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It’s that time of year again. The university is soliciting nominations for Wesleyan’s Binswanger Award for teaching excellence. Here’s a little history:

The Binswanger Prize for Excellence in Teaching was inaugurated in 1993 as an institutional recognition of outstanding faculty members. One to three Binswanger Prizes are presented each year and are made possible by the generosity of the Binswanger family that counts numerous Wesleyan alumni, alumnae and parents in its ranks. The standards and criteria for the annual prizes shall be excellence in teaching, as exemplified by commitment to the classroom and student accomplishment, intellectual demands placed on students, lucidity, and passion.

Recommendations may be based on any of the types of teaching that are done at the University including, but not limited to, teaching in lecture courses, seminars, laboratories, creative and performance-based courses, research tutorials and other individual and group tutorials at the undergraduate and graduate level.

Juniors, seniors, graduate students and alumni from the last decade are eligible to nominate up to three professors. Nominations are made through Wesconnect here. GLS students can use their e-portfolio to make nominations. Professors who have taught at Wesleyan for at least a decade are eligible.

You can find out more about the Binswanger Prize, as well as watch or listen to interviews with some previous winners here.

Speaking of great teachers, I was so pleased to see my teacher Victor Gourevitch, William Griffin Professor of Philosophy Emeritus, and his wife Jacqueline Gourevitch in the audience for a conversation about liberal education in New York recently. I studied philosophy with Victor, and we edited a book together with the letters of Leo Strauss and Alexandre Kojève a few years after I graduated (On Tyranny). Jacqueline taught painting at Wesleyan for years, and my office benefits from having one of her extraordinary cloud paintings in it.

My undergraduate advisor, Henry Abelove, Wilbur Fisk Osborne Professor of English, Emeritus, has kindly agreed to come back to campus next week to introduce my talk on Tuesday, February 3 at 7 p.m. in Memorial Chapel. I am calling the talk “How to Destroy Higher Education,” and it is open to the public. Henry is a truly remarkable teacher (recognized with a Binswanger Prize early on), and it will be so lovely to have him back on campus. I’m hoping to see lots of current students, alumni and friends of the university there.



Earlier today the university sent out the following announcement to the campus community:

Due to the expected arrival of a major storm, the University will close at 6 p.m. today and remain closed tomorrow. The University will not reopen until Wednesday morning. All classes and events are cancelled from 6 p.m. today until Wednesday morning. Only essential personnel should report for work.
Tomorrow at 4 p.m. we will make another announcement about when on Wednesday the University will reopen.
By 6 p.m. today, most faculty/staff parking lots will close. Faculty and staff who have permits to park in these lots and who would like to remain on campus beyond the closing time, are asked to relocate their vehicles to the V Lot on Vine Street or to the 56 Hamlin Street parking lot (former Physical Plant building).  Faculty and staff who are traveling out of town should park in the Vine Street parking lot as a courtesy to colleagues. Faculty and staff may call Public Safety for a ride to and from the Vine Street lot at night if necessary.

An email addressing faculty concerns is forthcoming from Academic Affairs. Dean Mike Whaley will send an email presently to students about food service and other matters.
Please call Public Safety for help with storm-related matters, (860) 685-2345. For emergencies, call (860) 685-3333.

Stay safe and warm!


I received an email today from my friend David Knapp ’49 who tells me he is participating in Wesleyan’s Week of Service by reading to a group of first grade students in New Haven tomorrow. This reminded me of all the great things students, faculty, staff and alumni are doing in support of their communities.

Of course, the Wesleyan engagement isn’t confined to one week. The Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship, to take just one example, has seed grants that are offered on a competitive basis. Applications are due this week and you can find out more here. Information on Davis Projects for Peace Grants (all students are eligible; applications due 1/25) can be found at that same link.

And here’s a link to photographs of Wes folks joyfully participating in community service activities.

Congratulations to those who successfully completed the intensive January classes. The semester is now underway, and I know many students are eager to be back in the classroom after the long break. Some folks are still checking out course possibilities, and I thought I’d mention the listing of classes that develop Digital and Computational Knowledge across a variety of subject areas. We also recently added a class,  Constructions and Re-Constructions of Buddhism (RELI 483/CEAS245). Mary-Jane Rubenstein reports that it “was wildly successful last time it was taught, and would be a great course for students looking either to gain a fast-paced and carefully theorized introduction to Buddhist traditions, or to dive more deeply into them.”


Colleagues have pointed out that our recent designation by the Carnegie Foundation as an “engaged campus” is very much related to the service activities mentioned above. Just check out these recent and forthcoming community engagement efforts by Wesleyan faculty, staff and students:

  • The United Way campaign, which raised $111,000 for the community.
  • The Center for Community Partnership’s upcoming High School Humanities program, which brings 80 local students to campus to hear faculty lectures.
  • Green Street’s Discovery AfterSchool program for local children, and Intel Math Institute, which provides intensive professional development for public school teachers from Meriden and Middletown.
  • And the Office of Community Service’s support of over 600 students each semester doing volunteer work locally.

I took the above from Wesleyan news article on engagement.

To stay informed about all civic engagement opportunities at Wesleyan, email scapron@wesleyan.edu to sign up for the weekly ENGAGE newsletter.

Last week in Washington I ran into alumni teaching at American University and nearby schools. I was there to talk about the deep tradition of liberal education in the United States and also about the long history of criticism of this current way of thinking. Our tradition is stronger because of these criticisms. I was encouraged by the faculty’s interest in broad, integrative learning, no matter the discipline in which they were working.

On Monday this week I participated in a panel on similar themes at the New York Public Library with Beverly Tatum ’75 and Anthony Marx (who spent a year at Wesleyan as an undergraduate). There were many Wesleyans in the audience, including current students, trustees and at least one professor emeritus. Bev has been president of Spelman College, a historically black women’s college in Atlanta, and has thought deeply about the psychology of race, prejudice, separation, and inclusion. Tony Marx was a major force for higher education opportunity as president of Amherst, and he has continued to work on behalf of literacy and access to learning at NYPL. It was an honor to share the podium with both.

Anthony Marx, Beverly Daniel Tatum '75 and Michael Roth at the New York Public Library

Anthony Marx, Beverly Daniel Tatum ’75 and Michael Roth at the New York Public Library

I’m now on my way to Miami to participate in a discussion about education with Joel Klein (former Chancellor of New York City Schools) and Mitch Daniels (president of Purdue and former governor of Indiana). We are likely to have very different approaches to education issues, and I look forward to a spirited discussion. When there are differences of opinion, the potential for real learning grows. Vigorous criticism, not echo chambers in which “correct” views are repeated, is essential for improving education.

Before heading back to campus, I’ll visit my mother, my first teacher. She’s become a great Wesleyan supporter, although she’s still ready to offer her son plenty of vigorous (and affectionate) criticism.

And I’ve got to put the finishing touches on the syllabus for The Modern and the Post-Modern. Classes will be starting before I know it!


My Mom shared this picture from my Wesleyan graduation in 1978

Lila and Michael Roth Wesleyan Graduation '78

Lila and Michael Roth Wesleyan Graduation ’78






Freedom of Expression

I am in Washington, D.C. today, where I gave a talk on “why liberal education matters” to the faculty, students and guests of American University. Most of the audience had been in conference sessions all morning while I sat glued to the TV watching events unfold in Paris. I lived in Paris for a few years, and I looked with horror at these familiar streets as they filled with the almost familiar sight of terrorism response teams. At another level, I was anxious for the Wesleyan students (and their families) who’d just arrived for their study abroad semester. A city I love was under siege.

The attacks in Paris remind us that those willing to destroy freedom of expression in the name of their own totalitarian commitments can wreck havoc in a society determined to maintain openness and tolerance within the rule of law. I feel immense sadness for those who were slain by the terrorists, and I also feel admiration for those who have taken to the streets of Paris to express their compassion, solidarity and courage.

I began my talk at American University by acknowledging the victims of these heinous attacks. There can be no liberal education today worthy of the name without freedom of expression, without open-ended inquiry and the potential for aversive thinking. That’s the kind of thinking that will often rub some people the wrong way — it will seem to some people “disrespectful” and “uncivil.” That’s the kind of thinking we must protect — even more, that we must stimulate.

Let us cultivate the spirit of satire and of critique, but also of reverence and of affection, in ways that challenge the conventions of the moment. Let us remember the journalists, police and other brave souls who were killed by those who could not abide difference and challenge without resorting to murder.

Let us be worthy of the freedom of expression that came under attack this week in France.



Je Suis Charlie

We are less than a week into 2015, and terror has already raised its ugly head. The attack on Charlie Hebdo is an assault on freedom of expression, a vicious act aimed to destroy the possibilities for a culture with a place for provocation. Without the spaces cleared by provocative writers and artists, none of us would have the freedom to read, write, view or listen. The killings in Paris today were meant to terrorize those who would challenge the status quo with their drawings and words. Instead, this shameful act should inspire us to cherish freedom of speech and to support the artists and writers courageous enough to challenge us.

As writer Neil Gaiman tweeted today: “How important are free speech and satire? Important enough that people will murder others to silence the kind of speech they don’t like.”

Je Suis Charlie

Je Suis Charlie

Year End Thanks

Dear friends,

As 2014 comes to a close, I want to express my gratitude for all the contributions to our extraordinary university. Students, alumni, their families, staff, and faculty – we all learn from one another, teach one another. There have been more than a few challenges over the last twelve months, and many, many achievements. In a world of tension and acrimony, our community has modeled the aspiration for greater inclusion, equity, creativity and purpose. There is much work to be done, and we will do it together. The boldness, rigor and practical idealism of a Wesleyan education are evident in the talent, dedication and compassion of our students, alumni, faculty, and staff. THIS IS WHY we face the future with such hope and such confidence.

With thanks, I wish you and yours health, peace, and love in 2015.

In conjunction with the publication of Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, I’ve been having conversations with groups around the country on the future of higher education. We will continue these conversations with an event in Memorial Chapel at Wesleyan on the evening of February 3.

The assault on education has been brutal in many parts of the world — especially education for girls and women. In our own country, the effort to deny a broad, contextual education to large segments of the population is a symptom of growing economic inequality — not a viable response to it. People are afraid of education when they want to defend the status quo, or so I argued in this brief talk at the Social Good Summit in New York.

Later in the fall semester, Ruth Simmons HON ’10 and I had a public conversation at the Chicago Humanities Festival. Dr. Simmons is the former president of Smith College and Brown University, and she offers a stirring defense of the value of a college education.

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Education makes sense when you believe in empowerment through learning. Education makes sense when you believe that inquiry and communication can lead to positive change in the world.

Now more than ever, liberal education is our cause. THIS IS WHY.

We CAN Fix our Schools!

I was asked to review Joel Klein’s Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools, and the essay appeared this week in The Daily Beast (with a more provocative title). Klein was a controversial Chancellor of the New York City school system, and regardless of what one thinks of his tenure, his book underscores some important issues. For those of us in Higher Ed, the health of the K-12 system is vitally important. We MUST fix our schools, and with thoughtful input, political will, significant resources and a spirit of experimentation, we CAN.


Joel Klein hates monopolies. As a Washington attorney he took on companies that seemed immune to change, even when they were ineffective. When you’re the only game in town, you just don’t have to do things differently – even if you aren’t very good. Klein’s most famous case was against Microsoft, and he took on the tech behemoth because he believed that it was preventing competition (and innovation) by depriving consumers of choice. When companies faced competition, Klein knew, consumers would have options. Competitors would force Microsoft to change, and the public would benefit.

When asked in 2002 by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to run the New York City School system, Klein understood that he was being invited to take over one of the great urban monopolies. Sure, there were private schools of various sorts in New York, but given their expense, only a tiny percentage of families could ever hope to make use of them. For everybody else, public schools were the only option – and these institutions often had an abysmal record. But when you’re the only game in town, you just don’t have to change.

Mayor Bloomberg was granted unprecedented power over the school system, and he chose Klein to force schools (and their teachers and principals) to open themselves to competition in order to break a cycle of failure. Klein himself was a product of the New York City public school system, and for him it had been a haven from a harsh familial and social life. Good, caring teachers recognized his talent and challenged him to work hard to compete at the highest levels.

There were still great teachers in the system when Klein took over as Chancellor, but they were treated no differently from mediocre or even inept instructors. The result was a system not open to alternatives from the outside and with no internal incentives for innovation. Lots of people expected failure, and they got lots of it. Nearly half of fourth graders were unable to do the math expected of them, and sixty percent of high school students were dropping out before graduation. It was a mess.

But it was a mess most teachers and student families had grown accustomed to. That’s what monopolistic practices do – they create a reliance on the status quo and a fear of change. Of course some students did manage to learn, and many teachers remained devoted to the project of educating kids from highly diverse backgrounds. But, as Klein puts it, “many of those who survived in this system tended to soldier on in a state of resignation and defensiveness.”

Klein had four basic reform strategies: seize control of the old system; shut down failing schools while establishing charter schools; empower principals; jump-start innovation. Thanks to Bloomberg the first strategy was accomplished early on, and Chancellor Klein quickly took advantage of his new centralized powers. For him, it was crucial to train principals in leadership skills that would enable them to build effective teams in individual schools, or to recognize that a school failing repeatedly had to be shut down.

Closing a school, even one that doesn’t perform, is so hard because schools are key components of neighborhoods – they aren’t just private companies failing to produce what consumers want. That’s why it was so important to Klein to be able to show families that there were viable options: new schools, often charter schools, whose leaders were not beholden to traditional ways of doing things – and who got results.

The teachers union looms large in this book, often as an evil force. The union’s function is to protect its members against changes that may negatively affect their working conditions. Most frustratingly for the school Chancellor, this made it all but impossible to fire terrible teachers. In what they call the “dance of the lemons,” bad teachers (the “lemons”) would be passed from school to school, their incompetence protected through exchange. Rather than recognizing and correcting sub-par performance, the union saw its function as protecting every teacher’s employment as long as possible. From Klein’s perspective, this protection came at the expense of student learning.

Klein spends many pages describing his frustration with the teachers union, but he says little about why the organization so ferociously defends the working conditions of its members. The union’s distrust of system administrators and political appointees isn’t exactly irrational. Although Bloomberg and Klein certainly did want to reform a failing school system, for decades politicians and bureaucrats had tried to balance budgets and play politics without all that much regard to the quality of classroom instruction.

Klein’s complaint with the union is not just that it failed to recognize incompetence but also that it failed to recognize achievement. The culture of solidarity for teachers as workers prevented acknowledging some teachers as more accomplished than others. Charter schools, rejecting the tenet of promotion through seniority, promised to do better. Their principals would not only ensure that the poor instructor either improved or was fired, they would reward the talented instructor who proved effective.

“Nothing,” Klein notes, “was more threatening to the education status quo in New York City than our charter school initiative.” This was striking at the heart of the monopoly. Charter schools could offer families choices about where to send their kids, and, as word spread about their successes, “demand for them in high-poverty neighborhoods went through the roof.”

Klein paints a rosy picture of the charter schools, while admitting that not all outperformed traditional public schools. Nationally, fewer than 20% of charter schools outperform their traditional counterparts, but in New York, charters have done significantly better than that. Most importantly, from Klein’s perspective, they opened the system to competition, and competition should in the long run lead to experimentation and innovation.

Innovation is the fourth his reform strategies. In order to know what innovations work, you have to have good information on how effective your practices are. In schools, this meant finding new ways to evaluate students – and hence their teachers. Testing is Klein’s royal road to innovation through accountability, although he insists that there isn’t a choice between testing and teaching. You can, he’s convinced, have both joined in a “positive cycle of competence.” These are buzzwords. You don’t learn to become a better teacher by giving your students more tests. Klein is less interested in discussing how teachers can continue to educate themselves to become better professionals; on this score, Elizabeth Green’s recent Building a Better Teacher is a useful supplement.

“As long as seniority reigns among teachers,” Klein writes, “we will fail.” The culture of promotion through seniority kills creativity and effectiveness. Just look at Congress. We need true accountability. But effective school leaders don’t just punish bad teachers and reward good ones. Effective educational leadership creates opportunities for professional teachers to become more successful by sharing with them practices that work and helping them shed those that don’t. As Klein acknowledges, “making curriculum more demanding without giving teachers the help required for them to deliver it effectively isn’t a winning strategy.” This is why as Chancellor, he opened innovation zones for experimentation: to discover better pedagogical techniques.

Like so many others, Klein has come to believe that it is technology that will bring pedagogical transformation. After finishing his term as Chancellor, he joined Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp, where he has been focusing on developing technological tools for teachers to personalize (and track) learning. This is a growing business arena, a market attracting lots of players. How effective the outcomes will be remains to be seen.

Joel Klein hates monopolies, but he really loves the private sector. He is convinced that the most powerful way to combat poverty and promote accomplishment is by opening traditional structures to competition and new ideas. This doesn’t necessarily mean privatization because there will still be ways for communities to retain local input if not control. But it will, in effect, be privatization if the profits of large corporations rather than the needs of neighborhoods determine what gets counted as good teaching and learning.

Lessons of Hope is often a compelling account of how determined leadership can remove obstacles to change, and he offers a strong defense of his work as an effective leader of reform. But it is too early to tell if the changes he helped unleash will prove sustainable, or if they will broadly serve our citizenry. Klein does know that today it surely isn’t enough to “save our schools,” as many chant. We need to “fix our schools,” even while recognizing that our efforts thus far are only works-in-progress. Without spaces for innovation, our students will be stuck without choices and with little hope for change. In the end, Klein underscores that education depends on hope, on the possibility for improving one’s life through learning. That’s a lesson for all of us.


Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools. Harper. $27.99

Why They Attack Schools

I posted this on HuffingtonPost yesterday.


Yesterday’s horrific news came from Pakistan. Taliban militants stormed a school in Peshawar, killing at least 145. Children were gunned down in their classrooms, or as they attempted to flee. Teachers and other staff members were murdered in cold blood.

Several months ago we watched in horror as Boko Haram kidnapped hundreds of girls from a school in Nigeria. As a worldwide campaign demanded to “bring our girls home,” the terrorists expanded the diabolical domain of their cruelties. Most of the girls are still far, far from home.

This week we observe the anniversary of the shootings in Newtown Connecticut that killed 27. The revulsion at the time energized some to demand stronger gun control laws, at least universal background checks. And efforts were made to improve mental health services. Most of the work failed to result in legislation as outrage faded to apathy (and worse) among politicians.

Since Newtown there have been somewhere between 75 and 100 shootings at American schools. Many of these were acts of violence not directed at the schools or students per se, but CNN still concluded that 15 of the incidents were similar to Newtown or Oregon — a minor or adult actively shooting inside or near a school. One school shooting every five weeks. CNN breaks down the kinds of shootings here.

Of course, there are shootings at plenty of other locations, and the motivations of the Taliban attacking a military school are very different than those of a mentally ill young man who attacks an elementary school.

But the fact that these murders occur at schools increases their visibility, and intensifies our own revulsion at the destruction of innocent lives.

Why are schools and universities the scenes of such violence? Is it because schools, with all their problems, remain for us places of hope and optimism? Places of education are spaces for people who still believe in possibilities for positive change. We send our children to school because we hope that they will learn about themselves and the world in ways that will enable them to thrive – not just to navigate more effectively but also to flourish.

We look to colleges and universities to empower students to support themselves, to be sure, but also to make meaningful contributions to their communities. We invest so much time, treasure and emotion in our educational institutions because through them we hope to build cultures of learning, of inquiry, of appreciation and engagement. Schools face the future; violence cuts the future off.

Attacks on schools are meant to undermine our core values and our belief in the possibilities for a better future. When we defend education from violence, we reaffirm our faith in the power of learning to combat destruction and to create meaning.

Malala Yousafzai, the teenage Nobel laureate put it this way: “Innocent children in their school have no place for horror such as this.” She went on to say: “I, along with millions of others around the world, mourn these children, my brothers and sisters — but we will never be defeated.”

Schools represent hope grounded in learning. They represent a culture’s aspiration to enhance individual potential and to build in students a capacity for living fuller, more meaningful lives in concert with others. Attacks at schools are attacks on this aspiration.

May the memory of those killed at schools inspire us to defend our hopes for learning beyond the threat of violence.


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