Midnight in America: Renewing the Pantheon

Last week I posted the following on the Huffington Post College site. I’ve been thinking about the limits of critical thinking for many years now (in the title essay of The Ironist’s Cage and recently in “Beyond Critical Thinking“); and the course I starting teaching last fall (The Modern and the Postmodern) could be described, I suppose, as an effort to “renew the Pantheon.” That is, I want to give students the opportunity to discover in strong books from the last two hundred years ideas that can make a difference in their lives today. Many professors at Wesleyan offer students the opportunity to ignite or re-ignite their relation to diverse cultural forms. That’s one of the ways students learn to discover opportunities, by finding achievements in other (sometimes surprising) times and places.

Reading David Denby’s New Yorker review of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, I was struck by the phrase he uses to describe the director: “The ultimate fan of great musicians and writers, the culture-mad student forever renewing the pantheon.”

What does it mean to renew the pantheon? In the case of Midnight in Paris it means envisioning a city and conjuring up artists who spent time there in the finest fantasy versions of themselves. Owen Wilson plays a writer who is looking for renewal, for creative inspiration that will change his life and work. When he hears the clock strike midnight, he travels back in time to the Paris of the 1920s, the city of his dreams, where he runs into Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Dali. This is often played for laughs, as when Hemingway speaks with the predictable clipped phrases and frequent references to fighting and courage. Paris likewise is presented as a series of visual clichés, but the shots are filled with so much affection that they exude more charisma than familiarity.

What does it mean to renew the pantheon? I’ve been thinking about the resistance of some of my own students to this renewal — a resistance accrued over years of being encouraged in school to become better “critical thinkers.” It is, alas, so much easier to find reasons to turn oneself off to a work of art (music, literature, film) than to discover how to open oneself up to it. And you often look smarter when you criticize something than you would if you embraced something. Condemnation seems to elevate the critic (especially when the critic is ironic), and so it’s often safer than finding what the powerful core of a work might be.

Like all my faculty colleagues, I want my students to develop their capacities for analysis, critique, evaluation and discernment. And like many, I want them to deepen their receptivity and expand their ability to take pleasure in a wide range of cultural expressions. I want them to experience wonder in the face of elegant experimental design, intricate musical or sculptural patterning, insightful literary or philosophical expression. Often the efforts to teach critical evaluation and expansive receptivity are in tension with one another.

When do “culture-mad students” more generally display the urge to renew the pantheon rather than to deconstruct it? Better yet, when can that deconstruction be a form of renewal? It happens when students are able “turn themselves” in such a way as to grasp what a work (or its author, if you prefer) is trying to achieve. Depending on what area the work is in, this takes empathy, language or math skills, and the informed imagination that comes from contextual thinking (as in history and anthropology). Turning oneself toward greater receptivity takes work, but the rewards are powerful — sometimes even transformative.

Increasing students’ ability to feel wonder in the face of important cultural achievements has been one of the great goals of a liberal education. Expanding our notions of what counts as cultural achievement is part of the educational process. You don’t always have to settle for the fast food culture that surrounds us, although sometimes one can find achievements there, too.

I can already hear the complaints that this view is elitist and impractical. On the contrary, what I am describing can be democratic and pragmatic (though I admit that it doesn’t have to be either). Finding beauty or thoughtfulness in surprising places can expand one’s appreciation for the possibilities of greatness, of lasting accomplishments. No genre of person or activity is excluded in advance, and this basic openness is intensely democratic. Why is this expansion of cultural horizons pragmatic? The process of discovering power in poems or pictures you at first didn’t understand, or in lines of inquiry that had seemed pointless, can strengthen capacities to discover opportunities generally. And just as we recognize that problem-solving is practical, we must acknowledge that discovering opportunity is pragmatic. Indeed, it is vital to our ability to shape the future.

I am hopeful that those who will shape the future will also have cultivated the ability to renew the pantheon of great work from the past. The pantheon will change over time as what we need from the past and recognize in it change. But unless we want to be stuck with the status quo, we must strive to hear our clocks strike midnight — to travel through different times and places to renew the possibilities for alternative futures.

Writing and Education

This past Sunday I published a review in the Los Angeles Times on teaching writing. I cross-posted on the Huffington Post and have been surprised by the interest it has generated.

“Professor X” is teaching at schools very different from Wesleyan, and yet there may be lessons in his book for us. The first is that our students have the benefit of working with scholar-teachers who are dedicated to providing a bold and rigorous educational experience. The second is that our faculty have the benefit of working with students who are motivated to develop their capacities for critical and creative thinking. All of us know that this joint endeavor only works well when built on a foundation of trust, hard work and care. As we move toward the end of the semester, let’s make sure that foundation is as strong as possible.


In the Basement of the Ivory Tower

Confessions of an Accidental Academic

Professor X

Viking: 288 pp., $25.95

In fall 2008, the Atlantic published an anonymous essay on the awful conditions in the basic writing courses of many colleges. “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” told the story of Professor X, a part-time adjunct professor with a passion for literature and a dedication to upholding standards. “Professor X,” as the author called himself, penned a cri de coeur lamenting that we now encourage people to enter these courses without the preparation or ability to do college-level work. He compared contemporary inflated assumptions about the abilities of many non-traditional students to the inflated credit scores that helped fuel the housing bubble. Professor X had himself begun to teach, he tells us, because his family had taken on a mortgage they could scarcely afford, and he needed more than one job to make ends meet. He was stuck in “adjunct land” because the culture all around him refused to uphold its basic standards. The verve of his essay lay in Professor X’s refusal to give in to the hypocrisy of the system that victimized him.

One can imagine someone, seeing that the controversial essay was attracting attention online, trying to recast it as a book. Why not just inflate into chapters the points made in paragraphs, add a bit on reactions to the original essay, and presto! A book! The result is a volume with an embarrassing amount of rhetorical padding and an excruciating number of repetitions. As a writing teacher, X probably realizes this, but how could he resist morphing his successful essay into his first published book?

Teachers of a certain age often like to complain about students who just don’t get it. We all have stories of howlers committed by naive freshmen or of students who come up with lame excuses for not handing in work or who get caught plagiarizing. “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” is chock-full of bonehead tales from the classroom. Some are amusing, but after a while they leave a bad taste in the reader’s mouth. Should a teacher be this condescending and still parade his virtuous upholding of true university standards?

Professor X was by his own account a student who loved to learn and who developed the noble ambition to be a writer. But his plans for a life devoted to what he repeatedly calls the very hard work of writing were derailed. “Meanwhile, my wife had gotten pregnant,” he tells the reader in a howler of his own, and he wants us to understand that this meant that he had to get serious. Further shocking disappointments would be coming: An agent didn’t like the book manuscript he finished. “I knew that I wouldn’t be able to start another book,” he writes. “I was on the road to forty years old.” Writing is so hard!

With debts piling up and tensions mounting with his wife, X becomes a part-time teacher. Now he can really show somebody how hard writing is! He doesn’t want to talk about race or class in his courses because these topics make him uncomfortable. He is surprised to discover that his nontraditional students are often indifferent to his pedagogical charms and that they are woefully unengaged. They don’t even seem to care about failing. X rails against a system that pulls them into college when they have no ability to work at the appropriate level. He wonders whether this is the fault of postmodernism or maybe of the increasing number of female teachers (with all that feminine compassion!).

Professor X sees a corrupt system in which community colleges succeed in attracting more and more students who will fail (but pay tuition) because more and more companies are using college certification as a job requirement. Why should nurses or computer programmers or cops have to learn about literature? he complains. He does not ask this question because he believes that literature is relevant only to those pursuing a life of writing. No, Professor X really does love literature and writing, and he believes with admirable passion that learning to read and write is enormously fulfilling whatever your job may be. X rails against the system of attracting all these students into courses they can’t pass because he despairs of their ability to learn (or his ability to teach them).

I wish we had heard more about the students who did learn from Professor X, and I bet there have been more than a few. The glimpses into his successes in the classroom don’t support his call for more restrictions on who should go to college, but it is moving to hear about those students who surprised him with their insights, honesty and desire to learn.

Professor X’s 2008 essay struck a chord because we were ashamed to be reminded that more than half of those who begin community college never finish and that the great majority of college students across the country are taught by woefully underpaid part-time instructors. We want to believe that all citizens should have the chance to develop literacy and the ability to think and write clearly. This cannot be reduced to job training. X is so frustrated by his classes because he wants his students to develop these capacities too. Despite his often cynical and pandering tone, Professor X does occasionally show that he cares about the welfare of those he is trying to teach. To his credit, he just wishes they cared more themselves.

Wesleyan in Washington

Before heading off for some summer vacation, I spent the early part of this week in Washington, D.C.. The American Association of Colleges and Universities was hosting a gathering of presidents to discuss the impact of liberal learning on participation in the political sphere. This is a group devoted to the liberal arts experience, and led by President Carol Schneider AAC&U has presented very compelling information showing the public and private importance of the broad-based, participatory education offered at institutions like ours. Since I have been writing about these issues on the Huffington Post and elsewhere, I was glad to touch base with colleagues eager to make the case for liberal learning.

Since my stay in steamy DC was brief, I only had an opportunity to touch base with a few members of the Wes family doing interesting things in our nation’s capitol. We have alumni working in various sectors of government, but during this trip I met with a new Wesleyan parent, Mark Tercek, who is running The Nature Conservancy. TNC is one of the great international environmental organizations, and we talked about ways that this group might work together with our new College of the Environment. Mark was excited to hear about our plans for this interdisciplinary program, and I am confident we will find ways to make common cause. I also met with Dan deVise ’89, an education writer for the Washington Post. Dan and his wife Sophie ’88 met at Wes, and they have been pursuing journalism pretty much since graduation. I also had the chance meet with Col. Dunbar Gram and other members of the board of the James M. Johnson Trust. This foundation has generously supported Wesleyan’s financial aid program for many years, and I was delighted to report on our efforts to maintain need blind admissions in the face of all the economic pressures that challenge us.

I had interesting conversations about economic pressure, politics and education with our star Congresswoman, Rosa DeLauro. Rosa has been an energetic ally for educators for many years, and she continues to fight the good fight. I was so happy to see that she has a couple of Wes interns in her office this summer. Before returning home, Carol Scully and I had a productive meeting with a program officer from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Some say that the humanities are declining or are under siege, but I was pleased to share information on some of the real innovations going on at the Wes campus, especially at the Center for the Humanities.

During our time away Kari and I hope to finish a few writing projects, hear some great music and spend as much time outdoors as possible. That way we’ll be ready to greet the class of 2014 at the end of the summer!

[tags]American Association of Colleges and Universities, liberal arts education, Huffington Post, Mark Tercek, The Nature Conservancy, Dan deVise ’89, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, Col. Dunbar Gram[/tags]

Education: From Condescension to Respect

Today I put this up on the Huffington Post and thought it might also be of interest for readers of this blog:

This week political science professor Gerard Alexander hit a chord (or was it a nerve?) with his Washington Post essay on “why liberals are so condescending.” Despite the recent successes of the Tea Party movement, Scott Brown, and a filibuster-happy Senate, Alexander repeats the old refrain: We conservatives get no respect. Rather than enjoy the intellectual disarray of the Left, Alexander seems to long for recognition from his liberal colleagues: You liberals think you have all the answers, and you never listen to us conservative voices, no matter how much education we have! Although many have recognized that the conservative movement did become “the party of ideas,” Alexander complains, liberals still see the Right as mired in false consciousness, hypocrisy, or both. What’s a faculty member got to do to earn some credibility? Publishing a provocative lecture for the American Enterprise Institute in the Washington Post isn’t a bad start.

But is the Left really more condescending than the Right? When Sarah Palin mocks Obama’s supporters with “How’s that hope, change thing working out for yaw?” is that not a form of condescension? Palin’s populist condescension toward those who don’t live in “the real America” pales before the patrician variety famously mastered by William F. Buckley. Woe to the liberals who carelessly strayed into his firing line. Two examples can stand for dozens of great zingers: “I won’t insult your intelligence by suggesting that you really believe what you just said,” Buckley sneered. “Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views,” he observed, “but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.” Alexander cites Paul Krugman as a prime offender of looking down his nose at conservatives, but why is this any different than Chicago-school economist Eugene Fama saying “My attitude is this, if you are getting attacked by Paul Krugman, you must be doing something right”?

No, liberals have no monopoly on condescension or intellectual and social smugness. Mocking people who drive Priuses (it used to be Volvos) is just as common as sneering at people in supersized pickups. But there does seem to be an easy association between elitism and progressivism that conservatives are able to reactivate at the drop of a hat. Why do we jump at the accusation? Is it because condescension is indeed a temptation for a politics that depends so much on education and on faith in the powers of knowledge? Liberals prize education – valuing it as a vehicle toward a more just and hospitable world. Education means enlightenment, which Kant famously defined as “freedom from self-imposed immaturity.” Confidence in the power of education can lead to arrogance because people in the know feel that they ought to be able to fix things. As people pursue education, they often feel that they are leaving false beliefs behind, that they are becoming freer as their illusions and dependence are dissolved. As this happens, many look around and see others who haven’t yet shed their old ways of thinking and are still mired in falsehood or reliance on authority. “I used to think like that, too,” says the advanced student to the frosh, “but now I know better.” This is what Eric Voegeli [it’s actually William, see comments below] was getting at when he wrote last year’s version of the condescension essay, “The Roots of Liberal Condescension,” published in the Claremont Review of Books (and found on the Wall Street Journal online). “Thus, if patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” he wrote,  “snobbery is the last refuge of the liberal-arts major.”

Does education necessarily breed elitism and condescension, and does it necessarily give rise to political liberalism? A little education very well might promote the intellectual arrogance many conservatives see in their caricature of a professor on the Left, but liberal learning is, after all, supposed to make us aware of how little we know. That’s what Socratic insight is all about: we need to learn because we understand so little. Education should lead to intellectual humility as we become more aware of our own ignorance. Conservatives also prize education, after all, but they do so because it should deliver the lesson of intellectual humility. Education should prevent us from thinking we can solve our deepest problems with science, technology or political structures.

There is a parallel here with faith. Some believers, infused with confidence in their own righteousness, display a spiritual arrogance that is offensive to those who don’t share their beliefs. But many people of faith discover a deep humility through their spiritual life — a humility that leads to openness to others rather than a proud sectarianism.

So maybe condescension depends less on questions of ideology, learning and faith than it does on differences in character. Some people just find it easier to sneer at others rather than to try to understand people with different points of view. The satisfactions of condescension are a temptation for people who feel they already know so much, just as the pleasures of elitism are seductive for people who are certain that God is on their side.

It’s always easier to be condescending when you don’t spend time with people who think or live differently than you do. That’s why it’s so important to find possibilities for dialogue that cut across ways of thinking or modes of belief. Political diversity is crucial for universities, for example, because if we live in an echo chamber of the Left, then we will forget how much we can learn from conservative thinkers who have rightly questioned our ability to master public and private life through systems of knowledge or government. Diversity of belief is good for all of us because if we think that we live in a community of the righteous, we might forget our responsibilities to those whose different beliefs and practices give meaning and value to their lives.

As a teacher and president of a university, I remain committed to education as an antidote to elitism rather than as a progressive cultivation of snobbery. As we learn, as we become more aware of our own ignorance, we should also become more open toward others, toward what they have to teach us. Looking down on others is surely a sign of intellectual fear rather than of a willingness to learn. An education in the liberal arts, which can lead to a political position on the Left or the Right, should result not in condescension but in its opposite: respect.

[tags]Huffington Post, journal article, Gerard Alexander, politics, Eric Voegeli[/tags]

Writers Everywhere!

Yesterday I wrote on the Huffington Post about the ways that liberal arts institutions can combine intimate face to face learning with plugging into broad networks of information and creativity (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-roth/liberal-arts-education-fr_b_360803.html) . We can see a great example of this “plugging in” as two important writers visit campus today.

Tonight (November 18th) there is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to creative writing at Wesleyan. At Russell House at 8 pm Renee Gladman will be reading from her experimental work combining fiction, poetry and nonfiction. Author of books such as Not Right Now and Juice Gladman has been teaching in the literary arts program at Brown University.

In the new Shapiro Creative Writing Center on the third floor of Allbritton at 8 pm I will be interviewing Jay Cantor, one of my favorite American authors. Cantor has reinvented the historical novel by exploring how it can be a genre full of fantasy and psychological exploration. His novel Krazy Kat knocked my socks off, and I have been reading him with great pleasure ever since. We will be talking about politics, art, teaching (Cantor teaches at Tufts), history and fantasies of radical invention. Jonathan Cutler’s sociology class has read Cantor’s big novel about the 1960s, Great Neck, and I’m sure that we’ll talk about his depiction of that era.

Great writers are on campus tonight. Come check it out!

Here is a picture of last night's event!
P.S. Here is a picture of last night’s event!

[tags]Huffington Post, Renee Gladman, Jay Cantor, Shapiro Creative Writing Center[/tags]

Year’s End….. Looking Ahead

As we close out 2008 I find myself still dealing with ongoing projects from the fall while putting things in place for the beginning of next semester. Almost finished with my grading of my class on photography and representation, I am spending more time finalizing my syllabus for my spring course on movies and philosophy, The Past on Film. Although I have taught this class many times over the years (and as recently as last spring), I can’t help but rethink the readings and movies one more time.

As a historian interested in how people make sense of the past, I began teaching and writing about film and photography more than 15 years ago. In December I wrote a review for the LA Times on Annie Liebovitz’s most recent book:


Working with the photography collection in our Davison Art Center was a great treat this past semester, and I am looking forward to teaching again in our state of the art film facility. But first I have to finish this syllabus!

Once faculty and students return to campus we will resume work on our budget planning and curricular initiatives. There will be more difficult trade-offs, as we chart a course to keep Wesleyan on track during this economic crisis and beyond. I will continue to share information about the planning process on this blog and the Securing the Future website.

Maintaining access to a Wesleyan education through a robust financial aid program is an important value that guides our planning. Recently the political scientist Charles Murray has argued that we are encouraging too many people to pursue a college education. Yesterday I published on the Huffington Post a response to a recent op-ed piece by Dr. Murray:


It is still very quiet here at Wesleyan, but now varsity athletes have returned for practices before next week’s tournaments. Before too long the campus will be fully back to life. Meanwhile, I send out best wishes to the extended Wesleyan family for a great 2009.

[tags] classes, The Past on Film, photography, Los Angeles Times, Annie Liebovitz, Davison Art Center, economy, Securing the Future, financial aid, Charles Murray, Huffington Post [/tags]

Vote! Vote!

At long last this campaign is coming to an end, and I just returned from the polling station in Middletown. I was pleased to see Wesleyan students coming out of the building having already cast their ballots at 7:00 AM, and even more pleased to see some of our undergrads volunteering as poll workers.

Last week I wrote on the Huffington Post about participation as a form of education. At Wesleyan we believe that learning takes place not just by being spectators, but by doing the work oneself. Here’s the link to that piece:


We do a lot of talking about politics at Wesleyan, and of course I don’t want to reduce politics to casting a ballot. But this is a crucial moment in the political process, and I hope to see a steady stream of Wesleyan students, staff and faculty heading down William Street to cast their ballots. Tonight many of us will be gathered at Usdan University Center to watch the results, or hanging out with friends and together holding our collective breath.

Tomorrow will be the beginning of a new chapter in our political lives. I trust we can build on the momentum of these last months to continue to engage in the public sphere, to work with our neighbors and co-citizens to develop a vision of how we want to change, and then to join together to get there. But first, please vote…whether it’s by walking down William Street, or wherever you make your voice heard.

[tags] Voting, election, volunteering, Huffington Post, learning, politics, Usdan University Center [/tags]