Mark Williams: A look at Irish gods and their legacy

WilliamsAgeless fairies inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s immortal elves; W. B. Yeats invoked Irish divinities to reimagine the national condition. Why have Ireland’s mythical beings loomed so large in the world’s imagination? In Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth, Mark Williams weaves together the fascinating stories of some of Ireland’s famous gods and goddesses, from the heroic Lug to the fire goddess Brigit. He explores the religious history in the myths, showing how Ireland’s pagan divinities were transformed into literary characters in the medieval Christian era. Recently, Williams took the time to answer some questions about Irish gods and their stories.


Apparently Ireland has a pantheon of native gods?!

MW: Yes! — though in many ways they are unique, and don’t look all that much like the pantheons of other peoples and places. They’re called the Túatha Dé Danann in Irish, or ‘The Peoples of the Goddess Danu,’ as it’s usually translated. They tend to be imagined as immortal, beautiful aristocrats, sumptuously dressed and eternally young. In many stories from medieval Ireland, they live in a kind of parallel world, which can be accessed via the hills and Neolithic passage-graves which dot the Irish landscape. Some of them have vivid personalities: there’s the Morrígan, a battle-goddess who sometimes takes the form of a crow, for instance, or the young and heroic god Lug of the Long Arm. My favorite is Brigit, the goddess of poetry, medicine and blacksmithing who also moonlights as Ireland’s most important female saint — or at least has been thought to.

What is unusual about the Irish gods?

MW: Across Irish literature, in both Irish and English, their major characteristic is ontological ambiguity: the nature of their nature, so to speak, is never wholly fixed. In the first place, it’s hard to simply identify them as gods, as they have only an uncertain and wavering link to the actual deities worshiped by the pre-Christian Irish. Ireland’s conversion to Christianity saw the jettisoning of the vast majority of deities the Irish had once worshiped, while a small number were ‘reincarnated’ as medieval literary characters. This latter process was in no way inevitable, and the Anglo-Saxons did nothing of the sort, for example: you don’t find versions of Woden and Thunor turning up as literary characters in secular story, whereas the Irish constantly worked former gods into their sagas and tales, often worrying about how to place them in a Christian cosmos. Serious suggestions included the idea that they were merciful angels, ‘half-fallen’ angels, demons, or a race of humans who had somehow escaped the Fall and so retained more-than-human powers.

That the old gods were remembered at all was down to the deep respect for the past, which was characteristic of the medieval Irish. The Anglo-Saxons knew that they had arrived from somewhere else in the relatively recent past, but the Irish — around the conversion period, at least — seem to have thought themselves to be indigenous to their land. They were deeply invested in their own nativeness, so that their landscape, culture, and ancestry were all bound up together. (A new story was developed later which asserted that they hailed from Scythia, via Spain). But literature and shaping of a literate culture were in the hands of a clerical intelligentsia, who felt perfectly at liberty to make major changes in the depiction of ancient, once-divine figures. It is very striking how much the multi-talented god Lug (or Lugh) resembles the biblical King David, for example — both are young, handsome, royal figures, both are skilled musicians and poets, and both kill a giant with a slingshot to the head in single combat. Though there is no question that a god named Lug (or Lugus) was part of Irish paganism, one wonders how much of his ancient character actually persists in the literary Lug. This kind of remodeling might have happened to any number of the divine figures in Irish literature; far from representing the ignorant interference of clerics in ancient traditions, it actually reflects an attitude of deep respect on their part, and underscores their investment in the patterns and personages of their island’s ancient past.

The second peculiarity about the gods is that they are often depicted as ‘fairies’ — the not very satisfactory English term for the Irish áes síde, ‘the people of the hollow hills’. It is the second of these two Irish words which was later anglicised as Shee — a term familiar to all aficionados of nineteenth-century Irish literature. Rather than being gods, in this guise they act as humanity’s idealized twin-race. They are beautiful, immortal, and gifted with magic powers, and their lifestyle is largely characterized by graceful ease. In many ways they are the forerunner of Tolkien’s Elves, but they are less solemn and remote. In this guise they balloon in number: they become an imagined people, not a pantheon.

The third factor is that towards the end of the first millennium AD the Irish developed a complex backstory for their island, and a place for the Túatha Dé Danann was found within this elaborate timeline. They were now imagined as only one of a series of invading races who had ruled Ireland in the deep past. The climax of this kind of ‘synthetic history’ (as it is known) came in the late eleventh century, with the creation of ‘The Book of Invasions.’ In this schema, the gods were imagined as human beings who had simply learned how to supercharge their abilities with magical knowledge. They were (the synthetic history tells us) the third or fourth race to rule over Ireland, before they were in turn defeated by the incoming Gaels, the ethnic Irish. This scenario is transparently a creation of the high Middle Ages, but it became the basic imaginative frame for Ireland’s native gods until the nineteenth century.

The upshot of all these variations on the ontology of the Túatha Dé Danann was that it was actually quite difficult for antiquarian writers in modernity — as they combed through the records of the Irish past —to spot that these literary figures had once been Ireland’s native gods. Considerable preparation of the intellectual ground was necessary, and here the newly developed scholarly disciplines of anthropology, philology, and comparative mythology all played important roles. It wasn’t until the 1870s that the idea really took off, and soon it became a cultural and scholarly commonplace.

Why are the Irish gods less famous than the Graeco-Roman and Norse gods?

MW: The classical gods were the divinities of two cultures which were deeply admired by later ages, and were inseparable from the literature of those cultures; the gods of Greece and Rome therefore became part of the universal intellectual and imaginative patrimony of Europe. In the Middle Ages and on into the Early Modern era, Christian intellectuals felt perfectly at liberty to adopt them as symbols, personifications, allegories, and rhetorical tropes. (Dante calls on Apollo, for example, right at the heart of the greatest Christian poem of the Middle Ages). And later, with the Romantic movement, the impulse emerged to take the classical gods down from their niches in literary rhetoric and reclaim them as images of divine power in the natural world, even as living spiritual forces. So the gods of Greece and Rome have never actually been away, and have been naturalized for centuries in literature in English.

It’s worth noting, however, that the classical gods had no specifically national dimension, precisely because they were so universal. The Norse gods were quite different. Like the Irish gods, they were associated with a vernacular northern European language and had starring roles in a splendid medieval literature. In modernity, they could be claimed as the ‘native’ gods of those areas of Europe in which a Germanic language was spoken. This meant Germany, of course, but also — because of the Anglo-Saxon heritage — England, which gave the Norse gods a ready-made audience and a role as the ‘divine machinery’ in many forms of quasi-nationalist creative expression. The classic example is Wagner, whose monumental Der Ring des Nibelungen brought the Northern pantheon to international attention as a family of archetypal figures on a cosmic scale, explicitly paralleled to the gods of Greece. The Gaelic gods, in contrast, were associated only with Ireland and with the poorest and most remote parts of Scotland, and so seemed vague and outlandish in comparison.

Why did someone like W. B. Yeats take an interest?

MW: Yeats, and his friend the mystic George Russell, are really the essential figures in the late nineteenth century recovery of the Irish gods, though they had important precursors. Yeats was well-placed to take advantage of the new scholarship which had retrieved the Túatha Dé Danann as Ireland’s native pantheon. In his early-career siftings of material, he was able to boldly assert the fundamental identity of the fairies of folklore, the Túatha Dé Danann of the medieval literature, and the gods of the ancient Irish. Here the occult acted as a crucial unifying frame; Yeats was deeply invested in occultism as a system of thought, and he used it to give meaning and context to the Irish pantheon. To use anachronistic language, he came to believe, around the turn of the century, that the native gods were the archetypes of the national

unconscious, and that it might be possible to retrieve and reactivate them, creating a system of hermetic ‘images’ with which to reimagine the national condition. To this end he attempted to establish the so-called ‘Celtic Mysteries’ — a hermetic order on specifically national lines which would invoke and stir into life these figures from the depths of the national psyche, persuading them to intervene in a conflicted present. He certainly didn’t succeed in the way that he expected, but—more than a hundred years later—more people have heard of Lug, and Danu, and Brigit than ever before, and indeed the Irish gods are the focus of several forms of renewed and reimagined modern Paganism. So who knows? They are certainly alive now.

Is Ireland’s Immortals meant to be funny?

MW: In places, yes, I hope so; the material seemed to demand it, but in two different ways. On one level, the ferocious weirdness of some of the medieval tales can be laugh-out-loud funny in a way that must have been intentional on the part of the saga-authors. My colleague at Oxford, Heather O’Donoghue — who’s written a wonderful history of Norse mythology — has remarked that myth tends to be the most surreal manifestation of a given culture, and I’ve tried to bring this dimension of the literature out. I dwell, for example, on a scene in a ninth-century saga in which the Dagda, the Falstaffian ‘great father’ of the Irish gods — the rough equivalent of Zeus — takes a very long time to relieve his bowels, before being spanked by a woman he is trying to seduce.

On another level, some of the activities of those involved in the gods’ retrieval in modernity — especially in what might be called the late-Victorian New Age — can’t help but raise a smile in a more cynical era. To me it’s fascinating that a connection can be traced between major political movements that affected the fate of nations on the one hand, and the activities of a clique of irrationalizing intellectuals, fired up by some pretty way-out ideas, on the other. That aspect of things seemed to demand a certain respectful wryness, because the idea of ritually awakening the archetypes of the national unconscious is an astonishing and beautiful one, even if the actual execution could be a bit bonkers. The only such person whom I couldn’t write about respectfully — to start with — was William Sharp, the Scottish writer who posed as a Hebridean seeress he named ‘Fiona Macleod.’ He was a plus-fours wearing six-footer with a big, red face, but he wrote all his most successful ‘Celtic’ work in the guise of this wafty, Enya-like figure. He probably reminds me a bit too closely of my own naïve, teenage forays into things Celtic — all mist-shrouded dolmens and dangly druidical tat — and the act of self-exorcism led me to be unfair to Sharp. I was taken to task — quite rightly — for being too nasty by one of the referees of the book, and in revisions I hope I’ve been more even-handed.

Finally, I have to say that writing about Liam O’Flaherty’s 1930 story The Ecstasy of Angus — a steamy bit of erotica involving the hot-to-trot goddess Fand and the love-god Angus Óg — was an absolute hoot. As the couple get down to it, O’Flaherty actually brings on a chorus of fairies who prance about brandishing dildos. It was impossible to analyze with a straight face, though I hope I’ve made the case that the story does have a dark, politically serious dimension to it.

Why did you write the book, and what influenced it?

MW: I had various aims in mind. First, there was a gap in the scholarship: there was no up-to-date guide to the gods in medieval Irish literature, nor to their recuperation in the modern era. In the two parts of the book I’ve tried to tell both stories in a way that makes one dimension illuminate the other. I’d always wanted to do the project: my undergraduate training was in Classics and English, so I cut my intellectual teeth on reception history, meaning the afterlife and reworking of classical texts by later writers. So we would look, for example, at Milton’s reuse of Virgil and Homer, or at Shakespeare’s allusions to Ovid, or at the links between the end of the tradition of epic poetry and the genesis of the novel. One of the things this gave me was a predisposition to read culture in terms of wholeness and continuity, rather than fracture and disjointedness. But the relationship between Irish literature in English and medieval Irish literature is very different to that between later literature and that of Graeco-Roman antiquity. With the Irish material, ‘reception’ of this sort is problematic because everything is charged with the legacy of a contested and traumatic colonial history, so my impulse towards wholeness needed considerable modification. In 1981 Richard Jenkyns — later to be my Oxford tutor — wrote a splendid book called The Victorians and Ancient Greece, which I actually read at school, and that was a big influence: Part Two could have been subtitled ‘The Victorians and Ancient Ireland.’ Another big influence was the Norse expert Heather O’Donoghue, as — of course — were the works of Roy Foster: one of the greatest pleasures of the process was getting to know him. The biggest influence of all is Ronald Hutton of the University of Bristol. I read his The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles when I was seventeen, and Part One of the book is in one sense a vast expansion of his chapter in that book on the Celts, ‘The People of the Mist.’ He has also written an elegant few pages about Yeats’s and Russell’s astral adventures in his book The Triumph of the Moon, and Part Two of Ireland’s Immortals handles the same material at book length.

One thing I hope for the book is that it might have the effect of freeing things up a bit for younger scholars in Celtic. Celtic Studies as an academic discipline emerged from various kinds of Romantic nationalism in the nineteenth century, and the legacy of that origin is only now really being assessed by scholars — we’re starting to get superb biographical studies of major figures, for example. But the most obvious consequence has been a massive counter-reaction in scholarship against anything woolly or mystical: Celtic Studies has evolved into a hard-headed and rather inward-looking discipline, focused on the production of critical editions and the analysis of the languages. Unfortunately, the field is currently undergoing a period of contraction: there are fewer places in the world where the languages are taught, and important Professorships—including that at my own institution—are under threat. I hope one thing the book might do is to say, look, as Celticists we can reach out, we can talk to colleagues in English and in intellectual history. People who work on Irish literature in English and those who work on literature in Irish hardly ever seem to talk to one another, with a few noble exceptions such as Declan Kiberd. I hope that one thing the book will do is to underline that there is genuine value in seeing the bigger picture from time to time. (That said — lest any colleagues reading this think me to be encouraging a hermeneutic free-for-all — I must say to any student Celticists out there: make sure you learn your paradigms.) But the literature — extraordinary, uncanny, and beautiful as it is — will languish in neglect until we get in the habit of claiming for ourselves significance and status.

Mark Williams teaches medieval Irish, Welsh and English literature at Lincoln College, University of Oxford, where he is the June Li Fellow in the Humanities and Tutor in English. He has also taught for Cambridge University’s Department of of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, & Celtic. Williams is the author of Fiery Shapes: Celestial Portents and Astrology in Ireland and Wales, 700–1700.

Our Anthropology 2017 catalog is now available

Be among the first to browse and download our latest Anthropology catalog:

Of particular interest in this year’s catalog is Making a Good Life by Katharine Dow. It is a timely look at the ideas and values that inform how people think about reproduction and assisted reproductive technologies.

Dow

Also be sure to note the new book by Richard G. Bribiescas, How Men Age.
Popular science at its most compelling, How Men Age provides new perspectives on the aging process in men and how we became human, and also explores future challenges for human evolution—and the important role older men might play in them.

Bribiescas

Don’t miss out on Digital Keywords edited by Benjamin Peters. Digital Keywords gathers pointed, provocative short essays on more than two dozen keywords by leading and rising digital media scholars from the areas of anthropology, digital humanities, history, political science, philosophy, religious studies, rhetoric, science and technology studies, and sociology. Digital Keywords examines and critiques the rich lexicon animating the emerging field of digital studies.

Peters

For details on these and many more titles, check out our catalog above.

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Cass Sunstein: A sneak peek at #Republic

Forthcoming in March 2017, Cass Sunstein’s new book, #Republic speaks to our heightened state of internet-driven polarization. Arguing that social media sorts us into like-minded groups, causing political fragmentation and even extremism, Sunstein proposes practical and legal changes to make the Internet friendlier to democratic deliberation. Today on Facebook, he shared a snapshot of a section of his page proofs addressing the 2016 presidential election:

Sunstein

Sunstein

Cass R. Sunstein is the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard Law School. His many books include the New York Times bestsellers Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (with Richard H. Thaler) and The World According to Star Wars. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Books for Understanding: A Reading List

In the aftermath of the election, here are some books for better understanding the current political climate:

White Backlash
Marisa Abrajano & Zoltan Hajnal

White

The Rise and Fall of American Growth
Robert Gordon

Gordon

Democracy for Realists
Christopher Achen & Larry Bartels

Achen Bartels

Expert Political Judgement
Philip Tetlock

Tetlock

Against Democracy
Jason Brennan

Brennan
Free Trade under Fire
Douglas Irwin

Irwin

Waiting for José
Harel Shapira

Shapira

Polarized
James Campbell

Campbell

Red State Religion
Robert Wuthnow

Wuthnow

How Propaganda Works
Jason Stanley

Stanley

Good Neighbors
Nancy L. Rosenblum

Rosenblum

 Myth of the Rational Voter
Bryan Caplan

Caplan

On Bullshit
  Harry Frankfurt

Bullshit

#Election2016: And then we came to the end

Our Election 2016 blog, active since last January, has featured our authors discussing everything from oration styles, to the particulars of populist rhetoric, to the politics of motherhood. And now, gratefully, for many an exhausted blogger and policy wonk, it’s a wrap. Time to get to the polls! If you’ve forgotten the location of your polling place, you can find it on Vote411 by entering your address.

 

GoVoteGraphic

 

Graphic courtesy of our Tumblr design blog.

The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: Cobble Hill

william helmreichSociologist William B. Helmreich’s urban walking guide, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows, details the beauty, diversity and history that combine to make Brooklyn what is arguably New York’s hottest borough. By simply walking around, talking to residents, and absorbing the borough’s rich history, Helmreich captures the essence and unique facets of Brooklyn. The book is filled with detailed facts and vivid imagery that will inspire a deeper look at these popular (and lesser-known) neighborhoods.  Today we take a look at Cobble Hill.

With its tree-lined streets and beautiful brownstones, Cobble Hill is a desirable, picturesque neighborhood, and a favorite strolling destination for visitors. The neighborhood also offers affordable (and historic) housing options for residents. Along Hicks Street are distinctive condos that have been a part of the neighborhood for many years. Now renovated, these residences capture the spirit of the past at a reasonable price:

In the 1870s, a sturdy, well-designed group of buildings were constructed for lower-income residents on Hicks Street between Warren and Baltic Streets. About 140 years later, we see that they have withstood the test of time. In their renovated state, with beautiful brick exteriors and inner walkways, they are for sale, with an as outside the building proclaiming, “Landmark Condos for Sale.” Known as the Columbia-Hicks Buildings, they are an excellent example of how well-built housing can be renovated and improved to provide mixed income housing, containing both open market and affordable housing.

Cobble Hill also happens to be a popular destination for filmmakers looking for townhouses that capture the “quintessential New York City” backdrop. Helmreich chatted with one resident who provided his home:

New York City is a major venue for filmmakers, and those looking for elegant townhouses to use as settings in their films can usually find them with the help of location scouts. Cobble Hill is a place where those townhouses can be found, as I learn from a conversation with Raphael Linder, a Brooklyn College graduate and software engineer. He made his home at 53 Cheever Place available for a film: ‘They used my home for a 2015 film starring Robert De Niro, Anne Hathaway, and Renee Russo called The Intern...’

Another way in which areas acquire cachet is when famous people are associated with them. A good case in point is 426 Henry Street, a four-story brick Greek Revival structure, nice but not especially distinctive. Its claim to fame is that it was formerly home to Jennie Jerome, Winston Churchill’s mother… Churchill visited the Henry Street homein 1953, at age seventy-four, amid some fanfare by appreciative locals.

Brooklyn’s oldest functioning Jewish house of worship, the Kane Street Synagogue, can be found in Cobble Hill:

Founded in 1856, it has undergone various incarnations, from traditional, to Reform, to Conservative-Egalitarian, serving congregants from all over north Brooklyn. Music history buffs might be interested to know this is where Aaron Copland was bar-mitzvahed.

If you’re looking for a great place for a bite to eat, Sam’s is an Italian restaurant known for its delicious cuisine along with its history and atmosphere:

For those who like their dining experience to include a touch of history, Sam’s on Court Street, near Baltic Street, serves mostly inexpensive Italian food. The setting features red and white checked tablecloths and matching red leather booths; it takes you back to the post-World War II period. The place has been around for more than ninety years, and I found it fun to hang out with the old-time Italians who eat there regularly.

And, if kids are coming along for the trip, they won’t be disappointed:

Cobble Hill has six toy stores (as of 2015), quite a few for an area this small. One of these establishments is Mini Max Toys and Cuts, at 152 Atlantic Avenue, owned by four mothers. It’s a rather unique place that offers haircuts for kids and also toys.

Toys and haircuts under one roof? This could catch on.

William B. Helmreich is an award-winning author who has written many books including The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City (Princeton), where he wrote an analysis of all five of New York City’s boroughs. The book won him the inaugural 2014–15 Guides Association of New York Award for Outstanding Achievement in Book Writing. He is the professor of sociology at City  College of New York’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and at CUNY Graduate Center. The Brooklyn Nobody Knows is the first of five planned walking guides, one for each borough of New York City. 

Albert J. Raboteau: What does it mean to be an American prophet?

In American Prophets, acclaimed religious scholar Albert Raboteau tells the remarkable stories of Abraham Joshua Heschel, A. J. Muste, Dorothy Day, and many other individuals who conveyed their vision to the broader public through writing, speaking, demonstrating, and organizing. In this interview for the PUP blog, Raboteau discusses his new book, social justice, and the good religion can do in politics.


What inspired you to write this book?

I was inspired to write this book by an undergraduate seminar course, “Religious Radicals” that I have taught at Princeton several times over the years. The students’ active engagement with the figures discussed in the course was refreshing and inspiring to me as a veteran of 1960s activism, inspired in part by meeting Dorothy Day when I was a freshman in college.

Your book is called American Prophets. How do you define prophets in your book?

I use Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s definition of the prophet as “one who feels the divine pathos for humanity like a fire in the bones and has to share it.”

These days when we think of the intersection of religion and politics, we think of the influence of the conservative right. But this hasn’t always been the case. How has religion’s intersection with American politics changed over time?

Our attention has been attenuated to focus on the “religious right,” but within the memory of many the civil rights movement, the anti-slavery movement, and the anti-war movement is still vivid. Moreover, large scale movements for radical social change are, in the nature of the case, rare.

What good can religion do in politics?

Two booksellers at our local bookstore asked me that question one morning several years ago. My immediate answer was “Martin Luther King, Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer.” They responded “yes, but they were exceptions.” I responded “true, they were exceptional but they also were exemplary.” My book is an attempt to turn the exceptional into the exemplary.

Your book tells the stories of characters from Abraham Joshua Heschel, to A. J. Muste, to Dorothy Day, Howard Thurman, Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Fannie Lou Hamer—all inspired individuals. Did you have a favorite story?

Yes. When Howard Thurman and Sue Bailey Thurman met Gandhi on a visit to India, he asked them to sing him an American Negro Spiritual. They obliged by singing “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord.” As they sang, Gandhi and his assistants prayed and afterwards he said, “that song gets at the universal human feeling under the wings of suffering.” He went on to speculate that perhaps it would be the black American struggle that would finally succeed in breaking the hold of racism over white society.

How is prophetic thought and action at work in today’s world?

One prominent place is in the Industrial Area Foundation movement founded by Saul Alinsky, which my colleague, Jeffrey Stout has describes so well in his book Blessed Are the Organized. Another is the Catholic Worker movement, which has houses of hospitality for the poor around the U.S. and in Europe as well. The prophetic struggle goes on in local communities across the nation. Hopeful examples exist in the activism of the Industrial Areas Foundation chapters and similar networks of organizing for social change that continue to crop up in local struggles. Typically based in existing congregations, churches, synagogues, and mosques, the foundation encourages local people to meet and identify issues of common concern. Citizens are encouraged to speak of their own experiences, tell their own stories to encourage empathy, and raise the possibility of imagining change in their lives. Home meetings serve to identify and recruit leaders from the community. Mass meetings are structured to hold public officials accountable for problems of concern. The IAF has fifty-nine affiliates active across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Germany. Jeffrey Stout has told their story in his book. By 2015 the Catholic Worker movement organized by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in the 1930s had grown to 207 communities across the U.S. and 25 abroad, committed to nonviolence and hospitality for the poor and homeless. Circulation of the Catholic Worker newspaper had reached approximately ninety thousand. And several local Worker houses had established their own newspapers in Los Angeles, Houston, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia.

RaboteauAlbert J. Raboteau is the Henry W. Putnam Professor of Religion Emeritus at Princeton University. His books include Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South, A Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African-American Religious History, and Canaan Land: A Religious History of African Americans. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey. He is the author of American Prophets: Seven Religious Radicals and Their Struggle for Social and Political Justice.

Game of Loans: 10 facts about student debt in the United States

LoansThere is considerable concern about the student loan crisis in the United States, where stories in the media have frequently emphasized the increasing cost of college, and the inability of many students to shoulder their debt. In Game of Loans, Beth Akers and Matthew Chingos argue that the problem is much more nuanced than has previously been thought—in fact, they claim, there is not one student loan crisis so much as a series of smaller issues that all require their own solutions. Akers and Chingos flesh out the imperfections in the student borrowing system and make recommendations for change. We’ve put together 10 points from the book that shed some light on the state of student debt in the U.S.


 

1. The prevailing public narrative surrounding student loan debt, that is a crisis that needs to be addressed immediately, is not new. A 1986 report commissioned by the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress reported increasing alarm over the increasing rate of student debt and its implications for the national economy.

2. In the mid-1980s, student debt was at about $22 billion in today’s dollars, or $4,200 per student. Today, the amount is closer to $100 billion, or $7,000 per student.

3. Public attention paid to student debt has surged in recent years. In the New York Times, coverage of this topic reached an all-time high in 2014.

4. A 2014 analysis of 100 recent news stories about student debt found that the borrowers profiled had an average debt in excess of $85,000, nearly three times the average borrowing of college graduates with debt.

5. The key feature of federal student loans is that, unlike loans made in the private sector, they are made to anyone regardless of their anticipated ability to repay.

6. The best places to find facts and figures on student debt in the United States is the U.S. Department of Education’s National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), the only publicly available source of detailed information on borrowing at the student level, and the Federal Reserve Board’s Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF), the only dataset that links information on outstanding debt and income and is administered on a regular basis.

7. On average, independent, undergraduate student graduates owe about $22,000 in federal debt, compared to $13,000 for dependent students.

8. Over the last 20 years, the share of Americans in their late twenties who had attended college increased from 53% to 63%; the share with at least a bachelor’s degree increased from 24% to 34%. Over the same period, the share of undergraduate students taking out loans more than doubled, from 19% to 43%. Increased enrollment explains only part of the picture as far as the rising amount of money owed for student loans. Other factors include increased net price to attend college.

9. By the time Lyndon B. Johnson graduated from Southwest Texas State Teachers’ College in 1930, he owed $220 to the college’s loan fund, or about $3,100 in today’s dollars. As president, he created the Guaranteed Student Loan (GSL) program, later renamed the Stafford program.

10. States vary widely in how large of a subsidy they provide to public colleges. The state with the highest list price (New Hampshire) has the lowest funding level, and the state with the lowest list price (Wyoming) has one of the highest funding levels.

Hopefully these facts lend some clarity to and inspire deeper thinking about the issues surrounding student debt in the United States. For a fuller picture, and for the authors’ recommendations for ways to address the problems related to student debt, pick up a copy of Game of Loans by Beth Akers and Matthew Chingos.

This Halloween, a few books that won’t (shouldn’t!) die

If Halloween has you looking for a way to combine your love (or terror) of zombies and academic books, you’re in luck: Princeton University Press has quite a distinguished publishing history when it comes to the undead.

 

As you noticed if you follow us on Instagram, a few of our favorites have come back to haunt us this October morning. What is this motley crew of titles doing in a pile of withered leaves? Well, The Origins of Monsters offers a peek at the reasons behind the spread of monstrous imagery in ancient empires; Zombies and Calculus  features a veritable course on how to use higher math skills to survive the zombie apocalypse, and International Politics and Zombies invites you to ponder how well-known theories from international relations might be applied to a war with zombies. Is neuroscience your thing? Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? shows how zombism can be understood in terms of current knowledge regarding how the brain works. Or of course, you can take a trip to the graveyard of economic ideology with Zombie Economics, which was probably off marauding when this photo was snapped.

If you’re feeling more ascetic, Black: The History of a Color tells the social history of the color black—archetypal color of darkness and death—but also, Michel Pastoureau tells us, monastic virtue. A strikingly designed choice:

In the beginning was black, Michel Pastoureau tells us in Black: A History of a Color

A post shared by Princeton University Press (@princetonupress) on

 

Happy Halloween, bookworms.

Carolin Emcke awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade Association

EmckePrinceton University Press congratulates German journalist and author Carolin Emcke on being chosen by the Board of Trustees of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade to be this year’s recipient. The prestigious prize was established in 1950 and reflects the German book trade’s commitment to peace and understanding. This year, the prize is awarded in recognition of Carolin Emcke’s significant contribution to social dialogue and peace through her books, articles, and speeches. The Board of Trustees noted,

The work of Carolin Emcke pays particular attention to those moments, situations and issues in which discussions threaten to break down and communication seems no longer possible. In her highly personal and vulnerable manner, she regularly places herself in perilous living situations in order to illustrate – especially in her essays and reports from war zones – how violence, hatred and speechlessness can change people. She then uses analytical empathy to call on everyone involved to find their way back to understanding and exchange. Carolin Emcke’s work has thus become a role model for social conduct and action in an era in which political, religious and cultural conflicts often leave no room for dialogue. She proves that communication is indeed possible, and her work reminds us that we must all strive to achieve this goal as well.

We are proud to have published her 2007 book, Echoes of Violence: Letters from a War Reporter, an award-winning collection of personal letters to friends from a foreign correspondent who is trying to understand what she witnessed during the iconic human disasters of our time—in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and New York City on September 11th, among many other places.

Previous recipients of the £25,000 prize include Amos Oz, Susan Sontag, and Albert Schweitzer.

Princeton University Press to Name Its Higher Education List in Honor of William G. Bowen

William G. Bowen, President Emeritus, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

Photo credit: David Lubarsky

Princeton University Press has lost one of its greatest authors and closest friends and supporters. William G. Bowen, former president of Princeton University and of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, died last Thursday night at age eighty-three. While President Bowen will be best remembered, and appropriately so, as a university leader, he raised the study of higher education and its institutions to a new level as an author, coauthor, and editor of books. In addition to the many Princeton University Press titles that bear his name, Bill recruited a score of authors to PUP and, through the impact of our list on the scholarship of higher education, attracted even more. To mark this singular contribution to our publishing endeavor, the Press has chosen to make the unprecedented gesture of naming our higher education list in his honor: henceforth, The William G. Bowen Memorial Series in Higher Education.

William Bowen began his decades-long association with Princeton University Press as an author in 1969 with the publication of his monograph (with T. Aldrich Finegan), The Economics of Labor Force Participation. Then, beginning in 1972, as president of Princeton, he served on the Press’s board of trustees. He resumed his role as a PUP author in 1988—the final year of his presidency—with the publication of Ever the Teacher, a collection of his official writings and remarks. Yet it was as president of the Mellon Foundation, rather than of the University, that Bill made his most lasting, significant mark on the Press, beginning with the 1989 publication (with Julie Ann Sosa) of Prospects for Faculty in the Arts and Sciences. Though, nearly thirty years on, he is more closely identified with other, later works, it was this book that initiated the parade of publications that defines not only our publishing in the field of higher education, but, indeed, the scholarly arc of analysis of higher education in America and in the world.

Bill’s engagement with PUP expressed itself in two ways. He was, first and foremost, author, coauthor, or coeditor of twelve books on higher education under the Princeton University Press imprint, the subject matter of which spanned the gamut of issues from admissions to diversity, sports, the market for scholars, digital technology, cost containment, degree completion, governance, leadership, and more.

Bowen_Shape of RiverHis greatest achievement as an author, indisputably, was his 1998 collaboration with Derek Bok, The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions, which—in a research study unprecedented in scale and comprehensiveness—made the evidence-based case for affirmative action and influenced higher education policy nationwide. Beyond the extensive acclaim it gathered across the political spectrum, and the awards it garnered, The Shape of the River enjoyed the rare distinction of being cited by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in the 2003 US Supreme Court case upholding affirmative action, Grutter v. Bollinger.

In addition to his prodigious work as an author, Bill was an informal PUP advisory editor, attracting to the Princeton list authors from his network of fellow researchers, thereby bringing a chorus of informed voices to the higher education conversation under the PUP imprint. Largely through Bill’s tireless work and enthusiastic editorial recruitment efforts, PUP can now boast as authors such distinguished scholars and higher education leaders as Harold T. Shapiro, Bill’s successor in the Princeton presidency; Derek Bok and Neil L. Rudenstine, presidents emeritus of Harvard University; Michael S. McPherson, president of the Spencer Foundation and former president of Macalester College; Morton Schapiro, president of Northwestern University; and Nancy Weiss Malkiel, Princeton’s former dean of the college—to name just a few.

Seen from a wider perspective, Bill was in effect the architect of a scholarly agenda that, translated into a publishing program, has raised and addressed many of the most relevant, urgent questions besetting higher education. The books he brought to the Princeton list constitute a whole far greater than the sum of its parts: emanating from Bill’s own field of economics outward through the work of historians, legal scholars, scholars of religion, sociologists, and others, the list both encompasses and defines the intellectual terrain of modern higher education while framing the big issues for future scholars to explore.

Lesson PlanBill Bowen’s last book, published by us earlier this year, eloquently embodies his PUP publishing legacy. Cowritten with his close colleague and frequent collaborator Michael McPherson, Lesson Plan: An Agenda for Change in American Higher Education offers a blueprint for addressing the central issues now facing colleges and universities, and touches upon all the relevant areas on which Bill and his co-researchers have shed light: educational attainment, completion rates, socioeconomic and racial disparities, affordability, student aid, efficiency, sports, teaching, technology, and leadership. In outlining their “agenda for change,” Bowen and McPherson display a characteristic purposefulness mixed with optimism:

There is much that can be accomplished. Alexis de Tocqueville, in his famous Democracy in America (1835), observed: “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” However true this may have been in the early part of the nineteenth century, we fervently hope that it is true today.

William G. Bowen—author, editor, collaborator, adviser, supporter of the Press, and true friend—brought this combination of purpose and optimism to the Press as he worked with us to publish books, define our ongoing editorial agenda, and repair not a few of our faults as we strove to be better. In formally dedicating our higher education list in his name, his grateful associates at Princeton University Press hereby make a partial payment on the Bowen legacy, which will live on in the books he has inspired.

Peter J. Dougherty, Director
October 24, 2016

Stanley Fish debates the eternal

This podcast on Stanley Fish’s panel discussion was originally posted by the Institute for Arts and Ideas

While the world turns we think ideas, right or wrong, are eternal. Yet meaning changes over time and context. Should we conclude that, like the material world, ideas are transient and knowledge and morality passing stories? Or is the eternal in our grasp after all? New York Times columnist and author of Think Again Stanley Fish, philosopher of language Barry C. Smith, and award-winning novelist Joanna Kavenna seek out the eternal.

Stanley Fish is the author of numerous books, including How to Write a Sentence, There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech, and Versions of Academic Freedom. He is the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor and Professor of Law at Florida International University and the Visiting Floersheimer Professor of Law at Cardozo Law School. He previously taught at Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Duke, and the University of Illinois, Chicago. He is the author of Think Again: Contrarian Reflections on Life, Culture, Politics, Religion, Law, and Education.