Cultural Life, Popular Culture and Cultural Politics

Two Cheers For Steve Levitsky

On Tuesday, February 19, students, professors, and community citizens filled the better part of the Stetson Room to hear Steven Levitsky. He is Professor of Government at Harvard University and coauthor with department colleague Daniel Ziblatt of the best seller, How Democracies Die (2018).  Levitsky’s presentation lived up the dramatic intensity of his book.  He provided a keen analysis of our present political weirdness: in the words of Stephen Stills, “somethin’ happenin’ here; what it is ain’t exactly clear” (Buffalo Springfield, “For What It’s Worth,” 1967, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gp5JCrSXkJY).  Levitsky provided a lot of clarity.  

Levitsky is worried about the erosion of democracy. Having studied democracies around the world, in health and in decline, he sees erosion in American “democratic norms” (100). The central agent of democratic decline, he suggests, is the sharpening polarization of political views.

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Why PubClassroom?

About Me read more

Welcome to Pub Classroom, the public classroom for useable ideas linking public curiosity to academic thinking.  To get acquainted, go to 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.

This page is a free public service.  Developing it has given me a chance to give back to the people and contexts that helped me become a professor, to take on my current job of being paid to learn.  Here’s a brief account of how I got started on this path.

I stopped taking American culture for granted when I left the country as an undergraduate exchange student in England. I looked back at the US and thought, That’s a place with a lot of power and influence, and with a lot of puzzlements; I want to figure out what makes it tick!  I now research and teach American cultural and intellectual history in the History Department at Stetson University, DeLand, Florida.

My own deep academic dives have been for research 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 social justice. James offers continuing wisdom for our time in moving beyond both the pessimism suggested by many empirical facts and the optimism of much idealism in favor of what he called meliorism, because “The world…is what we make of it.” In other words, improvements will only come through our efforts.

I am particularly dedicated to learning from contrasting opinions, ideologies, and philosophies, and that is a central theme is a lot of my writing. In our angry times, that’s swimming upstream—there’s a lot of fighting these days! I perceive that the anger and the fighting can only satisfy in the short term; more enduring progress comes from learning from people we disagree with.  James serves as a good example. His writings offer examples 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 (University of North Carolina Press, 1995), Young William James Thinking (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018), and many shorter pieces (Google Scholar Profile / Orcid Scholar Profile).  A central message from my research is that James turned his youthful troubles and indecisions into opportunities to learn and to remain open to contrasting perspectives.

While James serves as a genial general guide, the content of my essays on The Public Classroom come from my teaching of a range of topics in American history and contemporary culture related to major values debates (issues manners experts tell you not to bring up at the dinner table!).  I teach about science and religion, war and peace in American culture, nature and the American marketplace, healthcare debates, political campaigns and cultural ideologies, the Civil War and it legacies, and the era that I consider the ground zero of our current polarization, the 1950s and 1960s as the first years of our own time.

Teaching gives ideas for PubClassroom essays, and I look for “hooks” between items in the news and stories from history.  For example, in one of my first essays during the 1990s when suspicions first surfaced about Bill Clinton’s philandering sexual relations, I wrote an essay imagining what President Grover Cleveland, who actually fathered a child outside of marriage, would say; you can read his “advice,” How to Handle a Scandal.”

Before arriving at Stetson in 1988, I earned a B.A. (cum laude), from Georgetown and a Ph.D. from Brown University. Having trained at large institutions, I feel I am now making up for the sins of my youth by teaching at a small liberal arts college, where learning takes on a personal dimension. At a time when the liberal arts are being challenged as impractical or worse, I am doing my part to support what I think of as versatilist education, learning that provides mental flexibility and personal versatility for a changing and challenging world.  James supported that, and this page is dedicated to sharing those goals—without the tuition!—with all interested citizens.

If you disagree with something on this web page—or in this opening statement—let’s hear from you.  As in the college classroom, in the public classroom I approach disagreements with my 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!  I may still disagree with you, but I’ll likely also learn something from your way of looking at things.  Head to Ask the Prof, and fire away.

Welcome to PubClassroom, the classroom without walls for looking past—and through—our walls of disagreement!

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Campaign Watching

The Outsiders Within: Obama, Romney, and the Tradition of Defying Tradition

Before You Vote, consider this likely pitch from the next popular politician: Vote for me!—I’m an outsider!

Americans have a tradition of defying tradition.

Dear Once and Future Voter: Who are the insiders you are hoping to overturn? Consider the case of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, two candidates for president in 2012 who are members of groups traditionally considered outside the American mainstream….  Read whole essay here….

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Popular Thinking in Political Life, Recent American Politics

The American Dream After COVID-19

This piece is featured in the August 2020 edition of ORIGINS: Current Events in Historical Perspective, and can be read in its original format here.

The COVID crisis is prodding a rethink of the American Dream—but actually, it has always been about more than acquisition of more material goods. The dream for ever-more goods has been a driver of so many ills, including class and racial inequalities, eroding nature’s health, and temptations to use military force. It’s not time to say goodbye to the American Dream: Keep the dream of opportunity, but now with less extra baggage.

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Private Life With Public Purpose

Satire: A New University Logo: NO TESTS

Originally featured in The Stetson Reporter, and can be read in its original format here!

Professors have lots of papers and tests to grade. For most, it’s the least-fun part of the job. When weighed down with a big stack of student work, this professor at Stetson University saw his university in a new light.  

Maybe it was all the grading that made me see things backward…. Maybe it was just mid-semester fatigue…. Or maybe it was a mental symptom of the novel coronavirus….

Staring up from the papers and books, the Stetson University logo caught my eye. We’ve all seen it: those familiar seven big green letters on the university seal, or with the word “University” holding them up and braced by a big elegant dot on each side, or next to one big S with a swoosh in the middle. I saw the word, “STETSON,” as I had seen it many times, but now, as if with a Rorschach test in reverse, I saw it with new eyes….

The green shapes floated and bobbed before my eyes. The letters in reverse seemed to grope toward a message, as if with words that were waiting to be spoken: NOSTETS. I rubbed my eyes…. No, what?

It didn’t make sense; maybe it was nothing. Back to grading…. But the letters kept calling out…. They danced around each other, and then it hit me like a ton of blue books: NO TESTS!

Was it wish fulfillment? What could be a greater wish when swamped in grading than to wish for … no tests—no essays to grade—no more answers to scrutinize—no more grading! And then I realized: The was no simple wish or idle dream. It was an inspiration that needed to be broadcast from the height of The Rock and beyond.

How can a mid-sized liberal arts college with a former denominational affiliation distinguish itself in a crowded educational marketplace? What can we do here that will so catch the eyes of prospective students that they will crave their studies here? What do students really want? These have been the questions of countless questionnaires and administrative meetings. The answer was simplicity itself: NO TESTS.

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Campaign 2020

Evangelicals, Donald J. Trump, and the Making of the Tribune in Chief

This piece was originally published with the History News Network on April 19, 2020, and can be read in its original format here: https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/175092

A look at the history of Evangelicalism helps to explain the appeal of Donald Trump as a leader outside any establishment, in his blunt speaking style, and in his lack of deference for high learning. For many voters, these count for more than questions about his own religious commitments. Critics of President Trump could learn from his appeal and speak out more plainly about the power of privilege in contemporary society. Schooling on his style could be done without the ridiculing, but with more connecting to average citizens.

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Sampling Popular Culture at MegaHalloween

Halloween 2019

Children’s Culture at Halloween: Be More Than You Can Be

Published in the Society for US Intellectual History Blog, November 30, 2019, https://s-usih.org/2019/11/childrens-culture-at-halloween-be-more-than-you-can-be/

In case you are wondering where kids get their ideas for Halloween costumes, I have a modest proposal.  Consider the large sample in the small town of DeLand, Florida.  With over two thousand children dressed up on Halloween night in my neighborhood, I invite friends and students to join in the fun with a purpose: where do kids get their ideas for being Themselves 2.0 for a night of Trick-or-Treating?

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Private Life With Public Purpose

How to set New Year’s resolutions that maximize happiness

Originally published on December 31, 2018 in the Washington Post, which can be found here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2018/12/31/how-set-new-years-resolutions-that-maximize-happiness/ 

 

Millions of Americans will make New Year’s resolutions. Some will vow to make more money or new friends. Others will focus on exercising more or eating less. Each resolution represents the hope that changing one’s behavior or priorities will bring increased happiness.

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After Election Quake 2016: Republicans in the Driver’s Seat

A Less-Kind and Less-Gentle Grand Old Party

Originally published through History News Network on December 23, 2018, and can be read here: http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170700

 

The death of George Herbert Walker Bush symbolizes the end of the Republicans as the GOP, the “Grand Old Party.” He dipped his toes into the new Republican Party that emerged during his leadership, but that new party was not his cultural home. He was in that party, but not of it.

George H. W. Bush as Federalist 

Despite the Republican Party nickname, the Democratic Party is far older. That old party began in opposition to the grandeur that the Federalists brought to American politics in the first years of constitutional democracy in the 1790s. The Federalists endorsed the constitution, ratified in 1789, as a structure to institutionalize power to the people—once duly refined and enlarged, as James Madison insisted. The Federalists presented themselves as the rightful custodians of governmental power, the best-educated citizenry, the new world equivalents of old world aristocrats. As the son of a Senator and raised with a spirit of public service, Bush could have been at home with the Federalists.

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Sampling Popular Culture at MegaHalloween

Halloween 2018

Choosing the Halloween Outfit: The Second Most Important Election of the Season

Published as “Time for Some ‘Funner’ Voting,” DeLand Beacon, November 9-25, 2018

Elections are important.  But they also wear us out.  All the ads and flyers and promises—and we can only hope that the winners actually do the stuff they promise.

Time for a funner election—that’s a fun word my children taught me.  For this election, can you guess the most popular outfit of the year at MegaHalloween on West Minnesota Avenue in DeLand?

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