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Opposition: realist or moralist?

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Masha Gessen, in “Trump: The Choice We Face“, describes two responses to injustice. One compromises, does it’s best to move power toward justice while praying to minimize complicity in its violence — this would be the realist. The other refuses to compromise, insists that it will not participate at any level in sustaining the life of injustice — this would be the moralist. On level days, I’m a realist and I think most people are. There’s just no way to navigate the many competing moral demands of one’s communities. The realist owns hypocrisy and does their best with it. On darker days and in my more indignant moments, I’m a moralist. (I have a long line of moralists in my family tree — so, perhaps it’s genetic.) As a moralist, I’m insufferable. But as a moralist, I am motivated. The realist feels a bit passive at times. The moralist may be less practical, but (from my experience) is more likely to get things done — though in fits and spurts and in so far as the fire burns. As for now — let it burn, let it burn.

Written by Jere

November 29, 2016 at 10:20 pm

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Kairos: such is the time

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Is it too late to really start a reading of liberation? The documents I knew of and did not attend to, whether by indifference or by ignorance. The forces these writers meant to oppose are unlikely to ever be banished. I know that. Surely, I knew that. And now, there are “demands” on one’s time … but (can I give myself an out) there always have been. What to read? What to do? And when to do it?

The God of the State: This god is an idol. It is as mischievous, sinister and evil as any of the idols that the prophets of Israel had to contend with. … It is the god of superior weapons who conquered those who were armed with nothing but spears. It is the god of … prison cells and death sentences. Here is a god who exalts the proud and humbles the poor–the very opposite of the God of the Bible who “scatters the proud of heart, pulls down the mighty from their thrones and exalts the humble” (Lk 1:51-52). From a theological point of view the opposite of the God of the Bible is the devil, Satan. The god of the … State is not merely an idol or false god, it is the devil disguised as Almighty God–the antichrist.

The Kairos Document, 1985.

Written by Jere

November 21, 2016 at 9:04 am

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Dewey and the “Poorly Educated”

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Every few years in this last decade or so I have returned to a reading of Roderick S. French’s 1998 essay, “Dewey for administrators: Notes for an esthetic of administration in a democratic society” (free to read with registration at: In one season, it reads as a manifesto — a call to all that a university could be as a liberating engine for a true democratic society. In another season, such as this one, it reads as a lamentation for an idea that never quite took hold — one of a gutted liturgy, words without presence. When a presidential candidate can gain traction by declaring “I love the poorly educated,” John Dewey’s dream of liberal education as a liberating force, has failed. The dream is dead, not because it could not work, but dead because so few ever believed in it. If French did not know it was dead, he knew it was dying. If Dewey did not know it was dead, he knew it faced all but insurmountable odds.

French’s essay opens with a “meditation” on the work of academic administration. Having recently left his position as the Vice President for Academic Affairs at George Washington University, he prods the faculty reader to move beyond the knee-jerk distaste for the assumed drudgery of committees, meetings, bylaws, memos and budget reports and to pause before assuming the typical us-versus-them attitude toward administrators. French calls for faculty to pursue their administrative works with creativity and zeal. Leaning on Dewey, he emphasizes the work as both a personal and a social force for liberation:

The biggest single obstacle to all administrative innovations on our campuses is the rapid conversion of unreflective practices into untouchable “traditions.” Liberation (Dewey’s word) from “convention in practice and intellection procedure” is the daily goal of every true academic administrator. (p. 336)

Few have entered careers in higher education with a vocational longing for administrative work, so French is not preaching to the choir here. But it’s a good soul check — a reminder that administrative work may (with effort) be lifted above the habitual slog.

But French is not merely seeking a way to lift the spirits of a bored scholar, languishing in their appointment as department chair. He aims to ignite an administrative passion for Dewey’s vision of a liberal education — one that does not merely replicate class stratification; but, rather, one that enables its students for humane employment and full democratic participation. Succinctly put: “whether or not an education is ‘liberal’ is not defined by the subjects offered but by whether or not it is liberating for those who undergo it” (p. 347).

While one might argue that contemporary universities are facilitating the liberation of their students (perhaps by exposing them to new ideas and by opening the doors of the professions), Dewey had other liberations in mind. He saw a need for the “interfusion of knowledge … of vocational preparation with a deep sense of the social foundations and social consequences of industry and industrial challenges in contemporary society” (348). On this point, “higher education” has failed. Universities have given themselves to the marketplace–they sell any education a tuition dollar will buy. In the marketplace the university works less to educate and more to monitor the tollgates of opportunity. The rankings, admission rates, test scores, and average starting salaries of our graduates speak less of a liberating education and more to the (usually pre-existing) economic status of our students. It’s “deplorable” that too many of our graduates are fast-tracked into a couple of decades of educational debt; it’s “deplorable” that so many are merely credentialed for the professions without an “interfusion of knowledge” to the social consequences of those professions.

Sensing, perhaps, that rank-and-file faculty have, themselves, been mis-educated, French calls for administrators to work to put the public back in education and to put education back in the public. It’s a tall order. In my opinion, it’s just not possible without dramatic changes in the economic and social structure of the United States. Maybe the best of the best Dewey-esk administrators will manage to put a dent into the machine, but by and large our universities are outcomes of an economic system and are not positioned to be reformers of that system. In such a world, when white people with a college education support one candidate (+14 Clinton) and white people without a college education support another (+25 Trump), we are not witnesses to the liberating effects of an education. We are witnesses to the fact that we are all “the poorly educated.”

In my own house these realizations are leading to realignments. First as a consumer — I have one child in college and two on the way–and then as an educator. As a consumer I’m looking for colleges with racial and economic diversity at graduation, not merely at admission. I’m also looking for equitable outcomes for diverse students — and for schools that make social justice and civic action self-conscious features of the curriculum. As an educator, (not as an “administrator,” but as a lowly Scholarly Communications Librarian), I’m thinking about how my work does and does not contribute to the public “interfusion of knowledge.” While academic librarians are passionate about providing access to knowledge, the truth is that their piece of the university budget does much to reify the role of campuses as gatekeepers for the wealthy. The millions (that’s not an exaggeration) that we spend on subscription-only access to the scholarly literature that our own authors write is an easy case in point. Yes, we’re pushing an increase in open access dissemination and, true, some universities (like MIT) are starting to show signs that they might realign subscription budgets, but these efforts are too little and (largely) too late. We, the multi-degreed, but “poorly educated,” are slow to learn.


French, R. S. (1998). Dewey for administrators: Notes for an esthetic of administration in a democratic society. The Centennial Review, 42(2), 333–352.

Gambino, L. (2016, October 16). “I love the poorly educated”: why white college graduates are deserting Trump. The Guardian.

Special Collections Research Center, Gelman Library. (n.d.). Guide to the Roderick S. French papers, 1969-2013 MS2296.UA. George Washington University.

Chozick, A. (2016, September 10). Hillary Clinton Calls Many Trump Backers “Deplorables,” and G.O.P. Pounces. The New York Times.

Suls, R. (2016, September 15). Educational divide in vote preferences on track to be wider than in recent elections. Fact Tank, Pew Research Center.

Finnie, E. (2016, April 11). Using library content licenses to shape the scholarly communications landscape. In the Open.

Written by Jere

November 6, 2016 at 6:53 pm

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After Meaning

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The machinery of meaning is tiresome. Or there is something annoyingly youthful about it–and if not youthful, then pathetic.

I write to myself of two decades ago. An age in which all art was aligned in one of many ways to forces beyond it–crusaders and anti-crusaders. Or so it seemed, or so I received it from better minds. And before that, to myself of three decades ago, struggling to understand and in not understanding thus presuming a meaning I could not grasp.

Reading now, Moby Dick is a rambling beauty of sentences, lubber rich in the details, and a flight of the homeless, of men from women and into the oceans. The Great Gatsby was written by a man who feared women less, but hated them more. Nick’s bitter narrative is but a tale of hopelessness, against all dreams and loves–sooty, brash and grim. Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses” shimmers, piercing in perception, unforgiving in the celebration of shore, tide, and the grime of a place. And not wallowing in it either, but holding it out like the diamond-hard mystery of life.

Even so, as good as they are (and truthfully, I’ve never cared for Gatsby; yes, capitalism be-dammed, but Gatsby’s just a nasty bit hate), they all wind up and deliver a contrived load of ulterior meaning. Bishop slams into her’s, as if she realized the poem was coming to an end and readers would need something profound to distract them from what might be judged a fragment. Melville keeps returning to his, as if he forgets it (and I think he does) in the act of writing, in the clear obsession of fact and syntax–but he hurries back with vengeance. Fitzgerald back-writes his “meaning” into the book. His clock faces, eyeglasses, and smoking guns spliced in with big flashing lights: signifier, signifier, signifier.

The best narratives are larger than meaning; the best lyrics are beyond paraphrase. But some survive themselves anyway.


Written by Jere

January 31, 2016 at 6:41 pm

Some Notes on the Loneliness of “Literacy”

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Keller-Cohen, Deborah. 1993. “Rethinking Literacy: Comparing Colonial and Contemporary America.” Anthropology & Education Quarterly 24 (4) (December 1): 288–307. doi:10.2307/3195932.

Keller-Cohen wants to have her cake and eat it too. She observes that the concept of “literacy” is over applied, that the word has become merely metaphorical (if not cliche); but then, she would use the power of this metaphor to advocate for the role of reading, writing and speech (I believe this was once called “rhetoric”) in culture and education. Keller-Cohen ends with four things to think about, but I’m not entirely certain what she would have us do. Her “directions for refiguring literacy” include:

1) “Clarifying our conception of what people need to know and what role literacy plays in it.”

As I have said, here, she really wants to have her cake and eat it too. She does not like “sexual literacy” … but she does want us to think “in more heterogeneous ways about what people need to know.”

2) “Placing more emphasis on literacy as a collaborative practice.”

I think this is the most interesting and problematic part of the story that Keller-Cohen tells about literacy in America. On the one hand, posters from the American Library Association do not mark the birth of reading and writing as a solitary activity. For those of us who can read and write, the act will often be solitary … I think this has always been the case — St. Jerome had some rabbits, a squirrel, a bird, a lizard and a lion to keep him company — and often will be. I will share what I am writing (now) online, but I write this in a room, by myself.

Giovanni Bellini, St. Jerome Reading in the Countryside

On the other hand, this article from the early 90s includes one footnote about “electronic mail” — the “pressure” it brings upon one’s notions about the difference between written and spoken language. And, thus, one may read such an article with some nostalgia — which is fitting, given that it is a very nostalgic article — for the mere decades past in which the practice of reading mainly involved a paper medium. I don’t think this detracts from the argument of the article, but one might wonder what the author thinks about the social space the internet now provides for readers and writers. One seldom hears good news about the internet and its role in fostering “literacy” — rather, it’s typically that the youth are going to hell on a cell phone and tweeting all the way.

3) “Examining the relationship between the speaking and writing skills of students.”

Sure. Why not? I call this “rhetoric” and, when thinking about my kids, “language skills.” In graduate school I started reading my papers “aloud” prior to submitting them — the practice typically resulted in a few hours of revision. Does anyone teach dictation? Were I to dictate this post, how would the prose differ? Many of the great prose and verse stylists dictated much of their work: Milton, Wordsworth, Yeats.

4) “Broadening the sites for literacy acquisition.”

I note, here, every summer my daughter begs me to sign her up for the library’s reading program. So, it’s not just the schools that have been working to promote “literacy.” But, it’s a noble sentiment nonetheless and I think that Keller-Cohen is right — we do need more reading in America. (Would it be possible to have too much?) Even so, if we’re to extend literacy beyond the school setting — where else could we get as much bang for our buck? Truancy laws, more or less, make the school years one of the truly shared experiences of our culture. If one wanted to intervene on the behalf of “literacy” is there any better place?

Written by Jere

July 5, 2013 at 4:17 pm

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Moby-Dick: Hunting for Newer Readers

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As a pilar of American literature, as the true “great American novel,” Moby-Dick is really only a century old. (One hundred years isn’t so long or is it?) The book was dismissed at publication and it wasn’t until 1917 or so that critics began to promote it.

Will it retain its place as a literary standard for another century? Assuming the English language survives, yes. If for nothing else, it will survive another century as a rumor of itself–much like it already is. (Moby-Dick belongs in that special class of novels that people “know” even if they have not and will not read them. Its cohorts in this honor include Don Quixote and Frankenstein.) As for its actual readers a century from now, I’ll not be their witness. Nonetheless, I have done my part, here at the waning end of its century of fame. I have finished a first reading of Moby-Dick, if for nothing else, to have met a story at first hand–one I’d heard so much about. I can testify that it is as masterful as anyone might suppose, but I must also admit that I will not read it again.

Life has its temperaments and Moby-Dick goes well with brooding, dogged individualism. (And, regrettably, testosterone.) It’s no fault of Melville’s that this is the case. We all have our seasons and seasons have their place. (And I, suppose, one shouldn’t fault him for not putting a woman on the boat? Or should we?) But this book is all March–wind and rain beating into the face of the lonely reader. The sentences are beautiful; the manipulations of allusion and allegory are (as they should be) complex; the racism is (but only sometimes complicated) racism; and the marvelous and the sublime are everywhere to be found.

As a lifelong reader, one eventually grows tired of the sublime, but the marvelous has more staying power. For the marvelous in Moby-Dick, see the Melville’s dissections of whale and boat and the interrelated mechanisms of life at sea. In contrast, the sublime in this story may be found in the faces of Fedallah and Ahab–their otherworldly visages–and in the more standard tropes: storms, vast seas, mountainous whales. In this season of my life, I prefer the marvelous and if I were to reread anything it would be those long passages about whales and whaling.

But I will not reread them–or so I think. Life is short, yes. But why? Why am I ready to push aside a deservingly famous story? Maybe this is the answer: take the key characters from the three books that I mentioned above: Ahab, Don Quixote and Dr. Frankenstein. Mad men all, but two were filled with loathing and one was driven by a fool’s love. Two were selfish and one was generous to a fault. Spare me the-pride-that-goes-before-the-fall; at midway, I’ll have the fools.

Written by Jere

June 23, 2013 at 9:15 pm

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Why this? Why now?

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Giving, taking and making.

Written by Jere

April 18, 2008 at 11:23 pm

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