May 15, 2013, 12:00 pm
About halfway through my first semester teaching American culture and society at Tsinghua University, cradle of Chinese leadership, a student asked me if we could watch a movie—something about “American culture.” It was in this way that I stumbled upon a most intractable dilemma.
If you were given the opportunity of showing some of China’s future leaders one movie that encapsulated the American essence, what would it be?
Koyaanisqatsi is probably not the first movie you would think of. (Probably not even in the first 100.) The somewhat obscure Godfrey Reggio masterpiece was never in the running for mainstream acceptance and box-office gold when it was released, in 1982. Even as a cult classic, it has never attained the same level of acclaim as a Rocky Horror or an Eraserhead.
Koyaanisqatsi is a big-concept movie, and lexicographically, Koyaanisqatsi is a big concept word…
May 10, 2013, 12:33 pm
As most of us learn in high school and introductory college literature courses, the central drama of early American fiction involves a resourceful man confronting head-on the wonder, dangers, and vastness of America. Natty Bumppo, the Deerslayer, roams the wilderness of central New York; Ishmael ponders the frightening endlessness of the sea; Huck Finn “lights out” for the territories. We are told that such men—and they all are men—represent the American quest for independence, space, and novelty. With a whole continent before them, these characters act on an insatiable desire, as Emerson put it, to build their own worlds.
Yet most early- and mid-19th century Americans did not experience their country as some trackless wilderness awaiting their footprints and plows but as a complex social landscape marked by continuous and profound transformations. Consider that the national…
April 30, 2013, 11:32 am
September 11, 2001, triggered a wave of interest in research on terrorism. Hundreds of books, thousands of articles, and millions of comments have been posted on the Web. The federal government has stimulated research by infusing millions of dollars into the field. After the Boston Marathon bombings, it is time to reflect on what has been learned over the past 11 and a half years.
The surprise is that, over all, the same stale arguments about “how can this happen?” are debated over and over again—with very little new insight.
Yes, there has been some progress: Al Qaeda is no longer seen as an existential threat to the West in a clash of civilizations, and it is no longer believed to have deeply penetrated societies with superbly trained and fanatic sleeper cells.
The panic over an all-powerful organization has been replaced with the sober realization that neo-jihadi…
April 29, 2013, 2:40 pm
How safe would these surveillance cameras in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, make you feel? (Photo by Andrew Belenko/Flickr CC)
We were living in an age of surveillance before the Boston Marathon bombing, but the event and its investigation produced calls for much greater monitoring of our cities and our lives. The media narrative of the investigation, manhunt, and lockdown that followed the bombing was like something out of an action movie, with car chases, shootouts, and a dramatic televised ending. But it was like a science-fiction movie, too, featuring surveillance cameras, smartphones, GPS trackers, facial-recognition technology, thermal imagers, and even a robot. Hovering in the background, ready for the inevitable sequel, are the specters of police surveillance drones.
These technologies, especially the use…
April 23, 2013, 11:11 am
In 1937, as she lay ill in bed, Annie Oakes Huntington, a writer living in Maine, thought of ways to spend her time. She confided in a letter: “The radio has been a source of unfailing diversion this winter. I expect to enter all the courses at Harvard to be broadcasted.” Huntington was joining in an educational experiment sweeping the country in the 1920s and 30s: massive open on-air courses.
As educators contemplate the MOOCs of our day—massive open online courses—they would do well to consider how earlier generations dealt with technology-enhanced education.
We are not the first generation to believe that technology can transcend distance and erode ignorance. Nearly a century ago, educators were convinced that radio held that same potential. The number of radios in the United States increased from six or seven thousand to 10 million between 1921 and 1928. Many…
April 16, 2013, 2:17 pm
Recently, David Warner, a colleague in our department at Washington State University, was severely beaten outside an off-campus bar. While the facts are still unclear, the police have indicated that drinking was most likely involved. The incident was among countless acts of violence and violation perpetrated on and around college campuses in recent weeks, all by-products of a culture of excess that celebrates intoxication. At Washington State, we have seen a semester in which police officers reported that alcohol played a role in three students’ falling from buildings and another student’s death, from alcohol poisoning. Such events are a tragic reminder of the costs of America’s collegiate party culture—which parents and administrators often lament, but which the structure of higher education tacitly endorses.
Of course, collegiate partying is nothing new. It is the stuff of local…
April 12, 2013, 2:33 pm
One need not look far these days to find people skeptical (at best) about the value of higher education. Most of these people particularly question the value of a liberal-arts education, which they view as outdated and elitist. Claiming economic pragmatism, they seek the curtailment or even outright elimination of arts and humanities programs. Liberal arts, they say, are a luxury we can no longer afford, because students who study the liberal arts do not develop the skills they need to succeed in the workplace. This is an absurd and entirely unsubstantiated claim that I will not bother to debunk here (for an excellent takedown of this position, see Brian Rosenberg’s January 30 article in the Huffington Post). Still, absurd though it is, those of us in the sciences may think to let the humanities fight their own corner. What does this have to do with us? we may well ask.
April 10, 2013, 11:17 am
All college teachers know the heartache of students who, for one reason or another, are indisposed to what teachers have to offer, but freshman-composition instructors suffer a special despair. Nineteen-year-olds enter their classroom three months out of high school, and few college tasks irk them more than a five-page paper on a literary work or social topic.
Worse than that, all too many of them don’t have the basic ability to write crisp sentences and coherent paragraphs. They don’t know where commas go, they can’t set the pieces of a periodic sentence into tight relations, they haven’t the vocabulary to say what they want to say, and the well-turned phrase and sparkling metaphor baffle them. Academic prose is a struggle, freshman comp a torture.
Other first-year subjects uncover daunting college unreadiness, of course, but there’s a difference. Students falter in…
April 1, 2013, 10:58 am
In an interview with radio talk-show host Bill Bennett, Pat McCrory, North Carolina’s governor, criticized the “educated elite” for offering courses that supposedly don’t help graduates get jobs. He specifically attacked areas of study like philosophy and gender studies, both of which are strong programs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
As a matter of fact, the Chapel Hill doctoral program in philosophy is ranked ninth in the country according to the annual Leiter report on programs in the field, joining Harvard, Yale, New York, and Stanford Universities in the top 10. That particular piece of information didn’t come up in the interview, however. Speaking about these areas of study, McCrory stated, “If you want to take gender studies that’s fine, go to a private school and take it. But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get some…
March 28, 2013, 12:48 pm
The gun-control debate is complex, particularly as it relates to African descendants in the United States. As with almost every other issue, the racial dimensions cannot be dismissed.
From the beginning, slave-holding society fought to block enslaved Africans’ access to weapons, to reduce the likelihood of insurrection. After emancipation, blacks sought arms not only to hunt but to protect themselves from white-supremacist terror. Since the “right to bear arms” was denied them during their enslavement, emancipated blacks associated gun ownership with citizenship and liberty. But segregationists continued trying to disarm blacks after emancipation.
In doing research into armed resistance during the Southern black freedom struggle in the 1950s and 60s, I found ample evidence—through interviews with movement participants and archival records, particularly those of the Student …