Posts Tagged ‘The Atlantic’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Jen and I got married 13 years ago.  After a small ceremony, small reception and small honeymoon, we had to take care of the paperwork.  Trips to the DMV and Secretary of State were necessary to gain new ID’s and Social Security cards. Unlike most married couples however, both Jen and I needed new documentation.  We both had new names, and hence, new identities. On an October day in 2002, she became Jenny Jocks Stelzer (nee Stelzer), and I became Michael Stelzer Jocks (nee Jocks).

13 years on and the fact that I changed my name when I got married still catches people off-guard. So not surprisingly, a recent Atlantic article titled ‘Men Should Consider Changing Their Last Names When They Get Married‘  caught my eye. Not only did I ‘consider it’; I actually did it. Of course, I have been asked many times why I made the unconventional choice, and I believe I provide such queries with a very good answer.

A couple years before we got married, Jen and I talked about the topic of spouses changing names after marriage. As a progressive, idealistic 21 year old who enjoyed going against social norms, I stated with a good deal of bravado that if we ever got married I would gladly take her last name, and cast off the surname Jocks.  A bit incredulous, she asked, ‘Really’?  ‘Sure, why not’, I responded…..Buuuutttt, the more I thought about it, the more troubling I found the possibility.  I think it was later the same day that I stated I, in fact, would not become Michael Stelzer if, and/or when we got married.  After all, for my whole existence I had been Michael Jocks.  Who would I be if I changed that?  It was a surprisingly disturbing question.

On the other hand, if I found it so troubling to give up my name, and some portion of my identity, how could I expect, much less demand, that Jenny change her name simply based upon tradition?  If she wanted to take my name, that would be fine.  But, it was completely her choice and I would have no say in the matter.  Sometime after this discussion, when marriage was actually on the horizon, we came up with our compromise.  I would take her name, and keep my name, and she would take my name and keep her name.  That was that. All’s fair.

And so, this brings me back to that Atlantic article. Most of the article deals with the troubling history behind the marriage_dictionarytradition of women changing their names. I won’t go into that here as you can read the linked article yourself. But, one part does need to be dealt with in this post (and future posts as well).  The first line of the article is an absolutely dumbfounding statistic. According to a recent study, ‘More than 50% of Americans think the woman should be legally required to take her husband’s name in heterosexual marriages.’  Read that again.  It does not say over 50% of Americans feel women ‘should’ change their name (that is closer to 70% of Americans). No, no, no. Over 50% of Americans feel there should be a law that forces women to change their names at marriage.

Mind blown…

This is shocking for numerous reasons. In my next post, I want to delve into what this statistic says about how Americans’ view womens’ rights in a historical context. Here, however, I just want to point out how out of place this is in our national political environment.

Americans today are seemingly obsessed with libertarianism. Now, this does not mean a huge portion of people identify themselves as such politically. It is only about 10% of the voting public who call themselves libertarian.  But, on many topics, libertarianism has a foothold. The cause of this obviously has much to do with how Americans feel about the government.  Congress is notoriously despised by the American people, and for the last ten years, Americans simply do not trust lawmakers, law enforcers, or law interpreters. With such professed distrust of government, the American people are reaching new heights in calls for individual freedom. Gay marriage, legalization of marijuana, deregulation of gun laws, defunding of government services,  liberalization of internet control, etc, etc. On all sides of the political divide, libertarianism is front and center. It seems unlikely that this will end anytime soon.

And, so, we have a surprising paradox here.  Over 50% of Americans, meaning many who argue that the government should not decide who can or cannot get married, who believe the government should have no say whatsoever in curtailing deadly weapons, and who will march against laws limiting the size of sodas, believe, with the utmost cognitive dissonance, that women should be legally mandated to change their names when they get married. If over 50% of Americans today agree on any cultural topic, it is newsworthy. When it comes to women being forced to change their names, evidently liberals and conservatives (and men and women) agree. The majority of voters, at least in theory, support such an obviously paternalistic law.

How can we explain this?

In my next blog, I’m gonna try.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Each of the last three terms, I have taught RMU students about the Holocaust.  I created this course on history’s most infamous genocide, and it is, as compared to the most of the survey history classes our students take, extremely detailed.  To properly cover such a topic within 10 weeks is quite challenging. One hurdle to face is the seemingly simple question: Where to begin?  Should the course focus solely upon the Twentieth Century?  Or, should it range back to the earliest days of European Antisemitism; perhaps even back to the break of Christianity from Judaism?  It is a difficult issue, but, after teaching the course numerous times, I have a methodology.  The first class in the course focuses upon Christian Antisemitism and anti-Judaism from the earliest days, down to the beginnings of the early modern European world (circa 1600).

1889_French_election_poster_for_antisemitic_candidate_Adolphe_Willette

Antisemitism as a term was first used by anti-Jewish political parties

Obviously, this is a great deal of information to dole out to students in 90 minutes, and though I think I have gotten pretty good at painting with a broad historical analytical brush, I recently realized I faced a problem in this initial course.  The first couple times I taught the course, I quickly jumped into the history of Antisemitism, using the term Antisemitism over and over during my first lecture.  Most students seemed interested, and appeared to recognize the word.  Then, maybe a year ago, when I mentioned Antisemitism for the first time in class, I noticed a furrowed brow or two among my students.  Hmmm.  Why the confusion? Then, it struck me: These students don’t recognize the term.  Sure enough, when I asked my students who knew what Antisemitism was, I only saw a tentative smattering of hands.  My mind zoomed back to my previous courses. What if the vast majority of my students had NO idea what I meant in any of those classes when I first used the term Antisemitism?

I jumped into action.  I needed to clearly define the term.  Or, better yet, I would ask my students to find a definition for me.

Understand that I write this not as a critique of my students, but as a critique of myself.  I had been making the worst assumption a teacher can make.  I lazily figured that my students have the same information in their heads that I do. The power of this classroom incident really struck home for me recently when I stumbled upon a wonderful, important article in The Atlantic titled, “To Read Dickens, It helps to know about French History and the Bible.”  Jessica Lahey, the writer of the article, is a middle-school teacher.  She realized that for her students to really understand, and hence, enjoy Dickens’ classic The Tale of Two Cities, they would need to be ‘culturally literate’ in the terms of French 18th century history and the New Testament.  To provide this cultural background, Lahey now begins each of her classes with important terms and ideas that will clarify the necessary material for that day.

Lahey does this for her 8th graders, but, this is not something that should be exclusive to age or grade level. Such introduction to ‘cultural literacy’ is a constant of thorough education. Without it, the student suffers. However, it often must be handled with kid gloves.  The introduction of ‘cultural literacy’ should never be done in a spirit of elite superiority. Let me give one personal anecdote to prove my point. I  particularly remember a graduate school instructor of mine who often portrayed the students’ lack of cultural literacy as an incredible failureJacques-Louis_David_004_Thermopylae on their parts.  One example: In his 19th century German history course, this grad professor asked me and the rest of the students about a Greek history reference we stumbled upon in a work by Nietzsche (I think). No one in the class recognized the reference. Our professor was visibly dismayed.

He huffed his frustration, mentioning that the writer was obviously referring to ‘Thermopylae” and the 300 Spartans who died there facing a vastly greater Persian force. (This classroom incident took place several years before the hit film 300 was released.)  I and my classmates  felt inadequate. According to him, we SHOULD have known about Thermopylae, and the fact that we did not illustrated an unforgivable ignorance.  Imagine how my classmates and I responded to questions from that point on.  There was always a concern of looking ‘dumb’, and facing a dismissive smirk from ‘the expert.’

I realize now that incidents like this happen on an everyday basis in a college classroom. Of course, this does not mean every professor reacts to a lack of cultural literacy in the way my professor did.  But, if we assume all our students understand a term or idea that we are familiar with, we have taken a step on that slippery slope.  Of course, some in the class do have the recognition of cultural ideas and terms from day one.  Those students will most likely be the ‘hand-raisers’.  They will ask the questions, and become invested in the class.  This is wonderful.  But what if most of the class is instantly alienated by an assumption of cultural literacy? This silent majority may lose hope, and/or interest.  Many will feel the way I felt about not recognizing the word ‘Thermopylae’.  Can they overcome this feeling? Will they take it in stride?  This is the question, and it will mean failure or success for many.

I don’t know about you, but I want all my students to be successful.