How We Got Here: Ignoring Evidence and Confusing Cultural With Political Differences

I took issue in my previous post with those who live by some fixed truths they are unwilling to have questioned. The idea of climate change has certainly not simply been invented but, so far as I know, neither has it been 100 percent proven. To claim one or the other is an example of what I mean by a fixed truth, or a dogma. Similarly, a liberal education is not about spreading around fixed truths like these two. It doesn’t matter if the so-called truth in question is considered politically liberal or politically conservative because being politically liberal is a lot different from being liberally educated. Liberally educated people do not go around asserting either that climate change is 100 percent proven or that it is a hoax, that the nation’s borders ought to be entirely open or entirely closed. These are dogmas that might go viral for a day or two but finally get us nowhere. The only sensible question is what the bulk of the evidence has suggested and for that we need to listen to what the best informed people have concluded. That is the basis on which we make up our minds with due regard for, and fairness to, such opposition as they may have encountered. The liberally educated do not look for truth in shouting matches. It exists not inside but outside ourselves–that is, in the evidence, and must be patiently discovered there.

The liberally educated also attend to the difference between our political and our cultural differences. I was recently told about a church-going Alabama woman who, when she heard some animal invade her cherished bird’s nest, said that she headed straight to her closet to fetch her thirty-eight. Alabama’s gun laws are among the least restrictive in the nation and yet, if this woman were asked to support legislation limiting the access of Alabama children to firearms, I imagine she might do so. In other words, she could think with the culture of her state in rejecting gun control overall, but make an exception in this particular political case. Similarly, hunting is a much loved hobby for several of my neighbors in upstate Pennsylvania. But I’m pretty sure some of them agree with the recent Pennsylvania law that requires those convicted of domestic violence to hand over their guns within 24 hours instead of keeping them for 60 days as used to be the case. The gun culture is one thing, gun control politics is another, and the two don’t necessarily coincide.

Birmingham, Alabama

Like so many other colleges these days, the one I taught at until my retirement several years ago emphasizes its commitment to inclusion and diversity. I agreed with that commitment. I also agree that proven student behavior like scratching anti-Semitic phrases on blackboards or shouting out the N-word should be punished with penalties like suspension. But the terms “inclusion and diversity” have become so exhaustively repeated on campuses, and often preached rather than explained, that they strike some students still ignorant of history as lacking in enforceable meaning. That may be one reason why blatant cases of discrimination persist on campuses.

I remember admiring a former student of mine from Texas. Basing a paper she wrote on the practical experience of her and her family, she had the nerve to question the universal and automatic correctness of “inclusion and diversity.” She had been brought up in a San Antonio school district where social service taxes, which included school taxes, had risen so high that her family, already burdened with huge college expenses, had seriously to consider moving elsewhere. Their politically liberal neighbors insisted that the hidden cause of the family’s discontent was not financial distress, but objection to the nearby overflow of Mexican immigrants, many illegal, for whom newer and larger schools had to be built.

San Antonio, Texas

My student had clearly been troubled by this accusation of prejudice, which was repeated by her classmates in our discussion of her paper. The evidence she gave for her argument, however, had to do not with the local increase in Mexican immigrants, whom she described with unfailing respect, but with the notably excessive tax increase on hard pressed neighborhood families. Her paper far outclassed those of the many other students who relied on tiring invocations of the words “inclusion and diversity,” presumably on the assumption that my grade would indicate how profoundly I would bow before them.

Mexico to San Antonio

In short, my Texas student demonstrated her regard for discovered evidence as opposed to righteous insult, and her good grade reflected that. The students in our class who, along with some of her family’s San Antonio neighbors immediately accused her of prejudice, were preachers of liberal dogma, perhaps more accurately described as liberal cruelty. Ignoring local culture and particular circumstances, these dogmatic, “fixed truth” liberals are the opposites of the extreme political conservatives whose ahistorical dream of restored American greatness hints strongly of white supremacy. Whether the shouting matches between these two groups will remain the norm of American discourse, and the symptom of a divided culture that it now is, remains to be seen. Meanwhile its fury demonstrates the value of the quieter, more reasoned approach to our problems characteristic of a “liberal” education, the kind that now seems pretty close to defunct.

Egypt 2011: Alexandria

Alexandria existed in my imagination long before I ever got to see the place. It rained miserably the whole day when I finally did get there, but the sogginess didn’t matter to me as much, perhaps, as it should have. When Mary and I got off the bus from Cairo, there sat Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast of Egypt looking pretty much like my imagined Alexandria, which was way too distant from the facts of history to be what the city undoubtedly was, namely Egyptian. My Alexandria was Greek. Its air was that of my youthful reading–of the Homeric epics, The Agamemnon of Aeschylus, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, and Euripides’ Medea along with the wisdom of Socrates who, in a line that makes little sense in today’s White House, is credited with saying that the unexamined life is not worth living.

A mere 9 years before my 2011 arrival in Alexandria, a new library was built there, replacing, but my no means equaling, the one probably built by Ptolemy II, Pharaoh of Egypt from about 283 to 246 BCE. That library was rich in the scrolls of Greek culture, but it was also a gathering place for scholars worldwide. It may have been partially burnt, but most likely it just declined over time as a result of the wholesale scorn often visited on impractical “intellectuals” whose so-called expertise it has recently become so fashionable to scorn. (Alexandria, it should be noted, helped give rise to the highly significant 3rd century AD philosophical school of Neoplatonism, which included the likes of Plotinus, Porphyry, Proclus and eventually such early fathers of the Christian Church as Origen and Saint Augustine.)

The New Library of Alexandria, impressive for its developing system of Supercomputing

The question Alexandria made me finally face up to was how my college training in the literature and philosophy of Greece and Rome stood up against the nearly universal educational emphasis these days on preparation for the technological demands of society in the world of today and tomorrow. The obvious answer for most is that Huawei, the Chinese company with an apparent solution for every technological problem you could ever have simply must, fortunately or unfortunately, replace Plato and Aristotle, to say nothing of Plotinus and Proclus, on the typical college syllabus.

You may think I will now proceed to a stout defense of the liberal arts over mere trade school advancement, however sophisticated. It certainly looks like I will from my choice of a classical amphitheater for two of my last Alexandrian photos.

But I remain fixated on the photo below of the child laborer, who must be almost 20 by now, looking back at me as I snapped my camera at him. As long as there are youngsters like him growing up all over Africa, the Middle East, and the world for that matter, how can we say that as a country we are becoming “great again” and not be found laughable. A slogan is one thing but surely “greatness,” for a country as rich in resources as ours, is another. And if skill in locating algorithms is what it takes to help this young man or his sister along, so be it.

Where is he now?

Enjoying Work When the Rewards Get Scarce

My years of college teaching and writing had its rewarding but also unrewarding moments as all jobs do. Most of these moments in my case were caused by campus politics and budget shortfalls. My somewhat passive temperament and reluctance to “play the game” had a good deal to do with my occasional difficulties succeeding but so did the indifference of those overseeing my career. At one point my salary was found to be indecently low by comparison with others of similar achievement and rank. At another my effort to discover the reason why I had failed to qualify for a grant from a research committee met with this marvelously evasive response: “I’m not allowed to say, but you’re far from the only one with a complaint like that.”

I’ll say. And it looks to me like that nonchalant indifference to career disappointment must still be around and then some. How else to explain all the current advice on how to amplify a resume, knock’em dead in an interview, and advance in a job once it is landed? Jobs these days, at least for the well trained, are not scarce and yet the prevailing mood among many job holders as well as job seekers seems to me bordering on a desperation it is difficult to explain.

The need to pay off big college debts may have something to do with it. So may all the examples of corporate misbehavior we have seen ever since the Great Recession and the reluctance of banks and companies to admit it. How is a workforce to feel comfortably employed when the institutions they belong to put profit ahead of such ordinary imperatives as prudent money management, keeping our waters free of oil spills, and managing air control systems so that the lives of 346 air passengers need not have been lost. To say nothing of so vigorously marketing drugs like fentanyl to doctors that an opioid epidemic emerges. Sustained participation in an atmosphere that insists more on success than on care for the environment and the lives of others is bound to shake the nerves, especially of an employee with a conscience.

Admiring success belongs to our humanity. It has embedded itself in our culture at least as early as the Olympic Games and no doubt much earlier. But must our present-day media confront us with Heisman and Lombardi trophies, Green Jackets, Oscars and Nobel Prizes quite so constantly? What about those who come in second or third, or simply exhibit genuine everyday competence? Are they, in effect, nobodies? And what is the instinct to which commentators pander when they start speculating on the winner of next year’s Super Bowl the day after the NFL’s first exhibition game? That’s not a natural interest in success in my opinion, but an obsession with it.

Is it possible to enjoy our work anyway even when experiencing a lack of recognition or missing a deserved boost in salary? Or feeling that a preoccupation with success in the form of profit is so high a priority of our employers that it can casually dispense with a concern for ordinary human decency?

When asked why they do the work they do some people reply, honestly enough, “for the money” or “to feed my family” or “because I majored in that field in college.” But as legitimate as these reasons are, can we go deeper inside ourselves to ask what drew us to our particular line of work in the first place? When I was a kid of just 9 or 10, the neighbor next door took to calling me “the perfessor” in a startling prophecy of what turned out to be my future. Similarly, I think most of us show an aptitude for some kind of work fairly early on in our lives–electronics, let’s say, or constructing things, or instinctively coming to others’ sides when they are hurt. Finding a job we are naturally cut out for helps make those jobs continuously satisfying. I am by no means suggesting that we should avoid complaining about an unfair work evaluation or making our case for a salary increase, or looking for a comparable job, or even becoming a whistle blower if there is just cause for it. I suggest only trying to rediscover the joy we could have found early on in whatever work we do and staying faithful to the idea, such as being helpful to one another, that drew us into that work.

The Imprint of Hamilton College

For many years after I left Hamilton College in Clinton, New York to take up my long career of teaching, scholarship and service at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia I had occasion to be reminded of Hamilton’s imprint on me. Once, just before making our way through Clinton to Buffalo to visit my mother, Mary and I notified Dwight Lindley, my department chair during my time at Hamilton (and probably the one most insistent that I NOT stay on there!), that we would be passing through. Still as generous as when we first arrived at Hamilton years earlier, Dwight threw us a party, and a surprisingly high number of my former English department colleagues showed up to renew our acquaintance. A few years after that I sent Dwight a manuscript of the book about Samuel Taylor Coleridge I had started at Hamilton and at length completed. Protesting truthfully that he was no Coleridge scholar, he nevertheless read the whole of my book, suggesting slight revisions here and there. Soon after that book was accepted for publication, not on the recommendation of Dwight (a scholar of John Stuart Mill) but of a Jesuit scholar of Coleridge, a poet and philosopher born some 34 years earlier than Mill.

Dwight retired some 15 years after I first met him at Hamilton, and he told me then that he and his wife Janie hoped to do some travelling. They did manage a trip to Europe that included Rome and a Mass in Saint Peter’s at the Vatican, and when I asked him on his return how he, an Episcopalian, reacted to that Mass, he replied: “You Roman Catholics know how to put on a show!”

Janie, while in her car after shopping at a Clinton supermarket, experienced a cerebral aneurysm, and after that nothing was the same for her or Dwight. On a spring trip Mary and I took to visit Dwight, he told us of his daily trips on the New York State Thruway in the bitter cold of winter to see to her needs at a Syracuse hospital. He also showed us the bathroom adjustments he had made so Janie could shower without falling when she got home. Then there was the untended garden in the back of the house Janie and Dwight had built for themselves in anticipation of years of retirement that never materialized.

When Janie died, Mary and I made another trip to Clinton and the Episcopalian Church she and Dwight had attended. It was right across Williams Street from the apartment where Mary and I had lived with our two daughters when I taught at Hamilton College some twenty years before. In a conversation I had with Dwight several years after Janie’s death I asked him how he was doing, to which he said: “I’m getting along, but I miss her terribly.” But not one to pass up an opportunity for a joke, he added: “Don’t let anyone talk to you about ‘the golden years’. All the gold goes to the pharmaceutical companies!”

When my younger daughter Margaret came to making her college search, she decided all on her own to attend Hamilton College, graduating four years later with a Phi Beta Kappa key. She now regularly attends the yearly celebration for inductees into Phi Beta Kappa from Saint Joseph’s University, the school I taught at for over 40 years after leaving Hamilton.

Saint Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, at Saint Joseph;s University, the Jesuit University in Philadelphia

My friendship with Dwight Lindley did not end with his death and burial (next to Janie) in the Hamilton College cemetery. Their daughter, Anne, was a nine year old at the time Mary and I lived for over a week with the Lindleys before I started my first term teaching at Hamilton. I remember us seeing Anne ice skate at the Clinton Arena when Dwight and Janie invited us to see her there. When Anne grew up, she married a Spaniard as generous as her father, whom Mary and I met once on a trip we took to Madrid. Anne and Carlos have two daughters whose photos we still see yearly on the Christmas card Anne sends us from Madrid. People important to us die, but our relationships with them don’t.

The Prado, a world famous art gallery in Madrid

Owning My Choice of a Career Path: Hamilton College (1969-72) to Saint Joseph’s University (1972-2016)

Those who have read my previous post about being a Catholic faculty member at Hamilton College, a secular institution despite its Christian foundations, may remember me writing that my practice of Catholicism briefly raised the possibility of my staying on at Hamilton even though it was understood at my hiring that I had no chance of tenure there. This possibility seemed to have been created by some Hamilton students who valued me, some for my teaching and some for the kinship they felt with me by reason of my Sunday appearances at Mass in the Hamilton College Chapel.

Hamilton has a tradition of listening respectfully to student opinions doubtless because of its longstanding mission of encouraging students to think and act on their developing convictions. When a group of them heard I was slated to leave Hamilton fairly soon, they must have told Winton Tolles, the revered and longtime dean of the faculty, that they thought I should stay, a request he must have turned over to the English Department. So the department had one of its senior members, a friend of mine known for his sound judgment, invite me to a round of golf (I was then and remain now a terrible golfer) and as we walked and talked he asked me about the book I was planning to write on the Romantic poet and philosopher, Samuel Taylor Coleridge–more specifically, how far it had advanced. I replied truthfully that, even though I had visited the library of Coleridge manuscripts at the University of Toronto and hoped the book would benefit somewhat from the material in my completed dissertation, my research was still in its initial stages. I added that achieving my purpose in the book, which was to pin down how Coleridge’s understanding of Christianity had changed throughout his career, was a formidable undertaking.

My Office for a time at Hamilton was here

Dean Tolles was apparently unconvinced that my painstaking progress on the Coleridge book kept me from hopping on Hamilton’s tenure track because he phoned me to ask directly whether I wanted to stay on at Hamilton or not. I had by this time spent a miserable Christmas holiday at the Modern Language Association Convention in New York City, where I was unable to find even an interview. I did soon find one at Bryn Mawr College, which the obviously unenthusiastic interviewer seemed compelled to schedule, and another at the new and experimental Livingston College of Rutgers University where my multiple interviewers insisted that I sit on a pillow rather than a chair. When this interview was blessedly over, the department member who had invited me and who agreed with my somewhat rigorously academic point of view, was kind enough to tell me candidly: “you could never be happy here, Ron.” And neither, I suspected, was he.

Meantime my Department chair at Hamilton was careful to tell me that I was welcome to stay there for as long as it took me to find another job. But I was lucky enough to have been offered a position at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and was inclined to accept it for several reasons. I had met my wife Mary in Philadelphia during a one year teaching stint at Saint Joseph’s, where the English department for the most part remembered and valued me. Mary wanted to leave nursing for teaching and, if we stayed at Hamilton, that would have meant back and forth on the New York State Thruway in the middle of winter for education courses at Syracuse University. But most of all, since Mary was from Philadelphia where her parents still lived, if we moved to Philadelphia our two daughters would grow up close to their grandparents. Besides, I didn’t want to be known for years to come at Hamilton as a faculty member who had won favorable treatment because of his religion. So I accepted the job at Saint Joseph’s.

The Barbelin Building at Saint Joseph’s University

One of the students who had advocated for me at Hamilton made it a point to visit my home in Philadelphia early in the fall semester after I had left there just to make sure, as he said, that I was alright! Another, whose marriage to a Kirkland College student in Hamilton’s celebrated “Root Glen” Mary and I attended, and who has since become a highly regarded playwright, briefly took a light administrative job at Saint Joseph’s after his graduation, which he left almost immediately without ever looking me up. I remain unclear about why he did that.

Richard Nelson, once my student at Hamilton, now a distinguished playwright

It would be foolish to say that I have never regretted my decision to leave Hamilton. Hamilton is where I discovered why I wanted to teach college English: because it meant I could encourage still impressionable minds to think independently and share their thoughts with me and each other through their writing and speaking. To this day I believe in this ideal. Educating for a vocation is important, but a liberal education lasts longer.

A few important contacts I had with Hamilton after I left the school, which I shall mention in my next post, allowed me to own the choice of an alternate career path that I have described here.

On Being A Catholic Academic at A Secular Campus: Hamilton College,1969-1972

I was fortunate to have reached my late teens at a time when the Roman Catholic Church in which I grew up climbed out of its protective shell, looked around at American higher education (including graduate schools), and decided it was not that much of a danger to faith after all. Many of my teachers when I was a Jesuit seminarian (1956-65) had their doctoral degrees from Ivy League schools, and Roman Catholics with graduate degrees, laypeople as well as priests, were being hired by secular colleges and universities. But by 1969 a Catholic teaching on a non-Catholic campus, especially a small one like Hamilton College with a long history of choosing only white male Protestants as faculty, was still something of an anomaly.

A Jesuit priest I knew, faced with an oral examination on 18th century literature at Harvard, was asked questions only about Catholic authors until he had to beg the examiners to question him as they would any other Ph.D. candidate. At Hamilton, where I taught from 1969-1972, I faced nothing quite so awkward. The chair of the philosophy department, referring to the common joke about Thomas Aquinas’ questioning how many angels could stand on the head of a pin, graciously complimented the tradition I came from by pointing out that the passage in question in fact dealt with the philosophical problem of the nature of space. So Aquinas was hardly the fool it was so easy to make of him. Similarly endearing, though disparaging of the popular culture of the time, was the remark made to me by the most senior member of English department, who said he could not understand how a religion as historically rich in great music as mine could be assaulting the ears of 1960s congregations with guitar tunes like “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

Despite this graciousness I did notice some discomfort about my religion among my new colleagues. An historian, born Catholic, referred to me and my wife Mary who had registered in the local Catholic parish, as the “practicing Catholics”, as though the “practicing” part was a bit much. No such point was made about the faculty who attended the Presbyterian church in the heart of town or the Episcopalian who dutifully went to church with his family every Sunday right across from our apartment on Williams Street.

The Hamilton College Chapel

There came a time in my stay at Hamilton, however, when my Catholicism became a more important issue than I ever wanted it to be. At the invitation of some Catholic students who attended Mass celebrated by a Catholic chaplain in the Hamilton College Chapel, Mary and I began going to church there some Sundays and on others at our parish in town. I had taught a few of these students in my courses, but I think they all felt an affinity for practically the only Catholic faculty member on campus who made no bones either about his Catholicism or about “practicing” his religion, though without any fanfare.

I had been at Hamilton roughly two years by this time, having finished my dissertation, successfully defended it, and risen in rank from Instructor to Assistant Professor. My department chair, who knew I loved Chaucer, had also temporarily surrendered his claim to that course and handed it over to me. But according to the unwritten terms of my original appointment I had no chance whatever of becoming a permanent tenured member of the Hamilton faculty. That restriction, which applied not just to me but to other young teacher/scholars hired on similar terms, was based on the assumption that we were teaching at so prestigious a school that we were likely to find good jobs elsewhere merely by the fact of having taught for a time at Hamilton. But in the early nineteen seventies the job market for all aspiring faculty members was vastly diminished, a fact that gave rise to the pleasantry that most Ph.D’s were currently driving taxicabs.

How my Catholicism could have resulted in the lifting of my status as a strictly temporary member of the Hamilton faculty will be the subject of my next post.

Honesty in Professional Approval Post 3: Dwight N. Lindley, Hamilton College

By the fall of 1968 I had finished all my work toward a Ph.D in English except for my dissertation, which was still a work in progress. My three year U.S. Steel Fellowship at Case Western Reserve University left me free to take courses and study for two years but in the third required me to teach a basic course in English and to assist a Professor in grading, the latter a dreary task if there ever was one. In November of that third year a faculty member at CWRU who and had been an undergraduate at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York told me of a position just opened there to replace temporarily a senior professor going on sabbatical. He recommended me for the job, which was to begin in January of 1969 and, knowing that Hamilton took a liberal arts education seriously (and still does) I accepted the invitation to interview.

Landing from Cleveland at Oneida County Airport I was greeted by the Chair of Hamilton’s English Department, Dwight N. Lindley. Dwight was a co-editor with Cornell’s Francis Mineka of the later letters of John Stuart Mill and, to make conversation while we drove, he mentioned that his own role in that project was strictly minor. As I was to discover later, the only time Dwight’s honesty was questionable was when he spoke too modestly of his own accomplishments,

Mineka/Lindley Letters of Mill

My interview was at Dwight’s home on Fountain Street in Clinton. With only two or three other English Department members present, I sensed that the job was mine if I chose to take it. Dwight was the last one to put up the pretense of a formal “meeting” when the outcome had effectively been decided already. I took the job then and there and what followed was a couple rounds of Dwight’s s best Scotch, then a delicious dinner artfully prepared by his wife, Janie.

Dwight and Janie were generous people. Shortly after my return to Cleveland I had a letter from Dwight asking me what books were absolutely necessary to continue my work on my dissertation and promising to have them purchased by the library if they weren’t already there. They were to be available to me for as long as I needed them once I arrived at Hamilton in January. They were.

When my wife Mary and I did arrive from Cleveland in our Volkswagen bug, we discovered that Allied Van Lines had placed our student sized load of furniture in the back of the truck and could not deliver it until several days after the promised date. Dwight and Janie immediately put us up, told us not to fret about the length of our stay, and fed us for over a week as though we were part of the family.

Hamilton College, though considerably changed in the nearly 50 years since I taught there, remains centered on teaching students to speak and write effectively and to think independently while learning from each other. These goals accorded well with Dwight Lindley’s scholarly focus on John Stuart Mill, whose best known essay is “On Liberty.” Dwight’s desk at home was generally piled with papers from the Freshman English course he considered to be the core of all his teaching. He spent more of his time making his honest and careful way through these papers than on any of his many professorial tasks. More than any college English teacher I have ever known, Dwight fully understood that students, by sharing their ideas through writing, can discover what they as individuals actually think as opposed to the tired views they pick up from the social majority. Slighting student opportunities to do that will not produce the genuine liberty of differing individual thought on which, Mill argues, a democracy depends for its continued existence. All that gets students is the lingo that happens to be the intellectual currency of the times they live in. (For that reason I was never happy about papers ending with the certainty that their proposed thesis would “make the world a better place.”)

I was about to turn 30 when I met Dwight Lindley; he was 50. He had been an army sergeant major in World War II, blowing up bridges as he once told me. He had high blood pressure, or so I suspected, and was easily “irritated,” especially by sloppy thinkers set on overthrowing the existing order of things, of which there were a great many in the later 1960’s and early 1970’s. He once pushed his insistence on common sense, straightforwardness and forcefulness of opinion so far as to shout uncivilly at colleague during a faculty meeting: “that’s ridiculous!”

Kirkland, an experimental college then attached to Hamilton, once advanced an argument for substituting final grades with written faculty evaluations of each student. Dwight was “irritated,” just as he would have been by letters evaluating faculty members that slid over their possible limitations. I think this rigorous honesty was due to his fear of losing a hold on reality. If you are about to blow up a bridge, you had better not miss a person on your side of the war being on it. Dwight religiously picked up the daily paper before he drove from his home in Clinton up the hill to his Hamilton office. And when much later he was close to dying, he religiously called down from his room to the desk attendant to make sure he had the day, the hour and the minute entirely correct. Though I never laid eyes on a letter he wrote evaluating me, I was always confident that he would be fair while avoiding overstatements of my worth. When exaggerated approval seems to be the order of the day, as it does now, our professions may be in for some trouble.