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.
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!
There’s an odd photo of myself that I see every morning. I see it because it lives in a small, wooden frame on my dresser top, next to the tray that holds my keys and change. It’s odd because it is a rare beardless picture of me. I’ve worn a beard pretty much all my adult life. In this photo I sport a moustache and short hair and look remarkably clean cut.
My best guess is that this was taken around 1980, the middle of my grad school years, on a visit home to Austin, Texas in the summer. I’m around 24 or 25 years old, staring back at my older self.
I’m standing in the shade, backlit by the blazing Texas sun that washes out the street beyond, where a lazy Rhodesian ridgeback dog named Kenya used to sleep soundly in the middle of the street. The poorly lit setting is explained by what sits in the middle ground between me and the sun-washed street. Two enormous century plants (agave Americana) that my parents delighted in had finally bloomed, sending their fierce stalks skyward before dying. They are so named because they are said to bloom just once a century, though the truth is closer to twenty or thirty years. In any case, they are “semelparous” or “monocarpic,” meaning they only bloom once in a lifetime.
As such, they are vivid images for the passing of time. And it is no wonder that my parents wanted to capture the blooming moment on film.
I stand in front of the unfurled century plants, a quarter century in my age; my father takes the picture, a few years short of three-quarters of a century, a milestone he won’t live to celebrate. Of course, when I look into this flattering mirror every morning and see this youthful and trim young man looking back, I try to imagine what must have been in his head, with a whole lifetime awaiting.
Our photographs constitute a museum of aging, a phrase that Geoffrey O’Brien uses to describe movies, but one applicable to still pictures as well. That shadowed figure in front of the century plants seems far away in some respects, very close in others. The secret that older folks walk around with is that the sense of self doesn’t change that much over time, a quality rendered by sentimental expressions about being “young at heart” or “young inside.” But it is scandalously true: having just turned 62, I don’t feel old, nor do my contemporaries.
Perhaps that really means that I don’t feel the way we thought older people must feel when we were young. Perhaps it is that the difference between generations, between me and my parents, is much greater than the difference between younger me and older me. Ageism is the only self-negating prejudice. Or, as some have put it, ageism is prejudice against your self to be.
I remember visiting one of my grad school professors about fifteen years after this photo was taken. He rubbed his hands together and said, “Chris, don’t you find each decade better than the last—saving your health of course?”
I believe I do, because, while that inner self feels so consistent and seamless with my younger self, I also know so much more in terms of lived experience (and book learning, too). One thing I possess that young and beardless Chris does not is the memory of that very time and of the changes wrought since.
Even the landscape shows the passing of time. The century plants, of course, are long gone, and new owners have built an addition on the home. The route I used to bicycle to high school passed acres of woods broken only by one convenience store and a Dairy Queen. That route is now congested with tony strip malls every inch of the way, and the road is hardly safe for a bicycle. The tiny and provincial high school I rode my bike to (that I started when it was in portable buildings) now enrolls almost three thousand students. And the joke I used to tell about how many Austinites does it take to change a light bulb is more applicable than ever (100: one to change it, and 99 to bemoan how fast it changed).
The live oak that shaded the spot is also gone and with it the rope swing I spent so many hours on my father once came out and asked me if I was reliving the rhythms of the womb in my afternoon reveries. Those memories are there if I want them, but the point is not that the edge I have on younger Chris is nostalgia—that would be a disappointing bargain.
Rather, it is that my older self knows more about that most mysterious of things—other people. So much so that it is hard to understand how that young man even functioned. But, of course, I did—and so did we all, galvanized by the confidence of youth, the engine that takes the place of knowledge and wisdom.
I was a student then, an educator now. What does my sense of the value of accumulated years—each decade better than the last—owe to my college education? To put it another way, how does my own experience with life inform what I think is important for today’s students to experience?
As an undergraduate, I knew that literary study was my thing, but I took courses (spurred by requirements) in biology, astronomy, sociology, anthropology, political science, history, philosophy, art and music. I intuited that each discipline was a different language, a different lens for seeing the world and with it a tool for better understanding that mystery of other people. Breadth of learning did not in itself teach me empathy or life survival skills, but it did give me real respect for different perspectives (and for expertise itself). Knowing more sharpened my sense of what I didn’t know and how to continually push that boundary.
My career, like most, has involved learning new technologies and new ways of interacting with people in multiple roles—coworkers, bosses, students, philanthropists, politicians. The habits of mind I had learned prior to that photograph have served me well in moving from there to here, then to now. So much of what teachers do amounts to exemplifying and facilitating genuine and critical intellectual curiosity.
Nowadays, we document every moment with selfies and portraits of our food. (Who knows how many pictures of turkeys traveled the internet on Thanksgiving this past week?). Just a generation ago, pictures were just as important but less ubiquitous. Perhaps they work the same magic from the screen as they do from the frame or the dresser top. Roland Barthes called the photograph “the illogical conjunction of spatial immediacy and temporal anteriority,” present image, past self—like memory but not mediated the same way. He might view the immediacy of the selfie or Snapchat differently, but our encounter with a remembered past moment through a photograph still carries the charge of mortality he expressed.
Taking the photo of the century plant in its moment of simultaneous glory and expiration is one kind of tribute. Planting the cactus itself with a bloom a “century” away is another.
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.