July 04, 2020

Student of the Theatre Institute at Sage perform in a play about colonial AmericaJuly 4, 2020: no fireworks, no parades, no summer blockbuster movies, no concerts, no town-wide celebrations, and—if you’re smart—no beaches, no large family reunions, no big vacations. Such is our big national holiday in the year of the pandemic.

But we find ways to compensate. One particularly appropriate way to celebrate is to watch the filmed Broadway performance of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, made available for streaming on Disney+. It was released this way because movie theaters are closed, as are all the traveling productions of the show (and, let us acknowledge, all the performing arts: plays, symphonies, rock concerts).

We watch the film in part through the lens of the pandemic, noticing how the characters embrace, how they sing full-throated into one another (it was filmed in 2016). We note the celebration of New York City as the greatest city in the world and see that against the suffering and death toll of March, April and May.

The film beautifully captures the play’s ecstatic energy and depth—and it is an even more perfect study for Independence Day in the time of Black Lives Matter and the continued battle over immigration.

There’s a joke—maybe it’s a true story—about a couple that comes out of a Broadway performance of Hamilton and the husband says to his wife, “Hey, I didn’t realize George Washington was Black.” The cross-racial casting of Hamilton is part of its transformative power, and it explodes in the opening moments of the play, which unfold like a history lesson.

The casting tells us that though America was founded in a time when all the holders of power and position were white, the legacy of that time and of our nation belong to everyone: the story does not have to be told and is not owned by white culture. When you watch the play, that device grows into an implicit assertion that is more audacious still. The energy of the play urges us to believe that all the multitudinous diversity of our multiracial and immigrant-filled present is contained in the seeds sown in the revolution, that the struggles of today reflect the initial explosive tensions of an Anglo-European country founded on tribal lands and built through the exploitation and horror of the Atlantic Slave Trade in the name of “All men are created equal” and the idea that rulers rule only with the consent of the governed.

The play hints at the trade-offs over slavery in the writing of the Constitution, but it is our place in history that allows us to see the impulses of Hamilton through the paroxysms of the Civil War; the promise and repudiation of reconstruction; Jim Crow and segregation; the achievements of the Civil Rights movement; and the potential of the great conversation consuming America today, this July 4th, about racial justice.

This is an opportunity for progress and fundamental change that we do not want to waste: “I don’t want to throw away: my shot.” Indeed, Hamilton invigorates us with the sense of possibility—a world in which an individual could make things happen, in which revolutionary change could be contemplated, in which people took great risks. “Look around, look around at how/ Lucky we are to be alive right now.”

On July 4th, we celebrate our country in its complexities and contradictions, its freedoms and the freedom to think critically about our promise and our shortcomings. That vision must always consider race and our struggles to embrace fully the waves of immigration, two ideas that are related beautifully in Frederick Douglass’s 1869 speech on the “Composite Nation” (which I reflected on last year): “In whatever else other nations may have been great and grand, our greatness and grandeur will be found in the faithful application of the principle of perfect civil equality to the people of all races and of all creeds, and to men of no creeds.”

This Independence Day, we may miss our fireworks and parades, but we have another gift to cherish alongside Hamilton: a recitation of Douglass’s famous 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,” by several of Douglass’s young descendants. I urge you to watch this hopeful and vivid performance of American history and see the beauty and potential of Douglass’s descendants, who follow the recitation with reflections on the present time.

As an educator, I have the great luxury of working with young people, in particular the talented and optimistic students of Russell Sage College. I see in them the thoughtfulness, energy and potential to create a better world that the Douglass readers embody. We do not want to throw away: our shot.

June 01, 2020

Dear Sage Community,

I write today in response to the killing of George Floyd and the protests that have followed across the nation in the week that has unfolded since that tragic day.

Before sitting down to share my thoughts, I watched the video footage of Floyd’s death. I needed to avoid averting my eyes and confront the brutal actuality that was caught on film: a dying man pleading to breathe; gathered onlookers pointing out in horror that he had become unresponsive; the police refusing to relent in crushing the neck of a handcuffed man. It is heartbreaking, horrible, unnecessary, and infuriating.

And it has stirred this nationwide response partly because it is on video for all to see. But for every instance of excessive and deadly force captured on film, how many countless others are undocumented?

This moment calls us to respond in several ways. First, there must be justice for George Floyd, and it is clear that public attention has brought needed scrutiny into the judicial process, just as it did when videos of the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia gained public attention. The world is watching.

We must also remember those victims not caught on film and work aggressively to address racial inequities in law enforcement and the criminal justice system. How police are trained, how instances of excessive force are investigated, how the laws are enforced, and how African-Americans are viewed and treated in the criminal justice system can be reformed.

The recent incident of the dog walker and the bird watcher in Central Park was a vivid reminder that African-Americans are viewed as threatening in even the most normal and ordinary circumstances. That ingrained stereotype shapes everything from daily microaggressions to racial profiling.

And it underscores the larger issue we must continue to address: the deep-rooted racism in our society—conscious and unconscious; individual and institutional.

The New Yorker republished today an essay by James Baldwin from 1962 because of its enduring relevance to the events of this week and the tenor of our time. I was too young to read it when it came out, but it became part of the book The Fire Next Time, which was a big influence on me as a college student in the 1970s. The essay, from fifty-eight years ago, is timely.

Baldwin describes the terror to parents of raising black children in a white society knowing their child’s smallest misstep could have tragic consequences, and he talks of how, as a child himself, he discerned the fear in his parents: “Every effort made by the child’s elders to prepare him for a fate from which they cannot protect him causes him secretly, in terror, to begin to await…his mysterious and inexorable punishment.”

Baldwin concludes that “It demands great force and great cunning continually to assault the mighty and indifferent fortress of white supremacy…It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your children to hate.” Baldwin uses the image of the foot on the neck as a metaphor; it is a contemporary reckoning to see it made real. Similarly, the desperate cry of “I can’t breathe” has come to symbolize the struggle to survive in a racist climate.

What role can Sage play in this story that is so much bigger than us? The saying “Think Globally; Act Locally” is relevant. We aspire to build a supportive and inclusive community. But, of course, we are not immune to or apart from the dynamics of our whole society, including prejudice driven by race, gender, or class. We need to be conscious and candid of our own limitations and work to build capacity and vision for a better world, even when that work is difficult and frustrating. The events of this week and what they epitomize affect us all but have special force for our students and employees of color, and that needs to be respected and understood.

I have thought often during the pandemic about what an unsettling time it is for our students to be just making their way in life with this new level of disruption, uncertainty, and isolation. The vivid manifestation of our society’s racist underpinnings fits oddly and painfully in the midst of this pandemic. It forces us to question platitudes about our “all being in this together,” but it ultimately reinforces that our destinies are inextricably intertwined. Baldwin put it as “We, the black and the white, deeply need each other if we are really to become a nation.” To read that sentiment in today’s context and know it was written half a century ago is to be bitterly reminded of the depth of our challenge.

In spite of the darkness in this moment, I firmly believe that college, and Russell Sage College in particular, is a great place to be when our thinking and behavior need to be challenged, when what we take for granted needs to be questioned and overturned. It is helpful that our new general education program includes a core course dedicated to intercultural studies and that service-based engagement with the community remains a vital part of our curriculum.

In the days and weeks ahead, I invite all of you to reach out to me with your responses to what is unfolding in our country and your suggestions for ways to engage these continuing challenges. I am thinking about all of you in the Sage community right now and anxious for us to be together in the fall to take on this work together.

May 15, 2020
laptop screen showing multiple video chat participants

I witnessed a scene today that I suspect and hope is being enacted on many college campuses. Now that finals are completed in this strangely split semester (second half on-line with faculty, students and everyone else sheltering in place), the Sage faculty met to discuss what worked and what didn’t in this unplanned experiment.

The focus was decidedly upbeat with 80 of 130 faculty present on Zoom and twenty or so brief presentations of innovative strategies and successes. Rather than sounding worn out, our faculty seemed energized by the sharing of ideas and best practices, and they kept coming back to the importance of ensuring that students felt connected though learning remotely.

An OT professor discussed making patient assessment videos with another instructor to demonstrate proper techniques. Students liked reviewing and critiquing them so much that the professor plans to continue the use of video even when the course returns to the lab. A Children’s Lit professor described creating videos with local authors of children’s books who described the function of different elements of their work.

Several talked about how moving small groups of students into Zoom breakout rooms countered their initial passivity and sparked lively participation. Many spoke of the technology that facilitated student activities and presentations: a Graduate Research Day with over a hundred people making poster presentations via Zoom, students walking through a gene cloning experiment virtually, and students learning presentation skills by doing a recorded rather than live PowerPoint.

Nothing about this would surprise seasoned faculty and those experienced teaching in-person, on-line and with a mixture of modalities. What was refreshing was that the crisis situation generated such experimentation and collaboration. As the Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning put it, “We were forced out of teaching the way we were taught” and didn’t have that weight of personal experience and traditional pedagogy to fall back on.

The other theme was the need to stay connected with students who were enduring traumatic disruptions—educational and otherwise. Some faculty taught asynchronously but used their scheduled class time as open office hours and fielded questions and stories about the stresses that students were experiencing. Others talked about how “chat” features and virtual office hours emboldened some students who had rarely spoken in the first half of the term.

They all were cognizant of how these special circumstances called for exceptional methods. At the same time, we recognize that building relationships and connections with and among students is a trademark of our pedagogy at all times. The circumstances simply highlighted that and necessitated a greater deliberateness to our approaches.

Like all of us, the faculty are worried about the uncertainties of fall semester 2020 and the need to prepare for multiple modalities without knowing what teaching under the pandemic will look like in late August let alone November.

Still, I was struck by how heartening that discussion would have been to students, to parents, and to pundits who are jaundiced about higher education. There’s a good bit of talk about how crises bring out the best of us. It was gratifying to see that phenomenon so vividly illustrated with our faculty.

April 13, 2020
Raphael painting school of Athens

The social and cultural implications of isolation and distancing

When we have the luxury to look back at this period of extreme “social distancing” and isolation, there will be ample reflection on the lessons it offers—from public health to economic stimulus to lessons about social interaction and on-line learning.

For now, I’m giving voice to what I suspect many are feeling: a dual sense that virtual communication works well in many contexts and that we also sacrifice a lot when we are physically separate. 

Connecting with relatives on FaceTime or experiencing a Zoom happy hour can lead to some great conversations (indeed, there was a time when deep relationships were actually carried on by letters). A teleconference business meeting can be more efficient than an in-person one. And when it comes to teaching and learning, we’ve known for a long time that on-line learning can be successful, at least for some subjects and some students.

But when this extends to our whole existence, the loss becomes acute. I miss the deep social pleasures of meeting people on a walk through the neighborhood or sharing a meal with friends, the pleasures of a pick-up basketball game, and the deeply engrained cultural tradition of touching people when we meet or part (and that may be gone for good). Beyond those everyday pleasures are the rites of passage we mark precisely by gathering: weddings, funerals, graduations, etc. The Joni Mitchell sentiment captures our realization: “You don’t know what you got til it’s gone.” So it is with learning the irreplaceability of social nearness.

We cannot all be Wordsworth swooning in the presence of the powers of his own imagination:

And I was taught to feel, perhaps too much,
The self-sufficing power of Solitude . . .
life, and change, and beauty, solitude
More active even than “best society.”

When the lights went out on Broadway—and every other theater in America—I couldn’t help but marvel at the remarkable staying power of that ancient in-person art form in the face of our era of mass-produced art and entertainment. What draws people away from their screens to the immediacy of a play? Perhaps it is the unpredictability of live performance—anything can happen. Perhaps it is the communion of a social group around an experience 2500 years old. Whether it is the live concert or the stage play, those forms have stayed alive in the face of “scalable” mass media.

There’s a parallel in the classroom, a learning construct that goes back to the ancient era from which drama emerges. Socrates taught in the marketplace in Athens. His student, Plato, created an academy originally located in an olive grove. Raphael’s magnificent painting that brings together the greatest Athenian philosophers in a symposium setting based on Plato’s Academy (with Plato and Aristotle at the center) envisions knowledge burgeoning in a physical environment in which people dedicated to ideas engage face to face. The image of teamwork in contemporary bench science is not fundamentally different.

Living in our current moment of a society on “pause” shows us both the benefits of virtual engagement and its limitations. For the students at Sage, those limitations were palpable: no spring sports season, two canceled plays, no ordinary senior art exhibit or student research symposium, no personal good-byes to friends, and a postponed commencement awaiting the green light for “mass gatherings.”

It’s worth remembering that plague closed theaters in Shakespeare’s time (in any week when London plague deaths exceeded 30–at least that was the standard in the 1606 plague). They re-opened and Shakespeare’s work continues to be performed 400 years later (indeed, one of the Broadway plays currently shuttered is West Side Story, the musical based on Romeo and Juliet). It was the last play my wife saw before the shutdown (on February 26th)!

Sage students reminded us of the unflagging importance of personal contact and rite of passage gatherings when we suggested a virtual commencement ceremony instead of a postponed one! That was an important reminder. I suspect that the ultimate result of our time in isolation will not be simply an excited embrace of virtual communication but a shrewder balancing of our powerful technologies and our human desire for proximity—and a greater appreciation for those very things that make us human.

January 03, 2020
Little Women, Louisa May Alcott’s 1869 novel.

Holiday season is a great time for movie-going, as many of the studio’s best films are held for this period of Oscar contention.  This year, my wife and I were delighted to see Greta Gerwig’s new version of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott’s 1869 novel.

We made up a great test audience for the movie. I had (embarrassingly) never read the book and only seen bits of the previous movie treatments.  Lauren had read the book multiple times as an adolescent, read Little Men as well, owned the Madame Alexander dolls, and seen at least two of the film versions. We both loved the masterpiece that Greta Gerwig has created.

The energy of the March sisters propels the movie forward, driven by their mix of creativity and passion. Gerwig chooses to cut back and forth in time, a decision that allows you to experience the youthful dreams of the characters through the constricting pressures of the years.  That the acting is so uniformly excellent is a tribute to Gerwig’s direction and an impeccable script.

The story shows its debt to Jane Austen’s influence and American domestic fiction in that the plot is driven by young women of moderate means negotiating a world of very limited options of marriage and employment. In this constrained world, the varieties of creativity exhibited by the March sisters hint at how the world has changed for women in the half century since Austen’s novels.  Their talents in writing, painting and music carry a weight they could not have in Austen’s time.

Women’s education is central to the story.  Amy (the wonderful Florence Pugh) is beaten in school for drawing a portrait of the teacher, and the family chooses to have her taught by older sister, Jo, rather than return to the inferior girls’ school, noting how the poor quality of those schools was a crime against girls and women. Beth’s musical education is helped by the kindly neighbor who gives her a piano, while Amy hones her painting skills through a European tour.  The elder sisters both marry teachers to their wealthy aunt’s dismay, but she provides the inheritance that allows them to open a school that will, they proudly proclaim, enroll girls and boys.

The central role that educational access would play in reshaping American society after the Civil War is woven into the plot, just as it was part of Louisa May Alcott’s upbringing in a home where her father was an experimental educator and transcendentalist. Little Women imagines an alternative to the Victorian ethos of education as authoritarian and soul-crushing. It asks how the optimism and creativity of childhood can be cultivated rather than quashed.  Like its contemporary, Alice in Wonderland (1865), Little Women rejects an educational system based on conformity and celebrates imagination and play. No wonder generations of children have loved both books.

Gerwig makes one brilliant change in adapting the book by underscoring its autobiographical nature and representing the writer, Jo, as the author of Little Women herself.  This is a crucial move, as it is really not possible to adapt Little Women into film without an awareness of its 150-year history as a force in the lives of American readers and filmgoers.

The novel was a success when it was written and has never gone out of print.  It has been translated into over fifty languages.  Little Women formed the basis of two silent films, as well as a George Cukor film in 1933 with Katherine Hepburn; a 1949 film with June Allyson (and Elizabeth Taylor and Janet Leigh); a 1994 movie with Winona Ryder and Kirsten Dunst; BBC versions from 1950, 1958, 1970, and 2013; several television shows; a 1912 Broadway play; stage musicals in 1955 (London), 1964 (off-Broadway) and 2005 (Broadway); a 1969 ballet; a 1987 Anime series; and a 1998 opera.

The compelling saga of the March sisters is underscored by the story of what an effect a book can have on the world, and that theme is expressed in the film through a loving depiction of the first edition being printed and bound.

The story of Little Women’s success and endurance in the popular imagination is remarkable, but it is not as remarkable as one might think.  If you studied American Literature back when I was in college, you might be forgiven for thinking that nineteenth-century American literature was overwhelmingly male (the world of Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, Thoreau, and Emerson). It wasn’t.

The most popular work of fiction of nineteenth-century America was published seventeen years before Little Women­, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Alcott would have grown up reading other commercially successful female authors: Susanna Rowson, Catherine Sedgewick, Maria Cummins, Susan Warner, and E.D.E.N. Southworth.  This literature was virtually erased in the early twentieth century, dismissed as “sentimental” and “domestic,” only to be rediscovered in feminist revisions of literary history.  My college American Literature anthology contained only one woman from the nineteenth century, Emily Dickinson.  That shockingly narrow view of the “great tradition,” has since been broadened.

That myopia reminds us why we need to keep revisiting history and reading, interpreting, and adapting older works–for what endures in them and for understanding our own place in history afresh. Little Women is a powerful case in point. Go see it.

October 29, 2019
Cover of the book - Nudge

One of the most powerful lessons for educators is that a group of students sitting in a class can each have very different learning experiences. And those different experiences are often based on the degree to which they get involved and the amount of effort they apply.  It’s strikingly simple, and yet the implications for us are complex.

Some students will do just what is required to get by—maximizing their “grade per effort” formula.  Others will not even get by. Still, some will make the most of the opportunities by participating and leading in class, forming study groups, attending lectures and plays, playing a sport or running student government, joining a community organization.  Their experiences will be dramatically superior to other students in spite of being offered the same opportunities.

It’s easy to be a bit complacent about this and assume it is the way of the world.  We certainly have enough familiar sayings on the subject: “You get out of it what you put into it.”

Similarly, we have sayings that reflect the pedagogical equivalent of this laissez-faire. “You can lead a horse to water. . .” is the cowboy version of motivation.  And teaching has long been dominated by a blanket metaphor by which we measure our teaching by how much we “cover.”  Then there is infectious disease pedagogy, in which students are “exposed” to certain ideas and skills.  Some of them, we assume, catch it.

Well, all of us in education certainly experienced, as students, our share of courses that left us entirely on our own to read the texts, annotate the lectures, and take the tests.  One can learn that way, but it isn’t ideal.

We do know that how we structure student experience influences how students behave, which, in turn, influences how engaged they become and how much they learn and grow.

This is the time of year to remember what great teachers exemplify: that there are multiple ways to nudge ordinary students into extraordinary performance.  At Sage, we share those techniques or “best practices”; we try new methods and technologies and winnow the successful experiments from the less effective.

I use the word “nudge” here deliberately, with a nod to Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, co-authors of the book of the same name.

“Nudging,” those authors tell us, is about “altering people’s behaviors in a predictable way” through policies or practices which increase the likelihood of people making choices that are beneficial to them.   For example, they discuss “default bias”—dramatically more people opt for a retirement plan if you have to make the effort to opt out of it, instead of opting in.  Their research shows the value of deadlines and breaking big projects into smaller units.  Peer behavior is also a great motivator of behavior and so are “informational nudges.”

Faculty know from experience that freshmen won’t do as well in a course with only two graded assignments , seven weeks apart, and that regular quizzes or mini-assignments will increase the number of students who show up in class prepared.  In other words, there are ways to influence whether the horse will drink.

That process is called by the behavioral economists “choice architecture.” Building the choice architecture students encounter can help them make better choices about their education and have more fulfilling college experiences. It is based on years of observation that confirm that not only do people not behave rationally, but that their irrationality is predictable.  The student who most needs to visit the professor’s office is the least likely to do so.

This nudge principle applies outside the classroom as well.  How students manage choosing a college and selecting classes,  making decisions about financial aid or getting involved in a student club—all these things can be crafted in ways that improve smart decisions and participation.  As Thaler and Sunstein point out, no presentation of a choice or action is ever neutral, so we might as well craft that choice architecture intentionally.

The implications are far-reaching, as a European article summarizing “nudging” in education reveals.  Many of our faculty discussions sponsored by the Center for Teaching and Learning are ultimately about how to structure assignments and syllabi in ways that inspire optimal student performance.  And our current review at Sage of work processes in our quest for truly “student-centered service” is similarly structured, looking to tailor campus procedures in sensible and affirming ways. We recognize that we can’t just rely on our friendliness and personal attention to smooth the way for students; we need processes that are well-designed and that facilitate students making good choices, going to the right office, filling out the right form.

At Sage, we value the small scale of our institution and the way that it allows for attention to students as individuals and for being extraordinarily responsive to student needs. We do not accept those metaphors that depict us as powerless to inspire student excellence and success.  Students will always differ on how they respond to what college offers, but we do our best to guide them, inspire them, engage and interact with them in a spirit that is more collaborative than “exposing” or “covering.”

July 02, 2019

 

Frederick Douglass

My first July 4th at Sage, I wrote about Lincoln’s remarkable address to a picnic of German immigrants on Independence Day. Lincoln addressed the contradiction between slavery and the language of equality in the Declaration of Independence, and he specifically addressed Stephen Douglas’s argument that the Declaration didn’t apply to slaves.

The rhetorical question he posed to the German immigrants is where would such exclusions stop—would they extend to them as well?  And if the document and its call to human equality could be so modified, he said: “If that declaration is not the truth, let us get the statute book in which we find it and tear it out!  Who is so bold to do it?  Let us stick to it then, let us stand firmly then.”

The connection between emancipated slaves and the immigrant nature of America emerges powerfully in Frederick Douglass’s 1869 Boston speech on the “Composite Nation,” in which he argues that it is imperative to our nature to accept the rising influx of Chinese immigrants, an issue of great controversy at the time.

Douglass acknowledges the various arguments presented against immigration and counters them. Most important are two related claims he makes.  First:

“There are such things in the world as human rights. They rest upon no conventional foundation, but are external, universal, and indestructible. Among these, is the right of locomotion; the right of migration; the right which belongs to no particular race, but belongs alike to all and to all alike. It is the right you assert by staying here, and your fathers asserted by coming here. It is this great right that I assert for the Chinese and Japanese, and for all other varieties of men equally with yourselves, now and forever.”

More importantly, he ties that principle to the question of what differentiates America as a nation. Herein lies his message appropriate for this Independence Day:

“Our geographical position, our relation to the outside world, our fundamental principles of Government, world-embracing in their scope and character, our vast resources, requiring all manner of labor to develop them, and our already existing composite population, all conspire to one grand end, and that is to make us the perfect national illustration of the unit and dignity of the human family, that the world has ever seen.

“In whatever else other nations may have been great and grand, our greatness and grandeur will be found in the faithful application of the principle of perfect civil equality to the people of all races and of all creeds, and to men of no creeds. We are not only bound to this position by our organic structure and by our revolutionary antecedents, but by the genius of our people.”

Douglass lived the first forty-nine years of his life in slavery, then, after escaping, became one of the most influential abolitionists, a champion of women’s suffrage at the Seneca Falls convention, a best-selling writer and famous orator, and counselor to three presidents.  In that context, his imagination of America’s greatness as flowing precisely from its egalitarian possibilities is all the more remarkable: “I hold that a liberal and brotherly welcome to all who are likely to come to the United States, is the only wise policy which this nation can adopt.”

Words to remember on July 4, 2019 as debates about race and immigration still occupy center stage in our American experiment.

With these weighty thoughts in mind, I had the pleasure of seeing the new multi-racial Broadway reimagining of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!.  This might seem an incongruous juxtaposition, but it is not such a stretch.  Douglass and the new Oklahoma! both invite us to consider the nation’s history through the lens of today, and they remind us how central social change is to American selfhood.

Oklahoma! performance

Oklahoma! premiered during World War II (shortly after Pearl Harbor), but it was set during the run-up to Oklahoma statehood in 1906.  The immensely popular musical was seen both as the first “serious” musical (no chorus line) and as an invocation of a simpler time.  The play begat a famous movie in the 1950s that further tied the musical to popular images of wholesomeness.

Daniel Fish’s production keeps virtually every word of the original and every song.  The orchestration is greatly altered, as a seven-piece band on stage accompanies spare renditions of the songs in a country twang.  And the emphasis of the dialogue and action is somehow rendered more sinister, in a way that challenges our former understanding of the play.

Yet, the disturbing elements of the story are all present in the original: the “girl who can’t say no,” the box social in which lunches representing the single women who made them are auctioned to their potential beaus, the double-entendres about who has the biggest hamper and the sweetest pie.  Above all, there is Jud, who, in the original, is a farmhand who lives in the smokehouse with pornographic pictures tacked up and hangs menacingly outside the heroine’s bedroom window. The romantic lead tries to talk him into suicide, and his accidental death is required to allow the three weddings of the conclusion to go forward to the happy ending.

That marriage comedies are salted with difficult truths about the relations between the sexes is nothing new.  Shakespeare’s comedies express the concern that love creates affections arbitrarily or that various characters must be tamed into domesticity.  Jane Austen’s novels may not feature an actual auction, but the financial worth of every character is carefully counted in reaching an ending that is also a settlement.

Oklahoma! like many musicals is conversant in the comedy and the untamability of sexual desire. And yet, as the title emphasizes, the play is about a place, a place in the heart of America. Its 1906 setting seemed far away from the war-weary world in which national boundaries were collapsing and refugees fleeing around the globe, and yet it satisfied audiences in its evocation of timeless tales tied to the American nation and its founding in the violent conquest of the West.

1906 and 1943 seem just as far from us now, the do’s and don’ts of “People Will Say We’re in Love” echoing strangely in the “Me, Too” era.  But we must not make the mistake of imagining the original audiences to be naïve; they were not.  Happy endings are not easily achieved: in the sacrifices that build a society lie the groundwork for harmony and resolution.

We need not forget that where we came from is fraught with injustice and conflict to celebrate that we come together with the possibility for a new day and a “beautiful morning.” As Frederick Douglass puts it:  “The sentiments we exhibit, whether love or hate, confidence or fear, respect or contempt, will always imply a like humanity.”

At Sage, we have been considering our history as we prepare for our future. We are thinking more deliberately about something we must always be alert to: how do we adapt our original mission to changing times. Looking back on our founding over a century ago, in the era in which Oklahoma! is set, we also explore how our many dramatic changes evidence a common humanity.   That persistence and adaptability, driven by a spirit of inclusion, offer the Sage family something to celebrate on Independence Day.

**Thanks to historian Jill Lepore for the reference to Frederick Douglass’s remarkable speech.

 

April 30, 2019

 

Paintings of the Hudson River School

I arrived in the Capital District as president of The Sage Colleges almost two years ago, but I came with a deep tie to the Hudson River Valley.  My wife grew up in Hastings-on-Hudson, and during the twenty-five years we’ve been married, we have visited friends there several times a year. One of the first things that struck me about our new home here was how easy it was to cross the Hudson. Often we cross it several times in a day.

Back in Hastings, the Hudson is more than two miles across, the Mario Cuomo Bridge has a $5 toll, and the traffic is often mired.  Here, the river is narrower and the bridges plentiful and free.  That’s a good thing, because I travel frequently between the Sage campuses in Albany and Troy, a trip of about twenty minutes.

So, as a newcomer, I was surprised to hear Albany and Troy folk talking about the Hudson as a cultural barrier and describing some people as reluctant to cross it.  Increasingly though, Sage students move back and forth between our campuses, taking advantage of our free shuttle and the different offerings on our two campuses.

We know they also enjoy the great neighborhoods of downtown Troy and the Helderberg neighborhood of Albany. The Troy campus of nineteenth-century brownstones blends directly into the shops and restaurants of the hip downtown. The Albany campus is nestled in an academic community with Albany Law, the College of Pharmacy, and Albany Academy, bounded by a lovely tree-lined neighborhood on one side and the growing Albany Med complex on the other. The capital of New York’s trillion-dollar economy is only a couple of miles away.

The Capital District now understands that its strength and appeal lie in connecting diverse communities—the four cities and the intertwined suburbs.  In that spirit, The Sage Colleges have embarked on a plan to reorganize and reaffirm our identity as a single college with two campuses. We will return (effective fall 2020) to our original name of Russell Sage College, but as a coeducational college with campuses in Albany and Troy.

This coming fall, we celebrate seventy years of Sage in Albany; two years ago marked the centennial of the founding of Russell Sage in Troy. Sage is proud of its on-going interdependence with Albany and Troy, and of being part of the post-industrial rejuvenation of both cities.  Like the other great institutions of higher education and the arts and non-profit communities throughout the Capital District, we see our strength in our multiple locations and our diversity.

The river draws us back. It’s a presence in our geography, our history, our economy, and in painting, literature, and architecture. Our students’ lives seem a long way from the bucolic paintings of the Hudson River School above.  Yet the Hudson is as much a part of city life–from the Port of Albany to Manhattan’s West Side.  Grace Paley, in a poem about the river, imagines a struggle between its southward flow and the force of the tidal estuary: “what a hard time/ the Hudson River has had/ trying to get to the sea,” she writes. But that daily trek, she concludes, is a successful and incessantly repeated journey.

The river is perhaps the oldest metaphor for constant change in the midst of something that endures.  Our colleges change to meet the shifting needs of students and society but they retain their essential character and dedication to learning and human achievement. Sage’s new strategic plan builds on our reputational strengths with a women’s and gender institute to invigorate our feminist tradition in a contemporary coed context and explore pressing gender issues. We are also developing a new program–Sage THRIVE–that builds on our strengths in the health sciences, education, and art and design and offers a core value  that helps students combine professional success with a cultivated and individual sense of wellness and well-being.  Those and other initiatives bridge tradition and innovation.  Above all, our new plan celebrates a unified college proudly engaged on both sides of the Hudson.

 

February 13, 2019
Russell Sage archway

 

In the new strategic plan for Sage (to be released in full in March 2019), we talk about our institution’s long-standing reputation for excellent professional and pre-professional education going back to a founding to teach the “practical liberal arts,” a phrase many educators might consider an oxymoron. But rather than being a contradiction in terms, “practical liberal education” suggests that it may be counter-productive to separate liberal arts education from the pre-professional.

At Sage we are proud that we graduate liberally educated students in the professions and professionally prepared students in the liberal arts.  But what do we really mean by “liberal education” in this context?  We hear a lot about the vexed term, “liberal arts,” without necessarily sharing a clear definition.  The discussion requires disambiguating three different, overlapping meanings of the term.

Liberal Arts College” is a term that has a lot of meaning for prospective students and their parents.  It describes a kind of institution and with it a set of values: an institution with a faculty of genuine teacher scholars dedicated foremost to teaching in interactive ways in small classes.  A liberal arts college is largely residential and reflects a belief that college is an experience that educates the whole student; it isn’t just an assemblage of forty classes.  The scale of such institutions allows for a relatively low student/faculty ratio and ensures that students are treated as individuals not numbers.

Liberal arts curriculum” is how faculty usually understand the term liberal arts.  It is a view of higher education as engaging students with what Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said,” giving students the tools to join in conversations that range the ages. A liberal arts curriculum is based on the belief that individuals’ lives—and the society as a whole—are richer when we are conversant with human history and the history of ideas; with the range of creative expression across the centuries in music, literature, art, theatre and dance; and with the most rigorous means developed in the natural and social sciences to understand human life, society and the natural world.

This liberal arts curriculum is counter-cultural in that it acts as a supplement or corrective to the limitations of the contemporary commercial culture in which we are immersed.  In the competition for what marketers call “mind-share,” the liberal arts curriculum speaks up for knowledge that has institutional authority but not commercial currency.  As education has become more democratized—and as culture has become increasingly dominated by commercial and profit-driven discourses—the role of the traditional liberal arts curriculum becomes more consequential.  That is, there are fewer places outside the academy that celebrate and propagate rigorous scientific and historical understanding.

 Liberal Learning” is a term that recognizes that the liberal arts experience does not just teach subject matter but also habits of mind—ways of thinking and acting that promote lifelong learning.  Those key habits of mind support the idea of freedom implied in the word “liberal” in that they strengthen citizen engagement in democracy, but they are eminently practical, with all kinds of applications in the world of work.  They are: the ability to think critically and analytically; the ability to write clearly, to speak well and to give an effective presentation; the ability to use mathematical skills in reasoning; the ability to conduct research independently; the ability to understand perspectives and experiences very different from one’s own; and the ability to work effectively in groups.

At Sage, these conceptions of the liberal arts all inform a curriculum and an educational environment that includes both traditional liberal arts disciplines and professional schools.  Indeed most of our students are enrolled in professional programs like nursing, health sciences, education, law and society, business management, and a strongly professional art and design major.  The liberal arts curriculum lives primarily in their core or general education experience, but the habits of mind or skills associated with liberal learning permeate the curriculum, and the small, residential college offers the experience most often associated with a liberal arts college.  We aren’t a traditional liberal arts college; rather, we resist the arbitrary division between liberal learning and professional preparation.  We believe we need and we provide liberally educated nurses, physical and occupational therapists, managers, graphic designers, and teachers.

The founding correspondence of Russell Sage College is consistent with this vision.  Eliza Kellas, who promoted the idea of the college to Olivia Slocum Sage and served as its first president, advocated a professional school, “Truly this is a time of specialized training, and if young women are to fit themselves thoroughly to succeed they must have an opportunity for careful and thorough training.”  The college was founded on a belief “that modern women must train to earn their own living in the professions and business.”  And yet the environment of the college has always had the shape and feel of a liberal arts college.

The great essayist and poet Wendell Berry writes: “It could be said that liberal education has the nature of a bequest, in that it looks upon a student as the potential heir of a cultural birthright, whereas a practical education has the nature of a commodity to be exchanged for position, status, wealth, etc. in the future. . . .  But these definitions, based on division and opposition, are too simple.  It is easy, accepting the viewpoint of either side, to find fault with the other.  But the wrong is on neither side; it is in their division” (from The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture).

Berry is exploring the place of agriculture in the development of American higher education, but his discussion is illuminating for understanding the vexed relationship between liberal and professional study today. Berry cites the language used in the Morrill Act that created land-grant colleges. He stresses that the act envisioned education as “liberal and practical,” but that the history of American education has been one of liberal or practical.  Berry sees each approach impoverished without the leavening of the other.  So, as much as Berry might bemoan the excesses of the commercialization of education, he sees the truly desirable American version of formal learning as a balance that restores the “and” in “liberal and practical education”:  “Without the balance of historic value, practical education gives us that most absurd of standards: “relevance,” based upon the suppositional needs of a theoretical future.  But liberal education, divorced from practicality, gives something no less absurd: the specialist professor of one or another of the liberal arts, the custodian of an inheritance he has learned much about, but nothing from.”

Ultimately, the term “liberal arts” itself (which does not refer to liberal politics or the fine arts) may not be necessary in thinking about what a college graduate should know. What is needed is an education that gives students the practical skills for today and the depth of learning and habits of mind to sustain a lifetime in a changing world.  Sage, like Wendell Berry, acts on the belief that it is better to stress the “and” between liberal and practical education and help our students develop the sensibilities to succeed and to live rewarding lives.

 

 

December 13, 2018

 

Holiday wreath on the gate of Avery's Garden.

On the night of December 30, 1816, Keats sat beside the fire on a cold British winter’s night with friend and fellow poet, Leigh Hunt.  They heard the chirping of a cricket that must have sounded similar to a grasshopper in summer.  They agreed to a contest: each would write a sonnet that night on the theme of “The Grasshopper and the Cricket” and compare results.

Keats’s result is below. Several things enchant me about this story.  Keats was 21 at the time, the rough age of our students at Sage. He lived in a world in which the options for friendly evening entertainment were more limited than in ours.  He and Leigh Hunt could not listen to music at home unless they played the instruments themselves.  There were no movies, television, social media, or video games.  They could read or play cards—or, in this case, write a sonnet.

The contrast is a reminder of how much our pace of interaction and our sensory stimuli have changed in two centuries.  Today’s students are bombarded by commercial entities competing for “mindshare.”  We take multi-tasking for granted, even though we know it reduces our efficiency and clarity of thought. I would not characterize Keats’s era as superior to ours; that would be simplistic and nostalgic.  But moments that make us reflect on aspects of our current existence that we take for granted are valuable keys to understanding the present.

Still, in many ways, the sentiment of Keats’s poem speaks to us.  Our commercial, technological and information overloaded world has not freed us from the seasons or the weather and their effect on us. The winter still reminds us of the power of nature and the enduring cycling of the seasons, and the coming of the New Year still encourages us to reflect on past and future.

Here’s what Keats came up with on that cold night by the fire:

On the Grasshopper and the Cricket

The Poetry of earth is never dead:

When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,

And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run

From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead;

That is the Grasshopper’s—he takes the lead

In summer luxury,—he has never done

With his delights; for when tired out with fun

He rests at ease beneath some pleasant weed.

The poetry of earth is ceasing never:

On a lone winter evening, when the frost

Has wrought a silence, from the stove there shrills

The Cricket’s song, in warmth increasing ever,

And seems to one in drowsiness half lost,

The Grasshopper’s among some grassy hills.

Keats uses the Italian (or Petrarchan) sonnet form, dividing the fourteen lines into an octave and a sestet (an eight-line and a six-line section).  Here the eight-line piece imagines the grasshopper in summer; the six-line conclusion invokes the winter cricket.  The conceit is that, to a drowsy listener by the fire, the sound of the winter cricket reminds the listener of the summer grasshopper and he briefly believes he is back in the lazy summer of long days.

A simple enough idea.  What connects the two sections is a line repeated with slight variation. It is one of those one-in-ten-thousand poetic lines: “The Poetry of earth is never dead,” echoed later as “The Poetry of Earth is ceasing never.”

Like many great moments in poems it presents an idea that is not original but very familiar. Who has not noticed the beauty of nature enduring through seasonal changes?  The tree in your yard that is covered with flowers in the spring, lush with green in summer, brilliantly colored in autumn, and a jagged black silhouette in winter.

I appreciate the sentiment this time of year in the lovely little urban gardens at Sage, designed to provide different kinds of seasonal beauty.  Stunning in fall, elegant in winter. See the pictures of two of the gardens Virginia Stowe (RSC ‘65) gave in honor of her grandchildren.

Autumn trees

But Keats does not write “the beauty of nature is always with us.”  Instead, he uses a metaphor and speaks of “the poetry of earth,” which ties the beauty of nature to the composition of his own poem.  Indeed, Keats is decidedly not a nature poet; he is more interested in the imagination.  Even his famous nightingale is a means to escape the world that surrounds him into one he imagines.  And, in this simpler poem, the poem and the poet’s imagination are powerful enough to briefly transform winter into summer.

A true Romantic poet, Keats echoes Wordsworth who described the sensations of eye and ear in terms of what they “half create , and what perceive.” His poem creates a spark that crosses the century from his brief life to ours. In between his very different era and our own, the seasons have turned two hundred and two times, and generations have shuddered against the cold in England and in New York. And through it all, poetry and imagination have offered comfort when the frost has wrought a silence.

As 2018 comes to an end, may the richness of nature, poetry and your imagination keep you warm through the winter nights.  Happy Holidays and Best Wishes for the New Year!