Higher Education

Liberal Education

Liberal Education

"You can have all the information in the world, but it doesn't mean anything unless you have a mental matrix with which to absorb it, evaluate it, analyze it, begin to synthesize it. That's why we go to college." 

— Clay S. Jenkinson portraying Thomas Jefferson

#1274 The Classics

#1274 The Classics

"You cannot understand the founding of this country without understanding the Founding Fathers’ obsession with classical languages and literature."

— Clay S. Jenkinson

Guest host Catherine Jenkinson has an extended conversation with President Jefferson about the classics, and Jefferson’s understanding and support of the classics.

Congratulations, Graduates, and Back Up Your Hard Drive

When I graduated from high school my parents bought me a portable typewriter. It was a brand new Hermes 3000 manual with a gray-green plastic body. It was a beautiful machine, and I used it for everything I wrote for the next 20 years. In fact, even now, one or two or three times per year, when I want to write something I regard as really important—a letter to a lost and found friend, a letter to my daughter about something that really matters, a letter to the governor—I get out my Hermes 3000 and hack away at it. There is something joyful and sensual in lining up two fresh sheets of paper and advancing them carefully over the platen, seeing if the mechanical Tab button still works to indent the date, and then staring at that blank sheet of paper while thinking about how to start. No delete button, or cut and paste feature, on a typewriter.

It always makes me a little sad, afterwards, to slide the cover over the machine and place it back on its special shelf.

I got a portable typewriter for graduation; my classmate Curt Pavlicek got a Corvette. I say this without undue bitterness, though I have managed to find a way to say at several times per year for 42 years in a row. And nothing makes me grumpier than some well-meaning friend who says, "But think of how much more use you got out of your typewriter than he from a car."

Wrong. And beside the point.

This is the time of the year (or was) when gift and stationery stores ran out of dictionaries and Cross pens. Probably some older people still give them as gifts, but they have essentially gone the way of Brylcreem and Burma Shave signs. I gave my last Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary to a high school graduate about ten years ago. He looked at me like I had given him a copy of the 1852 World Almanac for Albania or a rebuilt butter churn. In the age of spellcheck, the freestanding dictionary is regarded as a gift of desperation purchased by a fuddy-duddy who should have just written a check.

We all know that a dictionary is much more than a spelling guide. Free online dictionaries are so rudimentary as to be almost worthless. In his fascinating book, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, Simon Winchester offers the following wonderful sentence: "A dictionary is the history of a people from a certain point of view." Almost no day goes by when I do not consult the dictionary—Webster's Third New International whenever possible. After I have opened it to my word, I invariably smooth the sheets several times as if I were touching a fine piece of mahogany or ivory. At earlier points in my life, when I had more leisure, I made it a rule to check the three words before and the three words after the one I had just looked up.

Try defining the following words: truth, north, soul, beauty. She who can do this is a genius.

Over the course of time, I've been asked to deliver the graduation address at a dozen or so colleges and high schools. I always say yes if my schedule permits, because I love the excitement in the auditorium. The proud parents, the snippy and sarcastic siblings, the odd little family "demonstrations" and cheering sections for the kid they reckoned would never graduate from anything. The graduate—usually a boy—who performs some pre-rehearsed trick on the stage: a somersault, a pirouette, the thrusting open of the gown to reveal a Superman t-shirt, a flat-on-the-floor genuflection to the college president. You can usually discern the families of the ones who are the first in their line to graduate from college. I find that very moving. It is such an important moment in the history of that family. My father, a grateful veteran, said the GI Bill of Rights was one of the greatest pieces of social legislation in the history of the United States. He and my mother were both the first.

When I give the graduation address, I always start by saying, "I am well aware that the only thing that now stands between you and your college degree is the knucklehead at this podium, so I will try to be brief." And for once I usually am. And I always start with a comic line from Woody Allen's "My Speech to the Graduates": "More than at any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly." But in recent years people have not laughed at this so heartily as before, and I am thinking of retiring it until the next American Era of Good Feelings.

Graduation addresses are paradoxical things. First, nobody is really listening. You are just a kind of necessary "fill." I don't remember what anyone said at my graduations, or who they were, but I'm pretty sure they said, "today is the first day of the rest of your life," or "this is not an end, but a beginning." Second, the kind of people colleges get to deliver graduation addresses are usually successful workaholics who have devoted every waking minute to achievement, but who now say, "Make sure you take time for your heart. Relax more. Just laze about sometimes. Buy a skateboard. Don't just stop and smell the roses. Grow some roses." But wait, Mr. Jobs, if you had done that, would we have the iPhone?

Third, assuming the graduation speaker actually has any insight about life (doubtful), that wisdom came from a long and winding journey through the maze of life, with triumphs and failures and periods of doubt and self-destruction, from sudden visitations of unearned misfortune, but also from unearned victories. You can't have wisdom sprinkled on your soul by someone who flew in first class yesterday evening for the reception. You have to earn it through the adventure and pain of an authentic life. You can tell an 18-year-old 100 times, "cherish your parents, for you will be them in thirty years," but it doesn't mean much until you figure it out for yourself. You're probably better off giving more useful advice. "Always back up your hard drive." "Get out of your way." "The road to success is dotted with many tempting parking places."

Fourth, nobody's listening.

When I left the country to study abroad for a couple of years, I asked my father, a brainy and thoughtful man, for his advice. He paused. And then he said, "Never kill a cop." He went on to explain, "If you kill a cop, you will be known as a cop killer, and all the cops on the beat will be after you." Actually, that is really good advice, the only advice that I can honestly say I have hearkened to in life, and so far it has worked out pretty well.

When I graduated from college, my father sent me a fabulous gift that could be contained in a stamped envelope. I opened it on graduation day at the University of Minnesota. I quote it in its entirety. "Dear Son, Your college experience has now cost your mother and me $17,345.67. Congratulations. Best wishes to you in your future endeavors."

Your was underlined.

Photograph from the Library of Congress, 3 June 1914.

Learning from My Students in the Inexhaustible City of Rome


Week three. This is my seventh or eighth trip to Rome, and my longest. I'm trying to stay one or two steps ahead of the students I am teaching here. They are seasoned cultural travelers by now, and they have learned a tremendous amount. There are days when I'm not sure what I have to teach them. Whenever they are otherwise occupied, I hop the bus (the dreaded 870) into the heart of Rome and wander about with maps, a guidebook, and my notebook and camera.

Tom Schulzetenberg, the U-Mary Rome program director, has mastered the city in his three years here. He's an invaluable guide. He's gone out of his way to make it possible for me to take the students to a number of places that are off the beaten track: the ancient port called Ostia Antica (Rome's Pompeii); the Non-Catholic Cemetery, where the English poets Keats and Shelley are buried; the emperor Hadrian's fabulous villa at Tivoli. Today, at our final lecture, I taught them the meaning of a number of Latin phrases that have made their way into English, including in loco parentis, "in the place of one's parents." Tom and his wife JoAnn have served in that capacity with real grace. As you know, U-Mary makes much of its capacity to create "servant leaders." I find it easier to recognize that quality than to describe it. Tom and JoAnn are the epitome of servant leaders—warm, generous, humble, thoughtful, careful, and firm--and they have sacrificed a great deal to live abroad on behalf of the liberal arts at UMary. If you think living in Rome is easy, just try it.

When I get home I'm going to burn my travel clothes, and rethink many of the rhythms of my life. The cars here are miniscule. If all the Ford F250s of Bismarck alone were loosed in the center of Rome, the traffic jam would paralyze the city for weeks. People here can park a Smart Car in a space we wouldn't attempt with a bicycle. I've walked between six and ten miles a day without even thinking about it, and while I walk the city I keep puzzling over why the Romans are so much fitter, leaner, and healthier than we are. Hmmm.

I wish we lived in a society that chose to send all college students for a semester or a year abroad. Many of the fundamental problems of American life would be solved if we had a universal Fulbright program. Foreign travel to a nation that doesn't speak English is the first important step towards global wisdom. We may be America—always the elephant in the room, and sometimes still the class act—but there are scores of countries that don't live as we do, do things in our way, consume at our Rabalaisian pace and volume, and yet they are perfectly civilized. Many of them, in fact, score higher on the happiness index than we do. To travel abroad is to realize that our way of doing things is not the only way, and not invariably the best way.

When we travel to other countries—as I keep telling my students—we are guests in another culture, and it is important that we pull back a little from our full "display" of our American brand of style, confidence, and expressiveness. We should never for a minute be ashamed of who we are and where we come from, but we should remember, too, that being an American (as opposed, say, to being Canadian or Norwegian) comes with a burden and a special responsibility. We are the richest, most powerful nation on earth (ever!), what Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called "the indispensable country," and that automatically rubs others the wrong way at times.

Whenever I travel abroad, I am ashamed that I am essentially monolingual. Once, long ago, when I was married, my wife and I spent a week with one her college classmates, an extremely talented woman named Silka from Munich in Germany. She spoke four or five languages, including French, Russian, and flawless Oxford English, the Queen's English. Her husband had eight languages. We went out to dinner one night with her brother and sister-in-law. The sister-in-law, some kind of European slacker, spoke only German and English. So the dinner was conducted in English, as a favor to the "Americans." I asked for permission to pay and to settle the bill in my weak German. As I recall, I bungled my few sentences so badly that I wound up in a Turkish prison!

Traveling holds a mirror up to us. We are invited to gaze into that mirror, or at least glance at it when we observe how other humans go about their business, and how they respond to us in their midst. Whenever I travel I make resolutions that make New Year's look like a routine Thursday. Theodore Roosevelt, in addition to being one of the most active men who ever lived, and a career politician, once shocked a White House guest, from Poland, by giving her a sustained analysis of the history of Polish literature. In 1910 he lectured about German literature at German universities—in German. Like Jefferson, he was a true citizen of the world. I had a professor friend at UND who learned Russian merely for the pleasure of reading Tolstoy in the original. At this point in my life, I would settle for reading French, Swedish, German, Russian, and Italian literature in translation, but where's the discipline going to come from, and who will grant me the 27-hour day? 

A few days ago we went to St. Peter's Square to hear Pope Francis deliver a homily to celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Right on time, he appeared at the appointed window. I watched him deliver his remarks through my binoculars, while the mass of people watched him on the Papal Jumbotron. He seemed joyful and genial and completely unself-important as he delivered his remarks and waved to the assembled multitude.

After Pope Francis had withdrawn and the crowd began to disperse, one of the students walked with me to the city center. Along the way, he suggested that we duck into one of the scores of nearly identical looking Baroque churches in Rome, the kind you might well just pass by on your way to lunch. He explained to me that this was the Church of the Gesu, the first Jesuit church to be built in Rome, dedicated in 1584. Inside he gave me a brief but really impressive commentary on the various features of the church, and the ways in which it epitomized the Counter-Reformation. Here was my student, a young citizen of the world (since September!) teaching his professor in a graceful and helpful way. A few days earlier, a new young friend, the son of one of my closest friends back home, told me that during Lent he and his fellow seminarians walk to a different church every day for 40 days for early morning Mass. I'd give anything to join those pilgrims.

Rome is truly inexhaustible; me, not so much. I'm now eager to get home, to sit with my mother in her spare Congregational church in Dickinson, to decorate a genuine Christmas tree, and to set up my new heroic spring reading schedule. This has been a bellissimo viaggio, which, so far, is the sum total of my Italian.

Veduta interna della Basilica di S. Pietro in Vaticano. 1748. Giovanni Battista Piranesi. From the New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Want to Make Things Worse? Abolish the State Board of Higher Education

When we go to the polls on November 4, we'd be making a serious mistake, even a colossal mistake, if we abolish the State Board of Higher Education, and replace it with a three-person commission. I repeat: as we seek to get better accountability and performance in higher education in North Dakota, the very worst thing we could do would be to pass this dangerous amendment (Measure 3), which would throw our entire system into pandemonium. It might even lead to an exodus of students from our 11 colleges and universities.

Higher education is expensive and complex. We need a fairly large and diverse State Board that represents every region of North Dakota, and brings a range of backgrounds, perspectives, ages, professions, and expertises to the table. A three-member commission appointed by the governor would be too small and too beholden to the person who appointed them, to protect the autonomy of our colleges and universities. Autonomy is the key word. Imagine for a moment a system that would permit the governor (whoever she or he is) or the legislature to start micro-managing higher education. Oy vey. The existing State Board of Higher Education is the right instrument for governing the system. It needs to be tweaked a bit, I think, but not abolished.

If we did this rash and unnecessary thing, we would be jeopardizing the accreditation of our 11 state colleges and universities. And no, this is not some sort of convenient talking point for those who advocate retaining the existing system. It is the stark truth. Accreditation of North Dakota's colleges and universities is granted by an entity known as the Higher Learning Commission, headquartered in Chicago, one of six regional accrediting organizations in the United States. The Higher Learning Commission exists to make sure that institutions of higher education meet certain standards, so that the public (and taxpayers) know that our large investment in higher education is paying off. We routinely certify and license accountants, dentists, doctors, nurses, even lawyers. Those "accrediting" entities protect us from fraud and shoddy work. That's precisely why we accredit institutions of higher education.

The Higher Learning Commission has no interest in intruding itself into North Dakota's political arena, but it has been asked by a range of disparate individuals, what would happen if the people of North Dakota passed this amendment. Their answer, very cautiously stated and with many humble disclaimers, is simple: chaos, and a serious threat to continued accreditation.

Delivering college and university education to young people in the 21st century is proving to be a complex and at times problematic business. I can understand why the public is frustrated. Tuition just keeps going up and up, in spite of the fact that North Dakota is now a very wealthy state. Each of the 11 institutions in North Dakota, and particularly the two flagship universities on the eastern border, at times appear to regard themselves as independent city-states like Florence or Venice, too proud and too grand to be governed by "outsiders" (like the State Board or the Chancellor of Higher Education). Meanwhile, something like 20% of the students who arrive within college and university gates require remedial training in math and English. The list is long.

So what is to be done?

The answer is not to blow up the system out of frustration, and install something that has not been carefully studied. The proposal before us—to eliminate the State Board and create a three-person commission—was hastily thrown together at the end of the last legislative session. It was born of frustration and impatience rather than careful reflection. If the people of North Dakota want to make fundamental changes in the way higher education is governed, we should create a blue ribbon commission to study best practices throughout the United States and bring a series of recommendations to the legislature, or empower a legislative interim committee to explore options and report back. At the very least, we should enter into a serious dialogue with the Higher Learning Commission to see what reforms or new models would meet their exacting standards, and which would be counter-productive.

A state government does many things—pave roads, collect taxes, manage wildlife—but higher education is a uniquely complex undertaking that needs a very significant measure of independence from the routine legislative and bureaucratic process. Jefferson famously said that his University of Virginia "will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind, for here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead." To protect the intellectual life of colleges and universities, where professors sometimes produce scholarly discourse that is unpopular or provocative, where many essential research projects seem abstruse or frivolous to "common sense" citizens looking in from the outside, we need to maintain a wall of separation between state government and the sacred work of the universities.

The existing State Board of Higher Education was created to protect our colleges from the political meddling of North Dakota's populist Bill Langer (Governor 1932-34, 1937-39), who fired seven NDSU (NDAC) employees for failing to contribute to one of his campaigns. The Agricultural College (as it was then known) lost it accreditation for several years owing to Langer's machinations. The State Board of Higher Education was created thereafter to ensure academic freedom at our colleges and universities, and autonomy from political pressures.

I do believe we need some structural changes in the way we constitute the State Board. I favor a variation of what in judicial circles is known as the "Missouri Plan." An independent committee recommends a slate of worthy applicants to the governor. The governor chooses someone from the list. Then the State Board has to confirm the appointment by formal vote. Two years later, that board member has to stand for re-election by the people of North Dakota. This would provide important new tools for both the people and the board. The board could, if it felt strongly enough, reject a governor's appointment. This would seldom happen. And the people could vote no confidence to a board member who is perceived to be out of sync with the will of the electorate. We want good individuals on the State Board, but we want them to be more accountable to the people who dig in their pockets to pay the taxes to support higher education.

In my opinion, we do not need radical changes. What we do need is pretty simple: a long period of stability and good governance. We've had a rocky last decade, but with the appointment of Larry Skogen as Interim Chancellor we have begun to find a rhythm of integrity, stability, honesty, and good sense. There is very widespread agreement in North Dakota that Dr. Skogen has been an excellent Chancellor, that he has stopped the hemorrhaging, rebuilt the University System office, and shown us the path to a new era of good feeling in higher education. If the State Board now hires a more permanent Chancellor of Skogen's integrity—someone who understands the unique character of North Dakota, someone who seeks both excellence and harmony—we will stop talking about the problems in higher ed and get on with the real business of our 11 colleges and universities: preparing young people to be complete human beings, to have the tools to realize their dreams, to be enlightened citizens of the United States, and to compete successfully in an increasingly complex global marketplace.

Dumb College Hijinks and Cultural Reconciliation in North Dakota

Just when you thought race relations on the northern Great Plains were moving into a new era of greater respect and sensitivity, along comes a disheartening setback. By now you are aware that a group of University of North Dakota students wore t-shirts to an off-campus Grand Forks event called Springfest that featured a caricature of a male Indian in a feathered headdress drinking from a beer bong, with the words "Siouxper Drunk" displayed in bold capital letters above the imagery.

UND President Robert Kelley issued a statement condemning the message on the shirts as "an unacceptable lack of sensitivity and a complete lack of respect for American Indians and all members of the community." Kelley rightly pointed out that Springfest was not a university event and it did not occur on campus. North Dakota University System Interim Chancellor Larry Skogen said the shirts exhibited "ignorance, intolerance and hatefulness." Skogen, who wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on Indian relations, said, "I am indignant about the disrespect conveyed in the repulsive messages on those T-shirts and how this conduct hurts those insulted."

The tastelessness of the stunt would be hard to exaggerate. The stereotype of the "drunken Indian" is one of the most vicious slurs in the long sad history of white-Indian relations. Alcoholism is a serious problem in the American Indian population (as it is in my white family). It has complex roots involving trade policies, poverty, unemployment, forced assimilation, unviable reservations, cultural collapse, and despair—but the best way to think about it is within the context of the conquest of the continent by Euro-Americans between 1492 and 1953 (the year Garrison Dam was dedicated). It is, in the terms of the great University of Colorado historian Patricia Limerick, just one of the "Legacies of Conquest." The only decent response by non-Indians looking at this problem from the outside in would be magnanimity, sadness, sympathy, a willingness to pitch in in any way outsiders can (by funding every useful treatment and education program), and a willingness to explore the historical dynamics of colonialism in the history of the United States. Needless to say, "drunken Indian" gags, even if not intended to be racist, even if they have more to do with collegiate hijinks than with a deliberate intention to hurt, are profoundly insensitive and ugly.

In addition to that, the t-shirt incident has to be seen as yet one more in a long series of aftershocks following the official retirement of the "Fighting Sioux" nickname and logo in 2012. I doubt that the nitwits who hatched the t-shirt gag knew how darkly they were scratching one of the most serious cultural wounds in North Dakota life. They are probably just as bewildered by the storm of outrage that has followed their stunt as all the rest of us are by the gross insensitivity of what they did. I very much doubt that they set out to be hateful. Still, when you see the images of the offensive shirts, in group photos of students hamming for the camera with the now-inevitable "thumbs up" and "oh, yeah!" pose, all you can do is shake your head and ask, "What were they thinking?"

We can all follow the dumb logic of some late night planning session: "Sioux=Sue=Sioux-per—cool!; since we plan to get wasted at Springfest after a long winter semester; wouldn't it be a cute commentary on the whole mascot controversy to …?" The thing I cannot understand is why someone in the student group didn't say, "I'm not so sure this is a good idea. Don't you think this is going to upset a lot of people? Let's keep brainstorming." As the controversy heated up, the t-shirt fulfillment company, CustomInk, released a statement, saying, "We handle hundreds of thousands of custom t-shirt designs each year and have people review them to catch problematic content. But we missed this one." Really? They might want to fine-tune their "problematic content" meter.

My view is that the best response to these students is not to punish them but to use this as an opportunity to teach them (and all the rest of us) to be more thoughtful about inter-cultural relations. In essence, the lesson is really simple: one culture should always be very careful about the ways it describes, depicts, or appropriates the iconography of another culture. This is a particularly important thing for historically-dominant cultures to remember when characterizing historically-subject cultures.

Meanwhile, I think we need to calm down. We are living now in the Era of Cultural Outrage—on both sides, on virtually every question. Spend half an evening hour on Fox, then half an hour on MSNBC and you will get a lifetime supply. Outrage can be fun—it is certainly good for ratings—but is almost always oversimplifies complex situations and reinforces cultural and political polarization, rather than lead to a more harmonious and enlightened community. These students did not come out of a vacuum. They are products of a certain cultural milieu. They have grown up at a time when North Dakota is groping its way towards a new understanding of the lives, the history, the culture, the religious observances, and the challenges of our Indian neighbors, whose homelands we inhabit: the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Ojibwe, Assiniboine, Cree, and Dakota. The UND incident is, among other things, an indication of how much cultural healing we still need to pursue at UND, in North Dakota, and throughout the United States. The fact that there is a substantial American constituency that still regards the name Washington "Redskins" as inoffensive is a sure sign that the road to cultural harmony is going to be a long one. It is going to take a very deep commitment to mutual understanding and reconciliation on both sides, and a remarkable level of patience and tolerance—in both the Indian and the non-Indian community.

The worst thing about the UND t-shirt slur is that it comes at a time when there is such good news in Indian Country. More American Indians are graduating from high school than ever before. More are going to college than ever before, and many are earning advanced professional degrees. There is good and hopeful economic news on the reservations—thanks to casinos, energy development, mining, increased investment in tribal businesses. Reservation nutrition programs are making progress in addressing diabetes and other major health concerns. Tribal colleges (for which North Dakota has been a pioneer) are doing really important work--at home--where most Indians prefer to be educated. A broad national pan-Indian cultural renaissance is now entering its second phase. Some Native American languages are making a slow comeback. A significant burst of new Native American literature has emerged in the past couple of decades, led by one of our most gifted living writers Louise Erdrich.

This sort of incident rattles around every coffee shop and bar in North Dakota for a couple of weeks. I heard some pretty ugly remarks from people who know better while I was writing these words. This is a golden learning opportunity for all of us, but I hope we remember that these are, after all, college students, doing the dumb stuff that college students do (remember?), and that we need to give more attention to their cultural enlightenment than to the easy art of righteous condemnation.

From Setback to Success: The Next Phase of Higher Education in North Dakota

From Setback to Success: The Next Phase of Higher Education in North Dakota

There is nothing more important in a civil society than educating our children, each according to his or her best learning style, each up to her or his capacity. I'm very happy to pay my share. But I do begrudge the idea of spending the best part of a million dollars to get rid of a servant of the state.