The Public Humanist

The Public Humanist contributor: Dan Gordon

Dan GordonDan Gordon is a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Initially educated in the field of European history, Gordon has translated Voltaire and written extensively about the era of the Enlightenment. In 2002, he went back to school to receive a master's degree in law from the Yale Law School. He now teaches courses in comparative law and U.S. Constitutional history, in addition to courses on European history. Gordon is co-editor of the journal Historical Reflections and offers this reflection of his own: "The challenge in academic life is to avoid extreme specialization. I like to say that I specialize in generalization--not that I know everything I would like to know, but I am intrigued by broad questions and comparisons. I also think the historian, even one who specializes in times long gone, must know the present, otherwise historical knowledge becomes pointless. Finally, I am fond of something Oscar Wilde said: ‘History doesn't repeat itself, historians just repeat each other!’ We all have a duty to think things through and not recycle old viewpoints.”

What Every Student Needs to Know about History

When The Public Humanist asked me to write on “what every college student needs to know about history,” it looked like an easy assignment. Within seconds I had made a list. Every college student should know about: The origins and key ideas of the great world religions; The major political revolutions of modern times; The important thinkers who have changed the world, such as Marx and Freud; and The American Constitution


Liberal vs. Practical Education

Herman Wells was president of Indiana University and one of the great educational leaders of the twentieth century. His father was a banker, and Wells himself studied business administration and served as dean of the IU business school before becoming the university’s president. However, he had a deep appreciation for music, theater, history, and other liberal arts.


Nativity Scenes from the Non-Christian Perspective

 Religious holidays are not only enjoyable, but controversial. For decades American citizens have debated whether towns may erect nativity scenes on public property. We now have a body of law that governs this issue. The basis of the debate is the First Amendment of the Constitution, which states that Congress shall not make any law regarding an “establishment of religion.” It says Congress and does not prohibit states or towns from creating an official church. It was only the twentieth century that the First Amendment was reinterpreted to mean that government in general cannot create an established religion. Another trend in the twentieth century was to heighten the level of sensitivity to the meaning of “establishment.” Originally, this term referred to an official church, like the Church of England. In modern times,


Should Public Universities have Religious Studies Departments?

Here at UMass Amherst we do not have a religious studies department, even though student interest in religion is on the rise.Courses on religion that are offered in the history department or part of the university’s certificate program (a kind of minor, as opposed to major) are very well enrolled. The student interest has two sources, I think. One is the growth of religious feeling itself. Our whole nation has been experiencing a surge of religious belief for the past 15 or so years.


Specialization vs. Generalization in Education

Everywhere we turn today we see specialization. The most respected and well paid doctors and dentists are often those who perform just a few procedures. Many attorneys cover just one area oflaw. Even kids are specializing in how they play! With the spread of “travelteams” whose seasons are often more than six months per year, young athletes, starting at the age of 8 or so, are now forced to choose one or two sports at the expense of all others.


Happiness in The Declaration of Independence

The most famous words in American culture are these: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The phrase, of course, is from the Declaration of Independence. But what did “happiness” mean for Thomas Jefferson? Democracy gives us the right to pursue happiness. It also gives us the right to discuss what constitutes happiness. The best way to celebrate our freedom is not merely to recite Jefferson’s words but to challenge ourselves intellectually, to inquire into the meaning of happiness.


Religion and Democracy: The Muslim Veil Controversy

Every summer, the police in Iran crack down on “badhijab”—flimsy veils and skimpy head scarves. All women are required by law to cover their heads and to wear a coat that conceals their bodily form.This is a blatant violation of freedom—freedom of expression (to choose your clothing) and freedom of religion (to define for yourself how God wants you to behave). But consider the fact that in some democratic countries today the law is just as severe because it forbids Muslim women from covering their heads in public places.


Comparative Reflections on Affirmative Action

When I agreed to write about affirmative action for The Public Humanist, I realized quickly that the big challenge was to present this hot issue in a humanistic way. What does it mean to write about a political controversy as a humanist? Karl Marx said that the point is not to interpret the world but to change it (Theses on Feuerbach, no. 11). I don’t agree with that. The important thing is to better one’s understanding.