“Preach a Crusade Against Ignorance”

On a slow Sunday morning browsing through the paper, I came across Nicholas Kristof’s column describing what he calls “our broken escalator.” He is referring to our education system, what has been for so many of us the moving stairway of social mobility. He details the ways that his own beloved high school is being slowly eviscerated by budget cuts. More than 80% of school districts across the US are going to cut their budgets this year, and three quarters of them made cuts last year. “The immediate losers are the students,” Kristof writes, “in the long run, the loser is our country.”

These thoughts echoed with what I’ve been reading lately about education programs at the very beginning of our country’s history. I am spending a good part of the summer doing research for a book about why liberal education matters. Recently I’ve been reading Thomas Jefferson, and also some of his contemporaries. The political importance of education has rarely found as powerful a proponent as Jefferson, one of whose proudest achievements was founding the University of Virginia on a model of liberal learning that is ultimately practical. His friend and political rival John Adams was also a stalwart proponent of the importance of an educated citizenry. At the dawn of the Republic Adams, too, knew that only through education could citizens ensure that their government would remain responsive to their needs. As he wrote to Jefferson: “Wherever a general knowledge and sensibility have prevailed among the people… arbitrary government and every kind of oppression have lessened and disappeared in proportion.”

Jefferson was a man of the Enlightenment, and for him this meant faith that the accumulation of knowledge would improve public and private life. His conception of “useful knowledge” was capacious — extending from an array of languages to mathematics, sciences and history. He wrote: “education generates habits of application, of order, and the love of virtue; and controls, by the force of habit, any innate obliquities in our moral organization.” The experience of undergraduates, as we all know, doesn’t at all points stimulate the habits of moral organization that the author of the Declaration of Independence had in mind. But don’t we still hope that our students acquire a love of virtue, even as they discover through hard work and sociability just what “love” and “virtue” might mean?

Of course, we have grown accustomed to criticizing problematic aspects of the Enlightenment worldview of our nation’s founders. Jefferson’s hypocrisy is legendary; his insight into structures of oppression didn’t disturb his own personal tyrannies. If our third president understood that education was inexorably linked to the possibility of freedom, his racism and sexism led him to think that women, Africans or native peoples should not enjoy that possibility.

But this summer, as I listen to the partisan haggling over the debt ceiling in Washington while the epidemic of unemployment rages on, and as I hear about school districts and university systems across the country slashing budgets and cutting back on educational programs, I read Jefferson with renewed energy and engagement. As representatives in 2011 labor to preserve the tax advantages of multi-millionaires, I admire how Jefferson recognized that a sure way to preserve the privileges of wealth is to curtail educational opportunity for those without them. In his proposal for public education in Virginia, he advocated a system for discovering youngsters with talent who would benefit from scholarships so that they could pursue their studies and serve the public at the highest level. His proposed that “Worth and genius would thus have been sought out from every condition of life, and completely prepared by education for defeating the competition of wealth and birth for public trusts.” In our own time, with school districts shortening their academic calendars to save money and universities struggling to replace financial aid support once provided by government, we are undermining the hope for change and improvement that is so essential to both learning and democracy. What will become of this nation if it turns its back on the promise of education as a vehicle for social and economic mobility?

At many of the highly selective universities that have the benefit of alumni support and endowment funds, we aggressively look for “worth and genius” in all areas of the country so as to create a diverse cohort of students who will stimulate learning for and from one another. Through programs like QuestBridge or Posse Posse, and with many community-based organizations as partners, we find young men and women who can thrive in and contribute to our campus communities. We do this not out of some imagined commitment to “political correctness,” as critics of higher-ed like to complain, but so that every student (rich or poor, private, public or home-schooled) has the opportunity to expand his or her horizons. And we do this, to paraphrase Jefferson, because education should be the keystone of the arch of our nation.

As the morning wore on, I left the newspaper in the kitchen and headed out to our town’s local Sunday softball game. It’s a great community event, with kids, parents and grandparents joining in our version of the American pastime. Waiting our turn at bat, two neighbors talked with me about how the local towns had balanced their budgets this year. Guess what had to be cut in order to balance the books? Education turned out to be the easiest target. My neighbors shook their heads in sadness because, as they said, the towns balanced the books at the expense of the future. Students lose now; in the long run our region will suffer.

As we wrestle with notions of “shared sacrifice” and “living within our means,” let us not ignore our responsibility to invest in the future by supporting education. We must not allow our representatives to protect tax breaks for the most advantaged while ignoring our responsibility to give the next generation the education they need. Only education will allow the youngsters on that baseball diamond and at others across the country to protect their freedoms while competing in the world. Only by supporting their right to learn, will we have the chance to strengthen our country’s economic, political and cultural future. As Jefferson said: “Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish and improve the law for educating the common people.” “No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness.”

Cross-posted with Huffingtonpost.com

Our Desperate Need for Honest Leadership

This past weekend I posted the following on the HuffingtonPost, and it provoked a fair amount of comments. I cross-post it here, though it is somewhat more directly political than what I usually write for this blog. I won’t use this blog to support specific candidates, but from time to time political issues are so relevant to educational ones, and I do write on a variety of topics...

What a week it has been! On Monday the New York Times‘ conservative columnist, David Brooks, was criticizing the Republican Party in the harshest terms. On Friday, the paper’s liberal economist, Paul Krugman, was attacking President Obama for adopting the conservative fiscal agenda and betraying his core progressive creed. What’s going on?

For Brooks, we are faced with what he called “the mother of all no-brainers.” We now have broad agreement in Congress that we must deal with the long-term deficit, and this itself is a victory for the Republicans. They control the political discourse, and they can achieve many of their economic goals. But in a move that recalls the Dems’ ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, the Republicans refuse to make a deal that would reduce the deficit by trillions.

Brooks is scathing:

But we can have no confidence that the Republicans will seize this opportunity. That’s because the Republican Party may no longer be a normal party. Over the past few years, it has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative.

And he goes on:

Members of this tendency have taken a small piece of economic policy and turned it into a sacred fixation. They are willing to cut education and research to preserve tax expenditures. Manufacturing employment is cratering even as output rises, but members of this movement somehow believe such problems can be addressed so long as they continue to worship their idol.

He concludes that if the talks on the debt ceiling fail, it will be clear that the Republicans are not fit to govern.

Krugman is just as exercised by what he sees as Obama’s failure to apply either progressive values or sensible economic principles in his approach to dealing with the Republican deficit hawks:

But let’s be frank. It’s getting harder and harder to trust Mr. Obama’s motives in the budget fight, given the way his economic rhetoric has veered to the right. In fact, if all you did was listen to his speeches, you might conclude that he basically shares the G.O.P.’s diagnosis of what ails our economy and what should be done to fix it. And maybe that’s not a false impression; maybe it’s the simple truth.

For years, Krugman has viewed Obama’s compromises as an abdication of his responsibilities, and he speculates that the president is trying a Clintonesque maneuver that may have political sense but is an economic disaster. In a period of anemic job growth, Obama’s channeling of Herbert Hoover’s economic philosophies will only prolong the experience of dire recession for millions of Americans.

Brooks and Krugman both see that the Republican Party has been enormously successful in focusing attention on fiscal responsibility, which is resulting across the country in massive cuts to spending. These cuts will necessarily cause most pain to the most vulnerable — those who depend on government services. If the GOP were really serious about fiscal responsibility, its members would complement the cuts already won with increased revenue from those who have reaped the greatest rewards from our economic environment. This is what a political party ready to govern should do.

Meanwhile, we have an epidemic of unemployment, and nothing that the government is now doing is addressing this issue. Where is the enormous intellectual and political energy that Obama’s team displayed in preventing a banking system collapse, and that saved a large segment of the American automobile industry? Why has the president not had the courage of his convictions? Can he really believe that an imaginary bipartisan political pragmatism will trump economic realities?

Sensible government seems to have become a contradiction in terms. Democratic leaders have no ideas of their own, while Republican leaders are dedicated to protecting the rich — not to fiscal responsibility. Republican “non-starter” talk about additional revenue is an ideological fixation, not an economic theory. Democrats pandering to their base with calls to maintain the entitlement status quo won’t produce a sustainable health care system.

Protecting the least vulnerable remains the Republican’s highest priority, while protecting their political future seems to be what concerns Democrats. Where can we find honest leadership worthy of the name? We desperately need it.

Summer Reading: Review of Saramago’s SMALL MEMORIES

This weekend the WASHINGTON POST ran my review of José Saramago’s posthumously published memoir. For me, summer is a time to catch up on reading that I can’t quite get to during the school year, although I also have to get a lot of writing done myself over the next couple of months. I enjoy reviewing books outside my scholarly field. I have to think about them more intensively than I would as a casual reader, and yet I do not have a scholarly investment in the reception of the work. I did not know Saramago’s work before I reviewed SMALL MEMORIES, but now I can understand  why his achievements as a writer have seemed so remarkable to so many — especially in Europe. Discovering writers that matter to you is an intensely personal process, a process that began for me as an undergraduate at Wesleyan. Reviewing is one way for me to share that process.

What are the chances? That a child surrounded by illiteracy, shuffling between his family’s new life in Lisbon and their roots in the countryside, will have such an intense appetite for words that he relishes pages from discarded newspapers, seizes on fragments of Molière in a guidebook, and will one day create parallel worlds in which an entire nation goes blind, in which Jesus apologizes for God’s sins, in which death suddenly stops occurring. These worlds, fantastic as they are, turn out to be uncomfortably like our own.

What are the chances? That a writer whose early efforts were greeted with harsh criticism (or mere silence) leaves the literary world behind to concentrate on journalism, returns in his 50s to pen novels that capture the imagination of European writers and critics, is celebrated for political bravery and artistic originality and crowned with the Nobel Prize for literature.

José Saramago (1922-2010) was this child, this writer, and in “Small Memories” he has provided us with a collection of memories of his childhood and adolescence. The recollections don’t follow a linear path but instead touch lightly on lives framed by poverty and frequent brutality. But in Saramago’s retrospective imagination, these are also lives infused with dignity, affection and deep connection. The author knows the tricks that memory can play, and on some matters he has taken great pains to test his recollections against recorded facts. Saramago is fascinated by the vagaries of remembrance, at one point wondering if certain memories he had were really his.

Although his parents moved to Lisbon when he was just 18 months old (his father was to be a policeman), Jose continued to shuffle between Portugal’s capital and Azinhaga, his native village. The village was the “cradle in which my gestation was completed, the pouch into which the small marsupial withdrew to make what he alone could make, for good or possibly ill, of his silent, secret, solitary self.” The reader is introduced to various family members: a father consumed by jealous rage; grandparents who are hardened, stoic workers but who keep the weakest of their piglets warm by bringing them into their bed for a few nights. The author’s mother is long-suffering, but she is also the young woman who on passing through a doorway forgets she is carrying a jug of water on her head because she has just received a proposal from her future husband. “You might say that my life began there too,” Saramago writes, “with a broken water jug.”

After relating this incident of the broken jug, Saramago tells the reader that his older brother, Francisco, died at age 4 in the spring of 1924, some months after his mother brought them to Lisbon. The author wonders about his memory of his brother, the “happy, sturdy, perfect little boy, who, it would seem, cannot wait for his body to grow and for his arms to be long enough to reach something.” “It’s the summer or perhaps the autumn of the year Francisco is going to die,” Saramago writes, adding it’s “my earliest memory. And it may well be false.”

I was unprepared for the piercing sadness of this hazy recollection, steeped in sorrow but told in the same calm, matter-of-fact style as Saramago’s other childhood recollections. From the loss of his older brother we are led to a memory with a “fierce and violent truth”: Saramago’s brutal encounter with a pack of older boys who, holding him down, thrust a metal wire into his urethra. The horror and sadness of the wounded little boy, blood streaming from his penis, is startling in the context of the quiet charms of the volume as a whole. Francisco is dead; little José has no one to protect him. The physical wounds will heal, but the longing for the missing brother — and a concern for those who are vulnerable to all sorts of brutality — will always remain.

Shortly after relating this incident, Saramago recalls his older friend the “prodigious shoemaker,” also named Francisco, who asked the young author-to-be if he believed there were other worlds, where other possibilities were realized. When Saramago first decided to write a memoir, he tells us that he knew he would want to write of his brother. Bringing the forgotten back through words is the writer’s alchemy, his power to create when faced with the harshness of the world.

Saramago, a poet, journalist and diarist in addition to being an acclaimed novelist, knew that words mattered a great deal — that they can even point to one’s destiny. The writer’s paternal family name, for example, was de Sousa, and the author tells us it was a town clerk’s joke to register his surname as Saramago — the name for a wild radish eaten by the poor in harsh times. The boy grew into his name, taming his wildness but always remaining faithful to his roots in poverty. “Small Memories” is an expression of that fidelity, a small but nourishing last gift from a great writer.

Cross-posted from washingtonpost.com


Wes Trustee Joshua Boger in Biotech Hall of Fame

Yesterday I had my final conference call of the fiscal year with Wesleyan’s Board of Trustees. This devoted group of alumni and parents help steer the university for the long haul, and they find time in their busy schedules to provide support, critique and financial assistance for key Wes priorities. I am so grateful for their efforts.

The Board of Trustees is led by Joshua Boger ’73, P’06, P’09. A philosophy-chemistry major here as an undergraduate, Joshua has had an extraordinary career as a scientist, entrepreneur, philanthropist and citizen.  Recently he was recognized for his work in biotechology and chemistry. He  received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Boston Biotech CEO Conference.  Shortly after this honor, a large international gathering in Washington D.C. presented him with  the Biotechnology Heritage Award, jointly given by BIO and the Chemical Heritage Foundation (non-profit keepers of the history of chemistry, located in Philadelphia).  This means that Joshua is a member of a very small and distinguished group known as the Biotechnology Hall of Fame.

Joshua Boger

Congratulations, Joshua!