Wolfgang Natter (1955-2018)

Hearing the news this week of the death of my friend, Wolfgang Natter, I walked over to the place we first met – the co-educational fraternity Alpha Delta Phi here on the campus of Wesleyan University. We spent countless hours at the fraternity in the mid 1970s discussing ideas, washing dishes, listening to music, finding ourselves. Together, we projected repeated screenings of Les Enfants du Paradis, debated Hegel and Marx, protested against a world that we also earnestly sought to understand. Entering Alpha Delt, thinking of Wolfgang, I gravitated to the kitchen in which we had been co-workers, sometimes co-conspirators, always friends. The place was bustling with undergrads dealing with the end of the 2018 semester, but I could still feel the force of memories forty years old.

Wolfgang had widely varied interests, and he pursued them with passion. After Wesleyan, he continued his studies at the broadly interdisciplinary Center for the Humanities at The Johns Hopkins University. He had an abiding interest in the World War I period, a time when, I recall him saying, everything changed. When we were young, he spoke of making a movie about the period, perhaps writing a play. Later, Wolfgang turned his dissertation on the literature of the Great War into a book, Literature at War, 1914-1940: Representing the “Time of Greatness” in Germany. His scholarship managed to be both meticulous and broad-minded – a rarity.

Mostly, I remember Wolfgang’s gentleness, his way of welcoming people into conversations about movies, about German literature or drama, about politics. His mind was sharp, but what stood out was his generosity, his curiosity, his openness. When I lectured at his invitation at the University of Kentucky decades after we graduated from Wesleyan, I learned that Wolfgang had become a leader in a humanistic approach to critical geography and that his intellectual interests had grown to include sophisticated spatial analyses of all sorts of subjects that I had never realized even had a spatial dimension. We spoke for hours about his new lines of inquiry. He had left nothing behind, but his intellectual world was growing fast. I was so impressed by his students, whom he treated as colleagues, and his colleagues, whom he treated as friends. What a mentor he was! I could see the constellation of his qualities – the fierce intelligence, the wide-ranging curiosity, the humor and intellectual curiosity – emerging in his students.

For many years, our paths rarely crossed, but recently we both found ourselves back at Wesleyan. I was now president here, and Wolfgang had come to help us as a consultant before becoming Vice-President for Academic Affairs at the College of St. Scholastica in Minnesota. Joseph, son of Wolfgang and his former wife Liz, was then a student at Wesleyan, and the father had the joy of seeing alma mater through the eyes of his thoughtful and engaged son. Wolfgang also fell in love again at Wesleyan, finding a life-partner in Sarah Kendall, a fellow Alpha Delt and Wes alumna.

Wolfgang was the rare academic administrator who approached the work with open-minded inquiry, with the curiosity and care characteristic of the best research in the humanities. A few weeks before he died, he wrote me with a question about how to help constituents of a school get past points of conflict and return to their deeper mutual convergence. He was so good at finding (sometimes building) convergence while respecting differences. He believed in the spirit of the academic enterprise and exemplified what is best about it. I miss him already.

Student-Athletes Making a Mark, On and Off the Field

I had lunch today with a stellar group of Wesleyan student-athletes along with Assistant Football Coach Sean Stanley. The Student-Athlete of Color Leadership Council is providing mentorship opportunities, creating community engagement activities, and helping to recruit more diverse athletics teams. Next week, for example, they are hosting student-athletes from Bulkeley High School in Hartford, and recently they staged a basketball tournament that raised thousands of dollars for the Middlesex Hospital Comprehensive Breast Center. I look forward to working together on new initiatives next year. 

Have you heard about Vicious Circles? This is Wesleyan’s high-soaring women’s frisbee team, set to go to the National Championship tournament for the third year in a row!

Having won the Regionals, the team is heading to the championship tournament in Illinois. They have established a fundraising page here.

So, You Wanna Make Movies (or TV shows)…

If you spend any time in the vicinity of Hollywood, you’re likely to hear about Wesleyan’s important role in the entertainment industry. Almost immediately after my appointment as president, I began hearing how our alumni “dominate the industry.” That may be an overstatement, but it is very clear that Wes folks wind up working at very high levels in all sectors of film and television.

The College of Film and the Moving Image sponsors many events to help students understand how they can use their education as a resource for careers in entertainment. And this summer, we are sponsoring a workshop at the American Film Institute (AFI) in Los Angeles for those wanting to learn more about the craft of TV writing. Led by Ed Decter, who has a LONG list of credits over many years, the workshop is for advanced students or recent grads who want a professional orientation to television writing.

C-Film has recently launched a podcast series, and the first interview is with Ed Decter. You can listen to it here.

You can find out more information about the workshop by contacting Scott Higgins, Chair of the College of Film and the Moving Image.

Theater, Sports, Senior Theses and Recitals Enliven Campus

What a lovely weekend it was! Friday night Kari and I were so happy to have the opportunity to see a student production at the Second Stage: La Violecion of My PapiYon, presented by Shades, written by Arline Pierre-Louis ’19 and directed by Ray Achan ’19 and Ruby Fludzinski ’20. The show was powerful and stirring.

On Saturday, there were sports aplenty on campus, as well as music drifting over from West College’s annual celebration of his Zonkertude. I saw some phenomenal tennis, a powerful women’s lacrosse team, track and field and frisbee high-caliber performances, and some thrilling softball and baseball. Away from campus, the men’s lacrosse team continued its winning ways in upstate New York, while our crew teams were racing through the still icy waters of New England. NietzscheFactor won its frisbee sectional playoff, and the women’s crew team captured the Little Three Title!

Today, I was reading two (really excellent) senior theses, and I strolled over to Memorial Chapel to hear some music in the afternoon. I was delighted to see some recent alums and current students there to join Conner Bennion’s [’18] most excellent recital. I was smiling ear to ear as I took in the a cappella tunes.

If you haven’t seen the remarkable senior theses art exhibitions that have been showing at the Zilkha Galleries, don’t deny yourselves one of the pleasures of spring at Wesleyan. The openings have been on Wednesdays, and you can catch the new group this week beginning at 4. Here are just a few images I’ve snapped when looking at earlier week’s work.

You can find more information and much better pictures here.

 

Enlightenment?

The following review of Stephen Pinker’s Enlightenment Now appeared this past week in Inside Higher Education. 

Steven Pinker has become chief cheerleader for modernity. In his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, he marshaled mountains of evidence to show that violence, both private and public, has significantly declined over the last 200 years. While atrocities naturally continue to draw our attention, they are actually less prevalent than ever before. If we avoid the “availability bias” of sensational headlines and study the broad spectrum of relevant information, we can see that, as a species, we are moving away from violence.

In his new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, Pinker expands his purview to include progress in everything from access to basic nourishment and health care to income and increased choices in how we spend our time. In every important area, Pinker sees robust improvement. The world is getting safer, more prosperous and less authoritarian. “Look at the data!” he cries again and again, and you will see that human beings have much to cheer about and much to look forward to. Evidence from surveys even suggests that we are happier — although not nearly as happy as we should be, given the progress we’ve made.

Pinker himself is not happy with colleges and universities, especially humanities programs, which, he claims, tend to emphasize the tragic, the negative, even the apocalyptic. He takes particular aim at Nietzsche and the streams of critical theory that flow from his thinking. Nietzsche’s antimodern polemics against smug, middle-class complacency especially rankle the Harvard University professor who can’t seem to imagine why anyone wouldn’t be grateful for the greater access to food, shelter and leisure that modernity has created.

There is plenty to criticize in Pinker’s historical portrait of triumphant modernity. He ignores any part of the Enlightenment legacy that doesn’t fit neatly into his neat, Popperian understanding of how scientific progress is made through disconfirming hypotheses. In describing progress in societies that behave more rationally, he says almost nothing about the social movements and struggles that forced those with power (and claims to rationality) to pay attention to political claims for justice. When science leads to bad things, like eugenics, he just dismisses the results as bad science. He criticizes those with whom he disagrees as being narrow-minded or tribalistic, but he seems to have no self-awareness of how his own thinking is plagued by parochialism. He writes that we have to cure “identity protective cognition,” but for him history is an effort to find figures like himself in the past so that he can write a story that culminates with people who have the same views as he. “There can be no question of which was the greatest era for human culture; the answer has to be today.” Maybe he thinks that the gesture of expecting an even better future is an expression of intellectual modesty.

But as much as Pinker’s self-congratulation may annoy anyone concerned with (or just curious about) the ways the achievements of modernity have been built through oppression, exploitation and violence, it would be a mistake to ignore the extraordinary accomplishments that he documents in Enlightenment Now. Take the astonishing reductions in poverty around the world. Over the last century, the portion of people living in extreme poverty has been reduced from 90 percent to under 10 percent. The acceleration of this progress in the last half century has been truly remarkable, and we can see similar good news in regard to decreased child mortality and increased life expectancy (to pick just two of the subjects Pinker covers).

And Pinker is right that many of us in the humanities and interpretive social sciences are loath simply to celebrate such gains when discussing the legacies of the Enlightenment or embracing contemporary critical thinking. Why? Part of the reason is that the story of those achievements should not be divorced from an account of how social injustice has made them possible. Humanists don’t dismiss the importance of reductions in poverty, but neither do they simply want to describe slavery, colonialism and other forms of exploitation as the price one has (always?) to pay for progress.

A judicious history of the dramatic increase in the powers of science and rationality should include chapters on the massive increases in the destructive power now in human hands. Those chapters are missing from Pinker’s book, and that’s important because of the asymmetric risks now facing the planet. Pinker’s caricatures of doomsayers of the past predicting environmental or nuclear disaster can be amusing, but his cheerful account of an ever more peaceful and prosperous world reminds one of the optimists writing in 1914 just before the outbreak of World War I. They, too, were quite sure that in their century war was a thing of the past and that economic development would go on more or less steadily.

Yet as Daniel Callahan recently showed in The Five Horsemen of the Modern World, the risks of massive destruction and deep ecological dislocation today have been greatly magnified by nuclear weapons, global warming and profound challenges in regard to food and water. These risks are not reduced because we’ve already made progress in regard to poverty and life expectancy. Some of the same forces that helped create the positive changes have also led to enormous problems. And past performance is, as they say, no guarantee of future results.

Pinker does spend time on contemporary challenges, seeing them as technical problems to be solved through inquiry and experimentation. That seems reasonable enough. We’ve produced nuclear weapons that could destroy millions of lives — we need mechanisms to make their use less probable. Economic development has put too much carbon in the atmosphere — we need to develop tools to take the carbon out while creating jobs and enhancing prosperity.

This story of progress begetting more positive change rather than intractable problems is, of course, very much end point dependent. Pinker’s claims for enhanced freedom around the world today run into the obstacles of authoritarian rule in Russia and China. So, he says, Putin and Xi are not nearly as bad as Stalin and Mao. And when he started writing Enlightenment Now, Pinker could not have predicted President Trump. He acknowledges the threats that Trump and other antiscientific populists pose to his idea of continual progress, but he suggests that demographic trends will naturally shrink the base of know-nothing authoritarians. And if we all just emphasized how positive things are, populists claiming only they can save us wouldn’t have as much to work with: “By failing to take note of the gifts of modernity, social critics poison voters against responsible custodians and incremental reformers.” Cheerleading as activism.

The Enlightenment was never just one thing, and its most serious exponents often thought long and hard about the negative consequences of reducing all thinking to the narrowest forms of the science of their time. Humanists in colleges and universities today can extend the legacies of the Enlightenment not by celebrating the virtues of science with unalloyed optimism nor by denigrating them with unadulterated nihilism. Instead, humanists today can acknowledge the gains of science and economic development while continuing to question both their premises and their unintended consequences.

Pinker writes that “none of us are as happy as we ought to be, given how amazing our world has become.” But we don’t need cheerleading psychologists telling us we should be happier than we are. We need teachers whose broad-based thinking builds hope and inspires positive change by critically challenging complacency. That’s still the best bet for what Kant recognized as the goal of Enlightenment: freedom from self-imposed immaturity.

How to Choose a (Our) University?

It’s WesFest time again, and the crowds we’ll see visiting campus this week remind us that it is crunch time for many high school seniors. They are trying to envision the school at which 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. Wesleyan has made a commitment to keep loan levels low and to maintain only moderate (very close to inflation) tuition increases. 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 Pomona?

Students who are visiting campuses this month are trying to discern the personalities of each school. They are trying to imagine themselves on the campus, 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 feel the brave 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. Our students have the courage to find new combinations of subjects to study, of people to meet, of challenges to face.

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 to admitted students a few years ago:

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We all know that Wesleyan is hard to get into, especially this year (once again) with a record number of applications. 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 their disciplines. At Wesleyan, 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.

C-Film Expanding Awareness

This week the College of Film and the Moving Image is sponsoring three events as part of its AWARENESS 2018 series. This series examines the intersections of film and some of the pressing social and political issues in our culture.

MONDAY at 8 p.m.–PAPER LANTERNS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF AMERICAN PRISONERS IN HIROSHIMA with a discussion featuring Peter Grilli of the Japan Society of Boston

TUESDAY at 8 p.m.–THE RAPE OF RECY TAYLOR with a discussion featuring Crystal Feimster, associate professor of African American Studies, History, and American Studies at Yale.

THURSDAY at 8 p.m.–CONVERSATION WITH NYT CRITICS WESLEY MORRIS and A.O. SCOTT

 

John E. Finn Lectures Tonight on the Constitution

John Finn taught in the Government department at Wesleyan from 1986-2017. For much of that time he taught Constitutional Law, and tonight the Wesleyan community has the opportunity to hear from him again when he delivers the Hugo Black Lecture at 8 p.m. in Memorial Chapel.

Having received a Ph.D. in political science from Princeton and a J.D. from Georgetown, Professor Finn became an influential scholar of constitutional interpretation. He also was a beloved teacher at Wesleyan, twice winning the Binswanger Prize for Excellence in Teaching. In addition to his work on the American constitution, John also has a Grande Diplôme from the French Culinary Institute. He has published widely on citizenship, political participation and the law. He is also the author of The Perfect Omlet.

A powerful advocate for an inclusive constitution, Professor Finn’s lecture tonight is titled “Gun Nuts & Speech Freaks: A Guide to the Alt-constitution.”

Susan Lourie, Teaching, Dancing!

Susan Lourie

How do you honor a great teacher? You show you’ve learned from her example—her pedagogy, her practice, her generosity. How do you honor a great dance teacher? You begin to move and to show what you’ve absorbed and processed from her pedagogy, practice, and generosity. That’s what the Dance Department is doing NEXT weekend, APRIL 7th,  in honoring Susan Lourie. Here’s the announcement:

The Dance Department honors Susan Lourie‘s 40 years of teaching at Wesleyan with this tribute performance featuring invited alumni, guests, and current faculty and students.

Wesleyan alumni that will be performing or showing videodances include Wendy Blum ’87, Molly Rabinowitz ’87, Kim Sargent-Wishart ’87, Jessica Roseman ’90, Jody Sperling ’92, SheenRu Yong ’02, Intisar Abioto ’08, Nik Owens ’12, Stellar Levy ’15, Miranda Orbach’15, Nora Thompson ’15, Eury German ’16, and Nick Daley ’17.

This performance will be preceded from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. by informal movement-based activities and performance by alumni along with Susan Lourie in the Bessie Schönberg Dance Studio, located at 247 Pine Street in Middletown. Admission to the afternoon event is free and open to the public.

The ticketed evening performance will be followed by a reception with alumni and colleagues honoring Susan Lourie with their remarks.