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Athletics and Education

There has been a lot of talk in the press recently about the role of athletes in our culture. Here at Wesleyan, about a quarter of our students play a varsity sport, and one shouldn’t make any generalizations about the variety of students who dedicate themselves to excellence in competition. The men’s and women’s tennis teams are off to strong starts, fueled by a combination of new talent and some seasoned players. The women’s volleyball team had a great tournament this weekend and hopes to build on that momentum. Claire Larson ’15 and Heidi Westerman ’17 kept the team humming. Women’s field hockey and soccer have had some tough early losses, but there were plenty of bright spots in their play that will help them keep improving. The men’s soccer team has started strong, and its great goalie Emmett McConnell ’15 has three shutouts in four starts!

One of the really exciting moments last year was the football team winning the Little Three for the first time in over forty years. They also shared the NESCAC crown. On Saturday they begin their season against the always tough Middlebury squad. We wish them luck!

Recently, I reviewed a fine book about football and education by English professor (and former second string linebacker) Mark Edmundson. I cross-post it here with the HuffingtonPost.

 

Mark Edmundson is a distinguished professor of English at the University of Virginia, the author of many learned essays and important books. He can talk about Freud and Wittgenstein, Homer and Emerson, and he has eloquently written about the importance of teaching and reading. But as he has reflected on the basic elements of his own identity, of his character, he has come to think that it was football “that became the prototype for every endeavor in later life that required lonely, difficult work.” “Football,” he writes “was going to educate me into becoming myself.”

As is the case for so many modern American men, Edmundson’s “education in the game” began by watching it played on television with his dad. Fathers and their kids have often grown closest by joining in an activity that requires little eye contact. Watching those afternoon games together, digesting those expressions of paternal admiration and contempt, this was Sunday school for millions of children. Edmundson beautifully evokes the rituals of smokes, drinks and snacks that went into a workingman’s preparation for the game: “through football my father explained the world to me.”

Halfway through high school Edmundson decided to try to play, curious to see how he would look in the pads, the helmet, the uniform. Taking to the field (twice daily) in August is tough on anybody, and for him it was grueling. Not being much of an athlete, he realized that nobody thought he would survive the training. The low expectations of others fueled his efforts. He couldn’t see much without his glasses, and he couldn’t run too fast even without the heavy pads, but somehow he found a way to build himself – body and spirit – into someone who belonged on the team. In his working class town of Medford, Massachusetts this conveyed some status. More importantly, it provided authentic community.

Edmundson, insightful reader of Freud that he is, is very ambivalent about the nature of this community. On the one hand, it promotes loyalty and courage, discipline and focus. On the other hand, it promotes violence and rage, groupthink and misogyny. Some of the best pages in this book describe the motivations for throwing your body into the fray, of launching yourself into a hit that is bound to hurt. Does it take courage? Sure, but rage also helps.

Edmundson turns to Homer for a comparison. In the Iliad Hector is a great warrior, a man of virtue and courage. He can “turn it off” when the battle is over. Not so Achilles, whose rage spills from war into everything else. It is, of course, Achilles who triumphs over Hector, but rage will exact its toll.

Some football coaches are particularly good at tapping into the passions of the young men in their charge. Locker-room anger at some perceived slight can lead to productive fury on the field. Edmundson discovers how to enrage himself by conjuring up memories of insults and offenses — all those folks who didn’t think he’d ever be able to hold his own. But the most powerful wrath comes from remembering the losses that cut the deepest.

And Mark Edmundson’s family had losses most difficult to bear. His father’s childhood scars of abandonment were profound, and then the family suffered the death of Mark’s little sister, Barbara Ann. Dad drank even more and stayed away from time to time; but he held it together. Mom sank into her grief for long periods, but she, too, found the resources of resilience and faith to carry on. Edmundson cites Freud on the work of mourning, and his folks worked to keep the family together. “How do you get from grief to some kind of gain? …Work lets you mourn the loss and put it behind you.” Edmundson was ostensibly writing about football there, but it may have been even more relevant to his parents. When he went to comfort his mother, she would simply reply: “I’m sad about the baby. There’s nothing you can do.”

There may have been nothing he was able to do at home, but he did learn to build himself through discipline, exercise and practice on the football field. Edmundson found a new brotherhood in his teammates, and they had many lessons to teach one another. He participated with fervor, but he was both in and out of the game, a “semi-outsider.” This status allows him real insight into the group dynamics. The game is certainly brutal at times, but it is also “beautiful and daring”. The loyalty of the young men to one another is often admirable, but “at certain points a bunch of men together can stop being a group and become something like a pack.” “Anyone,” Edmundson writes, “can see they are dangerous.”

And this is what Edmundson wants to emphasize to his readers about football. It’s so risky because the efforts and emotions it conjures up are so real. Playing the game with your teammates requires enormous effort; the work leads you to become better than you had ever been before. The personal losses you bring to the field don’t disappear, but your relationship to them can change. Experiencing that change, that effort to perfect oneself, is transformative. But calling up the resentments and the rage, calling to mind life’s losses to fuel one’s own violent energies is corrosive, too.

Playing a sport like football teaches you how to “summon the beast.” But growing up means learning what to do with those passions after the end of the fourth quarter. Edmundson’s “education in the game” has been so potent because he hasn’t left its lessons on the field.

This book certainly enriches one’s sense of a game that enthralls millions of Americans with its violence and its grace. It also reminds us of how the risks and rewards of athletics can be integrated with an education for life. And so the season begins!

 

Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game

By Mark Edmundson

Penguin Press: 229 pp., $26.95

 

This weekend The Center for African American Studies and the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life have put together an extraordinary celebration and commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the “freedom summer” of 1964. That year student activists from across the country headed south to work with African Americans in the struggle for civil rights. Others supported that work by organizing protests or doing important logistical tasks, often outside the spotlight. Alliances across religious affiliation, ethnicity, gender and race were key components of that heady time. There were tensions, to be sure, but there was also compassionate solidarity to “bend the arc of history” toward justice.

Wesleyan students, faculty and staff, along with other Middletown residents, were very much engaged in those efforts. Churches played a crucial role here as they did in the south. And music was everywhere linked to this work. So it’s fitting that our freedom summer celebration begins Friday with a “rolling concert” at 6 p.m. (100 Cross Street) featuring choirs from AME Zion Church, Middletown High School and Wesleyan. Dar Williams ’89 and Kim and Reggie Harris will be featured Friday evening, along with a children’s choir. The symposium gets underway Saturday afternoon.

In 1964 many in the Wesleyan community joined with a movement to work for the principles like the right to vote and equal protection under the law. These principles are under enormous pressure once again. As we celebrate 1964, may we be inspired to take up today’s challenges.

Thanks to Lois Brown, Rob Rosenthal and everyone who helped make this event happen.

 

Freedom Summer Schedule:

Friday, Sept. 12

Rolling Concert

6 p.m.

Location:   Dance Department – 100 Cross Street

Performers: Unity Choir, Cross Street AME Zion Church

6:30 pm

Location: Olin Library Steps

Performers: Middletown High School Choir and Wesleyan Singers

7 p.m.

Location: Memorial Chapel

Performers: Children’s Choir of Cross Street AME Zion Church; Dar Williams ‘89, Kim and

Reggie Harris

 

Saturday, Sept. 13

Freedom Summer Symposium

Fayerweather Beckham Hall – 45 Wyllys Avenue

1:30 p.m.   Panel: “Go South, Young Wes Men”: Freedom Summer 1964 and Wesleyan Student Activism

Panelists: Ron Young ’86, John Suter ’65, Stephen Oleskey ’65

Moderator: Ashraf Rushdy, African American Studies Program and English, Wesleyan

3 p.m.  Panel: Unwavering Courage: Civil Rights Activists of Freedom Summer

Panelists: Penny Patch, Muriel Tillinghast and Gwendolyn Simmons

Moderator: Anna Wasescha, President, Middlesex Community College

 

4:30 p.m.   Keynote Lecture by Margaret Burnham, Professor of Law and Founder of Civil Rights And Restorative Justice Institute at Northeastern University

 

Related Events

Friday, Sept. 12: 3-5

Saturday, Sept. 13: 9-12

Wesleyan Special Collections and Archives: “Civil Rights Activism and Wesleyan” An exhibit featuring historic Civil Rights-era Wesleyan materials, documents, and photographs.

 

No Sheep Here at Wesleyan

You’ve probably heard the buzz around William Deresiewicz’s polemic against the “miseducation of the American elite.” In the most widely read article in the history of The New Republic, Deresiewicz lambasted Ivy League schools (and others) for attracting students who will do almost anything to build a resume that will get them through the admissions filter, and then wind up without a clue as to either how to pursue an education in college or how they might lead meaningful lives. Our most highly selective schools, he argues, have become “inimical to learning,” training people who aspire to be both technocrats and aristocrats. They may talk about checking their privilege in undergraduate humanities courses, but they have been well trained to pursue paths only for the sake of prestige, power and money. As one of Deresiewicz’s student sources put it: “It’s hard to build your soul when everyone around you is trying to sell theirs.”

Deresiewicz offers a complaint about “those young people today” that many have dismissed as a familiar rant about youth culture by someone no longer part of it. The author evokes Allan Bloom, who provided a similar, if more deeply sourced, critique of education in The Closing of the American Mind (1987). Deresiewicz is surely right to complain about the rat race among ambitious high school students eager to do whatever it takes to get into a school with the most social prestige, without having to pay attention to how they want to learn or to what kind of learning context might be right for them. His comments are chilling on how bright and hardworking students enter the most selective schools with a wide variety of dreams about what they do after graduation only to become more and more homogeneous by the time they graduate. Look down the rows on graduation day at the most elite universities and colleges, Deresiewicz emphasizes, and two of the three seniors are likely to aspire to being bankers (or consultants). They just don’t know what else to do, since they’ve been trained always to go for the biggest prize. They’ve been taught that what matters can be measured; money is easy to measure.

Many students have written to Deresiewicz with tales of similar high achievement/low meaning experiences. His work has certainly struck an important chord in a culture that seems bent on making education only a job-training program — even for the most accomplished students. But there have also been biting critiques of his penchant for cherry picking his facts, preaching to the elite’s choir, and falling into embarrassing clichés. (“Have I mentioned that it isn’t easy? It’s not easy. It’s never easy. Life is tragic, which means, among other things, that you can’t have it all.”)  The New Republic has just published a stinging rejoinder from Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, who agrees that elite universities are paying attention to the wrong things in their holistic admissions processes. Pinker claims that less than 10% of the Harvard entering class is chosen for just “academic aptitude,” and he finds this scandalous. But he will have none of Deresiewicz’s talk of a well-rounded, meaningful life. Pinker wants students who excel when tested; he wants students who can perform in the classroom. Not quite saying what academic aptitude is, he is sure Harvard should emphasize it to create a “true meritocracy.” Many perversities would be eliminated, he insists, if we had more faith in standardized tests. Sure, they correlate with wealth, he opines, but perhaps aptitude does as well. If we just focused on academic aptitude, he suggests, the professors would be well served. Would the students? Would the society that supports the university?

William Deresiewicz called his book Excellent Sheep because he thinks we have created a system in which young people are encouraged to conform — not to think. By getting students to become better test takers and resume builders, he argues, we create people less capable of asking themselves questions that challenge the status quo — we create people incapable of thinking against the grain. Pinker seems to think that really smart people will think against the grain because they will pursue information and argument wherever it might take them. Worry about academic aptitude, he suggests, and the soul will take care of itself. Columnist David Brooks sees the debate between Deresiewicz and Pinker at the heart of tensions concerning the role of college education today.

Deresiewicz mentions Wesleyan and other liberal arts colleges as places in which very capable and creative students escape the herd mentality characteristic of the most elite institutions. Teaching hundreds of students over the last few years at Wes, I certainly see young people eager to question their own and other people’s assumptions. I also see faculty and staff willing to engage in the “education of the whole person” and not just training for a specific task. I don’t find many sheep at Wesleyan; I don’t see people only following the herd or people who have already made up their mind about what the rest of their lives will look like. I see people on the staff discovering new talents and finding ways to share them with others. I find faculty learning about their specific, specialized research areas, but also about the wider society and natural world. And I discover students with whom I can learn, and who are eager to find meaning in their lives as well as skills with which to live.

I recently wrote that, “A country that wants to maintain the dream of social mobility requires real colleges and universities that encourage everyone to find what Dewey called “large and human significance” in their lives and work. This requires the opposite of a nano-degree: not just code but context, critique, and cooperation. It requires real colleges and universities—institutions that equip students to reshape themselves and the world around them by learning to think for themselves and continually reinvent what they do.”

People often tell me that students choose Wes because of the culture — “sheep” don’t do well in our ecology. Our culture prizes abilities to thrive in ambiguity, change our minds, and work with exuberance in creative endeavors. We believe we can reshape our world and ourselves, and we are here to continue to learn how.

 

Many of us have turned our thoughts and hopes toward the Wesleyan student injured this weekend at the Beta Theta Pi  fraternity. The university will be updating the campus community about her condition as we receive more information from her family.

 

The semester is now well underway, even if some students are still finalizing their schedules. I’ve been talking with colleagues about their classes, and I’m always so impressed by their excitement and engagement with the course material and with their students. At Wesleyan we are fortunate to have so many fine teachers, and over the last several years we have added resources that encourage professors to share instructional techniques, including the use of new technologies. Great teachers are always learning.

Across the country, politicians, pundits and educators have been debating how we can improve instruction in the K-12 system. I recently reviewed a fine book on the subject, Elizabeth Green’s How to Build a Better Teacher. This is cross-posted with the Washington Post:

 

 

America has some of the best schools on the planet and one of the worst systems of education in the developed world. We have produced educational philosophies that have inspired teachers and students on every continent, but we have failed badly in implementing strategies that would either cultivate talents or address deficiencies.

This is not for lack of trying. Over a long period of time, federal and state governments have spent billions of dollars creating fancy programs dedicated to reorganizing where and how kids learn. In recent years we have built a testing industry based on the theory that if you can evaluate something, you can improve it. After all that effort, we have the tests, but where are the viable strategies for improving teaching and learning?

In “Building a Better Teacher,” Elizabeth Green examines the forces for and obstacles against change in our schools. But she doesn’t engage directly in the political debates that swirl around tenure, unions, cheating, over-testing and growing inequality. Instead, she identifies and dispels three deep sources of confusion: one myth and two inadequate arguments.

Green finds the “Myth of the Natural-Born Teacher” to be pervasive and pernicious. It attributes great teaching to personality traits that can’t be learned: “You either have it or you don’t.” This keeps us from developing a professional culture to improve teaching. Instead, we seek to hire people who have “it,” without defining what “it” is.

Two arguments that feed off this myth are labeled by Green accountability and autonomy. According to the first, we must measure a teacher’s results by testing his or her students (again and again). Data from the tests will be used to hold the teacher accountable (read: punishments and rewards) without a clue about how to improve performance. According to the autonomy argument, nobody can understand what goes on in a classroom better than teachers themselves. Instruction is so personal that we must respect the professional autonomy of teachers and let them do what feels right to them (whatever that is).

The myth and the arguments keep us from accomplishing what the philosopher John Dewey called for decades ago: develop “an analysis of what the gifted teacher does intuitively,” so we can create a culture in which effective teaching and deep learning take place.

Green describes with verve some of the key efforts to show that great teaching is a professional achievement rather than a natural ability. In the 1980s Lee Shulman recognized that teachers, like physicians, must learn how to combine their specific subject expertise with an ability to make that knowledge relevant to others. More recently, Magdalene Lampert has shown how sharing best classroom practices can promote teaching as a “complex craft” mastered over time. Green paints a picture of dedicated professionals striving to create a culture that can refine, share, improve upon and disseminate effective pedagogy. She points out that teachers need to know how to turn “a student’s slippery intuition into solid understanding” — and that this kind of knowledge can itself be taught.

Creating the infrastructure to develop this knowledge is a massive undertaking, given the scale of our heterogeneous systems. There are more than 3.7 million teachers in this country, and looming retirements mean that we can expect to hire around 3 million new teachers by 2020.

But the most interesting parts of “Building a Better Teacher” don’t have to do with numbers, systems or politics. Green is at her best when she describes how dedicated teachers work in the classroom. It isn’t nearly enough, she explains, for instructors to show their pupils how to get the right answers. Teachers have to divine why youngsters landed on the wrong answers and then steer them away from error so that in the future they can find their own way.

And that’s the key to great teaching at any level: cultivating in students the enhanced capacity to think for themselves in productive ways when they are no longer in the classroom or doing homework. This is so much more than following a rule or showing discipline (though both are often necessary). Green’s pages on teachers who help their students to think mathematically are particularly effective. But how to share teaching strategies that work?

Green compares the Japanese use of discussion sessions, jugyokenkyu, with the American reluctance to talk about teaching techniques at all. In Japan, regular observation and discussions turn the discovery of effective strategies in individual classrooms into a comprehension of craft that can be shared by a community of professionals.

A community of professionals is not the same thing as a union defending basic working conditions; nor is it a high-flying cadre of charismatic instructors whose students score well on exams. It’s the human core of effective instruction. All the testing in the world is just an “exoskeleton” and won’t provide this foundation.

Many obstacles inhibit the development of a culture for learning the craft of teaching. But Green emphasizes the ingredients for positive change that are currently in place. In addition to advances in teacher training, there are energetic entrepreneurs creating schools with ambitious, measurable goals: “The Common Core offered coherence, the research on teaching and teacher education offered a starting point for a curriculum, and the entrepreneurs added passion and a laboratory for experimentation.”

Now that we know how great a difference skilled teachers can make, we should leave behind the myth of the natural teacher, and our obsessions with accountability or autonomy. “The only logical conclusion,” Green writes, is “that American education ought to build a coherent infrastructure — clear goals, accurate tests, trained instructors — to teach teaching.”

Despite her lack of attention to the wider culture and context, Green’s account of passionate educators dedicated to their “complex craft” should be part of every new teacher’s education. It is vital for the United States to build better teachers to inspire the lifelong learning that not only our students but also their instructors so desperately need.

 

Friday, September 5 is Wesleyan’s music festival, The Mash. Student performers and bands, with some faculty and staff also pitching in, will be taking to the stages near Olin Library, in front of North College, and in the Butterfield Courtyards from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. A final stage on Andrus Field has food and even more music from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. I’ll be playing keyboards with some friends in the Smokin Lillies (go Dean Brown!) at 2 p.m. near the library. The schedule is here.

This summer I had the great pleasure of reviewing Greil Marcus’ The History of Rock ‘n Roll in Ten Songs. I just learned that Mr. Marcus had wanted to go to Wesleyan back in the day but fate (and the Admissions Office) conspired to send him to UC Berkeley. The rest is history.

I’m cross-posting the review from the San Francisco Chronicle.

 

"The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs," by Greil Marcus / ONLINE_YES

Greil Marcus writes about music as if his life depended on it. Maybe it does, and as you read “The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in Ten Songs,” it may feel like yours does, too. I bet you’ll want to interrupt your reading of this book to listen to Etta James, the Five Satins, Buddy Holly, Joy Division, the Beatles, Cyndi Lauper or Robert Johnson. You’ll then go back to the book and remember when music made you recognize that it was time to change your life, or when it simply brought you such pleasure, such joy, you thought your heart was on fire.

Marcus has told rock ’n’ roll histories many times in his distinguished career. In this short, wonderfully alive book, he eschews the straight arrow of chronology and instead wants to “feel one’s way through the music as a field of expression, and as a web of affinities.” For Marcus, “rock ’n’ roll may be more than anything a continuum of associations, a drama of direct and spectral connections between songs and performers.” He’s not that interested in what songwriters said they intended, or what singers and other musicians thought they were doing in studios or onstage. Instead, he is interested in how music comes alive and reverberates in different times and places, creating meanings that radiate into the future while also changing the ways we imagine the past. Marcus’ historical moments have the intensities of a great song, coming together in ways that are both satisfying and appetizing.

Marcus’s 10 songs are anything but obvious: “Shake Some Action,” “Transmission,” “In the Still of the Night,” “All I Could Do Was Cry,” “Crying, Waiting, Hoping,” “Money (That’s What I Want),” “Money Changes Everything,” “This Magic Moment,” “Guitar Drag,” “To Know Him is to Love Him.” The book even has what the author calls an “instrumental break.” Later performances of songs reveal the truths of earlier ones; the future sometimes seems, according to the epistemology of Neil Young, to cause the past.

Marcus is looking for moments “when something appears as if out of nowhere, when a work of art carries within itself the thrill of invention, of discovery.” Or as the Who’s Pete Townshend put it: “It’s the bloody explosion. …. It’s the event. That’s what rock and roll is.” What seemed impossible before now seems inevitable.

After reading Marcus, listening to Etta James and Beyoncé singing their versions of “All I Could Do Was Cry” becomes revelatory, as it was for him. “You could imagine, as you listened, that as the singer changed the song, the song changed the singer, and you could imagine that both would change you. Nothing would be left the same.” Marcus explores how James’ singing became utterly devastating, with the first words of the song not really being sung as much as “let out, stones hidden in her lungs for twenty years.” “James was twenty-two; she could have been sixty, or have lived a dozen lives without reaching twenty-three and remembered all of them.”

What a different path led Beyoncé to “All I Could Do Was Cry.” Marcus is no great fan of the singer who has become a brand, but he can’t help being bowled over by her performance of the song as she portrayed James in the film “Cadillac Man” — a rendition so intensely powerful that it “can make the rest of her career seem like a cheat.” Or, as Marcus says of the great Arlene Smith, Beyoncé went into that ballad “like a maiden sacrificing herself to volcano gods.”

Marcus wants to reawaken in his readers the capacity for surprise, or an intense anticipation that doesn’t diminish our ability to register something completely new. This was the climate the Beatles inhabited and permanently changed in 1967, as did Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, “even the Beach Boys.” This climate change is re-created in each of the songs Marcus discusses.

It was that sense of anticipation commingled with surprise that Marcus remembers hearing in records like the Beatles version of “Money (That’s What I Want).” As a kid in San Francisco, listening to the song over and over again, Lennon’s singing “so full of hysteria you can see the words bursting into flames as they leave his mouth,” Marcus began to understand that the song is “about nothing but freedom.” Or, as he writes about “Money Changes Everything”: “The story we’re telling is about imprisonment, but the music we’re making is about freedom, the tiny moments of freedom you steal from a life you don’t own, that doesn’t belong to you, that you have to live.”

And that’s the thread that runs through Marcus’ history, the thread of a promise of, and even an anticipation of, freedom. Writing of “This Magic Moment,” he notes: “By 1959 it was the ruling question of national life: would America live up to its promises, or deny that they had ever been made.” The history of rock ’n’ roll makes it impossible to deny the fact of these promises, even as it also reminds us that outside of our songs, they have yet to be fulfilled.

Marcus writes “unsatisfied histories” because he tells tales that remind us of what we have yet to do. The point is not to chastise. Instead, he wants his readers to do what his musicians have done: draw on “whatever new social energies and new ideas are in the air — energies and ideas that are sparking the artist … to make greater demands on life than he or she has ever made before.” That’s what Greil Marcus has done in his potent, inspiring book.

 

The History

of Rock ’n’ Roll

in Ten Songs

By Greil Marcus

(Yale University Press;

307 pages; $28)

 

Happy Labor Day and first day of classes! The following is cross-posted from The Daily Beast.

There is a tradition in this country stretching back to Thomas Jefferson of lofty ideals for our colleges and universities. Liberal learning is said to prepare one for autonomy and for citizenship. As Ralph Waldo Emerson emphasized, it also led one away from the crowd; it helped one escape mere imitation and opened access to authenticity. Finally, education offered the opportunity to discover work that would be meaningful — to find one’s “passion.”

But, as I describe in Beyond The University: Why Liberal Education Matters, there is another tradition stretching back just as far questioning the “real world” relevance of these lofty ideals. Is it right to speak of “finding meaningful work” when available work might necessarily involve drudgery and worse? Is it right to emphasize citizenship and finding one’s passion to students who first and foremost are desperate to find a job? Such questions, so much on our minds today, were especially urgent for freed African slaves and their descendants at the beginning of the 20th century.

In 1903, Booker T. Washington voiced the following complaint about education for African-Americans:

There were young men educated in foreign tongues, but few in carpentry or in mechanical or architectural drawing. Many were trained in Latin, but few as engineers and blacksmiths. Too many were taken from the farm and educated, but educated in everything but farming.

Washington was a passionate advocate for an intensely practical education for ex-slaves and their descendants. He was born a slave on a small farm in Virginia and after the Civil War found work in the mines of West Virginia. After his education at the Hampton Institute, Washington was convinced that only by achieving economic success would blacks ever be recognized by white Americans as full members of society. Education should make people self-reliant, in Emerson’s ideal sense, but for Washington self-reliance was first and foremost the ability to earn a decent living.

Washington’s fame was as a teacher, institution builder (especially at the Tuskegee Institute), fundraiser, and spokesperson for the view that American blacks needed an intensely practical, vocational education. He appealed to ex-slaves and their descendants who were looking for a path out of poverty, and he appealed to whites who appreciated his decision not to demand much in the way of political or cultural change. Washington was an “accomodationist,” willing to work within the structures for legal subordination of blacks in the South as long as he was able to promote black economic advancement. His message resonated with wealthy industrialists, high-toned educators, and even presidents. He was the most famous black man in America at the end of the 19th century.

Born shortly after the Civil War, W.E.B. Du Bois came into his own just as Washington was reaching the height of his fame. Du Bois was a prodigious intellectual with a slew of degrees–bachelors diplomas from Fisk and Harvard, eventually a Ph.D. also from Harvard (he was the first black person to receive one there) with continued graduate work in Berlin. He was a classics professor and a historian who wrote sociology (highly praised by Max Weber), poetry, plays, and fiction–to name just some of the genres in which he worked.

Washington was impressed by the American desire for material success and wanted to build progress for African Americans based on their ability to be successful in the economy. Du Bois, on the other hand, emphasized political and civic equality, along with the Jeffersonian notion of “education of youth according to ability.” Education was at the core of the differences between the two. “The pushing of mere abstract knowledge into the head means little,” Washington had written. “We want more than the mere performance of mental gymnastics. Our knowledge must be harnessed to the things of real life.” Du Bois agreed, but he wanted to broaden what might count as “the things of real life” so that the pursuit of happiness wouldn’t be reduced to the pursuit of dollars:

The function of the university is not simply to teach bread-winning, or to furnish teachers for the public schools, or to be a center of polite society; it is, above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization.

Du Bois was acutely aware that the “fine adjustment” between life and knowledge was especially problematic in a society of oppressive racial inequality, a society that had denied many blacks the most rudimentary education in the years after emancipation. He was committed to the ideal that education was a path to freedom, but he also acknowledged the fact that different people need different kinds of educational opportunity:

How foolish to ask what is the best education for one or seven or sixty million souls! Shall we teach them trades, or train them in liberal arts? Neither and both: teach the workers to work and the thinkers to think; make carpenters of carpenters, and philosophers of philosophers, and fops of fools. Nor can we pause here. We are training not isolated men but a living group of men–nay, a group within a group. And the final product of our training must be neither a psychologist nor a brickmason, but a man.

Educational institutions should aim to stimulate hunger for knowledge — not just contain it or channel it into a narrow path destined for a job market that will quickly change. Education should not teach the person to conform to a function, a repetition of slavery, but should provide people with a wider horizon of choices.

Du Bois repeatedly defended liberal education against those who saw it as impractical. In an address at the Hampton Institute in the beginning of the century, he lamented that “there is an insistence on the practical in a manner and tone that would make Socrates an idiot and Jesus Christ a crank.” At one of the centers of industrial learning for blacks, Du Bois argued that its doctrine of education was fundamentally false because it was so seriously limited. What mattered in education was not so much the curriculum on campus but an understanding that the aim of education went far beyond the university. And here is where Du Bois issued his challenge:

The aim of the higher training of the college is the development of power, the training of a self whose balanced assertion will mean as much as possible for the great ends of civilization. The aim of technical training on the other hand is to enable the student to master the present methods of earning a living in some particular way . . . We must give our youth a training designed above all to make them men of power, of thought, of trained and cultivated taste; men who know whither civilization is tending and what it means.

The differences between Washington and Du Bois, and the tensions between the lofty and practical ideals for higher education, are instructive for us today. Sure, we must pay attention to what our graduates will do with their education, and we must give them the skills to translate what they learn in classrooms to their lives after graduation. But we shouldn’t reduce our understanding of “their lives after graduation” to their very first job — which should be the worst job they’ll ever have. We must recommit ourselves instead to ensuring that a broad, liberal education is also pragmatic — in Washington’s words, “harnessed to the things in real life,” to productive skills valued beyond the university. By doing so, we will also achieve what Du Bois championed: practical idealism based in lifelong learning.

It feels exhilarating to see all the students coming back to campus. I love this little video on the Wes vibe and hope you do, too.

 

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Wesleyan. This Is Why.

 

This morning Kari, Mathilde and I saw teammates on the fields behind the Freeman Athletic Center. It wasn’t quite 7 am, but practice was getting underway. Bleary-eyed student workers were headed in the direction of Usdan to prepare for a full day of welcomes, answering questions and helping to orient the families new to our campus. I start getting a little giddy with excitement as the new year is beginning….

Welcome to our new graduate students, transfers and the class of 2018! I look forward to meeting many of you when I make the rounds of the residence halls this morning, or when I speak with families in the chapel this afternoon.

Throughout the day we’ll post pictures and videos here. There may also be some tweeting from @mroth78…

WELCOME!

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Pres Roth welcomes Ashley Suan '18 to Wesleyan! Continue Reading »

Learning, Not Violence

What a summer it has been! Around the world there has been an escalation of hatred and violence — vitriol is flowing in all corners of the globe. Aggressive Russian action against Ukraine continues, and the reactions of the West, however tepid, may be leading to a new Cold War. In the Middle East the killing continues at an accelerated pace. Rockets fired by Hamas fighters from Gaza (sometimes from behind schools and hospitals) into Israel has led to a brutal response that seems only to further reduce the chances for a peace settlement. It is heartbreaking to see the destruction wrought by Israeli strikes, particularly those that have hit the university, shelters and schools. Images of the wounded children burn in my mind.

In Syria the death toll now approaches 200,000, and the mayhem in this failing state is having reverberations throughout the region. ISIS fighters have slaughtered countless civilians who don’t share their particular religious commitments. The horrific beheading of journalist James Foley can stand for so many unspeakable acts. American military activity will certainly be increasing in the coming weeks, who knows with what results?

Here in the United States we have been facing our own crisis because of police acts that evoke long histories of racism and violence. The recent deaths of Eric Garner in Staten Island, of Ezell Ford in Los Angeles and of Michael Brown in Missouri  — all unarmed black men — remind us of the struggle that remains to achieve anything like “equal protection under the law.”

And let us not forget the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in the spring. We tweeted “bring our girls home,” but the heinous activities of the barbaric group continue unabated. Education for girls remains a right we must struggle to protect.

Why rehearse these horrors as we prepare to begin the academic year? I am thinking about them as a reminder to myself how fortunate I am to be part of a community where disagreement, even intense disagreement, can lead to learning — and not violence. At Wesleyan we will engage issues, and we will do so in order to understand ourselves and the world a little more clearly. The point of this understanding is to be empowered to act more effectively and responsibly beyond the university. Our learning community is one that values inquiry, and, of course, inquiry can often be upsetting, even destabilizing. But we should know that our campus is a place that refuses violence and cultivates care. Our willingness, our responsibility, to look out for one another is one of the qualities that make alma mater such a vital place.

As summer winds down and students, faculty and staff get set to begin the academic year, let us be aware of the work we still have to do to make Wesleyan a more equitable, inclusive and positive community. And let us also be thankful that it is already a place at which we can learn from one another, disagree with one another, and know that we do so within an ethos of peace and respect.

Back on Campus

I just arrived back on campus after spending part of the summer in the Berkshires. That’s a place we’ve grown to love, and I find we get a fair amount of work done on our research and course preparation while also enjoying the outdoors. I think Mathilde enjoys it most of all:

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Over the next week I’ll be meeting with staff and faculty to plan for the coming year, and I am looking forward to my first discussions with student groups. Arrival Day will be here very soon, and this quiet campus will be all abuzz with the energies of the Class of 2018.

A recent alumnus, Peter Frank ’12, recently invited me to take the “ice bucket” challenge to call attention to the importance of giving support to research to find a cure for ALS.

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Please join Peter and me, and many, many Wesleyan alumni in supporting research to find a cure!

 

 

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