Joe’s “Keynote Address to The Penn State Altoona Chapter of The National Society for Leadership and Success”

Thank you, Cody  Stitt, for that warm welcome!

The very first thing I’ll do today is to break a couple of long held traditions. In many ways we are a product of our traditions. So if we want to stretch ourselves we must expand outside of our traditional patterns of doing things. So first, I refuse to start off my talk with that annoying little phrase, “We Are!…”

While we’re at it, how about if I break another tradition?

Today I will not thank all of the high ranking administrators, you know the Deans, the Chancellors, the Governors, the Senators, the Presidents.  I am not going to thank them for making today possible. Because they didn’t.   They move debits and credits back and forth on ledgers and sign their names in approval. But they don’t make important assemblies like this possible. Please join with me in thanking those people who did make today possible.

First the Officers and Executive Board of the Penn State Chapter of the National Society for Leadership and Success. You students pulled together all of the details, coordinated all of the activities, and moved the mountains, all during the busiest part of your semester. You are the reason this society survives and grows.  Thank you!

Next, is Jennifer Plank the society’s adviser, the representative of Penn State University to the Society. Please believe me that there are lots of training sessions for an adviser of student organizations to handle, things that go on behind the scenes during her evenings and weekends. She assumes some personal liabilities, serving as the first line of supervisory oversight. And even when dealing with our best and brightest students in an organization like this one, her agenda is made much more full because of her willingness to serve this function. Yolo Jennifer!

And Then, I would like to thank the tuition and  taxpayers who bear the cost of these facilities. I realize it is hard to measure, but your investment will continue to pay off over the long term.

Next, I would like to thank the visitors here today for coming out and celebrating with your student-hosts. You understand the value of their efforts during these undergraduate years and I hope you will continue to attend to their ongoing achievements. Believe me. If your student is sitting in this room today, either already a member or about to be inducted, you are going to have many future achievements to celebrate. These are our best and brightest. Your support, love and encouragement are the wind under their wings.  Watch them fly!

Now I would like you to all help me express our pride and appreciation for the student members of the Society for Leadership and Success. Joining this organization looks good on your resume, your grad school application, and it is another piece of evidence for your future employer that you are ambitious and energetic. But it still takes time and energy during the part of the year when both are in short supply. Thanks for participating, it will be well worth the effort.  You Rock!

Some of you in this room will remember that I had the honor of addressing last year’s induction ceremony, as well. I think this means one of two things. I could be a fantastic and engaging speaker, or perhaps my fee schedule is set way too low.  Either way, I am delighted to be back. Because this time of year is very special for me.

This is a special talk for me because today is the beginning of the very last week of the semester.  I am privileged to teach Philosophy and History here at Penn State Altoona; and that is a round the clock effort during the school year. Like most of you in this room, my life is comprised of rushing to get ready for the next class. Preparing and delivering fifteen lecture classes a week is tough duty and by the end of the Spring semester, I am depleted.

But in a few days I will be heading out to explore some of the most mysterious questions of the universe, like how to catch largemouth bass in any kind of weather. Why on some days the bass feed in deep water and on other days they hit in the shallows? How’s come on one day the bass will bite nothing but black plastic worms,but the next day they will only bite red ones?  So this will probably be my last week to explore some truly philosophical ideas before my own attention turns to fishing.

What I have to say today involves two philosophical concepts that are the central theme of this society, its reason for existence.

When I was first asked to give this talk,  I’ll admit it,  I wondered what a teacher of Philosophy and History had to offer on the topics of Leadership and Success.  Sure, over the years I have had professions that would be considered positions of leadership. I have been an executive officer in one of the world’s largest financial institutions, as well as an executive in a high tech manufacturing concern. Back during the Cold War, I even led a small Military Intelligence unit as a Non-Commissioned Officer in the Army. But what on earth, I wondered a few days ago, do I have to say to our best students about leadership?  I am not even sure I know what the word means!

Wait, I have taken lots of classes and seminars over the years which purported to teach leadership. I know that when those kind of trainers talk about leadership they mean such important traits as optimism, motivation, team building, goal setting, grooming, decisiveness, and communications.  Those are skills that can be taught or learned.  But taken all together, do these skills add up to leadership?

What I mean is this.  If someone could be an enthusiastic speaker, communicate clearly, motivate subordinates, and set goals, but who marched the organization at a goose step off in a wrong direction, is that leadership? Or is that bad leadership?

See what I mean? Leadership is really an ethical and moral quality. A leader must be someone who imposes an accurate moral compass on an organization, not just a decisive and commanding personality pointing the way. The enthusiasm of the march matters very little. It is the direction that matters the most.

For the good of the group and the individuals in it,  a leader must be able to point to the moral high road, cajole his or her subordinates to stick to that ethical high ground, no matter what. In good times and in bad, the morality of a decision is much more important than the short term profit or loss statement. The ethical development of the team is more important than any other consideration for a good leader. Otherwise, what is happening is not leadership at all. Because leadership must be ethical to be leadership.

This realization places leadership into the realm of ethics and philosophy. What is the right thing to do, the right way to live, and the right way for an organization to behave?

Any answers to these kinds of questions depend on the meaning of the words “right” and “wrong.”  There are various perspectives of multiple stakeholders, there is the need for a fully informed debate, and the talents of leadership would seem to be much different from what we began with.   Decisiveness, self certainty, uniformity of opinion and unquestioning obedience from subordinates, these weaknesses are not in a real leader’s baggage at all, once we disentangle the concept from the common everyday notions of leadership. A leader is someone who listens carefully, avoids decisions that discount minority voices, and who attempts to downplay self in the pursuit of a healthy and ethical organization. And that, my friends, would be a very difficult topic for a ten minute speech.

So I figured I would, instead, talk about Success.

But again, what does a Philosophy and History teacher know about success?

You already know, I hope, that teaching is not one of those fields you go into if you want to accumulate financial wealth.  Especially considering the expensive education that it takes to become a teacher, there is probably no good financial reason to become a career educator.

I am not complaining, mind you. If I were designing the whole system from scratch I would set it up just this way. People should only go into teaching for one reason, that they want to work with students.   Any educator who thinks he or she deserves to get rich probably should have gone into dentistry or investment banking.  The rewards for an educator are many and valuable. But they are not usually financial.

Also, teaching is not one of those fields you go into if you want to build an empire on an organization chart.  In order to claw our way up the corporate ranks, a teacher usually must leave teaching and become an administrator, you know, a department head, Dean, or Chancellor. Some teachers do make these choices. But most teachers recognize their roles and understand the importance of their function in the school and in society. We do not usually become bosses. Instead we are more like bus drivers. We pick up a group of students at one point in their development and take them a few blocks and let them off the bus further ahead, hopeful that their journeys will take them beyond any place on our particular route.

So having chosen a profession with little chance for promotion or financial gain, am I a success?, I wondered. If I am not a success I certainly have no business standing up in front of this society discussing success, do I?

Your invitation for me to speak today motivated me to think long and deeply about this question, and yes, I am a success. Despite the fact that I have never amassed a personal fortune, despite the fact that I am not high on anyone’s organization chart, I don’t live in the expensive part of any exclusive subdivision.  My Subaru with 160 thd miles on it only turns heads because of the old canoe that is usually strapped to the top of it. And most of my clothing comes from my favorite store, the only place I really like to shop, the Goodwill Thrift Store.

But I assure you I am a success. I have been married to the same beautiful smart woman for about twice as long as most of you in this room have been on the planet. Our smart and happy daughter is a student at Penn State (Where Else?) I have had the best job on earth teaching Penn State Altoona students.  I have mostly taught Ethics and American History, the two courses which I believe in my heart of hearts to be the most important two classes offered in the undergraduate curriculum. It has been a delight and a privilege, and yes I am a success.

But if I am a success then perhaps, just as with the word leadership, our common everyday meaning of the word success also needs some close attention.  Success can’t be measured by the size of a bank account or the proximity to the top of an organization chart. Success can mean many different things to various people. And who is to say what the word really means for anyone else?

So here I am at an impasse of sorts. I was asked to speak to you today about leadership and success. But once you strip the platitudes away from these words, their real meanings are quite different from the common everyday understanding of the terms. So I must admit, right here in public, that I am not really sure I can tell you what the words leadership and success really mean.

But I can still offer some practical advice; but to do this I have to remove the toga of the Philosophy and History teacher and put on the waders and vestments of a lifelong fisherman.  Fishing has taught me much about success!
For example, success does not mean unending happiness.   There will be miserable weather, mosquitoes, sunburn and tangled lines in your fishing future.  Success does not mean you are always comfortably gliding through the still water in your canoe with the breeze at your back.  Sometimes you will need to paddle against the wind and the current will be against you. Last Fall, for example, on a nearby river, my wife and I had parked one car sixteen miles downstream figuring we would fish with the current and get there just as the sun went down.  But the fish were biting so well in the afternoon that I forgot to make forward progress in our canoe.  I learned the hard way that there would be rocks, rapids and the dark of a moonless night to plan for, even if the fish were biting during the day. After swamping our canoe over rocks several times that night, bailing out the water at the bottom of heard but unseen rapids, and the loss of some important gear, I learned that even a successful fishing trip might not be much fun.

Success does not mean you always catch fish.  Sometimes you will be throwing your favorite lure in the best fishing hole and the fish are just not hungry that day. Any bass fisherman can tell stories of seeing big fish in the water and offering them every lure in the tackle box. It can be quite frustrating. Sometimes others around you will be catching fish, BIG FISH, while you seem to catch nothing but snags. Can you still enjoy fishing on those days? Then you are a successful fisherperson.

And sometimes, the most successful trips in your life will be measured in ways that you could never have expected. No prior goal setting, budget, or mission statement would be able to prepare you for some of the surprises in store for you. If you were to ask me about my most successful fishing trip ever, I would tell you a true story about a trip two years ago. And I can’t remember if I even caught one fish that day!

On a nearby lake, I had been fishing from a canoe in some thick lily pads. Right before sundown I heard a splash and a snort right behind me, out toward open water. I turned as a black bear was swimming right toward me, not eight feet away.  He/or she had somehow not seen or smelled me yet, and I am sure I was a comical sight with my fishing line still out from a rod held by one hand, with my other hand reaching for a camera and my third hand reaching for the canoe paddle; with my fourth and fifth hands I was already pulling up the anchor. I am lucky I did not swamp the canoe and take a surprise evening swim with a 300 lb black bear.

Instead, we both stopped and stared at each other for several minutes while I regained my wits and figured out how to open my camera.  People who know bears know that eye contact is their traditional way to express their aggression. But for me, close quarter eye contact was a kind of cross species communications, a magical moment.  He was saying, “Dude, please get out of my way I just swam across this lake and am in no mood to go back.”  I was saying, “Awwwwwwwah! Look at the cute bear with the fuzzy ears.”

But because bears are basically ethical and polite creatures, he or she backed up and swam around me. No need to show me his claws and teeth, he just backed up and successfully went around me. I got some wonderful photographs and memories. And isn’t it funny that I would classify that trip as my most successful fishing trip? And I don’t even remember getting a nibble that day!

See what fishing has taught me that Philosophy could not? Success in many ways is inside us. It is the attitude you have about the life you are leading. It is the pride you feel in the accomplishments you are making, measured not always by financial reward nor by the impression your title makes on your subordinates nor by the tonnage of fish caught or even the meeting of goals you happen to have set the day before. But If you are enjoying the trip you will probably spend more time with a lure in the water.

So here we are on the first day of the last week of Spring Semester and you have made me realize something.  I am successful! In a few days the classes will all be behind us and the final exams will be graded. I will be paddling my canoe into new waters and you will be preparing for those next semesters or grad school or a job. You are successful!

But I will be forever grateful to you for this opportunity to explore the meaning of two complex words today even if we were not entirely successful at pinning down their definitions. I wish you fabulous fishing and success in whatever way you will measure it.

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“Maddening Madness” Joe gets to participate in a Colloquium.

Joe Participated in a Colloquium on Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

If you missed the Colloquium, you missed a very interesting introduction and analysis by Professor Todd Davis. You also missed the opportunity to hear more about the exciting ballet, by its composer K.T. Huckabee.  You also missed an opportunity to hear many of the perspectives by the dancers.  Hopefully, you did not miss the extravaganza itself!

But here are my talking notes for panel participation at the April 24 Colloquium, “Approaches to The Burning Book,” in preparation for the Ballet by K.T. Huckabee

Read More Here   About the Dance Performance and Musical Composition, “Maddening Madness.”

Read about the Colloquium Here

Hello.   Professor Todd Davis is an expert in looking at the literary value of this novel. I am always intrigued by what he can do with a piece of fiction, both as what the writer may have intended and as what a good reader can also do, quite legitimately, with the same text.

But I am here with him today to offer another take on this book. I will suggest that we consider this novel as a piece of historical evidence and as a philosophical warning about a slippery slope toward some authoritarian future that the author wanted us to somehow avoid.

So, first, the novel as a kind of historical evidence:
In some ways we might read this novel as an indication of what a young man feared in 1953 because he was born in 1920, and by implication, what we can read of the fears of the American middle classes during the Mid 20th Century.  I will caution that in several important ways, Ray Bradbury’s own experience was not typical of most young American men during many of his formative years. So attempting to read this book as evidence of what the general American middle classes feared might be stretching the evidence in some ways. We will discuss this further in the appropriate places.

Bradbury was born in the Chicago area,  moved with his family to Arizona at eleven, during the Dust Bowl. This makes him a novel kind of hybrid Okie, from Chicago.

His father finally got work in Los Angeles when Ray was 14 and they  moved to California during height of the Great Depression.

When Ray graduated from high school, he continued his work selling newspapers. He did not go to college.  This choice to not go on for a university degree was a very typical choice during the pre- World War II era.  Instead, Bradbury spent three days a week in the library reading widely and teaching himself to write. This was not very typical of his generation. He didn’t think professors had much to teach him–he said later. Perhaps his expressed distaste for college education, stated during a later time in his life when the typical route to college, the G.I. Bill, had not been available to Ray, reflects more of his non-veteran status than his rejection of professors. But without more evidence we should, perhaps, take his later comments at face value.

So just imagine some of the headlines he would have read, sitting there in the library, during his formative years:

—   When Ray 13 years old:  Adolf Hitler was appointed German Chancellor.  Joseph Stalin had been Premier of USSR since the early 1930’s.

—  At 16 years old:     Germany reoccupied the Rhineland and Hitler got 99% of the German Vote!  This was not an endorsement for democracy.

During all of this:  Americans were fixated on

  1. a kidnapping and subsequent trial
  2. the sleep secrets between the King of England and Mrs. Wallis Simpson, an American

—  When Ray was 18: Germany took back the Sudetenland.  Germany and US withdraw their ambassadors.

So, as Ray Bradbury approaches adulthood, the world slides into  a seemingly unavoidable war, one we now call World War 2.

—  After Pearl Harbor, Ray is saved from the draft by his poor eyesight. So he continues to isolate himself in the library for the duration.

—   On VJ Day,  Ray Bradbury would have felt like the only 25 year old  young man in the entire US  who was not in uniform.  Ray was 26:      All over the globe allies who had cooperated during the war now began to face off against each other.  It seemed 50-60 million war  deaths were not enough. For examples:  Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech,        The Chinese Nationalists were at war with the Communists, East German Social Democrats allied with the Communist Party.  The various sides seemed to be prepping for The Cold War.

—  At 27:             Returning Veterans (Not Ray) are eligible for GI Bill and enroll in college classes in unprecedented numbers.   New housing subdivisions are springing up all over the US.   First you get a wife, then a house, then a television, then a car… All but the wife on easy credit.      And none of this for Ray.

—  At 29:         The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is founded to contain and threaten the USSR, probably our most important ally in the last World War.

—  At 30:         Sen Joe McCarthy discovers convincing evidence (he said) that the US Dept of State and even the US military is riddled with communists and Red sympathizers, most of whom may be secretly working for Joseph Stalin!

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the US finds itself again at war, this time with North Korea and at times, even with China.  This may have  seemed what it might have become, a potential ground war against the most populated nation on the planet and which had also been an important recent ally in the war against the Japanese Empire.

But, this same year there had been 1.5 million TV sets sold in the US. (In the following year there will have been ten times that many TV sets sold, a few of the 1951 sets are even color TVs).

–At 33 in 1953:      Ray publishes Fahrenheit 451 during the lowest ebb of  the Stalin years in Soviet Union and the “Red Scare” in the United States.

The novel as prediction:

First:   Bradbury understood that prediction is an effective form of  prevention.  Did his dystopian prediction help?

This is an unanswerable question. We can’t measure or know. How could we measure what  the world might have been without this book. People read books and they change our paradigm. Perhaps not. I may think the world is shaped and changed by artists and authors. But how could we ever know?

But if Bradbury could convince his reader that it was authoritarian control itself and not any particular ideology that was the enemy of thoughtful and peaceful human life, then his work may be seen as an attempt to intervene in history.

He apparently understood that  governments and administrations will do almost anything to preserve their own power.  From the first level supervisor in the back office, to the            head of the East German Ministry of State Security, unrestrained autocrats will be brutal when defending their own prerogatives.

Bradbury also realized that the published book would prove to be more of a threat to  tyrants than was the temporary and easily manipulated broadcast media.  A book is permanent. A TV or radio show can be more easily squelched, controlled, edited.

This makes one wonder about the current trend in  modern libraries toward things called ebooks  and online journals.  The firemen in Farenheit 451 burned books while encouraging the opiate of the wall sized TV screens and the simplistic mind eating            programming offered there to distract people from the jet bombers roaring overhead randomly throughout his narrative. Been in a library lately?  Some have even taken to calling themselves some version of “media reservoir,” avoiding thereby the connotations of a library as a permanent storehouse of books and periodicals.

But Bradbury’s wall size TVs only drowned out the sounds of the bombers flying overhead. The lost humanity of the characters needed serious medication. Then the overdoses of medication needed horrific rehabs.

Lucky for us all today, Bradbury’s  wall size flat screens and stupid “Reality TV” shows were only fiction. Weren’t they?

Our non-fiction version of these things today includes  ear budded, snap chatted, Twitter fed, Youtubed, and pod casted  varieties of mental anesthetic delivering programming like what the Kardashians are up to these days, how to dance with the stars, real housewives, Survivor, Bachelor, and some indescribable epics of our post literate world called Duck Dynasties and Jersey Shore. Won’t be long before politics itself devolves into a form of reality TV.

All of this has been playing in the background for us while real bombers have been flying overhead for more than a decade now,  but this real war can’t easily be heard above the roar of the crowds applauding for the latest  American Idol.

So, of course, the question is not “was Bradbury accurate?” The better question might be, “how did he ever know what was coming?”

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Where was Joe this time?

The home office in Rome needed to be refurbished.  So in 1516 a Dominican Friar was sent to Germany to sell indulgences (pieces of paper that offered God’s forgiveness in exchange for a monetary donation.)

The next October, one of the junior professors here at this German University blew the whistle by complaining in a way intended to open debate. He nailed his 95 points of objection to the door of All Saints Church, the University Chapel at this point.   One of these points of objection particularly stung, number 86, “Why does the Pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?”


Of course Luther was given the chance to recant and to retract. Doing otherwise would not be nice, and the Catholic Church is nice. Of course, Luther refused.   So in June of 1520 Luther was warned again, that he was being considered for excommunication unless he recanted within sixty days. In January, Luther was excommunicated by Papal bull, Decet Romanum Pontificem, which means something like, “It pleases the pope…”

And Martin’s soul has remained excommunicated down through the ages.

For full credit, name the university where Luther taught.   For extra credit, name the Pope.

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Joe conducts an Epic Workshop!

WhereistheEpic (13)

Missed the workshop?  No worries!  Here is a copy of Joe’s talking notes. If you read these notes, all you will have missed is Joe’s singing!

Where’s the Epic?  Singing the Birth of a Multiethnic Nationality

Monday, February 25, 12-1 p.m.

Pond View Room, Slep Center

[Interrupt the Introduction Abruptly]

Thank you Professor Simpson. But today we will be discussing the creation of an Epic. And a traditional epic needs no introduction. An epic is created by a long chain of listeners, readers, embellishments, and lyricists. Today’s epic is not about me it is about you the audience.

But before we get underway, I would like to thank everyone involved.

Thanks to the Students first.  Today’s Epic will be mostly about the students, as you will see. The American Epic can not be sung without reference to students.

I guess I should also thank the various administrators in the wing tip wing who divert the funds and institutional priority toward important programs such as this Annual African-American Read-In.

Many thanks must go to the Committee Members, for example Professor Megan Simpson here, who, during the busiest parts of her academic year, chips in considerable effort, organizational talent, and precious time every year to make this happen.

To the IT gurus and facilities staff who make it all work,

And finally, my thanks to all of you who decided to show up and participate in this epic writing workshop, My students in Hist 465 who are currently teaching me about the Civil Rights Struggles, and all of the other students who have offered to participate in today’s Workshop. Finally, I would especially like to thank Isaac Davis, our blues harpist.

Thanks You!

[Isaac plays 3 minutes of blues guitar]

As you will learn today, you are all heroes. Civilization as we know it depends on what we will be doing here today.   Because a nation’s epic is so important to the way that nation understands itself, and frankly, we are currently operating without a credible national epic.

Today’s program is entitled “Where’s the Epic?” But to say it correctly, like an epic bard, there needs to be a little outrage and indignation in the question. A good portion of national pride and boasting also.  After all this is our nation this is our Epic.


I guess I had better explain myself.

[Slide Define Epic]

The word sorta means an old and traditional word poem. It is a literary genre much older than most other ways we still explain ourselves to ourselves.

[Slide  Predates Western Civilization]

Predates Youtube, predates the way we write history, its older than the novel, the short story and even the philosophy essay.

It probably even predates writing itself!

For example, I said that epics predate western civilization. The idea of such a place we mean when we say “the west” may have formed around a Homeric epic we call Illiad.   The losers of the Ionian Revolt began calling themselves western and the west east division line began to form between the Persians and the refugee Ionians who were scattering into the Mediterranean world.

But an Epic is not just any old poem. It can’t be about any old thing. An epic has to be, well, EPIC!

We have all heard the phrase “Epic Proportions.” Its scope should be broad. It should cover many years and places. “Civilization as we know it” should depend on the plot twists in an epic poem.

Can’t say epic. you gotta say EPIC.

Nations and Cultures become what they are because of what happens in their epics.  And the characters in epics are heroes, villains, deities, and ordinary people performing noble deeds and misdeeds.

Luck, good fortune, divine intervention, sometimes human cleverness, hard work, striving, these are the factors that determine the eventual outcome of an epic. But always just in the nick of time.

So an epic is what a culture or nation or civilization thinks of itself. Our Epics provide us with our national or civic identity. So again I ask, Where’s the American Epic?

[Slide  Narrative Therapy]

There is a rather new field of psychiatric-therapy that asks patients to focus on their internal narratives.  These internal narratives are the stories people tell themselves about who they are and why they are that way.   Because, as it turns out, identity itself is comprised of the stories we tell ourselves. Its pretty complex.

But in similar ways, entire civilizations get their identities from the stories they tell themselves about themselves, their Epics.

This process of writing and telling an epic is a sort of group therapy, but for a nationality. Just like with individuals, contradictory narratives, efforts to intentionally mislead, erasing from memory of uncomfortable events, these kinds of inferior narratives lead to irrational self understanding and behaviors.

Philosophers since about the time of the French Revolution have been explaining the idea of the self as the intersection of our experiences and our ideas about those experiences, our narratives. So at the risk of too much emphasis here, who we are is really the stories we use to explain ourselves. Civilizations too. So a Civilization IS its epic.

[Slide  Conventional Form of an Epic]

There are conventions for epics.  Remember, rules are for sports and board games, not for art and innovation. These Epic conventions are guidelines only, not rules. In fact, as in any other form of art, it is usually a requirement to break the existing conventions just a little. Because the so called rules for any art form demarcate the most likely opportunity for a next major breakthrough!

But Epics are USUALLY told in an elevated language, rather formal, stiff and serious. After all, this is who we are and why. This is our Civilization as we know it, as we sing it.

So the only modesty usually found in an epic is during the invocation, when the narrator is calling for divine assistance in telling the important story.

The plot of an Epic usually begins right in the middle of the action, just like history itself if you think about it. History is not in the past. It is happening here in the present as you the historian tries to explain evidence from the past. So beginning the story right in the middle of the action relieves the teller from any need to pick the one true beginning, since history is like a river and has many sources feeding into it.

An epic also has an invocation which we will discuss shortly, and there are usually fulfilled prophecy and a harp all rolled up in it.

By way of example, I am going to ask our blues harpist to kick off a song that includes both a prophecy AND a blues harp. Nice and slow, its going to be a long walk to Birmingham… So just to put us into the right frame of collective mind, let’s sing a song that I would like to nominate as our American National Anthem, of this America that we are presently describing.

[Handout Words to “We Shall Overcome”]

[Slide Calliope gives her harp to Hesiod]
Here is a marble portrayal of one of the greatest Epic poems ever written.  A young shepherd named Hesiod begins to sing the story of that day, about three thousand years ago, when he saw the nine Muses of Helicon bathing and dancing in the fields.

Here you can see Clio (stern muse of History) comforting her passionate sister Calliope (the Muse of Poetry.)  Calliope has just given her harp to Hesiod. You can’t tell here if Calliope is taken by the young shepherd or if she already regrets handing over her guitar.

But as History keeps Poetry on a narrow path, the story of creation gets told by the lucky shepherd with his new Heliconian Blues Harp.

[Two minutes of Isaac Davis on the Blues Harp]

[Slide Invocation Examples]

Epics begin, as I have suggested already, with invocations, pleas for divine assistance in telling the story.  Most invocations call on Muses for this kind of help.

Here we have the invocation from Edmund Spenser’s Fairy Queen, addressed to Sir Walter Raleigh at about the time his lost colony project was getting lost at the Outer Banks.

England was growing in influence, soon it would even challenge Spain, the oppressive superpower of its day.

Trivia Question:  What did little England have that we do not have today?

Yep, an Epic!

[Slide Whitman’s _Leaves of Grass_]

You may be saying to yourself right now, “No way, Joe. We have American Epics.”
Here is one example you may be thinking of. Here is the invocation from one version of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

Leaves of Grass contains a lovely epic poem. He was a talented poet, a terrific observer, notice that he made some significant advances for our project today.

In his first few lines we see that the American is an independent person, conflicted between competing ideas of Liberty AND Democracy. In the middle you can see that he meant to refer to both male and female Americans, equally. That was quite an advance for the epic of his day.

But Whitman’s epic does not yet sing the American Nationality that we need and want to celebrate now, today, out there, in here, that Multi-Ethnic, Multi-Doctrinal idea that we mean when we use the term, “American.”

We could spend a good bit of time trying to define the word “American.”  And we would finally come to an agreement that we meant a place, not a skin color, not an eye color, not an ethnicity, not a religion. An American is a human who lives in a place we call America. That is the identity we still need an epic to explain for us.

So how would we properly invoke an American Muse when we write today’s American Epic?

First, we must be respectful of diverse religious as well as non-religious belief systems. After all, this is America we are singing about! It would be wrong to privilege one religion, skin color, sexual preference, ethnicity over any other one. This would lead us to an inferior epic, a song that would not work for all Americans and would therefore not be moral.


And if nothing else, an Epic must be moral. Remember, we are creating our national narrative, our identity. Our grandchildren’s grandchildren might be influenced by what we accomplish here today.

So we would never invoke deities whose public worship would insult or exclude other Americans among us. That’s the point of this narrative, right? To celebrate inclusivity.

But this does not mean we can’t have an invocation. It does not leave us without a National Epic.   Finding a rich enough and respectful enough narrative to encompass THIS America, that’s what we are doing here today.

So let’s be respectful and tolerant as a minimum standard for our invocation.

We can celebrate our diversity, sure! But when speaking in the voice of a public and tax supported public institution, let’s not privilege one kind of religious belief, skin color, sexual preference, or family origin.

Slide  American Muses Nominated]

Here is a slide that presents my own nomination of a group of American Muses who together represent today’s America in its full epic proportions.

Just to be clear, and respectful, let me emphasize that these American Muses are not gods, or are they offspring of gods. That’s what makes them Heroic. These people were people!

You will notice that some of these Muses are Men, some are Women. They have various kinds of ethnicity markers, family origins, cultural identities, religious views, and cultural traditions. But they are all Americans. This is the American Epic we sing today.

But to elevate these people into Muses, let’s let them each represent some of the most important American virtues.

The term of art for such a promotion is “apotheosis.”   We will spend centuries determining which of these virtues are most important for the American Nationality. For this workshop, lets use my list until the longer and more powerful “oral tradition” figures this out for good.

This “apotheosis” the promotion of a historical person into Muse, a symbol representative of a virtue, is the brass ring, the big ticket. Its even better than when they drop the word “Assistant” from your business card or give you a company jet. Its bigger than the Nobel Prize, its better than several billion “likes” on your Social Media post.

So how would an American Epic’s invocation sound?

Isaac, please give me a little 12 bar blues intro, somewhere near the key of Epsilon.

{Slide  Invocation of American Muses]
Down that slippery slope to Hawthorn, thought I had my point of view,

Walked into the classroom, just to lecture all of you,

But standing at the podium, I found I need to think it through.

Took myself to Eiche wandered through the dusty open stacks

Read everything in History there, ordered more off the CAT

What I got there was confusion, hoping you can help me back.

Went out to the duck pond, fell down on my knees,

I put my hands together, begged the Muses, pretty please.

Said, “Sing clearly for me Muses, tell Joey what “American” really means?


Did you get that last part?  Tell Joey what American really means.

When that happens in an Epic we call it the thematic statement

Its usually right there in the invocation.

That thematic statement explains the reason for the Epic. This is what we are writing this narrative to explain,  Its what the oral tradition will be explaining over the next thousand years.

[Slide 12:    The Word American ]

What it means when we put the word “American” next to the words People, Government, Traditions, History, Literature, Justice, Lifestyle, Music, Pop

Culture,  Family, Citizen etc.

What does that word really mean?

First of all, American is an idea. Turns out, it is a very flexible idea that has not always meant what it means today.

From the American Revolution until the 20th Century the legal meaning only included European and British immigrants and some of their offspring who lived  in North America.  Everyone else had to be hyphenated. Segregated. Moved into a footnote.

Sometime after World War I, the courts commenced, just started, interpreting the founding documents to include more and more people as a part of the American project.

And still, many of the States resisted, keeping the faith in their tested  and failed notions of States Rights,  thereby choking the American Epic of its sincerity and morality.

How could this happen?

That older epic told the inaccurate story of  a competition

between so called, “real Americans” vs the troublesome   hyphenated Americans.

The American Nation, in this inaccurate narrative, became a nation and a power through God’s grace,  innovation, hard work, family traditions and big glorious wars.

[Slide 13:   Birth of A Nation]



You can still get a taste of this old narrative, if you can stand it, by watching “The Birth of A Nation,” a 1915 silent film, the first  motion picture shown at the White House, it was endorsed by President Woodrow Wilson.

“Birth of A Nation” masqueraded as an epic providing America with an ill fitting and horribly inaccurate identity.     It did this by telling a story of the supremacy of one race, one  gender, and one religion. It left our nation in serious need of some narrative therapy.

These were the same sort of things that got Europe into its Holocaust,   the inability to sing an accurate and inclusive  Nationality.

While Europe slipped into Fascism, the US needed some group  narrative therapy of its own to expand our American Identity to include all Americans.   Otherwise we were in jeopardy of creating our own mono-cultural hell here.

We needed our Epic.

[Slide :   Where’s the Epic?]

I ask you again. And I think you are getting the point. Where is the epic? What story do we need to tell ourselves if we wanted to sing today’s America:

that wonderful multi-ethnic, multi-doctrinal, lifestyle tolerant, freedom loving people who refuse to place their individual rights at the altar of mob rule?

Then your epic’s title could not be better than the theme selected for this year’s African American Read In.   “From the 1963 March into the Millennium”

[Slide :  In Medias Res]

What story should we tell and where to begin it?


Right smack in the middle of the action. That’s where this Epic would begin. And did I mention that this story is about students?

On that cold April day in 1963, things are not looking so good for the Movement and for Martin Luther King’s leadership.

In fact, the affiliation between the various organizations seemed to be unraveling.  The Southern Christian Leadership Council (MLK’s national organization) was calling the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee (largely comprised of college students from Atlanta and Nashville, but with volunteers  from campuses all over North America)

SCLC was calling SNCC “Too Radical.”  SNCC is publicly calling Martin Luther King “The Lawd” jokingly implying that he has set himself up as the head of the   movement.

SNCC was having difficulty raising funds and getting volunteers.

Many of the volunteers it was receiving lately had not been  trained in non-violence. Some did not even understand the strategy.

Many of the newer volunteers wanted the glory of being a  Freedom Rider, or a sit in participant, but they did not have what it takes to accept insults with dignity, or to suffer violence without retaliation.

Even the faithful close circle of advisers around Martin Luther King, the SCLC, were cooling off, disengaging, making statements about meeting violence with violence.  King’s strategy of non-violence was hanging in the balance.

After Albany, last year, where thousands of volunteers had been  arrested, most of them were left in jail and doing time on chain gangs,while someone had mysteriously bailed out Martin Luther King, it seemed too  easy to forget  that King had already been  arrested twelve times over the past decade, all for his  activities with the cause of human rights.

But possibly for these reasons, a little shame on King’s part, or  the short memory of his organization, King had spent his Good Friday in a public demonstration in  Birmingham.   This time he knew in advance that he was likely to  receive an extended jail sentence.

[Slide 16  ]

Commissioner “Bull Connor”

The segregationist Police Commissioner,  Bull Connor, obtained   an injunction against such protests.  But King, the SCLC, and SNCC decided that   this was it. All the chips were in. They were quite desperate.

This was their chance to fill the Birmingham jails  and prove the efficacy of non-violent protest as a strategy.

They hoped that the full jails and the increased costs of  enforcement would cause the City of Birmingham to  negotiate for an end to segregated libraries, restaurants, movie theaters and taxi cabs.

But it was not working.   King, himself, had been arrested.   He was being held incommunicado in isolation. No phones,  no reporters, no phone calls to the Attorney General.

This time, he could not even talk privately with his own attorney.

Worse, there had not been a large enough group of  volunteers. The jails were not full. And it looked as if there were no more volunteers.

Was it over?

[Slide:  Children’s Crusade]

Then something quite amazing and very unexpected happened. Did I mention that this story included students?

First  the High Schools students, some say led by SNCC organizers, went to the protest instead of school that morning.   With the cameras rolling the singing, peaceful, students are herded into police wagons. Thousands stay the night in jails.

Hundreds of thousands watch on the National TV News.

The next day, older students, fresh from the prior arrests, go right back to the protest line and are arrested again. Then they were joined by Junior High students and even  some elementary students.   While the cameras rolled.

[Slide :  The City Over-reacts]

As Birmingham City Police used attack dogs and  high pressure fire hoses against protesters,   children continued to offer themselves for constant  arrest.

The American public sickened at the sight.     Into this public relations mess (for the City) MLK’s “Letter From The Birmingham Jail” runs in   several national newspapers.

[  Students from Hist 465 “Civil Rights Movement” Course read Excerpts  ]



This Children’s Crusade is that In Medias Res moment for the Epic you will be writing, and your children will be writing, and your grandchildren will be singing.

[Slide 22:   March on Washington]

There would be many other protests, arrests, and demonstrations in the years to come. But something very  important had changed in America.

The metamorphosis happened with the Children’s Crusade and with the publication of the “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” The American Public had seemingly begun to agree with the  justice of the cause of The Civil Rights Movement.

The American Nation and the word American would be stretched to include African-Americans.  And America would be much improved by the addition, and by the improved nomenclature.

That August the Kennedy Administration quickly changed its view on the delayed application the March on Washington DC, later in August.  Bobby Kennedy let it be known that the application for the parade permit should be approved.

This is that 1963 March that is mentioned in the Theme of this  year’s African-American Read In.  Historians call  it “The March For Jobs And Freedom.”

We will always remember it as the “I Have A Dream” Speech.

But when you write the American Epic, remember it does  not start with some appropriately permitted march on   the Nation’s capitol.

There are many heroes in that Epic of  America.  Some were ministers, some were politicians, some were  teachers, some were armed robbers. There were all genders, all races, all religions and some with no religion at all.

But in the very middle of things, right where you start to sing your Epic of America and when you teach  your children to sing it to their children,   don’t you dare start your story with the March in August.

Don’t forget those Students and the Children’s Crusade.  Because the American Epic will always begin and end with students.



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Stasi Tactics: Sometimes we must resist; if not for ourselves, for our unborn grandchildren.

This monument is not a monument TO something so much as it is a monument against something.   The notorious “Stasi,”  more accurately the East German Ministry for State Security, supposedly created for good reasons: i.e., society needs order, laws need to be enforced, security threats need to be minimized.   But once the powers of spying, force, secrecy, interrogations, eavesdropping, and intimidation become acceptable governance, the people who wield these powers do what such people have always done, they use them to increase their own importance.   Tyranny is deep inside the human genome.


This monument against Stasi type tactics, erected on the site of the torn down Stasi regional headquarters in the lovely and now free city of Jena in Germany, was erected by Jena Citizens two decades after the fall of the Stasi power with the reunification of Germany.

The monument is sculpted to look like small boxes, dossiers, and  many are labeled with the ideas that were victims of Stasi oversight, ideals such as “Free Speech,”  “Critical Thinking,” “Mutual Aid,” “Neighborliness,” “Friendships,” “Trust,” “Initiative,” “Cooperation,” you know, all of the things any organization, nation, or community depends upon from its employees and citizens. Those labels are interspersed on this monument with individual names, real people whose lives were destroyed by Stasi and their games.

One of my own favorites of these was a young man named Matthias Domaschk.  I never knew Herr Domaschk, he died under Stasi interrogation while I was stationed in Nurenberg West Germany. But had Matthias lived he likely would have been a neighbor of mine when I had the extreme good fortune of living in Jena Germany, many years later. He might have been one of the older men playing the piano and signing in the local pub, or reading a book along the Saale river park.  His birth home was right around the corner from my apartment. Instead, he was to me a name on a brass historical placard, attached to the door of that nearby birth home I passed during most of my daily walks.  That little brass plate incited my initial interest into the Stasi and their ways.

The Stasi were not all high ranking elite monsters, movers and shakers in the Communist Party. No, some began as simple police men and women or administrative officials who believed that they could improve their own lives and family circumstances by cooperating with the Stasi rather than by doing what we would today call, “rocking the boat.” This is how we all may become Stasi, we start small. Then we begin to obey only the needs and pleasures of those above us in our political or organizational networks. Next, as we realize we have lost the respect of our co-workers and neighbors,  we begin enjoying our authority and autonomy over them more and more. It becomes a way to punish people for not making us feel wonderful about ourselves as we move up through such  organization charts.

Boat Rockers, people like young Matthaias Domaschk, resisted these games, laughed at the Stasi pretense to importance and power, and failed to offer adequate praise and gratitude to the local Stasi officials.  The Stasi  retaliated by making Matthaias’ life increasingly unbearable.   They would bring him in for interrogations, on fabricated complaints that they did not even explain to him.   They pretended to want information yet they also claimed to have already any information that it would take to enable a conviction. They pretended to have state sanction for their increasing authority. And the Party Leaders? They were, themselves, so incompetent and so incurious about what was really going on that they never even saw the need to reel in the subaltern Stasi staffers.

Matthaias did not cooperate. In fact, because of his public resistance, more of the Jena public began to openly resist the Stasi routines as well. With numbers came courage, the local Stasi division head decided that something must be done.

And it was.

Another interrogation gone badly. There were reports to write and some slight explanations to concoct. But Matthaias died of mysterious causes while undergoing one of these interrogations.  So at the plot level of this true  story the local Stasi administrator won. That Stasi subaltern probably outlived the Stasi itself and then received a pension for a retirement comfortable enough for a working person.  His neighbors and family probably know of his prior career as a Stasi underling, but out of politeness they rarely mention it.

The loser in this story, Matthaias, got a little brass name plate on the door of his parents home on a busy street in Northeastern Jena.  He is also one of the individuals named in the Stasi monument as a victim of their methods. Matthaias lives on in the love of the Jena people in the stories they tell themselves about how and why they finally were encouraged to stand up against banal tyranny.   Fifty years from now, no student will ever learn the name of the Stasi flunky. But they will be visiting this memorial and writing essays about the importance of Matthaias Domaschk the boat rocker.


Don’t you wonder if that retired old man who conducted the interrogation ever walks his dog in Jena? Wonder what he thinks each time he passes this monument.

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Where was Joe this time? Punks vs. Sycophants

Back when Education Majors were Punks…

This post is intended to stand as a memorial to the historically verifiable fact that democracy depends on punks, not the compliant and well-behaved, upstanding, well groomed, appropriately attired, and overly polite.  This second and much larger group  usually helps to create and sustain oligarchies, totalitarian regimes, and feudal forms of governance.  But punks, ah the punks, are what make and keep a great nation free and great.

So back in 1755 a child was born in Coventry, Connecticut to Richard and Elizabeth Hale.  At 14 years, this youngster went off to New Haven to get educated at a place called Yale. He joined a frat and still graduated among the top of his class. A scholar of Latin (today we would call this an “Ed Major”), Nate would, in many ways, waste his education; because as soon as he graduated he up and joined an illegal paramilitary group that was beginning to call itself, the “Continental Army.”  Worse, as the lawful government forces were striving to put down the disturbance caused by the scofflaw insurgency, Nate volunteered to spy on the Government forces who were winning nearly every battle of the war, while losing the hearts and minds of the people.

Sad Story:  Nate got caught. Quickly tried as a spy and offered a chance to plea for mercy, Nate instead opted to be a boneheaded punk for his new country.  As they put the noose around his neck this felon is reputed to have expressed only one regret for his actions.   Do you remember what this regret was? Image

Here is Joe at the Yale Club, formed by Alumni of Nate’s Alma mater. (See the little “Y” overlaid with the “C” over Joe’s right shoulder here?)

Coincidentally, this is the place where young Nathan was hanged, on September 22, 1776. Image

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Greatest Holiday Wishes Ever Sent By A Philosopher


“Now let me suggest first that if we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone; no nation can live alone, and as long as we try, the more we are going to have war in this world. Now the judgment of God is upon us, and we must either learn to live together as brothers or we are all going to perish together as fools.

Yes, as nations and individuals, we are interdependent. I have spoken to you before of our visit to India some years ago. It was a marvelous experience; but I say to you this morning that there were those depressing moments. How can one avoid being depressed when one sees with one’s own eyes evidences of millions of people going to bed hungry at night? How can one avoid being depressed when one sees with ones own eyes thousands of people sleeping on the sidewalks at night? More than a million people sleep on the sidewalks of Bombay every night; more than half a million sleep on the sidewalks of Calcutta every night. They have no houses to go into. They have no beds to sleep in. As I beheld these conditions, something within me cried out: “Can we in America stand idly by and not be concerned?” And an answer came: “Oh, no!” And I started thinking about the fact that right here in our country we spend millions of dollars every day to store surplus food; and I said to myself: “I know where we can store that food free of charge? in the wrinkled stomachs of the millions of God’s children in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and even in our own nation, who go to bed hungry at night.”

It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality. Did you ever stop to think that you can’t leave for your job in the morning without being dependent on most of the world? You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom and reach over for the sponge, and that’s handed to you by a Pacific islander. You reach for a bar of soap, and that’s given to you at the hands of a Frenchman. And then you go into the kitchen to drink your coffee for the morning, and that’s poured into your cup by a South American. And maybe you want tea: that’s poured into your cup by a Chinese. Or maybe you’re desirous of having cocoa for breakfast, and that’s poured into your cup by a West African. And then you reach over for your toast, and that’s given to you at the hands of an English-speaking farmer, not to mention the baker. And before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half of the world. This is the way our universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality. We aren’t going to have peace on earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality.

Now let me say, secondly, that if we are to have peace in the world, men and nations must embrace the nonviolent affirmation that ends and means must cohere. One of the great philosophical debates of history has been over the whole question of means and ends. And there have always been those who argued that the end justifies the means, that the means really aren’t important. The important thing is to get to the end, you see.

So, if you’re seeking to develop a just society, they say, the important thing is to get there, and the means are really unimportant; any means will do so long as they get you there? they may be violent, they may be untruthful means; they may even be unjust means to a just end. There have been those who have argued this throughout history. But we will never have peace in the world until men everywhere recognize that ends are not cut off from means, because the means represent the ideal in the making, and the end in process, and ultimately you can’t reach good ends through evil means, because the means represent the seed and the end represents the tree.

It’s one of the strangest things that all the great military geniuses of the world have talked about peace. The conquerors of old who came killing in pursuit of peace, Alexander, Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, and Napoleon, were akin in seeking a peaceful world order. If you will read Mein Kampf closely enough, you will discover that Hitler contended that everything he did in Germany was for peace. And the leaders of the world today talk eloquently about peace. Every time we drop our bombs in North Vietnam, President Johnson talks eloquently about peace. What is the problem? They are talking about peace as a distant goal, as an end we seek, but one day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal we seek, but that it is a means by which we arrive at that goal. We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means. All of this is saying that, in the final analysis, means and ends must cohere because the end is pre-existent in the means, and ultimately destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends.”

—  Martin Luther King, Jr.,   Excerpted from his “Christmas Sermon” given at Ebenezer Baptist Church, December 24, 1967.

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