Young People Resisting Fascism (in France)

This past weekend the Wall Street Journal published my review of Amherst College professor Ronald Rosbottom’s new book on young people in the French Resistance. My work in graduate school and for the first 15 years or so of my academic career was in modern French history. It was a pleasure to return to those topics while reading Sudden Courage. I reproduce the review here.


Ronald Rosbottom has been teaching college students for many years now, and his affection for and curiosity about them must be very strong. He has also been studying French literature and history for many years, devoting much of the past decade to understanding how France responded to the Nazi occupation during World War II.

In 2014 he published “When Paris Went Dark,” an account of what it was like to live in the French capital during those awful years. Now he asks what it was like for students at that time. How did some of them, as young as those he teaches at Amherst College, make the leap from adolescent antics to standing up against the German invaders? Mr. Rosbottom touched on this in his earlier book, and he probably had more interesting material than he could fit into that volume.

In “Sudden Courage: Youth in France Confront the Germans, 1940-1945” the author finds many points of light in young people who acted with bravery, passion and savvy in confronting a brutal enemy willing to exact the ultimate punishment on those who got in its way. Mr. Rosbottom’s sources tend to be memoirs, letters, diaries and the occasional historical novel. As in his earlier book, he proves to be a fine story-teller but doesn’t have much to say about the traditional concerns of historians regarding social context or patterns of behavior that might shed light on the actions of individuals. He is convinced that young people (sometimes he means adolescents, sometimes people under 30) were the energetic core of the Resistance, but he provides no real evidence that this was the case. He cites one contemporary claim that 75% of the résistants were under 30, but how do we know this is accurate? Toward the end of the book, Mr. Rosbottom mentions that young people were also engaged in enforcing the cruel laws of Vichy. Were they the energetic core of the Collaboration as well? This, he tells the reader in a rather odd concluding chapter, is not his subject.

Guy Môquet in an undated photograph. PHOTO:UIG/GETTY IMAGES


By Ronald C. Rosbottom
Custom House, 320 pages, $27.99

No, Mr. Rosbottom’s subject, one which incites his sympathy and admiration, is the young who risked everything to fight an oppressive regime, to stand up for what’s right, to protect the most vulnerable of their friends and neighbors. Early on in “Sudden Courage,” he gives an account of the legendary Guy Môquet, whose father (a communist deputy to the National Assembly) had been arrested after the Hitler-Stalin pact was signed. Guy worked tirelessly to free him, first protesting against the Third Republic and then against the French police who collaborated with the German Occupation.

Guy Môquet was only 16 when he was jailed. Held against court orders by French police in a maximum security prison, he was executed within a year, in retaliation for the assassination by communists of a German soldier.

The Nazis demanded that prisoners, especially Jews and communists, be considered hostages, and when a German was attacked anywhere in the country, these hostages could be murdered. The idea was to make resistance seem like a cruel act against French prisoners—for they would be the ones to pay the price. It didn’t work: Môquet became a martyr for the Resistance in general and for the communists in particular. His memory is still invoked today as an example of patriotic précocité résistante.

After 1942, things got more serious for all. The Nazis weren’t winning speedy victories in the East anymore, and they drafted young French people to replenish factories in Germany. The danger for young Jews increased, as French police rounded up families to be deported to death camps. Mr. Rosbottom awkwardly writes that “Gentile French were appalled” by this, and certainly there were many who felt the sting of conscience and who spoke out. But the “Gentile” French police continued their dirty work.

“Sudden Courage” looks at the good guys, with a chapter added at the end about the courageous women and girls of the Resistance. It has many inspirational tales to tell, like that of the memoirist Maroussia Naïtchenko, who as a teenager often put her life on the line in friendship and solidarity with other brave young communist French patriots. Mr. Rosbottom avoids engaging in the intense debates that take place among historians as to whether France should be cheered for saving around 75% of its Jews, or condemned for sending a quarter of them to their deaths. Nor does he ask about the role of young people in the épuration, the violent prosecution of collaborators in the aftermath of the Liberation, in which tens of thousands were punished and several thousand executed outright. Were courageous youth on both sides of this purge?

The author does wonder “how many Frenchmen who assisted in the punishment and murder of their own fellow citizens would live long lives of guilt” and if they were ever afraid of being denounced. Sudden courage and lifelong fear are hard to separate in the story of Vichy France and its aftermath, but Mr. Rosbottom is committed to staying on the sunny side of the street where heroic young people defy the odds and attempt great things. That may not be history, but theirs are lives worth remembering—especially if, like the author, we still look to young people for idealism and inspiration.

Interview on Safe Enough Spaces

This week, Inside Higher Education published an email interview I did with its editor on my new book (out August 20th), Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech and Political Correctness on College Campuses (Yale Press). I’m hoping some find the book useful as they consider various debates about the politics of higher education. I’ll try to live up to the positions articulated in this slim volume, or modify those positions as a result of conversations with students, faculty and staff.

As president of Wesleyan University since 2007, Michael S. Roth is no stranger to the debates that have consumed American higher education. He has defended invitations to controversial speakers, generally those who are on the right. He’s called for institutions like Wesleyan to be as welcoming to conservative students as to liberals. In a new book, Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech and Political Correctness on College Campuses (Yale University Press), Roth talks about how to defend free speech and campus values of inclusion — and also touches on issues of affirmative action.

Q: You write that “wherever one stands on issues of affirmative action, most can agree that diversity isn’t just about admissions — it’s about the educational culture created by a university.” But given the debates about getting in, do you think universities do a good job with affirmative action?

A: There are at least three different debates going on about access to universities in the United States. The first is a debate about how to make college more affordable, more accessible, to more young people across the country. This is a crucial conversation that depends on shoring up public support for community colleges and public universities — schools that enroll the majority of those enrolled in higher education. And we don’t just have to figure out how to provide access to these schools; we need to improve completion rates while reducing debt levels. Free college for everyone may make for a popular stump speech, but what we really need is affordable college for those with financial need. This will take massive public investment.

The other “debate about getting in” has to do with how people are chosen for admission to highly selective colleges and universities. This will always be fraught because there are many, many more qualified applicants than there are spots available at highly selective schools. I don’t think admissions should be based on a single exam or group of exams, and in a holistic process, there will always be the possibility of some controversy. (And even with exams, controversy follows from perceived scarcity.) There will always be complaints that someone had an unfair advantage in the process (and some do). Still, part of the responsibility of college admissions departments is to bring in a class that makes it possible for all students to benefit from a diverse student body; the responsibility of the institution is to create an environment in which people can learn with/from folks different from themselves. The colleges and universities that I know work very hard to build equitable diversity through admissions; the even greater challenge these days is creating equitable inclusion for all students after they matriculate. I address this subject in the first section of Safe Enough Spaces.

There is a third debate I should mention regarding elite schools, and that is around the question of whether they are cementing inequality or providing paths for social mobility. The data recently analyzed by Raj Chetty and his colleagues show that the former is often the case. Although many schools have made progress in diversifying their student bodies, it is still true that in many of the most selective institutions more undergraduates come from the top 1 percent of the income bracket than from the bottom 60 percent. It is clear that inequality in America has long affected elementary and high schools, and that it is increasingly difficult for low-income families to find educational opportunities that will result in their students being college-ready at age 17. Colleges can’t themselves correct for this systemic problem in K-12 education.

Richard V. Reeves has described “opportunity hoarding” by the wealthiest fifth of the American population. The upper middle class has focused on securing special privileges for its children, he writes, adding that “education has … become the main mechanism for the reproduction of upper-middle-class status across generations.” As inequality has gotten worse, the benefit of having a college diploma has gotten greater. Still, at many elite schools we continue to privilege the privileged — whether through admissions offices that give alumni relatives an advantage, or through geographically based marketing plans that aim recruiting messages at those already most likely to succeed because of the advantages they already have. Some schools have made significant changes, but providing more opportunity for deep learning among the most marginalized populations remains a challenge. This is an important priority for us at Wesleyan University, and we have created strong partnerships with community-based organizations to make economically sustainable progress in this regard. What would it take for all schools to think of this as a civic responsibility essential to their mission?

Q: What do you make of the criticisms from academe of Allan Bloom and Richard Bernstein?

A: Allan Bloom and Richard Bernstein had different political positions on many topics, but they shared the notion that multiculturalism on American university campuses had become a sterile orthodoxy.The Closing of the American Mind (1987) didn’t use the term “politically correct,” but Bloom’s diagnosis of what was ailing American higher education echoed (and echoes to this day) in complaints about PC culture. Now, Bloom was interested not in the average college student but in students who wound up at America’s very best colleges and universities. As he saw it, the 1960s and 1970s had turned college campuses into bastions of prejudice that made serious learning all but impossible. The prejudice with which these students had been inculcated since they were schoolchildren, he asserted, is that tolerance is the greatest virtue and that everyone should have their own truth (or later, their own passion). We don’t argue that only some beliefs are respectable; we assume that since we don’t know which beliefs are true, we must respect them all. Nobody can be wrong, because nobody can be right.

Bernstein’s Dictatorship of Virtue appeared at the height of the 1990s PC frenzy, when the multiculturalism Bloom derided seemed to have become an enforceable dogma. Bernstein saw a commitment to inclusivity and equality as having become a demand for moral purity. He was dismayed that the doctrine of assimilation, in which his own forebears had trusted when they came to this country, had been replaced by a celebration of difference. Almost 30 years ago, Bernstein argued that we no longer needed strong programs to remove barriers to integration for those who had been discriminated against or marginalized in earlier times. He seemed to believe that his own family’s assimilationist success story meant that “strident anti-immigration sentiments” and “organized nativism” were things of the past. Today, the rise of neo-fascist policies and rhetoric at the highest levels of government makes Bernstein’s claims seem naïve, but his prediction that excessive efforts to expose the negative dimensions of American history would produce a backlash to “make America great again” turned out to be uncannily accurate.

Q: What do you make of the term “politically correct”?

A: Safe Enough Spaces charts the cultural complaints that resulted in the popularity of the label “politically correct.” Among activists on the left, the use of the term “politically incorrect” was meant to signal that their radicalism was more outlaw than doctrinaire. Claiming oneself to be “politically incorrect” or accusing a sanctimonious comrade of political correctness was not atypical banter. By the 1990s, though, accusations of “political correctness” would become a theatricalized staple of conservative discourse, especially popular among critics who regarded the diversity and multiculturalism on American university campuses as sterile orthodoxy. Setting the stage for this was philosopher Bloom’s bestseller. With Closing of the American Mind, Bloom transformed himself from isolated, mandarin professor to bestselling conservative scold by excoriating students for their addiction to rock music and deafness to the higher pleasures of Straussian contemplation. By the 1990s, it was common knowledge that you could attract a crowd of supporters by attacking political correctness, and in recent years we have seen that anyone with access to a keyboard or a microphone can find an audience by complaining about it.

Many who whine bitterly about a monolithic PC culture on college campuses are themselves, paradoxically, working within universities and their adjacent institutions. Some of these well-meaning folks believed they were themselves liberal, and now they claim (loudly, as it so happens) that they are afraid to speak at all. Accusing those with whom you disagree of being PC has become a rhetorical reflex. Just moan to your friends and colleagues (your in-group) about somebody else being censorious or oversensitive, all the while censoring that person and complaining about being hurt yourself. But how to tell which complaints are to be taken seriously? Are some African Americans oversensitive about stop and frisk, or only about cultural appropriation? Are transgender people thin-skinned if they are concerned with bans against their participation in public life, or only if they call out misgendering? Where does one draw the line, or rather, who gets to draw the line? As conversations and actions can be observed by broader groups of people, how does one know to whom one is speaking (and who is listening)? In the absence of an in-group constituted by affection or tradition, even liberals may discover that, despite their good intentions, they are being criticized from the left, or at least from the young or other people new to the debate. As one encounters differently diverse groups of people, it doesn’t feel good to be outflanked, and so we see a tendency to respond by calling the newcomers politically correct.

Name-calling or assuming the status of the victimized are among the least productive forms of disagreement. Outrage may lead to feelings of solidarity, but it insulates us from the possibility of changing our minds, from opening our thinking. And that’s why I argue that students, faculty and citizens must avoid falling into the tired tropes of both callout culture and accusations of political correctness. This requires staying engaged with those with whom one disagrees, and not just about abstract issues like whether we have become unconscious relativists. Conversations about race and about the economy, about bias and sexual assault, about jobs and the shrinking middle class … all tend to involve strong emotions, intense language and, sometimes, bruised feelings. People do get “called out” for their supposed racism or general privilege, and this can seem to them unfair or just painful. As a result, some people will complain that they don’t want to speak up because they fear being “criticized” or “stigmatized.” These people should recognize that their fear isn’t a sign of the environment’s political correctness or hostility toward free expression; it’s just a sign that they need more courage — for it requires courage to stay engaged with difference. Staying engaged with difference, including intellectual diversity, is the best “on the ground” refutation of the “PC” charge.

Q: You talk of mostly supporting free speech on campus. Who would be justifiably barred by a (private) campus?

A: The libertarian or marketplace approach to free speech often claims that if anyone is excluded from speaking, we are on a slippery slope to pernicious censorship. Drawing on the work of several other scholars, I argue that if there is a slippery slope, we are always already on it. Defenses of free speech always exclude something. As Stanley Fish has often reminded us, for the poet John Milton (a favorite of free speech absolutists), Catholics were excluded from free speech protections. For us today, child pornography or incitements to violence would usually be considered beyond the pale. Typically, the exclusions can be enforced informally by social or professional pressure (appeals to civility, ostracism), but borders for acceptable speech also get codified in rules and regulations. And there are always borders.

That said, I don’t have a formula for excluding speakers or performers from campus. In Safe Enough Spaces, I do point out that we do not have to provide a platform for those whose principal goal is the intimidation or persecution of others. Sometimes, a group of people may say they feel assaulted by someone else’s ideas, but we should have a very high threshold for accepting that someone’s ideas are too disturbing for us to even try to refute them. However, to say that a university is a marketplace of ideas where we must entertain all provocateurs is neither an accurate description of higher education nor a legitimate principle on which to build policy.

When markets are unregulated, real pollution, real harm, occurs — and those who are hurt tend to be those who historically have been vulnerable. In the last several years, the pollution on campus has often come from right-wing provocateurs who come to speak at institutions of higher learning to add credence and energy to racist, homophobic and sexist attitudes and practices. This dynamic increases in intensity as harmful effects are repeated. When those in positions of authority insist that this is not real harm because it’s not physical violence, or when First Amendment fundamentalists opine that “all of us” sometimes feel marginalized, it is no wonder that many students have learned to see the ideology of market deregulation at the heart of free speech dogmatism. They have learned this because they have experienced that power matters in regard to speech as well as other things. University leaders must be conscious of this as they work within their particular campus cultures to expand intellectual diversity and to promote the engagement with difference. We must not let the absolutist doctrine of “more speech” become as unhealthy for universities as the doctrine of deregulation has been for the environment.

Q: How do you see the issues differently on public campuses?

A: I have spent my career at private institutions, and I don’t pretend to have any expertise about public universities. That said, every campus — public or private — has its own distinctive culture, regulations and relationship to the political sphere. Navigating the various constituencies of those cultures so as to promote a richer education for all is the task of administrative and faculty leadership. At public institutions one has the added burden of dealing with state legislatures that often are reluctant to fund quality research and teaching, and these same officials often create conditions for the operation of public campuses that may have little to do with their educative purposes. However, the task of expanding intellectual diversity while cultivating inclusion for the sake of deeper learning is common to us all — as is the task of making a case for this learning and the research which makes it possible.

Do Something: Fight the Rise of Fascism and Terror

Another shattering few days of violence, at least a good part of which was inflicted on communities of color in the name of white nationalism. Terrorism has become a pressing part of the American political scene as choreographed racist resentment and fear mongering inspire members of already active fascist groups to use weapons of war to kill and create even more fear. As philosopher Jason Stanley has been pointing out, these are some of the ways fascism works.

Although I have written many times before, alas, about how these mass killings underscore the importance of gun safety laws, it is imperative that we see and come to grips with the ideological dimensions of right-wing terrorism. If verified, the El Paso shooter’s manifesto provides a chilling look into the mechanisms of creating violence to defend white supremacy. The fear is of an invasion, or of being replaced, and instead of seeing a demographic transition, the author envisions an apocalyptic threat. As historian Kathleen Belew wrote of the manifesto in today’s New York Times:

It has paragraphs that give rote gesture to not being white supremacist, even as the document invokes phrase after phrase, ideological marker after ideological marker, of the white power movement. These are all markers of the genre.

We can all recognize the similarities with the rhetoric of the president, who on the one hand encourages violence against immigrants, and on the other hand will condemn the El Paso shooter as “deranged.” We see the “markers of the genre” in Trump’s discourse.

These mass shootings are not just meaningless acts of isolated, troubled individuals. They are the product of ideological rage and the rhetoric that goes with it.

What are we to do after we mourn the victims? First, we understand the mechanisms for promoting domestic terrorism, and we ensure that our institutions disrupt them. Second, we organize so as to create civic institutions that respect the diversity of our country and protect its most vulnerable inhabitants. This will involve creating a public sphere that inspires trust rather than fear, that promotes connectivity among people across their differences rather than the isolation of one group from another.

Colleges and universities have a role to play here, too. We must promote civic preparedness so that our students can learn from those with a variety of political, moral and aesthetic views without this openness compromising their abilities to fight fascism when it rears its ugly head. Violence, pseudo-science and fear are being “carefully taught” to those who would abide ethno-nationalism. We can counter this by teaching how to recreate a public sphere that is open to democratic participation and is fierce in the determination to fight terror.

Reviewing Lewis Hyde on Forgetting

In Sunday’s Washington Post I published a review of a new book on forgetting by Lewis Hyde. For many years, I was very engaged with memory studies, and my own area of interest was in memory abnormalities. I was focused on diseases of memory, especially as they were understood in 19th century Europe: amnesia, nostalgia, hysteria. I published related essays on these topics in The Ironist’s Cage:Memory, Trauma and the Construction of History (1995) and Memory, Trauma and History: Essays on Living with the Past (2011).

Lewis Hyde will be visiting Wesleyan’s Center for the Arts in November. He’s a fascinating thinker — whether you’re interested in neuroscience, politics, the arts, or just in how to make sense of the past. 

How much memory do you want? asks the salesperson at the technology store. Watching the evening news, I see commercials for a pill that will enhance my memory almost as often as I see ads for another pill that will regulate my mood. I wonder if one medication counteracts the other. We live in a culture that seems to prize memory, even as it gives us technological tools to eliminate our need for it. I can ask my phone for most bits of information that I have trouble bringing to mind, and if I forget where I left my phone, my iPad can remind me.

Still, memory remains a subject of reflection and anxiety — not least because as people live longer, more of them are surviving without connections to their past. The destruction of memory caused by Alzheimer’s disease is often experienced as a destruction of the self. It can be terrifying to those who suffer from it and seem like the ultimate cruelty to loved ones who are no longer recognized. In “A Primer for Forgetting,” Lewis Hyde doesn’t ignore the pain of involuntary amnesia, but he is much more interested in the liberating aspects of “getting past the past,” as his subtitle puts it.

His book is organized loosely — it’s made up of four notebooks of aphorisms and reflections on a wide variety of sources that discuss what it means to lose the past. When you turn your attention to forgetting, does that mean you are in fact remembering? This question runs through Hyde’s beautiful prose like a bright red thread, or perhaps a string tied around your finger. He wants readers to acknowledge how sweet it can be to get free of one’s memories — free of the baggage attached to the self. The weight of the past can lock us into repetition; it can also instigate a desire to set the past right, to correct or avenge misdeeds. “The tree of memory set its roots in blood,” Hyde emphasizes, and he asks, “Could there be an art of forgetting that puts an end to bloodshed?”

Hyde’s four notebooks explore Myth, Self, Nation and Creation. He surveys Western traditions and delves into Buddhist teachings that urge us to let go of ego-building in favor of nourishing “serene self-forgetfulness.” Hyde is especially attracted to artists who manage to forget their habits of mind to unleash the freedom of creative thought.

But what of the wounds of the past? Doesn’t the quest for justice insist on remembrance? It is to Hyde’s great credit that he dwells on cases that demand recollection to shake off the chains of past horrors. He remembers the young African American men, Charles Moore and Henry Dee, who in 1964 were brutally tortured by Klansmen before being drowned in the Mississippi River. It wasn’t that hard to find those responsible, but it took more than 40 years for anyone to be brought to justice. Hyde is fascinated by Thomas Moore, brother of the murdered Charles, who for years plotted violent revenge but wound up going back to the scene of the crime and forgiving one of those responsible. Hyde discovers a sense of awe and mystery in the way Thomas “freed himself from servitude to the Unforgettable, and became the agent of his own recollections.” This Thomas Moore didn’t need a utopia. He achieved the freedom that comes with some forgetting and was nourished by the peace that forgiveness brings.

Thomas, who had long suffered from the memories of violent injustice, achieved agency through the “work of forgetting.” For Hyde, there is a lesson here for those who wind up paying for the ways nations construct their bloody myths. Victors manipulate memory to perpetuate injustice, as the United States did when it urged citizens to forget the strife of the Civil War so as to preserve white supremacy. “Violence denied and repressed doesn’t disappear,” Hyde writes, “it repeats.” He wants nothing to do with the “organized forgetting” that perpetuates America’s “foundational violence.” But Thomas’s path to forgiveness gives Hyde hope that the “people saddled with history can work on the past rather than have the past work on [them].”

But tough questions remain. How to tell what deserves remembrance and what will just poison the present? How does one “adaptively mourn” in a way that acknowledges the past without being subsumed by it? These are not questions Hyde can answer definitively, but he raises and examines them from a variety of perspectives. He praises getting free of the past, but he knows that forgetting can be its own horror; he has seen his Alzheimer’s- stricken mother awash in anxiety at not recognizing the man claiming to be her son. Hyde confesses, “Sometimes I think it is hopeless, this quest for beneficent forgetting.”

But this is his quest, and he turns to various traditions of leaving the self behind in pursuit of answers. He admires the composer John Cage’s efforts to hear sounds as if he had never encountered them before, to leave behind his habits of attention. And Friedrich Nietzsche, the philosopher who made forgetting heroic, is always close at hand. For Nietzsche, no great deed is possible without some amnesia. But Hyde is no Nietzschean; he’s closer to Henry David Thoreau, who relished the sense of losing something instead of pounding his chest to insist that there was never anything to be lost. Thoreau, like Hyde, remembers forgetting, but he is consumed by neither memory nor loss. The last words of “A Primer For Forgetting” are “teach me to disappear.” But there they are: words visible on the page — the trace of a lesson.

Getting Past the Past
By Lewis Hyde
Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
372 pp. $28

Trump Tweets and Higher Education

It’s been clear from the time Donald Trump ran for the Republican nomination for president, that he represents a force contrary to the goals of education. My personal political leanings aside, I feel obligated to speak up in defense of the values that animate Wesleyan and so many other schools—values that President Trump attacks on a regular basis. From the denial of science, to the politics of division and cruelty, his irrationality and downright nastiness have been a direct challenge to the research, teaching and inclusion that lie at the core of the mission of colleges and universities. This mission includes promoting intellectual diversity, but it can not abide the politics of racist divisiveness. Condemning President Trump’s attack is not about choosing “sides” in a debate about ideas. It is a defense of what higher education stands for, and of the kind of country in which higher education can thrive.

President Trump’s tweeting tirade against four congresswomen of color this past weekend, telling them to go back to their countries, is just the latest example of racism run amok at the highest level of our government. White supremacists and neo-Nazis are celebrating his administration’s insistence on hate as a vehicle for stimulating the most destructive energies of a sector of the American population.

As many of us plan our return to the campus at the end of the summer, let us imagine alternatives to the noxious brew of racism and xenophobia emanating from the White House. Let us imagine creating a vision for our country as a place of inclusive experimentation — a project that can be achieved only by considering a wide range of ideas that will help us create greater opportunity, freedom and justice. I know these words often conceal hypocrisies and worse, but let’s strive to find ways to make them more real — at least as a civic aspiration for our campus and beyond. We don’t have to live in President Trump’s country of carnage. Let’s return, or turn toward, a country, our country, that we build together.



Don’t Let the President Define Independence Day With Tanks

There are some years when the celebration of America’s birthday is pretty straightforward. I know, things have  never been perfect, but often July 4th feels to me a good moment to salute a country that gives the people who live in it opportunities to make it a better place. Today, though, the president of the country is creating a militarist spectacle in Washington while serious historians and less serious politicians are debating whether the United States is operating concentration camps (rather than merely ‘internment’ camps that make money for investors) at the border. I think of these lines from the great novelist Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive: “Euphemisms lead us to tolerate the unacceptable. And, eventually, to forget. Against a euphemism, remembrance. In order to not repeat.”

I like to write hopeful messages on July 4th. Normally, I’d find a way to cite Frederick Douglass, who wrote with pride of the best aspects of the American experiment:

A Government founded upon justice, and recognizing the equal rights of all men; claiming no higher authority for existence, or sanction for its laws, than nature, reason, and the regularly ascertained will of the people; steadily refusing to put its sword and purse in the service of any religious creed or family, is a standing offense to most of the Governments of the world, and to some narrow and bigoted people among ourselves.

But today the “narrow and bigoted people among ourselves” are in the White House, and they are running roughshod over the best of American values. They demonize the most vulnerable, and then they are offended when their cruelties are exposed. They are undermining inquiry in our universities, and they are taking steps to reduce access to the educational opportunities that are still are best tool for reducing inequality and promoting democracy.

The Fourth of July can remind us that if we don’t renew the American experiment, the possibility of “achieving our country,” others will do it for us. Historian Jill Lepore has recently has recently pointed out who is filling the void:

Charlatans, stooges, and tyrants. The endurance of nationalism proves that there’s never any shortage of blackguards willing to prop up people’s sense of themselves and their destiny with a tissue of myths and prophecies, prejudices and hatreds, or to empty out old rubbish bags full of festering resentments and calls to violence.

We don’t have to allow the president to define Independence Day with militarism in Washington and with cruel dehumanization at the border. Whatever our political affiliation or ideological proclivities, we can use July 4th to imagine other ways to work for a better democracy and a more inclusive and just community.

But let’s be hopeful. Let’s end with the Sage of Concord. Here’s some excerpts from a poem of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s, recited on July 4, 1857:

United States! the ages plead,—
Present and Past in under-song,—
Go put your creed into your deed,
Nor speak with double tongue.

For sea and land don’t understand,
Nor skies without a frown
See rights for which the one hand fights
By the other cloven down.

Be just at home; then write your scroll
Of honor o’er the sea,
And bid the broad Atlantic roll,
A ferry of the free.

A ferry of the free. Happy 4th!


Happy Summer, Wesleyans!

I’ve been traveling a lot as the end of the fiscal year approaches. This isn’t just the usual fundraising — I also got to meet my first grandchild! Luc is a few weeks old, and he’s beautiful (and smart!). No pics allowed online yet, but Papi Mike is very happy to hold the little fella.

Now we are off to Massachusetts for some walking, swimming, and our usual summer writing projects. Mathilde doesn’t understand why we don’t just hang out in the pool with her!

Mathilde in summer

Happy Summer, Wesleyans!

Recent Panel on Campus Speech Issues

I am just back from Washington, D.C., where I participated in a panel sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center on “disinvitations.” There are many important free speech issues in the country right now, and I don’t think commencement disinvitations is one of them. I might put demonizing the press at the top of my list. In any case, I offered my two cents (and misspoke in calling Justice Scalia “Chief Justice”) on what I do think about the need for “safe-enough spaces” on college campuses. You can read about the panel here, or, if you have the time, here’s a video of the event.

Happy Juneteenth!


Welcome Home to Wesleyan!

The reunions are upon us, and it is a glorious spring morning. We’ve been planning for Commencement and for welcoming back a few thousand alumni. Foss Hill looked ready early this morning:

We’ve had plenty to celebrate lately. The women’s lacrosse team is heading to its first Final Four in program history this weekend, and so we had a special graduation ceremony for the seniors on the team. It was fabulous!

While we were holding that special ceremony, the Wesleyan Women’s tennis team was WINNING THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP! It’s our first ever in women’s sports.

Coach Fried was named Coach-of-the-Year and Victoria Yu ’19 was named Senior Player of the year!! Many other awards to come!

Other seniors were practicing their graduation poses, getting ready for the big day:

They invited me to join in, but I’ll have to wait for one of our seniors to send me a photo of me posing with them.

Post your photos from the weekend on social and tag us at #wesreunion or #wes2019.

On the Need for a Recovery of the Humanities

I am reposting this this op-ed I published yesterday in Inside Higher Ed.


As the academic year concludes, I find myself looking forward to a break from the onslaught of bad news about higher education in general and the humanities in particular. Another liberal arts college is forced to close for financial reasons; another university humanities program is cut back; a superrich university floats the idea of reducing its support for book publication.

Even more salaciously, admission scandals give the impression that our finest educational institutions are willing to betray their own standards when political correctness or enough money is involved. Pundits proclaim that we in higher ed aren’t doing enough to rectify the gross inequalities that characterize the K-12 school systems — systems in which students in high-poverty areas aren’t given the tools to be college ready. Critics announce that faculty members, especially those in the humanities, aren’t doing enough to overcome their leftist biases, aren’t doing enough to keep up with the digital economy’s rapid pace of change, aren’t doing enough to pay homage to conservative thinkers of the past and aren’t demanding enough of their students.

Higher education in general and the humanities in particular are awash in a flood of negativity, which arrives on ground already saturated with suspicion of “elites” — in academe and beyond.

Some of these criticisms are on target. The search for ever more funding breeds corruption, and murky admissions criteria stimulate efforts to game the system without consequences. And as more and more undergraduates flock to STEM programs, we in in the humanities often just seem to be talking to one another in our own jargon while blaming undergraduates and the public for not understanding or supporting us.

We can change this, but in order to recover the trust of students and their families, we must overcome our cultivated insularity.

At the heart of any recovery will be a vital curriculum, and the place of the humanities in that curriculum will distinguish an authentic college education from specialized technical training. Some people suggest returning to the glory days of the humanist past to restore confidence in the humanities today. “We urge colleges and universities to risk a dramatic reversal,” David Steiner and Mark Bauerlein wrote in a recent essay. “Instead of pursuing fashion, let humanities professors work to create deeply demanding courses that confront students with searing, elemental, beautiful and soul-searching materials.” Remembering their own excitement as humanities students in the 1980s, they evoke a time when it was cool to wrestle with challenging films or to work through texts in theory and literature. But the coolness factor, as they remember it now, wasn’t just due to the flashiness of deconstruction or the hip brashness of the early days of semiotics. No, students flocked to demanding classes in French literature or art history because “what happened in humanities classrooms was momentous and adventuresome.” The recovery of the humanities begins, for these professors, in a return to the sources of wonder and appreciation — at least, to their own personal sources.

Michael Massing takes a different tack in the face of the precipitous decline in funding for and interest in studying the humanities. He, too, appreciates the vitality of the theory-infused liberal arts of the 1980s, but he connects that vitality to commercial clout. Pointing to Brown University’s Modern Culture and Media program, Massing notes that “graduates have included Virgin Suicides author Jeffrey Eugenides, Ice Storm novelist Rick Moody, Far From Heaven director Todd Haynes, independent film producer Christine Vachon and public radio’s Ira Glass.” Warming my own institutional heartstrings, Massing reminds readers of the confluence of historical and musical innovation in Wesleyan University alumnus Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, which has earned gazillions of dollars and has employed thousands of artists, musicians and craftspeople. In an era in which tech investment is soaring, Massing underscores that content is everything — and it is the artists and humanists who are called on to provide ways to teach and entertain in modalities ranging from podcasts to live performances, from streaming services to video games. Coders need something to say, and broadly educated humanists have plenty to offer.

The paths to recovery mapped out by Steiner and Bauerlein, on the one hand, and Massing, on the other, have two obstacles in common to overcome: excessive professionalization and overspecialization. “The problems facing the humanities are in part self-inflicted by the academy,” writes Massing. “Historians and philosophers, literature profs and art historians too often withdraw into a narrow niche of specialization, using an arcane idiom that makes their work inaccessible to the uninitiated.” What gives your work cred among your colleagues may make it impossible for that work to have any impact beyond the university. When students understand this, they rightly look for something else — something that will still feel “momentous and adventuresome,” or just relevant, outside the campus walls.

A Path Toward Recovery

Periods of great cultural and economic change have often put tremendous pressure on the humanities, because at such times, people agree less on what counts as relevant, let alone as momentous. In 1917, in a world torn by war and economic dislocation, the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey asked how philosophy could possibly be relevant to the crucial questions of the time. In “The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy,” he wrote that the task of reflection wasn’t just to mirror the opinions of the day but “to free experience from routine and from caprice.” He urged his readers to break out of their lazy habits and their easy infatuations; he wanted philosophy to leave behind its obsession with general theories of knowledge and with technical expertise. In response to outside pressures, Dewey imagined a philosophical education that would not just turn inward but that would be “empirically idealistic,” while focusing on connecting to an “unachieved future.”

Dewey’s philosophical pragmatism points us to a path toward recovery for the humanities. Connecting the momentous achievements of the past to our desires for “unachieved futures” seems a good place to start. In an age of vicious inequality, humanists can help build recognition that we must change the trajectory of our societies by ensuring that the achievements we seek become building blocks not just for the few — that the futures being built embody shared values and ideals. That takes informed conversation and not just algorithms.

The conversation might start with venerable subjects like Aristotle’s distinction between satisfying one’s appetites and flourishing through sharing in a public good, and move on to contemporary concerns about vulnerability and sustainable happiness. In my Wesleyan University humanities class, for instance, we develop questions from reading Confucius and Aquinas, and we go on to consider Saidiya Hartman’s perspective on the possibilities for “living otherwise” in a world of oppression. Having attended to powerful thinkers of the tradition, we debate how we might build sustainable freedom now. My students recognize great works on enduring questions without just designating them monuments to a heroic past, and they acknowledge the cultural and economic power of the humanities without just tuning them to replicate the present. Together, we avoid both “routine and caprice” by articulating the connections between what we study and the societal problems we face.

As trusted norms on campuses and in politics erode all around us, Dewey’s warning against covering up our brutalities with high-minded theories and noble sentiment seems all the more relevant. But pragmatist hopefulness is also relevant, as we close one academic year and prepare for the next. To paraphrase Dewey: we can recover the humanities if we cease trying to refine them as insular tools for academics and cultivate them instead as a frame of mind for dealing with the problems of today’s world. When we do that, we will begin to regain the trust of students and their families.