Random Thoughts

At my school, we have a regular meeting where faculty come together to share thoughts and ideas related to the classroom. The facilitator seeks input for potential conversation topics, and I recently proposed “civic education across the disciplines.”

I could be wrong, but my sense is that teachers in disciplines other than the “social studies” disciplines sometimes see “civic education” (that is, preparing students for citizenship) as beyond the scope of their expertise and/or job description. I thought it would be worth having a conversation about this.

As we, like schools everywhere, attempt to grapple with the tenor of conversations outside our walls, our head of school gave a talk earlier this week about the importance of civil conversations. Coming on the heels of this talk, my colleague quite understandably transposed my suggestion of civic education to civil education when she e-mailed the faculty asking for a vote on possible topics.

This prompted an e-mail exchange which got me thinking about the relationship between the two. Here’s where I stand (for now):

You can have a civil educational environment while doing very little to prepare students for civic life, but you can’t provide civic education if the atmosphere is not civil. It is vital (in my view) to address civic issues across the disciplines, which creates an opportunity (an obligation?) to teach civility school-wide as well. In fact, it is more important to teach civility if a particular lesson has an explicit civic component.

Consider the following example of “essential questions” for a science class: How should we, as citizens, evaluate the various scientific claims made about climate change? To what extent is there “scientific consensus” on the subject?

Though I can’t say for sure, I would think that establishing strong norms for civil conversation would be more urgent for such a lesson than it would be for one on, say, gravity. (Of course, as a history teacher I can’t help but note that the question of gravity was once a matter of urgent civic import as well. The fact that it isn’t any longer may, in fact, reveal something about the nature of scientific discovery and consensus.)

I definitely believe that disciplines should support civic education, but the more I think about it, the more I think civic education has the potential to reinforce the disciplines as well.


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.

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the challenge of teaching corroboration in the age of information overload. In that post, I described the 21st century citizen’s challenge of wading through pages upon pages of conflicting information, and especially of not succumbing to confirmation bias as a result.

In an attempt to improve my own personal “information management,” I recently read David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. (I’m not going to write a full review here, but if you ever feel like you’re drowning in e-mails, paperwork, to do lists, etc., and you haven’t read this book, I highly recommend it.) In the book, Allen describes the problem we face nearly perfectly:

The necessity of dealing with frequent and complex barrages of potentially significant data was probably true in the past for remarkable individuals such as Napoleon as he marched through Europe, or Bach as he composed, or even Andy Warhol as he decided what to paint or show in a gallery. Now, though, the entire world’s digitally connected literate population is the recipient of an explosion of nonstop, potentially “important”—or at least relevant—information. The ease with which it can be accessed through technology has made it simultaneously rewarding in its opportunities and and treacherous in its volume, speed, and changeability. If you are by nature fascinated by what may be going on when you hear sirens in your neighborhood or wonder what a group of people across the room at a party is excitedly talking about, then you are ripe for becoming a victim of the endless and powerful distractions your personal technology dishes out to you. (Loc 195)

This makes me wonder: Is there such a thing as being “too curious”? In our schools, we often extol curiosity as a core value, but is there a downside? Especially given our (relatively) newfound ability to pursue any topic that crosses our path, is it possible that our curiosity leads us to be, as my grandfather might say, “a mile wide and an inch deep”?

(For what it’s worth, this is also reminiscent of my January 2015 post, “You Can’t Do It All.”)

I love it when things line up unexpectedly.

A significant portion of my students’ exam last semester was an entirely student-led Harkness discussion. Unfortunately, it didn’t go so well. They managed to sustain the conversation for the better part of 90 minutes, but it felt superficial and very competitive and, at times, downright rude. It was not at all reflective of what I’ve tried to teach them about how to have a discussion. (I suspect that’s because with such a high-profile grade attached, they reverted to instinct–but that’s another post altogether.)

At any rate, I started the new semester today with a reflection on that experience and tried to help the class move forward. We talked about the need to respect each other, and they talked about being “kind” and “friendly” and “not rolling your eyes”–all important ideas. But I took it a step farther, imploring them to actually value each other. As I told them, “Even if you disagree with someone–even if the two of you are completely opposed in every way–you can still learn from them. It won’t hurt you to listen to his ideas, and even if you come away still disagreeing with him, you’ll at least be forced to consider the merits of your own views and hopefully come away stronger. There’s value in that, so don’t waste that opportunity.”

We then moved into our regularly scheduled lesson, the beginning of a unit on virtue. One of my students pointed out that our school’s motto–emblazoned on the school seal (which I had placed on the course syllabus, which we had just discussed)–included the latin word Virtus. That was not part of my original lesson plan, but we ran with it. We talked a bit about why that might be. Why would a school want its students to be virtuous, and in what way(s)?

Later, after brainstorming a list of possible virtues, I offered an unexpected one: politeness. My students looked puzzled. Politeness? In his book A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues, French philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville argues that politeness is in fact the foundation for all other virtues. I assigned that chapter of the book to my students for Thursday, and we will discuss it. Again, not part of my original plan when I chose the reading over the summer, but I’m hoping that the discussion on politeness might offer my students an opportunity to reflect on our exam discussion while practicing better (I daresay, more virtuous) discussion skills.

It’s getting pretty meta up in here, but I do love it when things line up unexpectedly.

I’ve been thinking lately about how we educators (whether explicitly or implicitly) often encourage students to spread themselves too thin. Part of this is the insanely competitive college admissions race. But another part of it is simply our well-meaning desire for kids to experience the richness of life. I was that kid once–getting good grades, playing sports, being in school clubs, doing community service, working a part-time job, playing in the school jazz band as well as a garage band with my friends, spending hours on video games, going to the movies, staying up late talking to my girlfriend (now wife) on the phone, throwing tailgate parties with my friends, etc., etc. You get the idea.

Just the other day, though, I had a conversation with one of my classes about how I’m finally realizing–now that I’m in my thirties–that I can’t do it all. My interests are still as wide-ranging as ever, but the realities of work and home life mean that I just don’t have the time (or the energy) to pursue everything that tickles my fancy. And I’m struggling with that.

A couple of things I’ve read recently brought this idea to the fore. First: “The Unending Anxiety of an ICYMI World” from the New York Times. ICYMI (in case you missed it), the gist of the article is the fact that the ever-increasing amount of content available on the web means that we’re caught in a perpetual “catch up” mode. For me, this is no doubt the case. Twitter, blog subscriptions, the NextIssue app for iPad, my constantly growing Amazon wishlist, Netflix, etc., etc. Again, you get the idea.

The other source that provoked this line of thought was Mark Crotty’s recent post “Death of the Blog?” In it, Crotty writes:

For me the best blog posts have a meditative quality, as if the writer has peeled back his or her scalp and allowed you to see the neurons firing. Such posts echo the origins of the essay, its name derived from the Middle French essayer, which means to examine and to test. Part of the power lies in the struggle to construct that scaffolding, and it’s why we hold in awe those who can do it so gracefully that we read the words and they seem so natural, so easy, so much what we want to say…but can’t figure out how. They capture humans at their reflective best.

This struck a chord with me. As I wrote in my very first post on this blog, “I hope that this blog will be a forum where I can ‘wonder aloud,’ so to speak, about the things that arouse my curiosity, most notably teaching and learning, history, and ideas in general.” And it has been just that. Occasionally. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to “wonder aloud” as much–or as deeply–as I would like. Blogging, like so much else, often feels extraneous. I do value it, but then again, I value lots of activities, and there are so many that feel much more urgent than blogging.

These days, the struggle at the forefront of my mind revolves around basketball. I’m the head JV boys’ basketball coach this year. I’ve invested significant time learning (re-learning) the game over the last couple of years, but as our season progresses, I’m realizing every day just how much I still don’t know. And here’s the thing: I don’t know if I want to. I do enjoy coaching basketball, and I enjoy learning the intricacies of the game, but to become a truly successful coach at the high school level would take a serious commitment of time and energy. And I just don’t know if I want to make that investment.

The nature of working in boarding schools is that you’re often required to be a jack-of-all-trades, but in how many realms can we be truly competent? I can be a passable basketball coach (depending on how one defines “passable”). But I don’t know if I can be great–at least not while still doing all of the other parts of my job well. In fact, I don’t think any of us can truly do it all well. And if we try (as many of us in boarding schools do), what is the cost? What is the cost in terms of our family lives? In terms of our longevity in our careers? In terms of our health?

And how do we apply these questions to our schools and our students?

I was talking with a colleague today, and he said something very simple that nevertheless made me stop and think. He said of one student, “He does his work. He’s not going to do any more than than he has to, of course, but he gets his stuff done.” The student in question is not an academic superstar by any means, but my colleague is right: he does his work.

I’ve had countless students like this over the years, but for some reason, I never stopped to think about in quite this way. As our conversation continued to play in my head this evening, it occurred to me that we don’t really have a label for students like this. We have our “overachievers” and our “underachievers,” but we rarely talk about the kids who are simply “achievers.”

I wonder why. It’s as if simply achieving is not enough. To be worthy of our attention (that is: teachers’, college admissions officers’, prospective employers’), you can’t just do what you’re supposed to do. You have to do more. How much more? As much as you can, of course. And if you do more, we’re going to push you to do even more than that. More, more, always more. Are kids so wrong to say, “No thanks, not for me. I’m good with a C if it means I get to enjoy my life a bit during these four years of high school?”

As an educator and on a certain level, I get it. This is Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development in action. Except when it’s not. Sometimes, we’re not expanding kids’ comfort zones. Sometimes, we’re simply pushing to see just how much kids can handle. (And, oh yeah, because we “have to” sort them into honors classes, elite colleges, and competitive labor markets.) And we wonder why “kids these days” are grade-grubbing, perfectionist, careerist, etc., etc., etc. As Denise Pope argued in her book Doing School, it seems that we are indeed creating “a generation of stressed-out, materialistic, and miseducated students.”

As a graduate of both the University of Virginia and the University of Alabama, I like to joke that Saturdays in the fall are a roller coaster ride for me–usually down with the Wahoos and way up with the Crimson Tide. (But who am I kidding? It’s no joke.)

Given the success he’s had over the last few years, Alabama coach Nick Saban has become something close to a deity in the eyes of the Tide faithful, second only to Bear Bryant in the pantheon. Although I consider myself an agnostic when it comes to the divinity of football coaches, I was pleased to see the following quotation from Saban in the New York Times.

“The way you learn is to make mistakes,” Saban said of his defense, which leads the nation in points allowed per game (9.1). “So if you can make a mistake, and learn from it, you’re progressing. If you make a mistake, and you’re frustrated about it, you’re not progressing.”

I don’t know if he’s read Carol Dweck’s work on the growth mindset, but he clearly understands the principle. No wonder the man wins year after year.