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.
You’re reading this, so I know you follow Sage news on Sage.edu and social media — and you’ve seen the rave reviews of Backbeard: The Musical – written, scored and directed by Sage faculty and starring students and graduates – at the New York Musical Festival in Manhattan.
The reviews naturally focused on Backbeard’s “terrific score,” “lyrics so incredibly witty” and “sweet story” (theatrepizzazz.com); “choreography…performed with precision and gusto” (Times Square Chronicles); and “wonderfully inventive scenic design” (theaterscene.net).
I joined Sage alumni at a sold-out performance at the Acorn Theatre on Theatre Row. While I echo the accolades above, as president of The Sage Colleges I am especially proud of Backbeard as an example of the professional experiences to be found throughout the arts programs (and throughout all the programs of study) at The Sage Colleges. (more…)
The publication of the annual Pew Survey of American attitudes toward institutions has caused quite a stir regarding the politicization of higher education. The most noteworthy conclusion of the study was that partisan differences (i.e., Republican vs. Democrat) have significantly increased in the last two years regarding how respondents view college and universities.
“Two years ago, 54 percent of Republicans said colleges had a positive impact on the country’s direction, with 37 percent rating higher education negatively.” This year, 58% identified a negative effect, while only 36% saw college as a positive force in society. Party affiliation made a big difference: 72 percent of Democrats viewed colleges positively, while only 19 percent were negative.
What’s going on? Surely the common good served by an educated populace is largely non-partisan in nature. The developments in medicine, science, technology, and industry that we see every day come from our educated citizenry. Colleges drive economic development in their communities. That an educated population best serves a democracy is a commonplace repeated on the left and right. Students from around the world still flock to the United States to study. And I suspect there is very little partisan distinction in the American love for collegiate sports (practically an obsession).
The answer lies in the inflated rhetoric of the Culture Wars and the exaggerated caricatures of college life built around a handful of stories meant to illustrate political conflicts on campuses running amok and resulting in embarrassing things like a controversial speaker being chased away.
Such events have indeed occurred, but they are mischaracterized as representative of college life. William Chace, former president of Wesleyan and Emory, makes this point persuasively in an article in “The American Interest”
Chace discusses the protest at Middlebury that stopped a lecture by conservative sociologist Charles Murray. He points out that Murray has spoken since at a dozen universities without similar incident. He notes that Middlebury is an elite institution that is not particularly typical of higher education. And even there, he notes, “most students are doing what students mostly do: study, talk to friends, waste time, worry, think about the future, party, and behave as young people always behave. “ I might add that students are supposed to make mistakes as they figure things out, and seizing on particular moments for ridicule as young people explore their political identities and develop their own voices undermines our educational mission.
Sure, there are statistics that show that college students and professors are slightly more to the left than the general population. With faculty, this is true primarily in four-year colleges and in the arts and sciences, but less the case in professional disciplines and in other kinds of collegiate institutions. Even in the last bitterly contested presidential election, students went just one percent more for the Democratic candidate than the general population did.
Still, the partisan divide in how colleges are viewed that the Pew study reports reflects something real—and something that educators should be concerned about. Part of the cause, I am convinced, is the shift in political and social discourse to modes of communication in which outrageousness and extremity are awarded: political shock-jock radio and cable tv, reality television, internet memes and clickbait stories. In that world of inflated rhetoric, exaggerated stereotypes take the place of reality, and the cartoon is mistaken for the more nuanced thing itself.
Those of us who care about an educated America need to push back in ways that cross party lines: by making the case for how our colleges serve their communities and the economy, by teaching respectful discourse and serving as exemplars of it, by gently correcting stereotypes when we talk to people about life at Sage or wherever we study or have studied. We graduate Republicans and Democrats and Independents, just as we serve students diverse in religion, ethnicity, and sexual identity. An educated society grants us all a life that is decidedly richer and we shouldn’t let the politics of the moment obscure that.
July 5 was my first day physically in the office as the tenth president of The Sage Colleges, thanks to the Independence Day holiday.
Independence Day is a holiday I particularly enjoy and find meaningful, perhaps partly for the pure sensory joy of fireworks (all that energy-and they only paint the sky for an instant). I recall memories of July 4 displays: as a little child holding my ears in a New Jersey park or years later in the North Georgia Mountains watching my young niece and nephew hold theirs; I think of all the great bodies of water that have served as firework backdrops for me–the Colorado River in Austin, Texas, the San Francisco Bay, the Pacific Ocean at the Santa Monica Pier, and the Chester River on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. In land-locked Atlanta, I watched the fireworks above the Confederate memorial (and one-time Klan rallying spot) of Stone Mountain and thought of Atlanta’s most famous resident, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., saying in “I Have a Dream” that he longed to hear freedom ring “even from Stone Mountain, Georgia.” To all of those rich memories, I am thrilled to add the fireworks over the great Hudson River. (Well, I glimpsed the fireworks from the ValleyCats ball park from the windows of my temporary lodgings above the bagel shop).
Along with the sheer pleasure of fireworks, Independence Day is a holiday about what it means to be an American, a question that evolves with each generation. Increasingly for this generation, that answer may be shaped by the musical Hamilton, which is woven around the premise that all of our contemporary diverse, multi-cultural, immigrant-filled society is prefigured in the language and experience of the nation’s founders. As they sing: “Immigrants: We Get the Job Done.”
“What is an American?” Because of our history of colonization, immigration and being a haven for refugees, this is a perpetually vexed question revisited time and time again. Later in the fall, I’ll be offering a lecture in the World Series on the RSC campus about race and jazz in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby that will touch on the hostility to Eastern and Southern European immigrants that characterizes the 1920s and shows up in that quintessentially great American novel.
The last few years remind us that these questions remain vexed. From the slander about President Obama not being really “American” to the complex debates regarding immigration reform to the proposal to construct a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, there is a lot about the question of “What is an American” that remains in dispute. Now, on this July 4th in 2017, the presidential executive order restricting travel from several Muslim-majority countries is partially in effect but awaits ultimate Supreme Court review. What could be a more vivid reminder that the story of America that we celebrate on July 4 is still being written? The conversation continues. And as painful as these disputes may be and have been throughout our history, it is good that we have them and that we live in a society that accepts and struggles to sort out divergent views.
Not quite midway between Alexander Hamilton and the present day sits Abraham Lincoln and his lesser known (but powerful) Independence Day speech delivered July 10, 1858 to a picnicking Chicago crowd, made up largely of German immigrants. Lincoln attacks his political opponent, Senator Stephen Douglas, and Douglas’s argument that the line in the Declaration of Independence that says “All men are created equal” applies only to descendants of the original revolutionaries who penned it. Lincoln asks the crowd of German immigrants whether, if we believe that language excludes the people brought to America as slaves, will we also conclude it excludes later immigrants like the Swedes, Poles and Germans. Here’s what he decides, enhanced by his own rhetorical fireworks:
“What are these arguments [limiting to whom “All men are created equal” applies]? They are the arguments that Kings have made for enslaving the people in all ages of the world… the same old serpent that says you work and I eat, you toil and I will enjoy the fruits of it… I should like to know if taking this old Declaration of Independence, which declares that all men are equal upon principle and making exceptions to it, where will it stop? If one man says it does not mean a Negro, why not another say it does not mean some other man? 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! If it is not true, let us tear it out! [Long pause with shouting from the crowd.] Let us stick to it then; let us stand firmly then.”
News reports describe the crowd shouting “No one!” when Lincoln asks who will tear the page out of the declaration. Indeed, there are crowd comments loudly interjecting throughout the stirring Independence Day speech—it was very much an audience participation event.
This all does have something to do with The Sage Colleges, I think. At Sage, our mission and history have consistently been dedicated to facilitating full participation in the social, economic and artistic fabric of society for people who might be excluded for want of access to higher education. Our development from our origin as Russell Sage College educating women (beginning three years before they gained suffrage) flows logically to our current identity carrying on that women’s college tradition–but with co-educational programs as well–and campuses and a student body that are ethnically and economically diverse and include many students who are the first in their families to graduate from college.
I’m confident that our graduates will participate in these debates and lead them. That’s another way the faculty, staff and administration contribute to the on-going American conversation: by preparing the next generation of leaders.
That is an American vision to celebrate on July 4 on the banks of the Hudson.