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When I was a student here in the mid 1970s, I remember all those the smart kids who hung around Richard Slotkin, a young faculty member teaching literature, film, history, anthropology, cultural studies….or so it seemed to me from the buzz I heard about his classes and his scholarship. I remember sitting in the audience for a Center for the Humanities lecture based on his Regeneration Through Violence, a study that injected energy and purpose into the growing field of American Studies. Over the years Richie was one of the paragons of our scholar-teacher model: a beloved professor who was shaping the field of American Studies.

When I came back to Wesleyan as president, I asked Richie for advice about teaching large film classes (he was the master of this, as you can see from his iTunes class on Westerns), and he also gave me an earful on how the administration could do a much better job on any number of fronts. It was classic Slotkin: smart, engaged, and ready for real conversation. His retirement was a real loss for Wes (I keep asking him to come back to teach a course or two), but it has been a boon for readers who care about imagining the past. Check out his Amazon page, and you will find novels, history books, essays… He’s the real deal.

This week Prof. Slotkin is inaugurating a lecture series that has been created in his honor. His talk is entitled: “Thinking Mythologically: Black Hawk Down, the “Platoon Movie,” and the War of Choice in Iraq.” Here’s how Joel Pfister, who chairs American Studies, puts it:

Come see the amazing founder of the Wesleyan American Studies Department–Richard Slotkin–in action, THURSDAY, APRIL 24, 4:15, POWELL FAMILY CINEMA.  Professor Slotkin was a member of the English Department, began the American Studies Department (when he was in his mid-twenties), and helped establish the Film Department, and was one of Wesleyan’s most popular and beloved teachers (the first professor to win Wesleyan’s Binswanger Teaching Award twice).  He has not only written history, he has made it.  Since his early thirties he has been internationally acclaimed as one of the greatest American Studies scholars and he played a foundational role in developing the analysis of empire and race in the field of American Studies.  He taught hundreds of students each year in his movie courses on “Westerns” and also on war movies.  In December he was interviewed about gun control on Bill Moyers’ PBS show and before that has been interviewed by the major networks on gun culture and movies (for instance, re-reading the Star Wars films as extensions of the “frontier myth”).

This should be a great event. Come hear one of Wesleyan’s truly remarkable scholar-teachers on Thursday afternoon.


I originally wrote this op-ed for the McClatchy-Tribune, and it has appeared in various newspapers over the last week. I then read Arianna Huffington’s new book, “Thrive,” which argues for a different “metric of success” — something harder to quantify than traditional measures, but potentially much more fulfilling. Might there also be such metrics that would help one match up well with the college at which one would receive an education that would lead to lifelong learning? The idea of lifelong learning is at the core of my new book, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, which Yale University Press is bringing out in a few weeks.  I’ve posted this on the HuffPost site, and it seems appropriate to re-post here the week of WesFest.

Many of us were delighted by high school senior Kwasi Enin, who made the news recently when he was admitted to all eight Ivy League universities. He announced, with a great grin, that he would revisit the schools to find the best fit given his interests in music and medicine. He also wanted to compare their financial aid packages.

Kwasi’s success story is a rarity, but his response is not. After the thick envelopes arrive at home (or, after you click on the happy web link that announces your acceptance), students have about a month to really think about what kind of school would help them grow as a person, what kind of school would best prepare them for the future, and at which school would they be happiest. And they also have to think about whether they can afford the school of their choice.

The Ivies, and most of the country’s highly selective universities, promise to “meet full need” if you are accepted. That means that the colleges offer robust financial aid programs, and in recent years many have put a cap on required student loans. If household income isn’t high enough to pay the otherwise steep tuition, these schools will waive all or a large part of their bills.

But how does one answer the other questions about which school is the best match? Some young people are attracted to large universities with intense school spirit and a dizzying array of offerings. But apart from the big parties and athletic rivalries, many of these institutions are focused on graduate work and research, with undergraduates being taught mostly by part-time instructors. Others are attracted to smaller, residential schools with discussion-based classes led by scholar-teachers. But some of these institutions will feel too confining or isolated for students who want a high-energy, urban experience.

Many students today seem to think they should pick the university at which they will acquire the credential that will land them the most highly paid job. This is a sad (and ultimately impractical) narrowing of what a college education should provide. Sure, one should leave college with the ability to compete for gainful employment. But that first job should be the worst job you’ll ever have, and your undergraduate years should prepare you for more than just entry into the workforce.

Your college education should prepare you to thrive by creating habits of mind and spirit that will continue to develop far beyond one’s university years. Thriving means realizing your capabilities, and a liberal education should enable you to discover capabilities you didn’t even know you had while deepening those that provide you with meaning and direction. A strong college education, one infused with liberal learning, helps create what philosopher Martha Nussbaum has called “new spaces for diverse possibilities of flourishing.”

Discovering these possibilities for flourishing is the opposite of trying to figure out how to conform to the world as it is. That’s a losing proposition, not least because the world is changing so rapidly; tomorrow it won’t be how it is today. When you flourish, you find ways of shaping change, not just ways of coping with it. Those who get the most out of college are often anti-conformists aiming to find out who they are and what kind of work they will find most meaningful. They are not ready simply to accept someone else’s assignment. Those who get the most out of college expand the horizons in which they can lead a life of meaning and purpose.

These, I realize, may sound like awfully highfalutin’ phrases to someone trying to decide big school or small school … lots of requirements or open curriculum … great campus social life or wonderful experience off-campus. And you do want to be able to compete successfully for that first job.

But your college choice isn’t just about “fit” and “comfort”; it isn’t just about the prestige of the school or the amenities it offers. Your college choice should reflect your aspirations, where you can imagine yourself discovering more about the world and your capacities to interact with it. The college you choose should be a place at which you can thrive, finding out so much more about yourself as you also discover how the world works, how to make meaning from it and how you might contribute to it.

I wish Kwasi well as he returns to visit those lovely campuses. I hope that he, and the many thousands of other students across the country making college decisions this month, will use their imaginations to envision how they might flourish in their college years in ways that will enrich and inform their lives for decades beyond the university.


At Beckham Hall tonight many Wesleyans will join in the first Seder meal that marks the beginning of Passover. You can find out more information about the holiday on campus here. Our family gathered at my brother’s house yesterday for an early Seder, which was filled with the pleasures of breaking matzot together (and eating my matzah ball soup, my only culinary achievement). We talked of politics and education, family stories and sports. And we all marveled at our newest family member, baby Ruby, who reminded us all of how much joy one can get from simply getting another person smile….even giggle.

Part of the Seder is a reflection on the idea that if oppression and slavery still exist, then none of us are really free. At our Seder table, we talked about this in regard to the Palestinians and the Ukrainians, and in regard to the numerous ways in which violence continues to undermine freedom in so many places closer to home.

I hadn’t yet heard of the shooting in front of the Jewish Community Center in Overlook Park, Kansas. Three people were killed in the attack, according to press reports; all three were Christians devoted to family and community. The alleged shooter taken into custody is said to have ties to Nazi groups. He has long been a hate monger with a strong anti-Semitic and racist reputation. As Jay Michaelson wrote in the Forward: “Overland Park should issue a wake-up call. Oppression against one minority is oppression against all. And we Jews should not forget.”

None of us should forget: Oppression against one minority is oppression against all. As we strive to make our own campus community a place of peace, let us remember to struggle against oppression wherever we may find it.

Whatever tradition you belong to, why not use this week to think more about how we can contribute to ending oppression, making our communities places of peace.

This weekend the senior theses shows keep coming. I missed the opening this week because of NESCAC meetings, but I’m eager to see the work of the studio art seniors at the Zilkha Gallery (up through Saturday). There are recitals (e.g., Simon Riker’s ’14 musical in Beckham, Jeffrey Berman ’14 and Molly Balsam ’14 in the CFA) and plays (Lily Whitsitt ’06 production of Vatzlav), and I hear a rumor about a great musical in the 92 Theater. And I’m sure there’s more!!

There’s also plenty of sports action. The baseball team has been on a tear. Last weekend there was a very exciting sweep of Middlebury, and this weekend the Williams team comes to town on Friday afternoon. The softball team has been lead by pitching ace Su Pardo ’16, who was named Player of the Week by NESCAC after heroic efforts. In track, Kiley Kennedy ’16 has continued her record setting ways in pole-vaulting, while Sierra Livious ’14 set a school record in the hammer throw. The Women’s lacrosse team is on the road this weekend, and they are getting stronger as the season progresses. The men’s lacrosse team has excelled, and they defend their first-place record this weekend against Bowdoin. The mighty crew teams will be up at Tufts, showing how pulling together really works.

It’s such a busy time of year, and I know I haven’t listed anything like a full report on goings on. But let’s cheer on our Cardinal mates wherever we find them: on the fields, stages, galleries or vaulting with a pole!

And congratulations to all those thesis writers who finished up today. THESISWHY!


The happy emails and web links have gone out (replacing those thick envelopes), and all those fortunate enough to have choices about what college to attend will make a big decision: picking the college that is just right for them. They are trying to envision where they will be most likely to thrive. Where will I learn the most, be happiest, and form friendships that will last a lifetime? How to choose? As I do each spring, I thought it might be useful to re-post my thoughts on choosing a college, with a few revisions.

Of course, for many the decision will be made on an economic basis. Which school has given the most generous financial aid package? Wesleyan is one of a small number of schools that meets the full financial need of all admitted students according to a formula developed over several years. There are some schools with larger endowments that can afford to be even more generous than Wes, but there are hundreds (thousands?) of others that are unable even to consider meeting financial need over four years of study. Our school is expensive because it costs a lot to maintain the quality of our programs. But Wesleyan has made a commitment to keep loan levels low and to raise tuition only in sync with inflation in the future. We also offer a three year program that allows families to save about 20% of their total expenses, while still earning the same number of credits.

After answering the question of which schools one can afford, how else does one decide where best to spend one’s college years? Of course, size matters.  Some students are looking for a large university in an urban setting where the city itself plays an important role in one’s education. New York and Boston, for example, have become increasingly popular college destinations, but not, I suspect, for the classroom experience. But if one seeks small classes and strong, personal relationships with faculty, then liberal arts schools, which pride themselves on providing rich cultural and social experiences on a residential campus, are especially compelling. You can be on a campus with a human scale and still have plenty of things to do. Wesleyan is somewhat larger than most liberal arts colleges but much smaller than the urban or land grant universities. We feel that this gives our students the opportunity to choose a broad curriculum and a variety of cultural activities on campus, while still being small enough to encourage regular, sustained relationships among faculty and students.

All the selective small liberal arts schools boast of having a faculty of scholar-teachers, of a commitment to research and interdisciplinarity, and of encouraging community and service. So what sets us apart from one another after taking into account size, location, and financial aid packages? What are students trying to see when they visit Amherst and Wesleyan, or Tufts and Middlebury?

Knowing that these schools all provide a high-quality, broad and flexible curriculum with strong teaching, and that the students all have displayed great academic capacity, prospective students are trying to discern the personalities of each school. They are trying to imagine themselves on the campus, among the people they see, to get a feel for the chemistry of the place — to gauge whether they will be happy there. That’s why hundreds of visitors come to Wesleyan each week and why there will be the great surge for WesFest. They go to classes and athletic contests, musical performances and parties. And they ask themselves: Would I be happy at Wesleyan?

I hope our visitors have gotten a sense of the personality of the school that I so admire and enjoy. I hope they feel the exuberance and ambition of our students, the intelligence and care of our faculty, the playful yet demanding qualities of our community. I hope our visitors can sense our commitment to creating a diversity in which difference is embraced and not just tolerated, and to public service that is part of one’s education and approach to life.

Whatever college or university students choose, I hope they get three things out their education: discovering what they love to do; getting better at it; learning to share it with others. I explain a little bit more about that in this talk:

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We all know that Wesleyan is hard to get into. But even in the group of highly selective schools, Wes is not for everybody.We aspire to be a community committed to boldness as well as to rigor, to idealism as well as to effectiveness. Whether in the sciences, arts, humanities or social sciences, our faculty and students are dedicated to explorations that invite originality as well as collaboration. The scholar-teacher model is at the heart of our curriculum. Our faculty are committed to teaching and to shaping the fields in which they work. The commitment of our faculty says a lot about who we are, as does the camaraderie around the completion of senior projects that we are seeing right now on campus.  We know how to work hard, but we also know how to enjoy the work we choose to do. That’s been magically appealing to me for more than 30 years. I bet the magic will enchant many of our visitors, too.

I sent the message below to the entire campus community a short time ago. I am looking forward to conversations in the coming weeks with students who are involved in sexual violence prevention work, students involved in bystander intervention, and an open session with the WSA on Sunday, April 13th. There are also education and training opportunities being offered to faculty and staff and I encourage attendance at those events.


April is “Sexual Assault Awareness Month.” The problem of sexual violence on college campuses around the country – including our own – has received a great deal of attention in the press these past months. Although every report is painful, the problem is made worse when it’s hidden away. I’ve been impressed by the students here who are speaking out about it on their own.  They understand that the problem of sexual violence is not one that can be completely resolved by some administrative “fix.”  For that, we need the commitment of the whole community.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, between 20 percent and 25 percent of women will experience a completed or attempted rape during their college years. Is this appalling statistic true of Wesleyan? We will be using survey tools to better understand the problem here as well as making every effort to encourage survivors to report incidents.  And we will continue to make clear that we have no tolerance whatsoever for sexual violence.

In addition to supporting survivors and creating a clear, effective process for adjudicating these incidents, we have been developing initiatives such as the Bystander Intervention Program that have a proven record of effectiveness.  And because offenders often use alcohol to exploit potential victims, our work also includes efforts to shift norms around alcohol use. Any groups that are found to encourage binge drinking will be sanctioned or disbanded.

I recently wrote about these and other measures we are taking to address sexual violence. In the coming year you will be hearing much more about this issue and that of gender equity on campus from our Title IX Officer, Antonio Farias, and a standing Title IX Policy & Education Committee that includes students and trustees is actively addressing short- and long-term aspects of the issues. The increased discussion of sexual violence this month (and beyond) may be distressing to members of our community personally impacted by the issue, and I would like to remind them that Counseling and Psychological Services at the Davison Health Center provides a number of resources, including individual counseling and support groups.

For my part, I will be meeting with various student groups this month, including the WSA and students involved in sexual violence prevention, to discuss what more we can do to eliminate this form of violence from our community. I find myself thinking through (often in the middle of the night) steps we might take that will rid our campus of these awful attacks. Input from students and faculty is most welcome.

Take Back the Night this year is on April 24 – and I hope you will join me at this event where individually and collectively we can express our commitment to creating a climate in which sexual violence has no place. Together, we will continue our work to make the Wesleyan campus the inclusive, secure and equitable community we know it can be. This is a vital, long-term project. Together we can do this; it is up to us.

As many of you know, the Long Lane Farm has been very successful at selling organic vegetables to our food services vendor, Bon Appetit. This means we are eating local, and we are eating healthy! Furthermore, students are gaining valuable experience in managing a farm and understanding how a small operation can make a big difference. Well, that difference just got bigger!


Next year, Wesleyan students will be raising bison right here in Middletown. We tried raising chickens on the farm a few years ago, and I know that we had unhappy results. So, after crowd sourcing an innovation agenda on sustainable edibles, we decided to scale up with animals that are less fragile. This will be meat that comes from local animals raised with care (and organic feed). The herd will benefit from the beautiful meadow just adjacent to the farm…cross country runners will now have something really interesting to gaze at!


The idea comes to us from the bison farm at Amherst, Massachusetts, where hipsters know that locally curated meat is the answer to the Omnivore’s Dilemma.


…but don’t worry about this being a Trojan bovine. Although we won’t try to breed red heifers, we will make sure that our bison love the cardinals. Imagine bringing one of the creatures out at half-time at Homecoming!


Wesleyan has received a $300,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to support our Center for Prison Education. This is an important infusion of support to a program that has made a powerful, positive difference in the lives of incarcerated people and the faculty and students on campus who work with them. As a recent Connection story emphasized, “the grant will not only help fund the classes taught at the Cheshire and York Correctional Institutions, but also support CPE’s re-entry services, which assist students who complete their sentences in continuing their college education post-release.”

The Connection story goes on to note that “CPE’s mission is informed by research that shows the rate of return to prison – recidivism – is reduced by education. Studies have found that participation in postsecondary education while incarcerated can reduce rates of recidivism by more than 40 percent. Further, CPE believes that an investment in individuals is also in the communities and families to which the prisoners belong.”

I remember well when Russell Perkins ’09 came to my office to discuss his ideas for teaching college classes at a nearby prison. I have to admit that I was skeptical that the program could be sustained, and whether our efforts would have the kind of impact that our students hoped it would. Over the years, I have been impressed by the seriousness and dedication of the staff and students who ensure that our classes meet real learning objectives, and by the faculty who pour heart, soul and intellect into their work with those who are incarcerated. Last year I lectured at the Cheshire prison about liberal education, and I had the clear sense that these were students eager to get the most out of our undergraduate classes.

Recently one of our Wesleyan students at Cheshire wrote powerfully about his experience of working in the program. You can read his essay here.

I am so grateful to the Ford Foundation for recognizing and supporting the great work of the CPE!

The Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life has created a great opportunity for interdisciplinary study next year. Dean Joyce Jacobsen, in collaboration with Professors John Finn (Govt) and Richard Adelstein (Econ), has organized a cluster of courses on Centralization and Decentralization.

Here are some excerpts from the Allbritton website:

Two of the courses in the Cluster are sections of regular Wesleyan courses taught in the Fall semester, Professor Finn’s GOVT 203 and Professor Adelstein’s ECON 254, in each of which ten places will be reserved for Cluster students (section 2 of each course). Cluster students must take at least one of these courses, though they may take both if they are admitted to the other course through regular procedures. The third course, CSPL 320-321, is required of all Cluster students and will be a year-long, team-taught (Adelstein & Finn) research seminar on the themes of the Cluster, with one-half credit awarded each semester. Here, students will explore various approaches to the Cluster theme, hear relevant lectures from invited guests from within and without the academy, and split into small, coordinated groups to embark on sustained collaborative research projects that each focus on some aspect of the problem of centralizing or decentralizing economic and political life. The seminar will culminate in a public presentation of the work and a volume of collaborative essays on specific themes and topics that might be published by a scholarly press.

The organizers hope that students will use the perspectives gained in these two courses not only to look more deeply into how American economic and political life have been organized in the past, but to address urgent questions for the present from around the world. How should the US be governed in the next century? What is the future of the EU? What can be learned from the disappearance of the USSR or the unification of Germany? Should Scotland secede from the UK? How can artificially created, deeply divided countries everywhere be governed or restructured? Nor need all the questions be political. How do big firms differ from small ones, and why do some firms grow large while others stay small? What are the political or moral consequences of economic concentration? How can multinational firms be governed and regulated? What might an antitrust law do to concentrate or disperse power?

Professors Adelstein and Finn are hoping to attract students from all majors who are strongly interested in the Cluster’s theme and prepared to work steadily over the year to learn more about the complex and difficult questions the theme raises and present their learning in a substantial collaborative research project. Applications are welcome from students in all majors for a new program to begin in Fall 2014. They are due April 7. If you have any questions regarding this Collaborative Cluster Program, please contact either John Finn (jfinn@wesleyan.edu) or Richard Adelstein (radelstein@wesleyan.edu).

This is a great new opportunity for interdisciplinary work on a vital topic. More information at the website.


This past weekend I reviewed Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words, 1000 BCE -1492 AD for the San Francisco Chronicle. When I lived in the Bay area I reviewed for this paper frequently, and I very much enjoyed reading Schama’s book, a companion volume to a Public Television series. Check your local times…


Simon Schama didn’t want “The Story of the Jews,” five hours of television and two big books, to be only “pogroms and rabbinics” – his history would draw on many sources: archaeology and hermeneutics, folktales and theology, esoteric texts detailing messianic beliefs and receipts for gifts offered to a neighbor.

Schama is a historian of prodigious and varied gifts. He can take a specific subject and drill deep; he can take a wide-angled view of many countries over long periods of time. He does both in this excellent first volume, which begins with the fifth century Before the Common Era in Egypt (yes, Jews were back in Egypt eight centuries after Moses was supposed to have led them out) and concludes with the “exile from exile” in Spain at the end of the 15th century of the Common Era.

Schama underscores that Jewish cultural identity was formed not just through the Promised Land but more broadly between the Nile and the Euphrates. Jerusalem was a touchstone for many, and the quest for the promised homeland is fundamental to the religion and culture.

But the dispersal of Jews is also fundamental – and not just because of the Roman destruction of the Holy City and the subsequent Diaspora. No, centuries before the Romans, “it was possible to be Jewish and Egyptian, just as later it would be possible to be Jewish and Dutch or Jewish and American.” Schama highlights the inclusive dimensions of the Jewish past, although he also emphasizes the ways that other groups sought to destroy this inclusivity.

“The bulk of the Bible … was written when the weaknesses of state power were most apparent. The portable scroll-book became the countervailing force to the sword.” When their neighbors turned on them, it was their texts to which Jews would cling to maintain their identity. Other monotheisms would invest heavily in their weapons, but for millennia “Jewish life was Jewish words, and they could and would endure beyond the vicissitudes of power, the loss of land, the subjection of people.”

This commitment to “finding the words” was not, as many have imagined, at the expense of images. After the Romans dispersed Jews far from Jerusalem, the people of the book were also a people of mosaics, of painting, of sculpture. In these creations they often borrowed heavily from the communities around them. Schama shows that early rabbinic Jewish culture was much more open than has generally been assumed.

This openness began to change, though not everywhere and not all at once, with the development of Christianity. Augustine may have counseled that Jews should be allowed to exist as a reminder of the Bible’s prophecies of Christ, but he was already battling a tradition from John that Jews were just “fit for killing.”

In the sixth century, after a period of toleration, the Roman Emperor Justinian announced that all synagogues should be converted to churches. After the empire was destroyed, murderous attacks on Jews frequently followed any local crisis. When a community experienced some trouble, it blamed the Jews.

Many Jews were scattered around Arabia when in the seventh century Muhammad’s teachings and armies began to be victorious. And although there was plenty of animosity between early Islam and Judaism, “in comparison with medieval Christian societies, Jews and Muslims “did indeed live with rather than just rub up against each other.”

Islamic leaders, like their Christian counterparts, often tolerated or depended on Jews – for trade, for loans, for cultural exchanges. Schama reminds us playfully that many elites seemed to think they needed a Jewish doctor in the house. And he beautifully describes the work of Jewish poets and scientists who borrowed from Islamic and Christian sources.

Especially powerful is his treatment of Maimonides, 12th century doctor, judge and philosopher, who argued against the idea that rational inquiry and strong faith had to be at odds. Maimonides’ “Guide to the Perplexed” incited sharp attacks from his co-religionists and from those who resented such a learned author daring to reject the savior.

While Schama provides plenty of examples of productive exchanges between Jew and non-Jew in a variety of contexts, the book’s final sections detail the rage that led good Christians in preparing for their Holy Crusades to slit the throats of Jewish children.

In 13th century England, mass hangings and burnings of Jews were followed by expulsion, and things were no better on the continent. Sometimes kings and nobles tried to protect Jewish subjects against popular fury, but all too often they proved willing to sacrifice them as scapegoats to satisfy fanatics.

The Spanish Inquisition institutionalized state cruelty, combining archaic savagery with modern methods of investigation and torture. Schama brings this volume to a close in 1492, when the Jews were exiled from Spain and (soon after) from Portugal.

In this revealing and moving book, though, Schama shows that exiling the Jews from our histories is not so simple. Fourteen ninety-two was also the year Columbus set sail in search of a new route to India. His royal patrons had expelled the Jews, but he took with him a Jewish translator and the navigation guide developed by Abraham Zacuto, a rabbi.

Around the same time, Vasco da Gama also set sail with Zacuto’s guide to celestial bodies: “Thanks to the rabbi, the great captain and founder of Portugal’s Asian empire knew, more or less, where he was.”


The Story of the Jews

Finding the Words, 1000 BC-1492 AD

By Simon Schama

(Ecco; 496 pages; $39.99)

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