decolonizing Weimar

In Nov. 2021, I visited Weimar, in the eastern German state of Thuringia, with a group of German and US-based civic educators who traveled together in both countries as we intensively discussed democratic education. This was possible thanks to the wonderful Transatlantic Exchange of Civic Educators (TECE), organized by the Arbeitskreis deutscher Bildungstätten (AdB) with Tisch College at Tufts.

One evening sticks in my mind and almost haunts me. It was a quiet and cold weekday evening in the lovely old city of Goethe–after dark, and after the shops had closed for the night. COVID was still quite prevalent. Representatives of a local project called Decolonize Weimar led us on a tour. At various stops around town, the guides basically read to us the text that you can find on their website, translated into English. These substantial narratives explain, for example, about a movie theater that previously stood at Marktstrasse 20 (now long gone), in which, during the 1920s, “ethnographic” documentaries were sometimes shown that presented African people in racist terms.

We stood in a half circle at each location, listening for considerable periods while a young faculty member or students read. Everyone was casually dressed, bundled up, in masks. Although we saw virtually no one else on the streets, police cars passed slowly on several occasions. Apparently, there was a present threat of skinhead or right-wing violence that the police were monitoring. They must have realized that we were not right-wingers (in the German context), because we were a multiracial group. But it was a bit eerie to be watched by the authorities.

To be honest, I don’t know whether the content of the talks was perfectly appropriate for the audience. I am not sure how many of us knew the standard story that our guides sought to criticize and complicate.

During the first centuries of European imperialism, Weimar was an almost autonomous little principality that had no colonies of its own and that was most famous for a cultural efflorescence that is usually categorized as “the Enlightenment” and is associated with cosmopolitan and humanistic values. Later, a unified Germany seized colonies in Africa and the Pacific that were cruel and exploitative but much shorter-lived (1884-1918) than the empires of the Atlantic European powers. For most people, the word “Weimar” connotes a humane tradition that was deliberately destroyed by the Nazis, who overthrew the Republic unofficially named for that city and established Buchenwald nearby. Many would credit Weimar with liberal and democratic values. The most evident evil would be antisemitism.

The evidence that we heard challenged these assumptions by showing that Weimar belonged to European markets and cultures that were complicit in global colonialism during the 17th and 18th centuries, and then German’s overseas empire was popular and resonant in the town. When someone asked about antisemitism and the Holocaust, our guide actually deferred the question on the ground that she was not a specialist in those topics. She wanted to keep the focus on colonialism and racism.

Uncovering this history is good, relevant, and important work. I have nothing but respect for it. It is part of an international conversation and a long and complicated process of Germans coming to terms with their own past, as Americans also must. Something about the earnestness of the evening, the empirical detail and academic rigor, the cold air, the silent but attentive masked listeners, and the quiet streets lingers for me.

See also: memory politics; an overview of civic education in the USA and Germany; and alerting people to their privilege.

a method for analyzing organizations

I’m about to conduct a study in partnership with a civic association in the midwestern United States. It should yield insights that can inform this association’s plans and help me to develop a method and related theory. I have IRB approval to proceed, using instruments that are designed.

In the meantime, a colleague alerted me to an impressive new paper by Dalege, Galesic and Olsson (2023) that uses a very similar model. Fig. 1 in their paper resembles the image I’ve created with this post. These authors make an analogy to physics that allows them to write about spin, energy and temperature. I don’t have the necessary background to replicate their analysis but will contribute relevant empirical data from a real-world group and some additional interpretive concepts.

We will ask members of the association to what extent they agree with a list of relevant beliefs (derived from their own suggestions in an open-ended survey). We will ask them whether each belief that the individual endorses is a reason for their other beliefs. As a hypothetical example, you might think that the organization’s youth programming is important because you believe in investing in young people. That reflects a link between your two beliefs. We will also ask members to name their fellow members who most influence them.

In the hypothetical image with this post, the circles represent people: members of the group. A link between any two members indicates that one or both have identified the other as an influence. That is a social network graph.

The small shapes (stars, circles, etc.) represent the beliefs that individuals most strongly endorse. The arrows between pairs of beliefs indicate that one belief is a reason for another. This is a belief-network.

Reciprocal links are possible in both the social network and the belief networks.

Before analyzing the network data, I will also be able to derive some statistics that are not directly observed. For example, each node in both the social network and the belief networks has a certain amount of centrality, which can be measured in various standard ways. I can also run factor analysis on the responses about beliefs to see whether they reflect larger “constructs.” (Again, as a hypothetical example, it might turn out that several specific responses are consistent with an underlying concern for youth, and that construct could be measured for each member.)

I plan to test several hypotheses about this organization. These hypotheses are not meant to be generalizations. On the contrary, I expect that for any given organization, most of the hypotheses will turn out to be false. The purpose of testing them is to provide a description of the specific group that is useful for diagnosis and planning. Over time, it may also be possible to see which of these phenomena are most common under various circumstances.

Hypotheses to test

H1: The group is unified

H1a: The group is socially unified to the extent that its members belong to one network connected by interpersonal influences. The denser the ties within the connected network, the more the group displays social unity.

H1b: The group is epistemically epistemically unified to the extent that members endorse the same beliefs, and to the extent that these shared beliefs are central in their belief networks.

H2: The group is polarized.

H2a: The group is socially polarized if many members belong to two separate subgroups that are connected by interpersonal influences but are not connected to each other, as depicted by the red and blue clusters in my hypothetical image.

H2b: The group is epistemically polarized if many members endorse belief A, and many other members endorse B, but very few or no members endorse both A and B. If A and/or B also have high network centrality for the people who endorse them, that makes the epistemic polarization more serious. (Instead of examining specific beliefs, I could also look at constructs derived from factor analysis.)

H3: The group is fragmented

H3a: The group is socially fragmented if many members are connected by influence-links to zero or just one other member.

H3b: The group is epistemically fragmented if no specific beliefs are widely shared by the members.

H4: The group is homophilous if individuals who are connected by influence-ties are more likely to endorse the same beliefs, or have the same central beliefs, or reflect the same constructs, compared to those who are not connected. If the opposite is true–if socially connected people disagree more than the whole group does–then the group is heterophilous.

H5: There is a core and a periphery

H5a: There is a social core if some members are linked in a relatively large social network, while most other members are socially fragmented.

H5b: There is an epistemic core if many (but not all) members endorse a given belief, or a given belief is central for them, or they share the same constructs, while the rest of the organization does not endorse that belief.

H6: Certain members are bridges

H6a: A person is a social bridge if the whole group would be socially polarized without that person.

H6b: A person is an epistemic bridge if the whole group would be epistemically polarized without that person.

H7: Members tend to hold organized views: This is true if the mean density of individuals’ belief networks (the mean number of links/nodes) is high, indicating that people see a lot of logical connections among the things they believe.

Our survey respondents will answer demographic questions, so we will be able to tell whether polarized subgroups or core groups have similar demographic characteristics. Hypothetically, for example, a group could polarize epistemically or socially along gender lines. And we will ask general evaluative questions, such as whether an individual feels valued in the association, which will allow us to see whether phenomena like social- connectedness or agreement with others are related to satisfaction.

What to do with these results?

Although the practical implications of these results would depend on the organization’s goals and mission, I would generally expect polarization, fragmentation, the existence of cores, and homophily to be problematic. These variables may also intersect, so that an organizations that is socially polarized, epistemically polarized, homophilous, and reflects highly organized views is especially at risk of conflict. A group that is fragmented and reflects disorganized belief-networks at the individual level may face a different kind of risk, which I would informally label “entropy.”

Being unified can be advantageous, unless it reflects group-think or social exclusivity that will prevent the organization from growing.

Once an organization knows its specific challenges, it can use appropriate programming to make progress. For instance, if the group is socially fragmented, maybe it needs more social opportunities. If it is polarized, maybe a well-chosen discussion could help produce more bridges. If it displays entropy, maybe it needs a formal strategic plan.

I would generally anticipate that bridges are helpful and should be supported and encouraged. In our study, all the data will be anonymous, so our partner will not know the identity of any people who bridge gaps. But a different application of this method could reveal that information.

Although I am focused on this study now, I remain open to partnerships with other organizations so that I can continue this research agenda. Let me know if you lead an organization that would like to do a similar study a bit later on.

Reference: Dalege, J., Galesic, M., & Olsson, H. (2023, April 12). Networks of Beliefs: An Integrative Theory of Individual- and Social-Level Belief Dynamics. See also: Analyzing Political Opinions and Discussions as Networks of Ideas; Mapping Ideologies as Networks of Ideas; seeking a religious congregation for a research study

English dominance in academia

On a recent quick trip to a smallish European country (Czechia), I was reminded of the dominance of English in broad reaches of academic life.

We Anglophones have the privilege of being able to travel almost anywhere and enjoy rich discussions in our native tongue. This also means that English idioms and conceptual schemas are hugely influential, while specialized vocabulary can lag in other languages. And most of the world’s people face an additional burden when they try to use research: it’s mostly in English. As a Quebecois scholar writes (Lord 2023):

«Cette internationalisation de l’enseignement présente également quelques défis, importants notamment celui de préserver une culture nationale en recherche et un accès à la recherche scientifique dans les communautés locales.» (“This internationalization of education also presents some important challenges, notably preserving a national research culture and access to scientific research in local communities.”)

In many countries, citation counts are used to assess individual scholars and whole universities. That method is always problematic, but an additional problem in most of the world is that papers published in English–and in English-language journals–almost always have higher counts. In fact, controlling for other factors, English is statistically related to the number of times an article is cited (Di Bitetti & Ferreras 2017).

Two Spanish scholars (writing, not surprisingly, in English) calculate the trends captured by the Web of Science from 1980 to 2000. I present their data in the graph with this post. Overall, English represented 84.5% of all articles in 1980, rising very smoothly to 95.9% in 2000. Spanish–which has more than half a billion native speakers–is invisible on my graph, with 0.3% of all articles in 2000. (Bordons & Gomez 2004). The authors don’t calculate Chinese or Hindi.

In countries whose languages were never widely spoken, university life was always conducted in one or more foreign languages. Latin yielded to French or German, before shifting to English after WWII. But even languages that have hundreds of millions of speakers and/or international prestige seem endangered today in academia. Bordons and Gomez calculate that 59% of articles by French authors, and 62% by German authors, were written in English in 1980, rising to 89% and 90% (respectively) by 2000. I haven’t found more recent statistics, but that trend would lead to an English monopoly if it continued.

These data come from Web of Science. Although that database includes humanities, social sciences, and law, it tilts to the STEM fields, as do all citation counts. My own humanities and social science articles from the last few years are sole-authored publications that required many weeks of my work, and they will not receive any citations for quite a while. Being cited requires another scholar to read the piece, write an article that cites it, and then navigate a publication process that can take years. In contrast, I was part of two public health publications in 2022, along with co-authors. Each required hours of work from me. Just months after appearing, they already have 19 published citations between them. STEM simply involves a much higher volume and faster pace, basically swamping the humanities in numerical terms.

I mention this point about STEM because any data about publications will likely underestimate the humanities, where the written languages are probably more diverse. I find that when I want to know about specific works of art or literature, Google Scholar will often yield results in languages other than English. Nevertheless, English is dominant in academia as a whole, and its share appears to be growing.

References: Lord, F. R. (2023). La communauté universitaire sous tensions: analyse des dynamiques de communication et de gestion entourant la création d’une université (Doctoral dissertation, Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières); Di Bitetti, M. S., & Ferreras, J. A. (2017). Publish (in English) or perish: The effect on citation rate of using languages other than English in scientific publications. Ambio, 46, 121-127; Bordons M and Gomez I. 2004. Towards a single language in science? A Spanish view. Serials 17: 189–195

a clearinghouse to make political contributions anonymous

At the Institute H21 symposium last week in Prague, Stein Ringen described his proposal for a campaign finance clearinghouse. I gather Ringen also defends this idea in How Democracies Live: Power, Statecraft, and Freedom in Modern Societies (Chicago, 2022), which I have not yet read. My summary is based on his talk alone.

The idea is that you could give money (up to the legal limit) to candidates, but you would have to make your contributions through a clearinghouse that would transmit the funds to your chosen recipients without telling them who gave them the money.

Normatively, this proposal accepts that individuals have a right to support communications by their favored candidates. Like Ringen, I am unsure I agree with this premise, but it has been upheld by the US Supreme Court since 1971 (in Buckley v Valeo). Also, there are times when being able to support insurgent candidates with many smallish contributions increases competition and challenges incumbents.

At the same time, the proposal denies that candidates should be able to tell who gave them money, because contributions should never purchase access, goodwill, or influence.

Ringen said that he would allow contributors to inform candidates that they had given money. That’s a form of speech that would probably be protected by the US Supreme Court (and I am generally skeptical about banning speech and then policing the ban). However, the clearinghouse would make such communications quite noisy. Many donors would not take the trouble to inform candidates that they had given, and some would lie about having done so. They might even falsely tell both sides that they were financial supporters. As a result, candidates would have a much more ambiguous picture of who was supporting them financially. And that ambiguity would be good.

The secret ballot has a similar rationale. You can might want to bribe or coerce other voters, but you can never tell how they actually voted, because you cannot see their ballots. Privacy blocks the emergence of markets for votes. The same could happen to campaign finance if the money flowed through a clearinghouse.

sexual politics in Milan Kundera’s Laughter and Forgetting

While on a quick but lovely trip to Prague–and since Milan Kundera had died recently–I decided to read a book that I had not read before, Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (translated from French by Aaron Asher).

It is a set of linked stories with some essay-like passages, “a novel in the form of variations” (p. 227). The stories constantly recombine leitmotifs: the acts of laughter and forgetting that are named in the title plus dancing (especially in circles), caches of letters, literary writing, and sex. I think the novel as a whole avoids any theory–any consistent and organized way of combining its major themes that might reflect a truth about the world. Instead, it plays with them. Perhaps the resistance to theory and the embrace of free play is itself a theory of both literature and politics, a kind of liberalism that emphasizes the right to have and to express a complex and individual inner life.

The gender binary is very evident, and there is a lot of sex as well as some rape. The most admirable characters are women; most of the men are pretty bad. But the women are mostly defined by their relationships to male lovers.

For instance, exiled in France, Tamina is surrounded by privileged bourgeois citizens of a free republic who want to express themselves in writing (for the sake of being writers), bend her ear with their concerns, or have sex with her, and none of them is willing to assist her at any personal cost. The narrator says:

[This] is a novel about Tamina, and whenever Tamina goes offstage, it is a novel for Tamina. She is its principal character and its principal audience, and all the other stories are variations on her own story and meet with her life as in a mirror (p. 227).

One of Tamina’s admirable features is her steadfast love for her late husband, an exiled Czech dissident/writer–someone who sounds rather like Milan Kundera, albeit with a shorter lifespan.

Tamina doesn’t have much of an agenda: cultural, political, or otherwise. That’s fine; she’s just trying to live her life. But one gets that sense that this is not really “a novel about Tamina.” It’s a novel about someone like Kundera, as seen by his devoted wife. Indeed, as a deceased Czech dissident, Tamina’s husband is now purely good–a figure worthy of grief who cannot possibly do any harm. Tamina strives to preserve his memory.

The narrator writes:

The gaze of a man has often been described. It seems to fasten coldly on the woman, as if it were measuring, weighing, evaluating, choosing her, as if, in other words, it were turning her into a thing.

Less well known is that a woman is not entirely defenseless against that gaze. If she is turned into a thing, then she watches the man with the gaze of a thing. It is as if a hammer suddenly had eyes and watched the carpenter grip it to drive in a nail. Seeing the hammer’s malicious gaze, the carpenter loses his self-confidence and hits his thumb.

The carpenter is the hammer’s master, yet it is the hammer that has the advantage over the carpenter, because a tool knows exactly how it should be handled, while the one who handles it can only know approximately how (pp. 285-286).

Could this be reversed, to talk about a woman’s gaze at a man? Could the hammer think about anything other than the carpenter?

I cannot address the whole of Kundera’s oeuvre, let alone his peers and influences, but I did find this general thesis in Matonoha (2014):

The reduction of women to objects, which are observed or used by male subjects, is a conspicuous feature of Czech prose. By the same token, this classic feminist critical topos (man in the position of a subject, woman reduced to the position of an object) is further internally structured in Czech prose. Generally speaking, the following model is more or less repeated: at first glance — objectification, reification, fetishization, trivialization; on a second plane — proving that the male character is misunderstood, reduction of the female character, and the uncovering of his existential dependence on a loving female character; however, it is the next, higher, plane that uncovers the real, unreflected patriarchal and androcentric groundwork of the whole epistemological and ethical complex. Therefore, the model does not only include banal sexism and scopophilia (although they are plentiful) but also, on the second plane, paradoxically flattering and therefore even more treacherous identities …

Matonoha discusses Lucie from Kundera’s The Joke (1967) as the novelist’s first example of a recurrent type, the “idealized silent woman.” This also seems to be Tamina’s role in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. And the narrator tells us that she is the center of that whole book.

Kundera is a political writer insofar as he sees state communism as hostile to individual flourishing. His female characters are among the victims of that system. But he seems to miss the possibility that they are also oppressed on account of their gender and that men like him can play a role analogous to the state’s.

Source: Matonoha, J., 2014. Dispositives of Silence: Gender, Feminism and Czech literature between 1948 and 1989. In The Politics of Gender Culture under State Socialism (pp. 162-187). Routledge. See also: Ivo Andric, Bosnian Chronicle, Or, The Days of the Consuls; The Dictionary of the Khazars, pro and con; Vaclav Havel

visiting Prague

I’m briefly in Prague for a valuable symposium on “Democracy in the 21st Century: Challenges for an Open Society” organized by the Czech political research and reform group called Institute H21. I will share substantive ideas from the conversation when I’m home. In lieu of new comments about this beautiful city, I’ll share a link to an introduction I wrote during a longer visit here in 2008. Sometimes, I find my own writing from that long ago cringe-worthy, but I think this mini-essay about how to “read” the city of Prague holds up OK and may have some value for other visitors.

the progress of the king (note #4 from the Levine library)

Last week I wrote about my copy of the Rheims-Douai Bible, an English translation made by Catholics in 1582 and smuggled into Protestant England for Catholic laypeople to read. One of the translators, Edmund Campion, is now a saint, tortured to death for his secret work in England.

This Bible refutes the widespread myth that Catholics opposed translating and disseminating scripture. I think the myth sticks as a result of Protestant propaganda plus a desire to believe that religious bodies typically seek to control knowledge whereas technology (in this case, the printing press) liberates it.

I mentioned in passing that this Bible was printed in Douai, now a city in France, which then belonged to Philip II. I also inherited from my father a 1552 volume that describes some possessions of that monarch, who later became King of Spain, King of Portugal, King of Naples and Sicily, officially the King of England and Ireland for a few years, Duke of Milan, Lord of the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands, and the colonial ruler of the Americas from New Mexico to Peru. In my translation from the Spanish, it’s entitled The Most Happy Journey of the Highest and Most Powerful Prince, Don Philip, Son of the Emperor Charles V the Great, Through Spain and His Lands in Lower Germany, With a Description of All the Estates of Brabant and Flanders.

Douay is presented on pp. 161-3. It is a “very good and well-favored [suerte] town of Gallic Flanders on the banks of the River Scarpe.” It is the site of a “good monastery” that has produced several saints. Its jurisdiction extends over many nearby villages. In mid-paragraph, the text then launches into a description of the visit by the young Philip with his father, Charles V, “who came to eat at Orchies [now in France], which was made very fresh and special with fruits and bouquets, strewn in the streets as a sign of welcome, and there the prince first ate before entering Douay. … Out of the town came the burgomasters, knights, and counselors, very well accompanied, and in the field beyond was a flag with [pisaros – ?] and drums, and there were three hundred soldiers very well ordered in colorful arms and clothing, yellow and white, and at the gate of the city the clergy processed …” — and so on for a couple more pages.

The aim is evidently propagandistic, which doesn’t imply that the authors were insincere. Perhaps they thought that Philip was a “most happy” prince of a happy empire. He did, however, face a massive uprising in his Low Country dominions.

This book was written three decades before the English Bible was printed in Douai/Rheims, but it gives a flavor of the times, which were still feudal and chivalric.

See also: A 1582 Catholic translation of the Bible into English (note #3 from the Levine library)

Florida Civics Summit With SPHERE and Jack Miller Center a Success!

Good afternoon friends! Just wanted to share some pictures and info from this past weekend’s Civics Summit, a collaboration between SPHERE, the Jack Miller Center, and the Lou Frey Institute.

The agenda was content rich and focused on the four competencies of the Florida Civic Literacy Examination. You can check out the agenda below!

We had more than 50 participants from across the state of Florida, who had the opportunity to talk with renowed professors and educators sponsored by SPHERE, the Jack Miller Center, and the Lou Frey Institute. And thanks too to LFI staff members and curriculum developers Kimberly Garton and Elizabeth Wood for helping support the effort and FJCC Associate Director Chris Spinale for being the lead LFI contact!

This included Dr. Scott Waring of UCF, who gave the Friday evening keynote address and signed his excellent book, Integrating Primary and Secondary Sources into Teaching. He went over his SOURCES framework (and be sure to sign up for the free SOURCES conference), and teachers greately enjoyed the activity and discussion.

The morning keynote on Saturday focused on Founding Principles, and was led by Dr. Alberto Coll of DePaul College of Law.

Additional sessions across the remaining three competencies were led by Dr. Lee Trepanier of Samford University; Tom Kelly, J.D., of Jack Miller Center; Allan Carey of SPHERE; Dr. Danton Kostandarithes of JMC; Dr. Steve Masyada of the Lou Frey Institute; and Joshua Katz, J.D. of the Cato Institute’s Levy Center for Constitutional Studies. Following each pair of competencies, participants had the opportunity to collaborate and discuss challenges, strategies, and implementation for each of the competencies.

The day finished up with provider sessions, where SPHERE, the Jack Miller Center, and LFI had the opportunity to discuss their resources and supports.

It was an excellent couple of days, all told. If you are interested in more information on what these organizations have to offer, feel free to contact our friends at JMC, SPHERE, and of course here at LFI.

lessons from the Virginia social studies controversy

In Politico, James Traub offers a deeply reported account of the recent conflict over standards in Virginia, entitled “Virginia Went to War Over History and Students Actually Came Out on Top.”

Standards are official guidelines about what must be taught in public schools. They may influence enforceable policies, such as which textbooks are purchased and what is covered on exams, and hence the experience of students and teachers. Standards for history and civics often provoke the most intense debates, because they address the nature of our society. Although I had no involvement in the Virginia episode, I have been deeply engaged in other efforts to write frameworks and model standards for social studies, and Traub’s account rings true to me.

A very brief summary: under former Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, the Virginia state department of education drafted new state social studies standards. Before these standards could be reviewed by the state board, Northam was succeeded by Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, whose campaign emphasized his opposition to “woke culture” and “critical race theory.” Youngkin named a new superintendent of public instruction and a majority of members of the school board. With those appointees in place, the state paused and then dramatically rewrote the draft standards, with input from strong conservatives.

Then the board, despite its Youngkin majority, rejected the new draft as biased and error-prone. It stepped in and painstakingly revised the document in ways that satisfied all of its members (including those who had been appointed by Northam) and drew support from outside groups viewed as both liberal and conservative. Traub writes, “The six-month debate was an absolutely terrible experience for everyone involved, yet the standards the board finally approved achieved something almost miraculous: something close to unity.”

As an example of the results, the state board coalesced around this language in the new standards document:

The standards provide an unflinching and fact-based coverage of world, United States, and Virginia history. Students will study the horrors of wars and genocide, including the Holocaust and the ethnic cleansing campaigns that have occurred throughout history and continue today. They will better understand the abhorrent treatment of Indigenous peoples, the indelible stain of slavery, segregation, and racism in the United States and around the world, and the inhumanity and deprivations of totalitarian and communist regimes. Students also will study inspirational moments … 

For me, these are the most important general lessons from the controversy.

First, although people bring prior political views into debates about what should be taught, our opinions are highly diverse (not simply left or right), and most of us want students to encounter and assess ideas that we personally do not endorse. Philosophical diversity is valuable because even those of us who want students to encounter a wide range of views may have implicit biases that can be challenged in a discussion. When serious participants who are ideologically diverse try to write good standards or guidelines together, they need not polarize into two camps, or even take predictable positions as individuals.

Debates about content are nuanced and often involve the appropriate balance between social and political history, leaders and popular movements, compelling stories and complexities, and domestic and international affairs. These questions do not necessarily have liberal or conservative answers.

Second, the hot debates are not only about which topics and ideas should be “covered” but also about how to teach. Should all students be required to learn some information, whether it interests them or not? Or should students have a lot of choice about which topics to investigate? Should students encounter highly charged topics–at all ages, only as older teenagers, or at all? Specifically, should public schools confront students with ideas that challenge their sense that they belong and are valued in the school? Does it matter which students are so challenged? Should the emphasis be on skills or knowledge, on theory or practice, and on discourse or action?

Again, these debates do not line up so that there is a right and a left camp. For myself: I believe that all students should be required to confront some information about our past that many will find uncomfortable and that relatively few students would seek out if they could drive all the questions in their classrooms. This position would seem to align me with pedagogical conservatives, except that the same points are being made most forcefully by progressives. For example, The 1619 Project is all about conveying facts deemed essential.

As many have noted, the new Florida African American History Standards basically suggest that no one supported slavery. Florida students must learn “how the members of the Continental Congress made attempts to end or limit slavery” and “how slavery increased … in spite of the desire of the Continental Congress to end the importation of slaves.” Florida students will study white people who were abolitionists, but no one who actually defended slavery. John C. Calhoun is never mentioned, let alone assigned as an author to read. Florida students are supposed to “recognize” the title of Dred Scott as a “landmark Supreme Court case” but do not have to read that decision, which declared that people of African descent could never be US citizens.

I would require students to read racist texts (no “de-platforming” Sen. Calhoun or Chief Justice Taney) and learn specific information. Ron DeSantis defends omitting that information and has ordered that “A person should not be instructed that he or she must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress for actions, in which he or she played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.” In partial contrast, the new Virginia standards say: “Students should be exposed to the facts of our past in a content-rich and engaging way, even when those facts are uncomfortable.”

Since these issues have many dimensions and nuances, it should not be surprising to find views shared across political differences. The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation is generally considered conservative. Commenting on the draft Virginia standards, their reviewers said, “The Dred Scott decision is not noted by name in any of the U.S. history course standards. Its enormous impact should at the least be mentioned here in what is (presumably) the high school course.” Likewise, they criticized the omission of McCarthyism, which “led to the violation of Americans’ rights.” I find myself perfectly aligned with this feedback despite being generally quite liberal as a voter.

Third, even when people’s views are diverse, nuanced, and unpredictable, there can be political advantages to presenting differences as polarized and defining the stakes so that a majority will agree with your own side. Glenn Youngkin waged a campaign against “woke” ideology in public schools. From the opposite end of the spectrum, someone went to a lot of trouble to create a popular meme about innocuous books that the DeSantis administration had allegedly banned, when the state had banned no books.

Actual misinformation is unacceptable, but I’ll mention a closer case. Florida did not pass a bill labeled “Don’t Say Gay.” That name was affixed by Democrats and liberals who criticized the law. The relevant provision says, “Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate.”

I am not sure that the label “Don’t Say Gay” is false, but it simplifies the law in order to drive opposition to it. This mode of political debate is not necessarily wrong or bad. I oppose the actual Florida law and understand why liberals would mobilize people against it.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and his colleagues chose Birmingham, AL as their target in 1963 because they knew they could draw a clear contrast with the racist outgoing police commissioner. King wrote that a nonviolent campaign

seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. … I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

In short, dramatizing differences with one’s political opponent is a legitimate move in a free society. However, onlookers should be aware when this strategy is being used and should assess whether the goals are appropriate, and whether any collateral damage is necessary to accomplish the goals. They should also ask whether rhetoric has strayed from divisiveness into downright falsehood.

Ron DeSantis does not have to wage a rhetorical war against liberal educators; he could choose to deliberate with them, as the Virginia board did. Voters should recognize the choice to polarize an issue for what it is. They should not assume that it is inevitable. The Virginia case shows that another outcome is possible (although not automatically preferable) — people with diverse opinions can come to agreement.

Although politicians can be tempted to polarize, official bodies such as state boards can be equally inclined to present consensus even when they have not quite accomplished it. Above, I quoted the Virginia standards’ aspiration to “provide an unflinching and fact-based coverage” of history, but anyone may each assess whether they offer that. In my personal opinion, the list of “principles” on p. 4 is mildly problematic, presenting the debate between socialism and market economies as closed when I would ask students to think about it for themselves. But I don’t believe that this list matters much. In my view, the presentation of slavery and Black American “accomplishments” in the body of the Virginia standards is appropriate. Overall, the standards seem to take a both/and approach, genuinely including both the crimes and the successes of US history.

The whole document is quite short and general, which is itself a choice, leaving a lot for teachers to decide (for better and worse). Any major commercial textbook series would be compatible with these standards, which means that in many classrooms, the textbook will determine the content. In fact, the most important policy question may be who should decide what is taught–students, teachers, parents, local authorities, state authorities, or publishers? Because of its generality, the Virginia document may actually represent a delegation to the publishers.

See also: two dimensions of debate about civics; “Teaching Honest History:” a conversation with Randi Weingarten and Marcia Chatelain; the relevance of American civil religion to K-12 education; what Americans think about teaching controversy in schools; a conversation with Danielle Allen about civic education; etc.

A 1582 Catholic translation of the Bible into English (note #3 from the Levine library)

Many people seem to believe that the medieval Church forbade translating the Bible into modern languages–in order to monopolize access to scripture–until a technological innovation (moveable type) and/or the Reformation liberated people to read the Bible in their own tongues.

This story is false: translations were regularly made during the Middle Ages. It also neglects a real obstacle to translating, which is the need to coin many new words and turns-of-phrase to render an ancient book into a new language–a task that often lags behind the emergence of the language itself.

I think it’s worth correcting this history because too many people are in the grip of technological determinism and don’t appreciate the cultural work involved in a task like translation.

I have inherited from my father a 1582 English Bible that was published in Rheims and Douai by exiled English Catholics, including St. Edmund Campion, who was later hanged, drawn, and quartered for his faith. They published this Bible to be smuggled into Protestant England for the secret and illegal use of Catholic recusants. (This is almost the opposite of the idea that Catholics were against translation.)

In the preface, the translators explicitly note that the Catholic Church had, “neither of old nor of late, ever wholly condemned all vulgar versions of Scripture, nor have at any time generally forbidden the faithful to read the same.” They promise to translate more accurately than the Protestants, who have worked out of “pride and disobedience.” They seek the “preservation of this divine worke from abuse and profanation” by rendering it better in English.

The title page says “cum privilegio.” Usually, the permission of the Church is designated with the phrases imprimatur and nihil obstat (“let it be printed” and “nothing stands in the way”). As far as I can tell–and I could easily be wrong about this–cum privilegio generally refers to the permission of a sovereign. France encompassed Rheims, and Douai was a Spanish Habsburg possession, so I wonder whether one of those governments authorized this Bible. Or does the phrase “cum privilegio” imply–falsely–that the book will be legal in Elizabeth’s realm?

For a flavor of the translation, consider Luke 2:8-10:

8 And there were in the same countrie shepheards watching, and keeping the night watches over their flocke.

And behold, an Angel of our Lord stood by them, and the brightnes of God did shine round about them; and they feared with a great feare.

10 And the Angel said to them: Feare not; for, behold, I evangelize to you great joy, that shal be to all the people…

The King James Version of this passage (1611) may be more familiar from Christmas celebrations:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

In the KJV, the Angel “bring[s] good tidings.” The Catholic 1582 version renders this phrase as “evangelize.” Perhaps the Douay–Rheims translators noticed that when St. Jerome had translated the New Testament from Greek into Latin, he left the Greek word evangelizo in his Latin text. They may have decided that they should import this word into their English Bible as well, for maximum accuracy. (And the English verb “evangelize” was already available in 1582.) In contrast, the proto-Protestant John Wykliffe had translated the Greek verb as “preach to you.” He saw the Angel in Luke as a preacher. The KJV’s “I bring good tidings” is more poetic than either alternative, in my opinion; and it’s justifiable, since the Greek verb means to bear a good message.

Here is Tintoretto’s painting of the shepherds, completed the same year:

Tintoretto, Adoration of the Shepherds (1578-1581)

See also: Coryat’s Crudities (note #1 from the Levine library); Reformation propaganda (note #2 from the Levine library); innovation in technology and the humanitiestwenty-five thousand books to Bosnia.