Friday, March 20, 2015

Richard Maxwell Brown, 1927-2014

Richard Maxwell Brown, who recently passed away in his mid-80s, was a mentor to me in many ways.  Dr. Brown (he became "Dick" only once I had earned my Ph.D.) was my dissertation adviser.  He was a very active and supportive adviser who always made time for my meandering monologues on my research, and he wrote countless letters of reference for me.  He was a giant in the history of interpersonal violence, so his backing was critical in whatever success my dissertation and the book it was based on achieved.

More than that, though, Dr. Brown (I still can't quite bring myself to think of him as "Dick") modeled what it meant to be a scholar.  He had a ferocious work ethic, no doubt honed during his Dakota boyhood, and was humble and eager to help others, his very impressive list of publications and other accomplishments notwithstanding.  More than that, though, he had a great enthusiasm for learning.  There's a popular misconception that a historian is someone who knows everything.  Dr. Brown knew a lot  He once complained that he was beginning to forget the details from some of the books he had read forty years ago.  But what really set him apart was his unstinting curiosity.  I guess that's where his humility came in handy.  Rather than trying to prove what he already knew, Dr. Brown was always interested in exploring what he didn't know.  He showed me that history, like the human prospect itself, is not a field to be mastered, but a fascinating puzzle to be explored.

Thank you for everything, Dr. Brown, for a life well lived.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Balancing Individual Freedom and Collective Responsibility

I just finished reading a set of posts from my students in courses on the history of the U.S. family on the tensions between individual freedom and collective responsibilities.  One of the great parts of teaching at PSU is that the students have such varied backgrounds in terms of ethnicity, age, gender, and life circumstances.  Many of them, particularly the women, speak of balancing family and school, are coming back to school after being away for some time and find themselves balancing their personal interests and making a good living for their families.

The title of my own book on the history of the family is subtitled From Obligation to Freedom, and in it I suggest that we have moved too far toward freedom and away from obligation  But my students remind me, often by example, that in fact most people remain deeply committed to their families, much more so than popular culture suggests.  They also remind me that although most women remain focused on their families, that a healthy dose of individualism can make one a better life partner and parent and friend.

For myself, raised to focus on individual achievement, surrendering a goodly chunk of my personal freedom for the well being of others has been a great--if at times terrifying--blessing.  For others, raised to always defer personal goals, a focus on their own dreams can enrich not only their lives, but the lives of those whom they love.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Save the Date: Yo Ghana! Bash May 3

We are having our first big Yo Ghana! event May 3, 2:00 to 4:00 at the PSU Ballroom, a venue made possible by the generosity of the Association of African Students of PSU.

I'll provide more details in the coming weeks, but for now I'll just emphasize that we want this to be a fun event that doesn't cost you much money to enjoy.  Most of us have been to fundraisers where the ticket to get in is $50.00 or more, and the goal is then to get people inebriated so that they will write checks for larger amounts than they would have done if they were sober.  Or maybe to bid higher on silent-auction items than they really should have.

We decided that we wanted our event to be open to everyone interested in attending, so entry is $10.00 to $20.00 if you can afford it, and no charge if you can't.  There will be Ghanaian food and music and dancing, plus some speeches made and awards handed out.  There will be donation envelopes available and some fun Yo Ghana! shirts available to purchase.  But the board's main two goals for the event are these: 1) To say "thank you" to our Oregon teachers for their hard work; 2) To bring together a goodly fraction of the 1,000 Oregon students we work with, and their families, with the warm and extensive community of Ghanaians living in the Pacific Northwest.

You can reserve a place at:

We are hoping to have a big event for our Ghana teachers in the summer of 2016, by the way.

Thursday, February 26, 2015


I remember that one of my enduring beliefs or assumptions growing up was that nothing would ever change.  Time seemed to move at a glacial pace, particularly during school.

Now, it seems like the whole thing could fall apart at any moment, and I more or less assume that close friends are going to move away, divorce, or die without much warning.

Of course this is partly just a function of aging.  As time passes, it becomes more and more obvious that the ground beneath our feet is far from solid.  This is quite a revelation for those who grow up with a lot of comforts and safety, conditions that temporarily obscure, without actually delivering us from, the tenuous and contingent nature of life.

The biggest enemy we seem to face, though, is not the fluidity of life.  In fact facing up to the fluidity and vulnerability of our circumstances often reduces one's restlessness and dissatisfaction, can help us to take seriously the finite days and relationships that remain to us.  And as a species we have lived all but a millisecond of our collective history with the knowledge and awareness that we are not masters of our ships.  Hence we are well adapted to be at least reasonably at peace with uncertainty--that is, unless we actually insist on believing in our culture's promise that the purpose of life in fact is, as a member of Spinal Tap puts it, "to have a good time, all the time."

Friday, February 20, 2015

Haidt on Liberals Versus Conservatives

Like many people, I had heard snatches of Jonathan Haidt on NPR.  Then I decided to listen to his TED Talk.  Then I decided to buy his popular book, The Righteous Mind.

Perhaps the entire key to Haidt's thesis can be encapsulated in the graphic to the right.  Haidt argues that of six sacred values, liberals put a great deal of emphasis on two and largely neglect three.  The six legs under the conservative stool, so to speak, tend to be of more equal diameter; they care much more about loyalty, respect for authority, and sanctity than liberals do, but they also value caring and liberty (though they often express these moral values differently from liberals).

Not only that, but research indicates that conservatives are less likely to misjudge liberals than vice versa.  In fact I often notice this among my friends and family.  Conservatives tend to view liberals as misguided and naive--though there are certainly many radio talk-show hosts who go far beyond that characterization.  Liberals often view conservatives as selfish, even evil.

Haidt suggests that we would understand each other much better if we saw each other as having different moral priorities rather than assuming or asserting that the other side is simply without morals.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Midlife Crises and Opportunities

The image to the right captures the popular image of midlife crises, at least for men.  We hit a "certain age," figure out that life is threatening to pass us by, that we are running out of time, and then try to recapture our youth by buying a motorcycle or sports car, pondering turning in our wife for a younger model, or taking up sky-diving.  That sort of thing.

A recent article in the Atlantic by Jonathan Rauch, though, suggests that the quality of life for many people actually improves after fifty.  Why is this?  As my own wife would put it, a lot of this has to do with "knowing your limitations."

 Rauch point out that by the time we hit our forties, it has become clear that we are going to fall short of reaching many of our hopes and dreams.  In fact adulthood up to that point could be described as a process of disillusion as it becomes more and more clear that life is not going to be as enchanting as we had hoped, that we are not going to become a professional athlete, fabulously wealthy or famous, or even rise to the top of our field.

At some point, Rauch argues, most of us come to realize that our expectations of life were unreasonable, and we ratchet our expectations down to more realistic levels.  We come to realize that our anger and resentment over what we don't have is in fact a bigger problem than what we don't have.  We realize that if we instead focus on what we can do, in fact there's a lot of exciting options out there that don't entail dating people half or age or taking up high-risk sports.  This process can also be understood simply as "wisdom," including the capacity to accept paradox and ambiguity while prizing relationships more than possessions and status.

Friday, February 6, 2015

In Praise of Portland City United

The photograph to the right is from last summer.  It captures something of the beauty of Peter's club team, Portland City United.  The guys just won a tournament, in a game in which the opposing team's coach seemed on the verge of a heart attack, but our guys aren't too wound up about it.  A couple of older boys who had just graduated from high school guest played, and we were missing some of our better players.  Everyone adjusted and worked well together and supported each other.

When our athletes are just starting out, they and their parents imagine great futures for them, playing in the English Premier League, or MLS, or at least going to a big college program.  As the years go by, the realization gradually sinks in, as one young man who during elementary school was most always the best player on the field, put it, "it's really hard" to succeed once you get to high school.  Part of standing out is positioning yourself to get on the "best" club team while at the same time garnering the optimal position or amount of playing time or exposure to college coaches.  I have noticed that most of the parents at the clubs who take themselves very seriously seem to have a chronic sense of dissatisfaction and restlessness.

And I've noticed over the years that many of the sons of such parents either quit the game or talk about how much they would like to.  It's too much pressures, hundreds of boys competing for one slot--or perhaps none on all.

What I've loved about Peter's four years at PCU is that his coaches and the club have put more emphasis on loving the game and supporting each other.  I suspect that the great majority of the young men pictured above will be playing soccer ten, twenty, even forty years from now, and will be fine teammates, too, on and off the pitch.