Last month, Brandon Busteed, the Executive Director of Education and Workforce Development at Gallup, published an op-ed titled “Higher Education: Drop the Term ‘Liberal Arts.’” Readers might be forgiven for thinking that this is simply a sensationalist title designed to generate web traffic, but no—it very succinctly captures Busteed’s argument. He reveals his thinking most clearly in his second paragraph, where he writes, “‘Liberal’ is politically charged, and ‘arts’ has a negative connotation regarding improving graduates’ job prospects, which is the main reason why Americans and currently enrolled college students value higher education.”

Let me see if I have this right: Because some Americans don’t understand that the term “liberal” has multiple meanings, and because they have grown accustomed to seeking career training and calling it “education,” we should cheapen an idea that has served us well for millennia? I’m not buying it. There is a lot of garbage on the internet these days, but it’s been a while since I read something so wrong-headed.

To be fair, Busteed is very clear that he is not criticizing the notion of liberal arts education per se. Rather, he focuses on a “branding” challenge. “Putting the words liberal and arts together is a branding disaster,” he writes, “and the most effective way to save or defend the liberal arts may be to change what we call them.”

The problem with Busteed’s claim, as I see it, is that he gives in so easily to the anti-intellectualism that currently pervades our culture. He is certainly correct in that some Americans—perhaps even many, though it’s hard to say since he only cites survey data from Republicans—see “liberal” as a loaded term. And my own conversations with my students confirm that many do view “education” as a means to a very specific end (that is, getting a job). Unfortunately, these are egregious misunderstandings of the terms themselves, and they completely miss the point of a liberal arts education. The deep irony here is that those who decry the “liberal arts” as nakedly ideological or useless are probably themselves the most ideological, and possibly the most in need of a liberal arts education.

Let’s examine etymology for a moment. (Early purveyors of the liberal arts, after all, would have read and spoken Latin, so we should have at least as a passing familiarity with it before we degrade their legacy.) The word “education” comes from the Latin educare, for “to teach” as well as educere, for “to lead or draw out.” This latter origin brings to mind for me Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which comes from Republic, itself a work of educational philosophy. Without wading too deep into Plato’s theory of Forms, one purpose of education is to draw students out of the cave of ignorance—to lead them from a world of shadows into the light of reality.

Building on this, the word “liberal” comes from the Latin liber, for “free.” It is the also the root of “liberty,” which was and is the real aim of a liberal arts education: to develop students’ ability to think critically and for themselves. Interestingly, the Latin liber is also translated as “book.” It is no accident that at the very core of the liberal arts are a set of skills—grammar, logic, and rhetoric—that we would today define as “literacy.” It is also no accident that these same skills form the foundation of a healthy republic. (And while we’re on the subject, should we also “re-brand” our republican form of government before the left-wingers work themselves into a tizzy?)

Without the skills and mindsets imparted by a liberal arts education, our democratic republic will fail. Maybe not tomorrow, but someday. As Jefferson famously wrote, “[I]f a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was & never will be.” As he (less famously) also wrote, “[L]aws will be wisely formed, and honestly administered, in proportion as those who form and administer them are wise and honest; whence it becomes expedient for promoting the publick happiness that those persons whom nature hath endowed with genius and virtue should be rendered by liberal education [emphasis mine] worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens.” And before anyone tries to dismiss Jefferson by placing him on our present-day political spectrum, allow me to note that Jefferson was, in point of fact, a Democratic-Republican! (What does that even mean, you ask? Well, a liberal arts education might tell you.)

Contrast Busteed’s stance with the following quotation from the recently published The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance: “[A] liberal arts education—which should be a radical act against dependency and for self-sufficiency—was once conceived of, wrongly, as a luxury that only the rich needed.” The author is Ben Sasse, Republican senator from Nebraska. Clearly, this conservative recognizes the value of a liberal education, and moreover, he has no problem calling it that.

Perhaps I am being unfair to Mr. Busteed. After all, he does at least pay lip service to the notion that the liberal arts still have value in preparing students for civic life. (“The liberal arts curriculum is as important today as it was in ancient times,” he acknowledges.) But he also capitulates to the critics of the liberal arts without exposing the serious flaws in their thinking. We need not abandon the liberal arts themselves to lend credence to the notion that they are left-wing and/or useless, and to “re-brand” them in the face of ignorance would do just that.

Personally, I believe there are legitimate conversations to be had about the ideological skewing of the professoriate and the development of illiberal speech codes on college campuses. (I also think these issues are often blown out of proportion by ideologues, but that doesn’t mean the criticisms contain no validity whatsoever.) Likewise, I recognize that the prospect of finding remunerative work after graduation is a very real concern, especially for students from middle-class and working-class backgrounds, many of whom accrued significant debt for the privilege of becoming (like myself) the first in their families to earn a degree.

In fact, I think there are problems with our educational system at basically every level which demand solutions. What I do not think is that abandoning the term “liberal arts” will solve any of these problems. If anything, what we need are more people trained in the liberal arts: free citizens willing and able to read and to think, to question assumptions, to unpack and expose faulty logic, to marshal evidence in support of ideas, and to argue persuasively for a better way forward.

In order to equip more people with these skills, we must make a better case for the liberal arts—not simply “re-brand” them as something different. (And let’s not forget that the data Busteed cites comes amidst a widespread and coordinated emphasis on the so-called STEM fields—what amounts to a massive marketing campaign for one particular vision of education.) What we need today is a broader, more civic-minded vision.

Busteed’s conclusion misses the mark, but his piece does serve a valuable purpose: to alert us to an erosion of confidence in one of the cornerstones of our republic. If we don’t rise to meet this challenge head-on, our educational system will continue to narrow in its focus, and the liberal tradition in education will continue to slip away—with serious consequences for the liberty that we all cherish.

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After writing about my grandmother in my first post of this series, the subjects of my second post are perhaps predictable. Along with Maggie, my parents had the greatest hand in shaping me into the man—and the educator—I am today.

My mother and father divorced when I was young; I have no memory of them as a married couple. From what I’ve gathered over the years, it was not an especially happy marriage, so perhaps that is just as well. Following their divorce, there was a period of time when it was just my mother and me, and though my memories of that time are suspect given my age then and the intervening years, they are formative. My hazy recollection of my hard-working single mother humbles me, and even when forced to resort to feeding me Spam, she never failed to make time for me. I loved it when she read to me and once got so excited that I accidentally poked her in the eye with a children’s book cut out in the pointed shape of a cat’s ear, which left her wearing an eye patch. I imagine that she was a more cautious reader after that, but she still imparted a love of reading which I count among the best gifts I have ever received.

A few months before my seventh birthday, she remarried. I remember my stepfather, Bob, from that period as being extraordinarily tall and much more athletically inclined than my mother. (In her defense, my mother did have some athleticism. She used to tell me about playing volleyball and running track in high school, and a few years later, once I had grown a bit and was feeling cocky, I challenged her to a footrace. She demurred, but I continued to pester her. Finally, nearing her wit’s end, she consented. We took our marks, got set… and she promptly left me in the dust, crossing the finish line at least 5 yards ahead of me before limping around the house for a week.) At any rate, Bob was more than willing to throw the football and teach me how to shoot a basketball properly, and later, he would coach several of my Little League teams. On top of his investment of time, the addition of his income opened doors to me that had previously been closed, like trips to the aquarium and Tae Kwon Do classes.

When it came to parenting, my parents were strict. On Diana Baumrind’s spectrum of parenting styles, they were solidly authoritative, sometimes even leaning toward authoritarian. They had firm expectations and set high standards in everything I did. When it came to school, I was expected to earn Honor Roll. When it came to sports, they didn’t care so much about wins and losses, but I was expected to listen to my coaches and play hard. After I finally convinced my mother to let me play tackle football at age 11, I injured my foot in the third week of practice. She watched from the car as I sat on the sideline, and after about half an hour, she stormed across the field to inform me that she didn’t come to watch me sit on my butt. I could either get up and play, or I could get in the car and we could go home. I angrily told her that I would be happy to play if I could walk, and she accused me of being melodramatic. At the end of practice, my coaches carried me to the car. Bob was working late that night, and by the time he got home, I had gone into Maggie’s old room and gotten her walker. Seeing this, Bob decided that we should go to the hospital and get an x-ray. It turned out my foot was broken, and my mother felt terrible. I still like to hold this over her head, but I also take a strange measure of pride in it. My mother—the woman who refused to let me play football for fear that I would get hurt—bawled me out for not playing with a broken foot. Again, high standards.

I can’t remember my parents pushing me to do anything I didn’t want to do, with one noteworthy exception: piano lessons. I had no interest in playing the piano, but as I neared the end of elementary school, I looked forward to joining the middle school band. My parents told me they would happily support me in this, but that I would have to begin taking piano lessons a year in advance in order to learn how to read music. Playing the piano struck me as a fairly sissy thing to do back then, and I said so, but there was no getting around it. I wanted to join the band, so I learned to play the piano. (In fact, I ended up enjoying it and stuck with it long after my parents gave me permission to stop.)

The expectation was clear: If I was going to do something, I was going to do it the right way.

This was reinforced, not surprisingly, through extrinsic motivation, and if Maggie was the good cop, my parents played the bad cops. I don’t recall ever receiving any tangible rewards from my parents for good grades or strong play (though I probably did at times). Excellence, at least an excellent effort, was simply expected, and if I didn’t meet their exacting standards, I could definitely expect a consequence.

They were sticklers for discipline, but my parents were also open to reason. Even as late as my junior year of high school, I had what I believed to be an insanely early bedtime of 10:00pm. Most of my classmates did not have a bedtime at all, and to me, it felt infantilizing. (It was probably also infantilizing to have my mommy wake me up every morning, but I don’t think I complained about that.) Finally, before the start of my senior year, I presented my case to my parents. “I don’t think I should have a bedtime this year,” I started, and already I could sense them beginning to roll their eyes. We’ve been down this road before, they were obviously thinking. Still, I pressed on: “I’m going to be a senior, and next year, I’ll be away at college. I won’t have a bedtime there, and I need to learn how to manage my time myself.” They glanced at each other, and as I continued, I eventually got some nods. My argument seemed to be hitting home!

I don’t remember which one of them spoke first when I eventually rested my case, but I do remember what was said: “That sounds fine, on two conditions. First, we won’t tell you when to go bed, but we also won’t wake you up. You are responsible for getting yourself out of bed in the morning and getting yourself ready for school.” Eagerly I replied, “Of course! What else?” And without missing a beat: “The first time we see a C on your report card, your bedtime is 10:00.”

Occasionally these days, my students or players give me reason to talk about self-discipline. I like to quote John Wooden, who said, “Discipline yourself, and others won’t need to.” Looking back on it, though, my parents’ thinking seemed to be, “We will discipline you so that someday you will be able to.” I’m sure I resented them for it at times, but as an adult, I am so grateful. I occasionally think about my parents when I force myself to go to bed early or pull myself out of bed at 5:45am. I don’t particularly like up before the sun rises, but I have found that I am at my best mentally in the morning, and I often use that time to read or write or prepare for the day. It would be so much easier to sleep as late as possible, but there are things to be done. Be disciplined.

My parents weren’t generally the type to preach, but they did make sure I learned the value of work at an early age. I helped out as a child, whether it was getting something from the pantry as my mother cooked dinner or helping my stepdad as he repaired the fence or built a deck. As a young teen, I had household responsibilities that I “owned,” including feeding the dog daily and mowing the lawn every weekend. Once I was able to drive, I was expected to find a paying job, and I worked pretty much year-round, with the exception of baseball season. Winters were often my busiest time of year, when I would go to school, lift weights with the baseball team after school, and dash home for a quick dinner before reporting to work. Luckily there were often slow periods at my job which allowed me to get homework done.

In addition to progressively developing my work ethic, my parents also took advantage of every opportunity to teach me about accountability and sacrifice. One morning during my senior year, I was running late and came into the school parking lot a bit too fast. (Per our arrangement, they had not woken me up.) In my haste to park and rush into my first period class, I clipped the right rear bumper of a friend’s car. When I told my parents that evening, they made it clear that paying for the damage was my responsibility. I remember being amazed at what it cost—$800 for something that small?!—but I have never had another careless accident like that. I didn’t have enough money saved up to pay for the repairs outright, so they agreed to pay my friends’ parents on the condition that I would pay them back a certain amount from each paycheck until my debt was cleared.

I felt bad about hitting my friend’s car (more accurately, her parents’ car), but at that age, I was most upset about how this would impact my ability to make the rite of passage “Beach Week” trip to Myrtle Beach with my friends after graduation. Of course, I also knew better than to complain to my parents about how “unfair” any of this was. I had created this problem for myself, and it was up to me to solve it. So I devised a plan. My parents usually gave me money (about $15 per week, if memory serves) to buy my lunch at school. Instead, I stopped at the grocery store on the way one morning and bought a box of saltines and a large jar of peanut butter. I kept them in my locker, and for most of my senior year, that was my lunch every day. I pocketed the vast majority of the lunch money my parents gave me and set it aside for Beach Week.

I don’t know if my parents were aware that I was doing this, but I think a small part of them might have been proud. Especially before she remarried, my mother had worked hard and made personal sacrifices to provide for me, and though my sacrifices were nowhere near as noble as hers, I had accepted responsibility for my mistake and I had made a choice that aligned with my priorities. I delayed gratification and sacrificed a full hot lunch for weeks on end, all with the goal of being able to make the trip to the beach with my friends.

In high school, I remember thinking my parents were extremely strict, at least relative to those of many of my classmates’, but looking back, they were not helicopter parents. They set high standards and communicated their expectations clearly, but then they more or less stayed out of my way unless I somehow came up short. I was allowed to make mistakes, and then I was corrected. I was sometimes micromanaged, yes, when it came to things like bedtime, but on the big questions, I was allowed to think for myself—to make my own decisions and then live with the consequences.

Given their unwavering expectation that I attend college, one might have expected them to pressure me to apply to this or that school, or to look over my shoulder throughout the application process. In fact, the opposite was true. As I recall, their only input during the college search came in the form of questions. At one point, I was enamored with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and I talked about it non-stop. One day, probably as I waxed poetic about that unmistakable shade of blue, my parents asked, “How are you going to pay for that?” I had never considered the question. I replied, “Well, won’t you pay for it?” They said that they were happy to pay the lion’s share for an in-state school (I would still have to take out loans to cover some), but that anything above and beyond the costs for an in-state school were my responsibility. After a quick glance at the out-of-state tuition, UNC quickly fell from my list. I ended up applying Early Decision to the University of Virginia, and to be honest, I’m not even sure my parents were aware that I was working on the application until I asked them to write a check for the application fee.

As a teenager, being told (not in so many words) that I was limited to state schools struck me as unfair, especially since I had friends whose parents were paying all of their tuition for out-of-state or private colleges. As I matured, though, I came to appreciate my parents’ position, not unlike the way I appreciated my mother’s tough love on the football field. Aside from any purely financial considerations, Though I didn’t really think about it this way until well after the fact, I came to feel that I “owned” part of my college education in a very real sense, and I suspect that had something to do with the fact that I took it much more seriously than I did high school. When I left for college, my parents more or less stopped inquiring about my grades, but those student loan statements served as one last extrinsic motivator, hidden in plain sight. Still, one of the proudest moments of my young adult life was when I mailed my final student loan payment, several years ahead of schedule.

Like most kids, I suspect, there was a time when I thought my parents were just the worst. Now, though, I am incredibly thankful for the way I was raised. I know that my parents are responsible for many of my best traits—particularly my work ethic and self-discipline—as well as my tendency to set high standards for everyone around me, but first and foremost for myself. (They may also be responsible for my neurotic pursuit of “the right way” of doing everything, whether it’s loading a dishwasher, stapling a set of papers together, or standing for the Star-Spangled Banner before a ballgame. I know these quirks drive my students and players—not to mention my wife—crazy at times, but I’ll take the bad with the good.)

In the classroom and on the field, I refuse to apologize for setting high standards. I want my students to learn from their failures, just like I learned from mine, and in order for that to happen, the bar can’t be set too low. Students must strive for excellence and still come up short at times. Hard work is a must, and I believe that work ethic and self-discipline combine to produce success and, in turn, self-confidence. It cannot be the other way around. These are the building blocks of autonomy and adulthood, and more than anything, that is what I want for my students—just what my parents wanted for me. Tough love is hard, and I know that I waver more than my parents did, but I try to “fight the good fight,” as I would much rather my students resent me now and appreciate me later than like me now and leave my classroom unprepared for whatever comes next.

The summer of 1924 was a momentous time. International statesmen wrestled with the continued problem of German reparations following World War I, and Adolf Hitler sat in prison following his conviction for treason in the wake of the failed “Beer Hall Putsch.” Back home in the United States, Calvin Coolidge, having ascended to the presidency after the sudden death of Warren G. Harding the previous year, received the Republican Party’s nomination for a full term of his own. The United States was three-and-a-half years into its ultimately unsuccessful experiment with Prohibition, and many Americans were enthralled by the gory details of Leopold and Loeb’s “perfect crime,” which they believed would prove their status as übermenschen. Though financial recklessness would plunge the country into the Great Depression five years later, no one would have predicted that at the time. The American industrial economy was in full swing following its postwar reconversion, the stock market was beginning a tremendous bull market, and consumer goods—automobiles, refrigerators, and the like—were more readily available than ever before. Amidst all of this, on June 20, Margaret Orlean Owens was born to sharecroppers in rural Marengo County, Alabama. She was my grandmother.

Maggie, as I called her, was almost sixty when I was born, but until she was diagnosed with cancer, I never noticed any signs of aging. Unlike my grandfather, who dealt with a host of health issues, Maggie was vibrant and fun. She took a special interest in me, and she encouraged me to learn and get good grades—indeed, to pursue excellence in all things. If I brought home a stellar report card, I would often receive a card in the mail with a $5 or $10 bill a few days later. If I happened to play a great baseball game while she was in town visiting, I might get a silver dollar. (It’s worth noting that the use of extrinsic motivators was something of a family habit. Maggie’s older sister, whom I call Aunt Frances, once promised me $5 when I could name all fifty states and another $5 when I could name their capitals. I collected on the first offer; I never did on the second.)

Interestingly, as a teacher, I’m a fairly staunch opponent of extrinsic motivation for learning, and I can see the reasons why even in my young self. I’m not sure Maggie ever really recognized that she had created a monster, but when I was about eleven or twelve, I drew up a “contract” filled with what we now call “incentive clauses” for my upcoming baseball season. According to the terms, my parents would be obligated to pay me for certain milestone hits, RBIs, and stolen bases, as well as for each home run I slugged. Not surprisingly, my parents did not agree to the terms. Said contract went unsigned, and I remained in that sense a “free agent.” I have no doubt, though, that had I could have talked Maggie into signing such a sweetheart deal had she still been living.

Maggie had been diagnosed with breast cancer when I was too young to understand what cancer was. She received treatment and was in remission for several years, but in time, the cancer returned. With her second diagnosis, Maggie progressively lost her independence, first moving to the town where we lived (though in her own apartment), and later, as both the cancer and the treatments became more aggressive, moving in with us. By this point, I was aware that Maggie was sick, but I thought her moving in with us was the best thing in the world. It meant that my greatest champion was just down the hall, and I could spend time with her every afternoon after school.

While she lived with us, Maggie often asked what I had learned about that day, and if her interest was feigned, she deserved an Oscar. I still received rewards for good grades, though sometimes it meant accompanying my mother to the bank to make a withdrawal on Maggie’s behalf. Showing my report card to my parents was something I had to do; showing it to Maggie was something I couldn’t wait to do. The money played a significant role in that, I’m sure, but looking back, it’s the warm glow of her pride that I can still feel after all these years.

I still have a few things from Maggie. One of those is the last card she ever sent me, which I saved though it contained no money. I was spending the summer at my father’s house, as I always did then, and Maggie’s condition deteriorated. When it appeared that the end was near, my mother sent for me, and I returned home. By the time I arrived at Maggie’s bedside, she had slipped into a non-responsive state. At my mother’s urging, I squeezed Maggie’s hand and told her I was there, and at this, the faintest hint of a smile crossed her lips. That was all, but it was enough. She had said goodbye. I was ten years old.

I know enough now to realize that this may have been an involuntary response, a stimulus of some kind from my squeezing her hand. Still, I prefer to think of it as one last smile for me. She passed away later that night without regaining consciousness, and a few days later, after the funeral, I returned to my father’s house. Waiting for me there was the card, which had been mailed just a day or two before I went home to see her. The envelope was addressed in my mother’s handwriting, and it didn’t immediately occur to me who it was really from, but Maggie had clearly insisted on signing it herself. You can tell from the signature—sloppy but unmistakably hers—that her strength had been fading. The card’s message was simple, but perfect: “Don’t forget—I love you.”

I had felt numb in the immediate aftermath of her death, and I had kept my emotions in check fairly well. But I remember vividly the moment when I opened this card. I was crushed, and I cried uncontrollably for what felt like hours. Even now, twenty-three years later, as a grown man, I am moved to sobs when I re-open this card and read it. That is the power of her enduring love.

Maggie loved me, and she believed in me. The love she gave was never conditional—never dependent on my performance in school or on the baseball field. Still, something about her love made me want to earn it. I’m not sure how she did that, or if she was even conscious of it, but Maggie’s masterful blending of unconditional love and extrinsic motivators set an early tone for my life. I knew that I was loved, and yet I strove to be worthy of that love. Maggie believed in my power to be extraordinary, and when I doubt myself today, I remember this. She confronted—and eventually succumbed to—a debilitating disease, and yet even in the most difficult moments, she invested herself in me. She shared her abundant love until the very end, and I never forgot it.

I can’t think of a better description of a teacher, and though becoming a teacher had never even crossed my mind when Maggie passed away, perhaps it was her example that led me toward this career. It is certainly one that I aspire to, despite knowing that I fall far short of it on a daily basis. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day: the assignments, the grades, the e-mails, but education is, at its core, about relationships. To have the impact that I hope to have, my students must know that I care deeply about them—that I believe in their potential and am willing to invest myself in them. As I enter the classroom today to begin my tenth year as a teacher, I’ll try to keep Maggie’s example closer to fore of my mind.

Next Monday, August 21, will mark the start of my tenth year in the classroom–a milestone which seems to invite some longer-term reflection. As I think back on my career so far, there have been so many people who have helped to make me into the educator (and indeed the man) that I have become, and it seems appropriate to commemorate Year Ten by paying homage to them.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to write one post each month this school year (August through May) in which I reflect on the influence of some of my many teachers and mentors. Though I doubt that I could ever repay the collective debt of gratitude that I owe to these women and men, my hope is that my words will give them some small measure of pride as they themselves reflect on the lives they’ve led and the impact they’ve made.

This effort is not entirely selfless, however. In reflecting on why and how these individuals shaped my life, I’ll also strive to identify a few through-lines that will propel me forward into the next ten years.

 

As I’m sure many Americans have, I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking—and worrying—about the concept of truth. I should say at the outset that while I have some strongly held political views, I generally believe that on any given issue, there are a range of reasonable opinions. And because I don’t appreciate others’ proselytizing, I generally try to keep my politics out of the social media sphere.

That said, I feel compelled to comment on President Trump’s casual disregard for the truth. I want to make it clear at the outset that this is not a narrowly “political” opinion. Rather, my anxiety on this issue stems from larger, longer-term concerns about the civic health of the United States. To be sure, Trump is not to blame for most of these concerns, but the President (regardless of party, regardless of personality) has an obligation to nurture a healthy American civil society, allowing—even welcoming—dissent even as he promotes his own agenda.

Throughout the campaign, Trump displayed a penchant for making bold claims—fairly typical “red meat” for his political base. This is not unusual. But when those statements later became political liabilities, he did not (as many politicians do) attempt to “massage” them. He did not (with the exception of his infamous “locker room talk”) even attempt to explain them away. He and his team simply denied outright ever having made them. The TV spot produced by the Clinton campaign in the wake of the VP debate illustrated this perfectly.

Trump’s supporters might argue here that all politicians play fast and loose with the truth, and they would not be incorrect. Still, I think there’s a difference between run-of-the-mill “spin” and what Trump has done and continues to do.

Now that he has taken the oath of office, we’ve witnessed a trivial but protracted debate over the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration vis a vis Obama. (In the grand scheme of things, who cares?!—except that, obviously, Trump does.) Most of the notable comments have come from Trump’s press team, with Kellyanne Conway purporting “alternative facts” on a Sunday morning talk show and Sean Spicer asserting in a press briefing that “we can disagree with the facts” (as if facts weren’t facts at all).

On top of the inauguration silliness, there have been reports of a forthcoming investigation into allegedly widespread voter fraud. To be sure, if millions of ballots were cast illegally, I—like most Americans—want to know about it. But so far, no one has produced any real evidence to that end, and the Trump team seems convinced that this problem was really only a problem in states where Trump lost.

This is not new, of course. Let us not forget that this is the same Trump who built his political career on “birtherism,” refusing to accept Barack Obama’s citizenship and demanding to see his birth certificate. And yet, once the document was released, Trump refused to accept it. When he was challenged on this issue during the 2016 campaign, he sought to blame Hillary Clinton for the whole charade.

It boggles the mind, and it has me wondering: Is Donald Trump the postmodern president?

As an undergraduate, and especially as a grad student, I dipped my toe into the waters of postmodernism, and I initially found them intellectually stimulating. For someone who hated history in high school, it was exciting to learn that everything—even the very nature of reality—was subject to debate. My experience in high school was essentially: “Here are a bunch of facts that someone else has deemed significant. Now memorize them!” So you can imagine how it felt to be told, in effect, “There are no wrong answers. All perspectives are valid; just take a side!”

In graduate school at the University of Alabama, I took a class with Professor George Williamson (now at Florida State University). We read the German historian Leopold von Ranke, who advocated for a fact-based (as opposed to a mythological) history—history wie es eigentlich gewesen (“how it actually happened”). We read Peter Novick, whose book That Noble Dream questioned the whole Rankean conception of history as an “objective” discipline. And we also read Gertrude Himmelfarb, the conservative historian who decried postmodernism thusly:

In history, [postmodernism] is a denial of the objectivity of the historian, of the factuality or reality of the past, and thus of the possibility of arriving at any truths about the past. For all disciplines it induces a radical skepticism, relativism, and subjectivism that denies not this or that truth about any subject but the very idea of truth—that denies even the ideal of truth, truth as something to aspire to even if it can never be fully attained.

Throughout the semester, we tacked through the heady winds of intellectual discourse, zigging and zagging from left to right and back again. Week after week, Dr. Williamson’s class left me thoroughly confused and convinced that I was stupid. I cannot honestly say that I enjoyed it. Nevertheless, long after the semester ended, I came to appreciate it more than any other class I took at Alabama. It was his class that provided me with a broad theoretical foundation for understanding history as a discipline, and in retrospect, it was his class that transformed me from merely a good student who happened to like history into a historian.

I must admit here that I am still influenced by certain aspects of postmodern thought: I remain skeptical of so-called “metanarratives,” and I do hold that truth—particularly historical truth—is a slippery and contested concept. The facts are always tentative and subject to change, and historians must (to the extent possible) be aware of their own biases. In that sense, I—like most historians, I suspect—share Novick’s view. However, I find much truth (and I choose that word deliberately) in Himmelfarb’s position. Postmodernism, intellectually engaging though it may be, is ultimately nihilistic and self-defeating. If there is no truth, even an imperfect one, then what’s the point? It reminds me of the famous line from Macbeth: “It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing.”

As the renowned historian Eric Foner states in his 2002 book Who Owns History?, “There are commonly accepted professional standards that enable us to distinguish good history from falsehoods like the denial of the Holocaust. Historical truth does [exist], not in the scientific sense but as a reasonable approximation of the past.”

In short, even for historians who accept Novick’s contention that “pure objectivity” is unrealistic, a bright line still distinguishes between fact and fiction. Historians acknowledge that they are not writing history wie es eigentlich gewesen, but that is still a far cry from simply “making it up.” The entire historical enterprise is built on documentation of sources and the peer review process. In that, there is, in fact, a connection to the scientific method and, indeed, to the very ideals of the Enlightenment.

Not for nothing have I made a habit of posting the following quotation on the door to my office or classroom throughout my career: “For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.” Those words come from an 1820 letter Thomas Jefferson wrote describing the University of Virginia, my other alma mater. For all of Jefferson’s many accomplishments, his role in founding the University was one of only three that he wished to have placed on his tombstone, alongside his authorship of both the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Clearly, Jefferson wished to be remembered as a man of the Enlightenment.

The United States is a very much a product of the Enlightenment as well, but it is the Enlightenment values—of truth, of reason—that Donald Trump appears to question. To my mind, few things could be more corrosive to the health of our civic and political institutions or as damaging to our republic in the long-run. As Americans, we can (and should) disagree; that is our heritage. It is one of the things that makes America great. But we must disagree reasonably. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it. Without reason, however—without the pursuit of truth—we are simply wandering in the dark.

Several months ago, a reader left a comment on my post (“Teaching Corroboration in the Age of Information Overload”) about teaching students to evaluate sources, interpret bias, etc. In his comment, this reader made reference to several sources from the website Socialism Realised, which I had not seen before. Shortly thereafter, I was contacted by someone affiliated with the website and asked to write a review, which—after spending more time exploring the site—I was happy to do.

Socialism Realised is an educational outreach project of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (ISTR), an agency funded by the Czech government. According to the website, the ISTR was “founded in 2007 as part of the [Czech Republic’s] process of coming to terms with the past,” and Socialism Realised is designed to “present content aimed at a deeper understanding of the lives of the people in these regimes and a comparison of these experiences to the present.”

This last point caught my attention. Although drawing comparisons between past and present always carries some risk (a topic I hope to expand on here in future posts, as it is one I have been contemplating a lot recently), I generally believe the benefits outweigh the costs, especially for teachers of secondary students. Though uncritical “presentism” may lead students toward a distorted, ahistorical understanding of the past, I believe that before we can teach students to think like historians, we must actually capture their attention. For too many students (as it was for me at their age), history is a dry and dusty discipline, and they can’t imagine why they should have to learn it. By helping them first see its potential relevance in their own lives, teachers can spark students’ curiosity and help them begin to ask questions about the past. From there, the ahistorical comparisons can be corrected as students are guided toward more sophisticated historical thinking.

History teachers who visit Socialism Realised will immediately note its emphasis on video sources, and on visual sources more generally. Of the 38 resources available, 27 are videos. Of the remaining 11, five are images, leaving only six text-based sources on the site. Perhaps this is to be expected of an English-language site about the history of Czechoslovakia, and it is certainly not a fatal flaw. The videos and images are likely to be more engaging for students, though as a teacher who stresses close and careful reading of text, I must say that I would like to see additional texts to complement the visual sources.

One element of Socialism Realised that I very much appreciate, however, is its flexibility. There are a variety of ways to explore the site, organized by “Eras,” “Perspectives,” and “Pathways.” Eras, not surprisingly, organize the material chronologically, and “Perspectives” offer visitors the opportunity to “Choose the angle from which you’d like to look at a given era”: ideology, memory, oppression, or personal stories.

“Pathways,” meanwhile, are thematic groupings of resources in which “Experts and teachers have prepared their own choices out of the material on the portal.” At present, there are only three (“The Basics of Communism,” “The Life and Times of Milan Kundera,” and “Women During Socialism”), but this would seem to be an area ripe for future development. I, for one, would love to see an interactive element of the site which allows teachers—or even students—to develop their own “Pathways,” even if those were subject to editorial review prior to publication.

It is worth noting here that the site could be more user friendly. Though the design is clean and visually appealing, it offers little direction for the visitor with limited time to explore. It is akin to walking into a museum consisting of a single large room with many artifacts. For visitors familiar with the site’s resources, there are a variety of ways to reach what they seek. For the first-time visitor, it might be a bit overwhelming. In this sense, the site’s flexibility is also a potential downside, especially for harried teachers who are looking for more direction or a ready-to-use “packaged” set of materials. More prominent placement of the “Pathways” could be helpful for those types of visitors by serving as a more structured “gateway” into the site and all it has to offer.

Those who do take the time to explore Socialism Realised, however, will be rewarded with a rich and coherent set of resources. More or less at random, I selected three sources to examine, but I quickly realized how interconnected they were—an opportunity for a thoughtful teacher to guide students toward historical thinking.

“Class Cleansing” offers an excerpt from a 1952 document titled, “A recommendation on how to ‘cleanse’ agricultural high schools.” The commentary provided below the source (a seemingly minor point, but one which will encourage students to read the source itself before having someone else explain it to them) explains that “The children of people who originally owned a large farm or disagreed with collectivisation – referred to in the document as the ‘village rich’ – were unable to attend secondary agricultural schools during the collectivisation era. The regime was therefore not content with just forced collectivisation; the purpose of this measure was to overturn the agriculture system as a whole and limit the career prospects (even in the cooperatives) of the potentially disloyal descendants of big farmers and landowners.” Students will need some background knowledge in order to make sense of this document, but it is a rich source illustrating the point that schooling in a socialist society served political ends. (Of course, one might argue that schooling in any society serves political ends.)

“Rewriting History” is a clip from the 1990 film Lenin, the Lord and Mother, in which a teacher in the 1950s instructs her students to physically remove an image of Rudolf Slánský from their textbooks in the wake of his 1952 show trial. Again, to extract the most meaning from the document, students will need some background knowledge, but the source itself is intriguing enough to create questions among even younger students: Why is the teacher making them tear apart their textbooks? Who is the man whose photo they are tearing out? (Also, I love the bit at the end where one student accidentally tears out the photo of Stalin…) This would make an excellent source for a standalone “inquiry” lesson centered on question development and research, and once students understand the context, it would pair well with the source described above to illustrate the ways in which schools reinforced the existing political structure.

Finally, “Education for All” is a 1987 “documentary” touting the benefits of the Czechoslovakian education system, which supposedly provided high-quality education for all citizens from nursery school through university. According to the commentary, “This clip is from a film that was meant to prove that Czechoslovakia upholds human rights as set out in the Helsinki Accords. In regards to the right to education, knowing the period context allows to uncover a large degree of manipulation in the film.”

Though I did not select these three sources with such a goal in mind, I could see them forming the basis for a “Pathway” on the role of education in a socialist society—not only its “official” role according to the party line, but also the ways in which particular education policies reflect a particular vision for society. In my experience, students are always fascinated when teachers “peel the onion” around educational policy and practice, helping them understand the larger system in which their day-to-day existence unfolds. I could see this sort of exploration serving as a launchpad for a wider consideration of education policy, both historically and today.

The sources, of course, are the cornerstone of the site, but the authors of Socialism Realised are not content to be merely a “web archive.” Rather, they have carefully considered pedagogy in their curation of historical materials, stating boldly on the site’s “Pedagogical Approach” page:

The dominant image of the Eastern bloc is focused on conflict and political history. . . . To overcome the established dichotomic image, we offer a more complex look at the period through innovative kinds of sources and how we enable users to think about diverse and even contradictory interpretations of the past and the perspectives of different actors. At the same time, we’ve tried to lessen the amount of raw information, taking emphasis away from names and dates and instead focusing on key general phenomena, like the relationship of people to power and societal transformations. . . . For us, the fundamental principle of cognition is the analysis of historical sources, and the accompanying questions and texts guide this cognition process. [emphases mine]

This ambitious vision for history education largely matches my own, so it is not surprising that I find Socialism Realised a valuable resource. Furthermore, we should not be surprised that the site rejects a traditional view of history in which the important “facts” are handed down from on high.

Some teachers and students might be frustrated by a sense that Socialism Realised is long on questions and short on answers, but I suspect that this is a function of its authors’ anti-totalitarian vision. Unlike the subjects of the three sources described above, the site does not seek to define the terms of the past or circumscribe the inputs and outputs of the educational process. Good history, as Socialism Realised elegantly demonstrates, requires critical thought about complex issues, considered from varying perspectives. Those, not coincidentally, are the hallmarks of democratic societies, and often the first targets of nascent totalitarian regimes.

In my last post, I asked “Is there such a thing as too curious?” and at the end, I reflected on an old post in which I decided, “You can’t do it all.” I’m not quite sure why this sort of thing has been on my mind so much lately, but it has. Perhaps it’s a miniature “quarterlife crisis” of sorts (though, at my age, it would probably more like a “thirdlife crisis”). As I get older, I guess I feel the need to narrow my focus somewhat. That’s not to say I don’t still enjoy lots of things, but I feel as though if I want to actually accomplish something, I can’t be skittering around constantly. Luckily, I do feel as though I’m gaining clarity on the pursuits and pastimes that matter most to me. Along these same lines, I’ve been thinking recently about letting go of dreams. I’m not talking about giving up on one’s dreams—that is different, I think—but rather, outgrowing them.

Case in point: When I was sixteen years old, I knew that I wanted to be a high school baseball coach. More precisely, I wanted to be a high school baseball head coach. (To be honest, that dream is what initially drew me into education.) I devoured articles on drills and strategies, printing them out and saving them in a notebook, which I still have to this day. I read books and watched videos, and I have an entire bookshelf devoted to coaching, which my wife finds unfathomable.

Even before I began my career, I made coaching a priority. While in graduate school, I e-mailed the coach of a local American Legion team, told him that I wanted to be a high school coach, and asked if I could help out. He said sure. (I’ve learned over the years that people will let you do almost anything if you offer to do it for free!) When I left with my Master’s degree and found a job teaching at an all-girls’ school, I made it clear that while I was happy to coach a fall or winter sport, I would be going elsewhere to coach baseball in the spring. Luckily they were supportive (though they did try briefly to recruit me to softball). During my time there, I volunteered at two different schools.

After five years of being pulled in different directions, I felt it was time to find a single school where I could both teach and coach, so I moved on to a coed boarding school. Though not the only factor, coaching was a major factor in that career move. When I took that job, I thought there might be a possibility of a head coaching opportunity developing in the next couple of years, and that was appealing. I also coached basketball there, initially as a JV assistant, and when the opportunity to become the JV head coach developed, I jumped at it. I was so hungry for the opportunity to lead a team, to try out my ideas, that I was thrilled to do it even in a sport where I didn’t know half as much. Some of my ideas worked well, and some didn’t, but I was much better the second time around. Had I stayed and coached the team for a third year, I am confident that we would be even stronger.

For lots of reasons, though, it was time to move on from that job after three years, and that brings us to the present. Ironically enough, shortly after I announced that I was leaving, the head baseball coach announced that he, too, was leaving, so the opportunity I anticipated when I moved there did indeed come to pass—just a few weeks too late. Meanwhile, the athletic director at my current school called me to talk about where I could be of the most help to the program, and I was a little surprised—maybe even a little miffed, if I’m being honest—to learn that I would be coaching middle school. I understood his rationale, and I’ve made my peace with it, but I find it almost comical that I’ll finally have my opportunity to be a head baseball coach, and half of the stuff I’ve learned over the years is probably too advanced for the age group I’ll be coaching.

There’s still a part of me who wonders if I could be a good head coach at the varsity level. I enjoy the competition and camaraderie, and I would appreciate the challenge. And yet, I find that I don’t have the drive that I once did. If the opportunity presented itself tomorrow, I would probably take it and be excited about it (at least for a few years), but it’s no longer my dream. I realized not long ago that I don’t plan for that day in the way that I once did.

As I’ve learned, again, you can’t do it all, and there are now other things in life that I want more. I want to be a good teacher, and I find that consumes a lot (maybe too much) of my time as it is. I’m frequently busy planning and grading during the week, and so I want to spend more time with my wife on the weekends. Baseball, especially at the higher levels of competition, can be an all-encompassing lifestyle for the months of the season (and in Florida, I’m learning, the season is nearly year-round). There was a time when the idea of spending my weekend at the ballpark would have thrilled me–not anymore.

I still love the game, and I think I’ll probably stay involved with it in some way for a long time… but I think maybe I outgrew my dream. Who knows where I’d be had I gotten a head coaching job at age 25, as I once hoped? I would probably be consumed by the sport and loving every minute of it. But that’s not how it played out, and I’m OK with that.

I sometimes tell my students that if they’re the exact same people 20 or 40 years after graduation, they will have failed at life. Maybe I’m practicing what I preach.