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Peter Wood

The osage orange trees in Princeton are dropping their crinkly green fruit. By rights there should be no osage orange trees in Princeton, since the tree is native to the bottom lands of Arkansas. But ever since Meriwether Lewis sent President Jefferson some cuttings in 1804, the tree has been rolling its oddly shaped seeds into shady lanes across the country. Osage oranges seem to invite you to pick them up and puzzle over their brainy fissures and bumps. They smell a little orange-like. But what then? You can’t eat them. You can throw them in the pond, if a pond is handy. They float. 

Our thought is that an osage orange would be great gift for Ivy Helman. 

Ms. Helman is a graduate student in women’s studies in religion at Claremont Graduate University. She has just published in The Chronicle of Higher Education a half-plaintive, half-defiant essay, “A Professor Tries to Teach Students to Be Activists,” in which she describes her experience a year ago attempting to teach a freshman seminar at Carroll University in Waukesha, Wisconsin. The seminar was meekly titled, “Raise a Fist, Lend a Hand: Activism and Volunteerism at the Dawn of the 21st Century.” The trouble, as Ms. Helman explains, is that her students seemed immune to “the rewards of activism.” 

Worse, “students simply could not grasp the conceptual difference between activism and volunteering.” Ms. Helman doesn’t blame herself. Lord knows, she tried to explain the difference and to win them over to the side of righteous indignation against the stultifying oppression of American society. But she could not overcome “their apathy, lack of interest, and attempts to stay in their comfort zones.” She required they each spend ten hours engaged in “issue-based activism.” They thwarted her by volunteering for do-gooder stuff instead. She assigned them inspiring texts such as Ecotactics and Webs of Power: Notes from the Global Uprising (a “brilliant and thrilling account,” says Ms. Helman). Alas, the students skirted the domestic abuse center and lined up to volunteer at an animal rights organization. 

She came to inspire vigilantes but raised vegans instead.

One of the obstacles Ms. Helman faced was that her agenda was, in a cultural sense, urban, and she found Waukesha too “rural.” Activists, presumably, should understand the communities into which they attempt to graft themselves. Ms. Helman may have been out of place, but it is not because Carroll University is rural. UMass Amherst, for example, is more remote from any major city but is steeped in left-wing activism. The resistance that Ms. Helman met probably has deeper roots in the kinds of students attracted to Carroll. 

Ms. Helman, sadder but wiser, reckoned with her experience, “I know that I cannot create in students the passion to be activists.” But all is not lost.    “Someday, when they find something they are passionate about, they'll know how to get involved — and they'll do so because they want to.” 

Well, yes. Perhaps some of her students, having tasted leftist indoctrination in the classroom will grow up to become activists on behalf of academic integrity in the National Association of Scholars!

She did get us interested in Carroll University. What kind of university decides that its first-semester freshmen could use a course titled, “Raise a Fist, Lend a Hand: Activism and Volunteerism at the Dawn of the 21st Century”? A small Christian institution (3,325 students) in suburban Milwaukee that started out in 1841 as “an instrument for civilizing the wilderness, spreading the Gospel and planting the roots of democracy deep in the prairie soil.” This year, building on the sturdy foundation that it offers four graduate degrees, including a clinical doctorate in physical therapy, Carroll College decided it would henceforth be Carroll University. Its mission, however, remains, a simple combination of oil and water—a bit of liberal arts conjoined to vocational preparation. The College doesn’t seem to make much fuss about its sectarian identity:

We will provide a superior educational opportunity to our students, one grounded in the liberal arts tradition and focused on career preparation and lifelong learning.

We will demonstrate Christian values by our example.

We shall succeed in our mission when our graduates are prepared for careers of their choice and lives of fulfillment, service and accomplishment."

This is not exactly a tightly constricting mission. The First Year Seminar is meant “to reflect the mission of the college: Integrated Knowledge, Lifelong Skills, Enduring Values and Gateway Experiences.” To this end, students this fall had choices that included: “Do Doctors Eat Brains?” (“This course will examine contemporary issues related to health and society.”); “Iraq: Withdrawal or Occupation?” (Updated from last year’s title, “Iraq: Quagmire or Opportunity?”); “Guess Where We’re Going for Dinner?” (“Note: this course is less about food and more about making the guesswork thoughtful and intentional.”); and “Harry Potter: Becoming Human—Good, Evil, and Moral Choice.” 

The charitable assumption is that these are mostly good courses with goofy titles chosen to attract immature students. The hitch, however, is that as Ms. Helman’s experience demonstrates, the students sometimes seem to possess more maturity than the teachers. I suspect a good many Carroll University students could do without a freshman seminar walking down Abbey Road again to the tunes of professors Grimshaw’s and Roberts’ class, “The Beatles.” 

Some of the seminars have a New Age ethos. Students can study “Peacemaking through Active Non-Violence,” “Sleep from A to Zzzzz,” and “Creating Your Life Story.” Last year Professor W. Bauer offered, “Courage to Be,” which was rooted in the observation that “we all wish to be authentically empowered.” The course offered freshmen not busy learning how to raise a fist and lend a hand, the opportunity “to discover how you face the things that really float or rock your boat.”

We know the answer. Osage oranges float. Make your boat out of osage oranges. 

Ms. Helman wasn’t the first and won’t be the last graduate student to discover that undergraduate students don’t always share a teacher’s enthusiasms. Her story is arresting in that she is so relaxed in admitting her political agenda and so frankly disappointed to find her students turned off by her brand of activism. For our part, we are heartened to see that her students demonstrated some calm independence faced with a professor who was truly eager to recruit them to her causes. 

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