Best Wishes for the Holidays!

Students have finished up their finals, and the rush of grading and end-of-the-year tasks grows intense for many on campus and off. I wanted to take a moment to thank you for all your efforts this semester, and to wish you joyful holiday celebrations — and some rest, too. Many students are still working, as are plenty of staff who see to admissions applications, December donations, the safety and functioning of the campus (to name only some of the active departments!)…while faculty colleagues are reading papers, grading exams and preparing syllabi.

Still, on this first day of winter, I hope you see your holidays approaching.

May the new year bring you peace and purpose, happiness and health!

 

Ordinary Education in Extraordinary Times

This was published today in Inside Higher Education. As we take and grade finals on campus, I thought I’d share it with the Wesleyan community.

 

People sometimes say that we on college campuses work in a bubble. I suppose that means we are impervious to outside influences and that events in the world don’t really affect us. That certainly isn’t true these days.

In fact, with all that’s going on beyond campuses, I’m often asked, what’s the point of education as usual? To which I respond that these are uncommon times, to be sure, but our traditional educational practices of valuing learning from people different from ourselves have never been more important.

It’s been a difficult season. So much of our nation’s and institutions’ energies were directed toward the U.S. Supreme Court nomination and then the elections, and controversies about their legitimacy remain. Frequent mass killings have started to produce numbness, as hate-fueled, disturbed and well-armed men stalk African American shoppers, Jewish worshippers and college students dancing in a bar.

One would have to be numb not to be awed and appalled by ferocious fires raging in California, killing scores as they tried to escape the inferno. As firefighters struggled in all but impossible conditions, as houses and lives were lost, the president of the United States tweeted his senseless and heartless claims about mismanagement. Climate change alters our seasons and ignites deadly fires, but it doesn’t inspire political change.

It’s in this context that I had to turn to grading papers in my Virtue and Vice humanities class. As I did so, I found myself less focused on today and more toward considering the enduring questions with which the students were wrestling. How does contemporary scientific research influence traditional arguments for equality? What are our obligations to the most vulnerable people among us? What are principles worth to a person who is committed to the pursuit of happiness? How much can one learn from thinkers whom one judges to be immoral?

I left the news behind while I contemplated all these questions with my students, who were considering different points of view without insult or invective. Those students were putting themselves, or trying to put themselves, in someone else’s shoes in order to see what the world looked like from another perspective.

I teach history classes, and this semester we’ve marked the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht and the centenary of the end of World War I. On the night of Nov. 9, 1938, gangs of citizens inspired by racist, anti-Semitic hate attacked Jews all over Germany. “How could it happen?” my students have asked. It wasn’t the government that ordered this pogrom, but its rhetoric of hate and dehumanization legitimated violence against those perceived as less than fully German. Dehumanization and scapegoating are the familiar tactics of the people who want to incite violence without being directly accountable for it.

My students have struggled to understand the dynamics of World War I –“the war to end all wars,” as it was called. They are puzzled by the nationalist gusto that propelled the first few months of fighting, dissipating into a war of attrition that inspired no one. Millions died in those bloody battles, and by the end of it all, few people could remember the reasons why governments were willing (even eager) to send their young people to the slaughter. Peace did not last. And now nationalism is again on the rise.

Amid all of this, we who work on college campuses are meant to be studying for or grading exams, writing papers, or processing registration for classes — in other words, going about the ordinary practice of education. But as students look out at a world of hate and violence, of senseless killings and orchestrated oppressive practices, they may ask, why go on studying philosophy or mathematics, computer science or creative writing? What’s the point?

But, in fact, in a world scarred by violence, instigated polarization and managed parochialism, these educational practices of consideration, critique and empathy are beacons of hope. Seeing the world from someone else’s point of view is no simple task, but you get much better at it when you practice. That’s what we are doing much of the time on our campuses.

When we foster intellectual diversity, we are practicing learning from others different from ourselves. Sure, sometimes people retreat to the “bubbles” of their own tribe, whether they call that safety, tradition or prejudice. But much of the time, our teachers, students and staff encounter difference and try to figure out how to learn from it, sometimes finding out that commonalities are more significant than the distinctions that first impressed them.

Such encounters are woven into the fabric of our everyday educational practices. These days, they are hopeful alternatives to the normalization of violence and the pollution of our public sphere. Now, more than ever, we must work to protect them.

 

It’s Almost here! #GivingTuesday

I’m still eating turkey leftovers and expect to be doing so for a few more days. No complaints on that score. Our daughter Sophie was home for the holiday, and she joined  some Wesleyan students, friends and family at our table for Thanksgiving. This undoubtedly makes Kari and me feel especially thankful this year. Now Sophie is heading back to her own campus, and those students are home writing papers and preparing for the final weeks of the semester.

There are so many ways to express gratitude, and I find a powerful one to be showing generosity toward organizations and people one cares about. A few years ago, my friend Henry Timms (director of the 92nd St Y in New York) came up with the idea of a “giving day” to follow Black Friday and Cyber Monday. And so #GivingTuesday was born. It’s a simple idea. Just find a way for your family, your community, your company or your organization to act philanthropically. Then tell everyone you can about how you are giving. Generosity is contagious! Be a part of a national celebration of our great tradition of philanthropy.

#GivingTuesday has become internationally recognized as a time to show one’s support for the values and missions one cares about. People all over the world use the occasion to support their favorite causes. This is Wesleyan’s fifth year participating. During that time, thousands of Wesleyan alumni, parents, students and friends have chosen to make donations. Together, we have unlocked millions of dollars in matching funds for financial aid.

This year, when 1,831 members of the Wesleyan community make gifts by or on Giving Tuesday, November 27, our new trustees— Souleymane Ba ’03, Essel Bailey, Jr. ’66, Susannah Gray ’82, Andy McGadney ’92, Michele Roberts ’77, and Luke Wood ’91—will donate $250K to financial aid to support our students.

We need your help to achieve that important goal. Just visit our #GivingTuesday homepage: www.wesleyan.edu/givingtuesday

Thanks in advance for your support in making a transformative Wesleyan experience possible for so many excellent students.

 

“thank you we are saying and waving/dark though it is” – W.S. Merwin

For many, Thanksgiving is a time of remembrance, and gratitude springs from this remembrance. Here is an excerpt of Joy Harjo’s poem, Remember.

Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the
origin of this universe.
Remember you are all people and all people
are you.
Remember you are this universe and this
universe is you.
Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember language comes from this.
Remember the dance language is, that life is.
Remember.
Joy Harjo

The full poem can be found here.

And now I’m reading W.S. Merwin (whom I met many years ago when I invited him to the Getty) as Thanksgiving approaches. Dark times, still thankful.

with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is
W.S. Merwin

The full poem can be found here.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wesleyan Volleyball in Elite 8

The remarkable Wesleyan Volleyball team has just won its regional NCAA tournament, the best results (so far) in program history. This young squad, led by Coach Ben Somera and senior captains Madeleine Lundberg and Emma Robin, has been formidable all year long and now is reaching its peak.

You can catch the Cardinals playing in the Elite Eight on Thursday, November 15 at 8 p.m.. You’ll find the live stream here.

GO WES!!

Remembering John Maguire (1932-2018)

Recently I received a notice from Claremont Graduate University of the passing of John David Maguire, who served as President there. You can find that notice here.  John was President at CGU when I was teaching there and at Scripps College in the 1980s and 90s, and I remember him well. He was my boss, I suppose, but I remember him more as my neighbor. Among the things we had in common was a love of Wesleyan, where he began his own academic career in the Religion Department in 1960. Six years later he was Associate Professor of Religion and a year after that served for a time as Associate Provost. In 1970 he left to become President of SUNY College at Old Westbury. You can find that college’s honoring of his passing here.

John was at Wesleyan for the whole of the 1960s. He arrived here already a close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and he arranged for King to speak on campus multiple times. You can find a photo of one such occasion below. John was considered in those days as a “radical” and a “firebrand” for putting pressure on Wesleyan to become more diverse. He and his colleague David Swift made a huge impression on campus in 1961 when they joined the Freedom Ride to Montgomery, Alabama; and when they were arrested there, Wesleyan colleagues raised money to pay his fines and legal costs (until the process ended at the United States Supreme Court). John returned to campus a hero to many but by no means to all. Many alumni in particular disapproved of faculty engaging in such public actions. But momentum for such engagement was growing, and John was at the heart of it. “Moral-based activism,” to use the term of historian of Wesleyan David Potts, was not new to campus, but now, thanks to John, among others, it was being applied in earnest to race relations. Other Wesleyan faculty and staff began participating in civil rights demonstrations in the South, and the campus became civically engaged – in civil rights, in social justice, in the anti-Vietnam war movement – as never before. John was also instrumental in opening the gates to Wesleyan to African American students, setting it on the path to becoming a diverse campus.

Shortly after my appointment as president of Wesleyan, I returned to Claremont for an event celebrating the founding of the Scripps College Humanities Institute. As I crossed the street, a car screeched to a halt in the middle of the road. Out jumped John Maguire, long retired from his post but still living in the college town. He grabbed me in bear hug and expressed his joy that I would be returning to Wesleyan, a university that had formed each of us in indelible ways.

John’s life-long, exuberant dedication to the combination of moral activism and liberal learning (and in this his wife Billie was a powerful partner) is stamped upon the memory of all who knew him. At this time in America, such dedication is needed more than ever. May the recollection of John’s life strengthen our own combinations of moral activism and liberal learning. On behalf of the Wesleyan community, I express gratitude for John’s many contributions and condolences to Billie and their daughters Catherine (Wesleyan class of ’83), Mary and Anne.

Maguire with Martin Luther King, Jr. in January 1963
Maguire with Martin Luther King, Jr. in January 1963

Campus Message On Pittsburgh Shooting

Yesterday I sent the following message to faculty, students and staff at Wesleyan.

Dear friends,

As I’ve done too many times before, I write to the campus now to express grief and anger in the wake of a terrorist attack. Yesterday in Pittsburgh, a well-armed anti-Semite shattered the lives of individuals, families and a community. The number of anti-Semitic acts has been increasing across the country, and, like many Jews, I’ve observed with alarm the mounting use of hate-filled rhetoric. In a country with such easy access to weapons of mass killing, this kind of talk can ignite murderous acts. This is, apparently, what happened in Pittsburgh.

I learned of the attack yesterday when I returned from a study group on the Hebrew Bible. We were wrestling with the relation of hospitality and innocence, with welcoming strangers and making arguments for justice. In Pittsburgh, Jews were gathered to celebrate the naming of a baby when the murderer began shooting, crying out anti-Semitic slurs. Slurs, we are used to. The killer, according to reports in the press, had 21 guns legally registered under his name. He used more than one of them in the killing spree.

Our Middletown synagogue, Temple Adath Israel, is organizing a vigil and candle lighting tonight on the South Green (the park across from Mondo Pizza) at 7pm. Please consider attending to stand together against hate crimes.

Now is a time for grieving, for attentiveness and care. It is also a time to work for hospitality and justice. May we find them in our own lives, and, in remembrance of those murdered in Pittsburgh, work in solidarity to create a more hospitable and just country, and a more hospitable and just world. As we say in my tradition, this would help make their memory a blessing.

Yours always,

Michael

This week the Washington Post published my reflections on this sad event:

Whenever I’m not busy with campus duties, I go to my shul on Saturday mornings to study Torah. About 15 or so of us gather to work our way through the Hebrew Bible, week by week, from the story of creation in Genesis, to the death of Moses in Deuteronomy. We are now early in Genesis, Vayeira, the chapters that describe a crucial part of Abraham and Sarah’s journey, including the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the fates of Ishmael and Isaac.

Ever since I was a child, I have had to deal with people who just didn’t like Jews, and some who were consumed with distrust and malice. Today one finds these views often disguised with more palatable ideologies. But like many Jews, I’ve gotten used to this ordinary nastiness.

The problem for me has never been the “hate” from some other people. Jews have long had to deal with that. The problem was their potential for violence, their access to weapons that could destroy lives. This was the deadly, combustible combination that erupted in Pittsburgh.

In the section of the Torah we studied this past Saturday, Abraham sees travelers approaching and prepares to greet them with kindness and generosity. They might, we are told, be angels. Later in the text, he is wary when journeying among strangers in the desert, unsure of their moral codes and whether he would be safe among them. Throughout these chapters of Genesis, we are asked to consider the relation of hospitality and foreignness, of moral codes and the wilderness. Who can one count on, and whom should one be afraid of?

The killer in Pittsburgh appears to have been particularly enraged by Jewish help for immigrants, especially the group HIAS, with its mission to “welcome the stranger [and] protect the refugee.” This is rage stoked by President Trump and his allies when they talk of the “globalist forces” behind the caravan of Latin American refugees heading north toward the United States. The demonization of outsiders has been normalized at the highest levels of government and a popular news outlet in the country, and it is sometimes flavored with anti-Semitic ingredients.

This demonization was on our minds this week in our study group as we “wrestled” with the relation of hospitality and innocence, with welcoming strangers and making arguments for justice. In Pittsburgh, Jews were gathered to celebrate the birth of a child when the murderer began shooting, crying out his anti-Semitic slurs. We are used to slurs. The killer, according to reports in the media, had 21 guns legally registered under his name. He used more than one of them in the killing spree.

We must do our part to create this peace, reaching across our everyday political and cultural divisions. Professors and administrators, students and staff, must join to push back against bigotry and violence, no matter what its source.

Now, to be sure, is a time for grieving, for attentiveness and care. But it is also a time to work, to work with compassionate solidarity, for hospitality and justice. A meaningful education helps us find these qualities in our own lives, and, in remembrance of those murdered in Pittsburgh, it should empower us to create a more hospitable and just country.

As we say in my tradition, this would help make their memory a blessing.

Standing By Our Trans Friends and Colleagues

Can we still be startled by the cruelties of the Trump administration? Can we still find room for outrage after the separation of immigrant children from the parents, after the denial of climate change, after the mocking of sexual assault survivors? We must. The capacity for outrage is essential in order to stand up to further abuses of power and the insidious pollution of our public life. And outrage is what I feel as I read in the New York Times that the administration “is considering narrowly defining gender as a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth, the most drastic move yet in a government-wide effort to roll back recognition and protections of transgender people under federal civil rights law.”

This would be a cruel decision, part of the effort erase transgender people by eliminating their civil rights protections. Recognition is essential to identity and to the protection of rights. The plans currently being considered by the Trump administration would be a huge setback for the broad pursuit of equity and inclusion.

As my friend, Wesleyan alumna and transgender activist, Jenny Boylan wrote:

I admit that I’m reluctant to react to this latest cruelty, which is obviously just one more cynical move clearly designed to stir the pot ahead of the election. Trans people are the latest conservative whipping girl, like African-Americans in the 1950s, or gay people in the 1990s and 2000s. Nothing is more dependable now than the passion the heartless display when trans people’s humanity is offered up for mockery […]

I have news for Donald Trump. I do exist. Trans men and women exist. Genderqueer people exist. We have been part of this country for hundreds of years — since before the Revolution, in fact. Redefining us won’t make us go away. It won’t restore your world to its precious, boring binary — which, I hate to tell you, never existed in the first place.

All it will do is make people suffer.

Can any good come out of this miserable moment? Well, I can hope that this will inspire people, more than ever, to fight back — not just trans people — but our spouses, and our children, and our allies, too. Their numbers will include people not unlike my late mother — conservative Republican women who just can’t stand to see their children bullied by the one person in the country who ought to be most concerned with keeping us all safe.

At Wesleyan we will fight back against any attempt to erase transgender people. We will stand by our transgender friends and colleagues, we will recognize them, acknowledge their struggles, and join with them to fight for equality. The stakes are high for all of us.

 

 

Welcome Home to Wesleyan!

Although I am traveling for Wesleyan this week, I want to welcome back to campus alumni from far and wide who will be coming home to alma mater. The vagaries of the athletic and academic calendar being what they are (we will change this!), Homecoming this year falls during our Fall Break. That’s a time when I traditionally make a big trip to visit our far flung Wesleyan family, and this year is no exception.

I left after class on Monday for Los Angeles where we welcome a couple of hundred alumni to a spectacular reception at Sophia Nardin’s [’91] and Luke Wood’s [’91] home in Los Feliz. This John Lautner designed modernist gem was the perfect gathering place for prospective students, parents and alumni. I had the opportunity to make new friends, and see some of my old students who are now tearing it up in LA. More than 200 guests got to visit with one another and hear about the exciting new things happening back in Middletown.

The next day I was off to Shanghai, from where I write this blog. We are hosting a one day symposium on Liberal Education + Film, and I am joined by Professor Scott Higgins, and alumni film leaders Jon Hoeber ’93, Jon Turteltaub ’85, and Julia Zhu ’91. We will be discussing global cinema and how “Hollywood films” today are made with global audiences in mind. We expect alumni, families of current students and prospective Wes folks from all over China.

Sha Ye MA ’96 hosted a dinner of Wes folks at the Shanghai Telecom Museum Building, followed by a film screening of The Meg. Appearing in the front row below, left to right, are Scott Higgins, Jon Hoeber, Jon Turteltaub, myself, Sha Ye, and Julia Zhu.

I’m grateful to this group of Wes volunteers for helping with the forum!

(Top row (left to right): Ying Wang, Zijia Guo, Jian Hua, Hong Hu
Bottom row (left to right): Hannah Chen, Huiping Zhao, Lina Li, Bijun Pan)

After a short stay in Shanghai, I’m off with a couple of colleagues to Mumbai, where we’ll host another reception – this time for the Wesleyan world in India. I’ll have a public conversation with Viral Doshi, an educational consultant for South Asian students looking to study in the United States and elsewhere. We will be talking about how liberal education today is more vital than ever.

After some visits in India, I’ll make my way back to Middletown, worn but ready for the second half of the semester. I trust that in my absence, the Wesleyan athletic teams will make us all proud (I’ll be watching on video), and that the returning alums will find the campus as welcoming and exciting as ever.