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!