July 2008

The Lehrman American Studies Center Blog: An Inaugural Post
By Gerson Moreno-Riano on July 10, 2008

I confess. I am a tree lover. Call me a tree hugger if you wish but I simply think that trees are amazing parts of the natural world. And they are a testament to the intricate design underlying our existence. So imagine my horror when driving into my neighborhood I noticed that two of my neighbors had hired professional tree killers (i.e., tree service corporations) to cut down seven beautiful trees- three tall southern pines and four beautiful dogwoods. Together, these trees probably represented at least 250 years of existence if not more. Obviously, none of these trees grew overnight. They each took years and years to grow weathering many suns, moons, and storms. And yet, in just a few minutes, they were gone never to grace our presence and most likely never to be remembered again. Clearly, my neighbors were within their legal rights to do as they wished within their property. After all, property rights have been a bedrock institution since the earliest days of the American colonies and the United States. Yet, I continually asked myself whether or not this was the morally right thing to do. If the trees presented a danger to life, limb, and property, then it would be perfectly understandable to remove them. But would the decision to remove them be justifiable simply on the basis of aesthetics and personal rights-based preferences? Alas, a moral conundrum presented itself and raised the important and timeless questions of when and why to conserve, preserve, and change.

The most recent Lehrman American Studies Center Summer Institute at Princeton University took up these important questions as they related to American statesmanship and the principles of the founding. Lehrman Fellows were asked to consider and discuss whether or not there exist timeless principles of statesmanship and political foundations, principles that should be conserved and passed down to posterity. And there was a lot of discussion about change. If such principles do indeed exist (and they do!), how are they related to the constantly changing sociopolitical landscape of America? What should be the relationship between these principles and each generation’s desire for progress, development, and, in a very popular contemporary slogan, “change we can believe in?” This is in essence the enduring and important task of statesmanship- advancing Truth amidst a world of becoming.

As university and college professors, we face the important task of communicating not only timeless principles but also our disciplines’ subject matter amidst continual changing circumstances. We must advance timeless truths in relevant and effective ways to persuade the mind, imagination, and ultimately, heart of our students. It is in all of these areas that The Lehrman American Studies Center is of such great benefit. Its programs facilitate a sincere search for knowledge, a fruitful pedagogy and a flourishing scholarly community.

As we continue in the noble task of education and intellectual discovery, may we avail ourselves of The Lehrman American Studies Center’s resources and of each others’ experiences and contributions. And, hopefully, we will be able to pass along the requisite virtues for good citizenship and a life of flourishing and maybe save some trees along the way.

Educating the Young: Some Thoughts from the Trenches
By Gerson Moreno-Riano on July 23, 2008

Last week was one of the busiest I have experienced in a long time. After almost 14 months of planning, I was able to implement and successfully execute a government camp for high school students (for more details on the camp see www.regent.edu/govcamp). It was a very rewarding experience. 15 high school students attended, some from as far as Maryland and Texas, to study counter-terrorism, national security, leadership, and public service. The camp was filled with multimedia presentations, talks with experts, and field trips to such places as Blackwater Worldwide, Langley AFB, the United States Coast Guard, and several other places. All of the sites we visited were normally off-limits to civilians giving this camp a cloak and dagger feel.

We academics have been educated and trained to address undergraduate, graduate, and well-educated audiences. We employ high level analysis, arguments, and critical reasoning to advance principles and theories that we believe are true and defensible. So imagine trying to apply these techniques with an audience of high school students from public, private, and home school environments. For some of my colleagues, the mere thought of attempting to educate such young students leads to either revulsion or anxiety. After all, aren't such students immature and laden with trivial pursuits? Or, for my more anxious colleagues, just how does one communicate with some of the youngest of millenials who never lived through the tumbling of the Berlin Wall and who were only 7 or 8 years old on 9/11 and who are part of the iPod generation? And, more importantly, how does one reach such an audience, a group that will shape our politics and foreign policy for years to come?

With much courage and perhaps a bit of naivete, I worked with such a group last week. And it was a tremendous experience. These fifteen students were very smart, talented, eager, and well educated. They continually impressed policy and military experts wherever they went. They asked insightful questions, suggested important comments and observations, and were very engaged in all discussions.

Now, the bad news. Over the 14 month period, I asked all presenters to ensure that their talks were lively, engaging, and intellectually stimulating. After all, the audience was composed of high school students who in spite of their mental prowess still needed to be engaged. So imagine my horror when some of the presentations were nothing more than a 1.5 - 2 hour powerpoint presentation with lots of text and professional jargon. It was death by powerpoint! Here we have 15 very bright young people and a number of the presenters could not engage their imagination.

This led me to think of how essential it is that in our task of educating any audience we must engage the mind and the heart- we must engage the whole person. I am more convinced than ever before that the task of educating and passing on some of our most revered principles and traditions cannot solely rely on arguments and logic alone but must also be enhanced and buttressed with pedagogical tools that capture the imagination, feelings, the soul of the students with whom we are working. We cannot divorce the mind from the heart; we cannot compartmentalize human beings as we educate them. We must educate the whole person.

This is why in our task of education we must stand on and advance rock solid principles but we must also learn to be innovative in our methods. We need to learn about and be open to various methods and techniques that do not sacrifice first principles and sound pedagogy but that are relevant, timely, and engaging.

In the weeks ahead, I will delve into some of these issues, techniques, and questions of pedagogy. As we think about educating 21st century students, we must consider how to educate beings that share a common nature but that have been socialized in radically different ways. We must appeal to their nature, capture their mind and heart, and persuade them of the existence of greatness and moral excellence. This is no easy task. But it is one of the most noble.

How to Get Students to Read
By Lee Trepanier on July 25, 2008

One of the greatest obstacles I confront teaching undergraduate students in general education courses is getting them to actually read the texts before class. In my elective courses, this is less of a problem because the students enrolled in the course are self-selective and usually have some intellectual interest or investment in the class. However, most students in general education courses have no interest in the subject (unless they are declared majors or minors in the field) and merely approach the class as another hoop to jump through for graduation.

This is not necessarily a fault of the students, since both administrators and faculty seem to be unable to construct a coherent general education program, much less articulate a justification for it (as a side-note, our school will implement a two-day crash course this autumn for incoming freshmen to explain the purpose of general education. Knowing the people in charge of this program, I am not hopeful of its success). My personal view on general education programs is to abolish them because of the harm it causes to students: education is understood as satisfying requirements in a variety of classes that have no connection with one another other than to provide employment for lazy professors. Instead of conceiving it as an initiation into one’s civilization and the exploration of personal and societal teleological questions, general education programs are justified on grounds of utility, e.g., improved writing skills, critical and independent thinking, which holds zero attraction to undergraduates in the actual classroom. Of course, the glue of utility is used to justify general education programs because administrators and especially faculty are unable to construct a coherent program that would make intellectual sense to students (but more on that later, perhaps for another blog post).

What does one do? Appeals to your discipline’s charms strike students as strange, and an explanation of general education courses appears ridiculous when the general education program already is hated by them. I unfortunately have resorted to pop-quizzes, a technique that I have resisted for a few years because it strikes one of teaching high school students instead of collegiate ones (and then raise all sorts of questions, such as why not teach high school given the pay is better if the students are the same?). I also now take attendance, with three absences resulting in an automatic one letter grade reduction and seven absences resulting in an automatic F and expulsion from the course. In short, Hobbesian fear seems to be the answer. But perhaps I’m wrong, and if so, would like to be persuaded otherwise.

"Rise and Fall of American Slavery" syllabus
By Phil Hamilton on July 29, 2008

I have just posted the syllabus for my course "The Rise and Fall of American Slavery." This is an upper-level course I regularly teach at Christopher Newport University (mainly to sophomore and junior history majors).

Even though it was abolished 143 years ago, slavery and its legacies continue to have an enormous impact on contemporary American society. The course tells the story of how human bondage developed in North America in the 1600s and 1700s. But I also focus a great deal of attention on the more extraordinary story of how and why a commitment to human freedom emerges in the US in the late-18th and early 19th centuries. I would certainly appreciate any feedback/suggestions for improvement regarding the course, its readings, as well as my approaches to this topic.

Perhaps we can also discuss how students today perceive slavery and its legacy in American history. My students are all over the spectrum. Some still accept the “Lost Cause” myth about slavery – that is was “not that bad”. Other students, on the other hand, see slavery and racism as prove-positive of the fundamental corruptness of American society – both past and present.

Hence I explain that one has to look at the past on its own terms. And to do that, one has to look at context. What did people write? What did they do? What choices did they make? When students look at slavery through the eyes of the historical actors themselves, they discover a much more complex picture than they at first imagined. They learn, moreover, that the story of American slavery is certainly one of great tragedy, but its ending is also a story of great courage, hope and commitment to the ideals established at the nation’s founding.

On General Education (Again)
By Gerson Moreno-Riano on July 29, 2008

Both Lee and Phil have raised the issue of general education requirements as well as the processes that often are in place at various institutions for the creation of the general education core.

One of the issues that has been raised is the self-interested and factious nature of general education committees. Every member is looking out for his or her major or department with little thought about a good and virtuous education for the students.

I think, however, that there may be another problem lingering in the background. Maybe I am wrong about this but if so will trust my colleagues here to correct me.

In my experience, most faculty engaged in general education committees and discussions about the core really do not understand liberal arts education, the purpose of general education, and, frankly, the purpose of education in general. They have been educated so narrowly in their own Ph.D. programs that they have never had the opportunity or maybe even desire to read and think broadly and philosophically about education and the epistemological and axiological dimensions of education and human life. Consequently, they tend to consider education as indoctrination or an extension of an unenlightened self-interest. Thus, it seems to be the case that for these colleagues the notion of liberal arts education in the core is just sugar coating what they consider to be indoctrination and the raw will of a few zealots. Changing this opinion is a difficult task since it stems for years of abuse.

What are we to do? I have some ideas on this but before I venture further would be interested in the input of others on this discussion.

What Constitutes an Educated Person?
By Gerson Moreno-Riano on July 31, 2008

In a recent comment to my post, Lee suggested that the question posed above serve as a possible topic of discussion prior to any discourse regarding general education requirements. The following, then, are some general thoughts through which to begin this discussion.

I like to think of education in light of Plato's Allegory of the Cave. It involves leadership (something well within the mission of the LASC) as well as leading students out of a certain place to another place. In the language of the Allegory, someone must lead others out of shadows and delusions toward truth and light.

An educated person thus involves a number of prerequisites: s/he must have been led by someone else. Ideally, s/he must have been led by a more advanced knower and hopefully, in the words of Leo Strauss, by a great mind or teacher. This also implies willing submission to the tutelage of one's teachers and intellectual leaders. Thus, an educated person must be teachable, humble, and open to instruction and persuasion. Perhaps I can reorganize these prerequisites as follows:

An educated person must contain the following:

  1. A persuasive leader (teacher/great mind)
  2. A teachable intellect and character
  3. A recognition that s/he must leave a particular place of being and journey toward a higher place of being (the assent of the soul)

I am arguing that an educated person must possess these three characteristics as a starting point. There are other things that can be added to this list. But, I argue, this are the beginning foundations.

Before I add to this, what suggestion do any readers of this blog have? Are these three foundations for education essential? Are there other things we should add to the foundations block?

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