In his old age, an American painter invited the public to view his work. In 1822, using the social media of his time, Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) painted his self-portrait in his “cabinet of curiosities,” housed in Independence Hall, Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence had been signed 46 years earlier. As with the opening of a play, Peale holds a curtain up to display the familiar and the strange from his lifetime of learning.
Image credit: Charles Willson Peale, “The Artist in His Museum” (1822; Joseph Harrison, Jr. Collection, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts).
Like Peale, this page invites you to peek behind the curtain about what makes America tick. Bring your curiosity and your questions, your enthusiasm for American ways and your critiques. Click on the triangles below to get started…
Your Host, Paul Croce
Historian, Culture Watcher, and Curator of the Public Classroom
Stories from the past can turn disagreements from obstacles into assets
This webpage is a display of commentary about some of the curiosities of modern culture and politics. As a historian, I have dedicated my career to scouting for little-known stories and displaying new dimensions about familiar parts of life—in other words, making the strange familiar and the familiar strange in our often-troubling world.
As I reach toward the end of my own career teaching and writing about historical trends, especially in the United States, I now bring these parts of my vocation together, with academic insights presented briefly for the public classroom.
I was going to call this page The Public Classroom. My son saw these words and suggested something briefer and funner (and yes, that is a funner word!): “How about PubClassroom,” Peter asked. Thanks to him, we have a briefer name for these brief commentaries designed to shed light on recent events. Rather than advocacy and ideological spin, these essays provide contexts from the arc of the past to enable readers to make up their own minds. We cannot know what’s next, but we can all learn more about the ingredients that have brought us to the present and that will serve as the secret sauce of the future.
I have been teaching American history at Stetson University, in DeLand, Florida, for 35 years, and I’ve written two books and over a hundred scholarly articles, chapters, and reviews; read all about it here. On PubClassroom.com, I’m getting college learning out from under the bushel basket of scholarly expertise for exchanging insights and inviting debate. How can research from history and the humanities shed light on contemporary challenges? Absolute answers are not likely, but how about some perspective, some contexts, some stories of past troubles dealt with—or not—how can these give some sound footing for figuring out next steps? Like Huck Finn at the end of his Mississippi River journey, this web page lights out on that frontier path.
Welcome to PubClassroom.com, the public classroom for useable ideas linking academic thinking to public curiosity. You can begin with the first essay, “Why PubClassroom? Dreaming in Translation.” This essay explains how I developed this web page, with hopes for translating academic knowledge and insights into public forms. These worlds, the academic and the public, generally have little to do with each other, but both could benefit from more connection.
PubClassroom.com is a free public service. In developing this page, I have been able to give back to the people and contexts that helped me become a professor, a job that’s allowed me to be paid to learn. Here’s a brief account of how I’ve come to this path.
I stopped taking American culture for granted when I left the country as an undergraduate exchange student in Britain. I met American again for the first time. On looking back to my native country, I thought,The US is a place with a lot of power and influence, and with a lot of puzzlements; I want to figure out what makes America tick…. After earning my undergrad degree, cum laude, in Political Theory and History from Georgetown University, and my Ph.D. in American Civilization from Brown University, the miracle of the academic marketplace landed me in the American Studies Program and History Department of this small college dedicated to general education, really the kind of learning I aim for here but now not just for college-age students but for the public beyond college walls.
My own deep academic dives have focused on science, religion, and William James (1842-1910), the founder of American psychology, popularizer and refiner of pragmatic philosophizing, keen observer and theorist of religious experiences, and advocate for the power of public discussions to address shortcomings in social justice. James offers continuing wisdom for our time in moving beyond both pessimism (that’s suggested by a lot of bleak facts) and optimism (blooming from idealistic visions) in favor of what he called meliorism. Because “The world…is what we make of it,” how can we improve or ameliorate the conditions around us? No one of us can take on the task of solving problems on our own, but can we make our settings better? As my father would say, Leave things a little better than the way you found them.
I am particularly dedicated to learning from contrasting opinions, ideologies, and philosophies, and that is a central theme in a lot of my writing. In our angry times, that’s swimming upstream—there’s a lot of fighting these days! Reason to stop trying to listen across differences? Fuhgeddaboudit! These fraught times present an opportunity. I perceive that the anger and the fighting can only satisfy in the short term; more enduring progress comes with learning from people we disagree with. James serves as a good example. His writings offer suggestions for building bridges in our time between academia and the public, and across our polarized divides.
James provides a model for a lot of my work, and I’ve done my homework on him. I have served as President of the William James Society and written Science and Religion in the Era of William James: Eclipse of Certainty, 1820-1880 (University of North Carolina Press, 1995); and Young William James Thinking (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018). A central finding of my research is that James turned his youthful troubles and indecisions into opportunities to learn and to remain open to contrasting perspectives, which shaped his contributions to many fields.
While James serves as a wise general guide, the content of the essays on PubClassroom.com come from my teaching on a range of topics in American history. With James receding to the back of my mind as general inspiration, I have taught courses on topics that confront deep values differences—you know, issues that manners experts tell you not to bring up at the dinner table! But the learning in these courses, on environmental debates, the American Civil War, medical controversies, political polarization, media and the public sphere, race relations, science and religion, war and peace, and the 1950s and 1960s, gets better when we don’t shy away from disagreements, but use the different points of view as learning opportunities. Then, instead of learning what we already know, we can learn whole new worlds, near and yet so far, hidden in the minds and hearts of the people right around us.
Teaching has even given ideas for Public Classroom essays. I’ve noticed “hooks” between items in the news and stories from history. For example, in the early 1990s, when first teaching about the 1960s, I noticed some parallels between the irreverent style of the counterculture Yippies and the tendency for businesses to associate their products with the same type of free-spirited defiance of authority. That was the spur for an essay, “From Abbie Hoffman in the ‘60s to Joe Isuzu in the ‘80s,” comparing Hoffman, who wrote a book called “Steal This Book” to ridicule the world of marketing, and the car company’s pitchman sporting a big grin while openly declaring, “I’m lying.”
PubClassroom.com is dedicated to sharing the goals of general education, which encourages connections across cultural trends and versatilist thinking. With mental flexibility you can bring awareness about a range of fields and versatility to a changing and challenging world. Here available for all interested citizens—without the tuition!
If you disagree with something on this web page—even in this opening statement—let’s hear it! As in the college classroom, so in the public classroom, I approach disagreements with a Pat Benatar Approach to Disagreements, based on her song, “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” On hearing sharply different values or ideologies in class, I insist, hit us with your best shot, Fire Away! We may still disagree, but we can learn from each other. Head to Ask the Prof, and fire away.
Welcome to PubClassroom.com, the classroom without walls for looking past—and through—our walls of disagreement!
Why Pub Classroom?
Dreaming in Translation
The work of universities can be translated, to continue in play as an accordion, with some expressions of scholarly information and academic acumen pulled wide for expansive coverage, but at other times pushed in for briefer coverage. PubClassroom will provide some of those briefer translations.
Academics harbor a lot of learning. But all that knowledge and insight often remains unused in the public. In an odd parallel with the old story about Las Vegas, what’s learned in colleges and universities often stays there. Part of the reason for this is that citizens outside academia are too busy with their own lives and work to follow scholarly publications or attend college classes; and many don’t have the time or money for academic training, or even notice why anyone would need this kind of work.
But another reason for this disconnect of “town and gown” is that academics often speak with more intricacy and complexity than most people have patience for—and sometimes analyze with more elaboration than is immediately necessary for understanding how to steer through key issues and problems. Using academic learning for understanding direction would actually be helpful to the average person. True confessions: I live the professor type, ready to elaborate in detail; I thank my children for warning me about too much “complexifying.”
Intricacy of knowledge and complexity of understanding are good things; they provide abundance of facts and rich nuances of insight. In fact, our colleges and universities are treasure houses of learned women and men, with rich scholarly resources in journals and books that can address virtually every issue on the planet. But the problems persist. And ironically, the greater the learning, the more those treasure houses become ivory towers separated from daily life. The more profound the expertise, the more its fruits become off limits to average citizens.
In the modern USA, as in other mass democracies, these restrictions have not emerged by political censorship or police tactics, but as unintended side effects of our great academic achievements. A funny thing happened on the way to building enormous scholarly expertise: fewer people are reading those works. Surely, there are a number of intrepid public intellectuals writing clear texts about sophisticated topics, and media outlets do bring on academic experts for learned but brief commentary on pressing issues of the day. But beyond these few connections to higher learning, there are dwindling readers for academic publications, and students often prepare for future life already primed with these attitudes by treating courses in the humanities and social thought as obtuse barriers to “get out of the way” on their paths to technical training.
That leaves a lot of missed opportunities for learning that can seize a place between expertise and ignoring those pools of insight, for learning enough to figure out the basics of many issues, with more detail available at a library, at a book, or at a web page near you.
These laments do not mean that these pools of knowledge are always helpful or that academic insights are always right—far from it. Perfection is not the point, and this page offers no support for smug scholarly claims to superiority. The point is that more access to academic knowledge and insight offers fighting chances for improvements through the power of increased understanding of contexts, implications, and prospects. Call these the three major gifts of academic work, for figuring out The Three Whats of every problem: What Happened, So What, and Now What?
This understanding will not always solve problems, but they can give resources to the imagination for thinking outside the box of current assumptions; and this understanding can supply the heart with sympathy for different points of view and stoke the will toward greater motivation to carry on despite discouragements. And yet, even those modest steps are not generally available to the public because academic discourse can be very difficult to follow….
Discourse. There, I said a word often used by academics. It’s a fancy way of talking about communication, or more plainly, discourse means talk—even as it suggests talk with more formality and earnestness than the usual string of words most of us bandy about. Can we find ways toward wider mining of the resources of university research and insights? Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about!
So, can we talk? Scholarly intricacy and complexity are good, even vital, but they are not always needed, not all the time. My dream is like an accordion, with some expressions of scholarly information and academic acumen pulled wide for expansive coverage, but at other times pushed in for briefer coverage, with ideas clearer and more accessible to non-experts. In this dream, as complicated issues arise, citizens confronting problems would play the notes they need based on their available time and prior preparation, in order to address problems with insight.
Translated parts of scholarship would meet citizens where they are; and in fact, briefer renditions of profound scholarly knowledge and insight could serve as introductions to its more intricate varieties. Did that brief and clear piece strike an interest, or even address a need? Dear reader: Read on…. And dear academic: Write on….
But then I wake from the dream to our current situation. Most public discussion flows with few contributions from academics. Instead of discussion for learning, for talking with each other to discover clues and insights about public issues, we have another discourse, based on fighting, with eagerness not to figure things out, but to show how all the other guys are all wrong.
Public discussion has become a Mutual Denigration Society. “Talk Shows” are often about fighting. Tweak the name of one of the most venerable talk shows, “Meet the Press,” and you could get to a fair description of the shows with more ranting and accusing than listening or explaining. Call them for what they are, “Press the Meat” shows, with “raw meat” to stoke our fighting spirits. As the biblical book Ecclesiastes points out, there is a time for conflict, but it needs a time for listening and for constructive criticism. After all, when the shouting stops, those problems are still there.
In the shouting arenas, the treasure house of scholarly insights is not only unavailable. It is generally not even recognized. The appearance of professors in public discourse often reminds citizens of the complications of that discourse, of that fancy talk. All those insights are at best unused, and often just ridiculed. Most citizens face an awkward if not impossible choice: stay in the public arena of incessant outrage, or drop everything to get a graduate degree, since that’s what it might take to understand that other discourse, in the calmer but more complicated world of academia.
Fortunately, those are not the only choices. My dream is for bridges between public curiosity and academic thinking. It’s takes two to tango, as my father would say.
Hey Citizen Readers! This goal calls for holding on to your curiosity in the midst of fear and anger about our many problems. Then there’s no need to drop those fiery emotions. They are vitally important. They are beaming searchlights pointing to what’s important to you. And they serve as warning signals. But when the flares are finished, the problems are generally still there. Let’s use these warnings to figure out the next steps for best dealing with the issues. Got rough seas? After a few impulsive laments and clarifying curses at the winds, try adjusting the sails.
Turning to academia, this dream is built on the possibility of translating academic thinking in clearer ways than are usually presented in academic journals. With these words, with this web page, I can’t change public attitudes, and I can’t change academic discourse, but I can take a step. My step will be to write essays and stories, with knowledge and insights drawn from my own fields in academia, expressed in briefer and more accessible ways than in the complex language of most scholarly discourse.
This dream is the work of The Public Classroom: to open the windows of academic thinking by translating its rich work into briefer and clearer form. See the Essays Hub on PubClassroom.com for the essays posted so far. Watch for more brief essays using academic insights to address public questions. Read on—and turn to Ask the Prof to add your suggested topics for the next essays.