    This power grab will be a disaster for children. By making ed school inescapable, the Regents will drive away every last educated adult who may not be willing to sit still for its foolishness but who could bring to the classroom unusual knowledge or experience. The nation’s elite private schools are full of such people, and parents eagerly proffer tens of thousands of dollars to give their children the benefit of such skill and wisdom.


    Amazingly, even the Regents, among the nation’s most addled education bodies, sporadically acknowledge what works in the classroom. A Task Force on Teaching paper cites some of the factors that allow other countries to wallop us routinely in international tests: a high amount of lesson content (in other words, teacher-centered, not student-centered, learning), individual tracking of students, and a coherent curriculum. The state should cling steadfastly to its momentary insight, at odds with its usual policies, and discard its foolish plan to enshrine Anything But Knowledge as its sole education dogma. Instead of permanently establishing the teacher education status quo, it should search tirelessly for alternatives and for potential teachers with a firm grasp of subject matter and basic skills. Otherwise ed school claptrap will continue to stunt the intellectual growth of the Empire State’s children.

[Heather Mac Donald graduated summa cum laude from Yale, and earned an M.A. at Cambridge University. She holds the J.D. degree from Stanford Law School, and is a John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to City Journal]

Monday, March 9, 2020

ALL THE WORLD


William Shakespeare [1603]

(from As You Like It, spoken by Jaques)

 All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble, reputation,
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion;
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.


Tuesday, March 3, 2020

BERLIN WALL

Tyranny set in stone

Roger Kimball
The New Criterion
November 2009

...In 1948, The Soviets blockaded Berlin, a preliminary, they hoped, to annexing it entirely. The Berlin airlift, orchestrated by the American army general, Lucius Clay, provisioned the city with some 4,500 tons of food, fuel, and other necessities every day for nearly a year—at its peak, 1,500 flights a day were crowding in and out of Tempelhof airport. Finally, in May 1949, the Soviets gave up and lifted the blockade.

    The airlift was an extraordinary act of political defiance as well as an unprecedented logistical feat. But it did not overcome the contradiction that was Berlin. Increasingly, East Germans voted with their feet. By 1960, a thousand people a day were fleeing East Germany via Berlin. Walter Ulbricht, the GDR’s Communist dictator, pleaded with Nikita Kruschev to do something to staunch the flow of human capital. The following summer, Kruschev, having taken the measure of JFK and his lieutenants, decided to close the border. At a dinner on August 12, he gleefully announced to his companions: “We’re going to close Berlin. We’ll just put up serpentine barbed wire and the West will stand there, like dumb sheep.”

    Work began at midnight. The Russian soldiers had been told to withdraw if challenged. But no challenge came from JFK’s ovine entourage. In the succeeding months, the barbed wire was replaced by masonry and metal. The wall gradually encircled the whole of West Berlin. Some three-hundred guard towers punctuated the wall. A second, inner wall sprang up. The “death strip” between was mined and booby-trapped. Guard dogs accompanied the soldiers on their rounds. Erich Honecker, who replaced Ulbricht in 1971, issued a shoot-on-sight order. Somewhere between a hundred and two hundred people were killed trying to scale, or tunnel under, the wall, another 1,000 trying to flee elsewhere from East Germany. For Honecker, it was  a small price to pay. Between 1949 and 1962, some two and a half million people had fled East Germany to the West. From 1962 to 1989, his draconian measures reduced the flood to a trickle of 5,000. 


Wednesday, February 19, 2020

CONTENTLESS WRITING

George Mason University
History News Network
11-13-2006

Contentless Writing

 
By Will Fitzhugh

Mr. Fitzhugh is Editor and Publisher of The Concord Review [fitzhugh@tcr.org] and Founder of the National Writing Board [www.tcr.org].

Abraham Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg was short. Indeed, the President had spoken and taken his seat before many in that large crowd gathered outdoors even realized that he had spoken. Fortunately, an alert reporter took down his words. Short as the speech was, it began with a date and a fact—the sort of factual content that is being drained away from student writing today.

The very idea of writing without content takes some getting used to. I was taken aback not long ago to read the comments of a young woman who had been asked how she felt about having a computer grade the essays that she wrote on the Graduate Management Admission Test (Mathews, 2004). She replied that she didn’t mind, noting that the test givers were more interested in her “ability to communicate” than in what she actually said.

Although style, fluency, tone, and correct grammar are certainly important in writing, folks like me think that content has value as well. The guidelines for scoring the new writing section on the SAT seem to say otherwise, however. Readers evaluating the essays are told not to take points off for factual mistakes, and they must score the essays “holistically”—at the rate of 30 an hour (Winerip, 2005).

Earlier this year, Linda Shaw of the Seattle Times (2006), reported that the the rules for the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) do not allow dictionaries, but “when it comes to the writing section, there’s one rule they can break: They can make things up. Statistics. Experts. Quotes. Whatever helps them make their point.” According to Shaw, the state’s education office announced that “making up facts is acceptable when writing nonfiction, persuasive essays on the WASL.”

Lest you conclude that writing without content, or writing nonfiction with fictional content—think James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces—is limited to the Left Coast, think again. Across the United States, even the most prestigious writing workshops for teachers generally bypass the what to focus on the how.

All writing has to have some content, of course. So what are students encouraged to put down on the page? In its 2003 report, The Neglected ‘R’, The National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges, gave us a clue. According to the report, the following passage by a high school student about the September 11 terrorist attacks shows “how powerfully children can express their emotions.”

    “The time has come to fight back and we are. By supporting our leaders and each other, we are stronger than ever. We will never forget those who died, nor will we forgive those who took them from us.”

Or look at the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) the supposed gold standard for evaluating academic achievement in U.S. schools, as measured and reported by the National Center for Education Statistics. In its 2002 writing assessment, in which 77 percent of 12th graders scored “Basic” or “Below Basic,” NAEP scored the following student response “Excellent.” The prompt called for a brief review of a book worth preserving. In a discussion of Herman Hesse’s Demian, in which the main character grows up and awakens to himself, the student wrote,

    “High school is a wonderful time of self-discovery, where teens bond with several groups of friends, try different foods, fashions, classes and experiences, both good and bad. The end result in May of senior year is a mature and confident adult, ready to enter the next stage of life. (p. 22)”

As these two excerpts show, both the National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges and the NAEP seem to favor emotional and personal writing, at least at the high school level. If personal memoir and “fictional nonfiction” were the sorts of writing that college courses required—not to mention in business, government and other lines of work—then perhaps it wouldn’t matter. After all, top executives at ENRON wrote quite a bit of fiction before their arrests, not to mention some well-known journalists who substituted fiction for fact in their reporting.

The problem is that students must know facts, dates, and the viewpoints of various experts and authors to write their college term papers. The Boston Globe has reported some frightening statistics about students’ knowledge gaps. Sixty-three percent of students graduating from Massachusetts high schools and attending community colleges are in remedial courses, as are 34 percent of those attending four-year colleges. (Sacchetti, 2004)

A survey of leading U.S. companies revealed that organizations are spending more than $3 billion each year in remedial writing courses for both hourly and salaried employees (National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges, 2004).

Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay

As it happens, some teachers and students in U.S. high schools know that writing serious, factual history research papers is good and necessary preparation for future writing tasks, and that it’s a superb way to learn history and practice scholarship. One student, whose history essay appeared in The Concord Review (see “Raising the Bar for Expository Writing,” p. 46) was so interested in the trial and excommunication of Anne Hutchinson in the early 1600s that she spent several months during her Junior year doing independent study at a public high school in Massachusetts. Her 13,000-word research paper won The Concord Review’s Ralph Waldo Emerson Prize [she graduated summa cum laude from Yale and is now a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford].

The student found Anne Hutchinson’s independence inspiring. In the following extract from her paper, the student discusses the accusations made against Hutchinson during the trial in which this courageous woman was excommunicated for questioning in private the authority of the ministers as the sole source of God’s wisdom:

    “...This bitter speech, made by a man who had seen his entire career threatened by the woman now standing before him, opened a trial marked by extraordinary vindictiveness on the part of the men presiding. Why? Because their regulatory power had been, up to this point, thwarted. Hutchinson had done nothing in public, nothing that could be clearly seen and defined, nothing that could be clearly punished. The principal accusation leveled against her was failure to show proper respect to the ministers, but again, she had made no public speeches or declarations, and the court would soon find that producing evidence of her insolence was very difficult.

    The assembly did not immediately strike to the heart of the matter: Hutchinson’s disparagement of the ministers of the colony as under a covenant of works. Instead, the presiding ministers first accused her of disobeying the commandment to obey one’s father and one’s mother by not submitting to the ‘fathers of the commonwealth,’ as [Governor] Winthrop termed it. Next, Hutchinson’s meetings were condemned, despite her citation of a rule in Titus exhorting the elder women to teach the younger.”


This is factual writing about a historical event—a trial—in which the facts of the case were of the greatest importance. Fiction was not the focus here. The author’s emotions, and her “experiences in high school,” were distinctly of secondary—if any—importance in her account of these events in American religious and legal history.


Some readers may mistakenly assume that writing with content is common in schools. In 2002, the Roper Organization conducted a study for The Concord Review and found that in U.S. public high schools, 81% of teachers never assign a 5,000-word research paper—that’s 8,000 words shorter than the previously cited award-winning essay—and 62% never assign a 3,000-word nonfiction paper. (The Concord Review 2002). Although 95% of teachers surveyed believed that research papers were “important” or “very important,” most reported that they did not have time to assign and grade them.

When Support Trumps Rigor

In her report for the Fordham Foundation on state social studies standards in the United States, researcher Sandra Stotsky (1999), cited a newspaper article about a Hispanic high school student named Carol who was unprepared for college work. Described as a top student, the girl was stunned by the level of writing that her Boston college demanded of her. Although the student said that she had received encouragement and support from her high school teachers, she wished that her teachers had given her more challenging work. According to the reporter, the student discovered that “moral support is different from academic rigor.” Stotsky noted that teachers often substitute self-esteem-building assignments for rigorous work. The same newspaper article described a high school teacher:

    “who had had her students “write a short story about their lives” because, in the teacher’s words, it allowed them to show “a high level of writing ability” and to realize that “their own experience is valid and useful.” This teacher is also quoted as believing that this assignment reflected her “high expectations” for her students. It apparently did not occur to the reporter that this kind of writing assignment today, especially for high school students from minority groups, is more likely to reflect a concern for their self-esteem rather than a desire to challenge them intellectually. A regular flow of such writing assignments may be part of the reason that Hispanic students like Carol are not prepared for college-level writing.” (pp. 269-270)

 
Students like Carol who belatedly discover their lack of preparedness for college work are far more numerous than one might think. Through a survey of recent high school graduates (Achieve, Inc., 2005), the National Governors Association learned that a large majority of students surveyed wished that their teachers had given them more challenging work. Moreover, the High School Survey of Student Engagement (Indiana University, 2004) found that 55% of the 80,000 students surveyed said they did fewer than three hours of homework each week, and most received As and Bs anyway.

Anything But Knowledge

Writing about oneself can be the work of genius, as Marcel Proust demonstrated so well in his masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time. But limiting students to thinking and writing almost entirely about themselves in school is, well, limiting. The Boston Globe, which annually celebrates essays on Courage, asks students to submit short essays—not about someone else’s courage, but about their own. Of course, famous people like Anne Hutchinson, Winston Churchill, or Martin Luther King, Jr., don’t have a monopoly on courage. But it would be refreshing for students to look outside themselves from time to time to reflect on such qualities in others. Unfortunately, solipsism seems to have become the order of the day; the lack of a sustained focus on objectivity and rigor in writing is showing up in poor literacy rates, greater numbers of remedial classes in college, and higher college dropout rates.

In 2005, comedian Stephen Colbert introduced the idea of "truthiness" into the English language. The term characterizes speech or writing that appears to be accurate and serious, but is, in fact, false or comical. In college, I learned that one of the tasks of thought is to help us distinguish appearance from reality. The goal of "truthiness" is to blur that distinction. On satirical news programs, like The Daily Show, this dubious practice brings the relief of laughter, but on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning—in which students are told that it’s OK to make things up—it just brings confusion, even to the task of writing “nonfiction.”

Postmodernists and deconstructionists at the university level have long been claiming that there is no such thing as truth, but here we have high school students being told, on a state assessment, that when writing nonfiction, it is OK to invent an expert, and then “quote” him in support of an argument they are making.

The danger is that practices like these can lead high school students to believe that they don’t need to seek information about anything outside of their own feelings and experiences. However, college students are still expected to read nonfiction books, which obviously deal with topics other than their personal lives. Students also have to write research papers in which they must organize their thinking and present material coherently. Too many students are not prepared to do this, and many end up dropping out of college. What a terrible waste of time, hopes and opportunity!


Will Fitzhugh [founder]
The Concord Review [1987]
Ralph Waldo Emerson Prizes [1995]
National Writing Board [1998]
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776 USA
978-443-0022; 800-331-5007
www.tcr.org; fitzhugh@tcr.org
Varsity Academics®


References

Achieve (2005). Rising to the challenge: Are high school graduates prepared for college and work? PowerPoint presentation prepared by the Peter D. Hart Research Associates and Public Opinion Strategies. Available: www.achieve.org/files/poll.ppt http://www.achieve.org/files/poll.ppt

The Concord Review, (2002). History research paper study (conducted by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis). Available: www.tcr.org/tcr/institute/historytcr.pdf http://www.tcr.org/tcr/institute/historytcr.pdf

Indiana University. (2004) High School Survey of Student Engagement. Bloomington, IN: [Martha McCarthy]

Mathews, J. (2004, August 1). Computers weighing in on the elements of essay; Programs critique structure not ideas. The Washington Post

National Center for Education Statistics. (2002). The Nation’s Report Card: Writing Highlights 2002. http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pubs/main/2002/2003531.asp

National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges. (2003). The neglected ‘R’; The need for a writing revolution. New York: College Board. www.writingcommission.org http://www.writingcommission.org

National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges. (2004). Writing: A ticket to work...or a ticket out: A survey of business leaders. www.writingcommission.org http://www.writingcommission.org

Sacchetti, M. (2005, June 26) Colleges question MCAS success; many in state schools still need remedial help. The Boston Globe.

Shaw, L. (2006, March 17). WASL writing: Make it up as they go along. The Seattle Times, p. B1.

Stotsky, S (1999). Losing Our Language: How Multicultural Classroom Instruction is Undermining Our Children’s Ability to Read, Write, and Reason. New York: The Free Press, pp. 269-271

Winerip, M. (2005, May 4). SAT Essay rewards length and ignores errors. The New York Times. www-rohan.sdsu.edu/~rgibson/satessay.html

This essay was first published by Educational Leadership [ASCD] and is reprinted with permission of the author.




Monday, February 17, 2020

WAR WITH RUSSIA

At three in the morning, German time, on 22 June 1941, Soviet Ambassador Vladimir Dekanozov was summoned to the German Foreign Ministry in the Berlin Wilhelmstrasse. When the Soviet delegation reached the Ministry, there were floodlights and a small crowd of journalists, photographers and film cameramen. Exactly one hour after the telephone call, they were in the not unfamiliar surroundings of the office of the Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop. He had obviously been drinking. Ribbentrop told Dekanozov he had information that the Soviet Union had been preparing to attack Germany and that Germany had therefore had to take measures to guarantee its own ‘security’. The concentration of Soviet troops on Germany’s ‘eastern border’ necessitated ‘military countermeasures’. An hour before, he said, German forces had crossed into the Soviet Union. After nearly two years of apparently fruitful economic and political collaboration between Germany and the USSR, it was war

Dekanozov turned his back on the Germans, and the Soviet delegation walked away. Then, according to Valentin Berezhkov, the young Soviet interpreter, Ribbentrop chased after the withdrawing Soviet delegation, saying that he had been against Hitler’s decision, and that he had tried to talk the Führer out of his ‘madness’ (Wahnsinn). ‘Please inform Moscow that I was against the attack,’ were the last words Berezhkov heard him say. None of the others present reported this alleged outburst in exactly the same way, but, given the magnitude of the news they had just received, perhaps that is not altogether surprising (although the Soviet diplomats had been aware of all the reports indicating a German attack was imminent). It seems almost too remarkable and untypical of such occasions for Berezhkov to have made it up, and one of Ribbentrop’s officials reported the same sentiment, if not the same words. Having worked since 1939 to build Nazi-Soviet cooperation, it is understandable that Ribbentrop should feel this way. He had almost certainly grown to know and respect the Russians— who, until now, had been colleagues, if not full allies.

Chris Bellamy, Absolute War: Soviet Russia in the Second World War. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

HELP DEFINED

One important characteristic of “natural law” in this case is that help is always defined by the recipient.

Douglas McGregor, Sloan School, MIT
The Human Side of Enterprise
Boston: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1960, 163-164

The Appropriate Role of Staff

    The appropriate role of any major staff group...is that of providing professional help to all levels of management. In some cases, such as engineering, the help is provided primarily to one or two functions, e.g., manufacturing and sales. In other cases, such as accounting and personnel, the help is provided to all other functions.

    The hierarchical nature of the organization has tended to focus attention on help given to the level at which the staff group reports. Rewards and punishments for staff members come from there. Moreover, prestige and status are greater the higher level of “attachment.” In large companies, where there are both headquarters and field staff groups, it is particularly important that the headquarters groups recognize and accept their responsibilities for providing help to all levels of management.

    The provision of professional help is a subtle and complex process. Perhaps the most critical point—and the one hardest to keep clearly in mind—is that help is always defined by the recipient. Taking an action with respect to someone because “it is best for him,” or because “it is for the good of the organization,” may be influencing him, but it is not providing help unless he so perceives it. Headquarters staff groups tend to rationalize many of their activities on the field organization in a paternalistic manner and, as a consequence, fail to see that they are relying on inappropriate methods of control. When the influence is unsuccessful, the usual reaction occurs: The recipients of the “help” are seen as resistant, stupid, indifferent to organizational needs, etc. The provision of help, like any other form of control or influence, requires selective adaptation to natural law. One important characteristic of “natural law” in this case is that help is defined by the recipient...

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

CRISIS IN HISTORY

The triangular relationship among civic education, historical knowledge, and patriotism seems in our day to be broken.

Education Next

 
History, Critical and Patriotic
Americans need a history that educates but also inspires


By Eliot A. Cohen
SPRING 2020 / VOL. 20, NO. 2


When my mother passed away at the ripe old age of 90, several years ago, my brothers and I had the bittersweet task of emptying out the home she and my father had lived in for well over half a century, and where we grew up. We took various keepsakes and mementoes. I made a beeline for the books and magazines. While leafing through, I realized how much my picture of America had been formed by them and the tempered but patriotic history they conveyed. They reflected the middlebrow culture of mid-twentieth century America, which carried many of my generation through the turmoil of social change, war, and political crisis. And they reminded me of the need for robust history and civic education today.


The first collection of books I recovered was from when I was quite young. It was the Landmark series of histories for young people, conceived by Bennett Cerf of Random House and launched in 1948 with books by topnotch novelists like Dorothy Canfield Fisher, C. S. Forester, and Robert Penn Warren, and war correspondents like William L. Shirer, Quentin Reynolds, and Richard Tregaskis. It eventually ran to some 180 volumes and covered not just American history but everything from the pharaohs of ancient Egypt to the United Nations in war and peace. Although mainly out of print, they retain some appeal to homeschooling parents and are easy to find in used bookstores.


Next I found my old copy of Kenneth Roberts’ historical novel about the American retreat from Canada in 1776 and the Saratoga campaign of 1777, Rabble in Arms. In it, Roberts turned my 12-year-old historical consciousness upside down by making Benedict Arnold out to be a hero, by showing how Arnold’s military skill accounted for the deferral of one British invasion of the northern United States and the defeat of another. Roberts described in terms more vivid than all but the best historians what it was like to fight a lake battle in upstate New York in late autumn, be inoculated against smallpox, and deal with the stupidities of legislative politics. Like his contemporaries Walter Edmonds (Drums Along the Mohawk) and Esther Forbes (Johnny Tremain), he made the colonial and revolutionary past live.


The Landmark series of histories for young people, launched in 1948 by Bennett Cerf of Random House, has since gone out of print.

And then I discovered old copies of American Heritage magazine going back to the early 1960’s. Once a minor publication by the American Association for State and Local History, it was relaunched in 1954 as a handsome, 120-page hardcover magazine. The October 1961 issue was fairly typical. At the top of the masthead stood editorial director Joseph J. Thorndike, who after a stint at Time had been recruited to be the managing editor of Life. The senior editor was Bruce Catton, the prolific popular historian of the Civil War; the managing editor was Eric Larrabee, who later wrote one of the most thorough and accessible studies of Franklin Roosevelt as commander in chief. Assistant and associate editors included Richard Ketchum and Stephen Sears, excellent historians of the American Revolution and the Civil War. Authors in that issue included Hugh MacLennan, a prize-winning professor of English at McGill University writing about Canadian voyageurs; Mark Schorer, a University of California, Berkeley professor and biographer of Sinclair Lewis on the writing of Main Street; and John Lukacs, one of the most original historians of twentieth-century Europe writing about George Bancroft, one of the fathers of American history. It wasn’t fluff.


There was a progression here for a young person fascinated by the past and able to engage it at a number of levels, one which unquestionably played a role in shaping my attitudes, and not only mine, to politics. These were works of patriotic history, celebrating the American past and American heroes. They did not, nor did they need to, gloss over the stains and horrors. The heroes could be southern senators standing up to the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920’s or Chief Joseph leading his small tribe in a fight against the United States Army in the 1870s. And the tales could include accounts of political corruption, ambiguous loyalties, and mayhem—patriotic history does not have to conceal any of that, nor need it ignore the ambiguities of the past. But the key was that this was my history, to own and to celebrate, even though my grandparents were immigrants.


A shared story


Particularly for Americans, patriotic history is a kind of glue for an extraordinarily diverse republic. Lincoln used a patriotic version of the nation’s revolutionary past and founding generation to hold the Union together and provide meaning and redemptive hope after the slaughter of hundreds of thousands during the Civil War. The Gettysburg Address, after all, begins by recalling the Declaration of Independence and defining the meaning of the Revolution. And Lincoln in turn became a figure to inspire succeeding generations.


Yet patriotic history is more suspect these days than it was when I was its young student, 50 years ago. In 2014, Kenneth Pomeranz, completing his term as leader of the American Historical Association, chose as the topic of his presidential address, “Histories for a Less National Age.” While grudgingly conceding that nations or states remain important because they have armies, and acknowledging that historians might do some limited good by teaching about the United States, he generally welcomed the shift to spatially and temporally broader history, sweeping across continents and centuries. It is striking that just as he gave that address the forces of nationalism—in Russia, China, western Europe, and most definitely the United States—gave a set of roars that indicated that they were very far from dead. It was an instructive error for an historian to make.


George Orwell famously observed in 1945 that nationalism is “the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects,” whereas patriotism is “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world.” In practice, however, modern academic historians, who are wary of nationalism for reasons good and bad, often conflate it with patriotism. And this is where some of the great divide between contemporary academic history and patriotic history has opened up. When the academy questions the very utility of national history, by necessity it undermines the possibility of patriotic history as well.


Civic education requires students to engage with their history—not only to know whence conventions, principles, and laws have come, but also to develop an attachment to them. And civic education is also inextricably interwoven with patriotism, without which commitment to the values that make free government possible will not exist. Civic education depends not only on an understanding of fundamental processes and institutions (for example, why there is a Supreme Court, or why only Congress gets to raise taxes or declare war) but on a commitment to those processes and institutions, and on some kind of admiration for the country that created them and the men and women who have shaped and lived within them. In a crisis, it is not enough to know how the walls were constructed and the plumbing laid out in the house that Madison, Washington, and Lincoln built. One has to think that the architects did remarkable work, that as their legatees we need to preserve the building even if we modernize it, and that it is a precious edifice like none other.


The triangular relationship among civic education, historical knowledge, and patriotism seems in our day to be broken.
Survey after survey delivers dismal verdicts about what Americans know about the government under which they live. For example, in a recent survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, just two out of five respondents could identify the three branches of government and one out of five could not identify any branch of government. Nearly half thought that illegal immigrants have no rights under the Constitution. Another survey indicated that only one third of Americans would pass a U.S. citizenship test.


The issue appears not to be a lack of civics courses per se, which are required in the vast majority of states. Rather, the issue seems to be the unmooring of civics from history, and in particular history in the curriculum at colleges and universities where the high school teachers of tomorrow are trained.


In a blistering article in the national security-oriented online publication, War on the Rocks, my colleagues at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies Francis Gavin and Hal Brands declare that the historical profession is “committing slow-motion suicide.” Able historians themselves, they point to studies showing a decline of 30 percent in history majors at U.S. institutions of higher education in the last 10 years alone—the steepest enrollment slide of any of the humanities. The brunt of their critique is that the discipline of history has walked away from some of the subfields that matter most to the shaping of engaged citizens—politics, statecraft, and war. Meanwhile, fellow historians Fredrik Logevall and Kenneth Osgood have found similar patterns in hiring in the profession; in looking at H-Net, the leading website for academic jobs in history, they found a grand total of 15 advertisements in 10 years for tenure-track junior historians specializing in American political history.


Members of the historical profession might, with reason, push back on this bleak picture, noting the robust health of organizations like the Society for Military History. But the truth remains that traditional forms of history—political, diplomatic, and military—have been increasingly pushed to the margins of the field; that departments of history have shrunk rapidly because students vote with their feet; and that churning out fewer history majors (who in turn are likely to be the future history teachers in middle and high schools) bodes poorly for the future of civic education. If, moreover, those fewer students who remain are themselves only barely familiar with the kinds of history that appeal to young people and can form them as citizens, the cycle becomes a vicious one. If the nuts and bolts of American political and military history are not taught in universities, the chances that they will be passed to a younger generation diminishes.


Beyond the academy


It is not the case that Americans in general have fallen out of love with their own past. Large numbers visit battlefields and museums—a million a year to Gettysburg, more than that many to Mount Vernon, almost three quarters of a million to the National World War II Museum, and six-digit numbers even to more remote sites. Popular historians do well—David McCullough and Ron Chernow have repeatedly written best-selling historical biographies. On the whole, historical television series may not quite draw the 14 million viewers that Ken Burns’ 1990 Civil Wars series did, but they have done respectably enough. John Adams, for example, attracted something like 2.5 million viewers.


The problem lies not in lack of interest, but in a tension between the academic historical community and both the reading public and popular writers. It is not enough to have best-selling books or television series about the American past, though those are welcome: there is a need for a general awareness of that past that has to be spread indirectly through college and university education and thence to middle and high schools. And while the history of the academy has to be somewhat different than the history of Netflix or the airport bookstand, they cannot be too far apart.


That gap has not always existed. It was possible, for example, for Allan Nevins, an enormously prolific writer about the Civil War and a biographer of Charles Fremont, John D. Rockeviller, and Henry Ford, to be a tenured professor at Columbia and president of the American Historical Association—without a doctorate degree in history. That would be unthinkable today. Yet a contemporary of Nevins who did have a doctorate, Harvard University’s Samuel Eliot Morison, was similarly popular, similarly prolific, and similarly influential.


The Morisons and Nevins of the previous century believed that they had a duty to illuminate the American past for their fellow citizens. They could be nuanced and critical while respecting the patriotic uses of history.


In current times, the weight in the academic historical profession has been, for some time, hostile to that and to anything that smacked of such an approach, making the case against such story telling with a purpose. In a critical review of David McCullough’s biography of John Adams, historian Sean Wilentz of Princeton University lashed not only the author but what he described as the American Heritage style, “brilliant in its detail, evocative in its storytelling, but crushingly sentimental and vacuous,” which he believed had infected Ken Burns’ Civil War docu-series as well. Wilentz celebrated as an alternative Bernard DeVoto, a once well-known popular historian whose work painted a critical, fuller picture of the past and remains well worth reading.


These wars have continued. When in 2011 Harvard historian Jill Lepore published a book on the original Tea Party and its resonance today, she was taken to task by the dean of early American historians, Gordon S. Wood. “Americans seem to have a special need for these authentic historical figures in the here and now. It is very easy for academic historians to mock this special need, and Harvard historian Jill Lepore, as a staff writer for The New Yorker, is an expert at mocking,” Wood deplored this disposition.


After criticizing Lepore for her contemptuous tone toward a political movement that she despised (the Tea Party), Wood argued that societies need memory and a useful and a purposeful past—in other words, heritage. Modern critical historical writing, he said, seeks simply to establish what happened. It is “all head and no heart,” Wood wrote, and citing his own teacher, Bernard Bailyn, argued that it was important to understand that such history could not meet a society’s needs, and something else is required.


This is the nub of the matter. Even if the academy generated more historians (like Wood, Wilentz, and Lepore, for example) who can write compellingly and lucidly for lay audiences, and even if they turned their attention to politics of the kind that citizens need and average readers find interesting, there is bound to be a tension between the outlook of the modern analytic historian and that of the patriotic historian.


Searching for inspiration


Patriotic history involves, for example, heroes. Most academic historians who write biography (not the most popular genre in universities) specialize in the study of clay feet. Hence David Herbert Donald’s biography of Lincoln depicts a president stumbling from decision to decision and yet somehow presiding over a triumphant Union. Doris Kearns Goodwin—a popular historian—gives a much more sympathetic account in Team of Rivals. Perhaps because she had had closer connections to the world of actual politics, her book is the more popular, and more admiring, one. One may even think it is in some ways the more essentially accurate portrait.


Americans need history that educates and informs, but also one that inspires. If, for example, one gives equal weight to John F. Kennedy’s sordid sexual behavior and the soaring rhetoric of his inaugural speech; if one concentrates as much on the personal peccadilloes, inconsistencies, and mixed motives of the Founders as on the marvel that is the Constitution that they created; if the shameful relocation of American citizens of Japanese ancestry to concentration camps gets more play than the D-Day landings or Battle of Midway, history cannot serve that inspirational function. And then, in a crisis, you are stuck, because you have no great figures to remember, no memory of great challenges overcome, no examples of persistence and struggle to embrace.


A notable recent work of scholarship, Richard White’s account of Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, The Republic for Which it Stands, is something of a warning. It is a volume in the excellent series produced by the Oxford History of the United States, which also includes James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom (on the Civil War) and Wood’s Empire of Liberty (on the early republic). Like the other volumes, it is lucid and masterly in its scholarship. But its relentless depiction of an irredeemably sordid past, blotted by the oppression of the African American population of the South, massacre of Indians, despoiling of the environment, horrors of tenement life, and political cupidity, leaves the reader thinking that perhaps the only good thing to be said about the United States during this period is that by contrast, it makes today’s America look good. One could write a history that acknowledges all those things—yet somehow also celebrates the great works of literature and engineering from Mark Twain to the Brooklyn Bridge, or the extraordinary political achievement of the reunification of a country that had experienced four years of unremitting bloodshed, or the heroism (quiet in one case, noisy in the other) of Booker T. Washington and a young Theodore Roosevelt.


Wood recognized in his review of Lepore’s book about the Tea Party that the two forms of history—critical and patriotic—can only coexist, but rarely if ever coincide. Some particularly gifted historians can pull it off, such as David Hackett Fischer, in his magnificent books Paul Revere’s Ride and Washington’s Crossing. But for the most part, the two forms of history have different purposes and tap different skills and sensibilities. The challenge is the management of their coexistence, and in particular the recognition by scholars that both are necessary.


Popular and patriotic historians may grumble at reviews of their work by their academic colleagues but in truth, pay them little heed. For academic historians, however, the sentiments can be more acidic. Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, put it sharply in a guarded defense of Ken Burns: “It’s called sour grapes. Put simply, Burns has managed to engage a huge public audience. And that makes him suspect among members of our guild, who write almost entirely for each other. We pretend we don’t envy his fame and fortune, but of course we do. We’re like high-school kids who don’t get asked to the prom, then say they never wanted to go in the first place.”


Zimmerman had begun his career as a high-school social studies teacher, closer to the real needs of the American public for historical education. He noted that writing for lay audiences often counts against a young historian and deplored the guild mentality of a history profession that too often looks down on public engagement. In so doing, he made a point that cannot be put too forcefully. Unless history departments, and university administrators behind them, begin to weight public engagement as a useful academic function, they are likely to pull their discipline further into bitter irrelevance.


A reversal of this trend is not inconceivable, particularly for those faculty members who have tenure, but also have to deal with tight-fisted college administrations in an era when higher education itself is being turned upside down, and when it is becoming harder to sustain departments that do not pay their way with student seats in classrooms. History departments’ disdain over the last few decades for both popular history and the historians who engage the American public may not survive provosts unwilling to hire more expensive professors teaching fewer courses to fewer students.


Moreover, the educational establishment itself has, on occasion, changed its approach to history. After a series of critiques, the College Board revised its course framework for Advanced Placement History. “AP United States History,” in its 2017 version, is both sophisticated and sober, but offers plenty of opportunities to explore learning objectives like “explain how ideas about democracy, freedom, and individualism found expression in the development of cultural values, political institutions, and American identity.”


And then there is politics itself. In 2016, the political tide turned. Instead of a desperately unhappy conservative opposition to a liberal president turning to history for inspiration and consolation and meeting the scorn of liberal history professors, it was the liberals who found themselves looking for a usable past. They saw a president they believed to be a potential tyrant, and a Republican party that seemed to be mastering the legislative and judicial branches of government. They now needed the heroes and the inspiring moments from the past to convince themselves that the country could get through difficult times.


Interestingly enough, it was Jill Lepore who found herself doing in a different way what she had disparaged the Tea Party movement doing. In 2018 she published an ambitious and engrossing one-volume history of the United States, These Truths. It is filled with patriotic sentiment. “The United States rests on a dedication to equality, which is chiefly a moral idea, rooted in Christianity, but it rests too, on a dedication to inquiry, fearless and unflinching,” she writes. The book concludes with the old metaphors of the ship of state in a storm, with Americans called upon to fell majestic pines and “hew timbers of cedar and oak into planks” to rebuild the ship. Depending on one’s literary tastes, the language is either florid or evocative, but it was clear that in the profound crisis Lepore saw in the Trump presidency, history had to come to the rescue. Possibly without recognizing it, she too had become a patriotic historian.


What, then is to be done?


We can begin by recognizing that although America’s renewed focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education for K-12 has had some beneficial effects, it is vital to pay heed to supposedly softer subjects—history foremost among them. Evidence suggests that recent focus on STEM as well as on standardized tests in reading and math (and therefore preparing for tests) has come at the expense of civics, social studies, and history. Educational reformers should realize that the time may have come to rein in the obsession with formal testing and to restore some balance to curricula.


While little can be done in the short run about what has happened to history as a discipline, or how history teachers are trained in universities, there is a lot that can be done in summer workshops or through creative forms of part-time education, particularly online. If many conventional universities do not offer adequate instruction in history for teachers, entrepreneurially minded competitors can do so, and with national reach by virtue of online education. All of these are opportunities for creative grant giving and philanthropy.


The federal government’s role is one to be approached with care. Part of the strength of the traditional American educational system has been that it has been decentralized and competitive, and one can argue that attempts to create standardized tests and standards do as much damage as good. Moreover, particularly in the field of history, the temptations for ideological fiddling are too great to make conservatives, in particular, feel comfortable. But there are two areas in which there is good to be done.


The first is through the National Endowment for the Humanities, which has sponsored historical work to include workshops for teachers as well as original productions of videos and the like. The second, and even more important, is the role of the Federal government in properly funding and sustaining national historic sites to include battlefields, monuments, and historical homes, but also the Library of Congress and National Archives with their magnificent collections of historical documents. These offer many opportunities for the millions of Americans who are interested in engaging their past to do so.


There is also a role for entrepreneurship and philanthropy to play. For example, organizations can support bringing back some of the older material discussed at the beginning of this paper and creating new sources of such work. Further, they might expand opportunities for students to learn history through experiences outside of the classroom. While patriotic history may be imbibed inside a school, it can also be found by singing along to the Hamilton score (see “Hamilton Goes to High School,” features, Summer 2017), while camping on the Lewis and Clark trail, watching Ken Burns’ The Civil War, or even by finding ways to get into the hands of a curious 12-year-old a novel that she or he will never forget. Any good teacher, at any level, knows that the key to success lies in multiple ways in to a young person’s consciousness. “Material things, things that move, living things, human actions and account of human action, will win the attention better than anything that is more abstract,” William James wrote in Talks to Teachers.


There is no more natural subject of fascination than history, particularly the history of one’s own country, and particularly if that country is the United States. The decline of patriotic history is a severe problem for civic education—but fortunately, there are many ways of mitigating and even reversing it.


Patriotic history is a sensitive topic. It can take false and even dangerous forms. The Lost Cause narrative of the Civil War, for example, masked the reality of slavery as the central cause of the bloodiest conflict in American history. But if done well, as many historians, museum designers, and custodians of national parks, public, semi-public, and private institutions have shown, it can both educate and inspire. And it is, in any case, inescapable. Without civics, our political institutions are reduced to valueless mechanisms. Without history, there is no civic education, and without civic education there are no citizens. Without citizens, there is no free republic. The stakes, in other words, could not be higher.


 
Eliot Cohen is the Dean of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. This essay is adapted from the forthcoming book, How to Educate an American, published by Templeton Press.