When I’m not reading English diplomatic…

…I’m reading the articles below, which have come across my news feeds and which seem to be fairly important, to me anyway.

  1. A serious debate over Kevin Carey’s The End of College, which book I haven’t read, nor do I intend to, really. First, I don’t have the time, and second, if I’m reading the right summaries of it the content is nothing I haven’t heard before, and I’m not buying it. Third, here’s why: a) my higher educational experience has ranged from community college to elite private university to liberal arts college/university to federal military academy; b) my students and former fellow students have ranged from retraining mill workers and first-generation college students to coulda-been Harvard “stars” and prepsters; c) my teaching and service experience has given me a 50-yard-line seat on the kind of higher ed “progress” hyped by the “University of Everywhere.”  And based on my own experience (forget about Udacity’s spectacular collapse at San Jose State) I simply do not believe the hype that surrounds this online, tech-savvy education buzz. Don’t get me wrong, some of the last decade’s innovations are excellent, and some innovations really do help students. But my own conclusion after about a decade in this profession is that, The End of College notwithstanding, there is no real substitute for face-to-face instruction, and unless your online courses somehow provide for video conferencing, or at least web chat conferencing, or at least SOME kind of personalized attention from teacher to student (old-fashioned words in themselves)–unless your product provides for at least one of these things, you’re not really selling education in the sense of students developing their capacity for critical thought.

And that’s not to touch the socio-economics and racial aspects of education, which Watters and Goldrick-Rab go after pointedly, and for which they have received a lot of criticism (mostly unfairly, I think). Heck, white-boy Dan couldn’t afford a computer till 2003, and even then I couldn’t really afford it–my parents scraped hard-earned cash together to help with that; I didn’t even own a laptop till…2007, I think, after I’d been in grad school for a couple years. So don’t tell me that folks who come from far less advantaged racial and economic backgrounds than I did will somehow be able to afford all the infrastructure that is required to participate in this brave new world of technological education.

And that doesn’t just go for education policy gurus, it goes for professors as well.  I have plenty of ideas for using technology in the classroom, and sometimes I can actually implement them. But simply assuming that your students at, say, an urban commuter campus will somehow have the cash and the time to fulfill your tech pedagogy ambitions is to enact on a smaller scale what it sounds like The End of College does on a large scale.

[On a side note, and just to tick off more people, this kind of assumption is why I’m at best cool toward a lot of Cathy Davidson’s initiatives, which to my mind often reflect the advantages of her educational landscape and not, say, Idaho, Arkansas, large chunks of Tennessee, urban California…you get the picture.]

Other articles I’ve been reading:

  1. Let’s keep Ayn Rand out of…just about anywhere, really. I came across two Rand stories this week, neither of which are complimentary, but then any positive coverage of Rand amuses me. First, a dirt-dishing story on “how Ayn Rand helped turn the US into a selfish and greedy nation” [granted, that’s hyperbolic], and second, a column titled “Ayn Rand comes to U.N.C.,” detailing the (questionable) politics in the North Carolina university system. But enough of that. Rand and her ilk blight the soul.
  2. An interesting piece objecting to to Steven Pinker’s argument in The Better Angels of Our Nature that the world is getting less violent. I’ll have to read Pinker’s book first before really diving into this, but my initial reaction is skepticism (granted, the book was initially published in 2011…).

  3. From this morning, a long article about “The War Against the Humanities at Britain’s Universities.” Sounds about right, from what friends and colleagues tell me. Depressing, but this seems to be where the world is heading these days.



An odd anecdote of Sir Steven Runciman

The other day I was adding items to my “Crusades in the News” project–about the only intellectual activity I felt capable of doing, given that I’ve been neutralized for my entire spring break by the flu. As break is over, surprise surprise, I’m feeling better. That, friends, is how the universe laughs at you. But I digress…

I found one of the big post-9/11 articles by Tom Madden, “The Real History of the Crusades,” from 2002. It should be familiar to anyone who’s read into the “Crusades Debate.” In running a search for articles in the last quarter of 2014, however, I came across an odd piece from Antiwar.com, by Uri Avnery titled “Crusaders and Zionists.” In it, Avnery recounts what I found a fascinating anecdote about the Byzantine scholar who became the most famous crusades scholar of all–Sir Steven Runciman.

Given Runciman’s well-known opinion of the crusades, and his equally well-known opinion that the 4th Crusade was the greatest crime against humanity ever seen (this after 1945, mind you), I was surprised to read the following:

A few years later, I read Steven Runciman’s monumental A History of the Crusades. My attention was immediately drawn to a curious coincidence: after the First Crusade, a strip of territory along the sea was left in the hands of the Egyptians, extending a few kilometers beyond Gaza. The Crusaders built a string of fortifications to contain it. They were in almost the same places as our own outposts.

When I finished reading the three volumes, I did something I never did before or since: I wrote a letter to the author. After praising the work, I asked: Did you ever think about the similarity between them and us?

The answer arrived within days. Not only did he think about it, Runciman wrote, but he thought about it all the time. Indeed, he wanted to subtitle the book “A guide for the Zionists on how not to do it”. However, he added, “my Jewish friends advised against it.” If I ever chanced to pass through London, he added, he would be glad if I called on him.

I guess by-and-large we often forget that Runciman was first and foremost a Byzantinist, and that his antagonism to the crusades came from the way they supposedly damaged the empire’s ability to fight the “real” enemy, the various Muslim powers in the eastern Mediterranean. But that he had a prescriptive set of lessons in mind, and not just a series of warnings about his “one long act of intolerance in the name of God,” is surprising to me, and I’d like to have this story confirmed if possible. I’d also like to know more about the writing of A History of the Crusades in general, if anyone can point me in the right direction.

Some medieval videos

A short post for the end of the week…

We’re always on the lookout for good medieval documentaries. Or sometimes they’re not so good, but they’ll do. Below are a couple videos that I’ve found useful, or hope to find useful.  I showed the medieval leeching video yesterday, to mixed reactions. Personally, I’m not sure if I would take my commitment to “living history” that far, but with the right incentive…

Medieval leeches

–A great performance of “Salve Regina”

Children of the Middle Ages, no opinion on this one yet.

Medieval and Military History with a Pinch of Attitude

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