Category Archives: School

Alan Jacobs recently wrote about a former colleague at Wheaton College who during a class decided to skip on a couple of the assigned readings. This colleague

devoted two weeks to studying a book and then, at the end of that time, said to his class, “I don’t think that went as well as it should have. Let’s do it again. We’ll have to leave out the next book or two on the syllabus.” Some students — I don’t know how many — went ballistic over this. That’s not what the syllabus says! I’ve already bought those other books and now we’re not even going to read them! Some faculty and administrators became concerned over this “lack of professionalism”; they wondered whether Wheaton could afford to have faculty “the students don’t really respect.” Me, I just wished I had the courage to go off-script that far;….

Now, the main point of Jacobs’s post was about racism at Wheaton. Jacobs’s colleague was black, and Jacobs suggested that his colleague likely got more push back from administrators because he was black than he would have if white. I’m not commenting on that aspect of the post.

What I want to comment on is why it’s usually wrong to skip assigned readings.

One, books cost money. Sometimes a lot of money, sometimes not a lot of money. Not all students–even, I imagine, at Wheaton–are independently wealthy.

Two, in some cases, a student may choose to take a class based on the assigned readings. I can’t say for sure that I ever did, bu when I registered for classes, sometimes I did look forward to certain of the assigned readings. I would have been upset if the readings hadn’t been assigned. The obvious retort is that I could have read the book anyway. But that neglects what one gets from reading a book in class. Sometimes classroom discussion or the guidance of the instructor helps one understand and appreciate a book. Maybe that’s not true for everyone, but it was sometimes true for me. One of my favorite books of all time–a collection of short stories, Dubliners–I read for an English lit class and I’m convinced I would not have understood or appreciated many of James Joyce’s allusions. I might not even have understood some of the stories.

Three, “going off script” and changing the syllabus means the instructor planned poorly. Maybe it’s sometimes necessary to go off script. In at least one class I taught when I was an adjunct, it would have behooved me to go off script because I had too poorly anticipated the classroom dynamics. And while doing so would have been admitting failure, it was more of a failure for me to keep on as I was doing. So I get that sometimes it needs to be done. But it’s still a mark of poor planning.*

There is such a thing as over-entitlement among undergraduate students (and especially among graduate students, but that’s a different story). And part of going to college is learning that life isn’t always fair and learning how to adapt to changing circumstances. I get it. But instructors need to realize that they have an obligation, too. Whether my admonition actually applies to the case Jacobs is talking about or not, I don’t know because I don’t know the specifics. But on the facts as Jacobs relates them, the students’ complaints weren’t baseless.

*Not exactly the same thing, but as an undergrad I was particularly frustrated with some professors’ practice of changing, at the last minute, an in-class exam to a take-home exam. Take-home exams are MORE WORK. Even if the professor says “I only want you to spend an hour on it,” they’re going to grade you as if you had more than an hour to work on it. If a student has to work, he or she likely has to plan a tight schedule to balance work and studies, and fitting in even an extra hour of schoolwork can be hard.

Category: School

The Weekly Standard’s Jay Cost put out a bunch of Tweets for President’s Day that I thought were worth sharing. One tweet for each president, followed by an account of the three most underrated presidents in his estimation.

Thirty-Two Tweets For Thirty-Two Presidents


Category: School

Samuel Garner is less than happy about the amount of debt he accumulated in service to his education. You can read the Ordinary Times discussion on the piece, and the consensus is not favorable to Mr Garner. I wanted to focus a bit on the last couple of paragraphs:

But that doesn’t get to the heart of the systemic problem: Education is outrageously expensive and too risky; schools indoctrinate students and their families with lofty ideals and benefit from their ignorance without accountability; and students and their families can borrow at unprecedented rates, allowing schools to continue hiking tuition. Though its advent was surely well-intentioned, our loan system is confusing and exploitative. In a country we often think of as a meritocracy, it’s appalling that we have an education system that frequently does more to punish students for getting educated than it does to reward them.

Ultimately, like many other enlightened countries that recognize education as a critical public good—foundational to the economy and a just society—we need to move toward free public education, including graduate school. Where will this money come from? Given the billions we spend on federal student loan programs and the disgusting amounts of money many college presidents and administrators make, I’m sure there’s plenty of money that could put us in the right direction. To start, we need more substantial efforts to refinance and forgive student debt. There are millions of people like me who would like to get on with their lives.

As is often the case with these sorts of piece, they conflate numerous things and try to shoehorn them all into the same issue. And as is often the case with pieces like this, they choose some of the worst case instances imaginable.

For example, he wants to move towards “free public education” but his experience is with… a private school. So right there, he had a very good, less expensive alternative that he did not avail himself of. He mentions the University of Wisconsin as a possibility, only to dismiss it as “still leaving him in debt.” At no point does he seem to express regret that he didn’t do what he could to lower the costs. He admits error, but that’s not the same thing. Just as he says that no degree is worth $240k, without giving any indication that if his choices were a degree for that much, Wisconsin-Madison for less, or no degree for zero dollars would be preferable.

For the right students, and the right schools, and the right majors, I am actually sympathetic to the notion that “college should be free.” But these are specific questions with specific answers. And if there is one thing that Garner was clear on, it’s that he is uninterested in specifics.

Category: School

I’m well aware the story of my life is much more interesting to me than to others. So believe it or not, I’m reluctant to explain the parts of my personal background that inform my approach to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. Still and even so, I am going to give a little bit of that background, mostly because I promised Michael Drew I would (so blame him), but also because it’s probably a good idea to lay my biases on the table. I intend this OP only as an autobiographical observation and not as an extension of my arguments. I don’t expect anyone reading this to change their minds about what I’ve written or might write in the future. In fact, I’m not even confident it will fully explain why I’m so ambivalent about Sagan. Some of you may have had very similar experiences to mine and come to very different conclusions.

This post has all the faults of any autobiographical account. I’m relying almost entirely on memory to make a representation that’s at least a little self-serving. I do promise, however, that I have no stories of Saganite hoodlums shaking me down for my lunch money in middle school so they can buy “star dust.”

Another fault of my post is that it’s long. One thing worse than reading a solipsistic post about someone else’s life is reading a very, very long solipsistic post about someone else’s life that runs more than 3,200 words. So I beg your indulgence.


Category: Church, School

“The seven names will be put to a public vote at a still to-be-determined date, allowing the masses to bring UND into a new era. And I think we can all agree that as long as voters don’t choose “Fighting Hawks,” everything will be alright.” -Zack Barnett

Longtime readers may recall that I have commented on the University of North Dakota mascot situation on a few occasions and Linklusters. The basic story is that the North Dakota Sioux had to find a new mascot due to the NCAA regulations. There are two Sioux tribes in the region and one supported the nickname and imagery while the other opposed it. Boosters and the state dug in their heels, with the former bankrolling a flooding of imagery of the logo while the state passed a law preventing them from changing their name. The result is that the University of North Dakota missed out on their chance at joining the other Dakota schools in the Missouri Valley Conference, and for the last couple of years UND has had no mascot. They’ve just been North Dakota. The law preventing them from adopting a new nickname has lapsed, though, and now it’s time to pick something.

A little while back, James I Bowie at Slate looked at the North Dakota mascot situation and evaluated potential replacements. Bowie makes the following observation:

What, then, will be next for North Dakota? The university has established a “Nickname and Logo Process Recommendation Task Force,” which may in turn appoint yet another committee to help select a new name this year.

In my opinion, universities have often not done a good job of replacing Native American nicknames and logos. Fearful of controversy and hamstrung by committee decision-making processes, they have often selected names and marks that are bland, generic, uninspiring, and lacking in distinctiveness.
Birds are a typical choice. Of Division I schools that dropped Native American nicknames, 39 percent subsequently adopted bird mascots. By comparison, among other Division I schools, only 15 percent have bird mascots.

Colors are also popular in post–Native American nicknames. Fully half feature some reference to color, compared with just 7 percent of other schools’ nicknames.

Sometimes, birds and colors are combined, as in the case of the Miami RedHawks, Seattle Redhawks, Southeast Missouri State Redhawks, and Marquette Golden Eagles. UND would do well to avoid these clichés by selecting a name that is distinctive and memorable.

And what did the students at the University of North Dakota choose? The Hawks. The Fighting Hawks, to be precise.

Are you kidding me?

Have we lost the capacity to name teams? Between the dumb not-plural-noun names that have become more common in Basketball (Heat, Magic, Thunder), the eye-rolling names of Major League Soccer, and the replacement names at the college level, I am beginning to think so.

Fighting Hawks? There were a handful of options that the students voted on: Fighting Hawks, Green Hawks, Nodaks, North Stars, Roughriders, and Sundogs.

Photo by Mike Licht,

North Dakota Fighting Aliens
Photo by Mike Licht,

It’s almost enough to make me suspect that they rigged the finalists so that people would choose a bland name, but even with these bad options the students chose the worst one. North Stars and Nodaks have a redundancy problem. Roughriders is the name of the CFL team to their north, but all-in-all isn’t a terrible name. Hawks? What the hell? Sundogs was the best one. Even the pre-Sioux name, the Flickertails, is better.

But there were limitless opportunities. They stopped being the Flickertails because they wanted something tougher, with North Dakota State being the Bison. They chose Sioux because Sioux hunt bison. They could have just gone with Hunters. Or Frontiersmen (and Frontierswomen). Or they could have chosen something similarly intimidating, like the Rhonos. Or something uniquely badass, like Otters[1]. Or be the Chargers with a dinosaur mascot. Or the Hellboys (and Hellgirls). The ties to North Dakota may be tenuous, but who cares! Cool!

Instead… Hawks. I fear for the future of my country.

Category: School

Every once in a while, I’m lucky enough to find an author whose books or essays or short stories captivate me, and I want to read almost everything by him or her that I can get my hands on. For me, here are some of them:*

  • Ernest Hemingway
  • C. S. Lewis
  • George Orwell (nonfiction only, not too impressed with his fiction)

The problem is that I like them so much that there comes a point in reading them where I realize I’m hitting the limit and running out of their works. I read them, but realize the end is coming soon when finding things they’ve written becomes more and more difficult.

And now I’m adding Tony Judt, the late historian of 20th-century Europe. I’ve read Postwar, I’ve read a short set of biographies he wrote about Leon Blum, Albert Camus, and Raymond Aron. I’m now plowing through some compilations of his essays. There are still a couple of monographs by him I can read and, I hope, a few more compilations of essays. But alas, I’m hitting the limit.

Question for you all: Do you have such authors in your life? It doesn’t have to be an author, either. I suppose it could also be an artist, or director, or musician, or other type of creator.

*It’s not lost on me these are all men. That may or may not be significant.

Category: Home, School

A couple months ago I watched the first episode of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, in which Sagan introduced the series.

Some of Sagan’s statements stand out to me. He says “because the cosmos is also within us we’re made of star stuff.” He also says the “same laws of physics apply everywhere throughout the cosmos.”  [My quotations from the show are paraphrases, but I’ve tried to relate them as accurately as possible]. Toward the end of the episode, he warns us:

We can enhance life and come to know the universe that made us or we can squander our 15 billion year heritage in meaningless self-destruction.

Those statements represent to me a faith-like or religious-like approach to the universe. He employs a metaphor that is probably meant to inspire awe. We are made of matter–atoms and other things–but he renders “matter” as “star stuff.” The same laws apply everywhere. The corollary is that if they do not appear to apply everywhere, then we just haven’t discovered the right laws, or we haven’t discovered all the laws, or we have formulated the laws incorrectly. Life is assumed to be a good thing. It is a “heritage,” 15 billion years in the making, much richer than if it had been merely 10,000 years in the making. It’s possible for us to “squander” those good things and if we do, then the resulting self-destruction is “meaningless,” much worse, I guess, than a self-destruction that is meaningful.

Those statements represent certain values and starting assumptions that are not easily answered by Sagan’s approach to the Cosmos. He has to make certain leaps–not “leaps of faith” exactly but leaps nonetheless–to assume that “the same laws of physics” apply everywhere. He entertains certain values about what causes wonder and awe and expresses those values through the “star stuff” metaphors. And he also has certain values about good (“life” and “our” 15-billion year “heritage”) and about what is meaningful and meaningless, presuming that meaninglessness itself is a bad, or at least discomfiting (and therefore bad) thing.

I risk committing an error here. It’s one thing to point out that awe exists, that people speak in metaphors, that people have values, even values not easily reducible to a materialistic view of the universe or values not testable by a process we can call “scientific.” It’s another thing to take it too far, to say that because those statements are “faith-like” or “religious-like” in some ways, they are therefore expressions of something that can be answered only by or derived from faith or religion. The error is to say “gotcha” when all Sagan is guilty of is holding complicated views.

And yet there is a disjuncture in Cosmos among the scientific values, the materialist values, and the set of values that are not testable by science or not easily reducible to Sagan’s materialist assumptions. It’s worth pointing out that disjuncture if only to understand why some people are uneasy about Sagan’s project and to understand that this discomfort is not merely an expression of anti-scientific or anti-intellectual angst.

Category: Church, School

I’ve decided to do the major undertaking of listening to an audiobook autobiography of each of our presidents, starting with Alexander Hamilton. (Errr, that should be “All of our presidents along with Alexander Hamilton and maybe Ben Franklin somewhere down the line.”

This is not a political post! Rather, it’s about a love letter and break up letter Thomas Jefferson sent to a lover in France. It’s framed as a discussion between his head and his heart on what to do about her and his other obligations. It’s the sort of thing I might have written in my more self-absorbed days It’s really a fascinating read:


To Maria Cosway

My Dear Madam,–Having performed the last sad office of handing you into your carriage at the pavillon de St. Denis, and seen the wheels get actually into motion, I turned on my heel & walked, more dead than alive, to the opposite door, where my own was awaiting me. Mr. Danquerville was missing. He was sought for, found, & dragged down stairs. WE were crammed into the carriage, like recruits for the Bastille, & not having soul enough to give orders to the coachman, he presumed Paris our destination, & drove off. After a considerable interval, silence was broke with a “Je suis vraiment afflige du depart de ces bons gens.” This was a signal for a mutual confession of distress. We began immediately to talk of Mr. & Mrs. Cosway, of their goodness, their talents, their amiability; & tho we spoke of nothing else, we seemed hardly to have entered into matter when the coachman announced the rue St. Denis, & that we were opposite Mr. Danquervilles. He insisted on descending there & traversing a short passage to his lodgings. I was carried home. Seated by my fireside, solitary & sad, the following dialogue took place between my Head & my Heart:

Head. Well, friend, you seem to be in a pretty trim.

Heart. I am indeed the most wretched of all earthly beings. Overwhelmed with grief, every fibre of my frame distended beyond its natural powers to bear, I would willingly meet whatever catastrophe should leave me no more to feel or to fear.

Head. These are the eternal consequences of your warmth & precipitation. This is one of the scrapes into which you are ever leading us. You confess your follies indeed; but still you hug & cherish them; & no reformation can be hoped, where there is no repentance.

Heart. Oh, my friend! This is no moment to upbraid my foibles. I am rent into fragments by the force of my grief! If you have any balm, pour it into my wounds; if none, do not harrow them by new torments. Spare me in this awful moment! At any other I will attend with patience to your admonitions.

Category: School

Jason Kuznicki has written a post critical of what he calls the “new presentism” from the academic left. He notes that questions such as “was Shakespeare sexist?” don’t point to any worthy of consideration. The answer is “yes, he was probably sexist” but uninteresting because it tells us too little and relies on a present-day category [read the whole thing, etc., etc.]:

The problem with presentism is that presentist questions do little analytical work for us. At first they may appear bold, but they are entirely too easy to answer. Rather than digging deep, a presentist reviews only his or her own pre-existing feelings; presentist questions answer themselves almost mechanically. The past becomes an empty canvas, on which we paint all of our least courageous judgments.

He also warns libertarians. The lede for his essay advises libertarians to “engage with the past on its own terms. That means seeing beyond boringly obvious historical manifestations of sexism and racism.” In the essay itself, he urges his readers to remember that presentism is a tactic:

We should not infer from certain ugly, anti-intellectual tactics used in fighting social wrongs that racism, sexism, or the like are true or good. This is a path down which I see way too many young non-lefties going. As they do, they lose all interest in liberty: except, of course, for those of precisely their own kind.

A few of my own thoughts on Jason’s essay:

One: Historians need to realize that just pointing out that something is ahistorical or “presentist” means that it’s bad history. It doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. That’s of course what Jason is saying. But I just wanted to drive that home because historians (including yours truly) make that error a lot.

Two: The question “was Shakespeare sexist” is presentist. But the questions “what were Shakespeare’s attitudes toward women as expressed in his work?” or “in what way does Shakespeare ‘construct’ gender in his work?” are less presentist. They may reflect present-day concerns in a way that would’ve been unrecognizable in Shakespeare’s day. They also contain certain value-laden assumptions about the “constructedness” and socially contingent nature of gender. But they’re also open questions for which the answers can be interesting and not overdetermined.

Three: It’s very, very hard–and maybe impossible–not to be presentist in some ways. We’d all do well to heed that point and at least recognize the presentism in our own arguments. Libertarians no less or more so than others. The terms they use to critique government power–“liberty” and “freedom”–sometimes shade into shibboleths that libertarians use as if those terms are eternal truths whose meaning transcends time and place. And anyone who objects to the way that shibboleth is used is “against freedom” or “against liberty.”

One person’s freedom or liberty can be something that to another person helps justify the denial of liberty. “Freedom from want” can sometimes mean “compelling third parties to subsidize others’ lives” and “denying choices to some people in the name of helping them be free from hunger.”* “Economic freedom” can mean “freedom to starve” or “freedom to be taken advantage of by fraudsters.” Not that there’s no common ground here–libertarians usually recognize the need to help the less-well off and to protect against fraud, and at least some liberals recognize that expanding choice in the marketplace is a good thing–but the two freedoms have an inherent tension that becomes clearer when we examine who and in what historical context embraced those freedoms

My point is not to say that libertarians are wrong. We all commit and probably can’t avoid committing presentism. But libertarians would do better to recognize that error, too.

*I forget the page number, but somewhere in The Road to Serfdom (I think in a footnote), Hayek notes that Britain’s post World War II Labour government, probably concerned about fuel shortages, seriously considered a plan to force people to work in the mines because too few people were willing to do the work.

Category: School

This New York Times essay  [hat tip, Saul DeGraw] relates an experience that’s probably not in itself very common but that represents some of the challenges first generation college students face. The author discusses her first week of class. She and her parents didn’t realize that it was okay and even expected for the parents just to drop their child off and let them begin college. The parents, instead, stayed for several days during the orientation and first few days of class, having to use up their vacation days to do so.

The anecdote fits too neatly into the point the author makes about it. I wonder if there’s more to the story than what the author is admitting. Still, it is a pretty good reminder of how college can be an alien experience for first generation students.

Category: School


Recent Comments


Greetings from Stonebridge a fictitious city in a fictitious state located in a tri-state area in the interior Mid-Atlantic region. We're in western Queenland, which is really a state unto itself, and not to be confused with Queensland in Australia.

Nothing written on this site should be taken as strictly true, though if the author were making it all up rest assured the main character and his life would be a lot less unremarkable.

Hit Categories

History Coffee