In today's political environment, how can professors challenge students to make sense of a changing world without imposing their own value-based judgments on classroom discussions? Jo-Ellen Pozner suggests some approaches.
Last summer, the U.S. Senate easily confirmed Carla Hayden to became the first new librarian of Congress in almost three decades.
At her confirmation hearing last April, Hayden conversed fluently with admiring members of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration. All enthused about the promise of the internet to make information universally available. All agreed on the need to digitize the Library of Congress’s holdings and place those holdings on the web. Senator John Boozman, a Republican from Arkansas, said it was time to get the Library of Congress “out to the hinterlands.” Hayden agreed.
In this era of fierce partisanship, the genial bipartisanship on display that day was remarkable, flowing naturally from the self-evident value of disseminating information as widely as possible.
Good education happens, and, indeed, democracy itself works, only when students and citizens enjoy unfettered access to good information and good scholarship. In practice this means that neither a homeschooled fifth-grader, nor my 15-year-old son, nor a high school student in rural Arkansas, nor a college student at a state university, nor a scholar in Niger, should be denied free and easy access to nearly all unclassified information held by the Library of Congress. Or, for that matter, from any major library.
Current technology makes this somewhat lofty vision eminently achievable.
But standing in the way is an 800-pound gorilla: U.S. copyright law.
The current copyright statute, passed in 1976 and revised in 1998, grants authors of books, articles, films and other creative work exclusive rights to their publications -- including the exclusive right to distribute their publications -- for the length of their earthly sojourn. Plus 70 years after they die. The vast bulk of material published in the U.S. after 1923 cannot be digitized and shared.
Hayden knows this. She sees the gorilla every day. But she ignored him during her confirmation hearing, thus placing herself in an awkward position. She could describe in the Senate hearing room the Library of Congress’s laudable decision to digitize the 1774-1804 papers of Alexander Hamilton, this past year’s unanticipated Broadway idol. But she could say nothing about most of the approximately 2,000 published works about Hamilton cataloged in the Library of Congress’s collection.
Might not a student/retiree/scholar/hipster interested in Hamilton’s papers be equally interested in John Chester Miller’s Alexander Hamilton: Portrait in Paradox (1959), James Thomas Flexner’s The Young Hamilton (1978) or Albert Furtwangler’s The Authority of Publius (1984)? The Library of Congress and my library own all three books, but, under current law, we may not digitize or distribute any of them.
Examples of disconnects between copyright law and the public interest are endless. Should the mother of a child with leukemia enjoy access only to medical books published more than 70 years ago? Should the father of an autistic child read only scientific literature published before 1923? (Hint: the serious study of autism began only in the 1940s).
The point, here, is obvious: Congress’s library and other libraries cannot distribute most of their literature to most people. Current copyright law undermines the Library of Congress’s mission, Carla Hayden’s ideals, the professed desires of senators and, of course, the public interest.
It was not always so.
The first copyright statute, enacted in 1790, allowed authors to retain copyright in their work for 14 years. And they could, if they desired, renew that copyright for an additional 14 years. Congress believed that a maximum period of 28 years offered the “limited” protections authorized by the U.S. Constitution to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.”
Under the original statute, the Library of Congress, my library and any library in the world could digitize and disseminate without charge Miller’s, Flexner’s and Furtwangler’s studies of Hamilton to the homeschooled fifth-grader, to my 15-year old son, to the high school student in rural Arkansas, to the college student at a state university and to the scholar in Niger.
We have now, today, the technology to achieve the vision endorsed by our new (and possibly best) librarian of Congress -- a vision ostensibly shared by her admiring senatorial colleagues who, though they agree on little else, appear to agree on this.
What we lack and what we need is an old law -- an old law to serve new technology.
But first we need our new chief librarian to point at the gorilla, yell for Congress’s attention and beg the legislators who confirmed her to act in accord with the ideals they articulated last spring.
Bryn Geffert is the librarian of the college at Amherst College.
While a huge literature exists on first-generation undergraduates, there is only silence about what happens to those students when they go on to doctoral or faculty life. Herb Childress provides an insider’s description.
It has been widely hypothesized that the type of identity politics nurtured on elite secular campuses helped produce the backlash that swept Donald Trump into office as president. “Fox News and other conservative media outlets,” wrote Mark Lilla in The New York Times, “make great sport of mocking ‘campus craziness’ that surrounds such [identity] issues … [but] this only plays into the hands of populist demagogues who want to delegitimize learning in the eyes of those who have never set foot on a campus.”
Also writing in the Times, Nicholas Kristof warned that campuses today are in danger of doubling down on liberal groupthink: “I fear that liberal outrage at Trump’s presidency will exacerbate the problem of liberal echo chambers, by creating a more hostile environment for conservatives and evangelicals. Already, the lack of ideological diversity on campuses is a disservice to the students … with liberalism on some campuses collapsing into self-parody.”
Yet challenging circumstances create remarkable opportunities and surprising protagonists. That is the case for America’s Christian colleges and universities after the 2016 elections. They are now well positioned to save not only liberalism from self-parody but also conservatism from the maw of populist demagoguery. “Christian colleges and universities may be the best educational institutions today for fostering real political diversity,” according to the Baylor historian Thomas Kidd -- a view that rings true in my own experience, having spent time at both secular and Christian schools.
Unfortunately, this diversity was not heard from during the election, in part due to excessive focus on Liberty University in Virginia when its president, Jerry Falwell Jr., endorsed Trump. The Washington Post even described Liberty as “the epicenter of evangelical education in the United States.” But nothing could be farther from the truth, and Liberty’s own students -- who lean heavily rightward compared to those at other colleges -- protested their president’s actions.
To get a fuller picture of the Christian academic landscape, one would need to visit institutions such as Bethel University in Minnesota, Calvin College in Michigan, Dordt College in Iowa or East Texas Baptist University, among hundreds of others. They “represent a slice of America that most secular liberals don’t know anything about,” according Molly Worthen, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of a much-discussed book on evangelical higher education.
As institutions that host many first-generation college students and are also replete with Ph.D.s from major universities, Christian colleges can provide a bridge between elite opinion and “red-state” America. How might they rise to the occasion?
First, they must practice what they preach. The Gospel of Matthew records Jesus as saying, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” In an age when conservative intellectuals often find themselves “disinvited” to speak on prominent campuses, Christian colleges should make certain that they invite articulate and diverse voices, including liberals and secularists, to their own campuses. When I oversaw a center at my former (evangelical) institution, Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., our lecture series included the well-known atheist Bart Ehrman as well as Cornel West, John Kerry and Susannah Heschel -- hardly icons of the right. We also regularly hosted Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim speakers. Charity begins by hearing what another is actually saying, not encountering it secondhand in caricature.
Second, Christian colleges can contribute to the common good by continuing to teach and even expand curricular offerings in the conservative intellectual tradition, perhaps one of the biggest causalities of the recent anti-intellectual insurgence. Authors whom one would find neither by Trump’s bedside nor trumpeted in the curricula of most elite colleges deserve a robust hearing: Edmund Burke, Friedrich Hayek, Russell Kirk, Irving Kristol, C. S. Lewis, Adam Smith and Richard Weaver, among others. Liberals should welcome thoughtful young conservatives lest their own identity become deformed in obsessions against Trump. Beware, Nietzsche once warned, for you can easily become the monsters you seek to slay.
Third, in what some have dubbed our “postsecular age,” Christian colleges should point the way by teaching, through empathy and analysis, how religion functions as a dynamic and complex phenomenon in human affairs. At elite colleges and universities, too often religion is viewed strictly through the lenses of race, gender and class -- or else through some of the grand explanatory schemes of the academy, including that of Karl Marx (religion as ideological superstructure), Sigmund Freud (religion as coping mechanism or neurosis) and Michel Foucault (religion as a mask for power). Some of these schemes have yielded valuable insights, to be sure. Nonetheless, as Brad S. Gregory, a history professor at the University of Notre Dame, has argued, they often come with the presumption “that religion is not something that can be or ought to be understood in its own terms.” As such, explaining subtly and sometimes readily yields to a more reductionist explaining away, denying students insights wrought by the messier, more difficult process of empathetic engagement.
Finally, permit me to offer a modest proposal -- one that would require no small dose of philanthropic support and administrative imagination. Christian colleges and elite secular institutions should seek out one another to promote student exchanges, either for a short visit or a semester of study, similar to one suggested by David J. Smith in a previous article in Inside Higher Ed. A Bay Area student at the University of California, Berkeley, would have much to learn from spending time with peers at, say, Goshen College, a Mennonite school in northern Indiana. A top-notch conservative Lutheran student at Concordia University in Seward, Neb., would greatly benefit from a stint at Williams College in Massachusetts. Stereotypes might well erode, exposing leftist, rightist, secular and religious groupthink in the process.
To be sure, Christian colleges have their own problems. With all educational institutions, they bear some of the blame for a society capable of such an uninspiring election that sent a ruthless vulgarian to the White House. For years, they, too, have followed trends of raising tuition costs even while relying on cheap adjunct faculty labor. And many have far to go on racial and ethnic diversity.
Still, coastal, educated elites should pay greater heed to these institutions, a remarkable legacy of America’s First Amendment and voluntary institution building. Hundreds of such colleges populate the “flyover” states -- and the coastal states, too -- and they come in numerous denominational varieties. Their faculties, I would hazard, could hold their own in tongue-lashing Trumpian nationalism with is racist undertones, while also pinpointing the liberal blind spots that led so many people to underestimate Trump’s appeal.
In our current moment, then, these colleges might well validate, if nothing else, the maxim that the enemy of your enemy is your friend. But what begins in necessity or convenience often ends on higher, and sometimes even common, ground.
Thomas Albert Howard holds the Phyllis and Richard Duesenberg Chair in Christian Ethics and is professor of humanities and history at Valparaiso University. His most recent books are Remembering the Reformation: An Inquiry Into the Meanings of Protestantism (Oxford University Press, 2016) and Protestantism After 500 Years (edited with Mark A. Noll and published by Oxford).
Two days after November’s presidential election, the students in my section of American Society, an introductory sociology class, seemed to be collectively in shock. Most of them -- politically liberal, I suspect -- were subdued, talking quietly; some were frowning; a few were red-eyed, as if they’d been crying. All were evidently thinking about what had transpired. I don’t know if this makes them “snowflakes,” but they were clearly determined, then and there, to talk about the election results -- how they occurred and what they meant.
The ensuing discussion was one of the most detailed and information packed of the semester. My students truly, deeply wanted to learn about politics: the electoral college, the building and shifting of coalitions, the rural/urban divide in America, the primary system, how redistricting creates majorities in the U.S. House of Representatives, how the makeup of the U.S. Senate benefits rural states, whether voting is “rational” or “emotional,” and what those words even mean. We speculated about the likely effects of a Trump presidency (backed by Republican control of all branches) on a range of policies.
They were already better-than-average students, to be sure. But on that day in particular -- and in fact, for the rest of the semester -- they were as committed to learning as any students I’ve seen in 40 years of college teaching.
That day’s discussion made me think: in higher education, now is our time. If what I saw is widespread -- if large numbers of college students, at least for now, care deeply about what the election and the new administration mean -- then this new semester offers something far broader than a single teachable moment. Perhaps it will mean a reappreciation of higher education’s relevance to real life.
A huge number of academic topics have suddenly become controversial and almost desperately important. Start with how American elections work, in all their weird complexity. And then, why were the most scientifically sophisticated polls so invariably wrong? Students have now certainly heard of “fake news,” but can they distinguish reliable sources from fraudulent ones? “Information literacy,” an ugly coinage reflecting a crucial skill, may come into its own as an important goal of education, along with a revived understanding of slanted language, coded words and dog-whistle appeals. How do social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook shape our thinking about the world?
Once-obscure terms from cognitive psychology -- confirmation bias, for instance -- are beginning to have currency with large media outlets, and with college sophomores. And as ethnic politics have surfaced so rapidly, students may be ready for discussions about what ethnic and racial groups really are and how they are formed (often in political struggle, and for political purposes).
Formerly dry topics such nationalism and nationalistic appeals, migration and labor flows, and the limits of executive power now have immediate resonance. Undergraduates stage protests against President Trump’s travel ban on seven Muslim nations while voraciously reading online hastily constructed guidebooks on “resistance” and on the historical harbingers of authoritarianism.
At the same time, some Hispanic students are worried about their parents’ (or their own) potential deportation, and some job-seeking seniors are sensing an uncertainty in the economy that will affect everyone’s prospects. Never before have obscure trade agreements -- NAFTA? TPP? The European Union? -- received so much (even if superficial) public attention, and business majors might now notice that corporations, small businesses and government are inextricably and complexly interwoven, even in nominally free market economies. Under an administration that promises protectionism, the very definition of “free markets” comes into question.
Now that, as one student told me, “History really is happening,” maybe we professors can hold a lecture audience for the evidence of climate change, the arguments for various national health insurance systems, the efficacy of methods of policing, and the implications of scientific research funding policies, public and private.
It’s an extraordinary time in the intellectual life of America: worries over the symbolism of saying “Merry Christmas” are no longer confined to modern-language departments, while the very nature of truth itself is discussed almost daily on cable TV. The most arcane subjects -- not to mention the very legitimacy of critical thinking based on logic and evidence -- have taken on a renewed relevance, driven by our country’s (and the world’s) political upheaval.
Such discussions may be treacherous, to be sure, because now they actually matter. We will need to be prudent. But when students are hungry to learn, it’s our job to feed them.
Every spring, a colleague and I teach a course on Classics of Modern Social Thought. When we get to Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, the students usually fade a bit, slowed by Smith’s step-by-step descriptions of how wealth is created, why protectionism is self-destructive and how a division of labor with regulated free trade is so productive. I’m guessing that this spring, the discussion will be a bit more lively.
Daniel F. Chambliss is Eugene M. Tobin Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Hamilton College.