We are outraged and horrified by three instances of white supremacist political violence in the last week. A gunman attempted to enter a black church and then shot and killed two African-Americans at a Kentucky grocery store; an itinerant Florida man with a history of advocating the extermination of African-Americans and LGBTQ people constructed pipe bombs and sent them to elected officials, members of the media, and the oft-demonized George Soros; a rabid anti-Semite entered a synagogue on Shabbat and killed eleven members.
These horrors displaced from the news the terrible story of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post journalist allegedly tortured and murdered by agents of the Saudi government, with little response from the U.S.
All Americans have to grapple with what these developments mean about the state of racism, anti-Semitism and political violence and assassination in our society and what we each can contribute to changing the conditions that have brought such bloody extremism into the mainstream.
The Pittsburgh synagogue killings are deeply personal for me. What, after all, did I really know about anti-Semitism beyond what I’d learned in history books? The answer is very little—but also something profound.
I knew very little because my parents wanted it that way. Only many years after their deaths did I discover that my father and his parents had changed their names and religious identifications at the height of anti-Semitism in the 1930s. The relatives I grew up knowing as Grandpa and Grandma Ames living in the Bronx, were Jacob Abramson and Julia Furst—Jews from Russia and Slovakia. My father’s brother who died at age five, Bertram “Buddy” Abramson, was buried in a Jewish cemetery in Queens I knew nothing of. That my grandmother’s sister, Leah, died in a Nazi extermination camp was hidden from me.
There were lots of ways I could have reacted when I learned this much richer and more complex version of my past. What I felt was sadness for my father who had been driven to keep such a secret and must have felt shame at his denial of self and his father’s split from the Abramson family. What I think of now is what mighty currents of hatred must have been moving through the world when the Abramson family made that choice.
Recently, my niece, a college sophomore, wrote me feeling despair about a world headed blindly toward environmental disaster. In responding to her—and trying, I guess, to make her feel better—I told her that we don’t get to choose the time in which we live but we do get to adapt to it and try to make a difference for the good.
I described growing up with a problem-free, middle-class childhood—my father a teacher and my mother a homemaker providing a warm and safe life for their three kids. Only much later did I learn their secrets and glimpse what they lived through. My father’s family changed their names when he was a college student at a time when many colleges had quotas on Jews. Immigration laws were as much a hot topic then as they are now, and were revised in 1924 to greatly limit Jewish immigration. Those quotas would lead to the denial of refugee status to thousands of Jews fleeing the Nazis. In language eerily similar to the rhetoric of today to which the Pittsburgh shooter responded, Americans were warned of a threatening refugee tide. Major American heroes like Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh were openly hostile to Jews and explicit about maintaining white racial purity. Living through those years, my parents must have thought nothing could be a greater achievement than to raise their kids into adulthood in a world protected from those kinds of threats.
They were ordinary people, living through trying and brutal times. Writing that, I correct myself, thinking of James Joyce. When a colleague asked Joyce how it felt to write “Ulysses” about a hero with an ordinary mind, he replied, “There is no such thing as an ordinary mind.”
Perhaps there are no ordinary times, either. But it’s a darker world today than the one I grew up in. These horrors of the past week are not just the actions of a demented few; they are the products of those currents of hatred rising again in America and across the globe with increases in nationalist anti-immigrant furor, racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia.
How can someone walk into a synagogue and shoot to death a 96-year-old woman and her fellow peaceful worshippers? It’s tempting to say it’s beyond comprehension or to use the easy shorthand of our time and say, “No words.” But there are words: actions like that are predicated on seeing other people as less than human, and that behavior is learned and cultivated. Thus it can be fought and opposed. It can be countered by actions that affirm our collective humanity across cultures and religions and races and that actively resist white supremacy in every manifestation.
My parents, I believe, thought that if they taught me fundamental kindness, empathy and humanity, I would be equipped for encountering the forces of hatred that shadowed their younger years. They just hoped I would never need to find out.
As for what we teach our students at Sage: it’s crucial that our graduates have knowledge, critical intelligence, and empathy. We do our best to ensure our students know the history of racism and anti-Semitism. But that must be combined with the critical acumen not to be duped by propaganda or snowed by populist lies or the anti-intellectual dismissal of scientific reasoning and logic. We must foster in our own little community and our classrooms a mutually supportive environment that accepts human differences and respects the multiple complex cultures that make up our nation and world.
That’s a tall order, but the events of the last week remind of us of the urgency of our task.
Historians know that when we write history it reflects both the era we are analyzing and the present time in which we write. The same is true of obituaries and eulogies: we see the past of a notable life through the lens of our current preoccupations.
That has been apparent with the recent tribute to the life of Senator John McCain. There is much to memorialize in his long life of service including extraordinary endurance as a prisoner of war, a lengthy career as U.S. Senator including major accomplishments in campaign finance reform, the normalization of relations with Vietnam, and the opposition to the use of torture by U.S. intelligence. And, of course, two campaigns for president, including one as the Republican nominee. Indeed, all of those accomplishments (and more) were cited.
But, again and again, commentators kept coming back to the two moments he corrected campaign supporters who said they were scared of an Obama presidency because he was an Arab and a Muslim. These moments were notable for both their decency and for correcting profound misinformation. A lot is revealed by our fascination with McCain’s very traditional understanding that his political adversaries were decent, committed opponents worthy of both opposition and respect.
What is revealed is obvious, I guess: that this consensus of civility and respect in the public sphere is a thing of the past.
John McCain was oddly caught up in the middle of this breakdown. The fires of irresponsible rhetoric that he sought to calm in 2008 were, in many cases, fanned by his own running mate, Sarah Palin. The internet rumors that McCain’s opponent was not American, was a Muslim, and was ineligible for the presidency because he was not a “natural born citizen” were not furthered by McCain but emerged during the campaign and were amplified throughout Obama’s presidency, supported by Donald Trump and the National Enquirer. (Ironically, it was McCain himself who was born outside the United States—in the Panama Canal Zone where his father was stationed.)
McCain again found himself in the middle of a civility debate during the 2016 campaign when candidate Donald Trump renewed a claim he had originally made in 1999 on 60 Minutes that McCain should not be considered a war hero for being captured. The new comment came early in the primary campaign, and many pundits thought it might cause Trump to lose support. The fact that it didn’t was evidence that the public attitude toward the rhetoric of insult had already changed.
McCain continued to be in the center of civility disputes when he withdrew support for Trump following the release of the Access Hollywood tape in which Trump bragged that his celebrity status allowed him to kiss and grab women with impunity. Trump responded by calling the “foul-mouthed McCain” a hypocrite for his stance.
These ugly disputes loomed larger than they should have in McCain’s memorials because the issues around them are so much with us. I have written before about how I see a variety of cultural forces shifting the public dialogue towards insult, attacks and name-calling: shock-jock techniques crossed with political radio; the rise of stand-up comedy with its heavy dependence on exaggeration; reality-TV built on the premise that boorish behavior is entertaining; the political punditry of cable news framed as contentious debate as if everything has two sides that are best expressed by shouting at one another; and the celebration of insulting and obscene political opinion as the coin of the realm on social media.
At the same time, those who call for greater respect for conflicting views have been condemned as accommodationist, comfortably espousing civility from positions of social privilege.
In this environment, the passing of John McCain became an occasion for a nostalgic mourning for a world in which political differences—often highly consequential and bitter—could still unfold in the framework of grudging respect, compromise and co-existence. Ultimately, we reach political decisions in a society that contains people with sharply differing views. That is the reality of a democracy. The question is how do we manage it. And that we don’t know how to answer that question hung over McCain’s funeral like a cloud.
As an educator, I believe that we must always be looking to improve the quality of political engagement and discourse. We must speak and act in support of what we believe, but we must also think about how best to speak and act in a healthy democracy. This is important in our classrooms, too. And that extends not just to the form of our dialogue but also to the substance: respect for facts, data, and logic and resistance to sloganeering and propaganda.
The McCain moment reveals we are in conflict and flux; it isn’t the dramatic end to an era. It is a shame that McCain’s own fundamental decency may have partially occluded his other virtues and accomplishments, but it is a good thing that it may have helped us focus on bettering our larger public discussion. So as we begin a new academic year, let’s commit at Sage to civil discourse, mutual respect and a search for truth in our classes and our community as a whole.
Last week, I had lunch with our new class of entering students who come to Sage through the Arthur O. Eve Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP). HEOP assists especially promising students, who, as a result of limited academic and financial resources, would otherwise not have the opportunity to attend The Sage Colleges. Part of that assistance is a five-week summer program on campus before the formal school year begins. The students take classes and workshops, make friends with each other and staff and peer tutors, and get acclimated to succeeding at Sage. Like most of our students, their routes to the first day of college are varied and often not simple, and like Sage students in general they are eager, lively and interesting young people.
In our lunch conversation, the program director asked what I expected from them as Sage students. I said some of the usual things: that I expected them to make the most of their opportunities, to go to class (!), to make use of all the resources we offer, to enjoy themselves and discover and pursue their passions.
But before I realized it, I added one thing that I expect of them and all our students: to register to vote and to vote in the upcoming election (and subsequent ones throughout their lifetimes). As I’ve written here earlier, I was shocked to learn that in the last midterm election, in 2014, college student turnout was only 18%–less than half the anemic 37% of the general population and far less than the 55% of Americans over 60 who voted.
That’s really poor. Fewer than 1 in 5 college students voted. 4 out of 5 apparently didn’t think it would make a difference, weren’t informed enough to understand the stakes, or simply didn’t care. When I look out at our students, I want their perspectives and voices to count, and I want them to care enough about the country they are inheriting to know what they need to know to be informed voters and citizens.
As much as I value the wisdom of age, I want young people to be active players on the political stage.
This fall at Sage, we will be running voter registration drives and offering non-partisan programming that engages all members of our community in the issues informing the midterm elections.
When I visit students at the start of the school year, I inevitably think about my 18-year-old freshman self. Perhaps I had a stronger interest in voting because I grew up during the tumultuous years of the Vietnam War. Perhaps I had more of an interest because I was old enough to care about the passage of the 26th amendment to the constitution.
When I was fifteen years old, in 1971, the 26th amendment to the constitution was passed, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. This amendment (the fastest ever to be approved) was largely motivated by that very Vietnam War, which exacerbated a generation gap, and underscored that young people subject to the military draft at age 18, still could not vote.
So when I was 15 in 1971, the law changed, meaning I could vote in three years rather than having to wait six. Actually it was four years, since my birthday fell in late November, so the first national election I was eligible to vote in was the presidential election of 1975 (Carter vs Ford).
A few years ago, I got to know the retired senator who helped give 18-year-olds the vote: Birch Bayh of Indiana. He is the only person since the “founding fathers” to author more than one constitutional amendment. He wrote three actually, though only two became law. He is the author of the 25th amendment which clarified presidential succession and allowed for the removal of a president for incapacity. He authored the aforementioned 26th amendment which lowered the voting age to 18. He also drafted the Equal Rights Amendment, which passed both houses of Congress but failed to be ratified by the states.
Bayh then took one theme from the equal rights amendment, the concept of “eliminating sex discrimination in educational institutions on the basis of sex,” and enshrined it in the legislation known as the Higher Education Act, where it became “Title IX,” the basis for the equity of women’s collegiate athletics and protection from sexual harassment and assault.
Meeting Birch Bayh (who taught seminars at a college where I used to work) was a living reminder of how an individual can make a dramatic difference in the lives of others. Since my first voting, I have voted in ten subsequent presidential elections and ten midterm elections. I hope our students will do the same, and I suspect it will make a difference.
I didn’t attend my high school graduation ceremony. I didn’t attend my college ceremony, either. When I got my Ph.D., I finally showed up. Maybe by then I realized I was embarking on a career where I would attend a commencement for the next –well now it is 34 consecutive years! I suppose it has made me a bit of a connoisseur.
I thoroughly enjoyed the privilege of presiding over my first commencement at The Sage Colleges. It was a great day—as commencements generally are—fueled by the happiness and pride of 800 graduates and their families. That’s the most powerful force at commencement: the collective spirit of so many hopes, dreams, sacrifices, and hard choices. The stirring commencement address from Cecile Richards furthered that spirit by inspiring students to work to create the world they want to live in. The whole occasion is a vivid reminder of why we do what we do: colleges create opportunity and they give students the tools, knowledge and habits of mind to take advantage of the opportunities that come with the piece of paper.
That spirit is a good antidote for the tedium. Let’s face it, almost everyone in the room is there for the few seconds in which a particular graduate crosses the stage. The other 799—not so much.
My role is to hand each student a diploma, shake his or her hand, and offer congratulations. The exercise is tiring, but each person I greet is crossing a threshold—and that shows in facial expression, gait and handshake. There’s excitement, nervousness, some tears. Some bolt boldly across the stage, some dance, some barely seem to be moving. I saw lots of faces, a wonderful in-person survey of who our graduates are, a visual montage of the demographic statistics we compile.
That graduation threshold is the key to tremendous opportunity for graduates in America—and for their descendants. The obstacles they face to get there are often high, and they are much steeper for those who aren’t privileged or are the first in their family to have such an opportunity.
In Sage’s current student body, 61% are Pell-eligible. That puts them in the family income brackets that correlate to under 20% attaining a bachelor’s degree. When they succeed against those odds, graduation not only opens up possibilities for them individually, their success enriches the depth and diversity of the pool of educated citizens. In other words, individual and social goals are congruent, even though both amount to swimming against the tide that so powerfully correlates college graduation with family income.
Commencement was a wonderful conclusion to a great year: a year in which I was welcomed warmly, even eagerly, by the trustees, by the staff and faculty at Sage, by the students themselves, by the members of the Troy and Albany communities. We know every day why we come to work here, but commencement was a potent reminder.
Springtime at Sage also bookends commencement with the Russell Sage Reunion, and that, too, was a remarkable experience.
I spent the weekend meeting people who were more than glad to tell me how much Sage meant to them, to describe the friendship with a roommate that started thirty-five years ago and continues to this day, to narrate a life story in which a Sage education led to a rich and fulfilling career (sometimes in another field), to describe the Sage that they knew from four intense years various long times ago.
I heard great stories about Sage in WWII by a graduate from the class of 1948 I helped cautiously down the front stairs at Vail House; I heard rambunctious tales of trouble-making from a pretty darn lively 25th reunion class. This was my reunion year, too. Though not from Russell Sage, I was class of 1978, graduating forty years ago. It was also the year my older brother’s generation hit their fiftieth—class of 1968. And I enjoyed a dinner with that class of 1968 whose commencement ceremony came in the one month between Martin Luther King’s assassination and Bobby Kennedy’s.
But what better way to end my first year than to see our fresh and hopeful graduates cross the stage and our alumni of all ages take the time and make the effort to return to Sage and mark the years and see their classmates and reaffirm the value of their educations and their lives.
Now, following the seasons of the academic calendar, we turn our attentions to the arrival of new students, starting their journeys. We will welcome over 500 students, beginning with July orientation. I browse the accepted students Facebook page, where we are sponsoring a graduation cap design contest. The high school graduations were last week, for the most part, and students decorate their caps with images of their imagined futures. There was plenty of Sage green on the postings and even a plastic Gator or two. Careers ranging from nursing to musical theater were illustrated; parents were thanked; flowers, flags and flashing lights fitted out the head-topping dream maps.
The vividness of their designs is an important reminder to those of us in higher education: each group of freshmen is starting anew, each one of them is experiencing his or her first and only arrival in college. And we are here to support their energies and ambitions and guide them to that next commencement–and make sure the trip is worthwhile.
Yesterday, I read a Facebook post warning people about carjackers who work by throwing eggs at your windshield. Wipers turn the egg into a milky substance that blocks your view, and when you stop to clean it off, the carjacker attacks you. Something clicked in my mind—an urban legend detector, perhaps—and I typed “eggs on windshield” into snopes.com. Sure enough, it is an internet urban legend, circulating since 2009 with little or no evidence that there had ever been any crimes committed in that fashion.
Switch to a different message during the last presidential campaign: “Pope Endorses Donald Trump” or “In 1998 in People magazine, Donald Trump called Republicans ‘the dumbest group of voters’.”
Both of these “articles” appeared in my social media stream during campaign season. The first I simply pegged as fake or satire; the second I looked up on Snopes to find Trump had indeed never said any such thing.
Most of you have now had the same experience many times over: encountering something dressed up like a news item that is obviously or probably a complete fabrication.
But those pieces of electoral fakery had been forwarded thousands of times, mostly by people (on either side of the electoral fence) who saw them as endorsing their perspectives.
What instinct makes some of us question the veracity of the eggshell story, the pope endorsement, or the “dumb Republican” piece? And what makes others accept it at face value? More importantly for educators, how can we teach an intelligent skepticism that can protect us from misinterpreting propaganda (or humorous pieces) as straight reporting?
With the eggshell story, I recognized the familiar patterns of an urban legend: no direct attribution to a specific case or locale; a chain letter like imprecation to forward for the safety of others; a degree of implausibility regarding how it would work in practice.
With the Pope’s endorsement, I brought some outside knowledge into play: that the Pope has never endorsed a presidential candidate, that his values seem very different from Trump’s on issues like environmentalism, etc. But I also knew that such an endorsement would be front page news covered by every media outlet, not some scoop on an unheard of url.
As for the story that years ago Trump had assailed Republican voters and said he’d run that way to bamboozle them: it just seemed too pat, too perfect of a theme for anti-Trumpers.
But how many fake stories did not set off alarm bells with me, and how did these same stories work on millions of people? Confirmation bias is part of the story: people seek out sources that affirm their own views. A tendency to accept material formatted like “news” as news is part of the problem. A distrust of mainstream media may also play a role. Journalistic outlets may reflect bias, but they are still likely to be multi-sourced and fact checked (there’s a reason that ABC didn’t run with the Pope story. . . .)
In short, we need to bring a lot of knowledge and savvy to bear on being sophisticated consumers of information in our info-rich era. We need an understanding of politics and global affairs, of history and contemporary media, of logic. We need to develop our skills—and our students’ skills—of checking for veracity and being critical and shrewd. And we need to learn from the fakes: they follow familiar patterns and repay our study.
We do this at The Sage Colleges and throughout higher education, but I don’t think we are doing it intentionally enough. New information media and overload call for new educational approaches, and it is up to us to develop them. And we need to remember that “fake news” is not a synonym for news we don’t like or for opinion pieces we want to dismiss or for legitimate news stories with confidential sources or for the different issue of media bias: fake news refers to fabricated propaganda masquerading as genuine journalism–and it needs to be identified and exposed.
On March 14, high school students across the country staged a 17-minute walkout to protest the lack of action regarding gun violence in the wake of the Parkland shootings. Many college students—including students and faculty at Sage—joined in the protest.
Colleges are often thought of as hotbeds of political activism and protests. Yet actual voter participation of college students is among the lowest of any age group. Looking ahead to midterm elections, commentators note that in 2014, college student turnout was only 18%, less than half the anemic 37% of the general population and far less than the 55% of Americans over 60. With the Parkland high school students leading voter drives and turning their grief into action, it just might be a good time to address young voter apathy.
Colleges are looking at initiatives to spur greater informed participation. And Sage will be among those institutions, as we look next fall at ways to highlight and encourage multiple forms of political and social engagement.
Higher education supposedly teaches just such “civic engagement,” a catch-all term for intelligent active involvement in positive social change. Voting is important as much for what precedes it as the act itself: being informed about the complexities of our society and the political options for addressing them. Voting is first-level engagement; volunteering and organizing are deeper levels which should, for some students at least, grow out of the initial voting behavior.
For our part, educators can be savvy about bringing the contemporary world into classrooms and campus life, when it fits. The point is not to promote a particular political agenda but to ensure that students are applying the knowledge and habits of mind they learn in class to making the world a better place with an awareness of the complexities of the political environment.
There are multiple explanations about why young people turn out to vote in lower numbers than other age groups. Some argue that having children and owning property are often precursors to a deeper level of social commitment. Others point out that college students are often more transient and may have just relocated from their parents’ home and be unsure where to register. More broadly, young people are both idealistic and easily disillusioned, more inclined to distrust political parties and say their vote “doesn’t make a difference.” Distrust of authority should inspire activism, but it can also excuse disengagement.
And political discourse has become increasingly alienating: the hyperbole of shock-jock political radio and cable news, clickbait internet headlines, the trading of petty insults on social media, the intermingling of traditional journalistic information with literal propaganda and fakery, the blurred line between parody and reality. When college students explore the information landscape, it is enormously cluttered.
Our further task as educators is thus to develop student sophistication and skepticism in navigating the information world. Today’s students have a curiosity that is linked to instant information: we can answer questions by pointing a phone at the sky or asking Alexa. Each bit of information is linked to others that can provide background, context, confirmation and other points of view if the web is used as an enriching interconnection of sources. But we know it doesn’t always, or even usually, work that way.
At The Sage Colleges, we are developing different initiatives to spur intelligent student civic engagement and to make all our graduates shrewd navigators of the information saturated world. Look for more news here and at sage.edu for programs this fall that promote such sophisticated civic engagement.
February 2nd, James Joyce’s birthday, is my favorite of literary anniversaries. It’s not just that he is one of my favorite authors, but he valued his birthday intensely and took great pains to arrange the publication of his two big books on that day. Ulysses was published on 2-2-22, which I’m sure pleased the author. Finnegans Wake eventually saw the light on 2-2-39.
So this February 2, I find myself thinking about what Joyce had to say about education and teaching. In Ulysses, the autobiographical Stephen Dedalus is a schoolteacher and teaches a half day of class before his Dublin peregrinations.
In one fine moment, he helps an awkward boy finish some math after class and imagines himself at the same awkward age:
“Like him was I, these sloping shoulders, this gracelessness. My childhood bends beside me. Too far for me to lay a hand there once or lightly. Mine is far and his secret as our eyes. Secrets, silent, stony, sit in the dark palaces of both our hearts: secrets weary of their tyranny: tyrants, willing to be dethroned.
“The sum was done.”
Stephen’s half day ends with him being paid by the headmaster, a tiresome, anti-Semitic blowhard who enjoys lecturing him. The headmaster senses that Stephen will not linger in this job and says, “You were not born to be a teacher, I think.” “A learner rather,” Stephen replies.
Teachers are, of course, lifelong learners, but so are those who devote themselves to writing as Joyce did, though after several years teaching English to Italian speakers in Trieste.
The headmaster replies, “To learn one must be humble. Life is the great teacher.”
What fascinates me is that this line is widely quoted as a prime Joycean quotation (check the internet), though anyone who knows Joyce knows that “humble” is not an adjective one would apply to him.
Joyce puts these “fine sentiments” in the mouth of a pompous bigot intentionally. Perhaps he intends to remind us of Shakespeare’s most quotable pompous ass, Polonius (“The apparel oft proclaims the man”; “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” etc.).
Indeed, earlier in the scene, Joyce shows the headmaster quoting Shakespeare as he praises the financial responsibility of the English. “But what does Shakespeare say? Put but money in thy purse.” “Iago,” Stephen quietly murmurs, recognizing (just as we should with the headmaster’s words about life) that the sentiment is hardly Shakespearean in feel; it was put into the mouth of his most notorious villain.
This reminds me of the controversy over the new ten-pound note released in the U.K. featuring Jane Austen. It offered this quotation from Pride and Prejudice: “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading.” A fine Austen sentiment–until one realizes it is spoken by Caroline Bingley, who hated reading, and that Austen surely meant it to satirize Caroline’s flirtatious fawning.
Joyce and Austen repay close reading; they help make us “learners rather” by caring immensely about language. And that is useful to remember and go back to when we observe language being used with increasing carelessness and disingenuousness in our social media and by our political leaders.
In that light, one of my favorite lines in the schoolroom chapter of Ulysses comes when the headmaster intones righteously, “We are a generous people but we must also be just.” “I fear those big words which make us so unhappy,” Stephen replies.
Joyce was a master of language, conversant in many and fluent in English, Latin, Greek, Italian, French, and German. He learned Norwegian as a teen to write a letter to Ibsen. His writing weaves the language of the Dublin streets with parlor songs, Shakespeare and Dante, sentimental novels and dusty histories, clichés, and lyrical moments. But, as the quotation above hints, he cared deeply about how language was used to oppress and how it could be used instead to celebrate a human spirit and mercy over justice.
I drove home from the off-campus Athletic Hall of Fame Induction in the first snowfall of the year, a gentle one, about 2-3 inches. Back in Troy, I wound through the quiet nighttime Russell Sage campus with the snow still pristine. The holiday lights glowed like jack-o-lanterns beneath coats of snow; the illuminated Russell Sage archway looked mysteriously inviting. Even the traffic lights seemed festive.
I’ll have plenty of time to get tired of the snow and its inconveniences. But the season’s first snow always has a distinct aura. Why do people talk so much about the weather? In part because it affects us all and shapes our perceptions: seasonal changes emphasize our common humanity. The power of nature and the regularity of its changes as the earth tilts toward or away from the sun remind us of our smallness. (See this fine essay on the Winter Solstice, from a pilot’s point of view).
I remembered my first rainy quarter in graduate school translating Anglo-Saxon passages clumsily most every night. One passage that stayed with me—so different from the bloody battle poems—came from the Old English version of the Venerable Bede, and it invoked the sparrow that flits through a warm feasting hall, passing from dark winter on one end back to dark winter as it exits the other.
“When we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thanes and counselors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. “
Our winter celebrations still retain this primeval urge to gather around warmth and light, an urge intensified precisely when it is cold and dark.
Thirteen hundred years after Bede’s parable of the sparrow, James Joyce published “The Dead,” a story of a New Year’s /Twelfth Night party on an unusually snowy Dublin night. The main character admires the warmth of the Irish hospitality on display but never feels part of it. The party hosts are looking aged, and his wife sadly recalls a young lover who sang to her in the freezing cold and died shortly after. In the final moments of the story, the main character looks out at the gathering snow, and Joyce famously attempts to echo mood and sound in a description of the snowfall covering all the landscape and humanity. It’s hard to see snow the same way afterwards:
“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, on the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
There’s a lot going on in that famous passage, but one element is very familiar: snow erases boundaries and creates a temporary illusion of oneness. That’s probably what the great poet, Richard Wilbur, who died earlier this year, was thinking of in “First Snow in Alsace,” his poem about World War Two, in which
“The snow came down last night like moths
Burned on the moon; it fell till dawn,
Covered the town with simple cloths.”
It falls on bombed out houses and munition dumps and bodies recently killed, and then a young soldier returns from sentry duty:
“The night guard coming from his post,
Ten first-snows back in thought, walks slow
And warms him with a boyish boast:
He was the first to see the snow.”
“Ten first snows back in thought”: seasons mark time and memory for us. For me, this one will be remembered in the holiday lights of my first winter on the Russell Sage campus with traffic lights echoing the columns of red and green from Bush Memorial.
You can’t miss the commercialism of the holiday season. Many of the big retailers now call their employees to work on Thanksgiving Day to catch early Christmas shoppers, and that’s followed by Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday—national “spend money” days.
So it is important that we also have “Giving Tuesday” and a heightened attention to personal philanthropy in the period ranging from Thanksgiving to New Year’s. “Giving” is literally part of Thanksgiving, and it is a natural part of the holiday exchange of presents. Winter celebrations of plenty and feasting spur awareness of causes that support the less fortunate and help promote a better and more just society.
As a non-profit institution committed to social justice and serving the public good, the Sage Colleges depends on the philanthropy of our donors, and we highlight those causes in organized ways during the holiday season—this year through the five days of giving (Dec 4-8).
Perhaps it is a fitting time for a seasonal reminder of how colleges are financed and why private colleges especially depend on gifts and donations to serve their students well. Like most colleges and universities, Sage is non-profit. That not only means that every tuition dollar is spent on educating students, but that what we spend annually exceeds what we collect in tuition; it is supplemented by annual giving in excess of a million dollars that flows directly into the budget and additional gifts that support capital projects and endowment.
Endowment is not “profit,” as some people mistakenly think. Endowment is gift income that allows us, and other non-profits, to spend more on students than we collect in fees, to charge less than what we spend on achieving our mission.
In spite of how much we supplement tuition dollars with gifts, we know that college remains expensive and many families struggle to afford it. At Sage, we work hard to control our expenses, and we have one of the lowest private college tuitions in the region. And for families that can’t afford the full tuition, we make generous scholarships available—more than $20 million annually.
The importance of the task we are engaged in was driven home by an op-ed in the New York Times this morning. David Leonhardt summarizes a study called “Lost Einsteins” that looks at where the innovators who create patents come from.
Not surprisingly, students with high childhood math scores are much more likely to secure patents when they grow up. But there’s a catch. That’s true only if they come from high income families. “Low-income children who excel at math rarely become patent holders. They are less likely to hold patents than high-income students who do substantially worse in school.”
This study starkly reveals the profound inequities of our society, inequities that education is only partially successful in addressing. The title “Lost Einsteins” also reminds us that we all lose out when talent and brain power go undeveloped. And patents and innovations are just one piece of the story. The same logic applies in all areas of endeavor and creativity that help lift us as a society.
Charitable giving supports our ability to make college affordable—and that is a key part of our social mission. The likelihood of a student graduating college is still tied closely to family income and parental level of education. So everything we do is geared toward ensuring student success. Whatever the income level of our students, we keep classes small and the community tight and supportive to make sure that every student has the best chance of graduating into a fulfilling career and life.
When we help first-generation college students achieve their educational dreams, we help level the playing field for them and their descendants. As educators, we have the great privilege of seeing those success stories every year. And we also add to the intellectual capital of our society in a way that benefits everyone.
Many of the people who give to Sage are graduates who are motivated by a desire to see students of this and future generations have the kind of experience and opportunities that proved so valuable to them. Still others give in honor of family members who valued Sage dearly. And others become engaged with Sage as residents of the Capital District enjoying our lectures, programs, theatrical productions, galleries and sporting events. They appreciate the role of their local college in sustaining great neighborhoods with character.
We live in a time where, strangely, there has been unusual animosity toward higher education. Much of that is, in my view, artificially engineered for political reasons. But there is nothing partisan about seeing that young people have good opportunities to enter the economy and be productive citizens. There is nothing political about graduating talented nurses, designers, physical therapists, teachers, counselors, and entrepreneurs.
At the core of our message is this: higher education is a public good. We all benefit from a citizenry that is informed, engaged and prepared. And we also benefit from citizens who have internalized the idea of contributing to the social good.
Sage encourages those behaviors and habits of mind through organized service projects that involve students at multiple levels. Students begin as early as their first year through “day of service” activities to understand the value of working in community settings that depend on volunteer commitment to address social needs. From that level of “episodic” engagement, they move on to more complex engagements with solving social problems and strengthening or creating organizations that address them. A student who begins with an evening serving in a soup kitchen can end up creating a food pantry or working on global initiatives to combat hunger.
We know how much we depend on the generosity of our supporters and that drives our mission to graduate young people attuned to using their talents to make the world a better place. I hope you will join me in supporting the crucial work of American higher education.
As we head into what students and other academics call “Thanksgiving Break,” I’m reminded of the rhythms of the academic calendar and how they intersect with our nation’s holiday calendar and the changing of the seasons.
Once the Thanksgiving holiday nears, academics know there isn’t much left to the fall semester. Faculty and students start looking to the end of the term and measuring what remains to be accomplished against a diminishing number of days. In a perfect world, the Thanksgiving holiday would come in the middle of the term and provide a healthy break. As it is, it provides a break right in the midst of the busiest time—and that’s healthy, too.
Thanksgiving is the first of our winter feast holidays, and its simplicity has made it very popular, particularly since no particular religion is a pre-requisite to sharing in the celebration. Because of its Americanness, it has also been particularly popular with immigrants.
In recent years, a trademark image of Thanksgiving has been political arguments around the table; this theme measures the depth of division in our contemporary politics and discourse. This year will provide no shortage of potentially incendiary topics from sexual harassment and assault to a controversial tax bill (with serious stingers for higher education) to the investigation of Russian interference in the presidential election. It used to be that the best way to avoid controversy was to turn on Thanksgiving sports—but, ouch, that’s the NFL. And to top it off this is the first year the NFL Thanksgiving game features the Washington Redskins and their controversial name on the least appropriate day possible.
When our political discourse is so fraught, it may seem hard to be thankful for our democracy and our diversity—but that is exactly when we need to embrace those values and embrace sitting around a table with people different from ourselves. Like an increasing number of Americans, I will sit down to a Thanksgiving dinner with a family that includes different ethnicities and religious backgrounds—and no one will think it the least bit odd. It is just who we are as an American family in the twenty-first century.
Let’s hope that all our students, faculty and staff take home with them a nuanced appreciation of how we negotiate difference, how we both listen openly and speak our minds, how we respect our fellow human beings. At Sage and throughout higher education, we teach all those values, but we also witness, in myriad ways, how they are fraying in contemporary society. It’s nice to have a few days off, but there is no shortage of work for us to do.
Thanksgiving is also a time to be thankful for the bounty of life and the planet we share with all living things. Unfortunately the condition and future of the natural world is as much at risk as our democratic discourse. For perspective and solace, I turn to Wendell Berry and this little poem:
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Best wishes for a restful and renewing Thanksgiving.