Tag Archives: liberal arts

Final American history 2016


Siege of Constantinople: The capture of Constantinople “blocked” the Silk Road.


The 95 Theses: The Reformation set off religious wars.


The Three Sisters: Europeans wanted Native American land


I had the dubious distinction of teaching American history, Pre-Columbus to 1800 in the fall quarter (the Pacific Northwest is on the quarter system; courses are 5 credits per, and 3 courses is a full load for 10 weeks). In my syllabus, the election fell on the week we were discussing the Federalist papers and the formation of the Constitution. Lucky me, to have to explain the Electoral College on election night. This quarter, this year, this century thus far: all hot messes. I find it more and more difficult to teach the history of the US when I feel as though we are in very real danger of witnessing the end of the Republic.

Perhaps the most chilling aspects of this election cycle were the triumph of propaganda on television news and on the Internet and the vehemence of the propagandists’ steadfast followers. From my perspective, this unfortunate mix of ignorance and manipulation will only get worse when the children affected by the “No Child Left Behind” testing frenzy and other politicization of education reach voting age (very soon). My students who are directly out of high school (or still in high school and attending community college through Washington State’s “Running Start” program), show an alarming inability to think independently or critically. They have been tested into obedience. Since kindergarten, this generation has been told that there are correct and quantifiable answers for everything.

The liberal arts are an antidote to that kind of rigid thinking. Since I am a Kool-Aid swilling member of the cult of liberal arts and critical thinking, I could not let my students leave my class with the same level of zombiedom they entered with. (If I left the class for a moment to go to the loo or deal with an interruption, they were perfectly quiet when I returned. It is spooky and unnatural.) So, I wrote the final exam for my course with this liberal arts sensitivity in mind. I will receive the same answers as I would have if I had phrased the questions in the usual history speak, but I made it much harder by requiring independent judgment and freedom of thought. Also, to complete the exam, the students need to employ more than just critical thinking, narrative history method, and study habits. The formula requires thinking more suited to the physical sciences (and law) than the liberal arts. In essence, they have to recognize a faulty equation, fix it, and solve for two variables. Yes, My history exam is algebraic. Math is a liberal art. (So there, troll who laughed at my liberal arts education and told me to pick up a science book—the physical sciences ARE the liberal arts, ye wee numpty.)

I welcome feedback in the form of constructive criticism, reasoned and civil discourse, honest and helpful suggestions, and penetrating questions. To head off the first criticism, I fully prepared the students for this from day one and held two review sessions in which I gave them the answers. We also had mini listening and reading workshops during the quarter. My course is designed as Atlantic history integrating social, political, intellectual, environmental, and cultural history. I “race” and “gender” the master narrative and count Native American tribes as sovereign nations in commerce with Europeans.


The Fall Line dictated the size of any agricultural labor force.


Racial construction created an easily identifiable caste of unfree agricultural workers.



Final Exam

History 146: North America Pre-Columbus to 1800

Tacoma Community College

December 2016

Rather than give you a traditional final exam, I want you find the habit of questioning all assertions for logical consistency, historical accuracy, and intentional manipulation. This is now your civic duty. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.

As we have gone over in class and in the review on Dec. 1 in the final class of the quarter, please follow the instructions carefully, and then upload your answers to this page in one document file.


Much of the news coverage this autumn surrounding the election of 2016 was more akin to emotional assertion and opinion than factual reportage. The situation was so bad that the Oxford English Dictionary, the record of the English language, added the hyphenated word “post-truth” to the official lexicon. Transparency and effective journalism are necessary in order maintain an informed electorate. When opinionated emotion and supposition rule over fact-based reporting and reasoned discourse, democracy itself is in danger.

Too often, a non-expert on television seeks to end discourse with a classic logical fallacy, the appeal to authority. Especially for college students studying history, critical examinations of assertions of authority are necessary. The most common attempt to justify a position has been, “America was founded on the principle of _____________!” Fill in the blank, and this statement seems to carry a great deal of weight. But, as we have discussed many times in class, this statement is far from complete, is oversimplified, and is, in essence, incorrect, no matter how one fills in the blank. Which America? Which founding? Is there a principle or just an expedient method? The word “the” is most obviously problematic because there are certainly more than one “founding” principles.

Your assignment is to complete the statement, to fill in the blank, explain your choice, and connect it to the United States c. 1804. However, you must first change the statement so that it is accurate. “America” is a hemisphere, and, in the time period covered by History 146, parts of “America” were claimed by at least five European powers and thousands of Native American tribes. To fill in the blank, you will have to specify which America you mean. British North America? The Early American Republic? The Revolutionary Era? New England, the Middle Colonies, Tidewater, or the South? Jefferson’s America? Hamilton’s? You will also have to verify that “founded” is the correct verb. Is “coalesced” a more appropriate term? Also, was there actually a principle involved, or can you argue that a system of labor procurement was in play?

Similarly, if you answer using the ideas of the any of the Enlightenment “Founders,” please make sure you articulate the fact that the ideas swirling around both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were contradictory. If you answer the question for Jefferson, you need to acknowledge the Federalists and vice versa. If you answer with any freedom mentioned in these documents, be prepared to explain the history of that idea on this continent and/or in Europe or from Native Americans. One very large and flexible answer is “commerce”; one especially difficult answer is “hypocrisy.” Remember, Virginia and Massachusetts were two very different societies from the beginning, as were the Caribbean and Louisiana.

I expect you to construct the statement in two different ways and write at least four pages, double-spaced, 12-point Times or Times New Roman for each statement, about 1000 words per answer.

What I want is for you to pull on a thread in the history we have studied this quarter and explain how that subject contributed to the identity of the nation in 1800. In addition, you should be prepared to discuss certain aspects of correlation or opposition to the topic you pick. For example, many have suggested the answer with slavery. I think that is a good answer. You must give a short narrative history of slavery, explain why it answers the “founding” part of the question, and include a discussion of race formation. Without discussing race formation, you cannot give an accurate answer to the answer of how slavery was foundational. True, it was an economic system, but the social and political realities of race were solidly integrated into the national character by 1800 as much as the South relied on the economic benefits of a captive workforce. As we have discussed, there are many, many ways to complete the statement. Pick two, describe how each evolved, and explain why they are so important to the concept “America” as to be considered foundational.

An “A” answer would include:

  • An accurate reformulation of the statement “America was founded on the principle of ______________”;
  • A historically accurate answer (for example, “capitalism” is not historically accurate);
  • An accurate timeline (in terms of cause and effect, not an absolute date timeline) of the principle/institution/concept/activity you choose to explain;
  • A cogent explanation of how and why your answer was manifest in the politics, culture, social structure, or even geography of the United States, c. 1804;
  • A successful demonstration that you use a dictionary to look up words you do not know;
  • Evidence of hard work and engagement with the substance of the course;
  • A demonstration of critical and lateral thinking. Outside the box is good too. Just tie it all together in a killer conclusion.

You are NOT required (or permitted) to do any of the following:

  • Completely answer the question. That would be impossible as an undergraduate or in 4 pages.
  • Use any materials extraneous to the class. Use ONLY lecture/discussion notes, PowerPoints (up on Canvas), your textbook, and additional readings either handed out in class or posted on Canvas.
  • Use footnotes or citations. If you quote the Declaration of Independence or the Sermon on the Arabella, simply identify the document and the speaker. For example, “John Winthrop called the new society ‘a cittie upon a hill’ in his sermon on the Arabella.” No notes required.
  • Use the thinking of someone else. I want you to work your way through the answer yourself.
  • Panic. This is doable because you are smart and able.
  • Plagiarize. This is doable because you are fierce and competent.



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Filed under 2016 election, American history, Environment, Higher Education, Ideas, Intellectual History, Pedagogy, Resistance, teaching, Thinking, US Constitution

One Possible Outline for Reexamining Positive and Negative Liberty

If you're not lead cow, the view never changes.

If you’re not lead cow, the view never changes.

I am in the process of writing a new definition of positive and negative liberty as it applies to the the U.S.

I teach Kant every year. This time I decided to write a paper for my own assignment. Blame the broken foot for such pedantry. Kate

“Virtue never tested is no virtue at all.”
Billy Bragg

Thoughts on Kant, “What is Enlightenment?”

According to Kant, enlightenment and competence equate in the individual to the same thing. Following the age of majority, when one examines with inborn reason ideas previously imposed, one becomes competent. This is release from self-incurred tutelage, Kant’s definition of individual enlightenment. In his essay “What is Enlightenment?” the philosopher explains that a society can become enlightened when all barriers to individual competence are removed.

Despite the fact that it is human nature to think for oneself, people choose to think as they are told to out of fear and laziness. In essence, they happily accept their status as sheep under the guardianship of a shepherd. The most absurd situation occurs when such a guardian is him- or herself incompetent and unenlightened, simply mimicking the ideas of others. Ritual is passed down from high, and liturgy becomes mere repetition of words, devoid of any real meaning and exciting no passion or faith. Unchallenged faith is not worthy of its name.

Certain social conditions must exist before one can become competent; one cannot and should not dissent in every situation. A society needs rules in order to function. (Even kings are subject to the rules of grammar, e.g.) The enforcement of regulatory rules equitably creates a stable society in which a person has room to question all authority, even the logical basis of said rules. Strong centralized government is required to preserve external freedom so one can concentrate on exercising internal freedom of thought. One thinks only of security if security is not otherwise guaranteed.

Kant thus explains the difference between the use of private and public reason. In one’s daily discharge of duties and engagement in social coexistence, individuals must obey even if obedience conflicts with one’s own opinions. This is private reason. When one is not performing a social, cultural, occupational or other standardized duty and answers to no one, then the individual has a duty to question all authority and speak publicly about objections to doctrine. Obey, but disagree. Such disagreement on one’s own time is public reason. The scholar-teacher is obviously the exception; in her, the source of public and private reason occupies the same space and creates a duty to question all authority. This is called academic freedom.

Public reason presumes an a priori guarantee of freedom of speech maintained by a strong centralized government, what I call positive liberty or state enforced egalitarianism. Weak centralized government with a minimum of enforced rules, what I call negative liberty, fails to protect equitable freedom of speech. Rather, it encourages licentious behavior, the growth of petty dictatorships, and trampling of others’ rights. It is rule by the loudest or the biggest. Taken too far, negative liberty can devolve into anarchy just as positive liberty can devolve into dictatorship.

When addressing “What is Enlightenment?” Kant explains how individuals become enlightened and offers a calculus to determine whether a state is currently in an enlightened age or in an age of enlightenment. An Enlightened Age exists if all external barriers to critical thought are absent and each individual is capable of challenging and digesting for oneself all information on which he or she has previously been fed. It is the death of the intellectual fait accompli.

Kant concludes that that his society had the perfect government in the monarch Frederick for the enlightenment process to proceed. Frederick asked external obedience but not total control over internal thought. No monarch would tolerate consolidation of power in the hands of any other than the ruler’s. Conversely, in a republic, with its permissive growth of petty dictatorships, institutions may evolve that prevent the individual from rejecting tutelage. Kant did not, however, examine the historical likelihood of malevolent monarchs.

In essence, Kant describes a positive liberty society that refuses to foster consolidation of power in the hands of the few but is powerless to proscribe social dictatorship. When such conditions exist, even though their influence wanes, a society can be described only as an Age of Enlightenment, a transitional period moving toward the universal exercise of individual reason.

Kate Sampsell-Willmann

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Filed under Higher Education, Intellectual History, teach writing, teaching, Theory, Uncategorized

Curriculum as Text in Central Asia

Glyphs at Cholpon Ata. The site has not been mapped or excavated.

Glyphs at Cholpon Ata. The site has not been mapped or excavated.

Here in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, the curriculum of the American University of Central Asia provides and interesting lens through which to engage the wider higher-ed battles between liberal arts and STEM. AUCA is a liberal arts education that awards a Bachelor of Arts degree accredited through Bard College in New York, one of the most expansive of America’s liberal arts institution. Despite challenges from the Ministry of Education, which is dominated by bureaucrats educated in the Soviet system, AUCA is beginning to carve out an identity of its own in the liberal-arts-o-sphere. When even the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson’s institution designed to educate the yeoman farmer in the arts and sciences, tries to turns its back on the humanities, educators loyal to their non-technological disciplines begin to question what exactly it means to be educated in the American system of higher ed. As many of my colleagues lament, colleges and universities are more akin to corporately governed vocational schools rather than Petri dishes for the growth of ideas that might or might not earn a patent or land a 22-year old a six-figure salary the day after graduation. Should we educate or should we train?

Kyrgyzstan is an appallingly impoverished nation. Much of its poverty is directly linked to the corruption that suffuses nearly every social transaction. Professors are paid so meagerly that students must pay a fee to his or her teacher to be allowed to use a government provided and woefully outdated textbook. Except for AUCA, every university in this nation sells its degrees. Literally. Student do not earn grades, they buy them. AUCA has its own problems with academic standards—some faculty members give grades based on the fact that an assignment was completed without checking for plagiarism or even whether the student answered the question—but no one buys or sells a grade here. We hope that producing educated and able graduates (as opposed to corrupt degree holders) will help undermine the culture of corruption in government, which might, eventually, help stem the systemic cash quid pro quo. But, like any institution, freshmen enter the university and major in disciplines that will help them get jobs. The rotting social infrastructure of Kyrgyzstan controls what courses are offered because the number of students opting for a specific course dictates whether the course will be staffed. The humanities are low on the list, but surprisingly, the social sciences are quite popular.

Despite its flaws, AUCA is easily the best university in Central Asia. We have a computer science department but no school of engineering. AUCA gives degrees in psychology but none in the physical sciences or mathematics. Because Kyrgyzstan’s main source of income derives from international aid, sociology is a very attractive discipline. Scholars who wish to do research here—be it medical, military, agricultural, or demographic—need people who can find their way through complicated grant applications and who can support field reports with statistics in order to ask for more money. This is perhaps the most extreme and ironic example of what happens when a university trains without truly educating. In the short term, the best jobs are outside Kyrgyzstan or in a frenzied NGO market that lacks oversight and often shows very few or no lasting results.

The international aid community determines AUCA’s curriculum; we are training for an economy that is driven by external forces, forces that might lose interest when the war in Afghanistan ends and the U.S. closes the Manas Transport Center in 2014 or if the Peace Corps is replaced with UN blue helmets in the case of more and bloodier ethnic conflict. Because of ethnic conflict, anthropology is a big draw. Since indigenous populations are of interest to folks like the UN and WHO, trained local anthropologists are in demand. Because the IMF and World Bank are prominent players, economics and international law are bigger draws than business administration. Money for state building in an region Balkanized by ethnic conflict flows like kummuz, so the political science department is titled International and Comparative Politics, basically IR instead of traditional poli sci, and is the most popular major. Journalism is disproportionately well funded because Kyrgyzstan is a (albeit corrupt) democracy and supports more free speech than any other former Soviet Republic. However, most of the journalism majors go into advertising or marketing. In a country with a GDP of just under $1000, marketing probably does not have the longevity as a career that a graduate might desire.

We ivory tower types who believe in the practical and esoteric virtues of a true liberal arts education fight an uphill battle. The Bard diploma is a carrot that steers the ministry of education to allow required humanities and arts classes, but AUCA has no departments of literature or historical sciences. Archaeology and history lodge in the anthropology department. Museum studies is simply not taught. The American studies department (at the American University!) is taking no more students and is being dissolved. This year, AUCA instituted a department of general education to provide what most U.S. institutions call basic liberal arts courses. History and art history will have squatters’ right there.

Soviet history is crumbling.

Soviet history is crumbling.

Dungan Mosque, some cultural sites are preserved, but others are withering.

Dungan Mosque, some cultural sites are preserved, but others are withering.

19th-Century Building in Karakol, Issyk Kul Oblast

19th-Century Building in Karakol, Issyk Kul Oblast

Until this semester, I held the only Ph.D. in American history in Kyrgyzstan and the only history Ph.D. in the nation that did not come from Soviet Moscow. Now, I am trying to build a history department in a country that desperately needs historians, museum professionals, archaeologists, cultural conservationists, and art historians. But, since foreign money is not coming in from organizations like UNESCO, this nation that straddles the Silk Road is quickly losing its historical identity. No one is being trained in historical research or conservation. When the babushka griots and veterans of the Great Patriotic War disappear, so will the memories of a Soviet Kyrgyzstan.

Pre-Soviet Kyrgyzstan has already passed into oblivion, except as recorded by the invaders: Tsars, Mongols, Americans. With an exclusive focus on the problems of today, the context of why there is ethnic conflict will be lost. Soon, Kyrgyz resentment of Russian minorities could devolve into a skin-color-based hatred mirroring the United States’ own contribution to racial othering. “Why are there white people here? They invaded and so must be the enemy.” Relocation in a multiethnic Soviet Union will not hold water as an explanation, especially since in these very hard economic times many are waxing nostalgic about the stability offered by the USSR. Kruschev is almost a folk hero because everyone had a job and enough to eat, and his regime, unlike Stalin’s, did not march people into the forest and shoot them.

If one peruses the help wanted posts for holders of humanities or social science Ph.D.s anywhere in the world, the pickings are slim. In this nation, which is flush with do-gooder NGO money but in which very little actually gets done, there is a true need for the arts, humanities, and social sciences. If culture and cultural history matters at all beyond worshipping the god of capitalism, we must train historians, anthropologists, art historians, and artists. All things beyond a superficial comfort that make life worth living will wither and die, much as the Soviet state prophetically did.

But, as goes American money, so goes the world.


Filed under #bishkek, Expat life, Higher Education, Intellectual History