Bob Schwartz

Category: Education

Veterans Studies as an Academic Discipline

This began with a simple thought: The use of veterans as a political prop is about as immoral as the failure as a nation to fully and properly honor their service beyond politically expedient lip-service.

I wondered just how seriously we take veterans, and whether they have yet received the same sort of academic attention that practically every other cultural and social cohort has. The answer is that it is just starting, and that is a good thing.

Travis L. Martin has helped pioneer the program:

My goal is to inform people of the importance and feasibility of establishing “Veterans Studies” as an academic discipline. Below you will hear my story, as well as those of students I’ve taught in Eastern Kentucky University’s Veterans Studies Program. I was a student veteran when I approached faculty and administrators with the idea. And it will take that kind of grass roots activism to get Veterans Studies established as a discipline at institutions across the country….

Why do we need Veterans Studies programs? Well, in 1947, veterans comprised up to 49% of all college students. Professors from that era will tell you stories of makeshift camps and barracks built to accommodate them. In the wake of WW2, the option to pursue higher education helped America avoid a catastrophic influx of unemployed veterans into the job market. School became synonymous with service. However, a rift formed between the military and academia when the anti-war movement found a home on college campuses during the Vietnam War. While veterans have come a long way since then, those returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan still deal with many of the same stereotypes….

The first Women’s Studies program was founded in 1970 at San Diego State. This program sought to undo the stereotypes that held back the advancement of women in society for centuries. Today, there are more than 900 Women’s and Gender Studies programs throughout the world. Likewise, the first program to examine the culture of African Americans originated at San Francisco State in 1968. Today, there are more than 300 programs. Similar stories can be found about programs ranging from Appalachian Studies, to Irish Studies, to Jewish Studies, to programs for about every underrepresented, misunderstood population on the globe. Why are veterans excluded from these initiatives?

This problem is one driven by too much lip-service and not enough action. In 2011, $9.9 billion had already been spent on tuition assistance. Student veterans are big business. While this money is certainly a welcome relief for those institutions of higher learning struggling with low enrollments and government budget cuts, those benefiting do not seem concerned with investing it in long-term initiatives designed to transform the societies in which their veteran graduates live and work….

Veterans Studies is not just about teaching veterans. It is about bringing non-veterans and veterans together at a common center rooted in scholarship. Non-veteran students take my courses to complete “diversity of experience” credits and, if they choose, go on to earn a minor or certificate in a field that prepares them for work within military and veteran communities….

That both veterans and non-veterans take the course is vital. The two groups learn to communicate by framing veteran experience in three key ways: the institutional, cultural, and relational dimensions of Veterans Studies. The institutional portion of the course teaches the students how the different branches function as a hierarchy and together—in the past as well as the present—to keep America safe. The cultural dimension exposes them to works of literature, films, and the typical ways in which veterans are depicted by the media. Finally, in the last portion of the course, students learn about how veterans assimilate into society after taking off the uniform….

Veterans Studies, as it exists in the courses I’ve designed, integrates oral, written, and visual communications skills in projects requiring critical inquiry and research. Students, taking Veterans Studies courses for a variety of professional and personal reasons, must cross disciplinary lines in order to make the first forays into this field. Further, group work, specifically, the kind of group work that asks veteran and non-veteran students to collaborate and produce work relevant to all parties, is foundational in both composition and the future of Veterans Studies….

Schools benefiting financially from the sacrifices of service men and women have a responsibility to create veteran-friendly environments and produce graduates capable of interacting respectfully and knowledgeable about veterans issues in the workplace and their day-to-day lives. The time has come for Veterans Studies Programs to claim their rightful places within the walls of academia.

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What College Rankings Miss: The Teachers Who Hand You a Key

The 2018 U.S. News and World Report Best Colleges rankings are out, just one of many annual higher education lists that have flourished like flowers—or weeds.

Knowing where a college program ranks can be merely interesting or practically important, depending on why you’re looking.

If you’re a student you want to know where to get the best education. And if you’re looking to get a job or improve the one you have, where you got your degree can be important to prospective employers who may read these rankings too.

Regarding professional programs, I admit to a superficial interest in these rankings when I choose a professional, particularly in medicine, and particularly in specialties. But I also admit that the best general practitioner I’ve ever known came from a reputable but not top-tier medical school. Which is maybe what made him so great, because his education and years of practice never made him full of himself. It just made him full of good medicine and full of his patients, one by one, one to one.

As for law, every lawyer will admit, even if he or she went to one of “those” law schools, that there is far from a consistent correlation between attending one of “those” schools and being a good or great lawyer (or a good or great person). Which is not to say that every law school can do the job well, or at all. But the best lawyers, like the best doctors, don’t have to come from the top of these rankings.

Business may be the best case of this. Check out the educational background of the most successful CEOs and entrepreneurs. Sure there are your Harvard MBAs and the like among them. But there are also all kinds of undergraduate degrees from all kinds of colleges, not all of those even in business. (Some college dropouts too.)

More than ever, where resumes and CVs are first vetted by overburdened reviewers and even by machine “intelligence”, the right school apparently equals the right stuff—hiring-wise if not life-wise.

Experience says otherwise. Looking back on education, not just college or law school, but even back to high school and further, it was the teachers. And not just all of them, but the singular ones (the rare ones) who generously gave me a key. The possibilities are so many, as are the obstructions—educational, professional, personal—that the teachers who really and deeply help are the ones who make the difference. No matter what the school.

If you’re looking for that in the rankings, you may be looking in the wrong place.

American Dislike of Studying History and Government Comes to Haunt Us

I have loved reading about American history and government since, well, since I have been reading. I was an officer in our high school Future Voters of America club, and I was a delegate to a mock presidential convention. A nerd then, and maybe still.

That is not typical for a large number of Americans, who seem disinclined to read much (and that is read, not just listen or watch) about these subjects. Partly that is because these subjects are usually required in school and are not always very well taught, with all due respect to those who have the sometimes thankless job of teaching.

My high school American History teacher was also our basketball coach, a decently smart and affable guy who happened to have been given one of the all-time exciting American History textbooks to teach from: The American Pageant, which thanks to the unique approach of its original author, historian Thomas A. Bailey, remains in print in its 16th edition. It was, and hopefully still is, one of the most fun reads of any textbook on any subject. Yes, I said “fun.” Without speaking for my classmates, I was excited to read each chapter.

I don’t believe all Americans think of learning about history and government as fun. More like work, maybe hard and distasteful and avoidable work. Except that avoiding knowing history and government means that when, as can happen, things get way out of whack, you won’t recognize what is happening, or recognize that as a historical matter, the consequences may be unfortunate, if not dire.

As can happen, things may get way out of whack, and they have. Maybe those who find learning about American history and government useless might squeeze it into their busy schedules. Particularly if they love America, because as we know, true love means learning about the one you love.

The Weird Randomness of Life

The Catcher in the Rye

I went to the gym this morning for my regular morning workout. The TV was on, but nobody was there. I saw that the remote control was gone. I climbed on a chair, pushed the power button and turned the TV off.

On further search for the remote, I discovered a handbag on the seat of stationery bike. I didn’t want to pry, but I peeked in to see if the remote had ended up there. Instead, I saw a copy of The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.

Are people still reading The Catcher in the Rye? They should and apparently they are. It is a great and famous novel. Once upon a time controversial, when it was published in 1951, because Salinger included the word “fuck” multiple times.

After this novel, another novel, and a book of stories, Salinger disappeared, like the remote control. He is considered the most reclusive and mysterious of contemporary fiction writers. W.P. Kinsella included a character based on Salinger in his novel Shoeless Joe, which became a character in the movie version Field of Dreams. The character in the movie is played by James Earl Jones, a big black man with a booming voice. Salinger was a white Jewish man, as far as we can tell regular size and regular voice.

In high school, I wrote a book report on The Catcher in the Rye, one that was supposed to be read aloud. The English teacher was one of those young, hip women, so I thought it would be alright. I was a little concerned about some of the quotes, specifically the ones that included the word “fuck.” In that class was a girl who was a friend, not a girlfriend, who read it before class and urged me to read it just as it was. She was a popular and cool girl, but mostly I wanted to seem cool to her because she was pretty and had really big breasts.

So I read the report out loud. This is one of the passages I read. The confused and questioning adolescent Holden Caulfield says:

I went down by a different staircase, and I saw another “Fuck you” on the wall. I tried to rub it off with my hand again, but this one was scratched on, with a knife or something. It wouldn’t come off. It’s hopeless, anyway. If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn’t rub out even half the “Fuck you” signs in the world. It’s impossible.

I wasn’t particularly confused, but I was punished. Someone in the class took offense and told the principal. I was called down to his office, and despite his liking me a lot and despite my record as a star student, he believed some sort of sanction for my indiscretion was necessary. The sentence was that my entry into the National Honor Society was to be delayed one year.

If I had it to do all over again, I would know that none of this mattered. I read the book, still love it, and maybe my book report led someone else to read it. If I was somebody else, then or now, I might have said something to the principal that was clever and super-meta, such as “Go fuck yourself.” I didn’t and wouldn’t.

On the other hand, if I go down to the gym tomorrow, and still can’t find it, I might say to myself—only to myself and not out loud—“Where’s the fucking remote?”

Why We Should Teach and Learn Ancient History First

Children in America who attend some sort of religious school, even before going to secular school, may learn some limited sort of ancient history. Ancient in that it concerns purported people and events from millennia ago. Limited in that some number of those people and events, however instructional and enlightening, may be of some historical question.

There is other ancient history worth teaching our kids early, and catching up with ourselves, just in case we missed it in our own education. There are continuous civilizations all around the world that have been ongoing, in the same place, also for millennia.

China, for example. Or India. Or the native populations in the Americas. This is where education should start, before we start talking about admittedly important people arriving on these North American shores and establishing an admittedly important nation just a few centuries ago.

Why? Because it would give us a sense of perspective on what we have, or have not, achieved so far. And because it would give us a missing sense of the scope of history, in that everything comes and goes. Which you could learn from the history of China. Or you could learn from reading the I Ching, the book about things changing, written in China millennia ago. Or if you prefer something more Western and familiar, from reading the Bible itself. A time for every purpose, it says. And so it goes.

“Books Smell Like Old People”

Denby - Decline of Teen Reading

David Denby in the New Yorker asks: Do Teens Read Seriously Anymore?

If reading means books or other extended forms of writing, evidence and anecdote say the answer is no.

Denby doesn’t have anything particularly new to say about the big picture and long term consequences of generations who are less interested in books than ever. This is an ongoing conversation that just gets more and more attention as digital demographics continue to roll over us all.

Still, it’s worth reading his piece as a reminder and, for some, a wakeup call.

Denby mentions the related ascendance of STEM education:

The Times reported on Monday that at least fifteen state governments were offering some type of bonus or premium for high-demand STEM degrees. “All the people in the world who want to study French literature can do so,” Matt Bevin, the governor of Kentucky, said. “They’re just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayers like engineers will be, for example.” (Governor Bevin, as it turns out, graduated from Washington and Lee with a bachelor’s degree in Japanese and East Asian studies. So much for the crippling effects of the humanities.)

Denby also mentions a recent book by media scholar Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age:

Much of their social life, for boys as well as girls, is now conducted on smartphones, where teen-agers don’t have to confront one another. The terror of eye contact! Sherry Turkle, in her recent book “Reclaiming Conversation,” has written about the loss of self that this avoidance creates and also of the peculiar boredom paradoxically produced by the act of constantly fleeing boredom.

Denby doesn’t come off like a snobbishly literate dinosaur. He doesn’t over-idealize “the way things were” as being infinitely and generally better, which they weren’t. He is just an astute observer making the point that extended discourse, written and read, is an essential part of moving society and civilization along. How we reclaim that, if it is in fact getting lost, is a difficult but worthwhile mission.

One God Two God

One Fish Two Fish

One God
Two God
Red God
Blue God
(apologies to Dr. Seuss)

A professor at Wheaton College may be dismissed for saying that Christian and Muslims worship the same God.

There is so much that could be said about this.

About the history of American evangelicalism, of which Wheaton is a part. How it began as an open and activist socially liberal Christian movement and has ended up in some instances a radically conservative and strictly exclusivist movement.

About theology as complex as any machine ever built, and just as incomprehensible to those who are not religion mechanics and engineers. How even though the God of the Jews was absolutely the God of Jesus, and the God of the Jews and Jesus was absolutely the God of Muhammed, that isn’t so according to people who may think themselves smarter and more important than Jesus or Muhammed.

The concept of one God was a revolution in civilization. The earlier belief in an entourage of gods, greater and lesser, has been mostly replaced by the one. (Whether that one might be three-in-one goes back to the theology complexities mentioned above, so let’s leave that for now.)

It is no wonder that after thousands of years with religion as a standard way of life, more people are rejecting it than ever. Because if there is a God, and if religions have sprung up on his behalf (with or without his blessing), that God and those religions can look spectacularly ridiculous in the eyes of good people who want nothing but good for people. And because if God really cares about all this very human nonsense, a growing number of people want nothing to do with him or his religions. And who can blame them?

If Princeton Expunges Segregationist Woodrow Wilson, Why Not Expunge All Presidential Slave Owners?

Princeton University is considering the demands of activists who want the legacy of Woodrow Wilson expunged from the university.

Woodrow Wilson was President of Princeton, Governor of New Jersey, and President of the United States. He was also a Democratic progressive in many areas. Not as progressive as his presidential opponent in the 1912 presidential election, former President and Progressive Party candidate Teddy Roosevelt. Wilson, for example, was friendly with Wall Street and opposed some financial reforms. (Sound like any current Democratic Party candidate we know?).

Wilson was also a man of his time and place. He was a Southerner and a segregationist, at a time when segregation was legally sanctioned. That isn’t an excuse for maintaining and promoting injustice, just a fact. That he might be less enlightened than current leaders by modern standards goes without saying. But given all the rest, it does not seem the stuff of an indictment.

If there is validity to the demands, then there is no principled reason not to expunge the legacy of all slave-owning Presidents from all settings. After all, slavery is undoubtedly a greater transgression than segregation.

Here’s the list:

Owned slaves while President

George Washington
Thomas Jefferson
James Madison
James Monroe
Andrew Jackson
John Tyler
James K. Polk
Zachary Taylor

Owned slaves but not while President

Martin Van Buren
William Henry Harrison
Andrew Johnson
Ulysses S Grant

Let’s admit that as national leaders, some of these slave-owning Presidents are more historically benign and popular than others. (We are looking at you, Andrew Jackson.) Even so, if you eliminate the ones whose legacy is now considered shady, you’re still left with some pretty worthy and venerated individuals—including, of course, the father of our country.

No one is saying that Woodrow Wilson is a George Washington, a James Madison, or a James Monroe. But if you’re going to start making principled distinctions, trade-offs and excuses, it’s impossible to know where to begin.

And that is the slippery slope we really don’t want to walk near. Which leaves us with the choice of leaving certain appropriately contextualized history behind, and making things better going forward. Or taking down the legacy of all of them, Washington, et al., because we want history to be thoroughly cleansed of its dark stains.

As if, Princeton and its activists. As if.

Not Born Bored

Here we are now
Entertain us
Nirvana, Smells Like Teen Spirit

A study by Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation finds that, among other things, lots of high school students are bored. Suggested solutions included making teachers better and the experience more interesting.

There are some other possibilities, but to consider them we should look beyond high school.

First, people are not born bored. Babies are not bored. Everything is interesting to them.

People do grow up and develop something called boredom, about which we don’t spend nearly enough time defining or considering. We just lump it into the avoid-or-eliminate category, and associate it with pain. Fortunately for the suffering bored, at this moment in history we may have the most options for escaping boredom ever.

Pointing to high schoolers or young people in general as the easily bored is unfair to them. Plenty of their elders pursue ways to keep things constantly interesting. Mobile phones at dinner tables are not the purview of those under 21.

There’s no doubt that high school is not what it should be, never has been, and deserves attention and improvement. The same goes for the hourly and daily and yearly lives of many people, just like those students stuck being in a place they don’t want to be and doing things they don’t want to be doing.

One small suggestion: Don’t be bored. Put another way, instead of regularly working hard to eliminate boredom, once on a while eliminate boredom as a category of experience. You don’t have to think like a baby. But you might discover that seeing everything as interesting, even awesome, can provide some incredibly cheap and available thrills. And while we wait for high school to improve, maybe that’s something we can try to get across to our kids. Once we learn to practice it ourselves.

Prisoners Beat Harvard in Debate

Bard Prison Initiative

A team from a prison just beat a team from Harvard. In a debate.

The Washington Post reports not just the victory of the team, part of the Bard Prison Initiative, but the constraints that the debaters prepared under—including having to research without the internet, from actual books and articles, but only those approved by the prison administration.

Too many lessons to count. Among them:

The two million or so people we consign to prison aren’t all there because they are not smart enough or motivated enough to function or excel in the real world.

The people who consign themselves to our most privileged houses of learning aren’t all as smart and motivated as some of those consigned to prison.

If you want to learn, really learn, learn enough to defeat the nation’s purportedly premier scholars, you can do it offline. Just like this prison debate team. Just like Abraham Lincoln.