We’re #96! We’re #96! . . . . Now What?

Now that the dust has settled and we’ve collected our t-shirts celebrating the fact that Saint Anselm College has broken into US News and World Report’s list of the top 100 liberal arts colleges in America (tied at #95), it’s time for a sober assessment of what our newfound status actually means. As recently as two years ago, Saint Anselm College was ranked #115. Last year, the college reached #106. Are we that much better than two years ago? What’s going on?

The short answer is that while we may be getting better, we’re not getting that much better that fast. In large part, our rise in the rankings has to do with modifications that US News and World Report (USN&WR) has made to its calculations. The weights in the ranking formula break down into the following manner:

Outcomes (35%)

  • social mobility (5%)
  • graduation and retention rates (22%)
  • graduation rate performance (8%)

Faculty Resources (20%)

  • class size (8%)
  • faculty salaries (7%)
  • full-time faculty with highest possible degree in field (3%)
  • student-faculty ratio (1%)
  • proportion of faculty that is full-time (1%)

Expert Opinion (20%)

  • peer assessment (15%)
  • high school counselor assessment (5%)

Financial Resources (10%)

Student Excellence (10%)

  • standardized test scores (7.75%)
  • high school class standing (2.25%)

Alumni Giving (5%)

These weights represent a change from last year:

  • Outcomes were upgraded from 30% to 35%. This was done by adding the social mobility category (5%) which is based on the graduation rates of those with Pell Grants. Graduation and retention rates were lowered from 22.5% to 22%, and the category of graduation rate performance was raised from 7.5% to 8%.
  • Expert opinion was downgraded from 22.5% to 20%. In the case of liberal arts colleges, this was mainly because the high school counselor assessment was nudged downward from 7.5% to 5%.
  • Finally, Student Excellence was pushed down from 12.5% to 10%. This change was accomplished by eliminating the acceptance rate (1.25%) and reducing the weight of standardized testing as well as class standing.

These changes undoubtedly played to our strengths and downplayed our weaknesses. First, we have always done rather well with outcomes. USN&WR measures this category rather narrowly, but in other rankings—Forbes, Money Magazine, and The Economist—which look at postgraduate experiences, Saint Anselm College always ranks fairly high in return on investment. In other words, our alumni go on to get higher-paying jobs than one would expect from looking at their backgrounds. Second, diminishing the value of the high school counselor assessment probably did us no harm; Saint Anselm College has a very good regional reputation but is largely unknown outside of New England. Third, lightening the weight of the student excellence category probably helped. Saint Anselm College is not terribly selective, while the test scores and class ranks are above average but not spectacular.

There’s no denying that the USN&WR rankings are problematic. They are a strange mix of fact and personal opinion. USN&WR claims that “hard objective data alone determine each school’s rank” but it relies on “expert opinion” which is hardly hard or objective. Moreover, the weight assigned to each category is arbitrary, the product of somebody’s opinion. One Thing after Another is not terribly original in pointing out these problems; one can find many criticisms of the rankings.

Having said all that, Saint Anselm College has earned this recognition, even if that recognition is based on faulty premises. The faculty, by and large, is conscientious and strives to do its best by students. For example, in recent years, the History Department has made a number of changes to the major—including the introduction of new courses, an emphasis on student research, and a stress on internships. And our department is not alone in making such changes. On paper, we are not a selective college. Nonetheless, we obtain good classes because half of our students come from Massachusetts which has the best public schools in the nation (New Hampshire, from which another quarter of our students hail, ranks very highly in this category as well). And we can see in the classroom the good results yielded by Admissions. The curriculum, while not without its defects, still provides students with a broad liberal arts education along with an appreciation for learning. Our alumni go on to lead valuable, productive, and fulfilling lives. Several years out, our former students earn more than graduates from our peer institutions. This blog knows all of these things first hand; One Thing after Another has taught at the college for over fifteen years, and it remains in touch with many alums. It is often satisfying to contemplate the works of our students and graduates. This blog won’t claim that Saint Anselm College has discovered some magic formula for success, but what we do here generally seems to work. We take above-average students and make them better. As we strive to improve, let’s keep in mind that we seem to be pretty good at undergraduate education; it might not be the worst idea to double-down on what we do best.

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Lefrancois at the Worcester District Attorney’s Office

Recently, history major Kevin Lefrancois ’15 got back in touch with the department to say hello and ask for letters of recommendation as he applied to MA programs in International Relations. We were really interested in his job at the Worcester District Attorney’s Office, so we asked him a few questions about his time there and how it intersected with his major in history.

Q: What drew you to Saint Anselm College?

A: I applied to about 10 different schools throughout the country. I had already decided that I would be pursuing a history or political science degree which helped me limit my options, but after visiting the school and quickly seeing myself walk across the quad and past the Abbey to attend classes, it quickly became apparent to me that St. A’s would be one of my top choices. I had attended a Catholic high school, which also helped me to feel more at home and lean even closer to choosing Saint A’s. Ultimately, the decision came down to the fact that Saint A’s was the only institution in my opinion that had a strong combination of devoted staff and unique course offerings for both majors. During Accepted Students’ Day I quickly struck up conversations with professors from both departments and saw their enthusiasm for their subjects which made me feel like even more at home.

Q: Why did you major in history? Did you think about criminal justice?

A: For me, history covers all aspects of a society including art, literature, science, religion, law and politics. I have thus always appreciated the subject. Also an astute observer of history may predict future trends. When I looked at the course catalogue and saw the range of topics, from Ancient Rome to the Modern History of Japan, I knew that I would be given the opportunity to expand my knowledge of the world in new and exciting ways. A fascinating aspect of history for me has been the development of law across different nations and people. Every country has its own way of judging morality, especially in the form of criminal justice. I had developed an interest in criminal justice during my high school years by participating in my school’s mock trial program. There I acquired insight into the basics of the American criminal justice system and how a trial is supposed to proceed. I quickly knew that I would love to work someday as an attorney who brought justice to others.

Q: What was your most memorable experience in history (or at SAC)?

A: The most memorable time for me at Saint Anselm College was the opportunity I was given to assemble the audio and presentation equipment for the Humanities lectures. The Humanities program was one of my favorite courses of study during my time at Saint A’s since it was then an extensive history seminar program that covered centuries of western civilization’s development. During these assembly sessions I was given the golden opportunity to converse with the professors and lecturers before they would address the crowd, giving me some key insights into various subjects.

Q: When did you first know you were interested in law? How did you get your foot in the door at the District Attorney’s Office?

A: I first became interested in law in high school, and I joined the mock trial team. Junior year I acted as an expert witness and had to learn to stand up under the examination and cross-examination of the prosecuting attorney, a challenging exercise in clearly articulating complicated legal concepts under pressure. This particular case dealt with white-collar crime, but senior year I had the chance to deal with a manslaughter investigation which kindled my true interest. I played the role of a police officer and had to learn forensic techniques by heart to provide expert testimony. I had a glimpse of the painstaking load law enforcement shoulders to prosecute a case properly. My fascination with law continued into college, and sophomore year at St. A’s I started looking for internships. My search brought me to Worcester, MA where I interned with the Worcester District Attorney’s Office for the next several years. I had a chance to impress the District Attorney himself with my work, and upon graduation I was offered a job.

Q: What do you do every day?

A: At first I worked as the Juvenile Court Administrator for the District Attorney’s Office. I worked with the Department of Children and Families, gang violence, drugs, firearms, and more. I organized the juvenile cases and assisted the attorneys in their trial preparation. In addition, I was a Trial Court Assistant, which involved presenting evidence, technical support, and in-court assistance to prosecutors. Usually I worked with homicide cases at the District Court level. After a year, I was promoted to Internship Coordinator in which capacity I interviewed, hired, and supervised hundreds of interns. I ensured that they had opportunities to handle casework, shadow attorneys, and otherwise have opportunities for hands-on education in the legal profession. Finally, I was also responsible for community outreach which often involved presentations at businesses, schools, and community centers within the county.

Q: What do you do on the Opioid Crisis Task Force? Do you feel like you are making any headway in this crisis? Do you focus on law enforcement, education, treatment, or some other aspect of this problem?

A: I worked with the Opioid Addiction Task Force created by the District Attorney. The Task Force was responsible for innovative programs intended to curb widespread drug abuse in Worcester County and was expressly tailored to community needs. Worcester County includes over 60 different towns in addition to the city, which meant working side-by-side with community leaders in all walks of life. I represented the District Attorney at many working meetings with these leaders. In addition I was responsible for the maintenance of the Opioid Addiction Resource List, which included rehabilitation clinics, hospitals, halfway houses, and other organizations that offer support to those suffering from opioid addiction. I especially focused on the families. We tried to walk a fine line between prosecution and rehabilitation of those suffering from opioid addiction, which included providing police officers with various alternative means of justice, such as education or medical support. Opioid deaths decreased rapidly in Worcester County, a strong sign of success. Our education initiatives were, in my view, particularly effective at a grass-roots level.

Graduating Seniors Remember Professor Shannon’s Conversatio Section

In addition to teaching history courses, some History faculty also teach in the first-year Conversatio program.  Because it is a required course for all first-year students, History faculty get to teach a wide variety of students with majors across all the disciplines. Four years ago, Professor Silvia Shannon had a particularly lively and engaged seminar.

Participant Theodore (Ted) Boivin ’18 described it “as one of the best highlights of my freshman year. We had a truly wonderful group with some excellent discussions on a wide array of topics, debating everything from ancient Greek tragedy to 20th-century bioethics, sharing diverse perspectives on the material.”

Four years later, the students still remembered the seminar and their experience together.  As Ted wrote, “While we were being lined up for the procession into the Honors Convocation [in May 2018], Andrew Bompastore and I noticed that, of the twenty-eight students who achieved Summa Cum Laude status this year, seven of us were all in Professor Shannon’s Conversatio section: Olive Capone, Maddie Dunn, Emily Garcia, Erin Krell, Olivia Thornburg, and Andrew and me. We took a picture to send to you as a Conversatio throwback with our thanks for such an amazing start to our four years! We couldn’t have done it without you!”

A Classics major and History minor, Ted is headed off to the University of Cincinnati for a PhD in classical philology (the study of the life, languages, and thought of the Ancient Greek and Roman worlds). Biology major and Neuroscience minor Erin Krell is pursuing graduate studies in psychology at the University of New Hampshire. Education Studies major and Philosophy minor Olive Capone is pursuing teaching positions in New York State.

All faculty know that the success of a seminar requires a combination of excellent teaching skill, careful listening, curious and engaged students, and a little luck. Congratulations to Professor Shannon and these class of 2018 grads on one great seminar.

Yet Another Post in Defense of History and the Humanities

Yes, One Thing after Another has been silent for some time. This blog has not been slumbering. Rather, our good blogger has been very busy performing a variety of tasks associated with his job, including research, service, and preparation for fall classes. Despite a very long “to do” list, One Thing after Another has been spurred to action by a recent article authored by Stanley Fish entitled, “Stop Trying to Sell the Humanities.”

https://www.chronicle.com/article/Stop-Trying-to-Sell-the/243643?key=m1JvRRyygNd0EHj5AaFoO0ti00iCHCUA2K5ZxC8dMYxDxHtupVA2vVdwCkhaYR63dmtqcHlDbzFCVllkSGhIczZsMXBNMGRlUVpJWFdFUjRSR1cxNS01VnN2SQ

Fish, who is professor of law at Florida International University and a visiting professor at Cardozo Law School of Yeshiva University, first attained prominence as a literary scholar, so he speaks (or writes) with some sympathy for the plight of the humanities. It makes sense to trace his argument before coming to terms with it.

Fish commences his essay by following the philosopher and political theorist Michael Oakeshott who, in turn, seems to be following Aristotle. Education, so the argument goes, should be pursued for its own sake, not some “ulterior motive” like job skills. Once education is inspired by ulterior motives of this sort, it is no longer education because it is no longer true to itself. So when the time comes for public universities to defend the humanities in front of the state legislature, these schools should admit that there is no defense—or at least no intellectually consistent defense that is outside of the humanities’ own frame of reference which is knowledge for its own sake.

Fish proceeds to demolish the various justifications for the humanities that are frequently adduced by its defenders.

  • To the belief that the humanities provide students with indispensable language skills that help uphold culture, hold society together, and produce knowledge, Fish counters that this is an “in-house argument” unlikely to sway legislators.
  • When confronted with the argument that the humanities are useful because they teach us important everyday skills (e.g. writing), Fish states that one need not study “Byzantine art or lesbian poetry” to learn those skills.
  • As for the idea that the humanities lead to the happiness that one associates with a “fuller experience of life,” Fish responds that years of study have not necessarily made him a better person inspired by the highest motives.
  • The argument that democracy needs humanities professors to guide it and that students who engage with the liberal arts are better citizens also receives short shrift from Fish; he believes the former smacks of “elitism” and “academic exceptionalism” while the latter is only incidental to a college educational (and questionable at best).

Better to admit that there are no defenses of the humanities extrinsic to itself than to build our citadel on sand or so Fish claims.

One Thing or Another has encountered somewhat similar arguments before. Some months ago, this blog responded to an essay by the classicist Justin Stover that also claimed traditional defenses of the humanities were both wrong and futile (although he made more of the fact that the humanities have always been about sustaining an intellectual class—something that Fish only alludes to). There is much validity to such arguments. After all, how can we declare that the humanities make us better citizens and people when Alcibiades, who learned at the feet of Socrates, turned out the way he did? (See the two above as depicted by François-André Vincent, who painted this scene in 1775.)

And yet . . . One Thing after Another is unable to capitulate to such arguments. Perhaps this blog continues to writhe like a worm on a fish hook, struggling against its fate, because it cannot accept the ultimate destiny of the humanities which, according to Fish and Stover, seems to be some sort of marginal place where lovers of books and arcane topics gather together to follow their cranky dreams.  In any event, this blog will leave it to the other disciplines in the humanities to defend themselves; what follows is a defense of history.

This blog will concede that it became interested in history for its own sake. And yes, if the study of history has given a fullness to this blogger’s life, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a better or happier person than other people. And maybe One Thing after Another has not been a model citizen. And sure, studying history was not indispensable to becoming a good writer—this blogger could have learned to write in many other disciplines. Having conceded all of these points, this blog still believes history is important and that everybody should study it. Why? First, because it is interesting, and since it is interesting, it can be the spur to learning how to read, think, and write. In other words, it is a convenient medium by which to teach all those skills that people need. Yes, the History Channel has gone downhill since its glory days, but do you ever wonder why there is a History Channel and, say, no Chemistry or Sociology Channel? Many people find history fascinating, and they will willingly write papers on the subject or read books about it when they might not be willing to do so in other subjects. Second, history shows us that the world has not always been as it is today. The discipline allows us to understand the different outlooks of various civilizations. That being the case, we can gain perspective on our own time and consider alternative modes to our present way of doing things. Third, history shows us how we got to where we are today. There is no understanding the European Union, the conflict in Gaza, or the Chinese government’s current outlook (to name just three contemporary examples) without some reference to the past. No matter where we live, we are in the middle of a long story with no beginning or end, but to understand the chapter we are currently reading, it helps to know the ones that came before. Finally, the study of history can sharpen our judgment of people and events. If we are careful, we can even make valuable analogies with times past. Learning these skills, obtaining this knowledge, and honing this judgment might be inspired by the love of history for its own sake (as Fish argues). But are these not valuable incidentals? Do they not have the potential to turn us into better citizens and leaders should we choose to be such? Is it not better to know a bit about history rather than be confined by both time and place, utterly bereft of any experience outside our own immediate ambit? One Thing after Another grants that these things could perhaps be learned outside the university—but the task of learning them would be that much more arduous. Perhaps the university is the place at least for history.

History Department Inducts New Members into Phi Alpha Theta

On Thursday, April 26, the History Department inducted nine new members of the Sigma Omega chapter of the History Honor Society Phi Alpha Theta. PAT promotes the study of history through intellectual and social exchanges between history students and faculty, and among historians.  Professor Sean Perrone welcomed the many parents, siblings and friends who attended. Current members Colleen Gaughan ’18 and Lily-Gre Hitchen ’18 read the oath of induction, and then presented certificates to the new members. We are honored to welcome the following students into the chapter. The following history majors were inducted:  William Bearce ‘19,  Thomas Gillespie ’19, Sarah Hummel ’19, Emily Lowe ’19, Tim Stap ’19, Gregory Valcourt ’19, Caitlin Williamson ’19  History minors included Rebecca O’Keeffe ’18, Andrew Shue ’18.

Eligibility for Phi Alpha Theta includes four courses in History, with a minimum 3.1 GPA in History and 3.0 GPA overall.  Members are inducted for life, and receive a one-year subscription to the The Historian.  Members are eligible for undergraduate and graduate fellowships, paper prizes, and participation in annual Phi Alpha Theta conferences. There are 970 PAT chapters across the United States and 35 regional meetings nationwide each spring.

Recollections about Saint Anselm College in the 1960s–Part II

Last fall, Saint Anselm alumnus Dave Witham ’68 contacted Professor Masur after learning about his course on the Vietnam War. Professor Masur asked Mr. Witham if he would be willing to share some recollections about attending Saint Anselm during a very tumultuous time in American history. This is the second part of the interview. The first part can be seen here.

Question: Some campuses had demonstrations and experienced tension between students and administrators. Was that the case at St. Anselm?

Answer: The demonstrations, protests, and seizure of administration buildings that occurred at many college campuses across the country stemmed from young people’s—and a minority of older adults’–increasingly cynical attitude toward official explanations for institutional policies and actions.

Dave Witham a few years after his college days

I remember only one demonstration at St. Anselm, a quiet protest organized by our antiwar group in which we set up a table on the opposite side of the room from a Marine recruiter and his table. We had assembled a variety of literature giving background information on the war and explaining how American involvement was a tragic mistake. It was a totally low-key effort designed primarily to inform our fellow students who hadn’t looked more deeply into the conflict of some dissenting voices (such as Senators McGovern, Morse, McCarthy, and Fulbright) in the government and those (in such magazines as The New Republic and by respected TV reporters like Walter Cronkite) in the mass media. Otherwise I remember student ferment St. Anselm over the war as being generally negligible.

However, one event worth mentioning was the appearance during the second half of my freshman year of a group of pacifists, who had been invited to visit by the Political Science Dept. Struggling to pass my courses and not yet politically engaged, I passed by them as they stood behind tables in the Old Cafe and argued loudly with my fellow Anselmians—whether over pacifist principles and methods as an alternative to war or over their opposition to the war in Vietnam, I didn’t hang around long enough to know.

Later that evening, the group appeared in the Abbey Theater in a presentation followed by a Q & A session moderated by PoliSci Prof. Sampo. Etched in my memory after 54 years is his stepping forward and saying, “Now stop that!,” in a scolding tone to some students in the audience who had interrupted statements from the panelists with catcalls or a pejorative comment. Eventually Prof. Schmidt, who had emigrated from Nazi Germany, from the Economics Dept. stood and delivered a lengthy criticism of the pacifists’ naivete in believing that nonviolent tactics would deter a tyrant intent on leading his nation to world domination. Like many Americans and administration policymakers, he assumed that the North Vietnamese under their leader Ho Chi Minh and their Viet Cong fighters in the South were the latest manifestation of a similar genocidal Communist ideology. After he finished his impassioned monologue, the entire audience leaped to its feet and gave him a thunderous ovation—including me, who wasn’t brave enough to stay seated, especially as I didn’t have enough information about these subjects to justify applauding the professor’s opinion. A long-time friend and classmate (since first grade) of mine from Bangor was sitting next to me, but didn’t stand up as others did. When a fellow student sitting nearby leaned over and asked him why he wasn’t cheering, he replied, “I don’t agree with him.” When I asked him later why he disagreed with Prof. Schmidt’s perspective, he told me that it was a mistake to equate every conflict in the world—even if seemingly Communist inspired—with Hitler’s aggression, whose appeasement led to WWII. Intrigued by his comment, I resolved to become much more knowledgeable about such issues.

Q: One of the most tragic events in the spring of 1968 was the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4. What do you remember about his death? How did students respond?

A: My main recollection about the reaction to Martin Luther King’s assassination was Americans’–at least the majority of them—shock and dismay upon hearing or reading the news. The prevailing emotion among those in my group of campus friends, all of whom were supporters of King’s leadership of the NAACP and its struggle for civil rights for African-Americans, was a strong sense of despair. With the nation’s military bogged down in the intractable conflict in Southeast Asia; high rates of crime and poverty in our major cities; recent riots in reaction to racism in housing, employment, and social status in many of those same cities; and frequent violent protest (including bombings at universities and military facilities) against the war, complemented by police brutality (as would follow shortly at the Democratic Convention in Chicago) against peaceful demonstrators, the overriding perception among citizens of all ages and backgrounds was that violence was consuming our society.

The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis, Tennessee

Q: When we look back at the spring of 1968, we tend to focus on the chaos and unrest: The Vietnam War was in full swing, American politics were in flux, and one of America’s most prominent leader had been assassinated. Did it feel like a chaotic and portentous time? Did it feel like the country was falling apart, which is how we often depict 1968? Or did it feel more “normal” for you and your classmates?

A: In the spring of my senior year of 1968 as I learned more through research and reading of the scale of the destruction throughout Vietnam, I felt as though the members of the Johnson Administration and our military policymakers and officers had descended into madness. Amid the killing of what ultimately would be more than three-million soldiers and civilians in an impoverished Third-World country, no explanation for such carnage seemed credible. In fact, the reasons for it changed repeatedly over time, so it’s difficult to remember what exactly the official version was in 1968. Was the U. S. presence needed to protect the freedom-loving people of South Vietnam from the Communist invaders from the North? Or was all of Southeast Asia susceptible to worldwide Moscow- and Beijing-driven aggression? Or was the U. S. itself threatened by whoever might eventually govern a small country with no air force and only a torpedo-boat navy 10,000 miles away? Or, in Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s colorful expression, was our client state at the mercy of Chinese Communist soldiers who could cross the border while carrying a nuclear weapon on their back? That ludicrous comment and the visual image that it evoked convinced me that no statement was too dishonest and despicable to reject in justifying what to increasingly more Americans seemed monstrous war crimes.

The Vietnam tragedy was unfolding in the wake of several years of urban riots in the minority neighborhoods of such cities as Detroit, LA, Chicago, Washington, DC, and New York City, with staggering loss of life and property. High crime rates also afflicted our society, accompanied by pervasive gun violence and bias toward minorities in the criminal justice system. And the Great Society programs implemented under President Johnson were in 1968 being compromised by the excessive cost of waging war in Vietnam. As for the soldiers forcibly inducted into the armed services, many Americans at this time cringed at the irony of an army of slaves marching off to protect another country’s supposed freedoms under the dictator Diem, who repressed dissent in So. Vietnam and who was later murdered by ARVN officers conspiring with Kennedy administration officials.

Riots in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention

The culmination of the widespread violence and perceived chaos in the spring and early summer of 1968—especially profoundly felt after Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Robert Kennedy’s assassination—was the Democratic Convention in Chicago. Preceded unfortunately by the destructive “Days of Rage” rampage through city streets by the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), the convention degenerated into a perceived undemocratic, smoke-filled backroom selection by the party regulars of Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, who had entered not a single primary but became the nominee. One of the convention’s highlights (or more degrading moments) was the accusation from the dais by CT Senator Abe Ribicoff that Mayor Daley had unleashed his “gestapo” upon peaceful demonstrators in Grant Park. It was a sight to behold as Daley leaped to his feet among the Illinois delegation and hurled curses at Ribicoff, all of the exchange captured on camera. The resulting “police riot,” as judged by a commission that later studied the event, subjected the protestors and even passersby to random beatings and arrest. Television captured it all as the crowd chanted, “The whole world is watching, the whole world is watching.” It seemed to me as I watched that disorder and lawlessness—most of it created by federal and state authorities, whether in Chicago or in Southeast Asia—had indeed become normalized. Students and others wishing to view the event can access the Youtube website, type in “Chicago police riot 1968,” and link to “Chicago Convention 1968” and other titles.

Recollections about Saint Anselm College in the 1960s

Last fall, Saint Anselm alumnus Dave Witham ’68 contacted Professor Masur after learning about his course on the Vietnam War. Professor Masur asked Mr. Witham if he would be willing to share some recollections about attending Saint Anselm during a very tumultuous time in American history. The first part of the interview appears below. We’ll post the second part of the interview separately.

Q: Can you start by giving me a little bit of your background? Where are you from? When did you attend St. Anselm and what did you study?

A: I grew up in Bangor, ME, during the 1950s and early 1960s and attended John Bapst H. S., a Catholic school in the city. It was a time when across the kitchen table and in the mass media U. S. foreign policy and military involvements were rarely questioned. I graduated in 1964 and began my freshman year at St. Anselm the following September.

Dave Witham a few years after his college days

I declared as an English major at the beginning of my sophomore year. Because of my interest in history—especially military history—I enrolled in several courses over the four years in that department. Having such an engaging and demanding (in the sense of requiring us to know and to try through hard work to remember facts—and not of the fake variety) teacher as Fr. Justin in Western Civilization (or From Plato to NATO, as I now call it) helped greatly in developing my love of the subject matter. My accompanying affection for biography and autobiography is probably a direct result of my desire to know in greater detail the lives of important and fascinating people that I had encountered in my historical studies.

As an English major, the important writers, poets, and playwrights—for example, Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, Donne, William Collins, Yeats, Joyce, Twain, Stephen Crane, Stevens, Faulkner, Baldwin,  and Jarrell, but alas, no Whitman or Dickinson until graduate school—that I encountered either in class or as reading recommendations by classmates initiated a lifetime of literary study. During my senior year I decided to become an English teacher and so had to take quickly enough education courses—including student-teaching at a Catholic high school in Manchester—to constitute a minor course of study.

Dave Witham while a St. A’s student

Q: 1968 was a big year in the United States and internationally. One important event at the beginning of the year was the Tet Offensive, up to that point the largest NLF/North Vietnamese campaign in the Vietnam War. What do you remember about the Tet Offensive?  Were people talking about it on campus?

A: Because nearly all students graduating from St. A’s during the years 1964-68 were draft eligible once their student deferment expired, the prevalent attitude that I recall was one of “whistling past a graveyard,” generally ignoring (except for a small group of students of whom I was a member) this horrific, seemingly interminable conflict in the hope that it would end prior to our graduation in 1968. News of the Tet Offensive dispelled that illusion, though I don’t recall much campus discussion of it. I remember thinking at the time that it was just one more disaster flowing from U. S. policy, a logical complement to U. S. weekly losses at times of around 250 soldiers and airmen. The Nixon Administration and such military leaders as Army Gen. William Westmoreland (also known among war protesters as “Waste-more-land”) portrayed the Tet Offensive as a U. S./ARVN victory due to the heavy NLF losses. However, over the next few weeks the increasingly skeptical commentary in newspaper editorials (but certainly not the then right-wing Union Leader) and some members of Congress centered on the fact that previous optimistic predictions about “a light at the end of the tunnel” were either outright lies or delusional opinions.

The ability of the enemy to launch attacks throughout South Vietnam attested to their military strength and persistence. As Mark Bowden, author of Blackhawk Down, states in his book on the battle of Hue, no longer was the question among many Americans, “When will we achieve victory?,” but rather “How will we get out of this morass?”

Q: The war in Vietnam prompted Senator Eugene McCarthy to challenge President Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic presidential nomination in early 1968.  What was your role in the McCarthy campaign? What drew you to McCarthy?

A: Senator McCarthy was one of only a few in Congress who addressed the immorality of inflicting modern weapons of war upon a third-world country, an unleashing of massive bombing campaigns (whose tonnage exceeded that of all U.S. airpower in WWII), unrestrained use of herbicides such as Agent Orange (still causing birth defects in Vietnam), and search-and-destroy tactics by U.S./ARVN ground forces.

Pat Fox (friend of Dave Witham) with Senator Eugene McCarthy

McCarthy’s call for an unconditional end to U. S. bombing of the North, for greater reliance upon a diplomatic end to the conflict, and for the administration’s recognition of the immoral ways in which the war was being prosecuted elicited widespread agreement among students and adult voters alike (a campaign very similar in its emotional tenor to that of Bernie Sanders’s recent run). I and several of my friends and classmates worked for him in the upcoming NH Primary; our duties included mostly passing out literature in the severe cold at various Manchester locations. In retrospect it was basically only our moral outrage at this unending, terrible conflict (eventually taking more than 3,000,000 Vietnamese soldier and civilian lives and that of more than 58,000 Americans) that could have motivated us to leave the warmth of the dorm and our academic obligations.

Q: What was the atmosphere on campus, particularly in regard to the war and the presidential election? Were students politically engaged?  Did students have strong opinions about the war in Vietnam?

A: During my four years at St. Anselm, the campus did not experience the same kinds of demonstrations—marches against the Vietnam War, protests against some universities’ perceived complicity with immoral military weapons research and objectives, and occupation of administration buildings and laboratories to support demands for minority and women’s studies programs—occurring at other institutions, especially as Presidents Johnson and Nixon greatly increased the numbers of soldiers and Marines and escalated the bombing campaign beginning in 1965. Except for the group that I mentioned above and some individual students and faculty members who voiced either concern about or opposition to U. S. military involvement in Vietnam, the student body at large was generally oblivious to events there through about the end of the school year in 1967.

As we seniors returned for our final year, Sen. McCarthy announced his candidacy during the fall, which served to galvanize a portion—say, around a quarter–of the student body in its opposition to the seemingly unending horrific loss of life and widespread destruction in Vietnam. The great majority of students seemed to accept unquestioningly (a typical attitude for draft-eligible young people from the end of WWII through the Korean War and beyond) the narrative of the monolithic Communist Menace.

So both the public and young people subjected to a compulsory draft were generally unaware that there was no Independent North Vietnam invading a struggling So. Vietnam that sought its own autonomy. I learned of the thwarted Geneva Accords only by reading an account in a book by the French journalist Bernard Fall, who had spent years reporting on events in Vietnam. That sealed the issue for me:  U. S. intervention on behalf of (followed years later by the assassination of) the self-aggrandizing Diem totally contravened the desire of the majority of the Vietnamese people for self-determination. It was this faulty foundation of U. S. policy and the later immoral prosecution of the war that solidified my opposition to it.

In retrospect, one tactic that any St. Anselm faculty member concerned about U. S. foreign policy and its application—especially regarding the use of force—to Vietnam could have implemented was one that existed on many college campuses across the country: the teach-in. My understanding of this kind of on-site gathering, as described in news reports and magazine articles, was that an institution’s instructors conducted informational sessions about the war. Having researched Vietnamese history (especially during its nearly century-long struggle against French colonialism) and American political and military involvement in Southeast Asia after the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, they presented the facts as they saw them about third-world nationalism, alleged monolithic Communism, America’s apparent anti-Communist crusade, and the morality of its conduct of the war. I assumed that lively discussion and debate ensued after each of these presentations.

At St. Anselm, however, no faculty member stepped forward to plan and host its own form of a teach-in, and I unfortunately lacked the self-confidence and imagination to approach anyone among the faculty to elicit his or her reaction. So it remains uncertain whether the college administration—despite the provisions of academic freedom–would have acted to prevent such a seminar and even whether faculty members could be expected to speak out beyond the confines of the classroom on matters of public policy, especially when lives wereat stake. On the other hand, I recall vividly in 1967 the appearance of New York attorney and incisive war critic Allard Lowenstein at the student center; although I was unable to attend his lecture, one student told me that he no longer supported the war after listening to Lowenstein’s persuasive arguments.

As for student discussions about the war in Vietnam, they occurred sporadically—usually on an individual basis between members of our small group of antiwar protesters and students who conceived of North Vietnam as a separate nation from the South, and whose Communist aggression was an analogue of the Nazi conquests prior to WWII.  These students tended to subscribe to the highly emphasized (by such administration figures as Johnson, Nixon, Rusk, Laird, and other spokespeople) but ultimately simplistic domino theory, originally articulated by President Eisenhower, in which the loss of So. Vietnam through a policy of appeasement to the Hitlerian figure Ho Chi Minh, or his alleged handlers in Moscow, would inevitably lead to a Communist take-over of all Southeast Asia. As pointed out above in The Pentagon Papers quotation, Pentagon officials were skeptical of this scenario, though several administrations suppressed their opinion.

One common refrain that I heard occasionally over the years on campus whenever the subject of the war and its horrific violence came up was that “Life is cheap in the Orient,” a comment made whenever none of our few Asian students were within earshot. Obviously, it’s tempting to fall back on what we now would consider a racist remark when one is young and hasn’t been encouraged—or taken the time—to question the official line about national policies.  And only a few students or citizens stopped to think that it was the U. S. military’s use of search-and-destroy tactics, indiscriminate bombing, torture of POWs, chemical defoliants, and forced resettlement programs that so devaluated lives in Vietnam or “the Orient.” In fact, I don’t recall hearing the comment after the revelations of the My Lai massacre and the infamous published photo of terrified children running down a road after their clothes had been burned off by napalm and their skin severely damaged.