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Hard Knox in Galesburg
A College Visit in the Midwest sparks thoughts about national and personal history
I imagine that one’s first college visit as a high school junior is like one’s first visit to The Cheesecake Factory, with over 250 items on the menu. Unlike the food choices at the Factory, most of which your cardiologist would consider inadvisable, just about all the class options in the college course catalogue are potentially judicious choices, depending on the teachers. In 1989, then future U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky told me that when it comes to classes in a graduate English program, “it’s not the courses, it’s the horses.”
This week my son Truman visited Galesburg, Illinois, in order to find out more about Knox College. Known for its English Department and its writing program, Knox is one of those small liberal arts colleges that promise to change lives. Students there get to take writing workshops in the same building where Lincoln and Douglas held one of their seven debates, publicity events to convince local voters in the Illinois General Assembly to prefer one candidate over the other for the U.S. Senate in 1858.
The debates were three hours long, about as long as the advanced poetry workshops that I have taught here at UC Davis. One candidate would speak first for 60 minutes, after which the other candidate would challenge and rebut for 90 minutes, followed by the first candidate speaking for another 30 minutes to rebut the rebuttal. Like some of the classes I taught during the Covid era, these events took place outdoors so that more people could gather round to hear the orators. And like some of the best supported podcasters of the current era, Abraham Lincoln benefitted from delegates (stenographers in the audience, and sympathetic newspapers in Chicago and elsewhere) who recorded and broadcast his every word to Chicago and everywhere east. He turned his speeches into a well-received and top-selling book that helped set the stage for his becoming the nominee of the new Republican party, and our first Republican president.
Knox College administrators are keenly aware of this special place its extant buildings play in American history. When Kate sent me pictures of the Knox County library and some of the museum-like Old Main building where the 1858 debate occurred, I remarked that the place should be called “Lincoln College.” One can find a “Looking for Lincoln Heritage Coalition” as well as a Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College. The Old Main building has a number of admirable anti-slavery exhibits. I seem to remember from history class with Howard Zinn that Lincoln lost that debate, and that in 1858 the venerated and towering politician argued merely for the cessation of slavery in states newly added to the Union, rather than its eradication in the south.
Even if he was initially an incrementalistic abolitionist rather than a radical, Lincoln is still a hero to me. And as Lincoln himself said, “A nation that does not honor its heroes will not long endure.”
So will Truman end up attending Knox College? Time will tell. The Director of the Writing Program there met with Truman, his sister Geneva, and their mom Kate for 70 minutes this week. That’s the sort of compelling and welcome personal attention that perhaps only a small college can offer.
Campus visits are compelling. During my ill-fated trip to visit New York and New England colleges as a high school junior, I did tour Boston University, and ended up attending. College tours today do a much better job than mine did of making the students feel seen and wanted. Kate, our daughter Geneva, and Truman attended a series of financial aid presentations meant to communicate that, unlike my dad, nobody pays the sticker price for a college education in 2023. We will see.
Galesburg, Illinois is not only the home of Knox College (where students eat in an on-campus café called The Hard Knox), but also the birthplace of the poet Carl Sandburg. In addition to poems about fog and grass (Thanks for the inspiration, Walt Whitman), Sandburg is best known for his poem “Chicago,” published in Chicago’s Poetry Magazine in 1914 (and thus in the public domain). It is so well known that even my wildlife biologist friend Roy quoted its “broad shoulders” when he first met my impressive wife Kate, also from Chicago, more than 30 years ago.
By Carl Sandburg
Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities;
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people,
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.
I was going to say that most of the occupations that start and end this poem are not likely to be replaced in 2023 by generative large language neural network such as Chat GPT, but then I remembered that most of that work is done (or assisted) by robots. The coming years will reveal how well Knox College, UC Davis, and other centers for higher education prepare our students for a world where there might be a lot less for humans to do.
Truman is one of the featured high school actors at the April 8 Stories on Stage with Kim Stanley Robinson in conversation with Dr. Andy Jones. Most public speaking gigs don’t make me nervous, but this one does. Stan is an amazing writer and thinker, and I am loving his most recent book, a nonfiction work titled The High Sierra: A Love Story.
Thanks to everyone who supports the ongoing asynchronous pub quizzes that I create for you every week. Please drop me a line if you would like to send you a sample (this week’s quiz), or just pick a tier on Patreon and join the fun, just as Quizimodo, The Original Vincibles, The Mavens, and the Outside Agitators do. Every Patreon patron will receive an e-book or paperback of my next pub quiz book, due out later this year.
Speaking of the Agitators, congratulations to them for winning my most recent live Pub Quiz at the Encounters UFO Xperience Museum. Word on the street is that Encounters UFO Xperience is running a Picnic Day fundraiser of sorts for the Smith-Lemli-Opitz Foundation, that tiny organization that supports medical research into the rare syndrome that my family knows too well. Perhaps I will see you at the “Xperience” on April 15. If not, you could mail in your support for this effort by sending a check to the Foundation. Thanks!
Here are three questions from last week’s Pub Quiz:
Jennifer Aniston. Jennifer Anniston’s highest grossing film also featured Steve Carrell and Jim Carey in the lead. Name the film.
Science: California Geology. What kind of bowl in the Sierras is a half-bowl?
Books and Authors. Who wrote Slouching Towards Bethlehem?
Thanks for reading, and for your patience. Every new reader of this newsletter is a treasure.