course correction at nyt

We’re in a tumultuous time in higher ed, so it’s as important as ever to keep facts straight about campus life and classroom culture. I’m happy to have had an opportunity to help with that effort—at least as much as one can in 200 tightly edited words—in the New York Times this weekend by giving some first-hand perspective on how undergraduates are taught at Columbia, where student protests have been especially contentious.

Ross Douthat recently argued that undergraduates at Columbia cultivate a “narrow list of outlets for [their] world-changing energy” through superficial, blinkered coursework in the school’s Core Curriculum. Amazingly, his column includes no accounts from flesh-and-blood instructors or students or … anyone. It’s instead built upon a glance at a reading list and an imagined method of indoctrination where students are compelled to agree with a course’s required texts.

I taught twenty semesters of Contemporary Civilzation (or “CC”) during my years at the Columbia Core, and my students were almost universally hard-working, independent-thinking, insightful, creative adults. They did not (and instructors did not), as Ross alleges, use the course as an opportunity to “simplify and flatten history” around the platitudes of contemporary political culture.

In Ross’s view, students in CC are brainwashed into marching in the streets for “decolonization” and “liberation” and “climate justice” and so on. Simply put, his view of undergraduate education is a fabrication—one I never encountered in Columbia’s Core. In my vast experience, students would use our authors as tools for interrogating the ideas of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. For instance, they would regularly criticize Frantz Fanon’s call for anticolonial, revolutionary violence as an echo of earlier justifications for bloodshed. Some would see it as a new version of Plato’s arguments for infanticide in The Republic in the name of “justice”; or perhaps as a new version of Machiavelli’s apology for self-serving assassinations in The Prince in the name of virtù; or perhaps as a new version of European conquistadors’ slaughter of Mesoamericans in the name of “civilization”; or perhaps as a new version of Robespierre’s defense of executions during the French Revolution in the name of “equality.” The list goes on and on and on.

Of course, some students—perhaps building on the American Revolutionary documents we read together—would find something compelling in Fanon’s call to meet violence with violence and to use any means necessary for the goals of national liberation and autonomy. Those conversations entailed productive disagreements about when, why, and against whom violence is (ever) justified in the pursuit of desired political ends. Perhaps in light of our own increasingly violent politics in the US, we should all be considering these questions more urgently. But to maintain that undergraduates thoughtlessly parrot propaganda that has been ideologically curated for them by the faculty—it’s simply unmoored from reality.

In the same column, Ross asks why students aren’t reading books about the “technological or spiritual aspects of the present,” but if he had talked to just one CC instructor, he would have found that dozens teach Freud’s critiques of technological progress in “Civilization and Its Discontents.” If he had picked up the phone only once, he would have discovered that Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism was a required text in the previous iteration of the CC reading list. (Hardly a monolith of “progressive preoccupations,” that reading list also included Carl Schmitt!) Over and above its fundamental mischaracterization of how undergraduate seminars are run, the column is based on sloppy reporting.

As someone who teaches occasional classes at Yale, which draws from a similar student population, Ross certainly grasps that Columbia’s undergraduates are—by and large—sharp, intellectually honest grown-ups. They are not indoctrinated political operatives as they are regularly portrayed in the media. Instead of pushing bad-faith caricatures of people like his students and colleagues in New Haven, he should entertain the possibility that it’s his views that have been simplified and flattened around the unhistorical preoccupations of his own political wing.

res is the thing with letters

I have been meaning to post a little note about the new dictionary entry (or “article”) in the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae for res—the word for “thing.” It’s been a multi-year (decade-plus?) project for editor Marijke Ottink, pictured hard at work a few years ago in the Times. It’s such a massive project to tackle this capacious, protean word. I oscillate between jealousy and fear thinking of the work involved here. Anyhow, we’re given a little “cheat sheet” or table of contents to sketch its many meanings:

Like every word in the TLL, the word res gets described in Latin first and foremost as a notion de eo, quod per se, sui iuris exstare vid[etur]. It’s verging into philosophical territory right out of the gate: what, really, is a “thing”? According to the first definition, it’s something “which by itself seems to exist in its own right.” Even thinking of suum ius or “its own right” is pretty fascinating here: I love the application of this legal, even ethical language to matters of grammar and syntax. The definition gets a fuller treatment in the real Capvt Privs section:

It’s not just something that “exists,” but first and foremost a res is something that “is able to be counted, as though an external thing and in a particular way separate from people, a foreign thing.” We learn under IA that “in the original use,” res had the stronger sense of “possession,” and that it was that which “someone possesses or is able to possess, has as his own, or that which he enjoys or is able to enjoy.” A list of examples follows: “riches, money, wealth, ktēmata or various useful things, but also (legal) rights.” These matters of property and rights and privileges draw out that rich legal undercurrent in Roman culture, even in its most fundamental nouns.

As a secondary entry, the article for res includes a separate account of res publica (“republic”), authored by Adam Gitner, one of America’s own Latinists at the Thesaurus. I have been eagerly waiting to see this entry—the definitive account of “republic” in ancient Latin literature and (by extension) thought. Like res, the entry for “republic” has its own mini table of contents that sketches the various subspecies of the word:

As Gitner catalogs the word’s history here, it refers originally and most generally to a particular universitas or perhaps “collection” or “community,” and more particularly to a “civic community” (civitas) that is “united in its laws, customs, and institutions” (legibus moribus institutis consociata). There are examples of res publica to “foreign” states and to the Roman state, and perhaps earliest of all extant applications is to the Greeks in the writings of Naevius:

Gitner’s entry includes some interesting collections of metaphors. Likely the best known of such metaphors is the res publica as a “ship beset by storms” (navis tempestatibus obnoxia)—but it also gets compared to a “building” (aedificium):

Perhaps under the influence of some version of Stoic cosmopolitanism, too, the article for res publica recounts some examples of “republic” of the entire universe. The Somnium Scipionis at the end of Cicero’s De Re Publica comes to mind:

These word histories are endlessly fascinating, and a word like res really is almost infinite in its varied applications. Latinists of all stripes should explore the many articles of the Thesaurus, currently up to the letters N and R. Previous fascicles of the TLL are available at the Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften website—but not this fascicle with res quite yet … ! Hopefully in the next couple years.

teacher evals

New from me: the Oxford Handbook of Quintilian (2022) gets the seal of approval (in Journal for the History of Rhetoric 26.3).