Archive for category Education

It Was 20 Years Ago Today…

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At about this time twenty years ago I started teaching far from where I had ever lived before.  Except a year in Bologna Italy and two years in Washington DC, I had grown up and gone to college in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and then lived for ten years earning my Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities.  I taught my first class in 1989 at Minnesota, and one semester taught a course there and at both St. Olaf and Carleton College in nearby Northfield.  The year before I came to UMF I taught the year at St. Olaf as a sabbatical replacement.

As I walk through campus it strikes me how different things are, even while much looks the same.   I got my employee ID (which I should probably replace since the picture is 20 years old) at a small shack that no longer stands.  A church that sat next to campus has now become home to the Psychology department.  An old house that served a variety of functions, with special student apartments below them was replaced by a state of the art education building.  The fitness center that everyone was so proud of in 1995 now is something people hope to replace – though the programming and inside facilities have improved greatly.

The spacious fitness center doubles as the graduation ceremony venue if the weather outside is rainy.  Luckily that happens only rarely.

The spacious fitness center doubles as the graduation ceremony venue if the weather outside is rainy. Luckily that happens only rarely.

The old Honors house was replaced by a new state of the art dormitory, with a new house purchased across the street for the Honors program.  A $5 million dollar performing art center was built, serving the university and greater community.  Buildings were upgraded and refined.  But UMF retains the feel of community that I fell in love with my first year here.

Probably the most fascinating aspect of the last twenty years is the pace of change – it’s been amazing to watch the information revolution plow forward.   In 1995 I was dismayed that research papers had to be done mostly with sources like Time and Newsweek, as the library had very little political science.  Inter-library loan existed, but was difficult to navigate.   More than once I reserved a university van to haul students to Orono so they could research in a “real” library.  That was the disadvantage of being a small rural university without a lot of money – the students didn’t have the resources they did elsewhere.

The Education building, certified Green (geothermal heating/AC) replaced traditional "house" and parking lot.

The Education building, certified Green (geothermal heating/AC) replaced traditional “house” and parking lot.

All that has changed!   This week I took my first year seminar students to the library to learn how to use the state of the art library website.  From their dorm room they can order books from anywhere in the world.   Books anywhere in the U Maine system arrive in two days.   More impressively is access to data bases that go far beyond what most undergraduates utilize even at those places with research libraries.   Suddenly the disadvantage of being here is gone, students don’t even have to go to the library; they find sources, the website puts it in citation format, they can download articles, and have a world of academic information at their finger tips.   Add to that what you can find on the web – statistics, tools to analyze and graphically represent statistics, etc. – and the challenge is for students not to be overwhelmed by the wealth of information and analytical tools.

The $5 million Emery Arts Center was built connected to one of the oldest buildings on campus - the Alumni Theater

The $5 million Emery Arts Center was built connected to one of the oldest buildings on campus – the Alumni Theater

After I moved here I bought some furniture and a home computer.  I had a desk top provided by the university in my office – a Pentium 100, hardwired to the internet.  At home I spent nearly $2000 to get a Pentium 75 that had a modem so I could call in to connect with the university system via phone.  Since about 2002 the university has provided laptops, meaning we no longer need a separate home computer.  And of course, now the whole campus is wifi, even outdoors.

In 1995 some faculty members and even students still resisted using e-mail.    We were flooded with memos and papers; now it’s all via e-mail.   The computer centered buzzed with students finishing and printing out papers, or surfing the net.  Now most have their own computers.   It’s been years since I’ve required hard copy of papers – now they are submitted electronically on an educational site called “Blackboard,” where I also grade and comment.  No more gradebook, Blackboard handles everything, including a forum for class discussions.

Mantor library once focused on books.  The old building has many levels, almost like a labyrinth!  Now it's a multi-media information center with its own cafe - it has changed with the times!

Mantor library once focused on books. The old building has many levels, almost like a labyrinth! Now it’s a multi-media information center with its own cafe – it has changed with the times!

When I wanted to show a film, I’d have to request a TV with a VCR be brought to the room.  Now every room is “smart,” set up for multi-media presentations.   Powerpoint wasn’t yet in use by students in 1995, and many faculty members discouraged it in favor of traditional methods.  Now, it and other presentation software get used and our job is to help students learn how to use them effectively.

I could go on and on.   In 1995 I’d trudge to the library every week to read Der Spiegel to keep up with events in Germany.  Now my Apple Watch gets alerts from Der Spiegel.  And this doesn’t even touch how much the internet has changed everything – now it’s common if a question comes up in class to have a student look up the answer.  Information on just about anything is available on demand.

The big story that fall was the trial of OJ Simpson.   My “Politics of Post-Communist Societies” class talked me into taking them to the snack bar to watch the results of the trial.   The snack bar was full as the verdict was read – I recall being amused at how angry some of the students got!  We weren’t yet talking much about the failure to stop the Rwandan genocide the year before.  Now that case is integrated into my World Politics course, and the OJ is all but forgotten.

Those days the fear was that on line universities would overtake ‘brick and mortar’ college life.  They found their niche, but the niche had limits.  Boris Yeltsin was President of Russia, Saddam Hussein was getting impatient with weapons inspectors being in Iraq over four years after the 1991 Gulf War ended, and I was enjoying the music of break out artist Alanis Morrissette.   Bill Clinton was President, but a raucous House of Representatives led by Newt Gingrich was on the verge of shutting down the government to try to get Clinton to meet their demands.   At this point, Clinton looked like he might only serve one term as President.

As Bob Seger put it…”20 years now, where’d they go, twenty years, I don’t know…I sit and wonder sometimes, where they’ve gone…”   Though I have every intent to still be teaching here twenty years from now!

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Next Stop: Berlin!

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One of the joys of teaching at UMF is the ability to offer travel courses, usually in May term, winter term or February break.  My first one was back in 2000/01 over winter break with 20 students to Italy.  That was back when the US economy looked super strong so the Euro cost only 78 cents.   The Italians still used the lire, but already the European currencies were locked in the Euro rate, with Euro coins and notes taking over in 2002.  The dollar was so strong almost everyone on the trip bought leather jackets in Florence, ate out a lot, and had a small trip fee (for hotel, flight, and train) of $1250.

In January 2001, leading my first travel course, I gave a seminar on the EU at the Pompeii amphitheater

In January 2001, leading my first travel course, I gave a seminar on the EU at the Pompeii amphitheater

In the winter of 2003/04 I lead 18 students to Germany, going to Weimar, Berlin, Koeln and Koblenz.   At that time UMF had only one other professor offering travel courses, so this was new territory.   Now there are probably ten or so a year, and the university is trying to expand them.

In May 2005 I joined three other professors – Steve Pane from Music History, Sarah Maline from Art History and Luann Yetter in Literature – to offer a multifaceted course to Italy, visiting Venice, Florence and Rome.   We had nearly 40 students, and the trip was amazing.   We reprised that trip in January 2006/07, February break 2008 and 2009, May 2011 and May 2013.    In February 2009 and May 2013 only two faculty members could go since we didn’t have so many students (Sarah and I in 2009, Steve and I in 2013).  We’re hoping to have enough for all four of us to go again in 2015.

My colleague Steve Pane, at a picnic during the 2005 course for over 40 of us, near the Piazza Michelangelo

My colleague Steve Pane, at a picnic during the 2005 course for over 40 of us, near the Piazza Michelangelo

Steve, Sarah and I did a Vienna-Munich-Berlin trip in 2010, and I lead a solo trip to Berlin, Bonn and Munich in 2012.   So this Monday when I lead a solo course to Berlin, Munich and Vienna, it’ll be my 11th travel course.   They are a lot of work – organizing the itinerary, booking hotels, airfare, trains, etc.   Even on trips led by a number of us, I am the logistics/budget coordinator.  That doesn’t mean I do more work — the others have unenviable jobs of dealing with sick students (sometimes taking them to the ER), handling lost passports, or various tasks.  But the work is worth it, in some ways I enjoy traveling while teaching more than I would enjoy leisure travel.

It is extremely rewarding to be able to watch students learn another culture, to share what I’ve learned about Germany or Italy with them.  To learn about art and music from my colleagues on the multi-faculty trips, expanding my knowledge, with all of us seeing connections between the disciplines that we hadn’t before.

My colleague Luann Yetter during her popular Dante walking tour in Florence

My colleague Luann Yetter during her popular Dante walking tour in Florence

I think the second trip to Italy we were heading out for a walk after checking in to the Venice hotel.   We make sure the students stay up until at least 10:00 the day we arrive so they can get their body clocks adjusted to European time.   We were heading out and then I heard a commotion, “look at that!”  I looked – but saw nothing out of the ordinary.  The students zoomed by with cameras and started taking pictures of the canals.  Then I realized – I had been to Venice enough that the canals seemed ordinary to me, but through the students I could see them again as if for the first time.   That keeps the experiences fresh – though it is cool to know that I am quite familiar with how to navigate Venice, Florence and Rome!

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Above – 42 students and 4 faculty made our 2011 trip the largest!

Some students have never been out of the country; we’ve had at least one who had never been on an airplane before.  Some have traveled before.   But we always develop group bonds, traveling together and sharing two weeks.   When it ends people vow to keep in touch and not lose that connection.   Alas, people do go their separate ways, but there is always talk of alumni trips or people coming back to travel again.   For many these travel courses are a life changing experience.

Finally me in a photo!  Talking with students about connecting concepts and themes in the course so far

Me during the 2011 trip, at a park in Florence as we broke into groups to discuss various questions connecting course themes.

So Monday I leave with 13 students for Berlin, flying Aer Lingus via Dublin.  The course is “German Political History,” and we’ll include Austria with the Vienna visit.   Everything is arranged, the weather looks fantastic, and all I have to do is pack and hope that everyone makes it to the airport without a hitch.  Hopefully I’ll find some time to blog during the next two weeks (during the 2011 Italy trip I kept a pretty extensive blog).

So now I have to get in my grades by Sunday, pack and be ready!  I will try to blog while underway!

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Children are not property

The Daily Beast reports another bout of silliness  by the religious right in the reaction to a statement by Melissa Harris-Perry that “Your kids don’t belong to you-but the whole community”?

Now, I can see someone not liking the statement, but the silliness is where they go with it.  They trot out the old 20th Century foes of “communism” and “Leninism” to make it sound like the goal of the “left” is to confiscate children and make them loyal to the “state” because they “belong” to the whole community.

Do you belong to a community?  Of course!   You belong to many communities; we all do.  I belong to the Farmington community, the Mallett PTA community, the University community, the community of faculty who lead travel courses, etc.   Belonging to a community is not communistic, it is natural.

Children belong to the whole community, not just the school community or the community of parents.  They will work to support the retiring generation, they will keep society going and enhance the life of the community.   Her point was not to say that the community should control children, but that we should invest in education and programs to help make sure our children have the best possible future.

So why the wild reaction?   One word: property.   Some groups on the religious right have a notion that children can be seen as the property of the parents.   The parents can raise them as they want, educate them or not educate them, indoctrinate them, control them, and sometimes even abuse them.   To these people the parent owns the child, just as a master might own a slave.

Such thinking is inhumane.   Children are humans with all the rights of any human.    Beyond that if you look at human history we are by nature a collectivist species.  We form families and villages.  Villages look at the good of the whole, including not just all the people but the traditions and values of the community, as being more important than the individual.  This is true world wide, and throughout history.

Erich Fromm notes that what changed in the West was the process of individuation, whereby people started to separate from the community and think in terms of their own self-interest.   This is not a bad thing.  It is a particular part of our culture.   That individuation is why we strive, compete and progress – why we reject traditions and embrace change ranging from giving women equal rights to allowing gay marriage.

Yet this capacity for progress rests on a potential contradiction with our collective nature.   We still yearn to form communities.   Look at the popularity of social media, Facebook and blogger communities.    People have psychological difficulties with the demands of trying to be an individual responsible for their own happiness and choices, ranging from depression to anxiety and eating disorders.    People try to escape the pressure of the modern world through alcohol, drugs and other addictions.     We seek the comfort of tradition and a supportive village in a world that finds us disconnected and on our own.   Life for us has become materially easy and psychologically/spiritually difficult.

Which brings us back to the children.   The greatest gift we can give the next generation is the capacity to exercise their cultural individualism with a proper respect for community.   Respect means to recognize I do belong to my community.  I am part of it, I should act to support it and others who are in it.    Individualism requires that people be strong enough to be themselves rather than conform to the expectations of others, secure enough to look inside and learn who they are without feeling like their real self is weird or inadequate, and tolerant enough to accept the choices others make in expressing their individualism.

We have to give children the tools to navigate a world that can be daunting and intimidating.  Only if they learn to be strong, secure and tolerant individuals with respect for their community can they live awake, not giving in to the cultural hypnosis aided by marketers trying to define what one needs to be happy, normal or ‘acceptable.’   They will rejoice in who they are, rather than fear that others will see beneath the facade.  They will accept others for who they are, making real friendship and love, both personal and within the community, possible.

Unfortunately, the lack of funding for education, the removal of the arts from so many school districts (while competitive sports remain hot), the lack of respect for teachers, and our fetish with an individualism devoid of community with children seen as akin property, makes it difficult to give children the life skills they need to remain strong, secure and tolerant.   I take that as Melissa Harris-Perry’s point, and agree.

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Augustine, Machiavelli, and Petrarch Conversing

One place for the conversation: in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padova, where Giotto’s frescoes mixed the old religious themes with a new humanist perspective

The assignment closing out the first unit of my honors first year seminar was straight forward: imagine a conversation between Augustine, Petrarch and Machiavelli.   Have them talk about the issues that dominated their lives, react to each other, and bring up others we read or talked about (Aquinas, Dante, Giotto and Boccaccio).   The results were spectacular.

I gave students freedom to tackle the assignment however they wanted.   One took the voice of Machiavelli, describing the conversations and his internal thoughts — polite to Augustine in conversation while ridiculing him in his head.   Another had them all in purgatory, some had them in heaven, one had them in a rather rowdy bar (Augustine sipping fruit juice), while one had them in the equivalent of zoo, having been snatched from earth and brought somewhere outside space/time.   One put herself in the role as translator of the conversation, giving her reflections on what they said, which worked really well.

Augustine (354-430) developed the spiritual philosophy and theology that would define the medieval world view – this world is an illusion, designed to tempt and test, but exists only as symbols of a deeper reality.   Do not pursue worldly delights or ambitions, those only lead you away from Christ.  With that view dominating, it’s not surprising that the Europeans spent nearly a thousand years with little progress!

Petrarch is often called the “father of humanism.”   Humanism means taking the human experience seriously.   Petrarch, along with others such as Giotto, Boccaccio and Dante, were rediscovering the classics from Rome and Greece, and thereby opening the door to a past that Europe had long forgotten.   They were enthralled by the classics, a world where human emotion and practical knowledge mattered — where life wasn’t only about preparation for the after life.

Petrarch expressed humanist love and emotion, but never approached his muse Laura – he loved from afar

Art became more realistic, human emotion invaded literature and poetry, and the material world started to matter again.   This led to the renaissance and an expansion of knowledge and wealth.    It also meant growing corruption in the Church as the spiritual became secondary to the practical.    Niccolo Machiavelli (1649 – 1527) took that humanism to its pragmatic ends justify the means conclusion with his book The Prince.

What’s most impressive is that the students  captured the essence of what these three people  symbolize.   Augustine is the other-worldly mystic who warns about the corruption of the flesh and power of a love for God.  Petrarch has his feet in both the Augustinian world and the new world of humanism.   He writes stirring emotional poetry to a woman, but one he loves from afar.    One student has the two of them reflecting on their similar experiences.   Augustine’s most powerful moment was when opened the Bible at random and was touched by something written by Paul.   Petrarch had done the same with Augustine’s Confessions atop Mt. Ventoux.

Florence at the time of Machiavelli – the wealthiest city in Europe, yet surrounded by strife, corruption and discord

Machiavelli is the anti-Augustine.   He is a humanist and a realist.   Of course the Church and God is important, but one has to live in this world with humans who are, as all three agree, base in their nature.   Humans are wicked, sinful and unclean.

Augustine’s solution is to go to the mountains and live separate from the depravity and ruin, in monasteries where life is devoted solely to the spiritual.    Petrarch admired Augustine but fantasized about living in classical times.   He would carry on conversations with Cicero and others from the past, wishing he could be in a world where knowledge and culture were advanced and developed.   Machiavelli compartmentalized the spiritual in order to focus on the practical.

What impressed me is how the students got into the mindset of the era, be it the dilemmas of humanism, the impact of Aquinas and Aristotle, or the inherent tension in the methods of the Scholastics.   They managed to mentally put themselves into that time frame just before the reformation.

That’s important.  It is so easy to think “oh, they didn’t have science yet, they were backward…the Church is controlling everything, that’s wrong.”   That’s a view of someone in the present imagining those structures of thought imposed on the here and now.

If we judge history through a modern lens we fail to understand the fundamental questions and dilemmas that the people at the time grappled with.    We wouldn’t appreciate how their dilemmas were similar to issues we face now; these were intelligent people whose thinking was not so unlike our own.    Moreover, once we endeavor to understand the past in context, it’s easier to see the imperfections of our own reality.

When we get to the end of the course students have an assignment to write about the present the way an Honors class 400 years from now might see it.    What do we do that will be seen later as barbaric and ignorant?   War?   Chemicals in food?  Eating meat?

How will religion and science change?    Is the history of western civilization — and all other cultures — starting to merge into a global discourse?   Might the intellectual history of the West be bracketed — ending at some year when cultural merging makes such cultural distinctions impossible to maintain?

The goal of the course is for students to see their academic journey and their place in the world as part of an unfolding story.   How we think is shaped by our cultural past.    Even an atheist has views and understandings that can be traced back to thinkers like Augustine, Aquinas and Luther.    Instead of being in the present looking at a past whose sole purpose was to create this moment, we are part of an exciting unfolding of history, connected to the past and part of a future yet undiscovered.

And if one sees life that way, learning is not a chore, it’s fun.   Learning does not end when college ends, but one is motivated to continue exploring and understanding the exciting and riveting history unfolding.   Traveling to a city like Rome is not just visiting another place, but traveling through time as we connect with history.   We are not in a world of stress, distractions and emptiness, but are part of the most exciting story ever told — being told by voices across time and space, each voice as loud and important as our own.

That sense of wonder has shaped how I look at life and my place in it.   It provides a sense of wonder and awe that transcends daily routines.    As a teacher, my goal is to provide opportunities for students to make that same discovery.   These papers show evidence that these honors students are doing just that.

 

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Travel Well, Live Well

The Duomo and Baptistery in Firenze

This coming May we plan on offering a travel course to Italy.   It will be the seventh time I’ve been part of a travel course to Italy with student.  I’ve visited Italy five other times, including the year I lived in Bologna while attending the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (from which I earned my MA).

Having just discovered some cool websites involving Italy including Margieinitaly, lovebeautyexperience,  and traveling foodie, I’m very engaged with planning of the trip.   I’m the “trip planner,” the one who makes arrangements and takes care of the finances (in exchange my colleagues take over a lot of excess work during the trip itself).

Venice has been described as a “thinking person’s Disneyland,” but it’s beauty is real

The trip is difficult to plan because of the numbers.   We routinely have 40 students and four faculty, flying into Venice and out of Rome.    Venice is not a major hub so to get inexpensive tickets for that many people requires booking early.

My colleagues:  Steve Pane (Music History), Sarah Maline (Art History) and Luann Yetter (Literature) are the other three faculty, and together we’ve created a tight, integrated interdisciplinary course that yields an academic experience unlike any I’ve encountered.   Not only are we “on the scene” when we talk about art, history, the Catholic Church, or Florence, but over the years we’ve amazed ourselves by how much we learn from each other.    We find connections between disciplines and perspectives, and develop those in conversations with students.  The trip is always an educational experience for us as well as for the students.  There’s always more to learn!

Luann Yetter near Santa Maria Nouvella, talking about Dante at the end of the “Dante walking tour.”

1.  Numbers and Recruitment.    While it may seem like we’d be more comfortable with fewer than forty students, the economics of such a course requires at least nine students for each faculty member at a minimum.   We’re now gathering e-mail addresses of perspective participants, communicating with students who might be interested, and Monday held an early meeting (with a slide show!)   Because the course has a reputation, we usually have a good number who really want to go — but getting to forty can be daunting.

2.  Hotels.   Hotels are a challenge with over 40 people.   Luckily we’ve made connections over the years.  We know of a good hotel in Venice, Agli Artisti, near the train station.   Our favorites are the FLorentine hotels Abacho and Giappone, just blocks from the Duomo.   The Florence hotels feature five flights of stairs and no elevator, but the people there are awesome – we’ve stayed there every time.   Rome varies.   We usually stay near the Termini train station because it’s convenient, but they don’t like booking large groups.   We often have to break the group up.   My strategy now is to inquire about smaller groups in a number of hotels located close to each other.

Here I am with students in a Florence park, a seminar about the themes of the course so far (students were divided in groups, faculty rotated)

3.   Money.   Every trip has had a balanced budget.   As “keeper of the finances” my task is to determine a travel fee (cost of airfare, hotels, internal travel, public transportation, airport service, and many museums and events) and keep it as inexpensive as possible.   We do pretty good.   We get group rate train tickets (much cheaper than the Italian rail passes we got our first time); with hotels we balance price and quality.   By quality I mean safety and cleanliness, we eschew luxuries!   Students bring their own money for meals and others (though hotels usually have breakfast).

The hard part – determining the price in September without knowing what the value of the Euro will be in May.   Sometimes, it makes things really tight.    Even pricing in a higher value things can shoot up, that happened a couple of times and it was a struggle to stay in budget.   Once, though, the Euro dropped pretty dramatically and we were able to have some group meals and extra day trips.

Not the best quality photo, but our friends at Hotel Abacha (via dei Banchi) in Florence surprised us with some bread and wine one evening

4.  Logistics.   Who is coming?   How many need a bus to the airport?   Can we pick people up at the Kennebunk rest area?   How early should we get to the airport?    Too early and people get bored, but we don’t want to risk a flat tire or traffic jam threatening our flight!   One thing I learned is that when you’re traveling with a big group, airlines treat you right.   They don’t want to rebook 40 people.

Once we flew Portland-New York-Rome.   Due to a weather delay we arrived in New York at the very time our Rome flight was to depart.  I was convinced we’d have to spend the night near JFK.   Nope – Delta had a bus next to plane just to get our group to our flight.  They had held it for us, gave us boarding passes as we entered, and the best part is that our luggage arrived on time too!   Another time in London British Airways switched to a bigger plane to rebook us to Vienna (on a Germany-Austria trip) after we missed our flight due to volcanic ash.

Vatican seminar – the history and politics of the Catholic Church is fascinating

Theme of the Course:  Travel well, live well.   Traveling well means to accept that problems will emerge.   Museums will be closed, trains will be late, we’ll get lost, we’ll miss out on something, and our feet will get blisters.

Some people get very annoyed when things don’t go as planned, they get mad at airlines, the trains, and people who seem to be mucking up their day.   Stress builds.   These people are not traveling well.   The key is to let it go, go with the flow.   No matter how bad it seems, you’ll have a story and things will work out.    Once a student forgot his passport at the hostel and had to miss the train from Florence to Rome.   We gave him instructions to catch the next one, but due to a change of platforms about three hours into his trip he noticed the Alps.   Ooops, not Rome.   But he made it.

Another student had a passport stolen, others have gotten ill, and we get lost and off schedule quite a bit!   Don’t let such things get the better of you, look at it all as an experience — enjoy and travel well!   My experience is that if you can travel well, those traits carry over into every day life.   Problems get solved, life goes on, and you collect experiences!

Still eight months to go, but already I’m thinking of Italy!

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The Value of College

Ready for the students to arrive!

This is my favorite time of the year.   New classes!   New students!  The energy on campus!  There is a kind of excitement to the start of a new school year that I find invigorating.

Lately, however, many people have been questioning the value of higher education.   The complaints vary.   Some think that colleges are offering too many courses and degrees that don’t translate directly into a better job or an improved economy.  Others say that college is so expensive that students are better off skipping the debt and going to work on their own.   Mitt Romney tells young people to borrow money from their parents and just start a business!   And cued from that comment, some complain that liberal professors “indoctrinate” students.

College often marks not only when parents physically “lose” their children, but when the children start charting a path different than that preferred by parents.

College is often a time when students change their views about the world.   All of us go through life hypnotized in a way.   Suggestions seep into our minds and shape how we think.   Suggestions come from parents, advertisers, the television, peers, teachers and permeate our culture.   Over time these suggestions cause people to see the world in which they find themselves as ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ and shut out other ways of seeing things.

In college those beliefs are challenged, students are encouraged to think for themselves, question what they’ve been taught and develop a critical, discerning and independent mind.   In a sense students are challenged to question their programming, to liberate their minds from being slave to suggestions planted subconsciously by others.    Students learn to view the world from different perspectives, understanding the limits of any one perspective, even their own.   That gives people the power to go through life “awake” rather than hypnotized.

That to me is the most important benefit of college.   Too many people, including those with a college education, go through life simply reproducing the beliefs and ideas that they hold due to the power of cultural suggestion.   This is normal, that’s strange.  This is how WE do things, those people who do things differently are odd, even dangerous.   Eating dog is disgusting, eating cow is normal!

Some view the goal of college as purely economic: earn more and support the economy

Another criticism involves the cost and benefits of college.  To be sure, if you go to college you almost certainly will earn more in your life, even if you major in something with few jobs and earn only mediocre grades.   While there are many who do great in life (in material terms) without higher education, they are a minority.   Avoiding college limits career options in a fundamental way.   Most professional positions are simply unobtainable without a college degree.  Unless you can start your own business and have the natural talents to make it work, you’ll be competing with college grads for jobs — and potential employers will probably choose them over someone with just a high school degree.

There are exceptions.  If you learn a key skill like plumbing, welding, masonry, or something in demand, you may end up earning more than many college grads.   But you need to work hard and take pride in your skill — and anyway, I’d still recommend not skipping college!

The key fallacy in the argument about jobs is its implicit assumption that the primary value of education is to enhance earning power and get a particular job.   That should be and is a by product, but the goal is to enrich and enhance life.    For over 300 years the focus of western thought has been about liberation.   The idea of freedom and liberty drove the colonists to rebel against England in 1776.    It’s motivated the growth of science, philosophy, and rational thought.   The idea is that individuals should use reason and evidence rather than mindlessly reproduce traditions and customs.    This is true even for conservative thinkers like Edmund Burke who recognized the danger of taking that too far and appreciated the need for custom — for him it was the pace of change that mattered.   Liberation too quickly is very dangerous.

A human who can experience the world with a clear mind, analyzing the suggestions that culture and tradition give, rejecting what doesn’t make sense and holding what does, lives life more awake than someone who simply goes with the flow and accepts the world as he or she finds it.   Even someone who embraces the faith and tradition he or she was brought up with is richer if they choose their beliefs via careful reflection rather than simply reproducing what was taught to them.    Not only will their faith be deeper, but they’ll also be less likely to fear different religions, cultures, and ideas — they understand rather than fear difference.

Last May I visited Dachau with students – the Nazi rise in Germany shows the power of propaganda and suggestions, even in a well educated, enlightened country

And what about those who don’t go to college?   Are they all doomed to live ‘hypnotized’ by their culture?   No – just as many with education don’t use it fully, many without it learn and find insight through other paths.    College helps, but it is only one possible path towards liberating the mind.    Chris Hedges told the story of how in Bosnia, when Serb and Muslim intellectuals rationalized violence and conflict between their groups, one uneducated Muslim farmer broke through the hypnosis and took milk every night for over a year to a Serb baby who would have otherwise died.   Anything that pushes one to try to understand what they don’t know and entertain new perspectives and ideas can ‘wake up’ and move beyond cultural programming.

But as a college Professor I dedicate myself to trying to help students learn to think for themselves and question everything.   A friend of mine jokes that I always say “…on the other hand,” but that’s an outgrowth of how I teach – there are always different perspectives to understand and incorporate.   I do not want to indoctrinate or hold students to any standard of political correctness.   I do not want to show disrespect for any religion or belief system, though I do want students to have the courage to make ethical calls about what some beliefs entail or some religious folk do.   I want to help students learn to distrust pre-packaged ideologies and not be afraid of paradox.    I believe its important not to be seduced by the power of logic (logic and reason can be used to prove almost anything you want them to in an uncertain world), but appreciate sentiment and intuition.

I’m excited, ready and looking forward to welcoming new students, reconnecting with old ones, and missing those who graduated.   Bring on the new semester!

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Adventures in Germany

In 1995 I was lucky to be in Berlin for Christo’s “Wrapped Reichstag” exhibition. Since then the building has been completely renovated.

On Monday I leave for Germany along with 14 students for a two week travel course starting in Munich, moving on to Bonn, and ending in Berlin.   The focus of the course is on Germany twenty years after unification – have East and West come together, or are they still quite different?   Added to that, of course, will be history and culture.

Last year I blogged extensively during a similar travel course to Italy.  I’m not sure if I’ll be as prolific this time.

Germany is special to me.  Besides the fact most of my ancestors are from there (I’m 3/4 German 1/4 Norwegian), I’ve lived a year in Bonn and Berlin, have traveled there frequently and its my area of expertise – German foreign policy and more generally the European Union.   I’m fluent in German, but rusty.  When I lived there all year I was thinking and dreaming in German.

I first visited Germany when WWII and the holocaust was more keenly felt than now.   True, over 35 years had passed, but I’d see elderly folk with missing limbs and realize that the war generation was still there.   I watched the mini-series on “The Holocaust” with young Germans (odd seeing an American series about Germany synched into German).

In those first visits (taking place during breaks from my year studying in Bologna, Italy), I saw Chancellor Helmut Schmidt fall from office when his coalition partners ditched him for Helmut Kohl’s Christian Democratic party, and a radical new party called “The Greens” entering the Bundestag for the first time.   I was there on March 6, 1983 to witness that election, it was exciting.    At that point German TV had three or maybe four channels.    Trains were efficient, but relatively slow.   Seating was in compartments of six, with smoking cars outnumbering non-smoking ones!

Perhaps one of the most powerful experiences I had was on a train heading north in 1989.   I was heading to the Netherlands from Munich to visit a research partner.   I found an empty compartment, but a ways north a group of elderly women entered.  I was reading Der Spiegel and one of them asked me a question.   “Wie bitte?” I replied (“Excuse me?”)    She repeated it, it was something about the train.  I explained I was an American and didn’t know.

She complimented my German and asked what I was doing in Germany.   I said I was working on research (at that point comparing German and Dutch foreign policy).    At some point we were talking about Germany in the world and they started talking about the war.    It was amazing.   I heard stories how one hid in a haystack to avoid being raped by Russians, another talked about how her brother had been active in the Hitler youth “and never really recovered.”    The talked about difficulties of the war and its aftermath.

One mentioned the holocaust; all shook their heads.   I asked “Did people know what was happening.”   The four chatty women went silent.   One finally said, “no, but it was a choice.   We could have known.   We should have.”   The others agreed, and talked about how Jewish people disappeared.    They heard rumors.   But it was war, it was easy to say we have to support the troops and the fatherland, Germans could never do anything so evil.     The conversation continued until they had to disembark in Dortmund.    One woman grabbed my arm as she left and said “I’ve never talked so frankly about those years with anyone, not even my own children.”   I thanked her and wished her well.

First, at that point I realized that learning a foreign language had been priceless.   I had heard first hand the experiences of people who had lived history – the side we usually don’t hear, from people who usually don’t want to talk about it.    I sometimes think of that as I ride on the 21st century high speed ICE trains where compartments have given way to “airline” seating.

1989 was a dramatic year.   I spent a lot of time that summer interviewing members of political parties including a young upcoming Horst Seehofer, who is now Minister President of Bavaria.   I interviewed academics.   I asked about the possibility of German unification and was told by everyone it would not come fro a long time, if ever.   Maybe after a long period of American-Soviet reconciliation.   The dramatic events that would change the world would begin just weeks later, but no one saw it coming.

The highlight was early August.   I had an interview with Dr. Michael Staack at the Freie Universitaet in Berlin.   Should I keep it?   He was (and remains) prestigious, but it cost 50 extra D-Marks to cross through East Germany into East Berlin.  Would it be worth it?   I decided to go.   En route zipping through the East I was at the window the whole time.   I’m seeing real existing communism!   Tiny cars puttering about, houses with antennas, train stations looking a bit run down.   It wasn’t a hell hole, but it clearly wasn’t vibrant.   On the way back it was 95 degrees and we went through the industrial region – Bitterfeld, Wittenberg, etc.   Huge factories belting soot into the sky – towns where people had to wipe soot off the windshields of their cars like we do snow.   The train had no A/C but we closed the windows – stifling heat was better than adding the soot from the air.

I got to walk through East Berlin that trip.   I crossed at Friedrichsstrasse, enduring two and a half hours of lines before getting into the city.   I had gone from the hussle and bustle of vibrant West Germany to a city that seemed like a different world.   The historic buildings were magnificant, but the traffic light, the cars miniscule, and it seemed almost sleepy.   I had lunch at a cafeteria, then a beer, later a bland ice cream sundae.   I went to the central store, which bragged the best merchandise in the East (since it was visited by anyone who crossed to Berlin).   It had nothing worth buying, I got some cheap post cards.

Now a “Kaufhof” stands where the central store used to be, on Alexanderplatz. It’s been completely rebuilt and now has everything a consumer could want.

I walked Unter den Linden, the historic boulevard over to the eastern end of the Brandenburg gate.  I saw people in the West on a platform looking over to the East.   I had been there the day before.   So close, and yet a world away.   It was then I realized how insane the division of Germany was, how painful the Wall was for Berliners, and how Communism was an obvious failure.   “Das ist Wahnsinn,” I muttered, “es muss geaendert werden.”  This is crazy, it has to be changed.

I am so glad I made that trip.   A few months later I had tears running down my cheeks in my Minneapolis apartment as I watched on a small TV the events unfold as the Wall started to come down.   The story of how it happened is amazing too. I’ve visited Berlin many times since then, watching the city transform itself at an unbelievable pace.

Unter den Linden, the famous boulevard in former East Berlin

Hopefully I’ll find time to reflect on that and integrate my past experiences in this blog over the next couple weeks.   Germany is a different country than it was.   United, with hundreds of cable and satellite television channels, an economic and political leader of Europe and one of the stronger economies in the industrialized West.    The best part is that I can share my thoughts, experiences and expertise with students, many of whom will be out of the country for the first time!

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The Materialist Illusion

We live in a world of matter and energy (though as Einstein demonstrated, the two are really the same).  Matter and energy are at base particles, though the term particle is a bit misleading.   It isn’t like there are minuscule chunks of stuff out there, it’s more like there are ripples in various fields, and those ripples create what we experience as reality.   The current thinking is that the only reason our material world has weight is because of ripples in what is called the Higgs field.  The Large Hadron Collider at CERN is trying to find a Higgs boson (particle) that would prove the existence of this field.

So right at the start the material world isn’t what it seems to be; we’re clearly perceiving it because we’re made of the same stuff and experiencing it with brains that translate how we interact with the ripples in various fields into sensations.

All of this is to foreshadow my real topic: the importance of education.   In discussion on yesterday’s post it was suggested that students forgo college and work hard in order to make money.  I noted that on average college grads earn $1 million more during their life than non-grads, and usually at jobs that are more comfortable.   One person pointed out that students can amass debt during college.   I’ve long thought that unless you get into a really top name school where contacts and connections are abundant, it’s not worth paying a lot to go to a fancy private college.   In fact, at the top schools well qualified applicants will always get substantial scholarships if they have need (and often even if they don’t).  It’s the second and third tier privates where can cause you to amass over $100,000 of debt in four years.

That’s one reason I choose to teach at a public liberal arts school.   The goal is to provide a quality liberal arts education rivaling the expensive private schools at a much lower price.   Kiplinger’s put us in their top 100 colleges in terms of value — you get a good liberal arts education without high debt.   Even out of state tuition is manageable.

That gets harder as state funding gets cut (it now pays about 40% of the costs, so we’re more private than public).  And we lack the resources, pay rates, beautiful grounds and sofas in the hallways with state of the art classroom equipment that nearby privates like Colby, Bowdoin or Bates enjoy.    I don’t get resources and time to do much research, teaching is the focus.    Yet that is gratifying, I’d much rather teach than research.

However, my goal in teaching is only partially to get students to understand how political scientists analyze world affairs and comparative politics.   Only a small number of students will go on to graduate school, a few will work in fields involving foreign affairs, but many will end up with a degree designed to get their foot in the door and be able to advance in fields outside of political science or international relations.   Where once college was an elitist institution where you groomed students to follow in your disciplinary field, now it’s mass education designed to give students the capacity to better understand the world, develop critical skills, learn to read and write more effectively and be prepared for how fast jobs and opportunities shift.

The stated goal is to promote “life long learning.”   Practically that means to help students learn to break out of the cultural hypnosis that so often captures people.   One of those spells is the idea that somehow happiness comes from material prosperity.   That if you can get rich, you’ve succeeded.    Or as Dennis DeYoung put it with Styx in 1977: “Don’t be fooled by the radio, the TV or the magazine; they’ll show you photographs of how your life should be, but they’re just someone else’s fantasy.”

Pressure is put on students by parents, peers and themselves to look at life in starkly materialist terms: how much money will I make, what will I own?   One student back in Minnesota came to me when I was a TA and said her dad didn’t want her to go to Spain for a year because of what it would mean for her earning potential in her prime years (apparently he charted out what missing a year would mean).   I told her that was insane, that what she’d gain from going to Spain would be invaluable for her life, and now she can afford to do it.    She told her dad what I said (though she promoted me to professor in her story) and surprisingly he backed down, “well, if your professor says its worthwhile, then go.”

Now one could argue that one doesn’t need college to become a life long learner.  Indeed, no matter what you think of the politics of Malcolm X, the story of how he educated himself — learning words and history while in prison — is powerful.   If one truly wants to learn, one can.   My experience is that most people don’t.   It’s not that they don’t like learning, but they don’t know how much knowledge and understanding enriches a life.  Even Malcolm probably wouldn’t have taken the time if he hadn’t been in prison, cut away from his life of what had been petty crime to that point.

Part of teaching is to get students to see that.   One time after a unit on the Cambodian genocide a student was so shocked by what happened that he took a job the next summer to teach English in Cambodia.   More often students talk about how what they learned changed how they look at the world, causing them to see both their future and their goals in a different light.   That’s what college should be about —  four years where your main job is to learn about the world and its mysteries from science, literature, how societies function, philosophy, world religions, and diverse cultures and countries.   You can’t do all of that in four years, but if you get students on the right track they’ll want to keep learning as they go on — that’s the goal.

Ultimately if this world is made up of nothing but ripples in fields, life is transient and brief.  Moreover, we don’t know what it is – it takes as much a leap of faith to say that the material stuff is all that is and once dead we’re simply gone as it does to say that something spiritual carries on.   Our lack of knowledge makes both claims equally plausible.   The fact that there is something rather than nothing causes me to think it likely there is something beyond this brief material existence, but who knows?

And if there is something important about living, it can’t just be acquiring material stuff.   We need it, but at some level once we are able to survive that isn’t the sole meaning of existence, nor does it seem to bring growing pleasure.    Someone who gets used to the luxuries of a millionaire’s life style probably enjoys them no more than how a middle class worker enjoys his or her material pleasures.   Once you get most of the hotels playing monopoly the game gets boring.

People choose distractions – television, sports, celebrity gossip, the lifestyles of the rich and famous, religious fervor, ideological fervor, anything to help push aside the emptiness that an unexamined life yields.    Education and exploring the richness of the world’s art, music, literature, science, cultures, etc. opens up avenues that enhance ones’ personal journey and spiritual reflections.   We may not end up with the answers, but the journey becomes exciting and exhilarating on a deeper level.   And isn’t the journey what it’s all about?   After all, the final destination is the same for all of us.

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On Nothing Particular

At a recent G20 meeting

Today’s blog entry is about nothing particular, just some snippets and thoughts.   First, I love the above picture making the rounds on facebook.   The North Americans (Canadian Prime Minister Harper and President Obama) ignore or avert their eyes from the woman bending down to get some fallen documents, while Berlusconi and especially Sarkozy unabashedly enjoy the view.

I showed my class this after finishing a power point.   I also added this joke on cultural differences:  The difference between heaven and hell: in heaven the Italians are the cooks, the French are the lovers, the Germans are the mechanics, the Swiss are the administrators and the British are the police. In hell the Italians are the administrators, the French are the mechanics, the British are the cooks, the Swiss are the lovers and the Germans are the police.

Another oft shared facebook graphic.   Unfortunately they don’t cite the source of the stats, but I’ve encountered these kind of numbers before so I am convinced they are accurate:

More Stats...

It occurs to me that what Occupy Wall Street has done is bring the real and undeniable shift of relative wealth from the middle class to the wealthiest Americans and has made it mainstream and well known.   In the past most Americans assumed wealth was more evenly distributed then it is, that class mobility was greater than it really is, and that the wealthy got to where they are by working hard and having good ideas.

It was probably true before the massive de-regulation starting in the 80s; wealth and income equality were greatest in the mid-seventies, and there was a thriving middle class.    De-regulation and lower tax rates are not the cause of the swing — globalization’s dynamic contributed to it as well.   But the public pretty much went on believing things were cool as consumerism raged and people simply stopped saving and went into debt to maintain their lifestyles.

Now people are waking up to what’s happened, and recognize that the ideal of hard work and initiative being the key to success is losing validity.  Even people not necessarily sympathetic to OWS are starting to absorb the data and recognize there is a problem.  We live in interesting times.

Geothermal working well!

In another front, so far our geothermal system is doing well.   We enjoyed AC all summer for the first time (Maine doesn’t need air conditioning, but it’s nice to have!), and it’s been effective and efficient.  The one problem is that it hasn’t done much to heat our water, meaning the boiler still turns on a lot for that.   That’s not a huge expense, but we want to figure out if we can use the hot water generated here to better connect to our domestic hot water supply.   The cost of running this system seems to be about $30 a month, though the coldest summer months have yet to arrive (though we were running dehumidifiers in the basement in the summer so they may have been part of the cost increase).

And it looks like this May I’ll lead a travel course to Germany!

The course will focus on East and West Germany 20 years after unification — how has the country changed, what differences remain — likely with a week based in Munich and a week in East Berlin.   It won’t be a large class like the Italy trips in recent years have been, and I’ll be the only faculty member (rather than the team of four for Italy).   But it’s in my area of specialty, and we’ll get a chance for some day trips to places like the Alps, Ludwig’s castles, Dachau, perhaps Weimar and Buchenwald, Wittenberg where Luther started the reformation, and Leipzig where the protests in the East really took off.   Berlin is always an amazing city to visit.

Finally, kudos to all the Mallett school families (K-3) who attended and participated in the Harvest dinner Wednesday.  I baked some European brown bread and buttery pan rolls, but the variety and quality of the food was unbelievable!  Turkey, potatoes, pasta, salads, deserts…and despite well over 100 people in attendance, we didn’t run out of food!   Being involved in the PTA this year (I’m chair of the fundraising committee) is fun, especially since we have a new school — the old 80 year Mallett closed and the new one opened this fall.

The new Mallett school!

The school is superb — big classrooms, nice common areas, a good library and modern equipment.    It was built beside where the old one stood so construction could be underway even while the kids were still attending the old one.   That made last year a bit messy in terms of drop offs, pick ups, noise and the like.   But it was worth it!  Having kids in third grade and Kindergarten there, it’s fun to be active in that community!

So no particular theme today, just some end of the week odds and ends!

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Martin Luther’s Impact

This is another post inspired by my honors first year seminar, “Explorations of the Western Canon.”  So far we’ve engaged the “age of religion” from Augustine to Aquinas, as well as humanism such as Petrarch, Dante, Boccaccio and Erasmus.    The Church reconciled the challenge from Aristotle by making him an authority, and embracing “faith and reason.”   Yet by making the material world now something worthy of consideration, they opened a Pandora’s box.

Nowhere was this more true in Italy.   Thanks to double entry bookkeeping and connections across the continent, the Medici family in Florence became the bankers to Europe, bringing lots of money into an already prosperous Florence, Italy.   With this money came a shift towards realism.   Rediscovering the classics led people to desire the good things – better clothes, homes and food.  Life increasingly became defined by the material rather than the spiritual, humanism gave way to the realism of scholars such as Niccolo Machiavelli (1469 – 1527).

The Church fell into this head first.   After a crisis of a divided papacy in the 1300s, the Church by the 1400s was corrupt, led often by Popes who killed rivals, had illegitimate children, and cared little about the Christian faith.   As corruption grew, disagreements with Christians north in the so-called “Holy Roman Empire” intensified.   The pious in the north saw what was happening in Rome, bristled at efforts to control them, and started to question whether or not devotion to God required devotion to the Church.

By 1517 this was a powderkeg.   Ideas from people like the Dutch humanist Erasmus, who wanted to reform the church (but would oppose breaking from it) could be passed along more easily than ever, thanks to the printing press.   Discontent grew, especially as Rome undertook a major new project: to rebuild St. Peter’s basilica and have earthly splendor to rival it’s claim of spiritual authority.   Should not the center of God’s home on earth demonstrate that glory with the most spectacular structures in the world?

That rebuilding gives us what we see today when we visit the Vatican and St. Peter’s — a grand cathedral, an ornate square, and a sense of majesty that overwhelms both the faithful and non-Catholics.   Yet building this monument to the Church and papal authority was not cheap.   They had to outshine every other cathedral and square in Europe; this had to be the centerpiece of western civilization.   The church had to raise money.

Luckily the printing press helped.  The Pope had often given something called an ‘indulgence’ to people who had done great favors for the church.  It amounted to time off from purgatory, the place where you worked off your sins before being admitted to heaven.   To the average materialist of the era, this meant license to sin a bit — pay the church and you can break God’s laws, at least a little.

Up in the more pious north in the German town of Wittenberg, an Old Testament Professor at the Church University was appalled at the practice, especially when an unscrupulous guy by the name of Tetzel came with a printing press ready to raise money for the Church (and take his own middle man’s share).

This professor, Martin Luther (1483 – 1546), was not your average monk.   Not only was he devout, but he lived in constant terror that he wasn’t really saved.   He feared that his belief was motivated by fear rather than love, and this would lead God to hate him.  He would go to confession sometimes ten or more times a day (no doubt irritating some of his colleagues).   When he heard what Tetzel and the Church were doing he was enraged.  If people think they can buy a right to sin they are likely damning themselves by showing disdain for God.  The Church was leading the faithful to Satan, he believed.

Angered, he wrote a list of 95 complaints against the Church, in Latin, and on October 31, 1517 hung them on the equivalent of the university bulletin board — the church door.   At that time he didn’t plan to lead a revolt, but after some colleagues took his complaints, translated them to German, and then used the printing press to spread them, the powderkeg exploded.   This gave people the rationale to break with the political authority of the church.

It also solved Luther’s crisis of faith.   When the church came back and demanded he recant and threaten excommunication (a threat they made good on), Luther had a revelation.   God said he was saved if he believed; he should trust God’s word.   The Church had made it difficult to see that by its rules, rituals and claim to mediate between man and God.   For Luther, one could have a personal connection to God.   For him this made the Pope the anti-Christ, trying to intervene in his relationship with Christ.

Luther thus stepped up his attacks on the Church and became the leader of a revolt against over a millennium of Roman Catholic authority.   Others such as John Calvin (1509-1564) would develop other alternatives to papal authority as the protestants (those protesting Church authority) rose.   Europe would be enmeshed in war and chaos for the next 130 years as the reformation spread, people sided either against or for the Church, and the Church undertook a major effort to reform itself and end the corruption that helped motivate the revolt.

When the dust settled in 1648 Europe entered a new era.   They created a new political entity, the sovereign state, to replace the old authority structure relying on tradition and the church.   The political power of the church collapsed.  Even in places remaining loyal to the Church, like France, Spain and the Hapsburg empire in Austria, political power was now clearly in the hands of local rulers.    The Church was increasingly relegated to attend to spiritual rather than material issues in a Europe becoming less spiritual as time passed.

Martin Luther no more caused the reformation than the assassination of Franz Ferdinand caused World War I.   His actions ignited a powderkeg that would have gone off sooner or later — dissent and dissatisfaction with Rome had reached a point that the system was doomed.   Luther happened to provide the spark.

This also marked the end of an era.   It was not only the end of Catholic dominance in the West, but also of the marriage of faith and humanism exemplified by Petrarch, Dante and even Erasmus.    While Luther himself distrusted reason and preached a more Augustinian emphasis on faith, the lack of a clear authority opened up paths to question knowledge about the world without risking heresy.   During the wars of reformation Aristotelian scholasticism would give way to Francis Bacon’s scientific method (1608), Galileo would challenge the Church’s sole capacity to interpret scripture (1615 – letter to Grand Duchess Christina), and we would move from the age of faith to the age of reason.   The world would never be the same.

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