Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Jacksonville, Incubator of Greatness

Jacksonville is a lovely town, in every sense. I had never heard of Jacksonville or Illinois College when my wife, Elizabeth Tobin, was invited to visit as a candidate to be Dean of the College. Since I’ve been here in the Midwest, I have met many other people who have never heard of either, even in Chicago. Those who have heard of Jacksonville need geographical orientation to place it on their mental map: it’s west of Springfield. Lovely, but insignificant.

So it surprised me to read this sentence: “The chief centers of philosophic discourse in the Midwest in the second half of the nineteenth century were St. Louis and Jacksonville . . .” That’s how Paul Russell Anderson began an article in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society in 1941.

But it didn’t surprise me much. Jacksonville in the 19th century really was “the Athens of the Midwest”. In 1834, it was the largest city in Illinois. Jacksonville developed a treasure of institutions. Before the Civil War, when just a handful of women’s colleges had been founded in the US, Jacksonville had two. Leading educators of the deaf and the blind made these two state institutions in Jacksonville national models of progressive and well-run schools.

Jacksonville constructed a treasure of architectural history. The remarkably preserved homes in Jacksonville’s Historic District have been recognized by the National Register of Historic Places. There are hundreds of beautiful examples of over 30 architectural styles. Our city’s collective decision to invest in the historical recovery of the downtown demonstrated an understanding of the special value of our buildings.

Jacksonville encouraged a treasure of social organizations promoting knowledge, education and social justice. The Ladies Education Society began supporting college education for poor women in 1833, and it is now the oldest women’s organization in United States. In the same year that a pioneering women’s club was founded in New York, 1868, Jacksonville women founded the similarly named Sorosis, where thoughtful women still give papers every month. Men’s and women’s literary societies in town and at the colleges proliferated and survived until today.

When William Jennings Bryan ran for President in 1896, 1900 and 1908, and said he had been educated at Illinois College in Jacksonville, it was no surprise. Our local reputation has largely been forgotten. Jacksonville reached the peak of its renown around 1900. Business was still good in and around Jacksonville. Splendid homes were built, radiating out from the downtown square, which attracted customers from the surrounding counties. Jacksonville retained its regional magnetism for trade and industry through the world wars. But our population has been declining for over a century. The colleges and state institutions lost their national influence. Jacksonville gradually tumbled into lovely obscurity.

Jacksonville will never recover its national significance. But we can do a better job of remembering and celebrating our glorious past. It’s time to celebrate our local heritage and tell the world of our remarkable history. As my contribution to the recovery of Jacksonville’s illustrious history, I offer a few hundred local characters. “Jacksonville Characters” is an online list of short biographies of people who lived in Jacksonville. This list is as accurate as I could manage. The descriptions of each person’s life are based on a serious effort to find reliable information. Many names appear on this list because they or their families were mentioned in oral history interviews, stored in the Khalaf Al Habtoor Archives at Illinois College, a trove of personal stories and Jacksonville history.

Then one name led to another. Occasionally I would burrow into some part of Jacksonville’s past and come up with names and accomplishments that have been forgotten. This list is not an equal representation of Jacksonville. As much as I tried to unearth the biographies of some lesser known names, every source of information in media, in archives, and on the internet favors the prominent, the wealthy, and the educated.

You can see this list by going to the Illinois College website:  http://www.ic.edu/RelId/635649/ISvars/default/Jacksonville_Characters.htm
Check out the achievements of Professor Hiram K. Jones and Dr. Anne McFarland Sharpe. Look up ice cream shops like Merrigan’s and industrial families like the Capps. Search for the family who began the Ayers Bank and those who were involved in its collapse in 1932. Find the pioneering educators who taught young women science and languages at the Jacksonville Female Academy beginning in 1830.

Nearly every day I use this list and add to it. Every few months, the version on our website will be refreshed with additional names. I welcome new or corrected information about anyone here or suggestions about any other Jacksonville character. I can be reached at shochsta@mail.ic.edu.

Seeking information about one Jacksonville person after another has demonstrated to me their many accomplishments and personal strengths – I call them characters with respect. I believe this list also demonstrates the character of Jacksonville, an incubator of greatness since its founding in 1825. It’s time that everyone heard of us.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 12, 2015

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

There’s Nothing New About Political Correctness

I took a student’s essay to bed last night. But I shouldn’t tell her that when I give it back to her.

That I had to work late on Sunday night might surprise those Americans who think “teachers”, especially “college professors”, have an easy life. It would not surprise the conservative politicians, who know better, but encourage that belief as much as they can anyway. But that’s a different essay.

My student might be amused to think I was reading her writing in my pajamas, or she might be annoyed that I might be dozing over her work, or she might be awestruck by how hard I was working. But the connection of bed and her and me in one sentence might trigger a different reaction, an uncertainty about what I really meant, a fear that I might be flirting, and a loss of trust in my academic role.

Among 20-year old American women, raised on the most lurid narratives that the private media can think up, that would not be such a leap. Years of weekly headlines about some teacher somewhere in the 50 states caught having sex with his students will already have raised question marks about male teachers.

So I shouldn’t say it. I can assure her that I took her work seriously without leaving any uncomfortable questions open. I can think carefully about every word I say. Political Correctness!” shouts the right. When being politically incorrect means frightening and perhaps misleading one of my students, for whom I am a major authority figure, why make that choice? When recognizing that precisely that kind of double speak has enforced some men’s sexual power and gives the rest of us a bad reputation, why choose that?

The whole political correctness chant, made up by the right as their major reaction to the human rights movements of the 1960s, is nonsense. Every human society advanced enough to have politics has rules about politically correct speech. I can say things in my classroom now that my own teachers would never have said, for fear of being labeled politically incorrect. They couldn’t reprimand a student for saying something disparaging about a black woman or a gay man, without concern that they would get in political trouble. Politicians were worried about talking too respectfully, too equally, about African Americans, women or homosexuals.

A racist and sexist society enforced these rules. I’m glad that the spectrum of political correctness has shifted in my lifetime. I have more freedom to speak the truth about history, and people with prejudices have less freedom to indulge them in public.

The real question was never whether there would be political correctness. It always has been “what kind?” Lately we have been hearing about new demands on our speech. Some students and some adults want teachers to issue disclaimers when we are about to say something that could be upsetting to some students. These notifications are called trigger warnings. At University of California at Santa Barbara, the Student Senate passed a resolution mandating such trigger warnings in syllabi, possibly for each class session, to alert those students who have suffered trauma, like sexual assault, that they may encounter upsetting material. The Oberlin College faculty guide about how to act in the newly aware classroom is lengthy, detailed, and guaranteed to make faculty uncomfortable. The list of subjects about which students should be warned has been growing much too rapidly: it now includes snakes, vomit, and skulls and skeletons (avoid Halloween!).

Conservatives have gleefully leaped on this scattered demand for trigger warnings to criticize the whole academic enterprise. Lindsey Burke at the Heritage Foundation said, “Issues like this are part of the reason students, parents and employers are increasingly questioning the value of a bachelor’s degree and even whether its time as a proxy of employability has passed.” Of course, it is not true that college education is “increasingly questioned”, except by those who are trying to discredit it.

Although I am in favor of carefully choosing my words, in and outside of class, I’m not in favor of trigger warnings. What’s the difference between the two situations I have outlined? For me the crucial distinction is that one interaction takes place in the classroom and one is personal. What we can say and ought to say to a class about our mutual subject is not the same as what we can say and ought to say to one of our students when we are speaking alone. I can tell the class “I love you”, but obviously not one student. I can describe in my course Holocaust events which might make students cry, as it often makes me cry. The point is not to upset them, but to show them what happened in the not-so-distant past, what its causes were, and how different kinds of people responded. If they are not upset, they are not paying attention.

But a student sitting in my office is a different kind of audience. I’ll take care not to bring up subjects with double meanings, that might maker her feel diminished or threatened. Life is upsetting enough without worrying that your teacher is hitting on you.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 5, 2015

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Let’s Kill the Unions

It’s been a bit more than 100 days since Republican Bruce Rauner became Governor of Illinois. Despite the enormous financial problems facing our state, he has yet to propose specific methods of dealing with our deficit and our debt. He has yet to propose any tax reform. But he has been very active on one of his pet projects – killing unions.

Rauner claims that union-negotiated salaries have caused our state’s financial crisis. He accused unions that represent public employees, such as firefighters, police and teachers, of manipulating elections by contributing to campaigns of elected officials. In his State of the State speech in February, Rauner said the state should ban political contributions by public employee unions.

His most significant action thus far has been to stop the payment of union dues by workers who are not members, but who benefit from union contracts, so-called “fair share” payments. Rauner’s anti-union policies may not get very far. His proposal that communities be allowed to create local “right-to-work zones” conflicts with federal labor laws, which only allow states to pass such laws. Unions have sued Rauner to prevent his “fair share” order, and the Republican comptroller has refused to put these fees into an escrow account pending a final decision.

Unions have been gradually losing public support as they have lost membership. From the 1930s through the 1960s, about two-thirds of Americans approved of labor unions in Gallup polls. That proportion has gradually fallen to barely over half in 2014. Since the 1960s, the proportion of workers in unions has fallen from one quarter to one tenth.

To those who believe that unions have too much power to influence government, here is a surprising statistic. For every dollar that labor unions and other public-interest groups spend on lobbying, large corporations and their associations spend $34. Of the 100 organizations that spend the most on lobbying, 95 represent business. The largest companies now have upwards of 100 lobbyists representing them. Lawmakers in Washington and in state capitals are besieged daily by lobbyists representing the interests of corporate America, not by union members.

The gains won by unions in wages and benefits over many decades raised the standard of living of all Americans. These gains also can raise costs. When teachers’ salaries go up, so do the costs of public schools. But paying teachers good salaries benefits our whole society by making this most important profession more attractive to the best students and by strengthening the middle class. Paying factory workers good salaries can raise the cost of automobiles and other goods, but the 20th-century gains in factory wages contributed to the strong American economy. As unions declined, workers’ wages stagnated, and the share of total income in the US that goes to the middle class has fallen from 53% to 46%. The loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs overseas is one of the causes of our economic problems.

Unions are democracy in action, created by the working poor to speak with their voice. Capitalists and governments fought them everywhere they grew. If threats of jail and loss of job were not enough, armed violence with the overwhelming power of the state was employed. The celebration of labor that happens across the world every year on May 1 came about due to the Haymarket incident in Chicago in 1886, itself the result of police shooting of striking workers. Every dictatorship of the left or right seeks to destroy the power of unions. Unions are much more democratic organizations than corporations, representing average Americans rather than wealthy stockholders and CEOs.

What is often said about democracy should also be said about unions: they are not the best we could imagine, but they are the best we have. For those who can’t afford to buy a seat at a party fundraiser, who can’t pay for a lobbyist, who can’t invite politicians out to eat or to play golf or fly a jet, no other form of collective power is more successful and more democratic.

The struggle between unions and business is about money and power: the boardroom or the workers. The essence of a democratic system, and its challenge, is to allow this struggle to take place peacefully, to insure that both sides follow the laws, to allow corporations and unions the freedom to compete.

That’s not good enough for conservatives like Rauner, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and every other Republican Party prominence. They don’t want a fair competition. They see nothing positive about unions and never discuss a fair fight. Their desire to destroy unions has not diminished as unions have declined in power – it has grown.

The wages of a typical Walmart worker qualify them for welfare. Walmart has fought unions for control of its workers with every legal and illegal tactic: billions are at stake. Walmart funds Republican politicians to support the fight against unions and to stall any raise in the minimum wage.

Listen to Bruce Rauner. He has not positioned himself at the Republican extreme, like Walker, Cruz, and many others. He must live with a Democratic legislature. But he hates unions like the CEO he used to be, who doesn’t want to hear what workers have to say and who is fighting them every day for money and power. If he has his way, our whole democracy will suffer.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, April 28, 2015