Professor Jay Parini on Thirteen Books That Changed America

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The Learning Curve, transcript, August 23, 2023

Alisha Searcy: Welcome back to the Learning Curve. I’m Alicia Thomas Searcy. Happy to be guest hosting again, and I have a co-host whose voice you’ve also heard before. Welcome, Mariam.

[00:00:38] Mariam Memarsadeghi: Thank you so much, Alisha. Such a pleasure to be with you again.

[00:00:40] Alisha: Always, always, always. We’ve had fun together, so I’m glad to be back, and I’m going to let you start with your story of the week.

[00:00:48] Mariam: Thank you, Alisha. So, I’m Mariam Memarsadeghi. I’ve co-hosted in the past. My focus really is on promoting democracy in my homeland, Iran, with a lot of focus on civic education, providing civic education to people living inside of Iran. I’ve been doing that for many years. The story that caught my eye this week, Alisha, is actually a letter to the editor in the Tallahassee Democrat concerning the debate down in Florida about how classical education should be taught or should not be taught in Florida schools. And I don’t agree with everything that this letter to the editor states about the virtues of classical education, although I’m a huge fan and I think that having more classical education in our schools can be a remedy to many of our issues, not least a sense of national pride, giving back to our communities and our country, recognizing why democracy and a republic are so important for safeguarding freedom, civic virtue, all that stuff.

[00:01:59] Mariam: But what caught my eye about this letter to the editor that I think is important is that down in Florida — and likely many other places — classical education is being juxtaposed to or pitted against a focus on valuing diversity and our identities, whether it’s as women or races, all of that.

[00:02:25] Mariam: And I think that’s really unfortunate because it’s possible to have school systems, classrooms, school environments, after-school activities, community around education that does both, that embraces classical education as a way to build unity and bring everyone together on the same page, build their civic virtue, civic responsibility, knowledge, understanding of our mutual history, common history. But also recognize that we are an always evolving nation that is building equality and building inclusion all the time. So, that’s why I thought these kinds of local-level debates and tensions are important. We can do both. We can have classical education and embrace diversity.

[00:03:13] Alisha: I like that. Good story. My story of the week is about Bill Gates, who says that AI, artificial intelligence, will act like a great high school teacher and that it could help close the education gap. So, I thought this was interesting, Mariam, because we all know that there’s so much conversation about AI and its use in the public education system or education in general. And I’m not one of those people who believes that, you know, we shouldn’t have technology in our classrooms and that AI is going to take over and we’re not going to need teachers. I actually believe and agree with some of the points that Bill Gates makes about the fact that AI could really help provide support for students.

[00:03:56] Alisha: And the article also talks about Khan Academy kind of testing out what this would look like and using AI as tutors and promoting conversation to help students solve problems. So, I just think at the end of the day, we need to embrace technology and all that it can do. I think about, I don’t know, maybe 70, 80 years ago, right?

[00:04:18] Alisha: I don’t know how long the calculator has been out. But can you imagine the hoopla in classrooms across the U.S. or even around the world when calculators were introduced, right? Like who? Why don’t we have students solve their own problems? Why are we introducing a calculator? And now, you know, we don’t function without calculators. Why should we have to do all that work? And so, we want students to have the foundation, understand how the problem is solved, why it’s solved that way. But we use calculators, and I think the same should go for AI. Let’s find ways to embrace technology, look at how it can enhance our education system. We already know that our teachers are overworked and could use some support. So, let’s embrace it. Let’s figure out ways that we can be creative that we can foster more creative thinking, more support for teachers and students and acknowledge the fact that this is a digital generation. And so why are we pushing things out of the classrooms when we need to embrace them?

[00:05:19] Mariam: Yeah, I just spent a week with a teacher from Illinois who’s using ChatGPT to develop her lesson plans and I was so impressed because she’s embracing ways to make her lectures and her in classroom activities more accurate, more developed, more, you know, just more! Bring more in. And, as you said, you know, she’s not going to be as tired and she’s not going to be as overstretched and he’s going to have up-to-the-minute best resources, but at the end of the day, our students, particularly our youngest ones need to have a person without a mask with a real smile with real eyes who knows them as human beings and is teaching them, but using the best technology and curricula.

[00:06:09] Alisha: Exactly. I hope she incorporates it and starts teaching other teachers because I would love to see that used across school districts and across the nation. Yes. Good stuff. Well, thank you for that. I’m excited. We have a great show coming up today. Next up we have Jay Perini. He is the D.E. Axinn Professor of English and Creative Writing at Middlebury College and author of Promised Land, 13 Books That Changed America. We’ll be right back.

[00:07:13] Mariam: And I am delighted to introduce Professor Jay Perini. Jay Perini is the D.E. Axinn Professor of English and Creative Writing at Middlebury College. He has written six books of poetry and eight novels, including The Last Station, a novel of Tolstoy’s last year, which was made into an Academy Award-nominated film.

[00:07:34] Mariam: Dr. Perini has written biographies of John Steinbeck, Robert Frost, William Faulkner, Jesus, Gore Vidal, and a novel about the life of Jorge Luis Borges. His nonfiction works include The Art of Teaching, Why Poetry Matters, and Promised Land, 13 Books That Changed America. This is the book we’ll be talking about today. Professor Perini’s books have been translated in more than 30 languages, and he writes for many publications and various websites, including CNN, Salon, and The Daily Beast. The recipient of four honorary degrees, he has received various fellowships and awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, Fowler Hamilton Fellowship at Christ Church College, Oxford University, and a Fellowship of the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of London. He graduated from Lafayette College and the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where he received a PhD. Welcome, Professor Perini.

[00:08:40] Professor Jay Perini: It’s very nice to be with you today.

[00:08:42] Mariam: You’re an accomplished writer, poet, professor, and author of Promised Land, 13 Books That Changed America. Would you begin, please, by sharing with our listeners how you decided to write this book, as well as how you selected the historic works and some of the overarching ways that these books in particular have so powerfully shaped the American mind and character?

[00:09:05] Jay: Sure. This book actually started when I was living in London, working as a fellow at the University of London in 2005-06, and I happened one night to see a lecture by someone called “12 Books That Changed the World.” And they were books like the Bible and Shakespeare and so forth. And when I got home, I started lying in bed that night thinking what would be the twelve books that changed America? And my mind started running over some of the things like The Federalist Papers. Oh, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. I thought of Huckleberry Finn. I didn’t want to do just classic books. It’s not the 13 best books. It’s books that really had an influence on how Americans thought about themselves. So, I went back to books like Of Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford, the Plymouth Colony.

[00:09:57] Jay: I went back to The Federalist Papers. And left out mostly, most novels are left out if you’re the only novel that one of the few novels I talk about is Huckleberry Finn, but most novels, for instance, The Great Gatsby is a hugely important American novel, and it’s not on my list because it didn’t change anything in the way I wanted to talk about it.

Mariam: Yes.

[00:10:19] Jay: But then I bumped it up to 13, maybe the baker’s dozen. Couldn’t keep it down to 12. So, I thought 13 is 13 original colonies. It made kind of sense. It was nice, a nice number.

[00:10:34] Mariam: Right. And you start with Plymouth Plantation, a journal by William Bradford, the leader of Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. It’s regarded as the authoritative account of the pilgrims and their colony. Could you talk about this book, when it was published, and how it’s a primary source that changed America?

[00:10:53] Jay: Well, you see, this book is crucial for how we see ourselves as a nation. Because the Founding Fathers landed, in a sense, on Plymouth Rock.

[00:11:03] Jay: I mean, many people would dispute that this is, this is the real America. They would say the Native Americans are the real Americans, and they are. But this is about, Plymouth Rock was about the confrontation really between the arriving English separatists, whom we call the Pilgrims, and the local tribes who are basically Wampanoag tribes.

[00:11:23] Jay: And it’s really a story of, for 50 years the first European settlers in New England really got along relatively peacefully with the Native Americans, and there were some tribes such as the Narragansett tribe over in what’s now Rhode Island, and the Wampanoags, and others. So, it’s a terrific story. Interestingly enough, it was written by the governor of Plymouth, Plantation, William Bradford, and remember, Puritans were there, they arrived at Plymouth Rock, what, 1620, and this, follows a 50-year period, for the most part.

Jay: And the book was then lost. It was written by hand, by William Bradford. And it’s really the main source of everything we know about the Plymouth Plantation. There really is almost nothing else. This is really it. And it was lost for centuries. And it wasn’t discovered till a traveler, an American traveler, happened upon it in a library in London and said, ‘Oh my God, this is the missing Holy Grail.’ This is Governor William Bradford’s book we’ve always heard about but never had a copy of. He brought it back to America and it was published. And this is like in the, almost at the time of the Civil War. And Abraham Lincoln read it and said, ‘Somehow we must really celebrate this whole business of the first Thanksgiving,’ and he declared Thanksgiving to be a national holiday. So that wasn’t until the Civil War that we have Thanksgiving stuff. It doesn’t go back any further than that.

[00:12:51] Mariam: Because of the book, and it’s that transatlantic relationship that’s always been there. A lot of what we know about ourselves, sometimes we know through the mirror of back in the old country. And yeah, so it’s fascinating that the book was found there and brought back.

[00:13:04] Jay: Yeah, interesting, isn’t it? And it’s a beautifully written book. It’s full of stories. It’s full of anecdotes. It’s really a vivid kind of portrait of life. as a Pilgrim in Plymouth Rock, and it’s amazing to see that.

[00:13:18] Mariam: That’s wonderful, and I imagine that at least excerpts of it could be taught in school, in schools, including to, elementary school kids, because I remember as a child, particularly as an immigrant, that part of the American story was the most fascinating to me, that people came over and they just created something new from nothing.

Jay: Yeah.

[00:13:40] Mariam: Yeah. The Federalist Papers is a collection of essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay to promote the ratification of the U. S. Constitution. Could you please talk about these three Founding Fathers, the kind of 18th-century education and learning that they had, and a few key arguments they made in these essays about the virtues of our Constitution?

[00:14:05] Jay: Well, this is a fascinating book. It’s written, it was published under the name, the pseudonym, Publius. And as you say, Publius was, you know, Madison and Jay and Hamilton. Hamilton did most of the work. Madison did quite a bit, but Jay did six or seven essays. And so, taken together, it’s an extraordinary work of advocacy, recommending that the country, the 13 colonies, do really get behind the new Constitution, which was put forward in 1889 at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, you know, it was by no means a slam dunk, by the way, that the constitution would be ratified. There was tremendous opposition throughout the country. people believed in, in not only states’ rights, but that the states should be a loose confederation. And Publius argued, no, no, we should be one nation and that we should come together under the kinds of ideas, such as the idea of, well, idea of separation of powers was one of the key ideas that, what, in particular, Madison liked was, and the crucial essay in this collection is number 10, written by Madison, and it argues for essentially finding one nation among many, many different kinds of people, and wealthy people, the minority, and the masses. Somehow it was essentially balancing the weight of political power between the landowning minority of rich people and the general population.

[00:15:38] Jay: So, many of the arguments that we are seeing really today and every one of our current political elections. Every four years we have the presidential election, and the same things come up again and again and again. States’ rights come up, separation of powers comes up again and again, and ideas of, you know, to what degree does the minority have the ability to bring checks on the majority. And so. all of these issues were debated at great length, quite beautifully by these writers. I mean, one thing that strikes me when I’ve read, read it several times, The Federalist Papers, I’m struck by the beautiful prose and I’m struck by the, vast learning. these were three men who were classically educated. They knew Greek and Latin. They had learned about democracy by reading the ancient Greeks they had read Plato and Aristotle. And so, this background was so rich. And so, there’s a tremendous depth of learning all of the essays in The Federalist Papers.

[00:16:34] Mariam: What I find interesting every now and then I realize again that these people were in their 20s and 30s when they were doing all these things and, and how much learning they had accumulated, how much natural curiosity intellectual devotion they had to be able to then turn it over and provide it to their new nation, the polity that they were creating.

[00:16:57] Jay: They were amazing.

[00:16:59] Mariam: Amazing. I mean, it just, it’s never enough. the reverence that we hold for them is, always warranted. Right. So, Walden is another book, Walden or A Life in the Woods. It was first published in 1854. It’s a book by American Transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau. It’s a reflection. upon the author’s simple living in natural surroundings. Would you discuss Thoreau, the Transcendentalists, and their wide literary influence on America?

[00:17:29] Jay: I don’t, yeah, I don’t think it’s, I don’t think it’s possible to say enough about the Transcendentalists, Emerson and Thoreau in particular. These were thinkers who really believed in the connections between spirit and nature. And Emerson was the theorist of nature. He wrote the book 1836 called Nature, where he says nature is a symbol of spirit. And his disciple and younger friend who lived only a few miles down the road, Henry David Thoreau, took this very seriously, went off to build himself a cabin on Walden Pond, and devoted himself to studying the natural world firsthand, and living in a quiet, independent state.

[00:18:07] Jay: And it was not for nothing that he begins the book on July 4th. And he goes off, he said, this is, he said, I declare my own Independence Day. And he goes off to live by himself, and he said to front the essentials, that’s one of my favorite lines in the book, to front the essentials. Didn’t want to have wasted his life, he wanted to find out what are the essential truths, and how can we discover them within ourselves and by studying the natural world. So, the whole tradition of American nature writing pretty much arose out of the Transcendentalist movement, the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, which are just exquisite, and Walden Pond, this masterpiece of American autobiography.

[00:18:49] Mariam: Yes, and the that embrace of simplicity is such a such a juxtaposition to the European sensibility and is really sort of systems that ‘We’re Americans, we’re different and we’re rooted in the land, which is just so abundant here.’ Hand it off to you, Alisha.

[00:19:09] Alisha: Thank you, Miriam Jay, this is very fascinating. And one of the things that you said was so powerful, just how the brilliant writers, right, of The Federalist Papers, the creators of our Constitution and the founding of this nation. It reminds me, number one, as I’m looking at all of your work in these books that have really shaped history, number one, just how important education is, right, for students to be exposed to these works both in literature and in history and to understand where we’ve come from, right, to better understand where we’re going, and maybe even where we should not be going.

[00:19:45] Jay: Yeah, there’s lots of lessons to be learned. And teachers, especially, I think, the more you can know about the classic works of American literature and these founding works the easier it will be for you to really talk to students in a very frank and moving way, I think. I mean, I’ve been teaching now for, this is my 50th year of teaching. I’ve been at it, shall we say, steadily. And you know, I’m very interested in the whole thing, the whole enterprise of teaching.

[00:20:09] Alisha: Yes. there’s a lot to be said about it right now, that’s for sure. And so, I want to ask you, upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, President Abraham Lincoln said, ‘So this is the little lady who made this big war.’ Could you discuss how 19th century America’s bestselling novel contributed to starting the American Civil War?

[00:20:30] Jay: Well, I think it’s almost impossible to overestimate how popular this novel was. I mean, it was right up there with Shakespeare and the Bible, probably even ahead of Shakespeare and the Bible for a period. This book was so popular that there were printing houses going night and day, night and day for years, just churning out copies. The public couldn’t get enough of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel. for many reasons. First of all, it’s a whacking great tale. She’s a really good writer. And she tells the story of slavery and the escape from slavery. And it’s also you know, Uncle Tom is you know, this figure who nowadays is really ridiculed and, but in those days it was a kind of revolutionary to see slavery depicted in this way. I mean, it’s a vivid portrait of American slavery.

[00:21:17] Jay: And there’s no doubt that slavery was, is in many ways the original crime in America. And really it has to be understood and one can understand it a little better by going back to Harriet Beecher Stowe. Nowadays, I suspect, almost nobody reads this book. It will, for various reasons, have fallen way out of favor, even from the time I wrote this book a few years ago. I can’t imagine anybody teaching the book nowadays, but I can guarantee you it’s worth a good read. And especially if you want to think about slavery and all of its many aspects and you want to get inside the emotional side of slavery, what it was like to be a slave, to be sold down the river, so to speak. What the beatings were like, what life was like for a slave in say a benevolent slave owner’s household or a malevolent slave owner’s household. We see both in this book.

[00:22:10] Alisha: Hard to imagine a benevolent one, but we’ll move on from there.

[00:22:15] Jay: Yeah, move on from there. It’s hard to imagine, but certainly there were less painful situations for some people, and nowadays we can’t even go there politically. And I would always say slavery was a hideous situation. It was never anything but horrendous. But Harriet Beecher Stowe is trying to really understand the daily life of a slaves and see various levels discomfort or sometimes a shelter.

[00:22:38] Alisha: Let’s talk about Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, first published in the U. S. in 1885. And was and remains a controversial book. While long considered among the great American novels. So, would you share some of the story of Huck and Jim and explain perhaps what Twain was trying to teach America about race and common humanity?

[00:23:02] Jay: Well, you know, the relationship between escaped slave and young Huck them floating down the river, the Mississippi River, on this raft. It is kind of an iconic image in American culture. Huck Finn was lighting out for the territory, heading west. He was looking for freedom as well. Just like everybody is setting out for freedom, just like Thoreau takes off on Independence Day. Huck Finn is, this wild orphan who’s taking off and setting off for his own adventures in life. And he has tremendous compassion and compassion for this black man, Jim, who’s riding on the raft with him, and he protects him. And so, Twain’s novel, which is riveting narrative written in possibly some of the most gorgeous prose ever written on this soil. To this day, you know, are in many ways the root of all American literature. I think it was Hemingway who said the origin story, the root of all American writing \ is Huckleberry Finn. And if you just read a couple of pages of it, you can see why. I mean, it’s concrete, it’s funny. Mark Twain was a spectacular figure. You know, it’s not for nothing he was probably the most popular American in his day. And for many decades, he was celebrated and he gave readings all over the world. he was a representative man as far as Americans went in the 19th century.

[00:24:25] Alisha: Excellent. Let’s talk about W.E.B. Du Bois, one of my favorites. He’s the author of The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches. And it’s a cornerstone of African American literature and sociology. Can you talk about his work and why this book and others of his works matter so much in helping shape Americans’ understanding of the African American experience?

[00:24:46] Jay: Well, you know, I mean, the famous line in the book is that the color line is the essential separation in American life. And if you don’t understand about black and white, if you don’t understand about the difference between colored and white, as they would have said in those days, you’re not getting something very essential about the American experience.

[00:25:04] Jay: This is a beautiful collection of essays, some of them almost short stories, which really looks at the color line in the most penetrating ways. W.E.B. Du Bois was essentially a sociologist. I think he got his PhD from Harvard, the first black man to get a PhD from Harvard and became an eminent sociologist. He rose to become an editor, a writer, a rhetorician, a public spokesman for the black nation. And he’s often set up in contrast to Booker T. Washington, those were the two great early writers on the black experience in America. But I think Du Bois is possibly one of the greatest American writers who ever lived.

[00:25:42] Jay: And you know, you can always go back to The Souls of Black Folk and find something to challenge you, to make you think, to make you think about the color line and what it means. And, and also if you want to think about the future in America, we have to come to terms with the fact that, you know, this is a nation which, had slavery in its past, and it’s a nation where there’s been a separation between black and white going from, you know, the earliest days right through Reconstruction, up through the Jim Crow era in the South in the early 20th century and mid-20th century America. So, Souls of Black Folk is just a crucial text in trying to come to terms with the black experience in America and how it relates to, not just alone the black experience, but how it relates to the white experience, and how these two races have, have been in conflict and, have worked, you know, toward mutual understanding at times.

[00:26:34] Alisha: Agreed. And I think it could be argued that the experiences that are expressed in these essays are certainly very relevant, even in 2023.

[00:26:43] Jay: No, they certainly are. I mean, it couldn’t be more relevant. Couldn’t be more relevant.

[00:26:47] Alisha: Absolutely. So, our final question, before we ask you to read from your book — which we’re excited to hear — your book’s inspiration, The Promised Land, was published in 1912 by Mary Anton and is the autobiography of an immigrant and her assimilation into the culture of the United States. And so, for centuries, America has been, of course, a land of immigrants. Can you talk about the importance of this book over the last century?

[00:27:12] Jay: Yeah. Well, this book, I think, set forward what I would call the paradigm of the immigrant experience, and Mary Anton takes it from her own life. She grew up a Jewish girl in the Pale of Settlement over near Russia and Poland. And typically, she was coming from a situation of political and cultural violence. You know, there were pogroms, you know, burning of Jews in Russia at this time in the Pale of Settlement. Her family was oppressed. There were very few educational opportunities. And so, she dreamed, as did all immigrants — my grandparents included, my grandparents, were immigrants from Italy — and they dreamed of getting to a country where people could be educated. Where you would have economic opportunities often, of course the idea was that the lands was streets were paved with gold.

[00:28:00] Jay: My grandmother used to talk about that. Mary Anton says, you know, we dreamed that the streets were paved with gold in America. And of course, she got here, discovered, wait a minute, there’s lots of poverty in America. The cities were crowded. It wasn’t going to be easy. It was going to take a long time, maybe generations before your family would get on a solid economic footing, before you’re — not just your children, but possibly your grandchildren — would be educated. It’s a long, slow haul. But this is the American immigrant experience. And I just think in a time when we have so much in the press every day about immigration, people battling over how we should treat immigrants, I think it’s worth remembering that we are a crazy quilt of people. We are a nation of immigrants.

[00:28:45] Jay: Unless you’re a Native American, you are an immigrant. And I often love telling my — in all the years I’ve taught teaching at the sort of elite schools in Dartmouth and Middlebury — I love telling students, white students, especially remember, even if your name is Jones or Clifford or Smith, you are an immigrant, and a fairly recent one, because really everyone here who’s not a Native American is a fairly recent immigrant. And I think we have to understand the immigrant experience and see it as paradigmatic. This is the most essential thing about America, that we come from different places and we understand that we’re a crazy quilt of people.

[00:29:24] Alisha: Yeah. All after the same thing, right? Freedom.

[00:29:28] Jay: Freedom.

[00:29:29] Alisha: Yep. Thank you for that.

Jay: Would you go ahead and read for us one of your favorite paragraphs from your book? Sure, let me just read you toward the end of the book for the very end I talk about essentially give a conclusion of the book and I say:

“The United States of America represents an adventure in self-government as a political experiment It had the distinct advantage of being created in the modern era its founders were for the most part men of the Enlightenment and a band of sensible and well educated people who valued rational thought and weighed carefully the elements that constitute a successful nation. By successful nation, in quotes a rather perilous phrase, I mean one that does not obtrude on the liberty of its citizens and allows for diversity of opinion without crushing those who disagree with the majority. Part of its success, of course, involves the manner in which authority is distributed among its three branches of government for a limited time. It’s the people who pick their leaders. It’s the people who get rid of them. In theory, heredity plays no part in the succession, unlike in the old country left behind by countless immigrants.”

I’m going to leave it there. I think that says essentially what I’m trying to get at in this book. That we’re a nation of immigrants seeking liberty and looking for ways to make our lives better and also make the life of our community better by being generous with the people around us and listening to them.

[00:30:57] Alisha: Inspiring and powerful. Thank you so much for being with us, Jay.

[00:31:00] Jay: Listen, I’ve really enjoyed talking to you. It was wonderful. Okay. Thank you very much. I’ll say goodbye. Thanks. Bye bye now.

[00:31:27] Mariam: That was a fascinating interview just makes you want to read and read and read and read and read some more. Yes,

[00:31:33] Alisha: I always learn so much. So, this week’s Tweet of the Week that caught my attention was an analysis done by Phyllis Jordan from The 74. It’s the new study. The kids who scored worst on NAEP missed the most school before the test. And so, Mariam, of course, we know that when the NAEP scores came out last year, all of us who care about education and care about kids were quite concerned. And I would argue that we are in a crisis when we look at the levels of proficiency of fourth graders and reading and math and across all content areas, frankly. And of course, we know that the pandemic played a huge role in that, right? There was a significant learning loss because of missing school because of mental health issues. There are a number of contributors but this study. Focuses on the fact that once students were back in school after the pandemic there has been some serious absenteeism.

[00:32:32] Alisha: One of the examples that Miss Jordan points out is that among low income fourth graders who reported missing three or more days. Of school a month before taking the test that number climbed from 22% in 2015 to 41% in 2022. And although the numbers were different in terms of students who are not eligible for free and reduced lunch, that number also increased for them as well in terms of the number of days missed.

[00:33:02] Alisha: And so, this is a significant finding. I’m glad that Ms. Jordan has acknowledged that this too is contributing to the problem because obviously if students are not in school, they cannot learn. I think the next step though is figuring out why they’re not in school. And so, we can never ignore the social challenges that our students are facing. Things are happening at home, the challenges with poverty and all of the social issues that are prevalent because of poverty. And so, I’m glad that she’s bringing this issue forward. And now we’ve got to continue to have this conversation to address absenteeism, to address the issues related to what kids are dealing with outside of the classroom. And then obviously making sure that they have great curriculum, right, and effective teaching in their classrooms.

[00:33:47] Mariam: Yes, it’s got to be a holistic approach. Otherwise, we’re not going to see the results that we want to want to see, and we’re going to fail our children.

[00:33:54] Alisha: Exactly. Well, as always, Miriam, it is great to be with you. Look forward to being with you again in the future. We want to make sure that everybody tuned in next week. We’re going to have Professor Albert Chang. He is an assistant professor at the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas and the director of the Classical Education Restoration Research lab. So, make sure you tune in next week to The Learning Curve.

This week on The Learning Curve, guest co-hosts Alisha Searcy and Mariam Memarsadeghi interview Jay Parini, Professor of English and Creative Writing at Middlebury College. A poet, professor, and author of several literary biographies, Parini discusses how he came to write Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America. From William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation through The Federalist Papers, Thoreau’s Walden, and works by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, and W.E.B. Du Bois, Parini explores how key works of fiction and nonfiction have shaped the American mind and character and guided our understanding of ourselves as a people and a nation. He closes the interview with a reading from Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America.

Stories of the Week: Mariam discussed a Tallahassee Democrat op-ed on the virtues of a classical K-12 education. Alisha discussed a Fortune story in which Bill Gates asserts that artificial intelligence can help close high school learning gaps.


Jay Parini is the D.E. Axinn Professor of English and Creative Writing at Middlebury College. He was written six books of poetry, eight novels, and numerous literary biographies. His nonfiction includes The Art of Teaching, Why Poetry Matters, and Promised Land: Thirteen Books that Changed America. Professor Parini’s books have been translated into more than thirty languages, and he writes for many publications and websites, including CNN, Salon, and The Daily Beast. The recipient of four honorary degrees, he has received a Guggenheim Fellowship; Fowler Hamilton Fellowship at Christ Church College, Oxford University; and a Fellowship of the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of London. He graduated from Lafayette College and the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where he received a PhD.
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