Yesterday, I read a Facebook post warning people about carjackers who work by throwing eggs at your windshield. Wipers turn the egg into a milky substance that blocks your view, and when you stop to clean it off, the carjacker attacks you. Something clicked in my mind—an urban legend detector, perhaps—and I typed “eggs on windshield” into snopes.com. Sure enough, it is an internet urban legend, circulating since 2009 with little or no evidence that there had ever been any crimes committed in that fashion.
Switch to a different message during the last presidential campaign: “Pope Endorses Donald Trump” or “In 1998 in People magazine, Donald Trump called Republicans ‘the dumbest group of voters’.”
Both of these “articles” appeared in my social media stream during campaign season. The first I simply pegged as fake or satire; the second I looked up on Snopes to find Trump had indeed never said any such thing.
Most of you have now had the same experience many times over: encountering something dressed up like a news item that is obviously or probably a complete fabrication.
But those pieces of electoral fakery had been forwarded thousands of times, mostly by people (on either side of the electoral fence) who saw them as endorsing their perspectives.
What instinct makes some of us question the veracity of the eggshell story, the pope endorsement, or the “dumb Republican” piece? And what makes others accept it at face value? More importantly for educators, how can we teach an intelligent skepticism that can protect us from misinterpreting propaganda (or humorous pieces) as straight reporting?
With the eggshell story, I recognized the familiar patterns of an urban legend: no direct attribution to a specific case or locale; a chain letter like imprecation to forward for the safety of others; a degree of implausibility regarding how it would work in practice.
With the Pope’s endorsement, I brought some outside knowledge into play: that the Pope has never endorsed a presidential candidate, that his values seem very different from Trump’s on issues like environmentalism, etc. But I also knew that such an endorsement would be front page news covered by every media outlet, not some scoop on an unheard of url.
As for the story that years ago Trump had assailed Republican voters and said he’d run that way to bamboozle them: it just seemed too pat, too perfect of a theme for anti-Trumpers.
But how many fake stories did not set off alarm bells with me, and how did these same stories work on millions of people? Confirmation bias is part of the story: people seek out sources that affirm their own views. A tendency to accept material formatted like “news” as news is part of the problem. A distrust of mainstream media may also play a role. Journalistic outlets may reflect bias, but they are still likely to be multi-sourced and fact checked (there’s a reason that ABC didn’t run with the Pope story. . . .)
In short, we need to bring a lot of knowledge and savvy to bear on being sophisticated consumers of information in our info-rich era. We need an understanding of politics and global affairs, of history and contemporary media, of logic. We need to develop our skills—and our students’ skills—of checking for veracity and being critical and shrewd. And we need to learn from the fakes: they follow familiar patterns and repay our study.
We do this at The Sage Colleges and throughout higher education, but I don’t think we are doing it intentionally enough. New information media and overload call for new educational approaches, and it is up to us to develop them. And we need to remember that “fake news” is not a synonym for news we don’t like or for opinion pieces we want to dismiss or for legitimate news stories with confidential sources or for the different issue of media bias: fake news refers to fabricated propaganda masquerading as genuine journalism–and it needs to be identified and exposed.
On March 14, high school students across the country staged a 17-minute walkout to protest the lack of action regarding gun violence in the wake of the Parkland shootings. Many college students—including students and faculty at Sage—joined in the protest.
Colleges are often thought of as hotbeds of political activism and protests. Yet actual voter participation of college students is among the lowest of any age group. Looking ahead to midterm elections, commentators note that in 2014, college student turnout was only 18%, less than half the anemic 37% of the general population and far less than the 55% of Americans over 60. With the Parkland high school students leading voter drives and turning their grief into action, it just might be a good time to address young voter apathy.
Colleges are looking at initiatives to spur greater informed participation. And Sage will be among those institutions, as we look next fall at ways to highlight and encourage multiple forms of political and social engagement.
Higher education supposedly teaches just such “civic engagement,” a catch-all term for intelligent active involvement in positive social change. Voting is important as much for what precedes it as the act itself: being informed about the complexities of our society and the political options for addressing them. Voting is first-level engagement; volunteering and organizing are deeper levels which should, for some students at least, grow out of the initial voting behavior.
For our part, educators can be savvy about bringing the contemporary world into classrooms and campus life, when it fits. The point is not to promote a particular political agenda but to ensure that students are applying the knowledge and habits of mind they learn in class to making the world a better place with an awareness of the complexities of the political environment.
There are multiple explanations about why young people turn out to vote in lower numbers than other age groups. Some argue that having children and owning property are often precursors to a deeper level of social commitment. Others point out that college students are often more transient and may have just relocated from their parents’ home and be unsure where to register. More broadly, young people are both idealistic and easily disillusioned, more inclined to distrust political parties and say their vote “doesn’t make a difference.” Distrust of authority should inspire activism, but it can also excuse disengagement.
And political discourse has become increasingly alienating: the hyperbole of shock-jock political radio and cable news, clickbait internet headlines, the trading of petty insults on social media, the intermingling of traditional journalistic information with literal propaganda and fakery, the blurred line between parody and reality. When college students explore the information landscape, it is enormously cluttered.
Our further task as educators is thus to develop student sophistication and skepticism in navigating the information world. Today’s students have a curiosity that is linked to instant information: we can answer questions by pointing a phone at the sky or asking Alexa. Each bit of information is linked to others that can provide background, context, confirmation and other points of view if the web is used as an enriching interconnection of sources. But we know it doesn’t always, or even usually, work that way.
At The Sage Colleges, we are developing different initiatives to spur intelligent student civic engagement and to make all our graduates shrewd navigators of the information saturated world. Look for more news here and at sage.edu for programs this fall that promote such sophisticated civic engagement.
February 2nd, James Joyce’s birthday, is my favorite of literary anniversaries. It’s not just that he is one of my favorite authors, but he valued his birthday intensely and took great pains to arrange the publication of his two big books on that day. Ulysses was published on 2-2-22, which I’m sure pleased the author. Finnegans Wake eventually saw the light on 2-2-39.
So this February 2, I find myself thinking about what Joyce had to say about education and teaching. In Ulysses, the autobiographical Stephen Dedalus is a schoolteacher and teaches a half day of class before his Dublin peregrinations.
In one fine moment, he helps an awkward boy finish some math after class and imagines himself at the same awkward age:
“Like him was I, these sloping shoulders, this gracelessness. My childhood bends beside me. Too far for me to lay a hand there once or lightly. Mine is far and his secret as our eyes. Secrets, silent, stony, sit in the dark palaces of both our hearts: secrets weary of their tyranny: tyrants, willing to be dethroned.
“The sum was done.”
Stephen’s half day ends with him being paid by the headmaster, a tiresome, anti-Semitic blowhard who enjoys lecturing him. The headmaster senses that Stephen will not linger in this job and says, “You were not born to be a teacher, I think.” “A learner rather,” Stephen replies.
Teachers are, of course, lifelong learners, but so are those who devote themselves to writing as Joyce did, though after several years teaching English to Italian speakers in Trieste.
The headmaster replies, “To learn one must be humble. Life is the great teacher.”
What fascinates me is that this line is widely quoted as a prime Joycean quotation (check the internet), though anyone who knows Joyce knows that “humble” is not an adjective one would apply to him.
Joyce puts these “fine sentiments” in the mouth of a pompous bigot intentionally. Perhaps he intends to remind us of Shakespeare’s most quotable pompous ass, Polonius (“The apparel oft proclaims the man”; “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” etc.).
Indeed, earlier in the scene, Joyce shows the headmaster quoting Shakespeare as he praises the financial responsibility of the English. “But what does Shakespeare say? Put but money in thy purse.” “Iago,” Stephen quietly murmurs, recognizing (just as we should with the headmaster’s words about life) that the sentiment is hardly Shakespearean in feel; it was put into the mouth of his most notorious villain.
This reminds me of the controversy over the new ten-pound note released in the U.K. featuring Jane Austen. It offered this quotation from Pride and Prejudice: “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading.” A fine Austen sentiment–until one realizes it is spoken by Caroline Bingley, who hated reading, and that Austen surely meant it to satirize Caroline’s flirtatious fawning.
Joyce and Austen repay close reading; they help make us “learners rather” by caring immensely about language. And that is useful to remember and go back to when we observe language being used with increasing carelessness and disingenuousness in our social media and by our political leaders.
In that light, one of my favorite lines in the schoolroom chapter of Ulysses comes when the headmaster intones righteously, “We are a generous people but we must also be just.” “I fear those big words which make us so unhappy,” Stephen replies.
Joyce was a master of language, conversant in many and fluent in English, Latin, Greek, Italian, French, and German. He learned Norwegian as a teen to write a letter to Ibsen. His writing weaves the language of the Dublin streets with parlor songs, Shakespeare and Dante, sentimental novels and dusty histories, clichés, and lyrical moments. But, as the quotation above hints, he cared deeply about how language was used to oppress and how it could be used instead to celebrate a human spirit and mercy over justice.
I drove home from the off-campus Athletic Hall of Fame Induction in the first snowfall of the year, a gentle one, about 2-3 inches. Back in Troy, I wound through the quiet nighttime Russell Sage campus with the snow still pristine. The holiday lights glowed like jack-o-lanterns beneath coats of snow; the illuminated Russell Sage archway looked mysteriously inviting. Even the traffic lights seemed festive.
I’ll have plenty of time to get tired of the snow and its inconveniences. But the season’s first snow always has a distinct aura. Why do people talk so much about the weather? In part because it affects us all and shapes our perceptions: seasonal changes emphasize our common humanity. The power of nature and the regularity of its changes as the earth tilts toward or away from the sun remind us of our smallness. (See this fine essay on the Winter Solstice, from a pilot’s point of view).
I remembered my first rainy quarter in graduate school translating Anglo-Saxon passages clumsily most every night. One passage that stayed with me—so different from the bloody battle poems—came from the Old English version of the Venerable Bede, and it invoked the sparrow that flits through a warm feasting hall, passing from dark winter on one end back to dark winter as it exits the other.
“When we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thanes and counselors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. “
Our winter celebrations still retain this primeval urge to gather around warmth and light, an urge intensified precisely when it is cold and dark.
Thirteen hundred years after Bede’s parable of the sparrow, James Joyce published “The Dead,” a story of a New Year’s /Twelfth Night party on an unusually snowy Dublin night. The main character admires the warmth of the Irish hospitality on display but never feels part of it. The party hosts are looking aged, and his wife sadly recalls a young lover who sang to her in the freezing cold and died shortly after. In the final moments of the story, the main character looks out at the gathering snow, and Joyce famously attempts to echo mood and sound in a description of the snowfall covering all the landscape and humanity. It’s hard to see snow the same way afterwards:
“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, on the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
There’s a lot going on in that famous passage, but one element is very familiar: snow erases boundaries and creates a temporary illusion of oneness. That’s probably what the great poet, Richard Wilbur, who died earlier this year, was thinking of in “First Snow in Alsace,” his poem about World War Two, in which
“The snow came down last night like moths
Burned on the moon; it fell till dawn,
Covered the town with simple cloths.”
It falls on bombed out houses and munition dumps and bodies recently killed, and then a young soldier returns from sentry duty:
“The night guard coming from his post,
Ten first-snows back in thought, walks slow
And warms him with a boyish boast:
He was the first to see the snow.”
“Ten first snows back in thought”: seasons mark time and memory for us. For me, this one will be remembered in the holiday lights of my first winter on the Russell Sage campus with traffic lights echoing the columns of red and green from Bush Memorial.
You can’t miss the commercialism of the holiday season. Many of the big retailers now call their employees to work on Thanksgiving Day to catch early Christmas shoppers, and that’s followed by Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday—national “spend money” days.
So it is important that we also have “Giving Tuesday” and a heightened attention to personal philanthropy in the period ranging from Thanksgiving to New Year’s. “Giving” is literally part of Thanksgiving, and it is a natural part of the holiday exchange of presents. Winter celebrations of plenty and feasting spur awareness of causes that support the less fortunate and help promote a better and more just society.
As a non-profit institution committed to social justice and serving the public good, the Sage Colleges depends on the philanthropy of our donors, and we highlight those causes in organized ways during the holiday season—this year through the five days of giving (Dec 4-8).
Perhaps it is a fitting time for a seasonal reminder of how colleges are financed and why private colleges especially depend on gifts and donations to serve their students well. Like most colleges and universities, Sage is non-profit. That not only means that every tuition dollar is spent on educating students, but that what we spend annually exceeds what we collect in tuition; it is supplemented by annual giving in excess of a million dollars that flows directly into the budget and additional gifts that support capital projects and endowment.
Endowment is not “profit,” as some people mistakenly think. Endowment is gift income that allows us, and other non-profits, to spend more on students than we collect in fees, to charge less than what we spend on achieving our mission.
In spite of how much we supplement tuition dollars with gifts, we know that college remains expensive and many families struggle to afford it. At Sage, we work hard to control our expenses, and we have one of the lowest private college tuitions in the region. And for families that can’t afford the full tuition, we make generous scholarships available—more than $20 million annually.
The importance of the task we are engaged in was driven home by an op-ed in the New York Times this morning. David Leonhardt summarizes a study called “Lost Einsteins” that looks at where the innovators who create patents come from.
Not surprisingly, students with high childhood math scores are much more likely to secure patents when they grow up. But there’s a catch. That’s true only if they come from high income families. “Low-income children who excel at math rarely become patent holders. They are less likely to hold patents than high-income students who do substantially worse in school.”
This study starkly reveals the profound inequities of our society, inequities that education is only partially successful in addressing. The title “Lost Einsteins” also reminds us that we all lose out when talent and brain power go undeveloped. And patents and innovations are just one piece of the story. The same logic applies in all areas of endeavor and creativity that help lift us as a society.
Charitable giving supports our ability to make college affordable—and that is a key part of our social mission. The likelihood of a student graduating college is still tied closely to family income and parental level of education. So everything we do is geared toward ensuring student success. Whatever the income level of our students, we keep classes small and the community tight and supportive to make sure that every student has the best chance of graduating into a fulfilling career and life.
When we help first-generation college students achieve their educational dreams, we help level the playing field for them and their descendants. As educators, we have the great privilege of seeing those success stories every year. And we also add to the intellectual capital of our society in a way that benefits everyone.
Many of the people who give to Sage are graduates who are motivated by a desire to see students of this and future generations have the kind of experience and opportunities that proved so valuable to them. Still others give in honor of family members who valued Sage dearly. And others become engaged with Sage as residents of the Capital District enjoying our lectures, programs, theatrical productions, galleries and sporting events. They appreciate the role of their local college in sustaining great neighborhoods with character.
We live in a time where, strangely, there has been unusual animosity toward higher education. Much of that is, in my view, artificially engineered for political reasons. But there is nothing partisan about seeing that young people have good opportunities to enter the economy and be productive citizens. There is nothing political about graduating talented nurses, designers, physical therapists, teachers, counselors, and entrepreneurs.
At the core of our message is this: higher education is a public good. We all benefit from a citizenry that is informed, engaged and prepared. And we also benefit from citizens who have internalized the idea of contributing to the social good.
Sage encourages those behaviors and habits of mind through organized service projects that involve students at multiple levels. Students begin as early as their first year through “day of service” activities to understand the value of working in community settings that depend on volunteer commitment to address social needs. From that level of “episodic” engagement, they move on to more complex engagements with solving social problems and strengthening or creating organizations that address them. A student who begins with an evening serving in a soup kitchen can end up creating a food pantry or working on global initiatives to combat hunger.
We know how much we depend on the generosity of our supporters and that drives our mission to graduate young people attuned to using their talents to make the world a better place. I hope you will join me in supporting the crucial work of American higher education.
As we head into what students and other academics call “Thanksgiving Break,” I’m reminded of the rhythms of the academic calendar and how they intersect with our nation’s holiday calendar and the changing of the seasons.
Once the Thanksgiving holiday nears, academics know there isn’t much left to the fall semester. Faculty and students start looking to the end of the term and measuring what remains to be accomplished against a diminishing number of days. In a perfect world, the Thanksgiving holiday would come in the middle of the term and provide a healthy break. As it is, it provides a break right in the midst of the busiest time—and that’s healthy, too.
Thanksgiving is the first of our winter feast holidays, and its simplicity has made it very popular, particularly since no particular religion is a pre-requisite to sharing in the celebration. Because of its Americanness, it has also been particularly popular with immigrants.
In recent years, a trademark image of Thanksgiving has been political arguments around the table; this theme measures the depth of division in our contemporary politics and discourse. This year will provide no shortage of potentially incendiary topics from sexual harassment and assault to a controversial tax bill (with serious stingers for higher education) to the investigation of Russian interference in the presidential election. It used to be that the best way to avoid controversy was to turn on Thanksgiving sports—but, ouch, that’s the NFL. And to top it off this is the first year the NFL Thanksgiving game features the Washington Redskins and their controversial name on the least appropriate day possible.
When our political discourse is so fraught, it may seem hard to be thankful for our democracy and our diversity—but that is exactly when we need to embrace those values and embrace sitting around a table with people different from ourselves. Like an increasing number of Americans, I will sit down to a Thanksgiving dinner with a family that includes different ethnicities and religious backgrounds—and no one will think it the least bit odd. It is just who we are as an American family in the twenty-first century.
Let’s hope that all our students, faculty and staff take home with them a nuanced appreciation of how we negotiate difference, how we both listen openly and speak our minds, how we respect our fellow human beings. At Sage and throughout higher education, we teach all those values, but we also witness, in myriad ways, how they are fraying in contemporary society. It’s nice to have a few days off, but there is no shortage of work for us to do.
Thanksgiving is also a time to be thankful for the bounty of life and the planet we share with all living things. Unfortunately the condition and future of the natural world is as much at risk as our democratic discourse. For perspective and solace, I turn to Wendell Berry and this little poem:
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Best wishes for a restful and renewing Thanksgiving.
I want to add just a few comments to the many that have followed the superbly detailed reporting of the multiple harassment and sexual assault accusations made against Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein. The women who have come forward and shared their personal accounts have done a great service and deserve our gratitude. They have made vivid the extreme gender imbalance in the workplace, in which women are routinely subjected to risks and degradations that have been for too long either accepted or swept under the rug.
The first observation is that–unlike the cases involving Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes and Donald Trump–there have been no choruses of people accusing these women of lying to gain publicity or cash settlements. That is evidence of progress in how such allegations are treated.
Second, as a teacher of literature, I am reminded of the power of narrative. These painfully detailed accounts reveal the blatant abuse of power and the ridiculously difficult situations into which women working with Weinstein were put. They carry so much more force than the generalized things that “everyone knew” about Weinstein: that he was a bully with a terrible temper, that he “hit on” young women, that people feared him. The women’s stories are more palpable and relatable than statistics or sealed settlements with non-disclosure agreements. It is in the actual details that we see Weinstein’s sick obsessions and the debilitating effect they had on women trying to protect their personal integrity and avoid jeopardizing their careers.
Women found in these accounts moments that resonated with their own experiences, as witnessed by the powerful “Me, Too” campaign. Men—well, perhaps we learned something. I think so.
Third, it reminded me of the task that women’s colleges engage in: the daily affirming of female experience and solidarity and identifying sexism and oppression, particularly when those conditions are baked into our accepted social and economic structures. We cite with pride that now more than half of college students and graduates are women. But it would be a mistake to read that as somehow concluding the mission of women’s colleges. Women remain dramatically underrepresented in business and political leadership positions, and one reason for that is the cultural normalization of sexual harassment and intimidation.
Though men can be subject to workplace harassment, women are much more likely to live under that constant shadow, and it is easy to imagine how it complicates the struggle to succeed professionally. Accepting an invitation to a working dinner with a supervisor becomes a fraught situation rather than a simple opportunity to show your dedication to the job. Business travel has to be navigated with extra care to maintain professionalism.
Our students enter the world of work already taking the narratives of women seriously and understanding the importance of working for social change. And that is true of the graduates of our co-ed campus as well.
It’s a cliché to say there is much more work to be done. What is not clichéd are the brave and moving stories shared by these women that show us exactly why that cliché is true.
I just returned from representing Russell Sage College at the Women’s College Coalition annual meeting, hosted this year by Agnes Scott College and Spelman in Atlanta. I had the opportunity to meet with other presidents of women’s colleges and share ideas and information on a range of topics. The increased diversity of women’s colleges was a theme, as was the demonstrated success of women’s colleges in successfully graduating low-income students: perhaps because our history is so deeply rooted in creating educational opportunities where societal prejudices have limited them.
The conference also focused on the promotion of civic engagement. As Mary Hinton, President of the College of St. Benedict put it, we educate for common good—for all, not just for us.
That discussion made me think of two different but equally important events that took place at The Sage Colleges in September: the Corporate Connections Reception and the Sage Engaged day of community service. Both events are reminders of how Sage is intertwined with the community in which we live and work.
The Corporate Connections Reception is a thank-you to the 62 companies that provide $1000 scholarships to seniors in need of additional funds as they finish their education and prepare to enter the job market. The event gives the student recipients a chance to thank and talk with their corporate sponsors, many of whom also hire our students as interns and our graduates as regular employees. That the program grows each year and has raised over $1 million going directly to our students is evidence of how our graduates fuel the local work force—and how well our corporate partners understand that. We prosper together.
We generally think of how college education benefits and creates opportunities for our graduates. And it does—Sage students succeed. But that success drives the common good as well. We all benefit from an educated populace.
“Sage Engaged” is a day of volunteer work throughout Albany and Troy in which our students (with staff help) partner with local non-profits to address community needs. It offers our students an introduction to the potential and the rewards of community service. This year the event was a resounding success and was set during the term rather than orientation to involve all students, not just entering new students.
Ultimately, the goal of programs like this is to improve our communities. The provost at Spelman, Sharon Davies, stressed how instead of cataloging how many hours their students serve, they focus on what they accomplish in the community. At Sage, we share the idea that community service develops through a student’s education and life from episodic engagement (spending a day helping a food pantry, for example) to higher-level addressing of social problems (taking action to reduce poverty and hunger).
Core programs like WORLD at Russell Sage and I.Think at Sage College of Albany ensure this is a part of every Sage student’s experience. Both programs stress education for engagement and develop that progressively over the four years of a college education.
In the debate over the value of higher education, we have too often reduced it to a comparison of the cost of education compared to the salary value of the degree. While that comparison indeed reveals that college is an extraordinarily good investment, it fails to count the multiple ways that our colleges provide intellectual and social capital to our communities: direct economic impact, attractive green space, cultural events, committed faculty as thought leaders, student community volunteers and interns, and a steady flow of educated graduates committed not just to bettering themselves but to creating a better world for everyone.
The very last step of getting moved in was to unpack the books: 20 boxes in my office; 35 boxes at home. It is a process both cumbersome and rewarding—and an occasion for reflecting on a lifetime of reading and on the book as an artifact.
In the era of the e-book, it is striking how inefficient traditional books are. I held in my hand a paperback I bought in a used book store while in graduate school and saw the price marked in pencil: $2.50. This will be the twelfth time that book has been moved: packed into a box and labeled, carried by me (when younger) or by movers, unpacked and re-sorted onto a shelf. In my younger years, those shelves would be made from bricks and boards. In Atlanta, we had beautiful shelves built into our living room. When we moved again and had to leave them behind, we decided to build shelving that looked built-in but could move with us. That tiny volume of Shakespeare criticism bears its share of those costs and is perhaps not the bargain it seemed at the time.
So why hold onto these dusty volumes when electronic access would dramatically save paper, shelving and moving costs? I’ve read e-books; they’re fine. But I like the feel of a book and the ease of writing a note in the margin and flipping back and forth. I also like having it on my shelf: for future reference or to lend to a friend.
But, if I were honest with myself, I’d have to admit that most of the books on my shelves I won’t open again. Jorge Luis Borges has a wonderful poem about mortality called “Limits.” It begins:
Of all the streets that blur into the sunset
There must be one (which, I am not sure)
That I by now have walked for the last time. . . .
And later muses:
Through the dawning window night withdraws
And among the stacked books which throw
Irregular shadows on the dim table,
There must be one which I will never read.
I similarly know that my library has many books I will never read again.
And yet they serve my memory much the way photographs do. Indeed, unpacking the books and sorting them on the shelves rekindles many memories (intentional Amazon pun). I put together my English poetry shelf with volumes of Chaucer, Donne, Spenser, Milton, Dryden, Pope, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Browning, Tennyson, Swinburne and Yeats. To be honest, Keats, Wordsworth and Yeats are the only ones I go back to with any frequency. Some of the others have been closed since grad school. But I remember the courses in which I studied them, my teachers and fellow students, those years of discovery as I found a vocation and experienced that crucial step in learning: that there was a field of knowledge I was responsible for, whether I had a class assignment or not. That they sit together—six hundred years of poetry—on a single shelf continues to amaze me, as it did Virginia Woolf. In her fanciful book, Orlando, the hero, who lives three centuries, encounters (in the nineteenth century) for the first time in her very literary life, an actual “bookstore”:
These innumerable little volumes, bright, identical, ephemeral, for they seemed bound in cardboard and printed on tissue paper, surprised her infinitely. The whole works of Shakespeare cost half a crown and could be put in your pocket. . . . ‘Works,” the works of every writer she had known or heard of and many more stretched from end to end of the long shelves. . . . She gave an astounding order to the bookseller to send her everything of importance in the shop and left.
Another wall of books reflects my good fortune to work in a field that brings me in close contact with writers: inscribed books from various authors. Some of those authors I worked with over a literary festival weekend, others are close friends. The memories there range from talking with John Updike about our mutual admiration for largely forgotten English novelist Henry Green to accepting from James Dickey the last few cans of Schlitz Malt Liquor that he had failed to finish in the Alumnae House.
As a teacher of literature, of course, books are also tools of the trade. Some of the volumes are worn from years of teaching them to different generations of students who, in their turn, changed the way I read and remember those books. My tattered copy of Ulysses reminds me of reading Molly Bloom’s soliloquy with a class of students at a women’s college whose honest responses shed new light on one of the most famous moments of a male author writing from a female perspective. My collected Wallace Stevens reminds me of teaching “The Emperor of Ice Cream” to a particularly sharp group of undergraduates who somehow transformed my “ice cream as universal good” into an “ice cream as death” reading of the poem.
The shelves remind me of my particular fondness for books that talk to each other. If I want, I can shelve them side by side. Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea that re-tells Jane Eyre from the point of view of Bertha Mason, the “madwoman in the attic”; Margaret Atwood’s Hag Seed that reinvents The Tempest as a performance in a contemporary Canadian prison; Jane Smiley’s Ten Days in the Hills that turns the Decameron into a Hollywood novel; and my favorite writer, Zadie Smith, whose On Beauty reimagines E. M. Forster’s great Howards End in contemporary New England.
My personal library is just a tiny slice of the comprehensive world library, what Borges apotheosized in “The Library of Babel.” And reading is just a slice of my overall experience and memory. So it is with us all. But as individual and distinct as our slices of experience are, books call us to come together. We read in solitary but become a part of a community of fellow travelers. The renewed popularity of book clubs testifies to this, as do our classrooms where one of the most fundamental premises is a roomful of inquiring minds who have read the same thing but responded to it differently.
And now, at last, we are moved in.
It may be hard for young people today to realize that earlier generations did not document every moment of their lives with videos, photos and selfies. Taking photographs was a bit more laborious, and they had to be “developed” and sometimes got lost over time. So I don’t have a ton of old family photos.
This is one I do have, though. It is my first day of school, and “Kindergarten, 1961” is written on the back in my father’s hand. No doubt he stood looking down into the Brownie camera with the red lever on the side and took this photo—with unhappy next-door neighbor, Ellen Diamond, beside me as we headed off to our first day of school.
I feel many things when I look at this photo. What happened to that innocent little boy? Can you believe there was a time when parents let a four-and-a-half year old child walk to school? Mostly, I think about this: I have been in school consistently for the fifty-six years that have followed, whether as a student, a teacher or an administrator.
I don’t think I could have imagined that—dreams of being a baseball pitcher and a rock guitarist would dominate my youth—though my father was a teacher, so it’s hardly a surprise.
But lately, something in that picture has become more sharply focused for me. Only late in life, after a generation of teaching and being an educator, have I come to realize how privileged I was. My parents not only thought the first day of school was worthy of commemoration, but they assumed they would oversee and supplement my education all the way through college, which they did. There was never a doubt in their minds that I and my siblings would graduate from college (and, indeed, we all did and all became educators).
We were a family of modest means. My father was a high school teacher in the Bronx; my mother was a homemaker. But both of them had graduate degrees, and their very different routes to those degrees contributed to my growing up in a household suffused by education.
My mother had a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Occupational Therapy, earned at a time when fewer than 15% of women graduated from college. More remarkably, both her father and mother were educated professionals—CPAs who jointly ran a family accounting firm. That my grandmother, born in the 1890s, had that level of education meant my mother had examples at home that few other women born in the 1920s had. That unspoken assumption—that an education was not only valuable but the pre-requisite to a rewarding and fulfilling life—was part of her upbringing.
It wasn’t part of my father’s. His mother emigrated to the U.S. from Slovakia in the first decade of the twentieth century, alone, at the age of 16. She married a first-generation American, son of Russian immigrants, whose mother was illiterate and whose father was a dairyman. My grandfather was forced by his parents to quit school after eighth grade to go to work—something he resented bitterly.
These two New Yorkers with high-school educations, one a non-native speaker of English, had two children (who survived). Both of those children became—well, English teachers. My father went to CUNY and then added a master’s degree from Columbia Teacher’s College; his sister had a Ph.D. in medieval literature and was a college professor.
The generation that followed—my generation with my two siblings and five cousins—had tremendous opportunities as a result of our parents’ educations. I suppose we all took that for granted, at least when we were young. All of us graduated from college, most from graduate school, and all are professionals.
I feel in that cheerful picture of me with my polo shirt and slicked back hair that I was the double beneficiary of my mother’s world in which educated men and women were a given and my father’s world in which education was all the more dear because it was not a given.
What’s important to remember is that we do not show up equally on the first day of school. I had tremendous advantages, thanks to the education my parents received and the values that came with it. For many other kids—in 1961 and today—that path to college is anything but assured. Their parents are just as loving and determined—no question. But statistics tell us that the likelihood of graduating from college is stubbornly tied to both family income and parental educational level.
Our role as educators—what we do every day at Sage—is to swim against that tide and create opportunities for students of all kinds and from all backgrounds, opportunities for themselves and ultimately for their children, too.
When I look into that photo of young Chris Ames, I look back through my young self to my parents and grandparents and realize why they thought it was a moment worthy of a photograph.