Holiday season is a great time for movie-going, as many of the studio’s best films are held for this period of Oscar contention. This year, my wife and I were delighted to see Greta Gerwig’s new version of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott’s 1869 novel.
We made up a great test audience for the movie. I had (embarrassingly) never read the book and only seen bits of the previous movie treatments. Lauren had read the book multiple times as an adolescent, read Little Men as well, owned the Madame Alexander dolls, and seen at least two of the film versions. We both loved the masterpiece that Greta Gerwig has created.
The energy of the March sisters propels the movie forward, driven by their mix of creativity and passion. Gerwig chooses to cut back and forth in time, a decision that allows you to experience the youthful dreams of the characters through the constricting pressures of the years. That the acting is so uniformly excellent is a tribute to Gerwig’s direction and an impeccable script.
The story shows its debt to Jane Austen’s influence and American domestic fiction in that the plot is driven by young women of moderate means negotiating a world of very limited options of marriage and employment. In this constrained world, the varieties of creativity exhibited by the March sisters hint at how the world has changed for women in the half century since Austen’s novels. Their talents in writing, painting and music carry a weight they could not have in Austen’s time.
Women’s education is central to the story. Amy (the wonderful Florence Pugh) is beaten in school for drawing a portrait of the teacher, and the family chooses to have her taught by older sister, Jo, rather than return to the inferior girls’ school, noting how the poor quality of those schools was a crime against girls and women. Beth’s musical education is helped by the kindly neighbor who gives her a piano, while Amy hones her painting skills through a European tour. The elder sisters both marry teachers to their wealthy aunt’s dismay, but she provides the inheritance that allows them to open a school that will, they proudly proclaim, enroll girls and boys.
The central role that educational access would play in reshaping American society after the Civil War is woven into the plot, just as it was part of Louisa May Alcott’s upbringing in a home where her father was an experimental educator and transcendentalist. Little Women imagines an alternative to the Victorian ethos of education as authoritarian and soul-crushing. It asks how the optimism and creativity of childhood can be cultivated rather than quashed. Like its contemporary, Alice in Wonderland (1865), Little Women rejects an educational system based on conformity and celebrates imagination and play. No wonder generations of children have loved both books.
Gerwig makes one brilliant change in adapting the book by underscoring its autobiographical nature and representing the writer, Jo, as the author of Little Women herself. This is a crucial move, as it is really not possible to adapt Little Women into film without an awareness of its 150-year history as a force in the lives of American readers and filmgoers.
The novel was a success when it was written and has never gone out of print. It has been translated into over fifty languages. Little Women formed the basis of two silent films, as well as a George Cukor film in 1933 with Katherine Hepburn; a 1949 film with June Allyson (and Elizabeth Taylor and Janet Leigh); a 1994 movie with Winona Ryder and Kirsten Dunst; BBC versions from 1950, 1958, 1970, and 2013; several television shows; a 1912 Broadway play; stage musicals in 1955 (London), 1964 (off-Broadway) and 2005 (Broadway); a 1969 ballet; a 1987 Anime series; and a 1998 opera.
The compelling saga of the March sisters is underscored by the story of what an effect a book can have on the world, and that theme is expressed in the film through a loving depiction of the first edition being printed and bound.
The story of Little Women’s success and endurance in the popular imagination is remarkable, but it is not as remarkable as one might think. If you studied American Literature back when I was in college, you might be forgiven for thinking that nineteenth-century American literature was overwhelmingly male (the world of Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, Thoreau, and Emerson). It wasn’t.
The most popular work of fiction of nineteenth-century America was published seventeen years before Little Women, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Alcott would have grown up reading other commercially successful female authors: Susanna Rowson, Catherine Sedgewick, Maria Cummins, Susan Warner, and E.D.E.N. Southworth. This literature was virtually erased in the early twentieth century, dismissed as “sentimental” and “domestic,” only to be rediscovered in feminist revisions of literary history. My college American Literature anthology contained only one woman from the nineteenth century, Emily Dickinson. That shockingly narrow view of the “great tradition,” has since been broadened.
That myopia reminds us why we need to keep revisiting history and reading, interpreting, and adapting older works–for what endures in them and for understanding our own place in history afresh. Little Women is a powerful case in point. Go see it.
One of the most powerful lessons for educators is that a group of students sitting in a class can each have very different learning experiences. And those different experiences are often based on the degree to which they get involved and the amount of effort they apply. It’s strikingly simple, and yet the implications for us are complex.
Some students will do just what is required to get by—maximizing their “grade per effort” formula. Others will not even get by. Still, some will make the most of the opportunities by participating and leading in class, forming study groups, attending lectures and plays, playing a sport or running student government, joining a community organization. Their experiences will be dramatically superior to other students in spite of being offered the same opportunities.
It’s easy to be a bit complacent about this and assume it is the way of the world. We certainly have enough familiar sayings on the subject: “You get out of it what you put into it.”
Similarly, we have sayings that reflect the pedagogical equivalent of this laissez-faire. “You can lead a horse to water. . .” is the cowboy version of motivation. And teaching has long been dominated by a blanket metaphor by which we measure our teaching by how much we “cover.” Then there is infectious disease pedagogy, in which students are “exposed” to certain ideas and skills. Some of them, we assume, catch it.
Well, all of us in education certainly experienced, as students, our share of courses that left us entirely on our own to read the texts, annotate the lectures, and take the tests. One can learn that way, but it isn’t ideal.
We do know that how we structure student experience influences how students behave, which, in turn, influences how engaged they become and how much they learn and grow.
This is the time of year to remember what great teachers exemplify: that there are multiple ways to nudge ordinary students into extraordinary performance. At Sage, we share those techniques or “best practices”; we try new methods and technologies and winnow the successful experiments from the less effective.
I use the word “nudge” here deliberately, with a nod to Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, co-authors of the book of the same name.
“Nudging,” those authors tell us, is about “altering people’s behaviors in a predictable way” through policies or practices which increase the likelihood of people making choices that are beneficial to them. For example, they discuss “default bias”—dramatically more people opt for a retirement plan if you have to make the effort to opt out of it, instead of opting in. Their research shows the value of deadlines and breaking big projects into smaller units. Peer behavior is also a great motivator of behavior and so are “informational nudges.”
Faculty know from experience that freshmen won’t do as well in a course with only two graded assignments , seven weeks apart, and that regular quizzes or mini-assignments will increase the number of students who show up in class prepared. In other words, there are ways to influence whether the horse will drink.
That process is called by the behavioral economists “choice architecture.” Building the choice architecture students encounter can help them make better choices about their education and have more fulfilling college experiences. It is based on years of observation that confirm that not only do people not behave rationally, but that their irrationality is predictable. The student who most needs to visit the professor’s office is the least likely to do so.
This nudge principle applies outside the classroom as well. How students manage choosing a college and selecting classes, making decisions about financial aid or getting involved in a student club—all these things can be crafted in ways that improve smart decisions and participation. As Thaler and Sunstein point out, no presentation of a choice or action is ever neutral, so we might as well craft that choice architecture intentionally.
The implications are far-reaching, as a European article summarizing “nudging” in education reveals. Many of our faculty discussions sponsored by the Center for Teaching and Learning are ultimately about how to structure assignments and syllabi in ways that inspire optimal student performance. And our current review at Sage of work processes in our quest for truly “student-centered service” is similarly structured, looking to tailor campus procedures in sensible and affirming ways. We recognize that we can’t just rely on our friendliness and personal attention to smooth the way for students; we need processes that are well-designed and that facilitate students making good choices, going to the right office, filling out the right form.
At Sage, we value the small scale of our institution and the way that it allows for attention to students as individuals and for being extraordinarily responsive to student needs. We do not accept those metaphors that depict us as powerless to inspire student excellence and success. Students will always differ on how they respond to what college offers, but we do our best to guide them, inspire them, engage and interact with them in a spirit that is more collaborative than “exposing” or “covering.”
My first July 4th at Sage, I wrote about Lincoln’s remarkable address to a picnic of German immigrants on Independence Day. Lincoln addressed the contradiction between slavery and the language of equality in the Declaration of Independence, and he specifically addressed Stephen Douglas’s argument that the Declaration didn’t apply to slaves.
The rhetorical question he posed to the German immigrants is where would such exclusions stop—would they extend to them as well? And if the document and its call to human equality could be so modified, he said: “If that declaration is not the truth, let us get the statute book in which we find it and tear it out! Who is so bold to do it? Let us stick to it then, let us stand firmly then.”
The connection between emancipated slaves and the immigrant nature of America emerges powerfully in Frederick Douglass’s 1869 Boston speech on the “Composite Nation,” in which he argues that it is imperative to our nature to accept the rising influx of Chinese immigrants, an issue of great controversy at the time.
Douglass acknowledges the various arguments presented against immigration and counters them. Most important are two related claims he makes. First:
“There are such things in the world as human rights. They rest upon no conventional foundation, but are external, universal, and indestructible. Among these, is the right of locomotion; the right of migration; the right which belongs to no particular race, but belongs alike to all and to all alike. It is the right you assert by staying here, and your fathers asserted by coming here. It is this great right that I assert for the Chinese and Japanese, and for all other varieties of men equally with yourselves, now and forever.”
More importantly, he ties that principle to the question of what differentiates America as a nation. Herein lies his message appropriate for this Independence Day:
“Our geographical position, our relation to the outside world, our fundamental principles of Government, world-embracing in their scope and character, our vast resources, requiring all manner of labor to develop them, and our already existing composite population, all conspire to one grand end, and that is to make us the perfect national illustration of the unit and dignity of the human family, that the world has ever seen.
“In whatever else other nations may have been great and grand, our greatness and grandeur will be found in the faithful application of the principle of perfect civil equality to the people of all races and of all creeds, and to men of no creeds. We are not only bound to this position by our organic structure and by our revolutionary antecedents, but by the genius of our people.”
Douglass lived the first forty-nine years of his life in slavery, then, after escaping, became one of the most influential abolitionists, a champion of women’s suffrage at the Seneca Falls convention, a best-selling writer and famous orator, and counselor to three presidents. In that context, his imagination of America’s greatness as flowing precisely from its egalitarian possibilities is all the more remarkable: “I hold that a liberal and brotherly welcome to all who are likely to come to the United States, is the only wise policy which this nation can adopt.”
Words to remember on July 4, 2019 as debates about race and immigration still occupy center stage in our American experiment.
With these weighty thoughts in mind, I had the pleasure of seeing the new multi-racial Broadway reimagining of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!. This might seem an incongruous juxtaposition, but it is not such a stretch. Douglass and the new Oklahoma! both invite us to consider the nation’s history through the lens of today, and they remind us how central social change is to American selfhood.
Oklahoma! premiered during World War II (shortly after Pearl Harbor), but it was set during the run-up to Oklahoma statehood in 1906. The immensely popular musical was seen both as the first “serious” musical (no chorus line) and as an invocation of a simpler time. The play begat a famous movie in the 1950s that further tied the musical to popular images of wholesomeness.
Daniel Fish’s production keeps virtually every word of the original and every song. The orchestration is greatly altered, as a seven-piece band on stage accompanies spare renditions of the songs in a country twang. And the emphasis of the dialogue and action is somehow rendered more sinister, in a way that challenges our former understanding of the play.
Yet, the disturbing elements of the story are all present in the original: the “girl who can’t say no,” the box social in which lunches representing the single women who made them are auctioned to their potential beaus, the double-entendres about who has the biggest hamper and the sweetest pie. Above all, there is Jud, who, in the original, is a farmhand who lives in the smokehouse with pornographic pictures tacked up and hangs menacingly outside the heroine’s bedroom window. The romantic lead tries to talk him into suicide, and his accidental death is required to allow the three weddings of the conclusion to go forward to the happy ending.
That marriage comedies are salted with difficult truths about the relations between the sexes is nothing new. Shakespeare’s comedies express the concern that love creates affections arbitrarily or that various characters must be tamed into domesticity. Jane Austen’s novels may not feature an actual auction, but the financial worth of every character is carefully counted in reaching an ending that is also a settlement.
Oklahoma! like many musicals is conversant in the comedy and the untamability of sexual desire. And yet, as the title emphasizes, the play is about a place, a place in the heart of America. Its 1906 setting seemed far away from the war-weary world in which national boundaries were collapsing and refugees fleeing around the globe, and yet it satisfied audiences in its evocation of timeless tales tied to the American nation and its founding in the violent conquest of the West.
1906 and 1943 seem just as far from us now, the do’s and don’ts of “People Will Say We’re in Love” echoing strangely in the “Me, Too” era. But we must not make the mistake of imagining the original audiences to be naïve; they were not. Happy endings are not easily achieved: in the sacrifices that build a society lie the groundwork for harmony and resolution.
We need not forget that where we came from is fraught with injustice and conflict to celebrate that we come together with the possibility for a new day and a “beautiful morning.” As Frederick Douglass puts it: “The sentiments we exhibit, whether love or hate, confidence or fear, respect or contempt, will always imply a like humanity.”
At Sage, we have been considering our history as we prepare for our future. We are thinking more deliberately about something we must always be alert to: how do we adapt our original mission to changing times. Looking back on our founding over a century ago, in the era in which Oklahoma! is set, we also explore how our many dramatic changes evidence a common humanity. That persistence and adaptability, driven by a spirit of inclusion, offer the Sage family something to celebrate on Independence Day.
**Thanks to historian Jill Lepore for the reference to Frederick Douglass’s remarkable speech.
I arrived in the Capital District as president of The Sage Colleges almost two years ago, but I came with a deep tie to the Hudson River Valley. My wife grew up in Hastings-on-Hudson, and during the twenty-five years we’ve been married, we have visited friends there several times a year. One of the first things that struck me about our new home here was how easy it was to cross the Hudson. Often we cross it several times in a day.
Back in Hastings, the Hudson is more than two miles across, the Mario Cuomo Bridge has a $5 toll, and the traffic is often mired. Here, the river is narrower and the bridges plentiful and free. That’s a good thing, because I travel frequently between the Sage campuses in Albany and Troy, a trip of about twenty minutes.
So, as a newcomer, I was surprised to hear Albany and Troy folk talking about the Hudson as a cultural barrier and describing some people as reluctant to cross it. Increasingly though, Sage students move back and forth between our campuses, taking advantage of our free shuttle and the different offerings on our two campuses.
We know they also enjoy the great neighborhoods of downtown Troy and the Helderberg neighborhood of Albany. The Troy campus of nineteenth-century brownstones blends directly into the shops and restaurants of the hip downtown. The Albany campus is nestled in an academic community with Albany Law, the College of Pharmacy, and Albany Academy, bounded by a lovely tree-lined neighborhood on one side and the growing Albany Med complex on the other. The capital of New York’s trillion-dollar economy is only a couple of miles away.
The Capital District now understands that its strength and appeal lie in connecting diverse communities—the four cities and the intertwined suburbs. In that spirit, The Sage Colleges have embarked on a plan to reorganize and reaffirm our identity as a single college with two campuses. We will return (effective fall 2020) to our original name of Russell Sage College, but as a coeducational college with campuses in Albany and Troy.
This coming fall, we celebrate seventy years of Sage in Albany; two years ago marked the centennial of the founding of Russell Sage in Troy. Sage is proud of its on-going interdependence with Albany and Troy, and of being part of the post-industrial rejuvenation of both cities. Like the other great institutions of higher education and the arts and non-profit communities throughout the Capital District, we see our strength in our multiple locations and our diversity.
The river draws us back. It’s a presence in our geography, our history, our economy, and in painting, literature, and architecture. Our students’ lives seem a long way from the bucolic paintings of the Hudson River School above. Yet the Hudson is as much a part of city life–from the Port of Albany to Manhattan’s West Side. Grace Paley, in a poem about the river, imagines a struggle between its southward flow and the force of the tidal estuary: “what a hard time/ the Hudson River has had/ trying to get to the sea,” she writes. But that daily trek, she concludes, is a successful and incessantly repeated journey.
The river is perhaps the oldest metaphor for constant change in the midst of something that endures. Our colleges change to meet the shifting needs of students and society but they retain their essential character and dedication to learning and human achievement. Sage’s new strategic plan builds on our reputational strengths with a women’s and gender institute to invigorate our feminist tradition in a contemporary coed context and explore pressing gender issues. We are also developing a new program–Sage THRIVE–that builds on our strengths in the health sciences, education, and art and design and offers a core value that helps students combine professional success with a cultivated and individual sense of wellness and well-being. Those and other initiatives bridge tradition and innovation. Above all, our new plan celebrates a unified college proudly engaged on both sides of the Hudson.
In the new strategic plan for Sage (to be released in full in March 2019), we talk about our institution’s long-standing reputation for excellent professional and pre-professional education going back to a founding to teach the “practical liberal arts,” a phrase many educators might consider an oxymoron. But rather than being a contradiction in terms, “practical liberal education” suggests that it may be counter-productive to separate liberal arts education from the pre-professional.
At Sage we are proud that we graduate liberally educated students in the professions and professionally prepared students in the liberal arts. But what do we really mean by “liberal education” in this context? We hear a lot about the vexed term, “liberal arts,” without necessarily sharing a clear definition. The discussion requires disambiguating three different, overlapping meanings of the term.
“Liberal Arts College” is a term that has a lot of meaning for prospective students and their parents. It describes a kind of institution and with it a set of values: an institution with a faculty of genuine teacher scholars dedicated foremost to teaching in interactive ways in small classes. A liberal arts college is largely residential and reflects a belief that college is an experience that educates the whole student; it isn’t just an assemblage of forty classes. The scale of such institutions allows for a relatively low student/faculty ratio and ensures that students are treated as individuals not numbers.
“Liberal arts curriculum” is how faculty usually understand the term liberal arts. It is a view of higher education as engaging students with what Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said,” giving students the tools to join in conversations that range the ages. A liberal arts curriculum is based on the belief that individuals’ lives—and the society as a whole—are richer when we are conversant with human history and the history of ideas; with the range of creative expression across the centuries in music, literature, art, theatre and dance; and with the most rigorous means developed in the natural and social sciences to understand human life, society and the natural world.
This liberal arts curriculum is counter-cultural in that it acts as a supplement or corrective to the limitations of the contemporary commercial culture in which we are immersed. In the competition for what marketers call “mind-share,” the liberal arts curriculum speaks up for knowledge that has institutional authority but not commercial currency. As education has become more democratized—and as culture has become increasingly dominated by commercial and profit-driven discourses—the role of the traditional liberal arts curriculum becomes more consequential. That is, there are fewer places outside the academy that celebrate and propagate rigorous scientific and historical understanding.
“Liberal Learning” is a term that recognizes that the liberal arts experience does not just teach subject matter but also habits of mind—ways of thinking and acting that promote lifelong learning. Those key habits of mind support the idea of freedom implied in the word “liberal” in that they strengthen citizen engagement in democracy, but they are eminently practical, with all kinds of applications in the world of work. They are: the ability to think critically and analytically; the ability to write clearly, to speak well and to give an effective presentation; the ability to use mathematical skills in reasoning; the ability to conduct research independently; the ability to understand perspectives and experiences very different from one’s own; and the ability to work effectively in groups.
At Sage, these conceptions of the liberal arts all inform a curriculum and an educational environment that includes both traditional liberal arts disciplines and professional schools. Indeed most of our students are enrolled in professional programs like nursing, health sciences, education, law and society, business management, and a strongly professional art and design major. The liberal arts curriculum lives primarily in their core or general education experience, but the habits of mind or skills associated with liberal learning permeate the curriculum, and the small, residential college offers the experience most often associated with a liberal arts college. We aren’t a traditional liberal arts college; rather, we resist the arbitrary division between liberal learning and professional preparation. We believe we need and we provide liberally educated nurses, physical and occupational therapists, managers, graphic designers, and teachers.
The founding correspondence of Russell Sage College is consistent with this vision. Eliza Kellas, who promoted the idea of the college to Olivia Slocum Sage and served as its first president, advocated a professional school, “Truly this is a time of specialized training, and if young women are to fit themselves thoroughly to succeed they must have an opportunity for careful and thorough training.” The college was founded on a belief “that modern women must train to earn their own living in the professions and business.” And yet the environment of the college has always had the shape and feel of a liberal arts college.
The great essayist and poet Wendell Berry writes: “It could be said that liberal education has the nature of a bequest, in that it looks upon a student as the potential heir of a cultural birthright, whereas a practical education has the nature of a commodity to be exchanged for position, status, wealth, etc. in the future. . . . But these definitions, based on division and opposition, are too simple. It is easy, accepting the viewpoint of either side, to find fault with the other. But the wrong is on neither side; it is in their division” (from The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture).
Berry is exploring the place of agriculture in the development of American higher education, but his discussion is illuminating for understanding the vexed relationship between liberal and professional study today. Berry cites the language used in the Morrill Act that created land-grant colleges. He stresses that the act envisioned education as “liberal and practical,” but that the history of American education has been one of liberal or practical. Berry sees each approach impoverished without the leavening of the other. So, as much as Berry might bemoan the excesses of the commercialization of education, he sees the truly desirable American version of formal learning as a balance that restores the “and” in “liberal and practical education”: “Without the balance of historic value, practical education gives us that most absurd of standards: “relevance,” based upon the suppositional needs of a theoretical future. But liberal education, divorced from practicality, gives something no less absurd: the specialist professor of one or another of the liberal arts, the custodian of an inheritance he has learned much about, but nothing from.”
Ultimately, the term “liberal arts” itself (which does not refer to liberal politics or the fine arts) may not be necessary in thinking about what a college graduate should know. What is needed is an education that gives students the practical skills for today and the depth of learning and habits of mind to sustain a lifetime in a changing world. Sage, like Wendell Berry, acts on the belief that it is better to stress the “and” between liberal and practical education and help our students develop the sensibilities to succeed and to live rewarding lives.
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.