Richard Scholar


On his book Émigrés: French Words That Turned English

Cover Interview of July 14, 2021


Words that cross languages and cultures are my subject. Why concern myself and readers with these? Such words matter to me, not as self-sufficient objects, but for the stories they tell of what it is to live a human life in history and for the role they play in the making of concepts, practices, and forms in and across cultures. I’m endlessly fascinated by these interactions, particularly as these are found in literature, which shapes and is shaped by language, of course, in unique ways.

I write not so much in defense as in illumination of French émigré words as they have been received and recycled—used, abused, and reused—in Anglophone culture. I treat the particular words I study in detail—words like caprice, naïveté, and ennui—as points of access into a wider exploration of the processes of translingual and transcultural migration in literature and its sister arts. This, then, is a book about translation and its other. Above all, however, it casts light on those untranslated French words that have ‘turned’ English in their movement between languages and their powers of cultural transformation.

We live at a time, of course, when many more English words are ‘turning’ French than the reverse. The historical reasons for this are obvious. After the British empire spread English across the world, the United States entrenched English as a global lingua franca, causing the unprecedented amount of lexical borrowing from English that is currently taking place in French and other languages. The response in the Francophone world to this process of Anglicization is an unresolved mixture of receptivity and resistance. It largely mirrors the Anglophone attitudes I explore in the book towards Frenchification.

What I want to suggest to my readers, above all, is that the current dominant position of English in relation to French ought not to be allowed to conceal a longer and more complex story of linguistic and cultural interaction. Anglophones have borrowed words from French for centuries. Why and how they do, and revealing what attitudes in the process towards French and the foreign, are questions at the heart of Émigrés.

To existing studies I bring an approach that is innovative, in that it yokes together keywords and creolization, two hitherto unrelated concepts in cultural criticism. When combined with due care, I contend, these concepts make unique sense of the processes that have entangled and enriched English and French language and culture in history. For they show untranslated French words not only ‘turning’ English, but making it anew, causing ambivalence and controversy in the process.

The result is an experiment in a cosmopolitan cultural criticism that is sensitive to language, to the vexed social and cultural questions that language raises, and to the dialogue between the arts.

I recognize that the book is, in many ways, a caprice. I will leave it to others to judge whether or not it is also a naïveté. Perhaps my greatest hope is that the book does not cause too much ennui.



Henry M. Cowles


On his book The Scientific Method: An Evolution of Thinking from Darwin to Dewey

Cover Interview of July 07, 2021


History has a lot to teach us. We know that. The hard part is making the leap from past to present, or more generally from “is” to “ought.”

One way to use history is as a map of paths not taken. I think that’s the most obvious implication of the book: it shows what a generation of scientists thought they were doing by reflecting on method by studying other minds—before their work was taken in a different direction. If we go back to their original vision, we might find some lessons for shoring up expertise today.

There are other implications I wish I’d brought out more explicitly in the book. One has to do with politics. The move to naturalize science paved the way for insisting that it was apolitical. This idea has been used (unsuccessfully, in many cases) to shield science from politics.

But as I show in Chapter 2, this research program actually began with politics—specifically, with the desire to define science as both radical and conservative. Science, in this view, encompasses politics. If we thought of it that way today, we might have different strategies for building trust in it.

The other implication that’s mostly latent in the book has to do with objectivity. Attempting to find a least common denominator for science, something so general you could find it in any animal, these scientists framed it as an objective tool—usable in any context, on any problem.

But there’s another way to think about objectivity, one that builds our identities into science, rather than separating them out. Feminist arguments for “Strong Objectivity” or what Donna Haraway has called “situated knowledges,” adopt this view—and it has immense potential for repairing our sense of science as a human activity, as something we do together, fallibly.

I’m drawn to this view of objectivity, and I think some of the figures in my book would’ve been too. One of them, William James, was actually the source of my epigraph. I think it makes as much sense as a conclusion as it did as an opening: “Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest. We don’t lie back upon them, we move forward, and, on occasion, make nature over again by their aid.”



Marni Reva Kessler


On her book Discomfort Food: The Culinary Imagination in Late Nineteenth-Century French Art

Cover Interview of June 30, 2021


I hope that Discomfort Food will convince readers that representations of food—those created in late nineteenth-century France and otherwise—should not be relegated to the category still life. While I recognize the works’ connections to seventeenth-century Dutch and eighteenth-century French still life precedents, with this project I seek to amplify and deepen our understanding of images of things that we consume by demonstrating that they should instead be appreciated in more generous historical, archival, theoretical, material, and visceral ways. We might savor their many and multifaceted resonances as we would a fine meal, relished for the complexity and richness inherent in them.

If the theories of academic practice establish the armature of this study, my own history lies at its beating heart. I didn’t know this when I started out, but during the years in which I worked on the book, I came to understand more about why the pictures upon which I focus matter so much to me. Why, for example, the mullet in Manet’s painting seemed to be so melancholy; why his eel disturbed me enough to think that I couldn’t write about the image; and why that unbearably beautiful lemon and those clattery oysters lured me back to the painting, unfurling memories of my mother making stuffed clams in our kitchen in Brooklyn. And something of the wedge of raw meat on the ground beside the sorrowful man in Degas’s painting led me, however circuitously, to my family’s holiday dinner table, to the brisket that we have eaten for generations, simmered for hours in that particular heady fusion of onions and garlic and cranberries and raspberry preserves. Such memories drove me, whether I always realized it or not, to search for these images’ most expansive resonances and material depths. Braiding the strands of personal experience and scholarly analysis, melding them as one would the ingredients in a recipe, I hope my book demonstrates, enriches and makes more complex the quality of the proverbial final dish. For, images of food, like their analogues in our world, touch us deeply. They are decidedly evocative and always personal—for the artist then as for the viewer now—and their sensory and conceptual dimensions seemingly endless in ways both concrete and ineffable.

Finally, I hope that this book will appeal to a broad range of readers. Blending academic writing and research with evocative and suggestive prose, I took certain risks that I couldn’t have taken as a young assistant professor. It’s quite liberating to be able to do the kind of writing and research that gives me the most pleasure and that also makes the book accessible to a wide readership. We all eat, no matter who we are or where or when we live(d). I sincerely hope that Discomfort Food will contribute to the many and varied conversations about food and its instability, historically and today, and that in so doing, it might expand our understanding of representations of one of the most fundamental things that unites as human beings.



Charles Camic


On his book Veblen: The Making of an Economist Who Unmade Economics

Cover Interview of June 23, 2021


In addition to examining the social origin of Veblen’s ideas, my book analyzes their vital substance.

Here too Veblen departs from conventional wisdom, which portrays Veblen primarily as an iconoclastic satirist of America’s wealthy in The Theory of the Leisure Class. An iconoclast Veblen was, but mainly because he was also a professional economist involved in debates with classical and neoclassical economists over the distribution of wealth among different social classes.

Then, as now, the issue of wealth distribution was an explosive and divisive one on the national stage, where battles raged between Capital and Labor and their spokespersons. Whether Veblen would have written about the leisure class outside of this context is unlikely; for, as he knew, satires of the leisure class were by then commonplace. Veblen did not think he needed to add another one unless it had something more to offer.

And The Theory of the Leisure Class did just that. Here (and elsewhere) Veblen maintained that most academic economists, as well as many journalists and political commentators, thought about economic life in the wrong way. They viewed economies in static terms, presenting economic life as essentially the same in all times and places. Moreover, they viewed economies as made up of separate individuals, all of them acting out of self-interest. Today, we find many economists and pundits who still hold to these notions in updated forms.

But Veblen relentlessly criticized these views. He insisted that economic life is constantly changing, and that economies are structured differently in different places and times. Not only this, but in economic life there are no standalone individuals. Economic activities, such as production and consumption, are always shaped, said Veblen, by the evolving institutions that people are embedded in.

From this critical perspective, Veblen attacked prevailing theories of wealth distribution that posited that people with wealth earned it through their individual contributions to improving the process of economic production. To the contrary averred Veblen—where there is wealth, there is robbery: predatory behavior by powerful parasitic groups that contrive to get “something for nothing” via social institutions, which evolve to adjust to historical change by devising ever-new mechanisms for thievery.

Observing his own society, Veblen saw economic institutions as enabling the accumulation of vast fortunes for the predatory class as its members pursued private profit. But he then pivoted to groups with other motives. Writing, in despair, about the beleagured men and women who served the interests of community at large by devoting themselves to the design and functioning of the “machine process,” Veblen posed the paradox: “Why are large and increasing portions of the community penniless… Why do we … have hard times and unemployment in the midst of excellent resources, high efficiency and plenty of unmet wants?”

More than a century after Veblen penned this question, the paradox remains, giving alarming pertinence to his forceful analysis of the predatory stratagems of modern economic institutions.



Dennis C. Rasmussen


On his book Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America's Founders

Cover Interview of June 16, 2021


The most notable founder who did not come to despair for his country—the proverbial exception that proves the rule—was the one who outlived them all, James Madison. The book devotes a pair of chapters to exploring why Madison retained his faith in America’s constitutional experiment when so many of his compatriots did not. There were a variety of reasons for Madison’s continued confidence, but one of them was precisely that he had lived so long and seen so much in company with the nation that he had helped to found. Madison reasoned that if the Constitution and the union managed to survive the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 (a harsh crackdown on civil liberties spurred by war hysteria), the War of 1812 (during which much of the capital went up in flames under Madison’s own watch), and the Missouri crisis of 1819-21 (the biggest confrontation yet over the nation’s most divisive issue, the expansion of slavery), then surely it could withstand a good deal more. The longer the nation endured, the more durable it seemed.

If Madison could find solace in the fact that America’s constitutional order had managed to weather nearly a half-century’s worth of storms by the time he reached old age, then perhaps we should be cheered to recall that it has now survived for more than two hundred and thirty years. We might also take a certain comfort in the fact that, however appalling the state of American politics might be at the moment, the political situation was even worse when the founders whom we so admire presided over the nation.

Most obviously, we no longer countenance widespread chattel slavery or the routine dispossession and even massacre of indigenous tribes; on the contrary, basic civil and political liberties have never been extended to more people. Political violence is far less common today, the recent attack on the Capitol notwithstanding; the nation’s first decade saw thousands of armed citizens march on an army outpost in rebellion against a tax at one point, and legislators brawl on the floor of the House of Representatives with canes and fire pokers at another. The ugliness of the last presidential election pales in comparison to that of the election of 1800—a contest between Jefferson and Adams, two of our most revered founders. Today’s much-maligned “mainstream media” is in reality far more responsible and fact-based than the newspapers of the 1790s. And so on.

None of this is grounds for complacency. Today’s political ills are both serious and pressing, as Washington, Hamilton, Adams, and Jefferson would surely remind us. Madison, though, would encourage us to summon a broader sense of perspective before announcing the doom of the republic.



Patricia Sullivan


On her book Justice Rising: Robert Kennedy’s America in Black and White

Cover Interview of June 09, 2021


I completed Justice Rising at a time of nationwide racially charged protests with direct echoes of the 1960s. Once again, mass protests have focused national attention on rampant racial injustices and triggered new demands for change.

My book speaks to this guardedly hopeful moment. In the late 1960s, aggressive policing and mass incarceration ultimately prevailed as the response to the urban rebellions sparked by lack of opportunity, substandard conditions, and unjust policing. But that could not diminish what was achieved during the sixties and the legacy that endures. One of the most powerful social movements in American history—through protests, organizing, and insistent demands—broke through, elevating the consciousness of many and creating both the pressure and opportunity for government action to dismantle segregation. At the same time, the Black freedom struggle grew, exposing the deep roots of racial inequality and changing American culture in fundamental ways. America is once again in a racially charged moment and this is a history with crucial lessons for a continuing struggle.

Robert Kennedy’s public life was forged by the racial reckoning of the sixties. This is a central theme of the book and I hope it will inform how he is remembered. His capacity to see and to grow is testimony to what is possible. After Kennedy’s death, James Baldwin, with whom he had a charged exchange as Attorney General, reflected on the essence of who RFK was. He had a mind “that could be reached,” Baldwin commented. “He was somebody in the twentieth century with enough passion and energy and patience.” Such qualities are essential to meeting the challenges we face today.



Joan Wallach Scott


On her book On the Judgment of History

Cover Interview of June 02, 2021


I hope readers will find it interesting to think about the much-repeated references to the judgment of history, where they come from, what they imply. The book is a critical exploration of why and how we use that idea, what its history is (it’s an eighteenth-century secular version of the idea of God’s judgment at the End of Times), what its limits are for understanding the work not only of historians (we make very different judgments depending on our perspectives and the questions we ask) but also of history itself—that body of material that recounts the lived lives and the contests and conflicts with and about power in which human actors engage.

I think it’s important for non-specialists, non-historians to think with me about what history does and doesn’t do for our understanding of the past and the present. History is never only a true story about the past. That’s not to say it’s fiction or “alternative facts”, but that it presents real facts in the service of an interpretation. The interpretation may be a moral judgment, but it is never THE judgment; it may be a political judgment, explicitly or implicitly taking sides with the people whose lives and actions are being recounted. It may rest on imaginative reconstructions of pasts in the absence of complete archives, as in some very compelling studies, especially of slavery and black lives in subsequent periods. It may seek to call into question current common-sense beliefs in the relationships of past and present, stories told, for example, of the unrelenting progress of racial or gender relations in the United States and elsewhere.

Right now, we are witnessing an extraordinary attack on this kind of history in France, where the Minister of Education and the President are calling critical histories of race and colonialism a subversion of the unity of the nation. These politicians are threatening to close down programs devoted to these histories on the grounds not only that they are subversive, but that they are not objective science and instead said to be political ideology. In fact, these programs of critical studies of race are often based on hard data that confirm real inequalities of access to jobs, education, housing, and the like. It is the government representatives who are driven by political motives, in this case sheer calculation about what will win popular support away from the far-Right party in the upcoming presidential election.

All of this is to say that history is not only an account of past contests for recognition and power, but also that the writing of history is itself an engagement with those very contests in the present.



Stephen Bates


On his book An Aristocracy of Critics: Luce, Hutchins, Niebuhr, and the Committee That Redefined Freedom of the Press

Cover Interview of May 26, 2021


Just as Hutchins Commission members worked under conditions similar to ours, they discussed ideas that people are discussing again today. They talked of using tax money to subsidize competition in the media, an issue that has arisen again as a result of the internet’s devastating impact on news organizations. They discussed “rumor clinics” to debunk falsehoods, like the fact-checkers of today, though they worried that debunking a falsehood might merely spread it more widely, which is also a concern now. They talked of affixing warning labels to misinformation, like the cautionary notes that social media applied to dubious information about the 2020 election. One Commission member said that the warning labels should tell readers where to find antidotes to falsehoods, just as some of the cautions on social media linked to reliable information about the election.

Commission members extensively debated how to address monopoly and other market concentration in the media. Democracy can’t survive, Reinhold Niebuhr said, if corporations exercise their power in a way that suppresses ideas. Robert Hutchins outlined three policy alternatives for dealing with giant media corporations: break them up, regulate them as common carriers, or subsidize competing companies. Yet the members also worried about the potential politicization of antitrust enforcement and other government interventions. (They didn’t know about FDR’s secret campaign against the Chicago Tribune.) These discussions bear on regulatory questions concerning big corporations today, especially social-media and other internet platforms.

One Commission member, William Ernest Hocking, drew a contrast between what he called the liberty of the garden and the liberty of the weeds. He thought that political discourse should be tidier, like a neatly pruned garden. Today, app stores, social-media platforms, and online video and book providers are weeding their gardens by censoring some perspectives—as is their right, because the First Amendment doesn’t constrain corporations, only the government. More and more of our political discourse now takes place in these online gardens where the First Amendment doesn’t apply. Speakers still have full-fledged liberty of the weeds when they’re in a public forum, like the plaza around a city hall, but it may be harder to draw a crowd there when everybody is online.

Hutchins Commission members didn’t come up with foolproof solutions. As Niebuhr said in one meeting, “all great problems are insoluble.” But their work does, I think, provide a framework for thinking about the problems and potential solutions. The issue at the heart of their work, how a media system can best serve democracy, is an eternal one.



Eric Weisbard


On his book Songbooks: The Literature of American Popular Music

Cover Interview of May 19, 2021


The great thing about writing a book that starts with a book published in 1770 and ends with a book published in 2010 is that you get to take the long view—time will tell! In the immediate future, I expect to hear about all the errors I made rushing my way through a 2500 or so book bibliography, all the inherent problems in one person trying to vet a huge literature. But if I’m lucky, this book will work in some of the ways that my first one did, the Spin Alternative Record Guide (1995), which managed to insinuate itself into the listening lives of many people over time. Often, what I’m quickly pointing to in these pages are subjects that I still think have some mystery left to them, a question we don’t so much want to fully answer as keep answering.

I am a strange human being in that I love music writing as much as I do music itself, love the quirky, cranky characters it attracts, love the contradictory nature of the enterprise (serious fun), love seeing how far writers of so many different identities can take particular subjects of so many different kinds. It’s more than clear now that popular music has amassed a literature, in the sense of multiple books on multiple topics. What this book is more concerned to promote is literature in the sense of a sentence or paragraph that makes an impression the way a lyric does, because the viewpoint is so singular, because it imparts a resonance.

All these years after the arrival of vernacular pop, we might feel more posthuman than we do like rock and rollers flocking to what the great critical explainer Robert Palmer called “The Church of the Sonic Guitar”. (See my entry on cyberpunk novels!) I accept that, but now we need to work out what comes next—and how that changes our views of the still powerful writing that came before. My hope is that by outlining American popular music’s literary past, and having the time of my life doing it, I can provide some inspiration heading forward.



Scott Peeples


On his book The Man of the Crowd: Edgar Allan Poe and the City

Cover Interview of May 12, 2021


I wrote in the book’s introduction that this is not a work of academic literary criticism (my background) but that I wanted to write primarily for a non-specialist audience with this project. So when I did discuss specific works by Poe, I could hear the clock ticking, if you know what I mean. I wanted to make these stories more interesting to readers than they would be if you just picked them up without knowing anything about the context. But even when I discussed the title story, “The Man of the Crowd”, I kept it to about three and a half pages. I just tried to be selective in the analysis, keeping the book’s focus and my “ideal” reader in mind.

At the same time, I didn’t want to leave significant gaps in the biographical record—I tried to tell a good, true story. If I succeeded, the book works both as an introduction to Edgar Allan Poe and his life for people who are casually acquainted with him and as a book that’s making an argument—that Poe’s career is inseparable from the development of the American city. I hope readers will recalibrate their image of Poe as they read the book and understand him as a writer who was very much engaged with his surroundings, and who struggled to succeed in a rapidly changing world.



Glenn E. Robinson


On his book Global Jihad: A History

Cover Interview of May 05, 2021


I am humbled by the fact that the book is already being hailed as a major contribution to our knowledge not only of the global jihad movement but of Middle East politics more generally. While I hope such positive reviews continue, I have three primary goals for this book. First, after four decades of global jihad, and two decades since the attacks on 9/11, I hope this book becomes the “go-to” book on global jihad. For anyone who wants to understand ISIS and al-Qa’ida or similar groups, this is the book they consult first and perhaps last. I hope that it is seen as the best summary study of global jihad for students and the general public to read for years to come. It not only provides the history of global jihad, but also an interpretation of how to best understand that history.

Second, I would like this book to have an impact on the discussions in terrorism studies and broader conversations over political violence concerning the role that the concept of “movements of rage” can play in understanding certain forms of political violence. Conceptualizing such anti-Enlightenment groups as forming a movement of rage can help us more accurately understand the ideologies and organizational structures of such groups, as well as their likely resort to violence.

Third, this book should have an impact in the policy realm, where dealing with global jihad groups and other movements of rage is a major policy concern. Policy makers need to be aware of the variations in global jihad groups, and they need to understand how the current fourth wave of global jihad is quite distinctive from earlier waves. Helping to gauge the overall level of threat from global jihad flows naturally from the concerns in this book. And, moving beyond global jihad groups, policy makers should be aware of the concept of movements of rage and how policies vis-à-vis these groups must by nature be quite distinct from the usual counter-terror type actions.



Richard Toye


On his book Winston Churchill: A Life in the News

Cover Interview of April 28, 2021


There are actually some similarities—though one should not overstate them—between current conditions and World War II. This might provide readers with a bit of distraction from the Covid situation. Then, people were desperate for news about the unfolding military situation, and they had to wait for hourly news bulletins that were often bland and uninformative. Today, we often find ourselves “doom-scrolling” through social media, and although news reporting is virtually instant nowadays, it can be just as hard as it was in the 1940s to find facts and analyses that actually meet our emotional needs.

I would also like the book to provoke thought about the relationship between the media and politics. There are many examples in the book of how Churchill overreacted to press criticism; during World War II, he was even getting close to shutting down the Daily Mirror. I don’t give these examples in order to suggest that he was a bad person or even especially unusual—he was under a lot of stress, especially during the war, and many other politicians were equally thin-skinned. The interesting question is why, when he banged the table and started suggesting that the press should be silenced, he tended not to get his way. I think it’s in part because there were robust institutional restraints and in part because different sections of the media stuck together. The Mirror was not much liked by many other papers, but they saw the implications, if one newspaper could be arbitrarily shut down—and rallied round. So, when we see politicians lashing out at the media, we should perhaps think less about condemning them as individuals and more about the collective steps we can take to help preserve press freedom.



David Sulzer


On his book Music, Math, and Mind: The Physics and Neuroscience of Music

Cover Interview of April 21, 2021


In the Introduction, I write “no one needs this book”, as artists create great work without understanding the universal and physical bases of what they do. Yet artists and art lovers have imaginations that allow them to enter new territories and make the ones they already work in more profound. This book will help them further appreciate their own nervous systems, the intelligence of other species, and the nature of the cosmos—this might seem over the top, but as readers will come to appreciate, a great deal of what humanity learned in these topics genuinely comes from the investigation of music.

As much as I hope that this learning will help creative readers develop new work, and help listeners develop their appreciation, I think that there are a series of profound lessons in how these investigations broaden our horizons and insights.

For example, there is a controversial hypothesis from Gordon Shaw’s “Mozart effect”, in which he theorized that children would be smarter if they listened and learned to play Mozart, and that this can be used in the treatment of childhood epilepsy. In some studies, the decrease in seizure activity lasted beyond the duration of the music, suggesting that such music may be therapeutic. While the evidence is unclear, we have traced how sound and music travels to the cortex to modulate its synaptic activity, and in that way, playing a sound is analogous to a stimulating electrode in the deep brain.

Our understanding of wave theory, which underlies all contemporary electronics, in part came from the development of the siren, as in a police siren, which was originally a musical instrument invented by a Scottish physicist, John Robison (1739-1805), and further improved by Charles de la Tour (1819), who named it for the mythical Greek singing legends. The study of these soundwaves led to the discovery by Christian Doppler of the Doppler effect, which explains how siren pitches rise and fall. Albert Einstein extended Doppler’s insight in 1905 to describe how light travels at a constant velocity. The wavelength emitted from stars also stretches or compresses, and Edwin Hubble (1889-1953), extended this by noting that the most distant galaxies appeared red, suggesting that the “red shift” was due to the galaxies moving away from us, and so introduced the theory that we live in an expanding universe.

For the future, I suspect that some of humanity’s most important work will be in understanding other life. In this way, Roger Payne and colleague’s discovery of whale song, I think to some extent, helped to save them from extinction by our species. Recently, the primatologist Susan Savage-Rumbaugh with the musician Peter Gabriel showed that bonobos can improvise music, and Richard Lair and I showed the same with elephants. Perhaps the understanding of the art of other species will help us commit to treating them better and find ways by which they can survive the greed, thoughtlessness, and predation of our species.

And they will respond by lending insight into ourselves. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, Itai Roffman, and others in their field are now writing convincing arguments that some of these species should be legally treated as human beings, with the same rights to survive and prosper. I suspect that the more we know, the more we will agree with them, and the richer our relationship with nature will be. In my opinion, this is the essence of spirituality and the most essential goal for all us. There is much to do…

Art for all species!



Kiran K. Patel


On his book Project Europe: A History

Cover Interview of April 14, 2021


Project Europe sheds new light on where the EU comes from, what it is and where its potentials might lie. It argues that it would be wrong to project the European Union’s undisputed contemporary status back into its early decades. In many respects the EU is a surprisingly young construct in which powers and processes are a good deal less entrenched than one might expect, given that its earliest predecessor organization was founded some seven decades ago. It has weathered many storms better than we tend to think. The crises the EU finds itself in today are therefore much less unusual than many have argued.

The European Union’s incremental growth in significance has made it both resilient and vulnerable. On the one side the EU is now responsible for truly important matters and enjoys perceptible influence. Additionally, diverse synergies arise when so many questions and policy areas are dealt with in a single institutional framework. The European Union has become astonishingly robust. This stems less from the idealism of the participants than the enormous inertia of established institutions, the diverse interests contained within them, and the general momentum of the integration process. At the same time, the EU of our time is not only systemically more relevant than ever before. Its rise to importance has also made it more vulnerable to fundamental crises, simply because it is now in charge of crucially important issues.

History teaches us how improbable and fragile our own times are; from the perspective of the past, the present was but one of many futures (and potentially an unlikely one). That is the case for the European Union too. Rather than proceeding as the implementation of a masterplan, the EU we have today appeared in fits and starts. Above all, the project set out to make the future more predictable. It is this hope that shines through all the treaties and directives, summits and compromises, plans and proposals. While many saw precisely that as a value in its own right, the model of European integration as an attempt to contain the future is less certain again today.

Nobody knows what the future will bring for the EU. But one thing is certain: It will depend not least on the conclusions Europeans and others derive from its history.



Douglas B. Downey


On his book How Schools Really Matter: Why Our Assumption about Schools and Inequality Is Mostly Wrong

Cover Interview of April 07, 2021


My hope is that this book prompts a more careful consideration of schools’ role in shaping achievement gaps. The assumption that schools are largely responsible is misplaced and can divert attention from larger social problems that likely are the source.

Consider how we stack up against Canada. Our 15-year-olds score .30 standard deviation units behind Canada’s on international reading tests. Most would blame our schools for this gap but it turns out that the same cohort of children were .31 standard deviation units behind Canadians at age 4-5, before schools had a chance to matter. This pattern highlights how school reform is not the likely explanation for why our teenagers’ skills are behind those in other countries. The problem is rooted in early childhood conditions where too many of our children experience stressful environments. Notably, high-performing American five-year-olds did about as well as high-performing Canadian children. The large gap across the two countries is due primarily to very poor-performing children. The U.S. has more very poor-performing students than does Canada.

So, are Canadian children just genetically superior to American children? That doesn’t seem likely (unless you’re Canadian). A more plausible explanation is that Canadian children, on average, experience better early childhood conditions. And that is likely due to a broad range of policy decisions Canadians have made differently than Americans, such as the provision of universal health care, which reduces stress for the disadvantaged. Of course, the battle in the U.S. over policies like universal health care is a more difficult battle than school reform. But just because it is easier to focus on schools does not mean that they are the appropriate policy lever. Reducing inequality requires us to think bigger than school reform.