Montag, Winston, and Yossarian Walk into a Bar…

Just when I think there’s no hope left in the world (or in this country, at least) a student of mine begged another to read Catch-22.


Okay, “begged” is a strong word. Still, I was a taken aback. Don’t get me wrong. I loved Catch-22 (among other Heller books). But it’s been my experience as of late that college students just don’t seem as passionate about novels. So when the student who strongly suggested to his classmate that he read Catch-22 began summarizing Yossarian’s woes I remained silent, allowing him to pitch Heller’s book to his peer. It was glorious!

“What about Fahrenheit 451?” Another student inquired. “Should I read that?”


“Yes!” A collective cry went up from the opposite side of the room.

Call it a sign of the times. Call it pure coincidence. I had to throw my own recommendation into the discussion.

“While you’re at it,” I said, “read Nineteen Eighty-Four.”


We talked about Winston. We talked about Julia. We talked about my namesake O’Brien who broke Winston and, in the end, caused him to love Big Brother.

In one classroom in this country a dozen or more students talked about these three books in terms of deserving another read. Imagine if college students and other young people all decided to reacquaint themselves with these tales. I like the prospect of that.

We Are Legion or, Some Thoughts On Higher Education After The Election

I read two news articles about tests being cancelled at two different universities after the election. The comments following each blamed “socialist liberal professors” for “poisoning” the minds of young people, turning them into “babies” who “can’t cope with reality.” As William James once wrote, a great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices. So, if by “poisoning” these people mean teaching young people how to think critically then let me be the one to say you’re welcome.

It’s no secret that many people think that colleges and universities have agendas. If by agenda they mean teaching students to think critically so that they can become fully engaged members of society, acting as agents of change, if they so choose, then yes that is an agenda. The opposite of thinking critically is blind obedience to the will of the State.

Many of the students I teach are first-generation college students. They often feel alone because they have no point of reference at home where higher education is concerned. All of my students, just like their peers who went straight to work after high school, are navigating the world on their own terms, trying to make sense of it all and facing threats that we couldn’t conceive of when we were their age. They are not “babies,” per se; they are, however, bombarded by information, in and out of the classroom, at a rate that we didn’t experience at their age.

As educators, we have a responsibility to our students, part-time or full-time, young or old, rich or poor. We will not be intimidated by enemies of intellect. It’s been two days since the election and already there have been incidents of violence and hate at various campuses across the country. It’s no stretch to think that it will get worse before it gets better.

In the coming days, we will not let others intimidate our diverse student body, threatening them because of their skin color, because of their religion, because of their sexual orientation, or the ideas that they ponder as they navigate their young and admittedly, at times, difficult lives. After all, we are Legion. And we are everywhere.

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