Commencement 2016

To all of my students and colleagues, past and present, at Truckee Meadows CC, Barrett Honors College at ASU, the University of Kentucky, and elsewhere now flung far around the globe…


It is another season where many of us teachers look fondly back at our students’ achievements and forward to the fruits of their education blossoming in due course. It is also a season of platitudes and well-intentioned lies woven by commencement speakers paid to give you one last blast of praise before you leave the paternalistic confines of your schooling. I can tell you, my dear students, that every one of us faculty have sat through a two-hour-plus commencement ceremony and thought to ourselves, “Wow. I could give a much better talk and I’d do it for free.” Okay, not that part about for free, but definitely the better speech part. I have decided this year to not wait for an invitation to address you. I am writing it down here, and if Fate or luck brings it to your attention, then I hope you will find some nugget or two worth remembering.

If you’ve been in one of my philosophy courses or Honors seminars, you’ve heard me prattle on about “the human predicament.” (I prefer ‘predicament’ to the noncommittal ‘condition’ or ‘situation’, which seem to me embarrassed euphemisms for the Real Thing.) If you are blissfully unaware of the human predicament’s existential grip on you, then what follows may sound like the ravings of an extraterrestrial. Nevertheless, I have about a half century of life behind me and have felt its ever-tightening and omnipresent hold on me and on all those whom I love and know. So if you are a student, I can think of no better way to encourage you on your way beyond these first few years of your adulthood to those that follow than to describe this predicament as I have experienced it and give you what paltry advice I possess to help you navigate it. Because what I would never say in class I say now: the human predicament is very real, and at times very painful, but with some perspective such as that offered by the great wisdom traditions, it isn’t to be taken too seriously.

My philosopher friend Bill Vallicella wrote a short post in 2009 on his blog that perfectly captures my own difficult experience coming to terms with this. It is the heart of this post—I quote it below in full. It is my favorite thing that he has written and I hope you will find it, as I have, as honest, enlightening, and encouraging as it is challenging. It is a great Mirror. mirror-lakeIt can show you your own heart, that seat of will and desire, as well as the hearts of others. This Mirror will show you the truth about yourself. It is therefore no easy matter to stand before it and take in its revelations without the cover of our well-worn robes of self-delusion and bad faith. It will confirm the presence of real wounds you have suffered, those scars you carry, even from youngest childhood, while those fabrications of your own design dissolve. It will reveal to you, like Nietzsche’s greatest weight, in “your loneliest loneliness,” that which we take extraordinary pains almost every hour of every day to conceal about ourselves from ourselves and others. Bill’s text is quoted in blue; my edits and commentary are in black:


I’ve been loved, hated, honored, loathed, respected, scorned, justly penalized, unjustly maligned, praised for what I should not have been praised for, lionized, demonized, put on a pedestal, dragged through the mud, understood, misunderstood, ill-understood, well-understood, ignored, admired, envied, tolerated, and found intolerable. And the same most likely goes for you.


Can you control what others say and think about you? Nope, not one bit. Reputation is a fickle and cruel master. And the gossip train is always on time (gossip is the currency of the small-souled, bitter, and envious—for your own sake renounce it and all of its ways). Far better than managing your reputation (what a depressing phrase!) is the life’s work of developing your character. John Wooden, the great basketball coach, said it well: “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” And if you really are, on balance, a decent character, this, like truth, will out in the end. But how do you know if you really possess good character? You can know by the quality of your friends—what does the Mirror reveal about them? The true friend, like my dearest friend Jack, knows your character. He will celebrate with you your joys and praise your victories—but not overmuch!—and will not forsake you when you do wrong because he knows doing wrong is not in character for you. The true friend always accepts you but doesn’t always approve—and because he’s a friend he will tell you when he doesn’t approve. You can endure and overcome any abuses to your reputation with such friends. Dare to be transparent and vulnerable to them.


I’ve been the object of Schadenfreude, of glacial indifference, of jealousy. I’ve been the object of every emotional attitude by someone or other, at some time or other, for some reason or other, or for no reason at all. I’ve been loved and then hated by the same person, and the other way around. I’ve been liked by people who do not now love me, and loved by people who do not now like me. I attract and I repel, sometimes different people, sometimes the same people at different times. I have been different people to different people and different people to myself. And the same most likely goes for you.


That first sentence is ordinary professional life in a nutshell! The rewards of most of the work available to professionals of all kinds in these days, in tandem with the penalties, are delivered by aggressive forces of dehumanization. We easily become its agents and inevitably suffer as its patients. Your well-being will oscillate, sometimes wildly, under the force of these vicissitudes if your own sense of worth and importance is attached to the judgment and approval of those around you.

Institutions exist in part to evaluate individuals because people love to evaluate each other. It is up to you how much stock you will place in their measures, both favorable and unfavorable. I have been the recipient of many gifts, honors, and kindnesses, the genuine outweighing the treacherous many, many times over. These validate the good and true things I know about my work as a teacher and scholar. Even as they fill me with gratitude, I release them and their hold on my ego, just as I brush away arrows of spite and malice intended to poison me. If you were a student of mine, I probably had you read a Stoic–Seneca, Cicero, or Epictetus–and probably Boethius. Their works can be of consolation to you as your years accumulate and you endure the progress of Rota Fortunae. It’s good soil and the harvest will sustain you.

What is there of value to glean from these musings? I have added some of my own thoughts in the commentary above, some of which coincides with the points distilled by Bill in his post:


The human heart is fickle, and there is no call to care too much about what anyone thinks of you, whether good or bad — even yourself.


Easy to believe, hard to practice. Which reminds me of a related point that my friend George taught me a few years ago. Moral rules, guidelines, and policies have no power to guard or change your behavior.

Just above, I told you “Don’t be a gossip!” What good is that command if you haven’t the power to prevent yourself from gossiping? The answer to that question is the real purpose of such rules: to judge and condemn. That is their real power. And we humans love to exercise that power. And to turn the screw another perverse notch, we can condemn you for lacking the power to obey the rule.

But why isn’t knowledge of the rule enough? Why can’t you “just do it” (or don’t do it)? Often, the rule, or the fear of failing to do it, or the fear of breaking it, is enough to goad or restrain you. But sometimes behavior originates from our wounds. And wounded people wound others. Wounds—those of the heart as well as the body—have to be tended to and healed. Can you heal yourself? Maybe. But many of us need assistance outside of ourselves. The great wisdom traditions speak to this need for transformation. A good counselor or therapist can be a lifesaver. Don’t spurn these aids. That pretty much includes all of us.

wreckage-fuselageHave you broken a moral or institutional rule and been subsequently judged or condemned for doing so? Then you have learned the point of such rules the hard way. Now comes the test: you have the option to own it or evade it. I recommend owning it, and let others think what they will of you. It may chasten you when you are tempted to stand as judge over a fellow rulebreaker. Such are the tests of character that actually count when owning your failures, mistakes, or transgressions: remorse and empathy. All of your deeds, good and bad, are part of your story, for better and for worse. And the same goes for all of us.


Human reality is an ever-shifting play of perspectives and evaluations and, insofar forth, bare of ultimate reality and so not to be taken with utmost seriousness. All of the great wisdom traditions teach the need of detachment or non-attachment. You are grasping at straws and chasing after shadows if you seek your worth or ultimate reality in the broken mirrors of others’ subjectivity. My mirror and your mirror are broken, too.


In the clear Mirror of Bill’s wisdom, a wisdom that springs from the likes of the Stoics, Boethius, and the teachers, ascetics, and monastics of the great religions of the world, the deformities and blemishes of our own hearts are laid bare. You may thunder “I!” as loud and as long as you please. Duly consider all that your hands have done and the toil you have spent in doing it. Is it worth anything? Of course! Is it where your worth is to be found? You might as well chase after the wind. Fix your gaze above the vanities, schemes, and petty vengeances in which your ego longs to embroil you, and with which others would brutalize you.


If you have been done wrong, think of the times you have done others wrong. If on occasion you have not gotten what you deserve, recall the times when you got more than you deserved — and perhaps at the expense of the more deserving. If you judge that you have been unfairly treated, bear in mind that it is just someone’s judgment that you have been unfairly treated, and that the mere fact that this someone is you is not all that significant.


“I have been done wrong!” I have shouted, mostly to myself. And it was true. But that first sentence of Bill’s does not let me play the victim. Self-righteous indignation is not an option on the table because I have done others wrong, too. Will you be treated unfairly tomorrow? Almost certainly. And who judges this treatment unfair? You? That’s just another human judgment, yes? So don’t make too much of this shadow play of fairness while we tarry in the Cave.

You are not alone in the barbed net of the human predicament. Share in each others’ trials and joys as fellow sojourners through the heights and depths of this too transient life. You will know your true friends and you will be known by them. I am grateful always to those who have seen me in the Mirror and not turned away: Jack and Jack, Jack, Jeff, and Chris, and my family. My fondest wish for all of you is not that you will live a morally spotless life, or that you will know only pleasure and happiness and never pain, or that you will achieve an unbroken string of worldly success unblemished by failure. No, none of these patronizing fictions will do for this event. I give you instead this Mirror and trust that you will dust it off from time to time, heed its lessons, and persevere in the hard work of building your character and your life.

Upon Further Review…

William Deresiewicz, author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, wrote a blistering essay in Harper’s last week, The Neoliberal Arts. Many of his points resonate with my own observations as a college instructor for 15 years, albeit at non-“elite” institutions. In this post I want to amplify some of those points, but also challenge other claims in his article, and why, despite my initial enthusiasm for this contribution to the discussion about the state of higher education in the United States, I do not think his argument withstands critical scrutiny.

This is an unusual post for my site. For over a year, the vast majority of my material has been practical, emphasizing the attitudes, tools, and techniques that will help students succeed in their most challenging academic courses. And you don’t have to read very far into my work before you discover a celebration of many of the very traits, values, and aims that I think Deresiewicz and I agree on. But before I perform the autopsy on his article, let me back up about 40 years and set the stage with a biographical perspective.

The First Generation College Student

My Dad, Thaddeus Clifford Hunter, 1910 - 1975

My brother and I are first generation college students. My father, a World War II veteran, but who did not serve overseas for medical reasons, was neither a white nor blue collar worker. Our family inhabited some vague zone between working class and underclass. My mother did not work. When my father died, aged 59, he left no estate, no pension. Nothing but a $60 per month Social Security death benefit. My mom, who as far as I know had never held a job, was left with task of raising me on her own for over 8 years, until I reached the age of 18 and would – hopefully – have a chance at a college education somehow. My brother was 18 and already the hardest worker I knew – he was in his first year of college and figuring out how to pay his own way. He’s still the hardest worker I’ve ever known.

CHS-crestBeing a first generation college student meant that I had no idea what I was doing in those important high school years leading up to college. Last year’s Atlantic article by Liz Riggs is spot on about the difficulties faced by this group of students. I remember an aptitude test that was supposed to give you some guidance about careers that suited you. My two highest scores were florist and aeronautical engineer. In hindsight, I probably would have been perfectly happy had I pursued the first one.

But my brother-in-law was at Georgia Tech, studying electrical engineering, and what the heck, I thought, I’m pretty good at math and science. I could move out of state and go to a great school (out-of-state tuition and fees then was $1,264 per quarter) where I knew somebody and who could show me the ropes. That really was the extent of my decision-making process. Now I had done well enough academically in high school that I received some attention for my good standardized test scores and class rank. Colleges and universities various and sundry seemed to be courting me. At least one service academy – West Point – invited me and other Merit Scholars to a nice event where they made their pitch. But it was Tech that I had set my sights on, even though I really didn’t understand what an engineer did once out of school. The prestige and academic strength of the school was a fringe benefit, not a desideratum. I only remember applying to one school. I don’t know if my experience preparing for and selecting a college is typical among first generation college students, but I suspect it isn’t too far off.

I completed my course of studies in electrical engineering at Georgia Tech without distinction. I like to say I obtained my degree because they were sick of seeing me rather than for my academic performance. I moved back home and looked for a job in my field. I came up empty for a few months (this was during the initial 1989-90 contraction of the job market in the military-industrial complex, whose members were the largest employers of electrical engineers), but through the recommendation of one of my college roommates and friend, obtained a position with an environmental consulting firm. And 17 years later, I became an academic with a PhD in philosophy, teaching undergraduates, wherever they may be, the rigors and joys of tackling philosophical questions and problems.

I could regale you with a similar tale of cluelessness when it came to bumbling into graduate school, but that can be a story for another day. Instead, I want to challenge some of the premises of Deresiewicz’s article, because when I apply it to my own experience and that of my first generation cohort, I find that even though he is sometimes speaking in the tongues of angels, his analysis is a noisy gong and clanging cymbal.

It Ain’t Necessarily So

First, however, let’s look at what I think Deresiewicz gets right. His opening section laments the semantic evolution of college mission statements from the age of complete and conceptually rich sentences to buzzwords and slogans. He concludes that “[t]his is education in the age of neoliberalism.” I think he’s right about that, or rather, that managerial buzzwords are the preferred vocabulary in institutions of higher education at a time when neoliberalism is the reigning ideology of the technocratic imperium.

However, I can easily cite counter-examples, even from institutions that one would presume are the thralls of their neoliberal masters. Consider this vision statement:

To establish ASU as the model for the New American University, measured not by who we exclude, but rather by who we include; pursuing research and discovery that benefits the public good; assuming major responsibility for the economic, social and cultural vitality and health and well-being of the community.

This, I submit, has more than a passing similarity to the mission statement from the 1920s that Deresiewicz quotes favorably. True, four of its words are highlighted in the design of the statement: include, research, responsibility, and community. So while they are “four words – four slogans,” they are not “floating in space, unconnected to one another,” nor are their “meaning and function left undefined.” They are integrated in a complete, “highly wrought,” sentence fragment. It isn’t a sentence, and it doesn’t sound very pretty, but it does, indirectly, recognize the university’s “obligation to its students.”Tech-Tower

My alma mater, Georgia Tech, an institution explicitly dedicated to technological research and entrepreneurship, recognizes the centrality of teaching and “real” education in their mission statement: “The Georgia Tech community—students, staff, faculty, and alumni—will realize our motto of “Progress and Service” through effectiveness and innovation in teaching and learning….”

So as compelling as Deresiewicz’s opening illustration is, the conceit of an antithesis between higher education’s understanding of its mission 100 years ago and now doesn’t hold up once you look at a representative selection. Nevertheless, I agree with his observation that the raison d’être for institutions of higher education has significantly shifted, particularly in its previous focus on student formation and learning to…something else. An older aim, the moral education of college students, is, at most colleges and universities, absent, or at best, muted.

Deresiewicz thinks this is because there is no room in a neoliberal society to encourage the cultivation of intellectual and moral virtues. “The purpose of education in a neoliberal age is to produce producers.” Before the triumph of neoliberalism, we are left to infer, the purpose of education was “one that addresses [students] as complete human beings rather than future specialists – that enables them, as I put it, to build a self or (following Keats) to become a soul.” He is dismayed that his readers have not understood or appreciated that the latter is essential to what he calls a “real” education. Those who don’t get it include some high-powered faculty, college presidents, Republican governors, President Obama, and everyone who snarks at art history majors with “So you decided to go for the big bucks, eh?” and “What are you going to do with that?”

Now I have more patience than some, maybe many, when it comes to thinking about the legitimacy of the moral dimension of education. I happen to think that it is an ineradicable feature of education, whether or not it is explicitly encoded in the policies of the institution or recognized within the system as a value. If Deresiewicz is correct that “only the commercial purpose [of college education] now survives as a recognized value,” then that is what is guiding and shaping the moral formation of all who participate in the institution. The moral criterion might be expressed this way: “Activity A is only worth doing if one is paid to do it.” Under this criterion, one’s pilgrimmage through college or university is merely an instrumental good, a means to this more important end of the best job and salary one deems desirable. Deresiewicz et al are at war with such philistines who would reduce the traditional idea of the university to training for commercial enterprises, and with politicians like Scott Walker who want to revise the mission of a state’s public education system to one whose chief aim is to “meet the state’s workforce needs.” And the Goliath of these people, their champion, is the abstraction Neoliberalism. What Neoliberalism demands, Neoliberalism gets.

Frankly, I think all the attention in the last ten years that has been given to the shrinking of the humanities in higher education is evidence that many people in our society, not least faculties, parents of students, educational researchers, and book publishers, care deeply about it. But perhaps the shift in where and how one obtains “learning for its own sake, curiosity for its own sake,” or where one might “prepare you for life by inciting contemplation and reflection,” or “build a self” or “become a soul,” or even for that matter, where and how one might obtain a “real” education, is not evidence of the hidden, omnipotent hand of neoliberalism, but of the unsuitability of mass higher education to perform that service under any socio-political regime, of wicking the masses up into an elite liberal curriculum.

The Underclass and Others Without Souls

If I suspend for a moment the personal importance of my vocation in the insular halls of higher education, and recall all of the people in my family and its extensions into the communities and regions where they have lived, Deresiewicz’s complaint completely unravels. For I know directly that my rural, poorly educated, impoverished grandmother most certainly engaged in “contemplation and reflection,” had “a self,” and yes, even managed to “build a soul,” but without access to or under the tutelage of formal education. She obtained it through virtuous action: working and managing her farm, reading her Bible, and at 70 and 80 years of age, raising grandchildren and great-children as their primary caregiver. I think of the character of my father, my grandmother, and so many others in our extended family and their communities, and I have to laugh to keep from crying, or getting angry, at Deresiewicz’s article. For what he assumes is that the institution of formal higher education is  the privileged vehicle of developing in students “the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.” Respondeo: T’isn’t.

My father completed high school in the rural parts of Forsyth County, North Carolina. He was a teenager and young adult during the Depression. He farmed, raised chickens, and worked on cars. He had a knack for classification and organization. He loved flowering shrubs and they responded to and rewarded his diligent care for them. He enlisted and did what he was assigned to do while stationed in Newport News (Fort Eustis, I believe) for his part in the war. He also wrote well-reasoned letters to local newspapers (expressed always in his gentle way), kept a journal of his reflections and movie reviews (one of my most treasured possessions), worked at what he knew and did best to support his family, built the family’s first house, taught his youngest son how to fish and to bowl, encouraged his eldest son to develop his mechanical talents, sang the songs of his youth and favorite hymns in his sonorous tenor voice, and with his wife collected what books pleased them for our little bookcase. In short, he did all the things that one might designate as the properties and activities of an ensouled being. It may not have been the type of soul that Deresiewicz would have for him–that I do not doubt. But I have the benefit of the first generation college perspective, one foot in proud poverty and the other in academe, and would wish no other on him and all of my people. My dad would be unmoved by the values of neoliberalism, bored by the fads and clichés of TED, and suspicious of elite educational institutions who believe that their students must lead “a new organization of society.”


Setting aside the lordly, benevolently patronizing attitude Deresiewicz displays toward, well, everyone, there’s a question about whose perspective matters in the choice to pursue the liberal arts, “those fields in which knowledge is pursued for its own sake.” Students and their parents, eyewitnesses to the realities of the neoliberal economy, and the skyrocketing costs of higher education even at public universities, cannot be blamed for asserting their right to obtain an education that will enable them to survive, if not thrive, in this society. That doesn’t make them sheep. It makes them sensible.

I do not share Deresiewicz’s pessimism about the soullessness of higher education today because the students I have met and had the pleasure of teaching — engineers, artists, accountants, pre-med, pre-law, and yes, English, history, philosophy, and classics majors — have souls, every last one of ’em, and in many cases more developed souls than their elders running the asylum. One reason for this is what Deresiewicz describes as the parallel curriculum and parallel college. Students pursue internships, network in student organizations, and participate in a dizzying variety of extracurriculars. Deresiewicz thinks students are “deserting the classroom” for these opportunities. He should be pleased. It’s a feature, not a bug. Because it is in that parallel curriculum that students are more likely to develop their character and moral compass than in their formal studies. Why? My hypothesis is constructed from the history Deresiewicz weaves, telling us how mass higher education was poised for an egalitarian transfer of the liberal curriculum of the “WASP aristocracy’s” prep school system to public higher education:

The heyday of public higher ed, the 1960s, was the heyday of the liberal arts. If those middle-and working-class kids were going to college just to get a better job, why did so many of them major in English? Because they also wanted to learn, think, reflect, and grow. They wanted what the WASP aristocrats had, and the country was wise enough, or generous enough, or egalitarian enough, to let them have it.

One reason a higher percentage of students majored in English and the liberal arts in the 1960s is because there were far fewer options for a four-year degree. In 1963-5, for example, ASU offered about 50 undergraduate majors distributed among four colleges and a school of nursing. About half of those majors were in the College of Liberal Arts. In 2015, ASU offers over 300 undergraduate programs and majors across 13 colleges and schools. I suspect most colleges and universities have similarly multiplied their offerings over the last 50 years. Part of this diversification is wholly American – we don’t just want coffee, we want to be able to choose from 100 combinations of coffee beverages. Part of it reflects the increasing diversity of civil society, and the complexity of social structures and problems.

But another factor is in play here: the proliferation and expansion of graduate schools to accommodate all of those liberally educated young people of the 1960s. I happen to agree with Camille Paglia‘s analysis of this development: when asked how we might mount a defense of the humanities in the academy today, she replies: “It’s hopeless. The humanities have destroyed themselves [by] veering toward postmodernism and poststructuralism. It’s over.” She argues that as parents rebel by refusing to pay the exorbitant costs of undergraduate education, the universities will have to respond by “paring down this ridiculously overinflated curriculum.” Parenthetically, I would modify her claim about the ideological causes of the humanities’ self-immolation to a Malthusian cause: the irrational exuberance for graduate education by those newly minted liberal arts majors of the 60s. Graduate schools ballooned post-1960s to accommodate the glut of humanities undergraduates seeking a professional life within the academy. As a result, perhaps the intellectual standards that Deresiewicz assumes are representative of the humanities departments aren’t what they were in the 60s and earlier.

A student’s education is more comprehensive that schooling. Deresiewicz places too much stock in formal education as the best or only vehicle for “developing the ability to make autonomous choices – to determine your own beliefs, independent of parents, peers, and society.” Sometimes moral education occurs through the intentional effort of educational institutions. Probably most of the time it occurs in spite of those efforts. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. The parallel curricula college students pursue seems more likely to be an organic response to the commodification of their formal schooling. I’ve seen more evidence of this than Deresiewicz’s cynical view that these efforts are little more than résumé padding “oriented toward future employment.”

I think Deresiewicz is aiming at the wrong target, though he briefly gets a more important one in his sights. The kind of education that he values is best delivered to younger students. The implementation of NCLB has been an utter disaster. Most entering college freshmen are woefully unprepared for the rigors of a liberal arts education and lack the cognitive skills they deserve to have had the opportunity to obtain in high school. But such skills are not easily measured, and certainly not by standardized tests. There are public K-12 schools that implement the kind of curriculum Deresiewicz would applaud, but so far they are rare and too inaccessible to poorer districts.

And Yet…

There has always been a strong undercurrent of anti-intellectualism in America. I sympathize with Deresiewicz’s drive to push back against this, and his advocacy for cultivating the life of the mind, and enacting policies to make its pursuit accessible to all. But like it or not, public higher education inevitably must account for its offerings in terms of some set of instrumental goods. The liberal arts will always be at a disadvantage when these justifications are demanded by administrations, who are answerable to boards of regents, state legislatures and governors, and ultimately, the voters. Deresiewicz makes clear in his article the reasons for this: the true value of the study of one of the fields in the liberal arts cannot ultimately be justified in terms of some goal external to it. These fields are ends in themselves. In the strictest sense, they are not good for something else. They are good in themselves. Verum, bonum, pulchrum. Do external goods come by way of them? Of course. Improved critical thinking, weighing evidence, informed citizenship, skills to help one in professions that demand one “to think as hard as possible.” But these are the byproducts of humanistic education, not the goals. Why study English? Certainly not for the sake of improving one’s diction, preparing for journalism school, or entertaining at cocktail parties. Is the quiet contemplation of great works of visual art, listening to Coltrane or Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, or singing a Bach Cantata or a Beethoven Mass, good for something? Of course not, unless one is an elitist, who enjoys them from vanity.

In the economies of higher education and employment, it is perfectly reasonable to ask how you will bake your bread. If you can entertain that question as well as stick to your guns that not everything should be pursued as a means to something else, that there are more things worth doing than what one is paid to do, then you are not acquiescing to anti-intellectualism or neoliberalism. But one does not need access to an elite formal education to live well and justly, to care for the land and water and living things more than the amount of one’s salary, to practice hospitality, and to encourage young people to develop practical arts alongside their intellectual, artistic, and athletics pursuits. I know because I was a first generation college student who got that education from my family and community.


Barrett Honors College Recognition

Very proud to see my teaching alma mater, Barrett Honors College, getting national recognition yet again. In “A Prudent College Path,” Frank Bruni quotes John Willingham at length in the article, who refers to Barrett as the gold standard in public Honors education. Bruni discusses in particular the benefits of a public Honors education.

The public nature of the institution is critical, in my view, to avoid the worst effects of the unavoidable elitism in an Honors program. As I’ve written in my Honors tutorial, Barrett’s founding Dean, Ted Humphrey, reflected carefully on this core principle in his essay, “The Genesis of an Idea” (pdf). Barrett Honors College main entrance

Willingham’s excellent site includes loads of good material on the subject, and, if you’re an entering student, is worth a visit to get a great view of the enormous opportunities that are going to be available to you at Barrett and other Honors programs and colleges. Willingham regularly ranks Honors programs and publishes his research in A Review of Fifty Public University Programs. In the first edition (2012) of the Review, Willingham calls Barrett the “Best Value-Added Impact in the Nation.” And in his 2014 edition, only Barrett receives a perfect 5 out 5 points in the same category. This shows a consistently excellent program that is improving in order to compete with the other excellent Honors programs and colleges in the country.

So a big high-five to the Deans, Faculty, Staff, and Students of Barrett Honors College.

As for the busyness around these parts, I’m looking forward to delivering lots of new material in conjunction with the new academic year. I’ll be teaching a handful of courses this year and plan to continue to share my experiences, tips, and other goodies as the Fall unfolds. Barrett Honors College Refectory aka Hogwarts Great Hall

New Editing Tool

The Hemingway app is an editing tool that can help you with your essay writing. It checks for problems common to the kind of writing your argumentative essays require and which I’ve discussed in my Honors Seminar Tutorial (lessons 15, 16, and 17). Check it out!

Technology and Education

A happy graduation to the class of 2015, and to all other students and teachers, congratulations on completing another academic year!

Summer will be busy around here as I have lots of new content to post and some important revisions to old content that I’ll make available in shiny new packaging. So you can expect regular posts for a change. I’m aiming for no less than two per week. If you have specific requests, please do dash off a note to me.


To whet your appetite, I bring to your attention an article that appeared in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education, “Why Technology Will Never Fix Education,” by Kentaro Toyama. In a subsequent post, I’ll take a closer look at his argument, so for now I’ll highlight one of his key claims and leave you to cogitate upon it:

The real obstacle in education remains student motivation. Especially in an age of informational abundance, getting access to knowledge isn’t the bottleneck, mustering the will to master it is.

In my first-year Honors Seminar, The Human Event, the assignment my students had the strongest reaction to, both positive and negative, was the E-Medium Fast (download pdf). In my next post, I’ll connect the goals that I had in this assignment with Dr. Toyama’s article.

Essay Writing – Post Upcoming

New work and business opportunities have thrown my best laid plans for regular posting on Core Texts into disarray. We’re regrouping over here, having to do the heretofore unthinkable: long-range planning. Nevertheless, we are gratified that the site has unexpectedly garnered so many readers. It’s all very encouraging and motivates us to provide meaningful and helpful content more regularly.

The next post will concern an important skill you’ll need to succeed on your essay writing: assimilating and integrating feedback on earlier drafts and essays into your next essay. I’ve covered the basics of argumentative essay writing in the “Mastering the Human Event” Honors Seminar Tutorial, but knowing what to do with feedback from your instructor is a critical skill for you to learn if you want to improve your writing performance.


Engaged students “taking notes”

While I’m finalizing that post, I recommend this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education to you about one professor’s experiment banning laptops in class for a year. There is a connection to the forthcoming post.

Core Texts: Martin Luther King Jr

In honor of Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, today’s core texts post will focus on his work. In 2012, I decided to interrupt the regular chronological flow of the Human Event readings to jump to the 1950s – 60s and examine selections of King’s thought and work. This was always one of my favorite discussion days and almost everyone encountered King in an entirely new light.

king-knockI chose one of his early sermons, one he preached frequently for over 10 years, as the starting point for understanding the basic convictions and commitments underlying his thought and work. “A Knock at Midnight” often surprises students with its forthright declarations of good and evil in society, commitment to absolute truth, and other presumptions they hold about the vocabulary of “progressive” social thought. This is useful as a self-reflective moment, if embraced, to examine why one responds to King the Baptist preacher with surprise, discomfort, or confusion. After all, as one of the preeminent civil rights leaders in world history, he might simplistically be regarded as a “progressive,” in contemporary terms. Which he was! So how do his convictions about civil rights and the secular sphere stand in relation to his ethical and religious convictions?

A second reason I enjoy teaching this text is that its form, the sermon, does not cooperate as readily with social-theoretical grids that some academics apply whose priority in the encounter with the text is to ferret out class and race consciousness. Such approaches like to dispose of the messy, real and uncomfortable material, like King’s religious arguments, as so much embroidery that doesn’t impinge on the “important” content, the abstracted “social justice” core. It takes no small chutzpah to dismiss King’s religious self-understanding and vocabulary as nothing more than self-estrangement, “flowers on the chain” that enslave, or as impediments to social progress, yet that is the contradiction some instructors entertain. Such ideological impositions are more readily exposed when dealing with a cultural and social icon like King. This predisposition to abstract content is one of the limitations of reading every text like it’s a book. Though his sermons are compiled and can be read as essays or other written forms, you are less likely to engage in fundamental distortions of the text if you encounter it in its native form: as an oral text, as a proclamation heard, as a spoken exhortation. Listen to these texts if you want to engage them authentically.

The texts I recommend for a quick but somewhat complete picture of the breadth and depth of King’s thought and work are “A Knock at Midnight,” Letter from a Birmingham City Jail, his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, and “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” his final speech, delivered in Memphis at the Sanitation Workers strike (pdf available in the sidebar). Be sure to check out the numerous materials digitally archived by the King Center. You may also want to check out one of the most important contemporary scholars on King, Dr Cornel West of Union Theological.

[Edit] My friend Jack Heald has helpfully summarized King’s six observations regarding non-violent social change as described in Stride Toward Freedom:

  1. Nonviolence is not passive, but requires courage.
  2. Nonviolence seeks reconciliation, not defeat of an adversary.
  3. Nonviolent action is directed at eliminating evil, not destroying an evil-doer.
  4. A willingness to accept suffering for the cause, if necessary, but never to inflict it.
  5. A rejection of hatred, animosity or violence of the spirit, as well as refusal to commit physical violence.
  6. Faith that justice will prevail.

The Obvious

He’s a Christian minister. Specifically, a Baptist. He’s also from the Southern United States. These biographical details should inform your analysis.

He addresses his “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail” to the white, “liberal” and “moderate” Christian clergy, and singles them out for criticism. But they’re on his political and religious “side,” right? Why is he criticizing some of his co-belligerents?

What do you notice in the 10-year progression of his thought and work starting from “Knock” and ending with “Mountaintop?” Substantively what changes and what remains the same?

The Not-so-Obvious

In a recent book on “The Lord’s Prayer,” N.T. Wright recently referred to the phrase “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” as a “manifesto of revolution.” King understands the struggle for civil rights as a duty for the disciple of Jesus. In theological terms, this is because King sees himself, his society, and the world, as living in God’s history, and the future component of that history, the eschatological, is supposed to shape what we do in the present. Further, this living into an eschatological “not-yet” shapes King’s self-understanding of his life and work in prophetic terms. For example, in his final speech, he concludes with an eerily prescient vision of himself as Moses. The “mountaintop” that King says he’s been to is Mount Nebo, a height from which Moses was allowed to see the Promised Land in which his people would one day dwell. The more you unpack such allusions in King’s work, the richer your understanding of his thought will be.

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”

— from Dr King’s Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Address, 1964

The Civil Rights movement of the twentieth century was by no means ideologically monolithic. In 1964, just before the the passage and approval of the landmark Civil Rights Act, King and Malcolm X met briefly in Washington, DC (this page excerpts King’s autobiography about his recollection of this meeting). One of the key fault lines concerned the moral legitimacy of using violence in the struggle for civil rights. King, in the tradition of Tolstoy and Gandhi, was committed to direct, but non-violent action. Malcolm X publicly referred to King as a “religious Uncle Tom” who was in the pocket of the white man. He thought that King’s message of non-violence amounted to defenselessness in the face of the white man’s violence, and served only the interests of white power. King, obviously, disagreed. (See James H. Cone’s Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare? for an in-depth look at this debate.) So what do you think King means by “unarmed truth” in the quote above, what does “fighting back” look like from King’s perspective, and which methods do you think are more effectual for combating injustice?

Another opposition opened up by the quote above appears throughout King’s work: that between “unconditional love” and coercive power. Is love really an effectual force for social change and transformation? Can institutions permeated by racism be reformed by unconditional love? Why does King think so, and what does that look like? Pride (In the Name of Love).

AckbarThe Traps

As a minister with a formal seminary education from Crozer Theological and an academic theological PhD at Boston University School of Theology, the images, rhetoric, and theology in the Christian Bible (aka “Old Testament” and “New Testament”) are woven so tightly into his thought that without some familiarity with those images, rhetoric, and theology, your grasp of his words’ meaning and import to his audiences will be desultory, superficial, and at worst, plain wrong.

Example: non-violence = passivity, weakness, cowardice.

“No justice, no peace” the popular slogan goes. Would Dr King agree that? Well, what about justice? How do you get that? Can you have justice without truth, without telling and facing the truth? But do you value truth only if it fits your worldview or social aims–will a lie do just as well? Are truths relative? Is there “your” truth and “my” truth? If one thinks truth is non-absolute, then on what grounds can you demand justice from another since they can simply wave aside your claims about what has and has not happened?


Some linguistic background

King adopts many of the forms and cadences of biblical Hebrew poetry. These poetic forms were refined as musical, specifically within the context of singing in a liturgical setting, hence their suitability for King’s oratory style. Some of the key elements are:

Anadiplosis: Repetition of the final word or phrase in the beginning of the next line. “I have a dream,” “Now is the time.”


  • Antithesis: “the x, not the y”
  • Synonymous: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”

Chiasm: A B B A

Chiastic structure provides emphasis to two (or more) ideas in a pattern that is easily remembered.

Every valley shall be exalted

And every mountain and hill shall be made low;

And the crooked shall be made straight

And the rough places plain.

The chiasm of this passage is:

A   B   –A   –B

A   –A   B   –B

Two Views of Space

First image: the Earth, the “pale blue dot” taken by the Voyager I spacecraft from 3.7 billion miles away (a distance equivalent to a point between the orbits of Neptune and Pluto).


Source: Scientific American, 19 Jun 2013

Second image: the “Pillars of Creation” (a portion of the Eagle Nebula 7,000 light-years away) taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.


Source: ABC News, 6 Jan 2015

Before I upload my next post on Galileo, sometimes wrongly credited as the inventor of the telescope, I wanted to whet your appetite for thinking about the profound change in not only our knowledge of the universe since the time of Galileo, but our view of ourselves in light of that knowledge, a view which has been opened up by image-making instruments.

Does one affect you more profoundly than the other: the one that looks back at us from afar, or the one that looks out from our position within the universe?

When you look attentively at each image, what do you feel and think?

Wonder? Fear? Delight? Dread? Gratitude? Indifference? Hope? Doom? Pride? Humility?

Be sure to have a listen to Sagan’s famous description of the pale blue dot I linked to above.


Honors Seminar – Second Semester

For most first-year undergraduate Honors students, January 2015 commences the second semester of your first-year interdisciplinary Honors seminar. If you’re new to the site, I’ve written a multi-part tutorial to help you navigate this challenging course. The tutorial is called “Mastering the Human Event.” A permanent page link to it is here. I’m reposting the table of contents to the front page so that you have easy access to review and use its contents.

The “Human Event” is the name of the first-year interdisciplinary “Great Ideas” seminar I taught at Barrett Honors College at ASU for six years. I have produced this series based on my experience teaching this course and prior philosophy courses. I hope all Barrett students–current, prospective, or past–find this tutorial helpful and informative. And I hope all students who take a similar course, whether in high school or college, will find much that they can apply as well.


I am currently building out my series on Core Texts. This is a long-term project and new texts will be uploaded sporadically, but I’m aiming for at least three per week. Other series in the works include one on writing sins and how to avoid them, which focuses on analysis and reasoning rather than linguistic issues, and another on writing an Honors thesis. I want to serve the needs of teacher and student communities, so if you have any ideas for tutorials or posts that you’d like to see, drop me a line at

Thanks for reading, sharing, linking, and discussing!

“Mastering the Human Event” Tutorial

Table of Contents

  1.  Introduction
  2.  Preparation
  3.  Academic Goals
  4.  Why the Human Event? I
  5.  Why the Human Event? II
  6.  Why the Human Event? III
  7.  Selecting Your Instructor
  8.  Communicating With Your Instructor
  9.  Seminar Dynamics
  10.  Behaviors
  11.  Seminar Discussion I
  12.  Seminar Discussion II
  13.  Seminar Discussion III
  14.  Seminar Discussion IV
  15.  Essay Writing I
  16.  Essay Writing II
  17.  Essay Writing III
  18.  Conclusion


Francis Bacon

francis-baconI have used extracts from Bacon’s Novum Organum that focus on his well-known “four idols.” This is an excellent text for introducing the significant cultural change in the West to a period that historians designate as modernity. Important features of modernity are present in the text, but it also straddles the preceding era. Do your background research at carefully curated sites like the Stanford Encyclopedia.

The Obvious

The four idols. Know the differences between them and be able to describe them in your own words.

Why “idols?” What is an idol?

This is a text within a text within a text. The selection is from the Novum Organum, or New Organon, which is Part II and the most complete portion of The Great Instauration. Look up words you don’t know so that you can use and refer to them correctly.

The form of the text is aphoristic. This should matter.

The Not-so-Obvious

The “Baconian method” of induction is present, but must be pieced together from several of the aphorisms.

Bacon is an empiricist, but not a naive one. The human intellect is not a tabula rasa. We see through a glass darkly. So if the student wants to investigate and know Nature “out there” he must account for a human nature that is defective, including and especially his own.

Natural philosophy is another name for ‘science’, but it is not reducible to the empirical sciences. It recognizes and wrestles with its philosophical foundations in logic, metaphysics, and epistemology.

AckbarThe Traps

The Baconian method is a scientific method. Beware essentializing Bacon’s inductive method as “the” scientific method.

Then-and-Now thinking. If Bacon’s doctrine of the idols is accurate, it isn’t limited to the errors of his own time. The careful Baconian scientist is not triumphant – “oh those silly benighted rubes in the Dark Ages” – but epistemologically humble. The Baconian scientist is not immune to the errors described by the idols.

Forgetting the context. Read the title page carefully. What’s the subtitle? What is the overall project of Bacon’s work? What’s going on in late 16th and early 17th century England and Europe?