Wednesday, June 22, 2011


A true story. On the 24th of November, 1326, four horses entered the marketplace at Hereford, England, dragging behind them Hugh Despenser the Younger, recently convicted of treason, while the Queen, Isabella, and the assembled crowd of courtiers and commoners hooted and jeered. Already wearing a crown of nettles and disfigured by crude tattoos of verses concerning matters of retribution from the Old Testament, Despenser was stripped naked and “half-hanged” — that is, hoisted by a noose until semi-conscious — at which point they cut his genitals off. This was considered very fitting by all assembled since Despenser was known to have been the lover of the King, Edward II (himself to die the following year by means of a red-hot “trumpet” thrust into his anus, according to at least some accounts.) 

The writer Alison Weir recounts that Despenser then emitted a “ghastly, inhuman howl”, but his punishment was very far from over. Weir then picks up the account of a contemporary chronicler who wrote, “Then his belly was split open” – this while he remained conscious — “and his heart and entrials cut out...when the other parts of his body had been disposed of, Sir Hugh’s head was cut off and sent to London. His body was then hewn into quarters, which were sent to the four next largest cities in England.” You can see the event depicted, above. I bet nobody accused Isabella of being soft on crime.

Despenser was no saint. Weir speculates he may have raped the Queen. Certainly he had tried to bribe the French into killing her, as she was herself plotting against the King. All this is part of the point I'm trying to make, so bear with me.

Grisly though it was, Despenser's execution was kid’s stuff by Medieval standards. Consider, if you will, the words of the Dominican friar Bartolom√© de las Casas who recounted that Spanish conquistadors in the New World would “hang 13 natives at a time in honor of Christ Our Saviour and the 12 Apostles.  Straw was wrapped around their torn bodies and they were burned alive.  They took babies from their mothers’ breasts, grabbing them by their feet and smashing them against rocks.  They would cut an Indian’s hands and leave them dangling by a shred of skin and threw others to the dogs and thus were torn to pieces.”

Well, that’s (late) Medieval justice for you, a fact that Shakespeare was very much aware of when he had his hero Henry lay the following threat onto the governor of the French town of Harfleur in his great play Henry V.

    Therefore, you men of Harfleur,
    Take pity of your town and of your people,
    Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command;
    Whiles yet the cool and temperate wind of grace
    O'erblows the filthy and contagious clouds
    Of heady murder, spoil and villany.
    If not, why, in a moment look to see
    The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
    Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
    Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
    And their most reverend heads dash'd to the walls,
    Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
    Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
    Do break the clouds

It’s Shakespeare, yes, but historically accurate: Henry really did make a threat like this and the actual execution of such threats was commonplace throughout the Middle Ages. Indeed, the people of innumerable towns and cities have suffered similar fates from ancient times through to Nagasaki and beyond.  But this particular passage was excised in the 1944 Olivier film version: it wouldn’t do in 1944 to have a Shakespearean hero employing Gestapo methods against England's enemies even though at that very moment, the planes of Bomber Command were burning German cities and the people in them to the ground, night after night.

And what do all these people have in common? These crowds who cheered for the drawing and quartering of a homosexual? The medieval kings who ordered their men remorselessly to rape and murder their way through towns and villages? The conquistadors who actually did spit naked infants upon pikes?  Well, for one thing, they were all Christians, devout believers of utterly unshakable convictions. And, why not, really? In the Old Testament, Mr. Tough-on-Crime himself orders all manner of massacres and whatnot.  Yahweh is not merely vengeful and jealous but is also fiendishly diabolical in the manner of a James Bond villain. In 2 Kings 2, verses 23-24, He sends a couple of “she bears” to rip apart forty-two children for making fun of Elijah’s baldness. Do not mess with this cat. Seriously.

Am I saying that religion is the problem, that it “poisons everything” as a recent book put it? Certainly not. The claim that “religion poisons everything” is an empirical one, and until such time as we have studied religion in relation to, well, everything, we can’t possibly reach that conclusion. And there is, moreover, the undeniable fact that, in absolute terms, the secular (and in some cases aggressively irreligious) dictatorships of the 20th century: Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and Mao’s China, killed perhaps 100 million people between them. Indeed, Stalin, the foremost mass murderer in history, studied for the priesthood for only about four or five years so.

Here’s the catch, though. In absolute terms, the 20th century was undeniably the most violent in history. But there were also a lot more people to kill, and I am very far from convinced that, in relative terms, the 20th century was necessarily more violent than any of a number of centuries that preceded it.  For Americans, the death rate from their Civil War, fought amongst themselves in the 1860s, was about six times greater than World War Two; a Frenchman was more likely to die in the wars of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars than during the World Wars;  the average person living in early 16th century “Germany” during the Thirty Years War, was almost certainly more likely to die from violence than the average German living in the first half of the 20th century, and all these wars were fought amongst Christians. We could go on and on. Need I even begin to enumerate the catastrophic death toll of the Atlantic Slave trade?

Anyone who studies military history long enough eventually reaches the conclusion that there is basically nothing that people won’t do to one another. There is no act of betrayal or violence or cruelty so profane that people will not do it to their fellows in order to impose their will, and every human religion, doctrine, or philosophy can be and has been utilized to sanctify acts of unfathomable cruelty. But history also shows that people are often selfless, will sacrifice themselves for one another, and will die to defend the lives of otherwise defenseless people who they have never met and from whom they can earn no reward. As historians, we need to devote greater efforts to understanding what motivates actions such as these, in addition to understanding the everyday kindnesses, of which there are a multitude, that go unrecorded and unnoticed in the annals of history.

Saturday, June 11, 2011


One of the many, many irritants in my life is the music they play near the elevators in my apartment building. The radio station (yes, they still have those) that I am forced to listen to for a few minutes every morning describes itself as “the home of the best rock of the 70s and 80s”, by which they mean some of the worst music in the history of the world. I can do without “Highway to Hell” at any time. I certainly don’t need to hear it at 7:45 AM. Yesterday it was “Hotel California.” At 7:30 in the morning. I felt like I was the person in the song. If I were an aging hippy, and lived in a van, and were brain damaged from too many drugs, I might want to listen to the Eagles at 7:30 in the morning. But I’m not. So I don’t.

Some mornings, I catch the station between songs. But this only makes things worse, when the disk jockeys (yes, they still have those, too) are bantering. This station has three of them. You know the types: the one who always seems to be suppressing a laugh at his own joke; the one with the barking voice who sounds like he’s going to tell you that this FRIDAY, at the METRODOME, the first hundred FAMILIES to see MONSTER TRUCKS get a FREE 12-GAUGE; and then there’s the hapless female, who makes inane sexual innuendos at her own expense. She serves no other purpose on the show. When I get to Hell that’s what will be awaiting me. An eternity of listening to FM Whatever-Whatever, Home of the Hits.

In the winter, my morning ritual involves a short walk to the corner of the downtown intersection to catch a bus. I used to stop at Starbucks for an espresso, but the long lines, the fact that, after a while, I caught myself translating my own order into Italian (“doppio espresso”), and their diurnal selection of music just became too much.  The musical selection usually involved the latest CD by another in a litany of minimalist folk-rock females of modest talent who will one day be featured during a weepy montage sequence at the end of an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.  In Starbucks, you get the added bonus of listening to the counter-staff (who are supposed to be making your espresso) talking about the music. (“This is Morgana Wheatfield. She is, like, so cool. She’s, like, such a great poet.”)  People who work at Tim’s prefer the Eagles, I think.

Out the door, espresso in hand. Standing at the corner, waiting for my bus. My city has located all of its social services in the core. There are arguments for and against this, and for good historical reasons I get quite uneasy at the suggestion from some of my city’s quite clueless public officials that all such services and the people who use them should be “relocated to the east.”  Anyway, the very core of the city is a haven for small-time drug dealers. They’re there all day long, and everybody knows it. In an effort to get them to move, the owners of the building set up speakers and started playing classical music at quite a loud volume. The hope was that this would be so unendurable to the dealers that they would leave. This hasn’t worked but I suspect that, in six months or so, London will have the most erudite and cultured criminal element anywhere.

And then the bus arrives. I sit between two people wearing iPods and playing them at such a volume that I can hear every note. And usually the music sounds something like: “WAAGGHAH! AAAARAGHA! WOOOOO! BAY-BEE! WAAAAGHAHAGH!” and the people listening to it nod their heads and play drums on their knees while I’m trying to read a book. Add to that the following fact:  my city’s busses talk. Insert blasphemy of your choice here. Can I say it again? My city’s busses talk. The busses. Talk.  They announce the next stops. This is one thing on a subway, where the stops are blocks apart. It’s another on a bus, where they are fifty feet apart.

Silence. Please? May I have a moment without an endless cacophony of noise? Well, yes. Because then I get to class. It used to be, only a few years ago, that when I wanted to start lecturing I would have to tap the podium for some time to bring my students’ chattering to a close so that I could begin the process of crushing their youthful enthusiasm for learning. (“I'm teaching you to think critically. Now memorize this lecture: it's on the exam.”)

So, what has changed? Well, now when I enter the lecture hall there is silence. Because my students aren’t talking to one another. They’re “talking” to people who aren’t there. They’re sending text messages on a device that used to be used for speaking.  (
Some day there will be a class-action lawsuit against Blackberry and others by the all the people who got arthritis by the time they were forty because of the thousands of hours they spent typing with their thumbs. Mark my words. It will happen.) And they almost never stop, just like the people who get on the elevator in my building in the morning, who start texting in the ten-foot walk between their apartment door and the elevator. Like the people on the bus, texting where a decade ago they might have been reading a book. Like the woman out walking her dog the other day, texting while she was walking, who strayed onto my side of the path while my bicycle and I were barreling down onto her.  I nearly hit her.  Like the grown man, texting behind the wheel of his SUV, who nearly hit me while I was crossing an intersection. Like the boring couples I see in restaurants, texting while sitting directly across the table from one another. Like increasing numbers of colleagues at meetings. Well, they might have a point there.

But why, really? What is so important? Well, nothing, of course. We have no evidence that students are smarter or businesses more efficient or people happier because we can now all "talk" to everyone all the time. On the contrary. What is important is that our brains want it and want it all the time. Our brains evolved to do simple things. Find a nut. Get an endorphin hit. Find a berry. Get an endorphin hit. Trap a small rodent. Get an endorphin hit. Now it’s: get an e-mail. Endorphins. Get a text. Endorphins. Send a text. Endorphins. These behaviours are a literally addictive byproduct of a behavioural process that evolved for other purposes. And it’s just one more thing that’s making people dumber. Every minute they spend sending messages they don’t need to send is another they could have been doing something meaningful with the ever-decreasing number of minutes that they have left.

Students sometimes ask me, “What can I do to get ahead?” By this, I assume they mean, “What can I do to get ahead of my classmates?” It’s a fair question, because it’s a dog-eat-dog world where they’re going to be competing for smaller numbers of good jobs with increasing numbers of highly credentialed classmates. My advice? Leave the laptop at home and get a cell phone for emergencies only. Then encourage your classmates to get the newest Blackberry and bring their laptops to school. I predict a twenty-point spread in grades at the end of a twelve-month period. Try it and see if I’m not right.

Addendum, June 13th. Just finished reading a very good and profoundly startling book, Nicholas Carr's The Shallows in which the author argues that our cognitive equipment simply can't handle the amount of stimulus I talked about in this column and the last. The exigencies of modern life require mastery over a range of skills, but really learning something important requires concerted effort and concentration on one thing (or a small number of things) at a time. Modern communications technology, however, practically demands and usually receives shallow and superficial spurts of attention. It is making us stupider. In fact, I took time out from marking to write this paragraph. And you, presumably, took time out from something else to read it.

Sunday, June 5, 2011


A funny thing: about three years ago I arrived at work to discover that somebody had put a rhinoceros in my classroom. Nobody told me it was going to be there. I didn’t ask for it, either. I just showed up one day and there it was. It’s an enormously disruptive beast, and I spend a lot of time trying to cajole it into a corner. Believe me, I’ve complained. But whenever I do, I get told, “Well, Broad. Get with the times. We all have rhinoceroses in the classroom now. Adjust your teaching style. Deal with it. Work it into your lectures.”  Some say the problem is me.  “Maybe if you were more interesting, students would pay less attention to the rhinoceros.”  Relax. Deal with it. Adapt. Make the flying leap into Rhinoceros Age.

Actually, none of that happened. Instead, somebody decided it would be a great idea to install wireless Internet instead. Now half of the two-thirds of the students who show up for my lectures have something else to do while I’m trying to talk to them. Is that lecture about the Holocaust getting you down? Never fear – here’s a video of a panda bear sneezing. Update your Facebook status. Multiplayer Call of Duty awaits.

Well, we all used to fade out sometimes, didn’t we? I recall doodling and making to-do lists the odd time, and fighting to remain conscious against the sonorous drone of a handful of sonorous droners. But that’s not really the point. Good lecturers can compete with everyday classroom distractions. I personally can blow the student paper or an idle game of hangman out of the water, any day of the week. What I can’t do is compete with Youtube, Facebook, and Call of Duty. If I could do that, I’d create a website called, upload my lecturers, and be a multi-billionaire by the end of the year. They’d make a movie about me, with George Clooney in the starring role. We’ll call it The Asocial Network. But I can’t compete with those things, and for a simple reason: I’m not in the entertainment industry.

A few weeks ago, I had a “eureka” moment while a student was giving a presentation. I should haul out my laptop and phone and start surfing the web and texting while this student is talking, I thought. And then, when the student appeals his grade on the grounds that I wasn’t paying attention, I’ll tell the Powers That Be, “Well - that student should have just incorporated my web surfing and texting into his presentation.”  Nonsense, isn’t it? And yet another example of the double standard (or perhaps lack of standards): we profess to be preparing our students for their professional lives, but we permit them to behave in ways that would be considered highly unprofessional if we were to do it.

Oh, puh-leeze, I can heard the digerati saying. This discussion is so 2007. This generation of students “lives on the Internet” and they communicate by texting. You can’t ask them to stop. 

Oh, yes we can.  Can we all say it together, like at an Obama rally? Yes. We. Can. We ask students to do things they don’t want to do all the time, like write essays, take tests, and read books. Or does anyone think that, if it weren’t for university, they’d be quizzing each other on Plato’s Republic and writing papers about it?

Okay, I admit it. I’m getting on. I blinked and suddenly I was middle-aged fogey. “That lecture was sick!” one of my students said after class a few weeks back. Only later did I learn that “sick” means “good.” And I was just getting used to “bad” being “good.” Now it turns out its bad again.

So let me put the question another way. What have we wrought? PowerPoint. WebCT. E-mail that effectively renders our office door open 24/7. Wired classrooms. Digital databases. WikiLearning. Educational podcasts. Flat-panel displays mounted on nearly every square inch of empty wall space. Tweeting to students, sometimes from the front of the lecture hall. Clickers. And for all that, for all those billions of dollars and millions of labour hours expended, do we have so much as a tiny, tattered, threadbare shred of evidence that our students are smarter than they used to be? Are their essays better researched or written? Are their exams more accurate? Are they more literate? More articulate? Better able to critically assess what they read and learn? And if they are not — and I have searched the pedagogical literature in vain for evidence that they are — then why is the rhinoceros in my classroom?