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Reflections on Derek Black’s Intellectual Conversion

I finished reading the excellent Washington Post story on the reeducation and conversion of former white nationalist Derek Black. I loved it. It’s a first-hand tour in how one comes into a movement, and how one might outgrow them. Kudos to Derek Black for his intellectual and emotional bravery.

A few observations:

1. This story is why I believe in the power of a humanist education. This is why I believe that some reform to K-16 education is needed to confront what we’re now calling “Trumpism” (i.e. authoritarianism, white supremacy, and crypto/neo/pseudo-fascism). Read more…

Democracy in America: Eclectic Overall Impressions


No, I did not read DIA in French.🙂

Over the weekend I finished reading both volumes of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. It took me about nine months, between distractions, work, writing, and other reading commitments, to complete both. It got to be a slog in the last half of volume two.

I haven’t read every review, critique, and study of the work, but my biggest take-away is this: You learn as much or more about France and Europe’s problems, circa the 1830s, reading DIA than you do about the United States. Long stretches are comparative, and many passages feel like psychological projection, given the aphoristic and unscientific nature of de Tocqueville’s observations.

Also, the first volume feels more useful than the second. The first contains more connections to particulars, giving it the air, at least, of a case study. Read more…

Historical Thinking, Historical Imagination, and Imagined History

I love the distinction underscored in this HNN piece, by Yoav Tenembaum, between reality-directed and fantasy-directed imagination. I have always believed that imagination is an important historical thinking skill. I subsumed it under “storytelling” in my own teaching document (i.e. The 12 Cs).

I appreciate Tenembaum’s reflection, it could include a third category: history-directed fantasy. This is what JRR Tolkien constructed with his Lord of the Rings works. He favored “history real or imagined.” He funneled his imagination into an historical construction.

In sum, imagination is most definitely a crucial theme of historical thinking. And “imagined history,” or history-directed fantasy, might be another outlet to teach and learn good historical thinking, even though it’s not reality-directed. – TL

Democracy in the Trenches of Chicago

You know what democracy is? Spending nearly 7 hours in meetings—on top of your day job and away from your family— with teachers, school administrators, parents, and concerned community members trying to account for a $355,341 hole in your neighborhood school’s $4,337,414 budget (a 6% cut).* The main topic was how to fill personnel needs in relation to two teaching positions and four necessary staff positions—none of which are dispensable in our highly diverse 650-student school with roughly 30 teachers. The discussions were intense. I’m exhausted this morning, and limping toward the weekend. Read more…

Questions: Agamben and Historical Theory

I asked what follows on Facebook and Twitter, but I’m going to record my thinking here for some sense of permanence:

What good is Giorgio Agamben for historical theory? Or, how does Agamben use Benjamin’s historical thinking?

Is using the work of Giorgio Agamben a way to use Martin Heidegger without regrets, without having to apologize for the latter’s Nazism? Or is thinking with a Agamben a way to extend the work of Walter Benjamin into twenty-first century? Or both? Or neither? On the first the questions above, Adam Kotsko provided this brief reflection on Agamben’s relationship to both Heidegger and Carl Schmitt.

Also: When will the SEP commission a piece on Agamben?

Can’t Keep Up

It’s been a busy 3-4 days, both personally and nationally.

As has probably been the case for most everyone else, the events in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas have intruded, even as day-to-day plans and events flow onward, or will go on without you. A long-planned family vacation has arrived. But the news, captured in snippets on social media and through television, keeps grabbing my spare bits of attention. Read more…

Subsidizing the Stars: On “Meritocracy” in Graduate School

Courtesy of a prompt from Anthony Grafton, on his Facebook page, I decided to read this NYT article on the plight of indebted law students and struggling law schools. Since I’m a higher ed junkie, and I work as a student advisor in a professional school, I read all kinds of pieces like this. But this passage stopped me in my tracks–making me rethink my experience as a graduate student (bolds mine):

That’s because the way Valparaiso and other lower-ranked schools lure students like Mr. Hahn is to offer sizable scholarships, and the only way they can afford these scholarships is if a large proportion of other students pay full freight.

Inevitably, many of these sticker-price payers are weak students who lack better options. Research by Prof. Jerome M. Organ, an expert on law school economics at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis, shows that students with low test scores and undergraduate grade-point averages tend to subsidize the stars; this is especially true of third- and fourth-tier schools like Valparaiso. It’s the marginal students who pay the bills, not students like Mr. Hahn.

After reading this I realized, now, that I was one of those “subsidizers” in my history graduate program—at least as that program was constructed circa 1998. I had never put it in these terms before reading the article. But the words fit, sadly.

Read more…