Why PubClassroom?

Why Pub Classroom?

Dreaming in Translation

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 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 needs 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 sometime analyze with more elaboration than is immediately necessary for the 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.”

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Halloween 2021

Trick-or-Treaters Tackle Troubles with Fun

Published in West Volusia Beacon, November 12, 2021

Do children worry about the debates and disasters that are daily fare in the news? Judging from the wild and wonderful outfits appearing at MegaHalloween on Minnesota Avenue in DeLand, the quick answer is, Not much. But a closer look shows that the worries loom, even as they show up in some equally wild and unpredictable forms—and in ways funner than most adults think about.

Read the whole essays in the West Volusia Beacon [external link]


Of Ticks, Terrorists, and the Strength of the Small, in Ukraine, For Example

An earlier version of this essay, “Can Ukraine Harness the Power of the Small to Survive Russia’s Attack?” appeared in History News Network, June 5, 2022, https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183298

Sometimes, the small can prevail—with strategic deployments of their strengths

Ticks would not fare well in direct combat with people. So the little insects hide under hair or in little corners of the larger mammal. They attack their prey quietly and often unnoticed. Disease-bearing ticks carry even smaller menaces, including Lyme Disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and over a dozen other pathogens.

Covid-19 is another agent of destruction out of view. Much as we might like to swat these insects or microbes, they can skirt our defenses or attack without detection. Their hazards loom over humanity not despite their size, but because of their small stature.

  In modern times when the big seem all powerful—billionaires, megastars, and even companies accepted as too big to fail—those tiny agents of destruction offer reminders of the power of the small.

A bleak fate has seemed to await Ukraine in the face of invasion by superpower Russia, unless they can use the powers of the small. This is what George Washington and Ho Chi Mihn have in common. They both used their advantages, including flexible adaptability and elusive maneuvering, to avoid direct confrontation with enemies of much greater strength.

The fledgling United States and the Vietnamese Communists used the tactics of small wars with no clear fronts. Hiding allowed waiting for opportune moments to attack before slipping back out of view. These tactics resemble those of terrorists who would have no chance if confronting a larger force directly. Such foes engage in “methods of combat not sanctioned by the Rules of War,” as the US Marine Corps wrote in its Small Wars Manual (1940), a description that would serve as rationale for the Corps’ own often-ruthless practices. Total war is the terrorism of well-armed powers able to destroy on large scales, while terrorism is the total war of the least powerful if they can avoid direct engagements, attack the big guns at their most vulnerable points, and wait for each next opportunity to use their strengths.

The small have surprising powers, but these are no sure bet.

Native Americans generally fought with small-wars approaches, achieving some defensive victories, but overall, they succumbed to defeat against the much larger forces of the US. The Seminoles are the exception that proves the rule with their elusive attacks and retreats steadily further south on the Floirida peninsula. They never won in three wars and countless small raids from the 1810s to the 1850s against their neighboring superpower, but they are the only undefeated Native American nation.

The Palestinians present an example of a people in steady retreat even before the formation of the state of Israel. After subordination to the Ottomans and then the British, they lost territory to immigrant Jews through fighting, land sales, and diplomacy, culminating in Israeli independence in 1948. Palestinian defeats in battle, leading to refugee camps, military occupation, and exile, encouraged many, especially in the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Hamas, to adopt terrorist tactics. This tempting tool of the weak led to morally outrageous assaults on Israeli civilians and widespread criticism. Palestinian civil society condemns these appeals to righteous anger, and the turns to terrorism have actually undercut Palestinian hopes. While both sides suffer, Palestinians share another challenge with Ukrainians. Just as many supporters of Israel’s expansion with settlements in the West Bank deny Palestine’s distinct identity among Arab countries, so Russian President Vladimir Putin does not recognize Ukraine’s distinct identity, as he brashly claimed last July. 

Similarly, the Ukrainians have little hope in direct confrontation with their more powerful neighbor, but the methods of small wars offer a chance for their endurance in the face of overwhelming odds. Ukrainians were able to enlist just these strengths effectively in the first weeks of the war. While Russian munitions and tens of thousands of troops stretched toward the capital, Kyiv, Ukrainians from within their hometowns and cities attacked the lumbering and extended supply lines, surprising the invaders. Russian big weaponry wreaked its version of terror, but they could not stand up to the small-war tactics of the versatile defenders. Phase I of the war in the north-central parts of the country, advantage Ukraine.

The Russians are now engaging in a strategy similar to one waged by the British Empire against the rebellious Americans. When they could not quell the forces of sedition in northern colonies, they effectively gave up attempting conquest of those territories in favor of trying to secure the rest of the British North American colonies, although British attempts to isolate the rebellious north ended with their defeat at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. In the same way, Russia is, at least for now, abandoning efforts to conquer the capital in order to try taking over the Donbas region in the east. The Russians are using their strength of arms to implement advantage Russia, with no qualms about unleashing not only wholesale destruction but also recruitment of Russian-leaning separatists in that region to engage in their own small-wars attacks. The shelling of Mariupol has left over 90% of that city’s buildings destroyed, with casualties high and climbing. After that city fell, the Russians now have in their sights on Severodonetsk, the last Ukrainian-held city in the Donbas.

These indiscriminate attacks point to another frequent—if grim—advantage for the small. Sympathy for Ukrainians, already high from being the victims of an unprovoked invasion, has soared around the world in the face of such brutal destruction. Ukrainians seek military aid to counter the munitions advantage of their invaders. Those anti-aircraft rockets and rifles will be only the tip of the spear of the nation’s strengths. The Russians hoped that their show of force would result in quick victory, but their very abilities to pound their opponents cruelly will sow dragon’s teeth that could turn on them with the strengthening of their victims’ morale and the growth of outside support. And the military strength of Ukraine will continue with their small-war tactics from looking for weak points in Russian supply lines and “sniping … from every angle,” as retired Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute put it. Ukrainian strength in the “legs” of flexibility will have a fighting chance against the arms of Russian might.

The big question is whether Ukrainian moral and tactical advantages can endure and prevail. Will their moral authority shine as with the American Patriots fighting for what historian Gordon Wood has called the democratic “destruction of aristocracy” with an unleashing of “people and their energies” or will they be viewed less favorably as terrorists? And will the small-wars tactics prove as effective as the Vietnamese Communists’ people’s war against munitions-rich Americans or as ineffective as Native Americans against that same type of American firepower in its pre-twentieth-century versions?

These are the contending forces in this unpredictable war, while civilians suffer, with more than a tenth of the Ukrainian population already fleeing the nation and millions more displaced in their own homeland. Russia has amplified its military strengths with the power of the unpredictable. Putin leaves politicians and experts worldwide guessing and afraid that any more direct involvement of other nations will spur escalation beyond Ukraine, possibly including the use of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Ironically, the traditional doctrine of deterrence, with the chilling threat of mutually assured destruction, has actually encouraged Russian aggression. If this distortion of deterrence continues, the war will be stretched long with abundant supplies of arms flying to Ukraine and with Russia preventing other nations from entering the war directly because of its nuclear threats. Meanwhile, Russian attempts at conquest through utter destruction will in turn bolster sympathy for Ukrainians.

The defenders will be short-term victims while in the long term they will possess what psychologist William James calls the strength of “invisible molecular moral forces… stealing in through the crannies of … bigness & greatness … like so many soft rootlets or like the capillary oozing of water” against the strength of major powers. However, he warns that the strengths of the small generally only emerge “if you give them time.” Short-term supplies of arms will allow long-term strengths to become effective.

Or Putin may become trapped by his expectation for swift victory and even by his own language. Russia’s big supply of weapons is leading to more brutal attacks, while Putin will not even call this a war but a “special military operation.” This public relations disaster could combine with the economic and diplomatic defiance of Putin’s policies to encourage the Russian leader to adopt a brazen claim never used by the US in Vietnam: declare victory and withdraw. Pressure on Putin to make this choice may be the clearest path to ending the bloodshed, and a path with more potential to let peace last than Henry Kissinger’s proposal for Ukraine to give up territory to Russia.

While Ukraine’s fate hangs in the balance, its greatest strengths, like those of lowly insects and microscopic pathogens, rests with its readiness to use the strengths of the small.

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!

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….


Halloween 2020

Halloween Year Meets Halloween Night

Published in West Volusia Beacon, November 5-11, 2020

In 2020, every day has been like Halloween. It’s been a year of scares and shocks. President Donald Trump making surprise his daily fare. Joseph Biden in fourth place in early primaries; Joseph Biden the Democratic Party nominee for president. A novel Corona Virus silently infecting millions, killing hundreds of thousands, and shocking the economy. And that’s just the US. A year with the most big-ticket disasters in US History—and there are still two months to go.

Is there room for any more shock?

Actually yes. The virus could take a more deadly turn. The shutdown economy could hurt more people. The fire season in the west and the hurricane season in the east still have months to go. In a nation closely divided, half are going to be hurting after the election.

Enter a night with dark visions of mysterious powers and scary creatures. It’s 2020 to the max. Like Aladdin at the end of his movie pulling the evil Jafar into one little lamp, Halloween is a chance to pull all our fears into a stylized exaggeration of our Year of Living Scarily. Halloween is a night for dressing up our scares, living them out, and then putting them away at the end of the evening.

Read the whole essays in the West Volusia Beacon [external link]

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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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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