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Presidential Candidates Should Heed Lincoln's Words

Sunday, November 18, 2007, The Harrisburg Patriot-News
By John Strassburger
With presidential campaigning well into its second year, it is hard to believe that elections are still a year off.
All the nit-picking about flippers and floppers surely gets in the way of our remembering that there are certain values that unite us all. Yet not since the Great Depression have we more desperately needed leaders who are able to summon up that uniting vision that will begin to restore a sense of national purpose.
A starting point might be for us to recall what this country is about. Fortunately, we do not need a dissertation to set us straight. Just a year before another presidential election, in his speech 144 years ago on Nov. 19, 1863, dedicating the cemetery at Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln made our national purpose clear.
"Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that 'all men are created equal.'"
Unfortunately those words are so familiar we hear them without a thought. Unless we do the math, we even forget that he is referring to 1776. But more than any other sentence in American history, that one, as it were, "says it all."
Partly because of the downright peculiarity of his words, it is easy to overlook Lincoln's meaning. Hardly a soul stops any more to ponder Lincoln's use of the word "proposition." It does not have the sound of either persuasion or passion. It is so unlikely a word that upon coming to it, Victorian critic Matthew Arnold is said to have stopped reading the speech.
One clue that that word has a special weight lies in its contrast with Lincoln's other rhetoric. There never has been a president better at appealing to the heart, as he did in his lyrical first inaugural address: "mystic chords of memory ... stretching to every living heart and hearthstone ... will yet swell the chorus of the Union ... when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."
In other words, Lincoln's gift for eloquence renders all the more curious his choice of so businesslike a word as "proposition." At first blush it might seem even odder given that he linked it to Jefferson's own eloquence in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal."
But Lincoln wanted us to understand that there is a profound logic in Jefferson's declaration. Ever teaching himself, Lincoln had become enamored of Euclid's geometry. So as in proving a theorem, for Lincoln a proposition is a statement from which several other ideas or observations are discovered and proved.
A proposition has a logic; from it other truths flow. Thus, if "all men are created equal" is a proposition, then we can deduce from it other ideas, including that there needs to be a form of government that denies all claims to power or superiority based on birthright, or wealth, or color or rank or inherited title.
There needs to be democracy.
Because no story is more familiar to us than Lincoln's rise from the humblest beginnings imaginable, we can reason that his "proposition" claiming equality for all is rooted in the dirt floor of his one-room cabin. But that gives him short shrift. Lincoln's devotion to the principle of equality arose from far more than his own personal circumstances.

His unequivocal loathing of slavery was inextricably coupled with his belief in equality -- equality not just as an ethical ideal, but as the single political and social ideal that forms the logical basis for all others, including the basis for the national government itself.
Or as he put the matter in 1858, "He is blowing out the moral lights around who contends that whosoever wants to own [another person] has a right to do so."
As candidates debate such issues as health care, waterboarding, immigration, affirmative action, the transmission of wealth from one generation to the next and who is or ought to be considered an American, it would surely help to remember that our debates are rooted in one simple proposition.
Not only our campaigns, but our entire political system could not even exist without a tacit acceptance of the "proposition that all [humans] are created equal."
Lincoln's proposition unites us into and under a government. As is the case in all nations, our patriotism is a love, to be sure, of our home soil. But American patriotism is more than that: what makes us almost unique among nations around the world is that our patriotic love is rooted not in dank earth or blood but in a proposition, a principle, a principle that forms the foundation for the whole of our society.
If this election and any of the current campaigners are going to make this country better, let's ask them to emulate two aspects of Lincoln's leadership.
In every debate and every talk show appearance let's be asking them to find and embrace our common ground. And then let's ask them as well to move beyond fears and prejudices, recalling our organizing "proposition" in order to summon us to our highest ideals, to summon us to listen to "the better angels of our nature."
It would help the current public discourse immensely if we remember the simple truth that as a nation we are defined first by an idea larger than any of us, a moral idea, the American idea, the one that can, and with the right leaders will, again, lift us out of our selfish interests.

©2007 The Patriot-News
© 2007 All Rights Reserved.

College Research Is On Course
The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 17, 2006
A historical comparison shows that students
have become far more critical and sophisticated.

John Strassburger
is president of Ursinus College in Collegeville

Thomas L. Friedman, author of The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, recently told a national gathering of educators that to keep this country competitive, college students will need to become synthesizers, explainers and adapters.

And so I asked myself whether higher education is on the right track. I did not want to guess, so I set out to compare the academic work of students today with work done 60 years ago. Fortunately, I work at a college where tucked in an archive are senior honors projects going back to before World War II.

First, a colleague compared old and new biology papers. He started with the premise that former Harvard president Derek Bok observed in Our Underachieving Colleges: "... the steady growth of new knowledge pushed aspects of science once reserved for graduate students back into intermediate and even introductory college texts."

My colleague found that the sophistication of modern textbooks, coupled with the rise 35 years ago of undergraduate research, means that today more and more students are doing molecular and submolecular research on once esoteric topics such as gene expression and genetic mutation. Moreover, because so many students today have their work published, it is easy to see other important differences. Biology, my colleague concluded, is a "no-brainer": Today's research papers have crisper hypotheses, include far richer citations, and describe vastly more sophisticated methods and results.

If science is too easy a case, next, a seasoned high school English teacher and I set out to compare papers in English and history. As we read page after page of old and new papers, we were struck by two remarkable differences. First, it is not uncommon for contemporary student papers to be upwards of 100 pages; while a long paper 60 years ago would have been more than 30 pages. Of course, length alone does not necessarily make papers better.

But what also struck us about the older papers was the absence of a sophisticated critical stance, or much careful, trenchant analysis. By these criteria, modern papers win hands down. For example, one of the older papers studies the influence on Hamlet of a famous Renaissance handbook, The Courtier. There is no evidence, however, that Shakespeare had ever read The Courtier. And despite great patches of quotations in a brief paper, the student showed little understanding of the play.

I don't mean to suggest that faculty these days, or students, are any smarter. But today most professors teach differently than faculty did 60 years ago, with far less emphasis on lectures, more emphasis on discussion and analysis, and far more emphasis on writing. And modern work reflects these differences.

Consider just one example of a recent paper that examines four 19th-century authors.

Two things stand out immediately: Each of the sections reflects serious, careful reading of both the author and the critical literature, and the quotations illuminate complex and subtle ideas regarding the interplay of the authors' religious beliefs, the status of women and their writings.

The older papers were obviously less sophisticated intellectually: Right at the outset we ran across two that essentially described the plots and "mood" of several books by single authors. By tackling a series of authors, the modern student engaged in thoughtful comparisons, leading her to argue that literary structures enabled two of these authors to express ideas that if stated directly would have verged on heretical.

Before we accept, as some critics charge, that higher education deserves a failing grade, let's examine what it is students today are actually doing. The proliferation in colleges of fellowships so that undergraduates research and write with faculty mentors results in more sophisticated work than ever. For example, on my campus this summer almost 25 percent of the rising senior class - working one on one with faculty members - is producing serious scholarly works. The percentage of seniors who would have done honors projects 60 years ago was vastly smaller.

Of course there are still great challenges in higher education. And my comparison study is still a work in progress. But from the first look, the good news is that more students are doing better work than ever, and the work they are doing does indeed suit them, and us as well, to compete in the new, flat world of the 21st century.
Gauging Biases of Teachers Misses Point of Learning
 The following appeared in The Patriot-News, Harrisburg, Sunday, July 10, 2005

By John Strassburger

Having a legislator trying to gauge a teacher's politics misses both the nature and the purpose of education. But it's a real possibility in Pennsylvania, where a legislator called for the creation of a commission to examine whether professors in the commonwealth offer students a biased education.

The proposal is the result of a survey indicating that a majority of the nation's college and university faculty members hold liberal political views.

A commission on this topic would be a misuse of the Legislature's time and resources, mainly because such legislation is rooted in a fundamental misconception of what education is about.

The Puritans who founded Harvard and the Pennsylvania Germans who began my institution realized education requires nurturing our God-given capacity for reason. They did not mean persuasion -- or worse, indoctrination -- but cultivating reason linked to constant, regular, disciplined questioning.

Education requires careful, ongoing, never-ceasing questing to understand our own natures, external nature and the universe as well. It lets us realize our human capacities to the fullest, making the ability to think and learn central to our lives.

A good lecture about Shakespeare's play, King Lear, provides us avenues toward understanding, perhaps by creating the context for appreciating the complexities of kingship and royal succession. But to understand the play -- that is, to incorporate the play into our education -- we must read it, and re-read it, and read at least some of it aloud, and look up the words we do not know.

We need to appreciate how Shakespeare's characters are imaginative portrayals of human beings whose actions and motives are intelligible to us. When we do all that, we begin to reflect on our own love for our parents or our children. We have a new framework for thinking about the temptations of wealth and power, even the power to make others do our bidding. Issues of love, power, wealth, and family are not just churning through the play; they cut across choices at the heart of how we all try to live.

Shakespeare affords us a vicarious experience, from which we learn. The professor's politics do not bring us to that learning; they are irrelevant. Ultimately, learning is something we must do ourselves. I would suggest that the best contemporary teacher with an engaged class of students brings that about above all things.

Some will say that's fine, but what about classes in history or politics?

I have a colleague who served in the State Department for many years. Once an ambassador, he still consults the department on counterterrorism. Some of his students have gone on to work in government themselves. I did not know his politics until recently.

Getting students to understand complex international relations and the challenges democracies face in crafting coherent foreign policy does not require telling them his politics, let alone persuading the students to them.

Instead, he guides them through real examples, steering them to the great, often conflicting theoretical works. They must read them as carefully as a class and a teacher would read King Lear.

I propose this alternative for the legislators: On my own campus for eight weeks this summer, almost a quarter of the members of our senior class are working full-time, one-on-one, with individual faculty members, undertaking research on a wide variety of subjects.

Legislators interested in higher education should examine the scholarly work of undergraduates. If they graduated from college more than a quarter-century ago, they will likely find students today doing far better, more substantial academic work than they saw in their own college days.

Indeed, if they take a good hard look, they will not only foreswear witch hunts prompted by anecdotal evidence of political proselytizing in the classroom; they might even be moved to increase resources for higher education.
Going Beyond the College Guides

This Commentary ran in The Philadelphia Inquirer Dec. 3, 2003

By John Strassburger, Ursinus College President

In the rush to complete college applications and meet this year's deadlines, high school students and their parents are paging through guides analyzing and ranking colleges.

Most educators agree that the existing methods of stacking up colleges against each other are shallow and misleading, creating false distinctions in many cases. Yet the guidebooks sell so well because the public wants information to help them make their all-important decision.

There is a study of American higher education that truly matters. The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) measures the level of academic challenge at different institutions and the level of student engagement with learning and the world of ideas. Unfortunately, this study is not sold on newsstands or in bookstores,  even though it is based on data from 185,000 college students at 648 different U.S.  colleges and universities. The results are based on the best research, by the nation's best educational researchers, on what matters in getting the best college education possible.

The student engagement survey has its critics, to be sure, but as its most recent national report, released last month, shows, it has produced meaningful change at many institutions. Its data gets much less hoopla than the U.S. News & World Report rankings, for example; NSSE does not release to the public data comparing one institution to the next.

Data from each of the participating institutions are sent only to the individual schools. The NSSE tells institutions how their students' answers on survey questions - ranging from how the campus environment supports academic success to the quality of relationships with faculty - compared with averaged data from the other institutions across the country.

Parents and high school students interested in the actual quality of education at a given institution should ask administrators how it did on the student engagement survey: How challenging academically is the institution, compared to others? How much interaction is there outside of class between faculty and students? How enriching is the overall educational environment? Any college that participated in NSSE will have the answers.

The NSSE has gone a step further. Its researchers have singled out 20 institutions for exemplary educational practices. The list includes the Universities of Michigan and Kansas among state flagships, as well as Macalester College in St. Paul, the University of the South in Tennessee, and my own college, Ursinus, so that a team can explore what strong-performing colleges and universities do to promote student success. What the list of 20, called DEEP - Documenting Effective Educational Practices - tells us is something absolutely critical to anyone thinking about getting a college education. The rankings and the insider guides may tell you something about the age of an institution or its level of partying or both, but the real question is: what is the nature of the educational experience?. Does the campus environment emphasize studying? Does the coursework emphasize synthesis, and the making of judgments, and the application of theories to new problems or situations? These are the questions that matter when it comes to getting an education.

The national ranking lists may be so popular because they are easy to use, but there should be no short cuts to finding a challenging education. Anyone can, and should, ask of each college whether it has data to show that it excels at crafting environments that encourage student achievement at the highest possible levels. The practices of the 20 DEEP schools could readily be used as benchmarks; many of these best practices exist at other institutions as well.

Despite the hype of all those eager to sell their lists, the key for those interested in choosing a college is to remember that the guides and the rankings do not measure quality. And even more important, for those interested in obtaining a first-rate education -  a powerful and transforming education - the real key is to look past the guides and the rankings to the student experience instead.

King's Dream Unfilled 40 Years Later

The op-ed below appeared in The Harrisburg Patriot-News August 28, 2003.     

By John Strassburger and Charles Rice

The fortieth anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech should remind us that the Supreme Court's recent decision on affirmative action--despite the celebrations it provoked in the higher education community--is not an unqualified victory: it underscores democracy's failure to achieve King's dream.

In that now famous August 28th, 1963 speech, King told thousands of ardent listeners, "I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

In writing the majority's decision regarding admissions decisions at the University of Michigan Law School, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor upheld the use of affirmative action by noting society's great failure, lamenting that "race unfortunately still matters." But Justice O'Connor has her own expectation, now enshrined in her decision: "We expect that 25 years from now the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary...."

As we begin another academic semester, we need to remind ourselves that 25 years is not a long time. We must put celebrating behind us. We need to avoid behaving like too many students, planning all-nighters to meet critical deadlines.

We need to feel urgency right now about enacting change. For example, one of O'Connor's central arguments is that "Effective participation by members of all racial and ethnic groups in the civic life of our nation is essential if the dream of one Nation, indivisible, is to be realized." Yet that record numbers of college-age students no longer vote makes it clear that higher education needs to do far better at fostering participation in the nation's civic life. We surely need to build on initiatives such as those of Gene Lang, founder of the "I Have a Dream Foundation," whose Project Pericles aims at committing higher education to fostering civic responsibility.

Moreover, despite misgivings, we cannot afford to sail blithely past Justice Clarence Thomas's opinion that because of affirmative action all black students are "tarred as undeserving." As long as there is affirmative action, too many whites-students and faculty-will doubt whether black students are as competent as their white counterparts. One step in combating such prejudice is for educators to become far better at celebrating student achievement publicly, building more inter-institutional conferences to generate sharing of scholarly work, having students reading one another's scientific papers and marveling at the art and essays of their peers, so we all can readily discern that students of all colors are, indeed, achieving.

Equally important, we need to foster learning environments that nurture achievement. We can no longer tolerate the sort of rookie mistakes where professors call on the black student when the history class gets to slavery.

Every institution needs to address the "pipeline" issue. A recent book describing the admissions process at a select New England college makes a big deal of efforts to recruit a minority student from an elite Los Angeles prep school. But there is hardly mention of efforts to recruit minority students from public schools in New York City, Philadelphia or Baltimore. We know from our own experience that there are great students out there, but they need finding and encouraging, and the quicker the better. And those who actively opposed affirmative action, arguing in part that the real problem is with K through 12, need to move beyond rhetoric and join in the struggle to improve our schools.

Other enormous tasks remain. One powerful antidote to the prejudice Justice Thomas referred to would be developing more diverse faculties in both higher education and K through 12. The few programs that address this issue can and should be greatly expanded. And sometimes it is just a matter of paying attention. A forthcoming book on intercollegiate athletics at some of the nations' most highly selective colleges and universities shows that overall they are doing a lousy job of diversifying their elite sports teams.

What we cannot do is merely go on sighing in relief that affirmative action in higher education has been deemed constitutional. Martin Luther King's words must echo endlessly in our ears. Unless we want to find future anniversaries of his speech still marking our failure to achieve his dream--the fundamental dream of democracy--then we must act, right now.

This semester is not too soon to begin.

John Strassburger is president of Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pa.

The Rev. Charles Rice is chaplain of Ursinus College.

Toss This Outmoded Ritual

The op-ed below appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer Friday, May 4, 2001.     

            "The SATs don't measure much  
               and have become obsolete."

By John Strassburger

Hordes of high school juniors, fresh from prom, are now cramming for tomorrow's SAT. High schools across the country are now offering SAT practice courses as part of summer school. Yet it is becoming clearer and clearer that the test has outlived its usefulness.

Intelligence is not the same as aptitude, nor does education consist of doing well on aptitude tests - or studying for aptitude tests, or cramming for aptitude tests. The time and money (over $150 million last year) spent on cram courses would be of far greater social value were it invested in studying languages, music or physics. Test proponents have applauded the SAT's rigor, or the marquee value of high scores. But no one defends the content as something people should learn.

In a recent letter to college presidents, 15 corporate executives urged higher education to minimize the role of the SAT and improve the tools that measure the abilities we really need: creativity, leadership and community commitment. Signed, among others, by the CEOs of Shell, Verizon and the Bank of America, and joined by leaders of the National Urban League, the letter follows a proposal by Richard C. Atkinson, president of the University of California system, to eliminate the SATs as a factor in admissions for the 90,000 students in that system.

The whole purpose of the tests has been rendered obsolete by dramatic changes in education since World War II. Before the war, the assumptions were simple. There were a few great universities, such as Harvard. Their students were overwhelmingly from Eastern families of wealth. Those students overwhelmingly had privileged secondary educations, so they dominated the lists of those who did well on achievement-based admissions tests.

President James Conant of Harvard believed that identifying the undiscovered, untutored geniuses of the prairie would create a new pool of potential leaders to be educated at the elite institutions. He feared that great intellectual talent was being lost to manual labor in the mills, the mines and the fields. Sixty-five years later, we have learned a few things, most notably that poor, untutored geniuses do poorly on the SATs; scores correlate dramatically with income. And after WWII, our society embarked on a truly radical experiment: We became the first civilization anywhere in the world to undertake mass higher education.

In this relatively new environment, the SATs are destructive. Anyone who has been around colleges for more than a few years has seen plenty of students who did well on their SATs and then concluded that was sufficient demonstration of their intellectual prowess, that further academic exertion was not required. What a waste.

Even more pernicious is the whole skewing of what is important about education. How do we get back to focusing on learning? Atkinson is just right: students preparing narrowly for SATs are off the track. Those contemplating college need to work hard at writing and math and history and biology, not SAT-type analogy problems. When looking at colleges, students need to ask how well each school nurtures achievement.

SAT-mania has exacerbated the notion that there is something special about a few "medallion" colleges. The evidence from studies of graduates is overwhelming, however: What matters is not the college students attend but what students put into their educations.

A lot has happened since the SAT was devised. We have created legions of the finest institutions of higher learning in the world. It is no longer a matter of sending one genius to the one right place. And more and more colleges - over 400 now, including venerable ones such as Bates, Bowdoin, Franklin and Marshall and Ursinus - are deemphasizing the SATs by making test scores optional for applicants.

No better time than now to focus on weaning ourselves from an anachronistic system designed years ago to discover the untutored genius on the plains. Especially for secondary schools, it's essential that the time, money and energy spent on testing something so illusive it can no longer even be identified as "aptitude" could be put to far better use nurturing true learning.

John Strassburger is president of Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pa. Ursinus is a member of the Annapolis Group, a consortium comprising the nation's leading liberal arts colleges.

The Ursinus Admissions Website has more information on the college's optional SAT policy.

As I See It: An Academic Antidote to Drinking

Published in The Harrisburg Patriot November 2, 1999

(Copyright 1999) Reprinted by Permission

By John Strassburger

The new advertising campaign sponsored by college presidents uses sarcasm as the latest tool in the battle against American college students' drinking themselves to death. I admit, all of us in higher education feel a little desperation on this point.
In Pennsylvania we have even taken to asking the state liquor stores to stop selling high-octane refreshment. Yet, as we struggle, we know we are waging an uphill fight.

Maybe I am grasping at straws, but this semester, almost entirely by acident, I stumbled on a reason to hope there are alternatives. It was a Monday afternoon, the first day of classes at the college where I work. All first-year students had gathered in an auditorium to watch three film versions of Shakespeare's The Tempest. Next they saw actors perform lines from the recent London hit, "Art," a play about the nature of friendship, the meaning of art and how we decide what is good. At the end of the live performance, the students applauded vigorously. Then a professor explained that the new course they were all taking in common to launch their college careers was aimed at addressing central questions of existence -- What does it mean to be human? How should we live our lives? -- And the students burst into applause again.

After the presentations I dallied for a while, talking with faculty members. When I stepped outdoors, most of the class was still there chatting away about The Tempest. I was astonished. Is that what it would have been like in downtown Athens 2,500 years ago, a plaza abuzz with youth talking about ideas? We had hoped students would enjoy the program; none of us dared expect they would embrace it.

The whole scene reminded me that compared to sports and tragedies how little we get to read about what else goes on in college. It reminded me, too, that the questions which ought to be at the heart of education have always remained the same.

Unfortunately for American education, these questions span traditional courses and academic departments. And over the years there has been a slow but pervasive retreat from requiring the sorts of all-college courses that make the large questions central. I am not suggesting that the rise in campus debauchery has a single cause, or even that curricular fragmentation has played much of a role.

But if we are to hope to link what we understand as the pursuit of the highest potential of the human spirit to the way students actually live, more than antidotes and clever ad campaigns are needed. After decades of artful compromises allowing students to make more and more choices, what my faculty colleagues have come up with may hold even more promise than we first thought.

We are asking all students to take a course that invites them to think seriously about how they ought to live their lives, and how they ought to treat other people, and what our relationship is or ought to be to the rest of the universe.
We are meeting them in all seriousness around timeless questions - - not at those edgy edges, where marketing gurus advise us they are most receptive. And the point is, that when we meet them this way, they respond earnestly; they do not require a sarcastic touch.

One goal of our new common intellectual experience is simply to nurture a conversation, not just in class -- all courses do that -- but in the dining hall, over supper with faculty mentors, in the residence halls, after concerts and plays, even on the practice fields. Learning is a social act.
If we can provide enough intellectual fare in common, then we can hope we will have not just a college, but a community, a community of learners, knit together by a common pursuit of answers to the question of how we might best live our lives.

It is way too soon to think that making questions of existence central to the curriculum will cure our ills. Yet I find some cause for optimism. I find it in students applauding a class, in the ongoing conversations I am still seeing and hearing as I have the first-year students over for desserts, and I find it in the willingness of a modern, scholarly faculty to try to craft a course across boundaries and outside of specialties, a course aimed explicitly at drawing studies into a conversation -- indeed a course with the simple aim of elevating the level of conversation itself.

I surely hope in all my heart that the ad campaign has an impact, but I also hope all of us in higher education consider whether the education we have been providing can be amended, so that it raises everyone's sights about what we ought to expect of ourselves, even when we are in college.